League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

This is all central to one of Alan Moore's core beliefs, the role of storytelling as magic.

Feature by Alec McLeod | 11 Jan 2007
Back in 1984, the cartoonist, writer and satirist Willie Rushton wrote an illustrated novel entitled W.G. Grace's Last Case. In it the renowned Victorian cricketer joined forces with the recently bereaved Dr. Watson to uncover a plot in which Dr. Jekyll's potion, which by pure chance also cured the common cold, was sought after by H.G. Wells' Martians to facilitate a second attack on Earth. The story showed a playful use of the historical and fictional characters of the age, globetrotting Bond-style through London, Paris and the Wild West. Above all though, it was very silly, Rushton never missing an opportunity to subvert his universe with slapstick and surrealism.

When writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill came upon the same idea over a decade later, they used the opportunity to create a Victorian Empire in which every character had originated from fiction. Using the comic-book method of defining characters and how they interact by their unique and extreme powers, 1999's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was born. In less capable hands, this could have descended into nothing more than a steampunk 'X-Men' (see the movie adaptation). But Moore's almost obsessive researching skills (and 'almost' is polite) and knack for intricate graphic storytelling led to a complex plot separate from each character's own source material - one that went beyond the specific time-frame of the late 19th Century to create an alternate reality that spanned the entire lifetime of narrative fiction.

This reality now promises to be expanded further in the new instalment, The Black Dossier. Victorian veterans Mina Murray (an ageless vampire since being bitten by Dracula) and Allan Quartermain (the British hunter and adventurer, somehow rejuvenated) are now in the 1950s, trying to track down the document of the title, which supposedly contains the histories of every League that has existed throughout the ages. So who will inhabit the new (old) time period of The Black Dossier?

Well, clues are in the first stories, one being Victorian spy Campion Bond. As a character without any literary past of his own, he has always been seen as a reference to a certain womanising secret agent. A character called 'Jimmy Bond' carrying Campion's cigarette case has been mentioned by Alan Moore in the past as a potential '50s League member.

The evidence points to American literature featuring more heavily, particularly the Beat movement, which Moore has also shown a desire to involve (On The Road's Dean Moriarty could be related to Sherlock Holmes' nemesis). Most intriguing to see would be William S. Burrough's 'Interzone', the twisted parallel world from The Naked Lunch. Add to that Moore's intention to include the mind-manipulating comic and radio superhero 'The Shadow', and The Black Dossier promises to take the looking-glass world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and hold up another mirror to it, creating an area of worlds within worlds, in which the characters themselves have the potential to alter their environment through their interpretation of it.

This is all central to one of Alan Moore's core beliefs, the role of storytelling as magic. The power of words and pictures to literally put ideas into people's heads and shape their view is something he takes very seriously, and it is no wonder. Alan Moore's impact on the entire medium of the graphic novel is almost unprecedented. His injection of reality into the hermetically-sealed world of superheroes led to Watchmen, which basically pointed to nuclear weapons as proof that giving some people superpowers would probably lead to our destruction. Since then 'gritty' realism has been in vogue, so Moore responded by showing the comic-book establishment how to fly, which he did first with Supreme. In resurrecting this series about a Superman-alike, Moore wrote some great, zany, Super-stories. He then began to evolve the basic storylines, because the moment you seal a story off from new ideas and directions, it is dead.

It's a difficult lesson to learn for companies that have made their money off one leap of the imagination - the superhero - for the last fifty or so years. Of course, it's been just as difficult to convince Great Ormond Street Hospital that Wendy Darling is an appropriate character to appear in a pornographic version of her later life, something which Moore and his partner Melinda Gebbie have created in the Lost Girls comic. Because of this, they have agreed not to publish Lost Girls in the UK until after the 75-year copyright lapses at the end of next year. However, it is expected that the Government will allow the hospital an infinite copyright at this point - it will be interesting to see what happens in that case. Until then though, we have The Black Dossier's comic book history to look forward to, or should that be backward? Let's say… sideways?