“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”– “Campion Bond,” 1908, presumed ancestor to future spies.
The steam-punkish Victorian England that Alan Moore put together for 1999’s”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is almost as densely referential as the world of Warren Ellis’ subsequent “Planetary.” There’s some friendly competition between those titles and creators- and both inspired plenty of imitators during the last decade. Every recent team-up culled from the public domain owes much to how the mysterious “M” brings together no-nonsense, heavily-scarfed Mina Harker, (from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”); former adventurer, present opium-sot Allan Quatermain, (from H. Rider Haggard’s books); Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island”); H. G. Wells’ Hawley “Invisible Man” Griffin; and the dichotomous disasters that are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Peripherally involved are Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; we find out that a previous generation of Leaguers involved Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, the Baroness D’Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo- the Minutemen to the League’s “Watchmen”. Loftier and subtler literary references also abound, from one-panel nods to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Emile Zola’s “Nana,” Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden,” and Henry James’ “The Bostonians”, to other allusions I would never have sussed out without some looking around, like the cheeky nods to Susan Coolidge’s series of Katy novels, or to “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”
In any case, Sherlock Holmes is dead (or-is-he?) and has left a power vacuum that allows treacherous forces to rise against the British Empire. In Volume 1, the League battles against evil, metaphorically Celestial forces (that is, against Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu-Manchu, not then in the public domain and therefore not mentioned by name); in Volume 2, the evil forces become literally Celestial, as we find out what truly happened during “The War of the Worlds.”
Moore’s intent might be in tying together literary creations in Wold Newton fashion, but his satirical barbs are aimed not so much at the heroes of his own literary youth as they are at an Empire in absurdly grimy decay. Here’s the sardonic, “in-our-next-issue” Narrator, indulging in xenophobia while teasing an imminent battle against Martian invaders:
“Lord love us! Can our nation’s doughtiest defenders quell the influx of these queerly-behaved foreign devils who show no sign of attempting to adapt to our time-honored English way of life, with cricket on the green and ladies bicycling to Evensong?”
P.S.: The annex to Volume II is its own marvel of fictional geography. Less marvelous was the 2003 film adaptation- a critical and popular flop that had Moore divorce himself from future Hollywood projects and is nonetheless being primed for rebooting because why not.