Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The beginning of the end of the comics revolution

So it's 1990 and things seem to be going pretty well for adult, trendy, different comics. 2000 AD is excited by the number of people reading (or at least, buying) Crisis, and is presumably bouyed by the emergence of some actual competition from Deadline. So it's clearly time for a new launch. Something less political than Crisis. Something with actual stories, unlike Deadline. Something more intellectual than 2000 AD. Hey kids, it's Revolver.
I couldn't say whose idea the whole thing was, but this editorial was written by one Peter K Hogan, who would go on to be one of 2000 AD's more reliable writers in the much-maligned Progs 800-1000. And I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that Alan Moore hand-picked him as one of the few people he trusts with his ABC universe of characters. Certainly in Revolver he comes across as a nice guy. He'd like to be cool, sure, but he's not gonna try that hard, and he cerainly knows his place in relation to his waycool Revolver contemporaries such as Grant Morrison, Pete Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Which all makes me like him more, as I'd like to think I'm that sort of person, too.

And what of the comic itself? Well, each of its seven issues is gorgeous to behold. Designer Rian Hughes is gold here. And the full-colour with glossy covers thing is beautifully produced - perhaps it set the standard for comics and magazines to come? The content is, shall we say, worthwhile. It tries really hard to appeal to a new audience, with an impressive array of talent, great diversity in terms of art and writing styles, genuinely different from other comics (as far as I know, anyway), and sadly, it fails.

Could it be the proof that there just isn't a very wide audience for grown-up comics? It doesn't help that the best story in Revolver was Dare - a future history of the Eagle character. And however good it is, it does rely on a certain knowledge not to mention love of retro comics. Most of the other strips in Revolver are also extremely good. So it's a source of great consternation to me that the comic failed. I guess people who want to read intelligent comics aren't into the weekly/monthly installment thing. After all, in all other media serialisation lends itself to escapism rather than study. And maybe the anthology format doesn't help here, as I can imagine readers who each liked one or two strips but hated/ignored the others. Revolver's strips were a showcase of passion but with little coherence beyond being intended for an adult mind. As opposed to 2000 AD, whose sci-fi basis means that all of its strips are similar enough in feel that it's unusual to have that problem. (Sure, there are examples of strips that didn't quite fit in, but there was always a level of coherence, I felt)

Now, a quick round-up of the details:
Dare is excellent all round. Seek it out in the trade collection which may or may not be reprinted soon. The only complaint about it now is that it's too indebted to a hatred of the Thatcher years, but on the other hand that makes it a rather intriguing historical essay as well (for me at least). A letter-writer also claims that the story works as a metaphor for Frank Hampson's treatment by the publishers of the original Dan Dare. Interesting.

Purple Days, the Jimi Hendrix story is also impressive.
I know nothing about him and have little interest in his music (although at some level I feel I ought to have some). But that doesn't stop this from being an utterly engaging story, with jsut the right kind of photo-realistic painted art. If I was into the music more, I expect I'd find even more layers of sophistication. On the other hand, it might make the whole thing more trite if I found out the creators were simply lifting lyrics directly onto the page or something. Anyway, good stuff.

Happenstance & Kismet. I can't stress how much I dislike this strip. Steve Parkhouse on art is sublime, which makes it all the more frustrating that I literally can't bring myself to read the words around it, full of Hale & Pace humour as it is. Sure, the guy who comes out out swear words in foreign languages is occasionally funny, but that's about it. At least the strip can claim to be a solid representation of a certain kind of Britishness. Admittedly, the dick joke at the beginning of this excerpt is actually pretty funny if you read the set-up line on the previous page. But it's not exactly ground-breaking stuff, is it?

Dire Streets, on the other hand, I really like. Julie Hollings is not in the least flashy in her writing or her art - as everyone else in Revolver tries to be - but nevertheless she's created the most likeable strip. It's pretty much This Life: the student years but with a touch less glamour. The characters are all equal parts horrible, annoying, recognisable, and just sympathetic enough. I feel bad about describing it as girly, but it is, and that's one of the best things about it.

Rogan Gosh is a masterpiece of the comics medium, no question. It's also deliberately hard to read as a narrative, which makes it frustrating. But I will say that's it's worth owning a run of all 7 issues of Revolver so that you can dip into this strip and be inspired by it. The excellent printing quality helps as McCarthy has all his coloring pens out for this baby. I suppose it helps me to enjoy it that the whole thing is a meditation on how white Londoners imagine a Hindu mythology might interact with their lives - which is something I can get in touch with having grown up in West London and studied a bit of Sanskrit and Hindu theology/mythology. Of course it's also massively up its own arse, however hard Milligan and McCarthy try to bring it all down to earth and laugh at themselves along the way.

Otherwise Revolver featured a number of one-of strips by some pretty superb artists - Simon Harrison, Warren Pleece, Glenn Fabry - but fell into the then-Image trap of letting these artists put words to their own pictures. Now, a great comics artist has to be able to tell a story with his pictures, but not all of them can make that story worth reading. To jump across to Superhero comics for a bit, one only has to recall the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby work pattern to see that Lee's dialogue was essential to making the early Marvel comics fun to read every month. I can see that Kirby's solo stuff such as New Gods is impressive to behold in its grand narrative and its bizarre plotting, but frankly it's hard going to wade through. Peter Milligan can write deliberately pretentious bollocks and inject some meaning into it, but most artists (hell, most other writers) can't. And when they try, people stop buying the comics. But of course they should try - it's simply that editors need to stand up to them when it doesn't really work.

At least Shaky Kane keeps his diverting but never really funny or clever pieces to a simple double-page spread...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Comics don't just grow up - they become seriously trendy

Deadline magazine isn't mentioned on the 2000 AD website. Presumably this means that it never had and never will have anything official to do with it. But, this surprisingly long-running comic (1988-1995) is surely part of the same stable whether copyright and publishing law, and perhaps even petty rivalries, will say it or not.

More confessions of a crap journalist - I've only read 3 issues of Deadline and the short Wikipedia article on it. Beyond that, I know nothing. But, I will say this: it was set up by Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon, 2000 AD greats of the 80s. Editorship was taken over at some point by Si Spencer, who went on to be one of the more regular Megazine scribes for a while. And amongst the host of artistic contributors were many who would go on to have stuff published in 2000 AD, Crisis, Toxic! and other such worthy publications. So there's a relevant pedigree - but what about the content?

I don't know what the mission statement was, but I bet it was something to do with being ultra-hip, or possibly crucial since it was 1988 after all. There seems to be a mixture of the standard 'why is there no platform for hot new artists to do their thing', and the editors wanting a magazine devoted to stuff that they happen to like, i.e. music as well as comics. To my mind, this mixture did achieve one rare thing - every issue of Deadline feels throwaway. This doesn't mean the content isn't good. It's more that I didn't feel at all inclined to bag up the issues I had, collect the missing ones, and store them for all time. And given that I collect a lot of comics, that's an achievement.

Partly it's the mixture of text stories and interviews alongside the comics. Partly it's that most of the strips themselves are not 'to be continued', even if there are plenty of recurring characters. But I think the mag is filled with a sense that this throwaway nature is what the editors wanted out of it. They wanted a fortnightly / monthly publication that people would have lying around in their student / yuppie flats, or in a hairdresser's, read bits of and discuss with their friends, then happily forget about it and be excited by the next issue, rather than obsessing over the details of early vs new stories. Which let's face it, is what a large number of comics fans like to do, and that's not the audience to pander to if you're trying to be cool.
And the sense that people were talking about Deadline and its contents is why Deadline succeeded in this mission. It was obviously read by those people who never really got into comics, but really liked looking at those comic-inspired doodles you drew on your school file. There's some zeitgeist capturing going on right there.

Deadline may have folded, but it has a noble legacy, i.e. it introduced a whole bundle of iconic characters, launched the careers of even more great artists. But sadly it left us with nary a story to care about 15 years on. I mean, I'm sure many of you have heard of writer Alan Martin, but who can say what he's working on now? Which probably explains why I don't rate it that highly. Sure, I love an iconic picture and probably my first love for 2000 AD was inspired by Kev O'Neill, but really I'm all about the plot and the character arcs.

When I say I don't rate it, that's a subjective term. Objectively, I think Deadline is/was an awesome achievement, that really did break comics out of the niche it was in at the time and seems to be in again now. Without any stats or even memories to back me up, I believe Deadline reached that magical thing, a new audience of comics readers. You just know that Nathan Barley would have had copies in his Hoxton hole. Of course the nature of this kind of cool is inherently transitory, and since Deadline never managed to find a new Jamie Hewlett and Philip Bond to invent new characters and art styles after 5 years, it was destined to die.

Yes, Deadline as a comic was all about the art; more than out all about style over substance. Hewlett and Bond reached out to a huge number of people, and rightly so, but they weren't the only slight geniuses at work. Let's cease the prattling, and get on with the scans, eh?
First up, my personal favourite: Nick Abadzis. He seems to have been around for years on the ultra-independent scene. I don't know if that has more to do with personal choice or lack of bigtime publishers hiring him, but he deserves to be more widely read and revered. I love his mix of wonder and cynicism. Up there with the likes of Dan Clowes as a writer/artist with mildly surreal tendencies.

Shaky Kane. Beloved and behated of many a 2000 AD reader, I really dig his work. Like Tom Scioli on Godland, he's surely not a Kirby copier, just someone who likes that style so much that that's how he draws his comics. Sadly the ideas behind Mr Kane's comics don't always stretch that far beyond being a little bit weird. And one struggles to forgive him for his involvement with Soul Sisters. Still, being a bit weak on ideas is fair enough, and it's obviously better than I can do.

Philip Bond (yes, he is a bit like Evan Dorkin, isn't he - or is that the other way around? We'll never know). Something about Wired World is truly awesome, but the three episodes I've read weren't really all that. However, even without a satisfying story, I was launched into a conception of a certain 20something lifestyle that I always assumed I would one day be part of, but never actually was. Maybe employment conditions in Blair's 00s are just that much better than they were in Thatcher's 80s, or maybe my public school education forbids the possibility of my being in a scummy flatshare and on the dole. Who knows?

And so we come to Steve Dillon. He was no newcomer (although I expect he was still unknown in the States at this point), what with his many 2000 AD credits - some great Dredd work in particular. I get the impression that Dillon was inspired by the Halo Jones serial and wanted to work on stories a bit more like that. Whether these stories ended up in Deadline or 2000 AD seems to be a bit random. Take B-Bop and Lula form above. Was it a Tharg reject? Or just a strip Dillon knocked together in a couple of hours to fill a gap in the Deadline roster? It's in the same vein as Tyranny Rex and Hap Hazzard, after all. Fun strips all, but essentially 2000AD trendy, rather than actually trendy to the outside world. A similar problem hits that other 2000 AD stalwart, Brett Ewins. Perhaps not confident of his own writing (although quite happy to share his music taste with the world (impressively eclectic as it turns out) called in his Bad Company writing partner Pete Milligan to help. The result is Johnny Nemo: The most hardboiled of all detectives. I guess this strip wouldn't quite have looked right in 2000 AD of 1988, although it's pretty similar in tone to the Summer Offensive strips in 1993. Nemo is generally a funny strip, and if you like Ewins-depicted violence, I urge you to seek out one of the trades for a quick laugh. I'm a big fan of Ewins's chunky art style, but I still find it to be not as good (whatever that means) as other comics artists. Milligan, as always, is effortlessly hilarious panel to panel, but this time doesn't bother to do anything more. But then, that wouldn't fit the Deadline mission, now would it?

Of course many other people contributed to Deadline, but none inspired me to write about them here. Other efforts by Bond and Hewlett are fun to look at but not great to read. You'll also notice I've barely mentioned Tank Girl, Deadline's favourite daughter. I've read a couple of Tank Girl trades. I kinda like the film. But I don't love the character, and since there are clearly many who do, it's better if you read about her and her creators from them, wherever they may be...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jigsaw Comics 5

A short commercial break for you. I'll be right back with an ill-formed opinion about Deadline.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Comics grow up (every year)

Read any article anywhere about comics, and they always hark on about Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (both first published in 1986, I believe). The claim is that these two comics double-handedly reinvented superhero comics, and also showed the world that comics can be for adults, too. The same articles then go on to say how there was a mini-boom in the late 80s of adult-oriented comics, and the sudden presence of graphic novels in bookshops. This boom soon failed and died. Or at least, that's the received wisdom.

It's another piece of received wisdom that in many (most?) other countries around the world, comics are a respected art form. Certainly, France and Japan, the two most commonly cited champions of this, both have a lot of comics available in mainstream settings, and newspapers publish reviews of some of these comics. This is all very well, but I get the impression that this is a little bit of wishful thinking on the part the lonely comics fans in the English speaking world. I've spent a bit of time in both those countries (as well as Germany and Italy), and comics aren't exactly jumping out to hit you alongside books, theatre, film or music. Which suggests to me that comics aren't really respected that much. I imagine that they're still mostly regarded as something for children; those comics aimed at adults are pretty much at the level of soap operas or cheap TV comedy shows, so 'for adults', yes; 'easier to buy', yes, but 'respected medium'? I don't think so. Sure, there are some excellent highbrow literary comics that have come out of France, Japan, Italy and so on - but no more so than in the English language market. I still believe that the only universally respected branch of comics is the political newspaper cartoon, and the occasional strip cartoon, again as seen first in newspapers. Interestingly, it's this daily strip cartoon approach that seems to be doing best on the Internet, still touted to be the future of comics, what with it cutting out those pesky middlemen - publishers, printers, distributors and, of course, dark and putrid comic shops...

This is all a long-winded pre-amble to a small look into Crisis. Crisis was launched in 1988, seemingly in direct response to the 'adult, respectable' challenge laid down by Watchmen. It died a death in 1992. So for one comic at least, the received wisdom is true. Regarding the death of the so-called adult comics boom, I don't think it's to do with the poor quality of comics such as Crisis, rather it's that all too many adults find comics annoying, and I don't think that's going to change in a hurry. Of course, this os all idle speculation, since I wasn't around at the time to see adult comics come and go. I was a child and hence not interested in reading comics for adults, however cool they looked (for 'cool', read 'artistically impenetrable'). I don't think there's much of a market for adults to get into comics who haven't already enjoyed them as children, and sadly that's not as many people as you might think. And those adults who liked comics as children often end up reading the same sorts of comics, so the adult comics market is inherently smaller. Please remember that I don;t know what I'm talking about, in the sense that I've never worked in a comic shop, seen figures relating to the sales of any kind of comic in any country, or done any sociological surveying. That's just the way it seems to me from talking to all too many people who think I'm a bit weird for liking comics as an adult. And from talking to other people who do like comics, but seem to be very specific in what comics they want, be it manga, small press, superheroes, or political stuff only.

The point about Crisis is that it tried really hard to be socially and politically relevant, to be at the cutting age of comic art, and marketed itself well out of the reach of children (perhaps even physically, for all I know). And I, for one, applaud this attempt. Even if I only got to follow it 15 years or so after it had long since folded. If ever non-comics experienced people were going to be seduced by a comic, Crisis was a good way to go about it.

I used to think that Pat Mills was the architect of all this, but according to the magazine itself, Steve MacManus - greatest Tharg ever - was the real driver. Mills was merely an ally, used partly because he'd just been named 2000 AD's favourite writer (thanks to the then infallible Nemesis and Slaine serials), and partly because he's not shy of being overtly political. And of doing serious research before launching into his stories. He read 50 books when working on Third World War, we readers are proudly informed. And it shows - although not always in a good way.

Third World War is, if nothing else, an awesome piece of cultural history, and should be read more widely. Not because it inspires one to rail against multinationals as such, but because it captures the spirit of a certain age so well. Read this:

What you might gather from this is that Mills has read some books / articles, and has reproduced them in an easily digestible way. Which is all well and good - why shouldn't comics do this? That's what most University text books do, after all. And until I realised that this is what Mills was doing, I hated Third World War. I was looking for a narrative, and I never managed to find one - not least because I got bored and stopped reading it by about issue 16. However, as a showpiece for some short-term future prediction and scaremongering, it's kinda fun. Of course, there is a story of sorts in amongst all this. The first few episodes drawn by Ezquerra (somewhat out of his element, it has to be said) set up a crew of five main characters who are stuck at the frontline of the 'war', albeit in a capacity as extreme social workers rather than pure soldiers. As you'd expect from Mills, each character has various foibles, motivations and problems, each of which are both endearing and fascinating. So it's a shame that beyond hero Eve (and perhaps wicca Paul, who may or may not be Finn), we don't get to see more development in all of them.

Well, I could ramble on incoherently about Third World War forever. But I probably shouldn't until I've read the whole thing. So, New Statesmen. Of all comics, this is the one that most resembles Watchmen (with a hefty dose of added Zenith). It's 12 parts long, it's very dense, and it's about what it might be like if there really were super-powered people. Being an intellectual, writer John Smith tries very hard to be realistic about this. So, it's all set in the future, when genetic engineering has allowed for such super-people to be created. Of course, the funding for this came from the US government, so it's inevitable that these 'optimen' are used as soldiers, and then spokesmen, one for each of the 50 states (not unlike Marvel's current 50states Initiative idea, I guess...) Anyway, great idea, great plotline in there, but cutting through all the detail to find that plot is ghastly hard work.

I remember seeing this page from episode 2 advertised in 2000 AD. I thought it looked insanely cool, but I couldn't really work out what was going on. Here's what I thought it was showing:
Optimen Dalton and Meridian are standing in the rain - I think they may have just had an argument. Meridian gets a sudden headache, blacks out briefly, and then inhales some kind of drug to perk her up a bit (a la Brigand Doom). We then cut to a scene of a sniper who is suddenly terrified, and then dies when something in his brain pops, no doubt because of an Optiman.
What it actually shows, I am now confident, is that Meridian is shot by the sniper in that opening panel. Being superhuman, she manages to mentally extract the bullet, and it's this she is looking at. Then, in anger, she uses her mind powers to find the sniper, and pulls his brain out of shape, causing him to die.

I don't care if you think I'm an idiot for not getting this the first time. John Smith is a notoriously elusive writer, who doesn't like to fill in the gaps (actually, he's got much better lately). I think part of this is simply his own struggle to get so many ideas out, but some of it is surely deliberate as well. It allows him, in New Statesmen, to set up a plausible future timeline, in which technology, geography, politics and cultural values have all changed. This, again, is to be applauded. Even the overall plot of New Statesmen (again, a little Watchmen like to my mind) is a fantastic one - it just requires a bit of wading to rescue it.

After all that waffle, I'm not up to dissecting the rest of Crisis (I've only read up to issue 36, don't have the rest). But, the Garth Ennis outings are good, especially True Faith. The rest seemed to be pretty annoying and mostly art-led. More o this problem when we turn out eyes, briefly, to Deadline...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Wagner's long walk

Man, there could be so many things to say with a title like that, couldn't there. Luckily, I don't have to report that John Wagner is retiring, or ending his tenure on Dredd, or anything like that. Instead, it's back to Tornado, and my favourite series in it, Wagner's Walk. It's credited to one R E Wright (along with Lozano and Mike White on art), who it turns out is actually Pat Mills - I was so hoping it was Wagner himself. I read somewhere that it's a pseudo-sequel to an old Battle series about German tankers fighting Russians in WW2. Makes sense, as Pat 'king (not Lord) of war' Mills loves to show how the fighting causes pain on all sides of a conflict.

Anyway, the Walk is a post-conflict tale of PoWs, who start out in a Siberian camp with little hope of returning to their families. How to escape under the radar? Why, on foot, of course! Classic Mills character bonding, absurd escapes from obvious death, and an enduring sense of hope mixed with hopelessness. Here's how it's played out so far in Tornado issues 2, 10, and 11.

I've not read any episodes beyond this point - I sure hope they escape the fallout...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The spin-offs roll on: Tornado

After I finished reading all 22 issues of Starlord (a month well-spent, by the way), I had a go at Tornado. I don't know why, but it seems to be harder to get hold of these, and I only managed to get hold of number 2 and number 11. Based on them, I was ready to launch into an all-out lambasting of the comic as being unutterably feeble. But since then I've found issues 1, which was really rather good, and 10, which was pretty weak.

I have not been moved to seek out a complete collection with any alacrity, but I suspect it wouldn't be such a chore to read the lot one day.

Tharg himself gives an introduction to the comic, explaining that 2000 AD readers aren't only interested in Sci-Fi. Hence Tornado is an action comic that has stories in all settings - present day, future and past. Another introduction over on Wikipedia informed me that Tharg was telling a bit of a fib. Tornado wasn't intended to branch out of 2000 AD, rather, it was a home for a bunch of stories left over from other comics that had folded. Hence, it features war stories and historical tales alongside sci-fi, detectives, and Stig of the Dump. This doesn't imply that the strips within will be much good, but they're not universally rubbish either. Redeeming features abound, and I'm a big fan of those (admittedly in films more than comics, but that's for a separate blog entirely, methinks).

Poking fun again, here's a look at the cover to Issue 1. Yes, it is hard to show Wolfie Smith using his mind power without looking like he's trying to evacuate his entire colon, but they could maybe have found a better pic for the cover, yes?

Oh well, I'm sure the free gift was enticing in its own way. Not helped, however, by resident photo-hero Big E giving safety advice to go with the Turbo Flyer. I don't recall Tharg going to such great lengths with his Space Spinner...
Perhaps not a direct rival, but 2000 AD at this time had just gone past Prog 100, and was celebrating in style: Judge Dredd fighting back against mad Cal, Robo-Hunter in the middle of the sublime Verdus storyline, Ro-Busters and Strontium Dog building on the solid Starlord foundation. Even Dan Dare was acquitting himself, what with the the return of Treens and the Mekon.

But, as I said, Tornado gets off to a flying start. Victor Drago is already a well-formed character who launches straight into an adventure without the need for much introduction. (Apparently he's a comics incarnation of pulp detective Sexton Blake. That's kind of interesting). Shame he ends up in illustrated text stories by issue 7. Cardinal sin, that. I've barely forgiven Devlin Waugh for the same offense.

Next, Wolfie Smith reveals his childhood to us and sets up what really could have been an enduring character. Come on, it could have been. The boy is an outsider with a whole range of mind powers (not as strong as the twins from Mind Wars, though) that keep getting him into trouble. He's got a cool haircut. He's a little bit evil - perhaps if he'd been more evil the series would have lasted longer? I can just imagine Warren Ellis taking him on now, and making him totally amoral. Anyway, he was a good choice to move into 2000 AD when the time came (I assume he was popular, too). The opening episode sees him getting run out of school and home by unsympathetic parents and manipulative teachers. But by the next week he's caught up in some rich man's affairs and I didn't really care. I guess it's kind of like the Incredible Hulk TV show. You can have some fun episodes, but there's not enough of an overall hook to make you care.

Sorry, Wolfie, I've got a feeling that many a squaxx feels the same way as Benson. But, despite two over-long and mostly bland adventures in 2000 AD, The Adventures of Wolfie Smith is part of the legacy, and not to be ignored. Especially with some Redondo art to keep it spooky.

And with that, The Angry Planet.

The mighty Hebden/Belardinelli combination that would later give us Meltdown Man. This series (again based on 3 episodes only) is the exact opposite of Wolfie Smith, what with a great hook to make you care about the whole thing (put-upon Martian farmers vs Mars, Incorporated), but some pretty silly episodes along the way. Belardinelli draws a mean environment, but some of the ideas are just too stupid for words. Dogroids. Honestly, what was Hebden thinking? Still, I'd love to read this all in one go. Not holding my breath for a reprint, though.

'The Tale of Benkei' is a retelling of an old japanese legend by Steve Moore. Which, despite being written in 1979, feels exactly like a 'Tale of Telguuth'. Benkei turns out to be a master swordsman, but a nasty sort with it. He soon gets his comeuppance, and then finds himself bound to a more noble man who gets him involved in political machinations. It's quite good. Shame it only lasts 3 episodes.

As if to prove that Tornado is a properly eclectic anomaly, Captain Klep expodes into full-colour life on the back page. Being a single-pager, it feels like a Beano strip. Kev O'Neill plays this up with his use of labels in a Leo Baxendale style. The 'story' if there is one, is a bizarre satire of US superheroes. In the early O'Neill strips this is rather vicious, like a proto Marshall Law. Check out his thinly disguised Marvel and DC icons, shown in rags with paunches. Nasty.

These come from epsiode 2, which is the only good episode of Klep I've read. And the jokes in it are pretty obvious, so it's only the fun of seeing a brit-slob version of Captain Amercia, the Flash, Thor and others that makes it worth owning.
Despite these treats, Captain Klep is the unfunniest strip ever to grace 2000 AD (to which it graduated once 2000 AD and Tornado merged), and probably most other IPC mags, too. O'Neill was well rid of it by that time (no doubt working on the similar and vastly superior Dash Decent), and instead we were left with jokes about Superman that hadn't been used up in the first two episodes already. I'm not sure how Klep made it into 2000 AD, but I suppose the fact that it only took up a single page helped. No harm in experimenting, I suppose. I give it a special 'Wolfie Smith' the Pain award, 'cos it's so bad, it made him try to drown himself...

Later issues of Tornado introduced three other characters:
Johnny Lawless, a leather-jacket wearing gruff playboy/biker/thief/spy/knockoff. I don't rate the one episode I've had the misfortune to read.
Storm - the Stig of the Dump clone, who was at least drawn well by an early Cam (credited as S. Kennedy) Kennedy. He's a wild boy brought into the modern world to be a star athlete and to eat proper food for a change...

And of course, Blackhawk, the Nubian warrior turned Roman Slave turned Gladiator turned soldier turned Centurion turned 2000 AD character and therefore thrust directly into space to be a gladiator (with aliens) again. Blackhawk is pretty cool, and he got to be drawn by Azpiri early on, which is always a good thing. Check out this smoky apparition that startles our hero.

I'd like to read more early Blackhawk (I suspect the Tornado efforts are superior to the 2000 AD as-yet-unfinished sequel), but I can wait.

Tornado fans (are there any?) will have noticed I've left off one long-running strip. That's because it's my favourite, and it all starts in a Siberian prisoner of war camp:

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Who ya gonna call? Ro-Busters

Scenes like this regularly greet the reader in an opening episode of Ro-Busters. Clearly published at a time when the idea of a plane sticking through a thinly-disguised London towerblock was less distressing, it's all about major disasters and how to help the people caught up in them. Following the adventures of a disaster clean-up and rescue squad is a surefire recipe for fun boys adventure comics - and Ro-Busters tended to deliver on this score. (Although, strangely, Holocaust 12 in the Megazine about 20 years later did not - or at least not as effectively)

Strontium Dog may be the ultimate Starlord success story, but I will argue that Ro-Busters is theoretically a more impressive comic strip. Yay Pat Mills and Kev O'Neill.

Firstly, we have that premise of a disaster rescue squad. With Mills onboard, of course, there's also an added political text, namely the idea of robots as slaves, whose labour is exploited by humes for little or no reward. Strontium Dog similarly has a fun set-up - bounty hunters who chase their foes across space (and, later, time) - and has it's political bugbear with the whole maltreated mutants thing. In the hands of Wagner and Ezquerra, SD tales were individually much more exciting than your average Ro-Busters outing. However, Ro-Busters works better for me because it paid more attention to the world it was set in. We get to see the corporate world, we get to explore a robot's place in more detail than the mutants (in StarLord, at least; SD wold go much further in years to come). Also, Ro-Busters tries to be all things to all people, what with the childish art of Mike White, the awful pun names and constant bickering of the two heroes. The story is a genuine mix of serieous drama, high action, hyper-violence and juvenile simplicity. I'm starting to recognise that Strontium Dog is all those things, too. There is a difference, but perhaps it's only that you can't imagine Johnny Alpha or Wulf finding themselves in the editorial pages hosting their own anthology series...

Perhaps it's just that I'm a fan of robots in stories; especially robots with personalities. Ro-Busters could be entertaining if they were mindless machines, but clearly what Mills is interested in is character. Why all these robots have personalities is an important question within the strip itself, of course. A question that is perhaps answered by this creepy panel:

It's an essential part of Ro-Busters (and in fact every 2000 AD use of robots, really) that all humans hate and distrust robots, although it's never really explained why. I guess it's with this in mind that robot manufacturers try to make their creations as human as possible. Evidently future technology is destined to overcome the uncanny valley (hit wikipedia, all you robo-novices), allowing humans to take comfort in robots with human features as in this panel. But presumably this only works if said robots have accompanying genuine-people personalities. Douglas Adams may have started this trend (probably not), but Mills runs with it in Ro-Busters. The sexy lady robot is not a new idea, of course. Where Mills goes further, to disturbing effect, is in suggesting that robots are programmed to be turned on by such female robots as well. Moreover, they are also aroused by the humans such sultrybots are based on...

As I've said, Ro-Busters sticks out of its Starlord crowd because it's very much a junior comic strip. It tries to be funny all the time, using cheap slapstick and one-note characters with abandon. Sure, Strontium Dog was often funny, too, but in that trademark Wagnerian sardonic way. Mills is more adept at Beano humour, frankly. But this works in his favour as that kind of humour is all about characters who dependably behave in one way all the time. In Ro-Jaws, Hammer-Stein and Mek-Quake, three of Britain's most enduring creations, Pat Mills and Kev O'Neill (or possibly Mike White in the case of Mek-Quake?) deliver brilliantly.

By virtue of using robots, Mills can make a societal comment with his characters even as they are ostensibly used to be funny (which is lucky, because they often aren't funny in these early StarLord outings). All three robots are clearly the products of their programming, but also have their own matching personality to go with it. Ro-Jaws is a sewer cleaner / waste processor by trade, and therefore must be given to bad language and overt lower-class traits (whatever that means to the middle-class readers of 2000 AD...). Hammer-Stein (in this incarnation, at least) is a soldier, evidently of junior officer rank, and is pompous and patriotic to go with it, as well as curiously moral. Mek-Quake is a bulldozer / grinder bot of some kind, who is programmed to be stupid so as not to object to his cannibal-like job. But being a Mills/O'Neill creation, he has developed a personality to enjoy, nay to love his job. I always get a kick when he's seen reading violence mags or watching extreme gore films. The whole thing is not too far removed from Dad's Army, frankly.

The Starlord Strontium Dogs are fun, but inessential. But there's at least one reason to seek out the StarLord Ro-Busters strips. We get to explore the other great character, Howard Quartz, Mr 10 Percent (10% human, that is) himself. A brain in a jar is a favourite image of mine, one that 2000 AD had previously used in Harlem Heroes / Inferno. Quartz is heaps more fun, though, as he's evil, but also very occasionally made to be read sympathetically because of his plight. The Ro-Busters outings in 2000 AD are far better than the StarLord efforts (especially the Dave Gibbons tear-jerker double whammy of 'Death on the Orient Express' and 'The Terra-Meks'). But in StarLord we get to see a lot more of the corporate shenanigans that were surely part of Mills' original idea, before the characters ran away with their own success. Conflicted Mr Quartz gets to be shrewd, self-obsessed, and just a little bit on the side of his robots, much to the chagrin of rival businessmen who evidently only trust humans or sycophantic butler droids. It's just a shame that all too often the story in virtually unreadable owing to its childishness.

As always, there is a saving grace to most episodes, in the form of Ro-Jaws and Hammer-Stein. I find this version of Hammer-Stein to be mostly very annoying, but he does occasionally get his hammer out to dish out some pain. Ro-Jaws, however, came out fully formed. The pointed 'ooh, isn;t he foul' comments do grate a bit, but largely he spouts appropriate quips and the odd bit of working class encouragement to his fellow downtrodden brothers. Also, he gets to kick his fair share of arse, oh yes. Let us also not forget Kevin O'Neill's original designs for his robots. Mike White and John Cooper, both perfectly serviceable artists, drew the bulk of the actual strips, but O'Neill delivered some stunningly detailed covers. Ro-Jaws in particular is awesome to behold; Hammer-Stein would have to wait until he got his new (old?) head in the ABC Warriors strip.

I feel that this post has become something of an incoherent mess, but perhaps with some good bits in it, much like the Starlord episodes of Ro-Busters. Maybe I should get back to the main mission at hand, which is to re-present some great moments from the comic. Here's Ro-Jaws proving why he ever deserved to be an ABC Warrior...

You know what? That last panel can serve as a 2000 AD 'the pain' award for the Ro-Busters story where they go to a hotel in space and have to cross-dress and sing a show tune in order to expose and defeat a gang of evil humans who are disguised as robots (yes, really. Really)*

Now, if you're at all a fan of 2000 AD, you could do worse than picking up a full run of Star Lord. It's not that hard to find on ebay. Clearly not as good as current standards, but every bit on a par with the equivalent 2000 ADs from 1978. Tornado, on the other, hand, well that's another story entirely. Let's wrap up the love for Starlord with a little pinch of Mind Wars, which certainly merits an Extreme Edition revisit.

* Shockingly enough, several of these themes would be revisited by Mr Mills years later in the ABC Warriors 'Khronilces of Khaos' story - only that time it was good.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Everything except Ro-Busters

Starlord wasn't long enough to have many strips in it. So, it shouldn't take to long to break it all down, right? Without further ado,

One of my favourite logos ever. I've been impressed by nearly every logo in the 2000 AD staple, but this one stands out if for no other reason than it's a great title. This is exactly the sort of story I wanted to read as an 8 year-old, so it's a shame I read it as a 26-year old, and noticed that it was quite bad. Still, all the ingredients are there - a plane full of people goes through a dimension warp (could it have been the actual goddamn Bermuda Triangle?) and end up in a hellworld. Plenty of nasties await the crew, including crazed humans from previous accidents in history. I think that's where the plotting starts to go a bit haywire. Turns out the strip was written by P. Mills, which explains the fun ideas and weak plotting. Still, lots of people die in inventive ways, and folks who think they're better than everyone soon get their comeuppance, which is classic Mills and always good.

The art team rotated a bit too often, meaning that main man Azpiri was not always to be seen. Shame, since he's awesome. No-one draws the eyes of a loon quite like he can...

Mind Wars! Hurrah - a full-length epic with a coherent plot, plenty of twists and drama, and the mighty Redondo at the helm. Hebden was a great 2000 AD writer, but whose stories somehow never quite became recurring classics. Maybe he just liked the self-contained stuff more than creating enduring characters. Anyway, I liked Mind Wars. But, it was damned silly. The whole story revolves around this: The evil Jugla warlord imbues two humans with virtually limitless power, with the intention of then finding them and harnessing them to help fight against humans in a galactic war. A) Why not imbue Jugla with the power? B) why not catch the humans first, and C) what the hell??? Still, it was fun. Especially because the twin heroes were well scary.

Hebden also came up trumps (but still not a full-on classic) with Holocaust. I've talked about this a couple of months ago, but to recap, it's great 'cos it's non-stop action. A bit like 'Project Overkill', although that's more conspiracy and less aliens, and also had better artists.

Another strip I've already given time to is of course Strontium Dog. By far the best thing in the comic, it sets up the characters and concepts for many more adventures to come. The Starlord stories were almost all not as good as what would come in 2000 AD, but there still fun. Of course, squaxx all over the world can read them in the soon-to-be-published Agency Files.

The mighty Ezquerra was on good form, but he was still finding his feet somewhat. Here's an odd picture of Wulf looking like he still recovering from Shingles...

Perhaps because it was so much better than the other strips, SD wasn't in every issue. Instead, we got to enjoy the odd Wagner-scripted Future Shock type tale. He's no master of the style, but he's dependable (like Abnett and Tomlinson on Vector 13), and he's great at presenting us a total dick to enjoy watching get stuffed.

Moving on, Timequake. My least favourite. Sure, some episodes were fun, but the whole thing was a bit of a mess. Nevertheless, it has all the ingredients of a classic 2000 AD serial, that deserved its tiny foray into the big boy mag, even if it died a natural death at that point. The story? A violent loner gets press-ganged into working for a timetravel police force. He also gets to flirt with a colleague, and have issues with his new boss. Simple but effective stuff, really. Blocker's tirades and the accompanying violence were fun. The Nazis were fun, as they nearly always are in comics, but the Aztecs with their aliens were annoying. Even if they did provide this choice panel:

I've not given much thought or time to the StarLord extra features, such as the long-running cut-out and keep boardgame, which looks nice but might be unplayable. StarLord himself, a benevolent warrior designed by Ian Gibson, who is frankly far too straight-laced and military-minded for my tastes. The best feature for me is the 'next week' captions, which invariably take a line of dialogue from the forthcoming episode, and as a result supply some great out-of-context chuckles.