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!

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