Top positive review
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Yes, It is That Good!
on 22 April 2005
If you're a fan of Victorian genre literature and have any interest in comics, this will very probably appeal to you. I'm a very casual comics reader, never buying any but borrowing anything that's at the library except for manga or pure superhero fare. As for 19th-century genre lit, when I was a child, I read some Stoker, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the like. All that said, this is a highly entertaining work, probably the most purely enjoyable trade comic volume I've encountered.
The concept is pretty outstanding: Moore's taken public-domain "heroes" of the 19th-century and remixed them into a classic superhero team in the spirit of Justice League, X-Men, etc. They are tossed into a steampunk version of Victorian London to do battle with a nefarious villain from the same era of genre-lit. In this volume, the head of the British Secret Service orders his minion (Campion Bond), to assemble a team for a secret mission. He starts with Ms. Murray (the widowed wife of Mr. Harker from Dracula), who drags the gaunt former adventurer Allan Quartermain (the intrepid explorer of H. Rider Haggard's stories) from the depths of a Cairo opium den. They are spirited to safety by H.G. Wells' incomparable stern Sikh pirate, Captain Nemo, in his magnificent submarine technological wonder The Nautilus. Next stop, the backstreets of Paris, where a beast is terrorizing the prostitutes of the Rue Morgue. This ends up being the terrifying Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whom they barely manage to subdue. The final stop is to the "Rosa Cootes' Correctional Academy for Wayward Gentlewomen", where a mysterious spirit has been "possessing" some of the boarders. This bizarre combination of boarding school and S&M academy is where we meet Hawley Griffin, aka The Invisible Man.
These initial adventures do a very good job of both establishing the marvelous setting and the individual nature of the five heroes. Each is a formerly respected, now somewhat fallen member of society. When a storyteller assembles such a team of flawed misfits, the result is usually either slapstick comedy or some form of redemption. In this case redemption is the order of the day, as the team is assigned to recover a stolen container of "cavorite", a mysterious compound which makes flight possible. It seems an evil Chinese East End triad leader named Fu Manchu has stolen it in order to build a superweapon. The remaining 2/3 of the book details their attempt to infiltrate his Bond-villainesque secret base and recover the material. A major plot twist halfway through reveals yet another literary criminal mastermind at work, one that many readers will have guessed at early on. Things build to a climactic and chaotic aerial battle above London's East End, with crazy fighting kites, firebombs, and plenty of wild action.
There's a lot to like in the book, notably an attention to detail that is head and shoulders above most graphic adventures. When Arabic and Chinese speaking characters are encountered, their dialogue is rendered in the actual script. The story and visuals are packed with 19th-century literary inside jokes that will reward repeated reading and the curious who seek out their meaning. (Alternatively, you can pick up Jess Nevins outstanding Unofficial Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which decodes the inside jokes and tells you where everything came from.) This is not to imply that the book is stuffy or dull, because the writing is actually quite witty and arch -- providing you like puns, double-entendres, and other such wordplay. The artwork perfectly supports the story, as O'Neil's techno-gaslight London vibrates with energy and activity. The paneling is traditional and straightforward, as befits a retro-romp such as this, and full-page pieces teem with background activity and wit. There's a lot to look at in these pages, such as pickpockets and thieves operating in the background, or more amorous silhouettes... And when things get violent, they get very violent, as we are shown limbs getting ripped asunder, heads getting blown off, and soforth.
This is an outstanding work, although definitely not for younger children. Without being overly sensitive, one has to also keep in mind that in keeping with the setting and origin of the characters, one of the villains is a pretty vile stereotype of an evil "Oriental". Perhaps more disturbingly, the serial rape committed by the Invisible Man is treated as a subject of humor. This latter is slightly counterbalanced by having the team led by Ms. Murray, a setup which seems improbable for the setting. However, minor caveats aside, this is a splendid work of escapist adventure that is much better than the movie made from it. There is a second volume, which finds the team battling a Martian invasion.