November 11, 2011


Black Dossier
by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

For British comic book fans, “The Leagueof Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier” is not an easy book to come by. Published in the United States back in 2007, the graphic novel has never been released in the United Kingdom due to numerous copyright issues thrown up by the eclectic content. British readers are forced to import their copies and whilst not hard to come by on the internet, the sellers frequently charge extortionate prices and because of this, I never took the plunge. Imagine my surprise when I found a near-mint copy for sale in my local charity shop for a mere four pounds. The dust-jacket was unmarked, the pages appeared untouched and even the 3D glasses were still in the unopened plastic envelope at the back of the book. I'm not a particularly religious man, but the gods of geekery were smiling down on me that day.

“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier” differs from other instalments in the series. Alan Moore has stated in interviews that he intended the self-contained graphic novel to be a “sourcebook” for the series, providing an insight into the history of the League that was only hinted at in the first two series. Chronologically, the book fits in between the “Century: 1910” and the recently published “Century: 1969”. Set in 1958, the book sees Allan Quatermain and Mina Harker (the surviving members from the Victorian League who starred in the original two series) on a quest to recover the legendary Black Dossier containing the secret history of the many different incarnations of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Our heroes (who are now both immortal having bathed in the fire of youth from Rider Haggard's “She”) are pursued by Hugo “Bulldog” Drummond, Emma Knight (who will, of course, become Emma Peel of “The Avengers”) and a sleazy, staggeringly inept secret agent known as Jimmy. Ian Fleming is spinning in his grave right now.

Allan and Mina's comic-book adventure is interspersed with numerous extracts from the Black Dossier. The dossier is essentially a scrapbook charting the League from its creation in Elizabethan England by Prospero (the wizard from Shakespeare's “The Tempest”) and Virginia Wolfe's immortal transsexual Orlando. We learn of the various Leagues through a variety of prose stories, letters, guidebooks and magazine cuttings. The history of the League is charted up to its dissolution in the 1940s as the country is brutalised under the reign of Big Brother. What makes the contents of the dossier so remarkable is that each section is written in the style of its inspiration. There's a lost Shakespeare folio detailing Prospero's meeting with the faerie queen Gloriana written in near-perfect iambic pentameter. Later on we are treated to a sequel to John Cleland's “Fanny Hill” complete with illustrations. There's a fantastic genre mash-up of a Jeeves and Wooster story where they encounter H.P. Lovecraft's Great Old Ones. The only misstep in these wildly ambitious asides is “The Crazy Wide Forever”, a story written in free-flowing prose which is trying so hard to emulate Jack Kerouac's style that it is rendered virtually unreadable.

Kevin O'Neill's artwork is, as always, truly fantastic. Whether he is capturing the drab austerity of the 1950s or emulating the pastel-coloured children's comic strips of the era, O'Neill's work is consistently eye-catching and complex. Artistically, the highlight of the book has to be the 3D section where our heroes reach the magical psychedelic Blazing World. Unlike anything I've seen in a comic book, I can guarantee that jaws will drop. However, I can't guarantee that readers will actually understand what the hell is going on.  

Part of the charm of the original series of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was the way in which Moore's encyclopaedic knowledge of Victorian literature enabled him to populate the comic with the period's greatest fictional creations. “Black Dossier” ups the ante by taking its inspirations from numerous periods of literature. Readers are literally bombarded with references to both well-known works (such as George Orwell's “1984”) and more obscure pieces. I know of many comic-book fans who avoid reading “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” for this reason. Part of the joy of comics is their accessibility, but this volume is so densely-packed with allusions to other literary works that one gets the feeling that a degree in English literature is required to fully enjoy the book.

Perhaps this is Moore's way of retaliating against the dumbing down of his creation in the 2003 cinema adaptation. Maybe he wanted to make something that would be impossible for Hollywood to mess up. Whatever his motivations were, Moore has created something that will infuriate his readers as much as it will entertain them. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier” is clearly not intended for those unfamiliar with the League's previous adventures. It is so complex and its scope is so broad that it might well alienate even the most ardent fan of the original series. Patient, attentive readers will be rewarded for their efforts but many will feel that the book is a little too self-indulgent for its own good.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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