April 9th, 2003
Our modern idea of the cape, cowl & tights superhero is often traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman. There were plenty of “superheroes” before then, of course, but we didn’t recognize them as such: Zorro, Gilgamesh, Hercules, etc. But clever, clever Alan Moore has rounded up a bunch of these pre-Superman fictitious heroes and given them their own comic book entitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; the first six issues of said series (which constitute a complete story) have now been compiled into a trade paperback, which I read over the weekend.
And what a great read it was. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins in 1898 (one century prior to the comic book’s publication), and the “heroes” are taken from the literature of the time: the swashbuckling Allan Quatermain, the mysterious Mina Murry, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, and both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (If some of those names fail to ring a bell, don’t worry: half the fun of the story is discovering who each person is as the tale progresses.) The five are recruited by Campion Bond, agent of English Intelligence and emissary of a cryptic figure known as “M”, who has assembled the team to save Britain from a threat as dangerous as it is enigmatic. And so begins a series of adventures which brings the team into contact with Auguste Dupin, Fu Manchu, and a host of other characters throughout the Europe of the late nineteenth century.
The wonderful thing about the heroes in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that few of them are heroes, and most don’t even qualify as “gentlemen”. Quatermain is an opium fiend; Mr. Hyde is a (literal) monster; Hawley Griffin is, frankly, an asshole. They act not for love of England (Nemo, in fact, loathes the Empire and all it stands for), but for private motives and personal gain. In other words, the characters in the comic books are every bit as complex and interesting as the literary figures they are based on. Furthermore, the story told in the first six issues is what would have been called a “ripping good yarn” at the time, full of humor, drama, and more twists than the Thames river.
I have quite a few graphic novels and trade paperbacks on my bookshelf, but most date back to the era when I was an avid comic book reader: The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunter and the like. In the last ten years I have picked up a few more, but it’s been rare to find one as good as the Silver Age classics (although a few have qualified, such as Kingdom Come and the Astro City compilations). And none that i have acquired in recent memory have risen to the level of The Watchmen and V For Vendetta, my two favorites. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, however, now joins their ranks, giving Alan Moore a hat trick as he sweeps my top three. If you are a comics fan — or even if you once were and want to re-experience the thrill you used to feel when reading a first-rate series — this is one to pick up.
Postscript 1: Quick! If you’re gonna read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, do so now, before the movie comes out and fucks it up!
Postscript 2: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is only one of a number of new series that Moore is writing for America’s Best Comics, and I have read the trade paperbacks for a few of the others. Although none were as marvelous as League, I would still recommend Tom Strong, which is something of a homage to the golden age of Superman. I wasn’t gaga over either Top Ten or Promethea, though.