Readers who encountered the first and second books in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s acclaimed series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — the two volumes appearing originally in serial pamphlet form over the years 1999 to 2003 — had little reason to suspect that they were enjoying anything more ramified and extensive than a steampunk-style, alternate-history-influenced, literary pastiche. Moore’s premise, brilliant and forceful, was carried out meticulously and cleverly, although it was not totally unprecedented in fantastical literature. He simply posited that the leading protagonists of several core Victorian novels actually existed outside their pages, cohabiting a mutual universe where Captain Nemo could consort with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes could meet Allan Quartermain, and so forth.
In effect, as some critics have noted, it was fan fiction by a professional, if the oxymoron can be credited. But Moore put on such a sustained and bravura performance that he made characters such as Wells’s Invisible Man and Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde all his own, practically filing off the serial numbers of their creators while still benefitting from their accrued mythic resonance. Fully the equal of Moore’s scripting was the jangly, jittery, jagged yet winsomely alluring artwork of Kevin O’Neill, a deft fellow able to conjure up both appealing humans in their naturalistic settings and enigmatic artifacts and otherworldly vistas.
In the first book, our team of misfit heroes dealt with Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Book two found them smack dab in the middle of Wells’s Martian invasion. So far, so standard for such pastiches. And there the exploits of the gaslight gang seemed destined to end. A dismal 2003 cinematic version of the team appeared to drive an additional nail into their coffin.
But Moore surprised everyone with the appearance in 2007 of The Black Dossier. One had always assumed that the backstory to such a paraliterary construct as Moore had sketched would be complex. The Black Dossier delivered supporting documents and secret history in Pynchonian spades, fencing in vast tracts of additional literary territory, and catapulting the action to the year 1958, effectively severing or diminishing the Victorian connection, courtesy of a selective immortality enjoyed by several of the heroes.
Now the series suddenly and unexpectedly possessed a wider remit than simple steampunk shennanigans. We would be able to follow Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain and several other figures down through the twentieth century, cataloguing the immense cultural changes of the decades via the covert activities of the League. And so arrived The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century 1910 and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century 1969. This last number ended on a particularly dire note. In a failed attempt to forestall the birth of the Antichrist, Mina Harker was driven insane, Allan Quartermain was plunged back into drug addiction, and Orlando (the rakish gender-swapping immortal of Virginia Woolf’s conceiving) chucked the whole quest to enlist as a death-dealing soldier.
In the opening of this new installment, forty years of storytime onward, we find Orlando wearying of the trooper’s life after a temporary descent into madness. Back in civvies, she’s contacted by her mentor, Prospero, and propelled back into the crusade to avert Armageddon. She tracks down Mina, forty years institutionalized, and also derelict Allan, who’s more reluctant to participate. Then comes the occult sleuthing to establish the grown-up Beast’s whereabouts. Turns out he’s a certain jumped-up ex-boy wizard out of Hogwarts…. Confronting him will take all the resources the damaged League trio have to give, with eventual salvation coming from a surprising but perfectly apt quarter of YA literature.
The density of Moore’s new allusiveness seems tamped down a bit in this installment, as he renders payoff on many past embeddings. The pacing of the tale is just right, with a balance between action and reflection. The reader will truly feel for the psychic and corporeal damage sustained by these cosmic freebooters, and one suspects a subtextual message from Moore about the indignities that callous authors inflict on their creations. “As pulp heroes to their hacks are we to the gods….”
Of course Moore layers in plenty of caustic commentary as well. His alternate-history 2009 is as seedy and lopsided and unfair and economically hurting as our own timeline, albeit with slightly different sociopolitical features. Mina observes, “It’s not just the poverty. People were desperately poor in 1910, but at least they felt things had a purpose. How did culture fall apart in barely a hundred years?” Orlando replies, “By becoming irrelevant, same as always.” And on a similar note, when Mina and Orlando are examining the blasted saccharine ruins of Hogwarts: “This whole environment seems artificial, as if it’s been constructed out of reassuring imagery from the 1940s. A storybook place gone horribly wrong…. If our magical landscape, our art and fairytales and fiction…. If that goes bad, maybe our material world follows suit.” By interpolating these seminal, potent icons from the Age of Storytellers into our decayed era, Moore rings dissonant peals on the century’s downward path.
As for the art of Messr. O’Neill, it’s never been more vivid or accomplished. His big splashy setpieces — the sanitarium where Mina is kept; the battle with the Antichrist — are matched only by his small tender moments, such as a bedtime interlude twixt Mina and Orlando. O’Neill’s facility and fecundity with faces, even those of bystanders, is marvelous, conjuring up a truly well-populated world. And his ability to depict believable occult transformations such as those during the climactic battle are unsurpassed.
Anyone who imagined Moore’s saga would end here will be pleasantly surprised by the open-ended denouement that leaves Mina and Orlando primed for more exploits, as well as a thread concerning Captain Nemo’s belligerent heir. Having begun in the past and caught up with the present, Moore seems primed to take his cast into a blazing future all unborn.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.