Nemo: Heart of Ice
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Kevin O’Neill
Published by Top Shelf/Knockabout
It’s 1925 and Captain Nemo is Janni Dakar, the original’s daughter. The world is changing beneath her, the sweep of industrialization and invention engulfing the planet and not just the science heroes of her childhood. She passes the time, robbing Charles Foster and Queen Ayesha (Citizen Kane and H. Rider Haggard’s She respectively) but the thrill has gone. Janni, uneasy and wanting to prove herself, orders her crew to the Antarctic, to complete a voyage that almost killed her father. Meanwhile, Kane dispatches Frank Reade Jr, Tom Swyfte and Jack Wright, three of the geniuses of the modern age (And fictional inventor adventurers who’s stories appeared in this time period) to bring Janni and her crew down.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as an idea is not only all about evolution but is evolving in its own right. We’ve had the closely connected first two volumes, the troubled Black Dossier and the three episodes of Century and each has been different and each has played with the same ideas; stories change, stories are themselves about change. Fiction is always in motion and fiction is always the best possible tool to understand the world around us.
Heart of Ice is no exception to this but approaches it in a slightly different way. This is arguably the most subdued League title in years, lacking both the maniacal flamboyance and bitter aftertaste of Century but operating on a far smaller scale than the three original volumes. It’s not a weakness either, in fact there’s a case for saying this is the best League story in years, for several reasons.
The first and most obvious of these is Janni. Nemo was always one of the best elements of the early books and Janni is a fascinating successor to her father. She has the regal bearing, the clear genius but she’s uncomfortable in her position, not through lack of talent or will but because she inherited it. Janni is every inch the leader her father was but she hasn’t been tested like her father was and it’s starting to bother her. There’s a lovely moment in the opening scenes, having held up Kane and Ayesha where, having made their escape, Janni takes her father’s jacket off and mutters ‘It’s just so big and heavy sometimes.’ She isn’t playing dress up but she feels like she is and that’s what leads to the Antarctic expedition. In the hands of a lesser writer, this Quixotic desire to test herself and her (wonderfully aged at this point) crew would be desperately unsympathetic but Moore has a talent for emotional honesty that shines through here. Janni knows what she’s doing, knows what the cost is and her crew know too and pay it gladly. By the end of the book she’s learned some hard lessons but also passed a couple of major tests and that coat isn’t as heavy anymore. I look forward to seeing her in future stories and, frankly, feel sorry for Kane. Janni Dakar enters the book frustrated but she leaves it a warrior, and one not even the most powerful man in America should bet against.
The second reason the book shines is in the exact position on the fictional evolutionary scale it sits. This is a story about the end of one fictional age and the start of another. Nemo’s outsider status, something his daughter very much maintains, is drawn not only from his nationality but from the foundation of the stories he sprung from. Nemo was a science pirate, an outsider in a League of outsiders. Janni inherits that position but inherits it in a world where the fantastic is coated in steel, fitted with electrical lights and mass produced. Industry is the new magic, invention is the new science and the only place, it seems, for people like her is on the outskirts of society. The conflict between Janni and the ‘science heroes’, as well as the confliuct between Janni and herself, makes for a surprisingly deep, and very personal foundation to the story. There’s none of the cold to ill-tempered distance of the previous volumes, rather a detailed look at one woman’s struggle to make her place in a world changing so fast almost no one can keep up. The fact that Swyft in particular is monstrous, a collection of ‘boy howdy!’ aphorisms wrapped up in racism and brutality makes the conflict all the more compelling.
Then there’s the third reason, one which isn’t strictly apparent until you get about halfway through the book but which is tipped off fairly heavily on the front cover. There’s a particular story, a very famous horror story in fact, set in the Antarctic. Heart of Ice runs headlong into the middle of it, and the end result is frankly some of the most bravura, innovative and downright unsettling comics you’ll read this year. There’s a sequence in the middle of the book that opens with a splash page of the characters running away from something and then jumps to a different part of the conversation and a different time. Then it does it again. And again.
What at first seems to be a printing error is in fact a fantastically effective way of exploring what happens when humans meet something so resolutely non-human it damages their perception of time. It’s a chilling sequence, both in execution and design and I can honestly say the pages dealing with this are amongst the finest art I’ve ever seen Kevin O’Neill. Additionally, the way Janni and the survivors weaponizes the environment to, if not win, then at least escape, is very smart writing. This whole sequence is extraordinary and whilst I wish I could talk about it in more detail trust me it’s worth leaving you slightly in the dark. Janni and her crew certainly wish that’s where they were left by the end of it.
Heart of Ice is the next stage not only in the evolution of the League but the evolution of the League’s exploration of the history of fiction. Which sounds incredibly dry, right? It really isn’t, this is one of the smartest, and most human, books you’ll read this month. Janni is a great protagonist and the story of her battles with her enemies, her father and herself is given exactly the right amount of room to breathe. By the end it’s clear that Moore has plans for these characters further down the line but has still crafted a complete story, one about the perils of walking in the footsteps of giants and what happens when they wake. Beautiful, jagged, smart and dark this isn’t just an evolution of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a new high water mark. If you were burnt by the end of Century, as I know some were, come back, this is absolutely worth your time.
As is, as ever, the magnificent Jess Nevins and friends' work in catching all the references. Check the annotations here, and feel ensmartenated.