Thursday, December 6, 2012

189. England's Green and Pleasant Land

October 2008: Previously, I had mentioned that some external forces caused me, your humble chronicler, to lose track of the Galaxy's Greatest Comic for a couple of months. When I started paying attention again, I could not, for the life of me, make any sense of The ABC Warriors. At this point, we're deep into "The Volgan War," which is four separate 72-page stories, each of which is serialized as ten or twelve episodes. Now, one of many things that Matt Smith has got very right in his time as Tharg has been making sure that stories run without a deadline break between episodes. This has mainly been a thing of the past, but the third chunk of "The Volgan War" is one of those unfortunate and very rare exceptions. It runs for six weeks, takes a break for four, and returns for the last six. Worse, it's with episode six that the action shifts to explain what's been going on with the new character of Zippo.

Across the first two chunks of "The Volgan War," we've seen how each of our heroes briefly met the same special forces robot, who usually helped them out of a major jam. Chunk three - oh, all right, "Volume" Three - begins with five episodes in which Steelhorn tells his story of meeting Zippo. So with episode six, they're off to Marinaris City to rescue the guy, but first we have to jump back a few weeks to explain how he was captured, and then there's a horribly-timed break. For anybody hoping to pick up with episode seven in prog 1611, good luck to you. For three weeks, it's Zippo and some architect named Kroll who has lost his mind and decided to become a graffiti artist jumping and swinging around from girder to girder in a wild, dark city that looks like German impressionism gone crazy. We meet some new, villainous secret police who oppose them, and a telepathic commissar character, and a huge population of oppressed workers who sing a jaunty and implausibly very long anthem as the captured Zippo is lowered into molten slag and...

Okay, so in the previous chapter, I acknowledged that part of why I had no clue what was going on in ABC Warriors was because I just didn't care to read 2000 AD for a couple of months after the Stalag 666 incident. I'll even take 95% of the blame. But the rest is because Pat Mills has gone completely loopy with this story, and, for weeks, it's like a fever dream. There aren't even any ABC Warriors in it. This is absolutely an occasion where Mills' desire to write for the eventual book - or, in the case of "The Volgan War," four of the darn things instead of one big, fat phonebook - just doesn't do the weekly episodes well at all.

Mills is actually having a rough time of it in the prog. Around this time, he also has a four-part Judge Dredd story called "Birthday Boy." It's actually one of his very best scripts for the character, and a perfectly fine adventure, and it is completely ruined by the slack, uninvolved, thrill-sucking artwork by Vince Locke. He is a fine artist by any definition, and I believe we can credit him with some excellent episodes of Vertigo's Sandman Mystery Theatre, but this story is such a disaster that it is best forgotten.

So this brings us to Ampney Crucis Investigates, an often very good series by Ian Edginton and Simon Davis that keeps feeling just a hair shy of being one of the all-time 2000 AD greats. It debuts in prog 1611 with a corker of a first episode. It's 1928, and a beautiful woman, Lady Calliope Wykes, kills her husband, who has transformed into a hideous insect creature. Meanwhile, Lord Ampney Crucis, youngest son of Lady Zuleika, awakens from a terrible nightmare. He is haunted by an incident at the Somme, twelve years previously, where he witnessed a hideous Cthulu-like beast dismembering and slaughtering soldiers. He's met by his manservant Cromwell and the game is afoot.

The apparent pitch for Crucis is "Lord Peter Wimsey as written by Lovecraft," meaning it's 50% guaranteed to catch my eye. I really, really love Dorothy L. Sayers' stories of Wimsey and his wonderful family! Unfortunately, I have no interest at all in Lovecraft's turgid prose or ideas, but I like Sayers enough for it not to matter too much. Major Wimsey returned from the Great War so badly shellshocked by the stress of ordering men to their deaths that he was invalided. Lord Crucis - I am not quite clear on the peerage etiquette here; Lord Peter explained in the novel Whose Body? that as he has an older brother, Gerald, he should not be referred to as "Lord Wimsey," but Ampney, who has at least two older siblings, goes by "Lord Crucis" - came back driven mad by the sight of the worm-beast. Both characters wear monocles as affectations and both had a fiancee call off the wedding as a result of their war experience, and then both began amateur investigations, only Lord Crucis focuses on cases with an occult aspect.

Ampney Crucis Investigates is achingly close to being one of my all-time favorites, but so many little things work against it. You can almost sense a little hesitation from Tharg in the short little run of the first story, "Vile Bodies." (You'll note, of course, that Lord Crucis's first recorded adventure recalls the name of Lord Peter's.) It's a case that would really benefit from many more pages for the character to, you know, investigate things. It feels like Tharg has just given it a short six-week slot at the end of the year, to burn it away, not really certain that readers, other than me, are all that interested in posh upper-class detectives from the throwback days of the 1920s, no matter how many Cthulus and bee-monsters are stuck in the story.

The result is a pilot that moves at the requisite rocket fuel pace, but it leaves a hell of a lot behind. Lord Crucis and Cromwell actually have a third member of their party, a chauffeur named Lorelli, who appears in only one panel of this story, and hardly at all in the subsequent adventures. The main character additionally received a stunning second injury when he met the Cthulu-thing in France: it tore his feet off. But this isn't mentioned anywhere, and only shown in passing in the second story, which would appear in 2010. One of the original plans for the character, as seen in the Simon Davis sketches that appear in this story's collected edition, was for him to have both artificial hands and feet, but only the wooden feet remained when the series began. There's just no space for the characters to breathe with so much plot compacted into so few pages.

But worse, the plot of the first story, at least, barely leaves Lord Crucis with anything to investigate, let alone deduce. This isn't detective fiction as I enjoy it; it's just a very simplistic adventure story with a monocle-wearing lead. It is a fine distraction, and gorgeously drawn, but there's just no meat to chew on. Lord Crucis doesn't work as well as an action hero as Edginton seems to wish for him to. Here, he follows exactly the same very short path of clues that even the thickest village constable should have followed, and, in the end, is rescued by a risible "old school chum" working for the government and whose climactic reappearance in the narrative is telegraphed from a mile off. Over the course of a labyrinthine 13-week story with dead ends, more characters, and many more corpses, I expect that the "Vile Bodies" that might have been, would have been a huge triumph.

I enjoyed the second and third Ampney Crucis Investigates stories somewhat more, albeit with reservations, although the all-action weirdness of the fourth story, now thrown into a parallel universe and bringing our hero into two-fisted conflict with some of those otherworldly horrors, was a massive letdown. The fifth story will begin in just one week, in Prog 2013. I have my fingers crossed for it; this is a series that I want so badly to embrace, but the darn thing keeps frustrating me.

But that's still many more chapters away. In the next installment of Thrillpowered Thursday, we'll look at Prog 2009, The Red Seas and Marauder. That'll be in January, after a few weeks of recharging, and reviewing some other House of Tharg goodies over at my Bookshelf blog. Thanks for reading, everybody!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

188. Locked Up

September 2008: Simon Parr, a long-serving production and design droid, contributes this issue's cover, which highlights a very controversial serial called Stalag 666. The serial is written by Tony Lee, and it's his first work for the House of Tharg, and it's drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt, who had previously provided the excellent artwork for Tempest in the Megazine. To say that it gets a mixed reception is the understatement of the year. Stalag 666, overall, is probably the least-loved thing to appear in the comic since Bison about six years previously.

Honestly, it's not quite that bad, but it sure isn't good. In my book, it is nowhere near as awful as its reputation suggests, but it sure does have a lot working against it. I recall that some fans were a little confused about the way that Lee managed to bypass the understood method of getting some work from Tharg by slogging through lots of one-offs and Future Shocks, instead offering up a resume of work for small publishers like Markosia and IDW, for whom he was writing Doctor Who, starting with a mini-series called "The Forgotten." I'd like to think that the ugly incident that overshadows Stalag was motivated more by the ugly jealousy of somebody who'd had no luck getting his submissions accepted than by anybody who thought that they had a beef with the serial's content. I'm talking, of course, about the letter of shit.

So here's what happened: Stalag 666 debuted with a double-length opener in prog 1600 and immediately broke one of the cardinal rules of fiction: don't tell your readers that there's a more interesting story somewhere in your world than the one which you plan to tell them. Instead of an all-action story of war between humanity and the reptilian aliens who dress and act like Nazis - and that's another problem with the serial, the villains are reptilian aliens who dress and act like Nazis - Lee chooses to tell a story about some humans desperate to escape from a cruel prison camp. It suffers from one or two problems common to 2000 AD during this period, like having far too many characters, and confusion as to who the central protagonist actually is, but really, even at the time, it was just mediocre and skippable, and nowhere near as world-ending as its detractors claimed. It actually starts off at least structured very well, with an opener that explains the world and its cruelty, and ends with the character who might be the hero arriving in the camp. After that, however, it's really talky and kind of obvious.

Jon Davis-Hunt, who had earlier been so impressive with Tempest, took a huge stumble backward with this serial. He'd recover - his work on Dandridge is a joy - but stuck drawing eighty-something pages of the same dull people in the same dull place took its toll on him. His camera angles never seem to change, and everything is delivered in the same boring medium shot. The occasional action scenes are lifeless and the very occasional moments of over-the-top gore look completely ridiculous. One reason I was reminded of, and mentioned, Bison earlier comes with an execution at the climax of episode six, where one of the characters is literally sliced in half by a single blow from the main Snake baddie, a geyser of solid burgundy splashing out of him, comically. I was reminded of the "Candlehead Eruptions" that looked so incredibly stupid and ridiculous in the later episodes of Bison.

Though we'll never know for sure what prompted it, beyond hideous mental defect, I'd like to think that, because the timeline seems to work, this amazingly dumb visual at the end of part six was the final straw for one even dumber anonymous reader, somewhere in England. This cretin took the time to find every negative review of the serial that he could, from the formal ones at the old, as well as from the official site's forum, copy-n-pasted them into one document, and attached not only a vulgar letter, but also - wait for it - a generous sampling of his own shit, smeared across a page of photocopy paper. This package was duly delivered to one of Mr. Lee's previous addresses in mid-October, and forwarded along to him.

After Lee informed fandom of the event, by way of an entirely-justified rant, the story got picked up by some of the comic gossip sites. Everybody with a brain was duly offended, and the otherwise good reputation that 2000 AD fans have of being sensible, optimistic, level-headed, and encouraging adults got a black eye. It's never good to have a sociopath among your ranks, because it makes everybody look bad. The attendant noise and discussion completely overshadowed more than just the serial, but the comic itself. For a few weeks there, I know that I just wasn't interested in 2000 AD at all, since the incident just sucked the fun out of everything. I read the issues as they arrived, and I have to say that none of it stuck with me. Progs 1602 until about 1610 - bearing in mind that American comic stores were receiving these about a month late - are completely unfamiliar to me. This is why I didn't remember the exact point where Steve Yeowell lost interest in drawing backgrounds in The Red Seas - it comes in episode three of "Old Gods," as night skies become lazy cross-hatching and trees become simple squiggles - and why I wrote a letter to Tharg complaining that I couldn't understand what was happening in Book Three of the ABC Warriors epic "The Volgan War" - sorry, Green Bonce, it wasn't your fault - and why I could not for the life of me remember one dang thing about the fourth Lobster Random story.

In my defense, "The Forget-Me-Knot" - it has the same title as Emma Peel's last episode of The Avengers - really is a dense and confusing story. Lobster Random is among my favorite characters of the decade, but Simon Spurrier seems to have written this story while suffering from a fever. Even allowing for the writer's reputation of being very wordy and full of highwire sci-fi concepts, and the presence of an amnesiac leading man, this is certainly the most complex adventure for the character to date.

Having been rescued from The Vort at the end of that recent "surprise twist" serial a few weeks ago by the reporter Meridien Bless, Lobster has been formally identified. Wanted by police and security forces across the system, he's immediately targeted for execution on sight, but rescued by his old mech-lover Klik, who double-crosses him - she can't help it, she has a double-cross software patch - and delivers him to the two mercenaries who've been pestering him for years. That's when it gets weird. Bless rescues him again and returns him to The Vort, where he hopes that the planet's hallucinogenic rain can restore his lost memory. But then Bless drinks some of the same rain, and Lob starts getting her memories mixed with his.

There's a lot to like about Lob, but with the wild resurrections and heady concepts - there's a big, planet-possessing supernatural force manipulating everything to ensure its freedom - it's somehow lost its fun edge, and that great feeling it previously had that every chapter worked on its own. Once an episodic series in the very best way, it's now the sort of story that demands ongoing reader attention because everything is piling atop each other. It's good - in fact, it's very good and the best thing in the prog - but it's certainly not the Lob that we fell in love with.

It also ends in prog 1610 on a stinking big cliffhanger which everybody involved should resolve to address in 2013. Get on with it, guys!

Next time, we'll try to make some sense of The ABC Warriors, and we'll go as my Wimsey takes me as Ampney Crucis debuts.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

187. Skidmarks!

August 2008: Here's one of the biggest things, potentially, to ever happen to the Judge Dredd Megazine: the irrepressible Tank Girl joins the lineup with all-new episodes. Helpfully, Meg # 275 features not only the first episode in a wild new series of Tank Girl by Alan Martin and her new artist, Rufus Dayglo, but also a new series of articles written by Ed Berridge about the history of British adult comics, which helps put the new story in some context.

Tank Girl, as a strip, debuted in 1988 in the premiere issue of Deadline, although the character had been used in flybills and promotional tat for punk groups for a while before. The creation of Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett, she then became a regular player in the magazine. A heady mix of anarchic comics, left-wing politics and indie rock - one of Melody Maker's most celebrated writers, the late Steven Wells, contributed several features and interviews - Deadline is, decades on, an absolutely wild and occasionally impenetrable time capsule. It's much loved by those who were able to embrace it at the time, albeit somewhat baffling to those of us on this continent even if we were the right age to have loved it or the music that it championed. Tank Girl was the star player, and apparently the most regular feature - I have never seen a proper "database" like those that we trainspotter 2000 AD fans assembled - but other series, including Johnny Nemo by Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins, Wired World by Philip Bond, and Hugo Tate by Nick Abadzis are all well-remembered by many, although, if we're honest, I recall an article about the group Kitchens of Distinction written by "Swells" more clearly than any of the comics.

Deadline didn't survive either homegrown indie rock's breaking into the mainstream in the mid-90s or Tank Girl's debut as a remarkably poor feature film. The movie was such a bust that the backlash helped sink the comic. The movie flopped in April of 1995 and Blur had their first number one with "Country House" in August. The moment had passed, and Martin and Hewlett granted DC's Vertigo imprint.a license to publish Tank Girl. They released some poorly-received comics written by Milligan and retired the character in early '96.

Eleven years later, Tank Girl returned. Hewlett had, by this time, become a hugely successful multimedia artist, and regular collaborator with Blur's Damon Albarn, and gave Martin his blessing to continue without him. Now published by IDW, Martin hooked up with artist Ashley Wood for some mini-series adventures. But Tank Girl works best when it regularly appears in a larger context, and in shorter bursts of material. So, while the IDW releases continued as occasional mini-series, Tank Girl began a residency in Judge Dredd Megazine unlike any seen before. With a couple of single-issue breaks, she was a regular player for almost two full years.

It's difficult to say how much of Tank Girl's original success was down to Hewlett's art, but, while it may be unfair for everybody to downplay Martin's considerable, and ongoing, contribution, it's accurate to say that people do. I recall pointing out IDW's Ashley Wood-drawn Tank Girl to a group of comic-reading friends and acquaintances, and, without Hewlett, none of them were interested. True, Wood's stylized take on the character was a pretty radical departure, but conservative comic readers get their notions and hold onto them for dear life. Dayglo's version resembled Hewlett's a little more closely, and the shorter episodes, usually nine pages each month, more closely evoked the non-linear, anything-goes feel of the Deadline days.

The new Tank Girl launched with a ten-part epic called "Skidmarks" that drew inspiration from the old Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon Wacky Races and the Burt Reynolds film The Cannonball Run. It's the most straightforward, and by far the longest, of Tanky's Meg adventures. Subsequent stories, which appeared through the spring of 2010, would be shorter, much looser, and also quite controversial among readers, but more of that down the line.

I recall being both very excited and very frustrated by the launch of Tank Girl in the Meg. I won't claim to have ever been a fan of the character, though I really appreciate the nice way that Titan repackaged their series of reprint books at the same dimensions as Rebellion's line, which was very thoughtful of them. I think I'm too linear (and boring) of a reader for most of the carefree and bizarre Deadline material, no matter how much I love, for example, Philip Bond's artwork. (I would certainly like to see a Wired World collected edition prove me wrong, though.) Since I did love Rufus Dayglo's artwork, and saw such sales promise in Tanky joining the Meg, I was cautiously optimistic.

But I was incredibly disappointed when, again, Rebellion failed to capitalize on their newest star by, you know, promoting the living heck out of her. The IDW books were selling to some small audience in the States. Even if my anecdotes suggested some resistance, the books still moved, but, as 2008 ended and I began a lengthy look, incorporating several states, at comic book shops across the southeast and up north, I saw many places that sold IDW's Tank Girl but not Judge Dredd Megazine. Retailers had no idea, as per usual, that the character had new adventures here. Rebellion failed to promote it in any real way. If ever there was a time for full-page ads in the Previews catalog from Diamond Distributors, this was it. Another opportunity was lost. This would not improve for another couple of years.

Oh, yeah, and the Meg was now bagged with a "free graphic novel," usually 64 pages and printed at the same dimensions as their line of reprint books. The "Meg Floppy," as it's often called, is still going today, four years later, and seems to serve the dual purpose of gauging reader response to material that might be served by the larger bookstore market, and also getting old material scanned in and resized for the reprint world. This format - 64 pages and bagged with a reprint - has been the standard for the Meg since issue 275.

Next time, Tony Lee gets some hate mail. See you in seven days!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

186. It's not who I thought it was!

July 2008: In prog 1796, a serial called The Vort wrapped up. This eight-part tale of future war on a strange planet where the laws of physics are challenging the human army had readers' suspicion circuits buzzing from about page two. There's a really strange "man of mystery," badly wounded and disfigured, his facial features obscured by hideous scar tissue, among the cast. He's called Crispy, and the main protagonist, a reporter, is determined to learn his secret.

What's more, there's the curious nature of the serial's credits. The artist is the popular and awesome D'Israeli, and the writer is listed as "G. Powell." We'd been down this road twice before. When John Wagner had written The Dead Man in 1990 as "Keef Ripley," that certainly looked like a pseudonym, but this was before any internet-based fandom could get together and speculate about it. The Dead Man established this unusual tradition to hide the identity of the hero: the writer uses a fake name, and the artist, in that case John Ridgway, is one not really known for drawing the character.

This was repeated in 2006, when "Cal Hamilton" and artist Simon Coleby collaborated on a serial called Malone, who was revealed to be Finnigan Sinister. By this time, of course, we had the internet for research and for speculation, and the actual writer, Dan Abnett, anticipated the nosy nature of fans and reused the "Hamilton" name, which he'd previously employed for some work for licensed comics such as James Bond Jr. in the 1990s. Since nobody ever knew that "Hamilton" and Abnett were one and the same, this worked perfectly,

As for "G. Powell," Tharg swore that this was a brand new droid, but nobody believed him. Speculation wasn't exactly running wild, but I had my theory, and I was pretty sure of it. I figured "Powell" had to be Arthur Wyatt. See, the writer Gordon Rennie had taken a sabbatical from 2000 AD around this time, leaving lots of dangling subplots across three separate series, to take on some better-paying work in the video game industry. It was understood that Cabbalistics Inc would be rested for the time being - a really long time being, as it has turned out - but that The 86ers would be resuming in 2009 with Wyatt as the new writer. This series, a spinoff of Rogue Trooper, had been absent for about a full year at this point. My guess was that "Powell" was putting a subplot together - the return of Rogue himself, badly wounded, amnesiac, and calling himself Crispy - and that we'd get a last-page revelation of Crispy as our blue-skinned, biochip-totin' buddy, setting up his move to the Acoma System to hook up with Rafe in the next 86ers story.

This theory made perfect sense. It even worked on the art front, because D'Israeli had never drawn Rogue Trooper before. Of course, he'd never drawn Lobster Random before, either.

Aloha! Crispy was Lobster Random and "G. Powell" was Si Spurrier. So there.

Elsewhere in the Galaxy's Greatest, Robbie Morrison and Richard Elson start a four-part Judge Dredd story in which criminals use an electromagnetic pulse to shut down a city block, with the unintentional side effect of also shutting down Dredd's bionic eyes. There's more Sinister Dexter, and the Nikolai Dante epic "Amerika" moves toward an unforgettable conclusion. For about the last two years of the series, since prog 1511, Dante has been working as Tsar Vladimir's top agent, neither trusting the other, and with good reason. Dante doesn't know that Vlad's armored "Lord Protector" is really his own half-brother Konstantin, and Vlad doesn't know that Dante's been quietly assembling "an army of thieves and whores" to lead a rebellion.

So, Dante has assembled a rough alliance in the streets of New York to repel the beachhead from the alien White Army, and Vlad sees the whole endeavor as, tactically, a big waste of time and resources, and moves his fleet in to just wipe Manhattan, and everybody in it, human and alien alike, off the face of the earth. Dante escapes in the nick of time, but it looks very much like all the people who moved onto the island from the other old boroughs at his urging have all been slaughtered. Our hero completely loses his temper, especially when Vlad and Arkady are all smug and supercilious about their awful abuses of power, and the look on Vlad's face when Dante puts his sword through the old man's stomach is a stunner.

Dante's blow is about six inches lower than it needed to be. As our hero goes down in a hail of energy blasts, he knows that he wasted the effort; Vlad is going to survive, and we poor readers will have an agonizing thirteen weeks to see what will happen to him next.

And Defoe, by Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher, nearing the end of his second ten-part adventure, sees his subplots twist and tangle and get incredibly convoluted in the best possible way. The series does seem to have about twice as many characters as is necessary, but it's really fun. (Tharg! If you're reading, the week before this series returns for story five in 2013, please program a five page "who's who" prologue, would you? Thanks!) I really like the structure, where Titus Defoe is usually deep in the trenches, fighting zombie "reeks" at the street level, completely unaware of all the political machinations going on between Scotland Yard and various palaces and country houses.

The story brings him, briefly, in opposition to a lady of the Prussian court, a diplomat who appears to be slumming and enjoying an illegal pit fight between a brawler and a reek, before she takes her leave of the event. He's then contacted by the secret agent brother of the reporter who accompanied him in the first story, who reveals the reporter's tale about his meeting with the villains controlling the reeks, known as Mene Tekel and La Voisin, alias "Mr. Quick" and "Prussian Blue." Defoe realizes that the woman he met is certainly La Voisin, and this story ends with Defoe and Damned Jones preparing to track her down.

I really do enjoy this series despite the genuine reality that there are a heck of a lot more characters than anybody can keep up with. Wikipedia is some help, although it reveals the deaths of three of Defoe's twelve (twelve!!!) fellow zombie fighters in stories three and four. On the other hand, ten times as many things happen in sixty pages of Defoe than in sixty pages of anything else in print, so you can't complain too much. Also, the reporter and the spy? Their names are Fear-the-Lord Jones and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Be-Damned Jones. How could anybody not love this comic?

Next time, don't get your knickers in a twist, Tank Girl is here!

If you enjoy Thrillpowered Thursday, I'd really appreciate your help in spreading the word along. Perhaps the blog is getting stale, or my writing has become predictable, or we've hit the "familiarity breeds contempt" wall, or something, but readership has been noticeably dwindling over the last six months. I should probably redesign this ugly and old-fashioned thing, were the time available, that's for sure. In the meantime, if you like the blog, please tell your friends. I really would appreciate it. Thank you!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

185. Amerika the Amazing

July 2008: As I create these articles, I often find myself overlooking Judge Dredd, planning in advance to highlight one of the other stories running. "The Edgar File," a major seven-part story by John Wagner and Patrick Goddard, however, demands everybody's attention. Even as Wagner has solidified his skills writing police procedurals and giving Dredd a meticulous and detailed approach to investigation, this one really is a standout. It makes you wish Rebellion would skip ahead in their Case Files to Volume 35 or whatever it will take to start getting big, complete collections of the modern series in print, so that those foolish non-scrots who still haven't caught on can have their minds more easily blown.

In this story, one of Dredd's longtime adversaries in Justice Department, the politically powerful Jura Edgar, is finally dying of cancer, and gives our hero a file with virtually no information or background. She's pulled similar stunts in the past, knowing that Dredd will, impartially, investigate whatever hints can be found in one of Edgar's secret files. This time, there's a trail of corruption that goes right up to the Council of Five, and an influential retired judge who has remained in Mega-City One as a private citizen, and a really surprising twist revelation right at the end about Edgar herself.

There are some artists who handle Wagner's police procedural side better than others. As mentioned a few chapters previously, Nick Dyer didn't really do a very good job with his first effort. That's in part because his fun and whimsical style didn't really match the downbeat and very wordy script. Patrick Goddard is a much better choice for this kind of adventure. He'd already acquitted himself with a fine Dredd procedural about a serial killer, "Your Cheating Heart," in 2006, and this is even better.

As often happens, the rest of the prog is trying to catch up to Wagner's Dredd. Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher's Defoe is huge fun, as is a curious future war serial called The Vort by G. Powell and D'Israeli that we'll come back to next time. Sinister Dexter is here, but the real gem is a really thrilling Nikolai Dante story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser. It's called "Amerika" and it's a complete rollercoaster, full of really unpredictable and wild twists. Dante is not a strip that sticks to a status quo for very long, and this story ends the "sword of the tsar" portion of the series pretty terminally.

It's been understood for some time now that Nikolai has been working quietly to assemble underground forces against the tsar, but it all looks set to fall apart after this visit to the ugly and impoverished North American continent. New York is a decaying, overpopulated mess under brutal martial law, with hints and traces of wealth and wonder. About half the populace has bought into VR implants from the Futura Corporation just to pass the time.

This series is always at its best when Dante looks to be in way over his head, and this one's a jewel for fans who enjoy the character facing impossible odds. He's already confounded about how to protect Jena, who's still furious with him after his last dalliance with the Countessa, from militias and self-styled, super-powered "freedom fighters" - resemblances to various Marvel characters intentional - when it turns out that the White Army is involved. These are the weird extraterrestrials who've been scheming to assimilate all flesh into their techno-organic hive mind, and they've got a much larger beachhead in Amerika than anybody thought...

It's a great story, and Fraser is really on fire with his art. The story is memorable for some amazing and meticulous architecture, with the double-page spread that shows the decaying Manhattan a candidate for one of the most amazing pieces of artwork to ever appear in the comic.

Next time, another surprise twist, this time in The Vort, plus a little more about Defoe and the thunderous finale of "Amerika." Be back in a week!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

184. Nobody saw this coming.

June 2008: Two chapters back, I briefly mentioned a John Smith-written serial, Dead Eyes, illustrated by Lee Carter. Rereading it, I'm not persuaded that it's an overlooked treasure. Smith is, by some distance, one of my absolute favorite writers of comics, but Dead Eyes simply isn't very compelling, in part because the early episodes of this serial are a misshapen, turgid bore about secret conspiracies, ley lines, underground civilizations, and a naughty British government. It's like somebody shook out the contents of an issue of Fortean magazine over the plot of Smith's 1993 serial Firekind.

Dead Eyes gets worse before it gets better. Our hero, Danny, meets a telepathic Neanderthal, Unthur Dak, who's been living in Cthonia, the secret underground world that the secret government shadow conspiracy wants to find. Tensions mount, bullets fly, none of it manages to be very compelling or exciting, and then, in the final episode, with the naughty military-industrial complex at the cusp of victory, Dak lets Danny know that the cavemen have a secret doomsday device, an instantly-activating fungus spore thingummyjig that will entirely wipe out humanity before Cthonia's secrets are revealed.

You may recall from Dr. Strangelove that the whole point of a doomsday device is to act as a deterrent. I was waiting for Danny to ask Unthur Dak, "Why didn't you tell the world?" He doesn't.

Anyway, not for the first time, it feels a lot like Smith wrote himself into a corner and needed his classic creations, Indigo Prime, to pull the story out of a dead end. And so, in one of the absolute greatest and most thoroughly unexpected moments in all of 2000 AD, characters from another series entirely break into the narrative of a story that has been running quite on its own for three months.

Sadly, I had this amazing moment spoiled for me by, of all people, the great artist Chris Weston! In possibly the only time in my life I've ever been aggravated with Weston, who designed the Indigo Prime operatives Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord, he was so pleased and surprised to see them back in action in his weekly subscription prog that he announced it on his blog within a day or two. I had been steadfastly avoiding spoiler threads and the like for all the media that I enjoy for years, but I certainly didn't expect that I needed to shield myself from the personal blog of an art droid who hadn't worked for 2000 AD for ages. I was livid with Weston in the manner of a spoiled toddler for about ten minutes, then I forgave him.

At any rate, the Dead Eyes finale wrapped up 2000 AD's tumultuous spring, with a chorus of voices asking when the proper Indigo Prime series that it appeared to herald would begin. The answer, sadly, was "sometime in 2011." In prog 1590, a new ten-week lineup started, featuring Nikolai Dante, The Vort, Sinister Dexter and the second story for Pat Mills' and Leigh Gallagher's Defoe.

In 2007, Mills had launched two series simultaneously. Greysuit was well received, certainly, but Defoe was by leagues the more popular of the two. In this story, "Brethren of the Night," Mills expands Defoe's supporting cast - too quickly, it could be argued - and keeps throwing a dizzying number of characters and ugly situations at readers. I enjoy how different parts of the British government, fighting hard against the zombie plague, don't really seem to know much about what the others are doing. Titus Defoe is the hero of the story, but in the corridors of Whitehall, he's simply "Newton's man." The spymasters and secret service types are fighting dozens of subtle wars and battles, and the zombie problem is just one of many.

There's a really terrific bit early in this story where Defoe and his gang meet up with Bendigo, a "gong farmer" known to them all as a champion boxer. He's sending young boys down into the sewers to farm for him, and the kids wake up a zombie nest. I love the intensity of this sequence, with the kids desperately crawling through tunnels while flaming monsters chase them down. Gallagher does terrific work throughout.

Interestingly, in the collected edition of the story (available in the first volume, 1666), some substantial relettering was done. Readers complained that some of the narrative captions, a memoir written by Mungo Gallowgrass, were not very legible. They were also done, I'd say, in a script more elegant than we should expect from the weird, vulgar Gallowgrass. I'd call him Mungo, like his friends do, but really, Gallowgrass has no friends.

Next time, Nikolai Dante goes to war in Amerika. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

183. Noir on the Doc Cox

May 2008: In the previous chapter, we looked at a particularly rough patch at the House of Tharg, a period of about three months when there was nothing particularly good appearing in the pages of 2000 AD. This was a sad hiccup, and one isolated to the weekly, because Judge Dredd Megazine was really terrific at this time. Even the oft-maligned Extreme Edition reprint book was going out in style. For most of 2007, that magazine had been incredibly skippable, reprinting as it did both the agonizingly long sports saga Mean Arena across three issues, as well as the similarly-named Mean Team, a rare and massive misfire from the otherwise reliable Alan Grant, John Wagner and Massimo Belardinelli that is - somehow - on the calendar to be reprinted again in book form in 2013. But with that title closing down, soon to be supplanted by a new series of reprints in the Megazine itself after the summer, they went out in style. The final two issues, # 29 and # 30, are excellent. They collect a pile of great Ian Gibson-drawn stories, including all of the episodes - four stories! - that might have appeared in a potential never-published fourth Robo-Hunter book in the Rainbow Spine line, along with the classic shoulda-been hit character Maze Dumoir's single two-part adventure, a couple of Anderson: Psi Division stories, and two Tharg the Mighty stories from the early 1980s.

These Extreme Editions went a long way toward satisfying fans who were not pleased with how the graphic novels treated our old pal Sam Slade. While Rebellion was partnered with DC Comics, there had been two books, Verdus and Day of the Droids. The second of these suffered from that periodic DC malady of having pages printed in the wrong order. Once Rebellion started its superior line of books, a third collection, Play it Again, Sam was one of the first. It sits on the shelf, alone and unloved, the number "3" on its spine reflecting its awkward status, as the first two books were never reprinted with the Rebellion trade design, and the potential fourth book was used for the last two Extreme Editions instead. Eventually, in 2010, they'd all be replaced by two excellent phonebook-sized editions.

Meanwhile, in the world of new comics and not reprints, writer Rob Williams teams with artist Rufus Dayglo for a new Low Life adventure. This is the seventh story, and the first to appear outside 2000 AD itself. It is Dayglo's only work on the series, and one of the installments that uses Aimee Nixon as the lead character. Dirty Frank doesn't even make a background cameo appearance this time.

Low Life seems to bounce back and forth between the harder-edged, undercover noir thrillers and lighthearted romps, and "War Without Bloodshed" is firmly in the first school. It's an incredibly mean story about labor issues at one of the city's ports. Union agitators are putting the squeeze on business owners, forcing them to hire human workers instead of using robots, even for dangerously unsafe jobs. Williams hits on an incredibly interesting topic here; I don't know that the subject of organized labor in Mega-City One has ever been addressed before, except in passing, and probably tongue-in-cheek. Of course, it's all a cover for something bigger and uglier.

I have mentioned in previous installments that the artwork of Simon Coleby, who illustrated the previous several Low Life stories, never appealed to me. Holy anna, is Dayglo ever a revelation. He just nails this bleak, dark story of desperate blue-collar workers. His Aimee Nixon is ugly but commanding, a character who can blend into the shadows or dominate the action. I love his designs and his use of balance on the page. It's just a superb triumph, and while this series would, in 2009, take a quantum leap in another direction, this brief, tough detour into "On the Waterfront" territory reads like the pilot for an incredible, downbeat series that never was. Put another way, Low Life's next reinvention would instantly become a huge favorite with everybody, but this story, and the direction it pointed, was equally thrilling to me.

Another story that pointed at other things was Bob the Galactic Bum by the veterans Alan Grant, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. A version of this eight-part story had previously been published, in color, by DC Comics in 1995, although the creators retained the trademark on the characters that they devised for it, and the copyright on the story itself. Reprinting this story, and placing all of its elements firmly within the creators' purview, required a few art and lettering corrections. The original printing of Bob was set in DC's mid-90s outer space continuity, including a military superhero force called L.E.G.I.O.N., a bloodthirsty alien race called Khunds, and the incredibly popular antihero Lobo, who prominently appeared on the covers of all four issues of the miniseries.

So, with a little bit of ink and white-out, the Khunds became Guunts, and L.E.G.I.O.N.'s leader Vril Dox became Doc Cox, and, triumphantly, Lobo became a very big and very ugly woman named Asbo. That's her, uglifying the panel above, while Bob, a WC Fields-like grifter who only has a mind for himself and can think his way out of every conceivable situation, dusts himself down.

Since I have never found Lobo particularly amusing - I was just too old and boring when he was introduced, I suppose - I passed on these comics when DC first released them, despite the track record of the creators. Man alive, did I ever miss out. This is completely hilarious. It's huge fun watching Wagner and Grant design another completely bizarre feudal planet with lunatic old traditions - this one involves blindness and broccoli - and having Bob, a silver-tongued devil who manipulates the hell out of everything, skate through the proceedings bent on short-term gain and having no idea, and no concern, what havoc he is wreaking around him. Asbo, who is tracking down a lost prince of space who's been caught up in Bob's latest scheme and, naively, thinks this hobo is his guru, is similarly a gem of a creation. 2000 AD does not own the character of Asbo, but she'd be welcome in the comic anytime as far as I'm concerned.

For about a year and a half prior to this story beginning, the Megazine had printed a one-off story by a Small Press creator. This was a good way to include comic pages but keep costs down, since the rights were retained by the creators. This transitioned into the "creator-owned" slot in the comic, with Bob first up for eight issues. Bob would be followed by quite a lot of Tank Girl, about which, more soon, and then Lilly MacKenzie, American Reaper and most recently Snapshot. Some of these have been more popular than others, but honestly, I would trade most of 'em for more from Bob and Asbo. Either in separate series or on their own, they are each phenomenally fun and hilarious characters, and I would love to see them both again.

Heck, can you imagine how poor ol' Sam Slade would fare against Bob? Great god of robo-hunters, your old pal wouldn't stand a chance!

Next time, Dead Eyes ends with a triumphant surprise, and Defoe returns with guns blazing. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

182. One Disastrous Lineup

April 2008: It's simple arithmetic: at some point in any editor's time in charge of an anthology comic, there is going to be a "worst moment." In the case of 2000 AD, for my money, Matt Smith's one and only utter fumble at the helm came for a three-month run in the spring of 2008, when, flatly, the only thing in the comic that was any good was a three-week Nikolai Dante adventure. When it ended, all that was left were ashes, with even Judge Dredd stumbling badly, and, in a grisly reminder of certain patches in the early 1990s, not one of the five stories was worth reading. The best of them was a one-off serial called Dead Signal by Al Ewing and PJ Holden, which, to its credit, offered up a cliffhanger to episode four that really was thunderously wild and weird. It even made up for the fact that the reliable Holden fumbled the cliffhanger to part two so badly that it's impossible to tell what the heck you just read. Coming just a few pages after a similarly baffling and confusing cliffhanger to an episode of the interminable The Ten-Seconders, it really is very memorable. The following week, it turned out that the helicopter chasing our hero Marc vanished into thin air. That's not what it looked like.

But wait a minute, you may say. Even Dredd was a mess? In a very important continuity story written by John Wagner? Sadly, yes. The culprit is a major five-part story called "...Regrets." Previously, the judges had chosen to relax the anti-mutant laws and begin allowing genetically-altered immigrants from the Cursed Earth to enter the city. For ceremony and good press in the rise of hateful public outcry against this measure, the first mutant people allowed to visit are Dredd's kinfolk, the Fargo family, whom we met in the epic "Origins" in 2007. This is a critically important story, and it deserves artwork with some considerable impact. Sadly, it is given to an artist who is still at the early stage of his professional career, the wonderful Nick Dyer, and he makes a complete and utter hash of it.

Dyer has improved massively since "...Regrets," and I really do like his breezy, McMahon-influenced style, but, flatly, this artwork is a complete mess. I'm sympathetic to his problems following Wagner's script, however, because here is a rare example of Wagner himself completely stumbling. For many of us, Wagner is above criticism, and I do believe that he's just about the best and most consistent writer of comics in the business. Nobody is perfect, however, and here, Wagner is very badly in need for Smith to step in and edit his scripts. I realize that's a downright blasphemous idea in most quarters, but this is an occasion where it is true. There is a bizarre imbalance between small panels packed to full with copiously large word balloons full of police procedural gibberish, and large action panels that Dyer has difficulty filling. Consider the panels below, particularly the second.

Dyer's solution to the problem of that many words is to basically give up and donate the panel almost entirely to negative space. This should never, ever happen in a comic. "...Regrets" is like this constantly; indulging Wagner's fetish of having people say "do this, and then this, and then have somebody do this" is a huge violation of "show, don't tell," and Dyer doesn't know how to manage it. Now, frequently, readers are happy to indulge Wagner's fetish, because, in the hands of Flint or Ezquerra or MacNeil, it can read as riveting, but sadly not here.

As unfortunate as this is, it's still better than most of what's going on. I'll come back to Savage by Pat Mills and Patrick Goddard another time down the line at length, but briefly, Book Three had ended with the occupation in tatters and those stinkin' Volgs getting packed to go home, and then there's a mammoth offscreen gap of three years where they reoccupy England and readers have to figure out what the hell went on and who anybody is, because nobody explains anything. It ends with a major climactic episode where the first two pages are - madly - entirely silent, with no help to readers trying to understand what they're reading.

Worse still is the second and mercifully final story for The Ten-Seconders by Rob Williams. The first story had been flawed but, grudgingly, there was a little promise left. This time out, it is a complete disaster. Three separate artists are drafted to explain this mess, and only one of them, Dom Reardon, displays a dime of competence in telling a coherent story. But even he's lost with at least three separate casts of characters, none of whom refer to each other by name, with no narration. It's impossible to follow.

After three weeks, Reardon is replaced by Shaun Thomas, who further confounds the narrative by drawing all the leads as though they're bank robbers with panty hose on their faces. About halfway through the story, people do start referring to each other by name, and so I'm now reasonably sure that the characters whom I referred to in the first adventure as "Beardie and Beardie" are actually called "Malloy and Harris." They still look and dress identically. "Welsh Beardie," I think, died.

Then Ben Oliver takes over with episode seven and things fall completely apart. Oliver makes Nick Dyer look like a grizzled retirement-age professional, with pages of drawings that have no sense of even being related to each other. There's a scene in a hangar with Malloy - I think - training a jet aircraft's weapons on one of the alien gods. Not one participant in the scene even appears to be in the same location as anybody else. One character looks exactly like a Patrick Nagel painting of the lead singer of the Sisters of Mercy, though. That's something.

So in other words, you've got Ewing and Holden stumbling through a very complex serial, Wagner putting his poor artist through the twelve labors of Hercules, Mills electing not to tell anybody about a stunning development between stories, and Williams and the Three Stooges hitting readers over heads with hammers instead of patiently explaining the story. Compare these adventures to the ones that opened the year: Kingdom, Shakara, Stickleback and Strontium Dog. Never mind the Monday morning quarterbacking and wish that Tharg had juggled some of these stories so that the spring was not quite so dire, the run is made up of stories that feel like word balloons and captions fell off at the printers.

I'm a strong believer in comics being entry-level at almost all times. It may not be "realistic" to have characters think in complete sentences, or refer to each other by name when the reader first meets them in any given chunk of story, but comics aren't meant to be realistic. They have a language unique to art, and sometimes they can appear graceless, clunky, and inelegant to readers when spoken aloud, that's true, but I am presently rereading a lengthy run of DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes from the early 1980s, and, despite the oft-heard moan "The Legion is confusing!" from some comic fans, you honestly have to be a willful, stubborn mule to be confused as to who the characters are and what's happening in the stories, because the pacing is clear, the artwork is visually distinctive, characters don't look like each other, background details are explained in narration and thought balloons, and the dialogue allows each character to clearly name and identify the others. At this stage, during this spring, 2000 AD is failing miserably on this front, with one exception.

I didn't mention Dead Eyes, a serial by John Smith and Lee Carter, above, because, unlike its peers, it's a very straightforward and comprehensible story, and not guilty of confusing readers. However, it is guilty of both telling a story that Smith's already told, and also being incredibly boring.

So here we have a nature-loving culture that's into harmony with the planet and no use for technology but all sorts of time for esoteric, passionate sex, and a fellow who meets the culture is pursued by violent, greedy military types, and the fun lovemaking gets abruptly interrupted with bullets. If you enjoyed 1993's Firekind, in other words, here it is again on Earth, in a dreary, mud-painted exercise in post-X Files forteana, with Chtonia, Agharta, stone circles, ley lines and Neanderthals, and an evil, nasty British government full of secret agencies and kill teams.

Dead Eyes is just plain awful, and that's in part because it spends a solid month spinning its wheels having characters talk conspiracy jargon to each other and slowly, turgidly, make their way to the big city underneath a stone circle. Carter's artwork is printed far too dark, but, because he designs the characters to be distinctive from each other, and Smith, despite his reputation as difficult, is professional enough to keep the dialogue and explanations very clear, and so at no point is it ever confusing. No, it's just incredibly dull, and that's despite the presence of trademark Smith dialogue like: "Down's Syndrome orphans moulded by Masonic mind-control techniques into post-modern metrosexual killing machines for the state."

Mind you, the serial does have a hell of an ending. I'll come back to it in two weeks, though. This has been so long and depressing that I want to read better comics for a moment, like the ones running at this time in the Megazine...

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Savage: The Guv'nor (Volume Two, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Collected editions of The Ten-Seconders and Dead Eyes are anticipated in 2013.

Next time, so we'll switch back over to the Megazine to weather out this storm and talk about Low Life. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

181. Old and New

March 2008: In the previous chapter, we looked at how 2000 AD's first lineup of 2008 was completely terrific, but honestly, the Judge Dredd Megazine is every bit as wonderful. At this point, issue 269, the structure is quite similar to what readers in the present day will find in the issues on newsstands, except for the polybag and the little reprint comic; those come a few months down the line. Each issue contains contains about thirteen pages of text and articles, and four strips. The major text feature is an interview with one of the many artists or writers who've worked on the Galaxy's Greatest. The previous three issues had featured a detailed talk with Alan Grant. This time out, it is artist John McCrea, who also contributes the colorful and wild cover painting.

Of the strips, one is a creator-owned property, and this time out, it is Bob the Galactic Bum, about which, more in two weeks. One of these is a ten-page Judge Dredd episode, and it's backed up by two nine-page episodes from the Meg's stock of characters, usually set in Dredd's universe. It's not quite ideal, and the running complaint for the last five years, at least, has been a desire to see some more comics and fewer movie reviews. With thirteen issues a year, that's only 26 slots for new non-Dredd episodes, and leaves everybody wishing for more. This time out, the backup slots are filled by Armitage by Dave Stone and John Cooper, and Tempest by Al Ewing and Jon Davis-Hunt, and they are both excellent.

This is the first Armitage story in five years, and it's a very welcome return for the cranky old detective. It proved to be very popular, and the character has, happily, been a more frequent guest ever since; three further stories have appeared since this one, and they've all been terrific. For those unfamiliar with the character, he's a plainclothes detective judge in the very corrupt world of Brit-Cit, where, in a world not entirely unlike the Oxford CID of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, you can only advance so far up the chain of command without approval from old fraternal orders and secret societies. Armitage has been investigating weird and violent crimes with great success, but has made lots of enemies. He's a terrific character, and for the first time since the early 1990s, he'll have a consistent look across three stories, as John Cooper becomes his regular artist.

Personally, I think that Cooper is a terrific choice, and he really does a great job visualizing the unhappy, tough, lowered-eyebrows look of Armitage himself, just as he had done decades before on such comics as Johnny Red in Battle Picture Weekly, and, later, the popular Action Force. Clearly, Cooper's artwork has an old-fashioned look, and, while I'm a big fan, even I can't claim it's really successful in conveying the future shock of this bizarre metropolis. Writer Dave Stone was, earlier this year, a little more direct, praising the series' most recent artist, Patrick Goddard, in comparison with Cooper: "I'm liking how Armitage turned out, if only cos it now looks like it was drawn in the 1990's (sic) rather than in 1974." Yes, Cooper is certainly from an older school, but I contend that he did a fine job anyway. Some of the series' earlier outings had, unfortunately, been undermined by artists who confused the storytelling and the layouts. Even the reliable John Ridgway had left 2003's "Apostasy in the UK" something of a chore and a challenge to follow. Cooper just makes things incredibly clear, and even if his style is not to Stone's liking, he really succeeded in getting things done well.

Stone doesn't get a lot of press or fan attention, but he's a really excellent writer who enjoys the craft and the tradition of writing. In his interviews and forum posts, he really shows off a lot of critical knowledge of his peers, knowing what works and what does not. In "Dumb Blond," he does a magnificent job hiding a clue in plain sight. The reader is supposed to wonder, after a couple of episodes, whether the title might be misspelled, because the story seems to be centering on a female victim, and should therefore be spelled "Blonde." This is reflected in the story itself, giving Armitage just that extra bit of insight. It's a very clever bit of detective fiction, really wonderful writing, and it's certain to leave readers wanting more. Some of the earlier Armitage stories have been reprinted in the freebie-floppy "graphic novels" (in Megs 287, 289, 290 and 304), but some bookshelf editions are long overdue. I count about 446 pages of Armitage, plus 30 of his partner Treasure Steel. They could do that in two books; three if the editor would be so good as to commission a long and proper run of stories for the next few years.

I didn't leave myself much time to talk about Tempest, who is the first ongoing character to be created for the comics by Al Ewing. The writer had previously written some one-offs and a short serial called Go-Machine, but this is the first time he tackles something with legs. This first adventure, drawn with dynamic panache by newcomer Jon Davis-Hunt, starts following a con artist in Mega-City One ripping off a crime boss of many millions, only to be caught almost instantly, so he flees to the Undercity.

The Undercity is one of my favorite concepts in Judge Dredd's world. The quite goofy idea is that huge chunks of present-day America, including Manhattan in its entirety, had been simply concreted over as the Mega-City was built. This has resulted in some pretty stunning imagery in the hands of the series' artists - Arthur Ranson's depiction, in an old Anderson: Psi Division story, of a darkened, ruined Times Square under a concrete sky is breathtaking - and a host of wild ideas about what kind of villainous evil is thriving underground. Everything from mutant armies to werewolves to pied pipers to Aliens have lived down here, and now our hero has to navigate them in a desperate search for some old computer databases. Suddenly, there's this incredibly violent and powerful mustached clown in some sort of downmarket judge uniform who insists on helping him out.

After surviving some ridiculous, over-the-top threats, capped by a delicious cliffhanger wherein Tempest asks his hapless ally exactly when it was that he ever actually claimed to be a judge, Tempest tells his backstory - his secret origin, if you will. It is balderdash. It's one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator in comics, flatly and matter-of-factly telling an unbelievable tale about a zen supercriminal and a dedicated, by-the-book supercop called Judge Tempest who's devoted decades to proving his existence. The whole thing is just huge fun, and it's a big shame that when Tempest returned in 2010, it was in a story not nearly as entertaining.

Next time, it's back over to the weekly, to observe that the spring lineup is... well, not quite as strong. In fact, it is a mess. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

180. One Awesome Lineup

February 2008: It's four and a half years before the release of Dredd, a film adaptation of 2000 AD's flagship character. The film will star Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, and Lena Headley, and be acclaimed by a wide spectrum of filmgoers and fans as one of the very best of all comic-to-movie adaptations. Dark, brutal, uncompromising, and very violent, the movie is, by any criteria, a complete triumph. Any criteria other than financial, sadly. Its North American distribution is left in the hands of the incompetent boobs at Lionsgate, who couldn't market beer at a football game, and whose strategy seems to consist solely of telling theater owners that it would be a hit but neglecting to tell anybody else, anywhere. The film performs well in Europe, but in the United States, it flops, ignominiously, despite incredibly good reviews from dozens of critics, leaving the prospect of any sequel films in doubt. We'll never get the Ampney Crucis TV series that I want at this rate.

Four and a half years before people started pointing fingers at film companies, however, 2000 AD released an issue with this amazing cover of Shakara slicing a tyrannosaur's head in half. Who has time to be discouraged about movies when you've got this in your funnybooks?

The first lineup of 2008 has got to be one of the comic's all-time best. In fact, it's so darn good that, when we come back to the weekly comic in two installments' time, and see what a complete mess the spring '08 gang is, everybody will be Monday morning quarterbacking, asking what in the heck Tharg could have done to avoid the quality plummet that starts around the time of prog 1577. See, what we've got in these issues includes a really terrific seven-part Dredd adventure by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil called "Emphatically Evil: The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe," along with the third Shakara story by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint, the second adventure of Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, the second Kingdom story by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, and another rollicking Strontium Dog case by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.

Which one is the best? Take your pick at random and you could make a strong case. Wagner's two stories have a comfortable feel, even as Dredd is breaking new ground. When we last saw PJ Maybe, disguised as Byron Ambrose, he had been elected mayor of Mega-City One. Now, he's dealing with a copycat killer who's somehow implicated the mayor in his crimes, while Dredd and Hershey revisit the mutant problem. Ambrose/Maybe figures out who the mystery serial killer is, but just after the judges do, leading him to take out his pique on the "true crime" writer who inspired the murders, and the judges vote to relax the old mutant laws. This is going to prove enormously huge, and drive the next few years of Dredd's stories. Comparatively, Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer collecting bounties and busting heads is nothing new, but very entertaining. This will actually turn out to be Wulf's last appearance to date, I believe. The next two "flashback" stories are set before Johnny and Wulf met, and then the series will move to "the present," and finally start telling stories set after "The Final Solution."

Meanwhile, in Stickleback - my favorite of the five, but only by a hair - the Victorian-era supercriminal and his weirdo gang cross swordsticks with Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, and a bunch of other Americans who are performing in a traveling circus when they're not pilfering London of weird, occult treasures. This story's got everything from zombie cowboys to steampunk robot battlesuits to Chinese dragons. It's a complete triumph, but, perhaps, not one of character drama.

What goes on in Kingdom when Gene the Hackman finds a colony of humans and a strange species of gigantic, telepathic ticks is miserable and tragic on every page. You can't empathize with the cast of Stickleback, even with the new and strange mystery about his deformity possibly being a bizarre costume instead, but Gene's tale is a heartbreak on every page. The reader knows better than Gene not to entirely trust these good-natured people, even while sympathizing with their problem. They're under siege from the alien insect "them" outside the fence of their colony, and it's a slow and deliberate siege. Gene quickly understands what the humans don't - the bugs are testing their defenses and slowly wearing them down over months. But there's far more going on than that, and secrets being kept from Gene. He doesn't like that at all.

That leaves Shakara, who is cutting dinosaurs in half. This time out, we learn more about this series' wild and ugly universe, and that the red-eyed, mad-eyed screamer seems to be descended from, or a survivor of, some similarly loud and violent blue-eyed species. Lots of things get cut in half, and the giant psychic eyeball people come back, and we get both a recurring supporting player in the absurdly curvy form of Eva, and, in a thunderously effective cliffhanger, a wild new recurring villain. And he's got blue eyes.

But never mind that, scroll back up and look at that cover again. Do you see what Brendan McCarthy drew? It's SHAKARA CUTTING A TYRANNOSAUR IN HALF. I don't know why anybody ever reads anything else.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Kingdom: The Promised Land (Volume One, from Amazon UK)
Shakara: The Avenger (Volume One, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stickleback: Mother London (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
Strontium Dog: Traitor to His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, it's over to the Megazine as veteran artist John Cooper gets a new assignment, and new writer Al Ewing creates a very strange new character. See you in seven days!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

179. Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children

September 2007: We're just going to have to do something about this Betelgeusian menace, friends. Not content with fanning the flames of lustful women and corrupting children's minds with the first story of Stone Island in the summer of 2006, the pornographer from Quaxxan is back with even more pulchritude and full-frontal male nudity in the second. Twice. The first time, it's on a dead fellow, again. Boys, you don't want to star in Stone Island, because the odds are pretty good that you're either going to suffer the body horror nastiness of having your outsides elongated and turned into some long-beaked killing machine, or you're going to die and be stripped naked, all your secrets revealed by Simon Davis's elegant painting. Well, as elegant as you can be with your entrails ripped out. This is a nasty, ugly, visceral comic book, and, five episodes into story two, following up the pair of murdered-and-stripped fellahs in the first tale, we're at our first dead and flaccid cast member. (Intentional.)

At that point, we've already seen off this beautiful cover by Frazer Irving, who, last I checked, was still enjoying the nice paychecks from doing trademark protection work for DC and Marvel. He is notable for being one of the artists to contribute to the last Marvel Comic that I bought, a black and white one-off anthology called The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange in 2010. Inside, it's his final-to-date job for the House of Tharg, pinch-hitting for Arthur Ranson on the fourth adventure for John Wagner's Button Man. Sadly, the cover art here is the best thing about the story, which is by far the weakest of the series, and totally unnecessary.

"The Hitman's Daughter" makes the baffling decision to reduce Harry Exton to a supporting character in his own strip. It's about the very skilled and highly-trained Adele Cotter, who's in her late teens or early twenties. About fifteen years previously, her father, one of the gun-toting fighters in The Game, had been killed by a few other players while Adele hid silently in a closet. Harry Ex was apparently one of the four men who came to murder her old man.

Irving's work is, sad to say, far below his usual standard, the beauty of that front cover notwithstanding. Apparently, he was invited to contribute as Ranson's health and eyesight had been fading, leading the much-loved creator to retirement. That fantastic series of interconnected Anderson: Psi-Division stories from 2004-2006 ("Half-Life" / "WMD" / "Lock-In" / "City of Dead" / "Lucid") seems to be Ranson's final major work. There are certainly elements of greatness in Irving's artwork, and, if anybody had to step in for Ranson, then Irving was a good choice, but much of his work here feels quite rushed. Episode twelve, in particular, is full of very heavy black lines and "mushy" faces, as though the dreaded deadline doom was looming. The big, climactic gunfight in an abandoned shopping mall is confused and disorienting. It honestly doesn't feel like Irving mapped out his environment before dumping his characters into it. Worst of all, the previous three stories had such incredibly memorable, thrilling endings, and this one is completely forgettable. I had honestly forgotten how it concludes until rereading it.

There's still a lot to like about 2000 AD during this summer run. There's a series of very good Judge Dredd episodes, and, as mentioned last time, Caballistics Inc. and The ABC Warriors, which are both huge fun. This second story of Stone Island, on the other hand, seems pretty pointless and forgettable, despite the presence of another dead naked man, and then we get to the final episode in prog 1559 and... oh, my.

The other dead men in the story were so dead and so ravaged that their nudity was incidental. Something's sort of different when the dead man is a reanimated corpse, walking around all blue and purple and striding around in the altogther. And unlike another blue-purple reanimated corpse with incredible powers in an old comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Simon Davis puts considerably more detail into this fellow's altogether than the two little squiggles that Gibbons drew. Kind of a mixed message when we all want to see more kids reading 2000 AD and the audience to grow, and at the same time the comic provides parents with a reason to, as some British newspapers say, "ban this sick filth."

Good God, man, cover yourself with some word balloons or something. Why, Tharg, why, indeed.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:

The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 2 (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Button Man: The Hitman's Daughter (Volume Four, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)

That's all from Thrillpowered Thursday for now! I'll be back in October for more, and in the meantime, pop over to the Hipster Dad's Bookshelf for the next few Tuesdays for reviews of more recent 2000 AD stories and collected editions for your shelves.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

178. General Public!

August 2007: On the cover this month is Blackblood, the treacherous and nasty ABC Warrior programmed for backstabbing, double-crossing, and evildoing. When the character was first introduced in 1979, the shtick was that he was one of the no-good evil Volgans with whom our heroic Warriors were battling, and he was shut down, abducted, and reprogrammed to fight for the allies. So as the memoir-based epic "The Volgan Wars," written by Pat Mills and drawn by Clint Langley, returns, it's natural that when Blackblood gets a chance to share one of his old war stories, it's from the other side, and a story about sending brave young hammersteins to the smelter, where they could be turned into AK-47s to help the war effort.

Back in May, I was telling you about the first chunk of this 288-page epic, and I'll refer anybody curious about its four-chunk format there to learn more. This phase of the story sees Blackblood and Deadlock telling their tales, while, in Broadband Asylum, the Volgan warlord robot Volkhan has come back to life and convinced Mek-Quake to join his new army. The segments with Blackblood are the most entertaining, thanks to a fantastic running gag that goes on for weeks and never gets old. Not programmed to understand the idioms of decadent Western speech, Blackblood thinks that the phrase "the general public" refers to a top-secret Allied commander. Torture, murder, war crimes, they all mean nothing to Blackblood, who is bound and determined to ferret out the elusive General Public.

The lineup for this summer's run of stories is a really good one, with Judge Dredd in a number of short adventures and one-offs by a variety of creators, culminating in the sequel to "Mandroid" by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, The ABC Warriors, Stone Island for its second and final story by Ian Edginton and Simon Davis, Button Man by John Wagner and Frazer Irving, and, in its epic conclusion, Caballistics Inc. by Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon. Except we didn't know at the time that this was going to be its conclusion.

I do enjoy Caballistics, but in its most recent appearances, the individual adventures got lost in subplots. The previous "story" was called "Changelings" and ran from progs 1469-1474 and the actual storyline that dealt with changelings was about a quarter of the narrative. I think that Rennie recognized that he was juggling lots of characters and lots of continuing plots, and needed to resolve things before moving forward. Then he decided not to move forward any longer.

At 40 pages, "Ashes" is the longest Cabs story, and it sees the team dealing with the old threat of one-time Department Q member Mr. Magister, a sociopath with incredible psychic powers, and then using Magister as an unwitting ally against their benefactor Ethan Kostabi, who's been revealed to have a much darker agenda for the team than they realized.

The conclusion leaves any future stories in doubt. Dr. Jonathan Strange had been killed in the previous story, and Ness meets his end this time. Chapter and Verse are summarily dismissed and referred to as being very grievously wounded, but, bizarrely, not shown on-panel in the end. It's left unclear as to whether Kostabi was telling the truth about Verse's maiming, or whether Hannah Chapter would ever walk again, and for such a popular character to have her fate handwaved is really, really odd. It's an apocalyptic and wild conclusion, and huge fun, but Chapter and Verse deserved a little better than that.

About two months after this story ended in October, one final-to-date Cabs episode appeared in Prog 2008. It set up some new plot threads, looked in on a supporting player, and did not mention Chapter and Verse. This leaves the story in a very, very weird place as far as fans' ability to sit down and read the darn thing goes. Earlier in 2007, the second collected edition, entitled Creepshow, was released, reprinting about the second half of the series, through 2006's "Changelings." But then there are only two stories, just 50 pages, left, leaving this epic climax unreprinted. I imagine that Tharg and Gordon Rennie have at least talked about doing some more stories, and they know more than they're telling. If there is more Cabs in the pipeline, then they should get to work on the damn thing, and if not, then "Ashes" and "The Nativity" should be collected in one of those freebie floppy "graphic novels" bagged with the Megazine, and then the whole series should be re-collected in a single, large edition that will replace the existing two. They should get on that as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, for those of us who enjoyed Cabs for its weird, dark, occult stories, in 2011, Rennie took the supporting character of DI Harry Absolam and spun him off into a series of his own, kind of. Apparently set in an alternate reality where there might not have ever been a Cabs team, and where vowels don't appear in the same order, Absalom debuted in prog 1732 and there have been three stories so far. Drawn magnificently by Tiernen Trevallion, it features an aging, alcoholic London copper and his team of police spookbusters, and is so darn popular on its own that people might resent space being given over to more Cabs when we could have Harry double-dealing, drinking and demonizing instead.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 2 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Button Man: The Hitman's Daughter (Volume Four, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, speaking of the general public, we'll see what they have to say about nudity in comics when Stone Island finds a way to push everybody's buttons. See you in seven days!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

177. Samantha Slade: The Short Goodbye

July 2007: It has been five years. I think it's time to accept it. Ian Gibson isn't coming back. Neither, in all likelihood, is Samantha Slade. This is the story of her ignoble and stupid end. It should not, honestly, have come to this.

So, to recap: in the early 2000s, Ian Gibson started drawing color pin-ups of Sam Slade's granddaughter Samantha, whom he designed. Perhaps, it was thought, there might be some interest from John Wagner in returning to the world of Robo-Hunter...? Wagner passed on the idea, but his longtime associate and former co-writer Alan Grant picked up on it, and, in December 2003, the first new Robo-Hunter story with Samantha, the first Gibson-drawn, canonical Slade story since 1985's "Farewell, My Billions," debuted. It had its fans and it had its detractors, but even the most lovelorn of us must have agreed that Gibson had turned in superior work in the past. Two follow-up stories in 2004 saw the artwork continue to divide opinion. Alan Grant's writing was solid and reliable, but Gibson was clearly not giving this his full attention. It is my contention that the subpar artwork proved the death knell for the character. Those who disliked the series frequently called out its slipshod appearance. Their arguments had merit: Gibson was not drawing backgrounds, not being in any way innovative, in short, he was phoning it in. This was very curious, since he created the character.

The fourth story, 2005's "Stim!," was a mammoth improvement. This upswing continued in 2007's "Casino Royal," as both of these featured far more intensive and considered artwork from Gibson, and not just because he remembered to include some backgrounds. The writing was solid and amusing and certainly had that old Slade spirit. It is likely, however, that readers who found the three 2003-04 stories unacceptably lazy and slapdash had their minds made up and were not prepared to reconsider the genuine improvements that Gibson had made.

"Casino Royal" ended with Samantha jailed and a new arch-enemy triumphing over her, gloating ever so briefly before dismissing her as irrelevant, from an island getaway. The bad guy had won, and our heroine was jailed, perhaps for good. But wait! It turned out that Alan Grant had a whole pile of new storylines and subplots in which to indulge. "Casino Royal" was actually to be the first in a major story arc for Samantha that would take in new characters and new settings as she globetrotted her way to revenge against the criminal Five of Spades. And so, just three months after the cliffhanging conclusion of "Casino Royal," Samantha was back in a new five-parter called "I, Jailbird."

But something was terribly, terribly wrong. Gibson was not bringing his A-game anymore. Not even his C-game.

It's fair and reasonable to say that Gibson is a, shall we say, mercurial talent. His enthusiasm comes and goes, he's curmudgeonly, grouchy, a very harsh critic of his own work, and he has spoken with considerable candor and disappointment about some of his art that failed to meet his own high standards. I consider him absolutely a genius and one of the most important and influential talents in the comic medium. And the ten pages that he bothered to draw from the 25 page script are the worst ten pages he's ever drawn. They are the absolute nadir of his work.

I am privy to a personal email between Gibson and a reader that I should not have been allowed to see, and from which I won't quote, but in it, he honestly and dismissively admitted that the script, the worst in a long series of scripts that he disliked, had bored him so much that he abandoned it, his work not even half-done, and, from the look of it, completed over the course of about an hour and a half. In the sequence above, selected for thematic continuity with the sequence below, he didn't even bother drawing the vertical stripes on Samantha's prison uniform. Shortly afterward, in one of his columns for the website Den of Geek, he made a passive-aggressive comment about how he was unhappy with his page rate, thinking it should be proportional to the always-increasing cover price of the comic. Way to burn bridges there, Gibson.

I'm not sure what offends me the most about Gibson's utter lack of professionalism here, but the inclusion of that red scarf should make any longtime reader's blood boil about how the artist approached this. You might recognize the scarf. It is Ace Garp's from the classic series Ace Trucking Company, which was written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, and drawn by the late Massimo Belardinelli, who had passed away in March. Grant added the scarf to the script in a sweet tribute to a much-loved artist, who had himself, years previously, just decided that the character would wear a sentient aviator's scarf which would be jumping around and interacting with the rest of the page without any direction from the script. I think that it was just downright thoughtful and clever of Grant to add the scarf to Samantha's world, and just have it, silently, cause a ridiculous amount of trouble as it did whatever the hell it wanted to, although here, it is used as an actual plot element and not just whatever the artist feels like having it do. (My favorite was probably when it reached behind Ace and started brushing GBH's teeth.)

Massimo Belardinelli deserved better than to have this tribute illustrated so poorly. I feel really strongly about that.

So, anyway, Grant had written another perfectly good little Samantha story, which has the lunatic and frantic pace that any good Robo-Hunter story should. Prison overcrowding has given Samantha the opportunity for very early release, and, with the "help" of a defense attorney droid who looks like Leo McKern, this incredibly violent mind-of-its-own scarf, and her two idiot assistants - rebuilt since the last story and determined to cause more trouble - Samantha ends up escaping from the Old Bailey when she was just about to be paroled, and is on the lam, bound for Calais, where she hopes to assist another new character, Trudy, who claims to be the rightful Queen of France.

Coming in to pinch-hit for Gibson is the reliable Anthony Williams. In the early nineties, when Mark Millar was writing those really bad and bloodthirsty Robo-Hunter stories that made everybody question their resolve for living, Williams was one of the six (six?!?!) artists who contributed, and did not do a bad job at all. Those were actually two really good stories, so long as you look at the pictures and don't read the word balloons. Williams is a good go-to artist, I think. He doesn't, honestly, have that unpredictable and wild edge that really defines a 2000 AD art droid as a classic model in the eyes of the fandom, but he does the job reliably and I'm always glad to see his work. That said, something is terribly, terribly wrong when anybody says "Thank God that Ian Gibson's gone and Anthony Williams is here." That is what I said.

Robo-Hunter ended with Samantha swimming the last few meters across the English Channel, a caption at the bottom of the final page promising us that she would return soon in a story called "La Revolution Robotique." Buckaroo Banzai will probably fight the World Crime League before that happens. I think that, behind the scenes, the editor was not able to resolve the differences with Gibson about his unhappiness with the script or his page rate, and Gibson has not worked for 2000 AD since. His last material to appear to date has been a pin-up of Halo Jones that appeared in prog 1550, four weeks after his last Robo-Hunter page. It was probably too late to do anything about the final episode, far too late for a rewrite, and so it was published with the "Revolution" tagline, though I suspect that all involved were glumly aware that it was very unlikely. Not to knock the really excellent and underappreciated work on Sam Slade by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes in 1993-94, but the long, considered opinion at 2000 AD since Bishop's time as editor in '97 has been that characters should be managed by their creators. Without Gibson, there is no Samantha.

And I think that's what aggravates me the most about how Gibson handled this. Look, I'm just a loudmouthed fan with a blog and a love of the comic, and I often speak with an intemperate, downright American-volume opinion that has often resulted in comical misunderstandings between myself and more reasonable people in Europe. But seriously, folks, why the blankety-blank did Ian Gibson not pick up the telephone and actually talk to Alan Grant about what he wanted from the scripts? I do not understand this, and I never will understand this. It really breaks my heart that two of my favorite comic creators came together to put together what should have been a real 2000 AD classic for the modern day, with a much-needed female lead, and the damn thing fizzled because of such dumb reasons and a lack of communication. I don't know what the heck Gibson wanted, because as far as I can see, the scripts were on target and terrific almost all of the time, but I know how he could have addressed it. He should have picked up the phone and called Alan Grant and said "I didn't like that one, and here's why. Let's make the next one better."

It should not have ended like this. Samantha should have settled that Robotique Revolution in '08 (in a twenty-episode mega-epic, yes, indeed), and then she should have solved some lunatic problem on the Orient Express or something while making her way to the Pacific to get even with that darn playing card. Samantha should have become, and been promoted as, 2000 AD's lead female character, a woman not superhumanly beautiful or drawn cheesecake-style, a woman who didn't need a male compatriot, just mind-blowlingly aggravating robot scarves and cigars and... frog-kit-things. She was just a competent, fun character who relied on her wits and her intelligence and learned as she went, and was often in way over her head in classic comedy moments.

If you'll forgive me getting political, 2000 AD really has made great steps lately in presenting positive female characters. Maggie Roth from Angel Zero, Rowan Morrigan from Age of the Wolf, and Mariah Kiss from Indigo Prime are all examples of the character that we'd hope to see more of in the comic. They're sort of undermined a little by retrograde steps like allowing Judge Maitland, in her second appearance last month, to show off her cleavage so ridiculously, but overall, the comic is definitely making long-overdue steps on the right path. Samantha, despite her lineage as a descendant of a male lead character - that problem affects both Judge Anderson and Durham Red, also recently written by Alan Grant - pointed the way forward.

She should be here still, and even though the realist in me accepts that she's probably never coming back - five years is a long time - it's not too late. Maggie's story was told in a single serial, writer Alec Worley has explained that the third Age of the Wolf will be the last, and somehow, stupidly, Indigo Prime has not resurfaced after its TRIUMPHANT twelve-part return last year, and so who the heck knows when Mariah will be back, or whether she'll get any lead time amid all those other characters, so there is a definite gap. Anthony Williams hasn't had the opportunity for any new work since Sinister Dexter was shelved, and I would honestly welcome him as the character's permanent artist. If we ever do get to see that blasted Revolution Robotique, the only complaints would be from nonscrots, grexnixes, and people who just plain don't like girls.

The sensible among us miss Samantha. We're waiting on the shores of the continent, fearing that she's been swimming an awfully long time.

But you know... just last week, Tharg announced that The Simping Detective was coming back after a five year absence. With a new artist, too.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Defoe: 1666 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The 86ers: The Complete 86ers (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Greysuit: Project Monarch (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter in Judge Dredd: The Ian Gibson Collection (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine 309)

Next time, oh, grouchity-grouch, I dunno, Caballistics or something, I guess. See you in seven.