Thursday, May 31, 2012

171. ABC Fumetti

January 2007: Good grief, didn't I just write about "The Volgan War"...? Well, it was March. Close enough. Anyway, one of the big new launches in the annual 100-page prog had been a major new ABC Warriors adventure. It's a huge 288-page epic told across four chunks of story, and although I recall that events in the third segment got a little confusing, overall it is one of writer Pat Mills' biggest triumphs. If "The Shadow Warriors" had seen Mills flexing his muscles and finally doing right by these characters after many years of subpar adventures, then this is where he raises the game.

From here, I'm going to cannibalize from an earlier review that I wrote, because I can do that sort of thing. Since Mills found success working in the French comic industry, which is based around annual "album" releases of a 64- or 80-page story, or, if you will, a yearly episode of a much larger story, he's exported the form to 2000 AD, which programs strips in weekly six-page installments. Mills' annual story is further subdivided into, say, ten or so weekly episodes.

Working in this format, Mills is able to tell incredibly long stories across several years, and Rebellion, the publisher of 2000 AD, has two prospective revenue streams for the reprints. Working in conjunction with artist Clint Langley, Mills first used the experiment to craft six 48-page episodes of Slaine. These were paired together and reprinted in three large, oversized, but thin hardbacks with an eye on the European market, where this sort of material could safely be expected to sell by the bucketload in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In these countries, the hardback "album" has long been the default format for the comic medium, much in the way that monthly "floppy" superhero funnybooks from Marvel and DC are the default in the United States.

Mills and Langley's next project was "The Volgan War," and it appeared as four annual stories from 2007-2010. In it, the characters reminisce about their original days of combat before uniting, only to find some common threads in their stories, including the strange, classified appearances of a top-secret special forces flamethrower robot. As the series unfolds - and it sags a bit in the third chunk before roaring to a colossal, incredible finish - the events of the old Volgan War come back to haunt the Warriors on Mars in very unexpected ways, leaving the team permanently fragmented and new, dangerous bad guys waiting for them.

Overall, I think it's a masterpiece, and easily the best Warriors adventure since 1988's classic "Black Hole," even with some of the head-scratching events of the third volume. It works extremely well in hardback form as well. Following the precedent of the oversized Slaine books assembled with Europe in mind, Rebellion collected the four 72-page stories, beefed them up with some additional artwork by Langley and some extra design work, and released a quartet of 96-page hardbacks, where the material shined even brighter.

But I was telling you about this first quarter of the story. Well, it begins with the Warriors committing their demented member Mek-Quake to an asylum on Mars, not knowing that the place is effectively a recruiting center for violent, combat-ready machines looking for a new boss. Hammerstein, square as ever, is reminded of how he was sometimes forced to abandon his "boys" in combat in 22nd Century Europe. Langley has a ball with the scenes of robot combat and mecha-carnage. At one point, we meet giant robot mecha-Stalins called Uncle Joes, and they're revealed in a turn-the-comic-the-other-way double-page spread that serves as one tall, vertical panel. It's a deliberate callback to similar introductions of giant robots in the original series (Mad George, in prog 138) and in Book Three of Nemesis the Warlock (the giant Torque-Armada in prog 340-something).

After Hammerstein's story, and his introduction to the flamethrowing secret agent Zippo, Mongrol reports that he met Zippo just before the paratrooping accident that destroyed his original body. His tale, told across three issues, is actually an expansion of the character's first appearance, only with Lara, the cute young girl who rebuilt him, reimagined considerably from Mike McMahon's notion! McMahon's depiction of Lara in a nightdress, secretly rebuilding a robot in the dead of night, evoked candlelit, stormy potboilers, old-fashioned thrillers, and, of course, Frankenstein. Langley's Lara is a Suicide Girl. But this sequence is still amazing, just for how well Mills expanded those original four pages into something with more weight. Reading it, old fans are sure to recognize various lines and snatches of dialogue, and wonder how on earth Mills managed to stick so much information into the original comic in the first place.

And then there's Joe Pineapples' story, which is definitely one for people who like Mills best when anything goes. Working behind the Volgan lines in old Moscow and tasked to assassinate the enemy super-robot Volkhan, Joe has smuggled just enough innocuous parts in his own chassis that he can kill a civilian taxi driver robot and, using chunks of it and its GPS, pull off another of his absurd, impossible shots. Astonishingly, it's one of those very rare moments where Joe doesn't get a clean kill, and leaving town also requires Zippo's assistance. This volume of the story ends with Mek-Quake in considerable danger, and our heroes wondering whatever happened to Zippo, and some of those plot threads get picked up when it resumes in August.

While The ABC Warriors and its stablemates Kingdom and Stickleback (which I talked about last week) were getting all the attention, Rob Williams' Low Life also surfaced for a short four-week story, its only appearance in 2007. Again drawn by Simon Coleby - this would be his last work on the series to date - it is the second time that a four-part comedy has spotlighted Dirty Frank. This time out, he's teamed with another undercover Wally Squad operative, Eric Coil. This poor fellow had been infected by a mutating plot contrivance in the Cursed Earth - we'll call it "The Jim Kidd Effect" - and returned to Mega-City One with his brain intact and his body de-aged to a baby's.

It's just Coil's luck that the Wally Squad occasionally has need of somebody who can pose as a baby, like... well... actually, I'm pretty sure that this has never, ever happened before. "Baby Talk" is a definite brain-in-neutral story, just there for the laughs, which is a really good thing, because everything else in the prog at this time is either ultra-serious or tragic. In Kingdom, Gene's entire pack is dead, and in Stickleback, Detective Inspector Valentine Bey's wife and children have been killed in a house fire, so thank heaven there's something light and uncomplicated to follow. Even Judge Dredd has found the ugly beginnings of Mega-City One too much of a pain in the rear to continue unabated, and so it's taking a nine-week break from the story to run some shorter episodes, although that's probably more to do with that story's artist Carlos Ezquerra taking a long weekend and a good stretch than it is Tharg giving us a merciful break from the relentless and the grim.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 1 (Amazon UK)
Kingdom: The Promised Land (Amazon USA)
Low Life: Mega-City Undercover (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
Stickleback: Mother London (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Speaking of a merciful break, Thrillpowered Thursday is going to take June off, during which time I've got four 2000 AD features lined up for my Hipster Dad's Bookshelf. See you in July for a look back at the actual issue that started this blog going in 2007, and a new eight-week run of your most favoritest blog ever. Credo!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

170. You say potato, I say potato...

December 2006: It is around this point in time that I, your humble blogger, the most nitpicky and trainspotting of 2000 AD fans, picked up on a little quirk of Tharg's lingo that has been bothering me, and absolutely nobody else, ever since. It's our favorite Betelgeusian's insistence on using Terran broadcasting terminology to describe the appearance of new comics in his mighty anthology of thrillpower. You see it in Tharg's input on the inside front cover, and you see when his humanoid units such as Mike Molcher and Matthew Badham contribute interviews or features for Judge Dredd Megazine. It's this utterly bizarre use of "series" to mean "story." Even today, for example, we are all looking forward to the "second series" of The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael in a few weeks. Well, everybody but me; I'm looking forward to the second story of that series. I appreciate and enjoy that the good people of Britain use different words to describe things than we do; it makes for great comedy when you're reading a British Christmas annual of the '70s American cop show Kojak thrown together by some studio illustrators in Glasgow on their lunch hour and they've got Telly Savalas shouting "Fetch a torch from the boot." But sometime in the 1940s, the BBC decided to call a "series" a "programme" and a "season" a "series," and around 2006, Tharg decided to follow suit.

I mention this because Prog 2007, the annual year-end Christmas issue, features the debut stories for two remarkably good series that are as good as comics get. These are Kingdom by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson and Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli. Each of these is insanely popular, featuring absolutely classic lead characters, and they're each just tremendously good. I also mention this because today's entry is going to be an immensely boring chapter for anybody to read, because all it would be is "wow, wow, wow" otherwise, so I might as well say something to raise an eyebrow and make you think that I've lost my marbles instead of my supposedly objective viewpoint.

Overall, I think that Kingdom is the more popular of the two series, and it is also my favorite of Dan Abnett's many excellent creations. There have been four stories so far, the most recent concluding in March 2011. The lead character is Gene the Hackman, a huge, muscular, genetically-engineered dog soldier. The series opens in Antarctica, and Gene is the alpha dog of a pack that patrols the wasteland killing huge alien bugs. The soldiers have limited intelligence, but wake every morning to "urges" from unseen masters giving them orders and instructions. One morning, after they have discovered that there is a land bridge connecting their area to some unknown place across the sea, they wake and feel no urges. This leads to discord and disunity, and Gene insists that they return home to report on the bridge.

The soldiers, all of whom have curious names that pun 20th Century celebrities like Tod of Much Slaughter, Ginny Woolf and Jack So Wild, are drawn with sharp and engaging personalities. Despite their inability to express much, their simple and direct patois makes each character instantly recognizable from each other. In the above panel, Tod tells Gene that his "mouth is full of wrong," and this instantly became a catchphrase in the same way that, oh, "Gaze into the fist of Dredd" or "Be pure, be vigilant, behave" had decades before.

I'm impressed by a lot in Kingdom, but it's Abnett's use of narration that really pleases me the most. There is a lot of it, and it is lyrical and beautiful, framing the story as a very important fable in some community's folklore. Masterfully, the use of captions abruptly ends at critical moments of the story, as Gene finds very strange new things. That is, they are certainly very strange to him, but readers will instantly recognize and understand concepts like "isolated research bases in the Antarctic waste staffed by cryogenically-frozen humans revived for monitor duty" by the visuals. It is unlikely that Gene would ever be able to understand that sort of thing with that terminology, so the narration is occasionally tabled so that readers can watch Gene explore and comprehend things. Gene may not be intelligent, but he turns out to be very wise.

I don't believe that a fifth Kingdom story has been formally announced, but I hope that we won't wait much longer for it to return. It is one of the best things to appear in the comic over the last decade. That said, I'm one of the very few who actually enjoys Stickleback even more, and we've been waiting for it to return since the ambiguous conclusion to the fourth story more than two years ago. (There have been three multi-part stories and a single one-off.)

I like the structure of Stickleback a lot. Edginton does a fabulous job in "Mother London" in introducing us to the characters after a really curious prologue scene in which two characters from British folklore, the giants Gog and Magog, agree to be ritually slain. Their blood becomes Albion's blood, and feeds all of the land's rivers, and allows a great tree to grow. London is born from the stability brought by the roots of this tree. All of this will, over the course of time, tie in to Edginton's work on The Red Seas and other series.

But that was many hundreds of years ago. Time then skips forward to the dirty East End of Victorian London, where Scotland Yard has employed a young detective, Valentine Bey. Bey is hunting down a charlatan fortune teller who uses clockwork automatons - again, just typing a very slight account of the goings-on in an Edginton story raises a smile - and gets a lead, the first solid lead that anybody in the Metropolitan Police have ever had, about the existence of the much-rumored Stickleback, a "Napoleon of Crime" figure whose existence nobody has been able to ever confirm. The villain appears for the first time in the story's third episode, where he is revealed to be a spindly, long-legged hunchback with a second spine. He boasts, horrifically, that giving birth to such a child caused his mother to die from internal bleeding, but a great deal of what Stickleback says cannot be trusted at all.

Edginton is hardly the first writer to base a character on Professor Moriarty, although to my mind, nobody has bettered Rex Stout in his similar creation of Arnold Zeck in the Nero Wolfe novels. Like Moriarty, Stickleback controls an organized crime empire and enforces a brutal code of conduct among the criminals of London. What Moriarty never had was a gang of weirdos to back him up. These include a zombie, a burning man, Siamese twins with steampunk surveillance gear, and a pygmy with a blowgun.

There's a fantastic bit of rug-pulling in this first adventure. Stickleback has abducted Bey to enlist his help in a curious matter. He alleges that Bey's superior is involved with another grand criminal conspiracy, and wants to employ the law-abiding Bey to ferret out that corruption. Stickleback, after all, has enough to do dealing with honor among thieves in the East End; he hasn't the resources to tackle some Masonic - Royal business in the upper echelons of the police. This is an incredibly entertaining story, and seems to be setting up a series in which Bey and Stickleback would continue their war across several stories of uneasy alliances and awkward double-dealings. But no, thunderously, the first adventure ends with Bey dead and that weird prologue about Gog and Magog shown to be of immediate, fantastic impact on the narrative, and Stickleback's power consolidated in a triumphant finale. I was left breathless for more.

Kingdom and Stickleback each run through March 2007 alongside the mammoth new ABC Warriors multi-book epic, about which more next time, and 2000 AD feels more vibrant, alive and amazing than it had at any time in 2006. And it had been a very good year! But a lineup this thunderous doesn't come along just every day. Looking over 2000 AD's wonderful and busy history, can anybody name another prog in which two such amazing and excellent stories debuted? Tharg spoiled us. (Oh, yeah, and it also featured new episodes of Judge Dredd and Harry Kipling (Deceased) and The 86ers and Nikolai Dante and Sinister Dexter... sheesh!)

Stories from this issue (everything except Sin Dex) have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
The 86ers: The Complete 86ers (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 1 (Amazon UK)
Harry Kipling (Deceased): Mad Gods and Englishmen (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine 323, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Origins (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Kingdom: The Promised Land (Amazon USA)
Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (Volume Eight, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stickleback: Mother London (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, it's giant mecha-Stalins against the ABC Warriors! See you in seven!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

169. Fraser's Back in Town. (well, actually, he's in New York City...)

November 2006: On the cover of this week's prog, 1513, is something which is, I believe, unique. With the exception of two one-off Tharg's Future Shocks, the only ongoing series for 2000 AD to which Arthur Ranson has contributed any artwork have been written by John Wagner or Alan Grant. This cover for The Red Seas marks his only contribution to anybody else's ongoing project. It's kind of a shame, when you think about it. Wouldn't a Ranson-illustrated Devlin Waugh look interesting?

Inside, Red Seas is again Steve Yeowell drawing Ian Edginton's scripts, and it is another installment that sees the action shift away from Jack Dancer and the pirates during their adventures in Earth's underworld to see what the supporting cast is up to. In this five-part story, the heroes' ally, the presumed-dead Sir Isaac Newton, looks up Julius's estranged father, the renowned composer and pianist Chevalier Augustus. They get involved in a problem with shapechanging Roman werewolves in London. I love how every time I mention the plot of a Red Seas story, it sounds like I'm just making something up. There's just no way a series this fun ever really got printed, is there?

The real big news, however, is that Nikolai Dante has reached the end of that long pirate adventure and is back in Imperial Russia, which is now firmly under the thumb of Tsar Vladimir as the Romanovs have been destroyed, killed or dispersed. Lulu, of course, remains at large, acting as a terrorist somewhere in Europe, and Arkady has been adopted as a ward of Vladimir's court, but all the others are believed to be dead. Well, okay, the audience knows that the brutal Konstantin is in the weird body armor and acting as Vlad's Lord Protector, but none of the protagonists do.

As this story opens in prog 1511, the tsar's forces overwhelm the last of Sagawa's resistance, rescue Dante, and make him an offer he can't refuse: act as Vlad's public agent and investigate forces suspected to be disloyal to the imperial throne. The weird techno-aliens who gave the Romanovs their weapons crests are believed to be active in our reality, for starters. In return, Vlad won't blow Nikolai's mother and her fleet out of the water. Our hero gets to dress well again, and charm his beloved Jena all over again.

The panels above have always felt to me like they have an additional meaning. I really love the artwork of Simon Fraser, who co-created the series with Robbie Morrison in 1997, but he had been absent for quite some time from the comic. His most recent episodes had been in 2000 and 2002, and I don't think I'm stepping on anybody's toes when I say that "Battleship Potemkin" and "The Romanov Job" were far from his best work. There's a very good reason for this; Fraser's wife works for the United Nations and, in the first part of the last decade, she was doing important work in impoverished areas in Africa. Fraser left comics for a few years while accompanying her on, let's be fair, much more important business, many thousands of miles from the nearest Dick Blick art supply store. Her career brought the couple to New York City in the summer of 2006, and Fraser found a studio there, allowing him to resume his work in comics.

Dante's pirate days - the middle chunk of the soon-concluding saga - always felt like the heaviest part of the series. John Burns did a terrific job - actually, there are certainly places where he worked wonders - but even with the more lighthearted segments of this phase, there's still that undercurrent of very bleak danger. More precisely, I'm thinking about stories like 2005's "Primal Screams," the sort-of Meltdown Man tribute with the jungle animal-people and Lauren spending almost the entire story topless and in a g-string, and "How could you believe me...," with its rollicking double-page opening spread, the characters chasing each other around the ridiculous lettering like a good Saturday morning cartoon. Morrison certainly made an effort to lighten the mood, but it's never much more than a detour from the lingering threat underneath all the antics: Dante has to betray his mother and deliver her to Sagawa, or Sagawa will murder two hostage children who love him. That mood permeates this period, and it's with a huge sigh of relief that the series abandons the Pacific and returns home to Russia.

2007 will prove to be a very big year for Dante, with 26 episodes appearing in the comic. Fraser and Burns alternate on art duties, and Tharg takes advantage of having two artists working in tandem and commissions more of this strip than any other but Judge Dredd from 2006-2010. It really feels like the artists are competing with each other, each inspired by the other's work to do better themselves. This will occasionally produce jawdropping moments, especially an amazing double-page spread of the city that opens a critical eleven-part story, "Amerika," in 2008. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that some other time.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Chiaroscuro: The Complete Chiaroscuro (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine 303, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Judge Dredd: Origins (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar (Volume Seven, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, two major new series debut in the year-end Prog 2007: Kingdom and Stickleback. I'll need to take a short break but the blog'll be back in two weeks. See you then!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

168. About Baby Beeny

October 2006: While 2000 AD is running a major new story called "Origins," something smaller, but almost as important, is happening in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine. When we last saw Ami Beeny, it was in 1996's "America: Fading of the Light," being inducted into the Academy of Law. Her return to the story as a teenager a decade later is a complete surprise. "Cadet" reunites writer John Wagner and artist Colin MacNeil, who have followed Ami's story since her mother's childhood in the 1990 story "America" that launched the Megazine. This story ties up all the loose ends from Ami's sad family history and sees her working as a very effective judge. Technically, she's still a cadet, a few years away from being given rookie status. In time, she will become a major supporting player in Dredd's story.

Since I'm a fan of detective fiction, I really enjoy watching Wagner use Dredd as a more cerebral character, working a detailed investigation and noting small details to work out the ten year-old story of the terrorist conspiracy that led to Beeny's father's death. There is a really fantastic character moment in part one, where after spending more than an hour silently going over paperwork with Beeny, Dredd says that they need to take a break and do some real judging, and they're going to go hit the streets. Since, as part of her Academy training, Cadet Beeny is actually leading this investigation, she casually says that she'd rather continue, if Dredd does not mind. It's these little character touches that really make Dredd shine so much. I hate that the Simon Bisley ultraviolence version of the character is the one that most readers in the US know; the impatient, taciturn, ruthlessly intelligent and experienced Dredd is a much more interesting one. It's this take on him that has dominated the series for years and years.

I think that it's a shame that the Complete Case Files reprint series has bogged down in the early nineties, around the point where Dredd was his least interesting, just as his profile in media and general fandom has grown in recent months. You almost wish that Rebellion could just skip forward ten or eleven books and start printing the stories from around the time PJ Maybe broke out of prison and made for South America. Dredd hasn't been Super Gun vs. Entrails for such a long time, but the evolution of the character and all these brilliant stories are, mostly, still only available in the back issues and not bookshelves.

Still providing backup to the main Dredd feature, there's Fiends of the Eastern Front by David Bishop and, again, MacNeil, and Black Siddha by Pat Mills and Simon Davis. These both end in the next issue of the Megazine, and end pretty finally. Fiends is particularly interesting. It's established that a golem is one of the few things on Earth that can destroy the vampire Constanta, and he barely escapes from their battle with his life. As the "present" of this story is established, via bookends, as being set in the late 1960s and looking back at the war, it is shown that another golem has been prepared, should Constanta ever resurface.

Black Siddha also concludes, but it is done in a curiously subtle way. It shows our hero purged of his bad karma and no longer tied to his strange, superheroic other self, set for a happily-ever-after life. Since 2000 AD stories, if indeed they do reach a proper final episode, tend to go big and memorable, the understated conclusion to this mix of Bollywood, superhero fisticuffs, and organized crime really is a surprise. In point of sad fact, this third story, "Return of the Jester," had been so uninvolving and disappointing, and so hard to follow in six-page, weirdly-edited chunks (as discussed in chapter 164), that, despite claiming to enjoy this series, I had actually tuned it out when I first read it, because Mirabai was acting like a jerk, the fight scene never ended, and I didn't understand why Siddha was having any difficulty overcoming Jester. So I figured that I would come back to it some other day, and figured that the next story would be better, and wondered for years when the heck it would return. Okay. Well, since it's done and done for good, can we have a collected edition, please?

Speaking of collected editions, Tales from the Black Museum is certainly due one. This first appeared in Meg 244 back in May, and it has racked up 24 episodes since. Under Matt Smith's editorship, it is effectively the Meg version of Tharg's Future Shocks, just one-off episodes dropped in between longer stories and series. They're usually written and drawn by the newer model droids, and typically riff on some established point of Judge Dredd continuity.

This time out, for example, we have a story written by Al Ewing (whose first Future Shock was published in 2002 and whose first 2000 AD serial, Go Machine, ran just a few months previously in '06) and drawn by Rufus Dayglo (whose first Future Shock was published in 2003 and who will finally get a big series in '08 when Tank Girl will appear in the Meg), which follows up an old comedy Alan Grant Dredd Annual story, told in verse, in which the Devil is incarcerated in Mega-City One's Iso-Block 666. Here, a criminal mastermind risks everything to get into the Devil's cell for a game of cards. It is fantastic. It's hugely funny, beautifully drawn and has a terrific twist.

"God of Gamblers" is probably my favorite Black Museum story, but it's possible that I might have overlooked one. After 24, they sort of run together, but I'm enjoying refamiliarizing myself with them as I've gone back and reread them. I maintain, however, that 24 is more than enough, the format is tired, and that they should be collected in a single volume and the format concluded in favor of something else. Honestly, I would really prefer for Smith to choose one of the huge number of Meg regulars in Dredd's universe with a too-low-to-reprint episode count - Black Atlantic or Juliet November or Bato Loco come to mind - and commission six one-off episodes, and drop them between other stories instead.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: America (only in the 2008 Rebellion edition, which is out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
Fiends of the Eastern Front: The Complete Fiends of the Eastern Front (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, our long (inter)national nightmare is over. Simon Fraser returns to Nikolai Dante. See you in seven!