Sunday 17 June 2012

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009 - Review and background

People who have been around me in conversation know that there is one unavoidable truth.

At some point in the conversation, I will talk about Alan Moore. More than likely, I will do so at length. Boring, interminable, overly-detailed length.  So it was really only a matter of time before I did so in a blog post. I'm actually surprised it took this long. But then, today, I read the conclusion to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century. So there's quite a bit to talk about.

Feel free to skip to the review if you wish. But the background to this book, and the controversy around it, is interesting in itself.


The timing couldn't actually be better for this to come out, since Moore is currently in the middle of a lot of conversation amongst comic book fans, with the launch of DC Comics' Before Watchmen. This is a prequel series to Watchmen, Moore's best known work.

It's also a project that Moore doesn't want to happen, for reasons that I will attempt to briefly summarise.

When Watchmen came out, it was seen as something of a progressive move for creators' rights in comics. Since the majority of major comic characters and stories were created under "work for hire", the properties were owned by the companies rather than the creators. This led to a lot of bad feeling when one of the creators of Superman had serious financial difficulties, having never really had a fair share of the amount of money made from the property. By the eighties, there were attempts to fix this situation and make it more fair.

As such, it was agreed that Watchmen would be more creator-friendly, and that Moore and Dave Gibbons (the artist) would gain the rights to the series when it went out of print.

Watchmen was enough of a hit that it has never been out of print. So the rights have never reverted to Moore and Gibbons. Moore feels strongly that, while this was legal, it went against the spirit of the agreement. It wasn't helped when DC classed some of the merchandise for Watchmen as 'promotional material', meaning that Moore and Gibbons didn't receive money for it.

This, along with the varying quality of movies based on Moore's work, has led to a lot of bad feelings and Moore now refuses to work with DC at all.

He's also been very critical of DC's decision to launch Before Watchmen, which obviously does not have his blessing or cooperation.

Some fans feel that Moore is being irrational or petty. Others feel that DC are being disrespectful. But the main arguments are usually over Moore's comments about DC's lack of originality. Because a lot of Moore's work involves other people's characters, some perceive this as hypocritical. Especially since some of his stories tend to be rather sexually explicit, which has got some people's backs up with regards to classic characters aimed at children (specifically in Lost Girls, but also some of the later instalments of the League stories).

Personally, I feel there's a difference between what Moore is doing (a fictional world inhabited by literary characters, using them to tell a story that is separate to their own narratives) and what DC are doing (an official prequel to Watchmen, presented as part of the same narrative). The League is not presented as a sequel to Dracula, or indeed as an official part of the Harry Potter universe.

I like DC a lot, and have massively enjoyed their recent relaunch of their main titles, but I have no interest in Before Watchmen. Not because I find the idea offensive or disrespectful (I'm with Rick Blaine, in that I have sympathy with the fox while understanding the point of view of the hound), but just that I feel the Watchmen story was told completely enough that it doesn't feel like there's anything new to say about any of that universe that interests me.

But Century: 2009 interests me a lot.

I loved the first two volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Silly, dark and strange, it's a beautifully effective story. The follow-up, Black Dossier, was something of a mixed bag, which makes a lot more sense when you bear in mind that it was intended to be a primarily prose-based scrapbook of sorts, and the comic book elements were added in later as a framing device.

Century, which is published in three parts, tells the continuing story of the characters over a hundred years. It's been the least interesting part of the series for me, as it felt rather inconsistent. So that brings us up to today.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century: 2009 review

As much as Century: 2009 is the last part of the Century trilogy, it's actually the final part of the story that began with Black Dossier,  which is absolutely necessary reading for this one in order to understand the Blazing World elements of the story. To a certain extent, this means that Century and Black Dossier effectively comprise the third full volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

For the first time, this feels complete in a way that none of the other parts had so far. I'd been worried about a law of diminishing returns, but what Century: 2009 actually does is to provide context for a lot of what had gone before. As a result, not only is this a strong story in its own right, but it actually makes the previous instalments much more satisfactory in and of themselves.

What felt like dangling plot points at times, or needless tangents, are often explained and completed here in a smooth way. It also provides an overall point to the story that was missing before, which in turn ramps up the satirical elements of the story in completely unexpected ways. Also brave ones, with Harry Potter being a particular target for a kicking - although to be fair, this appears to be more about the growing influence of franchises than Rowling's work specifically.

It's not a perfect piece of work, and it's still not up to the levels of the first two volumes of the League. It gets a little bit uneven with the pacing occasionally, and on a first read-through it feels like Moore started writing it without a specific ending in mind, but this may require some further re-reading. As a result, it feels like the resolution of the story probably would have happened in mostly the same way whether or not the main characters had done anything.

But it's audacious, it's big, bold and feels rather different to what's gone before. Some aspects (Michael Moorcock's time traveller, for example) may feel like handy narrative devices were it not for the fact that they actually feel mostly earned through the first two volumes. And all three of the main characters are handled fantastically, with where they all end up making complete sense.

At times, I was unsure about Moore's decision to continue using Mina and Allan from the first two volumes, but this final volume made me feel much, much more comfortable with that decision.

Kevin O'Neill's artwork is as great as it always has been on this series, and there are some beautiful artistic moments throughout (Prospero, who exists in a third dimension, breaking through the panels at one point is a particularly nice device). And his ability with caricature is astonishing. There aren't many artists that could so convincingly represent Michael Gambon at a single panel at a distance in such a way that you recognise him immediately. This means that the old League game of spotting references is as much fun as ever.

Overall, the work Moore has done on League since the original two volumes isn't as accessible as his earlier work, but it is hugely rewarding. It's funny, dark and sad all at the same time. It's also the most outrageous part yet.

Who would have thought that someone could tell a story entirely filled with other people's characters, and yet have it be such an original piece of work?


  1. Nice review. Totally agree about this third part bringing the previous ones (and bits of Black Dossier) to a nice rounded conclusion.
    Bit confused by the 'time traveller' reference though - Norton is a creation of Iain Sinclair not Moorcock (unless you meant Jerry who does appear in Century:1969 of course).

  2. You're completely right. I did mean Norton by Iain Sinclair, but got them mixed up while I was writing after reading the guide. My own fault for not having read any Sinclair fiction (I've read London Orbital, but that's it). I'll need to fix that. Nice catch though.