The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: the Omnibus Edition
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O’Neill
In case the word was not out, the single arc or trade that I hold in the highest regard is Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. Make no mistake, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus comes damned close. Generated from the creative minds of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, the LoXG takes a decidedly different tack than Kingdom Come did, but it is as equally worthwhile a creative venture. In fact, in many ways, moreso, becaue the setup and plot are something that had not really been done before.
In case your memory escapes you, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen concept is that near the turn of the century, a group of heroes from Victorian-era British literature were gathered by British Intelligence (MI-5) and deployed to combat a particularly nasty threat. You know, the kind the Great Empire had never seen, blah blah blah. The important thing is that the backdrop provided Moore the opportunity to do a mash-up or crossover issue as a miniseries featuring these literary icons. These characters that had been written about in the same age, of course, had never been placed in the same setting together. Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Murray, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Invisible Man are all brought together for two capers, consisting of six issues a piece in this colossal tome of a book that took me a bit longer to read than I had anticipated. It’s 416 pages. Not all of that is made up of the printed versions of the comics; there is a lot of sidebar material, including renditions of some old Allan Quartermain serials (nice!). If you are going to put in for this, set aside some time and prepare to work. It is highly enjoyable, but it’s a lot to get through.
What stands out to me the most in this book is the contrast between it, other tangential media artifacts and how the book deals with them differently, and how my own concept of what this book is was so wrong. Let me deal with my own conflicting emotions first. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the movie, is actually pretty high on my list of watchables, so this was my window to either experience or exorcise this hatred that many people have for the film. From what I’ve gathered from the vocal minority of the internet, most fans’ angst is over how the movie does not reflect the comic. And having read it, I get that. If you were really vested in the LoXG comic, then the movie makes you feel like you’ve been mugged or even sexually assaulted. I bring that latter one up because it happens in the book. Several times. All done in ways to deal with the complexity of the main characters, the historical times, and the interactions of the two. So to have the movie dumb everything down to content that would be palatable to the masses? Yeah I can see how that might torque some people off.
Other key differences? In the comic, Mina Murray is the leader of the League, not Quartermain. And they never really deal with the notion of her vampirism head on. That, for me, was actually a downcheck for the book, because she never really holds her own in combat. I kept wanting her to vamp out and whup on someone who had underestimated her because she was a woman. But that never happens. Murray’s contribution to the League is solely her mind and investigative talents, which does not seem to track with her actual Victorian character. Fans of the comic/haters of the movie can dislike Peta Wilson and her casting as a wicked vampiress with a host of traditional Vampire abilities, the origin of which makes no sense in terms of vampire lore. OK. But the book casts her as a character that has little to no tether to her actual rendering in the Victorian original, other than if you assume that her dealings in one strange event qualifies her as an investigator of the occult, mad science, and aliens.
My favorite character rendering is Captain Nemo, who does seem to track most closely to his rendering in the film. First of all, Nemo is Indian. Of which Hollywood of the 1960’s (and today) taught me otherwise, because it cast a 45 year old white male in the role in the 1954 film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and that was my first introduction to Captain Nemo. Nemo in LoXG is a scientist, who has a suspicion of all people that hones very, very closely to our modern day Bruce Wayne. With the Nautilus as well as its crew, Nemo is arguably the most powerful member of the League and the one MI-5 needs the most. What is also most interesting about his character is that despite his hatred for the British Empire and how it dealt with his people, he also immediately recognizes the two main threats that confront the country in Volumes 1 and 2, how they could spread to effect the rest of the free world, and decidedly aligns with the rest of the League quite quickly.
Jekyll, Hyde, and Griifin (Invisible Man) are also great in the book, and have some of the most poweful storylines. Only Nemo is really left to be simply a power-device in the book, as there is not a lot of digging into his background and surfacing the finer details of his character. That’s ok; resident Tony Stark-alike and captain of the Nautilus is ok with me.
The other element of this book that is so engaging is all of the easter eggs. As you move from page to page, you really have to look very closely at individual panels to see all of the references to other Victorian-era heroes and villains. Some of them are directly injected into the main storyline, as cameos or longer appearances. But many of them just show up in pictures. As they do in the movie, you see a lot of literary characters show up in a picture together; characters who should have never had the opportunity to cross paths. Previous iterations of the League? The movie strongly infers so, if not so much as saying it head on. But in the book it is never spoken to. you just see them in various panels. In that way, it’s a bit of a scavenger hunt to make sure you have picked up on them all. And what nerd does not geek out on scavenger hunts for easter eggs?
The League of Extraordinary Gentlmen Omnibus is the opportunity to experience perhaps one of the best period piece-comics told in our lifetime. If I had to put a label on it, I’d say it is like a dark version of the Avengers, but with the license to tell many NSFW details due to an R rating. In some cases, maybe something higher than R would be needed. There are many things in these comics that are downright uncomfortable. And that is good, because those are elements that describe a lot of Victorian-era literature. Many will likely quibble with the value of the story; if you cannot put yourself in the mindset of reading an old, maybe 1950’s pulp comic (despite its modern origins), you’ll likely fall off the wagon. The central plots of Volumes I and II are completely ridiculous and over the top in the most SteamPunk of fashions; Volume II more so than the first. But I would encourage readers to stick around for the character interactions, even if you do not like the details of the caper itself. Overall, Kingdom Come rises above this compendium still, as I think that will appeal to a wider audience. You really have to be very into history and literature to get the most mileage from this book. But if either one of those are your bag, you owe it to yourself to give this a read.
How I feel about trades includes two distinct elements: how good I think they are, and how proud I am that I read them. The latter involves finding those gems that are off the beaten track, but are or were highly relevant to the comics industry or the legacy of a specific character. To-date the highest ranking one for me in that field has been my copy of Martian Manhunter: Rings of Saturn. I am currently mulling over whether or not this work has trumped it for the number one spot in my cobwebbed matrix of rankings.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Omnibus was originally published in September of 2013, and can be purchased from Amazon for $24.42 at the time of this writing.