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!


Tordelback said...

Spot on about the Anderson 'Half-Life' saga. It was the first time Anderson had engaged me since Necropolis (her previous coma!), and regrettably also the last to date (I may actually have lost interest in the final part).

Absolutely beautifully drawn, actually adding something interesting to the Dark Judges story, and making use of the unique possibilities of PsiDiv and Cass herself. A rarity, and worthy of a reprint all its own.

The Cosh said...

Ha. I did at least say the one with the stupid monkeys starts well.

I also took the time to reflect on the excellence of the Half Life saga a couple of months ago.,33713.0.html

Young Middenface is a real curate's egg of a series. It's all tedious references to Scottish politics and then Grant slips in a musical episode which is actually funny. If you knew how much I dislike Play it Again Sam, you'd realise what a compliment that is coming from me.

The Cosh said...

Oh, and "stupid monkeys" was all about the rhythm: Shamballa, Satan, Something Wicked...

Matt said...

So glad you revived this blog, Grant. It's brilliant.

Matt Badham