Wednesday, March 25, 2009

93. José Casanovas Sr., 1934-2009

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.

This week, we have an unfortunate departure from the regular Thrillpowered format, because the House of Tharg lost one of its earliest model droids over the weekend. Steve Holland, of the essential Bear Alley blog, broke the sad news that Spanish artist José Casanovas Senior passed away on March 14 at the age of 75. Born in Barcelona in 1934, he'd been working in Spanish comics since 1957, and found work for IPC in England starting in the mid-1970s. He most often worked in conjunction with his son, José Jr., who inked his father's work, and the duo were credited, once IPC began permitting creator credits, as "José Casanovas + Jr." Some of the English series they worked on include Dora Dogsbody for Jinty in 1974, Star Rider for Tiger, and later Eagle after their merger, in the mid-1980s, and the adventures of Mikal Kayn in various editions of Starblazer.

For the 2000 AD family of titles, Casanovas never had a signature series, but he was probably best known for his episodes of Judge Dredd's informer Max Normal which appeared in the early Dredd annuals. He also contributed one-offs to 2000 AD's sister title Starlord, including the wonderfully grisly "Good Morning, Sheldon, I Love You!" and a number of Tharg's Future Shocks in the mid-1980s. From 1991-93, he illustrated three stories of the retooled Robo-Hunter scripted by Mark Millar, and also returned for a one-off Dredd episode written by Garth Ennis.

Bear Alley notes that much of Casanovas's work was for a number of smaller European publishers in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, and I think a complete bibliography would be a real chore to compile, particularly as much of it was done in the days before creator credits became common. His last identified work was for a German comic, Geisterjäger John Sinclair, in 2005-06. Here are some examples of some of his work.

"Good Morning, Sheldon, I Love You!," Starlord # 11, 1978

"A Second Chance!," 2000 AD prog 245, 1982

Judge Dredd: "The Game Show Show," 2000 AD prog 278, 1982

"Extra! Extra!," 2000 AD prog 407, 1985

Star Rider, Eagle # 211, 1986

Robo-Hunter: "Serial Stunners," 2000 AD prog 820, 1993

The Casanovas, featured in 2000 AD prog 729, 1991

Goodbye, José.

Next time, we'll resume the reread with details on Necronauts and Bad
, and look at the new collection of the classic future war strip The VCs. See you in seven, fellow Earthlets.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

92. The Last of the Great Thrillpower Overloads?

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.

December 2000: So one year after the first, splendid hundred-page year-end prog, Tharg goes to town on a really wonderful follow-up, just cracking with excellent stories. Most of these are one-off adventures from the semi-regular series, but this issue also includes the debut episodes of two series which would be continuing in January: Necronauts by Gordon Rennie and the third series of Button Man by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson. In my opinion, the hundred pagers have not been as strong in recent years as when Tharg first began programming them, reaching their low point with the not-particularly-special "Prog 2008." Over time, this special prog has evolved into simply the comic where the first episodes of the January series begin, and it's often built around little more than double-length debut episodes and a comedy Sinister Dexter one-off. That's not to say that the hundred-pagers are ever at all bad, but compared to how packed and amazing this particular issue is, just about everything looks a little poor in comparison.

In "Prog 2001," apart from the two debut episodes mentioned above, the current crop of thrills is well-represented by one-off stories for Judge Dredd (by Wagner and Cam Kennedy), Strontium Dog (Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra), Nikolai Dante (Robbie Morrison and John Burns) and Sinister Dexter (Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke). In addition, and this is what helps make this issue so memorable, there are one-offs for a pair of much older series which have not been seen in quite some time: Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, and Bad Company by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy. Plus there's "The Great Thrillpower Overload," the first in-jokey Tharg the Mighty strip since the Vector 13 editorial period came to an ignominious end; it's by Andy Diggle and Henry Flint and features goofball little cameos from a whole gaggle of 2000 AD characters, from Mean Machine Angel to the Lord Weird Slough Feg.

Each of the stories in this issue is really entertaining, without a misfire anywhere. It's a well-designed, gorgeous collection with a glossy cover, self-contained enough to be a satisfying read on its own, and with just enough loose ends to encourage readers to try out the next issue. Honestly, neither the Zenith nor the Bad Company stories are quite as good as the excellent material from their memorable late eighties heyday, but they are both pretty interesting. The Bad Company tale sets up a new situation for Kano that would be explored in a six-part series that would appear in about a year's time, while Zenith's tale is a wild epilogue to that character's superhero adventures. It starts with a pop starlet, later revealed to be Britney Spears, phoning the police to report she's been assaulted, and before it's done, we learn that Tony Blair is nothing more than Peter St. John's puppet, that the pocket universe where Zenith and St. John's enemies have been imprisoned has achieved sentience, and that Mad Mental Robot Archie is just all kinds of disturbed.

For those of us who enjoy combing through Morrison's works looking for nascent versions of themes he would later revisit, the idea of a "little" universe gaining sentience and wishing to interact with our own would see further exploration in his DC maxiseries Seven Soldiers in 2005-06. The Zenith episode would prove to be Grant Morrison's last contribution to 2000 AD to date. Within a few months' time, Titan Books would once again obtain the license to make new 2000 AD collected editions, and planned a new Zenith book. It was solicited in the August 2001 Previews, but was never released to stores, as the printing of the volume actually set up the current legal impasse over the character's ownership, and has also prevented any potential new work by Morrison for Rebellion.

In other news, I ordered one of the recentish 2000 AD trade collections which Diamond should have sent to my shop in the spring of 2008. They didn't, and a reorder also fumbled, claiming that it was no longer available, so I finally broke down and ordered Mega-City Undercover from Amazon UK. It's a very good book, and I'm glad I finally own it, but it must be said that this is a peculiar little collection by Rebellion's standards. It's effectively the first volume of Rob Williams' Low Life, a Dreddworld series about a pair of undercover judges which began in 2004's prog 1387. However, the book actually begins with the five episodes of Lenny Zero, a similar series by Andy Diggle and Jock which first appeared in the Megazine in 2000-2002, and which was prematurely curtailed when the creators signed exclusive contracts with DC Comics.

Despite the nice attraction of having all of Lenny Zero's appearances in one place, it is certainly Low Life which is the selling point of the book. This has been one of the more successful of the recent semiregular series. At the time I'm writing this, the eighth Low Life story, "Creation," is currently running in the prog. The first six of them, totalling 29 episodes, appear in this book.

One thing that makes Low Life so interesting is that it's a "dual-lead" strip. Some of the stories focus on the passionate, liberal Judge Aimee Nixon, and others on the very deep-cover, hopelessly insane Dirty Frank, who somehow manages to work as an effective judge despite having lost his mind some years previously. Usually, the Nixon stories tend to take a more serious approach, while Dirty Frank's are played with a much lighter tone. The characters were created by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, who drew the first 13 episodes in the book. The remaining episodes were drawn by Simon Coleby and first appeared in 2005-07.

Since I'm just now finishing the year 2000 in my reread and would prefer to read these stories in their original context when I reach that period in a few months' time, I only gave the Mega-City Undercover book a brief scan to confirm the quality and contents. The reproduction is fantastic and it includes introductory pages by Diggle and Williams as well as a nice new cover by Jock. After an initial moment of eyebrow-furrowing over Rebellion's choice to use an umbrella approach to collect the stories, I decided I actually prefer this format to issuing a Low Life-only book. Certainly with only one new story a year, it will be some time before we ever see a second collection, but who knows, perhaps Diggle and Jock will return to Lenny Zero before too much longer and future tales of that ne'er-do-well can also be included.

Speaking of "collections which Diamond should have sent to my shop," the distributor is claiming that we can expect to see both Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files volume 12 and Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein in US stores this week. If that's the case, there should be some serious thrill-circuit overload coming my way and you'll hear about it soon. On the other hand, Diamond has yet to provide the previously-announced first volumes of Kingdom and Shakara, which we should've seen in February. What's going on, Memphis?!

Next time, more details about this mysterious Necronauts strip I mentioned in passing above. What strange secrets link Charles Fort and Harry Houdini?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

91. Mutiny!

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.

Hurm, as the guy in that movie might say. I'm writing today with a small degree of consternation, as Diamond, the distributor who services North American comic shops, is apparently having one of its periodic hiccups, and several US readers are reporting that they've not received the prog or the Meg in well over a month. Nor have we received the collected editions of Kingdom or Shakara that should have arrived by now. Is this just a temporary delay, to be sorted any week now, or is this evidence of Diamond shaking down the Galaxy's Greatest as they streamline their operations and cut back? Stay tuned...

Anyway, back in November 2000, we come to prog 1218. It features a memorable cover by John Charles, an artist who did very little work for the 2000 AD titles. This was his last of five covers. It features the chaos-driven robot called Deadlock, best known as one of the ABC Warriors, who's currently starring in an eleven-week series. This bridges the final series of Nemesis the Warlock, which had concluded the previous year, and the next run of the Warriors, which would begin in a few months' time. In this story, Deadlock heads back to the planet Termight, left rudderless by the end of Torquemada's regime. Now, Nemesis and Deadlock have had a very confusing history, but what's going on here is that Deadlock is acting as the warlock's squire, ensuring that the planet descends into chaos per Nem's last wishes. His schemes are delayed, because Purity Brown, Nem's former associate and now the planet's president, has decided that a little caution in letting a universe of bizarre alien critters run rampant is a good idea, and she's slow to roll back all of Torquemada's policies. In a galaxy full of foot-eating aliens, and face-munching bananas, is that really such a bad idea?

At any rate, the script is of course by Pat Mills, and the art by Henry Flint. The two of them worked very well together in that last run of Nemesis, and this story is every bit as entertaining as that had been. It's full of twisted tunnels and wild perspective shots, strange-lookin' monsters and weirdos, alien pregnancies, soldiers wearing armor covered with words, serial-killing accountants and dimensionally-unstable gunmen. If you're looking for a shot glass of rocket fuel, this is definitely one of the best examples from the period. This story is not presently available in a collected edition, but one is planned as a bonus magazine to be bagged with a future edition of the Judge Dredd Megazine.

As wild as Deadlock is, it's not actually the most entertaining of the current crop of thrills. That award goes to the current Judge Dredd storyline, "Sector House," which is continuing an eight-week run. Written by John Wagner and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, it puts the spotlight on Judge Rico, Dredd's young clone who had been introduced earlier in the year. This is his first spotlight story since serving as Dredd's rookie.

"Sector House" is certainly a spiritual successor to late '90s stories such as "The Pit" and "Beyond the Call of Duty," in which Wagner and Ezquerra focus on a department rather than using Dredd as the lone hero. It finds drama in the tensions and underpinnings of a close-knit group of judges, chronically overworked and with very little downtime, who don't appreciate some punk from the Academy sticking his nose in where he is not welcome. "Sector House" is a terrific story, and a reprint is included in the Dredd collection Brothers of the Blood.

Also in this prog are the continuing stories of Nikolai Dante and Rain Dogs that were mentioned in last week's installment, along with a great eight-part serial by Robbie Morrison and Colin MacNeil called Vanguard. This is a wonderful space opera which rises above its familiar premise - the cruel commander of a space battleship, obsessed with tracking down an enemy ship, overworks and brutalizes his crew to mutiny. He's cautioned about the crew's growing unrest several times along the way by his new second-in-command, Lt. Elizabeth Vanguard, but ignores her until it is too late.

Beth Vanguard is a very engaging character, and while there's nothing incredibly original about her backstory, watching events unfold is great fun, thanks to an intricately-plotted story and Colin MacNeil's wonderful artwork. In the end, the ship's commander goes too far, and after his own men are fired upon indiscriminately as they are fighting off a raiding party, the crew rebels, with Lt. Vanguard joining them. The strip has a cliffhanger ending, and the promising endnote: "End of Book One." Sadly, there was never a second run for the series, which never returned after this entertaining start.

In April of 2002, Andy Diggle responded to an inquiry I'd made on the alt.comics.2000ad newsgroup about Vanguard, wondering why so many of the recent strips had been one-off serials rather than ongoing series. He stated that Vanguard had been commissioned by the previous editor, David Bishop, and "although I didn't hate it, I thought the premise was bit stale, and it wasn't really popular enough to divert Robbie and Colin away from Dante and Dredd respectively in order to produce Book 2." This is certainly a shame, as a second series would have given the story enough pages for a very nice collected edition. It has been rumored that some kind of reprint was made for someplace in Europe - it is mentioned in Bishop's Thrill-Power Overload - but the book apparently ranks among the scarcest of recent merchandise, and does not appear in the listings at the fan site Barney.

Next time, both Zenith and Bad Company return in glorious monochrome for "Prog 2001," and I'll look at last year's Mega-City Undercover collection. See you in seven, fellow Earthlets.

(March 12 2009)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

90. From Russia With Lurve

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.

September 2000: This very funny cover by Frazer Irving (his second for the prog) heralds the return of Nikolai Dante, in the third book of the "Tsar Wars" storyline. The episode inside is by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, and while it's as wonderful as usual, it has had a troubled genesis. The events in this eight-part chunk of the narrative were intended to precede the eight-part chunk that ran in the summer, but deadline troubles forced editor Andy Diggle to rearrange the two stories. So the second chunk ended with Nikolai so unbelievably ticked off with the Makarovs, and Jena in particular, that he memorably cast off his mother's name of Dante, telling the armies his name is his father's: Nikolai Romanov. This really should have set the stage for things falling completely apart in the book's climax. Despite this continuity error, driven home in the second episode where Nikolai's use of the name "Dante" is underlined, the third-as-published story is nevertheless a fine one, with Simon Fraser's welcome return to the art duties, and a brilliant climax of its own in a few weeks' time.

Speaking of Andy Diggle, there's an important addition to the Command Module around this time, an assistant editorial droid who goes by "Cyber-Matt" in the Output pages and Matt Smith in the real world. Smith will become the book's editor after Diggle departs in 2002; seven years later he is still wearing the Rosette of Sirius.

Also starting in this prog is the new thrill Rain Dogs, a ten-part one-off serial by Gordon Rennie and Colin Wilson. It is set in a flooded New York City populated by desperate scavengers, and is the story of one survivor of a flyby probe that crashed there being helped to safety by one of the locals. It's a very good story, one that works really well in the weekly format. Rennie came up with some very good, sympathetic characters, and Colin Wilson's artwork is just terrific, really making you believe in this dark world.

Rain Dogs was reprinted in a hardcover edition in the spring of 2002. This was a very curious little quickly-curtailed publishing plan. The only two books to emerge from it, at the time, were this and a similar hardcover collection of another Rennie-scripted ten-parter, Glimmer Rats, which ran in the comic a few months previously. I'm not certain whether they had printing or distribution problems or what happened, but these would be the only graphic novels to appear at the time; Rebellion would try again 18 months later with a slightly expanded line.

Other stories appearing in this prog are Deadlock by Pat Mills and Henry Flint, and Vanguard by Robbie Morrison and Colin MacNeil, about which more information next week, along with a one-off Judge Dredd adventure by John Wagner and Peter Doherty. Wagner's been on a roll of really interesting one-offs over the last several weeks. Most memorably from today's perspective have been three stories bringing back the recurring menace P.J. Maybe, who's spent the last eight years in prison. I really love the way Wagner chose to expose Maybe's escape as something that happened months previously, right after the Doomsday Scenario epic, and that the judges only just found out about it. This gave Maybe the opportunity to get out of town and make his way to the South American mega-city called Ciudad Barranquilla, where he's had the millions he'd amassed over time locked away, and there start a brand new life. Had P.J. Maybe's story ended there, it would have been remarkably satisfying. In fact, had you purchased 2004's Extreme Edition # 2, that is where the story ends, but of course, much more would come a few years down the line...

At the time these were printed, Maybe was almost overshadowed by the villain from a different Dredd one-off, "Generation Killer," by Wagner and John Higgins. This took a very wild sci-fi premise and turned it into a really clever adventure. It's about a Mega-citizen who panics when his wife tells him that she's expecting, because of what he thinks is a family curse. It turns out that all his ancestors died right after the birth of their first child. This is because, thousands of years from now, one of their descendants commits some atrocity or other, and the legal system then decides that his crime is so great that all of his ancestors have to be punished as well, sending a time-travelling super-cop back in time to execute everybody in the line as soon as their first kid is born! Many fans hoped or thought that this would be the first appearance of a great new recurring foe for Dredd, but the Generation Killer was only seen in this one outing.

In other news, Rebellion continues to impress with their graphic novel collection. Sometimes, they announce a project which doesn't sound like the most exciting book on the shelf, but then the finished product turns out to knock your socks off. That's the case with The Complete Ro-Busters, which does exactly what it claims on the front and compiles absolutely every strip appearance of Hammerstein, Ro-Jaws and the gang from the pages of both Starlord, where the series began, and 2000 AD. The Ro-Busters, as I described 'em over at Touched by the Hand of Tharg, are "a disaster recovery crew along the lines of International Rescue from Thunderbirds, only they are staffed by a crew of robots (chief among them our lead characters Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein) and they are by no means as charitable as the Tracy boys had been. Mr. Ten Percent (so named because only ten percent of him, his brain, was human) charges for the dangerous work his droids perform."

That Ro-Busters should have developed into anything memorable is something of a miracle. The series was created by Pat Mills to fill some editorial request for something about planet-saving superheroes. Since Mills, as anybody who's read Marshal Law could figure, has never had much time for the concept of superheroes, he turned the idea on its head and decided to have the disaster squad staffed, not by noble, selfless people, but by the most expendable of characters: junked-out robots in line for the scrapheap, bought dirt-cheap by a greedy jerk in need of cheap labor to exploit.

Anyway, Ro-Busters is certainly dated, and from the outset feels very much like a comic strip for children, especially in a ridiculous story in which two people disguise themselves as robots in order to start a rebellion on board a casino in space, but it's incredibly fun! The writing did tighten up around the time it moved to 2000 AD, with an engaging mix of class comedy and homages to war comics before the wild lunacy of the final storyline, in which the doomed robots try making a break for a planet where they can be free. But before that frantic conclusion, there's a great story in which Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein are sidetracked for a tale in which one of Mr. Ten Percent's other business ventures show up. A demolition squad called the Terra-Meks, they turn out to be the villains of the piece. Four episodes of utterly gorgeous giant robot violence and mayhem, set against the backdrop of a dying coastal community and its giant robot lighthouse guardian, might be the book's high point.

The book is just tremendous fun, and if Rebellion actually missed an episode anywhere, it'll be news to me. It includes work by other writers besides Mills, including three by Alan Moore, who wrote yearly one-offs for the pages of the 2000 AD Annual in the mid-80s after the series had otherwise concluded. Artists include Steve Dillon, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Kevin O'Neill and Carlos Pino. Every bookshelf should have one.

Next week, Deadlock wraps up the final plot threads that Nemesis had left behind, and Beth Vanguard accepts her far-too-brief commission. See you then!

(March 5, 2009)