Thursday, November 24, 2011

153. History's Last Record

June 2005: Have you ever had a relationship fail so awfully that it poisons everything that you experienced during that period? I have. It only happened once, and when my time on this earth is finally finished, I'm going to have strong words with somebody on the other side, because there are about seven months of my life that I want back. Nothing good came of these seven months. I have no happy memories of that girl, at all. Except this one episode of Slaine.

The love-hate relationship that I have with Slaine is pretty simple. I just do not understand why this strip is still running. Well, it seems to be on an indefinite hiatus again, and it may not return, but the editor's and writer's insistence on bringing it back, again and again, after it keeps coming to genuine, memorable conclusions leaves me completely baffled. The very best stories are the ones with endings. Slaine's story has ended. Several times. Each time it comes back after these endings, it does so weaker and less thrilling than before. And yet, Pat Mills is such an amazing writer that, even when the series is treading creative water, he's still able, every once in a while, to do something completely stunning with it.

There's a school of thought that suggests that the epic, Simon Bisley-painted "The Horned God" should have been the grand finale. Despite the fact that about the last thirty pages look like Bisley painted them in one afternoon on sheets of typing paper, with none of the lush detail of the earlier parts, I can get behind that. But then we wouldn't have had the awesome, ass-kicking reintroduction to the ultraviolence in "Demon Killer," when Slaine arrives in his future, tells Ukko, "Announce me, dwarf," and proceeds to lay down an awesome beating on a company of Roman soldiers. And there are other examples. The "all of your adopted kids are dead" moment of "The Swan Children," for instance.

But wherever Slaine should have ended, it certainly should have done so before the "Books of Invasion" cycle began, shouldn't it? This started in 2002's year-end "Prog 2003" and, forty episodes over two and a half years later, it finally finishes in issue 1442. (Well, the stickler in me points out that it is not technically five "books" of eight episodes each, because Tharg has programmed several double-part episodes along the way, and the stickler in me also points out, as I did in an earlier entry, that Mills has received some sort of a "do it your way" pass to really script in terms of 48-page episodes that just get broken down into six-or-twelve page chunks for serialization, but then again, the stickler in me has no friends.)

So anyway, "The Books of Invasion" is forty episodes long, and it has detailed Slaine and his allies' war against the Fomorians, undersea beasts who control air-breathing mammals in a nasty, parasitic relationship. It has been agonizing, humorless and trite. Niamh's death, as recounted previously, is one of the worst creative decisions that Mills has ever made, the living definition of "women in refrigerators" fantasy, done for no better reason than to turn the male lead into a brutal object of retribution. I've tried to like it, but the only moment in the whole run, before the finale, that engaged me at all came just a few weeks previously, and it was pretty short-lived. Tracking down the last of the Fomorian Sea Devils, Slaine and his fellows have been finding villages where the beasts have laid eggs under the skins of all the farmers. With no other choice, our heroes have killed hundreds of civilians along the way. Exhausted and emotionally drained, there is a brief moment where Slaine, who has killed and axed and beaten his way through more than twenty years of adventure, finally denies his catchphrase, and finds the death toll too many.

But the end...

No good will ever come of me sharing with you readers how miserable I was, and how I was denying my unhappiness in this relationship very early on. I wanted so badly for it to work that I was overlooking warning signs that astronauts can see from space. She poisoned everything, and I let her, because I was so lonely, and so scared that my children wouldn't have a stepmother.

I picked up my comics from the shop in Athens where I collected them, and went over to her house, and after a couple of hours, she started cooking supper and I sat down in her den to read.

The war is finally over, and Slaine is saying his goodbyes, after seeing Gael crowned the new High King and before leaving for good, telling his newest allies the usual heroic "look after yourselves and stand guard against evil," but he has one thing to do before he saddles up. He needs to tell Niamh a last farewell.

Clearly, I'm a sensitive guy, and I've blubbed over emotional stories many, many times before. Pixar's Up did it to me twice in one film, wretched thing. But holy freaking anna, I will never forget how I teared up at this scene. It is one of the most amazing moments in all of 2000 AD, and all forty of those episodes were worth it to get us to this point. The goodbye is the saddest thing I've ever read before Slaine leaves Niamh's ceremonial tent. The punch in the gut, silent, single panel revelation after he leaves is the meanest thing I've ever read.

And while Langley's artwork throughout the series never engaged me emotionally despite being a huge technical achievement, turning the page to see that amazing double-page spread... Now that, good readers, that was one hell of an ending. A complete, standing ovation triumph that left no doubt whatsoever why we call Mills the Guv'nor.

Me weeping and choking back tears in her den, putting down the final episode of Slaine while the air smelled of her darn good chicken and dumplings. That's the one good memory I have from that relationship. Thinking of her makes me think of this episode, and thinking of this episode makes me think of her, at which point I remember a little more, and concede that, honestly, well, all right, it was not quite as relentlessly awful as I make out.

Maybe there were one or two other okay moments.

Slaine, sadly, returned at the end of 2005 anyway for a wholly unnecessary epilogue to "Books of Invasion" to reunite with Ukko. And again in 2009-2010 for four additional, utterly pointless 24-page stories. Mentions in this blog of any of these episodes, when we come to them, will be dismissive and brief. But for one beautiful day that summer, he had the best final episode of any comic character, ever.

Next time, over to Judge Dredd Megazine as Jack Point returns!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

152. Put the Book Back on the Shelf

April 2005: Overlooked over the course of the last several blog posts has been the fascinating story of Rebellion's short-lived deal with the American publisher DC Comics - a Time/Warner company, lest we forget - to finally give the world some proper collected editions for fans' bookshelves. Certainly, there had been reprints before, most of which were welcome, several of which were flawed in some fashion, and none of which were either under the publisher's control or comprehensive.

Finally, a few months after the last, staccato run of Titan's second term as reprint publisher stuttered to a halt, Rebellion announced a line of American comic-sized reprints. Solicitations for this line, which was due to be called 2000 AD Presents and lead off with a repackaging of the recent serial 13, appeared in the spring of 2004 in Diamond Distributors catalog Previews, but the comics were abruptly canceled. A few weeks later, we learned the very happy reason why: Rebellion had teamed with DC Comics for new books! This was going to be a very good thing. As I had been at the forefront of the "Team Comics" cheerleaders urging Rebellion to take control over reprints and put something on shelves, rah rah rah, I was all set to back this venture, even though it brought so much disappointment.

Honestly, this was a line that got quite a lot wrong, and failed as often as it triumphed. But it was so much better, and so much more comprehensive, than what came before, that we could not help but embrace it. And to be sure, there were at least elements of greatness in both the selection and the design of the books. This came to be termed the "Rainbow Spine" series, to differentiate it from Rebellion's existing, European-minded line of skinny hardcovers with black spines. These, instead, put a whole palette on bookshelves: red for all the Dredd-universe titles, blue for Rogue Trooper, mustard for Sinister Dexter, bright purple for Nikolai Dante and so on. I really, really liked the design and the colors. When Rebellion enhanced and improved them later on down the line, there was much grumbling over a superior product. A little more on that in a bit.

About a month before the release of the first book, DC printed a "free" comic for retailers to pass to customers. This 32-page comic adapted Brian Bolland's already-classic cover for Prog 2000, bafflingly blacking out the mountain of older British comics that the 2000 AD characters had conquered, and reprinted three one-off adventures: Judge Dredd: "Finger of Suspicion" by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, Rogue Trooper: "Weapons of War" by Gordon Rennie and Dylan Teague, and Sinister Dexter: "Bullet Time" by Dan Abnett and Andy Clarke. Notably, none of these episodes would be subsequently reprinted in any of the books that DC would distribute. These strips were accompanied by lots of details, background trivia and character profiles of many of the series planned for reprint.

Unfortunately, this comic was not distributed quite as well as anybody would prefer. DC Comics had made similar "free" samplers for two other lines of the period, CMX, which reprinted comics from Japan, and Humanoids, the mainly European comics probably best known to readers as "all that Heavy Metal stuff." Probably the first sign that something wasn't going to go very smoothly with any of these lines - although CMX did the best with its six-year run - was that retailers did not seem to order very many of the latest sampler. In my opinion, this was because, while they were meant to be given away for free, retailers still had to pay the freight on having them added to their weekly order and, at least in stores around Atlanta, they were stuck with stacks of Humanoids comics that nobody wanted, even for free. Even shops that did order a few of the 2000 AD books passed on the freebie, not wanting any extra stuff on their limited counter space.

So in July and August of '04, DC followed up the announcement by engaging in a small publicity blitz to such then-popular comic news sites as Newsarama and Comic Book Resources. (Actually, they might still be popular, but I'm not a cheerleader for "Team Comics" anymore; I'm a grumpy old cuss who wants my weekly thrillpower and to be left alone.) Rebellion's series editor, Jamie Boardman, was interviewed, along with several of the creators behind the soon-to-be-reprinted series, telling American fans what they could expect from forthcoming titles. The plan was to release two books a month for the first four months, followed by three books a month throughout 2005. This was a similar strategy employed by the team kicking out Humanoids books faster than anybody could buy them. Oh yeah, and not promoting them, either.

September saw the release of the first two books. DC, sensing some apprehension on the part of the superhero-based internet funnybook culture to get behind these titles, embarked on a remarkable strategy of not talking about them anymore. Without intentional irony, I often said that I was doing more to promote these books than DC was. My "Weekly Comics Hype," started on LiveJournal to tell everybody that I could about these books - and other good titles on those Wednesdays where one wasn't released - had an audience, there and on a message board of a local comic shop, of maybe two hundred, and my readers knew more about them than anybody DC reached. Seriously, there was no more promotion after the summer interviews and the freebie comic. No house ads in the pages of Wonder Woman, no special cardboard shelving for retailers, no signing tour, nothing. 2000 AD had house ads for the books, DC Comics did not.

Then again, the whole culture of hyping comics that have to be preordered is stunningly flawed. Sinister Dexter sounds like the easiest sell in the universe, done right. Look. you like Quentin Tarantino? Buy this. But the hype comes two months before the book is available, geared towards getting an internet reader to go to their comic shop to ask "Do you have that Sinister thing I read about at CBR," and hoping that, at best, the retailer will know what the hell the customer is talking about, so that they can reply, "Yes, that comes out in two months. If you would like to pre-order it, we can do that for you." BAH.

So anyway, the line launched with two potentially great titles: The Batman/Judge Dredd Files and the first collection of Sinister Dexter. Fumbling out of the starting gate, the first book compiled three of the four crossovers between the two signature characters, omitting story two, the far-and-away-finest one, the Cam Kennedy-drawn Vendetta in Gotham, apparently on the grounds that the art was not painted like the other three stories. The Sinister Dexter book reprinted ten of the first fourteen stories of that series, skipping all of the episodes drawn by Tom Carney.

Mistakes and omissions piled up as the line continued. October's Red Razors book, which certainly could have easily completed the short series in a single volume, was lacking two one-off episodes by Millar and Yeowell from 1992. The first ABC Warriors collection was missing the prologue and epilogue pages by Mills and O'Neill from the Titan edition. These, happily, were restored in subsequent Rebellion collections. The Dredd Vs. Death book was nothing more than the umpteenth identical collection of the same episodes Titan had lazily regurgitated several times. Two pages in the second Robo-Hunter book were reversed, a wearisome problem that really was cropping up a lot with DC's imprints. One of them, Piranha or Paradox or something, made the same dingbat error in their collection of The Bogie Man. Part of a print run of a Slaine book was released with printing on the interior pages that was faded down almost to white. Most infamously, some drip used early production pages for the second Devlin Waugh book that were missing something like thirty word balloons across the last twenty-odd pages.

These were books that we wanted so badly to love, but, man alive, they were going out of their way to make it impossible for us to do so.

Nevertheless, most of the titles were well-selected, and despite the aggravating production problems, many of them were readable and nicely-priced, and, yes, the design - and the spines - were attractive. It was a line that everybody wanted to see improve and grow. Keeping up the enthusiasm, I had got in the habit of cut-and-pasting a little announcement for my maybe-two-hundred LiveJournal and message board readers toward the end of each month when preorder solicits were announced, in addition to the three-Wednesdays-a-month Hype, letting my readers know what DC had planned.

That last week of March, there were no 2000 AD or Humanoids books in the solicit. Fans of both lines spent a few days wondering whether a rough draft was leaked, or whether the publisher might be taking a month off to let readers and their wallets recover from the torrent of books, or... oh. On April 12, DC finally confirmed that the two lines had been axed. CMX, despite constant criticism over censorship to its most celebrated title, Tenjho Tenge, had sales enough to continue, at least until the manga bubble ran out of air in early 2010.

The day after the announcement, blogger Tom Spurgeon, in a brutally harsh, but fair summing-up of the silly business that you all should read, questioned what on earth DC was thinking in the first place. With hindsight, we could see a lot wrong with every part of their plan, even before the production and collation issues. There was just way too much material released in far too short a time, without requisite promotion, to an environment apathetic to new things outside their comfort zone. These didn't target bookstores, like the comparatively far more sensible modern line of Simon & Schuster books, these were flooded into trademark-protection superhero funnybook shops. Or at least they would have flooded, had retailers been willing to order them in the numbers DC seemed to expect with three danged twenty-buck collections every month. If you've ever heard Michael Palin tell the anecdote about Joey Bishop introducing Terry Jones and him on their first American TV appearance on The Tonight Show with a dismissive "I dunno who they are, you dunno who they are, here they are," you probably know what I mean.

There were other eulogies, some sympathetic - I cannot find the page anymore, but two popular bloggers went back-and-forth with a lot of praise for 13, which was lovely - some baffled that anybody tried, but what few admitted was that with a focus as wild and expansive as 2000 AD, every single book in the line needed an independent sales strategy. Existing fans might conceivably love the first volumes of The ABC Warriors and Devlin Waugh about equally, but are the target audiences for these strips, as new readers, really that much alike?

Rebellion was quick to assure us that the line would continue. "Good," we said. "Just don't change the design. Especially the spines. We like how those look on our shelves."

Ah, but that's another story. We'll come back to that at some point.

Next time, concluding the long-running series with an impossibly high note, the final ever episode of Slaine. Well, it should have been, anyway. See you in seven!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

151. Artists Old and New

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday, a blog where I'm charting the history of 2000 AD, which, for thirty-four years, has been the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. In each installment, I look at some of the important events going on in the weekly comic's fun history, moving forward four or five issues at a time. However, since the last time that I wrote, there have been some quite remarkably important events in the present day. 2000 AD's publisher, Rebellion, has worked out two awesome deals with the big Barnes & Noble chain. If you are an American still a little lost and confused where to actually find these comics, you are totally in luck. Not only is B&N now stocking Judge Dredd Megazine - issue 315 is on shelves now, and priced 20% less than it sells for in comic shops - but, at the end of October, it was announced that B&N has placed a mammoth order for the Rebellion/Simon & Schuster American line of graphic novels. This is in the wake of B&N pulling a huge list of DC graphic novels from their shelves; DC had made several titles digitally-exclusive to Amazon's Kindle, leaving B&N's Nook users in the cold. B&N's quite sensible retaliation has left space on their shelves, and now all their stores should be stocking far more 2000 AD collected editions than ever before. Everybody wins, I think.

The next installment will talk about collected editions in more detail, because there was a big development in April 2005 that helped lead us to this point. But I had already started writing the first draft of this entry before the news broke, and didn't feel like shuffling things around too much yet. I was planning to talk about the trades in chapter 152, and that's what I'll do. This time out, a look at prog 1437. There's a solid lineup inside, with The V.C.s by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, Bec & Kawl by Si Spurrier and Steve Roberts, and Slaine by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, about which, more in two weeks. These strips are bookended by two stories that I think are really interesting from an art perspective. These are Judge Dredd, starting a three-part story by Gordon Rennie and Karl Richardson, and American Gothic, a nine-part serial by Ian Edginton and Mike Collins.

Richardson does not seem to get enough work from Tharg. The impression that I get is that he's a very meticulous craftsman, and weekly deadlines might be a bit tough for him. He would soon be assigned The 86ers but will drop out very early on, leaving PJ Holden to draw the bulk of that strip.

I'm not entirely taken with his depiction of Dredd himself - he seems disagreeably like the huge, bodybuilding version designed by Inaki Miranda and Eva de la Cruz that was popularized in the daily strip in London's Metro newspaper - but aside from that, this is really interesting artwork.

The coloring is especially impressive, using garish solid colors bleeding over the figures to indicate the harsh stage lighting behind the band, Death Rattle. Unable to get a visa to enter Mega-City One, they're playing a show in the Cursed Earth, and Richardson puts a spray of brown and tan dust over everybody and everything. He even gives the security guards on the West Wall a distinctive gray uniform. The mutants, Father Sin and his gang, look like they stepped out from the background of one of the covers that Brian Bolland contributed to the 1980s reprint series from Eagle Comics. This is a classy, classy art job.

American Gothic, sadly, features artwork on the other end of my personal "like it!" scale, and that's just baffling, as Mike Collins is a really terrific comic artist. I mean that; his work on Panini's Doctor Who strip is consistently first-rate, and his version of David Tennant's Doctor is the definitive one, in my book. But American Gothic seems crude and unfinished when compared to Doctor Who, perhaps in part because Collins' work is so well balanced for color that it seems like Gothic's pages are really hurting for the lack of it.

The strip itself is one where the creators' initial enthusiasm seems to die outright early on; after a deliberately-paced opening episode set in a frontier town, and a second episode that introduces readers to the large cast of European refugees working their way across the American west - the twist being that these are vampires, trolls, werewolves, and, for lack of a better word, monsters looking for a life away from hateful humans - the pace picks up too quickly for either Collins or any reader to get a grip and ride along. As the sad body count rises, Collins' art becomes scratchy and rushed, and the already imbalanced linework becomes a blur of hatchy inking with an unflattering grayscale wash. Both creators are hugely talented, but this is just a huge misfire, and one best forgotten.

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

Bec & Kawl: Bloody Students (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Slaine: Books of Invasions Volume Three (out of print, Amazon UK suggests sellers)

Next time, speaking of collected editions, it was during this period that Rebellion's deal with DC to create and distribute some definitive books came to an untimely close. More about that in seven days!