Thursday, June 28, 2007

13. Buttoning Down

It's November 1994 and we're up to prog 914. This features the final part of Judge Dredd in "Wilderlands" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, in which everybody gets rescued and the robot judge program gets scrapped. Amazingly, in only ten weeks, the high point of prog 904's launch strips has totally evaporated, as "Wilderlands" limps to a conclusion much less interesting than the promising first part, and three of the excellent, entertaining series that launched alongside it have been replaced by lesser strips. These include Red Razors, by Mark Millar and Nigel Dobbyn, who's really giving this dumb story far more attention than it deserves. New since my last update are the final outings for Skizz and Bix Barton.

Skizz of course is best known for its original run in 1983. It was Alan Moore's first serial for the comic, and was illustrated by Jim Baikie. Moore gave Baikie his blessing to continue the story on his own in 1991, which led to a slight, but inoffensive 9-part revisiting of the characters. But while the third story is also inoffensive, it's not at all "slight." It's a mammoth, 16-part story, bloated with three plotlines that don't look like they're ever going to intersect. The stories of the characters we met in Moore's original run aren't bad, but there's this plot about some time-travelling alien hitmen with a robot that dresses like an Elvis impersonator and speaks in what's apparently a broad Birmingham accent, and it's endlessly dull and unamusing.

Bix Barton is back for his final adventure. He'd debuted in 1990 and starred in four six-part adventures, and a handful of one-offs in specials and annuals, by Pete Milligan and Jim McCarthy. This thing just smells of "inventory pages," and I say this as one of the minority of fans who actually like Bix Barton. Well, except for the art. I suppose we all have to have a "least favorite" artist, and Jim McCarthy might very well be a contender for mine.

As I say, I like Barton a lot, but it's evident that Milligan's initial enthusiasm for his character wore off very quickly. The first three series are quite fun, and there's nothing actually wrong with this one, other than the art, but it feels pretty tired, and Barton himself is sidelined for much of the action. He's a great character, but Milligan was well established in the States as a regular writer for Vertigo by this time and a Barton series hadn't appeared for more than two years, leading me to suspect this had been on the shelf for quite some time.

The standout among this lineup is certainly Button Man Book 2. If you've never read Button Man, you are really, really missing out. It's by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson, and it's about a thug and a mercenary called Harry Exton who finds employment as a hired gun for a cartel of rich "voices" who play their gunmen off against each other in violent games. But Exton is bothered by one of his competitors, who lets him know that this isn't a game you can actually quit. When Exton chooses to find out whether that's true, all kinds of hell break loose.

It appeared at the conclusion of the first book that Exton had died while killing off the "voice." But Book 2 reveals that he is instead spirited to the US and given a new chance in the American version of game with a one-year contract to a rich senator, A.J. Jacklin, under the name Harry Elmore, with funding and a "wife," Cora, who arranges things for their master. But Harry's still an uncontrollable killer, and is looking for the chinks in the game.

Halfway through this remarkable tale, Cora and Jacklin conclude that Harry's a liability, just as Harry discovers the body of the button man who'd previously been in Jacklin's employ. Up to this point in the story, it's been a very entertaining slow burn, but what follows from this turning point is pretty intense.

Button Man has been optioned for a feature film on the strength of Wagner's A History of Violence; IMDB suggests that it's meant to be released sometime in 2008, but that could mean anything. The third book of Button Man came in 2001, and the fourth will be starting in a few months, with Frazer Irving taking over art chores.

Next week: I Cannot Be a Nun!

(Originally published 6/28/07 at LiveJournal.)

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