Forget ”Classics Illustrated.” These days, the most literary-minded comic book on the racks is ”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The brainchild of cult-favorite British comics scribe Alan Moore, with art by fellow Brit Kevin O’Neill, ”League” recasts a quintet of classic lit figures — Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and ”Dracula”’s Mina Harker — as a Victorian superhero outfit. Their first multi-issue adventure, which debuted in 1999, pitted the group against Sherlock Holmes’ archnemesis Professor Moriarty. Volume II, the first issue of which hits stands on July 24, has the League battling H.G. Wells’ Martian invaders and ”guest-stars” Gullivar Jones and Dr. Moreau.
Meanwhile, time (and the Internet) will tell what dire threats Her Majesty’s finest will face in Fox’s $80 million screen adaptation, currently shooting in Prague (which stands in for London, Venice, and Paris). Due next year, the movie boasts a retooled character lineup that includes Sean Connery as Quatermain, Stuart Townsend (”Queen of the Damned”) as Dorian Gray, and — to Americanize the proceedings a bit — ”Once and Again”’s Shane West as Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer. Peta Wilson (TV’s ”La Femme Nikita”) also stars as Mina Harker, replacing overbooked Italian actress Monica Bellucci (”Brotherhood of the Wolf”). ”This is sort of like ”The Dirty Dozen,” a group of misfits and outcasts who are forced to battle each other and themselves to do the right thing,” says director Stephen Norrington, who returns to the comics-to-movies genre after breaking through with 1998’s ”Blade.”
”League” is sufficiently high-concept that one can see why Fox scooped up screen rights months before the comic’s first issue even hit stores. But the property is also an unlikely success, given that its core audience is typically more wrapped up in ”The Matrix”’s Neo than in anything neo-Victorian. (Witness ”The Time Machine”’s recent so-so box office.) ”A lot of the series is done for the three people out there who are complete obsessives, have no lives, and actually do recognize these references to Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray,” Moore admits with a chuckle. ”It’s a pointless labor of love — like those monks who would engrave pictures on the back of bricks for the greater glory of God.”
Packed with fictional arcana, the comics are even designed to look like period magazines, down to their authentic back-page ads for coal-tar soap and mustache wax. ”I have to ask Alan about some of the [literary] references myself,” O’Neill says. ”And occasionally, I’ll work something into a scene that he won’t recognize. But I think you can certainly also read it on a plain level and enjoy it for what it is.”