Super Brits

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If the time machine in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine were real, I'd use it to go back and stop the making of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a very bad movie based on a great graphic novel. (While I was at it, I'd probably sabotage the recent movie version of The Time Machine too.) Short of temporal travel, the only thing that could get rid of the bad taste of the film is a sequel to the graphic novel, a sequel even more brilliant than the original. Fortunately, we now have that.

Like the first volume, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II (DC Comics; 224 pages), is set in England in the 1890s and features an all-star supergroup culled from the pages of late-Victorian pulp fiction. Among the characters are Captain Nemo (the mariner of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous alter ego, Mr. Hyde, and the sinister protagonist of The Invisible Man (another terrible movie). Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill pit them against the invading Martians of Wells' The War of the Worlds in a battle royal for the fate of jolly old England.

A premise this complex and meta could easily turn into high-concept mush, but the many characters play off one another so deftly that instead of one obscuring the other, they illuminate the strange subtexts they have in common. At one point Moore and O'Neill bring in the mad scientist Dr. Moreau (as in The Island of — yet another bad movie), and the grotesque talking animals Moreau breeds become a sinister take on Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows and the talking rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, as well as — this is virtuosity in action, folks — the real-life 19th century painter Gustave Moreau. What could have been just a satisfyingly dark thriller becomes a sharp-witted gloss on the scientific and sexual obsessions of Victorian society.

A word of warning: this is a comic book, but it's not for children. It contains sex, strong language and some really appalling violence — Moore has a cruel streak, albeit one well suited to his subject matter. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is indeed extraordinary, but it's anything but gentle.