Graphic Lit: 'LOEG: The Black Dossier'
“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier”
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Wildstorm, 208 pages, $29.99.
A good deal of Alan Moore’s recent work has focused on mashing up well-known literary characters or genres (“Lost Girls,” “Top 10,” “Promethea”) to explore what he regards as the redemptive power of storytelling and the imagination.
Exhibit A is the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics he’s done with artist Kevin O’Neill. The first two volumes threw together Captain Nemo, Mina from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” pulp adventurer Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man and Dr. Henry Jekyll and plunged them into rip-roaring Victorian adventures, with lots of other literary characters popping up in just about every panel (the less said about the 2003 Sean Connery movie the better).
Now, after many delays, in part due to an ugly falling-out between Moore and publisher DC, we have a new “League” book, “The Black Dossier.”
“Dossier” isn’t a true sequel; for that you’ll have to wait until next year, when the first third of volume III will come out from the publisher Top Shelf. It’s more of a guidebook to the extensive literary universe Moore and O’Neill have created.
As a result, it’s both a rewarding and extremely frustrating book to read. One gets the feeling at times that in order to fully appreciate it, you have to be either Moore or O’Neill.
The main story finds Alan and Mina, having now attained eternal youth, in Great Britain circa 1958, and attempting to recover the Black Dossier of the title, a thick file containing information about the mysterious league and its various operatives over the centuries (previous members include Fanny Hill and Lemuel Gulliver).
The British government, however, having just recovered from the “Big Brother” years (though many of its masterminds still control things in secret), wants such information kept under wraps and sends a pair of young agents — the thuggish Jimmy Bond and lithesome Emma Night (i.e. Emma Peel) — to capture the adventurers and retrieve the file.
In between those sequences, we are treated to lengthy (and often pure textual) excerpts from the dossier, with Moore and O’Neill attempting a variety of literary pastiches, including Shakespeare, old British newspaper comics and a Big Brother-styled Tijuana Bible (i.e., X-rated comic). There’s even a 3-D section in the back of the book; special glasses are included.
This type of literary riffing works spectacularly sometimes, such as the hilarious melding of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Other times, such as the attempt to ape beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, it becomes a dull slog.
Spotting the numerous references in the previous volumes was usually a fun side game to the story’s central proceedings. In “Dossier,” it feels like homework. As allusion-heavy as the earlier books were, I never felt they were weighted down by the original material or that I needed a degree in European literature to enjoy it.
Not so with “Dossier.” Moore’s references are frequently obscure (at least to American readers, unless Fantomas or the Greyfriars School stories are better-known than I suspect) to the point of annoyance and seem to be thrown together in a slap-dash “wouldn’t it be cool if” fashion.
Moore is obviously opening the “LOEG” world here to include not just Victorian literature, but any work of fiction from any time period, regardless of medium. But I wonder if he’s cast his net too wide. What started off as clever, well-executed conceit quickly turns into a poor piece of fan-fiction.
On the plus side, O’Neill ably imitates the artists and modes while still maintaining his unique style. Moore’s enough of a strong writer to make several sequences sing. And this is easily one of the best James Bonds I’ve ever seen.
All that being the case, it’s best to think of “Dossier” as a little, nonessential appetizer, something to whet the palate before Volume III arrives.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007