Thursday, December 25, 2008

80. Prog 2000

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.

Brian Bolland has cover duties for "Prog 2000," the first in what has become an annual series of year-end progs which mix one-off episodes of classic and recurring thrills with the first episodes of new storylines, new artwork by favorite creators, and a variety of text features. The 100-page prog is on sale for three weeks over Christmas and has become a holiday tradition. But in 1999, editor David Bishop and assistant editor Andy Diggle were not thinking about what would become a standard ten years on, but rather to do a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime issue. The lineup includes a pair of Judge Dredd tales, along with one-off episodes of ABC Warriors, Nikolai Dante, Rogue Trooper, Sinister Dexter and Slaine, along with the final episode of Nemesis the Warlock and the first episodes of new serials for the new thrill Glimmer Rats and, back in action after a nine year absence, Strontium Dog, about which more next time. It really does feel incredibly special, and everyone involved deserved congratulations for a job very well done.

The creator lineup for Prog 2000 makes this issue a must-have for any comic collection. Inside you've got brand new work from Dan Abnett, Simon Davis, Brett Ewins, Carlos Ezquerra, Simon Fraser, Dave Gibbons, Alan Grant, Mark Harrison, Cam Kennedy, Mike McMahon, Pat Mills, Robbie Morrison, Kevin O'Neill, Gordon Rennie, Greg Staples, John Tomlinson, John Wagner, Kevin Walker, Ashley Woods and Steve Yeowell. There's not a joker in the pack!

Rather than spending Christmas with a lot of writing, here are some memorable images from this special issue. See y'all next week!

(Originally posted 12/25/08 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

79. Downlode Downtime

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.

As 1999 comes to an end, and all the big epic storylines from the last several weeks start wrapping things up, I see that I have been a little lax in mentioning the big developments in the two better-known semi-regular series from the period. I've mentioned in passing that there's a terrific epic going on in the pages of Nikolai Dante but haven't paused to let you know what it was. As of November 1999 (prog 1170, represented here by this funny Jason Brashill Devlin Waugh cover), our hero is about two-thirds of the way through the epic "Courtship of Jena Makarov" story. This brilliant story represents the close of the first of Dante's four storytelling phases, and was reprinted by Rebellion in the third Dante collection. Here, the mighty houses of Romanov and Makarov finally find an excuse to go to all-out war with each other, as Jena is abducted by a third party. Her supposed suitor Mikhail Deriabin plans to manouver himself into a position of power alongside whichever house wins the war. That it will decimate Russia is irrelevant to anybody involved; it never matters to the people with power. Not even family matters to them.

For fans of the series, the heartbreaking way that things play out really elevate this storyline into something both special and compelling. It features Simon Fraser's best art yet, and several of the Romanovs get screen time. But what really makes this story so memorable is that while Dante races desperately against time to rescue Jena before the empires start their war, writer Robbie Morrison has been putting all the pieces in play to make sure that it's going to happen regardless of whether Dante comes through. Most tragically, the spy that Dante and Konstantin conscripted some months previously does her part, and, in a heartbreakingly grisly cliffhanger ending to this week's episode, Konstantin shows up to murder Jena's sister.

Meanwhile, Downlode Tales, the follow-up to Sinister Dexter in which the protagonists have been working opposite sides of the law to track down the conspiracy which brought an end to Demi Octavo's empire, wrapped up in prog 1168 after the better part of five months. It's been quite a bloodbath, but the villain Telemachus Gore has been ferreted out, exposed and killed. The body count includes about half of the supporting cast: Nervous Rex, Steampunk Willy and Agent Bunkum are all dead, along with pretty much all the "Ass Kickers" and the "Whack Pack" assembled for the job.

The last part of Downlode Tales sees the duo in the hospital, having crashed a helicopter while hunting down Gore. It's less of a grand finale than a "what next" moment, and they'll be returning under the Sinister Dexter title in a few weeks.

Sinister Dexter Bullet Count: Adding to their previous totals, Finnigan and Ramone each take one more confirmed hit storming Gore's headquarters. This gives us a total of 10 for Sinister and three for Dexter.

That's really all I have time to discuss today, but please enjoy the following gorgeous picture of Nemesis from the Pat Mills-Henry Flint storyline which I discussed last week, and also this review of a new graphic novel.

I'm a firm fan of the "satisfying chunk" school of bookshelf collections. I'll take a slight downtick in paper quality if it means more bang for my buck. And that is certainly the case with the recent Ace Trucking Company collection. Rebellion's great big trade, the first of two, covers a whopping sixty episodes of the early '80s comedy series, plus a text story from an old annual.

Almost all of Ace Trucking was drawn by the late Massimo Belardinelli, and I think it's his finest work. Completely full of bizarre aliens, mechanical marvels and weird landscapes, he always found new ways to pace the action by way of strange angles and dramatic positioning of his characters. And they're a downright weird bunch, too. The grapevine says that the editorial team was rarely satisfied with Belardinelli's ability to draw tough guys at the time, so John Wagner and Alan Grant developed a strip with exactly one human being in it, and he was one of the loudmouthed bad guys. The hero was an absurdly skinny alien with a pointy head and enormous feet, and the supporting cast included an eight-foot tall dude with blank eyes and a mane of hair, and a half-naked midget with a skull for a head. Constantly screaming at each other in a parody of the palare used by CB radio nuts, it was one hairbrained get-rich-quick scheme after another for years, until the series was finally felt to have run its course in 1986.

Time's been kind to Ace Trucking. It's clearly a period piece - anything with "Breaker, breaker!" in a word balloon will be - but its comedy is timeless thanks to the likeable characters and escalating disasters of its situations. Belardinelli's work would eventually lose a little luster and he'd fall out of favor with subsequent editors, so it's likely you might not have seen very much of it before now. Also, his work, like Jesus Redondo's and Carlos Ezquerra's, was not favored by the editors at Titan Books, who originally compiled much of the 2000 AD reprints in the 1980s, and in many ways set the stage for what had been considered "classic" or not. Many of these episodes are only now seeing their first reprint, and it's great to see so much of this lovely art under one set of covers. This comes highly recommended, and I hope you check it out.

Next week, it's Prog 2000! Tharg promises the best issue yet - can he deliver?

(Originally posted 12/18/08 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

78. Back to Termight

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.

On to October 1999 and prog 1165. Well, there he is, back on the cover, promoted for weeks and with all sorts of ass-kicking promise, it's the freaky, pointy-headed, devilish alien freedom fighter Nemesis the Warlock, back to wage war on the tyrannical despots of totalitarian future Earth. It's a long overdue final series for Nemesis, who was last seen five years previously in a truncated three-part adventure. This had possibly been intended as the first part of a much longer storyline (and was discussed in these pages eighteen months ago, see Nemesis Arrives and Departs) but nothing more came of it. Now, with Henry Flint on art duties, Pat Mills is ready to really put him to the test for nine weeks of crazy perspective shots and nightmarish aliens and ugly steel masks and millions of aircars and spaceships running upside down through white holes and black holes. Nem himself doesn't turn up until the second week of the mayhem. This time out, we've got the human terrorist Purity Brown and her big green friend - the fellow with the mouth on his hand from the classic "Alien Pit" sequence - leading a raid in the Terror Tubes and finding, perhaps a little predictably, that the whole thing's a big trap engineered by their arch-enemy to get the plot moving.

Nemesis isn't the only eighties weirdie making a comeback this week. In Judge Dredd, we learn that during the recent Doomsday Scenario, a bunch of prisoners went missing from an iso-cube, among them the nasty alien bounty hunter Trapper Hag. He'd been seen just once before, in a three-part storyline from 1983, illustrated by Steve Dillon. Now, like "rogue's gallery" villains are meant to do, Hag goes looking for revenge instead of getting out of town like any sensible bad guy. In this two-parter illustrated by Siku, Hag gets the better of Dredd, plans to kill him, gloats too much and gets hoist on his own petard again. Following the intricate, twists-and-turns, multiple perspective plotting of "The Doomsday Scenario," this is a little bit by-the-numbers and, frankly, unnecessary.

At any rate, the rest of the current lineup is the same as it was during the last installment: Downlode Tales by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, Nikolai Dante in "The Courtship of Jena Makarov" by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, and more of Devlin Waugh by John Smith and Steve Yeowell. Of these, Nemesis, Dante and Devlin are all available in collected editions from Rebellion.

In other news, Rebellion recently released the fifth in a series of slim ABC Warriors collections, this one reprinting the 15-part "Return to Mars" serials under the title The Third Element. We haven't made it to this point in the Thrillpowered Thursday reread, and so I'll save the really juicy-but-sad behind-the-scenes drama that fueled this unhappy storyline until then, and just focus on the book itself.

To be honest, the previous two ABC Warriors books were a little underwhelming for one reason or another, and this one really gives off a glow of failed promise and expectations. When it works, it works incredibly well: the return of Mike McMahon to these characters after twenty-odd years and heaven-only-knows how many style changes is an absolutely fascinating curiosity, and Henry Flint, currently illustrating a Haunted Tank miniseries for Vertigo, turns in some terrific artwork. But Boo Cook's first pro job is frankly a mess, miles removed from what he'd later prove capable of creating, and Liam Sharp apparently abandoned all of his professional tools in favor of two Sharpies and a Bic ballpoint.

Pat Mills' script is almost enough to hold it together, because he's once again running with lunatic ideas and throwing lots of them at the wall in furious sequence. But everything that does catch your imagination here is abandoned too quickly, and each three-episode storyline would have greatly benefitted from an extra week to breathe. On the other hand, three episodes for each piece is somewhat appropriate for a story about three-legged tripod critters on Mars, I suppose.

Next week, a look at the finale to Downlode Tales as we begin closing out the 1990s.

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

Thursday, December 4, 2008

77. It's Easy to be a Fanboy

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.

Welcome back to the little ol' sub-blog at my LiveJournal, for another few weeks of looking back at the run of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic! I already know that I'll be taking a few weeks' break again at the end of the year, but, as Kermit the Frog often said, "before we go," I'd like to finish up the issues that originally saw print in 1999. Prog 1162 is a very, very good comic. I'm not completely keen on the cover, by Dylan Teague, which spotlights the imminent conclusion to the Judge Dredd epic "Doomsday Scenario" (creators this week: John Wagner and Charlie Adlard). I was also a little underwhelmed by the Pulp Sci-Fi one-off written and illustrated by Allan Bednar, but the rest of the lineup includes Downlode Tales by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, the completely brilliant Nikolai Dante romp "The Courtship of Jena Makarov" by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, and more of Devlin Waugh by John Smith and Steve Yeowell.

One thing that I can't help but experience when I reread a bunch of old comics is that occasional sense of nostalgia for the original moment. And who'd have it any other way? Of course, now we know that Devlin Waugh survived the apocalyptic events of this epic storyline and would go on to several more stories. But back in 1999, John Smith had quite a reputation for killing off or maiming his wonderful characters. The casts of Indigo Prime, The New Statesmen and Tyranny Rex had met bloody demises throughout the 1990s, so how could you fail to be concerned that Devlin would join their number with so much at stake in this adventure?

So it was with no small amount of fanboy thrill, and no small amount of fanboy terror and paranoia at the possible death of a much-loved character, that I took up an offer from the fanzine Class of '79 to interview John Smith. The interview, available online here, is, I think, quite remarkable for how much Smith was willing to talk about the background and stories behind his stories. I'm not sure how many people will, before we're all good and done with fandom, be interested in piecing together histories of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, but since Smith was so forthcoming and so full of information, this is honestly one of the better secondary sources currently available to amateur researchers.

It's also, embarassingly, a face-in-hands gushfest on the part of the obnoxious interviewer. I still stand by my conviction that the final Indigo Prime series, "Killing Time," is one of comics' most thrilling moments, and I can't wait to see what Paul at the Prog Slog has to say about it in a couple of weeks, but Jesus, what an over-the-top fanboy I was with those questions. The format was kind of unfortunate; rather than a proper e-mail interview over an evening, Class of '79 asked that I compose all of my questions quickly, and I hammered them out with the help of my girlfriend-of-the-time, Victoria, typed 'em all up at UGA's Memorial Hall computer sweatshop, mailed 'em in and never saw them again until the finished piece appeared a few months later. I don't think I ever spoke with John Munro, who added some very good questions which appeared at the end, after mine.

Well, Tom Spurgeon I am clearly not. Although I remain convinced that Tom'll find room for some British talent sometime soon, and do his peerless job of interviewing them, and not look like a complete spazz when he does, unlike certain LiveJournallers you might be reading. (Check out Tom's interview with James Kolchaka from last month if you haven't; all of Spurgeon's interviews are really fascinating reading, and a highlight of every weekend, even if I've only heard of maybe one creator in five.)

In other news, I decided to take a break from the What I Just Read feature/tag in my LiveJournal, mainly because I've grown tired of finding new things to say about my reading pile. But I did want to continue spotlighting the 2000 AD books, because many occasional readers miss the announcements elsewhere, and they are, as ever, very poorly promoted in the comic news-blog-world.

Back in '05, DC released a collection of Anderson: Psi Division which compiled the three 12-part adventures that originally appeared in 1985-87. Rebellion did not follow up on this book until recently, and they've made the curious decision to make this book an artist-focussed trade. Shamballa is a nicely satisfying chunk of a book, and it contains something like forty episodes, originally published throughout the nineties, all featuring fantastic color artwork by Arthur Ranson. It is not a complete Ranson collection; his first story, the black and white "Triad" serial, is not here, and neither is some of the more recent material from the Megazine, the stuff with the strange demon Half-Life, and Psi-Judge Shakta and Juliet November. But what is here makes for some pretty good reading. Ranson is a wonderful artist and some of these stories are very good. Well, apart from the brow-furrowing, disappointing damp squib of an ending to "Satan," a story which was very promising for many pages before petering out.

However, I can't completely get behind this book because while an incomplete Ranson collection is understandable, an incomplete Anderson collection is completely baffling. Alan Grant navigated the character through a fascinating series of stories, with character growth you certainly do not see with Judge Dredd, and there are, as a natural effect of the character-based continuity storytelling, several maddening references to the things skipped by this reprint. For example, between the incidents of "The Jesus Syndrome" and "Satan," there were three lengthy Anderson stories in the Megazine, all of which are missed in this collection but are nevertheless referenced in the stories that Ranson illustrated. The result is very piecemeal and felt very frustrating to me. Honestly, it's less of a spotlight for Ranson than it is a missed opportunity, regardless of how gorgeous the artwork is.

Next week, some serious thrill-circuit overload. Nemesis returns. Drawn by Flint.

(Originally posted December 4, 2008 at hipsterdad's LiveJournal.)