Thursday, December 29, 2011

158. Lack of Background

November 2005: Over the previous two entries, I've mentioned a very highly regarded Judge Dredd story by John Wagner and Kev Walker entitled "Mandroid." It's a long way from being one of my favorite Dredd stories, but it really is an effective and triumphant look at just how badly the best intentions can go awry. If I'm honest with myself, I'd have to agree that my rotten mindset and personal unhappiness in the last half of 2005 colors my reading of it. I was in a bad place and in a bad relationship at the time, and something as downbeat and depressing as "Mandroid" certainly wasn't going to provide a nice distraction.

Over its first few episodes, the twelve-part story introduced us to Nate Slaughterhouse, a decorated war veteran who has lost more than half his body to grievous wounds and given a realistic cyborg shell. Honorably discharged with his wife, a veteran officer, and their young son, they try to start a life in Mega-City One and find the place every bit as miserable and overwhelming as a reader can imagine. It's one of the very rare occasions where Wagner doesn't play the inhuman insanity of the city for laughs; here, Mega-City One is an absolute, miserable hellhole, and Justice Department is a largely incompetent, badly understaffed agency whose presence, while mostly ineffective, is still desperately needed to maintain just a hint of order. Unfortunately for Slaughterhouse, it isn't nearly enough.

So with his wife missing and his son murdered, Slaughterhouse becomes a vigilante, enraged and driven by the judges' impotence in the face of escalating street crime and organized "legitimate" business. Dredd is there as a constant, reassuring force. "We'll get him," he says. "We always do." And this is true, but it doesn't mean anything, either. The violence of the city just keeps getting worse, as even the lethal force that the judges wield is no longer a deterrent anymore.

Slaughterhouse is a compelling and tragic figure, and Walker's art really works beautifully in this setting. I really like the style that he's been using for the past nine years or so, with stark lines, limited detail and solid colors. He's not afraid to lose figures in fog or shadow, and people stand with huge weight and menace. There's a fantastic cliffhanger where Slaughterhouse returns home to find Dredd waiting for him. The lawman is standing quietly, his gun drawn but by his side, and holding one of Slaughterhouse's overcoats. There are two bullet holes in it, shots that the vigilante took and which bounced off his steel chassis. "I've been waiting for you," Dredd says simply, and even though there's nothing more in that panel's text or narration to imply a specific tone, I read that as Dredd speaking with such human sadness.

Throughout the story, Dredd has been incredibly sympathetic and understanding. I really got the impression that Dredd honestly liked the man, and wished his city was a better place for good people like him and his family. With that one, simple sentence breaking their bond and turning them into adversaries, it is an amazingly effective cliffhanger, one that just makes readers want to put the issue away for a while before tackling the other stories.

As I've expressed before, there's occasionally a big gap between "best" and "favorite." "Mandroid" is completely brilliant, and I strongly recommend the collected edition for anybody curious about the strip. But I also offer the caveat that it's not usually like this. Mega-City One is only bearable because its misery is almost always couched in lunacy. Despite the words I've devoted to it here, "Mandroid" is just too bleak and harrowing for my liking, and I'm honestly glad when the strip ends and I can focus on other things, like Sinister Dexter's world spiraling completely out of control again.

I was rereading some earlier chapters in this blog this week and noticed how one major thing has changed in the way that I approach it. It began with me reporting my reread from the perspective of doing it with my children. Sadly, my older son has elected to live in Kentucky, and my daughter stopped reading after about a hundred issues. She was a little outraged and disappointed with how things went down in Sinister Dexter, her favorite strip. She didn't quite read this strip from the same perspective that I, or anybody else, did. She read the story as being about Demi Octavo. To her, Demi was the central character, and Ramone and Finny were just the guys that she sent out to do her job. When Demi was killed in the epic "Eurocrash," that put an end to her brief flirtation with the comic.

"And death shall have no dumb minions" feels very much like the thematic sequel to "Eurocrash," especially when things start to fall completely apart around Demi's sister Billi. Interestingly, for a while, it doesn't quite go that way. Now, "Eurocrash" was almost totally brilliant, but there was one flaw in the earlier chapters. Violating the "show, don't tell" rule, writer Dan Abnett kept asserting that Demi's hold over the city's crimelords was weakening, but only gave us some very slight evidence that this was true after making these claims. Nevertheless, it was a short hop from that claim to the godawful entropy setting in, destroying Demi's empire and leaving Ramone and Finny helpless to stop it. Demi's inevitable death is an awesome punch when it comes, but it was telegraphed from space.

This story begins with an entirely different mood. Ramone and Finny have new employment with Appelido and they seem to be in control of their destinies. Ramone and Tracy are happy together - and I'd be remiss if I did not mention that a bedroom scene with these two early in the story, painted by Simon Davis, is almost certainly the sexiest and most erotic moment to ever appear in the comic - and Downlode looks to be as stable as this erratic, dangerous city can be.

But then we learn that Billi has been placed in Appelido's organization by the police to gather evidence. Now, a big chunk of this requires some suspension of disbelief at both Downlode's laws and human behavior. Basically, since Appelido is a clone of crimelord Holy Moses Tanenbaum, and the law says that - wait for it - clones can be prosecuted for the crimes of the person from whom they're cloned, the city's planning a big sting operation to prosecute Appelido for Tanenbaum's crimes, and that's what Billi's doing on the inside. Since Tanenbaum had, years before, kept Demi as his mistress, Billi wants to avenge her late sister by killing the clone of Moses.

This is problematic. Of course, the main reason that I have come to dislike Sinister Dexter is that Abnett has overcomplicated the bejezus out of the thing, helping to confirm that a once amusing and playful diversion of the strip has turned into a narrative nightmare, but until I started thinking about it, I had enjoyed "And death shall have no dumb minions" for its surprising and powerful escalation and climax. While, in "Eurocrash," Ramone and Finny are working together very closely and things only hit that inevitable punch because they get separated, here, there's a sense that if only they could make it to the right place at the right time, they could have avoided all the carnage. Pardon my language, but an insightful friend once noted that the really great thing about the famous final episode of Blake's 7 isn't just that they all die, but that they die fucking up. It takes some bravery on the part of a writer to allow his lead characters this kind of vunerability.

So yes, things get really, really bad in this story. It looks very much like it ends with Ramone dead, Billi about to join him in the afterlife, and Finny about one gallon of gas away from either incarceration or a million bullets. Especially with the artwork by Davis at his career best - and I know that no artist appreciates the insinuation that their best work is behind them, but really, this is lush, detailed, vibrant, exciting and so many leagues superior to the latest sixty-odd, identical, orange-and-purple pages of the most recent Ampney Crucis Investigates story that it's not at all funny - and knowing just what an utter and total mess that Sinister Dexter would devolve into, it would have been best off ending here at this emotional high. It would have been ugly and messy and left unanswered questions, but with just a little tweaking to the last few pages, this could have been a memorable and amazing end.

Sure, the bad guys would have won, but this is Downlode, and our heroes are hired killers. The bad guys win in every story anyway.

Stories from this issue are available in the following reprint editions:
Judge Dredd: Mandroid (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Rogue Trooper: Realpolitik (Out of Print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, "Mandroid" artist Kev Walker gets selected for the front cover of Prog 2006 and a stunning new lineup for the new year! Plus more about Sinister Dexter, because I've got more to say about it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

157. Caught Short

September 2005: At last, the good times come coasting down for Judge Dredd Megazine. After spending the last three years going from strength to strength, diminishing sales finally force a change to the comic, and, without warning and on the eve of its fifteenth birthday, the approximately 100-page comic drops to nearer eighty a month. It's still terrific fun and good value, but, in probably the only miscalculation that Alan Barnes made during his tenure as editor, the change comes during a month where the regular lineup feels oddly thin anyway. The book has usually been featuring at least five new strips an issue along with reprints and features, but this time out, more than half of the strip content goes to a much longer than normal episode of Judge Dredd, and it's backed up by with a celebratory Simping Detective chapter by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving, and the last part of the ongoing Devlin Waugh story, "All Hell," by John Smith and Colin MacNeil. Typically, 2000 AD's editors have used anniversary, or 100th issues, for relaunches and the first episodes of ongoing stories, and so the tone of this issue is an unexpectedly understated one. Even though nobody should logically complain about a big, 36-page Dredd story, the "only three strips" feeling is an emotional one, and, weirdly, it draws attention to the reality that the comic has lost pages to the budget.

Another reason that nobody should complain about this Judge Dredd strip is that it is completely wonderful. Written by John Wagner and with art by Henry Flint and Chris Blythe, it's called "Flood's Thirteen" and it is a fantastic caper story, an expansive 36-page look at a spectacular heist that does not go as planned, but, oh, it gets so close. Even with using a couple of splash pages, it feels so dense and detailed that a reader taking in the episode on its own might be surprised to learn that it's only 36 pages long. With the current style in American comics to write as little as possible in any given single issue, you could easily imagine the contemporary architects of superhero books needing a six-issue miniseries to tell this story.

I'm really impressed by how well Wagner structures this as a single entity on its own. I went into it expecting it to feel, as so many extra-length 2000 AD episodes do, like several smaller episodes crammed together, with cliffhanger endings every so many pages, which jars the flow when a reader knows they'll be there. (It's why removing the "NEXT PROG" and the credits from reprints never, ever actually benefits the story when read in a collected edition.) "Flood's Thirteen" doesn't feel like that at all. It flows much more naturally than even Wagner's recent multi-part triumphs in the comics, such as the recent "Terror" and "Total War," or the excellent "Mandroid," which was running in 2000 AD at the same time this was published, and, about which, more in next week's blog.

The story concerns a criminal who's released after his fifteen-year sentence is concluded, plus another three for being a probable repeat offender. He assembles some of his old gang and a host of thieves and gunmen with a grandiose plan to heist a spaceship. It's just come back from its multi-year tour of Mega-City One's colonies, full of taxes to be paid to the city, and it will be in lockdown for three or four days while Justice Department accountants audit its hold. The gang plans to replace the accountants and use a stolen teleporter to move the merchandise.

I really love reading stories like this, where the high concept is treated very seriously, and the writer looks into how such a scheme might work, where it could fail, and how the intelligent criminals would adapt to setbacks and detours. I suspect that many people who don't really know Dredd very well know that he's foremost an action hero, and also often used to make insightful political points, but the character also appeals to me as a reader because he's a superb detective with a fascinating arsenal of surveillance and gadgets at his disposal. He's flawed, certainly - PJ Maybe's triumph over Dredd just three issues prior to this is proof of that - but he's a force to be reckoned with both physically and mentally. I love how the gang's unavoidable slip-up brings Dredd to suspect something is amiss, and Dredd forces Flood into improvisation and quick thinking, but that's all before Wagner plays his master stroke. He brings in his occasional characters from the Branch Moronian cult to completely turn this thing into a disaster. Neither the judges nor the criminals could have predicted the arrival of self-lobotomized cultists with heavy artillery. It's terrific fun.

The text features in the Megazine have been essential reading for many years by this point, and probably the best of them have been David Bishop's histories of 2000 AD ("Thrill Power Overload," later expanded into an equally essential book) and Battle Picture Weekly (the much shorter, but just as fascinating "Blazing Battle Action!"). This issue sees the debut of Bishop's latest ongoing piece, a similar look at the history of the Megazine called "15 Years, Creep!" and, if I may be allowed another intrusion of my personal experience into the narrative, this sparked a wonderful memory that I have of my late father. In this issue of the comic, there are actually two chapters of this feature, which will run through Meg # 242 the following March, and the second features a look at the creation of John Smith's terrific and popular character Devlin Waugh.

I had picked up this issue from my regular thrill-merchant in Athens, probably also spending a little time with that girl whom I was dating at the time, who made her own intrusive presence felt in a chapter posted four weeks ago, and stopped by my parents' house to visit and watch a little football. Probably during halftime, or between games or something, I turned on the lamp behind my dad's recliner and decided to read the articles while my father played with his grandkids. He came back into the den some time later, by which point I was grinning ear to ear because I'd found the bit where Bishop cited that gushing, fanboy interview that I'd had with John Smith in 1999. (You can read about how foolish I felt about that right here in a Thrillpowered Thursday chapter from three years ago.)

So I explained to my dad that I had interviewed some writer he'd never heard of, for some website that he'd never heard of, either. ("You're talking about the internet, right?" he asked.) And now the writer of this magazine article had cited the interview and namechecked me to accompany a quote from Smith. "So you're in a magazine?" Dad asked. I showed him the page.

"Can you make me a copy of this?" Dad asked.

"Well, sure," I said. "I can give you a printout of the interview as well."

"And that's on the internet?" Dad said. I told him that it was, that it was for the Class of '79 site.

"No, I don't want that," he said, honestly. "Anybody can put anything on the internet. I just like seeing your name in a magazine. That means something."

So, thanks again for that, Mr. Bishop. You made my old man proud.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: The Henry Flint Collection (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The Simping Detective: The Complete Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Judge Dredd tries to stop Nate Slaughterhouse, and Sinister Dexter have a problem similar to the one addressed in the recent chapter about Slaine, in that they reach a grand finale... and keep going. See you next week!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

156. Gibson Keels

August 2005: I would think that most reviewers who come to this run of progs would probably focus on the new Judge Dredd story, "Mandroid." I'll come back to it in more detail a little later on in this blog, because it really is a remarkable achievement, and one of the stories from this period to have the most success among 2000 AD's fan base. It reteams writer John Wagner with Kev Walker, the same team who had such fun with "Sin City," and it's a twelve-part epic of mood and ugliness. I've said before that Wagner is just about the best writer in comics, but he isn't always my favorite. Those are two very different concepts, I think, and "Mandroid" really illustrates just why that is true. Every so often, Wagner gets into just what it's like for a citizen to live in a nightmare like Mega-City One, without all the fun and silliness that sometimes inspires him. Two episodes into "Mandroid," the reality of such an oppressive and bleak place is driven home. By giving us a heroic protagonist, a veteran who has served his city, who was grievously wounded and now just wants to settle into civilian life with his family and try to find a little work, Wagner turns the exact same silliness like wall-scrawling and protection rackets that previously entertained us as readers into something that's not even remotely entertaining. Reading "Mandroid" with a critical eye is a masterclass in how to write an incredibly dense and vivid story, one that works on multiple levels, but it is just so overwhelmingly bleak that I can't embrace it.

No, when it comes to things to embrace, there's a new Robo-Hunter story unfolding now. It's the fourth adventure for Samantha Slade, and it is huggingly lovely and, for six weeks anyway, a perfect blend of writer and artist working in sync and giving a hundred and ten percent. "Stim!" may be popcorn compared to the heavy meat and potatoes of the rest of the issue, but it's gooey, wonderful, caramel popcorn with a bonus surprise in the container. This is a great little story and I love it to pieces.

The previous three Robo-Hunter stories over the last eighteen months had seen writer Alan Grant and artist Ian Gibson not quite working together as well as we'd have hoped. All three had very, very good scripts by Grant, but Gibson didn't seem to be quite behind him all the way. The first story was a little rushed in places, and the others really suffered from some visibly unenthusiastic artwork. But here, the artwork is just magical all the way through.

I won't claim that Gibson's still not finding some shortcuts. Where possible, he steadfastly avoids drawing backgrounds. But rather than forcing readers into a world where the colored characters are standing out against solid whites, he's really having a blast with lots of color texture all around the pages, and putting much more dimension and shape into the characters' features. Most of episode five is set in a museum at night, and the darkness is indicated with a lovely, intricate mix of purples, indigos and midnight blues curling around the panels. Samantha's face has shade around her cheekbones that give her more visual fullness than any other figure in the entire issue.

Gibson's even forcing himself into some downright complex compositions. Episode five begins with a fantastic perspective shot of Samantha scurrying around the lighting gantry that is over the museum floor, with that dopey-looking green robosaur rising up into it. When this issue was released, I tried aping that shot - I did draw a self-published comic for several years, so I'm not completely without skill - and could not make it work at all. I would suggest that reader apathy towards Samantha Slade, and bias against the admittedly subpar artwork on the previous two stories, makes people reluctant to look closely at just how fantastic a job Gibson did with "Stim!" Even with the shortcuts, this is among his very best color artwork ever, and, even in a prog with the gorgeous art of Kev Walker and, drawing Savage, the great Charlie Adlard, it's the best looking material in the issue.

So would you believe that, in a story that finally sees Ian Gibson roaring to life and delivering one hell of a great set of pages, it's the script that, for the first time, fumbles? For six episodes, "Stim!" is just fantastic fun, and doesn't need me to defend it. Samantha has been looking into robots doing some pretty ridiculous things like shoplifting and has found evidence that they are on drugs. A criminal inventor has come up with a patch that, very briefly, gives robots imagination and allows them the chance to visualize what they could desire if they had no limits on their freedom of will. The experience is so overwhelming that robots will fight against their programming and steal to finance more patches of stim. The inventor is using the proceeds of the drug sales for the usual Robo-Hunter reasons of wanting to fund a robot revolution in conjunction with an ancient relic of ealier robot advancement, a big transistorized thing called Comrade Lennon. Yes, Grant, you old hippie, we all had that Firesign Theater record, too.

For six weeks, this is classic Sam Slade business. If you love the original run and dismiss this story, you're just lying to yourself, frankly. It's every bit as good as Robo-Hunter at its best, and the artwork is a darn sight better than some earlier epics like "Day of the Droids." Deep down, you know I'm right. But then it ends in episode seven. Seven?! This thing should have run for five months! It's not that it ends badly; if we'd never seen how Sam Slade's best-laid plans go completely haywire and take ridiculous detours while the problem keeps escalating, then I guess that "Stim!" would come to a fine ending. It's just too darn abrupt, and too easy for Samantha. She suffers some inconveniences and aggravations in the first six episodes, but for a genuine classic Robo-Hunter adventure, the hero needs to be in such a soup that she needs scuba gear.

Put another way, when episode six ends, we're right at the point where the next ten weeks should see Samantha getting smooched by Clark Gable droids and having to play Monopoly for hours and arguing with robot rabbis who talk in Yiddish patois and BLAKEE PENTAX and all the other legendary left-field, wildly unpredictable lunacy that gets in the way of a Sam Slade plot. Instead, we jump to the climax. I don't care how much I love Samantha or how damn good Gibson's artwork has been for this outing, this story is missing its madness! It's very good, but it should have been amazing.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Breathing Space: The Complete Breathing Space (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 294, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Mandroid (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: Casino Royal (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 308, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Before I go, I would like to thank Tharg the Mighty and all his editorial droids for the very nice package that they sent my way...

I was listed as one of the first Earthlets to receive the inaugural great big Krill Tro Thargos for my service to the cause of the Galaxy's Greatest. I'm pleased to have been thought of so, and greatly appreciate the recognition. This is, of course, no time for complacency! Do you have any idea how many non-scrots and thrill-suckers are out there? The mind trembles.

Next time, a look back at the Megazine's 15th birthday celebration and the return of the Morons! See you next week!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

155. Of Insects and Illiterates

It's July 2005, and the summer goes like this: the last few books in the failed initiative with DC have trickled to a close, the revived Doctor Who has concluded the first season of its triumphant return and seen out actor Christopher Eccleston in the lead role, fifty-two people have been killed in a series of terrorist attacks in London, and 2000 AD releases one of the most timely and politics-minded issues of its history. Much of the content is the usual high-concept SF stuff, of course, safely told in far, fanciful, futures. There's Leatherjack, detailed below, and Robo-Hunter, about which, more next time. But this week's Judge Dredd, the first of a two-part story by John Wagner and Phil Winslade, is especially timely, with Wagner railing against the increasingly paranoid mindset that seems to be in charge of the War on Terror.

By chance, I came back to this story in my reread at the same time that I read John Mortimer's penultimate Rumpole of the Bailey novel, 2006's Rumpole and the Reign of Terror. This will get the spotlight over at my Bookshelf blog on Tuesday, and they are very similar in their anger. The US and UK each shared a massive overreach in police powers in response to terrorism. In Britain, this has resulted in incarcerations without formal charge, the excuse being that to formally charge a suspect might compromise classified intelligence. While in the present day, Horace Rumpole finds himself in the legal fight of his life trying to defend a Pakistani doctor when nobody will tell him either what he has done or what evidence is against him, in the not-all-that-future-world of Mega-City One, Dredd and the judges have arrested a citizen, told him only that he's being held in connection with the recent bombings by Total War, and suggested very strongly that things will go much better for him if he just confesses. They don't tell him to what they want him to confess. Episode one ends with the hapless citizen pleading for his life and an impassive Dredd sentencing him to indefinite confinement by the rights afforded him under the Security of the City Act. It's an incredibly bleak little story, but also completely furious.

Over in Savage, meanwhile, Pat Mills and Charlie Adlard are chronicling the life of a London occupied by the Volgan nation. Mills doesn't really build up his anger and release it in targeted bursts of fury in quite the way that Wagner does; rather, it's poured out smoothly over every panel of Savage. The result is just fantastic reading.

"Out of Order" is the second story (or "Book Two") for the revived Bill Savage, brought back from obscurity and occasional editorial mocking the previous year into a taut and impressive modern thriller. It is a really exciting rollercoaster, with one hell of a lot of plot packed in. Episode one resolves the cliffhanger ending from Book One and introduces Captain Svetlana Jaksic as Savage's principal nemesis. Her abrupt demise at the close of this story really is a surprise; it looked for all the world like Mills was setting her up as a long-term villain, but she dies without ever knowing who her enemy really is. We also meet new gangs of terrorists - slash - freedom fighters, few of whom coordinate their efforts with each other, get to see the Volgans' effective-but-evil tactic of ensuring human shields for their tank convoys by tossing candy to starving children, and get a powerful human element with the introduction of Bill's brother Tom and niece Jan.

I confess that I'm a little troubled by Jan's rape in this story. This is the second time in the last few years of 2000 AD where Mills has allowed a violent act against a woman to galvanize a hesitant male into action. It was more egregious when Moloch raped and killed Niamh in Slaine, as that was the end of a long-running major character, and here it is "just" the last impetus that Tom needs to help brother Bill with his plan to get inside occupation HQ and assassinate Volgan Marshal Vashkov.

While I acknowledge the event and question its narrative value, I choose to overlook it, right or wrong, because "Out of Order" ends with three of the most stunning episodes of this long-running series. The killing of Vashkov belongs on anybody's list of great Pat Mills moments. The way that Vashkov tells Savage a story, confidently expecting that the man in front of him will choose the path of heroism and honor, only to find that he has horribly misjudged things, is completely beautiful. Savage thanks Vashkov for the information, but for a totally different reason than the Volgan expected, and responds with all the abrupt and impassive force of Tommy Lee Jones in the film version of The Fugitive when he tells Harrison Ford's character, "I don't care." Adlard draws the hell out of this sequence. The image of the feathers blown out of the pillow used to muffle the shot will stay with 2000 AD readers forever.

And all this is before the book's actual climax, when Savage takes care of Captain Jaksic and lets a restaurant of collaborators know what he thinks of them. It's a moment where Bill Savage finds that line between terrorist and freedom fighter and absolutely leaves readers with a lot to think about. This is a completely, totally brilliant comic.

While both Dredd and Savage are raising questions about today's world, Leatherjack by John Smith and Paul Marshall is wild, escapist, crazy and only tiptoes around any obvious political ideas. Smith and Marshall had, in 1993, collaborated on the very good Firekind. This story isn't quite as successful to me, in part because Marshall's artwork has evolved over time to a style that I don't enjoy quite as much. His character designs are as impressive and grotesque as ever, but he's inking with a much heavier line for starters, and the intricate and delicate alien universe of Firekind is not present here. It's a world that looks stark, too solid and, honestly, a little generic.

Leatherjack is the story of an assassin, working thousands of years in the future for a disgusting crime lord and employed to retrieve a book which unlocks human consciousness, and which is in danger of being destroyed, along with all the other books on a library planet, in a galactic war. To his credit, Smith does provide a terrific introduction. The story opens following an aging professor, who's been given access to the library planet by the great big alien bugs who run the place and are defending it from bombardment by the Spinster Empire. We meet all three sides in this conflict, and the professor would appear to have a major role to play as the action gets started. Surprisingly, however, the professor is killed in the second episode as Leatherjack takes center stage. Smith loves to mess with expectations and certainly doesn't mind killing off his supporting cast, but that really was a big surprise. I mean, even once you get past the remarkable surprise of how the professor leaves the story and the assassin enters it.

It sounds agreeably engaging, but it all somehow fails to gel. We never get to know any of the characters, and those that we do meet just seem like templates from John Smith's playbook - depraved dictators, foppish killers, observers watching from the sidelines seeing events spiral out of control and saying "no no no no." These are all things that we've seen before. Add in a climax in which an ancient, totemic power rises to wipe out the technology of the warfleets that threaten it, and the whole thing feels like a longer, shallower incarnation of the creators' earlier, excellent Firekind. And after reading this several times, I'm still not certain that the Spinster Empire, a comedic bunch of Mary Whitehouse parodies flying around in space-faring censorships, didn't wander in from an entirely different strip altogether.

Leatherjack, whether it thrills you or not, is certainly notable for one thing. Its run of eighteen consecutive weekly episodes by the same team is the longest over the decade of the 2000s. A couple of years ago, I predicted that the desire to quickly repackage successful and celebrated thrills into graphic novel form would lead to longer serials, making the book versions a little meatier and more attractive to new readers. This has not been borne out; the longest individual story since 2005's Leatherjack has been Stalag 666 in 2008.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: Casino Royal (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 308, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Hey, did somebody say Robo-Hunter? You know what that means? More scans of Samantha Slade! See you next week!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

154. Mission: Avengers

June 2005: Now, man alive, that is a fantastic front cover. Frazer Irving is certainly among my favorite artists who were working with 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine during this period, and this is my favorite of all of his covers. It spotlights the return of Jack Point, the Simping Detective. At the time I'm writing this entry (November 2011), Tharg has hinted that Point might be returning in 2012, although it's questionable whether he will be drawn by Irving, who has spent years making better money drawing inferior material for American publishers.

Also at the time of writing, it's just been announced that an American company, Boom!, best known for its comics based on licensed properties, has landed the reprint rights to Steed & Mrs. Peel, the early-nineties Eclipse/Acme miniseries by Grant Morrison, Anne Caufield and Ian Gibson, and that we can expect to see this cute little adventure again in 2012. I mention this because, as you see on the front cover of this Megazine, there's an article about The Avengers this month. It is part of an occasional series of really entertaining articles called British Icons and it features writeups on the likes of Sapphire & Steel, The Tomorrow People, Desperate Dan, Sexton Blake and other such fun creations. Each installment looks at the ancillary merchandising and exploitations of the property as well as the "primary source." In the case of Sapphire & Steel, that meant a pretty in-depth look at the comic by Angus Allan and Arthur Ranson that appeared in Look-In.

The Avengers had a much more sporadic publication history as a comic strip, with short runs in several different hardback annuals and weekly papers. A part of me is incredibly curious to see these old comics - who wouldn't be, as the original show is one of the four or five best TV series of the 1960s - but I have to wonder whether the article's writer and editor didn't go out of their way to find some of the most ridiculous and uninspiring artwork, by John Canning, to illustrate the feature. Or maybe it really was an awful comic and best forgotten? Whatever the case, one thing we can all agree on is that, in a perfect and just world, The New Avengers would have generated a weekly comic by Allan and John Bolton for Look-In. Wouldn't that have been terrific?

As for Jack Point, his current adventure is called "Playing Futsie" and it is one of the wildest and most unpredictable of all of his cases. This thing runs through left turns, misdirections and plot twists at breakneck speed, and is probably my favorite Point story. "Futsie" is Mega-City slang for somebody suffering from "future shock," and it begins with Point being thrown in jail, under orders from his corrupt sector chief to find out what has caused a happily employed citizen to crack. Point was not told in advance that, by "crack," Chief Davees meant "murdered a room full of citizens with a machine gun after convincing himself they were robots."

It's another day in the studio for American radio talk show host Neal Boortz...

So this story gets going and it doesn't let up at all. It's one thing to go from zero to a hundred in a comic, but this one does it on one of those crazy curvy Italian mountain roads. By the time Point figures out that somebody is deliberately targeting citizens with jobs and doing something to drive them crazy, it's got gang fights, Point's pet raptaur, the debut of a mysterious new supporting character with her own agenda, the surprising return of Elmort DeVries' old Hunter's Club from way back in 1984, and Point totally pulling one over on Judge Dredd to wrap up this three-part case.

Incidentally, most of us thought that writer Si Spurrier was being dead clever coming up with a terrific, terrible name like Miss Anne Thropé for his new addition to the cast. One reason that I enjoy looking back at 2000 AD from a little distance is that it affords us the time to see small connections here and there that we might have missed before. I bet Spurrier had no idea that his Miss Anne Thropé wasn't the first occasionally-appearing supporting player in a comic by that name. As Mr. Kitty's Stupid Comics, a site that every one of you should be reading, pointed out just a couple of weeks ago, Dell's idiotic superhero take on Frankenstein had the same bad joke almost forty years previously. At least Spurrier acknowledges the awfulness of the joke. When Point figures it out during his ongoing first-person narration, it's a really funny and clever moment. Not many writers even try to use narrative captions to mean anything anymore, let alone use them to help define the lead character the way that Spurrier does in this series and in his other strips like Lobster Random and Numbercruncher. It's one of the reasons that I really enjoy his work so much.

Speaking of pulling one over on Dredd, holy anna, does PJ Maybe ever play our hero like a fiddle this month in the final episode of "Monsterus Mashinashuns."

So, over the course of the previous three months, we've seen Maybe, disguised as Barranquilla billionaire Pedro Montez, put several apparently-unrelated schemes and pieces into place, ranging from allowing Dredd to get a sample of his blood to sending his sexbot companion to the Cal-Hab wastes to kidnap an aging philanthropist do-gooder to attacking the Mega-City delegation with a giant robot to arranging a huge bonfire on his property for his migrant workers to burn.

What writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra come up with to tie all this together is just completely stunning. Have you ever seen the classic Mission: Impossible episode "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," written by Paul Playdon? Speaking, as I was, of the best things on TV in the 1960s, well, I wouldn't count this series among them, but this one episode stands out as one of the densest and most amazing scripts I've ever enjoyed. See, Phelps's IM team, in that episode, has to convince an agent from "the other side" (like The Avengers, Mission: Impossible was never so common or vulgar as to actually call Russians Russians) of a certain fact by allowing that agent to think that he has spotted one teeny error in their grand deception, when the teeny error is, of course, deliberate.

In this fantastic twist, Dredd is actually back in Mega-City One when he remembers that the bandaged finger that Pedro Montez waggled in front of him, illustrated in the panel above, was not the same finger that was cut when Montez broke a glass and allowed Dredd the chance at a small blood sample, wiped away with a napkin. Dredd, convinced that Maybe has finally slipped up and this time he's got him, storms back down to the estates outside of Ciudad Barranquilla with a team of Mega-City judges.

It doesn't go as planned for him, but this time he leaves absolutely convinced that Maybe has died in a bonfire, while Maybe, now using the disguise of the well-known, selfless, Byron Ambrose, heir to a mammoth fortune, makes his way back home. His story will resume about two years down the line, in 2007's "The Gingerbread Man," where it really picks up. It's absolutely delicious.

Stories from this issue are available in the following reprint editions:
The Bendatti Vendetta: The Complete Bendatti Vendetta (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd:The Complete PJ Maybe (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
The Simping Detective: The Complete Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, back to 2000 AD for the debut of Leatherjack and the stunning second book of Savage. See you in seven!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

153. History's Last Record

June 2005: Have you ever had a relationship fail so awfully that it poisons everything that you experienced during that period? I have. It only happened once, and when my time on this earth is finally finished, I'm going to have strong words with somebody on the other side, because there are about seven months of my life that I want back. Nothing good came of these seven months. I have no happy memories of that girl, at all. Except this one episode of Slaine.

The love-hate relationship that I have with Slaine is pretty simple. I just do not understand why this strip is still running. Well, it seems to be on an indefinite hiatus again, and it may not return, but the editor's and writer's insistence on bringing it back, again and again, after it keeps coming to genuine, memorable conclusions leaves me completely baffled. The very best stories are the ones with endings. Slaine's story has ended. Several times. Each time it comes back after these endings, it does so weaker and less thrilling than before. And yet, Pat Mills is such an amazing writer that, even when the series is treading creative water, he's still able, every once in a while, to do something completely stunning with it.

There's a school of thought that suggests that the epic, Simon Bisley-painted "The Horned God" should have been the grand finale. Despite the fact that about the last thirty pages look like Bisley painted them in one afternoon on sheets of typing paper, with none of the lush detail of the earlier parts, I can get behind that. But then we wouldn't have had the awesome, ass-kicking reintroduction to the ultraviolence in "Demon Killer," when Slaine arrives in his future, tells Ukko, "Announce me, dwarf," and proceeds to lay down an awesome beating on a company of Roman soldiers. And there are other examples. The "all of your adopted kids are dead" moment of "The Swan Children," for instance.

But wherever Slaine should have ended, it certainly should have done so before the "Books of Invasion" cycle began, shouldn't it? This started in 2002's year-end "Prog 2003" and, forty episodes over two and a half years later, it finally finishes in issue 1442. (Well, the stickler in me points out that it is not technically five "books" of eight episodes each, because Tharg has programmed several double-part episodes along the way, and the stickler in me also points out, as I did in an earlier entry, that Mills has received some sort of a "do it your way" pass to really script in terms of 48-page episodes that just get broken down into six-or-twelve page chunks for serialization, but then again, the stickler in me has no friends.)

So anyway, "The Books of Invasion" is forty episodes long, and it has detailed Slaine and his allies' war against the Fomorians, undersea beasts who control air-breathing mammals in a nasty, parasitic relationship. It has been agonizing, humorless and trite. Niamh's death, as recounted previously, is one of the worst creative decisions that Mills has ever made, the living definition of "women in refrigerators" fantasy, done for no better reason than to turn the male lead into a brutal object of retribution. I've tried to like it, but the only moment in the whole run, before the finale, that engaged me at all came just a few weeks previously, and it was pretty short-lived. Tracking down the last of the Fomorian Sea Devils, Slaine and his fellows have been finding villages where the beasts have laid eggs under the skins of all the farmers. With no other choice, our heroes have killed hundreds of civilians along the way. Exhausted and emotionally drained, there is a brief moment where Slaine, who has killed and axed and beaten his way through more than twenty years of adventure, finally denies his catchphrase, and finds the death toll too many.

But the end...

No good will ever come of me sharing with you readers how miserable I was, and how I was denying my unhappiness in this relationship very early on. I wanted so badly for it to work that I was overlooking warning signs that astronauts can see from space. She poisoned everything, and I let her, because I was so lonely, and so scared that my children wouldn't have a stepmother.

I picked up my comics from the shop in Athens where I collected them, and went over to her house, and after a couple of hours, she started cooking supper and I sat down in her den to read.

The war is finally over, and Slaine is saying his goodbyes, after seeing Gael crowned the new High King and before leaving for good, telling his newest allies the usual heroic "look after yourselves and stand guard against evil," but he has one thing to do before he saddles up. He needs to tell Niamh a last farewell.

Clearly, I'm a sensitive guy, and I've blubbed over emotional stories many, many times before. Pixar's Up did it to me twice in one film, wretched thing. But holy freaking anna, I will never forget how I teared up at this scene. It is one of the most amazing moments in all of 2000 AD, and all forty of those episodes were worth it to get us to this point. The goodbye is the saddest thing I've ever read before Slaine leaves Niamh's ceremonial tent. The punch in the gut, silent, single panel revelation after he leaves is the meanest thing I've ever read.

And while Langley's artwork throughout the series never engaged me emotionally despite being a huge technical achievement, turning the page to see that amazing double-page spread... Now that, good readers, that was one hell of an ending. A complete, standing ovation triumph that left no doubt whatsoever why we call Mills the Guv'nor.

Me weeping and choking back tears in her den, putting down the final episode of Slaine while the air smelled of her darn good chicken and dumplings. That's the one good memory I have from that relationship. Thinking of her makes me think of this episode, and thinking of this episode makes me think of her, at which point I remember a little more, and concede that, honestly, well, all right, it was not quite as relentlessly awful as I make out.

Maybe there were one or two other okay moments.

Slaine, sadly, returned at the end of 2005 anyway for a wholly unnecessary epilogue to "Books of Invasion" to reunite with Ukko. And again in 2009-2010 for four additional, utterly pointless 24-page stories. Mentions in this blog of any of these episodes, when we come to them, will be dismissive and brief. But for one beautiful day that summer, he had the best final episode of any comic character, ever.

Next time, over to Judge Dredd Megazine as Jack Point returns!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

152. Put the Book Back on the Shelf

April 2005: Overlooked over the course of the last several blog posts has been the fascinating story of Rebellion's short-lived deal with the American publisher DC Comics - a Time/Warner company, lest we forget - to finally give the world some proper collected editions for fans' bookshelves. Certainly, there had been reprints before, most of which were welcome, several of which were flawed in some fashion, and none of which were either under the publisher's control or comprehensive.

Finally, a few months after the last, staccato run of Titan's second term as reprint publisher stuttered to a halt, Rebellion announced a line of American comic-sized reprints. Solicitations for this line, which was due to be called 2000 AD Presents and lead off with a repackaging of the recent serial 13, appeared in the spring of 2004 in Diamond Distributors catalog Previews, but the comics were abruptly canceled. A few weeks later, we learned the very happy reason why: Rebellion had teamed with DC Comics for new books! This was going to be a very good thing. As I had been at the forefront of the "Team Comics" cheerleaders urging Rebellion to take control over reprints and put something on shelves, rah rah rah, I was all set to back this venture, even though it brought so much disappointment.

Honestly, this was a line that got quite a lot wrong, and failed as often as it triumphed. But it was so much better, and so much more comprehensive, than what came before, that we could not help but embrace it. And to be sure, there were at least elements of greatness in both the selection and the design of the books. This came to be termed the "Rainbow Spine" series, to differentiate it from Rebellion's existing, European-minded line of skinny hardcovers with black spines. These, instead, put a whole palette on bookshelves: red for all the Dredd-universe titles, blue for Rogue Trooper, mustard for Sinister Dexter, bright purple for Nikolai Dante and so on. I really, really liked the design and the colors. When Rebellion enhanced and improved them later on down the line, there was much grumbling over a superior product. A little more on that in a bit.

About a month before the release of the first book, DC printed a "free" comic for retailers to pass to customers. This 32-page comic adapted Brian Bolland's already-classic cover for Prog 2000, bafflingly blacking out the mountain of older British comics that the 2000 AD characters had conquered, and reprinted three one-off adventures: Judge Dredd: "Finger of Suspicion" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, Rogue Trooper: "Weapons of War" by Gordon Rennie and Dylan Teague, and Sinister Dexter: "Bullet Time" by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke. Notably, none of these episodes would be subsequently reprinted in any of the books that DC would distribute. These strips were accompanied by lots of details, background trivia and character profiles of many of the series planned for reprint.

Unfortunately, this comic was not distributed quite as well as anybody would prefer. DC Comics had made similar "free" samplers for two other lines of the period, CMX, which reprinted comics from Japan, and Humanoids, the mainly European comics probably best known to readers as "all that Heavy Metal stuff." Probably the first sign that something wasn't going to go very smoothly with any of these lines - although CMX did the best with its six-year run - was that retailers did not seem to order very many of the latest sampler. In my opinion, this was because, while they were meant to be given away for free, retailers still had to pay the freight on having them added to their weekly order and, at least in stores around Atlanta, they were stuck with stacks of Humanoids comics that nobody wanted, even for free. Even shops that did order a few of the 2000 AD books passed on the freebie, not wanting any extra stuff on their limited counter space.

So in July and August of '04, DC followed up the announcement by engaging in a small publicity blitz to such then-popular comic news sites as Newsarama and Comic Book Resources. (Actually, they might still be popular, but I'm not a cheerleader for "Team Comics" anymore; I'm a grumpy old cuss who wants my weekly thrillpower and to be left alone.) Rebellion's series editor, Jamie Boardman, was interviewed, along with several of the creators behind the soon-to-be-reprinted series, telling American fans what they could expect from forthcoming titles. The plan was to release two books a month for the first four months, followed by three books a month throughout 2005. This was a similar strategy employed by the team kicking out Humanoids books faster than anybody could buy them. Oh yeah, and not promoting them, either.

September saw the release of the first two books. DC, sensing some apprehension on the part of the superhero-based internet funnybook culture to get behind these titles, embarked on a remarkable strategy of not talking about them anymore. Without intentional irony, I often said that I was doing more to promote these books than DC was. My "Weekly Comics Hype," started on LiveJournal to tell everybody that I could about these books - and other good titles on those Wednesdays where one wasn't released - had an audience, there and on a message board of a local comic shop, of maybe two hundred, and my readers knew more about them than anybody DC reached. Seriously, there was no more promotion after the summer interviews and the freebie comic. No house ads in the pages of Wonder Woman, no special cardboard shelving for retailers, no signing tour, nothing. 2000 AD had house ads for the books, DC Comics did not.

Then again, the whole culture of hyping comics that have to be preordered is stunningly flawed. Sinister Dexter sounds like the easiest sell in the universe, done right. Look. you like Quentin Tarantino? Buy this. But the hype comes two months before the book is available, geared towards getting an internet reader to go to their comic shop to ask "Do you have that Sinister thing I read about at CBR," and hoping that, at best, the retailer will know what the hell the customer is talking about, so that they can reply, "Yes, that comes out in two months. If you would like to pre-order it, we can do that for you." BAH.

So anyway, the line launched with two potentially great titles: The Batman/Judge Dredd Files and the first collection of Sinister Dexter. Fumbling out of the starting gate, the first book compiled three of the four crossovers between the two signature characters, omitting story two, the far-and-away-finest one, the Cam Kennedy-drawn Vendetta in Gotham, apparently on the grounds that the art was not painted like the other three stories. The Sinister Dexter book reprinted ten of the first fourteen stories of that series, skipping all of the episodes drawn by Tom Carney.

Mistakes and omissions piled up as the line continued. October's Red Razors book, which certainly could have easily completed the short series in a single volume, was lacking two one-off episodes by Millar and Yeowell from 1992. The first ABC Warriors collection was missing the prologue and epilogue pages by Mills and O'Neill from the Titan edition. These, happily, were restored in subsequent Rebellion collections. The Dredd Vs. Death book was nothing more than the umpteenth identical collection of the same episodes Titan had lazily regurgitated several times. Two pages in the second Robo-Hunter book were reversed, a wearisome problem that really was cropping up a lot with DC's imprints. One of them, Piranha or Paradox or something, made the same dingbat error in their collection of The Bogie Man. Part of a print run of a Slaine book was released with printing on the interior pages that was faded down almost to white. Most infamously, some drip used early production pages for the second Devlin Waugh book that were missing something like thirty word balloons across the last twenty-odd pages.

These were books that we wanted so badly to love, but, man alive, they were going out of their way to make it impossible for us to do so.

Nevertheless, most of the titles were well-selected, and despite the aggravating production problems, many of them were readable and nicely-priced, and, yes, the design - and the spines - were attractive. It was a line that everybody wanted to see improve and grow. Keeping up the enthusiasm, I had got in the habit of cut-and-pasting a little announcement for my maybe-two-hundred LiveJournal and message board readers toward the end of each month when preorder solicits were announced, in addition to the three-Wednesdays-a-month Hype, letting my readers know what DC had planned.

That last week of March, there were no 2000 AD or Humanoids books in the solicit. Fans of both lines spent a few days wondering whether a rough draft was leaked, or whether the publisher might be taking a month off to let readers and their wallets recover from the torrent of books, or... oh. On April 12, DC finally confirmed that the two lines had been axed. CMX, despite constant criticism over censorship to its most celebrated title, Tenjho Tenge, had sales enough to continue, at least until the manga bubble ran out of air in early 2010.

The day after the announcement, blogger Tom Spurgeon, in a brutally harsh, but fair summing-up of the silly business that you all should read, questioned what on earth DC was thinking in the first place. With hindsight, we could see a lot wrong with every part of their plan, even before the production and collation issues. There was just way too much material released in far too short a time, without requisite promotion, to an environment apathetic to new things outside their comfort zone. These didn't target bookstores, like the comparatively far more sensible modern line of Simon & Schuster books, these were flooded into trademark-protection superhero funnybook shops. Or at least they would have flooded, had retailers been willing to order them in the numbers DC seemed to expect with three danged twenty-buck collections every month. If you've ever heard Michael Palin tell the anecdote about Joey Bishop introducing Terry Jones and him on their first American TV appearance on The Tonight Show with a dismissive "I dunno who they are, you dunno who they are, here they are," you probably know what I mean.

There were other eulogies, some sympathetic - I cannot find the page anymore, but two popular bloggers went back-and-forth with a lot of praise for 13, which was lovely - some baffled that anybody tried, but what few admitted was that with a focus as wild and expansive as 2000 AD, every single book in the line needed an independent sales strategy. Existing fans might conceivably love the first volumes of The ABC Warriors and Devlin Waugh about equally, but are the target audiences for these strips, as new readers, really that much alike?

Rebellion was quick to assure us that the line would continue. "Good," we said. "Just don't change the design. Especially the spines. We like how those look on our shelves."

Ah, but that's another story. We'll come back to that at some point.

Next time, concluding the long-running series with an impossibly high note, the final ever episode of Slaine. Well, it should have been, anyway. See you in seven!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

151. Artists Old and New

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday, a blog where I'm charting the history of 2000 AD, which, for thirty-four years, has been the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. In each installment, I look at some of the important events going on in the weekly comic's fun history, moving forward four or five issues at a time. However, since the last time that I wrote, there have been some quite remarkably important events in the present day. 2000 AD's publisher, Rebellion, has worked out two awesome deals with the big Barnes & Noble chain. If you are an American still a little lost and confused where to actually find these comics, you are totally in luck. Not only is B&N now stocking Judge Dredd Megazine - issue 315 is on shelves now, and priced 20% less than it sells for in comic shops - but, at the end of October, it was announced that B&N has placed a mammoth order for the Rebellion/Simon & Schuster American line of graphic novels. This is in the wake of B&N pulling a huge list of DC graphic novels from their shelves; DC had made several titles digitally-exclusive to Amazon's Kindle, leaving B&N's Nook users in the cold. B&N's quite sensible retaliation has left space on their shelves, and now all their stores should be stocking far more 2000 AD collected editions than ever before. Everybody wins, I think.

The next installment will talk about collected editions in more detail, because there was a big development in April 2005 that helped lead us to this point. But I had already started writing the first draft of this entry before the news broke, and didn't feel like shuffling things around too much yet. I was planning to talk about the trades in chapter 152, and that's what I'll do. This time out, a look at prog 1437. There's a solid lineup inside, with The V.C.s by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, and Slaine by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, about which, more in two weeks. These strips are bookended by two stories that I think are really interesting from an art perspective. These are Judge Dredd, starting a three-part story by Gordon Rennie and Karl Richardson, and American Gothic, a nine-part serial by Ian Edginton and Mike Collins.

Richardson does not seem to get enough work from Tharg. The impression that I get is that he's a very meticulous craftsman, and weekly deadlines might be a bit tough for him. He would soon be assigned The 86ers but will drop out very early on, leaving PJ Holden to draw the bulk of that strip.

I'm not entirely taken with his depiction of Dredd himself - he seems disagreeably like the huge, bodybuilding version designed by Inaki Miranda and Eva de la Cruz that was popularized in the daily strip in London's Metro newspaper - but aside from that, this is really interesting artwork.

The coloring is especially impressive, using garish solid colors bleeding over the figures to indicate the harsh stage lighting behind the band, Death Rattle. Unable to get a visa to enter Mega-City One, they're playing a show in the Cursed Earth, and Richardson puts a spray of brown and tan dust over everybody and everything. He even gives the security guards on the West Wall a distinctive gray uniform. The mutants, Father Sin and his gang, look like they stepped out from the background of one of the covers that Brian Bolland contributed to the 1980s reprint series from Eagle Comics. This is a classy, classy art job.

American Gothic, sadly, features artwork on the other end of my personal "like it!" scale, and that's just baffling, as Mike Collins is a really terrific comic artist. I mean that; his work on Panini's Doctor Who strip is consistently first-rate, and his version of David Tennant's Doctor is the definitive one, in my book. But American Gothic seems crude and unfinished when compared to Doctor Who, perhaps in part because Collins' work is so well balanced for color that it seems like Gothic's pages are really hurting for the lack of it.

The strip itself is one where the creators' initial enthusiasm seems to die outright early on; after a deliberately-paced opening episode set in a frontier town, and a second episode that introduces readers to the large cast of European refugees working their way across the American west - the twist being that these are vampires, trolls, werewolves, and, for lack of a better word, monsters looking for a life away from hateful humans - the pace picks up too quickly for either Collins or any reader to get a grip and ride along. As the sad body count rises, Collins' art becomes scratchy and rushed, and the already imbalanced linework becomes a blur of hatchy inking with an unflattering grayscale wash. Both creators are hugely talented, but this is just a huge misfire, and one best forgotten.

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Bec & Kawl: Bloody Students (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Slaine: Books of Invasions Volume Three (out of print, Amazon UK suggests sellers)

Next time, speaking of collected editions, it was during this period that Rebellion's deal with DC to create and distribute some definitive books came to an untimely close. More about that in seven days!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

150. Men With Mustaches

April 2005: Chris Weston provides the wonderful cover art for Judge Dredd Megazine 231, although sadly, he doesn't do the Dredd story inside. This is a semi-launch issue, with mostly all-new serials and stories starting in this issue, the only holdover being The Bogie Man. Now, this might seem like the most tenuous point upon which to ever hang a blog post, but I couldn't help but notice, as I was looking for decent images to scan and stories about which to write, that there sure is a lot of facial hair in this issue. Seriously. Okay, well, maybe not in Johnny Woo, the first solo story of a character introduced as a supporting player in a pair of Dredd stories some four years previously. In the three-part "A Bullet in the Head" by Gordon Rennie and PJ Holden, who is tasked to draw an insane amount of extraneous background crowding and detail and rises to the challenge, we learn that Hong Tong inspector Liu Chan Yeun is not the only policeman in the city to work both sides of the law.

There's a brand new serial starting this issue called Zancudo, and both the hero and the villain of the piece are mustached. This weird little strip crept under everybody's radar and seems sadly forgotten today. Drawn by Cam Kennedy, it's written in a very over-the-top and winking way by Simon Spurrier, and feels like a knowing, ironic throwback to comics of the 1970s. Readers familiar with the crazed, edge-of-your-seat narration in the recent, third Zombo story, which just wrapped a month ago, might know what I'm talking about. The narration seems a little misplaced for this story at first. It's set in the South America of Dredd's universe, where the mega-cities of that continent are not separated by a radioactive desert, but by an overgrown super-rain forest that takes up much of the continent's interior. The transfer of a psi-criminal goes bad when the transport crashes near the ruins of an old native city, and the heroic judge learns that there are gigantic mosquitos enslaving helpless tribesmen.

What makes this a really memorable and spectacularly fun story is how a throwaway line in part one is revealed to be something much bigger and utterly unexpected in the cliffhanger to part two. Zancudo, we learn, hilariously, is actually a sequel to an over-the-top, well-remembered 1978 2000 AD serial called Ant Wars. It really doesn't do the serial any favors in the long run; as we'll see when this blog comes to such serials as Malone, The Vort and Dead Eyes, whatever happens in the pages of the new story is almost instantly subsumed into the mythology of the larger series that connects to it. It changes from "Zancudo was a three-part story about a psychic criminal in South America, and giant mosquitos" to "Ant Wars had a sequel, 27 years later." Still, the ride getting there was a blast.

Back in action this month is Devlin Waugh in "All Hell," a six-part story by John Smith and Colin MacNeil. Have to say, Smith is repeating himself just a little this time out. We've seen this opening, with Waugh being all decadent and lazy and trying to relax but the forces of magical evil require him to stop being so selfish and get to work saving reality, at least twice before. On the other hand, once this story does get moving, it turns into one of the very best for the character, with Devlin and two battered-and-bloodied allies on the trail of three occult criminals, descending through planes of Hell on the trail of some McGuffin or other.

Actually, now that I think about it, that Indigo Prime article that I wrote a few weeks ago reminds me that Smith's done descent-into-Hell before as well, in the Fervent and Lobe story "The Issigri Variations." Heck. Nothing new under the sun, is there?

Happily, the actual story in Devlin Waugh this time out is much better than my grumbling might lead readers to believe. It's certainly better than "The Issigri Variations," anyway. Devlin's such a fun character, and the stakes feel genuinely high and dramatic, and Colin MacNeil, clearly drawing inspiration, as he always does when painting this strip, from Tom of Finland, pulls off the requisite violence and gore with expertise. It's a terrific story.

That said, suddenly everything is really in Dredd's shadow again. "The Monsterus Mashinations of PJ Maybe," by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, is a four-part story that proves really critical to Maybe's overall exploits. Really, anybody left thinking that Judge Death or Mean Machine Angel are Dredd's greatest enemies have not read the strip in a decade. Maybe's natural evolution into the series' all-time greatest villain is a joy to watch unfold.

I was a little disappointed when I first saw that Ezquerra was the artist for this installment, which is a pretty darn odd feeling for anybody to have. It's just that with the previous story, "Six," Chris Weston made a huge impact, and even surpassed Maybe's co-creator Liam Sharp as the definitive artist of the character in my book. ("Six," which originally ran in June 2004, was discussed ten chapters back in this blog.) It was a nice touch, asking Weston to provide this issue's cover; it's a subtle way of allowing one artist to pass the torch to the next.

So this time out, Dredd has taken a team of judges and diplomats to Ciudad Baranquilla - the scheduling of Zancudo was pretty appropriate, it turns out! - in the hope of smoking out Maybe, whom Dredd is certain is somewhere close, hiding out in plain sight, his face changed and using his secreted wealth to buy favors from that city's corrupt justice department. The cat and mouse game that emerges is unbelievably satisfying. Light and L in Death Note don't have a patch on these two. Maybe is a good three steps ahead of Dredd, but every so often, the judge's instincts and experience give him a critical advantage that Maybe could never have predicted.

Since the story has continued to unfold, develop and strike out in stunning new avenues every few months, I hate to say this for fear of spoiling any potentially new readers, but it's obvious that Maybe gets away in the end. This story concludes with Dredd satisfied that Maybe is dead, but he's actually wearing another stolen body - a philanthropist doctor who is heir to a great fortune - and going home to the Big Meg after far too long away. What happens next is just amazing. I can't wait to read "The Gingerbread Man" again.

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Sadly, only the Judge Dredd story has been reprinted so far, in The Complete PJ Maybe. (Amazon UK)

Next time... well, you'll have to wait a little bit. This concludes the original, planned 13-week return of the blog, but readers have been very encouraging and kind with their notes of appreciation, and so I'll be resuming for a good few more blog posts. I'm already sketching out the next few installments and deciding what images to scan, and will be back after a short recharging break.

In the meantime, bookmark my Hipster Dad's Bookshelf during the hiatus, where, among other things, I'll be writing about The Bendatti Vendetta, Lenny Zero, and the new series of Indigo Prime, along with some Walter Mosley books and other things. Thanks for your support, and see you in November!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

149. Poor Dante's Almanac

February 2005: The comic settles in for what will prove to be a disappointing year in its hopes for expansion into the bookstore market. I see that I completely missed covering the launch of the DC line of books, which happened in the summer of 2004, and so I'll come back to that in a few entries when I can discuss its closing. This was, notably, around the point where supporters of that line started feeling a little exasperation with the lack of promotion on DC Comics' part, and something about this cover painting by Jim Murray reminds me of that. Seriously, I see this artwork and I don't think of the character or the series or just what a nice job Murray does on him, I remember being aggravated with DC. I was probably writing an angry email to somebody that week.

Inside, one of the most interesting series in the lineup is the long-promised Tiger Sun, Dragon Moon by Steve Parkhouse. I am pretty certain that this is a very notable series for one reason: it is, I believe, the longest work to ever appear in 2000 AD by a single creator. It's seven episodes long, and written, drawn, colored and lettered by Parkhouse.

This is perhaps all the more remarkable as Parkhouse is not at all the name I'd offer for a tale of future ninjas and samurai having a bloody showdown over two powerful blades. Parkhouse is best known for his gorgeously skewed depictions of contemporary England. When I think of Parkhouse's best work, I think of The Bojeffries Saga, Big Dave, that Sinister Dexter story with the Inspector Morse parody, The Milkman Murders or those fantastic 1980s Doctor Who stories set in the village of Stockbridge. Ninjas, not so much. But visually, he really pulls this off brilliantly.

I understand that Parkhouse was a little frustrated by the experience. 2000 AD changed its page size before he finished the work, forcing him to go back and redo several pages. It seemed uncomfortably out of place when finished, a dark fairytale recalling traditional Japanese legends hammered into the Judge Dredd universe by way of some references to Hondo City in the narration. In the end, the serial is confused and not engaging, but it really looks completely terrific. I wish Tharg would let some more accomplished writer-artists have some longer space like this to play; even if it isn't a complete success, it's very interesting.

Speaking of space to play, in an earlier chapter I had bemoaned the lack of proper, really long runs for certain storylines, and how everything gets wrapped up in around three months. One of the few exceptions to this - another would come later in '05 - was a fantastic run of Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, which features 17 episodes across 18 issues, taking just one week off. The run, which is basically the middle third of the "pirate arc" - the third phase of the series - comprises three stories: "Agent of Destruction," "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" and "Primal Screams." This issue features the second episode of that second story, and as its ridiculous, long title might suggest, it's a welcome respite from the heavy double-crossing and backstabbing of this period of Dante.

Dante has often got in way over his head - in fact, this whole arc, where he's stuck in the middle of three warring bands of pirates, one of which is led by his estranged mother, is the very definition of "in over his head" - but this story is much lighter than what the series has given us recently, with the story played as a slightly bawdy heist farce. Burns provides some of his very best work for the series - and I say this from the perspective of a reader who doesn't like his work nearly as much as co-creator Simon Fraser's - as this comedic story falls completely apart around Dante's ears. This time, he and his paramour du jour, a blonde called Lauren, try to abduct Jena Makarov while she's on a state visit to England, only to have Dante's violent half-sister Lulu show up at the same time to try and kill her.

It's all played strictly for laughs, and Burns just has a field day with the spectacle. Lulu, as ever, is the sexiest woman in comics - you just can't blame me for including a picture of her as illustration - but everybody else is painted a little off-model. Burns relaxes and lets the calamity guide the visual definitions, and when an exhausted Dante wants to say something to get the squabbling Lauren and Jena to shut up, he doesn't look at all like the man of action depicted on the comic's front cover, but more like a Sergio Aragonés character. Best of all is a wonderful double-page spread from episode one, in which most of the characters are seen chasing each other around the giant letters that form that unwieldy title, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" Considering that the longtime supporting player Marguerite met a grisly end two weeks previously, this kind of wacky shenanigans is a pretty well-timed break. Did you notice the silly grin on the demon on Lulu's shoulder? Since when do those things smile?

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Amazon UK)

Next time, more men with mustaches invade the Megazine! See you in seven!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

148. In Praise of That Floor-Length Sheepskin Jacket

January 2005: So it is a new year and a new lineup, with one new thrill and three returning series in prog 1424. The Judge Dredd episode this week is a one-off by Gordon Rennie and Carl Critchlow, one of several stories in this period to deal with the aftermath of the recent "Total War" arc and the casualties from the three nukes detonated in Mega-City One. The new strip is Second City Blues by "Kek-W" and Warren Pleece. Returning to action are Slaine by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, next week's spotlight strip Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, and a new adventure for Caballistics Inc. by Rennie and Dom Reardon.

This time, the Cabs team has split up to investigate a couple of ostensibly minor occult doings which, predictably, turn into calamities. I wonder whether we missed out on a pile of untold Cabs stories in which the team really gets fed up with all the hoaxes and minor nothings which they must surely investigate before we get to the stories that are exciting enough to require gunplay. But there's more to this than just "oh look, the demon thing is real," because it's understood that, well, of course it's real, otherwise we wouldn't be reading it. The twist is that the expected problem turns out to be much weirder. Ravne, Ness, Jenny and Verse have all gone to check out some death metaller whose bandmates have been dying like clockwork since, he claims, he made a pact with the devil. So they're all ready to defend this well-paying idiot from demons, only to be confronted instead by an angel of God, who has baited a trap to get Jenny here and kill her. Now that's a delicious twist.

In an earlier entry, I mentioned how one of the cute things that makes Caballistics so entertaining are the allusions to Doctor Who. These are usually in the text - an early story is set on the same moor as the 1970 serial "Doctor Who and the Silurians" - but this time out, there's a really cheeky epilogue that leads into the next story. In a lovely last page, we see an actor, who looks uncannily like Tom Baker, step away in a break from filming a show with a name awfully similar to Monarch of the Glen, only to get ambushed and murdered by a huge man in Celtic tribal dress and a boar on his head.

Meanwhile, Hannah Chapter and Jonathan Brand have been looking into an old, boarded-up house and find a decrepit old Jewish mystic and a golem. This is very much the B-plot, but damn if it doesn't prove just how great a team these two are together. Also, it gives me the chance to actually show you a picture of Hannah wearing that floor-length sheepskin jacket ("his mum says it cost a packet") that I mentioned the last time we talked about her. What a terrific look. The character is still an abrasive, motormouthed jerk, but she certainly dresses well.

The newest series in this issue is the one with the oldest pedigree: the "future sports" genre. I've always felt that, of 2000 AD's initial six strips, Harlem Heroes was the odd one out. It was a great strip, don't get me wrong, written and drawn well, but it seemed like the strip with one foot firmly in the past, and that a science fiction comic that should have seen the shock of the new every week was not trusting its ability to wow young readers. Sure, there was a cinematic template in the likes of Rollerball and, to a lesser extent, Death Race 2000, but you can see why its inclusion didn't impress literary science fiction fans of the day. It seemed safe, despite the casualty rate within the strip, to program a lineup that included at least one sports story, because that's what just about every weekly comic from IPC or Thomson's had, somewhere. So Harlem Heroes led into Inferno, and some time later, there was Mean Arena, and later, Mean Team. I guess they're each good for what they are, but it frequently seemed like exercises in nostalgia, looking backwards and dressing 20th Century footballers or rugby stars in armor or something, especially with Tom Tully plotting them out precisely the same way that he would break down a lengthy storyline for Roy of the Rovers.

In time, the future sports genre really just got absorbed by Judge Dredd, where skysurfing, eating, ratfighting, boinging, bonking, corpse stuffing and staring have all been shown as the sports of tomorrow. There hadn't been a need for a sports serial in the comic for decades, so it really wasn't anything more than curious nostalgia that led to the development of Second City Blues. Honestly, it's a strip that works a lot better than it should, thanks to a fun, cheeky script by Nigel Long, under his odd "Kek-W" pseudonym, and really fun artwork by Warren Pleece.

The sport this time out is "slamboarding," and it's similar to Harlem Heroes' aeroball, played with the sort of flying surfboards that Chopper in Dredd popularized rather than jetpacks. Also, the "ball" is actually a weird alien critter that is mostly docile, but will occasionally remind players that it's alive by eating their hands. If that strikes you as just a bit ridiculous and outre, then you're in good company with this story. The whole thing is over the top with melodrama and genuinely surreal comedy and plot developments.

One of the more ridiculous tropes of the late seventies and early eighties sports stories is the really stupid opponents taking their team name literally. Naturally, the heroic team that we follow is made up of scrappy underdogs with a charismatic leader, and they seem to dress and act what we would call normally on the field. The other teams, if they're called the Vikings, they dress like vikings and they act like berserkers. If they're called the Vampires, then they wear capes and hiss. And so do all of their fans, not just those twelve fat dudes with the block seats in section B that the TV cameramen keep finding. Second City Blues takes this to its logical extreme, with, for example, a rival slamboarding team that act like "I say!" aristos both on and off the field. With slamboarding a curiously low-rent operation somewhat more akin to the modern day X-games, the players all know each other off the field and have rivalries in mall food courts.

The heroes of our story, of course, don't have a ridiculous affectation that keeps them in stupid costume, but ahead of one match, they get sponsored by a novelty condom company, forcing them to play the game with that logo on their chests.

I like this strip a lot because it knows what it's doing and it's so darn cheeky about it. When the events start sliding completely out of control with a surprise alien invasion, it's already such a naturally and believably outlandish strip that this very goofy turn of events doesn't feel like a desperate cheat to keep readers' attention. It's very fun and it's very knowing, and I enjoyed it.

There was some call for a second story for these characters, but I never felt like one was necessary. I'd really love for "Kek-W" to get the chance, at last, for a really involved, long series that unfolds over several stories. Perhaps the brand new Angel Zero, which started just last week in 2000 AD issue 1751, will be that strip, but Second City Blues could never have been it. When you've thumbed your nose at armageddon with as much fun as he and Pleece had in this strip, where could you have gone next?

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Caballistics Inc.: Creepshow (2000 AD's online shop)
Nikolai Dante: Hell and High Water (2000 AD's online shop)
Slaine: Books of Invasions Vol. 2 (2000 AD's online shop)

Next time, absolutely nothing is going right for Nikolai Dante. But that's always the case. Anyway, leave it to Lulu to make matters even worse.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

147. Christmas at Tharg's

December 2004: So we come to the end of another year, and it's time for the annual year-end Christmas prog, with new storylines launching and some one-offs. Wrapped in a very silly cover by Mark Harrison - the small illustration here simply can't convey how detail-packed and ridiculous the piece actually is - this sees the first episodes of the Nikolai Dante story "Agent of Destruction" by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, Slaine in "Tara" by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, and a "future sports" story called Second City Blues by "Kek-W" (Nigel Long) and Warren Pleece, about which, more next week. Judge Dredd and Caballistics Inc. will both be part of January's lineup, but they're represented here by one-off double-length episodes rather than part of their next storyline.

Henry Flint contributes three demented and silly one-page strips under the banner of Tharg's Alien Invasions, and there are additional one-off episodes of Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis, Robo-Hunter by Alan Grant and Ian Gibson, and Leviathan by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli. Not a bad lineup of strips at all, I'd say!

The Judge Dredd episode is particularly fun, as it finally brings a close to Dredd's recurring enemies Oola and Homer Blint, alias the serial-killing Angel of Mercy and her assistant. They first appeared back in prog 1050 in July of 1997. I really like the way that the Blints are treated without being blown out of proportion and made into a major threat or need for an epic. This is their sixth appearance in the strip, and they get a good send-off, but most importantly, they never dominated the story and Wagner never let their success go to his head. Judge Death and Mean Machine sold out; the Angel of Mercy kept it real.

This episode is illustrated by Andrew Currie, who seems to be Tharg's go-to guy during this period when the script calls for sexy ladies. Since Oola can no longer dress in her black veil and mourning clothes without being spotted, and since she and Homer have set up shop in Brit-Cit as propreitors of a "euthaniasm," she chooses to go the "sexy nurse" route, all curves and cleavage.

Now, I've always said that I like the way that the Judge Dredd strip allows its artists the opportunity to go wildly off-model from time to time, but Oola's new naughty Halloween costume look is matched by Homer's strange devolution. This actually put me off a little at the time, as Homer seems to shrink at least six inches and gains an overbite in Currie's hands, emphasizing how impotent and pathetic he's become as Oola has gone out to get her own serial killing kicks without him. Previously, Homer had just been comic relief, there to cause some moments of panic around his unflappable wife as the judges were closing in. Gradually, Oola has tired of him and is ready to move on. She doesn't need him - she never did - but as his devotion is rewarded with her betrayal, Currie's depiction of him becomes almost sympathetic in its mean caricature. I'd say top marks to that art droid; this simple decision to deviate from the prior models of the character really pays off.

Then there's Ian Gibson, who unaccountably decides to deviate from what we expected Samantha Slade to look like. Oh, wait, this isn't so much characters going off-model as it is Gibson phoning in his artwork and inking it with a Sharpie.

Argh. Ouch. This could start to try a fellow's patience, especially when Gibson was actually given a really good script this time out. "The Davinchy Code" is just hilarious, a really fun, short romp that successfully ticks all the necessary Robo-Hunter boxes - chaos, stupid clients, convoluted cases, big robotic thugs, Hoagy and Stogie causing property damage - while also advancing the plot and giving Samantha an office to start her career properly. But the artwork, this time out, is just plain bad, and criminally rushed. It should have been the high point of the issue, but it has to settle for being one of the best scripts. Sam's time would come, later. Her next two adventures would see the writer and the artist finally meshing perfectly and turning out something memorable and great, and not just firing on the writing side alone.

No, as much as I wish I could say that Samantha Slade is the best thing about Prog 2005, I can't. Certainly not when Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon have a freakishly amazing episode of Caballistics Inc. that flashes back to the wartime Department Q and holy shit is that a U-boat being ripped apart by a giant squid ? ? ?

This episode, "Weird War Tales," sees one of the Cabs team, the put-upon Dr. Jonathan Brand, visiting a remote Scottish island which houses an underground prison. There, a powerful psychic named Magister is under constant guard. Brand, beginning to realize that the Cabs organization is being used in some weird game between Ethan Kostabi and Solomon Ravne, and that neither of them are what they claim to be, hopes that Magister can give him some information on either.

Reardon's artwork has always reminded me of the excellent work that Mike Mignola has done for Hellboy, and that's never so clear as it is in this terrific story. It turns out that Magister was once a member of Department Q, fighting the Nazis and their "Spear of Destiny"-led charge into northern occult research with a team of paranormals, psychics and two-fisted action. I'm also reminded of "Sensitive Criminals," an amazing storyline in Grant Morrison's Invisibles that saw one of those characters learning about a team from the 1920s. In each case, the flashback, showing that the current characters are just the latest in a long line of similar heroes, somehow really makes the present-day storyline much more thrilling.

Maybe it's because the stories let readers see that yes, once upon a time, there were these other heroes, but they're all dead now that reminds us that the current team is not immortal. In fact, we aren't very far from learning just how fragile the characters in Caballistics Inc. are, but we'll come to that in a future installment. "Weird War Tales" is so good that I would not have minded if Gordon Rennie had put the series on hold for a little while so that he could step back and write some more Department Q adventures.

Stories from this issue are available for purchase in the following collected editions:

Caballistics Inc.: Creepshow (2000 AD's online shop)
Leviathan: The Complete Leviathan (2000 AD's online shop)
Nikolai Dante: Hell and High Water (2000 AD's online shop)
Robo-Hunter: The Furzt Case (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 307, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Slaine: Books of Invasions Vol. 2 (2000 AD's online shop)

Next time, more about Caballistics Inc., including an actual image of Hannah Chapter in that floor-length sheepskin jacket that I wrote about a few weeks ago, and the sports thriller Second City Blues. See you in seven!