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...?

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