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Can you resist the 'graphic' novel?
Jai Arjun Singh |
September 12, 2005
For those of us who love intelligent comics, it's a welcome sign that 'graphic novels' -- as they are, pretentiously but perhaps unavoidably, called -- are becoming widely available in India. And if, for the time being they are relegated to children's sections, well, that's something we can live with.
Neil Gaiman's Sandman series can now be found, or ordered, at most leading bookshops, but another series that is rapidly growing in popularity is Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some of the interest can be attributed to the shockingly mediocre movie version that was released a couple of years ago (to much hype in this country, because Naseeruddin Shah played Captain Nemo) but anyone who approaches the series on its own terms should be able to see it for what it is -- literate and mind-expanding, so powerful in imagination and execution it's depressing that its popularity has been largely restricted to what is seen as the comic-geek underground.
Set in the late 19th century, and written in a form that mimics picture-periodicals of the time ('The next edition of our new Boys' Picture Monthly will continue this arresting yarn, in which the Empire's finest are brought into conflict with the sly Chinee...'), LXG draws its lifeblood from Victorian adventure fiction.
In volume 1, Allan Quatermain from King Solomon's Mines, Mina Harker from Dracula, Hawley Griffin from The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde come together to battle the arch-villain M, who turns out to be Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes's nemesis; in volume 2, the same unlikely band of heroes assembles to combat the Martians from H G Wells's War Of The Worlds. There is a betrayal, followed by terrible retribution. The beasts from The Island Of Dr Moreau make guest appearances.
Told in a distinctly cinematic form (the panels will remind you of storyboards), the LXGs are packed with references not just to 19th-century literature but also to the societal and political concerns of the time. Add the intensity of effort required to appreciate the writing in conjunction with O'Neill's complex illustrations and you have works that need to be revisited repeatedly, just so you can assimilate all the things you missed the first time.
Of course, LXG is only one in the long line of Alan Moore's achievements in this genre. Using the comic format to make penetrating comments about society is something he's been doing since the early 1980s, when his acclaimed Watchmen series turned the conventional definition of comic-book superheroes on its head -- imagining a world where superheroes really exist but have their own personal demons and are unable to miraculously rid the planet of its ills.
But Moore's most viscerally effective work is probably From Hell, a gut-churning graphic novel that uses the Jack the Ripper murders as a vehicle to expose the dark underbelly of 1880s London and, in turn, to indict the century that is to follow. 'People will say I gave birth to the 20 century,' says the Ripper (a line that was quoted, woefully out of context, in the two-dimensional movie version starring Johnny Depp) -- and in a frisson-inducing touch, Moore juxtaposes this against the fact that Adolf Hitler was conceived sometime during the Ripper killings in 1888.
Few writers would have been able to make such a conceit work, in any medium. Moore does, and gets under our skin with it.
Also read: V For Vendetta, set in a fascist future Britain, where the title character V, an anarchist, takes on the system; many allusions to the work of George Orwell and William Blake.