Ask most people what they know about the comic book series Nexus and I would bet that their answer would inevitably come back to the art of Steve Rude – the lightning bolt and goggles costume on a figure with his hand outstretched, a beam of energy blasting forth. Personally, I picture the cover of Nexus: Nightmare in Blue #4 that depicts that exact image as the titular hero declares “The votes are in… TIME TO DIE.” That’s Nexus to me. To myself and many, Rude’s art is synonymous with the idea of Nexus.
So, let’s talk about Nexus without Steve Rude drawing it.
Since its first issue in January 1981 from Capital Comics, there have been numerous Nexus comics not drawn by Rude. Hell, the trademark lightning bolt costume was co-creator Mike Baron’s idea. During the initial run of Nexus, he was absent for just under a quarter of the series, particularly towards the end. Add in the various side-character specials and back-up stories set in the Nexus world and the number grows. The idea of Steve Rude not drawing Nexus isn’t far-fetched and was very much the norm at one point. More than that, I would go so far as to say that the best story arc of the Nexus ongoing was drawn primarily by other artists.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself a little. Nexus is a sci-fi superhero(ish) comic created by Mike Baron and Steve Rude and has been published on-and-off since 1981, primarily by First Comics and, then, Dark Horse with some self-publishing stops along the way. It centres on Horatio Hellpop, the titular Nexus, who has immense powers and is tasked with killing the worst humans in existence by an alien called the Merk. He operates from a world called Ylum that takes in refugees from all over the universe. In its 40-plus years, it has accumulated a fairly extensive supporting cast and backstory, but the basic premise is all you need to know here.
Horatio learned the details of his powers and compulsion to use them to execute murderers gradually over the course of the series. By around issue 50, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t wish to be the Nexus anymore. He was tired of killing and the Merk agreed. This began a period where the Merk attempted to find a replacement. First came a trio of girls whose father was previously executed by Nexus, and sought out the Merk for the power to take revenge (despite the Merk being the one who told Nexus who to kill). When they proved unworthy of the mantle, the Merk held open auditions, eventually settling on a new Nexus, Stan Korivitsky in issue 57 (drawn by Paul Smith, a frequent backup artist for Rude during this period). A history professor, Stan takes up the role with an eye toward not just teaching and analysing history, but making it himself.
Obviously, the parallel of Rude drawing the first three full issues of a new Nexus before departing the book indefinitely is an easy one to see. The story of Stan as Nexus ran from issue 57 through 75 with Rude’s final interior art coming in issue 60, setting Stan off on his journey, and, then, departing to focus on other work, like Nexus: The Origin. In issues 59 and 60, Stan suffers a falling out with the Merk, losing his power while retaining the identity of Nexus, and the ensuing issues are less about a superpowered executioner and more Stan being tasked with building a university on Ylum, the Elvonic religious cult, and, most importantly, Stan’s Nexus becoming a sci-fi Punisher.
That last point is a key shift in the comic and provides the most lasting image of the post-Rude series at the end of issue 67. Drawn by John K. Snyder III and Jay Geldhof, Stan comes into conflict with the Elvonic religious order, becoming close with a supposed member of the group, Sonia, who is actually a fellow academic infiltrating the group to study them. When she’s killed by the cult, Stan enters their compound for vengeance. Without powers, all he has are his own skills against dozens of fanatics; after a tease of the conflict, we’re left on the outside with the President of Ylum and a close advisor/friend of Nexus. We hear the sounds of conflict and expect that the Elvonic hordes have slaughtered Stan. Instead, as the doors to the compound open, we’re left with Stan. Costume torn, covered with blood, eyes wide, holding a spear in one hand and the head of a priest in the other, blood and bodies in the background, he simply says “Gentlemen, Nexus is back.”
This image is one of the most stark and shocking in Nexus, and stands in sharp contrast to anything Rude ever drew – and, in fact, it is hard to imagine Rude drawing. Snyder’s style in this issue is angular and sharp, full of extra lines and details. It’s rough and raw when, by this point, Rude’s style had developed into soft and smooth with only the essentials. Snyder only penciled one issue, but other artists all brought a more detailed, garish late ‘80s/early ‘90s look to the comic that matched a ‘grittier’ story about Nexus being an unhinged killer.
The new Nexus story continued until issue 75 when Horatio made a deal with the Merk to regain his powers and stop Stan, but Rude only returned to provide a painted cover. The focus on the idea of Nexus as a killer as opposed to a compelled-yet-dispassionate executioner seems like the apex of what the concept could yield. The initial 50ish issues were about a man who fell into a job that he increasingly hated until he left, which is interesting, but put the idea of an alien-empowered killer at a distance. Since it was a job forced on him, there was always deniability and moral implications were shunted aside. The Stan story as he began working through the Merk’s list of murderers who needed killing transformed the dispassionate Nexus into the Punisher (which Baron was also writing at the time) as a means to further develop Ylum and the world of Nexus. How does the change in Nexus impact Ylum? What does Horatio think of things? This story gives Baron a chance to add a depth to the ostensible star of the book and the world he lives in that wasn’t always at the forefront. Even when Horatio took back up the mantle of Nexus, the comic remained fairly decentralised and didn’t dip back into ‘classic’ Nexus stories much over the final five issues.
After First Comics folded, Dark Horse took over as publisher and Rude returned to Nexus in 1992 with “The Origin”, a one-shot retelling the origin of the character, winning three Eisner Awards in 1993. While it marked a return to Nexus for Rude as he and Baron would go on to do several mini-series for Dark Horse over the next five years, it was also followed the next month by the only Nexus series not done by Rude or Baron, Nexus: The Liberator by Stefan Petrucha, John Calimée, and frequent Rude inker John Nyberg. The two projects make for an interesting pair as The Liberator takes place in the early days of Horatio’s time as Nexus, slotting it in between the panels of “The Origin.” The choice of the Calimée/Nyberg art team puts the series in the same visual space as Rude, albeit with less focus on inventive page construction, which seemed to be a large motivator in his approach to The Origin. The Origin mostly told the Nexus story as it was previously known, while emphasising specific characters and plot elements that grew in importance after the first issues of Nexus.
Nexus: The Liberator sums up what, at the time – and I’d hazard remains – the prevailing idea of Nexus outside of its creators: Horatio Hellpop in costume killing powerful evil murderers and struggling to do more than just kill. Baron flirted numerous times with the idea of Horatio trying to make worlds better, usually with disastrous results. During the time that Stan was Nexus, he even had Horatio return to one such world and use his skills and resources to run a health clinic. Liberator is a much more straightforward attempt at a ‘classic Nexus’ story, although expanded out at a much more relaxed pace, resulting in a reading experience that feels more a tribute than its own thing. There haven’t been any other Nexus comics without the involvement of Baron and/or Rude.
Recently, creators Mike Baron and Steve Rude have split from doing Nexus stories together. In an almost unheard of arrangement, both men will continue to tell their own Nexus stories. Towards the end of Into the Past (serialised in Dark Horse Presents), a creative difference over the ending had Rude write and draw additional pages to provide a happier conclusion. That rift continued into the next Nexus story, The Coming of Gourmando, which was done via a series of ‘Sunday comics strips’ one page at a time. That method of storytelling leans heavily into Rude’s interest in crafting pages as a single unit that has popped up increasingly throughout his previous Nexus work. The two men crafted the story together and the collection credits Rude with the script even though a “From Script to Screen” process piece shows a Baron script for the 36th strip, making it a little unclear where the divide actually occurred.
What does provide a clue is Mike Baron’s Nexus novel that tells the same Gourmando story in prose. The ‘same story’ being a loosely accurate word. The broad outline of the story involving a planet-eating being called Gourmando with a silver herald named Gnosis destroying a planet and, later, targeting Ylum is still there, but it happens in a much different fashion. As you’d expect, the comic has a narrower focus and is built upon visually-stimulating action, while the novel offers more room for side plots and the inner workings of characters (and so much wordplay). Discounting the differences in forms as much as I can, you begin to see the divide in Rude and Baron’s interest clearly.
Rude’s comic is about big, bold pages full of movement with the central focus very much on his Kirby homage. He’s telling the story of Galactus trying to eat Ylum! He does his own version of the Silver Surfer’s origin! It ends with a battle of giants as the Merk goes toe to toe with Gourmando! It’s almost too much to read in a single sitting because each oversized page is packed with movement and action. Baron’s hand is felt in specific places (an early appearance by his creator the Badger), but the 90-page story is all about what you can see and is narrowly focused on a small group of characters: Nexus, Gnosis, and the Merk with only brief deviations that impact those three directly.
Baron’s novel, on the other hand, turns Gourmando into one of many smaller plots. It spends most of the time lurking in the background and is resolved quickly at the end with characters that don’t appear in the comic. That resolution hits harder emotionally due to the connection established with Horatio over the course of the novel. The novel is much more focused on Ylum as a whole and the world of Nexus. A significant amount of time is spent with an Ylum inhabitant, Kreed Jr., who never appears in the comic; in addition to much more space given to the refugees from Gourmando’s first eaten planet on Ylum. Baron seems less interested in the Gourmando plot than in using it as a way to explore Ylum and Horatio’s inner world. The pace is much slower and relaxed than that of the comic; Gourmando is treated as a larger than life problem like climate change than the immediate Kirby god-like threat.
The primary difference that I see is that Baron seems more interested in Nexus as a science fiction sandbox where he can explore ideas and build upon the larger world. Its increasingly common for Baron to take Horatio out of his costume or remove his powers, escaping the superhero elements of the character. Rude, on the other hand, seems to continually bring Nexus back to its superhero roots. Horatio has his powers, wears his costume, and fights against larger than life enemies, ultimately triumphing.
Moving forward, the plan is for both men to do Nexus stories as they see fit, generally in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. It’s a fairly unique situation where both recognise the validity of the other’s claim to the character and its world. So far, Baron has done another comic rather than a novel, teaming with artist Richard Bond for Nexus: Nefarious, a self-contained story of Horatio on a strange world without his powers. Rude, on the other hand, is in the middle of a sequel to Gourmando titled Battle for Thuneworld, returning to one of the first planets that Nexus visited and home to several supporting characters. It will be, for a change, a Baron-less Nexus comic. Aside from The Liberator, there has yet to be a Nexus story released that didn’t have his involvement. We’ve seen what Baron does without Rude; it will be interesting to see what Rude does without Baron.