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.)