Thursday, June 28, 2007

13. Buttoning Down

It's November 1994 and we're up to prog 914. This features the final part of Judge Dredd in "Wilderlands" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, in which everybody gets rescued and the robot judge program gets scrapped. Amazingly, in only ten weeks, the high point of prog 904's launch strips has totally evaporated, as "Wilderlands" limps to a conclusion much less interesting than the promising first part, and three of the excellent, entertaining series that launched alongside it have been replaced by lesser strips. These include Red Razors, by Mark Millar and Nigel Dobbyn, who's really giving this dumb story far more attention than it deserves. New since my last update are the final outings for Skizz and Bix Barton.

Skizz of course is best known for its original run in 1983. It was Alan Moore's first serial for the comic, and was illustrated by Jim Baikie. Moore gave Baikie his blessing to continue the story on his own in 1991, which led to a slight, but inoffensive 9-part revisiting of the characters. But while the third story is also inoffensive, it's not at all "slight." It's a mammoth, 16-part story, bloated with three plotlines that don't look like they're ever going to intersect. The stories of the characters we met in Moore's original run aren't bad, but there's this plot about some time-travelling alien hitmen with a robot that dresses like an Elvis impersonator and speaks in what's apparently a broad Birmingham accent, and it's endlessly dull and unamusing.

Bix Barton is back for his final adventure. He'd debuted in 1990 and starred in four six-part adventures, and a handful of one-offs in specials and annuals, by Pete Milligan and Jim McCarthy. This thing just smells of "inventory pages," and I say this as one of the minority of fans who actually like Bix Barton. Well, except for the art. I suppose we all have to have a "least favorite" artist, and Jim McCarthy might very well be a contender for mine.

As I say, I like Barton a lot, but it's evident that Milligan's initial enthusiasm for his character wore off very quickly. The first three series are quite fun, and there's nothing actually wrong with this one, other than the art, but it feels pretty tired, and Barton himself is sidelined for much of the action. He's a great character, but Milligan was well established in the States as a regular writer for Vertigo by this time and a Barton series hadn't appeared for more than two years, leading me to suspect this had been on the shelf for quite some time.

The standout among this lineup is certainly Button Man Book 2. If you've never read Button Man, you are really, really missing out. It's by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson, and it's about a thug and a mercenary called Harry Exton who finds employment as a hired gun for a cartel of rich "voices" who play their gunmen off against each other in violent games. But Exton is bothered by one of his competitors, who lets him know that this isn't a game you can actually quit. When Exton chooses to find out whether that's true, all kinds of hell break loose.

It appeared at the conclusion of the first book that Exton had died while killing off the "voice." But Book 2 reveals that he is instead spirited to the US and given a new chance in the American version of game with a one-year contract to a rich senator, A.J. Jacklin, under the name Harry Elmore, with funding and a "wife," Cora, who arranges things for their master. But Harry's still an uncontrollable killer, and is looking for the chinks in the game.

Halfway through this remarkable tale, Cora and Jacklin conclude that Harry's a liability, just as Harry discovers the body of the button man who'd previously been in Jacklin's employ. Up to this point in the story, it's been a very entertaining slow burn, but what follows from this turning point is pretty intense.

Button Man has been optioned for a feature film on the strength of Wagner's A History of Violence; IMDB suggests that it's meant to be released sometime in 2008, but that could mean anything. The third book of Button Man came in 2001, and the fourth will be starting in a few months, with Frazer Irving taking over art chores.

Next week: I Cannot Be a Nun!

(Originally published 6/28/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

12. Hughes on Slade

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.

It's October 1994 and 2000 AD is continuing stories from its most recent jump-on issue in prog 910. You've got more with Judge Dredd in "Wilderlands" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Button Man by Wagner and Arthur Ranson, ABC Warriors by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Kevin Walker and Robo-Hunter by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes. That's four excellent strips; unfortunately they share space this week with Red Razors, another "I'm the toughest there is!" beat-em-up by Mark Millar and poor old Nigel Dobbyn, who has to draw this nonsense.

But speaking of drawing, isn't that a great cover? Heaven knows I've seen it enough times. For about a year, 2000 AD was not available in the US. I ordered progs 875-899 from Forbidden Planet, and then shelled out for a subscription. Wow, what a nightmare that was.

I must point out that 2000 AD was later acquired by their present owners Rebellion, and their subscription department is said to be so darn good that many readers are incredibly happy with the service.

Sadly, this was not the case in 1994, although I still wouldn't recommend surface mail for anybody, regardless of the customer service. Until American distribution resumed around prog 930, I was stuck with banged up, beat up, mangled, torn up copies, kicked around at the bottom of a cargo ship with two tons of tractor equipment on top of them. About six never showed up. Only about four of the remaining 25 issues were in anything like good condition. I was so aggravated by how badly prog 910, with this beautiful Rian Hughes cover, was damaged that I wrote a letter and asked for a replacement copy. It too was beat all to hell. When I next visited London, in the spring of 1995, I visited Gosh!, one of England's best comic shops, and replaced most of my surface mail copies.

Rian Hughes has picked up a little press lately, since a collection of his comics work called Yesterday's Tomorrows is coming out this summer. It includes an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Goldfish and two collaborations with Grant Morrison: Dare, which originally appeared in 2000 AD's sister books Revolver and Crisis, and Really & Truly, from 2000 AD progs 842-849.

That Hughes illustrated an adaptation of Chandler is striking, because he also got to play with Robo-Hunter for 13 episodes. They're not highly regarded by the fan base, because they're done without the participation of Sam Slade's creators, John Wagner and Ian Gibson, or his other regular scribe, Alan Grant. They also came at a time when fandom was reacting with quite justifiable derision to Mark Millar's take on the character, and the overwhelming feeling was that Robo-Hunter needed to go. It didn't warrant being retooled in the hands of new creators, it needed to be axed.

That I enjoy Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes' take occasionally surprises people, because it's well documented that the original run is categorically my all-time favorite comic series, and because I'm well-known to be Samantha Slade's biggest defender. Surely, then, I'd pay respect to the creators by not praising what's nothing more than a stop-gap trademark defense?

Well, the thing to remember about the Hogan / Hughes time is that it's past. It happened. We can't go back and change it. It's not an ongoing slap in Wagner, Grant and Gibson's faces, and so it can be judged on its own merits, apart from the politics of the day that surrounded it. But the thing I would like to believe is that when Alan McKenzie inherited the editor's chair and the Rosette of Sirius from Richard Burton, he recognized that there was something very wrong with Robo-Hunter under Mark Millar's tenure, and it really was slapping the original creators in the face.

While understanding, respecting, and often agreeing with those who believe in creators' rights, I also see the need for 2000 AD to keep a bank of regular series to maintain reader interest. Yeah, McKenzie might well have done better to have axed Robo-Hunter outright, but instead, he gave it to the new team and said "Make this good again."

And they did.

That Rian Hughes is a complete genius is obvious. His design and layout skills are amazing, and he's the perfect choice to give Slade's New York a style and life of its own. The world has elements of classic noir filtered through 1950s advertising mascots and dated space-age zap guns. His pacing is note-perfect, the strange designs of the robots are consistent, and everything works without a flaw. Sam Slade's world, in these stories, is a solid, believable universe, and each of the four stories he illustrated is set in the same, unique, world. As the Millar stories were handled by several artists with different visions and opinions, they never looked like the same place twice.

But the scripts work too! Peter Hogan got to write five stories in all (one, illustrated by Simon Jacob, was in a Sci-Fi Special that I don't own), and he nailed the character of Sam Slade. Whenever I write about Robo-Hunter, I keep coming back to Chandler's famous essay, where he explains that the key to understanding detective fiction is to understand that the man who walks the mean streets is not himself mean. Millar's version of Sam Slade was; that's what made those episodes so appalling, even before you got to everything else that was wrong with them. They turned your old pal Sam into a violent boor. Peter Hogan fixed that. His Sam was everything that Slade should be; exasperated, put-upon, broke, down on his luck, but an absolute charmer on every page. Sam has to have a heart of gold even if he tries to project an aura of distance; it's why we love the big loser when everything goes wrong.

I will concede that the construction of the stories is not quite like the classic run. Hogan's tales are more conventional mysteries, but lighthearted and whimsical. There's a love of wordplay and puns not present in the original series. But they are incredibly clever, and they begin developing a nice supporting cast beyond Slade and his assistants.

As I've mentioned before in this column, McKenzie has unfortunately elected to not go on the record about his time on the comic during this period outside of his own site. It has not been updated to this period. I suggest, without any solid evidence, that as his time as editor wound down - John Tomlinson was the next Tharg, starting in 1995 - Robo-Hunter got sidelined in favor of some of the newer strips. As Tomlinson, and later David Bishop, began considering series, they had to consider the considerable fan outcry against Millar's Robo-Hunter, and the unfortunate, baffling, lack of popularity of Rian Hughes, and quietly shelved the strip. (Bishop and Hogan had a falling out as well, which certainly tabled any new work from this team.)

In 2004, Robo-Hunter returned in new tales of Sam's granddaughter Samantha. An early episode briefly dismissed the full 90s run as being incidents that happened to a robot masquerading as Slade, thus consigning 2000 AD's one and only quasi-official "non-canon" stamp to a series. Grant and Gibson were certainly well within their rights to dump anything they didn't like, but I think that it's a shame that they, and most of the readers, didn't like Hogan and Hughes' tales. I think they're deeply misread and horribly underrated, and if they had appeared under the name Standish Archer, Droid Detective, they'd probably rate a little higher in the fan polling.

It should not surprise you to learn that the four Hogan/Hughes stories have not been reprinted, but Yesterday's Tomorrows will be in stores in mid-July. Peter Hogan's done some scripting with Alan Moore on the America's Best line; Hughes has mainly been working in commercial illustration and design, which probably pays a lot better.

Also this week: Tharg gives the new Fantastic Four film a thumbs-down.

Back in seven, but for what, I couldn't say yet!

(Originally published 6/21/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

11. Back to the Wilderlands

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.

It's September 1994 and over in the Megazine, it's also jumping-on time, with the first episodes of four returning series in issue 63, among them the hilarious Son of Mean Machine by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, Calhab Justice by Jim Alexander and Colin MacNeil and Armitage by Dave Stone and Peter Doherty. It's a very solid lineup. In fact, Judge Dredd's the weakest thing in it.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned this very interesting, ongoing story arc that was appearing in Dredd throughout 1993 and 1994 concerning some robot judges called "Mechanismo." Well, these running subplots all start coming together in a 16-part epic entitled "Wilderlands." The first two episodes appeared in 2000 AD 904-905, and the third part appears here, and so on for eleven weeks.

This episode shows newcomer Trevor Hairsine rapidly promoted to Dredd artist, following a very weak first outing on a strip called Harmony. Hairsine's learning curve is amazing; he knows he has to fill in for Carlos Ezquerra on every third episode and he really does an excellent job. Unfortunately, Wagner decided to break the storyline up by following Dredd in the 2000 AD episodes, and Judge Castillo in the Megazine episodes. Soon, the characters will part company and take the action to different locations, but this episode is merely the same events shown in part two, from a different perspective. It's genuinely not very essential at all. On the other hand, as I say, quickly promoted to the majors, Hairsine really steps up to the bat.

That is one desolate looking planet they've crashlanded on.

Overall, "Wilderlands" was a disappointment to me when it first appeared, in part because for some mad reason, Tharg elected to run some covers which spoiled the surprise of the killer's identity. It's kind of hard to maintain suspense when, as early as the second episode, we see Dredd's foe on the front cover. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the inevitable reveal. Read in a collected edition - Hamlyn Books did a very nice one a few years later - it is a much more satisfying story.

The other strip returning in this Meg is Missionary Man, by Gordon Rennie and, making his debut for the House of Tharg, the excellent Simon B. Davis. Missionary Man was certainly one of the highlights of the mid-nineties, and often featured very good artwork from the likes of Frank Quitely and Garry Marshall. It concerns Cain, a former Texas City judge who goes rogue and starts bringing law to the lawless in the Cursed Earth and the former New Orleans.

Rennie got a lot of ground from the notion of a weird, mystical west full of biblical demons, voodoo cults, mutie gangs and space aliens, and put the lawman through his paces against a number of memorable supernatural foes. This story's called "Treasure of the Sierra Murder" and introduces an excellent villain called the Undertaker:

You can bet I'll be ranting about this in another column, but it's outrageous that there aren't any Missionary Man collections in print right now. This is a great, great series.

Simon Davis is one of my favorite 2000 AD artists. He's best known for Sinister Dexter, which at this point is about a year away from its debut episode. It's photoreferenced, certainly, but done with such style and energy that it doesn't suffer from the stiffness that, say, Alex Ross brings to the page. I love that mix of scratchy ink and watercolor, too. Does anybody else do that? It's really good work, and I'll enjoy reviewing his work as the reread continues.

Back in seven, for the sad tale of how the old subscription department saved my bacon, plus bonus Rian Hughes awesomeness.

(Originally published 6/14/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

10. Nemesis Arrives and Departs

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.

It's August 1994 and this is prog 902. Tharg had an interesting idea to release three jump-on progs over the course of five weeks and it works pretty well. Prog 900 had been given over to a 28-page John Wagner/John Higgins story with Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper teaming up. 901 started new stories, all of which quickly wrapped up before five new stories began in prog 904. This way, a short run of issues lets new readers sample quite a few recurring thrills.

For the era, it's actually not a bad lineup at all. Dredd is by Wagner and Ian Gibson, and you've also got an amusing installment of Bradley by Alan McKenzie and Simon Harrison, a fairly awful Rogue Trooper by Mark Millar (miscredited as Steve White) and Chris Weston, the first stab at Durham Red by Peter Hogan and her new regular artist Mark Harrison, and the odd return of Nemesis the Warlock by Pat Mills and Clint Langley.

Nemesis had been largely absent from the comic for the previous six years. He appeared in a one-off episode in prog 700, followed by a short and largely pointless "Nemesis and Deadlock" series five months later. Chris Weston illustrated a fabulous one-off in the 1993 Winter Special, followed by another one-off in prog 824 by Paul Staples, and that was about it.

It was clearly intended that the three episodes here should be the buildup to something larger and climactic, because the first two parts are nothing more than characters reminiscing about the story up until this point. Mills had used a similar tactic in the first episodes of the epic Slaine storyline "The Horned God. Clint Langley - who, I promise, is a million times better today than these ugly green pages from early in his career suggest - is reduced to little more than recapping the story so far.

This sequence, for instance, is a retelling of the previous Nemesis story, from 1993. You can tell that Mills is laying the groundwork for something very important, and probably, considering the great success of "The Horned God" as collected editions in Europe, putting one eye towards big nice albums full of painted green Langley artwork...

...but then nothing happens. The story doesn't resume at any point in the next few years. Langley himself is conspicuously absent for the next good while, and when Nemesis does return, it's in 1999, with astonishingly vibrant black and white artwork by Henry Flint. Today, Langley is the regular artist for Slaine and The ABC Warriors, and his current work is so weird and wonderful that I actually feel pangs of guilt about putting this old, ugly mess up for you to look at. On the other hand, I do love his take on Nemesis himself. You can tell by that cover that Nemesis is about as grotesque and slimy and nasty as a sentient being can be. No disrespect to Bryan Talbot, but his Nemesis looked like a superhero with a funny head; this guy looks as alien as can be - exactly the sort of thing Torquemada warned his population about!

This three-parter is not presently available in collected form, but a third volume of The Complete Nemesis is anticipated in December, and we're hoping it contains this story. (edit: It does! --grant, 6/5/08)

Oh, some unfinished business... in our seventh installment, I spotlighted Mike McMahon circa 1994. To our surprise, he was back with a new Dredd episode in last week's prog 1539. Singing McMahon's praises are two of his peers, Chris Weston and Lew Stringer. Check it out! I can't wait for that prog.

Next week, we pick back up the Mechanismo story in the "Wilderlands" saga.

(Originally published 6/7/07 at LiveJournal.)