In my last Classics Comics Calvacade column, I took a look at the seminal early 1980s indie comic Matt Wagner’s Grendel. Continuing in that vein, I now turn my attention to another noteworthy indie title from the exhilaratingly innovative moment in comics history: Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Eisner Award-winning Nexus (1981-1991), a genre-busting space opera/rom-com/moral essay. What occasions this look back at Rude and Baron’s celebrated epic is its welcome presentation as a Dark Horse omnibus. Nexus Omnibus 4 is the most recent of Dark Horse’s full-color reprints, and it brings back into print 13 issues of Nexus (#40-52) and the first issue of a Nexus spin-off mini-series, The Next Nexus (1989).
Before delving into the history and significance of Nexus, allow me to commend Dark Horse on the quality of their omnibus collections: the reproduction is generally excellent, and even though these books are slightly smaller than their original floppy iterations (6×8 as opposed to 6×10), the color and precision of the artwork is immaculate. The price point of these omnibuses – a steal at $24.99 – is another attraction; the books contain as many as 400-500 pages of full color material and really puts to shame Marvel and DC’s woefully inadequate Essentials and Showcase editions, which are priced similarly but printed in black and white on cheap newsprint.
On to Nexus. Baron and Rude’s first black and white Nexus volume, comprised of a meagre three issues, began in January 1981 and ran to October 1982. The success of this irregularly published b&w series encouraged its publisher, Capital Comics, the upstart publishing arm of the direct market Capital Distribution, to relaunch the comic as a color bi-monthly. Capital was among the first of a crop of successful comics publishers – along with Comico, Eclipse, First and Pacific – to take advantage of the direct market, then in its infancy, and Nexus was the company’s first title. Baron devised the comic (even designing the title character’s signature lightning bolt) after Capital, playing it safe, specifically requested a superhero comic for their flagship title.
Following Capital’s demise in 1984, Nexus continued publication with the imprint of the more successful, Illinois-based First Comics, under the editorship of Mike Gold, who acquired all of Capital’s titles following Capital’s bankruptcy. By providing creators with ownership of their characters, and a greater percentage of profits, First Comics, which entered the market just one year prior, managed to attract a number of significant mainstream comic writers and artists to its pool of talent, including Frank Brunner, Mike Grell, Jim Starlin, and Howard Chaykin, and a number of its titles are among the most celebrated of the 1980s: Chaykin’s American Flagg! (1983-1989), Tim Truman’s Grimjack (1984-1991), Starlin’s Dreadstar (1986-1991), and Grell’s Jon Sable (1983-1988).
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Nexus is that, despite its visual and narrative sophistication, it was Baron and Rude’s first real foray in the industry. Prior to Nexus, Baron’s entire comic oeuvre consisted of a single story, a little-seen illustrated text published in Kitchen Sink’s underground Weird Trips Magazine in 1974. By the mid-1980s, Baron would be helming not one, but two monthly series: Nexus and Badger (1983-1991), the latter an altogether strange superhero satire concerning a mentally unbalanced protagonist. Baron and Rude would eventually begin work for Marvel and DC; Baron (unlike Rude – Nexus remains his most sustained comic work) was particularly prolific, writing much of Marvel’s successful The Punisher series (1987-1993), and DC’s relaunch of The Flash (1987-1988), and in the 1990s scripted several Star Wars mini-series for Dark Horse.
Nexus for the most part came to an end with the demise of First Comics in 1992. First’s downfall began 6 years prior when Mike Gold took a position as senior editor at DC, taking with him much of First’s talent, including Grell, Chaykin and Truman, who would go on to produce for DC the prestige format mini-series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (1987), Blackhawk (1988) and Hawkworld (1989), respectively (Truman would also go on to script the first six issues of an ongoing Hawkworld series in 1990). Following the exodus of their core talent, First attempted to regain ground by expanding its line of comics into newsstand distribution, as well as taking on other properties, primarily Manga reprints – a common practice among indie publishers at the time – principally Lone Wolf and Cub (1987-1991). First also launched a doomed revival of the Classics Illustrated line; partnered with Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin, First sought to break into the then-impenetrable mainstream bookstore market (B. Dalton and Waldenbooks were then dominant). These expansive forays into newsstands and bookstores proved disastrous, essentially bankrupting the publisher and forcing it to cease publication in 1991.
The long-running Nexus Volume 2 ended its principal run with issue #80 (May 1991), though Baron and Rude would go on to publish a total of seven Nexus mini-series and two one-shots with Dark Horse and under Rude’s own imprint, Rude Dude Publications. Sales on the mini-series (which continued sequential numbering, bringing the final tally of issues to 102) were less than stellar, and eventually Rude and Baron stopped publication of new material with the 4-issue Space Opera mini-series (issues 99-102, 2007-2009), though the title has been resurrected in the long-running anthology title Dark Horse Presents in 2012-present (likely
due to the success of these omnibus reprints).
Nexus’ success with readers can be traced to its comfortable mix of highbrow and lowbrow themes: featuring, sometimes in a single issue, everything from genocide to slapstick humor. Its overall lightheartedness and breezy narrative pace, is reminiscent of early 20th century science fiction – primarily Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (1934-1943), though Rude’s overall design of the series has its roots in Alex Toth’s blueprints for Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost cartoon (1966-1968), an influence so obvious that Rude would in 1987 produce, with writer Mark Evanier, a memorable Space Ghost one-shot for Comico. (Rude’s other primary influence is commercial illustrator Andrew Loomis; in a 1989 sketchbook published by Kitchen Sink, Rude would remark that his art “begins and ends with Loomis … Loomis takes the best qualities, whatever sexual, sensual qualities, and refines them to a laser focus.”)
This mixing of genres, from the pre-war space opera/superhero idealism to post-Holocaust and post-atomic moral and metaphysical concerns, such as genocide and the responsibilities of power, lends Nexus its decidedly postmodernist feel; the series in some ways anticipates other genre-mixing science fiction and fantasy, perhaps most notably Joss Whedon’s similarly-themed TV series Firefly (2002) spin-off feature film Serenity (2005). Moreover, as with the best science fiction fantasy, Baron and Rude created a notably well-realized fantasy world. Baron’s computerized library in some ways anticipates the internet (amusingly the secretive agency that oversees the galaxy is presciently referred to as “The Web”) and, aside from some vestigial Cold War references typical of pre-1989 sci-fi fare, the series remains surprisingly fresh and certainly appeals to new readers versed in similar postmodern evocations of the Golden Age of sci-fi through the lens of our present dystopian moment.
The story of Nexus essentially concerns the exploits of Horatio Hellpop, gifted with super powers by a mysterious alien entity known as The Merk, who tasks Hellpop, the son of a mass murderer, to act as an intergalactic executioner of a given number of genocidal tyrants per “cycle.” Hellpop, who suffers excruciating headaches as a result of this power, is somehow able to harness significant energy as a result of his “fusionkasting”; this ability attracts the attention of The Web, whose home planet of Earth is in dire need of energy. Hellpop eases the tormented guilt over his father’s genocidal acts (a communist general and ruler, following an uprising Hellpop Sr. detonated an atomic bomb, destroying a planet of 10 million) and his execution of some individuals who have since repented for their wrongdoings, by opening up his adopted planet of Ylum – short for asylum – to victims of warfare and displacement throughout the galaxy. Like Space Ghost, Hellpop is surrounded by a colorful assortment of characters (the word “nexus” means a connecting thread, and Hellpop is arguably the glue which holds Ylum together): principally the ape-like (actually Dr. Seussian) Thunes Dave and Judah Macabee, Sundra Peale, a reformed spy for the Web and Hellpop’s lover, Ursula Imada, Sundra’s former boss, Tyrone, one of Ylum’s many refugees, and a race of decapitated sentient heads (amusingly repeated on Matt Groening’s animated TV series Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013), former slaves used as energy generators.
This fourth Omnibus finds our hero’s jurisdiction extended throughout all of space. Following an atrocity on Mars committed by one of Hellpop’s deputies, Nexus must re-establish his credibility in the face of increasing criticism and distrust among the galaxy’s denizens. In the midst of this unrest, an artificial black hole called the Gravity Well is on the verge of collapsing, destabilizing the integrity of the solar system. Rude’s smooth, clear-line, neo-realist artwork, some of the finest illustration work of the medium (Rude’s pencils, comprised of highly kinetic bodily and facial movements, which seems to leap off the page, and his mostly infallible page design, is matched only perhaps by Frank Frazetta, Kevin Maguire, Dave Stevens or Paul Gulacy), has by now refined itself into the pure comic force for which he received industry-wide recognition by fans and critics alike. And Baron’s script-work manages both levity and pathos, often within a few pages, without seeming off-balance or inconsistent. In fact, Nexus Omnibus 4 is a rambunctious and fast-paced read, and a testament to Baron and Rude’s skills that it manages coherence, especially considering its non-story arc, episodic approach. Baron is above all seeking emotional, as opposed to narrative, cohesion; like a labyrinthine Thomas Pynchon novel, plots and subplots accumulate and are not always neatly resolved, or resolved at all.
Nexus remains one of the best, and most enduring, of the 1980s and early 1990s indie era, and, thanks to these omnibus editions, has attracted new admirers among a subsequent generation of comics fans. With its genre- and convention-busting eccentricities, the always charming Nexus is something of a singular achievement, a comics phenomenon to be admired and not likely repeated.