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!


Matt said...

Well done on the Krill Tro Thargo.

Well deserved.

Matt Badham

Cactus said...

Congratulations indeed. :-)