Thursday, July 26, 2012

175. Speaking Sick of the Dead

May 2007: On the front cover of Meg 259, Clint Langley brings vivid, weird computerized color to John Hicklenton's pen and inks, and a truly vile and nasty villain is brought to life. He's called, alternately, Lord Omega or X-Face, and he's the antagonist in the controversial and very weird "Blood of Satanus III," in which, well, heck, I don't know. This is a story that absolutely defies conventional description or a simple recounting of the plot, because it is more dense, more weird, and more challenging than just about anything that Pat Mills has ever written, and that includes Requiem. There are no mild reactions to it. A few people embrace it for its gauntlet-throwing spectacle; many, many more loathe it utterly for gobbing in the eyes of comics, but, in the wake of Hicklenton's sad end a couple of years later, denying the multiple sclerosis that was ravaging his body any more success by kicking the disease in the head and ending his life prematurely at the Dignitas center in Switzerland, the skeptics took a kinder view, and said no more about it.

I do recall reading Hicklenton's first work in 2000 AD, 1986's "You're Never Alone With a Phone" - written by Neil Gaiman, it was - when it was first published. The second, 1987's "Invisible Etchings of Salvador Dali" - that's right, he started his professional career by illustrating first Gaiman and then Grant Morrison - eluded me for quite some time, owing to erratic distribution in the US. His artwork on the "Phone" story struck me as weird and wonderful from the start. There's a panel depicting the smell-a-vision phone, where the person, repulsed by her correspondant's garlicky meal before calling, turns her head in such a way that it looks like her nose and mouth are trying to crawl away from her face.

And then there was Book Seven of Nemesis the Warlock. I remember seeing episode one of that beast and lingering over how dense and full the panels were, how it looked like Hicklenton spent more time on each individual drawing than I had spent over the previous seven years of trying to think I was learning to draw on stacks and stacks of notebook paper. Nemesis himself didn't show up until the final panel, and if Hicklenton's depiction of him didn't make your eyes pop out of your head the first time you saw him, then you were not paying attention. Hicklenton's Nemesis was all visceral and organic, with the real curvature of nature's ugliest animals, a hideous mating of a water buffalo, a giraffe and some undersea beast - a very far cry from Bryan Talbot's superhero with a funny head and knees. Just that one panel - Purity Brown reinvisioned as a nose-broken, plain, anti-heroine and Nemesis, beady eyes atop a curving stalk of a neck - demanded the arrival of episode two immediately, in a way that the usual cliffhanger, dependent on a plot twist, never can. The writing threw no surprise at the reader - Nem and Purity were in 16th-Century Spain along with their enemy Torquemada - but we had to see the next episode to see more of the artwork.

Nemesis Book Seven is more packed with powerful, unforgettable images like that than just about any other storyline that has ever appeared in the comic. Torquemada having his feet oiled. Torquemada in that torture chair. His namesake smiling pleasantly, encouraging his future self to tell him more. Nemesis throwing his arms back and filling the air with flies. Torquemada spitting on his chainsword, the reflection of Thoth running from him. Thoth bidding farewell to Satanus in the Cretaceous Period - "it was the end of an era." Oh, and that utterly horrific, final shot of Thoth, his small body cruelly and savagely... yeesh. If you read this story just one time, you recall every one of those images.

Hicklenton certainly came up with memorable work after that - nobody's going to forget those fatties hitting the ground in that episode of Heavy Metal Dredd, ever - but that was, to my mind, his crowning glory. Nothing that he ever did matched Nemesis Book Seven for detail and imagination. Certainly we can forgive "Blood of Satanus III" for lacking the intricacy of his early work, because just holding a pen in 2007 caused him incredible discomfort, but over the course of his career, Hicklenton set out to challenge readers and break the rules.

His panel compositions and breakdowns started getting very obtuse on both Heavy Metal Dredd and, most thunderously, in a 1995 serial called Pandora, which is just so damn weird that I'm not convinced that Hicklenton wasn't deliberately trying to alienate everybody who wanted to read it. It's something like thirty-six pages without a single transition or establishing shot, where a solid third of the panels don't seem to depict anything from the script whatever. Having found his specialty in depictions of brutality and ugliness, he was unhappy doing anything conventional.

"Blood of Satanus III" is certainly not easy to follow either, and it's not easy on the eye, but what hurts the most is looking at the parade of nasty imagery and demonic nightmares and knowing that the artist was less able to depict them than he was twenty years previously. Only the sickest of minds could come up with a design like the living mountain of shifting, fluid fat, or the politicians with two mouths, but Hicklenton's weak body simply couldn't draw it with the intensity that you just know that he wanted. The inks are solid blacks and thin lines, with none of the splatters of detail that marked his early work.

As for the story's plot, I don't think that it really matters. It's something to do with a portal to another dimension, and hellish beasts who've been influencing all of humanity's bad behavior getting the chance to act overtly and do horrible things, and Dredd spearheading a mission into the circular world from which they came to strike back. But what it really is, bluntly, is a good opportunity for Hicklenton to unleash his freakish, nightmarish and brutal imagination one last time. We can all wish that maybe it would have hung together as a story a little better and been a bit more comprehensible, but we got a long, last, ugly, ugly look at Hicklenton's demons before he left us. That's a good thing.

This issue of the Megazine also features a tribute, written by Michael Molcher, to the late, great Massimo Belardinelli, who had passed away a couple of months previously. Here was an artist who I only came to appreciate after some time. The first I remember seeing of Belardinelli's work was likely a one-off (a Future Shock without the Future Shock masthead) called "Bad Vibrations" from the early 400s, and an Ace Trucking Company story, "The Nightlight Flight," that I could barely understand because the writing was so incredibly weird. (What was with this author? Grant Grover? Did this guy just not speak English or something? I caught on eventually...) Oh, and Mean Team, which was hopeless. He seemed like an ordinary and nondescript artist stuck with the crummiest and lousiest scripts, when, of course, Massimo was very, very far from ordinary.

Belardinelli's best work was behind him when I discovered him, although he still had some occasional terrific things to come, like 1987's The Dead. I just caught him in a mid-career lull, a short break in a spectacle of hyper-quality. Had I been following 2000 AD from the beginning, and seen his amazing work on Dan Dare, on Inferno, on Meltdown Man, on the first fantastic run of Ace Trucking, alternating with Mike McMahon on the first thirty-something episodes of Slaine, then I would have been a fan much earlier on.

He never seemed to be driven by nightmares in quite the way Hicklenton was, but there was often something ethereal, dreamlike, and really uncanny about his alien worlds and landscapes. Ace Trucking let him design dozens of freaky aliens doing weird stuff in the background, but it was a thoughtful and surprising and often very funny sort of weird, and not a nauseating one. He was never as imaginative or powerful in his designs for human characters, or the force and impact that they brought to the page, but when it came to aliens or technology or humanoid animals leaping out of the page, he was in a class by himself. That whole sequence on the frozen lake in Meltdown Man, where the evil, mind-controlling snake makes a break for it, is simply one of the most frantic and exciting sequences in the comic's history. You couldn't film it and make it more thrilling!

Mills has eulogized both of these artists, and been extraordinarily gracious and complimentary to the work they did his scripts. He's recently called for Rebellion to negotiate with the owners of Dan Dare's copyright to get the 2000 AD version reprinted. Some of it was, in the lousy American format in the late eighties, but only starting with Dave Gibbons' run. Those first six months, with Belardinelli in charge and Dan fighting the Biogs, have never been reprinted anywhere, meaning only the hardcore collectors have seen just how inventive and fun it was. He's also said that, until Simon Bisley painted the Slaine epic "The Horned God," nobody but Belardinelli had depicted the hero's warp-spasm right. Mills has often been very, very gracious to his artists for doing such great work on his scripts. They weren't always to my liking, but we were, honestly, really lucky to have so much great work from these two.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: "Street Fighting Man" in Lenny Zero & the Perps of Mega-City One (Amazon USA)

Next time, hey, speaking of Mills, you wait around for ages for a new Pat Mills creation, and then two come at once: Defoe and Greysuit. See you in seven!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

174. Love Letter to Japan

April 2007: Prog 1534... Now is that a cover, or is that a cover? This amazing piece by Karl Richardson heralds the beginning of Detonator X, a ten-part serial by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell. It is, obviously, a gorgeously designed homage to 1950s drive-in sci-fi epics and their attendant, over-the-top movie posters and it just glows with its love of the genre. It also, in what was certainly not intended as a bait-and-switch, does not have much of a damn thing to do with the actual comic inside. See, while that cover speaks of a love for 1950s American trash cinema, the actual story was written from a love of 1970s Japanese cartoons. The audience for these two genres frequently overlaps, but they really aren't the same thing at all, are they? I'll tell you exactly what Detonator X feels like. It's like Ian Edginton spent his childhood playing with Popy Chogokin and Jumbo Machinder robots - they were distributed in the US by Mattel as "Shogun Warriors" and that's certainly what I spent my childhood doing - and watching Mazinger Z and Grandizer on TV every afternoon and saying "One day, I'm going to write a comic book just like that."

It's actually very weird reading an Edginton story that isn't a revisionist or subtle take on the genre where he's working. Stickleback is a very 21st Century take on Victorian detective fiction, with a criminal protagonist and a post-League of Extraordinary Gentlemen group of outlandish villains as his supporting cast upending the apparent premise of the ostensible star of the series, Valentine Bey, working in collaboration with or opposition to the criminal. The Red Seas mixes up just about every myth or legend that could possibly squeeze into a story about pirates, from krakens fighting the Colossus of Rhodes to Sir Isaac Newton fighting werewolves. The later Ampney Crucis Investigates will reinvision Lord Peter Wimsey as an action hero and send him fighting Cthulu through parallel universes. But Detonator X is just a simple love letter to the fiction that amazed Edginton's peers as kids.

And what's really weird is that Japanese writers and directors had spent the last fifteen years reconstructing and deconstructing the giant robot fiction that thrived from about 1966 to 1978 until there wasn't much left to twist into new shapes. To be clear, I'm referring to a specific genre of kids' adventure melodrama that developed around the time the Japanese TV companies started broadcasting cartoons in color. The networks started commissioning thousands of hours of gorgeously-designed and cheaply-animated kidvid nonsense, much of which was raced off from quickie pitches by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, by Go Nagai, by Shotaro Ishinomori, whose studios would then churn out tie-in comics for that country's weekly anthologies, and who would license the designs for toy companies to create, in bulk quantities, some of the greatest toys any child ever owned. The giant robot shows/comics/merchandise - Mazinger Z, Getter Robo - Starvengers, UFO Robo Gurendaiza - Grandizer - Goldorak, Fighting General Daimos, Brave Raideen, dozens of other also-rans - seemed to fade out around the time that the team superhero "sentai" live-action shows started, as did the amazingly long-lived Mobile Suit Gundam franchise.

But Gundam's run for so long that it started eating its own tail and deconstructing itself with its periodic reinventions and reboots, and comic artists and animation directors have been reviving old properties for new examination through adult and revisionist eyes for years before this silly love letter by Edginton started. Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Giant Robo was relaunched in an extremely popular series of direct-to-video films by Yasuhiro Imagawa, himself a former Gundam producer/director, that placed characters from six or seven different 1960s comics into one eventually tedious "coming of age" / "hero's journey" narrative. Much of the '90s Robo production crew also worked on Big O, a short-lived TV series that adapted more Western tropes, and basically gave Bruce Wayne a giant robot. Then there was Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys, a comic that ran from 1999 to 2006 (at least four years too long) and presented, as heroes, men who as kids had all been obsessed with giant robots and color live-action science fiction in their "secret society," and confront a cult leader who pretty much stole all his ideas from the bad guys in those sorts of melodramas. In other words, while there are many examples of modern fiction in Japan that use all these wacky old kids' teevee and forgettable junk comics for exactly the sort of deconstruction and genre-twisting that Edginton does so astonishingly well, given the chance, he just... writes a wacky old forgettable junk kids' comic.

It does, on the other hand, feature the deeply curious design work by Yeowell that gives us a tin can robot almost as clunky as Yokoyama's barrel-chested Gigantor, which predated the color giant robot era, and monsters that look a heck of a lot like the '90s American remake of Godzilla, leading everybody to wonder why Yeowell didn't borrow some Go Nagai comics from the actual period under the microscope. It's certainly vibrant and exciting and the action scenes move at a furious pace, but it does not in any fashion look like it should. Happily, the action scenes are often so good that it doesn't matter. In the panel above, Detonator X, lacking any weapons, just rips the arms off another giant robot and beats the hell out of a monster with them.

Detonator X also, sadly, sees Yeowell frequently not drawing any backgrounds and allowing Chris Blythe's coloring to paper over the cracks. This actually works here, since Blythe can polish anything, but his newfound shortcuts are going to set off alarm bells when The Red Seas returns later on and it looks like he ran out of ink for every page.

Speaking of deconstruction, I'd like to take a revisionist look at Pat Mills and Charlie Adlard's work on Savage. Here, the third story, "Double Yellow" is the last to be drawn by Adlard. In 2008, Patrick Goddard, who has drawn the next four "books" and, I understand, is presently at work on the forthcoming Book Eight, becomes the regular artist. He also seems to be on hand as the continuity changes completely. The Mills-Goddard Savage is still excellent and absolutely worth reading, but it's a different thing entirely from how comparatively grounded and visceral the Mills-Adlard take is. Below, just before the people of Occupied Britain rise up and get ready to throw the Volgans off their Green and Pleasant Land, our hero Bill takes out an important resistance leader who's actually a dirty Volg himself.

It goes without saying that Adlard draws the heck out of this sequence, as he does everything. The man's a genius. But at no point during his three stories does Adlard draw any robots or anybody named Howard Quartz, or anything that ties into Ro-Busters or ABC Warriors. Adlard's Savage is, outside of the Britain-under-SovietVolgan-control premise, free of fantastic elements. It's a powerful and brutal series. The second story had ended, unforgettably, with Bill killing Captain Jaksic, whom we thought for sure was going to be his ongoing nemesis, and then gunning down a dozen or more collaborators in a fancy restaurant. My God, what a comic that was.

"Double Yellow" can't top it, but it certainly tries. The previous story had ended with the revelation that Bill's brother Tom was killed by the Volg secret police, and so Bill goes out for vengeance and he genuinely doesn't care who suffers along the way. It's amazing and incredibly vibrant and at the end of this book, it really feels like his job is done, and that England's going to be okay. That's why I was so pleased that the collected edition - sadly out of print at the present, and certain to remain so for the foreseeable future as the publisher replenishes stock on Judge Dredd material in preparation for the film - compiles all three of Adlard's stories, so they function and feel like a unified and complete whole. I've reread them many times, while I'm actually not as familiar with the ones that Goddard has drawn. I'm very curious to revisit them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that, while I like and enjoy them, closer scrutiny will find me firmly believing that the Savage of Hammersteins and Blackbloods and teleporting tigers is a different continuity altogether. More on that when the reread gets us to prog 1577, and that'll be a bit down the road.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: Origins (Amazon UK)
Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (Volume Eight, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, a few words about two artists no longer with us, Massimo Belardinelli and the always controversial John Hicklenton, as the narrative reaches the time of Belardinelli's sad death, and Hicklenton's final work for Judge Dredd Megazine. See you in seven!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

173. Samantha's Finest Hour

March 2007: I wrote editor Matt Smith a letter around the time of this issue. Not Tharg, but the human who actually runs things. A "not intended for publication" letter, if you will. I just wanted to tell him thanks. See, several months before the release of this issue, prog 1530, I had filled out a personality profile on some website. Never you mind which one. I met a girl, we went out for a few months, it was all good. The profile asked me to name my top three this and my top three that, and my top three favorite artists. So I thought for a minute and typed "Ian Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra, Simon Fraser." Then I wondered whether there was ever actually an issue of 2000 AD that featured work by all three. As best as I could tell, there was not. Finally, with prog 1528 and the return of the Judge Dredd epic "Origins" after a nine-week break in the action, we had it. All three artists with pages in 2000 AD for a few weeks. I just had to say thanks. Sort of bittersweet, knowing how 2007 would play out, and what Smith clearly already knew about Gibson when he read that letter of mine. Still, issue 1530 has this amazingly nice Gibson cover of Samantha Slade looking very unhappy with events. I just love it.

For a few weeks there, Gibson was actually doing double-duty in the prog, with the last two episodes of a six-part Dredd story written by Gordon Rennie alongside the first two parts of the fifth Robo-Hunter story starring Samantha Slade. It is called "Casino Royal" and it is very much an overlooked classic. To be fair, Gibson's work doesn't quite scale the dizzy heights of the previous story. The ended-too-quickly "Stim!" featured such beautiful layouts and coloring, a palette of midnight blues and purples that showed the artist really sinking his teeth into Samantha Slade's world for the first time. "Casino Royal" doesn't quite match it, but there's only one moment that looks like Gibson's dissatisfaction bubbled to the surface: The mobster Tony Da Tongue has this girlfriend, and it looks to me like Gibson couldn't decide between making her a hideous, ugly, plastic surgery-and-too-much-makeup harridan with a va-va-voom bod, and just not drawing her head with any more care than the circle above the letter "i" in his signature. But enough about the stumble; let me wax a little about just how absolutely terrific "Casino Royal" otherwise is.

Strangely, the story appeared a few months later than it was announced. The title is, of course, a riff on the James Bond story, and Ian Gibson gets to draw caricatures of all the Bond film actors in the early episodes as background detail. According to the September 2006 issue of Previews, this story was scheduled to appear in November of that year, right as the highly-anticipated adaptation of that story, the first in the series to star Daniel Craig, would be released. But November came and went without the story, depriving us of the front cover that shoulda been: somebody definitely should have mocked up a parody of the movie poster and had that on newsagent shelves while the movie was in theaters. No explanation was ever given for the delay, but I bet we can speculate a little about it when Samantha comes back for her sixth story. Come back again in four weeks for that.

So anyway, if the only complaint about "Stim!" was that, after six weeks of hilarious buildup, writer Alan Grant ended the story too darn quickly in the seventh, then this is where he recovers in full. "Casino Royal" is a perfect five weeks long, paced just right, with just the right focus on escalating weirdness and things getting out of Samantha's hands. She has ostensibly been hired for a simple tailing job and gets admitted to a casino to watch her mark, but, back at the office, her dimwit assistants Hoagy and Stogie stumble upon the reality that she has been set up.

In the casino, we learn that, in Robo-Hunter's ridiculous future, even card games have been infiltrated by robots. The decks are made of self-shuffling cards whose memories are supposed to automatically erase between hands. Now, you may well ask what in heaven is the purpose of such an idiotic idea, but this is Robo-Hunter we're talking about, a world where lazy humans send robots out to play sports for them, and who elect them to be political leaders. Samantha is surprised when one card, the Five of Spades, somehow avoids having its memory erased, and proposes that she follow its lead and win her way to a fortune at a major Texas Hold 'Em tournament.

Samantha and the Five of Spades work together while the tournament is besieged by one distraction after another, from an assault by armed criminals, to Hoagy and Stogie sneaking in through the restroom to rescue their boss, to Tony Da Tongue's inevitable treachery. It all ends in tears, with Hoagy and Stogie apparently blown to bits and Samantha, acting very stupidly and selfishly, learning the harsh lesson about not sticking up for your friends. So desperate for a happy ending for once, she abandons those two to their fate, thinks that she's won the millions legitimately, and then finds herself arrested while the Five of Spades, who arranged the whole darn thing from the outset, vanishes, getting away with a hundred million creds.

This leads to one of the best and most wonderful gags in the entire series. The last episode is told in flashback as the conniving Five of Spades, on some beach somewhere and surrounded by sexy, shapely lady robots, effectively gets for himself the same island paradise with gorgeous gals that Samantha's grandfather, the original Sam Slade, enjoyed for so many years before his idiot assistants blew it for him. If that meta-gag's not clever enough, there's the very, very funny revelation that the Five of Spades is looking forward to being downloaded into his new body. It's just one panel, and it's a throwaway, but the Five of Spades' new body has me absolutely roaring with laughter every time. No longer content with being a measly little playing card, he's orchestrated all this so that he can enjoy life in a new body... a really big playing card.

Samantha gets the final panel, lost in some jail somewhere and swearing vengeance. "I'll get you for this if it's the last thing I ever do!" had been Grandfather Sam's last words as the mysterious island of exercise nut Dr. Droid sank beneath the waves, and Ace Garp's last words as his prison cell orbited away into space. As co-writer (with John Wagner) of those two classic moments, Grant certainly knew how to play with our happy memories of incredibly funny, larger-than-life comics, and heroes who dreamed of big things being cruelly and hilariously denied them. But what a terrific set-up this is! Samantha would be returning in a few months' time, and Grant and Gibson were clearly in sync and on fire, and the Five of Spades was established as an awesome returning villain who is much, much smarter and a lot more resourceful than our heroine. Man alive, I'll tell you, what would happen next was absolutely certain to be a gen-yoo-ine 2000 AD classic.

Little clue for the foreshadowing-impaired: it was not. But that's another story...

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Judge Dredd: Origins (Amazon UK)
Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (Volume Eight, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter: Casino Royal (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine issue 308, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)

Next time, it's giant mecha-boxes against the lizards! See you in seven!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

172. 2000 AD Turns Thirty

February 2007: As I charge this blog for another couple of months of entries, it appears that it has come full circle. It was in fact the celebrations for 2000 AD's thirtieth anniversary in 2007 that got me making a big celebratory post on my Livejournal - heavens, remember when that was important instead of just "another place where I announce that a blog post has gone live someplace else"...? - and then I started thinking about talking about the Galaxy's Greatest to a captive audience of about seventy or eighty regular readers from my 120-odd active "friend" list, plus whomever wandered through via Google, usually about three hundred a day. Times change. Last time I checked a little bug I keep, maybe a dozen users regularly look at that Livejournal page daily, and surfers number under a hundred. That's how soundly, and how firmly, Facebook killed that service.

Thrillpowered Thursday was the first dedicated blog that I started writing, after a dual period of posting new material both at Livejournal and on Blogger. I had a couple of non-scrot real-world friends who didn't much enjoy the lengthy, image-heavy posts about 2000 AD and complained that they wished they could be filtered out from them, and a small, new, audience of regular readers whom I did not know and who had no real interest in my often oversharing Livejournal posts, and so I eventually made the much more sensible transition to writing here and linking there. Now I just have to hope that Livejournal's image hosting never goes away, because I really have no desire to upload all those older images onto Google's Picasa and re-code dozens of older entries. Really.

Anyway, while I enjoy writing and talking about 2000 AD, one thing has certainly changed. Possibly because of having greater family obligations and a new baby, the real world has really sucked the enthusiasm right out of scanning old comics and resizing panels, which I used to enjoy much more than I do these days. It doesn't actually help matters, I must say, when part of the job includes, for example, actually finding an image from a ten-page episode of Flesh that does not completely stink. This is "Hand of Glory," and it is the first episode of the very occasionally-appearing series written by its creator Pat Mills since 1993. It sees him reunited with one of the original artists, Ramon Sola, and, well...

I'm not sure where Sola had been working for the last twenty-odd years since he was last seen in the comic, but, if I may venture an intemperate opinion, his style certainly had not changed very much. Sola was very much of the old school who, for me, defined the look of IPC and DC Thomson titles in the early 1970s, and while he would occasionally blow the minds of kids with his work on, to name a fabulous example, Hookjaw in Action, his was never artwork that appealed to me at all. He had drawn many episodes of Flesh during its original five-month run in 1977, and occasionally turned in some episodes of MACH One before moving on from the comic. He never had a consistent run on a story or series, and his work really didn't have the solid, mass appeal to older fans that Massimo Belardinelli's or Dave Gibbons' or Brian Bolland's had. And, of course, with the bulk of his pages appearing in the dark days before creator credits in British comics - thank you, Kevin O'Neill! - readers didn't really know who he was anyway.

With respect to Hookjaw's legion of fans, I just personally don't like his seventies work at all, and I remain baffled that something so very backward-looking and dated appeared in the comic for its birthday. Credit where it's due; Mills requested Sola specifically, because he wanted to do Flesh right and wanted an original artist for the job. Belardinelli, who drew the fantastic second book of the series, was retired and would soon leave us, and I don't think anybody knew who the heck the other artists from those first 19 weeks of Flesh were in the first place. They're credited by names like "Boix" and "Carrion," and all served, with Sola, in always making Flesh look like something to flip right past and get to some lovely Dave Gibbons art on Harlem Heroes.

Then again, I'm perhaps in the minority who was never sold on Flesh in the first place. Maybe if I had come to it when I was six, the same way I found other dino - slash - giant monster fests like Land of the Lost, The Land That Time Forgot, Warlords of Atlantis and all those Toho movies, I'd have the nostalgic love, but instead it has always been the least entertaining, and, apart from when Belardinelli drew it in 1979, the worst-looking strip in 2000 AD. Belardinelli's story, written by Geoffrey Miller to no apparent objection by Mills, was just fantastic fun. Flesh was then rested until 1992-93, when Mills, then in his "not-fun-at-all" period of co-writing comics with Tony Skinner, assembled a lengthy and deeply silly story, "The Legend of Shamana," painted with mud by Carl Critchlow.

There was a curious diversion in 1996. Under David Bishop's time as editor, there was a seven-episode Flesh story called "Chronocide." This positioned Earl Regan, the hero of the original story, as a time-traveling action hero in a more conventional drama co-written by Dan Abnett and Steve White. While it had dinosaurs and violence, the story lacked the over-the-top gore and carnage that typifies Flesh, and I have a memory, although I can't confirm it, that Mills was displeased that the strip was used without his input or involvement. Mills ensured that the series stayed dormant until he was prepared to revive it, in this curious "pilot" episode with its backward-looking artwork. It was not popular, and a new story would not emerge for another four years.

Well, there's "backward-looking" and then there's "looking backward," which is what Robin Smith did with his little Tharg the Mighty strip, "A History of 2000 AD in Five Pages."

During Matt Smith's tenure as editor, the occasional comic adventures of Tharg and the creator droids, which had mostly been quietly shelved in the mid-90s, have been relegated to the occasional Droid Life strip on the inside front cover. I'm of the opinion that one of these would be more fun than almost any Future Shock and would make an agreeable change, but, then again, I have lots of silly opinions. This is the only Tharg comic strip of the last decade, a celebration-in-verse that, in five pages, takes the story of the comic about as far as the first appearances of Judge Fear and Slaine. In other words, it unwittingly implies that 2000 AD's Golden Age is long in the past. As nice as it is to see Robin Smith working in the weekly again, that's no way to celebrate your thirtieth birthday.

No, as far as the actual celebrations go, there's that wonderful cover by Philip Bond, and the very good Judge Dredd multi-parter by Gordon Rennie and Ian Gibson, and the first episodes of new stories for Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser and Savage by Pat Mills and Charlie Adlard. In the following week's issue, this issue's one-offs would be replaced by new stories for Robo-Hunter by Alan Grant and Ian Gibson and Sinister Dexter by Dan Abnett and Simon Davis. That's a pretty good lineup for a happy birthday!

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (Volume Eight, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Savage: Taking Liberties (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
Tharg the Mighty: Thrill-Power Overload (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, everything completely clicks with the hilarious "Casino Royal," one of the funniest and very best stories to appear in 2000 AD during this period. I'll try not to make the story too bittersweet...