Thursday, May 30, 2013

203. Training Wheels

September 2010: The King's Speech is released. Tony Curtis dies, and, with him goes the final remaining living memory of sex with Marilyn Monroe. There's a new launch prog featuring Dredd, Defoe, Nikolai Dante, Low Life, and a new series, Age of the Wolf. So this week, I'm hitting the absolute bottom of the "drawing together connections to spark a point about worth writing a post" barrel. Fair warning. I thought I had something, and I didn't, and all that's left is fairly weak. But would you believe that there are two stories running in the comic this month with very strong female characters and they're both driving motorcycles? No kidding.

As much as we (obviously) love 2000 AD, the one place where it constantly needs improvement is bringing in female creators, writers, and artists, and developing stronger female protagonists. A big part of that development, for me, is building a world around that character and her situation, rather than other, earlier, male characters. That's why spinoffs don't quite count with me. As much as I liked Samantha Slade, she was operating in the shadow of her grandfather, your old pal Sam. Rafe and Venus Bluegenes both have Rogue Trooper's DNA. Judges Anderson, Hershey, Karyn, and even Aimee Nixon are all policing the same streets as Joe Dredd.

Judge Nixon almost qualifies for me because she's so radically different from Dredd, and in the Low Life adventure "Hostile Takeover," she has one humdinger of a character turn. We'll come back to that in the next chapter, but it's worth noting that in the beginning of this story by Rob Williams and D'Israeli, she's the centerpiece of one of the period's very best cliffhangers. Racing down the mean streets of Mega-City One with the indefatigable Judge Dirty Frank in tow, she comes across a biker in a suit of samurai armor. And then another. They're riding very strange bikes, beautifully designed by D'Israeli but which appear really impractical, having just one big tire. Then, ahead of them, there's a single man holding a sword. Dirty Frank seems to take the worst of it, but he's just overreacting to a scratch. Judge Nixon... she doesn't come out well.

Outside of spinoffs such as these, you really have to put your thinking cap on to find a recent series built around a female lead. (This subject came up about a year later on a friend's Facebook page and some guy chimed in "What about Halo Jones?" Yeah. Awesome. That's the default answer to 2000 AD's lack of female leads: a character who last appeared more than a quarter of a century ago.) That's why Age of the Wolf arrived to instant appreciation. It is the first series in 2000 AD by Alec Worley, although his earlier one-off "Antiquus Phantasma" would be developed into the series Dandridge a little later on. It's drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt, who's been improving and impressing more and more with each appearance in the comic, and the lead character, Rowan Morrigan, bears a pleasing enough resemblance to the actress Karen Gillan, who first appeared on Doctor Who about five months previously.

Davis-Hunt does a simply amazing job laying out the action sequences, but he still has one little artistic hiccup that drives me nuts and, at this point, hasn't seen much improvement from his debut with Stalag 666, and that's his depiction of people running. I can't spell out exactly what's wrong, just that the crowd escaping from the London Underground station in episode two seems frozen in place and wearing lead shoes, which is a very strange problem for somebody who also possesses the talent to make a motorcycle appear as though it's about to leap out of the page to have.

Age of the Wolf - I'm so accustomed to writing about the fictional detective Nero Wolfe that I keep typing "wolf" and adding an e - is a modern-day (well, 2016) thriller that sees England beset by werewolves. There has been a full moon for nine days, and a snowy London has almost immediately become a hunting ground for beasts. Rowan can save the world by fulfilling an ancient prophecy and dying, but she isn't willing to go without a fight.

This series really shows off more and more with subsequent rereads. It turns out that all the place-setting dialogue on page one of the story does more than merely tip a hat to Sydney Jordan and Willie Patterson, the creators of the classic, cerebral adventure strip Jeff Hawke, it sets up the whole premise of sacrifice. From the ancient Greeks to the comely lasses of medieval fairy tales being given up for dragons, there's a long history of women being given up to satisfy a monster and save the world. Nobody has ever really asked what the victim has to say about that.

Rowan doesn't get the opportunity to turn matters around and start kicking werewolf ass until the second book of Age of the Wolf in 2012, but she immediately makes an impact as a character who we want to follow. Her fate is cruel and unfair and we want her to strike back against it. This requires her to run, and episodes 2-5 of the first story are a long and mostly brilliant chase scene. People who were not paying attention to the prophecy aspect, and the very heavy undercurrent of Norse mythology, wolves, and endless winter - fair cop, that would totally include me the first time around - would be blindsided by the strange direction the series takes once things calm down for a moment and it looks like Rowan has found a short refuge. We meet some new characters as Rowan's decision to live looks like it's going to damn the world.

I kind of hate myself for missing the very clear telegraphing that this series is about what happens when Midgard is given up to the wolves, but, to be fair and honest, Worley's only real error in laying out this story was introducing it via what looks to be an incredibly skippable and long monologue being read by a radio broadcaster to the silent halls of a museum. Often in the comic medium, a writer's intention can be subverted by the way that readers absorb comics, and the way that the editors and publishers promote them. This is not, despite all evidence, an action story about a girl on a motorbike fighting werewolves in familiar London, but when, for a solid month, that's what we read, it's a little tough to turn over the coin and tell readers that what they've read is just the scene one hook, not without resentment and confusion. So no, I don't think that Book One of Age of the Wolf went over very well with readers in the end; there was lots of grumbling about the witches and the prophecies and how the heck did this urban thriller transform into ponderous Norse mumbo-jumbo, but it reveals more on each reread. Book Two, which appeared in 2012, was more successful - there is a hell of a blind twist in that one - and I believe that the third and final book is due in September of this year. I'm looking forward to it!

We'll take another short break here to accommodate my being behind on another project and then going out of town. Thrillpowered Thursday will resume on the 20th with more about Defoe and what happens to Nixon and Frank next. See you then! In the meantime, if you enjoy this blog, please tell a friend or something. Share on Facebook or Twitter, or send the link to somebody who should read it. Or everybody who should read it for that matter! Even Google Plus would be a help.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

202. Other People's Heroes

August 2010: The summer of 2010 saw several major series underway, and two that I wanted to look at just a little more closely are a pair written by 2000 AD veterans Pat Mills and John Wagner. They are both revisionist looks at much older series. Savage, of course, has been giving 'em both barrels for several years now. "Crims" is Book Six of the series, written as always by Mills and drawn by Patrick Goddard. It sees Bill Savage, now using another undercover identity, getting help from several of London's criminal gangs to get the manpower and resources to infiltrate a Volgan command center. The Volgs have countered the Allies' super sci-fi robots with teleportation, and somebody needs to get in there and shut them down. As it is, Allied robots have already been pushed back out of Wales...

"Crims" is just beautifully drawn by Goddard, who piles on the detail and the ink. It is, surprisingly, a little longer than the usual Pat Mills story of late. For the previous six or seven years, Mills had been working in blocks of 60 pages broken down into ten episodes. When episode ten of this story didn't end the book -it continues for another 30 pages and wraps with part fifteen - it really surprised readers who'd become used to Mills' tropes. But the really splendid part comes with an interlude in the middle of the story.

Some of the dialogue is a little labored when Mills introduces the surviving player of a '60s rock band who, like Syd Barrett, retired into hermitage after a short time in the spotlight. Only this fellow kept his considerable record royalties to live in some peace and quiet on Eel Pie Island. He was happy to let the world think that he was another acid casualty; it was actually his girlfriend, a hippie chick who'd been linked with Brian Jones and all the big names back in the day, who had lost her mind. He retreated from the limelight and spent the next few decades engaged in research into the sort of sci-fi physics that would come in handy fighting the Volgans' teleporters. So it's a little contrived, but the human elements to the story are incredibly effective, and Goddard's artwork is just amazing. It is some of the best black and white artwork that 2000 AD has seen in years.

But the thing that really demands comment this time out is the first chunk of "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha." It's an interesting case of Wagner aping Mills' technique, and using the style that Mills had designed for his Slaine and ABC Warriors stories many years before. When this story concludes in 2014, it will be at least 40 episodes long, a huge epic that sees Johnny Alpha's revival and the second war between mutants and humanity. But before we get to that point, there's the major and controversial business of Wagner killing off the character of Feral.

Okay, so there are two things to explain before getting into this, both the factual and the fictional background of what has happened previously. I'll try to keep this reasonably simple. Feral is a character who was introduced by Alan Grant in his final Strontium Dog serial in 1990. That story concluded with Johnny Alpha's death, and Feral was one of a number of supporting players who made their way into a sequel series, Strontium Dogs, which was helmed by Garth Ennis from 1991-93, and then by Peter Hogan until its cancellation in 1996. This coincided with then-editor David Bishop letting Hogan know that his services were no longer required at 2000 AD and finishing off Hogan's final scripts for the series with the pseudonym "Alan Smithee."

Now, depending on who you ask, Strontium Dogs was either a long-winded bore of subplots that never went anywhere, whose main cast were characters not strong enough to anchor a strip of their own, dropped irregularly into the lineup as space filler until the next launch prog, or, alternately, it was one of the few things during the dark days of the early 1990s that held any promise and was written with a sense of maturity and intelligence, especially when half or more of every issue was written by Mark Millar in "explodo-vision." I say this, respectfully, because the Ennis-Hogan Strontium Dogs certainly has its fans, many of whom came to the comic during this bleak years and have stuck around. I may not be among them, but there are certainly more readers who remember Dogs fondly than there are who liked, say, Bix Barton as I did.

But one thing seems clear: John Wagner didn't seem to think much of Peter Hogan's work. He puts his opinion in mean black and white about halfway through the story. "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha" is structured as though it's excerpts from an academic history of situations famous enough to warrant multiple, competing, biographies. What we're about to learn about Feral is very much at odds with the reports from previous chroniclers, and Wagner flatly dismisses the earlier work by "the notorious fantasist Ho Gan." Ouch. This won't be good.

While Ennis and Hogan's Feral was a tough, scared kid dealing with an increasingly bizarre mutation and slowly gaining the maturity and insight to become a leader, Wagner reveals him to be a coward and a bungler, who wanted to do the right thing from time to time but lacked the spine to do it. The story opens with longtime supporting player Middenface McNulty teamed with newcomer Precious Matson, who has heard from reliable sources that Johnny Alpha's skeleton was not left behind in the other dimension as depicted in "Final Solution," but rather, his body was returned to Earth by Feral. The trail eventually leads them to Feral, who is a condemned man awaiting execution on the planet of Garn.

Garn is one of those planets that really only makes sense in the context of Strontium Dog. It's a perfect mix of an oddball culture and black-as-coal comedy. The Garnians do not have noses, and consider any species that does have noses to be ungodly. They allow McNulty and Matson to visit the condemned, in deference to the renowned hero Johnny Alpha, but while they're in public, they have to wear masks that cover their offensive honkers. Feral is sentenced to die here for an act of small-scale sabotage to cover his escape from a spacecraft, but there was an accident and dozens were killed. Capital punishment on Garn is carried out by immolation: Feral is to be burned at the stake. Worse, they're fattening him up so that he'll burn cleaner. When our heroes meet him, he weighs at least three hundred pounds.

Feral is a very bitter and ugly man, not at all the person who starred in the Ennis and Hogan stories. He is willing to confirm what McNulty and Matson have already learned: he brought Johnny's body back, where it remained in some state of preservation, not decaying at all, and spread the lie that the beast that we saw in the last episode of "Final Solution" left him nothing but broken bones. Beyond that, he won't say a thing, including where Johnny's corpse is now, until McNulty and Matson spring him. The following episode sees our heroes doing exactly that, because this is an action-adventure melodrama, and we expect that sort of thing.

So Feral goes on to explain that he took Johnny's corpse to the mysterious planet Zen, where the land is in a constant state of flux and where bizarre, towering Stone Wizards - great big pillars of animated rock - are said to have the power to revive the dead or reverse the effects of evil sorcery like what killed Johnny. Feral eventually finds the Wizards, who are unimpressed with the work of the Lyran magic. They agree to revive him, but only in return for Feral's life. He declines, buries Johnny in a forest, and makes his way into the troubled life that seemed to end almost ten years later at Garn until McNulty and Matson rescued him.

And then we get the blunt stick of reality. McNulty is an alcoholic has-been and Matson is a journalist. They didn't rescue him. Of course they didn't. They staged the abduction with the assistance of the Garnian authorities to persuade Feral to talk. The execution is going on as scheduled. Ouch.

I'm not saying that Feral's fans are legion or anything, but this just plain ticked off a few people. Over the course of about four episodes, Wagner and Ezquerra completely demolished the character of Feral, declaring his earlier heroics to be unreal fictions and giving him an ignominious and pathetic end. Myself, I always thought that Feral was cut from far too close a cloth as what was trendy and kewl in American funnybooks. He was all claws and spikes and everything that every Wolverine wannabe was like in the early 90s. Still, it's a heck of a bad way to go out.

Sometimes, heroes don't get to go out either in a blaze of glory or down the happy path of retirement. Feral screwed up, often, and lots of people died, and his execution - preceded by the ritual slicing-off of his nose as one final indignity before death - is ugly and horrible. It kind of goes without saying that it is unlikely that any American superhero book would be so bold. Can you imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate so ugly and demeaning? Heck, you can't even imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate, period. They get resurrected as quickly as a new writer can flick the reset button.

Actually, the nearest thing that I can think of was a stunning 1997 issue of Starman by James Robinson and Dusty Abell, in which the criminal the Mist killed off at least four DC Comics D-listers: Crimson Fox, Ice, Amazing Man, and Blue Devil. At least one of those four seems to have stayed dead.

And on that note, we'll come back to Johnny's very controversial resurrection when the second chunk of this lengthy epic appears. More on that in chapter 212.

In the next chapter, however, 2000 AD gets its first really memorable female lead in quite some time with the debut of Rowan Morrigan in Age of the Wolf See you in seven!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

201. Mega-City Justice

July 2010: Is there anything, and I mean anything, more satisfying in fiction than watching a great villain finally get his comeuppance? You've got to emphasize "great," though, otherwise it doesn't mean as much. See, for me, part of what makes a bad guy a classic is that I can believe in them. I need to see a real motivation, and I need to see a character who inspires real loyalty on the part of his underlings, who are also practical and believable characters. The best villains don't surround themselves with morons and squabbling dunderheads. The best villains force the hero to change plans and strategies. I could fill this entry and ten just like it with the names of classic criminals from films and comics and TV shows who just leave me bored and you might be amazed who I'd have on my list of shame. Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor. All those laughable dweebs from 1980s American cartoons like the Shredder and Cobra Commander. John Simm's Master. Dr. Doom. Voldemort. Especially Voldemort.

2000 AD gets it right more often than not, although in at least one case I am in the minority. I really have to grit my teeth to make it through "The Day the Law Died" because Judge Cal is just too ridiculous for words. I know. And I hate dogs, too. I'm a bad person.

But if you want to see a villain who really does work, who really is one of the all-time classic bad guys in Judge Dredd or any other work of serial fiction, whose comeuppance is the most air-punching, fantastic bits of awesome ever, I respectfully submit the name of Deputy Chief Judge Martin Sinfield. He is a majestically awesome foe, whose crimes are far from legion. In fact, as near as I can remember - and please correct me below if I've missed something - he's only actually guilty of one actual crime. He's not a genocidal terrorist or a megalomaniac with a crazy body count. No, he is guilty of drugging Chief Judge Dan Francisco with a compound called SLD88 that leaves the victim incredibly susceptible to suggestion. He just suggests that Francisco continue to take some considerable time off recovering from his many injuries and leave the running of the city to him.

That's it, isn't it?

The two years of Judge Dredd episodes prior to the climax of the epic "Tour of Duty" established that the senior ranks of the aging, administrative judges are completely filled with stodgy old bureaucrats who do not like mutants, and who are in no hurry to have their lifetimes of bigotry toppled by Dredd and his wacky ideas about reform and human rights. Really, ever since it was hammered home so cruelly in April 2009's "Backlash" that the rank-and-file were never going to support these reforms and resented Dredd's position, it has been obvious that the two sides weren't going to meet without amazing compromise.

So Sinfield just wants the city back to normal. He wants the mayor to start coughing up some new revenue to pay for walking back all of Dredd's reform, and he wants pretty boy Francisco to stay out of his way and let him and his buddies run things, and he wants that liberal Dredd and his aggravating proteges out of his way, assigned to details far from the center of government, where he won't have to look at them. If Dredd likes mutants so damn much, let him police them in the Cursed Earth, not the city. That's where decent, normal people like him live.

Of course I can believe in Deputy Chief Judge Sinfield and all his toadying cronies. From where I sit, we had to put up with that guy for eight damn years, only his name was Vice President Dick Cheney. I had to deal with him for two years of high school, too. He was an assistant principal whose name escapes me, but who hit the ceiling and suspended every punk who came in the day after the Circle Jerks played Atlanta wearing one of their T-shirts, screaming "obscenity!" No doubt British readers have their own equivalents in their government or their backgrounds. He's that guy. He's that growling, compensating, bureaucratic asshole who doesn't quite have the center stage, but he's just close enough to it to make a huge and ugly influence on policy while keeping social progress and human achievement stunted, giving positions of power, influence, and profit to all his mercenary friends (Halliburton, if you're losing the metaphor), and, basically being an unreasonable jerk to your friends and heroes.

This is why, when Dredd finally - finally! - gets proof that Sinfield has broken the law, and a squad of SJS officers march down the corridor to take him in for questioning, no exclamation points are needed and no thunderous narration appears in the captions. It's just simple justice, coming to take down somebody we just wish would go down in the real world with as much satisfaction.

That image is so awesome that we can totally forgive Carlos Ezquerra for only half-drawing the people in the offices on the side. One real crime - the SLD88 - but one much bigger crime: being that guy.

But let me walk this back just a little and talk about how this buildup works so incredibly well. It started when Sinfield started making bureaucratic, municipal demands of the city's beloved Mayor Ambrose, the great philanthropist who'd been at the right place at the right time when one of the city's political parties needed a figurehead. Just Sinfield's bad luck that Ambrose was actually the serial killer PJ Maybe, who everybody thought was dead. A couple of botched assassination attempts convinced Sinfield to swallow his pride and demand that Dredd investigate who was after him. Conventional wisdom was that Sinfield was being paranoid and ridiculous, but no, it turns out somebody really was coming awfully close to killing him.

Maybe's mistakes led to his undoing a few episodes prior to the climax of the story, which seemed to bring his part in the narrative to a close. Dredd, finally able to make a formal complaint against Sinfield's machinations, had no luck convincing the Council of Five - Sinfield's hand-picked fellow bigots and toadies - that this guy had made strategic errors in assigning personnel to the mutant townships. He, grim as ever, was ready to return to his distant assignment when some of his allies, led by Judge Niles, persuaded him that the only real way to get Sinfield out of power was to force an actual election for the position of chief judge.

PJ Maybe got the news along with the rest of the city, and requests that Dredd visit him in his death row cell, where he sits waiting execution. Maybe - who is no damn slouch in the "classic villain" category himself - knows that Dredd no more wants to be chief judge than he himself wants to die, so he proposes a "life for a life" deal. He'll save Dredd from the chief judge chair if Dredd will spare him in return. Dredd is very skeptical as he listens to Maybe's oddball story: he absolutely believes that Francisco was doped with SLD88. He should know; he's an expert in the stuff, having used it in stories dating back twenty-two years.

Dredd thinks it's hogwash, of course, a desperate delaying tactic by a condemned man, and, frankly, the sort of wild, hairbrained story that PJ Maybe would come up with. He leaves, not really appreciating the waste of his time.

Except, you know, all these years on the streets, you get these instincts.

I love the way that Wagner and Ezquerra punctuate episode six of "Tour of Duty: Mega-City Justice" with a silent panel as Dredd remembers certain odd connections from earlier in the story, Sinfield covering up his actions. We don't need thought balloons of Dredd thinking "Wait a minute, what if...?" because we're past that. Wagner uses the narrative captions to do such a good job getting into Dredd's head that when the narration stops, we fill it in ourselves naturally.

Sure, I understand that lots of people name Judge Death as Dredd's arch-enemy. Sixty million plus dead, a terrific design, and lots of great dialogue, it's easy to understand that. Killing all those toddlers and babies like he did in that Frazer Irving story back in 2002, that'll help. But Martin Sinfield, for the crime of being that guy, when Dredd finally digs in and investigates him, and gets the SJS to back him up and march down that corridor, I don't know there has ever been a villain that I've enjoyed seeing facing judgement so much.

Next time... The lonesome death of Feral. See you in seven!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

200. Do you know me now?

May 2010: A month before this issue, prog 1685, was published, Nikolai Dante returned in a six-part story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser that changed absolutely everything and in a big, mean, incredibly cruel way. Certainly, the Nikolai Dante series had never shied away from giving readers dramatic deaths along with huge changes in the direction of the stories, but "Heroes Be Damned" and its follow-up, "A Farewell to Arms" are on another level. You've got to go back more than 400 progs, to 2001's "Romanov Empire" to see such a stunning game-changer as this one. The really sad thing? The previous story, which finished in prog 1675, looked like it was concluding the whole dirty war business and finally bringing an end to the action-adventure story. Dante's army of thieves and whores had triumphed, and Vladimir's generals turned on him, forcing him into unconditional surrender. Abruptly and wildly, the war was over, and only the many loose ends remained. So "Heroes Be Damned" began in prog 1679 with the big imperial marriage of Viktor and Galya, and a huge, happy, state affair to give the unfortunate, war-beaten citizens of future Russia something to smile about at last. The first episode is an agreeably long eight pages, and finishes with Dante going out into the tide to meet Jena, and propose to her. She accepts, they embrace, and the really sad thing is we could've ended it right there, on that happy ending, but there was much more to come, very little of it at all happy.

In episode two, Nikolai and Lulu debate what to do with Vlad. She's in favor of just killing him outright, but he and the rest of the allies who have a country and an empire to rule want to do so with a public show of grace and good will. In front of a huge crowd, they offer Vlad a chance at exile rather than a show trial, but Arkady steps forward and starts making decisions. Nikolai Dante reminds Arkady of his position: he has no status in the new provisional government and no say in these matters, but Arkady screws absolutely everything up: he reveals that he's Dimitri. All those years ago, when it looked like Dimitri had died and Arkady had been taken in as a ward of Vladimir, Dimitri had actually used his weapon crest and downloaded his consciousness into his son's body. All this time, he'd been masquerading as Arkady. Readers had known that something was up (most notably in "The Chaperone," progs 1560-64), but this revelation counts as one of 2000 AD's all-time greatest shock cliffhangers.

In episode three, after a short flashback depicting Arkady's death at the Winter Palace years previously, the carnage starts. Dimitri has lost his mind and indiscriminately begins killing. Dozens of bystanders and soldiers at the trial are killed, and hundreds more are grievously wounded, including Elena. Then, in parts four and five, the supporting cast begins to go down. Galya, Papa Yeltsin, and Jocasta are all killed, with Vladimir doing the right damn thing for once in his life and making a heroic attempt to save Jocasta's life.

Being a supporting player in Nikolai Dante means having a bullseye on your back from your first on panel appearance.

Nikolai recovers from the beating he suffered in part three to make a last-ditch effort to save Jena, who's Dimitri's new target, except that he intends not to murder her, but, in classic mustache-twirling bad guy fashion, to break her to his will and force her to wed him. Nikolai puts up a terrific fight and would have won had Dimitri not had a weapons crest, and, specifically, one that can override and shut down any of the others. The story ends with Dante's arm on fire...

"A Farewell to Arms" is a double-length episode that ranks as one of my favorites in the comic's long history. It's the saddest thing in the world. Dante is having a dream. It's a very vivid dream in which he spends a little swashbuckling time with his long-dead love Eloise, and with his hellraiser brother Andreas. He knows that it's not real, but what the hell, he's having a ball. And when he finds a beautiful woman in need of some dashing derring-do, he rushes to her rescue and kicks some bad guy ass, despite not being sure that he knows who she is.

Oh, my GOD. It is so sad. I'm tearing up just remembering it.

It's all history now, so we can talk about it without worrying about spoilers too much, but man alive, was I ever furious with one of my fellow readers who decided to start a message board thread about great 2000 AD deaths about two days after print subscribers got their copy and before the digital version was released.

The hallucination was the crest, giving Dante one last chance to spend a little "reality" with the people he cared about the most before talking to him "in person" for the first time and telling him goodbye. It is so goddamn amazingly horribly sad. It is like Toy Molto has been dead for hours sad. It is almost on the level of "Hazel, you've been feeling very tired" sad.

All of the deaths in Nikolai Dante meant something on some level, but seeing an end to this prickly, weird, disjointed relationship between Dante and his weapons crest after thirteen years of snark and exasperation and silliness is absolutely heartbreaking. When he wakes up in a battlefield hospital next to Elena some days later, surrounded, shockingly, by hundreds of badly wounded survivors, looks at his arm and sees only a blackened, scarred shape where the crest once was, it's like the headbutt after the gut punch. It's one of the rawest and most shocking things ever, and it leaves readers thunderstruck, wondering how in the world our hero can come back from this disaster.

Next time... Mega-City Justice. "Tour of Duty" comes to an end and it's completely phenomenal. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

199. The Perfect Prog

March 2010: A slight change of style here for this week's entry. I had been planning to put prog 1674 under the spotlight and talk about just The ABC Warriors - because the episode in that issue, featuring two solid pages of Ro-Jaws insulting Mek-Quake's non-existent mother and Blackblood impatiently trying to explain to the idiot that he does not actually have a mother, is just about the funniest thing ever - and the always-excellent Stickleback, but then I read a few more issues and was struck by something in prog 1677. This comic is flawless. It is completely wonderful. Don't believe me? Check out the contents:

Judge Dredd: part four of "Tour of Duty: The Talented Mayor Ambrose" by John Wagner, John Higgins, and S.J. Hurst

At this point in the story, the action has moved back to the city from the townships, and becomes a masterpiece of intrigue and political maneuvering. Deputy Chief Judge Martin Sinfield has taken control of things by persuading Francisco to step aside for the good of his health, meaning once again a villain is in charge of Mega-City One, but he's not a ranting lunatic like Cal was. He's a much more subtle kind of bad guy, and it's interesting how so much of the reader's dislike of him boils down to "Sinfield has beaten Dredd and given him an awful assignment outside the City."

In fact, for all his villainy - and he's one of the great Dredd villains, no question - Sinfield's actual list of crimes is really quite small. The major one, of course, is using drugs to manipulate Francisco. He's used SLD 88, the drug once used to good effect by the serial killer PJ Maybe, to convince Francisco to step down. The beautiful irony is that Maybe has been masquerading as the city's incredibly popular mayor Byron Ambrose for several years, and doesn't appreciate Sinfield's new planned reforms. PJ Maybe's killed a lot of people in a lot of ways, but he's never planned this level of assassination before. This sets up several episodes of germ warfare, with Sinfield stubbornly refusing to die, and then, in his paranoia, he calls in Dredd to investigate these attempts on his life - which nobody else believes are happening, since he's just coincidentally contracting hideous diseases - just before mutant terrorists make a much more overt attempt to kill him. This leads Dredd to suspect that maybe Sinfield is not so paranoid after all... ah, but more on this in two weeks.

Zombo: part three of "Zombo's 11" by Al Ewing and Henry Flint

The first Zombo story was pretty bugnuts, but it's this one where the insanity is ratched past eleven. This time out, we get an ongoing, ear-splittingly loud supporting character based on Simon Cowell, but in this universe, he doesn't see the Susan Boyle character as a way to make a lot of money, but just another headache.

The ABC Warriors: part twelve of "The Volgan War" Bk Four by Pat Mills and Clint Langley

There's nothing quite as hilarious in this concluding episode as the two solid pages of robot mother insults mentioned earlier, but it does have Mek-Quake in a tuxedo appearing on a TV talk show, and Blackblood sending out mass thought-mails to insult everybody else. Classic.

Damnation Station: part one of "To the Dark and Empty Skies" by Al Ewing and Simon Davis

Here's the weakest thing in the comic, but anywhere else, it could be the standout. This is the first episode of a new series - fifteen episodes would appear in a scattered run over five months in 2010, and a second batch of fifteen is said to be in the works for later this year or next. It's future war and political posturing with fist-to-the-chest impact, memorable human characters, very weird aliens, introduced in a really good pilot episode that gives you a fun and flawed audience identification figure, a complex situation, and great artwork by Davis, who alternates with Boo Cook.

part one of The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the dead left in his wake) by Rob Williams and Dom Reardon

I saved this one for last - it actually appears second in the comic - because it's just so damn jawdropping. Here's my latest wild pronouncement: No other series in the history of the comic has ever had such a perfect first episode.

Yeah, I know, me and hyperbole, but not even the first episode of Zenith, wherein Earth's only two superheroes are killed by an atom bomb dropped on Berlin in 1945, is as great as this. It is a dense and lyrical tale of a cruel killer in the Old West, beautifully written and with very detailed narrative captions, a stylistic choice that has been stupidly out of favor for far too long. These days, maybe nobody does narration in comics better than John Wagner, but darn if Williams doesn't come very close. The prose is just perfectly judged, and Reardon's minimalist artwork perfectly sparse, with a beautiful trick as the color fades away from Azrael's memory. And then the last panel twist. How in the world, I ask you, could you not demand episode two the instant you finish episode one?

Next time, Nikolai Dante says goodbye to a close friend. See you in seven!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

198. Melting Like Ice Cream

February 2010: I was looking over some older entries a few days ago and noticed that there were times in my life where some turmoil in my personal life had affected the way that I viewed certain 2000 AD stories. How I felt about things in my life at the time colored the fiction. In February of 2010, my wife and I began formalizing our traveling and enjoyment of finding fun restaurant stories into our quite successful food blog, Marie, Let's Eat! and this has been just about the most satisfactory and satisfying period of my entire life. Well, there was a legal hiccup about twelve months ago that my teen daughter sparked, but otherwise, life's been darn terrific. And this has carried over into the fiction again. In 2010, I started buying 2000 AD online every week, no longer worried about or concerned with the problem of when I'd get to see the comic in the stores anymore. And the comic has been completely amazing almost every week, with at least one terrific story each issue and often more. Life's been good.

The early 2010 lineup was a very solid one. It included Judge Dredd in the continuing "Tour of Duty" arc, Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, Ampney Crucis Investigates by Edginton and Simon Davis, Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and John Burns, and the final volume of The ABC Warriors' "Volgan Wars" books by Pat Mills and Clint Langley. Every one of them's a winner.

This is the second story for Ampney Crucis Investigates and it's much better than the first. Readers may recall that I found that story promising but a little disappointing. This time out, "The End of the Pier Show" still suffers just a little from being too short, but at least this time Lord Crucis is not simply stepping from points A and B to C like any investigating village constable should have done before he was called in. This time, the events that are put in motion are geared specifically toward him and his valet, Cromwell, via a postcard from a dead man.

There's so much to like about Ampney Crucis, and one of the best things is that his creators have not stacked him full of magical weaponry. He only has his insight and his knowledge and a pretty good knowledge of fisticuffs. This story could use a couple more episodes to draw out a more satisfying conclusion, but "The End of the Pier Show" is otherwise a really terrific outing for this character. He also gains a small additional supporting cast in three strangely creepy aunts in the first episode, named Faith, Hope, Charity, and Grace. One of them looks just a little bit like Joanna Lumley and another a little bit like Judi Dench. I wish these characters would show up again, soon!

Now, Nikolai Dante has no shortage of additional members in his gigantic supporting cast, and "Hero of the Revolution" brings a whole mess of 'em to the party, and introduces another new villain. This is one of the series' major set pieces, and, over 13 episodes, brings the war with Vladimir to its conclusion. But there's a casualty along the way...

Actually, we're not very many months from quite a lot of casualties, including some real surprises. The only one of the regular players to die before Vladimir surrenders is Lauren, seen here getting rescued in inimitable fashion by Dante. Lauren has been absent from the series for a couple of years now. She had been hanging out with Katarina while Dante was working his double-agent turn as the sword of the tsar. Now reunited as the pirate navy makes their play, it's kind of obvious that there's no room in the series for the blonde bombshell while Jena is around. So, when Lauren gets killed, it's not so much as a shock as it is sadly inevitable.

Vladimir's unconditional surrender, on the other hand, is a huge surprise, and brings things to a shuddering and unexpected halt. It looks like that's it for the series, and all that will need to happen next is about a six or so week final story wrapping up the last of the loose ends. Sadly for all the heroes, one of those is a much bigger complication than anybody thought. More about that in two chapters' time.

Next time... the perfect prog. I mean, absolutely perfect. See you in seven!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

197. Prog Packs

September 2009: Absent from the story as recounted here has been the tale of how 2009 was a very odd time to be an American 2000 AD reader. It all worked out for the best, as Rebellion used the early, experimental launch of the Clickwheel service (which I'm still using) to test the waters for the comic's online delivery, but for several nebulous months, American readers who couldn't afford the upfront cost to splash out for a subscription had a choice about reading. They could either get digital progs about two weeks after UK subscribers got their copies in the post, or they could continue relying on Diamond Distributors to send copies to their comic book store. That's the path that I chose, and it did not work out so incredibly well.

But before we step back, I do want to acknowledge that while there were growing pains, 2000 AD is, today, flatly and unquestionably the industry leader in same-day digital comics. This is especially notable because, last week, when Marvel Comics launched a huge promotion for several hundred free back issues on the comiXology platform, demand was so high that it crashed their servers. The American publishers do not yet allow people who "purchase" their comics to actually own them; rather, people rent them and can read them on a distant server. I don't know whether the comiXology crash was merely a few hours' inconvenience or the digital equivalent of a house fire, but people sure did act like it was the end of the world. Just a couple of days later, a service called J-Manga announced that it was shuttering. As Comic Book Resources reported on March 14, "After May 30, members no longer will be able to view the titles they’ve purchased." This would never have happened with the Galaxy's Greatest, because here, readers buy a comic, and download it, and keep it. I'm actually looking forward to getting to 2011 in this story, when I can start cropping images without laying old progs down on a flatbed and scanning them and the darn things never, ever lining up quite right. I'm a little incompetent in that regard.

And, as we step back, I'd like to include one little bit of background to my knowledge base of 2000 AD in America that I may never have clarified: for almost a decade, I "worked" part-time (just a few hours a week) at the very best comic book store in the United States, where I had a regular order for 2000 AD for twenty years (1992-2011). I don't claim expert and exclusive knowledge into the inner workings of what went on between publisher, distributor, and retailer, but I am absolutely hotdamned certain that the endless delivery problems were not caused on the retailer level. Nor do I believe in any fashion that Rebellion - or for that matter Titan Books, who were also often victims of very late deliveries of product that I'd ordered - were incompetent enough to keep fumbling the shipments of their product. But I was present at that retailer for many, many occasions where the checkins of what was in the boxes from the distributor turned up missing titles, damaged goods, and, more than once, half-eaten snack foods crumbled and dropped atop the comic books.

It is not the retailer's fault when the packing list says that there should be fifteen copies of a comic book in the box and there are only twelve. It is not the retailer's fault when the box was packed so poorly that several pounds of heavy hardbacks have toppled over and ripped the cover of a flimsy magazine. It is not the retailer's fault when the box is full of orange dust and the remnants of a Frito-Lay's Cheeto. And it is certainly not the retailer's fault when the distributor posts a PDF on their website for all the world to see every Monday, claiming that two days from now, a certain product should be in stores. Call it "issue 20" for argument's sake. Of course, we're still waiting for "issue 19." Wednesday comes, and neither issue is in the box. The following week, "issue 19" might show up, but this sheer, agonizing ongoing incompetence is solely and exclusively down to the distributor. They're called Diamond, and any good employee with a head on his shoulders at that company can assuredly count fourteen dingbats and goons among his fellows. (This is why I'll decline to name the shop in question here, although my praise of it is no great secret. Business is tough enough without the Cheetos crunchers in the warehouse wanting a little retribution.)

Now, it certainly might have been true, particularly in the 1990s when 2000 AD was published by Fleetway, that there were occasions when the publisher simply didn't ship enough comics to America to fill the distributors' orders. That was the explanation provided for occasional shortages, but it beggars belief that this could in any way be the publisher's fault. Why on Earth would Fleetway, and later Rebellion, when asked for two thousand copies, only send 1800? No, the system was flawed on the distributor's end: Diamond would simply not order enough.

But when there was a shortage, what Diamond would apparently do, then, was first make sure that every shop that ordered multiple copies for their customers got at least one of them. Since, for a couple of years or so, I was the only customer at this shop that read 2000 AD (for shame!), I'd get the short end of the stick when this happened. I didn't want to deal with it any longer, so I ordered two copies a month and found homes for the second copies. And this ensured that I did receive one of every issue, although hiccups sadly continued for quite some time. When I finally cut down to just one copy a month toward the end of 2008, I then got the awful "you've been shorted" news three times. Progs 1613 (November), 1627 (March) and 1634 (May) did not arrive at either my comic shop or my "backup," Criminal Records in Atlanta, which used to order one copy of each for their shelves. That's right, the same issues didn't show up at two different stores. And then came the summer of the polybags, which meant that a shortage didn't mean you missed a single issue; it meant that you missed FOUR.

Now, I chalked up the change from twice-monthly shipping of two issues every other Wednesday to once-monthly shipping of four or five issues in a bag to a desire to repair Diamond's decade-plus of shipping incompetence, but this was said to not be entirely true. Earlier in 2009, Diamond made the sensible decision to quit carrying guaranteed-unprofitable items. We didn't like it, but we understood it. For many years, the distributor would pretty much stock and ship anything that looked like it might appeal to geeks. This resulted in a massive monthly catalog for retailers to make their regular preorders. For many, this was a time-consuming chore, because most retailers stick with ordering the tried-and-true big sellers from Marvel and DC and Dark Horse. The big change came in the summer, and I believe that it came in two tiers: if orders for a product failed to meet a higher minimum threshold, then Diamond would not purchase the product from the publisher. If the publisher couldn't reach that higher minimum threshold across the line, then the publisher got dropped. You could probably Google for more information and specifics about this.

Since 2000 AD was right on the bubble, Diamond came up with an idea to keep it profitable: polybag several issues and treat four/five of them as a single monthly product. That way, it would be quicker to handle, I guess, and less easy to lose? It made internal inventory easier? Computer records simpler? Whatever; it was said to work for them, except that it did not for us.

The wheels went off instantly. In the July 2009 issue of Previews (in stores in June), Diamond solicited "2000 AD September Pack," with issues 1651-1655. This, as its name implies, should have been in shops sometime in September. Sadly, Diamond doesn't keep public archives that far back, but I can say with about 99% certainty that these issues were listed on the "arriving this week" announcement PDF in late October. So they're already thirty days behind. And yet they were not shipped (to Atlanta) on the date promised. The next four weeks went by. No progs. On Monday, November 23, 2009, the "2000 AD October Pack" (1656-59) was listed as arriving in shops 11/25/09. On that day, Atlanta shops received the "September Pack" of 1651-55, two months late. The "October Pack" arrived on December 16.

And it was weirder and weirder depending on where you lived. I was in regular correspondence with several fans and retailers around the country at the time, researching this problem. While neither my shop nor Criminal had received progs 1613, 1627, or 1634, shops in other cities did. In Boston, where I had visited earlier in the summer, I found 1613 at Million Year Picnic and 1627 at Hub Comics. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the prog packs were coming four weeks late, and not eight like in Atlanta. I still don't have a hard copy of 1634; it is the first issue since 1208 that I don't own a physical copy.

But there are more holes to come. There's the "May 2010 Prog Pack" of issues 1682-1686. That never arrived in Georgia stores at all. Of course, by then, I'd found a solution. Starting with Prog 2010, I started buying the comic from Clickwheel regularly, and if the hard copies arrived, I treated them like extras. I was aggravated - hell, 1685 should be framed - and, eventually, I got tired of the aggravation. Later in 2011, I sent word that I was, with regrets, finally ending my subscriptions entirely. The economy had stunk for ages and money was tight anyway, and the comic shop was an awfully long drive away. I saved a lot of money just sticking with my nice weekly purchase. It's available about 6 am every Wednesday morning, and I can read it while I eat breakfast.

Pictured up above to break this wall of text is Lucifer from Necrophim by Tony Lee and Lee Carter. It's by leagues the best of Tony Lee's stories for 2000 AD, even if you can't help but wish that the protagonist Uriel would have come up with a slightly less convoluted plan to destroy Lucifer and rule Hell, one that doesn't involve telling slightly different stories to eight other characters and keeping them at odds with each other. I seem to have enjoyed Necrophim, which was published as one 26-part serial across three stories (1628-1723), more than many readers. The second chunk of this complex serial was published during this awful period with the two-month delays and it reads much, much better without all the chaos and confusion that surrounded delivery of the comic at this time.

Re-emphasizing again, for anybody Googling through: you do not need to worry about this nonsense these days. Just buy the comic online from the shop for your laptop or your iPad or similar device every Wednesday. There are no problems with it at all anymore, and you can collect truckloads of back issues for your hard drive. Same day delivery: it just makes sense!

Next time... well, it'll be a few weeks. Time for another short break from all these walls of text and scanning to talk about some recent collections and stories over at my Bookshelf blog. Thrillpowered Thursday will be back on April 18! Tell your friends!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

196. Regime Change

August 2009: For its latest summer launch prog, 2000 AD falls back on some of its most reliable and popular stories. There's no experimentation this time out, which is probably for the best. While we usually like to see a newcomer mixed in with the thrills, anything that was to launch against a lineup that includes Shakara, Kingdom, Strontium Dog and Nikolai Dante is certain to get swamped, particularly when the Judge Dredd story is the beginning of the remarkable "Tour of Duty." Boy, is this thing ever a game-changer. "Tour of Duty" is one of the most amazing long-form stories in all of Judge Dredd. It's less an epic than it is a year-long change of the rules. To understand how we got here, I need to step back and look at how John Wagner has been telling this series for some time now. The problem is, something as dense as Dredd makes it very difficult to find a starting point to the story.

See, if I go back to "Origins" to talk about the mutant issue, I still need to go back further, and further, and pick up plot threads from years and years previously. One of the beautiful things about the series is the way that Wagner leaves critically important details for much later developments in plain sight. I'm sure this has been a beast for anybody at Titan or Hamlyn or Rebellion who has been tasked with assembling collected editions and graphic novels for the character, because just about all of the big epics in the color era of the series grow from a scattering of seeds in several earlier and shorter adventures.

In a way, "The Apocalypse War" was kind of like that. The Mega-City One versus Sovs story was built up through the Luna Olympics, and the two Black Atlantic stories that Ron Smith illustrated, and finally "Block Mania," but the actual 26-part "Apocalypse War" could be read without them, especially in the 1980s, because we all understood, all too well, the fear of a US-Soviet war. I'm not entirely sure that "Tour of Duty" works anything as well as that without all the hints and fears and years of preparation, but for readers who had been following the character and all of the development, I think it works even better for the most part.

Recapping events in Mega-City One and its troubled relationship with mutants may not be strictly necessary for readers, but it is worth considering just how long this has been a key issue. This helps us realize just how much work that Wagner put into this. "Origins" had begun three years previously, and ended, in May 2007, with Dredd finally acknowledging that the city had been very, very wrong in both relying on the judge system so heavily and violating mutants' human rights. This was explored further across seven weeks that summer, in "Mutants in Mega-City One," "The Facility," and "The Secret of Mutant Camp 5" (art by Colin MacNeil, June-July 2007). Development of these issues had been delayed by the second half of the "Mandroid" story, along with various one-offs and unrelated short stories, inlcuding the first appearance of Alan Grant and David Roach's sassy witch character, but resumed in January 2008 with the seven-part "Emphatically Evil: The Life and Crimes of PJ Maybe," again with art by MacNeil, and then the five part "...Regrets," with art by Nick Dyer, in March and April, by which time there's finally some momentum toward allowing equal rights for mutants.

A comparison to the similar momentum in the read world toward allowing equal rights for homosexuals wishing to marry would probably be appropriate at this juncture.

The first mutant blocks in the city were established in prog 1600 (August 2008), amid much screaming and protest from the bigoted citizens of Mega-City One, leading to "Mutopia" by Al Ewing and Simon Fraser in November, which showed the lengths to which the citizenry would go to get the muties back out. "Backlash" by Wagner and Carl Critchlow in March and April of '09 drew all this resentment to its natural conclusion, with Dan Francisco defeating Hershey in a confidence vote for the Chief Judgeship that's pretty much exclusively about the mutant issue. Those are the major points in the story, but it's been a background issue with sprinkled resentment and mutophobia in several other episodes.

Remarkably, and oddly, there's a four month gap between Hershey's defeat and what would come next. The space is filled by the usual high-concept future crimes, ultraviolence and fun that we expect from the series, with old characters revisited and goofy fads exploding. "It Came from Bea Arthur Block" by Gordon Rennie and PJ Holden is a high point, an incredibly silly and deliberately over-the-top tale of alien hair and smug baldies. And there's sci-fi and exorcists in a great story by Ian Edginton and Dave Taylor, and a satire of prison reform using a well-meaning parallel universe of community care and pacifism by Ewing and Karl Richardson. I don't want anybody to get the idea that the series is nothing more than one endless soap opera building and building; it certainly has time and room to do everything, like it always does.

But then there's prog 1649 and "Under New Management," and good lord, that changes everything. It's Wagner and Critchlow again, and, in the densest, and saddest, six pages you've ever seen anywhere, Francisco takes office and assigns Hershey to administrative duties on a colony in outer space, and some middle management goon assigns Dredd to administrative duties out in the Cursed Earth, where the mutants will be resettled. The experiment in tolerance has failed, and the good guys have lost. Dredd and Hershey's quiet and respectful farewell scene is arguably the saddest moment in either character's history.

"Tour of Duty" does not feel like a big slam-bang epic, partially because there is no specific plot for its length. After the initial few weeks, wherein Dredd and Beeny - even his protege is swept out of the city - try to ensure that the displaced mutant citizens get a decent place to live and work, with little help from the bottom-rung judges sent out to work under his command, there's an installment about a Cursed Earth prison - slash - work farm, and then "Tour of Duty" becomes a sub-headline for all the other events that are happening.

There are crimes in the camps, and there are the usual Cursed Earth bandits and outlaws, and back in the city, there is institutional corruption, and the mayor is a serial killer. Over the next several months of the Megazine, an old villain resurfaces. In other words, it's business as usual, except that the rules have changed to reflect that fact that our heroes lost. Dredd is no longer patrolling the streets of Mega-City One. Similar to the 1995-96 epic "The Pit," previously the longest Dredd story ever, we're looking at a complete change to the status quo. Dredd's stuck in a job that he hates, and no longer perceived with much or any respect by his fellow judges, all of whom (except the loyal Beeny, and, in time, Rico as well) resent his bleeding heart getting them all assigned to this mess. This will be the way that things are, in both comics, for an entire calendar year.

I didn't leave myself much time to talk about Nikolai Dante, as I had planned to do. At this point, of course, we've learned that Nikolai and Lulu arranged for her death to be faked. His army of thieves and whores is rising up against Vlad, with the great huge battle to come in early 2010. In this story, illustrated by Paul Marshall, we see a trope of the series in which people communicate with Lulu via vid-link while she's naked, bathing, or otherwise involved in some orgy or other.

Nobody ever interrupts Lulu when she's doing anything dull like knitting, you see. This story is also notable for introducing a fellow in the Hellfire Club who's the spitting image of the old Eric Bradbury-drawn character of Cursitor Doom from the early 1970s run of Smash!. This follows a long history of comic book artists populating fictional Hellfire Clubs with familiar faces like Peter Wyngarde and Orson Welles.

Next time, away from the fiction and into the real world, as the American distributor starts ruining things for everybody. See you in a week!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

195. Catching up with the Meg

July 2009: It has been several chapters since I popped by to check on the mighty Megazine and tell readers how it was doing. The answer is "not too shabby." It's been a little more than a year since Tank Girl took up residency, and, as yet, the majority of readers are not too sick of it yet. The Tank Girl experience is going to provide ample evidence that the readers really prefer a regular turnover for the Meg, with lots of different stories from the gigantic bank of recurring series available to the editor. Unfortunately, with only thirteen issues a year, and consequently just 26 slots for new stories in the Dreddworld, we've reached the point where giant gaps between stories in a series is just the natural state of affairs.

Issue 287 comes just after a really risky experiment, where the two slots were given over, for five months, to two brand new series instead of bringing back Devlin Waugh or Anderson or one of the big names, or even a known quantity like one of the once-in-a-long-time series such as Bato Loco or Johnny Woo. Fortunately, it worked out all right, because one of those slots was for Insurrection by Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil. The other was, unfortunately, Citi-Def by Tony Lee and an artist who goes by the name Jackademus, which wasn't very good at all, but at least it had dinosaurs in it. Insurrection was extremely popular with readers, particularly ones familiar with a strategy game called "Warhammer 40k," because it's allegedly a lot like a Warhammer campaign set in the outer space fringes of Dredd's universe. I don't know what the heck Warhammer is, but I liked this comic just fine. A second story will run in 2011, and a third and final run is expected later this year.

As these stories wrapped up, it was back to the well for a pair that were more recognizable, even if the first was only just so. Meet Darren Dead by Rob Williams and John Higgins had been introduced more than three years previously, in a one-off episode published in Meg 240. In the days before any of the atomic wars that shaped Dredd's world, Darren had been a British celebrity, apparently something akin to Russell Brand (about whom I know nothing other than what Wikipedia can tell me), only known for stage magic and escape artistry instead of being outlandish and marrying Katy Perry. He had been buried alive in a stage stunt when the bombs went off, and he remained locked up for many decades, radiation both keeping him alive and unkillable, and giving him the power to talk to the dead. This high concept is not mined for drama, but ridiculous and fun comedy. Darren Dead is a very reluctant hero. He's a rich, easily offended, pretentious idiot.

Sadly, Darren Dead seems to have been retired after this three-part adventure. Admittedly, the concept is a tiny bit limiting, and the character is just a little bit obnoxious, but this story is huge fun. He's blackmailed into solving a series of murders involving a villain in a robot panda suit, and leaves the story alive but decapitated, and relying on his assistant to carry his head around. Not too many protagonists in any comic are bodiless heads. Well, there was the melted fellow in a bucket in the Wagner/Grant/Kennedy Outcasts series for DC Comics, and that's about it.

Armitage has had a much more frequent run than anything that's been in the Meg for some time. This is the second of Dave Stone's stories to be illustrated by John Cooper. Cooper will draw one more story, in 2010, before Patrick Goddard steps in for the terrific "Underground" in 2012.

"The Mancunian Candidate" sees the writer doing his usual trick of juggling more dense plots than anybody else in the business. This time, we've got dark revelations about Armitage's partner's childhood coming at the same time when our hero could really use her assistance. Instead, she's been institutionalized for her incredibly violent behavior, and he's been saddled with some upper-class twit who carries around an antique firearm for some fool reason.

While Tank Girl is kind of entertaining, there are signs that it's wearing out its welcome. The ten-part "Skidmarks" story ended with a very aggravating cop-out ending, the sort of thing that might have been okay had we been following the story for two or three issues, but dumping an "it was all a dream" variant after ten was a guaranteed way to start some ill-will. Online and in the letters pages, we're starting to see some resentment seep through. It's evident that Tank Girl has run too long already, but there's still much more to come. On one hand, there's the question of why this series should proceed uninterrupted for so long, but on the other, if Armitage or Devlin Waugh were to get this sort of residency, would readers eventually turn on it as well?

Well, they might, but I'd love to see a ten-month run of both of 'em.

Next time, Judge Dredd is exiled to the Cursed Earth, and Lulu takes off her clothes again. See you in seven!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

194. Writing About Robots

June 2009: With the arrival of the first wave of Mark One War Droids on the shores of Great Britain to climax Book Five, everything in Pat Mills' Savage that has spent the last two years threatening to change does so, terminally and completely. It, at last, pulls the strip completely away from its previously well-regarded incarnation as a grim, real-world resistance thriller and into the lowbrow (but fabulous) science fiction world of The ABC Warriors and Ro-Busters. I think that it's possible to mourn the loss of the thrilling, grounded world that was presented in the first three Books of the series, as drawn by Charlie Adlard, while also celebrating the new world of robots and other bizarre super-tech that makes up the Patrick Goddard-drawn larger chunk of the series. I write this as Book Eight is winding down to its conclusion in contemporary issues of 2000 AD. The smart money is on the next book in the series being the final one.

As much as I love 2000 AD, I do think that there are one or two things that the editorial droids could do to improve the experience, and not put quite so much on the readers' shoulders. True, we readers could take the initiative and dig out our back issues, or call digital copies of 'em up from the recesses of our laptops, or even consult Wikipedia before a series returns for a new outing, but, hey, some of us are busy adults and parents now and don't have the time to commit every detail to memory like we did in the 1980s, nor the time to do a quick bit of research before starting a new story. I say this because, if we must go months and months or, literally, years between stories in a series, Tharg, then the least you could do, Tharg, is program a short recap or prologue episode before the new story begins. I'd honestly rather see a detail-packed two-page prologue to Defoe and a two-page prologue to Damnation Station sharing space in the issue before those two series return than I would a one-off Future Shock that nobody's ever going to remember.

I mention that because Book Four of Savage pulled a trick that quite a few readers missed at the time. (No, not just me!) After the first three books in the series were set one after the other across two months in 2004, there's a gap of three years before Book Four. And then Book Five is set two years further on. Unless you're paying attention to the date in the narrative captions, which some of us are evidently pretty bad about doing, then you're bound to be wondering why in the world the story is acting like the Volgans never left Britain when Book Three ended with the occupying force pulling troops out. In the three-year gap between stories, it turns out, the Volgs acted remarkably like some real-world forces did in the middle East while deciding whether the "host" nation was ready to conduct its own affairs and, "regrettably," elected to force themselves back on Britain with a "surge."

Now, to Mills' credit, most of this really is spelled out in black-and-white with dialogue, but a lot of it is also hinted. He's trusting readers to get all the nuances of his story, but at the same time forgetting that his audience is no longer made up of young readers with the disposable time to read each episode five or six times before the next one is printed, but, honestly, grown-ups with a heck of a lot more going on in their life. If Savage were to appear as an annual sixty-page chunk, then perhaps it would read even better. Truly, even after three episode-by-episode reads of Books Four and Five, which I found rewarding but mildly frustrating, it wasn't until I sat down with the collected edition that all of the material firmly clicked. I understand that it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that older readers need a little more background information than younger ones, but things are different when you can't afford the time to give a weekly comic book all of the attention that you desire.

The funny thing, of course, is that older readers will often mask their "I can't understand it" complaints under the guise of being concerned for younger readers, who could not possibly comprehend something so confusing, which is balderdash. I read a Doctor Who forum where that's one of the principal complaints about the recent episodes, that kids could not possibly understand what the heck is going on with twisty timelines and paradoxes and time babies and Weeping Angels, when there's no empirical evidence that any child, anywhere, is actually confused. And that's the complaint that leads DC Comics to restart and refurbish their continuity every six years or so, because things are allegedly too confusing for "the kids." Well, no, I had no problem as a six year-old understanding that this Batman was from Earth-One, and this Batman was from Earth-Two and has a daughter who's the Huntress, who aggravated the criminal in the tiger costume who previously had that name and is also called the Tigress, and so on. No, kids understand this stuff just fine. It's just that parents have mortgages and insurance bills sucking away vital thrill-sections of the brain, and we could use a little help, Mighty One.

And with Defoe, we could use a lot of help. Again, it's a terrific series, but with the beginning of Book Three in prog 1640, Mills seems hell-bent on forcing every reader to either keep a running scorecard of the characters, or just ignore them all, say that Titus Defoe, his ally Damned Jones, and their enemy La Voisin are the only characters that matter, and everybody else is background color.

If I remember the anecdote, it's actually Mills himself who suggested that team-led series don't work in 2000 AD, with The ABC Warriors being just about the only exception. (I'd say probably the original V.C.'s as well, but there weren't very many of them.) What Mills might have forgotten is that each of the Warriors was introduced as a huge presence on their own right. The story began with the already established Hammerstein and two very individual characters, Joe Pineapples, the world's greatest sniper, who then only talked in short bursts of letters and numbers - "J4! A1!" - and Happy Shrapnel, who was a demented hillbilly robot in a coat and hat who went "Bzzzt!" all the time. Kind of hard to confuse those three.

And as the weeks went on, each new Warrior was introduced in standout stories with easily identifiable traits and quirks that were repeatedly hammered in with every subsequent story. Mongrol was the big one with the catchphrase "Smush!" who shouted the name of his "creator," Lara, all the time. Deadlock was the one with the giant, toothy grin, cloak, sword, and strange magical powers. Blackblood was the villain who went "Hssssss!" and drank oil and was programmed for treachery. You can't read their introductory adventure and forget them, ever.

Defoe has a cast of a couple of dozen characters, and there's absolutely no telling which of them are ongoing supporting players and which are passing in the night. I swear that bare-knuckled boxer who moonlights as a dung collector in Book Two got more screen time than half of Defoe's Dirty Dozenne of zombie-killing captains, and he got burned to death by a bunch of fire reeks.

Book Five of this series is said to begin in the summer, and I'm certainly looking forward to it. It's beautifully drawn by Leigh Gallagher, I love the quiet tough-guy dialogue from the hero, and it's got more bizarre and wild ideas than you can count. Unfortunately, it's also got more characters than anybody can count, either. I am old and decrepit and it's been three years since the last story. I don't know about you guys, but I sure could use a refresher before all the bloodshed recommences.

What were we talking about again? Did I have something to say about robots?

Next time, Armitage and Darren Dead are at large in the Megazine. See you in a week!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

193. Suburban Horror and Interplanetary Terror

May 2009: Occasionally, you'll read people on comic book message boards referring to the early 1980s as 2000 AD's golden age. Then you'll probably, if Tharg's Street Team is doing its job, see somebody point out that the real golden age is today. There's no specific consensus on this point beyond just a general core belief that we've never had it so good, but can we put a finger on when this shift actually occurred? The smart money's on the spring of 2009. In point of fact, after I finished the first draft of this article, my esteemed fellow squaxx Colin YNWA announced that he nails it precisely with prog 1633, which saw the debut of Cradlegrave and the final episode of the Judge Dredd story "Backlash," in which the senior judges vote Hershey out of office in a stunning no-confidence referendum in favor of Dan Francisco, who will roll back the pro-mutant reforms. This story sets up the next year-and-a-bit of Dredd stories, the "Tour of Duty" arc. 1633 also has, arguably, the best cover of the period, an image by Edmund Bagwell so iconic that some hack in a film studio ripped it off three years later. But I also really love this joyfully silly Cliff Robinson piece on the cover of 1636, shown here, in which two juves are busted for the crime of turning Judge Dredd's smile upside down. It's a picture that tells a story, and it does so with glee and life, while that image heralding Cradlegrave does so with menace.

If you have not read Cradlegrave by John Smith and Edmund Bagwell before, then for the love of pete, order the collected edition. I say this despite knowing, confidently, that everybody else who has read it enjoyed it more than I did. Oh, it's completely terrific, please don't misunderstand that. I just find it so overwhelmingly unpleasant that I don't enjoy it much, but I sure do admire the almighty hell out of it all the same. What Smith accomplishes here is simply breathtaking, and anybody who missed this in weekly installments really did miss out.

To explain, this is a story set in a long, hot, cruel summer on the Ravenglade council estate in the outskirts of a major city. Here, there's a critical bit that's lost in transatlantic translation. Council estates in England are analogous to housing projects in America, but there appear to be considerable differences, and decades of sociological impact upon British readers that people over here simply aren't going to get in quite the same way. For one thing, there seem to be far more white kids in public housing in England than here, and for another, for the last fifteen years, teenagers in English public housing have been living under the shadow of what are called "Anti-social behaviour orders." These appear, to my eyes, to be generally ineffective and unbelievably broad guidelines suggesting that young poor people should not act like disagreeable layabouts, or else some magistrate court will inconvenience them, or more likely their parents, with burdensome fines. I don't mean to get all political here, especially about another nation's politics, but I think it's important to underline that these have the effect, in Cradlegrave, of turning everything that happens into a ticking time bomb that British readers will feel getting under their skin even more effectively than ours. Nobody is happy, everybody is bored, and there is a tension rippling underneath everything that's going to snap, and painfully.

Here's where I admire Smith's work on this serial so much: for weeks and weeks, nothing snaps. It's just the tension. The mind-numbing, painful, restless tension and that dense, incredibly effective and unsettling narration.

I'm pleased and awed by the amount of trust that the editor gave Smith and Bagwell for this project, because this genuinely is a series where, for weeks, nothing happens. The main character is a teen called Shane Holt, recently released from a juvenile facility for some petty and stupid arson, and all he wants when he comes home is to stay out of trouble, make his appointments with his probation officer, and make sure the family dog successfully births some puppies. Some of his friends and neighbors are selling drugs and acting stupid, and here's another brave choice I admire. It's really difficult to tell Shane, Cal, and many of the other friends and neighbors apart. Bagwell draws them as being visually very similar in face, build, and haircuts, and they all wear the same sort of hoodies and tracksuits - inexpensive, cheap conformity for teens on public money leaves them looking as menacing and identical as a platoon of Cybermen on TV.

This is not the sort of script that can be hacked out over a weekend. For this to build, week after week, the tension and paranoia and unhappiness, with no paranormal or extraterrestrial or any kind of science fiction element at all yet, it requires really meticulous construction. For example, there is a police presence after a hit-and-run incident on the estate. But the police are shown from a distance and with their backs to the reader, a deliberate choice that emphasizes that they are both outsiders and ineffective.

Of course, there is something paranormal, horrific and description-defying at Ravenglade that is impacting the narrative because it's screwing with people's behavior and responses. This revelation also takes place over the course of some really unsettling weeks, finally given a fleeting glimpse in passing in episode four. What we glimpse is outre and troubling, but it's also not anything that we can define and explain with any ease. Something is very wrong with an old lady who has lived on the estate with her quiet and unhappy husband for many years. She has... growths of some kind, and cannot get out of bed. One of the teens who comes to visit her whispers that it's some kind of cancer, but another snaps back that it isn't. They don't know why they're visiting her. They can't explain it. And things get stranger, the heat wave showing no signs of breaking.

Meanwhile, as things are slowly and with great deliberation disintegrating miserably on modern-day Earth, in the far future, things are going utterly nutballs on some lunatic death planet, and a very polite and very strange and very dead fellow called Zombo is in the middle of high-concept, turbo-charged superweirdness.

Zombo by Al Ewing and Henry Flint is... well, it's a lot of things. It's a breathless love letter to the sort of wild, over-the-top violence seen in old pulp fiction and in the early days of 2000 AD and its ancestor, Action. It's established, simply, that the story is set on a death planet onto which a passenger spaceship has crash-landed. The question for readers is not who will survive, but can the creators top themselves with a more ridiculously over-the-top death every third page or so.

With very deliberate throwback narration and dialogue and with gleefully ridiculous concepts like rivers that run in circles, flowers that eat people, and a lingering, colorful "black hole" called a Death Shadow, Zombo is pure rocket fuel in every panel. I wondered how in the world the creators would possibly come up with a second story, which they did, to great celebration in 2010, and the answer is simple: they just drop Zombo into weirder and wilder yet radically different situations each time. What happens next... well, that would be telling.

Anyway, what all this is getting at is that in the spring of 2009, Tharg's Mighty Organ was offering shot glass after shot glass of rocket fuel. Maybe in the case of Cradlegrave it was the slow burn of good Kentucky bourbon, but everything was completely wonderful.

Next time, we'll check in with what the Guv'nor was up to. See you in a week!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

192. After the Flood

April 2009: The cover of prog 1631 is one of 2000 AD's modern classics. That is a beautiful piece of artwork in its own right, never mind all the cute in-jokes hidden within it. It is spotlighting the climax to an eight-part Low Life adventure by Rob Williams and the latest artist, D'Israeli. The story itself is among the weirdest and most high-concept escapades to ever play out in Mega-City One, which is saying something, but it's such a brilliant set of visuals. Inside, we've got a major Judge Dredd story by John Wagner and Carl Critchlow, Nikolai Dante by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, a new series called Necrophim by Tony Lee and Lee Carter, along with the two stories I'm including today. I'm definitely going to have to find time to go back and just spend one of these chapters talking about "Backlash" and its follow-ups; this storyline is going to continue until the summer of 2010.

Low Life is a series that everybody enjoys because everybody loves Dirty Frank, and because the criminal schemes that play out in this sector of the city are grandiose and bizarre. This one, honestly, barely hangs together. I mean, this latest play by the Big Man to control the sector involves shakedowns and blackmail via billboards that use nanotech to replicate Biblical imagery and disasters, everything from rains of frogs to burning bushes to leviathans and floods. If you stare at the story too hard, it cracks and falls completely apart, but nobody wants to do that because it's more fun just to follow Dirty Frank being himself and look beyond the actual plot, at the characterization and the artwork.

The story begins with Dirty Frank learning that a Long Walk is in his future. Frank's handler, Thora, calls him back in to tell him that despite his successes, the department considers him a liability. He's just too unhinged, he is not reliable anymore, and he smells terrible.

But after he saves the day - a costumed, and awesome, alter-ego is credited with an assist - there's a clue that there might be more to this story than we were told. Throughout "Creation," we get flashbacks to what appears to be one of Frank's last uniformed missions, perhaps somewhere in Asia, that goes horribly wrong and leaves him stranded on a mountainside in a blizzard. A single, gigantic snowflake keeps appearing, looming huge in his memory. We're shown at the end how he managed to survive until a rescue party arrives. Freezing to death and seconds away from his end, he's put that out of his mind and is seeing the world as a tropical paradise instead. It's how Frank survives anywhere; he creates his own reality. Perhaps this criminal adventure was not as ridiculous as we're told. Our hero is, after all, the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

Meanwhile, prog 1631 also sees the first appearance of a new character, Spartacus Dandridge. Like Jack Point and D.R. & Quinch before him, he makes his debut as in a one-off adventure, a Past Imperfect, some time before he gets a series. "Antiquus Phantasma" is set in 1905, but it's not quite our 1905. It's full of spirits and ghosts and poltergeists and very flashy clothes.

Dandridge - what a perfect name for this character - is a flashy, well-dressed bon vivant who occasionally does a little bit of ghost-hunting. In one of the most densely packed, and perfectly paced, five page stories that 2000 AD has ever assembled, we get a grip on this crazy world and this dandy of a protagonist, who changes outfits three times, and also get an exciting plot, a twist revelation about the identity of the ghost - spirits and their corpses being collectible status symbols in this world - and then a whacking huge twist ending after that: Dandridge is abruptly shot dead by gunmen in the employ of his creditors, who figure that he's much more valuable as a ghost than alive. Shooting him and selling him is the most sensible way to settle his tailoring bills! I hate that circumstances require that the ending be spoiled, because had a series never developed, this would have stood alone as one of the very best one-offs in 2000 AD's history. So darn much happens in this episode that it really demands to be immediately reread.

The character was created by new writer Alec Worley and artist Warren Pleece, and, happily, this wasn't the last we've seen of him. He'll return for three more short stories and one-offs in 2010 and 2011. A fifth story will be arriving pretty soon now - April, I think - and I'm looking forward to it. These stories are set 76 years after "Antiquus Phantasma," and are very fun and charming.

Next time, two very popular series make triumphant debuts. See you in seven! In the meantime, if you enjoy this blog, please tell a friend or something. Share on Facebook or Twitter, or send the link to somebody who should read it. Or everybody who should read it for that matter! Even Google Plus would be a help.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

191. The Ginger Ninja

February 2009: In previous installments of this blog, I'd sort of glossed over Greysuit, a super-spy thriller by Pat Mills and John Higgins. It launched in the same issue as Defoe in the summer of 2007, and was immediately overshadowed by it. When you seem to wait around forever for a new Mills series and then two show up at once, they'll always be compared to each other, and Defoe is just so darn terrific that not very much is going to come out very well head-to-head.

But Greysuit isn't without its charms, and nobody can deny the huge, visceral pleasure of looking at Higgins' artwork. He and Mills discussed making this series visually realistic, and showing that when superpowered people slug somebody with a fist traveling about just under the speed of sound, it's going to destroy their victim's face. Mills has gone on the record many times as hating superhero comics, but this desire for something like authenticity actually dates back to late 1976, and Greysuit's antecedent, MACH One. This was one of 2000 AD's original five stories, a rip-off - slash - cash-in of television's very popular Six Million Dollar Man. This TV series featured a superpowered spy occasionally toppling corrupt governments and battling UFOs and Bigfoot, but usually he just drove around Burbank wearing a turtleneck looking for counterfeiters, because that was easier on the budget.

When MACH One was developed, a "pilot episode" was drawn for the 2000 AD ashcan that, in one panel, showed its hero, John Probe, decapitating a soldier with a karate chop. This over-the-top violence was toned down considerably before publication, but when Greysuit started thirty years later, Mills finally got to indulge. In this spy epic, the agents are all pumped up on brain chemicals that give them amazing reaction time and they can punch through walls, so when some meathead Afghan policeman or hired bodyguard gets in John Blake's way, that man's going to have his jaw broken into twelve pieces. Instantly, just as Colin MacNeil became the go-to artist for amazing exit wounds, John Higgins got the reputation as the man you want to have drawing your superpowered thug breaking skulls, leaving teeth flying and skin and muscles ripped by shattering bone. It had been a long time since 2000 AD artwork really made us do double-takes, but this did it.

But it was the script in the second story that prompted a double-take, because after John Blake has gone rogue and starts targeting a government-shielded pedophile ring, one of them calls in an agent from another department to defend himself. And suddenly, the story goes really loopy.

Here's the funny thing: I missed this completely. Every so often, I just don't pay as much attention to my thrillpower as I should, and, I guess when this run of issues showed up in the US in April, I was just focusing on Strontium Dog - and the wedding I'd have the next month - and not letting details of the other strips sink in. So when "the Ginger Ninja" debuted, to howls of derision and mockery from fans, I quietly agreed that it was a silly name, and figured that Mills was making a flat reference to some British comedian or media figure or something, but never caught on. Years later, some friends explained to me that this wasn't some crack about Chris Evans or a DJ, but just a premise that doesn't make any sense whatever. He... well, he masks himself so that he doesn't appear to have a head...? and that makes him... invisible...?

We love Mills, of course, he's the guv'nor, and it's nice to say that even when he bombs, he doesn't bore. Greysuit was filed away after this second story, but a third is anticipated later this year.

Meanwhile, Strontium Dog was kicking all kinds of ass. After doing several stories with Johnny Alpha and Wulf set somewhere in their partnership, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra turned the clock back to the earliest days of Johnny's career, before he met Wulf, and when he was still recognized by mutants as a hero of the war, and not a mean bounty hunter. "Blood Moon" is the first of two Strontium Dog adventures to see print in 2009, and, at thirteen parts, one of the longest stories for the character in quite some time. It's also completely wonderful.

I like the structure of "Blood Moon" a great deal. It starts with four episodes set during the earliest days of the war, when a younger Johnny Alpha first meets Colonel Moon. He's a really strange figure, sort of a glam rock messiah terrorist. Some years previously, Ezquerra had painted a two-part Judge Dredd story that featured a goth criminal gang and not quite got the look of the villains right. They looked like fat kids in the KISS Army and not Nephilim obsessives. But the design of Col. Blood Moon is completely perfect. You can't look at the guy without singing "Gotta make way for homo superior."

Moon's terrorist ways and no-compromise law set him at odds with the mutant generals from the outset. Moon wanted extermination of the norms, not co-existence. Since he refused to be represented by the Mutant Army, he was a wanted war criminal, not party to the terms of the armistice, and his mystique carried on into the setting of the strip. Most people believed he was dead, killed in the war, but every so often, a terrorist assault on humans would be carried out in his name. It's like Ziggy Stardust crossed with Osama bin Laden, and completely compelling.

Part of the fun is seeing all these old faces from previous Strontium Dog adventures again. Evans the Fist and Blubberlips had been killed off in the 1980s, as had all three Stix brothers, who appear in cameo in this story along with a previously-unseen cousin, every bit as ugly. But there's room for new characters as well. In this story, we meet Precious Matson, a very young and very pretty mutant journalist. She has three breasts, infuriating other reporters because she has an unfair advantage in getting stories over their ugly mugs. Precious would be reincorporated into Stronty continuity in 2010, when we begin, at long last, the first stories set after 1990's apocalyptic "Final Solution." And what a tale that will be.

"Blood Moon" is also notable for being the first story to feature Ezquerra being assisted on art duties by his son, Hector. He will be his father's regular inker for the next three and a half years, and, if I may be so bold, they'll be three and a half years of some of his very best artwork. We don't like to talk about the reality of our creative heroes getting older, but Carlos's eyes, in 2009, are not quite what they were, and, in 2011, he'll rest for several months, recuperating from major surgery. Since he's been working without Hector for the last year or so, his inking has become much heavier, as though he's trying out yet another new style. The change in inking that came when Hector came on board also a surprising development in style, and attracted a great deal of commentary. I think the art's absolutely terrific, the whole story's a fun triumph, and it's available in a collected edition with the follow-up, "Mork Whisperer." Definitely check those out.

Next time, it's D'Israeli on Low Life, mutants in Mega-City One, and the dazzling debut of Dandridge!