It’s been so long since Alan Moore delivered a new installment of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the last issue came out in 2003) that I’d almost forgotten how far the series has drifted away from its roots. When Moore initially came up with the idea for League, he pitched it as a straightforward adventure yarn centered around a clever gimmick: everyone in the comics, from the heroes and villains all the way down to the innocent bystanders, was a character from 19th century literature. Volume One brought together Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray from Dracula, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Dr. Jekyll as a proto-superhero team assembled to stop a turf war between Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu for control of the slums of London. Volume Two upped the ante by forcing the League to confront the Martian invaders of War of the Worlds and introduced new allies like Dr. Moreau.
But at some point Moore lost any interest he once had in exploring who these characters are or even just using them to tell an over-the-top adventure like something out of a Victorian dime novel. The framing story of Black Dossier finds Mina and Allan Quatermain on the run in 1958 (the pair are still alive thanks to a Fountain of Youth they discovered during their travels), as they’re hunted down by a dictatorship which controls England from behind the scenes. It’s a nice setup, but the action never develops any momentum, and their investigation into who is running this new shadow government is limited to a series of dull, expository conversations.
The real meat of this graphic novel is the Black Dossier itself, a collection of files which details the League’s different incarnations over the centuries. Mina steals it out from under the nose of a British secret agent named “Jimmy” who likes vodka martinis and rough sex (Moore has to be deliberately vague at times since some of these characters are still under copyright, although if you can’t get that reference you might want to consider another comic book), and the main narrative is interrupted periodically as she and Quatermain — and by extension, the reader — take a look inside the dossier.
And that’s just the excuse Moore needs to let his every creative impulse run wild. The dossier contains excerpts from academic papers, memoirs, personal correspondence, and government reports. There’s a long-lost Shakespeare play and a literary mash-up of the dry wit of P.G. Wodehouse and the gothic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. There are postcards and maps and political cartoons and pornography, all of it written and presented so that it feels like an authentic work of art from the past and never a self-conscious parody. It’s a chance for Moore to show off the range of his talents, and the results are almost dizzying. How many writers could attempt a pastiche of Shakespeare and not fail spectacularly, much less craft a scene that combines the Bard’s signature iambic pentameter, complex historical and literary allusions, ornate dialogue, dirty humor, and somehow make it all work?
But for all its brilliant style, there’s no denying that most of Black Dossier isn’t exactly a story, but a list of stories. Moore doesn’t have the patience to write about any of these adventures at length, so instead he summarizes each one before hurrying on to the next. His real interest here is in playing a sort of stoned party game for literary snobs, as he tries to figure out how every single fictional character ever created fits together in an elaborate tapestry, one that forms an alternate history of, well, the entire human race.
For example, sixteenth-century British monarch Queen Elizabeth has been replaced with the half-fairy Queen Gloriana, who summons together the very first League and is thus responsible for England’s growing dominance on the world stage. The crucible of World War I-era Europe is represented by a three-way conflict between the British League and their respective French and German counterparts, Les Hommes Mysterieux and Der Zweilicht-Helden. And the ruler of Germany during World War II isn’t Adolf Hitler but Adenoid Hynkel from Charlie Chaplin’s political satire The Great Dictator.
I doubt anyone other than Alan Moore (or perhaps his unofficial annotator, Jess Nevins) will catch every reference in Black Dossier, although the deck is already stacked against you if you aren’t British, or at least intimately familiar with British pop culture of the last two hundred years. One of the major revelations concerns an abandoned boarding school called Greyfriars, apparently the setting of a series of novels about a mischievous boy named Billy Bunter that were wildly popular in England during the first half of the 20th century. While Allan and Mina are exploring the decrepit Greyfriars they run into “William,” now a destitute, middle-aged man who haunts his old stomping grounds and is eager to retell his childhood stories for anyone who will listen. I’d never even heard of Billy Bunter before reading Black Dossier and yet seeing little him all grown up into such a pathetic man brought with it a pang of sadness. I can only imagine that for anyone who grew up reading the Billy Bunter novels, it would be like running into an old friend and realizing that his life has fallen into decay since you’ve last seen him.
But this nostalgia for fictional characters that we’ve grown attached to is the only real emotional depth that Black Dossier has to offer. Maybe appropriating heroes and villains from other authors’ stories is Moore’s way of avoiding one of the most difficult tasks that every writer must face: convincing the reader to believe in, and care about, people who don’t exist. Moore assumes he’s already got that part covered, which leaves him free to design his fictional universe down to the smallest detail — even the newspapers that people are reading in the background contain their own obscure references — while Allan Quatermain and Mina act as little more than tour guides to show us around. And by the time he reaches the ending, Moore decides to pull back the curtain completely: one of his protagonists directly addresses the audience and launches into a speech in which he argues that because we can empathize with fictional characters that makes them, on some intangible level, real.
Black Dossier is a masterpiece of cleverness and literary bravado, but it’s also something of a dead end: when your fictional characters are admitting that they know they’re fictional, there’s nowhere left for your story to go. It’s the same problem that I’ve had with a lot of Moore’s recent work. He’s so concerned with blowing our perception of reality that his characters are all paper-thin. It wasn’t always this way. Watchmen came as close as any work of art has in four hundred years to matching the existential tragedy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and its real power was that we could understand how the characters could make moral decisions with horrific, unforeseen consequences. From Hell was a brilliant look at how the crimes of Jack the Ripper were only a larger magnification of the hypocrisies of Victorian England, as well as an omen of the twentieth century’s patterns of extremist ideologies and bloodshed. I hope that Moore decides to put the world of League aside and returns to telling stories about people. I know he’s got another masterpiece left in him. After all, a man who can mimic Shakespeare can do just about anything.