Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Don't even think it!

So I've talked many times about Judge Dredd, but now I'm feeling guilty that I've
barely paused to mention 2000 AD's greatest female character, and foil to the man himself, Judge Cassandra Anderson.

OK, so clearly there's an argument to made for one H Jones, but frankly I think that's wrong, partly because Anderson has had so many more adventures, and partly because at least some of those adventures have been more entertaining than (if not as sophisticated as) Ms Jones's own. I'm not sure at what point Alan Grant took over from John Wagner as the key writer on Anderson, but by God he's done a good job of using the character to say something. Sure, there are elements of Anderson as eye candy, and elements of her as a tough-girl in the classic 2000 AD tough-guy tradition, but her character has always been more interesting than that.

From the start, let's consider who she is. She's a telepath who works for the most draconian law enforcement system in the world. You'd think a lot of her time would be spent mentally hunting out would-be criminals and arresting them before they can do their nefarious deeds, in a Minority Report style. In fact I'm surprised that I can't think of a single Dredd-related story where this has come up.

Perhaps the reason is that Anderson (and most of her fellow Psi Judge's) personalities won't allow it. They're all a bit highly-strung, and to some extent, nice people. Anderson being a telepath is sensitive to the wrongs of the justice system in a way that Dredd can never be, unless enough small children write him letters about their defective parents. And that's essentially what all Anderson stories are about. How can you be a tough Judge when you're a nice person?

Like Dredd, Anderson has had many artists to give their spin on the character. Some show her whimsical side better (see the panel by Mark Farmer above), some her sensitive side (Ranson, naturally), some her sultry side (remember when Steve Sampson was all over Anderson?), and of course there's creator Brian Bolland, who made sure she was beautiful, rebellious and strong (2000 AD strong, that is, not Image comics strong). And let's be grateful is was Bolland who was given the task, knowing the results then-Dredd stalwart Mike McMahon would have produced...

There's something astonishing about the ugliness and beauty co-existing in that panel. Or perhaps I'm too philistine to appreciate McMahon's semi-cubist approach. Anyway, here's a few more scenes capturing the essence of a good Anderson yarn, using lesser-known Anderson artists partly because that's what I have to hand, and partly to make the point that she's genius in anyone's hands, as long as Grant is at the helm:

Waking up in bed with a cuddly Judge toy. You know, because she's quirky and needs substitute love, since Judges aren't allowed the real thing.

Using her psychic powers. You know, because she's a Psi-Judge.

Questioning the system, you know, because it's wrong and Anderson can see that.

Doing the Judge thing, you know, because she's an action hero.

Crying, you know, because she's sensitive, and is trapped in a system that she kind of hates, but kind of respects because people like Dredd are essentially good people who save lives.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Laffs with Garth Ennis

Having said how much I hated it, I now feel compelled to talk a little bit more about Sleeze 'N Ryder. All the way through you can tell it's a Garth Ennis strip. It has equal parts violence and humour, often seemingly in competition. And although he pushes both buttons on every page of this tale, it so rarely works for me that I can scarcely believe how much I loved Preacher, and indeed many other of Ennis's works.

Here's a sample page:

Do you see what I mean? I don't have a problem with jokes about vomit - or maybe I do? I almost think there's something wrong with me for not being automatically tickled by the idea of a character who's essence is being unclean. And this extends to the strip as a whole, which seems to have the same theme. Likewise the whole 'inbred gang of mutants' thing. Now, I can see that having a Cursed Earth based humour strip necessitates featuring some comedy mutants, but why does Ennis's sense of funny jar with mine so much in this respect? At least Nick Percival doesn't disappoint with his mutant designs. And his outrageous muscleage on the titular heroes is fun to look at as well.

Now, confession time. There was one thing about Sleeze N Ryder that did make me laugh out loud, right in the final episode. Ennis is always handy with a pop culture reference (Like, Sleeze N Ryder are similar to the two leads in Easy Rider - geddit?)

The whole evil American robot bird and fish bit was inoffensive; the use of three ex-presidents was mildly funny, even, if a bit blatant. But the fourth oresident - well! OK, so not that funny to build up the idea of some raving nutter who will surely blow up everything (especially since the whole background of the Cursed Earth is the result of a president - Bad Bob Booth to be precise), and then have him turn out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, sure, it's a pretty obvious joke to make about Arnie being a bad and warmongering choice for president (and, strangely, still a relatively likely one), but it's a bit too obvious, you know? Also, not particularly funny to house his brain in a robotic toilet, although I guess that's in keeping with the rest of the strip.

But, when said robotic brain finally appears, the laughs can begin, for Ennis's use of actual Arnie is note perfect.

(sorry about the appalling scanning quality, by the way. But then, it's not a strip that deserves much care and attention)

Put simply, I'm a fan of Arnie movies - as I imagine many a 2000 AD-ophile is, too. And Ennis has done a superb job of picking relatively obscure quotes, and transcribing them perfectly into that weird AustrianAmerican accent. In all, the episode has about 7 choice Arnie lines which it's fun to check off against his back catalogue. "Do yoo know Miranda?" Is that even a quote? (well yes, it is, from Red Heat, but I never thought of it as a classic one-liner or anything.) The point is that Ennis picked on a joke I can get behind, and I liked it. Which sort of makes me feel like a hypocrite for hating the rest of the series. I don't know.

In case anyone else wants to get in on the joke, here are the other quotes from that episode:
"So vy not yoos the veglah awmee?"
"Your clowths - gif them to me."
"Consider yorselvf diforsed."
"He hat to split"
"Ve're a vescue team - not assassins."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Random Prog Review: Megazine 2.24

I've heard it said that 2000 AD has roughly twice as many readers as the Judge Dredd Megazine. This seems about fair. The Megazine is pretty good, but it is not and never has been quite up to the standards of its big sister. Basically, if you can afford it, chances are that you'll enjoy both, but if yo can only afford one regular publication, go for 2000 AD. I expect there are a few individuals who only read the Megazine and don't care for 2000 AD, but that's frankly weird.

Anyway, on with the fun. Let's head back to March 1993, when the Megazine was in its second year of being monthly, and still somewhat trying to find its feet. (Has it ever quite managed to do that? Not sure)
A neat enough cover that sums up Al's Baby nicely, but perhaps doesn't quite let the casual browser in for the heavy violence content in the rest of the mag...

Judge Dredd: Mechanismo Returns part two.
By John Wagner and Peter Doherty.

It's pretty much all action this episode. In fact, this middle part of the long-running Mechanismo saga is almost entirely about action. There was a minor outcry at the time that such a key Dredd-continuity story was in the Meg and not 2000 AD, but screw those losers who missed it. It's great, and I'm sure it'll be reprinted (again) one day. What we get here is exceptionally sparse dialogue (even for Wagner), wrapped up in some detailed paints from Doherty, with lots and lots of exit wounds going on. I guess he was trying to emulate MacNeil's work fro the first book? The story? Oh, well, one of the Robo-Judges from book one has been re-activated and is back on the rampage, doling out justice squared. Here's an example:
As many readers know, this is surely an ironic reference to Dredd himself. The first episode was supposed to feature a similar scene, but it was censored as making Dredd and his set of laws out to be just a bit too harsh - exactly the point Wagner is trying to make with his Mechanismo tale. Still, gunshots to the kneecaps are always funny.


Sleeze 'N' Ryder part five.
By Garth Ennis and Nick Percival
God, I hated this series. It seemed to last forever, and feature nothing but irritating one-trick characters and gross-out jokes. On re-reading, I am slightly less offended by it, but only really because of Percival's stellar artwork. In this episode, dirty Sleeze and coolly sinister Ryder stop fighting the mutants and start helping them fight the evil ex-Presidential robots. Cheap jokes and heavily rendered musculature ensue.

Verdict: harmless

Judge Anderson: The Jesus Syndrome part 3
By Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson

Well, you couldn't ask for a more radical change in strip content, and that's part of the beauty of anthologies, isn't it. Every now and then, Grant seemed to really want to say something, and Judge Anderson was often his chance to say it. This awesome three-parter explores the idea that the Judges fear Christianity (presumably amongst other religions) because it can draw large crowds and is inherently anti-establishment. And with its open preaching of non-violence, it's tricky for them to do anything about it. Except to set up the most liberal Judge on the force to expose herself to it, and ultimately fail to defend it by exploiting her. Grant loses some points for the deep unsubtlety of Judge Goon, Anderson's nemesis, but I suppose the device allows him to make some other points that would never come up if this was an Anderson/Dredd team-up. Anyway, this final episode shows Anderson beating the hell out of Goon in a most satisfying way, watching but ignoring once again the exceptional evil of the MC Judge system, and watching a TV broadcast announcing that Christianity has been banned in MC1.
Verdict: One of the best stories Alan Grant has ever written

Heavy Metal Dredd: The Big Hit
By John Smith and John Hicklenton

So, Heavy Metal Dredd was a series originally produced for Rock Power magazine (which i'd never have heard of otherwise; you?) It was basically a hyper-gory version of the Daily Star Dredds, an excuse for Simon Bisley and John Hicklenton to try to make the reader feel a bit sick. Wagner and Grant did a decent job, but passing the reins on to John Smith was surely inevitable, and I think entirely appropriate. Never one just to revel in ultra-violence, Smith always delights his readers by pushing your imagination that bit further, exposing you to exapls of violence you might never have bothered to think about. Yay. And so, here we have Smith thinking "I wonder how well John Hicklenton could draw those ultimate MC1 weirdos, the Fatties? I bet he'd make them really gross." Step 2: "Wouldn't it be even more of a gore challenge to show what happens if four fatties tie themselves together and jump off a cityblock?" Yes, John and John, yes it would.

Verdict: Perfect. Pointless in the extreme, but perfect.

Al's Baby: Blood on the Bib part 8
By John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra

Everyone likes Al's Baby. It's charming and funny. Very english, somehow, at least to my mind. I think because it has such a casual attitude to violence, which is mostly a backdrop to humour based on the characters. Sure, the nappy jokes get a bit annoying (you can tell I have issues with toilet humour...), but really the only thing wrong with the strip is that it doesn't really belong in the Megazine, or even 2000 AD. (I think it was made for Toxic! originally, but it would surely have been even more out of place in that degenerate (in a good way!) publication.
Anyway, series two wraps up here in a neat, funny and violent way. Ezquerra knows how to show a villain getting thoroughly punished without making you feel bad about it in any way.

Verdict: release all three books as European-style trades now!

You know, I remember the Megazine as being basically bad with the odd good story until Volume 4, but this was a pretty stellar issue.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Classic Dredd welcomes Gordon Rennie

I don't often get contemporary with 2000 AD over here. After all, there are two perfectly good forums if you want to read an opinion on the latest Progs (2000 AD review is my forum of choice). But, this panel from this week's episode of Judge Dredd was just too good to pass over.
I don't know about you, but this is exactly what Judge Dredd stories should have more of. It takes me back to the days of reading reprints in the Best of 2000 AD monthly, when every Dredd story was a winner. Anyway, in this new sequence, I find it both fascinating and hilarious that there can be a 'guiltseeker' bullet, and that Dredd is immune to it. It's a cheap gag, to be sure, but mostly it reinforces Dredd's character as the ultimate law enforcement officer. And of course in the next panel he proves this even more by calling his colleague into question. We readers get to enjoy a small moment of surprise as Dredd escapes what seems to be certain death, then break the tension with a laugh at Dredd's tightness.

Just to celebrate Rennie's true Wagnerian achievement, let's have a quick look at a few other Dredd panels from my tiny collection. First, the original master in action, backed up by the ever anarchic Ron Smith:
Yes, it's another perfect blending of tension, humour, and Dredd's steadfastness. This time in the face of killing, rather than dying. One of Dredd's most famous seeming hypocrisies is the sheer number of people he has killed and maimed in the name of upholding the law. It's interesting to note that a spirit Judge's 'guiltseeker' can't kill Dredd, but his nemesis Judge Death has no such qualms. Death, of course, purports to uphold the law as well. But his interpretation seems to more moral rather than statute based, hence his ability to kill Dredd, but not little old lady Mrs Gunderson, who has broken laws, but has never been in the least been mean to anyone...

Next up, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, inarguably the worst Dredd writers to date. They were pretty much one trick Dredders, getting across the fact that Dredd is ultra hard and generally likes to bully people in the name of the law. Now, Dredd is a bully, but doesn't revel in this task, he just does it because it works - it exposes the guilty. But in other hands he's more subtle about it, or at least it rings truer to the core nobility of this law machine. Depictions of Dredd being ultra-hard, however, are always welcome, so Millar' work in particular is not entirely without merit. Everyone loves a good headbutt panel.

But surely what folk around the world will always think of when they think of Dredd is panels like this:

Justice delivered, and heavy sentence passed for theoretically innocuous crimes. Funny every time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Niece to know you

In which one of my favourite artists, Ian Gibson, single-handedly reduces 2000 AD's two premiere hardmen to cuddly softies. I mean, you wouldn't catch Slaine letting any of his brothers and sisters have pesky daughters who need rescuing all the time.

Of course, this won't be new to anyone who's recently purchased the excellent Strontium Dog Agency Files Vol. 1, or the Judge Dredd Case Files Vol. 3 (which, by the way, is my favourite so far. I suspect it will be superceded by Volumes 8 and 9, though.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dan Abnett is funny and clever

Do you see what he did there? It's like a joke, but it's not actually a joke. Although it is kinda funny. 20th Century pop culture references in far future stories, an Abnett speciality. He is unquestionably the master of the pun, although Alan Grant comes a close second, even if he loses points for being a bit more highbrow. "Darkus is willin'", anyone?*

Anyway, let's sit back and enjoy one of Abnett's finest punning hours. An episode of Sinister Dexter in which the protagonists barely feature. Instead, there's a whole lot of punning going on in the setting of a video arcade parlour.

We'll ease in with a silly but not punning game title, but a full-on shop name joke.
It ratchets up a notch with a slightly more obscure and hence downright witty name for a barber's.
Now he's hit his stride, and we're getting multiple puns per panel...
So many puns, in fact, that it's no longer clear if they're all actually funny. Pistol me asystole? Is that a medical jargon blood pressure joke? And what the hell does this mean: That must be a pun, but I damned if I can figure out what it relates to. Or maybe I just don;t know how to pronounce it right.

Nonetheless, thanks, Mr Abnett for all the laughs.

* Dialogue taken from Strontium Dog 'The Big Bust of '49'; this is a reference to the phrase "Barkiss is willin'" which features with some prominence in David Copperfield. Yowsa. I only noticed this because I was reading it at school at the same time as doing my only ever attempt at a full 2000 AD read-through. Good times.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Hard man. Mmm.

It has come to my attention that I have neglected another great staple of 2000 AD. Hardness. Some of the key players in the comic are exceptionally impervious to pain, complaining and, of course, mercy. Such characters are hardly unique to 2000 AD, but they are surely an essential part of what made the comic quite so appealing to me as a young reader. The writers and artists do seem to have a knack for showing quite how hard people can be, beyond having them win (nearly) all the fights they get into. I'm pretty sure that this grounding is one of the qualities that has made British comics writers so popular in the American super-hero genre. Or maybe that's just Mark Millar, king of hardness. (Unfortunately for his 2000 AD career, he didn't have anything else to offer. Still, a little hardness goes a long way).

As it happens, I don't have anything to offer from the likes of Millar or Ennis, although I'm sure I will in the future. Instead, it's mostly Mr Wagner again.
He knows how to put hardness into words as well as deeds, oh yes. Backed up by Ezquerra, and its and irresistible package. You can see why Garth Ennis is still pretty happy with Judgement Day (which isn't that bad, come on), because he got to get in a few episodes of Alpha and Dredd (and Sadu) as drawn by Carlos. Sometimes it's right to let a fan have a go.

Clint Langley pulls off a minor miracle with his Slaine efforts. Use of photo models can seriously damage a character's integrity, but somehow he's managed to find an use a Slaine who can muster the requisite hardness. And this is where Mills's sloganeering dialogue is right at home. There's little in his work that's as much fun as his barbarians trading insults alongside blows.

Gordon Rennie gets some girls in on the act, too. Sure, Judge Anderson has always been pretty hard, even to the point of self-sacrifice. But you get the impression that i the basically feeble Rain Dogs Rennie was trying to craft a tale of 2000 AD women who are every bit on the level with 2000 AD men.

As always, the effect works best when there is the right marriage of writer and artist together. And the king is surely Colin MacNeil, working to the pen of John Wagner. I don't know if Wagner puts it in his scripts, but MacNeil seems to delight in removing lips from his key players, thus rendering them harder than anyone else.

Or, he can just fill them full of bullet holes to charming effect...

One writer who had clearly studied the MacNeil effect was Robbie Morrison. Possibly following a Thargian mandate, he decided to craft a series that is based entirely around the concept of everyone in it being harder than 15 nails.I'm talking Vanguard. Vanguard, which is still technically awaiting a second (and maybe third?) series, never had a huge amount of plot. Instead, it had lots of characters with no lips (including the aliens) who liked to shout at each other and occasionally fight with whips. Also, lots of panels of incredibly well rendered spaceships. Oh, and a handful of main characters each depserate that they would not yield or show mercy or any of that nonsense...

Read as a serious space drama, it's kind of frustrating. Read as a hardman comedy, it is utterly hilarious.