REVIEWS

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969

LOEG 1969 coverTo 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.

1969: Mina wants to be youngThe 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.

1969: a detail from Mina's bad tripVisions 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.

1969: flashforward to the Summer of HateIt’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.

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17 Responses to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969

  1. Louis Falcetti says:

    What does “nerny” mean? From the second paragraph. I usually keep dictionary.com open when I’m reading tcj articles because I’m not as intellectual as I’d like to be and I can find no definition for “nerny”. Is it slang?

  2. Charles Hatfield says:

    Nerny. adj. Referring to the little extraneous bits that hang off something, including useless decorative fillips or small particles of foreign matter clinging to the surface of something.

  3. patrick ford says:

    And, here I was thinking it was a typo, and was supposed to be “nerdy.”

  4. Louis Falcetti says:

    Oh! And good review! I should say that as well. I didn’t agree with everything 100% but you supported your beliefs well and gave a lot of valuable insight. The kind of review that I come to tcj for. well done.

  5. Mike Hunter says:

    Excuse me if somebody elsewhere might have pointed this out already, but there is much in this fine critique that makes one wonder how much The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is intended as a commentary on not only superheroes, but their continuing existence as comics characters.

    Their tales “a veritable latticework of…allusions” for the fans (whose interest can be “presume[d] rather than earn[ed]“) to catch and delight in; in their past history having featured “many repellent stereotypes.”

    These are “characters who have outlived their time”; that they are “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” giving a broad nod to the re-imagining and image-buffing that these properties go through in order to extend their shelf-life.

    As in the grim and gritty trend in comics, their tales have been “ratcheting up the level of perversity and violence”; though for all the effort, “how joyless the exercise [of superhero comics] has become,” the “pleasure in [their] premise [having] curdled…”

    Certainly Moore himself once was quite the appreciator of the superhero: he’s cited Superman as an early role-model, had a sunny affection for — and fannish backhistory knowledge of — those DC characters.

    A sadder-but-wiser Moore then writing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a “dystopian revisioning of the [superhero] myth…a queasy postmortem for dreamy idealizations” about them, and what could be done with those characters…

  6. Charles Hatfield says:

    Mike, this is an ingenious and illuminating take, thanks! I’ll think of this whenever I think of the League from now on.

    And thanks for reading my critique so carefully!

    But, er, all this does reinforce my sense that there is something bitter if not vengeful about the whole exercise…

  7. Rob Clough says:

    Charles, not only do I think your reading is correct, but Moore has already talked about this. He has stated flat-out in interviews that he feels that pop culture of the 19th century and early 20th century was far more vibrant and interesting than what he feels it devolved into; apparently League 2010 will be a reflection of his view of the current vacancy of pop culture (especially as it is represented in many respects by the super-hero).

    In my view, it adds a touch of old man grousing and pettiness to these comics, as opposed to a real critique. And whenever Moore’s comics grouse, they tend to become particularly vicious and humorless in that they tend to reflect what he sees as the viciousness of what he’s commenting on. (Hence the high rape content in many of his comics that takes on a sensationalist tone.) That viciousness disconnects the reader from what is usually his greatest aspect as a writer, which is the ability to humanize and make connections with even the most fantastic of characters. (It’s why I thought Promethea, Top Ten and Supreme were some of his best-ever comics).

    That viciousness to me is at the heart of the flaws of comics like Watchmen and V for Vendetta. He transcended it with From Hell, which is why I’m disappointed to see him fall back into the traps that limited his work earlier in his career.

  8. Mike Hunter says:

    Thanks for the appreciation! “Embittered” sure would fit Alan Moore’s view of the mainstream comics industry. Even when, with Tom Strong, he tried to bring superheroes back to their more innocent roots and spirit, he found America’s Best Comics (and the Strong family) sold off to DC.

    Just remembered – on a somewhat related vein – Alan Moore and Don Simpson’s “In Pictopia!”, with its depiction of old-time comics characters and superheroes being replaced by grim n’ gritty new versions. (The story online at http://glycon.livejournal.com/6940.html#cutid1 …)

  9. patrick ford says:

    ” ‘Embittered’ sure would fit Alan Moore’s view of the mainstream comics”

    Realistic might be a better word.

  10. Dustin says:

    Good review, though I did enjoy this new League book more than most it seems. I would largely agree that the thing only really gets humming towards the end and I actually really dug the punk epilogue. It got to me, the sad, lonely bastard who can’t die and just hangs around shooting up. Is there anything more depressing than a junkie that can’t die?

    As far as bitter Alan Moore goes, I’m curious if you’ve read Neonomicon? It’s probably the most bitter and most rapey thing he’s done in a long time (probably ever) and he even said that it was fueld by his hate for the comic book industry. Moore is always a superbly talented guy but it would be nice if he could have some fun with it every now and then.

  11. Mike Hunter says:

    —————–

    patrick ford says:

    ” ‘Embittered’ sure would fit Alan Moore’s view of the mainstream comics”

    Realistic might be a better word.

    —————–

    I get what you mean; presumably, that it’s realistic to have a cynical, jaundiced view of the mainstream comics industry.

    My point was that when one starts out with an overly-hopeful and idealistic perspective, then is repeatedly disappointed — to put it mildly — by “misbehaviors,” then the opposite extreme results.

    Once read an autobio comics page where a comics creator (Veitch? Bissette?) was telling Neil Gaiman how crushed they were about how DC comics had “date-raped” them. (Embittered!)

    Gaiman cooly told him, in effect, that DC is a corporation, and it’d be naive to expect particularly genteel treatment from them. (Realistic!)

    ——————–

    Dustin says:

    …As far as bitter Alan Moore goes, I’m curious if you’ve read Neonomicon? It’s probably the most bitter and most rapey thing he’s done in a long time (probably ever) and he even said that it was fueld by his hate for the comic book industry.

    ———————

    Neonomicon was great, a Cthulhu mythos story with some truly horrifying moments in it. The only thing that could be interpreted as expressing bitterness by Moore is that at the end, now identifying with the Old Ones, a main protagonist looks forward to their return and cleansing of the Earth from its human infestation.

    As for its being a “rapey” thing, are we nowadays in some mode where for a creator to feature torture and mass murder is OK, but to include rapes amid the other horrors is beyond the pale?

    What should count is whether rape — unfortunately an all-too-common example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” and thus fodder for dramatic usage — is depicted in an exploitative manner and made to look “sexy” for reader titillation, or shown as horrifying and degrading…

  12. patrick ford says:

    It’s a mistake to assume that Alan Moore or old time Golden Age creators weren’t aware they were being taken advantage of. An awareness of a circumstance doesn’t mean in the mind of the creator the conditions they are working under are fair or honest. I’m sure many creators who for a variety of reasons (often financial) never accepted the idea that the company owned the characters they created. It’s more likely they never accepted that at all, and felt the industry had an unfair advantage it was exploiting. I don’t doubt for a moment many creators went through their careers thinking, “These things I’ve created are rightly mine.”

  13. Charles Hatfield says:

    I won’t dispute the view of the mainstream comics industry that comes out in the above, nor would I gainsay Moore’s right to be bitter about it. He has earned his bitterness, let’s say.

    Interestingly, Century minimizes superheroes, alluding to them a few times but not focusing on them.

    I do give credit to Moore for trying to humanize the immortality conceit in League, and it’s an unexpected move, therefore interesting. But the characters are so anomic, unsure, and unfocused, and the exercise so drawn out, that it tends to vitiate suspense.

  14. Alexandre Buchet says:

    As a guy who moved to London in 1969 I found this comic a fun and bittersweet cartoon of the gorgeous gaudiness then reigning there. I went to my share of Hyde Park concerts…

    On the page where they stroll through Berwick Street they pass a comics and science-fiction shop called ‘There will come Soft Rains’. This is a nod at the real-life comics shop (my first!) also situated in Berwick Street and also named after a Ray Bradbury story, ‘Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed’.

    Ah, Bram, where are ye now?

  15. Paul Slade says:

    I remember when DTW&GE was in Berwick Street too – and now there’s a comics shop there again. When Gosh! moved to Berwick Street from its old premises in Great Russell Street a few weeks ago, I thought how nice it was to see that particular circle being so neatly closed.

  16. Alexandre Buchet says:

    Glad to hear it! Especially as Gosh was suffocating in that tiny space…

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