Thursday, February 28, 2008

43. Our Long National Nightmare is Finally Over

January 1997: Prog 1026's cover by Simon Davis features Sinister Dexter back in action in their first properly long storyline, "Gunshark Vacation," written by Dan Abnett. Our heroes have gone down to Europe's southern coast to let the heat from their last storyline die down, and get involved with more pistoleros and gangsters with punny nicknames, like the brothers Buddy Bing and Buddy Boom, and their kingpin employer, Philly O'Fisch. From this point forward, Davis owns the series. Dozens of other artists will tackle it as it becomes a semi-regular later in the year, and put in some great work, but everybody's still just playing catch-up with Simon. Also appearing in this prog, the continuing 12-part Judge Dredd epic "Darkside" by John Smith and Paul Marshall, a Vector 13 installment by Shaky Kane and David Bircham, and "Faustus," the final series for Janus: Psi Division. This will, I think, prove to be Mark Millar's final work for 2000 AD, although accuracy and geekiness demand that I report that a two-part Dredd, not among Millar's worst, will run alongside parts 6 & 7 of "Faustus." Honesty compels me to report that the story is co-written by Grant Morrison, and features a time travel incident that plays like a trial run for what he'd do a little later in his JLA arc "Rock of Ages" for DC Comics, but it's too little too late. Earthlets across the globe breathe a sigh of relief as Faustus, the last of Mark Millar's interminable, indestructible he-men, meets his end, and with him goes the final remnant of 2000 AD's "stupid days" of the early nineties.

But it seems that no sooner does one terror leave us than another starts. While I can relax knowing that I'm only a few evenings' reads away from not having to suffer any more Mark Millar in my prog, Vector 13 brings us the very first 2000 AD work by David Bircham. I'd overlooked his work some months previously when I suggested that Jim McCarthy might be my least favorite artist for the comic. And there's a fair amount of Bircham's work to come over the next couple of years, unfortunately. I'm sure he's a fine fellow, but I find his artwork deeply unappealing. So here, have a nice Simon Davis scan instead. Isn't it great?

Also surprisingly great is Slaine, which I'd previously dismissed as just sort of coasting and average during this period. I don't want that to sound like it's a bad thing; average Slaine is still better than sliced bread. It turns out, however, that book two of "Treasures of Britain," by Pat Mills and Dermot Power, is fast-paced and inventive and full of great ideas. I can't hold my hand to my heart and swear that I'm completely surprised that Guinevere turns out to be in league with the evil Cyth, as it's rather in keeping with Pat's pagan leanings, and I sort of wish the Guv'nor would have written against type and found something a little more out there, but the actual plot is downright thrilling. Mills and Power really use the format to its full advantage, and each six-page episode is packed incredibly tight with new plot developments, new characters, really excellent painted art, and some very humorous moments.

"Treasures of Britain" was reprinted by Hamlyn not long after it appeared here. While it is currently out of print, copies should not be hard to find on eBay, and I strongly recommend it. Rebellion is slowly working its way through the Slaine back catalog (the third and fourth volumes are due out this year), and I speculate we may see a new edition in 2009. Of the other material in this prog, "Gunshark Vacation" is available in the DC/Rebellion book of the same name, which I highly recommend, and you can read the Judge Dredd story "Darkside" in the 10th issue of 2000 AD Extreme Edition.

Next time, it's back over to the thinner, less-reprint version of the Megazine, where there have been some odd format changes to accomodate one of the best Dredd adventures from the period: the remarkable "Fetish." See you in seven!

(Originally published 2/28/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

42. Mercy Killings

December 1996: Prog 1022 is bringing the autumn-launched series to their conclusions, and many of them will not be seen again. Time Flies, Mambo and Rogue Trooper are all on the chopping block, and the next issue will see the final appearance of Robo-Hunter for seven years, as a one-off episode by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes, submitted for the never-released 1996 Annual, is dusted down and shown off. It's not all "goodbye to old rubbish," thankfully. (And the Hogan/Hughes Robo-Hunter is absolutely wonderful, anyway!) The new thrill Mazeworld is wrapping up its first series, and John Smith and Paul Marshall's Judge Dredd twelve-parter "Darkside" continues, bridging this bunch of thrills and the next launch prog.

Rogue Trooper is finally being closed down after years of adventures which occasionally ranked as "pretty good." The character and continuity were revamped by Dave Gibbons and Will Simpson in 1990, but despite many efforts from many creators, it just never caught fire. There were periodic instances of great artwork and one amazing sequence in the summer of 1995 which saw almost the entire supporting cast killed off, but, as I wrote in the 27th entry, Rogue Trooper as a whole is simply not as thrill-powered as it should be.

The last several episodes have been co-written by Steve White and Dan Abnett and revealed that the armies of religious nutballs that Friday has been warring against are actually being manipulated by ugly aliens. So Venus Bluegenes finds out what's going on, rescues Friday, and they're out into the wild blue yonder in a stolen spaceship and are last seen plunging into a black hole. How in creation something as high-concept as this could appear boring, I couldn't tell you, but it's a dull climax and the cliffhanger remains unresolved. Of all the "whatever happened to" cliffhangers in 2000 AD's history, this one must surely rank among the least engaging. Nobody cares what becomes of Friday and Venus, and we never learn.

But there is more business with genetic infantrymen to come in the very near future...

At any rate, it's also farewell time for the much-maligned Time Flies, which everybody involved agrees is not as good as it should've been. I concede I'm pretty far in the minority, but even if Garth Ennis's script appears to be phoned in, there are still some good gags scattered throughout the nine episodes, along with some very nice art by Philip Bond and Roger Langridge. (I wonder whether the story was edited down from 12 episodes to nine. It would certainly fit with the tendency during this period for the editor to do quite a lot of rewriting and pruning to get some of this unwanted, older material burned through as fast as possible.)

Of the material from this period, "Darkside" and Time Flies have each been reprinted, in issues 10 and 19 of 2000 AD Extreme Edition. If you've never seen this title, you should certainly check it out. It's released every other month and reprints around 100 pages in an oversized format for $5.99, which is an amazing value. You can order back issues from the 2000 AD website.

Next week, there are new thrills, the last of Mark Millar's indestructible men, and a Slaine story that's better than I remembered it. See you in seven!

(Originally published 2/21/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

41. Mazes and Mambo

November 1996: Prog 1018 features David Hine's Mambo on the cover. This is the third and final series about a purple-haired future cop who can turn her body into tentacled, stretchy-attack vines. I always thought it was a pretty average little series myself, probably one draft away from something really special, but it never really impressed the fanbase and is among the strips on Tharg's chopping block.

Interestingly, Mambo provides an interesting look at how different audiences will perceive a series. The Hipster Daughter, who is nine and who joined us with prog 1000, missed the first two series of Mambo and started reading this story entirely the wrong way. Now she's a bright kid - she reads three grade levels ahead and is a voracious reader - but she started Mambo with the episode where Rachel and her alien associate are on a live call-in show, discussing what happened to the planet in the second series. Watching the show is a little girl whose brother has become the latest victim of a serial killer, about which, more in a second, and she calls in to get Rachel's help. The little girl isn't seen again after the second episode because she's no longer important to the story, and this confused my daughter completely. She thought that the little girl was called Mambo and the story was about her. I didn't know what she was talking about when she asked "When is Mambo coming back?" before the story actually finished...

Mambo's probably not due a reprint any time soon, despite David Hine's great artwork. This is not merely because it was never popular, but also because it is one of the most dated stories ever seen in 2000 AD. The serial killer is actually stalking people online, and when he kills them in virtual reality wargames or other fantasy simulations, THEY DIE IN REAL LIFE. Oh, and by "online," I'm referring to the "Hypernet." Now, fair's fair, this was written twelve or thirteen years ago, when everybody had e-mail addresses which had 40 characters after the @, and when comedians told jokes about having flat tires on the information superhighway. But honestly, this still didn't really pass for all that original at the time. "Virtual reality" quickly became buzzwords for "plots to avoid," but not until after eight or ten or thirty Doctor Who New Adventures from Virgin had the TARDIS landing in some artificial computer world.

On the other hand, the kids read this particular cliffhanger completely differently than I did:

Doesn't seem like the strongest incentive to make it back to the newsagent next week, does it? Not to hear my kids tell it. This was "creepy" and "scary" and "completely awesome." So perhaps Hine confused his younger readers as to who the audience identification figure was, but he also knew exactly what sort of story developments will get 'em back next week.

The other stories in this prog are Judge Dredd in the twelve-part "Darkside" by John Smith and Paul Marshall, Rogue Trooper by Steve White, Dan Abnett and Alex Ronald, Time Flies by Garth Ennis and Philip Bond and the very interesting Mazeworld by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson. This is Grant's first new series for 2000 AD in quite a few years. He'd been writing Batman and some other titles for DC Comics, but was lured back to work with Arthur Ranson and the chance to do something creator-owned. Originally planned for the short-lived Toxic! some years previously, the series made its way to 2000 AD after five years "in development," as they say.

One downside to living in the States is that we're a couple of weeks behind getting progs and Megs. I understand that the current Megazine features the third part of a long interview with Alan Grant, where Mazeworld is discussed. It would make a great reprint choice - thirty episodes in one collection - if Rebellion can find the right deal with Grant and Ranson. As a story, it's honestly kind of dry, without any moments of humor or embracable, audience-identification characters. Yet the plotting is very solid, and Grant keeps readers guessing what will happen next. The artwork is, of course, excellent.

The hooded fellow is a condemned killer named Adam Cadman, the first in line for the noose in a future where Britain has resumed the death penalty by hanging. At the moment of his death, he reawakens in this odd, grimy fantasy world built around labyrinths, and finds he cannot remove his hood or noose, and that whenever he displays cowardice or tries to get away, he begins to choke and return to our world and his execution. So it genuinely becomes a case of "fight or die." There are three ten-episode series of Mazeworld; the second comes in 1997 and the last in 1999.

Speaking of last, stop back next week for the end of Rogue Trooper, in an installment we must surely call "Mercy Killing."

(Originally published 2/14/07 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

40. The Facts Behind the Fiction Behind the Facts

October 1996: Prog 1014 is another launch issue, with the first episodes of four series, and a fifth joining next week. This is simply not as strong a lineup as the last one. Two of the five series are inventory strips commissioned by earlier editors and collecting dust until they had to run. The third and final series of David Hine's Mambo had been ordered two Thargs previously, by Alan McKenzie, in 1994 or 1995. The second and last series of Time Flies, written by Garth Ennis, is even older. This script was submitted in 1991, when Richard Burton was editor. Philip Bond began artwork on the nine-part tale, but dropped out after completing 30-odd pages. Other artists, including Roger Langridge and Jon Beeston, will contribute after Fleetway's management decrees that if the material was purchased, it must be published. Bishop also inherits a 72-page Judge Dredd adventure called "Darkside" by John Smith and Paul Marshall which will begin in three weeks' time. This had been commissioned for the Megazine by John Tomlinson as eight 9-page episodes. Having no room in the Meg and needing a good run of Dredd while John Wagner preps his next long story, Bishop moved it to 2000 AD, where it runs with some pretty odd "cliffhangers" as twelve 6-page episodes.

The other stories are a new series of Rogue Trooper by Steve White, Dan Abnett and artists including Greg Staples and, this week, Alex Ronald, and a major new creator-owned story by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson called Mazeworld. More about these another time, because there are other things to discuss this week. In the most impressive, long-running development, Henry Flint gets a chance to draw Dredd.

This is a three-part adventure called "The Pack," in which Mega-City One deals with whacking great flying alien sharks diving into the streets to gobble up any meat in their path. It's the prelude to Wagner's next long story, which will be starting in 1997, and it is all kinds of eye-popping fun. Flint had been doing some solid, if unmemorable, work as a fill-in artist for Rogue Trooper, and had drawn a Dredd poster comic, but this was the first time he got the chance to take charge of a major strip in the weekly.

Putting Flint on Judge Dredd is one of Bishop's very best ideas as 2000 AD's editor, which makes it incredibly odd that it happens in the same prog as one of his worst. Flint immediately puts his stamp on the character and fast becomes one of the definitive Dredd artists, with dozens of episodes to his credit. He's just a super artist, and ranks not far behind Carlos Ezquerra as one of my own favorites, Flint's brilliant artwork graces a few other series as well, most notably Shakara, which is running in the prog currently. In 2005 he was headhunted by DC Comics, but they didn't find much of interest for him to do. He was perfectly suited for the alien weirdness of the 2006-07 Omega Men miniseries, but the book just stank of "trademark protection" and sank without trace, Fans are much happier with him at 2000 AD anyway. This Dredd story is available in the 2003 collected edition called The Hunting Party, available from Amazon here.

Last week, I explained that the comic's fictional alien editor, Tharg the Mighty, had told readers he had to return to Quaxxan and may be gone for some time. This week, after readers carefully removed the free promotional pack of X Files trading cards from the front cover, they looked inside to learn that this government-conspiracy stuff has gotten entirely out of hand.

Yep, for the next four months or so, the silly concept of a space alien constructing little robots to create a comic book is replaced by the even sillier concept of a shadowy group of... government cover-up gymcrack Men in Black relating these tales. Not content to reside as the hosts of the Vector 13 anthology strip or supporting characters in Kid CyBorg and Black Light, the Men in Black were now running the comic. And with it, the hyperbole (about thrillpower, upcoming strips, lunacy in the Nerve Centre) all vanishes.

David Bishop has certainly accepted (in the pages of Thrill-Power Overload) that this was not a terribly good idea, and Tharg will be reinstated under amusing circumstances in 1997. The problem is that a big part of the 2000 AD experience is the comic's scrappy, toughest-in-town attitude, personified by the larger-than-life Tharg waxing grandiloquently about the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, unable to string three sentences together without the word "thrill" and crafting comic putdowns to the stupider questions in the letters page. The Men in Black don't do this. Instead, there's a lot of po-faced crap about "neither confirming nor denying" this and that. Whereas Tharg would remind a cheeky reader that Rigelian Hotshots can be despatched to any corner of the galaxy to blast any disrespectful Earthlet, the Men in Black talk about certain agencies specializing in missing persons.

There's also the problem that when Vector 13 launched in August 1995, it was perfectly timed to catch the wave of paranoid conspiracy fiction. The X Files had finished its third, and best, season, and nobody was really sick of this "JFK assassinated by space alien cattle mutilators" nonsense yet. One year later, that shit was played out. The Men in Black were as oversaturated as a media spectacle could get. Now, 2000 AD is actually behind the wave as it ramps up the cash-in. It looks like your hopelessly uncool dad trying to hang with your crowd.

As I found out when I left a note on the official site's message board about the October entry on V13 (see entry 24, From the Mixed-Up Files of the Men in Black), there remains some resentment that 2000 AD would demean itself by cashing in on this trend so blatantly. It left such a bad taste that, more than a decade later, Vector 13 is still dismissed because it was part of the same stupid trend, despite some genuinely great one-offs appearing under that banner. I can and will defend V13 - a two-book collection of the run would be great fun, but if not, twenty of the best 66 tales would make a fabulous Extreme Edition - but the editorial work of the Men in Black is another story altogether.

Next week, exactly who is this audience identification figure, anyway?

(Originally published 2/7/07 at LiveJournal.)