Like Doc Sidhe, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (cover by O’Neill, all rights to current holder) suffers some from the fact its premise (The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain as an 1898 super-hero team) is no longer new to me, so I can’t be as blown away by it as I was on first reading. Though the impressive detail, the background changes to history (a cross-channel bridge) and the use of established fictional characters to fill out even minor roles (Mr. Hyde doesn’t just kill a French prostitute in one story, he kills Emil Zola’s character Nana) is cool. And while the story takes a while to get going (there’s no suspense wondering who she’s going to recruit), it builds and becomes more entertaining as it moves along.
However, the book also comes off a lot more racist and sexist than when I first read it too:
•When Miss Murray goes to drag Allan Quatermain out of an Arab opium den, she’s immediately set upon by Arabs lusting for white flesh (and for all the talk about Mina as a strong female character, she has to be saved by addict Quatermain’s trusty gunmanship). Nonwhite men’s supposed insatiable desire for white women is a really old racist stereotype.
•The story involves Moriarty, the head of British Intelligence (his role as a crimelord was a government plan to manipulate the criminal underworld) plotting to recover cavorite stolen by Fu Manchu. The scenes of Fu Manchu are straight out of classic “yellow peril” imagery — a sinister, sadistic figure torturing a man and writing on his skin in the man’s own blood. Alan Moore compares his glimpse of Fu Manchu to a look at Satan.
This is true to Sax Rohmer’s own depiction of his creation and the depiction of Asian villains in Victorian fiction. The Arab rapists aren’t out of line with Victorian stereotypes either. But is that good enough?
I’ve seen reviews that defend these scenes as parody or satire, but for the life of me I can’t see how. Satire would involve something that undercuts the obvious, conventional interpretation, but Moore and O’Neill are playing it perfectly straight. So how exactly is this different from promoting and repackaging the old stereotypes? It’s not as if they had to—they have no problems presenting Mina (divorced, independent) as a positive figure rather than imposing Victorian gender stereotypes on her. Fu Manchu’s goal in Rohmer’s books of breaking British imperial control would give O’Neill and Moore something authentic to work with in that direction (Rohmer’s Fu Manchu was always more than just sinister).
Then there’s the chapter in which Griffin, the Invisible Man, is raping the students at a girl’s school (including such wholesome figures as Pollyana and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). I gather the sequence is a riff on Victorian pornography, but it’s still very … rapey. And while there’s a male/male rape in Vol. 2, it isn’t played as a bowlful of laughs.
I still like the story, but I think it’s got problems.