The central premise to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one that fits the above criteria like a glove. What if the greatest heroes of 19th century British fiction had been brought together to fight in common cause? Up until it's initial publication I think you'd be hard pressed to find such an idea in print. Fred Saberhagen did something similar in having two famous Victorians cross paths in his enjoyable novel The Holmes-Dracula File, but in comics I don't think we'd ever really seen the like. Oh sure, Batman once met Sherlock Holmes but that was in a contemporary setting, a cameo appearance in an anniversary issue of Detective Comics that worked to pass the torch from the previous 'World's Greatest Detective' to his modern heir.
League is a very different story, and over the course of it's initial three volumes the story shifts and changes to become something quite different. Within the first volume the premise sells the story; A gentleman by the name of Campion Bond (clearly a paunchy, officious ancestor to a more famed secret agent), has Mina Murray (of Dracula fame) assemble a band of unlikely champions to obtain a stolen piece of scientific equipment from an evil mastermind with the fate of England and the Empire in the balance. The intrepid band consists of Allan Quartermain (hero of King Solomon's Mines), Captain Nemo(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doctor Henry Jekyll(and his alter ego, the brute Edward Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel), and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man (of H.G. Wells' eponymous novel). Together they square off against the fiendish ruler of Limehouse at the behest of their patron, the mysterious individual known only as M.
This first volume of League served as the basis for the film LXG, and if you've seen that film you have a rough idea of the characters in question and their ultimate adversary, but by no means think that knowledge of the film gives you knowledge of the work in question. LXG is an extremely watered down, gutted, and restructured version of the League comic, with only the characters remaining included (albeit with the addition of Tom Sawyer to appeal to American audiences). Even then liberties are taken in the extreme, particularly with the placement of Tom Sawyer. The casting of Sean Connery as Quartermain remolds the character into a traditional badass role, whereas in the book the dynamic action and leadership role is filled by Mina Murray. Mina in the comic is not a vampire, but rather an independent divorcee and a woman whose virtue had been assaulted, both serious social black marks to the prudish society of 19th century England. Quartermain in the comic is a man who until recently had crawled into an opium den and was proceeding to stone himself into a narcotic oblivion, he's not the grizzled warrior of the Connery version and proves to be very keen on avoiding violence and preserving his safety until there's no other choice. By making Connery's Quartermain the central focus of the LXG league, the film loses the flavor of the original work. To say nothing of their portrayal of the Invisible Man. Moore keeps to the character of the original novel, implying a double had been stomped to death and that the original, quite insane Griffin of the novel is indeed alive and well. The Invisible Man of the comics is creepy and not at all likable, a far cry from the cheeky cockney thief of the film. About the only things the film got right were the visual aesthetic of Nemo, Jekyll and Hyde, but even then there are flaws. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you've only ever experienced the League through the film LXG, you owe it to yourself to check out the comic.
Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill clearly had a blast in creating the world of League, so much so that they came back for two additional volumes with a fourth on the way. What's fun to watch about the League books is the growing enthusiasm Moore has for the material. O'Neill's art is amazing stuff, almost feeling like it could conceivably been art from the period while at the same time having a contemporary energy that makes it leap off the page, particularly in his action sequences.
Volume One is just what it sets out to be, a fun adventure romp with a mess of references and sly nudges at English fiction. The sequel is even teased at, as explosions on the surface of Mars lead to the League's second great trial; the invasion of England by aliens as chronicled in Wells' War of the Worlds. The second volume's adventure itself is also fairly straightforward while immensely entertaining, so I won't ruin it for the prospective new reader. What I will say is that the backup feature to the main story hints at what is to come in Moore's next installment. The New Traveller's Almanac purports to be an Atlas of the world of the League, which one comes to realize as you read the work that it is literally the world of fiction itself. Everything is referred to here; from Camelot's ruins to Lilliput to Wonderland to Lovecraft's Arkham and the Mountains of Madness. Every piece of classic fiction that can be referenced, detailed, and stitched in as part of League's tapestry is made to fit with an exuberance and an attention to detail that is at once impressive and daunting. I'm uncertain as to whether he references everything in Western literature but it's damn near.
It's with the third volume that the series goes completely mad, and the series becomes as much about the nature of fiction as it does an adventure story proper. With Black Dossier, the storyline jumps to the 1950s, with the recently deposed Big Brother government (Orwell's own 1984 having come a bit earlier in the universe of the League)making way for the more traditional government of MI6 and secret agents of the Crown more along the lines of Campion's young nephew Jimmy(yeah, it's him. Moore and O'Neill can't outright say it but you know it is). Mina Murray and Alan Quartermain are presumed dead, along with the rest of the original 1898 League, but if that's the case who's after the Black Dossier, a compendium on the League since its earliest incarnation in the court of Queen Elizabeth? What are the hidden secrets it contains and why are this man and wife pair on the run from the secret service with it? Moore and O'Neill explore the world of fiction of Britain in the 1950s, from secret agent tales like the Bond and Bulldog Drummond stories to the dreams of the space age present in comics like Dan Dare, the references are again all over the place. Here the main plot does tend to take a back seat to the sourcebook material provided by the Black Dossier itself, and the lead up to the book's 3-D finale. Here the secret truth of the League's world is laid bare, and it's at this point I think some people may check out of the story. Not to give anything away, but let's just say things get seriously metaphysical at the end. Whether or not Moore and O'Neill can parlay that mad energy into a more action-oriented story in the upcoming Century volume has yet to be determined. Either avenue of exploration sounds great to me.
The League's world has become one not just of exiting adventure stories, but of a greater story about stories themselves. If that seems a bit paradoxical, one shouldn't be alarmed at this point. To expect a standard of normalcy and your imagination unchallenged in an Alan Moore story is to walk away disappointed.