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.)

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