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Steampunk Classics: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Cover of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1 trade paperback collected edition (2000). Art by Kevin O’Neill. From the Grand Comics Database Project. Retrieved 2005-02-11., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1493929

Comics have a reputation like the late Rodney Dangerfield – people enjoy them, but they “don’t get no respect.” Perhaps more than anyone, Alan Moore has helped to change this. “Graphic Novel” sometimes seems like a euphemism, but Moore’s creations, such as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, deserve the title. What he did for superheroes and revolutionaries he also did for steampunk in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The idea is brilliant: to take fictional heroes from the Victorian age and combine them all into a single work.

As the story begins, a mysterious “Mr. Bond” recruits Wilhelmina Murray (former wife of Jonathon Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to assemble a team of heroes and villains to confront a threat to the British Empire. These include Alan Quartermain, Doctor Jekyll, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man. Sherlock Holmes is noticeably absent probably due to copyright issues, although his brother Mycroft gets a mention. It’s a rousing adventure with lots of action, including a climactic airship battle.

One thing I love about the book (I have so far only read volume I) is Moore’s dark sense of humor and complex, flawed characters. Quartermain, for example, has gone from adventurer to opium addict. Some are downright scoundrels, such as the Invisible Man, who has impregnating innocent schoolgirls who assume they were blessed by “immaculate conception.” Family friendly it’s not, nor is it politically correct, as in the scene where Miss Murray is rescued from an Arab mob in Cairo intent on ravaging her. I also enjoyed the way that O’Neill’s dark art style complements the book’s tone.

Though the movie adaptations of Watchmen and Vendetta have become cult classics, League did not fare nearly as well. Moore was famously unhappy with both of these, despite their commercial success. Neither Moore nor O’Neill liked the movie version of Gentlemen, which received scorn from most critics. Although the film made money the planned sequels were scrapped.

Regarding The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, I was reminded of Dune by the huge disconnect between the original and the adaptation. On the upside, it’s still steampunk, and most of the original Victorian-era characters are there. For some reason, they couldn’t get the rights to use “the” Invisible Man Hawley Griffin from H.G. Wells’ estate, so they invented another character who was using Griffin’s research.

League features a lot of action with fights and explosions which make little sense. Its main protagonist, Sean Connery as adventure hero Alan Quartermain, seemed out of place, and his rescue from addiction was dropped completely. One of the movie’s worst mistakes was gratuitously adding Tom Sawyer (Shane West) to the mix, because the producers thought American audiences needed an American character. As much as I love Twain’s works, Sawyer was out of place here because he belongs to an earlier historical era. Another really irritating change was to change Miss Murray, the League’s only female member, into a vampire. I found this movie so disappointing that I gave it a chance and watched it a second time. It didn’t get any better. I’ve read that a reboot of the movie may be in the works but considering the first, who knows how that will fare.

To sum up, the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is brilliant, and I highly recommend it, though for mature audiences only. The movie version does not do the story justice, but it’s not awful enough to be in the “so bad it’s good” category. I’d recommend this movie only to steampunk aficionados who are really desperate for works in the genre. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


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