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!


Cactus said...

Thank you for another insightful entry Grant. I'm always pleased to see you back for another run.

I'm a bit puzzled by the oblique reference to something happening in 2007. Will this be expanded on in an upcoming entry or did I miss something?

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Yes, in an August entry...stay tuned and thank you for reading!