Thursday, June 3, 2010

137. Men and Women Without Many Clothes

April 2004: Well, isn't this a terrific cover? Chris Weston started his career working on Judge Dredd in the early '90s and he'd been contributing to various series here and there while also getting high-profile work for American publishers, frequently illustrating scripts for Grant Morrison. Speaking of which, a few weeks ago, I finally bought the first collected edition of Morrison's run on Batman, and, after my eyeballs got finished bleeding trying to decipher that godawful artwork, I concluded that as soon as I win the lottery, I'm going to pay Chris Weston his top page rate and just give him damn near every Morrison DC Universe script that someone from this battalion of chicken-scratchers has ruined - Batman, JLA, Final Crisis, the lot - and make it look comprehensible at last.

Unfortunately, Weston, who, in a perfect world, would draw damn near everything, is only handling Rogue Trooper on the cover and not the interiors. Artwork on this story is handled by a newly-constructed droid, PJ Holden, and it's not bad, though it certainly suffers by comparison with the cover! It's very much the work of a new talent and it's very rough in places, but any eyeball which would rather look at that garbage Adam Kubert drew for Batman, probably for a lot more money, than this deserves to bleed, frankly. Holden's work starts off pretty good and would improve greatly over the next several years, but this is still a competent and fine job, and a reasonable conclusion to Gordon Rennie's Rogue Trooper series.

If you recall your Thrillpowered Thursday lessons, Rogue Trooper had returned back in July of '02. The 25 episodes that Rennie penned - staggered out over an agonizing 85 weeks - proved to be mostly good reading this time around. Rennie elected to structure the run much better than I had thought, and it would have worked out very well, had there not been such enormous breaks between the stories.

After the four-part opener (#1301-1304), there was a one-shot called "Weapons of War," illustrated by Dylan Teague, which introduced some new supporting players on the Souther side who were looking for Rogue. Their arc, and that of a ruthless and bloodthirsty Nort commander, Arkhan, weaves through the series, and reaches a pretty satisfying conclusion at the end of "Realpolitik." Rennie did a good job with the task assigned him, but this really would have been a better series had it wrapped up in a single calendar year, and not been dragged out over... wow... 22 months.

Rogue will return a few more times, in late 2005 and the spring of 2006, in stand-alone stories designed to tie in to the forthcoming video game, but other than these, his story is over. And so, mercifully, is the story of Durham Red.

Thank heaven this is finished. Durham Red had been an occasionally entertaining space opera starring a bad-tempered, half-naked mutant vampire for some time, but this third major storyline, "The Empty Suns," is just unreadable nonsense. It had actually begun in October of '03, but artist Mark Harrison hit some delays and the story took a 14-issue break after seven episodes.

What remains is an in-one-eye-and-out-the-other melodrama in which Durham Red, her teenage son(!) and some other castaways from the earlier series get back together for one last go at saving the universe from the latest iteration of the pandimensional threat du jour, something whose name has already escaped me. Red rechristens her son Johnny, in honor of Johnny Alpha, whatever that's worth.

All the while, Red wears as little as the law will allow - her latest wardrobe choice is an unbelievable black vinyl loincloth thing that shows every legal inch of leg and thigh - and stays in a bad mood and basically proves to be as unsympathetic a star as is possible. This is absolutely a story where neither writer nor artist are bringing their best, which is a real shame since we know they're capable of far better. Dan Abnett's captions are overwritten and ponderous, and the visuals of outer space action are murky. It's almost impossible to follow the action, and since the lead is so unlikeable, nobody wants to. Tharg promises that the story's conclusion, in issue 1386, will be the final episode ever, and, mercifully, he's meant it.

And on that sour note, it's vacation time! Thrillpowered Thursday will be taking off for two weeks for recharging and recuperation. We'll be back later in June with a look at Young Middenface and Black Siddha See you then!

...Or not. Honestly, guys, I'm really burned out on doing this every week, so this'll be the last Thrillpowered Thursday for the present. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

136. Judge Dredd's in a Family Way

March 2004: Judge Dredd's supporting cast grows with another newly introduced clone in prog 1380. Inside is episode three of "Brothers of the Blood" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, in which we meet Dolman, a rookie who, like Rico before him, is a clone of Old Stony Face. However, Dolman is very much his own man, and, as the story continues, he looks forward to leaving the academy and making his own way. Rico is assigned to spend a day with him on the streets to try to shake some sense into him. He introduces him to Vienna, last seen in progs 1350-1356, who is recovering from her ordeal in Brit-Cit, and who welcomes him to the "family."

Dredd's reaction to meeting another clone is one of stoic resignation. He's known for some time that he's had a few clones working their way up the system, and that he is getting older and can't keep working the streets forever. It's in the city's best interest, after all to take advantage of such good genetic stock. But Dolman proves to be far too loose a cannon for Justice Department and makes good on his threat. Vienna sees him off at the spaceport, and the young man leaves the city. He makes a couple more appearances over the next few years, reinforcing Old Stony Face's awkward acceptance of his "family."

Returning to action in prog 1380 are Sinister Dexter and Rogue Trooper, about which more next time. These step in to replace The V.C.s and The Red Seas, which concluded its second story, "Twilight of the Idols," in prog 1379. This was the one that I found extremely frustrating, and really colors my opinion of the series as a whole. It should have been an incredibly memorable adventure, filled with harpies and djinns, Sinbad's granddaughter and the immortal Aladdin, and an awesome fight between a kraken and the Colossus of Rhodes.

Unfortunately, it's one draft away from being one of 2000 AD's greatest moments, because Captain Jack Dancer and his still incredibly anonymous crew just luck their way out of danger every week. Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell did a really good job on the story, and it's better than darn near any American superhero book, but if the hero is just handed precisely the magical items he needs to overcome whatever weird new obstacle comes his way, it's awfully hard to root for him. We prefer heroes who have to use their brains, not gadgets specially designed for each incident. Over time, Edginton and Yeowell got past this problem, and I think the series has evolved into one of 2000 AD's most wonderful series. The Red Seas will be returning to 2000 AD for its eleventh story in a couple of weeks, and everybody's really looking forward to it.

The two stories featured here have been reprinted in Rebellion trade paperbacks. Judge Dredd: Brothers of the Blood collects several stories from 1999-2004 which deal with Rico and Vienna, wrapping up with this adventure. The Red Seas: Under the Banner of King Death collects the first three adventures of this series.

Next time, the blog is about to take its summer holiday, but before we go, one last look at Durham Red and a gloriously awesome Rogue Trooper cover by Chris Weston. See you soon!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

135. Whenever I see the word "Valkyrie," I hear Steve Winwood singing "Valerie."

February 2004: I guess that this week's entry really is proof that I'm not the same gleefully malevolent critic that I was in the early '90s, writing for the university newspaper. Once upon a time, the prospect of writing an epic, pages-long takedown of a series as misbegotten and brainless as Valkyries would have been something to look forward to, but now it's just depressing and tedious. Life is too short to waste even reading garbage like this, let alone writing about the experience. The cover art pictured here is by Frazer Irving and it is, by leagues, the best thing about the series, about which the most interesting thing I can impart is that it is the worst 2000 AD series of the past ten years, and the only one about which I can't find a single redeeming thing to say. There have been other great big steaming disappointments in the prog over the last ten years - Bison, Detonator X and the second series of The Ten-Seconders come to mind - but only Valkyries stands up as a complete waste of paper, time and talent. It really does rank down there with the worst of the early '90s misfires. Think Wire Heads bad.

Okay, so it's the last series created for the comic by Steve Moore, and it's illustrated by American artist John Lucas. It reminds me of the old story of how Michael Fleisher was once headhunted by 2000 AD on the strength of his 1970s work on The Spectre and Jonah Hex, thinking him a good fit. I suspect that Lucas, who once did a really good frame story for a special issue of Starman, one of my favorite American comics of the '90s, might have been sought out on the strength of his work on the last three issues of Codename: Knockout, a Vertigo clone of the popular Danger Girl series. He's a really good artist, and based on what Tharg saw in Codename: Knockout, he seemed like a good choice for a series about sexy space babes romping around to save the universe from some humongous new threat. Lucas can draw sexy ladies...

...unfortunately, for this series, he chose to draw incredibly ugly ones.

I don't know what the hell happened here, but basically, in a series that was crying out for Frank Cho or J. Scott Campbell to draw it, we got somebody who wanted to draw characters with all the lumpy sex appeal of cardboard boxes, and half the curves. Not that Cho or Campbell could polish this script very much, as it's basically regurgitated plot beats from the failed Rose O'Rion series and the first run of Synnamon (which had only finished about ten weeks previously!), with comedy anal probes and sex-crazed berserker men thrown in for good measure, but at least they'd have made it easy on the eyes.

That is far more than anybody needs to say about Valkyries. I feel sorry for David Page when he gets to it in his prog slog.

Oh, yeah! David's doing the prog slog now! That's the big news in 2000 AD fandom this week. Paul Rainey, who kickstarted the whole "blog about your collection" deal with his 2000 AD Prog Slog Blog in 2006, inspiring the Thrillpowered Thursday that you've been reading, has finally reached the end of the 1188 issues that he bought from somebody on eBay and has brought his enterprise to an agreeable end. But reg'lar commenter and all-around great guy David "Monarch" Page hasn't wanted the story to end there, so he's carrying on over at his own blog, Dead'll Do. This certainly gives me the impetus to keep writing and not rest on my laurels, despite periodic, necessary recharge breaks - a short one's coming up in June - because the Monarch's fewer than 200 issues behind me, and it simply wouldn't do for him to catch me.

Speaking of which, next time, it's back to the good stuff, as The Red Seas wraps up its second adventure and we meet another member of Dredd's family. See you in seven!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

134. Judge Dredd Should Fight Tyrannosaur Men More Often

January 2004: This week, one of those short entries I promised myself that I would write. Over in the Megazine, editor Alan Barnes has, without question, turned the comic into the best it has ever been, with an exciting, fresh balance of really good new comics and a handful of very good reprints. Of particular interest is a new series called Whatever Happened To, which are one-offs done by a rotating bank of creators following up on old characters from the pages of Judge Dredd. First up is Pat Mills and Chris Weston showing that Dredd is still looking out for Tweak, the snouted alien who helped the lawman way back in the 1978 epic "The Cursed Earth," and this issue, we've got Gordon Rennie and Graham Manley introducing us to Maria, Dredd's housekeeper from the strip's early days, who has passed away with a surprising secret.

I really like Whatever Happened To and wish they still did these. Part of it's personal nostalgia - when I was a kid, there was a similar series that appeared as an eight-page backup in the pages of DC Comics Presents that I always liked - and part of it's the tone that the creators employ. Each episode is thoughtful, but it's never slavishly reverent. There's a terrific one by Si Spurrier and Roger Langridge in a few months' time which that revisits that lunatic cooking droid that made Chopper miserable for a couple of episodes during the 1987-88 "Oz" epic, and it's just one over-the-top laugh after another.

Another really interesting thing about the Meg during this period is that Pat Mills is writing Dredd again.

The guv'nor never really gets Dredd's voice quite right, but "Blood of Satanus II" - a sequel to a three-parter that was drawn by Ron Smith in 1980 - is the first of some occasional Dredd stories that Mills will contribute to both the Meg and, later, the weekly. Some of these will prove to be a little controversial. This time out, the art is provided by Duke Mighten.

Speaking of Pat Mills, did you know that a second hardcover collection of The ABC Warriors was out? In case you missed it, here is my review. Spread the word, as they say!

Next time, there's really no way to get around it, we have to address this Valkyries business. See you in seven!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

133. I'm in love with a Gibson girl

December 2003: Buried in the bubble between Tharg's mighty hands on the cover of this year's annual prog is the announcement that Robo-Hunter returns inside. That's exciting news, even greater than the cover's artwork by the great Duncan Fegredo. Robo-Hunter last appeared in 1995, with writer Peter Hogan and artist Rian Hughes at the helm. Theirs was a terrific series, whimsical, clever, pleasantly surprising at every turn, and only suffers by comparison to the original run by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ian Gibson because those three created my all-time favorite comic series. And now, Grant and Gibson have reunited to resume this popular series, as though they'd never been away. Although Samuel C. Slade himself is mostly absent from the story. Holy Joe Smith, great god of robo-hunters, what has happened to your old pal?

"Like a Virgin," the four-part opener for this new run, takes place several years after Sam finally threw his two idiot assistants out and was forced to resume his old job in New York City after they spent all his money in the last original story, "Farewell, My Billions." This new outing begins with the hopelessly idiotic Hoagy coming across his old buddy Carlos Robo-Stogie while trying to track down Sam because he's found a new case for him, both just completely, and hilariously, lacking the insight to understand that Sam never wants to see them again.

Hoagy, using a DNA tracker, finds Sam's granddaughter, the bad-tempered Samantha Slade. It takes Hoagy and Stogie most of the next two episodes to comprehend that this isn't a remarkable new disguise, and that it really is a different person. She wouldn't mind tracking the old man down herself, as he stopped sending child support payments to her mother five years previously.

With typical Robo-Hunter ridiculousness, we soon learn that Sam finally met his match five years previously at the hands of the Cockney filmmaker Rich Guy and his wife, pop star Rodonna, who have been replacing movie stars with robots, and Sam's head has been stored in a cryo-tank and stuffed into a locker at a train station. The poor guy's even lost his body now; he just can't catch a break!

All right, so let's be brutally honest and objective, fans: Samantha Slade's tenure as robo-hunter is not the greatest series of the last decade, but it is nevertheless extremely fun and very silly and a winking breath of fresh air in the wake of the much heavier dramas around it. She takes the reins for six stories of varying lengths over a three-and-a-half year run, and only the second was mildly disappointing. Other than that tale, I love this series completely, and I remain optimistic, perhaps insanely so, that Tharg will be making a surprise announcement about its return before we come to the 2007 progs in this blog and I can avoid writing anything that I don't wish to say. But the events of the most recent adventure, "I, Jailbird," are a tale for another time, and I'll be certain to devote other entries to the tremendously fun and ridiculous third and fourth stories, so there's much more gleefully goofy times ahead.

Samantha's just a terrific character. Every so often, 2000 AD's fans make some noise about the comic being too led by male heroes and guns and testosterone and people wish for some more female leads. Samantha's just perfect for what we like to see: a tough protagonist who thinks on her feet and doesn't rely on sex or firepower to solve problems like, let's face it, plenty of other comic book heroines, but who still looks good and dresses well, especially with Ian Gibson to portray her. She's the perfect lead for a 2000 AD series: sassy, flawed, determined, slightly adrift in a bizarre, yet fully-formed universe, depicted with character and gusto in a well-written strip with constant surprise and wit. Bluntly, if you'd rather see Durham Red or anybody like her in 2000 AD over Samantha, you're as wrong as wrong can be.

Anyway, there's more to say about Prog 2004 besides the debut of Samantha. There's a letter from me, for example, a really great John Wagner episode of Judge Dredd with art by Jim Murray, another one of Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving's silly one-offs, the first new Nikolai Dante episode in ten months (and last for twelve), and the first installments of new storylines for Slaine, The V.C.s and The Red Seas, which will accompany Dredd and Robo-Hunter into January 2004 as the regular lineup. It's perhaps not as amazing as some of the other year-end progs, but it's a great read all around.

Also, it's the first prog with the comic's present size. For the previous two years, it was presented in the same dimensions as an American comic, just a little larger. Now, it's in standard magazine size, an inch shorter and wider than it had been, just like the Meg has been for a little over a year. This is an extremely welcome development since, for the first time ever, both comics are printed in a size that fits in standard magazine bags with the flap closed. Any comic retailer worth its salt can take care of your storage needs for the last six-plus years of thrillpower.

Also this week, I needed to mention that over at my Bookshelf blog, you can catch my review of Defoe: 1666, the first collected edition of this Pat Mills-Leigh Gallagher series. It compiles the first two stories of this series, from 2007 and 2008. Check it out and tell your friends. Links are good. One day they might earn me a penny or two.

Next time, we catch up to the Megazine, where Chris Weston has contributed one of the comic's best covers ever. See you then!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

132. Character reference

November 2003: In the last installment, I talked about three serials which appeared in the late summer and fall of 2000 AD and its sister comic, Judge Dredd Megazine. Just so we're all on the same page, I think of a serial as a one-off storyline with a definite beginning and end, as opposed to a series, in which a recurring character like Johnny Alpha or a group like the ABC Warriors returns every so often for a new story. It's a bit tricky to schedule these, because it's the characters who get fandom excited and keep our interest - we all want to see our favorites return for another go-around, whereas a one-off serial has to convince us it's worth it every week. In 2003, Tharg's bank of recurring series was really quite low compared to almost any other period, so that left the editors and creators two tasks: develop new characters to hook contemporary audiences, and create some really stunning, memorable serials while the new cast of regulars gets settled in. As we saw in the previous installment, they were mostly very successful indeed. Leviathan, From Grace and XTNCT were all quite popular with readers. There were exceptions - nobody liked Dead Men Walking, a serial written by former editor David Bishop with art by Boo Cook - but overall the work was very solid.

As for new series, Lobster Random, the revived V.C.s, Bec & Kawl, Caballistics Inc and The Red Seas had all been launched to varying degrees of success, with Strontium Dog, Slaine, Sinister Dexter, Nikolai Dante and Durham Red representing the older days of the comic, but 2000 AD is just not in a position to stop there. The Mighty One needs a constant barrage of pitches from the creator droids, particularly at this time, with Dante on hiatus while Robbie Morrison is working for Wildstorm and Durham Red's story finally coming to a conclusion. So that's where Synnamon comes in.

The first image in this entry shows the character as drawn by the great Ian Gibson. It's the latest in a long, very fun tradition of letting other artists tackle the character on the comic's cover. I've always liked this; it lets you see neat things like Strontium Dog drawn by Cliff Robinson or Hannah from Caballistics Inc. painted by Clint Langley. The actual Synnamon strip is drawn by Laurence Campbell and Lee Townsend, and written by Colin Clayton and Chris Dows. This still baffles me. In 2002, these four put together a serial called Bison which ranks as one of the comic's all-time turkeys, and somehow the entire team got the chance to contribute something new? Tharg was being very, very generous and saw some promise there that we never did. Synnamon never fulfills it. It's certainly miles better than Bison, but it's still very weak and unmemorable.

It has to be said that Campbell and Townsend's art has improved tremendously since we last saw it. Either by intention or the result of rushing, the last few shortcut-packed episodes of Bison were laughably poor, but Synnamon mostly crackles with interesting panel layouts and a sleek, minimal futuristic design. It's not completely consistent; in fact, there is a panel on page two of episode eight which is absolutely gobsmacking in its poor anatomy. For the most part, however, this has to rate as an improvement over the earlier effort.

I'm also very impressed by the way the artists choose to approach Synnamon herself. Now gents, and let's be honest here, most of you reading are guys, none of us can claim total immunity to a strip starring a fit redhead in a tight black catsuit. Much to my surprise, however, Synnamon's sex appeal is incredibly underplayed in the strip. The panel here might show an ooh-la-la revealing of her shoulder, but I included it because it's just about the only one in the first six episodes which shows Synnamon actually sitting down long enough so we can see what she looks like. Campbell and Townsend seem to deliberately fight against what could have been an exploitative T&A strip by regularly showing her in long-shot, facial close-up or leaping from one improbably high place to another. Two thoughts strike me: the impression we get of Synnamon being a sexpot T&A strip is due more to her cover appearances drawn by Ian Gibson and Ben Oliver, and most notably a really fantastic piece drawn by Dylan Teague in 2006, than anything that appears in the strip. Also, that if somebody like Greg Land drew it, she wouldn't have been drawn with long shots or improbably high places, and I'd still have a hard time finding a suitable sample image, because I'd be embarrassed.

Besides, Durham Red's running around half-naked again during this run, so the prog's got the T&A business covered.

Oh, one other thing strikes me: Synnamon would be a much more interesting strip if she was some insectoid beast with eight eyes, or, if she must be human, a deskbound grandma. I don't care who draws her and how; if I wanted to look at the Black Widow, I think Marvel still publishes comics with her in them.

You'll notice I didn't mention the story. Well, it isn't awful, what there is of it. She's a secret agent of some kind, she has a sentient computer sort of like Dante's weapons crest, and I think Earth's being invaded by nanobots or something. As we saw in the '90s strip Mambo, the narrative is burdened by an over-convoluted backstory that all gets dumped on the readers very clumsily. Clayton and Dows' most critical mistake, however, was assuming that 2000 AD needed a strip about somebody supremely confident and super-awesome to the point of being flawless. All of 2000 AD's best heroes are flawed, sometimes extremely so. That's what makes them fascinating. Think about it. There's just no reason for a series about a glamorous, sexy, practically perfect super-agent to have been commissioned for this comic in the first place.

Synnamon will return for two further short stories, in 2004 and 2006, before being retired. 2000 AD does need female leads, and in the next installment, the comic gets one of its very best ones ever: Samantha Slade. I'm really looking forward to it. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

131. Three Stories

October 2003: This completely excellent cover by D'Israeli is well-timed to appear here at the blog because it's a potent reminder that Leviathan, a wonderful serial that he drew, scripted by Ian Edginton, is coming back into print in Rebellion's paperback line. A hardback was released in 2006, but it's been out of print for a while. In fact, the new edition is solicited to retailers this very month in the pages of that Previews catalog that they all get. If you've never heard of Leviathan, it's set on the world's largest ocean liner some twenty years after it vanished at sea. It mixes a murder mystery with a tale of society breaking down after two decades in isolation, a population still trying to enforce the class codes of Britain in the 1920s unable to understand where they are and what happened to them. If it sounds intriguing, then you should get on the horn to your local funnybook emporium and tell 'em to order you a copy. (I should probably swing by a comic shop and get the page number, just to make it easier for you, but it's out of my way.)

At this time, 2000 AD and its sister Judge Dredd Megazine were running three particularly interesting serials. None of them were anything like any story the comics had ever seen previously, but each of them seemed to fit so well that you couldn't imagine any other comic presenting them. Leviathan was terrific, a slow-burn change of pace with an aging detective who's spent years quite justifiably raging about a life full of unfair losses. But it wasn't the only wild tale that took an incredible premise and used it for some very effective world-building.

From Grace, a five-part serial by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving, looked at the deterioration of Kaith, leader of a tribe of winged people who share an uneasy existence with a much larger population that is wingless. The setting of the serial is never really defined; it's a low-technology, hunter-gatherer type of society. From Grace deserves more commentary than I have room for it here; it's a really fascinating look at how we define evil, and what drives people to become villains. Unlike Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked, however, Kaith is never really seen to be a sympathetic character. The actions of the wingless towards his people are about as noxious as Kaith's to them. It's a spiralling mess where any leader was certain to become a monster.

That's not to dismiss the strength of the narrative, but where it really shines is in the experimental way that it unfolds. Frazer Irving really knocks this one out of the park, using different color schemes for the various times in which the story is set, and Spurrier's narration - there's a lot more of it here than in most stories - drives the memoir by moving back and forth. He also includes a pair of amazing, shocking cliffhangers to end the second and fourth installments. Nobody, nowhere, is still rooting for Kaith at the start of episode five.

On the other hand, everybody, everywhere, roots for Rptr, the star of XTNCT, a six-part serial written by Paul Cornell that was running in the Megazine at this time. Already a big-name fan made good, Cornell would later script three very good episodes of Doctor Who for TV and later still write a celebrated run of Captain Britain for Marvel Comics. It's illustrated, again, by D'Israeli and it concerns six intelligent dinosaur-esque creatures in a bizarre genetically-engineered world who have agreed to exterminate the last two hundred humans. Given the high-concept craziness, no compelling reason is given why they shouldn't.

Cornell and D'Israeli's characters are incredibly compelling, but none more so than Rptr, a small-witted psychopath who runs around at super speed tearing mammals to pieces and screaming at such volume and speed that his vowels are lost to the wind. The story is structured beautifully, with each of the six episodes focusing on one member of the cast. It remains the only comic serial I've ever seen to feature a gay triceratops in a leather vest, as well as the only comic to ever use the immortal phrase, "Kiss my scaly dinosaur arse!"

Sadly, Paul Cornell's footprint in the House of Tharg has been very small. He scripted a few series in the early '90s which weren't bad, but the weight of "worthiness" sort of hung over them, and then he worked on other projects for years before contributing XTNCT. Television soon beckoned, and while he's since returned to comics, they've been for Marvel and DC. He was announced as Superman's newest writer just last week. I'm sure those are all fine books, but I can't help but think his talents would be better served in 2000 AD than with superheroes.

All three of these stories are available as collected editions. As noted above, the new paperback version of Leviathan is in the catalog now. From Grace was reprinted in Storming Heaven: The Frazer Irving Collection and XTNCT made it into a Rebellion hardback volume. Each of them is worth looking into!

Next time, Tharg attempts to add a little spice to the comic as Synnamon debuts. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

130. Heroclix, part two

September 2003: Last week, I was telling you about Heroclix, the internationally-popular beat combo, errrr, that is, well-known collectible miniatures game which, in its sixth set, featured a handful of 2000 AD characters. I was also telling you about how the expansion in question was not as popular with Heroclix's players as WizKids had hoped, and that overconfident retailers had overordered the set. I also left a dangling hint that prog 1356, pictured here, is inexorably linked with Heroclix in my mind. All this tantalizing foreshadowing; you're going to be so disappointed if this turns out to be really mundane, aren't you?

Indyclix, as players called the expansion, represented an incredible missed opportunity for comic shops. Honestly, very few players could swear to be intricately familiar with all the lines represented in the game. Apart from 2000 AD, and its characters from three different series, there were pieces from Top Cow's Witchblade, Cyberforce, The Darkness and Aphrodite IX, the Crossgen series Sojourn, Sigil, The Way of the Rat and The Path, Wildstorm's Danger Girl, Dark Horse's Hellboy, Caliber/Image's Kabuki and Crusade's Shi. I think that's everybody.

Can you guess what all these series have in common that 2000 AD didn't have in 2003? That's right, a comprehensive trade program to keep their stories in print.

I was pretty active on the hcrealms site in 2003, and I was saying that any retailer worth his salt, one who actually wanted to use the interest from the game to prop up sales of his comics, would be nuts not to put together a display of all those titles and to use the captive audience of players who've arrived to compete in a tournament to talk about them. This was around the time that the phrase "team comics" was making a small murmur among the online crowds who wanted to expand the medium, and I was personally very frustrated that a good 2000 AD trade program didn't exist.

At the time, Titan had the license to most of 2000 AD's serials, and while I've normally got nothing but love for the good fellows at Titan, their 2001-03 line of reprints was really disappointing. There were a few exceptions, but most of what they released were either "Hey kids, Garth Ennis!" attempts to sell that writer's subpar Judge Dredd stories, or repackagings of the earlier 1980s Titan books. Some of the hardback collections of things like Nemesis the Warlock and "The Judge Child Quest" admittedly looked fantastic, and set the stage for their subsequent hardback lines of Dan Dare and Charley's War, but overall the line felt flimsy and halfhearted, and it was a long, long way from "comprehensive." Rebellion also had a small line of its own self-contained books, typically European-styled hardcover collections of shorter stories. They were interesting in their own right - Jamie Boardman smacking himself in the head with a Hewligan's Haircut book at a convention to demonstrate its indestructibility instantly became the stuff of legend - but didn't spotlight 2000 AD's long-running characters and ongoing serials.

So I had a neat idea. It would cost me a little bit, but I would order a small stack of 2000 ADs for the players at one store. On Monday evenings, I played with a group of people at a store in Marietta which was really not terrible, but still not quite as wonderful as a comic store should be. This place had a pretty good crowd of regulars, and so I decided, back in June, to preorder eight copies of a forthcoming prog to serve as participation prizes for the first Indy-themed game. It was impossible to tell with preorders from Diamond, but it looked like issues 1356-57 might have been scheduled to ship either the week of or the week after Indy's release, so I picked 1356 and paid for eight copies, hoping that whatever was in that prog would blow at least one person's mind enough to want to follow up.

Oh, 1356, what a disappointment you were. If you were any reader's first prog, they wouldn't knock down anybody's door to find a second.

The first problem was that horrible cover. I like Charlie Adlard a lot, and his interior work in this issue wasn't at all bad, but what to make of that cover, with a jowly Dredd on his back, uniform opened - he doesn't wear a shirt under that motorcycle leather? - and helpless?

Inside, new readers might have enjoyed two terrific ongoing stories, Leviathan by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, about which more next week, and the hilarious Strontium Dog yarn "The Tax Dodge" by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, but both stories were several weeks into their run, and a little unfriendly to new readers. The Judge Dredd episode was the last part of the very underwhelming "The Satanist" by Wagner and Adlard, and it's a complete mess, easily one of Wagner's weakest multi-part stories. Dredd spends about the entire episode helplessly chained to a rock, about to be sacrificed in the Brit-Cit countryside to some demon, only to literally be saved by a bolt from the blue, as though God - or Grud - put a stop to the Devil-Rides-Out wannabe.

Sinister Dexter started a new storyline by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis in this prog, and that might have worked for new readers. Everybody likes to jump on with a first episode, right? Unfortunately, this particular first episode was not an action-packed gunfight with our heroes, but instead a lighthearted, jokey, subplot-heavy installment as everyone prepared for two of the supporting characters to get married. That left a Past Imperfect one-shot by Nigel Long, writing as "Kek-W," and Leigh Gallagher, in a very early professional job for him. The one-shot is not bad, per se, but it's about as unfriendly to American readers as can be possible. It's about Dick Barton, who maybe one in a million of us have ever heard of. That's certainly no fault of anybody's (this is a British comic), but for somebody trying to convince a room of American gamers to try this comic, it sure did add up to a colossal disappointment.

But even if it had worked with one of the eight, and people did want to see what happened next in the ongoing stories, there was still a flaw in my plan. The shop in question didn't order 2000 AD for any but its subscribers - the manager told me that he had two - so anyone hoping to see prog 1357 would not, because of Diamond not holding any overstock for reorders, be able to buy a copy easily.

At least my intentions were good, but what I really needed was the opportunity to point people to some pretty zarjaz collected editions. It would be about nine months before I got the chance, and that's a story for another day.

Speaking of collected editions, in more recent news, over at my Bookshelf blog, I reviewed last year's Anderson: Psi Division phonebook collection earlier this week. Go have a read, link to it and tell your friends!

Next week, three serials knock the readership on their backsides. Come back to hear about Leviathan, From Grace and XTNCT. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

129. Heroclix, part one

September 2003: Oh, boy, do I ever remember this prog. Unfairly, it serves as a completely terrific example of the comic's long-standing problem with cashing in on publicity. I say "unfairly" for a reason I'll come back to next week, and why this specific issue was a mess for that purpose. This week, I'm going to look back at Heroclix, and 2000 AD's all-too-brief moment in the sun with the game.

Heroclix is a tabletop miniatures combat game created by WizKids, at one time a subsidiary of Topps and now owned by NECA. Basically it's chess with dice and a thousand pieces, sold in "expansions" every quarter or so. It has a community of fun-loving fans who get together for company-sponsored tournaments with special limited edition pieces offered as prizes. I was introduced to the game by my buddy Randy, who correctly sussed that I'd enjoy it, and gave me a DC starter set for Christmas 2002. We had a great time playing, and I was looking forward to the inclusion of some Legion of Super-Heroes pieces, and some 2000 AD characters, the license for which had been announced a couple of months previously.

In March of '03, I became a single dad and Heroclix seemed like a perfectly sensible distraction to follow, what with boozing up not being a very good idea for a fellow with two younguns to raise by himself. Several of the area comic shops were carrying the game and sponsoring tournaments, so I enjoyed making new friends and acquaintances and having occasional breaks from my crazy kids. At that time, there were two Marvel sets out, and one DC. The third Marvel set, X-Plosion, was released just as I moved to my current digs in Marietta, with the second DC set, Cosmic Justice, coming in the summer. The stage was set for the release of Indyclix in the early fall.

Indy was the sixth Heroclix set. To give you some idea how madly and wildly this game has spun out of control in the six and a half years since, there have been a stunning thirty-six sets released after Indy. Now, some of those were small collectors' sets of four or seven characters, but that's still an astonishing number of things to keep up with, especially when the company decided that it didn't have enough rules and started adding idiotic cards of various types to the mix, which is why I finally abandoned it, gasping for air and space, in early 2008.

Indy was the first set to institute some overdue rule changes to the game. Players who started with the first Marvel set, Infinity Challenge, found an exceptionally "cheesy" loophole to the rules, using the tactic of having an 18-point Wasp carry around a very expensive Firelord for an obnoxious first-strike strategy. Indy leveled the field somewhat, first by ruling that flying characters could not carry other flying characters, and that characters could not act immediately after landing. That's one reason that many people, used to those tactics and who'd been playing the game for the last eighteen months, didn't like the new set.

That the set wasn't made up of superheroes also caused some grief. Indy was a mix of characters from seven properties: 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Nemesis), CrossGen (characters like Arwyn, Boon and Samandahl Rey), Crusade (Shi), Danger Girl, Dark Horse (Hellboy and the BPRD), Kabuki and Top Cow (Aphrodite IX, Witchblade, etc). This was a solution that didn't satisfy anybody. If you were a Witchblade fan, you might get that piece and possibly a supporting character in a box, but also plenty you didn't care about.

It seemed that, across the board, retailers ordered Indy in the same quantities as the previous Marvel and DC sets, despite the obvious fact that none of these comic books, no matter what their popularity was, sold what the X-Men did. Retailers were stuck with extra Indy boosters for years, especially after players turned on the set and stopped buying boosters like they would for the Marvel and DC sets.

Fans didn't like the set for a whole pile of extra reasons: it was the first obvious example in Heroclix of "power creep," a problem that impacts any collectible game like this, with a host of characters that did a bafflingly high base 3 damage. There were only two fliers. There were an unusual number of female characters with the blades-claws-fangs power. Really, whoever decided to put Witchblade, Shi, at least four Kabuki girls and Sister Magdalena in the same expansion and give 'em all identical power sets was out to lunch. The sculptors and the dial designers seemed to be in different worlds; one of the Kabuki characters was seen holding two submachine guns, but she couldn't make ranged attacks and had the same boring BCF power as the others on her team.

Judge Dredd, the same guy who took out Batman with a single blow, in a comic co-published with DC and had their seal of approval, was grossly underpowered and probably couldn't win a game against two Paramedics and a Skrull. Stix had neither Toughness nor Super Strength. The 2000 AD team ability, which gave those pieces a higher attack against a specific target, was overcosted so badly that it made most pieces useless in mixed games against the superheroes. One of maybe two exceptions to that was Johnny Alpha, who did have the handy Telekinesis power, even if the character somehow didn't have either Energy Explosion ("Number four cartridge!") or Willpower. And so on, and so on.

But what drove everybody mad locally was this: there were twenty-four pieces you couldn't get in the US, all of 'em 2000 AD pieces. To understand how this happened, I need to explain how the figures were distributed. They were sold in booster packs of four for $6.99. These days, I think you get five for $13 or something equally criminal. Anyway, in a booster, you'd get:

two of 36 "common" pieces numbered 1-36
one of 24 "uncommon" pieces numbered 37-60
and either:
one of 24 "rare" pieces numbered 61-94, or:
one of 12 "Unique" pieces numbered 95-106.

Uniques replaced rares in one of six boosters and were more valuable on the secondary market.

In the North American boosters, there were two 2000 AD common characters (Johnny Alpha and Judge Hershey), one rare (Dredd) and two Uniques (Judge Death and Judge Anderson). But in the rest of the world, players had a totally different set of 24 uncommons, each of which was a 2000 AD character (Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis, a Brit-Cit Judge, Wulf Sternhammer, Stix, Nemesis and Torquemada). So in Britain, an Indy booster (visibly different from ours with its grey background instead of red) was guaranteed to have at least one 2000 AD piece. (I suppose I should clarify that each character appeared on three pieces, representing "rookie," "experienced" and "veteran" versions, with slightly different power sets; that's how eight characters become 24 pieces.)

There were a few other 2000 AD pieces for fans to try and collect; Hershey and Alpha also appeared on fourth dial versions, as Limited Edition tournament prizes, and there were Promotional pieces issued for Alpha and Dredd, but it was those 24 pieces ("UK only," they were called, erroneously) that most players with collecting interest wanted, particularly Nemesis, with his very powerful dial. Nem was certainly the most useful of the 2000 AD pieces, but few American players ever saw him.

The whole business of different boosters for different territories left a bad taste in many players' mouths. It also gave rise to some absurd urban legends. One tale, debunked instantly but lingering for years, was that Rebellion had ordered the split. (It was, of course, WizKids' idea, hoping to attract British gamers by assuring one home-grown character in every box.) Then again, Heroclix and stupid urban legends went hand-in-hand. The story going around at the time insisted, with no proof whatsoever, that Todd MacFarlane would not license Spawn for the game without WizKids agreeing to provide chains and a cloth cape for every piece.

I don't know whether it's fair to label Indy a flop - it did win Game of the Year at the 2003 Origins con - but it certainly underperformed, and really aggravated retailers, especially once they'd placed their orders and afterward learned from some players that they'd be sitting out this release and catching up with all the rarities from the previous superhero expansions that they'd missed. Now, this may be just as much of an urban legend as the stories in the previous paragraph, but apparently WizKids moved up the release of the fourth Marvel set, Critical Mass, from January 2004 to November '03 to assuage retailer anger that they wouldn't have the Christmas season sales that they were expecting. What's certain is that Critical Mass was released early, and the quality of the sculpts and the paint was notably lower than any previous release. Frankly, they looked like a completely horrible rush job, but, in the proud Heroclix tradition, we just complained and bought 'em anyway.

At the time, I couldn't have cared less. There used to be a game store in Doraville called Batty's Best, and I periodically stopped in on my way back from Athens to dig through their Clix singles. One Saturday, a full week and a half before they were supposed to be released, the store sprung a surprise on customers and broke open a case of Indy. I grabbed a starter and two boosters and was thrilled to pull, among others, a Unique Judge Death. That certainly bode well. A buddy of mine named Steve Thrasher probably only bought ten boosters and got a Unique in at least eight. I played well in the marquees and scored both of the rarest prizes, and I got to talk about thrillpower to a crowd otherwise concerned with how to make a comic-accurate version of Ultimate Universe Iceman, with four arrows and an Incap attack of 15 or something.

But how to turn this into sales for 2000 AD? Well, that's where prog 1356 comes in, and I'll tell you all about that next week!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

128. Meg in America

June 2003: One of the strangest little bits of 2000 AD lore came around this time, when some distributor made a halfhearted and half-baked effort to sell the Judge Dredd Megazine on newsstands. It was never broadcast or announced on any blog and if anybody ever found out about it, it was totally by accident, but I remember the incident clearly, and the lovely way my eyes popped out of their head.

So that summer of '03 was the first after my first wife and I split up, and the kids and I moved into our stately manor in Marietta. One day that summer, I got word that the Georgia Music Hall of Fame had a small display at Discover Mills, the Atlanta-area site of the Mills chain of mega-malls. It was on the other side of town, but a lot closer than the actual Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, so the kids and I drove out there on a Sunday.

Talk about small! This display was just teeny - four little kiosks! And there was a sign for this on the interstate? I felt fairly ripped off, but it's not like it cost anything other than gas. So while we were out that way, we decided to walk the mall and see what there was to see. It turned out one of the anchors was a big Books-a-Million. If you've never been to one of these, it's sort of like a downmarket Borders with three or four extra shelves of Bibles. And there, knock my socks off, was the latest issue of the Judge Dredd Megazine, a comic which I had never seen on a newsstand in America. But the really impressive thing was the price: $4.99.

For years, the Megazine wasn't available in the US at all. Diamond finally started soliciting it to comic shops in early 1997, and they did their customary half-assed job, routinely skipping it and losing issues. I had actually dropped it for a while myself, because I didn't like paying six bucks for a comic that had a few pages of Dredd and many more pages of Frank Miller and of Preacher, but resumed reading in 2000. A glance over my collection suggests that I only (only!) had to replace about three of the next eighteen issues, but when the Meg went to its modern, 100-page format, the distributor finally got their act together.

They just charged $10.99 a copy.

Now, for a hundred pages, that's actually a pretty reasonable deal. American superhero books are about twenty pages long and cost $2.99 at the time, so the price-per-page was pretty good, especially considering the high quality of the strips in the Meg. Under Alan Barnes' aegis, the Meg's quality skyrocketed, with a super lineup of strips. In this issue, you've got Judge Dredd, featuring the return of the recurring serial killers Homer and Oola Bint, by John Wagner and Graham Manley, Middenface McNulty by Alan Grant and John Ridgway, Devlin Waugh by John Smith and Colin MacNeil, Family by Rob Williams and Simon Fraser, Black Siddha by Pat Mills and Simon Davis and the one-page comedy strip Apocalypse Soon by Alan Grant and Shaun Thomas. Plus you've got reprinted Slaine by Mills and David Pugh and the classic Darkie's Mob, from the pages of Battle Picture Weekly, by Wagner and the late Mike Western. It's certainly not a package I object to spending eleven bucks on. Especially, he said with a mercenary glee, since it really only cost me eight with my store discount. But suddenly here the damn thing was on the magazine rack, next to Shonen Jump and the American books, for five!

Sadly, it didn't last very long. I started hunting down the Megazine at every place that looked like it might have a newsstand, taking a copy to the register and thanking the manager for carrying it. I'd usually say "I picked this up earlier, and I just wanted to say I'm so glad that you carry it." I did that ten or eleven times.

But I never canceled my existing order for it, figuring, rightly, that the experiment would not last and, indeed, by the end of 2003, the Megazine was gone again, with no indication it was ever there. I sometimes wonder whether anybody found their way to thrillpower through it. I went to the real Georgia Music Hall of Fame the following summer. Everybody should.

In recent news, I reviewed the 14th in the series of Dredd Case Files over at my Bookshelf blog. Did you catch it? Link to it? Tell your friends and neighbors?

But it's funny that we should be talking about a previous attempt to break into North America right now, as the news about the Simon & Schuster-distributed 2000 AD collections continues to swirl. Here's the news from Publisher's Weekly as appeared there Monday, and on the website yesterday. The first two books are solicited in the current issue of Previews. Spread the word!!

Next time, 2000 AD in plastic! Get ready for this blog's first two-part entry, as 2000 AD invades the tabletop miniature game called Heroclix!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

127. John Hicklenton, 1967-2010

This week, we have an unfortunate departure from the regular Thrillpowered format, because the House of Tharg lost one of its most radical art droids over the weekend. Graphic novel editor Keith Richardson broke the sad news that John Hicklenton passed away from complications with multiple sclerosis a few days ago at the age of 43.

For the 2000 AD family of titles, Hicklenton certainly made an impact with his confrontational, aggressive artwork. His first two appearances were in one-off Tharg's Future Shocks in 1986-1987, illustrating scripts by Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. Later in 1987, he worked with Pat Mills on the first of two Nemesis the Warlock serials. The first of these, Book Seven, featured two of the series' most shocking and grisly moments, first when Torquemada hunted down Thoth and butchered him with a chainsword, and, the following week, when Nemesis avenged his son by sealing his arch-enemy in a suit of armor and sending thousands of flies in through a crack to eat him alive. Some of us still have our jaws on the floor.

Hicklenton collaborated with Mills several more times over the next twenty years, including five episodes of Third World War, a miniseries for Dark Horse called Zombieworld, and a very controversial 2007 Judge Dredd serial called "Blood of Satanus III." Hicklenton's often grotesque work, marked by wild-eyed madmen, rippling muscles and creatures from violent nightmares, had always been confrontational, but possibly never so much as on Pandora, a 1995 serial about an undercover officer for Judge Dredd Megazine written by Jim Alexander. To be fair, few readers, including myself, ever had anything good to say about the strip, in which Hicklenton seemed to be going out of his way to obscure the narrative by throwing conventional panel transitions right out the window and doing things entirely his way. It's fair to say that I didn't like Pandora at all, but in its considerable defense, its failings are down to deliberate, supremely confident gauntlet-throwing on the part of the artist, and not incompetence. Hicklenton did things his way, and Pandora is probably due for a reevaluation one day, purely on just how utterly bizarre and unlike anything else in mainstream comics it is.

2007's "Blood of Satanus III," which I believe was his final strip work, was praised for its surreal, Bosch-influenced depiction of the various circles of Hell and an instantly-unforgettable villain, but also pilloried by fandom for its head-scratching script, in which Mills, who's been so darn good the last decade, didn't seem to have a single defender. But this wasn't Hicklenton's first work with Dredd, nor his most controversial. He'd been periodically called on to illustrate one-offs and short stories several times previously, perhaps most memorably on a terrific little three-parter in 1991 called "Black Widow," which set Dredd up against a shape-changing alien.

His most famous Dredd work was on a series referred to as "Heavy Metal Dredd." These, initially, were a short series of ultraviolent one-offs penned by John Wagner and Alan Grant and painted by Simon Bisley for the European magazine Rock Power, exploiting Dredd's popularity among various metal bands like Anthrax and Motorhead. Reprinted in the early 90s in the Dredd Megazine, the six stories were successful enough to warrant follow-ups, written and drawn by various creators. Hicklenton was probably the most notorious of them, illustrating, among others, the completely eye-popping "Big Hit," in which massed fatties leap to their deaths in an over-the-top spectacle of blood, guts and spinal columns, in 1993. All 21 of the episodes under the "Heavy Metal" banner were reprinted by Rebellion in 2009, with a new cover painted by Hicklenton. This would be his last work for the comic.

Here's Johnny, a documentary about his battle with MS, was produced by a film company called Animal Monday and screened at SXSW in Austin in 2008, airing a year later on Britain's Channel Four. Hicklenton took on MS with gleeful, gallows humor. Pat Mills sent word to Rebellion that he had a final conversation with John shortly before he died, and that he remained in good spirits, joking that it was the disease that had less than a week to live, and not the man. Here are some examples of his work, proving that Hicklenton will always be with us, and probably in bad dreams. I'd like to think that he's giving the angels some real humdingers of nightmares right now.

"The Invisible Etchings of Salvador Dali," 2000 AD # 515, 1987

Nemesis the Warlock Book Seven, 2000 AD # 556, 1988

Third World War: "The Word According to Ryan", Crisis # 25, 1989

Judge Dredd: "Black Widow," Judge Dredd Megazine vol. 1 # 8 , 1991

Pandora, Judge Dredd Megazine vol. 2 # 77, 1995

Judge Dredd: "Blood of Satanus III," Judge Dredd Megazine # 261, 2007

Goodbye, John.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

126. The Cranky Crustacean

May 2003: The disagreeable old cuss on the cover of prog 1342 is named Lobster Random. He's drawn on this introductory issue by Boo Cook, but the character was actually created by Simon Spurrier and Carl Critchlow, who illustrates the story. This nine-part adventure (published as eight episodes with a double-length finale) marks the point where Spurrier ticks over from "promising newcomer with potential" to "one of the best droids in Tharg's lineup." Lobster Random is a genuine pleasure, a wild romp through a bizarre and fully realized universe of scumbag aliens, freaky technology and over-the-top plotting. Frankly, it's a masterpiece.

The first episode is just a perfect little introduction. It starts with our hero, an ornery jerkwad with great big lobster claws on his back, on death row awaiting the switch. We get the backstory needed to ground us in this world by way of a really neat flashback: Lobster Random's life flashes before his eyes as the switch is pulled. We learn that he's one of a small group of similar genetically-engineered sociopaths who, in order to fight in a war against some cosmic baddies who terrified young soldiers to death through nightmares, have been enhanced so that they neither sleep nor feel pain. The claws are barely explained at all, only to mention that scientists in this world are completely bugnuts.

So after the war, Lob found work in the criminal underworld, going from planet to planet as a torturer for hire. He's on death row for a reason, you know. I find this so interesting. There's a segment of 2000 AD fandom which has never liked Dan Abnett's Sinister Dexter because the protagonists are hitmen. Lobster Random seems to get a pass despite the ostensible hero being, and let's be honest here, an awful lot worse. Is it the wacky, alien-filled future setting that makes it okay for us to cheer on this "arsegike" in his lunatic adventure? Or maybe it's because the adventure is so amazingly well plotted, hopscotching wildly from one crazy complication to the next, like some of the finest moments in 2000 AD's past? As a character, Lobster Random reminds me of some obvious influences like Axel Pressbutton and Spider Jerusalem, but the way the storyline careens from one set piece to the next with high-concept complications ready to overwhelm the exasperated lead is vintage John Wagner, reminiscent of classic Ace Trucking Company and Robo-Hunter. Oh, that reminds me, in episode two, Lob, rescued from prison by a gang in need of his unique talents, is reunited with his old girlfriend:

Lob's alternative lifestyle is still not readily accepted in this far-flung future, but it leads to an amazingly funny payoff in part three when somebody calls the happy couple "mek-fags" and Lob puts his head through a wall. It also leads to an ugly and dramatic moment towards the end of the story, when Spurrier shows that he can do a lot more than light comedy.

I don't know what the heck Tharg did to Spurrier to make him so damn awesome, but 2003 was definitely his year. Just nine weeks after this issue, Bec & Kawl will return for its third month-long run, and everybody who had previously groaned over the labored Family Guy-isms of that series will suddenly do a double-take because the darn strip finally breaks through the stupid barrier and tells the first of several eye-poppingly funny stories. And just around the corner, we've got Jack Point and Harry Kipling and... ooooh, so much to look forward to.

Only one Lobster Random collection has been released. No Pain, No Gain, a 48-page hardback album in the European style, was issued in 2005 and reprints this story. There are four more Lob adventures after this one, so the character's quite overdue for a bookshelf treatment in Rebellion's regular line, but it looks like the schedule's pretty well packed until 2011. Come to think of it, we haven't seen Lob in the weekly since October of 2008, so he's certainly overdue for a new story. This is something Tharg really needs to get busy with!

In contemporary news, in case you're not listening to the Everything Comes Back to 2000 AD podcast or reading my Reprint This! blog, Rebellion's Keith Richardson made an appearance to talk about their line of books and the forthcoming, separate American line. You should definitely go read the details and get your wallet ready, because it'll be in business for a good while!

Next time, what the heck is the Megazine doing on American newsstands?! Be here in seven and we'll try to find out!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

125. Team Andy and Team Pat

April 2003: My reread has brought me to an interesting six-week period where two of 2000 AD's former editors, Pat Mills and Andy Diggle, had new series running at the same time. Diggle, who's not long from signing an exclusive contract with DC Comics at this point, has devised a new, contemporary-set political thriller called Snow / Tiger which is illustrated by Andy Clarke and Chris Blythe, and the Guv'nor has written a new, mammoth epic for his long-running ABC Warriors which will be told in three chunks of 48-60 pages. It's called "The Shadow Warriors," and Book One of the epic is illustrated by veteran Carlos Ezquerra. It is Mills' best work for 2000 AD for many, many years.

Did the bad feelings between Mills and Diggle inspire the Guv'nor to better things? Around this time, David Bishop is finishing the serialized first edition of Thrill-Power Overload for the Megazine, and he included a gauntlet-throwing quote from Mills in the final installment about the new work since Diggle stepped down as editor. There was a lot of side-taking in fandom at the time. For myself, Diggle was the much-loved, fandom-embracing editor who wrote me a very encouraging rejection letter for a Pulp Sci-Fi installment I proposed, and Mills was the cranky old pagan who lost the plot around 1990.

Hindsight tells a different story. Diggle had some great work ahead of him for DC, including The Losers and Adam Strange, both of which I strongly recommend you all check out, but Snow / Tiger is a derivative bore with an unbelievable bad guy and very nice art, and The Shadow Warriors is delightful, full-on, twelve-gauge lunacy. The art's the worst thing about it, and it's freakin' Ezquerra, one of the best artists in comics.

Actually, some of my dislike of the art comes from Mek-Quake's latest body. It was established decades previously that Mek-Quake collects new bodies and enjoys downloading his consciousness into each of them, but this is the only tale that sees him wearing a body best termed as "Stumpy." Either that or nobody told Ezquerra that he was supposed to be the tallest and broadest member of the team.

Readers today can judge for themselves as both stories are available in collected editions. You can read Mills' adventure in the sixth volume of ABC Warriors, and Snow / Tiger was reprinted in the freebie graphic novel bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine # 276 in 2008.

Speaking of collected editions, I decided one way to quit writing such carpal tunnel-inducing entries was to simply review any 2000 AD collections as and when they would normally come up for review at my Bookshelf blog and just link to them here. That said, in case you missed it, I reviewed last year's collection of The V.C.s by Dan Abnett, Henry Flint and Anthony Williams here.

Next time, the circuit-charming tale of cranky ol' Lobster Random begins. Be here in seven!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

124. Somebody Remembers Firekind

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday, the blog that strives to do something about the shameful lack of publicity that the Galaxy's Greatest Comic manages in the world of online media. Normal service, where I'm looking at issues and stories originally published in 2003, will resume next week, but this time around, I thought I'd ease back into things by sharing with readers some of the more recent newsworthy items to refresh your mordant thrill-circuits.

On a personal note, one highlight of the last two months was being interviewed by The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon, for his Holiday series, in which twenty "of the best writers about comics" (well!) talked about "favorite, representative or just plain great... books from the ten-year period 2000-2009." Tom asked me for a shortlist of titles I thought that I could ramble on about. I suggested 2000 AD along with All-Star Superman, New X Men, Pluto and Scott Pilgrim, four titles I could happily talk about at great length, but I certainly enjoy proselytizing about the House of Tharg more than anything else, so I'm glad Tom went with that. If you missed the interview, you can read it here, but I'm certain you all have that site bookmarked and read it every day anyway, right?

I did make one point in the interview which was evidently worth following up. As I'm certain readers know, 2009 was the year where Diamond, the company that distributes 2000 AD in North America, got infected with an amazing case of incompetence. I wrote back in July about how Diamond was becoming so utterly infuriating to deal with, and honestly, the problem only got worse. Adding insult to injury, the "prog packs" of bundled, polybagged comics were not appearing in stores on the day that Diamond's publicly-viewable ship list claimed that they were. Rich Johnson, who runs the Bleeding Cool news and rumor site, asked Bill Schanes of Diamond to comment on the problem. As you can read at Rich's site, Mr. Schanes spoke more about the problem of economics and profitability than actually, you know, shipping the dang comics to stores.

I certainly appreciate somebody from Diamond going on the record about the issue - I have actually phoned Diamond on two occasions and found no satisfaction whatsoever, so props to Rich for getting somebody on the line - but Mr. Schanes didn't address the problem. The solid, indisputable fact is that I can go to Diamond's site on any given Wednesday and see what they claim will be in stores that day. On those occasions that a prog pack is listed, for example November 25, I can go to the comic store of my choice and watch as each and every box is unpacked and those comics are not in there. I have no objection at all to Diamond soliciting an "October" pack in August and not shipping it until November. I understand there's a small delay in bundling the things. What I object to is the company making a claim that they're shipping product on a certain day and then not doing it, regularly and routinely.

I really don't intend to talk about this any longer. That's because the other really nice highlight of the last two months has been going digital. I decided that, starting with the special Prog 2010, I was going to buy the comic every Wednesday from Clickwheel. Here, you can download the comic one week after its UK publication - not ten or more weeks, one - and it costs 25% less than what Diamond charges for a copy. I rearranged my budget a little and dropped some cluttering, unnecessary things from my expenses in order to justify the cost, and if I happen to see that actual, physical copies are waiting for me at the old comic store, I will happily pick them up. In the meantime, I'm saving money, bringing fewer things into the house, enjoying these terrific stories week-by-week the way they should be read, and not being all grumpy about the fact that I can't read everything that I want to see in a timely manner. No more six-week waits to see how cliffhangers get resolved around these parts, sir!

In other news, Rebellion did make a major announcement while I was away from this blog about their forthcoming book releases. Of principal interest to me, and surely all sentient lifeforms, is the July release of both The Stainless Steel Rat and Al's Baby, two titles drawn by Carlos Ezquerra which I have wanted to see reprinted for such a long time. Place your orders now, friends, and tell everybody you know. The Stainless Steel Rat, based on three novels by Harry Harrison, is 36 episodes of twist-filled, high-concept, con-artist sci-fi from the early eighties, and Al's Baby is 33 episodes of hilarious mob-comedy about a hitman who cannot convince his wife, the godfadda's dotta, to have a baby, so he's got to carry one himself to avoid a pair of concrete boots. Cross-dressing, getaway cars, first trimester cravings, high explosives, labor pains and sleeping with the fishes, it's all here and it's very funny. Spread the word!

There have been additional rumors about forthcoming books, but in the absence of a formal announcement from Rebellion, I'll save the speculation for the Reprint This! blog next week and save this space for things we can actually confirm.

The other big news of the last couple of months is that James Cameron's Avatar was released and in just a few weeks' time overtook everything else to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Some people were pretty dismissive early in the game about the film's apparently obvious inspirations - I haven't seen it myself - but the one that caught my eye was over at pop culture site

In a pair of well-researched and illustrated articles (here and here), writer James Edwards makes a fairly convincing case that the Cameron film relies very heavily on Firekind, a thirteen-part serial by John Smith and Paul Marshall that originally appeared in the spring of 1993, in 2000 AD progs 828-840. Whether Edwards is right or wrong about Avatar's origins, I can't say, but one thing that Edwards says does strike me: they seem near enough to totally wreck Smith and 2000 AD's chances of ever making a Firekind feature film. Like that was all that likely anyway.

Actually, what this should do is give Rebellion impetus to find a way to get Firekind back in print for people to see for themselves. The serial was collected in an Extreme Edition in 2005, but it's too short for a proper bookshelf graphic novel. So, for that matter, is Cradlegrave, a twelve-part horror serial by Smith and Edmund Bagwell that ran last year to considerable acclaim, and appearances on several critics' best-of-2009 lists. The solution's simple: package 'em together in one omnibus edition. Sure, the two serials have nothing in common besides their writer and the magazine where they first appeared, but publicity's not worth a darn unless you capitalize on it. Even just reprinting the Extreme Edition would be a case of striking when the iron is hot. How about it, Tharg?

Next time, well, I've told myself for more than a year that I'm writing too much and saying too little in these entries, but I swear I'm going to start some much shorter entries. The ABC Warriors and Snow / Tiger are scheduled head-to-head, fandom takes sides, and everybody wins, but I am going to keep commentary to a minimum. I hope. Seriously, I'm going to write a lot less and try to say a little more. See you then!