The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969
Comics may not have been the first medium to exploit the crossover, but it's become attached to this storytelling device like no other. Appropriating disparate ideas, forcing them to interact with each other, and essentially re-contextualising them in the process, is pretty much a hallmark of comics geek appeal. So it's no surprise that the protean Alan Moore has become contemporary comics most famous writer. Of his creations from ABC, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has remained his most ambitious ongoing project. What started out as an attempt to weave together various fictional characters into a Victorian-era superhero team, has come to absorb a ridiculous array of literary and popular influences. With Century: 1969, his cunning appropriation hits a new high, threatening to overwhelm the rest of the story. Panels are crammed with incidental details referring to one thing or another. Characters drop in and out while making cryptic pronouncements. As for the story itself, the book assumes that the reader is aware of the League's previous history, not really bothering to explain the setup or the main characters who are involved. The backstory within LOEG would be daunting to the uninitiated. Imagine trying to read the 4th Harry Potter book without prior knowledge of the Philosopher's Stone, or dementors, or Neville Longbottom.
The League in this case is composed of Wilhelmina (Mina) Murray, Allan Quartermain, and the immortal Orlando, a character synthesized by Moore from several sources, such as Virginia Woolf's novel of the same name. Since Century: 1910, the League has been waging a war of attrition against the cult of the villainous Oliver Haddo, an Aleister Crowley analogue. He's intent on unleashing dark magical forces upon the world. The story jumps forward to London in 1969, after events dealt with in The Black Dossier have rendered Mina and Allan also immortal. This generates an interesting personal crisis. As the prospect of an endless future begins to dawn on Mina, she tries unsuccessfully to cope with the changing times by acting like one of the young and hip. There's pathos to the predicament that could have been explored further. But Moore doesn't dwell on this for long before returning to the larger milieu they occupy. London in 1969 is literally a brighter, more saturated place, ably rendered by colorist Ben Dimagmaliw and Kevin O'Neill. But despite the many nods to contemporaneous popular entertainment, this version of the 60s doesn't conform to the typical image of the era. It still feels a lot like the gloomy 19th century city where Mina and Allan hail from. To begin with, the hidden occult threat they're uncovering imbues the proceedings with an inescapable sense of dread. Moore's ramping-up of the cynicism, violence and sleazy behavior somewhat undercuts the whole "free love" ethos of the period. If anything, the numerous impersonal depictions of sex only seems to subvert the freewheeling counterculture of the 60s. And as with past LOEG stories, there's an important but disturbing scene involving a sexual assault on a major character that sours the overall mood. For all its clever world-building, I'm not exactly sure what the comic says, if anything, about the actual social and political ferment of the decade.
The comic culminates in a fictionalized version of the Rolling Stones Hyde Park tribute concert to Brian Jones, now reinterpreted here as an occult ritual which the League attempts to stop. But Mina accidently drops acid and endures a bad trip. She enters the astral plane and battles the spirit of Haddo. It's at this point that O'Neill cuts loose with his art. The rectangular panel layouts give way to irregular and organic shapes. The psychedelic visions Mina experiences are dazzling in the Peter Max mode, while simultaneously retaining the grotesque caricatures O'Neill has always drawn. It's erotically charged imagery without being remotely attractive or titillating. When the battle concludes, the end result is calamitous for the League, and the contrast between these pages with the coda that follows is gut-wrenching.
So the League leaves the year 1969 far more embittered than when they first entered it. One of the pleasures of reading crossovers is seeing how the writer is able to combine what are otherwise mutually exclusive stories into a convincing narrative. This latest chapter of LOEG certainly demonstrates that Moore is still very capable of fashioning intriguing alternate realities. But somewhere along the way he seems to have lost the desire to humanize, or to a least make his protagonists more comprehensible to readers. Meanwhile, Moore's propensity to shock and perturb only continues to grow. What remains is a certain meanness unleavened by humor. I wonder if hidden in this story of immortal but impotent heroes, Moore is commenting on the continued publication of classic comic book characters whose time has long passed. Or is he just becoming more pessimistic? If he's this cold-blooded with them in 1969, how much worse will things get for Mina, Allan, Orlando, and the world as a whole when the story moves into the next millenium?