Books | Arts

Extraordinary Ladies Battle Across Berlin In 'Roses'

NPR | March 22, 2014 4:03 a.m. | Updated: March 22, 2014 9:44 a.m.

Contributed By:

Etelka Lehoczky

Grab your spats and your ray gun! It’s time for another volume of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s adventures. Nemo: The Roses of Berlin has everything one looks for in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s saga: steampunk, alternate history, elements from boys’ adventure tales and the flavor of ‘30s movie serials. The latest episode might better be called the League of Extraordinary Ladies, actually: There’s a female protagonist, a female villain and a female robot — the latter none other than the false Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis.

German expressionist film is clearly an inspiration for the fictionalized 1941 Berlin where much of the story is set, and O’Neill almost outdoes F.W. Murnau in bringing the imaginary city to life. In last year’s Nemo: Heart of Ice, O’Neill gave us Lovecraftian cathedrals at the South Pole. Now he sketches vistas of totalitarian eye candy: A gorgeous underwater dreadnought shoots torpedoes from a giant mouth; basements are split with zigzagging shadows out of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; tiny human figures pass under vertiginous buildings and floating transport ships.

It’s a shame, then, that the characters can’t live up to their setting. The problems start with Janni Nemo herself. The daughter of the original Captain Nemo and a pirate queen in her own right, she doesn’t flinch at delivering grisly death to her enemies. For that matter, she doesn’t flinch when her own family members are about to meet the same grisly death. Informed that her daughter has been kidnapped and is being held in the fortress-city of Berlin, she reacts with off-putting certitude.

Her husband’s response, at least, is more human. “Striking into Berlin … D’you not think we should plan this out first?” he asks. Janni’s reply? Screw planning. “They are probably raping and torturing our daughter at this moment. No. We take the Nautiloid along the Elbe. We retrieve Hira and Armand. Everyone else, we kill.”

She’s similarly expressive — as in, not at all — when discussing the death of a close family member. “He had a good death, killing enemies as in his life. Later, we shall mourn him.” Needless to say, “later” never comes — avenging is more fun to draw than mourning is.

Just as irritating is Nemo’s ultimate adversary, an immortal African queen who’s the force behind the bumbling Fuhrer, Adenoid Hykel from Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator. Her motivations are even less interesting than Nemo’s, dating back to an incident in Heart of Ice. “May I ask what made me so important, for you to have occasioned all this death?” Nemo asks during a pause in their final (rather rote) swordfight. “Don’t you recall?” replies the queen. “You stole my things.” She and Nemo have a lot more in common than they seem to realize. They even look the same.

Still, characters don’t have to be particularly dimensional to deliver up a rollicking adventure, and Roses does that. The sequences featuring robot Maria are all they should be — awesome, yet gross. The weaponry ranges from Art Deco machine guns to the scimitars wielded by Nemo and the queen. In one bravura panel, a massive buglike flying machine plows through a half-dozen planes and armored flying men. In a less bravura, but equally memorable sequence, the characters pass through a massive brothel whose employees believe in truth in advertising — and advertising, and advertising. (Oddly enough, though, the breasts O’Neill draws are somehow not very sexy. It’s as if he thinks beautiful naked hookers wouldn’t be as highbrow as bony, bloodless ones are.)

Ultimately Nemo: Roses of Berlin is just as much fun as Heart of Ice — even more so if you’ve got a particular jones for big war machines. Janni Nemo and her pals may not know much about acting like human beings, but when it comes to violence, they’re truly “extraordinary.”

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