Monday, February 25, 2008

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Thanks to the fine folks in DC's publicity department, I got a copy of this graphic novel a few days before it was released, and thought I might actually be able to write up a timely review to coincide with the book hitting stores. That was, uh, back in mid-November, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Now, that's partly due to my limited free time and the amount of attention I devoted to reading my weekly comics haul and a couple of prose books I had to review, but generally I can read a graphic novel, even a fairly thick one, in a couple of hours. It's a testament to how dense, intricate and just plain hard to read this book is that it took me this long to get through the relatively slim volume. The last time I can remember having to devote this much time and energy to a graphic novel was when I read From Hell, not coincidentally also written by Alan Moore.

The first two League volumes, which were released as individual issues before later being collected (Black Dossier has only been released as a standalone graphic novel), were relatively light and breezy reads, some of the most fun and action-packed writing Moore has done. Dossier is quite the opposite, basically taking the aspects of the back-up prose stories in the first two volumes (the Allan Quatermain adventure "Allan and the Sundered Veil" in the first volume, and the tedious travelogue "The New Traveller's Almanac" in the second) and expanding them to a whole book, with Moore aping the styles of all sorts of writers from the history of English-language literature. What began as a Justice League/Avengers pastiche using famous literary characters has grown into Moore's grand unifying theory of the entirety of Western popular culture. And while he's probably the best candidate to write something like that, Black Dossier often reads more like an academic treatise than an adventure story.

The basic premise is simple: It's now 1958, and Mina Murray (of Dracula fame) and Allan Quatermain, the two most prominent characters in the team featured in the first two volumes (which took place in the 1890s), are now immortal thanks to a fountain of youth in Africa and on the run from the post-Big Brother British government, after having severed their ties with their handlers some time in the 1930s or '40s. They're after the titular dossier, which contains a bunch of info on the exploits of various incarnations of the team in eras both before and after the ones that Moore's already written about. The story, basically a long, not particularly exciting chase sequence, is represented in standard comics style (with wonderful art as always from Kevin O'Neill), while the dossier itself is made up like it's excerpts from actual books and documents of its respective eras (a lost Shakespeare folio, illustrated text pieces, pamphlets, unpublished follow-ups to various famous and not-so-famous works of literature, etc.).

Moore's skill at replicating the tone and style of so many varied works is unparalleled, but it's more an intellectual exercise than an exciting way to tell a story. And while the characters from the original team (Murray, Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man) are all easily recognizable to most people, many of the characters who show up in Black Dossier are obscure and not easily identified, and enjoying the story depends a lot on understanding the avalanche of references. This is the first League book that feels to me like it really needs Jess Nevins' detailed annotations to be appreciated. There are some pretty famous appearances, sure (James Bond, made into a cowardly villain; Prospero; Gulliver), but they are definitely outweighed by the lesser-known. I consider myself relatively well-read, and I often felt lost.

The other problem with the book is that it's a classic example of telling and not showing. Moore presents a whole mess of adventures for his team in its various incarnations, but he mostly just lays them out in dry, quick prose, making them into reports rather than stories. I don't know if he plans to more fully tell the stories at this point, but if so then this entire book is just one big, not-very-fun spoiler. It reads, as some have pointed out, like an epilogue to the series, with an ending (the part that uses 3-D glasses that gave me a headache) that does the same sort of meta, talk-to-the-reader thing that Moore did in the later issues of Promethea. Prospero tells us how wonderful and everlasting the world of stories is, but it's hard to get that from this dense, dry and sadly dull book. I hope that, freed from what he viewed as his shackles at DC, Moore can get back to some excitement and entertainment in the next League volume, which is supposed to be coming from Top Shelf whenever they get it done (meaning probably not for a few years yet).

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