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.)