By Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
Don’t say I’m not on the cutting edge of reviewing … This was a Christmas present from my better half – the hardcover version with O’Neill’s signature inside – so I’ve been taking my time and enjoying it. Because it’s a fascinating book.
The Black Dossier isn’t really a story, even though it tries to present itself as if it is a straightforward narrative (a theft followed by a chase and escape), so it doesn’t make for a satisfactory adventure tale. However, that’s not what it is supposed to be about – it’s a wonderful and entertaining book about narrative and the enjoyment of fiction itself.
The point of The Black Dossier is the attention to detail in the book, even in the insignificant matters: the credits are presented in the form of a London Underground map, where the contributors are the termini and the stops on the way describe them (stops for Moore are Higher Brow and Very Cross; O’Neill has Ink Staines and Whiteout City), with joke stops such as Arson Elbow, Tooting Bottom and Court Short. Notes tell us that ABC is ‘Closed for the duration’ and O’Neill is ‘Subject to delay at all times’. And this is just the start of the book.
The book’s narrative thrust is set in 1958, in an England slightly different to our own history due to the events influenced by fiction that Moore has interweaved into his amazingly detailed timeline. An unnamed but easily identifiable James Bond (oafish, thuggish, sexist) takes a young woman to Military Intelligence HQ at Vauxhall, except the young woman is Mina Harker (with the hilarious pseudonym Oodles O’Quim) and she deals with Bond, and steals the dossier with the aid of a young Allan Quartermain.
Because Mina and Allan read the dossier, we get to read the dossier, which is basically the history of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that Moore has worked out for these fictional versions of fictional characters. These are not a story, they are just information told in the form of spot-on pastiches of various styles of literature: the life of Orlando is told in the form of a 1953 picture story (a very large story, as it covers all the history of the past 3,000 years); a lost Shakespeare first folio describing the start of ‘Prospero’s Men’; the illustrated new adventures of Fanny Hill; Victorian prose for the memoirs of Campion Bond, who formed the first Murray group (as our League is described), which fills in a lot of detail; postcards of Mina’s travels; the hilariously titled ‘What Ho, Gods of the Abyss’ as Bertie Wooster meets the world of Lovecraft, in an adventure handled by a later Murray group; a chapter of a Beat novel about Mina and Allan; a Tijuana insert about ‘SexJane’; before finishing the book with a 3D section in Blazing World.
It’s an incredible achievement and a fascinating book, displaying Moore’s talent for mimicry and O’Neill’s ability to draw anything, even if his square and harsh anatomy has always looked a little ugly to my tastes, which means the sexy sections are not quite as alluring as they should be. He’s a talented artist but I’ve never really liked his style (I always associate him with Nemesis in 2000 AD) and it doesn’t vary as much for the different sections as other artists would. Each of the individual parts are enjoyable, with the exception of the Beat novel chapter – I have to confess I couldn’t get through more than a few sentences before giving up (and I now know that I don’t want to read Beat novels); I think the tedium of this chapter was the reason for the Tijuana insert in the middle of this bit. The comic book part is also fun, with references to other fictional narratives: references to the Prisoner, Dan Dare, 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, Triffids, The Third Man, The 39 Steps, Billy Bunter, the Men from UNCLE, to name but a small number (you need annotations to get the most out of this book). It is also funny, which is something people forget about Moore: he has an impish sense of humour and he should be allowed to indulge it once in a while – not everything has to be serious. This isn’t going to be on lists of Moore’s best works but it is a typically excellent book, even if it is such a curio. It’s a wonderful companion piece to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mini-series and I’m glad he got DC to pay for it after all they’ve done to him – who else would have been published the glorious 3D section (which is fabulous)? If you love the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you’ll love this book.