Thursday, June 21, 2007

12. Hughes on Slade

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

It's October 1994 and 2000 AD is continuing stories from its most recent jump-on issue in prog 910. You've got more with Judge Dredd in "Wilderlands" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Button Man by Wagner and Arthur Ranson, ABC Warriors by Pat Mills, Tony Skinner and Kevin Walker and Robo-Hunter by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes. That's four excellent strips; unfortunately they share space this week with Red Razors, another "I'm the toughest there is!" beat-em-up by Mark Millar and poor old Nigel Dobbyn, who has to draw this nonsense.

But speaking of drawing, isn't that a great cover? Heaven knows I've seen it enough times. For about a year, 2000 AD was not available in the US. I ordered progs 875-899 from Forbidden Planet, and then shelled out for a subscription. Wow, what a nightmare that was.

I must point out that 2000 AD was later acquired by their present owners Rebellion, and their subscription department is said to be so darn good that many readers are incredibly happy with the service.

Sadly, this was not the case in 1994, although I still wouldn't recommend surface mail for anybody, regardless of the customer service. Until American distribution resumed around prog 930, I was stuck with banged up, beat up, mangled, torn up copies, kicked around at the bottom of a cargo ship with two tons of tractor equipment on top of them. About six never showed up. Only about four of the remaining 25 issues were in anything like good condition. I was so aggravated by how badly prog 910, with this beautiful Rian Hughes cover, was damaged that I wrote a letter and asked for a replacement copy. It too was beat all to hell. When I next visited London, in the spring of 1995, I visited Gosh!, one of England's best comic shops, and replaced most of my surface mail copies.

Rian Hughes has picked up a little press lately, since a collection of his comics work called Yesterday's Tomorrows is coming out this summer. It includes an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Goldfish and two collaborations with Grant Morrison: Dare, which originally appeared in 2000 AD's sister books Revolver and Crisis, and Really & Truly, from 2000 AD progs 842-849.

That Hughes illustrated an adaptation of Chandler is striking, because he also got to play with Robo-Hunter for 13 episodes. They're not highly regarded by the fan base, because they're done without the participation of Sam Slade's creators, John Wagner and Ian Gibson, or his other regular scribe, Alan Grant. They also came at a time when fandom was reacting with quite justifiable derision to Mark Millar's take on the character, and the overwhelming feeling was that Robo-Hunter needed to go. It didn't warrant being retooled in the hands of new creators, it needed to be axed.

That I enjoy Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes' take occasionally surprises people, because it's well documented that the original run is categorically my all-time favorite comic series, and because I'm well-known to be Samantha Slade's biggest defender. Surely, then, I'd pay respect to the creators by not praising what's nothing more than a stop-gap trademark defense?

Well, the thing to remember about the Hogan / Hughes time is that it's past. It happened. We can't go back and change it. It's not an ongoing slap in Wagner, Grant and Gibson's faces, and so it can be judged on its own merits, apart from the politics of the day that surrounded it. But the thing I would like to believe is that when Alan McKenzie inherited the editor's chair and the Rosette of Sirius from Richard Burton, he recognized that there was something very wrong with Robo-Hunter under Mark Millar's tenure, and it really was slapping the original creators in the face.

While understanding, respecting, and often agreeing with those who believe in creators' rights, I also see the need for 2000 AD to keep a bank of regular series to maintain reader interest. Yeah, McKenzie might well have done better to have axed Robo-Hunter outright, but instead, he gave it to the new team and said "Make this good again."

And they did.

That Rian Hughes is a complete genius is obvious. His design and layout skills are amazing, and he's the perfect choice to give Slade's New York a style and life of its own. The world has elements of classic noir filtered through 1950s advertising mascots and dated space-age zap guns. His pacing is note-perfect, the strange designs of the robots are consistent, and everything works without a flaw. Sam Slade's world, in these stories, is a solid, believable universe, and each of the four stories he illustrated is set in the same, unique, world. As the Millar stories were handled by several artists with different visions and opinions, they never looked like the same place twice.

But the scripts work too! Peter Hogan got to write five stories in all (one, illustrated by Simon Jacob, was in a Sci-Fi Special that I don't own), and he nailed the character of Sam Slade. Whenever I write about Robo-Hunter, I keep coming back to Chandler's famous essay, where he explains that the key to understanding detective fiction is to understand that the man who walks the mean streets is not himself mean. Millar's version of Sam Slade was; that's what made those episodes so appalling, even before you got to everything else that was wrong with them. They turned your old pal Sam into a violent boor. Peter Hogan fixed that. His Sam was everything that Slade should be; exasperated, put-upon, broke, down on his luck, but an absolute charmer on every page. Sam has to have a heart of gold even if he tries to project an aura of distance; it's why we love the big loser when everything goes wrong.

I will concede that the construction of the stories is not quite like the classic run. Hogan's tales are more conventional mysteries, but lighthearted and whimsical. There's a love of wordplay and puns not present in the original series. But they are incredibly clever, and they begin developing a nice supporting cast beyond Slade and his assistants.

As I've mentioned before in this column, McKenzie has unfortunately elected to not go on the record about his time on the comic during this period outside of his own site. It has not been updated to this period. I suggest, without any solid evidence, that as his time as editor wound down - John Tomlinson was the next Tharg, starting in 1995 - Robo-Hunter got sidelined in favor of some of the newer strips. As Tomlinson, and later David Bishop, began considering series, they had to consider the considerable fan outcry against Millar's Robo-Hunter, and the unfortunate, baffling, lack of popularity of Rian Hughes, and quietly shelved the strip. (Bishop and Hogan had a falling out as well, which certainly tabled any new work from this team.)

In 2004, Robo-Hunter returned in new tales of Sam's granddaughter Samantha. An early episode briefly dismissed the full 90s run as being incidents that happened to a robot masquerading as Slade, thus consigning 2000 AD's one and only quasi-official "non-canon" stamp to a series. Grant and Gibson were certainly well within their rights to dump anything they didn't like, but I think that it's a shame that they, and most of the readers, didn't like Hogan and Hughes' tales. I think they're deeply misread and horribly underrated, and if they had appeared under the name Standish Archer, Droid Detective, they'd probably rate a little higher in the fan polling.

It should not surprise you to learn that the four Hogan/Hughes stories have not been reprinted, but Yesterday's Tomorrows will be in stores in mid-July. Peter Hogan's done some scripting with Alan Moore on the America's Best line; Hughes has mainly been working in commercial illustration and design, which probably pays a lot better.

Also this week: Tharg gives the new Fantastic Four film a thumbs-down.

Back in seven, but for what, I couldn't say yet!

(Originally published 6/21/07 at LiveJournal.)

No comments: