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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Wildstorm Comics, 2002)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

H.G. Wells did not flinch from attempting to show the horror and depravations caused by an alien invasion in The War of the Worlds, but writing at the turn of the 19th century, he had to work within certain boundaries of taste. Writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill had no such fetters on their imagination for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and in the 2nd volume of their acclaimed series, pull out all the stops to show the true horrors of a Martian invasion. This is a war fought without qualm or quarter, and for the large part, the humans are painted in as unflattering a light as the Martians.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is, for want of a better word, simply extraordinary. Set in the late 1890's, the first volume introduced us to a highly skewed version of the world that history has recorded, one where reality and literature have collided in spectacular fashion. Scattered across the globe, but destined to come together into a team of latter day superheroes are an eclectic group of misfits drawn from the pages of Victorian literature. Tasked with assembling these characters on behalf of a shadowy British government department is Mina Murray, one of Dracula's victims in Bram Stoker's novel. Aided by Captain Nemo of Jules Vernes' 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, she finds an Opium addicted Allan Quatermain, (H. Rider Haggard) in Cairo, the beast like Doctor Hyde (of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde) in Paris and H.G. Wells the Invisible Man in England, where he has hidden himself in a girls school. I'll leave it to your imagination to decide what Hyde and Griffen were up to, but suffice to say, all the league characters are variously, tortured, twisted or downright unpleasant, sometimes all three at once. Hardly the epitome of valour and decorum then, but as I am sure Moore was keen to suggest, governments have never been shy of allying themselves with the devil when it suits their purposes.

Operating from a secret wing of the British Museum, the League successfully complete their inaugural mission, but at the end of the first 6 part series, a new and horrifying threat is revealed. Speeding toward Earth are the cylinders containing H.G. Wells' Martian invaders. The second series starts with a prequel set on Mars, in which we are introduced to two key figures in the history of Martian literature; John Carter, the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' and Edwin L. Arnold's Gullivar Jones. Both men were transported by their authors to fantastic visions of a Mars populated by strange civilisations, but here are brought together to combat what appears to have been an invasion of Mars by a race known as the Molluscs. Combining their forces together in a final titanic assault on the Mollusc stronghold they appear to be on the verge on victory, when to their horror the Mollusc flee Mars in the direction of Earth. This then is the origin of H.G. Wells' invaders as envisaged by Moore and O'Neill.

Moore and O'Neill go on to craft a gloriously re-imagined War of the Worlds. The second issue opens in a moderately similar fashion to Wells' novel. A Cylinder has crashed to Earth in Woking, England and a curious crowd has gathered. Amongst the onlookers are the members of the League, summoned by their mysterious paymaster Campion Bond. Just as in Wells' novel, the cylinder lid unscrews and the Martians (or Molluscs if you prefer) set about the crowd with their heat ray. O'Neill does not flinch from showing the effect, as men, women and children are incinerated, setting the scene for the most visceral and uninhibited retelling of The War of the Worlds ever written. The League retreat to London, but betrayal and disaster follow and It looks like the British Empire is about to be extinguished, unless Murray and Quatermain can locate a mysterious scientist whose experiments may hold the key to victory.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a tour-de-force of comic book writing. Moore (creator of The Watchmen amongst others) crafts a seductively unpleasant world; full of monsters and demons but with flashes of human tenderness and compassion. A scene where Murray and Quatermain become lovers at the height of the invasion is superbly crafted, a bittersweet encounter amidst the carnage where they briefly find and take comfort in each other. O'Neill is perfectly suited as the artist to this project, able to create beautifully moody and subtle images and then swap suddenly and savagely to portray appalling violence and disaster. His Tripods League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, tripod.are the best ever created, hugely menacing and imbued with appalling power and menace, but though Moore and O'Neill never shy from showing the violence of the situation, there is nothing gratuitous about their work. It can be shocking, but it is never without meaning. Together, they have crafted one of the very best War of the Worlds comic books ever made.


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