Any new Alan Moore comic is an event, not simply because it's become an increasingly irregular event, but because Moore is the writer behind some of the greatest comics ever written, including From Hell, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Promethea and Lost Girls. He's also published one novel, Voice of the Fire, which, despite its brilliant and experimental use of voice, has been largely ignored by just about everyone. Watchmen remains the book that superhero fans continue to praise for its formal elements, but since Moore has moved away from superheroes and turned to more personal subject matters, his work has gotten better and far more interesting.
This is the fourth book in a series that began a few years back as a superhero team-up of Victorian lit characters: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Mina Murray from Dracula. There were subtle and overt references to dozens of other Victorian characters and novels in the background. In the first volume the characters come together and foil a plot by crime lords, set things right and everybody goes home happy. It was a minor work by Moore, interesting and fun with allusions and attention to detail that makes it possible to marvel over it and lose sight of the fact that it lacked the ambition with which Moore imbues so much of his work.
The second volume was more complex, as H.G. Wells' Martians touched down, and while the invasion was repelled—
The Invisible Man was perfectly happy to sell out the League, and the human race, to the Martians. Once discovered, Hyde proceeded to rip the Invisible Man to pieces in a scene that perfectly expresses the way that a comic can convey horror and gruesomeness without necessarily reveling in the gruesomeness. It's done by suggestion. Moore's gift is his ability to take a complex and elaborate scene of violence and distill it to one panel or just a few panels.
This is what many people, including those who made the film Watchmen, never understood. Moore has refused to shy away from violence but he abhors the casual violence and cruelty that dominates comic books. The skill of Moore and his collaborators has been the ability to condense an elaborate scene into key images and moments that readers are free to linger over and skim, instead of being forced to experience a gratuitously violent cinematic sequence that borders on the pornographic.
The second volume concludes with the British government repelling the aliens thanks to germ warfare developed by H.G. Wells's Doctor Moreau. Hyde dies in battle against the aliens, after which Nemo quits the group in disgust.
The third book, The Black Dossier, was a misunderstood book, largely because DC Comics marketed it as the next volume when in fact it's more of a reference book in which Moore uses the characters to comment on the books. A meta-text within the text, if you will. Essentially just as the League existed in a world where all the novels were true and happened side by side, in the future, all stories are real, which means meeting James Bond and Emma Peel, Prospero and Bulldog Drummond, Carnacki the Ghost Hunter and Mack the Knife. It's an interesting idea but the key is in its execution.
The main story is set in 1958. In this fictional Britain, following World War II (against Germany under Hynkel, from Chaplain's The Great Dictator) the government is run by Big Brother, Harry Lime (from the movie The Third Man) runs British intelligence, and Mina and Quatermain and the "Murray Group" as they're referred to, have been declared missing after breaking with the government after the war. In the background is the death of British industrialist John Night and its possible ramifications.
Mina and Quatermain have returned to England to steal "The Black Dossier" which covers much of the work they and others did for the government, and the story takes place in between long sections of the characters reading the file to learn the extent of what the government knows. It gives Moore and O'Neill a chance to experiment. There are prose stories in a variety of styles, comics told in different ways, correspondence, and a section designed to be read with 3-D glasses.
Part of the problem is that people took the book too seriously. It's supposed to be fun. The story about Wooster and Jeeves is bizarre and entertaining. The scene where Harry Lime instructs a young spy, "Jimmy," to "call me M. Behind my back, you can even call me Mother. But Harry...Harry died a long time ago in the sewers under Vienna." It's possible to read the scene and understand none of the reference, but seeing it as a scene between M and Bond, and knowing that the Avengers took orders from Mother (in the post-Diana Rigg era of the show), and who Harry Lime is, makes it much more entertaining.
Some of the pieces didn't work. I will admit I'm not the biggest Kerouac fan and find Kerouac-pastiches give me a headache, and this was no exception. The 3-D sequence was interesting, but it didn't add much. Also, the book took an odd turn towards the fantastic in the end that I don't think anyone knew what to make of.
The new book consists of three short volumes, each set in a different period—
In a minor work like the first League, Moore and O'Neill went overboard in incorporating real and fictional Victorian characters throughout. In 1910, the League now consists of Mina and Quatermain (posing as his own son) who are now immortal, and assisted by Orlando (who despite Kevin O'Neill's amazing work, will always be Tilda Swinton to me), Carnacki the Ghost Hunter and the gentleman thief A.J. Raffles. Carnacki has a vision of a destroyed London that involves the sorceror Haddo (a character based on Aleister Crowley from the 1908 W. Somerset Maugham novel "The Magician").
The more central, and ultimately more interesting, plot of the book involves the East End of London, by the docks, where a number of people are acting out Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. MacHeath has returned from years at sea and is suspected in a series of murders in Whitechapel, which sounds like Jack the Ripper. Of course a member of the aristocracy was responsible for killing one of the women, so MacHeath needs to be found, tried and executed quickly and quietly. In the play only a deus ex machina saves MacHeath from the gallows and here what saves MacHeath is much less absurd than the play.
In the same part of town, Captain Nemo's daughter Janni (who has fled to London to scrape out an existence working at an inn) is attacked, and in revenge takes her father's place, acting out the song "Pirate Jenny." Nemo's crew (which includes Ishmael) lay waste to the area and plunder it, with Janni taking her father's place and rejecting London and the West as her father once did.
The play ends with MacHeath and many of the background characters singing a version of "What Keeps Mankind Alive" which concludes with the lyrics:
Mankind may just survive if it sincerely
Keeps every decent human urge subdued.
Try not to trim the truth to suit your needs
Mankind is kept alive by monstrous deeds.
These are the words that end the book amidst a page depicting the destroyed docks of London.
Threepenny Opera was a Marxist critique of capitalism and while Moore isn't necessarily interested in that aspect of the play, the book isn't devoid of class-based criticism. The League are members of the upper class looking for crimes amongst other elites while ignoring the poor and working class and the circumstances that allow problems to persist and lead to the destruction in this volume. Moore is more interested in the changing times and the fact that the characters and the stories that were so often enjoyed in the nineteenth century in many ways fell out of favor in the twentieth. The times changed and people changed and the type of fiction they enjoyed changed as well.
The League is on the periphery of events. Time has passed them by. The British Empire is now threatened by things the League doesn't seem able to understand, let alone handle. Orlando is a brilliant character and Moore clearly has fun writing the character but the others don't register much. Mina Murray has been one of the series' standout character and Moore has turned her into a far more nuanced and interesting character than Stoker ever did, but here it's difficult to see where she's coming from. Murray's future and the dynamics of the group, like the larger plot, seem to be something that will unfold over the course of the book and don't read nearly as well in this standalone first volume.
The book ends uncertain of what the future holds. In the rush towards the World Wars, such an ominous sense of the future doesn't seem unwarranted. It should be interesting to see what Moore and O'Neill do in the next two volumes as they depict a world that seems disinterested and even hostile towards the League, and a League increasingly incapable of saving the world.