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In comics, the mainstream has long teemed with "team" titles, heirs apparent to the original supergroup, the Justice Society of America, which made its debut in the Winter 1940 issue of All-American's legendary All-Star. As aficionados know, that Golden Age gathering ultimately inspired DC's Justice League of America, a Silver Age update that premiered in the February-March 1960 issue of The Brave and the Bold and soon graduated to its own title. The JLA's success, as Stan Lee confessed in Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974, directly inspired the creation of Fantastic Four and the Marvel mania of the '60s.

For "team" titles, though, the modern era dawned with nova brilliance in 1975, with the advent of Giant-Size X-Men. That short-lived quarterly reintroduced and revised a group created in the early '60s by Lee and the great Jack Kirby, and readers' fanatical reaction to it inspired an almost mind-numbing profusion of X-books that continues to this day.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cover

Given that profusion, casual readers might be tempted to suspect that a contemporary "team" title could offer nothing new to comics. In that suspicion, they would, of course, err -- as demonstrated by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a handsome $24.95 hardback created by writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill and published a few months ago by America's Best Comics, LLC.

League originally appeared as a six-issue miniseries from ABC, Moore's "personal" imprint at the WildStorm imprint of DC. The miniseries premiered in January 1999 and, after a few of the unfortunate production delays to which creator-owned comics seem especially susceptible, concluded in July 2000.

From that miniseries, the volume under consideration here re-presents the 144-page main adventure and the novelette "Allan and the Sundered Veil," an H. Rider Haggard pastiche by Moore with spot illustrations by O'Neill. It also contains the covers from the miniseries, as well as covers from one of the comics industry's infamous variant editions and from two reprint editions. (The cover to the sixth issue, by the way, bears specific mention: in a bravura stunt, Moore and O'Neill used it to summarize their narrative to that point in a half-dozen cartoonish panels captioned with doggerel.) Finally, there are a few editorial extras, most of them tongue-in-cheek affairs like a paint-by-numbers feature starring Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray.

As noted, the stylish, angular art of League flowed from the pen of O'Neill, an alumnus of 2000AD (Rebellion Developments), who is perhaps so far best known for having co-created the superhero parody Marshal Law with writer Pat Mills. O'Neill's work nicely recaptures the verve of penny-dreadful illustrations without succumbing to the temptation to ape those illustrations. Indeed, his slick, idiosyncratic visuals range from the iconic to the intricate -- the detail of some panels herein recalls Will Elder at his Mad height.

The script, meanwhile, issued from the busy word processor of Moore, inarguably the most significant writer in modern mainstream comics and arguably the most significant writer in comics, period. Moore -- a practicing shaman who physically resembles a latter-day Rasputin -- first came to the attention of most American readers with his work on The Saga of Swamp Thing (later just Swamp Thing) for DC in the mid-'80s. That work fast led to three superhero prodigies: Miracleman for Eclipse (now defunct), and V for Vendetta and Watchmen for DC again. In the dozen or so years since that memorable triumvirate, Moore not only has written a challenging first novel -- Voice of the Fire, published by Victor Gollancz in 1996 -- but also has broadened his horizons both inside and outside mainstream comics, penning everything from spin-offs of Spawn (Todd McFarlane's horror/superhero amalgam for Image) to an odd collaboration with artist Mark Beyer for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's RAW.

League, in fact, almost precisely occupies the midpoint on a conceptual continuum formed by Moore's most memorable recent works. In specific, it sizzles with the funny-book electricity of the other stellar offerings from ABC, while inhabiting, more or less, the same milieu as the majestic, mature From Hell (Eddie Campbell Comics) and appropriating Victorian literary icons like Moore's very mature collaboration with Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls (Top Shelf, forthcoming).

Those icons, all drawn from literature of the fantastic, constitute the titular League: Mina Murray of Bram Stoker's Dracula (scandalously divorced from Jonathan Harker following the events of that novel), Allan Quatermain of Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and other adventures, Captain Nemo of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, and the eponymous foci of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

Moore and O'Neill's narrative opens in 1898 in an alternate England, where a portly, patronizing man named Bond recruits Miss Murray into the service of Queen Victoria. Directly, with Nemo -- a turbaned tower of intensity -- she journeys aboard the Nautilus to Cairo, there to retrieve a gaunt, benumbed Quatermain from an opium den. In due course, the trio next captures the brutish Hyde in Paris and the see-through psychopath Griffin (the Invisible Man) in a singular English girls school.

Miss Murray and her outre team then tackle a threat to the Crown regarding which Bond briefs them. A source of antigravity, invented by an excitable British professor, has fallen into the hands of an Oriental warlord known only as "the Doctor" -- a sinister figure out of Sax Rohmer -- who's ruthlessly established himself as the East End's kingpin of crime. Antigravity, Bond notes, would transform the Doctor into an almost incalculable danger to the British Empire, in that it would make him "capable of subjecting England to an aerial bombardment with explosives."

For their individual reasons, the five resolve to thwart his plans, and this they do, with aplomb. At that point, unfortunately, the misfit quintet learns their efforts have only strengthened a menace of what seems to be even greater evil -- a circumstance they further resolve to rectify.

The narrative concludes with pulp-ish gusto. It seethes, indeed, with images and conceits worthy of Lester Dent (the first and finest writer on Street & Smith's Doc Savage) at his zenith: A gigantic chiropteran airship, powered by an unearthly element familiar from The First Men in the Moon by Wells, bombs London's Limehouse district. In response, Chinese fighters attack it atop war-kites emblazoned with devilish faces. In the night sky, automatic harpoon guns slay with dreadful precision. And the altogether splendid Miss Murray proves quite forcefully why she's the leader of the team.

Great fun, this -- no bald synopsis can possibly do justice to the detail with which Moore and O'Neill have packed the tale, as well as "Allan and the Sundered Veil." (For insight into that detail, curious readers should visit this Web site, where pop scholar Jess Nevins has copiously annotated this work and many more.) Others apparently concur with this assessment of League. Hollywood has come sniffing, for instance -- but then, Hollywood nowadays comes sniffing about everything.

More importantly, however, in May 2001, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen won a Bram Stoker Award in the "Illustrated Narrative" category from the Horror Writers Association (a "worldwide organization of writers and publishing professionals dedicated to promoting the interests of writers of Horror and Dark Fantasy," according to its Web site). Competing for that award had been works by Joe R. Lansdale, Robert Weinberg, and Bernie Wrightson -- none too shoddy company.

Even more importantly to devotees of Moore and O'Neill's work on League, by the way, a celestial light show at the end of this adventure explains why it's labeled "Vol. 1/I/One" -- and hints at the Wellsian impetus for the next volume, which I, for one, look forward to a great deal.

 

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Bryan A. Hollerbach lives in St. Louis, where he works as a proofreader for a "Big Five" accounting firm. In his spare time, he also writes about pop culture and serves as associate editor of NoisyPaper, a local alternative tabloid to which he contributes a monthly column about television.



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