Thursday, January 12, 2012

160. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

January 2006: The year begins with a pretty strong lineup of four popular returning series and one new thrill, a fairly typical breakdown of stories for a relaunch period. Judge Dredd is investigating a serial killer in a six-part story by John Wagner and Patrick Goddard, and Slaine is at work in a carnival-set storyline only notable for the appropriation of a Bob Dylan lyric as the cliffhanger to the penultimate episode. The Dredd story is reliable and engaging, but it's the other three stories that catch my eye this time out.

The Ten-Seconders is written by Rob Williams and illustrated by Mark Harrison. It's set in a grim future, where pockets of surviving humans manage a meager existence in the wake of the planet's devastation. Some years before, a "family" of powerful aliens arrived, affecting the appearance of angelic superheroes. They were hailed as saviors, but turned on the world and left it a wreck. The series, therefore, explores a possible future in the wake of the sort of carnage depicted in previous iterations of this kind of story, such as Alan Moore's Marvelman or Grant Morrison's Zenith. The color, the fighting and the mayhem is all in the past, and the gray, miserable present is all that small outposts of survivors have left to them.

The series, for one crafted to avoid the "hook" of watching the superbeings betray the planet and destroy it, is nevertheless written very effectively. It is one of the most promising series to emerge in the mid-2000s, and that's despite some surprisingly ineffective art by Mark Harrison which threatens to sink the whole thing. Normally a very reliable and engaging artist, Harrison's work here doesn't move me at all. Perhaps he's guilty of overthinking things, but while it's certain that a world this devastated would exist in a permanent state of clouds and darkness, it's no fun looking at page after page of battleship gray backgrounds. Men no longer able to reliably find disposable razors probably would have trouble shaving, but it doesn't help readers determine who is who, when, in a main cast of four, three of them are older fellows in fatigues with full facial hair. So it's the story of Beardie, Beardie, Welsh Beardie and Teenage Girl in Ball Cap.

Occasionally, we cut to see what the aliens are up to, and Harrison's panel compositions are bizarre, to say the least. Throughout the story, nobody is posed in a conventional way, and the "camera" is never at the same point that any other comic artist would consider placing it. It is a huge challenge to follow, and things will get much more difficult when the second story, in 2008, sees three separate artists assigned to it.

Still, despite all the many problems with the art, readers who persevered found something exciting and different within. Given an artist more inclined to follow expectations and play this safe, this might be better remembered, and not quite so much the near-miss that it's considered.

Running alongside it is an extremely interesting six-part Caballistics Inc. adventure. "Changelings," by the regular team of Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon, sees the writer feeling very confident that his readers are ready to follow along without question, and he quite safely throws the expectations of narrative right out the window. For fans who have been around since the beginning, knowing the characters and the subplots, this is business as usual, if more frenetic than some earlier adventures. I accepted all the goings-on without question, and it was not until I sat down and looked at it before I realized just how weird the structure of the story is.

Take this week's episode. It moves through four separate scenes with different sets of characters with just a single caption. Not a "Meanwhile, back in London..." and not even a "Meanwhile," just abrupt transitions from one place to another, expecting the readers have read the previous episodes carefully. Anybody coming to this as their first episode of Cabs would be hopelessly lost. And that's an overused cliche, but I mean that on a slightly different level than usual. This week's episode, as it jumps from scene to scene, does not even have a single narrative clue or establishing shot to allow readers to understand that the incidents are happening in different places.

Over the course of the story's 30 pages - and I use "story" pretty darn loosely, as it's really more "a chunk of narrative time where various subplots are recounted and expanded somewhat" - we catch flashbacks to 4000 BC, 1672 and 1922, and see members of the team kill a rakshasa. Chapter and Verse meet a little girl who sends them on a quest into the underworld kingdom of fairies, Ravne shows Jenny "his etchings" and we see that he's got the supporting player, Mr. Slater, in a tank of some kind, Dr. Brand finds clues that their benefactor Ethan Kostabi is many hundreds of years old, and then, in one of the comic's all-time classic cliffhangers, he gets pushed to his death in the London Underground, brutally murdered by his teammate Ness for as-yet-undisclosed reasons. Over the last two pages, the long-imprisoned Magister, a character introduced a year and a bit previously, is seen to have escaped his island prison. Now, the first of these two pages is pretty striking and the last is absolutely glorious, but at no point does the script pause even a breath to explain who this character is. Strangely enough, this will be the last appearance of the series for more than a year, as it takes a very disagreeable hiatus until late 2007.

The Ten-Seconders, with its unconventional artwork and after-the-fall premise, is challenging to anybody who tries it. Caballistics Inc. , with its unconventional script, is challenging to anybody who comes to it fresh. From the perspective of knowing the characters, the Cabs "story," despite giving no quarter at all to its audience, is certainly terrific, and only has one flaw: the plots do not appear to proceed across the same length of time. There is, for example, a necessarily large gap in time between the death of Dr. Brand and the questioning, by Inspector Absolam, of Ravne and Jennifer about his death. This gap is not matched at all by the concurrent plotline with Chapter and Verse and the fairies, which continues as though everything else in the story was happening at the same time. This is a common danger to comics that I don't think writers ever even notice while they're constructing them. David Anthony Kraft, writing Marvel's Defenders, did this once in the 1970s, where a single fifteen minute chase-and-fight scene between Valkyrie and Lunatik in New York City was taking place just one "meanwhile" caption away from the B-plot in Russia, which stretched over the course of several days. Suffice it to say that once a reader notices this, it's not possible to ignore.

So these are two stories that I enjoy in spite of the obstacles thrown up by the creators. On the other hand, there is Strontium Dog, which is lovely, conventional and the great gag this time is that the characters don't look quite right. Working on a planet where the natives don't have hair, Johnny Alpha and Wulf have to go bald to fit in.

Their previous adventure, "Traitor to His Kind," was a mean, downbeat and serious political thriller. This, however, is one of the lighter Strontium Dog adventures. Assisted by a big fellow bounty hunter whose mutation is thick, white, Womble-like all-over body hair - he's one of the occasionally-appearing Fuzz family - they've tracked a criminal with the trademark-tweaking nickname of The Plastic Man to a planet where he's waiting out a statute of limitations, and where Fuzzy is wanted on multiple counts of bigamy. His hair has had the native girls swooning, but the local police take monogamy very, very seriously on this world, particularly when hirsute fellows come to town and woo princesses.

While the death of Dr. Brand proved to be among the most stunning dramatic cliffhangers in 2000 AD's history, Johnny and Wulf losing their hair, and Wulf's trademark bushy beard, is certainly one of the funniest. Prog 2006 had run the first two (produced) episodes as a single, double-part installment, and that's how that chunk of the story ended, with our heroes shorn and shaven and ready for action. I'd like to think that Carlos Ezquerra had to pause for a few moments and spend a little more time with his sketchbook than usual figuring out what Wulf actually looked like under the beard. It's terrific.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Caballistics Inc.: Creepshow (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Slaine: The Books of Invasions Vol. 3 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Strontium Dog: Traitor to His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, before there was Zombo, there was... Harry Kipling (Deceased)! See you in seven days, friends!

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