SPOILER WARNING: The following contains some spoilers for “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century.”
This Spring sees the publication of the first part of “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century,” the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s ambitious and singular adventure series that unites virtually all the characters from adventure fiction interacting together in a single world.
While the previous volumes were published by Wildstorm — an imprint of DC Comics, with whom Moore has had a contentious relationship for decades — “Century” is published by Top Shelf Productions, who previously released Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s “Lost Girls.” “Century” also comes in a different format than previous editions of “League,” with each installment being 72 pages long and released months apart.
In this first part of an in-depth two-part interview, CBR News talked to Alan Moore about the increasingly elaborate game the book plays with Literature, the intricacies of tracking all fiction in a single continuity, how the fictional world runs in parallel with our world, and the increasingly thin line between them.
CBR: “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier” is a kind of capstone to the Wildstorm period of the series, because in some ways, you’ve summarized a lot of your agendas overtly in that book. With Top Shelf’s “Century,” was there a sense of all the hassle with DC being over and done with; you’re able to start from a new page to some extent?
Alan Moore: Well, the way that things have turned out, “The Black Dossier,” as you say, it did represent a capstone, quite an elaborate capstone for the first two volumes. At the same time, the way that things have worked out, it also kind of represents a kind of founding stone for the subsequent volumes, in that a lot of the material which we pinned down in “The Black Dossier,” if only by a reference or a couple of pages here or there, has been material that we built upon in this third book.
I mean, there’s examples: the fact that we flagged up the 1910 story in the Orlando memoirs and also built Orlando up as a character because he hadn’t actually been seen very much in the actual comic strip narrative prior to this book. And we also sort of set up things like Oliver Haddo and various other bits and pieces which we’ve been able to exploit quite usefully.
But you’re right in that moving from DC to Top Shelf has been a surprisingly invigorating experience. It’s something that you don’t actually realize while you are within the confines of the regular superhero comic book industry. But you are absorbing from your very first day’s work in that industry a number of precepts and ideas that just seem to suit the industry or at least seem to suit the industry at the time when you entered it. We kind of absorbed very early on that this is an adventure medium for young people, and the story, even if you did want to add some flourishes or some depth to it, should be kept moving at a fairly fast pace, which is something that you just accept unquestioningly. You tend to make even books that are aimed at an older audience like “The League” follow those same guidelines. I mean, those first two books were straightforward rip-roaring adventures. “The Black Dossier,” even though it had quite a lot of background material sandwiched into the overall over-arching story, that story was a fairly fast-paced chase sequence. So with this first volume from Top Shelf, we didn’t even do this consciously. It was just when we came to approach the story, we were suddenly not having to think about whether we were going to get this past Wildstorm and ultimately past DC, whether there was going to be any nitpicking or any messing about, we didn’t have to think about any of that, so we were able to do things that were quite bold like using the songs throughout.
And also in the very pacing of the story, we were able to move to a more literary rhythm, or certainly a different dramatic rhythm to that normally employed in adventure comics. I suppose we were perhaps taking the source material for this first part of the third volume as a guideline or a set of guidelines for the way that we should approach the drama in that in Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” it is not a fast-paced chase sequence. There’s an atmosphere of brooding menace and sardonic humour that runs through the whole thing. So we thought, well, if that’s good enough for Brecht, that’s basically good enough for us as an essential kind of dramatic tone to the story. The story seemed to demand a fairly climactic pay-off, but we didn’t have to build up to that in the same way that we would have done if it was three 24-page comics instead of one 72-page chapter. We didn’t have to have the same kind of mini-climaxes that you would have had to have done if we’d been doing it as the third volume from DC. The fact that we were free to decide upon this format for ourselves, the fact that it was understood that apart from one-offs like “The Black Dossier,” that volumes of “The League” would be six 32-page comics that would be collected up into a hardback book in the future.
We were continually getting harassed because of the delay between issues when this was the schedule that we had set in the first place, and the people concerned knew that it took us a long time to do this book. I mean, Kevin [O’Neil’s] artwork is so meticulous that you simply can’t rush that out at a page a day. So with this book, we were able think, okay, if the readers are perhaps going to have to wait for a little while between chapters, then it would perhaps make sense if we did this as three quite lavish 72-page books. You have an over-arching story [across three books] that would be complete in themselves so they would be a satisfying read. I hope that would be the experience that the reader gets out of this first issue. Yes, this is setting up stuff that will come to a fairly dramatic conclusion in Part 3 of Volume Three. The end of the first book is not the decisive conclusion that you would have expected as a whole volume of “The League.” I think it’ll be satisfying, this first chunk, and hopefully the readers will be able to follow the continuing plot threads through the next two volumes without any nail-biting cliffhanger wait between episodes.
I mean, Kevin’s finding it a blessing in terms of how he does the art. When he was working for Wildstorm/DC, they seemed to be suspicious of the way that he was working. Kevin wasn’t turning in fully inked pages. If he said, “Well, I’m penciling work at the moment,” then that was as if because they couldn’t see any finished pages, then Kevin wasn’t doing them or something like that. That was impression that Kevin seemed to get. With this, because [Top Shelf publisher] Chris [Staros] has got such a relaxed and creator-friendly attitude to the whole thing, Kevin is… I haven’t seen any of the pages for Part 2 that Kevin’s drawn, because he’s penciling a whole long stretch of them and when he runs out of the energy it requires to do that, he’ll start inking them, which is fine by me. He seems to be enjoying it a lot more.
That also says something about the artistic process that a lot of people perhaps don’t realize, that penciling and inking use different parts of the brain.
Absolutely. If your head is in a good penciling mood, you don’t want to be continually breaking off to do eight pages of inking, sending it in to Wildstorm and then inking another eight pages.
It’s much better the way we’re doing it now, and we’ve been able to design the book pretty much from cover-to-cover. I mean, we’ve always done that with “The League” but we’ve taken advantage of the freedoms that we have at Top Shelf. When we realized we’d got an extra eight pages in the back of every issue, we initially wondered what to fill them with. I mean, I wanted to make it something good, because I think the Allan Quartermain story in the first volume and the Traveller’s Almanac in the second volume were really ingenious little pieces of work. I thought that we’ve got a very smart readership and I think that they expect us to do our best. So I was casting around for a good idea. I thought probably a text story, I wasn’t sure what. At that point Kevin suggested that we do a text story set largely upon the moon.
In each of the three parts of Volume Three is an eight-page back-up text story lavishly illustrated by Kevin, which, as I say, totally sprung out of Kevin idly mentioning that he’d always wanted to do a story set upon the moon. So I thought, okay, well I’m going to stop dithering about with what we’re going to do and I’m going to start carving in stone, we’re going to do a story that’s set on the moon. And so I started to collect all of the fictional moon references that I could in order to try and work out the nature of the moon in the League’s fictional world. And I was very surprised by how good the outcome was.
We decided that we were going to do a three-part story that was perhaps something in the style of the kind of story that you may conceivably have found in Michael Moorcock’s “New Worlds” back in its heyday of the late ’60s. We’ve got a story that is called “Minions of the Moon,” and it is as presented in “Lewd Worlds Of Science Fiction,” which is an alternate name for “New Worlds” that Brian Aldiss came up with during the WH Smith Censorship storm. So we thought, we don’t want to use “New Worlds” because that’s in the real world, so we’ll use “Lewd Worlds Of Science Fiction,” edited by James Colvin, which was a Moorcock pseudonym. He ran an obituary of Colvin in one of the issues of “New Worlds” – he’d been crushed to death beneath the filing cabinet of his own rejected manuscripts.
And the author of the story is John Thomas, which is the pseudonym of one of my favourite “New Worlds” authors John Sladek. When he sold his first couple of stories to “Galaxy,” John Thomas was his first two names. Because that is somewhat antiquated English slang for “penis,” he wasn’t selling that many stories under that pseudonym, so he took up the name “John Sladek.”
So we’ve got “John Thomas” in this issue of “Lewd Worlds Of Science Fiction.” In “Minions of the Moon,” I’ve tried to scrape together from various source, I mean, Kevin’s been incredibly helpful, Steve Moore has been incredibly helpful, with stuff about lunar fiction. We’ve taken it all the way back to what I think were outside of the myths, what I think were the first lunar fictions, which were Lucian and his journey to the moon on a waterspout, which was copied by Baron Munchausen. And then later, there was a Mr. Godwin of Northampton, who I believe wrote what could be the first piece of modern science fiction. This was during the 15th Century or 17th Century, I’m not sure, but he was entertaining young ladies of Northampton with his tales of going to the moon in a geese-pulled chariot.
So we thought, okay, this is the world of The League, so we’ll take it as events that actually happened, which means that we’re going to have to work out why there are so many areas of the moon that have atmosphere, where they got this atmosphere from, how the atmosphere stays where it is and doesn’t drift off into space because the moon doesn’t have gravity.
Then I started to include things like HG Wells’ “First Men On The Moon,” Jules Verne’s “From The Earth To The Moon,” and started to work them in, all of the Science Fictional moonbases so that during 1964, when the story is set, it’s like England had fictional moonbases if only through “Dan Dare.” America, Russia, Germany all had their Science Fictional moonbases, so we see a moon where there are different moonbases belonging to different nations, and where there are a couple of indigenous species on the moon. There are the insect-like creatures from HG Wells, Selenites, and there seem to be also in a lot of other lunar fiction, there seemed to be a race of beautiful humanoids who very often are completely women, as in “Amazon Women Of The Moon,” but sometimes there are predominantly beautiful semi-naked women but there are males mentioned as in Otis Kline’s “Maza Of The Moon” and we found an old “Planet Comics” with “Mysta Of The Moon,” which seemed to have a technologically very capable, very beautiful woman who was obviously a native of the moon. We also found an old Edwardian Science Fiction story called “Honeymoon in Space” which has an Edwardian couple going on a honeymoon through the various planets. They find a bunch of skulls on the moon, which I thought might be a way of explaining where the Amazon men of the moon vanished to.
We explain the gravity problem, we’ve worked in the black monolith from “2001,” we worked in The Clangers and the Soup Dragon. We worked them into a semi-coherent-sounding ecosystem as well. We’ve explained how the insect creatures came to be on the moon and how the humanoids came to be on the moon as well, how it is possible to go through airless space in a geese-pulled chariot. That was a toughie, I got to say. I think that we’ve just about covered it comprehensively.
I’ve only done the first episode of this, but in that alone it’s kind of berserk. As part of this story, there’s a previously untold chapter or segment from “The Story Of O,” which we work ingeniously into The League mythology. There’s a superhero sequence where we make a brief allusion to the fact that in 1964, in the previous year, Mina Harker was somewhat involved in what seemed to be an English superhero team. This is setting up some tantalizing, we hope, hints for some future volumes. Yeah, and Kevin’s done marvelous illustrations to this, so as well as the lead story, we’ve had the opportunity to make good use of the back-up pages. I think the readers are going to be pleased with that.
This first chapter of “Century” is even more overtly political than the Wildstorm editions of “The League,” because once you have Brecht, who’s very overtly political commentary, there are also themes of anti-colonialist revenge in the form of Captain Nemo’s descendent, and there was already a sense in the second book that the British government doesn’t always act in the interests of the people but more in the interests of the Establishment and The Empire. And also the increasing sense that creeped into the second book that The League, while well-meaning and think they’re the good guys, may in fact be working for masters who are not exactly the good guys.
Yes, that is true. I think this third volume is more overtly political than the first two. I don’t know… that wasn’t something we were consciously doing while we were doing the first two books. We weren’t thinking, “Oh, we better not make this political.” But that said, the thing about this third volume is we brought a lot of the politics a lot closer to the surface. Now, for one thing, that might be the Brecht narrative itself. If you’re going to write new lyrics to a lot of classic Brecht songs and keep their original spirit, then they have to be at least as angry as the original lyrics. So that did to some degree set the tone.
Now, another thing that played into this was me and Kevin’s extreme anger at the way we felt we’d been treated at Wildstorm/DC, particularly in what must have been an unendurably long period, after I had quit, when Kevin was still working on “The Black Dossier.” I heard he went through quite a lot of trials and tribulations that were completely unnecessary. I think both of us were feeling very angry. Those were very black lyrics to the Brecht songs, and we were trying to recapture the political fire of “The Threepenny Opera,” but at the same time, we were also putting a great deal of our own ire and bitterness into the words and the illustrations. I know that the big double-page spread at the end… Kevin normally works through the pages in the order that they come, but in that instance, he had just been told that the vinyl single was not going to be included in “The Black Dossier,” so he skipped ahead seven or eight pages just so that he could do that spectacularly destructive double-page spread, which I laughed at. Not in a good way, but when I first saw that knowing the mood that Kevin had been in when he’d done that, I was amazed by the sheer ferocity of it. Yeah, there are different levels to these things. On the least important level, both Kevin and me were probably venting a certain amount of spite. But that did give fuel to the Brechtian ideas that we were talking about.
There’s also in relation to the development of The League, we have established in “The Black Dossier,” that at the end of the War, The League cut all connections with British Intelligence and became rogues. So in this first book, 1910, we’ve got pretty much the last vestiges of The League as it was in the first two volumes. We’ve got a group of extraordinary adventurers who are essentially working for the British Crown, and for Military Intelligence. For the second part of this book, when it is some sixty years later, The League are in a very different situation. They’re now not working for the British Crown. They are now emissaries of The Blazing World, as we established in “The Black Dossier.” And it’s a different situation, because they’re now no longer in the British Museum because obviously that is their MI5-supplied headquarters, so that is not usable. They’ve got new headquarters. There’s been some things that happened, obviously, since the 1958 incident in “The Black Dossier,” although that period is referred to.
It’s interesting, the way we found that jumping back and forth in time with The League, it’s doing something quite interesting with the story. It’s like shading in areas of information in a kind of timeline. We know what nearly everybody was doing at any given date that doesn’t actually preclude us from at some future point from going back and doing a full-blooded comic strip treatment of something that we may have only referred to in a text piece. So it’s interesting jumping backwards and forwards in time trying to make it all consistent and having it all make sense, because of the nature of The League, because it isn’t set in any specific time, and because it’s about this group, that extends from the 16th or 17th Century through to the 18th, the 19th Centuries, the 20th Century and, in the third part, the 21st Century.
And conceivably, episodes set in the future, because the fictional world has a well-documented future. That’s something I was looking for. I don’t think such a thing exists, but there are books of Science Fiction places that exist. It would be so handy for me to have a chronological timeline of Science Fiction events. I’m working on it. I’ve got a couple of sources that I can exploit. It’s interesting to just move about in this established timeline and we pick and choose as we want. It means we can keep the narrative fresh. And I think one of the main things about “Century” is when it is finally collected into a volume, it’ll be kind of unique in terms of a volume of The League in that there will be sudden time-shifts that are themselves part of the narrative, and everything that comes with that, I’ve started to think when I was doing this book, the fact that we’ve made Allan and Mina immortal for story purposes, in the back story of volume two, in the Almanac. That was a good idea, because it enabled us to have these two stable characters or three, along with Orlando, also an immortal. However, it struck me that it would detract from the reality of The League if that did not have consequents, so in this book, which takes in 100 years, you can see on Allan and Mina and to a certain degree, on Orlando, just what pressures immortality brings. This third volume, in terms of how well The League does, you know that they’re not very pleased with themselves at the end of the first part…
Not only are they somewhat ineffectual, they also inadvertently bring about the menace that they thought there were trying to prevent?
Yes. They don’t quite realize that yet. They may never completely realize how they have brought about this thing that will preoccupy them for the remaining two books of the series. They’ve not done very well at all, and it gets worse from there. This whole third volume is not a very pleasant story for The League. And indeed there’s a kind of dwindling number of them throughout the third book. In the first book, it’s a five-strong set-up with A.J. Raffles and Carnacki the Ghost-finder as part of the line-up. This is when they’re still following the brief of Military Intelligence. By the second book, there are just three members of The League in 1969. By the start of the third book, there’s one. And it’s very grim indeed, but I hope entertaining.
It’s got quite a dark tone, and it’s not quite the swashbuckling romp where The League clearly and unambiguously triumph over their opponents in the way the first two volumes perhaps were. We dared to be dark with this one, and I think the stories are better for it. I think it will also be commenting upon – this is something I’m doing more with The League – it’s set in a fully realized, three-dimensional fiction world in which all the fictional worlds are included. It’s kind of like the Unified Field Theory of Fiction. We’ve got this fully realized three-dimensional world of fiction that includes potentially all of the worlds of fiction, and yet it’s surprising or perhaps not surprising how much that planet of fiction mirrors our own. It’s a distorted mirror, perhaps, but it’s our Dreamtime.
When you think about the “idea space” of fiction or the continuum of fiction, do you see the fictional world as running parallel to our world, because it’s our world that creates the fictions?
Yes. It’s like the Dreamtime in that our hopes, our fears, the things that we express in dreams, as a culture we express through our fiction, particularly our fantastic fictions. And it’s really interesting. It is actually saying something about our world, not purely a literary exercise. It is a fabulous literary game, but I’m starting to realize after the fact, as usual, that it’s more than that because of the interconnected nature of the world of fiction and our material world, that they’re interdependent on each other. This is something we talked about in the closing speech by Propsero in “The Black Dossier” where we talked about the interdependence of fiction and reality. Yes, it is real flesh-and-blood people who create these fictional beings, but the fictional beings create us as well. It’s not as straightforward as it looks, yet we’ve found in “Century” particularly, that in documenting the Dreamtime of these three disparate periods, taking in roughly a century, that we are commenting inevitably about what is happening to our culture during that century. We can see a kind of deterioration, I’m not sure that’s the word, or a fragmentation of the dreamtime. That is kind of ongoing, and in this final one that I’m just starting to write at the moment, set in 2009, it’s making a great deal of the central character’s complete disorientation in the culture landscape of 2009.
There’s a very strong sense of Mina and The League not being able to see the big picture because there are far too many chaotic, disparate elements. Does that reflect on how everyone’s been feeling about the world for the last eight years? That there might be conflicting agendas or conspiracies or acts of bad faith or even just sheer incompetence that’s created the situation that everyone’s in right now?
Yeah, we touch upon the real situation lightly. There’s a bit in one of the scenes that I’ve already written where the surviving member of The League is sitting watching a television news program, and I’ve been able to work in references to some of my favourite comedy programs. There was a marvelous program by Amando Iannucci called “Time Trumpet.” It was talking heads pundits doing a kind of “I love the 1980s” regarding times that hadn’t actually happened yet, about 2008, 2009. I mean, there was one where they said David Beckham had plastic surgery that would make him into a centaur. They were also invaluable in that they were talking about television programs we would be watching in 2008, 2009, the most memorable of which was “Rape an Ape,” so that gets a mention. I wanted to have as many appropriate cultural references from this period as possible.
In the new story that follows, there is talk about the current American administration, the newly-elected “blank” administration – I’m not sure yet about how I’m going to write it, I’ve got a lot of material about “The West Wing” or “24” or numerous other programs with fictional American administrations in. I’m just going to work in which is the most perfect that would reflect interestingly the real world. You’ve got the current administration blaming the previous administration for the ongoing recession, but on an upbeat note, members of America’s Counter-Terrorism Unit have operatives who can solve the recession in 24 hours. These are just tiny bits in the background by which we connect our fictional world to the world that’s actually happening. The book opens in a British Army encampment in Southern Kumar, which is the Iran-Iraq surrogate from “The West Wing.” So we’re able to make connections there without violating our fictional premise. So yeah, it’s looking quite good.
This third one is actually for me more difficult than the other two, because I know quite a bit about Victorian culture or Edwardian culture or even the culture of the 1950s and 1960s, but I know absolutely nothing about contemporary culture. I am cut off from most inputs. I’m not connected to the internet in any way, I watch very little television. However, luckily we’re in such a media-saturated environment that you absorb all the information you’re going to need just through your skin, through a semi-porous membrane.
And the most trenchant stuff from American culture pours through into England anyway, so you can’t miss it, right?
Absolutely. So you generally know somebody who will recommend something to you or mention something to you, so you get a pretty good picture of the kind of material that’s available.
The excellent Charlie Brooker, our English TV columnist, came up with a theory about “24,” which I think was one of his guilty pleasures. He didn’t know why he kept watching it, but he did. And he had a theory in the first series – there was a scene in one of the early episodes where [Jack Bauer] nods off briefly in a laundromat or something, and Charlie Brooker’s theory was that everything since then has been his dream. And in a postmodern move, the makers of “24” have cunningly blended Kiefer Sutherland the actor with Jack Bauer the character, so there are loads of people from Kiefer Sutherland’s previous screen career suddenly turning up in “24.” He played an FBI agent called Jack in a film opposite Dennis Hopper, who turned up in “24.” Lou Diamond Philips, who he’d been with in “Young Guns,” turns up in “24.” And I think that Charlie Brooker ended up saying he imagined that the next episode was going to involve Jack Bauer and the entire cast of “Lost Boys” battling it out on the set of “Flatliners.”
Yeah, it provided interesting material to use in the background of what we’re going. It’s a lot of grist to the mill.
Come back to CBR News tomorrow for the concluding installment of our interview with Alan Moore, in which the writer elaborates on the relationship between fiction and reality, Aleister Crowley, Iain Sinclair, the origin of the taser, and more of what readers can expect from “Century” and future volumes of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”