Reading the second volume of Rebellion’s sumptuous collected Nemesis The Warlock has been a real pleasure. It hasn’t been a revelatory experience, in the way that reading the first volume was, as I have already been reminded what Nemesis is like, how good it is, and how mind-blowing its art. The majority of Nemesis The Warlock: The Later Heresies is occupied by a time-travelling epic in which Nemesis seeks to be reconciled with his young son Thoth. This is not, of course, a family drama, as it was written by professional enfant terrible Pat Mills for a mass audience of comic-reading yoof, and the theme of filial reconciliation is played out in a tempest of cataclysmic revenge fantasies.
The time travel affords Mills the opportunity to include the fruits of his historical research, as the story’s villain, Tomas de Torquemada, is revealed to be the reincarnation of various historical genocidal maniacs, going right back to his namesake inquisitor in Renaissance Spain. Having exaggerated more or less everything that has been included in Nemesis prior to this, Mills takes pleasure in not exaggerating the historical record, and letting these bastards’ actual deeds speak for themselves. As in many of his scripts, Mills offers an object lesson in presenting historical knowledge and moral enquiry in a story which never compromises on entertainment, lunatic invention, or sheer, ludic obnoxiousness. He often ran afoul of the Dail Mail set, for the provocative surface characteristics of his work: if they’d known what he was really up to, they’d have banned his stories and locked him up!
Most of this volume is drawn by Bryan Talbot, and it’s a good opportunity to watch a great stylist maturing as he works. A lot of Talbot’s earlier work can be a bit heavy and static, but he’s getting looser here, and there’s a strong foretaste of the dynamic action sequences that animate later work like Grandville. There are also a few episodes inked by the ever-mental Kevin O’Neill, whose creature Nemesis will always be, for me. These two definitive Nemesis artists are joined for a few chapters by the frankly terrifying John Hicklenton. I hadn’t seen these pages before, but Hicklenton’s drawing was instantly recognisable to me from his contributions to Third World War (also Mills scripted) from the sadly short-lived Crisis monthly. Few artists could easily muscle in between such distinctive talents as Talbot and O’Neill, but with his detailed finish and his grotesquely stylised forms, Hicklenton fits right in.
Many of the classic 2000AD strips are still running, well over forty years after the comic’s launch, but despite some attempts to revive it, Nemesis is not among them. It’s five years since the character’s last one-off appearance, and while the stories in The Later Heresies (which were published in or before 1988) are not the last, I feel like the original run was infused with such manic intensity that it would be difficult to produce anything comparable now—its novelty is a big part of its shock factor, and ‘monster’s perspective’ stories are now so popular in horror and fantasy that they’ve become a cliché. And there, in a nutshell, is a summary of these creators’ achievement: they invented the disruptive tropes that would later be taken up by an army of imitators, many doubtless unaware exactly who they were ripping off. Before Nemesis came along, for all that it clearly has some antecedents, there was nothing like it. This is the source.