(This was published in the first issue of Rolling Stone India, cover dated March 2008)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O’Neill
What if the protagonists of the numerous novels of the nineteenth century co-existed in a fictional world? Writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill led this idea forward through two volumes of comics called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, each spanning six issues, in which Mina Murray from Stoker’s Dracula, the rugged hero Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo from Verne’s stories, Mr Hyde (with Dr Jekyll in tow) and Wells’s Invisible Man fought Oriental villains and Martians. At the end of the second volume, the League was disbanded, its members at odds with each other. The third installment, called The Black Dossier was released recently, and it differs from the previous volumes in three respects – one, it is a standalone volume; two, it is no longer confined to the setting and characters of the Victorian Era; three – and the most important difference of all, it’s not really a comic book.
The year is 1958, and a remarkably youthful Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain are in London after a file called The Black Dossier, which contains confidential information about all the previous incarnations of the League that were formed throughout history to carry out covert operations for England. They have to escape a posse of MI5 espionage agents led by a spy referred to as “Jimmy”, Emma Night and Hugo Drummond, and if you cannot identify two out of these three, you probably wouldn’t enjoy this book – and make their way to the fourth dimension. In the middle of the pursuit, they read sections of the dossier, and this brings out the real meat of the book, as Moore and O’Neill narrate the history of this fictional world in the form of letters, segments of literary works, maps, schematics, excerpts of autobiographies and comic book sections, including an example of Tijuana Bibles.
In every section, Moore writes in a style corresponding to the genre and content. For instance, Faerie’s Fortunes Founded claims to be a lost play by William Shakespeare written in the style of the Bard himself, The Crazy Wide Forever is a stream of consciousness ‘beat’ novel supposedly by Sal Paradise, the narrator of Kerouac’s On The Road, and the most hilarious pastiche of them all (and my personal favourite), What Ho, Gods of the Abyss by Bertie Wooster is a look at the Lovecraft canon in a Wodehousian vein. Kevin O’Neill’s artwork shines in all these sections – he is equally at home drawing dynamic action sequences , cartoony meta-comics and detailed ink etchings echoing early twentieth-century illustration plates. At the end of the book, when the duo reaches the Fourth Dimension, the sequence is represented as a 3-D sequence (yes, you have to wear cardboard glasses that come with the book) and even there, Moore and O’Neill make use of the technology to come up with stunning effects – a Lovecraftian elder god speaks in illegible runes, close your right eye, you see the English words form behind the gibberish.
The book is more of a framing device and less of a story, an ambitious attempt to map all of known literary fiction into a single coherent world, with the story leading in to the actual third volume due next year. Nearly every page of the main graphic novel contains references to fictional characters from British literature, TV series, comics and popular culture. And as is normal in a work of such ambition, the question here is this.
Would you enjoy it?
If you are a fan of comic books and comics alone, probably not – which explains the lukewarm response the book got from those who embraced the boy’s adventure spirit of the earlier two volumes. The Black Dossier is a different beast altogether, it requires you to come to the reading table with an awareness – if not in-depth knowledge – of pop culture, an ability to context-switch between different time-periods, storytelling devices and above all, with time on your hands. There is just too much going on in the book to take it all in at one sitting, and there is a high chance that the volume of content and information proves to be overwhelming. It took me nearly two weeks to get through all the segments, in case you’re wondering. That said, it truly is a tremendous piece of work, quite unlike any comic book that has come before. Not quite ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, as Moore mentions in his pre-release interviews, but definitely one of the best graphic novels of 2007.
Essential X-Men Volume 1
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: Dave Cockrum, John Byrne and Terry Austin
Publisher: Marvel comics.
If you like the X-men movies and want to get into the comics without treading into confusing continuity, check out this particular reprint edition, that presents Giant-size X-men #1 and the subsequent issues 94-119, the 70’s stories that resurrected the classic X-Men team from a comic on the brink of cancellation to a best-selling title. Chris Claremont’s scripts laid equal emphasis on multicultural elements of our favorite mutants, space opera, inter-team friction and individual character development, while artists Dave Cockrum, John Byrne and Terry Austin brought in realism with their dynamic line-work. The first appearances of Storm, Colossus and Nightcrawler, the death and subsequent rebirth of Jean Grey into Phoenix, arch-villain Magneto’s triumphant return, and Professor Charles Xavier’s romance with intergalactic Empress Lilandra – these are the stories that laid the groundwork for (arguably) the greatest Marvel story ever – the Dark Phoenix Saga. And who would have thought that a B-grade character called Wolverine would be catapulted to superstardom – becoming the poster-boy of the grim and gritty comics of the eighties – by virtue of being included in this title?
Reading this volume brings back a warm feeling of nostalgia at how straightforward comics were back then – villains indulge in bombastic monologues outlining their plans in detail, every fight sequence has characters talking nineteen to the dozen, and in different dialects too! But make no mistake about it, these stories are groundbreaking and classic – modern Marvel writers (as well as the scriptwriters of the X-men movies) are still borrowing the mythic elements Claremont and Byrne put in place in these initial issues. Consider your money well-spent.
Lucky Luke: Jesse James.
Publisher: Tara Press, India.
All you Tintin and Asterix lovers, time to rejoice! The classic series Lucky Luke, written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Morris is now available in India. Lucky Luke is a madcap adventure series about a fearless, resourceful and slightly loco cowboy his equally loony horse, Jolly Jumper as they travel through the Wild West, helping those in distress. In the first volume, ‘Jesse James’, the villain tries to be a modern-day Robin Hood – he robs a rich man, gives the money to a homeless vagrant, and when he finds out that his gift has made the latter wealthy, proceeds to rob him. He finally decides to keep the money for himself, to avoid any such moral quandaries in the future. With his Shakespeare-quoting elder brother Frank, and a witless associate named Cole Younger, Jesse James strikes terror in the West with his bank and railroad heists. Until one fine day, two Pinkerton detectives employ Lucky Luke to capture the James gang before they rob the bank in Nothing Gulch, Texas.
The book is, in one word, fun! Unlike other European cowboy comics like Blueberry and Tex Willer, Lucky Luke eschews realism in favor of humor, substitutes spaghetti violence with cartoon lunacy and is appealing both to kids and adults. I laughed aloud throughout the book, and look forward to reading the remaining four volumes as soon as I can. Thanks are due to Tara Press for bringing this classic series back into print, with a brilliant translation and an album-sized release.