Thursday, December 6, 2007

31. Pun Loving Criminals

Is it that time again? Well, back at the Hipster Pad, my son is very pleased to see this prog, despite that really lousy cover by Jason Brashill, because he has heard of Sinister Dexter and seen the books on the shelf and flipped past the episodes in the current issues of the comic so he can start from the beginning. The series had begun a few months previously with a pilot episode in the '96 Winter Special, and begins its run in the weekly with issue # 981 in February 1996. Almost twelve years later, it's still one of the regular stars of the comic, though the current storylines, and hints from the writers and artists, certainly indicate that it will be coming to a conclusion before much longer. Commissioning the strip is former editor John Tomlinson's biggest legacy at 2000 AD.

If you aren't familiar with Sinister Dexter, then, briefly, it's a strip about two hired gunmen, Finnigan Sinister and Ramone Dexter, in a gigantic city on the European mainland called Downlode. It's set just far enough in the future for the characters to have access to some technology we don't have and interact with cyborgs, but close enough so that fashions haven't changed much and everyone can still get around in great big, gorgeous automobiles. The strip is written by Dan Abnett - he's scripted every episode, which comes to something like 1400 pages thus far - and illustrated by practically every big name in British comics over the last decade. David Millgate was the original art droid. Others have included Simon Davis, whom many consider to be the definitive Sin Dex artist, Andy Clarke, Greg Staples, Henry Flint, Steve Yeowell, Anthony Williams, Frazer Irving and many more. The format is incredibly flexible, and, like Judge Dredd, mixes one-off episodes with epic-length stories and with shorter tales which advance ongoing subplots. There are patches where it's felt old, tired and in the way, and there are occasional moments of real brilliance, subversion, wit, and a genuine sense of drama and danger.

And puns. This series has the absolute worst jokes in all of comics, and knows it. It shouldn't be too surprising that a strip which stars characters whose names mean "left right" in Latin has them walking around in a city where everybody they meet has a name with at least one other meaning. The first weekly episode introduces us to their angst-ridden information broker Nervous Rex. As we see below, Rex is being menaced by Kenton Quaranteeno, prompting Sinister to go all Dirty Harry on him. We're not done with the names yet, but I do want to point out that this is a very clever scene, as it pays homage to Sinister Dexter's principal forebears - Pulp Fiction and Clint Eastwood - immediately and then gets on with creating its own world.

Sinister has come to see Rex because he needs the location of this episode's target. His name is Curt Vile. Now, maybe I'm reading too much into things, but I just don't see how there's any way Dan Abnett could not have known that Alan Moore had beat him to that particular pun by at least fifteen years, and, for a time, wrote under that pseudonym. So, week one in the comic and our heroes' first assignment is to kill Alan Moore. Unfortunately, Mr. Vile has already had face-change surgery and now looks like Ramone Dexter, and not an old bearded hippie from Northhampton. Moore's the pity.

At the time this originally appeared, David Bishop was settling in to the editor's job and inherited the eight-week series from Tomlinson, who'd been moved to the Judge Dredd Megazine. Now, the previous issue featured an ad for some forthcoming Slaine storylines, announcing that the story "Lord of Misrule," which had ended on a cliffhanger in prog 963, would be back in prog 990. Almost immediately, Bishop had to rearrange things on that front. Artist Clint Langley wouldn't be ready in time, so Slaine was put back to prog 995 and Bishop quickly commissioned another five episodes of Sin Dex from Dan Abnett. He was only able to do this because the strip's format of, then, one and two-part stories allowed him to commission the scripts and assign multiple artists to tackle the new order with only about two months to spare. In the early 80s, when Wagner and Grant were writing more than half the book and the episodes didn't require color, a last-minute change like that would not have been much of a problem. By '96, this is a somewhat larger headache. Readers had no idea of the behind-the-scenes incident, and probably didn't know until Bishop discussed it in Thrill-Power Overload.

The extended run of Sinister Dexter manages to pay off very well. It's a hugely enjoyable series, and readers love it. Giving it a three-month stint gives everyone a chance to get to know the characters' world and the cast and the strip's humor and attitude. It will return frequently over the next few years, becoming a semi-regular in 1997-2001 and always popping up for anywhere from six to twenty episodes a year thereafter. As I said above, it's still going strong today, although its heyday has certainly passed. I'm certainly going to enjoy rereading all of this (mostly) great strip. One thing I have noted is that Dexter originally had more "dialect" in his word balloons, with "they" spelled out as "dey" and so on. This was dropped after a couple of weeks.

A fair amount of the earlier Sin Dex episodes are available in collected form. DC wisely recognized that this was among the most commercial and sellable of 2000 AD's color strips (although they didn't do jack to sell them), and when they and Rebellion went into the trade paperback business together, they assembled three volumes of the first couple of years of episodes. They aren't quite complete - the episodes illustrated by Tom Carney were excised altogether - but about 95% of them are included. These three books are still in print, and any comic shop can order them. American accounts will find them in DC's section of the distributor, Diamond, or you can get them from Amazon: Gunshark Vacation is the first one, followed by Murder 101 and finally Slay Per View. We're hoping that a fourth collection will arrive sometime in 2008.

Anyway, the other series in this issue I'll mention more next time, but for the record, they're Venus Bluegenes by Steve White and Henry Flint, Janus: Psi Division by Mark Millar and Paul Johnson, Canon Fodder by Nigel Long and Chris Weston, and the continuing Judge Dredd epic "The Pit," by John Wagner and, this week, Lee Sullivan. I like Sullivan's work, though he's never been a fan favorite. I know he also plays saxophone in a Roxy Music tribute band, and what's this going on in Sector House 301?

Looks like Judge (Bryan?) Ferry arresting Roxy saxophonist Andy Mackay to me. In 2001, Sullivan donated the original artwork for this page to a charity auction which was organized by a Roxy mailing list that I was once on. He noted then that the colorist, Mike Hadley, didn't follow the guidelines and give Andy's "Dalek pants" their correct green and blue scheme! I can't find a picture online of these glam rock marvels; you'll just have to trust me when I tell you they were awesome.

(Originally published 12/6/07 at LiveJournal.)

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