It always feels somewhat wrong to read 2000AD stories on a glossy paper. Don’t get me wrong, I have shelves full of expensive hardcover containing the best of the British (and also some of the worst) comics of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, enough that "being crushed under Judge Dredd reprints” could be a probable cause of death; but as Warren Ellis correctly diagnosed way back in the early ages of the comics internet, there's something about 2000AD, especially these early works, a rightful and righteous mix of political anger and desperate chase after the latest deadline, that feels like they were made to be disposable: “Your hands used to get sooty if you re-read it too much. The ink was so badly fixed you could lift entire images off the page with Blue-tack… these were comics with guitars.”
The reason I’m talking 2000AD is the recent re-release of the first four serials, or ‘books,’ of the seminal classic Nemesis the Warlock in a fancy-pants limited edition under the nom de plume Nemesis the Warlock: The Early Heresies. Written by Pat Mills with art by series co-creator Kevin O’Neill, alongside veteran Spanish artist Jesus Redondo and future superstar Bryan Talbot. The story takes place in the far future: Earth has been transformed into the “Termight Empire” a fanatical expansionist force led by the tyrannical Thomas de Torquemada on a universe-wide crusade to exterminate all alien life. The only thing standing in their way is the titular protagonist, a satanic-looking alien sorcerer who runs a resistance moment composed of all non-human species.
I have the new edition, alongside most of the previous editions of the series (the regular softcovers, the colored-edition based on the later New Eagle reprints, the large-sized but abridged Titan Comics hardcover). It really is a thing to behold - Hardcover bound, with a tasteful grey on black lettering and a minimal cover art that fails to convey the oft-busy nature of art inside, it whispers that you are about to read some mature, adult, classic instead of one of the wildest rides in British comics’ history. It feels almost a sacrilege to read Nemesis like this.
There was always something ‘other’ about Nemesis the Warlock compared to the rest of the 2000AD output; it had a certain European flair to its neo-gothic presentation and free-flowing plot. It felt like something that could be printed in Metal Hurlant. While the rest of 2000AD presented a rather workmanlike take on science fiction, lifting shamelessly from Star Wars, Six Million Dollar Man, Damnation Ally, Death Race 2000 and anything else you’d care to name, this felt different – no bound or indebted to anything in particular. Everything could happen in a chapter of Nemesis the Warlock, and everything often did.
Look at the image above, our first introduction to the workshop of Nemesis’ uncle Baal, to see just a shade of the brilliance O’Neill pencils brought to the story. There’s the typical comedy one hopes to find in a 2000AD serial, the magazine always had a winking edge to it, that can be found in the smaller details (the wrecked fireplace, the tiny alien working on the table, the skull with the word ‘alas’ in the foreground). But O’Neill’s work has this sinister edge to it that is never dulled by the comedy- the skull chair, the open corpse with the syringes running through it, the hint of something larger always going on.
Mills might have set the righteous emotional tone of the story (charged with his typical political rage and hate towards conservative politics) with his words, but it was O’Neill who established the impossible world of Nemesis the Warlock with his jagged lines. If nothing else, this new hardcover edition is worth it just to see these lines cleared of any clutter of previous printings: given the proper space to indulge in the grotesqueness of it all.
It’s simply fun looking at O’Neill’s pages, often hellish tablatures of violence and grim humor that they are – a twisted reflection of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane stories, as stark in black and white as Druillet’s vision were in color. The stories are never limited in their scope, with art that creates sense not of a world but of whole universes, teeming with life, on the edge of every page. There is always a slight exaggerated edge to O’Neill’s work: the spikes on the armors a tad too long, the snarling mouths of villain a bit overtly cartoonish. It provides a healthy balance to Mills’ earnestness without contradicting it.
This exaggeration is both a strength and a weakness. In the afterword for The Early Heresies O’Neill describes the frenetic nature of the creative process behind the book: “We Were never short on material for Nemesis – indeed, we probably only put in a fraction of what we’ve discussed.” Mills’ 2000AD work sometimes reminds me of the writer in the end of the Sandman issue "Calliope" who’s cursed with an overabundance of ideas; those seeking logic and consistency better keep away, the nature of the world-building is particularly haphazard. The creative team is chasing notions that please them rather than think through the implication of what has been brought up before. Indeed, trying to make ‘sense’ of the world of Nemesis the Warlock is a fool’s errand; Even the world of Star Wars felt like it had more internal consistency and logic.
Nemesis is all about mad flights of fancy. This becomes especially when Mills and O’Neill decide to tie the series continuity to that of completely different science fiction saga ABC Warriors (which itself is tied to Ro-Busters who are later tied into a fourth 2000AD series Savage, all in increasingly complicated manner). The key here is not to stop, to take the stories in the manner in which they were originally made –seven pages at a time, short bursts of maniac energy.
The two other artist featured in this collection, Jesus Redondo on Book II and Bryan Talbot on (most of) Book IV are likewise in top form. This is probably the best work Redondo has ever done, though his style tends towards the straightforward and heroic – fittingly Book II is more big battles and nasty-looking monsters. It is slightly more ‘typical’ of British comics at the time: Nemesis looks a bit more heroic, the monsters a tad more generic (there’s a race of giant Spiders that are just that – big arachnoids. O’Neill would’ve probably been more playful with the idea) and there’s less of the humor and more action.
Still, it’s highly energetic and Redondo works well within the lines that O’Neill has previously established. And even if the climax of the Book is a repetition of the previous one, with Torquemada’s spirit taking on a new host body to fight Nemesis, it is hard not be carried away by the sheer excitement of it all.
Talbot’s section also lacks some the humor found in O’Neill’s pencils, so the satire abounds but is less joke-y in nature and feels far more self-serious. His figurework is more detailed and subdued in nature, and, probably the most important element is the world building: Book IV (“The Gothic Empire”) features a race of alien shapeshifters that chose, Star Trek-like, to adapt early human culture, specifically – the Victorians, as their template for existence.
Under Talbot’s pencils the impossible creations of O’Neill suddenly become probable, with careful attention given to how things move and operate. Instead of using the edge of the page to create jokes that made the censors run cold with sweat, Talbot used them to make the world appear more plausible. Later works by Talbot, such as the long-running steampunk / alternate history / funny animal / detective series Grandville seems built upon on the skillset he honed on Nemesis the Warlock – no matter how ridiculous the scenery, he would take it seriously, and would make it work.
Last but not least is Pat Mills himself, who kept the series on point, ideologically at least, and gave it focus. Despite taking place in the far future, and presenting a rather simplistic good vs. evil narrative (absent here is the tragic brutality of Mills’ Charley’s War which depicted a soldiers long time struggle with the system that uses him as much as with the enemy soldier) the strip retains the primal force that animates so much of Mills’ writing. The forever reincarnated Torquemada, killed at the end of every adventure only to possess another body, is the immortal fascist in the heart of society.
Humanity, throughout the book, is shown to be a gaggle of cowards and boot-lickers, eager to follow their leader and invest in him all their hopes. Even as Torquemada fails again and again to uphold harsh the moral standards he demands of others, his self-righteousness is retained; like every conservative politician who beats the drum of ‘family values’ while keeping a mistress or three on the side. In the final of the story his main followers discover Torquemada’s many heresies and decide to cover them up less the population will lose faith in them.
This isn’t an Avatar-esq story about the one good human ™ trying to save humanity from itself. This is a story about one alien trying to save the rest of the universe from humans – which Nemesis kills in droves. The Gothic Empire might love humanity, might even believe themselves to be fully human, but this will not save them from the wrath of Termight. Torquemada, in fact, is is particularly disgusted with the idea that the Goths consider themselves human while Nemesis scorns them as another example of human conquest, though one done by force of culture rather than arms.
It would have been easy for a strip like this to get lost in its own fanciful notions, to become about nothing more than the fictional stakes with no relation to the reader’s reality. Coming back to those early stories, I’m forever struck by their urgency and vitality – Nemesis’ horns might be in the stars, but his cloven hooves are tied to firmly to ground; still carrying on that good fight against oppressors everywhere.