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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



Here’s something that I don’t do very often these days: a review. But then it’s not every day that we get a new Alan Moore comic, though I’ve been around long enough to remember when that was not the case. Hell, new Alan Moore stories used to be common, like diamonds scattered in the red dirt of South Africa before DeBeers dug their trenches and shafts and went about siphoning every bit of sparkle and dazzle from the African soil.

Of course, the easiest way to kill your enthusiasm for something is to have high hopes for it. I enjoyed the first volume of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN well enough (though it came together much better in the large ABSOLUTE edition that I actually wrote up as my first proper review back when I did this sort of thing regularly.) It was a charming re-imagining of a handful of cherished characters that, oddly enough, was pretty respectful of the source materials. Yes, I said that with a straight face when Quatermain was reduced to an opium-smoker, Hawley Griffin an unseen pervert, et cetera. This is how these characters would have (or could have) ended up being integrated into a “real” world. In that regard, they worked quite well. I suppose these twists could also be seen as blasphemous re-imaginings and perversions of said characters. Pick your poison.

The second volume proved a real surprise. In some ways, it was simply a continuation, but the character development ended up taking it in surprising directions. And who knew that the heart of Dr. Jekyll still beat within the bestial chest of Mr. Edward Hyde? Alan Moore did, to be sure. That scene, with Hyde marching off to meet his doom (and to buy time for England to indeed, Prevail) was wrenching, and as good as anything that Moore has done. Yes, Hyde was a monster, in every sense of the word (just ask Hawley Griffin), but like any good monster, there was a kernel of something else that came to the fore. Mina and Quartermain, too, were allowed to grow into something far more than they’d been in the first volume. The characters had been given some breathing room, and they’d flourished, taking on their own lives. And those lives were something extraordinary.

Which brings the thread to the third volume of the LEAGUE stories: THE BLACK DOSSIER. The title should probably have tipped me off that we weren’t in for a ripping yarn, but rather a mannered catalog of ephemera. In some ways, it’s like walking inside an impossibly erudite museum (and if you have the benefit of the annotations by Jess Nevins, a guide) on a cloudy afternoon. Given that it’s largely a history told through an accretion of artifacts, however, it’s not an engaging, involving read. There is a story there, but it’s a story about stories. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s not a story so much as a meditation, an exploration. It is cerebral, ultimately, where the second volume was more visceral.

And how. THE BLACK DOSSIER is a triumph of mimicry. It does not become the glittering formalist fortress that WATCHMEN was (though the 9-panel grid resurfaces here, as does the lack of onomatopoeia, but for the verbal), nor is it radical in approach (as in the layouts for say, SWAMP THING). As such, DOSSIER is familiar, even comfortable in layout. The dialogue is fairly sparse, though there is plenty of wryness at work. Moore is clearly saving himself for the backmatter. Of which there is plenty, telling the history of this Dreaming of England (apologies to Messrs Rotten et, al.). And it isn’t just a fictional England, its is the England of Fiction, where 1984 was a sinister postwar administration that got swept aside in a subsequent election, and yet co-exists with the equally-sinister MI5 of James Bond and every folktale created over the years. It’s a tough fit at times. There’s a constant tension between the mundane and fantastic (indeed, the central narrative as exposed by the end of the book is that of the fantastic trying to hide itself away from an increasingly inquisitive and intrusive Mundane as embodied by the petty politics of M and his cadre of boarding-school chums).

My real problem with all of this is that it wasn’t terribly exciting. The sense of danger got mixed in with the quite literally thousands of fictional references, and it didn’t quite make it out alive. Alan and Mina never seem to be in danger. Ever. Without risk, there is no reward. And in their transformation into eternally youthful incarnations, they seem to be equally immortal. What’s more, they’re capable of taking down bully-boy Jimmy Bond without breaking a sweat (though Emma Night/Peel is able to take the starch out of Mina’s collar). It’s all very perfunctory, this chase and escape from the clutches of the Evil Intelligencers. It’s all somehow…not so real. I can’t put my finger on it precisely, but the plethora of references to the unreal somehow sucked the urgency out of the narrative in front of us.

And if you don’t think that the reader wants the narrative to be “real”, there’s not much I can do to help you. The suspension of disbelief is essential to losing one’s self in the narrative, in the story. Maybe my suspendors were just burned out from the onslaught of cameos and trainspotting, of reconciling meta-commentary and reference. It’s true. I’m not as young as I once was, so I don’t have the stamina for such exercises as I once did. There are some beautiful character moments between Allan and Mina, both intimate and public, that give the sense of them being living, breathing lovers. But those moments, to which I attribute largely the artistry of Kevin O’Neill, are too few. Or perhaps few enough, but there’s not enough other moments to build those pieces into a whole story.

What story unfolds before us ends a bit too quickly, and ultimately gets buried in the notion of the “real” story, that being the exploration of the tensions between the fictional and the real (both arbitrary distinctions in this fiction, but if you follow the layers of recursion to their end, you’ll be digging for a very long time indeed.) Our two heroes escape the clutches of the Mundane (the aforementioned Bond, Peel and Bulldog Drummond) with the help of the Gollywogg. Did I have any idea who a Gollywogg was? Not really. More importantly, I’d rather burned out on the narrative at this point, exhausted. Now, I can’t exactly call the Gollywogg a deus ex machina, as he’d been referred to previously and not just dropped in. Even so, it was just another reminder of the artificiality of the proceedings and that the threat to Alan and Mina was never a true threat, but something to poke the plot along.

Finally, there’s the retreat into the fantastic. Mina, Allan and the Gollywogg make their way from the fictional Scotland to the fictional Blazing World, the DOSSIER turns to something not so much a celebration, but a didact, a lecture, an exposition of what makes literature great, of what makes story so compelling. It’s stated, not shown. It’s told. Here is the point, as dictated through Prospero’s words and not through action on the page. Instead of inspiration, we get dissection and catalog, enumeration. And as readers, we already know all this, though perhaps not in our heads but in our hearts. And if it’s truth carried within the heart, then why do we need to be lectured on it?

It seems that in the Blazing World, fiction can be cast free of the confines of mere authority. That’s the literal action here, with the escape of Mina/Allan from Bond, et al. Furthermore, the Dossier itself, the macguffin of the entire piece (which, I haven’t yet pointed out, but should now) is the endmatter and marginalia that MI5 have collected regarding Mina and the various Extraordinary Gentlemen. This Dossier itself, like the true name of a demon, apparently has some mystic value above and beyond raw historical information. It’s the book within the book, the readers reading what Mina reads about her own adventures, or rather, what others have gleaned about them. So Fantasy takes all knowledge of itself to the Blazing World, away from the clutches of the rigid state. Of course, you can’t spell “Authority” without spelling “author.” There’s the intimation that in the Blazing World, the creations are free of the confines of their creators, to be jolly libertines as they please.

Of course, they’re still being written by another, aren’t they? So much for freedom.

If it sounds like I hated the book, then I’ve done it a disservice. I didn’t. There’s admirable craft at work, even if I think that some of it (perhaps even the lion’s share) didn’t serve the story at hand. It’s a terribly clever piece of writing, and at one time that would have sustained me alone. The level of erudition at play is awesome, quite literally. But it’s no substitute for a heart.

Kevin O’Neill, it should be noted, imparts a great deal of joy to the book. His ability to bend his work in different directions (and yet not lose his own inimitable style) is amazing. He depicts both the grotesque and erotic (sometimes in tandem, scissored if you will) with great deftness. His cartooning is what gives Mina and Allan their very lives; his is the animating force at work on the page. When I’m involved in the narrative, it is because of the art. The words themselves are distant and cool as stars, but the art is earthy, direct, sensuous and very, very human. Something I could have used a great dose more of.

Matt Maxwell

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