Artist: Kevin O’Neill
Publisher: Top Shelf
Release Date: February 27, 2013
“My father lived in a far larger world than I.”
These words simultaneously define and haunt the pages of Nemo: Heart of Ice, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s latest entry into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe. And while these words, expressed by protagonist Janni Dakkar toward the latter half of the book, provide an almost metacommentary of the book’s goals (Moore and O’Neill present a story that is much smaller-scale and self-contained than the sprawling plotlines of previous League volumes), it also highlights the greatness of what came before it in a way that effectively undermines this latest chapter.
Since its launch in 1999, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has established itself as one of the most reliably great ongoing books on the market. Resembling the wet dream of a humanities college student raised on comic books and science-fiction B movies, the series concerns a revolving superhero team of various characters from classic British literature (Allan Quatermain from King Solomon’s Mines, Mina Harker from Dracula, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, etc.). This time around, the story focuses on Janni Dakkar, the estranged daughter of antihero explorer Captain Nemo, the protagonist from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and previous Gentlemen stories.
First introduced during the Century arc and third volume of the series, Janni was set to take over the Nemo mantle following her father’s death. As the book opens, we see her filling her father’s shoes nicely. Her latest misadventure witnesses her intercepting the transfer of goods between an unnamed, malevolent queen and a wealthy newspaper publisher named Kane (try to guess the reference there). Longing for something more challenging than pithy plunder, Janni plans an expedition to Antarctica to complete a voyage that her father began but never finished. This obsessive urge to transcend her father’s shadow provides a major driving force to her character, and Moore certainly isn’t subtle about it (at one point, she describes her captain’s coat as being “so big and heavy”).
All the while, three ingenious inventors (Swyfte, Reade, Wright) hired by Kane track Janni and discover what valuables lay at the end of her excursion.
Unlike Century and The Black Dossier, which saw Moore deviate from the series’ action-heavy format in favor of more character-heavy, experimental work, Heart of Ice marks a definite return to the plot-driven, adventure tales that characterize the first two volumes of League. Propelled by exciting gunplay, clipped pacing, and an “on the run” structure, the plot seems ripped straight out of an Indian Jones movie (or Uncharted game, depending on your generational preference).
Of course, with Moore being Moore, nothing is completely straightforward. Proving he still has a few tricks up his sleeve, the bearded author takes time to playfully subvert the comic book structure for proper emotional effect. For example, in simulating the growing madness and disorientation that afflicts Janni and her crew as they dive deeper into the Antarctic desolation, Moore disrupts the traditional panel sequence by repeating bits of dialogue and images as well as presenting panels seemingly out-of-order.
For his part, O’Neill (or, “jack of all trades and master of rum” as the book’s credits describe him) demonstrates that he’s lost none of his zest, creating vibrant, colorful worlds that seamlessly meld iconic 1920s imagery with the surreal fantasy/sci-fi embellishments and steampunk influences that remain a cornerstone of the title. Continuing his reign as a master craftsman of the splash page, O’Neill manages to create big, rich visuals that are nothing short of breathtaking.
If the book has any major flaw, it’s that—contrary to the title—Janni plays a supporting role in her own book. Due to the rushed pacing, we never get a real sense of the character beyond her obsession. When her dogged determination inevitably gives way to quasi-villainy, it feels more like an archetypal Ahab story than an organic evolution of the character. Instead, Moore saddles us with a lengthy monologue (in the form of Janni’s diary entry) that—while beautifully written—comes across as a tacked-on rationalization of her character arc.
Though casual fans may find the story exciting and satisfactory, those accustomed to Moore’s traditional complexity and quality may find the story and Janni’s treatment a tad slight. That said, Heart of Ice is a thrilling and beautifully-rendered adventure yarn in its own right. Much like a slightly mediocre episode of a brilliant TV show, it may not be up to par with the best moments of its sibling stories, but it remains better than the majority of alternate choices on the rack today.