The big questions for a long-time 2000AD fan are this: when did 2000AD change, and what did it change from and to?
I think it's clear that it started out as a fairly traditional boys comics, updated for the post-sixties era, taking in some of the creative lessons learned from Action and giving them a sci fi twist. Early thrills were pretty much boys' comics staples – Invasion! and M.A.C.H. One were old fashioned tough guys; Flesh was a twist on the exotic jungle great white hunter story, with Old One Eye at its heart as a kind of animal anti-hero like in those Jack London novels; Harlem Heroes was a sports strip; and Dan Dare was a very clear indication that they were aiming for that core “boy” audience, probably with an average age of about twelve and a long tail going back to six year olds and petering out quickly after about fourteen.
Judge Dredd – which only began in prog 2, remember! - was an early indication of the direction the comic would take, with social satire and black humour similar to the types of sci fi movies we saw in the late sixties and early seventies – Silent Running, Logan's Run and especially the triumvirate of Charlton Heston apocalypse movies, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green. This was definitely something new in a boys comic – I'd seen the space adventure comics that had been brought out by the Commando comics people, for example, and they were much more trad space adventures than really engaged sci fi in the way of Judge Dredd.
Well, maybe we'll get to Dredd one day, but today I want to take a look at a story that signalled a similarly profound break from boys' comics that had gone before and was one of the clearest antecedents for the way the comic is today, Nemesis the Warlock.
I can remember the debut of the first story, Terror Tube, pretty well. It provoked immediate interest from me and my mate Tim. I recall long discussions based around this and the later Killer Watts strip about what the Hell it was all about. They weren't Future Shocks - they didn't have that "Gotcha!" structure - and there were so many intriguing hints at something bigger going on, and an amazing visual style, that we were absolutely intrigued by it from the start. “Credo!” we started saying to each other, with only a vague idea of what it was about.
The first story was allegedly inspired by the lyrics of The Jam hit Going Underground. Well, let's take a look at that, shall we?
Hm! Spot the connections? Me niether!
In the introduction to this collection, Pat Mills gives us another view: apparently this is an off-cut that he and O'Neil couldn't use for Ro-Busters, and thus translated into a new story. He makes some gestures to the idea of “Comic Rock” - that's Kenny Everett, unless I'm very much mistaken – but this story is very much it's own thing, completely unrelated to whatever it is the grouchy old Mod Father is ranitng about.
Radio DJ Kenny Everett provides a marginal "rock" connection.
While the connection with The Jam is tenuous (and, for the later story, the connection with the Killer Watts compilation, which I hadn't heard of and looks like a rather awful hair metal compilation, is equally unclear), the idea of “comic rock” is one that turned up from time to time in 2000AD, mostly to its detriment. Rockers loved 2000AD for its zany spirit, and while 2000AD tried to return the compliment, things like Roxilla's record reviews always looked like a waste of space to me and sounded like the pointless rantings of the boring music nerds I knew who seemed to feel that having an extensive record collection and some receieved opinions made up for being utterly musically inept and having shockingly poor taste.
Nemesis, of course, went the other way and found himself appearing in the song “Nemesis” by Shriekback.
Ha ha, that's awesome! I remember seeing it on Radio With Pictures back in the 80s and thinking "Wait a second..."
Anyway, the regular series debut of Nemesis the Warlock quickly left behind the idea of “comic rock” in favour of the more credible inspiration, the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant. I was reading the US version, Heavy Metal at the time the strip debuted (thanks to my older brother!) but didn't make the connection at the time. When it's pointed out, of course, it becomes obvious – the (almost literally) alienated subject matter, the surrealistcally non-nonsensical setting, and the ultra violence all fit. All that's missing is soft core nudity – maybe that's why I didn't make the connection!
Come on, Kev, get cracking!
However, the art and imagery stood out immediately as something new that we hadn't seen before in 2000AD. The story mixes fantasy and SF elements, and Kevin O'Neil provides an amazing meld of these elements. Swords and spells mix with aliens and spaceships and a deliciously, baroque parade of grotesques. There is no one and nothing that is handsome or clean or decent here. It all perfectly suits O'Neil's quirky, cartoony style.
A more trad knights-in-armour feel from Jesus Redondo.
Book II is illustrated by Jesus Redondo with more mixed results. He provides a more conventional knights-in-armour look for the strip, and lacks O'Neil's eye for the grotesque, although he has nice line in giant spiders - perhaps that's why he was later thrown Ant Wars. After Book III, where O'Neil once again provides eye-poppingly fantastic work, the story is taken over in Book IV by another illustrator who manages to reinvigorate the strip with his own style, Bryan Talbot.
Book IV is set almost entirely among the Goths, an alien race that has adopted a kind of steampunk version of Victorian British society that suits Talbot down to the ground. His shadowy cross hatched inking style and fantastic eye for fiddly, tinkery machinery brings the setting into amazing life. He gives the Goths themnselves a strange, slightly inhuman profile that gives them just the right oddly inhuman air and a hint of superciliousness that matches their weird, uptight society.
Bryan Talbot captures the steampunk essence of the "Gothic" Empire.
Along with Dredd, I think this is one of the definitive stories from 2000AD. The look and feel quickly wormed their way into culture, and Termight's genocidal space Catholics are very obviously a huge inspiration for the Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 series of games and novels. The distinctive imagery has also made its way into heavy metal culture, completing the circle started with "Comic Rock".
Nemesis - not your regular hero.
More than the visual style, though, is the twisted morality of the stories. Even by 2000AD's standards, these are ambiguous characters. Nemesis is a freedom fighter who is, I suppose, not all that far from Bill Savage, but he's an alien, and a rather grotesque one, at that, with very little humanity about him to connect to. He happily kills and murders humans and uses black magic in the course of his duties. Torquemada is as vile and villainous an antagonist as you could ask for, but he plays as central a role in the stories as Nemesis does.
On top of this, Mills also folds in his characters from Ro-Busters and The A.B.C. Warriors to create something that looks a little like a 2000AD continuity. He's still at it, and more recently brought in the Bill Savage stories, which was always hinted at, of course, as he shared his Vulgan enemy with the A.B.C. Warriors.
For good or bad, I think this is the story that began to disconnect 2000AD from its boys' comics roots. Whatever your opinion on that, there's no denying that the stories collected in this volume are among the most brilliant and original ever to appear in a 2000AD or, for that matter, any British comic.