The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen1 was created by Alan Moore (the critically-acclaimed author of several graphic novels, including Watchmen, V For Vendetta, Tom Strong and Supreme) and artist Kevin O'Neill (Nemesis the Warlock from 2000AD).
The original six-part series is set in an alternative, 'Steampunk', British Empire of 1898 and based on the formation of a group of special operatives, employed by Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Military Intelligence Division. Their aim is to protect the Empire and her subjects from all manner of undesirable villains using their special abilities.
The tried and tested formula of the superhero team-up has been a staple of the comic industry for over 50 years with the X-Men, Justice League and The Avengers being amongst the most notable. What makes The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stand out is the fact that the group of heroes (if they can be classed as such) are characters that inhabited the fictional worlds of Victorian authors such as HG Wells, Jules Verne, H Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker (to name but a few), and so they are effectively the predecessors of latter-day superhero teams.
Miss Wilhelmina Murray
Miss Wilhelmina Murray is the beautiful but frosty leader of the League, ex-wife of Jonathan Harker and the victim of an attack by a bloodthirsty foreign count. She wears a scarlet neck scarf to hide her horrific injuries. Wilhemina remains distrustful of men, although she has an admirer in Quatermain (below).
The character comes from the novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker.
The, once celebrated, colonialist and explorer, now an elderly, bereaved, father and husband, Allan Quatermain is addicted to opium and laudanum. Initially an apathetic character, he redeems himself once pushed into action.
Quatermain was the star of H Rider Haggard's Quatermain books, the most famous of which remains King Solomons Mines.
Captain Nemo is the former rebel of the British Empire and her allies, and naval captain of the gigantic submarine Nautilus. He is a dark, brooding, technological genius, a devout follower of Shiva and remains mistrustful of the British Empire.
He appears in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island, written by Jules Verne.
Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde
Timid, pale, scientist, specialising in chemistry. He fled England after deaths in Edinburgh and Whitechapel were linked to his mysterious counterpart, the violent beast-like Mr Hyde. Jekyll lacks confidence and avoids trouble but changes into his alter-ego with little provocation.
Dr Jekyll of course comes via The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, written by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Professor Hawley Griffin
Griffin is an amoral scientist and creator of an invisibility serum. He, allegedly, ran amok in Sussex after making himself invisible in 1897. He escaped being killed by a lynch mob when an earlier 'experiment' - an invisible albino man - was mistaken for Griffin. The professor is extrovert, arrogant and insane.
Griffin first appeared in The Invisible Man, written by HG Wells.
Campion Bond is the rotund, oily, cigarillo-smoking employee of HM Military Intelligence division 5. He's jovial to the point of being annoying.
M is Bond's superior and an elderly, hawklike man of vast intellect and possible links to the Freemasons. Polite but sinister. 'M' is intended to be a predecessor to the senior figure seen in the James Bond books and films.
Ruler of the Limehouse gangs. Powerful, cunning and cruel, very little is known about this man from the Far East. There is a possibility that he may be the notorious Fu Manchu.
SPOILER ALERT! The following synopsis is a breakdown of each issue and details major plot points. Skip to 'BACKGROUND' to avoid spoilers!
Part 1: 'Empire Dreams'
The story opens with a meeting between Miss Murray and Campion Bond at Dover on Albion Reach, the first stage of the Channel bridge linking England to France. Campion Bond charges Miss Murray with the task of locating individuals with special abilities to form the 'League', in order to combat Britain's enemies.
With the aid of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, Murray is despatched to Cairo. The renowned explorer Allan Quatermain is found in an opium den and, after an angry mob descends on Murray and the elderly adventurer, Nemo intervenes in the nick of time. The submarine and her crew head return to Europe.
In Paris, the trio are met by Monsieur August Dupin where they trace the fugitive Henry Jekyll to an apartment on the Rue Morgue where, echoing a case which occurred 50 years previously, a spate of grisly murders had been committed. Instead of luring Jekyll out of his dingy apartment, they are met by a ferocious, foul-mouthed creature by the name of Edward Hyde, who aggressively descends upon Miss Murray...
Part 2: 'Ghosts and Miracles'
Quatermain acts quickly and stuffs the contents of his bottle of Laudanum down Hyde's throat. The beast is subdued and taken aboard the Nautilus.
The next destination is Edmonton where, at Mrs Cootes' 'correctional' School for wayward girls, a series of immaculate conceptions have been occurring. An overnight stay at the school reveals these nocturnal 'improprieties' have not been committed on the pupils by a phantom but by the depraved fugitive Professor Hawley Griffin, who has been rendered invisible by his experiments. Griffin is uncovered during an illicit act by a carefully-thrown bucket of whitewash.
Griffin is apprehended and taken aboard the submersible along with the still violent Edward Hyde. They will be both granted royal pardons if they agree to cooperate with Miss Murray and the others in retrieving a vital scientific component. They meet Professor Cavor, the creator of Cavorite, a gravity-repelling substance that will be instrumental in providing a power source to the planned expedition to the moon in 1900.
Intelligence sources reveal that the Cavorite theft has been linked to a mysterious Oriental gentleman based in Limehouse...
Part 3: 'Mysteries Of The East'
The League, aboard the Nautilus and en route to Limehouse, resolve to find the 'Devil Doctor' and to retrieve the Cavorite. With his face covered in greasepaint to make him visible, Griffin and Miss Murray question a local Chinese tea merchant and informer. He cryptically tells them of 'a dragon who sleeps under the water' which leads them to Rotherhide Bridge where an underground tunnel, deemed unsafe for commuting, has been abandoned.
Hyde and Quatermain infiltrate an opium den on the pretext that they are creditors, in order to locate the mysterious Doctor. They spot their quarry in a backroom, mercilessly torturing a local man.
Above the Rotherhithe tunnel is a poorhouse, masquerading as a charity, which had been bought by the 'Doctor'. Quatermain and Miss Murray find lodgings at the poorhouse, and locate a hidden entrance to the tunnel. Inside is an immense airship, painted as a dragon and bristling with weaponry...
Part 4: 'Gods Of Annihilation'
Climbing down to the bowels of the submerged airbase, Miss Murray and Quatermain observe the 'Lord of Limehouse' inspecting his craft. They are captured by a guard, but are swiftly rescued when an unseen Griffin slits the guard's throat. Griffin locates Jekyll and the timid Doctor, in his alter ego of Hyde, creates a violent diversion.
During the mêlée, Quatermain recovers the vial of Cavorite and makes his escape. Griffin, Murray, Hyde and Quatermain reconvene in the tunnel and Quatermain uses his gun to shatter the glass roof and flood the base. The Cavorite propels the foursome towards the surface of the Thames where they are rescued by Nemo's submersible. Bond delivers the Cavorite to his mysterious superior...
Part 5: 'Some Deep Organising Power'
...Opens as a flashback to 1891 at the Reichenback Falls where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Moriarty engage in a mortal duel, the latter toppling over the edge. He is rescued by Campion Bond.
Forward to 1898 in Vauxhall.
Bond and his superior, Moriarty, are discussing the upcoming battle between themselves and the 'Devil Doctor' of Limehouse, unknowingly observed by the invisible Hawley Griffin. After killing a police constable for his uniform outside Military Intelligence offices, Griffin returns to the Nautilus and imparts the information about Bonds employer, the criminal genius Moriarty, and the planned raid on Limehouse. The professor plans to use the Cavorite for his own air Leviathan shaped like a huge bat and destroy the district of Limehouse...
Part 6 'The Days of Be-With-Us'
Moriarty and Bond commence the bombing of Limehouse. Nemo launches the balloon 'Victoria' with the League on board. The Doctor's offensive against Moriarty is signaled by the attack of dozens of soldiers on glider kites who engage with the crew of the air Leviathan.
The League sneak aboard the Leviathan during the skirmish and Hyde provides a violent, if effective, distraction for Moriarty's crew. Nemo and Quatermain storm the engine room and massacre the crew using Nemo's machine gun.
Atop the bridge, Mina and Quatermain battle Professor Moriarty for possession of the Cavorite. Quatermain is shot and wounded, but Mina smashes the sphere encasing the Cavorite. Moriarty clutches onto the precious vial and helplessly disappears into the night sky. The treacherous Griffin is just about to sever the mooring rope of the balloon when Nemo, Hyde, Murray and Quatermain appear. They cling desperately to the drifting balloon while the airship plunges to the ground, and its destruction...
Meanwhile, ominous green shooting stars appear over the home counties of London...
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a well written and entertaining yarn with healthy doses of action, humour and sly references to characters from classic literature, including an earlier League line-up with, among others, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Lemuel Gulliver and Doctor Syn (the scarecrow) and, incredibly, ancestors of the Mitchells from a well known BBC soap opera!
These references to fictional characters display a playful, humorous, side to Moore's writing. The marriage of fictional, 19th Century, characters and the steampunk setting is a logical step as Verne and Wells were creating fantastic mechanical machines and vehicles long before the phrase 'steampunk' was invented.
The characters of the League themselves are not just the stiff-upper-lipped British heroes you'd expect. Typically Alan Moore, they are all flawed in one way or another which makes them more vulnerable and therefore more realistic than their modern day superhero counterparts. The League share another characteristic with the X-Men and Fantastic Four, etcetera, in that the members are always at odds with each other.
Constant bickering is a staple of the modern-day superhero team and the League are no exception. Mina Murray is vocal in her disapproval of the way Quatermain has sunk into a drug-dependant lifestyle, while Quatermain is visibly shocked at Nemo's scant regard for human life. Griffin thinks that the group are beneath him and is particularly contemptuous of their loyalty to the crown. Hyde, when transformed, despises most of the group and, in particular, Griffin.
Each character displays at least one of humanity's weaknesses; Griffin is treacherous and egotistical; Jekyll/Hyde displays both cowardice and homicidal tendencies; Quatermain is self-pitying; Nemo has little regard for human life; and Mina Murray is emotionally stunted.
Regardless of these traits, the league characters are still redeemable. Another entertaining aspect of the strip is that the main protagonists of the piece are kept well in the background rather than playing more prominent parts (unlike most other comic book villains). Even more pleasing is that the Oriental warlord (whose name is never fully revealed) hardly utters a word and the few words he does speak are only shown in Chinese script.
Steampunk London is excellently realised by Kevin O'Neill, from the grubby underbelly of Limehouse to the architectural wonders of Albion Reach and Rotherhithe Bridge. Panels come to life with busy street scenes where hawkers, drunks, prostitutes, pickpockets and urchins jostle, bringing a realistic 'colour' to the Victorian Metropolis, while steam-powered cars, cranes and blimps go about their business. The machines and gadgets would not look out of place in a James Bond film, featuring the precursors to machine guns, gyrocopters and commercial airships. The the most impressive of all these wonders of the parallel steam age, however, is Nemo's supersub, the Nautilus. The design of this monstrous submersible must rank as one of the most imaginative interpretations of Verne's creation, resembling a huge sperm whale with a giant squid hitching an uneasy ride on its back, tentacles at the ready to do battle.
The first part of the series, published by America's Best Comics (ABC) appeared in spring 1999. The issues also featured a six-part text story entitled 'Allan and the Sundered Veil', featuring other fictional characters such as HG Wells' Time Traveller from The Time Machine and Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars.
Demand for the series was so high that the first and second parts sold out immediately. ABC issued a compendium of the first two parts a month later with part 3 following in the June of 1999. It was a wait of nearly a year before the final three issues arrived in the summer of 2000. A hardback collection of the entire story followed sometime later.
A feature film version, starring Sean Connery as Quatermain, and featuring the additional characters of Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer, is currently in production in Prague and Malta and is timetabled for a theatrical release in 2003.
H Rider Haggard - She, King Solomons' Mines and the Allan Quatermain series.
Jules Verne - Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Mysterious Island.
Bram Stoker - Dracula.
Robert Louis Stevenson - The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
HG Wells - The Invisible Man, The First Men In The Moon.
HP Lovecraft - The Nameless City, The Call Of Cthulhu.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - The complete Sherlock Holmes stories, but specifically The Final Problem.
Sax Rohmer - The Return Of Dr Fu-Manchu.
Edgar Allen Poe - The Murders In The Rue Morgue.
Other graphic novels featuring Victorian steampunk/fictional crossovers include: Indigo Prime (200AD), JLA3: The Island Of Doctor Moreau (DC Comics), Killraven: War Of The Worlds (Marvel), Scarlet Traces (2000AD), Fort: Prophet Of The Unexplained (Dark Horse) and Brave Old World (Vertigo).
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen will return...