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.
In the first part of this in-depth 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.
In today's final installment, we speak with the acclaimed writer about contemporary references and characters that will make themselves known in "Century, and the immortalization of British author Iain Sinclair.
CBR: Let's talk about how fiction reflects reality in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," which is more overt in the first chapter of "Century," where you actually have characters who are avatars of real-life people. That's been a strand that's been hinted at before, but it's coming to the fore now. You've mentioned instead of Queen Elizabeth reigning in the 17th Century in the Golden Age, in "The League," it was Gloriana. I assume that was Gloriana from Michael Moorcock's novel "Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen."
Alan Moore: It's Gloriana from Michael Moorcock's novel and from Spenser's poem.
And then we have Oliver Haddo, who's the fictional avatar of Aleister Crowley. Oliver Haddo is basically the type of supervillain that Crowley would have loved people to believe he was.
That's right. We have a lot of fun in this first book. There is a reference where Carnacki asks Haddo, "You are Oliver Haddo, I take it?" And Haddo says, "Of course not! Haddo's dead! I'm Dr. Karswell Trelawney of Stonedean" and another location I've forgotten. But Dr. Karswell Trelawney is a combination of M.R. James' Karswell from "Casting The Runes," who was based upon Aleister Crowley, and Dr. Trelawney from Anthony Powell's "Dance to the Music of Time," who was a cult leader based upon Aleister Crowley. In the second part of "The League," we take this further. We bring in all of the other fictional Crowleys. The Adrian Marcato from "Rosemary's Baby" was based on Crowley, the Boris Karloff character from "The Black Cat," the satanic architect, was based on Crowley. We wind them all in together and make them one person.
It is interesting because so many characters within the fictional realm are based upon real people. But the particular fun that I had and Kevin as well in this particular was introducing Norton, the prisoner of London.
And O'Neil's drawn him to look like Iain Sinclair, the British author of "Slow Chocolate Autopsy: Incidents from the Notorious Career of Norton, Prisoner of London."
Well, Norton was one of Iain's alter egos. I think he has a limp that Iain had at the time when he was writing at the time, which he's since got rid of and sorted out. Iain had, I consider, made himself fair game by making his semiautobiographical Norton character and making him this time-traveling prisoner of London, which struck me as a very interesting character to use in a book like "Century" without doing the immortal thing to death. We've got another character that can turn up in any age that we want as long as it's in London. So that was good. In some of Norton's dialogue, we've got a bit of a departure from the world of The League, because Norton is clearly existing in a world where he kind of knows that everything is fiction. Some of his references, although it escapes the characters, are to real events.
Like the London bombings of 7/7/05?
Yes, and some of the other cryptic things that he says which they can have no knowledge of because they haven't happened in this world. He also refers to Oliver Haddo as "Crowley manque," which he is. So Norton is coming at things from an unusual perspective. Even in The League's world, he's a peculiar character in that he kind of bridges our world and The League's, and because of his perspective, he is almost unfathomable to the people of The League's world. He appears again in 1969, again outside Kings Cross, and again in 2009 outside Kings Cross where he takes more of an active part in the story and we bring that to a conclusion.
Yeah, it was great fun using Iain, because hopefully in the way that other slight reference in "The League" have led some readers to go out and track those things down... We had a lot of readers in the first volume, in the second volume say, "Yes, I've checked out 'Dracula' and 'King Solomon's Mines' and '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,' and I've read these books for the first time and thank you for giving me the experience." With the second volume, we were getting some wonderfully gratifying comments from people who'd gone out and read "The Third Policeman" for the first time, which is fantastic. Or people who decided to check out William Burroughs after seeing the reference to mugwumps, things like that. I'm hoping that a few people will be intrigued enough by Norton into going out and checking out a couple of Iain's works.
We've got in the 1969 chapter, which takes place about 11 years after the events of "The Black Dossier," The League running into a grown-up Jerry Cornelius, whom they last saw while staying at his mother's boarding house. He recognizes them. They don't recognize him because he's now jet-black with white hair. They make some references to Norton. He says, "Well, we've always called him 'Taffy.'" He knows who they mean, tells them that as far as he understands it, Norton is going to appear in Kings Cross at a certain place and time.
So all these things, we're linking up subtly. Michael Moorcock had given us kind permission to use anything of his, and Iain has been equally generous with Norton. I'm just hoping that Iain likes it when he sees it, because it is partway between a tribute and a travesty.
As someone who's read his work, it is very funny when you start having him speak in that clipped, staccato, stream-of-consciousness way of writing that Sinclair writes in.
That's it. Iain doesn't talk like that, but he writes a bit like that. I tried to make that his literary voice the same as his spoken voice to comic effect. It's interesting. It was a lot of fun working out how we had him approach the scene through time, with the shots of him witness the last stand of Boadicea at Battle Bridge Road behind Kings Cross and then all these subsequent events. I think Kevin thought that Norton was the eeriest character he'd been called upon to depict since The Invisible Man. And I think Norton achieves this with his unsettling intellectual atmosphere.
Because all he does is stand around and witness events? He doesn't actually do anything. He's just watching things unfold.
And he comments upon them in ways that are largely impenetrable to his audience because they haven't got his cross-time perspective upon things and the meaning of what he says may be lost upon them until it's too late. So it was a great deal of fun.
And we want The League to be inclusive, because in this fictional world, there's also a kind of literary art. It's all the things we care about. We want to put them all into one unified bundle to preserve them as best we can. We don't want to make any distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture. It's all culture. It's all important so long as it's interesting. And so we have taken both ends of culture from everywhere in culture.
It was good to be able include Norton in that mix simply because that's exactly Iain's attitude. He's not a cultural snob. He's one of the few people who could with justification be a supreme cultural snob. He was born during an air raid, and he was blue when he was born. Didn't breathe until his father entered the room with pile of books, one of which, a pulp crime hardback, hit Iain on the head and caused him to utter his first cry. That's kind of mythical. A hardboiled crime novel was what caused him to draw breath. How literary can you get? That is fantastic.
Surely, Norton's going to have more impact on British readers because extremely few American readers have heard of Iain Sinclair? He's not really known in America at all despite a couple of US editions of his earlier books.
We don't want to be too obscure for the readers. If they don't know who Iain Sinclair is, and they don't know who Norton the prisoner of London is, there's enough in context to explain that this is a strange figure that travels through time but not through space. And if they can't understand what he's saying, they're in no worse position than the main characters in the story. So it's not a distraction from the narrative and hopefully it doesn't detract from the narrative. I think that people who don't get all of these references are still going to be able to enjoy the story. And of course, they can always check on Jess Nevins' website or one of the books that he's brought out. So they can get everything, near enough. I think the audience does enjoy this game as much as we do.
We have a couple of comments from people saying, "This is not fair. It's all set in England." Well, England is where we live, and frankly, when we were growing up, we had loads of fun with comics that were set in America. And we learned to understand from context and inference that what certain things in that culture that were unfamiliar to us was all about. It was kind of find doing that, finding out who Adlai Stevenson was, who Fidel Castro was, at the age of seven of whatever when I first bought Mad Magazine. It expanded our knowledge of America. That should be a two-way street, I would have thought. And it's kind of important because it's telling them about their own culture.
I'm not sure what this is apropos of, but it just suddenly struck me about the interrelationship between the fictional world... do you know the tasers that originated in America that are now standard issue for the police over here? Do you know what Taser stand for? You'd think it'd stood for something like a laser, which stood for Light and Stimulated Emission of Radiation, but it doesn't. What TASER stands for is Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle. It was the idea of having some kind of generator built into a gun or a battery, and having a kind of harpoon with a way of trailing behind it, originated in a story about young inventor Tom Swift.
A fictional device that is now part of everyday urban living.
That original name is very 19th Century.
Oh yeah. Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle. Taser, that sounds very up to the minute. It's a good job they called him Thomas A. Swift, I suppose, because it gave a nice euphonious ring to the final product. It's interesting the connections that keep coming up.
It's also becoming clear by this third volume of "The League" that when you set it in London and England, apart from reference to European Literature and other countries, "The League" is also you and Kevin O'Neil doing a kind of exploration and history of fictional England.
That relates to what we were saying earlier about The League taken in its entirety being a kind of culture Dreamtime. We've probably got a strong Western bias. It does attempt to be global. However, inevitably, it's not only got a strong Western bias, it has got a strong English bias because we are lovingly exploring a kind of British Dreamtime, especially in "The Black Dossier." Even if people aren't familiar with Billy Bunter, they can understand from context what he's meant to be.
There was one reviewer, apparently, who went on with disgruntlement about the scene set at Greyfriars Abbey. It's not an Abbey, it's a British Public School. Public School in England means something different in England to what it does in America. But you can see from the status of the building and the context of the story that this is a private school for rich people and their children. It's not like you need to know the intricacies of Billy Bunter in order to appreciate it. Yes, if you do know those things, it will give you an extra little buzz. If you don't, it won't harm the story. We don't think we're being too exclusionist or whatever.
Future volumes of "The League" could be set anywhere in space or time. For this story, partly because it all seemed to settle quite naturally in London, the events all fitted naturally into the capital. That made it easy to use Norton. So this third book takes place all in a century, all in London. In future books, we can go anywhere we want. I'm thinking of opening volume four, which is a way in the future yet, with a scene in the year 3000. Like opening the second book on Mars, it was a way of providing a bit of a shock for the audience and redefining the parameters established in the first book. Yes, the first volume of "The League" is set in Victorian England. The second book opens on another planet. It's still a fictional universe, but we're now on another planet. It expands the potential territory of The League.
So yeah, opening a book around the 30th Century, that'd be something to keep the readers on their toes. We can do whatever we want. We've established The League's existence only as far back as the 1500s, 1600s, but that's not to say... Orlando goes back earlier than that. We've given some hints as to the history of the world even before Orlando's time, in the Oliver Haddo's piece with the talk about Melnibone and all that stuff.
So for the future of "The League," I think "Century" will be a powerful statement. And as with "The Black Dossier," I think it will free us up to go off into new directions to build upon things that we've established in the course of "Century." "The League's" sort of an organic creature. It started with a simple idea: what if a bunch of characters from 19th Century fiction all knew each other. Not even a particularly new idea, an idea as old as Jason and the Argnonauts. But that became more complex as soon as we decided, "Let's not just have the main characters be from fiction, let's have everybody be a reference of some kind to fiction. Let's have every place be a place from fiction. Let's try and make this a comprehensive fictional world." At that point, an initially simple game becomes more complex.
And I think that kind of leads us naturally to doing something like "The Black Dossier," which leads us in turn into doing something -- I don't want to say "more grown-up" because that sounds a bit patronizing to the readers of the first two volumes. I think there is an element of that. This is material that's been done without any thought to what was once the staple audience of comics, the kids. I'm sure we will have readers who are 12 and 13, there are some very bright 13-year-olds out there, but the majority of our readers are between their teens and their forties and fifties. It's a pretty wide stretch. We're treating this as books for adults. And we are figuring that adults shouldn't need constant explosions, constant action and constant meaningless soap opera to engage their attention. I think it's all pretty lean meat, at least the first part of the third volume, and in the second two parts as well, people are going to be very surprised.
Would you say the "The League" is almost like a museum -- but it's the opposite of a museum in the sense that it's not only preserving all these characters and stories from fiction, it's also keeping them alive, whereas museums tend to show things are already dead?
That's it. It's more of a bestiary or a zoo. It's more like a wildlife park or some sort of ark for Fiction where hopefully we can take some of these things that have fallen through the cracks, the increasingly wide cracks of modern culture, and we can save them from oblivion. If we accomplish that, then that would be something. And if we can accomplish that while telling a rip-roaring, rousing story, then I think that is our ambition.