There were some pretty darn good comics running in December 2008, when "Prog 2009" was published, but there were some uneven ones as well. The annual launch issue, this time featuring a funny and wonderful cover by Carlos Ezquerra, saw the beginnings of new adventures for Strontium Dog and Greysuit, each of which we'll talk about next week, along with Marauder, a serial by Robbie Morrison and Richard Elson set in Judge Dredd's world, and the latest adventure for the crew in The Red Seas by Ian Edginton and Steve "Inkless" Yeowell.
In the present day, fans are waiting to hear when, if ever, we'll see a fifth story of Kingdom, the terrific series by Dan Abnett and Elson. Apparently, Elson's been working for Marvel, one of those inferior American publishers who pay a higher rate than the Galaxy's Greatest. I looked him up at comics.org and saw that he's spent the last couple of years drawing their superhero books. Well, he couldn't have asked for a better calling card than Marauder. It's the story of a flunked-out cadet judge who gets caught in a crossfire between three rival criminal groups. One of these is a gang of crooked judges who are in the occasional pay of yet another Mega-City kingpin, and one of these is an alien who provides Falcone with some interesting technology.
In his red-and-yellow supersuit, Falcone moves like Spider-Man with the tech of Iron Man. Many years previously, we'd seen Judge Dredd see off interfering super-vigilantes (in "Megaman" [prog 440], "Fairlyhyperman" [progs 529-530], and "Bat Mugger" [prog 585]), but these were mainly played for the quick laugh, and didn't really examine what a superhero story set in Mega-City One might really be like.
Not to dismiss or belittle Morrison here, but if I were a Marvel Comics editor, and this run of progs came across my desk, I'd have written Elson a blank check, because the artist is the star of this story. Until Kingdom, which is completely majestic, I had always ranked Elson as maybe being solid if not among my personal favorites. Tasked with an urban superhero adventure, with lots of fast action and wild camera angles, he really goes above the standard, and delivers some of the best-looking superhero pages from any publisher. Apparently, he has not drawn very much Spider-Man yet, which is an almighty shame for Spider-Man readers, because, in his weird red suit, Falcone interacts with the buildings and bridges of Mega-City One like the town is a valuable supporting character. You can easily just tune out the script and relish all the detail and attention in every panel.
This is a delight that readers of The Red Seas cannot share.
Back in 1987, Steve Yeowell had debuted in 2000 AD as the artist of Zenith, the comic's first superhero series. And he drew the almighty hell out of it. Every page of that series looked terrific, and Yeowell parlayed that success into lots of assignments for other publishers. It's one of comics' great missed opportunities that DC didn't give him the regular job of their title Starman after Tony Harris moved on. Yeowell had done some really great fill-in work for Harris in the 1990s. That job shoulda been his.
Something happened to Yeowell's work earlier in 2008. There's still a little bit to like about it. His character designs remain consistent; Captain Jack Dancer looks the same from panel to panel. At least there's that. Otherwise, either his local art supply store raised the cost of ink beyond common sense, or Yeowell's interest in and enthusiasm for drawing The Red Seas hit a wall. I peg the deterioration with episode three of the previous story, "Old Gods" in August. That's when backgrounds for his pages abruptly started vanishing, and he started taking visible shortcuts to finish things. The worst offense came with a forest depicted by way of a large blob that indicated the canopy of trees, its interior detail nothing more than fifty-odd quick squiggles that suggested individual leaves.
Nothing in "Signs and Portents" is quite that bad, but nothing suggests any interest in continuing to visualize Captain Jack's adventures either. This time out, our heroes have been abducted by Caliban, who also holds the immortal Prospero as his prisoner. Prospero, who first communicates with Capt. Dancer and his crew by way of some floating food, is privy to Dancer's recent past and run-ins with the supernatural, and has grave warnings about his future. But it looks like he won't even get that far when, in one of the most abrupt and strange cliffhangers in 2000 AD's long history, our heroes are tied up as bait for some giant animals outside Caliban's walls.
Actually, rereading it, "abrupt" is putting it lightly. It simply does not feel like an end-of-story cliffhanger, where the tensions rise and there's a build up to a "sting," leaving audiences both satisfied with what they have read and anxious to see what will happen next. Everything suddenly happens with the feel of doors slamming, including a massive cut in between our heroes being discovered and then stuck in this wild and outlandish climax. It's not done with a sense of danger or drama; in fact, it's almost played as comedy, with a surprising "The End" stuck at the bottom, above a caption promising the series would be continued. Jack's bizarre conundrum would be addressed more than a year down the line, jumping from prog 1623 to 1688.
This feeling of comedy has also infected The Red Seas more potently at this time. Now, sure, there was always a light touch in the strip - Jack's opening line to Isabella, the camp stylings of Dr. Orlando Doyle - but with the previous story, the supernatural became really whimsical. The squabbling Norse gods, with Odin depicted as a henpecked husband, were admittedly a little funny even as they reduced the impossible into wacky, but by now, the trick of turning the outre into ordinary, as shown by Prospero's manipulation of sausages, is transforming the whole series into a light, early evening comedy. At the same time, everybody is issuing dire warnings and Captain Jack is taking fantastic occult threats seriously, but the threats are pantomimes. In the story running in 2000 AD at the time of writing - said to be the finale - the crew are battling Satan, and he's so camp that he makes Doyle look subdued. And still, nobody's bought Yeowell any ink.
Next week, it's one weird concept too many for Pat Mills as he introduces... The Ginger Ninja!