Friday, September 15, 2006

Future Shock!

The twist you didn't see coming. The crazy idea that would never have occurred to you. The bizarre juxtaposition of images. The Future Shock is meant to be all these things, and sometimes more (Moore?). As part of the anthology that is 2000 AD, the one (or very occasionally two) off stories that are thrown into the anthology mix can feel like filler material. They are tolerated by the readers because a) they are occasionally very entertaining b) they can be read in one go, meaning no waiting till next week to get some kind of resolution c) virtually every reader thinks: "one day, I can have a story printed in 2000 AD". I'm not sure if it was always the intention that 'Tharg's Future Shocks' would be an avenue for unproven writers and artists, but that's certainly what they are now. As many successful writers say in interviews, these short stories with twists can be the hardest things to write, and they appreciate having to go through the process of crafting a future shock every now and then.

Of course, the essence of 'future shock' is not limited to these one-offs. Many a 2000 AD tale has tried to win favour by featuring twists, surprises and general weirdness. Along with anti-heroes and high bodycount, I have the notion that 'future shock' is one of the key features of 2000 AD, and a good story should have this feel to it, be it Judge Dredd, Sinister Dexter or Nikolai Dante or whatever.

Finding clever twists and surprises seems to be a feature of writing in general, and perhaps genre writing in particular. A good writer manages to present a story where the reader can't guess what is going to happen, but ensuring that all surprises make sense. Even in non-fiction, high minded academics presumably feel good about themselves when they put forward an idea about their topic that appears off-beat, yet chimes with the facts. There's no difference between Richard Dawkins talking about memes as units of transferable cultural concepts that are slowly shaping human society, and a budding Future Shock writer saying "and then she opens up her face, and she's a robot..!" Get Kevin O'Neill to illustrate either, and you'd have a decent but not spectacular 2000 AD strip.

2000 AD doesn't just have twists; it also aspires to have outrageous ideas along with or instead of those twists. The plot taking an unexpected turn, or a character turning out not to be who (or what) you thought they were is one way of creating surprise. But so is chucking some leftfield hoo-hah into the mix. 2000 AD affords a certain advantage to writers trying the weirdness-twist tack. It's a weird comic. There are very limited rules about what readers would find acceptable, so outlandish ideas won't seem contrived, but rather are expected. As long as your idea is odd enough that no-one could see it coming, it doesn't matter that they were trying ever-so-hard to see something coming. You could just chuck in a comedy panel of a man turning into a worm for a laugh...

Future Shock doesn't always succeed, either in the one-offs or the longer strips , and some surprises are as old as the hills (anyone remember the 'shocking' twist to Sancho Panzer?). Doesn't matter if you've got some tidy art to back it up, though. And one should never forget that old Stan Lee / Jim Shooterism - every comic is someone's first. Just because a good idea can become a cliche quickly doesn't mean you can't use it from time to time. Hell if I'd seen either of these panels 20 years ago, i'd have been impressed:

(The old 'am I human am I an alien' uncertainty)

(The old 'science experiment goes wrong, everyone will soon die' catastrophe)

Steve Moore, originator of the Future Shock, attempted to avoid the cliche in his Tales of Telguuth series. Set on a fantasy world in which everyone was a bastard, and everyone was looking out for unexpected weirdness, he managed to create some nifty stories. But sometimes the set-up was a bit heavy-handed in its self-awareness. Here's a fella trying to bargain with a sorceror without getting burned:
(Despite his carefully worded wish, rest assured that he gets burned)

One of the best cliches that never really gets old is death. 2000 AD has a healthy relationship with killing off its characters (and not resurrecting them, on the whole). So you just know that any minor characters could go at any moment. Makes for some fun action scenes. And if you mix up the dialogue with a bit of Brit slang or simple nastiness, instant 2000 AD.

Future Shock, it's the business. Got that?


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