Coming soon to a cinema near you… The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of those so-so movie blockbusters useful for killing time to the grave. The plot is simple – a group of Victorian fictional characters team up to fight a technological madman called ‘The Fantom’.
But what’s interesting about The League is not the film itself but the comic book that inspired it: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, written by Alan Moore, and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.
Moore is quite simply the greatest comic writer there’s ever been. Watchmen, his most famous work, was a main player in the “Comics: not just for kids” ruckus of the late eighties and, when that fad died down, he dug deeper and got darker. His work became still more mature, with From Hell (later twisted in to a film starring Johnny Depp) the most grown-up of all, exploring murder, psychogeography and hermetic Victoriana. Then, after he’d prodded around in the darkest chambers of the human heart, he decided to bring fun back to superhero comics, which had grown up a little bit, and were going through a moody phase. This reinstitution of jollity and adventure led, eventually, to the foundation of America’s Best Comics, and the publication of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
It’s almost a companion piece to From Hell, set at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, but mining melodramas, adventures and heroes, rather than killers, squalor and pain. Immediately, it’s a joy to look at, thanks to Kevin O’Neill’s art. Always one of the most engaging and distinctive artists in 2000 AD, his old instinct for organic-mechanical spikiness meets a nicely mannered humanity.
Moore’s end of things is even better. Good characters, for a start: he’s paid a lot of attention to the works he’s taking from and spots that Dracula’s Mina Harker is well-organised, and a good deal more firm-spirited than her boring, wussy husband; that Captain Nemo is by far the best thing about 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and that there are still fresh things to be done with the Jekyll and Hyde double act.
Moore’s Invisible Man plays around the same ethical limits as Wells’ Nietszchean ubergeek, and only Allan Quatermain, decrepit drug addict, comes off a little predictably. (The line-up and their personalities are altered in the film. Since this is inevitable – a laudanum-addled Connery being bossed around by a woman is unlikely to open well in Wisconsin – it can bring neither surprise nor dismay.)
There’s a terrific story, too. The final issue of the second volume is due soon, and so far, it’s been tremendous, horrible fun. A martian invasion, traitors, mutant animals, weird represso sex, grotesque anal violence – everything you could possibly want in a narrative is here, with a salutary helping of super-smartness.
The central conceit of the comic is that, with incredibly density and consistency, its world has been made from other fictions. It’s not just the central characters: everything in it comes from the imaginative commons. Volume Two starts on Mars with John Carter talking to Gullivar Jones about a military campaign. They’re fighting alongside Martians and Sorns, against alien invaders. This is already dense: Carter is an Edgar Rice Burroughs creation, and Jones comes from books by the more obscure (there’s a lot of obscure) Edwin Arnold. The Sorns are taken from C.S. Lewis’s science fiction. The invaders are Wells’s aliens from War of the Worlds; they abandon Mars to invade earth: when they land near London, the League arrive to investigate.
They observe as a peace party is incinerated by the Martians: it’s the famous early scene from War of the Worlds, down to fine details. The comic doesn’t make a fuss about any of this, and doesn’t expect you to get, or care about the references. You can enjoy the story, watch the strange relationship between Mina and Mr. Hyde develop, or simply nod, and think ‘Yes. That is what he’d say’ when Hyde calls the Aliens ‘Sky-Wogs’. Its wit and drive save it from the indulgences of post-modernism.
However, if you do want to play the reference game, that can be fun too. Harker and Quartermain are sent to see a scientist. We’re in Wells country again, and we’ll be meeting Dr. Moreau, creator of horrific man-animal hybrids. Something creeps up on the couple as they surrender to passion in the woods. It’s one of Moreau’s monstrosities, a shambling, drooling man-bear, in red jumper, yellow-check trousers and scarf. It’s one of the many minor incidents that offer some proof of Moore’s genius: rather than just saying “man, Rupert’s fucked-up”, after the fashion of a lazy stoner or bad stand-up, he takes that instinct, magically shakes it up with Moreau, and makes a strange, brain-twisting scene from the first sniff of oddness.
Out past the fun of the story, there’s a very important point about the League. Moore makes no fuss about this either, but a lot of the comic should be illegal in England: all the H.G. Wells, along with Rupert the Bear, and Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t out of copyright for another decade-and-a-bit. He’s pushing beyond the legal bounds of fair use here, into the murkier area of ‘derivative works’. The film dodges the problem, excising anything from Wells, but it’s there throughout the comic. It’s an issue tangled up with Moore’s general creative approach, as he’s always enjoyed reimagining extant characters, rebuilding Superman again and again, as Dr. Manhattan, Miracleman, Supreme, and others. Now he’s done this same thing with classic pulp fiction – exactly the kind of action that the blob of copyright legislation consuming the world is determined to prevent.
Copyright endures longer now: America is ‘harmonising’ with Europe, by introducing the ‘death plus seventy years’ formula. Europe arrived at this in 1995 by ‘harmonising’ to the standard of Germany, the member with the longest copyright term. In addition, America is also creating a form of perpetual copyright: Disney, who stood to lose profitable cartoons if the law remained unchanged, successfully lobbied for a copyright extension act, which effectively allows them to hold Mickey to their bosom, and love him forever and ever.
It’s true that an artist should have the right to enjoy the fruit of his creations: royalties should be able to keep the great creators and their offspring at least ankle-deep in coke and hookers for some limited span. However, it’s not the interests of artists or their families that are being served by this legislation, it’s those of the corporate world. It takes material away from the creative community, forbidding acts of imagination unsanctioned by the representatives of stockholders, who will not be happy until you pay money every time you listen to one of ‘their’ songs, or watch one of ‘their’ DVDs. They don’t see themselves as middlemen, fostering communication between you and the artist: their end is profit for themselves and their shareholders.
They dream of a byzantine administration of watchers, counters and lawyers who decide whether you calling your cat Buzz Lightyear is fair-use and good publicity, or an actionable infringement of copyright.
The corporate world would come in its pants if it could properly own the rights to Dracula. Whatever legislation they secure, they never could, of course: the Dracula we have is the child of Stoker and Lee and Lugosi and Ingrid Pitt and Grandpa Munster and Buffy and sketches on Swap Shop and a thousand other imitations, adaptations and homages. The fact that everyone can get their hands on him is what gives him texture and substance. Superman is not a modern myth, since DC own him, and they can say what we can and can’t do. Fighting the evil Dr. Nick O’Teen – good; having anal-sex with Batman – probably not going to happen. At least not out of wedlock.
There’s a lot of bad copyright-whacking art out there (stand up, Negativland); but there are also a lot of people doing good things to create the infrastructure for a real revolution, one that takes some power away from the business world, and hands it back to artist and audience. The Creative Commons group (www.creativecommons.org) is the obvious example: they’ve drawn up a set of licences for works that allow certain forms of re-use: an artist creating under these licences can put his or her work into a limited public domain. It’s early days for the scheme yet, but it has the potential to nurture a lot of interesting projects.
The League is another example. Blasting aside copyright restraints is not its explicit aim, nor the best thing the comic does; but it does show the importance of having an imaginative commons: inherited land that we can all share. It doesn’t matter that a lot of what gets done with this land is dull – Shakespeare rewritings, anti-corporate ‘Starfucks’ stencils, SG-1 fanfic – it just matters that this is freely available, since it’s the stuff that culture is made of.
The second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is released in December by Titan Books.