Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's 1969 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969 by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

It's always slightly awkward to review middle volumes of a story. Whatever you do it'll be somewhat imperfect - themes and storylines will have emerged but you won't be seeing the full picture by any means. Nevertheless Alan Moore's stated aim with the Century trilogy is for each one to tell a self contained story as well as form part of the overall tale. So it's fair game.

What we get is a story rooted firmly in 1969, the end of the hippy dream. The main elements of the story, aside from those introduced in Century: 1910,are drawn from two contemporary films that indicate the darkness that (by conventional interpretation) crept in at the end of the peace 'n' love hippy era. The first is the 1970 film Performance, which featured Mick Jagger as a dissolute rock star, the second Get Carter. From the moment Moore and O'Neill open with a recreation of the death of Brian Jones it's clear we're going to see a lot more of the League universe's version of the Rolling Stones,the Purple Orchestra. And by that extension one of the main characters is based on Jagger's character in Performance. Except now we're in the minefield of the copyright era it's Terner rather than Turner. It's not the only time a crafty copyright dodging wink is used in the volume either, the rich fictional background that could be freely employed in the volumes up to now largely reduced to almost cameo spotting. I'm still not quite sure as to whether it robs the League of a large degree of its charm. It doesn't bode entirely well for the final volume in the series, particularly when coupled with Moore's murmurings about finding 2009 a barren cultural wasteland. Perhaps the frontier of pop culture of today has simply moved beyond his interests, as it must eventually move beyond us all. Certainly his pronouncments on the state of comics (however valid you find them) indicate a certain degree of alienation from modern fictions.

Moore's discomfort with modern culture is perhaps best reflected in an emergig theme, shown in a division between the two core characters of Allen Quartermain and Mina Harker over their attitude to effective immortality. Mina attempts to embrace the social changes of the era, seemingly not entirely successfully whilst Quartermain remains uncomfortable with change, mired in Victorian values to a degree. Moore is ambivalent about both approaches, showing them as both being ineffective as neither approach really deals with the major problem of living beyond your era. The longer you live, the less you understand of an ever changing world, and that seems to be the real problem at the root of the contrasting approaches. It'll be fascinating to see how that's resolved in the final volume.

As usual though, what makes the story work is the synchronicity between Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Once more there's a wealth of devils in the detail, a blizzard of references salted away in the artwork (including at least three to Doctor Who, something almost certainly pure O'Neill given Moore's oft stated distate for the post-Hartnell Doctors). As ever this means it requires multiple reads to catch the references, and even then you can't be certain of catching everything without recourse to Jess Nevins' ever excellent annotations. It certainly flavours what might otherwise be fairly dull exposition and journey scenes, but as usual he references are an added bonus and not really essential in understanding the tale at hand - maybe it helps to know that the song soundtracking the Hyde Park sequences is based closely on Sympathy for the Devil but that's pretty much it. It's not just the enhancement of Moore's stories with all sorts of detail that distinguishes O'Neill's work though, it's the shifts in style and tone to reflect mood and time that enhances the story here. Indeed, the psychedelic sequences that provide the backdrop for the climactic battle of wills is probably a highlight of O'Neill's work on the series. And I say that as someone who's absolutely adored O'Neill's previous work on the series.

As ever with Moore though, there's an edge to his story I don't particularly like. Sometimes it manifests in extreme violence (as in, say, Watchmen), but more often in a creepy sexual elemen. Here, if you can catch the references to identify Mina's companion in the Hyde Park scenes, then I'd be surprised if that character fingering a tripped out Mina wouldn't have one of the biggest selling authors of the past ten years activating her legal magicians. Certainly, it fits with the souring edge of hippydom that the Orchestra's gig represents (and which the Stones' Hyde Park gig represetned in our universe) and I'm certain such thins happened, but I'm not sure it's entirely necessary to the story.

Century: 1969 certainly ends up functioning as a story in its own right, ending not on a direct cliffhanger but instead in an intriguing position with the shade of Haddo escaping to continue his moonchild/Antichrist plans and Mina missing, possibly dragged off to a madhouse but possibly to another, more nefarious fate. And the final punk song is as ominous as the ending of Century: 1910, foreshadowing nothing but misery. Satisfying then, but as to whether it's the second course of a gourmet meal we'l have to wait another year or so to find out.

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