The apocalypse isn’t the most depressing thing in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, the apparent conclusion to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s bewildering series of metafictional adventure comics. The world that the league saves—a shallow, stupid, violent, and paranoid comics representation of the real world—hardly seems worth saving.
Few writers could make stopping the end of the world as much of a downer as Moore does here. It’s all a big comedown after more than a decade of historical romance, sci-fi adventure, literary reference, philosophical gamesmanship, and gnashing satire. And it’s probably the conclusion that Moore, comics’ crankiest living bastard and a master of deflected expectations, has planned from the beginning.
The first two volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were published between 1999 and 2003 and set in the last years of the 19th century. In those 12 tightly wound issues, a bunch of pulp Victorian literary characters team up to defeat Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty and the Martian invasion from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The series lovingly recreated the thrills of boys’ adventure stories, and Moore’s nerdy enthusiasm for building connections among otherwise unconnected characters gave it all a nostalgic charm.
The first 72-page issue of the third volume, Century, appeared in 2009 and marked a significant turn in the tone of the series. Set in 1910, two of the surviving characters from the earlier league, Mina Murray (formerly Harker, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Allan Quatermain (from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines), have been made immortal. They’re joined by a new cast of fellow agents: the supernatural detective Thomas Carnacki, created by William Hope Hodgson; E. W. Hornung’s “gentleman thief” A.J. Raffles; and the 400-year-old gender-switching adventurer Orlando, based on the protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel. In addition to a fight against ex-league member Capt. Nemo’s daughter and the search for a Jack the Ripper copycat killer, the league members hunt for clues about a prophesied Moonchild who will bring about the end of everything.
The search for the Moonchild continues in Century: 1969, when the league is down to Murray, Quatermain, and Orlando, who maintain an uneasy domestic and romantic triangle. The trio of immortals stumbles through a world they’re not ready for, ending with Mina locked up in a psychiatric hospital after a bad acid trip and Quatermain strung out on heroin. (He was depicted as an opium addict in the original League story.) Orlando joins the army.
Moore’s Big Bad for Century is a Harry Potter-like character anointed by the occultist Oliver Haddo. Mina and Orlando uncover his existence by way of a magical train that takes them to a Hogwarts stand-in that also functions as Britain’s collective fictional memory, a burned-out kingdom littered with the dead. Moore suggests that this fantastic alternate reality is British culture, and that its ruin comes from the outside, from the real world. The Potter character becomes not just an avatar of ultimate evil but a symbol of the banality that created him, and that Moore thinks is destroying us all.
The final showdown with the Potter Moonchild takes place in another dimensional nexus, where Quatermain is killed (by a method that defies description) and a character mysteriously similar to Mary Poppins saves the day. (And this was before the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.)
It’s tempting to think Moore has gone off the rails a bit with Century 2009. The adventure in the three Century comics is increasingly esoteric, philosophical, and conceptual; Moore’s speculations about the nature of fiction and the course of history take precedence over the intricate world-building of earlier League stories. But a careful reading suggests that the whole project has been leading to this point, and that the series’ ambiguous and enigmatic end is what Moore’s had in mind all along.
The entire series so far has been an argument against progress and optimism; the battles against Moriarty and the Martians represented the end of the British empire and the rise of the bloody 20th century, Victorian faith in science and reason erased by technology, xenophobia, and mass warfare. It’s not surprising that Moore would raise the stakes as the series approaches real time. Century is a curdled contemporary satire of modern cultural rot as Moore sees it. The end of the world can be put off, he seems to say, but it’s also already here.