Sex, violence and foul language – these are the tools writers and artists use to break out of the status quo; to smash the doldrums; to shock us out of our sheltered and compartmentalized lives. Typically these elements are on the relative periphery of any cultural artifact. Sitting just outside of the overall narrative or used as tent poles that support the general story. For a work of fiction to be taken seriously, they are usually not the point, but rather guideposts or a means to an end.
In contemporary comics, sex violence and foul language have become more and more part of the mainstream, when in previous generations they’ve been on the outside. Cultural critics would call it a further dismantling of our innocence. Others would see it as the natural evolution of an industry that has become nearly solely dependent on adult consumers. There is an economic element to it. Sex sells. Violence sells. Profanity varies from generation to generation. All of these combined seem to be consumer’s taste…or so publishers would have us believe.
Writer Mark Millar has a tremendous amount of success with his violence parable Kick-Ass. So much so that the inevitable direct follow-up is hotly anticipated. An indirect, thematic follow-up would also undoubtedly be available to readers as well. Marvel imprint Icon’s Nemesis is that thematic cousin, perfectly within the style but different enough to be a separate idea.
There is something vaguely interesting about Millar and Steve McNiven’s Nemesis. It’s a provocative idea to take a character with all the skills and resources of Batman and make them completely immoral and depraved. It’s shocking and surprising, but for all the adjectives that could be applied there is the simple question of whether the comic has any substance? It has violence (in spades), but is there a point?
Nemesis is without a doubt high concept, which means that it’s somewhat entertaining. It’s pure shock, the product of a preadolescent violence fantasy. Given co-creator Millar’s track record of creating deplorable narratives, it fits perfectly in his library.
In this story, without giving away too much, the world’s most notorious super-criminal has left a trail of bodies across Asia. Now he’s set his eyes on Washington, DC’s chief of police Blake Morrow, the man he blames for arresting his parents and ruining his life. Along the way to getting his revenge, Nemesis kidnaps the President of the United States, kills most of the staff at the Pentagon, is captured, escapes, kidnaps the chief’s kids and finally has a bloody showdown with said chief of police.
It seems like a fairly straightforward plot, but Millar peppers it with dramatic twists and hairpin turns. For example, while Nemesis has Morrow’s teenage kids captured, he artificially inseminates his daughter with his son’s seed. Forced and artificial incest. That’s shocking, but what’s the point? Is there a deeper meaning? Or is this just for shock value?
The latter would seem to be the case. Some may argue that Millar’s script is a representation of the lack of good intention in the world; a reaction to perceived stability in a world that can be so easily broken. That’s a stretch, and remarkably as crude and pessimistic as the work itself. Real life is morally ambiguous at best. The major motivations of societal development are self-centered, based on ego, pride and greed. Yes, fair enough. We’ve been here before with a crisper and sharper narrative and design.
Peeling back the layers of Nemesis, there isn’t much to sink into. There would seem to be an element of class struggle perpetrating the comic – blue collar cop versus rich morally repugnant playboy. Call it Marxist theory light, because it is certainly not a fully fleshed out or investigated idea.
That appears to be the point. Vague ideas connected by an extreme amount of violence and shock. There is no redemption. No lesson. No larger point about the human experience. The final twists and turns of the plot appear to be solely designed as to allow for sequels. There is no point…unless the point was to underscore our cultural fascination with so-called “trash” entertainment? Or exploit our capitalistic conceit for disposable entertainment? Fair enough.
What’s really sad is that artist McNiven delivers some very good panels throughout, particularly the silent four page violence-fest in issue #3. There is a kinetic energy oozing from the gore-athon. Yet, all of that effort fails under the weight of the “I’m going to shock you” script.
Really, the major disappointment is that with such a high concept, Millar and McNiven fail to really explore the deep ramifications of “Batman as villain.” It’s sad because it could have been intriguing. But why develop something with the slightest hint of intelligence when the lowest common denominator will get you paid.
Does all art need to have a point? Can’t we just create comics for the sake of creating comics? Sure, but when they’re wrapped in the clothes of a larger concept, they certainly must have a point. And don’t be mistaken, the creators full intend to make a point…it just doesn’t happen. This is where Millar fails to use the tools he’s chosen. Sex, violence and profanity are effective in communicating that larger concept, but they can’t be the point.