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What We’re Reading: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Part 2

2014 October 8

What We're Reading

img519League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910, Nemo: Heart of Ice, Nemo: Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf, 2009-2014)

[For part one of this review, see here.]

The body of fiction that Moore and O’Neill draw from to build the world of the League (and maybe this is obvious) is work that is available to them. This generally means that the works are produced in or translated into English and at least somewhat available for purchase in England. In practice, this becomes a lot of books by white people from England, France, America, and Germany.

Whether this is on purpose or not, it reflects the way that, for Europe and North America, white people have defined the rest of the world. The stories we consume, whether they be books or television, historical or modern, were created in a white idiom. Education and news are curated by people who grew up in this idiom. Even if we aren’t aware of it, white people have used art and science and religion and everything else to define and reinforce a view of the world that is beneficial to them. (For a deeper yet accessible explanation, please check out the links under the “Topical” heading on the Medieval POC FAQ. Then read the whole blog.)

This is damaging in our own world, and it’s no better in League. The exoticized views of those places outside of Europe and America are made real, and the voices of the people that live there are practically silenced due to the lack of influence of those authors. How can this be addressed?

In the first part of this review, I mentioned that Wilhelmina Murray, by living through her trauma and bettering herself in spite of it, offers resistance to the white men that are trying to own the world. The idea of personal betterment as a form of resistance, though, is sort of a white, neoliberal idea of resistance. “I can’t affect the world, but I can at least affect myself and those around me” is really easy to say when you have access to education and when the system, at least in part, is working for you. Men inflict intense mistreatment on Murray due solely to her gender and sexuality, but things would be worse for her if she weren’t a white British music teacher.

This is where the two volumes of Nemo come in. They aren’t about Prince Dakkar, the Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They’re about Janni Dakkar, his daughter. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll be referring to the father as Dakkar and to the daughter as Janni.)

Janni is first mentioned in Black Dossier as the reason that Prince Dakkar leaves Lincoln Island, the home he retired to after the events of the Verne novels. Dakkar is persistently portrayed as a stubborn misogynist, and it’s revealed that he joined the League in volume one because he couldn’t stand to stay on his island home with only a daughter to carry his line.

Janni eventually leaves the island in anger, unwilling to live under her father’s orders. This is our first real introduction to Janni, in act one of Century, and it isn’t long before she becomes a victim of the masculine culture of 1910 London. Unlike Murray, whose class and race offer some standing in that society, Janni finds herself a job as a maid at a tavern and brothel, where she is eventually assaulted and raped by the male patrons.

In trying to escape the tyranny of her father, she finds only more violent males. With no way to navigate within the system—no hope of justice from the people around her—she takes the only recourse she can see. When her father’s advisor comes with news of Dakkar’s death, Janni becomes the leader of the pirate empire her father has established, and with the power of the Nautilus and its crew, she bombards the homes along the docks.

Heart of Ice has Janni taking the same trek through Lovecraftian Antarctica that her father did, navigating it better, all while being chased by a thinly veiled version of Tom Swift, boy adventurer. Where Tom has everything going for him—riches, education, technology—it’s Janni who triumphs.

(Also of note is that the taser is actually a TASER: Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. In besting Swift, Janni has bested a symbol of police power.)

Swift was chasing Janni on the orders of one Ayesha, an immortal queen whose jewels were stolen by Janni and her pirates. Roses of Berlin, set 20 years later, continues the feud. Ayesha has Janni’s daughter and son-in-law possibly killed or captured by Adenoid Hynkel and his Nazis. Janni and her lover fight through the mechanized German metropolis to save them or, if they aren’t able to be saved, to take vengeance on Hynkel and his minions.

In the end, Janni must face Ayesha alongside Maria, the “gynoid” robot created by Dr. Rotwang to serve the new German metropolis. In a callback to the end of Century, only women are left.

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In contrast to Century, though, the women here are an immortal white woman whose power was taken forcefully from Africa and China and a man-created replica of a woman (also named Parody and Delusion in the original novel) who serves an empire of white supremacists. Here, simply being a woman isn’t enough to make one good; Ayesha and Maria lack the kind of empathy that Murray wielded throughout the other books.

And what of Janni? She’s been shown unapologetically looting and killing for about 30 years. Does she possess those traits that made Murray the protagonist of the rest of the series?

Janni’s empathy extends especially to those who have been discarded by the world, those who have been colonized, ruled over, exploited, and forgotten. While Murray might occasionally use violence against the “properly” defined villains who threatened her life, Janni sees the problems lie at a societal level instead of a personal one. Whole civilizations are villains, and they have been stealing and murdering far longer than she’s been alive. These problems are still extant in our society. As recently as this year, Brittney Cooper wrote “In Defense of Black Rage” for Salon. She said, “Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream.” Janni is not overreacting to the world around her; she’s using the only tools left available to her.

So much of race and racism was invented alongside “modern” science and philosophy in the century just before League begins. While Murray’s tale shows a group of people slowly realizing the systematized violence and exploitation that exists around them, Janni, as shown in Nemo, is born into that exploitation. Is she justified in taking up arms against her oppressors? And does this more nuanced portrayal of a person of color somehow “make up” for the racial stereotype of the Galley-Wag in the other League books?

[Psst: It’s Online Open Mic day! Head on over to read this month’s submissions and leave feedback for our always-awesome writers. Your writing karma will thank you!]

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