Thursday, April 5, 2012

164. Nothing Looks Quite Right

Welcome back to Thrillpowered Thursday, the blog where I reread my collection of 2000 AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, along with its sister titles, and tell you about the wonderfully fun stories that I enjoy. I try to look back at things with a little sense of history and context, and for the next eight weeks, I'll be looking at some issues that were published in the second half of 2006.

In the present day, the comic celebrated its 35th anniversary in February, and perhaps you, dear reader, might be scratching your head wondering why in the world I would schedule some down time to go dark during the festivities, particularly as it was during the 30th anniversary that I started thinking about writing about the comic, its history and fandom. I have not actually been idle, as regular readers of all the Hipster Dad blogs know; over at my Bookshelf blog, I've been featuring a 2000 AD-related review every week - eight of 'em since I last wrote here. Check 'em out, and then tell your friends, share the links and spread the word. It's always good to let your friends who don't read Tharg's Mighty Organ of Thrillpower know that it isn't only you who loves this stuff. It's how we get new readers, I'd say.

But anyway, what I do here is look at the stack of comics-to-reread and schedule issues every fifth or sixth or so along the teetering, toppling tower that might spark a thing or two that I might want to talk about. And so we come to June of 2006 and Judge Dredd Megazine # 246, which is a good point to bring up Matt Smith's editorship of this title and the teething troubles that he appeared to have settling into things. Of course, charting the history of the Meg, as David Bishop did in very great detail over the course of a series of articles that had recently concluded at the time this issue was published, shows just how schizophrenic and unpredictable the comic is. The Meg has changed focus, page count, size, number of reprint pages, you name it, every few years and, under the editorship of Alan Barnes, it had spent about three years being unmissably good. It was a solid, fantastic, hundred-page book with five new stories of about 8-12 pages in each issue, backed up with some choice reprints from the pages of both 2000 AD and Battle Picture Weekly and some excellent text features.

Unfortunately, declining sales have meant that the good times have come to an end by 2006 and, while there is still a lot to love about the Mighty Meg today, the issues of the present just don't have the breadth to compare with the Barnes model. But before we get to the strong uptick in quality that makes today's Meg a very good read, there's this mess to deal with. For starters, there's a four-part Judge Dredd story called "Regime Change." It's got a very good script by Gordon Rennie that sees Mega-City One overthrowing the corrupt leaders of the South American Ciudad Barranquilla as part of an international "peacekeeping force." Unfortunately, there's the art by Inaki Miranda and Eva de la Cruz.

Now, part of what has made Dredd such a memorable strip is the editors' willingness to let artists go off-model. Wild experimentation is what led us to the memorable imagery of, say, Kevin O'Neill and Brendan McCarthy. But that's one thing, and this refugee from muscle beach is another.

To their credit, Miranda and de la Cruz provide some excellent pacing and clean, coherent storytelling, but with wonky anatomy and easy outs-via-stereotyping and caricature, the whole story really does look crass and unpleasant. And while there is certainly a long tradition of the Judge Dredd comic strip indulging in below-the-belt racist comedy in the artwork, that is a tradition that had mostly been tamed for what seems like at least a decade before two Sino-Cit judges show up, all buck-toothed and ready to frighten us with their yellow peril. The artwork was barely floating in the first place before, with one panel, the whole thing gets torpedoed.

It's not just Dredd that looks sloppy and ridiculous, though. In Fiends of the Eastern Front, the almost-always reliable Colin MacNeil elects to letter his own artwork. Not one person on the planet is pleased with his choice of font.

Mercifully, Matt Smith steps up and puts a stop to this after three episodes. The remaining five are lettered by the long-serving Annie Parkhouse, who does not use that font. I think that there's a lesson here for all of us.

"Stalingrad," the first new comic adventure for Fiends since the original in 1980, is further hampered by its bizarre scheduling. It is running alongside the third adventure for Pat Mills and Simon Davis' Black Siddha. Both were commissioned by Barnes, but the budget crunch and loss of pages has left Smith without the space available to run them as they were produced. I believe that both were planned as six episodes of eight pages each, but Smith has only six black and white pages and six color pages for new comics other than Dredd in each issue at the time, so they each get spread over eight months.

The problem, of course, with doing that is that a comic paced as an eight-page episode loses all of its impact when, in its first month, you only get six of the pages and an abrupt ending, and then, in the second, you get two pages where the action rises to a weird climax, resolved over the third and maybe the fourth page, and then moves through the first half of the scripted second episode. A monthly episode needs at least eight pages to "breathe" properly anyway, and this inelegant solution doesn't benefit either story at all.

Having said that, I've argued (most recently over at my Bookshelf blog about ABC Warriors) that, at this point in his career, Mills is writing without concern for cliffhangers anyway. The Black Siddha story, "Return of the Jester," appears to be a single 48-page story and it might not matter how well it is divided, except that it simply doesn't have the impact, carved up the way that it is. "Stalingrad" fares even less well, as its writer, David Bishop, was certainly thinking in terms of individual episodes with specific rises and falls in each installment.

I guess another thing that happened since the last time I wrote in this blog is that Mills gave an absolutely epic three-hour interview for the ECBT2000AD guys and their podcast, and he took another swipe at this Fiends adventure. Bishop had previously been commissioned by the prose publisher Black Flame to write three or four Fiends novels that were pretty well-received, but it certainly didn't please Mills to see anybody else writing Fiends comics other than the strip's creator, Gerry Finley-Day. While the production issues - and, I'm sorry, Colin, the lettering - certainly impacted everybody's enjoyment of Fiends, Mills' comments about anybody other than a strip - any strip's - creator scripting new episodes were appreciated by Smith, who declined to commission any more stories. But he also hasn't commissioned any new Black Siddha either, leaving the story with a reasonably happy ending for its hero.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Fiends of the Eastern Front: The Complete Fiends of the Eastern Front (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, the Red Seas are underground and Rawhead and Bloodybones are in London Town. See you in seven!

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