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 Aragon├ęs 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!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

146. Indigo Prime is back, and it's about time. And other things.

September 2011: Today, we jump about seven years ahead in the narrative in order to look back more than twenty. We can only do this - well, that's not true, it's my blog and I'll do what I want with it, but play along - we can only do this when there's been such a massive upheaval to reality that somebody needs to come along and manipulate time, space, parallel universes and the building blocks of matter and fix things to our liking. It's time to contract with the agents of Indigo Prime, and hopefully, paying the invoice won't mean wiping your great-grandfather out of history. For new and recent readers of 2000 AD, the comic is about to get really, really weird. Old fogeys like me are rubbing our hands in anticipation and glee for the first proper new Indigo Prime adventure since 1991, but newbies might need a little explanation for what's about to be unleashed in the pages and pixels of prog 1750. This issue will be available from Clickwheel in digital format on September 14, but hard copy subscribers in the UK got their prog in the post five days ago. This is one of those times when the eleven-day gap between the two causes a small but nevertheless thermonuclear explosion between my ears.

I'm also writing this entry at the end of August, before the subscribers get their copy, and before I ruin things for myself by reading the spoiler threads on the message board. I'm very impatient about this.

So, what's the deal with Indigo Prime that warrants this kind of discussion? Most comic series, after all, even the ones returning to action after a long absence (such as Flesh) have a simple premise and a coherent backlist, so a newbie can hear a sentence description, grab a collected edition and jump right in. Well, Indigo Prime is a trifle incoherent, confusing, complex in the most lovely way and intermittently utterly brilliant, and despite the good intentions of a previous graphic novel editor, the "complete" collected edition is missing the first three stories and a sense of grounding to explain what the heck this series is about. So if you're sitting uncomfortably...

Back in 1986, John Smith was among the wave of writers breaking into 2000 AD, and the larger industry, through several one-off comic episodes, usually under the Tharg's Future Shocks banner. He was punching these out alongside the likes of Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Alan McKenzie and Neil Gaiman under Steve MacManus's editorship. Under MacManus's tenure, 2000 AD's format was a good bit more flexible than it is today. While, for years, we've had a fairly strict lineup of five stories in each issue, with one-offs usually scheduled to mark time between the end of a serial and the next relaunch prog, back then, MacManus was telling these and other rookie writers to turn in Future Shock scripts anywhere from one to five pages in length. With strips like Ace Trucking Company varying its page count week to week - probably to give its artist Massimo Belardinelli occasional chances to catch his breath and only draw three pages once in a while - and wild variations in the number of ad pages, 2000 AD was able to release weekly editions with as many as seven strips an issue. Actually, sometimes it was eight - I was forgetting that Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy's Sooner or Later was appearing most weeks on the back page at the time.

The point being, these rookie writers were able to fling a hell of a lot of ideas at the wall, far more than rookies get to these days, while learning the rules of short weekly episodes, and Smith found an interesting way to try building a small "universe" of interconnected strips. In 1986, with artist Nik Williams, he came up with a Future Shock called "A Change of Scenery," in which two strange beings named Basalt and Foundation, representing a company called Void Indiga, offer to spare Earth from a pending alien invasion, in return for a huge amount of the Earth's natural resources: the Pacific Ocean. Their offer is declined, but humanity quickly calls them back when the aliens overwhelm us. Basalt and Foundation change reality so that the invasion never happened, but the world's leaders, led by a Clint Eastwood-like American president, renege on our end of the deal. Basalt and Foundation cannot be found again when the next alien invasion comes. This story was finally reprinted in Rebellion's The Best of Tharg's Future Shocks collection.

Eighty issues later, in March of 1988, a new series by Smith and Steve Dillon was launched, without much in the way of hype or announcement. Tyranny Rex debuted as a light and odd little three-parter about a reptilian girl in a world where clones of 1980s pop stars are hugely profitable for big mega-corporations, and where pirated clones of these performers are singing across the black market. Tyranny was a sort of underground celebrity, an art terrorist one step ahead of The Man. It was a pretty stupid story, but just strange enough to be memorable. She returned in July with another three-parter about an actor opening a supermarket that gets swallowed by a giant floating whale. This was a weird series, albeit, up to this point, one told in a pretty straightforward way.

Things got really demented in July with the release of that year's Sci-Fi Special. The Tyranny Rex story here is untitled but referred to as "Woody Allen." Madly, it has never been reprinted, and confusingly it references another story, "Soft Bodies," which wouldn't see print in 2000 AD for another four months. (And then there would be a five week gap between its last two episodes. Seriously.)

Anyway, anybody who was expecting another frothy and light adventure for Tyranny Rex quickly got a wake up call when Basalt and Foundation showed up again. Now the company they are working for has been renamed Indigo Prime - Smith explained that he changed the name when he learned of a Steve Gerber property that was one letter off from his - and Tyranny has hired their services so that she may build herself a universe from the atoms of one that's just expired. She's actually there not to play God, but to cause enough spectacular damage to the fabric of everything that the universe where she came from starts suffering cataclysmic aftershocks. She's basically using parallel universes to avenge the death of her species, and it leaves Major Arcana, one of the company's directors, out for the blood of the two freelance "psilencers" who cleared Tyranny for this level of power, and then overbilled the company. (Though I suspect that Arcana has really, really hated these guys for ages anyway.)

We finally get to know the freelancers Fervent and Lobe, the time-traveling psychic cowboys who made that fleeting appearance in "Woody Allen," when "Soft Bodies," illustrated by Will Simpson, appeared sporadically throughout October and December 1988. They got their own eight-part story, "The Issigri Variations," the following autumn. It's a comic about an opera that the characters wrote after an adventure descending into Hell on a false trail that results in Satan breaking free of his shackles and threatening a universe or two. Basalt, Foundation and Major Arcana have to bail them out of this mess, which also introduces Lobe's former girlfriend, a morbidly obese fortune teller named Almaranda.

It must be said here that Simpson and Mike Hadley, who drew "The Issigri Variations," deserve combat medals for making any sense of Smith's scripts. In much the same way that the late John Hicklenton would often throw down his gauntlet and confrontationally challenge what we expect as traditional comic art storytelling, Smith just goes to war with conventional narrative in these stories. Some chunks of "Soft Bodies" are excerpts from the film adaptation of the actual event, and some chunks of "Issigri Variations" are highlights from a musical stage performance of what really happened. Neither the film nor the opera are fair or accurate adaptations. At one point in "Soft Bodies," Fervent and Lobe are shown at a screening of the movie, protesting that the director got it wrong. Perhaps this is why the comic adaptation of "Soft Bodies" saw print after "Woody Allen." The actual event came first, but the movie came later? Anyway, both are just huge fun, but when you take these very, very challenging ways to tell stories, and then tell very dense and confusing tales about art terrorists, disintegrating bootleg clones, rewriting reality and, somewhere in the background, a corporation that unzips the walls of time and space for profit, and then tell these narratives with Smith's over-the-top purple prose - the "shatterlight shatterlight p o p p y c o c k" stuff, as Garth Ennis once parodied it - it's no wonder this stuff was trying people's patience.

So about seven months passed, and in May 1990, we finally got the first of five episodes, illustrated by Chris Weston, that actually went out under the Indigo Prime banner. Somehow, the Tharg of the time (Richard Burton, I think) resisted the urge to promote it by saying "At last! Those weird-ass supporting characters who've been making your head hurt for four years have their very own series!" These appeared in issues 678 and 680-82, and they are completely terrific, although still wonderfully weird and challenging. We learn that Indigo Prime is in the business of re-making and re-modeling whatever reality and whatever events are paid for, through the use of sceneshifters, who manipulate space, seamsters, who manipulate time, and imagineers, who have the most fun and manipulate dreams and the collective unconsciousness.

Indigo Prime employs at least fifty-four operatives, working in teams of two, for full-time field work across all the parallel universes, along with another eighteen or so freelance Psilencers and moderators and countless office staff to monitor events. Most of them, by far, are never seen (about which, more in a moment), but we get to meet the signature team of Winwood and Cord, seamsters, in a little adventure tracking an important inventor from an Earth's future back through a hole in time to prehistory. Max Winwood is a well-dressed dandy who mixes well into Victorian or Edwardian culture, and Ishmael Cord is a muscular, slightly vulgar fellow in a top hat with body odor issues. In "How the Land Lied," we meet another pair of sceneshifters: Sean Fegredo (named, one suspects, for two of the artists who worked on Smith's The New Statesmen, yeah?) is a big-haired oddball who looks like the BBC-TV version of Zaphod Beeblebrox with just the one head, and Trevor Brecht is a London city gent, and they're brought on by planetary theme park developers to eradicate a culture that based itself on teevee transmissions from the 1970s and worships the images of actors Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. That was it for the spring. In December 1990, Fervent and Lobe got one more story, again drawn by Hadley, in that year's Winter Special. Almaranda came back for a two-parter in March 1991.

There are many really neat things in the narrative of Indigo Prime, but one of the things that I like the best is that there is a simply huge cast of characters whom the readers don't meet. In the comics, we are only introduced to six of the 54 full-timers, and none of these pairs meet or interact with each other. It has always reminded me of television's Sapphire & Steel, where a weird plot gets started, and then these strange protagonists show up, with nothing more than little hints of where they come from and who sent them. In much the same way that in that first TV serial, a supporting agent called Lead arrives and, with one line of dialogue addressed to Steel, "Jet sends her love," a thousand fanfics were launched, Indigo Prime tickled the imagination of readers. There's a single panel of flashback in the final story of the original run that appears to show more than a dozen Indigo Prime operatives locking an old villain away. So do these guys know each other pretty well? Do they work together or do they have petty rivalries? Do they have interoffice romances in the vacuum of unclaimed universes, sneaking away to the other side of a collapsing star during the holiday party?

In a way, all this hidden backstory is reminiscent of the huge amount of background apocrypha that Smith, clearly influenced by Watchmen, prepared for The New Statesmen. That's understandable; a writer as young as Smith was at the time is bound to let his excited imagination prepare far more material than is really necessary, but releasing supporting details like the company's organizational chart had a remarkable impact on Indigo Prime's fans. It made an already strong series much more memorable because of the stories that we knew were out there, but had not yet read. And we haven't even got to "Killing Time" yet, which is when everything really ramped up.

Oh, yes, "Killing Time," easily one of the wildest things to ever appear in 2000 AD. Up to this point, Indigo Prime had been an incredibly neat, dense and occasionally fantastic little series, but in my book, "Killing Time" remains one of the finest things to ever appear in this or any other comic.

"Killing Time," if I may cannibalize my old essay at "Touched By the Hand of Tharg," was a truly shocking ten-part story in which seamsters Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord allow Jack the Ripper, disguised as a traveler on a train that travels backwards in time, to complete his last murder in order to provide the burst of psychic energy needed for them to leave all known realities and battle the Iscariot, a creature imprisoned outside time and space who was using the Ripper to ensure its own freedom. Smith's scripting on this beast is a masterwork of horror - each episode builds upon the previous with some absolutely stunning moments and horrendous imagery by Weston. The story is discussed in much greater detail by my friend David Page at his YouTube-based 2000 AD blog, Dead'll Do, in a five-part retrospective that you should enjoy viewing.

It's understood that stories like "Killing Time" will enjoy some inventive bloodshed along the way, and that the supporting cast includes characters you probably shouldn't get too attached to. But with death scenes as nightmarish and downright bizarre as what gets meted out in this story, Smith took the high-concept weirdness of Prime's unusual SF origins into something jawdropping and horrific. 2000 AD should always be dangerous and unconventional - it's what makes it better than any other comic - but never mind what happens to the guest stars and the baddies, the heroes in adventure series simply never meet the sort of fate that awaits Winwood and Cord in "Killing Time." Not one person who read the finale in 1991 did so without exclaiming aloud.

Which made it very odd that, after it, there was silence.

Smith lost interest in Indigo Prime after this and moved on to other things. Among them was the disappointing Scarab, an eight-issue miniseries from DC's Vertigo imprint in 1993-94. Disagreements with editorial and management left this the remnants of a planned, ongoing Dr. Fate series. Having written his characters into a wall and realizing that low sales and corporate indifference meant that it didn't matter what he did any longer, Smith invented a couple of new characters called Dazzler and Creed who act exactly like Indigo Prime agents and had them save the day. They don't appear on Indigo Prime's organizational chart and that agency is never named in Scarab - wouldn't want to give anybody any trademark advantage - but it's otherwise very much like the stunt that Steve Gerber pulled when he freed his creation Howard the Duck from the character's owners in an issue of Savage Dragon, entering him and Bev into Image Comic's witness protection program as "Leonard the Duck" and "Rhonda." Since we have Gerber to thank, in a roundabout way, for the name Indigo Prime, I consider that appropriate symmetry.

It also means, since DC later incorporated Scarab into their mainstream superhero universe for some idiotic reason, that Smith can have Indigo Prime just close off and shut down that entire fiction as a waste of time.

Well, there was actually a little more from this property, but not as a comic. There were a few additional Indigo Prime text stories that appeared in the pages of various 2000 AD summer specials and Yearbooks in the early 1990s. Honestly, without the visuals and the language of comics, I didn't think that these worked at all, but the determined might find a little amusement in "Weird Vibes," which introduces imagineers Carrol Walken and Miles Quiche. It appeared in the 1993 Yearbook.

Well, all times and all places are the same to Indigo Prime, but those of us in this world had to wait until 2008 before seeing them again. This came at the very end of a twelve-part serial called Dead Eyes by Smith and Lee Carter that ran that spring in issues 1577-1588. It looked like, again, Smith was writing himself into yet another cul-de-sac when everything shut down and the protagonist was yanked out of his dying reality by none other than Winwood and Cord, last seen mutilated and helpless at the end of "Killing Time." They were depicted, in that brief, tantalizing moment, as not having got out of that mess entirely intact.

That spring's lineup was a really disappointing one, but the end of Dead Eyes almost made up for the whole thing. Fandom jumped and we all punched the air. Indigo Prime was back! Winwood and Cord survived! Could this be the setup for their return?! Well, kind of. It's been three and a half years since that wild moment. We finally got confirmation in the summer of 2010 that the series would be returning. Everything else has been drumming fingers on the desk waiting.

There is a book, co-published by DC and Rebellion during their short-lived enterprise, called The Complete Indigo Prime. It isn't. It's got the 1989-91 episodes from "Issigri Variations" through "Killing Time" complete, but lacks the appearances in "A Change of Scenery," "Woody Allen" and "Soft Bodies" that let readers understand what the hell they're about to read. As a book, it's therefore a complete mess, starting with the most difficult story, the narrative-attack of "Issigri." I don't know whether there's a more dizzying example of being thrown in at the deep end in comics.

As for the future, Tharg and John Smith have been quiet about what to expect. I sincerely hope that this new series, at last, heralds the long overdue great big domination of 2000 AD by one of my all-time favorites. Given John Smith's, shall we say, mercurial tendencies towards committing to a series long-term (where in the hell is the next Devlin Waugh story, man?!) and editor Matt Smith's tendencies against keeping anything in the prog for much more than twelve weeks at a time, this might well turn into another frustration of occasional short runs and brief appearances without any momentum to keep things going. But I've got my fingers crossed that this initial run of perhaps three months will be a huge success and we'll see a lot more of the series, and many more of its huge cast of characters and realities.

I think that we've waited quite long enough, thank you!

Next time, back to 2004 and that year's Christmas prog, which gives me another chance to talk about Samantha Slade. Aren't you grateful?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

145. What Grant Was Writing

December 2004: While new names like Steve Roberts, Dom Reardon and Boo Cook have been blowing readers away at 2000 AD this year, over at the sister Judge Dredd Megazine, veterans have been getting all the assignments. There are five new strips in this issue, and the newest creator working on them is Colin MacNeil, whose first Judge Dredd episode came about fifteen years previously. True, there is a Simping Detective text story by newcomer Si Spurrier, illustrated by Frazer Irving, but the strips are all by veterans. There's a Devlin Waugh one-off by John Smith and MacNeil, and four strips written or co-written by old hands John Wagner and Alan Grant, with art by John Higgins, Robin Smith, Arthur Ranson and John Ridgway. Along with other text features and reprints of Charley's War by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun, it's a terrific comic, but not one with much room for new talent.

Ridgway is among the artists rotating on Grant's Young Middenface, a strip that's probably completely impenetrable to new readers. They're prequel adventures of a supporting character in Strontium Dog, somebody who has not been seen in "the present" for more than five years at this point. Wagner and Ezquerra had not reintroduced Middenface McNulty to the pages of their revived Strontium Dog adventures at the time this story was printed, and so these Young Middenface chronicles, which vary wildly in tone from broad and bawdy comedy to the action melodrama of this story, "Killoden," are really fan service for longtime readers. They're very well-told and well-drawn, but with Grant writing these and Anderson: Psi Division and, over in the weekly, Robo-Hunter, you can't help but wish that no matter how good these stories are, you'd prefer Alan Grant working on a property a little more fresh.

Judge Anderson, for example, reflects that she's pushing fifty in the opening episode of "Lock-In," which sees her returning to service after her last couple of psychic-plane adventures. Wow, it's been a really long and strange trip for Cass at this point. In the late nineties, her strip had been a recurring feature in 2000 AD under David Bishop and Andy Diggle's editorships. In 2001, a ten-part story, "R*Evolution," had appeared to instant reader derision that lasts to this day. (Just last month, one of my friends at the 2000 AD message board who goes by the handle "The Cosh" referred to this story as, simply, "Stupid Monkeys." Everybody knew which one he meant and everybody shuddered.) In the summer of 2002, John Wagner had Judge Death get Anderson out of his way, putting her into a coma in the celebrated "My Name is Death" six-parter. Frankly, Anderson had been so non-thrilling for so long, and that story was so damned amazing, that nobody really minded this once-loved character being sidelined.

Obviously, when Alan Grant returned to the character, he had a lot of work to do to make her seem vital and important again. He accomplished this in a really fantastic series of interlocking adventures, all drawn by Ranson, that cover 24 episodes stretching from Meg 214 in January '04 to Meg 241 in February '06. These have not received the attention that I believe that they should, and have yet to be reprinted. (Cass's reprints are, happily, continuing, with the second volume of The Psi-Files phonebooks planned for next February. This will cover all the episodes from 1990 to early 1995. We're getting there!)

Anyway, "Lock-In" is the third of five stories in Grant and Ranson's epic, and it really digs into how weird and how fragile and failing Psi Division really is. The story began with Cass unable to free herself from the coma, thanks to a series of psychic mind-traps left behind by Judge Death and his freaky "sisters," the inhuman Phobia and Nausea. Since her superiors didn't get the message that she needed to be left alone to prevent a virus from leaving her mind should it become conscious again, they send a team of agents and operatives onto the astral plane to revive her. Absolutely nothing goes right, readers learn just how unpleasantly creepy certain departments of Psi Division are - I didn't know what an extispist was until I read "WMD," the second of the five stories - and supporting characters meet gruesome ends and crippling fates all over the place. By the time Cass is brought out of the coma, you start to wonder whether she'd prefer a quiet retirement.

I might be mistaken, but I believe that this 24-episode, 208-page arc storyline was Ranson's last comic work before he retired. I suppose that it will get collected in the Psi-Files phonebooks eventually, but it's a real epic, overlooked by many readers at the time, and deserves a nice, hardback library edition on its own. I am really, really enjoying rereading it. Sure, The Simping Detective and Cursed Earth Koburn got all the attention among Meg stories at the time - and deservedly so; they're great - but I think this saga will be reevaluated in time.

Suggesting that the editor might have been leaning on Alan Grant's considerable talents a wee bit too much in '04, he's also at work co-writing the fourth adventure for The Bogie Man. One fine day, somebody's going to give this creator-owned property a nice and prestige reprint and I'll be incredibly happy. I'll refer readers who'd like a little more background to Wikipedia to learn more, but basically, Grant, John Wagner and Robin Smith did one story for John Brown Publishing in 1989-1991, a second story which was finished for Atomeka Press in 1993 and a third story which appeared in the pages of Toxic! before the second story was completed. "Return to Casablanca" is the first Bogie Man tale in eleven years.

If you're not familiar with the character, he's a very dangerous, escaped mental patient named Francis Forbes Clunie, who believes that he's an amalgam of all the tough, leading characters played in films by Humphrey Bogart. He turns every bit of information he receives into something from the fiction of that actor's iconic films, but his gun is loaded with real bullets.

So the character is basically a tabula rasa, to be dropped into other characters' criminal adventures and wreak holy hell onto them. I mean, you might well be a criminal mastermind with schemes to use your white slavery ring to force eastern European immigrants to make shortbread for you, and you might well be prepared for any possible eventuality, but you're not likely to factor Clunie into your scheme. It's a demented, hilarious, utterly ridiculous series, with the completely unpredictable Bogie Man usually crashing into the more baffling segments of Scottish culture - Americans, go watch "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" to see what I mean - and emerging unscathed and barely ruffled.

A supporting player from an earlier story called Rab McNab turns up again in this one. He's a devilish parody of those safe, 1970s teatime entertainers allegedly popular with housewives of the day - think Rolf Harris singing "Please Release Me" in a Scottish accent - who is desperately trying to hold onto his career and his sobriety while everything around him spirals out of control, bad guys are shooting up the place and Clunes is, obliviously, punching the daylights out of everybody. This poor guy. Man, I love this series.

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

Well, here's a surprise. The only thing in this issue to have been reprinted so far is the Simping Detective text story, in : The Complete Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, the present collides with the past! I'll be temporarily derailing this reread format for one week for a quick look back at John Smith's Indigo Prime as this amazing series returns to present-day 2000 AD with a new adventure. Normal service, such as it is, will be resumed on the 15th!