A new League book is always cause for celebration, as Moore’s sole ongoing piece of comics work, but it’s fair to say that this one – the first story from the third volume, “Century”, hasn’t quite had us breaking out the fireworks. So why is that?
Part of the problem is the format – although the book is loosely structured around the story of Nemo’s daughter making the transition from carefree princess to becoming the new pirate captain of the Nautilus, that story does disappear for vast swathes of the pagetime. The decision to release Century in thirds, something more than issues but less than graphic novels, plays with reader expectations slightly too much – this might be big enough to contain a full narrative, but it is, instead, unquestionably the opening act of a wider story. As such, the pace is slow, the structure is weak and the plotting mostly consists of things that one imagines will be paid off in future volumes.
That’s not to say it’s not entertaining – the returning Mina and Quatermain are joined by Orlando, also seen in the Black Dossier, and various other miscreants and outcasts from fiction throughout history. The closest thing we see to an antagonist is Haddo, the League’s Alistair Crowley analogue, and it’s his potential threat, along with Carmacki’s prophetic visions, that drive the action forward as the League, such as it currently is, attempts to unravel what’s going on – which, as it turns out, isn’t actually very much.
Moore’s Victorian wit utterly shines through in the dialogue, and O’Neill’s artwork in particular is as brilliant as it’s ever been, and there’s a particularly brilliant moment with Norton, Prisoner of London, as he snaps back to the “present” – after so long regarding O’Neill’s artwork as shorthand for “the past” it’s appropriately jarring to see him now rendering present-day King’s Cross in all its glory. For a change, the frequently prose section at the end of this volume is almost as enjoyable as the preceeding comic, and vastly outclasses the previous attempts. As a collection of very short vignettes, it offers some welcome references to other League stories and some all-new material as well, all of which have their own strengths – it’s a far more preferable supplement than Volume 2’s utterly impenetrable almanac was.
Although written by one of the most technically proficient writers ever seen in comics, there are some moments where the book falters a little, as it tries to move beyond the usual boundaries of a comic. Moore has made frequent attempts at inserting musical elements into comics for decades now, and always with mixed success. While it’s completely like him to try and take the medium to new places, there’s a sense that after yet another lukewarm attempts, it might be time to admit that a comicbook musical might simply be beyond the capabilities of the form. Certainly, the songs – or rather, lyrics – in this story don’t really work on their own terms.
Since the last instalment of League, The Black Dossier, was Moore at his experimental best, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by – songs aside – this volume’s return to more traditional comics. For the first time, we get an instalment of the League that doesn’t definitively better its predecessor. The best excuse for that, of course, is that we’re not supposed to be evaluating it as a complete work – but when it’s presented as such, it’s a little hard to get out of that mindset. It delivers all the elements one could expect from the League – obscure references, in-jokes, a peculiarly English mix of polite reservedness and dark, unforgiving cynicism – but when it comes down to it, it’s just not a satisfying narrative – in a couple of years, when the series is complete, one suspects these complaints will be entirely moot. Unfortunately, that point is still some time away.