Thursday, December 29, 2011

158. Lack of Background

November 2005: Over the previous two entries, I've mentioned a very highly regarded Judge Dredd story by John Wagner and Kev Walker entitled "Mandroid." It's a long way from being one of my favorite Dredd stories, but it really is an effective and triumphant look at just how badly the best intentions can go awry. If I'm honest with myself, I'd have to agree that my rotten mindset and personal unhappiness in the last half of 2005 colors my reading of it. I was in a bad place and in a bad relationship at the time, and something as downbeat and depressing as "Mandroid" certainly wasn't going to provide a nice distraction.

Over its first few episodes, the twelve-part story introduced us to Nate Slaughterhouse, a decorated war veteran who has lost more than half his body to grievous wounds and given a realistic cyborg shell. Honorably discharged with his wife, a veteran officer, and their young son, they try to start a life in Mega-City One and find the place every bit as miserable and overwhelming as a reader can imagine. It's one of the very rare occasions where Wagner doesn't play the inhuman insanity of the city for laughs; here, Mega-City One is an absolute, miserable hellhole, and Justice Department is a largely incompetent, badly understaffed agency whose presence, while mostly ineffective, is still desperately needed to maintain just a hint of order. Unfortunately for Slaughterhouse, it isn't nearly enough.

So with his wife missing and his son murdered, Slaughterhouse becomes a vigilante, enraged and driven by the judges' impotence in the face of escalating street crime and organized "legitimate" business. Dredd is there as a constant, reassuring force. "We'll get him," he says. "We always do." And this is true, but it doesn't mean anything, either. The violence of the city just keeps getting worse, as even the lethal force that the judges wield is no longer a deterrent anymore.

Slaughterhouse is a compelling and tragic figure, and Walker's art really works beautifully in this setting. I really like the style that he's been using for the past nine years or so, with stark lines, limited detail and solid colors. He's not afraid to lose figures in fog or shadow, and people stand with huge weight and menace. There's a fantastic cliffhanger where Slaughterhouse returns home to find Dredd waiting for him. The lawman is standing quietly, his gun drawn but by his side, and holding one of Slaughterhouse's overcoats. There are two bullet holes in it, shots that the vigilante took and which bounced off his steel chassis. "I've been waiting for you," Dredd says simply, and even though there's nothing more in that panel's text or narration to imply a specific tone, I read that as Dredd speaking with such human sadness.

Throughout the story, Dredd has been incredibly sympathetic and understanding. I really got the impression that Dredd honestly liked the man, and wished his city was a better place for good people like him and his family. With that one, simple sentence breaking their bond and turning them into adversaries, it is an amazingly effective cliffhanger, one that just makes readers want to put the issue away for a while before tackling the other stories.

As I've expressed before, there's occasionally a big gap between "best" and "favorite." "Mandroid" is completely brilliant, and I strongly recommend the collected edition for anybody curious about the strip. But I also offer the caveat that it's not usually like this. Mega-City One is only bearable because its misery is almost always couched in lunacy. Despite the words I've devoted to it here, "Mandroid" is just too bleak and harrowing for my liking, and I'm honestly glad when the strip ends and I can focus on other things, like Sinister Dexter's world spiraling completely out of control again.

I was rereading some earlier chapters in this blog this week and noticed how one major thing has changed in the way that I approach it. It began with me reporting my reread from the perspective of doing it with my children. Sadly, my older son has elected to live in Kentucky, and my daughter stopped reading after about a hundred issues. She was a little outraged and disappointed with how things went down in Sinister Dexter, her favorite strip. She didn't quite read this strip from the same perspective that I, or anybody else, did. She read the story as being about Demi Octavo. To her, Demi was the central character, and Ramone and Finny were just the guys that she sent out to do her job. When Demi was killed in the epic "Eurocrash," that put an end to her brief flirtation with the comic.

"And death shall have no dumb minions" feels very much like the thematic sequel to "Eurocrash," especially when things start to fall completely apart around Demi's sister Billi. Interestingly, for a while, it doesn't quite go that way. Now, "Eurocrash" was almost totally brilliant, but there was one flaw in the earlier chapters. Violating the "show, don't tell" rule, writer Dan Abnett kept asserting that Demi's hold over the city's crimelords was weakening, but only gave us some very slight evidence that this was true after making these claims. Nevertheless, it was a short hop from that claim to the godawful entropy setting in, destroying Demi's empire and leaving Ramone and Finny helpless to stop it. Demi's inevitable death is an awesome punch when it comes, but it was telegraphed from space.

This story begins with an entirely different mood. Ramone and Finny have new employment with Appelido and they seem to be in control of their destinies. Ramone and Tracy are happy together - and I'd be remiss if I did not mention that a bedroom scene with these two early in the story, painted by Simon Davis, is almost certainly the sexiest and most erotic moment to ever appear in the comic - and Downlode looks to be as stable as this erratic, dangerous city can be.

But then we learn that Billi has been placed in Appelido's organization by the police to gather evidence. Now, a big chunk of this requires some suspension of disbelief at both Downlode's laws and human behavior. Basically, since Appelido is a clone of crimelord Holy Moses Tanenbaum, and the law says that - wait for it - clones can be prosecuted for the crimes of the person from whom they're cloned, the city's planning a big sting operation to prosecute Appelido for Tanenbaum's crimes, and that's what Billi's doing on the inside. Since Tanenbaum had, years before, kept Demi as his mistress, Billi wants to avenge her late sister by killing the clone of Moses.

This is problematic. Of course, the main reason that I have come to dislike Sinister Dexter is that Abnett has overcomplicated the bejezus out of the thing, helping to confirm that a once amusing and playful diversion of the strip has turned into a narrative nightmare, but until I started thinking about it, I had enjoyed "And death shall have no dumb minions" for its surprising and powerful escalation and climax. While, in "Eurocrash," Ramone and Finny are working together very closely and things only hit that inevitable punch because they get separated, here, there's a sense that if only they could make it to the right place at the right time, they could have avoided all the carnage. Pardon my language, but an insightful friend once noted that the really great thing about the famous final episode of Blake's 7 isn't just that they all die, but that they die fucking up. It takes some bravery on the part of a writer to allow his lead characters this kind of vunerability.

So yes, things get really, really bad in this story. It looks very much like it ends with Ramone dead, Billi about to join him in the afterlife, and Finny about one gallon of gas away from either incarceration or a million bullets. Especially with the artwork by Davis at his career best - and I know that no artist appreciates the insinuation that their best work is behind them, but really, this is lush, detailed, vibrant, exciting and so many leagues superior to the latest sixty-odd, identical, orange-and-purple pages of the most recent Ampney Crucis Investigates story that it's not at all funny - and knowing just what an utter and total mess that Sinister Dexter would devolve into, it would have been best off ending here at this emotional high. It would have been ugly and messy and left unanswered questions, but with just a little tweaking to the last few pages, this could have been a memorable and amazing end.

Sure, the bad guys would have won, but this is Downlode, and our heroes are hired killers. The bad guys win in every story anyway.

Stories from this issue are available in the following reprint editions:
Judge Dredd: Mandroid (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Rogue Trooper: Realpolitik (Out of Print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, "Mandroid" artist Kev Walker gets selected for the front cover of Prog 2006 and a stunning new lineup for the new year! Plus more about Sinister Dexter, because I've got more to say about it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

157. Caught Short

September 2005: At last, the good times come coasting down for Judge Dredd Megazine. After spending the last three years going from strength to strength, diminishing sales finally force a change to the comic, and, without warning and on the eve of its fifteenth birthday, the approximately 100-page comic drops to nearer eighty a month. It's still terrific fun and good value, but, in probably the only miscalculation that Alan Barnes made during his tenure as editor, the change comes during a month where the regular lineup feels oddly thin anyway. The book has usually been featuring at least five new strips an issue along with reprints and features, but this time out, more than half of the strip content goes to a much longer than normal episode of Judge Dredd, and it's backed up by with a celebratory Simping Detective chapter by Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving, and the last part of the ongoing Devlin Waugh story, "All Hell," by John Smith and Colin MacNeil. Typically, 2000 AD's editors have used anniversary, or 100th issues, for relaunches and the first episodes of ongoing stories, and so the tone of this issue is an unexpectedly understated one. Even though nobody should logically complain about a big, 36-page Dredd story, the "only three strips" feeling is an emotional one, and, weirdly, it draws attention to the reality that the comic has lost pages to the budget.

Another reason that nobody should complain about this Judge Dredd strip is that it is completely wonderful. Written by John Wagner and with art by Henry Flint and Chris Blythe, it's called "Flood's Thirteen" and it is a fantastic caper story, an expansive 36-page look at a spectacular heist that does not go as planned, but, oh, it gets so close. Even with using a couple of splash pages, it feels so dense and detailed that a reader taking in the episode on its own might be surprised to learn that it's only 36 pages long. With the current style in American comics to write as little as possible in any given single issue, you could easily imagine the contemporary architects of superhero books needing a six-issue miniseries to tell this story.

I'm really impressed by how well Wagner structures this as a single entity on its own. I went into it expecting it to feel, as so many extra-length 2000 AD episodes do, like several smaller episodes crammed together, with cliffhanger endings every so many pages, which jars the flow when a reader knows they'll be there. (It's why removing the "NEXT PROG" and the credits from reprints never, ever actually benefits the story when read in a collected edition.) "Flood's Thirteen" doesn't feel like that at all. It flows much more naturally than even Wagner's recent multi-part triumphs in the comics, such as the recent "Terror" and "Total War," or the excellent "Mandroid," which was running in 2000 AD at the same time this was published, and, about which, more in next week's blog.

The story concerns a criminal who's released after his fifteen-year sentence is concluded, plus another three for being a probable repeat offender. He assembles some of his old gang and a host of thieves and gunmen with a grandiose plan to heist a spaceship. It's just come back from its multi-year tour of Mega-City One's colonies, full of taxes to be paid to the city, and it will be in lockdown for three or four days while Justice Department accountants audit its hold. The gang plans to replace the accountants and use a stolen teleporter to move the merchandise.

I really love reading stories like this, where the high concept is treated very seriously, and the writer looks into how such a scheme might work, where it could fail, and how the intelligent criminals would adapt to setbacks and detours. I suspect that many people who don't really know Dredd very well know that he's foremost an action hero, and also often used to make insightful political points, but the character also appeals to me as a reader because he's a superb detective with a fascinating arsenal of surveillance and gadgets at his disposal. He's flawed, certainly - PJ Maybe's triumph over Dredd just three issues prior to this is proof of that - but he's a force to be reckoned with both physically and mentally. I love how the gang's unavoidable slip-up brings Dredd to suspect something is amiss, and Dredd forces Flood into improvisation and quick thinking, but that's all before Wagner plays his master stroke. He brings in his occasional characters from the Branch Moronian cult to completely turn this thing into a disaster. Neither the judges nor the criminals could have predicted the arrival of self-lobotomized cultists with heavy artillery. It's terrific fun.

The text features in the Megazine have been essential reading for many years by this point, and probably the best of them have been David Bishop's histories of 2000 AD ("Thrill Power Overload," later expanded into an equally essential book) and Battle Picture Weekly (the much shorter, but just as fascinating "Blazing Battle Action!"). This issue sees the debut of Bishop's latest ongoing piece, a similar look at the history of the Megazine called "15 Years, Creep!" and, if I may be allowed another intrusion of my personal experience into the narrative, this sparked a wonderful memory that I have of my late father. In this issue of the comic, there are actually two chapters of this feature, which will run through Meg # 242 the following March, and the second features a look at the creation of John Smith's terrific and popular character Devlin Waugh.

I had picked up this issue from my regular thrill-merchant in Athens, probably also spending a little time with that girl whom I was dating at the time, who made her own intrusive presence felt in a chapter posted four weeks ago, and stopped by my parents' house to visit and watch a little football. Probably during halftime, or between games or something, I turned on the lamp behind my dad's recliner and decided to read the articles while my father played with his grandkids. He came back into the den some time later, by which point I was grinning ear to ear because I'd found the bit where Bishop cited that gushing, fanboy interview that I'd had with John Smith in 1999. (You can read about how foolish I felt about that right here in a Thrillpowered Thursday chapter from three years ago.)

So I explained to my dad that I had interviewed some writer he'd never heard of, for some website that he'd never heard of, either. ("You're talking about the internet, right?" he asked.) And now the writer of this magazine article had cited the interview and namechecked me to accompany a quote from Smith. "So you're in a magazine?" Dad asked. I showed him the page.

"Can you make me a copy of this?" Dad asked.

"Well, sure," I said. "I can give you a printout of the interview as well."

"And that's on the internet?" Dad said. I told him that it was, that it was for the Class of '79 site.

"No, I don't want that," he said, honestly. "Anybody can put anything on the internet. I just like seeing your name in a magazine. That means something."

So, thanks again for that, Mr. Bishop. You made my old man proud.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: The Henry Flint Collection (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The Simping Detective: The Complete Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Judge Dredd tries to stop Nate Slaughterhouse, and Sinister Dexter have a problem similar to the one addressed in the recent chapter about Slaine, in that they reach a grand finale... and keep going. See you next week!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

156. Gibson Keels

August 2005: I would think that most reviewers who come to this run of progs would probably focus on the new Judge Dredd story, "Mandroid." I'll come back to it in more detail a little later on in this blog, because it really is a remarkable achievement, and one of the stories from this period to have the most success among 2000 AD's fan base. It reteams writer John Wagner with Kev Walker, the same team who had such fun with "Sin City," and it's a twelve-part epic of mood and ugliness. I've said before that Wagner is just about the best writer in comics, but he isn't always my favorite. Those are two very different concepts, I think, and "Mandroid" really illustrates just why that is true. Every so often, Wagner gets into just what it's like for a citizen to live in a nightmare like Mega-City One, without all the fun and silliness that sometimes inspires him. Two episodes into "Mandroid," the reality of such an oppressive and bleak place is driven home. By giving us a heroic protagonist, a veteran who has served his city, who was grievously wounded and now just wants to settle into civilian life with his family and try to find a little work, Wagner turns the exact same silliness like wall-scrawling and protection rackets that previously entertained us as readers into something that's not even remotely entertaining. Reading "Mandroid" with a critical eye is a masterclass in how to write an incredibly dense and vivid story, one that works on multiple levels, but it is just so overwhelmingly bleak that I can't embrace it.

No, when it comes to things to embrace, there's a new Robo-Hunter story unfolding now. It's the fourth adventure for Samantha Slade, and it is huggingly lovely and, for six weeks anyway, a perfect blend of writer and artist working in sync and giving a hundred and ten percent. "Stim!" may be popcorn compared to the heavy meat and potatoes of the rest of the issue, but it's gooey, wonderful, caramel popcorn with a bonus surprise in the container. This is a great little story and I love it to pieces.

The previous three Robo-Hunter stories over the last eighteen months had seen writer Alan Grant and artist Ian Gibson not quite working together as well as we'd have hoped. All three had very, very good scripts by Grant, but Gibson didn't seem to be quite behind him all the way. The first story was a little rushed in places, and the others really suffered from some visibly unenthusiastic artwork. But here, the artwork is just magical all the way through.

I won't claim that Gibson's still not finding some shortcuts. Where possible, he steadfastly avoids drawing backgrounds. But rather than forcing readers into a world where the colored characters are standing out against solid whites, he's really having a blast with lots of color texture all around the pages, and putting much more dimension and shape into the characters' features. Most of episode five is set in a museum at night, and the darkness is indicated with a lovely, intricate mix of purples, indigos and midnight blues curling around the panels. Samantha's face has shade around her cheekbones that give her more visual fullness than any other figure in the entire issue.

Gibson's even forcing himself into some downright complex compositions. Episode five begins with a fantastic perspective shot of Samantha scurrying around the lighting gantry that is over the museum floor, with that dopey-looking green robosaur rising up into it. When this issue was released, I tried aping that shot - I did draw a self-published comic for several years, so I'm not completely without skill - and could not make it work at all. I would suggest that reader apathy towards Samantha Slade, and bias against the admittedly subpar artwork on the previous two stories, makes people reluctant to look closely at just how fantastic a job Gibson did with "Stim!" Even with the shortcuts, this is among his very best color artwork ever, and, even in a prog with the gorgeous art of Kev Walker and, drawing Savage, the great Charlie Adlard, it's the best looking material in the issue.

So would you believe that, in a story that finally sees Ian Gibson roaring to life and delivering one hell of a great set of pages, it's the script that, for the first time, fumbles? For six episodes, "Stim!" is just fantastic fun, and doesn't need me to defend it. Samantha has been looking into robots doing some pretty ridiculous things like shoplifting and has found evidence that they are on drugs. A criminal inventor has come up with a patch that, very briefly, gives robots imagination and allows them the chance to visualize what they could desire if they had no limits on their freedom of will. The experience is so overwhelming that robots will fight against their programming and steal to finance more patches of stim. The inventor is using the proceeds of the drug sales for the usual Robo-Hunter reasons of wanting to fund a robot revolution in conjunction with an ancient relic of ealier robot advancement, a big transistorized thing called Comrade Lennon. Yes, Grant, you old hippie, we all had that Firesign Theater record, too.

For six weeks, this is classic Sam Slade business. If you love the original run and dismiss this story, you're just lying to yourself, frankly. It's every bit as good as Robo-Hunter at its best, and the artwork is a darn sight better than some earlier epics like "Day of the Droids." Deep down, you know I'm right. But then it ends in episode seven. Seven?! This thing should have run for five months! It's not that it ends badly; if we'd never seen how Sam Slade's best-laid plans go completely haywire and take ridiculous detours while the problem keeps escalating, then I guess that "Stim!" would come to a fine ending. It's just too darn abrupt, and too easy for Samantha. She suffers some inconveniences and aggravations in the first six episodes, but for a genuine classic Robo-Hunter adventure, the hero needs to be in such a soup that she needs scuba gear.

Put another way, when episode six ends, we're right at the point where the next ten weeks should see Samantha getting smooched by Clark Gable droids and having to play Monopoly for hours and arguing with robot rabbis who talk in Yiddish patois and BLAKEE PENTAX and all the other legendary left-field, wildly unpredictable lunacy that gets in the way of a Sam Slade plot. Instead, we jump to the climax. I don't care how much I love Samantha or how damn good Gibson's artwork has been for this outing, this story is missing its madness! It's very good, but it should have been amazing.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Breathing Space: The Complete Breathing Space (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 294, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Mandroid (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: Casino Royal (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 308, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Before I go, I would like to thank Tharg the Mighty and all his editorial droids for the very nice package that they sent my way...

I was listed as one of the first Earthlets to receive the inaugural great big Krill Tro Thargos for my service to the cause of the Galaxy's Greatest. I'm pleased to have been thought of so, and greatly appreciate the recognition. This is, of course, no time for complacency! Do you have any idea how many non-scrots and thrill-suckers are out there? The mind trembles.

Next time, a look back at the Megazine's 15th birthday celebration and the return of the Morons! See you next week!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

155. Of Insects and Illiterates

It's July 2005, and the summer goes like this: the last few books in the failed initiative with DC have trickled to a close, the revived Doctor Who has concluded the first season of its triumphant return and seen out actor Christopher Eccleston in the lead role, fifty-two people have been killed in a series of terrorist attacks in London, and 2000 AD releases one of the most timely and politics-minded issues of its history. Much of the content is the usual high-concept SF stuff, of course, safely told in far, fanciful, futures. There's Leatherjack, detailed below, and Robo-Hunter, about which, more next time. But this week's Judge Dredd, the first of a two-part story by John Wagner and Phil Winslade, is especially timely, with Wagner railing against the increasingly paranoid mindset that seems to be in charge of the War on Terror.

By chance, I came back to this story in my reread at the same time that I read John Mortimer's penultimate Rumpole of the Bailey novel, 2006's Rumpole and the Reign of Terror. This will get the spotlight over at my Bookshelf blog on Tuesday, and they are very similar in their anger. The US and UK each shared a massive overreach in police powers in response to terrorism. In Britain, this has resulted in incarcerations without formal charge, the excuse being that to formally charge a suspect might compromise classified intelligence. While in the present day, Horace Rumpole finds himself in the legal fight of his life trying to defend a Pakistani doctor when nobody will tell him either what he has done or what evidence is against him, in the not-all-that-future-world of Mega-City One, Dredd and the judges have arrested a citizen, told him only that he's being held in connection with the recent bombings by Total War, and suggested very strongly that things will go much better for him if he just confesses. They don't tell him to what they want him to confess. Episode one ends with the hapless citizen pleading for his life and an impassive Dredd sentencing him to indefinite confinement by the rights afforded him under the Security of the City Act. It's an incredibly bleak little story, but also completely furious.

Over in Savage, meanwhile, Pat Mills and Charlie Adlard are chronicling the life of a London occupied by the Volgan nation. Mills doesn't really build up his anger and release it in targeted bursts of fury in quite the way that Wagner does; rather, it's poured out smoothly over every panel of Savage. The result is just fantastic reading.

"Out of Order" is the second story (or "Book Two") for the revived Bill Savage, brought back from obscurity and occasional editorial mocking the previous year into a taut and impressive modern thriller. It is a really exciting rollercoaster, with one hell of a lot of plot packed in. Episode one resolves the cliffhanger ending from Book One and introduces Captain Svetlana Jaksic as Savage's principal nemesis. Her abrupt demise at the close of this story really is a surprise; it looked for all the world like Mills was setting her up as a long-term villain, but she dies without ever knowing who her enemy really is. We also meet new gangs of terrorists - slash - freedom fighters, few of whom coordinate their efforts with each other, get to see the Volgans' effective-but-evil tactic of ensuring human shields for their tank convoys by tossing candy to starving children, and get a powerful human element with the introduction of Bill's brother Tom and niece Jan.

I confess that I'm a little troubled by Jan's rape in this story. This is the second time in the last few years of 2000 AD where Mills has allowed a violent act against a woman to galvanize a hesitant male into action. It was more egregious when Moloch raped and killed Niamh in Slaine, as that was the end of a long-running major character, and here it is "just" the last impetus that Tom needs to help brother Bill with his plan to get inside occupation HQ and assassinate Volgan Marshal Vashkov.

While I acknowledge the event and question its narrative value, I choose to overlook it, right or wrong, because "Out of Order" ends with three of the most stunning episodes of this long-running series. The killing of Vashkov belongs on anybody's list of great Pat Mills moments. The way that Vashkov tells Savage a story, confidently expecting that the man in front of him will choose the path of heroism and honor, only to find that he has horribly misjudged things, is completely beautiful. Savage thanks Vashkov for the information, but for a totally different reason than the Volgan expected, and responds with all the abrupt and impassive force of Tommy Lee Jones in the film version of The Fugitive when he tells Harrison Ford's character, "I don't care." Adlard draws the hell out of this sequence. The image of the feathers blown out of the pillow used to muffle the shot will stay with 2000 AD readers forever.

And all this is before the book's actual climax, when Savage takes care of Captain Jaksic and lets a restaurant of collaborators know what he thinks of them. It's a moment where Bill Savage finds that line between terrorist and freedom fighter and absolutely leaves readers with a lot to think about. This is a completely, totally brilliant comic.

While both Dredd and Savage are raising questions about today's world, Leatherjack by John Smith and Paul Marshall is wild, escapist, crazy and only tiptoes around any obvious political ideas. Smith and Marshall had, in 1993, collaborated on the very good Firekind. This story isn't quite as successful to me, in part because Marshall's artwork has evolved over time to a style that I don't enjoy quite as much. His character designs are as impressive and grotesque as ever, but he's inking with a much heavier line for starters, and the intricate and delicate alien universe of Firekind is not present here. It's a world that looks stark, too solid and, honestly, a little generic.

Leatherjack is the story of an assassin, working thousands of years in the future for a disgusting crime lord and employed to retrieve a book which unlocks human consciousness, and which is in danger of being destroyed, along with all the other books on a library planet, in a galactic war. To his credit, Smith does provide a terrific introduction. The story opens following an aging professor, who's been given access to the library planet by the great big alien bugs who run the place and are defending it from bombardment by the Spinster Empire. We meet all three sides in this conflict, and the professor would appear to have a major role to play as the action gets started. Surprisingly, however, the professor is killed in the second episode as Leatherjack takes center stage. Smith loves to mess with expectations and certainly doesn't mind killing off his supporting cast, but that really was a big surprise. I mean, even once you get past the remarkable surprise of how the professor leaves the story and the assassin enters it.

It sounds agreeably engaging, but it all somehow fails to gel. We never get to know any of the characters, and those that we do meet just seem like templates from John Smith's playbook - depraved dictators, foppish killers, observers watching from the sidelines seeing events spiral out of control and saying "no no no no." These are all things that we've seen before. Add in a climax in which an ancient, totemic power rises to wipe out the technology of the warfleets that threaten it, and the whole thing feels like a longer, shallower incarnation of the creators' earlier, excellent Firekind. And after reading this several times, I'm still not certain that the Spinster Empire, a comedic bunch of Mary Whitehouse parodies flying around in space-faring censorships, didn't wander in from an entirely different strip altogether.

Leatherjack, whether it thrills you or not, is certainly notable for one thing. Its run of eighteen consecutive weekly episodes by the same team is the longest over the decade of the 2000s. A couple of years ago, I predicted that the desire to quickly repackage successful and celebrated thrills into graphic novel form would lead to longer serials, making the book versions a little meatier and more attractive to new readers. This has not been borne out; the longest individual story since 2005's Leatherjack has been Stalag 666 in 2008.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Leatherjack: The Complete Leatherjack (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: Casino Royal (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 308, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Hey, did somebody say Robo-Hunter? You know what that means? More scans of Samantha Slade! See you next week!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

154. Mission: Avengers

June 2005: Now, man alive, that is a fantastic front cover. Frazer Irving is certainly among my favorite artists who were working with 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine during this period, and this is my favorite of all of his covers. It spotlights the return of Jack Point, the Simping Detective. At the time I'm writing this entry (November 2011), Tharg has hinted that Point might be returning in 2012, although it's questionable whether he will be drawn by Irving, who has spent years making better money drawing inferior material for American publishers.

Also at the time of writing, it's just been announced that an American company, Boom!, best known for its comics based on licensed properties, has landed the reprint rights to Steed & Mrs. Peel, the early-nineties Eclipse/Acme miniseries by Grant Morrison, Anne Caufield and Ian Gibson, and that we can expect to see this cute little adventure again in 2012. I mention this because, as you see on the front cover of this Megazine, there's an article about The Avengers this month. It is part of an occasional series of really entertaining articles called British Icons and it features writeups on the likes of Sapphire & Steel, The Tomorrow People, Desperate Dan, Sexton Blake and other such fun creations. Each installment looks at the ancillary merchandising and exploitations of the property as well as the "primary source." In the case of Sapphire & Steel, that meant a pretty in-depth look at the comic by Angus Allan and Arthur Ranson that appeared in Look-In.

The Avengers had a much more sporadic publication history as a comic strip, with short runs in several different hardback annuals and weekly papers. A part of me is incredibly curious to see these old comics - who wouldn't be, as the original show is one of the four or five best TV series of the 1960s - but I have to wonder whether the article's writer and editor didn't go out of their way to find some of the most ridiculous and uninspiring artwork, by John Canning, to illustrate the feature. Or maybe it really was an awful comic and best forgotten? Whatever the case, one thing we can all agree on is that, in a perfect and just world, The New Avengers would have generated a weekly comic by Allan and John Bolton for Look-In. Wouldn't that have been terrific?

As for Jack Point, his current adventure is called "Playing Futsie" and it is one of the wildest and most unpredictable of all of his cases. This thing runs through left turns, misdirections and plot twists at breakneck speed, and is probably my favorite Point story. "Futsie" is Mega-City slang for somebody suffering from "future shock," and it begins with Point being thrown in jail, under orders from his corrupt sector chief to find out what has caused a happily employed citizen to crack. Point was not told in advance that, by "crack," Chief Davees meant "murdered a room full of citizens with a machine gun after convincing himself they were robots."

It's another day in the studio for American radio talk show host Neal Boortz...

So this story gets going and it doesn't let up at all. It's one thing to go from zero to a hundred in a comic, but this one does it on one of those crazy curvy Italian mountain roads. By the time Point figures out that somebody is deliberately targeting citizens with jobs and doing something to drive them crazy, it's got gang fights, Point's pet raptaur, the debut of a mysterious new supporting character with her own agenda, the surprising return of Elmort DeVries' old Hunter's Club from way back in 1984, and Point totally pulling one over on Judge Dredd to wrap up this three-part case.

Incidentally, most of us thought that writer Si Spurrier was being dead clever coming up with a terrific, terrible name like Miss Anne Thropé for his new addition to the cast. One reason that I enjoy looking back at 2000 AD from a little distance is that it affords us the time to see small connections here and there that we might have missed before. I bet Spurrier had no idea that his Miss Anne Thropé wasn't the first occasionally-appearing supporting player in a comic by that name. As Mr. Kitty's Stupid Comics, a site that every one of you should be reading, pointed out just a couple of weeks ago, Dell's idiotic superhero take on Frankenstein had the same bad joke almost forty years previously. At least Spurrier acknowledges the awfulness of the joke. When Point figures it out during his ongoing first-person narration, it's a really funny and clever moment. Not many writers even try to use narrative captions to mean anything anymore, let alone use them to help define the lead character the way that Spurrier does in this series and in his other strips like Lobster Random and Numbercruncher. It's one of the reasons that I really enjoy his work so much.

Speaking of pulling one over on Dredd, holy anna, does PJ Maybe ever play our hero like a fiddle this month in the final episode of "Monsterus Mashinashuns."

So, over the course of the previous three months, we've seen Maybe, disguised as Barranquilla billionaire Pedro Montez, put several apparently-unrelated schemes and pieces into place, ranging from allowing Dredd to get a sample of his blood to sending his sexbot companion to the Cal-Hab wastes to kidnap an aging philanthropist do-gooder to attacking the Mega-City delegation with a giant robot to arranging a huge bonfire on his property for his migrant workers to burn.

What writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra come up with to tie all this together is just completely stunning. Have you ever seen the classic Mission: Impossible episode "The Mind of Stefan Miklos," written by Paul Playdon? Speaking, as I was, of the best things on TV in the 1960s, well, I wouldn't count this series among them, but this one episode stands out as one of the densest and most amazing scripts I've ever enjoyed. See, Phelps's IM team, in that episode, has to convince an agent from "the other side" (like The Avengers, Mission: Impossible was never so common or vulgar as to actually call Russians Russians) of a certain fact by allowing that agent to think that he has spotted one teeny error in their grand deception, when the teeny error is, of course, deliberate.

In this fantastic twist, Dredd is actually back in Mega-City One when he remembers that the bandaged finger that Pedro Montez waggled in front of him, illustrated in the panel above, was not the same finger that was cut when Montez broke a glass and allowed Dredd the chance at a small blood sample, wiped away with a napkin. Dredd, convinced that Maybe has finally slipped up and this time he's got him, storms back down to the estates outside of Ciudad Barranquilla with a team of Mega-City judges.

It doesn't go as planned for him, but this time he leaves absolutely convinced that Maybe has died in a bonfire, while Maybe, now using the disguise of the well-known, selfless, Byron Ambrose, heir to a mammoth fortune, makes his way back home. His story will resume about two years down the line, in 2007's "The Gingerbread Man," where it really picks up. It's absolutely delicious.

Stories from this issue are available in the following reprint editions:
The Bendatti Vendetta: The Complete Bendatti Vendetta (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd:The Complete PJ Maybe (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
The Simping Detective: The Complete Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, back to 2000 AD for the debut of Leatherjack and the stunning second book of Savage. See you in seven!