2000 AD: The Ultimate Collection #19. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 167, 178-179, 222-233, 238-240, 243-244, 246-257, 335-349, 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 1981 and 2000 AD Annual 1983.
It’s July 1980. “It’s like having your brain smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” So did Douglas Adams describe the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though the description applies equally well to Nemesis the Warlock. Nemesis is arguably the third great breakthrough pop-culture series from 2000 AD, following Dredd and Strontium Dog. It’s not hard to see why.
Reading this Volume was my first ever exposure to Nemesis, and it was a thrilling, dense, high-speed, macabre and dizzying read. It’s Pat Mills yet again demonstrating what a fierce and unyielding sense of creation seems to power him, and Nemesis just seems to course with a feeling of “I don’t care if you like, or even understand, this”. But crucially, it is at its most fundamental level a visual spectacle, meaning that artist Kevin O’Neill almost pips Mills at the post for sheer unadulterated creativity.
I’ve come to comics in any meaningful way fairly late in life (only in the last five or so years), and this collection of stories might be the first time where I’ve really felt the importance of a solid connection between writer and artist. I’ve experienced great writing and great art, but Nemesis feels like something that exceeds the sum of those two parts.
Mills is hitting on themes that he’ll also develop in Sláine later on (particularly The Horned God ), but where he feels contemplative and reflective there – here he feels angry. The sheer savagery of the humans under Torequemada, and their blind hatred of the other – dressed up in religious paraphernalia – is not so much putting a spotlight on human failings as throwing gasoline on them and lighting a match. The juxtaposition of the space-faring empires and galaxy-spanning plots with speech, ritual and decor that feels rooted in the 15th Century is amazing. Imagining “the future” can always look dated within a few years – the worlds of Torquemada and Nemesis feel fresh today because they’re rooted in an ideology centuries old.
It’s also in this clash of ideas that O’Neill excels. I lost count of how many pages I spent just exploring the columns and borders he fills with architectural-style artwork, little mini-stories bounding the main action. The cathedrals floating in space, the varying masks and armour of the Terminators. The level of detail and care taken with backgrounds, alongside the foreground action, is nothing short of breathtaking.
The stories themselves have an epic scope and sense of myth. They revolve around the key rivalry between Nemesis and Torquemada, but take in a whole lot more besides. The series started with two stories in 2000 AD‘s Comic Rock series (based on hit songs of the time), Terror Tube (1980) and Killer Watt (1980). These quick hits focus on the underground tubes of Termight, the heart of the cruel empire that Earth has become. Even as introductory pieces that don’t really give us an idea of what the main series is to become (we don’t even seen Nemesis, just his ship the Blitzspear), these are great little prologues. There’s an impressive amount of world-building in just a few pages, with Termight and Torquemada’s tyrannical rule effectively sketched in for us.
But Book 1: The World of Termight (1981) is where the series really starts, and it sure does hit the ground running. The main hook is a prisoner break-out from the main Termight fortress, alongside Torquemada’s resurrection after Killer Watt. A lot of the joy of reading this is having the breakout scheming and fighting happening at the same time as we learn more about the wider world it’s taking place in. The early part of the story is spent off-world during the Terminator’s crusade, and the savagery of the humans is explored as they are nasty to various aliens.
Book 2: The Alien Alliance (1982) takes us off Terra and into the wider galaxy. It suffers mainly from not having Kevin O’Neill on art duties – nothing against Jesus Redondo, but he just isn’t as detailed and clear in his linework, having a more expressive style. However the clear change in locations and focus does mean that I didn’t miss O’Neill as much as I could have – this feels like a very different story, so a different artist isn’t as big a deal as it could have been. The Alien Alliance, as its title suggests, spends more time with the Cabal – the rebel forces led by Nemesis.
Some of the main characters here are gigantic talking spiders, which for someone with a severe spider-phobia (like me!) is challenging! The stakes are more clearly drawn into a personal vendetta between Nemesis and Torquemada here, with another climactic fight scene. Book 2 also gives a bigger role to one of the few sympathetic humans in the story, Purity Brown.
Book 3: The World of Nemesis (1983) brings things home for the rebel hero by introducing his wife and new son and a enough family drama, backstabbing and revenge to fill a soap opera. Book 3 is the weakest of the three stories for me, mainly due to the plot where Nemesis defends an alien world and their giant tree. Mills brings in Mek-Quake from Ro-busters as a siege robot, and it basically just serves as a big distraction. But there’s still plenty to love about this one – more great art by O’Neill, and more background on Nemesis himself.
The collection wraps up with two stories from 2000 AD Annuals that highlight the backgrounds of key aspects of the series – The Sword Sinister (1981) lets us know where Nemesis got his awesome sword from, and The Secret Life of the Blitzspear (1982) lets us know where Nemesis got his awesome ship from! These are fun, and credit to Rebellion for including these little extra slices in the Volume.
Despite being not far off 40 years old, this collection feels urgent and fresh. There’s an energy to the accelerating plots and dramatic artwork that still pulls the reader in, and below those is a fierce message of anti-prejudice and the dangers of intolerance – particularly of the religious kind. Nemesis is a challenging hero, looking more like the monster villain in other sci-fi stories. It’s confident storytelling that places the reader in the situation of rooting for the aliens against humanity. Another essential entry in the 2000 AD canon.
Next time: The first major detour for the Thrillshots blog. The next scheduled collection is Meltdown Man, and that’s due out here in Australia this week. I’ll need a bit of time to read it and then get the review done, so next week will be a review of a Dredd collection from last year – Nobody Apes the Law.