Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review - Nexus

Written by Mike Baron; Art by Steve Rude

1988 Eisner Winner for Best Artist

If you listen to some people the concept of mature superhero comics was born when Alan Moore woke up one day and decided to make Watchmen. Obviously this is not true; Moore's work stood on the shoulders of many people and came in the middle of a pack that were changing superhero comics. One of the more interesting of those contemporaries was Nexus which took a crazy high concept and brought it down to earth. It was good but that wouldn't be enough to make it stand out without the brilliance of Steve Rude providing the art.

Nexus is a man with absolute power. In exchange for this power though he dreams of the victims of mass murders and feels their deaths. The dreams will not stop until he executes the murderer. Nexus lives in the distant future on a planet that was an abandoned ruin before his family arrived there. He opened his planet to anyone seeking asylum. His mission may be simple as he can walk in as an unstoppable force of justice but his life is complicated. He's a killer who would rather be arguing philosophy.

It's that contradiction that elevates Nexus above other superhero books. Baron went on to write the original Punisher series which was also about a man who wore a costume and went around executing criminals though it was a dramatically different series. Nexus may feature human cruelty on a grand scale but it never wallows in it or puts it on display. It's a strangely hopeful series since the message that it keeps coming back to is that a man pushed to killing can hold onto his soul. It might not be easy and it might not be morally justified but it's possible. That, along with the ethics of capital punishment, form the backbone of the stories.

This wouldn't work without an incredibly strong cast of characters. Nexus is represents the thoughtful side of things but his best friend is in love with the idea of being a dashing adventurer. His girlfriend cares for him though she can't always deal with the stress of having a vengeful god as a lover. The only weakness here is that most villains never get a chance to develop; it's rare that they get to survive more than a single issue.

Another distinctive aspect of the series was how the story developed over the long term. Baron treated it as though the time passing in the comic was the same as the time that passed in the world. It allowed a long term plot to slowly boil. Nexus starts alone on his planet sized home and brings refugees back with him from a mission. Word spreads that his planet is open to anyone fleeing oppression and the population grows over the years until the refugees have formed their own government dealing with overpopulation. Other plot lines develop gently over the course of years.

As much as I liked Baron's storytelling the real star of Nexus was Steve Rude. His vision of a future looked like a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Jack Kirby; a sleek, fluid design done on a larger than life scale. His character designs were distinctive and expressive to match his gorgeous landscapes. It's a stunning looking book when Rude is drawing it.

I won't say that Nexus is a perfect series. Baron's dialog sometimes falls flat and individual stories, especially later in the series, sometimes aren't that interesting. But even at the weakest moments of the story Rude's artwork makes reading it worthwhile.