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.

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