Thursday, May 29, 2008

55. Political Bizness

December 1997: It's been promoted for weeks, and at last B.L.A.I.R. One makes its series debut in prog 1071. The series had its origins in a one-off gag strip from the 3000 AD supplement given away as one of the free gifts from the 20th anniversary celebrations the previous February. That story, by editor David Bishop, John Tomlinson and Simon Davis, reworked the old superspy series M.A.C.H. One into a very silly satire about Britain's new prime minister. Now it's been given over to Alan Grant to script, and the results are, honestly, wonderful. But I'm pretty far in the minority!

Simon Davis was perfectly chosen to paint the bizarre series, in which the superpowered prime minister battles everything from Tory MPs to demonic taxpayers. Since Davis is so very good with likenesses, the many politicians throughout the strip probably don't need to be named for British readers, even if I don't know who the heck some of them are. There is a great moment in a later episode where Bill and Hillary Clinton are at a photo-op, frowning with sour faces as the cameraman calls "Say cheese!" Then he says "Say power!" instead and their eyes brighten. In the first episode, B.L.A.I.R. One solves the crisis of closed mines and too many single mums on welfare by sending them all down the mines. By the end of the four part series, the only Britons with jobs are employed as wardens and guards at a giant prison that holds everybody else.

You could see how this might could polarize readers. Again, I think it's hilarious, as do my kids, but it's about as subtle as a brick to the head and deeply unpopular. However, it will return in 1998 for both a one-off and a two-part final appearance B.L.A.I.R. One, which has never been reprinted, is the last of the "media-friendly" strips that came with press releases attached, aimed at the mainstream media. In the early months of '98, Bishop looked over the results of the two months experimenting with the format and concluded that they were alienating regular readers and not getting any new ones.

Other material in this prog: Judge Dredd in the first part of "Escape from Old New York Street" by John Wagner and Paul Marshall, a Vector 13 story called "Angels" by Robbie Morrison and Lee Sullivan, Sinister Dexter in "Things to Do in Download When You're Dead" by Dan Abnett and Julian Gibson, and finally Nikolai Dante in "The Full Dante" by Morrison and Charlie Adlard. Yes, three complete stories in one issue!

December '97 is also notable for bringing a new face into the Command Module, the new assistant editorial droid Dig-L. Andy Diggle was a lapsed fan who'd resumed reading earlier in the year. He will have a huge impact on the title in the future when he takes the editorial reins himself.

Apologies for the short entry this week; work sort of caught up with me. Next week, we close out 1997 with a look at the rest of the regular features...

(Originally published 5/29/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

54. No sex please, we're squaxx dek Thargo

Oh, you thought last week was weird. November 1997 brings us to one of 2000 AD's most absolutely skewed moments of oddness. It's the Sex Prog, number 1066, and there on the cover, you've got Wide Open Space, looking nothing whatsoever like Jason Brashill's model of the character, enticing readers in with her enormous boobs. The comic was released in a sealed polybag, with a "Not for Sale to Children" notice on the cover. Now, over the previous twenty years, 2000 AD had been slowly maturing along with an audience that it was holding onto far longer than any publishers' wisdom would have predicted, but at its core, shouldn't this be a title which kids can read? What about my kids? Am I going to let them read it? What are we to make of this development, and how saucy and inappropriate is this prog, anyway?

Well, first in the lineup is Judge Dredd by John Wagner and Greg Staples. This might be the first episode to admit that in Mega-City One, citizens who don't want to bother with human relationships can purchase a humanoid robot called a Love Doll. These droid partners would turn up as plot elements in later storylines, and here they're shown to be every bit a target for theft as either flatscreen TVs or cars are today. The artwork is not explicit, although topless dolls - robots that look like humanoid girls - are shown in three panels. I figured this would be okay for my kids to read. I'm not going to freak out about exposed nipples in a comic, and "In the future, people can have robot boyfriends and girlfriends" is something they can understand without too much issue.

Next up is an episode of Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Siku, who joins the rotation of artists working on this series as it becomes the second regular feature, behind Dredd. (More on this development in two weeks.) The plot of this episode involves four members of the cast spending their evening looking not to spend it alone. The twist is that it's Demi Octavo who's actually planning to spend it with gunplay, while Sinister and Dexter each spend it looking for some amour. There's nothing objectionable about the artwork, apart from Siku making everyone appear to be garishly-colored rocklike polygons, and I judged this one to also be suitable for kids. Oddly, though, this story was among six or seven which were omitted from the three DC/Rebellion reprints of early Sin Dex stories. So far, with only three panels of topless robots in two episodes of story, anybody who bought this issue looking for something akin to the latest Heavy Metal was going to be deeply disappointed.

Third in the lineup is the fourth episode of A Life Less Ordinary, and it doesn't play along with the Sex Prog raison d'etre at all. The only notable thing about this episode is how unbelievably sloppy the storytelling by the otherwise reliable Steve Yeowell is. The opening panels, in which Robert learns that the "bomb" in a car's trunk is actually a bag of carrots, are very poor, but the experience is just surreal, like some odd comic adaptation of a weird dream. The really offensive bit of this strip is this: the only thing I remember about A Life Less Ordinary, which I saw at the Beechwood Cinema in Athens around this time, is the scene where Ewan MacGregor and Cameron Diaz engage in some show-stopping karaoke. That's not in the comic. The build-up to the scene is there, and then Robert wakes up with a hangover.

So 60% of the prog is child-friendly. But then we hit the final episode of Tomlinson and Brashill's Space Girls and everything falls apart. Now, I'm an understanding guy, and I can see that nine year-old girls probably were not Fleetway and editor David Bishop's target audience, but what the hell was anybody thinking here? See, grown-ups can constructively read a strip like Space Girls, understand that it does not work for many and varied reasons, accept that it was just a five-week thing to get little sidebar writeups in newspapers, and move on. But nine year-old girls are not constructive and not critical. The Hipster Daughter was enjoying this strip, even if nobody else on the planet was, and then her old man cruelly yanked the ending away from her. Now, there isn't anything in the visuals that's offensive, thanks to Brashill's discretion and self-censorship, but the "story" is about the girls, who are all clones, watching an advertising video made by the corpulent, grotesque caricature which designed them, suggesting ways in which the clones can be used for personal gratification. Look, this isn't serious stuff, and it's played for laughs, but it bombs completely, and it's not suitable material for the only person on the planet who was enjoying the strip. You remember how a few weeks ago, we were talking about the "2000 AD: It's Not for Girls" ad campaign? Well, no kidding.

Now, you're probably thinking that with two dud strips, a Sin Dex with awful art and a pretty good Dredd, this is probably a prog that can be safely labelled a failure. However, Tharg saved the best for last as Nikolai Dante returns in the prog's fifth and last slot.

Since his first appearance earlier in 1997, the Russian rogue became a big hit and his return was never in doubt. The second batch of episodes, by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser is due to begin in the next issue, but this one-off, with art by Chris Weston, comes to bat first. I got the impression that it was commissioned especially for the Sex Prog, since all there is to it is a single night's shenanigans between Dante and a bearded nun. Yeah, you read that right. She belongs to an order called the Devil's Martyrs and is "fanatically devoted" to the mad monk, Rasputin.

At his blog, Chris Weston featured an interview from 2006 which David Bishop conducted for Thrill-Power Overload. There, he states that after self-censoring the artwork down to just tits and ass, "much to my surprise, my strip turned out to be the filthiest one in the Prog." Indeed, visually, it was still a whole lot more explicit than anything else in the issue, and might have warranted the plastic bag, but it was also a heck of a lot tamer than what was published in the old Penthouse Comix, for instance.

Well, regardless of whether it was too explicit for kids or not explicit enough to justify the wrapper, the episode is a riot, and a simply great return for the character. It's also the only episode in the book to have been reprinted properly, in the first of the DC/Rebellion editions, although the Dredd episode later reappeared in an issue of the Megazine a year or so back.

So that's the Sex Prog: a curiosity more for raising eyebrows than anything else. But next week, we'll see whether politics can't cause the outrage that sex couldn't.

(Originally published 5/22/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

53. Girls Less Ordinary

In October 1997, two of the most unusual of all 2000 AD series debuted. They would both be finished before the end of the year, never to be reprinted and never to be seen again. They're called The Space Girls and A Life Less Ordinary, and they're both pretty darn lousy. This is a shame, because prog 1063 does contain some very good material. There's the first part of a fantastic Judge Dredd comedy called "Mrs. Gunderson's Little Adventure" by John Wagner and Henry Flint which is probably better than any comic you've read in the last week, a good Sinister Dexter one-off by Dan Abnett and Julian Gibson, and a really creepy little Vector 13 by Abnett and Alex Ronald. So 60% of the comic's pretty great.

The UK had some pretty big pop culture exports in 1996-97. The Spice Girls released a series of hit singles, and Trainspotting, a film by the team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald, became one of the biggest and most imitated British movies in recent memory. The trio's next project, an odd fantasy about an heiress and her kidnapper falling in love thanks to the machinations of a pair of angels, was predicted to become another big hit. So the marketing people at Fleetway were already talking with editor David Bishop about finding some ways for 2000 AD to get some more publicity from the mainstream media when Channel Four Films asked for a meeting about a comic adaptation of A Life Less Ordinary. It's a little unfortunate that the scheduling worked out the way it did, because it meant that the eight-part comic version, which preceded the film's release by about three weeks, would run at the same time as the similarly market-led Space Girls.

That Space Girls isn't any good is no surprise, but what is odd is how utterly empty the story is. The strip was only going to run for five weeks, but the closest thing to a parody in the strip comes in the characters' wacky nicknames (such as Hyper Space and Wide Open Space). Otherwise, it's a very dull and boring affair which focusses on the villains instead of the heroines, who have nothing whatsoever to do with the world of pop music or media manipulation, two subjects which might have made the strip at least briefly memorable. The artist, Jason Brashill, had been painting episodes of Judge Dredd and Outlaw over the last couple of years. Here, he uses traditional pen and ink and the result is nowhere near as vibrant as what he'd done before. Since I often feel the reverse is true with 2000 AD artists (I believe that Clint Langley and Simon Bisley, for instance, did much better work in the 1980s and 1990s with pen and ink than paint), this may be seen as evidence of just how utterly backwards everything in Space Girls is.

I'll continue on that note next week, because there's "backwards" and then there's "upside down in the wrong dimension," which is how the Space Girls story will conclude.

John Tomlinson is listed as the writer of the series, and on the official site, David Bishop is listed as the uncredited co-writer of the first episode of Space Girls. Bishop is also listed as the writer of the Life Less Ordinary adaptation, but is not credited in the comic with it, either. Now here's a thankless job. You can't completely hold this dull, drab comic against him. Bishop had to assemble a comic script from an early shooting treatment of the movie in virtually no time at all, and then Steve Yeowell had to put the artwork together with inadequate reference of actors, costumes, locations, you name it. Turning it into a 48-page story would have been difficult enough, but with a cliffhanger every six pages?

In fact, it's been so long since I saw the film that I've forgotten practically all of its details. Without them, reading the first episode was a real chore, wading through choppy events with poor transition and even worse storytelling. It's a really bizarre experience, because neither Bishop nor Yeowell were novices when they put this strip together, and yet it feels like the disjointed work of people who'd never worked in comics and were still learning the rules. A little clue: the introductory text page with the photo of Cameron Diaz should not have been required reading to follow the comic. On that note, Steve Yeowell is a wonderful artist, and responsible for many classic thrills, but the photos that appear with each episode actually serve as a painful reminder of how much the characters do not resemble the actors who played them* and should not have been included.

Did this "marketing approach," as Bishop has sinced coined it, work? Probably not, as the "media-friendly" events in 2000 AD will end before 1998 and not be tried again. I can sort of see A Life Less Ordinary drawing in some curious readers but losing them within a week or two. However, if the Space Girls earned any readers, I'll be amazed. Hands up if you saw the name "Space Girls" and didn't think "oh, how stupid."

Next week, the wincing continues as the Space Girls meet an ignominous end.

Sinister Dexter Bullet Count: In prog 1062, Sinister takes his third bullet of the series, wounded in the back by a target called Lance Boyle.

*note: David Bishop, who was both editor and scriptwriter for the serial, clarified that 2000 AD didn't have the rights to the actual likenesses of the actors in question. So it was not that Yeowell "botched" the characters, as the original version of this entry stated, but that they weren't allowed to. This entry was modified on May 15 '08 to reflect the updated information.

(Originally pubished 5/15/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

52. Volt's Folly

We're at September 1997, just in time for one of the more controversial moments in 2000 AD's fictional history. There have certainly been more dramatic moments offscreen for people to discuss, but what happens in prog 1060's Anderson: Psi Division episode - part eleven of "Crusade" by Alan Grant and Steve Sampson - had people muttering for years, in newsgroups and letters pages.

The situation is this: more than a million Mega-City One citizens demand to leave the city and make their way into the Cursed Earth. They're all children. Faced with a situation far too great for them to control, the judges relent and let them go, in order to find out exactly what has lured the children out there. It turns out to be Hope, the mutant child previously seen in a 1991 Anderson story called "Engram," a telepathic being of perfect purity born in the hellish radlands that used to be middle America. The judges send the psychic cadets Corann and Lesley, long-time supporting players in Anderson's adventures, to infiltrate the children's crusade, but they also send a heavily-armed assassination squad to take out the ringleader.

The fellow with the silly haircut in the images here is Chief Judge Volt. He's been in the job since the aftermath of the 1994 Judge Dredd epic "Wilderlands," but nobody, not even his creator John Wagner, has given the guy any personality or major storylines. You could make the case that this is how it should be, because strong characters like Dredd and Anderson really don't need a "boss" figure except in really big, world-changing events. Volt only gets two, this one and 1999's "Doomsday," and he doesn't come out of that one very well.

So here's Volt's defining moment. He orders a missile attack on Hope.

Was he right to do it? As I remember it, the scale of the killing was overstated by the serial's critics. Earlier in the story, when senior judges were debating the next course of action, Dredd growls that they could "nuke 'em," and that seems to have been the impression some people took from the story, but that isn't what's shown. In part twelve, the carnage looks pretty high as Hope and a shocking number of bystanders appear to be killed by the explosion, but the missile is launched from a shoulder-mounted bazooka-type launcher. What would appear to be several hundred thousand survivors carry on, and, if I'm not mistaken, are never seen again after going through a massive set of blast doors set into the side of a mountain.

Since the "holy shit, the judges just sent missiles into a crowd of children" reaction was pretty harsh, it isn't surprising that Alan Grant never followed up on the story. But it might also be because he never intended to. Anderson, who was seriously wounded in an earlier episode, which is why she's not on her feet here, insists that Hope does not intend to use the children against the city or harm them in any way. Nobody's out there secretly building an army with conscripted Mega-City One kids. The story takes its inspiration from classic stories of children's crusades (like the tale of the Pied Piper and the incident of 1212, which, it turns out, wasn't really a "children's" crusade), much in the same way that Neil Gaiman did in a 1993 Vertigo series, but considers how the totalitarian regime of the city would react to such a thing. Predictably, they react badly.

Other stories in this prog include Dredd in "Spooks," a four-parter by Wagner and Calum Alexander Watt, Sinister Dexter in "Murder 101" by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, Witch World by Gordon Rennie and John Burns, and a Vector 13 episode by Rennie, Dylan Teague and Dondie Cox. As mentioned in previous installments, only the Sinister Dexter story has been reprinted.

Sinister Dexter Bullet Count Update: If you click the Sinister Dexter tag below, you'll see how I've been counting the number of hits the heroes take throughout the series. Sinister takes his second bullet in this storyline. He gets shot in the back of his right shoulder by his fellow gun shark Bubba Dotrice. This character will reappear in a year or so's time, meaning "Murder 101" marks the first appearance of five recurring players in the series: Billi, Weld, Rhodes, Bunkum and Dotrice.

Next week, the folly's all the editor's. In fact, it'll be his folly for the next three weeks, as we look at the short-lived "marketing-led" approach to series commissions that brought us the Space Girls, BLAIR One and the Sex Prog. It won't all be wince-inducing, I hope!

(Originally published 5/8/08 at LiveJournal.)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

51. Witch World

August 1997 brings us to prog 1056, and this Greg Staples cover - I believe that it's an homage to some famous piece of fantasy art by Frank Frazetta - is showcasing a short-lived series called Witch World. It ran for twelve episodes which comprised four short stories and the writer, Gordon Rennie, has been known to dismiss it as a failure not worth remembering. Personally, I'm inclined to agree. It's incredibly wordy, and the words are straight out of the Cliche-o-Tron 2000. Rennie had done much better than this before - the earlier episodes of Missionary Man, for example - and he'd do much better work than this in the future, so we should probably just discreetly dismiss this effort.

And yet...

I'll set the artwork, most of which is very good, aside for the moment. I'll also note only briefly that Witch World gets as many, if not more, calls for a sequel series as many other, superior efforts from the period. Seriously, Black Light, which ran a year previously, is a better strip on practically every level, but the time's long since gone where people on the message board were hoping to see new episodes of that. And yet the usually sane Floyd Kermode, known to all squaxx dek Thargo as the fandom's most prolific letterhack, was suggesting new Witch World stories on the official message board just a week ago, and he's by no means the only one.

I think Witch World was a very interesting example of editor David Bishop's style of commissioning series from the era. It didn't seem to be very effective in actually launching new, long-running strips, because the best-known launches from the period, Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante, had been ordered by his predecessor John Tomlinson and then revised to fit Bishop's needs. Witch World, like Black Light and Outlaw before it, was commissioned to run for 12-14 weeks, with the episodes divided into 4-5 short stories, each with different artists.

It's around this time that I realized that Bishop had taken an approach from television scheduling, for example with four clearly-defined season launches a year. Each series then got an order approximate to the standard television 13 weeks. If you've ever been involved enough in cult TV fandom to put together an episode guide for, say, Ace of Wands or Taggart, then Witch World's serial format makes perfect sense. Had Witch World been considered a success by Rennie, Bishop and the audience, then it could have picked up another order for 13 weeks, and maybe even regular scheduling like Sin Dex and Dante would be receiving.

Witch World did include some very nice artwork. The four stories were illustrated by, in order, Siku, Paul Johnson, Will Simpson (a panel from his "The Anatomist" is pictured above), and finally John Burns. They all look great, and the characters of Caitlin and Prestor Jon are engaging, but I don't think it ever really clicked. That's why it was so surprising to see a solicitation last week for a collected run in the pages of a summer 2000 AD Extreme Edition. It'll be nice to be able to enjoy all the great-looking painted artwork on better paper, but otherwise there's not a lot of reason to be thrilled to see it again.

Elsewhere in the prog, we have the continuing adventures of Sinister Dexter and I Was a Teenage Tax Consultant, as mentioned last time. There's also a really good Judge Dredd four-parter by John Wagner and Kev Walker. Entitled "Fast Food," it shows Dredd investigating corruption and thrown games on the competitive eating circuit.

Stories with Mega-City One's super-obese "fattie" population rarely disappoint, and this one's absolutely a winner. What I like best is Wagner once again taking a sledgehammer to the morons who provide commentary to the action. This is a gag he's done before and he'll do again, but it never fails to please. Actually, if the commentary in that panel above sounds familiar, it's because I understand that those droning morons at Fox Sports who called the 2006 Capitol One Bowl used it as their script.

Of these stories, only the Sinister Dexter adventure is currently available in collected form. Murder 101 was the second of the three Sin Dex books compiled by DC and Rebellion during their short tenure together and it includes this twelve-parter along with some other stories from the period. Witch World will apparently be republished in a few months in the pages of 2000 AD Extreme Edition. I say "apparently" because sometimes those solicitations don't always match the contents.

Next week, a decision by Chief Judge Volt in the pages of Anderson: Psi Division sparks a debate which lasts for many years. It's the defining moment of this ill-defined character's tenure as chief judge, and you can find out more about it in seven days.

(Originally published 5/1/08 at LiveJournal.)