Thursday, January 31, 2008

39. The Fiction Behind the Facts Behind the Fiction

September 1996: In prog 1011, the summer's crop of thrills is wrapping up. It's been a mostly entertaining run. Slaine's comic foil, Ukko, gets the cover this week, spotlighting a pretty unusual little adventure. "The Cloak of Fear" is an interlude to the two-book "Treasures of Britain" story. Painted by Steve Tappin, the story is set in the Tower of the Ever-Living Ones, a location which Pat Mills introduced to the series some time previously. This is where Ukko and some of the supporting cast reside, long after the historical events of the Slaine series. Mills occasionally gets to have some fun poking at the differences between the reality of what actually happened, Ukko's selfish recollections of what happened as he records the tales, and Nest's insistence that Ukko's short-sightedness is preventing him from understanding the broader historical picture. That's not to say it's uniformly excellent storytelling - Slaine's days of consistent greatness are behind him by this point, though there are occasional moments of true genius to come - but it's a marvelous concept for the series. With the next issue, Slaine wraps up a run of about five months, and will return in '97.

Judge Dredd has a wonderfully gruesome one-off about an egotistical murderer contacting a TV sports show about his claim to the all-time record for most murders committed by a serial killer. It's by John Wagner and Tom Carney. Rogue Trooper continues a guerilla war against some religion-mad soldiers in a four-parter by Steve White and Calum Alexander Watt, and Black Light is halfway through its final short story, by White, Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell. It's a pretty good prog, with a couple of sour notes.

First among them is Outlaw, which is coming to a conclusion and cannot end quickly enough. The artwork is occasionally amazing. Simon Davis's work on the last episode is actually his best work to this point, and since by '96 he'd already become one of my favorite 2kad artists, that means I think it is pretty damn sumptuous. But it's just so dreary and mindless. Somehow this thing took seventy-odd pages to tell, when there's no more than twenty pages of plot. And even those don't make sense, because we never get the chance to learn who the criminals behind the situation are, nor why they go to such stupid extremes for something which is conveyed as being small and unimportant. There's no sense of scale, that the "Deadliest Man Alive" competition means anything to any audience. And if it does, then the criminals who force Outlaw's hand are acting so illogically that readers cannot understand their motives, making the entire shenanigans seem pointless.

But the second sour note is really sour. It reads like this:

I've left some American comic fans utterly baffled by Tharg the Mighty, the "alien editor" of 2000 AD. Since just about all British comics in the 70s and 80s had a fictional editor at some point or other, their readers are used to the concept. The idea is actually an American one - the "fictional editor" we all remember was EC's Cryptkeeper of the 1950s, if not from the actual comics then from that incredibly stupid Tales from the Crypt TV series.

But, you know, the idea that an alien has come to Earth with an office full of robots to make our comic book... that's kind of silly. That's for kids. Editor David Bishop agreed, and decided to slowly phase Tharg out. What he overlooked is that the readers, sticking with the comic into adulthood, know perfectly well that the concept is something silly, for kids. We like it that way.

Of course, from time to time in the 1980s, editor Steve MacManus needed to take some vacation time, and so the task of penning the editorial notes would fall to his assistants Richard Burton or Simon Geller. So there would be a note from Tharg explaining that he had some business to take care of, or an infestation of Greater-Spotted Thrill-Suckers in the Magellan Cluster that needed exterminating, and the next issue's note would be from one of his droid assistants, Burt or SIM-1.

That's not what happens this time... check back next week as 2000 AD's fictional backstory gets totally ridiculous.

(Originally published 1/31/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

38. Outrage!

September 1996: Today, I'm not nearly so inspired as I occasionally am, so I'll let other people's words do the talking. This is Megazine vol. 3 # 22 and it features letters from really irate readers who don't appreciate having to pay for reprints. It also features editor David Bishop making the not unreasonable point that it's up to the readers whether the reprints stay or go. To some, his words come across as passing the buck, and the outrage will continue. Anyway: twelve year old readers' letters!

Next week, ominous news from Quaxxan means Tharg has a grim announcement for readers.

(Originally published 1/24/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

37. Judge Death Gets Ugly and the Hipster Daughter Gets Squeamish

August 1996: As if to complement the reprints of "Necropolis" over in the Megazine, there's a new seven-part Judge Death adventure running in the weekly. This is "Dead Reckoning," by John Wagner and Greg Staples, and features Death escaping from custody again and making his way back to Deadworld to lick his wounds, only to find that thanks to a timeshift, he's back in the final days of that world's great cull of its populace, and he's soon confronted by his passsst sssself and the other Dark Judges. Death has stolen the body of an aging M-C 1 citizen, and instead of his robes of office, is wearing a dress.

It's a good lineup at this time, with Dredd supported by Slaine in Book One of "Treasures of Britain" by Pat Mills and Dermot Power, Durham Red by Peter Hogan (as Alan Smithee) and Mark Harrison, and a pair of new series which will run for about three months, throughout a number of short stories illustrated by different artists. Outlaw is a future-frontier world story by Paul Neal with art this week by Marc Wigmore, and Black Light is a modern-day thriller about a special ops team assembled by the president to hunt down rogue agencies acting without his authorization. It is written by Dan Abnett and Steve White, and art on this installment is by John Burns, who is completely suited for a contemporary conspiracy thriller and turns in some brilliant artwork. Neither series, however, gets much attention from the fans, and neither will return after these first outings, although Showtime had an option to make an Outlaw TV series for several years and never did anything with it.

As Tharg, David Bishop has picked up a very odd - for Tharg - habit of letting us know precisely what issues, six months down the line, certain thrills will be returning. Over the last couple of weeks, he's let us know that the second book of this Slaine story will begin in prog 1024, and that Sinister Dexter will be back in prog 1025. Today's Tharg likes to sneak new things on us; some things have to be revealed via Diamond Distributors' catalog of advance solicitations, but there are still occasional surprises in store for today's readers without any advance warning. I like the present style better, to be honest.

* * *

When my son started reading 2000 AD with me, at prog 800, my daughter immediately protested that she was being left out. I explained that she might be a shade too young for the comic, but that she could start when she turned nine. She reminded me after Christmas that she's nine now and wants to read with us. So since prog 1000 and meg v.3 #20 were both jump-on issues, she has settled in and now I get the enormous pleasure of having the kids talk shop, sometimes without including me in their conversations. But when I am included, it's pretty fun, too.

For example, the other night, the Hipster Son spent several minutes reading The Complete Nemesis the Warlock Vol. 2 before bed, and when I told the kids to wrap up their reading, he returned the book to the library table, mumbling just loud enough for me to hear, "If I ever have a wife, I won't put a bomb in her head."

I replied, "You only just now figured out that Torquemada's a complete freak?"

"I KNOW he's a freak, Dad, I just didn't think anybody was that crazy!"

The Hipster Daughter chimed in, asking "What are you talking about?"

"In Nemesis the Warlock, Torquemada's got a micro-bomb in his wife's skull!"

"Oh, my GOD!" she shouted.

There's actually been a fair amount of shouting. Prog 1002 featured the chemical preparation of Judge Death's latest host body, a facet of the stories which readers have understood since '82 or so. But these are stories I came to as a teenager, and I suppose it never occurred to me how outre and dark some of the fiction will appear to a youngun. Admittedly, my daughter is the most melodramatic child on the planet, but I was still amused by how over-the-top her reactions to that cliffhanger were. There were yelps and shouts and when she finally finished the issue, she brought it to me with her face frozen in an exaggerated wince and her eyes wide. "That's scaaaaaary," she explained.

"Well, Sweetie, if it's too scary, you can wait until you're a little older to read..."

"NO! NO! I want to READ!"

Addictive stuff, thrillpower!

Next time: Readers' letters. Do you think people are going to overreact spectacularly about those "Necropolis" reprints in the Meg? You bet!

(Originally published 1/17/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

36. City of the Dead, redux

July 1996: David Bishop and his editorial team (which is not a large crew) are putting the weekly in an increasingly stable and strong position when there's a new fire to be tackled. Six months previously, Bishop had moved from the Judge Dredd Megazine over to the weekly, and Tomlinson moved from the weekly to edit the now-monthly Megazine. The publishers have decided that they don't need to be paying Tomlinson's freelance rates any longer and after six monthly issues, he is gone and now Bishop has both comics to edit. If both titles were financially strong and had the full support of the publisher, this might be a really great job. It's what Matt Smith is doing today and he at least seems to enjoy it. But in the summer of 1996, 2000 AD has a big stockpile of unloved material commissioned ages previously which has to be printed, and the publisher is increasingly unhappy with the Megazine's underperformance. Sales, if I understand rightly, are below the point they were when the Dredd feature film was released a year before. The Megazine is under orders to make some money or be cancelled.

And so immediately some more commissioned material goes back in the drawer. Megazine v.3 # 19 had an advertisement that a new story for Janus: Psi Division would begin in the next issue. Judge Janus, who was created by Grant Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra, first appeared in 1993 and had shown up in a couple of stories since, most recently a 5-parter, "A New Star," in 2000 AD in February '96 by Mark Millar and Paul Johnson. Their next, and final, Janus adventure is "Faustus," which I believe was planned to run as four 12-page episodes in Meg # 20-23. Instead, Bishop decides to stop commissioning - and paying for - anything new for the time being, and use reprints to bulk up the comic and put back the time when they'll need to pay for as much new stuff in the Meg. The reprint, for now, is of the 1990 Judge Dredd epic "Necropolis." The small backlog of already commissioned material will do for now, and the format will change from five new stories per issue to three new stories and reprint material.

I'll try to take up how well this goes down in a few weeks' time, but it's worth noting that the postponed Janus storyline will eventually find a home in 2000 AD, along with several other Megazine series as the squeeze gets worse and more established Megazine series are left homeless by the crunch. It had already been announced that Judge Anderson would be returning to 2000 AD. The assumption I made is that Bishop, who'd edited her Megazine series for years anyway, wanted her at 2000 AD with him, and Tomlinson, who commissioned the Millar/Johnson Janus adventures, would be taking that character to the Meg. Now Bishop has both at 2000 AD. Guess which one gets cancelled? Some Judge Dredd stories which were planned for the Meg will get moved to the weekly, and eventually both Missionary Man and Devlin Waugh will also move there.

So the lineup this month includes 20 pages of reprints of some of the lead-in episodes to "Necropolis" by John Wagner and Ezquerra, but it still includes some very good new strips, and just because # 20 is a very visible benchmark for the beginning of the Meg's reprint period doesn't mean the comic should be written off. Far from it; it includes Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and Simon Davis, along with the first episode of a new series called Holocaust 12 written by Chris Standley and John Smith, with art by Jim Murray. I believe this strip, which concerns the suicide-team judges who get sent into disasters as a last-ditch effort and are not expected to return, has also suffered somewhat from the need for space for reprint. There's an cliffhanger which feels unusually artificial, and an oddly-lettered "next issue" tag on the last page. I think this was planned as two 12-page episodes and split into four 6-page episodes to accomodate the reprints and, again, stretch the new material out further.

Finally, there's the Dredd story, part one of "America II: Fading of the Light" by Wagner and Colin MacNeil. This is the big draw, although it suffers from sequel fatigue and isn't rated as highly by readers as the original. It is still a brilliant story and deserves a mention.

"America" was one of the five original Megazine series, back in 1990. It's the life story of America Jara and her friend, Bennett Beeny, who grew up together in the Meg. America's childhood hatred of the judges leads her, in time, to join the democratic underground, and a terrorist organization called Total War, which makes itself known periodically throughout the series. Beeny had made a huge success for himself as a singer-songwriter, but when his and Ami's paths cross one fateful night when Total War ambushes some judges, he's shot as a witness and left for dead. Beeny doesn't identify Ami when he recovers, but the gunshot takes out his throat, ending his career.

He still has enough royalties to live comfortably for the rest of his life, and when Ami returns for money, he's torn between his lifelong love for her and a need to stop the carnage. It's a remarkable story, and one which anybody who doubts Judge Dredd's standing as one of the best comics of the last thirty years should certainly read. Beeny's anguish at being torn between desire and unrequited love on one side, and fear and responsibility on the other, makes for an amazing tale, and whatever he decides is going to leave him disgusted with the decision. Dredd himself is barely present in the story, except as a menacing figure on the fiction's event horizon. You can certainly draw parallels between the structure of "America" and the Golgo 13 episodes I've been mentioning from time to time, where the focus is on the people impacted by the nominal protagonist. Seeing the character through the eyes of guest stars gives us a different perception of him. Dredd doesn't come off so well. Neither does Beeny, once you see what he does.

This first story - no sequel was planned at the time - ends with the revelation that the narrator has indeed been Beeny as we had expected, but he is wearing America's body. America had been fatally wounded in the story's climax. Beeny took custody of her body, and arranged for a brain transplant.

And that's not all he did. In the first episode of this series, we meet their daughter.

Holy crap! You think Faye Dunaway had problems in Chinatown?

"Fading of the Light" is sometimes dismissed, in part because the original series probably did not need a sequel, and in part because many readers feel that MacNeil's gorgeous painting of the original is not matched by the pen and inkwork of this run. I think it's still excellent myself, and a very worthwhile follow-up to the original.

The two "America" stories are available in a reprint volume which was issued by Titan in 2003. There's a new edition coming soon from Rebellion if you are interested - and you certainly should be - so let your local comic shop know. It should be out in March or April in the UK, and in May in the US.

Next week: There are reprints with Dark Judges in the Meg, and new episodes with Dark Judges in the prog!!

(Originally published 1/10/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

35. Finn vs. Slaine: and only one shall continue!

June 1996: Prog 996 continues a strong lineup, with Carlos Ezquerra back at work on the John Wagner-scripted Judge Dredd story "The Pit," a Henry Flint cover announcing this week's episode of Strontium Dogs by Peter Hogan and Trevor Hairsine, a creepy Vector 13 installment by Brian Williamson and Kevin Cullen, and two ongoing series scripted by the Guv'nor, Pat Mills. (Can I do that, incidentally? Mills has earned the fandom-approved nickname "Guv'nor," but I don't know that an American can actually use that term in any other situation without looking awfully silly.)

Anyway, while Wagner and Ezquerra bring the Pit storyline towards its spectacular, explosive conclusion - one which leaves readers wondering whether any of these new Dredd castmembers will make it out of the mob war alive - Finn is also making its way towards its end, in a very unusual nine-episode story that feels a lot like a throwback to comics from the late 70s and early 80s. "Season of the Witch," on paper, is a nine-part story, but it's actually a series of loosely-related two- and three-part stories with an umbrella title, in which the magic-powered man with the machine gun goes up against four different opponents in the employ of the evil Lord Michael and his comedy Freemasons. Finn, we must recall, came during a time when Pat Mills didn't want to write believable villains, just ones with really nasty weapons.

1996 sees us past the real hump in the Guv'nor's low-quality phase of the early '90s. (It's a hump which, coincidentally or not, overlaps with the period he was co-writing Punisher 2099 with Tony Skinner for Marvel Comics. The only thing Punisher 2099 was ever good for was giving me a character to play with Nemesis and Torquemada in Heroclix on "teams my opponents will not guess the theme of" day.) Neither Finn nor Slaine are particularly bad at all, but it's just not possible to read these comics and not know that Mills has done better, before and since.

Really, the villains are the biggest problem. At no point can you believe any of them as legitimate characters, and that's the greatest failing of these strips. I guess you can argue that Finn and Slaine are playing for very high stakes - the future of Mother Earth - and consequently, the actual dramatic conflict of the comic page is not as important or as significant as getting the reader to think about the bigger themes involved. Mills has done this before, to very good effect. Of course, you know he was the author of Charley's War in Battle Picture Weekly, which was one of, if not the very best of all war comics. Periodically, Mills would show us the aging, impotent aristos and generals directing the slaughter on the battlefields, and they'd be little more than bizarre caricatures, jarringly two-dimensional when weighed against the vivid portrayals of the tommies in the trenches. Yet this choice worked because we never saw the enlisted men interacting with the toffs.

By contrast, Finn will frequently have a violent argument with some industry baron in Lord Michael's power structure, and the conflict falls completely apart. Mills gave his heroic characters a great deal of believability, but he also gave them 100% of the moral argument. This is why, say, Batman's enemies don't explain their moral reasoning in an attempt to persuade the readers' sympathies. When Finn has the owner of Big Auto Company tied to a chair, we don't need the nonsense about Big Auto having an obligation to its stockholders to increase profits by polluting the environment. It's fake, and feels forced and unnatural.

Lord Michael himself is unlike Mills' classic villains like Torquemada or the Lord Weird Slough Feg in that he is not fanatical about anything. In fact, he's oddly joyless, completely lacking positive passion for anything at all. Here's where the structure really fails for me. You can identify the main villain because he's the old, cranky, balding jerk. He has no life whatsoever, but the top witch in Finn's coven, Mandy, is full of life and energy and radiates charisma and fun. It's too obvious and too easy - wouldn't this be a more compelling strip if the main villain enjoyed his position half as much as Mandy does hers? The sexual angle is pretty clear and pretty lazy, too. Mandy represents virility and is sexually desirable, while Lord Michael is old and overweight. Imagine how much more interesting this might have been with those roles reversed?

And yet, Finn remains readable and sometimes compelling because it's so grandiose, with so many wild elements, and its plot is completely unpredictable. It is also worth noting that the entire dramatic structure of Finn reappears in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, where you've again got posh aristos in big country houses using secret handshakes and allying with aliens in complex schemes to keep humanity down, and the good guys have chaos magic and machine guns on their side. Morrison did it a dozen times better, when he had artists who could translate his scripts for us and when he wasn't fucking around in Revolutionary France anyway, but fair's fair, Finn came first.

The cardboard villain problem continues in Slaine, but there's a sense of weirdness and completely bizarre plotting in "Lord of Misrule" which makes the story stand out more as being fresh and original, and we see Mills flesh out some older ideas to much better effect. The sequence in this story where Marian is sentenced to death evokes a similar incident in the 1992 ABC Warriors story "Khronicles of Khaos," only it works much better here, as Mills is able to devote more space to it.

There is a lot more Slaine to come in the next several months - the character gets one of his longest-ever runs throughout 1996-97 as he becomes a semi-regular cast member of the comic - but Clint Langley won't be with him for the time being, although he will be used on some other series in the next few years. Langley will return to Slaine in 2003 and the Books of Invasion storyline, his artwork honed to an intriguing love-it or hate-it heavily-PhotoShopped style (I quite like it!), but other artists will handle the stories to come.

Finn, however, is shelved after this story. Thrill-Power Overload - you know, if there were more available sources, I'd reference 'em - explains that David Bishop wanted to keep Mills' energies directed down one avenue, the more popular one, while also limiting the opportunities to get on the Guv'nor's bad side. Since Bishop and his fellow former editors Alan McKenzie and Andy Diggle have all gone on the record about some frictions with Mills, I think I can understand the reasoning!

But right now, Bishop can ill-afford to spend time fighting with a freelancer about Finn. He's about to piss off a huge chunk of the Megazine's readership with some reprints. More on that next time!

(Originally published 1/3/08 at LiveJournal.)