A spoiler-free personal review of the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book, the graphic novella Nemo: Heart of Ice.
I say personal as it was near impossible for me to put aside my prior feelings when it came to reading this comic, and yet I felt compelled to review it in some manner after racing my way through it in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
(Hit the jump for the full review!)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is a funny old beast, originally featuring the brash adventures of heroes and villains from the pages of our most beloved literature, but increasingly at odds with and inviting the game of spot the reference that threatens to drown out the actual plot.
Not that literary geekplay isn't fun, or indeed essential to the complex fictional world of the League, but many fans have found it a little draining in more recent escapades, where story progression has played second fiddle to grander statements and subtle in-jokes. My own delight in placing the much talked about not-Harry-Potter appearance in Century 2009 within the context of a growing trend of money-grubbing franchises robbing less commercial storytellers of their creative platform, was rapidly torn into horror as I was made aware that my enthusiasm had been mistakenly interpreted as an ambition to belong to that very trend.
Given that my most frequently received criticism is that I am too positive about the comics I cover (okay, apart from all the sexist comments that are vile...), or to put plainly, "too nice" (sob!), it was a bit of a shock. You may have noticed I took a rather large break from reviewing comics until quite recently, which I guess is no big coincidence. To this day I possess an hour long interview full of intriguing tidbits and Moore-ish wisdom that I cannot share. Therefore, and my highly critical (and - blush - popular) review of Neonomicon notwithstanding, it was with both surprise and trepidation that I greeted the heavy thump of a Nemo: Heart of Ice comp copy through my letterbox.
And what a book it is! A gorgeous hardcover of some fifty-six pages, the 1925 setting allows for both the vintage feel that Century 1910 held on to, and the more psychedelic palette of later adventures. While the three Century volumes followed the continuing saga of Mina Harker, Allan Quatermain and Orlando, now we climb aboard the Nautilus with Janni Dakkar, daughter of Nemo, as she seeks to escape her father's long shadow in the depths of Antarctica.
Completely story driven, with a large proportion of the book an extended chase sequence of sorts, Nemo: Heart of Ice boasts a far faster pacer than its predecessors, designed as it was to follow the pacing of eight page instalments. A lighter offering by choice, with perhaps another two similar volumes to follow between the heavier League titles. A sense of liberation and spontaneity is certainly evident here - the vibrancy in the colours of Ben Dimagmaliw surpassing even the greatest of his previous works.
The book begins as it means to go on, plunging the reader into the tail end of a daring raid, and in true League style introduces a captivating new character that we can only hope will be revisited in the future. An early incidental visit to Megapatagonia allows O'Neill to go bananas, and indeed the book boasts a large number of mind defying splash pages to titillate your optical pleasures. A fractured time sequence is perhaps the standout moment of the book, though a silent page of three vertical panels is my own personal favourite. To focus on the former also perhaps overshadows the narrative trickery at use throughout the book - there is clever panel work at play here, swallowing and distancing the reader in turn.
And that of course is before we get to the point of mass cross-appeal, for a visit to the Antarctica of fiction which uncovers literary supernatural beasties can only really lead to one thing... and it's tentacled territory that Moore is familiar with.
Those who were a tad disappointed with the Century books will find much to love here, as will those who enjoy seeing O'Neill off leash. The literary references are still very much at play, but outside of the characters themselves; it is more background noise than foreground clutter.
But - and there is a but - it is very short. Deliberately so, and perhaps an obvious point to make, but this world of Moore's is so rich that it's always a fleeting disappointment not to stay longer. The character work is subsequently very shallow, sacrificed upon the alter of pace and plot. It is however a welcome return to the past, and I say this despite Century 2009 being my favourite of that trilogy. Contemporary fiction seems less fun a playing ground when compared to the vast history of fiction, and the equally large fictional future which was mostly written in that same prodigious past!
My own disappointment is that for a book about Janni Dakkar, there is very little of Janni present. Yes, she is the main character, yes she is the Captain... but her father remains the driving force, and there is very little of Janni's own personality on show. It is clear that her people are incredibly loyal to her, and we know from Century 1910 that she is a woman to be feared, yet the pull of her father is so great that the entire story revolves around her trying to best him against all logic and reason. It echoes her presence in that earlier book where she was so central to the overall story, yet completely powerless within it - a slave to the song being told, incapable of escaping her brutal rape which led to her change of heart and turned that heart to ice.
And oh how I prefer reviewing and reading comics where that r-word needn't be mentioned at all. In order to side-step that further, I heartily recommend reading that aforementioned Neonomicon review where such things are discussed properly within their own specific complexities. Suffice to say that rape and sexual assault, unlike the cartoonish violence and murder we are all accustomed to in our comics and on our screens, carries a distinct emotional trigger that is, yes, upsetting and frustrating to see appear so often in one writer's bibliography, regardless of intent and message (and I say this as someone who has discussed the issues of "women in comics" with Moore quite genially and with admiration). That early assault on Janni can't help but overshadow my reading of Nemo: Heart of Ice, as enthusiastic as I was for this fierce character to move past that rape-as-turning-point origin.
It was my hope that a book focusing solely on Janni - joy! - would result in a reversal of this powerless woman trope, yet if there is a hero to be found here then it is Jack. Jack who is unwavering in his loyalty, who saves her, who never questions her. Jack the older man, and Janni the younger woman. The echoes of Mina and Allan are near unbearable - Mina who was assaulted, abandoned, and mad. Janni looks the part, but little more than that until the last prose pages of the book where her personality (and villainy!) starts to shine through. Unfortunately those last pages also contain another disturbing element relating to the young woman/older man fixation. Ack.
That is my own disappointment however, and my expectations were perhaps unfairly high given the purposefully lighter touch and shorter page count of Nemo: Heart of Ice. Taking this book purely as a standalone rather than a continuation of any previous works, this is a fantastically enjoyable read, and a stunning work of art. Characterisation is admittedly light, but with such a large cast and at such a fast pace, this is understandable. The storytelling and art more than make up for that shortcoming, and I can only hope that the next outing, perhaps based in [redacting myself!], will linger upon Orlando and a smaller cast. Whether these shorter books can quite live up to the bar set by the Black Dossier remains to be seen, but they should at least keep fans going until the next volume of the League proper.
Nemo: Heart of Ice
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Kevin O'Neill
Colourist: Ben Dimagmaliw
Letters: Todd Klein
Publisher: Knockabout/Top Shelf
Publication Date: March 5th