The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
One of the more impressive features of The Black Dossier is its effortless combination of two radically different types of comics, the artist's book and the continuity-laden epic. This is a beautifully designed book, from the ominous all-black cover to the perfectly faked documents that fill its pages, but it never becomes a mere objet d'art or fetish object (with the possible exception of the Fanny Hill sequel). Kevin O'Neill's art and Todd Klein's design are perfectly adapted to Alan Moore's story, and vice versa; graphic elements like the explosion of Gill Sans (surely the most attractive and authoritarian of all fonts) that opens the book establish as much about the setting as any details of the plot.
Half the book is the story of the theft of the Black Dossier, a secret British intelligence file detailing the activities of the legendary League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the other half is the Dossier itself. This pleasant slippage between fiction and reality puts us in the position of the characters, flipping through documents from their world as if it were our own. Those documents are immaculately constructed, whether they're recreating Shakespeare plays or World War II posters, mashing up H.P. Lovecraft with William S. Burroughs and P.G. Wodehouse (not at the same time--though I don't doubt Moore could manage it) or 1984 with Jane and a Tijuana Bible.
The pastiches that make up the narrative frame-story are executed just as confidently. Moore's multilayered homages are, to a point, so efficient that you'll wonder why no one ever thought to combine these characters before. He's at the top of his game when he ties in seemingly every British secret agent with 1984 and a famous fictional boys' school. The sudden, surprising discovery of these interconnections creates a literary-critical apophenia not so far removed from the cloak-and-dagger paranoia experienced by the characters: we both learn that the world runs on sinister, frighteningly simple patterns of order. The revelation of the new M is magnificent, on par with the similar moment in the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but every reader will have their own favorite. (Jess Nevins' annotations are, as always, essential companion reading; it looks like they'll be coming out in print next year.)
For the first hundred and sixty pages or so, The Black Dossier looks like it will indeed live up to Moore's promise that it would be "the best thing ever." Yes, the exposition can overwhelm the dialogue, and the references can bend the plot into painful contortions--the trip to the Birmingham spaceport, while visually rewarding, makes absolutely no narrative sense except as an excuse to homage the Frank Hampson and Gerry Anderson rockets of Moore's youth. But with the contents of the Black Dossier around to carry most of the backstory, the framing tale can deliver a tense thriller, a fugitive travelogue perfectly appropriate to the cultural moment it depicts. When Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray find themselves caught out in the open with a helicopter bearing down on them, I thought Moore and O'Neill might be restaging the classic scene from North by Northwest, released just a year after the novel's 1958 setting. Perhaps the moment is meant to evoke that sequence; but two pages later, the Hitchcock allusions disappear and our heroes are saved by a minstrel character from children's books.
If I step back from the Golliwogg's racist caricature--which some readers will understandably find hard to do--I can just about see why Moore works such a wrenching change in his book's tone. The frame-tale's allusions and settings advance through a careful structure, from the mundane opening in an England that's still recovering from Big Brother through the progressively more fanciful worlds of spy fiction and science fiction. Meanwhile, the files in the Black Dossier advance chronologically from ancient gods and prehistoric empires to the foreclosed possibilities of Ingsoc and Newspeak. The narratives pull against each other, and when they finally reach the breaking point--at the moment when MI5 has cornered Allan and Mina--Moore casts his lot irrevocably on the side of fantasy. I can see why he chose to introduce an outlandish children's book character at that moment, although I question whether he had to use that particular one. (The Golliwogg is a possible origin for the British racial slur wog; Americans, imagine a comic that ends with a triumphant rescue by a grinning, bulge-eyed Sambo.)
The Golliwogg carries the narrative off into the world of children's literature, then into a Blazing World full of all the fantastic characters O'Neill can cram into his panels, which he and Moore and Ray Zone have ambitiously expanded into the third dimension. This Blazing World, a repository and asylum for the magical beings who have been declared "unpersons" in postwar England's tyrannical realism, should look familiar to anyone who's read Promethea or Supreme or any of Moore's many interviews over the last five or six years. It's yet another iteration of the Immateria, or Ideaspace, or whatever else Moore has called this realm where all fictional creations rub elbows and share equal ontological footing. And that's part of the real problem with The Black Dossier: the taut opening and the stunning format only lead to a place Moore has taken us many times before.
I also have to stress how visually as well as narratively dull these fictional supercontexts have become. Even if you haven't purchased The Black Dossier you can imagine the Blazing World already: the floating animals and coiling tentacles, the distant pyramids and superfluous eyeballs, the crowd scenes manned with characters familiar and strange. Moore and O'Neill show their pedigree by aping Winsor McCay rather than Steve Ditko, and they pull off a few neat 3-D tricks--I especially like the overlay of two different images on the same spot, proof that Moore is an effortless innovator who sees potentials in media others ignore--but it ends up looking the same as every other incarnation of this tedious fantasyland.
Repetition is only part of the problem. Most of the Blazing World sequence is taken up by one of Moore's now customary lecture-tours, explaining concepts that no longer require such exhaustive explanation, but he does wring a little pathos out of it. We learn that Allan and Mina have been working for Prospero on a mission to recover the Black Dossier from MI5 and hide the Blazing World from the government's reach. It's impossible not to read these passages autobiographically--the bearded magus makes a much better stand-in for Alan Moore than he did for permanent sorceror's apprentice Neil Gaiman--as a commentary on Moore's own struggles with DC Comics for creative autonomy. When Prospero says the characters (or is that "intellectual properties"?) of the Blazing World are "unshackled from mundane authorities" you can practically hear Moore sighing with relief: in just one more page he will never work for DC again.
As an allegory for personal artistic freedom, the Blazing World works just fine. But The Black Dossier begins with much wider concerns about the world beyond Moore's own career, and the Blazing World finale is an inadequate, frustrating evasion of them. The early sequences in the frame-story, and some of the documents in the Dossier itself, outline the myriad humiliations that come with living under an authoritarian state; they also make it clear that not all authoritarian states are as easy to recognize as Big Brother's. A late reference to party leader Gerald O'Brien's attempt at a rebranding experiment called "New Ingsoc" makes the parallel to Tony Blair's Britain abundantly clear, if the cameras didn't already.
Perhaps it's good that Moore doesn't offer us the naive satisfaction of watching two noble individuals bring down a government with nothing but The Truth. Instead, he gives us two heroes who don't make the slightest effort at correcting the crimes they uncover or holding the criminals accountable. They abandon the overcast world of human interaction to retreat into a starlit haven for fictional characters. That's all well and good for Allan and Mina, but what about the rest of us? Or, taking the book more on its own terms, what about all the characters they leave behind--the cabdrivers and landladies who are tortured just for crossing their path, the young woman who's left in the care of her father's murderer, the country that's run by the same conspiracy of schoolboys no matter which government is in power? Nobody in this book pays a second thought to any of them. The end of The Black Dossier is not just a retreat from the world, it's a retreat from any sort of ethical responsibility to the world.
With another volume coming out, the story of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is far from over. Maybe later installments will correct this disappointing abstinence--they almost have to, just by virtue of placing their characters back in human society. The Black Dossier stands alone as a complete, self-contained narrative, however, and it demands evaluation on its own. The ending still falls short, even if we take it at its own words:
In the final pages, Moore defends his preference for the ideal by arguing that the ideal is no less real than the material. Prospero says fiction influences reality by contributing to our personalities, inspiring our achievements, shaping our virtues, guiding our actions.
So what does it say that this work of fiction ends with a retreat into a private fantasy world of personal indulgence and gratification, leaving public evils unchallenged? At the end of The Tempest, when he is ready to rejoin society, Shakespeare's Prospero drowns his books; Moore's crawls deeper into them, and invites us to do the same.