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 heavy.com.

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!