Thursday, August 27, 2009

109. Thrill-Power Starts to Get Overloaded

As 2000 AD entered the year 2002, it was with a new editor, Matt Smith. There was a good deal of fandom interest in this at the time, as Smith had chosen to keep a much lower online profile than his predecessor Andy Diggle had, and many people were speculating what his tenure would be like. Less heralded then was Judge Dredd Megazine's new editor. Alan Barnes took the reins as David Bishop stepped down following such a long and commendable service, but Barnes already had a new assignment for the veteran Bishop in mind.

Barnes came to the Megazine following some time as editor of Doctor Who Magazine for Panini. Wikipedia suggests he'd been at the wheel there for the better part of four years, during the very difficult transition time of 1998-2002, when the Paul McGann TV movie failed to become a series, and he somehow managed to keep the magazine alive and very vibrant during those lean years. He seems to have succeeded by really amping up the quality of both the comic strip, which became essential reading as it transitioned to full color (and remained superior to any and all Doctor Who novels published during that period which weren't written by Lawrence Miles), and also by really bringing out the best in the magazine's feature writers. For years, the magazine's writers had been doing great work going behind the scenes of the production of the original series, but I think it was during Barnes' tenure that the quality went even higher, with incredibly interesting research, very detailed, probing interviews, and, most memorably, a lengthy, serialized memoir by the show's longest-serving producer.

Judge Dredd Megazine had only been revamped just eight months previously, taking the 100-page perfect-bound format used by the annual year-end special Progs. While readers all seemed to like the fourth volume of the comic, under Barnes and designer Graham Rolfe, the comic got another kick up the backside. As far as comics go, there initially wasn't a great deal that was actually new between the covers. The new strips in issue 9 include a very funny Dredd adventure called "Dead Lost in Mega-City One" by John Wagner and Peter Doherty which seems to be parodying some contemporary, dunderheaded British TV craze, and the ongoing Wardog by Dan Abnett, Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague. They're joined by what will prove to be the final serial for the veteran Missionary Man by Gordon Rennie and John Ridgway. The popular series is finally winding down at this point, and will conclude its 74-episode run in the spring.

Of course, reprints are a regular feature during this period of the Megazine. This time, six episodes are dusted off: four each from Strontium Dog ("The Kid Knee Caper" by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra) and Bad Company (the first four parts, by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy). Even these just appear a little more vibrant and interesting than the reprints of the previous few months, thanks to a very neat design choice. The current Megazine is a very different size than the old, almost-square newsprint 2000 ADs of the 1980s - it is sleeker and taller. To accomodate the reprints, they are shrunk down to the current page width, but printed on color paper, with borders above and below the comic, along with a neat little "work order" indicating that they've been retrieved from a special vault in Tharg's Command Module. In the very next issue of the Megazine, the classic thrills will be joined by reprints of Hellboy by Mike Mignola and John Byrne.

It's with this issue that we first start getting lengthy text articles filling the page count. This time there are two. One of them is a behind-the-scenes look at the newest merchandising: full-cast audio productions of 2000 AD-universe stories from the good people at Big Finish, who have been turning out their popular lines of direct-to-CD adventures of Doctor Who and other cult teevee properties for a couple of years by this point. Their 2000 AD line features several of the regular players from their repertory company, with Toby Longworth starring as Dredd, and Simon Pegg as Johnny Alpha.

It's interesting stuff, but the really impressive feature is the first in what will prove to be a quite lengthy series of articles written by outgoing editor David Bishop on the history of our favorite comic. Thrill-Power Overload, which will be revised, updated and collected into an essential book a few years down the road, was assembled from dozens of interviews and previously unseen documentation.

This first episode of the series details the conflicts that went on at the comic's original publisher IPC to get the darn thing put together, with jealous infighting between departments and unsatisfactory returns on artwork. It includes samples of never-before-seen pages, including the original splash of Invasion 1988, as it was then-called, with parachuting Soviet troops storming London, and the remarkable sight of John Probe decapitating some guy with a karate chop.

As the series continues, Bishop will interview almost every major player from the comic's lifetime (only Alan Moore, Richard Burton and Alan McKenzie will decline to go on the record), and produce a genuinely excellent, no-punches-pulled history of 2000 AD. The hardcover collected edition, published in 2007, is flatly one of the most important books about the medium to see print, and a must-have for anybody with a mind to having a serious library about comic books.

In other news, earlier this year, Rebellion released the sixth collection of The ABC Warriors. This book, "The Shadow Warriors," contains the longest of all the Warriors' adventures thus far, an epic written by their creator Pat Mills and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra and Henry Flint. It originally appeared in three "books" between 2003-06, and since I'm looking forward to rereading the original episodes as they come up in the rotation, I just skimmed over the book to get a good feel for it.

Honestly, this collection is terrific. The artwork is, of course, wonderful. Ezquerra is one of 2000 AD's best art droids and he really brings a great, dirty sensibility to the dusty sandhole of the terraformed Mars. But when Flint takes over, things somehow get even better. There's a genuine "shock of the new" feel to Flint's episodes, as our heroes' new, imaginatively-designed foes take center stage and the weirdness factor gets ramped up to ten.

Skimming this volume confirmed what I felt about it upon its release: that the Guv'nor was back in town and ready to kick ass and take names. We'll come to this point in Thrillpowered Thursday in a few months, but it's clear that Pat Mills' time away from the comic, during which he created Requiem: Vampire Knight for his French publisher, recharged his batteries to full. The 2003-model Mills was not the same droid as the one from the 1990s. Here, it's one wild idea after another, no preaching, no stagnation, just a constant escalation of mad plot devices and vibrant characters. If the previous few ABC Warriors collections had been frustrating for one political reason or another, then this is the one to get.

It's every bit as wild and excellent as it was when Ezquerra had last drawn the title in 1979, and the robots were riding on the backs of tyrannosaurs, armed with bazookas. This is that Mills - the one with the turbo-charged imagination creating physics-defying freakiness and making downright excellent comics. I strongly recommend you check this book out! (And keep an eye out for more about Requiem: Vampire Knight at my Hipster Dad's Bookshelf blog in a couple of weeks!)

Next time, Nikolai Dante hightails it out of Russia, and Dan Abnett and Richard Elson have a lot to say in Atavar! See you in seven!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

108. A Night 2 Remember

I think we've reached a little landmark, of sorts. Shortly before I decided to follow in Paul's footsteps and start a 2000 AD readin' blog, I did a LiveJournal post celebrating the comic's 30th anniversary. This served as the "pilot" for the blog that you're reading today. Well, the reread has now brought us to prog 1280, the 25th anniversary, which was published in February 2002. It has this nice, funny cover by Kevin Walker and a lineup of just three stories.

First is a double-length Judge Dredd episode by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. It's called "Leaving Rowdy" and sees Dredd passing the torch, and his old apartment in Rowdy Yates Conapt, to his clone-brother Rico. It's a quiet and reflective anniversary moment, even though it ends in a hail of gunfire, as these things do. It's a really terrific story, showing that Dredd still has twinges of guilt about the death of Judge Lopez some twenty years previously, in the "Judge Child" epic. Even though Rico had been introduced already, to my mind, this story really seems to establish the tone and the feel of the many interlocking stories and subplots about Dredd and his "family" that would come over the next five years.

Bringing up the rear this issue is Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser. This episode, part one of a storyline called "The Romanov Job," is pretty close to a one-off. It allows new readers a quick introduction to Nikolai, his current partner-in-crime the Countessa, and his current status as the most wanted man in the Empire. It's really great, and I'll be revisiting "The Romanov Job" in a couple of weeks.

These two stories are the best things in the comic, but it's what's between them that bears a little investigation. It's "A Night 2 Remember," the 25th anniversary "story."

The loose plot of the story, if it can even be called that, is that Tharg, his creator droids, and as many characters as can be drawn, have all gathered at London's fashionable "Ministry of Sound" nightclub for a great big party with a concert by the British techno-metal band Pitchshifter. This mirrored the real-world anniversary bash held at the club that same week. Each of the story's ten pages is handled by a different writer-artist team, and so you just have to take it on faith that there's a plot there at all. Still, the whole indulgent, smug affair is nevertheless incredibly fun, even as it teeters from nostalgic to self-reverential and all the way over to downright mean-spirited.

It starts out with Pat Mills' return to the comic, after stepping away following his disagreements with the former editor. Here, he stacks the deck in his favor by coming aboard with artist Kevin O'Neill and special guest star Marshal Law, who makes his first and thus-far only 2000 AD appearance here, beating the hell out of original 2000 AD star MACH One. The superhero-hunting Marshal has a few words with Judge Dredd before setting his sights on Zenith. Presumably, Law and Zenith settle their differences off-panel, because Zenith and his agent Eddie later have a page by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell where they contemplate their relevance in the current market, and Eddie considers taking on the dragon from Chronos Carnival as a new client.

Elsewhere, John Tomlinson and Kev Walker detail an incident in the gents' between Tor Cyan and the Balls Brothers, Mike Carey and Anthony Williams have Tharg mediate a misunderstanding between Waldo "D.R." Dobbs and Carver Hale, Robbie Morrison and Ian Gibson send Nikolai Dante on the dance floor with Halo Jones, Alan Grant and Trevor Hairsine give Hoagy from Robo-Hunter a book on "how to pick up babes" and watch him try it out on Feek the Freak while the Stix Brothers let the Helltrekkers know that they're not welcome at the party.

Meanwhile, Dan Abnett and Simon Davis have Sinister and Dexter deal with Torquemada and a very drunk Judge Death and consider Durham Red's assets (this page was my son's favorite), and Andy Diggle and Jock dispatch Anderson and Dredd - at least we think it's Dredd - to chase Pitchshifter off the stage, and make a point about editorial staff being commissioned to write their own characters.

That brings me to the most infamous pages of "A Night 2 Remember." Just as prog 500's "Tharg's Head Revisited" featured a page or two that sailed really close to the wind, Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving really raised some eyebrows with a page in which Tharg and Mek-Quake send a number of unloved fictional characters into a supernova, and then toss a couple of unloved creator droids into Mek-Quake's grinders. It's delightfully mean-spirited, and really, you can't say that the author of "The Golden Fox Rebellion" didn't have it coming.

But the one that everybody loves and remembers - and spoiling the jokes with scans would neither do them justice or be fair to you - is Garth Ennis's closing page, beautifully drawn by Dave Gibbons. In it, Tharg starts to take the opportunity to white out certain characters from 2000 AD's history in the 1970s that he's embarrassed by, only to have Ro-Jaws gleefully remind him that Tharg has a lot more to be humiliated about, a lot more recently. There are pointed digs at artists who can't meet deadlines, and writers who are all "twelve years old."

Ennis, who has always expressed public dissatisfaction with his work on the comic, skewers the heck out of himself - the Ennis creator droid rolls in and is shown to be a teeny little tractor about the size of your foot with a pint of Guinness atop it. Neither John Smith nor Mark Millar escape intact, and frankly, I've not been able to see Millar's name in print for the last seven years without hearing his little droid's deeply unflattering dialogue from this page. In the end, Tharg kicks the early 1990s to Mek-Quake and tells Bill Savage that all is forgiven, unwittingly setting the stage for Savage's return to the comic in a couple of year's time.

It's the sort of wild affair which can't happen very often, but reading it with a good knowledge of the comic's history and a playful love for its characters is a pretty darn satisfying little read. It's not very likely to be reprinted, so keep an eye out at eBay and your local thrill-merchant for a copy of this prog. Although, having said that, the forthcoming Marshal Law omnibus collection from Top Shelf will be incomplete without this one page, so hopefully Rebellion will let 'em do it. Bookmark my Reprint This! blog and I'll let you know.

Next time, Alan Barnes takes over editorial duties at the Megazine, David Bishop begins the Thrill-Power Overload feature, and the ABC Warriors return to your bookshelf, so I have a short review of the recent graphic novel collection. See you in seven!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

107. Unknown Life Form Unknown Life Form

Here at Thrillpowered Thursday headquarters at the Hipster Pad in the 'burbs of Atlanta, we're always on the lookout for silly pronouncements and hype from our Mighty friend Tharg, alien editor of 2000 AD and lone emissary to our planet from the star-system Betelgeuse. Every so often, he'll promise or hint at a return for a favorite series that never quite makes it back, or announces a graphic novel that never arrives, but in January 2002's prog 1276, he really drops the ball when he spends the editorial column of the inside front cover's "Nerve Centre" to tell us about the forthcoming Judge Dredd movies. Yes, it turns out that seven years after the failure of the Sylvester Stallone film, a liaison has been formed with a company called Shoreline Entertainment, and they've got two scripts in hand for features entitled "Dredd Reckoning" and "Possession." So seven years after the Stallone movie, there's word of two more forthcoming, and seven years after this announcement, no such movies have been made. It is sort of frustrating the way the talents at Rebellion can make such darn fine comics but consistently find the ball dropped when they branch out into ancillary products.

For example, where, I ask again, is my drokking Strontium Dog first-person shooter? Pretending that I'm Johnny Alpha on the Frigate level of GoldenEye is not the same!

Well, I speak of darn fine comics, and you'd think that with a gorgeous panel like the one below, Storming Heaven by Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving would be the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Never let it be said that Irving can't draw the crap out of an image like this:

Unfortunately, Storming Heaven is another stunning missed opportunity, and perhaps the final example of what I've mentioned in this blog several times, where former editor Andy Diggle's "rocket fuel" approach to super-compressed storytelling in short-form serials resulted in something really unsatisfying. The concept is radical, and pure genius: basically, LSD in the sixties gave everybody who took it superpowers, and now Charles Manson has gone to war with Dr. Timothy Leary.

It is an odd experience, reading this story now, as the media remembers the Manson Family murders forty years later, and seeing archival footage of the pathetic tragedy everywhere I look online. Of course, the Manson archetype really isn't called by that name - he's "Caliban," although the use of quotes from the real person, and the use of Manson's mug shot in the background of one scene, kind of make the intentions absolutely clear.

Conceptually, Storming Heaven should have been spectacular, but it all ends up being rushed and pretty dull. The stakes are too great, the concept is too wild, and the cast is too large for this to work in an engaging way in just seven episodes. In the image above, you'll see that strangely pretentious caption - the narration throughout is quite knowingly po-faced - urging us to "remember" all these costumed heroes hurling themselves into danger, defending the city against Caliban's ugly, grimy hordes. The irony, of course, is that it's not possible to remember characters who only get a single panel's screentime and no dialogue before vanishing for two weeks, and when we're next told about them, it's a breathless account of their death via another character who is introduced only to tell the two female leads that everybody's dying. It's impossible to care about the assault on utopia, when we've only been told by an unreliable narrator that, prior to episode two, this utopia really was amazing, honestly.

I remember saying back in the day that Storming Heaven should have been a much grander, and bolder exercise, and this reread certainly reinforces my old opinion. Told across three books of ten episodes, with the assault on San Francisco coming at the end of the second, the seeds were certainly here for something downright amazing. I mean, Irving's artwork is just eyepoppingly wonderful on every page, and certainly the concept is so cool that I'm sure we readers would have loved watching Rennie do some worldbuilding to cement this utopia as a place as vibrant and interesting as, say, Mega-City One or Nu-Earth or Stickleback's London. Sadly, though, Storming Heaven was little more than a beautiful missed opportunity. It is available in a fine collected edition, however: Storming Heaven: The Frazer Irving Collection assembles this and several other Irving serials and one-offs (including A Love Like Blood and his Shaun of the Dead tie-in episodes), and it certainly is a gorgeous book.

Also appearing in this prog are a one-off Judge Dredd adventure by Rennie and Paul Marshall, a Future Shock by Richard McTighe and PJ Holden, and the continuing Bad Company serial by Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy. Oh, and a little something wild called Shakara...

As I was mentioning last week, two new series debuted in Prog 2002. First was Storming Heaven, but the second was an entirely different prospect, something which was altogether more promising. Oddly, however, by the end of its first series, Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint's Shakara was proving itself to be just as much of a disappointment, albeit for different reasons.

Shakara certainly looked like something amazingly new and readers had good reason to be excited about it. The story begins with the destruction of Earth and the raging, vengeful boasting of the galaxy's sole surviving human, an astronaut who was in space at the time and is now a prisoner in one of those fight-or-die sci-fi arenas. And on page four, this fellow, the guy we thought was the protagonist, gets casually murdered by one of what would prove to be a host of completely, wonderfully bizarre alien nasties. And then the killer and everybody else get slaughtered when the series' real protagonist shows up: an indestructible, utterly alien, long-limbed, spindly, mad-eyed warrior with giant freaking swords on the end of his arms who blows the almighty hell out of anybody and everybody in this violent, wild universe. His only word: the mad scream "SHAKARA!"

Well, frankly, if that doesn't get your attention, I don't know what to tell you.

Unfortunately, within a couple of episodes, Shakara had devolved into a dull bore because every installment was exactly the same. It all looked spectacular, with Flint's fantastic sense of design and desire to throw caution and convention to the wind, but it got boring really quickly. It was not an eight-part serial, but rather a collection of one-offs and two-parters, and in each one, some new, ostensibly indestructible super-nasty would do something indescribably over-the-top and evil, and then Shakara would show up, prove that he(it?) was a heck of a lot more indestructible than the super-nasty thought it was, and then open a supernova or a black hole up under under their ass and rocket away, yelling "SHAKARA!"

I was reminded very quickly of my friends in Corn Pone Flicks and their wonderful film Star Dipwads, and how the producer of some space epic couldn't understand why his audience was disappointed, because he'd given them suspense, three exciting battle scenes and the actual appearance of the protagonist, and was aggravated to learn that they wanted a plot as well.

Well, Shakara returned for two more series in 2005 and 2008, and the fourth series will be starting in 2000 AD in one week. The first three stories are all compiled in this book, and it looks like Morrison's plan was to establish something wilder and weirder from the outset, using the patchy 2002 series as a launchpad for longer, more intricate narratives which readers could really sink their teeth into. When that second story started in the summer of 2005, I know a few people's eyes rolled, but we quickly got in line, because "The Assassin" is a thunderously cool little epic which piles on one outlandish SF concept after another as a whole gang of intergalactic bad boys, any of whom could headline their own wild series, gets together to do something about this idiot screaming "SHAKARA!" and fucking with the laws of physics.

And then the third series introduces a mob of robot anti-gravity tyrannosaurs and gives some backstory to everything, and it's utterly perfect, blissfully cool and unlike anything else in comics. Long may it scream.

Next time, 2000 AD celebrates its 25th anniversary... and Pat Mills returns!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

106. Prog Packs

Welcome back! 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, about one issue an evening, and once each week for the foreseeable future, I'll see what I'm inspired to write.

Well, it's probably Friday for most of my readers in Europe by the time this gets posted, but hello and welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday anyway. Your humble, newly-unemployed blogger has been a bit crazy-busy, what with a three-thousand mile road trip, shuffling kids from their vacation to summer camp and getting ready for school, cleaning the heck out of this house and, oh yeah, looking for a new job, but the Hipster Son and I have sat down to reread the last couple of comics that the House o' Tharg released in 2001 and figured I'd give you good people something to spend a couple of minutes looking at. So today's focus is "Prog 2002," the year-end edition.

The previous two year-end books contained far more surprises and one-offs than this one. Honestly, it's a huge comedown from those, and doesn't feel anywhere as special as its predecessors. There are two Dredd episodes. One of these is the third "Slick Dickens" story. The previous two established a formula where Dredd, acting incredibly out of character and assisted by some over-the-top narration, comes up against a super-assassin, and it's revealed at the end that everything we've just read was a hack writer's crummy bestseller and the real Dredd is not amused. There's nothing new about this latest addition; John Wagner seems to enjoy writing them for the exercise of playing with the breathless pulp fiction cliches. It's a little amusing, but it's hardly special enough for a year-end prog, really.

Elsewhere, there are double-part opening episodes for the brand new thrills Storming Heaven by Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving and Shakara by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint, as well as a new run of Nikolai Dante by Morrison and Simon Fraser. Also starting this issue is Bad Company, which had been trailed with a prologue episode a year previously, by the original team of Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy. There's a one-off Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, and a complete twelve-page story called "Memento" written and drawn by Bryan Talbot, and the rest of it is pin-ups and filler material.

No wonder it feels slight; apart from the first lineup of the 2002 strips (Dredd, Dante, Bad Company and the two new thrills), all this comic gives us is an extra Dredd, a Sin Dex and a glorified Future Shock. Compare that to the previous two special progs, and you'll see what I mean.

Actually, I am doing "Memento" a disservice by selling it so short. It is certainly nice to see Talbot's work in 2000 AD after such a long absence - fourteen years since his last Nemesis the Warlock episode. It looks like he was not really prolific in comics in the 1990s, but he did show up in some Vertigo titles and had some deserved acclaim for the series The Tale of One Bad Rat. "Memento" is a dialogue-free story set in an ugly, cramped, underground future and the artwork is quite lovely.

It's interesting to speculate what might have been, had incoming editor Matt Smith found "Memento" to be more successful than he did. Obviously, 2000 AD's fans prefer to see recurring character thrills rather than one-offs, but it might have been neat to have seen an annual story like this, told by creators from outside the normal 2000 AD stable. Established writers and artists probably aren't interested in doing a five-page Future Shock, but something a little longer, like this, might have tempted a few names, and been a nice treat each December. An annual fifteen-page weird SF tale by Moebius or Makoto Yukimura or Zoran Janjetov or the woefully unsung Tim Eldred would certainly have been more interesting than the yearly comedy Sin Dex Christmas gag strip.

In other news, I wanted to follow up on the downbeat previous entry to this pulse-poundin' blog. I had been grumbling about the dimwits running Diamond Distribution, and countrywide complaints that fans' orders for 2000 AD were not being filled. Well, a couple of weeks ago, Diamond did finally ship the first of their polybagged batches of 2000 AD, containing issues 1638-1641. Unless my ears and sources have deceived me, Diamond seems to have shipped it out to every retailer that ordered it. I have not heard anyone report that they didn't get any. Let's hope this puts an end to the problems that have bewitched our ability to read the House of Tharg's releases for the past six months. The next polybagged set, containing the next five issues, should be on shelves in the next week or two.

I also wanted to mention that I found thrillpower in abundance on my recent honeymoon road trip up north. Plenty of shops order 2000 AD for the subscriber or two who asks for it, but you don't often find stores with a good selection of recent issues on the stands. So if you've been stymied by inability to receive your latest progs this year, I'd recommend you look up either Hub Comics or The Million Year Picnic, each in Boston, Massachusetts. I was extremely impressed by both stores and their wonderful staffs. MYP is just wonderful if you love small, busy, low-light bookstores like me, and Hub, which probably edges MYP just a touch with its more comfortable layout, has multiple copies of several recent Rebellion trades, so if you missed out on The VCs or the first Ace Trucking Company collection, drop 'em a line!

Next time, I'll look over the Rennie/Irving collaboration Storming Heaven and get ready for the forthcoming fourth series of Shakara with a short review of the recent graphic novel collection. See you in seven!

(Geez, this fella's been climbing quite a while, hasn't he?)