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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nemesis: the streamlined demon

My favourite comic strip of the 1980s is without a doubt the 2000AD series Nemesis the Warlock. Specifically the material illustrated by Kevin O'Neill. Now those early stories, including all of Kevin's work plus the sagas drawn by Jesus Redondo and Bryan Talbot's first Nemesis series have been collected in a telephone-directory sized softback from Rebellion, The Complete Nemesis the Warlock Volume 1. Within its lime and black covers, the reproduction of the strips is superb, with none of the jagged pixelation of the finer lines which sometimes mars reprint books of this type.

Nemesis the Warlock was a development of ideas first seen in the one-off strip Terror Tube, and its follow-up Killer Watt. Terror Tube was a huge success, Killer Watt less so, but Kevin O'Neill and writer Pat Mills stuck to their guns and the series that followed won over the majority of readers. That said, some of the more conventional readers must have felt uneasy about the concept of the strip (some editors at IPC certainly didn't approve): the hero (Nemesis) is a demon who fights against an Earth-dominated galactic empire run by Torquemada and his religious zealots intent on wiping out all non-human life. Yes, in this strip, the humans are the villains and religion is evil, thus turning the usual "morality" of British comics on its head.

Highly praised for his anti-war strip Charley's War (in Battle comic) Pat Mills was known as a writer who'd go for the jugular in any subject that stirred his passions. In Nemesis Pat's target was oppressive religion. In the foreword to the book, Pat says "Torquemada was based on a monk at my school who rejoiced in the dubious title 'Prefect of Discipline'." A monk who enjoyed thrashing boys. In his afterword to the book, Kevin O'Neill says "As we shared a similar warped vision - and Catholic background - the world of Torquemada grew and grew. (Perhaps the ultimate compliment was his slogan "Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!" painted on the Berlin Wall back in the 80s.)"

That said, under Mills and O'Neill, Nemesis never became too downbeat. Kevin's ability to illustrate black comedy, adding grotesquely amusing detail and background gags to his pages ascended his work to equal the best comic-horror work of Ken Reid.

Years later, when working for DC Comics, Kevin would bizarrely become the only artist to have his entire style banned by the Comics Code Authority, thus preventing him from drawing any comics carrying the CCA seal! Not that O'Neill had drawn anything remotely offensive to most eyes, (no gore, no nudity, etc) but it seemed that the CCA felt Americans couldn't handle such an art style that was so far removed from what they were used to. (Even though Kevin's work had been enjoyed by several hundred thousand kids in the UK!)

Working for comics outside of the archaic (and nowadays mostly ignored CCA) O'Neill is now the highly acclaimed artist of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with writer Alan Moore. However those early Nemesis strips remain respected classics and, with their miscellany of dark humour, rebelliousness, satire and social comment the Mills and O'Neill version has all the ingredients of the best of British comics.

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock Volume 1 (rrp £13.99) is available from comic shops, bookshops, and online shops such as

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