Thursday, July 28, 2011

140. The Megazine Takes it Eazy

June 2004: Well, here's an entry that I can tell is going to be a little frustrating to write. There's so much that I want to say in the next two entries, and get up on a couple of pet hobby horses of mine, but instead I have this utterly flawless issue of Judge Dredd Megazine to discuss. Wow. Reading this again reminds me of how utterly perfect a comic it was during this period. It's a big, thick chunk of a book with a pile of features and some classic black and white reprints (Charley's War and The Helltrekkers) backing up five downright excellent new stories.

On the cover, it's the return of Judge Koburn in his own series, Cursed Earth Koburn. He'd previously appeared as a guest star in a two-part Judge Dredd adventure. Writer Gordon Rennie did this several times, introducing new characters like Johnny Woo and Bato Loco as spotlight-stealing guest stars in Dredd, usually pulling the rug out from under the ostensible lead or otherwise looking much more fun, before they moved out to their own strip. Hey, it works for television spinoffs.

Koburn, of course, is a Dreddworld remodeling of the classic Major Eazy, a delightful World War Two strip by Alan Hebden and Carlos Ezquerra that ran in Battle Picture Weekly in the late seventies. One run of the series was set in North Africa and another in Italy, and it featured a laconic, droopy tactical genius who routinely bettered the Nazis and the fascists by way of being an independent thinker who fought his way, never panicked and never hurried. He was visually modeled on the actor James Coburn, and apart from stick-up-their-rears children who weren't in on the joke and wrote unintentionally hilarious letters to Battle complaining that it was a jolly poor rum show to suggest that the disgraceful, unshaven, disrespectful Eazy should have such luck.

Naturally, a character like Eazy is going to have all kinds of fun making the judges of Mega-City one look like idiots. Too much fun, as it turns out, which is why he's a circuit judge bringing law to the lawless of the Cursed Earth wasteland. Here, he's free to drink, brawl, smoke, have girlfriends in every frontier town and occasionally be tasked with cleaning up some city problem in the desert.

And tool around in his great big car. Or hover-ship thingy, whatever. So, teamed with a young stick-up-her-rear Mega-City judge named Bonaventura in this series by Rennie and Ezquerra, he brings law to the lawless and has a ball doing it. The series tackles darker drama with a grain or two less success than it does comedy - the most recent story, featuring an indestructible monster killing everything in the Cursed Earth, felt a little stale - but most of the time, it's terrific fun. Koburn has been resting since his most recent appearance in 2006, but will be returning to the Megazine in 2012.

There's a lot more of interest in this issue. Old hands Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson are putting the comatose Anderson: Psi Division through hell and introducing an incredibly neat set of supporting characters, fleshing out the judges' very weird department of psychics, pyrokines, telekinetics and witches. Somehow Grant is able to make this believable and compelling.

Pat Mills and Simon Davis are collaborating on Black Siddha, which is really neat. Mills has gone on the record many, many times about how much he dislikes superheroes, but when he does them here, the results are really fun. Black Siddha is an Indian superhero operating in London, featuring a young, put-upon lead who really, really doesn't want either the great power or the great responsibility thrust upon him. This impacts his karma-based superpowers and leaves him vulnerable at awful moments.

Surprisingly, this isn't actually a comedy, but it's written with a much, much lighter touch than most of the Guv'nor's work during this period. I think it's a complete trip, a sometimes smutty Bollywood action romp through criminal gangs and reincarnation that plays out very well. There have been three Black Siddha adventures so far, and while it has yet to be collected and the character is currently resting, I certainly hope that we will see him again.

The Simping Detective by Simon Spurrier and Frazer Irving is continuing a celebrated run of stories. Jack Point, a wally squad judge who poses deep undercover as a private investigator, is one of the best characters to emerge during this period. He gets to indulge in all the vices that Koburn enjoys, but he never gets to take much enjoyment from them. He's constantly riding a knife-edge, about to be busted by either the judges' "SJS" internal affairs unit or sent to certain death by a corrupt sector chief. The series is lovely, dense and complex, and Point's ability to think on his feet and manage spiraling chaos is really entertaining.

But it's Judge Dredd who beats even this tough competition of excellent strips. This time out, in the first episode of "Six," written by John Wagner and drawn by Chris Weston. It's an investigation into the work of a serial killer, obviously following in the footsteps of the David Fincher film Se7en, but it takes a fantastic new twist as readers gradually realize that the killer is actually our old, illiterate, super-genius friend PJ Maybe...

Maybe was last seen in a trio of one-episode stories in 2002, where it was revealed that he had engineered a fantastic breakout from the prison where he'd been sent almost a decade earlier. By the time the judges have any idea that he had gone, Maybe had already left the city, established a new identity in Ciudad Baranquilla and then faked his death, leaving his heart behind as evidence. Since the judges never found his many millions tucked away, he was able to live in unimaginable comfort.

Except, well, killers have that urge. Now accompanied by a sexbot called Inga, real estate mogul Pedro Martinez returns to Mega-City One to take care of some old grudges. Time in the sun hasn't dulled Maybe's senses. The story is inventive and the killings are gleefully sick, and once the judges find out what's going on in the concluding episode, the peripheral bodycount gets pretty enormous.

I think I can safely bet that nobody reading this story had any idea how Maybe's story would play out. Wagner probably didn't, either. It's a great example of what I was talking about last time, how Wagner puts so many pieces into play in his stories that subplots naturally arise from all over his world and weave into things. I'm sure it might make Judge Dredd a denser comic for newcomers these days, since there is just so much going on, and an occasional pain in the rear to collect in book form - lost in the nevertheless quite readable Complete P.J. Maybe collection is the reality that the stories unfold over the course of about twenty years - but man, the payoff is amazing. This is terrific stuff.

Stories from this Megazine are reprinted in the following editions:

Cursed Earth Koburn: The Carlos Ezquerra Collection (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: The Complete P.J. Maybe (Amazon UK).
The Simping Detective: The Simping Detective (2000 AD's Online Shop).

Next time, a little change of pace, as my own personal daydream of what it might like to be Tharg runs up against a reality exemplified by Bec & Kawl and The ABC Warriors. See you in seven, friends!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

139. War on Terror

Now the other reason that I decided to start writing about 2000 AD again is that I figure I sort of owe it to them. I've been saying for, I don't know, ever that the main barrier to the comic's success in the American marketplace is that nobody involved with the comic has done the sort of protracted screaming at the potential audience necessary to make a hit. Ours is a culture that rewards constant advertising - surely every single person in America over the age of two knows what Coca-Cola is, but that corporation still spends more on ads every year than most of us will ever earn in our lifetime - and when you're a niche product in a world where, even for comic fans, "comic news" equals little more than "who will draw Marvel's top trademark protection comic this year," you've got to do a lot of screaming. Little blogs like mine or David Page's or Douglas Wolk's fun new Dredd Reckoning are not enough.

Fortunately, Rebellion has hired a PR man, Mike Molcher, and he's been doing a great job placing stories and getting press. There's been more talk about 2000 AD in the geek media over the last six months than in the last six years. And there certainly should be: there have been some really excellent stories in 2000 AD over the last six months. Between the conclusions of Shakara and Necrophim, the return of Pat Mills' Flesh, Mike Carroll's debut as a rotating scriptwriter on Judge Dredd and the premiere of Gordon Rennie and Tiernan Trevallion's Absalom, there has been a lot to talk about, even before we get to the "new readers start here!" fun of issue 1740. Add in the new American editions of The Horned God (in a lovely hardback, promoted extensively by Mills), Low Life (promoted through several interviews with writer Rob Williams) and Kingdom (promoted, irresistably by a doggie dish!!) and there have been many opportunities for promotion, all of them seized.

At the time this chapter is published (July 21), many of the editorial and PR droids are at San Diego Comic-Con, focal point for most of that promotional screaming. If you see them there, tell 'em that Thrillpowered Thursday sends its regards and best of luck for a successful show.

But that's the present. Back in prog 1396, there was still a lot to talk about. It's June 2004 and Andy Clarke's cover promotes a Judge Dredd thriller called "Terror," now in its second episode. America's occupation of Iraq is about a year old at this point. If you think contemporary events might be influencing the series, you're very right. It's remarkable stuff.

More than a decade earlier, writer John Wagner had introduced a terrorist organization to the world of Judge Dredd. Called "Total War," this group was one of many in the city devoted to the cause of democracy, and was willing to cause a lot of death and collateral damage in pursuit of it. Total War was introduced in the classic 1990 serial "America," but I don't believe they were mentioned again, unless perhaps in passing, since that story.

In "Terror," we follow a university lecturer named Zondra Smith who is totally in the wrong place at the wrong time. She's on the prowl and looking to meet a young man, only to get caught up in a Total War bombing. Making matters worse for herself after the carnage is over and the death toll is being counted, she's "political," and therefore trouble as far as the judges are concerned.

Painted by Colin MacNeil, "Terror" is an example of Wagner's remarkable ability to use long, multi-part serials to better effect than anybody else in the business. There's a heck of a lot going on in this eight-part story, but it's every bit as important as a building block in the ongoing Dredd saga as an adventure of its own. It will reach a conclusion, but it will also feed into a major epic that will begin in just a few months' time.

It's a good example of a Dredd story that covers most of the series' dramatic beats - action, criminal investigation using future technology, a look at the often bleak existence of citizens in the future metropolis - and rereading it, I'm reminded of how fun it is to watch Wagner unfold multi-part stories. It's a completely unpredictable adventure, and the judges' seemingly impossible task - keeping Zondra Smith alive and able to work as an informant while still protecting her from Total War - is really thrilling. There's no way to know what will happen next.

"Terror" was reprinted along with its longer follow-up epic in one nice volume from Rebellion, which you may order by following the link below. I highly recommend it.

Continuing in this issue are the same ongoing stories discussed last time, A.H.A.B. by Nigel Kitching and Richard Elson, Chopper by Wagner, Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague, Low Life by Rob Williams and Henry Flint, and Savage by Pat Mills and Charlie Adlard.

Stories from this prog are reprinted in the following editions:

Chopper: Surf's Up (2000 AD's Online Shop).
Judge Dredd: Total War (2000 AD Online Shop).
Low Life: Paranoia (Amazon US)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD Online Shop).

Next time, over to the Megazine, as Cursed Earth Koburn kicks ass, and one of Dredd's most cunning enemies starts a new body count. See you in seven!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

138. Bill and His Shootah

Hey! Is this thing still on?

It's been more than a year since I last wrote here, and a couple of people have said that they missed reading me, so I let the little itch settle me back into writing a bit more about 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine. If you're new to this blog, basically, ages ago, I sat down and started rereading my collection at the rate of about six issues a week. By the time I got to something like 1993, I decided to rip off Paul Rainey's Prog Slog Blog and write a little each week. I let this turn from a pleasure into a chore and found myself running out of things to say, so I quit doing it.

I kept on reading, but rather than skipping this blog ahead to where I had reached at the end of June - to the issues originally published in September of '08 - I am going to re-reread and report and scan, so there's not a break in the entries.

Also, John Smith's completely brilliant series Indigo Prime is returning to the comic in about two months, and I am certainly going to want to celebrate that. Look for an article about that great series in September. Plus, of course, this is a fine week to relaunch this blog, because - and when I started the first draft of this entry, I didn't know this was coming - the 2000 AD website has just been quite spectacularly redesigned. If you have not visited the web site in a while, you should definitely swing back by, because they have done a super job upgrading it.

Anyway, you've got me for thirteen weeks. I'm committing to that much. We'll see how it goes. You'll also notice there's a Google Ad somewhere over to the side somewhere. That's new. If you enjoy Thrillpowered Thursday and see an ad that might interest you, I sure would appreciate it if you'd click it. Money's got to be pretty darn tight since my wife and I had a baby two months ago. If there are some pennies in this blog, I might can see myself writing longer.

So, onto prog 1387. This wonderful cover, by Dave Gibbons, of Bill Savage and Judge Dredd, reminds me that the summer of 2004 - that's when we received this April-dated issue in North America - was when my best buddy, the fellow who introduced me to 2000 AD, up and moved to Canada. For a few years, I'd been feeding his thrill-power habit because Diamond, the distributor that sends 2000 AD to American funnybook stores, was completely unreliable, repeatedly missed shipping dates and would occasionally claim that they were shorted and would only send one issue to a comic shop if it, in fact, ordered two. So, nothing's changed there, anyway. In other words, for quite a few years, I was ordering and paying for two copies of 2000 AD in order to guarantee delivery of at least one of them. From prog 1387, my second copies - when those second copies arrived, about eight times of ten - went to another local friend.

These days, I no longer use Diamond for 2000 AD. I was, however, very pleased to hear that they will be once again offering 2000 AD by the single issue rather than in a sealed pack, as had been the case for some lengthy time. I hear that's supposed to start at the end of this month, for the comics that will ship in October.

1387 was also notable for the debut of two great big series that are still continuing today. The seventh book of Savage is running in the current issues of 2000 AD, and a new series of Low Life is scheduled to start in just a couple of months, in prog 1750.

Savage is the story of an occupied Britain, which lost a quick-strike "war" with the eastern European Volgan Empire five years previously. It's the sequel to one of the original 2000 AD serials, Invasion, which ran from 1977-78. Our hero is Bill Savage, who lost his family to the Volgs, picked up a shotgun and has been blowing hell out of the Volgs in a long-running guerrilla war. As book one of Savage opens, Bill and other resistance leaders are executing a plan to fake his death so he can work undercover.

Written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, Savage is just a blisteringly good comic, full of realistic villains and desperate heroes. Well, there's one bit in the first series where the Guv'nor's research fails him and tank treads suddenly don't work the way they really do, but otherwise this is a really great series, and shows Mills continuing to roar back to life with some fantastic comics for 2000 AD. Several more winners would be forthcoming.

Then there's Low Life. This is less a spinoff from Judge Dredd than one of the many comics that are set in his world. The Low Life is the most crime-ridden slum in Mega-City One (this week, anyway) and the series follows a group of undercover "Wally Squad" judges. In these initial outings, scripted by Rob Williams and drawn by Henry Flint, the lead is Judge Aimee Nixon, a tough, ugly, broken-nosed, one-armed master of disguise.

In time, Nixon will cede the spotlight to her more popular co-star, the comically deranged Judge Dirty Frank, but she is really a compelling and fascinating character in these first two stories. In time, Low Life will get pretty dense with subplots and Nixon's role will take a pretty surprising turn. Most fans are anxiously awaiting its return in September.

Also appearing in this prog, there's Judge Dredd in a one-off by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, an outer space serial called A.H.A.B. by Nigel Kitching and Richard Elson, and Chopper by Wagner, Patrick Goddard and Dylan Teague.

Stories from this prog are reprinted in the following editions:

Chopper: Surf's Up (2000 AD's Online Shop).
Low Life: Paranoia (Amazon US)
Savage: Taking Liberties (2000 AD Online Shop).

Next week: What happens when Judge Dredd takes on the war on terror. And stop by my Bookshelf Blog tomorrow for a short review of the Mean Machine collection, "Real Mean."