Thursday, May 23, 2013

202. Other People's Heroes

August 2010: The summer of 2010 saw several major series underway, and two that I wanted to look at just a little more closely are a pair written by 2000 AD veterans Pat Mills and John Wagner. They are both revisionist looks at much older series. Savage, of course, has been giving 'em both barrels for several years now. "Crims" is Book Six of the series, written as always by Mills and drawn by Patrick Goddard. It sees Bill Savage, now using another undercover identity, getting help from several of London's criminal gangs to get the manpower and resources to infiltrate a Volgan command center. The Volgs have countered the Allies' super sci-fi robots with teleportation, and somebody needs to get in there and shut them down. As it is, Allied robots have already been pushed back out of Wales...

"Crims" is just beautifully drawn by Goddard, who piles on the detail and the ink. It is, surprisingly, a little longer than the usual Pat Mills story of late. For the previous six or seven years, Mills had been working in blocks of 60 pages broken down into ten episodes. When episode ten of this story didn't end the book -it continues for another 30 pages and wraps with part fifteen - it really surprised readers who'd become used to Mills' tropes. But the really splendid part comes with an interlude in the middle of the story.

Some of the dialogue is a little labored when Mills introduces the surviving player of a '60s rock band who, like Syd Barrett, retired into hermitage after a short time in the spotlight. Only this fellow kept his considerable record royalties to live in some peace and quiet on Eel Pie Island. He was happy to let the world think that he was another acid casualty; it was actually his girlfriend, a hippie chick who'd been linked with Brian Jones and all the big names back in the day, who had lost her mind. He retreated from the limelight and spent the next few decades engaged in research into the sort of sci-fi physics that would come in handy fighting the Volgans' teleporters. So it's a little contrived, but the human elements to the story are incredibly effective, and Goddard's artwork is just amazing. It is some of the best black and white artwork that 2000 AD has seen in years.

But the thing that really demands comment this time out is the first chunk of "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha." It's an interesting case of Wagner aping Mills' technique, and using the style that Mills had designed for his Slaine and ABC Warriors stories many years before. When this story concludes in 2014, it will be at least 40 episodes long, a huge epic that sees Johnny Alpha's revival and the second war between mutants and humanity. But before we get to that point, there's the major and controversial business of Wagner killing off the character of Feral.

Okay, so there are two things to explain before getting into this, both the factual and the fictional background of what has happened previously. I'll try to keep this reasonably simple. Feral is a character who was introduced by Alan Grant in his final Strontium Dog serial in 1990. That story concluded with Johnny Alpha's death, and Feral was one of a number of supporting players who made their way into a sequel series, Strontium Dogs, which was helmed by Garth Ennis from 1991-93, and then by Peter Hogan until its cancellation in 1996. This coincided with then-editor David Bishop letting Hogan know that his services were no longer required at 2000 AD and finishing off Hogan's final scripts for the series with the pseudonym "Alan Smithee."

Now, depending on who you ask, Strontium Dogs was either a long-winded bore of subplots that never went anywhere, whose main cast were characters not strong enough to anchor a strip of their own, dropped irregularly into the lineup as space filler until the next launch prog, or, alternately, it was one of the few things during the dark days of the early 1990s that held any promise and was written with a sense of maturity and intelligence, especially when half or more of every issue was written by Mark Millar in "explodo-vision." I say this, respectfully, because the Ennis-Hogan Strontium Dogs certainly has its fans, many of whom came to the comic during this bleak years and have stuck around. I may not be among them, but there are certainly more readers who remember Dogs fondly than there are who liked, say, Bix Barton as I did.

But one thing seems clear: John Wagner didn't seem to think much of Peter Hogan's work. He puts his opinion in mean black and white about halfway through the story. "The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha" is structured as though it's excerpts from an academic history of situations famous enough to warrant multiple, competing, biographies. What we're about to learn about Feral is very much at odds with the reports from previous chroniclers, and Wagner flatly dismisses the earlier work by "the notorious fantasist Ho Gan." Ouch. This won't be good.

While Ennis and Hogan's Feral was a tough, scared kid dealing with an increasingly bizarre mutation and slowly gaining the maturity and insight to become a leader, Wagner reveals him to be a coward and a bungler, who wanted to do the right thing from time to time but lacked the spine to do it. The story opens with longtime supporting player Middenface McNulty teamed with newcomer Precious Matson, who has heard from reliable sources that Johnny Alpha's skeleton was not left behind in the other dimension as depicted in "Final Solution," but rather, his body was returned to Earth by Feral. The trail eventually leads them to Feral, who is a condemned man awaiting execution on the planet of Garn.

Garn is one of those planets that really only makes sense in the context of Strontium Dog. It's a perfect mix of an oddball culture and black-as-coal comedy. The Garnians do not have noses, and consider any species that does have noses to be ungodly. They allow McNulty and Matson to visit the condemned, in deference to the renowned hero Johnny Alpha, but while they're in public, they have to wear masks that cover their offensive honkers. Feral is sentenced to die here for an act of small-scale sabotage to cover his escape from a spacecraft, but there was an accident and dozens were killed. Capital punishment on Garn is carried out by immolation: Feral is to be burned at the stake. Worse, they're fattening him up so that he'll burn cleaner. When our heroes meet him, he weighs at least three hundred pounds.

Feral is a very bitter and ugly man, not at all the person who starred in the Ennis and Hogan stories. He is willing to confirm what McNulty and Matson have already learned: he brought Johnny's body back, where it remained in some state of preservation, not decaying at all, and spread the lie that the beast that we saw in the last episode of "Final Solution" left him nothing but broken bones. Beyond that, he won't say a thing, including where Johnny's corpse is now, until McNulty and Matson spring him. The following episode sees our heroes doing exactly that, because this is an action-adventure melodrama, and we expect that sort of thing.

So Feral goes on to explain that he took Johnny's corpse to the mysterious planet Zen, where the land is in a constant state of flux and where bizarre, towering Stone Wizards - great big pillars of animated rock - are said to have the power to revive the dead or reverse the effects of evil sorcery like what killed Johnny. Feral eventually finds the Wizards, who are unimpressed with the work of the Lyran magic. They agree to revive him, but only in return for Feral's life. He declines, buries Johnny in a forest, and makes his way into the troubled life that seemed to end almost ten years later at Garn until McNulty and Matson rescued him.

And then we get the blunt stick of reality. McNulty is an alcoholic has-been and Matson is a journalist. They didn't rescue him. Of course they didn't. They staged the abduction with the assistance of the Garnian authorities to persuade Feral to talk. The execution is going on as scheduled. Ouch.

I'm not saying that Feral's fans are legion or anything, but this just plain ticked off a few people. Over the course of about four episodes, Wagner and Ezquerra completely demolished the character of Feral, declaring his earlier heroics to be unreal fictions and giving him an ignominious and pathetic end. Myself, I always thought that Feral was cut from far too close a cloth as what was trendy and kewl in American funnybooks. He was all claws and spikes and everything that every Wolverine wannabe was like in the early 90s. Still, it's a heck of a bad way to go out.

Sometimes, heroes don't get to go out either in a blaze of glory or down the happy path of retirement. Feral screwed up, often, and lots of people died, and his execution - preceded by the ritual slicing-off of his nose as one final indignity before death - is ugly and horrible. It kind of goes without saying that it is unlikely that any American superhero book would be so bold. Can you imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate so ugly and demeaning? Heck, you can't even imagine a character like Hawkeye or Aquaman meeting a final fate, period. They get resurrected as quickly as a new writer can flick the reset button.

Actually, the nearest thing that I can think of was a stunning 1997 issue of Starman by James Robinson and Dusty Abell, in which the criminal the Mist killed off at least four DC Comics D-listers: Crimson Fox, Ice, Amazing Man, and Blue Devil. At least one of those four seems to have stayed dead.

And on that note, we'll come back to Johnny's very controversial resurrection when the second chunk of this lengthy epic appears. More on that in chapter 212.

In the next chapter, however, 2000 AD gets its first really memorable female lead in quite some time with the debut of Rowan Morrigan in Age of the Wolf See you in seven!

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