As he workedt on his Luther Arkwright epic, Bryan Talbot wasn’t the only one conducting comic book experiments with steampunk. Over at 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd) the daddy of modern British comics Pat Mills had begun a strip called Nemesis the Warlock, a collaboration with artist Kev O’Neill. It was an experiment in what Mills calls ‘comic jamming – writing and drawing the wildest stories we could think of, deliberately avoiding the traditional comic book approach.’
Nemesis is a cloven-hoofed alien freedom fighter, engaged in a war with the Termite empire led by fascistic churchman Torquemada. One of their earliest jams took Nemesis to the Gothic Empire, home to the Goths, ‘chameleon like aliens who modelled themselves and their society on early 20th century Britain’. Pat Mills was blown away by what O’Neill had come up with, ‘Steam-driven roller skates! Zeppelin propelled shoes! Flying hansom cabs!’
But the pair reined in their ambitions after just a few pages; Mills worried that ‘Nemesis would implode under the weight of trying to combine crazy inventions with the conventional hero approach the readers were demanding’. The story was shelved and then resurrected a few years later, after Nemesis had become an established hit. But by the time 2000AD’s readership were ready for the Gothic Empire O’Neill had moved on by this point, so Bryan Talbot was called in to realise his vision
The remaining pages of The Gothic Empire were just as full of mad inventions, like a gigantic version of the Eiffel tower that acted as an elevator to the moon, and most spectacularly a thundering monorail carrying the Equatorial Express, a full size replica of the Crystal Palace.
Talbot remained true to the spirit of the strip, but replaced O’Neill’s gonzo visions with a stylish take on classic boys own comics, effective in this Imperial context.
The cross hatched drawings were heavy on atmosphere, casting Noirish shadows over the back streets of an alien Whitechapel stalked by Torquemada the Ripper.
The Gothic Empire is still my favourite of the Nemesis stories and remains one of the most influential British comics from this period. Echoes of Talbot and Mills’ Sci-Fi tinged Victoriana can still be seen everywhere; continued by Kevin O’Neill with Alan Moore in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books and by Talbot himself in his Granville comics.