Thursday, January 10, 2008

36. City of the Dead, redux

July 1996: David Bishop and his editorial team (which is not a large crew) are putting the weekly in an increasingly stable and strong position when there's a new fire to be tackled. Six months previously, Bishop had moved from the Judge Dredd Megazine over to the weekly, and Tomlinson moved from the weekly to edit the now-monthly Megazine. The publishers have decided that they don't need to be paying Tomlinson's freelance rates any longer and after six monthly issues, he is gone and now Bishop has both comics to edit. If both titles were financially strong and had the full support of the publisher, this might be a really great job. It's what Matt Smith is doing today and he at least seems to enjoy it. But in the summer of 1996, 2000 AD has a big stockpile of unloved material commissioned ages previously which has to be printed, and the publisher is increasingly unhappy with the Megazine's underperformance. Sales, if I understand rightly, are below the point they were when the Dredd feature film was released a year before. The Megazine is under orders to make some money or be cancelled.

And so immediately some more commissioned material goes back in the drawer. Megazine v.3 # 19 had an advertisement that a new story for Janus: Psi Division would begin in the next issue. Judge Janus, who was created by Grant Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra, first appeared in 1993 and had shown up in a couple of stories since, most recently a 5-parter, "A New Star," in 2000 AD in February '96 by Mark Millar and Paul Johnson. Their next, and final, Janus adventure is "Faustus," which I believe was planned to run as four 12-page episodes in Meg # 20-23. Instead, Bishop decides to stop commissioning - and paying for - anything new for the time being, and use reprints to bulk up the comic and put back the time when they'll need to pay for as much new stuff in the Meg. The reprint, for now, is of the 1990 Judge Dredd epic "Necropolis." The small backlog of already commissioned material will do for now, and the format will change from five new stories per issue to three new stories and reprint material.

I'll try to take up how well this goes down in a few weeks' time, but it's worth noting that the postponed Janus storyline will eventually find a home in 2000 AD, along with several other Megazine series as the squeeze gets worse and more established Megazine series are left homeless by the crunch. It had already been announced that Judge Anderson would be returning to 2000 AD. The assumption I made is that Bishop, who'd edited her Megazine series for years anyway, wanted her at 2000 AD with him, and Tomlinson, who commissioned the Millar/Johnson Janus adventures, would be taking that character to the Meg. Now Bishop has both at 2000 AD. Guess which one gets cancelled? Some Judge Dredd stories which were planned for the Meg will get moved to the weekly, and eventually both Missionary Man and Devlin Waugh will also move there.

So the lineup this month includes 20 pages of reprints of some of the lead-in episodes to "Necropolis" by John Wagner and Ezquerra, but it still includes some very good new strips, and just because # 20 is a very visible benchmark for the beginning of the Meg's reprint period doesn't mean the comic should be written off. Far from it; it includes Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and Simon Davis, along with the first episode of a new series called Holocaust 12 written by Chris Standley and John Smith, with art by Jim Murray. I believe this strip, which concerns the suicide-team judges who get sent into disasters as a last-ditch effort and are not expected to return, has also suffered somewhat from the need for space for reprint. There's an cliffhanger which feels unusually artificial, and an oddly-lettered "next issue" tag on the last page. I think this was planned as two 12-page episodes and split into four 6-page episodes to accomodate the reprints and, again, stretch the new material out further.

Finally, there's the Dredd story, part one of "America II: Fading of the Light" by Wagner and Colin MacNeil. This is the big draw, although it suffers from sequel fatigue and isn't rated as highly by readers as the original. It is still a brilliant story and deserves a mention.

"America" was one of the five original Megazine series, back in 1990. It's the life story of America Jara and her friend, Bennett Beeny, who grew up together in the Meg. America's childhood hatred of the judges leads her, in time, to join the democratic underground, and a terrorist organization called Total War, which makes itself known periodically throughout the series. Beeny had made a huge success for himself as a singer-songwriter, but when his and Ami's paths cross one fateful night when Total War ambushes some judges, he's shot as a witness and left for dead. Beeny doesn't identify Ami when he recovers, but the gunshot takes out his throat, ending his career.

He still has enough royalties to live comfortably for the rest of his life, and when Ami returns for money, he's torn between his lifelong love for her and a need to stop the carnage. It's a remarkable story, and one which anybody who doubts Judge Dredd's standing as one of the best comics of the last thirty years should certainly read. Beeny's anguish at being torn between desire and unrequited love on one side, and fear and responsibility on the other, makes for an amazing tale, and whatever he decides is going to leave him disgusted with the decision. Dredd himself is barely present in the story, except as a menacing figure on the fiction's event horizon. You can certainly draw parallels between the structure of "America" and the Golgo 13 episodes I've been mentioning from time to time, where the focus is on the people impacted by the nominal protagonist. Seeing the character through the eyes of guest stars gives us a different perception of him. Dredd doesn't come off so well. Neither does Beeny, once you see what he does.

This first story - no sequel was planned at the time - ends with the revelation that the narrator has indeed been Beeny as we had expected, but he is wearing America's body. America had been fatally wounded in the story's climax. Beeny took custody of her body, and arranged for a brain transplant.

And that's not all he did. In the first episode of this series, we meet their daughter.

Holy crap! You think Faye Dunaway had problems in Chinatown?

"Fading of the Light" is sometimes dismissed, in part because the original series probably did not need a sequel, and in part because many readers feel that MacNeil's gorgeous painting of the original is not matched by the pen and inkwork of this run. I think it's still excellent myself, and a very worthwhile follow-up to the original.

The two "America" stories are available in a reprint volume which was issued by Titan in 2003. There's a new edition coming soon from Rebellion if you are interested - and you certainly should be - so let your local comic shop know. It should be out in March or April in the UK, and in May in the US.

Next week: There are reprints with Dark Judges in the Meg, and new episodes with Dark Judges in the prog!!

(Originally published 1/10/08 at LiveJournal.)

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