Thursday, December 27, 2007

34. Simon Davis Saves the Day

May 1996: Prog 993 sports a fun little cover by the great Sean Phillips, well known among current comic readers for his work on Criminal with Ed Brubaker. That feller on the front is Middenface McNulty, one of 2000 AD's most popular second bananas, heralding the return inside of Strontium Dogs. This series is a follow-up to the original run of Strontium Dog, which concluded five years previously, and continues the stories of the supporting cast in the wake of Johnny Alpha's death. Garth Ennis wrote a few series before moving on to work for US publishers. This left the writer Peter Hogan to take up his plot threads, and he divided the characters into two separate series: the Strontium Dogs strips dealt with the Gronk, Bullmoose, Feral and a gang of mad professors, while Durham Red and Frinton Fuzz took their story into the separate Durham Red run.

The problem was, as was common during the Burton / McKenzie regimes, it was ages between stories in the weekly. A new story would arrive after being absent for five months, run for four weeks, advance its subplots a little, and vanish again. Read in one go, they aren't bad at all, but spread out over years, it was pretty tedious. Reading this run with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the next four months are going to give us a good solid run of the two series at last, this time with the S/D art chores taken up by Trevor Hairsine, but there's a remarkable giveaway of a clue in this credit box about how much more we'll be seeing of Strontium Dogs in the future:

Alan Smithee, huh? That can't be good. Indeed, as with R.A.M. Raiders, which we saw in the previous entry, an appropriate level of hype and attention, including an intro page with art by Henry Flint, is being paid to a strip which will not be returning. It's always touchy to mention a couple of creators you enjoy and respect having a professional disagreement, but you know how last time I was saying how a number of creators begin moving on from 2000 AD during this period, as David Bishop declines to commission new material from them? Peter Hogan would be one of those.

Bishop is very forthcoming in Thrill-Power Overload about how he did not handle this decision as delicately as he might have done, but his decision means the end of the road for both Hogan's Robo-Hunter, which only has a single episode left in the can at this stage, and Strontium Dogs, while Durham Red will be given to Dan Abnett. Hogan's final episodes go out under the Alan Smithee pseudonym, and that's the last we see of the Gronk and Feral, and of Durham's ongoing war against the criminal Gothking.

Hogan really didn't get the chance to contribute to 2000 AD as much as I'd have liked. His subsequent work in comics has been sporadic, but he's highly regarded for some work with Alan Moore on the Terra Obscura series for ABC/Wildstorm. Hairsine, of course, has a number of projects for the House of Tharg still to come over the next few years. Most recently, he worked with Paul Cornell for Marvel Comics on a Pete Wisdom miniseries.

This sounds like a bit of a bummer of an entry, but the weekly is still very strong right now. Judge Dredd's epic "The Pit" continues. John Wagner is still scripting; art in this week's episode is by Alex Ronald and Alan Craddock. Vector 13 offers a ghost story by Brian Williamson and John Burns, and the final series of Finn continues, by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Paul Staples.

But then there is Sinister Dexter, and what has started as a pretty good, entertaining series has suddenly become unmissably fantastic, because Simon Davis has joined the art team:

Geez, that's beautiful. I love his work; Davis is among my five favorite comic artists. And here's the crazy thing: I imagine Davis will be quick to say that his painting looks the best when he's got a great deal of time to work on the pages, but his first two Sin Dex episodes were done under a pretty hellish deadline, and they look great.

In an earlier entry, I explained that five more episodes of Sin Dex were commissioned with very little lead time - about two months from the order until the comics went to the printer. So two episodes went to Charlie Gillespie, who'd done three of the first eight installments, one went to Henry Flint, who had just wrapped up some Rogue Trooper stories, and the other two went to Davis. Bishop had used Davis a few times as an artist for Missionary Man while he was editor of the Megazine, and knew that Davis could be counted on to make a tough deadline.

And he makes it look effortless. Over time, quite a few artists will be tackling Sinister Dexter, but Davis will get the first two of the important, long stories, "Gunshark Vacation" and "Murder 101," in 1997. These will cement Sin Dex's popularity to the point that it will become a semi-regular feature. But more on that another time!

Oh, one other note: I half-joked on the message board this week that I should keep a running Sinister Dexter bullet count. Turns out, across the first fourteen episodes, they each only take one confirmed hit apiece, in part two of "The Eleventh Commandment." Since Anthony Williams, at this time, was filling the negative space of his panels with as many shell casings as he can reasonably draw in them, I am amazed that our heroes only take two bullets across all of these installments. (In "Family Man," Henry Flint draws Ramone clutching his forearm as if to imply he'd been hit in just one panel, but there's nothing in the script to confirm it. Isn't this a great hobby?)

Next week, I'm not sure... probably a word or two about Finn and Slaine. Take care!

(Originally published 12/27/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

33. The Hit List

April 1996: Prog 989 sees the last part of the first R.A.M. Raiders adventure. This is a notable series in one respect: detailed anecdotal evidence over the last decade has proven that I am, in fact, the only person on the entire planet who liked R.A.M. Raiders. The series was the last one that Alan McKenzie brought to 2000 AD - quite possibly the last one he did for any comic - and featured a pair of young hackers in the near future, Cody and his girlfriend Meg, who stole customers out from under bigger and better-established tech support crews. They run into very weird evidence that computers are becoming sentient. Just like my iPod, in other words. It's slight, and, if we're honest, not anywhere near as thrilling as a 2000 AD series should be. But it's a nice counterpoint to the heavier, gun-laden stories elsewhere in the prog (this time, Judge Dredd by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra, Rogue Trooper by Steve White & Steve Tappin, Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett & Charlie Gillespie and Vector 13 by Simon Furman & John Higgins).

At the end of the first R.A.M. Raiders story, there's a completely bizarre twist: Meg gets killed in an explosion and returns as a ghost that only be seen by Cody or by robots. So the story starts as a lighthearted TechGhostbusters before turning into Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Maybe that's why it was so unpopular: it felt more like a TV series that McKenzie had failed to sell than it did a comic. He scripted two five-part stories under John Tomlinson's commision, the first with art by Calum Alexander Watt and the second by Maya Gavin. This very much falls in line with the sort of strips I was mentioning in the thirtieth entry, and could certainly have been in the regular rotation had Tomlinson remained with 2000 AD.

But David Bishop had other ideas, chiefly that these slight stories were a little long at five parts apiece. Watt had already completed art on the first, but the second was edited down from five parts to three before Maya Gavin got to draw it. Even if McKenzie had continued in the business, it's unlikely that R.A.M. Raiders would have returned. It appears that McKenzie has evidently tired of comic publishing by this point and is looking at a new career. Other early 90s names are finding other outlets in magazine illustration or jobs for American publishers. But several of their fellows find commissions drying up as Bishop looks elsewhere for ongoing 2000 AD work. Even several of the creators that he'd commissioned for the Judge Dredd Megazine become conspicuously absent over the next couple of years. I did a little tally, and whether by default or by design, the list of 2000 AD creators who will move on includes about twenty names, among them all three of R.A.M. Raiders' script and art droids.

There are some really positive changes to the comic during this period. I particularly like the tendency for longer residencies in the lineup. You could easily imagine the two R.A.M. Raiders stories, under the Richard Burton days, appearing months apart from each other. By running these and other strips in longer runs with multiple artists, readers are able to get more interested in the settings and the characters. The 10-14 week runs of Rogue or Venus Bluegenes, or Sin Dex, or some of the other series which will be launching soon, like Outlaw or Black Light or the big run of Slaine strips to come, are much more memorable than what we are unfortunately seeing in the present day, where, for example, The 86ers returns to the weekly after a year's break, with virtually no recap or reminder, and rushes through six subplot heavy weeks before vanishing again.

Further, Bishop brings to 2000 AD one of his staples from his tenure at the Megazine, the intro page. Each new storyline is preceded by a pinup page which recaps the story so far and refreshes readers' memories about the subplots - even if the series was in the previous issue! Prog 990 gives R.A.M. Raiders an intro page for its second and final story. Now, this is a strip which everybody involved has already decided will not be returning, and yet it gets the benefit of the intro page to help any first-time readers understand what they're about to read. That's a very nice idea and I wish today's Tharg would resurrect it.

Speaking of resurrections, the previous month saw a mention of one of Sinister Dexter's occasional employers, the ganglord Holy Moses Tanenbaum. In the current two-parter, we meet the criminal kingpin. A contract's been put out on him by his moll, the statuesque torch singer Demi Octavo. Finnigan has a little trouble with Holy Moses's force field, but Ramone finishes the job.

This is interesting because Sinister Dexter really never collect much of a rogue's gallery - most of the recurring antagonists are fellow gunmen and theirs is an occupation with more terminal ends than typical comic book heroes. Some of the more recent storylines have seen some shenanigans about Moses Tanenbaum "returning to life" through somewhat eyebrow-raising means (there are two: one is a clone and one comes from a parallel dimension), and the characters in the strip treat this like it's the worst thing imaginable, like Moses is, by some distance, the most menacing character in all of fiction. This remains head-scratchingly odd. Dan Abnett never made Moses into a serious threat in the first place. It's all very well for him to tell us ten years later on what a spectacular supervillain he was, and how his return is the worst thing that could possibly happen to the city of Downlode, but I've got the issues right in front of me, and he wasn't much of a villain, and his return is, thus far, unsatisfying and convoluted.

Next week: Middenface McNulty!! But more importantly... Simon Davis!!

(Originally published 12/20/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

32. My Dinner With Einstein

March 1996: Another week, another subpar cover. Prog 985 sports a decent enough picture of Judge Dredd looking moody, but is that any way to sell a comic to someone not already actively looking for it? Goodness, how dull. The contents are considerably more interesting. Dredd's epic "The Pit" continues, now in its second arc, "True Grot," written by John Wagner and with art by Alex Ronald and Alan Craddock. Rogue Trooper continues a four-part story by Steve White and Henry Flint, and Sinister Dexter has another one-off story by Dan Abnett and Charles Gillespie. We also get the first episode of a new series written by Alan McKenzie called R.A.M. Raiders. I'll discuss this a little more next week, but I will mention art on this story is by Calum Alexander Watt. Bringing up the rear is the second and final outing for Canon Fodder by Nigel Long and Chris Weston.

In another of those fascinating little "I had no idea" revelations in Thrill-Power Overload, it turns out that Canon Fodder's co-creator and original writer, Mark Millar, objected to the series being continued in his absence. Millar had already stopped working for 2000 AD by this point, and only one further story, a four-part Janus: Psi Division adventure planned for the Megazine, was still in the drawer. Millar was working for American publishers, principally on DC/Vertigo's Swamp Thing, around this time.

Millar's objection ranks among the most hypocritical lines of self-serving nonsense I've ever heard in the hobby. The pinhead got his start by ruining Robo-Hunter about five years previously, and then had the balls to complain about Nigel Long taking a crack at his character?

Yeah, anyway, the first Canon Fodder series, from late 1993, had this really great premise that the Rapture came, the dead regained life, and yet God never showed up to take folk up to Heaven. Now that's a fabulous idea. I may have spent some column inches here complaining about Millar, but that is one awesome premise. And it's completely wasted on this idiotic story about a typical Millar indestructible he-man punching his way through the afterlife in pursuit of Sherlock Holmes and Prof. Moriarty, who've gone to Heaven to kill God. It's got some pretty good moments, and some pretty good art, but it also reimagines the corpulent Mycroft Holmes as a skinny Hannibal Lecter. It is stupid beyond stupid.

Long's Canon Fodder story sees our hero allied with Jules Verne, Nikolai Tesla, Albert Einstein and Wilhelm Reich to defend reality from sentience formed from dark matter. (Which, Wikipedia tells us today, is "matter of unknown composition that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be observed directly, but whose presence can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter," and which accounts for a "majority of mass in the observable universe." Huh.) Long is still a novice writer and learning his craft, and some of his plot twists are kind of telegraphed in advance, but this, unlike the first, is a very clever story, with some great character moments. Reich, for instance, is a quiet little loon who keeps to himself, but he has to share how happy he is that Kate Bush wrote "Cloudbusting" about him. Sigmund Freud, who appears in the earlier episodes having incarcerated Fodder at Bedlam, is aghast in a wonderful moment when he realizes that Carl Jung was correct about that whole collective unconsciousness theory.

Even more impressively, Canon Fodder himself gets his character fleshed out, so that he's not merely a shouting, musclebound gunman. His unrequited love for his housekeeper is almost touching, really. It's a much, much better story than the first series, and Weston's art has improved from "good" to "fantastic," but David Bishop evidently decided against aggravating Millar any further, and Canon Fodder joined what's going to be an increasingly large number of series from the early 90s to be shelved under Bishop's tenure. It is also worth noting that, as it was never commissioned again, it adds to the discussion in the late 90s about series continuing without the participation of the original writer. Perhaps Millar was being hypocritical, but his point was nonetheless valid - if 2000 AD was going to shelve, as it will over the next year, Rogue Trooper, Robo-Hunter and Strontium Dogs, then Canon Fodder fits the same criteria.

Bishop will have some other tough editorial decisions in the weeks to come, which I'll talk about more next time. Here, watch Sinister and Dexter try to prop up a corpse and act like nothing's wrong and wonder whether it might be a metaphor for something.

(Originally published 12/13/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

31. Pun Loving Criminals

Is it that time again? Well, back at the Hipster Pad, my son is very pleased to see this prog, despite that really lousy cover by Jason Brashill, because he has heard of Sinister Dexter and seen the books on the shelf and flipped past the episodes in the current issues of the comic so he can start from the beginning. The series had begun a few months previously with a pilot episode in the '96 Winter Special, and begins its run in the weekly with issue # 981 in February 1996. Almost twelve years later, it's still one of the regular stars of the comic, though the current storylines, and hints from the writers and artists, certainly indicate that it will be coming to a conclusion before much longer. Commissioning the strip is former editor John Tomlinson's biggest legacy at 2000 AD.

If you aren't familiar with Sinister Dexter, then, briefly, it's a strip about two hired gunmen, Finnigan Sinister and Ramone Dexter, in a gigantic city on the European mainland called Downlode. It's set just far enough in the future for the characters to have access to some technology we don't have and interact with cyborgs, but close enough so that fashions haven't changed much and everyone can still get around in great big, gorgeous automobiles. The strip is written by Dan Abnett - he's scripted every episode, which comes to something like 1400 pages thus far - and illustrated by practically every big name in British comics over the last decade. David Millgate was the original art droid. Others have included Simon Davis, whom many consider to be the definitive Sin Dex artist, Andy Clarke, Greg Staples, Henry Flint, Steve Yeowell, Anthony Williams, Frazer Irving and many more. The format is incredibly flexible, and, like Judge Dredd, mixes one-off episodes with epic-length stories and with shorter tales which advance ongoing subplots. There are patches where it's felt old, tired and in the way, and there are occasional moments of real brilliance, subversion, wit, and a genuine sense of drama and danger.

And puns. This series has the absolute worst jokes in all of comics, and knows it. It shouldn't be too surprising that a strip which stars characters whose names mean "left right" in Latin has them walking around in a city where everybody they meet has a name with at least one other meaning. The first weekly episode introduces us to their angst-ridden information broker Nervous Rex. As we see below, Rex is being menaced by Kenton Quaranteeno, prompting Sinister to go all Dirty Harry on him. We're not done with the names yet, but I do want to point out that this is a very clever scene, as it pays homage to Sinister Dexter's principal forebears - Pulp Fiction and Clint Eastwood - immediately and then gets on with creating its own world.

Sinister has come to see Rex because he needs the location of this episode's target. His name is Curt Vile. Now, maybe I'm reading too much into things, but I just don't see how there's any way Dan Abnett could not have known that Alan Moore had beat him to that particular pun by at least fifteen years, and, for a time, wrote under that pseudonym. So, week one in the comic and our heroes' first assignment is to kill Alan Moore. Unfortunately, Mr. Vile has already had face-change surgery and now looks like Ramone Dexter, and not an old bearded hippie from Northhampton. Moore's the pity.

At the time this originally appeared, David Bishop was settling in to the editor's job and inherited the eight-week series from Tomlinson, who'd been moved to the Judge Dredd Megazine. Now, the previous issue featured an ad for some forthcoming Slaine storylines, announcing that the story "Lord of Misrule," which had ended on a cliffhanger in prog 963, would be back in prog 990. Almost immediately, Bishop had to rearrange things on that front. Artist Clint Langley wouldn't be ready in time, so Slaine was put back to prog 995 and Bishop quickly commissioned another five episodes of Sin Dex from Dan Abnett. He was only able to do this because the strip's format of, then, one and two-part stories allowed him to commission the scripts and assign multiple artists to tackle the new order with only about two months to spare. In the early 80s, when Wagner and Grant were writing more than half the book and the episodes didn't require color, a last-minute change like that would not have been much of a problem. By '96, this is a somewhat larger headache. Readers had no idea of the behind-the-scenes incident, and probably didn't know until Bishop discussed it in Thrill-Power Overload.

The extended run of Sinister Dexter manages to pay off very well. It's a hugely enjoyable series, and readers love it. Giving it a three-month stint gives everyone a chance to get to know the characters' world and the cast and the strip's humor and attitude. It will return frequently over the next few years, becoming a semi-regular in 1997-2001 and always popping up for anywhere from six to twenty episodes a year thereafter. As I said above, it's still going strong today, although its heyday has certainly passed. I'm certainly going to enjoy rereading all of this (mostly) great strip. One thing I have noted is that Dexter originally had more "dialect" in his word balloons, with "they" spelled out as "dey" and so on. This was dropped after a couple of weeks.

A fair amount of the earlier Sin Dex episodes are available in collected form. DC wisely recognized that this was among the most commercial and sellable of 2000 AD's color strips (although they didn't do jack to sell them), and when they and Rebellion went into the trade paperback business together, they assembled three volumes of the first couple of years of episodes. They aren't quite complete - the episodes illustrated by Tom Carney were excised altogether - but about 95% of them are included. These three books are still in print, and any comic shop can order them. American accounts will find them in DC's section of the distributor, Diamond, or you can get them from Amazon: Gunshark Vacation is the first one, followed by Murder 101 and finally Slay Per View. We're hoping that a fourth collection will arrive sometime in 2008.

Anyway, the other series in this issue I'll mention more next time, but for the record, they're Venus Bluegenes by Steve White and Henry Flint, Janus: Psi Division by Mark Millar and Paul Johnson, Canon Fodder by Nigel Long and Chris Weston, and the continuing Judge Dredd epic "The Pit," by John Wagner and, this week, Lee Sullivan. I like Sullivan's work, though he's never been a fan favorite. I know he also plays saxophone in a Roxy Music tribute band, and what's this going on in Sector House 301?

Looks like Judge (Bryan?) Ferry arresting Roxy saxophonist Andy Mackay to me. In 2001, Sullivan donated the original artwork for this page to a charity auction which was organized by a Roxy mailing list that I was once on. He noted then that the colorist, Mike Hadley, didn't follow the guidelines and give Andy's "Dalek pants" their correct green and blue scheme! I can't find a picture online of these glam rock marvels; you'll just have to trust me when I tell you they were awesome.

(Originally published 12/6/07 at LiveJournal.)