A common complaint levied at Moore and O’Neill’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books, especially in the later stages of the story that are chronicled in the Century stories, is their impenetrable metatextuality.
It’s really easy to tie yourself in knots when you discuss LOEG. I mean, just look at that first sentence. Impenetrable metatextuality? Good grief. Way to lose an audience. Let’s try this again. In English.
Let’s start with what we know. The world of the League is populated by fictional characters. I mean, it’s a work of fiction, so of course it’s filled with made-up people, but in this case that’s doubly true. It’s a world where popular fiction is the entire landscape, where there is a real Bartlett administration in the US, where Sid The Sexist rides a bus driven by Reg from On The Buses. In the LOEG books, spotting and recognising the cultural references becomes almost as important to the full enjoyment of the story as the story itself.
Therein lies the problem for many readers, especially when the crowd scenes (and there are a lot of crowd scenes in LOEG) become stuffed with faces that you feel you ought to recognise, and that might be important. The amount of detail becomes bewildering.
I prefer to think of the references as another layer, because you honestly don’t need them to enjoy the story. I tend to read the LOEG books two or three times in the first couple of days after they drop onto the map. Once straight through for the story, and then again to parse the artwork and script for the playful other touches. It’s a rare book that can be both textually dense and yet so easily re-read.
I found that Century: 2009 was a pleasingly complete final chapter. It tied up a lot of loose ends, reintroduced old characters in new contexts, and generally finished things off in a nicely satisfying way. The main arc, which traces the efforts of Mina Harker, the immortal Orlando and Allan Quartermain as they struggle to prevent the rise of the Anti-Christ, is surprisingly straightforward, although Moore depends quite a bit on the old deus ex machina – quite literally, in this case. But he’s too sophisticated a storyteller not to know what he’s doing. Is there an element of atheism at work here? After all, he puts G_d in a world where every character has been pointed out as explicitly fictional.
Moore has been extremely subtle in populating his meta-fictional world. Copyright issues means that he’s had to be sly in revealing his cast. Let’s put it like this – you might think that it’s Arthur and Terry from Minder beating up a mark in a back alley, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Kev O’Neill’s characters are just off-model enough that you’re constantly doing double-takes. The burgeoning community, led by pop-culture nerdlord Jess Nevins, that takes joy in spotting and cataloging the characters, songs and brandnames of the LOEG world is going to have a field day with this one.
This trick is especially impressive when Moore shows us who his Anti-Christ is – making the villain possibly the most recognisable fictional character of the last ten years is a coup that takes some pretty big cojones to pull off. The moment when the audacity of that reveal clicks on is delicious. It’s a big moment that makes the climax of the story all the more epic.
The Century books aren’t for everyone. They’re arcane, deliberately obtuse and wilfully perverse. Which makes them all the more attractive to an arcane obtuse pervert like myself. If you like your comic and cultural history cut with a strong dose of absurdity and playfulness, then I can heartily recommend them.