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!

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