Brad's Reviews > The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore
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Jul 03, 10

bookshelves: comic-books, graphic-novel, adventure, counter-fantastical, hyperreality
Read from June 29 to July 02, 2010

It's easy to see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1 as a fluffy action confection. It doesn't smack you in the head with a puddle of blood and a happy face pin like Watchmen. Nor does it open with a girl about to be raped in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Fascist London like V for Vendetta. It doesn't open with extreme gravitas.

Instead, we get a fun variation of the classic spy mission opener: Mina Murray (nee Harker, nee Murray) is ordered on a mission by Campion Bond (grandfather of 007) to collect members for MI5's "Menagerie." From this moment to the last, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1 is a cracking tale of intrigue and action, full of famous literary characters who most readers are familiar with and probably even love. It looks, feels and reads like a summer blockbuster (too bad it was such a flop on-screen).

But this is Alan Moore, and he always has a purpose beyond entertainment.

There's much going on in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1. Too much to talk about here. But one of Moore's most important purposes is his need to challenge our conception of heroes and heroism. It's a theme he tackles in all of his best works, but it takes on a special significance in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1 because this time he is working with established "heroes."

Moore makes each and every one of his characters unsavoury -- even nasty -- then allows us love them despite ourselves. Captain Nemo is a pirate, Allan Quartermain is an opium addict, Jekyll-Hyde may very well have been Jack the Ripper, the Invisible Man is a multiple rapist, and Mina Murray is a disgraced woman (at least according to the conventions of her time) who doesn't seem to like men much anymore. None of these heroes seem as ugly as Rorschach or Comedian, nor are any as ruthless as V, so we enjoy their adventure, cheer them on as they cross swords with the first M (who turns out to be the granddaddy of villainous geniuses), and overlook behaviours that are little better than the nastiest behaviour of some of Moore's more easy to disdain protagonists.

What Moore wants us to consider is in the contrast between his characters and the established characters. He wants to challenge our affinity for these heroes. He wants us to ask questions about them and ourselves: why do we overlook the behaviour of the League? Why are we on their side? Why do we support -- and why do they support -- a nostalgic view of Blighty's colonialism? Why do we give these heroes a pass?

His answer is that we do it because they are familiar. We know them. We know of their exploits, either through first hand experience or through hearsay, and we are ready to embrace their "greatness" before we even start reading about them in the League. We're steeped in their mythologies from the original books to film adaptations to stage plays to comic strips to animation, and having already accepted them as "heroes" we accept them as versions of us. They are us, and we can't see ourselves as anything other than likable, so we cut the "Menagerie" considerably more slack than we'd cut for Moore's other heroes -- and Moore wants us to see that our willing delusion when it comes to these characters is wrong.

All the way through this story I couldn't help thinking about The Three Musketeers. It's one of my favourite novels, though I haven't read it for a while, and I don't know anyone who doesn't love d'Artagnan. Hell, I love d'Artagnan. What's not to love? Right? Well, plenty if one takes the time to really consider his behaviour. He's a murderer, a rapist, and a purveyor of myriad nasty little vices. Yet we all (or most us) love him.

Moore wants us to think about that for a while. He wants us to think about why we love the characters we love, then apply that knowledge to the way we see ourselves and the world around us. I believe he wants The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol.1 to provide as much meaning for audiences as his recognized masterpieces, Watchmen and V for Vendetta. I think he succeeds, even though its manifestation is so subtle it can be easily missed.

The fault, dear Reader, is not in Moore's writing,
But in our reading. That is why we are underlings.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Amber Tucker "Why do we give these heroes a pass? His answer is that we do it because they are familiar."
Alarming, but true.
"... having already accepted them as "heroes" we accept them as versions of us. They are us, and we can't see ourselves as anything other than likeable..."
Versions of us? This is the only bit I'm not sure I follow.

A grand and convincing review, Brad. Not to mention, a wonderfully fitting reference at its end. Caesar, too, was 'familiar' with the Romans and thus was blindly loved.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Moore used Captain Nemo and Jekyll-Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because those two are traditionally considered as "heroes" so that he could flip them around on their heads to give us something to think about?

I am not going pat Moore on the back doing for that. If that's the case Moore was the one who failed to understand the characters and the books. He didn't show the characters in a way that differs from the source (as in, flipping them on their head). Yes, they are not heroes. But that's not brilliant or clever, merely obvious.


Brad Amber wrote: "Versions of us? This is the only bit I'm not sure I follow...."

I figure that we see ourselves, for the most part, as heroes of our own story, that none of us see ourselves as villains. So once we see heroes we're familiar with in a tale, we are tricked into liking them because we can't see ourselves as anything but likable.

Wolfie wrote: "Moore used Captain Nemo and Jekyll-Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because those two are traditionally considered as "heroes" so that he could flip them around on their heads to give ..."

I see your point, Wolfie, since really these characters are anti-heroes rather than heroes, but anti-heroes still hold a powerful sway over our acceptance, and certainly, as years have past, these characters have been slowly morphed into pseudo-heroes within their pop culture reinterpretations (I recently saw some bizarre anime with Nemo as a hero, not to mention the Pixar co-opting of the name for their own hero with the wacky fin). It is their familiarity that allows Moore to use them the way he wants to (and I do think he deepens both characters by increasing their gray areas; there is a change in their source manifestations that makes them increasingly complex). At least that's what I took away from the story.


Amber Tucker I see what you mean about heroes now. Good point.

And if I may add my two cents on Wolfie's observation, it's interesting to me that Captain Nemo is an outcast of both the "glorious" British empire and his own defeated Indian people. Moore points out that, if we are going to consider Nemo an anti-hero and dislike him for it, we have to remember that "our side" drove him to be what he is and do what he does. In life and literature we create our own anti-heroes – isn't that the price we pay for winning?


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

I see your point too, which reminds me of Keely's review and comments on Milton's Devil as anti-hero. Morally ambiguous characters can sway readers' emotions when designed to come off deliberately sympathetic. The line between good guy and bad guy becomes increasingly blurry and the bad guy gets mistaken for a good guy because people like to simplify good and evil to those simple divisible categories.

I haven't read the comic in years (so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt), but what if it's the other way around? Moore casting morally ambiguous behemoths of literature in his comic, not to shed a new light on the characters as misperceived heroes, but on the nature of heroes in comics once again? Like, as he did with Watchmen. (I pulled that outta my ass, but kinda like the idea.)


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