Thursday, February 26, 2009

89. The Flood

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.

August 2000: Prog 1208, with its wonderful Cliff Robinson cover, holds the unfortunate distinction of being the rarest of all 2000 AD issues. Fan lore has it that the printed issues were stored in a warehouse waiting to be shipped, but the space flooded, and two of the three pallets of comics were ruined. Subscribers got their copies, but not many other people did, and the comic, when it does show up second-hand, routinely goes for around £20.

Since I don't have a copy myself, I think I'll take a break from writing today. I'll note that the Judge Dredd episode, by John Wagner and Henry Flint, was reprinted in Rebellion's wonderful Henry Flint Collection last year, but the rest of the comic has never seen a second outing.

Next week, Nikolai Dante returns and I'll look at the new collection of Ro-Busters. See you then!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

88. That Table

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.

August 2000: With prog 1205, the Andy Diggle era of 2000 AD is well under way, and he's got Steve Moore as his secret weapon. Moore's principal contribution at this time is the new character Red Fang, and to be honest, it is among one of the comic's greatest missed opportunities. The pieces are all here for what could have been a 2000 AD classic. Fang is a strategist for a criminal empire in Earth's future, locked in an underworld war with other organizations, the police, and a strange alien race that looks like squids. The artwork is by Steve Yeowell, one of this blog's favorite illustrators. The characters and situations are engaging, but it all somehow fails. Hugely. Looking back on it, I think that the problem was that Moore decided to write a twelve-part serial, dumping far too many characters and a great big situation on readers' heads in one swoop. The result is incredibly convoluted and confusing, and nobody is surprised when the series is quietly retired after it wraps up in prog 1211.

If only the twelve weeks had been spent on four or five shorter stories, organically introducing supporting players and letting Red Fang deal with smaller scenarios, slowly building up to this tale of, ummm, stolen... interstellar... technological weapons stuff, then readers might have understood who the characters were, and why they should care about the major plot.

Red Fang is notable for one thing, however. Yeowell and colorist Chris Blythe conspired to decorate these crimelords' offices with some downright amazing furniture. It was a running joke in fandom for months after the series concluded that nobody wanted to see Red Fang return for a second series, but his table was welcome back anytime.

The other draws in the comic at this time are Judge Dredd (here in a one-off by John Wagner and Siku), Sinister Dexter (Dan Abnett and Nigel Raynor) and Nikolai Dante (Robbie Morrison and John Burns). But perhaps overshadowing all of them is the surprising, welcome return of Tharg's Future Shocks after an absence of several years. Previously, the format for one-offs had been used by umbrella series like Vector 13 and Pulp Sci-Fi. These accomplished many of the same goals as the Shocks - to fill space and mark time between series, to give work to aspiring creators, and to tell a good story with a twist ending - but their format imposed restrictions on the sort of stories that could be told. Certainly, a Future Shock in 2000 can be every bit as hit or miss as it was in 1980, but there's a nostalgic glee in seeing it dusted off. First up is a five-pager by Steve Moore, with art by Frazer Irving, who'd go on to become one of the comic's regular droids for the next several years. In fact, he impresses editorial so much with his debut that he's almost immediately given a Dredd episode to draw; it will run in the very next issue.

At this time, most of the stories in this prog have gone unreprinted. The Dante story was collected in the fourth book, Tsar Wars, Volume One, but none of the others have seen a second outing.

Speaking of Tharg's Future Shocks, in a nice bit of timing, we hit their return in this reread just as I finished Rebellion's new collection of several dozen classic ones. The title stretches the truth ever so slightly: rather than somebody's subjective take on the actual best one-offs from the comic, excepting the ones by Alan Moore which have already been compiled, this is a collection of episodes from four of 2000 AD's best-known writers. So it contains a pile of John Smith Shocks, a majority of Peter Milligan episodes, all but one of Grant Morrison's offerings ("Candy and the Catchman" is omitted), and everything that Neil Gaiman ever wrote for the comic.

Certainly the resulting book is uneven and choppy, but there are some real gems to be found in its pages. Grant Morrison's early attempts at channelling Alan Moore are pretty revealing, and not just from an archaeological standpoint. "The Shop That Sold Everything" is really funny, even if the end isn't so much a twist as it is an inevitability. I've also always enjoyed John Smith's "A Change of Scenery," which was the first appearance of some of his Indigo Prime characters, among many other strips in this book.

Seeing characters like Indigo Prime and Ulysses Sweet here actually makes me think that the book's only real flaw is that it didn't collect the five or six one-off adventures of Joe Black by Kelvin Gosnell from the early eighties. That's just quibbling, of course, those are outside the perview of the book, but one of the many things that did make 2000 AD interesting in the early 80s was the existence of characters who only showed up in one-offs or very short series.

Dr. Dibworthy and Abelard Snazz were compiled in the big Moore book from a couple of years ago, and it's a real shame Tharg doesn't have any characters like that today. Harry Kipling (Deceased) was kind of like that, but he hasn't shown up in two years, for some mad reason. Lately it's seemed that one-offs only ever show up to fill space after a ten-part story runs in a twelve-week slot. Maybe one day soon, Tharg will try two or three months mixing one-offs and two-parters, trying out more new creators and ideas, or maybe giving some of the supporting cast of the major series five pages of their own to shine. It seemed to work all right in the 1980s, didn't it?

Next week, there's a hole in the collection! Whatever happened to prog 1208?!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

87. A shot glass of rocket fuel

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.

July 2000: And suddenly, things change in a very, very big way. It goes like this:

Oxford-based 'super developer' buys the award-winning and highly influential science fiction weekly 2000AD

July 6th 2000: Rebellion has made the acquisition of the year - literally - with the purchase of the sci-fi action comic 2000AD from publisher Egmont International. The Oxford-based software developer will assume creative control of the magazine's content (all other publishing and distribution will continue to be carried out by Fleetway), while looking to maximise the potential of the many characters and storylines which the franchise has created (in both commercial and creative terms). There will be no interruption to publication.

2000AD occupies an unequalled position in the world of science fiction, having been published for more than 23 years. During this time, the comic has introduced a number of the genre's most popular characters (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Sláine, Rogue Trooper, Nemesis and many more) as well as launching the careers of some of the UK's most successful comic writers and artists, including John Wagner, Alan Grant, Pat Mills, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Cam Kennedy, Brian Bolland, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

The first issue of 2000AD ('Prog 1' to use the comic's own terminology) hit the streets on February 28th 1977, for the down-to-earth price of 8p (or 17 Galactic Groats on Mercury) and featured a number of characters and stories which went on to enjoy huge popularity, including M.A.C.H. 1, Flesh and Invasion. It was not until Issue 2, however, that the publication's most enduring and notorious icon, Judge Dredd, first appeared. At the height of its popularity, the comic (which has just published its 1,200th issue) sold more than 120,000 copies per week.Rebellion and 2000AD "I am only too happy to confess that I have been an avid 2000AD reader since Prog 1," says Rebellion's Chief Executive Officer, Jason Kingsley. "However, that doesn't mean that this deal was done for sentimental reasons. 2000AD is not only a goldmine of intellectual properties, it is also a hugely enjoyable read. We are looking forward to helping this top quality publication to achieve its fullest potential."

Rebellion's acquisition of 2000AD will allow the team full use of more than 700 characters and series, not only in computer games, but also in films, as action figures, in collectable card games and in any other suitable merchandising vehicle. Also, it is possible that some of Rebellion's own characters and storylines - beginning with the forthcoming Gunlok (to be released by Virgin Interactive later this year) - will make it into the pages of 2000AD.

In addition to its new owners, 2000AD also has a new Editor, Andy Diggle, who adds: "This is a very exciting time to be taking over the editorship of 2000AD, with a new look and a new owner. There is so much untapped potential within our universe of characters that the sky's the limit in terms of licensing and branding. But our first priority will always be the comic itself: sci-fi and fantasy action with skewed black humour, bizarre imagination and attitude. The best of the old and the best of the new!"

"As fans of the galaxy's greatest comic, we will do everything within our powers to make sure that 2000AD reaches its widest possible audience on Earth before we expand into other galaxies - ridding the Universe of all thrill-sucker infestations along the way, of course," says Kingsley.

Diggle himself had this to say, in a forwarded-and-forwarded email which was posted to the alt.comics.2000 ad newsgroup:

Dear All,

Please forgive the impersonal nature of this email, but it seemed simplest to send the message out to all of you at once...

As some of you already know, 2000 AD has just been purchased lock, stock and barrel by Rebellion, the Oxford-based computer games company. By one of those weird cosmic coincidences, this happens to coincide with the debut of 2000 AD's new design and my first week as editor.

From now on, 2000 AD's editorial staff are employed by Rebellion, and although Fleetway will still be handling the publishing side of things on a contract basis, Fleetway no longer has any editorial control over the title. We will be relocating to new offices in central London in a few weeks, after I have returned from my honeymoon (it never rains...!). In the meantime, any freelance invoices should be sent to me at the Fleetway address.

Most of the details can be found in the attached press release, so I'll keep my own comments brief. Jason Kingsley, CEO of Rebellion, has been a fan of 2000 AD since Prog 1 - which means that for the first time, 2000 AD is owned and controlled by people who care passionately about it!

This is the beginning of a very exciting time for the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. Rebellion is a young, dynamic, pro-active company with real media clout, so I think we can look forward to an unprecedented level of commitment in pushing the 2000 AD universe of characters to potential licensors for video games, movies and merchandising in general. And about time, frankly!

On a more personal note, I'd like to say this really is a new beginning for 2000 AD, with a new owner, a new editor, a new format and a new Millennium ahead of us. I hope that together we can turn 2000 AD back into the creative powerhouse that it has been at its best.

It's all about giving the readers a fast hit of dense, imaginative, blackly humorous sci-fi. Or, to use my own well-loved (if tortured) metaphor, it's about distilling a barrel of weak lager into a shot-glass of rocket fuel! If you want to know more, please feel free to drop me a line...


Diggle had earlier detailed some of what he was talking about in a widely-circulated "manifesto" which would be posted to the newsgroup in October, and which is currently available, via Google, here. The part that resonated the most with me went like this:

2000 AD readers talk about getting their weekly 'hit' or 'fix' of Thrill-power, and they're only half joking. The comic should be a drug; a jolt of raw, unrefined energy and imagination. We aren't there just to raise a faint ironic smile on the readers' lips; we should blast them into a whole new reality! 2000 AD should be fast, dense, bizarre, twisted, funny, insane, rebellious, dark, ironic, imaginative and exciting! We should blow the readers' minds wide open, and give them something they can't get anywhere else!

What we should never be is bland, derivative and familiar. 2000 AD should be the comic other people copy... not the other way round.

Over the eighteen or so months that Diggle's in charge of the comic, he hits a lot more frequently than he misses. Prog 1200 opens with a John Wagner/Cam Kennedy Judge Dredd storyline in which some freedom-loving citizens take to their flying surfboards to blow up Justice Department's omnipresent spy-in-the-sky cameras. Nobody draws skysurfing as well as Cam Kennedy. Also on board this week are new installments for Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis and Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, along with Red Fang by Steve Moore and Steve Yeowell, about which more next week. Joining the lineup in the next issue is a four-part Missionary Man adventure by Gordon Rennie and Jesus Redondo, a Spanish artist who had worked in the pages of 2000 AD, Starlord and some of IPC's romance comics in the early 1980s.

The other interesting thing to note is that, with Rebellion's takeover, there's a size change for the comic. It's as tall as it was before, but an inch narrower. It now has the same proportions as a traditional American comic, just a little larger. In 2003, there will be an aborted attempt to repackage newer material into US comic-size, with none of the distortion of the artwork that was commonly seen in repackaging attempts in the 1980s. The line, however, will be cancelled as soon as DC and Rebellion announce their year-long liaison, and the solicited episodes of Mike Carey and Andy Clarke's 13 will never emerge in that format.

At any rate, while the last several years, under Rebellion, have been pretty amazingly thrill-packed, and we owe them our thanks for the continued survival of the comic, it has always struck me as very odd that so little has come of the "full use of more than 700 characters and series" for merchandising, as was noted in the initial press release. There would be a kind-of-okay Dredd vs. Death video game, and a pretty good Rogue Trooper video game, and, working in reverse, a comic adaptation of the game Wardog, but the first-person shooter based on Strontium Dog has steadfastly refused to appear. Never mind all the video games we should have based on, ohhh, say, Sin Dex, or Slaughterbowl, or Pussyfoot 5, or Low Life, or some kind of racing game. Why am I playing Crash Nitro Kart when I could be playing Supersurf 14? And why were the action figures parcelled out to that Marvel/Legenday line which was only sold at Wal-Mart and died before we got the Mean Machine figure? And why...

Ah, well. At least the graphic novels are fantastic; Rebellion has certainly got those right. More about those next week, along with Red Fang and the astonishing return of Tharg's Future Shocks! Be here!

(Originally posted Feb. 12 2009 at hipsterdad's livejournal.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

86. Fungus Fever

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.

June 2000: Prog 1196's deliciously ugly cover by Cliff Robinson features the final fate of Brit-Cit Judge Stark. Stark had appeared as a supporting character in two earlier Judge Dredd storylines and was brought in as an undercover agent in the four-part "Judge Dredd and the Shirley Temple of Doom" to bust a protection racket. Unfortunately, he and his partner are contaminated with Grubb's Disease, an incurable fungus which drives you mad and leaves mushrooms growing out of your body. Grubb's was initially depicted, with gleeful, black humor, by Carlos Ezquerra back in the early 80s, as one of a number of fantastic maladies which future citizens could find infection from in any given prog. Compared to jigsaw disease or the one that turns you into a spider, Grubb's is at least over quickly.

On this story, writer John Wagner is paired with newcomer Jock on art chores. He had drawn part two of the epic "Dead Ringer" story for the Megazine just a couple of months previously and was quickly drafted for work on the weekly. Jock takes Dredd's nickname "Old Stoney Face" literally, and draws the lawman as though he was carved from rock. His work is just exceptional, with wild camera angles and amazing perspective shots. Jock relishes the challenge of drawing huge expanses of the future city, with bizarre, giant buildings crammed in as far as you can see. His time as a regular in the Dredd art rotation will only be a couple of years long, but he makes an enormous impact.

Other than Jock, there is another new name in this prog's credits worth mentioning. Almost new, anyway: for 2000 AD, Steve Moore had only contributed a handful of Future Shocks and a Dan Dare story about twenty years previously before assistant editor Andy Diggle had tracked him down. Most of Moore's comic work had been for Marvel UK, where he'd scripted the adventures of Doctor Who for a memorable run, and for the anthology Warrior, where he'd written all kinds of things. He'd created the memorable characters of Axel Pressbutton and Abslom Daak before devoting his attention to his work at Fortean Times.

I don't recall specifically whether Diggle ever said outright that he was hoping he could persuade Moore to write more Pressbutton stories for 2000 AD, or whether that was just fan speculation on the old newsgroup. Alas, we were not so lucky. Moore remained with 2000 AD for about five years, creating some one-off serials and a variety of single episode shorts. Many of these were grouped under a very weird anthology called Tales of Telguuth. This was quite unlike any other 2000 AD anthology in that they were all scripted by Moore with art from a number of other creators, and they were all set on the same planet. Telguuth was a strange, medieval planet where dozens of sorcerors were conspiring with dozens of powerful demons and were invariably hoist on their own petard after five or fifteen pages.

One or two Telguuth installments were pretty amusing, once you could get your eyes and tongue around all the names of people and places that were five consonant-filled syllables long anyway. But the repetitive plots and lack of recurring characters dragged it down, and Moore certainly missed a trick in never allowing readers any reason to think that the stories were actually set on the same planet. We only ever had Tharg's word that was the case.

Apart from Dredd and Telguuth, the prog features more from Sinister Dexter, still fighting things out in Mangapore, by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke, along with the continuing Slaine epic by Pat Mills and David Bircham. Rounding things out is Strontium Dog by Wagner and Ezquerra. This last one is the only story in the prog to have been reprinted in a bookshelf format, although "...the Shirley Temple of Doom" was collected in the "free graphic novel" reprint comic called Judge Dredd: The Jock Collection that was bagged with the Megazine about six months back.

Speaking of reprints, in other news, I finally tracked down a copy of the third Slaine collection a few months ago. This, The King, was one that Diamond never saw fit to deliver to my local comic shop, along with Mega-City Undercover, which was released the same week. Fortunately, I found a copy at The Great Escape in Nashville in November. This is a really spectacular shop, worth driving a hundred miles out of your way to visit. The book reprints close to forty episodes which originally saw print between 1985 and 1988.

Much as Pat Mills has a story to tell, the star of the book is Glenn Fabry, who illustrated about half the episodes. When these episodes originally ran, it felt like there was one delay after another pushing back new Slaine stories. Fabry drew just a handful of the pages in the "Tomb of Terror" storyline, a 15-part diversion from Mills' ongoing goal of reuniting the warrior with his tribe. The bulk of "Tomb" was illustrated by David Pugh, and was accompanied by a pencil-and-dice role-playing supplement with each new episode. The RPG pages, with artwork by Garry Leach, are included as a bonus feature in the back, making this one of the cutest little extras that Rebellion has presented.

After "Tomb," there was a break of about nine months before Mike Collins and Mark Farmer took on art chores for a seven week, Zodiac-related serial. Then Fabry got the reins for the twelve-part "Slaine the King," which originally ran in two chunks over five months. Ever behind on his deadlines, and probably deep in debt with his local Dick Blick for all the ink he was using, Fabry's amazing work was worth the wait at the time and just looks better on these pages. The definitive Slaine artist is probably McMahon to me, but Fabry's a very close second.

It was originally thought that Fabry would be illustrating the classic "Horned God," to appear in the standard black-and-white with a color centerspread, shortly after the completion of the Judge Dredd epic "Oz" wrapped up in 1988. As 2000 AD changed paper size and increased its color pages, it was eventually decided that Simon Bisley would paint the epic instead. A little more than a year after the conclusion of "Slaine the King," four last black and white Fabry episodes appeared as a teaser strip and a three-part miniseries. These served as a taster prelude for the forthcoming "Horned God."

Around the same time, Mills and Fabry collaborated on a color newspaper strip called Scatha which was truncated by The News on Sunday's imminent failure. You can read more about that and see some sample episodes over at Bear Alley. Fabry also contributed a color pin-up of Slaine's enemy Megrim as a taster for his unproduced color epic which ran on the back cover of prog 524. It might have been frustrating twenty years ago waiting for each new storyline to get going, but it really resulted in some great comics. Even if you don't like the character of Slaine, this book is certainly recommended for Fabry's glorious artwork. Hopefully Diamond will treat your store better than mine and get you a copy quickly!

Next week, the weekly gets a new size and Dig-L becomes the Man from Quaxxan.

(Originally posted 2/5/09 at Hipsterdad's LJ.)