Posted by: Jeff Lester on November 19, 2007
In a just world, the best way to review of Moore & O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier would be type up a pastiche in which history’s most famous and infamous literary critics team up: Dorothy Parker, Kingsley Amis, Harold Bloom, Alexander Woollcott, Edmund Wilson, Michiko Kakutani, H.L. Mencken, and Gary Groth all trot on panel to fight The League’s attempt to collapse fictional and non-fictional reality (thus rendering critical thought–the border between fictional and non-fictional reality–impossible).
Of course, to be a true pastiche, the reader would have to endure–after a gripping opening–the repeated erotic couplings of Wilson and Kakutani, with only the occasional bit of thuggishness from Mencken or Groth to spruce things up (until each kills the other), and the pastiche finally becomes a free-falling history of the universe as told by the critics (wherein one only finds out in a footnote or two what happened with the group’s original encounter with their adversaries) and that this universe is actually a pastiche of the true Platonic ideal of the universe. Reality, it would turn out, is literally a work of criticism.
To really to do justice to the book under consideration, however, the pastiche would have to be bogglingly brilliant. If you’re the type to derive succor from technical brio and steely formalistic ambition, The Black Dossier is a veritable winter’s feast, capable of plumping up your brain to survive many a long, dark day.
For much of my life, I considered myself exactly that type. But either I’ve changed over the last few years, or technical tour-de-forces don’t quite kick me in the breadbasket they way they used to–even as parts of The Black Dossier made me grin in delight (The League running for their lives inside a giant Brobdingnagian vajayjay as a sky-blotting cockhead threatens to destroy them all was where I actually laughed out loud), I found myself wondering what, exactly, was the point.
Having finished it, I think there may be several points to The Black Dossier, ranging from the absurd (I mean, it’s The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe by way of Gravity’s Rainbow, for cryin’ out loud!) to the sublime (is imagination, as represented by Mina and Queen Gloriana,a feminine force, and “reality,” as represented by misogynistic Bond family, a masculine force, making Orlando,gender-swapping hermaphrodite, a representation of life as it is lived, according to Moore–sometimes one, sometimes the other, frequently both?)
To elaborate on that last point, the Black Dossier includes pure text as well as, in the collection of postcards with which the League sends back and forth and the various maps and diagrams, (near)pure image. Are comics, like Orlando, a combination of two interrelated opposites, and thus more able to capture a higher essence than either? (I mean, there’s also a 3-D sequence at the end which is the meeting of two sets of images (and even in that sequence, sections where the images occupying the same space are not the same)). The Black Dossier is not only an alternate history story, but a history of alternate graphic story styles–gag panels, political cartoons, serialized biographies, Tijuana Bibles…
So. History as an alchemical wedding of imagination and reality, and comics as the formalistic application of same? I dunno. Of course, if you really want to know the point of an Alan Moore story these days, you need only go on the web and a much-interviewed Alan Moore will be along sooner or later, happy to tell you at precise and injudicious length his intentions. I’m probably alone in this but I’ve begun to think the lifespan of today’s graphic lit would benefit from creators clamming the fuck up about a work’s meaning. Although I’m sure it stems from both genuine relief at finally being taken seriously, and to correct the paucity of genuine knowledge endemic to comics’ previous Dark Ages, the resulting pre-chewed nature of many of comics’ big works may prevent them from looming larger in the cultural imagination than they otherwise might.
(Which is all my way of saying that my above theories probably stem from reading too many Alan Moore interviews, but I haven’t read any of his interviews about The Black Dossier…yet, God help me.)
In a way, I wish this review could be more like Hibbs’, and I could go on at length about what I thought of the various pastiches, since they–along with the delightful Easter Egg hunt of literary references–are the most enjoyable part of the book. I will say that, although no Shakespeare scholar, I found Faeries’s Fortunes Founded pretty passable (although it reads more like early Shakespeare than the later Shakespeare it’s presented as) and Sal Paradyse’s Beat novel is pretty close to an utter disaster as it tries to imitate both Burroughs & Kerouac simultaneously and so badly bungles ’em both (this is assuming, by the way, that Dr. Sax is written in the bebop heavy rhythms Moore uses here–of Kerouac, I’ve only read some poetry and On The Road and the latter isn’t half as absurd as the stuff we get here).
But overall, the delights here are many and varied–where else are you gonna find a Tijuana Bible based on Orwell’s 1984?–and I regret I lack the language, both critical and otherwise, to praise Kevin O’Neill’s amazing art in this. O’Neil’s art (and stunning accompanying colors by Ben Dimagmaliw) is able to evoke all the various art styles on call while also remaining truly and clearly his own, and in a book that moves from postcards to paperback covers to subway maps, from Victorian literature to German Expressionism, from the dreariness of Orwellian England to the brightness of Dan Dare’s Britain, it’s hard not to see it as a crowning achievement. If Lost Girls had looked half this good, maybe I would’ve been able to actually rub one out to that damned thing.
Still, though, the most resonant moment in The Black Dossier comes when Allan and Mina, after sex, languidly flip through the dossier and Mina remark with light surprise and fondness upon finding the section on themselves, “Oh. Here, darling, look at this. It’s us.” It’s the moment most familiar to anyone who enjoys reading–the sudden thrill of recognizing something of one’s self in a work of fiction–and it’s precisely that moment I found entirely absent in The Black Dossier: eternally young, beautiful, and seemingly unstoppable, Orlando, Quartermain, and Murray fight, flee and fornicate across nearly every fictional realm ever created, but there’s hardly anything left in them with which to emphasize. Imagination isn’t only a realm where we regale in our triumphs and strengths, but a place in which we peek at our failures, our frailty. I wish there had been more of the latter amongst so much of the former.
And so, while The Black Dossier is hardly the first technical triumph that fails to stir the heart even as it inspires awe, it’s a measure of the regard in which one holds Moore that it feels nevertheless like a disappointment. It means that I can only give this Very Good book a rating of Very Good, despite the nearly consistent Excellence of its concept and execution. Get it; devour it; annotate it; but don’t be surprised if you find yourself, all too soon, forgetting it.