23 December, 2013Issue 23.6LiteratureThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Alan Moore and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Lance Parkin

Alan Moore
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1 (1999-2000)
Volume 2 (2002-3)
The Black Dossier (2008)
Century (2009-12)
Nemo: Heart of Ice (2013)
Nemo: Roses of Berlin (2014).

The trajectory of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, both in terms of the story and the circumstances of production, mirrors that of its writer, Alan Moore. It can be characterised as consciously rejecting its former mass appeal in favour of the idiosyncratic and obliquely autobiographical.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen first appeared as a six-issue miniseries published between 1999 and 2000. Co-created by Moore and the artist Kevin O’Neill, the initial idea was a simple one: an action-packed adventure that placed a number of well-known characters from Victorian adventure fiction—Allan Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll, Mina Harker (from Dracula), and Captain Nemo—together in a team with the aim of defeating Fu Manchu and Moriarty. Almost every incidental character in the story was from 19th-century literature and the panels were packed with sight gags and in-jokes that played on Victorian culture. The second volume featured an invasion from Mars—itself a mash-up of the versions of Mars depicted in the works of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C.S. Lewis. These two volumes are a good introduction to Moore for new readers—they’re exciting and technically sophisticated, but are stories with a beginning, middle, and end that don’t require detailed knowledge of comic book history.

Behind the scenes, however, things were a little more complicated. The League was published by a division of DC Comics, itself a division of TimeWarner, the multimedia corporation who adapted it into a 2003 movie starring Sean Connery, and who are currently planning to launch a television show based on the series.

League_MainThe League was the first work Moore had done for DC in over ten years. Born in Northampton in 1953, Moore had broken into British comics in the early eighties and within a couple of years he’d been spotted and headhunted by DC, the American publishers of Superman and Batman. The first of many British writers to get regular work in the US comics industry, he had written Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta. He’d been given a number of prestigious projects, prompting his Watchmen co-creator, Dave Gibbons, to refer to him as DC’s “golden boy”. The comics sold well, won awards and were much-imitated. Moore became a minor celebrity, he was interviewed by the British newspapers and appeared on television to promote comics as a medium.

By early 1987, though, Moore had fallen out very publicly and vocally with his publisher over a number of issues involving creators’ rights. In practice, the contracts he had signed gave him no control over his work, and the way DC handled matters such as merchandising, censorship, and adaptations left Moore feeling, in his words, “swindled”. Moore vowed never to work for the company again.

League_1After leaving DC, the late eighties and early nineties had been an oddly schizophrenic time for Moore’s career. He had stopped writing the superhero and science fiction stories that dominated the market (and his career) up to that point, instead embarking on a cycle of ambitious, personal work like Big Numbers, From Hell, Lost Girls, and the prose novel Voice of the Fire, but for a variety of reasons, every project stalled. Moore had ended up working for Image Comics on a variety of crassly commercial superhero titles. He made a lot of money doing so, but there were few moments where he reached the artistic heights of his earlier work. The League was, finally, a series that squared the circle, being a commercial success with a degree of literary merit, and it was a series created and owned by Moore and O’Neill.

The League was to be published by Wildstorm, who planned a whole range of other titles created by Moore (the America’s Best Comics line, which included Tom Strong, Top Ten, Tomorrow Stories and Promethea). Shortly after those plans were announced, DC bought Wildstorm. Moore did not want to work for DC, but neither did he want to put the artists of the new series out of a job. A compromise was agreed where elaborate measures were established to ensure Moore would never have to deal with DC directly—to the extent that a new company, Firewall, was set up so that he didn’t even have to see DC’s name on his cheques.

There followed a period of détente between Moore and DC where the writer was (more or less) left alone. Within a few years, though, the third League project, The Black Dossier, became the flashpoint for a number of disputes. The Dossier began as a relatively straightforward one-off “sourcebook” about the League, an account of the fictional history of the team from its original incarnation (we learn it was founded by Prospero) and which sketched in details that took the story up to the present day. As it developed, Moore’s ideas grew ever more baroque—the final book would have different paper stocks for different stories, it would have a 3D section, and a vinyl single with two songs on it. The publication date of the Dossier slipped a number of times.

Following a court case around the League movie (a couple of writers sued, claiming they had come up with the idea and Moore’s comic had been commissioned as a smokescreen—to Moore’s disgust, the studio’s lawyers decided it would be cheaper to settle than fight the case), and an argument over the V for Vendetta movie (the producer claimed in a press conference that Moore was supportive, when he’d made it clear he wanted nothing to do with it), relations with DC became strained. Around the same time, DC President Paul Levitz became concerned that some of the pastiches in The Black Dossier would infringe copyright law, vetoed the songs, and ruled that the book could not be sold in the UK.

This was exactly the interference from DC that Moore had sought to avoid. Moore and O’Neill decided that subsequent League volumes would be published by a consortium of two small comics companies, Top Shelf in the US (who were already publishing a number of Moore’s projects, most notably Lost Girls) and Knockabout in the UK.

With the third volume, Century, Moore felt freed from many of the constraints—often self-imposed—he had been working under in the comics mainstream. Most visibly, instead of being a regular 20-page “comic book”, each issue of Century was published to an irregular schedule: three 80-page issues over the course of four years. The story itself moved away from crowd-pleasing action-adventure to more complex, personal territory.

League_2The over-arching story melded two of Moore’s recent preoccupations: the occult and what he sees as the oppressive, sanitised nature of modern mass culture. Set in 1910, 1969, and 2009, it tracked Quatermain, Mina Harker, and Orlando through a 20th century that, like the original series, was populated with fictional characters. In Century, though, Moore chose a cast with a particular personal significance that would be lost on many, if not most, of his readers. Captain Universe, for example, was an all-but-forgotten British superhero created by Mick Anglo, who’d earlier devised Marvelman, a character Moore had read as a child—indeed, it was Moore’s 1982 reworked version of Marvelman that launched his career. The Prisoner of London was a character who appeared in a story written by Moore’s friend Iain Sinclair, and was drawn to resemble the author. At every stage, and unlike the DC volumes, Century demanded of its readers a certain amount of foreknowledge of both details from the previous series (how, for example, Quartermain had come to be immortal) and also, significantly, an understanding of Alan Moore’s own biographical background.

This followed a trend in Moore’s other work. Moore has always been a prolific writer, and remains so. Now, though, the League represents his only ongoing comics project. In the last ten years he has been writing a vast prose novel, entitled Jerusalem. He completed Unearthing, a biographical piece about one of his oldest friends, Steve Moore, which originally appeared as a short story, but has also been recorded as a performance piece and released as a coffee-table book. Moore edited and published Dodgem Logic, a magazine that stressed the value of local activism. He is working with Steve Moore on a grimoire, The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic. Steve Moore has described all this work, along with his novel Somnium and forthcoming work on the goddess Selene, as part of the same “project to provide an alternative view to simple materialistic reality”. This is characterised by a militant localism (Moore champions his home town of Northampton, and has declared it, only half-jokingly, to be “the centre of the universe”); ritual magic; sexuality (much of his recent work has championed sexual freedom while also depicting the potentially disturbing consequences of it); and an interest in metafiction, in which art is understood as the only effective tool for exploring human consciousness. His comics based on H.P. Lovecraft’s life and work (most notably Neonomicon and Providence) fit into this scheme, as do the Jimmy’s End short films, directed by his long-time collaborator, the photographer Mitch Jenkins.

League_3Mainstream comics figures have occasionally asserted that by abandoning DC, Moore has isolated himself and dramatically diminished his readership, but his new work sells strongly—even published by the relatively tiny Top Shelf, the new League projects have outsold every graphic novel but The Walking Dead and Batman in the month they were released. Moore understands that he has a loyal cadre of readers, and has taken this as licence to produce work that interests him, in collaboration with people he wants to work with, unconstrained by commercial imperatives. In part, this is clearly a reaction against Hollywood’s current interest in superheroes and adapting comics (including his own) for blockbuster movies. Moore and O’Neill continue to produce League sequels, and they are Moore’s most accessible new work. Moore clearly relishes his ability to take as much time as he likes to produce work that is presented exactly how and when he wishes. The League serves as a challenging gateway to increasingly difficult territory.

Lance Parkin is the author of the new biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, as well as over a dozen Doctor Who