Thursday, May 22, 2008

54. No sex please, we're squaxx dek Thargo

Oh, you thought last week was weird. November 1997 brings us to one of 2000 AD's most absolutely skewed moments of oddness. It's the Sex Prog, number 1066, and there on the cover, you've got Wide Open Space, looking nothing whatsoever like Jason Brashill's model of the character, enticing readers in with her enormous boobs. The comic was released in a sealed polybag, with a "Not for Sale to Children" notice on the cover. Now, over the previous twenty years, 2000 AD had been slowly maturing along with an audience that it was holding onto far longer than any publishers' wisdom would have predicted, but at its core, shouldn't this be a title which kids can read? What about my kids? Am I going to let them read it? What are we to make of this development, and how saucy and inappropriate is this prog, anyway?

Well, first in the lineup is Judge Dredd by John Wagner and Greg Staples. This might be the first episode to admit that in Mega-City One, citizens who don't want to bother with human relationships can purchase a humanoid robot called a Love Doll. These droid partners would turn up as plot elements in later storylines, and here they're shown to be every bit a target for theft as either flatscreen TVs or cars are today. The artwork is not explicit, although topless dolls - robots that look like humanoid girls - are shown in three panels. I figured this would be okay for my kids to read. I'm not going to freak out about exposed nipples in a comic, and "In the future, people can have robot boyfriends and girlfriends" is something they can understand without too much issue.

Next up is an episode of Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Siku, who joins the rotation of artists working on this series as it becomes the second regular feature, behind Dredd. (More on this development in two weeks.) The plot of this episode involves four members of the cast spending their evening looking not to spend it alone. The twist is that it's Demi Octavo who's actually planning to spend it with gunplay, while Sinister and Dexter each spend it looking for some amour. There's nothing objectionable about the artwork, apart from Siku making everyone appear to be garishly-colored rocklike polygons, and I judged this one to also be suitable for kids. Oddly, though, this story was among six or seven which were omitted from the three DC/Rebellion reprints of early Sin Dex stories. So far, with only three panels of topless robots in two episodes of story, anybody who bought this issue looking for something akin to the latest Heavy Metal was going to be deeply disappointed.

Third in the lineup is the fourth episode of A Life Less Ordinary, and it doesn't play along with the Sex Prog raison d'etre at all. The only notable thing about this episode is how unbelievably sloppy the storytelling by the otherwise reliable Steve Yeowell is. The opening panels, in which Robert learns that the "bomb" in a car's trunk is actually a bag of carrots, are very poor, but the experience is just surreal, like some odd comic adaptation of a weird dream. The really offensive bit of this strip is this: the only thing I remember about A Life Less Ordinary, which I saw at the Beechwood Cinema in Athens around this time, is the scene where Ewan MacGregor and Cameron Diaz engage in some show-stopping karaoke. That's not in the comic. The build-up to the scene is there, and then Robert wakes up with a hangover.

So 60% of the prog is child-friendly. But then we hit the final episode of Tomlinson and Brashill's Space Girls and everything falls apart. Now, I'm an understanding guy, and I can see that nine year-old girls probably were not Fleetway and editor David Bishop's target audience, but what the hell was anybody thinking here? See, grown-ups can constructively read a strip like Space Girls, understand that it does not work for many and varied reasons, accept that it was just a five-week thing to get little sidebar writeups in newspapers, and move on. But nine year-old girls are not constructive and not critical. The Hipster Daughter was enjoying this strip, even if nobody else on the planet was, and then her old man cruelly yanked the ending away from her. Now, there isn't anything in the visuals that's offensive, thanks to Brashill's discretion and self-censorship, but the "story" is about the girls, who are all clones, watching an advertising video made by the corpulent, grotesque caricature which designed them, suggesting ways in which the clones can be used for personal gratification. Look, this isn't serious stuff, and it's played for laughs, but it bombs completely, and it's not suitable material for the only person on the planet who was enjoying the strip. You remember how a few weeks ago, we were talking about the "2000 AD: It's Not for Girls" ad campaign? Well, no kidding.

Now, you're probably thinking that with two dud strips, a Sin Dex with awful art and a pretty good Dredd, this is probably a prog that can be safely labelled a failure. However, Tharg saved the best for last as Nikolai Dante returns in the prog's fifth and last slot.

Since his first appearance earlier in 1997, the Russian rogue became a big hit and his return was never in doubt. The second batch of episodes, by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser is due to begin in the next issue, but this one-off, with art by Chris Weston, comes to bat first. I got the impression that it was commissioned especially for the Sex Prog, since all there is to it is a single night's shenanigans between Dante and a bearded nun. Yeah, you read that right. She belongs to an order called the Devil's Martyrs and is "fanatically devoted" to the mad monk, Rasputin.

At his blog, Chris Weston featured an interview from 2006 which David Bishop conducted for Thrill-Power Overload. There, he states that after self-censoring the artwork down to just tits and ass, "much to my surprise, my strip turned out to be the filthiest one in the Prog." Indeed, visually, it was still a whole lot more explicit than anything else in the issue, and might have warranted the plastic bag, but it was also a heck of a lot tamer than what was published in the old Penthouse Comix, for instance.

Well, regardless of whether it was too explicit for kids or not explicit enough to justify the wrapper, the episode is a riot, and a simply great return for the character. It's also the only episode in the book to have been reprinted properly, in the first of the DC/Rebellion editions, although the Dredd episode later reappeared in an issue of the Megazine a year or so back.

So that's the Sex Prog: a curiosity more for raising eyebrows than anything else. But next week, we'll see whether politics can't cause the outrage that sex couldn't.

(Originally published 5/22/08 at LiveJournal.)

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