Thursday, September 25, 2008

68. Making room for the Hipster Daughter

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

December 16 1998: That's the cover date of prog 1124, the third and last of three double-sized progs which had been on sale for a two-week period and featured extra-length editions of the stories within. The issues turn out to be "trial runs" for the now-standard end-of-the-year 100 page progs. This time, Judge Dredd (represented in parts two and three of Dredd's latest run-in with the Angels of Death, Oola and Homer Blint, by John Wagner and Jason Brashill) is joined by Sinister Dexter (Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell), Mercy Heights (John Tomlinson and Neil Googe) and Missionary Man (Gordon Rennie and Henry Flint). For the record, the Missionary Man installment is one of the venerable series' finest moments. Flint chose to depict Preacher Cain full-on in camera shot exactly once in the episode, in a stunning, surprise pants-filling moment when the reader turns the page, and for the rest of the story, he's seen in shadows or off-panel. I'm not certain whether it was Rennie or Flint who made this decision, but the effect is just amazing - it really emphasizes that Cain is absolutely not the man you want to be anywhere near while he's carrying out his vengeance in this episode. Chilling stuff.

But that's not what I wanted to mention this time. I'm not really inspired this week to tell you what 2000 AD was doing almost ten years ago; I wanted to tell you that on December 16 1998, my daughter was born. And while Pat Mills may be discouraged to learn that she does not care for either Slaine or The ABC Warriors at all, she is certainly a squaxx dek Thargo and enjoys Dredd, Sin Dex and Nikolai Dante hugely.

For some reason, the geek in me naturally associates my son's birth with the debut of Nikolai Dante in the spring of '97, but oddly enough my daughter's birth brings an association with a certain third season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You remember the episode where Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnydale and creates an alternate reality where some of the cast are vampires? Well, the week before my daughter was born, we had a false alarm - a pretty frightening one, since the darn kid wasn't due 'til the end of January - and watched that episode from the hospital bed, hoping for an all-clear.

So every time my daughter makes some little baby step towards turning into a little goth chick with her Living Dead Dolls and her BeGothed dolls, I figure this had to be coming, because we were watching Alyson Hannigan's "Dark Willow" schtick that evening and it simply must have rubbed off.

The Hipster Daughter was born eight days later. She was very seriously jaundiced and stayed in the hospital, in one of those little "Baby Tank" incubators, for a whole week. The process was incredibly surreal. We had a baby that... we couldn't take home. We had to go home without her. We had another kid who couldn't quite understand what was going on, and while we told him that he had a sister, he couldn't quite connect that this little baby that he couldn't touch would, one goddamn day, come home with us. So we spent some time in the hospital, but couldn't really do a whole lot other than look into this plastic thing and periodically, awkwardly, rub and pat her through the rubber gloves. It was like visiting the zoo or some museum, because you'd park a mile away and trudge up to the building and join the lines and... this is no way to connect with another human being. "Hey, after I get off work, let's get some dinner and go see that little girl who just sorta lays there and fidgets and cries again!" What began as surreal gradually became unbearable, with neither of us wanting to be in that ward any longer without being allowed to cuddle her, and it was certainly a huge contributor to the post-partum depression that her mother and I suffered for many months afterward.

By about Day Six, I'd become about as angry as it's possible for a human being to get, utterly furious to a point not one of you save her mom has ever seen. As we hissed and growled our concerns to some hospital administrator, literally the only thing keeping me from strangling him to death was my desire to actually get to know the kid with whom we were being prevented from spending any private time. I'd already had words with the neo-natal ward of the other hospital in Athens, who'd gone so far above and beyond the call of duty in taking care of our son, and they were pretty disappointed by what was going on as well. Unfortunately, the different insurance we had with our daughter kept us at St. Mary's. I've made it a point of advising people to not visit that hospital if Athens Regional is available. We finally took her home on the 23rd.

For years, there was a sign at St. Mary's directing people to the MATERIEL SHIPPING AND RECEIVING entrance. This was around the time that Coors marketed a beer called ARTIC ICE.

Next week, I'm thinking the Balls Brothers debut. Less of the biography and more of the comic, perhaps.

(Originally posted Sept. 25 2008 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

67. Prog 1120: the bestest prog ever

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

November 1998: Would you believe that this terrific Henry Flint piece was the one and only time that the great, shamefully ignored Sancho Panzer made the front cover of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic? Every so often, a series comes along which features just the right mix of script and art droids, and a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and the darn readers stubbornly refuse to give it its due. This is just a remarkably goofy, light-hearted strip full of puns and action, featuring a very agreeable lead hero in his sheepskin jacket, cowboy hat and cigar, driving around a wartorn planet in the far future in an unbelievably huge tank.

Perhaps Sancho Panzer was never destined for the all-time Hall of Thrills and a half-dozen bookshelf editions, but I am having a blast rereading his three-month tenure in 2000 AD. My son also loves it, although I fear that the Hipster Daughter's skeptical crosseyed look was echoed by the readership of the time. Dan Abnett's mix of witty wordplay and intense drama somehow seemed to work together a little better in Sinister Dexter, which, even in this week's subpar outing (more of the "Smoke and Mirrors" storyline drawn by David Bircham and mentioned last time), has an urgency and importance to it that Sancho Panzer lacks. So after this thirteen week run, Sancho hangs up his hat and sheepskin jacket ("his ma said it cost a packet"), and the thus-far unreprinted series is shelved for good.

Other stories in this prog besides the two Abnett-scripted ones are the second part of a pretty funny Judge Dredd by John Wagner and Peter Doherty, a one-off Pulp Sci-Fi written and drawn by Mark Harrison, and more from Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie, Alex Ronald and Gary Caldwell.

But what makes prog 1120 the bestest issue of 2000 AD ever? Well, he said with a gush, it was the first time I had a letter printed in Tharg's cosmic comic. I was so darn pleased that I decided to try and be a regular correspondant. According to Buttonman on the official message board's "Writing to Tharg" threads, I'm actually among the top three or four on the all-time list - I'm not sure whether that Kavanaugh fellow might have passed me - and, this year, have had two letters in the Meg and at least one in the prog (1600).

I never know what the current editor is really looking for in any given letters page, and I'm rejected more often than I am printed, but I've always figured that there should be a little room for being silly, and playing up the created-by-robots / alien editor / plastic cup / oil ration / Rigellian hotshot is something that I enjoy doing because it's just so darn goofy. I think, however, that Matt Smith tends to decline those letters which allude to controversies, as is his right. Looking forward to Andy Diggle's tenure on the comic in the early 2000s, we can probably learn a thing or two about allowing fandom too much access to the inner workings of the business. I penned a letter last year hoping that the unpleasant friction with Ian Gibson could be salved, knowing as I wrote it that it wasn't going to be printed. Still, it really saddened me as a reader and a fan and I felt like saying something. It's probably best, however, to not be all that controversial at all, as this first letter shows...

Oh, yeah, "Colonel X." There's a funny story behind that pseudonym of mine, which works its way from Press Gang to Lois & Clark and includes having a letter printed in Dreamwatch under the mangled "Colin Ecks." Some other time, perhaps.

On the other hand, I sent Tharg this missive back in March, and I still think that the big green Betelgusian bonce was wrong to bin it.

Dear Tharg,

It's very magnanimous of you to periodically send some droids to do a little work for publishers in New York City, but I wonder whether this is less the friendly hand of interplanetary co-operation and more some Zraggian plot. Invariably, your creator bots get sucked in by the bright lights and big city and are put to work on some tedious superhero property which had its day decades ago. I mean, look at poor Simon Spurrier. Not only is he trying to breathe life into the Silver Surfer, a trademark which should've been retired in 1970, but his obligations for these publishers have prevented him doing much work on your own mighty comic. Only the Dictators of Zrag could come up with a scheme so nasty that would see your titles forced to shelve (temporarily, we hope) the thrill-powered Lobster Random, Harry Kipling and Jack Point, while poor Spurrier struggles to find something new about a character which John Buscema exhausted long, long ago. And weren't we supposed to get a series out of that Domino character in Justice Department? What ever happened to her?

It's long past time you put a stop to this and sent some Rigelian hotshots New York's way. Let them keep the droids you've sent to their companies in the past, but we want our Spurrier back, and more Lobster Random. Actually, some new Tharg Tales in the comic every once in a while would be a fun little diversion as well. The production 'bots in Droid Life are entertaining enough, but we haven't seen Mek-Quake mangle a recalcitrant art droid in far too long.

For what it's worth, Lobster Random did return in prog 1601 late last month, and I do have some creator loyalty to want to wish 2000 AD alumni well in non-tooth activities, including Work For Hire. But, you know, there's Henry Flint drawing The Haunted Tank for DC this December, and then there's, well, the Silver Freaking Surfer.

Next time, Tough guy Tor Cyan becomes an Ice Warrior. See you then!

(Originally posted Sept. 18 2008 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

66. The Swan Children and the Holiday in Barakuda

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

October 1998: Meanwhile, as Die Laughing appears to some small success at British newsagents and shops, the prog has been featuring some pretty worthwhile material which has aged much better than the Batman crossover. Judge Dredd has had a solid run of good stories by John Wagner, the most memorable of which is possibly "There's Something About Four Marys," a parody of a long-running series from the pages of the old girls' comic Bunty. In prog 1117, there's the start of a new story called "Virtual Soldier" with art by Rafael Garres. Nikolai Dante and Sinister Dexter have been reliably solid for several weeks, and Slaine has really been surprising, with Pat Mills pulling off one of his finest moments yet with "The Swan Children," an adaptation of the Irish legend of the Children of Lir, which concluded a couple of weeks previously.

I think one of the reasons we readers are hard on Pat Mills for the work he did in the 1990s is that while little of it is demonstrably poor, or anywhere near the low standards set by certain other publishers, it's that the Guv'nor's highs are just so great that when he's treading water, it's visibly dispiriting. Subpar Slaine is worth any number of other comics, but most of his work in this period was nevertheless mediocre by comparison, cursed to linger in the shadow of superior work from the 1980s. So when a fantastic, well-told tale like "The Swan Children" comes about, it's easy to overlook. There is a scene in which the scheming Aoife lies to Slaine and tells him, in turn, that each of his four adopted children have drowned. This is absolutely one of the most heartbreaking things in comics, spectacularly well-paced by the artist Siku, and a genuine high point in the series' long history. If you, dear reader, are among those who've overlooked "The Swan Children," then you have some back progs which need revisiting.

Anyway, prog 1117 sees the final installment of Vector 13, the conspiracy-minded anthology series that looked into fortean events throughout human history. This time, Lee Marks and Cliff Robinson contribute "Divine Fury," a five-page look at the slightly familiar subject of Adolf Hitler getting his hands on occult or alien technology and it failing to win the war for him. With this, the Men in Black are finally retired, never to trouble the readers again. In their place will come a few more episodes of the Pulp Sci-Fi series of one-shots with twist endings. This prog also features Sancho Panzer by Dan Abnett and Henry Flint, about which more next week, and, sadly, it also includes the first part of an especially dire Sinister Dexter serial.

Now, I've been very fair to Sinister Dexter here at Thrillpowered Thursday, mostly because I really liked it for a good while. Speaking from the benefit of having read the whole run, I suggest that it's had flashes of excellence since "Eurocrash," a great big climactic event in the series. "Eurocrash" will appear in '99, so it's just around the corner for our heroes at this point. However, despite the periodic post-"Eurocrash" stunners in the strip, as the recent eleven-week run (progs 1589-1599) demonstrated, it is well past the sell-by date and needs to be retired very badly. "Smoke and Mirrors," a six-part story by Abnett and David Bircham, is where the rot sets in. There had been one or two misfires in the series up to this point, usually artistic ones, but this was the first time that Abnett looked like he was running out of material.

I'm always leery of calling artists out for what I perceive to be poor work, because so much of it is so subjective. Technically, these are not bad illustrations, and the work is certainly better than the Judge Dredd episodes that Bircham contributed in 1997, and overwhelmingly superior to the Slaine serial he'd paint in 2000, but I still find it lacking. His figures look creepy to me, with enough flesh on the face to make their skin sag, and with awkward, inhuman posing. But while that's an "eye of the beholder" complaint, his pacing and storytelling skills are simply not of professional quality. There is no sense of place on any of his pages, no understanding of how any of the characters relate to each other and their surroundings, and no flow from panel to panel. Comics should be far more than a series of random illustrations in frames.

"Smoke and Mirrors" is a colossal failure from start to finish. It has not yet been reprinted, although it is possible that may appear in a Sinister Dexter book that is planned for March 2009. In fact, nothing from this prog has yet been reprinted, although Dredd, Slaine and Sancho Panzer are certainly entertaining enough to see the light of day again.

Next time, more about this Sancho Panzer character. See you then!

(Originally posted Sept. 11 2008 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

65. Crossover in Gotham

Thrillpowered Thursday is a weekly look at the world of 2000 AD. I'm rereading my collection of 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

October 1998: Years and years in the making, Die Laughing finally limps into stores amid a small publicity blitz from Fleetway and a noticeably smaller one from DC Comics. This was the fourth time that John Wagner and Alan Grant scripted a team-up between Judge Dredd and Batman, but although this was the biggest - a 96-page story told across two squarebound editions in the US - it is a story long past its time.

When Dredd and Batman first met in 1991's Judgment on Gotham, it was a huge success that sold by the truckload. A sequel was released called Vendetta in Gotham which didn't sell quite as well, perhaps in part because Cam Kennedy's splendid artwork on the second did not have the fully-painted wicked-cool heavy metal bloodsplodo of the first book's Simon Bisley work. It's certainly fair to speculate that many of the first comic's buyers picked it up more for Bisley than for following the continuity of either character.

Die Laughing was intended to be the third story, and was pencilled in to be released in 1995 to capitalize on the Batman Forever film. But the artwork was not ready in time, and another title, The Ultimate Riddle, appeared in its place. By the time Die Laughing finally did make its way into shops, it was no longer anything special. DC was releasing at least one, and as many as three, "prestige format" Bat-books a month, ranging from "Elseworlds" stories of Batman as a Victorian detective or a space vampire to crossovers with every comic company on the planet. Judgment on Gotham had been a novelty, and an occasionally impressive one, in its day. Eight years later, with comic shops sagging under the weight of shitty squarebound Batman comics jammed into longboxes that nobody wanted, this two-parter seemed to get little attention from anybody.

The delay was mainly down to Glenn Fabry, who had been contracted to paint the adventure, but in the end completed less than forty pages, with Jim Murray and Jason Brashill stepping up to finish the project. The story isn't Wagner and Grant at their finest. Forced once again to contrive some reason to get the characters and their villains together, they have the Joker get hold of a dimension-hopping device left over from the first story, pop to Mega-City One, learn the lay of the land, take over a criminal gang and, in the most credibility-straining incident since disbelief was first suspended, this gang hijacks the armed transport carrying the disembodied spirit forms of the Four Dark Judges.

It gets even stupider. Despite a pretty amazing track record of murdering every self-serving criminal who's ever released him from the judges' custody, Death doesn't kill the Joker immediately, but instead arranges for the Clown Prince of Crime to become the fifth Dark Judge and... oh, just stop it now.

It would be another five years before Judge Dredd crossed over into anybody else's fictional universes. That would be 2003's excellent "Judge Dredd vs. Aliens," published in tandem with Dark Horse, and it would be many, many times better than this. Nevertheless, "Die Laughing" is available, along with the first and third crossovers, in the first of the titles co-published by DC and Rebellion in 2004, The Batman/Judge Dredd Files.

Next time, Sinister Dexter take a Caribbean holiday and meet some ugly, ugly artwork.

(Originally published Sept. 4 2008 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)