Tripwire At 25: Alan Moore On The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Tripwire At 25: Alan Moore On The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

♦February 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Tripwire, which began as a print magazine back in 1992. So every day this month, we shall be representing a classic interview or feature from our long history. Today’s throwback is our chat with Alan Moore about the first series of  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which appeared in Tripwire Special A which was published back in November 1998…

End Of The Century Club

JOEL MEADOWS spent several hours with ALAN MOORE in Northampton to find out all about THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, the DC/ Wildstorm deal and more besides…

I suppose that the genesis of the idea came when I was considering super-heroes as I do about every eighteen months”, Moore explained to me in the comfortable surroundings of the Northampton pizzeria where we conducted the interview.
“I thought about the actual point of generation of the superhero genre and most of it seemed to be nineteenth century fiction. If you look at the first generation of superheroes right up until Stan Lee created the Marvel titles in the sixties, this is evident. The Hulk is obviously Jekyll and Hyde, you’ve got a nod to Wells’ The Invisible Man in Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman. I decided to go back to the source and once I’d done that, I put my mind to assembling a cast, thinking about what kind of world they might inhabit.”

It felt very strange coming up on the train to meet him in person. He was one of the few creators I felt genuinely nervous about meeting. Taking the preview of the first issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with me, I read and digested it and was struck by the sense of fun and invention that ran through it. The series just drips with enthusiasm:

“It’s obviously a very different Victorian England to the one in From Hell. Kevin [O’Neill] has researched a lot of the abandoned architectural ideas that might have gone through in the London that never was. The more I write about it, the more it fills itself in and it just seemed that these characters were so irresistible for a number of reasons. If I put them together in this completely unlikely world, I could have a lot of fun with it.”

As we chatted as we walked up to the city centre, I was impressed with his affability. Some comic creators become terrible ego maniacs, irrevocably altered by the slightest whiff of fame, but Moore’s effortless charm put me at ease, ably assisted by.the atmosphere of the dining establishment in which we eventually found ourselves. The problem with a subject like Moore was not the lack of ques- tions but the danger of being overwhelmed by subjects to discuss.

Moore has incorporated other elements from nineteenth century literature. He’s become known for his meticulous nature as a writer and this is evident as ever in The League:

“When I was writing it, I became obsessive and decided that if there were any walk-on characters, they would all be from somewhere in the fiction of the nine- teenth century. We mention Anna Kypo, also known as Nana, the murders in The Rue Morgue and we’ve even got some characters from The Pearl, the pornographic magazine. It is a big toyshop because we can basically deal with any characters in literature.

“In the time period of the first series, Sherlock Holmes is dead. A wannabe detective has moved into his address in Baker Street. This young pretender is Sexton Blake, because the first Sexton Blake story was written around 1898 and he lived in Baker Street. Blake also has an assistant and of course, he is treated as a Holmes wannabe. He doesn’t appear in the first series but is gossiped about and treated with derision. We drag in all sorts of things but I’ve tried to keep true to the dates in which the story takes place. I’ve written a very complicated chronology. It has to happen in 1898 because a couple of the characters didn’t appear until 1897. Just by looking at the chronol- ogy of nineteenth century fiction, I’ve got great ideas for my next story arc.”

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is part of Moore’s America’s Best Comics line. He holds very strong opinions on what the modern comics medium requires:

“Comics these days are too divided up. There used to be an incredible range of stories, everything from Little Nemo to Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race. It was a rich field. It seems to me that we don’t really have entry level comics. It’s definite- ly true to say that we don’t have that many adult comics for people over thirty either, apart from some Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly material. I don’t see why, if your ideas are good enough, they shouldn’t appeal to a nine year old or a fifty year old. This is a creative matter and it’s something that should be within my power to fix. I could blame economics but when it comes to economics, I don’t have the first idea what I’m talking about. Nobody has any idea when it comes to market forces: just pick up an issue of The Financial Times. The only thing I can usefully say is that it’s a creative problem, because in my experience, it generally is. I have a naive belief that, if the books in question were any fucking good, we wouldn’t have these other problems. If it’s a commodity that people wanted, then the other factors wouldn’t affect it as much.

“This is an attempt, probably a foredoomed attempt, to design a lovely miniature utopian comic industry. It’s only in the early stages. Another problem is that the comics industry, which is already a pitifully tiny field, has made itself more pitiful and tinier by sub-dividing itself up into a number of self-imposed ghettoes. We had a pretty small town to begin with but then all of the different streets have declared independence, rather like the former Soviet Union.”

For a moment, the absurdity of the situation struck me. Eating pizza with one of the most well-known and most highly regarded comic writers of the last fifteen years felt very strange indeed. But the more time I spent with him, the more I was drawn to what he had to say.

Harking back to the Victorian era, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s portrayal of race and sex is as grotesque and biased as its literary forefathers. But Moore doesn’t see any problems with the content, as it’s a series that doesn’t nec- essarily take itself that seriously and Moore feels justified:

“I think that when you read the sex scene with Pollyanna that takes place in the second issue, you’ll see that there is a lighthearted element to it. The scene where the Egyptians try to rape Mina is nasty but comical though. Rape is serious, the idea of rape is a horrible thing and there’s no intention of trivialising it. However, one of the principle unspoken pillars of Victorian fiction was the notion of ‘the fate worse than death’. Human sexuality, screwed up as it is, is a big part of Victorian fiction, as is the racism. When you see the Arabs in the first issue and when you see the Chinese in #3, I’m sure they’ll be portrayed in the same way.This is what we wanted. We’re not talking about real Arabs, real the targets of those attitudes. What makes it funny is the absurdity of the Victorian vision, this idea of a supremacist Britain that ruled the entire world. It’s one of the bits that I’m most enjoying, to explore all those Victorian attitudes. In the girl’s school in issue #2, there’s plenty of flogging scenes and this is because the Victorians believed that corporal punishment was good for the character.”

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although an homage of sorts to the Victorian adventure novel, contains aspects which are much more modern and enlightened, challenging preconceptions. Also, This is a gathering of outcasts and Moore has used this to his advantage:

“It gives us a chance to explore the possible psychologies of these characters. We have had to take a couple of liberties, as a couple of them should be dead in terms of where they should be in 1898 but we’ve come up with plausible fudges. There’s also been some surprises, like, to my shame, until Kevin actually pointed it out, I hadn’t realised that Captain Nemo was Indian. I’d always thought of him as looking like James Mason. He’s an Indian techno-pirate, presumably a Sikh, as they’re the most warlike of the Indian castes. This, in turn, gave us loads of ideas for The Nautilus. We’ve got a steering wheel which is in the shape of Shiva The Destroyer and I know, if I had a submarine, that’s what I’ d want as a steering wheel.”

The plot of The League captures the spirit of the Victorian era perfectly:

“The first six part League story tells of the assembling of the group. An invention has fallen into the wrong hands, a substance called Cavarite, an anti-gravity metal, which comes from Wells’ First Men In The Moon. The League have to retrieve it, which they do in #4 but, as it’s a six part story, this is only the end of the second act really. Then we see the consequences of their retrieval, which will come to a devastating conclusion in #6. All I shall say is that it’ll be like the Blitz, only it’s happening in 1898.”

Moore seems to have been liberated by the idea of The League and there are possible plans to change the setting after the first two series:

“After the first two, we’ve talked about the possibility of a proto Eighteenth Century League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or a Roaring Twenties equivalent.”

Like From Hell, Moore is writing The League without many captions. This takes away the barrier between reader and author and makes it more immediate: “We want to tell the story in a very direct way, which Kevin has been perfect

for. I think that it’s the best art that Kevin has ever done and the storytelling is immaculate. The fact that I’m not throwing any captions in there, or no more than the odd one, tends to make the storytelling more direct because the reader’s thrown in at the deep end and has to figure out what’s going on from the dialogue.”

The atmosphere plays a huge part in the series. Moore uses devices like foreign languages to increase the alien feeling of the settings:

“It was fun having Arabic in there. You can tell more or less what they’re say- ing through the context. The alienness of the language adds to the atmosphere: You don’t understand what they’re saying, so it’s like you’re in a foreign country.”

The best thing about The League is that, by bringing together such a rich cast of literary creations, Moore has set up a scenario packed to the rafters with possibilities. Gathering together The Invisible Man, from Wells’ novel of the same name, Haggard’s Allan (King Solomon’s Mines) Quatermain, Stoker’s Mina Harker (from Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Verne’s Captain Nemo means that Moore has plenty to play with and he wants to avoid cliche.

Moving onto his ice cream dessert, Moore explains the scope that he has with this project:

“I could pick any one of the characters and come up with something brilliant. I could write a book about Captain Nemo and it’d be thrilling. If you bring them all together, you’ve got a Victorian Justice League of America. The characterisation is there, it just isn’t done to death. The plots are actually quite exciting, lots of thrills and spills and there’s quite a lot of intelligence in these books. The great thing about invisible characters in comics is that everybody goes to the trouble of inventing one and then puts a dotted line around them so that you know where they are.”

He takes a break, spooning in some more dessert and then carries on:

“That’s stupid. The great benefit of Hawley Griffin’s character is that he’s very easy to draw. We just leave him out. It’s much more powerful. You do have band- ages and the whole Invisible Man drag in some scenes, but what’s more interesting is when he’s not there at all. When you can actually use the startling visual and narrative effects that the invisibility makes possible, it’s amazing. I came up with a first name because Wells didn’t appear to and the first name comes from murderer Dr Hawley Crippen. We’re trying to keep these characters to some degree true to the originals and, of course, Griffin is a psychopath. Griffin gives a lot of possibili- ties. He’s not a very nice character but he’s a lot of fun.

I love all of the characters. I like Quatermain with his opium habit and his weaknesses. When you see him, he’s got scars all over his body. Wilhemina wears a scarf, which she never takes off, which is a nice erotic touch. Jekyll and Hyde was a great piece of Victorian fiction because it was exemplary. It was a perfect example of the Victorian psychology. You’ve got this very controlled individual, a muddle of socially acceptable behaviour and then you’ve got this other extreme. One plausible case I’ve heard for the book is Stevenson himself might have had tendencies of the Uranian persuasion and he might have been encoding them into Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This could have been one of the reasons why his wife hated the book so much, because she thought that it was possibly too transparent about something that should have remained a private matter between the two of them. Hyde obviously represents sexual appetite, all id and instant gratification. Our Hyde is, if anything smaller than Jekyll, more hunched over. He looks like a super-steroid freak, just because it looks more fun. We’ve got plans for him and some of these characters will die and over the course of two or three of the story arcs, they’ll be new ones appearing.”

Moore already has plans for the second series, he tells me as he finishes off his coffee that he ordered with the ice cream:

“The second series’ll be focusing a lot more on the denizens of the London that we’ve created. Characters like The Beetle, who was the subject of a gothic novel published the same year as Dracula, which outsold Stoker’s book and was much creepier and madder but is completely forgotten today.”

Moore and O’Neill have played around with the environs of London, which will be very much in evidence in the second series:

“We have created the Rotherhithe Bridge. This exists because a Rotherhithe tunnel was attempted but abandoned as too expensive and of little practical use, so they built a bridge instead. The abandoned tunnel has a part to play in things. More or less, the rest of it is stuff as we think of it. I’ve made a note to use the statue of Rima The Jungle Girl, which actually exists in Hyde Park. She was a fictitious character from a novel called Green Mansions, which was a kind of Amazon eco- logical fantasy of the Nineteenth Century and she was such a beloved character that they built a statue of her. We’ve also still got the market running through the centre of St Paul’s Cathedral that existed in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century and there will be a London Bridge that still has apartments built into the sides of it. The Victorian era was incredible, an era of fantasy and dreams. They were dream- ing the century to come and the more sensitive amongst them, the artists, the poets, the imagineers, were trying to come up with a vocabulary to describe it and they invented these great machines, fantastic cities and fantastic characters.”

I couldn’t interview Moore without mentioning the DC/ Wildstorm deal. Concerned that I might annoy him, I phrased my question very carefully:

“I was down in Wales minding the chickens during the time that the whole thing blew up. Jim Lee is a gentleman. He came over here, rather than do it over the phone or get an underling to do it, with Scott Dunbier to talk to me. We went to a restaurant up the road from this one and he told me about the deal. He did have trepidations because I think that they had both been worried about my response. When I got out of the cab at the station and he saw that I had my stick with me, he told me that he half expected me to beat him like a red haired stepchild.”

Moore seemed very good natured about the whole thing and, while he made his way through another coffee, he elaborated further:

“They put it to me and explained what the situation was. Everything I do would be published as far as away from DC as it was possible to get, there’d be no DC bullet, no list of DC editors and it wouldn’t be solicited with DC material. Jim also told me that a new line had been set up, called Firewall, that’s just for my stuff and Jim’s stuff. My paychecks will come from him, I won’t deal with any DC people and most importantly, I’d already committed not only myself but I’d got other people involved. It was a matter between sticking to my my principles and me having to apologise to a load of people whose enthusiasm I’d worked up. I just couldn’t do that. I made the stipulation that DC shouldn’t try and make any politi- cal capital out of this and Karen Berger phoned up, assured me that they wouldn’t and I trust her. I can’t see why they’d want to offend me.”

A little bit of regret then came into his voice:

“I’ve said before that in a perfect world, I’d like to not be working remotely for DC Comics but this is a far from perfect world. To be honest, I’d prefer not to be working in a capitalist system but there you go.”

Wrapping up the afternoon, we talked about how a sense of wonder has been lost by readers because so many amazing things have happened in the last one hundred years. Moore seemed quietly confident that he could restore this. On our way back to the station, he set out what he believed:

“I think that what we need to do is revalue. Sense of wonder is a currency that, as you say, has been devalued both by events and trends in culture. If a film does- n’t end with a city being blown up, then it’s a bit of a limp rag. This is partly what we’re trying to do with ABC. A guy turning into a monster is an incredible idea. It doesn’t matter that everyone’s seen Lou Ferrigno do it a hundred times. It also doesn’t matter that it’s a concept that’s been around long before Stevenson. It’s such a great idea that if you do it right, you make it live again. It’s up to us to revalue these things using the power and currency of imagination. The idea of a submarine isn’t a very interesting idea now and it certainly isn’t as powerful or bizarre as it was when Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. However, I think that it’s still quite a lift when you get that first big shot of The Nautilus. What must it look like to the people on the dock? You can suddenly make the idea of a submarine sound fantastic. All you’ve got to do with these ideas is strip away some of the scar tissue that people have allowed to accumulate. Ideas don’t get old, it’s only us that get jaded. Throw a few surprises in so that they have to look at these things afresh.”

I was nervous about meeting Moore on the train up. Judging him by his photo alone, you might conclude that he looks like a rather fearsome man. Moore, how- ever, exudes an easy charm yet despite this he is clearly a maverick in the comics world. There are so few like him that the medium would be poorer for his absence.

JOEL MEADOWS

 



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