I’ve been sorting through my comic book collection for the last few months. It’s slow-going; I’m incredibly lazy and I have thousands of comic books. Some good, some great, some absolutely terrible. It’s been quite the undertaking, wistful and depressing at the same time. It combines all the joy of heavy lifting with the soul-crushing tedium of a job that never ends. To be perfectly honest? I have no idea how many comics I actually have.
I have a stack of Captain America comics taller than a small child. For some reason, I thought that purchasing comics in which Tony Stark had a jheri curl was a wise decision. I have Christian comics, Archie comics, Christian Archie comics, horror comics, humour comics, comics about comics, samurai comics, funny animal comics, samurai animals comic, erotic comics. TL;DR – I have a LOT of comic books.
One of the most shocking gaps in my comics knowledge is Nexus. Created by Mike Baron and Steve (the Dude) Rude, Nexus was an early-80s ‘independent’ superhero title who kicked around smaller comics companies like Pacific and First before they went out of business (so did Groo The Wanderer but that’s another story.) I’ve only ever read a hand-full of Nexus (the series lasted almost a hundred issues, all told) but let’s face it – you’ve never even heard of Nexus.
Nexus is a cosmic-style superhero story, set in a futuristic galaxy that’s rich in political depth and intrigue. He sleeps in a tank of “medical liquid” that gave him his powers and while he sleeps, he dreams. He dreams of mass murderers and war criminals and perpetrators of atrocities who thought they got away with it. He seeks them out and vaporizes them. He has his own planet (Ylum), where he takes in refugees from the planets that were victimized by those he destroys. (There’s way more to it than that but that’s pretty much the gist of it.)
His name is Horatio Hellpop. His father, Theodore Hellpop, was once the governor of a planet called Vradic, a planet he was forced to exterminate. Theodore fled with his wife and son to Ylum, a self-sufficient autonomous wonderland. Young Horatio took ill and was revived by the medi-tanks. Somehow, he gained incredible powers and eventually, his dreams showed him the truth about his father, who became the first to meet justice at the hands of Nexus.
He can fly and he’s strong and invulnerable. He can shoot laser beams out of his hands and his eyes. He’s basically Space Ghost as a Nazi hunter (named Horatio Hellpop).
Nexus’ quirky charm is two-fold. Mike Baron’s writing has an unpredictable flair to it, informal and not flowery but crisp and clever and brimming with style. (Who names a grim avenger of genocide Horatio Hellpop?) Also, Baron portrays violence (Nexus vaporizes a lot of people; bad people but people nonetheless) not as a glorious and justifiable catharsis (we should cheer when Nazis die, right?) but as a troubling ethical decision. Is it moral to execute murderers? Are we liable for our actions forever, eternally guilty, without any hope of redemption? Can a killer truly be called a hero?
The other half of the reason for Nexus’ awesomeness (and try saying THAT five times fast) is the aforementioned and aptly-named Steve (the Dude) Rude. His line-work is unparalleled, his action scenes as thrilling and bombastic as Jack Kirby in his prime (who was obviously a huge influence on Rude’s style) and he has the artistic chops to give the small, quiet moments all the punch and power of … well, the punching and the power. They call him the Dude for a reason, man. (Because it rhymes with his last name. Remind me to tell you about Bullpen nicknames one day.)
Throughout the 80s, Nexus consistently ranked high on critic’s polls of the best comics (and this was the era of Watchmen, Dark Knight and Maus) but it got spotty distribution and never really sold well. There was a fight over who owned the rights for a while (take Mike Baron’s advice – get a lawyer to read your contract. It’s cheaper in the long run). They reprinted the entire series a few years ago (at 70 bucks a pop in hardcover; that’s another reason I haven’t read much of it.)
But maybe the next time you’re prowling through a back-issue bargain bin (it may even be your first time), see if you can find Nexus. It’s one of the best comic books you’ve never heard of.