I shelve my Alan Moore books next to Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, and Jorge Luis Borges, and I am sure all three postmodern masters would get a healthy kick out of this wildly imaginative third book to Moore’s Gentlemen series, which draws on a vast storehouse of influences and blends them into an ecstatic new whole. The last time around, I wrote “Just when you thought you understood the parameters of where the story can go, Moore pulls another fast one” — and that was when we were still with the original Victorian group of heroes (Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Mr. Hyde) and happily confined to Kevin O’Neill’s clear, appealing artwork.
Black Dossier explodes all that. Framed by a storyline set in an alternate version of the 1950s, the book concerns the theft of a book that, in the comic, looks like the one you’re holding in your hands. Along with the comic book adventure, the Dossier also contains a facsimile of a lost Shakespeare play (Fairie’s Fortunes Founded), fascist propaganda booklets warning of sexcrimes, the life of Viginia Woolf’s Orlando in nine illustrated chapters, a sequel to the erotic classic Fanny Hill, a few pages from a Beat novel featuring our heroes, reprinted postcards from Shangri-La, cutaways of the Nautilus, and section in 3-D (goggles are provided.) While the first two books concerned a Victorian team of heroes, Moore uses Black Dossier to sketch, through the various fragments, the history of several British incarnations as well as French and German teams that included the likes of Fantomas and Rotwang.
The ease with which Moore accesses high and low culture is truly mind-boggling: Ian Fleming, Herman Hesse, Charles Chaplin, H.P. Lovecraft, and George Orwell are added to the already impressive list of influences (and I’m pretty sure I missed a good third of them.) Any imaginary creation is fair play for Moore’s ambitious tale, and the density of ideas is absurdly high, as if Moore was cramming an entire series’ worth of characters and storylines into a single book.
A word about Moore and the movies: he’s famously taken his name off all adaptations, and rightfully so — most of them have been dreadful (worst of all, incidentally, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Moore’s best effects are always inextricably bound up with the medium of comics, and this holds especially true for Black Dossier, which is essentially unfilmable (and wouldn’t work as a novel, either.) I positively dread Zach Snyder’s upcoming Watchmen.
Like The Tempest, Black Dossier ends with a monologue by Prospero (himself an Extraordinary Gentleman), who celebrates one of Moore’s grand themes: the power and paradoxical reality of imaginary characters. “If we mere insubstantial fancies be, how more so thee, who from us substance stole? On Dream’s foundation matter’s mudyards rest. Two sketching hands, each one the other draws: the fantasies thou’ve fashioned fashion thee. Intangible, we are life’s secret soul.”
The League of Extraodrinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, 2007. *****