Thursday, December 27, 2007

34. Simon Davis Saves the Day

May 1996: Prog 993 sports a fun little cover by the great Sean Phillips, well known among current comic readers for his work on Criminal with Ed Brubaker. That feller on the front is Middenface McNulty, one of 2000 AD's most popular second bananas, heralding the return inside of Strontium Dogs. This series is a follow-up to the original run of Strontium Dog, which concluded five years previously, and continues the stories of the supporting cast in the wake of Johnny Alpha's death. Garth Ennis wrote a few series before moving on to work for US publishers. This left the writer Peter Hogan to take up his plot threads, and he divided the characters into two separate series: the Strontium Dogs strips dealt with the Gronk, Bullmoose, Feral and a gang of mad professors, while Durham Red and Frinton Fuzz took their story into the separate Durham Red run.

The problem was, as was common during the Burton / McKenzie regimes, it was ages between stories in the weekly. A new story would arrive after being absent for five months, run for four weeks, advance its subplots a little, and vanish again. Read in one go, they aren't bad at all, but spread out over years, it was pretty tedious. Reading this run with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the next four months are going to give us a good solid run of the two series at last, this time with the S/D art chores taken up by Trevor Hairsine, but there's a remarkable giveaway of a clue in this credit box about how much more we'll be seeing of Strontium Dogs in the future:

Alan Smithee, huh? That can't be good. Indeed, as with R.A.M. Raiders, which we saw in the previous entry, an appropriate level of hype and attention, including an intro page with art by Henry Flint, is being paid to a strip which will not be returning. It's always touchy to mention a couple of creators you enjoy and respect having a professional disagreement, but you know how last time I was saying how a number of creators begin moving on from 2000 AD during this period, as David Bishop declines to commission new material from them? Peter Hogan would be one of those.

Bishop is very forthcoming in Thrill-Power Overload about how he did not handle this decision as delicately as he might have done, but his decision means the end of the road for both Hogan's Robo-Hunter, which only has a single episode left in the can at this stage, and Strontium Dogs, while Durham Red will be given to Dan Abnett. Hogan's final episodes go out under the Alan Smithee pseudonym, and that's the last we see of the Gronk and Feral, and of Durham's ongoing war against the criminal Gothking.

Hogan really didn't get the chance to contribute to 2000 AD as much as I'd have liked. His subsequent work in comics has been sporadic, but he's highly regarded for some work with Alan Moore on the Terra Obscura series for ABC/Wildstorm. Hairsine, of course, has a number of projects for the House of Tharg still to come over the next few years. Most recently, he worked with Paul Cornell for Marvel Comics on a Pete Wisdom miniseries.

This sounds like a bit of a bummer of an entry, but the weekly is still very strong right now. Judge Dredd's epic "The Pit" continues. John Wagner is still scripting; art in this week's episode is by Alex Ronald and Alan Craddock. Vector 13 offers a ghost story by Brian Williamson and John Burns, and the final series of Finn continues, by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Paul Staples.

But then there is Sinister Dexter, and what has started as a pretty good, entertaining series has suddenly become unmissably fantastic, because Simon Davis has joined the art team:

Geez, that's beautiful. I love his work; Davis is among my five favorite comic artists. And here's the crazy thing: I imagine Davis will be quick to say that his painting looks the best when he's got a great deal of time to work on the pages, but his first two Sin Dex episodes were done under a pretty hellish deadline, and they look great.

In an earlier entry, I explained that five more episodes of Sin Dex were commissioned with very little lead time - about two months from the order until the comics went to the printer. So two episodes went to Charlie Gillespie, who'd done three of the first eight installments, one went to Henry Flint, who had just wrapped up some Rogue Trooper stories, and the other two went to Davis. Bishop had used Davis a few times as an artist for Missionary Man while he was editor of the Megazine, and knew that Davis could be counted on to make a tough deadline.

And he makes it look effortless. Over time, quite a few artists will be tackling Sinister Dexter, but Davis will get the first two of the important, long stories, "Gunshark Vacation" and "Murder 101," in 1997. These will cement Sin Dex's popularity to the point that it will become a semi-regular feature. But more on that another time!

Oh, one other note: I half-joked on the message board this week that I should keep a running Sinister Dexter bullet count. Turns out, across the first fourteen episodes, they each only take one confirmed hit apiece, in part two of "The Eleventh Commandment." Since Anthony Williams, at this time, was filling the negative space of his panels with as many shell casings as he can reasonably draw in them, I am amazed that our heroes only take two bullets across all of these installments. (In "Family Man," Henry Flint draws Ramone clutching his forearm as if to imply he'd been hit in just one panel, but there's nothing in the script to confirm it. Isn't this a great hobby?)

Next week, I'm not sure... probably a word or two about Finn and Slaine. Take care!

(Originally published 12/27/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

33. The Hit List

April 1996: Prog 989 sees the last part of the first R.A.M. Raiders adventure. This is a notable series in one respect: detailed anecdotal evidence over the last decade has proven that I am, in fact, the only person on the entire planet who liked R.A.M. Raiders. The series was the last one that Alan McKenzie brought to 2000 AD - quite possibly the last one he did for any comic - and featured a pair of young hackers in the near future, Cody and his girlfriend Meg, who stole customers out from under bigger and better-established tech support crews. They run into very weird evidence that computers are becoming sentient. Just like my iPod, in other words. It's slight, and, if we're honest, not anywhere near as thrilling as a 2000 AD series should be. But it's a nice counterpoint to the heavier, gun-laden stories elsewhere in the prog (this time, Judge Dredd by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra, Rogue Trooper by Steve White & Steve Tappin, Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett & Charlie Gillespie and Vector 13 by Simon Furman & John Higgins).

At the end of the first R.A.M. Raiders story, there's a completely bizarre twist: Meg gets killed in an explosion and returns as a ghost that only be seen by Cody or by robots. So the story starts as a lighthearted TechGhostbusters before turning into Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Maybe that's why it was so unpopular: it felt more like a TV series that McKenzie had failed to sell than it did a comic. He scripted two five-part stories under John Tomlinson's commision, the first with art by Calum Alexander Watt and the second by Maya Gavin. This very much falls in line with the sort of strips I was mentioning in the thirtieth entry, and could certainly have been in the regular rotation had Tomlinson remained with 2000 AD.

But David Bishop had other ideas, chiefly that these slight stories were a little long at five parts apiece. Watt had already completed art on the first, but the second was edited down from five parts to three before Maya Gavin got to draw it. Even if McKenzie had continued in the business, it's unlikely that R.A.M. Raiders would have returned. It appears that McKenzie has evidently tired of comic publishing by this point and is looking at a new career. Other early 90s names are finding other outlets in magazine illustration or jobs for American publishers. But several of their fellows find commissions drying up as Bishop looks elsewhere for ongoing 2000 AD work. Even several of the creators that he'd commissioned for the Judge Dredd Megazine become conspicuously absent over the next couple of years. I did a little tally, and whether by default or by design, the list of 2000 AD creators who will move on includes about twenty names, among them all three of R.A.M. Raiders' script and art droids.

There are some really positive changes to the comic during this period. I particularly like the tendency for longer residencies in the lineup. You could easily imagine the two R.A.M. Raiders stories, under the Richard Burton days, appearing months apart from each other. By running these and other strips in longer runs with multiple artists, readers are able to get more interested in the settings and the characters. The 10-14 week runs of Rogue or Venus Bluegenes, or Sin Dex, or some of the other series which will be launching soon, like Outlaw or Black Light or the big run of Slaine strips to come, are much more memorable than what we are unfortunately seeing in the present day, where, for example, The 86ers returns to the weekly after a year's break, with virtually no recap or reminder, and rushes through six subplot heavy weeks before vanishing again.

Further, Bishop brings to 2000 AD one of his staples from his tenure at the Megazine, the intro page. Each new storyline is preceded by a pinup page which recaps the story so far and refreshes readers' memories about the subplots - even if the series was in the previous issue! Prog 990 gives R.A.M. Raiders an intro page for its second and final story. Now, this is a strip which everybody involved has already decided will not be returning, and yet it gets the benefit of the intro page to help any first-time readers understand what they're about to read. That's a very nice idea and I wish today's Tharg would resurrect it.

Speaking of resurrections, the previous month saw a mention of one of Sinister Dexter's occasional employers, the ganglord Holy Moses Tanenbaum. In the current two-parter, we meet the criminal kingpin. A contract's been put out on him by his moll, the statuesque torch singer Demi Octavo. Finnigan has a little trouble with Holy Moses's force field, but Ramone finishes the job.

This is interesting because Sinister Dexter really never collect much of a rogue's gallery - most of the recurring antagonists are fellow gunmen and theirs is an occupation with more terminal ends than typical comic book heroes. Some of the more recent storylines have seen some shenanigans about Moses Tanenbaum "returning to life" through somewhat eyebrow-raising means (there are two: one is a clone and one comes from a parallel dimension), and the characters in the strip treat this like it's the worst thing imaginable, like Moses is, by some distance, the most menacing character in all of fiction. This remains head-scratchingly odd. Dan Abnett never made Moses into a serious threat in the first place. It's all very well for him to tell us ten years later on what a spectacular supervillain he was, and how his return is the worst thing that could possibly happen to the city of Downlode, but I've got the issues right in front of me, and he wasn't much of a villain, and his return is, thus far, unsatisfying and convoluted.

Next week: Middenface McNulty!! But more importantly... Simon Davis!!

(Originally published 12/20/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

32. My Dinner With Einstein

March 1996: Another week, another subpar cover. Prog 985 sports a decent enough picture of Judge Dredd looking moody, but is that any way to sell a comic to someone not already actively looking for it? Goodness, how dull. The contents are considerably more interesting. Dredd's epic "The Pit" continues, now in its second arc, "True Grot," written by John Wagner and with art by Alex Ronald and Alan Craddock. Rogue Trooper continues a four-part story by Steve White and Henry Flint, and Sinister Dexter has another one-off story by Dan Abnett and Charles Gillespie. We also get the first episode of a new series written by Alan McKenzie called R.A.M. Raiders. I'll discuss this a little more next week, but I will mention art on this story is by Calum Alexander Watt. Bringing up the rear is the second and final outing for Canon Fodder by Nigel Long and Chris Weston.

In another of those fascinating little "I had no idea" revelations in Thrill-Power Overload, it turns out that Canon Fodder's co-creator and original writer, Mark Millar, objected to the series being continued in his absence. Millar had already stopped working for 2000 AD by this point, and only one further story, a four-part Janus: Psi Division adventure planned for the Megazine, was still in the drawer. Millar was working for American publishers, principally on DC/Vertigo's Swamp Thing, around this time.

Millar's objection ranks among the most hypocritical lines of self-serving nonsense I've ever heard in the hobby. The pinhead got his start by ruining Robo-Hunter about five years previously, and then had the balls to complain about Nigel Long taking a crack at his character?

Yeah, anyway, the first Canon Fodder series, from late 1993, had this really great premise that the Rapture came, the dead regained life, and yet God never showed up to take folk up to Heaven. Now that's a fabulous idea. I may have spent some column inches here complaining about Millar, but that is one awesome premise. And it's completely wasted on this idiotic story about a typical Millar indestructible he-man punching his way through the afterlife in pursuit of Sherlock Holmes and Prof. Moriarty, who've gone to Heaven to kill God. It's got some pretty good moments, and some pretty good art, but it also reimagines the corpulent Mycroft Holmes as a skinny Hannibal Lecter. It is stupid beyond stupid.

Long's Canon Fodder story sees our hero allied with Jules Verne, Nikolai Tesla, Albert Einstein and Wilhelm Reich to defend reality from sentience formed from dark matter. (Which, Wikipedia tells us today, is "matter of unknown composition that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be observed directly, but whose presence can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter," and which accounts for a "majority of mass in the observable universe." Huh.) Long is still a novice writer and learning his craft, and some of his plot twists are kind of telegraphed in advance, but this, unlike the first, is a very clever story, with some great character moments. Reich, for instance, is a quiet little loon who keeps to himself, but he has to share how happy he is that Kate Bush wrote "Cloudbusting" about him. Sigmund Freud, who appears in the earlier episodes having incarcerated Fodder at Bedlam, is aghast in a wonderful moment when he realizes that Carl Jung was correct about that whole collective unconsciousness theory.

Even more impressively, Canon Fodder himself gets his character fleshed out, so that he's not merely a shouting, musclebound gunman. His unrequited love for his housekeeper is almost touching, really. It's a much, much better story than the first series, and Weston's art has improved from "good" to "fantastic," but David Bishop evidently decided against aggravating Millar any further, and Canon Fodder joined what's going to be an increasingly large number of series from the early 90s to be shelved under Bishop's tenure. It is also worth noting that, as it was never commissioned again, it adds to the discussion in the late 90s about series continuing without the participation of the original writer. Perhaps Millar was being hypocritical, but his point was nonetheless valid - if 2000 AD was going to shelve, as it will over the next year, Rogue Trooper, Robo-Hunter and Strontium Dogs, then Canon Fodder fits the same criteria.

Bishop will have some other tough editorial decisions in the weeks to come, which I'll talk about more next time. Here, watch Sinister and Dexter try to prop up a corpse and act like nothing's wrong and wonder whether it might be a metaphor for something.

(Originally published 12/13/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

31. Pun Loving Criminals

Is it that time again? Well, back at the Hipster Pad, my son is very pleased to see this prog, despite that really lousy cover by Jason Brashill, because he has heard of Sinister Dexter and seen the books on the shelf and flipped past the episodes in the current issues of the comic so he can start from the beginning. The series had begun a few months previously with a pilot episode in the '96 Winter Special, and begins its run in the weekly with issue # 981 in February 1996. Almost twelve years later, it's still one of the regular stars of the comic, though the current storylines, and hints from the writers and artists, certainly indicate that it will be coming to a conclusion before much longer. Commissioning the strip is former editor John Tomlinson's biggest legacy at 2000 AD.

If you aren't familiar with Sinister Dexter, then, briefly, it's a strip about two hired gunmen, Finnigan Sinister and Ramone Dexter, in a gigantic city on the European mainland called Downlode. It's set just far enough in the future for the characters to have access to some technology we don't have and interact with cyborgs, but close enough so that fashions haven't changed much and everyone can still get around in great big, gorgeous automobiles. The strip is written by Dan Abnett - he's scripted every episode, which comes to something like 1400 pages thus far - and illustrated by practically every big name in British comics over the last decade. David Millgate was the original art droid. Others have included Simon Davis, whom many consider to be the definitive Sin Dex artist, Andy Clarke, Greg Staples, Henry Flint, Steve Yeowell, Anthony Williams, Frazer Irving and many more. The format is incredibly flexible, and, like Judge Dredd, mixes one-off episodes with epic-length stories and with shorter tales which advance ongoing subplots. There are patches where it's felt old, tired and in the way, and there are occasional moments of real brilliance, subversion, wit, and a genuine sense of drama and danger.

And puns. This series has the absolute worst jokes in all of comics, and knows it. It shouldn't be too surprising that a strip which stars characters whose names mean "left right" in Latin has them walking around in a city where everybody they meet has a name with at least one other meaning. The first weekly episode introduces us to their angst-ridden information broker Nervous Rex. As we see below, Rex is being menaced by Kenton Quaranteeno, prompting Sinister to go all Dirty Harry on him. We're not done with the names yet, but I do want to point out that this is a very clever scene, as it pays homage to Sinister Dexter's principal forebears - Pulp Fiction and Clint Eastwood - immediately and then gets on with creating its own world.

Sinister has come to see Rex because he needs the location of this episode's target. His name is Curt Vile. Now, maybe I'm reading too much into things, but I just don't see how there's any way Dan Abnett could not have known that Alan Moore had beat him to that particular pun by at least fifteen years, and, for a time, wrote under that pseudonym. So, week one in the comic and our heroes' first assignment is to kill Alan Moore. Unfortunately, Mr. Vile has already had face-change surgery and now looks like Ramone Dexter, and not an old bearded hippie from Northhampton. Moore's the pity.

At the time this originally appeared, David Bishop was settling in to the editor's job and inherited the eight-week series from Tomlinson, who'd been moved to the Judge Dredd Megazine. Now, the previous issue featured an ad for some forthcoming Slaine storylines, announcing that the story "Lord of Misrule," which had ended on a cliffhanger in prog 963, would be back in prog 990. Almost immediately, Bishop had to rearrange things on that front. Artist Clint Langley wouldn't be ready in time, so Slaine was put back to prog 995 and Bishop quickly commissioned another five episodes of Sin Dex from Dan Abnett. He was only able to do this because the strip's format of, then, one and two-part stories allowed him to commission the scripts and assign multiple artists to tackle the new order with only about two months to spare. In the early 80s, when Wagner and Grant were writing more than half the book and the episodes didn't require color, a last-minute change like that would not have been much of a problem. By '96, this is a somewhat larger headache. Readers had no idea of the behind-the-scenes incident, and probably didn't know until Bishop discussed it in Thrill-Power Overload.

The extended run of Sinister Dexter manages to pay off very well. It's a hugely enjoyable series, and readers love it. Giving it a three-month stint gives everyone a chance to get to know the characters' world and the cast and the strip's humor and attitude. It will return frequently over the next few years, becoming a semi-regular in 1997-2001 and always popping up for anywhere from six to twenty episodes a year thereafter. As I said above, it's still going strong today, although its heyday has certainly passed. I'm certainly going to enjoy rereading all of this (mostly) great strip. One thing I have noted is that Dexter originally had more "dialect" in his word balloons, with "they" spelled out as "dey" and so on. This was dropped after a couple of weeks.

A fair amount of the earlier Sin Dex episodes are available in collected form. DC wisely recognized that this was among the most commercial and sellable of 2000 AD's color strips (although they didn't do jack to sell them), and when they and Rebellion went into the trade paperback business together, they assembled three volumes of the first couple of years of episodes. They aren't quite complete - the episodes illustrated by Tom Carney were excised altogether - but about 95% of them are included. These three books are still in print, and any comic shop can order them. American accounts will find them in DC's section of the distributor, Diamond, or you can get them from Amazon: Gunshark Vacation is the first one, followed by Murder 101 and finally Slay Per View. We're hoping that a fourth collection will arrive sometime in 2008.

Anyway, the other series in this issue I'll mention more next time, but for the record, they're Venus Bluegenes by Steve White and Henry Flint, Janus: Psi Division by Mark Millar and Paul Johnson, Canon Fodder by Nigel Long and Chris Weston, and the continuing Judge Dredd epic "The Pit," by John Wagner and, this week, Lee Sullivan. I like Sullivan's work, though he's never been a fan favorite. I know he also plays saxophone in a Roxy Music tribute band, and what's this going on in Sector House 301?

Looks like Judge (Bryan?) Ferry arresting Roxy saxophonist Andy Mackay to me. In 2001, Sullivan donated the original artwork for this page to a charity auction which was organized by a Roxy mailing list that I was once on. He noted then that the colorist, Mike Hadley, didn't follow the guidelines and give Andy's "Dalek pants" their correct green and blue scheme! I can't find a picture online of these glam rock marvels; you'll just have to trust me when I tell you they were awesome.

(Originally published 12/6/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

30. Everybody Just Wants to Have Guns

It's January 1996, and we're coming down to the very end of John Tomlinson's tenure. The handoff to David Bishop has already come, but it has not been announced in the prog yet, and I've got something else to look at in the next installment, so this is a good point to stop and re-evaluate. Conventional wisdom suggests that Bishop was the one who turned 2000 AD around from the early 1990s pre-movie doldrums, but this prog suggests that things were already moving in the right direction. The lineup this time is the continuing story of Judge Dredd in "The Pit" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra - clearly the best thing going in the comic - with reasonable support provided by four other thrills, none of which are really bad, even if they've been mostly forgotten over time. These are Venus Bluegenes, a spinoff from Rogue Trooper by Dan Abnett and Simon Coleby, Flesh, by Abnett, Steve White and Gary Erskine, Kid CyBorg by "Kek-W" (Nigel Long) and Jim McCarthy, and Darkness Visible by Nick Abadzis and John Ridgway.

Of the strips, Kid CyBorg is very much the weak link, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Jim McCarthy's art really fails the material, and looks so unappealing that it's no wonder readers gave it the thumbs-down. McCarthy had been associated with unpopular strips throughout the early 90s, including Bix Barton (which I liked) and The Grudge-Father (which nobody did), and so I imagine people just tuned this one out completely. It also simply looks as though the printers fumbled the ball with it, like his coloring choices just got swallowed by the paper, and so while Kid CyBorg's art is actually streets ahead of his other work, the strip looks flat, unfocussed and, when weighed against Ezquerra, Ridgway and Erskine in the same comic, decidedly amateurish. Long' s script is pretty good, and I was surprised to learn that all the elements are there for a memorable, classic 2000 AD character, but with art this ugly, nobody wanted to read it in the first place, let alone see the kid again.

This isn't poor scanning; it looks this muddy on paper, too.

Flesh was created by Pat Mills and was one of the original 2000 AD series. This is a seven-part story called "Chronocide," and sees the put-upon hero of the original run, Earl Regan, conscripted back to work for the Trans-Time Corporation. (Regan only appeared in Flesh Book One. That book's villain, Claw Carver, reappeared in 1978's Book Two. Flesh was rested until prog 800, when Pat Mills resurrected the concept with none of the original characters in "The Legend of Shamana.") Interestingly, "Chronocide" takes place in two time periods - Regan is dealing with one group of terrorists 80 million years ago and other characters are fighting the same gang in the Cenozoic. It's a solid story, with fine artwork. Incidentally, Gary Erskine's the new artist for Virgin's seven-part Dan Dare comic, which'll be in stores soon.

Nick Abadzis's Darkness Visible also features a character who might have returned had Bishop commissioned another series. This was a five-part story about a PI named Alec Perry, whose missing persons investigation has him crossing paths with a really dangerous cult. It's a scenario that would have played equally well in DC's Hellblazer, and Abadzis's script does a good job making readers care about the character and keeping us guessing where the plot would go. Abadzis didn't have a very long 2000 AD career - he did have some Vector 13 episodes in 1996, but no other series - but he resurfaced earlier this year with the critically acclaimed graphic novel Laika. The art is very, very good. It's always nice to see John Ridgway in the prog.

And then there's Venus Bluegenes, who gets off to as okay a start as a Rogue Trooper spinoff can. But you know, that's not a terrible lineup of heroes. Venus and Earl Regan pre-existed this run, but these stories are treated as effectively pilots for the characters. 2000 AD works best when its recurring series spotlight a heroic character - even an anti-hero like Nemesis - on some kind of ongoing storyline. I think you see this in Tomlinson's later Tor Cyan series; the editor clearly knew what sort of ongoing series 2000 AD needed and commissioned the right kinds of strips during his short tenure. Clearly none of them succeeded, but they're a huge step in the right direction. David Bishop would inherit a couple more of these strips, including R.A.M. Raiders, which runs in the spring of '96, and Sinister Dexter, which would prove to be Tomlinson's most lasting commission to the comic.

Sinister Dexter will take the spotlight next time, but that won't be for another three weeks. As I've mentioned, I'm sharing the reread with my son, and he's going to spend a long Thanksgiving holiday with his mother in Kentucky. Normal service will resume in December!

(Originally published 11/15/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

29. Fleetway Begins the Brakes

Short one this week, fans. Megazine Vol. 3 # 13 (Jan. 1996) was the last of the biweekly editions of the comic. It had switched over from monthly to twice-monthly in 1992 after 20 issues, starting a new volume with its new frequency. Fleetway relaunched it again in the summer of '95 to coincide with the Judge Dredd film (see the 22nd entry), but the sales spike that the Fleetway line received from the movie's publicity had faded within three months. Worse, while 2000 AD itself had received a pretty reliable spike of thrill-power in the form of Vector 13, the Megazine didn't find anything of note after the initial thrills of its third volume. "The Three Amigos" and "Satan" had been popular, successful thrills, as was the reinvigorated Harmony with new artist Steve Sampson, but the series that replaced them were less than engaging.

So, January 1996 sees one of those "all stories end this issue" editions, with a pair of one-off filler Judge Dredd episodes, and the final parts of Deathwatch by Paul Cornell and Adrian Salmon, Judge Hershey by Paul Neal and Marc Wigmore, and Pan-African Judges by Siku. It's a massive yawnfest, although I do like Wigmore's bizarre sense of anatomy, and stark use of white negative space.

What this issue doesn't tell you is that it's the final biweekly issue. The next one comes with the free gift of a big poster and the announcement that it's a monthly comic again. In hindsight, this isn't surprising... in publishing, you hype up the changes that you should feel good about, but you spring the bad news as late as possible.

Next week, Rogue Trooper gets a little less boring when Venus Bluegenes gets her solo series...

(Originally published 11/8/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

28. The Pit

In December 1995, prog 970 arrives with some interesting clues about the contents of the cancelled 1996 Yearbook. The official explanation, provided in a Meg a month or so previously, is that the Nerve Centre was simply so swamped with all the new Dredd product and the line-wide relaunches that the Dredd and 2000 AD yearbooks had to be shelved. Conventional wisdom, however, suggests that you don't shelve a perennial seller. By the mid-90s, the old Christmas tradition was sagging across all lines and publishers. Since the last couple of years' offerings had moved slowly, and since the sales spike provided by the Dredd film had already ebbed, it was decided to cancel the books and use their contents in the comic. So in prog 970, there's a Nerve Centre note about two upcoming thrills: one-off episodes of Red Razors and The Journal of Luke Kirby in the next two issues. These will prove to be the final appearances for each series.

On the back covers of progs 972 and 973, there's a two-part star scan by Mick Austin, who painted the cover of the 1995 Yearbook, featuring Tharg and a number of characters: Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Luke Kirby, Red Razors, Feral, Judy Janus and Sam Slade. Prog 953 had seen a Janus: Psi Division one-off, and Feral had appeared in a Strontium Dogs episode four weeks later. Were these all cast-offs from the axed book? As for our old pal Sam Slade, the next we see of Robo-Hunter is another one-shot by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes in December 1996.

My curiosity about the activity behind the scenes at my favorite comic is an amusing distraction, but the real story this week is the first episode of one of the all-time great Judge Dredd stories, "The Pit."

Even if you're not really familiar with Dredd, you probably have seen images here and there to know he's a big action hero on a big motorcycle. "The Pit" promises readers that it will show them Dredd as he's never been seen before... behind a desk! This is a fantastic, 30-week change in the status quo that sees Dredd assigned to new duties in one of the Meg's remote regions, where rather than doing the job of a senior street judge, he's assigned to the task of sector chief.

It turns out that the Dredd formula works incredibly well as an ensemble police procedural, which was a huge surprise to everybody, including the writer. "The Pit" was originally planned as a 14-part story, the second to involve the organized crimelords called The Frendz, but it works so incredibly well, and the new cast of characters are so popular with readers that it is expanded into a thirty-episode epic which won't conclude until the summer of 1996.

Carlos Ezquerra is the principal artist of this series. Other contributors are Colin MacNeil, Alex Ronald and Lee Sullivan.

Hamlyn issued an out-of-print collection of this series in 1997. A new edition from Rebellion has occasionally been mentioned as a possibility.

Next week, the Megazine ends its twice-monthly publishing cycle... but why?

(Originally published 11/1/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

27. Nu-Earth Nonsense

Still November 1995, still waiting for "The Pit" to begin. It's # 967, and the contents include two one-offs and four ongoing stories. Judge Dredd has a good tale by Dan Abnett and the wonderful Anthony Williams about an old robo-boxing droid, and Vector 13 has a pretty by-the-numbers story by Kevin Gill and Dave D'Antiquis about spontaneous human combustion. The other stories are PARAsites by Mark Eyles and Mike Hadley, Chopper by Alan McKenzie and John Higgins, The ABC Warriors by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Kevin Walker and the first part of a new Rogue Trooper storyline.

The Hipster Son has recently begun playing Rogue Trooper for the Playstation 2 and has been confused by the goings-on in the comic strip. At this point in 2000 AD's life, we're in the waning days of the strip, when Steve White and Steve Tappin have been ordered to perform emergency surgery and make something out of the character. See, the original series concluded in 1989 or so, to make way for a new iteration of Rogue devised by his original artist Dave Gibbons. This was meant to be a dark, gritty, future war story bereft of all the accoutrements and silliness from the original run. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions of his first outing, a lengthy 1990 series painted by Will Simpson, Rogue fell into a complete mess in which "silly" would have been a great improvement.

Mercifully, I started writing these little blogs after I'd already reread the three Michael Fleisher-scripted series from 1991-92, and so I don't have to tell you how terrible they were. But I think, apart from all the cliche and half-baked "drama" within them, their worst offense was turning the oppressive, downbeat, realistic, "hard SF" world of the Gibbons/Simpson series into something utterly bizarre, with completely outlandish gadgetry and improbable future tech that wouldn't have been out of place in a seventh-grade game of TSR's Star Frontiers. So when Steve White took over in 1994, he had a long row to hoe...

White's take on Rogue Trooper swings like a pendulum from high to low. There's one episode from early spring 1995 which is something like three straight pages of four identical blue-skinned clones talking about a cellular virus attacking their genetic structure. I really am trying to reread every word in 2000 AD in this exercise, but even I couldn't finish that one. On the other hand, the climax to "Ascent" in prog 949 is heartbreaking and a real triumph. I still think fans who've dismissed this series need to reread this four-parter and reconsider this one outing.

White worked to restore some realism and sense to the series, by relating a future war that works within honest boundaries and a logical backstory. In many ways, I think it's every bit as misunderstood as the Peter Hogan/Rian Hughes run of Robo-Hunter, brought in to rehabilitate an old favorite whose reputation had been tarnished by a previous mess by a lesser writer. White was not as consistent, nor as artistically successful, on Rogue as Peter Hogan had been on Robo-Hunter, but these really aren't bad comics. They're certainly no worse than the meandering original run of Rogue Trooper. I'd much rather read the White/Tappin stories than all that "Antigen of Horst" nonsense that Gerry Finley-Day and Jose Ortiz slogged through forever.

The reread shows me that this was my first prog after a four-week disappearance at the hands of Diamond. This started happening, unaccountably, in the mid 1990s, and it was pretty widespread. In 1996, there was a similar five-week drop, and I later noticed the back issue bins at one of my favorite shops, Great Escape in Nashville, had the exact same hole of five issues in their collection. The last one came in 1997.

In the case of Rogue Trooper, the drop meant that I missed the three-episode story "Descent," which preceded this one. This was a pretty harrowing story in which Friday has a breakdown, unable to cope with half of his supporting cast dying in the "Ascent" story. It's a bleak and fascinating scene, but White and Tappin sensibly didn't wallow too long in this character-driven moment; the series, whether the original, starring Rogue or this version starring Friday, doesn't need very much character introspection. It's a simple, plot-driven premise: vengeful, taciturn man fights lonely war.

My son thinks it would make a terrific TV series, although he suggests that they might not find an actor who wants to be painted blue and run around without a shirt all the time. "For Venus, they'd only have to paint her arms and face," he says.

Finally this week, old business. Paul Rainey, whom you may know from his incredibly fun 2000 AD Prog Slog Blog, which inspired my Thrillpowered Thursday series, this week reread prog 265, which, due to a printer's error, had an almost completely black Nerve Centre, with the week's letter from Tharg illegible. Paul's copy of the prog lacked this inserted note, explaining the error and providing the much-needed weekly communication from our favorite alien editor:

Kinda like that kid in A Christmas Story decoding the message about the Ovaltine, isn't it?

(Originally published 10/25/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

26. The Hondo Deal

It's November 1995, and 2000 AD is beginning a tradition of a new jump-on issue every 13-14 weeks, with all-new thrills. This will often include a one-off Dredd episode, as it lends itself more readily to a done-in-one simple introduction to the format. In prog 964, this is an episode by John Wagner and Cliff Robinson which brings back the minor character of Bishop Desmond Snodgrass and, in a very cheeky move, "outs" him as a simp. Simps are Mega City-One loonies who dress in bizarre, attention-seeking garb, and were introduced in a Robinson-illustrated story in 1987. The struggle for simp rights occasionally surfaces in Dredd as a metaphor for gay rights; this episode seems to recall a 1994 incident in which Peter Tatchell's group OutRage! outed fourteen bishops of the Church of England.

Rogue Trooper, by Steve White and Steve Tappin, also returns. It has to be said that the artwork is quite good, at least. More on this next week. Book Two of The ABC Warriors: "Hellbringer," by Pat Mills and Kevin Walker, finally kicks off more than a year after Book One concluded. "Finally!" says my son, who thinks there was far too long a gap between books... and this from a kid who's reading 5-6 issues a week! It's probably the best story in the lineup, but it will also be the last ABC Warriors story in the prog for four years. PARAsites, or possibly paraSITES, or conceivably PAINTdry by Mark Eyles and Mike Hadley, finally appears after sitting on Tharg's shelf for more than 18 months. This is a sequel to the universally-loathed 1992 series Wire Heads. The six-strip format will resume in the next issue when Vector 13 returns and this lineup will be settled in for a couple of months.

The other series beginning in this issue is a very interesting eight-part Chopper story. It's by Alan McKenzie, with art by John Higgins. I say it's "interesting" because I believe it is the last remnant of an abandoned storyline about the rebuilding of Mega-City Two, and a major global conflict. In 1992, this was one of the mega-cities wiped out in the Garth Ennis-scripted story "Judgement Day." The editorial team at the time had since been putting little pieces together in the comic about tensions between Mega-City One, Hondo City (Japan) and Sino-Cit One. These showed up in a Dredd episode by Mark Millar called "War Games" in prog 854 (Sept. 1993), along with Ennis's The Corps (progs 918-923, Jan. 1995). But as Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie, who evidently worked out the ideas along with Millar and Ennis, moved on from editorial positions, the big epic-in-the-works was quietly shelved, especially as John Wagner returned to 2000 AD in 1994 and had no interest in the idea.

From what we can piece together from the episodes that were published, Hondo City had grown to encompass the entirety of the Japanese islands, with very little room for its population. With a gigantic chunk of real estate on the west coast of North America suddenly freed after its population was overrun by zombies (see the "Judgement Day" page on Wikipedia), the Hondo City government decided to rebuild on the site, and to move a number of its citizens there. The giant rebuilding project drew hundreds of thousands of Mega-City One citizens to trek across the desert wasteland for construction jobs.

It's actually not a bad premise at all, but I wonder how McKenzie and the other writers intended to turn this curious backstory into an exciting mega-epic of destruction, the way these Dredd multi-part epics tend to go. I guess we'll never know, but I certainly enjoyed the way that other stories and serials were used as building blocks. I guess, since no major inter-city conflict emerged or another world war started, that the Japanese rebuilt Mega-City Two, moved millions of its citizens there to settle in with relocated workers from Mega-City One and Texas City, and they lived happily and peacefully without international incident. That certainly makes a change from the usual bloody Dredd mega-epic.

The Chopper story itself isn't really bad, but it's very slow, and takes forever to get going. As a character piece it works, but you sort of expect a little more action and energy from a strip about a guy who moves at 150 mph on a flying surfboard, you know?

In two weeks' time, I'll look at what actually was developed as the next mega-epic, and how remarkably different it was from its predecessors. It's called "The Pit," and I recall it being very, very much worth the wait...

(Originally published 10/18/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

25. Chin to Chin

It's October 1995, and, if you can figure out what that big orangey-brown thing on the cover is, it's time for a truly odd little four-part story in which Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Jason Brashill look into what the heck Hammerstein was doing in the Judge Dredd movie. The real answer is that artist Kevin Walker, around the time he was painting the "Khronicles of Khaos" storyline for The ABC Warriors, was contracted to do some design work for the Dredd film. Since the script called for a old war robot to do the baddie's bidding, he just reused the Hammerstein design. Brashill paints Hammerstein with an enormous helmet; I think this cover would work a lot better if he wasn't wearing it; then you'd have Dredd chin-to-chin with Hammerstein's angular, robotic jaw, and not that big ugly expanse of curved muddy orange.

The fictional answer is that Mills figured it would be a good idea to have the crazy robot tank from the later parts of "The Cursed Earth" be one of the ABC Warriors' commanders, and that at some point that does not really make a lot of sense, General Blood n' Guts led a battalion of Hammersteins against the judges during the big civil war in the late 21st century that led to the creation of the Mega-Cities. Well, of course.

One thing I like about 2000 AD is that it usually does not go out of its way to reconcile odd backstories or tie together threads into one continuity. It remains a favorite hobby of some fans, but, mercifully, understanding how one series may be set in the same universe as another is never required to figure out what the heck is going on in the comic. Also, this is the first time that the character of Hammerstein is described as being one of many; previously, in Ro-Busters and the original ABC Warriors storyline, it was implied that most war droids were these sort of anonymous C-3PO-looking guys. The concept of a battalion full of Hammerstein droids has resurfaced in the current "Volgan War" story by Mills and Clint Langley.

Mills would later start playing with different versions of the same storyline. The ABC Warriors and Ro-Busters are set in an outlandish, sci-fi world where the Volgan invasion of Britain led to the immediate development of armies of robots. Savage, which picks up the themes from the original Invasion! storyline, is set in the modern world, in a present we'd find ourselves in had England really been invaded in 1999. So it doesn't stretch things too much to have another version where ABC War vets were fighting the judges after the Volgans surrendered. (If you don't know what a Volgan is, recall that the longest river in Europe is the Volga, and that the comic's publishers didn't wish to offend anybody at the Russian Embassy, even if the comic's writers, in 1977, didn't mind who they offended.)

Also running in this prog is a really great, terrific Dredd story by Wagner and John Burns called "The Cal Files." This introduces another recurring nemesis for Dredd in the form of Judge Edgar, the power-hungry head of Justice Department's Public Surveillance Unit. Edgar's quiet manipulation of politics makes her a fascinating moral and ethical opponent for Dredd. Also appearing in the issue are the continuing stories of Luke Kirby (Alan McKenzie & Simon Parkhouse), Maniac 5 (Mark Millar & Steve Yeowell) and Slaine (Mills & Langley), along with the first episode of "Deals," a new Durham Red four-parter by Peter Hogan and Mark Harrison. Unfortunately, the story starts off with one of the most bizarre printing errors ever seen in the comic:

Well, they got the lettering right, anyway...

(Originally published 10/11/07 on LiveJournal.)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

24. From the Mixed-Up Files of the Men in Black

By September 1995, 2000 AD has settled into one of what my son would tell you is one of the comic's all-time best lineups. I would not necessarily agree, but it does contain two Judge Dredd episodes, both written by John Wagner, with art by Carlos Ezquerra and Andrew Currie. The first one is part of a major new story called "Bad Frendz." It introduces an untouchable kingpin named Nero Narcos and his supposedly charitable Frendz organization. The Frendz will prove to be the major ongoing subplots in Mega City-One for the next several years, with quite a few cases taking surprise detours when a hidden connection to the Frendz comes to light.

Also present in prog 957, as the cover indicates, is the second and final Maniac 5 serial by Mark Millar and Steve Yeowell. Well, my son likes it, anyway. There is also a one-off Strontium Dogs episode which fills in for Slaine during a week's break between two storylines. It's written by Peter Hogan, with guest art by Simon Harrison. The Journal of Luke Kirby, by Alan McKenzie and Steve Parkhouse, continues what will prove to be its last serial. This is a very interesting story called "The Old Straight Track" which focuses on ley lines and stone circles and the like. So bluntly, all the time-marking that was evident ten issues previously is totally gone. Even accepting that Maniac 5 is yet another dull indestructible supertough engaging in another boring Mark Millar beat-em-up, it certainly engages a ten year-old's thrill-circuits and proves a good counterpoint to the slower, more reflective Luke Kirby and Strontium Dogs stories.

But perhaps the most interesting bit in the comic, outside of the Wagner-Ezquerra Dredd episode, is Vector 13. This is a series of one-off five-page stories hosted and narrated by a collection of Men in Black, telling tales of bizarre fortean events, with mothmen, UFOs, ghosts, coincidences, saber-toothed tigers and weird conspiracies. They're all told with a sense of quiet sobriety, played straight but also played lightly. It's a balancing act that doesn't always work, but when it does, the results are just great.

Where the heck did this come from? 2000 AD had included occasional one-part stories since 1977, as all anthology comics occasionally did, to fill gaps between longer serials and to give new talent a chance to get some experience before tackling a larger commitment. In 2000 AD, these most often appeared under the banners Tharg's Future Shocks, Tharg's Time Twisters or Tharg's Terror Tales. Vector 13 marked the first time that the fictional hosts were in some way a participant in the events, with all of the narration from their point of view, and occasionally recounted to an audience of other Men in Black at some conference or training.

But the Men in Black? It seems so cheesy from our perspective, because the mid-90s ran nothing into the ground so firmly as secret government conspiracies. The X Files debuted on the American Fox network in September 1992, perfectly timed to build an audience ready to relive the assassination of Kennedy in a dozen 30th anniversary specials. The city of Roswell, New Mexico enjoyed newfound notoreity, some "video entrepreneur" sold Fox a "documentary" called Alien Autopsy - Fact or Fiction?, and, for at least two years, every new drama on NBC that wasn't a Law & Order spinoff had its protagonists running from the relentless pursuit of the shadowy government conspiracy obsessed with their capture. Oh, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones made a couple of movies that made some money.

Over the next year, Vector 13's hosts stay very busy. The Men in Black will pop into at least two more series, and that's before things get really odd in 1996... but that's getting ahead of things. For now, Vector 13 is quietly making a mark with some downright excellent little short stories, with great contributions from the likes of Shaky Kane, Dan Abnett, Nigel Long, Kevin Cullen, Sean Phillips and John Ridgway. Many more creators will have work in the series, which will run to 66 episodes, including Pat Mills, who will make a very rare excursion into the land of one-off stories in an upcoming prog. Here's another thing that Tharg should look into reprinting. The entire series could be handled in two volumes, and we'd get some really great, rare work back into print.

Next week, the comic makes an unusual move and ties elements of the comic's backstory together to match the film. Will it work?

(Originally published 10/4/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

23. The Three Amigos

August 1995: The relaunched Megazine has a very strong lineup this summer. It includes Anderson: Psi Division by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson, Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and Simon Davis, Harmony, which is, for the first time, unmissably good, by Chris Standley and Steve Sampson, and two Judge Dredd episodes.

The first major multi-part Judge Dredd adventure by Wagner since "The Exterminator" in the winter is a seven episode story by John Wagner and Trevor Hairsine called "The Three Amigos." It's a very amusing story in which Dredd teams up with Mean Machine Angel and Judge Death to infiltrate and wipe out a mutant gang in the Cursed Earth. Taken on its own merits, the story is a great success. You don't believe for a minute that Dredd has really turned his back on the law and taken up with his two most notorious recurring foes, and you're not really meant to. The beauty is that Wagner drops the readers in at the deep end, and doesn't provide any explanations or backstory until the third episode.

On the other hand, by this point Judge Comedy Death is getting a little difficult to defend, and is just this side of utterly ponderous.

Following the fourth, and what arguably should have been last, battle with Judge Death in 1990's "Necropolis," the character settled into a groove of over-the-top black comedy and appeared far too often to take seriously as a threat. This story doesn't rehabilitate his reputation any, as it's a broad, amusing comedy, but Hairsine's art is amazing, and there is a hilarious payoff in the final episode which is worth selling a kidney to see. "The Three Amigos" was reprinted by Hamlyn Books in 1996. It is out of print, but occasionally shows up on eBay.

The other Dredd episode is a one-off by Chris Standley and, yes, Mike McMahon:

To dislike Mike McMahon is to dislike life. Or to be my ten year-old kid, who hasn't figured this artwork out yet. An "Art of Mike McMahon" book would be a lovely idea for Rebellion. It could include his color artwork from this period and the various covers and pinups he'd done for the early 90s Complete Judge Dredd comic, and all those great pages from the Dredd Annuals of the early 1980s, and maybe even some Muto Maniac from Toxic!...

Next week: The shadowy conspiracy of Vector 13...

(Originally published 9/27/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

22. In the Spotlight

July 1995: To coincide with the Dredd film's UK debut, prog 950 features the first major redesign since prog 555 in 1987. The cover price goes up 20p to accomodate eight extra pages. The lineup features two Dredd episodes, which will be the standard for a couple of months. One of these is a three-part "retelling" of the classic "The Return of Rico," which introduced us to Dredd's clone brother. This expanded version is by Pat Mills and Paul Johnson. The other Dredd is a one-off by John Wagner and Jason Brashill. The other strips at this time are fan favorites Slaine (by Mills, this time with gorgeous painted artwork by Greg Staples, which, like a lot of painted art from this period, isn't served well by the paper) and Rogue Trooper (in a three-part story by Steve White and Charlie Adlard).

Conspicuous by his absence is Carlos Ezquerra. In fact, he's not been seen in the prog or the Meg for eight months. He'll be back next week, but during this period, he's been working for DC Comics, first on a four-part miniseries called Bob the Galactic Bum and also on the 64-page Dredd movie adaptation. This is written by Andrew Helfer and proves that Ezquerra can indeed draw anything and make it look good, even Sylvester Stallone.

On the other hand, you know what instantly turns Carlos Ezquerra's work from just about the best in the medium to painfully mediocre? Shitty coloring like this:

Along with the "proper" strips, we've also got this thing called Urban Strike, which Fleetway told the editors to do. It's a six-part adaptation of a video game that nobody remembers. Urban Strike is loathed by the readers, who write some pretty angry letters about its inclusion. Steve White, Brian Williamson and Mick Austin try to make something of it, but it's glaringly out of place. It feels exactly like that one-page strip on the back cover of all those 70s DC Comics about Spalding basketballs, starring Dr. Julius Irving and that white guy. It looked like a comic, it was part of your comic book, but it was, inescapably, an ad. But, you know, that at least had the decency to only be one page long and drawn by Jack Davis.

As for the eight extra pages, they're used both for introduction pages for each of the new stories in the issue, to help new readers find their feet, and for film hype. With the next issue, the story count will go up to six per prog when Vector 13 begins; more on that another time.

Also bagged with the issue is a 16-page sampler of one of the books released to cash in on the film. The A to Z of Judge Dredd was written by Mike Butcher and is a pretty neat reference encyclopedia, although the publication of six or seven new Dredd installments every month dated it almost instantly. The ad above is on the back cover of the sampler and shows how all the 2000 AD titles picked up a uniform design.

Hopes were very high at Fleetway for this film to do for Dredd comics what the 1989 Batman movie did for DC's books. They sink a lot of money into hype and advertisement and plan for high earnings in the wake of expected sales growth. But the film flops, and kids can't see it anyway because the director was more interested in gory exit wounds than telling a coherent story and so the MPAA and whatever its UK equivalent is called slap an R rating on it, which means Burger King wouldn't touch it and the video game is godawful and what few toys are out there are pretty pathetic, too.

It's a shame, because the quality kickstart is definitely in the works. Some great creators like Gordon Rennie and Simon Fraser are starting to be noticed, Vector 13 and Sinister Dexter are right around the corner, and it's almost for naught, because by this time in July 1996, three of the five titles above will have been axed and a fourth is on life support.

Next week: Ride into action with the Three Amigos!

(Originally published 9/20/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

21. I cannot imagine a comic worse than a Mark Millar take on Prez.

July 1995: This is the week that prog 947 ships and the week that viewers in America got to see the Judge Dredd film, and shake their heads in sad disbelief at what a turkey it was. It would be three more weeks before the UK premiere, to tie in with prog 950.

Mambo (by David Hine) and Strontium Dogs (by Peter Hogan and Mark Harrison) conclude their current stories in this issue. "Goodnight Kiss," which would be Garth Ennis's last Judge Dredd adventure for many years, has its penultimate part, and a surprisingly good Rogue Trooper installment, underrated by everybody, moves towards its extremely memorable conclusion. But the malaise is unmistakable; this is a comic marking time until the big, line-wide relaunch.

I try to avoid jumping ahead, but since neither 948 nor 949 are on the schedule, this is my only chance to mention Tracer by Dave Stone and Paul Peart. I was never a real fan of the twice yearly Specials that 2000 AD used to publish, but I picked up the December 1993 Winter Special when I was in London that time, and was pleased to see - this is a little funny in retrospect - the launch of two new series with pilot episodes in the pages of the special. These were Tracer and Canned Heat by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil. Tracer is a repo man in a violent future, and the visual hook is that most of the action takes place in these partially-completed skyscrapers, where the impoverished eke out a life while beset by criminal gangs who scale the skeletal infrastructures. It wasn't high art, but it just plain looked neat. Then 18 months passed, and the Tracer series finally started with a two-part story and that was the last we saw of it.

What I did not know at the time was, of course, this was using up old material. Tracer and Canned Heat were "survivors" of a proposed anthology book called Earthside 8 which was in development in the early 90s and axed by the summer of 1993. The book was aimed at younger readers than those currently absorbing 2000 AD. After learning about Earthside 8, I thought for some time that Stone and Peart had completed three episodes of Tracer before the axe fell, the pilot and this two-parter, and 2000 AD just found what place they could to make a little back on the investment. However, in part two, Paul Peart's signature is clearly dated "95," so at least 18 months had to pass before the art was finished. Perhaps the scripts sat in a drawer for all that time, and 2000 AD went ahead and paid for an artist, since the script droid had been paid two years previously?

Earthside 8 was also meant to have featured Dinosty by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. As the artist had finished five episodes before the comic's cancellation, it was decided to bring all ten episodes to 2000 AD; this ran in progs 873 to 882 in early 1994. There was also a hitman story by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra called The Burning Man. The pilot episode for that was used as filler in the 1994 2000 AD Yearbook.

According to David Bishop's Thrill Power Overload, other strips planned for Earthside 8, which was briefly renamed Alternity, included work by creators such as Mark Eyles, Brett Ewins and Roger Langridge. The one I actually want to see, just because of the train-wreck factor, was Billy Whisper, a story about a teenage US president, as imagined by Mark Millar. The same concept had been used in an incredibly entertaining and goofy DC title called Prez in the early '70s. The Joe Simon comic has been a cult classic for years, and inspired my favorite episode of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Somehow, I cannot for the life of me imagine a comic worse than a Mark Millar take on Prez.

Since this is a short entry this week, with little to illustrate it, I thought I would first leave you with the Shaky Kane panel from prog 947:

Also, 2000 AD Review has a new interview with Anthony Williams, who saved the day by stepping in for Ian Gibson on Robo-Hunter a few weeks ago. If I'm reading that right, Williams hasn't got the formal commission for the next story, "La Revolution Robotique," yet, though it's clearly a good few months down the line. Currently, Tharg has a heck of a lot of series ready to go: the new stories Dead Eyes, Domino and Cradlegrave, plus new serials for Defoe, Greysuit, Kingdom, Nikolai Dante, The Red Seas, Sin Dex, Stickleback, Strontium Dog and The Ten-Seconders, so it may be a while before Samantha reaches the shores of France. Le sigh.

Huh. That was a little longer than I thought it'd be. Next week, prog 950!

(Originally published 9/13/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

20. The Strange Case of the Missing Armitage

By the beginning of June 1995, volume 2 of the Megazine is winding down for its big relaunch to coincide with the Judge Dredd feature film. Similarly, the two companion reprint titles are closing down in favor of new FIRST ISSUE relaunches with new titles: The Best of 2000 AD Monthly, after 119 issues, becomes Classic 2000 AD, for instance. As 2000 AD itself is aiming more at older teens, a new, twice-monthly companion title called Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future is launched, targetting 8-12 year-olds. It's all part of the odd reality of magazine publishing in the mid-90s. Everything is controlled by marketing analysis and common sense loses out to people who spend all day writing memos about the viability of corporate synergy and redemographication in the advertising market.

2000 AD itself narrowly avoids being renumbered FIRST ISSUE along with the rest of the line; editor John Tomlinson pens a Thargnote in prog 943's output page dismissing the rumors that 949 would be the last under the old numbering, with 950 appearing instead as vol.2 # 1. This was indeed Fleetway's plan for a time, as David Bishop confirmed in in Thrill-Power Overload. I recall reading of that suggestion in the comic and being baffled that anybody would start such a bizarre rumor, little realizing that it had basis in fact.

The Megazine is burning away the last of some stockpiled stories during this period. These include the impenetrable mess that is Pandora by Jim Alexander and John Hicklenton and another installment of Si Spencer's anthology title Plagues of Necropolis. There's a black and white Dredd episode - actually the first monochrome Dredd in several years - by John Wagner and newcomer Tom Carney, and there's a Missionary Man one-off which my son thought was incredibly awesome, but I found Jon Beeston's artwork disagreeably lurid and gory, which is probably why he thought it was incredibly awesome.

The only shining light in this Meg, I'd say, is the other Dredd episode in the issue, "Whatever Happened to Bill Clinton?," which is the sequel to an episode from earlier in the spring. In this one, by Wagner and Siku, a mutant criminal named Heap Molinsky - what a great name! - has stolen some technology to do a mindswap through time with the president, and he immediately orders in some prostitutes and calls the generals to get the nukes ready.

It's fluff, of course, and the plot, such as it is, is only there to justify gags at Bill and Hillary's expense, but it's incredibly silly and very entertaining. And no, as I say all too often in this feature, it's not yet been collected. Hopefully before too long...

The genuinely bizarre thing about this issue is this note about what to expect in the following issue:

This Armitage two-parter never appears! It's the 2000 AD equivalent of Shade the Changing Man # 9 or those other DC Implosion books of the late 1970s. This would have been Kevin Cullen's last art job for the Megazine - he has a few one-shots coming to 2000 AD in the months to come - but the artwork actually goes missing, and, from what I understand, was never found.

That just about wraps it up for Armitage. The character, Dave Stone's take on a plainclothes detective in Brit-Cit, is next seen in a text story in a Judge Dredd Mega-Special, but doesn't appear in the comics again for five years. He gets a four month story and is passed over again for another three and a half years. Armitage was one of my favorites, but he's pretty much forgotten today.

In old business, I heard this week from former 2000 AD editor Alan McKenzie, who wrote to clarify that the "Sonny Steelgrave" pen-name was one shared by himself and John Tomlinson, and consequently, he shouldn't receive sole credit, or sole blame as the case may be, for the Steelgrave-penned Judge Dredd episodes. I revised the third and sixth entries of this series to note his corrections.

McKenzie also discussed his claim to the copyright of Luke Kirby, and I certainly hope, as always, that creators and publishers work out their differences to all parties' satisfaction. A periodic problem I run across when I've been researching Reprint This! are cases where rights issues are holding up certain series; it may make me look like a company man, or it may make me look even more selfish than I'd like, but really, the pipe dream I hold is to see a hell of a lot more stuff in print than what we have currently. This may come across as a frustrated "get over it and deal with each other" attitude, which might well rub a creator who feels that he has some legitimate grievances the wrong way.

Anyway, next week, we wrap up the pre-movie era, in what's certain to be a short installment, as befits the three-episode lifetime of Tracer.

(Originally published 9/6/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

19. Like it or Not, That Film is Coming

It's May 1995, and the publicity machine is in overdrive, getting ready for that movie. With the benefit of hindsight, we can pretty much split the history of 2000 AD into two parts: the first eighteen years, which featured some of the greatest and most thrilling comics ever done, slowly but surely sliding down the quality slope until the Sylvester Stallone-starring turkey tanked, and the twelve years since, after the radical reinvention and surgery was applied to bring the book back to its former glory days. To illustrate what I mean by the quality slope, consider the stories on offer in this issue, which features the first episodes of four new stories and the continuation, after two weeks' rest, of Pat Mills and Paul Staples' Finn. The lineup includes the long-awaited Judge Dredd epic "Goodnight Kiss" by Garth Ennis and Nick Percival, which pits the lawman against the best assassin in Europe, who'd been introduced two years previously, and the return of Strontium Dogs, by Peter Hogan and Mark Harrison, both of which pretty good.

Unfortunately, it also includes the second appearances of two very turgid and dull flops from the past couple of years, Mambo by David Hine and The Grudge-Father, with art by Jim McCarthy and a new script droid who goes by the pseudonym "Kek-W." This is Nigel Long, who will be contributing several stories over the next few years, and while his first effort is at least readable, and no worse than the first series, by Mark Millar, there is an incredible sense of treading water in this issue.

John Tomlinson was editor for too short a time to make a really solid stamp on 2000 AD, which is why his era is often lumped in with Alan McKenzie's. The long lead time necessary for a story's commission means that much of this material was commissioned by McKenzie. In fact, when David Bishop takes over in 1996, he's still running junk that Alan McKenzie okayed.

Honestly, the best you can say about Mambo and The Grudge-Father is that, with her freaky body tentacles and his bizarre teeth and fingernails, the two "heroes" follow a proud tradition of 2000 AD leads who are physically unpleasant to a surprising degree. In fact, neither of them would have looked completely out of place on those old Forbidden Planet ads that Brian Bolland designed. Unfortunately, even if the characters defied the square-jawed, big-breasted stereotypes of action heroes, their stories weren't any good.

Next week: The strange case of the missing Armitage.

(Originally published 8/30/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

18. Get 'em While They're Young

Annnndddd... yeesh, this isn't going very well. I think that my reread has resumed at what might be the comic's lowest point ever. Rogue Trooper, in particular, is just unreadable, with lots of blue-skinned men standing around for page after page talking about cellular breakdown. The only thing in prog 937 (April 1995) worth mentioning was, again, Finn, so let's see what's going on in the Megazine (volume 2, number 78).

Two out of five stories this time out are quite readable. Those are the Dredd story by John Wagner and Simon Davis, and part five of the Anderson: Psi Division serial "Something Wicked" by Alan Grant and Charles Gillespie. Way, way, way on the other side of the quality meter, you've got lifeless apearances by Maelstrom (Robbie Morrison & Colin MacNeil, who have each done some truly brilliant comics; this serial may be the weakest professional job from either of them), Pandora (Jim Alexander & John Hicklenton) and an EC horror homage called Plagues of Necropolis by Si Spencer and, on this outing, Jim O'Ready on art chores.

So, to sum up, across ten stories in two comics, the only three entertaining ones are those written by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Alan Grant. Not a good showing for creators who started writing comics after 1975, really. In part, you could blame the talent drain to America, where most of the 1980s wave of British talent had defected, or you could blame the editors for not finding really strong new talent, but the evidence on offer is damning regardless of the reason: these just aren't very good comics.

Wagner, however, really shines in the first part of a two-episode story about "Judge Pal," a really sinister and blackly comical idea which has resurfaced from time to time since. It turns out that Justice Department has a delightful program to encourage citizens to report crimes at an early age. This involves "The Pal's Club," in which young juves who narc on anybody get accumulated points which they can later redeem for prizes.

I love this concept; its exploitation of children's naivete is just deliciously nasty and is, of course, exactly the sort of thing you can imagine Justice Department concocting. Judge Dredd himself is barely in this story; it is a very fun little look at other departments and how the bureaucratic, bored civil servants who run the city operate, with all their tolerated vices and petty concerns blown up. One of the characters is a former street judge who couldn't hack it after all the years of training, and who now spends his days fielding calls from little kids so anxious to earn points that they'll report any "crime," regardless of legality.

The wonderful artwork is by Simon Davis, fresh from his first stint on Missionary Man. In a completely bizarre quirk, the odd, gopher-like child seen in the ad above actually looks like that in the story as well. Davis was one of the major art finds of the period; his second series of Stone Island is in the prog currently.

Next week, it's time to clear the decks before that movie begins. Has Tharg been holding back any gems in anticipation of it?

(Originally published 8/23/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

17. That Time in London

We're back! Did you miss us? Well, I've found a place for a couple of other 2000 AD-related articles while waiting for my son to return from vacation. If you're one of my many non-Livejournal readers, you can click on the "2000 ad" tag below for more entries of note. Anyway, the reread brings us to prog 933, from March 1995. The lineup is much the same as the previous entry: Judge Dredd: "Crusade" and Harlem Heroes on the "poor" side of the fence, and Finn and Armoured Gideon on the "readable" side. Unfortunately, the kind-of readable Rogue Trooper, with the nice art by Henry Flint, has wrapped up and is replaced by a really dire Brigand Doom installment by Alan McKenzie and Dave D'Antiquis about vampire accountants. So, yeesh.

So, since I don't have much of anything nice to say about this prog, I'll point out that it is memorable to me for another reason. This was one of the issues that was available on newsstands when I was last in London. This was the trip I mentioned in the twelfth installment, when I spent a fair amount of money replacing all the subscription copies of 2000 AD which arrived in beat-up shape. The ex-Mrs. Hipster and I were in England for ten days that spring, and the faux-newspaper cover reminds me of the unusual experience of reading English newspapers.

The line on this prog's cover about Canadian model and actress Pamela Anderson reads "ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH PAMELA ANDERSON INSIDE - (SOB)." While an unusual sentiment for a science fiction comic, the London tabloids that this cover evokes feature a daily photo of a young starlet on page three or page five in a state of undress totally unacceptable for American publications. We thought this was the funniest thing in the universe and bought two different papers a morning. This gave us a wide range of editorial content, all of it incredibly heavy-handed, over-the-top and reactionary. It was through these eyes that we learned of the death of two celebrities during our vacation.

First to pass, shortly before we arrived, was Ronnie Kray, who, with his brother Reggie, was in charge of an organized crime network whose legend and myth have grown in pop culture since the 1960s. Monty Python's Flying Circus parodied the Krays as "Doug and Dinsdale Piranha;" Morrissey immortalized them in song as "The Last of the Famous International Playboys." The papers were full of letters from readers about Ron's passing, most praising them as gentlemen, but others reacting with disgust to so much media attention being paid to criminals. One paper used Ron's death in prison to question whether, after 27 years, Reggie had spent enough time behind bars, his sentence not equivalent to the mere decade that "child murderers" were getting these days. In the end, Reg served another five years before being released on compassionate grounds about a month before he passed away from terminal cancer. It's one of my big regrets - and Lord, I have a few - that we didn't join the thousands lining the streets for Ronnie's funeral, just to see it. One thing's for certain, you could sense a genuine difference in the mood of the city that day. It was quieter, more sober and solemn.

A few days later, a Mexican-American pop singer from Texas named Selena was murdered by the woman who ran her fan club. This was weird. To hear the papers tell it, ALL OF AMERICA MOURNS THE LOSS of the Tejano celebrity, and EVERY MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD IN THE NATION WEEPS A SINGLE, SILENT TEAR OVER THE LOSS OF THIS MAJOR TALENT... which was news to us. I remember Deb and I read this report together, and our eyes met, heads shaking, asking "...who?" London tabloids were certainly prone to exaggeration and hyperbole. We asked around upon returning to the States; exactly two friends had heard of Selena prior to her death, and five or six others had heard she died.

Just to prove that we didn't fly to England with our brains fully screwed on - given the devastation the trip did to our finances, we learned that real quick - it didn't even occur to me for days that Judge Dredd appeared in a daily newspaper strip in the Star, and if we had any sense, we'd have been buying that as one of our two tabloids a day. Then again...

The strip was in its final, faltering days at that point. A major motion picture was months from screens, and this bilge by Carlos Pino and, yup, Mark Millar was the best they could do?

The strip started in August 1981 as a weekly six-or-seven panel story by John Wagner and Alan Grant, with art by Ron Smith. It changed over to a Monday-Friday strip, telling ongoing stories over 65 installments (13 weeks) in 1986. Ian Gibson came on board as artist in the late 80s, and then it was passed off between a variety of creative teams until the Star finally cancelled it in 1998. Most of the strips have never been republished, although some have made their way into annuals and the late-90s, reprint-heavy Megazine.

So that's British newspapers in the mid-90s for you: iffy Judge Dredd comics, topless blondes, hyperbole, occasionally news, and every once in a while, a giant annihilating robot. Maybe next Thursday, there will be more in the prog to discuss, although it's unlikely Pat Mills will have started writing believable villains by then. I mean, the story's pretty exciting and original but oh, look: comedy Freemasons!

(Originally published 8/16/07 at LiveJournal.)