Reading and re-reading League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 3: Century #1 (Top Shelf), I experienced the usual jumble of emotions—confusion, admiration, awe, frustration, bemusement, dread at the thought of writing about it—but the overwhelming one was relief.
I was relieved that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s latest go at the LOEG fell closer to the model established in the first two volumes, rather than the Black Dossier hybrid graphic novel. Black Dossier certainly had its charms, and was clever as hell, but Moore made it difficult to appreciate it as anything other than an interesting exercise, the chance to watch an extremely talented writer demonstrate his ability to imitate a variety of styles. I mean, I like Alan Moore’s writing, and I like Jack Kerouac’s writing, and the idea of Moore imitating Kerouac sounds intriguing, but actually reading pages and pages Moore’s prose echoing Kerouac’s is something I didn’t need to read, particularly in the middle of what was a comics narrative a few pages ago.
In Black Dossier, Moore seemed to take the “What if all fiction occurred in the same world, and the characters and narratives could interact and cross-pollinate” too far away from the original concept of a Justice League of Victorian literature adventure heroes, even abandoning the comics medium for too-long stretches of it.
Century isn’t like that. It’s all comics for one, is set closer to the original time period of the previous volumes, and focuses on better-known characters and works of fiction, although still some much more obscure characters than the ones appearing in the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
The format is similarly something between the two previous models; it’s not a six-issue comic book series, nor an original (hybrid) graphic novel, but a series of three original graphic novellas, each set in a distinct part of the 20th century.
This one is set in 1910, and one-time Dracula victim Mina Murray still leads the League, which now consists of the now-young Allan Quartermain, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, E.W. Hornung’s gentleman thief A.J. Raffles and the legendary sometimes gentleman/sometimes lady immortal Orlando. Led by Carnacki’s prophetic dreams, this dysfunctional League tries to unravel half-understood clues to stop a massacre on the docks and a plot by Aleistir Crowley analogues with apocalyptic aspirations.
That storyline is intercut with two others. One involves the extremely old Captain Nemo’s daughter, who runs away from her legacy and calls herself “Jenny Diver,” and the other is, an, um, musical staring “Mack the Knife” and a prostitute named Suki who sing their scenes, using reworked songs from Threepenny Opera (Or so I’ve heard; these were among the allusions lost on me).
Not lost on me was Moore’s alternate Ripper theories, and the fact that not only does he revisit From Hell through re-examining the Ripper killings (Following Eddie Campbell’s 2008 Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, now both of From Hell’s creators have revisited that work in amusing ways within the last year), but also by exploring that bigger, denser work’s concept of the 20th century being brought about by magical rituals, and the Whitechapel murders coloring the nature of that century.
It all works about as well as could be hoped—musicals, obviously, don’t translate too well into the silent medium of comics, although O’Neill draws some funny dancing scenes—and Moore provides plenty of action, city-destroying mayhem and colorful, humorous characterization to balance out some of the more obtuse references (I could read a Moore/O’Neill Orlando monthly comic forever, I think).
I was also relieved to see so much of O’Neill, as reducing his contributions to illustrations in certain sections of Black Dossier was another of the things that rankled me about it. O’Neill’s work is enormously rewarding, and the reason I can go back and read and re-read these stories so many times. Each panel is packed with so much visual information, layered behind the most significant actions of the panels, that one can take any given panel in as is, or read it layer by layer for additional sight gags, visual allusions and subtle details characterizing the protagonists and their settings.
And, while this has nothing to do with the work itself, I was sort of relieved on Moore’s behalf, since his new publisher must certainly offer him a less tense relationship than his previous one, and it seems both the creators and the publishers have found a way to continue LOEG in a way that is at once unequivocally Moore and O’Neill’s comics and a Top Shelf production.