Snakes are, in a literary sense, cunning, deceitful, and devious masterminds with their own overarching agendas. That’s why I immediately took note of the seemingly random serpent watching over our heroes in the following panel.
Why did Kevin O’Neill, the illustrator, place this creature in the foreground, pushing the protagonists to the back, out of focus? An artistic choice, maybe, but I believe there’s more to it than that.
Throughout the novel, “Mr. M” has been there. Not directly, not in the thick of things, but watching over the rapidly unfolding events from a safe distance. He slithers above them, unseen but seeing all, as they make and execute their plans. On page 97, however, we know none of this. O’Neill consciously, in my opinion, drew this snake to foreshadow what the minimalistic dialogue could not. It is because of little things like this that I hope the graphic novel never dies. It is a completely different experience from reading a book, and a refreshing break from the walls of text.
When I was first assigned the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman for class I immediately assumed that it would be a quick and easy read. I read Archie Comics for the majority of my childhood, I even had my own pretty extensive collection of them. I assumed that Alan Moore’s work would be similar, and after flipping through the first few pages I saw many of the same elements I had seen when I was 10 years old. However, after reading the first chapter I quickly realized that this was no book for children. The level of imagery, symbolism, and allusion I encountered was equal to most other novels I have read for english classes, and if read too fast it was easy to miss out on the finer points of each panel.
Below is one panel from the second chapter of the first volume, entitled “Ghosts & Miracles.” Upon first glance it seems that Miss Murray and Mr. Bond are casually discussing fictional events involving fictional characters, with no real significance outside of the novel. They also are walking through a small alley in Britain, with a church on one side and some people hanging out around it. After digesting this information on my first read I decided to turn the page. Little did I know that upon closer inspection there were not only many allusions I missed but also a lot of imagery and symbolism.
What I thought were fictional characters that Moore created were actually allusions to works by other authors from different time periods. Mr. Bond speaks of the astronomer Lavell and his discovery of incandescent gas on Mars, and after a quick Google search I discovered that he is actually an allusion to H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” Wells named an island in his novel Lavelle of Java, which is actually in reference to an M. Javelle of Nice who claimed to have seen a strange light coming from Mars in 1894. The Reverend Septimus Harding is actually a character from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novel series. Miss Rosa Coote on the other hand is actually a fictional dominatrix from many Victorian era erotic novels. Her last name comes from General Sir Eyre Coote who was involved in a flogging scandal in 1815.
In the background of this conversation is a church with a sign that reads “God Help Us” which signifies the desperation felt by many English citizens during this time period, and civil unrest is further emphasized by the man being thrown out of or pulled into the church window. The poor environmental conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution is signified by the dirty watery sludge that is pooled up in the street, which a man is actually diving into while his companion looks on. The overall darkness of the panel helps to convey the somber mood of both the conversation and the city.
It would be hard to consider Alan Moore’s work as a simple comic book when all of these allusions are present along with deep symbolism and imagery. The complex nature of each panel makes graphic novels much more like actual novels than many people give them credit for.
-George de Roziere