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!

1 comment:

Kate H said...

Tharg, in his infinite wisdom, chose to land his Nerve Centre in the UK, so it's only natural that he'd adopt to the native terminology first when trying to communicate with us mere Earthlets.

A "season" really only makes sense in terms of the specific instance of the way US network television works. Our TV evolved differently and the word "season" has never been used much over here, except by makers/devotees of programmes aiming for transatlantic appeal. It'd be even less meaningful in the context of a weekly anthology comic, while "series" (despite the potential for double-meaning) does just about make sense. Sort of.