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!