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!

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