To say that 1969 is decadent is saying nothing at all. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-) has always been an exercise in decadence, an archly subversive playing-out of Wold Newtonry at its most finical—a veritable latticework of literary and Pop allusions, without which there’s no story to speak of, no “there” there.
By that, I don’t mean to say that there’s no core, no human yield, no genuine emotive kick, in the League—only that finding that “core” requires investing in the sort of allusive, intertextual mischief that usually gets written off, critically, as a mere playful superfluity, a nerny embellishment to a basic story. No—without its intertextual riffing, League would have no core characters, no guts. But it does have guts.
Which reminds me: League has always been decadent in another sense, too, namely its willful, button-pushing nastiness. Moore and O’Neill revel in, in fact parody by sheer excess, many repellent stereotypes, and dare their readers to parse the difference between mimesis and mockery, as in the first volume’s brazen distillation of the racist Yellow Peril trope (via its Fu Manchu plot). Poker-faced riffs on retrograde stuff—for example, joking about rape, in an episode lifted from Victorian porn—have always been a part of the game the series plays. (A similar game of dare characterizes Moore and Gebbie’s Lost Girls, regarding the difference between representation and reality.) Moore and O’Neill have been upping the ante since the second volume, wherein they seem determined to sabotage a perfect Pop premise (perhaps a preemptive strike against the League film?) by ratcheting up the level of perversity and violence, the quintessence being Mr. Hyde’s rape and murder of Hawley Griffin—clearly a moment when the series announces its intention to trouble rather than tickle its readers. The follow-up book, The Black Dossier, reaffirms this in spades. So far, Century, of which 1969 is the second of a projected three parts, does the same.
What’s disconcerting about 1969 is how joyless the exercise has become, and how wan and stretched the story feels. Like its predecessor 1910 (i.e. Century, Part One), 1969 comes off as glum and a bit rancid. It feels like the story of characters who have outlived their time, which may indeed be the point: Black Dossier made protagonists Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain immortal by means of a plot device filched from Rider Haggard, but since then their deathlessness has been a drag. 1969 belongs to a genre that includes Swift’s episode of the Struldbrugs (from Gulliver’s Travels) and Peter Hammill’s weary, terrifying song “Still Life”: explorations of why immortality, basically, sucks.
The human core of the story is Mina’s questing after contemporaneity, relevance, faddishness, youth, sexiness, energy—anything to deny the awfulness of seeming young while being, in fact, very, very old and incapable of natural death. This dilemma of hers is smartly, subtly, realized throughout, and it may be no accident that the book’s climax harks back to Stoker’s Dracula. Sadly, though, the book’s smarts cannot hide the fact that the pleasure in its premise has curdled.
Mina and Allan are old persons in the youthful tumult of swinging 1960s London—but not so much swinging as tainted and oppressive, it seems to me, its libertinism edged with danger. The setting suits O’Neill’s gift for rank satire: though there are shiny moments when he offsets the ambient sleaze with a Peter Max-like brightness, 1969’s London is still closer to William Blake’s in feel, i.e., not a place where one would like to stay for very long. (Even the sex is consistently rotten: beware scenes in which impersonal sex accompanies or punctuates people talking about business, a cliché that happens several times here.) In any case, 1969 is burdened by Century’s overarching premise, that of a 100-year game of tag between the League and occultists who would create a mystical Moonchild, a being who may end the world. In 1969 the threat is personified in an Aleister Crowley-like occultist called Oliver Haddo (the name borrowed from Somerset Maugham, who was borrowing from Crowley himself), a seemingly deathless character whose transmigrations from body to body form the story’s main mystery. Against Haddo’s cunning, Mina and company seem bemused and rudderless, and it’s no big spoiler to say that they don’t succeed (though neither does he, exactly, which sets up the pending third chapter).
Even more than did 1910, 1969 has a long, fairly impenetrable opening, one that presumes rather than earns audience interest. One has to be invested in Moore and O’Neill’s versions of Mina, Allan, and Orlando (the third League member, the undying androgyne, channeling Virginia Woolf) in order to care about the prolix narrative windup. These three characters are subtly at odds when the story starts—interesting—but their characterization is subsumed to a larger plot mechanism, that of Haddo’s scheming—not so interesting, I think. The plot circles round Haddo’s attempts to, first, extend his life in a new body, and, second, midwife the Moonchild, that is, the Antichrist. I’m not certain if Moore would consider that a bad thing.
The usual dense intertextual games, played with the usual lapidary skill, ultimately intersect in a doozy of a climax: a concert in Hyde Park, implicitly modeled on the Rolling Stone’s 1969 Hyde Park “tribute” to then newly-dead member Brian Jones. (As The Threepenny Opera supplied much of 1910’s plot, so the death of Jones, or rather a fictive stand-in, provides the incitement here.) Moore and O’Neill reimagine the concert as an abortive occult ritual. The Stones are fictionalized under another name, with Nicholas Roeg’s film Performance (1970) lending some of the details, including the persona of the Mick Jagger-like singer Terner (modeled on Jagger’s own performance in that film). The literary and cultural raiding continues nonstop, with (once again) Iain Sinclair among those raided, along with—ah, how 1960s can you get?—Michael Moorcock, via his protean character Jerry Cornelius. Even J.K. Rowling is visited en route, though the Rowling pastiche, I think, sours, turning rather charmless and aggressive.
Visions of a groovy, psychedelic, period London are duly rehearsed, but also subverted and nightmarishly parodied. At the climax, Mina endures a bad acid trip—and at last O’Neill, after biding his time through conventional layouts, mostly six- and nine-panel grids, explodes into hallucinogenic graphic expressionism. It’s cool-looking, but also monstrous, with Mina doubly exposed to both physical and astral rape. As the concert unravels around her—a virtual singularity of intertextual references, from Thomas Chatterton through James Macpherson’s Ossian, to Stoker and Rowling, to the Stones and even previous installments of the League—Mina lies there, helpless. O’Neill, trammeled and contained throughout much of the book, at last attains the kind of erotic repulsiveness and sheer jagged grotesquerie toward which his style always leans, and the results, for a few pages, are fairly mind-bending. The end result, though, is madness for Mina and at least provisional failure for the League, leading to a ghastly denouement that jump-cuts from the sixties’ trippy hedonism to a miserable caricature of punk in 1977, the Summer of Hate. Everybody is stranded, and everything is shit, or so you’d think from Allan’s hopelessness in the final, wretched, gray-soaked pages. Cripes.
It’s not clear to me what Moore and O’Neill are up to, tonally or ideologically, in this dystopian revisioning of the sixties myth. On the one hand, Moore’s work generally seems to tilt in the direction of embracing that myth—my sense is that the sixties and its visionary counterculture stand for important things in his anarchist worldview—but, on the other, 1969, replete with bad trip, could stand as a queasy postmortem for dreamy idealizations of the era. Its “sixties” are harsh. On the one hand, Moore has often embraced the psychedelic goosing of consciousness, and he plays with the idea here; on the other, 1969 takes its tonal cues less from the blissful utopianism of Pop psychedelia and more from the dark fracturing of Roeg and Kenneth Anger. All this would be genuinely disturbing if the story’s first two-thirds had the sharp pacing and construction of Moore at his best. As is, it strikes me as anomic, cynical, and hard, its few neon-tinted hippy eruptions notwithstanding.
I don’t need to itemize the various bits of cleverness in 1969, or to point out the screamingly obvious, that 1969 is more intelligent and insinuating than most comic books. It is, after all, a book by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. But the taste of it sits like battery acid on the tongue, and, like 1910 before it, it reads like an act of vengeance against former pleasures.