Thursday, August 4, 2011

141. King Hell!

August 2004: You know what would be a really thankless job? Editing 2000 AD. Oh, there are perks, I suppose. You get to commission great series and work with incredibly talented creators, but you also get a fan base that is convinced that it knows better than you at every stage and constantly makes demands, I mean, offers helpful suggestions about what it wants to see in the comic. And, when you and your predecessors have spent thirty-odd years cultivating the mythology that the series are actually created by put-upon robots whipped and beaten into the service of thrillpower, it's a little difficult to explain, in character, exactly why the Alan Moore and Ian Gibson droids haven't been chained to a desk to create more Halo Jones, or why the loaning of the Grant Morrison droid to some inferior American publishers has gone on so long that we don't have more Zenith.

About which, I don't know about you squaxx, but I finally resolved a few months ago that I'm not reading any more stupid superhero trademark protection funnybooks from anybody, regardless of who writes them. Except Paul Levitz writing Legion of Super-Heroes. 2000 AD droids on Hulk comics? Not in my house. Join me, won't you? You know it makes sense.

Anyway, new episodes of Zenith and Halo Jones, by their original creators, seem to turn up most often when fans compile their fantasy "perfect prog." From there, it's anybody's guess as to what will show up next, the only other real tricky bit is deciding whether you want Strontium Dog or you want Ezquerra drawing that imaginary issue's Judge Dredd.

I mention this here because I figure that Matt Smith, the man who has been Tharg for about the last decade, has made a really strong case for being 2000 AD's best editor, but man, he does something that I have never liked, and that's not building up a solid recurring feature to run alongside Dredd in almost every issue. That's one of the reasons why fans came to love Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante in the late nineties, because David Bishop made them co-stars of the comic, with Dredd, for the better part of two solid years. Particularly with subplot-heavy series like Sin Dex, as it has evolved, and, frankly, darn near everything that Ian Edginton or Gordon Rennie has written, the whole business of a single story per year has mostly been a burden for fans to follow. I've said before, and I feel very strongly about it, that The Red Seas would have been massively improved had its hundred-plus episodes appeared over a run of about three years, and not ten.

See, if I were Tharg, I would note those series that seem to get nearly unanimous positive feedback from fans. In recent days, these would include Zombo, Ichabod Azrael and Absalom. I'd treat that initial story as a successful pilot and then sit down with the writer and see where this series is going. Then commission it, to the end. Rather than ordering a single story each year, and hoping that the writer doesn't get poached by some inferior American publisher who will take up all of his time before it's finished, I'd slot that series in for at least forty weeks a year and give it a backup artist and turn the series' lead into the next 2000 AD superstar. Johnny Alpha did not become beloved in our hearts by collecting one bounty a year, Tharg.

Ah, but there's a problem with my plan. In quite a few cases, it's completely unworkable. Many series, and many of the writers responsible for them, genuinely need time to find a footing and the maturity necessary to churn out something really workable and memorable. Take Simon Spurrier, for instance. Presently, I might groan that he's one of those droids wasting his creative energy turning out garbage for inferior American publishers when he could be writing more Lobster Random, but he wouldn't even be in that position had Tharg not given him the time to develop Bec & Kawl over several, individual, month-long batches. "Hell to Pay" is the fifth of these month-long runs, and it's a real treat. In it, Jarrod Kawl is duped into a cunning plan by Margaret Thatcher to take over the underworld.

Even if Spurrier had wanted to tell this story from the outset - contradicting my "annual appearance" claim above, Bec & Kawl usually appeared once every six months - he wouldn't have told it at all well. The earliest Bec & Kawl adventures, despite the goodwill that some fans felt towards them, just weren't very good. Since Spurrier was a fan who made it in, and since the art was so nice, and since the series was so darned different, and - this might be the important bit - it only ran for four weeks at a time, readers were mostly able to overlook the series' deficiencies, in the hopes that it would improve.

Well, I say mostly. There certainly are readers with a "kill it immediately!" mindset whenever Tharg programs a series that they don't enjoy.

Honestly, the leap in quality between the first two batches of Bec & Kawl and this one is just eye-popping. There are huge problems with the earliest stories. For one, he relies on visual humor, not just to hit a punch line, but to complete a story. Infamously, the climax to a one-off episode called "Enlightenment" (prog 1327, Feb. 2003) is the slogan written on Kawl's T-shirt. No attention is drawn to it. More than that, the pacing of the early stories is really bad. There's no getting around it, while there is a skeleton of a plot in May 2002's "The Mystical Mentalist Menace" (progs 1290-91), there is no sense of a transition between scenes or gags. The action is compressed so much that there is no feeling of the passage of time, nor a space where the story develops.

"Hell to Pay" isn't without its problems, but thank the stars that Tharg commissioned Bec & Kawl the way he did, so that Spurrier and Roberts could learn from their mistakes. It's a very funny story, but, more importantly, it's a story that readers can understand. There are conventions to the language of comics, and the buildup to this hilarious cliffhanger is one of the things that makes it work so well. It's more than just "SHOCK! Thatcher is the baddie!" but the way that we get this cliffhanger at the right point in the story - the halfway mark - and that we learn what Hell is, in terms of how Spurrier is going to use it, so that the comedy of Thatcher privatizing it actually means something. Creating a world that a reader can care about, even for the six or seven minutes one might spend reading a Bec & Kawl episode, is critical for the story to work.

World-building is something that the Guv'nor, Pat Mills, does better than darn near everybody else in comics. When Mills is on fire, as he is in Book Two of the ABC Warriors epic "The Shadow Warriors," he's throwing some completely crazy ideas at the protagonists. Some of these ideas are so offbeat as to be ridiculous - above, as drawn by Henry Flint, we see grouchy apes called Cyboons riding three-legged lizards called Trisaurs - but Mills treats all of the elements of his stories with the same respect and enthusiasm, grounding the mindblowing ideas with casual acceptance by the protagonists.

Now, the weird problem with the Guv'nor is that, unique among 2000 AD's writers, he seems to get a free pass to write his stories in either 48-page or 60-page chunks. He seems to have picked this up writing for the French market, where his publisher there releases 60-page episodes of the series Requiem and Claudia once a year. This means that Mills gets to mostly blow off the idea of cliffhangers. It's pretty rare when you get to, say, page six of episode five of a modern Mills story and get that jawdropping shock that leaves you begging for the next part. From the perspective of a reader, "Book Two of The Shadow Warriors" doesn't mean so much. It's really that "The Shadow Warriors" is a three-episode story, and the episodes are really long, and split into chunks for British serialization.

And then of course, there's the problem that, as editor of 2000 AD, Matt Smith has so darn many popular series to juggle that even if the Guv'nor wanted to run a 156-page ABC Warriors adventure across 26 consecutive weeks, there wouldn't necessarily be room for it. See, thankless job.

For the record, I'd figure the lineup for a perfect prog, considering that Nikolai Dante is coming to an end in early 2012, would include Dredd by Wagner and Ezquerra, backed by new stories for Robo-Hunter, Zenith, Stickleback and Lobster Random.

Stories from this prog are reprinted in the following editions:

The ABC Warriors: The Shadow Warriors (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Bec & Kawl: Bloody Students (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Caballistics Inc: Creepshow (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: The Art of Kenny Who? (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop).

Next time, The Galaxy's Greatest and its Trouble With Girls. See you in seven, friends!

No comments: