This is not a review of Nemo: The Roses of Berlin, the 2014 installment in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s sprawling League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Now, a discussion of a work can take many forms, but as a general principle, it is normally considered to be a good idea if you read the entirety of the work beforehand. While I have read the comic in question (well, most of it), it is the middle part of a trilogy I have not started, and a side-story for a series I have also not started. As a result, talking about this comic in any serious critical sense would be quite dishonest of me.
But there are things I would like to talk about, all the same.
Just to make sure we’re all up to speed here, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a comic series Moore and O’Neill have been playing around with since the beginning of the century. The base conceit of the series is that it is set in a version of late 19th-century Britain populated by all the characters from literature, film, and the like. Initially the comics were essentially superhero books, with a bunch of characters from Victorian and Edwardian-era popular fiction teaming up to fight period-appropriate villains. As the books have gone on, though, they’ve expanded in both place and time, and the stories have become more self-indulgent, focusing on hermetic magic, the nature of immortality, and the evolution of popular fiction in the 20th century. Indeed, the Nemo series, focusing on the adventures of Captain Nemo’s daughter Janni (“Pirate Jenny,” har har) is an attempt to get back to the adventure-fiction spirit of the earlier stories.
Now, while I have sampled my share of Alan Moore in the past, League was something that passed me by. Truth be told, it may be something I’m never going to properly read. Part of the reason for that is that I don’t really find the idea of massive-shared-universe literary mashups all that interesting anymore. I mean, sure it’s cute to imagine Hercule Poirot and Maigret working together on a case, but once you get to the point where you’re slamming multiple books in different genres, you have to do considerable violence to the original stories in the name of building a coherent world. As an example, in the 1950s of the League books, post-WWII Britain becomes the dictatorship of “Airstrip One” overseen by Big Brother for a few years. By the nature of the story, the dictatorship has to be temporary, but it’s a restriction that renders the dictatorship a pale imitation of Orwell’s original creation, one that lacks the aura of being a nightmare final society. Additionally, for the majority of these experiments, many bank solely on the novelty of putting the characters together to hold the reader’s interest. “All these characters get together…and then they fight crime!” is the best most of them can do, and quite frankly it gets a little tired after the third iteration.
I must also confess that there are some things about the League proper which have turned me off. Characters have an annoying habit of going “Ah, just like So-And-So’s thing-a-thing!”, leaving you scrambling for the fan annotations to find out what forgotten dime novel was just referenced. Given that this is an Alan Moore comic, it’s no surprise to see that the rape is used as a plot point on more than a few occasions. Indeed, there seem to be parts that are pessimistic or miserable simply for the sake of gratuity (Hey, remember Rupert Bear, Mr. Toad, and Peter Rabbit? Guess what? They’re all grotesque human-animal hybrids hacked together by Doctor Moreau!). There’s also the issue of Moore’s cast, many of whom seem so radically altered from their original conception that they may as well be separate entities. It’s an issue critics have brought up with later sections of League, particularly with Moore’s depiction of James Bond as a jumped-up thug (which, to be fair, he always was on a certain level) and of Harry Potter (don’t ask). However, these issues have been with League from the very beginning. As some have argued, League completely reworks Mina Murray’s personality, commits a fair amount of character assassination of Jonathan Harker, and completely ignores the child they had at the end of Dracula to make her the character the story needs.
So why did I decide to read Nemo: The Roses of Berlin? Well, a few years ago, there was a League comic that had some supplemental material about the adventures of the League in the years leading up to the First World War. Chief among those adventures were a series of struggles with two parallel organizations on the Continent: France’s “Mystery Men,” and the “Twilight Men” of Germany. Of the two, it was the latter that got my attention. Yes, they were an image of German popular culture taken by someone well removed from it, and there was something racist about making the Germans into pure villains yet again. But seeing that first sketch of Doctor Mabuse, Doctor Caligari and his sonambulist Cesare, and the inventor Rotwang with his maschinenmensch intrigued me. It gave me ideas.
I began thinking of a story, a story about these German heroes. It would begin in 1916, with the death of the last head of the organization, old Franz von Trotta from The Radetsky March, and would move from there to the German world of the postwar world, a land contaminated by the psychic fallout of the war. The central character would be the maschinenmensh, freed of Rotwang’s control, a false Maria without Maria. She would wander the nation, meeting criminals and cranks, veterans and wonder-workers, Marxists and urban shamans, trying to put herself together. The story would end in Hitler, as all stories in this place must. But the Hitler of this story would not be one, but all the Hitlers. Hitler the Aryan knight, Hitler the ranting demagogue, Hitler the deformed pederast, Hitler the Lucifer who speaks to our secret fears, Hitler the slapstick comedian, this character would fluoresce between these identities. After all, in this year of Our Lord 2016, can it not be said that Adolf Hitler has spent more time as a fictional character than he has as a human being?
It’s a story I will never write. To do it properly would require a deeper and much subtler knowledge of German culture than I have; indeed I think I would actually have to be German or Austrian to even have a shot at pulling it off. In any case, it’s not where my current interests lie. But I still think about it from time to time, and I wanted to see what Alan Moore would do with the idea.
As it turned out, not much. The main focus of the story is Janni Nemo’s search for her captured daughter and her husband, the son of Verne’s Robur the Conquerer, in the depths of the Berlin and her struggle with Queen Ayesha of She fame. As a result, the entire story is telescoped into an extended chase sequence. In terms of literary allusion, Moore doesn’t advance beyond the “from Caligari to Hitler” paradigm. Berlin has become Metropolis (and seemingly a city-state to boot), with Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel at its head, supported by Rotwang’s designs and the mesmerism of Mabuse and Caligari. And the maschinenmensch, who took such joy in the manipulation and destruction of others in her own movie, speaks with the affectless manner of the C-movie robot. She gets the worst of it in the end as well; as Janni cuts a bloody swath through Hynkel’s guards, there is a full page of panels depicting her being torn apart with submachinegun fire. (Moore even contrives to continue her humiliation past her death; in the follow-up to this comic, it’s revealed that plans for her construction were smuggled out of Berlin after the war, and domesticated copies of her walk the Earth as Stepford Wives and sexbots.) In the end, Berlin was just a vacation.
Still, there are a few bright spots. O’Neill’s rendition of the Berlin Metropolis is wonderfully imposing and expressionistic. There are one or two neat little twists, like the idea of Caligari creating battalions of “sleep commandos” who fight tirelessly (tiredly?) and are impervious to pain and mutilation. Even the maschinenmensch has a wonderful reveal scene, impassively sloughing the flesh of her Maria-disguise off her body, wreathed in flames, before a terrified Janni. Finally, the final scenes of the comic show Robur’s Terror raining fire on the Metropolis, an uncomfortable pulp-fiction reworking of the Allied bombing campaign, that unhappy ghost of modern German memory.
Still, a few interesting notes do not make a beautiful symphony. I will keep Nemo: The Roses of Berlin for the pictures, but I have little use of it beyond that.