Another Sidekick Ruined By Puberty
Sin City: Hell And Back, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 1 & 2
True believers, skeptics, and outright detractors,
I know, I promised the bone-breaking, face-melting conclusion to World War Hulk
last month. But occasionally even comic fans have to face reality. World War Hulk
#5 is late. Right now the bigwigs at Marvel are sitting around a darkened table,
smoking cigars and cackling, "Now that we've got them hooked, we'll just string
them along for a while. Heh. Heh heh heh." (I have this on good authority.)
You know what, though? I'm glad they did this. I don't know if it's my graduate
English program, or a weighing sense of my own mortality, or the cupcakes I had
for breakfast, but I have the urge to write something important. A Column That
Matters, dare I say. And in order to do that, I have to examine the things that
Really Matter, which World War Hulk cannot offer. You know what they are.
Graphic sex and violence.
Last month we partially discussed the effects of Frank Miller, creator of 300 and
Alan Moore, creator of V for Vendetta, on the comics industry. Those two are
responsible for more change in the way comics are produced, and the way people
look at them, than any other creators. Recap for those who missed it: Miller and
Moore, in the 1980s, portrayed superhero comics for the first time as adult fare,
full of costumed maniacs who gleefully crossed the line between heroism and
terrorism. Right now Marvel and DC are following suit by making their big
commodities more fluid. Spider-Man's secret identity is blown. Superman lost his
powers for a full year, Iron Man is a Cheney-style political tycoon, etc., etc.
But there have been other effects of Miller and Moore that were not so much fun.
Remember when you thought there would be more than three Nirvana albums? It
was also the Dark Age of comics, and Miller and Moore are partially to blame. In
1991-1994, at the same time that the comics market was dealing with its
emergence as a hot investing commodity, creators attempted to ape the work of
Miller and Moore by making everything "dangerous." That usually meant that,
among flashy art and foil-embossed covers, creators slapped a ponytail, stubble
and a bad attitude on their heroes, and tore the clothes off the heroines. (Okay, the
last is a tried-and-true comics formula, but the 90s went further than ever.) We'd
all like to forget the results. Superman even grew a ponytail. Superman grew a
(For that matter, "ponytail" sounds about as dangerous as "bunny nose" when you
really look at it, but that's another column.)
It doesn't help that Moore and Miller's stuff is determinedly lowbrow. These guys
tend to create High Art in an accidental way, by loading their comics with the
aforementioned sex & violence that somehow ends up as social commentary in a
As a matter of fact, it's hard to say what is so life-changing about Miller and
Moore, while it's rather easy to see how many creators got their legacy wrong.
They don't have the social complexity of Art Spiegelman's Maus or the real-life
heartache of Marjane Sartrapi's Persepolis. They lack the mythic force of Neil
Gaiman's Sandman. They write superheroes as nasty violent people with the
finesse of snowplows. How did they affect the industry so?
We shall see.
Sin City: Riding on his fame from the mid-80s Dark Knight Returns and
Daredevil: Born Again stories, Frank Miller fed an audience hungry for style over
substance with his mid-90s noir comics for Dark Horse. If you've seen the movie,
you've seen a nearly word-for-word adaptation of the first stories in the series. If
you haven't, the first few pages of Hell and Back, reproducing a panel from the
comic, will tell you all you need to know. It's a close-up of our hero's face as he
tells one of many questionable damsels in distress, "I'm going to kill somebody.
Put your clothes on."
Miller doesn't fool around with his formula. Guy meets girl. Sex, murder and
promises ensue, ending in blood and explosions. In this case the guy is Wallace, a
former Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor winner (for what we're not told) and the
girl is Esther, a lonely actress who throws herself off a cliff. After Wallace rescues
her and the two fall in something like love, she is kidnapped by looming figures for
mysterious experiments. Wallace wades through an army of corrupt cops, a series
of bizarre drug trips, and a blue-lipped nymphomaniac trying to distract him from
Esther before he tracks down the flesh ring keeping her captive. And then things
Miller's art, like the movie's visual style, pinwheels through a world painted in
shards and shadows. There's the explosion of little triangular fish as Esther
plummets into the ocean, and the black backflips of a truck as its payload explodes.
There's the long visual trips down the curves of Delia, the more questionable of the
story's girls. If you've seen the movie, you've seen a decent adaptation of the art
style, but there is no excuse to miss the original. Miller's drawings move with
power and grace, slipping along slinky roads and slinky females between hulking
shadows and overexposed white spaces.
Hell & Back is notable for the only extended full-color sequence in the Sin City
mythos -- a watercolor acid trip as our hero, doped to the gills, continues to pursue
the kidnapped Esther, fighting police who appear as dinosaurs and aided by a
friend who appears as alternately a Roman centurion, Hellboy and Hagar the
Horrible. When he manages to get himself "fixed" by a drug master Medusa, two
full pages of black and white gunshots reassure us that everything is back to dark,
violent normal. The full-color real world has no place in Sin City. This is a world
where black and white means something. Girls are in trouble and guys have to bust
some heads to save them. Don't look for anything more -- yet it's one of the most
Important Comics of Recent Years.
On to Alan Moore, who, besides writing the seminal superhero series Watchmen, is
a shaggy English warlock rumored to sacrifice chickens. (I'm serious.)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is Alan Moore's second paean to the
Victorians he first monkeyed with in From Hell. As anyone who has seen the
really, really bad film adaptation knows, it's about a turn-of-the-century superhero
team, featuring Allan Quatermain of King Solomon's Mines, Mina Harker/Murray
of Dracula, Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the conveniently
self-titled Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
In the first volume, our heroes battle against a government conspiracy
masterminded by Dr. Moriarty, involving anti-gravity, a secret underground
Chinese mafia city, and airship battles. In the second, not to be outdone, they battle
the Martian spores of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds with a little help from Dr.
No doubt an actual Victorian would be surprised at Moore's mishmash of their
literature, which includes such "respectable" scenes as Mr. Hyde literally chewing
his way through a crowd of machete-wielding Chinese hit men, the Invisible Man's
attempt at immaculate conception, or Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray's erm …
dalliance … in the woods. The best part is the tongue-in-cheek narration after one
racy scene: "Gaze, children, on the unhappy fornicators in their sorry bed of sin,
and resolve to learn from their shameful example. Should this dismal moral lesson
fail to persuade you to lifelong abstinence, fear not, for there shall be another such
fierce instruction in our next socially-responsible number."
The art by Kevin O'Neill is wonderfully versatile. It switches from the dry
upstanding expressions of the League, as straight-faced as a pack of cards, to epic
shots of spidery Martian war machines blasting men, horses and trees to fiery green
shreds, to the cartoony creatures of Dr. Moreau, including a familiar toad driving a
familiar automobile. Kevin O'Neill can apparently draw anything with both wit
The comic itself is, like Sin City, a lot of deranged fun. Between running around
through 19th-century Morocco, or rampaging under London, or battles on Edgar
Rice Burroughs' Mars, the reader might not realize that there's little of the weighty
themes from Moore's earlier work. But that's good -- I mean, I couldn't read
From Hell or Watchmen every day.
In fact, about the only deep aspect of League is its backhanded commentary on
Victoriana. It's a terrible simplification to say that the Victorians were as uptight as
they've been painted in our popular culture, but they were obsessed with morality.
In contrast to that and perhaps because of it, this is a comic where morality is a
liability. It's no surprise that by the end of the second volume the amoral Mr. Hyde
has established himself as the preeminent figure of power in the series. When the
Invisible Man betrays the group to the Martians, it is Hyde who hunts him down
and makes him pay in ways that Robert Louis Stevenson never imagined. When
the Martians must be delayed, Hyde leaps into the fray, tearing down the war
machine and eating the slimy inhabitant. Hyde's speech shortly after his murder of
the Invisible Man suggests that, rather than the symbiotic relationship he has
affected with Dr. Jekyll, he is just a creature who needed to be set free. "Without
me, Jekyll has no drives, and without him I have no restraints." Moore seems to be
making Hyde the soul of the 20th century to come, the Great War loosed from the
The most eyebrow-raising aspect of this is the modern-day take on the ending of
War of the Worlds. A mysterious object has been procured from Dr. Moreau and
shot at the Martians. "Isn't it one of Moreau's hybrids?" Quatermain asks as the
missile is fired. "Oh yes," the government liaison answers. "It's a hybrid all right.
Anthrax and streptococcus, if I remember correctly." When pressed for details, he
answers, "Officially the Martians died of the common cold. Any humans died of
Germ warfare in 1898? That's the beauty of League. It's twisted and debased and
bloody and it would be a terribly depressing comic in modern times -- but it's
Victorian! How funny they were.
Ultimately, that's about all there is to gain from League and Sin City. They're fun.
They're twisted. They're not the kind of thing you want to read with your mother
And there's the hidden beauty of Moore and Miller: they are doing exactly the
things your mother warned you about comics, and they're doing them perfectly.
League and Sin City are love ballads to the colorful panel page, to the ridiculous
hyperreal possibilities of comics. They take tropes of film and literature and blow
them up into freewheeling, brain-popping narration that can't work anywhere else
unless, like in the Sin City film, they make a point of visually worshipping the
comics medium. They're sick, sick men, and that's why we love them. 'Nuff said.
Next month: We visit the town of Tackleford and the cute twenty-something
hipsters therein, who struggle with love lives, day jobs, and the end of the world.
Scary Go Round, in thirty.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth