The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 …. Somewhere in here I get to reviewing it.
By Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
Knockabout / Top Shelf
Hmmm, this review was meant to appear before Century 1969 came out. Except, had I have written it after just reading 1969, with Moore and O’Neill’s reduced team of Extraordinary Gentlemen in swinging, psychedelic London, it would have been a confused, frustrated review, as taken in isolation, on that first read, 1969 isn’t particularly satisfying reading at all.
But, as you’ll find if you can bear with me through what promises to be a far longer review than I initially thought, it’s something that can’t be taken in isolation, and certainly shouldn’t be read just once. It’s something that eventually yields the possibility of greatness. And be warned, this is a long, sprawling journey through the League thus far, and when I eventually get to 1969, there are spoilers, but nothing you probably haven’t already read pretty much everywhere online.
But before we get to 1969, lets look at the problems I found first time round, problems that have been getting worse throughout the LOEG volumes…..
LOEG started out, at least to me as a reader, as a simple wish fulfilment thing…. a “wouldn’t it be cool if all these great fictional characters got together and had some adventures” sort of thing.
Volumes 1 & 2 are beautifully constructed, great reads, with some fantastic art from O’Neill – as we share the adventures of Moore’s disparate band of Victorian misfits: Mina Murray, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Dr Jeckyll (and his monstrous alter-ego), and Hawley Griffen (The Invisible Man).
Two great adventures with the League battling against threats to the Empire, whether it’s the mysterious M (do I really need to avoid spoilers 11 years after publication?) using secret anti-gravity Cavourite to do battle with Fu Manchu in Volume 1 or the League versus HG Wells’ Martian Tripods in Volume 2.
But in addition to the story, we had the extra elements – Moore’s brilliant stories, together with O’Neill’s great artwork sat atop a fun little game of look at all the extra stuff that writer and artist have loaded into their pages to make it more interesting. So much so that Jess Nevins got a book out of each volume, detailing every last significant and not so significant literary and cultural reference Moore and O’Neill had included. (Nevins’ extensive online annotations are referenced at the end of this review).
But somewhere it seemed to switch and instead of the story sitting over the fun extras, it seemed to have become some sort of massive pop culture, genre fiction test, with every page so packed with obscure references to all manner of weird genre fiction characters. Somewhere along the line it just felt like the basic idea of telling a great story with all the extras as a bonus had been forgotten.
So ….. I read Century 1969.
Then I went back and read 1910, just to get a better idea of what was going on. And it just felt so frustrating, the narrative simply swamped by the details and references and I found myself continually losing the flow, thoughts wandering as the questions came thick and fast.
So I went back. I picked all the prior Leagues off the shelf and sat down to revisit them, without benefit or recourse to any annotations, just reading them as is, just concentrating on the story as I see it. And I’m right, there’s definitely a shift in the priorities of the League over the development of the series. Volume 2 is where the problems begin, where there are just a few too many instances of the reference overwhelming the narrative in a panel. But it’s not overwhelming, probably due to Moore doing most of the really reference heavy stuff in the enormous Almanac text section at the back.
Then we get to The Black Dossier and suddenly it all gets very complex very quickly – suddenly we’re playing spot the reference all too often. Except, I have to admit, this re-reading of The Black Dossier immediately after the first two volumes, and with the events of 1910 and 1969 fresh in my mind really opened it up for me – and suddenly, having freed myself from continually questioning my knowledge of who, what, where and why – it turns into a really good book – far, far more enjoyable read than I remembered from the first time round.
In fact, freed from worrying too much about what I’m missing and concentrating instead on just enjoying what is right there in front of me, The Black Dossier turns out to be a cracking mystical espionage thriller as a rejuvenated Mina and Quartermain join Orlando to pick their way through a crumbling post Orwellian Britain of 1958, hunting “The Black Dossier”, doggedly pursued by analogues of James Bond, Emma Peel and Bulldog Drummond, all working for the new “M”, Harry Lime.
And once the espionage thriller of the comic bits fell into place, all the non-comic bits got a damn sight more interesting without constantly fretting I was “reading them right”.
Now, maybe it’s just the novelty of “getting it” at last, but I’ve got to say, on this read through, I actually enjoyed The Black Dossier a little more than the first two volumes, the density of the material didn’t plague me so much, the enjoyment of Moore and O’Neill’s work was there all along, it just needed me to finally read it for myself rather than be overly concerned about everything extra.
Again, as with Volume 2’s almanac, the dissociation of the text heavy, reference laden material from the main comic story is what really makes it a great book.
Which then brought me right back to Century. It’s got none of that dissociation – everything is right there in the main story – and frankly it suffers because of it. The effort needed to stop yourself analysing every tiny detail in both text and art is frankly incredible. The way both 1910 and 1969 are written makes it so hard just to treat them as simple comic narratives.
But, but, but, but, but……. the thing is, having deliberately gone through the previous three books with a devil may care, get what I can and enjoy it for that attitude, my mind was in the right place to do it again, even though it did require a lot more work to stay focused on the actual story, since every panel screams out “look at me, what does this mean, who is this meant to be, what clever, real world pop fiction, counter cultural reference are you missing here?”…….
(Sing along everyone… to the tune of “Mack The Knife”, Moore and O’Neill revisit familiar Whitechapel themes in Century 1910)
A quick recap on Century: 1910: A now reduced League of Mina, Alan and Orlando (by now a trio in the bedroom as well as in the adventure game) are joined by gentleman thief AJ Raffles and the supernatural detective Tom Carnaki in an attempt to avoid the birth of a potential anti-christ moonchild.
We follow their frankly rather bumbling attempts at investigating, meet Captain Nemo’s daughter, enjoy a little Brechtian musical accompaniment as potential Whitechapel fiend MacHeath is back in town (brilliantly adapted by Moore, who’s never been afraid to dazzle us with a song or two in his time), and discover that Oliver Haddo (the League’s Aleister Crowley) is the guiding hand behind a “moonchild” that may be the potential end of the world.
The end of 1910 is a downbeat, dour thing, promising much misery and bleakness to come…
(The end of Century 1910, as the seeds of the League’s discontent are clear. From League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1910 by Moore and O’Neill)
And now, we’re (finally) bang up to date in Century 1969 (you knew I’d get here eventually).
The trio of Mina, Alan and Orlando, having at least temporarily diverted Haddo and the forthcoming apocalypse, are in swinging, end of the 60s London, with the hippy dream starting to dissolve and the flower children finding that things aren’t as rosy in the garden as they’d thought, even with all the Tadukic Acid Diethylamide flying around.
London’s full of gangsters (although all of them seem to be some facet of Reggie and Ronnie Kray), and even the young, beautiful pop stars are being found face down in their pools. Of course, this being the world of the League there’s a 50/50 chance of it being drugs or evil black magicians, back from the dead.
Alerted by Prospero to the possibility of Haddo’s cult having another go at the whole moonchild thing, Mina, Alan and Orlando decamp to the headquarters Mina used during her disastrous early 60’s super-team League phase….
(A stripped down League sit in the depressing shell of Mina’s failed 60s superteam HQ, from Century 1969, by Moore and O’Neill)
Basically, now we’re in the realms of copyright and out of the public domain, there’s a lot of disguising of names, with Moore doing literary cartwheels to find the analogues he’s after… so welcome to the world where Oliver Haddo (Crowley) is jumping from body to body as he needs to, still threatening to bring about the apocalypse at some point. Except here he’s thinking it might be a good idea to utilise the puffy lipped lead singer of pop combo The Purple Orchestra, who’ve recently finished their recording of “Infernal Eminences“.
(So that’s Jagger and The Rolling Stones, fresh off “Their Satanic Majesties Request” with Jagger written as Terner, as in Turner, the character Jagger played in the film “Performance”…. yes, it does get complicated, but stay with it).
Haddo’s obviously been doing this for a while now, and has numerous plots on the go. But it’s the “Performance” era Jagger who he settles on as the perfect vessel for his transference ritual, a means to keep his spirit alive, and it’s during their performance at the Hyde Park festival he’s going to make his move (and here, it’s Hyde Park named after Edward Hyde – only a little thing, but it’s these little things, throughout the entire League storyline that really begins to impress, as it becomes obvious that Moore really does have everything, absolutely everything, perfectly cross-referenced and working as one giant, continuous storyline).
Meanwhile the League is falling apart because Mina, always it’s stable, controlling influence, is falling apart. She’s tired, she’s bored, she’s struggling to cope with growing old without actually ageing. And frankly, all the lycra super-suits, casual lesbianism and drugs in the world aren’t helping. Mina’s trying to shrug off her Victorian past and get with it, desperately trying (and failing) to gain some traction on her never changing life…….
(Mina’s terrible portent of the future, both her own immortal one and that of the League, mirrored beautifully by O’Neill’s art – the eye popping colours of the League HQ a mere escape from the drab, dreary outside world)
For a great deal of the first half of 1969 we shift between Haddo’s plotting and Mina’s group wandering vaguely around London, name-dropping old haunts and being all referential for the sake of it, with far too many panels seemingly consisting of the League in the background and a game of spot the character reference happening in the foreground.
And all the way through, a certain Jack Carter, just prior to heading up north (if you haven’t already, go and watch Get Carter, the Michael Caine one obviously) is put on a collision course with all this magic stuff. His boss happens to be the gangster with his hooks into Basil Fotherington-Thomas of the Purple Orchestra (he’s the one who ended up face down in the pool thanks to a little black magic in the first few pages, obviously a Brian Jones reference, but the name comes from the brilliant Molesworth books – keep up, keep up).
(Just before he heads up North, Carter has one last London job to deal with…. from Century 1969 by Moore and O’Neill)
You can see how it’s all tying together can’t you? And I’ve got to say, Moore, as you’d expect. weaves everything together pretty bloody marvellously, as the various strands of the story are drawn slowly together.
But there’s always that feeling that it’s all too reference laden, and despite really trying hard, there were times when it did all get a little too much. The weird thing with this particular volume is that although it’s reference laden, these contemporary, pop culture references are actually far easier to get, especially for us Brits.
But the problem is still there – the references you do get are great, but because it’s the League, you’re always looking for more,and it’s the looking that yanks you right out of the story.
(Car wash trouble with the super-spies, from Century 1969 by Moore & O’Neill)
Take the scene above…. a conflagration of super-spies having a shunt at the car wash, with Lady Penelope’s Parker in attendance, the ominous Mogul corporation ever present in the background.
Now, Parker’s easy, ST would be Simon Templar (the Saint), and that Aston means the blue jumper wearing, golf club wielding bloke is Jimmy Bond.
But the bloke on the left? The flat capped onlooker, another M? What can it all mean, what can it all mean, what can it ALL mean, WHAT CAN IT ALL MEAN? – you see how it’s so easy to get dragged out of the storyline can’t you? (Answers to at least some of those questions at Jeff Nevins’ annotations).
It’s not the question here of whether or not you get the references, it’s just that you feel there are so many of them, it makes the task of sticking with the story itself difficult. That’s the problem with Century 1969.
(Oh, they should worry Mina, they really should. From Century 1969, by Moore and O’Neill)
The second part of 1969 is O’Neill’s playground, with Mina and Haddo battling each other across the astral plane whilst Mina’s in the throes of a full-blown devastating Taddy/acid trip, all the horrors of her life and the weight of her depression and longevity brought to vivid, psychedelic life in her tripping mind.
It’s beautifully drawn, with O’Neill joined in his exuberance by colourist Ben Dimagmaliw and letterer Todd Klein having a great time being as eye-poppingly psychedelic as possible.
Meanwhile, in between the acid trip moments, the Purple Orchestra play on, with Terner delivering a subtly different version of Sympathy For The Devil (beautifully done by Moore, perfect fit to the original, another example of just how damn good he is at fitting everything to his particular need).
(Sing along time again… this time it’s “Sympathy For The Devil”, Moore and O’Neill bring all the elements together in Century 1969)
But Moore can’t resist throwing in a last gasp of cultural reference, and this is the one that’s probably got the most commentary thus far, as Moore literally riddles his way around a young man who’s “familiar with all the great magicians” and who eventually becomes the final resting place of Haddo’s spirit before popping off through a wall just short of platform 10 at Kings Cross. It smacks of wish-fulfilment, a game of link up every evil wizard we can, up to and including he who can’t be named.
Despite that slightly clumsy (at least I thought so, others are declaring it a genius inclusion – what do I know?), I did think the climax, fought on the astral plane and in the seedy environs of London, is fantastic, perfectly paced, with O’Neill’s visuals matching Moore every step of the way.
It builds and builds, until the brightest yet thematically darkest bit of League history comes crashing down for a 70s punk epilogue, and O’Neill shifts to a 70s palette of dour, cold, dirty protest browns.
Next time it’s Century 2009, but will there be a League around to experience it?
(Shhh… you know who. From Century 1969, by Moore and O’Neill)
So, here we are….. and having read the entire League a couple of times during this, and having read 1910 and 1969 God knows how many times, I have to say I’ve completely changed my view of the whole League series.
In fact, I’ve just, in preparation for winding this up, read 1969 once again. And it’s just damn brilliant stuff. It rewards me each time, with each re-reading, with something else, some minor part falls into place, it just builds and builds and builds and builds into something really wonderful.
It is truly a wonderful, magnificent comic. Not that I’d have known on that first, frustrating read. And I fully expect, when Century 2009 eventually rolls round (meant to be Spring 2012, but expect it to shift to later in the year) to find the same frustrating first read and a book that just gets better and better and better with repeated reading.
Sure, there are faults with it all being too draped in references, but hopefully, in the course of reading this far, you’ve been witness to how, provided you actually read it for yourself rather than being overly concerned that you’re getting it all, it’s something that really rewards repeated readings.
It’s not the best thing Moore’s ever written, but bloody hell, it’s close. And I’d never have said that after reading 1969 for the first time, what seems like so long ago.
I shall leave you, dear reader, thanking you kindly for staying this long, with a little treat, an image borrowed from The Mindless Ones recent (and as always, quite brilliant) look at some of the greatest League moments – as we meet the League in Volume 2, stepping from their carriage to face the threat of Martian invasion. Quite simply perfection in comic form:
Okay, having got all that over with, I must admit, I did succumb to one further reading of the whole damn thing, this time with a laptop and various annotation sites open. And although I hope I’ve shown you it’s not, as I once thought, essential to do so, it does open the whole thing up even more. Should you wish to do the same, here they are:
But with this latest volume several other mad souls have stepped into the breach, all with something worth reading…. The Mindless Ones blog annotations to Century 1969 are excellent: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (and a fourth to come). And Newsarama have produced a cheat sheet for our US chums, who may be a little bemused by all the Brit-centric stuff.