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!


Tam said...

I've just read 'The Guv'nor' and thought it was great, the art's timelessly stylish and I admired how much fun Mills is having tying together the stories he's been spending half a lifetime writing while he's telling very entertaining near future war stories.

But it wasn't what I was expecting after reading 'Taking Liberties', (although all credit to Mills for keeping things fresh for the incoming artist) which is one of the most powerful things I've ever read. It brought home how horrible and humiliating it must feel to live in an occupied country better than any non fiction account I've ever read.
It's interesting you point out it's lacking in fantastic elements though. I thought the most powerful bit of that story was when the stand-in character for Pat Mills says 'My department creates nightmare science-fiction scenarios of tomorrow so people fail to see the nightmare of today, that we ALREADY live in a science fiction dystopia'
(I realise that quote probably wasn't in the issue you're reviewing, to be fair to you though!)

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

That's a fair point you make about dystopia. My idea is that, assuming Britain *had* been invaded in the far-flung future of 1999, nothing in the first three books of Savage, apart from - now that I think about it - some slightly off-kilter weapons technology, is that far removed from what we have developed in the present day. All the really wild stuff comes in the Goddard-drawn books, which seem to feel very different to me. No less readable, though! I'll dig into this with more detail down the line, I'm sure.