Thursday, February 2, 2012

163. Hitmen and Her

April 2006: That Tharg, always on top of Earth's latest trends, gives us a very silly cover blurb to herald the return of undercover judge Aimee Nixon and the rest of the Low Life gang. Aimee, seen here in all her nose-broken ugliness, is drawn by Steve Roberts. The tag line, "The Hitmen and Her," refers to a popular late-night dance music show that had been canceled fourteen years previously. The Hit Man and Her ran from 1988-92 and was hosted by Pete Waterman, one-third of that production trio that spent the late 1980s making all of Bananarama's records sound like all of Rick Astley's and Kylie Minogue's records. Thanks to "radiator" from the 2000 AD message boards for making the connection; I think I was probably not in the mood, after hearing how Waterman and his colleagues ruined Wow! in '87, to really care what the hell he was hosting on late night British TV. Well, okay, I like "I Heard a Rumour," but that was not at all a good album.

Anyway, so the current Low Life story, "Con Artist," is written by Rob Williams and drawn by Simon Coleby, and we get Tharg's obscure and terrible pun from the setting. It's held at an underground convention of hitmen in Mega-City One. After the comedy detour of 2005's "Rock and a Hard Place," which gave the popular supporting character Dirty Frank the lead role for the first time, this is back to serious business with Aimee in charge. It's a moody melodrama, and the tone is established by Coleby's art. Here, everything appears in a wash of gray.

I probably appreciate Coleby's art a lot less than anybody else reading this does. He has proven to be very popular among 2000 AD's fans, but you can't please everybody, and his work leaves me cold. I really didn't like it at all on "Rock and a Hard Place," and 2007's "Baby Talk," another comedy story with Dirty Frank in the lead, aggravated me even more. Here, though, it makes a much better match for what Williams is writing. At this stage of the series, Low Life is a serious drama about Aimee that occasionally takes detours into broad comedy and gives a different character the lead. It's a noir strip where nobody can be trusted and the lead character is haunted by violence.

Solid lines and psychedelic details, as seen to wild effect throughout the first thirteen episodes of Low Life when Henry Flint was drawing it, are not what the strip necessarily needs, and while I personally don't enjoy Coleby's work, I'm very impressed by how well he serves the story. I appreciate it, and praise it, on a technical level, but not an emotional one.

Overall, I was honestly not enjoying Low Life very much at this stage. The shift in tone as the stories switched between the two leads did not work for me. In 2009, when D'Israeli becomes the series' artist, Williams finds a new approach, putting Dirty Frank and his blinkered, damaged and occasionally hilarious psyche in charge of dramatically important and emotionally engaging cases, and the result is pure magic. The annual Low Life story of the past three years has been one of the comic's greatest successes, and it's honestly fascinating to see how this series has evolved.

However, detailing a series with qualifiers about it being technically or archaeologically interesting really is damning with faint praise. The honest fact is that I just don't like the Coleby period of Low Life and have trouble figuring out what the heck the artist is trying to draw in some shots. No, it's much more satisfying to talk about something wild and fun like Si Spurrier and Carl Critchlow's Lobster Random.

"The Agony and the Ecstacy" is the third Lobster Random adventure and it is possibly my favorite of all of them. It's terrific. Rebellion seriously needs to collect the first three stories in a book as soon as possible, because it's just a hilarious and constantly inventive series. This time out, the story opens with Lob having formed a criminal partnership with Mrs. Redd, the brain-in-a-robot from the previous story. They are happily bilking old rich dudes just after she's married them when another, much weirder gang of criminals intervenes. Their partnership severed, Lob attempts to hook up with the gang and give them a taste of what a big swindle feels like. While Lob was not responsible for Mrs. Redd's fate, she built a contingency plan into her robot body, expecting Lob to double-cross her. So he does not know that a signal has been sent to those two big and mean bounty hunters, Pinn and Hogg, from the previous story, and as soon as things get their worst, they'll be showing up.

This story has everything. I've mentioned before that one reason I love this series is that it's set in a world where the wildest and most imaginative sci-fi ideas are just thrown around casually, without any ponderous buildup or explanation. It's like being seven years old and seeing the Tattooine cantina from Star Wars for the first time and thinking "Lookit all dose ALIENS!" It's really like Si Spurrier built a cast of characters from weird, castoff parts from an old toybox. This time out, there's a sentient spray of graffiti and a sentient zoot suit among all of the other crazy-looking people. Among them is a guy with a video camera for a head. And then there's the kingpin behind the scenes.

If you've not read this before, then anybody who spoils this kingpin guy for you has done you a genuinely criminal offense. The cliffhanger where he's revealed is, flatly, one of 2000 AD's all-time finest. Top ten, easy. The shock of seeing this guy, and the casual, ridiculous one-liner that he delivers, is pure genius. With only five or six pages an episode, it can be an indulgence to use a full-page splash cliffhanger in 2000 AD, which is why creators use it very, very sporadically. It's a tool that Tharg's droids only pull out for once-in-a-lifetime reveals like this. The character is actually very clever, as well as a design tour-de-force. He's a conjoined twin, which leaves Lob baffled, because why, he asks, should anybody in this fantastic a future suffer through that. It actually gives him a remarkable tactical advantage over Lob, who is, for once, absolutely stumped as to how he'll get the better of his enemy.

Stories from this prog have been reprinted in the following collected editions:
The ABC Warriors: The Shadow Warriors (2000 AD's Online Shop)
The 86ers: The Complete 86ers (2000 AD's Online Shop)
Low Life: Mega-City Undercover (2000 AD's Online Shop)

Next time, well, that'll be in March after a little break. This wraps up Thrillpowered Thursday's latest "season," but we'll be back in a few weeks' time with an amazingly off-model Dredd in South America, and an egregious misuse of the Comic Sans font. Until then, take care of yourself!