Review: Nemo: River of Ghosts
Alan Moore (W), Kevin O’Neill (A)
Knockabout Comics & Top Shelf Comics
March 25, 2015
Content Warning: Discussion of rape
Janni Dakkar, the infamous “Pirate Jenny” and daughter of Captain Nemo, cut off the head of the long-lived sorceress Ayesha in Berlin decades ago. Yet sightings of the fearsome, goddess-like figure lead Janni to wonder if Ayesha is truly dead. With a team of other children and grandchildren of science fiction and movie legends at her side…as well as the ghosts of her old allies, Janni journeys into the heart of the Brazilian jungle for her final adventure.
Since its debut in 1999, writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and artist Kevin O’Neill’s (Nemesis the Warlock, Marshall Law) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series has received praise and admiration from comics critics and fans alike for its worldbuilding of multiple stories into a cohesive whole, as well as its use of multiple genres and media in its storytelling. However, the series has also received its more-than-fair share of criticism for its use of rape and racism as plot points and its tendency in the latter books to let its references overwhelm the plot.
I myself have had a passionate but occasionally strained relationship with this series. While I think the first two volumes are the most fun and accessible to readers, The Black Dossier really captured my imagination with its use of multiple storytelling formats. The third volume Century, where Janni Dakkar had her official debut, dampened my enthusiasm. As Moore and O’Neill began using characters that were not only increasingly more obscure but under copyright, the references became hard to parse even with Google open; I hated the ending, and while I’ve been able to defend the series’ use of rape in some instances, Janni getting gang-raped before deciding to follow her father’s footsteps and become a pirate is to me the most lazy, hackneyed, and unnecessary origin story for the character.
The Nemo spinoff has in some ways mitigated my problems with the previous entries in the series. Ever since the beginning, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has had a rocky handling of gender and race. Despite its name, the comic always had Mina as the primary heroine, leader, and main character of the series, but also featured a lot of sexualized violence against women and naked women as set dressing. (O’Neill isn’t against drawing a naked male butt or even penis once in awhile but naked women—particularly victimized naked women—are still far more prominent.) In interviews, Moore has expressed pride over portraying a more authentic, Indian Captain Nemo rather than whitewashing him like in the 1954 Disney film, and most of the villains in the series are coded so by their racist and/or anti-semitic attitudes.Yet he and O’Neill also revived the racist caricature Golliwog as a hero in a way that’s not satiric enough to be interpreted as anything other than wildly tone-deaf and insensitive.
So making Janni Dakkar the heroine of her own mini-series and telling a story without any rape or attempted rape was definitely a step in the right direction. Despite this, I have to say that I haven’t been as excited about the Nemo mini-series as its predecessors. The first book, Heart of Ice, which chronicles the new Nemo and her crew being chased by the hired guns of Charles Foster “Citizen” Kane and Ayesha on an expedition to Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, spent so much time with obscure, Edison-ade characters that very, very few readers could possibly know that I considered dropping the series until WWAC Comics Review Editor Kayleigh Hearn essentially talked me back into liking the book. The second volume, Roses of Berlin, will probably be my exception that proves the rule to the “second part of a book trilogy is always the worst” axiom. With its awesome setting of a German impressionist silent film-inspired Berlin and the high-stakes drama of Janni and her husband Broad-Arrow Jack fighting off sleepwalking Nazi-like soldiers to save their daughter and son-in-law, it remains the best part of the mini-series.
River of Ghosts isn’t as good as Roses of Berlin. One of the things I like about latter-day Moore is how he’s willing to cast elderly characters—especially elderly women—as active participants in their own stories with appetites for adventure and even sex. I also like how, while the series has never lacked for male characters, the principal conflict remains one between two larger-than-life women: Janni and Ayesha, even if the latter is more of a force than a character.
Still, those male characters can get a bit tiresome. In some ways Janni’s grandson Jack Jr. is the heart of the final volume. He is the one who has an actual character arc, which seems to muddy Janni’s position as protagonist, even if his hope and compassion being met with betrayal mirrors her journey in Century. The story also spends a lot of time establishing this universe’s version of Hugo Hercules: an obscure strongman who once starred in a now-forgotten British comic strip. While I appreciated the comic relief he brought to the story, especially when he eats a pie made out of a full cow—complete with an actual tail coming out of of the pie—to the horror of the mostly Sikh and Hindu crew members of the Nautilus, he does seem like a symptom of Moore and O’Neill getting way too into an obsession none of the readers are likely to share.
Then there’s that cover with the sexy faux Nazi ladies. There’s a good reason that they look like that (isn’t there always?), and I did like the use of the She-Wolves of the SS by way of The Boys of Brazil/The Stepford Wives. On the other hand, in this day and age it’s hard to look at them and not be reminded of Kate Beaton and her friends’ “Strong Female Characters” strips.
Yet having read this in conjunction with the last two volumes, I believe that while the plot or storytelling methods aren’t as innovative as previous volumes, this story excels in its subtext rather than its text.
At its heart, League has always been not only about stories and storytelling, but about how we relate to them. The arch-villains in this story are literal clones of Adenoid Hynkel (of the film The Great Dictator and the series’ Adolph Hitler stand-in), and they’re assisted by robots based in part on The Stepford Wives, a novel all about men destroying liberated women in favor of false reactionary stereotypes. This comic’s villains are men trying to literally re-create the past until the heroes destroy them. Jack Jr. tries to extend his hand to the youngest and presumably the most innocent of Ayesha’s clones, but she attacks him, declaring herself the last incarnation of the goddess. She can’t move on and become her own person, just as the villains are trying to recreate the glory days of their rule.
Yet aren’t the heroes—most of whom are not from other works but the descendants of a Golden Age of Sci-Fi hero or anti-hero—essentially our culture’s versions of clones? There’s been a narrative running through the latter-day entries of this series about how the media recycles the stories of the past to increasingly diminishing returns. For example, Ian Fleming’s James Bond shows up in The Black Dossier as a double-crossing rapist and Allan Quatermain bemoans how Britain’s heroes have degraded, and later his film counterparts crowd in the offices of Emma Peel-turned-M in the final volume of Century. The Bonds are heroes as literal assembly line products of the British empire. Yet isn’t this series itself another re-creation, another clone of the past?
Janni Dakkar goes to her death in battle with a measure of peace, surrounded by spectral images of her deceased friends. Yet the story ends not with her death, but a celebration in which Jack Jr., wearing similar clothes to his grandmother, unveils her memorial statue. Janni technically had her own story outside the League as Pirate Jenny of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, yet she’s always been more closely modeled after the series version of Nemo, to the point where in this series that had become her name. She became a legacy character in the truest sense. Yet, with this ending, she’s no longer just “Captain Nemo’s Daughter,” but her own legend. There’s trying to create and relive the past to diminishing returns, and yet there’s also using what’s gone before to create something new and exciting.
Is Nemo: River of Ghosts, and by extension The League, more one than the other? To me, it’s always been a series that’s strives to push the limits of storytelling yet occasionally hindered by retrograde attitudes. Others might feel differently. One of my favorite parts of any League entry is how it rewards re-reading, not only after having read Jess Nevins’ extensive annotations, but after having read and watched the books and movies from which it samples. As I return to this series again and again through re-reads and future installments I anticipate I’ll still struggle with this question. Perhaps if you read you will as well.