The serial adventures of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are at once bold re-imaginings of beloved fictional characters and affectionate tributes to literary giants of the past. It may be serendipity, then, that Century 2009 is published in the same month as the contentious Before Watchmen prequels that so brazenly ignore the wishes of the characters' original creator, Alan Moore.
Moore's popular Century trilogy has taken readers on a mystical adventure through Britain's history – a history as told by all our works of fiction and narrative, from the Threepenny Opera inspiration wound throughout the bloody Century 1910 to the psychedelic Century 1969, that saw the nefarious Tom Riddle leave for a magical school between platforms. Now, our three heroes – Mina Murray, Allan Quatermain and Orlando – return in the concluding Century 2009 to face down the Antichrist, once more cloaked in references to the pop culture of the year.
Century 1969 became one of the top selling graphic novels of 2011, and the eagerly anticipated follow up has been strictly embargoed, with a simultaneous publication date in the UK and US to prevent the leak of any possible controversy. The series has captured the imagination of a diverse range of readers as it expertly combines characters and mythologies from our greatest libraries. Fans of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The West Wing will all find much to love in this tightly plotted three-volume saga.
While earlier League instalments revelled in Victorian nostalgia, Century 2009 continues the theme of a modern culture rotting at its core. The times of Jekyll, Hyde and the beastly Invisible Man may have been violent and degenerate, but the early imagery Moore and the illustrator Kevin O'Neill employed was full of heart. In 1969, the soul had been removed in favour of garish colours and clashing tones, underscoring the culture's loss of direction, but also a strong belief in something marvellous upon the horizon. In 2009, the dream is over.
Our new adventure begins with Orlando fighting once more in an unending war, this time in the Middle East's Q'umar. Our trio has failed to stop the birth of the Antichrist and their union has fractured. A televised news report ponders whether we are returning to an era of spin, resulting in a furiously foul-mouthed tirade from one Malcolm Tucker. As with the opera of 1910 and the cinematic references of 1969, the world of the League is open to all fiction, not only literature, and mentions of Hollywood stars and famous footballers can be found with a keen eye. References to previous instalments show the grand scale of Moore's meticulous planning.
Weaving together Britain's mythic dreamtime into one glorious creative tapestry, this latest percipient adventure is a thrilling ride.
What then of the potential controversy? When dealing with references to other fictional works, albeit in the guise of parody and gentle repurposing, there are certain points on the fictional compass that lend themselves more easily to screaming headlines. The prophesying Andrew Norton, Prisoner of London, warned in 1910 of, "a quarter platform over, the franchise express, gathering steam." At no point does Moore use the words "Harry" or "Potter", but a magical train hidden between platforms at King's Cross station, leading to a magical school where there are flashbacks of psychotic adolescent rage and whimpering children pleading for their life, all strewn with molten corpses, does rather suggest a link to the Boy Who Lived. A hidden scar and a mentor named Riddle, though possessed as he is by the real villain, completes the picture.
The headlines almost write themselves – "Alan Moore says Harry Potter is the Antichrist!" – yet they miss the point. When the Antichrist is met, overgrown and high on anti-psychotics, raging at the education system that let him down and sounding peculiarly like Harry Enfield's teenage Kevin, he is surely no stand-in for one particular character but of the current obsession for replacing stories with money-generating franchises. Today, film rights are bought before publication, comics are written as storyboards, and teenage celebrities are given memoirs.
What better representative of modern pop literature than J K Rowling's boy wizard? Moore's distaste for modern culture is made obvious, in keeping with his stance on the comics publishers he feels betrayed him.
Still, the overall message is one of endurance. Some of our older heroes may have faded in our collective consciousness, but others have battled through the years to take their place alongside their contemporary peers and rivals. A fond tribute to the Mary Poppins author P L Travers is particularly joyous, and fans can rest easy in the knowledge that while the Century may be complete, the adventures of the League are far from over.
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