Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock, Volume 3, Books 8-10

by Pat Mills (writer), with David Roach, John Hicklenton, Clint Langley, Henry Flint, Kevin O’Neill, & Carl Critchlow (artists)

Sometimes, it’s simply useless to read in order to find out ‘how it all ends.’ It’s easy enough to do that on the Internet; you can just go to wikipedia. In an age of soluble media, it’s a task in itself to resist the urge to peak ahead and find out what happens next in a story. A story is what is withheld. Reading to reach some ultimate conclusion misunderstands the process, and mind you, reading is first and foremost a process. We are involved in the process of discovering a moment as we capture it and in that moment loss it to its successor. It misrepresents reading to think of it either as a race to be finished, or worse, a menial task to be accomplished and then checked off a list. Yes, narrative exerts a pull over the reader, compelling them to its conclusion, but this is the cumulative death wish of narrative- the story’s lemming rush to the cliff’s edge. Narrative dies on the page, little deaths leading to that last, conclusive page – only to repeat its life if and when begun again.

I can’t imagine reading Pat Mills’ sprawling multi-book series, ‘Nemesis the Warlock,’ with an invested interest in seeing how it all works out. The series excels in the absurdity of the moment – its gory glory and dark humor. In fact, I didn’t even initially intend on reading the final chapters, books 8-10, as collected in “the Complete Nemesis the Warlock, Volume 3.” It was only after my friend recommended the phonebook on the strength of book 8, ‘Purity’s Story,’ that I ordered it online, after having read volumes 1 and 2 over six months ago. To its credit, the struggle between the despotic Torquemada, ruler of the Termight Empire, and his scourge, the chaotic alien menace, Nemesis, seems to cycle through time and space, never drawing closer to any conclusion as the participants change bodies, yet remain in spirit immanent and despicable in turn.

Torquemada by Henry Flint

‘Nemesis the Warlock’ had its origins at the dawn of the British sci-fi periodical ‘2000 A.D.’ back in the early eighties, and writer and co-creator Pat Mills finally ended the series at the close of the millennium in the pages of the same magazine. Mills and initial artist Kevin O’Neill established Nemesis as a protagonist ultimately unknowable in his motivations and alien psyche. He aids the alien resistance against the genocidal tyranny of the human Termight Empire, helmed by the bigoted evil of Torquemada. Over the course of volume 2, Torquemada was developed to the point that he arguably became the series’ protagonist. In the serial ‘Torquemada the God,’ we followed his quest for a bride, and even caught glimpses of a peculiar brand of marital bliss in short features like ‘Torquemada’s Second Honeymoon.’ While Nemesis was initially written in volume 1 serials such as ‘the Alien Alliance’ as a traditionally hard-bitten 2000 A.D. hero, in subsequent books his motives become far murkier. Nemesis’ allegiance to chaos magic is increasingly stressed, and as we moved deeper into the turgid psyche of Torquemada in storylines such as ‘the Two Torquemadas,’ Mills and co. consciously pulled back from Nemesis – what the reader had mistaken as a conventional hero in the early stories is revealed as something else entirely as the series progresses.

The first storyline in volume 3, ‘Purity’s Story,’ makes the moral ambivalence of Nemesis explicit. Purity Brown has assisted Nemesis from the early stories onward, a remarkable exception to 2000 A.D.’s reliance on muscled machismo. Purity acted as much as an in-story human liaison for Nemesis as well a sympathetic gate for the reader into the chilling alien nature of Nemesis himself – Purity humanized the cloven demon. With ‘Purity’s Story,’ Mills and artist David Roach sever the tether between the human freedom fighter and the series’ namesake. In this ‘untold tale,’ we learn that Nemesis basically coerced Purity to whore herself to Torquemada in order to gain a strategic advantage. This develops concurrent to a bloody rampage through the urban zones of Terra as the Mimesis, a mutant hybrid genetically engineered by Torquemada, wrecks havoc under the guise of Nemesis. In the climactic battle, Torquemada inadvertently lops off the head of the horned Mimesis as the demon and his human charge speed off to Nemesis’ lair in his bioorganic steed, the Blitzspear.

Art by David Roach from 'Purity's Story.'

Nemesis rushes Purity Brown off to the secret headquarters of Credo, the alien resistance movement “…sworn to overthrow Torquemada.” The headquarters is unimpressive, a vast amphitheater littered with garbage and other refuse. A massive termite mound rests in the middle of the great hall, and it should be noted that artist David Roach’s depiction greatly resembles a massive vulva. Nemesis complains that the he’s “…afraid [the headquarters are] looking a bit tidy at the moment.” Purity responds in disbelief, “tidy? It’s a tip?,” to which Nemesis admits “it will be after I’ve emptied out some of these filing cabinets…too much order offends me. Paper work, secret documents, tidiness are alien to me.” This is a wonderful moment, and as overt as Mills may play it, it’s a turning point in the greater narrative arc of the series – this moment broadcasts the series’ final milieu. Nemesis admits he “…quite likes things the way they are – with that psychopath Torquemada running the madhouse. When Purity incredulously charges Nemesis to treat the fate of innumerable lives, both human and alien, as trivial sport, a game, he agrees, revealing to her “…how exhilarated I felt when the Mimesis had me at its mercy. Can you imagine the boredom of being what you would call a god? A being capable to having anything he wants… Your planet – with its nightmare inhabitants – offers me excitement. It has the same fascination for me as this termite mound.” And when Purity Brown balks at Nemesis’ callous disregard, he magically eradicates her memories of the entire incident – he violates her mind as he allowed Torquemada to violate her body.

This dialogue is noteworthy not only because it signals a turning point in the narrative, and a telling character reveal for the series’ namesake, but also because it highlights Mills’ playful contempt for the conventions of the form. When Nemesis tells Purity he likes things as they are, the conflict between him and Torquemada remaining in some sort of stasis, he isn’t only speaking for himself. Nemesis is verbalizing the essential nature of so many of 2000 A.D’s heroes, from Judge Dredd to Strontium Dog down to Nikolai Dante. These heroes’ adventures accumulate, but they don’t necessarily progress through time to a final conflict. I admit 2000 A.D. does offer a more sophisticated character stasis than the mainstream American corporate heroes such as Batman or Spiderman, Judge Dredd ages for one, but the emphasis is on the momentism of the conflict, rather than its resolution. Essentially, this momentism remains 2000 A.D’s strength. A strip like ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ privileges the tension of the genre narrative – the illusion of story progress is in the end subservient to the absurdity and vitality of the moment. Remember, Alan Grant may have written the pathetic and useless death of mutant hit man Strontium Dog in the popular 2000 A.D. series of the same name, but that story has since been retconned out of existence and Strontium Dog is now alive and well.

Book 9, ‘Deathbringer,’ reunites Mills with artist John Hinckleton, who earlier handled ‘the Two Torquemadas.’ Like in their previous collaboration, Mills focuses on Torquemada, choosing to keep Hinckleton’s spindly Nemesis to the shadows as the two foes travel to an alternate reality England where mutant contamination from time-stream leakage has lead to an oppressive police state patrolled by the leather-clad Reapers. This entry makes the pointed leftist satire explicit, as Mills angrily takes Thatcher-era England to task. The mutant contamination is itself a thinly veiled stand-in for the AIDs epidemic. In this nightmare England, Torquemada sets up ‘OY,’ his organization for youth. He rallies his skinhead masses, proclaiming ‘OY! stands for opportunity for youth! Order for youth! Onward for youth! We say, ‘OY! Wake up, world! Before it’s too late! Before the aliens take over!” Mills runs with a delightful satire on Rock Against Communism and far-right punk xenophobia in general, as Torquemada’s followers burst into song: “We are OY boys, We ain’t dumb! We kick aliens just for fun! When we’ve nutted them, we ain’t done! Then we blast ‘em with our gun! ‘cos they like it and want more… then we start on the chainsaw!” While this entry does feel like filler, a short breather before the series’ conclusion, it allows Mills to stretch out the concepts one last time without the constraints of concluding the narrative. ‘Deathbringer’ is a mess, with both half-baked characters and muddy ideas, but that sort of confusion is one of the pleasures of the serial.

Art by John Hinckleton

‘The Final Conflict’ promises a resolution to the series in its title, but Mills seems to be attempting to convince not just the readers, but himself as well, of the story’s gravitas. The art by nineties’ 2000 A.D. regular Henry Flint is fine, a mix of Kevin O’Neill’s hyper-detailed caricature with a more cartoonish manga influence, but fails to deliver either O’Neill or Bryan Talbot’s claustrophobic density or Hinckleton’s unhinged sprawl. In ‘the Final Conflict’ we see Torquemada’s Termight Empire abruptly fall, and an alien/human coalition put in power. Purity Brown, since estranged from Nemesis, is elected to represent this new democracy.

The trial of the vanquished Torquemada should provide Mills with ample opportunity for satire and exaggerated humor. And in some regards, he doesn’t disappoint. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between Behell Junior and a reporter inquiring into “...the millions of extraterrestrials exterminated in the vaporization vats.” Behell replies, in a response familiar to anyone who’s been exposed to Holocaust-deniers, that “They weren’t vats! They were teleports! Torquemada was sending them back to their home planets!” But Mills fails to draw the potential returns from such a farce, and the series’ collapses in yet another lackluster battle between Nemesis and Torquemada. The throwaway gore and black humor of the volume’s back-up feature, “Nemesis and Deadlock in ‘the Engimass Variations,” succeeds where ‘the Final Conflict’ does not, mainly because it is not encumbered by any commitment to narrative closure.

Art by Henry Flint

And while the concluding stories in volume 3 of “the Complete Nemesis the Warlock” tidy up the narrative and brings it all to its logical conclusion, as Nemesis himself reminded Purity within the disorder of Credo Headquarters, chaos is it’s own virtue.

Oh, I'm sorry. It's 'khaos.'

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