Monday, February 26, 2007

Jigsaw Comics 6: The effects of violence

Well, it's 30th Anniversary fever up and down the land this week. Even the BBC is in on it. Of course, for the best fun you need to get yourself a copy of Prog 1526. All your favourite anniversary features, including new star scans of some of the great thrills of the past, a Tharg retrospective, and a paean to 2000 AD as the home of new talent. Oh, and one of my letters, too. Hoo-hah.

So, there is clearly a strong following of folk who've been steeped in 2000 AD forever. And what does this feel like? My words can't do justice to it, but maybe my scissors and glue can. Maybe, just maybe, it feels a bit like THIS:

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The raw heart of thrill power

I don't have much of a point to make today. Just a desire to share a handful of scans portraying some examples of that oh-so-potent 'future shock' factor. I guess the long-term success of 2000 AD is down to the creation of a number of fantastic characters and situations that sustain reader interest. But I think even that would not be enough without the importance of making sure that each Prog has something to capture the imagination of a new reader. "Every issue is someone's first" has been the mantra of comics editors since periodicals began, and for 2000 AD, that means at least one proper injection of future shock every week, or you'll lose someone. Luckily, the stable of writers and artists is strong enough to ensure way more than one per strip, and that's the beauty of it all.

Let us not forget, even an age-old twist can be rendered powerful with the right atmosphere and attitude. Future Shock can affect a protagonist, and inocent bystander, and of course the family and friends. Who says Sci-Fi is all plot and no emotion? (ok, ok, I'm laying it on a bit thick)

Sometimes you don't need the science concept - you just want the jarring experience of seeing a serial murderer interrupted:
Why settle for the simple human drama, when you can see a whole town full of crazies?
Redondo has a real flair for drawing the beast out of the man, doesn't he?

Dredd has his share of weird crimes to deal with week in, week out. Not always the best episodes, admittedly, but it's a simple way to get across the Dredd concept. He's a cop in the future. Weird stuff happens. Dredd finds out that it's because of criminal activity. We get excited about what the future may bring. Dredd arrests the criminals and makes a joke relating to the weirdness. Or, as a twist, Dredd is protecting the weirdo who is under threat from the public. Hardly soul-searching stuff, but it's kinda what you want from a Sci-Fi cop drama. Also great fun if the writer/artist can make the most of the weirdness.

Future Shock - where does it come from?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mr Kempo saves the day

So there's this one episode of Moonrunners that doesn't suck. It's mostly silent, and is a showcase for Belardinelli's storytelling. Flynn has despatched his mate Kempo to sniff out a traitor who is aboard the ship. Cue lots of shadows, lurking eyes and the odd glinting knife. It's like the best bits from Meltdown Man, but on a spaceship.
Don't worry, things get a bit rubbish again. It doesn't help that Parkhouse/McKenzie were attempting to emulate Frank Miller's successful use of captions to set the mood of the strip. Sure, that's a reasonable device, but it sits ill alongside some of the broader comedy in the series.

Now, the famous Belardinelli bugbear is his struggle with human beings. Personally, I don't have a big problem with his design of human characters. For one thing, he can draw a person so that they look the same from panel to panel, which is a lot better than certain other artists. Also, his men and women are both equally pretty, which is to be applauded. He's not shy of showing off a manly or womanly physique, although he doesn't exactly break the mould for depicting anything other than athleticism in his main characters.

No, my big problem is his use of motion lines. Yes, they convey movement and add some dynamism to his art work. But somehow every time he puts them on the page, it makes his figures look like puppets. And even if I follow each motion line through to imagine how the figure is moving, and it turns out to be an accurate representation of how a body would move, it looks a bit rubbish.

Anyway, time to wrap up this small run-through. It's pretty clear to me that the readers all disdained the series before it had finished, and so its creators decided to cut it short. As mentioned, the over-arching plot wasn't up to much in the first place. Sure, there were some fun ideas about this future society, with its space-faring rituals, new fashions and 'psychic helmsmen', but that's not enough to sustain a coherent narrative. So, it's exposition to overdrive for a quick four-panel round-up of exactly what went on with all those boardroom shenanigans.

Bye bye, Moonrunners. See you later for a pointless reprise in about 30 progs' time. Maybe one day some ingenius scripter can fix you and bring you exploding out for a new generation of squaxx, eh? I'd certainly like to believe there's no 2000 AD series so bad that it couldn't have been made good in other hands. Even Mother Earth.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Moonrunners wasn't very good, was it?

Over on Bish-Op's entertaining and informative blog, he's been sharing extracts of conversations with various 2000 AD editors. I've learned a couple of things from the three segments so far devoted to Steve MacManus (who, after all, probably was the best Tharg).
1) Ace Trucking Co was commissioned and designed to give Massimo Belardinelli something to draw
2) No one has much that's very nice to say about Alan McKenzie

Of course I don't know much about McKenzie, but I do have a soft spot for his various creations. I genuinely believe that he had a Mills-like eye for seeing a gap in 2000 AD's list of stories. A gap which he filled admirably, albeit unsuccessfully. Of course McKenzie is no Mills when it comes to writing, and I guess that didn't help. Sure, he can knock out a coherent plot, but his characters were just not quite as memorable, his situations not quite so suffused with that elusive future shock factor. Nonetheless, let us not forget:
Universal Soldier, Brigand Doom, Luke Kirby (apparently created for Eagle but used by 2000 AD in the end, clever), Bradley, RAM Raiders, Soul Gun Warrior, and, of course MoonRunners.

I'll talk more about McKenzie when I've got the scans to back up the beauty of some of his work. For now, MoonRunners. Now, this series was probably more the result of poor old Steve Parkhouse, another 2000 AD creator who just hasn't had much luck. (Or hasn't been very good, depending on your point of view. Actually I recently re-read Tiger Sun Dragon Moon. It was a lot better than I remembered)

Now, you can see that MoonRunners was one of those series that came from seeing a gap in the schedule. 2000 AD is a sci-fi comic. So it ought to have room for space and spaceships. It's also kinda trendy, so it should have more strong female characters - after all, by this point (Prog 580ish) it was clear that Halo Jones wasn't coming back. Also, 2000 AD has never really had a soap opera in it. Wouldn't it be good to try one out? Steal the basic template of Dallas/Dynasty, put it in space, and you're away!

Only they forgot the MacManus golden rule - Belardinelli doesn't draw humans very well. Gosh no. Sure, he's an awesome artist and the readers have loved every strip he'd worked on before (except maybe the really early Dan Dare), but that's no guarantee of success. I reckon if it had been drawn by one of the Dealine artists - Dillon, maybe, or certainly Jamie Hewlett could have made magic with the scenario (I guess he's used to writing that doesn't add up to much anyway...) Still, MoonRunners was launched as a major new series, complete with character profiles on the back covers, and the feeling that the crew could return for endless adventures if the readers demanded it. Which of course they would, wouldn't they?

Not if it's rubbish, they wouldn't. MoonRunners has too much set up, not enough delivery, and frankly, a bit of a silly plot to sustain an opening 15 episode run. Also, it's not as funny as it tries to be - even Belardinelli's slapstick asides are annoying rather than endearing this time around - and it doesn't provide much action. Here's a brief round-up of what it was all about: Cara Nash owns a fleet of haulage ships. She is in competition with the evil Ogilvy-Nash company. She is on the verge of having to sell her fleet to them, so she hatches a plan to make them look foolish and earn lots of money in the bargain. Only it's not that great a plan, and it doesn't really make sense by the end of the story. A bit like a Pat Mills fight scene.

Flynn is the captain of the ship. Sure, the series makes a point of having the women be in charge. But really the more interesting characters are on the ships themselves, and are all male. (not quite fair, as Cara and Carroll could make for decent central characters, but they don't really have much do do except prance around and plot from behind desks. And that's not the 2000 AD way.) There's some respite from the dreck in that the ship's crew and cargo get to be aliens, so Belardinelli can do a good job here. Shame that most of them are written to be unlikeable buffoons. And Flynn himself is far too wet to be a true 2000 AD anti-hero. I guess his look is ok, and he gets to have a fight with a psychic manifestation later on in which he sustains a minor injury to his left arm. But, he's scared of girls and can't get much done without his trusty mate Kempo, and he can't even fly his own ship, which makes me wonder why the humans in this strip are in charge of anything. More imagination, please!

At least he gets a dressing-down soon -

Believe it or not, this is the good stuff. (No, not my feeble pun, although that is on a par with the humour in Moonrunners). Cara's daughter Carroll gets all the good lines. It is refreshing to see 2000 AD do this sort of thing... isn't it..?

But if it's pure soap and not cheap sitcom you want, look no further than this little clinch: Again, this is a little gem sparkling in the mire of the series. Genuine emotion and a smadge of romance, not seen in the comic outside of, well, anything? (I guess maybe Durham Red has had her moments in Bitch and much later in The Vermin Stars; Dante obviously). Belardinelli does himself proud, for once using his stiff figures to good, repressed-emotion portraying effect, rather than being a bit cringeworthy.

Of course, this tension doesn't translate to the rest of the strip, where even the main players start to get bored...

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tharg the mighty

So who is this Tharg person anyway? I guess there has long been a fashion for fictional hosts of an anthology comic, going back to EC and their Crypt keeper, not to mention circus ringmasters such as PT Barnum. But it still surprises me how long Tharg has endured, especially since his only real characteristic is extreme arrogance. Nonetheless, he has added something to 2000 AD - perhaps along the lines that the comic feels like it's meant for the fans, that Tharg is on our side, and he listens to our requests for new and old strips alike. His opening missives in the Nerve Centre are all too often a little dull and repetitive, but occasionally it just works:
(I do apologise for the poor scanning quality here. If you click on the picture and zoom in, you should be able to read the text. Maybe)

Ah, it's been fun watching Tharg evolve over the years. And I always liked the way he had those three-handled scissors mirroring the misprint common to many a magazine cut-out coupon...
Plenty of artists have had a go at him, but presumably those who got to deliver his Nerve Centre visage were being rewarded for something.

So we've seen Tharg go from a photo to Ezquerra to Bradbury to Ewins to Hughes to Steve Cook (in the post Men in Black era?) to Boo Cook today. and probably a bunch of others I've missed. Obviously many other artists have drawn the mighty one (Gibson and Smith did a fair few strips as I recall), but not many have been called upon to depict the man up front. I guess the obvious impetus for these changes relates to the human behind the alien. The 2000 AD website helpfully lists all these incarnations, and I believe they deserve more celebrating.

As always, I need to stress that I've never met any of these fine men (and apparently only one woman, shame). I only know the comics they've produced, and the occasional comment on the internet (I saw Matt Smith and Alan Barnes on a panel at a DreddCon once). Oh, And Bish-Ops excellent and open reportage columns in the Megazine, of course. It's clear form those pieces that it's impossible to really know how much each Tharg has controlled the decisions about what to print in 2000 AD. But with that in mind, let's see who's best, eh?

Well, obviously Pat Mills, for starting the whole thing. And Kelvin Gosnell for keeping the quality high enough that the comic built up a long history. Without him 2000 AD might be just another name in a list of forgotten comics form the 70s. But the comic didn't really get amazing until Steve McManus took up tenure, and I'd say his was the most consistently thrill-powered run. So maybe he was best? Richard Burton was in charge of something of a decline, but he reached some trendy heights, and perhaps it was he who opened up the comic to a maturing audience?. McKenzie and Tomlinson didn't have long, and although their time (the 900s) isn't exactly fondly remembered, it had a charm that I enjoyed as a teen. I have a soft spot for McKenzie as being the new Pat Mills (although not quite as good, and now sadly lost to comics anyway). And then David Bishop came along, for what seemed like a very long time, managing the Megazine as well. Tireless. Surely he's the man who rescued the comic from a certain inevitable oblivion, despite the publication of certain really rather poor strips. Then Andy Diggle injected a new sense of anarchy and urgency, followed by the steady hand of Matt Smith, who has somehow managed to usher in a new age of thrill after thrill to rival the MacManus years for fun, and overtake it in sophistication. Or maybe that's just because the readership has aged a bit.

Alright, alright, I didn't exactly come out and say who is best, but then I'm not an idiot, am I? Some of those people might get wind of this blog, and I don't want to upset anybody. I will say that anyone remotely interested in the lives of Tharg should reserve a copy of the upcoming Thrill Power Overload book by the mighty Bishop. And if you can't wait until next month for that, head on over to his blog, where the man is celebrating 2000AD all this month with various extracts and opinions on his experiences and the experiences of those before him. (It begins here). The man is a dedicated journalist, and comes across as being largely in awe of the creative talent he was privileged to work with. And is modest enough to know that his own comics efforts were not 2000 AD's finest. I guess this fact is easier to swallow given that his 2000 AD novels are amongst the best.

David Bishop, of all Thargs, we salute you.

Friday, February 09, 2007

No respect for the law

So Judge Dredd has featured in a lot of issues of 2000 AD, written by more different writers and depicted by more artists than any other character in the comic - nearly as many as some of the world's most famous comic creations?

And in that time, there have been some more or less respectful interpretations of said Judge. Often, as presented by the man's very makers...

One of things us Brits like to brag about Dredd is that he's a wirey, sinewy hero - not a man with absurd bulging muscles like some of his US counterparts. Part of the idea of him being born of the 70s, when folk like Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds ruled the screens, not your Stallones and Schwarzeneggers. Of course there was a certain digression from this mission in the 90s what with Simon Bisley, Greg Staples and the like. But then Mike McMahon came back, one of those who defined Dredd's look (albeit by copying Ezquerra as well as he could). And he fleshed Dredd out in a rather different way, shall we say. (And yes, that is Judge Anderson in front of Dredd. My gosh)

Here's Wagner, Grant and Fabry making Dredd all cuddly (except in the head)

And here's Wagner again, this time using Jock to show how jumpy Dredd can be. At least he always hits what he's aiming at.

I don't really have a point with all this, just thought I'd throw up some funny scans of Dredd since I have a few. I'm sure there are many better examples of this kind of thing that I'll come across in due course.

And finally, since I can never just mock that hand that feeds me so much enjoyment and inspiration, here's a bit of Dredd getting a stern talking to in an incredibly sinister way. H'mmm. Looks like Wagner was already experimenting with the Dredd Paunch way back in 1981. Anyway, looks like it was all Wagner today, who'd have thought (yup, including the smoking bit from up top. Dream sequence, innit). It wasn't planned like that, but I suppose he has written the vast bulk of Dredd, so what did I expect? Someone else to be a bit cavalier with the man? Of course, Wagner is a genius, so he would know how to mock Dredd whilst building him up in our mind at the same time. And since about 1990 when he started being able to use his real name, everyone has known and celebrated this - except possibly the man himself, who seems to be the archetype of the humble creator who just gets on with it and doesn't complain. (Haven't met him, but he's surely a likeable man). I really ought to devote a bit more space here to him one day.

You know, while I'm on the subject, I'm reminded of a piece I read recently about how Mills and Wagner had very different ideas about how to develop Dredd. I wish I could remember where, or link to it somehow. Sorry*. Anyway, the idea is that Mills used the 'Return of Rico' and 'Cursed Earth' stories to really set Dredd up as a hero, whilst Wagner (with help from Grant) spent most of the next 100 Progs pointing out how fascist Dredd can be. Mills maintains that Dredd would be an even bigger deal now if they'd kept him less ambiguously heroic, but I think he's ignoring the skill Wagner shows in knowing when and how to let Dredd be heroic but also a bully. I guess this comes across best in the old Daily Star Dredd shorts, which occasionally got reprinted. The template for these was: introduce some weird future fad for MegaCity 1. Show citizens getting in trouble as a result. Dredd comes and sorts it out, often by foiling a criminal or saving a citizen. Dredd then arrests everybody 'cos they've all broken the law. A wry smile from the reader ensues. Dredd the hero works because he's so single-minded in his mission. But you can't be single-minded without getting on the wrong side of conventional morality every now and then. Also, more laughter. Mills surely has the power to make us laugh, but he's not as subtle as Wagner in this regard (except for the cross-dressing stuff, which both are prone to...)

* Found that link. From the mighty 2000AD review forums.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A warning unheeded?

In case you'd forgotten how right-on Revolver and its ilk could be...

Friday, February 02, 2007

There's no comic quite like Toxic!

And so it's time to end this minor charade. I've spent the last few weeks reading not 2000 AD, but its various sister titles. I've enjoyed it, but I would say that for the casual browser of comics and of 2000 AD in particular, they're really not worth seeking out. But for anyone with an academic bent, and an interest in studying comics as a medium, they are vital reading. Tornado aside, all the other comics formed part of an ongoing exercise to shake up the comics format a bit, maybe see if the audience appeal can be widened. Even Star Lord had its fancy paper and extra colour pages years before 2000 AD tried it. Crisis reached for relevance, Deadline for cool, and Revolver for intellect. I guess if I was being thorough, I ought to have investigated Warrior (Dez Skinn's comic from the early 80s), a comic so important (perhaps) that without it there would have been no Watchmen. I guess that makes it the Revolver without which Pet Sounds would never have been recorded, in turn without which Sergeant Pepper might never have been recorded. If pop music analogies are your thing. And of course remembering that in this analogy, Sgt Pepper is meant to be all those adult comics of the late 80s, i.e. the rubbish ones that didn't go anywhere, so it's a pretty bad analogy...

I could also have had a look at A1 and Blast! magazines, which as far as I can tell were sub-Deadline in terms of cool, featuring more reprint, but which also helped launch a few careers - most notably Warren Ellis with his first and best unkillable (or is that unlikable?) bastard, Lazarus Churchyard.

And there has ever been a small press scene in Britain, which in the 70s and 80s was where giants such as Milligan and McCarthy came to prominence. This scene seems to be thriving just now (and probably always was, it's just that I know a bit more about it these days, partly thanks to the Megazine's 'small press' reprint section). Al Ewing is surely destined for bigger things, and no doubt others along with him. Reckon I'll give a short account of Zarjaz, Dogbreath and FutureQuake at some point, indebted as they all are to 2000 AD itself.

But forget all that for now. 2000 AD rivals reached their apex, for me, in 1991. Its that man again, Pat goddamn Mills, and his short-lived weekly comic spasm, Toxic!

Toxic! is just plain awesome. From that editorial page above, I think it's pretty clear that the comic is aimed at Beano-age readers who are bored with the formula in that comic, and who find 2000 AD to be a little po-faced and high minded generally. Which it can be, at least in its sense of its own continuing importance. But more than that, Toxic! is for people who are too young to rent 18 rated videos but who yearn for nothing else, because surely the forbidden fruit within is the sweetest fruit of all. This is the comic that was proud to feature strips called 'Sex Warrior' and 'Psycho Killer' (which to some extent live up to their names, but only in a 15-rated kind of way). Of course the comic was slapped with a 'mature readers' label after issue 6, but I'd like to think it still reached its intended audience until it died, no doubt from poor sales, with issue 31.

Mills and O'Neill's Marshal Law had existed elsewhere and was successful enough to carry Toxic! for its first few issues, along with Wagner/Grant/Smith's The Bogie Man. Marshal Law can be funny, is always a joy to look at, but it doesn't grab me. It doesn't help that it is to some extent an extension of Captain Klep, of all things. And that one story 'The Law according to Judge Dredd' from Prog 474 or so. Anyway, there are distorted versions of recognisable super heroes getting killed, turned into zombies, and then getting killed again. Which in retrospect is remarkably forward-thinking, what with 'Marvel Zombies' being a runaway success story last year. PLus, some classic throwaway violence of the kind only Kev O'Neill can make child-friendly:

Since it came up, let's get 'The Bogie Man' out of the way. It's daft fun, but not a classic, really. My father told me that it's a lot funnier if you're Scottish (which he isn't, but I'll take his word for it). Cam Kennedy is the first artist to have a go in the Toxic! series, so that's a bonus. But it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the comic. Firstly, the story has a coherent plot. Also, it's not exactly loaded with violence, although it does score some Toxic! points by making fun of the mentally ill, albeit in a nice way.

Really, though, Toxic! is about Pat Mills (with cohort Tony 'Finn, the bad ABC Warriors era' Skinner) vomiting up ideas onto the page with no thought to how such a story could work. And that in itself is the essence of genius.

Accident Man is a hitman who is also a vain yuppie. He's really good at fighting, planning and killing despite being a vacuous idiot. It's a wonder that Tarantino hasn't made the film already. Ultra-dynamic art from Martin Emond, who clearly hated yuppies male and female. Duke Mighten took over to better storytelling effect, but it wasn't as dramatic.

Sex Warrior is about girl soldiers who use sex to hurt people in a society where repression is king. I don't recall it making a lick of sense (and I only read it about 2 weeks ago). You don't get to see the sex, though (read Big Berta in Blast! for that) - it's all about gore. Will Simpson lavishly paints the explosions and gun violence that ensues when a horny lady channels her passion into a patent P. Mills future war weapon of madness.

Muto Maniac sees Mike McMahon in charge. Or at least, I assume he is since the words on each panel add up to a whole load of bizarritude that follows know known patternof narrative. Something about subversives in space being chased by evil government cleaners?
Still, some classic design work, if you like that McMahon style (anyone remember 'Howler' in the Megazine? Kinda like that). Anyway, the story never finished, but you could tell it was all about not doing what you were told, and chasing danger for the sake of it. Which as Pat Mills knows but too many grown-ups dispute is the most important message you can feed to children. No really.

It wasn't all Mills, of course. Alan Grant delivered Makabre - the rod of God! Another ill-explained vengeance tale wherein drug dealers got to die screaming.

And then there's the Driver, perhaps the greatest story in Toxic!? There's this big truck, right, which is loaded to the brim with all manner of evil. Human evil, that is, as in nuclear waste, cramped livestock, slaves, you name it. The driver takes the odd detour for some casual killing before dumping the lot in a crater next to a native american who proceeds to cry. And then the driver goes back to get more. As burning and bright an expression of rage I've seen in comics. Check this panel of mayhem:
Now, I admit that the art is very simplistic - the sort that makes me think 'I could do that' (which I could if I had any patience for drawing). But who cares when it works so well. I love that the people in this town who like to watch 3D gore movies are all adults in suits who applaud gently.

I don't think I've really articulated how astonishing Toxic! is. Most of the stories are barely readable in terms of plot, character development and even making sense panel to panel. Even the 'good' ones such as Accident Man would never be published in 2000 AD, which has way higher standards. But just the idea that one could find and buy a weekly comic so full of mayhem is glorious. I haven't read beyond issue 12 yet, but I look forward to finding out if 'Psycho Killer' has any coherence, and to see what Coffin and the Fear Teachers are like - grisly as all hell if the teaser posters are anything to go by. It's all as if my dreams as a 12 year old came true, and there was a comic that involved brightly coloured pictures of people killing each other horribly, with a short nod to sex without having to dwell on it. If I had come across Toxic! at the time it was out, I don't know how well I would have reacted. I would certainly have been put off by the art on many stories. I would not have been able to follow the plots, which would have frustrated me. I would also have felt ill at some of the gore (especially in sex warrior), in that good/bad way. I suspect I wouldn't have bothered with it much, unless my brother had liked it, which he might well have done. Who knows? But I wish I had at least had a chance with it. oh well.

Maybe there have been other comics like Toxic! (perhaps in Brazil?), but I don't think so. It is the single most best comic ever, and if it was actually well-written it might not be, which is weird. I don't think I can recommend getting a full run, but trust me, you have to have a look at this thing. And then pray that someone else has the guts to try something like it again, finances be damned.