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?


Drhoz said...

I squeeed mightily at the end of Dead Eyes too :)

David page said...

Squeed? I nearly pissed myself!

That was a great read and thanks for the plug. That five part video was a true labour of love from someone who had bad dreams after reading that story as a 8 year...brr

Fingers and toes, fingers and toes chomp chomp chomp...

Cactus said...

Thank you for such an enlightening blog entry Grant.

I got The Complete Indigo Prime from the library a few years ago and with the new series starting up bought my own copy last week. I don't know how many times I read the first two pages of The Issigri Variations, trying to work out the chronology between the two scenes, before giving up and ploughing on regardless!

I started reading 2000ad when Tyranny Rex was doing something involving nuns (Deus Ex Machina?) and never knew what was going on there either so your précis of the early stories has been extremely helpful.

Tordelback said...

Really great read, Grant, many thanks. Financial pressure meant that I had to bail out of buying the prog at 1749, just before the new Indigo Prime run started, and you've now added additional torment!

grthink said...

Re-reading Killing Time the other week, it occurred to me just how much it had affected my developing 11 year old brain when I read it the first time...

I stopped buying 2000AD for a number of years, and only by luck did I see that Indigo Prime was returning. I've really, really been enjoying this new take on the series, seeing 'behind the scenes' at HQ. I'm a bit gutted Winwood And Cord haven't been playing much of a role in the last few episodes, but hopefully they'll be back.

It's good to see someone else as excited by the return as I am. I'm desperately hoping that this latest run a) gets finished properly b) gets collected as a TPB