Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

Halfway through reading the Black Dossier, I wrote this on Barbelith:

“I'm up to the 1898 part of the dossier and so far, I'm not really feeling it. The opening sequence is pretty fun, but after that it's just these endless text pieces that don't do much for me. Maybe it's the fact that I'm not that familiar with the British culture and literature Moore is replicating, but the entirety of this book feels like that atlas in Volume II that I've still yet to make it through.

I like the way that Moore is trying to synthesize the entirety of literature into this one continuum, a history of the immateria, but reading the history of an entirely fictional place, or a real one for that matter, gets a bit boring after a while. It feels like The Silmarillion, a book that I could respect, but is more interesting in idea than execution.

Plus, it's a bit jarring to have Mina and Alan look and behave so differently, I don't feel much of a connection to the characters from the previous volumes. And, if I hadn't heard Moore say that the characters became immortal, I'd just be baffled about why they're there.

And, after a while even the comics stuff feels more like spot the reference than a meaningful story. I don't know who a lot of the people he's referencing are, and even when I do, it's just, so Harry Lime is M, that's cool, but it's nowhere near as meaningful as the more developed characters in the previous volumes. It just becomes a bit tedious to hear about a bunch of characters I'm vaguely familiar with doing stuff from other books.

That's not to say there's not good stuff there. The Orlando segment was great, and I enjoyed his Shakespeare pastiche, but that's partially because I know other Shakespeare. I feel like Moore has written a book that only he can fully appreciate, more power to him for that, but between this and Lost Girls, Moore is rapidly becoming the Geoff Johns of Victorian literature, someone who's endlessly remaking the stories he read as a kid, and not bringing as much new to the table.”

It’s a sentiment I’d stand behind, even though I do think the book improves as it goes on, culminating in a really nice final sequence. However, it’s a really mixed bag, and the book is quite flawed on a conceptual level. Alan Moore himself said that most books like this, with background material about a universe, are boring. He claims that he found a way of doing it that would make it exciting, that’s not always true.

There’s two things going on here, a story about Mina and Alan on the run from the authorities in the 50s, and the various text pieces filling in the history of the League over the years. In the two previous Volumes, knowing the literary figures that were being referenced was a nice bonus, but not essential to the enjoyment of the story. The central five characters were all actually developed, so even if you didn’t know them from previous stories, you can still appreciate what’s going on. Even the ancillary characters are all fully realized, not just references.

This book goes way too far towards relying on our previous knowledge of the characters. It’s impossible to emotionally engage with the book when you have no clue who the vast majority of the characters are. The fact that copyright law prevents Moore from actually calling most of the characters who they’re meant to be makes it even worse. Look at the little black guy who spirits them to the blazing world, I have no clue who he is, but clearly I’m meant to. It takes you out of the story when you’re sitting there wondering who these people are. The characters who are actually developed in the book, like Orlando, Drummond, Bond and Emma Peel work well, and are easily the most satisfying aspect of the book. But, there’s way too many random cameos.

Even Alan and Mina don’t seem much like the characters from the previous volumes. It was a mistake to make Mina a blonde because even if I’m aware it’s the same character, on an emotional level, I can’t identify with her as that same person. The total change in personality doesn’t help much either. Her defining characteristic in the previous volumes was the contrast between her deep desires and Victorian morality. That’s what makes her relationship with Alan in Volume II so exciting, her transgression of societal norms. You could argue that the character growth is implicit in the new presentation of the character, but she’s changed so much, I can’t relate to her.

Another major issue is the fact that much of their dialogue falls into that cheesy reacting to what they’ve read in the dossier. It becomes too self referential to have the characters talk about what we’ve just read. That’s not the fun kind of meta, it feels more like an 80s fantasy movie where someone’s being told a story and comments on it. Having the characters do that makes them feel less like real people and more like tools through which Moore can present his endless stylistic experimentation.

It’s ironic that the characters should be stripped of their humanity in a work that’s all about the enduring power of fictions to inspire us. The characters that Moore celebrates in this work are the ones with such a strong archetypal power, they transcend a single creator and become part of the collective subconscious.

It’s there that the work is most interesting, in synthesizing a single history out of all the fictions written over the course of human history. While it’s not always interesting to read, it’s conceptually fascinating to look at the implications of the world Moore presents to us here. The fictional world has a parallel history to ours, a mirror through which we can examine our own societal preoccupations. Sometimes we inspire it, sometimes it inspire us, but we have a symbiosis with this other world and it’s fascinating to consider.

Along with that, we get the return of a classic Moore theme, the gradual loss of magic from our reality. The blazing world is the place where concepts who are no longer ‘believable’ go. Fairies were sent there, and wizards and talking animals hang out too. They’ve all been replaced in the real world by secret agents and science heroes. The 50s world he depicts is one that’s oppressive and boring, fetishizing scientific progress and cold fact over the emotion and wonder of the early years. I was reading a conversation between Moore and Dave Sim yesterday, and Moore talks about how contemporary fiction values reality over fantastic elements. He responds by saying “Reality wears a pair of two-year-old Adidas trainers and a Toy Story T-shirt.”

So, for him, it’s a shame that characters like Bond and Emma Peel have replaced the crazier fictions of years past. But, they’re still out there, and if we got to the blazing world, the most wondrous place in the collective subconscious, we can rediscover and bring them back. Moore’s basic point seems to be that the fiction we write will come true, the cavorite will be made, so as fiction makers, we have the responsibility to sculpt a more wondrous world. Hasn’t the 1984 world come true under Bush? So, why not write us a better world.

I do love the end of the book. From the time Mina and Alan escape on the rocket on, it’s all good. Particularly the 3-D Blazing World section. The initial 3-D page wowed me, and even though wearing the glasses got a bit annoying, Moore did some really cool stuff with it, once again pushing the medium in the same way he did with Promethea.

While I loved the Blazing World stuff, I think he covered almost all the same material in a more satisfying way in Promethea. We got the same direct address to the reader, inviting us to change the world, as well as the realm of crazy fictions. Promethea is the defining work of his later period, and this revisits it a bit too closely. The ending is celebratory, but it feels a bit redundant of what’s come before. Admittedly, it’s great and very important stuff, but considering he’s only one done other major work since Promethea, it’s probably a bit too soon to go back to those themes.

Ultimately, this is a frustrating work. I had just reread and loved the first two volumes, and was ready to embrace this too, but a lot of the text pieces were tough to slog through, and seemed more about self indulgence than contributing to the narrative. Some of it worked great, but not enough to make this a totally satisfying work. It’s hugely ambitious and still better than most comics out there, but for a writer like Moore, who’s written so many masterpieces, it can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment.


RAB said...

I finally read the book for the first time last night, and I agree with almost everything you say here. In fact, I’m in the unfortunate position of feeling you and Marc Singer have already said what I’d want to say about the book, and you’ve said it more clearly than I would have.

One big difference is that I don’t like the final sequence at all. That might be odd, considering how strongly I feel about the whole Immateria/Ideaspace/Imaginationland concept, but here I found it a turnoff. I don’t find this ending a celebration: it seems more like a defeated withdrawal. In Promethea and Flex Mentallo and South Park, imagination is our creative engagement with the nonfictional world...not a retreat from it.

Patrick said...

I read the Marc Singer and agreed with a lot of it. I think the book indulges nearly all of Moore's worst tendencies, and between this and Lost Girls, of which I've only been able to make it through one book, I'm worried about his writing future. It's not that I want him to go back to writing superheroes, but he's disappearing up his own indulgences in endlessly reinventing existing literary concepts. And yeah, the Blazing World as retreat was a bit off. I guess his point is that even in an oppressive state like this, all the wonder is still out there. But, if that's the point, it would have been better to show more people having access to it.

It becomes almost elitist, him saying that all the wonderful things are still out there, off in a realm that only a select few can get to. I much prefer Grant's vision of the oncoming supercontext in Invisibles 3.1, a revolution for everyone. Going along with The Invisibles, a more interesting approach would be to expose all of this oppressed Britian to the wonder of the Blazing World and end on a Flex Mentallo-y note of the Blazing World characters returning to reality.

The Black Dossier is a really odd work, with some great moments, but ultimately frustrating. I think Moore made all these points already, in a better way, in Promethea. It sounds like Lost Girls does a lot of the same things too, but because I usually read my comics on the train, it's been tough for me to find time to read the last two volumes. Those aren't books you're going to want to be reading out in public.