The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume One

'London. 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.'
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. It was first published as a comic series in 1999. I've reviewed some of the later parts of this series (the ones with the most overt Bond references) for the site so I thought I might as well start on the others, beginning of course with this first ever volume.
Set in 1898, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can best be described as a Victorian era Steampunk version of The Justice League with the big twist being that in this alternate universe fictional characters from the world of literature are real and all co-exist together. So when the British Empire is threatened by mysterious forces the government (in some cases forcibly) recruits various 'extraordinary' and strange people to work together as a team of champions for them. These are Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon's Mines), Mina Murray/Harker (from Dracula), Hawley Griffin (from The Invisible Man), Dr Henry Jekyll (from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and Captain Nemo (from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea).
Pressed into service by the government, this unlikely and eccentric maladjusted superhero team is soon up to its neck in intrigue and danger as the true nature of their mission slowly becomes evident with twists, revelations and some big name villains...
It's a shame that some people may only know of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the film adaptation that was apparently Sean Connery's final bow before retirement. That picture bungled Alan Moore's original concept and diluted it into a bland action film. It stripped away all the black humour, the darkness of the characters, the offbeat weirdness and risque humour. The original is much darker, complex and far more intelligent. It's completely different.
This is apparent right at the beginning of the book. Mina Murray meets tubby spymaster Campion Bond at the White Cliffs of Dover. Campion Bond (the name 'Bond' here is one of many in-jokes and references by Moore to famous fictional characters) is recruiting his "menagerie" in order to save the Empire. He alludes to Murray's infamous past which has her now far beyond the social pale. Murray is then sent to Cairo to find Allan Quatermain where she is nearly raped and finds Quatermain to be an opium addled shadow of his former self.
They are rescued by Captain Nemo (in his famous submarine Nautilus) - who we quickly learn doesn't have much time for the British and considers the sea to be his nation. He's a genuine Indian prince, not James Mason. You quickly find yourself immersed in the strange and wonderful world of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with its many references and jokes and fantastic artwork.
There is a lot of stuff in the book that they couldn't do in a film (without a higher certificate and an astronomical budget at least). I liked the way that they have to recruit the rest of the League - this all done in a really clever and absorbing fashion. Murray and Quatermein go to Paris where, with the help of Auguste Dupin, they must track down Edward Hyde. Hyde is an Incredible Hulk style monster with a funny and frequently foul-mouthed turn of phrase ("A cure? You'll cure me like a wart on Jekyll's arse?") and turned into a vivid and memorable character in this and indeed the later second volume by Alan Moore.

Meanwhile, The Invisible Man is hiding out in a girls school where several of the pupils have been mysteriously impregnated by "visitations" from Holy Spirits. You can see why Hollywood had to make big changes when they adapted this book. The League go undercover here to flush him out in an amusing section. Another great bit occurs in London's Chinese district where one of the major villains is revealed. There are some really striking drawings of Dr Jekyll in shadow in this section that I like a lot.
Jekyll is increasingly nervous and erratic and becoming more and more under the control of Hyde. Moore also makes clever use of Hawley Griffin and his unique abilities and gives Griffin and Hyde especially a sardonic and dark sense of humour. There is a great moment where Griffin sits in undetected on a discussion by one of the famous villains (who I won't reveal) and chuckles when they leave and he is alone.
Griffin is presented as the most untrustworthy member and it makes his character and interactions with the League more interesting. All the characters are interesting though and you enjoy all the disputes and conversations between them. In this world they are deeply flawed characters who must decide what to do with this unexpected duty.
I like the treatment of Quatermain too. He's old now and has suffered from drug addiction but the lure of one last adventure gradually brings out some of the qualities that made him such a legendary figure. There is a nice bit with him and Nemo where they reflect that it's hard to resist a new adventure when you've been doing it for so long. Mina Murray even mentions that she read about Quatermain and his exploits when she was a girl. Murray here is much more interesting than in the film (where she was a super-powered Australian supermodel with a hat on if I recall). She's the true leader of the League here - although her past is left at slightly ambiguous.
Nemo is a more dangerous and embittered character than in the film version but retains a strong sense of dignity. Moore and his artist make fantastic use of Nemo's submarine. The incredible technology and gadgets and the illustrations depicting the characters onboard are very well done and atmospheric. The Indian art and designs they lace the submarine with give it a real sense of character.
Alan Moore said he left out Sherlock Holmes and Dracula in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because he felt such big characters might overshadow the book. It was probably a wise decision but the Great Detective - drawn a bit like Basil Rathbone - does make a guest appearance in a flashback scene which is quite wonderful and includes a few Alan Moore twists on a very famous fictional encounter at a certain waterfall.
It all builds to a frantic finish with some great battle illustrations and even sets up the next chapter of the League. There are subtle hints at this through the book with stories of strange explosions on the surface of Mars. These little references are great fun. I liked having the head of British Intelligence called M and of course the inclusion of Cavourite (HG Wells fans should enjoy all the references in the first two volumes) - an anti-gravity element that is planned for a mission to the moon.
Overall, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a fascinating premise done full justice by this graphic novel. It's full of literary references, twists and turns and exciting developments. The Steampunk world it takes place in - an alternate reality Victorian backdrop - is great fun and fleshed out with much imagination.

- Jake


c 2014 Alternative 007

james bond alpine