Thursday, May 17, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Seven: Nexus

To be honest I really don't remember a lot of the details of the plot of Nexus. Written by Mike Baron and drawn (mostly) by Steve Rude, it was one of the earliest of the Direct Market books, originally published by Capitol in black and white and then quickly moving to First Publications and full color. I tapped into Nexus early, with the black and white issues (picked up at Eide's on one of my earliest ventures into the city to find a comics shop, if memory serves).

To summarize; Horatio Hellpop, also known as Nexus, has terrible dreams about mass murderers, dreams that he is compelled to act upon. Wielding tremendous “fusion casting” powers Nexus tracks these genocidal villains across the universe and kills them. He is essentially an assassin, and though his victims are all guilty of horrendous crimes (sort of like Dexter with superpowers), the tragedy of Nexus is that with each victim he takes a step closer to being a mass murderer himself.

I still think of it as one of my favorite books from that time, but recently, in preparation for writing this post, I flipped through a lot of the early issues and the rest of the run and was surprised at how little of it looked familiar. The characters were all well-known to me and as I browsed most of their primary relationships came back. But the stories, the specifics of the ongoing plot remained vague.

While the basic idea of Nexus killing killers provides a structure for the stories, that's not really what the book was about. It was a story about relationships, religion, politics, and societal pressures. It was about free will and moral ambiguity. Though the basic premise of the series was dark, the book was also a tremendous amount of fun. In this way, unlike so many comics that focus on dark themes, Nexus embraced the whole spectrum of life. The joy and love and friendship and laughter that suffused every issue showed the human spirit and reminded us of what we stood to lose when evil prevails.

Nexus himself could be a bit of a downer. He did carry a terrible burden after all, and feared allowing himself to genuinely care. Over the course of the series the amazing supporting cast humanized him, bringing out of his self-imposed emotional exile to join life more fully. Sundra Peale was the love interest, but she was so much more than that. Sundra had a rich life outside of her relationship with Horatio, and of the two was the more self aware. She was independent and confident and self-reliant. Horatio's best friend Dave was centered and calm. Dave's son Fred, who went by the warrior name of Judah Maccabee, was loud, brash and hedonistic. There were many, many more. Baron's skill at presenting richly imagined and thoroughly complex characters cannot be overstated.

And then there's the art. I'm just going to say that Steve Rude ranks among my all time favorite artists. His influences are diverse; comics artists Jack Kirby, Alex Toth and Russ Manning are the most obvious, but artists such as Andrew Loomis and Norman Rockwell are also evident. But Rude takes these influences and makes them his own. When I first saw Nexus I didn't really put any of this together. The sheer power of his graphic design was enough. 

I love the clean lines. His ability to convey emotion through body language and facial expressions is unparallelled. There is a lithe sense of motion in every action, even when characters are at rest. His use of solid black is fearless. Solid black foregrounds are butted directly against solid black midgrounds and backgrounds, and due to his composition it never flattens out.

His color work is pretty awesome as well.

Rude's art has always been something I have aspired to. I think he was a more direct influence on my collaborator Fred, at least in terms of visual world-building, than on me. Nexus subtly influenced our development of the world of Grey Legacy. We were telling a very different type of story, but the pieces are there. The mix of the serious with the absurd certainly was there (though Douglas Adams was responsible for that aesthetic for us as well). Some of our alien species are, well... cartoony. This was a conscious decision on our part. I remember, during one of our early convention appearances someone looking at our art and really taking us to task for this. He just couldn't wrap his head around our more “realistic” looking characters existing in the same world as Lesterfarr and Bilmar. The contrast really bothered him, but it was exactly the look we wanted.

At least some of that came from Rude. The various alien inhabitants of Ylum (Nexus' world, pronounced Eye-Lum) were a mix of the very real and the slightly absurd. The drawings of Dr. Seuss were a huge influence on Rude's designs. It wasn't just background characters either, but many of the central cast. Dave, Judah, Mezz, Tyrone... all of these had an air of whimsy in their design. But that whimsy never undermined the seriousness of their characterization.

I'm pretty sure I haven't done justice to this. Nexus is a series I would love to turn more people onto, but these days it's really difficult to do so. The books are simply not readily available for new readers. The whole series is being collected into beautiful hardcover editions, but at fifty bucks a pop they are only for people who are already fans of the series. A trade paperback edition of the first few issues has been released, but the color issues were reproduced in black and white, and the strength of Rude's design was marred by the addition of unnecessary gray tones. Dark Horse Comics has released the last few Nexus stories over the years, including a brand new one scheduled to appear in Dark Horse Presents soon. Dark Horse has been releasing great color omnibus editions of many of the great books of the 80's at reasonable prices. Come on, let's see a Nexus Omnibus. Unless the rights are tied up elsewhere I can't see any reason not to. I would sell the Hell out of that at Phantom of the Attic.

Nexus is copyright Mike Baron and Steve Rude.

Visit Mike Baron at
Visit Steve Rude at

Monday, May 14, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Six: I'm not a curmudgeonly fuddy-duddy

So I've been asked why everything I've been talking about or reviewing in this series are books from the early 80's. It's a valid question. I don't really think of myself as one of those old guys who seem to believe that “everything was better in my day!” I don't really believe that. I've tried to spend my life not being stuck in the past, believing that my glory days are behind me. I've always been critical of those people who get into music in high school and thirty years later are still only listening to those same bands. Not that I don't do some of that, as anyone who has had to listen to Alice Cooper, or KISS or David Bowie around me will attest to. But in the thirty-plus years since I first discovered those bands I have maintained a hunger for new music, and continually explore stuff that's new to me, whether it's a brand new band that catches my ear, or artists from the past that I simply missed out on or wasn't old enough, or wasn't even born yet to have ever heard.

The same is true of comics. Thanks to reprint editions of old comics I'm always reading something I missed before. Thanks to working at a comics shop I'm exposed to new books and series every week. I still love that joy of discovery when I find something new that really moves me or excites me.

But that does happen less often than it used to. That's true of music and comics. Some of it is a simple truth of age. I've read and heard a lot more stuff now than when I was twenty. I don't think that makes me jaded. More discriminating, perhaps. It takes a lot more to impress me, simply because I've seen a lot of really amazing work.

I think for all of us though, there is a time in our lives when we are first really discovering our passions, and those things that move us then become part of our personal DNA. Nothing will ever have quite the same impact on us again, and we will hold on to our nostalgic memory of those experiences as a wonderful time in our life.

For me, at least in terms of comics, that time was the early 80's. I was in my early 20's and comics may have lost me as a reader if the explosion of the Direct Market hadn't happened. I was reading X-Men (though the post-Paul Smith issues were gradually losing my interest month to month), and Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans. Frank Miller's Daredevil and the Wolverine mini-series both enthralled me and had more adult themes and sensibilities than most comics prior to that. I was reading a lot of Marvel comics at the time, but was growing disenchanted.

As I've said elsewhere, I know that many of the new Direct Market comics I began to discover at that time weren't really much different than Marvel and DC, conceptually speaking at least. But it felt momentous. Suddenly it felt like comics could be anything. The titles I've been discussing here, and those I have yet to write about, reignited my love of comics as a medium at a time when I may have “outgrown” them. Were they actually better than what came before? Are they better than what has come since? In a lot of cases, probably not (though I would make the case that they are better than a lot of what came before and after). Regardless of their quality, these were the books that were formative to me, as a fan, as an artist, as a writer and storyteller.

What's great about this hobby is that we all have those moments and those books that are meaningful. Heart books, as I referred to them when I introduced this idea. I ignored the entire Image Comics movement of the early 90's and have no emotional connection to those books or characters at all. But, I've talked to enough people whose opinion I respect to know that those books were the same for them that my books were for me. They are different books, but we share the same kind of experience. That's the kind of thing that should unite us as fans of comics.

The danger is getting tied to that one thing and never moving forward or discovering something new. I don't want to discourage anyone from listening to their old, favorite band, but there's great new music being made. If you loved Spawn in the early 90's, by all means, reread them and enjoy. But check out the amazing new work coming out every week. Don't shut yourself off to new experiences, whether it's something brand new, or an old series you've never heard of before.

Everything is someone's heart book.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


I found out yesterday that an old friend succumbed to her ongoing battle with cancer this week. I don't want to go into a lot of detail about her here in this forum. Most of what I remember and cherish is personal and private, to me and to her, and I don't want to exploit that.

And though I don't want to make this about me, this is really weirding me out more than a lot of deaths I've experienced. I've been very blessed not to have lost a lot of very close people. A number of older family members, usually after a long siege of sickness, usually cancer. I don't mean to diminish those experiences because every death is significant. But for most of these it felt as though their time had come and there was some relief that they weren't suffering any longer.

That was true for my friend as well. She has been fighting this battle for a few years now, and though I have seen pictures of her thin face and bald head from the chemo, I have't actually seen her in person since well before she was diagnosed. So, in my head she is still the vibrant, beautiful twenty-year old I met close to thirty years ago.

We were friends, we were lovers, we were never actually boyfriend and girlfriend. We were, as the current term says, complicated. We both moved on with our lives and stayed in touch through other relationships, and in her case, marriage. There were never any regrets or questions about what we had been, or of who we were to each other. She was my friend, first and foremost and I loved her dearly.

So yesterday I played a bunch of music I associate with her, and I cried and I smiled and I shook my head at some of the dumb, wonderful shit we did together and wished we had both been better at communicating more frequently.

So, here's to you, AJA. Thank you for making my life richer. I'll miss you, pal. I love you.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Five: Coyote

Marvel Comics responded to the explosion of the Direct Market by launching a creator-owned line of comics under the Epic Comics imprint. The first book they published was Dreadstar by Jim Starlin. An introductory chapter to this, entitled Metamorphosis Odyssey, had already been serialized in Epic Illustrated, the Heavy Metal-like magazine Marvel had been publishing. I had read these, but quite honestly, Dreadstar just never really clicked for me (though I read quite a few issues before I realized this).

Their second book, Coyote by Steve Englehart, really grabbed me.

Englehart was an established comics writer by this time, having written many books for both Marvel and DC. His run on Captain America featured the Secret Empire storyline wherein Cap became so disillusioned with American politics that he briefly gave up his identity to become Nomad, the Man Without a Country. This was after witnessing the suicide of the villainous leader of the Secret Empire. While never made explicit, it was strongly implied that this man was Richard Nixon, president of the United States. This story appeared during the height of the Watergate scandal, and the issue with the suicide appeared about a month before the real Nixon resigned. Englehart went on to collaborate with artist Marshall Rogers on Batman, creating a seminal run that is still influential (collected in the Batman: Strange Apparitions TP). He left comics to write a The Point Man, a well-received fantasy/occult novel.

In various interviews I have read from that time Englehart had no plans to ever work in comics again, due to ongoing issues with creators rights. He did create the character of Coyote with Rogers for Eclipse Publishing, a Direct Market company that offered full ownership of properties to the creators.

Coyote was serialized in black and white in Eclipse Magazine, later collected in color as a trade paperback called I am Coyote, which is how I first saw this story. Roger's art Coyote was dark and creepy, layered with zip-a-tone gray tones ( for you youngins who don't know what that is). In B&W it looked great, but reproduced pretty muddy when color was added.

Unfortunately, the art didn't really capture the spirit of what Englehart wanted Coyote to be. He was tired of the Batman-like dark avengers of comics, living in alleys and creeping around gothic rooftops. Coyote was a creature of the desert southwest, set in Las Vegas. Bright sun, bright neon and wide open spaces.

When Englehart was asked to contribute a new comic to Epic, where he would own his characters and stories, Coyote was the concept he chose. Rogers was not available at the time (and installments of the original series had run increasingly late).

Artist Steve Leialoha came on board with a much lighter style, more iconic in approach. Coyote himself seemed lighter, in mood as well as physical mass.

Wraparound cover for issue #1 by Steve Leialoha

Coyote was the modern incarnation of a god-concept. Sylvester "Sly" Santagelo was lost in the desert as a baby, found and raised by the Native American trickster god, Coyote. He was raised with totem animals and spirits in a world filled with magic. He entered the real world as a young man, seeing it for the first time. In spite of his upbringing he was enthralled by our mundane world, seeing the magic in it that most of don't. He was youthfully arrogant, filled with a sense of his own power (“Coyote is so sly,” he often said of himself), even when he screwed up. He was happy-go-lucky, filled with a sense of wonder. He believed anything was possible and that he had the power to make happen whatever he wanted. He was overtly sexual. His ongoing affair with NaTalia and Cassie was one of the first openly polyamorous, and interracial relationships in comics.

Is it any wonder he appealed to twenty-one year old Wayne?

Leialoha left after only two beautiful issues. Issue three was drawn by Butch Guice. His Coyote was bulky and muscular, looking much more like the standard superhero comic than what we had seen before, and the style really didn't work.

The rest of the series was drawn by Chas Truog, who went on to be the artist for Grant Morrison's awesome Animal Man series (which featured a story called Coyote Gospel). As much as I love Coyote, and as much as I love Animal Man, I'm not a fan of Truog's art. I find it serviceable, but fairly bland.

As an aside, Truog did a couple of covers for the Alien Nation: The Public Enemy mini-series I inked back in the day.

Coyote ran for sixteen issues, and in terms of plot it was, quite honestly, a clusterfuck. Englehart seemed to just be throwing whatever he could think of into the mix and seeing how his character reacted to it. There were evil scientists and magical threats and aliens from Venus, all working together as part of an international cabal known as the Shadow Cabinet. There was a middle eastern hero known as the Djinn, Israeli spy organizations and cyborg Soviet assassins. There was a man who had half his brain living in another dimension. It was gloriously weird and reckless fun and I loved it.

I have no idea if it was any good or not.

Like too many series, it ended with no real resolution. I like to think Sly Santagelo is still wandering around Vegas and the surrounding desert, getting into trouble and getting laid and not taking any of it very seriously.

Reading this series served to turn me onto Native American mythology. I found a book called The Trickster by Paul Radin that changed the way I looked at the world and mythology. There was a great book called A Magic Dwells (from a quote by Hermann Hesse), that detailed the Navajo emergence myth. Coyote led me to read a lot about the concept of the Holy Fool and the Puer Aeternis, which tied well into the Percival Grail stories I was discovering at the time. These kinds of connections happened more and more often with the things I read and the stuff I was interested in, one leading fairly seamlessly into another. That's still true.

I'm not as naïve as I was then, nor quite so youthfully arrogant. I still see our mundane world through eyes of magic (at least I try to). Sometimes I'm pretty sure at least half my brain lives in another dimension. I fully believe the world is gloriously weird and fun. I try to convey those ideas in whatever I do. Talking about Comics is a great way of tricking people into learning about something else.

I am so sly.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Podcast interview

I was recently interviewed by Jim Rugg and Jason Lex for their "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" podcast.

You can listen to it on their website at

Or you can download it for free from Itunes at

While you're there check out the other interviews with Tom Scioli, Farel Dalrymple and Cecil Castelucci.

You should also really check out the pages for both Jim and Jason as well. Both are gifted artists with a whole lot of great work out there.

You can listen to it here as well, but really... go check out all these other people too.