Sunday, 27 January 2013


What would happen if Batman went bad? A wag might answer that question by mentioning the 1997 cinematic abortion that is Batman & Robin. Mark Millar, on the other hand, famously has his own answer to the rather trite question. It’s a series called Nemesis.

On the surface this is another entry into Millarworld that very clearly has Hollywood in mind. The five issues contain a multitude of set pieces, all designed to look cooler than the last. They advance the plot only in as much as they continually up the stakes for the story’s hero Blake Morrow, giving him bigger obstacles to overcome.

But then that’s basically all the plot consists of. It’s a continual escalation from one ludicrous to the next, each designed to show how dangerous Nemesis is. Pages after Nemesis has captured the President of the United States he’s stealing a kidney from a hospital (for no clear reason beyond it’ll cause a child to die) and making his getaway in an lavish chase sequence involving a sports car, a motorbike, a helicopter, hundreds of cops, a missile launcher and what appears to be a lightsaber.

It’s not a subtle comic. But then it doesn’t pretend to be. Mark Millar is known for writing fairly action-heavy stories. To complain that this is more of the same misses that entirely. Millar doesn’t claim or try to write anything that explains or explores the human psyche or provides a wry sideways glance at the failings of the world’s governments. He writes things about super powered people fighting.

This makes Nemesis sound a shallow book. It’s not. Its two central characters, Blake Morrow and the titular Nemesis, are both very nicely fleshed out. They are stock characters illustrated with broad strokes familiar to anyone who’s ever read a comic or watched a film put out by Marvel or DC, yes, but those strokes are made very well. Within the first few pages we know the basics of Morrow’s character, allowing Millar to flesh out his backstory, and the backstory of his family, across the remaining four issues.

Nemesis is a different kettle of fish. His true identity is hinted at throughout the book, and there are several points where it appears that the author has confirmed who he really is. But even when the final page is turned we discover that actually we don’t know who’s under that perfect white mask at all. In this regard he’s more like the Joker than Batman: a nameless, faceless psychopath with a blank space where there should be a history.

In all other regards Millar has remained faithful to his original goal of exploring what a bad Batman would be like. Nemesis has access to what appears to be a bottomless pit of money, granting him all the fancy toys of ‘The Caped Crusader’. He’s just missing the morals. The two characters are both at unrealistically high levels of physical conditioning. Nemesis can perform a back flip off a motorbike as it hangs in mid-air, aiming a missile launcher at a nearby helicopter before he hits the ground. He can best 97 guards swaddled in riot gear single-handed and without a weapon. He can run around atop a plane without a care in the world.

“Macho” barely covers it.

As you’d expect from one of Millar’s creator owned affairs this is a comic that doesn’t shy away from being adult. Four letter words fly around the first issue like they’re going out of style. Thankfully this settles down as Millar finds his feet and the story gets underway. What doesn’t settle down is the visceral approach taken to the title’s fight sequences. The treatment of the human head alone is astonishing: throughout the book we see heads knocked off, blown to pieces, and get metal bars shoved through them. The prison scene in the third issue is particularly gruesome.

Steve McNiven’s art is well suited to the blood and gore approach. While he delivers that well his real strength is doing justice to the writer’s elaborate set pieces. That’s important considering they’re what keeps the comic moving. He proves competent at the title’s quieter moments too, giving you reason to care about the otherwise meaningless supporting cast, particularly Morrow’s (amazingly dysfunctional) family.

This is not a comic that will change your outlook on anything, not even Batman, the character that provided the inspiration. What it will do is allow you to while away half an hour and feel like you’ve not wasted time afterwards. That’s what we should be able to expect from a good comic. Bring on Nemesis Returns.

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