Thursday, May 21, 2009

101. Coming Down Fast

July 2001: Prog 1253 features this nice cover by Colin Wilson. Inside, Judge Dredd is a third of the way through a twelve-part epic written by Garth Ennis, with art mostly provided by Carlos Ezquerra. He'll have to bow out briefly - the story goes that his house was being renovated and the builders were doing a fine impression of O'Reilly's men from Fawlty Towers on his roof - and episodes nine and ten will be drawn by Henry Flint, but honestly, the art doesn't seem to be as enthusiastic as the script. Ennis's return to Judge Dredd, part of a deal to reclaim the copyright on two earlier series for Fleetway, Troubled Souls and For a Few Troubles More, is a head-scratching failure. You can tell that Ennis enjoyed putting it together, but the epic is a humorless suggestion that all of 2000 AD's series share a single "multiverse" like DC Comics, and has the evil Chief Judge Cal (remember him?) of some parallel universe decide to invade our Mega-City One because he hates Dredd so much. Even weirder, he teams up with a selection of long-dead Dredd villains who managed to kill Dredd in their home dimensions (including War Marshal Kazan, Fink Angel, Murd the Oppressor and... Don Uggie Appelino of all people), and are so aggravated to learn that he's still alive in our world that they put their differences aside to come here and get the chance to kill him again.

As the boundaries between universes get messed with, we get cameo invasions by the Geeks from The VCs and Old One Eye from Flesh, while D.R. and Quinch joyride through the city and Dredd's radio picks up CB transmissions from Ace Garp. If only it were played as a wild, non-canon romp, it could have been huge fun, but Ennis scripts it with the touch of lead, and it doesn't feel quite so much like a love letter to the comic's past as a contractual obligation.

Faring a little better is the return of Durham Red by Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison. This is the second big storyline for the character in the far-future continuity that the creators established in 1999. It's much the same as the first, a big, sweeping science fiction epic with armies of humans and mutants in bloody conflict. Like the Dredd story, it's a pretty joyless affair, but at least it's not po-faced. Durham remains a likeable character, even if there are no standouts among the supporting cast and villains.

Harrison's artwork suffers from being too darn dark to distinguish anything. What we can see looks fantastic, but since he composed everything in little snatches of black, midnight blue and purple, it's pretty flat until you really look at it to see the detail. Even when Durham gets half-naked, as she tends to, she does so in a barely-lit room. You read this and wish Godolkin or somebody was wearing canary yellow, just to break up the page, or maybe have the sun come up over the battlefield. The panel below is an example of how neat the strip looks on those occasions he chooses to change things up. It's an interesting mix of scratchy pen and ink and computer-generated color patterns.

The other strips which feature in this issue are the second and final storyline for Pussyfoot 5 by John Smith, Steve Yeowell and Chris Blythe, and the second in a series of short Tor Cyan adventures by John Tomlinson and Kev Walker. Also, there's the climactic adventure in Nikolai Dante's "Tsar Wars" arc by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, about which more next time. Of these stories, only Cyan's has not been reprinted. You can buy the Dredd, the Dante and the Durham Red stories in nice Rebellion paperback collections, and the Pussyfoot 5 story was reprinted in a bagged supplement to the Megazine a few months ago.

Thrillpowered Thursday will be taking a short vacation while I get myself married and my co-readin' children take a short holiday. We'll be taking another break in July as well. But be back in three weeks to read about both the new Dante collected edition and the apocalyptic events of the epic that we are rereading. Plus the Banzai Battalion break out into their own bug-bustin' series! See you in twenty-one, fellow Earthlets!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

100. One hundred page Megs

In the summer of 2001, Judge Dredd Megazine was relaunched into in its most eyebrow-raising incarnation yet. After some experiments with the page count and frequency of the weekly 2000 AD in 1998-99, leading to the hundred-page end-of-year progs on sale over three weeks, the Megazine has begun its new, fourth volume. Renumbered #1 for the fourth and final (we hope) time and costing £3.95 a month, the Meg was now a hundred-page, squarebound comic. In the US, the comic retailed for $9.99 in comic shops. With mainstream superhero books usually running $2.50 for 22 pages of story, suddenly the Meg is really good value for money, even if we were getting kicked in the teeth by a mysterious extra couple of bucks - at a flat exchange rate, £3.95 should have worked out to just under $8 in 2001. Across the Meg's hundred pages, about ninety were devoted to story: forty pages of new comics and fifty of reprints. About half of the reprint pages came from 2000 AD's archives. This time out, they included two episodes of Ro-Busters by Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons and three episodes of D.R. & Quinch by Alan Moore and Alan Davis. The other half would come from other British books. For its first few issues, the Meg includes the first four episodes of Lazarus Churchyard by Warren Ellis and D'Israeli, which originally saw print in 1991 in the short-lived anthology Blast!.

Ellis is among a small number of well-known British comic creators without much of a 2000 AD footprint. He only contributed a couple of one-offs to the Meg's earliest issues before finding success elsewhere. I don't know much about his work, to be honest. I'm more aware of the stereotype of an Ellis comic than the reality, but if you're looking to disprove the suggestion that Warren Ellis comics feature foul-mouthed tough guys with snappy comebacks getting drunk and blowing smoke everywhere while taking the moral high ground with smug condescension despite their vices and addictions to the latest weird technology, then Lazarus Churchyard isn't going to help you much. The character is clearly an ancestor of Elijah Snow and Spider Jerusalem, so if you enjoy Ellis's later books, you will probably find Churchyard pretty readable. The complete run is available as a collected edition from Image called The Final Cut. I wouldn't call myself a fan, but the third Megazine does reprint a truly creepy episode entitled "Lucy" which I'm looking forward to reading again.

Even more interesting than Ellis's story is D'Israeli's very unconventional artwork. It looks like his work in the early '90s was inspired by European artists such as Oscar Zarate, but I'm a pretty long way from being able to speak with authority about this kind of material . I do see similarities in color choices between what Brooker does here and what little I've seen of Zarate. He's also using a very shallow field, resulting in foregrounded figures who seem flat, and I wasn't sure what that reminded me of until I looked at some later issues of Crisis which reprinted some episodes of Jose Muñoz's Alack Sinner, and that's when I remembered how Keith Giffen had reinvented his style to resemble Muñoz.

At any rate, whomever it was that Brooker was studying, it's obviously pretty early in his career. Much, much better stuff would come from him after 1991. He's developed into one of my very favorite comic artists, and while this material isn't really as satisfying as what he's done in this decade, it's certainly very interesting to see how his work has evolved.

As for the new material, well, it's much more entertaining than decade-old Churchyard. Judge Dredd now has an expansive 15-page strip, the first part of a storyline called "The Bazooka" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy. This one revisits some characters from the competitive eating circuit first seen a few years back in the weekly. In this story, they're running a "fat camp." For people who want to get fat.

Plus there's the return of Andy Diggle and Jock's rogue ex-judge Lenny Zero in an excellent two-part adventure, and a new SF tale called Wardog by Dan Abnett and the art team of Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague. This one's based on a Rebellion video game, but it turns out not to be all that bad despite a goofball premise. Our hero has a bomb in his head and if he fails to complete a contracted mission before the timer hits zero, he dies. I suppose that's the next natural step from the countdown clock in most video games, isn't it?

The Megazine would keep this format for the next year and a half, before it gets tweaked to become even better. Some of the strips don't completely knock you down, but overall, it is a fine mix of color and black and white, and of new and previously-printed material. David Bishop was editor during this period of reinvention, and he deserves full marks for making the best Megazine yet.

In other news, Rebellion recently issued "The Promised Land," the first collected edition of Kingdom, a very pleasant surprise from the Atavar team of Dan Abnett and Richard Elson which debuted without hoopla in December 2006 and proceeded to knock all the readers on their backsides with its incredibly clever take on the hoary old post-apocalypse genre.

Giving away too much about Kingdom would really spoil the great pleasure in watching it unfold and learning about the wild and dangerous world the creators put together. It starts with a pack of nine foot-tall genetically engineered dog-soldiers patrolling a wintry landscape and chopping apart hideous, slimy alien bug-things. The pack's alpha male is called Gene the Hackman and like the others, he speaks in slow, careful, simple sentences. The dialogue is countered by a surprisingly rich narration, suggesting the stories of Gene and his pack are treasured tales from a long, otherwise forgotten time. It's a comic where part of the joy is simply following the construction of the language, and how often do you get to say that about a comic book?

Of course, Kingdom proves to be about something bigger and sadder than the snow-covered wastes that these characters walk around, and as the scope increases to incorporate other characters, so does the opportunity for heartbreak and really powerful drama, the sort that Abnett doesn't often get to write in 2000 AD's pages. Each of the two series of Kingdom (2006-07 and 2007-08) are reprinted in this book along with some great-looking extra artwork by Elson. The third series is in production and planned to appear in 2000 AD later in the year. The book's certainly worth your time; every page is a real treat.

Next time, I'll be taking a pair of short summer breaks, but there's one last entry before I go, and in it, Garth Ennis returns to Judge Dredd. And the VCs. And Old One Eye. And D.R. and Quinch. And more. See you in seven!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

99. In Which Tyrannosaurs Cause a Fight

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.

May 2001: Prog 1244 features this wonderful cover by Jim Murray for the six-part series Satanus Unchained!, in which the black bull tyrannosaur first seen more than twenty years earlier in a Judge Dredd four-parter is hunted by a group of trappers and big-gamers who've come to the Cursed Earth to take their chances bringing down the planet's biggest, meanest predator. While Murray gets cover duties, the serial is actually painted by Colin MacNeil, who is perfectly suited to the gory action on the pages, as all the technology of the 22nd Century proves a poor match for a few tons of lightning-fast, hyper-smart killing power.

The serial is written by Gordon Rennie, who's quietly staked a claim at being the principal author in Cursed Earth-based tales, thanks to several years scripting Missionary Man and, recently, moving the adventures of Mean Machine out into the badlands in the pages of the Megazine. Rennie chose to script the story in a pastiche of the over-the-top narrative style of older 2000 AD storylines, effortlessly evoking early '80s Pat Mills with captions that describe Satanus's cunning thought processes and using lots of exclamation points. It works perfectly, and the finished story is just terrific. Editor Andy Diggle was quite right to have commissioned it.

Only Pat Mills did not seem to agree.

Each episode of the serial came with a byline stating that Satanus was created by Mills and artist Mike McMahon, but that didn't seem to quell Mills' aggravation that the character was used without his permission. At the time, Mills was firmly opposed to any of his characters being written by any other creator, a policy which extended to fanzines, which declined to feature fanfic with his creations. Over time, Mills' viewpoint has softened somewhat, leading to the latest issue of Zarjaz being a Mills-verse special. Diggle countered that he never considered Satanus a "Pat Mills character," but rather one of Judge Dredd's rogues gallery.

The editor and writer failed to find any agreement on the subject, and Mills, who was already unhappy with the current ABC Warriors debacle, declined to write for the comic again until after Diggle stepped down at the end of the year. He would return with a page in the 25th Anniversary issue, and the Warriors and Slaine would each return in 2003.

Also in this issue, you've got the debut of a major new villain called Armon Gill in the fantastic Dredd four-parter "The Chief Judge's Man" by John Wagner and Will Simpson, more of the ongoing "Return to Mars" storyline in ABC Warriors by Mills and Boo Cook, the second episode of a Sinister Dexter three-parter by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke, and the second part of a serial called A Love Like Blood by John Smith and Frazer Irving. Last week I had mentioned that Diggle's "rocket-fuel" approach would sometimes result in stories that felt unfortunately chopped up and impossible to embrace. A Love Like Blood would be one of those.

You get the feeling that the serial started from a great pitch - it's Romeo and Juliet done with vampires and werewolves - but at seven episodes, it's at least five too short. Smith's high-concept plot results in some genuinely wild and wonderful ideas. I love the way that these high-tech monsters have their claws into frontline weapon technology and the latest scientific advances, and the werewolves are, amusingly, headquartered in Silicon Valley. Irving's art is simply amazing; he comes up with some great character designs for the Sangreal and Luperci families.

It's all done in far too breakneck a pace, however. It really feels like critical characterization was sacrificed in order to get the plot moving from one wild cliffhanger to the next. Our heroes - what were their names again? - meet at the end of episode two, fall in love and hit the road to avoid their families, who set all other business aside when it's learned the werewolf chicky is pregnant and must be killed immediately. She's dead at the end of part five. Who was she, again?

And here we see the problem with "rocket-fuel" storytelling. If you don't know who the characters are, then the 2000 AD classics that you wish to emulate are not going to be Dredd, Slaine and Sam Slade, but rather plot-heavy bores like Death Planet and Project Overkill. Nobody remembers anything about the leads of those old serials, either. Or much of anything else beyond the nice art.

Three of this prog's stories have since been collected. 2006's Judge Dredd: The Chief Judge's Man reprints this first Armon Gill story and its two sequels. A Love Like Blood is included in 2007's Storming Heaven: The Frazer Irving Collection, and as noted previously, you can get all of "Return to Mars" in 2008's The ABC Warriors: The Third Element.

Before I call this entry a-finished, a special Thrillpowered Thank You to my buddy Pete, who tracked down the missing Megazines from my collection. Longtime readers know that I lost a huge chunk of my British comic library in a flood four years ago; certain issues have been very stubborn to find again. Thanks very much, Pete, and if I'm ever in Edinburgh, I owe you dinner!

Next time, in the hundredth Thrillpowered Thursday entry, you'll be full of wrong if you don't read about the new Kingdom collected edition. Plus the debut of the 100-page fourth volume of the Megazine! See you in seven, fellow Earthlets!