The Black Dossier.

Feature by Alec McLeod | 11 Jan 2007

Back in 1984, the cartoonist, writer and satirist Willie Rushton wrote an illustrated novel, W.G. Grace's Last Case. In it the renowned Victorian cricketer joined forces with 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. It's playful use of the historical and fictional characters of the age is above all very silly: Rushton never misses an opportunity to subvert his universe with slapstick and surrealism.

Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill came upon the same idea over a decade later, creating a Victorian Empire in which every character had originated from fiction. Using comic-book methods to describe literary characters, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was born. This could have been awful (see the movie adaptation), but Moore's almost obsessive researching skills (and 'almost' is polite) and intricate graphic storytelling led to a fascinating plot 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, which 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 also points to American literature featuring more heavily. Perhaps we'll have On The Road's Dean Moriarty (related to Sherlock Holmes's nemesis?), William S. Burrough's parallel world 'Interzone' from The Naked Lunch, or maybe even thirties radio character The Shadow. The Black Dossier promises to take the looking-glass world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen into the twentieth century more or less intact.

One of Alan Moore's core beliefs is 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 said superpowers would corrupt, super-absolutely. Since then 'gritty' realism has been in vogue, so Moore responded by showing the comic-book establishment how to fly again, 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 publishing 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, one 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 – barring possible government intervention. Until then though, we have The Black Dossier's comic book history to look forward to. Or should that backward? Let's say... sideways?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier will be out on the 10th of January, barring postponement.
There is an extended version of this article online.