August 5th, 2011
Welcome to England
Perhaps the most terrifying words ever read in a comic?
The Martian invaders, who Wells presents as being foul on a level deep enough to be both visceral and ontological, are upon facing a grinning English gentlemen made instantly sympathetic, as we realise we’ve been cheering for the wrong side all along.
This isn’t what the Martians are supposed to be. It’s one of Wells’ great tricks – they’re the bad guys that the reader is permitted on a planetary scale to Other and despise. It’s okay to revel in the violence of the conflict and the cruel irony of their demise. They’re not like us. They wouldn’t show you any mercy. They don’t belong here. It’s OK, you can hate them and enjoy their pain. It’s OK.
It’s not OK. From chapter 1 we’ve been presented with the Martians’ badness (they’re not even Martians! They’re not even from there! Not originally, not like the good Martians) as a simple, natural fact. So we cheer when they are chased off that planet. When these disgusting things arrive on ours, and treat those nice Wokingians exactly as generations of Englishmen have treated those they met as they set foot on shore, we are shocked and appalled and call righteously for vengeance upon them.
What if they just want somewhere safe to live?
It’s the final kick of the second book, hidden away in one small panel in the middle of the sequence that’s supposed to be giving us our final emotional catharsis. The scale of what Moore and O’Neill do in these panel isn’t to be underestimated – it’s something of a watershed moment in English literature – trumping Wells’ Woking, Larkin’s Slough and Morrissey’s seaside town they forgot to close down. The repellent subject here withering under the poet’s red-hot glare is nothing less than England itself. The raw, fearful symbolism encoded in the imagery is unforgettable: the unleashed upper-crust, standing above England’s fetid carotid artery, physically devouring, digesting and delighting in the pain of this insect that thinks it knows about war and extinction, the gentleman so happy in their mutual immolation, their mingled ashes spread on the filthy red weed-choked water.
Mr Toad’s Arrival
One of the most daring things about the League is it’s willingness to tread the fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. For all it’s seriousness there’s an inherent playfulness at work, and Moore & O’Neill take chances that could be the stumbling block for a book in less capable hands. I can think of no greater example of this than the arrival of Mr Toad in Book 2. Moore’s dizzying web of literary connections is occasionally astounding in it’s simple brilliance. And tying together Kenneth Grahame’s bucolic countryside elegy, Wind in The Willows, with Wells’ terrifyingly prescient Island of Dr Moreau is a stroke of pure, bearded genius. But more importantly it’s utterly, utterly horrible; the unsettling sight of a blank eyed Toad, done up in his Sunday best, in a tiny, toy motor car dares the reader to laugh whilst sending shivers up their spine. We can bet that randy old Quartermain’s mid-afternoon glory drooped at the first glimpse of that amphibian horror.
The moment is perfectly timed, coming at a lull in the unremittingly bleak invasion of the Earth by Mars. Moore riffs perfectly on Well’s source novel, summing up the eery calm of a world at war before the mobile phone and 24 hour rolling news coverage. Here we are on the quiet rolling Sussex hills on a Sunny day, while the skies burn red in London, lit up by the pre-Nuclear horror of the Martian death-ray. Yet within these serene green fields lies something equally alien and repellent. Genetic modification with a storybook twist. Yet as horrible as the site of a bestial version of Rupert Bear is, it’s jolly old Mr Toad who really makes the skin crawl.
I think this moment is a good example of the way that Moore and O’Neill love to pull the rug out from their readership. Sure, we could all accept the basic premise of the League when the worlds of Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde et al cross paths. But Rupert? Ratty and Mole? Can the world of the League cope with the addition of cute, anthropomorphic children’s storybook animals? Really?
Of course it can, and what’s more it’ll make them genuinely frightening, in the way that a hybrid tiger-man in children’s clothes fucking should be frightening. The real coup of course was that this was only the beginning. The Black Dossier would make these narrative gambles seem like child’s play, as Moore’s meta-fictionverse, took a trip for the genuinely brain bending.
Mina Vs Bond
Mina Harker is perhaps the League’s greatest achievement – a rounded, complex protagonist, whose as brave and fearless as she is stubborn and opinionated. She rescued Allan from the brink of oblivion (well, for now anyway…) tamed the heart of the savage Mr Hyde, and forged a path all the way to the heart of the Blazing World.
So it seems only fitting that she should be the one to knock seven shades of shit out of quintessential ‘ladies man’ James Bond. This being the League, the Bond here is the original version from Ian Fleming’s source novels; a vicious public school sadist, alcoholic and attempted rapist. A long way from the furrowed bovine buffness of Daniel Craig. All the more satisfying to see Mina wipe the smirk off his face with a well aimed blow to the face with a brick filled handbag, and a dismissive kiss off of ‘nasty little thug’. Moore even has a bit of fun with Bond’s fabled use of gimmicky secret weapons, as an abortive attempt to use a pen/gun results in a skew-whiff shot fired and a burnt and blasted secret agent’s cakehole.
Shaken and stirred, as it were.
The League is Here
The opening episode of Volume 2 is a typically brazen gambit. From the filth of Victorian London in the first book we are catapulted unprepared to the utterly alien environs of Mars to a witness a barbarous, epic struggle for control of the red planet. In one deft move, the audience’s expectations are dashed and we spend the next 22 pages in glorious confusion. The Hither, the arrival of the Sorn, John Carter, the magic carpet ride, the desperate clash of the savage technology vs the indigenous martian culture; there’s so much to enjoy in this issue, that we almost forget that the titular characters have yet to materialise.
And when they do? It’s moody, restrained and ominous. No proud posturing or sound and fury – just fivevery unusual people getting off a train.
Enough can’t be said about the nuances that Kevin O’Neill brings to the art of the League. Whilst he can revel in Hogarthian grotesquery and stylised, heightened cartooning he’s also an absolute master of facial expressions and body language. The slightest scratch of his fine line can convey a world of inner turmoil. And the 5 panel sequence where the League arrive to investigate this latest uncanny occurrence is a simple, beautiful example of silent expressive storytelling. One By one they descend from the train; Quatermain first, frail but fearless, a young man’s glint of adventure beneath his stern expression. Next it’s Nemo, fierce black eyes poking from beneath his bushy eye brows, a trace of disgust on his implacable face – a seafaring warrior landlocked in little England. Behind him, sweating, is a nervous Dr Jekyll, his pallid yellow flesh and shifty eyes suggesting a terrified man barely able to control whatever it is that’s eager to burst forth. Then Mina, inscrutable, fearless porcelain. Behind her comes Griffin, in the shadows, his awful blank glasses and bandaged face giving no clue of what’s on his mind. The cigarette in his mouth gives the slightest suggestion of addiction, of corruption. The next panel shows them trudging towards the alien object, a pathway cleared by the police, in a dark perversion of celebrity. The stray dog behind them arching its back and barking only heightens the uncanny nature of these new arrivals. Of all these new arrivals.
Finally we get our group shot, lit by a menacing, alien green glow. Its perfect. Part of you wants to cheer, but part of you can already tell that they’re out of their league (sorry); that there’s no way they can hope to combat this terrifying new menace. The sense that the League is always on the brink of being utterly fucked (and I mean that in every sense of the word…) is part of their appeal, and it’s something that the creators seem intent on driving home in Century. The bold Victorian adventurers of the early volumes are about to get overtaken by the rapacious cultural entropy of the 20th Century, and these cold, technological monstrosities from space are only the beginning…
It’s a masterpiece of artistic undestatement and control.
THE FUCKING NAUTILUS.