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!

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