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!

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