Thursday, October 29, 2009

116. Spurrier's Scrap

October 2002: A common tool in every 2000 AD editor's arsenal - nobody cares about this but me - is the use of double-length episodes to either start or finish a serial in order to clear the decks before the next launch issue of all-new stories. In prog 1312, Richard Elson gets cover duties for the double-length final part of The Scrap, a five-week serial written by Si Spurrier. It's quite a departure from the still-new script droid. Spurrier's Future Shocks had been marked by a streak of piss-taking humor in wild, SF scenarios, and the first four-week run of his first ongoing series, Bec & Kawl, had been nothing but gags in search of a scenario, but The Scrap is anything but funny. It's a dark, unaccountably heavy and very derivative "ugly future" story. Dystopia, garbage in the streets, all-business police, an artificial intelligence running things that has a hidden agenda... yes, this is derivative of a great many things, and could safely be skipped if it weren't for a couple of things in its favor. Elson's' art is terrific, and the lead character, a police officer named Maliss, is an entertaining, sympathetic hero. Outside of Marge in Fargo, she's also one of the few comic characters that I can recall who we meet when she's heavily pregnant.

While The Scrap is pretty dark and heavy, the same can't be said for Dan Abnett's Sinister Dexter, which is going through a pretty silly phase during this period. In a four-parter called "Deaky Poobar, We Hardly Knew Ye," drawn by Steve Parkhouse, our heroes return the body of a fellow gunshark to his native England and run afoul of the locals, getting in the middle of a war between the mob and the police, represented here by Inspector "Terse" and DS "Thewlis."

Things get even sillier after this. There's a one-off drawn by Mike Collins in which Finnigan falls for a ridiculous sting operation the cops have come up with, using a TV quiz show to get criminals to fess up to their deeds, and a one-off drawn by Steve Roberts in which our now on-the-lam heroes meet an old-timer who's been hiding out for thirty years. This prompts them to really get way out of town, and the next several episodes will see them going off-planet. It's been shown a time or two that the future world of Sin Dex incorporates aliens and interplanetary travel, but this will be the first time Abnett really depicts it, and it's played completely for laughs as well. Suffice it to say that when the series finally starts taking itself seriously again with the introduction of Kal Cutter in 2003, everybody will appreciate it.

So that's this run of the prog: Heavy stories that take themselves too seriously, and serious stories which are playing things for laughs. And Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper as well. Happily, better things are right around the corner.

In other news, Rebellion has released the first in a planned four-volume collection of the ongoing ABC Warriors saga "The Volgan War" by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. It's part of the company's periodic hardback line, and it is completely wild and wonderful.

Over time, the story of the Warriors has gotten a little continuity-heavy, but this volume goes out of its way to be friendly to new readers. It follows on from the 2003-06 series "The Shadow Warriors" with the decision to put their small-minded, demented member Mek-Quake into a sanitorium for some long-overdue rest, and this prompts our centuries-old robot heroes to reminisce about their earliest adventures, predating our introductions to them. It turns out there was a lot more to their backstory than we were ever told, and they're each surprised to learn that each of them crossed paths with a mysterious, flamethrowing "special forces" robot called Zippo...

"The Volgan War" really completes the long overdue resurgence of this once-classic title, which spent the 1990s a shadow of its former self. Mills has rarely been weirder or more inventive in throwing completely bizarre concepts at his readers, and while he's writing for a more mature audience than the ten year-olds who gobbled up the original series, with its bazooka-totin' robots on dinosaurs, he's still able to balance an intricate plot with high-wire ideas. So we get armies of multi-armed Hammersteins locked in combat with giant Mecha-Stalins, and taxicabs which can be converted into weapons.

But it's the artwork that drives this one out of the park. I've certainly admired all the great artists who've contributed to the series over the years, from Mike McMahon to Simon Bisley to Henry Flint, but in Clint Langley, the definitive Warriors visuals have at last been found. Langley's computer-created world is unlike anything we've seen in 2000 AD before, fully-realized, three-dimensional depictions of decaying future war battlefields populated by hundreds of rusting mechanical soldiers. In the comic, it looked pretty amazing. On the better paper in this book, the results are eye-popping.

This edition reprints the story that originally appeared in "Prog 2007" and issues 1518-1525 of the weekly, beefing it up with some extra pages - nothing too extravagant, usually just some double-page spreads - along with a long-overdue Warriors' Timeline, explaining things for new readers and clarifying some of the points that have caused some confusion in the past, along with the now-standard introduction and commentary by Mills. It's truly an amazing collection, and on the short list for the year's best book; yes, it's as good as that.

Next time, set sail on the Red Seas! See you in seven!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

115. Blasts from the Past

August 2002: Prog 1306 sports a cover by David Millgate for the new serial Bison. Charitably, it's not one of Tharg's better offerings. The kickboxing lady on the cover is a pretty radically redesigned version of the hero, who starts the serial as an aging, hugely-muscled detective in a near-future scenario, but thanks to some bodyswapping technology that's all the rage in the story, he's wearing the body of an untouchable crime lord's junkie daughter and she's got his. But at no point does either character look like the tough kickboxing lady that Millgate has drawn. See, when Detective Jack Bison realized that Esposito's daughter had an account on this bodychanging service, he realized he was going to have to go outside the law to take Esposito down, and planned to use his own daughter as the shooter, but didn't figure she was going to set up whomever was going to take over her body. She was strung out on heroin and such and just didn't want to deal with a weekend's withdrawal and detox. So Bison first has to kick the habit and then go kill Esposito, except he also has to deal with the daughter, who's using his body to go on a shooting rampage of her own, and...

Well, it's obviously not just the bodyswap technology that nobody thought quite all the way through; this plot is an amazingly convoluted mess. This is a nine-part story written by Colin Clayton and Chris Dows, and illustrated by Laurence Campbell and Len Townsend. I don't think any of them would disagree when I say that all four creators would do better in the future. Bison was met with howls of derision from the fan base. Looking at it now, it's perhaps a degree or two better than I remembered it, but it's still a pretty stupid comic. Yet the real disappointment is the art. Laurence Campbell would go on to much better things, particularly a 2005 serial called Breathing Space, but what we have here is just lazy, sloppy work that should have gone straight back to the artist for reworking. Check out the way he gets around drawing exit wounds here by just having people erupt in so much blood that it really looks like the men are being shot with guns that magically turn them into candles:

So is this the shock of the new in our weekly look at the future from the Galaxy's Greatest Comic? Well, believe it or not, Bison really is the most forward-looking strip in a very nostalgic run of 2000 AD this particular summer. Over in Judge Dredd, John Wagner and Colin MacNeil - now there's a man who knows how to draw exit wounds - have brought back the one-off character of Vienna Dredd, an improbable niece conceived by Pat Mills and Ian Gibson in a 1979 episode and never referred to again, as a young actress who would like her Uncle Joe to give her some trace of a family connection. Vienna becomes a very welcome addition to Dredd's supporting cast. Actually, to be honest, I'm tweaking events to make a point; Vienna's return is chronicled in progs 1300-1301. 1306 sees the end to the recurring menace of bent cop Judge Manners in a story by Wagner and Paul Marshall.

In the last blog, we looked at how Rogue Trooper, first seen in 1981, had returned. He's joined by Strontium Dog, introduced in 1978, in an eight-parter called "Roadhouse" by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. Finally there's the return of The VCs, a 1979-80 serial brought back after a 22-year break by Dan Abnett and Henry Flint.

Now the original run of The VCs (the collected edition of which I reviewed back in April) was not quite the classic that some of us squaxx consider it, but it was a solid enough tale of future war. It was a little jingoistic and repetitive, but I think it had a sense of excitement and danger lacking from many kids' comics, and the art was always fantastic. This new take? Well, there's nothing at all wrong with it, and Flint's artwork is as terrific as always, but the story never completely captivates me. There's nothing at all wrong with it, and it's a darn sight better than plenty of other comics, but it's just not one of my favorites. Anyway, this initial run lasts for just seven weeks and is the only one that Flint illustrates. The VCs will return for four more annual outings of about ten weeks each, with art by Anthony Williams.

Surprisingly, every story in prog 1306 has been reprinted. All of the Judge Manners episodes were collected in one of the free "graphic novels" bagged with an issue of the Megazine this summer. Bison was compiled in a hardcover "European-album-styled" edition by Rebellion in 2004. The VCs, Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog stories are all available in Rebellion's wonderful line of 2000 AD reprints. We'll come back to that VCs book in a month or so.

Next time, Simon Spurrier gets his second series, The Scrap, Steve Parkhouse caricatures Inspector Morse, and we look at the new hardback edition of The ABC Warriors. See you in seven!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

114. Going Rogue Again

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday! When last we left off, spirits were low as, for the fourth time in the last decade (and the second in my current home), I had to deal with a minor house flood. Yes, this is the same place, northern Georgia, which was screaming about a drought just a few short months ago, and which is fighting a losing battle against our neighbor states of Alabama and Florida about using too much of the Lake Lanier reservoir for drinking water in the city of Atlanta, and yet somehow I've had property damaged by floodwaters four darn times. Well, the downstairs is almost rebuilt, and we'll be installing a retaining wall in the backyard sometime soon, and I didn't lose any precious comics to this tomfoolery, and it certainly could've been a lot worse, but it did throw us off our reading schedule.

While I was away from this blog, I got the neat opportunity to talk a little bit about 2000 AD and its place in the long, fun history of British comics up at the first annual GMX convention in Nashville. I had a super time, and gave away a couple of dozen old doubled issues and a pair of collected editions from my pile of trade fodder as freebies. I think everybody had a splendid time, and I hope that next year, we can do it again.

Resuming the reread, Frazer Irving gets cover duties for July 2002's prog 1302, spotlighting the return, after almost fifteen years, of the original Rogue Trooper. Created by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, Rogue was a pretty one-note character, albeit one very popular with younger readers. Since his original storyline ended in issue 393, the character's adventures continued off and on for another four years, finally reaching an end in 1988.

Shortly afterward, the series was rebooted, rethought, remodelled and was, in the end, done in under the weight of too many creators overthinking the premise and the continuity. Even the estimable John Tomlinson failed to make anything readable out of the concept, insisting on tying in the character of Tor Cyan from Mercy Heights into some convulted story about a big blobby thing spitting out demented clones of the original Rogue. Perhaps it was a metaphor.

For the latest incarnation of Rogue, newly-assigned writer Gordon Rennie was tasked with simply telling some readable stories with the original concept. Teamed with a bank of rotating artists, including Staz Johnson and David Roach on this first four-part story, Rennie went with a back-to-basics approach of relating untold stories from within the original "search for the Traitor General" framework. Rogue Trooper had very few recurring characters - that was one of its weaknesses - so Rennie created a handful of new heroes and villains to work around Rogue and his biochipped buddies. It's such a forehead-slapping obvious idea that, reading it in light of all the labored attempts to fit various reboots into a single tapestry, you're amazed it took 2000 AD so long to get it right.

Of course, having said that, Rogue Trooper remains stubbornly unengaging. With one exception, an unbearably earnest two-parter called "Lions" which is about Our Brave Soldiers, there's nothing at all wrong with Rennie's episodes, except for the unbeatable fact that nobody cares about Rogue Trooper. It's a series where the art has always been the draw, and the elements that you found engaging and exciting when you were twelve turn out to be, in the cold light of adulthood, stilted and awkward. There's also the problem of setting the series within the original "search for the Traitor General" days and trying to wring drama from it, when we already know how it will play out.

Still, Rogue Trooper is enough of a 2000 AD icon that you can't help but root for it. If the comic's going to insist on doing it, you want to see it done right. Rennie does a good job, but it really feels like Tharg's heart just isn't in it. What Rogue Trooper needed was a semi-residency, but after these 12 episodes, there's a one-off at the end of the year, then six more in 2003, six in 2004 and then, finally, three apiece in 2005 and 2006, the last three penned by a different writer. This will seem to happen a lot with Rennie's scripts for editor Matt Smith over the next five years; as with his subsequent Caballistics Inc. and The 86ers along with several Judge Dredd stories, there is an emphasis on continuing characters and subplots which is totally deflated by the enormous breaks between episodes. Since five different artists or art teams tackle this new Rogue Trooper, it can't be deadline drama; we have to assume that everybody involved really just had more important things to worry about. In that case, why bother reading it? Rennie's run was compiled in the sixth in a series of Rogue Trooper collected editions. The book, Realpolitik, was released in March of 2007.

In other news, Rebellion has recently suffered the aggravation of having some books solicited for direct-market distribution by Diamond, only to have the distributor turn around and cancel the orders. One of the books impacted by this was the collected edition of Gordon Rennie's The 86ers, released in May of this year. The book is available, therefore, to proper bookstores in Britain, and easily obtainable online, but not from local comic book shops. The series is a sequel to Rennie's run on Rogue Trooper. A few months after his last episodes of that series in 2005, we met up again with Rafe, a genetically-engineered pilot introduced as one of Rennie's new supporting cast. She's transferred to the 86th Air Support Reconnaissance Squadron and tasked with protecting supply routes to a strategically important mining planet. The series could have been an engaging mix of future war, ancient superweapons and political intrigue, but unfortunately, it never really gelled as a serial.

It's my habit to not sit down and really reread the contents of the Rebellion trades if it's a reprint of material I haven't yet come to in my Thrillpowered Thursday reread, so perhaps I'm being unfair to The 86ers when I say that other than Rafe and the briefly-seen villain Colonel Kovert, a baddie from Rogue Trooper's original run, I have no idea who any of the characters in The 86ers are. There are a lot of them, and a lot of subplots, but after the ten episodes in 2006 (published in three batches over nine months) and the six that came six months later, none of them had made an impact on me at all. Rather than slipping the series quietly under the rug after that, Tharg commissioned six wrap-up episodes earlier this year from Arthur Wyatt, in order to get enough material to warrant publishing a collected edition at all. Rennie, clearly disinterested by this point, had moved on to work for some video game company. I'm sure Wyatt did the best anybody could hope for with what he had to work with, but neither the original run a few years ago, nor a refresher that I gave myself shortly afterwards, nor a quick thumb-through of this edition to confirm what was in it has provided my memory with the name of a single character other than Rafe or Kovert.

In many ways - and this is something we will definitely come back to in Thrillpowered Thursday - The 86ers exemplifies Smith's tenure as 2000 AD editor. He's done so much that is very right during his time in the hot seat, but his biggest failing has been the reversal of the semi-residencies that were common while David Bishop was editor. Ongoing series simply need extended runs of at least 10-13 weeks every year in order to make a consistent impact, particularly if they're going to have many recurring subplots and characters. There are occasional dramatic, exciting moments in The 86ers, and the art, initially by Karl Richardson before PJ Holden takes over, is quite good throughout, but there's too much talking between characters who take forever to do anything.

As a collected edition, The 86ers is nevertheless an impressive one. Released just a few weeks after it concluded in the weekly, the book contains all 22 episodes, along with the single installment of Rogue Trooper that introduced Rafe, some of the series' original covers and sketchbook art from Richardson and Holden. It's a truly fine collection of a sadly inessential series.

Next time, More about the thrills from the summer of 2002, with notes on the revamped V.C.s and a future cop bodyswap story called Bison! See you in seven!