Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin': The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 review

I'm not usually a big comic book reader, but have made a note of following Alan Moore's work ever since falling in love with the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume. Funnily enough, I only picked it up after watching the grotesque distortion that was the movie adaptation, where I adored the concept of a Victorian Justice League of sorts, fighting crime in the realm of popular fiction, and was desperate to see if the original work did it justice. Needless to say, I haven't looked back since. Amazing to think that first Volume is now over ten years old.

I was both wildly overexcited and a smidgen apprehensive when it was announced that Moore and series illustrator Kevin O'Neill were planning a three-part epic following the League as they fought a supernatural threat over the course of an entire century. On the one hand, it was going to be the League on its biggest scale yet; on the other, I adored the Victorian arcana of the first two volumes and disconnected slightly from the more psychedelic content in the Black Dossier. The idea of moving completely out of that era was a little worrying and whilst the first entry, 1910, was close enough that it felt much the same as ever, 1969 brings something new to the table. Fortunately, that's a very good thing.
  
The funny thing about all this is that I know relatively little about Victorian pop culture and only picked up on the most obvious of references in the early volumes - Mina's backstory, Allan Quartermain, Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu etc. A lot of the fun outside the reading came from trying to track down the source of the other references from the limited clues contained within the text. '60s culture, though, I grew up with - most of the television programs and movies which I watched as a boy, laying the seed of my pop culture adoration today, came from that era. 

I don't know why I was worried that I would feel alienated from a world I knew so well, although perhaps it was, as previously mentioned, down to a fear that there wouldn't be the same enjoyment of looking everything up afterwards. As it turns out, I enjoyed 1969 on a different level to the other volumes, precisely because I was more aware of many of the in-jokes and references and got a greater sense of the fictional patchwork that makes up the new world in which Allan, Mina and Orlando (from the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name) are hunting down the Occultists trying to bring about the arrival of the Moonchild/baby Antichrist.

As is evident from the bonkers cover, resplendent in bright greens and pinks and yellows, this is going to be a radically different presentation to previous volumes' palette of dark browns, greys and blues. The first couple of pages settle readers in by utilising the familiar colour scheme, but the moment the League appears in their latest guise - hitching a lift on the Nautilus, as now commanded by Nemo's now aged daughter, Janni (who disappointingly only makes a cameo after her major role in 1910) - the strip takes on a much bolder approach, echoing the LSD-fuelled psychedelia and neo-futurism popular at the time. Huge credit also to Todd Klein and Ben Dimagmaliw's lettering, with their experimental use of colour and font often manically sublime. That's not to say there aren't occasional returns to the grimier colours of old, though: anything involving a certain gangland assassin named Jack (an inspired inclusion) reverts to old habits, while a two-page flashback late in the first act is lovingly coloured like a series of old photographs.

Overall though, 1969 offers a much brighter world than the comic has offered to date. What stops it from feeling like an altogether different series is how O'Neill retained much of the seediness and decay which made the environments of older volumes so evocative. The colours may be more striking, but the inhabitants of the underground psychedelic clubs are drowning in their drug-induced hazes just as the Victorians were in the Limehouse opium dens. Whilst Moore, as you would expect, embraces the sexual freedom of the period - Allan, Orlando and Mina certainly have a fairly open approach to such matters, helped by 'lando's intermittent sex changes - O'Neill certainly doesn't shy away from showing the nihilism and hollowness of the times as a contrast.

Criticisms must sadly be levelled at a few areas of a fantastic work which otherwise more than lives up to its predecessors. Though the ending is very powerful, the plot tends to meander for a lot of the book. The amount of fun to be had in being part of the world compensates to a large degree, but those hoping for progress on what was laid on the table in 1910 will probably end up disappointed. When the true details of the villain's plan are revealed, they turn out to be particularly underwhelming, and the red herrings leading up to that point are not particularly convincing either. The clues for what is to come in the final book are all kinds of exciting, with another mysterious appearance by the Prisoner of London, but has noticeably less to offer as a self-contained story.

The late psychedelic battle between Mina and the antagonist, consequently, is fun but far from as stirring as Janni finally adopting her father's legacy for the climax of 1910. The large time difference between this entry and 1910 also means there's a certain sense of discontinuity, with certain memorable characters (Carnaki and Janni last time, Jack this time around) having their impact reduced by the knowledge that they are only playing bit-parts in the story. Minions Of The Moon, the prose side-story, is also not particularly compelling, emphasizing quite how much O'Neill's visuals bring to Moore's writing.

Those certainly shouldn't put off long-time fans though. (First timers should start at the beginning with Volume One, because a strip this rich in detail needs the reader to have a full canon of knowledge for maximum enjoyment). O'Neill's art is as gorgeous as ever and combines with Moore's passion for esoteric literary culture to bring back all the series' familiar pleasures in knock-out form, especially through Allan and Mina's spiky love for one another being challenged like never before.

Though 1969 is fairly different in many ways to where the comic has gone before, it is as visually stunning and creatively thrilling to read as any other book in the series. As a portent of what is to come in 2009, the tone is ominous. As a tribute to the '60s in the way only the League knows how, it's easily the grooviest thing you'll read this century.

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