Review: A Queer League

Artist(s): Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill.

This is not a proper review. This is more like self-indulgence: I’ve been enjoying The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen since its beginning in 1999, and as usual with Alan Moore, it was peppered with queer characters and issues. But the latest book, entitled Century: 1969, goes one step further and thus gives me the opportunity to show off my love of Moore and O’Neill’s work.

A very short history of the League

The first League

I’ll begin this with a short introduction, for those of you who are not familiar with this series: The world of the League is populated by characters from various fictions, all living together (which is not an original idea in itself, of course—see for example Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which links Doc Savage, Tarzan, James Bond, the Shadow and other adventurers).
At first, the group was comprised of Allan Quatermain, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo and Mina Harker, from Dracula. In the first volume, the 1898 group faces a mysterious Chinese doctor and an even more dangerous foe from the Sherlock Holmes canon; in the second book, a Martian invasion leads to death and dispersion; with the third book, The Black Dossier, Moore and O’Neill give us a kind of source book/history of the world they’re creating, from ancient times up to the late 50s, right after the collapse of the dictatorial government from 1984 (and if you’re not already hooked with these few lines, I despair of you). Which leads us to the current story, entitled Century, a large undertaking in three parts, the first being 1910, published a couple of years ago, and the second 1969, out just a few weeks ago (the third probably won’t be published for a year or two). Century is concerned with a story spanning the entire 20th century, painting a rather downbeat portrait of Great Britain and the (fictional) world around it, where an Aleister Crowley analogue has a mysterious plan which could bring the end of the world, and characters and settings from the Threepenny Opera (for 1910) or the gangster world of the late 60s (for 1969) share the stage. I’ll try not to reveal too much here, but head there if you want to know more1.

Out of the Jekyll closet

I’ve often written how much I admire Alan Moore for the way he includes queer characters and issues in his writings, from the Valerie chapter in V For Vendetta to the gay love story in Top Ten: The 49ers. And of course, he edited the AARGH! project, which opposed the infamous British Clause 28 (and where Kevin O’Neill contributed a very funny one-pager), and wrote The Mirror of Love, a poem on gay history over thousands of years. With the League, what he does is for me even better: there, homosexuality is shown as being part of the social/cultural web that makes up fiction in general, and thus the real world. The expression “gay-inclusive” takes its literal meaning.

In the second volume, the tensions that were present between the main characters reach their climax. Jekyll/Hyde, Nemo and the Invisible Man had already been shown true to the original novels, as criminals and psychopaths. More importantly for us, Moore  subscribed to an interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Hyde as being the uninhibited side of Jekyll. Hyde is a man of insatiable appetites and his reactions can often be seen through the prism of that interpretation. [spoilers, highlight to see] Nowhere is it clearer (and nastier) than in his revenge of Mina’s rape at the hands of the Invisible Man, when he subjects the man to the same violence, and then some [/spoilers]. What could be in the hands of a lesser writer a simple case of Lex Talionis becomes a comment on Hyde’s own views of Jekyll, as he states himself:

Moore, like others before him, makes a strong case for Jekyll being closeted and the Stevenson novel as being encrypted with numerous instances of an underground current of gayness. Which means that Jekyll felt compelled to create Hyde to try and rid himself of his desires. It’s not an optimistic consideration, but it is a believable one, considering the way British society treated homosexuals at the time. Coincidentally, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written the same year the Labouchere Amendment was voted, this being the law under which Oscar Wilde was later convinced.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least note the beautiful work of Kevin O’Neill on the pages I’m showing you (and on all the League books), as much for his body language as for the way he manages to portray Hyde as both a monster and a fiercely lucid creature.

The daughter (and son) of Tiresias

Sinbad and Orlando

Another character is introduced in the Black Dossier: Orlando, daughter of the Greek seer Tiresias, famous for having become a woman for a time, following a blasphemous act against Hera. Orlando also changes sex from time to time, never at will. Moore conflates this immortal, inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel (whose eponymous character changed sex and didn’t grow old), with Roland, the medieval knight, whose legendary exploits were the basis for the Orlando Furioso epic and opera. Moore being Moore, Orlando becomes a study on the consequences of immortality. Besides being very good at war, Orlando is also good at sex and, far more seldom, at love. The great love of Orlando’s life, who was a man at that time, was Sinbad, the famous sailor. This is very different from what was done with Jekyll and Hyde: here, love between two men is simply part of the experience of a very long-lived character, and an important part at that. In fact, it’s one of the few genuinely tender moments of a life more often filled with killing than loving.

Gay gangsters

The Kray analog and his boyfriend

Century: 1969 was a big surprise for me when I read it a few days ago. First, because I realized a lot of references in this comic were largely unknown to me, far more than in the previous stories (that did sting a bit), and second, because it seemed everybody involved is either gay or bisexual to some extent. In fact, 1969 almost looks like Moore’s response to Torchwood, the sci-fi TV series were, at least initially, everybody was bisexual to some extent. It begins with a man-on-man blow-job in a swimming pool (and a murder, referencing the death of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones), and then, a few pages later, we cut to a scene in a bar where gangsters meet. Among those is a blend of various fictional versions of real-life gay gangster Ronnie Kray, seen there with a younger boyfriend. Both will reappear throughout this volume. Moore doesn’t try to sugarcoat his portrayal of the Kray analogue: he’s a vicious bastard, with his enemies, his boyfriend and his supposed friends.

Gay London in the 60s

1969 also contains more fun (gay) stuff, such as a large panel showing gay night life in London, replete with characters from various fictions of the time and a wink to Polari, or a morning scene hinting that the usually very heterosexual Quatermain has gone with the times and shared a bed with a still male Orlando. Again, with Moore, gay people aren’t invisible, contrary to what’s done by most straight writers in comics and in other mediums.

I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that the League stories, and especially Century, are about gay issues. That would be misleading. But it seems to me a me such a metafictional series reflects our world far better than most fantasy, and indeed than a lot of realistic fiction: queer issues and people are a minority in reality, and so are they in the world of the League—but they aren’t swept under the carpet. We can always rely on Alan Moore for an honest depiction of our existence, and that is only one reason among many why I love his work.

  1. There are whole pages and websites dedicated to annotating and commenting on this series. See here or here for the ones on Century: 1969. All the stories I’m writing about are collected, and can be found in various formats.

Comments are closed.