Ok, major comic strip geek-out entry here! Deep breaths all round!
Just finished reading the second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume Century: 1969 (the middle part of the Century serial following 1910 and pre-empting 2009). For those not in the know (or only familiar with the 2003 film starring Sean Connery, which adds up to the same thing) let me explain. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a graphic novel series charting the exploits of a secret service group of adventurers, or in Moore’s words, a kind of “Justice League of the Victorian age”. Moore has been a bit of a legend on the comic writing circuit for many years now, being the man behind the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight returns and V for Vendetta to name but three titles. Neill I knew from way back from his impressive work on 2000AD (I think Nemesis the Warlock was one of his strips).
Basically, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a delight for anyone like me, who loves their pop culture, and that includes Victoriana as well. Some (and I stress some) of what we think of as classics now, were little more than pulp action fun at the time, which isn’t an insult at all. Plus, despite the irreverence of the series, League does present the characters respectfully as they originally appeared in their source material. Captain Nemo, for example, is a black bearded man of Indian descent and although Dracula is dead by the time the series begins, his cameo flash-back appearance in Century: 1969 is that of the moustachioed villain of Stoker. The attention to detail is actually quite astounding, with even the ‘60s drugs of choice being influenced by the ‘taduki leaves’ discovered by Allan Quaitermaine….but I’m getting ahead of myself. Which characters are actually in this League?
All the characters in League are characters from popular literature: In the original late Victorian set series we have Mina Murray (formerly Harker, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermaine (of H. Rider Haggard’s novels), The Invisible Man (H.G. Wells), Captain Nemo (Jules Verne) and Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stephenson). Their adventures take in a clash with Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty and the political situation on Mars (introduced in the second volume with a segment featuring Edgar Burroughs’s John Carter and leading to the subsequent Martian Invasion of 1898. Yes, that’d be H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds…you see everything you ever read as fantasy fiction is historical fact in this inspired alternative universe. There’s even a British Moon Landing in 1901, which you’ll know about already if you’ve read Wells’ The First Men on The Moon. However, the series expanded to take in other eras, with the constants being Mina and Allan (made immortal by the events in Haggard’s She). However, the history of The League’s universe takes on some rather different tangents than our own. In 1948 Britain came under the control of the ‘Big Brother’ state, as detailed in Orwell’s 1984, the rationale of the dating being that Orwell’s book was published in 1948 and not 1984. This regime was fortunately overthrown in the ‘50s, and by the late ‘50s us Brits had actually conquered space (this was the era of Dan Dare of course). Yet the Britain of the 1950s and ‘60s looks like our own, not some futuristic idyll, which is an odd juxtaposition, yet seems to make perfect sense.
The 1969 volume takes in all manner of characters new to the series, including Jack Carter of Get Carter (in a pleasing likeness to Michael Caine) and rock star Turner (Mick Jagger from Performance). The scene where Carter bursts into Turner’s town house in his absence, and has a surreal chat with Anita Pallenberg’s character and her ‘familiar’ is the most pitch perfect cross-over between Performance and Get Carter you could imagine seeing. Spotting the surprise contemporary cameos in these things can be fun (Steptoe and Son walking down the high street, Patrick Troughton’s Dr. Who just at the edge of one panel, and even Andy Capp and son Buster. I guess some of these are sure to be familiar to a British audience more than an American, particularly Andy Capp).
There’s a great link below (which hopefully will remain) covering all the cult celebrity cameos seen in the background of 1969. You have to re-read League books just to get all the references. I totally missed some of the Carry On cast in the strip club, not to mention the gangster who looks like Richard Burton. As the article says, all characters in League are generally replacements for real life counterparts, so (for example) The Krays do not appear but various fictional gangsters are a ‘reality’. Adolf Hitler, as a bigger historical example, is Henkyl from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and so it goes… Even the billboards and signage in the street scenes are worth looking for. ‘Treen school of English’ refers to the Venusian Treens of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, led by the villainous Mekon (it’s already been established in this universe, that we’ve been into space) and ‘Universal Exports’ is the cover name for MI6 in Fleming’s James Bond stories.
Incidentally, Moore made James Bond (referred to only as ‘Jimmy’ to avoid copyright issues) appear as a “c**t” (I quote Bond’s boss M) in the previous Black Dossier volume of League. I suspect this might have been Moore’s revenge for the piss poor cinematic treatment the first volume received in 2003, which starred original Bond film actor Sean Connery (it’s Connery’s version who appears in the League stories).
Which reminds me that elsewhere there are witty moments in abundance, such as the scene at the service station where Connery’s Bond has bumped his Aston Martin DB 5 into the car of Roger Moore’s Simon Templar (aka ‘The Saint’). The two spy icons appear to be having a right barny in the forecourt of the station, with Connery Bond waving his golf club (presumably he’s just arrived from his decisive game with Goldfinger, although as this is 1969 it could well be George Lazenby!). The guy in the Mini to the left is Adam Adamant (the cult ‘60s hero not the similarly named pop singer). It’s great fun spotting all the pop cultural references. In summary I recommend the series to anyone who loves their books and films, and would love to experience a world where all our real life figures are replaced by their fictional counterparts . Plus it’s a great series of escapist adventures, and anything featuring Martian tripods getting their arse kicked by Mr. Hyde, or Mina and Allan putting aside Victorian morality and having a good hard shag has to be top notch entertainment. Boys’ and Girls’ own adventures for grown-ups you might say!
Anyhow, the 1969 volume in particular has got me thinking about 1960s culture in general, which is something of an enduring fascination with me. I’ll be back with some…er…groovy thoughts.
In the meantime, here are some other extraordinary gentlemen, obviously with more time to spare than me (which is no insult), and they’ve analysed the whole Century: 1969 book for cultural references. Respect!
Plus, a great interview about Century: 1969 with Alan Moore himself: