14 December 2007

A Blazing World

A few weeks ago I was talking about how jarring the shift in From Dusk till Dawn is, when it suddenly switches from an frightenly intense and disturbingly violent crime thriller into a cartoonish film about vampires, and I'd quoted Neil Gaiman quoting Chesterton on how uncomfortable we feel when stories change genre halfway through. Black Dossier does something like this 160 pages in, as I mentioned yesterday, and it's a hell of a jolt. It's taken me four readings to get comfortable with this.

Major spoilers ahead, I'm afraid.

Essentially what happens is that Mina and Allan manage to get to Scotland, and as they're nearing Dunbayne castle a helicopter bears down on them, carrying three British intelligence agents. So far so Hitchcock, as the three spies get out and try to pursue our heroes on foot. Only yards separate them when suddenly the castle door opens and out steps a giant golliwog to save the day.

Yes, you read that right.

So what the hell is going on?

Well, let's backtrack a bit. As I said yesterday, if in reading the previous volumes of League you had skipped over the text appendices you'd have thought that the world in which Mina and her comrades were operating was a 'realistic' world. Granted, you'd have thought it was a realistic world in which Victorian science fiction was science fact, where Cavorite could take men to the moon and where Martians in giant tripods would assault the earth, but a realistic world of sorts for all that.

But you'd only have thought that if you skipped the appendices, in particular 'The New Traveller's Almanac'. If you did that you would not have noticed how Mina and Allan, while on a mission to Russia in 1906, visited many remarkable places in Asia, including Octavia, 'a fragile cobweb-city of rope walkways strung across a chasm' before making their way to Shangri-La, where they met Orlando. Likewise slipping your attention would have been the tale of their return through the Arctic in 1907, during which time they visited Toyland, which naturally enough is located close to the North Pole; it's ruled by Olympia from Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' the husband of whom is Frankenstein's monster, something which if you think about it makes more sense than might at first appear to be the case.

You might have missed those references, so, but would you have missed this striking page in the Dossier, showing four postcards from places Mina and Allan had visited?

Yes, this is a little harder to ignore, but somehow it's not that obtrusive. I think there's a tendency to think of the comic strip -- which as I've said operates as a framing sequence in Dossier -- as the 'real world', with the text passages as almost apocryphal. The eponymous Dossier, being largely text, isn't quite there yet.

And it's this that leaves us looking at this going, ah yes, there's Octavia from Calvino's Invisible Cities, and there's Sussex with a coded reference to Sherlock Holmes on the back of the card, and yes, the Phantom is lurking away there in the rear row in the card from the Paris Opera, and how funny, they went to Toyland and met the Queen, and oh look, surely that's Noddy and Big Ears in the crowd! How clever!

Somehow, though, neither this nor any of the other fantastic details elsewhere in the Dossier or filling the cabinets of the British Museum in the first two volumes of the League really prepare us for the appearance of Golliwogg and what comes next. I think it's just very easy to think of the fantastic references as part of an elaborate literary game on Moore's part, where he is trying to chart an entire world of the imagination. We never expect the more outlandish elements of this world to impact on our reality any more than we expect Julia Roberts to drink in our local pub or the Creator to talk with tax collectors and government officials. Having a golliwog turn up to save Mina and Allan's bacon does seem to stretch credulity too far: sure, we realise he's out there, and out there is fine, but what's he doing in here?

Well, for starters, before we look at what's going on beyond the story, let's get the story straight. Rescuing Mina and Allan in his air-ship, he takes them away north, to the Blazing World, a relic of Seventeenth Century fiction located within the Arctic circle and already signalled to us in the Almanac and in the 'Life of Orlando' contained within the Dossier. The Blazing World, remarkably rendered in 3-D -- don't worry, glasses are supplied, but you'll look daft reading this on the bus, especially at the parts where you have to shut first one eye and then the other -- is a kind of asylum for all manner of fantastic characters ranging from Prospero to Mary Poppins, all of whom, presumably, were declared 'unpersons' by the British government during its Big Brother years.

Orlando welcomes Mina and Allan back, not having seen either of them in years, and asks whether they've retrieved the Dossier. They assure her that they have, and that while there's lots about Orlando in the Dossier, there's not nearly as much in the Dossier as had been feared; for starters, Mina observes, there's virtually nothing in it about the Blazing World. Allan remarks that this is just as well, noting that the entire Third Dimension appears to be run by spies, and that they ought not to be allowed get control of the Fourth.

Okay, that's the plot revealed: Allan and Mina, operating as agents of the Blazing World, stole the Dossier in order to find out what M and his underlings knew about them and to prevent it being examined too closely by the likes of M, as they feared the possibility of the dossier containing information that might endanger them.

(In so far as the Dossier doesn't endanger them at all, it's a classic McGuffin in that regard, not unlike the Maltese Falcon, although it's far from insignificant for other reasons.)

But what does this mean? Isn't this really just Moore and O'Neill showing off in a 3-D spectacular dragging in pretty much every improbable fictional character you care to name?

No, I don't think it is.

I'll explain why tomorrow, and then there'll be just two more Black Dossier posts before I move on to less bizarre matters.

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