Radically obnoxious

I’ve never before re-read Nemesis the Warlock, unlike most of the other legendary 2000AD strips, so revisiting it in this lavish Rebellion re-issue (the first of two volumes) was both a pleasure and a revelation, and in some respects a disappointment. Having read these stories in my weekly prog I doubtless missed a few chapters, as I just bought it if I happened to have money in my pocket when I passed a newsagent, although I did remember most of the narrative as I read it. What I had forgotten was just how startlingly radical Kevin O’Neill’s artwork was.

My most recent exposure to O’Neill has been through his collaboration with Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, whose conclusion purportedly marks both its creators’ retirement from the medium of comics. What was immediately apparent from comparing the two works, was that although the LoEG contains some excellent artwork, and is an exemplary essay in the craft of visual storytelling, O’Neill’s work there is nothing like as good as it is in the strip with which he first made his name. Nemesis the Warlock is characterised by feverishly warped inventiveness, and by astonishingly precise inks (compared to O’Neill’s much looser late work, it’s ‘psychotically tight’, as my close friend, comics connoisseur Jem Fromant put it). The forms of the aliens, the technology, the outfits and the architecture in this story are all utterly startling on every panel.

I often find it hard to believe that some of the art that was published in 2000AD’s early years ever got editorial approval, it’s so outlandish and avant-garde in its appearance. This was not the era of the ‘graphic novel’ and the comics auteur—this was a very short while after the creators of 2000AD’s content were first given public credit for their work. But the bottom line is always sales, and the fans loved this stuff, I’m glad to say. There’s a lot of research and argument to be done in this area I’m sure, but I would not be surprised if comics historians conclude that 2000AD paved the way for the space that the big US publishers would later give to the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz.

This book compiles the first four books of Nemesis’s run, and Book 2 is drawn by the great Jesus Redondo, a much more conventional artist of an earlier generation. While he contributed little to character design or to the series’s aesthetic, his dynamic, narrative focussed work is always a pleasure to read. The majority of Book 4 is drawn by Bryan Talbot. Set in the ‘Gothic Empire’ it postulates an alien civilisation which modelled itself on Victorian England, having been exposed to early radio transmissions. You might be forgiven for thinking that this had been contrived in order to exploit Talbot’s particular proclivities, given the steampunk fantasia of Luther Arkwright, for which he is probably best known. Much of the design work is drawn straight from his Arkwright stories, but in fact this scenario was developed by O’Neill with Pat Mills (who wrote the whole shebang) as their first proposal for Nemesis the Warlock, before they decided to pursue another tack. Although this really is vintage Talbot, and a real treat for fans of his other work, many of the more outlandish ideas (zeppelin roller skates, for example) were O’Neill’s.

The story and world-building are archetypal Mills. It would be hard to imagine a more anti-establishment, pro-diversity story, and it must have looked pretty radical at the time to write a science-fiction story for children in which humans are the fascistic baddies. Mills drew extensively on his Catholic upbringing to develop a hellish vision of a theological empire founded on the ruthless suppression of all forms of difference, and filled the story with easily decoded signals that its readers should take it as a political allegory directed at contemporary Britain. His irreverence and accessibility are a joy, and as always, he finds ways to present a radical political critique without asking his audience to change its tastes or elevate its brows. It’s always pure entertainment, and this rigorous, youth-centred anti-elitism sets him apart as a writer from almost anyone to whom he might otherwise be compared—Alan Moore or Michael Moorcock, for example.

However, there are a couple of pretty shocking examples of Mills failing to walk the talk in this book. At one point in ‘The Gothic Empire’ Nemesis adopts the disguise of a ‘noted traveller and orientalist’, which is ironically apposite, given that Mills displays a certain amount of Orientalism as Edward Said intended the term. Firstly there’s a Chinese diplomat and his bodyguard, represented in an overtly stereotypical way; and then there is a samurai-themed robot (one of the ABC Warriors, who make a welcome appearance in the story), who is the subject of an egregious racist joke placed in the lips of fan-favourite character Ro-Jaws. Doubtless this isn’t the sort of thing that it would even cross Mills’s mind to consider including today, but that’s by-the-by really. He had founded his writing career on refusing to conform to prevailing conventions, and its disappointing to see this rare example of lazy, Daily Mail level humour.

So there’s the disappointment I alluded to above. The pleasure and revelation are still real however, in both art and story. For a generation of children reared on science-fiction in which heroic space-pilots spent their time killing aliens, Mills dared to ask, in a brash and bold comic targeted as entertainment at a mass audience, what the consequence of that violence might be. What would it be like to be on the receiving end of it? Wouldn’t it be justified to turn around and stick it to the humans? And wouldn’t those aliens be just as likely to be heroic? The first ten years of 2000AD were truly a turning-point for British comics, and for English-language commercial comics more generally. Without any pretensions of literary refinement or cleverness, pretensions which became de rigueur during the 1980s ‘graphic novel’ explosion, a group of editors, writers and artists working in a hard-nosed commercial environment, showed that it was perfectly possible to ask the hard questions, to take a radical line politically, and still to entertain as obnoxiously and hilariously as any 8-15 year old could desire. Mills was probably more prominent than anyone in this, as editor and writer, while O’Neill’s work, on this story in particular, showed that the image could be every bit as radical as the word—or more so, given Mills’s uncharacteristic lapses of judgement.

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