guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2008

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier (Wildstorm, 2007). $29.99, hardcover; Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (Oni Press, 2007). $11.95, paperback.

by James Moore


At this point in his long, venerable career, heaping more praise on Alan Moore is like dumping another glass of water into the ocean. The Grand Wizard of North Hampton is talented enough that a mere five minutes of his presence could briefly resuscitate the long-past-its-best-days Simpsons to its former comic glory. So, while cliché it may be, Moore and frequent collaborator Kevin O’Neill’s new book The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Black Dossier is the most stunning and original graphic novel of the year.

The LOEG series initially began as a sort of Victorian Justice League of America in which the likes of Edward Hyde and Captain Nemo teamed up to fight threats to queen and country. The LOEG stories take place in a world where all fictions coexist. This is by no means a new concept, but Moore’s encyclopedic knowledge and aptitude for writing well in any genre gives LOEG a scope and depth that something like
Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein lacks (without losing any of the ideas central joy).
            O’ Neill’s style was uniquely suited for the previous two LOEG volumes capturing the both the prim façade of the times as well the grotesque, vaguely steampunk underbelly. But both creators have stepped up their already considerable games into the stratosphere with the
Black Dossier. The book opens in the late 1950s—after the fall of totalitarian, 1984-esque regime—with a now-immortal Mina Murray and Allen Quartermain stealing a file (from James Bond, no less) containing the complete history of the League. Part of the book is a chase sequence, as Murray and Quatermain flee pursuit from the government they have broken ties with. This section, as in the previous LOEG books, is a smart, fun adventure story packed with references to other fictions.

The rest of the book contains the contents of the Black Dossier itself, and here is where Moore and O’Neill tear to pieces any notions of what constitutes a graphic novel. There is a faux-Shakespearian play, a illustrated pornographic novella, postcards, government documents a Beat novel, a Tijuana Bible, as well as a good half-dozen other narrative styles. Moore has long been an adaptable writer, but even he has never managed to successfully mimic and deconstruct so many styles in so short a space. O’Neill likewise proves himself to be an artistic chameleon in the company of J.H. Williams and Mark Buckingham.
The Black Dossier uses these wide-flung storytelling modes to build a panoramic parallel history as well as to build a narrative tension that explodes into a jaw-dropping 3-D section (the book comes with glasses) that comes as close to conveying the fourth dimension of anything this side of The Invisibles.

The Black Dossier
is the comic book equivalent of a three-course meal, satisfying and with elegant design worth savoring. Even the credits page is a homage to the iconic London Tube map. Sadly, this has hidden in it the one cloud of the proceedings, a small metatextual graphic that simply reads “ABC: Closed for the Duration.” The Black Dossier is the final book to be released from Moore’s America’s Best Comics imprint; it is fitting that a company created to showcase the numerous possibilities of comics concludes with perhaps its most audacious book yet.

The fourth book in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, plays impish yang to The Black Dossier’s yin. Written and drawn by O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim is about the titular hero—a goofy Canadian slacker who must fight his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends (and grow up in the process).

The Black Dossier draws from the comics medium’s rich past, Scott Pilgrim is influenced by its vibrant present, pulling from manga, videogames, and indie comics. Where Moore is more likely to drop a Lovecraft reference, O’Malley giddily references Sonic the Hedgehog within the first three pages. Gags show Scott’s thirst and urine meters or the ‘experience points’ he gets after successfully completing tasks like getting a job. O’Malley is also one of the few North American creators to successfully incorporate techniques from manga (i.e. exaggerated facial expresses for key moments, speed lines, a smooth relaxed pacing) without being derivative.

It would be easy to dismiss the book as fluff, but O’Malley’s characters are more complex then they can appear at first. They laugh, cry, stumble, and succeed like any group of twenty-somethings, only with the occasional reality-smashing kung-fu fight. This video game magical realism actually helps the storytelling because it often externalizes inner conflicts. Every relationship comes with baggage, and Scott literally has to fight so that he and Ramona can work things out. Scott Pilgrim also features one of the most likable, well-realized supporting casts in comics. From teenaged ninjette Knives Chau to the adorably sardonic Kim Pine to Scott’s slick gay roommate Wallace Wells,
Scott Pilgrim’s cast is like hanging out with good friends.

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
, the fourth book in the series, shows just how far O’Malley has come as a storyteller. His pacing is more assured and his layouts both more original and clearer than the first three (highly recommended) books. It’s a sweet, fun, deceptively intelligent installment in a classic-in-the-making series.

The Black Dossier and Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together are notable in what they say about the future of the comics medium. On the surface, these two books may seem to have little in common. But both demonstrate the possibilities many creators and publishers are unwilling or unable reach for. These are books that embrace the uniqueness of the medium and its ability to absorb influences and to embrace individual creative visions. They are the kind of books that make a person want to pump their fists in the air and shout “Comics!” at the top of their lungs. As Matt Fraction, writer of Casanova, once wrote, “Comics should be made when your heart hurts and when your brain hops. The mainstream should be filled with vibrant and dangerous charmers telling the kinds of stories they want to read, drawn the way they want it to be drawn, with a clear, clean voice unashamed of this gorgeous ghetto we call home.”

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
and League of Extrordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier are just those sort of comics, and they serve as a gauntlet thrown down for anyone making comics in the coming year.