Mondo Moore: Looking Back on The Black Dossier

Looking Back on The Black Dossier

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

In the penultimate part of our discussion with Alan Moore on Century: 1910, the latest installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore discusses the reception to the last installment of the League’s adventures, the sourcebook The Black Dossier, and just how that work pays off in the League’s world.

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

Newsarama: Getting back to the League specifically, did you feel The Black Dossier was misunderstood by some readers?

Alan Moore: Um, I don’t know. Most of the people I know seem to understand it. My understanding, though, is that as it was coming out, DC had been promoting it as though it was the third book of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which of course it wasn’t.

The Black Dossier is, and was always intended to be, a sort of ingenious sourcebook, that had source material and background material on the series, but also had the added benefit of a really thrilling and interesting story wrapped around the source material.

And I think people might have thought, “Why are these big chunks of text wrapped around the story?” If they hadn’t been thinking about it in those terms, if they’d been thinking of it in the terms in which it was intended, there might not have been a problem.

In general, the people over here I’ve talked to about it didn’t have a problem. It certainly seems to have sold better than the first two volumes, paradoxically. I was worried that with the sudden shift from the Victorian setting, we might have the readers deserting us in droves, but instead, it sold better, as I understand it, than the first two volumes did when they were released.

This suggests that there are perhaps more readers interested in reading about the century in which many of them grew up than they are in the nineteenth century, which is heartening. Many of the people I talked to said that they enjoyed it very much. They liked the fact that we were showing off in the Kerouac piece and the Shakespeare piece and the P.G. Wodehouse piece.

We were having a lot of fun, and were working hard to give the audience the very best and most phenomenal experience that we could. That’s why we included the fabulous 3-D section, and if we could have included the vinyl single we were promised by our former publisher, and that we went through the trouble of recording, then readers could have perhaps understood the concept that we were trying to put forward.

If the edges of the Fanny Hill section had been joined together, like in the style of an old Victorian novel where the pages were uncut, then perhaps that would have explained that was on a different kind of paper. But maybe the publisher forgot that, sometime between us having the original idea and actually publishing the book.

It wasn’t as coherent a package as it was meant to be. There were things that were left out, and I think if it had been publicized properly, and if it had been explained that this was kind of a “bonus book,” that it wasn’t the third volume of the League, it was something a lot more innovative and playful and a fucking good story and lots of really fabulous bonuses, then perhaps people would have approached it with open minds.

Of course, as I said, I think people did anyway. It was promoted as something it wasn’t, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the long run. Kevin and I are immensely proud of it, and the readers I’ve been in contact with seem to have really enjoyed it.

NRAMA: One thing in 1910 is that you pay off a lot of details mentioned in passing in The Black Dossier.

AM: Yeah, well, that was it! When we were doing The Black Dossier, we were thinking about laying seeds for future stories. We want the world of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be an extremely coherent and well-realized world.

When we did the stuff in the Almanac in Vol.2, where we established the whole of the geography of the League’s world - that was an important step. When we have the story of Orlando in The Black Dossier, that was effectively providing a 3,000-year timeline to the world the League inhabits. We’re building upon all this stuff.

The article about the gods by Oliver Haddo – Haddo becomes a very, very prominent character in the third volume of the League. He’s there running through all three parts of it, the same way Norton, the Prisoner of London and Mina and Allan and Orlando are. He’s a recurring character.

It’s not like we were being indulgent with The Black Dossier. If people have just a little bit of patience and read it, they might find that all these things stick together. And I think that they’ll appreciate all the work that Kevin and I put into making sure all of it does fit together.

We’re not sloppy as storytellers. We don’t go for this modern style of storytelling where you just come up with an astounding idea and hope you can figure out what you were talking about before you get to the end of the season. That’s not how we work at all. We try to think of all this stuff in detail.

I mean, in the text story in the back of Vol.3, “Minions of the Moon,” there are references to a previously-undisclosed period of Mina’s life that took place in 1965. This is something which we might be tackling in Vol.4 of the League. Also, we’ve got the Gollywog, the Dutch dolls and the Blazing World all figuring very significantly in the text story.

All of this stuff –we’re reinforcing the ideas. We’re not throwing ideas out there because they’re cute, or if we have, we’ve made sure that we justify them. It’s all part of a very rich developing tapestry that we are hoping to build into a unified field theory of culture.

Ultimately, I would like it if we could suggest, by the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s very existence, that every story, every film, every book, every television series, every transient song lyric, were all occurring in exactly the same world, and they all fit together beautifully.

If we could just give the suggestion of that, then I think that I’ll be happy. It’s one of the great pleasures, doing something like that.

NRAMA: Talking about your unified field theory, I noticed that with the characters of MacHeath and Janni, you seem to be commenting on your previous work, specifically the Black Freighter and From Hell. In these cases, you’re using more mythological, larger-than-life versions, as opposed to deconstructing the mythology behind them. In a way, it almost seems like you’re satirizing your earlier work.

AM: You do find that as you work as a writer, you will be returning to many of the same places, sometimes by accident. I mean, yes, when I was considering how to translate “Mack the Knife” into comics, I thought about the original character that MacHeath was based upon, which was the Highwayman, Captain MacHeath, from John Gay's The Beggar’s Opera, from which many of the characters in The Threepenny Opera are based upon and translated into.

But I was also thinking that one of the big influences upon “Mack the Knife” must certainly have been Jack the Ripper. There are certainly many similarities. Both are knife-wielding maniacs in London around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So I thought it would be interesting if I could somehow tie up all of the fictional Jack the Rippers in one neat bundle with The Threepenny Opera’s MacHeath.

So we took things like G.W. Pabst's film Pandora’s Box, which starred the lovely Louise Brooks, and was based on Frank Wedekind's Earth Spirit. That has got a scene at the end of the play and the film where good-time girl Lulu takes home a customer who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, even though the time period doesn’t seem to be 1888; it seems to be 1910.

So this is a fictional Ripper story, and of course, there’s the Peter O’Toole film The Ruling Class. It’s a savage, surreal and very funny exploration of the English ruling class, and it’s one of my favorite films. There’s a coda to that that involves Jack the Ripper. So I thought, “Is there any way that we could explain the original 1888 murders in a fictional context, and these lighter murders? Could we make them all fit together in the world of the League?”

So yeah, I was sort of returning to familiar ground with that one. But it’s looking at it in a different way. Whereas with From Hell, I was trying to do a kind of grandiose collage of all the supposed facts in the Ripper case, with this one, I was trying to piece together the fictions in the same case.

As I said, sometimes you’ll find yourself treading on the same ground over and over again. I mean. In the current chapter of Jerusalem, it’s all based on James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, who was an inmate in Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital for 31 years. This was a mental hospital that was next door to the school I attended for five or six years in the 1960s. And another inmate of this hospital, probably some 70 years earlier, was J.K. Stephen, the misogynist poet and Ripper suspect, who also turned up in From Hell.

Yeah, you find yourself returning to these characters in different contexts, from different angles, over and over. I must have some underlying interest in those symbolic figures. In fact, when my mother died, and we were sorting out her house, I found a scrapbook I must have made when I was 11 or 12 featuring a series of articles about Jack the Ripper that I must have cut out from the Sunday newspapers. I have no memory of being interested in the Jack the Ripper crimes at that age, but apparently I had.

So I guess these things must be somehow hardwired into me, and they keep clawing their way out into my work in different forms. They’ll probably keep on happening as well.

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

Next: For our finale, some special guests have some questions for Moore…

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