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!

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