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?

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