Take several classic 19th century literary characters – Allen Quatermain from "King Solomon’s Mines", Captain Nemo from "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea", The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, among others – bring them together as an ego-ridden but intriguing outfit under the auspices of the British Secret Service, set them within the final days of the 1800s and you have The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this combination of exceptionally strong characters who have all sustained entire adventures on their own would probably become terribly heavy handed. Moore, however, has obviously studied these individuals meticulously in their previous incarnations and done an excellent and thoroughly entertaining job in placing them together to throw each other’s deeply ambiguous personalities, foibles and secrets into relief. As the book’s prologue has it, "The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters".
It’s difficult to describe the plot of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen without ruining much of the pleasure of the book – suffice it to say that our heroes are plunged into suitably apocalyptic situations as befits their unparalleled combination of skills. As they begin to unveil a terrifying conspiracy, they also discover other players at work against them, many of which are also drawn from the pages of 19th century novels. But with Quatermain an opium addict, Dr Jekyll threatening to metamorphosise into Mr Hyde at any stressful moment and Hawley Griffin remaining completely amoral thanks to his invisible status, things are never straightforward. Certainly, it takes every ounce of effort for the League’s ostensible leader Miss Mina Hardy, the most ordinary and yet most enigmatic of the League’s characters, to keep the group focused on their objectives.
Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill evidently revelled in creating this new pulp fiction universe, with Moore ensuring a heavy dose of stiff upper lip dialogue and sometimes shocking violence propels the narrative along, while O’Neill renders an intricate world of Empire at its zenith, with all manner of Heath Robinson-esque technologies emerging from the filth and squalor of an authentically rendered 19th century London. Indeed, the pair have gone so far as to create cigarette cards, Rupert-style illustrated rhyming couplets, and tongue-in-cheek paint by numbers portraits for the appendix of this volume. (Child Molester’s Eyes Cerulean, anyone?).
This celebration and reinvention of pulp doesn’t arrest the intelligence running though Moore’s script, and it moves from the broad brushstrokes required to bring each of these incredibly strong characters together into something far more cohesive by the conclusion of this first book, setting up a definite anticipation for the books to follow.
Perhaps cleverest of all, Moore has found a fascinating way to not only reinvent these classic characters but also inspire the reader to reinvestigate works whose potency has been forgotten precisely because they are such familiar – perhaps overfamiliar – characters within the canon of popular literature. (Although I had to google Miss Mina Hardy to realise from which fiction she had been abducted). The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a kind of epilogue to those individual adventures, and because Moore’s storytelling provides little direct explanation of the characters’ past, it’s clear that reading or re-reading these characters’ individual stories will add further depth to the League’s exploits.
If there is a risk that this trawling through the 19th century’s annals for villains and heroes could become formulaic, perhaps part of the pleasure in reading future volumes will be in seeing precisely how Moore manages to surprise readers once they have become used to the original premise.
Whereas before Moore has subverted and reinvented myths about superheroes (Watchmen) and Jack The Ripper (From Hell), this time he’s taken it further with comics pulling literature into its picture panel and speech balloon universe. It’s evidently ideal fodder for a film as Fox are currently producing a $80 million movie, set for release in summer 2003, which will star the suitably bearded Sean Connery as Quatermain. How well Hollywood will render the League’s adventures and still maintain the subtleties of Moore and O’Neill’s storytelling remains to be seen, but in the meantime you should enter the universe of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen for yourself. You’ll never leave!