Haven’t done one of these in a while (maybe not since we moved the nerd farm to its current location). But last week saw the release of both two different Alan Moore comics, one written at the beginning of his career in 1982, and the other written in the present-day. And that seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.
The former book shows us the hungry Young Moore, relentlessly pursuing a new way of writing comics. The latter comes from the more relaxed Old Moore, who’s got nothing left to prove in the funnybook business and is thus content to sit back and tell a rip-snorting adventure yarn. But the two books may have more in common than I initially thought. I’m on record (somewhat infamously in some circles) as agreeing with Moore when he said that the mainstream comics industry has spent the last 30 years copying him. But reading these two books so close together, I’m starting to think that maybe Moore’s also been copying himself for much of that time.
And, now that I’ve buried my sensationalistic lead at the end of the second paragraph…
LET THE FUNNYBOOK BATTLE BEGIN!!!
In the red corner! Weighing in at a tight 50 pages and a digital price of four dollars! We have…
Nemo: the Roses of Berlin, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
For our purposes here today, the thing to focus on is technique. Old Moore has it in abundance, and it makes his writing on this book seem effortlessly simple. It is, as I said, a straight-up adventure story centered on Moore’s Janni Nemo character. The daughter of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Janni has become a powerful figure in her own right, following in her father’s footsteps as a pirate queen. Set in the World War II era, Roses of Berlin follows Janni and her lover Broad Arrow Jack as they set off to rescue their daughter and son-in-law, who’ve been captured by the forces of Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler parody from the film The Great Dictator, who stands in for Adolph in the world of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
The pacing on this book is just relentless, starting on the run and building ever higher until it reaches a truly Wagnerian climax. Once the plot is set up, the action swiftly moves to a Berlin transformed by a set of silent movie villains into a totalitarian nightmare.
That’s the Moloch Machine from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, artfully overlaid with fascist imagery by Kevin O’Neill. This marriage of German expressionist design and Nazi imagery works so very well that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it done before. Metropolis, in particular, is ripe for this sort of thing; its concerns are primarily with the crushing power of industry on its workers, but the themes apply perhaps even more easily to the industrialized evil of the Nazis. It makes the implicit horrors of the Third Reich explicit, and the near-Lovecraftian results leave Janni and Jack queasy and unsettled (a nice call-back to the first Nemo adventure, but that doesn’t concern us today).
But, pacing. I was talking about pacing. The horror doesn’t slow Our Heroes down too much, and they hit the ground running, facing off against the Somnambulist armies of Dr. Caligari (another silent movie villain whose hypnotic mind control powers also lend themselves easily to the totalitarian era). Dispatching that threat with ease, they go on the run, cutting a swath of death through Berlin before being helped by another icon of German expressionist cinema, the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse:
You’ll note that Mabuse is speaking German in the above panel. There are a number of untranslated scenes in Roses of Berlin that I haven’t yet taken the time to run through Babel Fish to see what they’re talking about. My guess is that the scenes flesh out the motivations of the various villains and fill in some background on what’s going on in Germany at this time. I know there’s a brief mention of Hitler in one scene, at least, so I’m sure there’s something in there that fleshes out the history of Moore’s fictional world. That’s something I’m personally fascinated by, but it has little bearing on the story at hand, which…
Pacing! Yes. Pacing. Amazing pacing on this book. Lots of running, jumping, hitting, kicksplodey action going on here, all of it escalating as Our Heroes get closer to their goal. This simple, jet-streamed plot disappointed me at first. I felt like Moore was just kind of phoning it in, and letting O’Neill take center stage with bunches of massive architectural imagery like the one above. But then I got interested in the ideas I’ve been discussing, and that shut up the whiny part of my brain that was upset that my kick-ass adventure story wasn’t From Hell. That let me calm down and get into it, and before I knew it I felt a thrill of excitement coiling in my gut.
Because this really is some epic shit, a story about two people who are frighteningly good at violence going on a rampage. That makes it, I think, unique in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, in which the people who are actually good at violence are generally treated as the bad guys. And make no mistake: Janni Nemo is a super villain. When we first see her in this book, she and her crew are on a pirate raid, and this is what their typical workday looks like:
Gaah! So, yeah. Super. Villain. But because she’s fighting for family in this case, and because she’s not some authoritarian jack-off out to tell other people what to do… That makes her the hero. So when it becomes apparent, about halfway through the book, that Moore is building up to a showdown between Janni and… another iconic pulp super villain whose identity is too SPOILERY to reveal… it’s exciting beyond words. And when that fight actually happens… and it happens WITH SWORDS… it’s one hell of a pay-off.
So. That’s Nemo: a fine-tuned adventure story full of excitement and action that’s also a meditation on Germany’s transformation from Weimar-era excess to Nazi fascism. And an effortlessly subtle look at the thin line between villain and hero in the bargain. Not that you’d notice those loftier goals unless you were of a mind to think about them. They’re woven in with skill, a part of the story’s fabric that’s there to be examined if you like, but which can also be enjoyed as part of the overall effect if you just want a fun story where lots of stuff blows up real good. A low-brow testament to the seasoned talent of Old Alan Moore.
In the blue corner!
Weighing in at a bloated 44 pages, and a price of Five Dollars!
I give you… Continue reading