Thursday, April 19, 2012

166. Body Horror

August 2006: With, for this issue only, a heavier cardstock used for the cover and four new stories, prog 1500 has the feel of something really important. Everybody likes that terrific front cover by Boo Cook, which is not done justice by the small reproduction of it here. It is a detail-packed little masterpiece, with a gigantic crowd of 2000 AD characters cheering on a Justice Department parade while various recognizable spaceships and things fly overhead. It's like a "Where's Waldo" game - There's Quinch! And Zenith! And the Speedo Ghost from Ace Trucking Company! - and Cook certainly seems to have had a ball with it.

The lineup for this relaunch is Judge Dredd in "The Connection" by John Wagner and Kev Walker, about which more next week, Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, Malone by Dan Abnett, writing under the pseudonym Cal Hamilton to preserve the surprise twist in episode six, and Simon Coleby, and Stone Island, a new horror serial by Ian Edginton and Simon Davis. The lineup will be expanded in the next issue with the return of Banzai Battalion by Wagner and Steve Roberts.

Stone Island gets off to one of the best openings that any comic could hope for, but man alive, did this thing ever get bloated and ridiculous before it ended. The double-length first episode really is amazing. It begins with a new arrival at the Long Barrow prison briefly remembering the act that got him incarcerated. Over the first two pages, we see David Sorrel arrive at the cottage that he shares with his wife, look through the window to see her with another fellow. Sorrel brutally kills them both, and stands above their naked, bloodied bodies, his fists clenched in rage. Then he arrives at the prison, making him an extremely curious choice for a protagonist. Gerry Finley-Day, after all, had the sense to make Harry Twenty a political prisoner of a corrupt regime.

There's a lot more to Stone Island than it appears. For a few weeks, it looks like we're following Sorrel and another prisoner as they're fighting for their lives from horrible monsters in the prison. That's the big twist at the end of episode one, which had been played as a straight, real-world drama up to that point: an inmate who got on the losing side of Sorrel in a cafeteria fight and is in the prison infirmary is twisting and mutating into some alien beast. Then it's a desperate race for survival and escape as more inmates turn into monsters. It feels like a terrific movie.

Davis's work on the story is as lush and engaging throughout as we've come to expect from him. He really feels like he's at the top of his game here, and all the characters have that natural realism that defines Davis's best work. A few episodes into the story, we meet a woman who's hiding in the garage along with a warden. We learn in the sequel, where she surprisingly becomes the series' lead, that her name is Sara and she is impossibly beautiful. I think that Davis, in 2005-06, was really fired with imagination and interest. It's not just the beauty that he's bringing to the page - see also the lip-bitingly erotic final night that Ray and Tracy spend together in the Sinister Dexter adventure "...and death shall have no dumb minions" - but he's also engaging in some wilder than normal comedy over in the Megazine and the third Black Siddha story at this time. Then there's the body horror element. Between Stone Island and the more recent Damnation Station and Ampney Crucis Investigates, we've become used in recent years to Davis's depictions of transmogrified people and bizarre, ugly aliens, so it's hard to remember just how unsettling his beasts were at first. These first depictions of Grice, his skin stretched thin to contain his growing skull and lizard-like jaw, really are revolting in the most obscene way. Davis nearly offsets the gruesome imagery with some almost comical eyeballs, and it slightly lessens the impact, but it's still unpleasant and hideous and really works well.

At the time, however, the artwork that caused the most comment was the depiction of the murder in episode one. Unless a cheeky artist hid something they shouldn't have drawn in some detailed art sometime previously, the panel with the two murder victims was the first appearance in 2000 AD of full-frontal male nudity. It's far from erotic - the man's been beaten to death, gruesomely - but it certainly prompted comment, none of it very positive. Later in the story, there's more on display in a bravura anatomy lesson with a man with most of his skin stripped away. Apparently figuring that controversy's a good thing, Edginton and Davis remembered this when they put together the sequel story in 2007. More about that mess down the road.

Meanwhile, on the High Seas, Nikolai Dante is finally moving into the endgame of the long pirate saga which began way back in Prog 2003. By this point, Dante has risked absolutely everything to bring his mother as his captive to her Pacifican rival, Akita Sagawa, hoping for a last-minute inspiration or change of circumstance that will let him come out on top and rescue the two kids he's been working to save. It doesn't work out right for him, and "The Depths" ends with Katarina captured and Dante left for dead. When Lauren and the pirates pull him out of the wreckage, he's got a mess to talk himself out of.

This final run of eight episodes (comprising two stories, "The Depths" and "Dragon's Island") sees the pirate story finally coming to a grand finale, with the Dantes and their allies, including Lauren and that daring duo Flintlock and Spatchcock, in a massive full-scale naval war while Tsar Vladimir's forces wait just outside the battle zone to see how things develop. Inside, there's the usual everything-hitting-the-fan and the revelation that Akita has a secret weapon in reserve. It's swashbuckling business as usual, in other words, by a writer and artist at the top of their games. There's the mild dissatisfaction that this storyline - 40 or so episodes - took nearly four years to tell, as Robbie Morrison took a hiatus in the middle of it to focus on a comic book called The Authority for an American publisher, but it has been a terrific run. What comes next, though, will prove to be even better.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: Origins (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Volume Seven, 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, Judge Dredd rides into history. See you in seven!

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