Change doesn’t work from the top down. At least not in creative fields. No, publishers and studios are businesses and aren’t going to spend money on something that doesn’t have a history of working. That means innovation starts from the bottom with people that are hungry for not just success but creative fulfillment. Just as independent cinema has given birth to trends that have been adopted by major studios so to have the small-press publishers of comics influenced the major ones. Superhero comics have dominated the comic book industry since the 1950s with the major publishers putting out more and more characters that were enthralling to readers. It wasn’t possible for small-press publishers to compete with the likes of Marvel and DC on the newsstands because they lacked identifiable characters.
However, by the 1980s the direct market had become such that smaller publishers now had an opportunity to be seen by readers in comic shops that had begun to develop an interest in different, more subversive material. Writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison would cut their teeth working on comic books for such publishers before “graduating” to the larger ones after making an impression on readers and professionals within the industry alike. These creators were the Velvet Underground and, even though they didn’t sell a whole lot, everyone that bought an issue made a comic. It was this way that radical new ideas of what superheroes could be would trickle upward into the wider world of comics.
Nexus is a comic book that I only discovered when I was eighteen years old in my senior year of high school. My lifelong love of superheroes had been in danger of being overtaken by my fascination with armchair psychology that cropped up when I became both fifteen and insufferable. In Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s epic space opera, I found what felt like the most effortlessly cool comic book that happened to be about a philosophizing space executioner dressed up as Space Ghost.
The series came about when Baron and Rude were asked to create a superhero character for publisher Capital Comics in 1981. Baron sought to create that character by “steering around what [he] saw as clichés” and came up with the concept of a conflicted executioner of mass murderers in the fantastic twenty-fifth century while Rude supplied the look that drew from the likes of Kirby, Loomis, and Toth. The influence of Alex Toth on Nexus was so strong that Rude would include various cameos of Space Ghost characters in crowd scenes and would eventually go on to illustrate a comic book revival of the property for the publisher Comico.
Perhaps the greatest debt that Nexus owes to a creator is to that of Steve Ditko whose influence is felt strongly in the writing of the titular character of Nexus, Horatio Hellpop. Horatio is a surly and introspective young man prone to outbursts aimed at those who dare attempt to understand him. He shares a connection with the early characterization of Peter Parker as they are both bitter outsiders burdened by great power. Baron takes Ditko’s objectivism further by giving his protagonist near unlimited power that distances him even further from the rest of society. And whereas Peter Parker is a fundamentally heroic character, Horatio Hellpop has no such distinction and, in fact, serves as one of the first prominent anti-hero superheroes in comics.
Horatio is not driven to kill mass murderers by a sense of morality. No, he’s initially portrayed as being tortured by severe headaches and nightmares of these criminals until his executes them. His actions are merely an act of survival designed to keep him both alive and sane. This makes Nexus a fundamentally amoral character. Though he shares the costume and the code name of a superhero, he doesn’t behave as one. Each issue of Nexus opens up with a quotation from a philosopher that is usually related to the action of the story and they tend to have something to say about the roles of individuals in shaping their environment. The fascination with philosophy is a major aspect of our Byronic hero’s character as he takes every opportunity that he can to debate the subject. It’s presented as somewhat of a coping mechanism for the character so that he can make sense of his life now that he has been cursed with omnipotence.
The log line that I use to sell this series to people is that it’s really the story of an ordinary man becoming a god and actively rejecting the role at every turn. As Horatio begins his execution of mass murderers, he draws a cult of personality to himself made up of survivors of his victims’ massacres and refugees from across the galaxy. They come to his planet of Ylum seeking his protection and, while he often lets them stay, he refuses to lead or placate them. He shows a general uneasiness at being hailed as the “great Nexus” and a memorable scene in issue four of the second volume showcases his fury at finding merchandizing based on his likeness. His distaste with idolization and the waking horror of his life drives Horatio to seek release from his duties as the cosmic executioner to various results. Like Peter Parker before him, Horatio rejects his unwanted role only to be forced back into it – often unwillingly – by the vacuum his absence creates.
There’s a fairly notable scene in the third and final issue in the initial black and white run in which Horatio, challenged earlier by his lover Sundra Peale to use his destructive powers for creation, takes her out onto the surface of Ylum as he constructs a complex structure with the power of his mind. It’s a thrilling sequence in which the character is liberated and overjoyed by his abilities for the first time in his life. And, with this issue preceding it by several years, it’s hard not to draw a line from it to the scene of Doctor Manhattan creating a crystal palace on Mars in Watchmen. The difference being that for Horatio his act of creation is an embracing of his humanity rather than a distancing.
It’s notable how Nexus reshapes the world around him. By virtue of existing in its own universe without any established continuity or other creators to worry about, the world Mike Baron and Steve Rude created was malleable and constantly changing. Think about it. Nexus is an active character that is out there killing political leaders with no apparent pattern and it absolutely freaks out the rest of the universe; he’s a savior to some, a wraith of death to others. Several agents are dispatched to monitor him (such as his main love interest Sundra Peale), he’s declared an enemy of the state in several systems, and some people even approach him seeking to pay him for his services as a hitman. The entire universe has to react to the presence of such a powerful being whose mere presence in a system is enough to cause mass hysteria and even instigate suicides. Essentially, there was no status quo for a world so influx. It’s an approach that Marvel Comics would try out with their Ultimate Universe where they allowed their characters to have long and lasting impacts on the status quo.
Another notable aspect of Nexus was its willingness to embrace more adult themes outside of their protagonist’s relationship with power. The politicalization of Ylum’s population and the role of government in a society that could be threatened by an unstoppable superman became a continuing storyline featuring characters that weren’t directly related to Horatio. And, in spite of Steve Rude’s insistence that the series is “intended for pretty much all ages,” the book dipped into plenty of adult themes involving sexuality that might not be appropriate for a ten-year-old. Readers are there for the time Horatio loses his virginity and his lover Sundra Peale branches out into a cross-species relationship with a close female friend. These are scenes that one would assume are designed in part to titillate while also branching out into unexplored territory, moving past the implied sexuality of previous superhero comics into more adult territory.
More than thirty years later, the effects of Nexus can still be felt in the world of comic books. The relaunch of Nova in 2007 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning following Marvel’s Annihilation event in particular feels like it was modeled after Nexus with the series’ emphasis on Nova’s struggle to wield his incredible power in a universe that is in a constant state of upheaval. There’s no doubt that the character of Nexus and, yes, Doctor Manhattan after him, inspired a generation of future writers to explore the concept of how an omnipotent being reacts to his/her power and shapes the world around them as a result.