Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill have created in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the most ambitious and inspiring steampunk franchise. Volumes 1 and 2 will top many steampunks’ list of favorite books and deservedly so. They are rich stories with intricate plot lines and sympathetic characters.
The in-between Black Dossier was a bit of a letdown story-wise and I’m afraid things have gone further downhill.
In Volume 3, Moore doubles down on all of his worst inclinations: the subjugation of plot to worldbuilding, gratuitous sex and unnecessary sexual assault.
Knowing some of the characters and fictional events referenced in Volumes 1 and 2 undoubtedly enhanced one’s reading experience, but you didn’t need to get every references to enjoy the story.
The first two volumes also benefited from using relatively well-known characters, like Allan Quatermain and James Moriarty, and everyone knows H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which formed the basis for Volume 2.
The Black Dossier introduced more obscure references, but it still gave us a fascinating glimpse into a post-Nineteen Eighty-Four Britain while the antagonist was a thinly-disguised James Bond.
Most of the literary references in Century, by contrast, went over my head. I had to google names and places to follow the story. That’s not a good thing. It’s fine to tuck away some obscurer references in the background, or at least not make them integral to the plot, but you can’t expect the reader to be familiar with every book and movie released in the United Kingdom as well as the United States in the last 100 years.
That Moore is trying to integrate the whole of English-language fiction, and some foreign-language fiction to boot, in a single literary universe became apparent in the Black Dossier, but it at least had a straightforward story behind it. In Century, it all becomes a bungled mess.
Then the sex. I’m all for showing sex as a normal part of life, but in fiction I expect it to be there for a reason. You don’t show characters using the toilet either unless you have to. Some of the sex scenes in Century are ridiculous. In one, the villain lays out his evil scheme while his co-conspirator, a stand-in for Mick Jagger, copulates with a woman. In another, characters converse while a prostitute is making what can hardly be described as love with a hideous Vril-ya, a reference to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race.
It gets worse. Once again, Moore uses rape as a ploy device. By my count, we’ve seen seven sexual assaults in four graphic novels so far. I suppose the ones in Volume 1 and 2 at least advanced the story. The only reason for James Bond’s attempted rape of Mine Murray in the Black Dossier was so Moore could show how much he despises Ian Fleming’s creation. (Bond gets another slab in the face in Century.) The sexual assault in the latest volume is frankly pointless.
Century does have some things going for it. Orlando, for one, a delightful character. We learn a bit more about the Blazing World and how our heroes connect to it. Emma Knight makes another appearance. But it can’t make up for the volume’s many flaws. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has run out of steam. It’s time Moore and O’Neill let it go.