If James Joyce’s Ulysses is the demonstration and summation of modernist literature, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is the paradigm for post-postmodernism in graphic novels. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim for its structure and interconnecting stories. She includes a section consisting of PowerPoint slides. Another includes text messages. Those techniques pale in comparison to what Moore accomplishes in The Black Dossier.
Volumes 1 and 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series are critically acclaimed mash-ups of Victorian literature, pulp fiction, steampunk, and Moore’s own twists. The Black Dossier was to serve as a standalone sourcebook between volume two of the series and a proper volume 3. It grew into much more. Moore has stated in various interviews that he and Kevin O’Neill realized early that the series was growing into an attempt to map the entire fictional world and how it relates to fact. They created a study and commentary on the popular imagination. But in the structure and complexity of The Black Dossier, I also see the growth and culmination of literary movements throughout history into something new.
Similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, The Black Dossier is very experimental in its structure and construction. Critics of the book have noted that the narrative plot is very weak. Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain have recovered The Black Dossier, which contains the secret history of The League. Emma Night (Peel), Bulldog Drummond, and a young James Bond chase them all over London and Scotland trying to stop them. In true Moore style, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to figure out all of the references and allusions. Moore throws in his twists on characters and events for good measure. For example, James Bond (Jimmy in the book) is a sadistic womanizer and the events take place in 1958 after the Big Brother government from George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty Four has fallen.
The narrative is merely a shell for The Black Dossier itself, which Mina and Allan stop to read at various points in the narrative. The Dossier takes over the story metafictionally (if that’s a word). There are faux historical texts, comic strips in various styles, a “lost” Shakespeare folio. But wait! There’s more— prose in the style of H.P Lovecraft and Jack Kerouac, post cards, Big Brother posters in the style of English WWII posters, maps, and more. Throughout these artifacts are mysterious handwritten notes that point back to the narrative at hand and the previous volumes in the series. The complexity of it all is overwhelming.
To add to the complexity, the graphic novel contains a 3D section set in “the Blazing World” with glasses. The cover to the Kerouac section mimics the paperback style of the early Kerouac books when they were published. It even includes the creases they would have had from being read. Like Ulysses, you need an annotated version to understand it all. Some folks have been kind enough to put one together- Black Dossier annotated.
So what separates Moore’s book from A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ulysses for that matter? As a medium, the graphic novel has the potential to capture the contemporary human experience far better than the traditional novel. We are inundated with visuals and images by television, advertising, and internet. So much could be done with the medium.
Strengths & Weaknesses
I think it goes back to the perceived weakness of The Black Dossier– narrative. Egan’s book, though experimental in structure and technique, is about characters and narrative. They are “real” characters with “real” stories. The themes capture truths about the human experience that run deep. If Moore could capture that along with the genius he has for pop culture, structure, and technique; we would see a phenomenal new literature.