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!