First off: if you haven’t read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, go get the first two volumes. Read my mini-review if you like.
Moore’s basic approach is to mine the sf, fantasy, and thriller literature of a period and create a world where it’s all true. Then he takes the top fictional talent of the age– preferably those with a louche edge– and makes them into a superhero team. In The Black Dossier he applies the technique to a wider time range, and in Century he applies it to the years 1910, 1969, 2009. On the whole Dossier is more weird than satisfying, while Century eases up on the weirdness enough to tell a story.
Dossier is about itself: Mina and Allan, now gifted with eternal youth after finding Ayesha’s pool from King Solomon’s Ring, swipe the Black Dossier from MI5 which sketchily chronicles three hundred years of the League’s history, from Queen Gloriana (an exalted version of the first Elizabeth) to 1958. They’re pursued by the aggrieved agents of the crown, including James Bond and Emma Peel, but mostly it’s an excuse for Moore to throw out various pastiches and to knit together dozens of fictional worlds, from Shakespeare to Jules Verne to Fanny Hill to George Orwell.
It’s clever and ambitious, but for me it doesn’t really work, as Moore for once has neglected to provide a story. There’s a chase scene and some fighting, but there’s no attempt at any danger or change. The book ends with a headache-inducing section in 3-D, which attempts to rehabilitate an old racist British children’s book character, the Golliwog– he’s a black matter alien, you see, and “zijn geslacht is kolossal”. Not the most sensitive rehabilitation of a racist caricature ever.
Anyway, the book ends in the “Blazing World”, a version of the Immateria from Promethea. Moore’s idea is that the world of the imagination is more real than the real world. This is hard to tell a story about; to me, Promethea succeeds and Dossier fails.
With Century, Moore remembers to tell a story. An occultist, Oliver Haddo (from an obscure Maugham novel), wants to raise the Antichrist. Moore often likes to rehabilitate villains (and criminalize heroes), so I should add: this is a bad thing, and Mina and the gang take the whole century to stop it. So something is at stake, though Moore is cagey about what exactly that is. However, he’s willing to punish his characters far more, and that’s the real story of the book. Mina and Allan both go through hell in this volume.
Now, if you haven’t read much Moore, well, go and do that. Watchmen and From Hell are the classics; V for Vendetta gives a heavy dose of his anarchism; Promethea is a fascinating exploration of imagination and magic; Top Ten and the first two volumes of League are fun romps. Century… does not live up to these works. Moore likes to craft exquisite works combining reams of allusion, graphic experiment, and elaborate craftwork. At his best this is all married to passion and humanism. Here it’s more like watching a clever clockwork run. It’s amazing but cold.
(As an example, all three parts of Century feature musical interludes. The first one, based on Kurt Weill, has a certain grandeur, but in general I’d say they show that adding one more layer of experimentation and allusion to the series wasn’t as good a move as it might have seemed. Plus, both books are so crammed with stuff Moore wants to tell you that the characters are constantly expositing to each other. These large volumes read like the summary of an imaginary epic ten times their length.)
Twice in Century the narrative makes use of sexual assault, and this isn’t a new theme for Moore– it was central to From Hell and Watchmen, and in League vol. 2 he mixed things up with a brutal homosexual rape. He’s always carefully progressive and emphasizes the emotional consequences, but his treatment, and the frequency with which he reaches for this particular narrative tool, seem like they’re about a generation behind. Compare how he motivates Nemo (in vol. 1) and his daughter Janni here. Or how many times McNeill draws each naked. (Hint: Nemo, never.) There are other ways to get female characters going.
Also unusually for Moore, the story of Janni has no real payoff. She’s trundled back into the sea of tertiary characters. Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s male/female immortal, also feels underdeveloped, despite getting a lot of page time; her main role is to take part in threesomes with Mina and Allan. A little too much of the later League books seems like an undress rehearsal for Moore’s book of erotica, Lost Girls.
There’s also a certain mean-spiritedness mixed in with Moore’s playful exploration of literature. Granted, he has to have real villains; and as he likes to elevate the villainous (Mr. Hyde, Dr. Moreau), he also likes to sink the heroic (James Bond, Emma Peel, Billy Bunter). Bond, the quintessential Tory, is fair game for such a kicking, but Century features an extended attack on Harry Potter that’s a bit baffling.
Plus, Moore seems to run hot and cold on the occult and perversity. In some ways he seems most at home in the ’60s– it’s colorful and hopeful, at least; he has a grudge against the 21st century he never quite explains. But how is it that Haddo is a villain here, and his model Alisteir Crowley is a roguish hero in Promethea? Why is Haddo’s rock star friend apparently mocked for being promiscuous, when Mina and her friends are scarcely less so?
If you do like your allusions, of course, the later books will be paradise. It’s entertaining to see how Moore weaves everything together, and the panels are filled with additional caricatures. To make this sort of thing work, though, I think Warren Ellis’s Planetary does better. It keeps the appropriations to about one per issue and restrains the camp factor.