Mondo Moore: Alan Moore on the League, Watchmen, & More

Best Shots Extra: LoEG: Century #1

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910 #1, from Top Shelf

Our six-part look at Century: 1910 with Alan Moore continues. In today’s installment, Moore talks about the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen dealing with changing times. And in a thoughtful examination, the man credited with reinventing superhero comics explains why that might not have been the case, and the future of superhero comics.

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

Neswarama: Alan, I’d like to talk about the historical backdrop of the story. You set the tale against the 1910 arrival of Halley’s Comet, which signaled the end of Mark Twain’s life – the previous arrival, of course, signaled his birth. You deal with the passing of an age with Nemo in the story, but do you view the comet and Twain’s death as indicative of a shift in the style of storytelling for that age?

Alan Moore: Hmm. Halley’s Comet comes every 76 years or something like that. And that was the period where Brecht seemed to have originally set The Threepenny Opera, against the coronation of King George III from that year.

We set the story in 1910 because it was a very interesting time. It was the end of the Belle Époque, and it before the era that Melinda and I covered in Lost Girls, around the beginning of the first World War. It was foreshadowed a bit in the League, in that we have Quatermain and Raffles talking about the possibility of a war with Germany. So it’s a shadow that falls over the book, just as it falls over The Threepenny Opera.

You’ve got pre-war poverty, and the desperate lives of the people in the streets. It is the end of an era. I mean, this is only 12 years later than the high Victorian drama that we had in the first two volumes. But things have changed. Mina is in her Belle Époque fashions, and she looks wonderful, but she is something of an anachronism, and this worries her increasingly over these three books. You’ll see Mina changing with the times – Kevin says she looks great in a 1960s miniskirt. He says she looks fantastic.

You’ll see the characters changing over the times, but not always for the better. We’re trying to explore some of the problems with living forever, some of the obvious psychological problems, things that would start to get to you. But it is very noticeable in this first book that we’re not in the nineteenth century any more. This is the twentieth century. And yes, it still looks a little old-fashioned. But you can see the beginning of twentieth-century habits starting to emerge, twentieth-century attitudes.

And you’ve got this blistering attack upon twentieth-century morals, mainly delivered by Suki Tawdry or Mack the Knife himself, because that was the thing that was so wonderful about The Threepenny Opera – how it unerringly skewed the morality of its times, and showed the hypocrisies and deceits.

So it’s got a completely different atmosphere – only 12 years after the Martian invasion, but the atmosphere is completely different. And there are some nice little bits of harking back to the earlier volumes. I mean, I thought that the scene in the opening pages with Captain Nemo – Kevin did them marvelously. It’s so eloquent, even though you can’t understand what they’re saying unless you happen to speak Urdu. It’s wonderful.

There are scenes where they’re looking at paintings at what the League looked like in 1898, just so we could show the contrast and say, “This is a different League, and those were different times.” I think that’s one of the things people will enjoy about Century – that it will be quite the roller-coaster ride through the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first. And I think that the changing styles, the changing mood, is going to be a big part of that story.

NRAMA: You mentioned the opening sequence with Nemo. I remember when the first volume was coming out, you talked about how you had done research and discovered that Nemo had an Indian background, in contrast to the popular image of James Mason from the Disney film.

And in 1910, you have that scene where Janni comes across the tourist replica of the Nautilus, and it’s reminiscent of the Disney World attraction from the Mason version. Mina and Allan are already starting to see their old friends being slowly transformed into these stripped-down archetypes people will know them as in the future.

AM: Oh yes, that’s it. When Janni’s just arrived in England and she’s wandering around the docks trying to find her bearings after stowing away on a ship from South America, she comes across this cheap, tawdry replica of the Nautilus, with a robotic Captain Nemo, which we’d flagged in The Black Dossier.

We had a mention of the attraction in 1900 (in The Black Dossier), where it was a cheap reproduction of the Nautilus, with an actor in blackface playing Captain Nemo. So obviously, in 10 years, it’s come to this, and now there is a simplistic pirate waving his tin cutlass.

But yeah, I kind of wanted to show that time has passed, and the idea of these characters has changed. The idea of what heroic figures are has changed. But there’s always these references back. I mean, in The Black Dossier, we showed that after 1898, London’s Serpentine Park had been renamed Hyde Park after Mr. Hyde. And there was an Edward Hyde statue looming over Hyde Park.

Since the 1969 portion of this volume partly revolves around a free rock concert in Hyde Park, then we get to see the huge statue of Hyde again, though it’s had slogans graffiti-ed all over it, and hippies have hung flowers over its monstrous, outstretched arms. It’s how the idea of these characters changes over the years.

Sometimes, the idea gets degraded. Originally, we could have Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, who – as of The Mysterious Island, anyway – is clearly defined as Prince Dakkar, a Sikh prince and techno-pirate. And yet, we wind up with films with James Mason in them. So yeah, it is about how ideas of these characters change and get tarnished over the years.

And that’s something we’ll see more of as Century unfolds. By the time we get to 2009, the basic institution of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will be completely unrecognizable. I suppose that if there’s an overall moral to this third volume, it’s “Times change.” Invariably, throughout human history, that has been the lesson: “Times change.”

And I think right now we’re going through a period of change, quite violent and rapidly, at least in my summation of the moment. And hopefully, the speeded-up view of the twentieth-century-to-present in this volume will feel quite appropriate.

NRAMA: Speaking of times changing, do you feel that popular culture, at this point, is moving away from the adventurer/superhero archetype?

AM: Hopefully, yes. I think that if you look at the superhero phenomenon, which has existed for a ridiculously short amount of time, these were very good, very colorful and uniquely American creations for children back in the late 1930s and 1940s. They stayed around a lot longer than anybody expected them to, and they were still providing excellent entertainment for children up through the 1960s, when I was growing up.

I suspect that the comic-book-reading audience now is largely – I think the median age is late-30s or even early 40s. This is very different than when I went into the field. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I suspect the main impulse behind those older fans and their love of superheroes is probably nostalgia. It’s probably not that they find the superhero a particularly useful vehicle for their fantasies, it’s just that they feel a connection with Green Lantern or Spider-Man because that anchors them to their childhood experience.

I completely understand that. There’s something very warm and soothing about looking at an old Batman comic you haven’t looked at since you were eight years old. But whether it’s very useful as a symbol in the current day and age is another thing.

I remember thinking after September 11, “This has surely got to be the beginning of the end of American superheroes.” Because one of the reasons I suspect the superhero rose in America and nowhere else is American impunity, or the sense of impunity. This is probably most obvious in the recent Iron Man film, which is pretty much a love letter to the American military-industrial complex, as I heard it described in a review over here.

It’s these characters who are wish-fulfillment figures of absolute invulnerability and superior power, and I don’t think that is the reality of the modern world. It might have seemed like that during the eight years of the Bush Administration, that’s possible. But that’s not how the world is.

It’s getting to be a very dangerous and complicated world that is not going to be solved by one extraordinary individual who arises and saves all of us, whether he’s dressed in a cape or not.

It’s not even going to be solved by a new president. I’m sure that Barack Obama will be, for my money, a much better president than George Bush was. But realistically, we have problems in the world that no one president can solve. It’s going to require a massive change in the way that we think, if we’re going to get through this.

I don’t think that this is a time for the rugged, heroic individual with special powers. At the same time, I can see that people are going to want to cling to that idea, because in troubled time, people do tend to cling to things that they find reassuring, that remind them of simpler times. But ultimately, I don’t think that’s going to work. I don’t think that the basic symbols and the basic meaning of superheroes is what it once was. I think this is a different world.

And I don’t think that that kind of superhero mentality really cuts it any more. I think that we need to grow up a little bit.

I mean, one of the things that struck me about the 1980s, when we had dozens of headlines that read, “Bam! Sock! Pow! Comic Books Have Grown Up!” I don’t really agree with that. In the 1980s, as I recall them, there were a few comics that were trying very, very hard to grow up, some doing a better job of it than others. But these were a few comics. The majority of comics were the same as they had always been.

After things like Watchmen, yes, some of them got a bit darker, a bit nastier, a bit more pretentious. But they still pretty much the same comics. I don’t think that comic books grew up in the mid-1980s.

I do think that the population, many of whom had deep nostalgia for comic books they had read as children, but were ashamed of being seen reading them on the subway, think that what happened in the mid-1980s with books like Watchmen gave them an excuse to carry on reading Green Lantern, because whereas while previously people might have looked at them as though they were subnormal for reading a superhero comic, now that superhero comics had been rebranded as “Graphic Novels,” it was considered sophisticated and cutting-edge to be seen reading a comic, even if it was just a bunch of old superhero stories put together in a slicker format. It looked more grown-up; it wasn’t necessarily more grown-up, but it was put together in a way that looked more socially acceptable.

I think that mid-80s period, if you look at the 20-something years since then, we’ve seen a rise in that comic-book mindset throughout most of our media. We’ve seen programs on television that are kind of reminiscent of a 1980s comic book. We’ve seen an awful lot of films that are kind of reminiscent of a 1980s comic book.

And I think it wasn’t so much that comic books grew up back then. I think it was that the rest of culture grew down. Or, it had a thing like Watchmen as an alibi, to pursue its guilty pleasures, because it wanted to be free to read the superhero comics it had grown up with, but it wanted to be seen as an adult at the same time. And I think that Watchmen and books like it provided the key.

So yes, I think that inevitably, all of our culture is going to have to grow up. It’s not just comics, but I think we’re going to have to start looking at a different mindset, looking at a mindset where it’s not always 24 hours to save the world.

It’s not like that. We’ve probably got a few years to save the world if we act sensibly. And it won’t be accomplished by someone who’s come from another planet and can therefore fly under our decreased gravity. It’ll take a lot of serious thinking and very boring discussions, but we might be able to do it.

And hopefully, our culture will be able to reflect the new sense of dramatics that we’re going to need if we’re going to start approaching any of these problems seriously.

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

Next: Alan Moore on his upcoming projects, Iain Sinclair, the late Philip José Farmer, a unified field theory of fiction and creating life on the moon. It’s our biggest and best part yet.

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