Friday, January 01, 2010

Two Leagues Under the Sea

I loved The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  I don't have that many opportunities to indulge in my literary nerdness, and I'm still captivated by the idea of late-19th-century British fictional characters forming a superhero squad and fighting alternate-history enemies during the Victorian era.  I mean, who wouldn't love that, right?

The first collection stood on its own, but also ended with the possibility for a sequel wide open.  I was glad that Alan Moore continued with it, and even more glad to receive that collection as a gift this year.  I tore through it, making this the first report from my impressive literary swag.

The book contains two major portions that really demand separate treatment.  First up is the comic book proper.


The first volume was a great book, but like anything introducing a new franchise, it suffers a little from the time it needs to establish its world.  Well, maybe "suffer" is too strong a word, but still: the first part of the story is devoted to describing how these characters came to work together, and only in the latter portion does it focus on the incredible main plot, which involves Dr. Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty, and an amazing airship battle above London.

In contrast, this volume can get right down to it.  The whole book is devoted to The War of the Worlds: alien invaders from Mars (actually very faithful to the H. G. Wells description) land in England.  The old League - Wilhelmina Murray, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and The Invisible Man - are sent to investigate.  Once the killing begins, things shift into high gear, and never stops.

I think one of my favorite things about this series is the combination of familiarity with invention.  Yeah, the invaders from Mars look like you'd expect, but it's quite horrifying to see the grisly human carnage they leave in their wake.  And, while The Invisible Man is certainly a cad, his actions here are jaw-droppingly antisocial.  The books take their source material absolutely seriously, and run "What If?" scenarios that bring them even more to life.

The new additions are also excellent: probably the most impressive is Dr. Moreau, who is a sinister background presence for a while before making his surprising entrance.  For the most part, though, this story focuses on the evolution and disintegration of the League itself, charting the characters' actions and relationships.  It's a little sad to see where everything ends up, but again, it adds to the sense weird realism.


I actually thought I'd get to review this book several days ago; I wrapped up the main story and just had a few pages left.  Those final pages, though, took me longer to read then the entire rest of the book.  Tucked in the back of Volume 2 is a travel guide: written in the late-19th-century voice of the main story (though it is apparently actually written in alternate-reality 1930), it is a comprehensive tour through the entire world, with each chapter devoted to a separate geographic area.   The first is devoted to England, the second to Europe, third to the Americas, and so on, culminating on a chapter on the polar regions.

This is an in-universe guide, though, which means that everything it describes is fictional.  The sheer quantity of locales is stunning: as a brief example, it includes The Shining World, the Fountain of Youth, Toyland, Lilliput... the inspirations are primarily literary, although there are a couple of references from movies and mythology that sneak in.  The guide is presented in a narrative style, describing how one might move from place to place, and it frequently quotes from the journals of various explorers, most prominently Captain Nemo, Gulliver, Prospero, Wilhelmina Murray, and Orlando.

I found myself laughing in delight at much of this.  It's so wonderfully obtuse; even a devoted bookworm like myself has only scratched the surface of all the worlds that Moore brings colliding together in here.  I started trying to predict other locations that he would include, and found that everything I imagined was in there: the Mountains of Madness, Xanadu, Shangri-La, and Cockaigne.  Heck, they even included Flatland!

If I have one complaint, it's that they're a little too generous.  They've gone to such pains at maintaining the Victorian feel of the piece, but do occasionally introduce more modern elements.  I'm not exactly opposed to this, not with their taste, but it breaks the mood a little - for example, when describing California, the guide mentions an early settler named Lebowsky, a Naiad who enjoys smoking and playing nine-pins, and wonders aloud whether any of his descendants still live there.  Lebowski has a strong mythological feel to it, so that's an excusable exception to make.

Interestingly enough, while this is a guidebook, it also manages to tell a story.  Particularly in the later chapters, you can anecdotally piece together the tale of what happened in the years after the final page of the comic book.  Some of the characters continue their journeys, and we learn (or can infer) what they did, who they met, and what adventures they had.  This is quite satisfying, in a way more so than the comic itself. 

Reading the travel guide was overwhelming at times.  It's just so dense, with so many allusions, many of which are over my head.  It's also invigorating, and helps me appreciate what a rich imagination our species has.  It made me think about how compartmentalized we tend to be about our collective literary heritage.  Lewis Carroll creates a world, and it's good, but it's its own thing.  Jonathan Swift creates another world, which is also good, but is wholly separate from Carroll's.  Each person creates their own take on things from scratch, which is good in the way that it spurs creativity and invention, but reading things like this makes me wonder if we're missing out on some exciting opportunities for interaction and collaboration.  Wouldn't it be amazing to see, say, what H. P. Lovecraft would have done with the settings of Edgar Allen Poe?  Or, heck, how about Aldous Huxley writing a book set in Wonderland? 

That kind of interaction was one of the things that I loved about the "Thieves World" series of books... you can get some pretty incredible magic when you break open an author's exclusive right to their world, and let everyone play with everyone else.  The results are often messy, and purists will cry foul at the shifts in tone and character.  Authors may be reluctant to give up control of their creations.  Experiments like the League convince me that there's a lot worth mining from this realm, though.

I know that there are more League books, though I'm not sure of their chronology.  The travel guide describes how there have been several Leagues throughout the years, including an ancient one (consisting of Prospero, Christian (from Pilgrim's Progress), Orlando, and maybe more), and a newer one formed early in the 20th century.  It'll be interesting to continue reading and see where else we can go in this world.

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