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!

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