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!

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