League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

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. *****

The Name of the Rose



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Monk double feature! At first glance, The Name of the Rose and Into Great Silence couldn’t be any more different — one is a plotless meditation on stillness and solitude, the other an overstuffed megaproduction that bursts at the seams with narrative twists and gleeful cliches. One movie is about the absence of language, the other one revels in linguistic jokes and a cornucopia of literary allusions high and low. But by approaching their common subject from very different points of view, the two films illuminate (ha!) each other.

All things considered, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco‘s bestseller has held up well. Eco’s intellectual games are filtered through Annaud’s lurid lens, by the way of German producer Bernd Eichinger‘s taste for the blockbuster: Eco dressed up semiotic theories with the trimmings of popular entertainment, and in Annaud/Eichinger’s hands, the erudition falls by the wayside in favor of freakish brothers (witness Ron Perlman ham it up as hunchback heretic) and forbidden sex.

It speaks for Eco’s talents as storyteller that even when you rid his book of the lengthy debates about medieval scholarship, it’s still a rip roaring good story, overloaded with literary references (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jorge Luis Borges are the most obvious ones), men who speak “all languages and no language” for him to better hide his polylingual puns, and a tightly plotted story that hinges on all the tropes of monkhood: secret libraries, blind fathers, flagellation, mad heretics, ancient secrets, repressed homosexuality, evil inquisitors, damsels burning at the stake. The Name of the Rose is bursting with signifiers, pointing everywhere at once, while Into Great Silence makes a strong effort not to point anywhere at all, to just be here now. Both movies are using the monastic life for their own ulterior motives; I’d argue that this one does it somewhat more successfully. (The interiors of The Name of the Rose were shot at Kloster Eberbach, a few minutes from where I grew up.)

Der Name der Rose. Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986. ****

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I’ll always have a soft spot for Umberto Eco. In his latest novel, the main character suffers a stroke and loses his memory, a conceit which allows Professor Eco, famous for his encylopedic card catalogs, to dig through endless items of popular culture in an effort to restore his main character’s memories. “The Mysterious Flame” is an illustrated novel, and a lot of the artwork reproduced in the pages is delightful–everything from old movie posters to Flash Gordon comics, etc etc. The second half of the book is narrated from within a coma, and the last pages stage a personal apocalypse that arrives at a powerful ending.