Please welcome today’s guest writer, Edward Hall, who submits the following holiday book review.
Authors have been “borrowing” from one another for centuries. For example, Cervantes wrote the second part of Don Quixote to challenge a literary pirate and assert primacy as the man of La Mancha’s originator. A far nobler form of literary piracy than what Cervantes faced continues in the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book from writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill: The two creators typically use figures in the public domain for their mashups of Victorian adventure tales, forgotten comic strips, British television, and so on. In Century: 1910, however, nobility and piracy of other sorts are at odds.
O’Neill and Moore’s latest collaboration entangles their league in a version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Century: 1910 is the first of three narratives that, together, are to constitute the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume. A unifying title—Century: 1968 and Century: 2008 are the announced follow-ups—links the current book thematically to other works of Moore’s that deal with the abattoir of history he seems to consider the last hundred years. A new take on Jack the Ripper ties Century: 1910 to From Hell. The reappearance of references to the Black Freighter links the new installment to Watchmen, Moore’s demolition job on the superhero genre—and completes a loop that illuminates the recurring tropes in Moore’s work.
The first volume’s league comprised Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde, adventurer Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon’s Mines), and Mina Murray (from Dracula). A generation later, the line-up now consists of a rejuvenated Murray and Quatermain, the immortal and gender-switching Orlando, the gentleman thief Anthony “A.J.” Raffles, and the psychic detective Carnacki. The group remains in service to the British government, specifically to Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter brother. As if their potency might be in direct proportion to their literary fame, these newer league members prove less effective than their predecessors, despite being slightly more cohesive.
A generation’s time has also brought Captain Nemo to his deathbed and to a divisive disagreement with his daughter, Janni. She flees their island home and defies his wish that she follow in his footsteps. Her decision makes her a stowaway aboard a ship already bearing Jack MacHeath back to England. Arrival in London condemns the penniless Janni—Indian, like her father, as Jules Verne portrayed Nemo in The Mysterious Island—to an underbelly existence. In the world of the league, it was MacHeath (aka Mack the Knife) who did the misdeeds attributed historically to Jack the Ripper. Soon, women die at his hands once again, and headlines ask whether the Whitechapel killer is back. As the prostitute Suki Tawdry watches, an innkeeper hires Janni, though he mishears and records her name as “Jenny.” Thus, the book’s rice-paper-slit view of the Weill-Brecht play is set.
A plot that runs through this volume (and its forthcoming sequels) parallels the events of Threepenny Opera and complicates them for Murray and her colleagues. A fictional counterpart to the real-world occultist Aleister Crowley intends to work some world-ending magic. The central irony of Century: 1910 is that this sorcerer gets key information for advancing his scheme through the clumsy efforts of the story’s supposed heroes. Readers of Watchmen may recall that book’s “heroic” failure, in which the protagonists realize they have been working all along against a plan (albeit a ruthless and genocidal one) to secure peace on earth.
How successfully have Moore and O’Neill bent the Brecht-Weill material to this book’s purposes, though? As a piece of epic theater, The Threepenny Opera sought to rouse audiences from the comfort of their values to challenge the moneyed class and its depredation against the less fortunate. The two comics creators attempt to make readers question the activities that governments undertake in haste or in secret. For example, Holmes tells Murray that police inspector Tiger Brown (who, as in the play, remains a friend of the killer MacHeath) is investigating the murders. “I see,” Murray replies, her words rendered in lettering that points to her comprehension of far more than Holmes has said. Later, when MacHeath is rushed without a trial to the gallows, Mina asks why. Such a proceeding, Holmes says, “might embarrass the aristocracy.”
Aristocracy proves to be the embarrassment in Century: 1910 on more levels than one. The 14th Earl of Gurney—Peter O’Toole’s character from the 1972 film The Ruling Class—becomes MacHeath’s deus ex machina by confessing to the very crimes that put a noose around the killer’s neck. Anyone familiar with director Peter Medak’s satire of upper-echelon England will appreciate Moore’s clever exploitation of Jack Gurney’s particular brand of madness. The author’s literalizing of Pirate Jenny through the character of Janni is more troublesome. Janni’s father, Captain Nemo, is a prince and an opponent of the Raj. By the time of Century: 1910 he considers England an enemy. Asking readers to overlook Nemo’s never-explained alliance with England is slippery enough; the realization that Janni’s narrative arc is that of a naïve aristocrat who exchanges her privilege and inheritance for penury, only to fall back on her birthright for the purpose of vengeance, feels like a fairy-tale perversion of Brecht and Weill.
In addition to characters and plots, Moore and O’Neill plunder The Threepenny Opera for musical inspiration. Just as in a staged musical, characters near the singers either remain oblivious to what is sung or do not perceive it musically. The speech balloons in Century: 1910 contain musical notes to make sung passages unambiguous. Thus, to the tune of “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” we learn who MacHeath is and what he has done. Moore’s lyrics seem to better fit the slower German version than they do the more upbeat “Mack the Knife.” That affinity does not seem to stem from purism on Moore’s part, though, as Suki Tawdry’s verses of “Pirate Jenny” refer repeatedly to the “Black Freighter” of Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 translation, rather than the original’s “Schiff mit acht Segeln” (“ship with eight sails”) or its “fǖnfzig Kanonen” (“fifty cannons”).
Of course, as already mentioned, the Black Freighter has appeared before in Moore’s oeuvre. In Watchmen, the story-within-the-story that mirrors the main narrative is a horrific pirate comic called Tales of the Black Freighter. A friend recently suggested to me that Moore’s recurring subject matter is the 20th century itself: the century of serial killers, century of industrialized warfare and assembly-line genocide, century of the atomic bomb. I think the Black Freighter is, for Moore, shorthand for that recently departed era, that dark ship all of humanity was stuck aboard (“we’re all in the same boat”).
The pleasures of this comic are its smaller and less epic ones, however. O’Neill draws some of the most memorably unlovely faces in mainstream comics. One of Janni’s workplace tormentors (her story can be read as a caution against sexual harassment) sports a nose that belongs in a urologist’s essay on paresis. O’Neill’s most memorable visage is the craggy, Stalin-like one he gives to Carnacki. The illustrator curses Raffles with some alarmingly British dentition, but he manages to convey Orlando’s androgyny only fitfully. And, as usual, the margins of many panels contain homages that require an obsessive-compulsive’s attention to catch in full. Look closely and you can find Popeye, Moby Dick, a facehugger, and Andy Capp.
The writer seems to conceal his thematic concerns in oblique fashion, too: Amid a cryptic exchange between Murray and the time-tripping Prisoner of London, the latter refers to “blood for oil.” Although the phrase probably connects to the forthcoming 2008 chapter, it also evokes the George W. Bush administration’s moral calculus regarding Mideast policy. Weighed with a reminder of the league’s place in Britain’s military intelligence infrastructure and with its members’ general inability to accomplish anything they set out to do, Century: 1910 adds up to a condemnation of the United Kingdom’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq. As an appropriation of Brecht and Weill, it lacks bite. Then again, we all seem to be aboard the same damn boat as before, just with a new number painted on its side. Maybe that experience has left us less sensitive to teeth-marks.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—Century: 1910. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, designed and lettered by Todd Klein, colored by Ben Dimagmaliw, edited by Chris Staros. Published by Top Shelf in association with Knockabout Comics: www.topshelfcomix.com, www.knockabout.com.
Alabama escapee Ed Hall writes journalism, poetry, and fiction. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Under a pseudonym he creates assemblages in found metal and other repurposed materials. As a volunteer at Eyedrum, an alternative art space in Atlanta, he serves as vice chair of the executive board.
Comics have earned increasing recognition over the years as an important element of contemporary visual culture. Should BURNAWAY include more book reviews and coverage of local comics publishers?