Since the end of “Century,” fans have largely been curious about what the next step for Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” was. “Century” felt like a culmination as much as it did the next installment; something which was decidedly different from what came before yet also clearly built off of established ideas and themes in the ever-escalating narrative. The only problem is that as much as the idea of “League” is infinite, the characters are less so, and despite a few well-placed deus ex machinas that allowed for a bit of longevity, the adventures of the original League we’d come to know has had its time run out — especially after the final page of “Century” had arrived.
So what comes next? In this fun, complex and imaginative landscape O’Neill and Moore had cultivated, what would replace the world’s most foremost literary team of adventurers?
It turns out that what comes next would be following the adventures of one of “Century’s” characters, the daughter of Nemo and successor to his legacy, Janni Dakkar. In “Century,” we see her rise to power and everything that comes as a result in the transitional fallout, but what comes in the middle is mostly left up in the air for interpretation; it runs alongside the events of “Century” but also in the background, as we follow Mina and Allan for the central year-spanning exploits. Janni is a character whose life’s work was built on the stories about her just as much as on her actual actions, so it allowed for a certain amount of narrative leeway. There was no doubt of who she was, and that was largely the point: she was the daughter of Captain Nemo, one of the world’s greatest terrorists — but that was it for the time being.
Hence, the Nemo Trilogy, with “The Roses of Berlin” asthe latest of her adventures.
Following her trip in the Arctic in the 1920s, “Roses of Berlin” begins in 1941, with Janni and her lover traveling to occupied Berlin in search of her daughter. During this, Nemo and Jack find themselves in a dark neo-futuristic Orwellian dystopia, where they come face to face with an older enemy and the Twilight Heroes, dark counter-parts to the famous League, all of which culminates in one of Nemo’s greatest battles yet. It’s a rather straight-forward read, a touch more direct than as is inherently usual for a “League” adventure, but if nothing else it marks a landmark achievement in the collaborative efforts of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.
The “League” series has been with us for some time now, to the extent that it just about occupies the same historic sense that the literary elements it absorbs do in the non-comic fiction world, and “Roses of Berlin” is a very strong reminder as to why. Moore and O’Neill are at their collaborative best; they are very much at the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins (outside of the obvious, of course). Moore’s dialogue is much sharper in this installment than it was the previous, and O’Neill in particular continues to find ways to out-do his work in imaginative and expansive ways. It has become clear that O’Neill is perhaps Moore’s best collaborator, as each of their books finds them conspiring in ways together that only become more apparent after numerous reads of the book.
In fact, “Berlin” is mostly an ode to the talents of O’Neill. For better or worse, the previous volume of the Nemo series only allowed for so much experimentation. O’Neill was tasked with the unenviable goal of bringing to life what is literally described in prose as unimaginable horror, but O’Neill did his best. Yet with this volume, since the book is returning to the root idea of the series, playing off of already existing characters and landscapes, O’Neill’s talent is put into full focus; you can see where O’Neill is drawing a lot of his influence from while still managing to make everything sync up together true to the spirit of the series. It’s as much about honoring what it inspires the book as it is redefining and creating something new, and “Berlin” does that in spades.Continued below
And unlike “Century,” “Berlin” isn’t a grand easter egg hunt. There are certainly quaint cameos snuck in and there are a few moments that O’Neill obviously draws visual cues from famous historic events and classic interpretations of popular fiction, but for the most part this is O’Neill doing what he’s always done best within the “League” series. If “Century” did anything it was push the series almost to a breaking point with references; the two Nemo books have allowed O’Neill to be much more focused, and this book especially feels very much closer to the original two outings of the “League” in style, fortunately wrapped up in the ever improving visual prowess that O’Neill has on display.
Which isn’t to say that Moore’s hand in the book isn’t prominent or important. Of course he hasn’t; Moore is as sharp and witful as ever. However, it does feel like Moore has taken a more passive role with the two Nemo books. Previous installments of “League” are a touch convoluted (generally speaking) but in a seemingly controlled fashion, whereas in comparison the two Nemo books we’ve had seem like an attempt to simplify things. “Century,” for example, features so much information packed within a tiny space that reading the book at times involves intimate knowledge of the source material in order to pick up every cue or understand certain scenes. In turn, studying “Century” results in the earning of new knowledge and a better comprehension of its involved themes and ideas. “Berlin,” on the other hand, does not particularly bestow upon the reader anything in that fashion, and as such the story flows like a distilled iteration of what made this series so prominent.
Although, if nothing else, the book could perhaps instill a desire to learn how to read German. There is quite a bit of German.
But it’s not all bad. In terms of “League” in its entirety, yes, both “Berlin” and “Heart of Ice” are less complicated than what we’d seen in the world of before, let alone Alan Moore’s collected oeuvre. The reason for this is because Moore no longer seems to be exploring general themes or existential notions and questions, but rather specific genres and body’s of work. “Ice” fit in with more of Moore’s recent output in that it focused on the work of HP Lovecraft; “Berlin” refreshingly steps away from this. In Lovecraft’s stead, “Berlin” focuses on Fritz Lang and related German/expressionist cinema and satire; the book manages to incorporate ideas, characters, places and things relevant to the central subject in a way that feels natural, harking back to the original notion of the “League” series and the shared fictional space characters inhabit.
So while Moore may feel a little less involved with this book than usual, at least in terms of the intricacy of his involvement in previous installments, it somehow still manages to feel like a return to form — despite how oxymoronic that statement is.
Identifying the references is also a lot more interesting in this book than the previous Nemo installment. Some are certainly obvious, like the use of Charles Chaplin’s Hynkel from Great Dictator or Lang’s Maria from Metropolis, but others are much less so; while Lang is the obvious major influence, the book still mixes in a number of different things. And unlike “Ice” or even “Century,” knowledge of what the references are don’t impact the reading; you don’t need to know who Dr. Mabuse is, though having seen Lang’s 1932 film certainly won’t hurt, and that’s the case on numerous occasions. Granted, it’s a double-edged sword as part of the fun of “League” is finding the influences and seeing how it fits in and impacts the narrative in different ways, but that probably has to be considered on a certain level of personal involvement with the books. The book simply ends up reading a bit smoother than other “Leagues,” and in turn it becomes a quite thrilling adventure across all the dystopic landscapes you were most likely taught about back in high school/college Lit classes.
So the second installment of Nemo’s adventures feels like “League”-lite, but that isn’t implicitly a bad thing in this case. Instead, it’s just something a little bit different instead of as groundbreaking as a Moore book can be; Alan Moore is still one of the most important comic creators, but as entertaining as “Berlin” is it’s not as monumental as his previous work. Yet O’Neill is still the book’s true draw, taking full advantage of the visual medium to deliver a book that is worthy of the heroine it stars, and it more than compensates in just about every way that matters; O’Neill has truly become one of the medium’s most underrated genres, and “Berlin” is proof positive of why his work should be celebrated more.Continued below
“The Roses of Berlin” is an adventure book first and a literary deconstruction second, and perhaps its the decade plus that Moore and O’Neill have been working on the series but it’s clear that time is affecting the two creators, for better and for worse. “Berlin” is still an enjoyable read, however, much more so than “Ice,” and in the end it does engender a lot of excitement for the finale to this trilogy, “River of Ghosts.” Fans of “League” may be left a little bit cold, but there’s certainly enough in “Berlin” to still earn a home alongside the rest of our “League” collection.