Monday, August 18, 2008

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock: Volume 2, Books 5-7

By Pat Mills (Writer), with Bryan Talbot, Kevin O’Neill, John Hicklenton and Tony Lukes (Artists)

Comic books are something like cultural pornography. That is, if you want a candid, unmitigated look into the underlying urges and fears extant in a particular country, one need go no further than the nearest comics & hobby shop, or more appropriately in this day and age, a Barnes & Noble. Mainstream comics offer a glimpse of a culture, warts and all. For instance, the Romantic Transcendentalism of the “Merry Marvel-verse” comics of the 60s and 70s are distinctly American, consciously or not drawing upon concepts of community and ethics particular to their region. Mainstream comics allow a culture to question itself, while staying within safe boundaries of capitalism and commerce.

How do a people view themselves? What are their primary preoccupations? The mainstream comic book, like genre film but with spectacularly lower production costs, manages to simultaneously exploit and critique cultural prejudices. Why is this the case? Also, why is this true internationally?

The means of production for comic books is by no means internationally uniform. Japanese manga, the American superhero comic or the British science fiction/adventure weekly all exist within specific contexts and through unique methods of production. Still, there is one key similarity. The driving force behind all of these systems is the editor. The comics market, mind you, has changed dramatically within the past decade, but the system established in the post-WWII market consisted of an assembly line, for lack of a better word. Look at the in-house “Bullpen” Marvel created in the 60s and 70s, or observe the studio system of Japanese manga, where a name creator oversees a staff of journeymen artists. Mainstream comics are a corporate entity, tied to post-war capitalism.

But let’s move past broad generalizations and look at a specific example, particularly, Great Britain’s science fiction weekly, 2000 A.D. Developed by writers John Wagner and Pat Mills, 2000 A.D. was founded in the late seventies in the wake of punk rock. When marveling over the differences between Judge Dredd and Spiderman, don’t forget that 2000 A.D. was conceived in an economically embittered country, one that had once been a force of worldwide imperialism, but had since collapsed. See, context makes quite a difference here. Over here in the states, we were in the midst of the Reagan years, and our graphic novels show it, check out Frank Miller’s “Elektra: Assassin,” Howard Chaykin’s “American Flagg!” and Mark Gruenwald’s work for Marvel, such as “Squadron Supreme.” Yes, those were politically difficult years here in the U.S. (though when isn’t that the case?), but what about over there in the U.K.? Remember, they were struggling with the right-wing extremism of the Margaret Thatcher regime – the Falklands War, unemployment and a fear of civil rights restrictions. At the time, the fascist future of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s “V for Vendetta,” for instance, was seen as a possible reality, instead of just a science fiction dystopia.

All this is also apparent in British protest music of the time, such as the crust punk of bands like Crass, Amebix, and Flux of Pink Indians. But then, look at 2000 A.D., and particularly the serial “Nemesis the Warlock,” developed in 1980 by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and completed in 1990. Kevin O’Neill’s distorted, obsessively detailed art does remind one of the work of Rudimentary Peni’s guitarist/singer, Nick Blinko, and isn’t there something of the militant fetishism and gothic baroque-isms of crust punk in the story of Nemesis?

Nemesis, a green, behooved alien-demon is engaged in a violent struggle against Torquemada, the tyrannical ruler of Termight (a far-future Earth). Torquemada intends to annihilate all deviants, that is, aliens. Mind you, of the extraterrestrial variety! He is prone to speeches echoing the worst sentiments of the National Front: “You’re all white men now! The human race is finally united! Out there in space are the ones to fear! The ones who are different! The foreigners! The aliens!” Okay, prejudice and bigotry is wrong, we get it– but “Nemesis the Warlock” succeeds as an indictment of racism because it operates as satire. The “X-Men” franchise’s flaccid “important statements” involving mind-numbingly obvious mutie-hatin’ fails in large measure because it takes itself so seriously. That is, “Nemesis the Warlock” works because it is funny. “Nemesis the Warlock” is scatological, perverse and chaotic, but always with a sense of humor. The satiric element of many of the early 2000 A.D.’s strips – not just “Nemesis the Warlock,” but also “Judge Dredd,” “Strontium Dog,” and “Robo-Hunter,” aren’t emphasized enough in the state-side appraisal of these works.

The States’ refusal to adequately acknowledge the foundational works of the contemporary British mainstream is bizarre and smacks, ironically in lieu of “Nemesis the Warlock’s” preoccupation with cultural prejudices, of xenophobia. After all, the farming out of stateside comics to British creators is one of the, if not the most, important development in mainstream American superhero comics of the past 25 years. I mean, look at some of the biggest news circulating around in comics right now - the upcoming movie version of “Watchmen,” based on the series by Brits Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and DC’s current “event” comic, “Final Crisis,” penned by Grant Morrison, who also got his start at 2000 A.D. What is it that turns American readers off of most British comics? Why isn’t “Nemesis the Warlock” understood by the American comic establishment as being every bit as deserving and important as any work in the American canon? Americans seems to love the work of British creators when its produced through American trademarks and production houses, so why aren’t they similarly receptive to Britain’s homegrown fare?

Well, I don’t think that is actually too difficult of a question. Just look at the sensibilities of “Nemesis the Warlock!” The comic mixes broad humor and nihilistic violence in an unrepentant manner very different from the arch camp Americans expect from such a pairing. Within the first few pages of this collection, our “hero,” Nemesis, guts Magna, his wife-to-be on their wedding day because she orchestrated the death of Nemesis’ previous wife, Chira. Following this slaying, Purity Brown, Nemesis’ human companion (whose relationship to Nemesis remains ambiguously so), says “Sorry to have spoilt your wedding, Nemesis,” but he only replies, while wiping clean his blade, “Oh no, I’m delighted, Purity! It means I still have a son! I must got to Termight and find him!” That is, over the course of the wedding, Nemesis learned that his son, Thoth, was still alive. In the immediate wake of a spousal slaying, we are introduced to one of the primary themes of “Nemesis the Warlock.”

Family. But of course, familial expectations are turned on their head throughout the series. Thoth, Nemesis’ son, attempts to obliterate the galaxy by colliding a Black Hole and a White Hole, apparently because his father hasn’t given him enough attention. The libidinal forces at work within the family unit explode into violence. This familial misunderstanding is resolved by the end of the book, though the looming threat of the destruction of the universe is left resolved by the volume’s close.

Similar issues of family are highlighted through the series’ villain, and arguably it’s main character, Torquemada. Nemesis may be the eponymous character of the series, but he is far too alien to us. His actions are ultimately incomprehensible, save for distorted instances of family obligation. Torquemada, who may be evil, but is also understandable for all his atrocity, is a much more stable anchor to the series than the khaos-fueled Nemesis. It’s just another instance of Pat Mills’ dark sense of humor. Family, whether it’s his murderous brother, Nostradamus, or the wives he’s driven to insanity, is explored through Torquemada, the genocidal murderer. It even seems to be the only humanizing element remaining for some of these despicable characters. Candida, Torquemada’s wife, has plans for her children to ascend to the throne of the Termight empire, though her devices are thwarted when a busload of children, including Candida and Torquemada's, is incinerated in an early chapter. The actions of a character may be incomprehensible to another character, but are usually easily comprehensible to the character himself.

The short segment, “Torquemada’s Second Honeymoon,” touches upon some issues that, despite the esotericism of the strip, strongly resonate. Torquemada is honeymooning with Candida on the planet of Karma. This is, supposedly, meant to be a respite where the two lovers can relax and enjoy each other’s company. Of course, this is all a cover though, as Torquemada is hoping to hunt down and slaughter the Zuggees, a group of alien cultists hiding out on the planet. In a way, it’s not much different than if someone spent their entire vacation on a cell-phone, stuck in conference calls from work. For all of the comic’s grotesqueries, it’s this knowing humor, attuned to the realities of 80s era British life, that cause the series to stand out.

“Nemesis the Warlock” is not without its flaws though. 2000 A.D. has collected the complete series in three oversized volumes, making it easy to forget that “Nemesis the Warlock” had its roots in serialization. and as Bryan Talbot writes in his afterword, it was drawn “…in the small hours of the morning, deadline looming and unpaid bills waiting for the inevitably delayed cheques.” That is, sometimes the series loses its focus and wanders, but then, part of the pleasure of “Nemesis the Warlock” is precisely this immersive, frantic quality. The art, aside from some confounding work late in the volume by John Hicklenton, is fantastic. Pat Mills, more than most comic book writers, is attuned to his collaborators and writes in a very visual sense, facilitating great work from Kevin O’Neill and Bryan Talbot.

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