Thursday, December 31, 2009

123. Get Vaped and Stay Vaped!

I'm basking in the warm, circuit-sparking glow of the four latest progs to make their way to American stores and was enjoying them so much that I quite forgot that I had business here to finish, which is a little short-sighted of me. Usually, when I select a topic for this blog, I tend towards the really big events, such as the return of Slaine, the debut of Caballistics Inc. or the crossover epic story of Judge Dredd vs. Aliens. Perhaps I have a habit of overlooking the equally important supporting stories, and the first quarter of 2003 has had quite a few, so I'd like to touch on a few of those before moving on.

Ian Gibson has cover duties for prog 1334 from April of '03, spotlighting the second series of the remade and remodelled The V.C.s. Dan Abnett is still the writer, but Anthony Williams has taken over art duties from Henry Flint. It's surprisingly, stubbornly unengaging, but Williams makes it all look pretty good. There's a collected edition of the first three series of the 2002-05 run of The V.C.s, and in the supplementary material, Abnett explained how enthusiastic he was about writing the strip. Its subsequent refusal to be really entertaining remains completely baffling.

Abnett did such a great job on so many strips in creating memorable, larger-than-life characters, but the cast of the V.C.s are just the most anonymous bunch of nobodies that 2000 AD's ever seen. There's Smith, from the original series, and the alien, who's called Keege, and... Ryx, who I think is the asshole, and the obligatory babe, whose name might be Lin-Fu, and somebody else, and I think the rival pilot might be called Veto. And I can name every member of the ABC Warriors in the order they joined, so I don't think the problem's me. Especially when these guys have their names painted on the front of their spacesuits.

Abnett had much better luck with the second series of Atavar, drawn by Richard Elson. I was very skeptical about this one, because I felt that the original should have been left as a one-off serial with a spectacular twist ending. It was a universe that simply didn't need revisiting, and this colored my view so much that I'm only now reading Atavar for the first time. And you know what? It's incredibly good stuff!

I started to write up a synopsis of what happens in the second series, only to realize that I got way too detailed, and when you're dealing with weird sci-fi concepts and beasties, such a writeup rapidly starts sounding convoluted and silly. Suffice it to say that Atavar's world is one with a dizzying array of new, utterly inhuman races like the Binoid and their sentient machines. Elson's designs for the aliens and all this technology are very interesting and he looks completely at home with whatever Abnett throws at him to draw. I suggest that readers, like me, have done this story a disservice by overlooking it the way we have. It is an interesting and vivid parallel to the similarly far-out, inhuman universe of Shakara, and there's a lot of love for the Abnett/Elson team on their more recent series Kingdom, so Tharg and his team should definitely look into putting all three Atavar stories out in a nice collected edition.

Then on the other end of the quality scale, there's Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, which is just coughing up blood on the pages. It's another four-week run for the comedy series. It leads with a dopey one-off whose punch line requires you to notice what is written on Kawl's T-shirt at exactly the right moment, and then there's an invasion-by-cyberspace thing guest starring a gang of mean-spirited geek stereotypes. With its third run, Bec & Kawl would develop into something memorable and charming, but at this point, you're left wondering what dirt Spurrier has on Tharg to get this mess commissioned.

What's nice, though, is that Matt Smith, in his guise as Tharg, has a pretty small number of series to pick from, and everything that I've mentioned has come back to the prog after a very short layoff. In fact, the thunderously good Caballistics Inc. by Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon starts its second series just a month after the first ended. In this one, the team moves into a new headquarters once used by a Crowley-archetype for demonic rituals, and I can remember the names of all the characters in this cast, too.

Caballistics will take another short break - only three weeks - before starting its third story. By my count, Smith is only juggling about eight or nine recurring series at this point, and deciding what to recommission in the future. Obviously, this number's going to skyrocket as a huge pile of new series begin over the next two years, and I'm sure it didn't make for a happy Command Module at the time, filling in the gaps with whatever's handy. Prog 1334, in fact, contains two space-fillers: a Future Shock and yet another of Steve Moore's interminable Tales of Telguuth. Tharg will finally run out of those turkeys at the end of '03. But what I suspect was a real headache for Smith and the droids was really to the readers' advantage: with such short gaps between ongoing series, everything seems very fresh and fun. It's much easier to enjoy a series when you don't have to wait a year between installments!

And speaking of waiting for a new installment, that is where we'll leave the story for now. I'm choosing to take a little break because I am adding another regularly-scheduled blog to my rotation, but I'd sort of like to keep the same number of weekly deadlines. If you're a regular reader, thanks for following me, and if you just have me bookmarked, I'll drop a note on the 2000 AD message board when I resume in eight or nine weeks. So I will see you again in March, when Pat Mills and Andy Diggle go at it again, as The ABC Warriors and Snow / Tiger go head to head. See you then!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

122. Aliens and Robots

March 2003: More than four years since Judge Dredd last crossed over with Batman, he's back in another scrap with a media franchise. This time it's Aliens, the unaccountably popular character-free badasses who've become a marketing juggernaut for 20th Century Fox and Dark Horse Comics. This publisher has been churning out a huge library of tie-in miniseries, most of which seem to have them fighting the Predators from all those other movies. The epic 16-week series is co-written by John Wagner and Andy Diggle and drawn by Henry Flint, and it's presented in a pretty interesting way: the sixteen weekly 2000 AD episodes are structured to be easily reprinted as four monthly installments by Dark Horse. That publisher also gets the rights for an American-sized trade paperback collection for our market; an oversized hardcover graphic novel will appear in England and Europe a couple of months later as part of Rebellion's new line of European-styled albums.

Well, Aliens may not be to my taste, but this is a very effective story because Wagner and Diggle never waste time building up the Aliens as anything other than big, ugly, acid-blooded grunts in the service of Mr. Bones. If you recall, he was the Undercity criminal introduced a few months earlier in the four-parter where Dredd and a retired judge find him plotting against Mega-City One from the wreckage of the old White House. We learn that Bones' gruesome, scarred appearance is the result of being sprayed in the face with Alien acid many years previously, and he's got a pretty good scheme in mind: blow a whacking huge hole in the foundation of the Hall of Justice and sic several dozen pissed-off Aliens at the judges.

Wagner and Diggle do a fantastic job making this an "entry-level" story for Dark Horse's readers unfamiliar with Judge Dredd. We meet a newly-promoted judge called Sanchez who is the audience identification character, and a squad of "Verminators" who lose a few of their number early on in the story. The build-up is slow and deliberate, and when one Alien gets loose, initially in its small, scuttling form, the Verminators are called in, and then get in trouble when they realize the creature they're looking for is a lot bigger than they thought.

The resulting story is a darn good one for middle school-aged boys, although not, perhaps, for girls. My son has been staying in Kentucky with his mother for a few months, and missing out on the reread that my daughter and I have been enjoying. She called a halt to Judge Dredd as soon as the Aliens showed up, and grumbled that she wanted to see more Durham Red instead. She did, however, tell her brother on the phone that he was missing out on Judge Dredd vs. Aliens and he about hit the ceiling. He's home for Christmas and I asked whether he'd like to catch up on the thrillpower that he'd missed out on while he has been away. He opened up prog 1300, read about one page, remembered what he heard and asked "When does Judge Dredd vs. Aliens start?"

I could be wrong, but Dark Horse's US-format collected edition does not appear to be in print anymore, but you can still get the hardcover British version from sellers in the UK. Here's the Amazon listing. The book is one of six that Rebellion released in this format towards the end of 2003.

Other stories in prog 1330, shown off with the lovely Frazer Irving wraparound cover shown at the top of the entry, are Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, The V.C.s by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, Atavar by Abnett and Richard Elson and a Tales from Telguuth installment by Steve Moore and Jan Haward.

It's been a couple of years now, but I was talking once in the blog about how Rebellion really needs to bring the sprawling Mechanismo epic back into print. This was a mammoth story full of subplots and subterfuge, detailing the deterioration of Chief Judge MacGruder as she orders the development of robot judges. It seemed like a good idea at the time; with the judges' numbers seriously depleted after the high bodycounts of the "Necropolis" and "Judgement Day" epics, something needed to be done. Turns out, this wasn't it. The stories wormed their way through the pages of the weekly and the then-biweekly Judge Dredd Megazine from 1992-94, before coming to a storming conclusion in the aftermath of a 16-part story called "Wilderlands."

Back in May of '07, I suggested how Rebellion could repackage the story for bookshelves and they have done something quite similar, and very satisfactory. The new "Mechanismo" book, released in October, contains the first three serials from the storyline and deal with one robot, Number Five. These originally appeared from October 1992 to December 1993 and feature art by Colin MacNeil, Peter Doherty and Manuel Benet, with scripts by John Wagner. Although there is a great deal more of the story to come, this book ends on as satisfactory a point as is possible, and hopefully we will see MacGruder's next series of moves in a second volume in 2010.

Wagner does a terrific job in telling the story from multiple viewpoints. The focus shifts from Dredd to various robots to a hapless security clerk, and he uses his frequent Mega-City One trope of having dingbat teevee news announcers comment on the action, which is both effective and very funny. MacNeil and Doherty certainly bring their usual A-games to the party, and Manuel Benet does a laudable job for what I believe was his only assignment for the House of Tharg. It was certainly odd to see a new name dropped in the deep end for what was a critically important story, but Benet's work is pretty good, if perhaps not completely suited to Mega-City weirdness. Production of the book is mostly up to Rebellion's very high standards, but an unfortunate production error left a few erroneous credits on the spine and front cover for artists whose work does not actually appear in the book. Overall, though, a fine collection of a very good sequence of stories, and highly recommended. More, please!

Next time, we end the year and, for now, end this blog! Thrillpowered Thursday is going to take a hiatus for the first few months of 2010, but before we go, a last look at the big thrills from the spring of 2003, including The V.C.s and Caballistics Inc. See you in seven!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

121. By this point, it's been too many

So anyway, we were rereading 2000 AD, weren't we? Shown here is the cover of prog 1326, from February 2003. The art is by Clint Langley, who had done a good deal of work for Tharg in the nineties. He took a few years off and developed a really striking new style, full of gorgeous photo manipulation and computer-rendered landscapes and monsters. The results were sometimes controversial, with an occasional reader not wishing to see beyond the strip's ancestors in cheesy fumetti photo-comics, but I think it looks simply terrific.

On the down side, well, it's just more Slaine, isn't it? The strip marks Pat Mills' return to 2000 AD after a couple of years away, during which he created Requiem, Vampire Knight for Nickel Editions in France. Returning to the fold, as it were, he created a new series, Black Siddha, for the Megazine with Simon Davis, so he has a major new strip running in each title. I'm sure that I'll come back and talk about Siddha some other day; I think it's completely terrific and I wish there was a heck of a lot more of it. I wish I could say the same about Slaine, but I just can't. It's tired and weak and long, long past its sell-by date at this point.

By this point in the continuity, what's happened is that Slaine became the first High King of Ireland (back in "The Horned God"), he served his seven years and was ritually put to death ("Demon Killer"), he was rescued by the goddess and sent upwards through time to carry out missions for her against those awful Christians later in history (which had been foreshadowed back in "Time Killer") and he was allowed to return home and resume his position to battle the Secret Commonwealth led by his old enemy Maeb. This story, the first in a five-volume saga called "The Books of Invasion," sees all those monsters and sea demons that we could've sworn Slaine despatched almost a decade previously in strip-time (you remember, Balor the Evil-Eye and the Fomorian Sea Devils and all those guys), newly allied with a long-limbed sword-wielding beast called Moloch.

The whole thing feels like a tired old Charles Bronson revenge flick, and that's even before Moloch rapes and murders Slaine's wife Niamh. At that point, it feels like the end of comics.

Now, fair's fair, Pat Mills probably did not then, and does not now, give any kind of care for the feelings of superhero-based American fandom. With his attention focused on publishing in France, and the gleefully bizarre mindbender that is Requiem, he probably had no idea that a growing segment of female readers, taking advantage of the internet to form communities, was drawing attention to a big problem in western adventure comics.

Under the blanket charge of "women in refrigerators," Gail Simone charged that female characters in superhero fiction were, historically and increasingly, used principally as plot devices, raped, killed, maimed or depowered, in order to spur male characters into action. This proved to be a rallying point for many readers whose voices had been underrepresented in fandom (outside of LSH APAs, anyway), and drove wedges between creators and fans that, in some cases, still exist today. It became a question of whether you stood with the grouchy old men, or the radical feminists.

That Mills strides the line the way he does shouldn't be too surprising. Never mind his laudable, continuous insistence that his first wife, Angela Kincaid, always receive full credit as Slaine's co-creator, the whole of his nineties work was the definition of radical feminist, with strong central characters like Third World War's Eve, and the pagan perspectives of Finn and ABC Warriors showing chaos and Earth mother-worship triumphing over fraternal order and military discipline. On the other hand, there's nobody in comics as grouchy as the Guv'nor, and Niamh's grisly fate is nothing more a shamefully transparent plot device, set up just to give Slaine a new arch-enemy. So I guess he's both.

Well, even though Slaine is a huge disappointment, the artwork remains amazing, and, in 2005, Mills will conclude the Books of Invasion saga with a jawdropping epilogue that will leave more than one reader's thrill-circuits totally overloaded. But that's a tale for another day.

There are a couple of other major stories running at the moment. Perhaps the most important is the debut six-part adventure for Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon's Caballistics Inc., an excellent occult thriller set in the same universe as the writer's 2001 hit Necronauts.

Caballistics deals with a taskforce of paranormal troubleshooters. They are financed by a super-rich, reclusive former pop star named Ethan Kostabi, and the team has five members in their first mission, including former employees of the British government's Q Department, two gun-toting field operatives named Chapter and Verse, and a real piece of work named Ravne. When we meet him, he's enjoying the fruits of a shocking mass murder, and when the story ends, we learn he was a Nazi officer, and does not seem to have aged a day in sixty years.

The series seems to draw inspiration from everywhere, most obviously Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories, and the scripts are full of lovely in-joke references to science fiction and horror film and TV, including Quatermass and the Pit and a couple of Doctor Who serials. It's probably a little silly to imagine that this world can possibly be the same one as Doctor Who's, but robot Yeti were definitely defeated in the London Underground a few years prior to this adventure. Probably a little more recently than 1967, though, given the age of the soldiers in the tunnels!

Cabs will become a major ongoing series over the next few years, with more than fifty episodes and two collected editions. It will be very fun to reread this great series, which remains hugely popular with the fandom.

Next time, Judge Dredd battles 20th Century Fox Aliens and 22nd Century Tharg Robots! Be here!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

120. Tucker Truckin'

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday! This week, a little change of pace, as the Hipster Daughter shows off Tharg's impressive little promotional gimmick this year, a 48-page minicomic that was given away to the crowds at the San Diego Comic-Con this summer, and mailed out for free to subscribers of the Galaxy's Greatest. My buddy "Proudhuff" was good enough to send me a copy for my collection, and I thought I would share it with you. It's a real shame that Rebellion had given away the full print run at SDCC; I had inquired whether there were any promotional giveaways available for the GMX panel I did in Nashville a couple of months ago and I think a couple of dozen of these would have been great for that crowd!

The comic features eight strips from a host of 2000 AD's better-known talents, from older classics to some of the newer series. It's a really nice introduction to Tharg's world, featuring a one-off Judge Dredd ("Finger of Suspicion" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy), a classic Future Shock by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and "Reefer Madness" by Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving, along with the first episodes of the Dredd classic "Judge Death" by Wagner and Brian Bolland, Kingdom by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, Zombo by Al Ewing and Henry Flint, and the Slaine epic "The Horned God" by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley.

Each episode ends with a teeny blurb explaining where readers can go next to follow the story or the creators, and while the small size may not be ideal for the artwork - Bisley's in particular suffers - it's a terrific little promo. The last time something like this was tried, it was DC's US-comic-sized freebie, which most comic shops (at least in the Atlanta area) didn't bother to order, since retailers had to pay for them, and they got burned when the similar giveaway Humanoids comic didn't net any new sales for shops. (More about this when we come to that graphic novel line in a future installment!)

I've been saying for years that 2000 AD should participate in the annual Free Comic Book Day which Diamond sponsors each summer. A little reprint of this, with the booth information replaced by a suggestion to ask retailers to order graphic novels and get more of the story, would be a truly great thing indeed. Then again, Rebellion is quite tight-lipped about the business end of the comic, and for all I know, something even better is in the works. Fingers crossed anyway!

One problem about Rebellion's business that we do know about is that they're forced to work with a deeply inept distributor called Diamond to get their product into American comic shops and, earlier in the year, Diamond elected to cancel quite a few already-solicited books in a cost-cutting measure. Among those impacted: the second volume of Ace Trucking Company, a demented, wild comedy by John Wagner, Alan Grant and the late Massimo Belardinelli which originally ran for five years in the eighties. Fortunately, the collection is available through British bookstores and eBay sellers, and from the 2000 AD online shop, so I eventually landed a copy and was very pleased to reread these lunatic adventures.

Ace Trucking is a barely-profitable shipping company run by a motormouth called Ace Garp, who's just one dirty get-rich quick scheme away from either the big time or a very long prison sentence. In fact, he starts this book in jail, a couple of years after he and his crew were put away at the end of the first collected edition. It's set in a very weird future where few humans can be found. This gave Belardinelli the chance to design a completely alien environment and huge casts full of freaky, comical aliens, strange architecture, bizarre spaceships powering through asteroid belts and gangly-limbed space pirates whose T-shirts smoke pipes.

Belardinelli drew all but two of the sixty-odd episodes reprinted in this mammoth book. While he was recuperating from an illness, an anonymous member of the Giolitti art agency, who represented him in England, stepped in for him. Otherwise, this book is all him, and you've not had the pleasure of enjoying Belardinelli before, you should really rectify that. Almost every page looks like he was really having a ball designing this series, and just laughing himself silly with the in-jokes and weird aliens eating each other. Admittedly, towards the end it gets a little dry. The final epic serial in the book was clearly one where the writers were running out of ideas, and Belardinelli wasn't finding very much inspiration as our heroes endlessly searched across the planet Hollywood and through one parody after another in search of some treasure. Before it started its downhill slide, though, Ace Trucking really was something great.

So the entire series is available in two omnibus editions. Obviously, the first is the more consistent of the two, but the second is still full of essential moments, including Ace's recurring enemy Evil Blood, parallel universes, chicken gangsters, labor unrest, sacred worms, porcine royalty, cargo holds full of space fertilizer and contraband beetles which, when ingested, blow your mind so far out that your eyeballs play table tennis against each other. It also contains the strip's spectacular farewell epilogue, in which Ace learns just how unnecessary he actually is to his company's fortunes. You won't find this book at an American comic shop, but I highly recommend that you track down a copy from England.

Next time, we resume the reread in 2003, with the return of Slaine! See you in seven!