Thursday, January 15, 2009

83. Pussyfooting Around

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.

March 2000: The cover of prog 1185 features a wonderfully old-fashioned composition by Cliff Robinson which evokes any number of 1980s IPC comics. The little gunmen are the action figure-sized heroes of Banzai Battalion, who are this week wrapping up their second run-in with Judge Dredd in a three-part story by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy. They are actually semi-sentient pest control droids who keep finding themselves thrown into situations where human criminals become the pests they need to stamp out. Since their human owners died during the events of the recent "Doomsday Scenario," and since they keep making themselves useful, the droids are sent by Dredd to join Justice Department in some capacity, but when they reappear in their own series in 2001, they'll have to take the initiative to strike out on their own. The subsequent Banzai Battalion series will run for thirteen episodes, most of which were reprinted in a 2005 hardback by Rebellion.

Probably the most important series running at the moment is Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns. We've now left behind the initial, devil-may-care Phase One of the series and entered the period of bloody war between the Makarovs and Romanovs. Burns is the principal artist for this period, and while I personally find him not a patch on Dante's co-creator Simon Fraser, I must agree that he is well-suited to painting lavish, double-page spreads full of desperate soldiers on bloody battlefields, carving each other up against the backdrop of burned-out buildings and the misery of human suffering. Yes, this would be the point where Dante loses a lot of its magic as things get incredibly bleak in imperial Russia.

But even while the focus of the writing has moved from outlandish escapades and intrigue to the horror of war, the artwork's change of focus is similarly striking. Burns chooses not to linger on the instantly-identifiable architecture and fashion that defines Dante's world, and he eschews the grandiose camera angles, the surprising perspective and the action-oriented speed lines that Fraser has used to such great effect in the earlier episodes. Burns makes a stamp on Nikolai Dante, all right: he darn near stamps out entirely everything that made the last three years of stories so wonderful.

That sounds quite harsh, but it's not to say Burns' work is in any way poor. While there will, sadly, be one or two future Dante episodes that look like they were painted while his laundry was drying, "The Rudenshtein Irregulars" is a tour de force from start to finish, and is visually breathtaking in its own, inimitable fashion. Faced with the challenge of tearing down the beauty of the future vistas that Fraser and those artists who handled fill-ins in the first phase had created, and emphasizing the stark horror of all-out war, Burns is more than up to the challenge. It is bleak, amazing stuff.

What I'm identifying as the second phase of Dante, known informally under the agonizing pun "Tsar Wars" and available as two volumes from Rebellion (the fourth and fifth in the series), will turn out to be its most troubled period. The initial plan had been to tell this storyline in five series of eight episodes. Burns was to paint the first, third and fifth series and Fraser was to handle the second and fourth. However, Fraser was in the process of relocating to Africa when the deadlines for his first story came up, and as a result, this adventure, "Battleship Potemkin," had to be postponed until later in the year, causing some rewrites and an unfortunate continuity error. Fraser would not be available in early 2001, and the creators and editors will revise the plans for the subsequent stories, as we will see.

Also of interest this week is the first of two stories for Pussyfoot 5, an adventure series set very loosely in the Judge Dredd universe. It's actually a spinoff from the 1999 Devlin Waugh epic "Sirius Rising," where three of the five characters on the team first appeared. It's about a team of gun-toting troubleshooters employed by Vatican City to handle crazy SF-threats, and the cast includes two sexy ladies, one enormously fat guy, a weird, growly rock-like alien pet, and Mantissa, who hasn't shown up in the narrative yet. As the bulk of the action falls down to the two curvy cuties, it looks very much like the cast is about three members too large. As Dave Merrill once asked me, "What was that Dirty Pair thing that was running the other month?"

John Smith handled the script for the series, and Nigel Raynor is the artist for the first story. Raynor's not bad at all most of the time, but something about this strip completely fails to gel. Everything seems very flat and unappealing, and the coloring, by the usually reliable D'Israeli, does not flatter Raynor's work at all. Events in every location seem balanced by exactly the same lighting, a harsh wash of reds and yellows, like the characters are all at a '70s disco. And, to be blunt, while I am using terms like "sexy" and "curvy cuties," Raynor doesn't really succeed in bringing the cheesecake that would have made this strip memorable.

Since I'm a big fan of John Smith's universe, and since I do believe 2000 AD needs more leading ladies, I was very much prepared to like Pussyfoot 5, but the result was fairly average. On the other hand, running as it did alongside the current Slaine epic made it seem pretty spectacular by comparison, but more about that in the next installment.

The Dredd/Banzai story and the Nikolai Dante adventure are both available in reprint editions from Rebellion. A collection of Pussyfoot 5 is said to be on the horizon as a free supplement to a forthcoming issue of Judge Dredd Megazine.

Next week, an oddly all-S edition, with updates on Sinister Dexter, Slaine and Strontium Dog!

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