Saturday, July 27, 2019

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest

By RM Rhodes

2019 is the year of endings. Lost amongst the hype surrounding the endings of Game of Avengers Wars franchises is the ending of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the heavily metafictional comic series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. The first issues of the first volume were published in 1999, which means that this series has been running on and off for two decades.

The conceit of LOEG (as it is often shortened) is that every character (and the majority of the settings) are from some piece of fiction or another. Clearly, this involves a great deal of research, and part of the fun of the series is trying to identify who everyone is. Jess Nevins has been making annotations of the whole series, and his page does a great job of helping the reader catch all of the references. The annotations are not strictly necessary, of course. Alan Moore is, in addition to everything else, a commercial writer and he knows how to keep the story going for readers who can't be bothered to look up all of the Easter Eggs that he throws in.

Named after Shakespeare's last play, the final volume of LOEG is entitled The Tempest, and the last episodic installment was published in mid-July. As with everything that Alan Moore produces, the name was not chosen lightly. The original play is about the wizard Prospero giving up his magic and destroying his books. Being a fictional character, Prospero shows up in this volume as well, but his appearance is heavily based on Alan Moore himself, which makes it fitting that this volume is also Alan Moore's final goodbye to comics. This is very much him breaking his toys and going off to do something completely different.

For the majority of the series, the stories were all set in the past. It was not until the final issue of the previous volume, 2011's Century, that the characters were brought to the present day. The Tempest picks up mere days after the end of Century, and the protagonists are still picking up the pieces from the end of the previous story. Because it’s the end of the series, I’m going to shy away from anything more than a high-level plot synopsis.

The main characters are Emma Peel (from the Avengers TV show), Wilhelmina Murray (from Dracula), and Orlando (the transgender character based partially on the book by Virginia Woolf). Their principal protagonist is James Bond (who is never named, but it’s clearly him). There’s also a nice bit of business with the various other people who have played James Bond over the years. The interactions between these two groups are intimately wrapped up in everything that has come before in the series. A series that has been publishing sporadically for two decades and only has a handful of volumes is allowed to have a degree of continuity that recommends readers to start at the beginning.

The Tempest turns fully into the conceit of an entirely fictional universe, ultimately bringing about the end of the world. This makes sense because a lot fiction set in the far future posits some version of the end of the world around the beginning of the 21st century. As such, this story wraps up plot lines from the entire series and contains major revelations that upturn everything that the reader thought they knew about the story to date.

Apocalypses and end-of-the-world situations figure prominently in a lot of Alan Moore’s fiction. Some version of the idea has shown up in almost everything he’s done. This includes Captain Britain, Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea, Providence, and Jerusalem. It’s almost easier to find stories by Moore that don’t end with some form of apocalypse – personal, worldwide, or something in between.

In this case, the apocalypse is literal and a good portion of the plot turns on that destruction. The characters (and, thus, the readers) find out more details about the how and why of this ending was always inevitable. Along the way, the various characters settle scores and tie up a variety of loose ends. It’s a rousing romp of a story that travels all over the world, seeing places and doing things.

One of the things that makes this volume interesting is that every one of the six issues is formatted slightly differently. The first one is an homage to Classics Illustrated. The second one is an homage to science fiction comics of the 60s and 70s. The third is an homage to the romance comics of the 50s and 60s. The fourth is an homage to the venerable British children’s comic The Beano. The fifth is an homage to old EC-influenced horror comics from the 50s and 60s. The sixth is an homage to the British anthology comic 2000AD.

In some cases, the homages are only surface and don’t show up in the interior of the issue. The last issue features very strong 2000 AD homages in the interior, including the little credits box that looks identical to the original. Alan Moore cut his teeth writing for 2000 AD, so the homage feels a lot more heartfelt than some of the others.

Thanks to the wonderfully talented Kevin O’Neill, these stories are all over the place in an interesting and refreshing manner. A good portion of the story is told in one or two page stories that tell an entire storybeat. Each of them could stand alone as a solo story, and each of them is visually distinct, but they all tie into the larger plot in a very creative way. There’s an entire issue that contains extended visual homages to Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD from the mid 60s, which is appropriate considering the spy motifs wrapped around the principal protagonist.

All in all, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a great series for people who want to get into comics but aren’t entirely certain about the whole superhero thing. The first volume leaned vaguely in that direction because the mainstream English-language comic book market is heavily dominated by that particular genre and any attempt to survive (much less thrive) in that environment had to market to the superhero buying demographic. However, by the time of The Tempest, Alan Moore has long since abandoned any concern or interest in picking up those readers. Part of that has to do with the changes to the comic book marketplace, but another part has to do with the fact that Alan Moore is a self-confessed cranky old man who is no longer interested in writing for that audience. More power to him.

From that perspective, LOEG in general (and The Tempest in particular) is a fascinating work from an elder statesman of comics who defined the shape of a lot of the comics material that is currently being produced – including a corporate-driven sequel to his most famous standalone work, Watchmen. As his final work, The Tempest serves as a very fitting epigraph to his entire comics career, marking a graceful ending to what is clearly one of his most personal visions.

The vast majority of people that have heard of LOEG are only familiar with the title because of the awful movie from 2003. If you are one of those people, but you liked the concept, you probably owe it to yourself to go out and pick up the first volume. If you liked that book, buy the rest because you’ll enjoy the whole series. The Tempest will be waiting patiently at the end, waiting for you to get caught up. The journey is worth the effort.

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my ex-girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

No comments: