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cic2007-12-14.jpgLike many of you, I used to visit my local comic book store every week, usually on the day that the new comics went on sale. Nowadays, though, my visits are more likely once a month. Part of the reason is that I work out of home, but even so, if I wanted to, I could make the effort to stop by a comics store on each of my weekend prowls about Manhattan. The real reason I go to comics stores infrequently (by comics culture standards) is that I long ago lost that fannish eagerness to see the latest issue of an ongoing series. Every once in awhile, I check in to a longrunning Marvel or DC series to find out what’s going on, or to judge the work of its current writer for myself. And in almost every instance I find myself disappointed and unmotivated to pick up the following issue.

But last month brought an exception to what has become the rule. On the day that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier went on sake, I made a special trip into Manhattan, with no other reason than to pick up a copy of the book. I started reading the Dossier on the subway trip home. Once back home I went into lockdown mode, as I hadn’t since the last Harry Potter book (see “Comics in Context #187: “All Hallows Eve”).

I read continuously to about the halfway point, when I abruptly wondered if Jess Nevins had already begun annotating the Black Dossier on his website. An authority on Victorian popular literature, Nevins has written two “unofficial” companion books to the League, published by MonkeyBrain Press: Heroes and Monsters, about the first volume of League (see “Comics in Context” #37: “High Noon for Mutants”), and A Blazing World, about the second volume (see “Comics in Context” #66: “A Christmas Potpourri”), each containing an enormous list of annotations plus essays about the source material for League, and interviews with Moore.

Checking Nevins’ website I discovered that, yes, he had: as it turned out, Nevins had been sent an advance copy of the Dossier. So then I began plowing through Nevins’ astonishingly lengthy list of annotations for the first half of Dossier, before finishing the second half and its annotations on the following day.

Not only that, but I spotted two gaps in the Dossier annotations. League heroine Mina Murray has a music hall poster that gives top billing to the team of Lewis and Clark (not the famous explorers of the same names). I fired off an e-mail to Jess Nevins, explaining that “Lewis and Clark” were the vaudeville team from Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys. For the following two weeks I sent additional annotations to Nevins, most of which he accepted for use on his site. And I was far from alone: there was a veritable League of Extraordinary Annotators who sent in supplementary annotations to Nevins’ list, including artist Kevin O’Neill and even the legendary fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, some of whose own characters are alluded to by Moore in the Dossier. You can see the massive annotations list here, and Nevins will further expand it for his Black Dossier companion book, Impossible Territories, which MonkeyBrain Press will publish in July 2008. And good heavens, I just checked, and Nevins has updated the Dossier annotations yet again (as of December 10)!

Longtime readers of this column already know about my enthusiasm for Moore and O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (see “Comics in Context” #22 : “Major League” and Comics in Context” #23: “An Extraordinary Trio”). For those who came in late, the League postulates an alternate history in which the characters of fiction–from both literary classics and popular culture–exist and interact. Every character with a speaking role in League is either a character from a preexisting work of fiction or a relative of such a character. In the original series, set in the 1890s, Moore and O’Neill introduced a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” comprised of Mina Murray from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Allan Quatermain from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and other works, Captain Nemo of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the title character of H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, as a team of special operatives for the British government. In the first series the League intervened in a war between the criminal masterminds Professor Moriarty (from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) and Dr. Fu Manchu (who went unnamed since he is still under copyright); in the second series followed the League’s role in combating the archetypal Martian invasion chronicled in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Moore’s original motive in co-creating the League was to explore the roots of the superhero genre. Hence, the 1890s League resembles a superhero team, and even includes a few members with super-powers (Hyde and the Invisible Man); even the series’ title seems to allude to the Justice League and the X-Men with their “extraordinary” abilities.

Moore realized that League provided him with the opportunity to explore the entire history of fiction. In the second League series, by means of a continuing text feature, “The New Traveller’s Almanac,” Moore laid out much of the history of this alternate Earth, incorporating fictional characters from works ranging as far back as ancient classical literature, and other characters from beyond the 1890s, well into the twentieth century.

The principal story in Black Dossier is set in the Britain of 1958. Founding League members Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, who are lovers, have become eternally young immortals, thanks to their immersion in the Fires of Life from H. Rider Haggard’s “She” novels, as suggested in the Almanac in the second series. (And yes, getting Mina out of her previous Victorian costumes provides O’Neill with numerous occasions to demonstrate his skill at attractively drawing the female form.) Warned by Winston Churchill, Mina and Allan severed their ties with the British government following World War II and left for America. In the postwar years, Britain fell under the totalitarian dictatorship described by George Orwell in hs novel 1984: since 1984 was actually published in 1948, that’s when the events of the novel took place in League’s world. By 1958 the 1984 regime has fallen, and Mina and Allan return to England to locate and steal British intelligence’s “Black Dossier,” its file of reports on the League’s history.

But British intelligence is now headed by Harry Lime, the amoral mastermind created by writer Graham Greene in the 1949 film The Third Man, and one of his foremost operatives is a ruthless, womanizing assassin who calls himself “Jimmy.” The latter is a thinly veiled version of James Bond, who teams up with a very young female operative who is skilled in martial arts named Emma Night. Dedicated fans of the 1960s television series The Avengers may know that the episode “The House that Jack Built” established that the maiden name of the series foremost heroine, Mrs. Emma Peel, is Knight (see “Comics in Context” #52: “Mod as a Hornet” and #53: “The A-Files”). One couple, “Jimmy” and Miss Knight, is out to stop their counterparts, Allan and Mina.

Though this storyline is the heart of Black Dossier, it also serves as a frame for excerpts from the “Black Dossier” itself. Black Dossier the graphic novel is an postmodern collage of different formats. Moore and O’Neill recount the 1958 exploits of Allan and Mina in familiar comics form, no different from that of League Volumes 1 and 2, save for the final pages..

But various documents from the Black-Dossier-within-the-Black-Dossier take the form of O’Neill’s recreations of earlier styles of comics and cartoon art, from a political cartoon in the style of the 18th century cartoonist James Gillray (see “Comics in Context” #72: “F. O. G.”) to a comics version of a sequence from Orwell’s 1984 presented in the style of a pornographic “Tijuana Bible.” Other visual experiments by Moore and O’Neill range from picture postcards to credits pages in the form of a parody of the London Underground map. The most spectacular visual tour de force in Dossier comes in its final pages, in which Mina and Allan’s visit to the fourth-dimensional “Blazing World” is depicted in a 3-D comics sequence, with 3-D glasses attached to the inside back cover.

Other Dossier documents are text pieces in which Moore utilizes different styles, formats, and narrative voices, presenting, for example, government reports on the League and an excerpt from the memoirs of Campion Bond, James’s grandfather, who was a character in League volumes 1 and 2. More significantly, Moore experiments with recreating the styles of other authors: William Shakespeare in two scenes from a “lost” play Faeries’ Fortunes Founded, part of a sequel to the 18th century erotic novel Fanny Hill, a P. G. Wodehouse pastiche in which Jeeves and Bertie Wooster encounter not only the League but also a supernatural menace out of the H. P. Lovecraft mythos, and The Crazy Wide Forever, an imitation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On the Road, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Through such “documents” in the dossier-within-the-Dossier, Moore further explores and establishes the history of the League’s world, both before and after the stories of League’s first two volumes. For example, Prospero, the sorcerer who is the protagonist of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, also appears in Faeries’ Fortunes Founded; in the Almanac Moore had already established that Prospero was the founder of the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the 17th century. The second incarnation of the League, in the 18th century, was headed by Lemuel Gulliver of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and included Fanny Hill, who appears in another of the Dossier’s pastiches.

Initially I found the pseudo-Kerouac style in which Moore wrote The Crazy Wide Forever nearly impenetrable, although once some of the Extraordinary Annotators supplied keys to its plot, the pastiche finally made sense to me on my third try at reading it.

I’ve never read Kerouac, but the stream of conscuousness style of The Crazy Wide Forever, and its profusion of puns, reminded me of James Joyce. This is no accident, since Kerouac was greatly influenced by Joyce’s work (see the excerpt from Kerouac: The Definitive Biography by Paul Maher). I see that there is even an academic essay, “‘I Dig Joyce’: Jack Kerouac and Finnegans Wake” by Michael H. Begnal, from the March 22, 1998 Philological Quarterly.
I wonder if Alan Moore is also consciously following the lead of Joyce in his Black Dossier. In his landmark novel Ulysses Joyce not only employs the stream of consciousness technique, most famously in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the concluding “Penelope” chapter, but employs a variety of formats and styles in other chapters. For example, the “Ithaca” chapter is modeled on a catechism. with questions and answers. The “Circe” chapter is written as a script for a play, which grows increasingly surreal. The “Cyclops” chapter is primarily narrated in the first person, but includes extended passages in over thirty different narrative styles which Joyce utilizes for satiric purposes.

Moreover, in Ulysses and even more so in Finnegans Wake, Joyce fills his work with allusions and references that academics have been busily tracking down for decades. Similarly, the League books seem like bottomless pits filled with literary and historical references that a good number of us have been striving to decode. Jess Nevins is to Alan Moore on League what Stuart Gilbert was to James Joyce on Ulysses: the first person to publish a key to the mysteries of a book, that was unofficial yet had the author’s approval.

It is evident that Moore is attempting to do Shakespeare pastiches in two sections of the book. Whereas, as far as I’m concerned, Moore does a perfect mimicry of P. G. Wodehouse in Dossier, imitating Shakespeare is a far harder task. To my mind, Moore skillfully copies the form of a Shakespeare play in Faeries’ Fortunes Founded, but it comes off as hollow; he does not, perhaps cannot, come close to matching the poetic heights one expects from actual Shakespeare. But I think Moore is much more successful in the speech he gives Prospero in the concluding pages of Black Dossier, perhaps because it fervently expresses what appear to be Moore’s own ideas on the importance of the imagination. Ironically, Prospero’s last speech in Dossier seems to contradict some of what Prospero says in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Towards the end of the Black Dossier, Mina and Allan journey to “the Blazing World,” which first appeared in a work published in 1666 as an archipelago of islands extending from the North Pole nearly down to the British Isles. Moore presents the Blazing World as a single island that, though accessible from three-dimensional Earth, apparently exists on another plane of reality share time is “a physical dimension, so it’s all happening at once” (Dossier p. 184, panel 1). The Blazing World therefore exists beyond conventional time, in what may be eternity. Within the Blazing World sequence Moore and O’Neill depict Prospero and Fanny Hill, both members of former incarnations of the League, and both alive and well. All sorts of other characters from literature and even comics make cameos in the Dossier’s Blazing World sequence.

Moore’s version of the Blazing World is therefore like a heaven for the fictional characters of our world, who are real people in the world of League. Apparently they can exist there for eternity. This raises the question as to why Alan and Mina, or anyone else who is allowed entry to the Blazing World, would return to the mortal world, where they might die.

Inhabited by fictional characters, the Blazing World is metaphorically and perhaps literally a realm of the imagination. “I’m sure I used to dream about this place, when I was a little girl,” says Mina. Allan responds, “I think I caught a glimpse of the Blazing World in a vision once, during my opium years.” (Dossier, p. 178, panel 1). As I observe in Nevins’ Black Dossier annotations, O’Neill’s depiction of the Blazing World bears resemblances to the literal dream world of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. You could think of the Blazing World as a more joyous version of the Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Black Dossier concludes with a speech by Prospero, the founder of the original League, who begins, “For truly is our cavalcade now done. . . ” (Dossier p. 190, panel 1). This evokes the first line of Prospero’s most famous speech in The Tempest, following a play-within-a-play, like the masques of the early Jacobean period, that was enacted by spirits he had conjured up:

“Our revels are now ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And. like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like the insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.” (Act IV, Scene i, lines 162-172)

Prospero likes to refer to his prowess in magic as his “art.” In this speech Prospero (who admittedly is in a foul mood at this point) dismisses the creation of his “art,” the masque performed by the spirits, as an “insubstantial pageant,” a “vision” with a baseless fabric,” an illusion lacking in reality. Thus, perhaps, Shakespeare, if he is speaking his own mind through Prospero, perceives the creations of art, including his own as playwright, as transitory, perhaps even empty of lasting substance. Moreover, Prospero observes that the real world is not eternal, either, and that not only the “gorgeous “palaces”–man’s architectural works–but even “the great globe itself” will someday come to an end. (The “great globe” may have a double meaning, both to the earth and to the Globe Theatre, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed. Thus Shakespeare may be reiterating a belief that art does not last forever.)

Furthermore, Prospero points out that people are mortal, as well. The “sleep” that rounds each person’s “little”–meaning short–life is nonexistence, before his birth and after his death. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” has multiple meanings. If nonexistence is sleep, then life is like a waking dream, an illusion that lasts but a brief time. The “dreams” that are “made” upon us might be a reference to art, such as The Tempest itself. One might also argue that our lives are “dreams” in the imagination of the ultimate creative artist, God.

The Tempest is the final play that Shakespeare composed without collaborators. Traditionally, it has been interpreted as bidding his farewell to the stage through the character of Prospero, who regards his magic as his “art,” and who acts as a sort of playwright and director in The Tempest, staging situations through which he manipulates the other characters. (It suddenly occurs to me that The Tempest is like a high art version of Survivor.) Just as Shakespeare was heading into retirement, so too Prospero decides to return from exile and give up the practice of his art, magic:

“But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.” (Act V Scene i, lines 54-58)

The book is his book of spells, and his staff is like his magic wand, like Gandalf’s staff in Lord of the Rings.

Christianity doesn’t approve of magic, so presumably Prospero would have to give up sorcery upon returning to society as Duke of Milan. If we interpret Prospero’s “art” as a metaphor for Shakespeare’s own, then Shakespeare appears to regard his art as a burden which he is relieved to surrender upon retirement.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series concluded with “The Tempest” in issue 75, in which Gaiman and artist Charles Vess not only depicted scenes from the play but told a story of Shakespeare himself meeting once more with Morpheus, the Sandman, who “opened a door” to Shakespeare’s imagination, enabling him to put the “great stories” in the form of enduring plays. Prospero’s speech in Shakespeare’s Tempest may suggest that even art fades away . In Gaiman’s “Tempest,” fellow playwright Ben Jonson predicts that Shakespeare’s plays will not last, but Morpheus truthfully declares that they will, that he endowed Shakespeare with “the power to give men dreams that would live on, after you were gone.”

Despite acknowledging the greatness if Shakespeare’s works, Gaiman’s “Tempest” also depicts art as a burden to its creators, a kind of servitude. Gaiman’s Shakespeare tells Morpheus, “For a goodly part of my life I have been in your service.” Shakespeare must repay Morpheus by writing two plays about dreams, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), from which Shakespeare, well into middle age, is satisfied to give up. Gaiman has Shakespeare refer to it as the “burden of words.”

Gaiman’s Shakespeare laments that his preoccupation with his art distanced him from normal life: “I’d fall in love, or fall in lust, and at the height of my passion, I would think, ‘So this is how it feels’ and I would tie it up in pretty words, I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else., My son died, and I was hurt, but I watched my hurt. and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss.”

After Morpheus removes Shakespeare’s ability to access his full creative powers, Gaiman shows Shakespeare writing Prospero’s concluding speech in The Tempest, in which he asks the audience, “as you from crimes would pardoned be,” to “set me free” by applauding his efforts. (By comparing himself to an imprisoned criminal, Prospero–and perhaps Shakespeare–shows just how oppressive his service to his art has felt.)

In this issue Shakespeare’s longing for release from servitude to his own creativity parallels Morpheus’s dissatisfaction with his own existence and even his personality. Morpheus explicitly compares himself to a Prospero who was not set free from his island of exile: “Because I will never leave my island. . . I am. . .in my fashion. . .an island. . . .” He tells Shakespeare, “I do not [change]. I may not. I am Prince of Stories, Will, but I have no story of my own. Nor shall I ever.”

But, of course, Gaiman’s Sandman series is indeed Morpheus’s story. Moreover, describing Shakespeare’s Tempest, the Sandman says, “I wanted a tale of graceful ends. I wanted a play about a King who drowns his books, and breaks his staff, and leaves his kingdom. About a magician who becomes a man. About a man who turns his back on magic.” This is what Morpheus does: he learns humanity, he allows himself to be killed in expiation for his past, thereby surrendering his kingdom, to the new Dream Morpheus does indeed change, and, arguably, the new Dream can be seen as both a new Sandman and as Morpheus himself reborn.

Perhaps Gaiman himself regarded Sandman as both a work of lasting merit and one that had become a burden, so he brought it to an end. Of course, Gaiman has gone on to write many other things, but perhaps he anticipates that someday he too will tire of serving his muses.

Prospero’s concluding speech in Black Dossier does not just take a more positive attitude towards art than the Shakespeare and Gaiman versions of The Tempest; it is outright celebratory. As Peter Svensson notes in a contribution to Nevins’ annotations, “rather than rejecting his magic to return to a normal life, here Prospero praises the greatest magic of all. The Imagination” (Black Dossier Annotations, p. 192).

Moore’s Prospero calls the Blazing World “this shining soil beyond life’s mummied grip” (Dossier, p. 190, panel 1). Moore may have designed this phrase to echo John of Gaunt’s encomium to England in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm,
this England.” (Richard II, Act II, scene ii)

Moore’s Blazing World does seem like a modern Eden and “demi-paradise.” Prospero states that in the Blazing World “Our direst yearnings and our fondest fears [are] at sport, made safe from time’s iniquity” (Dossier, p. 190, panel 1). In other words, here art, and the emotions and aspirations that it expresses, last eternally, free from “time’s iniquity” and “life’s mummied grip.”

Next Prospero tells us, “We are the tales that soothed our infant brow, the roles you wore for childhood’s alley-play,” that supplied a “paper paramour” for “your youth,” and that provide “thy consolation, thy escape” when we are “grown to grey responsibility” (Dossier, p. 190, panel 2). This means that art fulfills our emotional and psychological needs throughout our lives. Here Moore is also echoing the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II scene vii, lines 139-166), which includes the “infant,” the “school-boy,” the “lover,” and four “ages of adulthood, growing increasingly aged.

That speech starts with the lines:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.” (As You Like It, Act II scene vii, lines 139-143)

This metaphor fits the theme of Prospero’s Black Dossier speech, which inextricably links the world of the imagination with “real” life.

As in his concluding speech to the audience in Shakespeare’s play, in Black Dossier Prospero breaks the fourth wall and addresses the readers directly. He makes this clear when he speaks of “the very personality that scrys this epilogue” (Dossier p. 190, panel 3), namely, you the reader.

Prospero points out that in forming our personalities as we grow up, we often model ourselves after inspirational fictional characters. “Did fictional examples not prevail? Holmes’ intellect? The might of Hercules? Our virtues, our intoxicating vice: while fashioning thyself, were these not clay?” (Dossier, p. 190, panel 3).

In Shakespeare’s Tempest Prospero likened people to the spirits in his art, all of whom are destined to “dissolve” into nothingness. In the Dossier Prospero likewise connects us real people to the fictional characters whom we imitate: “If we mere insubstantial fancies be, how more so thee, who from us substance stole?” (Dossier p. 190, panel 3). The phrase “insubstantial fancies” echoes Prospero’s “insubstantial pageant” from The Tempest.

But by stating that we stole “substance” from the characters of fiction, Moore’s Prospero indicates that fiction and its characters are not “insubstantial” at all, but possess a sort of “substance” and reality. Hence, Moore’s Prospero continues, “Your trustiest companions since the cave, we apparitions guided mankind’s tread, our planet, unseen counterpart to thine, as permanent, as ven’rable, as true.” (Dossier p. 191, panel 1). In referring to the characters of fiction as “apparitions,” Moore’s Prospero reminds the reader of the “spirits” of Shakespeare’s Prospero’s masque in The Tempest. Prospero’s statement works as a metaphor: that humanity’s body of stories over the length of human history make up a whole “planet” that is a “counterpart of thine.” Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books present this metaphor as literal, depicting an alternate Earth in which, seemingly, virtually all fictional characters are real. In terms of the continuity of the League series, Moore’s Prospero may be establishing that the world of League is a parallel world to our own. (Perhaps we should call the League’s world “Earth-L.”)

But let’s leave considerations of story continuity aside. Moore, through Prospero, is contending that the world of fiction is “as permanent, as ven’rable, as true” as the real world in which we readers exist. As a metaphor, this means that art–even in the form of enduring popular fiction, such as the books from which he draws most of League’s characters–is not trivial or transitory, but has genuine importance in that it inspires us, molds our personalities, and expresses our ideas and our emotions.

It is even possible that Moore means the statement to be literally true in the following sense. Moore is not saying that, say, Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain actually exist. But he may be stating that the “virtues” and “vices” that we find in fiction, and that inspire us, these ideals, have a kind of reality, comparable to that of the universal ideas in Plato’s philosophy. When Moore’s Prospero says that fictional characters have been “your trustiest companions since the cave,” you may first think of our caveman ancestors. Aren’t the first known works of art the prehistoric paintings on cave walls? In the interview about Black Dossier that he gave to Comic Book Resources, Moore confirms this: “The planet of the imagination is as old as we are. It has been humanity’s constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, and since we first came down from the trees, basically. . .  Fiction is clearly one of the first things that we do when we stand upright as a species–we tell each other stories.”

But possibly Moore is also alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave (here and here). According to the allegory, we are like prisoners in a cave, who perceive only shadows; similarly, the characters of fiction, which Moore’s Prospero calls “apparitions,” are like shadows representing the ideas they embody.

Moore’s Prospero continues, “On Dream’s foundation matter’s mudyards rest, two sketching hands, each one the other draws: the fantasies thou’ve fashioned fashion thee” (Dossier p. 191 panel 1). Here Prospero and Moore refer to the creative, storytelling imagination as “Dream,” thereby reinforcing the visual allusions to Little Nemo’s Slumberland; again, Moore’s Blazing World is comparable to Gaiman’s Dreaming.

If “Dream” provides the “foundation” for “matter’s mudyards,” then stories must have a sort of reality, even if metaphorical, in order to support the weight of actual matter. the stuff that composes the real world. Notice the contrast between the ugly, concrete image that the word “mudyards” evokes and the ethereal connotation of the word “Dream.”

“Mudyards” may also suggest a place where material things are constructed from mud. People–artists, scientists, anyone who creates ideas–conceives of something in their imaginations and then attempt to implement those ideas in real life. For example, an architect must imagine a building before it is built.

The idea of creation underlies the following lines: “two sketching hands, each one the other draws: the fantasies thou’ve fashioned fashion thee.” Here Moore’s Prospero comes up with a poetic image to reiterate and elaborate upon an idea that he expressed earlier, that we model ourselves upon ideals that we find in fiction. In the aforementioned interview, Moore told Comic Book Resources, “A lot of the dreams that shape us and, presumably, our world leaders, are fictions. When we’re growing up, we perhaps base ourselves on an ideal, and even if that ideal is a real living person, there is every chance that living person may have based themselves on a fictional ideal.” Just as Moore refers to “us” and “we” in that quotation, his version of Prospero may be speaking of people in general when he says that we create fantasies–stories–which in turn influence what we become.

In this case I wonder of Moore may also be referring to the individual creative artist: that the fiction that a writer creates helps shape the personality of the writer himself. Therefore either to read or to write fiction is to open oneself to its influence.

The image of the two sketching hands drawing each other suggests that what each represents–the real world and the world of fiction–is equally important. Each shapes the other. In the interview Moore states that “This is actually ground that we do cover in the Black Dossier, and in the final soliloquy, which is delivered by Duke Prospero. We’re talking about this very thing: the interdependence between the world of fiction and the world of fact.”

(In the December 10 update of Jess Nevins’ Dossier annotations, Janes Morrison and Jon Balcerak each traces Moore’s image of two hands drawing each other to M. C. Escher’s lithograoh “Drawing Hands.”)

Remember that Moore’s Prospero has broken the fourth wall to address this speech directly to the reader. Therefore, it should not be surprising that he acknowledges himself and the rest of the Dossier cast to be fictional characters. He continues, “Intangible, we are life’s secret soul. its guiding lantern principle, its best, untarnished by all subterfuge or spies, unshackled from mundane authorities” (Dossier, p. 191 panel 2). Since the real world is matter, then the world of imagination, represented by fictional characters, is spirit, “life’s secret soul.”

In Dossier and, indeed, throughout the League series, Moore opposes the world of the imagination, representing freedom, to the world of “mundane authorities,” “subterfuge, and “spies,” representing the suppression of freedom. Hence, the British government, as represented by Campion Bond (James’s grandfather) proved to be untrustworthy and ruthless in the first two volumes of League, and why Allan and Mina increasingly distance themselves from their government superiors, until by Black Dossier they have become outlaws, This explains why the fallen dictatorship of Orwell’s 1984 remains such a presence in the background of Black Dossier, and why Dossier puts Mina and Allan in opposition to the British secret service, as represented by James Bond and Harry Lime. The development of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, as Orwell demonstrated, provides powerful means for crushing both liberty and the imagination. Note that Moore’s Prospero speaks of the imagination being “unshackled” by the authorities, implying that authorities are in the business of shackling it, and perhaps by extension literally imprisoning those who conceive of things beyond the status quo. It was Orwell in 1984 who coined the phrase “thought crimes.” The word “mundane” may allude to Hannah Arendt’s phrase for describing Nazi totalitarianism, “the banality of evil”.

The reference to a “guiding lantern” suggests that the works of the creative imagination can provide us with guidance of various sorts, probably including moral and political, since Moore contrasts the “lantern” with “authorities” who “shackle” the imagination. At the end of Prospero’s speech, Moore uses similar images of objects that cast light: “pyre” and “beacon” and, of course, the metaphorical “blaze” of the “Blazing World” itself.

Moore’s Prospero next tells us that “Life’s certainties erode, yet we endure. Whilst tyrants topple, yet Quixote rides with the companions of thy cradle nights in glorious pasture Coleridge never glimpsed.” (Dossier p. 191, panel 2) Thus Prospero points out that great works of fiction survive through the ages, whereas oppressive governments (which may seek to ban such works) rise and fall. Moore’s reference to “life’s certainties” may be ironic: the political certitudes under a tyrannical regime “erode” when that regime falls. Or perhaps Moore means how the “certainties” of age and death “erode” and destroy mortal beings, yet the classic characters of fiction go on and on.

Why mention Don Quixote, whom Dossier establishes as a member of an earlier incarnation of the League? Perhaps because Quixote’s attempts to be a heroic knight continually proved ineffectual. He literally “tilted at windmills,” believing then to be marauding giants, and his name inspired the English language word “quixotic,” meaning unreasonably, impracticably idealistic. Yet, Moore points out, Quixote ultimately has triumphed, since Cervantes’ book about him is still read centuries after its was written, and the character is still known by millions, while tyrannies have come and gone. Franco’s fascist Spanish government fell, but Don Quixote “lives” on.

By “companions of thy cradle” Moore specifically refers to the fictional characters of children’s bedtime stories, and, perhaps, to all fictional characters by extension, since each adult’s love of fiction began in his childhood. Moore ironically contrasts these “companions of thy cradle” to “tyrants”: the fictional “companions” of childhood outlast the oppressive governments formed by adults, and thus childhood innocence and idealism triumphs over adult evil.

The phrase “in glorious pasture Coleridge never glimpsed” is puzzling. “Coleridge” is surely the 19th century British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Does Moore mean that Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), had too bleak and pessimistic a vision of life to conceive of this metaphorical “glorious pasture”? Or that even the splendors of the “pleasure-dome” of Xanadu in Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (1816) cannot match the glories of this simple “pasture” in which Quixote and other fictional characters ride?

The word “pasture” turns up in various Coleridge works, but one that may be relevant is The Wanderings of Cain (1834), in which the ghost of Abel accuses his brother, “ I was feeding my flocks in green pastures by the side of quiet rivers, and thou killedst me; and now I am in misery”. These “pastures” have been tainted by murder, unlike Quixote’s “glorious pasture.” Quixote dies in Cervantes’ book, but he rides for eternity in the pasture of Prospero’s speech.

In other words, Quixote’s “pasture” is metaphorically the same as the Blazing World: an eternal paradise inhabited by the enduring characters of fiction.

Moore’s Prospero then launches into a summation of his speech (Dossier p. 191, panel 3), beginning with a single word, an exclamation, “Rejoice!” Rather than “drown his book,” representing his art and imagination, as Shakespeare’s Prospero did in The Tempest, Moore’s Prospero joyfully declares that “Imagination’s quenchless pyre burns on”: no water can “drown” this flame. Continuing the imagery of light from his reference to the “guiding lantern,” Moore’s Prospero thus speaks of a “pyre” that “burns,” “a beacon to eternity,” perhaps meaning both that it will remain a beacon into eternity and that it shows us the way to eternity.
He continues, “its triumphs culture’s proudest pinnacles when great wars are ingloriously forgot”; not only does great art outlasts tyrannies, but art is the “proudest pinnacle” of culture, rather than even a “great” war. (So there, simply put, is the difference between Black Dossier and 300.)

Prospero goes on, in metafictional mode, “Here is our narrative made paradise, brief tales made glorious continuity” (Dossier p. 191, panel 3). This seems to confirms that Moore intends the Blazing World to be a heaven for the characters of fiction. In the League series Moore links fictional works by numerous writers into a single, all-encompassing continuity. But his reference to “continuity” may also be metaphorical. If life is a “brief tale,” then the afterlife is a limitless, “glorious continuity.” Notice, too, how Moore repeats variations on “glorious” (even “inglorious”) in Prospero’s concluding speech, making it the key word in these concluding pages.

Prospero goes on, “Here champions and lovers are made safe from bowdlerizer’s quill, or fad, or fact” (Dossier p. 109, panel 3). Having disapproved of past movie adaptations of his work, Moore has a personal motivation for disapproving of those who tamper with someone else’s artistic creation. Anyone who studies the history of longrunning characters in pop culture, including Marvel and DC comics, will see how a passing “fad” can distort the treatment of characters and series. As for “fact,” perhaps Moore means that works of fiction are not bound by the rules of reality. Obviously, works of fantasy and science fiction depict worlds which differ from our own. But fiction generally depicts a world with a sense of order (since the author has constructed the plot) that the real world lacks. Or perhaps Moore means that in fictional characters are potentially immortal and thus need not succumb to the “facts” of aging and death as real people do.

Moore’s Prospero refers to both “champions and lovers.” This may serve to remind the readers that Allan and Mina are not just important as action-adventure heroes in Dossier, upholding the cause of liberty by contending against authoritarian agents like Moore’s version of James Bond. Allan and Mina are also idealized lovers, whose love may be as immortal as they have become. This is one reason for the emphasis on Allan and Mina’s sexuality, and for that matter, that of League members Fanny Hill and Orlando in Black Dossier. Allan and Mina contrast with the womanizing James Bond and Emma Night, who is oblivious to Bond’s true nature, as the traitorous killer if her father.

Moore’s Prospero ends both his speech and the book with a rhyming couplet, complete with alliteration and further examples of light imagery. It starts, “Here are brave banners of romance unfurled. . .” (p. 191, panel 3). Moore probably intends “romance” both in the sense of love, such as between Allan and Mina, and in the sense of heroic adventure, as in Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

And on the Dossier’s final page, Prospero exultingly concludes the couplet, “ . . .to blaze forever in a Blazing World!” (Dossier p. 192). It is a triumphantly celebratory ending, and you can see that reading and exploring the Black Dossier made me happy indeed to be an independent scholar in the comics medium.

And then this week I received a book which made me even happier, and you will read about that in this column’s next installment.

-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson


2 Responses to “Comics in Context #206: Blaze Of Glory”

  1. Kurt Carney Says:

    Taylor Swift … Lyrics . I got a pocket, got a pocketful of sunshine I got a love and I know that it\’s all …

  2. Adam Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Great article. I finished the novel last week and I’ve kinda been in a state of joy-shock ever since. I haven’t read anything like “Dossier” since “House of Leaves”. Brilliant source material and excellent insights by this article.

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