Sunday, June 21, 2009

By Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill
Top Shelf Productions, $7.95, 80 pages

Alan Moore has been labeled the Orson Welles of comic book writers. But with his deliberate and angry alienation from the Hollywood productions of his works, and his skilled use of borrowed characters from literary classics, he is more akin to J.D. Salinger.

Mr. Moore is at his best when revisiting his metier-politicizing superheroes. Often these superheroes don uniforms or have adventures for reasons having less to do with altruism or patriotism and more with what excites psychologically or sexually.

His League — composed of women with ruined reputations, invisible molesters, bisexual monsters, drug-addicted white hunters — is suspenseful not because of its sprawling plot, but because we are never quite sure whether the heroes’ blemishes will overwhelm their heroics. In previous issues, H.G. Welles’ Invisible Man betrayed the League for the same said author’s Martians, and was punished for this transgression by being sodomized and then murdered by team member Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s monster.

Earlier volumes of the League adventures also had the team dealing with villains familiar to readers of British and American pulp. Volume 1 had them working inadvertantly for an “M” of British Intelligence. As with villains in spy and action tales of late 20th-early 21st century popular culture, the villains were manipulated to do evil by their government — presided over in the first volume — by Professor James Moriarity, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis. Volume 2 had the team dealing with the Martian invasion that, according to H.G Welles, occured in 1898. By the time of Volume 3, the villains are significantly fewer, and they have to square off against such 20th-century heroes as James Bond and Bulldog Drummond.

This latest offering is noteworthy for adding uanabashed neurotics to the roster of an already somewhat dysfunctional superhero team. Virginia Woolf’s gender-changing Orlando is on board, and his boasts are tolerated by team leader Mina Murray because she shares a menage-a-trois with both Orlando and Allan Quartermain. However, Orlando’s dual nature is barely explored here; this Orlando is more like a loose cannon (in every sense of the word) who unsheathes on instinct either for sex or combat, and sometimes both. It is this character, more than the staid Allan Quartermain or the joyously larcenous A.J Raffles, that gives this issue its bite.

Mr. Moore has earned his reputation by taking familiar, one could say sacrosanct, classic characters to their logical ends. The very Victorian Dr. Jekyll has so repressed his urges that when he finally releases them in the form of his alter-ego Mr. Hyde, he becomes a gigantic, libidinous creature satisfying every possible appetite. Orlando, with centuries of practice behind him/her, is only good at two things: sex and violence. Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo is less a sea captain than a living repository of colonial India’s hatred of all things British, in evidence when when he mows down British villains gleefully with his futuristic machine pistol (“Come forward men of England”).

The era-jumping plot revolves around a sinister pre-World War I group of evildoers who attempt to usher in the Antichrist of Revelations, destined to appear sometime in 1969. This plot device, fast-forwarding from 1910 to 1969 to the present year, plays to Mr. Moore’s strengths. He excels at period flavor; his fictional characters move in a densely researched reality to the extent the reader truly feels he has been transported to pre-World War I England. Both upper and lower classes know their place, the middle class is sandwiched uncomfortably in between while the collective security that is supposed to keep peace intact shows wear and tear. The year 1910 for Mr. Moore seems less a golden summer before the trenches and more an era where everyone knows an apocalypse of some kind is in the offing. The reader lives the suspense.

“Century No. 1” of this League tale is the first of what will be a three-part saga, and it promises much. As with other works, however, the suspense derives less from whether the team can save each other from the cliff’s edge and more from whether they overcome their neuroses long enough to stop the evildoers.

Ron Capshaw lives in Midlothian, Va., and is writing a biography of Alger Hiss.

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