Thursday, January 22, 2009

84. The Commonwealth That Wasn't Secret Enough

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.

April 2000: Sinister Dexter are on the cover of prog 1190. It's a very silly piece by Greg Staples which uses word balloons for just about the first time in living memory. The story inside is part two of "Mission to Mangapore" by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke, and it continues the long investigation into the criminals that were behind the carnage of the epic "Eurocrash" storyline which appeared about a year previously, and reintroduces Finnigan's estranged wife Carrie Hosanna as being in the employ of the series' latest underworld kingpin. Sinister Dexter has a long history of playing with puns and stereotypes in its multi-ethnic, European cast, and this is the first time it's really played with Japanese stereotypes. It hits the expected targets, including yakuza and ninjas and rock gardens and five-mile-high buildings and a liquid metal Terminator II-type robot killer which chooses to hang out in the shape of a big-eyed schoolgirl, but it's all a bit predictable and dry, really. Clarke has a really hard time adjusting his style, which is gorgeously realistic and natural, to accomodate Polly, who's supposed to be some sort of generic "anime" stereotype. She looks deeply out of place. My feeling at the time, and it's echoed as I reread it, is that Ray and Finny aren't enough out of their element, that Abnett didn't make Mangapore as bizarre as it could have been. Obviously the island-city has that name for comedy identification reasons, but "manga" doesn't mean "just another Japanese thing" to me, it means "comics." It's a shame that this world wasn't populated by a culture as obsessed with comics as Downlode is by hitmen and kingpins. Maybe it's just me, but while "Mission to Mangapore" isn't a bad story, it's really just any other Sin Dex adventure, albeit one with ninjas in it. File them off and the story could've been set in Downlode.

On the other hand, the current adventure of Pat Mills' Slaine is utterly unlike any other Slaine adventure previously published, because it is jawdroppingly awful. No kidding, friends, this is the one that nobody can stand.

The story is called "The Secret Commonwealth," and it is four months of eyekicking artwork burying what might have been an interesting plot somewhere. It earned the instant derision of fandom when it first appeared, and my kids immediately cried foul when they saw it. David Bircham is the art droid responsible for this mess, and I have previously said an unkind thing or two about his artwork in previous installments of Thrillpowered Thursday.

I think what amazes me most about "Commonwealth" is that the style Bircham uses here is a quantum leap backwards for him. No, I did not like his work in Vector 13 or that chunk towards the end of "The Hunting Party" storyline in Judge Dredd or the Sin Dex adventure "Smoke and Mirrors," but apart from some obvious problems in pacing and how the characters on the page relate to each other, I would say that those were still evidence of a skilled professional using a style that I simply didn't enjoy looking at. "Commonwealth," with its bargain-basement heavy metal airbrush appearance, looks like it predates those stories by years.

What really strikes me is that "Smoke and Mirrors" at least evoked its island setting with a consistent use of greens and browns in the pallets, and full backgrounds of trees and local color. "Secret Commonwealth," as befits something that looks like the night security guard was doodling in between six-hour recreations of Iron Maiden's "Eddie" in a Crimean War uniform, mostly doesn't have backgrounds at all, just vast expanses of white separating the characters. Seventeen weeks of this was enough to sour the readership on Slaine for ages, and once this turkey ends in prog 1199, it would be the last we'd see of the character for two and a half years.

Lest my negativity bring you down too much, the other three stories in this prog were good. John Smith and Simon Davis teamed up for a Judge Dredd episode, Nikolai Dante concluded the magnificent "The Rudinshtein Irregulars," and there was a fun one-off by Andrew Ness and Siku called "Space Dust." Ness was a regular on alt.comics.2000ad and everybody had high hopes for him landing a series commission, but this has proved to be his only 2000 AD work so far. Haven't seen Andrew around the message boards and forums in some time; I hope he's doing well.

In other news, Rebellion has continued its series of Strontium Dog collections with The Kreeler Conspiracy. This follows up the five-volume "Search/Destroy Agency Files" which reprinted the entirety of the original run of the series. This book, unnumbered on its spine, reprints three of the first four adventures from the revived series. It starts with the titular "Kreeler Conspiracy" (mentioned here in Thrillpowered Thursday a couple of weeks ago) and also includes the very fun serials "Roadhouse" and "The Tax Dodge." Lost in the shuffle, sadly, is the one-off adventure "The Sad Case," which originally appeared in "Prog 2001," and was presumably left behind for space reasons, and which we hope to see in a future collection.

Despite that story's absence, the book's a fun, meaty little exercise in plotting, as Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer face challenges that require them to use their wits more than their firepower. "The Tax Dodge" is especially fun, as the bounty hunting duo are faced with a representative of customs and excise on one side, and a very amusing alien race on the other. These guys, easily-offended, overcompensating loudmouths with quick tempers, are among the funniest alien species to ever appear in 2000 AD. All three stories are by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and this book is very highly recommended!

Next week, since the Megazine entered the 2000s with another format change, I'll be looking at that. Also, Dredd gets high on drugs.

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