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Sunday Slugfest: Nemesis #1

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2010
By: Thom Young

Mark Millar
Steve McNiven (with Dave McCaig, colors)
Marvel-Icon
"Chapter One"

What if the smartest, toughest costumed bad ass in the world (Batman) dressed all in white but was totally evil? He'd be Nemesis, of course, and he has systematically been destroying the lives of various police chiefs around the world--and now he has set his sights on the chief of police in Washington, DC.

Kate Trippe:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:




Kate Trippe:

After reading Nemesis, I am now afraid of what will happen when some movie studio inevitably makes it into a "blockbuster." I love a villain-centric comic, Thunderbolts is one of the titles I subscribe to (despite its recent . . . degradation).

Nemesis immediately throws the reader into brutal action that is expertly, and rather hilariously, depicted by Steve McNiven. Dave McCaig's coloring of NcNiven's art sets just the right feel as Nemesis stands out from everything. He is a spotlessly clean and white whereas the backgrounds and objects around him are dark.

From the hype I have seen on the Web about this book, I knew the basic idea: What if a super-criminal had the resources of a billionaire playboy? This little tidbit was not revealed in the meat of the first issue, but it's clear in the back matter written by Millar.

There were no shocking revelations about the ins and outs of Nemesis's psyche--where his particular set of daddy issues stems from or the like. However, the reader can quickly glean how his operations usually go down--with panache and total carnage. The plot throws you into the core of what Nemesis does. He isn't a nice guy, he's vicious and destructive, and he a flare for the dramatic. Anyone who wears all white and a cape and who isn't being marched down the aisle has to have a dramatic flare.

Our introduction to Nemesis's next "victim," Blake Morrow, shows us that he isn't an ordinary cop--and so he completely worthy of the deranged attentions of Nemesis. I have the feeling Morrow isn't going to take the destruction of his town, Washington D.C., lightly.

Just when I was convinced of Morrow's ability to take on Nemesis, this wily villain did something completely unexpected and tossed my previous expectations of where this series was going to go on its head. Millar's story isn't merely what if the Dark Knight was crazy and evil, but what if he took all his skills and became the perfect criminal?

I am ready for this series to get started and take me to unexpected places. I look forward to getting to know both of the main characters, and what the intestines of those working under them look like. I will now sit in dread of what sort of horrible bullet-bending places Nemesis: The Major Motion Picture will take me.




Chris Kiser:

One need not be exposed to the Internet marketing machine to gain an appreciation for the type of series that Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Nemesis has been hyped to be. The cover of this first issue itself boasts that the story within will be more edgy and shocking than Millar’s Kick-Ass (at least, in so many words).

Then there’s the fact that Millar’s name is plastered all over this thing--printed in a particularly large font on the interior title page. It’s more than just a credit. The very presence of the creator of Wanted and Kick-Ass promises a comic full of irreverent violence and delightfully deranged characters.

On its surface, Nemesis is exactly the kind of book that its advertising would claim. Chronicling the exploits of a Batman-like serial killer who targets the world’s top law enforcement agents, the story is chock-full of over-the-top carnage and merciless killing rendered in graphic detail by Steve McNiven. We have an explosive skyscraper demolition, splattery human dismemberment, and even the hijacking of the most famous airplane in America--and all of it is designed to make the titular character seem like the last bad dude you’d ever want to mess with.

Yet, despite the lengths taken to hammer home the point that Nemesis is to be greatly feared, Millar fails to make him actually feel scary. Amongst the non-stop death and destruction, we’re never lulled into a sense of security that the events of the book can shock us out of.

In other words, Nemesis feels a bit like a Millar overdose. In a world where everything is the most intense thing you’ve ever seen, can anything feel truly jarring?

I do, however, like the groundwork Millar lays in his characterization of the Washington, D.C. police chief who will presumably serve as this series’ heroic foil. We get a glimpse of a respected, decent family man who isn’t afraid to stick his neck out from behind the confines of his desk job to do the right thing.

In other words, he appears to be Nemesis’s perfect opposite number. For Millar’s story to really take off, I predict it will have to take advantage of the seeds of dichotomy planted here.

In a prose afterword at the end of the issue, Millar thanks readers for having enough faith in him and McNiven to pick up this book. His assessment of the series’ potential success is right on the money. So far, its creators’ reputation is the biggest thing Nemesis has going for it.




Dave Wallace:

These days, I don’t follow specific characters to anywhere near the same extent that I follow specific creators. So, when I heard that Mark Millar and Steve McNiven were working together on a new creator-owned book featuring a brand new character, I was interested.

Their “Old Man Logan” arc of Wolverine was one of the more enjoyable superhero stories of recent years, and their Civil War (although flawed) has a certain amount of appeal if only for its well-staged superhero fight scenes and slick artwork. However, their newest collaboration, Nemesis, has quite a different feel from those stories.

The contrast is partly due to a change in McNiven’s art style that sees colourist Dave McCaig work directly from the pencils to create an effect that’s a little similar to McCaig’s colouring of Leinil Yu’s artwork in such books as New Avengers and Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk. In fact, I was reminded of Yu’s work on more than one occasion here.

I don’t know if it’s due to the colouring technique or a slight change in McNiven’s penciling style, but the characters of Nemesis seem highly rendered (perhaps a little over-rendered) in a manner that’s similar to Yu’s work. There’s a roughness to the textures of faces and clothes that I haven’t noticed in McNiven’s usually slick style before.

It’s probably just a result of the fact that these surface details would normally be finished by an inker, but since the linework is completely reliant on the original pencils here, it’s just not quite as tight. McNiven’s pencils might be pretty thorough, but they’re never going to look quite as slick as they would if finished by an inker.

Aside from the slightly different finish to the artwork, McNiven’s usual strengths shine through--particularly when it comes to the well-staged action sequences. The opening scenes of extreme destruction in Japan recall Akira (observant readers will even notice a subtle tribute to Katsuhiro Otomo in the artwork).

There are also a couple of standout full-page shots--including one that sees a train plummet off a bridge as well as a later image of Nemesis taking out the pilots of Air Force One in preparation for the crash landing that provides the issue’s most visually thrilling action scene.

My only real complaint with the art is a fairly superficial one: I still can’t help but feel that it’s a shame that the cover that was originally solicited for issue #1 has been replaced by a far more generic effort that doesn’t really bear any relation to the story inside. I understand that McNiven’s original image was a little too close to DC’s Joker to be able to be printed, but the new cover just doesn’t have the same appeal.

Talking of close resemblances to existing characters, it’s perhaps time to discuss the writing of the book. Whilst Millar pulls off the kind of over-the-top action and swagger that he’s made a career out of doing so well, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that his two lead characters--Nemesis and American cop Blake Morrow--are little more than walking clichés, never straying far from the most archetypal hero and villain concepts that you could imagine.

Much was made of Millar’s infamous “What if Batman was a cunt?” high-concept one-liner teaser when the series was first announced, but the truth is that the notion is as old as pulp fiction itself. The concept of Nemesis as a villainous spin on the "world’s greatest detective" isn’t much different from E.W. Hornung’s conception of “Raffles the Gentleman Thief” as a nefarious equivalent to Sherlock Holmes--or the ruthlessly villainous antics of the French character Fantômas (an inspiration for the white-suited and morally ambiguous Fantomex in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men) who came along a little later. I’m sure that plenty more examples can be found from the last century of comics history.

Even Nemesis’s gimmick of informing the public of the identity of his victim and the time of their death is pulled straight from the very first issue of Batman in which the Joker publicised his intention to kill his police officer before murdering them. However, this reliance on existing character archetypes isn’t necessarily going to be a problem for the book.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that part of the enjoyment that readers will experience with this book will depend on their familiarity with, and enjoyment of, these sorts of clichés--especially since the first issue doesn’t actually give us a huge amount to go on as far as characterisation is concerned. (Frankly, “What if Batman was a cunt?” gives us about as much character information as Nemesis #1 when it comes to the title character).

What I’m hoping, however, is that the book isn’t simply going to be content to let these clichés play out in a predictable fashion. Instead, I hope Millar is going to subvert them somehow. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that there’s going to be some kind of twist in store for this series, as I can’t believe that the story is going to be as straightforward as it currently looks.

The way that Millar’s introductions of Nemesis and Blake Morrow refer to “Player One” and “Player Two” makes me wonder whether the reality of this first issue is going to be revealed to be something that’s a step divorced from the real world--perhaps some kind of virtual experience that allows people to indulge their heroic or villainous fantasies. It would certainly help to justify the over-the-top videogame violence and occasional leaps of logic that threaten to pull the reader out of the story in places--such as:
  • How does Nemesis get inside Air Force One so quickly?

  • How does he set up the petrol tanker that he crashes the plane into?

  • How is an apparently normal man able to overcome the highest levels of national security to kidnap the President of the US, and how does he go unchallenged?
I might be being too kind to the book, but I’m hoping that Millar is setting up these over-the-top clichés with the intention of putting them into perspective in later issues, and using Nemesis to comment on the archetypes of traditional hero vs. villain stories--as well as to exploit their appeal.

However, if the book doesn’t attempt anything as interesting as what I'm hoping Millar intends, then it definitely needs to provide stronger characterisation and more originality of plotting in forthcoming issues because, at this stage, it almost feels as though somebody has written an uncannily accurate pastiche of a Mark Millar comic and convinced an A-list talent to illustrate it.




Thom Young:

I originally gave Nemesis #1 a three-bullet rating, but then I edited Dave's review.

My initial impression of this series was that even though it doesn't match up with my own sensibilities, it's a well-done action-oriented comic book for readers who might enjoy generic plots involving generic characters committing generic acts of violence.

However, after editing Dave's review I realized I actually disliked this issue even more than I initially thought I did--so I decided that I needed to lower my rating of it.

As I read Dave's review, I began to feel that Dave was rebutting my own review--even though Dave could not have read my review. He turned in his copy three or four days ago, and I am writing my review right now as I type these words just minutes before I will post the Sunday Slugfest online.

Did Dave imagine what my objections to this book would be?

Possibly. After all, he and I do collaborate on a lot of reviews together.

However, I doubt Dave gave any thought as to what my view of this book would be. He just noted what his own objections to the overall series would be if Mark Millar's full intentions for the story go no farther than what was presented in this first issue. In his "rebuttal," Dave doubts Millar intends something so generic. However, I have not read a great deal of Millar's work--and what I have read has not greatly impressed me:
  • I blame the failure of DC's Aztek on Millar's writing rather than Grant Morrison's (who is credited as the co-writer).

  • I found Millar's work on The Authority to pale in contrast to Warren Ellis's earlier work on that series.

  • And I thought Millar's Marvel 1985 was an interesting-but-flawed effort (I did, though, enjoy the first volume of Millar's The Ultimates that I read).
Thus, as I read Nemesis #1, I was not as inclined as Dave to think that Millar had some twist in mind that will make this series palatable. Instead, I consider this first issue to be too generic and derivative to be of any real interest.

I did wonder, though, if a generic work is exactly what Millar had in mind when he and McNiven designed the costume for Nemesis. Those of us of a certain age will certainly remember how generic foods used to be packaged--at least in the United States. I couldn't help but think that Nemesis is meant to have the word Villain emblazoned across his chest in black letters.

Of course, the logo on the cover is designed in that same generic style--though with white letters on black instead of black letters on white. It's entirely possible that Millar is intentionally playing with the generic quality of the series for some significant reason that will become clear in later issues. On the other hand, he might be doing something similar to what Frank Miller was doing in All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder--cranking out intentionally inferior work to see how many people will buy it regardless of its quality.

While not dressed all in white, Washington police chief Blake Morrow seems every bit as generic as Nemesis--or the "walking cliché" of a hero that Dave mentioned him as being. He seems to be a blend of Dirty Harry Callahan (as played by Clint Eastwood) and Ozzie Nelson (though an Ozzie Nelson with a penchant for playing baccarat).

However, I will admit that Blake Morrow's name caught my attention. His surname, of course, means "next day" or "the future" (or simply "next morning"), so some symbolism would seem to be at play here. Additionally, his given name, Blake, can be interpreted in at least three ways:
  1. As a near-homophone for black (which could indicate that Chief Morrow is not as heroic as he would appear to be--and/or that the outlook for the future is not very good).

  2. As an anagram (and also a near-homophone) for bleak (with implications similar to those of the first item and the notion of "black").

  3. And as a possible allusion to William Blake (one of my all-time favorite poets).
The possibility of Millar alluding to the concepts of William Blake intrigues me, but I doubt it's what he intends. It could also be that there is no intended symbolism at all, and that the name "Blake Morrow" is simply a wild goose for people like me to chase. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.)

As much as I disliked the generic aspects of Millar's story, I also found the illustrations by Steve McNiven to impair my ability to enjoy this issue. In his review, Dave stated that there was a "roughness to the textures of faces and clothes" in McNiven's work. Those aspects bothered me as well. However, rather than "roughness," I would describe it as a "softness" or "sagginess" to the textures of the faces and clothes.

I don't have a problem with clothing that appears soft and/or saggy, but the soft and saggy faces (and skin in general) do not look right--especially on characters who otherwise appear to be youthful (such as the blond man in the first panel on page 12). However, as Dave also pointed out, these skin textures might be due to Dave McCaig's colors--directly applied to the penciled illustrations--rather than to any intentionally saggy skin being drawn by McNiven.

Nevertheless, I do fault McNiven's work in other scenes--such as the full-page illustration of a train flying off the tracks at the point where a bridge has been destroyed (page 10). From a physics perspective, that illustration is terrbily inaccurate.

The angle made by the train's first car (and engine) and the train's second car is nearly 45 degrees--with the second car still nearly parallel with the railway tracks while the first car is about to simultaneously intersect the ground at a 45-degree angle. Unfortunately, these angles would be impossible.

The train would have to have been traveling at a very high speed for the second car to still be nearly parallel to the tracks even though it is extended almost entirely off the bridge. However, if the train was traveling at that high of speed, then the first car could not be angled 45 degrees downward from the rails above it or to the ground below it. Instead, the path of the first car should be more of an arc as it flies off the bridge (rather than an angle as it drops off the bridge).

Similarly, the toppling of the skyscraper on page five is equally unrealistic from the perspective of physics--and it's unclear what actually caused the skyscraper to topple over since the dynamite and combustible liquid that Nemesis planted in the building are on at least the 35th floor (probably higher). We are not told (or shown) anything that apparently happened on the ground floor and/or in the building's sub-levels, but the damage that made the building topple over (like a domino being knocked down) seems to have originated on those lower levels.

Are we to believe that the explosion on the 35th floor caused the foundation to collapse and the building to fall over like a domino?

Finally, on page 16, not only is Nemesis able to land on the left wing of Air Force One (he supposedly only has Batman's abilities, not Superman's), he is then able to walk along the wing, climb the fuselage, walk along the fuselage, and drop down to the nose of the plane where there is no place to actually stand. The nose of the airliner is too steep (and slick) for him to be standing outside the cockpit window the way he is depiected (especially on a jet that would still be traveling at close to 180 mph as it approaches a landing).

Perhaps readers are meant to wonder about the "dream logic" or "video game logic" of these events as a foreshadowing of the twist that Dave believes (or hopes) is coming along later in this series. However, I took the generic aspects of the story and the errors in logic at face value, and I regret spending $2.99 for this issue.

Nemesis #1 appears to be nothing more than a generic story filled with generic characters and logical errors in the depictions of its over-the-top action scenes. In other words, it is a Michael Bay movie in comic book form.

However, I understand that Michael Bay movies make a lot of money at the box office (and afterwards on video) even though they are largely panned by critics. That fact should bode well for Nemesis as a series (and for the eventual Michael Bay film that could be developed from Millar's story).



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