The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill: B-

From the front flap:
London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Henry Jekyll, Mr. Edward Hyde, and Mina Murray are those champions and together they comprise the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Recruited by the enigmatic Campion Bond, under orders from the mysterious “M,” these six adventurers are pressed into service by their empire in its time of need. Now they must face the nefarious Doctor and his vile plan for world domination. But things are not entirely as they seem; other factors, cryptic and corpuscular, are also at play. A remarkable drama ensues.

“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”

It’s 1898 and Mina Murray (Dracula), back from her Transylvanian adventure and now divorced from Jonathan Harker, works for a mysterious person named Mr. M, whom she assumes is Mycroft Holmes, brother of the great (and currently presumed dead) detective. Mr. M claims to have the welfare of the British Empire at heart when he assigns Mina to recruit various unsavory fellows.

She has already teamed up with Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and together they venture to Egypt, where they pick up opium-addled Allen Quatermain (from the African adventures penned by H. Rider Haggard); to Paris, where they restrain the murderous Edward Hyde and his mild-mannered creator, Dr. Henry Jekyll; and to a girl’s school in London where Hawley Griffin, the invisible man, has been having his way with the students. Each recruit ultimately joins the cause, though their motivations for doing so vary widely, and when the team is assembled they receive their first assignment: retrieve some stolen Cavorite, a mineral that enables flight, which is now in the hands of a Chinese crime boss.

Their journey takes them into extremely squalid areas of London and into contact with some very unsavory people, but the real story begins when they turn over the recovered Cavorite to their go-between with Mr. M and Griffin decides to see what he can learn about their mysterious leader’s identity. Up until this point, I hadn’t really enjoyed it very much, but the last three chapters are actually pretty cool, with a lot of action and the characters functioning together more as a team, though of course one can never forget that some of them (notably Griffin) are not remotely trustworthy. The conclusion is an exciting one, and I liked it well enough that I intend to continue on with the second volume.

That said, there are some things that bug me about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The stylized art is rather weird, for one. I’ve not read a lot of Western comics, true, but I’m used to there being some short of shading in a character’s eyes. Here, you just get one shade, which takes some getting used to. Also, I assume that the exceptionally teeny waists on the corseted Victorian ladies are intended to be a sort of commentary on their restrictive situation, but they look strange nonetheless.

This exactly parallels the treatment of the sole female on the team, Mina Murray. Moore often portrays Mina as competent and clever, and unfairly condescended to by men of her acquaintance. Indeed, he seems critical of society’s views towards women in that era, which is well and good. At the same time, though, he puts Mina into unnecessarily gratuitous situations (nearly raped twice), has her denegrate her own “ridiculous female naiveté,” and, in a frightening moment, has her seek solace in the arms of a man. Now, one could argue that Moore is showing that Mina herself is not immune from society’s influence and is only saying and doing things that are expected of her, but that doesn’t explain the attempted rapes.

Ultimately, it took a little while for me to warm up to this series, but I liked the place it was in by the end of the volume and look forward to checking out the next one. As soon as I pay my steadily mounting library fines, that is. Sheesh.

More reviews of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen can be found at Triple Take.