Friday, July 14, 2006

Heroes and Monsters

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999- )
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003)

Peta Wilson is LXG’s Mina Harker. The Australian actress
and model can next be seen in SUPERMAN RETURNS,
in the dizzying role as "flight attendant."
 
WHAT is known today as Steampunk has its beginnings in the early days of Victorian penny dreadfuls and the novels of Jules Verne; an increasingly literate public took advantage of the opportunities for adventure and high romance offered them by Verne, Wells, Haggard, Conan Doyle and Burroughs, as well as the macabre tales of Poe and Hawthorne. Steampunk, is in part, a nostalgic reclamation of Victorian and Edwardian Scientific Romances, Imperialist derring-do and Gothic horrors, reminiscing about a more elegant age that never really existed. Yet the spectre of the Victorian era has never left the discourse of the fantastic for very long; new creators always seem to find themselves returning to this steam-driven crucible, an age of tremendous aesthetic decadence yet sublime heavy industry.

The mannerisms and references Alan Moore drops into his comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen makes it a veritable Steampunk bible. Previously, the Northampton writer has subverted and reinvented myths about superheroes (Watchmen (1986)) and Jack the Ripper (From Hell (1988-98)), and this time he’s taken it further by pulling literature into the graphic medium like never before. Illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, the series is a homage to the grand adventure stories of yesteryear, with a dark slant that only Moore could envision. By applying the conventions of the superhero team-up book to characters of Victorian literature – Mina Murray from Dracula (1897), Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Invisible Man all acting under the auspices of the British Secret Service – the scenario recreates the reading experiences and entertainment we had as children. But we have the best of both worlds – a youthful sense of wonder and a mature reflection upon it.

The League are recognisable characters, not just visually but in terms of their literary and cultural reputations. Beyond that Western readers know them because they represent archetypal characters from Victorian literature, archetypes that are still present in popular culture.

The typical Moore twist is that each of the characters are presented as being somewhat past their prime, and well past their individually known stories. Quatermain, for instance, is rescued from an opium den and a life of dissolution, and Wilhemina Murray, formerly Mina Harker - erstwhile wife of the ill-fated Jonathan Harker - continually conceals her neck after incidents which left her ravaged by a foreign nobleman (i.e. Count Dracula), thus setting her outside of polite society. Therefore, this is not a gathering of squeaky clean heroic individuals, which makes them all the more interesting. With Quatermain an addict, Dr Jekyll threatening to change into Mr Hyde at any stressful moment, and The Invisible Man remaining completely amoral, things are never straightforward.

Moore and O’Neill evidently revel in this new pulp universe. The idea of a Victorian League is just a starting point, with the creative team tirelessly working in the era’s architectural fancies into their fantasy environment. The fact that all characters or names refereed in the strip would have their origin in either fictions written during or before the period in hand, or else in elements from later works that could be retro-engineered into a continuity, has made the series popular with normally non-comic book fans, including Sherlockians and the H. Rider Haggard Appreciation Society. O’Neill renders an intricate world of Empire at its zenith emerging from the filth and squalor of an authentic 19th Century London; his scratchy style is particularly effective with Hyde and Nemo, portraying a brutish appearance and imposing filed fangs for the former, and an appropriate burning gaze for the latter. His pencils are often cartoonish but always precise and full of motion and expression, lending each character, no matter how trivial, a unique sense of personality.

The first volume of stories centre around an amount of Cavorite being stolen by a nefarious crime lord, while the second series is set amongst H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion. Depicted here is the Question Mark Man, a trademark from the first series who tends to have been replaced by a Boadicea figure in the second. In both instances, the symbols resonate with a bygone era.

This freshness of ideas and execution make Stephen Norrington’ 2003 film adaptation even more depressing, despite some astounding set design by Carol Spier. Typically known as LXG, this abomination, starring Sean Connery as Quatermain, starts exploding in your face almost immediately. The movie brings the characters together to battle a supervillain called the Fantom, but uses them like guest stars in some television variety show. As we watch, often dumbstruck, Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) minces around trying to hide his portrait, and The Invisible Man (Guy Skinner) literally disappears for huge stretches and then reappears with the same annoying cockney accent and bad jokes. And in Venice, where the narrow canals can accommodate the Nautilus, the Fantom's men detonate explosions in the middle of a carnival, while our heroes - who now include, amazingly enough, Mississippi River ragamuffin Tom Sawyer (Shane West) for American interest - race around in a white limousine.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Moore's Murderer

From Hell (1988-98)
FROM HELL (2001)

Alan Moore has shaped and refined the art of comic book storytelling in a way that no other creator can claim, and may arguably be the mediums only true genius.

NORTHAMPTON scribe Alan Moore was the first modern writer to approach the comic book medium with the same intent and thoughtfulness expected of any successful novel or theatrical production. In an art form that is often dismissed as juvenile, Moore explores adult themes and challenging subjects, but also experiments with form, creating different ways to combine text and image. By adding his own highly tuned sense of playfulness, Moore creates a nexus where readers can embrace some of the deepest aspirations of humankind while exploring the heritage of the comic book universe. From Hell, a post-modern grimoire of Jack the Ripper written by Moore and studiously illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is an exhaustively researched magnum opus, both a baroque conspiracy story and an intricate dissection of the Victorian era. As the Ripper cuts and slashes the "warm corpse of history itself," Moore examines the burgeoning black library of Ripper lore for the facts, then rearranges them in a yarn that transcends the source material.

Starting work on the project exactly a century after the killings it portrays, Moore plays with the idea that the 1880’s were a sort of microcosm of what was going to happen in the 20th century - scientifically, artistically, and politically. The point is not to solve the murders; instead, he is interested in how the crimes have become part of a cultural psyche. Jack the Ripper, in a very real sense, never had a physical existence; he was a collage-creature, made from crank letters, hoaxes, and sensational headlines. Right from their inception, the murders entered the realm of fiction, and the reality of the case has rarely been anything but a sideshow. From Hell presents its Ripper as physician Royal Sir William Gull, commanded by Queen Victoria to suppress the evidence of a bastard born to Prince Albert Victor. Gull decides that he is a magician and that the murders will be acts of social magic, surmising that history itself has a structure, with Freemasonry its architects.

Eddie Campbell illustrates a London that to a large extent no longer exists, yet is arguably the book’s primary character.

One of the greatest attributes of Moore’s work is his deep knowledge of collaboration; his famously detailed scripts are the writer as auteur, but deliberately play to individual artist’s strengths. Through a cinematic sense of place, Campbell’s angry black-and-white renderings effectively convey the Victorians swimming against the tide, brutally bringing to life such realities as street prostitution - the cold, cheap rooms, the alcohol, and biscuits paid for a three pence a fuck (the infamous "thrupenny upright"). As drab as late 19th century London may have been, Moore and Campbell uncover the concealed energy lying below the surface, and From Hell burns with a secret, tragic knowledge.

Adapting the events, but not the narrative focus, of Moore and Campbell’s work, the film version of FROM HELL is imbued with violence, but it is not the violence of the book, rather the macho posturing and strong-arm tactics of Hollywood bad attitude. Scripted and dramatised in the formulaic manner of a serial-killer thriller, FROM HELL is the Whitechapel murders by the way of John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). Director brothers Albert and Allen Hughes give the impression that an American audience might gain if a British production tried to recreate Metropolis; no luminance is allowed to intrude on the film’s studied gloom, nor is their any evidence of industry, only indolence. Apart from the scene where Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp) and Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) saunter through Hampton Court Gardens, FROM HELL offers no relief from the squalor and dark-age superstition which it sees as epitomising the period. None of this is helped by the screenplay’s decision to have the historically respectable Abberline while away his leisure hours in an opium den, and act as a seer afflicted by precognitive glimpses of the killings.

Heather Graham, hopelessly miscast as Mary Kelly, in the film adaptation of FROM HELL.

The murders themselves are varied and stylish, ranging from SE7EN (1996)-style montages to giallo-influenced throat slashing, but given the film had two hands on the directorial tiller, overall it is conventionally handled. Endless crane shots and a surplus of lap dissolves work against the action; one sequence employs time-lapse photography to show the gathering of a crowds around the body of Polly Nichols, but this is a gimmick used in isolation and reminiscent of the glass-ceiling shot in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927). But it is the weak casting of the two leads that is the primary flaw. A glum Depp struggles to maintain his bizarre Scottish/Cockney accent, and Graham radiates a sunny Californian physicality despite her dyed red hair and working girl lilt that would not even pass for a prostitute in modern day Los Angeles, let alone in the mean streets of Victorian London. This problem is amplified further by a superior British supporting cast, including Ian Holm as Gull, and most memorably Jason Flemyng as the Ripper’s coachman, Netley.