Saturday, January 17, 2015

Johnny Nemo by Milligan and Ewins

There was a time when British comics were really wordy, and mostly short. (At least, the ones I've seen.) Lots of captions, lots of violence, but only eight or so pages to cram it all into. It was the '80s, when everything in comics was too much in a too-small space, and that explains some of it: but the Brits crammed even more into even smaller packages, perhaps because of their weekly-comics legacy.

Some of the most crammed stories at the end of that decade were from Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins, together and separately. Much of the work they did together was on the character Johnny Nemo -- tag-lined "Existentialist Hitman of the Future," though in the stories he was more of a private eye who took Mike Hammer-esque violence to even further extremes. There's now a book of those stories, Johnny Nemo, which might or might not collect all of them -- publisher Titan neglected to say either way, or to give any listing of when and where these individual pieces first appeared.

Johnny Nemo was very much in the Brit-comics tradition: full of attitude, style, and casual decadence, set in a medium-future world falling apart in ways that read as satirical to their contemporary British readers, and dripping in sarcasm from every panel. Every line of it screams "so what?!" and simultaneously disdains and demands attention. (There's an exploding nun on the second story page -- that's the kind of book this is.) And it's all, deep down, primarily about hating Margaret Thatcher, because pretty much all British comics were about that for a good decade and a half.

Nemo himself is the usual tough-guy protagonist, Brit-comics division: generally laconic though willing to engage in extended caption-explanations to cover the quirks of his world, quick to violence and very good at it, impeccably dressed in something distinctive and outlandish that never gets scuffed or torn. (And, again, this was the '80s, where ever-greater heights of "outlandish" were formed.) The stories here mostly run to similar plots: Nemo gets hired to retrieve a whatzis or just outright kill someone, and then goes out to do so, with multiple stops at the plot-coupon-dispensing barman along the way and gunplay at least once a page.

Don't get me wrong: I like Johnny Nemo, the character and the comic. I liked him then, in the Strange Days days, and I still like him now, though he does look a bit shopworn to my older and more jaded eyes. In fact, the later stories in the book, which break out of the standard plot I've just described, aren't quite as successful: Nemo is a particular character who needs to be used in a particular way, and nothing else.

So these are smartass British '80s comics, full of post-punk attitude and style. Compare it to Tank Girl or Marshal Law or The Bogie Man; it's from that time and that world. And they still have their distinctive charms.

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