Thursday, August 25, 2011

144. What Wagner Was Writing

November 2004: Prog 1415 reminds me of just how much I dislike the loudmouthed comic book fandom literati. This is because, while the prog has some pretty darn good stories in the form of Faces by Mindy Newell and John Higgins, Lobster Random by Si Spurrier and Carl Critchlow and Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Jack Lawrence, they're all completely blown out of the water by the two veteran series that bookend the issue. John Wagner has written both the current stories for Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog and they're both completely incredible. You know what comics were better than these in 2004? None of them. John Wagner's name should have been in lights that year. And every year. He's consistently the very best writer in all of comics. "Total War" and "Traitor To His Kind" just prove it.

So the situation in "Total War" is this: the terrorist group of that name, last seen putting things together in the recent story "Terror," has issued an ultimatum to the judges of Mega-City One. They have secreted several nuclear devices - much like the "dirty bombs" that were all over the news that year - of varying power into hiding places throughout the city. They detonate a small one, killing hundreds of thousands, to prove that they're serious, and announce that larger bombs will be going off at regular intervals until the judges hand over their power and leave the city. Simple as that.

With one caveat, this is a completely terrific story. For readers who enjoy the more cerebral, detective fiction side of Dredd, this is one of the all-time best stories. Future technologies and the oppressive city surveillance are incredibly important in this race against time to find the bombs and find the terrorists. Watching the judges, especially long-time supporting player PSU Judge Roffman, desperately working under incredible pressure for any clue and any lead, is a real treat. The dead ends are completely heartbreaking. There's a real sense of despair when so much work goes into identifying one of Total War's top men, and the arrest goes flat when the judges learn he'd killed himself hours previously.

Two-thirds of the way through the story, there's a twisting development that I did not enjoy. Perhaps Wagner had created too clever a villain, and an organization that covered its tracks too well for even the trained investigators of Justice Department to find, but the twist that brings the judges a needed break is just too convenient for my liking. On the other hand, it really didn't matter at the time. The simple appearance of an old man with an eye patch somehow, in the hands of Wagner and artist Henry Flint, turns into one amazing cliffhanger when read weekly.

There's also a very cool subplot dealing with Dredd's niece Vienna. Early on, before the terrorists' demands are made, we are introduced to another clone made from Dredd's genetic stock, but this one has suffered severe brain damage and is deteriorating quickly. The tek judges consider Dredd the clone's next of kin and ask his permission to euthanize him. Dredd replies that he's certainly not any "next of kin" and tells them not to involve him. So they involve Vienna instead. Vienna's dealing with this and keeping her uncle Joe dragged in brings the two story threads crashing together as millions try to flee the city by any means necessary. Mega-City One being what it is, everything spirals completely out of control.

As good as this Dredd serial is, I'm not sure that Johnny Alpha's latest case isn't better. "Traitor to His Kind" is a mean political thriller. Alpha is called to Earth to track down Clarkie, the King of England, who's been abducted by mutant terrorists. King Clarkie had first been introduced back in the 1980s, a fun little parody of "I Say, Jolly What"-styled upper class twits. Now, his government is quietly keeping his abduction secret, and the minister who's brought Alpha into the picture, to smoothly and discreetly rescue him, is playing a really interesting game, keeping many plates in the air.

This is a really great story that has Alpha working pretty far outside his comfort zone. I mean, it's normal that he can't really trust anybody, but this time out, the stakes are a lot higher. He's been using the wealth of his bounties to help rebuild the mutant ghettos of Milton Keynes, and is much loved by that community. But now, as gossip is filtering around that somebody has abducted the king in a bid for more rights for mutants, Alpha is on entirely the wrong side of public opinion. Add in the usual Strontium Dog tricks of a hatefully two-faced British government and previously unmentioned family members making appearances, and this one's a taut and mean winner of a story.

Honestly, I'd have bet good money on Clarkie not getting out of this one alive. The character had earlier, in the epic, controversial "Final Solution," been seen to be executed, but in these revisionist, untold tales of Strontium Dog, there was always the feeling that Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra were going to change things around in a big way. Here, they don't, although "The Final Solution" would come up for major reappraisal in 2010.

These are both absolutely excellent stories. Wagner may not be writing darn near everything like he seemed to in the 1980s, but his work is consistently of the highest quality. He's absolutely the best, most reliable craftsman in the medium of comics, and this issue provides all the evidence that I need to make that claim. Comic fans that ignore Wagner's work are doing themselves a huge disservice.

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

Judge Dredd: Total War (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Anderson's new do and the Meg premiere of The Bogie Man get the spotlight as I look at what Wagner's frequent collaborator Alan Grant was doing. See you next week!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

143. Something About a Man Who Likes Metal

October 2004: As the year comes to an end, Tharg begins programming the last batch of series that will see us to the Prog 2005 relaunch issue. This week, the remarkably fun Lobster Random, by Si Spurrier and Carl Critchlow, returns for his second story. Lobster is drawn on the cover by Boo Cook, who is the artist of Asylum. I sort of talked myself out with the previous two weeks, so please don't let this comparatively shorter entry imply that these thrills are anything less than terrific.

Asylum, written by Rob Williams, is also working through its second story, but it's really more like the second half of one long adventure, and reads very well in collected form. The lead character is an alien tracker named Holt, a half-breed fellow without a nose who loses an eyeball partway through the first story. This might make him an uglier lead than Synnamon, but, as far as 2000 AD characters go, a more attractive one, if you take my meaning.

Asylum isn't one of my favorite strips, in part because Cook's artwork is still at a rough, early stage and, when printed, is as muddy as 2000 AD at its post-Bisley early-1990s worst. On the other hand, Holt's story is a very compelling one, as he desperately tries to negotiate peace between a tense future government and the very violent alien asylum-seekers whom he represents. It's a good story, and one worth reading in the collected edition.

It's one of the weirdest little quirks of recent 2000 AD that only the first Lobster Random adventure has been collected. The second story, "The Agony and the Ecstacy," is every bit as wild and ridiculous as the first. The Mighty One needs to put Lob's first three adventures in a book in 2012, and get a fifth story in the prog immediately.

If you've not met Lobster Random before, he's a torturer-for-hire, an incredibly grouchy ex-soldier who, thanks to genetic modification, can't feel pain and can't sleep. He's also got two extra appendages with freakishly big lobster claws growing out of his back. He's kind of got a weakness for the ladies, provided the ladies are androids. Somebody calls him a mech-fag in his first story and he puts the guy's head into a wall. Don't you judge him.

Random's stories take place in an incredibly weird and wonderful future, dense with bizarre aliens and broken laws of physics. Remember when you were nine and the creatures from that cantina in Star Wars promised a universe of incredibly diverse, dangerous and outre alien life forms? Lobster Random is like that on every page. Rereading it, I'm falling in love with it all over again. It's ridiculously engaging and addictive.

Earlier, I mentioned how Asylum reads better as a collected story. Perhaps one reason that Lobster Random has not been properly collected is that it works amazingly well as an episodic adventure. Spurrier does a great job tailoring each individual installment to work as a fine read on its own. The cliffhangers are excellent, and in some cases he masterfully moves the story forward to open episodes a little later in the overall narrative with a blast of excitement before stepping back to show readers how things got into such a mess.

And the mess of the plot... well, it's wonderful. Lobster Random is very much in the same vein as classic Robo-Hunter, where the stakes keep getting higher as the situation spirals ever more out of control, usually driven by the hero's overconfidence. He's a really competent character, but his universe is just so ridiculously chaotic that he can't predict what thunderously weird thing is around the next corner. It's an absolutely terrific series, and it needs continuing and collecting, and pronto.

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

Asylum: The Complete Asylum (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Total War (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: The Furzt Case (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 307, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Nuclear armageddon in Mega-City One! Again! It's Total War for Judge Dredd, while Strontium Dog hunts down a king. See you in seven!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

142. The Trouble With Girls

September 2004: It can, quite honestly, be said that 2000 AD has had a little trouble in both attracting female readers and in presenting stories that star female leads. There's an unavoidable boys' club mentality about it. Every so often, somebody will offer a half-baked defense and name some villains or supporting characters or ensemble characters or spinoff leads (like, y'know, the girl in the picture here) as evidence that the comic isn't a complete sausage fest, but that's just studying one tree really intently and ignoring the forest. I mean really, we're coming up on thirty-five years of stories now and the successes in this field would include Halo Jones and, if you really wanted to squint, Tyranny Rex.

Various Thargs have tried, but something about the predominantly male readership and the predominantly male creative units seems, sommmmmehow, to make this a really uphill climb. Of course, letting potential female readers know that there's something in the comic with a lead that they might want to check out is a huge problem the way stories just get slotted in for a month or two these days. By the time the comic media and general geek bloggers become aware that, say, Synnamon has a new story in the prog, it's probably already finished. Four-week runs don't do anybody any good.

Well, Synnamon is perhaps a poor example; as discussed in an earlier entry, the character suffers from being completely perfect and boring and promoted on the covers as a T&A redhead. She was just a misfire right out of the gate. But it really doesn't feel like any lessons were learned from Synnamon's failure.

For example, there's the mostly wonderful Samantha Slade. I say "mostly" because I'm not completely blind to her series' faults. There's the second story, for example. Samantha first appeared in "Like a Virgin," which ran in December 2003's year-end Prog 2004 and the next three issues, published in January. She was then benched while a follow-up was considered. This was nowhere close to being long enough of a run to build any momentum, which is part of what I complained about in the previous entry. I hope that you'll agree that most of the series in 2000 AD will need a lengthy residence and some promotion to drive reader interest, or risk losing it.

If I'm completely honest with myself and not just hyping a series that I love for the sake of sounding all positive, it's no damn wonder Samantha Slade didn't set fandom alight when we had to wait eight months to see what would happen next, only to have this mess as a result. "The Furzt Case," written by Alan Grant, isn't a terrible script, and it has amusing moments, but it's obviously a script that artist Ian Gibson found uninspiring to the point of boredom. You can see his frustration early on, in the ridiculous design of three robots that are meant to look generically "anime" and wear Sailor Moon costumes. I think that Ian Gibson is one of the medium's very best artists, and he can draw the hell out of anything when he wants to. This, he doesn't want to. The art doesn't really fall off a cliff, however, until the end of episode three, when the villain of the piece, Nippon Furzt, shows up. From there, it's phoned-in, lazy, awful artwork, mostly without backgrounds. Not inspired, Gibson stopped trying. I can't defend it; the promise of the first three episodes is completely ruined by the slapdash sabotage of the finished pages.

Samantha didn't escape this unscathed. I believe that most readers were at least curious and optimistic after her first story, but she took a beating before this one was done and her reputation never recovered. I think she works terrifically as a character. She's practical, savvy, clever, makes mistakes and is genuinely fun, and I would love to see her used well by creators who are really giving their all. Happily, readers would get to see stories that fit that description when she returned. But fans are harsh and unforgiving; I suspect that many, burned by "The Furzt Case," just groaned and didn't bother.

Sharing space with Sam Slade this week is a much, much more popular female character, Hannah Chapter. She's among the ensemble cast of Caballistics Inc. and, arguably, the most popular of the team among readers. I'll say something blasphemous here, but give me a chance to explain. Hannah's popularity makes no sense whatsoever.

That's not to say that Caballistics Inc., written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Dom Reardon, is a worse series than Robo-Hunter, far from it. Objectively, Cabs just kicks the tar out of the 2004-07 run of Robo-Hunter. It's a far better series, with consistently excellent artwork, a real sense of danger and drama, lovely, winking allusions to other horror and SF stories, and a completely unpredictable storyline that left everybody reading it utterly blindsided several times. It's a terrific strip, and Hannah Chapter is the least attractive thing about it.

I can't fault her design. I really love her floor-length sheepskin jacket (Feargal Sharkey's mum says it cost a packet) and rectangle glasses, but it's almost as though Rennie went out of his way to make the character as unappealing as possible. She's a bored, contemptuous nerd and - you'll love this - she talks too much. I'm leaving that in, no matter how misogynist that sounds, because it amuses me so. No, seriously, here's some of what I'm talking about:

And I'll cheat my own rules and add this example from another issue:

In the first case, we've got incredibly unnatural dialogue. Read it aloud and see what I mean. This is what Orson Welles was complaining about when he was reading the script for those fish fingers with the crumb-crisp coating, and he was right. In the second case, you may think oh burn! until you actually try speaking it. Actually, try using it as an insult the next time you're out at a goth club, and watch the target of your barb get bored and look away before you finish talking. Then again, she's American. Some of us have a tendency to be a little long-winded. (Ahem.)

Hannah is always like this. Finding examples is no chore. She is unfailingly surly, rude, smug, sneering, downright obnoxious and she speaks with more words-per-dialogue balloon than anybody this side of Chris Claremont. I don't care how cool that sheepskin jacket is, my heart sank whenever she showed up. Caballistics Inc. was fun because of the wild left turns in the plot and the unbelievable cliffhangers and the artwork and the Doctor Who references. Samantha Slade was fun because she was a believable, reluctant hero in way over her head, and who really would prefer to spend her time buying nice frocks. I know who I'd rather read about, and it's a shame that Grant and Gibson could never quite make Samantha's series as wild and engrossing as Hannah's. Or as popular.

At any rate, I'm sure that my opinions on these characters are not shared by everybody, but I hope I've made a case for them. One thing that I'm sure we all do agree on, however, is that 2000 AD needs to do a far better job on the gender front. The comic should definitely reach out to female talent and nurture some women writers and artists, and it should definitely make a legitimate effort to launch more than one strong female lead for an ongoing series rather than a one-off serial. None of this "testing the waters" nonsense with a six-week commission and gauging reader response. Let's have a character who is not spun off from an existing, male-led property, one who is not drawn as a sexpot, one who is flawed but whose stories are fun to read. This is long overdue, so let's see it in 2012, all right, Tharg?

Anyway, other stories in this prog include a Judge Dredd one-off by Alan Grant and Shaun Thomas, Asylum by Rob Williams and Boo Cook, and Strontium Dog by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and reprints are available thusly:

Asylum: The Complete Asylum (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Caballistics Inc: Creepshow (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: The Furzt Case (free "graphic novel" collection bagged with Megazine # 307, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, a quick look at Asylum before I get all happy about the return of Lobster Random. Be here in seven!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

141. King Hell!

August 2004: You know what would be a really thankless job? Editing 2000 AD. Oh, there are perks, I suppose. You get to commission great series and work with incredibly talented creators, but you also get a fan base that is convinced that it knows better than you at every stage and constantly makes demands, I mean, offers helpful suggestions about what it wants to see in the comic. And, when you and your predecessors have spent thirty-odd years cultivating the mythology that the series are actually created by put-upon robots whipped and beaten into the service of thrillpower, it's a little difficult to explain, in character, exactly why the Alan Moore and Ian Gibson droids haven't been chained to a desk to create more Halo Jones, or why the loaning of the Grant Morrison droid to some inferior American publishers has gone on so long that we don't have more Zenith.

About which, I don't know about you squaxx, but I finally resolved a few months ago that I'm not reading any more stupid superhero trademark protection funnybooks from anybody, regardless of who writes them. Except Paul Levitz writing Legion of Super-Heroes. 2000 AD droids on Hulk comics? Not in my house. Join me, won't you? You know it makes sense.

Anyway, new episodes of Zenith and Halo Jones, by their original creators, seem to turn up most often when fans compile their fantasy "perfect prog." From there, it's anybody's guess as to what will show up next, the only other real tricky bit is deciding whether you want Strontium Dog or you want Ezquerra drawing that imaginary issue's Judge Dredd.

I mention this here because I figure that Matt Smith, the man who has been Tharg for about the last decade, has made a really strong case for being 2000 AD's best editor, but man, he does something that I have never liked, and that's not building up a solid recurring feature to run alongside Dredd in almost every issue. That's one of the reasons why fans came to love Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante in the late nineties, because David Bishop made them co-stars of the comic, with Dredd, for the better part of two solid years. Particularly with subplot-heavy series like Sin Dex, as it has evolved, and, frankly, darn near everything that Ian Edginton or Gordon Rennie has written, the whole business of a single story per year has mostly been a burden for fans to follow. I've said before, and I feel very strongly about it, that The Red Seas would have been massively improved had its hundred-plus episodes appeared over a run of about three years, and not ten.

See, if I were Tharg, I would note those series that seem to get nearly unanimous positive feedback from fans. In recent days, these would include Zombo, Ichabod Azrael and Absalom. I'd treat that initial story as a successful pilot and then sit down with the writer and see where this series is going. Then commission it, to the end. Rather than ordering a single story each year, and hoping that the writer doesn't get poached by some inferior American publisher who will take up all of his time before it's finished, I'd slot that series in for at least forty weeks a year and give it a backup artist and turn the series' lead into the next 2000 AD superstar. Johnny Alpha did not become beloved in our hearts by collecting one bounty a year, Tharg.

Ah, but there's a problem with my plan. In quite a few cases, it's completely unworkable. Many series, and many of the writers responsible for them, genuinely need time to find a footing and the maturity necessary to churn out something really workable and memorable. Take Simon Spurrier, for instance. Presently, I might groan that he's one of those droids wasting his creative energy turning out garbage for inferior American publishers when he could be writing more Lobster Random, but he wouldn't even be in that position had Tharg not given him the time to develop Bec & Kawl over several, individual, month-long batches. "Hell to Pay" is the fifth of these month-long runs, and it's a real treat. In it, Jarrod Kawl is duped into a cunning plan by Margaret Thatcher to take over the underworld.

Even if Spurrier had wanted to tell this story from the outset - contradicting my "annual appearance" claim above, Bec & Kawl usually appeared once every six months - he wouldn't have told it at all well. The earliest Bec & Kawl adventures, despite the goodwill that some fans felt towards them, just weren't very good. Since Spurrier was a fan who made it in, and since the art was so nice, and since the series was so darned different, and - this might be the important bit - it only ran for four weeks at a time, readers were mostly able to overlook the series' deficiencies, in the hopes that it would improve.

Well, I say mostly. There certainly are readers with a "kill it immediately!" mindset whenever Tharg programs a series that they don't enjoy.

Honestly, the leap in quality between the first two batches of Bec & Kawl and this one is just eye-popping. There are huge problems with the earliest stories. For one, he relies on visual humor, not just to hit a punch line, but to complete a story. Infamously, the climax to a one-off episode called "Enlightenment" (prog 1327, Feb. 2003) is the slogan written on Kawl's T-shirt. No attention is drawn to it. More than that, the pacing of the early stories is really bad. There's no getting around it, while there is a skeleton of a plot in May 2002's "The Mystical Mentalist Menace" (progs 1290-91), there is no sense of a transition between scenes or gags. The action is compressed so much that there is no feeling of the passage of time, nor a space where the story develops.

"Hell to Pay" isn't without its problems, but thank the stars that Tharg commissioned Bec & Kawl the way he did, so that Spurrier and Roberts could learn from their mistakes. It's a very funny story, but, more importantly, it's a story that readers can understand. There are conventions to the language of comics, and the buildup to this hilarious cliffhanger is one of the things that makes it work so well. It's more than just "SHOCK! Thatcher is the baddie!" but the way that we get this cliffhanger at the right point in the story - the halfway mark - and that we learn what Hell is, in terms of how Spurrier is going to use it, so that the comedy of Thatcher privatizing it actually means something. Creating a world that a reader can care about, even for the six or seven minutes one might spend reading a Bec & Kawl episode, is critical for the story to work.

World-building is something that the Guv'nor, Pat Mills, does better than darn near everybody else in comics. When Mills is on fire, as he is in Book Two of the ABC Warriors epic "The Shadow Warriors," he's throwing some completely crazy ideas at the protagonists. Some of these ideas are so offbeat as to be ridiculous - above, as drawn by Henry Flint, we see grouchy apes called Cyboons riding three-legged lizards called Trisaurs - but Mills treats all of the elements of his stories with the same respect and enthusiasm, grounding the mindblowing ideas with casual acceptance by the protagonists.

Now, the weird problem with the Guv'nor is that, unique among 2000 AD's writers, he seems to get a free pass to write his stories in either 48-page or 60-page chunks. He seems to have picked this up writing for the French market, where his publisher there releases 60-page episodes of the series Requiem and Claudia once a year. This means that Mills gets to mostly blow off the idea of cliffhangers. It's pretty rare when you get to, say, page six of episode five of a modern Mills story and get that jawdropping shock that leaves you begging for the next part. From the perspective of a reader, "Book Two of The Shadow Warriors" doesn't mean so much. It's really that "The Shadow Warriors" is a three-episode story, and the episodes are really long, and split into chunks for British serialization.

And then of course, there's the problem that, as editor of 2000 AD, Matt Smith has so darn many popular series to juggle that even if the Guv'nor wanted to run a 156-page ABC Warriors adventure across 26 consecutive weeks, there wouldn't necessarily be room for it. See, thankless job.

For the record, I'd figure the lineup for a perfect prog, considering that Nikolai Dante is coming to an end in early 2012, would include Dredd by Wagner and Ezquerra, backed by new stories for Robo-Hunter, Zenith, Stickleback and Lobster Random.

Stories from this prog are reprinted in the following editions:

The ABC Warriors: The Shadow Warriors (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Bec & Kawl: Bloody Students (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Caballistics Inc: Creepshow (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: The Art of Kenny Who? (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor To His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop).

Next time, The Galaxy's Greatest and its Trouble With Girls. See you in seven, friends!