Friday, February 12, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century #1: 1910

Top Shelf Productions/Knockabout Comics, 2009, paperback, 72 pages plus extra material, $ 7.95 or £ 5.95

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O'Neill
Colorist: Ben Dimagmaliw
Letterer: Todd Klein

You have to be grateful to Alan Moore that this story is such a shoddy piece of work at heart, because everything else in Century: 1910 is executed so perfectly and with such grim determination that it might make you want to throw yourself off a bridge if not for this one, big, fuzzy flaw to hold on to.

The previous three installments of Mr. Moore and Mr. O'Neill's period superhero adventure were far from cheerful, mind you, but Century: 1910, ostensibly the first chapter in a three-part series, really goes out of its way to harp on what a low and rotten species we are.

In the first of the story's two major strands, a new group of extraordinary gentlemen, led by familiar face Wilhelmina Murray, is seeking to prevent a great disaster that's about to befall London, as foreseen in a vague dream by one of her associates. In the other, the daughter of an old League member rebels against her parent and takes her chances by running away to the English capital.

Purely in terms of delivering the narrative, a better effort will be hard to find. With apparent ease, the creators demonstrate not just their impeccable instincts when it comes to what has to happen when, how and how long, precisely, and from which angle to show it, but also that they are more than up to the task of bringing it to fruition.

One of the book's standout sequences has two characters walking to King's Cross, while a third—a time traveler—approaches the same spot from the past, leaving for the future when the meeting is concluded. In another, near the story's climax, the creators turn in the comics version of a musical, having a murderer deliver his last words as a harrowing recitative, before intercutting scenes of widespread havoc and destruction with panels in which minor characters comment on the proceedings in song and dance.

In both instances, as well as several others, Mr. Moore and his collaborators demonstrate a sense of dramatic timing, pacing, movement and rhythm that legions of accomplished filmmakers would gladly trade in their souls for. The creators know when and how to use their nine-panel grids and their splash pages, how to light their scenes to set the right mood, which fonts to use and where exactly to place the word balloons that administer the carefully chosen words.

Kevin O'Neill's art excels at complex conversation scenes as well as at elaborate action sets, at period architecture as well as at drawing three-dimensional people in authentic clothing, at the mundane as well as at the extraordinary. His finely made drawings are highly detailed in ways you'd expect from a modern superhero spectacle, but their composition and delivery also come with layers that go well beyond that.

When it comes to sheer mechanics, this is, pretty much, as good as it gets—a consummately told comics adventure.

The story itself isn't nearly so innovative and ambitious as to merit this high concentration of talent, unfortunately.

"What Keeps Mankind Alive?," the title asks, and the answer is relentlessly bleak. Mr. Moore liberally employs graphic violence, some of it sexual, but fails to make it count a lot of the time, because he proves too timid and adolescent a storyteller to engage his characters; there are more violent works in Mr. Moore's oeuvre, certainly, but few where the violence is so pointless.

As the plot dictates it, a rape provides the impetus for the story's turning point, for instance, but the character who's meant to be driving the narrative at that stage remains a blurry husk throughout—worse, she's a stereotype who exists solely to advance the plot, in a very obvious and hackneyed fashion. Consequently, when the supposedly crucial event occurs, the subsequent change seems phony, first and foremost, as well as petty and shallow.

Evidently, the mere notion of experiencing rape is sufficiently profound and meaningful to Mr. Moore to justify the absence of just about anything that makes a fully developed character, and it requires nothing further to be said on the subject. As it stands, this isn't just a glaring error of creative judgment, but also a lazy and trite storytelling shortcut that more imaginative writers—writers with a genuine interest in exploring what, precisely, makes rape such a profound and life-changing experience to begin with—have long ago tossed on the garbage heap of literary history.

Some of the book's exhausted and gloomy atmosphere is intentional, certainly. Virtually all of its characters are, in one way or another, rotten remnants of a previous, supposedly "better" age, some of them one step removed from literal zombies. And, more substantially, Century: 1910 captures the almost tangible expectation—and not always dread—of an impending war that held much of Europe in its grasp at the time; in the context of Mr. Moore's story, World War I may be read as just another beat of the drum—a final, grim punch line.

But even if Century: 1910 succeeded fully as a story, all its creative energies remain in service of a fairly trivial and masturbatory harangue about nihilistic urges and petty revenge. The book holds all the scope, maturity and insight of an average death-metal album from 1993, with skulls and blood and busty virgins on the cover.

Grade: C-

No comments: