Follow Up Review: The Black Dossier

A couple weeks back, you saw our show on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Since then, I’ve had a chance to finish up the new book, The Black Dossier and I wanted to follow up with an opinion.

Right off, it is difficult to talk about this book in any way without giving things away. So, while I’ll try not to discuss the fine points of the plot, there are going to have to be some things I’ll have to give away in order to explain anything, so consider yourselves warned.

This book is vastly different than the two previous volumes. Where they were straight adventure stories, all done in the same comic book style, this story is only partially told with the traditional League style artwork. Instead we, along with the characters, read through the contents of The Black Dossier, and we literally see the pages making it up.

What is the Black Dossier you ask? At the start of this book, we find ourselves in 1958, many years after the conclusion of the previous volume. Then main characters seem to be an unidentified couple of young blond people. It turns out that they are, in fact, Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, who have completely avoided aging, and in Allan’s case, he’s actually de-aged.

Allan and Mina trick a spy, and dig out The Black Dossier from a disheveled Military Intelligence Headquarters. The Dossier is a group of files on the history of the League itself, from the time it was formed in the first volume to the present, and everything in between. As the standard comic book pages progress the story in the present, Mina reads through the Dossier when she finds the time. When she reads through it, we read through it. It is a multimedia spectacular. The history of the League is told through its contents. And the contents are about as many different styles are you could imagine. There are dense official government papers, complete with hand written notes. There are vintage comics from old adventure magazines, and erotic Fanny Hill stories. There’s a one act fake Shakespeare play. There’s an excerpt from Campion Bond’s book. There are fake postcards sent from various time periods. The art style and language is different depending on the type of section you’re looking at. The papers are either aged, or on completely different stock. It’s truly an accomplishment of production.

However, as impressive as it is, it’s not easy to read. The regular comic book parts of the story take us through what’s happening in the present of the story. But when Mina finds time to crack open The Black Dossier, the story sort of grinds to a screeching halt. The pacing changes completely, and you’re often faced with these exceptionally dense pages, which can be daunting. There’s actually so much information, it’s hard to figure out what you’re supposed to grasp at times, or how it relates to the larger picture. There are certainly compelling parts. Specifically, the story of Orlando, done in vintage comic book style, is a very interesting story about the classic character, who changes gender, and does not age. The simple style of art is belied by a story dealing with quite a bit of heavy gender and sexual issues as Orlando progresses throughout history. But there’s just as much other material that I just didn’t really take in, despite my best efforts.

The final bit is the much discussed 3-D section. Again, this is probably more of an impressive technical effort than it is an effortless reading experience. I can’t remember a time where I had to wear silly glasses to read something, and I scanned the pages to make sure I didn’t miss anything in the dense constructions. It was very odd, no doubt, and certainly not what I expected to read based on what I’d read before. I almost can’t judge it, because I feel it might have gone a bit over my head.

Still, there is an overall story, and despite their best efforts to confuse me, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill still impressed me mightily, and I’m glad to have read it. It was both challenging and enjoyable, if not really as accessible and instantly enjoyable as the previous chapters. This just isn’t the same type of story as Volumes 1 and 2. There are parts of The Black Dossier where it goes back to that, and they are quite enjoyable. I really love the relationship between Mina and Allan, and have since they met early in the first issue. This shows that relationship as it’s advanced through the decades.

There’s little doubt that the publication and release of Lost Girls has affected the way Moore deals with sex in his work now. The Black Dossier materials have no shortage of bawdy, erotic bits, but while hinted at in volume 2 especially, Allan and Mina place quite a high priority on their sex life. They stop to have sex at several points in the story, and while it’s not necessarily pornographic, it’s certainly more explicit than we’re used to seeing in the pages of comic books. They’re basically acknowledging that these characters are human, have needs, and aren’t afraid to express it.

So basically, it’s only partly what we’re used to, and not as instantly satisfying as the League books have been in the past. Yet, it’s impossible to not be awed by the effort put into this book. It’s also a great launching point for further stories, but personally, I’d like to see them done more like the first two volumes, both of which I consider among the best comic books I’ve ever read. It is worth your time, and a read, but I do wonder if people might not feel a bit let down if they wait and spend a lot of money on the forthcoming Absolute Edition. Unless you’re an Alan Moore nut, or what I’ve described sounds fantastic to you, you’ll probably be better off with the cheapest version. If you didn’t really like Lost Girls or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to begin with, you’re probably better off just staying away altogether.


  1. I hear ya Josh.  Having Finally made it through my copy after 3 stop and start attempts, once cause I got distracted by World War Z, once cause I left the Dossier in Vermont, and once cause, well, I’m lazy. It’s an impressive work but I don’t know if I’d call it an exciting read. Dense? Yes!  But a page turner, not so much.

    Still, I enjoyed it, and feel my $20 was well spent.

  2. I’m actually waiting for the TPB of this because my OCD will not allow me to put a HC with the two trades that I have. 

    On a completely side note, I noticed on Top Shelf’s website that they will be putting out the new League of Extraordianry Gentlemen in 2009.  It’s called "Century" and will come in three 72 page prestige issues.  It sounds awesome.

  3. i’m looking forward to gettting this on my next visit to the states, as it’s not available in canada…

  4. I’m in the same boat as areml. ECCC ’08 is when I can grab this. Bloody Hell DC! Making this a pain in the ass to sell in Canada for reasons that would logically mean the previous volumes would have to stop entering our country too. Fools.

  5. I just hate that the Absolute Edition is coming so close after this release. I am a nut for the Absolutes, but chances are it will be out before i start/finish this. Was there advance warning about an Absolute and I just had my head stuck in the ground? I know they have to milk this thing for all that it’s worth, but still…sheesh!

  6. I think there was fair warning. From the get go, Alan talked about how there was going to be a record released with this. And when they couldn’t package it with the initial hc release, it was announced that it would be included in the future Absolute release. At least I think I remember it happening like this.

  7. There was totally fair warning about the Absolute release.  So fair, in fact, that I didn’t even buy THE BLACK DOSSIER because I wanted it in Absolute form. 

  8. I agree with Josh.  I marvelled at the genius of Moore and O’Neill, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading it.  It was more of a chore, really.  For completists only.  I wouldn’t consider it an essential read for LoEG fans, particularly if you’re thinking of investing in the hardcover.  If you’re in the mood to feel completely unintelligent, check out the annotations on the Black Dossier here:   It’s mind-boggling. 

  9. @ultimatehoratio  Those annotations are awe-inspiring.  My high school students often complain about even the slightest bit of analysis — "The girl’s named Scout just because that’s what the author felt like writing," they’d say.  Mr. Moore’s pop culture and literary allusions are astounding.

  10. I also found this book somewhat of a chore at times.  I love Kerouac as much as the next guy, but that piece by "Sal Paradyse" was unreadable.

    The paper stock and the prose, however, went a long way in making me feel like Mina and Allan were real people–that I had been lucky to stumble upon some offical documents about these people who I found so brave and cunning from what I knew of their previous adventures.  Seriously.  By the end of the book, I was felt deeply invested in the world that Moore and O’Neill created.  No small feat, considering just how fantastic their world is.

  11. @BigE

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Cerebus and Ghost in the Shell, but both of those series have highly detailed footnotes at the end that would rival even Moore’s references in Black Dossier and in From Hell.  Not all of Cerebus is annotated, just the last few "phonebooks."

     I think your students are just rebelling on a subconscious, genetic level at having to read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Human evolution demands that we not be forced to read this book every generation until the end of mankind.  (I’m joking; it’s a good book.  Didn’t like Lord of the Flies, though.)

  12. totally agree on the pacing issues… it took me awhile to read this simply because I always had to stop for awhile when it got to the dossier.

     That being said, I did like it. And even though I bought this, I’ll probably buy the absolute too, any word on when it comes out?

    oh yeah… and I jsut skipped over the Sal Paradyse part, I looked through it and thought it was written in newspeak (being set in post-Big Brother England, after all) so I didn’t bother reading it. 

  13. @ Rolandofgilead

    Actually there are a couple of places in Canada that seem to have gotten there hands on it.  Specifically, here in toronto, The Beguiling & The Silver Snail.  DOn’t know if that helps at all.

  14. I cannot begin to explain how much I loved this book.  The thing is simply a pleasure to hold.  Yes, it can be jarring at times, but it’s supposed to be.

    I found that the best way to approach it was as a kind of game.  The Military Intelligence people that put together the Dossier didn’t have a clue about what they were talking about, therefore the various narrators become potentially untrustworthy.  The game is to extract the true story from the lies and misconceptions.  And if that "mystery-solving" game doesn’t enthrall, then there is always the old LoEG standbye – the "how many literary references can I spot on this page?" game.

    As for the Sal Paradyse section, that did slow me down at first, but once I found the rhythm that it was written in and started to"see" where the punctuation should be, it became one of my favourite parts of the book.

    Sure, it’s not the most "accessible" book in the world.  But then neither are the texts on which it is based.  The reward is well worth the challenge.

    Well, I guess I could explain how much I loved this book after all.

    (Oh, and it can be a little hard to get hold of here in Australia.  The larger stores that import direct from the US seem to have some though – eg. Kings Comics or Kinokuniya’s here in Sydney)

  15. @deezer – July 8th is the tentative release date for the Absolute.

  16. I, for one, love that Alan Moore is breaking down the last significant taboo in comics. Sexuality. Yes, it happens in independents and porno rags, but very, very few books deal with relationships and sexuality in a responsible manner. Let alone use them as teaching devices and symbolic things like he does.

  17. OK… I’ll say it. I didn’t enjoy this at all. Alan Moore’s a genius and everything, I loved Watchmen, V for Vendetta, the 1st vol of League of EG … but this just felt …indulgent. Kind of like some of David Lynch’s last few movies i.e. I’m glad the writer/artist is fascinated with their topic but I’m kinda bored.  I’m very impressed with Moore’s knowledge of literature but playing literary "Where’s Waldo?" just didn’t make for a good read this time out, particularly with some of the more obscure references. Artistically, mixing all the formats was an interesting experiment & my hat’s off to him for that but at the end of the day, I just wasn’t entertained.

      And not to knock on Josh’s review but I think describing all the sex in this book as "acknowledging the characters are human" is REALLY stretching it – kind of like when people say  RAMBO is a deep reflection on war and human nature.  Sometimes an action movie is just an action movie and a sex scene is just a sex scene.  I thought all the sex in this story and the last volume was just kind of  stupid. It didn’t really advance the story and felt more like, "let’s show the characters having sex because we can."  I realize that Moore seems a little fixated on this topic as of late, but in the context of this story, it feels more like a lame peep show than story advancement.   Just because Moore wrote it doesn’t really give it any more gravitas, IMO, obviously.  Also, side note, what’s the deal with characters constantly being raped or almost raped in much of his work?

    I realize I’ll probably be burned at the stake for this review, but just one humble reader’s opinion. Still love Moore, hope the next one’s better.




  18. i’m in australia and got the book the first weekend it was out. So if you’re near canberra go to Impact Comic in the city.

     i’m going to be honest and say i read the tradistional comic sections of the book first then went back and read the prose sections. I had a couple of great nerd moments; firstly the 1984 text in the dossiers beginnig made me remember how excellent that book was. Secondly, Fantomas! he’s a great character.

     One little nit-pick. There is no way on earth Orlando came for Virgina Wolfe’s novel. Maybe Wolfe based he Orlando on am exsiting character. Does any one know?

  19. @Josue Actually, I think you bring a valid point.  Please don’t be afraid of having a different opinion than any of us.  That’s what we’re here for. 

    I guess with the sex aspect, I see what you’re saying, but they’ve got to start off somewhere, and sometimes the starting point is more overt than in real life.  Just like these characters are really heightened reality, so is their sex life.  But I can see what you’re saying, and I don’t think you’re wrong.

    So there’s your stake burning.

  20. Is it a stretch to say that Moore is just now looking at/exploring the sexual side of comics?  I read From Hell during Christmas and on more than one occasion I kept thinking, "Holy moley, there’s lots of penis and boob in this book?"

    It wasn’t offensive, but essential to the story.  I think in the second volume of LoEG, the sex was part of the story in that it shows the softening/loneliness of Mina.  Also, it was, in a way, a stark contrast to the sexual tension between her and Hyde.  So for me, it had purpose.  Same thing with From Hell.  It does serve a purpose to the overall story. 

    Not having read this, I can’t comment on it, but I think sexuality is something that is pervasive throughout all of his works.  When I think about it, of everything that I’ve read by him, V for Vendetta is the only one without sex in it, although there are definite sexual overtones to the whole thing.

  21. Right then……

    I’ve spent the last 3 evenings reading The Black Dossier and I’m either thinking I don’t get the subtext or Mr. Moore was just having a mental masturbatory experience at our expense (literally).

    The art, especially the 3d stuff at the end, was very very well done. Mr Neill has done a great job of showing that he can do various artstyles, tho’ if you pay close attention you can see they are all his work.

    But as for the writting, unlike the first two books that had well defined beginnings, middles and ends and told a nice coherent and entertaining story, The Black Dossier seems to be a bunch of psuedo history wrapped in a framing experience of a chase. I think what throws me is the end and Prospero’s speech. Mr Moore, via Propero, is making some interesting and seemingly deep comments on the nature of the reader and the read, but it just seems rather heavy handed and ‘thick’.

    I think this is a book I would recommend you read a friends copy of and save yourself the $25.