Somehow, despite the rave reviews, and despite the fact that it was written by Watchmen's Alan Moore, I managed to avoid reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This has now been remedied. Unsurprisingly, it is great fun.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a comics series, set in 1898, in which an agent of the British government recruits a quintet of adventurers and freaks for various missions; in Volume 1 they try to recapture the anti-gravitational mineral cavorite from Fu Manchu, and in Volume 2 their goal is nothing less than saving the earth from a Martian invasion. If these plots sound familiar, so should the adventurers: as the little pictures in the margins here indicate, they're all famous characters from Victorian adventure and horror fiction. With a couple of exceptions here and there, so are the supporting characters. But this isn't just a comics adaptation of the original tales. It's more like crossover fanfic: sticking Dracula's Mina Murray on Jules Verne's Nautilus is really just a backdated version of those Usenet stories with Dana Scully driving KITT to Sunnydale or whatever.

There seems to be something irresistible about grabbing characters from children's stories and genre fiction and using them to explore mature themes or just plain adding depth to them. Comics writers in particular have a fondness for this sort of thing — you've got stuff like Fables, of course, but on top of that, most superhero comics published today are an exercise in taking characters designed for ten-year-old boys in the middle of the last century and repurposing them for an audience of modern thirty-year-olds. This has led to things like the story DC Comics has been hyping recently, in which a goofy Silver Age supervillain named Dr. Light is revealed to have a reason for being so goofy: it seems that back in the day the Justice League caught him raping the Elongated Man's wife and lobotomized him. Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill are not trying to do the exact same sort of tone shift here — these are adventure stories in much the same spirit as the originals — but they do take advantage of their freedom from Victorian strictures. We learn about Henry Jekyll's masturbatory habits and watch as the Invisible Man plays incubus. (Not the band.) But this sort of thing isn't played for shock value — it just comes up as a natural outgrowth of the storyline, and since it's not 1898 now, there's no reason to skip over it.

That said, the creators do have some fun pretending that their books are in fact authentic pieces of Victoriana, packed with 19th-century-style ads and the like. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been called steampunk, though I'm not sure that's exactly the right label for it. My understanding is that the basic premise behind steampunk is this: cyberpunk developed from the observation that cutting-edge/future technology could make one quite the badass; in Victorian times, electronics had yet to be developed, and so from our perspective their technology seems laughably backward; but still, even without electronics, mechanical innovation was sufficiently advanced that someone with a mastery of the right fields could become a badass relative to those around him. The best example of this in Gentlemen is Captain Nemo, with his Nautilus submarine and his machine-gun-style harpoon and such. But I don't think Nemo is supposed to be taken as a Victorian version of a cyberpunk hero, exactly. I think it's more accurate to say he's depicted as a Victorian version of Batman.

After all, these are not Victorian versions of hackers — they're the Victorian predecessors of superheroes. (In some cases quite literally: the Hulk was explicitly modeled on Jekyll and Hyde.) Like superheroes, they're adventurers with unusual abilities... they just don't wear costumes. And in fact, it occurs to me that in this sense, they are less "retro" than are the costume-wearing type. A few years back the traditional superhero costume — lines drawn on a nude figure and filled with bright colors — looked to be on its way out, for whatever reason; maybe it was an outgrowth of the explosion in the number of superhero films, where those lines and colors have to be turned into real clothes and look silly, or maybe it was just another function of the aging of the superhero audience. But the X-Men, for instance, lost their costumes when they moved to the big screen, and lost them in the comics shortly thereafter; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for another instance, never had one (and while she may not have originally been termed a superhero, the term was certainly liberally applied as her show went on). Now Marvel Comics, at least, has been returning them, apparently by edict of the suits upstairs. This has been received very well by the nostalgia buffs who dominate the online conversation, but I think it's a mistake. Calling a comic book a "picture periodical to divert and astonish" may locate The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 1898, but dressing Wolverine in bright yellow with blue booties and facemask just as firmly locates him in a time, and a sensibility, that isn't ours.

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