"The Silver Ships Are Coming!"
Book 1 of Nemesis opens with a sequence of remarkable concision and, after its own fashion, perverse beauty. First, the reader is thrown right into the narrative following an introductory splash showing an Earthman beheading a harmless and helpless extra-terrestial with the cry "Death To All Aliens!". Then there is then a tiny map illustrating the spread of the Termight Empire, two small panels showing a family of benign and defenceless aliens, humanoid in shape, tree-like in nature, and then we're presented with the panel above. In essence, we've been told where we are in this story's universe, we've been shown precisely where events are going to occur, we've been presented with sympathetic and peaceful creatures vaguely familiar from folklore, and then we're given the intrusion into this pristine, even Disney-esque, wood-world, by the profane and threatening technology of the "Silver Ships".
Little is said about the presence of the qualities of restraint and discipline in the work of Mr O'Neill and Mr Mills. Quite naturally, we tend to recall the uniqueness, the sheer grotesque and confrontational and macabre otherness, which marks out "Nemesis The Warlock" as a strip without peer, let alone equal. But there are also, of course, a host of quiet, subtle and restrained moments which constitute the connective tissue of the Warlock's stories, which permit the grand moments and remarkable details to exist, and without which Books 1 and 3 of "Nemesis" might have collapsed into a mind-deadening sequence of one damn thing after another.
The arrival of the "Silver Ships" is one such example of Mr Mills and Mr O'Neill's often-unacknowledged storytelling sobriety. The panel itself carries such an undeniably tremendous sense of foreboding, despite the fact that the reader has as yet not been told who controls the ships and what their mission is. We' have been informed that "the forces of Termight" are "wiping out alien life", and the alien Burdock has declared "So they've come at last" before rushing to inform his family of events. But at first glance, the reader can't know exactly what is to come, despite having been skillfully given enough information to feel very nervous indeed.
Why is this panel so disturbing beautiful? I suspect that the explanation lies in the fact that's it's been constructed so effectively from what we might call "oppositions", both of elements which we don't expect to find placed side-by-side in the context of a story such as this, and of elements which we know bode no good when they do appear together in such a tale. For example, we've already been presented with a Tolkeinesque woodland paradise, and now we're shown those distant forests from above, from the perspective of a crusading soldier on a great flying warship.There are the still lakes, the great peaks, the arch of a sky so obviously unused to the presence of any technology, let alone these engines of genocide. Therefore, we have the presence of both the innocent and the corrupt, the industrial and the pristine, the active and the passive, the powerful and the powerless, the thrusting and the still, the earthbound and the empyrean; we don't have to be told that no good will come of these Silver Ships because the symbols used to construct the panel tell us that.
And the panel also presents us with an unexpected juxtaposition of genres, between the traditions of sword'n'sorcery and science-fiction. From that comes the sense that all of this can only mean disaster for the creatures of this mythical past at the hands of the engineers and foot-soldiers of the barbarous future.
The comparisons suggested by the panel hardly end there. There's the knowledge that the dozens of great craft must be inhabited by a substantial mass, while the forest, according to the little knowledge we've been given, is sparsely inhabited. There's even the use of the phrase "Silver Ships" itself, which the reader might justifiably associate, consciously or not, with far more idyllic circumstances, with the myths of the sea and the freedom it once promised. (Others might also associate the words with Tolkein, and his far more positive use of the term "Silver ships" itself.) The words "The Silver Ships are coming!" seems designed to evoke longing, hope and promise, and yet immediately after we read them to the far right of the panel, our gaze is carried to these predatory beasts of spacecraft, with their frames evoking medieval ships designed to carry the menace of great metallic swordfish. They are ships, of course, but they carry with them the very opposite of any romantic notions of racing across the waves and away from responsibility and constraint. It's a cleverness where the use of language is concerned which is often displayed by Mr Mills throughout both of the Books of Nemesis which we've recently been discussing.
Yet beyond the facts of the panel's component pieces lies the cleverness of Mr O'Neill's design. As our eye naturally reads the panel from left to right, the spacecraft of Termight are shown travelling in the opposite direction, immediately leaving the reader feeling uneasy. These are unnatural things, they don't behave as we would expect them to, there's the illusion of an unnatural movement given to them just by the act of our reading this design. Then the ship in the centre of the panel, glinting in what appears to be a bright but crisp morning, dominates our eye and carries it down to the far more animated and exceptionally less beautiful craft racing away and down in the direction of their hapless prey. Finally, as our gaze forces itself over to the far left of the panel, we're faced with two Knights of Termight, and once again the comparison between them and the bucolic aliens of this world tells us all we need to know about what's to come. With his face entirely hidden by what appears to be a fusion of a World War One gas mask with the baroque stylings of a great cathedral, the creature the panel closes upon can be nothing more or less than a member of a Termightian Einsatzgruppen.
So many of the elements used to create this panel might be regarded as over-familiar. The peaceful wilderness, the benevolent and doomed family, the silence shattered by engines, the strafing runs, the great spacecraft, the evil invaders from the threatening beyond. And yet, packed together with such a deliberate attention to these juxtapositions between Arcadia and an industrial process of murder, between SF and S'n'S, between power and powerlessness, a wholly individual and genuingly disturbing image is created. In truth, this panel is practically a story in itself, and only the most sentimental and hopeful of readers might expect that what's to follow will be anything close to a happy ending.
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