Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nemo – Heart Of Ice (“Hey Roe-Anne!”)

I first heard 'Heroin' by the Velvet Underground 22 years ago, when it was one of only two non-Doors songs on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's movie. (The other non-Doors song was Carmina Burana. It was, after all, an Oliver Stone film.) And while I used to fast-forward past that dirge of a Lou Reed song a lot when I first got that soundtrack on tape, I've since come to appreciate the Velvets a lot more than The Doors.

So I must have heard Heroin several hundred times over the years. But it was only a couple a weeks ago that I suddenly realised that at the comedown climax, Lou Reed isn't saying hello to some girl name Roe-Anne, he's singing the TITLE OF THE DAMN SONG.

And while nobody pronounces 'hero-inn' as 'hero-ann', I had somehow overlooked this blindingly obvious fact, every time I've sang along to that song, all through the years. And it was one of those shocking moments when you realise that you've missed something blindingly obvious, and that you're really not as smart as you thought you were.

We all like to pretend we're cleverer than everybody else, but sometimes it takes a Lou Reed song to realise that we're not.

It won't take me two decades to understand all the blindingly obvious parts of the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, but it totally could have.

I got Nemo: Heart Of Ice last weekend, and on my first read through it, I was totally fucking lost. I couldn't understand a damn thing I was reading. I got lost in scene transitions, and couldn't understand what characters were doing, or what their fates were.

Even before the bit where Moore and O'Neill gleefully take to the narrative with literary scissors borrowed from William Burroughs and deliberately confuse the reader with some mixed up panels, I just couldn't follow the story.

To be fair, I was monumentally jetlagged at the time – I got it on the day we arrived back in town from more than 30 hours of air travel, trying to stay awake on a long and lazy Saturday afternoon in a desperate bid to realign the body clock. I probably would have had trouble following Sugar And Spike in that frame of mind.

But the kind of exhaustion that opens you up to jetlag can also break down the cynicism barrier in the brain, and I can often find my emotional floodgates opening to an embarrassing degree. It happened on that last leg of that long day-and-a-half of flights, when I watched Cloud Atlas on my dinky plane screen and got into it just a bit too much.

There was none of that with Nemo. There was no connection. I didn't feel anything. I just felt stupid.

Of course, I did understand lots of it and there were some great jokes, and the usual Moore thing of a dozen major themes all crashing up against each other like giant icebergs. My favourite in the Nemo book is the uber-story of the main character – poor pirate Janni, who is trapped by her own genetic and literary heritage.

I love the way she has to undergo a catastrophically traumatic experience in order to grow as a person. This is how she makes the transition seen in the Century books, between 1910 Janni, so full of hate and fire, and the more tolerant 1969 version, preferring to withdraw from a world that has disappointed her. But she can't just change like normal people do, making a slow and conscious effort to be a better person. She has to literally go to the ends of the earth to overcome her own legacy.

(I might be reading too much into this, but it also reminded of some of Shakespeare's best royal plays, where kings and other rulers can't change without something calamitous happen to them. In order to act like a human being and understand the world, King Lear has to lose everything, and Janni is trapped in that same sort of thing.)

So sure, I got all that stuff, and it is always appreciated to get that kind of thoughtful story, with the usual beautifully grotesque work from O'Neill. It's a terrific looking book that is as good as any other series set in the world of the Extraordinary Gentlemen.

But I just couldn't follow the flow of the comic, when I read it on that hazy Saturday afternoon. Bits and pieces fell into place, but it just wouldn't make a coherant whole. I didn't even try to unpick the non-linear bit, but even the straightforward parts sailed right over my jet-fucked head.

I was lost.

Fortunately, there is this thing called the internet, and it's become amazingly easy to outsource part of our brains. Now you don't have to hold a complete filmography of Taylor Hackford in you head, so you can predict whether the new Parker film will be any good. Not when there is the IMDB. Freeing up brain space for other useful things.

And the internet is also good for instantaneous reaction, so when I read a challenging (but rich) comic or see a confusing (but rewarding) film, I can be online in seconds, and find all kinds of thoughtful analysis within minutes.

Television can prove particularly useful for this kind of instant analysis. Most of the great TV of the past decade and a half has been heavily serialised, long-form narrative fiction, and it can be hard to keep track of who was whacking who in The Sopranos, or why Raylan Givens wants to kill his dad this week.

The first thing I do after seeing something meaty on TV is see what Alan Sepinwall or Sean T Collins has to say about it, because they have proven to be trustworthy critics who provide quick and concise commentary, who will point out all the subtle storytelling things I didn't get the first time around, and all the obvious shit I shouldn't have missed.

So after feeling all at sea with Nemo, it made sense to go to the net, and try and sort it out.

So I checked out even read the exhaustive Jess Nevin annotations (something I usually don't bother with), and read a few essays and reviews.

And I picked up a few blindingly obvious things that I missed, like the way the story also is about the way there is no place for a matriarchal power in the 20th century, (despite the best of efforts, even old goddesses and young pirate queens have to rely on men), or the way it touches on the diminishing returns of pastiche and homage (each generation is watered down further).

And then I read the comic again, and that's when I really felt stupid, because it's a bleedingly simple story. The research helped, but when I went back, it was another Heroin moment. It's just a big chase comic. It's pretty simple, and all the bells and whistles and weird scene transitions don't hide this fact. It's b;lindingly simple, and my inability to follow it was idiotic.

Everything is getting faster and faster, and things I could have pondered for years or let slip by, blithely unnoticed, are now obvious in moments. There is a slightly regretful loss of mystery, but it's also nice to have a few answers, so quickly.

And I have to admit, I enjoy those little mental thunderbolts that hit when I get to one of these golden revelations, and they're always more powerful than the shame of my own stupidity (unless I've shared that stupidity with other people, and then I just feel foolish as fuck).

And it might take me 20 years to figure out that the main lyric in a favourite tune is THE NAME OF THE DAMN SONG, but I can still sing 'Hey Ro-Anne!' if I want to. And I did get there in the end.

I just get there a whole lot faster these days, with a little help from my friends.

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