Book Article

Big 'League' Chew

The comic in a ''League'' of its own. Forget the movie -- sink your teeth into the literary roots of ''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen''

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen | DRAWN FROM HISTORY Moore and O'Neill's ''Gentlemen'' -- and lady
Image credit: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: DC Comics
DRAWN FROM HISTORY Moore and O'Neill's ''Gentlemen'' -- and lady

The comic in a ''League'' of its own

''The League''? Agh. ''LXG''? Ugh. Twentieth Century Fox's marketing team can use all the shorthand it likes in its pursuit of the coveted, youthfully down-widdit demographic. The fact remains, it's ''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.'' The movie's source comic is so obsessively worshipful of its Victorian literary roots, any abbreviation seems...well, positively heathen, as these unlikeliest of superheroes themselves might say.

Certainly, the comic's British creators, writer Alan Moore (''From Hell'') and artist Kevin O'Neill, have firmly established that they subscribe to a more-is-more view. The band of turn-of-the-century adventurers they've plucked from the classics and ingeniously recast is largely familiar: Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and Dracula's Mina Harker (who, since her Transylvanian mishap, goes by her maiden name). But oh, the new narrative places they go. In the group's debut 1999 miniseries (available from America's Best Comics), de facto leader Mina travels the globe bringing them together -- even retrieving the sociopathic Invisible Man from a girls'-school dormitory. (Think about it.) And then there's the burned-out Quatermain, whom she rousts from a Cairo drug den. (Not exactly a Sean Connery moment, but when you cast Connery you don't relegate him to the supporting role of doddering opium-addled sot.) They're all promptly dispatched to recover a stolen stash of the antigravity alloy cavorite before megalomaniacally engineered tragedy strikes.

The movie, of course, streamlines all of this; the plot settles on a technologically advanced arms race threatening to set the nations of Europe against each other. The film also Hollywoodizes the group dynamic to include the immortal Dorian Gray and, yes, secret agent Tom Sawyer. Not that the screen version is all big guns and careening League-mobiles while the print version is, by comparison, dry as a scone. Moore can write bombastic action sequences with the best of them, as when the first series' villain unleashes his cavorite-fueled flying fortress at the story's climax -- the Blitz come to London four decades early.

For the Volume Two encore, which concludes its six-issue run next month, Moore and O'Neill pit their heroes against H.G. Wells' Martian invaders -- a sort of Victorian ''Independence Day.'' The sequel also steps up the character interplay: In one particularly jarring chain of events, the Invisible Man caps his treacherous sellout to the aliens by brutalizing Mina (who, unlike her screen incarnation, isn't a vampire in the comics, merely a survivor). In turn, he incurs Mr. Hyde's ultraviolently depraved wrath. The writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, a stage for buggery? Okay, so maybe this little menagerie isn't composed entirely of gentlemen. The filmmakers would've done well to mix literature and pulp half as memorably.

Originally posted Jul 18, 2003 Published in issue #720 Jul 25, 2003 Order article reprints
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