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.