Thursday, January 3, 2008

35. Finn vs. Slaine: and only one shall continue!

June 1996: Prog 996 continues a strong lineup, with Carlos Ezquerra back at work on the John Wagner-scripted Judge Dredd story "The Pit," a Henry Flint cover announcing this week's episode of Strontium Dogs by Peter Hogan and Trevor Hairsine, a creepy Vector 13 installment by Brian Williamson and Kevin Cullen, and two ongoing series scripted by the Guv'nor, Pat Mills. (Can I do that, incidentally? Mills has earned the fandom-approved nickname "Guv'nor," but I don't know that an American can actually use that term in any other situation without looking awfully silly.)

Anyway, while Wagner and Ezquerra bring the Pit storyline towards its spectacular, explosive conclusion - one which leaves readers wondering whether any of these new Dredd castmembers will make it out of the mob war alive - Finn is also making its way towards its end, in a very unusual nine-episode story that feels a lot like a throwback to comics from the late 70s and early 80s. "Season of the Witch," on paper, is a nine-part story, but it's actually a series of loosely-related two- and three-part stories with an umbrella title, in which the magic-powered man with the machine gun goes up against four different opponents in the employ of the evil Lord Michael and his comedy Freemasons. Finn, we must recall, came during a time when Pat Mills didn't want to write believable villains, just ones with really nasty weapons.

1996 sees us past the real hump in the Guv'nor's low-quality phase of the early '90s. (It's a hump which, coincidentally or not, overlaps with the period he was co-writing Punisher 2099 with Tony Skinner for Marvel Comics. The only thing Punisher 2099 was ever good for was giving me a character to play with Nemesis and Torquemada in Heroclix on "teams my opponents will not guess the theme of" day.) Neither Finn nor Slaine are particularly bad at all, but it's just not possible to read these comics and not know that Mills has done better, before and since.

Really, the villains are the biggest problem. At no point can you believe any of them as legitimate characters, and that's the greatest failing of these strips. I guess you can argue that Finn and Slaine are playing for very high stakes - the future of Mother Earth - and consequently, the actual dramatic conflict of the comic page is not as important or as significant as getting the reader to think about the bigger themes involved. Mills has done this before, to very good effect. Of course, you know he was the author of Charley's War in Battle Picture Weekly, which was one of, if not the very best of all war comics. Periodically, Mills would show us the aging, impotent aristos and generals directing the slaughter on the battlefields, and they'd be little more than bizarre caricatures, jarringly two-dimensional when weighed against the vivid portrayals of the tommies in the trenches. Yet this choice worked because we never saw the enlisted men interacting with the toffs.

By contrast, Finn will frequently have a violent argument with some industry baron in Lord Michael's power structure, and the conflict falls completely apart. Mills gave his heroic characters a great deal of believability, but he also gave them 100% of the moral argument. This is why, say, Batman's enemies don't explain their moral reasoning in an attempt to persuade the readers' sympathies. When Finn has the owner of Big Auto Company tied to a chair, we don't need the nonsense about Big Auto having an obligation to its stockholders to increase profits by polluting the environment. It's fake, and feels forced and unnatural.

Lord Michael himself is unlike Mills' classic villains like Torquemada or the Lord Weird Slough Feg in that he is not fanatical about anything. In fact, he's oddly joyless, completely lacking positive passion for anything at all. Here's where the structure really fails for me. You can identify the main villain because he's the old, cranky, balding jerk. He has no life whatsoever, but the top witch in Finn's coven, Mandy, is full of life and energy and radiates charisma and fun. It's too obvious and too easy - wouldn't this be a more compelling strip if the main villain enjoyed his position half as much as Mandy does hers? The sexual angle is pretty clear and pretty lazy, too. Mandy represents virility and is sexually desirable, while Lord Michael is old and overweight. Imagine how much more interesting this might have been with those roles reversed?

And yet, Finn remains readable and sometimes compelling because it's so grandiose, with so many wild elements, and its plot is completely unpredictable. It is also worth noting that the entire dramatic structure of Finn reappears in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, where you've again got posh aristos in big country houses using secret handshakes and allying with aliens in complex schemes to keep humanity down, and the good guys have chaos magic and machine guns on their side. Morrison did it a dozen times better, when he had artists who could translate his scripts for us and when he wasn't fucking around in Revolutionary France anyway, but fair's fair, Finn came first.

The cardboard villain problem continues in Slaine, but there's a sense of weirdness and completely bizarre plotting in "Lord of Misrule" which makes the story stand out more as being fresh and original, and we see Mills flesh out some older ideas to much better effect. The sequence in this story where Marian is sentenced to death evokes a similar incident in the 1992 ABC Warriors story "Khronicles of Khaos," only it works much better here, as Mills is able to devote more space to it.

There is a lot more Slaine to come in the next several months - the character gets one of his longest-ever runs throughout 1996-97 as he becomes a semi-regular cast member of the comic - but Clint Langley won't be with him for the time being, although he will be used on some other series in the next few years. Langley will return to Slaine in 2003 and the Books of Invasion storyline, his artwork honed to an intriguing love-it or hate-it heavily-PhotoShopped style (I quite like it!), but other artists will handle the stories to come.

Finn, however, is shelved after this story. Thrill-Power Overload - you know, if there were more available sources, I'd reference 'em - explains that David Bishop wanted to keep Mills' energies directed down one avenue, the more popular one, while also limiting the opportunities to get on the Guv'nor's bad side. Since Bishop and his fellow former editors Alan McKenzie and Andy Diggle have all gone on the record about some frictions with Mills, I think I can understand the reasoning!

But right now, Bishop can ill-afford to spend time fighting with a freelancer about Finn. He's about to piss off a huge chunk of the Megazine's readership with some reprints. More on that next time!

(Originally published 1/3/08 at LiveJournal.)

No comments: