This weekend, I finally read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Black Dossier, their third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book. I’m a huge fan of the first two books, but had a much more mixed response to this, a response that relates to the different reasons writers write and readers read.
The Black Dossier is an incredible piece of work. Smartly written and structured, cleverly playful in its use of formats and references. The writing is good no matter what genre Moore is pastiching on any given page. The art is detailed, fascinating and varied. This is a comic book as contemporary art, culture reflecting on culture and using it to experiment with story structure and reader experience. Even when I didn’t recognise the references or forms at play, I could sense their presence, a breadth and depth of meaning that burst from every page.
However, what this lacked for me, and what the previous League books were so good at, was engagement. The first two volumes of the League’s adventures were just that, adventures. They were tightly plotted and focussed, with the emphasis as much on the story as the cleverness. They drew me in, made me care about the characters and events. Recognising when the creators were being extra smart was an added bonus. And the Black Dossier didn’t draw me in in that way.
Writers write for the satisfaction of their craft, for the thrill of flexing their creative muscles. And writing something like the Black Dossier, where you’re packing every moment with so much cleverness and meaning, must be extremely rewarding. But while, as readers, we can enjoy and admire that craft, most of us want to be sucked in, to be dragged along by story and character, to feel the thrill of their lives. What makes a piece amazing to write won’t necessarily make it amazing to read.
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy The Black Dossier. I did. But I think Alan Moore enjoyed it a whole lot more.