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!

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