Thursday, 25 April 2013

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (2007)
I initially found this volume of Moore's continuing revision of  characters from literary history into a single fictional continuum a wee bit underwhelming. Each block of narrative is punctuated with numerous pages of vaguely related text which somewhat disrupts the overall flow, not so much because comics necessarily make for easier reading than unalloyed prose but rather because page after comic book sized page of such small print can be quite off-putting. Additionally, it isn't always immediately obvious how these textual digressions relate to the rest of what's happening besides joining up a load of continuity for the sake of it.

However, my friend Steve suggested I persist with the book, pretend I'm on holiday, stuck in a caravan in the rain with only Black Dossier to keep me occupied. So I knuckled down and I'm sort of glad I did, although the five page stream of consciousness Kerouac pastiche was just a little too unreadable for my tastes, so I settled for the online summary which explained that, had I bothered to read it, I would have found it to be a canny exploration of the Burroughsian idea of language as a virus which itself relates directly to the theme of Black Dossier as a whole. Personally I think Moore would have been better off writing it as a direct pastiche of Burroughs, but never mind.

Anyway, this third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is enjoyable enough, although it really doesn't have a story so much as a sequence of events sagging under the weight of references to everything from Coronation Street to Dan Dare to Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Wishing Chair - imagine a washing line hung with the underwear of every fictional character ever to grace a page - although many of said references are quite obscure, requiring one to be looking in the right place at the right time. There's a danger of the story amounting to who would win in a fight between Cybermen and Klingons? although it's intent is clearly more ambitious even if it lacks overt expression. It seems significant that James Bond is here shown as a hero of the establishment: brutal, cowardly, misogynist and anti-intellectual - a revised Bulldog Drummond lacking even the honesty of said reactionary forebear - and hence the enemy and bowdlerisation of earlier, arguably more imaginative heroes and heroines. In this respect Black Dossier seems to be a criticism of the history of fiction itself, how that which once inspired the imagination has devolved to unit-shifting logos with moral content included only where it suits the genre. This may be how Moore viewed the mainstream movie adaptation of his first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, with all the finer points ironed out and homogenised for the big screen; and I'm probably not the first person to notice how many times James Bond gets his arse kicked in Black Dossier - unless the Sean Connery association is simply coincidence.

The conclusion, revealed in a line about Verne's Nautilus and Wells' cavorite inspiring submarines and rocket ships, would seem to be that there's no such thing as just a story, that it all comes back into our collective consciousness whilst perhaps also serving as barometer for the same, and that we should take a bit more care over the sort of stories we tell because fact and fiction tend to be related. Unfortunately I have a feeling this message may not be obvious unless you're looking for it, which it might be argued defeats the point of the message in terms of communicating to those who most need to hear it, but never mind.

Anyway, my second, more considered reading of Black Dossier was certainly more rewarding than the first, and the pastiches of William Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse were in particular a delight. Bit lumpy in places but undeniably nourishing.

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