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?

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