As we’ve spoken about in the past, the early 1980s saw the comic book direct sales marketplace become a viable arena in which to launch new publications. There was enough of a network of comic book specialty stores by this point to make such a venture potentially viable, as well as a desire for material that was more sophisticated than what was being done for the mainstream Newsstand audience. And so, there was a bit of a flood of new publishers who attempted to establish themselves with homegrown titles. One of these was Capital Comics, an outgrowth of Capital City Distributors who got other outfits’ titles to market. Capital Comics wouldn’t last for very long, but the series they launched their publishing venture with would last the test of times and become one of the best series of the era.
This was NEXUS, a strip that, while it appeared to be another super hero title from the outside (a very deliberate marketing decision, I expect) was actually a thoughtful and complex science fiction series. NEXUS was the creation of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude. Both men would go on to do work for the mainstream “Big Two” companies in the years to come, but apart from a short serialized strip in a Pacific Comics anthology series, NEXUS was their big debut to comic book audiences.
NEXUS is set in the 25th Century, at a time when humanity has spread out to the stars and made contact with a number of alien civilizations. Its central setting is Ylum, a moon orbiting a distant world. There, Nexus resides. As would eventually be revealed in the course of time, Nexus is Horatio Hellpop, the son of a storied military general who committed genocide in his cause. Fleeing the consequences of his actions, General Hellpop brought his pregnant wife to this distant moon as a refuge, little realizing that the place held secrets. One of those secrets was The Merk, a powerful alien entity with a vendetta against mass killers. As young Horatio grew, the Merk would send him maddening dreams, in which he would witness the actions of his father. The only thing that relieved these dreams was a strange tank of liquid in which he would be forced to immerse himself. The tank gave Horatio access to the Merk’s fusion-casting abilities, and driven by a need to silence the dreams that tormented him, he began seeking out and executing the killers he would dream about, starting with his own father. he became far-known and far-feared as Nexus, the Liberator.
In the course of his adventures, as Nexus slew the great monsters of the universe, he came into contact with their victims, often enslaved and destitute. With no other option left open to him,. Nexus offered these unfortunates sanctuary on Ylum, where they built a strange melting pot society, one whose citizens often looked upon Nexus with an almost religious zeal. But Hellpop was an intellectual, he wasn’t interested in worship, or himself being a king or a leader, so he left his charges mostly to fend for themselves. The evolving world of Ylum and the assorted characters who would pass through its gates would become a hallmark of the series.
This first issue of NEXUS featured a story that was divided into three chapters, chapters which had pretty clearly been designed to be the opening three parts of a serial. A few years before, Rude had made a pilgrimage to seek out one of his favorite artists, Paul Gulacy, who was then drawing MASTER OF KUNG FU for Marvel. The who struck up a friendship, and so Rude was able to tap Gulacy to paint the cover for this initial release, giving the book a familiar look and a known quantity name associated with it, the better to assure that retailers took its release seriously.
NEXUS was a very strong debut for Baron and Rude. While they were still a bit inexperienced and their work had some rough edges to it, it was incredibly accomplished for two guys who really hadn’t been making comics for very long. And they both improved by leaps and bounds in the issues that followed. Rude was an artist’s artist, a perfectionist who synthesized the best of his idols Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Russ Manning and many others. Baron came from a background as a journalist, so while he had a functioning understanding of the tropes of super hero comics, he also came armed with more real-world experience than many, experience which informed the subject matter that he wanted to write about.
NEXUS debuted in later 1981 as a magazine-sized publication. For whatever reason, many of the new publishers who tried to make a go of things in the new Direct Market chose to begin with the magazine format. And all of them paid the price, in that it became clear over the next couple of years that, while comic book shops would support a magazine-sized entry to a certain point, they were much more comfortable handling regular comic books, ones that fit the racks and display areas they’d already invested in. So after three magazine-sized issues, NEXUS was relaunched as a color comic by Capital, assuming the typical dimensions and adding some relatively sophisticated color printing into the mix.
Flush with some early success, Capital Comics expanded their line accordingly, with titles such as THE BADGER, also written by Baron. Unfortunately, the additional expense of publishing comics in addition to maintaining their profitable distribution business overextended Capital, and they wound up having to drop their publishing efforts. (There was also some blowback about it being a conflict of interests for a distributor to be handling their own self-published product in addition to everybody else’s books.) And so it seems as though NEXUS was finished.
But only a short time later, NEXUS found a new home at another start-up entity, First Comics. First had made an aggressive entry into the marketplace, determined to become at least the #3 publisher in the industry, and backed up by a bevy of talent as well as some solid financing. They made arrangements with Capital to take over their titles, and so NEXUS and THE BADGER shifted over to First’s line. (First had earlier done this same thing with Mike Grell’s STARSLAYER, although in that case they did so by giving Grell better terms than he had been getting from his first publisher, Pacific Comics.)
First Comics made a decent go of things for the rest of the 1980s, but by the end of the decade their time was up as well. As with so many others, they had overextended themselves trying to carve out a slice of the market for themselves and found themselves with some cash-flow issues by the end. By that point, Rude had taken his own leave of absence from NEXUS, to work on other projects of interest to him such as the SPACE GHOST one-shot for Comico and a MISTER MIRACLE book for DC. He’d been succeeded as the artist on Nexus by Paul Smith, which was hardly trading down. But no amount of talent was going to be enough to stave off First Comics’ financial woes.
By this point, though, NEXUS had established a track record, and Dark Horse Comics moved to pick the series up. In a move virtually unprecedented in the history of comics, Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson bought the rights to NEXUS in First Comics’ liquidation sale, then turned around and handed them back to the strip’s originators, Baron and Rude. It was a generous decision, one that had the upside of both making Dark Horse seem a creator-friendly publisher as well as insuring that Baron and Rude would continue NEXUS under the Dark Horse banner.
Today, Baron and Rude appear to have parted ways, and each one has talked about NEXUS projects that they are working on individually. It’s been a number of years since regular NEXUS content had made its way to store shelves. But the original series was collected in a series of nice Hardcover volumes, which is probably the easiest way to find it today. While this first installment is relatively crude, the series grew into something unique and noteworthy over time, and is worth seeking out.