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.

1 comment:

Nathan J said...

Bit of a shock reading this as I was not familiar with the story or of this incident, occurring as it did during a period of shameful behaviour on my own part – namely a four year hiatus from reading the Galaxy’s Greatest.
Tempting to be depressed by it, given that I imagined fans of 2000ad would somehow be above such behaviour, but reading your account of it, I think you right in that it doesn’t sound like the work of a dissatisfied reader, but rather someone with a personal axe to grind against the author, for whatever reason.
Going to have to read Stalag 666 now to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t think “reptilian aliens who dress and act like Nazis” sounds like a problem in and of itself, I rather like the idea as a kind of silly 2000ad concept.