Thursday, April 12, 2012

165. Dragged Here and Drowned Here

June 2006: While the Judge Dredd Megazine is struggling through its latest set of growing pains, 2000 AD is reliably strong. That terrific cover by Boo Cook heralds the return of Harry Kipling (Deceased) in the third of six stories that will be programmed throughout the year. Isn't that just beautiful and eye-catching? I love it to bits. Other stories this week include The VCs by Dan Abnett and Anthony Williams, Judge Dredd by John Smith and Simon Fraser, and this week's focus stories, The Red Seas by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell and London Falling by Si Spurrier and Lee Garbett.

The last time I had the opportunity to write about The Red Seas was back around chapter 158, when the fourth story, "Underworld," was running, but I had other things to talk about. At this point in the series, it feels a lot like Tharg isn't giving it the chance it needs to shine. "Underworld" and this story, "The Hollow Land," form a linked, 22-episode run in which Captain Jack Dancer and his crew, allied with his considerably less immoral half-brother Alexander, have gone into an underworld beneath the earth searching for their father Simeon and a mythical eighth sea, finding a gigantic kingdom of dinosaur men with a knowledge of human warfare tactics. What I mean about "a chance to shine" is this: Tharg seems to want to rush through them. This isn't a case, as I sometimes often nitpick, of how they would read better in a 22-week slot over five months. Rather, "The Hollow Land" is set some weeks after "Underworld," and roars back from its break with a fantastic double-length opener in prog 1691 that really uses the extra pages to its advantage, letting Yeowell loose on some terrific splash pages full of dinosaurs and battle. No, the problem is that Edginton has paced and balanced his episodes quite finely, anticipating a twelve-week run, and Tharg ruins the flow by cramming in two episodes an issue for the second half of the run, so that it can be finished up in eight weeks before the all-new stories in prog 1500.

It's probably a little churlish of me to complain about 2000 AD's occasionally-troubling treatment of female characters when, in recent months, the comic has done so incredibly well with characters like Maggie Roth, Rowan Morrigan and Mariah Kiss, but while "The Hollow Land" has a lot to recommend it, the revelation that the violent dinosaur men are under the control of Jack's former sweetie Isabella really is a mess. We met Isabella in the first "Red Seas" story and she was a little troubling then. A magician, she was more powerful than any of our band of heroes (and, unfairly to Edginton, who really did take the time in "Underworld" to establish the individual characters of Dancer's crew, I still call the pirates who serve with Jack "Davy Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich," and have no idea which is which), but she served the plot function of "sexy damsel in distress" and nothing more.

Her reappearance here seems desperate and very ill-planned, like Edginton wanted "a face from the past" to surprise Jack as a villain, and then realized that the series hadn't run long enough for anybody but Isabella to function as one. And so in Jack's absence, Isabella "got strong," which, all too often with female characters, means that she turned into a villain. Seriously, it's not like this character was designed with a great deal of nuance in the first place - Jack's first words in the narrative to her were "Get your knickers off," after all - but this feels rote and tired. For a series that's so very full of really surprising and high-concept twists - in this story, Jim gets killed by Isabella and his body revived and inhabited by an alien called Hnau, for instance - this chestnut of a plot device is a real disappointment.

But while The Red Seas may be suffering, at this point, from Edginton being so focused on the structure and the concepts that he's lost sight of original and novel characterization, the artwork is just thunderously good throughout. In "Underworld," the scripts required Yeowell to illustrate some scenes that would have challenged anybody else in the business. Most of the London-based, "above ground" material is what you'd expect for a series set in 1761 that sees "suicide bomber" dinosaur-men assassins hunting some pirates - all right, so perhaps the words "what you'd expect" don't really belong in a sentence like this - but when the plot goes underground, it gets completely wild. Yeowell is given the amazing task of drawing the gang's ship, powered by air sails and balloons, racing through gigantic, cavernous tunnels and pursued by huge, flying monsters that look like luminous jellyfish. There are certainly panels within this sequence where the visuals are so downright strange that any reader must pause to question what the heck they're actually looking at, but Yeowell pulls it off better than almost anybody else could be expected to, honestly. It's every bit as wild, in its way, as Kevin O'Neill's early '80s stories in the Terror Tube.

This continues as "The Hollow Land" reaches its climax, and we meet Hnau, the alien entity responsible for this world. Edginton's debt, one that he has certainly acknowledged, to Wells and to Burroughs, is pretty clear here. Again, Yeowell is tasked with drawing some downright bizarre imagery to illustrate the place that Hnau occupies - I dunno, in a conventional story, you'd call it a "palace" or a "fortress," and Dancer's gang would like to think of it that way, but it doesn't really work the way that they want it to - and part of me thinks that this sequence would have been more consistently comprehensible with a little color to nail down, or ground, the artwork, but Yeowell still knows enough about how to pace a scene to make elements incredibly memorable. The slow pullback to reveal Isabella's final fate, suffocating, trapped on an alien world, and about to be eaten, is a real classic.

While there were bits in The Red Seas where the artwork left me baffled, Si Spurrier's script for London Falling had me utterly lost the first time I came to it. This was a story that had me frustrated and I soon gave up. It's a short little serial, just five episodes, in which a gang of immortal boogeymen, "hiding out" as everyday Londoners, decide to follow an old boss back into the limelight after he gets his panties in a twist because nobody's scared of them anymore.

Now, Spurrier, god bless 'im, has always been a very dense writer who demands close reading from his audience just to follow the action. His work is complicated by an often unreliable first-person narration - not necessarily a bad thing - and lots of slang - again, not necessarily a problem, especially when he's dealing with the often comical "future slang" of Lobster Random - and very abrupt transitions between scenes. I think one small part of my initial problem is that Garbett is young and learning. Perhaps the color is another part of the problem? It's credited to Chris Ollis & Ruby, of whom I don't believe we see much more in 2000 AD, and it's unflatteringly solid and uniform. Whoever's to blame, the artwork doesn't give any sense of location or the passing of time. In episode two, two of the boogeymen characters are dropped off at Buckingham Palace. This is not explained in any way, in dialogue or visuals. When we see the Palace in an establishing shot two pages later, the boogeymen have changed their forms, forcing us to go back and speculate that the action in the episode's final third was carried out by the silent characters seen, briefly, in the first third.

The slang in the captions was a real nightmare for me to follow. Here are some examples from prog 1492: "first thing in the gypsy," "a boot up the aris," "two 'undred donkey," and so on. There's a lyrical bit towards the beginning about how two churches on the banks of a river got their names from giants who shared a hammer, emphasizing the feel that this is a story rooted in language and old traditions, and helps clue readers in by a very different approach than what we might expect in a comic, like establishing shots and captions that describe the location. It's complex, but there's value to it.

When I first read it, I made the mistake of suspecting that I would have an easier time following it if I knew who the characters were. I caught that these were villains from old English folklore, but I only knew of "Black Annis" from a reference in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol for DC Comics, and "Rawhead and Bloodybones" from a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and had never heard of "Jenny Greenteeth" or "Jack Capelthwaite" before. As it turned out, knowledge about them isn't actually necessary. All that you need to know is that they're all boogeymen. This kind of contradicts the gang's leader, Shuck, who gets all bent out of shape because nobody knows anything about them these days, though, doesn't it?

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Harry Kipling (Deceased): The Complete Harry Kipling is scheduled to be republished as a free "graphic novel" bagged with Megazine 323.

Next time, it's full frontal nudity in Stone Island!

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