Thursday, April 26, 2007

4. Tooth and Who

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

Last week's episode of Doctor Who was the sweetest birthday gift that 2000 AD has received. Russell T. Davies crafted a brilliant little story simply packed with homages to our favorite comic. At one point, the Doctor, trapped in traffic in something a lot like the Hoop from Halo Jones, starts climbing down from flying car to flying car and meets a doppelganger of Max Normal, the Pinstripe Freak of Mega-City One. Add in little Who-world versions of Swifty Frisko (also from Halo Jones), the emotion-drugs from Harmony and the parliament of skeletons from Sooner or Later among others, and you've got a simply wonderful love letter, one which Davies talked up on the Doctor Who Confidential documentary that followed the episode.

Only two writers have officially worked for both the world of Tharg and the televised Doctor Who, although many have worked on the ancillary merchandise and spinoff novels and audio plays. The first of these was Paul Cornell, who scripted the 2005 episode "Father's Day" and has another story coming up in a few weeks. Cornell was one of the first writers to work on Virgin's Doctor Who New Adventures, created Bernice Summerfield, one of the best companions ever, and later scripted some of the Doctor's comic adventures in DWM.

In 1994, he penned his first series for Judge Dredd Megazine. This was Pan-African Judges, which introduces the judges of central Africa. It's also the first art job for Tharg for Siku, the pen-name of British/Nigerian artist Ajibayo Akinsiku. The first series of Pan-African Judges has its moments, but unfortunately it also has, as its villain, a white South Efrican poacher. This surprises nobody.

Cornell's next series, Deathwatch, followed in mid-1995. This was illustrated by Adrian Salmon and dealt with a Brit-Cit judge who's lost in time and ends up in Elizabethan England. His most recent series was 2003's terrific XTNCT, drawn by D'Israeli, in which six dinosaurs try to wipe out the last dozen or so humans on the planet. You need the collected edition of this like you need oxygen and a square meal.

The only other writer to work for both the TV Who and the House of Tharg has been Andrew Cartmel, who was the script editor for three seasons in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Cartmel's handful of Dredd episodes in 1996 show him with much the same problem that the TV series saw during his watch: he's a great ideas man who has trouble executing them; his construction is awkward and abrupt, and scenes transition poorly. On the other hand, Halo Jones certainly inspired and informed more than one story during Cartmel's day; it was nice that he had the chance to contribute in some fashion.

Outside of Who on TV, other 2000 AD talents have found some opportunities. Former 2000 AD/Meg editor David Bishop has probably written more stories for Sarah Jane Smith than anybody else, thanks to Big Finish's line of direct-to-CD audio plays. He also wrote the fantastic book Who Killed Kennedy under his "journalistic" alter-ego psuedonym James Stevens. And in novels, Armitage's creator Dave Stone contributed several stories to the Virgin line. The most memorable of these might have been Burning Heart, which is the closest we're likely to get to a Doctor-Judge Dredd crossover thanks to a parody called Adjudicator Craator. Another of Stone's novels, Death and Diplomacy, finds Benny and her new lover Jason menaced on the cover by a robot that looks awfully familiar...

No getting around it; that is definitely Tyranno-Mek from Ro-Busters, as designed by Dave Gibbons. Of course, Gibbons is one of the many contributors to the Doctor Who comic strip. One of the best, and certainly the longest-running of all the varied Who spinoffs, the comic has featured work from many 2000 AD talents, including John Wagner, Pat Mills, Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, Mick Austin, John Ridgway, Alan McKenzie, Robin Smith and Grant Morrison.

Wagner and Mills were actually putting 2000 AD together at the same time they offered four serials to the Doctor Who production office in 1976-77. While none of these were picked up, they did form the basis of the first four adventures in Doctor Who Weekly, and Wagner reused all the "space-trucker" CB jargon and palare he developed for the fourth story, "The Dogs of Doom," as the bizarre language in the 2000 AD strip Ace Trucking Company. Plus, Wagner and Mills wrote one of the all-time great fourth Doctor adventures, one which never appeared on TV, the classic "Star Beast":

Pat Mills stayed in touch with the production office for some time. He had a four-part adventure in various stages of development throughout the Peter Davison era, before the producer and script editor finally turned it down in 1984. The story was called "Song of the Space Whale" and apparently concerned a community which had been swallowed by some giant space creature decades earlier. One rumor suggests that it was intended to be the story which introduced the character of Turlough.

Mills doesn't seem to have done any TV scriptwriting at all, which is a shame. Then again, our Pat's as punk as they get, even sometimes railing against his own fans, so it would hardly be surprising for him to rub the stodgy old shoulders of the BBC the wrong way. (Alan Bleasdale's dramatisation of The Monocled Mutineer caused a huge government incident seventy years after the √Čtaples Mutiny; heaven knows what Auntie Beeb would've made of Charley's War...)

Frankly, I think Russell Davies is missing a trick by not going straight to the thrillpower source when looking for new talent. One of the major disappointments of series two was the by-the-numbers Cybermen story. Could you imagine how that might have turned out in Pat's hands? Or Gordon Rennie's? Or look at it the other way around: Steven Moffat's Who short stories and TV episodes have been innovative, original and creepy. Wouldn't you like to see him let loose on a 13-week serial in the Galaxy's Greatest?

(Cover of Death and Diplomacy by Bill Donohoe, © Virgin Books 1996. Doctor Who illustration by Dave Gibbons, © Marvel/Panini 1978. Other illustrations © Rebellion, 2008)

(Originally published 4/26/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thrillpowered Thursday - 3.

Recap! Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

February 1994 brings us to prog 873. This is a promotional, jumping-on issue, featuring the first episodes of five stories. John Smith and Pat Mills each write one. Alan McKenzie writes or co-writes three of them, two of which are under pseudonyms. Michael Fleisher had written four 12-part Rogue Trooper stories. This is the fourth, rewritten and edited from 12 parts to 10, and split into a 2-part prologue and the eight episodes here, credited to Fleisher and "Sydney Falco." It has some nice Chris Weston art, anyway. Another of McKenzie's stories - the one on which he's pleased enough of to use his real name - is the always entertaining Journal of Luke Kirby . The third one, co-written with John Tomlinson and credited to "Sonny Steelgrave," is Judge Dredd: "The Sugar Beat," a six-parter featuring these guys, the judges of the Pan-Andes Conurb:

Oh, dear.

Stereotyping by nationality has a long history in the pages of the Galaxy's Greatest. The late Massimo Belardinelli, when he would be picked to illustrate the Tharg the Mighty in-joke strips set in the editorial office, would caricature himself as constantly eating a giant bowl of pasta, for example. Those same strips would see Alan Grant wearing a tartan tam o'shanter.

One of the greatest of all the Robo-Hunter strips was "Football Crazy," which shows the Japanese to be completely obsessed with cameras. It's so over-the-top as to be cringeworthy, but I think it works because (a) it's short, and (b) John Wagner and Alan Grant are much, much meaner to the British in this strip than they are to anybody else. In Robo-Hunter, Britain is populated by the most indolent and lazy people in the world, who only care about benefit checks and soap operas, unless it's World Cup season or a beloved stateswoman has been assassinated. If you're willing to poke lots of fun at yourself, to the point of being downright mean, then only the humorless or the stupid would take offense at the jabs at other nationalities.

Judge Dredd's world didn't arrive fully-formed. About a year into the strip, we met a few judges from other cities during the "Luna-1" storyline. There, we learned that Texas City judges stood a good chance of being called "Tex" and wearing cowboy hats, and South-Am City judges had garish moustaches and spoke English with the random insertion of words like "muchachos," and the Sov judges of East-Meg One were grim authoritarians with hammer & sickle logos on their helmets whose broken English similarly found room for the word "comrade" whenever possible, the same way the X-Man called Colossus did in Marvel Comics.

In fact, there are many similarities between these early attempts at international judges and the All-New Uncanny X-Men. You knew Wolverine was Canadian because he said "bub" and "eh," and Nightcrawler was German because he'd occasionally say "sehr gut" and Banshee was Irish because he called all the girls "wee lassie" and so on. Writers used little bits of language and small cultural bits to identify characters as coming from some other culture or nation.

As Dredd's world has continued to expand, the tendency in the strip and its spin-offs has been to turn every judge culture into a broad stereotype of the region. In several instances, the definition for the foreign mega-cities has been left in the hands of a local boy, as it were. Scotland's Jim Alexander defined the judges of calhab as wearing tartan kilts, being obsessed with clans, speaking in phonetic brogue you can barely understand and drinking radioactive whiskey. Irish writer Garth Ennis gave us the world of Murphyville, capital city of Emerald Isle, where the judges wear green, politely work their investigations about the island's tourist culture from pubs, and enjoy a diet of potatoes and Guinness. Dave Stone gave us a Brit-Cit police force which operates from the New Old Bailey, where plainsclothes officers can be certain they will not be promoted beyond the rank of detective inspector unless they belong to a certain fraternal organization. I seem to recall that Inspector Morse fella figuring that out the hard way himself once...

Playing with stereotypes to create these broad, comic backgrounds is rarely offensive, in part because we meet protagonists who are, for lack of a better word, heroic figures. The audience has a degree of sympathy and interest in Judge MacBrayne and DI Armitage, and even though Judge Joyce is mostly played for laughs as a country mouse in the big city, we still laugh with him, rather than at him.

The judges from other cultures, the ones outside the typical 2000 AD talent pool, are also usually shown with some degree of heroism. Even Mark Millar and Grant Morrison's gang from Luxor City - that's future Egypt - come out decently in their own way. Sure, you've got the appropriate stereotypes ticked (pyramids, mummies, cobras on the helmets) and while the story rapidly degenerates into yet another Millar tale of muscled toughs beating each other senseless on a conveyor belt, it still gives us what's said to be an effective judge system, a sympathetic chief judge who's a good man, and an incompetent but heroic counterpart to Dredd in the form of Judge Rameses.

But oh, boy, these guys in the Pan-Andes Conurb. McKenzie and Tomlinson have just got it in for Bolivia.

Admittedly, John Wagner started the Dreddworld trend of Central and South America being full of corrupt thugs with moustaches. Ciudad Barranquilla was introduced in a 1990 storyline as a place where bent Mega-City One judges could try and make their getaway, and it's been expanded over the years to show that there's quite a number of rich criminal refugees supporting the local economy. To be honest, there's not a lot of positive portrayals of good judges in the Barranquilla waters, either.

The Pan-Andes Conurb is, based on its depiction here, policed by the most incompetent judge force on the planet. It's filthy, it's stinking, there are flies and pack animals everywhere and the cops all look the other way. And you won't be at all surprised to learn that the chief judge (a) weighs about four hundred pounds, (b) has taco sauce all over his uniform and (c) is, like the rest of his force, in the pockets of the drug dealers.

Like I say, the broad stereotypes in Dredd's world are there for comedy, and simple, unprovocative laughs. But somehow "The Sugar Beat" feels deeply uncomfortable in a way that even Shimura, with its "A New Japanese Stereotype in Every Storyline!" approach, doesn't manage. McKenzie, who no longer works in comics, often proved himself, with Luke Kirby and with some Doctor Who strips, to be an imaginative and talented writer. But when even Mark Millar can come up with better, and more effective nation-identity comedy, and stereotypes that amuse rather than aggravate, you have to wonder whether McKenzie was entirely the wrong guy for the Dredd beat.

(edit: I had suggested that the writer had adopted the "Steelgrave" identity to mask displeasure with the work; McKenzie has since let me know that the pseudonym was used in much the same fashion as earlier 2000 AD writers, the intended tradition being that a writer should only receive one "true identity" credit in any given issue. "Steelgrave" was a joint identity for himself and John Tomlinson, who, McKenzie explains, wrote alternating episodes of the "Sugar Beat" six-parter. This entry was revised on Sept. 4 2007 to correct the credit.)

(Originally published Apr 19 2007 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Thrillpowered Thursday - 2.

Recap! Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

Other 2000 AD-related blogs:

Paul Rainey's 2000 AD Prog Slog...
AlexF's Meanwhile, on the Dark Side of the Moon
WR Logan's La Placa Rifa

Well, this wasn't the most well-planned exercise I've ever embarked upon. Seven days and seven issues after my first entry and I pick up prog 868, the first issue of 1994, and it's what we call in the business world a "challenge." Part of the plan here is to persuade some of you skeptical Earthlets to try the Galaxy's Greatest, and here we hit a prog containing one of the worst Judge Dredd stories ever ("Frankenstein Division," written by Mark Millar), one of the worst Future Shocks ever (in which Santa Claus is hounded by a murderous unemployment agent, also written by Mark Millar) and an episode of one of the worst series to ever appear in any comic, ever (Mother Earth, surprisingly not written by Mark Millar but by Bernie Jaye). Normally I boast that a bad 2000 AD story is nevertheless superior to even a very good story from most publishers. When Mark Millar is involved, that simply isn't true.

To make matters worse for many readers, this prog also contains an episode of Soul Gun Warrior, which perhaps seven people on the planet enjoyed. Fortunately for you readers today, I'm one of them.

In Soul Gun Warrior, the stratosphere is haunted by the ghost of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who takes out his rage by wrecking whatever American spacecrafts come his way. Fortunately, NASA has an ally in Dr. Bob Oppenheimer, whose secret experiments in the Nevada desert have led to the creation of the Soul Gun, the only chance at sending a volunteer into the astral plane to stop Gagarin's ghost.
That's got to be the greatest concept for a comic, ever.

The Soul Gun stories - there were two, including a sequel called Soul Gun Assassin - were helmed by Shaky Kane, although informed sources suggest that the dialogue was scripted by an uncredited Alan McKenzie. As the examples here show, Kane is very much inspired by Jack Kirby. To be fair, Kane certainly inherited Kirby's eye, but he didn't inherit his linework. He gets the posing perfectly, but his brush is too heavy, and the colors are often garish. Kirby was a master of the details, especially things like hands and suit jackets. Kane gets pretty carried away with his fantastic ideas and technology and lets these details slip.

I can't help but wish there had been a little more attention paid to the details, because Kane has provided better work in other places. (Best of all has been the cover art to an issue of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol which paid homage to Kirby.) Nevertheless, the scope itself is grandiose and wonderful, and there's a feel throughout of a high-concept balancing act. Six or so years later, Andy Diggle took over as editor and espoused his "shot glass of rocket fuel" approach to the weekly episodes. I don't know that he'd agree that Kane met it - he's been conspicuously absent from 2000 AD for a good decade - but that's certainly what he was attempting, years previously.

It also features one of my favorite cliffhangers, when the Soul Gun volunteer takes his place under the giant, Kirby-inspired supertechnological - phantasmagorical machine, and a small, innocuous .38 revolver pops out to send the volunteer to the astral plane via a bullet in the head. That's great!

The Soul Gun stories have never been reprinted and are therefore sadly not available in a collected edition. Regardless of how much I like them, they remain pretty unpopular with the 2000 AD fan base, and a new edition probably wouldn't be a particularly profitable enterprise!

Next week, I'll talk about something other than a quick rundown of a story you've not heard of before. We'll look into the issue of stereotyping, and when it gets aggravating for readers. Back in seven!

(Originally published 4/12/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Thrillpowered Thursday - 1.

A few weeks ago, a couple of the reg'lar comic blogs linked to Paul Rainey's 2000 AD Prog Slog, a great site documenting one reader's "Big Reread," which is one of those things some of us sillier fans do every few years: start from as early as we can and reread the giant volume of 2000 AD stories. This isn't done in a hurry; I started mine in the summer of 2005 and I'm sixteen years in. There are, after all, close to 1800 issues of 2000 AD plus the Megazine. That's not counting all the other sister books; Paul is in 1978 and detouring into Starlord right now.

Naturally, I thought, "Damn, I should have thought of that."

There's also AlexF's Meanwhile, on the Dark Side of the Moon, another 2000 AD-themed blog, which is endlessly fun to read. (And which, GAGGGH!!, spoils something from a prog I'll not see for another three weeks!) (That tends to happen in 2000 AD fandom, sadly.)

So here's me carrying on those coattails for a few weeks, one entry each Thursday until I get an idea about whether it's entertaining people enough to continue. For the unfortunately thrill-starved majority of my reg'lar readers, it's yet another Hipster-entry you can page down past, at least until you finally cave in and join the ranks of the squaxx dek Thargo. For my readers without LJs, you can bookmark my 2000 AD tag, and get the data you need without all the yammering about minor league hockey and my awesome kids.
* * *
Anyway, I just finished Megazine v.2 # 42, which has two stories written by John Wagner and two written by Si Spencer. No points for guessing which episodes were worth reading and which... weren't. Actually, Spencer is two episodes into Creep, which is my pick for the worst thing the Meg ever published. On the other hand, there's Harke & Burr, which isn't really bad, but what good there was in the script was ruined by Dean Ormston's hideous art. It does, at least, contain one of the most awful puns in the universe, somehow managing to mention tulips in a story about vampiric rodents. That's right, Tulips from "Hamsters damned."

Wagner, meanwhile, has a great Judge Dredd story, the third book of the "Mechanismo" storyline about robot judges, but it's The Taxidermist I want to mention right now. This ran for ten 8-page episodes and is one of the funniest and most entertaining series of the early 1990s. It's a parody of the Olympics; our hero, Jacob Sardini, had been introduced in a 1986 Judge Dredd story which showed that in the future, human taxidermy had been legalised. Here, Wagner follows up on the bizarre mention in the backstory that Sardini, an overweight, bespectacled widower in his early 60s, had earlier won the Bronze medal in taxidermy in the Olympic games.

This series sees Sardini pressed to represent Mega City-One in the Olympics again. Even though he's in no shape to compete, he still has a reputation as one of the greatest taxidermists who ever lived. And there, he runs afoul of an awful conspiracy of the Chinese government.

On the one hand, it's a compelling little story because of the protagonist. Admittedly, it's madly early and I'm typing this because I can't sleep instead of at a sensible hour, but I can't think of many other comic book heroes who qualify for the senior citizens' discount at Shoney's. Sardini is plagued by self-doubt and, while he respects the younger competitors, doesn't think much of the games around him.

Ah, the games. Wagner and Gibson have a ball depicting an Olympics where athleticism doesn't play any factor whatsoever. In the future, the competitions include mountain climbing, sex, insulting, flatulence and staring. Mega City-One's great hope in the staring is with Agnes "Laser Gaze" Bolton, who doesn't get any dialogue but is among the funniest characters in all of fiction, to be blunt. A stern, unblinking harridan with a face like steel, you don't want to get on her bad side. And the games are narrated by a gang of smiling TV personalities who offer inane commentary and jingoistic gabble.

It's an amazing balancing act, countering the story of the Chinese conspiracy with this completely hilarious take on "sports" of the future, but honestly, this is the sort of thing Wagner does better than anybody else in comics. He'd done similar work before; in Robo-Hunter: "Football Crazy," he went for straight farce sending up the World Cup. In his Chopper storylines, particularly "Song of the Surfer," he balanced the carnage of the Supersurf with mindless, inane color commentary from the sportscasters on the sidelines. So you might can argue Wagner was repeating himself here, but with results this funny, who could complain?

"The Taxidermist" is not presently available in collected form. Sardini's appearances run to 126 pages, which would be ideal for a 2000 AD Extreme Edition or a graphic novel in the future. I'd certainly shell out for one.
Stop back next Thursday for another thrillpowered installment, fellow Earthlets!

(Originally published 4/5/07 at LiveJournal)