Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month: Timothy Callahan on Nemesis #1

Guest Reviewer Month: Timothy Callahan on Nemesis #1

Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1

Published by Marvel/Icon
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover: Lucio Parrillo
Cover Price: $2.99
Release Date: 3/24/10 

You have to admire Mark Millar’s audacity. 

No, really, you have to admire it. It’s a requirement. He forces it upon you, whether you like it or not. 

Here he is with Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 — yes, that is the official title — and not only does it feature his name at the top, it has the same branding as Wanted and Kick-Ass, the same blocky white font on a field of black, the same “screw all y’all” attitude. Millar’s so sassy that he uses a tagline on the cover of the first issue that mocks his previous series, “Makes Kick-Ass Look Like S#!T,” it reads. Of course, it’s not genuine mockery, it’s just Millar’s way of reminding people that he is, in fact, responsible for Kick-Ass, the movie that’s due to come out around the same time as this completely unrelated comic. “By the writer of ‘Kick-Ass,’” would be a more appropriate label, but that would be lame. Not edgy. Not Millaresque. 

This is, after all, a comic that features a character shooting Uzis from atop a speeding Porsche on the cover. 

So you know it has to be cool. Who doesn’t like Uzis? Or Porsches? Or dudes with masks and capes? 

It’s like the Amazing Stories episode about the kid who had some magic gloop that would make pictures come to life, and he started spreading it around on girly magazines and cheesecake posters. That’s what Millar did to the posters in his adolescent bedroom, and this is the comic that was born. 

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like this comic. 

Millar hyped this series, in his early interviews, as a kind of “What if Batman were the Joker?” or “What if Batman was a dude who wore white and went around killing people and Commissioner Gordon was like a super-cop who matched wits with this white-clad maniac?” He’s backed off that kind of talk in the months since, because, well, it’s a comic published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, and nobody likes a lawsuit. (Except lawyers, and if Millar were a lawyer, he would have advised himself not to say the things he says about his comics ripping off other comics.) 

And Millar also hyped this series as one of those “simple idea that no one’s ever thought of before” comics, like Kick-Ass, which was such an original idea that it traveled back in time and made Wild Dog forget it ever existed. But while Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis may not actually be that original — the entire character of the Crime Syndicate’s “Owlman” is based on the “What if Batman were evil?” premise, as I’m far from the first to point out — this opening issue has a purity to it. It’s primal. And, yes, it’s simple. 

But simple isn’t bad. And at least it has verve. It has an attitude about itself. It can’t help it, it’s a Mark Millar comic. 

The story starts with “Player One: Tokyo,” and it’s a game from the very first page. Nemesis (a villain who looks like a Batman in white, minus the ears, but he’s totally not an evil Batman, because that would be a copyright violation) holds the Tokyo police chief hostage, blows up some buildings, and runs a train off some tracks. That’s after the train plasters the chief’s body parts all over its front nose. It’s brutal and violent and establishes that Nemesis is (a) evil, (b) really evil, and (c) so evil it hurts. 

Contrast that with “Player Two: Washington,” with the introduction of super-awesome Chief Morrow who blows away some “crack-heads” who have apparently decided to hold up a supermarket that looks like a video store from the parking lot. Morrow’s like the Punisher crossed with Clint Eastwood and James Bond, but as a police chief. 

And he’s destined to be Nemesis’s nemesis. 

But first, Nemeis jumps on top of Air Force One (in flight), shoots the pilots in the face, takes control of the plane, and lands it on the city streets — I don’t know what city it’s supposed to be, since the in-story cues would signify Washington D. C. but it doesn’t look like Washington and there’s a “petrol” truck that, inevitably, gets blown up. Nemesis has taken the president hostage, and the final page of the issue shows the battered commander-in-chief on his knees, with Nemesis on a white throne behind him, re-enacting a bizarro version of the “Smell the Glove” cover shoot. 

If this sounds like a ridiculous comic book, well, it is. But it’s also pure comics. 

It’s pure comics in that way that people use the term “comic book” in a derogatory fashion, as in “that movie is so cliché, so broad, it’s like a comic book.” Sure, that’s an insult if you’re looking for depth and subtlety. But if you’re looking for archetypal characters doing ridiculous things, then comic books are a great place to look. Especially superhero comics. Especially ones written by Mark Millar. 

This comic is a pretty blatant movie pitch — Millar has positioned himself so that everything he does is a blatant movie pitch at this point — and it’s almost entirely drawn in widescreen panels by Steve McNiven (who, absent Dexter Vines on the inks, doesn’t look quite as good as he usually does), but, as a movie pitch, it makes a good comic book. It doesn’t tell it’s story in scenes. Instead, it uses images. This doesn’t have the substance of a movie, even a big dumb action movie. The manic pace of issue #1, properly filmed, would take about five minutes of screen time. It would be hostage-train-explosion-splat-gunshots-exposition-airplane-hijack-President-as-hostage back to back to back. It’s a music video on fast forward. 

That kind of pacing works well in a comic book, when each still panel can freeze the image and give us just the highlights. But a movie would have to show everything that happens between the panels. In other words, the boring stuff. 

This comic doesn’t have time for the boring stuff. It gives you the minimum of characterization — Morrow is “Oprah’s favorite cop,” bam, that’s all you need to know — and it doesn’t even try to capture any details of life as we know it. This is pure comics, in the way that Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit was pure comics. In the way that Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn/Batman was pure comics. In the way that Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman’s Dr. Fate was pure comics.  

Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 may look like a comic from today, but it’s a throwback to simpler times. When comics were about shooting and punching and blowing up stuff. And they didn’t aspire to be anything else. They just wanted to get your attention for a few minutes before you moved on to something more important, like filling out your tax returns or riding our bike to the corner store to buy a handful of penny candy.

Timothy Callahan is the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years and edited the recent Teenagers from the Future. His column When Words Collide appears weekly at Comic Book Resources.

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