Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock: Volume 1, Books 1-4

by Pat Mills (writer), with Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo & Bryan Talbot (artists)

When writers Pat Mills and John Wagner developed the weekly science fiction comic, “2000 A.D.,” back in 1977, they were creating a periodical that, despite its distinct and iconic British-ness, has displayed a strong cosmopolitanism over its 30+ year publishing history. They were also created what has proved to be one of the greatest forums for anthologized progressive science fiction – notable creators such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons all made their names while working with the magazine. “2000 A.D.” has played a substantial role in crafting an identity for British comics, which for many years prior existed as a pale simulation of the American market. What we think of today as “British” in action-oriented comics is in many ways on account of “2000 A.D.” and its early, trailblazing years. Indeed, American comics today would be unrecognizable without the important work done by Mills, Wagner and their contemporaries. Yet while Britain’s vitriolic punk scene provided a great deal of inspiration for the comic (Mills and artist Kevin O’Neill’s short strip, “The Terror Tube,” was “suggested” by a song from the Jam), it is important to note the anthology’s international influences. With “2000 A.D.,” Mills was consciously drawing upon the hyper-violent and darkly satirical European comics then being published in anthologies such as Jean Giruad’s “Metal Hurlant.” Thus, “2000 A.D.” managed to graft the progressive and willfully bizarre onto a framework of political satire and straightforward action-adventure.

Giruad and company’s “Metal Hurlant” crafted a transcendental vision of post-organic sexuality, one whose grotesquery was always chasing the sublime. “2000 A.D.,” on the other hand, chose to explore a consistent vision of control and deviation that remained anchored to the dregs of the human condition, despite the often-brilliant weirdness of the material. “2000 A.D.” presented the alien through human eyes, while “Metal Hurlant” was itself alien. Additionally, while both comics reveled in testosterone-driven apocalypses, “Metal Hurlant” focused on the teenager’s over-driven sex drive, while “2000 A.D” privileged the adolescent urge for violence. Muscles ripple and blood spurts and the male body responds in every way possible to express a latent sexuality on the point of bursting.

The heroes of the early serials – Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Sam Slade and Rogue Trooper, were either direct agents of an authoritarian state (Dredd and the Rogue Trooper), or bounty hunters who survived on commissions from such an authoritarian presence. This was an important side to the early years of the magazine – produced as it was in the throes of the Thatcher years. “2000 A.D.” flirted with an authoritarianism in its satire, always doing so with a knowing wink – check out the Judge Dredd serial where he must stop the “threat” of a democratic party in Mega City-One!

Nemesis, the title character in Mills’ and O’Neill’s serial, “Nemesis the Warlock,” is in many ways the antithesis of the typical “2000 A.D.” lead. Instead of a hard-bitten soldier with a blaster, Nemesis is a spindly, green alien whose dimensions contort to fit the strip’s panels as his torpedo-shaped head leers over his enemies. Perhaps only Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s “The Ballad of Halo Jones” can rival “Nemesis the Warlock” as the definitive “anti-2000 A.D.” series, wherein the periodical’s conventions are upended and subverted. Mind you, it should be noted both series employ the physical to confound expectations, in “Halo Jones” through the empowered feminine body and the alien body of Nemesis in the latter.

Volume 1 of “The Complete Nemesis the Warlock,” collects the first four books in the Nemesis saga. Through the artwork of O’Neill, Bryan Talbot and Jesus Redondo, we see Nemesis twist and distort into a multitude of shapes. Nemesis enjoys the greatest pliability of form through the artwork of his co-creator O’Neill, yet the other artists succeed in conveying an alien otherness. One of Mills chief strengths as a writer is his willingness to adapt to different artist’s approaches. The fluctuating body of Nemesis in some ways provides a roadmap for the story’s changing styles and focus. These body distortions are one of the hallmarks of the series – the character’s psychic temperaments enact a real, physical shift in bone and muscle.

Nemesis is, unlike Judge Dredd or Strontium Dog, a destructive force – he is the occult embodiment of chaos. As the Warlock himself states, “I am the Nemesis – I am the Warlock – I am the Shape of Things to Come – the Lord of the Flies – Holder of the Sword Sinister – The Death Bringer – I am the one who waits on the edge of your dreams – I am all these things and many more.” That is, Nemesis is by his very nature a creature of flux. The series’ paragon of order, ironically, is also its villain. Nemesis’ arch-foe and perhaps the real star of the book, is the abominable Torquemada. Though Torquemada espouses a rigid code of purity epitomized in his maxim “Be pure! Be vigilant! Behave!,” the Grand Master’s own body undergoes a bewildering series of transformations throughout the book. His body becomes just as, if not more alien than Nemesis’, though Torquemada’s spirit remains repugnantly human. Nemesis’ alien-ness is, for the most part, impenetrable throughout the book. It is telling that the reader doesn’t even get a glimpse Nemesis until the fifth strip. Not to say Mills humanizes Torquemada for sympathy – he doesn’t. Instead, he ridicules and satirizes fascism and authoritarian control through the dislocation of Torquemada’s humanity.

Torquemada is, after all, the vicious dictator of Termight, a futuristic version of Earth. Through the use of an artificially constructed wormhole, Torquemada and his Terminators have decimated countless alien populations because of their “impurity.” Our first introduction to Nemesis, remember, is suffused with his very otherness – an impersonal and unseen “other” ensconced within his interstellar cruiser, the Blitzspear. Nemesis, metonymically, becomes his starcraft and his barked motto, “Credo!” But Torquemada is seen in the first strip. His human foibles are instantly evoked, alongside his vile cruelty – which Mills and O’Neill imply is an all too human trait. A radio DJ, after giving the traffic report, introduces Torquemada to his listeners. We are treated to a pedestrian panel of the Grand Master greeting the listeners a nonchalant “Hello!”

The farce of Torquemada’s authoritarianism its utter hypocrisy, is another of the series’ highlights. In the second episode, his body is dematerialized through a bureaucratic miscalculation – only the first of Torquemada’s many transformations from charred zombie to disembodied phantom to a larval monstrosity. This causes strife in the Grand Master’s home life – as his wife, Candira, now has trouble relating to him physically. An exasperated Torquemada snivels, “I sense a certain coldness in your manner, my dear. You don’t call me ‘Tom-Tom’ anymore.” Mills would continue to play off of Torquemada’s humanity to great satiric effect in the second volume of the series, which is discussed elsewhere on this blog.

The series works best when Torquemada’s mercilessly caricaturized humanity is contrasted with the frightening and occult otherness of Nemesis. Book III contains some of the volume’s best satire, yet it also humanizes Nemesis in some fashion. Does this in some ways become problematic? On one hand, the sight of Nemesis’ unwanted Uncle Baal crashing the prim hatching of his nephew’s brood is very funny – particularly when Baal spikes the punch with hemlock and conjures a grotesque danse macabre of bleached human skeletons. Yet, at the same time, Nemesis operates best as a sinister, unknowable demon, as he is portrayed later on in the series. His merciless and inventive revenge upon the villagers who strip his comatose body in our introduction to the Warlock reveals a frightening dark side to Nemesis, no matter how warranted his actions against the humans might actually be. But Book III also contains a wonderful EC-style twist, as Nemesis surprises the bribed Sir Evric with a particularly horrific granting of his wish “to be young and handsome.” Nemesis transforms the ailing and exasperated Evric into a monstrous Catoblepas. As Nemesis tells us, “I always regarded the young Catoblepas as the most handsome creature in the galaxy!” Mills and O’Neill’s both share a background in humor comics, and their dark comedy is perhaps the series’ greatest strength.

O’Neill, “…was briefly notorious as the only artist ever to have his work rejected wholesale by the Comics Code Authority,” a committee which for years policed the American mainstream for “potentially dangerous” material. His very line work conveys an extraordinary uneasiness. O’Neill’s scabrous work on Books I and III are indeed one of the reasons to seek out this phonebook collection, yet attention should be given to the other artists who helped render Nemesis and the Termight Empire. Jesus Redondo, though a competent artist, can’t help but normalize Nemesis to some extent, following on the heels of Kevin O’Neill. Still, Redondo does impress at times, as with his renderings of a tropical planet overrun by intelligent spiders. Mills reflects the change in artistic aesthetics with a notable shift in tone and he delivers a much more tightly plotted adventure script than his messy and ecstatic collaborations with O’Neill. The earlier emphasis on violent humor and physicality has been replaced by a closer concern for plot.

The Bryan Talbot collaboration on Book IV, the famous “Gothic Empire” saga, also focuses on plot and characterization more than the earlier O’Neill books did. Yet while the Redondo-drawn Book II played like a fairly standard science fiction saga, “The Gothic Empire” is something else entirely. O’Neill actually illustrates the first two episodes, a dizzying steampunk hallucination of hot air balloons, bowler hats and a wide array of Victorian-isms transported to an alien empire far in the future. Talbot, though, is much more restrained in his work than O’Neill, and uses lush shadows and thick lines to convey the story’s baroque malevolence. Talbot’s Nemesis is a meatier and more leathery one than O’Neill’s. He wraps the Warlock, as well as Purity Brown, in hard strips of leather – evoking an atmosphere of hard-edged S&M. While O’Neill teased an undercurrent of sexuality out of his eruptive, contorted bodies and strangely organic architecture, Talbot’s sexuality is a much more overt one. The larger arc of the series also begins to fall into place in Book IV. Purity Brown, a human defector from the Termight Empire, and an earlier Mills-O’Neill creation, the A.B.C. Warriors, are now fully integrated into the cast. The final panel of “The Gothic Empire,” with Nemesis, his familiar, the wise-cracking robot Ro-Jaws along with Purity Brown rocketing away on the Blitzspear while waving good-bye, indicates the series’ growing sense of a community. Nemesis is no longer an unseen terrorist hidden within his battle cruiser, but a member of a sympathetic coalition of like-minded individuals, of friends even. While the reader is left missing the early anarchy of the O’Neill collaborations, one must admire the growing assurance and maturity of the series

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