Friday, April 17, 2009

What It Is: The Nexus of Capital Comics

In 1980, two former college-pals-turned-creative-team, writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude met with John Davis, Milton Griepp, and Richard Bruning, the heads of Capital City Distribution. Capital City, of Madison, Wisconsin, was looking to add a publishing division to their successful distribution company. Baron and Rude, two local talents were pitching a science fiction comic about a door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen in a war ravaged future. The Capital guys .liked Baron and Rude's style, but wanted no part of publishing a straight sci-fi comic. They wanted a costumed crime-fighter. Baron and Rude left, "bounced ideas back and forth" (Comic Book Artist #8, May 2000, p. 27) and came up with a 12 page strip featuring their hero, Nexus. Davis, Griepp, and Bruning dug it, asked for 20 more pages, and by early 1981, Nexus, a 44 page black and white magazine-sized comic hit the shelves of comic shops around the U.S.

Nexus wasn't your typical vanity or fan project trying to ape Marvel Comics. It was more professional than other comics of its type and much, much more original. Baron and Rude grew in their craft by leaps and bounds, and gave comics fans a new vision of what comics could strive for. Sure, Nexus' costume looked like a mix of the X-Men's Cyclops and Space Ghost by way of Dave Cockrum, but Rude's art showed a mastery of draftsmanship and anatomy akin to Gold Key's Russ Manning. Baron's scripting it pretty tight, fast paced, and surprisingly polished for a first-timer. Their concept, a sci-fi "hero" who tracks down and assassinates mass murderers wasn't the typical late 70s/early 80s comicbook fare. It was daring and different, showing that, right out of the gate, Baron and Rude were out to challenge fan favorites like Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, and John Byrne on their own turf.

The young writer and artist populated Nexus world with all kinds of alien life-forms, evil dictators, and hard science fiction concepts. The the darkness of super-powerful floating heads of decapitated men and women was balanced by the light and whimsy of alien allies with names like Dave (with his famous greeting, "What it is.") and Tyrone. Nexus gave fans more angst than X-Men and Teen Titans combined, but leavened it with a tongue-in-cheek humor worthy of the Original Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Only two young bucks who didn't know any better would have the chutzpah to try something like this. Only two young bucks with that kind of chutzpah could pull it off.

Baron and Rude not only pulled it off, but made it payoff. Fans were taking notice, and after two more black and white issues (the third featuring a "flexi-disc"; actually a plastic record with music, dialogue, and sound effects meant to be listened to while looking at the comic), Capital decided the time was right to meet Marvel, DC, Pacific, and Eclipse head-on. It was time for a full-color Nexus comicbook. Editor/Designer Rich Bruning was going to make sure that Nexus would be the best looking comic on the stands. No newsprint for Nexus, the color comic would be published on the more expensive, and very fashionable, Baxter paper, a whiter, heavier stock Marvel and DC saved for "special" projects (usually reprints of their classic comics). And since the Baxter paper could be used for more experimental printing methods, Bruning called upon George Freeman to color Nexus. Freeman would use the coloring and separation techniques he had learned from Captain Canuck creator Richard Comely when he was CC's artist.

When the "new color" Nexus made its debut in early 1983, it blew fandom away. With Baron's scripting, Rude's art, Freeman's coloring, and Bruning's slick art direction, Nexus was the comicbook we'd all been dreaming of. From the painted wrap-around cover to the clever ads Nexus looked for all the world like the future of comicbooks. Capital was already planning two new comics in the "Nexus format", and by every indication they were poised to become the next hot publisher.

Their next comic, Mike Baron's troubled superhero (he suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder) the Badger, with art by newcomer Jeff Butler, made his debut in late 1983. One of the most highly anticipated new comics of the season, Baron's quirky super-hero (and his side-kick, a fifth century druid by the name of Ham) won a lot of fans over in spite of Butler's stiff, less polished art. The slick package and coloring (which would be standard fare for all Capital comicbooks) helped overcome the semi-pro artwork, and besides, it was Baron's show. His writing was the star here. The Badger was a hit.

Capital was sticking to its plan to limit their output to three comics, while every other comicbook publisher sought to unleash a veritable flood of product into the comics shops. Their third title, Whisper, about a young woman caught up in a world of espionage and ninjas, hit the shops soon after Badger's debut. Tightly written by sometime Marvel author Steven Grant and loosely drawn by newcomer Rich Larson, complete with cover art by fan favorite Michael Golden, Whisper grabbed Daredevil and Electra fans, as well as hanging on to Nexus and Badger's fan base. It looked like Capital had nowhere to go but up.

But the other publishers, those glutting the market with more comics than had ever been published since the Golden Age, weren't really nuts about one of their distributors competing with them as another publisher. Capital realized that their bread and butter was distribution, and by early 1984, after six color issues of Nexus, four issues of the Badger, and two issues of Whisper, the brightest new publisher on the comicbook horizon was gone.

The other independent publishers, though, had taken notice of the amount of craft Capital had put into their coloring and packaging, and many raised their game to match the bar that Capital had set. Another new publisher, First Comics, soon got the rights to Nexus, Badger, and Whisper, and brought them back in all their full-processed color, Baxter paper glory. No longer did the "death" of a comicbook publisher mean "death" for the comics they published.

But that's a topic for a future post!

NEXT WEEK: "Starslayer: He Might've Slayed 'Em, But the Back-ups Were the Stars"


~P~ said...

Damn, but I loved Capitol comics...

First would soon step in and show me the love Capitol had before, but as you state, Capitol had to show the way for what many newbie publishers would soon take as their standard of publishing.

While I'm reminiscing, Pacific and Eclipse were really good too!

And early to mid-era AIRCEL (before they were on their way to becoming "Malibu") had some awesome stuff (DragonRing anyone? The original Warlock 5 ? Good stuff!)

Indies were THE way to buy comics in the 80's.
Marvel was still KING, but the independent market was the crazy Sorcerer in the woods.

The Groovy Agent said...

You'll get no argument from me, PTOR!

Chris said...

Yeah, living in a small market in the early 80s was not fun, because regular access to independent direct sale-only comics like Nexus was not possible. There were no comic shops in my neck of the woods in those days.

When those first Nexus comics came out, I saw them advertised in the old "Comics Buyers Guide." So I ordered a couple of the early B&W Nexus comics by them, enjoyed them.....but had no way to continue collecting the title — at least not in any reasonable fashion.

By the time comic shops WERE accessible for me, the Nexus saga had gone on way too long for me to jump aboard. This was true for me of many independent titles in the early 80s. Sigh.

One day I hope to pick up Dark Horse's Nexus collections and get into them. However, right now, the Marvel Masterworks series is soaking up all of my funds!!

Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1980s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!