The mash-up is a curious meal indeed. Done well, the elements combine into something either superior or perhaps at least as compelling as the initial ‘ingredients’. The sum isn’t necessarily greater than the whole, but can provides the reader with a new insight into what makes the individual components interesting and compelling. Done poorly, the whole thing is a mess that drags down multiple intellectual properties into a turgid mess.
Or sometimes, just sometimes, it’s an excuse to give a kitten a Matt Smith fringe & bowtie combination BECAUSE THATS WHAT MAKES THE INTERNET AWESOME.
But I’m not here to talk about Doctor Who Cat – it is very hard to resist, I assure you – but instead about Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.
The initial premise of LOEG is, quite simply, wonderful. Mr Hyde, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain & the Invisible Man – all literary protagonists from roughly the same era of Victorian/turn-of-the-century literature – band together and Stuff Happens. Every page is dripping with dozens of allusions to other works of the same era, but you don’t need to know those references to appreciate the rip-roaring story. Moore displays both intelligence & brazen wit when combining these various independent literary worlds into one vast mash-up – but, he also shows some small amount of respect (although admittedly this isn’t necessarily true of the entire piece; some creations are treated more roughly than others). It is intelligence & wit that were so profoundly lacking from the movie adaptation, for those that remember ‘LXG’ (as the tag-line went). That movie is, I believe, a cautionary tale of the dark side of the mash-up, showing us that stories of this kind can so quickly drift perilously close to terrible, hackneyed pastiche.
The two ‘main’ stories of LOEG, all written & illustrated by Moore and O’Neill, have been collected into two volumes. Years passed before the third volume, the curious Black Dossier, saw print. LOEG: BD is a strange beast, and one that takes several reads to begin to appreciate. The learning curve is a little steeper, the references a little more obscure. The League has aged and changed; it’s now the 1950s, half a century on from their initial adventures. The cultural allusions have shifted, the mash-ups now centred around a new decade – now we have Bertie Wooster and James Bond existing in the world of 1984‘s Airstrip One… and that’s not to mention lost Shakespearian plays, short stories, a postcard collection, assembly-line porn and 3D golliwogs.
Century is the latest incarnation of the League, being a wide-ranging story published in several (presumably three) parts that stretches from 1910, to 1969, and onward to a yet-to-be-published volume set in 2011. 1969 has recently been released to positive if confused reviews. As the timeline wanders ever-nearer to the present day, it seems that the mash-up of cultural references has gotten more obscure, more strained, with attention to the minutiae overwhelming the story itself. If the first sin of the mash-up is to do it poorly or in such a way that the source material is too greatly disrespected, the second sin is to throw too much at it, to show a lack of restraint.
Restraint doesn’t seem to have been front and centre of Moore’s mind on this one. As one reviewer pointed out, “we’ve got an 80-page comic that has about 30 pages of actual story and around 50 of playing “who’s that guy?'”‘ Because 1969 does have, in some form or another, the Rolling Stones, the Rutles (a Beatles parody band created by Eric Idle, amongst others), Patrick Troughton, Alfred Hitchcock, Steptoe & Son, Michael Moorcock, On the Buses, Thunderbirds, and a lot, lot more. In fact, that’s just a few panels.
So, the jury is probably out on whether this particular mash-up works or not. If you are happy to read spoilers, I’d encourage you to look at either the ComicsAlliance review linked above or give Colin Smith’s review a go. Smith’s Too Busy Thinking About Comics is a rather wonderful blog that I’ve linked to before; his take is that it’s a “cracking good read… a profoundly well-crafted, compassionate and smart comic book.” Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with every essay, on balance I think he’s onto something there.
To close off the matter of mash-ups, I thought it best to end with an LOEG-inspired painting by Alex Ross…