Thursday, May 31, 2007

9. Judge Dredd... in the Flesh!

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.

I don't have a particularly long entry this week. The reread has brought us to prog 898 (July 1994), and strips are winding down to make way for the promotional push behind the 900th issue. Judge Dredd "labors" through a fill-in by Chris Standley and Peter Doherty, and Rogue Trooper, by Steve White and Henry Flint, who's nowhere close to being as brilliant as he is today, has introduced a new supporting character named Midge. She appears off and on in the strip for the next year. Brigand Doom (Alan McKenzie/Dave D'Antiquis) and Strontium Dogs (Peter Hogan/Nigel Dobbyn) are in the middle of little three-parters which serve to put characters in place for larger storylines.

Most interesting is probably Armoured Gideon, wrapping up a three-month adventure which guest-stars characters from several old 2000 AD features from the past, including Harry Angel, Bill Savage, Wolfie Smith, Shako and the great big bugs from Ant Wars. This wasn't the first time that 2000 AD had played with the concept of old characters sharing a strange sub-universe (Wagner/Grant/Belardinelli's "Whatever Happened to Ace Garp?" in prog 451, for instance) and it wouldn't be the last (see Garth Ennis's "Helter Skelter" in prog 1250-1261 for another), but this just feels a bit like nostalgia in search of a plot. The guest art by Mike White in part 9 was unexpected and neat though.

What I really wanted to do this week is show off these embarassing photos of some poor guy dressed as Judge Dredd, appearing on both that godawful cover and in a one-page article by movie producer Charles Lippincott, assuring viewers that the release of the Judge Dredd feature film the following summer would be an epic event.

Well, you know, it's not like there hasn't been a long tradition of comic book companies having people dressed in costumes to get cheap publicity. It really works for kids - I remember waiting forever to see Spider-Man, Iceman and Firestar show up at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on NBC one year, and the only reason I agreed to go to Sea World on one family vacation in the early 80s was to see the DC superhero water-skiing show. Turned out it had closed the season before. They had a Justice League stunt show at Six Flags last year, in fact... And then there's Lara Croft...

For some inexplicable, forgotten reason, there was a publicity stunt earlier that summer where this Judge Dredd "arrested" the BBC children's character Mr. Blobby. They were probably opening a village fete or something equally silly. I don't know what I did with the picture of that.

But you know what's weird? This costume's actually better than the one in the Sylvester Stallone movie.

The other thing of note is that two of 2000 AD's regulars of this period got a little press this week at Broken Frontier. David Hine, the writer/artist of Mambo, interviews Shaky Kane, the artist of Soul Gun and Beyond Belief, and, if you're following along, you'll probably catch on that neither gentleman has worked for the Galaxy's Greatest in quite some time, although they've both been doing interesting work for other publishers.

Back in seven, for the short-lived return of Nemesis the Warlock...

(Originally published 5/31/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

8. The Conspiracy Reaches 2000 AD

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.

I've only read a couple of issues since the last update, as I was out of the country. I'm still in June 1994 and the prog is 893, featuring a really awful cover by Mark Harrison, who is capable of much, much better work. (Some of it's in this very issue!) We're five weeks out from the last promotional, jump-on prog, which had been advertised by an animated TV commercial that appeared at 5 in the morning for a few weeks on a satellite channel called Sky Sports. Unsurprisingly, the ad was seen by very few viewers, few of whom were honestly in 2000 AD's target demographic, and failed to bring in the tens of thousands of new readers that the ad agency had told Fleetway to expect. Naturally, the editorial staff got the blame.

Stories in this prog include a double-dose of David Hine, who is probably best known for all the cartoon "how-to" illustrations he did for Dennis Publishing's magazines Maxim and Stuff in the late 1990s. Here, he provides story and art for both a Future Shock and for the first series of Mambo, a police series set in the future, and whose complicated backstory plays out in flashback across the first story. These days, Hine is principally working as a writer in mainstream books like Spawn, and he has an Inhumans miniseries starting at Marvel soon, with art by Frazer Irving. Also, there's Slaine by Pat Mills and Dermot Power and Armoured Gideon by John Tomlinson and Simon Jacob, and a very interesting Dredd by Wagner and cover artist Mark Harrison called "Conspiracy of Silence."

The mid-90s were an incredibly frustrating time to be an American 2000 AD reader, since the comics weren't available here through Diamond. This lasted for about 18 months, when DC licensed Judge Dredd for a pair of short-lived monthly comics, and 2000 AD just vanished without word from the Diamond catalog. The Judge Dredd Megazine had never been available; the US licensor (SQP, d/b/a "Fleetway/Quality") had, after finding nobody was interested in their overpriced, squarebound, shrunk-to-US-size $5.00 version of the Meg in 1991, been cherry-picking individual series for their own reprint volumes.

So I was aware, from house ads in 1992-93, that the Megazine had been featuring an recurring series called "Mechanismo" featuring Dredd dealing with robot judges, but as these weren't then available in America, I had no idea what it was about. Suddenly, and out of the blue, there was this 4-part story in 2000 AD which I'd got in via Forbidden Planet mail order which brought the Mechanismo story to the weekly.

Chief Judge McGruder, dealing with age, senility, creeping dementia and a few years getting irradiated in the atomic wasteland of the Cursed Earth, had decided that eight foot-tall robot judges were what Mega-City One needed after the disasters of Necropolis and Judgement Day.

Judge Dredd had, naturally, opposed this idea as madness, but, well, the chief judge kind of has the upper hand in these sorts of situations. The Mechanismo storyline weaved its way through three separate, brilliant stories written by Wagner: a five-parter painted by Colin MacNeil, a six-parter illustrated by Peter Doherty and a seven-parter drawn by Manuel Benet. In the last of these, Dredd finally put an end to this insane robot plan, but...

There were two lines of robots. Number Five was a Mark One, and it had escaped into the sewers, deranged and badly damaged. Over time, the unhinged Judge Stich, who had overseen the first stage of the project, had been searching for Five. Mark Two robot judges were already in production, outside of Stich's hands, and their field test had been to track down Five. Dredd had arrived too late to stop a Mark Two robot from finally destroying Number Five. Dredd then destroyed the Mark Two, and convinced the insane Stich that the damaged Five was the one who blew up the Mark Two, proving that this line was just as flawed as the rest, and therefore the project must be scrapped. For Dredd to commit perjury was completely unheard of, but that's how desperate the issue had become: stopping McGruder from continuing to develop the robots was more important than the law.

In "Conspiracy of Silence," one of Dredd's fellow judges, among a number who believe McGruder should step down but have no legal recourse to force her to do so, passes Dredd some information that leads him to a testing facility. There, he learns that the robots are secretly into a third phase of development, and that Mark 2A droids are undergoing combat tests...

To call this story a breath of fresh air is an understatement. Since Americans were missing all the really good John Wagner Dredd scripts in the Megazine, we had been making do with his substitutes in the weekly for far too long. Garth Ennis was periodically excellent but mainly just okay. The other writers in the weekly just didn't get Dredd at all.

After this installment, the Mechanismo storyline switched back to the Megazine, while Dredd continued with some first-time scripters in the weekly, among them Dan Abnett and Chris Standley. The Mechanismo storyline is not available in a collected edition, but it certainly should be. There's some debate about how to continue the big, chunky Dredd reprint phonebooks once they reach the painted art era (these can't realistically be reproduced in black and white), and while I do believe they should switch to thinner, color volumes, the majority of fans seem to favor just collecting all the major and popular stories. The 22 episodes that bring the Mechanismo story through "Conspiracy of Silence" would make one great collection (Mechanismo: Volume One?), while the next big chunk of the story would make a good second edition...

Next week, it's Dredd... in person!

(Originally published 5/24/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

7. The McMahon Angle

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.

Over in the Megazine, it's June 1994 and time for vol.2 no.56. This is notable for featuring some of Trevor Hairsine's earliest professional work. It's on a series called Harmony, about a bounty hunter who works in the frozen wastes of Alaska and northern Canada, and it would run off and on, with a variety of artists, for about four years. We've also got a new adventure for the excellent Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and Garry Marshall, Karyn: Psi Division by John Freeman and the always wonderful Adrian Salmon, and Alan Grant's Anderson: Psi Division, midway through her outer space epic "Postcards from the Edge," finishing a three-part chunk with really awful art by Xuasus.

Speaking of awful art, the Hipster Son had, a couple of weeks ago, picked up no.53 to read. This featured the first part of the Judge Dredd story "Howler" by John Wagner and Mike McMahon. About ten seconds later, he bellowed "I HATE THIS ART!"

I knew exactly where he was coming from. It took me more than a little while to really appreciate Mike McMahon. I first saw his stuff in the American Doctor Who reprint comic. He did a fill-in story called "Junkyard Demon" which shocked and appalled my staid middle school mind when I saw it. In time, I grew to realize just how dynamic and inventive his art was, but at the age of 13, it was just a poor substitute for Dave Gibbons. I was wrong! Time prevents me from showing off more than I can quickly find online, but it looked a little like this...

At the time (1981), McMahon was one of Dredd's major artists, with a run of classic episodes including "Monkey Business at the Charles Darwin Block," "The Fink," "Umpty Candy" and parts of "The Judge Child." He finally stepped down from Dredd after the first two parts of "Block Mania," drew about 13 episodes of Slaine a couple of years later, and vanished from the House of Tharg.

He did commercial illustration work for some time before resurfacing in the pages of a short-lived 2000 AD rival called Toxic! with a strip called Muto Maniac, and the excellent The Last American, a four-part miniseries for Marvel's Epic imprint, written by Wagner and Grant. Then he stepped out of the public eye for a time and came back with "Howler" in 1994...

It wasn't just my son. The readership drew back a little and there was more than one letter printed suggesting that McMahon's new cubist style was a bit more than comics could take. I think it's amazing, but it's also thunderously bizarre. The pacing is almost note-perfect, but the anatomy is something else entirely. In squashing the characters flat and letting the colors provide the depth, McMahon presents an amazing challenge for readers.

Of course, if American superhero books have taught us nothing, it's that comic readers don't often enjoy challenges.

Wagner created a fun foe for Dredd in this story. The Howler is an indestructible, short-tempered alien - visually based on some kind of undersea beast seen in a wildlife documentary - whose method of conquest is to demand a room at a high-priced hotel and have tributes brought to him for torture. His comeuppance is awfully predictable, and it's hard to justify a story so slight demanding four episodes to tell...

...except that it gives us four episodes of this fabulous, freaky art!

Oddly enough, the Hipster Son liked McMahon's 1980s work just fine. He loves the ABC Warriors, and both "The Judge Child" and "The Fink" are firm favorites. Sadly, this, for many readers, was a step too far. He's only done a handful of episodes for the 2000 AD titles since this time, while continuing to work in illustration. He also worked for Sonic the Comic in the late nineties.

At the Bristol Comic-Con this past weekend, Titan announced they've got McMahon on a new project: Tank Girl.

Perfect. Sign me up!

(Doctor Who illustration by Mike McMahon © 1981 Marvel/Panini.)

(Originally published 5/17/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

6. Getting Lost With Luke Kirby

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. You can bookmark this feature and skip the rest of my Livejournal by clicking the "2000 ad" tab below.

Prog 887 was published in May 1994. Last time we had three Millars and a McKenzie, and this time it's two McKenzies and a Millar. The latter writer's Babe Race 2000 continues, as does The Clown by Igor Goldkind, who's joined by Greg Staples on art this time. Staples has other colors than brown in his palette and the result is much better looking than the previous episodes by Robert Bliss. Unfortunately, Goldkind's story has hit "head-scratching" at this point, so Staples is painting something less than engaging.

John Tomlinson, using the "Sonny Steelgrave" pseudonym that he shares with McKenzie, contributes the second half of a two-part Judge Dredd story illustrated by Clint Langley. This year, Langley has contributed some amazing computer-enhanced work on The ABC Warriors, but this is early in his career and it's frankly a big green and black mess, full of jagged edges and teeth. His signature even looks like a heavy metal logo. The script seems tailor-made to his work in the early 90s, such as Dinosty, so Tomlinson gets points for writing to his artists' strengths. Alan McKenzie, meanwhile, brings another fun Bradley adventure, this time sticking the skateboarding menace into a four-part take on The Prisoner of Zenda. Simon Harrison is the art droid for this one, meaning everybody looks like brilliantly-colored statues made from mucus.

Yes, there was some damning with faint praise in those two paragraphs. Fortunately, we've got The Journal of Luke Kirby to take up the slack.

We're coming to the end of the third Luke Kirby serial in this issue, and it's a real shame that it did not continue beyond McKenzie's departure from the comic. It was always the odd strip out: slow-paced, magical and rural, and with a protagonist as young as many readers. The initial artist was John Ridgway, but the great Steve Parkhouse has stepped in at this point, and his work is just excellent.

Originally intended as a pitch for Eagle around 1987, Luke Kirby found its way into 2000 AD instead, where there was some consternation about whether the series was right for the comic. It's set in the early 1960s and features a young boy learning the family tradition of magic and coming up against supernatural opponents. The stories are told very well, with unusual, off-setting imagery, like a depiction of one of Hell's levels being modern London, so crowded and full of miserable people that Luke can barely stand it.

Luke himself is a very strong central character. He's mostly on his own (without the strong support system of other young magicians which lets certain other superstar magicians of children's fiction accomplish anything), and comes across as a sad, lonely boy, nursing some genuine inner hurt after the deaths of some close family members. He's a very sympathetic character, and he's totally got my son hooked. Over this run, he's really enjoying Dredd, and Missionary Man over in the Meg, and Luke Kirby. Nothing else is interesting him, suggesting that spotlighting a character around the age of 10 or 11 is a pretty good idea for an anthology comic to do every once in a while.

(Incidentally, McKenzie, Ridgway and Parkhouse had worked together about ten years prior to this issue. They were the team behind the first year of Sixth Doctor stories for Marvel's Doctor Who Magazine - McKenzie as editor - before Parkhouse stepped down. McKenzie scripted the second year on his own. I don't think they ever really captured the essence of Doctor Six - grouchy, loud, antiauthoritarian and a total hero to any child who's recently been told to clean his room - but they had some neat ideas.)

Anyway, Luke Kirby's one of those annoying strips that has never been collected. Over at his website, The Story Works, McKenzie has made a similar claim to the one Grant Morrison's made over Zenith: he never formally assigned copyright on the series to the publisher, and consequently it resides with him. The corporate response - and McKenzie will understand that I'm the fan who wants reprint collections on his bookshelf and will toe the corporate line to get 'em - is that the copyright got signed over when the writers and artists cashed the paychecks. On the other hand, it's not exactly a court fight that Rebellion can really afford to lose, since the resulting negative precedent would end up costing 'em a sizeable chunk of their back catalog. That's why the copyrights, trademarks and ownerships are all signed out in legalese upfront since Rebellion bought the comic in 2000 and you don't get these sort of quibbles these days.

So since nobody wants to test those ugly legal waters, Luke Kirby sits in limbo. That's a shame, because any reader who's enjoyed Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic or that superstar magician kid would totally enjoy Luke Kirby, plus you'd get more of Parkhouse and Ridgway's great art back in print. You could do those 46 episodes in one big book or two thin ones (the first 22 episodes in one and the last 24 in the second; that would be a perfect split.), and my kid could take them to school. He'd like that, and so would yours.

Next week, I'll talk about something my kid didn't like. At ALL. But I did...

(edit: The introductory paragraphs of this article were revised on Sept. 4 2007 to clarify that the Dredd episode was scripted by John Tomlinson, and not by Alan McKenzie. In the comments of the LiveJournal entry, Mr. McKenzie offers further input on Luke Kirby's copyright situation. --Grant)

(Originally published 5/10/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

5. The Last Good Thing Mark Millar Wrote for 2000 AD

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.

Prog 883 was published in April 1994 and it's what's called a three-Millar prog. That's not a good sign. Judge Dredd is again written by Alan McKenzie under his "Sonny Steelgrave" pseudonym, the last of a three-parter illustrated by Mick Austin. It feels a little awkward, but it's honestly not bad. The Clown is continuing its second run, scripted by Igor Goldkind and painted with mud by Robert Bliss. This is one of those stories where the supporting cast is a million times more interesting than the star; they could have done a series about these cheesecake-obsessed cops which might have been pretty good. Then there's a story with apalling art by Jim McCarthy and a story with quite good art by Anthony Williams and a story with very, very good art by Simon Jacob. And some really horrible scripts.

If you ever get the notion I might be beating a dead horse by coming back again and again to the spectacular awfulness of Mark Millar, well, you might be right, but he brought it on himself, not merely by writing some dreadful scripts, but writing so many of them. And then they all got commissioned!

As Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie, the editors of 2000 AD during the early 90s, have declined to go on the record in recent years to discuss this period, we can only speculate what brought so much Millar to the pages. I can generally see their motives in employing him as often as they did; Millar was touted as a hot young up-and-coming talent, and his work for Crisis was not that bad, even if it lacked the subtlety and promise of his peer Garth Ennis. (And yes, even Troubled Souls has subtlety in places.)

But the difference between Millar and Ennis couldn't be more blatant. Ennis speaks with humility about his earliest series for Crisis and with regret that he didn't do a better job on his 2000 AD stories, despite the many very good scripts he contributed at the time. Millar, however, has been nothing short of dismissive, speaking with punkish contempt about the 2000 AD veterans who came before him, and making no secret of the fact that he wanted to use 2000 AD as a stepping stone to work for American comics.

What he left behind in his wake was incredibly frustrating at the time, and it reads even worse in retrospect. A typical Mark Millar story features incredibly tough main characters yelling some variation of "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" at each other, usually surrounded by the carnage and destruction of the storyline to that point, and then punching each other until the good guy wins. The supporting cast is there to provide cannon fodder for the bad guy up until that point. Here's some typical Millar dialogue from the period:

Nowhere is this more evident than in Millar's godawful take on Judge Dredd, which might have been truly called Super Dredd and the Keystone Kops. A Mega-City One judge, in Millar's hands, wouldn't last three minutes with a declawed kitten, unless the judge is Super Dredd, who can beat up anybody on account of him being Dredd, and him being the toughest one there is.

This is a particularly rough period for the comic, with one six-part storyline after another featuring either an indestructible (apart from the hand) priest (Canon Fodder) or an indestructible guy with bad teeth (The Grudge-Father) or an indestructible motorcycle mama (Babe Race 2000) or an indestructible Soviet super-judge (Frankenstein Division) or the other indestructible Soviet super-judge (Red Razors), all yelling and battering their ill-defined opponents. No wonder we loved the thoughtful and charming Luke Kirby - about which more next week - so much at the time. It's a very short hop from these incredibly stupid strips to Millar's Ultimate Captain America shouting "Do you think this A stands for France?" in Marvel Comics. And if you think that passes for clever, then you might enjoy Millar's 2000 AD work just fine.

Millar's period of omnipresence is coming to an end with this prog, meaning I'll have more positive things to write about in other entries, but I did want to share this cliffhanger with you:

I like that. Despite the fact that the robot baddie's dialogue is a pretty good example of the tough-guy yelling that's Millar all over, and despite the fact that Millar's general take on Robo-Hunter - turning a down-on-his-luck, can't-get-a-break loser into an ultraviolent, minor celebrity with his own line of scrapbook annuals for his fan club - is the most wrongheaded botchjob seen in the medium, that's a pretty clever little cliffhanger.

Tharg was in the process of transitioning Robo-Hunter from Millar to Peter Hogan when this was published, although it didn't really take and the whole period, despite Hogan's charming efforts, has since been excised from the Sam Slade canon. There were two Hogan stories prior to this, which sensibly returned Hoagy and Stogie to the lineup; they'd been mostly absent for Millar's run. "The Robotic Revenge of Dr. Robotski" was Millar's last Robo-Hunter adventure, and it's the best of his ten tales, by miles. It's still lousy, penned by a writer indifferent to anything beyond his page rate, and enlivened only by Simon Jacob's great art, full of dramatic angles and inventive use of color.

But that cliffhanger's actually pretty good. It prompted a smile, and it suggests that Millar could have been using the format for stories that were inventive rather than repetitive.

I haven't followed his post-2000 AD career very closely. I know he cowrote some stuff with Grant Morrison that was occasionally good (Aztek: The Ultimate Man, nine months on The Flash, six months on Vampirella, four months on Swamp Thing), but, left to his own devices... well, there was that fill-in on JLA with Amazo which was godawful, and that three-month "The Black Flash" story wherein the Flash defeats a foe who cannot be outrun by, errr, outrunning him.

Next week, praising something underrated.

(Originally published 5/3/07 at LiveJournal.)