Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART FOUR)

The decades of creator-owned comics in America have shown us the stories that actively break from the conventional superhero standards. Characters would die and stay dead ("Hellboy"'s Roger the Homunuclus), they were allowed to have a definite victory over the chief villain ("Fables"), with the creators capable of completely changing the setting and the cast in a way that felt much more realistic ("Walking dead"). Even when it came to superhero titles, Paul Grist's "Union Jack" displayed a confident, well paced storytelling that functioned in a much more organic way, without the clunky narration that supposedly shed a light on the impossible to relate characters.

At the very same time, the creators faced an uphill battle when their own fan base objected to some of their own creative decisions. Breaking away from the iconic team of the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to supplant their pulp adventures with metafictional encyclopedias? It was a choice that only the biggest of Alan Moore's fans actively supported, and even then it's doubtful that they enjoyed the results in quite the same way. Moore and O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" appeared in 1999 and quickly filled the pop cultural niche established by Philip Jose Farmer and more specifically Kim Newman, with a group of characters that seemed perfectly poised to explore the darker side of the Victorian fictions. A simple, easily understandable idea around which the creators framed a world of allusions and references to literature both obscure and ambitious.

It's easy to understand how the creators ended up having the movie optioned even before the production of the first issue was complete. This is also how the project ended up being exempt from the Wildstorm/DC buying the rights on all of Moore's ABC imprint. These were experimental books launched by high caliber artists in a very peculiar moment for the industry. It's somewhat understandable that the publisher would wanted some control over the work it was paying the freelancers in advance. Alan Moore's relationship being historically strained with DC, it was understandable that the arrangement was not to prove lasting.

When he finally severed ties with the company, the writer was under obligation to complete the work on the new entry in the series, 2007's the infamous "Black Dossier". The resulting collaboration proved tumultuous, and he once again parted ways with the publisher, vowing never to work for them again. As for the ABC books, the rights to all of them stayed with DC, with "the League" being the sole exception, due to its creator owned status being decided upon before the project was officially brought to Wildstorm/DC. Yet, judging the content of "Black Dossier", it's not difficult to at least understand some of the publisher's qualms. They were paying creators to create highly experimental content, to be produced on varying paper stock, including a 3D section and even a playable record, all the while completely breaking from the well received format of the first two "League" mini-series.

Moore was vocal about breaking from the set-up that he felt being detrimental creatively in the long run, but what supplanted it was both hard to read and even harder to like. Seeing Allan Quartermain and Mina Murray break character and go on a madcap chase, while behaving like a pair of sexually obsessed teenagers seemed largely to confirm solely to the creator's own views on entertainment. That they were losing control of the setting, which was progressively turning into a popular culture an-joke between the two creators. Yet, most problematic of all, the work retained very little of character and energy of the original. Turning a character-centric series into an interactive essay on the nature of fiction was certainly familiar to the fans of Alan Moore's "Promethea", but the "League" was a much more accessible and beloved work before the creators gave in to indulge their every whim.

With "Century", the succeeding third official volume of "the League", the project has managed to emerge back into the realm of comic books it seemed largely disinterested with in the "Black Dossier" compendium, but the result was still problematic. Working for the new publisher assuaged the creator's fears of escaping any kind of censorship, but it's hard to read the pages and not compare it to the original work. It seems that by elaborating on the idea of using existing characters to recreate a superhero universe  adventures in Victorian London and taking it to its extreme end was basically the change of direction that few can truly appreciate. It boils down to the reader trusting Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's taste almost despite their better judgment.

And while certainly, having each phase of the property's life being a story on its own, with its own set of goals and underpinning philosophy, there is also much to be said in exploring an idea to the limits of its potential. By treating the Victorian incarnation of the League as the purely introductory phase of a much wider concept, the creators seemed to benefit with the increased Moore's move from the ABC line allowed them. By focusing all of his comics writing on the "League", the writer felt like he should enjoy the new found freedom and craft the story that he himself would be delighted to read. And certainly, a sizable part of his own audience followed. But, recreating the concept from the ground up would also mean supplanting its initial appeal with an equally likable version of the property, which is simply something that hasn't happened.

Moore and O'Neill may be free to delight in the knowledge that as two veterans of the medium, they are finally reminded of the freedom that comes with no restrictions, but it's doubtful that anyone would want to make a movie based on the versions of the League shown in "Century". Certainly, the core thematic focus on the work is the changing role of the heroic fiction in the modern world, but the movie adaptation, and moreover, the concept that it tried to bring over to the wider audience perception, depended on a particularly appeal group of characters that are nowhere to be found again in the creators' subsequent work.

The sexual frolics the estranged Mina and utterly unrecognizable Allan seem to enjoy with the obnoxious Orlando almost seem to mirror the creators' own attitude to a much liked property. The thoughtful combination of pulp tropes and borrowed characters has given a way to a plot that brings together the fictional versions of Aleister Crowley, focused on recreating the magician's novel "Moonchild" through the open world of the League. Where once the Victorian incarnation of the team lived through their own version of the events of H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", they are now rampaging through their writer's favorite occult literature, while poised to make a broader commentary on the declining quality of the cultural imagination.

Having a valid point to make is a chief philosophical underpinning of any serious work of art, but judging the history of the "League", it's almost certain that most of its audience would have been happier to enjoy Moore's intellectual accomplishments in his other projects. Leaving the Victorian League in the perpetual Second Act might have been creatively dry on a deeper level, but proceeding to detail some of their related adventures in text form in the back matter of the second mini-series and "the Black Dossier", in order to free the upcoming volumes to be first and foremost Alan Moore comics seems like a slight to the concept.

Simply leaving it as two heady mini-series could have proven more memorable and inspirational in the long run. Reading in text form about the various groups of pulp heroes and villains meeting around the plot of Gaston Leroux' "Phantom of the Opera" while getting to follow Allan and Mina in a tiresome spy plot which even they don't care almost seems a waste of both O'Neill's talent and the readers' enthusiasm for the League.

Strangely enough, it's doubtful that DC would have handled these two segments of the "Black Dossier" in much the same way if the editorial had a tighter control of the property. Of course, this does not glorify the publisher as an ideal caretaker of the well realized stories, but once again reaffirms that the creators themselves can just as equally lose sight of the core of the titles when they try to head in a new direction. If continuing to hone the craft by producing better and more diverse stories in a manner that presents the strongest version of the property ultimately proves a bore, the creator should still think twice about the commercial potential of a radically different idea before proceeding to deconstruct their own work.

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