Over the course of its three previous volumes, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has evolved from a clever adventure yarn starring some of the most notorious characters in literary history to nothing short of an attempt to catalogue and unify every creative work in the literary canon. “The Black Dossier,” the series’ previous volume, stretched that evolution possibly to its breaking point, as the light spy story at its core was overwhelmed by reams of textual history and references. When “Century” was announced, it was only natural to wonder which direction the series would end up in.
Well, it’s hard to say.
While it’s certainly pulled back from the rampant text pieces that overtook “The Black Dossier,” it’s no longer a plot-driven adventure story either. It has become a rather bleak meditation on heroism. It seems fitting, though, as the story is evolving past the era of literature that was driven by pulp stories and into the one of “finer” literature. This particular installment is clearly inspired by the opera work of Bertolt Brecht, specifically “The Threepenny Opera,” whose songs this book adapts liberally. Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain are now immortal, and joined in their league by fellow immortal Orlando, currently male; the thief Raffles; and the psychic Carnacki. They are tasked with thwarting an apocalypse which Carnacki has foreseen, involving the mystic cult led by Oliver Haddo. They blunder through their investigations, uncovering little of value and potentially cluing Haddo himself into what he might specifically need to bring about this foretold apocalypse.
At the same time we are introduced to the dying Nemo’s daughter, Janni (who ends up with the name Jenny Diver). Unwilling to take on her father’s mantle as Pirate Captain, she is summarily raped by vagrants in her new home among London’s seediest docks. This, naturally, is enough to change her mind, and the Nautilus is reborn in her fury; destroying most of the harborside. There is also a musical backdrop, illuminating Jenny’s tragic journey and the mystery of a murderer among the slums.
Kevin O’Neill’s work continues to be spectacular in this book. Capturing the grit and the detail both of the world and the undoubtedly hundreds of characters inhabiting the backgrounds, just waiting for Jess Nevins to expose them in his annotations. One thing O’Neill rarely gets enough credit for, though, is his panel-to-panel storytelling. The is one sequence in particular, where the mysterious Norton, seemingly the spirit of London itself, travels through the ages to meet Mina. History literally moves around him as he remains in the same spot over the course of two pages. It’s a remarkable sequence.
This is, of course, only the first volume of the three part series, so this could all be stage setting for a century-wide madcap adventure. But even if it isn’t, I’m perfectly satisfied with this evolution of the book. Much like the subtext throughout the book implies, the heroism found in old adventure stories is outdated, ill suited for a world of complexity. Any attempts at that kind of problem solving end up slaughtering drunks or tipping off psychopaths. “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has become a wry statement on the kinds of characters Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain are trapped inside, as the world is swiftly evolving past them in every direction.
It’s a compelling allegory for the winding path of Western creativity, and one that wasn’t quite perceivable in the book until now. This carries over to the book’s back story, a prose tale of Mina’s trip to the moon on The Rose Of Nowhere (introduced in the psychedelic conclusion of “The Black Dossier”). Allan and Orlando have abandoned her to take their minds off the dire fate of immortality through blasphemous trysts in Paris. The exhaustion of the characters is palpable, and vividly illustrated in a moment where the frozen corpse of James Moriarity, last seen way back in “Volume One” and still clutching his cavorite, floats past the space-bound ship. That world is long dead and frozen; and Mina and Allan are stuck forver drifting away from it, towards limitless and constantly evolving strangeness.
“Century” may not be a return to the heights of adventure of the first two volumes of this series, but as it shows us; those days, and those stories; are long gone anyway.