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The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Black Dossier – A Review

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
By Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
208 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1401203061

Buyer beware, if you pick up The Black Dossier expecting a similar product to the first two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you are in for a bit of a jolt, and I’m not sure everyone’s going to like that jolt.

The Black Dossier is a mixed-format product. There are large sections of text, some copiously illustrated, some less so. And there’s lots of graphic sex. (Seriously, if you own a store, be careful selling this one to minors. There’s a freakin’ Tijuana Bible bound into it.)

The Black Dossier is really two things interspersed: First, returning characters Alan Quartermain and Mina Harker reappearing in 1958, after dropping off the radar for two decades, to steal “The Black Dossier,” a collection of information on the history of The League still in possession of the Military Intelligence establishment they previously worked for. Second, the actual contents of the Black Dossier.

The tale of Alan and Mina’s theft and flight is done in the style you’re used to from previous volumes. 98 pages are this “conventional” thread (and 15 of those are in elaborate 3-D – the glasses are on the flap of the dust jacket). The rest of the book is the Dossier of the title.

The book within the book is a series of clippings, reports, comics and excerpts detailing the history of the league and some of its members. Quite a bit of space is devoted to the history of Orlando and Prospero, two minor characters from the first two series who pre-date the forming of the league. With Orlando, especially, this borders on a Wold Newton Universe take, where we see Orlando’s relation or identity adoption of a number of historical and literary characters. Clearly, Orlando is a character Moore will be revisiting in the future.

The book within a book is where The Black Dossier becomes something of an experimental work, at least in terms of mainstream comics. It switches formats frequently. An 18 page sequence in the style of a British children’s comic with no word balloons, just text under the panels. A lavishly illustrated text piece, 2/3 of the page is an (usually naughty) illustration. A faux Shakespearean folio. Pulp-illustrated prose. Straight text. Postcards. And yes, even a Tijuna Bible.

This mixed format yields a history lesson for the league, a field guide to adventure literature through the ages and across different cultures. It also makes for some very strange pacing. Going from a brisk comic narrative to a dense 5-6 page prose piece can be a little jarring, and a certain number of people aren’t going to be comfortable with that. Personally, as a reading experience, I’m a little ambivalent and were the text pieces a bit shorter, it would have read a bit more evenly.

On the other hand, these text pieces allow Moore to explore strange territory that would have put 20+ pages of drawing time on the board for Kevin O’Neill and there is something to be said for an account of Jeeves & Wooster crossing paths with Cthulu.

As with all entries in this series, there are a ridiculous number of literary and pop culture allusions, with this taking place in the cold war we find references to 1984, The Man from UNCLE, The Third Man, The Avengers, Callan and 007 thrown in with the usual assortment of pre-20th century characters.

Major themes for the work seem to be escape from oppression and dealing with betrayal, which I suppose, in light of all the well-documented conflicts Alan Moore has had with DC, you might be able to read as meta-commentary, as you could interpret The Black Dossier as the League making a clean break with its past.

Now, about the art… it’s Kevin O’Neill and it’s O’Neill aping a few classical art styles along the way, which is to say it’s worth waiting for… well, worth waiting for him to finish, not waiting for DC to get around to publishing.

All things considered, this is multi-layered, textured piece that adds a modern pop culture element to the English major “where did this character come from” vibe that’s fueled some of the series’ popularity. If you’re looking for straight adventure, you might want to skim some of the more text heavy interludes, you’ll still get the gist of the main narrative. If you want to dig for nuances, they’re there in spades.

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