The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 1

by Alan Moore, et al.

Cover image

Series: Extraordinary Gentlemen #1
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O'Neill
Colorist: Benedict Dimagmaliw
Letterer: William Oakley
Publisher: America's Best Comics
Copyright: 1999, 2000
Printing: 2000
ISBN: 1-56389-858-6
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 187

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The crossover story is one of the most persistent and creative reactions of readers to a story. It takes many forms: kids arguing over which hero is stronger or more powerful, tomes upon tomes of fan fiction putting together just about every set of fictional worlds one could imagine, and novels that mix characters and historical figures. It became particularly common in comics, the modern heirs in many ways of the pulp magazines. One can reasonably think of the huge Marvel and DC superhero "universes" as the crossover story taken to a higher degree. Playing story backgrounds and characters off each other provides opportunities to explore unexpected corners, to test the coherency of the universes against each other, and to engage in the classic game of the comics reader: piecing together a shared story continuity from stories that were never as closely-related or coordinated as the readers wanted them to be.

Mixing the idea of a comics "superteam" like the DC Justice League with a set of Victorian-era pulp and literary heroes is therefore particularly attractive. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the result. There were three six-issue comics miniseries and a separate stand-alone volume. This is the collection of the first miniseries in comics form.

The team Moore puts together is admirably varied: Mina Murray (née Harker, who I will place as a character from Dracula for those who, like myself, have never gotten around to reading the original), Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and Hawley Griffin (Wells's Invisible Man). So there's straight classics (Robert Louis Stevenson), early genre (Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells), and pulp adventure (H. Rider Haggard) all blended together. We also eventually get an ancestor of James Bond, Fu Manchu (which is... not quite as racist as it could be), and more H.G. Wells, along with another major reference that I won't spoil. And that's just the obvious bits on the surface. These stories are stuffed full of sometimes obscure references to other fictional worlds, either via direct inclusion or by references to ancestors of other characters. If one enjoys hunting the references, there's a lot here to keep one entertained.

My difficulty was that, apart from hunting the references, I had a hard time staying interested in the story. It has some complexity, involving a mysterious patron who assembles the team and sends them after a mysterious substance for inobvious reasons. But it's all very surface action-adventure. One of the difficulties with using existing characters is that it's hard to give them new development and letting them change, since the reader is instead reading for the characters they know and love. Maybe that's why the story feels all flash without much substance. Or maybe pulp adventure just doesn't work for me; I'm not sure. But by the end of the book, I was left with the feeling that it was all mildly entertaining but mostly pointless.

That said, there are some moments. Mina Murray is by far the best character, and I love the way that she defuses and stares down other characters who seem far more dangerous. Her poise is one of the best parts of the story. A few other moments: Nemo using a giant harpoon gun on a mob, Hawley Griffin being a quiet sociopath, and Allan Quatermain with his elephant gun. It's obvious that both Moore and O'Neill love the characters and enjoy playing with them. The story didn't flow well enough for me, but I can see why other people would love the series.

I would not describe O'Neill's artwork as particularly special or impressive, but it's certainly competent and serves the story well. He has a distinctive, slightly simplified and squared style that struck me as more stylized than realistic, but he packs plenty of detail into the larger panels (if not always the smaller story-telling panels). The world he portrays feels a bit full and cluttered, which I think goes well with the Victorian setting and the sense of being in the middle of a city for most of the story.

There is also an accompanying text story, a crossover between Quatermain, Lovecraft, and Wells's The Time Machine. This is, unfortunately, nowhere near as good as the main story, to the point where it dragged down my enjoyment of the whole work. It's told in overwrought, ridiculously purple prose, which for me sucked all of the momentum out of the story and buried it in verbose detail. I dragged myself through the whole story, but it took me as long to read as the entire rest of the book and my main reaction to it was boredom. I can see what I think Moore was trying to do with the style of the story, but I don't think it worked.

I think my overall verdict is more "not my thing" than "not as good as I was hoping." For all that I have a background in superhero comics and love piecing together continuity, I'm usually somewhat disappointed by these literary crossover stories. Between honoring the original characterization and throwing in references for the readers to notice, there isn't a lot of room to make the characters one's own. It's probably not a coincidence that the characters I liked the best were the ones from stories that I haven't read or watched. I also had some problems with the orientalism of all non-white characters in the Victorian setting, which is not really the fault of the work and which is not as bad as it could be for the era (and fictional context) depicted, but which still bugged me.

But there's a good adventure story here for those who like a fast-moving story, and there are certainly lots of references to notice, play with, look up, and discuss. The art is solid, I was satisfied by the final villain, and Moore and O'Neill's pure enjoyment of the material shines through. If this is your sort of thing, worth taking a look at.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-04

Last modified and spun 2015-10-25