The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier 

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is a graphic novel by Alan Moore (writer) and Kevin O'Neill (artist) and was published in 2007. This is the third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume but chronologically is actually the fourth out of the books published so far. Slightly confusing but this was a stand alone book intended to plug continuity gaps and enable the reader to learn more about the history of the League. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is essentially a superhero team that has served Britain through different decades and centuries. The first two volumes were about the Victorian League battling Fu Manchu, Moriarty and the Martian invaders from The War of the Worlds. Alan Moore obviously got bored with Victorian capers though because this one is set in 1958 and further volumes continue on into the future. The conceit behind the comic is that we are in an alternate world where famous characters drawn from the world of fiction are real and all exist together.
This is the one of the more esoteric and the ambitious of the books because Moore includes prose stories, period comic strips and postcards, letters, a Tijuana bible, maps, guidebooks, magazines and even a pair of 3-D glasses to enter the 'Blazing World' of the last several pages. The Blazing World is a vast utopian kingdom in another world altogether (with different stars in the sky) that can only be reached via the North Pole and derives from a work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish. The art for this section is very surreal and far out but I must confess I didn't don the 3-D glasses to read it because I couldn't bear to tear them from the book! Preferred to leave it intact. The extra material by Moore is often wonderfully authentic and brilliantly done but how much enjoyment you glean is down to one's own personal taste. Many I suspect might have simply preferred the actual comic here to be longer rather than be constantly presented with things like a Fanny Hill sequel or a lost Shakespeare folio to read. This is an especially concentrated dose of Alan Moore so caveat emptor.
What is the plot of the actual comic portion here? Mina Murray/Harker (from Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Allan Quatermain (from H Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines) are in the Britain of the late fifties to search for and nab the "Black Dossier" from the British Government. Mina and Allan were members of the Victorian League but the League has long since disbanded and that was a very long time ago now. Their long life and youthful appearance is down to a dip in an African fountain of youth (from Haggard's SHE). The Black Dossier is a fabled document said to contain the history of the League and all manner of top secret information. It falls into their hands fairly quickly but MI6 want it back and Mina and Allan soon have three very famous characters on their trail as they try to make their way out of Britain and back to the Blazing World. The actual comic portion of Black Dossier is pretty good if not up to the first two volumes. Feels more low key as if this adventure is marking time while Moore plots the next arc. Moore's constant references are always fun (I think anyway) and there is plenty of clever stuff. Britain here has just emerged from the government of George Orwell's 1984 (think backwards) and as this world is inhabited by fictional characters the Second World War was started by Adenoid Hynkel from Charlie Chaplin's political satire The Great Dictator.
So the panels here are rather drab to evoke austerity. A boarding room where there is hardly any hot water and a threadbare seaside resort (seems to be based on Margate but I'm not completely sure). Allan and Mina visit a run down school in the country said to be the key to something important and find an old man living in poverty who is named Billy and likes sticky buns. Billy Bunter. The references come thick and fast. One of my favourites was a comment about Melchester Rovers playing Fulchester (from Viz) in the FA Cup. The device used for the digressions is that each time Mina picks up the Black Dossier to have a read we see it too and take a break from the actual story. One thing that is very noticeable is that this is a more adult comic than the first two. They were hardly for children (very violent) but here you get a lot of nudity and a lot of swearing (including the C word). Did people in the fifties use to swear a lot? I have no idea. Alan Moore seems obsessed with trying to make his later books more risque. The brilliant thing that he does here though is attempt to almost present a complete alternative history of the world through the inserts - plus of course expand on the mythology of the League.
It's certainly ambitious. There are some new characters here too in the form of the agents MI6 send after them. First of all is a British secret agent we meet at the beginning of the story. He has a comma of black hair, a scar on his cheek, likes vodka martinis, has a boss named M, recently battled a 'science villain' in the West Indies, has various gadgets, a Walther PPK, and is obsessed with sleeping with every woman he meets. Hmmn. I wonder who he could be? As James Bond is not in public domain (unlike many of the characters Moore uses) this agent is called Jimmy to prevent the Broccoli dynasty taking legal action. He might look like the classic image of James Bond (wonderful panel by O'Neill that evokes the old Bond comic strips) at times but Moore turns him into a misogynist who batters and abuses woman and is inept at his job. Nice reference to The Prisoner when "Jimmy" the secret agent takes Mina to a secret MI6 warehouse. I suppose it's a p*** take of Fleming's James Bond really but one that seems a bit unfair. You don't get the impression that Moore is a fan.
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The art is great again and the panels and illustrations are crammed with period detail and atmosphere. You have to linger on many to take everything in. Moore also seems to enjoy deconstructing another British hero in Hugo 'Bulldog' Drummond - another of the agents of the crown sent after Allan and Mina. Drummond is an old racist git with a lairy overbearing manner. He's a dinosaur even in 1958. The final member of the trio on the trail of our heroes is a young woman named Emma who knows Judo and looks like a young Diana Rigg. I think you know who this is. Emma Knight/Peel is actually the only one of the government agents that Moore is sympathetic to and makes a decent person. Nice bit where Emma tangles with Mina. "So you know Indian wrestling?" The chase takes them to a space port where Moore references things like Gerry Anderson and Dan Dare and the actual comic/story part of the book is good solid stuff if not as exciting as the first two volumes. The only problem is that you rather wish sometimes there had been less of the extra stuff and more of the comic. Is it really just Moore showing off rather than something you would genuinely feel the need to wade through? Yes and no. You admire Moore's status as the world's biggest anorak but could probably sometimes take or leave him giving you prose pieces in the style of Kerouac or HP Lovecraft meets Wodehouse.
What I did love though were the details of previous incarnations of the League - especially a disastrous post-war one that was rubbish. Loved the mention of an inventor named Professor James Grey in this League who builds a swordfish submarine. We learn he was the boy rescued in the Thames by Captain Nemo from Martian tripods in 1898 in the second volume. The Nautilus inspired his own work. It's very clever the way Moore ties all these threads together. There are references to foreign versions of the League in France and Germany too and this is certainly fun. I also enjoyed the story of Virginia Woolf's gender bending Orlando who becomes great friends with Allan and Mina.
It's told in the style of an old boy's own comic strip from the era and details his life through the centuries as an immortal forever changing from a man to a woman and so forth. Seduced by Merlin, meeting Robin Hood, lovers with Sinbad, navigating the Roman Empire (Moore can't resist Frankie Howard's slave from Up Pompei making a cameo here) and through to a Blitz torn London during World War 2. This goes on for about 20 pages and is great stuff - although Moore actually seems to be pilfering from himself for once as it is reminiscent of Ozymandias telling his own story in Watchmen. "In Ilium, as Troy was then called, in 1184 BC, I first knew war, a conflict instigated by the gods to cull their hybrid by-blows, the increasingly alarming, often psychologically unstable race of heroes. Those I met were pitiable, or else hateful: Ajax a confused brute: Achilles a smug, invulnerable maniac; Odysseus a shifty little swine. Even Aeneas, son of Aphrotide and Anchises, whom I escaped Troy with, wasn't perfect."
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier has some great stuff but it would be a good idea to read the other volumes first because you wouldn't the faintest idea what was going on or who was who otherwise. If you have read the other volumes then this is actually a great link in the overall arc and fills a gap in the story. You should be aware though that this is not a straight ahead comic action caper like the first two volumes or most other graphic novels. This is Alan Moore showing off and he probably doesn't care if you get it or not. If you are a fan of the bearded genius or this series though then Black Dossier is something you should get hold of sooner or later.
- Jake

c 2014 Alternative 007

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