Friday, July 29, 2011

League of extraordinary gentlemen Century II - 1969

This week saw the official belated release of "Century 1969", the middle chapter of the third volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's "the League of extraordinary gentlemen". The complex work is a long time fan favorite, and in many ways this latest release represents everything the series has been about since the creators finished their commitment to DC, and moved their property to the new publisher. Under the auspices of Top Shelf, Moore and O'Neill were free to follow the acclaimed first two volumes, which featured a complete story of Victorian era horror icons reimagined as a superhero team.

Following the conclusion of the original storyline, the first glimpse of the eventual evolution of the series came with "Black dossier", a companion volume playing up the back matter that was a treat for the series' biggest fans. The controversial graphic novel was produced largely for the literary afficionados, with numerous text pieces homaging mostly popular novels, with the actual comic book parts being relegated to a strange and moody spy chaser that culminated in a psychedelic explosion, celebrating the eternal power of human myth and culture.

The ambitious tome served as a final Moore/O'Neill collaboration with Wildstorm/DC, with creators deciding that the forthcoming three part epic would be better served with the indie friendly publisher, that previously collected Moore's seminal "From Hell". The plan was to release the three parts of the story reasonably fast, with the time travel plot still serialized at an irregular pace, but at least bundled into larger chunks than the typical 23 page pamphlet comic book. The first part of the Century debuted in 2009, returning the series to the good will of the majority of it's fans, but the follow up appears only now, two years since.

"1969" continues the themes introduced in "Black dossier", best represented by the addition of Virginia Woolf's Orlando to the team roster. In the rethinking of the series, following it's original 1999 publication, the tongue in cheek guessing game represented by a constant barrage of homages started turning into something more profound. Not content to simply wink to their audience and connect their most popular adventure novels and pulp trivia into a single timeline, the creators have ventured to really use the unique series set-up to explore the world of fiction in a way that was to be both metafictional and still entertaining.

Orlando's role was to quietly get the readers to accept the new addition to the line up, while the deeper plot centers around the place of decades old fictions in the increasingly modern world. By their definition, comic book characters never age, and in some cases wind up meeting a bevy of familiar archetypes in their endless adventures. Using the most charming of "Dracula"'s ensemble cast as his protagonist, Moore has found a very oblique way of dealing with changing times, by showing the reader the effects of Mina's endless youth in the every changing world, as her life spans the beginning of another new century.

The complicated plot that facilitates what is ostensibly this is another game, a sprawling, hundred year old caper of connecting the identities of various occultist Aleister Crowley homages in popular culture. Judging by Moore's arcane interests, using of a major figure in the field must have come as an afterthought, in much the same way as the Jack Ripper pastiche he used in "1910" (Top Shelf's own "From Hell" documents the writer's extensive research on the subject).

"1969" tackles a different era in which Mina's League tackles Oliver Haddo (the pseudonym Moore uses as Crowley's "real" name), and it necessitates a completely different cultural backdrop than the original two volumes of "the League". Namely, the adventure novels and penny dreadfuls are replaced by the much more visual icons of counter culture, such as the fictional surrogates of the Beatles and Rolling stones, as well as the popular English movies of the era. As always, the pages of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" are bursting with in-textual references to a myriad of period trivia, much in the same way as the artist O'Neill seemingly feels every inch of the page with veiled references to the ephemera of the day.

It goes without saying that most of these in jokes are readily apparent only to those most knowledgeable of the 1960s popular culture, but once again Moore and O'Neill make a concentrated effort to make the plot and it's main details clear, no matter the background clutter that is there only for those who get the references. And, just as it was with each of the entries in the League series, a sympathetic reader will find it hard to resist reading Jess Nevin's thorough panel by panel annotations, trying to force the series into making more sense than it does on the surface level for most readers.

It's a tricky balance, and frankly lost years ago for the benefit of the readers who are prepared to work on their research, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The inside knowledge feeling that the series challenges the reader to keep up with is certainly a part of it's charm, but it can hardly be said to function as an entertaining pulp comic book any longer, no matter the effort on the part of it's creators. Simply put, reading successive pages laid out in nine panel grids filled with oblique dialogue and draped in posters and references from beyond the obscure, saps a lot of the energy of the story.

In a way, the notoriously expressionistic O'Neill, saddled with photo references of Moore's invention, becomes another in the line of outstanding creators working from the writer's baroque scripts, having a monumental task of breathing life into a very formal way of storytelling. Thus, the artist's style that in "Marshal law" had already found a way to marry both the background details and frantic storytelling into a work of a real veteran cartoonist, here actually suffers from the excessive research. It's difficult to praise a three part story that's already stretching into four years and more due to simply overcrowding the artist with period detail and research.

That said, it's difficult to find fault with O'Neill beyond the delays. The mere fact that he still manages to make the layouts clear despite the clutter that eats away at every corner of the panel, belies his strength as the storyteller in the sequential medium. Unfortunately, at a first glance, what's bound to strike most readers is the excessive depiction of sexuality, that is continuous and relentless. It's not just that the creators concentrate on two detailed depictions of same sex foreplay, it's the very deliberate way that they chose to illustrate every condition of human body as a depiction of a normal part of a human experience that is disconcerting in it's execution. Eventually, the reader becomes desensitized, which was no doubt part of the creator's ambition, but it could have been done in a subtler and more story sensitive manner.

In fact, the era the comic takes place in seems "1969"' sole defense for this creative choice. Namely, the free love years that the creators go to great lengths to exploit and parody, and specifically the occult and musical scene are certainly no stranger to erotica and drug consumption (that is likewise ever present in these pages), but despite the latter actually amounting to a plot point later on, the excessive nudity is much more problematic. Forgetting for a second Moore's dislike of any kind of censorship, which was a chief reason for his departure from Wildstorm/DC, one can argue that the severe nudity can even be seen as crass and not at all stylish. Considering that the trend has begun in the preceding "1910" and "Black dossier" tome, it's much harder to ascribe the relative nudism of the cast merely to the parody of the hippie movement.

It seems almost that the creators use the obscenity to further establish that these fictional characters inhabit a reality that is very similar to our own, in the process utilizing the crassest possible way to achieve this. It quickly goes beyond shocking into plain diverting, but on a closer reading perhaps a certain logic can be ascribed. The whole of Century, the third volume of the "League", seems poised to deconstruct the formerly successful Victorian group, that served as a basis of 2003 cinema blockbuster. Discounting that the second volume ended on a downbeat ending serving much the same function, Century is devoted to taking apart the beloved children's characters, forcing upon them stylings of different eras and seeing if and how they can possibly survive the change.

It seems that in order to discover the big question of the continuing use of yesterday's fictions, Moore and O'Neill are poised to batter their protagonists almost into nothingness, going from an expansive team in "1910" to a much more concentrated, albeit even more dysfunctional group of "1969", and teasing a completely pared down league of one, at least for the beginning of forthcoming 2009". No doubt, by the end of the complete third volume, the creators will show us the new, higher purpose for their strange concept, but that point's still a ways off.

For the moment, the creators' seem to hint a possible immediate follow up taking place in 1964 and featuring the superhero characters, whose base Mina currently uses to house herself and her two partners. And while the references to this still untold story connecting to the textual story back matter do somewhat intrigue, they still beg a question of the real need to force the direct superhero trappings to the world of the League. In the original League concept there are no doubt some superhero parallels (with the series title itself being a tongue in cheek elaboration of the "Legion of superheroes"), deciding to directly tackle the superhero tropes seems somewhat misguided. While there is no doubt that superheroes make for a very distinctive piece of 20th century pop culture ephemera, the obvious profusion of those kind of books in the American market makes a disconcerting effect when they rear their head again in a rare commercially successful project by the very mainstream creators that have made their name working for DC and Marvel.

Thankfully, for the moment at least, the matter can be glossed over in the larger Century narrative. As for the cultural aspirations that make up a much more direct influence on "1969", they derive primarily from the movie "Performance", starring Mick Jagger, with the outside sources making reference to Aleister Crowley (beyond the occultist' book "Moonchild" that has a bearing on the whole of Century's plot), being pretty much nonessential. The avant-garde movie touches upon the link between rock music and occult, which is precisely Moore's focus this time around, when it comes to the plot and style. The fact that the frontman of Rolling Stones, a notorious rock icon himself, plays an even more flamboyant and narccisistic character goes hand in hand with his role in the "1969". Likewise, a distinct tragic moment in early Stones biography forms the backbone of the creator's tale, with band co-founder Brian Jones' mysterious death, and the follow up tribute concert in Hyde Park serving as respectively the strange beginning, and the explosive climax of the comic that is even subtitled "Paint it black".

Despite the obligatory name change and the removal of fifty years from said events, it's still somewhat disturbing to see a real life tragedy lightly turned upside down and exploited to fuel a plot about Aleister Crawley's legacy. Despite the obvious affection Moore and O'Neill bring to "1969", where it's clear that they're treating the events as part of a rock legend, the story feels too aggressive towards tragedy that has characterized then young Rolling Stones' beginnings.

When one gets to the said Hyde Park concert, the pacing finally seems to pick up. After two thirds of the story spent in endless conversations, with a cast that is increasingly paranoid and out of touch with one another, the events finally come to a head. Yet, after dozens of pages filled with talking heads where every measure was taken to stall the book and confuse the reader with a maze of references and little actual plot, it takes a very subjective reader to pretend that the experience was completely enjoyable. Despite going to great lengths to quote "Get Carter" and numerous other genre movies of the era, the book effectively substitutes action tropes with those of a blue movie. Strangely, what little suspense the book builds, it does on the back of the villain scenes, that in turn mostly undermine the suspense in Mina and her group's search.

The reader is already privy with every step of Haddo's master plan, making the reader wait patiently until the League puts together the clues on their own. Perhaps the most effective is the scene showing Mina trying to infiltrate the occult bookstore. Unfortunately, despite the great use of tension in the proceedings, the character's continual inquiry into the order's upcoming plans, almost undermines the whole sequence, which is saved at the last moment by Moore revealing the shop keeper's motivation for such frank discussion of what are the utmost secrets of the cultists.

The simple fact that "1969" contains the appearances of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius and Ian Sinclair's Andrew Norton, Prisoner of London in the same book speaks out to the kind of work Moore and O'Neill have decided the League to be. Both of the appropriated characters talk in the roundabout way, while the League tries to gain useful information regarding Haddo's order from them. And while Jerry Cornelius ends up being a somewhat obnoxious curiosity, there is really no excuse for the sequence featuring the time traveler Norton. Despite appearing in "1910" and seemingly being one of the rare characters that exist in all three eras, the Prisoner of London is deliberately made to be mysterious, expressing himself in free associations when talking with the League, resulting in a very tiresome reading experience.

For a series that is already concerned with being as smart and it can be, about the various connections between the known and little known miscellany, there is little excuse for Moore and O'Neill to adopt a character that takes exactly those qualities and amplifies them to the next level. Perhaps a fan of "Slow chocolate autopsy", the novel where Norton originates from will find his appearance amusing, but from the storytelling point, despite the information that he imparts to the League, he is likely to leave a very bad impression on most of the readers. Even when the book finally builds up to the confrontation between Haddo and the League, taking place on several fronts at once, all connected by the Purple orchestra (Rolling Stones)' concert in Hyde Park, the way Alan Moore writes the scene is undeniably his own.

By having the Mick Jagger surrogate recite the writer's replica of "Sympathy for the devil", the volume's second chapter echoes some of the approximations of Brecht songs in "1910", and is certainly fitting considering the subject matter. The problem lies in the following sequence, where Moore constructs an homage to Percy Shelly's "Adonais", which the Rolling Stones singer recited in memory of Brian Jones. The lyrics start stretching from page to page, until it becomes obvious that they've become a counterpoint to a complicated series of events that overlap during the League's two-pronged confrontation with Haddo's cult. Seeing the little oddly colored balloon constantly punctuating each successive panel, by foreshadowing Haddo's plan and also slyly commenting on the action depicted in the drawing quickly gets tiresome, and starts acting almost as a parody of the similar techniques Moore has used to greater effect in his previous works.

The climatic battle on astral plane, likewise feels excessive and hysterical, showing the reader once again that the League has yet to have a convincing villain, beyond their own shortcomings as a team. Yet, amusingly, the carefully constructed dynamic actually pays off by providing a very interesting set up for the next volume. Seeing elements from the Harry Potter series of books in "1969" seems arbitrary and goofy at first glance, but Moore leaves them of in a perfect place to achieve interesting reverberations in the next volume. Likewise, Mina's fate following the concert is both chilling, and utilized to maximum effect considering her characterization throughout the story.

The short epilogue taking place eight years later finds her companions in a very different state. While listening to a punk rock act, Orlando and Allain ponder the future of the League, before the book ends in a way that echoes the closure of the second volume. As for the third song forced upon the reader in the book's closing scene, the less said the better. At that point it's very hard to find any resemblance the vulgar lyrics have to the story's themes, nor is the average reader likely to try to hard after being subjected to the same trick three times in little more then a dozen pages. Allain Quartermain's plight certainly seems moving, but that is precisely because of O'Neill staging the page to echo his previous work, and not because the reader was particularly invested in the character this time around.

And while it goes without saying that the self centered braggart and transvestite that is Moore and O'Neill's Orlando comes of as vain and cold-hearted, it's very difficult to get any kind of reading on Quartermain throughout "1969". He seems continually disinterested in anything besides his id, ignoring Mina and everything else to concentrate on debauchery. Seeing as how the character sports a design that has little similarity to the way he was previously depicted, it's very easy to ignore him, or even think of him as a different character altogether. To a large degree this is precisely what Moore and O'Neill must have intended, so as to isolate Mina both professionally and emotionally, but he still feels largely irrelevant until the epilogue, where his previously established character flaw is reasserted.

In the end, "1969" feels like a necessary middle chapter that ends on a very bleak cliffhanger, forcing the reader to empathize with these strange characters, who don't feel like themselves anymore, and continue with the story until it makes more sense. Mina and Allain are far off from the laid back way in which their fellow immortal Orlando carries himself, as a time tested archetypal warrior. In trying to fit in and explore life to the fullest, be it through various sexual permutations and lifestyle changes, by the end of "1969" they have lost track of what has characterized them before, and what they are. Judging by Orlando's occasional sex changes, which Virginia Woolf's character uses to provide some variety in his make up, the Victorian League members are still a ways of from finding that kind of balance. No doubt, by the end of "2009", Moore and O'Neill will show us what is the best kind of behavior for these old fictions in the present day, and in what way they must carry themselves in order to continue to endure in ever changing times. Hopefully, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill will find a way to produce the final chapter of the Century in time, so that the readers get the answers as soon possible.

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