A blend of comic book and prose fiction (and due to copyright restrictions, currently available only in the United States), this third installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen became the most sought-after graphic novel of the '07 holiday season.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: Kevin O'Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw.
Letterer/Designer: Todd Klein
Letterer (pages 1-15): Billy Oakley
3-D Effects by Ray Zone
In 1958, ageless Mina Murray and Alan Quartermain1 steal The Black Dossier, a top secret compilation of the activities of Extraordinary Leagues past. As agents of their former employer pursue them from London to the Birmingham Spaceport to a place not on any map, we also read the dossier itself.
You know all of those online crossover fanfics, the ones with brilliant, deranged premises but incompetent, dull executions? Imagine someone did them well, and integrated them into a narrative. That's what Moore and company have accomplished in The Black Dossier.
The best of the lot: an hilarious short story in which P.G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves encounter a horror out of Lovecraft. If you know the references, you may grasp the insane suitability of the pairing. Wodehouse's Wooster is a wealthy but clueless idler served by the brilliant and manipulative valet, Jeeves. Much of the series' humour derives from the fact that Wooster, who typically narrates the stories, does not grasp the reality of his situation, which Jeeves resolves, usually for the best. Moore takes this premise but, instead of an amusing social complication which must be untangled, a far more sinister, eldritch predicament shambles their way.
Elsewhere, we see a few pages of something by Shakespeare, written in a Renaissance where Spenser's Gloriana ruled Britannia.2. We learn of Fanny Hill's later adventures-- including forays into Lilliput and Brobdingnag-- in a tale printed on heavy paper and illustrated in eighteenth-century style. Another story encloses a Tijuana Bible written in a 1940s where an Orwellian Ingsoc government fought the Second World War against Adenoid Hynkel's Germany.3 Characters from nineteenth-century children's literature find themselves at the wrong end of the law in Mayberry. Another chapter, illustrated in impressive 3-D, takes us to the Blazing World. The Dossier proves endlessly inventive; Moore and company raise literary theft to the level of brilliance.
The major characters have been drawn well, although Murray and Quartermain by this point only tenuously resemble their original fictional selves. The minor ones often require the reader to supply missing details to understand their motivations. Other characters may disappoint fans. Virginia Woolf's Orlando has a broad range of adventures not experienced by the prototype. Moore's take on James Bond is hilarious, and grounded in the original novels, but not at all flattering.
The Black Dossier includes many potentially fascinating adventures-- but often in fragments. This could have been a few graphic novels if the writer had devoted more time to showing and less to telling the allusion-heavy tales.
And the allusions can present problems. They have been the basis of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the beginning. However, one can follow the plot of the earlier volumes without untangling all of the references. One can follow the basic story here, too, but less easily. Aspects of the conclusion may elude many readers; we're not provided with enough internal clues. Moore clearly has an audience in mind who can follow him.
For that audience, we have a fascinating, fragmented story which comments on the redemptive power of fiction, especially imaginative fiction. Have Moore and his League crafted the World's Greatest Fan Service or a Work of Genius?
Yes, I suppose they have.
1. Immortality achieved through the Fire of Life. Thanks, Walter, for pointing out the lapse.
2. Clever: Gloriana represents Elizabeth I and the name was applied to her. This character, taken from Spenser's allegory, deviates in faerie obvious ways from her inspiration.
3.Be warned: in several of the chapters, the Dossier goes further into Adults Only territory than the League's previous adventures.