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!

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