Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s latest Nemo outing zips forward a few years from the last book, Nemo: Heart of Ice, transplanting the action to a Berlin refracted through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Nemo’s daughter Janni Dakkar is now in her mid-forties and united with Broad Arrow Jack (a character from a penny dreadful written by E Harcourt Burrage in 1866) on pillaging and the like. They receive a distress signal of sorts from their 15 year old daughter Hira who is off on a job with Armand Robur (the son of Captain Jean Robur, of Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror (1886) and The Master of the World (1904)) which propels them into the fanatical mechanical heart of Berlin.
It is here that the narrative strings are tied: we learn that Ayesha, the immortal Queen whose men pursued Janni and her crew through Heart of Ice is still intent on revenge. She has teamed up with Adenoid Hynkel (in this world, Chaplin’s satire is real) and is hellbent on revenge (towards the climax of the book, Janni asks her why she waited 15 years to make her move, Ayesha dismisses the time as the blink of an eye). Alongside Hynkel and Ayesha, Moore also finds time to work in Dr Mabuse, Dr Caligari and (of course!) Maria the machinemensch from Metropolis.
Now, as with pretty much any Moore book for the last 15 years, the references and allusions feel at least as important as the narrative and it’s worthwhile scanning the annotations produced by Jess Nevins – either before you read, as you read or after the fact – as it will help you see how dense the level of references are. Nevins’ annotations are arguably more relevant this time around as a great deal of the book is in German, and so Nevins’ translations genuinely help if you don’t read German (as I don’t).
Unfortunately I didn’t check out the Nevins until after I’d read once and by that point I’d worked my way through the book using Google Translate (which is less fun than it sounds – and I’m not sure it sounds all that fun). There are moments in the book when lines of German (or French) are repeated in English but for the most part you’ll need to engage with translation to enjoy the book to its fullest. At times it can be frustrating. For instance, 27 pages in, Ayesha’s adviser tells Hynkel:
“Ihre königliche hoheit, die erhabene ayesha, bevorgzugt es, sich nicht in ihrer sprache zu unterhalten. Sie findet es umstandlich.”
This translates as:
“Her royal highness, the sublime Ayesha, it bevorgzugt not to entertain in your language. She finds it awkward.”
[Now, Google Translate being what it is, I’m presuming ‘bevorgzugt’ is something like ‘behoves’.] At this point, Hynkel talks in English – for maybe a frame – and then reverts back to German. Translating Nemo: Roses of Berlin line by line is not the most fun in the world.
This difficulty aside (and arguably it’s my difficulty – so I had to learn something in order to fully enjoy a book – that isn’t the worst thing in the world), Nemo: Roses of Berlin is as taut as Heart of Ice. Clocking in at just under 60 pages, the narrative brooks no slack, rattling along like some sort of steampunky train on the cusp of having its boiler blow. The book also gives O’Neill a real chance to shine, particularly at the climax of the book when the night time sky is awash with flame and carnage. A third instalment is promised for next year. That should just about be long enough for our little brain to evolve in order to appreciate Alan Moore more.
Any Cop?: Since Century, Alan Moore’s League books have become tight little whips of references and narrative, his stories purer vehicles for his erudition – Nemo: Roses of Berlin continues that. In a sense, it’s hard like a bully is hard (because it doesn’t offer help when sometimes it should) but also like a difficult sum is hard (because the narrative zips along at such a pace, you have to hold on for dear life), but it’s also pleasurable in a way that few graphic novels are.