Originally published on April 27, 2010
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven
The cover for the first issue of Mark Millar’s new Icon series Nemesis enthusiastically proclaims, “Makes Kick-Ass look like $#!t.” To some, it would not be hard to make Kick-Ass look like $#!t. Millar is an acquired taste, often given to self-indulgence and outrageous excess. I’ll go on the record as a Millar fan: there was a sobering truth about comics readers and fantasists at Kick-Ass‘ core that made it work, and what I’ve read of The Ultimates is a terrific re-envisioning of the Avengers, a group that usually bores me. And the bottom line is simply that there’s something about Millar’s ridiculously over-the-top writing that gives me a happy.
Yet Nemesis is the first Millar project to give me pause, to make me seriously reflect on his detractors’ criticisms. Not much happens in this first issue; oh, there’s a terrorist attack or two and Air Force One goes down in flames, but not much happens. Let me repeat: there is mass murder and wanton violence in this book, and yet it feels as if nothing has happened by the time you reach the inevitable cliffhanger.
Nemesis wears tights, a cape, and a mask, but he’s not a superhero. No, he’s the world’s first supervillain, a notorious psychopath who’s left a trail of dead cops all across Asia. He revels in their deaths, staging elaborate disasters apparently just to display his contempt for the law. The first cop we witness him murder is a Japanese inspector; he takes the inspector hostage and ties him to a chair, sends the inspector’s team to the wrong address just to blow them up, then lets the inspector get hit by a train, all before gleefully watching the train careen over the track demolished by the previous explosion.
In the very next scene, we meet our supposed hero, Washington, D.C. Police Chief Blake Morrow. Before we even see him, we see his bullets piercing the brains, necks, and stomachs of several convenience store robbers, blood splashing everywhere. When we do see him–a cross between Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford–he’s holding a smoking gun, smirking at the frightened bystanders: “Take it easy, people. Everything’s fine. As soon as you’re ready we’ll head outside where I’ve got a team of stress counsellors on standby.” It’s like a fucking NRA ad; that thing in his hands may as well have been ripped from Rob Liefeld’s dark hallway of a mind.
That’s heroism? Sneaking in through the backdoor and blasting apart some thugs without even trying to negotiate? Seems to me if a cop, let alone a police chief, took the “annihilate first, ask questions later” approach, they’d be reprimanded. Even Dirty Harry–who followed the law a lot more than our Chief Morrow here–was repeatedly threatened with his badge being taken away. I’ve watched every single episode of The Shield, and not even Vic Mackey pulled shit like that. Yet Chief Morrow is looked upon as the shining beacon of American justice. On his way to play baccarat with a group of intellectuals, he is informed that he has become Nemesis’ next target. That’s how “lawful” he is.
There is something very wrong with this story. In trying to understand why a brainwashed eleven-year-old girl hacking and slashing her way through coke dealers was acceptable to me in Kick-Ass and yet one responsible adult shooting some robbers in Nemesis isn’t, I think I began to feel what Roger Ebert felt about the film version of Kick-Ass (which I liked). This book left me empty. I saw no displays of heroism, no one worth caring about. Just violence. Hollow, glorified violence. Like I’ve said, there’s a deeper message at the heart of Kick-Ass. There is even an emotional pay-off for Hit Girl that makes her the most human character in the series. But Nemesis and Chief Morrow are just archetypal shells spilling cheap blood; Millar’s joy at spilling said blood is palpable.
It is very possible that there is some deeper message at work in Nemesis, and it would be unfair to think that its first issue would spell it out. But this first issue is deeply unpleasant. I was not entertained. I was not thrilled. I was not disgusted. I felt nothing. This is far from the worst comic book I have ever read–hello, Ultimatum–but I can find nothing to recommend it, not even Steve McNiven’s art, which is detailed and well-formed yet ultimately lifeless. I might give this series another issue to reveal more of what it’s about, to see if there is actually a point to it besides shock value. I will not, however, be paying for it.