The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier Review
Ambition, all by itself, is neither good nor bad. The greatest artistic works wouldn’t exist without vast reservoirs of ambition, but ambition by itself doesn’t guarantee anything. Even ambition combined with proven ability isn’t necessarily successful. And just because one work by a particular creator (or creators) was transcendently wonderful, that doesn’t mean the next related work will be equally so.
And that brings us to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, which, I’m sad to say, is pretty much the Tom Sawyer, Abroad of our day – a book that should have been something really special, given its predecessors’ pedigree, but which instead is self-indulgent and shows signs of existing purely because of contractual reasons.
But let me back up. There have been two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories so far, both of which were excellent pulpish adventure, homages to writer Alan Moore’s favorite British stories from the turn of the last century. There was something of a tendency to paint the lily even there, though – to cram in references every which way, to show either how smart Moore was or how much genre fiction he had read. But the references were only rarely important to those two stories, and the times they were – the revelation of the first “M,” for example – they were very obvious references, which nearly every reader of the comic would grasp quickly. Neither of the first two League stories was great literature, but they were excellent adventure stories, though they did imply that Moore took old pulpy stories more seriously than perhaps he should.
Black Dossier is not the third major League story; that’s still to come, in a year or three, from a different publisher in an unlikely format. It’s instead a weird hybrid of story and background, with a League story set in the 1950s wrapped around a collection of documents from the past of that history; those documents, of course, comprise the titular dossier. In the frame story, a young blonde couple steal the dossier and run away with it, pursued by nastier fictional characters. To understand the villains, the reader must recognize James Bond (not too difficult), remember Harry Lime (somewhat tougher), and have some idea who Bulldog Drummond is (exceptionally difficult).
The main plot is also, I’m sorry to say, very thin, just a picaresque excuse for Moore to send his heroes to meet one of his favorite fictional characters after another, from Billy Bunter to Jerry and Frank Cornelius. He rarely gives the full names of all of these people, presumably so the reader can have a warm fuzzy feeling when he works out who someone is. I can’t call this lazy – immense amounts of work must have gone into the creation of the Black Dossier – but it’s loose and flabby, and the plot itself is never exciting. Moore’s references also have not only gotten denser, they are much more esoteric – if I wasn’t in the middle of reading The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, I’d never have recognized the Riallaro Archipelago or “The Burning World.”
The other half of Black Dossier is the “historical documents.” Some of these are amusing – like the addendum to Fanny Hill – and some are unreadable, like “The Crazy Wide Forever” by “Sal Paradyse” (Jack Kerouac). But they are all, to a one, intensely self-indulgent. Moore wants us to ooh and ahh over how clever he is – but we’d really rather have a story. (There’s almost a story in the historical bits, about the immortal gender-swapping Orlando, but Moore would much rather shoehorn in another personal joke or unlikely reference – or attempt to wow us as he attempts the pastiche of yet another style.)
Even worse, the plot turns into a by-the-numbers chase sequence in the last third, as the historical sections become more and more indulgent, and less and less readable as they go on. The ending is utterly flat, despite the fancy 3D tricks. Black Dossier, I’m afraid to say, is a massive disappointment.
To end on a more upbeat note, Kevin O’Neill’s art generally comes off well – his pastiches of historical styles are easier to take – though I do have to quibble about those figures on the cover. They seem to be walking, at high speed no less, even though their feet are nowhere near the ground. (The man in particular has “race-walking on an invisible treadmill” down pat.)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
America’s Best Comics/DC, 2007, $29.99
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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