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!

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