My monthly graphic novel reviews have generally been of books I've had sitting on my shelf forever but without having been read. Occasionally, I slip one in that I have read before and this is one of those, as I just can't resist the basic concept in play. It's a rare book that fits my tastes better than this one, as it's a Victorian take on the Avengers or the Justice League, with the "superheros" adventurers from exotic literature of the day. I haven't read anything by Alan Moore that I haven't adored and returning to this helps get some of the bad taste from the movie adaptation out of my mouth.
Almost everyone in play here is a fictional character from British literature, most of them sourced from 19th-century novels so in the public domain with a few identifiable but not named for copyright reasons because they were created later and set within the period. However, they come together, assembled as it were, by an original character created for this work, albeit one with a fictional connection given that he's Campion Bond, the grandfather of James Bond, 007.
First on board is Wilhemina Murray (Mina Harker from 'Dracula) who's given the task of tracking down the other singular talents Bond suggests. Her adventure with the count was a year earlier and she's a divorced woman now working for the British government. She finds Captain Nemo (from a pair of Jules Verne novels, 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' and 'The Mysterious Island') and they take the Nautilus to Egypt to acquire Allan Quatermain (the hero of many lost world adventures in the works of H. Rider Haggard, such as 'King Solomon's Mines' and 'She') from an opium den where he'd fallen into a deep addiction.
If this suggests a darker take than the source material, you wouldn't be entirely wrong but you should revisit the originals to see just how dark some of them really were. Case in point, they next visit Paris to meet Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, who's now questioning his conclusions about certain murders in the Rue Morgue in light of further ones being committed. He wonders if they might be the work of an uncaught British murderer and he's right, but it's not Jack the Ripper, it's Edward Hyde (and so also Dr. Henry Jekyll), whom they sign up for the League. Last in is Hawley Griffin (the Invisible Man) who's had a blast impregnating students at Miss Rosa Coote's Correctional Academy for Wayward Gentlewomen in the invisible guise of the Holy Spirit.
So that's the team, but that's also a great point to mention that these are just the beginning. Sure, the primary characters are easily recognisable, but Dupin is far from the only supporting character who can be identified from literature. Such characters are everywhere at Miss Coote's and I recognised enough to know that I didn't recognise them all. I didn't recognise Miss Coote, for a start, perhaps because she hails from a number of pivotal works of Victorian erotica, such as 'The Convent School' and 'The Pearl', a fitting source given that she's clearly a dominatrix with a flagellation fetish. Quite why parents would send their daughters there, I really don't know, but I recognised Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm but failed with Olive Chancellor from 'The Bostonians' and, as a teacher, Katy Carr of 'What Katy Did'.
And so it went throughout, I caught perhaps a majority of the references but missed a bunch too, some of whom are merely hinted at in a single panel because of those pesky copyright concerns. Certainly, it wasn't hard to recognise the key players in the case that the League are tasked with investigating, one in which M, the leader of MI5 (and whose identity is a neat red herring), battles Fu Manchu for control of the criminal underworld in London. Every page served to ably remind me just how much I love genre fiction from the Victorian era and how there are still key works that I haven't read yet.
I can't really go much further into the synopsis without venturing into spoiler territory, though I will say that, if you're trying to figure out the identity of M, you're probably both right and wrong at the same time. Of course, if you haven't read this book already but you're into this sort of fiction, then you don't need me to recommend it; you were automatically on board after my first paragraph. I have to say that Moore does this really well. It's easy to connect this book with that, but he goes the extra mile here to build a sort of Wold-Newton universe that reconciles what seems like a century of imaginative fiction, trawling in works not only of mystery, horror and science fiction but spy fiction, yellow peril, adventure fiction and even children's literature, from at least Great Britain, France and the United States.
In other hands, this could have gone horribly wrong, as indeed it did when adapted to film, because the people behind it didn't understand the Victorian mindset and turned it into something it should never have been. Moore gets it and has a tremendous amount of fun with it. I don't want to hazard a guess at how much research he did to craft these connections, given that the logical reading list is immense, but I have a feeling that he enjoyed every second of it. Because of that, everything feels acutely right, even when he's subverting things. We leave with the feeling that he could easily write a new novel featuring any one of these characters and he kind of dabbled in that in the extras.
This graphic novel is a collection of a six-issue comic book run and each of those issues also contained an episode in a serialised story, 'Allan and the Sundered Veil', which is a dense and descriptive yarn of the old school that also serves as a prequel to the main story. The six parts are collected in this volume but not edited, so we enjoy recaps just like we would have done in a serialised story of the day. Perhaps as a sort of homage to the characters it contains, it's double columned like a pulp magazine but Victorian in its broad vocabulary and overuse of adjectives.
The hero is Allan Quatermain, of course, but he's transported in time through use of a rare African drug called taduki, a trip in more ways than one, during which he meets other recognisable characters (yeah, surprise, surprise) who collectively face off with a Lovecraftian monster in an unsatisfied battle that is continued later in a later volume of the series. Moore fancies John Carter, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian novels, as being related to H. P. Lovecraft's infamous dreamer, Randolph Carter; he describes the latter as the grandnephew of the former. H. G. Wells' Time Traveller shows up too, because, hey, he can.
It's been many years since I read this last and I'm very happy that I pulled it off the shelf again. It's the gift that keeps on giving. Not only is it a fun story, all the more fun if you know the primary characters from their source material and you at least recognise a good chunk of those playing support, but a true rabbit hole for the period genre fan. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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