Thursday, September 24, 2009

113. American Ugly

July 2002: In the pages of the Megazine, the new editor Alan Barnes has been shaking the heck outta everything, with tremendously fun results. One very positive change has been increasing the frequency from monthly to every fourth week, so there's an extra issue published each year, a schedule which remains in place today. There's a stronger relationship between the Meg and the prog than ever before, as, for the first time, non-Dredd series have been crossing over into the Meg's pages. Currently running is a really fascinating and fun anthology series featuring the vampire mutant Durham Red, but it's not quite the same Red we've been following in her far-future sci-fi epics in 2000 AD. In "The Scarlet Apocrypha," writer Dan Abnett has been placing the character, or analogues of her at any rate, in a variety of different scenarios and time periods, each illustrated by a different artist. John Burns kicked things off in the previous issue, with a suggestion of what Durham Red might have been like as a Dario Argento horror film, and in this issue (# 13), we get Steve Yeowell doing a neat little alternate history set in the 1890s, with Aubrey Beardsley and the Montgolfier Brothers.

Future installments will see Frazer Irving doing a medieval Japanese adventure and Steve Kyte doing one inspired by more modern Japanese fiction, along with longtime Modesty Blaise artist Enric Romero pitting Durham against Dracula, and Carlos Ezquerra bringing us a strange sequel to the classic Fiends of the Eastern Front. And then there's the grand finale later in the year, but more about that another time.

But the 2000 AD connection doesn't end there. Much of the editorial pages are given over to news about the forthcoming return of the original Rogue Trooper, which we'll look at next time. It's here that we get the first confirmation that Rebellion are working on a Rogue Trooper video game. At this point, it's still years away, and the company's Dredd vs. Death game has yet to be released, but it helps stoke a little excitement among the fan base.

The garish cover, a highlight of which is displayed above so you can get a better look at it, announces the return of the ugly craze to the pages of Judge Dredd. Otto Sump was introduced in the early 1980s as Mega-City One's ugliest man, and the successful entrepreneur made several return appearances in short comedy tales, all illustrated by Ron Smith. The character was retired about fifteen years before this two-part story, a Citizen Kane homage drawn by John Higgins.

"Citizen Sump" is just terrific, a moody and sad little melodrama which isn't simply a parody of that greatest of American films, but also an interesting detective procedural which sees Dredd working a cop beat trying to solve a locked room murder. Everybody has different perceptions of the hapless Otto, but everybody remembers him as one of the Meg's sweetest citizens. In his original appearances, there was a running gag with Sump always greeting Dredd as "my old pal," much to Dredd's disinterest. It turns out that Sump was like that to absolutely everybody, just a genuinely sweet and loving man.

But turning the Kane homage on its head is the revelation of Sump's last words, particularly in view of the way Otto never lost his truly good nature. Kane, of course, let his millions turn him into a near-psychotic recluse, and died a miserable and pathetic figure. The judges never learn what Sump's last word means, and the staggeringly brilliant revelation shows that Sump was every bit as wistful and nostalgic for his lost childhood as Kane was, even after spending his wealthy life loving his fellow citizens and making the best of the odd karmic turn of events that made him deformed, shunned, wealthy and successful.

Frankly, this script is one of Wagner's all-time finest. It's an absolute triumph, and deserves to be seen by anybody who loves comics. It's not yet been reprinted, so try and track down volume four, issues 12-13 of the Megazine. You won't be disappointed.

If that wasn't enough, the Megazine has finally found a perfect place for artist John Burns. Most of his previous work for the House of Tharg has been on Judge Dredd or Nikolai Dante, but to my mind, the best example of Burns being ideally chosen for art duties came with the little-remembered Black Light from 1996. I only mentioned this strip in passing back in the 37th installment, but it was an X Files-inspired, modern-day techno thriller with government conspiracies and tough heroes with guns. It's a strip which really should have returned for at least one second series and been collected in a graphic novel while the iron was hot. Anyway, in this issue, Burns has teamed up with writer Robbie Morrison for The Bendatti Vendetta. This first episode has all the appearance of the most exciting pre-credits sequences of any action film from the seventies. We don't know who the characters are, but some people have slipped into some mob boss's party and caused almighty havoc, with fisticuffs and bullets flying every which way.

I say this is perfectly suited for Burns because I perceive him, rightly or wrongly, as an artist most comfortable in the modern age. No matter how well he paints Dredd or Dante, something about his work on those strips never completely gels for me, particularly in conveying a sense of place. His Mega-City One is rarely more than dark alleyways, and his future Russia is often just bombed-out war zones. But The Bendatti Vendetta is clearly set in the humdrum of our world, and when Burns brings this to life, it's vastly more vivid and exciting. Well, it's less our world than our recent history - it doesn't appear that Burns has updated his reference material in many years, but since the violent iconography within the script screams "seventies action film," it doesn't matter, he's still exactly right for the artwork. Put another way, I keep expecting Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland to make supporting appearances.

There's unfortunately not very many episodes of this series, not enough for a good collection for people to marvel at its coolness. Following this six-part adventure, it returned for a pair of three-part stories and was last seen in 2005. It's a shame that Morrison and Burns never collaborated on one last story to put the total page count over 100 so we could get a nice graphic novel out of it.

And that's all for now. Thrillpowered Thursday is going to take a short little break. As readers of my LJ saw, my family's suffered another house flood, and while my collection was happily safe, we're all sort of scattered right now, without much time or space for reading. When we resume in a few weeks, it'll be to look back in the weekly prog for issue # 1300, when both the original Rogue Trooper and VCs make long-overdue returns. What's with all the nostalgia?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

112. Death's Sweet Embrace

June 2002: On the cover of prog 1294, we've got the great Henry Flint illustrating the climactic scene from a six-part Judge Death adventure which concludes this week. The story, by John Wagner and Frazer Irving, features longtime hero Cassandra Anderson trying to rush back from an assignment on the international moon station of Luna-One when she gets a psychic flash that Judge Death has somehow broken free again and has been murdering children in the Big Meg's orphanages.

It's a pretty grisly premise, and comes across amazingly well thanks to Irving's moody, black-and-white penwork. Everyone involved had decided beforehand that Judge Death had really been spoiled by the lighthearted, black comedy appearances of the 1990s, especially those Batman / Judge Dredd crossovers, and so they've decided to play this story straight and emphasize Death's genuinely evil side in a story full of atmospheric horror.

It has a remarkable conclusion in this issue: Death puts Anderson in a coma and gets away. The whole thing was a trap to put his arch-enemy in the hospital, brain-dead while he starts a new life in the Cursed Earth. He even has a new host body waiting for him, and he's last seen in a memorably terrifying conclusion, wandering around the desert that used to be Middle America in a long coat and hat, bringing his brand of final judgement to the pathetic souls eking out subsistence-level life in the small villages and communities in that lawless world. Wagner and Irving would reunite for a memorable sequel to this story in a couple of years, but if it had ended here, nobody would have begrudged Wagner for calling this the conclusion. "My Name is Death" and the follow-up, "The Wilderness Years," were released in a collected edition by Rebellion in 2007.

Also in this issue, Wagner and Kevin Walker continue the Judge Dredd epic "Sin City" that was mentioned last time, and there's a Sinister Dexter one-off by Dan Abnett and David Bircham. Simon Spurrier and Shaun Bryan contribute an excellent Future Shock with a really memorable twist ending, but the big, crashing highlight of this comic, even better than the two Wagner stories, is 13 by Mike Carey and Andy Clarke.

13 is a twist-filled adventure about Joe Bulmer, a layabout and small-time crook with minor psychic abilities. After he snatches some girl's purse, he finds a small white bead which amplifies his powers to incredible, destructive levels.

Bulmer was already on the radar of an institute which purports to study paranormal events, but they take a new interest in him when his use of the bead starts causing death and mayhem. But their motives aren't all they seem, and Joe finds himself in the odd position of being the unlikely hero of the piece.

I can't mention this series without telling you about one of the coolest moments in the comic's history. When Joe was first at the research center, he briefly met a girl called Daksha. Back home, he's attacked by a strange alien "skin" which he kills by strangling it to death. Almost immediately, the police start pounding on his door, find the dead thing and haul Joe off in handcuffs.

As they're putting Joe in the back of the car, Daksha arrives, screaming some odd story about how Joe promised he'd go straight this time and how she'll wait for him, a ruse to get the police to let her past for a farewell kiss. But Joe's confusion is compounded when Daksha instead quietly tells him: "They aren't real policemen. And they're going to kill you." I love that so much!

Sadly, 13 would prove to be Mike Carey's last serial for 2000 AD, as he signed an exclusive deal with DC Comics. This had him scripting the celebrated Lucifer for Vertigo, a book I've been telling myself for years I need to read, along with a three-and-a-half year run on Hellblazer. This year, he began a new Vertigo series, The Unwritten. Clarke would draw a few more 2000 AD stories, including some Sinister Dexter adventures and the 2004 serial Snow/Tiger before also moving to DC. At the time of writing, he's currently doing a superhero series called R.E.B.E.L.S.. 13, under the amusing title Th1rt3en, was one of the last of the graphic novels to appear in the short-lived DC/Rebellion line. It's still available from DC, and absolutely worth getting a copy.

Next time, back to the Megazine, with a very neat anthology series for Durham Red, the debut of The Bendatti Vendetta and the mysterious murder of Otto Sump. See you in seven!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

111. The Bloody Students

May 2002: We never see enough work by Duncan Fegredo, but here he gets the cover to prog 1290, spotlighting the debut of Bec & Kawl, one of a very small number of outright comedy series in 2000 AD. The strip was created by Si Spurrier, who finally gets his own series, the first of what will be several, after a couple of years writing Future Shocks, and artist Steve Roberts. Together, the duo will go on to create 29 episodes of the series, appearing in seven month-long appearances over a four-year period. Much as I do like Bec & Kawl, and wish it continued after it was quietly shelved in 2006, it must be said that when you read their first, two-part adventure, you have to wonder just how it ever got a commission for a second series.

"Bec & Kawl and the Mystical Mentalist Menace" is a two-parter which introduces the title characters, students at a London art college who keep crossing paths with the supernatural. Beccy Miller is an extremely grouchy goth chick in the fine arts program, and Jarrod Kawl is her stoner flatmate who dreams of being a great filmmaker. In this first story, they manage to release a demon from a cursed mirror, so they try conjuring up another demon to deal with the first. Subsequent stories will see the duo match wits with a succubus, a wonderful pastiche of virtual reality stories, the tooth fairy, the realtor of Hell, and invading aliens who look like traffic cones, all done with tongue in cheek and a pop culture reference in every panel. This first episode, for instance, won't make much sense at all if you are unfamiliar with Taxi Driver, Jurassic Park III and Ghostbusters.

But having said that, even if you know every line of those films, the first episode still doesn't make very much sense, because it's a poor, hamfisted effort on the creators' part. Steve Roberts' designs are very nice, but while he will become a very good artist quite soon, his storytelling is really very poor here. The panel transitions are incredibly awkward, particularly the shift from pages four to five, with the contents of Beccy's word balloon broken across two pages.

Spurrier doesn't help Roberts very much with a script that's just too packed with clever words and quips and not enough patient explanations of why the plot unfolds the way it does. Looking back this morning over an episode I've read at least five times, I really cannot remember why our heroes need to summon that second demon. I just have sort of a vague memory of the first demon shooting a gun at Kawl and running away. In time, notably with his masterpiece Lobster Random, Spurrier would learn that the unfolding of the plot needs to be as engaging and humorous as the movie jokes and puns, but here it's just something that happens, somehow, to set up the next couple of gags.

Fortunately, Tharg was very patient with Bec & Kawl, and after this botched first series and a still-disappointing second in early 2003, the series developed into one of my many favorites of the past decade. The complete run was compiled into a great collection by Rebellion in 2007. Bloody Students is packed with supplementary sketches and interviews, and should be essential reading for anyone who enjoys Lenore or Emily the Strange.

Also in the prog this week, there are the second episodes of two stories I'll come back to in the next Thrillpowered Thursday: 13 by Mike Carey and Andy Clarke, and Judge Death by Wagner and Frazer Irving. There's also the first part of a new Sinister Dexter storyline by Dan Abnett and Mark Pingriff called "Croak," and a genuinely fantastic new Judge Dredd epic by Wagner and Kevin Walker called "Sin City."

"Sin City" is a thirteen-part story, told across eleven weeks, in which a huge, floating pleasuredome - a giant mini-city full of casinos, brothels, bars and arenas hosting lethal sports - is given permission to dock at Mega-City One. Dredd is strongly against the idea, until Hershey lets him know that she's allowed it because a wanted terrorist has been sighted there. So a squad of Mega-City judges, and a small army of undercover officers, takes to the streets of Sin City looking for the elusive Ula Danser.

What they run into is one shock after another, with at least three take-your-breath-away cliffhangers. It's the longest Dredd story since 1999's "Doomsday" and it's one which I certainly suggest you check out. It is available as a collected edition, along with four follow-up episodes, under the name Satan's Island. It would certainly be a fine addition to your Rebellion library. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for this week's graphic novel highlight...

In April, Rebellion released the collected edition of Heavy Metal Dredd, with all twenty blood-spattered episodes of this early nineties series. It's not really essential. There have only been a pair of books in the last five years which I would advise readers skip on account of production issues. This is the first one I'd advise readers skip on account of it being completely awful.

Basically, around the time of Judgement on Gotham and Simon Bisley's brief turn in the limelight, the European metal mag Rock Power got together with Fleetway and commissioned a few Dredd episodes by Wagner, Alan Grant and Bisley. These were Dredd one-offs with the volume turned up to twelve; overcharged, simplistic, hyper-violent stories of motorcycle maniacs, testosterone-fueled beatings and over-the-top exit wounds. There's nothing subtle about them, and they're entirely subplot-free. They were designed for thirteen year-old meatheads and filled their gore-and-leather remit with abandon.

These were reprinted in England in the Judge Dredd Megazine and proved popular enough to warrant commissioning a few more episodes. Most of these were written by John Smith and painted by the likes of Colin MacNeil or John Hicklenton, who contributed this collected edition's new cover.

Rebellion does deserve some points for making this a very solid collection on its own merits. It does include all the stories in their original order, with good reproduction, full credits and an introduction by Hicklenton. However, there's very little wit or humor anywhere in these dingbat stories, and there's no reason for anybody other than completists to pick up this book. That Rebellion released this instead of a complete Stainless Steel Rat is a huge shame.

Next time, London punk Joe Bulmer investigates a psychic conspiracy in 13 and Frazer Irving schemes to make Judge Death scary again! See you in seven!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

110. Atavar and the UOS

We're up to April 2002 now, and here on the cover of prog 1287, Nikolai Dante celebrates his recent Eagle Award win for best British comic character. This will prove to be artist Simon Fraser's farewell to the character that he co-created for the next four years. As Dante moves into his third phase, "the pirate years," it will be with John Burns as sole artist. Fraser, who will return to Dante in October 2006, is at this time residing in Africa. The series will take a number of very long rests during the third phase, especially during 2004 when writer Robbie Morrison will be engaged in writing The Authority for the Wildstorm imprint at DC Comics.

This issue sees the conclusion of an eight-part storyline called "The Romanov Job," in which Dante and his occasional sparring-and-bedpartner the Countessa work with several master criminals to heist his vanquished family's crown jewels. The other characters in the narrative are analogues of other comic characters, including Catwoman, Janus Stark and the Spider, and they are hunted down by Captain Emmanuel, the Luther Arkwright-analogue who had been introduced in a 1999 story.

Robbie Morrison really closed out this part of Dante in fine form. There's a sense of desperation in the narrative that somehow fits where the series was at the time. After the civil war, the imperial Russia of the far future is a much more dangerous place, and it's not a world where our hero can go gallivanting around pulling heists and breaking hearts like he did before things completely fell apart. When, of course, he gets stabbed in the back by somebody he should have known better to trust, Nikolai falls back on his "I'm too cool to kill" line, only to be slapped in the face by it. The story ends on a cliffhanger which won't be resolved for another nine months. It was reprinted in the sixth Dante collection, Hell and High Water, in 2008.

Elsewhere in the issue, the other stories are marking time until the next relaunch issue, prog 1289, and so there's a Steve Moore / Clint Langley Tales of Telguuth and a Future Shock by Mike Carey and John Charles to fill the page count, along with the last part of a three-episode Judge Dredd adventure by John Wagner and Paul Marshall. I believe the Telguuth installment is actually notable for being the first appearance of Langley's current style, which he has used on Slaine and The ABC Warriors over the past few years. I think we're long overdue for reading a detailed interview with Langley where he discusses how he creates these odd "fantasy Photoshop fumetti" of his. However, the most interesting strip this week, other than Dante, is the penultimate part of a serial called Atavar.

I'm very curious how I'll feel about Atavar when I finish reading the third book of the series in a few months' time. This is a really odd little story by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson in which a group of powerful-but-desperate aliens, tens of thousands of years in the future, reconstruct an atavar of the long-extinct human race in order to help them in their war against machine-creatures called UOS. No series, with the possible exception of that cosmetic warrior "Rouge Trooper," has ever been misspelled as often as Atavar. Everybody wants to call this one "Avatar," perhaps missing the point that the aliens are looking into history to find something from the past to save their species.

Atavar began in prog 1281 with one of the most unusual first episodes of any series. We see our human character awake in a strange cave system from what appears to be cryo-sleep or something and run, panicking, from the huge aliens around him. There is no dialogue. Well, nothing in English, anyway. The human's got a lot to say, but it's all "HNNN!" and "NNNNN!" and the aliens haven't upgraded him to understand their language yet. It's a bizarre little experiment, and it certainly got reader's attention, even if many of them balked at the necessity of spending five pages on it.

The other thing that's really notable about Atavar is that it comes to a spectacular twist ending. The conclusion is so darn cool that everybody reread the previous progs to see how the heck they missed something so neat. It was an ending so perfect that bringing Atavar back, twice, left a bad taste in my mouth and I honestly only just glanced at the later episodes, complaining, in that know-it-all fan way, that the pages would have been better spent on more Vanguard or Balls Brothers. I'll try to judge them more fairly when I come to prog 1329 later in the year.

Next time, those bloody students take over! Eyebrows are furrowed and knives are drawn as Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts bring us Bec & Kawl. Plus, a look at the collected edition of Heavy Metal Dredd. See you in seven!