Thursday, February 7, 2008

40. The Facts Behind the Fiction Behind the Facts

October 1996: Prog 1014 is another launch issue, with the first episodes of four series, and a fifth joining next week. This is simply not as strong a lineup as the last one. Two of the five series are inventory strips commissioned by earlier editors and collecting dust until they had to run. The third and final series of David Hine's Mambo had been ordered two Thargs previously, by Alan McKenzie, in 1994 or 1995. The second and last series of Time Flies, written by Garth Ennis, is even older. This script was submitted in 1991, when Richard Burton was editor. Philip Bond began artwork on the nine-part tale, but dropped out after completing 30-odd pages. Other artists, including Roger Langridge and Jon Beeston, will contribute after Fleetway's management decrees that if the material was purchased, it must be published. Bishop also inherits a 72-page Judge Dredd adventure called "Darkside" by John Smith and Paul Marshall which will begin in three weeks' time. This had been commissioned for the Megazine by John Tomlinson as eight 9-page episodes. Having no room in the Meg and needing a good run of Dredd while John Wagner preps his next long story, Bishop moved it to 2000 AD, where it runs with some pretty odd "cliffhangers" as twelve 6-page episodes.

The other stories are a new series of Rogue Trooper by Steve White, Dan Abnett and artists including Greg Staples and, this week, Alex Ronald, and a major new creator-owned story by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson called Mazeworld. More about these another time, because there are other things to discuss this week. In the most impressive, long-running development, Henry Flint gets a chance to draw Dredd.

This is a three-part adventure called "The Pack," in which Mega-City One deals with whacking great flying alien sharks diving into the streets to gobble up any meat in their path. It's the prelude to Wagner's next long story, which will be starting in 1997, and it is all kinds of eye-popping fun. Flint had been doing some solid, if unmemorable, work as a fill-in artist for Rogue Trooper, and had drawn a Dredd poster comic, but this was the first time he got the chance to take charge of a major strip in the weekly.

Putting Flint on Judge Dredd is one of Bishop's very best ideas as 2000 AD's editor, which makes it incredibly odd that it happens in the same prog as one of his worst. Flint immediately puts his stamp on the character and fast becomes one of the definitive Dredd artists, with dozens of episodes to his credit. He's just a super artist, and ranks not far behind Carlos Ezquerra as one of my own favorites, Flint's brilliant artwork graces a few other series as well, most notably Shakara, which is running in the prog currently. In 2005 he was headhunted by DC Comics, but they didn't find much of interest for him to do. He was perfectly suited for the alien weirdness of the 2006-07 Omega Men miniseries, but the book just stank of "trademark protection" and sank without trace, Fans are much happier with him at 2000 AD anyway. This Dredd story is available in the 2003 collected edition called The Hunting Party, available from Amazon here.

Last week, I explained that the comic's fictional alien editor, Tharg the Mighty, had told readers he had to return to Quaxxan and may be gone for some time. This week, after readers carefully removed the free promotional pack of X Files trading cards from the front cover, they looked inside to learn that this government-conspiracy stuff has gotten entirely out of hand.

Yep, for the next four months or so, the silly concept of a space alien constructing little robots to create a comic book is replaced by the even sillier concept of a shadowy group of... government cover-up gymcrack Men in Black relating these tales. Not content to reside as the hosts of the Vector 13 anthology strip or supporting characters in Kid CyBorg and Black Light, the Men in Black were now running the comic. And with it, the hyperbole (about thrillpower, upcoming strips, lunacy in the Nerve Centre) all vanishes.

David Bishop has certainly accepted (in the pages of Thrill-Power Overload) that this was not a terribly good idea, and Tharg will be reinstated under amusing circumstances in 1997. The problem is that a big part of the 2000 AD experience is the comic's scrappy, toughest-in-town attitude, personified by the larger-than-life Tharg waxing grandiloquently about the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, unable to string three sentences together without the word "thrill" and crafting comic putdowns to the stupider questions in the letters page. The Men in Black don't do this. Instead, there's a lot of po-faced crap about "neither confirming nor denying" this and that. Whereas Tharg would remind a cheeky reader that Rigelian Hotshots can be despatched to any corner of the galaxy to blast any disrespectful Earthlet, the Men in Black talk about certain agencies specializing in missing persons.

There's also the problem that when Vector 13 launched in August 1995, it was perfectly timed to catch the wave of paranoid conspiracy fiction. The X Files had finished its third, and best, season, and nobody was really sick of this "JFK assassinated by space alien cattle mutilators" nonsense yet. One year later, that shit was played out. The Men in Black were as oversaturated as a media spectacle could get. Now, 2000 AD is actually behind the wave as it ramps up the cash-in. It looks like your hopelessly uncool dad trying to hang with your crowd.

As I found out when I left a note on the official site's message board about the October entry on V13 (see entry 24, From the Mixed-Up Files of the Men in Black), there remains some resentment that 2000 AD would demean itself by cashing in on this trend so blatantly. It left such a bad taste that, more than a decade later, Vector 13 is still dismissed because it was part of the same stupid trend, despite some genuinely great one-offs appearing under that banner. I can and will defend V13 - a two-book collection of the run would be great fun, but if not, twenty of the best 66 tales would make a fabulous Extreme Edition - but the editorial work of the Men in Black is another story altogether.

Next week, exactly who is this audience identification figure, anyway?

(Originally published 2/7/07 at LiveJournal.)

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