Thursday, December 31, 2009

123. Get Vaped and Stay Vaped!

I'm basking in the warm, circuit-sparking glow of the four latest progs to make their way to American stores and was enjoying them so much that I quite forgot that I had business here to finish, which is a little short-sighted of me. Usually, when I select a topic for this blog, I tend towards the really big events, such as the return of Slaine, the debut of Caballistics Inc. or the crossover epic story of Judge Dredd vs. Aliens. Perhaps I have a habit of overlooking the equally important supporting stories, and the first quarter of 2003 has had quite a few, so I'd like to touch on a few of those before moving on.

Ian Gibson has cover duties for prog 1334 from April of '03, spotlighting the second series of the remade and remodelled The V.C.s. Dan Abnett is still the writer, but Anthony Williams has taken over art duties from Henry Flint. It's surprisingly, stubbornly unengaging, but Williams makes it all look pretty good. There's a collected edition of the first three series of the 2002-05 run of The V.C.s, and in the supplementary material, Abnett explained how enthusiastic he was about writing the strip. Its subsequent refusal to be really entertaining remains completely baffling.

Abnett did such a great job on so many strips in creating memorable, larger-than-life characters, but the cast of the V.C.s are just the most anonymous bunch of nobodies that 2000 AD's ever seen. There's Smith, from the original series, and the alien, who's called Keege, and... Ryx, who I think is the asshole, and the obligatory babe, whose name might be Lin-Fu, and somebody else, and I think the rival pilot might be called Veto. And I can name every member of the ABC Warriors in the order they joined, so I don't think the problem's me. Especially when these guys have their names painted on the front of their spacesuits.

Abnett had much better luck with the second series of Atavar, drawn by Richard Elson. I was very skeptical about this one, because I felt that the original should have been left as a one-off serial with a spectacular twist ending. It was a universe that simply didn't need revisiting, and this colored my view so much that I'm only now reading Atavar for the first time. And you know what? It's incredibly good stuff!

I started to write up a synopsis of what happens in the second series, only to realize that I got way too detailed, and when you're dealing with weird sci-fi concepts and beasties, such a writeup rapidly starts sounding convoluted and silly. Suffice it to say that Atavar's world is one with a dizzying array of new, utterly inhuman races like the Binoid and their sentient machines. Elson's designs for the aliens and all this technology are very interesting and he looks completely at home with whatever Abnett throws at him to draw. I suggest that readers, like me, have done this story a disservice by overlooking it the way we have. It is an interesting and vivid parallel to the similarly far-out, inhuman universe of Shakara, and there's a lot of love for the Abnett/Elson team on their more recent series Kingdom, so Tharg and his team should definitely look into putting all three Atavar stories out in a nice collected edition.

Then on the other end of the quality scale, there's Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, which is just coughing up blood on the pages. It's another four-week run for the comedy series. It leads with a dopey one-off whose punch line requires you to notice what is written on Kawl's T-shirt at exactly the right moment, and then there's an invasion-by-cyberspace thing guest starring a gang of mean-spirited geek stereotypes. With its third run, Bec & Kawl would develop into something memorable and charming, but at this point, you're left wondering what dirt Spurrier has on Tharg to get this mess commissioned.

What's nice, though, is that Matt Smith, in his guise as Tharg, has a pretty small number of series to pick from, and everything that I've mentioned has come back to the prog after a very short layoff. In fact, the thunderously good Caballistics Inc. by Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon starts its second series just a month after the first ended. In this one, the team moves into a new headquarters once used by a Crowley-archetype for demonic rituals, and I can remember the names of all the characters in this cast, too.

Caballistics will take another short break - only three weeks - before starting its third story. By my count, Smith is only juggling about eight or nine recurring series at this point, and deciding what to recommission in the future. Obviously, this number's going to skyrocket as a huge pile of new series begin over the next two years, and I'm sure it didn't make for a happy Command Module at the time, filling in the gaps with whatever's handy. Prog 1334, in fact, contains two space-fillers: a Future Shock and yet another of Steve Moore's interminable Tales of Telguuth. Tharg will finally run out of those turkeys at the end of '03. But what I suspect was a real headache for Smith and the droids was really to the readers' advantage: with such short gaps between ongoing series, everything seems very fresh and fun. It's much easier to enjoy a series when you don't have to wait a year between installments!

And speaking of waiting for a new installment, that is where we'll leave the story for now. I'm choosing to take a little break because I am adding another regularly-scheduled blog to my rotation, but I'd sort of like to keep the same number of weekly deadlines. If you're a regular reader, thanks for following me, and if you just have me bookmarked, I'll drop a note on the 2000 AD message board when I resume in eight or nine weeks. So I will see you again in March, when Pat Mills and Andy Diggle go at it again, as The ABC Warriors and Snow / Tiger go head to head. See you then!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

122. Aliens and Robots

March 2003: More than four years since Judge Dredd last crossed over with Batman, he's back in another scrap with a media franchise. This time it's Aliens, the unaccountably popular character-free badasses who've become a marketing juggernaut for 20th Century Fox and Dark Horse Comics. This publisher has been churning out a huge library of tie-in miniseries, most of which seem to have them fighting the Predators from all those other movies. The epic 16-week series is co-written by John Wagner and Andy Diggle and drawn by Henry Flint, and it's presented in a pretty interesting way: the sixteen weekly 2000 AD episodes are structured to be easily reprinted as four monthly installments by Dark Horse. That publisher also gets the rights for an American-sized trade paperback collection for our market; an oversized hardcover graphic novel will appear in England and Europe a couple of months later as part of Rebellion's new line of European-styled albums.

Well, Aliens may not be to my taste, but this is a very effective story because Wagner and Diggle never waste time building up the Aliens as anything other than big, ugly, acid-blooded grunts in the service of Mr. Bones. If you recall, he was the Undercity criminal introduced a few months earlier in the four-parter where Dredd and a retired judge find him plotting against Mega-City One from the wreckage of the old White House. We learn that Bones' gruesome, scarred appearance is the result of being sprayed in the face with Alien acid many years previously, and he's got a pretty good scheme in mind: blow a whacking huge hole in the foundation of the Hall of Justice and sic several dozen pissed-off Aliens at the judges.

Wagner and Diggle do a fantastic job making this an "entry-level" story for Dark Horse's readers unfamiliar with Judge Dredd. We meet a newly-promoted judge called Sanchez who is the audience identification character, and a squad of "Verminators" who lose a few of their number early on in the story. The build-up is slow and deliberate, and when one Alien gets loose, initially in its small, scuttling form, the Verminators are called in, and then get in trouble when they realize the creature they're looking for is a lot bigger than they thought.

The resulting story is a darn good one for middle school-aged boys, although not, perhaps, for girls. My son has been staying in Kentucky with his mother for a few months, and missing out on the reread that my daughter and I have been enjoying. She called a halt to Judge Dredd as soon as the Aliens showed up, and grumbled that she wanted to see more Durham Red instead. She did, however, tell her brother on the phone that he was missing out on Judge Dredd vs. Aliens and he about hit the ceiling. He's home for Christmas and I asked whether he'd like to catch up on the thrillpower that he'd missed out on while he has been away. He opened up prog 1300, read about one page, remembered what he heard and asked "When does Judge Dredd vs. Aliens start?"

I could be wrong, but Dark Horse's US-format collected edition does not appear to be in print anymore, but you can still get the hardcover British version from sellers in the UK. Here's the Amazon listing. The book is one of six that Rebellion released in this format towards the end of 2003.

Other stories in prog 1330, shown off with the lovely Frazer Irving wraparound cover shown at the top of the entry, are Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, The V.C.s by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, Atavar by Abnett and Richard Elson and a Tales from Telguuth installment by Steve Moore and Jan Haward.

It's been a couple of years now, but I was talking once in the blog about how Rebellion really needs to bring the sprawling Mechanismo epic back into print. This was a mammoth story full of subplots and subterfuge, detailing the deterioration of Chief Judge MacGruder as she orders the development of robot judges. It seemed like a good idea at the time; with the judges' numbers seriously depleted after the high bodycounts of the "Necropolis" and "Judgement Day" epics, something needed to be done. Turns out, this wasn't it. The stories wormed their way through the pages of the weekly and the then-biweekly Judge Dredd Megazine from 1992-94, before coming to a storming conclusion in the aftermath of a 16-part story called "Wilderlands."

Back in May of '07, I suggested how Rebellion could repackage the story for bookshelves and they have done something quite similar, and very satisfactory. The new "Mechanismo" book, released in October, contains the first three serials from the storyline and deal with one robot, Number Five. These originally appeared from October 1992 to December 1993 and feature art by Colin MacNeil, Peter Doherty and Manuel Benet, with scripts by John Wagner. Although there is a great deal more of the story to come, this book ends on as satisfactory a point as is possible, and hopefully we will see MacGruder's next series of moves in a second volume in 2010.

Wagner does a terrific job in telling the story from multiple viewpoints. The focus shifts from Dredd to various robots to a hapless security clerk, and he uses his frequent Mega-City One trope of having dingbat teevee news announcers comment on the action, which is both effective and very funny. MacNeil and Doherty certainly bring their usual A-games to the party, and Manuel Benet does a laudable job for what I believe was his only assignment for the House of Tharg. It was certainly odd to see a new name dropped in the deep end for what was a critically important story, but Benet's work is pretty good, if perhaps not completely suited to Mega-City weirdness. Production of the book is mostly up to Rebellion's very high standards, but an unfortunate production error left a few erroneous credits on the spine and front cover for artists whose work does not actually appear in the book. Overall, though, a fine collection of a very good sequence of stories, and highly recommended. More, please!

Next time, we end the year and, for now, end this blog! Thrillpowered Thursday is going to take a hiatus for the first few months of 2010, but before we go, a last look at the big thrills from the spring of 2003, including The V.C.s and Caballistics Inc. See you in seven!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

121. By this point, it's been too many

So anyway, we were rereading 2000 AD, weren't we? Shown here is the cover of prog 1326, from February 2003. The art is by Clint Langley, who had done a good deal of work for Tharg in the nineties. He took a few years off and developed a really striking new style, full of gorgeous photo manipulation and computer-rendered landscapes and monsters. The results were sometimes controversial, with an occasional reader not wishing to see beyond the strip's ancestors in cheesy fumetti photo-comics, but I think it looks simply terrific.

On the down side, well, it's just more Slaine, isn't it? The strip marks Pat Mills' return to 2000 AD after a couple of years away, during which he created Requiem, Vampire Knight for Nickel Editions in France. Returning to the fold, as it were, he created a new series, Black Siddha, for the Megazine with Simon Davis, so he has a major new strip running in each title. I'm sure that I'll come back and talk about Siddha some other day; I think it's completely terrific and I wish there was a heck of a lot more of it. I wish I could say the same about Slaine, but I just can't. It's tired and weak and long, long past its sell-by date at this point.

By this point in the continuity, what's happened is that Slaine became the first High King of Ireland (back in "The Horned God"), he served his seven years and was ritually put to death ("Demon Killer"), he was rescued by the goddess and sent upwards through time to carry out missions for her against those awful Christians later in history (which had been foreshadowed back in "Time Killer") and he was allowed to return home and resume his position to battle the Secret Commonwealth led by his old enemy Maeb. This story, the first in a five-volume saga called "The Books of Invasion," sees all those monsters and sea demons that we could've sworn Slaine despatched almost a decade previously in strip-time (you remember, Balor the Evil-Eye and the Fomorian Sea Devils and all those guys), newly allied with a long-limbed sword-wielding beast called Moloch.

The whole thing feels like a tired old Charles Bronson revenge flick, and that's even before Moloch rapes and murders Slaine's wife Niamh. At that point, it feels like the end of comics.

Now, fair's fair, Pat Mills probably did not then, and does not now, give any kind of care for the feelings of superhero-based American fandom. With his attention focused on publishing in France, and the gleefully bizarre mindbender that is Requiem, he probably had no idea that a growing segment of female readers, taking advantage of the internet to form communities, was drawing attention to a big problem in western adventure comics.

Under the blanket charge of "women in refrigerators," Gail Simone charged that female characters in superhero fiction were, historically and increasingly, used principally as plot devices, raped, killed, maimed or depowered, in order to spur male characters into action. This proved to be a rallying point for many readers whose voices had been underrepresented in fandom (outside of LSH APAs, anyway), and drove wedges between creators and fans that, in some cases, still exist today. It became a question of whether you stood with the grouchy old men, or the radical feminists.

That Mills strides the line the way he does shouldn't be too surprising. Never mind his laudable, continuous insistence that his first wife, Angela Kincaid, always receive full credit as Slaine's co-creator, the whole of his nineties work was the definition of radical feminist, with strong central characters like Third World War's Eve, and the pagan perspectives of Finn and ABC Warriors showing chaos and Earth mother-worship triumphing over fraternal order and military discipline. On the other hand, there's nobody in comics as grouchy as the Guv'nor, and Niamh's grisly fate is nothing more a shamefully transparent plot device, set up just to give Slaine a new arch-enemy. So I guess he's both.

Well, even though Slaine is a huge disappointment, the artwork remains amazing, and, in 2005, Mills will conclude the Books of Invasion saga with a jawdropping epilogue that will leave more than one reader's thrill-circuits totally overloaded. But that's a tale for another day.

There are a couple of other major stories running at the moment. Perhaps the most important is the debut six-part adventure for Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon's Caballistics Inc., an excellent occult thriller set in the same universe as the writer's 2001 hit Necronauts.

Caballistics deals with a taskforce of paranormal troubleshooters. They are financed by a super-rich, reclusive former pop star named Ethan Kostabi, and the team has five members in their first mission, including former employees of the British government's Q Department, two gun-toting field operatives named Chapter and Verse, and a real piece of work named Ravne. When we meet him, he's enjoying the fruits of a shocking mass murder, and when the story ends, we learn he was a Nazi officer, and does not seem to have aged a day in sixty years.

The series seems to draw inspiration from everywhere, most obviously Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories, and the scripts are full of lovely in-joke references to science fiction and horror film and TV, including Quatermass and the Pit and a couple of Doctor Who serials. It's probably a little silly to imagine that this world can possibly be the same one as Doctor Who's, but robot Yeti were definitely defeated in the London Underground a few years prior to this adventure. Probably a little more recently than 1967, though, given the age of the soldiers in the tunnels!

Cabs will become a major ongoing series over the next few years, with more than fifty episodes and two collected editions. It will be very fun to reread this great series, which remains hugely popular with the fandom.

Next time, Judge Dredd battles 20th Century Fox Aliens and 22nd Century Tharg Robots! Be here!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

120. Tucker Truckin'

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday! This week, a little change of pace, as the Hipster Daughter shows off Tharg's impressive little promotional gimmick this year, a 48-page minicomic that was given away to the crowds at the San Diego Comic-Con this summer, and mailed out for free to subscribers of the Galaxy's Greatest. My buddy "Proudhuff" was good enough to send me a copy for my collection, and I thought I would share it with you. It's a real shame that Rebellion had given away the full print run at SDCC; I had inquired whether there were any promotional giveaways available for the GMX panel I did in Nashville a couple of months ago and I think a couple of dozen of these would have been great for that crowd!

The comic features eight strips from a host of 2000 AD's better-known talents, from older classics to some of the newer series. It's a really nice introduction to Tharg's world, featuring a one-off Judge Dredd ("Finger of Suspicion" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy), a classic Future Shock by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and "Reefer Madness" by Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving, along with the first episodes of the Dredd classic "Judge Death" by Wagner and Brian Bolland, Kingdom by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, Zombo by Al Ewing and Henry Flint, and the Slaine epic "The Horned God" by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley.

Each episode ends with a teeny blurb explaining where readers can go next to follow the story or the creators, and while the small size may not be ideal for the artwork - Bisley's in particular suffers - it's a terrific little promo. The last time something like this was tried, it was DC's US-comic-sized freebie, which most comic shops (at least in the Atlanta area) didn't bother to order, since retailers had to pay for them, and they got burned when the similar giveaway Humanoids comic didn't net any new sales for shops. (More about this when we come to that graphic novel line in a future installment!)

I've been saying for years that 2000 AD should participate in the annual Free Comic Book Day which Diamond sponsors each summer. A little reprint of this, with the booth information replaced by a suggestion to ask retailers to order graphic novels and get more of the story, would be a truly great thing indeed. Then again, Rebellion is quite tight-lipped about the business end of the comic, and for all I know, something even better is in the works. Fingers crossed anyway!

One problem about Rebellion's business that we do know about is that they're forced to work with a deeply inept distributor called Diamond to get their product into American comic shops and, earlier in the year, Diamond elected to cancel quite a few already-solicited books in a cost-cutting measure. Among those impacted: the second volume of Ace Trucking Company, a demented, wild comedy by John Wagner, Alan Grant and the late Massimo Belardinelli which originally ran for five years in the eighties. Fortunately, the collection is available through British bookstores and eBay sellers, and from the 2000 AD online shop, so I eventually landed a copy and was very pleased to reread these lunatic adventures.

Ace Trucking is a barely-profitable shipping company run by a motormouth called Ace Garp, who's just one dirty get-rich quick scheme away from either the big time or a very long prison sentence. In fact, he starts this book in jail, a couple of years after he and his crew were put away at the end of the first collected edition. It's set in a very weird future where few humans can be found. This gave Belardinelli the chance to design a completely alien environment and huge casts full of freaky, comical aliens, strange architecture, bizarre spaceships powering through asteroid belts and gangly-limbed space pirates whose T-shirts smoke pipes.

Belardinelli drew all but two of the sixty-odd episodes reprinted in this mammoth book. While he was recuperating from an illness, an anonymous member of the Giolitti art agency, who represented him in England, stepped in for him. Otherwise, this book is all him, and you've not had the pleasure of enjoying Belardinelli before, you should really rectify that. Almost every page looks like he was really having a ball designing this series, and just laughing himself silly with the in-jokes and weird aliens eating each other. Admittedly, towards the end it gets a little dry. The final epic serial in the book was clearly one where the writers were running out of ideas, and Belardinelli wasn't finding very much inspiration as our heroes endlessly searched across the planet Hollywood and through one parody after another in search of some treasure. Before it started its downhill slide, though, Ace Trucking really was something great.

So the entire series is available in two omnibus editions. Obviously, the first is the more consistent of the two, but the second is still full of essential moments, including Ace's recurring enemy Evil Blood, parallel universes, chicken gangsters, labor unrest, sacred worms, porcine royalty, cargo holds full of space fertilizer and contraband beetles which, when ingested, blow your mind so far out that your eyeballs play table tennis against each other. It also contains the strip's spectacular farewell epilogue, in which Ace learns just how unnecessary he actually is to his company's fortunes. You won't find this book at an American comic shop, but I highly recommend that you track down a copy from England.

Next time, we resume the reread in 2003, with the return of Slaine! See you in seven!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

119. 2000 AD Gold

December 2002: Veteran art droid Cliff Robinson gets cover duties for the first issue of the stunningly neat new look Megazine. A year and a half after its last successful format change, it has now settled into what must surely be the best incarnation yet, and since the Meg starts getting smaller a few years down the road, I think this is the very best version of the Meg. This being a special Christmas edition, it's a shade different from what will follow, but basically, it's 100 pages long and comes bagged with a supplement that reprints the classic 1980 serial Fiends of the Eastern Front by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra. With the reprint confined to the separate supplement, the Meg itself is mostly all-new material this time. A Devlin Waugh text adventure from an old Dredd Yearbook is dusted off, but everything else inside is new.

Starting with the next issue, the Meg's monthly reprints, now using the umbrella heading "2000 AD Gold," will shift into a separate section within the Meg's 100 page size. First to be serialized in its pages: the Slaine epic "Time Killer" and a classic serial which ran in Battle Picture Weekly from 1976-77. It's called Darkie's Mob and it was created by John Wagner and Mike Western. In 1984, Wagner adapted the format for a pilot in the Dredd universe called B.A.D. Company, which was later revised by Peter Milligan into the 2000 AD classic with a similar name.

As for the new content, it's a really nice mix of strip and text articles. Judge Dredd is represented by two strip adventures, a moody continuity piece by Gordon Rennie and Lee Sullivan and a lighthearted 20-page romp by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra about gaseous aliens, along with a prose story by Rennie with illustrations by Adrian Salmon. The new Devlin Waugh epic, "Red Tide," gets started with a six-page prologue by John Smith and Colin MacNeil and an article by David Bishop detailing the character's background and his periodic publishing hiccups.

Bishop also contributes another installment of Thrill-Power Overload, taking the story of 2000 AD up to 1993-94, and an interview with IPC publishing bod Barry Sanders. There's also a one-page interview with Simon Fraser, artist on the brand new, Rob Williams-scripted Family, which starts this issue, and a one-off pilot episode called The Kleggs! by Ian Edginton and Mike Collins. A series is never commissioned, but it's always nice to see Collins' artwork. And in the next issue, two new series will start: Juliet November by Alan Grant and Graham Manley and Black Siddha by Pat Mills and Simon Davis. This is a really exciting time, with editor Alan Barnes bringing lots of new ideas to the table, and giving readers five new ongoing stories a month along with classic reprints. This is a hell of a package!

Family is pretty rough around the edges, but I am certainly enjoying rereading it. It is, alas, our only chance in this period to see much of Fraser's artwork. At this time, the artist was living in Africa and was taking an extended leave from Nikolai Dante. He and Williams came up with a great idea about a city in the near future being under the thumb of organized crime, a family of gangsters with super powers. It's a really good concept: what would happen in a world where such powers existed, but there weren't any super heroes?

And what if the only fellow to challenge mob rule in the city was even worse than the gangsters?

Well, Family doesn't quite live up to its promise, though it is still a good strip. It's really not suited to monthly serialization, and this is going to become a problem for the Meg during this period. Strips just need more than six pages to make a lasting impact and advance the story if they're only going to run every four weeks. It reads much better in the collected edition - Rebellion released a hardcover album in 2005 - than it did in 2002-03, much as the Devlin Waugh story did when "Red Tide" was released in the second Waugh collection the same year.

That's all for Thrillpowered Thursday for now - we're taking the annual Thanksgiving break and will be back on December 10. See you then!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

118. In the Flesh

November 2002: With no small amount of rejoicing, editor Alan Barnes finally brings all this business of multiple volumes for the Judge Dredd Megazine to a long overdue end. This is the eighteenth, and last, issue of Megazine volume four, and the 200th overall. The next issue, which we'll come to next time, will be formally labelled issue # 201. Mercifully, the simple numbering convention will continue from that point to the present. On the cover, it's Durham Red, as depicted by a model named Anna Edwards. This cover, it must be agreed, doesn't go over well with most fans, to which I say, yeah, whatever. This is a fantastic cover! I guess I understand fandom's reluctance to embrace it; even the editorial evokes the two Nemesis the Warlock photostories from 1987 with a self-aware shudder, never mind all those awful photo-comics that infested the early '80s Eagle. For my money, Anna is sexy and gorgeous and, for about the ten minutes it took to read the first twenty pages of this issue, she is, to me, the definitive Durham Red, completely eclipsing any previous depiction of the character.

Then Mark Harrison, who's been painting her exploits for the last few years, clears his throat politely and shows everybody who's the boss:

As you may recall from earlier installments, Dan Abnett has been scripting a series called "The Scarlet Apocrypha," in which seven different artists provide their take on the character in a variety of genres. Earlier, we've seen Steve Kyte placing her in an anime pastiche, Carlos Ezquerra revisiting the 1980 serial Fiends of the Eastern Front, and John Burns doing the character as the central figure in a Dario Argento horror film among others.

Mark Harrison brings us a world where Durham Red is a character from a long-running series of sci-fi feature films, and where the actresses who have played her are regulars on the SF memorabilia con circuit. Masterfully, he takes Abnett's cute little script and turns it into something amazingly neat by illustrating it as a Mad pastiche in the style of that legendary member of the Gang of Idiots, Mort Drucker.

This is one of my favorite 2000 AD one-offs ever. It's not just that the constant barrage of background gags really works, or that the myopic viewpoints of the hapless teens at the cons is so very true. Amusingly, they seem to love each and every one of the actresses who played Durham Red in the movies, but a replacement actor for Godolkin is dismissed as being as pathetic as the "fake" Travis in the second series of Blake's 7.

There's just a feeling of really audacious experimentation in doing this strip this way at all. Each of the previous artists had contributed some great work, and it was very enjoyable to read, but almost all of it was still somewhere within 2000 AD's admittedly broad style. Even an experimenting Ezquerra, like when he discovered filters and computer coloring in 1994 or thereabouts, is still very much Ezquerra. But this is just radically different stuff for 2000 AD, and the sort of risk-taking that I'd love to see more often. It's also very nice that Harrison had the chance to pay homage to Drucker, an early influence on the artist when he started out. As I've said previously, it's occasionally been evident in his work before: that incredibly sexy Durham Red on the cover of prog 1111 has unmistakable Mort Drucker cheekbones. The episode was reprinted with the other Scarlet Apocrypha installments in the third of Rebellion's Durham Red books, The Empty Suns.

There's actually some non-Red material in this issue as well. In it, all of the ongoing series reach their final episodes, clearing the decks for the new stories that begin in Meg 201, which I'll come back to next week. So it's goodbye to The Bendatti Vendetta, Scarlet Traces, Young Middenface and a very good Judge Dredd storyline that was illustrated by John Ridgway. 2000 AD's brief flirtation with photo covers quickly ended, although an outtake from this session will be pulled into service a year or so later when Durham Red returns to the weekly, which is a real shame, as we never had the fun of seeing an actor dress up as Devlin Waugh.

Back in the summer, Rebellion issued the thirteenth in their series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files. This reprints all the Dredd episodes that originally appeared in 2000 AD from March 1989 to January 1990 in one very nice package. Most of them are in full color, although these originally saw print back when 2000 AD only had a single color episode each week out of five stories. For ten weeks in the period, the Slaine storyline "The Horned God" got the color slot, kicking Dredd to the front of the comic in black and white. So now you know, it's been twenty years since Dredd was a black and white comic. Lotta pages under the bridge in all that time!

The first of those episodes is the classic "In the Bath," in which Dredd reflects on his battered and bruised body while trying to enjoy one of his rare moments of scheduled downtime, only to find he still can't escape the crazy, ultraviolent city for even a few moments of peace and quiet. The episode, by John Wagner and Jim Baikie, was instantly praised as a classic, expertly mixing quiet pathos with absurdist comedy.

Most of the book is written by Wagner. By this point, he and Alan Grant were working individually, and Grant doesn't contribute quite as many episodes as before, but he does bring some real gems, best among them "A Family Affair." This is a really mean-spirited, hilarious look at things spiraling way out of control when Dredd goes to inform some citizens that a family member was killed in a police shooting. Steve Yeowell paints the episode, and there's a two-panel moment when someone realizes exactly which policeman did the shooting which is the funniest thing ever. Yeowell's third series of Zenith was running about the same time, and it's very interesting to see him apply the same style, but with color.

There are no major storylines or epics in this collection, but Wagner does touch on some earlier threads that carry on from earlier volumes. At this stage, there are still comparatively few recurring characters in the series, but Anderson and Hershey show up again briefly, and we have a return for the disturbed Judge Kurten, now in his new base of operations south of the border, along with Rookie Judge Kraken, who will become a major player in the fourteenth book.

There is a small, unfortunate printing error in this edition. The Colin MacNeil-painted "Dead Juve's Curve" repeats an error from its original printing and has a couple of pages out of order. It's an unfortunate hiccup, but one easily overlooked among so much really good material. Don't let the number 13 on the book deter you if you're new to Dredd: this is a perfectly fine starting point for new readers, and it might do you well to begin here before the apocalyptic events of the volume which comes next...

When we return, it's the biggest Megazine yet, with the debut of Family by Rob Williams and Simon Fraser!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

117. Yo ho ho!

November 2002: Veteran art droid Cliff Robinson is back on front cover duties for issue 1316, and isn't this a terrific image to sell a funnybook? Dredd standing side-by-side with a werewolf judge doling out the harshness. If this doesn't want to make you want to buy comic books, your blood's stopped pumping. The werewolf is Judge Prager, introduced in a story twentyish years ago bringing law to the lawless in the Undercity. Now, he's been infected, but is still fighting the good fight and, in this four-part story by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, has made an enemy out of a mutie villain called Mr. Bones, who's operating out of the old White House. Bones gets away in the story's climax, but we will see him again in another story very soon.

Apart from Judge Prager, this run of 2000 AD feels much more up-to-date than the recent run full of old thrills from the early 1980s. Dredd and Sinister Dexter, who are enjoying a lighthearted outer space romp courtesy of Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, are the only older series in this run. They're sharing space with three brand new series. First, and most important of these, is The Red Seas by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell.

Edginton is a new droid for Tharg, but he'd actually done a great deal of work in the 1990s for companies like Crossgen. He had written a webcomic called Scarlet Traces, illustrated by D'Israeli, which had been running on a site called CoolBeansWorld, but the site's failure left the strip unfinished.

Captain Jack DANCER in the house! Damn right!

Scarlet Traces found a new home in the Megazine, which evidently got Edginton talking with editor Matt Smith about some new work. The Red Seas was the first of what will be quite a few series and serials over the last decade. With hundreds of popular, well-received episodes to his credit over the past seven years, Edginton has arguably been the most important find of Smith's era, and The Red Seas, with 74 episodes published to date, the longest-running of any of the stories that Smith has commissioned thus far.

Surprisingly, though, I'm often disappointed by The Red Seas, and wouldn't call it one of the comic's greats. Yeowell's artwork is of course lovely, with a double-page spread in the opening episode among of the most thrilling and eye-popping pieces to ever appear in 2000 AD. The series is a pirate adventure starring the devil-may-care Captain Jack Dancer and his crew. There are effectively five of them, plus a small supporting cast and, in the opening story, a fantastic villain called Dr. Orlando Doyle. Yet while the series lurches from one high-concept set piece to another, everything that should be thrilling feels somehow perfunctory. Dancer rarely has to rely on his wits to get out of bizarre scrapes and dangers, but rather luck and magical artifacts that he'd obtained a few episodes previously.

Perhaps worse is that the main cast, after all this time, remains stubbornly anonymous to me, and I had to visit Wikipedia to remember their names. It's fascinating watching Edginton come up with one wild scenario after another, from a kraken battling the Colossus of Rhodes to lizard men prowling the hollow earth, but I'm reminded of how, after just six pages of The ABC Warriors, I remembered the names Joe Pineapples and Happy Shrapnel forever, but I'm still trying to remember Billy, Tom, Jim and Julius. It's still a million times better than most any recent superhero comic, but frustratingly one or two steps away from greatness in my book.

Also in this prog, there's another new story called Asylum written by new droid Rob Williams, with Boo Cook on art duties. Cook really knocks this one right out of the park; it looks amazing. Williams will become a very important addition to the comic's lineup in a couple of years' time, but Asylum's not a particular favorite. There's also a one-off under the new umbrella of Past Imperfect, a series of alternate history one-offs (mostly) which start with the twist of something going wrong with history and try to tell what happens next in just five pages. This week's installment, in which the Japanese navy sics an atomic monster on Pearl Harbor is by Gordon Rennie, Mike Collins and Lee Townsend. Other contributors to the series include David Bishop, Si Spurrier and Adrian Bamforth.

As far as reprints, only The Red Seas and Asylum are available from this issue, in those really nice paperbacks from Rebellion. The Asylum book contains both of the nine-part stories that appeared in 2002 and 2004; the Red Seas collection, "Under the Banner of King Death," contains the series' first 24 episodes. We're overdue for a second collection, now that I think about it.

Next time, the Megazine photoshoot that I liked better'n anybody. See you in seven!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

116. Spurrier's Scrap

October 2002: A common tool in every 2000 AD editor's arsenal - nobody cares about this but me - is the use of double-length episodes to either start or finish a serial in order to clear the decks before the next launch issue of all-new stories. In prog 1312, Richard Elson gets cover duties for the double-length final part of The Scrap, a five-week serial written by Si Spurrier. It's quite a departure from the still-new script droid. Spurrier's Future Shocks had been marked by a streak of piss-taking humor in wild, SF scenarios, and the first four-week run of his first ongoing series, Bec & Kawl, had been nothing but gags in search of a scenario, but The Scrap is anything but funny. It's a dark, unaccountably heavy and very derivative "ugly future" story. Dystopia, garbage in the streets, all-business police, an artificial intelligence running things that has a hidden agenda... yes, this is derivative of a great many things, and could safely be skipped if it weren't for a couple of things in its favor. Elson's' art is terrific, and the lead character, a police officer named Maliss, is an entertaining, sympathetic hero. Outside of Marge in Fargo, she's also one of the few comic characters that I can recall who we meet when she's heavily pregnant.

While The Scrap is pretty dark and heavy, the same can't be said for Dan Abnett's Sinister Dexter, which is going through a pretty silly phase during this period. In a four-parter called "Deaky Poobar, We Hardly Knew Ye," drawn by Steve Parkhouse, our heroes return the body of a fellow gunshark to his native England and run afoul of the locals, getting in the middle of a war between the mob and the police, represented here by Inspector "Terse" and DS "Thewlis."

Things get even sillier after this. There's a one-off drawn by Mike Collins in which Finnigan falls for a ridiculous sting operation the cops have come up with, using a TV quiz show to get criminals to fess up to their deeds, and a one-off drawn by Steve Roberts in which our now on-the-lam heroes meet an old-timer who's been hiding out for thirty years. This prompts them to really get way out of town, and the next several episodes will see them going off-planet. It's been shown a time or two that the future world of Sin Dex incorporates aliens and interplanetary travel, but this will be the first time Abnett really depicts it, and it's played completely for laughs as well. Suffice it to say that when the series finally starts taking itself seriously again with the introduction of Kal Cutter in 2003, everybody will appreciate it.

So that's this run of the prog: Heavy stories that take themselves too seriously, and serious stories which are playing things for laughs. And Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper as well. Happily, better things are right around the corner.

In other news, Rebellion has released the first in a planned four-volume collection of the ongoing ABC Warriors saga "The Volgan War" by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. It's part of the company's periodic hardback line, and it is completely wild and wonderful.

Over time, the story of the Warriors has gotten a little continuity-heavy, but this volume goes out of its way to be friendly to new readers. It follows on from the 2003-06 series "The Shadow Warriors" with the decision to put their small-minded, demented member Mek-Quake into a sanitorium for some long-overdue rest, and this prompts our centuries-old robot heroes to reminisce about their earliest adventures, predating our introductions to them. It turns out there was a lot more to their backstory than we were ever told, and they're each surprised to learn that each of them crossed paths with a mysterious, flamethrowing "special forces" robot called Zippo...

"The Volgan War" really completes the long overdue resurgence of this once-classic title, which spent the 1990s a shadow of its former self. Mills has rarely been weirder or more inventive in throwing completely bizarre concepts at his readers, and while he's writing for a more mature audience than the ten year-olds who gobbled up the original series, with its bazooka-totin' robots on dinosaurs, he's still able to balance an intricate plot with high-wire ideas. So we get armies of multi-armed Hammersteins locked in combat with giant Mecha-Stalins, and taxicabs which can be converted into weapons.

But it's the artwork that drives this one out of the park. I've certainly admired all the great artists who've contributed to the series over the years, from Mike McMahon to Simon Bisley to Henry Flint, but in Clint Langley, the definitive Warriors visuals have at last been found. Langley's computer-created world is unlike anything we've seen in 2000 AD before, fully-realized, three-dimensional depictions of decaying future war battlefields populated by hundreds of rusting mechanical soldiers. In the comic, it looked pretty amazing. On the better paper in this book, the results are eye-popping.

This edition reprints the story that originally appeared in "Prog 2007" and issues 1518-1525 of the weekly, beefing it up with some extra pages - nothing too extravagant, usually just some double-page spreads - along with a long-overdue Warriors' Timeline, explaining things for new readers and clarifying some of the points that have caused some confusion in the past, along with the now-standard introduction and commentary by Mills. It's truly an amazing collection, and on the short list for the year's best book; yes, it's as good as that.

Next time, set sail on the Red Seas! See you in seven!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

115. Blasts from the Past

August 2002: Prog 1306 sports a cover by David Millgate for the new serial Bison. Charitably, it's not one of Tharg's better offerings. The kickboxing lady on the cover is a pretty radically redesigned version of the hero, who starts the serial as an aging, hugely-muscled detective in a near-future scenario, but thanks to some bodyswapping technology that's all the rage in the story, he's wearing the body of an untouchable crime lord's junkie daughter and she's got his. But at no point does either character look like the tough kickboxing lady that Millgate has drawn. See, when Detective Jack Bison realized that Esposito's daughter had an account on this bodychanging service, he realized he was going to have to go outside the law to take Esposito down, and planned to use his own daughter as the shooter, but didn't figure she was going to set up whomever was going to take over her body. She was strung out on heroin and such and just didn't want to deal with a weekend's withdrawal and detox. So Bison first has to kick the habit and then go kill Esposito, except he also has to deal with the daughter, who's using his body to go on a shooting rampage of her own, and...

Well, it's obviously not just the bodyswap technology that nobody thought quite all the way through; this plot is an amazingly convoluted mess. This is a nine-part story written by Colin Clayton and Chris Dows, and illustrated by Laurence Campbell and Len Townsend. I don't think any of them would disagree when I say that all four creators would do better in the future. Bison was met with howls of derision from the fan base. Looking at it now, it's perhaps a degree or two better than I remembered it, but it's still a pretty stupid comic. Yet the real disappointment is the art. Laurence Campbell would go on to much better things, particularly a 2005 serial called Breathing Space, but what we have here is just lazy, sloppy work that should have gone straight back to the artist for reworking. Check out the way he gets around drawing exit wounds here by just having people erupt in so much blood that it really looks like the men are being shot with guns that magically turn them into candles:

So is this the shock of the new in our weekly look at the future from the Galaxy's Greatest Comic? Well, believe it or not, Bison really is the most forward-looking strip in a very nostalgic run of 2000 AD this particular summer. Over in Judge Dredd, John Wagner and Colin MacNeil - now there's a man who knows how to draw exit wounds - have brought back the one-off character of Vienna Dredd, an improbable niece conceived by Pat Mills and Ian Gibson in a 1979 episode and never referred to again, as a young actress who would like her Uncle Joe to give her some trace of a family connection. Vienna becomes a very welcome addition to Dredd's supporting cast. Actually, to be honest, I'm tweaking events to make a point; Vienna's return is chronicled in progs 1300-1301. 1306 sees the end to the recurring menace of bent cop Judge Manners in a story by Wagner and Paul Marshall.

In the last blog, we looked at how Rogue Trooper, first seen in 1981, had returned. He's joined by Strontium Dog, introduced in 1978, in an eight-parter called "Roadhouse" by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Finally there's the return of The VCs, a 1979-80 serial brought back after a 22-year break by Dan Abnett and Henry Flint.

Now the original run of The VCs (the collected edition of which I reviewed back in April) was not quite the classic that some of us squaxx consider it, but it was a solid enough tale of future war. It was a little jingoistic and repetitive, but I think it had a sense of excitement and danger lacking from many kids' comics, and the art was always fantastic. This new take? Well, there's nothing at all wrong with it, and Flint's artwork is as terrific as always, but the story never completely captivates me. There's nothing at all wrong with it, and it's a darn sight better than plenty of other comics, but it's just not one of my favorites. Anyway, this initial run lasts for just seven weeks and is the only one that Flint illustrates. The VCs will return for four more annual outings of about ten weeks each, with art by Anthony Williams.

Surprisingly, every story in prog 1306 has been reprinted. All of the Judge Manners episodes were collected in one of the free "graphic novels" bagged with an issue of the Megazine this summer. Bison was compiled in a hardcover "European-album-styled" edition by Rebellion in 2004. The VCs, Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog stories are all available in Rebellion's wonderful line of 2000 AD reprints. We'll come back to that VCs book in a month or so.

Next time, Simon Spurrier gets his second series, The Scrap, Steve Parkhouse caricatures Inspector Morse, and we look at the new hardback edition of The ABC Warriors. See you in seven!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

114. Going Rogue Again

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday! When last we left off, spirits were low as, for the fourth time in the last decade (and the second in my current home), I had to deal with a minor house flood. Yes, this is the same place, northern Georgia, which was screaming about a drought just a few short months ago, and which is fighting a losing battle against our neighbor states of Alabama and Florida about using too much of the Lake Lanier reservoir for drinking water in the city of Atlanta, and yet somehow I've had property damaged by floodwaters four darn times. Well, the downstairs is almost rebuilt, and we'll be installing a retaining wall in the backyard sometime soon, and I didn't lose any precious comics to this tomfoolery, and it certainly could've been a lot worse, but it did throw us off our reading schedule.

While I was away from this blog, I got the neat opportunity to talk a little bit about 2000 AD and its place in the long, fun history of British comics up at the first annual GMX convention in Nashville. I had a super time, and gave away a couple of dozen old doubled issues and a pair of collected editions from my pile of trade fodder as freebies. I think everybody had a splendid time, and I hope that next year, we can do it again.

Resuming the reread, Frazer Irving gets cover duties for July 2002's prog 1302, spotlighting the return, after almost fifteen years, of the original Rogue Trooper. Created by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, Rogue was a pretty one-note character, albeit one very popular with younger readers. Since his original storyline ended in issue 393, the character's adventures continued off and on for another four years, finally reaching an end in 1988.

Shortly afterward, the series was rebooted, rethought, remodelled and was, in the end, done in under the weight of too many creators overthinking the premise and the continuity. Even the estimable John Tomlinson failed to make anything readable out of the concept, insisting on tying in the character of Tor Cyan from Mercy Heights into some convulted story about a big blobby thing spitting out demented clones of the original Rogue. Perhaps it was a metaphor.

For the latest incarnation of Rogue, newly-assigned writer Gordon Rennie was tasked with simply telling some readable stories with the original concept. Teamed with a bank of rotating artists, including Staz Johnson and David Roach on this first four-part story, Rennie went with a back-to-basics approach of relating untold stories from within the original "search for the Traitor General" framework. Rogue Trooper had very few recurring characters - that was one of its weaknesses - so Rennie created a handful of new heroes and villains to work around Rogue and his biochipped buddies. It's such a forehead-slapping obvious idea that, reading it in light of all the labored attempts to fit various reboots into a single tapestry, you're amazed it took 2000 AD so long to get it right.

Of course, having said that, Rogue Trooper remains stubbornly unengaging. With one exception, an unbearably earnest two-parter called "Lions" which is about Our Brave Soldiers, there's nothing at all wrong with Rennie's episodes, except for the unbeatable fact that nobody cares about Rogue Trooper. It's a series where the art has always been the draw, and the elements that you found engaging and exciting when you were twelve turn out to be, in the cold light of adulthood, stilted and awkward. There's also the problem of setting the series within the original "search for the Traitor General" days and trying to wring drama from it, when we already know how it will play out.

Still, Rogue Trooper is enough of a 2000 AD icon that you can't help but root for it. If the comic's going to insist on doing it, you want to see it done right. Rennie does a good job, but it really feels like Tharg's heart just isn't in it. What Rogue Trooper needed was a semi-residency, but after these 12 episodes, there's a one-off at the end of the year, then six more in 2003, six in 2004 and then, finally, three apiece in 2005 and 2006, the last three penned by a different writer. This will seem to happen a lot with Rennie's scripts for editor Matt Smith over the next five years; as with his subsequent Caballistics Inc. and The 86ers along with several Judge Dredd stories, there is an emphasis on continuing characters and subplots which is totally deflated by the enormous breaks between episodes. Since five different artists or art teams tackle this new Rogue Trooper, it can't be deadline drama; we have to assume that everybody involved really just had more important things to worry about. In that case, why bother reading it? Rennie's run was compiled in the sixth in a series of Rogue Trooper collected editions. The book, Realpolitik, was released in March of 2007.

In other news, Rebellion has recently suffered the aggravation of having some books solicited for direct-market distribution by Diamond, only to have the distributor turn around and cancel the orders. One of the books impacted by this was the collected edition of Gordon Rennie's The 86ers, released in May of this year. The book is available, therefore, to proper bookstores in Britain, and easily obtainable online, but not from local comic book shops. The series is a sequel to Rennie's run on Rogue Trooper. A few months after his last episodes of that series in 2005, we met up again with Rafe, a genetically-engineered pilot introduced as one of Rennie's new supporting cast. She's transferred to the 86th Air Support Reconnaissance Squadron and tasked with protecting supply routes to a strategically important mining planet. The series could have been an engaging mix of future war, ancient superweapons and political intrigue, but unfortunately, it never really gelled as a serial.

It's my habit to not sit down and really reread the contents of the Rebellion trades if it's a reprint of material I haven't yet come to in my Thrillpowered Thursday reread, so perhaps I'm being unfair to The 86ers when I say that other than Rafe and the briefly-seen villain Colonel Kovert, a baddie from Rogue Trooper's original run, I have no idea who any of the characters in The 86ers are. There are a lot of them, and a lot of subplots, but after the ten episodes in 2006 (published in three batches over nine months) and the six that came six months later, none of them had made an impact on me at all. Rather than slipping the series quietly under the rug after that, Tharg commissioned six wrap-up episodes earlier this year from Arthur Wyatt, in order to get enough material to warrant publishing a collected edition at all. Rennie, clearly disinterested by this point, had moved on to work for some video game company. I'm sure Wyatt did the best anybody could hope for with what he had to work with, but neither the original run a few years ago, nor a refresher that I gave myself shortly afterwards, nor a quick thumb-through of this edition to confirm what was in it has provided my memory with the name of a single character other than Rafe or Kovert.

In many ways - and this is something we will definitely come back to in Thrillpowered Thursday - The 86ers exemplifies Smith's tenure as 2000 AD editor. He's done so much that is very right during his time in the hot seat, but his biggest failing has been the reversal of the semi-residencies that were common while David Bishop was editor. Ongoing series simply need extended runs of at least 10-13 weeks every year in order to make a consistent impact, particularly if they're going to have many recurring subplots and characters. There are occasional dramatic, exciting moments in The 86ers, and the art, initially by Karl Richardson before PJ Holden takes over, is quite good throughout, but there's too much talking between characters who take forever to do anything.

As a collected edition, The 86ers is nevertheless an impressive one. Released just a few weeks after it concluded in the weekly, the book contains all 22 episodes, along with the single installment of Rogue Trooper that introduced Rafe, some of the series' original covers and sketchbook art from Richardson and Holden. It's a truly fine collection of a sadly inessential series.

Next time, More about the thrills from the summer of 2002, with notes on the revamped V.C.s and a future cop bodyswap story called Bison! See you in seven!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

113. American Ugly

July 2002: In the pages of the Megazine, the new editor Alan Barnes has been shaking the heck outta everything, with tremendously fun results. One very positive change has been increasing the frequency from monthly to every fourth week, so there's an extra issue published each year, a schedule which remains in place today. There's a stronger relationship between the Meg and the prog than ever before, as, for the first time, non-Dredd series have been crossing over into the Meg's pages. Currently running is a really fascinating and fun anthology series featuring the vampire mutant Durham Red, but it's not quite the same Red we've been following in her far-future sci-fi epics in 2000 AD. In "The Scarlet Apocrypha," writer Dan Abnett has been placing the character, or analogues of her at any rate, in a variety of different scenarios and time periods, each illustrated by a different artist. John Burns kicked things off in the previous issue, with a suggestion of what Durham Red might have been like as a Dario Argento horror film, and in this issue (# 13), we get Steve Yeowell doing a neat little alternate history set in the 1890s, with Aubrey Beardsley and the Montgolfier Brothers.

Future installments will see Frazer Irving doing a medieval Japanese adventure and Steve Kyte doing one inspired by more modern Japanese fiction, along with longtime Modesty Blaise artist Enric Romero pitting Durham against Dracula, and Carlos Ezquerra bringing us a strange sequel to the classic Fiends of the Eastern Front. And then there's the grand finale later in the year, but more about that another time.

But the 2000 AD connection doesn't end there. Much of the editorial pages are given over to news about the forthcoming return of the original Rogue Trooper, which we'll look at next time. It's here that we get the first confirmation that Rebellion are working on a Rogue Trooper video game. At this point, it's still years away, and the company's Dredd vs. Death game has yet to be released, but it helps stoke a little excitement among the fan base.

The garish cover, a highlight of which is displayed above so you can get a better look at it, announces the return of the ugly craze to the pages of Judge Dredd. Otto Sump was introduced in the early 1980s as Mega-City One's ugliest man, and the successful entrepreneur made several return appearances in short comedy tales, all illustrated by Ron Smith. The character was retired about fifteen years before this two-part story, a Citizen Kane homage drawn by John Higgins.

"Citizen Sump" is just terrific, a moody and sad little melodrama which isn't simply a parody of that greatest of American films, but also an interesting detective procedural which sees Dredd working a cop beat trying to solve a locked room murder. Everybody has different perceptions of the hapless Otto, but everybody remembers him as one of the Meg's sweetest citizens. In his original appearances, there was a running gag with Sump always greeting Dredd as "my old pal," much to Dredd's disinterest. It turns out that Sump was like that to absolutely everybody, just a genuinely sweet and loving man.

But turning the Kane homage on its head is the revelation of Sump's last words, particularly in view of the way Otto never lost his truly good nature. Kane, of course, let his millions turn him into a near-psychotic recluse, and died a miserable and pathetic figure. The judges never learn what Sump's last word means, and the staggeringly brilliant revelation shows that Sump was every bit as wistful and nostalgic for his lost childhood as Kane was, even after spending his wealthy life loving his fellow citizens and making the best of the odd karmic turn of events that made him deformed, shunned, wealthy and successful.

Frankly, this script is one of Wagner's all-time finest. It's an absolute triumph, and deserves to be seen by anybody who loves comics. It's not yet been reprinted, so try and track down volume four, issues 12-13 of the Megazine. You won't be disappointed.

If that wasn't enough, the Megazine has finally found a perfect place for artist John Burns. Most of his previous work for the House of Tharg has been on Judge Dredd or Nikolai Dante, but to my mind, the best example of Burns being ideally chosen for art duties came with the little-remembered Black Light from 1996. I only mentioned this strip in passing back in the 37th installment, but it was an X Files-inspired, modern-day techno thriller with government conspiracies and tough heroes with guns. It's a strip which really should have returned for at least one second series and been collected in a graphic novel while the iron was hot. Anyway, in this issue, Burns has teamed up with writer Robbie Morrison for The Bendatti Vendetta. This first episode has all the appearance of the most exciting pre-credits sequences of any action film from the seventies. We don't know who the characters are, but some people have slipped into some mob boss's party and caused almighty havoc, with fisticuffs and bullets flying every which way.

I say this is perfectly suited for Burns because I perceive him, rightly or wrongly, as an artist most comfortable in the modern age. No matter how well he paints Dredd or Dante, something about his work on those strips never completely gels for me, particularly in conveying a sense of place. His Mega-City One is rarely more than dark alleyways, and his future Russia is often just bombed-out war zones. But The Bendatti Vendetta is clearly set in the humdrum of our world, and when Burns brings this to life, it's vastly more vivid and exciting. Well, it's less our world than our recent history - it doesn't appear that Burns has updated his reference material in many years, but since the violent iconography within the script screams "seventies action film," it doesn't matter, he's still exactly right for the artwork. Put another way, I keep expecting Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland to make supporting appearances.

There's unfortunately not very many episodes of this series, not enough for a good collection for people to marvel at its coolness. Following this six-part adventure, it returned for a pair of three-part stories and was last seen in 2005. It's a shame that Morrison and Burns never collaborated on one last story to put the total page count over 100 so we could get a nice graphic novel out of it.

And that's all for now. Thrillpowered Thursday is going to take a short little break. As readers of my LJ saw, my family's suffered another house flood, and while my collection was happily safe, we're all sort of scattered right now, without much time or space for reading. When we resume in a few weeks, it'll be to look back in the weekly prog for issue # 1300, when both the original Rogue Trooper and VCs make long-overdue returns. What's with all the nostalgia?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

112. Death's Sweet Embrace

June 2002: On the cover of prog 1294, we've got the great Henry Flint illustrating the climactic scene from a six-part Judge Death adventure which concludes this week. The story, by John Wagner and Frazer Irving, features longtime hero Cassandra Anderson trying to rush back from an assignment on the international moon station of Luna-One when she gets a psychic flash that Judge Death has somehow broken free again and has been murdering children in the Big Meg's orphanages.

It's a pretty grisly premise, and comes across amazingly well thanks to Irving's moody, black-and-white penwork. Everyone involved had decided beforehand that Judge Death had really been spoiled by the lighthearted, black comedy appearances of the 1990s, especially those Batman / Judge Dredd crossovers, and so they've decided to play this story straight and emphasize Death's genuinely evil side in a story full of atmospheric horror.

It has a remarkable conclusion in this issue: Death puts Anderson in a coma and gets away. The whole thing was a trap to put his arch-enemy in the hospital, brain-dead while he starts a new life in the Cursed Earth. He even has a new host body waiting for him, and he's last seen in a memorably terrifying conclusion, wandering around the desert that used to be Middle America in a long coat and hat, bringing his brand of final judgement to the pathetic souls eking out subsistence-level life in the small villages and communities in that lawless world. Wagner and Irving would reunite for a memorable sequel to this story in a couple of years, but if it had ended here, nobody would have begrudged Wagner for calling this the conclusion. "My Name is Death" and the follow-up, "The Wilderness Years," were released in a collected edition by Rebellion in 2007.

Also in this issue, Wagner and Kevin Walker continue the Judge Dredd epic "Sin City" that was mentioned last time, and there's a Sinister Dexter one-off by Dan Abnett and David Bircham. Simon Spurrier and Shaun Bryan contribute an excellent Future Shock with a really memorable twist ending, but the big, crashing highlight of this comic, even better than the two Wagner stories, is 13 by Mike Carey and Andy Clarke.

13 is a twist-filled adventure about Joe Bulmer, a layabout and small-time crook with minor psychic abilities. After he snatches some girl's purse, he finds a small white bead which amplifies his powers to incredible, destructive levels.

Bulmer was already on the radar of an institute which purports to study paranormal events, but they take a new interest in him when his use of the bead starts causing death and mayhem. But their motives aren't all they seem, and Joe finds himself in the odd position of being the unlikely hero of the piece.

I can't mention this series without telling you about one of the coolest moments in the comic's history. When Joe was first at the research center, he briefly met a girl called Daksha. Back home, he's attacked by a strange alien "skin" which he kills by strangling it to death. Almost immediately, the police start pounding on his door, find the dead thing and haul Joe off in handcuffs.

As they're putting Joe in the back of the car, Daksha arrives, screaming some odd story about how Joe promised he'd go straight this time and how she'll wait for him, a ruse to get the police to let her past for a farewell kiss. But Joe's confusion is compounded when Daksha instead quietly tells him: "They aren't real policemen. And they're going to kill you." I love that so much!

Sadly, 13 would prove to be Mike Carey's last serial for 2000 AD, as he signed an exclusive deal with DC Comics. This had him scripting the celebrated Lucifer for Vertigo, a book I've been telling myself for years I need to read, along with a three-and-a-half year run on Hellblazer. This year, he began a new Vertigo series, The Unwritten. Clarke would draw a few more 2000 AD stories, including some Sinister Dexter adventures and the 2004 serial Snow/Tiger before also moving to DC. At the time of writing, he's currently doing a superhero series called R.E.B.E.L.S.. 13, under the amusing title Th1rt3en, was one of the last of the graphic novels to appear in the short-lived DC/Rebellion line. It's still available from DC, and absolutely worth getting a copy.

Next time, back to the Megazine, with a very neat anthology series for Durham Red, the debut of The Bendatti Vendetta and the mysterious murder of Otto Sump. See you in seven!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

111. The Bloody Students

May 2002: We never see enough work by Duncan Fegredo, but here he gets the cover to prog 1290, spotlighting the debut of Bec & Kawl, one of a very small number of outright comedy series in 2000 AD. The strip was created by Si Spurrier, who finally gets his own series, the first of what will be several, after a couple of years writing Future Shocks, and artist Steve Roberts. Together, the duo will go on to create 29 episodes of the series, appearing in seven month-long appearances over a four-year period. Much as I do like Bec & Kawl, and wish it continued after it was quietly shelved in 2006, it must be said that when you read their first, two-part adventure, you have to wonder just how it ever got a commission for a second series.

"Bec & Kawl and the Mystical Mentalist Menace" is a two-parter which introduces the title characters, students at a London art college who keep crossing paths with the supernatural. Beccy Miller is an extremely grouchy goth chick in the fine arts program, and Jarrod Kawl is her stoner flatmate who dreams of being a great filmmaker. In this first story, they manage to release a demon from a cursed mirror, so they try conjuring up another demon to deal with the first. Subsequent stories will see the duo match wits with a succubus, a wonderful pastiche of virtual reality stories, the tooth fairy, the realtor of Hell, and invading aliens who look like traffic cones, all done with tongue in cheek and a pop culture reference in every panel. This first episode, for instance, won't make much sense at all if you are unfamiliar with Taxi Driver, Jurassic Park III and Ghostbusters.

But having said that, even if you know every line of those films, the first episode still doesn't make very much sense, because it's a poor, hamfisted effort on the creators' part. Steve Roberts' designs are very nice, but while he will become a very good artist quite soon, his storytelling is really very poor here. The panel transitions are incredibly awkward, particularly the shift from pages four to five, with the contents of Beccy's word balloon broken across two pages.

Spurrier doesn't help Roberts very much with a script that's just too packed with clever words and quips and not enough patient explanations of why the plot unfolds the way it does. Looking back this morning over an episode I've read at least five times, I really cannot remember why our heroes need to summon that second demon. I just have sort of a vague memory of the first demon shooting a gun at Kawl and running away. In time, notably with his masterpiece Lobster Random, Spurrier would learn that the unfolding of the plot needs to be as engaging and humorous as the movie jokes and puns, but here it's just something that happens, somehow, to set up the next couple of gags.

Fortunately, Tharg was very patient with Bec & Kawl, and after this botched first series and a still-disappointing second in early 2003, the series developed into one of my many favorites of the past decade. The complete run was compiled into a great collection by Rebellion in 2007. Bloody Students is packed with supplementary sketches and interviews, and should be essential reading for anyone who enjoys Lenore or Emily the Strange.

Also in the prog this week, there are the second episodes of two stories I'll come back to in the next Thrillpowered Thursday: 13 by Mike Carey and Andy Clarke, and Judge Death by Wagner and Frazer Irving. There's also the first part of a new Sinister Dexter storyline by Dan Abnett and Mark Pingriff called "Croak," and a genuinely fantastic new Judge Dredd epic by Wagner and Kevin Walker called "Sin City."

"Sin City" is a thirteen-part story, told across eleven weeks, in which a huge, floating pleasuredome - a giant mini-city full of casinos, brothels, bars and arenas hosting lethal sports - is given permission to dock at Mega-City One. Dredd is strongly against the idea, until Hershey lets him know that she's allowed it because a wanted terrorist has been sighted there. So a squad of Mega-City judges, and a small army of undercover officers, takes to the streets of Sin City looking for the elusive Ula Danser.

What they run into is one shock after another, with at least three take-your-breath-away cliffhangers. It's the longest Dredd story since 1999's "Doomsday" and it's one which I certainly suggest you check out. It is available as a collected edition, along with four follow-up episodes, under the name Satan's Island. It would certainly be a fine addition to your Rebellion library. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for this week's graphic novel highlight...

In April, Rebellion released the collected edition of Heavy Metal Dredd, with all twenty blood-spattered episodes of this early nineties series. It's not really essential. There have only been a pair of books in the last five years which I would advise readers skip on account of production issues. This is the first one I'd advise readers skip on account of it being completely awful.

Basically, around the time of Judgement on Gotham and Simon Bisley's brief turn in the limelight, the European metal mag Rock Power got together with Fleetway and commissioned a few Dredd episodes by Wagner, Alan Grant and Bisley. These were Dredd one-offs with the volume turned up to twelve; overcharged, simplistic, hyper-violent stories of motorcycle maniacs, testosterone-fueled beatings and over-the-top exit wounds. There's nothing subtle about them, and they're entirely subplot-free. They were designed for thirteen year-old meatheads and filled their gore-and-leather remit with abandon.

These were reprinted in England in the Judge Dredd Megazine and proved popular enough to warrant commissioning a few more episodes. Most of these were written by John Smith and painted by the likes of Colin MacNeil or John Hicklenton, who contributed this collected edition's new cover.

Rebellion does deserve some points for making this a very solid collection on its own merits. It does include all the stories in their original order, with good reproduction, full credits and an introduction by Hicklenton. However, there's very little wit or humor anywhere in these dingbat stories, and there's no reason for anybody other than completists to pick up this book. That Rebellion released this instead of a complete Stainless Steel Rat is a huge shame.

Next time, London punk Joe Bulmer investigates a psychic conspiracy in 13 and Frazer Irving schemes to make Judge Death scary again! See you in seven!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

110. Atavar and the UOS

We're up to April 2002 now, and here on the cover of prog 1287, Nikolai Dante celebrates his recent Eagle Award win for best British comic character. This will prove to be artist Simon Fraser's farewell to the character that he co-created for the next four years. As Dante moves into his third phase, "the pirate years," it will be with John Burns as sole artist. Fraser, who will return to Dante in October 2006, is at this time residing in Africa. The series will take a number of very long rests during the third phase, especially during 2004 when writer Robbie Morrison will be engaged in writing The Authority for the Wildstorm imprint at DC Comics.

This issue sees the conclusion of an eight-part storyline called "The Romanov Job," in which Dante and his occasional sparring-and-bedpartner the Countessa work with several master criminals to heist his vanquished family's crown jewels. The other characters in the narrative are analogues of other comic characters, including Catwoman, Janus Stark and the Spider, and they are hunted down by Captain Emmanuel, the Luther Arkwright-analogue who had been introduced in a 1999 story.

Robbie Morrison really closed out this part of Dante in fine form. There's a sense of desperation in the narrative that somehow fits where the series was at the time. After the civil war, the imperial Russia of the far future is a much more dangerous place, and it's not a world where our hero can go gallivanting around pulling heists and breaking hearts like he did before things completely fell apart. When, of course, he gets stabbed in the back by somebody he should have known better to trust, Nikolai falls back on his "I'm too cool to kill" line, only to be slapped in the face by it. The story ends on a cliffhanger which won't be resolved for another nine months. It was reprinted in the sixth Dante collection, Hell and High Water, in 2008.

Elsewhere in the issue, the other stories are marking time until the next relaunch issue, prog 1289, and so there's a Steve Moore / Clint Langley Tales of Telguuth and a Future Shock by Mike Carey and John Charles to fill the page count, along with the last part of a three-episode Judge Dredd adventure by John Wagner and Paul Marshall. I believe the Telguuth installment is actually notable for being the first appearance of Langley's current style, which he has used on Slaine and The ABC Warriors over the past few years. I think we're long overdue for reading a detailed interview with Langley where he discusses how he creates these odd "fantasy Photoshop fumetti" of his. However, the most interesting strip this week, other than Dante, is the penultimate part of a serial called Atavar.

I'm very curious how I'll feel about Atavar when I finish reading the third book of the series in a few months' time. This is a really odd little story by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson in which a group of powerful-but-desperate aliens, tens of thousands of years in the future, reconstruct an atavar of the long-extinct human race in order to help them in their war against machine-creatures called UOS. No series, with the possible exception of that cosmetic warrior "Rouge Trooper," has ever been misspelled as often as Atavar. Everybody wants to call this one "Avatar," perhaps missing the point that the aliens are looking into history to find something from the past to save their species.

Atavar began in prog 1281 with one of the most unusual first episodes of any series. We see our human character awake in a strange cave system from what appears to be cryo-sleep or something and run, panicking, from the huge aliens around him. There is no dialogue. Well, nothing in English, anyway. The human's got a lot to say, but it's all "HNNN!" and "NNNNN!" and the aliens haven't upgraded him to understand their language yet. It's a bizarre little experiment, and it certainly got reader's attention, even if many of them balked at the necessity of spending five pages on it.

The other thing that's really notable about Atavar is that it comes to a spectacular twist ending. The conclusion is so darn cool that everybody reread the previous progs to see how the heck they missed something so neat. It was an ending so perfect that bringing Atavar back, twice, left a bad taste in my mouth and I honestly only just glanced at the later episodes, complaining, in that know-it-all fan way, that the pages would have been better spent on more Vanguard or Balls Brothers. I'll try to judge them more fairly when I come to prog 1329 later in the year.

Next time, those bloody students take over! Eyebrows are furrowed and knives are drawn as Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts bring us Bec & Kawl. Plus, a look at the collected edition of Heavy Metal Dredd. See you in seven!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

109. Thrill-Power Starts to Get Overloaded

As 2000 AD entered the year 2002, it was with a new editor, Matt Smith. There was a good deal of fandom interest in this at the time, as Smith had chosen to keep a much lower online profile than his predecessor Andy Diggle had, and many people were speculating what his tenure would be like. Less heralded then was Judge Dredd Megazine's new editor. Alan Barnes took the reins as David Bishop stepped down following such a long and commendable service, but Barnes already had a new assignment for the veteran Bishop in mind.

Barnes came to the Megazine following some time as editor of Doctor Who Magazine for Panini. Wikipedia suggests he'd been at the wheel there for the better part of four years, during the very difficult transition time of 1998-2002, when the Paul McGann TV movie failed to become a series, and he somehow managed to keep the magazine alive and very vibrant during those lean years. He seems to have succeeded by really amping up the quality of both the comic strip, which became essential reading as it transitioned to full color (and remained superior to any and all Doctor Who novels published during that period which weren't written by Lawrence Miles), and also by really bringing out the best in the magazine's feature writers. For years, the magazine's writers had been doing great work going behind the scenes of the production of the original series, but I think it was during Barnes' tenure that the quality went even higher, with incredibly interesting research, very detailed, probing interviews, and, most memorably, a lengthy, serialized memoir by the show's longest-serving producer.

Judge Dredd Megazine had only been revamped just eight months previously, taking the 100-page perfect-bound format used by the annual year-end special Progs. While readers all seemed to like the fourth volume of the comic, under Barnes and designer Graham Rolfe, the comic got another kick up the backside. As far as comics go, there initially wasn't a great deal that was actually new between the covers. The new strips in issue 9 include a very funny Dredd adventure called "Dead Lost in Mega-City One" by John Wagner and Peter Doherty which seems to be parodying some contemporary, dunderheaded British TV craze, and the ongoing Wardog by Dan Abnett, Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague. They're joined by what will prove to be the final serial for the veteran Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and John Ridgway. The popular series is finally winding down at this point, and will conclude its 74-episode run in the spring.

Of course, reprints are a regular feature during this period of the Megazine. This time, six episodes are dusted off: four each from Strontium Dog ("The Kid Knee Caper" by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) and Bad Company (the first four parts, by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy). Even these just appear a little more vibrant and interesting than the reprints of the previous few months, thanks to a very neat design choice. The current Megazine is a very different size than the old, almost-square newsprint 2000 ADs of the 1980s - it is sleeker and taller. To accomodate the reprints, they are shrunk down to the current page width, but printed on color paper, with borders above and below the comic, along with a neat little "work order" indicating that they've been retrieved from a special vault in Tharg's Command Module. In the very next issue of the Megazine, the classic thrills will be joined by reprints of Hellboy by Mike Mignola and John Byrne.

It's with this issue that we first start getting lengthy text articles filling the page count. This time there are two. One of them is a behind-the-scenes look at the newest merchandising: full-cast audio productions of 2000 AD-universe stories from the good people at Big Finish, who have been turning out their popular lines of direct-to-CD adventures of Doctor Who and other cult teevee properties for a couple of years by this point. Their 2000 AD line features several of the regular players from their repertory company, with Toby Longworth starring as Dredd, and Simon Pegg as Johnny Alpha.

It's interesting stuff, but the really impressive feature is the first in what will prove to be a quite lengthy series of articles written by outgoing editor David Bishop on the history of our favorite comic. Thrill-Power Overload, which will be revised, updated and collected into an essential book a few years down the road, was assembled from dozens of interviews and previously unseen documentation.

This first episode of the series details the conflicts that went on at the comic's original publisher IPC to get the darn thing put together, with jealous infighting between departments and unsatisfactory returns on artwork. It includes samples of never-before-seen pages, including the original splash of Invasion 1988, as it was then-called, with parachuting Soviet troops storming London, and the remarkable sight of John Probe decapitating some guy with a karate chop.

As the series continues, Bishop will interview almost every major player from the comic's lifetime (only Alan Moore, Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie will decline to go on the record), and produce a genuinely excellent, no-punches-pulled history of 2000 AD. The hardcover collected edition, published in 2007, is flatly one of the most important books about the medium to see print, and a must-have for anybody with a mind to having a serious library about comic books.

In other news, earlier this year, Rebellion released the sixth collection of The ABC Warriors. This book, "The Shadow Warriors," contains the longest of all the Warriors' adventures thus far, an epic written by their creator Pat Mills and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra and Henry Flint. It originally appeared in three "books" between 2003-06, and since I'm looking forward to rereading the original episodes as they come up in the rotation, I just skimmed over the book to get a good feel for it.

Honestly, this collection is terrific. The artwork is, of course, wonderful. Ezquerra is one of 2000 AD's best art droids and he really brings a great, dirty sensibility to the dusty sandhole of the terraformed Mars. But when Flint takes over, things somehow get even better. There's a genuine "shock of the new" feel to Flint's episodes, as our heroes' new, imaginatively-designed foes take center stage and the weirdness factor gets ramped up to ten.

Skimming this volume confirmed what I felt about it upon its release: that the Guv'nor was back in town and ready to kick ass and take names. We'll come to this point in Thrillpowered Thursday in a few months, but it's clear that Pat Mills' time away from the comic, during which he created Requiem: Vampire Knight for his French publisher, recharged his batteries to full. The 2003-model Mills was not the same droid as the one from the 1990s. Here, it's one wild idea after another, no preaching, no stagnation, just a constant escalation of mad plot devices and vibrant characters. If the previous few ABC Warriors collections had been frustrating for one political reason or another, then this is the one to get.

It's every bit as wild and excellent as it was when Ezquerra had last drawn the title in 1979, and the robots were riding on the backs of tyrannosaurs, armed with bazookas. This is that Mills - the one with the turbo-charged imagination creating physics-defying freakiness and making downright excellent comics. I strongly recommend you check this book out! (And keep an eye out for more about Requiem: Vampire Knight at my Hipster Dad's Bookshelf blog in a couple of weeks!)

Next time, Nikolai Dante hightails it out of Russia, and Dan Abnett and Richard Elson have a lot to say in Atavar! See you in seven!