Thursday, April 16, 2009

96. War in the Command Module

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.

March 2001: For those of you who enjoyed the cover of 1988's prog 555, here it is again, sort of, on prog 1234. John Higgins, who had not really done much work for the House of Tharg in the last couple of years, has revisited his earlier design for this launch issue which features the long-overdue return of this classic logo. Higgins had principally been working for American publishers in the late '90s before contributing the Judge Dredd one-off "Generation Killer" to prog 1212. Over the next few years, he will illustrate several very good Dredd adventures for the Megazine, and is presently the artist for the current series Greysuit. He was the subject of a feature-length interview which appeared in March's Meg # 281. Inside the issue, we've got the start of a new Judge Dredd storyline by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, along with a Sinister Dexter one-off by Dan Abnett and Steve Roberts, Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Steve Yeowell, about which more next week, and, in the ultimate example of "here comes trouble," the double-length opening episode of the long-awaited new series of The ABC Warriors by Pat Mills and Henry Flint.

It certainly looks like the intent with this storyline is to evoke the original run of the series from back in 1979. It's a 15-part black-and-white epic divided into five three-part adventures with a different artist on each block. Mills' most frequent collaborator of the period, the awesome Henry Flint, handles the first and fifth stories, and the ones between them are drawn by Boo Cook, Mike McMahon and Liam Sharpe. The story sees the Warriors stomping around the planet Mars again, apparently, thanks to the vagaries of all the time travelling they'd done earlier in their history, not very long after the original adventure. It's never really made clear whether Deadlock, last seen four months previously fighting Purity Brown in the sequel to Nemesis the Warlock in the far, far future, had that adventure prior to the three generally-linked Warriors storylines that have appeared in this decade, but since Mills operates by more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-yer-pants approach than the continuity-ticking of mainstream American books, it never really matters much.

What does matter is that this series is a well-intended, and occasionally beautifully drawn, disaster. Flint's episodes look great enough to paper over what a mess the story is, and McMahon's are wild and weird enough to distract from the confusing tale, about the resurrection of Steelhorn, he's been asked to draw, but it doesn't always work. Sharpe, who had illustrated so many excellent Dredd episodes in the years before this, tries experimenting with an unflattering style and some downright sloppy inking, and while Cook has emerged as one of the most important artistic discoveries of Andy Diggle's time as editor, he flatly was not yet ready for the big time when he penned his oddly-paced, hard-to-follow pages.

But the real problem is that "Return to Mars" (later issued by Rebellion in book form under the title "The Third Element") simply wouldn't have been anything other than one of the weaker Warriors' tales and a huge disappointment no matter who was on art duties, because the story is an abject failure. Both the writer and the editor have gone on the record about what went wrong. The two versions of David Bishop's Thrill-Power Overload are quite explicit in the ugly details. Incidentally, one reason of many not to rely solely on the wonderful bookshelf edition is that a very lengthy quote from Mills on the subject appears only in the earlier magazine serialization of the articles*.

In a nutshell, and putting it very, very lightly, Mills was not very happy with the assignment to put together what we might term an "old school" take on his characters, and Diggle wasn't very happy with the resulting scripts. Diggle also wasn't very happy to be in a position of performing rewrites on the scripts, and Mills wasn't very happy about pretty much anything that Diggle did after he uncapped the red pen. Actually, the whole sorry business is like the memorable ending of that John Ridgway-illustrated Dredd story "The Raggedy Man," which is told in storybook style and concludes by saying "They all lived happily after," except for the villain, who was killed, and except all the innocents he was terrorizing, who'd all end up dead of some Cursed Earth ailment within a week, and except for Dredd, who's seldom happy about anything.

The war of words was mostly kept from fandom's view at the time, but it certainly seems to have left very bad blood between these two for quite some time, and Diggle was sadly not quite finished inadvertantly offending Mills. More would be forthcoming, and we'll pick that up in a short while when a big, mean tyrannosaur makes his return to the comic.

In other news, in January, Rebellion released the long-awaited collection of the 1995-96 Dredd epic "The Pit." This 30-part epic, written by Wagner and illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, Lee Sullivan and Alex Ronald, was the subject of a Thrillpowered Thursday entry back in 2007, where I explained it as a "change in the status quo that sees Dredd assigned to new duties in one of the Meg's remote regions, where rather than doing the job of a senior street judge, he's assigned to the task of sector chief. It turns out that the Dredd formula works incredibly well as an ensemble police procedural, which was a huge surprise to everybody, including the writer."

"The Pit" is remembered, not because of an outrageous, high-concept plot like many of the big epics of the series, but because Judge Dredd lends itself astonishingly well to overlapping subplots and unique, individual judges with their own perspectives on the proceedings. It's an important story which introduced two of the more interesting recurring characters of Dredd's modern cast, Judges DeMarco and Guthrie, as well as providing further details about the criminal Frendz organization which would be an ongoing menace for the next few years. The entire cast is made up of interesting, sympathetic characters, and as events wind their way from a search for a rogue undercover "Wally Squad" judge to an all-out war with a powerful mob kingpin's forces, through a sector house full of flawed cops trying to do their jobs, it's easy to get completely caught up in events. It's a terrific story, with fabulous contributions from some great artists.

Long overdue for this new edition, "The Pit" has been unavailable for quite some time, since Hamlyn's old version went out of print, and Titan, the next company to issue collected editions, never put their own together. This is one that Rebellion should definitely keep around, and promote to new readers as a fine introduction to Judge Dredd. Whether you're new to the character or an old fan, "The Pit" is certainly a story that every bookshelf should have.

Next time, Nikolai Dante goes after babes and bloodsuckers and his writer goes after some extraneous dialogue balloons, and Mike Carey's criminally short Tharg-world career gets going. See you in seven!

*edit: I'm totally mistaken; the quote just appears a little later on in the narrative than I was expecting to find it.


Peter said...

At first glance, I felt the same about Liam Sharp's art on his ABC Warriors but, on a closer reading, I started to really get into it. What initially appears sloppy and childish can be taken, I think, as a deliberate juxtaposition - foregrounding, even - of the insanely detailed panels around it. I'm thinking, in particular, of a sequence where Mek Quake's head seems to be daubed in with a magic marker, before turning the page to a ridiculously meticulous rendition of his full body.

Well, it works for me.

I wasn't aware of all the behind the scenes shenanigans. I'd agree that the whole things a bit of a mess, but there are a couple of things (other than the art, obviously) which redeem it in my eyes. First, I grow really tired of Mills' (or possibly Tharg's) predilection for writing everything in ten-part Books. The last installment of Defoe is a great example of something which would've been far better served as three or four separate, shorter stories allowing the different plot threads more room to breathe.

Secondly, there are some classic Mills laughs in it: The Man With No Legs and the Martian surgeon for example. Something which was also true of Shadow Warriors, but seems to have been completely excised from The Volgan War.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

It's certainly an experiment and not unintentionally sloppy. But deliberate or not, Sharp's done far better elsewhere than in those pages. I love the cover he did for the PJ Maybe collection a couple of years back.