Thursday, October 4, 2007

24. From the Mixed-Up Files of the Men in Black

By September 1995, 2000 AD has settled into one of what my son would tell you is one of the comic's all-time best lineups. I would not necessarily agree, but it does contain two Judge Dredd episodes, both written by John Wagner, with art by Carlos Ezquerra and Andrew Currie. The first one is part of a major new story called "Bad Frendz." It introduces an untouchable kingpin named Nero Narcos and his supposedly charitable Frendz organization. The Frendz will prove to be the major ongoing subplots in Mega City-One for the next several years, with quite a few cases taking surprise detours when a hidden connection to the Frendz comes to light.

Also present in prog 957, as the cover indicates, is the second and final Maniac 5 serial by Mark Millar and Steve Yeowell. Well, my son likes it, anyway. There is also a one-off Strontium Dogs episode which fills in for Slaine during a week's break between two storylines. It's written by Peter Hogan, with guest art by Simon Harrison. The Journal of Luke Kirby, by Alan McKenzie and Steve Parkhouse, continues what will prove to be its last serial. This is a very interesting story called "The Old Straight Track" which focuses on ley lines and stone circles and the like. So bluntly, all the time-marking that was evident ten issues previously is totally gone. Even accepting that Maniac 5 is yet another dull indestructible supertough engaging in another boring Mark Millar beat-em-up, it certainly engages a ten year-old's thrill-circuits and proves a good counterpoint to the slower, more reflective Luke Kirby and Strontium Dogs stories.

But perhaps the most interesting bit in the comic, outside of the Wagner-Ezquerra Dredd episode, is Vector 13. This is a series of one-off five-page stories hosted and narrated by a collection of Men in Black, telling tales of bizarre fortean events, with mothmen, UFOs, ghosts, coincidences, saber-toothed tigers and weird conspiracies. They're all told with a sense of quiet sobriety, played straight but also played lightly. It's a balancing act that doesn't always work, but when it does, the results are just great.

Where the heck did this come from? 2000 AD had included occasional one-part stories since 1977, as all anthology comics occasionally did, to fill gaps between longer serials and to give new talent a chance to get some experience before tackling a larger commitment. In 2000 AD, these most often appeared under the banners Tharg's Future Shocks, Tharg's Time Twisters or Tharg's Terror Tales. Vector 13 marked the first time that the fictional hosts were in some way a participant in the events, with all of the narration from their point of view, and occasionally recounted to an audience of other Men in Black at some conference or training.

But the Men in Black? It seems so cheesy from our perspective, because the mid-90s ran nothing into the ground so firmly as secret government conspiracies. The X Files debuted on the American Fox network in September 1992, perfectly timed to build an audience ready to relive the assassination of Kennedy in a dozen 30th anniversary specials. The city of Roswell, New Mexico enjoyed newfound notoreity, some "video entrepreneur" sold Fox a "documentary" called Alien Autopsy - Fact or Fiction?, and, for at least two years, every new drama on NBC that wasn't a Law & Order spinoff had its protagonists running from the relentless pursuit of the shadowy government conspiracy obsessed with their capture. Oh, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones made a couple of movies that made some money.

Over the next year, Vector 13's hosts stay very busy. The Men in Black will pop into at least two more series, and that's before things get really odd in 1996... but that's getting ahead of things. For now, Vector 13 is quietly making a mark with some downright excellent little short stories, with great contributions from the likes of Shaky Kane, Dan Abnett, Nigel Long, Kevin Cullen, Sean Phillips and John Ridgway. Many more creators will have work in the series, which will run to 66 episodes, including Pat Mills, who will make a very rare excursion into the land of one-off stories in an upcoming prog. Here's another thing that Tharg should look into reprinting. The entire series could be handled in two volumes, and we'd get some really great, rare work back into print.

Next week, the comic makes an unusual move and ties elements of the comic's backstory together to match the film. Will it work?

(Originally published 10/4/07 at LiveJournal.)

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