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!


Peter said...

It's not too long since I read these stories for the first time and I reckon you're half right here.

Storming Heaven is a real missed opportunity and a crying shame given that both writer and artist were in top form for the little we get. Maybe not three books, but at ten or twelve parts it would've had a lot more space for the idea to expand into a story. As you say, it suffers from exactly the same problem as A Love Like Blood: we go straight from introducing the characters to a grand showdown without anything else in between.

Shakara, however, I loved. It may have helped that I'd read the 2nd and 3rd chapters first but I was really tickled by the way it was structured almost as a series of vastly superior Future Shocks. The non-stop cavalcade of incredible art and designs (though the Space Invaders were my favourite) and neat sci-fi ideas blew me away. I'd say the episode with the fleas or ticks or whatever is up there with the very best one-offs Tharg's ever given us.

d. merrill said...

You know, I thought the concept of super hippies worked great as one or two page flashbacks in "Zenith". Why they felt the need to write an entire saga about the super hippies... a DEATHLY SERIOUS saga about the super hippies... is beyond me. Obviously they never met any REAL hippies, whose idea of 'fighting Manson' was to say 'wow man' a few times.

Good art, though.

SHAKARA's opening was brilliant. You read strips from that era and it's the only thing that really stands out.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Well, seeing how the heroes get their asses soundly kicked, "wow, man" is possibly all they did say to the Manson hordes...