Alan Moore, grand master of the graphic novel, turned 54 on Sunday. On Sunday night he appeared, in cartoon form, in a comics-themed episode of "The Simpsons," a show of which he's long been an ardent supporter. Moore isn't much of a self-promoter, so this rare media turn had to serve as an oblique reminder that the third volume of his head-spinning historical fantasy, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," had just been released by DC Comics. Finally. It's been a five-year wait. Worth it, of course.
After nearly 30 years in the business, Moore remains the most boldly imaginative writer in the comics field. His 1986 "Watchmen" established the "graphic novel" as a legitimate literary form. (Moore accepts the term with reservations: as long as the book in question is a unified story, not just a hodge-podge of stand-alone single-issue comics.) Subsequent works like "V for Vendetta," "From Hell," "Promethea," "Top 10" and "Lost Girls" have been wondrous in equally unique ways.
Like "From Hell," his fanciful inquiry into the Jack the Ripper murders, the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" books draw deeply from one of Moore's favorite historical periods, the late-19th and early 20th centuries. (The artwork throughout, by Kevin O'Neill, is a marvel of intricate period evocation.) Volume One introduced the League itself, a group of spy-adventurers — all of them figures of Victorian fiction — who had been recruited by British Military Intelligence (MI5) to battle threats to the homeland. They included Allan Quartermain, the hero of H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" (1885); the shady scientist Griffin from H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man" (1897); Captain Nemo, the Indian "science-pirate" in Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" (1870); and the unstable titular duo from Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1886). The team was led by Mina Murray, better known under her married name, Mina Harker, in Bram Stoker's 1897 "Dracula."
In the first installment of the story, the League encountered a number of other vintage literary characters, among them the French detective Arsène Dupin; the Chinese crime lord Fu Manchu; Mycroft Holmes, elder brother of the celebrated Sherlock; and that great detective's nemesis, Professor Moriarty — who, in a sly twist, turned out to be the head of MI5.
Volume Two of "The League" was set amid the Martian invasion of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel, "The War of the Worlds," with a disturbing side visit to the twisted protagonist of Wells' 1896 "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Not to mention Mars itself.
The thick web of literary reference in these first two books, and their rousing spirit of pulp-fiction adventure, were marvels of authorial invention. However, they now seem mere warm-ups for "Black Dossier," a hyper-elaborate skein of historical inquiry that ranges from the late '50s all the way back to the Bronze Age (tracking the adventures of the transsexual medieval legend Orlando). This third volume — set in 1958, in the aftermath of George Orwell's "1984" — opens up the "League" saga to reveal that the Mina Murray group was only one of many; that earlier teams had included such vintage fictional characters as Natty Bumpo, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the worlds-traveler Lemuel Gulliver, the gentleman thief Anthony Raffles, the swashbuckling Dr. Syn, and the sorcerer Prospero, from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." There were also rival French and German teams, it turns out, among their number the Parisian sociopath Fantômas, the bizarre Nyctalope, the robot Maria from "Metropolis," and even Dr. Caligari and his faithful somnambulist, Cesare. Also referenced are James Bond (although not by name — copyright problems), Bulldog Drummond, the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (a Moore favorite), and even high-kicking Emma Peel, from the old Brit TV series, "The Avengers."
(I won't attempt to summarize the story; and I don't know anyone who could identify all of these characters, or keep everything that goes on among them straight. However, an indefatigable fellow by the name of Jess Nevins, a Texas librarian, has devoted large chunks of time to annotating all of the "League" books, and his researches are fascinating. This is his site for "Black Dossier.")
Solely as a physical object, "Black Dossier" is an extraordinary production. The book is thick with postcards, letters, maps, diagrams — there's even a "Tijuana bible"-style sex-comic insert (not hardcore). And Moore has outdone himself in such virtuoso creations as an imaginary, uncompleted Shakespearean play ("Faerie's Fortunes Founded"); a whimsical reminiscence in the style of P.G. Wodehouse; and a wild, somewhat taxing chapter in the stream-of-consciousness mode of Jack Kerouac. The last 17 pages of the book, which take us on a trip to "The Blazing World" (another obscure lit reference), are in 3D. (Cardboard glasses are included.) This section, a poetic celebration of the powers of the imagination, is one of the most rapturous sequences in all of Moore's work. Which is recommendation enough, trust me, to read the whole book.