Black Dossier

Back in June, when I started the third arc of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I also picked up a copy of their graphic novel Black Dossier. This chapter in the adventures of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in 1958, but it was released before Century: 1910, which I’d read and discussed in June. This graphic novel starts out as a straightforward adventure story. Mina Murray and her companion Allan Quartermain Jr. have set out to steal The Black Dossier, which contains the entire history of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from its beginning. Because it’s set so much closer to the present than other League stories, the identities of famous literary figures who appear in the graphic novel are hinted at rather than revealed outright to avoid charges of copyright infringement. So, for example, Mina enlists the help of a master spy named Jimmy, who is an ancestor of Campion Bond and works for someone called “M.” So it’s not too hard to figure out who’s who.

Once Mina and Allan obtain the black dossier, they begin to read. The first section is a description of documents written in the time of the Big Brother government of post-World War II England. I suspect most people know that Orwell’s novel 1984 was originally titled 1948, but the publisher insisted on the change so it would be seen as science fiction rather than satire. From there, we move on to a whole series of documents which parody works ranging from depression-era pornography to Shakespeare to Jack Kerouac.

I’ll admit, when I first started reading this book, I was a bit put off by the dense pages of prose that followed the more traditional graphic novel format. I looked up the history of this particular project and learned that Black Dossier had not originally been intended to be a graphic novel as such, but a sourcebook for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Once I realized that, I settled in for a more time-consuming read and plowed through the prose. And really, the problem was not that the prose itself was difficult, but because it was presented in the pages of a graphic novel-sized volume with limited page count, some of the sections were presented in tiny type that often spanned the width of the page, making it physically difficult to read – at least for a dude in his 50s trying to find the right distance to hold the book from his progressive lenses.

Once I soldiered through that slight difficulty, I was rewarded with parodies of numerous works both classical and modern detailing the Elizabethan origins of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen up through their exploits in World War II. Along the way, we learned about some of the league’s members, such as Virginia Woolf’s immortal Orlando who periodically changes genders, Shakespeare’s Prospero, and Lemuel Gulliver. We also learned how the Queen of the Faeries, Glorianna, formed the League, how Mina met Captain Nemo, and the truth behind Allan Quartermain “Junior.” Among my favorite moments were following Orlando’s adventures as he/she took part in the founding of Britain beside the Trojan soldier Brutus from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. I also loved the section where P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster get mixed up in a tale of Lovecraftian horror. For geeks like me, there’s a lovely cutaway diagram of Nemo’s Nautilus from these stories. Also, as a fan of Gerry Anderson’s television shows, there was a nifty cameo of Robert the Robot and Fireball XL-5. Of course, because this is set in the main graphic novel story, neither one is mentioned by name.

Black Dossier isn’t the book to pick up for a quick Sunday afternoon read. It takes some work to get through, especially if you’re not familiar with all the source material. I found myself looking a few things up along the way. Still, it rewarded me with a look back at some great books I have read and introduced me to a few books I need to read.

The Threepenny League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

This last week, I’ve been working on a new steampunk story. After I wrapped up the story, I decided I wanted to read something in a similar vein to celebrate. When I think “steampunk” one of the first stories that comes to mind is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel written by Alan Moore with art by Kevin O’Neill. I’ve read the first two volumes of their centuries-spanning epic, so decided this was a good opportunity to dive into volume 3. The third volume, chronologically, is called “Century” and is, itself, split into three volumes. The first volume of “Century” is set in 1910.

Century: 1910

This volume opens on the island from Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Captain Nemo is dying and he asks his estranged teenage daughter Janni Dakkar to succeed him as captain of the Nautilus. However, she wants no part of this. She swims out to a passing steamer and stows away. Once the steamer reaches London, she assumes the name Jenny Diver. Also on the ship is a criminal returning to London, Captain Jack MacHeath. We learn that this MacHeath is both the son of the Captain MacHeath immortalized in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and the man responsible for most of the original Jack the Ripper murders.

Meanwhile, Alan Quartermain Jr. and Mina Murray are still working for the British government. Their associate, Thomas Carnacki — a detective created by William Hope Hodgson — has been having visions of a horrible disaster in which many people will die along with visions of a cult attempting to bring about Armageddon. Mina and Quartermain investigate, then report to their boss, Mycroft Holmes. Holmes tells them about MacHeath’s arrival in London and suggests that he may be responsible for the deaths Carnacki foresaw.

Meanwhile Nemo’s crewman Ishmael finds Janni and informs her that her father has died and that he’s willed the Nautilus to her. She refuses, but Ishmael gives her a flare gun to summon the Nautilus in case its needed. That night Janni is raped by patrons of the inn where she’s found employment. She summons the Nautilus, which razes London’s East End while Suki Tawdry, a character from The Threepenny Opera, sings the Kurt Weill song “Pirate Jenny.” Meanwhile, MacHeath is arrested and Mycroft Holmes plans to hang him without a trial, but the other man who committed the Ripper murders confesses to all the crimes and so MacHeath is set free, paralleling Brecht and Weill’s play.

As a fan of Jules Verne, the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and The Threepenny Opera, this graphic novel delighted me a great deal. The strongest part for me was the story of how Janni took over as captain of the Nautilus. Mina Murray and Alan Quartermain Jr.’s investigation into apocalyptic disaster really doesn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion, but I gather this part of the story line set things up for the next two volumes of “Century.”

I often find myself turning to The Threepenny Opera when I need to put contemporary news into perspective. In the play, MacHeath is intended to be the kind of man who, when given a choice, will always take the path that makes him the most profit. I think we see several analogs for that behavior today! If you ever want to explore the music of The Threepenny Opera, I highly recommend the 1976 Broadway recording featuring Raul Julia as Captain MacHeath.

Suki in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels actually was named for Suki Tawdry from The Threepenny Opera. She’s featured in Firebrandt’s Legacy and The Pirates of Sufiro. You can find those novels at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#pirate_legacy

If you’re more in the mood for steampunk, check out my Clockwork Legion series. Like Janni Dakkar, Captain Onofre Cisneros is a successor to Captain Nemo. You can learn about those novels at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Finally, on the subject of alternate history, Sheriff Chuck Davis from my novella, Breaking the Code, visits Queen Titania’s Court. Find out what happens when he meets the queen of the fae and learn a little more about the novella here: https://wyrmflight.wordpress.com/2022/06/08/breaking-the-code-queen-titanias-court/