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)


d. merrill said...

I wanna get that Ro-Busters book.

Bob Temuka said...

I really, really liked Dave Gibbons art in those Ro-Busters stories. It's not quite as polished as his later work, but it feels more alive to me. His style hasn't changed a hell of a lot in the last two decades, but he was still finding his way on in those early 2000ad days, and it's fascinating to see.

That whole Nikolai Dante mess sounds like it really annoyed Morrison, even though I honestly didn't notice it at the time. Looking back, it certainly makes sense thematically, but I don't think it loses that much with the switcharound.

Excellent cover by Irving, though. This is one of the few issues from this period that I haven't been able to find yet, so I'd never seen it before. Cheers, Dad!