May 18th, 2008
Nemesis The Warlock Book 3 (progs 335 – 349)
Has there ever been a genuinely weirder hero to grace the pages of a weekly comic than Nemesis? Part horse, part Devil; a sword wielding, fire breathing, cross-dressing chaos worshipping alien revolutionary… No I don’t think so. 2000ad’s gallery of grotesque anti-heroes boasts some impressive members (Kano from Bad Co., DR & Quinch, Middenface McNulty), but none really touch Nemesis for unbridled…oddness.
I know I certainly thought that as I thumbed my copy of ‘Best of 2000ad’ way back in 1988 getting my first glimpse of the deeply fucked up world of Nemesis, his wife Chira, Purity Brown, Grobbendonk, Termite and of course the unforgettable and repellent Torquemada. The issue in question collected together Book 3 of the series, and featured unadulterated glorious Kevin O’Neill artwork throughout – his vivid and twisted depictions of alien cultures and neo-medieval combat cover every page in sumptuous detail.
Pat Mills was firing on all cylinders fueled as ever by indignant rage at the hate and bigotry of the human race, his bizarre sense of humour ever-present.
But as I stood in WHSmiths flicking through that comic back in ’88 I was simply trying to work out who exactly was the hero of this strip. I couldn’t make out from the intricate grotesquery and gonzo stylings of the artwork. The whole thing just looked, well, insane. Naturally I had to buy it. And that was that – my first real exposure to 2000ad. I’d glanced at one of my older brother’s copies years before that and the demented cruelty I saw in those pages sent me scampering back to my Beanos and Busters. But the seed was planted; and on that fateful grey day all those years later the seed germinated.
(A minor digression for American readers: In Britain 2000ad is a rite of passage for the young comic reader. If you want to get into comics, that’s your entry point. While there have been many weekly sci-fi comics in our comics tradition, only one has lasted over 30 years. Put simply it’s more than a tradition, it’s a foundation, upon which our wispy but resilient Brit comics industry precariously balances. You know the drill about 2000ad – that it’s the launch pad for numerous comics superstars, from Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, to Pete Milligan and Garth Ennis blah blah blah…but it’s more than that. It quite literally saved my life, as a kid, giving me a weekly gateway from the hellish mundanity of Secondary School and hanging around in Car Parks and on Park benches with my peers. Before I discovered acid and parties and eventually girls, although I had to restrict the LSD intake in order to ensure any progress in that department… 2000ad was quite simply the only interesting thing in my life at the time. Sounds evangelical I know, but my cultural education pretty much began between the covers of that comic. And you could buy it in most newsagents. Here endeth the digression).
Spoiled. That’s what I was. What an incredible introduction to the myriad pleasures of not just 2000ad, but comics in general. And fucking mental, to boot. I’d never read anything like it; a beautifully conceived nightmare version of the world, where humanity is a cancerous plague spreading out into the Universe, Empire-building taken to it’s insane and destructive conclusion. So point one: humans are the bad guys. Not an original idea necessarily but a pretty strange starting point for a comic aimed at 12 year olds. Humans in ‘Nemesis’, as led by Torquemada, are bigoted zealots on a twisted genocidal crusade to rid the Galaxy of ‘deviants’ (i.e. anything not-human, and not even that blessed species was safe from the lunatic attentions of the Terminators). They are greedy, pious, hateful, cowards who deserve nothing more than to be wiped out entirely.
Point two: this is our hero. This is who we’ll be rooting for week in week out. Hmmm.
One of the things that immediately endeared me to the Warlock was his unique character design. O’Neill really pushes the boat out to create a truly ‘alien’ creature. He’s recognisably humanoid in shape, but his equine frame distorts him into weird new territory. Then there’s his disturbing ‘mouth’ which seems somewhat similar to that of a baleen whale. Yet sometimes it’s a gaping whole from which flames or acid slime-balls emerge. Not to mention his protruding spinal cord, which always looked terribly fragile to me (and Torquemada, who frequently grabs and twists it in the pair’s numerous grubby, brutal battles). This combination of toughness and fragility, sinewy muscles and protruding horns really lifts Nemesis into something unique – a punk rock alien for the harsh arse end of the 70′s.
Interestingly, despite Nemesis being the notional protagonist of the strip, we first encounter him during some well earned downtime, strumming a lute and lounging in his human flesh-coat, like an alien Sting. It’s his wife Chira who we first see demonstrating the Warlocks’ savage nature, in a fearsome joust with her arch-rival Magna over the ultimate prize…Nemesis himself. Mills has his usual fun playing around with gender roles and subverting stereotypes and once again we’re in very unusual territory for a ‘Boys Own’ weekly comic.
(Digression no.2 – Pat Mills is the Roger Corman of British comics. Without Corman we may not have Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Sayles or Peter Bogdanovich; arguably without Mills’ guiding influence we may not have Moore, Morrison, and the rest. In the late 70′s he literally transformed the British Comic scene from cuddly stories about underprivileged kids overcoming disabilities to become sporting legends and ‘Wot Ho Tommy!’ war stories into the ill-mannered beast it became in the 80′s. Given carte blanche to revitalize War Comics he created ‘Battle’ a fearsome, morally complex and violent take on Boys War stories, that spawned Johnny Red, Eazy Co., and most importantly Charley’s War. More notoriously he created ‘Action’ one of the most lurid and amoral comics ever published in the mainstream -so much so it was banned. ‘Action’ was essentially an exploitation comic; Mills and co. took popular films and TV shows of the time and cheekily modified them to sell to a hungry audience of pissed off adolescents. The results were Dredger, Spinball, Hookjaw the shark,
and best of all, Kids Rule OK which painted a vivid picture where teens gone wild battle for supremacy in the ruins of a not-too-distant future Britain. From the ashes of Action came of course 2000ad.
Mills is certainly an undisciplined writer. He’s sloppy, prone to whimsy and easily distracted. He is also a powerhouse of unbridled creativity, pumping out ideas a thousand a second. At its best his writing possesses a fast-paced pulpy energy reminiscent of the best Larry Cohen or Sam Fuller movie. He is a satirist, who uses his chosen and beloved medium to rail against the hypocrisy and bullshit he sees around him. It’s sad but perhaps unsurprising that his particular wildfire brand of storytelling hasn’t found a home outside of British comics. His disrespectful tone and lack of moral certainty sit uneasily with traditional superheroes – although interestingly Miller’s ‘DK2′ definitely has a Mills-esque quality. While he’ll never achieve the level of respect and recognition of your Alan Moores or Neil Gaimans, he is the undisputed King of British comics, a creative dynamo who has given off enough energy to sustain the UK comic industry for for decades. Here endeth the hyperbolic second digression…)
Writers clearly have a lot of fun creating truly loathsome baddies, and Mills excels at this particular form of character development. None more so than in Torquemada, a looking-glass vision of humanity warped into a hysterical but strangely compelling form. Every genocidal dictator, every petty minded bigot, every zealous maniac reaches their apotheosis in Torquemada, a villain who was so enduringly hatable he repeatedly returned from beyond the grave to vex Nemesis and co in new and twisted ways. Indeed Mills seems to relish the opportunity to heap indignity and endless bodily damage on his most perverse of creations. Throughout the entire ‘Nemesis’ book sequence Torquemada suffers; for every cruel and unspeakable act he commits (and there are plenty of those) he gets it back twofold, from being burned alive, to being encased in molten armour whilst being eaten alive by a swarm of flies. By Book 3 he’s already a repulsive ectoplasmic spirit. ‘Nemesis’ is a strip that gleefully bathes in sadism. It’s perverse, disturbing and grotesque. No wonder it was a hit.
Perhaps another reason it was so popular lies in it’s malleability and desire to continually explore new territory. Mills was never happy staying still and constantly pushed the strip into weird new directions. After the neo-Medieval exploits of the first three books, the series headed into strange Moorcock-esque sci-fi with Books 4 & 5 (wherein Nemesis’ errant son and his pet Tyrannosaur go on a rampage through time to kill all of Torquemada’s ancestors pursued by his dad and a merry crew of ABC Warriors, culminating in a near hallucinatory journey into the Time Wastes). Mills then placed the strip in the 15th Century, enabling a truly deranged meeting between the two Torquemada’s (naturally our Torque faces the ultimate indignity as he is tortured by his idol for being…well, a deviant). The next detour catapulted the strip into a parallel version of Thatcher’s Britain, in what may be the series’ highlight. Let’s just say it culminates in nemesis and Torquemada battling each other with swords and hedge-trimmers through London’s Underground. In one of the most nihilistic endings of a series ever, Purity Brown walks away from the pair of them, utterly disgusted and disinterested in their insane grudge-fest.
Book 3 centers on Termite’s siege on the peace-loving (natch) planet of Ydrasill, which allows Kevin O’Neill to flex his artistic muscles to stupendous effect. Having honed his skills on the Book 1, this volume finds his art looser and wilder than ever before.
Which is not to say this work is scrappy – far from it, his pages are meticulously rendered in minute detail. Take the stunning double page spread of Torque-Armada, the Imperial siege engine ( a typically bizarro Mills creation). Every nook and crevice of the vast and ridiculous war engine is filled with hundreds of Terminators, from those swarming on the rigging it’s gigantic galleon-feet to those manning the cannons that sprout from it’s nostrils. I must have stared at that page for hours as a kid. I couldn’t believe the freakish imagination at work to create such incredible artwork. Really when you look at the stunning rosta of truly original artists working on 2000ad at the time (Brendan McCarthy, Mike McMahon, O’Neill et al) it’s no surprise we were spoiled. At the time American superhero comics just simply couldn’t compete with the energy and character of 2000ad (admittedly my appreciation for American artists grew with my increasing awareness of comics in general).
O’Neill also works his magic on the scenes where Nemesis arrives on Ydrasill to bring the pain to the Terminators, in a series of virtuoso panels. I particularly like the bit where he surfs a spear through a whole bunch of soldiers.
I’d argue that this book represents O’Neill’s best work, alongside The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. He’s shaken off some of the stiffness that characterised his earlier work (perhaps due to him making the transition from a ‘funny’ comics artist to a straight sci-fi artist), and used his obsessive eye for detail to stunning effect. Even the illuminated borders of the title panels are things of beauty. There hadn’t been any work like it and I’m not sure there has been since. From the magnificent opening jousting sequence to the crazy battle between a deranged Mek-Quake and Torque-Armada, the strip seethes with a manic energy all of it’s own. Mills and O’Neill have that rare synergy that sometimes happens between writers and artists that produces magic (see: Milligan & McCarthy, Morrison & Quitely, Azzarello & Risso, Brubaker & Phillips…). And this is undoubtedly magic. Book 3 has a scope and scale that immediately attracted me. Unlike some of the more claustrophobic later books where Mills really dug into the main players’ motivations and twisted psyches, this is much more of a romp. The siege is brutal, but basically fun stuff. We get the oddball interplay between Mek-Quake and the other siege robots, Sir Evric’s Faustian pact with Nemesis that results in his literal transformation into a deviant, and the sheer joy of seeing two massive robots smack the living shit out of each other.
By the strip’s bizarre standards, Book 3 is relatively straightforward. It’s a world-building exercise that expands on the concepts and conflicts set up in Book 1 (most fans tend to ignore Book 2′s deviation which features perfectly good, but perhaps a little unsuitable euro-artwork by Jesus Redondo). There are hints at Nemesis’ shifting chaotic pesonality, but essentially the morality at this point is relatively clear. It remains an excellent blackhearted romp that plays up Mills and O’Neill’s best strengths.