Dave Wallace: 4.5 Bullets
Thom Young: 4 Bullets
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: Kevin O’Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw (colourist), Ray Zone (3D effects)
Publisher: America’s Best Comics-Wildstorm-DC
Dave: The long-awaited Black Dossier proves to be a very different animal from the previous two volumes of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking the form of a fairly straightforward short story about the rejuvenated Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain’s mission to retrieve the titular dossier. The narrative is interspersed with numerous excerpts from the dossier itself.
Moore dispenses with many of the conventions of mainstream comics stories here and doesn’t seem particularly concerned with crafting a complex plot for his characters. Instead, he uses the story to explain the League’s place in the book’s world of literature and fiction, to expand upon the history of the society and to explore the way in which the writer’s vision of this world fits together.
Thom: Yeah, the plot is fairly basic. After being out of the country since the end of World War II, Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain return to England as the country moves away from a fascistic Labour Party government towards an undefined Tory government.
They infiltrate their former headquarters to steal the dossier so they can take it to Prospero (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) while being pursued by well-known British agents from 20th-century fiction. Along the way, they encounter several other characters from 20th-century British fiction. It’s a bare-bones plot that seems to have left some readers unsatisfied (judging from message board comments).
Dave: True, on paper it’s a simple plot. However, the way the book has been put together is unusual and highly original. In this way, Black Dossier really pushes the boundaries of the medium in its execution. Interspersed with the regular, traditionally-formatted comic book pages are the pages of the black dossier itself, which appear each time Allan or Mina open the book in the story to explore its contents.
Most of the substance of Black Dossier can be found in these fictional excerpts, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the text sections at the end of each issue of Watchmen, as both are fictional material written in a factual style that gives the impression that the characters inhabit a more fully-realised world than most comic book universes. However, whilst the Watchmen’s sections were fully fictional pieces from a fictional world that Moore created, most of the black dossier materials are specific homages to actual literary works.
In addition to a 1984-style pornographic comic, a Shakespeare play, and a Kerouac novel, we have a Fanny Hill sequel and a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche in which Bertie Wooster meets a host of Lovecraftian monsters .
Thom: And let’s not forget two of my favorite text pieces. There’s a section on magick and faeries written by “Oliver Haddo” (one of the pseudonyms used by Aleister Crowley), and there’s a comic strip entitled “The Life of Orlando” that’s inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
Dave: With such a radical departure from the formula of the first two volumes, there was always a question of whether Black Dossier would be able to be as entertaining as Moore’s previous LOEG volumes, and whether the project’s new format was really going to work. I was pleased to discover that it does feel like a successful continuation of the first two series, but with a decidedly different flavour.
There are common elements (the mistrust of government, the surprising revelation of the book’s villain, and the heavy references to other works of literature), but Black Dossier exchanges some of the more conventional aspects of the previous volumes for a far richer and more detailed presentation of its story–albeit one that only really works in the context of the previous volumes. Indeed, much of the book relies on knowledge of the previous series, with sections that add layers to the original two volumes in their retelling of the League’s origins.
Thom: I disagree. I don’t think this book requires a reader to have knowledge of the first two stories. A reading of the two previous books undoubtedly makes this one a bit easier to get into since the concept would be familiar, however, Black Dossier works on its own, and new readers can acquire the relevant back story by a close reading.
Dave: I think you’d miss a lot if you came to this book without having read the first two volumes of LOEG. For one thing, I doubt that new readers would have much emotional investment in the characters, as Moore doesn’t waste time with extensive or deep characterization of Mina and Allan, assuming a familiarity with the characters that most readers of Black Dossier will surely possess.
Thom: That may be true to some extent–for some readers. However, since Mina and Quatermain are so different physically in this book than how they appeared in the two previous editions, I didn’t connect to them in that way. It could be argued, though, that the entire League concept requires readers to have read the previous appearances by all the characters.
I’ve not read or watched any Allan Quatermain adventures–but I have read Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I’ve seen film versions of many of the stories that the other League characters first appeared in. Nevertheless, I’m not certain that knowledge of any of the characters’ earlier adventures is a requirement for understanding any of Moore’s League stories–a benefit, yes, but not a requirement.
Dave: Okay, I can see your point on that. I guess it’s difficult to judge, since I am already familiar with the characters from the first two volumes of LOEG, at least.
Still, having said that this book adds layers to the previous stories, there’s actually very little crossover with the material from the earlier volumes, and that’s probably for the best. It would be a shame if Black Dossier had simply rehashed characters and plots from the earlier series simply as a crowd-pleasing exercise.
Indeed, several sections provide us with snatches of all-new League adventures from the early 20th century. These glimpses of the League’s “untold tales” include enough material for several volumes of LOEG in its original form, and they make me eager to read full-length versions of the stories–especially when it comes to the League’s encounter with “Les Hommes Mysterieux” in Paris.
However, that’s not really the point of Black Dossier. It’s more a chance for Moore to solidify his take on the fictional universe of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and much of that intent is carried by the text pieces and other dossier material. It’s these sections that are most revolutionary and which have generated most discussion among readers.
Thom: I was taken aback by how negatively some people have reacted to the text pieces in Black Dossier. In traditional prose fiction, there have been several works that are written as a compilation of “documents.” It’s a form that’s known as epistolary fiction (even if the documents aren’t letters). For instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the work in which Mina Murray first appeared) is comprised of l
etters, diary entries, dictation discs, and newspaper clippings.
However, this is the first graphic novel that I recall weaving epistolary documents into the actual narrative. As you say, the closest thing we’ve had is Watchmen where the text pieces at the end of each issue added depth to the main story, but they weren’t an absolute requirement for appreciating the story.
Even though the plot in Black Dossier can be followed without reading the text pieces, I wouldn’t suggest taking that approach since there’s a great deal of material that needs to be cross-referenced with the information in the narrative in order to fully appreciate Moore’s work.
Dave: Yes, I agree. I’m sure that some fans of the League will find the structure of the book to be a turn off. Indeed, I’ve spoken with people who decided that the text pieces aren’t worth bothering with, and they’ve opted to simply read the comics sections and ignore the other material completely, which I find to be an unfathomable approach.
If you don’t read the text pieces, you’ll miss out on a lot of the depth and complexity that Black Dossier has to offer. However, those readers who persevere will find it to be one of the richest, most satisfying graphic novels that they’ve enjoyed in a long time. Even if you only choose to read the comics sections, though, you’ll notice a marked difference between Black Dossier and the previous volumes of LOEG.
From the very start, there’s an immediately noticeable shift in the tone of the book compared to the previous two volumes. That’s partly due to Moore’s decision to pare down the “League” to just the two characters, but it’s also the result of his switch in historical context, from a turn-of-the-century Victorian setting to the mid-1950s.
The decision to jettison the Victoriana of the previous two volumes is surprising, and one that will probably be lamented by those readers who are buffs of Victorian history or literature–or fans of the steampunk subgenre. However, the period shift brings a certain freshness to the League concept, and it gives Moore a whole new playground to explore with regard to characters and concepts.
Chief among them is the inclusion of a barely-veiled analogue of James Bond who teams up with one of the Avengers (no, not the Marvel ones) to pursue Mina and Allan to the ends of the earth (both literally and figuratively).
Thom: Yeah, seeing these more-contemporary characters was a lot of fun. Apparently, though, they’re also the reason Paul Levitz decided not to sell the book outside the U.S. By the way, that character is not just an analogue of James Bond. I mean, his last name is “Bond,” his designation is 007, and the other characters call him “Jimmy.” However, he did order his martini stirred, not shaken–so perhaps he is an analogue.
As for the Avenger, she actually does seem to be more of an analogue since there are two spelling differences in her name. Rather than “Emma,” the character in Black Dossier has the first name “Ema”; and rather than “Knight” (Emma Peel’s maiden name), the last name here is “Night.”
I also liked how Moore played with the fact that Diana Rigg has portrayed Emma Peel in the British television program The Avengers as well as the wife of James Bond, Teresa di Vicenzo, in the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s almost as if Moore is indicating that Bond fell for Teresa due to her resemblance to Ema Night (the future Mrs. Peel, which, I suppose, in the League universe will be “Mrs. Peal”).
Dave: That’s a great observation, I hadn’t picked up on that at all.
Thom: Well, the Diana Rigg bit is just speculation on my part, but it works even if Moore didn’t intend it. He also has a lot of fun with the entire “Avengers” concept as we learn that Mina and Allan encountered Venus in New York in the 1950s at a time when she would have been a member of Marvel’s 1950s version of The Avengers.
That same section of the dossier mentions their meeting with DC’s Crimson Avenger, whom they met in Gotham City–and, while I didn’t spot a reference to him, I would think Moore might have also made some subtle allusion to Richard Henry Benson, the man with chalk-white hair and skin and malleable facial features who was known as The Avenger, and who appeared in 30 pulp fiction stories from 1939 to 1944.
I’m going to need to re-read that part of the dossier to see if I can find an allusion to Benson since it seems unlikely that Moore would forget to reference this “Avenger” after making allusions to the other three.
While it’s great to see all of these characters in the story, I was taken aback, though, by Moore’s depiction of James Bond as a somewhat inept secret agent. I can see why Moore depicted him as a cad (since he is, after all), but I didn’t expect 007 to be as dim witted as Moore has him being.
Dave: Yes, it’s a curious decision, and this is what made me wonder whether Moore really intends it to be the James Bond from Fleming’s novels. Of course, he has to stop short of explicitly identifying the character for copyright reasons–but even so, he feels more like a parody of the character, which rejects many of his core qualities whilst keeping all of his superficialities intact.
However, it’s interesting to see Moore retain the hard-edged, misogynistic qualities of Fleming’s original character. Maybe he wants to remind us that James Bond, as initially conceived, wasn’t quite as suave and attractive a character as we see him presented today.
Thom: Well, as to whether this is supposed to be the character from Fleming’s novels, “Jimmy Bond” keeps referring to his recent Jamaica assignment–which is an allusion to Fleming’s Doctor No.
However, Mina tells Hugo Drummond what she learned in the dossier–that Bond assassinated John Night (Ema Night’s father, and Drummond’s close friend). She also tells him that the CIA gave Bond an alibi:
At the time of Night’s death, he’d be in Jamaica, foiling an Asiatic science-villain. You know, even in the villain’s codename, the Americans were laughing at us. There was No Doctor, Mr. Drummond.
I thought this denial of the validity of the Dr. No case was interesting since it seems to contradict Moore’s statement that the League universe is one in which all works of fiction have taken place.
Dave Well, Moore has to modify many of the works of fiction that he references in order to make them fit the universe that he has conceived for the League books, so I don’t think that that statement can hold true, exactly.
Alongside this host of new characters, Moore also gets a lot of mileage out of the device of situating the 1950s Britain of the League in a post-1984 landscape, which gives the book’s universe a feel that is much further removed from reality than the first two volumes.
Thom: Yes, as you say, Moore modifies the continuities of the fictions he incorporates. However, in the Dr. No case, he’s denying that the events in Fleming’s novel actually happened–that it was fabricated in o
rder to provide an alibi for Bond. I just found that to be an interesting-but-odd decision–particularly in light of the 1984 material that you brought up.
Like you, I appreciated the post-1984 setting of the story in which we discover the identity of Big Brother (he’s Harry Wharton, a character from a series of children’s novels written by Charles Hamilton under the pseudonym of “Frank Richards”).
However, I have two minor complaints about the 1984 connections. First, while Orwell was commenting on post-World War II England, his novel was actually supposed to be set in the year1984. Thus, there is a dreaded “continuity problem” regarding how Ingsoc came to be overthrown by 1957 in Moore’s League universe.
In Orwell’s novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, says that he was born near the end of World War II. He thinks it was 1945. It’s obvious that Winston Smith isn’t 13 years old in 1984. Additionally, Julia, Winston’s girlfriend in the novel, claims to have been born in 1958–making her 26 in Orwell’s novel, but she would be either a foetus or a newborn infant in Moore’s League.
The even bigger problem is with Gerry O’Brien, who is the face of the Inner Party in Orwell’s novel, and a major figure in the dossier in Moore’s League. Moore didn’t use Winston or Julia in his story, but almost every item in the dossier has a note from O’Brien attached to it–which clearly makes this character the same as the O’Brien in Orwell’s novel, but existing nearly 30 years earlier than he should (at least with this social standing and political power).
This, then, is a big problem that I have with Moore’s claim that every work of fiction that has ever been written (or will ever be written) takes place in the League’s universe (not multiverse, but universe). Obviously, there are works of fiction that work in their own universes but that will contradict each other and create “continuity problems” when incorporated together into a shared universe.
To square this continuity problem between Orwell’s 1984 and Fleming’s Bond novels, Moore seems to have the events in 1984 occur in 1954 (and with an unexplained fall of the Ingsoc government in 1957). He also seems to use Fleming’s characters but then claim that Fleming’s stories were just “cover stories” for the characters that didn’t happen.
For instance, the Dr. No case was a fiction created by the CIA operative F. Gordon Leiter (apparently a “portmanteau” character based on Fleming’s Felix Leiter and the real life G. Gordon Liddy, who was a rookie FBI agent in 1958).
Of course, I’m just being a “fanboy” in this regard–worrying about continuity. However, this problem occurred to me when I realized that Moore wanted Orwell’s 1984 and Ian Fleming’s Bond series to exist in the same universe. They obviously can’t unless you do what Moore did–alter the continuities of the fictions that he’s incorporating into his own work.
Dave: I think this is a very important point to address, and one that I’ve considered ever since I heard Moore claim that the universe of the League would incorporate every other work of fiction ever created. Obviously, there are going to be numerous massive contradictions.
For example, could you imagine trying to reconcile the world of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Oddysey with any modern novel set in that time period? Or explaining how hundreds of fictional U.S. Presidents have managed to co-exist? Or (to return to Black Dossier specifically), what about all of those fictional realities in which 1950s Britain wasn’t in the midst of a recovery from an Orwellian nightmare that occurred 30 years too early?
Comics publishers have enough trouble keeping the histories of single characters straight, so to attempt to merge the fictional realities of every work of literature ever created is an impossible task. It simply couldn’t work (unless a multiverse-style approach was adopted). However, I think that Moore wisely sidesteps this issue in favour of a universe that utilises his own idiosyncratic versions of characters that are lifted from other works of fiction.
Of course, Moore has mentioned in the past that he believes that a unique, idiosyncratic version of every character exists in the head of whichever writer is telling his or her story at the time–with the result that no two interpretations could ever truly stand as the same character. With that in mind, it’s probably best to simply accept these as Moore’s own personal takes on the characters and concepts that he’s incorporated, Pick-n-mix-style, rather than accurate representations of the original creations.
That said, with 1984, it’s a particularly notable and jarring departure from the original material (not least because the year in which Orwell’s book was set appears in the title!). It’s obviously an integral enough part of the story that Moore felt the change was justified, but I agree that the transposition of the concept throws up more problems than most of the other characters and concepts that Moore uses.
Thom: Yeah, Moore’s obviously taking the artistic license that he’s allowed to take, but it does seem to contradict the statements he’s made. Yet, if there is a “multiverse” for the League, it seems to be accessible through Prospero’s “Blazing World”–if I read the end of Black Dossier correctly.
My second problem with the 1984 material is the “Tijuana Bible” that’s included in the dossier. It was supposedly created by the Ingsoc pornography section that employed Julia in Orwell’s novel. Moore has the text of the porn piece written in Newspeak. However, since the pornography in 1984 is created for the proles (the proletariat), it would have been written in regular English (or “Oldspeak”).
While the altering of fictional continuities can be chalked up to “artistic license” on Moore’s part so he can make his own continuity work, there isn’t any reason to use the incorrect form of English in the 1984 pornography. It appears to be a simple case of Moore not studying the source material thoroughly enough to know that all material produced for the proles in Orwell’s novel would have been written in Oldspeak.
In fact, I had similar problems with the level of research and accurate details in many of Moore’s other “sources” in the dossier–particularly with the poor quality of the verse in the play that was supposed to have been written by Shakespeare (“Faerie’s Fortunes Founded”) and the novel that is supposed to have been written by an analogue of Jack Kerouac (“The Crazy Wide Forever” by Sal Paradyse).
The supposed Elizabethan play sounded more like something one of Shakespeare’s peers might have written since it didn’t demonstrate Shakespeare’s ear for dialog and verse. Also, even though Shakespeare included a great deal of ribald bits that were intended to appeal to the Groundlings, the character names for “Master Shytte” and “Master Pysse” (as the gatekeepers who guard “the gate” of human genitalia) were just too over-the-top for an actual Shakespeare play. The Bard was cleverer with his ribald humor than that.
Moore might have done better to have claimed that either John Fletcher or Thomas Middleton wrote the play–and that King Jacob I (Moore’s version of King James I) had commissioned the work based on Shakespeare’s notes, and that he had contracted the author with the task of showing his aunt, Queen Glo
riana I (Moore’s Elizabeth I), in a negative light.
Dave: I actually enjoyed the Shakespeare section a lot, and I thought that Moore made a pretty decent attempt at mimicking his conventions. However, I defer to your more educated assessment of it as a less-than-convincing imitation of his work. Perhaps it’s intended to be more of a pastiche.
Thom: I agree that Moore did a decent job of mimicking Elizabethan conventions, but not at mimicking Shakespeare’s actual artistry.
As for the supposed Kerouac novel, it’s the one part of the dossier that I had trouble getting through. I had to force myself to finish it–which is not what I was expecting at all since Moore said in an interview that it was the piece in the book in which he had the most pride:
And, I think I’m proudest of all of a piece that is a pastiche of Jack Kerouac–a pseudo-beat novel, complete with an exploitational pulp cover that has very little to do with the inside, that Kevin has done. It’s called The Crazy Wide Forever, and I’m pretty pleased with that as a piece of writing.
Moore may be inexplicably pleased with it, but I’m very disappointed. I was eagerly anticipating that section because my doctoral dissertation is on Kerouac’s jazz narrative structure, his overall aesthetics, and the relationship between those formal elements and the content of his novels.
The content of Moore’s version of a Kerouac novel is a continuation of the content of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and Dr. Sax–the latter being about a character inspired by Kerouac’s childhood fantasies of The Shadow when he used to read the pulp novels and listen to the old radio shows.
However, when it comes to the form, Moore missed the target by such a wide margin that it would almost be another dissertation for me to itemize all the mistakes he made in attempting to capture Kerouac’s jazz-based narrative and overall aesthetic. I’ll just say that while Kerouac may have misspelled words at times, he did not have the types of misspellings that Moore has included (such as an for and, along with numerous other examples of that type).
Additionally, Kerouac’s prose is peppered with a great many m-dashes that he referred to as “breath separations of the mind” within his jazz narrative. Kerouac’s m-dashes designate a pause (either a quarter note, half note, three-quarter note, or whole note rest), and they are positioned in his stream-of-consciousness sentences at points where there is a change in the tone and/or focus of the jazz narrative as it moves within the tertiary jazz structure of theme phrase, paraphrase, and chorus phrase variation.
Moore has none of that jazz structure in his “beatnik novel,” but he does have a great deal of tertiary internal rhyme structures that are often just ridiculous. However, Kerouac didn’t use such over-the-top rhyme structures in his work.
I wish Moore had taken the time to actually study Kerouac’s narrative structures, and had then developed a greater command of his own prose in this piece of the dossier because I was looking forward to seeing a well-done sequel to Dr. Sax starring Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is a lot of babble that is difficult to finish reading.
Instead of The Subterraneans and Dr. Sax, the Kerouac work that Moore comes closest to approximating is Old Angel Midnight, which Kerouac even acknowledged was his “failed experiment” at trying to do something like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. However, if that was Moore’s intent, then he actually does a bad job of imitating Kerouac’s bad job of imitating Joyce’s most difficult work.
Dave: I think that, of all the dossier segments, the beat novel excerpt is the one that has been the most challenging for readers. Like you, I had to force myself to finish it, and I really didn’t get much out of it at all. It doesn’t help that I’m not very familiar with that movement, and don’t particularly enjoy or appreciate that style of writing.
Thom: Except, of course, Moore didn’t actually imitate Kerouac’s style–or the style of William Burroughs either (since some of the characters in Moore’s section are actually taken from Burroughs’s The Nova Express).
Dave: Okay. However, as you say, these weak spots of Black Dossier are the exceptions to the general rule. There are many other far more enjoyable allusions to other literary works, and references to fictional characters–although it’s perhaps telling that many of the most enjoyable inclusions are the brief cameos and “Easter Egg” appearances, rather than the extended imitations or pastiches that can be found in the dossier material.
As with the previous volumes of LOEG, Black Dossier includes sly appearances from a multitude of fictional characters. These cameos are often incorporated in a fresh or unexpected manner–such as the fun allusion to Beano’s Bash Street Kids as a terrifying bunch of yobs, or the great gag about how the titular spaceship from Fireball XL5 got its name.
Indeed, it’s a particular shame that Black Dossier hasn’t been able to be sold to readers in the U.K. (officially, anyway), because there are so many references in this book that will probably be lost on anyone who doesn’t share Moore’s decidedly British childhood influences. However, there are also some slightly more well-known characters included, such as Dan Dare, Dr. Who, Biggles, and Billy Bunter.
Thom: Yes, I admit that many of the allusions were lost on this American. For instance, I had to research who Harry Wharton is after Moore revealed him as Orwell’s Big Brother. In fact, Wharton was also a character in the Billy Bunter novels, but I had no idea who Billy Bunter was either–nor who “Biggles” is.
Dave: I guess some aren’t so obvious unless you’re from the U.K. I also caught references to (amongst others) Roy of the Rovers, Bill and Ben the flowerpot men, Coronation Street, Andy Capp, the Carry On movies, Ealing comedies, Golliwogs, and even to some more recent and less revered forms of entertainment such as the Viz comic and The Fast Show.
These references aren’t laboured or obvious, but they’re there if you look for them, and I imagine that more and more of these sly allusions will reveal themselves each time I re-read the book.
As ever, the writer makes use of the historical context to offer countless opportunities for literary cameos and references to the fictional culture of the 50s, but Moore also makes room for anachronistic comments on modern events, too.
I detected a possible allusion to Osama Bin Laden and the “War on Terror” in the section of the book that deals with Mina’s first encounter with Captain Nemo, and there’s a definite skewering of right-wing “Daily Mail” attitudes in more than one of the newspapers that are shown, with their sensationalist and xenophobic headlines.
Moore isn’t above the occasional coarse gag either, such as Mina’s cheeky alias of “Oodles O’Quim” (a very British riff on “Pussy Galore”), or the innuendo provided by the many seaside-postcards and racy magazines that appear on the rac
ks of newsstands in the backgrounds of some panels.
Anyone who writes off Moore’s writing as pretentious and self-indulgent should give this book a look since it shows that he’s just as at ease with these kind of jovial and juvenile asides as he is with more weighty material.
Some people have made much of the increased sexual content of this story (especially in relation to the two volumes of LOEG), but I barely noticed the nudity and sexual references–and they certainly didn’t overshadow the rest of the book. Then again, maybe I’ve become desensitised to this content since reading Moore’s Lost Girls.
As far as I’m concerned, Moore treats the material in a very adult and mature way, making sex and sexuality as important a part of his characters’ lives as it is for most adults, but never including sexual content for gratuitous purposes.
Thom: Aside from the pornographic comic that was supposed to have been written for the proles in 1984, the Fanny Hill section is the only place where there is graphic sex in the book–and, considering Fanny Hill, from the novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), it’s appropriate since that is often considered the first erotic novel that is “somewhat respectable.”
Of course, Moore also has James Bond attempt to rape Mina–but he failed, and I don’t recall there being any nudity there. Mina, though, did have a nude scene as she was getting ready for bed after Bond’s failed rape attempt, but there wasn’t anything overtly sexual about her preparations for bed other than the small amount of nudity.
Dave: No, I think that this might just be another example of how sensitive the comics industry still is to sexual content and adult material. As I say, I think it’s handled in a perfectly mature and non-gratuitous manner.
Moore’s artistic collaborator, Kevin O’Neill, shows off his wide-ranging abilities throughout the book, and he’s made his particular style such an important part of the storytelling that I couldn’t imagine a League book without his visual contributions.
From the inventive credits page (a neat riff on the London Underground map), through the glossy finish of the regular pages that really shows off Ben Dimagmaliw’s colouring, all the way down to the different paper stocks and printing techniques used for the different sections of the dossier, it’s clear that this is a package that has been put together with the utmost care.
In the regular comics pages, O’Neill shows an improved command of character compared to the previous volumes, with his human beings appearing far more expressive and dynamic here than before. However, there’s still a real sense of consistency with the previous books–and, despite the changes to the environment, characters, and technologies featured in the story, this definitely feels like it’s of a piece with the original two volumes of LOEG.
O’Neill also copes well with the faster-paced sections of the book, with a confident grasp of the action sequences and some impressive splash pages (such as the first glimpse of the array of rockets at the Birmingham spaceport)–which are, thankfully, used sparingly, to great effect.
Thom As you’ve mentioned to me before, I don’t often comment on the illustrations in my reviews. I’ll admit to that because I usually don’t have much to say about that half of a comic book unless I found the work to be extraordinarily great or extraordinarily terrible–more often the latter.
I agree with you, though, that the League wouldn’t seem right at this point unless it was illustrated by O’Neill. He’s stamped this fictional world with his own unique, angular style. The fact that O’Neill’s work doesn’t call my attention to it is a testament to how good it is. I can’t stand the problems that so many younger illustrators seem to have in moving contiguous action from one panel to the next.
The story should flow from panel to panel unless there is a reason for it to suddenly stop. Thus, the action in a panel should flow from left to right since that’s the direction that the audience “reads” works in our culture. The only time the action in a panel should reverse the flow from right to left is when the script demands that there be some sort of jarring of the flow in the story at that point.
Additionally, consecutive panels of the same scene should be drawn from the same point of view (or angle) unless there’s a reason in the story for them not to be from the same POV–such as a shift from one internal observer to another.
O’Neill is a master at providing illustrations that complement the story rather than working at cross purposes with it–so, as I mentioned, the fact that I have little to say about the illustrations is indicative of how good O’Neill is in his job.
Dave: Yes, O’Neill’s sequential work is very unshowy and doesn’t call attention to itself as with some other artists. There’s a laudable focus on storytelling above all other concerns, and only occasionally does the artwork allow itself an indulgent splash page (such as the page depicting the spaceport).
Thom: But even there, his splash page of the spaceport is in service to the story. This is a massive spaceport with massive spaceships, and we are supposed to be impressed by the magnitude of it all–much as Mina, herself, is when she views the scene for the first time.
O’Neill doesn’t just give us a splash page to take up space in the book the way so many younger illustrators working for Marvel and DC seem to do nowadays. Neither Moore nor O’Neill are interested in what is known as “decompressed storytelling” (a term that I continue to dislike, by the way).
Their concern is in whatever is in the best interest of the story–using minimal dialog and expansive illustrations when the scene calls for it, or using a lot of dialog and restrictive illustrations if another scene calls for that approach.
Dave: I agree, and in that way the work is pleasingly disciplined and focused, especially when you compare it to that of other contemporary writers and artists. Artistically, though, it’s within the pages of the dossier that O’Neill really impresses. There’s a versatility on display that ensures that he’s up to the task of matching Moore’s various literary homages with whatever images they require, whether it’s Elizabethan etchings, 18th-century political cartoons, or more modern photographs.
The wide array of styles provides some welcome visual variety during the more text-heavy sequences, but they also manage to maintain a cohesive look and feel that marks all of the artwork as distinctively the work of O’Neill. There is a benefit of O’Neill’s work being used throughout the book, as it lends a sense of coherence to the long journey that readers make as they follow the story of the mysterious hermaphrodite Orlando through the fictional history of the many different Leagues.
Standout sections for me include the detailed linework of the pen-and-ink drawings that accompany the Fanny Hill segment, and the page that presents the cutaway diagrams of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus–which is a great throwback to the kind of features you’d see in the British comics annuals of my youth.
Thom: Yeah, I was reminded of cutaway diagrams of the Batcave from Batman stories of the 1950s, which I read as reprints during my own youth.
Nestled amongst the larger elements of O’Neill’s impressive artwork are some fun details that make every page demand a second look. There’s a prevalence of Masonic symbolism in the early sections (evoking Moore’s From Hell), which should give conspiracy theorists something to chew on.
Thom: Moore has had a tendency to include these Masonic “Illuminati” elements going at least as far back as V for Vendetta. It would be an interesting topic for a thesis: “Masonic Symbolism and the Illuminati Conspiracy in the Works of Alan Moore.”
Dave: Sounds like a future Soapbox column in the making!
In addition to the more serious elements to be found in the artwork, there are also some hilarious touches that can be found in unexpected places. I loved the designation of “Here be South Londoners” on a map of the city, and there’s even a cheeky depiction of a pair of handcuffs that look uncannily like the letters “DC” (and which appear in more than one panel)–perhaps making reference to the strained relationship between the League’s creators and the publisher.
Finally, the book presents a much-mooted 3-D section, with effects that are deftly handled by Ray Zone. The effect works well, and even if it’s a gimmick, it’s a fun one–and, crucially, one with a meaning that is pertinent to the story.
The climactic voyage to the “Blazing World” allows O’Neill to really cut loose with some hugely imaginative (and surely Escher-inspired) visuals that are a world away from the look of earlier League stories, and these images mark the final section of the book out as something truly special.
Thom: Yeah, I agree. Since the Blazing World is supposed to exist in four-dimensional space, it works well to make this section appear three dimensional through Ray Zone’s effects. Unfortunately, my copy of the book arrived without the 3-D glasses, so I had to dig through my long boxes to find another 3-D book that I could take the glasses from.
Additionally, the Blazing World is described as existing in (or perhaps possessing) an “eternal” temporal dimension in which all events occur simultaneously and no one ever ages–which, obviously, has to do with Moore’s notion that all works of fiction throughout history and into the future are part of the League’s universe.
That aspect of the Blazing World probably allows Moore an “out” for his claim that every work of fiction is part of the League’s universe–either through a gateway to a multiverse or through some sort of metaphysics that is implied but not fully explained.
Dave: I didn’t read it in that way, but I guess you could interpret the closing pages as implying the existence of a multiverse, rather than a single universe.
Thom: The implication of the metaphysics of the Blazing World only came to me a few days after I finished reading the volume, but it made me think of the Peter Greenaway film, Prospero’s Books with it’s own metatextual to metaphysical implications.
Dave:Yes, you could argue that, if all of the different possibilities and alternate stories can exist via the device of the Blazing World, then all of the possible fictional realities take place in just one “universe” since the Blazing World is situated squarely in the universe of the League. So it could be that, technically, Moore is right after all. It’s a matter of semantics, I guess.
Personally, though, I don’t think that Moore lets himself get too preoccupied with the specifics of internal logic as it relates to the “universe of fiction” that he has talked about. For me, the spirit of the book is truly encapsulated in Prospero’s final inspiring soliloquy on the power and importance of fiction that seems to convey Moore’s sheer love for all things creative, and his embracing of fantasy and escapism in all its forms.
Moore has spoken about how the original idea for Black Dossier was for it to be a straight “source book” for the LOEG series. Although there’s an occasional sense that the writer is using the book as a mere vehicle for his background notes on the League’s history, the book manages, for the most part, to escape the dryness that can afflict such source books.
Every section of the dossier provides relevant details and pertinent plot points that intersect to form a giant collage of information, with the result that Moore’s bigger picture becomes more coherent the more you read of it. Links between all of the vignettes also become clearer with multiple reads, and once you realise how carefully and intricately Moore’s back story has been constructed, it’s impossible not to be impressed.
I can’t imagine what the book would have been like if Moore had been able to include everything he wanted. He has mentioned in interviews about some of his ideas being rejected–such as a vinyl record–but even if the book doesn’t go as far as Moore would have liked, it’s an amazingly detailed package.
He also seems to have a sense of humour about these lost ideas, making reference to them with a couple of lines of dialogue: “Oh, that’s a nuisance. Some things tucked inside have fallen out.” — “Never mind. Probably nothing important.”
Thom: Yeah, the vinyl record is mentioned twice in the dossier–once in the supposed Kerouac novel and once in the letter from Robert Cherry (another of Billy Bunter’s old schoolmates) to O’Brien (the face of the Inner Party in Orwell’s 1984).
Considering how bad the jazz narrative is in the beatnik novel, I’m sort of glad the record fell out when Mina dropped the dossier–especially since I don’t have a turntable to play it on anyway.
Dave: Oh, I don’t know. I’d have been interested to see what Moore came up with, and it would make the book even more of a multi-media experience than it already is.
Thom: Well, I was being facetious about being glad it dropped out–but I do think a lot of people would have been frustrated at not being able to play the vinyl disk due to a general lack of turntables in the world nowadays–fifty years after the setting of the graphic novel. Perhaps the lack of turntables figured into DC’s decision to not include the disk.
Dave: That could be true. Although I do have access to a turntable, so I would have been able to enjoy it, even if no one else would. Still, despite the omission, the astounding depth with which Moore has considered the LOEG universe is apparent, and he’ll surely be happy to have been able to realise so many of his ideas here.
In some ways, the dossier material is reminiscent of the background work undertaken by Tolkein for his fantasy novels. In all honesty, there are more details here than casual readers will care about, but anyone who wanted more information on the previous incarnations of the League, and the rich tapestry that is their history, will be thrilled by the information that’s revealed here.
I’ve seen some reviewers claim that this book is overly indulgent, that it doesn’t really qualify as a comic, and that it is ultimately “beyond criticism.” Whilst I don’t think that’s true, I think that it probably reflects the likelihood that many comics readers (even those who may have enjoyed the previous adventures of the League) may struggle to get to grips with the epistolary storytelling techniques employed here.
Whilst I’d concede that this story o
f Allan and Mina isn’t as compelling in the traditional sense as volumes one and two of LOEG, there are other ways in which a comic can stimulate and satisfy a reader. Here, the devil is in the details, and Black Dossier presents one of the most richly detailed and fully-realised comics universes that I’ve ever read.
This is perhaps unsurprising, since Moore has the entire history of fiction as his canvas, and is free to pick and choose elements from all works of fiction to shape the world of the League as he pleases. That said, I wonder if any other writer working in comics today could have made it all fit together as successfully as he has. I doubt it.
Thom: Since I love epistolary prose fiction, which I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have any problems with Moore’s approach here. However, I actually would have preferred having things fit together a bit better than they do–but I won’t re-hash my problems with the 1984, Shakespeare, and Kerouac material. It is, though, why I have only given the book four bullets rather than five.
It’s very good, but has too many flaws for me to call it a masterpiece.
Dave: Yes, it’s not completely flawless, but Black Dossier is one of the most stimulating, thought-provoking and carefully conceived comics I’ve read in a long time. The ideas explored by Moore stayed in my mind for days and weeks after finishing the book, which is surely a sign that something has really captured your imagination.
Whilst some readers may be baffled or turned-off by the dense text pieces, or bemoan the lack of more conventional superhero trappings, any fan of LOEG specifically, or Moore in general, should find that the rewards of the book directly reflect the extent to which they’re prepared to engage with the material. I can’t wait to see what Moore and O’Neill have planned for the future adventures of the League.
Thom: I agree. I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume from Top Shelf now that Moore and O’Neill have finished their contract with Wildstorm-DC.