Alan Moore: Inside "The Black Dossier"

[NOTE: The following story contains some spoilers from "The Black Dossier."]

"The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier" is the latest book in the series from Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, and the last in the series to be published by DC/Wildstorm. At first glance, the book seems like a transition between the end of the second book and the next volume, which will be published by Top Shelf in 2008. "The Black Dossier" serves as a prelude to the next stage of the story.

With "The Black Dossier" shipping to comic shops today, CBR News presents an interview with its author conducted on Halloween Eve from his house in Northampton, England.


The path to final publication for the book has not been a smooth one, as Alan explained at length with his customary dry humor and sense of frustration at the unnecessary interference it encountered.

"At a time when I started 'The Black Dossier,' I was still happy to continue publishing the 'League' under the auspices of DC/Wildstorm. At that time, it was just after Kevin had finished the additional pages of Book Two. I remember talking to him on the phone and we were joking about how he was going to be out of work starting the following morning. And I was just so moved by the image of Kevin having to turn up at the local Job Centre to learn new skills that I thought, maybe I could think of some project that could gainfully occupy Kevin without requiring a huge amount of work. That turned out to be a stupid idea, because if it was going to be up to the standard that we were accustomed on 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' then it was obviously going to require a huge amount of work."

"I initially thought about this sourcebook, but that wasn't a good idea because all sourcebooks are rubbish," Moore continued. "The main reason for that is they don't have any narrative element, and we started to think of a narrative in which the sourcebook could be enclosed. This started to take off because we started to realize that we were practically handling a new form. It would be something that wouldn't be quite a comic, it wouldn't be quite a text with the other elements we were planning to include like the vinyl single, the Tijuana Bible and the 3D section. It would start to be an unprecedented beast in many respects. We just started with the books and as it developed, we realized what a splendid thing it was turning into. It was at that point that it did provide a wonderful transition point to anything that we might want to do in the future.

"It was around this time that I became alienated from DC over the debacle regarding the 'V For Vendetta' movie. And when we decided that we were going to publish with Top Shelf, since I had previously given notice that if there was any unpleasantness such as, I don't know, the pulping of that issue of 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' with the Marvel vaginal douche, anything that even reminded me that I was being published by an off-shoot of DC Comics, then we would be withdrawing the book. And straight away, the business with 'V For Vendetta' came up. At this point, we said we would finish this book, because once we started something, we wouldn't dream of leaving it uncompleted. So we carried on work on the book. I finished it quite quickly, but it was still a couple of years' work for Kevin, because by this point it had grown into a very, very big project, something that is almost as large as the proceeding volumes of the League."

The ensuing chaos pushed back the publication of the book for a year after its announced publication date.

"When we started the project, the publishers were so excited by the sound of it, and they were assuring us that it would be published as a complete large-scale volume, the record included and everything else," said Moore. "Kevin was assured that it would not be solicited until he had the last page drawn. This was more or less how things went until we said that this would be the last thing that would be published by DC/Wildstorm. At that point, there began a year or so of petty interference and very irritating behaviour - Kevin was getting phone calls demanding that he hurry through the remainder of the pages, because it 'had to be out' by San Diego last year. Kevin was explaining that that wasn't the way he did things. Things were going to take as long as they were going to take. By this time I wasn't speaking to anybody at Wildstorm or DC other than necessary business phone calls that were very brief and to the point. But I believe it was somebody from the marketing department who was behaving very much like a kind of jilted girlfriend, who was saying, 'Well! Will you be drawing faster when you're being published by someone like [Top Shelf's] Chris Staros?' That was like saying, 'Go to him! Go to your whore!' It was very much a kind of jilted bride. And Kevin explained that the work would take as long as it took, he was drawing it as quickly as possible, and when anybody had seen the final result, they would agree that it was much better than hurrying it and spoiling what I believe is, for Kevin at least, a masterpiece. Around about last Christmas, they were demanding that he fly out there, that the book could be published immediately if he flew out there. This was after we planned this spectacular 3-D section for the finale. We thought originally there was only one person who could accomplish this, let alone understand this, and that is, of course, Ray Zone. We'd approached Ray. He was very eager and interested in the project. And then there was a kind of baffling silence about how well the 3-D section was getting on. Because Kevin had done that earlier, the final bits of the thing, because he had figured it would take a certain amount of time to do the 3-D process. We later found out that apparently there'd been a decision made that the 3-D work should be taken away from Ray and moved in-house. Now, we hadn't been told about this, but what actually happened was that once they got it in-house, they looked at it and thought, 'We don't understand any of this! It's much too complicated a 3-D process for us to even grasp!' So after a couple of months of dicking around, they decided there was only one person for the job, and that was Ray Zone. So they gave him the work to process with, and he has done a shattering job on it. We'd been told that Ray enjoyed it, it was one of the most challenging things he'd ever done, and the end result is spectacular. But this was all delaying the publication of the book, which if they had let it go to press, it could have been published last spring, easily. However, they looked it over and decided it was more of a Christmas book, since they noticed the little sprigs and holly that me and Kevin had put in the lettering. And so there was a lot of back-and-forth, which Kevin took a lot of the brunt of, since I was out of the loop, which is a shame on Kevin's behalf, really, because he's had to get messed around like this. I think finally there was some intervention.

"I'd been told that now they weren't going to put the vinyl single in with the first edition of the book, that they were going to bring out a cheaper, normal-sized edition first without the vinyl single, and then perhaps a year later would bring out an Absolute edition containing it, which is not the way the book had been planned. At that point when we stressed our disapproval, there was a mad scheme to bring out the cheap edition and the Absolute edition at the same time, which was ludicrous. So now I believe the Absolute edition will be coming out sometime quite early next year, and that will include the single. Kevin has seen a proof copy of the thing and he said that it does look wonderful. The only thing that was missing is that it wasn't realized on the scale and the single wasn't included. So I believe the 3-D section is intact, and I may be wrong on this, but from everything I've been told, Kevin seems very, very pleased with the end result. It's just a pity that it couldn't have come out earlier and in the way that it had originally been imagined, since it seemed that with this plan to bring out both of them at the same time that that was always completely possible, it was just that a decision had been made, which... I don't know, at the end of the day, it could be an almost unbelievable pettiness and malice that was behind this, or it could be an equally unbelievable incompetence. Or it could be some heady and dizzying blend of the two. Whatever the reason, I felt that if I was going to continue to do works of the complexity of "The Black Dossier," and I do, then probably the mainstream American comic book industry is not the place for them. I don't know if it has ever been the place."


By the time readers are halfway through "The Black Dossier," they might start to get a sense that the story is growing into something more than just a period adventure thriller - it aims to cover the entire history of popular fiction.

"It's more in retrospect that 'The Black Dossier' has turned out to be an excellent transition from the kind of material that we found in the first two books into the boundless reaches that we have planned for the future," said Moore. "When [LoEG] started, it was purely a 'Justice League of Victorian England.' Within an issue or two, we realized that this was actually a fantastic opportunity to map the entire world of fiction. With 'The Black Dossier,' we thought we could take this basis and build upon it still further and provide a timeline for our fictional world. We could fill in details about previous incarnations of the League. And in the wraparound narrative, we could show what had happened to the League since 1898, since what had happened in the past sixty years, with our narrative being set in the London of 1958, turned out to be every bit as fascinating and exotic as the Victorian period has been, at least for Kevin and me. I've no idea whether the previous readership will share our enthusiasm for the 1950s. When we looked at the fictional landscape around that time, it seemed every bit as marvelous and revealing as the Victorian landscape had been."

The 1950s were a transitional period in itself as it moved from the early 20th Century to the decade after the Second World War, and the book offers a commentary on the period more barbed than works from the time ever could.

"During the fifties, there were a lot of things that were happening. There was the beginning of espionage fiction, there were still the popular 'Billy Bunter' schoolboy novels being published, and interestingly, since 1898, with the first incarnation of the League, we more or less only had access to the fiction icons of that time," said Moore. "We were able to draw on the literature of that period. Now as we move up through the centuries, more things became available. In the book that Kevin and me are working on now, "Century," volume three, which is to be published by Top Shelf, we've incorporated things from theatre and the very early silent films. By 1958, we were able to draw on elements from Film and Television, which we have done. So although it is very Anglo-centric, there are American elements to the plot, shall we say, and I think there are characters and wonders in there to make up for the absence of Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and The Invisible Man, and for the Victorian decor.

"The first two volumes were Kevin and my vision of a parallel Victorian universe, if you like, and that's the same approach we've taken for the 1950s. Britain in the 1950s did not have a space program in the real world. However, in the fictional world, we did have a space program. It would have begun with Professor Cavil's journey to the moon in 1901. So if the technology was around in 1901, then you could presuppose how it might have developed and evolved. So by 1958, there might be a spaceport just outside Birmingham, perhaps."


It shouldn't be a surprise that the presence of George Orwell, author of "Animal Farm" and "1984," would lurk in the shadows of "The Black Dossier."

"It's been very interesting to think through all the developments to the characters and the country since 1898," said Moore. "Obviously they'd been through a couple of world wars, the most recent of which would have been the Second World War, and we charted a very interesting parallel world history around the finish of the Second World War, when in this country, the Conservative government of Winston Churchill was voted out in favour of a Labour government. What we have done is, since this is fictional world, we weren't actually at war with Adolf Hitler, we were at war with Adenoid Hynkel, the character played by Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator.' So after the disastrous war with Herr Hynkel, we voted out the wartime Conservative government and voted in a socialist Labour government led by a military strong man figure who was known by the name of 'Big Brother,' because '1984' was published in 1948 and I believe that was originally going to be the date of the title until Orwell's publisher asked him to rethink all this. So we assume to have commenced at the end of the war, in 1945, and there are a lot of interesting little threads that we worked off from that. I mean, Orwell had said that he had based his secret state apparatchiks upon the vicious Public School prefects of his youth. So there was always an interesting thing where Frank Richards, the author of the 'Billy Bunter' stories, was having to turn out so many Bunter stories because of his gambling addiction. These were mentioned in an essay that George Orwell wrote, that were basically talking about how the Billy Bunter stories were just holding up the traditional British Empire values of racism and class consciousness in an approving light with the author apparently finding all foreigners amusing, and being very patronizing towards foreigners and women. Orwell wrote a very capable essay decrying all this, and foolishly, Frank Richards, stung by this review, decided to retaliate in a little letter where, in very wounded terms, went through all of Orwell's points and tried his best to dismiss them. But he said, 'As for Mr. Orwell's point about me depicting foreigners as being comical, well, they are!'

"There are little undercover threads throughout our story with connections like that," continued Moore. "The film 'The Third Man' was written by Graham Greene, who based the character of Harry Lime on his lifelong friend Kim Philby, a very famous British spy who turned out to be a double agent for the Russians. And weirdly enough, there had previously been two Russian agents exposed, Guy Burgess and Anthony MacLean, and there was a rumour there was a third double agent in MI5. I remember there was a headline back in the Sixties that said, 'KIM PHILBY IS THE THIRD MAN,' which were written completely unaware that he was the third man. So he was the basis for 'The Third Man.' All of these obscure facts are woven into the fabric of 'The Black Dossier.' It's been very interesting, with some surprising inclusions."


Moore had finished writing "Lost Girls" long before he began writing "The Black Dossier," and it could be said that the theme of using popular fictional characters to comment on cultural and political mores has been carried over to "The Black Dossier" and the next volume of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." However, that is what authors do: they explore the themes that interest them most, even unconsciously, as they and their work evolve. "Los Girls" does not take place in the same cross-referential universe as "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," but Moore's meditations on the frank treatment and representation of sexuality present in "Los Girls" has carried over into "The Black Dossier," even if it isn't as explicit or pornographic as the former.

"There is a kind of connection. When I finished "Lost Girl," I was in quite an ambivalent mood as to how I would be treating sex and sexuality in my work in the future, and I decided I would probably never again do any work of pure erotica, because there didn't seem to be very much point after having completed "Lost Girls." At the same time, I remain interested in the erotic in Art and Storytelling, because the erotic is a part of life. So it struck me that the best way to proceed would be to kind of fold in my approach to sex and erotic into the general fabric of my work so that when a sexual scene was required, then I could bring the proper erotic sensibilities to play upon it. 'The Black Dossier' was probably the first application that represents that kind of thinking. We are constantly learning with each work and we apply it to anything else that we're doing."

"In 'The Black Dossier,' we take a frank approach to sex and nudity right from the start, because it wasn't going to be coming out as a comic, which granted us a certain amount of liberty. Also, we were no longer fixed in the somewhat prudish Victorian era. We were no longer attempting to ape a Victorian tone, where in the first two volumes, any swear words or expletives were replaced by a line of asterisks as they might have been in the literature at the time. Whereas we're a lot more frank and open in 'The Black Dossier.' Interestingly, there is one direct descendent of the 'Lost Girls' in the sealed section - in the Victorian manner where the edges of the pages have not been cut. This is printed on a special sort of paper, or at least, it should be. This is a sequel to 'Fanny Hill,' subtitled 'The Further Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.' That is a series of beautiful, almost Bayros-like illustrations from Kevin, because it was Bayros who illustrated the first illustrated edition of 'Fanny Hill,' with chunks of text underneath. It is a continuation of 'Fanny Hill,' but it is also a description of the 18th Century League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Gulliver group, told in a series of quite amusing (hopefully) erotic tableaus. That was kind of reminiscent of 'Lost Girls,' because we were back in the Bayros groove, and it was erotic writing in the Cleland style, which has not a trace of obscenity. It's all mainly conveyed by euphemism, so it's a very clean piece of writing. Kevin's drawings - I wouldn't say they were entirely chaste - on their own, they're not too scandalous, but the combination of Kevin's drawings and the text, it's pretty frank, and I think quite funny."


On a deeper level, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" series is a covert history of the popular imagination.

"The planet of the imagination is as old as we are. It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, and since we first came down from the trees, basically. It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it. Fiction is clearly one of the first things that we do when we stand upright as a species - we tell each other stories. Now, Nature doesn't do things for decorative purposes, except like giving peacocks wonderful plumage so they can attract a mate, but since there seems to be little point to telling each other stories all the time - except there must be. We have depended upon them and to some degree the fictional world is completely intertwined and interdependent with the material world. A lot of the dreams that shape us and, presumably, our world leaders, are fictions. When we're growing up, we perhaps base ourselves on an ideal, and even if that ideal is a real living person, there is every chance that living person may have based themselves on a fictional ideal. This is actually ground that we do cover in 'The Black Dossier,' and in the final soliloquy, which is delivered by Duke Prospero. We're talking about this very thing: the interdependence between the world of fiction and the world of fact. It is something that interests me, and has come to dominate my thinking on the series. I'm not exactly sure why, but it feels as if it might be important."


There is a political dimension to "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." The story involves the state's attempts to control the fiction characters, which creates a subtext of the State trying to control the people's imagination and the popular imagination.

"We detail the relationship, amongst many other things, between the group and the state since Elizabethan times, commencing with a Shakespeare play and we have the 'Fanny Hill' piece, and the relationship between the group and their MI5 paymasters is changed drastically, even before 'The Black Dossier' commences. It is clear that all is not what it used to be."

Since Book One, there has been an anti-authoritarian strain in the story where the paymasters of the League were not to be trusted, and in Book Two, this becomes more explicit with the government using the League to unleash a virus that kills the invading Martians and then covering up the human casualties of the virus.

"This is something we continue in 'The Black Dossier' to its inevitable conclusion," explained Moore. "With relation to the political dimension of the book, we're not making any heavy-handed political analogies with the War Against Terror or the situation today. I think we touched upon both of those things in Book Two anyway. With the third book of the League, the one which Kevin and I are working on now, tn its structure, these three standalone volumes are each set in a different time period and built up into an overarching story, which is called 'Century.'

"I worked out with Kevin that one of the subtexts in Volume Three is not the government control of the imagination, but more the decline, whether intentional or otherwise, of the imagination, the popular imagination. We start out in the first episode in 1910, which has still got the kind of grandeur of the Victorian and Edwardian imagination on display. We go through 1968, which although a different period, very electrified and psychedelic, that we still have examples of the culture from that period which is very exciting. When we get to the third volume, which is set in 2008, it will become plain that the current landscape of fiction in comparison with what has gone before is a very sparse and relatively dull place. Orwell was almost exactly wrong in a strange way. He thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother. And it's that kind of culture and the popular imagination that is a very strong subtext in Book Three. However, I think that although we're talking about an increasing dullness in the fictional landscape, we do that very entertainingly and very excitingly.

"That's for the future. With 'The Black Dossier' there's been a lot of grief in the production of this book, so my feelings are kind of conflicted. I still think it is a wonderful book and probably the most progressive and genuinely original pieces of work that are going be coming out of the mainstream comics industry anytime this century. I'm very excited to see what people think of it, because both me and Kevin are at the absolute top of our game. One of my favourite bits is the Kerouac piece, 'The Crazy Wide Forever.' Even if I say so myself, I think it's a pretty good Kerouac pastiche, and it's presented with a proper creased paperback cover which has very little to do with the actual narrative in the way that the first editions of William Burroughs and Kerouac books were actually packaged, with the lurid exploitation pulp covers and the bebop interior. I'm thrilled with the Shakespeare and the Bertie Wooster story."


Moore said with book three of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," readers can expect a more savage tale with a marked difference in tone.

"It's a lot darker in the same way that the 20th Century raised a lot of issues that were a lot darker than the century preceding it," said Moore. "I decided relatively early on that there was no reason we couldn't continue 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' into the far future, except for the fact that if we wished to keep any realism to the series, the central characters would get old and die. Now that meant that I would either have a continually changing roster to the League, or we'll have to come up with something else. We basically came up with the 'Orlando' solution, by making Allan and Mina immortal. It was because if we kept any of the more colourful characters, I just didn't see them working in any mortal context. Mr. Hyde: there was a character with such a death wish, making him an immortal would just be cruel. We see the death of Captain Nemo in the first chapter of Volume Three, around 1910, on his base down there in the South Atlantic. By the end of the first chapter, there is a new Nemo, and at the end of the third chapter, which is set in the best part of another century later, there is another new Nemo, who is quite like his great-grandfather, but this being the 20th Century, a lot more terrifying. That is stuff we are saving for volume three of Book Three.

"It's a very pared-down League that we see in Volume Three. The first book starts out with five or six characters in the League. By the time the second book comes around, that's been pared down to three. By the time of the third book, there's nobody. The third book is a catalogue of increasing disasters. We're quite enjoying it.

"Despite the fact that the third section is very black indeed, it ends on a note where the League can be continued in any form that we want. We brought them into the present as much as we could. We just wanted to see if we could do that, bring the League right up to date, that future books would probably be jumping back and forth over a two or three-hundred-year history. The sky is the limit. We can do stories set at the beginning of time and to the furthest reaches of the future. We've got enough energy and enough stories in us for a good while yet. I'm going to be very interested in what the response is, because the League has got a very intelligent readership. Even if people don't get all of it, even if they don't pick up Jess Nevins' annotated volumes which explain everything or visit his website, it's still an exciting story. Even if you don't know who the characters are, people are still going to get caught up in the suspense of a fairly simple chase story, with all the thrills and spills that such stories entail, which build to a genuinely spectacular conclusion. The final section of the 'Dossier,' set in the Blazing World, is the first time that I can remember 3-D being used in context to this degree. There is a reasoning behind the inclusion of the 3-D - all the characters are wearing red-and-green goggles in the final section of the book. It's because our three-dimensional world is depicted usually in comics as a two-dimensional world. So if I wanted to depict a four-dimensional world, then in comic book terms it would be good to depict that in 3D. So there's a logic there which plays delightfully with the Blazing World finale, which Kevin has gone to town on. I really have to say that he has stunned me with the sheer array of styles with "The Black Dossier." I can't emphasize that enough. You've suddenly got him imitating Hogarth or Gillray one minute, imitating woodcutting the next, imitating the Marquis von Bayros. it really does show what an incredible artist Kevin O'Neill is, even more than the first two volumes did. There's going to be a few surprises there."

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier" is in book stores and better comic shops now from DC/Wildstorm.

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