tek's rating: ½

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, America's Best Comics
Written by Alan Moore, pencilled by Kevin O'Neill
GCD; TV Tropes; Wikia; Wikipedia

Caution: spoilers.

The first 6-issue volume of this series came out in 1999-2000, published by America's Best Comics, an imprint of WildStorm, which was originally independent, but was bought by DC around the time this came out. Around that time, I obtained a "bumper compendium edition" of the first two issues, and I think I must have read that. But I missed at least one of the later issues, so I stopped reading the series. Some years later, I managed to get whatever I was missing. So, I currently have also a compendium of issues 3-4, plus singles of 5 and 6. And yet, when I completed the volume, I still didn't get around to actually reading it. I think perhaps I was waiting to get the subsequent volumes. A second 6-issue volume came out in 2002-03. A standalone called "Black Dossier" came out in 2007. A 3-issue third volume, subtitled "Century," came out in 2009-12, now published by Top Shelf Productions. There have also been some spin-offs. I have not read any of these things, and I don't know when I'll even buy them, but I'm sure I will someday. Also, there was a movie in 2003 based on the comics, but I haven't seen that yet, because I wanted to read at least volume I, first. Well, I'm finally going to read all the way through Volume I in May 2014, because there's a new show starting on Showtime, called "Penny Dreadful." It is not in any way connected to these comics, but it has a similar theme, and many reviews of the show will mention that. Unfortunately, I don't get Showtime, so I won't be able to watch it... and it struck me that this would be a good excuse to finally get around to reading these comics.

Before I get into the story itself, I want to mention that the comics include credits that are amusingly done in the style of things you might have seen in 19th century penny dreadfuls, or (as the comics refer to themselves) chapbooks. Not just the credits are done in this style, but also fake advertisements which are ostensibly from the era in which the story itself is set. (I haven't the foggiest notion as to whether these ads are genuine reproductions of old ads that once existed, or were entirely made up for the comic book. I wouldn't be at all surprised one way or the other, and even if they are made up, I don't doubt they're not far off the mark of real ads of that era. Which leads me to think that in a hundred years or so, the ads of our own day will seem no less silly.) I also need to mention that when I got to the end of issue 5, I found a bonus story, Allan and the Sundered Veil. Rather, I found chapter V of that story. (It's mostly text, with just a couple of illustrations.) The story concludes in issue 6. This story is not included in the bumper compendium editions, which means I don't have chapters I through IV. That's pretty annoying; maybe someday I'll look into buying single copies of those issues, or else the collected book of Volume I, which apparently includes the complete story. Another thing the individual issues have that the 2-issue compendiums don't is a letters column, which looks to me most likely to be something written entirely by the comic writers rather than by readers, but I could be wrong. Either way, the letters are written in the same style as the comic itself, which I could imagine readers doing for fun... but I doubt it.

Anyway, on with the story. It begins in May 1898, and concludes in August of that year. An agent of MI5 named Campion Bond recruits Mina Murray to oversee a covert ops team he's assembling. (Mina, you may recall, is a character from Bram Stoker's Dracula.) In the course of Volume I, it remains unclear quite why Mr. Bond chose her to lead this team, and the other members of the team will wonder about that, themselves. (It's not an era when women typically have positions of authority over men, unless they happen to be queen.) Meanwhile, Bond himself works for a man he simply calls "Mr. M." (Mina supposes him to be Mycroft Holmes, though Bond refuses to confirm that. Incidentally, Mycroft's brother, Sherlock, had died seven years earlier, at the same time as his archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty.) Anyway, Bond introduces Mina to the first member of the team, Captain Nemo (from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). She'll be traveling with him aboard his submarine, the Nautilus. The story immediately flashes forward to Cairo, in June. Mina finds the famous adventurer Allan Quartermain, now a nearly-dead opium addict. She brings him aboard the Nautilus and gets him to kick his habit, though I'd still say he seems rather past his prime. Later that month, they arrive in Paris. There they track down a monster, Edward Hyde (from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), whom they manage to subdue.

In part 2, aboard the Nautilus, Hyde reverts to his normal form, Dr. Henry Jekyll. (In the course of the volume, it will seem to me that Jekyll is significantly less useful than Bruce Banner would have been, while Hyde is rather more useful than the Hulk would have been.) They return to England and deliver Jekyll to Bond, whose people will try to find a way to control the monster within him. In July, Mina and the others travel to a girls' school in Edmonton (a part of London I don't recall having heard of before; I only know the name as a city in Canada). There are some strange goings-on at this school, which I don't want to specify. But it's related to the next person whom Bond wishes Mina to find and add to the team, Hawley Griffin (based on "Griffin" from H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man). They manage to apprehend Griffin, who becomes the final member of the team. Later, Bond explains why the team's been assembled. A scientist named Dr. Cavor (from Wells's The First Men in the Moon) had invented something called Cavorite, which has an anti-gravity effect. (This was before the invention of airplanes, remember.) It was meant to be for a proposed lunar expedition, but it had been stolen by a crimelord known as "the Doctor" (based on Fu Manchu). Bond wants them to find and recover the Cavorite, before the Doctor can put it to nefarious use. (The team will now be rejoined by Jekyll, who transforms into Hyde when needed.)

Parts 3 and 4 show us the team's efforts, which are finally successful. They deliver the Cavorite to Bond, who in turn delivers it to Mr. M., whose true identity is finally revealed (and it ain't Mycroft). Part 5 begins with a flashback to May, 1891, which sets up the events in the present (i.e., August 1898). Griffin learns the truth about M, and tells his teammates about it. They realize that his having possession of the Cavorite is just as bad as the Doctor having it, so they now have to try to foil his plans, as well. By the end of part 6, they succeed, and M is replaced as head of MI5 by Mycroft Holmes, who offers the team a retainer "to remain at England's call." The final page shows a strange occurrence that indicates they'll soon be needed again.

Well. Aside from the disparate characters I've already mentioned, any number of other characters from the fiction of that era may pop up throughout the comics, generally in roles too minor even to be called "supporting." Which is still kind of neat. The whole concept of the comics appeals to me tremendously, bringing together all the famous main characters, even if I'm not greatly familiar with all of them. Allan Quartermain is a name I was aware of, but I couldn't tell you anything about him outside of these comics. And most of the others I only know from various movie or TV adaptations of the books or stories on which they're based. Which is just as well, because this story takes great dramatic license with all of them, itself. (It's worth noting that the teammates generally don't get along well with each other, and most of them could easily be as dangerous as- if not worse than- the very threats to England- or the world- that they've been assembled to counteract.)

Anyway... I like the comic's artwork, and the whole 19th century sensibility of the story and characters, and the mishmashiness of it all. But I didn't love it, as I expected to. (Maybe I would have if I'd read it when it first came out, a decade and a half ago, but at present it seems a bit less novel than it once might have.) Still, I'm eager to read further volumes, and hopefully get to know more about the characters (in this incarnation). It's even possible that after I've read more, I'll appreciate this story more. It's certainly a damn fine start....


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