Mondo Moore: Alan Moore on League: 1910, Part 1

Preview: LoEG: Century #1

In celebration of the latest volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from Top Shelf, we’ve got a special treat: A six-part series of interviews with Moore himself examining the themes and ideas around his creation.

Moore spoke with us for more than two hours about Century: 1910, the first of three graphic novels constituting the third part of LoEG. It’s a more straightforward adventure after the sourcebook, The Black Dossier, chronicling the League’s various incarnations across the twentieth century.

In the first installment, which incorporates characters and songs inspired by the classic stage play The Threepenny Opera, change is afoot in 1910 London. Mina Murray and Alan Quatermain, restored to eternal youth, are all that remain of the original League. On a distant island, Captain Nemo’s heir rejects her legacy, and begins a dangerous journey. A murderous sailor returns to London just in time for George III’s coronation. And a terrible menace appears to the League in a dream that they might not completely understand, or be able to stop.

Over the course of our discussion, Moore talked about the experience of working on this new volume of LoEG, authors who influenced him, his upcoming comics and prose work, the reaction to The Black Dossier and what he hopes to achieve with his writing.

And while he hasn’t seen, nor wanted to discuss the film based on his and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, that doesn’t mean Moore didn’t have some thoughts on the legacy of his most famous work. It’s the kind of discussion that might change the way you view reality, and we mean that literally.

In the first part, Moore discusses moving to Top Shelf from DC/Wildstorm, his collaboration with Kevin O’Neill, and bringing Brecht to comics.

Preview of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 #1 here, review here.

Newsarama: Alan, let’s start with a basic question: What’s it been like working with Top Shelf on 1910?

Alan Moore: It’s been something of a revelation. Not because I’m surprised at the production job Top Shelf is doing, or how pleasant they are to work for, because those are things I decided when they published Lost Girls by me and Melinda. But what has been a bit of a revelation is the effect working at Top Shelf has had on me, and I think Kevin as well.

I think we both decided that because we were not working for anything we recognized as a mainstream comics publisher, we have changed the way we think about the work. It’s a subtle thing, but if you’re working in mainstream comics, as both of us have been doing for getting on 25 years or more, then really, it’s a thing that you kind of take in by osmosis. You absorb the values of the field in which you’re working.

So, for example, you’re taught that your story should move at a breakneck pace. Ideally, in a comic story, people should be running everywhere, just to give that sense of continuous action. And even for the first two books of the League and The Black Dossier, there is a fairly pace-y approach to it. All three of them have, essentially, an adventure story pace to them. The Black Dossier is a long chase story, which is a classic adventure narrative.

What we’re finding with this Vol.3 is that we’ve put the boy’s adventure comics mentality behind us a bit, and thought, “Well, there are other ways of doing drama. There are other approaches to drama other than keeping up a relentless pace and momentum to everything.”

And because we’re basing this first part of Vol.3 upon 1910, we’re using the fictional characters and landscapes of 1910 – either books written in that period, or things relating to that period. So unlike the first two books, where we relied mainly on literary creations, by 1910, there are some substantial bits of theater starting to appear as well. There are also early glimmerings of films starting to appear – at least, there are silent films out there set in 1910.

So we have a little more room to move, and we can take the dramatic structures from something like Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which is one of the main source materials for Vol.3, and that’s got a completely different way of building up. It’s not a traditional adventure comic build-up. It builds to a conclusion that is probably much more savage and frightening than most adventure comics, but it takes its time in getting there.

And of course, we have a new format now. We’re not doing this in six 24-page comic books. We’re doing this in three 72-page comic books that are structured differently, so we don’t have to have a big cliffhanging wait between issues. We’ve structured this so each of the three parts that make up Vol.3 are self-contained parts in their own right, so that the reader will get a satisfying chunk of narrative with each of the three parts. But they will build up into a much more satisfying story.

So with Top Shelf, we’ve been able to set the format ourselves, to decide how we want to tell the story, and even how we want to physically produce the work. I think that Kevin is feeling the benefits of that the most, because back with ABC/Wildstorm, Kevin would be more or less…he was being more or less told to pencil a certain number of pages and ink them, so the paranoid editorial people would know they had been done. (laughs) I don’t think they trust artists and writers to have actually done pages unless they see them in their hands.

But because Chris (Staros) is much more relaxed and trusts us to just get on with it, Kevin is penciling the pages in a big rush, then they are being sent to Todd Klein for lettering, then I think they’re being inked by Kevin…or maybe Kevin inks them, then they’re sent to Todd, and then they’re sent straight to Ben Dimagmaliw for coloring.

It’s a much more streamlined process, it’s much more sensible than we were working at ABC, so I would say both of us have benefitted from the move to Top Shelf. No surprise that they’re treating us well, but I’m personally surprised by way the work we’re turning out is so much better as a result of us being able to free up our mental processes a little bit. So yeah, it’s been a very healthy shift all around.

NRAMA: Top Shelf sent me a copy of the black-and-white proof, and I’m almost disappointed to see it in color eventually, because the details of Kevin’s work really stand out in the B&W version. There are many scenes where you can see how his penciling has evolved since the first volume.

AM: Absolutely. I think this is one of the big differences, if I may, between English and American comic book artists. In America, ever since the origins of comics in the late 1930s, these have always been full-color books. Every American comic I’ve seen has been a full-color book, which not the way things started over here.

Over here, we had usually just black-and-white. You might get a couple of spot colors if the editor was feeling generous – you might have red and grades of red, such as pink, along with the black-and-white, along a half-page strip. But generally, you just got black-and-white.

When it came to the kind of comics that were Kevin’s early stamping ground, this was of course things like 2000 AD. And of course, all the artists who came up through 2000 AD were used to working in black and white. When they got color, they’d really go to town and do their best with the color work. But they had to draw pages that would work in black and white.

So all of them became very, very skilled at shading techniques -- Brian Bolland’s beautiful feathering, Mike McMahon’s use of sold black areas, Dave Gibbons’ almost Wally Wood-like polish to his black-and-white drawings.

Basically, the 2000 AD artists were doing black-and-white pages that I would say were a latter-day equivalent to the kind of work you’d find in the EC Comics, which, again, looked every bit as beautiful without the color. I think that a lot of American artist – though there are some who are very meticulous and detailed – as a general rule, they’ve always had color to fall back upon, and there are probably more pages to fill in a shorter time.

I think that some artists have relied upon the inker and the colorist to make the panel work, whereas over here, with someone like Kevin, every panel stands or falls on Kevin alone. There isn’t anybody else. And I think it is to his incredible credit that when it comes to the League, you’ve got this incredible, wonderful attention to detail.

I mean, I can look at Kevin’s pages for hours and still not see all of the ingenious detail he works into backgrounds – the faces of characters, the little bits of business he has people doing. I really do think Kevin is equal to the great 18th century illustrators and satirists, including James Gillray and William Hogarth. I’d say that Kevin is a modern equivalent, that he has that mastery of the line, and his artwork looks like no one else’s.

Unlike a lot of the British artists, Kevin was actually influenced by British comics. If you take some of the 2000 AD artists I’ve mentioned, such as Dave Gibbons or Brian Bolland, I think that both of them would probably admit to being more influenced by American comic artists than by home-grown British comic artists.

Whereas Kevin, I think, has always shown an incredible loyalty to the wonderful comic artists that produced over here for years. People like Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid– all of these wonderful talents that Kevin has somehow absorbed, so his scenes, if he wants, can have a maniacal comic edge to him.

But if he’s called upon to do something delicate, like the scene between Mina and Mr. Hyde in Vol.2, where they’re just alone in a room together and having a profound and quite deep conversation that is also quite disturbing, the expressions that Kevin gets on their faces, the atmosphere he creates for this scene that’s almost romantic if it wasn’t so frightening – I mean, the range that Kevin has is extraordinary. Certainly, there’s no other artist I could do The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with.

NRAMA: I’d like to talk for a bit about the storyline in 1910. The biggest question I have is: What was the challenge of incorporating The Threepenny Opera into both comics and the League’s world? You pulled off a couple of musical numbers in comics, which is something that has rarely been done.

AM: Well, when we started to do this book, we knew that in this first part, which was going to be set in 1910 – as the first part of the overall three-issue series, which will be called Century, because it will take place in 1910, 1969 and 2009 – when we were doing the first part, we knew were going to incorporate Bertolt Brecht and The Threepenny Opera, because I figured that the most irresistible part of it is the songs.

If you have “Mack the Knife,” or “Pirate Jenny,” stripped of the songs, there’s not much to them! So I thought, “Okay, we’re going to have to try and recreate some of the Brecht and Weill songs in the comic book medium.” And I thought, “Well, that could work if I were to simply write new lyrics that were true to the spirit of Brecht’s original, but were more suited to the story we were telling. That would work; people would kind of hear the music as they read the balloons.”

But it was running a risk of shattering the mood we were trying to create in any given scene. I thought at the time that this could easily end up like one of those bad Elvis movies where he’s sitting in a coffee bar or something, and then someone throws him a guitar and everybody starts singing. There’s no reality in an Elvis movie, but that’s not what Elvis movies are about.

It’s a thing that a lot of musicals tend to suffer from – any reality they’re trying to build up is shattered when everyone starts singing and dancing in unison, because that doesn’t happen in real life. However, I was worried about it at first, but as soon as I started to see the pages back from Kevin and saw how this would work, I was really euphoric.

Far from undercutting the drama or tension of the scenes, Brecht’s songs are so savage and vicious, and have such a black and unshakably honest view of the world with all its indignities, that somehow made the scenes into something that was pretty far from unreal.

There’s something about the savagery of Brecht’s songs that made the scenes in which the songs appear more real. It made them hyper-real – it underlined the drama and the emotions of the scenes, kind of like a Greek Chorus, something that is speaking directly to the reader and the audience. They’re something that is there to help the drama, not to spoil it.

So the way it worked out, I think that the readers are going to really enjoy it. I think it’s a fresh experiment, and I think it’s important that we keep pushing the League into new territory. I don’t think anyone would have wanted us to stay in 1898 forever, with Mr. Hyde and the Invisible Man and Captain Nemo, because that would have gotten tired and stale and Kevin and I would have gotten lazy.

Instead, we’re constantly pushing into new time periods and storytelling techniques. That keeps us on our toes, and I think we’re giving the readers their money’s worth. I think they’re entitled to expect something that’s fresh and original and has had a lot of work put into it if they’re buying a comic book. I don’t think they should settle for anything less than that.

That’s what we’re trying to do with the League. We’re trying to keep progressing, keep it fresh. And part of that is this musical thread, which runs all the way through the first part of the story, with the 1910-based Threepenny Opera songs.

In the second part of the story, which is set in 1969, you’ve got a couple of songs that are close pastiches of songs of that period, but you’ve also got another Bertolt Brecht song in this kind of epilogue, which is set in 1976, during the punk era, where we have a punk reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Ballad of Immoral Earnings,” which because it’s a punk version, we’re calling “Immoral Earnings in the UK.” And that’s pretty good. By the time we get to 2009, there’ll be a couple of Brecht songs in a contemporary style.

So it’s an interesting experiment to have this musical thread running all the way through the books, and there’s the possibility that when we come to collect the books together, we might do an album to accompany them. We were very disappointed that we weren’t able to bring out the vinyl single, which we recorded with The Black Dossier, because of some last-minute messing about on the part of our former publisher.

But who knows! This is a different publisher, and I think Chris is interested in any strange side projects we might want to do. So it’s possible that there might be some kind of recording of the various songs that we feature. It’s not a definite, but it’s something we’re thinking about.

NRAMA: And you’d do the vocals yourself?

AM: Yes, I’d do the vocals – well, I don’t know. Some of the vocals – for example, “Pirate Jenny” in the first part – require a female vocalist. So that would be a matter of finding someone appropriate. But I would probably do most of the male voices myself. It’s not that I’m a particularly great singer, it’s just that I love it and I know the words. (laughs)

Special Thanks to Moore annotator Jess Nevins for his help with this feature.

Next: Alan Moore on changing times, the legacy of Watchmen, and the future of superheroes.

Also next week, we turn this into a family affair with a multi-part interview with Alan's daughter, Leah, and son-in-law, John Reppion, about their work on Dynamite's Sherlock Holmes and The Complete Dracula.

Twitter activity