Thursday, October 25, 2012

183. Noir on the Doc Cox

May 2008: In the previous chapter, we looked at a particularly rough patch at the House of Tharg, a period of about three months when there was nothing particularly good appearing in the pages of 2000 AD. This was a sad hiccup, and one isolated to the weekly, because Judge Dredd Megazine was really terrific at this time. Even the oft-maligned Extreme Edition reprint book was going out in style. For most of 2007, that magazine had been incredibly skippable, reprinting as it did both the agonizingly long sports saga Mean Arena across three issues, as well as the similarly-named Mean Team, a rare and massive misfire from the otherwise reliable Alan Grant, John Wagner and Massimo Belardinelli that is - somehow - on the calendar to be reprinted again in book form in 2013. But with that title closing down, soon to be supplanted by a new series of reprints in the Megazine itself after the summer, they went out in style. The final two issues, # 29 and # 30, are excellent. They collect a pile of great Ian Gibson-drawn stories, including all of the episodes - four stories! - that might have appeared in a potential never-published fourth Robo-Hunter book in the Rainbow Spine line, along with the classic shoulda-been hit character Maze Dumoir's single two-part adventure, a couple of Anderson: Psi Division stories, and two Tharg the Mighty stories from the early 1980s.

These Extreme Editions went a long way toward satisfying fans who were not pleased with how the graphic novels treated our old pal Sam Slade. While Rebellion was partnered with DC Comics, there had been two books, Verdus and Day of the Droids. The second of these suffered from that periodic DC malady of having pages printed in the wrong order. Once Rebellion started its superior line of books, a third collection, Play it Again, Sam was one of the first. It sits on the shelf, alone and unloved, the number "3" on its spine reflecting its awkward status, as the first two books were never reprinted with the Rebellion trade design, and the potential fourth book was used for the last two Extreme Editions instead. Eventually, in 2010, they'd all be replaced by two excellent phonebook-sized editions.

Meanwhile, in the world of new comics and not reprints, writer Rob Williams teams with artist Rufus Dayglo for a new Low Life adventure. This is the seventh story, and the first to appear outside 2000 AD itself. It is Dayglo's only work on the series, and one of the installments that uses Aimee Nixon as the lead character. Dirty Frank doesn't even make a background cameo appearance this time.

Low Life seems to bounce back and forth between the harder-edged, undercover noir thrillers and lighthearted romps, and "War Without Bloodshed" is firmly in the first school. It's an incredibly mean story about labor issues at one of the city's ports. Union agitators are putting the squeeze on business owners, forcing them to hire human workers instead of using robots, even for dangerously unsafe jobs. Williams hits on an incredibly interesting topic here; I don't know that the subject of organized labor in Mega-City One has ever been addressed before, except in passing, and probably tongue-in-cheek. Of course, it's all a cover for something bigger and uglier.

I have mentioned in previous installments that the artwork of Simon Coleby, who illustrated the previous several Low Life stories, never appealed to me. Holy anna, is Dayglo ever a revelation. He just nails this bleak, dark story of desperate blue-collar workers. His Aimee Nixon is ugly but commanding, a character who can blend into the shadows or dominate the action. I love his designs and his use of balance on the page. It's just a superb triumph, and while this series would, in 2009, take a quantum leap in another direction, this brief, tough detour into "On the Waterfront" territory reads like the pilot for an incredible, downbeat series that never was. Put another way, Low Life's next reinvention would instantly become a huge favorite with everybody, but this story, and the direction it pointed, was equally thrilling to me.

Another story that pointed at other things was Bob the Galactic Bum by the veterans Alan Grant, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. A version of this eight-part story had previously been published, in color, by DC Comics in 1995, although the creators retained the trademark on the characters that they devised for it, and the copyright on the story itself. Reprinting this story, and placing all of its elements firmly within the creators' purview, required a few art and lettering corrections. The original printing of Bob was set in DC's mid-90s outer space continuity, including a military superhero force called L.E.G.I.O.N., a bloodthirsty alien race called Khunds, and the incredibly popular antihero Lobo, who prominently appeared on the covers of all four issues of the miniseries.

So, with a little bit of ink and white-out, the Khunds became Guunts, and L.E.G.I.O.N.'s leader Vril Dox became Doc Cox, and, triumphantly, Lobo became a very big and very ugly woman named Asbo. That's her, uglifying the panel above, while Bob, a WC Fields-like grifter who only has a mind for himself and can think his way out of every conceivable situation, dusts himself down.

Since I have never found Lobo particularly amusing - I was just too old and boring when he was introduced, I suppose - I passed on these comics when DC first released them, despite the track record of the creators. Man alive, did I ever miss out. This is completely hilarious. It's huge fun watching Wagner and Grant design another completely bizarre feudal planet with lunatic old traditions - this one involves blindness and broccoli - and having Bob, a silver-tongued devil who manipulates the hell out of everything, skate through the proceedings bent on short-term gain and having no idea, and no concern, what havoc he is wreaking around him. Asbo, who is tracking down a lost prince of space who's been caught up in Bob's latest scheme and, naively, thinks this hobo is his guru, is similarly a gem of a creation. 2000 AD does not own the character of Asbo, but she'd be welcome in the comic anytime as far as I'm concerned.

For about a year and a half prior to this story beginning, the Megazine had printed a one-off story by a Small Press creator. This was a good way to include comic pages but keep costs down, since the rights were retained by the creators. This transitioned into the "creator-owned" slot in the comic, with Bob first up for eight issues. Bob would be followed by quite a lot of Tank Girl, about which, more soon, and then Lilly MacKenzie, American Reaper and most recently Snapshot. Some of these have been more popular than others, but honestly, I would trade most of 'em for more from Bob and Asbo. Either in separate series or on their own, they are each phenomenally fun and hilarious characters, and I would love to see them both again.

Heck, can you imagine how poor ol' Sam Slade would fare against Bob? Great god of robo-hunters, your old pal wouldn't stand a chance!

Next time, Dead Eyes ends with a triumphant surprise, and Defoe returns with guns blazing. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

182. One Disastrous Lineup

April 2008: It's simple arithmetic: at some point in any editor's time in charge of an anthology comic, there is going to be a "worst moment." In the case of 2000 AD, for my money, Matt Smith's one and only utter fumble at the helm came for a three-month run in the spring of 2008, when, flatly, the only thing in the comic that was any good was a three-week Nikolai Dante adventure. When it ended, all that was left were ashes, with even Judge Dredd stumbling badly, and, in a grisly reminder of certain patches in the early 1990s, not one of the five stories was worth reading. The best of them was a one-off serial called Dead Signal by Al Ewing and PJ Holden, which, to its credit, offered up a cliffhanger to episode four that really was thunderously wild and weird. It even made up for the fact that the reliable Holden fumbled the cliffhanger to part two so badly that it's impossible to tell what the heck you just read. Coming just a few pages after a similarly baffling and confusing cliffhanger to an episode of the interminable The Ten-Seconders, it really is very memorable. The following week, it turned out that the helicopter chasing our hero Marc vanished into thin air. That's not what it looked like.

But wait a minute, you may say. Even Dredd was a mess? In a very important continuity story written by John Wagner? Sadly, yes. The culprit is a major five-part story called "...Regrets." Previously, the judges had chosen to relax the anti-mutant laws and begin allowing genetically-altered immigrants from the Cursed Earth to enter the city. For ceremony and good press in the rise of hateful public outcry against this measure, the first mutant people allowed to visit are Dredd's kinfolk, the Fargo family, whom we met in the epic "Origins" in 2007. This is a critically important story, and it deserves artwork with some considerable impact. Sadly, it is given to an artist who is still at the early stage of his professional career, the wonderful Nick Dyer, and he makes a complete and utter hash of it.

Dyer has improved massively since "...Regrets," and I really do like his breezy, McMahon-influenced style, but, flatly, this artwork is a complete mess. I'm sympathetic to his problems following Wagner's script, however, because here is a rare example of Wagner himself completely stumbling. For many of us, Wagner is above criticism, and I do believe that he's just about the best and most consistent writer of comics in the business. Nobody is perfect, however, and here, Wagner is very badly in need for Smith to step in and edit his scripts. I realize that's a downright blasphemous idea in most quarters, but this is an occasion where it is true. There is a bizarre imbalance between small panels packed to full with copiously large word balloons full of police procedural gibberish, and large action panels that Dyer has difficulty filling. Consider the panels below, particularly the second.

Dyer's solution to the problem of that many words is to basically give up and donate the panel almost entirely to negative space. This should never, ever happen in a comic. "...Regrets" is like this constantly; indulging Wagner's fetish of having people say "do this, and then this, and then have somebody do this" is a huge violation of "show, don't tell," and Dyer doesn't know how to manage it. Now, frequently, readers are happy to indulge Wagner's fetish, because, in the hands of Flint or Ezquerra or MacNeil, it can read as riveting, but sadly not here.

As unfortunate as this is, it's still better than most of what's going on. I'll come back to Savage by Pat Mills and Patrick Goddard another time down the line at length, but briefly, Book Three had ended with the occupation in tatters and those stinkin' Volgs getting packed to go home, and then there's a mammoth offscreen gap of three years where they reoccupy England and readers have to figure out what the hell went on and who anybody is, because nobody explains anything. It ends with a major climactic episode where the first two pages are - madly - entirely silent, with no help to readers trying to understand what they're reading.

Worse still is the second and mercifully final story for The Ten-Seconders by Rob Williams. The first story had been flawed but, grudgingly, there was a little promise left. This time out, it is a complete disaster. Three separate artists are drafted to explain this mess, and only one of them, Dom Reardon, displays a dime of competence in telling a coherent story. But even he's lost with at least three separate casts of characters, none of whom refer to each other by name, with no narration. It's impossible to follow.

After three weeks, Reardon is replaced by Shaun Thomas, who further confounds the narrative by drawing all the leads as though they're bank robbers with panty hose on their faces. About halfway through the story, people do start referring to each other by name, and so I'm now reasonably sure that the characters whom I referred to in the first adventure as "Beardie and Beardie" are actually called "Malloy and Harris." They still look and dress identically. "Welsh Beardie," I think, died.

Then Ben Oliver takes over with episode seven and things fall completely apart. Oliver makes Nick Dyer look like a grizzled retirement-age professional, with pages of drawings that have no sense of even being related to each other. There's a scene in a hangar with Malloy - I think - training a jet aircraft's weapons on one of the alien gods. Not one participant in the scene even appears to be in the same location as anybody else. One character looks exactly like a Patrick Nagel painting of the lead singer of the Sisters of Mercy, though. That's something.

So in other words, you've got Ewing and Holden stumbling through a very complex serial, Wagner putting his poor artist through the twelve labors of Hercules, Mills electing not to tell anybody about a stunning development between stories, and Williams and the Three Stooges hitting readers over heads with hammers instead of patiently explaining the story. Compare these adventures to the ones that opened the year: Kingdom, Shakara, Stickleback and Strontium Dog. Never mind the Monday morning quarterbacking and wish that Tharg had juggled some of these stories so that the spring was not quite so dire, the run is made up of stories that feel like word balloons and captions fell off at the printers.

I'm a strong believer in comics being entry-level at almost all times. It may not be "realistic" to have characters think in complete sentences, or refer to each other by name when the reader first meets them in any given chunk of story, but comics aren't meant to be realistic. They have a language unique to art, and sometimes they can appear graceless, clunky, and inelegant to readers when spoken aloud, that's true, but I am presently rereading a lengthy run of DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes from the early 1980s, and, despite the oft-heard moan "The Legion is confusing!" from some comic fans, you honestly have to be a willful, stubborn mule to be confused as to who the characters are and what's happening in the stories, because the pacing is clear, the artwork is visually distinctive, characters don't look like each other, background details are explained in narration and thought balloons, and the dialogue allows each character to clearly name and identify the others. At this stage, during this spring, 2000 AD is failing miserably on this front, with one exception.

I didn't mention Dead Eyes, a serial by John Smith and Lee Carter, above, because, unlike its peers, it's a very straightforward and comprehensible story, and not guilty of confusing readers. However, it is guilty of both telling a story that Smith's already told, and also being incredibly boring.

So here we have a nature-loving culture that's into harmony with the planet and no use for technology but all sorts of time for esoteric, passionate sex, and a fellow who meets the culture is pursued by violent, greedy military types, and the fun lovemaking gets abruptly interrupted with bullets. If you enjoyed 1993's Firekind, in other words, here it is again on Earth, in a dreary, mud-painted exercise in post-X Files forteana, with Chtonia, Agharta, stone circles, ley lines and Neanderthals, and an evil, nasty British government full of secret agencies and kill teams.

Dead Eyes is just plain awful, and that's in part because it spends a solid month spinning its wheels having characters talk conspiracy jargon to each other and slowly, turgidly, make their way to the big city underneath a stone circle. Carter's artwork is printed far too dark, but, because he designs the characters to be distinctive from each other, and Smith, despite his reputation as difficult, is professional enough to keep the dialogue and explanations very clear, and so at no point is it ever confusing. No, it's just incredibly dull, and that's despite the presence of trademark Smith dialogue like: "Down's Syndrome orphans moulded by Masonic mind-control techniques into post-modern metrosexual killing machines for the state."

Mind you, the serial does have a hell of an ending. I'll come back to it in two weeks, though. This has been so long and depressing that I want to read better comics for a moment, like the ones running at this time in the Megazine...

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Savage: The Guv'nor (Volume Two, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Collected editions of The Ten-Seconders and Dead Eyes are anticipated in 2013.

Next time, so we'll switch back over to the Megazine to weather out this storm and talk about Low Life. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

181. Old and New

March 2008: In the previous chapter, we looked at how 2000 AD's first lineup of 2008 was completely terrific, but honestly, the Judge Dredd Megazine is every bit as wonderful. At this point, issue 269, the structure is quite similar to what readers in the present day will find in the issues on newsstands, except for the polybag and the little reprint comic; those come a few months down the line. Each issue contains contains about thirteen pages of text and articles, and four strips. The major text feature is an interview with one of the many artists or writers who've worked on the Galaxy's Greatest. The previous three issues had featured a detailed talk with Alan Grant. This time out, it is artist John McCrea, who also contributes the colorful and wild cover painting.

Of the strips, one is a creator-owned property, and this time out, it is Bob the Galactic Bum, about which, more in two weeks. One of these is a ten-page Judge Dredd episode, and it's backed up by two nine-page episodes from the Meg's stock of characters, usually set in Dredd's universe. It's not quite ideal, and the running complaint for the last five years, at least, has been a desire to see some more comics and fewer movie reviews. With thirteen issues a year, that's only 26 slots for new non-Dredd episodes, and leaves everybody wishing for more. This time out, the backup slots are filled by Armitage by Dave Stone and John Cooper, and Tempest by Al Ewing and Jon Davis-Hunt, and they are both excellent.

This is the first Armitage story in five years, and it's a very welcome return for the cranky old detective. It proved to be very popular, and the character has, happily, been a more frequent guest ever since; three further stories have appeared since this one, and they've all been terrific. For those unfamiliar with the character, he's a plainclothes detective judge in the very corrupt world of Brit-Cit, where, in a world not entirely unlike the Oxford CID of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, you can only advance so far up the chain of command without approval from old fraternal orders and secret societies. Armitage has been investigating weird and violent crimes with great success, but has made lots of enemies. He's a terrific character, and for the first time since the early 1990s, he'll have a consistent look across three stories, as John Cooper becomes his regular artist.

Personally, I think that Cooper is a terrific choice, and he really does a great job visualizing the unhappy, tough, lowered-eyebrows look of Armitage himself, just as he had done decades before on such comics as Johnny Red in Battle Picture Weekly, and, later, the popular Action Force. Clearly, Cooper's artwork has an old-fashioned look, and, while I'm a big fan, even I can't claim it's really successful in conveying the future shock of this bizarre metropolis. Writer Dave Stone was, earlier this year, a little more direct, praising the series' most recent artist, Patrick Goddard, in comparison with Cooper: "I'm liking how Armitage turned out, if only cos it now looks like it was drawn in the 1990's (sic) rather than in 1974." Yes, Cooper is certainly from an older school, but I contend that he did a fine job anyway. Some of the series' earlier outings had, unfortunately, been undermined by artists who confused the storytelling and the layouts. Even the reliable John Ridgway had left 2003's "Apostasy in the UK" something of a chore and a challenge to follow. Cooper just makes things incredibly clear, and even if his style is not to Stone's liking, he really succeeded in getting things done well.

Stone doesn't get a lot of press or fan attention, but he's a really excellent writer who enjoys the craft and the tradition of writing. In his interviews and forum posts, he really shows off a lot of critical knowledge of his peers, knowing what works and what does not. In "Dumb Blond," he does a magnificent job hiding a clue in plain sight. The reader is supposed to wonder, after a couple of episodes, whether the title might be misspelled, because the story seems to be centering on a female victim, and should therefore be spelled "Blonde." This is reflected in the story itself, giving Armitage just that extra bit of insight. It's a very clever bit of detective fiction, really wonderful writing, and it's certain to leave readers wanting more. Some of the earlier Armitage stories have been reprinted in the freebie-floppy "graphic novels" (in Megs 287, 289, 290 and 304), but some bookshelf editions are long overdue. I count about 446 pages of Armitage, plus 30 of his partner Treasure Steel. They could do that in two books; three if the editor would be so good as to commission a long and proper run of stories for the next few years.

I didn't leave myself much time to talk about Tempest, who is the first ongoing character to be created for the comics by Al Ewing. The writer had previously written some one-offs and a short serial called Go-Machine, but this is the first time he tackles something with legs. This first adventure, drawn with dynamic panache by newcomer Jon Davis-Hunt, starts following a con artist in Mega-City One ripping off a crime boss of many millions, only to be caught almost instantly, so he flees to the Undercity.

The Undercity is one of my favorite concepts in Judge Dredd's world. The quite goofy idea is that huge chunks of present-day America, including Manhattan in its entirety, had been simply concreted over as the Mega-City was built. This has resulted in some pretty stunning imagery in the hands of the series' artists - Arthur Ranson's depiction, in an old Anderson: Psi Division story, of a darkened, ruined Times Square under a concrete sky is breathtaking - and a host of wild ideas about what kind of villainous evil is thriving underground. Everything from mutant armies to werewolves to pied pipers to Aliens have lived down here, and now our hero has to navigate them in a desperate search for some old computer databases. Suddenly, there's this incredibly violent and powerful mustached clown in some sort of downmarket judge uniform who insists on helping him out.

After surviving some ridiculous, over-the-top threats, capped by a delicious cliffhanger wherein Tempest asks his hapless ally exactly when it was that he ever actually claimed to be a judge, Tempest tells his backstory - his secret origin, if you will. It is balderdash. It's one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator in comics, flatly and matter-of-factly telling an unbelievable tale about a zen supercriminal and a dedicated, by-the-book supercop called Judge Tempest who's devoted decades to proving his existence. The whole thing is just huge fun, and it's a big shame that when Tempest returned in 2010, it was in a story not nearly as entertaining.

Next time, it's back over to the weekly, to observe that the spring lineup is... well, not quite as strong. In fact, it is a mess. See you in seven days!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

180. One Awesome Lineup

February 2008: It's four and a half years before the release of Dredd, a film adaptation of 2000 AD's flagship character. The film will star Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, and Lena Headley, and be acclaimed by a wide spectrum of filmgoers and fans as one of the very best of all comic-to-movie adaptations. Dark, brutal, uncompromising, and very violent, the movie is, by any criteria, a complete triumph. Any criteria other than financial, sadly. Its North American distribution is left in the hands of the incompetent boobs at Lionsgate, who couldn't market beer at a football game, and whose strategy seems to consist solely of telling theater owners that it would be a hit but neglecting to tell anybody else, anywhere. The film performs well in Europe, but in the United States, it flops, ignominiously, despite incredibly good reviews from dozens of critics, leaving the prospect of any sequel films in doubt. We'll never get the Ampney Crucis TV series that I want at this rate.

Four and a half years before people started pointing fingers at film companies, however, 2000 AD released an issue with this amazing cover of Shakara slicing a tyrannosaur's head in half. Who has time to be discouraged about movies when you've got this in your funnybooks?

The first lineup of 2008 has got to be one of the comic's all-time best. In fact, it's so darn good that, when we come back to the weekly comic in two installments' time, and see what a complete mess the spring '08 gang is, everybody will be Monday morning quarterbacking, asking what in the heck Tharg could have done to avoid the quality plummet that starts around the time of prog 1577. See, what we've got in these issues includes a really terrific seven-part Dredd adventure by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil called "Emphatically Evil: The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe," along with the third Shakara story by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint, the second adventure of Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, the second Kingdom story by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, and another rollicking Strontium Dog case by Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.

Which one is the best? Take your pick at random and you could make a strong case. Wagner's two stories have a comfortable feel, even as Dredd is breaking new ground. When we last saw PJ Maybe, disguised as Byron Ambrose, he had been elected mayor of Mega-City One. Now, he's dealing with a copycat killer who's somehow implicated the mayor in his crimes, while Dredd and Hershey revisit the mutant problem. Ambrose/Maybe figures out who the mystery serial killer is, but just after the judges do, leading him to take out his pique on the "true crime" writer who inspired the murders, and the judges vote to relax the old mutant laws. This is going to prove enormously huge, and drive the next few years of Dredd's stories. Comparatively, Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer collecting bounties and busting heads is nothing new, but very entertaining. This will actually turn out to be Wulf's last appearance to date, I believe. The next two "flashback" stories are set before Johnny and Wulf met, and then the series will move to "the present," and finally start telling stories set after "The Final Solution."

Meanwhile, in Stickleback - my favorite of the five, but only by a hair - the Victorian-era supercriminal and his weirdo gang cross swordsticks with Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, and a bunch of other Americans who are performing in a traveling circus when they're not pilfering London of weird, occult treasures. This story's got everything from zombie cowboys to steampunk robot battlesuits to Chinese dragons. It's a complete triumph, but, perhaps, not one of character drama.

What goes on in Kingdom when Gene the Hackman finds a colony of humans and a strange species of gigantic, telepathic ticks is miserable and tragic on every page. You can't empathize with the cast of Stickleback, even with the new and strange mystery about his deformity possibly being a bizarre costume instead, but Gene's tale is a heartbreak on every page. The reader knows better than Gene not to entirely trust these good-natured people, even while sympathizing with their problem. They're under siege from the alien insect "them" outside the fence of their colony, and it's a slow and deliberate siege. Gene quickly understands what the humans don't - the bugs are testing their defenses and slowly wearing them down over months. But there's far more going on than that, and secrets being kept from Gene. He doesn't like that at all.

That leaves Shakara, who is cutting dinosaurs in half. This time out, we learn more about this series' wild and ugly universe, and that the red-eyed, mad-eyed screamer seems to be descended from, or a survivor of, some similarly loud and violent blue-eyed species. Lots of things get cut in half, and the giant psychic eyeball people come back, and we get both a recurring supporting player in the absurdly curvy form of Eva, and, in a thunderously effective cliffhanger, a wild new recurring villain. And he's got blue eyes.

But never mind that, scroll back up and look at that cover again. Do you see what Brendan McCarthy drew? It's SHAKARA CUTTING A TYRANNOSAUR IN HALF. I don't know why anybody ever reads anything else.

Stories from this issue have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
Kingdom: The Promised Land (Volume One, from Amazon UK)
Shakara: The Avenger (Volume One, from 2000 AD's Online Shop)
Stickleback: Mother London (out of print, link to Amazon UK sellers)
Strontium Dog: Traitor to His Kind (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, it's over to the Megazine as veteran artist John Cooper gets a new assignment, and new writer Al Ewing creates a very strange new character. See you in seven days!