Thursday, November 15, 2007

30. Everybody Just Wants to Have Guns

It's January 1996, and we're coming down to the very end of John Tomlinson's tenure. The handoff to David Bishop has already come, but it has not been announced in the prog yet, and I've got something else to look at in the next installment, so this is a good point to stop and re-evaluate. Conventional wisdom suggests that Bishop was the one who turned 2000 AD around from the early 1990s pre-movie doldrums, but this prog suggests that things were already moving in the right direction. The lineup this time is the continuing story of Judge Dredd in "The Pit" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra - clearly the best thing going in the comic - with reasonable support provided by four other thrills, none of which are really bad, even if they've been mostly forgotten over time. These are Venus Bluegenes, a spinoff from Rogue Trooper by Dan Abnett and Simon Coleby, Flesh, by Abnett, Steve White and Gary Erskine, Kid CyBorg by "Kek-W" (Nigel Long) and Jim McCarthy, and Darkness Visible by Nick Abadzis and John Ridgway.

Of the strips, Kid CyBorg is very much the weak link, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Jim McCarthy's art really fails the material, and looks so unappealing that it's no wonder readers gave it the thumbs-down. McCarthy had been associated with unpopular strips throughout the early 90s, including Bix Barton (which I liked) and The Grudge-Father (which nobody did), and so I imagine people just tuned this one out completely. It also simply looks as though the printers fumbled the ball with it, like his coloring choices just got swallowed by the paper, and so while Kid CyBorg's art is actually streets ahead of his other work, the strip looks flat, unfocussed and, when weighed against Ezquerra, Ridgway and Erskine in the same comic, decidedly amateurish. Long' s script is pretty good, and I was surprised to learn that all the elements are there for a memorable, classic 2000 AD character, but with art this ugly, nobody wanted to read it in the first place, let alone see the kid again.

This isn't poor scanning; it looks this muddy on paper, too.

Flesh was created by Pat Mills and was one of the original 2000 AD series. This is a seven-part story called "Chronocide," and sees the put-upon hero of the original run, Earl Regan, conscripted back to work for the Trans-Time Corporation. (Regan only appeared in Flesh Book One. That book's villain, Claw Carver, reappeared in 1978's Book Two. Flesh was rested until prog 800, when Pat Mills resurrected the concept with none of the original characters in "The Legend of Shamana.") Interestingly, "Chronocide" takes place in two time periods - Regan is dealing with one group of terrorists 80 million years ago and other characters are fighting the same gang in the Cenozoic. It's a solid story, with fine artwork. Incidentally, Gary Erskine's the new artist for Virgin's seven-part Dan Dare comic, which'll be in stores soon.

Nick Abadzis's Darkness Visible also features a character who might have returned had Bishop commissioned another series. This was a five-part story about a PI named Alec Perry, whose missing persons investigation has him crossing paths with a really dangerous cult. It's a scenario that would have played equally well in DC's Hellblazer, and Abadzis's script does a good job making readers care about the character and keeping us guessing where the plot would go. Abadzis didn't have a very long 2000 AD career - he did have some Vector 13 episodes in 1996, but no other series - but he resurfaced earlier this year with the critically acclaimed graphic novel Laika. The art is very, very good. It's always nice to see John Ridgway in the prog.

And then there's Venus Bluegenes, who gets off to as okay a start as a Rogue Trooper spinoff can. But you know, that's not a terrible lineup of heroes. Venus and Earl Regan pre-existed this run, but these stories are treated as effectively pilots for the characters. 2000 AD works best when its recurring series spotlight a heroic character - even an anti-hero like Nemesis - on some kind of ongoing storyline. I think you see this in Tomlinson's later Tor Cyan series; the editor clearly knew what sort of ongoing series 2000 AD needed and commissioned the right kinds of strips during his short tenure. Clearly none of them succeeded, but they're a huge step in the right direction. David Bishop would inherit a couple more of these strips, including R.A.M. Raiders, which runs in the spring of '96, and Sinister Dexter, which would prove to be Tomlinson's most lasting commission to the comic.

Sinister Dexter will take the spotlight next time, but that won't be for another three weeks. As I've mentioned, I'm sharing the reread with my son, and he's going to spend a long Thanksgiving holiday with his mother in Kentucky. Normal service will resume in December!

(Originally published 11/15/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

29. Fleetway Begins the Brakes

Short one this week, fans. Megazine Vol. 3 # 13 (Jan. 1996) was the last of the biweekly editions of the comic. It had switched over from monthly to twice-monthly in 1992 after 20 issues, starting a new volume with its new frequency. Fleetway relaunched it again in the summer of '95 to coincide with the Judge Dredd film (see the 22nd entry), but the sales spike that the Fleetway line received from the movie's publicity had faded within three months. Worse, while 2000 AD itself had received a pretty reliable spike of thrill-power in the form of Vector 13, the Megazine didn't find anything of note after the initial thrills of its third volume. "The Three Amigos" and "Satan" had been popular, successful thrills, as was the reinvigorated Harmony with new artist Steve Sampson, but the series that replaced them were less than engaging.

So, January 1996 sees one of those "all stories end this issue" editions, with a pair of one-off filler Judge Dredd episodes, and the final parts of Deathwatch by Paul Cornell and Adrian Salmon, Judge Hershey by Paul Neal and Marc Wigmore, and Pan-African Judges by Siku. It's a massive yawnfest, although I do like Wigmore's bizarre sense of anatomy, and stark use of white negative space.

What this issue doesn't tell you is that it's the final biweekly issue. The next one comes with the free gift of a big poster and the announcement that it's a monthly comic again. In hindsight, this isn't surprising... in publishing, you hype up the changes that you should feel good about, but you spring the bad news as late as possible.

Next week, Rogue Trooper gets a little less boring when Venus Bluegenes gets her solo series...

(Originally published 11/8/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

28. The Pit

In December 1995, prog 970 arrives with some interesting clues about the contents of the cancelled 1996 Yearbook. The official explanation, provided in a Meg a month or so previously, is that the Nerve Centre was simply so swamped with all the new Dredd product and the line-wide relaunches that the Dredd and 2000 AD yearbooks had to be shelved. Conventional wisdom, however, suggests that you don't shelve a perennial seller. By the mid-90s, the old Christmas tradition was sagging across all lines and publishers. Since the last couple of years' offerings had moved slowly, and since the sales spike provided by the Dredd film had already ebbed, it was decided to cancel the books and use their contents in the comic. So in prog 970, there's a Nerve Centre note about two upcoming thrills: one-off episodes of Red Razors and The Journal of Luke Kirby in the next two issues. These will prove to be the final appearances for each series.

On the back covers of progs 972 and 973, there's a two-part star scan by Mick Austin, who painted the cover of the 1995 Yearbook, featuring Tharg and a number of characters: Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Luke Kirby, Red Razors, Feral, Judy Janus and Sam Slade. Prog 953 had seen a Janus: Psi Division one-off, and Feral had appeared in a Strontium Dogs episode four weeks later. Were these all cast-offs from the axed book? As for our old pal Sam Slade, the next we see of Robo-Hunter is another one-shot by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes in December 1996.

My curiosity about the activity behind the scenes at my favorite comic is an amusing distraction, but the real story this week is the first episode of one of the all-time great Judge Dredd stories, "The Pit."

Even if you're not really familiar with Dredd, you probably have seen images here and there to know he's a big action hero on a big motorcycle. "The Pit" promises readers that it will show them Dredd as he's never been seen before... behind a desk! This is a fantastic, 30-week change in the status quo that sees Dredd assigned to new duties in one of the Meg's remote regions, where rather than doing the job of a senior street judge, he's assigned to the task of sector chief.

It turns out that the Dredd formula works incredibly well as an ensemble police procedural, which was a huge surprise to everybody, including the writer. "The Pit" was originally planned as a 14-part story, the second to involve the organized crimelords called The Frendz, but it works so incredibly well, and the new cast of characters are so popular with readers that it is expanded into a thirty-episode epic which won't conclude until the summer of 1996.

Carlos Ezquerra is the principal artist of this series. Other contributors are Colin MacNeil, Alex Ronald and Lee Sullivan.

Hamlyn issued an out-of-print collection of this series in 1997. A new edition from Rebellion has occasionally been mentioned as a possibility.

Next week, the Megazine ends its twice-monthly publishing cycle... but why?

(Originally published 11/1/07 at LiveJournal.)