Extraordinary Gentleman: Kevin O'Neill on “Century: 1910”

Thu, February 26th, 2009 at 2:58pm PST | Updated: February 26th, 2009 at 3:03pm

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer
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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910) on sale in April

April marks the debut of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” at its new publishers, Top Shelf and Knockabout Comics. The series began with a six-issue miniseries in 1999, through Moore's America's Best Comics imprint with Wildstorm, and starred a collection of popular Victorian literary characters whose copyrights had fallen into the public domain. Led by Mina Harker (also called Murray) from Bram Stoker's “Dracula” and Alan Quartermain of “King Solomon's Mines,” the squad also featured the duplicitous Invisible Man, enigmatic pirate Captain Nemo, and Mister Hyde. A second six-issue series followed in 2002, with the hardcover “Black Dossier” arriving late in 2007.

Conflict and controversy surrounded the "League" almost from the start. Moore had previously sworn never to work with DC Comics again, but found his ABC line absorbed into the publisher as a result of DC's acquisition of Wildstorm. Matters were exasperated when DC pulped the entire print run of one of the early issues due to internal objections over an authentic Victorian advertisement for “Marvel-brand douche,” which DC feared would offend Marvel Comics. After difficulties with the film version of “League” and reported back-room wrangling over copyright issues with “Black Dossier,” it was announced future volumes would be published by Top Shelf and Knockabout.

"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century - 1910” is the first of three books in “League” Volume 3, and at 80 pages, deviates from the previous single-issue comic format used for the DC/Wildstorm series, which are all available now in collected editions.

CBR News spoke with illustrator Kevin O'Neill about Extraordinary Gentlefolk past and present, his experiences with the series and its legal controversies, and his favorite scenes from the whole of the project.

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CBR: Could tell us a bit about how you became involved in the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” project with Alan Moore?

Kevin O'Neill: Originally, I was having a conversation with Alan about something completely unrelated, and at the end of the conversation he mentioned, “I have this project you might be interested in.” It involved Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Jekyl and Hyde and so on, and he asked if I'd like to be involved. I thought it was a fantastic idea, and it dealt with that sort of late-Victorian period that interested me anyway. So that's pretty much the start. Alan sent me the outline for it, which was fantastic, and we built it up from there. We did a lot of talking about the books where these characters first appeared and how we would treat them.

I was kind of excited about the central female character, the Mina Murray character. I'd drawn so many kind of ultra-violent “Marshall Law” strips or “2000 AD” with Nemesis and Warlock, lots of robots and aliens. But this is entirely different, but very much in my area of interest.

Pages from "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910)

What is your working relationship with Moore? Do you discuss the stories, or does he send you a script and you work away at it?

Alan has a very, very firm idea of how he wants the story to unfold. Occasionally, there might be something I've mentioned to him, but that is very occasional. Sometimes odd details like Nemo's Indian background I'd kind of mentioned--the connection to [Jules Verne's] “Mysterious Islands,” where that was revealed, and it's not a common picture we have of Captain Nemo. And the Golliwog, which we used in the “Black Dossier,” Florence Upton's character. I'd just read an article about him, and I thought it was fascinating the history of that character. So we talked about using him for quite a long time, and “Black Dossier” seemed the ideal place to integrate the character into a story.

So clearly it's kind of odds and ends, really. But Alan has a very firm idea, and when his scripts arrive, there will be a note where Alan usually says, “If you know a better way of doing it, go ahead.” But Alan's scripts are very densely packed, and it's like blueprints for a house—if you deviate you can end up with a bizarre finished product. What I tend to do, in the crowd scenes, I can go kind of wild with Breugel-esque scenes and gargoylish type characters. Particularly in “1910,” the new one, which is set somewhat in the London docklands, so that's interesting to me and we can kind of layer in all the fictional characters who might not speak but they're present in the story.

That's kind of how we work. It's certainly not Marvel-style, it's very much a finished script. It's always exciting to get. When I finished “Black Dossier,” it was actually the first time I'd assembled all the script pages in one pages in place--and they're almost two foot high. It's a monster of a project, I enjoy it very much. And I enjoy it right now, the first of these books which is about to come out, the “1910” volume, is shifting period, and I'm working on the second of the three books, which is set in 1969, which is fascinating. We still have Mina and Alan Quartermain and Orlando. It's a very nice sort of shift of perspectives, and social history and fictional history, as well.

While “1910” is the first volume of series three, the first two “League” series were released as standard-sized comics before being collected, and these were followed by “Black Dossier.” It looks like “League” will be published in larger editions now. What is the advantage to doing longer-form stories, and how does it affect your art or storytelling?

Pages from "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910)

Well, it does have an effect on the underlying theory of serialized, sort of standard American comics, where there has to be a certain amount of action building toward a cliffhanger. That does give a story a structure. We kind of played with that a little—the first two volumes are almost one continuous story. We've done that. And “The Black Dossier” was originally just intended to be a sourcebook. It was [going to be] 48 pages, details of the Nautilus and stuff like that. But it kind of grew into this monstrously big project. And we enjoyed it, we enjoyed working on these longer-form projects.

This one, [“1910”], we were going to do it serialized in regular comic book form, but now it’s an 80-page book. Because of the scheduling and the slowness between issues in the past series, what we wanted to do was longer-form stories that stand alone, and when they're collected they integrate as a whole. But they do stand as individual books. So the wait isn't quite the cliffhanger-wait we've had in the past. The rhythm is different, we can relax a bit, we've got a different form. I think people will be pleased with it. I'm kind of fascinated by the reaction.

As you said, with “2000 AD” or “Marshall Law,” you're drawing these ultra-violent stories with aliens and whatnot. What have you found most enjoyable about bringing literary characters to life in “League?” What are your favorite scenes?

In “1910,” Captain Nemo's daughter is a significant character in the book. Her scenes, without revealing too much, were fascinating. She ends up at the docklands in London at a fairly scary hotel. So scenes with her, I really enjoyed. We have singing sequences, as well, which were sort of really interesting to do.

In the earlier series, some of my favorites have usually involved Mr. Hyde. There's a scene in the second series where Mina has a late-night talk with Mr. Hyde, and it's really scary. Nothing physically happens, he's just vocally menacing and his physical presence is menacing. I enjoyed drawing that. And the very notorious scene with Mr. Hyde's treatment of the Invisible Man was interesting as well. It's one of those things where you can't see anything but it's very disturbing. And he's written as behaving so politely, which makes it even worse! He's not entirely raging. And Mr. Hyde's death scene, as well, when he takes on the Martian tripods.

I think, again, it's a thing with him and Mina. I've always enjoyed scenes with Mina, it's fascinating because I've never drawn stuff like that before. It's very, very popular, and I've noticed since the beginning at signings that we get more female readers for this series than certainly anything I've done in the past.

Pages from "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910)

On the subject of those singing scenes in “1910,” how did telling the story in song affect your pacing, or the scenes you chose to depict? It does feel a bit like a very dark musical.

Yeah, they integrate amazingly well. Like Alan said, it's not like an Elvis movie where someone breaks into song and it's an amazingly choreographed routine. It works because, in that period around 1910 and earlier than that, people were singing a lot more in groups than they do nowadays; it was a very social thing to do. With or without accompanying music or piano or anything, people would sing ballads, people would sing sad songs, people would sing drinking songs. When I grew up in the '50s, I was kind of aware that the older generation knew a lot of songs. And they were all very old songs, as well. So it feels completely natural that you've got this Brechtian 'Threepenny Opera backcloth to “1910.” It works very, very well.

And again, it's been really fascinating to see what people's reaction has been. Because “The Black Dossier” was different to the first two books, and this is different to “The Black Dossier” and the earlier ones, but we have a lead group, the principles remain the same: Alan Quartermain and Mina. But they're joined by Orlando, and Raffles, the old thief, and Carnacki the ghost finder. So it's a much more human group than the earlier one. The Victorian group was kind of a heavyweight group, probably top-heavy, as well. As Alan's commented, they probably couldn't hold together for very long with unstable characters like the Invisible Man and certainly Hyde. And Nemo, for that matter. But Nemo's daughter carries the lineage into the future, and his daughter and her offspring will play a role in future books. So that's kind of interesting.

“1910” will be the first volume from Top Shelf, moving from DC's Wildstorm/ABC imprint. Moore, of course, has been very vocal about his disagreements with DC and the choice to move the project. How has the whole journey been for you? Have you been caught up in the controversy, or is it something separate from the work you do?

It's amazing, we were doing the first two volumes, and there were points in doing those two volumes where it kind of rubbed the wrong way with DC--not with Wildstorm. “Black Dossier,” I think, was the final straw. It had all been approved by legal departments, there was no problem, it was so close to going to press months before it actually did. And then the plug was pulled. Frankly, the book only came out because of the intervention of Jim Lee. Jim was fantastic. He took on a lot of flak. The book appeared virtually unscathed. But for his intervention, it could have got canned, it could have not appeared at all—that was the way things were working out. For the most ludicrous reasons, it seems.

Pages from "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910)

Alan had already had the misery of the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” film and the “V for Vendetta” experience, and that feeling that even though we own the book, the publisher can intervene at any point and say you can't do that when previously they said you can do it. And it's not a grown up way to behave or be treated. Our relationship with Top Shelf -- obviously Alan and Melinda [Gebbie] did “Lost Girls” via Top Shelf, and Knockabout in London -- it's been much better. It's fantastic and we're left completely alone to do a book that we want to do without fear of it being pulped because of adverts they disapprove of, or content that they have possibly never been happy with, but have to as a consequence of them absorbing Wildstorm. Because back in the day, Alan would never have done this book for DC. It was always frosty, but “The Black Dossier” was a really tough experience. Enough was enough, frankly.

There are great people in production at DC like [VP of Manufacturing] Alison Gill who was very supportive, or [VP of Sales] Bob Wayne was incredibly supportive of the book. But it was really this feeling that the powers-that-be can intervene and all the hard work we've put in can be undone on a whim. So that situation isn't likely to happen again.

You mentioned having to clear everything through DC's legal department—even with the newer series, though, with the next volume taking place in 1969 and then going up to the near-present, is it harder to find available characters and concepts in the public domain as the story of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” approaches the present?

Yeah, we've just become more artful about indicating people without naming them. And sometimes a set of characters could never be in the book for that reason, but we do carry over characters from the past into the present, and that's kind of the core of the book. And we also playfully have created this fictional world that all fiction runs through. Like in television, we have characters doing walk-ons, even in “1910” that happens, so a quite famous character can walk through the background without being named. Totally unrelated to the story, but they layer in an extra fictional reality. You can see everything as can be integrated, we'll use, but yeah, we just have to be careful without being inhibited.

Pages from "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century" #1 (1910)

Anything else you'd like to add about “Century” as a whole, or “1910” in particular?

Well, for us, it's a chance to take on a very ambitious tapestry, carrying these characters through decades. We're also realizing, Alan and I being born in the same year, that doing “The Black Dossier” -- that '58 period was when we were kids growing up. '69, that is quite an important period for us as well, we were teenagers. It's not a boring social document, but it certainly reflects our experiences, perhaps a particularly British look on what was happening in the world, as well. There's always been a bit of strong British ambience to the characters, as well, the treatment of the characters and so on.

And then beyond “Century” there's other stories. We may not follow the chronology in a linear way. We might go into the future, we might go into the far future, or we might go several centuries into the past, as well. We haven't locked down what we're doing next. Probably depends on what mood we're in when we do it!

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TAGS:  league of extraordinary gentlemen, kevin o'neill, alan moore, top shelf, jim lee

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