Thursday, January 19, 2012

161. Synnamon and Frag

February 2006: Here's a very rare example of Tharg programming a variant cover for his mighty comic. For prog 1476, there were two available: this one, with the red background, featuring the heroic ABC Warriors, and a second, with a blue background, featuring the villainous Shadow Warriors who are opposing them. For a very, very brief time, I owned both covers. See, in 2006, I was ordering two copies of each issue of 2000 AD, because the grexnix non-scrots at Diamond Distribution would so often miss an issue if a shop only ordered a single copy. If a shop ordered two, then the shop was certain to get one copy of every prog, and miss about two of the second copy every year. So I was ordering two copies and giving the extras to a friend. I thought, briefly, about keeping both versions of prog 1476, but I figured my collection wasn't as important as giving my friend the thrillpower, and so the blue copy went to him and I completely forgot about it. About five years later, he returned a big box of these extra copies, as he was moving house and didn't have the room. I sold a few on eBay, and got frustrated with some batches that did not move, and got a message from a buyer looking for a particular run, and who would pay a very handsome and welcome price for them. I sorted out his order, and realized that, for the second time, the blue-covered 1476 would be finding a new home. I suppose I'm just not meant to own it.

More than a decade before prog 1476, the nearly endless Strontium Dog story "The Final Solution" was coming under fire for taking for-freaking-ever to be told. Truthfully, it sort of had that reputation coming, as it began in prog 600 and didn't finish until a year and a half later. It ran in five separate batches of between three and seven episodes, at one point ducking out for a break of nine months. "The Shadow Warriors" sensibly avoided that sort of reputation despite taking, literally, twice as long to tell. For one thing, "The Final Solution" had every fan and reader desperate to learn what would happen next in this clearly game-changing and wild adventure, and "The Shadow Warriors" is just another long and weird ABC Warriors tale. But more importantly, writer Pat Mills had, by this point, firmly structured his stories as being told across "books." Readers understood and accepted that when we last saw this story back in prog 1405, it was the conclusion of "Book Two" of this story, and we were not going to just get little drip-feeds of episodes whenever the artist could get some pages back to the Command Module.

Back around the era of progs 600 to 700, it seemed like darn near everything was taking little breaks of a few weeks between episodes - Moon Runners, "Cinnabar," "Soft Bodies," various Rogue Trooper "Hit" stories, that second Zero story, the one on the blimp - and "The Final Solution," the one that everybody actually wanted to read, just became the poster boy for deadline-blowing artist failings. A more ordered Nerve Centre, a more structured system for telling the story with planned breaks, and greater general satisfaction with the state of play means that really, nobody at all seemed to complain about the - grief! - SEVENTY-ONE issue break before Book Three got started.

So was it worth the wait? Well, "The Shadow Warriors" is very much an over-the-top and glorious mess, full of insane ideas and loopy logic, with crazy weapons and a staccato delivery. I think it's the best ABC Warriors story since "The Black Hole" back in 1988. What might you think? Well, have a look at this image below.

See that weird pixelation on Deadlock? That's a bullet wound. He's been hit by bullets that phase in and out of alternate realities and do damage across multiple dimensions. I figure, either you think that doesn't make any sense whatever, in which case the excess of this story probably will not appeal to you, or you treat it like I do, and want Mills and Henry Flint to keep blowing your mind with downright weird and crazy stuff like this in every episode. Soon, Blackblood will be throwing banned grenades called holocusts that corrode all metal and get himself turned inside-out, and Hammerstein will have some "eggs" implanted in him that birth robot snakes that stick out holes that they eat through the sides of his head. Glorious.

1476 also sees the final episode of Synnamon as her third story, "Arc of Light" concludes. I've said my peace about this misfire previously, but "Arc of Light" really is notable for being a huge mess. To its credit, prog 1473 had given the character a magnificent cover by Dylan Teague. Should this series ever end up as one of those "graphic floppy" reprints bagged with the Megazine, that will have to be the cover. But oh, this story is such a disaster. I don't think it had a point at all other than to demonstrate, again, how nasty and unscrupulous Synnamon's big mean bosses are. The final page was so incredibly confusing that one of the writers actually waded into the cesspool that the official message board can be just to explain what in the hell David Roach drew. Basically, it looks like Missing-His-Back Boss Guy shot the poor innocent trapped-in-space dude, and then Synnamon looked all sad and teary, and then made a loud, funny noise and climbed some fancy decoration on the wall or some furniture or something, and then left a lot of broken bits over trapped-in-space dude's body and walked away. Evidently, that was her way of quitting.

I hate to say anything critical about David Roach, who's a super artist and a friend to anybody interested in the history of British comics, but when the strip's writer has to step in and explain what it is that the artist was drawing - see, the fancy decoration was the Super Secret Synnamon Space Spy Agency's insignia - then the artist has really not done the job well. It makes you wish that 2000 AD had the budget for an art editor like they did back in the IPC days, because there's no way in heck that Robin Smith would've let that get through. The evident moral from these paragraphs: It is okay if your script doesn't make much sense, just so long as the art does.

And so with Synnamon concluded after three stories over two and a half years, the doors are open for a new series. Debutting this week in a one-off prologue is one of Si Spurrier's masterpieces, Harry Kipling (Deceased).

When it comes to designing lead characters, Spurrier gets what Synnamon's writers, Colin Clayton and Chris Dows, seem to have missed. 2000 AD should be the home of very weird heroes. I can read about practically perfect space action babes with big boobs in tight leather in any number of comics, but cod-Victorian zombies with monocles, big moustaches and elephant guns and an addiction to Earl Grey can only be found in the Galaxy's Greatest. I might have gone a little overboard with my love of Spurrier's Lobster Random - wait, no, I didn't, that series is amazing - but 2006 was the year of Harry Kipling. Literally. He was only in fourteen episodes, criminally, all published in this calendar year. I don't know why I'm so nice about Spurrier's comics when he stops writing the damn things just as they're getting spectacular like he does. Then he goes and writes Silver Surfer for Marvel.

So this prologue starts with a mother telling her family the horrible story about how the father died, putting a little backstory together about how a space-faring Britannia started ruling the stars. It's a scenario not entirely unlike the Gothic Empire from Nemesis the Warlock Book Four. You've got pith helmets and aliens and steampunk all bearing down on some aggressive aliens that take advantage of the faith of the weak and feeble to pose as gods. All the time this backstory is developing, suggesting that the Neo-Britannians have come and gone, there's a violent force slowly making his way along their trail.

That's when artist Boo Cook plays a masterstroke and reveals that this is not some innocent mother and children, but rather a hideous mythological whale-god from some belief system or other, and all the various demigods beneath her. Harry Kipling is very much alive and very much of the opinion that nobody needs to believe in decrepit things like her when there's a Union Jack to be unfurled and fisticuffs to be delivered under Queensbury rules. Man alive! And we had to wait five weeks to see the next story?!

There were only six Harry Kipling stories, totalling 75 pages, and spread across 2006's issues. Rather than giving the character a consistent run of 14 weeks, Tharg tried the experiment of dropping the short adventures in throughout the year, usually following some other character's longer story. Maybe it didn't work in terms of building momentum, but it really kept everybody excited to see such a frequently recurring series. Sadly, criminally, Kipling was retired after 2006. There was one story that I remember feeling a disappointment, but there was a developing subplot about a very addictive drug being used by these false gods that showed a lot of promise. Perhaps one day, Tharg will reprint these stories in one of those "graphic floppies" as a lead-in to Kipling's long-overdue return. Particularly with Boo Cook's art looking better than ever these days, I bet a new series of Harry Kipling (Deceased) would look completely wonderful.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Only The ABC Warriors has been dusted off, in The Shadow Warriors (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, after there was Rogue Trooper, there was... The 86ers! See you in seven days, friends!

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