Friday, January 1, 2016

Galactic Greetings to All New Readers!

Boragg thung, Hi there and Howdy, y'all! Welcome to "Thrillpowered Thursday," a blog where I talk about the world of 2000 AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. It's the home of Judge Dredd, D.R. & Quinch, Bill Savage, Strontium Dog, and Zombo, a weekly anthology comic that has featured work by the medium's very best talents, including Pat Mills, John Wagner, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Si Spurrier, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Henry Flint, Cam Kennedy, and Carlos Ezquerra.

For darn near 35 years, 2000 AD has been providing shot glasses of rocket fuel, future shocks and the gut-punch of the new, using compressed storytelling, high comedy and spectacular melodrama to give readers the most satisfying experience in the medium. It's a training ground for comics' best talent, where industry veterans routinely turn out the best work of their careers, usually one page over from the explosion of new talent that, happily, never seems to dry up. In its fourth decade, 2000 AD continues to be the place where comics' future stars are discovered. Today, while the veterans blow our minds with ongoing classics, great new stories are being developed by the likes of Alec Worley, Al Ewing, T.C. Eglington, Lee Carter, Tiernan Trevallion, and Jon Davis-Hunt.

The format of Thrillpowered Thursday is a simple one: I've been rereading my collection of 2000 AD and its sister comic, Judge Dredd Megazine, and in each entry, I look at what was going on in the title at about the rate of one month at a time. There's gossip, positivity, analysis, thrillpowered artwork - and that's the property of the publisher, Rebellion, y'all - and you can believe the hype when I tell you that what I've just reread is brilliant stuff. Rebellion also has the best reprint program of any publisher in the European or American markets for its properties, and, starting with the 138th entries, I've linked to the collected editions where you can buy these scrotnig stories.

Don't delay, fellow Earthlets... if you're an American who has put off exploring the world of 2000 AD because of perceived difficulties obtaining it, it has never been easier to hop on board. With digital editions of the comics as they are released and an incredibly reader-friendly reprint line, many of which are dispatched by the American co-publisher Simon & Schuster direct to your nearest bookstore or thrill-merchant, you're just clicks away from trying out a clearly superior comic reading experience. Throw off your shackles of American superhero trademark boredom and get some thrillpower in your life, friends!!

It's also where I use every available opportunity to persuade 2000 AD's alien editorial organs to do the right thing and bring back the lovely and wonderful Samantha Slade, the most gorgeous and promising character in comics, cruelly missing in action since 2008 or so. Darn it, we miss you, Sam. Bring her back in 2012, Thargy-baby! Credo!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

203. Training Wheels

September 2010: The King's Speech is released. Tony Curtis dies, and, with him goes the final remaining living memory of sex with Marilyn Monroe. There's a new launch prog featuring Dredd, Defoe, Nikolai Dante, Low Life, and a new series, Age of the Wolf. So this week, I'm hitting the absolute bottom of the "drawing together connections to spark a point about worth writing a post" barrel. Fair warning. I thought I had something, and I didn't, and all that's left is fairly weak. But would you believe that there are two stories running in the comic this month with very strong female characters and they're both driving motorcycles? No kidding.

As much as we (obviously) love 2000 AD, the one place where it constantly needs improvement is bringing in female creators, writers, and artists, and developing stronger female protagonists. A big part of that development, for me, is building a world around that character and her situation, rather than other, earlier, male characters. That's why spinoffs don't quite count with me. As much as I liked Samantha Slade, she was operating in the shadow of her grandfather, your old pal Sam. Rafe and Venus Bluegenes both have Rogue Trooper's DNA. Judges Anderson, Hershey, Karyn, and even Aimee Nixon are all policing the same streets as Joe Dredd.

Judge Nixon almost qualifies for me because she's so radically different from Dredd, and in the Low Life adventure "Hostile Takeover," she has one humdinger of a character turn. We'll come back to that in the next chapter, but it's worth noting that in the beginning of this story by Rob Williams and D'Israeli, she's the centerpiece of one of the period's very best cliffhangers. Racing down the mean streets of Mega-City One with the indefatigable Judge Dirty Frank in tow, she comes across a biker in a suit of samurai armor. And then another. They're riding very strange bikes, beautifully designed by D'Israeli but which appear really impractical, having just one big tire. Then, ahead of them, there's a single man holding a sword. Dirty Frank seems to take the worst of it, but he's just overreacting to a scratch. Judge Nixon... she doesn't come out well.

Outside of spinoffs such as these, you really have to put your thinking cap on to find a recent series built around a female lead. (This subject came up about a year later on a friend's Facebook page and some guy chimed in "What about Halo Jones?" Yeah. Awesome. That's the default answer to 2000 AD's lack of female leads: a character who last appeared more than a quarter of a century ago.) That's why Age of the Wolf arrived to instant appreciation. It is the first series in 2000 AD by Alec Worley, although his earlier one-off "Antiquus Phantasma" would be developed into the series Dandridge a little later on. It's drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt, who's been improving and impressing more and more with each appearance in the comic, and the lead character, Rowan Morrigan, bears a pleasing enough resemblance to the actress Karen Gillan, who first appeared on Doctor Who about five months previously.

Davis-Hunt does a simply amazing job laying out the action sequences, but he still has one little artistic hiccup that drives me nuts and, at this point, hasn't seen much improvement from his debut with Stalag 666, and that's his depiction of people running. I can't spell out exactly what's wrong, just that the crowd escaping from the London Underground station in episode two seems frozen in place and wearing lead shoes, which is a very strange problem for somebody who also possesses the talent to make a motorcycle appear as though it's about to leap out of the page to have.

Age of the Wolf - I'm so accustomed to writing about the fictional detective Nero Wolfe that I keep typing "wolf" and adding an e - is a modern-day (well, 2016) thriller that sees England beset by werewolves. There has been a full moon for nine days, and a snowy London has almost immediately become a hunting ground for beasts. Rowan can save the world by fulfilling an ancient prophecy and dying, but she isn't willing to go without a fight.

This series really shows off more and more with subsequent rereads. It turns out that all the place-setting dialogue on page one of the story does more than merely tip a hat to Sydney Jordan and Willie Patterson, the creators of the classic, cerebral adventure strip Jeff Hawke, it sets up the whole premise of sacrifice. From the ancient Greeks to the comely lasses of medieval fairy tales being given up for dragons, there's a long history of women being given up to satisfy a monster and save the world. Nobody has ever really asked what the victim has to say about that.

Rowan doesn't get the opportunity to turn matters around and start kicking werewolf ass until the second book of Age of the Wolf in 2012, but she immediately makes an impact as a character who we want to follow. Her fate is cruel and unfair and we want her to strike back against it. This requires her to run, and episodes 2-5 of the first story are a long and mostly brilliant chase scene. People who were not paying attention to the prophecy aspect, and the very heavy undercurrent of Norse mythology, wolves, and endless winter - fair cop, that would totally include me the first time around - would be blindsided by the strange direction the series takes once things calm down for a moment and it looks like Rowan has found a short refuge. We meet some new characters as Rowan's decision to live looks like it's going to damn the world.

I kind of hate myself for missing the very clear telegraphing that this series is about what happens when Midgard is given up to the wolves, but, to be fair and honest, Worley's only real error in laying out this story was introducing it via what looks to be an incredibly skippable and long monologue being read by a radio broadcaster to the silent halls of a museum. Often in the comic medium, a writer's intention can be subverted by the way that readers absorb comics, and the way that the editors and publishers promote them. This is not, despite all evidence, an action story about a girl on a motorbike fighting werewolves in familiar London, but when, for a solid month, that's what we read, it's a little tough to turn over the coin and tell readers that what they've read is just the scene one hook, not without resentment and confusion. So no, I don't think that Book One of Age of the Wolf went over very well with readers in the end; there was lots of grumbling about the witches and the prophecies and how the heck did this urban thriller transform into ponderous Norse mumbo-jumbo, but it reveals more on each reread. Book Two, which appeared in 2012, was more successful - there is a hell of a blind twist in that one - and I believe that the third and final book is due in September of this year. I'm looking forward to it!

We'll take another short break here to accommodate my being behind on another project and then going out of town. Thrillpowered Thursday will resume on the 20th with more about Defoe and what happens to Nixon and Frank next. See you then! In the meantime, if you enjoy this blog, please tell a friend or something. Share on Facebook or Twitter, or send the link to somebody who should read it. Or everybody who should read it for that matter! Even Google Plus would be a help.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

202. Other People's Heroes

August 2010: The summer of 2010 saw several major series underway, and two that I wanted to look at just a little more closely are a pair written by 2000 AD veterans Pat Mills and John Wagner. They are both revisionist looks at much older series. Savage, of course, has been giving 'em both barrels for several years now. "Crims" is Book Six of the series, written as always by Mills and drawn by Patrick Goddard. It sees Bill Savage, now using another undercover identity, getting help from several of London's criminal gangs to get the manpower and resources to infiltrate a Volgan command center. The Volgs have countered the Allies' super sci-fi robots with teleportation, and somebody needs to get in there and shut them down. As it is, Allied robots have already been pushed back out of Wales...

"Crims" is just beautifully drawn by Goddard, who piles on the detail and the ink. It is, surprisingly, a little longer than the usual Pat Mills story of late. For the previous six or seven years, Mills had been working in blocks of 60 pages broken down into ten episodes. When episode ten of this story didn't end the book -it continues for another 30 pages and wraps with part fifteen - it really surprised readers who'd become used to Mills' tropes. But the really splendid part comes with an interlude in the middle of the story.

Some of the dialogue is a little labored when Mills introduces the surviving player of a '60s rock band who, like Syd Barrett, retired into hermitage after a short time in the spotlight. Only this fellow kept his considerable record royalties to live in some peace and quiet on Eel Pie Island. He was happy to let the world think that he was another acid casualty; it was actually his girlfriend, a hippie chick who'd been linked with Brian Jones and all the big names back in the day, who had lost her mind. He retreated from the limelight and spent the next few decades engaged in research into the sort of sci-fi physics that would come in handy fighting the Volgans' teleporters. So it's a little contrived, but the human elements to the story are incredibly effective, and Goddard's artwork is just amazing. It is some of the best black and white artwork that 2000 AD has seen in years.

But the thing that really demands comment this time out is the first chunk of "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha." It's an interesting case of Wagner aping Mills' technique, and using the style that Mills had designed for his Slaine and ABC Warriors stories many years before. When this story concludes in 2014, it will be at least 40 episodes long, a huge epic that sees Johnny Alpha's revival and the second war between mutants and humanity. But before we get to that point, there's the major and controversial business of Wagner killing off the character of Feral.

Okay, so there are two things to explain before getting into this, both the factual and the fictional background of what has happened previously. I'll try to keep this reasonably simple. Feral is a character who was introduced by Alan Grant in his final Strontium Dog serial in 1990. That story concluded with Johnny Alpha's death, and Feral was one of a number of supporting players who made their way into a sequel series, Strontium Dogs, which was helmed by Garth Ennis from 1991-93, and then by Peter Hogan until its cancellation in 1996. This coincided with then-editor David Bishop letting Hogan know that his services were no longer required at 2000 AD and finishing off Hogan's final scripts for the series with the pseudonym "Alan Smithee."

Now, depending on who you ask, Strontium Dogs was either a long-winded bore of subplots that never went anywhere, whose main cast were characters not strong enough to anchor a strip of their own, dropped irregularly into the lineup as space filler until the next launch prog, or, alternately, it was one of the few things during the dark days of the early 1990s that held any promise and was written with a sense of maturity and intelligence, especially when half or more of every issue was written by Mark Millar in "explodo-vision." I say this, respectfully, because the Ennis-Hogan Strontium Dogs certainly has its fans, many of whom came to the comic during this bleak years and have stuck around. I may not be among them, but there are certainly more readers who remember Dogs fondly than there are who liked, say, Bix Barton as I did.

But one thing seems clear: John Wagner didn't seem to think much of Peter Hogan's work. He puts his opinion in mean black and white about halfway through the story. "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha" is structured as though it's excerpts from an academic history of situations famous enough to warrant multiple, competing, biographies. What we're about to learn about Feral is very much at odds with the reports from previous chroniclers, and Wagner flatly dismisses the earlier work by "the notorious fantasist Ho Gan." Ouch. This won't be good.

While Ennis and Hogan's Feral was a tough, scared kid dealing with an increasingly bizarre mutation and slowly gaining the maturity and insight to become a leader, Wagner reveals him to be a coward and a bungler, who wanted to do the right thing from time to time but lacked the spine to do it. The story opens with longtime supporting player Middenface McNulty teamed with newcomer Precious Matson, who has heard from reliable sources that Johnny Alpha's skeleton was not left behind in the other dimension as depicted in "Final Solution," but rather, his body was returned to Earth by Feral. The trail eventually leads them to Feral, who is a condemned man awaiting execution on the planet of Garn.

Garn is one of those planets that really only makes sense in the context of Strontium Dog. It's a perfect mix of an oddball culture and black-as-coal comedy. The Garnians do not have noses, and consider any species that does have noses to be ungodly. They allow McNulty and Matson to visit the condemned, in deference to the renowned hero Johnny Alpha, but while they're in public, they have to wear masks that cover their offensive honkers. Feral is sentenced to die here for an act of small-scale sabotage to cover his escape from a spacecraft, but there was an accident and dozens were killed. Capital punishment on Garn is carried out by immolation: Feral is to be burned at the stake. Worse, they're fattening him up so that he'll burn cleaner. When our heroes meet him, he weighs at least three hundred pounds.

Feral is a very bitter and ugly man, not at all the person who starred in the Ennis and Hogan stories. He is willing to confirm what McNulty and Matson have already learned: he brought Johnny's body back, where it remained in some state of preservation, not decaying at all, and spread the lie that the beast that we saw in the last episode of "Final Solution" left him nothing but broken bones. Beyond that, he won't say a thing, including where Johnny's corpse is now, until McNulty and Matson spring him. The following episode sees our heroes doing exactly that, because this is an action-adventure melodrama, and we expect that sort of thing.

So Feral goes on to explain that he took Johnny's corpse to the mysterious planet Zen, where the land is in a constant state of flux and where bizarre, towering Stone Wizards - great big pillars of animated rock - are said to have the power to revive the dead or reverse the effects of evil sorcery like what killed Johnny. Feral eventually finds the Wizards, who are unimpressed with the work of the Lyran magic. They agree to revive him, but only in return for Feral's life. He declines, buries Johnny in a forest, and makes his way into the troubled life that seemed to end almost ten years later at Garn until McNulty and Matson rescued him.

And then we get the blunt stick of reality. McNulty is an alcoholic has-been and Matson is a journalist. They didn't rescue him. Of course they didn't. They staged the abduction with the assistance of the Garnian authorities to persuade Feral to talk. The execution is going on as scheduled. Ouch.

I'm not saying that Feral's fans are legion or anything, but this just plain ticked off a few people. Over the course of about four episodes, Wagner and Ezquerra completely demolished the character of Feral, declaring his earlier heroics to be unreal fictions and giving him an ignominious and pathetic end. Myself, I always thought that Feral was cut from far too close a cloth as what was trendy and kewl in American funnybooks. He was all claws and spikes and everything that every Wolverine wannabe was like in the early 90s. Still, it's a heck of a bad way to go out.

Sometimes, heroes don't get to go out either in a blaze of glory or down the happy path of retirement. Feral screwed up, often, and lots of people died, and his execution - preceded by the ritual slicing-off of his nose as one final indignity before death - is ugly and horrible. It kind of goes without saying that it is unlikely that any American superhero book would be so bold. Can you imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate so ugly and demeaning? Heck, you can't even imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate, period. They get resurrected as quickly as a new writer can flick the reset button.

Actually, the nearest thing that I can think of was a stunning 1997 issue of Starman by James Robinson and Dusty Abell, in which the criminal the Mist killed off at least four DC Comics D-listers: Crimson Fox, Ice, Amazing Man, and Blue Devil. At least one of those four seems to have stayed dead.

And on that note, we'll come back to Johnny's very controversial resurrection when the second chunk of this lengthy epic appears. More on that in chapter 212.

In the next chapter, however, 2000 AD gets its first really memorable female lead in quite some time with the debut of Rowan Morrigan in Age of the Wolf See you in seven!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

201. Mega-City Justice

July 2010: Is there anything, and I mean anything, more satisfying in fiction than watching a great villain finally get his comeuppance? You've got to emphasize "great," though, otherwise it doesn't mean as much. See, for me, part of what makes a bad guy a classic is that I can believe in them. I need to see a real motivation, and I need to see a character who inspires real loyalty on the part of his underlings, who are also practical and believable characters. The best villains don't surround themselves with morons and squabbling dunderheads. The best villains force the hero to change plans and strategies. I could fill this entry and ten just like it with the names of classic criminals from films and comics and TV shows who just leave me bored and you might be amazed who I'd have on my list of shame. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor. All those laughable dweebs from 1980s American cartoons like the Shredder and Cobra Commander. John Simm's Master. Dr. Doom. Voldemort. Especially Voldemort.

2000 AD gets it right more often than not, although in at least one case I am in the minority. I really have to grit my teeth to make it through "The Day the Law Died" because Judge Cal is just too ridiculous for words. I know. And I hate dogs, too. I'm a bad person.

But if you want to see a villain who really does work, who really is one of the all-time classic bad guys in Judge Dredd or any other work of serial fiction, whose comeuppance is the most air-punching, fantastic bits of awesome ever, I respectfully submit the name of Deputy Chief Judge Martin Sinfield. He is a majestically awesome foe, whose crimes are far from legion. In fact, as near as I can remember - and please correct me below if I've missed something - he's only actually guilty of one actual crime. He's not a genocidal terrorist or a megalomaniac with a crazy body count. No, he is guilty of drugging Chief Judge Dan Francisco with a compound called SLD88 that leaves the victim incredibly susceptible to suggestion. He just suggests that Francisco continue to take some considerable time off recovering from his many injuries and leave the running of the city to him.

That's it, isn't it?

The two years of Judge Dredd episodes prior to the climax of the epic "Tour of Duty" established that the senior ranks of the aging, administrative judges are completely filled with stodgy old bureaucrats who do not like mutants, and who are in no hurry to have their lifetimes of bigotry toppled by Dredd and his wacky ideas about reform and human rights. Really, ever since it was hammered home so cruelly in April 2009's "Backlash" that the rank-and-file were never going to support these reforms and resented Dredd's position, it has been obvious that the two sides weren't going to meet without amazing compromise.

So Sinfield just wants the city back to normal. He wants the mayor to start coughing up some new revenue to pay for walking back all of Dredd's reform, and he wants pretty boy Francisco to stay out of his way and let him and his buddies run things, and he wants that liberal Dredd and his aggravating proteges out of his way, assigned to details far from the center of government, where he won't have to look at them. If Dredd likes mutants so damn much, let him police them in the Cursed Earth, not the city. That's where decent, normal people like him live.

Of course I can believe in Deputy Chief Judge Sinfield and all his toadying cronies. From where I sit, we had to put up with that guy for eight damn years, only his name was Vice President Dick Cheney. I had to deal with him for two years of high school, too. He was an assistant principal whose name escapes me, but who hit the ceiling and suspended every punk who came in the day after the Circle Jerks played Atlanta wearing one of their T-shirts, screaming "obscenity!" No doubt British readers have their own equivalents in their government or their backgrounds. He's that guy. He's that growling, compensating, bureaucratic asshole who doesn't quite have the center stage, but he's just close enough to it to make a huge and ugly influence on policy while keeping social progress and human achievement stunted, giving positions of power, influence, and profit to all his mercenary friends (Halliburton, if you're losing the metaphor), and, basically being an unreasonable jerk to your friends and heroes.

This is why, when Dredd finally - finally! - gets proof that Sinfield has broken the law, and a squad of SJS officers march down the corridor to take him in for questioning, no exclamation points are needed and no thunderous narration appears in the captions. It's just simple justice, coming to take down somebody we just wish would go down in the real world with as much satisfaction.

That image is so awesome that we can totally forgive Carlos Ezquerra for only half-drawing the people in the offices on the side. One real crime - the SLD88 - but one much bigger crime: being that guy.

But let me walk this back just a little and talk about how this buildup works so incredibly well. It started when Sinfield started making bureaucratic, municipal demands of the city's beloved Mayor Ambrose, the great philanthropist who'd been at the right place at the right time when one of the city's political parties needed a figurehead. Just Sinfield's bad luck that Ambrose was actually the serial killer PJ Maybe, who everybody thought was dead. A couple of botched assassination attempts convinced Sinfield to swallow his pride and demand that Dredd investigate who was after him. Conventional wisdom was that Sinfield was being paranoid and ridiculous, but no, it turns out somebody really was coming awfully close to killing him.

Maybe's mistakes led to his undoing a few episodes prior to the climax of the story, which seemed to bring his part in the narrative to a close. Dredd, finally able to make a formal complaint against Sinfield's machinations, had no luck convincing the Council of Five - Sinfield's hand-picked fellow bigots and toadies - that this guy had made strategic errors in assigning personnel to the mutant townships. He, grim as ever, was ready to return to his distant assignment when some of his allies, led by Judge Niles, persuaded him that the only real way to get Sinfield out of power was to force an actual election for the position of chief judge.

PJ Maybe got the news along with the rest of the city, and requests that Dredd visit him in his death row cell, where he sits waiting execution. Maybe - who is no damn slouch in the "classic villain" category himself - knows that Dredd no more wants to be chief judge than he himself wants to die, so he proposes a "life for a life" deal. He'll save Dredd from the chief judge chair if Dredd will spare him in return. Dredd is very skeptical as he listens to Maybe's oddball story: he absolutely believes that Francisco was doped with SLD88. He should know; he's an expert in the stuff, having used it in stories dating back twenty-two years.

Dredd thinks it's hogwash, of course, a desperate delaying tactic by a condemned man, and, frankly, the sort of wild, hairbrained story that PJ Maybe would come up with. He leaves, not really appreciating the waste of his time.

Except, you know, all these years on the streets, you get these instincts.

I love the way that Wagner and Ezquerra punctuate episode six of "Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice" with a silent panel as Dredd remembers certain odd connections from earlier in the story, Sinfield covering up his actions. We don't need thought balloons of Dredd thinking "Wait a minute, what if...?" because we're past that. Wagner uses the narrative captions to do such a good job getting into Dredd's head that when the narration stops, we fill it in ourselves naturally.

Sure, I understand that lots of people name Judge Death as Dredd's arch-enemy. Sixty million plus dead, a terrific design, and lots of great dialogue, it's easy to understand that. Killing all those toddlers and babies like he did in that Frazer Irving story back in 2002, that'll help. But Martin Sinfield, for the crime of being that guy, when Dredd finally digs in and investigates him, and gets the SJS to back him up and march down that corridor, I don't know there has ever been a villain that I've enjoyed seeing facing judgement so much.

Next time... The lonesome death of Feral. See you in seven!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

200. Do you know me now?

May 2010: A month before this issue, prog 1685, was published, Nikolai Dante returned in a six-part story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser that changed absolutely everything and in a big, mean, incredibly cruel way. Certainly, the Nikolai Dante series had never shied away from giving readers dramatic deaths along with huge changes in the direction of the stories, but "Heroes Be Damned" and its follow-up, "A Farewell to Arms" are on another level. You've got to go back more than 400 progs, to 2001's "Romanov Empire" to see such a stunning game-changer as this one. The really sad thing? The previous story, which finished in prog 1675, looked like it was concluding the whole dirty war business and finally bringing an end to the action-adventure story. Dante's army of thieves and whores had triumphed, and Vladimir's generals turned on him, forcing him into unconditional surrender. Abruptly and wildly, the war was over, and only the many loose ends remained. So "Heroes Be Damned" began in prog 1679 with the big imperial marriage of Viktor and Galya, and a huge, happy, state affair to give the unfortunate, war-beaten citizens of future Russia something to smile about at last. The first episode is an agreeably long eight pages, and finishes with Dante going out into the tide to meet Jena, and propose to her. She accepts, they embrace, and the really sad thing is we could've ended it right there, on that happy ending, but there was much more to come, very little of it at all happy.

In episode two, Nikolai and Lulu debate what to do with Vlad. She's in favor of just killing him outright, but he and the rest of the allies who have a country and an empire to rule want to do so with a public show of grace and good will. In front of a huge crowd, they offer Vlad a chance at exile rather than a show trial, but Arkady steps forward and starts making decisions. Nikolai Dante reminds Arkady of his position: he has no status in the new provisional government and no say in these matters, but Arkady screws absolutely everything up: he reveals that he's Dimitri. All those years ago, when it looked like Dimitri had died and Arkady had been taken in as a ward of Vladimir, Dimitri had actually used his weapon crest and downloaded his consciousness into his son's body. All this time, he'd been masquerading as Arkady. Readers had known that something was up (most notably in "The Chaperone," progs 1560-64), but this revelation counts as one of 2000 AD's all-time greatest shock cliffhangers.

In episode three, after a short flashback depicting Arkady's death at the Winter Palace years previously, the carnage starts. Dimitri has lost his mind and indiscriminately begins killing. Dozens of bystanders and soldiers at the trial are killed, and hundreds more are grievously wounded, including Elena. Then, in parts four and five, the supporting cast begins to go down. Galya, Papa Yeltsin, and Jocasta are all killed, with Vladimir doing the right damn thing for once in his life and making a heroic attempt to save Jocasta's life.

Being a supporting player in Nikolai Dante means having a bullseye on your back from your first on panel appearance.

Nikolai recovers from the beating he suffered in part three to make a last-ditch effort to save Jena, who's Dimitri's new target, except that he intends not to murder her, but, in classic mustache-twirling bad guy fashion, to break her to his will and force her to wed him. Nikolai puts up a terrific fight and would have won had Dimitri not had a weapons crest, and, specifically, one that can override and shut down any of the others. The story ends with Dante's arm on fire...

"A Farewell to Arms" is a double-length episode that ranks as one of my favorites in the comic's long history. It's the saddest thing in the world. Dante is having a dream. It's a very vivid dream in which he spends a little swashbuckling time with his long-dead love Eloise, and with his hellraiser brother Andreas. He knows that it's not real, but what the hell, he's having a ball. And when he finds a beautiful woman in need of some dashing derring-do, he rushes to her rescue and kicks some bad guy ass, despite not being sure that he knows who she is.

Oh, my GOD. It is so sad. I'm tearing up just remembering it.

It's all history now, so we can talk about it without worrying about spoilers too much, but man alive, was I ever furious with one of my fellow readers who decided to start a message board thread about great 2000 AD deaths about two days after print subscribers got their copy and before the digital version was released.

The hallucination was the crest, giving Dante one last chance to spend a little "reality" with the people he cared about the most before talking to him "in person" for the first time and telling him goodbye. It is so goddamn amazingly horribly sad. It is like Toy Molto has been dead for hours sad. It is almost on the level of "Hazel, you've been feeling very tired" sad.

All of the deaths in Nikolai Dante meant something on some level, but seeing an end to this prickly, weird, disjointed relationship between Dante and his weapons crest after thirteen years of snark and exasperation and silliness is absolutely heartbreaking. When he wakes up in a battlefield hospital next to Elena some days later, surrounded, shockingly, by hundreds of badly wounded survivors, looks at his arm and sees only a blackened, scarred shape where the crest once was, it's like the headbutt after the gut punch. It's one of the rawest and most shocking things ever, and it leaves readers thunderstruck, wondering how in the world our hero can come back from this disaster.

Next time... Mega-City Justice. "Tour of Duty" comes to an end and it's completely phenomenal. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

199. The Perfect Prog

March 2010: A slight change of style here for this week's entry. I had been planning to put prog 1674 under the spotlight and talk about just The ABC Warriors - because the episode in that issue, featuring two solid pages of Ro-Jaws insulting Mek-Quake's non-existent mother and Blackblood impatiently trying to explain to the idiot that he does not actually have a mother, is just about the funniest thing ever - and the always-excellent Stickleback, but then I read a few more issues and was struck by something in prog 1677. This comic is flawless. It is completely wonderful. Don't believe me? Check out the contents:

Judge Dredd: part four of "Tour of Duty: The Talented Mayor Ambrose" by John Wagner, John Higgins, and S.J. Hurst

At this point in the story, the action has moved back to the city from the townships, and becomes a masterpiece of intrigue and political maneuvering. Deputy Chief Judge Martin Sinfield has taken control of things by persuading Francisco to step aside for the good of his health, meaning once again a villain is in charge of Mega-City One, but he's not a ranting lunatic like Cal was. He's a much more subtle kind of bad guy, and it's interesting how so much of the reader's dislike of him boils down to "Sinfield has beaten Dredd and given him an awful assignment outside the City."

In fact, for all his villainy - and he's one of the great Dredd villains, no question - Sinfield's actual list of crimes is really quite small. The major one, of course, is using drugs to manipulate Francisco. He's used SLD 88, the drug once used to good effect by the serial killer PJ Maybe, to convince Francisco to step down. The beautiful irony is that Maybe has been masquerading as the city's incredibly popular mayor Byron Ambrose for several years, and doesn't appreciate Sinfield's new planned reforms. PJ Maybe's killed a lot of people in a lot of ways, but he's never planned this level of assassination before. This sets up several episodes of germ warfare, with Sinfield stubbornly refusing to die, and then, in his paranoia, he calls in Dredd to investigate these attempts on his life - which nobody else believes are happening, since he's just coincidentally contracting hideous diseases - just before mutant terrorists make a much more overt attempt to kill him. This leads Dredd to suspect that maybe Sinfield is not so paranoid after all... ah, but more on this in two weeks.

Zombo: part three of "Zombo's 11" by Al Ewing and Henry Flint

The first Zombo story was pretty bugnuts, but it's this one where the insanity is ratched past eleven. This time out, we get an ongoing, ear-splittingly loud supporting character based on Simon Cowell, but in this universe, he doesn't see the Susan Boyle character as a way to make a lot of money, but just another headache.

The ABC Warriors: part twelve of "The Volgan War" Bk Four by Pat Mills and Clint Langley

There's nothing quite as hilarious in this concluding episode as the two solid pages of robot mother insults mentioned earlier, but it does have Mek-Quake in a tuxedo appearing on a TV talk show, and Blackblood sending out mass thought-mails to insult everybody else. Classic.

Damnation Station: part one of "To the Dark and Empty Skies" by Al Ewing and Simon Davis

Here's the weakest thing in the comic, but anywhere else, it could be the standout. This is the first episode of a new series - fifteen episodes would appear in a scattered run over five months in 2010, and a second batch of fifteen is said to be in the works for later this year or next. It's future war and political posturing with fist-to-the-chest impact, memorable human characters, very weird aliens, introduced in a really good pilot episode that gives you a fun and flawed audience identification figure, a complex situation, and great artwork by Davis, who alternates with Boo Cook.

part one of The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the dead left in his wake) by Rob Williams and Dom Reardon

I saved this one for last - it actually appears second in the comic - because it's just so damn jawdropping. Here's my latest wild pronouncement: No other series in the history of the comic has ever had such a perfect first episode.

Yeah, I know, me and hyperbole, but not even the first episode of Zenith, wherein Earth's only two superheroes are killed by an atom bomb dropped on Berlin in 1945, is as great as this. It is a dense and lyrical tale of a cruel killer in the Old West, beautifully written and with very detailed narrative captions, a stylistic choice that has been stupidly out of favor for far too long. These days, maybe nobody does narration in comics better than John Wagner, but darn if Williams doesn't come very close. The prose is just perfectly judged, and Reardon's minimalist artwork perfectly sparse, with a beautiful trick as the color fades away from Azrael's memory. And then the last panel twist. How in the world, I ask you, could you not demand episode two the instant you finish episode one?

Next time, Nikolai Dante says goodbye to a close friend. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

198. Melting Like Ice Cream

February 2010: I was looking over some older entries a few days ago and noticed that there were times in my life where some turmoil in my personal life had affected the way that I viewed certain 2000 AD stories. How I felt about things in my life at the time colored the fiction. In February of 2010, my wife and I began formalizing our traveling and enjoyment of finding fun restaurant stories into our quite successful food blog, Marie, Let's Eat! and this has been just about the most satisfactory and satisfying period of my entire life. Well, there was a legal hiccup about twelve months ago that my teen daughter sparked, but otherwise, life's been darn terrific. And this has carried over into the fiction again. In 2010, I started buying 2000 AD online every week, no longer worried about or concerned with the problem of when I'd get to see the comic in the stores anymore. And the comic has been completely amazing almost every week, with at least one terrific story each issue and often more. Life's been good.

The early 2010 lineup was a very solid one. It included Judge Dredd in the continuing "Tour of Duty" arc, Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, Ampney Crucis Investigates by Edginton and Simon Davis, Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, and the final volume of The ABC Warriors' "Volgan Wars" books by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. Every one of them's a winner.

This is the second story for Ampney Crucis Investigates and it's much better than the first. Readers may recall that I found that story promising but a little disappointing. This time out, "The End of the Pier Show" still suffers just a little from being too short, but at least this time Lord Crucis is not simply stepping from points A and B to C like any investigating village constable should have done before he was called in. This time, the events that are put in motion are geared specifically toward him and his valet, Cromwell, via a postcard from a dead man.

There's so much to like about Ampney Crucis, and one of the best things is that his creators have not stacked him full of magical weaponry. He only has his insight and his knowledge and a pretty good knowledge of fisticuffs. This story could use a couple more episodes to draw out a more satisfying conclusion, but "The End of the Pier Show" is otherwise a really terrific outing for this character. He also gains a small additional supporting cast in three strangely creepy aunts in the first episode, named Faith, Hope, Charity, and Grace. One of them looks just a little bit like Joanna Lumley and another a little bit like Judi Dench. I wish these characters would show up again, soon!

Now, Nikolai Dante has no shortage of additional members in his gigantic supporting cast, and "Hero of the Revolution" brings a whole mess of 'em to the party, and introduces another new villain. This is one of the series' major set pieces, and, over 13 episodes, brings the war with Vladimir to its conclusion. But there's a casualty along the way...

Actually, we're not very many months from quite a lot of casualties, including some real surprises. The only one of the regular players to die before Vladimir surrenders is Lauren, seen here getting rescued in inimitable fashion by Dante. Lauren has been absent from the series for a couple of years now. She had been hanging out with Katarina while Dante was working his double-agent turn as the sword of the tsar. Now reunited as the pirate navy makes their play, it's kind of obvious that there's no room in the series for the blonde bombshell while Jena is around. So, when Lauren gets killed, it's not so much as a shock as it is sadly inevitable.

Vladimir's unconditional surrender, on the other hand, is a huge surprise, and brings things to a shuddering and unexpected halt. It looks like that's it for the series, and all that will need to happen next is about a six or so week final story wrapping up the last of the loose ends. Sadly for all the heroes, one of those is a much bigger complication than anybody thought. More about that in two chapters' time.

Next time... the perfect prog. I mean, absolutely perfect. See you in seven!