Thursday, April 2, 2009

94. The Empire of Sleep

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.

January 2001: Prog 1226 features this terrific Frazer Irving cover of Charles Fort and Arthur Conan Doyle beating the daylights out a horde of twisted zombies controlled by cultists who worship some tentacled deity on the other side of life, and who have decided Harry Houdini's explorations into the realm of unconsciousness have brought him too close to the terrible truth of their dark and evil plans. So they send H.P. Lovecraft to earn the others' trust and lead them all into a trap which will result in the end of life on earth. Yeah, you read that right. Necronauts, a nine-part serial illustrated by Irving and written by Gordon Rennie, is a shotgun blast of wild, high concept coolness. Fort carries a cricket bat to smack around the baddies, and Doyle carries around a medical kit full of lethal brews.

Necronauts is Irving's first series after only a couple of one-offs in the past few months. He's made a huge impact on the readership and the fandom, where he's been participating for some time. Irving once joked that he'd stalked and killed a certain "Gaze into the fist of Dredd"-illustrating art droid in order to prove his loyalty to 2000 AD. The joke is duly hung around his neck, worn well into the ground, and by the time of the first Dreddcon in December, people are threatening to wear "Irving Killed Bolland" T-shirts.

Fandom has become very entertaining at this time, with a number of creators, including Rennie, Irving, John Smith and Simon Fraser, as well as present and previous editors Andy Diggle and David Bishop, regularly contributing to the alt.comics.2000ad newsgroup. Of course, by this time, spam is beginning to overwhelm all the newsgroups, and some professionals will conclude in time that there are certain segments of "fandom" that make this kind of casual interaction untenable.

Diggle in particular will have an ongoing dispute with a Ukranian reader living in Germany who seems to read Judge Dredd just to complain about the series' moral philosophy, and what she sees as John Wagner's skewed "view of good and evil," particularly in light of the recent eight-part "Sector House" story which centered on Judge Rico. Diggle is not many weeks away from a huge disagreement with one of his chief contributors, compared to which his newsgroup debates with this reader are probably not that important, but it's worth noting, as the argument of "everybody else vs. this one reader in Germany" raged for months, it was within a susequent thread of her complaints that Diggle would eventually announce his resigning the post of editor.

Apart from Necronauts, there's some really good stuff in the prog. Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser have teamed up on a Judge Dredd one-off that celebrates the work of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes, and Dan Abnett and Simon Davis are wrapping up a four-part Sinister Dexter adventure called "The Man in the Ion Mask." In a spin-off from the earlier Mercy Heights, John Tomlinson and Kevin Walker are wrapping up the first four-part story of Tor Cyan, the genetically-engineered, blue-skinned, mohawked fellow who's a bit like Rogue Trooper. This is notable for showing off, for the first time, the style Walker has been using for the last several years, with lots of heavy colors, solid lines and minimal fussiness in the inking. Compared to his detail-heavy work on The Balls Brothers and his earlier, painted work on ABC Warriors, this latest style is quite surprising, although that shouldn't be taken to mean it looks anything other than fantastic.

Also this issue, John Wagner and Arthur Ranson bring us the third book of Button Man. More on this fantastic story in next week's installment.

Necronauts was released by Rebellion as a collected edition in one of their earlier formats in 1993. I've said before that everybody should sell their home for a copy, and I stand by that assessment. This third book of Button Man is due for a collected edition in June. Entitled "Killer Killer," there's a listing on Amazon, although it was not solicited by Diamond in their April catalog. The Sinister Dexter story should find a new home in the forthcoming collection "Magic Bullets," due in the autumn. The Dredd and Tor Cyan stories have not been collected.

Sinister Dexter Bullet Count: Ramone took his fourth bullet in the previous prog's third episode of "The Man in the Ion Mask." It was a hit to the right shoulder. Finnigan still has a commanding lead with ten confirmed hits.

In other news, while Rebellion tends to focus on releasing collections from more recent properties or big name characters, every so often they do head back to the comic's early days and surprise everybody with a great book full of thrillpower from the past. Such is the case with this new edition of The VCs. This is the original run of 32 episodes from 1979-1980. Most of the installments are written by Gerry Finley-Day, with a couple of fill-ins by Steve MacManus. The art is principally by Cam Kennedy, who contributed the cover, and Garry Leach. Mike McMahon drew the first episode and John Richardson the last five, but everything between them is by Kennedy or Leach. Probably nobody finds that as interesting as I do.

Anyway, The VCs is a pretty standard war story, just dressed up with aliens and spaceships in it. There's the green rookie, disliked by his new crew, and ugly enemies you can neither understand nor sympathize with, and trapped-behind-enemy-lines stories, and callous officers who probably interact with our heroes more than any other company in the military. That's not to say it's at all bad, but I reread this while continuing a once-a-week reread of Battle Picture Weekly produced during the same 1979-80 period and darned if this series couldn't have been flawlessly slotted into that comic. If you enjoy this style of comic storytelling, then The VCs will certainly please you, even if it's only rarely eye-opening.

Actually, I should probably qualify that: if you're coming to this from an American background, there's a lot more to this than simply "another war comic." I grew up reading DC's Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank, and later Marvel's G.I. Joe, with their casts of unkillable regular characters. Compared to these, British war comics are a complete revelation, with surprising fatalities among the cast. Any new reader coming to this collection will probably be pretty surprised by this story as it progresses.

There were 32 episodes of The VCs, but this is a pretty slim book, since the episodes were an unusually short 3-4 pages a week. It runs a little light on extras, since there were so few from the period. The strip was spotlighted on 2000 AD's cover only once, and there was a single star scan of the lead cast a few weeks after it finished, and those are included, but there are no other contributions from the period from any of the creators. In lieu of blank pages filling up too much of the back, the first episode of Finley-Day's better-known future war series, Rogue Trooper is included, but honestly, I'm hard pressed to imagine anybody buying this collection who hasn't already read the first Rogue episode plenty of times already. That's not to say that I don't think potential readers are out there, and I hope you'll give it a read, just that I'm not really sure this was the best use of the pages in the back when a new interview would have been very nice.

Next time, Button Man makes everybody in the audience wince, and D'Israeli shocks the future. See you in seven!


Andrew said...

I haven't read this prog and I'm intrigued by your comment "Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser have teamed up on a Judge Dredd one-off that celebrates the work of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes." Can you offer me some elucidation please?

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

It's about a juve named Kelvin who is protected from mobsters by his "imaginary" tiger, Hobbit. Good stuff, especially the way Fraser apes some of Watterson's affectations.