Book Review - League does justice to lit history

Wednesday March 25, 2009 09:00 am EDT

Anyone familiar with the dense, dizzying work of Watchmen writer Alan Moore, especially the two prior chapters of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, shouldn't have a problem with the basic premise of the third volume, Century. In the LXG series (to borrow the name of the misbegotten film adaptation), Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill envision a superhero team comprised of characters from classic literature such as Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man. Published by Marietta’s Top Shelf Productions, the three-part Century leaps forward to 1910 and draws on 20th-century literary creations. The subsequent volumes take place in 1968 and 2008.

??The fact that Century: 1910 presents a supernatural historical thriller in which Edwardian antiheroes tangle with pirates, satanists and serial killers is business as usual for the series. The fact that Moore conceives the graphic novel partially as a musical is harder to get your head around. ??Moore crafts 1910’s major subplot as an elaborate homage to Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and the book’s supporting roles croon new lyrics to the German composer’s most famous songs. The murderous Macheath, for instance, sings a pastiche of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” that scans perfectly with the original. Moore seems especially inspired by Weill’s musical moralizing, and the numbers condemn the cruelty of the haves and have-nots alike. ??Fans of the superbly entertaining previous LXG books will be relieved that the League’s 1910 members don't break into song, but should be warned that they’re more obscure than, say, Mr. Hyde. In 1910, Dracula’s Mina Harker returns to lead a lineup that includes master thief Anthony Raffles, ghost hunter Thomas Carnacki and the immortal, androgynous Orlando (probably best known from the eponymous Virginia Woolf novel and Tilda Swinton movie). The League crisscrosses London to investigate an apocalyptic scheme that may not come to fruition for decades, setting up conflicts for Century’s subsequent parts. ??The first LXG volumes featured wild action scenes with the likes of H.G. Wells’ martians. The stories felt like Moore’s much appreciated vacations from his increasingly esoteric writings about sex, symbolism and paganism. 1910 suggests that he’s pursuing more complex ambitions, as if he’s trying to unify the whole of Western literature under one title. Moore reaches in so many directions, it’s no surprise 1910 includes multiple nods to his own work. The Jack the Ripper themes could provide a rousing alternate ending to From Hell's bleak anticlimax. He repeatedly evokes the black raider from Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” song, which inspired Watchmen’s “Tales of the Black Freighter.” For a project informed by prose books, O’Neill’s artwork creates suspense and a feeling of impending doom that’s effectively cinematic. ??Moore and O’Neill’s League books always bristle with literary in-jokes. For instance, in 1910, a crowd scene’s throwaway line “… rumor about the Chatterlys…” winks at D.H. Lawrence. If Wikipedia didn’t already exist, someone would have to invent it to keep track of all of LXG’s hidden references.

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