Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hey Mambo

It's fun having two blogs run alongside my own that are trawling through 2000 AD in order of publication. The ProgSlog is up to the late 300s, while the Hipster Dad is in the throes of the Men in Black era (early-mid 1000s). It's going to happen occasionally that I overlap with one or other of these fine fellows, and today is such a day, as my pile hits 1014-1033. I'll be interested to see what the Hipster Dad chooses to write about. I'm going with Mambo: Fleshworks...

Mambo never gets much play in 2000 AD fandom, and frankly, that's rightly so. David Hine has gone on to bigger and better things as a writer for Marvel Comics (mostly doing X-Men related stuff). Back in 1994-6, he was writing and drawing for 2000 AD. Mambo is less original than his other epic, Tao de Moto, but it's a lot better. But it's still not that good, I'm afraid. For me, it's another one of those series that seems to push all the right 'future shock' buttons, but never really coalesces into a exciting and engaging whole. Partly this is because the first two Mambo stories were mired in explaining backstory. Honestly, when will people learn? Do the backstory later! Wagner, Grant and Mills know the score - drop people in it, and drip feed the origin stuff only if you've earned the right!

Anyway, in Fleshworks, we actually get a neat little self-contained story which is essentially a case for Mambo the cop to solve. No mucking about on other planets. As the picture of the little boy with the thing on his head suggests, it's about virtual reality: specifically, a hacker who can kill virtual people for real over the internet (NB before the internet was the beast it is today). Hine does a good job of setting up his idea of virtual reality (and handles it all better than Wireheads...). More importantly, he successfully explains enough about who Rachael Verlaine - the Mambo - is, that new readers can get it, and then gets on with the story.

Rachael is a cop who has strange and not fully understood powers, which include telepathy and the ability to grow weird things out of her head and her arm. Occasionally she goes too far, and gets in trouble with her section chief, as is the way with all cop dramas...

In her pursuit of Skinhead, the unidentified murderer who seems to know his way around the virtual world all too well, Rachael gets a cop friend to jack in to the internet to find out more: Hilarious. This little adventure connects to evil corporation Ventris. Of course, Rachael charges straight in to the head office to get answers. This is like trying to arrest Richard Branson or Rupert Murdoch - ain't gonna happen that easily. Again, another staple of the cop drama. Her next port of call is the seedy bar (you can see what kind of films Hine was watching to 'research' this story, can't you). In a great throwaway idea, this is an anime bar. Hine is again being ahead of his time by showing large numbers of people who are so obsessed with Manga and Anime that they have their face and hair changed to look like they come out of a Japanese comic. Love the idea, but I have to say that Hine doesn't quite convince with his ability to mimic the style.

Eventually, Verlaine catches up with the killer, and with a little help from her friends he is defeated. Over the internet. In a rubbish climax. But apart from that, the story has all the elements of the 2000 AD mix of weird ideas, cliches and a strong hero. The story could be a bit better, but it's ok. So why does it feel kind of rubbish? I think it's the art that lets it down. No problems with it as such - great storytelling, easily identifiable characters, good attention to background detail. It's just a bit flat. A different artist, say, a Henry Flint or a Brett Ewins might have been able to inject a bit more weirdness and intensity to it, and helped generate more love for the character. It's a shame as Hine has produced good art before (Tao de Moto, for instance, is better suited to this style). His indie comic 'Strange Embrace' is fantastic, in large part because of the art. But Mambo needs more. To save it from being a total turkey (which without re-reading I suspect Books 1 and 2 were), 'Fleshworks' has one genius saving grace - Skinhead. One of the most revolting and spooky villain designs in 2000 AD history, and Hine knows how to milk it for regular creeptacular effect. This sequence in particular still makes me shudder...

Mambo - more weak than strong, but holds it head up solidly in the lower tiers of 2000 AD creations. I'd buy an Extreme Edition collection (thousands wouldn't).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Villains on parade

2000 AD has a long history of producing villains of high quality. Villains whose evil sears them in the mind of readers for a long time to come. Perhaps the greatest of these, certainly my favourite, is Torquemada. You know, the mad dictator of Termite (future Earth), who vows to kill all aliens, runs the thought police, and generally likes any excuse to torture someone. The one who used to win all those Eagle awards back in the mid 1980s. I was most amused to rediscover that his first appearance in 'Comic Rock' was somewhat tame...

Good old Mills. Anyway, I'm sure I'll find more on Torquemada as my journey through my randomly assorted boxes of back progs continues. For now, let's spend some time with some other classic villain tropes.

First up, the weird-looking ugly villain. A face goes a long way, I find, and Artie Gruber has one of the best - helped of course by Dave Gibbons's mighty pencils.
He's definitely an example of a villain I like way disproportionately to how often he's appeared in the comic, and more so to the stories involving him. He's a pure revenge machine with a nasty hiss and a fear of fire. But I tell you, a good face goes a long way. (of course, Torquemada was to acquire himself a hell of a face by the end of Nemesis book 1)

Revenge, as every knows, is a dish best served cold. Artie was far too hot, and pales in the evil stakes besides Max Bubba. He's also got a face, but for all that it's memorable, it's rather confusing. He's a mutant, sure, but is it just that he's got several extra layers of skin or something? Anyway, here he is being angry, in a sotck Carlos Ezquerra 'my villain is angry!' pose.

That's right, fists up, mouth open, outrage dripping from the panel. Bubba took his time getting revenge on Alpha and Wulf. Of course, he was beaten at his own game by supposed 'hero' Alpha at the end of Rage, which saw revenge served at ludicrously low degrees of Kelvin.

The late 80s and 90s saw a new kind of villain, most artfully created by John Smith - the louche, smoking, probably gay, off-handed torturer. So generic that he even turns up as a mere side character here:
Just look at that panel. A lot of credit goes to regular Smith collaborator Paul Marshall, who conveys everything you need to know about the character in one deceptively simple image. Hell, you don;t even need the speech bubble to know that the man hates foreigners and probably has a small child tucked away in his hotel bedroom. See also: Cinnabar, Firekind, Leatherjack, various Tyranny Rex outings - and of course, anti-hero Devlin Waugh (who's different only because he's muscly and doesn't quite like torture as much). And, y'know, if it works, why not keep doing it?

2000 AD can go straight to mysterious and creepy if it wants to - even Judge Death started out that way, despite the comedy detour he took for many years (which in all honesty I enjoyed quite a bit). Here's a lesser known villain spooking out Judge Hershey via the medium of mirrors.
The Harlequin is another villain I like with no good reason. He's weird-looking and sort of nasty but not nasty. The real problem is that the story he was in didn't make a whole lot of sense - something about children being kidnapped not because he's evil, but because he was rescuing them from an evil place. Very clever I'm sure, but a bit unsatisfying.

And then of course there's the bumbling idiot villain. A villain we know all too well from the world's greatest writing partnership, Wagner & Grant...