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BOOK REVIEW

This genre comic’s in a league of its own

By Stephen Weiner
August 13, 2009

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In this age of comic book movies, few writers in the genre have proved as adept as Alan Moore at crafting stories that made their way from the printed page to the big screen. Moore is the creative force behind several such projects, among them, “Swamp Thing,’’ “From Hell,’’ “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’’ “V for Vendetta,’’ and “Watchmen.’’ Moore likes to work on each book with a different artist, giving each comic its own look. This first book of a projected trilogy begins a new adventure for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is set in 1910 London with the nation preparing for the coronation of King George V. Working in the tradition of science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer, Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill tell the story of a revolving team of Victorian superheroes comprised of literary characters, sort of a Victorian Fantastic Four. The group continues to operate in an effort to ward off supernatural and real world enemies. Working for British intelligence under the auspices of Mycroft Holmes, the current League of Extraordinary Gentlemen includes Allan Quatermain (“King Solomon’s Mines’’), Mina Murray (“Dracula’’), gentlemen thief A.J. Raffles (a Victorian foil for Sherlock Holmes), ghost hunter Carnacki, and a Jack Heath, who may be Jack the Ripper returned. Other, sporadic members of the League include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and Tom Sawyer. In this installment, the group has to find the “Moonstone’’ child, whose effect on history is uncertain, while pursuing an enemy who is trapped in London but not bound by the constraints of time.

Comics is a medium in which the importance of the story art cannot be overstated, and O‘Neill’s is versatile. It is also a medium in which the writing and art can conflict, but in this case the blend is fabulous. O’Neill uses primarily small panels to move the story along and details subtle body language to indicate the characters’ inner thoughts, which may be in opposition to the words coming out of their mouths. He ably sets the tone with scratchy illustrations that are at times reminiscent of classic children’s books, but when need be he delivers artwork in both the horror and traditional heroic styles.

Moore has a knack for anticipating trends, and the League series began in 1999, becoming widely recognized with the 2003 movie version, starring Sean Connery. Recognized as one of the most creative forces in the history of genre comics, Moore is at his best when he’s subverting genres, as he does in this book masterfully, by playing with storytelling conventions. Another of his techniques is to place several of his stories in “alternate’’ histories, meaning that many details to the time period are accurate, but some event has been changed. In this case, England landed a man on the moon in 1901, and the Martians have invaded. Moore is one of the richest storytellers today in any medium, and well versed in genres. His stories are saturated with references to classic and pulp literature. For example, in this book, a butcher is called Mack the Knife, and one chapter concerns Pirate Jenny, a song from “The Threepenny Opera.’’ These references flavor the story but don’t limit its readership, because Moore and O’Neill have created a horror/adventure story that keeps the reader guessing right up until the last panel.

Stephen Weiner’s books include “The 101 Best Graphic Novels’’ and “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel.’’

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, VOLUME III: Century: 1910 By Alan Moore

Illustrated by Kevin O’Neill

Top Shelf, 80 pp., $7.95

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