Writer: Mark Millar ~ Artist: Steve McNiven ~ Publisher: Icon ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: Another serving of absurd ultraviolence and button-pushing controversy from the writer of Wanted and Kick-Ass, Nemesis has a fantastic central idea (What if Batman was evil?) but does very little with it, while also giving us one of the more slappable characters to grace a comic book page in quite some time…
What’s it About?: He came from wealth, and suffered a tragedy as a child. Now, he hides his identity behind a mask and stalks the night as a cloaked figure of terror… but the mysterious international criminal known as Nemesis isn’t interested in being a hero. Instead, he’s been on a killing spree across the world, murdering the top cops of every city he visits – and Blake Morrow, an ageing Washington-based policeman, is the last name on his list…
The Story: It isn’t often that a comic manages to be so gob-smackingly dumb that I actually want to throw it across the room, but Nemesis certainly qualifies, thanks to a twist in its third chapter that’s intended as a controversy-baiting ‘I can’t believe they just did that’ plot development, but instead just comes over as insultingly ludicrous and adolescent in the extreme.
Of course, this is a Mark Millar comic – complaining about it being ludicrous, adolescent and violent is a bit like complaining that Michael Bay movies aren’t works of intellectual rigour. He’s a writer who’s specialised in essentially writing big dumb Summer Blockbusters in comic book form for a very long time (most succesfully in the massively influential Marvel series The Ultimates, with artist Bryan Hitch), amping violence and extremity up to breathtaking levels and boiling the world of superheroes down to arresting ‘What if?’ questions that are simple and straightforward enough to get Hollywood on the line for big-budget movie deals.
He’s a fantastic ideas man and is genuinely excellent at crafting action sequences, as well as tailoring projects to suit different artists – it’s just a pity that he doesn’t always manage much more than that. His comics are almost always all surface and no depth, full of so much snark, posturing and attitude that it’s rather like being self-consciously winked at for hours on end. He’s great at asking ‘what if’ questions, but often that seems to be all he does – and while Nemesis is gifted with a great setup and a couple of undeniably well-crafted setpieces, it’s hard not wish for a little less supervillain posing and a little more actual story.
At four issues long, Nemesis is the shortest so far of Millar’s creator-owned titles – in theory, this should make this ‘Evil Batman’ tale a punchy bit of nasty escapism, but the end result feels sketchy and weak, lacking anything to pull us into the story other than exploding heads, nonsensically OTT action sequences and a Japanese cop being run over by a bullet train. Millar seems to think his central idea is enough, and forgets to actually give us any characters to care about, or even be interested in – with the pagecount kept short, and plenty of splash pages throughout, there’s hardly any room to get to know the cast, and the action becomes a relatively simplistic (if decidedly nasty) game of cat and mouse, where Nemesis does something horrible, the cops respond, and then Nemesis does something even nastier.
Millar has talked in interviews that one of the reasons behind doing the series was to do a story revolving around a villain, in the manner of Goodfellas or The Sopranos – and if that was his intent, then he’s failed spectacularly, as Nemesis (the series) isn’t remotely interested in exploring its main character in the slightest. We’re a spectactor to the white-clad killer’s carnage but never allowed to see things from his perspective, and we barely know any more about Nemesis by the end of the story than we did at the start (other than that he’s great at fighting, completely psychotic, and – rather improbably – a master gynaecologist).
Plus, while Millar’s central idea is ‘What if Batman was the Joker?’, it might as well have been ‘What if Batman was a preening, egomaniacal, foul-mouthed tosspot?’ Nemesis is, at heart, a fantastically uncharismatic, brattish and annoying central character who’s so busy posing and swearing in an oh-so-confrontational way that he never comes across as anything other than a convenient collection of devilish plot devices. There’s an attempt to weld the story onto a subtext relating to the current financial crisis, but really it’s just Millar working through yet another iteration of “What if superheroes were, like, real people? And swore?”, but with far fewer returns this time around. There was room for a genuinely tense battle of wills, and Millar does admittedly pull off a decent finale in the White House, but most of the story feels like paper-thin connective tissue around the ballistic setpieces. There’s the sense that Millar is far more concerned about keeping the pace up, pushing as many boundaries as he can and delivering the ‘shocking’ revelations than he is with actually giving us a reason to care about what’s happening (which he is still capable of doing, as shown by his new series Superior). Instead, the characters are two-dimensional cyphers ready to be butchered, slaughtered or otherwise abused, and the story fritters away most of the promise of its central concept on cheap ultraviolence.
While I don’t think Nemesis was conceived purely as a way of getting a movie pitch out there (unsurprisingly, it’s already been picked up for an adaptation, with Tony Scott scheduled to direct), I do think that a movie adaptation could stand a very good chance of improving on the story’s major flaws, and maybe deliver a film that actually fulfils the potential of the central concept.
But of course, Nemesis’s work is already done. It’s gotten attention, mainstream critics are looking at it and saying “Oh, how shocking and revolutionary!”, and, along with Kick-Ass, it’s going to be viewed as yet another benchmark of what modern-day comics should be (‘edgy’, ‘hip’, absurdly violent and high-concept enough that even narrow-minded Hollywood producers can understand them). I’m just left wishing Millar had spent as much effort on the story and character as he had on button-pushing controversy, and actually used the medium of comics for more than just the opportunity to say “Hey – I bet you’ve never seen a cop being impaled through the neck with his own truncheon, have you?” Nemesis once again proves that just because you can get away with anything in a comic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should – or that the end results will be particularly entertaining…
The Art: They’ve worked together before on Civil War and Old Man Logan, but the Mark Millar/Steve McNiven team here doesn’t result in quite such pleasing results. McNiven’s inking style goes in a rather weird direction in Nemesis, with results that sometimes border on the ugly, while the colouring doesn’t always do the art any major favours. He still manages to pull off most of the setpieces, and the key sequence – a ludicrously nasty fight between Nemesis and almost a hundred prison guards in chapter 3 of the story – is incredibly well realised. But overall, McNiven’s work doesn’t always hit the mark, leaving this in the shadow of his other, more impressive projects.
The Verdict: Nowhere near as smart or attention-grabbing as it thinks it is, Nemesis wants to be part of the ‘new wave’ of modern-day breakout hit action comics, but it’s rather like listening to any Oasis album post ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory’ – the ticks are getting a little too familiar, and Millar is in danger of turning into a writer who comes up with great ideas that are best handled by other people. If you like your comics loud, stupid and rather obnoxious, tuck in – but don’t say I didn’t warn you…