Thursday, October 6, 2011

150. Men With Mustaches

April 2005: Chris Weston provides the wonderful cover art for Judge Dredd Megazine 231, although sadly, he doesn't do the Dredd story inside. This is a semi-launch issue, with mostly all-new serials and stories starting in this issue, the only holdover being The Bogie Man. Now, this might seem like the most tenuous point upon which to ever hang a blog post, but I couldn't help but notice, as I was looking for decent images to scan and stories about which to write, that there sure is a lot of facial hair in this issue. Seriously. Okay, well, maybe not in Johnny Woo, the first solo story of a character introduced as a supporting player in a pair of Dredd stories some four years previously. In the three-part "A Bullet in the Head" by Gordon Rennie and PJ Holden, who is tasked to draw an insane amount of extraneous background crowding and detail and rises to the challenge, we learn that Hong Tong inspector Liu Chan Yeun is not the only policeman in the city to work both sides of the law.

There's a brand new serial starting this issue called Zancudo, and both the hero and the villain of the piece are mustached. This weird little strip crept under everybody's radar and seems sadly forgotten today. Drawn by Cam Kennedy, it's written in a very over-the-top and winking way by Simon Spurrier, and feels like a knowing, ironic throwback to comics of the 1970s. Readers familiar with the crazed, edge-of-your-seat narration in the recent, third Zombo story, which just wrapped a month ago, might know what I'm talking about. The narration seems a little misplaced for this story at first. It's set in the South America of Dredd's universe, where the mega-cities of that continent are not separated by a radioactive desert, but by an overgrown super-rain forest that takes up much of the continent's interior. The transfer of a psi-criminal goes bad when the transport crashes near the ruins of an old native city, and the heroic judge learns that there are gigantic mosquitos enslaving helpless tribesmen.

What makes this a really memorable and spectacularly fun story is how a throwaway line in part one is revealed to be something much bigger and utterly unexpected in the cliffhanger to part two. Zancudo, we learn, hilariously, is actually a sequel to an over-the-top, well-remembered 1978 2000 AD serial called Ant Wars. It really doesn't do the serial any favors in the long run; as we'll see when this blog comes to such serials as Malone, The Vort and Dead Eyes, whatever happens in the pages of the new story is almost instantly subsumed into the mythology of the larger series that connects to it. It changes from "Zancudo was a three-part story about a psychic criminal in South America, and giant mosquitos" to "Ant Wars had a sequel, 27 years later." Still, the ride getting there was a blast.

Back in action this month is Devlin Waugh in "All Hell," a six-part story by John Smith and Colin MacNeil. Have to say, Smith is repeating himself just a little this time out. We've seen this opening, with Waugh being all decadent and lazy and trying to relax but the forces of magical evil require him to stop being so selfish and get to work saving reality, at least twice before. On the other hand, once this story does get moving, it turns into one of the very best for the character, with Devlin and two battered-and-bloodied allies on the trail of three occult criminals, descending through planes of Hell on the trail of some McGuffin or other.

Actually, now that I think about it, that Indigo Prime article that I wrote a few weeks ago reminds me that Smith's done descent-into-Hell before as well, in the Fervent and Lobe story "The Issigri Variations." Heck. Nothing new under the sun, is there?

Happily, the actual story in Devlin Waugh this time out is much better than my grumbling might lead readers to believe. It's certainly better than "The Issigri Variations," anyway. Devlin's such a fun character, and the stakes feel genuinely high and dramatic, and Colin MacNeil, clearly drawing inspiration, as he always does when painting this strip, from Tom of Finland, pulls off the requisite violence and gore with expertise. It's a terrific story.

That said, suddenly everything is really in Dredd's shadow again. "The Monsterus Mashinations of PJ Maybe," by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, is a four-part story that proves really critical to Maybe's overall exploits. Really, anybody left thinking that Judge Death or Mean Machine Angel are Dredd's greatest enemies have not read the strip in a decade. Maybe's natural evolution into the series' all-time greatest villain is a joy to watch unfold.

I was a little disappointed when I first saw that Ezquerra was the artist for this installment, which is a pretty darn odd feeling for anybody to have. It's just that with the previous story, "Six," Chris Weston made a huge impact, and even surpassed Maybe's co-creator Liam Sharp as the definitive artist of the character in my book. ("Six," which originally ran in June 2004, was discussed ten chapters back in this blog.) It was a nice touch, asking Weston to provide this issue's cover; it's a subtle way of allowing one artist to pass the torch to the next.

So this time out, Dredd has taken a team of judges and diplomats to Ciudad Baranquilla - the scheduling of Zancudo was pretty appropriate, it turns out! - in the hope of smoking out Maybe, whom Dredd is certain is somewhere close, hiding out in plain sight, his face changed and using his secreted wealth to buy favors from that city's corrupt justice department. The cat and mouse game that emerges is unbelievably satisfying. Light and L in Death Note don't have a patch on these two. Maybe is a good three steps ahead of Dredd, but every so often, the judge's instincts and experience give him a critical advantage that Maybe could never have predicted.

Since the story has continued to unfold, develop and strike out in stunning new avenues every few months, I hate to say this for fear of spoiling any potentially new readers, but it's obvious that Maybe gets away in the end. This story concludes with Dredd satisfied that Maybe is dead, but he's actually wearing another stolen body - a philanthropist doctor who is heir to a great fortune - and going home to the Big Meg after far too long away. What happens next is just amazing. I can't wait to read "The Gingerbread Man" again.

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

Sadly, only the Judge Dredd story has been reprinted so far, in The Complete PJ Maybe. (Amazon UK)

Next time... well, you'll have to wait a little bit. This concludes the original, planned 13-week return of the blog, but readers have been very encouraging and kind with their notes of appreciation, and so I'll be resuming for a good few more blog posts. I'm already sketching out the next few installments and deciding what images to scan, and will be back after a short recharging break.

In the meantime, bookmark my Hipster Dad's Bookshelf during the hiatus, where, among other things, I'll be writing about The Bendatti Vendetta, Lenny Zero, and the new series of Indigo Prime, along with some Walter Mosley books and other things. Thanks for your support, and see you in November!