The portrayal of Empire and colonialism in Alan Moore's graphic novel series "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and Stephen Norrington's film adaptation

Essay, 2013

8 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Intertextuality always offers a thankful field for interpretation, and Alan Moore's graphic novel series „The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen“ is a prime example of how to combine different literary characters and ideas in a vast fictional world. In the first volume of the series, which was published in 1999 and takes place in an alternate reality in 1898, five characters taken from Victorian Literature form a superhero team which is supposed to defend the British Empire. However, a closer look reveals that the graphic novel does not just represent a classic model of the superhero team narrative but also an ironic portrayal of the British Empire in terms of colonialism and the image of women in the Victorian era.

Moore's League obviously consists of the most famous characters from Victorian Literature. However, the reason Moore prefers these Victorian characters over others is not a question of popularity. It is rather that they mostly come from literary works that somehow explore the problems of colonialism, inner psychological conflicts or the role of women in Victorian England. In his graphic novel series, Moore does a great job combining all these issues to a fundamental criticism of the British Empire.

The following paragraphs mainly focus on the characters in the comic and their weaknesses through which the portrayal of the Empire is depicted. Eventually, the graphic novel is compared to its loose film adaptation “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” from 2003.

The characters in Moore's graphic novel

The members of the League are by no means presented as dashing heroes, but rather as rare eccentrics and “marginalized heroes”[1] who turned away from the British Empire or even fought against it in the past. Necessity brings them together on behalf of the Empire, but they not represent it as a group of noble “Gentlemen” as the title ironically suggests. Campion Bond deprecatingly calls the League a “menagerie”[2], a word which would rather fit to the image of the uncivilised and animalistic Other from post-colonial theory than to the ideal of a civilised Gentleman with etiquette and good manners. By recruiting a League of outsiders, the Empire invites the savage into their home which somehow deconstructs the idea of the Other and shows the duplicity of Victorian England.

The dichotomy between civilised and savage is perfectly illustrated with the character Jekyll/Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson's “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Doctor Jekyll tries to separate his evil and animalistic part from himself, but the monstrous Hyde becomes an inner demon he cannot keep from breaking out. In Moore's graphic novel, Hyde's outbursts of fury are a drastic example of how the uncivilised Other has already become part of the British Empire. As author Christine Ferguson puts it, “the book's political strategy exposes and brings to the surface the submerged and often ugly side of both human personality (ergo Mr. hyde) and of the British imperial order its characters work so hard to protect.”[3]

In terms of colonialism, the most outstanding League member is Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. Unlike the other characters who are, even though they turned away from the Empire, at least of British heritage, the pirate Nemo stands out as an Indian character. Considering the fact that India was one of the most important colonies of the British Empire, it seems paradoxical that Nemo is recruited to defend a nation that colonised his mother country. “The Indian mutineers may have surrendered, but I did not. If I work with the British, it is because I no longer feel even Indian. The sea, now, is my only nation.”[4] His homelessness makes Nemo an unscrupulous killer with no regrets, but it is not only his brutality and his traditional clothing that makes the pirate the stereotype for the racial Other from post-colonial theory, but also his obscure appearance. In most of the panels, Nemo's face is hard to recognise in the dark shadows and his mysterious expressions do not make it any easier to analyse his character. When Quatermain asks Nemo who he is, the pirate claims that he is “No-one”[5] before he vanishes in the shadows in front of Quatermain's opium-clouded eyes. The unclear drawing of Nemo's character symbolises his unfamiliarity and otherness, and the fact that the League recruits such a stranger shows the duplicity of the British Empire.

In contrast to Nemo, Allan Quatermain, the protagonist of H. Rider Haggard's “King Solomon's Mines”, symbolises British colonialism from the perspective of the coloniser. In Haggard's novels, he is the great white hunter who conquers the unknown continent and makes a fortune on his adventures. Moore's graphic novel, however, shows Quatermain as an old and opium-addicted man when Mina finds him in Cairo in order to recruit him for the League. He even first refuses to help the British Empire and sends her away with half-closed eyes. The fate of the great colonial adventurer who finally becomes a slave to opium shows that the Other is not as sinful as the Empire suggested. In the end, Quatermain is not ruined by his colonial adventures in the East, he rather ruins himself. He has seen both worlds, the civilised Empire and the uncivilised colonies, and decides to stick with the latter, at least until Mina recruits him for the League.


[1] Ferguson, Christine: “Steam Punk and the Visualization of the Victorian: Teaching Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell.Teaching the Graphic Novel. Stephen E. Tabachnick. New York: MLA, 2009. pp. 200-207, here: 205.

[2] Moore, Alan, writer. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Art by Kevin O' Neill. Vol. 1, No.1, La Jolla: America's Best Comics, 1999, p. 3.

[3] Ferguson, p. 205

[4] Moore, No. 1, p. 13

[5] Moore, No. 1, p. 13

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The portrayal of Empire and colonialism in Alan Moore's graphic novel series "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and Stephen Norrington's film adaptation
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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empire, alan, moore, league, extraordinary, gentlemen, stephen, norrington
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Patrick Schlereth (Author), 2013, The portrayal of Empire and colonialism in Alan Moore's graphic novel series "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and Stephen Norrington's film adaptation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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