Thursday, June 25, 2009

104. Saying Hello

It's certainly fair to suggest that this little blog of mine does more than a fair share of cheerleading. As a loyal Squaxx dek Thargo, I genuinely believe that 2000 AD is the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. But that's not to suggest that I think it's perfect. Even in the midst of the magazine's great return to hyperquality over the last eleven years or so, there have been periodic hiccups in the quality of the series within its covers, and weeks of turgid pacing where none of the creators on its pages seems to be firing on all cylinders. The last quarter of 2001 is one of those dull periods, when only Judge Dredd seems to be flying the flag high. During the last few months of 2001, Dredd is sharing space with a number of space-filling one-off Future Shocks, some wildly inconsistent Sinister Dexter shorts, and two absolute dogs which ramp up the boredom circuits for ten weeks: Steve Moore and Staz Johnson's Killer and a well-meaning mess of an Anderson: Psi Division case by Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson. That's Killer spotlighted on the cover of prog 1266 (Oct. 2001), and I think it's a nice, moody piece by Jock.

Since returning to 2000 AD in 1999, Steve Moore contributed one misfire after another, and Killer, or "Filler" as fans quickly tagged it, was the dullest yet. It's another case of what I've hinted at in other entries about this period. The serial is all plot and no character. The lead character is called Madoc Blade (really), and he's a former gladiator in a far-future, alien-packed world where death is around every corner and nobody likes squishy, fleshy humans. It's almost as though, reflecting upon how many fans complained that his earlier Red Fang was too confusing, with too many twists and turns and subplots, Moore responded by scripting something that would have fit right in a 1981 prog during a short break from Return to Armageddon or something.

Actually, Moore does one very weird trick in Killer that's worth mentioning, just because it's so strange. Episodes two and three consist of a lengthy flashback in which Madoc, retired from the arena and drinking himself to death, is uncovered and is telling the story of his ugly past as a fight-or-die slave to his new benefactor. The cliffhanger comes right in the middle of his story. In the flashback. Fifteen years previously, a weirdo alien judge sentences him to death by combat, and the climax becomes "How did Madoc get out of this?" I honestly can't recall another example of a cliffhanger flashback, and with good reason. Well, at least Johnson's art, inked beautifully by David Roach, is very nice, and he came up with some appropriately weird alien thugs and monsters.

Likewise, Arthur Ranson's artwork on the Judge Anderson ten-parter "R*Evolution" is really wonderful. He devised some terrific imagery for the scenes in which Anderson goes onto the psychic plane to investigate the super-rich magnate Vernon D'Arque, a former Mega-citizen who now lives on an asteroid somewhere in space and who has merged his mind with six other citizens. Justice Department gets involved when one of the minds within the D'Arque-gestalt sends a psychic confession to an old, unsolved murder.

One problem with this story - and I say this as one of Alan Grant's biggest fans - is that readers never really understand exactly what the heck a gestalt mind is. Grant sort of takes it as written that D'Arque has come up with a stunning advance in evolution, even though it's later shown to be the product of alien technology, but never pauses to even explain what all this means to a human who's elected to merge minds with D'Arque. It's such a bizarre, outre concept that it stops the whole story in its tracks, asking "Wait a minute; why would anybody do this to themselves?" Grant never answers. We get clear-as-the-nose-on-yer-face hints that there's a dark side to life in the gestalt, but by the time our Cassandra wakes up in somebody else's mind, or something, the script has become so confused that Ranson's art simply can't salvage it anymore.

Honestly, this period is pretty disappointing, but it's not all bad. With another four-part scrap between Judge Dredd and the mysterious justice killer, Armon Gill, running at this time, the prog's just about worth it for that alone. Yet the Future Shocks are really only "shocking" if you're under ten, and Sinister Dexter is almost consistently on autopilot...

Oh, wait.

Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but Sinister Dexter's finest hour didn't come with one of their epic male bonding melodramas, nor with one of those episodes which turned everything upside down and unexpectedly killed a major supporting player. It's "I Say Hello," a curious little five-pager by Dan Abnett and Marc Pingriff which centers on the doorman of a posh hotspot in Downlode.

I can't tell you why I think "I Say Hello" is so amazing, or pull apart just how it works as well as it does. Really, this blog's going to get awfully boring if I keep mentioning how Sin Dex should've ended ages beforehand, how it reached a natural conclusion with "Eurocrash" and so on, but every once in a while, Abnett and his artists do something unexpectedly eye-opening. Here, there's such a wonderful twist, not within the plot, but with convention and presentation that you can't help but be charmed. It's a classic.

Having said that, let's dive back into the Sinister Dexter's recent past and the new collected edition of "Eurocrash." Like "I Say Hello," this is a straight-up Sin Dex classic. The collection starts with a couple of short stories and then dives right in to the exceptional, epic-length storyline in which crime queenpin Demi Octavo's hold over her city slips out from under her, leading to blood in the streets. By the time it's over, the balance of power in Downlode is changed forever, and Sinister and Dexter go their separate ways, each determined to ferret out the mysterious parties behind the carnage, and to never see each other again.

Which makes it incredibly hard to understand why, when you turn the page, the deadly duo are working together as a team.

Rebellion's line of reprints is easily the best in the industry right now. They do a laudable job 49 times out of 50, picking great material and presenting it in a standout format, on glossy paper, with matte-finish covers and typically some very nice extras. Well, their skimpy little creator biography paragraphs could use a little work, but otherwise it's a terrific reprint line. That's what makes this book so darned hard to understand. For some utterly baffling reason, the collection skips over twenty-four freaking episodes of the series.

As screw-ups go, this one ranks up there. The whole phase of the series when it was retitled Downlode Tales is excised, as well as two one-offs that ran alongside Eurocrash's earliest episodes and set up characters who would reappear within the bigger epic. What you got in those 24 episodes, apart from some very nice artwork by Simon Davis, Greg Staples and Chris Weston, among others, were some critical continuing subplots, the return of Billie Octavo and the deaths of several major recurring players, including both Bunkum and Nervous Rex. Oh yeah, and the whole point, the whole payoff, of the vengeful promises of the last two pages of "Eurocrash." At least Monty Python gave us a "scene missing" screen; this book just hopes you're not reading very closely.

I've never said this about a Rebellion book before, but this is one to avoid. Do not buy this book. They should pulp every copy they can get their hands on and issue a second edition with "Lone Shark," "The Ass Kickers," "Scrubbers" and "The Whack Pack" following Eurocrash. The fifth Sin Dex collection should have "City on Fire" and "Lock and 'Lode" and then the four stories which conclude this book: "Exit Wounds," "Observations," "Mission to Mangapore" and "Life Behind Bars," and probably a couple of other episodes after them. Otherwise, neither this nor the next book are worth purchasing. Speaking as a huge fan of the publisher and a pretty big fan of Sin Dex, I wish I didn't have to say that.

Next time, maybe we can get a last ray of sunshine in before Thrillpowered Thursday takes its summer break...?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

103. End of a Short Era

Prog 1261, published in September '01, sees the end of two of the current major storylines. Both the Dredd epic "Helter Skelter" and the second Durham Red serial, "The Vermin Stars," reach their final episodes. They're both completely overshadowed by the eye-popping events in Nikolai Dante, discussed last time, but the Durham Red story, with a spotlight cover by Ben Willsher, is memorable for the interesting way it seems to turn its back completely on the character. When Durham was resurrected by Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison a couple of years previously, it looked like she was set to be a regularly-featured character. Yet after that initial serial, there was a one-off episode, and then this lengthy layoff before this storyline, which ends with her supposed death and a poetic narrative epilogue which seals her fate, that even if she had survived the explosive events thousands of years in Earth's future, she was never heard from again. That was certainly a surprise to readers.

For many readers, Andy Diggle's resignation as editor came as a very big surprise, too. Particularly the way he announced it.

In earlier installments of this blog, I had mentioned that Diggle was a regular poster on the newsgroup alt.comics.2000ad. There, he and several of the other freelancers held court and the vibe was pretty relaxed and laid-back. But there was an ongoing frustration: regular complaints from a well-read, albeit unhappy, reader in Eastern Europe. Now it's pretty clear that Diggle's displeasure in the editor's seat had a lot more to do with going rounds with contributors, and the new owners desiring to relocate from London to Oxford, than a disgruntled fan. But it was to her that Diggle made the following announcement:

"If the editor can't re-write without causing a diplomatic incident, is shackled with a restrictive budget, and the editorial department is spread so thin that there is no time for re-writing anyway, what is he to do?

Employ the best people available. Or quit and become a writer.

So that's what I'm going to do. I have resigned as editor of 2000 AD, and from Christmas will be devoting my time to writing comics full-time - starting with "Judge Dredd Versus Aliens", which John Wagner has asked me to co-write with him. I guess he has a higher regard for my editorial skills than you do.

Since 2000 AD requires that its editors commission far in advance, there were several Diggle-ordered scripts in the pipeline which would appear throughout the year 2002, including two major new stories which would debut in December's year-end prog, and the next Strontium Dog story, which will begin in prog 1300 and, unusually, would run alongside a series called Bison which Diggle had rejected.

But that's down the line. The reaction that September was one of considerable shock and surprise that the much-liked editor was leaving after such a short tenure. Professionals and fans alike offered lots of praise for his time in the job. True, there were some misfires and disappointments, and he never found time to launch a major ongoing series, but he discovered several major new talents, and modern 2000 AD would certainly be poorer without the contributions of Boo Cook, D'Israeli, Frazer Irving, Si Spurious and others who got early work in 2000 AD's pages during his two-year run. His assistant editor, Matt Smith, would take over starting with Prog 2002, but that's getting ahead of things.

Speaking of getting ahead of things, the eighth Nikolai Dante collection was released a few months ago. This compiles all of the episodes that originally appeared in 2000 AD # 1518-1580 - 31 in total, all written by Robbie Morrison, with art by Simon Fraser and John Burns.

Maybe the old reviewing circuits are needing a little juice, because I can't come up with much better of a reason for anyone to own this other than "it's freaking Nikolai Dante, people, come on!" By this stage of the series, Dante is working as Tsar Vladimir's principal envoy and blunt instrument. We catch up with several cast members from previous installments, seeing what terrorism Dante's half-sister Lulu has been committing in the name of the Romanovs, crossing paths with his old criminal sparring partner the Countessa de Winter, and making a swath of new enemies while quietly working out some scheme of his own to get back at the tsar.

This set of episodes from what I term the fourth phase of the Dante epic (it is entering its fifth and probably final stage in current installments) is completely terrific. I think there are a few episodes where John Burns' painting is not as detailed as would be preferred, but his work on "The Tsar's Daughter," which looks into the strange death of Jena Makarov's mother many years previously, is truly remarkable. Simon Fraser is as fantastic as ever. He's teamed with colorist Gary Caldwell and the "Thieves' World" story, in particular, is vibrant and exciting. With the expected excellent reproduction from Rebellion, nice binding, gorgeous paper and matte cover, it's a far better-looking collection than practically anybody else in the industry. One of the best comics of the last decade in a package this gorgeous? Surely everybody is reading this, right?

Next week, ah, well, it looks to be something of a hiccup. Just to show we don't always spend every blog gushing about how brilliant 2000 AD is, Judge Anderson misfires, Steve Moore offers some Filler and, despite what I said above, the first Rebellion collected edition which I really think should be left on the shelf. You won't want to miss this... or maybe you do. See you in seven!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

102. Pests!

Welcome back to a slightly revived and very happily married Thrillpowered Thursday! Unfortunately, during my short break from the blog, I suffered from some computer unpleasantness and am currently working without a copy of a decent version of Photoshop, so for now, there's just going to be the single image with each entry, borrowed from the Barney fan site, which hosts the old thrill data-base and cover images. And we'll only be back for a short time: just four entries and then there will be a lengthy break while my co-reading children take one vacation and my new wife and I take one in another direction. But that's later on. For now, let's pick up about where we left off.

In August 2001, we come to prog 1257 and the welcome return of Ian Gibson to cover art duties. After their last appearance more than a year previously (covered here back in January), the pint-sized pest control droids of Banzai Battalion are back in action in a new six-part story drawn by Gibson from a script by John Wagner. The resulting story is a very silly, over-the-top homage to old war comics, with the blustery, true-blue Captain Bug Stomper leading his troops on an expedition through Mega-City One that leads them to a wonderful new garden in which to fight insects. The garden, introduced more than fifteen years previously in a Sci-Fi Special as the home of citizen Martha Fitzenheimer, becomes the battleground for rival teams of robots. Wagner never quite sends the story into a messy, ridiculous spiral like he'd done in such gems as Al's Baby and Robo-Hunter, but it's still a pretty fun and goofy six week story.

You can't really use "fun" or "goofy" to describe the final storyline in Nikolai Dante's ongoing "Tsar Wars" epic, by Robbie Morrison and John Burns. After so many months of high-stakes drama and bloody war, the Romanovs looked like they were about to win and wipe out the Makarov tsar, but he's got a pretty amazing ace up his sleeve, and suddenly there's a strange, armored form on the battlefield. In one of the most stunning cliffhangers in a series known for pretty stunning cliffhangers, four of the crest-bearing Romanov siblings confront the armored man, who shrugs off their superpowered attacks and brutally kills Nastasia in front of them.

If you're on the Romanov side, then the 13-part epic goes downhill fast from there. The armored guardian, who calls himself the Lord Protector and who reveals his identity a few weeks later, sends the rest of the siblings packing just as Makarov reinforcements arrive. It's a complete rout, and the series ends with not just Nastasia, but brothers Andreas and Viktor and father Dmitri all dead, along with half of the Rudinshtein Irregulars, the Romanovs completely destroyed, and Nikolai Dante on the run again, only now in an imperial Russia dozens of times more deadly than it was when the series began, since Tsar Vladimir Makarov has a phenomenal price on Dante' head.

There are many reasons to love Nikolai Dante, as it's one of the very best ongoing comics of the last several years. One of those reasons: the creators have been completely fearless about upending the status quo and killing off the supporting cast. This was a tremendous shock to readers at the time, and co-creator Simon Fraser played along, memorably posting "MY BABIES!!!" when asked how he felt about the bloodletting among the wonderful Romanov family.

There has been much more Dante in the years since "The Romanov Empire." If you're following along in the collected editions, and you certainly should, this actually only takes us to the end of the fifth volume. The eighth was released earlier in the year, and will be reviewed next week, and the ninth is due in September. The Banzai Battalion six-parter was collected in a Rebellion hardback, along with seven other episodes which featured the characters.

Next week, Durham Red finishes up "The Vermin Stars." See you in seven!