Thursday, March 27, 2008

47. Invading the Oxford Union Society

March 1997: Megazine vol. 3 # 30 features the concluding episode of the Judge Dredd epic "Fetish" by John Smith and Siku. The third part ended with the surprise reappearance of Vatican agent Devlin Waugh after four years' absence from the pages of the Megazine. Waugh rapidly turns Dredd into a second banana in his own strip and turns a really good story into a great one. "Fetish" is included in the 2004 collection Swimming in Blood, which I highly suggest you check out. The other stories appearing in this issue are the second and final story for the Mega City-One disaster crew Holocaust 12 by Smith and Clint Langley, and the continuing adventure of the Soviet psychic The Inspectre by Jim Campbell, Kevin Walker and Andrew Currie, along with another episode of the 1990 "Necropolis" epic.

Meanwhile, as you see every spring, the charitable organization Comic Relief was doing its regular fundraising exercises. This year, one of the events was a debate held by the Oxford Union Society on the subject of "Do blondes have more fun?" Celebrity guests for the event included TV presenter Jo Guest and model Debee Ashby, whoever they are, along with 2000 AD characters Venus Bluegenes (played by Claire Smithies) and Durham Red (played by Luisa Morando). Their speeches on the subject were written by Dan Abnett, and were printed in progs 1042 and 1044. Since I'd like a little break from writing, here are some of the photos from the occasion which were printed in the comic.

Next week: Al's Baby! Henry Flint! Fewer pictures of cute girls! And more!

(Originally published 3/27/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

46. Too Cool to Kill

March 1997: In the real world, the first of the two best things to ever happen, the Hipster Son's birth, is just a few weeks away. I was still living in that awesome little duplex on Park Ridge Drive in Athens, and that neighborhood didn't yet look like the end of the world, with all the grass killed under the weight of the sixteen Chevrolets parked in every single yard. In Britain, John Major is still prime minister, though the inevitable victory of Tony Blair and the Labour Party is about six weeks away. I was still crazy about trading VHS tapes of every show under the sun then, and had a British friend and contact who suggested that the Hipster Son, who was premature, couldn't wait until the 1997 General Election to be born, he just insisted on being around long enough to see the Conservatives lose. Then my boy had his first heart attack, aged three weeks. Heady times. So between birthing babies and an unbelievable health scare, having half my online friends so utterly jubilant about politics that it kept me captivated, and then dealing with some horrifying financial issues that we experienced at the time, 2000 AD was really low on the priority list. This was worsened because, for the last time (we hope), Diamond missed another run of several issues, and progs 1033-1036 never made it to my local comic shop.

So when I did resume the progs with # 1037, I'd missed the first two parts of Nikolai Dante's first adventure. And it did not matter. I was completely hooked. Now this was a thrill for the ages - one of 2000 AD's all-time best series.

Dante shouldn't be mentioned in isolation from the rest of the 20th anniversary lineup, which is very good. The strips currently running include a new Dredd epic by John Wagner under the umbrella title "The Hunting Party," with early chapters illustrated by the likes of Trevor Hairsine and Calum Alexander Watt, which features Dredd and DeMarco, whom we met in "The Pit," training some cadets in the Cursed Earth. Also appearing are a seven-part Slaine serial by Pat Mills and Nick Percival, Al's Baby by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra and the new thrill Mercy Heights by John Tomlinson and Kevin Walker, which is about a space station hospital full of weird aliens in a war zone.

Tomlinson, you may recall, had been 2000 AD's editor for a few months in 1995. Nikolai Dante had been commissioned by Tomlinson as an eight-part series, as had many of the strips during that period. When David Bishop took over in '96, he concluded that there was a lot of promise to this character, and that the story would really benefit from a longer initial run. It works tremendously well. Dante's first series ran from March to July 1997, and after resting for the summer, he then becomes a semi-regular throughout the rest of the decade. He's chalked up 216 episodes as of this writing, with a new story beginning in the current week's prog.

But who is this fellow, you ask? Well, when we meet him, Dante's been a thief and a con man, looking out for himself since his mother, a pirate, abandoned him as a child of nine or ten. This is 27th Century Russia, an empire under the heel of Tsar Vladimir, where amazing advances in technology haven't done much to improve the overwhelming poverty where most people live. Dante is a swashbuckling ladies' man, and we first meet him in bed with an imperial courtesan. After getting the better of a squad of officers, led by the first of many men of the Arbatov family that we'll meet, and getting hold of the courtesan's imperial boudoir costume, Dante makes the mistake of selling it, which allows the tsar's men to trace him.

Dante's expecting a death sentence, but what he doesn't know is that a bio-scan has revealed him to have a very strong connection to the Romanov bloodline, a powerful family which poses political challenges for the scheming Vladimir. He's pressganged by the tsar into joining the imperial Raven Corps, and sent along with the tsar's daughter Jena Makarov to investigate a crashed starship. The whole thing is a set-up; Vladimir knows that the starship belongs to the Romanovs and has been banking on Dante obtaining a Romanov Weapons Crest, a powerful weapon of alien origin which will only bond with a Romanov. In other words, it's still a death sentence: Vladimir fully intends to dissect Dante and get at that weapon.

Where it goes from here is, frankly, everywhere. As Nikolai Dante progresses, the cast and settings grow and we meet dozens of incredibly fun characters. The status quo gets dumped on its backside several times and the stakes get progressively higher. We learn that Dante's backstory already has some sad skeletons in it, and the gambles he has to take have increasingly chilling prices and repercussions.

The series was created by Robbie Morrison, who has written every episode, and Simon Fraser, the original artist, whose work is genuinely wonderful, vibrant and full of life. After the original 15-week run, Fraser still handled the bulk of the episodes presented during the series' first phase (1997-99), with periodic fill-ins by other artists, chiefly Andy Clarke and Charlie Adlard. There have been some lineup changes since then, which I'm sure we'll elaborate in time, but today, Dante's art duties are shared between Fraser and John Burns.

The sixth collection of Dante stories was recently released, so they've been chugging along putting all of this popular series in bookshelf format, but you can find these first fifteen episodes along with several others in The Romanov Dynasty, which was released in 2004 as part of the old DC/Rebellion deal. The Judge Dredd epic which is running at this time is also available in the 2006 book The Hunting Party.

Next week, Fetish concludes in the Megazine, but what you really want to see are pictures of cute girls dressed as 2000 AD characters, right? That'll save me having to find somethin' new to write about...

(Originally published 3/20/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

45. Bish-OP's Mea Culpa

March 1997: The prog before a launch issue is, as you might expect, usually full of last episodes, one-offs and filler, clearing the decks before the new stories start in the promotional issues. Prog 1032, the issue before the 20th anniversary prog, is no exception. It has the second half of a Judge Dredd two-parter by John Wagner and John Burns, one-off episodes of Slaine (Pat Mills/Steve Tappin) and Sinister Dexter (Dan Abnett/Marc Wigmore), and two episodes of the creepy anthology Vector 13. The first one is the now-standard five-page investigation of fortean strangeness. The other... well...

To recap, from its inception, 2000 AD was "edited" by a space alien named Tharg the Mighty, as was once common in anthology comics. The character, and his office full of creator "droids," would occasionally appear in silly comic adventures which reinforced the mythology. As the comic's audience got older, 2000 AD responded by presenting stories which would appeal to older audiences, presented on better paper and in a package that looked and felt somewhat more "grownup" than the cheap newspaper of the late 1970s. The real editor, David Bishop, felt that the aliens-n-droids were an anachronism in the more mature comic, and phased them out in favor of "Men in Black," popular in geek media of the day, only to have it collapse in the face of readers who wanted their Tharg back.

So 2000 AD celebrates its 20th birthday with the return of The Mighty One. Even if he doesn't talk quite right...

What starts as a Vector 13 tale of the Men in Black reporting on the supposed sightings of so-called "aliens" in London over the past two decades is promptly derailed as Tharg returns from the planet Quaxxan to find all these fashion victims standing around in the shadows looking moody. It must be said that Bishop doesn't really capture Tharg's speech patterns correctly - "grexnix" is supposed to be another word for idiot, for example - and he'll spend many months putting up with irate letters wanting to know why he's referring to readers as "Earthlings" instead of "Earthlets."

Anyway, stepping up and taking the blame, Bishop unmasks himself and, whining for forgiveness, faces Tharg's wrath.

It isn't perfect, but the one-off is a very nice little throwback to the early 80s, when short little Tharg tales were penned to explain everything from distribution issues to price rises to creators using new pseudonyms to talent leaving editorial and going freelance. And to fill space quickly while waiting for a long serial to work its way through production, that too. And, much like we saw back in the days of Steve MacManus's tenure, the fiction also serves as a teaser for forthcoming attractions: the Bish-OP droid saves his metal skin by telling Tharg about all the great new series he's commissioned to start running in the next three weeks. Satisfied, a merciful Tharg spares Bish-OP for now.

I guess it's the nature of memory, but as we just celebrated 2000 AD's thirtieth birthday a year ago, with all the attendant nostalgia and looking back, I'm reminded of how many commentators spoke of how the comic lost its way in the early nineties and has been on a resurgence "lately" or "recently." Perhaps the memory cheats, but since I started this blog in April '07 (covering December 1993), the number of good stories has outweighed the number of bad ones. By the time of the twentieth birthday, 2000 AD's two weakest writers - Michael Fleisher and Mark Millar - were gone, and the comic was safely in the hands of editors who genuinely seemed to be enjoying their work and the remarkable challenges of juggling the anthology and pleasing its fickle audience.

Certainly, when 2000 AD was lousy during this period, it was a lip-biting disappointment, but it was good more often than not, and it would spend the next ten years stripped of its early 90s failings and being as innovative, engaging and surprising as its glory days of the early 80s. Ten years. That's not "lately" or "recently," that's a solid decade as the best comic money can buy.

Case in point: join us in seven days when a new character says "I'm too cool to kill."

(Originally published 3/13/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

44. Fetishizing the Megazine

February 1997: Meanwhile, in the Megazine, editor David Bishop has found a sensible solution to reader complaints that there's too much reprint in their Meg. For five months, the comic was 52 pages, with 21 pages of reprints. Now, the magazine loses eight pages entirely, and the 44 page comic only contains 7 pages of reprints alongside three new stories. As I've mentioned before, there has had to be a great deal of trimming and rewriting to reformat episodes into configurations that change every few months. For example, both the final story for Janus: Psi Division and the first story for Holocaust 12 had their twelve-page episodes cut in half and run over twice as many issues as intended. But now comes a spectacular Judge Dredd adventure called "Fetish," and it's reworked in the opposite direction.

"Fetish," a moody epic which begins with four citizens murdered by a sorceror operating from somewhere in Africa, is scripted by John Smith and painted by Siku. It was planned, I believe, as seven 12-page episodes, but hammered by Bishop into five 17-page episodes. This actually works very well for the comic's lineup. Dredd is represented by a 17-page lead story and a 7-page backup feature (in this case, an episode of the 1990 Wagner/Ezquerra epic "Necropolis"), and the other strips, set elsewhere in Dredd's world and continuity, are Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and Marc Wigmore and The Inspectre by Kevin Walker, Jim Campbell and Charles Gillespie. So the comic may be a little thinner than it had been in 1996, but the lineup is nevertheless very strong.

You'll have to trust me on this, as the Megazine's current dimensions are a little larger than my scanner, but Siku's work on "Fetish" is simply excellent. He uses double-page spreads incredibly well, and occasionally divides the comic page into a series of vertical panels, rather than a number of tiers. The paper's certainly not good enough to show off his remarkable painting in the vivid colors he had in mind, but we certainly see his intent, and so I've increased the contrast a little on these scans. Mega City-One's purples and grays are contrasted sharply with the bright blues and oranges of Africa, and it looks fantastic. His pacing is really great, especially as he alternates his panel layout so effectively. Siku's anatomy is already causing a little trouble, however. His work is very stylized; above Dredd's shoulders you basically see a chin in a helmet. Siku will contribute regularly to Judge Dredd and to other series over the next seven years, and occasionally court controversy as his stylization gets a little crazy, but for now he's a solid contributor with a lot of promise.

Next time... Tharg comes back, and he's ticked off!

(Originally published 3/6/08 at LiveJournal.)