Is Alan Moore trying to send me mad?

Andrew Davison (
February 2004

I've just finished reading "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (LoEG), volumes 1 and 2, not at a single sitting, but spread over two weeks or so. I had meant to devour them, I'd been waiting for them to arrive by surface mail for nearly two months, but I found the going tough. I had to keep putting them down. Why?

Alan Moore is often presented as a comic book writing genius, which is a bit of a double-edged complement, and probably much to his liking. What isn't often mentioned is his disdain for the comic-reading public. "Watchmen" is primarily a dismantling of the superhero mythos: those guys are really psychos, has-beens, fascists, or beyond caring. The pirate subplot is addressing the reader: someone who become engrossed in these fantasies eventually becomes a crazy.

LoEG is another veiled assault, this time on the compulsive, fact-gathering, side of the reader's personality. Comic mailing lists, newsgroups, and chat-rooms are full of these types people who will argue endlessly about the correct chronology for Hawkman, Supergirl, or Wolverine. These are individuals who know more about Lex Luthor than Nelson Mandela or Richard Nixon (except when they make appearance in comics).

LoEG deliberately sets out to be full to overflowing with popular 19th Century fiction references. As Mina walks around the British Museum, we are invited to guess what exciting pulp novels the giant bugs, the dusty painting, and bedroom slippers refer to. As the heroes' carriage meanders down a busy street, we are encouraged to name each of the characters picking their noses on the pavement.

This is why reading LoEG is so dispiriting and maddening. I was constantly stopping to identify the references, and realising just how childishly I was behaving in the process.

Ignoring the endless allusions to fantasy literature (which is possible), what about the rest of LoEG?

The characterization is good, sometimes excellent, as you'd expect from Moore. He works best by extrapolating from cardboard characters, or types, trying to make them lifelike. Volume 1 does a decent job, but volume 2 is much better, especially in the relationships between Quatermain and Mina, and Hyde and Mina. The conversations between Hyde and Mina are high points.

The story in Volume 1 is fast-paced, but often an excuse for a series of fun full-page pictures of big machines. Volume 2 suffers from following "The War of the Worlds" so closely. The first chapter is visually exciting but padding nevertheless, and there is an awful lot of coming and going from the British Museum.

Moore's familiar shock tactics are much in evidence: poor old Rupert the Bear, anal rape, and a policeman with no nose. It seems a tad adolescent, but effectively done.

The text 'extras' are very hard going indeed. Volume 1 ends with a Quatermain adventure, which is richly over-written with a story that goes nowhere to its ineffectual conclusion. The almanac at the end of Volume 2 must have been agony to research: almost every sentence is a literary quiz question. In this respect, it's a much clearer statement of the real intent of LoEG: to screw with the anally retentive reader who must know everything.

I haven't said much about the artwork. O'Neill is very gifted, and frequently livens up the narrative. Almost all the literary references are graphically conveyed, so perhaps I should be laying the blame for the books' agenda at O'Neill's feet. Moore is simply an unwitting boy wonder.

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