A Rigged Game — thoughts on Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IV: The Tempest

Have you ever taken the time to read Alan Moore’s proposed Twilight of the Superheroes? It’s basically his take on Kingdom Come before there ever was a Kingdom Come. It’s interesting because Moore ended up never really doing one of those big Crisis-type stories, at least not within the mainstream Marvel or DC characters. Moore’s ABC Comics line, particularly Tom Strong and Promethea, ended with that kind of universe redefining event so we got to see how he could have done it. Of course, we’ve also seen how Moore’s approach could have been done in nearly every Geoff Johns-penned mega event at DC. Johns never read an Alan Moore story where he didn’t think that it could have used more capes and arms being ripped off (look for Geoff Johns’ From Hell, with Rob Liefeld and coming from Dynamite next Spring.). Johns used to try to hide it but beneath his Marv Wolfman schtick but just whole-heartedly embraced it with Doomsday Clock, a unneccessary cape-and-cowl sequel to Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Moore did get to play around with the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, using the Marv Wolfman/George Perez series as a springboard in his Swamp Thing to launch into its own kind of supernatural Crisis. So even when he did his official tie into the original “Crisis” story, Moore still worked within a defined structure, following its rules even as he pushed it to see what he could do with it.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IV: The Tempest is Alan Moore doing a Crisis story and not really giving two fucks about it.

When Marv Wolfman and Geoff Johns write their grand superhero stories, you can tell that they honestly believe in the nobility and righteousness of their characters. In Crisis of Infinite Earths, it’s all about the heroic sacrifices, the drive and persistence of Supergirl and the Flash, and even the most obscure DC characters. It’s a might-makes-right story where everything is solved by punching your way through life’s problems. Doomsday Clock is pretty much Johns bearing his soul about his gosh-darn honest belief in Superman. But those stories (and admittedly every huge DC and Marvel story from Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars to Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Wars) are told at the pleasure of DC and Marvel Comics and, ultimately, their corporate overlords AT&T and Disney. They’re stories for stockholders, for the bottom line. And that has to be said of pretty much every writer and artist at Marvel and DC, no matter how pure we may want to believe that Grant Morrison, Jonathan Hickman, or Russell Dauterman’s motives are. We may hope for the best but eventually, these stories end up being Research and Development for television cartoons and big-screen movies. And as we’ve seen in the last ten years, they make stockholders their money when the stories are translated into other mediums.

If we’re being completely honest, Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s original The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series was as much R&D for the Warner Brothers machine as The Infinity Gauntlet ever was for Disney. But so far, none of the Marvel or DC movies have driven Sean Connery into retirement the way that Stephen Norrington’s big-screen adaptation of The League movie did. They can’t all be winners.

Even with the bloody stain of that movie hanging over their work, Moore and O’Neill have kept at it (which is more than we can say for Sean Connery,) continuing to semi-regularly create League stories over the years but those stories have reached their end with The Tempest and what better way to go out than with a good-old-fashioned end of the world story? The first two League stories were their own things, explorations of genre and characters but remained largely self-contained. In hindsight, they were positively restrained compared to everything that came after them. Starting with The Black Dossier, Moore and O’Neill tried to create this large meta mythology around these classical characters. Mina Murray and Alan Quarterman were still the center of these stories but The Black Dossier established that this was a world made up of fiction. It was made up of all fiction. Nothing was safe from being absorbed into Moore and O’Neill’s meta-narrative. Superspy James Bond and genderfluid Orlando could exist in the same fiction and suddenly anything and everything was fair game to these creators. So why not use the final League story to explore (among other things) superheroes from the silver age to the modern age. So many recent comics have stolen from Moore so why shouldn’t he steal them back while having his last word on the subject.

For as much as Moore and O’Neill may love the old pulpy stories like Dracula and King Solomon’s Mines, The Tempest is their love letter to the comics that they read and enjoyed as kids. You can see this in each individual issue’s covers and in some fascinating side trips their story takes over the course of its path, including an old-fashioned backup serial about a group of Silver-Age superheroes. As much as this is Moore trying to bury his involvement with superheroes once and for all, it reads like he’s trying to remind himself one last time why he was originally drawn to these kinds of stories. You don’t throw in 3-D glasses for the second time into a book (the first being The Black Dossier (and countless reprints)) if there’s not a bit of love behind the work.

As each cover pays homage to a particular old comic (Classic Illustrated, Beano, 2000 AD, Justice League just to name a few,) Moore and O’Neill also pay homage to the history and variety of comics within the pages of the story, telling it through different historical lenses and takes on comics. The Tempest is a romance comic that’s in love with comics. Moore is earnest in his love for stories even as he tries to be scathing in his judgment of the bad ones. It almost feels like poor Kevin O’Neill is being pulled along with the writer on whatever windmills Moore feels like tilting at.

As the “silent” partner here, O’Neill is as boisterous here as possible. Sure Moore can write a story that fits a silver age template or a military/spy one but this book wouldn’t be the work of conjuring that it is without his ability to adapt to these changing environments and styles. If this is truly O’Neill’s storied career’s swan song from comics, he is schooling everyone on his way out the door. His aggressive and blunt artwork remains a defiant challenge to his readers. He’s not a pretty artist or even a particularly fluid storyteller but there’s nothing pretty or fluid about these stories. They’re presented on two levels; the plot that takes us from point A to point B and the meta-narrative, the picking at the threads of the history of storytelling to try to see what is real and what is just a flash-in-the-pan blip in our collective consciousnesses.

And that’s what they’ve been attempting to do with the series from the beginning, exploring these fictions beginning with those from the late 1800s and going all the way up to Harry Potter. These are the fictions of our time, the myths and legends that we’ve all grown up on, and, for a lot of us, still live in. If we’re going to keep living in them, shouldn’t we be a bit critical of them to see if they really warrant the love and affection that we have for them? Somehow Alan Moore has appointed himself judge and jury in this 20+ year critical exercise and maybe, just possibly, he’s not the most impartial judicial body we could have here. To say that his judgment may be clouded by his grievances with both Marvel and DC is probably barely scratching the list of charges Moore has against comics.

Of course, I don’t know if anyone made Alan Moore write Spawn/Wildcats. That’s probably all on him. They all can’t be 1963.

As his final word on comics and particularly superhero comics, The Tempest demonstrates that Moore lost touch with his targets ages ago. There’s nothing new here that his contemporaries or those that came after him haven’t covered. Rick Veitch has been on this beat for at least 30 years, chronicling the failings of so-called superheroes. As Moore and O’Neill try to burn their creation to the ground to leave nothing that could be resurrected by some hack following them, it’s great to see that this writer and this artist can still have fun with these stories. Honestly, if they continued well into their old age churning out these stories, we’d have a lot of fun and great comics to enjoy. It almost feels like it would be better for everyone if we had these adventures but somehow didn’t have the subtext that’s buried in them. But it’s hard to tell if they would add anything to any discussion of these stories and that seems to be Moore’s whole issue with superheroes. The conversation stopped whenever we were 12 years old; that’s our own personal golden age so that everything else that comes after that is obviously inferior and will never be as good as the old stuff was. But Moore and O’Neill seem to be as guilty of this as everyone else is.

The outcome is The Tempest is rigged from the start and the verdict is nothing other than guilty. The only question that remains is what will the sentence be so let’s go back to the idea that this is a Crisis-type story. Moore and O’Neill take their time in this book, waiting to reveal the endgame of their long term plan. When Moore wrapped up the ABC books, essentially the apocalypse there was more of a Ragnarok, revealing a cycle and creating a new reality for Promethea and Tom Strong. Those stories ended on a note of optimism for the future. We could go through the end times and come out better on the other side. And that’s really how a lot of these large mega-events end. The heroes come out of the eye of the storm better and stronger than they were at the beginning of it. For Promethea and Tom Strong, Moore gave them an ultimately happy ending.

And then in the last few years, DC Comics realized that, like the Watchmen characters, they owned most of the ABC characters and revived Promethea and Tom Strong during their Rebirth initiative. In the last 15 years, DC has taken all of these Alan Moore concepts whose stories were told and over with and made them like nearly every other comic character in their library, just more fodder to feed the hungry Wednesday crowds. And whether justly or unjustly, DC was perfectly within their rights to do that because they own all of those characters. After whatever made them special in their original stories, they’re now just the cold intellectual property of DC. Think about this— there have now been far more Watchmen stories written by other writers than were ever written by Alan Moore. Does that seem right?

Somehow even though they debuted at DC/Wildstorm at the same time as Promethea and Tom Strong, Moore and O’Neill have managed to hold onto the rights for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is really a funny statement when The League is really Moore and O’Neill doing to Bram Stoker and so many other storytellers what DC is doing to him over and over. It’s just when Geoff Johns does it, it’s crass; when Moore does it, he never seems to recognize the irony or contradictions of his actions. So are the stories of Orlando, Mina Murray, and the descendants of Captain Nemo over and done with forever, or are we just waiting for someone else to come along and change just enough of these characters so that we call it a Moore/O’Neill homage instead of a ripoff?

Finally getting to a plot summary, there are two stories running concurrently in The Tempest, one featuring our regular characters on the run from James Bond (yes, that James Bond) and another featuring a Silver-Agey group of superheroes teaming up one last time to save the world. Moore and O’Neill dig into all of these different modes for telling superhero and action stories, diving into what they love about the comics and stories they grew up on and what they think is everything wrong with comics today. They deliver one of the most just straight out fun editions of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen even if it is not quite as challenging or insightful as past ones have been. For a final story, they hit the points they want to and no one can deny them that whim. The Tempest is a rip-roaring tale.

In its end, The Tempest, like LOEG: Century before it, devolves into satire but it’s probably much more obvious this time. People melted down when they figured out that Harry Potter was the big bad of Century. But here, the world-ending bad guy is just a character who has been part of the background story that no one had any particular sentimental attachment to. The Tempest has come and gone with a collective shrug of the shoulders from those who have in the past proclaimed that Moore is the G.O.A.T. But other then, there’s nothing substantial at stake other than our own feelings about our favorite superhero stories that Moore and O’Neill are picking apart here. And even with that, there’s not that much new ground left for Moore and O’Neill to dig up that hasn’t already been excavated over and over by other post-Moore and post-Watchmen writers and artists. In the final moments of this book, you can see a love for these stories but also a belief that these stories should be left behind as unrealistic childhood fantasies. Which, when you think about it, is a weird way to cap off the career of the man who wrote “This is an imaginary story. But aren’t they all?”

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IV: The Temptest
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Kevin O’Neill
Colored by Ben Dimagmaliw
Lettered by Todd Klein
Co-Published by Top Shelf Productions and Knockabout