Thursday, November 19, 2009

119. 2000 AD Gold

December 2002: Veteran art droid Cliff Robinson gets cover duties for the first issue of the stunningly neat new look Megazine. A year and a half after its last successful format change, it has now settled into what must surely be the best incarnation yet, and since the Meg starts getting smaller a few years down the road, I think this is the very best version of the Meg. This being a special Christmas edition, it's a shade different from what will follow, but basically, it's 100 pages long and comes bagged with a supplement that reprints the classic 1980 serial Fiends of the Eastern Front by Gerry Finley-Day and Carlos Ezquerra. With the reprint confined to the separate supplement, the Meg itself is mostly all-new material this time. A Devlin Waugh text adventure from an old Dredd Yearbook is dusted off, but everything else inside is new.

Starting with the next issue, the Meg's monthly reprints, now using the umbrella heading "2000 AD Gold," will shift into a separate section within the Meg's 100 page size. First to be serialized in its pages: the Slaine epic "Time Killer" and a classic serial which ran in Battle Picture Weekly from 1976-77. It's called Darkie's Mob and it was created by John Wagner and Mike Western. In 1984, Wagner adapted the format for a pilot in the Dredd universe called B.A.D. Company, which was later revised by Peter Milligan into the 2000 AD classic with a similar name.

As for the new content, it's a really nice mix of strip and text articles. Judge Dredd is represented by two strip adventures, a moody continuity piece by Gordon Rennie and Lee Sullivan and a lighthearted 20-page romp by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra about gaseous aliens, along with a prose story by Rennie with illustrations by Adrian Salmon. The new Devlin Waugh epic, "Red Tide," gets started with a six-page prologue by John Smith and Colin MacNeil and an article by David Bishop detailing the character's background and his periodic publishing hiccups.

Bishop also contributes another installment of Thrill-Power Overload, taking the story of 2000 AD up to 1993-94, and an interview with IPC publishing bod Barry Sanders. There's also a one-page interview with Simon Fraser, artist on the brand new, Rob Williams-scripted Family, which starts this issue, and a one-off pilot episode called The Kleggs! by Ian Edginton and Mike Collins. A series is never commissioned, but it's always nice to see Collins' artwork. And in the next issue, two new series will start: Juliet November by Alan Grant and Graham Manley and Black Siddha by Pat Mills and Simon Davis. This is a really exciting time, with editor Alan Barnes bringing lots of new ideas to the table, and giving readers five new ongoing stories a month along with classic reprints. This is a hell of a package!

Family is pretty rough around the edges, but I am certainly enjoying rereading it. It is, alas, our only chance in this period to see much of Fraser's artwork. At this time, the artist was living in Africa and was taking an extended leave from Nikolai Dante. He and Williams came up with a great idea about a city in the near future being under the thumb of organized crime, a family of gangsters with super powers. It's a really good concept: what would happen in a world where such powers existed, but there weren't any super heroes?

And what if the only fellow to challenge mob rule in the city was even worse than the gangsters?

Well, Family doesn't quite live up to its promise, though it is still a good strip. It's really not suited to monthly serialization, and this is going to become a problem for the Meg during this period. Strips just need more than six pages to make a lasting impact and advance the story if they're only going to run every four weeks. It reads much better in the collected edition - Rebellion released a hardcover album in 2005 - than it did in 2002-03, much as the Devlin Waugh story did when "Red Tide" was released in the second Waugh collection the same year.

That's all for Thrillpowered Thursday for now - we're taking the annual Thanksgiving break and will be back on December 10. See you then!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

118. In the Flesh

November 2002: With no small amount of rejoicing, editor Alan Barnes finally brings all this business of multiple volumes for the Judge Dredd Megazine to a long overdue end. This is the eighteenth, and last, issue of Megazine volume four, and the 200th overall. The next issue, which we'll come to next time, will be formally labelled issue # 201. Mercifully, the simple numbering convention will continue from that point to the present. On the cover, it's Durham Red, as depicted by a model named Anna Edwards. This cover, it must be agreed, doesn't go over well with most fans, to which I say, yeah, whatever. This is a fantastic cover! I guess I understand fandom's reluctance to embrace it; even the editorial evokes the two Nemesis the Warlock photostories from 1987 with a self-aware shudder, never mind all those awful photo-comics that infested the early '80s Eagle. For my money, Anna is sexy and gorgeous and, for about the ten minutes it took to read the first twenty pages of this issue, she is, to me, the definitive Durham Red, completely eclipsing any previous depiction of the character.

Then Mark Harrison, who's been painting her exploits for the last few years, clears his throat politely and shows everybody who's the boss:

As you may recall from earlier installments, Dan Abnett has been scripting a series called "The Scarlet Apocrypha," in which seven different artists provide their take on the character in a variety of genres. Earlier, we've seen Steve Kyte placing her in an anime pastiche, Carlos Ezquerra revisiting the 1980 serial Fiends of the Eastern Front, and John Burns doing the character as the central figure in a Dario Argento horror film among others.

Mark Harrison brings us a world where Durham Red is a character from a long-running series of sci-fi feature films, and where the actresses who have played her are regulars on the SF memorabilia con circuit. Masterfully, he takes Abnett's cute little script and turns it into something amazingly neat by illustrating it as a Mad pastiche in the style of that legendary member of the Gang of Idiots, Mort Drucker.

This is one of my favorite 2000 AD one-offs ever. It's not just that the constant barrage of background gags really works, or that the myopic viewpoints of the hapless teens at the cons is so very true. Amusingly, they seem to love each and every one of the actresses who played Durham Red in the movies, but a replacement actor for Godolkin is dismissed as being as pathetic as the "fake" Travis in the second series of Blake's 7.

There's just a feeling of really audacious experimentation in doing this strip this way at all. Each of the previous artists had contributed some great work, and it was very enjoyable to read, but almost all of it was still somewhere within 2000 AD's admittedly broad style. Even an experimenting Ezquerra, like when he discovered filters and computer coloring in 1994 or thereabouts, is still very much Ezquerra. But this is just radically different stuff for 2000 AD, and the sort of risk-taking that I'd love to see more often. It's also very nice that Harrison had the chance to pay homage to Drucker, an early influence on the artist when he started out. As I've said previously, it's occasionally been evident in his work before: that incredibly sexy Durham Red on the cover of prog 1111 has unmistakable Mort Drucker cheekbones. The episode was reprinted with the other Scarlet Apocrypha installments in the third of Rebellion's Durham Red books, The Empty Suns.

There's actually some non-Red material in this issue as well. In it, all of the ongoing series reach their final episodes, clearing the decks for the new stories that begin in Meg 201, which I'll come back to next week. So it's goodbye to The Bendatti Vendetta, Scarlet Traces, Young Middenface and a very good Judge Dredd storyline that was illustrated by John Ridgway. 2000 AD's brief flirtation with photo covers quickly ended, although an outtake from this session will be pulled into service a year or so later when Durham Red returns to the weekly, which is a real shame, as we never had the fun of seeing an actor dress up as Devlin Waugh.

Back in the summer, Rebellion issued the thirteenth in their series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files. This reprints all the Dredd episodes that originally appeared in 2000 AD from March 1989 to January 1990 in one very nice package. Most of them are in full color, although these originally saw print back when 2000 AD only had a single color episode each week out of five stories. For ten weeks in the period, the Slaine storyline "The Horned God" got the color slot, kicking Dredd to the front of the comic in black and white. So now you know, it's been twenty years since Dredd was a black and white comic. Lotta pages under the bridge in all that time!

The first of those episodes is the classic "In the Bath," in which Dredd reflects on his battered and bruised body while trying to enjoy one of his rare moments of scheduled downtime, only to find he still can't escape the crazy, ultraviolent city for even a few moments of peace and quiet. The episode, by John Wagner and Jim Baikie, was instantly praised as a classic, expertly mixing quiet pathos with absurdist comedy.

Most of the book is written by Wagner. By this point, he and Alan Grant were working individually, and Grant doesn't contribute quite as many episodes as before, but he does bring some real gems, best among them "A Family Affair." This is a really mean-spirited, hilarious look at things spiraling way out of control when Dredd goes to inform some citizens that a family member was killed in a police shooting. Steve Yeowell paints the episode, and there's a two-panel moment when someone realizes exactly which policeman did the shooting which is the funniest thing ever. Yeowell's third series of Zenith was running about the same time, and it's very interesting to see him apply the same style, but with color.

There are no major storylines or epics in this collection, but Wagner does touch on some earlier threads that carry on from earlier volumes. At this stage, there are still comparatively few recurring characters in the series, but Anderson and Hershey show up again briefly, and we have a return for the disturbed Judge Kurten, now in his new base of operations south of the border, along with Rookie Judge Kraken, who will become a major player in the fourteenth book.

There is a small, unfortunate printing error in this edition. The Colin MacNeil-painted "Dead Juve's Curve" repeats an error from its original printing and has a couple of pages out of order. It's an unfortunate hiccup, but one easily overlooked among so much really good material. Don't let the number 13 on the book deter you if you're new to Dredd: this is a perfectly fine starting point for new readers, and it might do you well to begin here before the apocalyptic events of the volume which comes next...

When we return, it's the biggest Megazine yet, with the debut of Family by Rob Williams and Simon Fraser!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

117. Yo ho ho!

November 2002: Veteran art droid Cliff Robinson is back on front cover duties for issue 1316, and isn't this a terrific image to sell a funnybook? Dredd standing side-by-side with a werewolf judge doling out the harshness. If this doesn't want to make you want to buy comic books, your blood's stopped pumping. The werewolf is Judge Prager, introduced in a story twentyish years ago bringing law to the lawless in the Undercity. Now, he's been infected, but is still fighting the good fight and, in this four-part story by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, has made an enemy out of a mutie villain called Mr. Bones, who's operating out of the old White House. Bones gets away in the story's climax, but we will see him again in another story very soon.

Apart from Judge Prager, this run of 2000 AD feels much more up-to-date than the recent run full of old thrills from the early 1980s. Dredd and Sinister Dexter, who are enjoying a lighthearted outer space romp courtesy of Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, are the only older series in this run. They're sharing space with three brand new series. First, and most important of these, is The Red Seas by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell.

Edginton is a new droid for Tharg, but he'd actually done a great deal of work in the 1990s for companies like Crossgen. He had written a webcomic called Scarlet Traces, illustrated by D'Israeli, which had been running on a site called CoolBeansWorld, but the site's failure left the strip unfinished.

Captain Jack DANCER in the house! Damn right!

Scarlet Traces found a new home in the Megazine, which evidently got Edginton talking with editor Matt Smith about some new work. The Red Seas was the first of what will be quite a few series and serials over the last decade. With hundreds of popular, well-received episodes to his credit over the past seven years, Edginton has arguably been the most important find of Smith's era, and The Red Seas, with 74 episodes published to date, the longest-running of any of the stories that Smith has commissioned thus far.

Surprisingly, though, I'm often disappointed by The Red Seas, and wouldn't call it one of the comic's greats. Yeowell's artwork is of course lovely, with a double-page spread in the opening episode among of the most thrilling and eye-popping pieces to ever appear in 2000 AD. The series is a pirate adventure starring the devil-may-care Captain Jack Dancer and his crew. There are effectively five of them, plus a small supporting cast and, in the opening story, a fantastic villain called Dr. Orlando Doyle. Yet while the series lurches from one high-concept set piece to another, everything that should be thrilling feels somehow perfunctory. Dancer rarely has to rely on his wits to get out of bizarre scrapes and dangers, but rather luck and magical artifacts that he'd obtained a few episodes previously.

Perhaps worse is that the main cast, after all this time, remains stubbornly anonymous to me, and I had to visit Wikipedia to remember their names. It's fascinating watching Edginton come up with one wild scenario after another, from a kraken battling the Colossus of Rhodes to lizard men prowling the hollow earth, but I'm reminded of how, after just six pages of The ABC Warriors, I remembered the names Joe Pineapples and Happy Shrapnel forever, but I'm still trying to remember Billy, Tom, Jim and Julius. It's still a million times better than most any recent superhero comic, but frustratingly one or two steps away from greatness in my book.

Also in this prog, there's another new story called Asylum written by new droid Rob Williams, with Boo Cook on art duties. Cook really knocks this one right out of the park; it looks amazing. Williams will become a very important addition to the comic's lineup in a couple of years' time, but Asylum's not a particular favorite. There's also a one-off under the new umbrella of Past Imperfect, a series of alternate history one-offs (mostly) which start with the twist of something going wrong with history and try to tell what happens next in just five pages. This week's installment, in which the Japanese navy sics an atomic monster on Pearl Harbor is by Gordon Rennie, Mike Collins and Lee Townsend. Other contributors to the series include David Bishop, Si Spurrier and Adrian Bamforth.

As far as reprints, only The Red Seas and Asylum are available from this issue, in those really nice paperbacks from Rebellion. The Asylum book contains both of the nine-part stories that appeared in 2002 and 2004; the Red Seas collection, "Under the Banner of King Death," contains the series' first 24 episodes. We're overdue for a second collection, now that I think about it.

Next time, the Megazine photoshoot that I liked better'n anybody. See you in seven!