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.)

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