Monday, June 3, 2013


Mike Baron's opus is the epic tale of an intergalactic assassin, a man named Horatio Hellpop who is haunted by dreams of mass murderers, and as a result is compelled to go out and track down the subjects of his dreams, killing them with his cosmic powers. What's great is that Baron populates this universe with a huge cast of varied aliens, a complex and ever-shifting political system, multiple subplots arising from the clashing motivations of countless minor or major characters, and a near-constant focus on morality, vengeance, and justice. At first, Baron's storytelling can be frustrating, because he steadfastly refuses to stick to the usual rules of narrative payoffs, instead employing a scattershot style in which gratification can be *massively* delayed — characters and situations might crop up, then disappear into the background for years, only to suddenly re-emerge as the remainder of the story plays out. In the early issues, especially, this extremely elliptical storytelling can be disorienting, but Baron quickly grew more proficient with his chosen approach, and over time he developed the impression of a huge, chaotic, heavily populated universe where all sorts of plots and machinations play out independently of one another, their unpredictable intersections and disconnections forming the fabric of the ever-growing Nexus storyline.

Nexus debuted in 1982 at the ill-fated Capitol Comics with a 3-issue black-and-white series, then a color ongoing that was cut short by Capitol's demise. The color series was soon revived and continued at First Comics, where it ran for 80 issues until 1991, when First also closed its doors. Baron's co-creator and primary artistic collaborator on these comics was Steve Rude, a masterful artist who started out great on those early Capitol issues and quickly became downright amazing, his slick, clean cartooning and lively design sense developing by leaps and bounds throughout Horatio's early adventures. He's equally adept at drawing the expressive, realistic human forms of Horatio or his girlfriend Sundra, or the host of inventive alien races that he designed for the series, from the four-armed, one-eyed bodyguard Kreed to the ape-like Dave and Judah to the oval-headed yellow rock star Mezz. His dynamic page designs, aided by the luscious colors of Les Dorscheid, meld perfectly with Baron's poppy, energetic writing, which liberally mixes humor and high drama.

Nexus can be diasarmingly funny, its characters colorful and larger than life, but at the same time it's constantly dealing with the nature of morality — the main character is a killer of killers, driven to do this "job" by an alien force that he doesn't understand, and his missions continually bring him into contact with the contradictions and complications implicit in this kind of vigilante justice. The series grapples with political oppression, environmental destruction, and government exploitation, but most especially with the nature of morality and the need for punishment. Many of Horatio's targets are no longer the vicious killers they once were, but have changed, reformed, grown in various ways, and yet still they must die for what they did. This moral complexity only increases as the series goes on, as Horatio begins to question his mission more and more — and especially once he discovers the source of his powers, which completely changes the story and triggers years and years of complex plotting.

Much of this comes to a head in the original series around issue #50, as well in the concurrently running miniseries The Next Nexus, which paid off 50 issues worth of complex characterization and plotting by weaving together many of the long-gestating subplots and triggering a massive change in the book's status quo. Unfortunately, after drawing much of the lead-up to issue 50 as well as all 4 issues of The Next Nexus, Rude was on and off the book sporadically before leaving for good to take on other projects. In his absence, the art mostly suffered. There were issues here and there that were good, notably a nice fill-in by Adam Hughes, who would have been a good replacement for Rude, but most of the artists who took Rude's place during the second half of the First run were not up to par. The low point was inarguably issues 66 and 69, both with rough, hideous art by Mark Heike, but even Hugh Haynes, who became the regular Nexus artist for its final 10 issues, was nothing special. Even so, these post-Rude issues remain compelling, because Baron completely shakes the book up, shifting its former main character into the background, introducing a brand new Nexus, and focusing more on the politics of Ylum, the once-unpopulated planet that had gradually filled with refugees gathered on Horatio's missions, and over the course of the series had taken on a life and a government of its own. One of the most interesting things that Baron explores over the course of the series is the tension between Nexus' violent "job" and the expectations that others place on him to be a savior, a liberator, a leader, a humanitarian. It's in these issues, after the events of The Next Nexus, that that tension becomes most apparent, and it's great stuff, even if one wishes that Baron still had Rude around to provide these stories with the visual brilliance they deserve.

Something probably also needs to be said about the backup stories that ran through the entirety of the series. One long-running backup was a Baron-written showcase for Clonezone the Hilariator, an aggressively unfunny alligator stand-up comic whose path crossed with Nexus a few times in the main storyline. It's an opportunity for Baron to indulge his obvious love for corny, "bad" jokes, and it has a great vaudeville, Borscht Belt vibe to it, wacky and silly and, in spite of itself, often pretty funny. The problem was that First received a seemingly endless supply of letters complaining about the feature, saying either it wasn't funny or that a humor strip was out-of-place backing up Nexus, which was often humorous itself but nevertheless had an overall dramatic, serious tone. So Baron unfortunately gave in to pressure, eventually, replacing poor Clonezone with an action-oriented backup about Judah, a popular warrior character and a boisterous foil for the introspective Horatio. On his own, though, he's just boring, especially since Baron soon handed the backup off to other writers, mainly Roger Salick, an utterly undistinguished writer whose work here bears no resemblance to the moral and thematic complexity of Baron's comics. It's a perfect case of "careful what you wish for" — fans asked for more action and seriousness in the backups, and they got it, in the form of dull, forgettable action fluff. The backups were almost never mentioned in letters at all after this, which I guess Baron and his editors decided was better than incessant complaining, and Clonezone stayed away for good.

The First series ended as the company floundered and cancelled all its ongoings, planning to resurrect them all in a yearly miniseries format. The company died for good before that happened, and the planned Nexus revival occurred instead at Dark Horse. Baron and Rude were reunited in the 90s for a series of minis, doing anywhere from 3-6 issues of Nexus every year. Despite the format, these miniseries weren't really structured as discrete arcs, but as aggregations of shorter tales and pieces of larger plots, much like the previous Nexus series. The yearly miniseries was simply a way to package Nexus in bite-size chunks, to give Baron and Rude the time to create this series together without fill-ins or delays. It's a joy, in these comics, to have Rude back on the series whose look he defined, his art cleaner and prettier than ever, and these series represent a fine continuation of the Nexus legacy. This is especially true of Alien Justice and Executioner's Song, which do a great job of balancing all the moods and tones of the Nexus universe and paying off long-standing characters and plots, while still keeping each issue more or less self-contained. Notably, the last issues of both The Wages of Sin and Executioner's Song are all-out standalone comedy issues, hilarious and madcap and a total blast. The series stumbles a bit with the very odd God Con, which brings the deities of various religions tangibly into the Nexus world, with somewhat mixed and confused results. The first half of the final Dark Horse miniseries, Nightmare In Blue, also seems off, though it picks up in a big way for its frenzied final few issues. That miniseries was published in black-and-white, for the first time since the original Capitol series, which perhaps suggested that the numbers for the various Dark Horse Nexus projects were not so great, and despite the promise of more Nexus to come, there's an air of finality to this mini's conclusion.

Indeed, Baron and Rude didn't team up again for another ten years after this, at least partly because of those financial hurdles. When they returned, the Space Opera series was published not by Dark Horse but by Rude's own new self-publishing venture. This series is in some ways a bit of an unfortunate departure in tone, as a lot had happened in 10 years. Among other things, Baron's conservatism had started to express itself in the kinds of anti-Muslim rhetoric that were ubiquitous on the American right post-9/11. Baron's libertarian ideals had always been perceptible in the series, mostly in small ways, and even in the 90s the seeds of his more radical ideas were apparent when he cast the treacherous Elvonic cult as an analogue for Muslims, depicting the whole culture as fundamentally incompatible with Western-style democracy. He expands on those ideas here, jettisoning much of the subtlety and complexity that had always been hallmarks of Nexus. The low point comes in a pitiful backup story that offers up crude satires of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, utterly wasting some stunning fully painted art by Rude (who apparently shares Baron's ideas, as evidenced by the letters pages in these issues). This stuff shifts into the background, thankfully, for the double-size final issue, which after much delay consolidated what would have been the final 2 issues of the miniseries into one book. This finale focuses more on the long-running Horatio/Sundra/Ursula triangle, and provides a thrilling, visceral conclusion that feels far more like vintage Nexus than the inconsistent, overly blunt first 2 issues of Space Opera.

Those missteps in this latest Nexus offering do nothing to erase the many years' worth of remarkable storytelling that preceded Space Opera. In Nexus, Baron and Rude have created a living, constantly changing universe that has increasingly taken on a greater importance than the titular main character. Nexus himself has become just one player in a complex intergalactic political saga, with a massive cast all pursuing their own motives and goals. It's this openness to change and endless convolution that has made Nexus so enduring and vital throughout its many incarnations.

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