The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century–1969
Top Shelf Productions
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O’Neill
Century–1969 is the second part of the third volume of Moore and O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that began as a quasi-homage to Victorian pop culture, whereby well-known characters from late nineteenth-century literature were thrust into the role of superheroes. The books, throughout their twelve-year history, are awash in literary allusions, modern and hundred-year-old jokes, and they betray a deep-seated love for both the classics of various genres and their penny dreadful imitators. Though, as time went on, the books moved from a world on the brink of colossal and unprecedented change, to a world that is so entirely foreign, and yet familiar, that comes closer to our own experiences of the twentieth century.
The first two volumes are clearly takes on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and HG Wells, but let us not forget the elements from Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and H. Rider Haggard that were thrown in for flavour. Anyone who’s read anything from this time in English literature is bound to recognize the themes and references scattered throughout. Add to this the hilarious editorial comments and the necessary, and often raunchy, backmatter, and you’re left with two fantastic volumes of pure entertainment.
Then there’s the bridge. The Black Dossier, Moore and O’Neill’s final volume with DC’s America’s Best Comics, has been described by both creators as a volume meant to bridge volumes II and III. At the end of II, the League has broken up, and we leave the ancient Alan Quartermain sitting on a bench waiting for the future. By The Black Dossier, the future is here, despite its placement in 1958. Alan is back, and he’s together with his love, Mina Murray, and they’re on the run in a post-Orwellian Britain, where spaceships and consumer flights are a reality, never mind the abundance of other bizarre technologies that we’ve only ever seen in the movies and read about in books. References continue, but they’re far more representative of the age and those that preceded it: Woolf, Fleming, Orwell, HP Lovecraft. I bring this book up for a very important reason: by the end of it I was convinced that our creators, who fashioned such fantastic stories in Vols. I and II, had lost their bloody minds.
Unlike the first two volumes, which were episodic (they came out in monthly issues originally, after all), The Black Dossier is a single, bound book that relies heavily on the material that was often considered errata in Vols. I and II. The story is read in its standard nine-panel grid, and then one is thrust into facsimiles of reports, articles, stories, comics, etc. that all comprise The Black Dossier. In a masterful twist of meta-narrative, Moore and O’Neill have us reading the dossier, just as Quartermain and Murray are reading it throughout their chase. However, by the end, and all I will add to this is that the reader must read the final section with 3D glasses (these are, thankfully, supplied in the book), that Moore and O’Neill moved from the whimsical and clever to the outright bonkers world of comics. The last section defies categorization, and my own description is best worded as if Shakespeare, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Timothy Leary all dropped acid together and had an orgy in a bathtub overflowing with nectar and ambrosia, sucking the manna from Vishnu, followed by sloppy seconds with Hunter S. Thompson.
Century–1969 is also awash in the bizarre, but we’re back to a basic premise and storyline (and thank the Spaghetti Monster for that!): the end of the world and the ravings of a madman who wishes to bring about the Antichrist. The man, Haddo, is an obvious knock-off of Alistair Crowley, and readers first met him in Century–1910. The League has transformed dramatically, and the only two who remain from the League of the first two volumes are Quartermain and Murray, though they are much different from the characters we first met in Victorian England. Break out the drugs and the free love, baby! Yes, Quartermain’s addiction to opium has been explored, and drugs are by no means new territory for this series, but here they explode, and they explode in a way that is either indicative of the time in which the book takes place or modern conceptions of it. I honestly don’t know; I wasn’t even a gleam in my father’s eye in 1969. I have been informed, however, that what we understand as the 60s really didn’t get moving until late 1967, so Moore and O’Neill’s placement of the volume in 1969 is apt. Throughout the series the books have played with British society on the brink: turn of the century and the industrial revolution, war, post-war, societal upheaval. Century–1969 is no exception; conceptions of gender, sex, drugs are thrown to the wayside. The book opens with fellatio and a murder. Sex is rampant, and for the first time, we see Murray sleep with another woman, which, given her propriety in the first volume, continues to make me laugh. Related to this, Orlando, the League’s gender-shifting loverboy and swordsman, is right at home. His role in Quartermain and Murray’s relationship is expanded, and it fits nicely in a world that bends and twists to the sounds of its own vicissitudes.
The name of the game in this story, however, is magic. Readers of Moore are more than familiar with this theme; the man considers himself a self-styled magician in Northampton (I imagine he hides his ingredients in that prodigious beard). His books over the past fifteen years have been awash in it, even when the major themes are ostensibly about science and the modern world. Haddo, unlike the the charlatan upon which he is based, is actually capable of magic. He can shift bodies, and this is how he has been able to avoid death for the best part of sixty years; it results in some awful circumstances here. There’s also the link between music and its role in magic ritual. This was hinted at in Century–1910, which ends in a Pynchon-like ballad poking fun at modernity and its fallout. Here we see the role of music and mass consumption come to fruition, with some potentially horrid results, not the least of which concerns the end of the world. Magic was introduced in The Black Dossier, but in that book it was more akin to psychedelic vomitus, an egregious effluence, and an afterthought, while here it plays a necessary role in the plot. Reality shifts, but it’s in a way that makes a kind of sense, rather than a no-holds-barred free-for-all. By the end of the book, Quartermain is sitting again, but it’s not on a bench holding a hat. The 60s are over.