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!


Anonymous said...

Another excellent study Grant.

I hate to be picky, but you wrote 'two juves are busted for the crime of turning Judge Dredd's smile upside down' - when in fact they turn his grimace upside down to form a smile.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Dozens of people read this entry over the last seven days, and you're the only one to write in having spotted the deliberate mistake!

Actually, that screw-up amuses me so much I'm leaving it in. So much for three drafts getting everything just right!

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.