Saturday, December 01, 2007

Extraordinary as ever

I've just got hold of a copy of Black Dossier, the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel. It's quite hard to find in the UK - apparently it hasn't been published outside of the United States due to to 'international copyright concerns and related issues' (according to DC Comics). But Oh what a shame ... it's a right rip-roaring read.

I've been following this particular series since its inception. Alan Moore came up with a staggeringly good idea; why not create a crime-busting superhero team using the very best Victorian fantasy characters? The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Quatermain (King Solomon's Mines), Mina Harker (Dracula), The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll (and Mr Hyde) and Captain Nemo - were thus born. In Book 1, they set about fighting the machinations of the evil Fu Manchu and his dirigible warships of the air. In Book 2, H G Wells' martian invaders arrived to conquer the Earth but, with the help of Dr Moreau and his menagerie of man-beasts, the League were once again victorious. The whole series is set in an alternative universe where the canon of Victorian literature is fair game to be plundered for plots, characters and obscure in-jokes.

But please, please, please don't judge the series by having seen the movie. The film version is awfully, abyssmally, apocalyptically bad. Alan Moore has distanced himself from it as should anyone with taste and decency. By comparison, the graphic novels are the work of genius.

Unlike the first two volumes, Black Dossier is a stand-alone book - It's not a compilation of previously published comics. And it's not truly 'Volume Three' either. It's a kind of bridging volume that sets things up for the proper Volume Three, called Century - which comes out in 2008. As I understand it, there will be three more books - one set in 1910, the second in 1968 and the third taking place in the present day.

Set in an England under totalitarian rule in the mid 1950s (as in Orwell's 1984) - the book has a rejuvenated Alan Quatermain and semi-immortal Mina Harker on the trail of the infamous Black Dossier; a book that explains the origins of The League and of the teams that came before them. But there are those who want to stop our heroes from finding out the truth and will stop at nothing to retrieve the manuscript.

I shan't say any more for fear of spoiling the plot but I will say that Moore's plots are deliciously deep and multi-layered as usual and O'Neil's art is crisp and fresh and utterly unique (he is one of the unsung heroes of comic art in my opinion). The book is composed of a central strip story accompanied by a series of other facsimile 'documents' that represent the various books, pamphlets and other documents found inside the dossier. All of these are reproduced in different styles and even on different types of paper. The book is a work of art, it really is. There's even a 3D story and a pair of complimentary 3D specs.

As we'd expect, a cast of well-known supporting characters appear throughout the book, including Billy Bunter turning up as the elderly caretaker of a run-down Greyfriars School, James 'Jimmy' Bond, Harry Lime, Emma Peel and Bulldog Drummond. And, as always, there are the thousands of subtle little things going on in the background: aliens from TV and film, characters from Giles cartoons ... I even spotted a music hall poster that mentions Arthur Atkins and Chester Drawers from the Fast Show. Every page bristles with wry humour and a hundred obscure references and it becomes an extra layer of fun just trying to spot and identify them all (I found a website by Jess Nevins that is dedicated to doing just that. Have a look here.)

Black Dossier, like almost anything produced by Alan Moore or Kev O'Neill, is definitely worth getting hold of if you can. To my UK readers I say take advantage of the weak dollar and get it sent over. You won't regret it.

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