Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Black Dossier Review

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore

The following is a review first published when this book came out, back in 2007. It's probably still unavailable in Europe. I haven't checked recently.

Comic fans will know that this, the eagerly-awaited and serially-delayed third instalment (though strangely, not the third volume) of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is currently only available in the US due to copyright issues. It is, after all, a series which exists solely to bring together various pre-existing fictional characters in a sort of ‘communal memory’ universe. With this latest volume, Moore expands his vision further, seemingly indicating that the world of the ‘League’ consists not only of characters from fantastic Victorian fantasy, as in the previous volumes, but the multitude of characters from all of fiction, be it books, comics, film, television or radio. But is it any good?

Moore presents us with a 1950s Britain in which Big Brother and the Ingsoc government from Orwell’s 1984 has just fallen. (Apparently Orwell originally intended his terrifying parable to take place in 1948, but was convinced by his publishers to set it in that fateful year instead.) Against this backdrop, the remaining characters of the turn-of-the-century league struggle against their supervisors for possession of an item chronicling hundreds of years of secret League history- the titular Black Dossier.

As is frequently the case with Moore, the chief pleasure of the Black Dossier is perusing the detailed panels spotting familiar characters. Enthusiasts of 50’s era culture will not be disappointed, with appearances and nods to Emma Peel (from the Avengers), Jack Kerouac, James Bond, and that timeless hero of British comics, Dan Dare. Even the newspapers note the antics of aging screen legend Norma Desmond (from the classic film noir Sunset Boulevard) and Roy of the Rovers’ team, Melchester Rovers. It’s the unusual nature of some of the source material, as well as the treatment of some of the more well-known characters that provide much of the enjoyment in the Black Dossier. For example, the James Bond that features is Flemming’s Bond, not the more well-known screen incarnation- and as such is far more misogynistic and hateful than most readers will expect, as befitting his actual literary origins. All this is conveyed through the distinctive scratchy-yet-crisp drawing style of Kevin O’Neill which gives the series its flavour.

This fiction-based name-dropping is taken to a whole new level with the inclusion of excerpts from the Dossier itself- each written in a different style, reflecting the facet of society that created it. Thus we are presented with the history of the League as told through a sequel to Fanny Hill, an undiscovered work by Shakespeare, a beat novel, and a miniature 50s porno comic. To Moore, all are as valid as any ‘real’ art when it comes to representing culture. Moore utilises the very substance of the book to make his point- different paper types, sizes and textures are used to create different atmospheres. The tale finishes with a metaphysical trip to a 4-dimensional land where characters seem to realize the true nature of their existence- presented to us, the reader, in 3D (via a pair of glasses that come with the book). It’s not just a gimmick- it’s a bizarre attempt to alter the relationship between the reader and the book, to use mixed mediums to tell the story, such as it is.

And therein lies the sting- for all Moore’s genre-busting (and medium-busting), some of the terrific dialogue and characterisation of the previous volumes has been lost. The plot is merely a vehicle for Moore to cram as many self-indulgent references into his universe as possible. A little restraint can go a long way. Moore and O’Neill aimed high, producing a unique creation which succeeds at being quite unlike anything which has gone before, yet ultimately fails at being a satisfying comic book. That said, its still better than most shelf-cloggers in the comics shop, and hardcore fans are doubtlessly off to as you read this.

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