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The Black Dossier

January 2nd, 2008

Last night, I finished reading The Black Dossier, Alan Moore’s recent follow-up to his popular comics miniseries The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And by “finished” I mean “skipped over all those tedious text passages and suffered through the unsatisfying, short and obtuse comics sections.”

Unlike previous LoEG projects, this one is less a straightforward narrative than a collection of articles, comics and pastiches of various works of literature, all concerning various incarnations of the League. It’s certainly a handsome and intriguing volume, with sections printed on various paper stocks and, in the case of the tipped-in Tijuana Bible, different sizes. It all sounds good until you sit down to actually read the thing. I am not a Shakespeare fan at the best of times, so the last thing I want to read for entertainment is a pastiche of one of his plays written in Olde Timey English.

Same goes for most of the other distractions from the main story, such as it was. I may get back to them at some point–and I’ll admit that Jeeves and Wooster vs. Cthulhu sounds like it would be worth a chuckle–but I didn’t have patience for them last night.

The original miniseries appeared to be built around the deceptively simple premise “What if the greatest figures of Victorian fantasy fiction (plus Mina Harker from Dracula) formed a superhero team?” That’s pretty much all the movie adaptation of LoEG turned out to be, and although it’s a heresy to say so, I rather enjoyed the flick on its chosen level. The comics themselves, being written by Alan Moore, offered a great deal more depth. Furthermore, he expanded the premise to incorporate all manner of classic (and not so classic) literature, and reading the books became an extended game of “spot the unbelievably obscure reference.”

One of the big problems with The Black Dossier is that that game takes center stage. Rather than being a story about famous figures of literature and their adventures together, it’s page after page of cameo appearances by characters you’ve never heard of (plus Mina Harker from Dracula). That was fun when it was going on in the background and one could experience an occasional “Aha!” moment, but not so much when everything is background.

What really surprised me is that despite being set in the 1950s rather than the 1890s, I probably caught fewer of the references this time. Too many appear to come from early to mid 20th Century British pop-culture rather than anything familiar to a worldwide audience. I did recognize some ’50s movie aliens during the British spaceport sequence, and there was an amusing gag (requiring a perhaps too elaborate setup) revolving around the kids’ puppet series Fireball XL5. I enjoyed Moore’s attempt to tie together 1984, The Prisoner and James Bond, but too little of the narrative was so recognizable.

Then, in the last twenty pages or so, the wheels went completely off the cart and I was suddenly confronted with a blackfaced whatsit and a couple of horny manikins taking our heroes off on a cruise into a 3-D phantasmagoria, complete with a pair of 3-D glasses designed to make the reader look exceptionally stupid. I didn’t get the point, and I couldn’t care anymore.

In the end, I think that The Black Dossier doesn’t do anything at all by way of trying to do far too much. The presence of characters from all manner of fiction–mythology, literature, comics, movies and TV–suggests that the premise has moved well beyond its roots and become impossibly unwieldy. If all fictional worlds coexist in a single reality, how can any of them make sense? When Adam Strange, Dagwood Bumstead and Dobie Gillis can team up to face the combined threat of Count Yorga, Count Dooku and Count Chocula, it’s just pointless madness, the equivalent of the noteworthy fanboy spoof song “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny.” Who’s the winner? Not me.

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