The big glaring issue of this volume - it’s set in Victorian England AND it’s based on 19th century adventure stories. Which means the authors have taken a carte blanche to engage in some pretty epic level racism, misogyny and a dash of homophobia.
Look, yes, when using past settings there should be prejudices depicted - because that was how it was (and how it very much is). But there are correct ways of doing this - naming, showing prejudiced PEOPLE and then showing them as wrong. Depicting prejudice and then challenging it.
This volume doesn't come close to it; the prejudice is revelled in and elevated at every turn. We don’t just see prejudiced people, the marginalised people fit those prejudiced stereotypes; prejudice is reinforced as ACCURATE at every turn in this book - from how the characters act to how they are drawn. Bigotry is not only reasonable, but it is accurate and even a sensible response to the situation
Mina Murray is the so-called leader of the league. She is hired by Mr. Bond, an agent of the British government to gather up a “menagerie” of people to help protect the empire. To that end, she rounds up Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, Allan Quatermain, and Hawley Griffin (The Invisible Man). Mina is now divorced from her husband after supposedly being “ravished by an Easterner,” and the League is her chance to make her own way in this world. This premise sounds good right? A woman in charge of all of these notorious men, on a mission to save the empire. What could be more glorious?
Unfortunately, from the very beginning it’s clear that Mina is a liability. When she goes to retrieve Quartermain, Mina finds him high out of his mind on opium. She tries to rouse him several different ways but it is not until she is set upon by a group of Egyptians intent on raping her that Quartermain jumps out of bed and comes to Mina’s rescue. Throughout this volume, Quartermain saves Mina several times and Mina is only able to return the favour once.
Mina seems to be in charge because she plans the missions and even hands out the assignments, but it is Nemo who has the intelligence to have Bond investigated. When Mina rightly gets upset that she was not consulted on the investigation of Bond, Nemo actually commiserates with Quartermain about western women not obeying their men and dressing like whores. At no time does either man acknowledge that she managed to get them this far with her careful planning. No, they are being oppressed by having a woman who does not know her place.
When it is discovered that Bond is indeed a problem, instead of focusing on the issue at hand, Mina actually blames her failure to investigate Bond on her female naivete. To be fair, Quartermain does acknowledge that he was also naive but he never blames it on his gender. This failure of leadership is solely because of her gender.
There are hints that Mina is more than she seems but it is never really gets explored and all of her awesome moments like putting Mr. Hyde in check, are quickly unbalanced by the amount of outright misogyny she faces. All right, the late 1800’s were certainly no picnic for women; however, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is an alternate history of earth. Even if the authors felt that Mina had to face virulent misogyny to be authentic to the time, that does not exclude the fact that they made her an absolutely impotent leader who needed to be saved by the men around her. Displaying an ism without making it clear that said ism is wrong, only reifies the problem.
On the very first page, the chinese were referred to as “brilliant” but “evil” and this very much sets the tone of how they are depicted for the rest of the comic. Asians are depicted as evil both in action and representation. The Asian are a grossly stereotypical representation verges on vicious anti-Asian propaganda. In fact, only one Asian character manages to avoid the evil taint and that is only because he fell into the character of a wise person, directing Mina to her quarry. Left to their own devices, Asians are simply the criminal element. Similarly, Egyptians get the same treatment. It is so bad that at first I wondered if they were trying to depict a zombie horde. It becomes even more blatant when the story shifts to England where the largely White characters have clear facial expressions, are varied and clearly not meant to be seen as a threat or “other.”
To the horrendous portrayal of race and gender in this volume, it’s almost a relief to talk about the more bizarre, than anything, depiction of possible lesbians - a private school for girls with a “floggery”, lots of sapphic artwork, a centaur with giant breasts, with lots of unwelcome flirting with Mina. And Moriarty calls Mina a “lesbian” as an insult… just to make sure we went from uncomfortable and bizarre to uncompromisingly insulting
Is there any challenge of this? Not really. Mina Murray is capable and highly intelligent and certainly objects angrily to being dismissed and talked down to. For which she is portrayed as a heckling shrew - and her quick words are rarely backed up by strong action.
The only POC who works with the League is Nemo - an Indian. After acting as a servant once, he adamantly refuses to do so a second time. And he is used to help make the minor point that the Empire is not a good thing for those colonised; but even that is presented as 2 conflicting viewpoints of equal validity with Quartermain. But he does seem to spend more time holding the fort at the ship so far - though he is competent when he does act. Still, it’s tiny compared to the multiple depictions of Chinese people and Arabs in this volume.
It says so much about this book and how much is wrong with it - that the unrepentant rape scene (the Invisible Man is never labelled a rapist - despite clearly being so. Everyone kind of shrugs off his murders - and no-one even mentions his rapes) and the gratuitous fat shaming just fit right in.
Ok, the blatant offensiveness aside, the rest of the story just isn’t that good. If we’re feeling generous, we could say this is an introduction to the characters (most of the story revolved around putting the group together. Fine, that’s reasonable - but a storyline was also desperately shoehorned into this that as well. It was over too quickly and the whole thing proceeded far too simply with far too few twists - considering who the villain was supposed to be. Honestly, it felt more like a way to showcase the characters which is fine for a first book - but didn’t work with the supposed epic level of the mission or the neat simplicity with which it was resolved (and it also served to showcase how very very bigoted this book was.)
In the end we can’t help but feel bitterly disappointed. Is this one of the few times when the film is actually massively better than its source material? Does the series improve immensely? Because with the potential of this series, of these characters, something truly epic could easily have been produced and bringing all the adventure of the old Victorian dramatic novel along with it - instead it seemed to milk those old books for every shred of bigotry within the pages and not much else
This needs to get a lot better. On the plus side - that won’t be hard.