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!