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!

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