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!

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