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Heroes Never Rust #43 by Sean Ironman

Literary Superheroes

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be studying The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol 1. For those of you who haven’t read it, please (sigh) do not confuse it with the Sean Connery film. While the movie is based off the comic, other than the names of characters, they’re nothing alike. For one, the comic is good. Very good. The same basic idea exists—characters from literature exist in the same world. A team of literary characters is formed—basically a literary Avengers—to protect England. This team consists of Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Jekyll and Hyde, and Mina Murray.

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There’s a quote in the opening of the first volume from Campion Bond, an ancestor of James Bond and the man who sends Mina Murray to form the League—“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing its heroes and its monsters.” It’s a perfect quote to start a story about a team consisting of characters more damaged than heroic. We’re not introduced to the whole team in the first issue. Campion Bond sends Mina Murray and Captain Nemo to collect the team.

They make two stops in the first issue. The first is to Africa to collect Allan Quartermain. Quartermain basically acts as a screwed up version of Captain America. He’s the nation’s hero from a previous era. Mina grew up listening to stories about him. Except here, instead of being given a super solider serum, like Captain America, he’s an opium addict. He’s thin and can barely walk or open his eyes. On their second stop on the Rue Morgue, Quartermain messes things up by going to the pharmacy and lets Mina get captured by their next member, Mr. Hyde, who here is the team’s version of the Hulk—a monstrous ape-man who towers over everyone else. That ends the first issue, so we’ll have to wait to see what happens when the team goes up against Mr. Hyde.

The interesting aspect of the first issue, and I didn’t notice this the first time through when I read it years ago, but the white males (Quartermain, Jekyll/Hyde) are corrupted. Quartermain is a drug addict, and Jekyll has turned into Mr. Hyde again. Both men are capable of great things, but they basically let drugs get in the way.

The other two members of the team (Mina Murray and Captain Nemo) are outcast from society. No one thinks much of either, but they are far more capable. Captain Nemo is the son of the Hindu Raja of Bundelkund. He’s a foreigner. When some lowlifes are chasing Quartermain and Mina, Nemo saves the day with a huge harpoon gun. Because of him and his Nautilus, the fledgling team can travel in secret. He’s proven much more useful already than Quartermain or Hyde. Yet, later in the issue, Quartermain says, “That’s Captain Nemo. Nemo the Madman. Nemo the Science-Pirate…” Characters don’t seem to think much of Nemo, and there doesn’t seem to be much basis for it other than they don’t understand him.

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Here, Quartermain is not the leader of the team. He’s in no state where he can manage a team. Mina Murray, the team’s lone woman, leads. She’s the one who tracks everyone down. She goes out after Mr. Hyde. She goes in search for Quartermain, while Nemo stays with his ship. She’s the proactive one. The minorities bring the team together. In the opening, Campion Bond tells Mina, “Your history has placed you far beyond the social pale. Divorce is one thing, but that other business…ravished by a foreigner and all that. Quite against your will, of course, but then people do talk so, don’t they?” The worst thing you can say about Mina is that she’s a divorced woman who may or may not have been raped. And this makes her worse than the opium addict and the monster, apparently.

I don’t know what any of this says about the treatment of minorities, other than the obvious. I’ll be interested what it adds up to over the course of volume one. I don’t even know if it will. But I think it’s there. I think there’s a reason why Nemo is the one to say, “The winning side writes the history books, Miss Murray” in response to Mina pointing out that Nemo was the villain of the British Empire and Quartermain was its hero. Hopefully, the rest of the volume will continue this discussion, wherever it leads.

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Sean Ironman

Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.

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