Thursday, November 29, 2012

188. Locked Up

September 2008: Simon Parr, a long-serving production and design droid, contributes this issue's cover, which highlights a very controversial serial called Stalag 666. The serial is written by Tony Lee, and it's his first work for the House of Tharg, and it's drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt, who had previously provided the excellent artwork for Tempest in the Megazine. To say that it gets a mixed reception is the understatement of the year. Stalag 666, overall, is probably the least-loved thing to appear in the comic since Bison about six years previously.

Honestly, it's not quite that bad, but it sure isn't good. In my book, it is nowhere near as awful as its reputation suggests, but it sure does have a lot working against it. I recall that some fans were a little confused about the way that Lee managed to bypass the understood method of getting some work from Tharg by slogging through lots of one-offs and Future Shocks, instead offering up a resume of work for small publishers like Markosia and IDW, for whom he was writing Doctor Who, starting with a mini-series called "The Forgotten." I'd like to think that the ugly incident that overshadows Stalag was motivated more by the ugly jealousy of somebody who'd had no luck getting his submissions accepted than by anybody who thought that they had a beef with the serial's content. I'm talking, of course, about the letter of shit.

So here's what happened: Stalag 666 debuted with a double-length opener in prog 1600 and immediately broke one of the cardinal rules of fiction: don't tell your readers that there's a more interesting story somewhere in your world than the one which you plan to tell them. Instead of an all-action story of war between humanity and the reptilian aliens who dress and act like Nazis - and that's another problem with the serial, the villains are reptilian aliens who dress and act like Nazis - Lee chooses to tell a story about some humans desperate to escape from a cruel prison camp. It suffers from one or two problems common to 2000 AD during this period, like having far too many characters, and confusion as to who the central protagonist actually is, but really, even at the time, it was just mediocre and skippable, and nowhere near as world-ending as its detractors claimed. It actually starts off at least structured very well, with an opener that explains the world and its cruelty, and ends with the character who might be the hero arriving in the camp. After that, however, it's really talky and kind of obvious.

Jon Davis-Hunt, who had earlier been so impressive with Tempest, took a huge stumble backward with this serial. He'd recover - his work on Dandridge is a joy - but stuck drawing eighty-something pages of the same dull people in the same dull place took its toll on him. His camera angles never seem to change, and everything is delivered in the same boring medium shot. The occasional action scenes are lifeless and the very occasional moments of over-the-top gore look completely ridiculous. One reason I was reminded of, and mentioned, Bison earlier comes with an execution at the climax of episode six, where one of the characters is literally sliced in half by a single blow from the main Snake baddie, a geyser of solid burgundy splashing out of him, comically. I was reminded of the "Candlehead Eruptions" that looked so incredibly stupid and ridiculous in the later episodes of Bison.

Though we'll never know for sure what prompted it, beyond hideous mental defect, I'd like to think that, because the timeline seems to work, this amazingly dumb visual at the end of part six was the final straw for one even dumber anonymous reader, somewhere in England. This cretin took the time to find every negative review of the serial that he could, from the formal ones at the old, as well as from the official site's forum, copy-n-pasted them into one document, and attached not only a vulgar letter, but also - wait for it - a generous sampling of his own shit, smeared across a page of photocopy paper. This package was duly delivered to one of Mr. Lee's previous addresses in mid-October, and forwarded along to him.

After Lee informed fandom of the event, by way of an entirely-justified rant, the story got picked up by some of the comic gossip sites. Everybody with a brain was duly offended, and the otherwise good reputation that 2000 AD fans have of being sensible, optimistic, level-headed, and encouraging adults got a black eye. It's never good to have a sociopath among your ranks, because it makes everybody look bad. The attendant noise and discussion completely overshadowed more than just the serial, but the comic itself. For a few weeks there, I know that I just wasn't interested in 2000 AD at all, since the incident just sucked the fun out of everything. I read the issues as they arrived, and I have to say that none of it stuck with me. Progs 1602 until about 1610 - bearing in mind that American comic stores were receiving these about a month late - are completely unfamiliar to me. This is why I didn't remember the exact point where Steve Yeowell lost interest in drawing backgrounds in The Red Seas - it comes in episode three of "Old Gods," as night skies become lazy cross-hatching and trees become simple squiggles - and why I wrote a letter to Tharg complaining that I couldn't understand what was happening in Book Three of the ABC Warriors epic "The Volgan War" - sorry, Green Bonce, it wasn't your fault - and why I could not for the life of me remember one dang thing about the fourth Lobster Random story.

In my defense, "The Forget-Me-Knot" - it has the same title as Emma Peel's last episode of The Avengers - really is a dense and confusing story. Lobster Random is among my favorite characters of the decade, but Simon Spurrier seems to have written this story while suffering from a fever. Even allowing for the writer's reputation of being very wordy and full of highwire sci-fi concepts, and the presence of an amnesiac leading man, this is certainly the most complex adventure for the character to date.

Having been rescued from The Vort at the end of that recent "surprise twist" serial a few weeks ago by the reporter Meridien Bless, Lobster has been formally identified. Wanted by police and security forces across the system, he's immediately targeted for execution on sight, but rescued by his old mech-lover Klik, who double-crosses him - she can't help it, she has a double-cross software patch - and delivers him to the two mercenaries who've been pestering him for years. That's when it gets weird. Bless rescues him again and returns him to The Vort, where he hopes that the planet's hallucinogenic rain can restore his lost memory. But then Bless drinks some of the same rain, and Lob starts getting her memories mixed with his.

There's a lot to like about Lob, but with the wild resurrections and heady concepts - there's a big, planet-possessing supernatural force manipulating everything to ensure its freedom - it's somehow lost its fun edge, and that great feeling it previously had that every chapter worked on its own. Once an episodic series in the very best way, it's now the sort of story that demands ongoing reader attention because everything is piling atop each other. It's good - in fact, it's very good and the best thing in the prog - but it's certainly not the Lob that we fell in love with.

It also ends in prog 1610 on a stinking big cliffhanger which everybody involved should resolve to address in 2013. Get on with it, guys!

Next time, we'll try to make some sense of The ABC Warriors, and we'll go as my Wimsey takes me as Ampney Crucis debuts.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

187. Skidmarks!

August 2008: Here's one of the biggest things, potentially, to ever happen to the Judge Dredd Megazine: the irrepressible Tank Girl joins the lineup with all-new episodes. Helpfully, Meg # 275 features not only the first episode in a wild new series of Tank Girl by Alan Martin and her new artist, Rufus Dayglo, but also a new series of articles written by Ed Berridge about the history of British adult comics, which helps put the new story in some context.

Tank Girl, as a strip, debuted in 1988 in the premiere issue of Deadline, although the character had been used in flybills and promotional tat for punk groups for a while before. The creation of Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett, she then became a regular player in the magazine. A heady mix of anarchic comics, left-wing politics and indie rock - one of Melody Maker's most celebrated writers, the late Steven Wells, contributed several features and interviews - Deadline is, decades on, an absolutely wild and occasionally impenetrable time capsule. It's much loved by those who were able to embrace it at the time, albeit somewhat baffling to those of us on this continent even if we were the right age to have loved it or the music that it championed. Tank Girl was the star player, and apparently the most regular feature - I have never seen a proper "database" like those that we trainspotter 2000 AD fans assembled - but other series, including Johnny Nemo by Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins, Wired World by Philip Bond, and Hugo Tate by Nick Abadzis are all well-remembered by many, although, if we're honest, I recall an article about the group Kitchens of Distinction written by "Swells" more clearly than any of the comics.

Deadline didn't survive either homegrown indie rock's breaking into the mainstream in the mid-90s or Tank Girl's debut as a remarkably poor feature film. The movie was such a bust that the backlash helped sink the comic. The movie flopped in April of 1995 and Blur had their first number one with "Country House" in August. The moment had passed, and Martin and Hewlett granted DC's Vertigo imprint.a license to publish Tank Girl. They released some poorly-received comics written by Milligan and retired the character in early '96.

Eleven years later, Tank Girl returned. Hewlett had, by this time, become a hugely successful multimedia artist, and regular collaborator with Blur's Damon Albarn, and gave Martin his blessing to continue without him. Now published by IDW, Martin hooked up with artist Ashley Wood for some mini-series adventures. But Tank Girl works best when it regularly appears in a larger context, and in shorter bursts of material. So, while the IDW releases continued as occasional mini-series, Tank Girl began a residency in Judge Dredd Megazine unlike any seen before. With a couple of single-issue breaks, she was a regular player for almost two full years.

It's difficult to say how much of Tank Girl's original success was down to Hewlett's art, but, while it may be unfair for everybody to downplay Martin's considerable, and ongoing, contribution, it's accurate to say that people do. I recall pointing out IDW's Ashley Wood-drawn Tank Girl to a group of comic-reading friends and acquaintances, and, without Hewlett, none of them were interested. True, Wood's stylized take on the character was a pretty radical departure, but conservative comic readers get their notions and hold onto them for dear life. Dayglo's version resembled Hewlett's a little more closely, and the shorter episodes, usually nine pages each month, more closely evoked the non-linear, anything-goes feel of the Deadline days.

The new Tank Girl launched with a ten-part epic called "Skidmarks" that drew inspiration from the old Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon Wacky Races and the Burt Reynolds film The Cannonball Run. It's the most straightforward, and by far the longest, of Tanky's Meg adventures. Subsequent stories, which appeared through the spring of 2010, would be shorter, much looser, and also quite controversial among readers, but more of that down the line.

I recall being both very excited and very frustrated by the launch of Tank Girl in the Meg. I won't claim to have ever been a fan of the character, though I really appreciate the nice way that Titan repackaged their series of reprint books at the same dimensions as Rebellion's line, which was very thoughtful of them. I think I'm too linear (and boring) of a reader for most of the carefree and bizarre Deadline material, no matter how much I love, for example, Philip Bond's artwork. (I would certainly like to see a Wired World collected edition prove me wrong, though.) Since I did love Rufus Dayglo's artwork, and saw such sales promise in Tanky joining the Meg, I was cautiously optimistic.

But I was incredibly disappointed when, again, Rebellion failed to capitalize on their newest star by, you know, promoting the living heck out of her. The IDW books were selling to some small audience in the States. Even if my anecdotes suggested some resistance, the books still moved, but, as 2008 ended and I began a lengthy look, incorporating several states, at comic book shops across the southeast and up north, I saw many places that sold IDW's Tank Girl but not Judge Dredd Megazine. Retailers had no idea, as per usual, that the character had new adventures here. Rebellion failed to promote it in any real way. If ever there was a time for full-page ads in the Previews catalog from Diamond Distributors, this was it. Another opportunity was lost. This would not improve for another couple of years.

Oh, yeah, and the Meg was now bagged with a "free graphic novel," usually 64 pages and printed at the same dimensions as their line of reprint books. The "Meg Floppy," as it's often called, is still going today, four years later, and seems to serve the dual purpose of gauging reader response to material that might be served by the larger bookstore market, and also getting old material scanned in and resized for the reprint world. This format - 64 pages and bagged with a reprint - has been the standard for the Meg since issue 275.

Next time, Tony Lee gets some hate mail. See you in seven days!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

186. It's not who I thought it was!

July 2008: In prog 1796, a serial called The Vort wrapped up. This eight-part tale of future war on a strange planet where the laws of physics are challenging the human army had readers' suspicion circuits buzzing from about page two. There's a really strange "man of mystery," badly wounded and disfigured, his facial features obscured by hideous scar tissue, among the cast. He's called Crispy, and the main protagonist, a reporter, is determined to learn his secret.

What's more, there's the curious nature of the serial's credits. The artist is the popular and awesome D'Israeli, and the writer is listed as "G. Powell." We'd been down this road twice before. When John Wagner had written The Dead Man in 1990 as "Keef Ripley," that certainly looked like a pseudonym, but this was before any internet-based fandom could get together and speculate about it. The Dead Man established this unusual tradition to hide the identity of the hero: the writer uses a fake name, and the artist, in that case John Ridgway, is one not really known for drawing the character.

This was repeated in 2006, when "Cal Hamilton" and artist Simon Coleby collaborated on a serial called Malone, who was revealed to be Finnigan Sinister. By this time, of course, we had the internet for research and for speculation, and the actual writer, Dan Abnett, anticipated the nosy nature of fans and reused the "Hamilton" name, which he'd previously employed for some work for licensed comics such as James Bond Jr. in the 1990s. Since nobody ever knew that "Hamilton" and Abnett were one and the same, this worked perfectly,

As for "G. Powell," Tharg swore that this was a brand new droid, but nobody believed him. Speculation wasn't exactly running wild, but I had my theory, and I was pretty sure of it. I figured "Powell" had to be Arthur Wyatt. See, the writer Gordon Rennie had taken a sabbatical from 2000 AD around this time, leaving lots of dangling subplots across three separate series, to take on some better-paying work in the video game industry. It was understood that Cabbalistics Inc would be rested for the time being - a really long time being, as it has turned out - but that The 86ers would be resuming in 2009 with Wyatt as the new writer. This series, a spinoff of Rogue Trooper, had been absent for about a full year at this point. My guess was that "Powell" was putting a subplot together - the return of Rogue himself, badly wounded, amnesiac, and calling himself Crispy - and that we'd get a last-page revelation of Crispy as our blue-skinned, biochip-totin' buddy, setting up his move to the Acoma System to hook up with Rafe in the next 86ers story.

This theory made perfect sense. It even worked on the art front, because D'Israeli had never drawn Rogue Trooper before. Of course, he'd never drawn Lobster Random before, either.

Aloha! Crispy was Lobster Random and "G. Powell" was Si Spurrier. So there.

Elsewhere in the Galaxy's Greatest, Robbie Morrison and Richard Elson start a four-part Judge Dredd story in which criminals use an electromagnetic pulse to shut down a city block, with the unintentional side effect of also shutting down Dredd's bionic eyes. There's more Sinister Dexter, and the Nikolai Dante epic "Amerika" moves toward an unforgettable conclusion. For about the last two years of the series, since prog 1511, Dante has been working as Tsar Vladimir's top agent, neither trusting the other, and with good reason. Dante doesn't know that Vlad's armored "Lord Protector" is really his own half-brother Konstantin, and Vlad doesn't know that Dante's been quietly assembling "an army of thieves and whores" to lead a rebellion.

So, Dante has assembled a rough alliance in the streets of New York to repel the beachhead from the alien White Army, and Vlad sees the whole endeavor as, tactically, a big waste of time and resources, and moves his fleet in to just wipe Manhattan, and everybody in it, human and alien alike, off the face of the earth. Dante escapes in the nick of time, but it looks very much like all the people who moved onto the island from the other old boroughs at his urging have all been slaughtered. Our hero completely loses his temper, especially when Vlad and Arkady are all smug and supercilious about their awful abuses of power, and the look on Vlad's face when Dante puts his sword through the old man's stomach is a stunner.

Dante's blow is about six inches lower than it needed to be. As our hero goes down in a hail of energy blasts, he knows that he wasted the effort; Vlad is going to survive, and we poor readers will have an agonizing thirteen weeks to see what will happen to him next.

And Defoe, by Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher, nearing the end of his second ten-part adventure, sees his subplots twist and tangle and get incredibly convoluted in the best possible way. The series does seem to have about twice as many characters as is necessary, but it's really fun. (Tharg! If you're reading, the week before this series returns for story five in 2013, please program a five page "who's who" prologue, would you? Thanks!) I really like the structure, where Titus Defoe is usually deep in the trenches, fighting zombie "reeks" at the street level, completely unaware of all the political machinations going on between Scotland Yard and various palaces and country houses.

The story brings him, briefly, in opposition to a lady of the Prussian court, a diplomat who appears to be slumming and enjoying an illegal pit fight between a brawler and a reek, before she takes her leave of the event. He's then contacted by the secret agent brother of the reporter who accompanied him in the first story, who reveals the reporter's tale about his meeting with the villains controlling the reeks, known as Mene Tekel and La Voisin, alias "Mr. Quick" and "Prussian Blue." Defoe realizes that the woman he met is certainly La Voisin, and this story ends with Defoe and Damned Jones preparing to track her down.

I really do enjoy this series despite the genuine reality that there are a heck of a lot more characters than anybody can keep up with. Wikipedia is some help, although it reveals the deaths of three of Defoe's twelve (twelve!!!) fellow zombie fighters in stories three and four. On the other hand, ten times as many things happen in sixty pages of Defoe than in sixty pages of anything else in print, so you can't complain too much. Also, the reporter and the spy? Their names are Fear-the-Lord Jones and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Be-Damned Jones. How could anybody not love this comic?

Next time, don't get your knickers in a twist, Tank Girl is here!

If you enjoy Thrillpowered Thursday, I'd really appreciate your help in spreading the word along. Perhaps the blog is getting stale, or my writing has become predictable, or we've hit the "familiarity breeds contempt" wall, or something, but readership has been noticeably dwindling over the last six months. I should probably redesign this ugly and old-fashioned thing, were the time available, that's for sure. In the meantime, if you like the blog, please tell your friends. I really would appreciate it. Thank you!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

185. Amerika the Amazing

July 2008: As I create these articles, I often find myself overlooking Judge Dredd, planning in advance to highlight one of the other stories running. "The Edgar File," a major seven-part story by John Wagner and Patrick Goddard, however, demands everybody's attention. Even as Wagner has solidified his skills writing police procedurals and giving Dredd a meticulous and detailed approach to investigation, this one really is a standout. It makes you wish Rebellion would skip ahead in their Case Files to Volume 35 or whatever it will take to start getting big, complete collections of the modern series in print, so that those foolish non-scrots who still haven't caught on can have their minds more easily blown.

In this story, one of Dredd's longtime adversaries in Justice Department, the politically powerful Jura Edgar, is finally dying of cancer, and gives our hero a file with virtually no information or background. She's pulled similar stunts in the past, knowing that Dredd will, impartially, investigate whatever hints can be found in one of Edgar's secret files. This time, there's a trail of corruption that goes right up to the Council of Five, and an influential retired judge who has remained in Mega-City One as a private citizen, and a really surprising twist revelation right at the end about Edgar herself.

There are some artists who handle Wagner's police procedural side better than others. As mentioned a few chapters previously, Nick Dyer didn't really do a very good job with his first effort. That's in part because his fun and whimsical style didn't really match the downbeat and very wordy script. Patrick Goddard is a much better choice for this kind of adventure. He'd already acquitted himself with a fine Dredd procedural about a serial killer, "Your Cheating Heart," in 2006, and this is even better.

As often happens, the rest of the prog is trying to catch up to Wagner's Dredd. Pat Mills and Leigh Gallagher's Defoe is huge fun, as is a curious future war serial called The Vort by G. Powell and D'Israeli that we'll come back to next time. Sinister Dexter is here, but the real gem is a really thrilling Nikolai Dante story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser. It's called "Amerika" and it's a complete rollercoaster, full of really unpredictable and wild twists. Dante is not a strip that sticks to a status quo for very long, and this story ends the "sword of the tsar" portion of the series pretty terminally.

It's been understood for some time now that Nikolai has been working quietly to assemble underground forces against the tsar, but it all looks set to fall apart after this visit to the ugly and impoverished North American continent. New York is a decaying, overpopulated mess under brutal martial law, with hints and traces of wealth and wonder. About half the populace has bought into VR implants from the Futura Corporation just to pass the time.

This series is always at its best when Dante looks to be in way over his head, and this one's a jewel for fans who enjoy the character facing impossible odds. He's already confounded about how to protect Jena, who's still furious with him after his last dalliance with the Countessa, from militias and self-styled, super-powered "freedom fighters" - resemblances to various Marvel characters intentional - when it turns out that the White Army is involved. These are the weird extraterrestrials who've been scheming to assimilate all flesh into their techno-organic hive mind, and they've got a much larger beachhead in Amerika than anybody thought...

It's a great story, and Fraser is really on fire with his art. The story is memorable for some amazing and meticulous architecture, with the double-page spread that shows the decaying Manhattan a candidate for one of the most amazing pieces of artwork to ever appear in the comic.

Next time, another surprise twist, this time in The Vort, plus a little more about Defoe and the thunderous finale of "Amerika." Be back in a week!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

184. Nobody saw this coming.

June 2008: Two chapters back, I briefly mentioned a John Smith-written serial, Dead Eyes, illustrated by Lee Carter. Rereading it, I'm not persuaded that it's an overlooked treasure. Smith is, by some distance, one of my absolute favorite writers of comics, but Dead Eyes simply isn't very compelling, in part because the early episodes of this serial are a misshapen, turgid bore about secret conspiracies, ley lines, underground civilizations, and a naughty British government. It's like somebody shook out the contents of an issue of Fortean magazine over the plot of Smith's 1993 serial Firekind.

Dead Eyes gets worse before it gets better. Our hero, Danny, meets a telepathic Neanderthal, Unthur Dak, who's been living in Cthonia, the secret underground world that the secret government shadow conspiracy wants to find. Tensions mount, bullets fly, none of it manages to be very compelling or exciting, and then, in the final episode, with the naughty military-industrial complex at the cusp of victory, Dak lets Danny know that the cavemen have a secret doomsday device, an instantly-activating fungus spore thingummyjig that will entirely wipe out humanity before Cthonia's secrets are revealed.

You may recall from Dr. Strangelove that the whole point of a doomsday device is to act as a deterrent. I was waiting for Danny to ask Unthur Dak, "Why didn't you tell the world?" He doesn't.

Anyway, not for the first time, it feels a lot like Smith wrote himself into a corner and needed his classic creations, Indigo Prime, to pull the story out of a dead end. And so, in one of the absolute greatest and most thoroughly unexpected moments in all of 2000 AD, characters from another series entirely break into the narrative of a story that has been running quite on its own for three months.

Sadly, I had this amazing moment spoiled for me by, of all people, the great artist Chris Weston! In possibly the only time in my life I've ever been aggravated with Weston, who designed the Indigo Prime operatives Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord, he was so pleased and surprised to see them back in action in his weekly subscription prog that he announced it on his blog within a day or two. I had been steadfastly avoiding spoiler threads and the like for all the media that I enjoy for years, but I certainly didn't expect that I needed to shield myself from the personal blog of an art droid who hadn't worked for 2000 AD for ages. I was livid with Weston in the manner of a spoiled toddler for about ten minutes, then I forgave him.

At any rate, the Dead Eyes finale wrapped up 2000 AD's tumultuous spring, with a chorus of voices asking when the proper Indigo Prime series that it appeared to herald would begin. The answer, sadly, was "sometime in 2011." In prog 1590, a new ten-week lineup started, featuring Nikolai Dante, The Vort, Sinister Dexter and the second story for Pat Mills' and Leigh Gallagher's Defoe.

In 2007, Mills had launched two series simultaneously. Greysuit was well received, certainly, but Defoe was by leagues the more popular of the two. In this story, "Brethren of the Night," Mills expands Defoe's supporting cast - too quickly, it could be argued - and keeps throwing a dizzying number of characters and ugly situations at readers. I enjoy how different parts of the British government, fighting hard against the zombie plague, don't really seem to know much about what the others are doing. Titus Defoe is the hero of the story, but in the corridors of Whitehall, he's simply "Newton's man." The spymasters and secret service types are fighting dozens of subtle wars and battles, and the zombie problem is just one of many.

There's a really terrific bit early in this story where Defoe and his gang meet up with Bendigo, a "gong farmer" known to them all as a champion boxer. He's sending young boys down into the sewers to farm for him, and the kids wake up a zombie nest. I love the intensity of this sequence, with the kids desperately crawling through tunnels while flaming monsters chase them down. Gallagher does terrific work throughout.

Interestingly, in the collected edition of the story (available in the first volume, 1666), some substantial relettering was done. Readers complained that some of the narrative captions, a memoir written by Mungo Gallowgrass, were not very legible. They were also done, I'd say, in a script more elegant than we should expect from the weird, vulgar Gallowgrass. I'd call him Mungo, like his friends do, but really, Gallowgrass has no friends.

Next time, Nikolai Dante goes to war in Amerika. See you in seven days!