One might argue that the League is the most important work in Alan Moore's bibliography, because he wrote it for twenty years. I think it's his biggest work, too. (Yes, longer than Swamp Thing. Moore wrote that for 45 issues and 1000-odd pages, but the League has about 1100 pages even if you exclude similar works like Albion and Cinema Purgatorio.) Despite that, though, this opening volume doesn't feel heavyweight. It lacks the emotional power I associate with Moore. It's great fun, but that's it. It's a Victorian literature romp with Mina Murray, Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and many, many more. There are interesting subtleties in the characterisation, but it's not digging deep.
Consider its 2003 film adaptation, for instance. Comics fans bristled and got out their magnifying glasses for the movies of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. In contrast, I don't think anyone cares about the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, even though it was actually quite consequential. With hindsight, it looks as if it killed the Hollywood careers of its director and scriptwriter, while making Sean Connery quit movie-making. ("It was a nightmare. The experience had a great influence on me, it made me think about showbiz. I get fed up dealing with idiots.") 20th Century Fox's out-of-court settlement of a plagiarism lawsuit also made Alan Moore fall even further out of love with movie adaptations of his work. (Personally I quite enjoyed the film, but never mind.)
This six-issue series is a laugh, but in a hero/villain crossover way. The story's not personal for anyone. The baddies are supervillains with superweapons (based on H.G. Wells's Cavorite). That said, though, the team is cool and often jaw-dropping. They include:
1. Mina Murray, from Bram Stoker's Dracula. She's the group's leader and its only woman. She hasn't as yet displayed any superpowers, but she refuses to remove her red scarf and she's the only person capable of keeping her often-monstrous colleagues under even the faintest vestige of control.
2. Allan Quatermain, from eighteen stories by H. Rider Haggard. In those, he's a big game hunter and adventurer. Here, he's the token normal bloke of the team and initially (when Mina finds him) a decrepit, washed-up junkie. He's also the nearest thing we have to a straightforward, likeable hero and he generally provides the voice of sanity.
3. Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, the only core member from literature that wasn't written in English. (Alan Moore's Nemo is Indian... but that's actually canonical, since Verne's sequel novel, The Mysterious Island, revealed him to be Prince Dakkar of the real Indian region of Bundelkhand. This might still, though, surprise readers who are more familiar with the Caucasian Nemos who predominate on film and TV, e.g. James Mason, Herbert Lom, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, etc.) Here, he's not usually a front-line combatant, but earning his enmity is a really, really bad idea.
4. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. Terrifying. He's basically a simian Hulk, with Hyde being a foul-mouthed, evil-tempered ape who regularly goes on mass murder rampages. At the same time, though, he's arguably the League's most intriguing member, being probably the most intelligent of them and capable of moments of near-respect. Note also that his more surprising traits here aren't completely out of line with Stevenson's novella, in which he did indeed grow in unspecified ways, perhaps physically (so here he's colossal, despite originally being smaller than Jekyll), and he was described having new sensations in a world that seemed different (so here he has heat vision that lets him see the Invisible Man).
5. Hawley Griffin, i.e. H.G. Wells's Invisible Man. It's worth noting that of the original literary characters, Griffin's the only outright villain of the team and might have been a sociopath in the original novel even before inventing his serum. Moore's Griffin is even worse. He's more evil than Hyde. He's had years to enjoy the fruits of his invisibility and he'll beat a man to death for a coat.
...and thousands of other characters, both famous and obscure. Apparently it's possible to go nuts and identify even background characters in crowd scenes as, say, the ancestors of the EastEnders cast. You can spend hours reading up about this series and following wikipedia links. (Campion Bond is James Bond's grandfather?)
It's offensive, mind you. Deliberately. It would of course be absurd to pretend that the Victorian era was politically correct, so Moore charges full tilt in the opposite direction. He borrows Victorian porn characters like Rosa Coote and narrates the book in a voice that by rights should get you hanged, drawn and quartered. "Let us not forget the many serious, morally instructive points there are within this narrative: firstly, women are always going on and making a fuss. Secondly, the Chinese are brilliant, but evil."
...and yet, even above that, one could imagine the book causing offence on yet another level. Its Big Bad is Fu Manchu, although rights issues mean he's only ever called "the Doctor". Fu Manchu can be a bit of a trigger in Chinese communities and has been attracting official protests from them for a good century, especially regarding his film and TV adaptations. After all, the fictional character is so well-known and iconic that he effectively created his very own stereotype. I won't go into all that here. That said, though, even if the fictional character Fu Manchu were guilty of every single racism accusation that's ever been levelled at him, that would only make him more suitable for holding up here by Moore and O'Neill.
There's also an attempted gang rape, although it's foiled. The series as a whole acquired a bit of a dirty old man reputation.
I'm less enthusiastic about the back-up short story, "Alan and the Sundered Veil". The problem is that it's written in deliberately antiquated prose that's appropriate, but means that one's ploughing rather than zipping through. It's quite clever, though, it explains how Quatermain became an opium-ridden sot and it's playing in yet more fictional universes, including H.P. Lovecraft.
Overall, I wouldn't rave about this book and I certainly don't think it compares with Moore's masterpieces... but it's cool. It has a startling line-up of heroes and anti-heroes. You'll go "OH MY GOD" repeatedly and you'll want to see what happens to these characters next. Besides, I see Volume One as merely the first half of the opening League twelve-parter, in which case there's heavier emotional content to come.
No chance that I wouldn't keep reading, obviously. Next: Volume Two.