Thursday, March 13, 2008

45. Bish-OP's Mea Culpa

March 1997: The prog before a launch issue is, as you might expect, usually full of last episodes, one-offs and filler, clearing the decks before the new stories start in the promotional issues. Prog 1032, the issue before the 20th anniversary prog, is no exception. It has the second half of a Judge Dredd two-parter by John Wagner and John Burns, one-off episodes of Slaine (Pat Mills/Steve Tappin) and Sinister Dexter (Dan Abnett/Marc Wigmore), and two episodes of the creepy anthology Vector 13. The first one is the now-standard five-page investigation of fortean strangeness. The other... well...

To recap, from its inception, 2000 AD was "edited" by a space alien named Tharg the Mighty, as was once common in anthology comics. The character, and his office full of creator "droids," would occasionally appear in silly comic adventures which reinforced the mythology. As the comic's audience got older, 2000 AD responded by presenting stories which would appeal to older audiences, presented on better paper and in a package that looked and felt somewhat more "grownup" than the cheap newspaper of the late 1970s. The real editor, David Bishop, felt that the aliens-n-droids were an anachronism in the more mature comic, and phased them out in favor of "Men in Black," popular in geek media of the day, only to have it collapse in the face of readers who wanted their Tharg back.

So 2000 AD celebrates its 20th birthday with the return of The Mighty One. Even if he doesn't talk quite right...

What starts as a Vector 13 tale of the Men in Black reporting on the supposed sightings of so-called "aliens" in London over the past two decades is promptly derailed as Tharg returns from the planet Quaxxan to find all these fashion victims standing around in the shadows looking moody. It must be said that Bishop doesn't really capture Tharg's speech patterns correctly - "grexnix" is supposed to be another word for idiot, for example - and he'll spend many months putting up with irate letters wanting to know why he's referring to readers as "Earthlings" instead of "Earthlets."

Anyway, stepping up and taking the blame, Bishop unmasks himself and, whining for forgiveness, faces Tharg's wrath.

It isn't perfect, but the one-off is a very nice little throwback to the early 80s, when short little Tharg tales were penned to explain everything from distribution issues to price rises to creators using new pseudonyms to talent leaving editorial and going freelance. And to fill space quickly while waiting for a long serial to work its way through production, that too. And, much like we saw back in the days of Steve MacManus's tenure, the fiction also serves as a teaser for forthcoming attractions: the Bish-OP droid saves his metal skin by telling Tharg about all the great new series he's commissioned to start running in the next three weeks. Satisfied, a merciful Tharg spares Bish-OP for now.

I guess it's the nature of memory, but as we just celebrated 2000 AD's thirtieth birthday a year ago, with all the attendant nostalgia and looking back, I'm reminded of how many commentators spoke of how the comic lost its way in the early nineties and has been on a resurgence "lately" or "recently." Perhaps the memory cheats, but since I started this blog in April '07 (covering December 1993), the number of good stories has outweighed the number of bad ones. By the time of the twentieth birthday, 2000 AD's two weakest writers - Michael Fleisher and Mark Millar - were gone, and the comic was safely in the hands of editors who genuinely seemed to be enjoying their work and the remarkable challenges of juggling the anthology and pleasing its fickle audience.

Certainly, when 2000 AD was lousy during this period, it was a lip-biting disappointment, but it was good more often than not, and it would spend the next ten years stripped of its early 90s failings and being as innovative, engaging and surprising as its glory days of the early 80s. Ten years. That's not "lately" or "recently," that's a solid decade as the best comic money can buy.

Case in point: join us in seven days when a new character says "I'm too cool to kill."

(Originally published 3/13/08 at LiveJournal.)

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