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!

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