Thursday, 27 December 2007

At Last The 1984 Show

Well, long time no see. Before we start, I would like to apologise for my extended absence. I have, in fact, been working on a book (non-comic-related) which is taking up much more of my time than I had thought, and have not even had a chance to check the comic blogs, let alone update my own.

In order to prevent this from happening again, I have actually written four posts for this blog, which I will post at weekly intervals, by which time I will hopefully have written more, so I hope to keep a backlog. Thank you to those who have expressed concern about my absence.

Anyway, on to The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen – The Black Dossier. What little I've seen of the critical reaction to this has been muted, to say the least, which has surprised me – in a disappointing year for comics after the rather excellent 2006, when only Alice In Sunderland has achieved masterpiece status , The Black Dossier is clearly a contender for best comics work of the year.

The Black Dossier actually owes a great deal to Alan Moore's great work of last year, Lost Girls. Moore has already spoken, often, of the way that working on Lost Girls inspired the ideas about 'ideaspace' and a shared fictional universe that led to the previous two League volumes, but in The Black Dossier the link is far more obvious, from the increased sexual content (parts of the book are only just less explicit than Lost Girls, and there is a lot of sex in the book) through to the pastiches of various literary and pop-culture forms that form the bulk of the book (Moore gets the tone of lesser writers like Shakespeare or Kerouac perfectly, but unfortunately even he isn't up to the task of recreating P.G. Wodehouse's prose style).

But as with the two previous League volumes, The Black Dossier is dominated by the spirit of one writer. Where the first volume was the London of Conan Doyle and the second was that of H.G. Wells, this one is George Orwell through and through, and in ways that surprisingly few people seem to have picked up on (although, again, I haven't read many of my favourite comic bloggers in recent weeks, and I can't wait to see what Marc Singer, or Steve at Gad Sir! Comics!, for example, have had to say about this – I'm currently staying with my in-laws, who only have dial-up, but I'll be reading through them when I get home).

Everyone has, of course, noticed the influence of Orwell's novels on the book – that could hardly be helped. It is, after all, set in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Ingsoc government from 1984 (relocated to 1948 to coincide with its original publication). The references to 'Manor Farm' (the original name of the farm in Animal Farm ) and background details from Keep The Aspidistra Flying have also been picked up on.

But what seems to have gone unnoticed is the debt the book owes to Orwell's non-fiction. This is perhaps understandable – other than 1984 and Animal Farm Orwell is barely read these days. But Orwell's essays were where he excelled as a writer and social commentator, and I would urge anyone interested in the culture and politics of mid-20th century Britain, or just those interested in good writing, to get hold of his Collected Essays. I may, incidentally, get the titles of some essays wrong in this – I'm 5000 miles from my copy at the moment.

The comparison early on in The Black Dossier between 'Jimmy' and Alan Quatermain, showing the deterioration of the British adventure hero between their eras, dramatises the thesis of Orwell's classic essay "Raffles And Miss Blandish", which compared the brutal sadism of the then-bestseller No Orchids For Miss Blandish with the more moral sensibility of the earlier Raffles books (Raffles, of course, becomes a character in the League).

At one point Allan and Mina are seen looking at a humorous postcard of the Donald McGill type – Orwell was the first writer to suggest that these were worth studying, in "The Art Of Donald McGill", one of the first essays in the field we now call cultural studies.

There are several pages of Wodehouse pastiche – Orwell wrote the eloquent "In Defence Of P.G. Wodehouse" at a time when Wodehouse was vilified in the British press as a traitor, helping to restore his reputation.

Lemuel Gulliver is a minor character – Swift was Orwell's favourite author, and he wrote about him on many occasions.

But most suggestive is the pervasive influence of Greyfriars and its alumni, which seems to have been suggested by Orwell's classic essay on "Boys Weeklies", which is still the best analysis of the Greyfriars and St Jim's stories ever written.

But even more than all that, the book just reeks of Orwell. His obsession with Britishness (and this is the most British comic you'll read this year – it's particularly cruel that the one country where this could be understood without recourse to Jess Nevins' excellent annotations is also the one where it's not available), hope in the face of adversity, people struggling through essentially grey, dull lives… even when Moore is 'doing' Ian Fleming, or Eagle comics, or Gerry Anderson, or Kerouac, it feels like Orwell. In one section Mina talks about "These precious, stupid little English jokes and catchphrases when they've been pulling the bit of their neighbours and their relatives out from beneath the bricks and burning beams only the night before" – a more Orwellian phrase and sentiment you couldn't hope to find.

There's much more to The Black Dossier, which I'll look at over the coming weeks (and don't believe me if you don't want to – I know I don't have a great track record with this) but if you've been avoiding buying it because of the negative reaction, you're missing out on some of Moore's best, cleverest writing. No, it's not a narrative in the conventional sense, but there's not a page that didn't make me laugh or drop my jaw in awe.


J. Charles Brister said...

I guess I'm an uncultured philistine, but I found the majority of the Black Dossier to be far too esoteric and incomprehensible. It felt like, to me, that Moore was trying to hit you over the head with how smart Moore is.
Maybe I'm a Morrison guy, but I thought it was really weak and boring.
Great blog, though. You have an excellent literary and intelligent take on the DCU.

Andrew Hickey said...

Glad you like the blog - it's far more important to me that people find what I have to say interesting than that they agree...

And I doubt you're an uncultured philistine - I think you're probably an American (and despite how I tease my wife, the two are not *quite* the same thing). The Black Dossier, more than anything else I've read except maybe Finnegans Wake, depends almost entirely on recognising the allusions - not only recognising them, but having an emotional response. Things like the joke about the XL rockets, or the reveal of M's identity, or the landlord in the first scene will only really have the full impact if you remember old British TV shows or children's books from the 1930s.

And I do agree that Moore was also trying to show you how clever he is - I think that's something he's justifiably proud of. But I enjoy reading that kind of thing as an exercise...

John said...

My own positive review -

which is less eloquent than yours, but there you go.

I was dismayed at the poor reactions I saw to the book - it was difficult and dense reading and some of the criticism I saw fell into too camps, either the "I don't want to do homework when I read comic books" reaction or "this is just pretentious nonsense" reaction.

But it's a lot like Alice in Sunderland, which you mention, and both remind me of the better works of someone like Peter Greenaway - which is really nice to see in comics.

But Dossier is definitely not for everyone. Thanks for such a nice essay about it, though - more food for thought.

Stellanova said...

I just read the Black Dossier last night, and absolutely loved it - I'm kind of annoyed by the negative reviews that claim you "have to have a degree in English Literature to understand it", because the vast majority of the allusions and references are to popular culture and early-20th-century popular and lowbrow literature. I do wonder how the average American reader manages to get any of it, though (I'm Irish, but we do grow up with the British media). As someone who was obsessed with the original Magnet Greyfriars stories as a small girl in the mid-80s (loads of the Magnet story arcs were published as bound reproduction volumes in the '70s, and my dad had picked up quite a few), if I could have chosen any vintage fictional universe for Moore to have used, it would have been the world of Frank Richards.

plok said...

Very well-taken points...after reading Marc Singer and Jog on this, I've been trying to figure out why I feel their takes on it are somewhat incomplete -- in other words, what layer of Moore's intention is being missed. Of course I would like to think Moore has another layer to his intention, but he may not...nonetheless he may, and if he does then I'm sure you've brushed up fairly close to it here.

Wish I could be more articulate about that, but I'm still thinking.

On the matter of influences and references -- I'm Canadian, which doesn't mean I get as much British pop culture in my entertainment diet as you might think (and a whole lot of it's actually imported from PBS in the States!), but I guess I get enough, because this was clear as glass to me, barring the stuff which I simply could not have known anything about. But I'd say about 80% of it was over-the-counter, wouldn't you? So, I thought it was a good story. Definitely a slight story compared to many other Moore works, but I don't see how that makes any difference to anything -- why shouldn't some stories be slighter than others? Especially since I don't think anyone's so crazy as to say that "slight" equals "not textured" in this case. Instead the only question ought to be, does all that texture serve a thematic purpose? And my feeling is that it definitely does -- Moore's ornamentation doesn't come across (to me, at any rate) as pointless, but as progressively more suggestive and ominous. So, "smart", we all know Moore is smart. We all know he loves to show off his skill and his interests. Not sure it's fair to conclude that the showing-off becomes an end in itself here, though.