Published by DC Comics’ Wildstorm imprint, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is that most rare of commodities: a truly original idea that takes some of the oldest and most well-worn characters and concepts from classic literature, and finds a way to make them feel new and vital after a century’s worth of translation and adaptation.
Written by comics master Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN takes five classic characters from 19th-century literature and adds a 20th-century comic-book twist: teaming them up, a la DC’s JUSTICE SOCIETY or JUSTICE LEAGUE. Set primarily in 1898 London, the series details the formation of the League by the British government to combat what they believe to be a truly monstrous foe, and their subsequent struggle against an entirely different threat altogether.
Not only is the book remarkably accurate to the time period and the source materials in dialogue, detail and rendering, but the comics themselves are designed to resemble turn-of-the-century “penny dreadfuls,” the cheaply produced periodicals turned out as quick, disposable entertainment for the masses, including a 19th-century-style letters column and hilariously politically incorrect vintage advertisements. (One of these advertisements, an ad for a feminine hygiene product called the “Marvel ‘Whirling Spray’ Syringe,” was yanked at the last minute by then-DC executive Paul Levitz for fear of offending DC’s longtime rivals.)
Moore and O’Neill have filled the series with countless cameos from Victorian literature: everyone from Pollyana to Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Moreau can be found.
The art is intricately detailed and teeming with historical accuracy, yet the base of O’Neill’s art style is slightly cartoony, which actually serves the story better than an overly rendered realistic style would, and makes some of the series’ more violent and graphic moments all the more unsettling.
To get a real sense of just how exhaustively researched the series is, after you’ve read the comics, head over to Jess Nevins’ Comic Book Annotations Web site, and read for yourself, thanks to Nevins’ crack research, just how much work, thought and planning went into every issue. It’s astounding.
Let us meet the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, shall we?
As the story opens, we meet the first recruit for the League, Wilhemina Murray, an uptight, mannered divorcee with an affectation for rather tight neckwear. In time, her married name is revealed: Mina Harker, the damsel in distress from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel DRACULA. Unlike most of her teammates, Murray has no special gift or superhuman power to bring to bear, save an indomitable will, and the ability to cow the otherwise male members of the League. As for the predilection for scarves, it’s clear that it’s meant to cover up the wounds from the vampire’s bite, making for a startling moment when the scarf is finally removed.
Murray’s second recruit in the LEAGUE comics is the mad captain from Jules Verne’s classic 1870 novel 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Captain Nemo, with his famed submarine the Nautilus serving as a de facto headquarters for the group. Moore’s version sticks close to the character as written in Verne’s 1874 sequel MYSTERIOUS ISLAND: here the “science-pirate” Nemo is an embittered Indian, now working with the British government only out of convenience, feeling his only loyalty to the sea itself.
The Allan Quatermain character first appeared in H. Rider Haggard’s series of adventure novels, with KING SOLOMON’S MINES probably the most well known. Allan Quatermain was the original Great White Hunter-type adventurer, with characters such as Indiana Jones bearing more than a little Allan Quatermain influence.
With Quatermain now sober, he and Murray travel to Paris to acquire their next recruit, with the help of Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal detective character C. Auguste Dupin, made famous in Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter.” In following the trail of a murder of prostitutes, the trio meets up with the League’s next member: meek Henry Jekyll and his horrifying alter ego, Edward Hyde, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.
Hyde’s portrayal in the comics, as a huge monstrous gorilla-like creature, differs greatly from Stevenson’s description of Hyde as “small and apelike” in the novel, although Moore takes care to note the discrepancy and explain it in the course of the series.
With Jekyll granted amnesty by the British government in exchange for working with the League, Murray, Quatermain and Nemo infiltrate a girls’ boarding school so as to capture their final unwilling recruit, Dr. Griffin, from H.G. Wells’ novel THE INVISIBLE MAN. It seems the invisible Griffin has taken up residence in the boarding school, which accounts for the sudden influx of “immaculate conceptions” taking place among the increasingly pregnant student body. As foul an introduction as this is to Griffin, his actions over the course of the series bear it out; even more so than Edward Hyde, his is an irredeemable soul.
With the League now complete, the team is set off on a mission to reclaim the highly valuable anti-gravity metal Cavorite (taken from H.G. Wells’ 1901 novel THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON) from the fiendish Oriental crimelord who rules the East end of London: of course, who else could it be but Fu Manchu, from the famed Sax Rohmer novel THE MYSTERY OF DR. FU MANCHU.
The League will eventually discover who’s really behind both their formation and the heist of the Cavorite, but we’ll leave some questions unanswered so you can enjoy the ride yourself. The first LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN 6-issue mini-series is available collected as a trade paperback, and the second volume, also numbering six issues, is about to wrap up. As for the second series, I’ll leave you with this: There’s another famous H.G. Wells story that takes place at about the same time: WAR OF THE WORLDS.