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!

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