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?


Blogger Peter A said...

Nice summation of the strip and its larger issues, Alex - although what did you think of the Kevin Cullen-drawn episodes?

What I liked about CJ was the tight 'family' of the three judges and their DI, although as you say, the build-up to Schiehallion's wig-out was too much in the background. I wonder whether Dave Bishop cut a story or two to move things along?

Lol's artwork grows on you, but I'm not sure about his storytelling ability. Too many Dutch angles and 'posed' figures. But on the whole I like it.

Blogger Jim Alexander said...

Hi this is Jim Alexander writer of Calhab Justice (there is something very wrong with that sentence, but let's leave it for now). Many thanks for the comments. Looking back the strips seem all too blurred. I think in the end I tried to be too many things to too many people, but I never thought it was that bad even at the time after one onslaught after another :-) My head did disappear up my arse near the end though, but I think 'Family Snapshot' (drawn by John Ridgway) where we did look at Schiehallion before he went loopy is still one of the best things I've written. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haha, no-way, I remember that, Jim! I really liked Calhab Justice, it made me feel like someone gave a damn about Scotland in a period where our country did feel very marginalised, the Tories were in power, Nuclear waste was being dumped at Dounreay... I'd always hoped there would be more Calhab stories!

Plus, I seem to remember the Family Snapshot story came in an issue with all those pin-up posters, which decorated my walls from the age of 12 to 18 ;)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thinking about it, isn't it just about time for another bash at Calhab? Independence looms and it would be a great chance to try and re-jig whatever might have been wrong with the short-lived series!

Blogger El Sloano said...

Hey there, I'm El Sloano, the other half of that notorious duo Matt 'n' Sloane, that pair of c**ts who had the distinction of being 'trolls' long before the Internet grew into the thing it is now! As we all know by now, the latest issue of the Megazine reprints Calhab Justice and I'm tempted to get a copy just to see how well it's aged ;-)

Of course, Calhab Justice writer Jim Alexander and I both share the same publisher, Rough Cut Comics, and Mr. Alexander's Good Cop, Bad Cop title was recently released by Rough Cut so, go and buy a copy.

My recollections of the art and writing on Calhab Justice by Jim and Lol (AKA Stuart Lawrence?) were that it was an OK idea that needed some good editing and maybe a better artist. Lol was only just technically competent as an artist but better suited to working for underground comics or small press titles till he'd attained a professional standard of artwork.

That said, the Matt 'n' Sloane missives regularly contained constructive critiscism of other Megazine artists such as Frank Quitely, an artist whose comics I return to the shelf as soon as I see his artwork in them. So, don't feel too bad, Lol mate.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sloano...didn't you make a wally of yourself some years ago, requesting UKCAC set up a panel for you to debate just how lousy the Megazine was at that period in time? Amazingly, they declined your kind offer.

Anonymous El Sloano said...

Hi "Anonymous",

Did I really try to set up a UKCAC panel all those years just to debate how crap the Megazine was? I don't remember, Anonymous. Was this in a letter printed in the Megazine itself? Sounds like something I'd do, tbh!!

I'll have to take your word for it, though, whoever you are, Mr. Mysterypants.

So, who are you hiding behind anonymity here? D. Bish? Lol Aka Stuart Lawrence? Jim Alexander? An outraged Megazine creator? C'mon, own up!


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