Recent Dorkiness

Funnybook Battle: Nemo vs Miracleman!

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 ONeill Nemo Cover 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. ONeill Nemo Moloch Machine 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: ONeill Nemo 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: ONeill Nemo Piracy 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. And now... In the blue corner! Weighing in at a bloated 44 pages, and a price of Five Dollars! I give you...

Miracleman 3, by Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and Garry Leach

Davis Miracleman 3 Cover

In contrast to its opponent, “subtle” is not a word I’d use to describe this comic. Here we’re dealing with  Young Alan Moore, a talented writer well-worth reading, but one who’s still learning his craft, and who still has some bad habits to get out of his system.

One of those habits is The Mission Statement. This is the book of an Angry Young Man, a writer who’s got a point to make and who’s going to make damn sure his readers know what it is. There’s stuff to like in it, but it’s heavy-handed, and the prose gets pretty ripely purple at times. I mean… Here. Check this page out:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Whoo! That’s pretty freakin’ metal right there. Artsy prog-metal, mind you. But metal nonetheless. It’s great fun to read, and there are some nice poetic moments in it, too. I like the “moment of crystalline silence,” especially. But, also…

Holy crap could you spell things out any more obviously? If you didn’t get the point (like, if you maybe didn’t read it), Moore’s trying to tell us here that the super-humans are so different and INTENSE that we can’t possibly understand them. Actually, scratch that. He’s not just telling us. He’s battering us about the head and neck with the idea. It’s his major theme in the series to this point, so he wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. Well, mission accomplished!

But there’s a problem with it. Alongside that, Young Moore is also trying to delve into the psychology of the supermen, to show us what it might be like to be one of them. So while he’s telling us that they’re creatures of unfathomable emotions, he’s simultaneously making their motivations pretty damn clear. Miracleman’s fighting to save his wife from a madman who’s already promised to kill her, for instance, and Bates is a power-tripping megalomaniac cutting loose after years of a demeaning masquerade as a normal human being. Hell, the very passage that tells us we can’t understand the intensity of their emotions actually does a pretty good job of explaining that intensity: no hatred, after all, burns hotter than that of a broken friendship.

Which… yeah. YEAH. That’s sharp. That some good character writing. So why’s he hitting us over the head with the other thing? Because it’s an important mindset to establish for where the story goes next, and he let himself get trapped in-between his own themes. Again, it’s his inexperience showing.

But to his credit, he moves past that almost immediately. The writing in this issue’s second chapter is better, and then he opens the third with something really interesting:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

Yeah, I know. More super-poetry. But this is not only better-written poetry than that first piece, it also serves a story purpose. Because a page or two later, the human Mike Moran talks about what it’s like to go from being a 42-year-old average joe to being something beyond human ken:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

And, suddenly, all that purple prose becomes not the striving of a young writer trying to say something important, but the the poetical viewpoint of a god. (Insert joke about Moore’s ego here.) It’s a one-two punch that just freaking works. In three pages, we see Young Moore make a quantum leap as a writer, and improve the stuff he’s already written in the process.

So that’s Miracleman. A book that starts out a little shaky, but pulls off a strange alchemy in the third act to save the day.

And that brings us to the central question of any Funnybook Battle: WHO WINS?

On a purely technical level, it’s a no-contest. Old Alan Moore is a vastly superior writer to Young Alan Moore. He’s got complete control of his script, and he makes it look easy to weave theme into action. He’s also far better at working with his artists, turning the reigns of the storytelling over to Kevin O’Neill in a way that Young Moore never really does for Alan Davis and Garry Leach.

That’s not to downplay the effectiveness of the Miracleman artwork, understand. Any comic drawn by Davis and Leach is a joy to look at. I like all three of the artists here, actually, to the point that I’m not sure I could pick a winner on this front. O’Neill is expressive and profane…

click to embiggen the naughty picture

click to embiggen the naughty picture

…while Davis and Leach have a smooth dramatic style that the fanboy in me eats up like candy.

click to REALLY embiggen, and check out that crazy crosshatching!

click to REALLY embiggen, and dig that crazy linework!

Both styles have their merits. Just as the varying styles of Young Moore and Old Moore do. But I think I’m starting to feel my way to a decision. In Roses of Berlin, we see a very relaxed writer having some fun while remaining intellectually interesting. But… well… Isn’t this book (and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in general) sort of just… Miracleman all over again? Seriously. It’s Alan Moore taking preexisting characters and telling new stories with them that in some way modernize, change, or make them more adult. He doesn’t have a point to prove with it anymore, because he won that particular fictional battle ages ago. But it’s really the same process. Isn’t it?

I mean, he’s still good at it. And I obviously still enjoy reading it. I enjoy reading Moore’s version of it far more than I do just about anybody else’s, in fact. But it’s the same thing. The same thing he’s been doing since 1982. So it’s not particularly fresh anymore.

On Miracleman, however, it is fresh. It’s damn fresh. So fresh it’s still freaking bleeding. I said earlier that it’s the work of an Angry Young Man, but you know what? I LOVE the work of Angry Young Men. This doesn’t come up a lot here on the nerd farm because, well… It’s a nerd farm. But I was a punk rock kid. And I remain, largely, a punk rock kid. Gimme low-fi, baby. Gimme DIY. Gimme idiosyncratic work from people who don’t entirely know what they’re doing, but whose enthusiasm gives their craziness a vitality that’s lacking in the work of old pros. That’s what Miracleman has that carries it over the rough spots.

Is it enough to beat Roses of Berlin? Maybe not. But Miracleman has something else going for it, too: the conclusion of the fight between Miracleman and Johnny Bates. Because that is a stroke of genius. Right up the last couple of pages, that fight’s going pretty much as you’d expect. Bates seems to be winning. Our Hero’s down for the count. So now it’s time for the inevitable comeback.

But, no. That’s not what happens. He tries, certainly. But Bates is too powerful, obscenely powerful, and so he proceeds to beat the complete shit out of Our Hero. This breaks the script pretty roundly. I remember thinking, during my first read of this back in the 80s, that something pretty messed up might be about to happen. We’d had all the build-up, after all. All the flowery language and in-your-face bluster that this was NOT your average spandex comic, goddammit, and you’d better fucking believe it. So what happens? Well… After all that careful building of a realistic new model for the super hero… Bates goes down like Mr. Mxyzptlk.

click to embiggen

click to embiggen


Just fantastic. What a goofy, awful, hackneyed way to end a story! But it works. It’s perfect, in fact. Just when you think you’re reading something that’s about jettisoning all that weird fantasy kid stuff from the super hero comic… it’s that weird fantasy kid stuff that saves the day. And, of course, the mental breakdown of the real Johnny Bates is just horrifying enough to remind you that you’re still dealing with the same story you were reading one page prior. It’s a genius ending, a knock-out punch.

Which I guess means it’s decision time. Who wins? Miracleman, or Roses of Berlin?

(I know, the suspense is killing me, too...)

(I know, the suspense is killing me, too…)

Both are fine comics. Grade A comics. Among the best you’ll read this month. And Roses of Berlin would undoubtedly win on points. But in this case, on this day… For its enthusiasm and an inventive twist ending that’s still striking 30 years later…

Miracleman takes it by Knock Out.

Ring the bell!

About Mark Brett (522 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at

1 Comment on Funnybook Battle: Nemo vs Miracleman!

  1. I with you on the decision – TKO!

    Still, I love Kevin O’Neill’s work, and he should have a quarterly book with a writer who can appreciate his sense of style.


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