It doesn’t matter if you don’t get all the references in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. You’re not supposed to.
It’s always nice to see a new League story from Moore and O’Neill, but the release of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century:1969 means the same old boring complaints are also trotted out, the critics apparently oblivious that they’re saying nothing new.
Some of these complaints are a matter of taste – O’Neill remains one of the most genuinely disturbing artists in mainstream comics, with his chunky restraint sometimes blossoming into vast psychedelic grossness, and it’s easy to forget that not everybody actually likes that. (The Comics Code certainly didn’t.)
And some of these complaints have genuine merit – the sexual assault that takes place in LoEG: 1969 is an integral part of the story, but Moore’s willingness to use that kind of an act to show just how terrible things are has been raising eyebrows for years, and deserves to be questioned.
But there are other moans and groans that are less worthwhile. Reading a complex work like the League fires up the desire to gauge critical reaction, and to see if other people hated/loved it as much as you, or see if others find it boring/derivative/transcendent.
It’s just so disappointing to see so much thought and effort go into the same old complaints. Apparently, Alan Moore comics don’t have a plot, and there are too many obscure references.
Wow. That’s insightful.
The lack of plot could be aggravating if that is the sort of comic you want, but you haven’t got that from any Alan Moore comic yet, so maybe you should stop trying.
Complaining that an Alan Moore comic is all style and no plot is certainly nothing new – that one has been levelled at Moore’s work since Swamp Thing. If you don’t know that Moore’s stuff are all about Story Over Plot, than you haven’t been paying attention. The bearded one has always been quite clear about this during his career, and his ruminations on the difference between plot and story in his excellent Writing For Comics essay betray no contradiction.
There is some absolute truth in this claim - on a plot level, nothing really happens in 1969. Strange people wander about a strange London, wondering what is going on, and then there is some kind of psychotropic mindfuck of a battle during a Rolling Stones concert.
But on a story level, there are all sorts of things going on. My favourite is the story of immortal beings who are living extraordinary lives, and starting to crack under the pressure of keeping it inside the head. Mina Harker is in her nineties, and should be on her final deathbed somewhere, but she is still out there, trying to be cool, trying to keep up with a modern world that happens to be saturated in occult strangeness. They're fictional creatures, but they can still have a meltdown.
No wonder the story ends with one of these immortals sitting in a pool of his own piss during the grimmest punk gig ever, nodding out into a decade of Thatcher’s Britain. Things are going to get worse before they get better.
The other great complaint that greets any new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book is the bafflement at the huge amount of references to other books, movies and TV shows.
But I’m telling you: You don’t have to get all of them. I’ve enjoyed and understood every single League book without once resorting to the exhaustive efforts of Jess Nevins. Some knowledge is always helpful, but it’s only the most general things – if you’re reading a comic like this and don’t know about Doctor’s Jekyll’s dark side, or why Mina never takes off her scarf, then there’s no hope for you. (And you’re probably reading the wrong blog.)
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is doing nothing new with all of its references and homages. Authors like the brilliant Phillip Jose Farmer were doing the same thing decades ago, with books like Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage bringing the whole world of genre fiction together with a falling star sparking genetic links between heroes with grey eyes and square jaws.
But while all these fun and games certainly provide extra depth to a text, simply because the familiar characters are often very, very familiar, they are mainly just fun and games, and you don’t have to play if you don’t want to. (They can also provide fantastic returns with a re-read. I read Kim Newman's marvellous Anno Dracula for the first time in years recently, and enjoyed recognising a few faces from fiction that I hadn't been exposed to in earlier readings.)
They can nothing more than in-jokes, and Alan Moore likes a good laugh. In two of the writer’s most biting superhero comics – The Killing Joke and Watchmen – a character tells a joke that nicely sums up a major theme of both books, making a serious point with a wink. The references are little different.
And it can be fun – I do get a kick out of the fact that Jerry Cornelius is a bit negative, or that Jack Carter is not going to like what he finds when he heads up north, or that Jumping Jack Flash’s neighbours assumed he was all right now – but they’re just players in somebody else’s narrative. They’re not the meat of the story, they’re the gravy.
Because even without the references, even within the framework of the overall League of Extraordinary gentlemen, there are plenty of powerful moments in 1969. I like a good joke, but it’s the genuine creepiness of Haddo in the bed, or the harsh appearance of Dracula’s moustache, or a mythically strong Mr Hyde’s sudden intrusion into Mina’s tripping consciousness, or those grey tones of the last few pages, that I enjoyed most in the comic.
But the greater critical reaction to 1969 appears to be a bit less positive than mine, and while there have been several good points made, there have been also plenty of people willing to write the book off for the same tiresome reasons. They might be scathing about Moore’s alleged lack of originality, but these are not brilliant new points, just lazy readers and the same old parroting of the same old song. "Such happy times, Such stories I could tell."