Tag Archives: LGX

Two noteworthy failures: LGX: Tempest and the Golems of Gotham

When League of Extraordinary Gentlemen debuted, it blew me away. The final volume, Tempest, barely rates a “meh.” Creators Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (who did the cover here) didn’t stick the landing, but then the series has been on a downward path for a while. I don’t think I actually hate Tempest as much as Century: 2009, and there’s maybe less rape than usual, but that’s hardly a thumbs up.

The plot pits Mina, Orlando and Emma Peel against James Bond, who’s recovered his youth in the waters of Kor. While Emma tries to take out Bond, Mina recruits Jack Nemo to reach the Blazing World and Prospero. It turns out Prospero has his own plan for the world, however, and it’s finally coming to a climax. A second plot involves the Seven Stars, a team of public domain British superheroes Mina organized in the 1960s (cue Moore’s tedious grumblings about how worn out and overdone superheroes are). This storyline comes off like a parody, but it isn’t funny.

The plot threads multiple increasingly, complicated with flashbacks, until I lost track of who was doing what to whom.  There’s more heavy-handed name dropping, like a pointless imitation of Sheldon Moldoff’s cover for “Robin Dies at Dawn” which serves no purpose. And much like Black Dossier, the good guys are ultimately useless. Ultimately they abandon Earth to its fate and go ff to have fun among the stars. The final chapter has Moore and O’Neill snickering at readers for wanting more “Bloomsbury Justice League” and other things (though they pass over readers who dislike the rape elements and the racial stereotyping). The results weren’t good but I’ve added them to my LGX Timeline nonetheless.

Thane Rosenbaum’s THE GOLEMS OF GOTHAM has a teenage girl, Ariel, create a golem and summon her grandparents — Holocaust survivors who killed themselves before she was born — to occupy it (she bases the combination of letters used in the ritual on an alphanumeric code derived from the numbers in their camp tattoos). She hopes they can help snap her dad Oliver, a mystery writer, out of his writers’ block.

Ariel summons her grandparents but also several writers’ ghosts, all Holocaust survivors and suicides, who proceed to turn the Big Apple upside down. Smoke reminds the “golems” of the death-camp crematoriums so they remove all sources of smoke. The pinstriped New York Yankee uniforms remind them of camp uniforms so they erase the stripes. Tattoos are contrary to Jewish law so poof, no more tattoos. And Rosenbaum apparently hates feel-good Holocaust films like Schindler’s List (I’ve seen the movie and that is definitely not how I’d describe it) so the golems erase that and other movies (the narration rants that saving Jews is meaningless, it’s the deaths that are important!). They’re also horrified that Holocaust denial is a thing — that’s outrageous, nobody denies the ugly truth about slavery (which was bullshit even then)!

While I’m sympathetic to some of Rosenbaum’s points, such as the hollowness of “never again,” a lot of what he had to say is unconvincing. The novel’s discussion of Art! and how it comes from Suffering! (those writers committed suicide because as artists they couldn’t put away their memories of the camps) didn’t do much better. I don’t think it holds up as a work of fiction, either: the mix of Holocaust tragedy with humor doesn’t work (particularly the sort-of lighthearted ending) . Then there’s an entire chapter where Ariel gives some of the ghosts physical form to enjoy New York but at the end of the chapter Rosenbaum announces none of that happened, it was only a What if. That’s nowhere near as clever as it probably looked in his head.

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And youth keeps right on growing old (or) Alan Moore becomes a grumpy old fart

As my recent birthday reminded me, we’re all getting older, including creators way more successful than me. And just like everyone else, age can warp us creative types in various ways.

To take an obvious example, let’s say you start out your career doing something both original and good. The response from readers is often not “now give us something else original and good” but “give us more like that one.” The financial pressure to keep doing the same thing, even if you want to experiment, can be very strong (I’m reminded of Jack Kirby’s lament that he wanted to inspire other comics creators to do what he’d done and create new things; instead he inspired a lot of them to work on stuff he’d already created like New Gods or Fantastic Four). Even if that doesn’t happen, very few creators can stay on the cutting edge forever. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work on Oklahoma was ground-breaking, as Ethan Mordden details in Beautiful Mornin’. By the 1960s they were still successful — Sound of Music was a mega-hit on stage and on screen — but their shows were what the avant-garde musical creators were breaking away from.

Another effect of age is that creators, just like the rest of us, get nostalgic for old stuff and grumpy about new stuff. Richard Rodgers didn’t think anyone would be able to make a musical out of rock music. Harlan Ellison, in his late 1980s writing, objected to DC’s reboots of Superman and the Shadow (admittedly the latter was dreadful) — why were they disrespecting fans who like the old stuff? — but he also objected to Marvel’s New Universe line. Not because it was crappy (it was) but what if fans spent money on the new books instead of Spidey and Captain America? What if that led to the classic characters getting canceled in favor of the New Universe? Not good!

If it’s not acceptable to launch new books or reboot old ones, the only option is to keep doing old ones the way they’ve always been done (which was the point of his short story Jeffty Is Five). Ellison was in his fifties by then; he’d gone from being an angry young man speaking the truth to power (okay, yelling the truth to power) to a crotchety old fart wishing kids would get off his lawn (of course, George RR Martin’s Armageddon Rag was bewailing how the world had turned to crap and he was in his thirties at the time)

Alan Moore seems to have wound up in a similar place.

It’s noticeable in LGX: Century in which he seems displeased with 21st century culture in general and particularly with Harry Potter — what a sad, juvenile set of stories those were, unfit for mature minds! In the series’ finish, LGX Tempest, which I just finished (review to come soon), we get more of the same. James Bond, who was believably vicious in Black Dossier, is now a homicidal maniac taking great glee in killing people for sport. Complaints about how America has been infatuated with superheroes, plus snark that Birth of a Nation was the first masked-superhero film (the KKK as masked vigilantes — makes you think about Batman, doesn’t it? Well DOESN”T IT?). Elric (not officially) tells Orlando in one scene that stories about superhumans make readers think “only impossible beings are capable of greatness … they cease attempting it for themselves.”

It appears the characters are speaking for their author as Moore has made the same points in several interviews (here, here and here). They’re not fit fodder for adults. People who watch superhero movies are clinging to their childhood, afraid to face the world. They’re escapist fantasy. Despite a little added diversity, they’re a master-race fantasies fit only for white supremacists.

My short answer: bite me, Mr. Moore. As JRR Tolkien once said, the only people who object to escape are jailers.

My longer answer: Getting nostalgic for childhood, wanting to escape whatever your life’s woes are for a while, these are not bad impulses. And it’s not a binary thing, where if you read comics you can’t possibly read anything serious or “mature.” I read superhero comics. I also read a lot of other stuff (very little of it is serious literature, true), and I stay informed about politics and what’s going on in the world. And no, reading comics or fantasizing about larger than life adventures does not mean we give up on doing anything ourselves (he reminds me of a Bill Maher rant I blogged about a few years ago).

As Kurt Busiek once pointed out, if comics can express the fantasies of teenage boys, they can express anything: the fantasies of girls, fantasies of justice, the frustrations of middle age. Nerd Reactors compares comics to videogames, another field that initially targeted kids but now spreads out to appeal to all kinds of people.

I’m sure part of this is Moore’s frustrated anger over the way DC Comics has made his work into their intellectual property (you can find the details of his issues online). But that doesn’t make his argument any less cranky and unreasonable.

#SFWApro. Covers by Howard Chaykin and Kevin O’Neill, all rights to image remain with current holders.

 

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My Timeline for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (#SFWApro)

When I decided to reread the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series this year, I opted to read based on internal chronology, much as I did with Hellboy a couple of years back. I couldn’t find a good timeline , so as with the Hellboy Chronology, I created my own. Rather than a history of the alternate timeline of LXG, I’m focusing specifically on the League’s various incarnations: Prospero’s Men, the unnamed 1700s team, the Murray Group and related organizations such as the Twilight Heroes. The timeline includes individual exploits of the characters; Janni Nemo’s graphic-novel adventures; and events referenced in various text pieces (e.g. New Traveler’s Almanac, Minions of the Moon). Question marks on the dates mean I’m guesstimating.

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(All covers by Kevin O’Neill, all rights to current holders)

Mid-1600s: Queen Gloriana recruits the wizard Prospero and the immortal, sex-changing Orlando as agents of the English crown. She instructs Prospero to form the first League — Prospero’s Men — after her death, when he returns from the island where she foresees he will be imprisoned. (Black Dossier: Faerie’s Fortune Founded)

1678: Prospero recruits Caliban, Ariel and the traveler Christian to form Prospero’s Men. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1682-3: Prospero’s Men journey across the British Isles to the otherworldly archipelago known as the Blazing World. On the journey home, Christian departs for his own plane of existence. (Book II: The New Travellers Almanac)

1695: Prospero vanishes with Ariel and Caliban. The first League is no more. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1754: While taking a sea voyage, Fanny Hill meets Lemuel Gulliver and Captain Clegg. Hill then enters the subterranean realm of Horselberg, where years pass without her aging. (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill)

Late 1700s: A second league, including at various periods Orlando, the Scarlet Pimpernel and his wife, Captain Clegg, Natty Bumpo and Gulliver, has multiple adventures over the years. George III’s claims to be protected by the group are taken as proof of his madness (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill; The Most Popular Tall-Tale Teller in the Tavern)

1793: Fanny Hill meets the new League and leaves Horselberg with them. Between their exploits, which include a visit to the giant land of Brobdingnag, Fanny and the Blakeneys tour Europe. (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill; The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1796: The League journeys into a subterranean world where they encounter lost legions of Roman soldiers and the alien Vril-Ya. (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill)

1799: After Gulliver dies (while in bed with Orlando) the last members of the League — Fanny, Orlando and the Blakeneys — arrange his burial in Lilliput. They retire from service and engage in travel and sexual indulgence for the next few years. (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill)

1802: Fanny leaves her friends and returns to Horselberg. (Black Dossier: The New Adventures of Fanny Hill)

1889. Allan Quatermain takes a mystical drug that plunges him beyond reality in the company of the Time Traveler, Randolph Carter and John Carter. He survives with a broken spirit and seeks relief in opium.  (Book I: Alan Beyond the Veil of Time)

1898: Acting on the orders of British intelligence’s M, Campion Bond assigns Wilhelmina Murray to recruit a new League. (Black Dossier: Shadows in the Steam).

1898: Miss Murray brings together Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man and Captain Nemo to form the “Murray Group.” (Book I)

1898: The Murray Group attacks Dr. Fu Manchu’s headquarters in Limehouse to recover a stolen piece of the anti-gravity metal cavorite. They then have to thwart Professor Moriarty’s plot to attack Fu Manchu from an anti-gravity craft, at a high cost in innocent life. (Book I)

July, 1898: After battling John Carter and Gullivar Jones, a molluscan Martian race flees to Earth. (Book II)

August 1898: In the ensuing War of the Worlds, Griffin and Hyde die. Allan and Mina obtain a bacterial weapon which wipes out the Martians and part of London. Nemo quits the League in disgust; Mina leaves temporarily to sort out her feelings for Allan. (Book II)

1899: British intelligence sends Mina and Allan to investigate the supernatural horrors of Arkham, Massachusetts. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1899: Nemo and the Nautilus encounter a Yellow Submarine from the underwater realm of Pepper’s Land. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

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1900: Mina and Allan go to undercover to investigate a new social movement established in Avendale in west England. (Black Dossier: The Murray Group)

1900-1: The government sends Mina and Allan in search of a rumored source of immortality found at Kor in Africa. Bathing in the fires of Kor restores Allan’s youth and makes the couple ageless. Returning to England, Mina claims Allan died on the journey and passes off the rejuvenated Allan as his own son. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1901: Mina meets with Edward Bellman, the sole survivor of an expedition that passed through a dimensional gate near Oxford. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1902: Allan and Mina investigate supernatural forces in Ireland. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1904: Mina Murray visits Sherlock Holmes in Sussex and studies supernatural presences around the county. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1906: As part of a diplomatic initiative in Asia, Britain sends Allan and Mina on a trip through Russia, Mongolia and China. During the journey, they meet Orlando and bond due to their shared experience of extended life. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1906-7: The new League of Orlando, Allan and Mina return home by way of an Arctic crossing. As they approach England, they pass through the Blazing World. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1907-9: The Murray Group recruits master thief John Raffles and occult detective Carnacki as new members. (Black Dossier: The Murray Group)

1909: The German government forms a counterpart to the League, the Zweilicht-Helden or Twilight Heroes. The group includes crimelord Dr. Mabuse, mesmerist Dr. Caligari, the mad scientist Rotwang and his android creation, Maria. (Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery)

1910: The Murray Group confronts Oliver Haddo’s circle of black magicians, which is scheming to create the Antichrist. Janni Nemo flees her father to become a kitchen drudge in London, but after being gang-raped, embraces her destiny as the next Captain Nemo. (Century 1910).

1910: The Twilight Heroes organize an assault on London during the coronation of George V, only to be thwarted by the British League. (Black Dossier: The Murray Group; The Sincerest Form of Flattery)

1911: Alarmed by Germany’s creation of the Zweilicht-Helden, France drops its reluctance to employ super-criminals and recruits Robur, Arsene Lupin, Fantomas, Zenith and the Nyctalope as Les Hommes Mysterieux. (Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

1911: Caligari and Mabuse, learning the existence of the French Mysterious Men, use their skills to set the French and British teams against each other. (Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

1912: Mina Murray visits the tomb of Lancelot in Northern England. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac)

1912: Mina and Allan travel through Eastern Europe, including Dracula’s castle and a city of vampires. In England, Carnacki has visions of the League battling Les Hommes Mysterieux. Coupled with German propaganda, this convinces the British government the Mysterious Men are plotting to start a world war. (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac; Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

February 1913: With Mina and Allan back in England, the League launches a pre-emptive strike against the Mysterious Men. The attack on Robur’s airship fails, however.  (Book II: The New Traveller’s Almanac; Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

March, 1913: The League and the Mysterious Men battle again in the Paris Opera House and the caverns below it. Despite a spectacular struggle, both teams survive. The League returns to England believing it’s averted the world war, but Allan also suspects that Raffles and Mina have become lovers. (Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

1914-18: World War I. Robur dies at the battle of the Somme and Raffles dies at Ypres. At the end of the Great War, the Mysterious Men disband. (Black Dossier: The Sincerest Form of Flattery).

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1919: Hugo Hercules kills Hugo Danner, eliminating his plans to create a new utopia (Tempest).

1920: With Danner gone, America lacks any superhumans to match the Murray Group and its European rivals. Filmmaker Nevada Smith fakes the arrival of a super-powered infant from another world to build morale. (Tempest)

1925: Janni Nemo robs Charles Foster Kane and Queen Ayesha of Kor. After the Nautilus sets sail for an Antarctic exploration, Kane recruits a trio of scientific adventurers to pursue Nemo. (Nemo: Heart of Ice)

1930: Bertie Wooster discovers his aunt’s new groundskeeper is a disciple of the Great Old Ones. Hilarity, black magic and brain transplants ensue. (Black Dossier: What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!).

1933: Janni Nemo seizes the bones of King Kong to return them for burial on Skull Island. (Nemo: Heart of Ice: A Perfect Match — And a Fuse!)

1937: The Murray Group (Orlando, Allan, Mina) are assigned to explore a subterranean region of England. The trip eventually leads them into the Blazing World. (Black Dossier: When They Sound the Last All Clear)

1938: Hira Nemo and Armand Robur tie the knot (Nemo: Heart of Ice: A Perfect Match — And a Fuse!)

1939: Orlando enlists in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. (Black Dossier: Director’s Summary)

1939-1941: Mina and Allan tackle various wartime threats, both on the home front and in Europe. (Black Dossier: When They Sound the Last All Clear)

1940: Captain Janni Nemo rescues Norway’s troll population from a Nazi extermination force. (Nemo: The Roses of Berlin: The Johnson Report)

1941: Allan and Mina blow up the cross-channel bridge. (Black Dossier: When They Sound the Last All Clear)

1941: Mina and Allan agree to travel to America and persuade the US to join the war on the Allied side. Knowing British intelligence plans to create a dictatorship after the war, the couple do not return to England. (Black Dossier: Director’s Summary)

1941: After the Axis capture Hira Nemo and Armand Robur, Janni Nemo and her husband enter the weird, futuristic city of Berlin to save them. (Nemo: The Roses of Berlin)

1944: Orlando goes AWOL from the RAF. (Black Dossier: Director’s Summary)

1945?: Orlando is magically transformed into a marmalade cat, though he eventually regains human form. (Black Dossier: Director’s Summary)

1946: The British goverment creates the Worralson Team as a duplicate of the Murray Group. Members include aviator Joan Worrallson, explorer William Samson Jr, submarine designer James Grey, invisible man Peter Brady and a robot called the Iron Warrior. (Black Dossier: The Worralson Team, 1946-47)

1947: After a single battle against the criminals James Soames and Count Zero, the government disbands the team as an inadequate substitute for its predecessor. (Black Dossier: The Worralson Team, 1946-47)

Late 1940s-early 1950s? Mina and Allan attempt to form a team of super-heroes including the Crimson Avenger, the Black Cat, Brain Boy and the Fly Man. (Black Dossier: Director’s Summary)

1950s: Janni Nemo engages in attacks on both the Communist American government and the totalitarian Big Brother government of Great Britain. She also battles various radioactive mutants and extraterrestrial monsters that appear during this decade. (Nemo: The Roses of Berlin: The Johnson Report)

1954: The Science Elders of the universe transform James Logan into Captain Universe (Tempest).

1954-6: At some point during this period, Allan and Mina have an adventure amidst San Francisco’s Bohemian counterculture.

1958: Mina and Allan return to England to learn what British Intelligence knows about them, and about the Blazing World. The mission puts them in conflict with James Bond, Bulldog Drummond and Emma Peel. (Black Dossier)

Early 1960s: Armand Robur assists France as his homeland struggles against freedom fighters in French Indochina (Nemo: The Roses of Berlin: The Johnson Report)

1964: Satin Astro travels back in time from the 30th century to avert centuries of disaster and oppression. (Tempest)

1964: Mina kills the criminal mastermind Vull the Invisible. Using his technology to disguise herself, she organizes a team of British superheroes, the Seven Stars, operating through the U.N. (Tempest)

1964: In response to the Seven Stars forming, the British government creates its own team, the Victory Vanguard. The Seven Stars humiliate them in a battle with Toby, a giant schoolboy. (Tempest)

1964: All of Britain’s superheroes go up against the government’s mutated monstrosity, the oozing Mass. (Tempest)

1964: Mina visits the Blazing World while Allan and Orlando have a romantic tryst. Prospero sends Mina into space to make peace between the warring races of the moon. (Century: Minions of the Moon)

1969: After Oliver Haddo returns to England, Mina, Allan and Orlando return too, to prevent Haddo advancing his evil plans. The Murray Group’s effort fails, leaving Mina insane and Allan a junkie. (Century 1969)

1975: Hearing rumors that Ayesha has returned to life, a dying Janni leads an expedition up the Amazon for a confrontation with the woman who killed her husband. (Nemo: River of Ghosts)

1987: Janni’s grandson becomes the new captain of the Nautilus and leader of the Nemos’ realm on Lincoln Island.

2009: A broken Orlando, Mina and Allan reunite to battle Oliver Haddo’s Antichrist with the fate of the world in the balance. (Century: 2009)

139995672009: James Bond uses Ayesha’s pool to regain his youth, then nukes it. (Tempest)

2010: Satin Astro returns and gathers some of the surviving superheroes for another try at averting the apocalypse (Tempest)

2010. As the new head of the Secret Service, Bond nukes the Blazing World before Jack Nemo can take Mina, Orlando and Emma Night there. Prospero, however, holds back the explosion. (Tempest)

2010: Prospero unleashes the forces of human imagination, overwhelming the Earth. The chaos spreads out and consumes the Solar System, guaranteeing Satin Astro’s future comes to pass. Jack Nemo’s rocket ship takes Mina and her friends into space. (Tempest)

2010: Jack and Mina marry. Emma Night executes Bond. (Tempest)

2164: Emma and Jack have established a home on another world, christened New Lincoln. Nemo and Orlando use it as the base for space piracy. (Tempest)

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LXG Century 1969 and 2009: Alan Moore becomes a grumpy old man (#SFWApro)

In League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910, there’s a scene where Mycroft Holmes grumbles about how the country is clearly going into decline. The follow-ups Century 1969 and Century 2009 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill seem to take the same view. Spoilers ahead, be warned.

Century 1969 has Allan, Mina and Orlando return to swinging London to make another attempt at stopping Haddo from raising the Antichrist (following his recent failure in New York—a reference to Rosemary’s Baby). Unfortunately Mina’s starting to crack as the nature of immortality sinks in; Allan, the former opium addict, has to fight his desire for the freely available drugs. And Haddo’s plan is not what they think … I have no idea what the creators’ views of the 1960s are, but the take here is that it’s a sour, joyless time, where drugs and sex are invariably a mistake and partying just makes you vulnerable to being kidnapped by cultists. And like Black Dossier, if you don’t get some of the references, you’ll miss some of the fun — while I get some of the throw-away lines in the opening scene, the awareness there’s stuff I’m missing was very distracting (in an normal comic, they’d have been just two guys getting stoned and screwing)—though admittedly on first read I was happy to go look them up online. Oh, and there’s no shortage of rape: Haddo rapes a woman in flashback, he apparently feels Mina up in astral space, and Tom Riddle (yep, the Harry Potter guy) almost rape Mina while she’s passed out.

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2009 was my least favorite on first reading, so it’s not surprising it doesn’t feel quite as awful on the reread — but it still isn’t good. Alan, Mina and Orlando reunite to face the Antichrist, who’s actually Harry Potter, but don’t worry, Mary Poppins is God and shows up at the end (I guess it’s a true deus ex machina) to kill the bad guy with ease. There’s no rape (good) but there is more singing-as-captions (bad). And the book is very heavy-handed in making Harry Potter the butt of Moore’s scorn, although one critic suggests the issue isn’t really JK Rowling but the decline in originality, publishing refusing to take risks and modern culture in general sucking. And along with the culture, 2009 society as a whole is a bleak awful mess, so far fallen from the glory days of Victorian Britain.

If that is Moore’s point, I don’t buy it. It’s not like there weren’t franchises 100 years ago (Allan Quatermain appeared in lots of stories) or bad fiction. I don’t buy originality is dwindling, though I don’t deny publishers are getting increasingly cautious. But there’s also much more resistance to the kind of racial stereotypes Moore employs in Book I, more diversity (not enough, but still an improvement) — and much as I love Moore’s premise for the LXG series, recycling lots of fictional characters is hardly complete originality. And for all its many faults, today is still ahead of Victoria’s world, to say nothing of 2009 in LXG being the product of decades of British dictatorship. So I’m not sure it’s a fair critique of our world anyway. Lord knows I grumble about Comics Today! often enough but at least I try to acknowledge it as a matter of taste and not a sweeping indictment of culture’s decline.

My view of the three Nemo graphic novels — Heart of Ice, Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts — hasn’t changed much from my original reviews, so although i reread them, I won’t re-review them. But like the main series, I could easily see the references getting in the way of readers who don’t recognize them; Roses of Berlin is the strongest partly because the plot (Janni Nemo leads a strike force into WW II Berlin to find her daughter) is strong enough to work even if you don’t know the references (I think).

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Tomorrow, I’ll post a timeline for the LXG world that I’ve been working on.

Covers by O’Neill, all rights to current holders.

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Alan Moore tries taking it back: the Golliwog (#SFWApro)

The weirdest part of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier when I first read it was the Galley-Wag. A huge blackface figure who comes out of nowhere to save Allan and Mina, babbling insane gobbledygook—and did I mention the blackface? It turns out this was Moore’s attempt to redeem a character from 19th century fiction.

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When I first saw Golliwogs in advertisements as a kid (they were in ads for Robinson’s Marmalade, IIRC), I had no idea they were blackface. I hadn’t been exposed to much racist iconography, I just assumed they were funny-looking figures (you can see an example above, taken from Herald Scotland, all rights to current holder). Yes, I was an ignorant kid in some ways.

The original Golliwog was a 19th century fictional creation by Florence Kate Upton. According to Moore, despite the blackface imagery, the character was a strong, positive one, not at all racist (I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, and no idea which is right). By putting the Golliwog in the book as one of the Blazing World’s agents, Moore thought he could redeem the character, restoring him to his non-racist roots. Moore has been very unhappy with people who say he failed, eventually sinking to the time-honored cop-out that apparently it’s just not permissible for white people to write about black people. But I don’t think that’s the problem. Whatever Moore’s intent (and I’m sure it was as he says) and the merits of Upton’s original creation, I don’t think it works.

In a sense it’s a variation of the name-dropping problem I mentioned yesterday: I never heard of the fictional golliawog, I have no reason to go “Oh, good, Moore has restored the original spirit of the character!” All I can go by is what I see, and what I see is this big, freaky blackface character. If the only way to understand what Moore’s doing is to go back and read a 19th century novel, or study the admittedly excellent annotations to LXG by Jess Nevins — well, sorry. Readers are entitled to judge the story by what’s on the page, and what’s on the page is just a golliwog. Other than looks he doesn’t conform to a racial stereotype, but he doesn’t really counter it either.

It’s not like this is a problem unique to Black Dossier or Moore. For instance when Grant Morrison temporarily turned super-hero Mary Marvel into a Dark version wearing spandex and butt floss, some of his fans argued this was not at all sexist — we should see her as an ironic meta-commentary on artists who draw women wearing spandex and butt floss. Even if that was Morrison’s intention (I don’t believe he made the claim himself) it failed: she was still a female character parading around in butt floss. Nothing meta about it. And as I’ve written before, there’s nothing meta about the Yellow Peril stereotypes in the original LXG series. If, as Comics Journal argues, Moore and O’Neil use all the rape and racist tropes to “dare their readers to parse the difference between mimesis and mockery,” I think they failed. The rapes and tropes look just like rapes and tropes, no mockery at all.

Even mockery doesn’t always help. M declaring James Bond a sexist, misogynist dinosaur in Goldeneye doesn’t make him any less sexist. Having Jonni Future (an America’s Best Comics character from a decade ago) comment about how ridiculous it is to have space adventures in a skimpy space suit that bares her ginormous cleavage doesn’t make her ironic or meta — she’s still a massively endowed woman wearing a body-baring costume.

To paraphrase film critics Siskel and Ebert, if something doesn’t work there’s no point to the creator explaining why he had to write it that way.

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LXG’s Black Dossier: Too many injokes? (#SFWApro)

107009BLACK DOSSIER by Allan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (cover by O’Neill, all rights to current holder) was the third book in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and when it first came out, I loved it. Rereading, not so much.

The story opens with a disguised Mina (“My name is … Oodles O’Quim.”) hitting on a British agent, Jimmy, just returned from a mission in Jamaica. Jimmy, sensing a lay, shows her to a convenient secret MI6 base where, conveniently, the eponymous file on the Murray Group and its predecessors lies. Mina and Allan knock Jimmy out, and now have to get the file back to the other-dimensional Blazing World, with James Bond, Bulldog Drummond and Emma Peel in hot pursuit.

I loved it when I first read because it took the League concept from the Murray Group and threw it back in time (details on Prospero’s Men, the original LXG founded by Queen Gloriana) and into the twentieth century, with cameos from Harry Lime (of the classic Third Man), Billy Bunter (old schoolboy character), Big Brother. Dr. Mabuse and Robur the Conqueror. That was awesome. And so was the style — comic strips, Shakespearian plays, Tijuana bibles, postcards, it’s a glorious crazy-quilt. The high point is What Ho, Gods of the Abyss, in which the Murray Group meets up with Bertie Wooster. I think it’s my favorite segment of the entire series.

Even on first reading, though, a couple of things really bugged me. One is that in the course of their escape, Allan and Mina try getting a ride out of England’s spaceport. This allows the creators to work the British SF characters of the 1950s and 1960s into the mix, such as Dan Dare and Fireball XL-5. But in a setting that’s otherwise at the 1950s level of technology, that kind of futuristicness didn’t fit. And still doesn’t.

And then there’s the ending. That it’s 3D (the book came with the glasses) was annoying; I always find 3D comics more trouble than they’re worth. But it’s also several pages that serve no purpose other than info-dumping about details of the pan-dimensional mythos and showing off the Blazing World. And the Blazing World ain’t all that (this article says is just a variation of the higher planes in Moore’s Promethea).

Rereading makes it obvious that the entire story is also well, pointless. It’s hard to see how getting the file really benefits the team; it’s just an excuse for all the in-jokes. Bond & Co. vs. Allan and Mina and the revelations are all fun (“The CIA is laughing at you—what they’re saying is there was No Doctor in Jamaica.”), but the pointlessness leaves a poor aftertaste. Especially as England is shown to be a despotic, dystopian nation, yet there’s not even a hint anyone in the cast cares or wants to do anything to change that. Just get back to the Blazing World and party down.

And that’s coming from someone who gets a lot of the references. I grew up knowing who Billy Bunter was, for instance, so seeing him play a role here was great. But as British fictional characters go, I can’t imagine that many American readers will have a clue. And Bunter plays a large role in the story, too; it’s not like the references in the text pages of Vol. 2, which I can just skim over. The first volume of LXG and to a great extent the second had a core cast everyone could recognize and stories — beat the Martians, stop Moriarty — even if they didn’t know the players. Here, not so much. Maybe not at all. As I said in my post on inside jokes, if you have to get the joke for the story to work, and a lot of people won’t get the joke, the problem isn’t the readers.

There was one more problem with this graphic novel that I’ll get to tomorrow. The Golliwog.

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Welsh mages, earth mages, WWI and more: books read (#SFWApro)

1256941THE SONG OF RHIANNON by Evangeline Walton (cover by Bob Pepper, all rights to current holder) was the third of her Mabinogion-based novels, (following Island of the Mighty and Children of Llyr): following the great war in Ireland, Manawyddan reunites with his lost love Rhiannon only to find her son’s kingdom targeted by a malevolent and powerful entity out of faerie. While this lacks the epic drama of Llyr, the magic is absolutely eerie, for example the scene where Dyved’s entire population vanishes overnight. Wonderful.

BREATH OF EARTH by Beth Cato is a steampunk fantasy set in an alt.1906 where the US and Japan are allies (leading to them briskly grinding China into the dust) and magic is integrated into the industrial revolution. The protagonist is a black serving woman in San Francisco who has to deploy her own powers when someone annihilates the city’s entire cabal of earth magicians, leaving the city helpless against the next big quake. There’s nothing really bad about this (other than how easily Isabel trusts the male lead, given she has no idea who’s behind the conspiracy), but nothing that grabbed me either.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain is the slow-paced but absorbing account of Brittain growing up in rural England before WW I, eventually signing up and joining the nursing corps, and become a diplomat and peace activist in the following decade (this came out in 1933, when she could still be optimistic there wouldn’t be a second world war). Brittain’s account of unreasonable supervisors, hellish medical crises and tragic losses (a lot of those) seems very similar to a lot of later memoirs, while her and her friends’ reliance on poetry to ease their pain seems like something out of another world. Also interesting as a bit of feminist history, Brittain defining herself as such and doing a lot more than I usually imagine women doing in those days (my bad, obviously). I must admit, I skimmed some of the slower bits.

FRESH ROMANCE is an anthology of Indie romance comics and like many anthologies varying wildly in quality: I really loved The Ruby Equations (can a cynical cupid ever make a match that lasts) even guessing the finish, and the brief final story (about a woman whose first kiss with someone gives her a vision of their final kiss); the opener about high-school relationships and magic feels like a more diverse version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Overall worth reading, even though I’m not a romance fan in particular.

THE COMPLETE E.C. SEGAR POPEYE, Vol. 9 (picking up not long after the last volume I read) has the squinting sailor coping with a new girlfriend (who annoyingly disappears from the story without explanation), a town of Western outlaws, the Sea Hag’s even-more-evil sister (plus her immortal brute sidekick, Toar), and Popeye’s efforts to establish his own land of Spinachovia. I love Segar’s work so this was a real treat, though even a comic genius can have off days—the plotline of Olive becoming a movie producer is a collection of cliches that never adds up to much. And this has a boatload of Native American and Savage Tribesman stereotypes (“Indians” even show up as the native inhabitants of Spinachovia, which makes no sense), so now you’ve been warned.

RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS: Starfire by Scott Snyder and multiple artists mercifully avoids the sex-kitten characterization of Starfire from vol. 1, but it’s not terribly interesting. Snyder tries way too hard to show us that Jason Todd as the Red Hood is utterly awesome (I’ve never understood why anyone wanted to revive him after he died) and while Starfire’s arc works some variations on her pre-New 52 history, it just feels more like a knockoff of the X-Men’s Starjammers. So, forgettable

LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: Century 1910 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill has the latest incarnation of the Murray Group (Mina, Allan, the psychic Carnacki, the immortal Orlando and the cat burglar Raffles) going up against a sinister cultist plotting something apocalyptic, but discover they’ve arrived a little early—plus the League itself is showing fractures. The ending foreshadows the sour tone I remember from 1969 and 2009 and the gimmick of using one character singing to provide narrative captions is really forced (it worked in V for Vendetta but it’s er, discordant here). And the rape of Janni Nemo is really gratuitous, as if there’s no other reason she’d want to ditch the life of a kitchen drudge to command the Nautilus (reading so soon after the first series, I can see why some readers complain about Moore’s use of rape as a plot device). Second-string for this mythos.

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The Deryni, Orientalism and More Bond: Books (#SFWApro)

DERYNI CHECKMATE was the second book in Katherine Kurtz original Deryni trilogy (review of Vol. 1 here), and a marked improvement over the first (so apparently my fondness for the books wasn’t just misty nostalgia for teenage favorites). This is in the school of Everything Falls Apart volume twos, as both religious crusaders and would-be conquerors threaten to invade Gwynedd, the church amps the persecution of the Deryni, a love spell goes horribly wrong and Morgan tries to figure out if he’s really getting guidance from visions of a saint. An excellent job.

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KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS by Ernest Bramah (cover by Ian Miller, all rights to current holder) is a piece of 1920s Orientalism — as editor Lin Carter puts it, Bramah’s writing about a country he made up, only it happens to be named China — so if you find that objectionable, this probably won’t work for you. The protagonist, Kai Lung, is a storyteller who in this volume falls afoul of a minor imperial official and buys time by repeatedly pulling out the perfect story to satisfy a higher-ranked official’s personal dilemmas. Droll and witty (“There is no problem that cannot be solved by suicide, a bag of gold or the hurling of a despised enemy over a cliff in the dead of night.”), but a slow, leisurely read, not suited for when you’re in a rush. Despite the orientalist cliches, I enjoyed it.

Reading Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel THUNDERBALL for the first time (to gain some perspective for Martinis Girls and Guns), I was struck by how very technothriller it comes off, with extensive details on the nuclear technology SPECTRE has stolen. Then again Fleming may just have been in a wordy mood as we also get lengthy discussion of health fads, SPECTRE’s backstory (though the film series gains by having two films to build up SPECTRE, —it comes off a lot more impressive in the screen Thunderball), Domino’s biography and how bartenders trick you about how much booze they’re giving you (Bond and Leiter grumble quite a bit about how the servant classes have gone down hill). The book is slow and wordy, probably more significant for giving us SPECTRE (which in turn gave us Hydra, THRUSH and countless other similar cartels). I will say I was pleasantly surprised that Bond’s sexual harassment of the health-spa worker wasn’t in Fleming’s original (though that also makes the film creepier).

The second LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN collection by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill has the “Murray group” confronted by mysterious rockets fired from the planet Mars to launch a War of the Worlds (the opening issue shows John Carter and Gullivar Jones leading Martian armies to drive the creatures off, not realizing where they’ll head next). This is a mixed bag, with some developments I like (Hyde bonding with Mina) and some that didn’t work (using Dr. Moreau to explain various anthropomorphic animal characters from mine and Moore’s childhood). Overall fun, though once again Mina winds up assaulted (not sexually, just beaten up by Griffin). And the Travelogue in the text pages, while it has many interesting bits (Mina and Allan in Arkham!) also throws in so many references I lost interest (it’s hard to care when I don’t know any of them). Plus some simply don’t work, like trying to graft Elric onto this world.

RED LANTERNS: Rage of the Red Lanterns by Peter Milligan and Miguel Sepulveda confirms my general dislike of the Red Lanterns as anything but villains—making Atrocitus and his followers hard-core vigilante anti-heroes just doesn’t work (though given how long the Punisher’s been in print, I suppose it’s not surprising DC gave them a shot). This volume has Atrocitus primarily battling subversion in his own ranks, though the Reds also go up against the Star Sapphires and Stormwatch; competently written, but that doesn’t make this goon squad more appealing.

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Race, Gender and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (#SFWApro)

297627Like 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.

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