Jun 28, 2012

Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009 Featuring Some of the 20th Century's Greatest Fictional Secret Agents

Famous fictional spies have made appearances in several recent volumes of Alan Moore's epic literary mash-up comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. James Bond got rather unfairly skewered in 2007's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, which also featured appearances from Hugo Drummond, George Smiley, Q, Callan's Lonely and a young Emma Peel—as well as references to Felix Leiter, John Drake and Callan's Toby Meres. Last year, Simon Templar, Jason King and the Sean Connery incarnation of 007 made cameos in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969. And even more spies turn up (in more substantial roles, too) in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009, out this week!

For regular readers of this series, which began as a sort of Victorian-era Justice League teaming the likes of Mina Harker, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jeckyll and Captain Nemo before spanning centuries to incorporate scores of other characters from fiction, film and television, part of the fun is spotting all the cameos and figuring out who certain characters (sometimes remaining nameless due to copyright regulations) are supposed to be. If you count yourself in that category, then you may wish to read no further until you've perused the book yourself, because I'm going to reveal some of the spy characters populating the latest volume. But I'm not planning to spoil any plot details.

Century: 2009, the final part of the "Century Trilogy," takes place (obviously) in 2009. In keeping with the modern Bond films, M (the nomenclature is a fixture of the series) is now a woman. In a rather delightful twist, however, we soon piece together that this elegant older woman is Emma Peel! (She even keeps a framed photo of Steed on her desk.) Em (get it?) has grown disillusioned over the years with the original James Bond (Moore's supposed take on the literary 007, whose character actually bears no resemblance to Ian Fleming's creation, even if artist Kevin O'Neill nails the physical appearance), but because of his notoriety it's suited her to continue to employ "increasingly younger stand-ins" who carry on his name and number. These stand-ins, codenamed J1 through J6, of course bear the respective likenesses of Sean Connery (the version of 007 seen in the last volume), Roger Moore (perhaps supposed to be Simon Templar himself recruited to fill the shoes of James Bond?), Timothy Dalton (in the weakest likeness), Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (in the best likeness). Later in the story, Emma comes to the rescue in a Rolls Royce along with appropriately aged companions Tara King and Purdey! (This version of Purdey is a clever amalgamation of Purdey and Joanna Lumley's Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy.) In what reads as a very nice sort of epilogue to The Avengers, Emma explains that they're all very loyal to each other, adding, "I suppose it's that we all used to be in love with the same man." Soon enough Cathy Gale is also in the picture, but this version of Cathy also owes something to another famous Honor Blackman spy character: she "has some experience as a flight instructress" as well as some lesbian tendencies! Lesser spy cameos in the book (I mean lesser in that they don't have speaking roles) include Spooks' Harry and Ruth, 24's President David Palmer and Burn Notice's Michael Westen (by reference, anyway) and, in a particularly amusing single-panel appearance, The Prisoner himself, Number 6.

Moore is clearly fond of The Avengers, so he treats them pretty well. As I said above, the portrayal of the ladies of The Avengers is really quite moving, making this comic a must-buy for fans of that series on the eve of Steed and Emma's official return to comics in Boom!'s upcoming Steed and Mrs. Peel series. As he made abundantly clear in Black Dossier, however, Moore has no love whatsoever for James Bond, and therefore treats him rather ruthlessly. (I have to say, I was disappointed that someone who's clearly so well read and such a lover of classic adventure fiction as Moore would rely on preconceived notions about Fleming's Bond based more on trendy, ill-informed lit-crit and some of the early movie appearances than the actual novels themselves. Among the myriad slanders he levied against 007, he made the character a habitual woman-beater. Had he read Fleming's short story "The Hildebrand Rarity," Moore would know that Fleming's Bond disdains such men.) The original Bond, now in his 90s, is subjected to one final insult... but nothing so bad as in Black Dossier. In fact, I was quite amused to see a nonagenarian "Sir James" wheelchair-bound and breathing through an oxygen tank (thanks to "cirrhosis, emphysema and syphilis..." all in all a much fairer portrayal of the original Book Bond!), but still looked after by a comely nurse nonetheless.

In this volume, Moore's misdirected outrage is mainly reserved for Harry Potter. Poor Harry is portrayed as something much worse than 007, and jabs at J.K. Rowling about "sloppily-defined magical principles" like "a child's idea of how [things] work" take on a definite pot-kettle quality coming from the creator of this very universe we're reading about, equally brilliant and equally flawed—especially when it comes to sloppily-defined principles. (See: the "Blazing World" in Black Dossier, a haven for fictional characters within an entire universe populated exclusively by fictional characters!) Despite these jabs, however, the jeers at Harry Potter's expense seem a bit more good-natured than those directed at James Bond. Alan Moore's primary problem with both of them, it seems, is that they're too modern for his liking, and therefore part of a declining culture that's "fallen apart... by becoming irrelevant."

I love Alan Moore's writing. He's produced some of the greatest literary works of our modern declining culture, among them Watchmen, V For Vendetta and even the aforementioned Black Dossier, every bit as brilliant as it is flawed and the true masterpiece of the League series. But he's become a grumpy old man. (Okay; perhaps he was always a grumpy old man.) His recent outrage at the idea of DC producing new comics without Moore's involvement about the characters he created in Watchmen seemed more than a little hypocritical coming from a man who's made a career out of appropriating other authors' characters (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Lost Girls) and putting them in predicaments that almost certainly would have appalled those authors! And if he truly believes that Harry Potter represents the nadir of Western Civilization, then I suspect he's either suffering from a bout of jealousy or else he really does believe that culture of the past will always remain infinitely superior to culture of the present day. And if that's the case, then I'm not sure it's culture that's fallen apart by becoming irrelevant... or the author himself. I think there's a tendency among cultural historians and particularly pop culture historians (especially those who write blogs about it, speaking of pots and kettles) to elevate the past at the expense of the present. I'm as guilty of it as anyone; I admit that I, too, would generally prefer a spy film or TV show from the Sixties to one from this decade. However... that doesn't mean that I completely close my mind to the idea that a great one could come along again at any moment. (See: Homeland. Or Casino Royale.) I don't think anyone should ever do that. Because when you close your mind that much, that's when culture truly falls apart. Not when a woman with a ridiculously fertile imagination creates a magical world that resonates so much with an entire generation of children that her books succeed in luring them away from their consoles and back into bookstores for the first time in ages.

But I digress. Am I reading too much into this comic book? Perhaps; perhaps not. Moore's writing encourages such obsessive analysis. But at the end of the day, whatever the author's agenda, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009 still rates among the most entertaining comics I've read this year. And despite his thinly coded complaints about the state of popular culture, I believe that entertainment is still Moore's primary goal with this series. Here, he succeeds admirably, and I would recommend this book (indeed, the whole Century trilogy) to any spy fans (especially Avengers fans) or fans of classic literature and popular culture in general.


Mark said...

I loved the first graphic novel, but found the second tedious and haven't really kept up with any of the later editions. I was tempted by The Black Dossier for the Bond, Bulldog Drummond and Mrs Peel appearances but I'd read some dismal reviews for it. Nevertheless I admire that Moore is continuing his pop culture references

Bob said...

I've never read any of Alan Moore's graphic novels, but I have to admit the film "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is a guilty pleasure of mine. I thought Connery was great in the film. The look of the film was wonderful.

I also know from my two sons that devoted fans of Moore's writing probably hate the film.

Oh well, so it goes.

Mark said...

Yeah, I hated the film

Tanner said...

Yeah, I'm afraid I hated the film, too, but I'm glad to hear that there's someone out there who enjoyes it! Mark, I would defnitely recommend Black Dossier. It's flawed but fascinating, and far more ambitious than any of the other volumes of League. It's the closest thing in the series to Watchmen or V or From Hell. I love the way that Moore successfully mixes media in it. However, the ending is highly problematic, and the treatment of Bond is unforgivable. I still love the book overall, though, despite those issues.

Anonymous said...

Great review there, but I disagree with you a bit on Moore's treatment of Bond. Admittedly, it's been a few years since I read the Bond novels, but, entertaining as they were, there were a few passages that have long stuck in my memory, for not very happy reasons. One was from 'Goldfinger' where Bond has a long, racist rant about Koreans, and in another novel I remember him venting his disgust about homosexuals as well. The third passage is from (I think) 'The Spy Who Loved Me' where one of the character muses about the pleasures of 'semi-rape' (though I can't remember if this is Bond or the female narrator.)
In the books Bond definitely has some unsavory, as well as heroic, characteristics, and surely Moore only slightly exaggerated those less pleasant characteristics in his 'LOEG.' But, as I said, it's been a while since I read the Bond novels, and I'm happy to stand corrected.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Steve! Yes, there are certainly some cringe-inducing dated passages in Fleming's novels, and the Korean stuff in Goldfinger (one of the two worst novels, in my opinion) is the absolute nadir. (That line from TSWLM is bad, too, especially coming after an actual attempted rape which narrator Vivienne Michelle views as a fate worse than death. But you're right that the line isn't Bond's; it's hers--and it doesn't really sound like something he'd say.) But in his celebration of all things past, Moore glosses over the racism in H. Rider Haggard and xenophobia in Bram Stoker and presents Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray as exemplary heroes--at least to the extent that anyone in a Moore book ever gets to be exemplary. Later literary figures, like Bulldog Drummond and James Bond, however, are raked over the coals for traits they actually SHARE with those past idols!

If Moore had chosen to attack Bond for the racist aspects of Fleming's texts, that would be one thing. But instead the primary traits that he gives Bond are a predilection for beating women for pleasure and a lack of patriotism. Quite the opposite can be found in Fleming's texts on both counts. Bond is very patriotic, and wouldn't sell out his country--even to America. (Though, yes, I do get the extratextual joke that Moore is making there, and I appreciate it.) In "The Hildebrand Rarity," Bond discovers that the reprehensible Milton Krest beats his wife with a switch made from a stingray's stinger. It appalls him. When Krest later turns up dead, and Bond realizes that his wife, Liz, may be the perpetrator, he tosses the body overboard destroying the evidence rather than reporting it to the proper authorities. Clearly his sympathies are with Liz, and we know why.

Fleming gets a bad rap for his views on homosexuals as well, but that one's mostly unearned. Again, the main offender is Goldfinger. Perhaps he was just in a really bad mood when he wrote that book? In that, the author makes some unfortunate statements about lesbians. But in other books, he--AND Bond--are quite accepting of male homosexuals. In From Russia With Love, for instance, Bond actually takes issue with MI6's official views on homosexuals in the service following the defections of Burgess and Maclean. It's not he, but a thoroughly unlikable character named Troop who retorts to 007's level-headedness by saying, "So you suggest we should staff the organization with long-haired perverts. That's quite an original notion. I thought we were all agreed that homosexuals were about the worst security risk there is. I can't see the Americans handing over many atom secrets to a lot of pansies soaked in scent." The homophobic Troop is clearly presented as an object of ridicule, and Bond squares off against him. Fleming was really pretty progressive on the subject of homosexuals, which isn't surprising given how many there were in his close social circle, including his neighbor in Jamaica Noel Coward.

Yes, there are certainly flaws in Ian Fleming's James Bond books, but most of them aren't really manifested in the character himself as much as the prose. And, anyway, Moore goes after the wrong ones. It's as if he's basing his portrayal on common criticisms levied against the Bond books than an actual familiarity with the texts themselves, which is too bad.

But now in my vigorous defense of Bond, I feel like I'm coming off as someone who can't take a joke, and that's really not the case. I very much love Black Dossier despite this treatment of 007! And I think that Moore's portrayal of Bond IS funny, even if it's not accurate.