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.

Forbidden Planet

While re-reading some of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories over the last couple of weeks, I found myself thinking about the 1956 MGM film, Forbidden Planet. Much of that would seem to come from the fact that both involve space opera largely concerned with military vessels. Also, the earliest Grimes short story I know, “Chance Encounter” is from 1959 and the earliest Grimes novel, Into the Alternate Universe, is from 1964. The stories are from an era just after the movie.

Based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet tells the story of a spaceship crew on a rescue mission to Altair 4. They arrive to discover only one survivor from the original expedition along with his daughter who was born after the expedition landed and an amazingly cool robot named Robby. When the expedition’s sole survivor, Dr. Morbius, refuses to return to Earth, Captain Adams of the C-57D must cannibalize parts of the ship to make a long range transmitter to request further instructions. While the ship is helpless, a creature breaks into the ship and sabotages the transmitting gear. We ultimately learn that Dr. Morbius discovered the remnants of an ancient civilization on Altair 4 who had advanced far beyond humankind. The good doctor doesn’t feel humans are ready for such advanced knowledge. In the meantime, the captain and his first officer are busy trying to seduce Morbius’s daughter.

This was one of the first movies I ever bought on DVD. My copy was a transfer from an old film print with lots of scratches and hotspots. Even so, I remember my oldest daughter was captivated by the film and watched it as regularly as many kids her age would watch Disney Princess movies. In many ways, it kind of reminds me of a Disney Princess movie with Altaira Morbius serving as the princess. She even has a (mostly) happily ever after ending.

Because I had been pondering the film, I recently upgraded to a BluRay copy. My new copy is much cleaner and it amazed me how well the film holds up. It was filmed in the 1950s, but had great effects work, augmented by Disney animation. Given my love of retro-futurism, I didn’t really mind that the 1950s were reflected in the design of the C-57D or Dr. Morbius’s house on Altair 4. The two big things that really make the movie feel dated are that the C-57D is crewed by a bunch of white dudes and that Altaira Morbius exists largely as a creature to be seduced and won by a hero from the space vessel. Again, this doesn’t feel all that different from a lot of Disney Princess films.

One of the things I love about science fiction is that it’s very good at looking back with love at the works that inspire us and trying to figure out how to make them better. The John Grimes books feel like a step up from Forbidden Planet. In Chandler’s novels, we find strong women and more balanced spaceship crews and let those elements shape the stories accordingly. That said, Chandler’s novels do retain a certain amount of sexism in how he describes women. Often they seem all too content to play second fiddle to the men in the stories.

Ten years ago, I was one of the editors of the Full-Throttle Space Tales anthology series. These were anthologies that explored the space opera themes loved by the talented authors who wrote for them. Of course, we all endeavored to improve on elements we found needed some work from earlier generations of authors. In the future, I’m sure other authors will look at our works and find ways to improve the genre further.

Although the original Full-Throttle Space Tales books are out of print, the editors got together and collected the best tales from the series and assembled them into a volume called Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. The book is available from WordFire Press and your favorite online retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I hope you’ll take a moment and join us on some thrilling adventures through the darkest reaches of space.