Monday, January 21, 2008

Random Prog Review: 1992 Sci-Fi Special

Sci-Fi Specials and Annuals can be real hit and miss affairs. This is one of those 'let's mix up the creative teams on a story and see what happens...' jobs. It's pretty good overall, although there's nothing essential in it. I guess that's the other problem with specials - Tharg wouldn't want to run any really major stories in it 'cos that wouldn't be fair on those who only buy the regular Prog.

Here's the line-up of mis-matched Droids:

Peter Hogan and John Ridgway on Strontium Dog
John Tomlinson and Greg Staples on Brigand Doom
Mark Millar and Brett (ok so he's done it before) Ewins on Rogue Trooper
Alan McKenzie and Sean Phillips on Armoured Gideon
John Smith and Chris Weston on RoboHunter

There's also a Judge Dredd reprint (the interactive booby-trapped block game show story) which is inevitably the strongest strip in the Special, and a surprisingly good interview with John Lydon, which may or may not be a leftover from Revolver. Oh, and a John Smith text story. I've yet to bring myself to read a full text story. Its odd, I love reading books and short stories, but somehow if it's printed in a comic, I don't want to know. Articles and interviews, fine, but short stories, no no no.

Some opinions:
Hogan of course would go on to lead the Strontium Dogs into an epic saga in years to come, but this was probably his first effort. It involves Aplhpa and Wulf in person, and introduces the planet Hirfu and the blind old crone 'Walking Lady'. I suppose if Tharg ever deigns to collect this series, it's have to include this tale. Gotta say, Hogan is an extremely able comics writer, but sometimes he isn't half bland. Or maybe I just hate cliched mentor figures in the 'heroes journey' tradition, the Walking Lady being my least liked of all.

Tomlinson does the best job in the mag of getting into a character that's not his own. He has Investigator 9 exploring her rather scary childhood and trying to understand her connection to Brigand Doom. Staples's Doom is ok, too.
Sean Phillips, on the other hand, just can't draw (let alone paint) Armoured Gideon. I've never been a massive fan of his painted stuff anyway, to be honest - I much prefer his current work on the likes of Marvel Zombies - but he's obviously a great artist. Simon Jacob, however, had something unique going on, and it's very clear that all Phillips can do is try to reproduce, not to put his own stamp on the character.

McKenzie has a decent stab at mixing up the demonology and cheap comedy that is typical of Gideon, although his lampooning of the film industry is not original in any way.

Mark Millar's Rogue Trooper is, as you might expect, ultra-violent and nasty. He's kind of like the anti-Hogan - also extremely able as a comics writer (of all the criticisms that Millar draws, it's never that his panel-to-panel storytelling doesn't make sense. This to my mind is one of the key differences between professional and all too many small-press efforts), only where Hogan is sometimes bland, sometimes arch and occasionally subtle, Millar is over-the-top, raucous and never, ever subtle. His Rogue seems to be inspired not by the Finley-Day approach, but rather by the Smith approach as seen in Cinnabar, probably run in the Prog not that long before this tale was commissioned. Our hero is trapped in a compound run by alien torture specialist. The lead torturer is a sadistic dandy in the classic John Smith tradition. Rogue inevitably escapes, but leaves behind a message of despair as his fellow inmates wonder if he will ever return to rescue them. Ewins is channeling his Bad Company look rather than his old Rogue Trooper look (or maybe that's just because it's in colour?). It works for the story, and makes it feel as if he's an 'out of place' artist like the rest of the Special.

As if to return the favour, John Smith's RoboHunter is in the Millar mould - nasty, violent, garish and utterly devoid of the charm and humour of the Grover/Gibson era. Still, it's not terrible. But really it's just a long sequence of Slade in the sewers blasting at a bunch of evil robots and occasionally getting covered in human flesh. Only so much fun you can have with that, even if it is drawn by Chris Weston.

Weston also got to draw the pictures to go with Smith's text story. Pictures that while intriguing, were not enough to make me overcome my 'must not read text story' prejudices. This picture in particular:
also alerted me to the idea that Weston was (and perhaps still is) trying to capture the twisted spirit and expertly clean draughtsmanship of Brian Bolland. I think he exceeds on the former, but falls short on the latter. Which means his covers aren't as good as Bolland's, but his strips are usually better - not to mention far more frequent!

Anyway, the 2000 AD 1992 Sci-Fi special - you can take it or leave it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Calhab Justice - not as bad as I remember

Before examining a certain Scottish story, I'd like to pay small tribute to a couple of Squaxx dek Thargo who have joined me in my quest to write endlessly about 2000 AD. On the off chance that you've found your way here and not to my esteemed colleagues, please check out Thrillpowered Thursdays and the Prog Slog Blog.

Both writers have undertaken a great re-read of all things 2000 AD, but unlike me they're doing it in order. The PSB started from Programme 1 and is currently up to the mid 300s after a year of reading - this one's going to run and run! The Hipster Dad has I think been reading from the beginning, but has only started writing about it from the mid 800s, and Megazines from Volume 2 onwards. Since I'm reading in fairly random batches, I'm going to overlap with them from time to time, and apparently I've already unleashed some of those mean ol' spoilers. Sorry about that.

Anyway, one thing I was slightly surprised that was overlooked by the Hipster Dad is the late but not lamented 'Calhab Justice', which was a pretty regular feature during Volume 2 of the Judge Dredd Megazine.

It's an odd beast, but having just re-read most of it, it holds up really rather well. I remember quite liking the first series drawn by John 'king of clear storytelling but with funny-looking people' Ridgeway, and then gradually getting completely lost in the later segments drawn by Lol. Anyone reading at the time might recall notorious letter writers Nixon and Sloano, who weren't shy of criticising the Meg, and in particular David Bishop's editorial integrity. One thing I agreed with them on was that Lol couldn't draw very well.

But it turns out that he can. Not only that, but his cartoony style holds up rather well these days. When it comes to panel layout he's no Ridgeway, but looking back on it the story is not as impenetrable as I remember it. Let's examine Exhibit A: At first glance, it's pretty hard to make out what's going on (admittedly not helped by my scanning and uploading skills). But all the pieces are in place. There's a Calhab Judge on the left, pointing a gun. An upset mother pleading with him for help. Then an obviously female beastie holding up a baby in a threatening manner. And each part of the unit is, I think, nicely drawn, with a fair bit of dynamism and personality. Maybe there's too much black or something.

Or maybe the script should shoulder some of the blame. Series writer Jim Alexander had some fairly ambitious plans, which don;t always make for easy storytelling. However, with a bit of patience in reading, he didn't do too badly I reckon. Anyone not wanting to know the story, look away now...

The first series was basically silly. It was about Scottish whiskey, radiation tolerance and Macbeth references - with a more serious overtone about how CalHab is an outpost controlled but basically ignored and hated by Brit-Cit. But it was plenty charming, and serves as a neat introduction to the character of series star Ed MacBrayne, the inevitable Judge Dredd analogue.

Then there was an awesome one-off showing various characters and what they did on New Year's Eve. And then things start to go a bit wrong, as we launch into a major storyline. Empath Judge Schiehallion goes mental, becomes unstoppably powerful, and eventually causes a nuclear explosion (or is a reactor core meltdown? can't remember just now). MacBrayne is kind of lost in all this, as are various side characters and hence it's a little hard to care. Lol's artwork and Alexander's dialogue are very well matched, but both struggle to mix moments of extreme emotion with silly jokes. They can both do both perfectly well, but somehow don't quite get the ratio or the timing quite right. It's a rare skill, to be sure.
See here - there's some lunatic villain dialogue, followed by what looks suspiciously like a poetry quotation.

I think the main problem is one that beset all too many Megazine series. A new character and setting is introduced in a reasonably good but somewhat one-dimensional opening story. Then they immediately launch into a mega-epic. Mega-epics are great for Judge Dredd, but mostly because they come after a good long run of shorter stories. If I'm ever to recommend Judge Dredd to someone who doesn't know the character, I'd always suggest they start with a collection of one offs before going for the big guns like Cursed Earth, Judge Death, or the Apocalypse War. And dammit, it should have been the same for the Meg heroes, too. Armitage - no, we don't want a flashback origin story quite that quickly, thank you very much. Shimura - let's have a bit more judging and scene-setting before the ronin thing begins, please. Missionary Man - I'm not going to care about your Bad Moon Rising if all I've seen is you riding into town and shooting people. (Actually after that far-too nicely drawn flop, this series gets way better). And Calhab Justice - can you let us get to know Schiehallion before sending him loopy and bogging down the strip for the rest of its run?
But for all that, there's fun to be had with the Scottish Judges - perhaps one day we'll all see for ourselves in an Extreme Edition?