Thursday, August 23, 2012

179. Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children

September 2007: We're just going to have to do something about this Betelgeusian menace, friends. Not content with fanning the flames of lustful women and corrupting children's minds with the first story of Stone Island in the summer of 2006, the pornographer from Quaxxan is back with even more pulchritude and full-frontal male nudity in the second. Twice. The first time, it's on a dead fellow, again. Boys, you don't want to star in Stone Island, because the odds are pretty good that you're either going to suffer the body horror nastiness of having your outsides elongated and turned into some long-beaked killing machine, or you're going to die and be stripped naked, all your secrets revealed by Simon Davis's elegant painting. Well, as elegant as you can be with your entrails ripped out. This is a nasty, ugly, visceral comic book, and, five episodes into story two, following up the pair of murdered-and-stripped fellahs in the first tale, we're at our first dead and flaccid cast member. (Intentional.)

At that point, we've already seen off this beautiful cover by Frazer Irving, who, last I checked, was still enjoying the nice paychecks from doing trademark protection work for DC and Marvel. He is notable for being one of the artists to contribute to the last Marvel Comic that I bought, a black and white one-off anthology called The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange in 2010. Inside, it's his final-to-date job for the House of Tharg, pinch-hitting for Arthur Ranson on the fourth adventure for John Wagner's Button Man. Sadly, the cover art here is the best thing about the story, which is by far the weakest of the series, and totally unnecessary.

"The Hitman's Daughter" makes the baffling decision to reduce Harry Exton to a supporting character in his own strip. It's about the very skilled and highly-trained Adele Cotter, who's in her late teens or early twenties. About fifteen years previously, her father, one of the gun-toting fighters in The Game, had been killed by a few other players while Adele hid silently in a closet. Harry Ex was apparently one of the four men who came to murder her old man.

Irving's work is, sad to say, far below his usual standard, the beauty of that front cover notwithstanding. Apparently, he was invited to contribute as Ranson's health and eyesight had been fading, leading the much-loved creator to retirement. That fantastic series of interconnected Anderson: Psi-Division stories from 2004-2006 ("Half-Life" / "WMD" / "Lock-In" / "City of Dead" / "Lucid") seems to be Ranson's final major work. There are certainly elements of greatness in Irving's artwork, and, if anybody had to step in for Ranson, then Irving was a good choice, but much of his work here feels quite rushed. Episode twelve, in particular, is full of very heavy black lines and "mushy" faces, as though the dreaded deadline doom was looming. The big, climactic gunfight in an abandoned shopping mall is confused and disorienting. It honestly doesn't feel like Irving mapped out his environment before dumping his characters into it. Worst of all, the previous three stories had such incredibly memorable, thrilling endings, and this one is completely forgettable. I had honestly forgotten how it concludes until rereading it.

There's still a lot to like about 2000 AD during this summer run. There's a series of very good Judge Dredd episodes, and, as mentioned last time, Caballistics Inc. and The ABC Warriors, which are both huge fun. This second story of Stone Island, on the other hand, seems pretty pointless and forgettable, despite the presence of another dead naked man, and then we get to the final episode in prog 1559 and... oh, my.

The other dead men in the story were so dead and so ravaged that their nudity was incidental. Something's sort of different when the dead man is a reanimated corpse, walking around all blue and purple and striding around in the altogther. And unlike another blue-purple reanimated corpse with incredible powers in an old comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Simon Davis puts considerably more detail into this fellow's altogether than the two little squiggles that Gibbons drew. Kind of a mixed message when we all want to see more kids reading 2000 AD and the audience to grow, and at the same time the comic provides parents with a reason to, as some British newspapers say, "ban this sick filth."

Good God, man, cover yourself with some word balloons or something. Why, Tharg, why, indeed.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:

The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 2 (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Button Man: The Hitman's Daughter (Volume Four, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)

That's all from Thrillpowered Thursday for now! I'll be back in October for more, and in the meantime, pop over to the Hipster Dad's Bookshelf for the next few Tuesdays for reviews of more recent 2000 AD stories and collected editions for your shelves.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

178. General Public!

August 2007: On the cover this month is Blackblood, the treacherous and nasty ABC Warrior programmed for backstabbing, double-crossing, and evildoing. When the character was first introduced in 1979, the shtick was that he was one of the no-good evil Volgans with whom our heroic Warriors were battling, and he was shut down, abducted, and reprogrammed to fight for the allies. So as the memoir-based epic "The Volgan Wars," written by Pat Mills and drawn by Clint Langley, returns, it's natural that when Blackblood gets a chance to share one of his old war stories, it's from the other side, and a story about sending brave young hammersteins to the smelter, where they could be turned into AK-47s to help the war effort.

Back in May, I was telling you about the first chunk of this 288-page epic, and I'll refer anybody curious about its four-chunk format there to learn more. This phase of the story sees Blackblood and Deadlock telling their tales, while, in Broadband Asylum, the Volgan warlord robot Volkhan has come back to life and convinced Mek-Quake to join his new army. The segments with Blackblood are the most entertaining, thanks to a fantastic running gag that goes on for weeks and never gets old. Not programmed to understand the idioms of decadent Western speech, Blackblood thinks that the phrase "the general public" refers to a top-secret Allied commander. Torture, murder, war crimes, they all mean nothing to Blackblood, who is bound and determined to ferret out the elusive General Public.

The lineup for this summer's run of stories is a really good one, with Judge Dredd in a number of short adventures and one-offs by a variety of creators, culminating in the sequel to "Mandroid" by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, The ABC Warriors, Stone Island for its second and final story by Ian Edginton and Simon Davis, Button Man by John Wagner and Frazer Irving, and, in its epic conclusion, Caballistics Inc. by Gordon Rennie and Dom Reardon. Except we didn't know at the time that this was going to be its conclusion.

I do enjoy Caballistics, but in its most recent appearances, the individual adventures got lost in subplots. The previous "story" was called "Changelings" and ran from progs 1469-1474 and the actual storyline that dealt with changelings was about a quarter of the narrative. I think that Rennie recognized that he was juggling lots of characters and lots of continuing plots, and needed to resolve things before moving forward. Then he decided not to move forward any longer.

At 40 pages, "Ashes" is the longest Cabs story, and it sees the team dealing with the old threat of one-time Department Q member Mr. Magister, a sociopath with incredible psychic powers, and then using Magister as an unwitting ally against their benefactor Ethan Kostabi, who's been revealed to have a much darker agenda for the team than they realized.

The conclusion leaves any future stories in doubt. Dr. Jonathan Strange had been killed in the previous story, and Ness meets his end this time. Chapter and Verse are summarily dismissed and referred to as being very grievously wounded, but, bizarrely, not shown on-panel in the end. It's left unclear as to whether Kostabi was telling the truth about Verse's maiming, or whether Hannah Chapter would ever walk again, and for such a popular character to have her fate handwaved is really, really odd. It's an apocalyptic and wild conclusion, and huge fun, but Chapter and Verse deserved a little better than that.

About two months after this story ended in October, one final-to-date Cabs episode appeared in Prog 2008. It set up some new plot threads, looked in on a supporting player, and did not mention Chapter and Verse. This leaves the story in a very, very weird place as far as fans' ability to sit down and read the darn thing goes. Earlier in 2007, the second collected edition, entitled Creepshow, was released, reprinting about the second half of the series, through 2006's "Changelings." But then there are only two stories, just 50 pages, left, leaving this epic climax unreprinted. I imagine that Tharg and Gordon Rennie have at least talked about doing some more stories, and they know more than they're telling. If there is more Cabs in the pipeline, then they should get to work on the damn thing, and if not, then "Ashes" and "The Nativity" should be collected in one of those freebie floppy "graphic novels" bagged with the Megazine, and then the whole series should be re-collected in a single, large edition that will replace the existing two. They should get on that as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, for those of us who enjoyed Cabs for its weird, dark, occult stories, in 2011, Rennie took the supporting character of DI Harry Absolam and spun him off into a series of his own, kind of. Apparently set in an alternate reality where there might not have ever been a Cabs team, and where vowels don't appear in the same order, Absalom debuted in prog 1732 and there have been three stories so far. Drawn magnificently by Tiernen Trevallion, it features an aging, alcoholic London copper and his team of police spookbusters, and is so darn popular on its own that people might resent space being given over to more Cabs when we could have Harry double-dealing, drinking and demonizing instead.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Vol. 2 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Button Man: The Hitman's Daughter (Volume Four, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stone Island: The Complete Stone Island (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, speaking of the general public, we'll see what they have to say about nudity in comics when Stone Island finds a way to push everybody's buttons. See you in seven days!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

177. Samantha Slade: The Short Goodbye

July 2007: It has been five years. I think it's time to accept it. Ian Gibson isn't coming back. Neither, in all likelihood, is Samantha Slade. This is the story of her ignoble and stupid end. It should not, honestly, have come to this.

So, to recap: in the early 2000s, Ian Gibson started drawing color pin-ups of Sam Slade's granddaughter Samantha, whom he designed. Perhaps, it was thought, there might be some interest from John Wagner in returning to the world of Robo-Hunter...? Wagner passed on the idea, but his longtime associate and former co-writer Alan Grant picked up on it, and, in December 2003, the first new Robo-Hunter story with Samantha, the first Gibson-drawn, canonical Slade story since 1985's "Farewell, My Billions," debuted. It had its fans and it had its detractors, but even the most lovelorn of us must have agreed that Gibson had turned in superior work in the past. Two follow-up stories in 2004 saw the artwork continue to divide opinion. Alan Grant's writing was solid and reliable, but Gibson was clearly not giving this his full attention. It is my contention that the subpar artwork proved the death knell for the character. Those who disliked the series frequently called out its slipshod appearance. Their arguments had merit: Gibson was not drawing backgrounds, not being in any way innovative, in short, he was phoning it in. This was very curious, since he created the character.

The fourth story, 2005's "Stim!," was a mammoth improvement. This upswing continued in 2007's "Casino Royal," as both of these featured far more intensive and considered artwork from Gibson, and not just because he remembered to include some backgrounds. The writing was solid and amusing and certainly had that old Slade spirit. It is likely, however, that readers who found the three 2003-04 stories unacceptably lazy and slapdash had their minds made up and were not prepared to reconsider the genuine improvements that Gibson had made.

"Casino Royal" ended with Samantha jailed and a new arch-enemy triumphing over her, gloating ever so briefly before dismissing her as irrelevant, from an island getaway. The bad guy had won, and our heroine was jailed, perhaps for good. But wait! It turned out that Alan Grant had a whole pile of new storylines and subplots in which to indulge. "Casino Royal" was actually to be the first in a major story arc for Samantha that would take in new characters and new settings as she globetrotted her way to revenge against the criminal Five of Spades. And so, just three months after the cliffhanging conclusion of "Casino Royal," Samantha was back in a new five-parter called "I, Jailbird."

But something was terribly, terribly wrong. Gibson was not bringing his A-game anymore. Not even his C-game.

It's fair and reasonable to say that Gibson is a, shall we say, mercurial talent. His enthusiasm comes and goes, he's curmudgeonly, grouchy, a very harsh critic of his own work, and he has spoken with considerable candor and disappointment about some of his art that failed to meet his own high standards. I consider him absolutely a genius and one of the most important and influential talents in the comic medium. And the ten pages that he bothered to draw from the 25 page script are the worst ten pages he's ever drawn. They are the absolute nadir of his work.

I am privy to a personal email between Gibson and a reader that I should not have been allowed to see, and from which I won't quote, but in it, he honestly and dismissively admitted that the script, the worst in a long series of scripts that he disliked, had bored him so much that he abandoned it, his work not even half-done, and, from the look of it, completed over the course of about an hour and a half. In the sequence above, selected for thematic continuity with the sequence below, he didn't even bother drawing the vertical stripes on Samantha's prison uniform. Shortly afterward, in one of his columns for the website Den of Geek, he made a passive-aggressive comment about how he was unhappy with his page rate, thinking it should be proportional to the always-increasing cover price of the comic. Way to burn bridges there, Gibson.

I'm not sure what offends me the most about Gibson's utter lack of professionalism here, but the inclusion of that red scarf should make any longtime reader's blood boil about how the artist approached this. You might recognize the scarf. It is Ace Garp's from the classic series Ace Trucking Company, which was written by Alan Grant and John Wagner, and drawn by the late Massimo Belardinelli, who had passed away in March. Grant added the scarf to the script in a sweet tribute to a much-loved artist, who had himself, years previously, just decided that the character would wear a sentient aviator's scarf which would be jumping around and interacting with the rest of the page without any direction from the script. I think that it was just downright thoughtful and clever of Grant to add the scarf to Samantha's world, and just have it, silently, cause a ridiculous amount of trouble as it did whatever the hell it wanted to, although here, it is used as an actual plot element and not just whatever the artist feels like having it do. (My favorite was probably when it reached behind Ace and started brushing GBH's teeth.)

Massimo Belardinelli deserved better than to have this tribute illustrated so poorly. I feel really strongly about that.

So, anyway, Grant had written another perfectly good little Samantha story, which has the lunatic and frantic pace that any good Robo-Hunter story should. Prison overcrowding has given Samantha the opportunity for very early release, and, with the "help" of a defense attorney droid who looks like Leo McKern, this incredibly violent mind-of-its-own scarf, and her two idiot assistants - rebuilt since the last story and determined to cause more trouble - Samantha ends up escaping from the Old Bailey when she was just about to be paroled, and is on the lam, bound for Calais, where she hopes to assist another new character, Trudy, who claims to be the rightful Queen of France.

Coming in to pinch-hit for Gibson is the reliable Anthony Williams. In the early nineties, when Mark Millar was writing those really bad and bloodthirsty Robo-Hunter stories that made everybody question their resolve for living, Williams was one of the six (six?!?!) artists who contributed, and did not do a bad job at all. Those were actually two really good stories, so long as you look at the pictures and don't read the word balloons. Williams is a good go-to artist, I think. He doesn't, honestly, have that unpredictable and wild edge that really defines a 2000 AD art droid as a classic model in the eyes of the fandom, but he does the job reliably and I'm always glad to see his work. That said, something is terribly, terribly wrong when anybody says "Thank God that Ian Gibson's gone and Anthony Williams is here." That is what I said.

Robo-Hunter ended with Samantha swimming the last few meters across the English Channel, a caption at the bottom of the final page promising us that she would return soon in a story called "La Revolution Robotique." Buckaroo Banzai will probably fight the World Crime League before that happens. I think that, behind the scenes, the editor was not able to resolve the differences with Gibson about his unhappiness with the script or his page rate, and Gibson has not worked for 2000 AD since. His last material to appear to date has been a pin-up of Halo Jones that appeared in prog 1550, four weeks after his last Robo-Hunter page. It was probably too late to do anything about the final episode, far too late for a rewrite, and so it was published with the "Revolution" tagline, though I suspect that all involved were glumly aware that it was very unlikely. Not to knock the really excellent and underappreciated work on Sam Slade by Peter Hogan and Rian Hughes in 1993-94, but the long, considered opinion at 2000 AD since Bishop's time as editor in '97 has been that characters should be managed by their creators. Without Gibson, there is no Samantha.

And I think that's what aggravates me the most about how Gibson handled this. Look, I'm just a loudmouthed fan with a blog and a love of the comic, and I often speak with an intemperate, downright American-volume opinion that has often resulted in comical misunderstandings between myself and more reasonable people in Europe. But seriously, folks, why the blankety-blank did Ian Gibson not pick up the telephone and actually talk to Alan Grant about what he wanted from the scripts? I do not understand this, and I never will understand this. It really breaks my heart that two of my favorite comic creators came together to put together what should have been a real 2000 AD classic for the modern day, with a much-needed female lead, and the damn thing fizzled because of such dumb reasons and a lack of communication. I don't know what the heck Gibson wanted, because as far as I can see, the scripts were on target and terrific almost all of the time, but I know how he could have addressed it. He should have picked up the phone and called Alan Grant and said "I didn't like that one, and here's why. Let's make the next one better."

It should not have ended like this. Samantha should have settled that Robotique Revolution in '08 (in a twenty-episode mega-epic, yes, indeed), and then she should have solved some lunatic problem on the Orient Express or something while making her way to the Pacific to get even with that darn playing card. Samantha should have become, and been promoted as, 2000 AD's lead female character, a woman not superhumanly beautiful or drawn cheesecake-style, a woman who didn't need a male compatriot, just mind-blowlingly aggravating robot scarves and cigars and... frog-kit-things. She was just a competent, fun character who relied on her wits and her intelligence and learned as she went, and was often in way over her head in classic comedy moments.

If you'll forgive me getting political, 2000 AD really has made great steps lately in presenting positive female characters. Maggie Roth from Angel Zero, Rowan Morrigan from Age of the Wolf, and Mariah Kiss from Indigo Prime are all examples of the character that we'd hope to see more of in the comic. They're sort of undermined a little by retrograde steps like allowing Judge Maitland, in her second appearance last month, to show off her cleavage so ridiculously, but overall, the comic is definitely making long-overdue steps on the right path. Samantha, despite her lineage as a descendant of a male lead character - that problem affects both Judge Anderson and Durham Red, also recently written by Alan Grant - pointed the way forward.

She should be here still, and even though the realist in me accepts that she's probably never coming back - five years is a long time - it's not too late. Maggie's story was told in a single serial, writer Alec Worley has explained that the third Age of the Wolf will be the last, and somehow, stupidly, Indigo Prime has not resurfaced after its TRIUMPHANT twelve-part return last year, and so who the heck knows when Mariah will be back, or whether she'll get any lead time amid all those other characters, so there is a definite gap. Anthony Williams hasn't had the opportunity for any new work since Sinister Dexter was shelved, and I would honestly welcome him as the character's permanent artist. If we ever do get to see that blasted Revolution Robotique, the only complaints would be from nonscrots, grexnixes, and people who just plain don't like girls.

The sensible among us miss Samantha. We're waiting on the shores of the continent, fearing that she's been swimming an awfully long time.

But you know... just last week, Tharg announced that The Simping Detective was coming back after a five year absence. With a new artist, too.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Defoe: 1666 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The 86ers: The Complete 86ers (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Greysuit: Project Monarch (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Robo-Hunter in Judge Dredd: The Ian Gibson Collection (free "graphic novel" bagged with Judge Dredd Megazine 309)

Next time, oh, grouchity-grouch, I dunno, Caballistics or something, I guess. See you in seven.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

176. Two Come Along At Once

June 2007: A very, very short (time-sensitive) entry this week, to acknowledge that this was the neat little point where Pat Mills got to launch two brand-new series in the same week. Defoe, illustrated by Leigh Gallagher, is the more successful of the two. It really goes over very well with the readership and features the great Mills standard of throwing an incredible amount of ideas and information at you and seeing what sticks. It's set in 1668, two years after a comet has reanimated the dead, and our hero is the tough-as-nails Titus Defoe, saving the city of London from an army of "reeks" - the word "zombie" hadn't entered our lexicon in the 17th Century, of course - who are shown to be under the control of a fantastic general. In a fantastic sequence, the master villain of this story is the decapitated head of Oliver Cromwell, used by the reek army to interrupt the king's privacy by being mounted on a long pole and banged against the window of his majesty's bedchamber.

This first adventure is pretty straightforward, although Mills really introduces a heck of a lot of characters, backstory and wild, weird weaponry. Sir Isaac Newton has been outfitting the good guys with all sorts of cool guns, tanks, and ornithopters, while conducting strange and ungodly experiments with reeks to find out what's causing their rampage. Newton might be the only historical figure to feature as a supporting player in two 2000 AD series at the same time. Both here and in The Red Seas, he's depicted, not without good reason, as one of the smartest men in England.

Over the course of the first four stories, Defoe picks up a pretty huge supporting cast - honestly, having some short sidebar stories digging into their backgrounds would help enormously - and a much broader range of bad guys as the extent of the villainy is shown to be infecting much of Europe as well. Rumor has it that a fifth Defoe story is expected in 2013.

On the other hand, no more Greysuit is presently expected. It's a much more straightforward adventure, with far less of the backstory that informs Defoe. It begins as a a slight revamping of the popular 1977-78 series MACH One, only this time around, it's influenced more by Jason Bourne than by the Six Million Dollar Man. The hero is John Blake - initials probably not a coincidence - and he's a Delta-Class assassin for the British government. He's been given superhuman strength and reaction speed, as have a few other people in his department.

Delta agents are programmed to obey their orders, but Blake has a soft spot for children. He's ordered to kill three bank robbers, but one of them bargains for his life with evidence that a top government official is involved in a child slavery ring. Blake goes out on his own to avenge the crimes, and is, literally, busting heads across Europe. One thing that really makes Greysuit stand out is the remarkable, visceral violence. John Higgins gets to draw some unbelievable brutality. When Blake uses his super-strength on somebody, he shatters their skull, jawbones and teeth flying free in the goriest way.

There are only two Greysuit stories. We'll have to come back to the negative reaction to the second adventure some other time.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Defoe: 1666 (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The 86ers: The Complete 86ers (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Greysuit: Project Monarch (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Nikolai Dante: The Beast of Rudinshtein (Volume Eight, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)

Speaking of negative reaction, we'll be back in seven days not to bury Samantha Slade on the occasion of her final adventure, but to praise her. See you in a week!