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!

1 comment:

David Johnson said...

Interesting article my freind.