The history of 2000 AD in America goes like this: they publish some of their 35 years of comics in various formats over here, and not enough people buy enough of it for it to be a profitable endeavor, and then they go away for awhile, and then they come back and try again. In some cases, the hardcore American fans -- Nemesis obsessives, Rogue Trooper junkies or Dredd addicts like Douglas Wolk, Joe McCulloch, and myself -- are able to subsist off of the imported Rebellion trades that are sold throughout the UK. Otherwise, keeping up with the progs (that’s what they call ‘em, because British people have their own cutesy names for everything) is a catch-as-catch-can affair, because unless you’ve drawn a couple of stories and are living on the comp list, you'll find yourself facing a massive cash expenditure getting hold of a subscription and paying for that subscription to be sent to you. There was a short period of time (which concluded last year) where the print issues were delivered to American retailers by Diamond Comics, although they arrived extremely late, intermittently, and in more than a few cases, not at all. They have now returned to being packaged in plastic bags and mailed out every four to five weeks, and the series -- still financially stable in the UK -- is once again inconsistently available and impossible to read in a timely fashion... unless, of course, you’re reading it online. Having jumped aboard the digital release train back when the US market was still shaking its head and grimacing at the concept as if it were spinach stuck in an old man’s teeth, 2000 AD is as readily available online as the print edition must be to our fellow capitalists across the pond. (Pond! Because it’s an ocean!) Cruising through its middle age with a lot less embarrassment than one might expect for a comic book made up of even parts violence and shmaltz, 2000 AD continues trucking forward, an oversized print comics magazine in a dead sea of cancellation and abandonment.
The Comics Journal has looked at 2000 AD before, and interestingly enough for a magazine now mostly (and not undeservedly) associated with elitism, it looked upon 2000 AD and the reprinted classics with no small measure of affection. During the time period when Brian Bolland was composing new covers for the Quality reprints of Dredd and other semi-popular stories, the 122nd issue devoted itself almost entirely to British comics. Behind a Brian Bolland cover that represents both how America views itself as well as how much Britain likes to yank its chain for being so serious about everything, the Journal pretty much stuck to praising the comic, remarking that it was pretty much the best thing that the Brits had produced. They weren’t wrong to do so at the time, and while the UK art and alt comics scene has certainly become a force to reckon with, 2000 AD is still a thing that the Redcoats (whatever) can hold up as a sterling example of comics as pure entertainment.
Beginning in 2010, Simon & Schuster took over the role of publishing collections of 2000 AD material in hopes of reaching a U.S. audience. What follows is an attempt to give this work some measure of context, review, discussion and/or responsssssssss *ss*sSSsssssssss*ss*SsssssSssssssssSsSss*ssSs*SSsSSSSss
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Hi, this is Joe McCulloch. You might know me from the treasures of wisdom I impart each and every week in the shopping list column elsewhere on this site, but today I am addressing you from the crossroads of time.
To the best of my knowledge, the preceding text was written at some point in 2011; at that time, the author, Tucker Stone, was not yet an active columnist for the Journal, though his keen interest in 2000 AD -- coupled with his formidable work as a blogger and outside columnist -- had led the editors of this site (then not yet a year into its present incarnation) to suggest he write an overview of the 2000 AD collected editions which Simon & Schuster had begun releasing in North America the year prior. This publishing endeavor remains a work in progress - as did this essay, until today.
In 2013, Tucker had approached me with the idea of turning his overview into a dialogue between the two of us. I didn't (and don't) own many of the S&S books -- which, for the purposes of clarity, are sometimes new collections of 2000 AD comics put together especially for the North American market, but more often are slight variants on UK editions printed in the United States, or even just what appears to be the UK editions themselves given stateside bookstore access -- but I had read many of the component parts in import books. I do not know if this was intended to speed up the process, but suffice to say involving me in something like that is not so much leaving a fox to guard the hen house as actually cooking the chickens for the fox and then putting a bib around its neck. For months (years) we picked at a Google doc, while Simon & Schuster kept publishing books. Lest we forget, 2000 AD itself continued to publish a new issue almost every week. Tucker suspended his Journal column, became a comics publisher, accepted an industry job and his family grew; life took over. *I*, however, remained in complete personal and professional stasis, which made it inevitable that the manuscript could only be finished by my baby-like hands, forever alone.
Rest assured, there is a pretentious idea behind all of this. In David Bishop's 2009 oral history of the magazine, Thrill-Power Overload, it is mentioned several times that 2000 AD was, for a long while, subject to the requirement that it somehow use any script that it had commissioned, even if the work had to be completed by somebody other than the original writer. It is in this spirit of "somebody deal with the goddamn thing" that I approach you today, though know that I have declined to take the additional conceptual steps of rewriting Tucker's contributions or deleting his byline, because fuck that. Instead, what you will read is a mix of (1) things Tucker wrote alone, (2) things Tucker wrote in dialogue with me, and (3) things which I will merely pretend are in dialogue with Tucker, even though the two of us are writing from nearly half a decade apart. Perhaps in this way we might capture something of the uneasy feel of these serial comics, born as ephemera on bog roll and now smooshed together in print for bookshelf permanence. Hell, that digital release strategy Tucker mentions up above? Today, the vast majority of the books S&S sought to release new for American eyes can simply be downloaded in desktop or tablet form directly from Rebellion, the UK publisher of 2000 AD, thus arguably defeating the entire point of this exercise.
2000 AD was 35 years old when this began. It is now 38.
Splundig Vur Thrigg, and may God have mercy on The Comics Journal.
Tharg’s Terror Tales Presents: Necronauts & A Love Like Blood
By Frazer Irving, Gordon Rennie, John Smith
TUCKER: Presumably published due to Irving’s recent (at the time of its publication) spate of work for DC on books like Xombi and Batman and Robin, these two short pieces are an example of what 2000 AD does outside of its more well-known long-running bits - horror stories in fantasy settings.
JOE: Unfortunately, this is the only time in this article we’ll be mentioning John Smith, who’s one of the all-time beloved 2000 AD writers... maybe *uniquely* beloved, in that he’s published nearly all of his comics-format work in 2000 AD and related magazines, foregoing the otherwise traditional Britcomics career journey toward ‘progressive’ American superhero and genre books. The majority of Smith’s American work, in fact, fits into two longform pursuits: (1) the somewhat underrated ‘90s Vertigo series Scarab; and (2) a sadly-quite-fairly-rated tenure on Vampirella in the early ‘00s, although apparently there was a lot of editorial tinkering. His one issue of Hellblazer (#51) was tops, though.
But anyway, I say "unfortunately" because A Love Like Blood isn’t all that representative of the stories that built Smith’s reputation for severe, horror-tinged experiments in literary shock; he referred to it in Thrill-Power Overload as one of the most commercial, high-concept things he’d ever done -- BOY VAMPIRE + GIRL WEREWOLF = DOOOOMED LOVE -- and it comes off like one of those Grant Morrison projects like Action Comics where he’s vowing to set aside all the fuss and just do ‘fun’ comics, and the whole thing winds up making a great argument for fuss. (Then again, Smith has also suggested that the finished work was significantly condensed via editorial suggestion, so who knows!) You’d be better served by tracking down the two Indigo Prime collections available elsewhere.
Still: Frazer Irving! Can you believe this was the first time he'd colored an entire serial himself? Talk about a fully-formed aesthetic... and he’d take it much further once he got into heavy digital practice.
Meanwhile, Necronauts -- Irving’s first work for the magazine -- is a Gordon Rennie serial, starting out with some catchy, arguably ‘mad’ ideas, and then resolving tidily in a traditional adventuresome manner. I like Rennie more when action and violence are themselves the primary idea, as with Aquila, his ongoing semi-revival of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s serial Blackhawk with artists Leigh Gallagher and Patrick Goddard, which S&S is releasing early next year: it’s mostly just an unkillable warrior of antiquity slashing things, and Rennie’s good at giving him stuff to slash. He’s worked with Irving a lot too - I get the feeling he clicks easily with artists. But you often know what to expect from the results. I couldn’t say that about John Smith.
TUCKER: John Smith is one of those writers who reminds me of college, in the sense that I feel like I keep showing up at the right bars immediately after they’ve become uninteresting to all of the people who made them the right bar in the first place. I’m always hearing about this guy being something special, about him being the sort of comic book writer that people are clamoring for -- original, but entertainingly so -- but I feel like I’m always reading the screenplay to a '70s movie when I run across his work. That’s not a bad thing on its own, but it isn’t much good, either. I remain unconvinced, but I’m holding the door wide open.
The Complete Nemesis the Warlock, Volume One
By Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo, Bryan Talbot
TUCKER: Out of all the books that 2000 AD is currently releasing for the American market, few stand as tall as Nemesis. On the grounds of its initial, abandoned conceit -- raw, music-influenced punk-protest sci-fi comics -- it’s worth a read, and when examined for what it immediately became, “worth” becomes “must.” It’s not the easiest comic to get a handle on - Kevin O’Neill, Jesus Redondo, and Bryan Talbot all maintain a hyper-dense, over-detailed layout that’s unlike anything else that isn’t Nemesis the Warlock, and today’s reader will need to allow for a learning curve. The story is direct and simple -- an alien badass named Nemesis leads a revolution against humans and their evil -- but the heavy dollops of satire and sincerity make for what will feel like a far more complicated read. Due to low sales, it appears the American market won’t see their own edition of Volume Two, although it should be noted that Nemesis (like Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper) has been made available to American audiences multiple times throughout the last twenty years. You can find it if you want it.
JOE: Additionally, there are three ‘phone book’ editions of Nemesis available for import, covering the entirety of the main story (1980-99), plus a “Deviant Edition” hardcover collecting alternate colored pages and rarities. I love Nemesis to pieces, both for constituting one of the most perfect unions of Mills’ dual tendencies toward acidic sociopolitical lampoon and seemingly uncontrolled, childlike narrative imagination, and -- insofar as both of those tendencies can get tiresome over as long a stretch as this -- for being one of the relatively few long (long) (loooong) 2000 AD features to maintain a coherent, striking visual identity over the course of several creative changes. It’s a shame John Hicklenton doesn’t show up until vol. 2, though... America needs a hero like that.
The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks
By Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, Brendan McCarthy, Steve Dillon, Bryan Talbot, Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Ian Gibson, more
TUCKER: While some of these stories have been available in other collections before, most of these comics were released in the U.S. via various single-issue anthologies, and very few of them were colored or printed very well. Making legible versions of these stories is a worthwhile venture that the publisher deserves credit for doing, even if the results are far and away the work of someone whose best work lay ahead of him. The limitations of Future Shocks -- both length, tone and general conclusions -- made for some of Moore’s most cornball work. Still, there’s going to be enough of interest here to please the audience this book is aimed at, an audience for whom the word “Complete” in the title is as important as the writers name, and way more alluring than the words “Future Shocks.” For the casual comics reader -- an individual far removed from The Comics Journal’s audience, and therefore one who will never read this warning -- this isn’t what you’re looking for.
JOE: Titan Books did put out a pair of oversized softcovers in the mid-'80s collecting most of this stuff in legible form as well... but yeah, I basically agree. Future Shocks/Time Twisters are funny things, because they’re rightly hailed as good, traditional, on-the-job-training for succinct comics writing, but the excitement of seeing some up-and-comer sweating over this stuff is mostly limited to watching it as it happens... like, “ooh, this kid is going places!” In collected form, they’re good for nostalgia, or for studying where impulses that inevitably crop up in longer, better works originate, but they’re rarely ever satisfying as works-to-be-considered.
Still, I do like re-reading the Abelard Snazz stories, an unofficial continuing series about a jerkoff super-genius inventor (whom Moore transformed into Jack B. Quick years later for his ABC line)... some good, mean humor in there. I guess two other stories are acknowledged classics - Chronocops!, which is Moore & Dave Gibbons doing a fine homage to Kurtzman & Elder’s early Mad, and The Reversible Man, a very clever framing of a man’s life in reverse as a horror story of loss of control, although the cleverness and the surface pleasure of Moore’s writing pulling an indeed “cornball” concept off doesn’t ever translate to enduring substance... which is a fair enough comment for the whole book. Still, look at that fucking list of artists - this is a VIP tour of the early ‘80s 2000 AD deep bench, and that commands some casual interest of its own.
TUCKER: There’s no reason on Earth why you have to read Judge Dredd from the very beginnings, but hey: nobody needs a reason to read a comic book in the first place. But even though Dredd’s beginnings might not be right for everyone, he is the right thing for a whole lot of people, and he probably will be remain so for years to come. These are solid, occasionally excellent comics, funny as hell and worth getting into the habit of. That being said, if you don’t want to get started on a relationship that rarely shows signs of flagging -- and the Complete Case Files is that kind of relationship, as Douglas Wolk has so aptly proven -- many of the non-Complete Case Files collections will serve as a healthy best of anthology to thumb through. There’s artist- and writer-focused volumes (of these, the best is probably the Bolland one, although this has as much to do with the time at which Bolland worked on the title as it does with Bolland’s artwork) as well as character-focused volumes (more on those below). Like superhero comics, Dredd has a tendency to dominate the conversation by presence alone, and also like superhero comics, there’s little reason to think that anyone reading this is in any way confused as to their own feelings toward the character. It’s the most popular of 2000 AD’s franchises, and if you enjoy genre comics, there’s something for you here. If not: you get the point.
JOE: It should be noted that the Bolland-focused Death Lives! also features a lot of later, non-Bolland stuff featuring Judge Death, the sparingly-used Joker to Dredd's Batman... or does using him sparingly make him the opposite of the Joker? At this point you’re probably better off just getting IDW’s Judge Dredd: The Complete Brian Bolland hardcover (which, mind you, has its own quirks, insofar as it *only* collects the Bolland-illustrated chapters of various storylines, leaving you to imagine the rest)... but one of the charms(?) of Dredd is that there really is no perfect place to start. I’ll defer to Wolk that Complete Case Files 05 is the best of the S&S releases to sample from, in that it’s basically self-contained, yet features a number of longer, ‘important’ (in the continuity sense) storylines, while also seeing the various writers and artists hitting their early strides. Complete Case Files 10 is due in June, and that's not even half the stuff ready for release - and, given the prominence of this most-recognizable character in S&S's future publishing plans, we might even see 'em in North American dress.
Dredd: Urban Warfare
Dredd: The Illustrated Movie Script and Visuals
Judge Dredd: The XXX Files
Hondo City Justice: Revenge of the 47 Ronin
Banzai Battalion: Just Another Bug Hunt!
Judge Dredd: Mutants in Mega-City One
Judge Dredd: Fatties
Judge Dredd: The Garth Ennis Collection
Judge Dredd: Cry of the Werewolf
Judge Dredd: Inferno
Judge Dredd: When Judges Go Bad
Judge Dredd: Crusade
Judge Death: The Life and Death of...
Judge Dredd: Mega-City Masters 01-03
By everyone, literally everyone
JOE: I mean, that's a shitload of Judge Dredd already. This should be everything Tucker and I haven't (didn't) get hold of, and at least half a dozen additional books are slated for release through early 2016. A lot of these are S&S-exclusive collections of short works, grouped around creators or themes, many of which helpfully filled the shelves of bookstores in anticipation of the 2012 Dredd motion picture (which has since spun off an alternate continuity for the comics, as evidenced by the Illustrated Movie Script and Urban Warfare volumes). For possibly the first and only time in comics history, the themed volumes, shallow as they might appear, are probably better bets than the creator-focused ones (which include the Mega-City Masters numbers), since Judge Dredd has proven a notoriously tough nut to crack for individual writers who are not co-creator John Wagner; in particular, anything with Garth Ennis’ or Grant Morrison’s name on the cover should be met with a prudent lowering of expectations.
Judge Dredd: Origins
By John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Kevin Walker
JOE: Oh, wait - I can say something about this one! Origins ran in 2000 AD from late 2006 to mid-2007, thereby coinciding with the Judge Dredd series’ 30th anniversary. It’s something of a callback to the very first longform Dredd storyline -- 1978’s The Cursed Earth -- insofar as it’s an episodic chronicle of Dredd and others traversing radioactive wildlands, but it mainly serves to lay down a perfected origin story for not only Dredd himself, but the post-cataclysm world which he tirelessly patrols.
It’s an extremely odd book, almost perversely lacking in forward momentum, and probably better suited to devotees who can appreciate the nuances of Mega-City One than the potential new readers who’d presumably gravitate toward a book titled “Origins”. It’s also loaded with Iraq War-era political allegory, pinning the obliteration of civilization on a hee-hawing American cowboy president, which puts one in the mind of mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s roughly contemporaneous Osamu Tezuka tribute Pluto, another SF adventure series hearkening back to an earlier age while simultaneously dating itself to a very specific cultural moment without regret.
Origins also provided a certain turning point for Wagner as the strip's writer: the story's bleak, fatalistic denouement marks the Wagner Dredd's transition into outright melancholia - still funny and exciting, sometimes, but always marked by the presence of an older protagonist haunted by severe doubts over his life’s devotion. This characterization would continue into Wagner’s subsequent, increasingly Cerebus-like ultra-long storylines Tour of Duty and Day of Chaos, the latter of which revisits 1982’s The Apocalypse War in the same way Origins evokes The Cursed Earth, to an even more eccentric and purposefully anti-climactic degree. The two-book UK collection of the main Day of Chaos storyline will be released by S&S later this year.
Mean Machine: Real Mean
By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Gordon Rennie, Greg Staples, Steve Dillon
TUCKER: Mean Machine was a popular side character from an early Judge Dredd story resurrected by Wagner, and his is a popularity that has (obviously) lasted long enough that the people at 2000 AD had enough stories with the character to merit a twenty-dollar collection. While Dredd features in most of these stories, he’s never the main player... which leads to an up and down level of quality that, for the most part, tends toward the down. You can’t blame Mean too harshly - he’s just better at the supporting role, and each writer has his own take on how violent and funny to play these stories. (Sometimes a Mean headbutt equals a brutal death, other times it’s just a slapstick move - but there’s no way to tell until afterwards.) The art is consistent throughout, it’s only real problem is that it’s never the sort of work you’ll stop to marvel at. That’s actually one of 2000 AD’s greatest accomplishments: it rarely looks bad. American genre comics, the kinds of things published by Image, Dynamite and IDW, as well as those from DC and Marvel, are totally hit and miss, and lately, artists that are little more than reliably competent have been painted with the same brush as their more talented peers, the types of artists who actually deserve some measure of exaltation. 2000 AD does occasionally have bursts of visual excitement, but most of the time, the comic sticks to a standard just a little north of average. It’s tough to associate the credit for that with a specific name -- it’s been a truism for longer than any single editorial head -- so I assume there’s some system in place, a system that could use replication here.
JOE: Tucker's not kidding about Mean's longevity. Right now, as you read this, Judge Dredd Megazine is running a story hyped as the final days of Mean Machine - which suggests that maybe Wagner's aforementioned heaviness is also logical symptom of characters that age in semi-real time...
Judge Anderson: The Psychic Crime Files
By Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra, Trevor Hairsine, Boo Cook
TUCKER: While Judge Anderson (a psychic Judge who frequently assists Dredd, most often when Judge Death comes around) is certainly popular enough on her own, her solitary adventures tend to grate in large chunks, in some small part due to the way Alan Grant seems a little too proud of the way he’s written a female character who doesn’t rely on her feminine wiles to win the day. Here’s the thing: not doing something dumb isn’t the same as doing something smart, and “not being sexist” isn’t impressive enough of a trait to keep one engaged for as long as it takes to read a phone book of stories, though -- and I haven’t done this, but I bet somebody has -- it is a good sentence to use if you’re trying to trick someone into thinking that they should buy the book.
JOE: Interestingly, despite Anderson being around since 1980, I understand this S&S collection is mostly newer material: one story from the late ‘80s, one from the late ‘90s, and then a whole grip of late ‘00s/early ’10s stuff... not that I’m complaining about all those pages by Carlos/Hector Ezquerra or Boo Cook, the latter of whom tends to strike a nice balance between the post-Bisley ‘painted’ period of the magazine and lively, funny cartooning. I also enjoy how unabashedly dour some of these later stories can get; Anderson's most recent Judge Dredd Megazine serial (NOT collected here) had her attempting suicide, ostensibly at the psychic call of a villain, but mainly as a vehicle for Grant to delve into thoughts on growing old and responding poorly to the mess of the world. In a way, it called back to the most interesting Anderson stuff: Grant’s prolonged psychological trauma/vision quest stories, which I presume S&S just didn’t want to commit to. (They comprise much of the second and third volumes of the Rebellion’s Judge Anderson: The PSI Files series.) If these are indeed nothing but amusing throwaways and okay-but-not-the-best latter-day work, it can't exactly sell this writer as a prominent force behind an all-time beloved character.
The Complete D.R. & Quinch
By Alan Moore & Alan Davis
TUCKER: It’s not bad? D.R. & Quinch was an Alan Moore and Alan Davis creation, a humor comic that followed a couple of hyper violent teenagers as they went from mischief to mischief. It’s sort of like Ren & Stimpy, or any other television show that’s a little too sophisticated to be clear to small children, but still trafficking in the same kind of pleasures. A little of it goes a long way, a feeling that Moore seems to have shared, and by the time it gets moving on a pretty obvious Hollywood satire -- is there any worse type of story than the Hollywood satire? -- you’ll probably have reached your fill. As with most Alan Davis comics, you never forget you’re looking at an artist whose greatest ambition is that he achieved competence.
JOE: Moore himself later claimed (as quoted in Thrill-Power Overload, from a documentary titled 10 Years of 2000 AD) that this was all intended in the vein of Dennis the Menace... The Beano version, not Hank Ketcham's. He also deemed it “probably something I’ll ask to have destroyed on my deathbed,” but with a certain twinkle in the eye, I imagine, over the disreputability of it all. Extra-disreputable, insofar as the characters were heavily inspired by O.C. and Stiggs from the pages of National Lampoon, but it’s not like 2000 AD was ever all that shy about drawing liberal influence from elsewhere.
Super, SUPER popular strip in its day, though. Can't say I’ve ever liked it much. There’s something really over-considered, self-consciously erudite-but-also-slapstick-because-we’re-certainly-not-trying-to-be-pretentious-here-oh-god-no about the whole thing. I think Moore’s contemporaneous Bojeffries strips in Warrior with Steve Parkhouse were a lot better, maybe because there he’s dealing with a more grounded, semi-depressive urban environ: something closer to home. Moore *can* be a really funny guy -- his text pieces in Image's 1963 comprise the most devastating lampoon of the Stan Lee persona ever published, and Stan Lee is not the type to disinvite parody -- but this is like reading Deadpool comics the year after they’re out. Schematized ‘anarchic’ nerd humor ages poorly, I guess.
The Complete Ballad of Halo Jones
By Alan Moore & Ian Gibson
JOE: If there is one big difference I’d draw between 2000 AD and the American ‘mainstream’ action comics right now -- a macro, overarching, possibly unfair differentiation -- I’d say it’s the fact that we haven’t gotten more Halo Jones, whether we want it or not.
I mean: The Ballad of Halo Jones never finished. Moore & Gibson did three storylines -- all of which are collected here -- and then Moore, who was getting a lot of assignments at DC by then, circa 1985, had one of his characteristic blow-ups and refused to continue working until the rights to the strip were assigned to him and Gibson. If you recall the Watchmen deal Moore cut with DC, where the rights were supposed to revert to him and Dave Gibbons when the book went out of print, which of course it never did... for all its faults, it *was* still superior to whatever he had with 2000 AD, the owners of which, IPC, when the magazine launched in 1977, were still playing the Walt Disney game where they wouldn’t credit anyone on page. Creators' identities were seen as akin to trade secrets, and the desire for credit an unconscionable arrogance that threatened everyone's livelihood for frivolous vanity. Kevin O'Neill had to start sneaking them onto the page. That’s the flavor of bullshit British creators had to struggle against, and that’s why, eventually, the British invasion of American genre comics happened - because as bad as it could be, DC was still a much better deal. There’s no potential for reversion of Halo Jones to anyone who doesn’t own 2000 AD itself, and, because of that, they can theoretically re-launch the strip at any time - yet unlike DC and Watchmen, they HAVEN’T done it, because I think they recognize that the value of the series lays entirely with its creators, who were looking to very creator-driven American things like Love and Rockets for inspiration.
It’s tricky to say ‘creators,’ though... what’s not often said about the Moore/2000 AD breakup is that it also broke up Moore and Gibson, the latter of whom wanted to continue work what had become a very popular and respected and creatively satisfying strip. He actually tried pitching a continuation of the series with himself writing, but 2000 AD wouldn’t bite on that without Moore’s permission, and, you know... this isn’t the only time Moore’s lobbying on behalf of ‘creators’ has troubled an actual creative partnership; there was a some friction between him and Alan Davis too on Captain Britain. (Davis delivers a brief account of this in TwoMorrows' Kimota! The Miracleman Companion.) I love the guy, I love that he’s a genuine iconoclast in a scene apt to canonizing anybody who memorizes all the ticklish spots upon which to nuzzle the fan base, but he does operate from a place of distinct leverage, being a prominent, in-demand writer in an trade that allows writers of such renown a relatively wide berth of activity. An artist, in contrast, is typically lashed to only one assignment, from which their livelihood is drawn; they cannot necessarily afford an Alan Moore’s ideology. It’s a dictatorial brand of politicking, Moore’s, not unlike the dictatorial scripts of his from which Gibson has readily admitted (again, in Thrill-Power Overload) to ignoring the bits that didn’t strike him as necessary, because - after all, if you’re so critical to the function of comics, Original Writer, then surely you can draw in all these minute fucking details on your own time. Oh! What?! You can’t draw quickly enough?? You-- you're saying cannot draw with adequate skill so as to communicate the tone of the work?? You mean... comics... IS VISUAL ART?!?!
Gibson, of course, is also reliant on Moore. I haven't seen anything else he's done in the same qualitative league as Halo Jones, and what we’ve heard of his plans for a solo continuation of the project -- three words: slave chains, motherfucker -- isn’t very likely to prompt a groundswell of support. But the elephant remains crammed into the room: if all of the comic book artists in the world quit work tomorrow morning, most of our beloved scribes would be scrivening CVs that afternoon, whereas if all the writers were suddenly raptured away into genius heaven, we’d still have comics. Probably a lot of comics that read like the dregs of Image circa 1995, but: we’d still have comics.
Anyway, what exists of Halo Jones is terrific comics, and 2000 AD knows damn well they’re terrific, and within that is the slight suggestion that yeah - having something terrific doesn’t have to mean wringing out every drop of blood.
Zenith Phase 01-02
By Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, M. Carmona, Brendan McCarthy
JOE: On the other hand, here's a set of books that arrive in the face of a longstanding dispute between 2000 AD and writer Morrison, who began work on the strip under a later regime and has contested the work's ownership. Such controversy has done little to inhibit the wide distribution of these volumes, which do represent a genuinely under-seen glimpse of many Morrisonian obsessions in nascent form. Hell, the overarching plot deals with a malevolent invasion of parallel Earths - remarkably similar to that in Morrison's current The Multiversity, and on top of that you've got the writer's fondness for lost, forgotten superhero concepts as agents of change, alive and soaring in 1987.
However, these particular runs of Zenith feel less fresh than unripe. Phase 01 is frankly *terrible*, slotting its bratty rock star superhero into a dead-basic gathering-of-forces scenario, with forgotten costumed celebrities of the '60s pitted against a pro forma Nazi/Lovecraftian baddie; save for curing a man of alcoholism in fours days by annoying the addiction away, Zenith doesn't even really DO anything until witnessing A Heroic Death and climatically gathering the resolve to fight. I chuckled at the recasting of a Ditko-psychedelic Doctor Strange type as a Tory power-player, but there aren't really any Morrisonian ideas in here that weren't done much better in Animal Man the next year, and even then it's a far cry from Paradax, the Brendan McCarthy/Peter Milligan rock star superhero strip from the pages of Eclipse's Strange Days a few years prior - that was a genuinely odd, puckish, gleefully irresponsible piece, fizzy with sugar color and digressive in narrative form. Zenith was avowedly inspired by that work -- to the point where McCarthy himself was approached to draw it, contributing concept designs before deciding, by his own account, that "I couldn’t see the upside of illustrating a strip that was essentially ripping off my own original thought" -- but compared to Paradax, Morrison's plotting is utterly conservative, resembling nothing less than that paragon of superhero dadcomics, Kingdom Come, what with its return of the unfashionable old guard to proffer responsible guidance to mean little twits. Forget the pop record gloss and look to the bit with aging superfolk solemnly whispering poetry while brewing a miraculous thundercloud with their awe-inspiring powers - THAT'S the aesthetic here. "It influenced a whole generation of superhero stories, and is currently much more influential than Watchmen or Dark Knight," Morrison boasted in Thrill-Power Overload, and who could argue? Pouring a teaspoon of insouciance to flavor a tankard of reverence is undoubtedly the preferred superhero recipe.
But then, Zenith always was something of a slick costume. In his 2011 memoir Supergods, Morrison is upfront about not particularly liking 2000 AD as a magazine beyond the fact that it paid new writers, and that Zenith was pitched to meet an editorial desire to beat American publishers at the superhero revisionism game, even while it was carefully designed as a mechanism for breaking Morrison in to writing said American superheroes. The writer knowingly adopted "the snotty whippet-thin snideness of the hipster" as his public persona, and it does not take much imagination to see Zenith himself as the avatar of Morrison's brand-of-the-day, the first of many fictionsuits standing as response to the anal intellectualism and hopeless self-seriousness of Watchmen and its kin.
Here's the problem, though. Zenith is drawn by an artist, Steve Yeowell. And because the art in a comic controls so much of its tone, Zenith is simply not the rollicking good time throwaway its writer apparently planned. It couldn't be. Yeowell's work in Phase 01 is hesitant, only really cooking when the cosmic beasties arrive for the climax, but by Phase 02 he's come into his own, absolutely slathering pages with opaque shadows in the service of both conspiratorial atmosphere and panicked, barely-coherent action scenes fronted by a cyborg Bad Dad constructed largely of curved lines and spotted blacks. This ain't no party, it's a fucking horror movie - seizing a stronger Morrison script, bruised with elements of genetic experimentation, Oedipal conflict and nuclear holocaust, and functionally recasting its doofus hero as less a grown, cocky man than a naïve youth trapped by grinning paternal/industrial/political slashers. It is damn serious drawing, ripping down the curtains from a break in the performance to find Zenith backstage in a raging fit of kill-your-father angst - which is just like a pop star, right? And in seeing this state of things, this premonition of toxicity ruining good superheroes -- no small, deliberate theme in later Morrison scripts -- we overcome the puckish, misleading hype of writer and publisher to realize that this truly is a gigantically misunderstood work from our necessary reliance on advertorial hearsay; and so, the argument for access is made.
Nikolai Dante: Too Cool to Kill
By Robbie Morrison, Simon Fraser, Charlie Adlard, Henry Flint, Chris Weston
TUCKER: This is notable for including fucking and such, which is something that still eludes all superhero comics, because that’s wrong, apparently? Dante is your lecherous scoundrel, cut from the same cloth they cut these Han Solo types from, and he pursues fame and fortune while trying to survive a futuristic war-torn Russia where the Czars never stopped ruling. The setting is interesting at times, never truly hiding that the comic is one big soap opera about a roguish ladies man who will someday learn to care about freedom, love, why anarchy doesn’t work, and so on. The eight-page installment plan can both diminish and improve the stories by demanding a brevity of explanation, which keeps the story moving at a brisk clip.
JOE: I guess the initial release didn’t do well enough to warrant S&S’s release of the subsequent 10 volumes, which must have hurt - Nikolai Dante is one of relatively few super-longform 2000 AD serials conceived as a closed work with a definite ending.
TUCKER: Having only ended a few months prior to this writing [c. 2012], it’s difficult to imagine that Dante maintained this level for very long - almost all of the conclusions reached in the final story were set up in these first pages, the will-she-fall-for-him, will-he-settle-down being only the most obvious. However, whatever they did to pad it out for over ten years isn’t in evidence in Too Cool To Kill - it’s just solidly entertaining comics.
The Complete Bad Company
By Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy, Steve Dillon
TUCKER: Peter Milligan’s Bad Company owes a debt to John Wagner’s Darkie’s Mob, but Darkie’s Mob owes a debt to Joseph Conrad, and if you don’t stop now, you’re going to be talking about Gilgamesh until your lips get cracked. Now, Bad Company is one of those 2000 AD stories that’s showed more than once on these shores, and that’s because it happens to be pretty damn good, even after you take the tacked-on psychedelic sequel into account. The story of a bunch of violence addicted grunts grinding out death on the other side of a hellish planet, Bad Company is classic boy’s fiction taking to a creepy boy extreme. Making things easy on himself, Milligan creates a villain that’s impossible to identify with or relate to with anything but disgust, and then he sets loose a team of badasses to kill their way through. While circumstances dictated that Company’s perfection be sullied with a whole lot of extraneous nonsense by the end, its initial run is a brilliant example of 2000 AD’s non-Dredd/Future Shocks extras.
JOE: Set to continue later this year too, so maybe "Complete" is a misnomer...
The War Machine
By Dave Gibbons, Will Simpson, Michael Fleisher, Steve Dillon, Kevin Walker
JOE: What irony! Out of all the popular superhero angst attacks of the late ‘80s, nobody seems to remember the one that sprang from the brow of Watchmen’s own co-author. Their loss: The War Machine is an absolute riot, recalibrating Gibbons’ and Gerry Finley-Day’s Rogue Trooper -- a displaced commando comic starring an artificial soldier on a quest for revenge -- into a kill-crazy blood opera worthy of Frank Miller at his most fog-of-warriest. Indeed, Gibbons was originally supposed to write *and* draw this thing, but wound up getting sidetracked with Miller’s own Give Me Liberty, and I rather suspect that process led to Gibbons-the-writer adopting exactly the sort of dispassionate hard-man caption narration (Sniper. Keep moving. No prisoners. Razor wire. Rips gas suits. Snares humans. Not us.) associated with Frank the Tank. Hell, Henry Flint even draws the damn cover of this new edition as what looks distinctly like a Miller homage.
But the interior artist is neither Flint nor Miller nor Dave Gibbons, but prolific Game of Thrones concept designer/storyboardist Will Simpson from back in his comics-makin’ days, and good gravy does he smear these pages with go-for-broke pink fire skies and red blood on blue skin and terrible black steel. At times it almost recalls Bill Sienkiewicz’s work with Miller on Elektra: Assassin, but Simpson is only ever surreal enough to create an impressionistic swirl of combat horror: initially conveying the chaos of hot engagement, but then lingering like a very bad memory's intrusion upon peacetime. A three-act structure presides over 74 pages (brief enough that the story has the decency to end just as all the talk of Brothers and Dying Well starts to register as annoying), with the first third of the book comprised of a gigantic combat sequence, the second approximating Apocalypse Now’s journey across a blighted hellscape, and the third indicting the military-industrial complex as the REAL Traitor General, man! Fundamentally, I suppose it’s no less a ganking of the popular moment from Platoon/Full Metal Jacket than Hook Jaw did to Spielberg, while at the same time serving up a New! Dark! Violent! origin for an enduring super-character in as Big ‘80s a manner as imaginable, but my god - shelve this one next to Howard Chaykin’s The Shadow, ‘cause these bastards make it roar!
Plus, there’s a smattering of post-Gibbons/Simpson stories in the back of the book, which is a bit like watching a time-lapse film of a slice of bread decomposing, qualitatively.
Shakara: The Avenger
By Robbie Morrison & Henry Flint
TUCKER: Excellent sci-fi action stuff about a Nemesis style galactic warrior, Gladiator-ing his/her way throughout the universe, slaughtering those who killed his/her people. Based completely off of Henry Flint’s ABC Warriors style art, this is a great one. As direct as the bat they use on Joe Pesci’s head in Casino. Highly recommended.
JOE: I just wish S&S had released the second (and concluding) volume. It was on their schedule for a while, but then it vanished. A casualty of reduced ambitions? Maybe simple economic sense...
Kingdom: The Promised Land
By Dan Abnett, Richard Elson, Steve Roberts
TUCKER: This is a harmless post-apocalyptic story that teases out its various reveals (how the world ended, what the current system is, how things have changed) effectively. It’s a pretty fast-moving story, and Dan Abnett isn’t shy about handing the storytelling reins over to Richard Elson, trusting the artist to handle most of the fight scenes (which make up a good third of the book) without relying on dialog as a crutch. There’s moments throughout the book that left me wondering if maybe Elson isn’t a bit of a prude, as his violence has a tendency towards tameness, but it also seems likely that the artist is just in keeping with the story’s basic problem, which is that everything about is average. Cast against great comics, there’s little here to cherish, but compared to any decently made one hour procedural (of either the cop or lawyer variety), this ends up on more equal ground.
JOE: So, what do you make of Dan Abnett? Like, as a presence? The Dan Abnett Experience? I don't have this book, but I did read the most recent Kingdom stuff, which ran in 2000 AD late last year. It was mostly huge battle scenes filled with characters wearing toyetic gear of indistinct utility screaming would-be catchphrases over and over, with a repeating narration at the top of most chapters which I think was supposed to evoke an aboriginal oral tradition but came off more like uncertainty as to whether readers might forget half the cast from week to week - not an unfounded concern. I'd have probably skipped it if each installment didn't take a maximum of 45 seconds to finish. I do tend to skip Sinister Dexter, the jillion-page series only recently consigned to following Guardians of the Galaxy in Abnett's career overviews. In fact, out of everybody I know who reads 2000 AD, I genuinely can count the number of people who’d openly admit to *following* Sinister Dexter on one hand, even leaving room for a really gnarly dog bite, yet there’s obviously a silent majority out there which has kept this watery mix of cod-Ennis circa Preacher and cod-Tarantino circa Pulp Fiction going for almost two fucking decades now, and that’s sort of the slot the Dan Abnett Experience occupies in my grand mental 2000 AD cartography: he efficiently fills the space you often skim over but assume that somebody else will read. I did enjoy his Insurrection series of space opera comics that existed inside Judge Dredd continuity for a while... perhaps he’s one of those writers who benefits from a firm, preexisting premise as a base for extrapolation? He's written an enormous number of Warhammer novels... I've never read his Guardians, but that might play it out too.
TUCKER: I think that sort of encapsulates Dan Abnett pretty well, he reads like the kind of guy who has no stronger ambitions beyond turning things in on time. I never got attached to his work on cosmic Marvel properties, but I did read enough of them that I feel relatively confident in saying that they seemed to have some genuine excitement behind them, which sort of makes sense - if you’ve made a creative career built entirely out of working on really generic versions of mainstream entertainment, then having a chance to dictate a popular universe would probably feel like a step up the ladder, even if it is work-for-hire stuff. Actually, the main thing I think when I read Dan Abnett comics is what Andy Lanning (who has worked with Abnett on almost all of his American work) thinks of it. Does Andy read it and wish he could change it? Does he not care? Does he lie to Dan and say that he read it, secretly relishing the fact that he didn’t even try?
Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One
By Andy Diggle, John Wagner, Jock, Henry Flint, Steve Dillon
TUCKER: Not a piece of shit, but close.
Low Life: Paranoia
By Rob Williams, Henry Flint, Simon Coleby
TUCKER: While the Judge Dredd universe has spawned some interesting comics, Low Life isn’t one of them. One of those disappointments that starts bad and gets worse, Low Life is the story of undercover Judges in Mega-City One and the various ripped-from-Hammett troubles they get into. (That isn’t wholly accurate, but the texture of film noir cliché is the only thing that sticks in the memory after finishing Low Life. That and the unusual Alan Moore-esque character design of “Dirty Frank”.) The cover prominently features a “baby Judge,” and while he does show up to crack some obvious wise, most of this book is about a Judge named Aimee Nixon and her various undercover jobs. Artist Henry Flint is the only shining light here, but after twenty pages of this banality, it’s hard not to feel like he’s wasting his time. Some of this became vaguely interesting when they were directly tied into a Judge Dredd story [Trifecta, due from S&S later this year], but the simple, hard truth is that none of the Low Life characters are that interesting, and by the time you’ve read one page, your brain will have already figured out what the next 7 are going to be.
JOE: Again, I haven’t read this earlier stuff, but I do enjoy the newer Low Life strips... the strictly D’Israeli-drawn material that’s basically Dirty Frank: The Ongoing Series (all the captions of which I read in Alan Moore’s voice, to splendid effect). Perfectly decent mix of more-successful-than-not surreal humor and broad, goofy parody of the sort that casts a Mitt Romney stand-in as the villain of a U.S. election season storyline in the form of a talking anthropomorphic shark.
TUCKER: I’d second that completely. Every time the light of attention zeroes in on Dirty Frank, Low Life gets infinitely better. That most recent story arc you’re describing (the one tied into the attempted Mega-City coup) is an excellent example of what Williams should be spending his time on. Put Aimee in a rowboat, and toss the baby in for company.
By Robbie Morrison, Frank Quitely, Andy Clarke, Neil Googe, John Wagner, Colin MacNeil
TUCKER: Quitely. Worth it.
JOE: Yes, but - what about the other 127 pages? I think it bears emphasizing that Frank Quitely does not draw very much of this book at all, though what’s in here does nonetheless make up more than a third of the interior art he’d ever provide for 2000 AD and its siblings. Also, the... 'dialect humor' in the Wagner/MacNeil story brings to mind a line comedian Hari Kondabolu once delivered about the beloved Simpsons character Apu: “If I saw Hank Azaria do that voice at a party I would kick the shit out of him.”
TUCKER: Sometimes I think that Judge Dredd-a-verse’s treatment of racial stereotypes (the biggest offender being the way they depict Hispanics, but the Japanese stuff in Hondo is a creepy runner-up) is being excused away by its creative team because the general comic is one big satire on America and Americans... and that’s got some truth to it, which is why its probably a defense that mentally springs to action at the mere thought of criticizing God-Wagner. The biggest barbs in Dredd are the ones being stuck into the weak-willed American consumer, the guy who is content to let fascism stomp in the streets as long as television runs 24/7. If these Dredd comics actually hate something, then I think they hate the craning mouth that waits for Mother to chew the food, despite the obvious irony that the stories are being printed on the kind of paper brought into existence so that it could someday be tied up with twine and thrown away. But when that language shows up, it stings because it’s so incongruent, because it’s a relic of a time that Dredd doesn’t seem to have anything to do with, the way there never seems to be any acknowledgement that some Judges are black, and some Judges are women, the way the future looks like a place where we’ve gotten out of the business of racism and misogyny and focused all our energy on whether you’re strong or weak, whether you’re the law, or you’re not. But then Dredd goes overseas and the Japanese talk like a 1940s propaganda movie: and I don’t know what to tell you, because no excuse really works.
JOE: Definitely a fan of Zombo; it’s the sort of goofy-ass pop-culture-saturated humor that ought to blight the writer and shame his family, but by god this Al Ewing cat pulls it off. Also, I haven’t checked with Guinness, but Henry Flint probably holds some sort of record for Most Slept-On Sojourn Abroad (British Comics Artist Division): he did this 2006-07 Omega Men miniseries at DC with Dominic Regan on colors that looked absolutely bugfuck insane.
TUCKER: Zombo! I have no complaints about Zombo. I definitely found myself enjoying this book a lot more after I started paying attention to Charlie Brooker, which was how I found out how completely fucked up British television is once you get away from that core Spooks/Prime Suspect/Thick of It zone of quality. Henry Flint is one of those guys who snuck into my home and made a place for himself on my bookshelves - it wasn’t until we started putting this conversation together that it clicked how much of his work I’d already seen. This is the type of humor that 2000 AD excels at, and having eight pages of it every week or so is the most efficient way to suck it down.
By Peter Milligan & Jamie Hewlett
TUCKER: Okay, you like this one, right? Sell it to me, Joe. I’ve always thought it wasn’t very substantial, and neither that fun nor very funny. What am I missing?
JOE: Eh, truth be told, Hewligan's Haircut isn't Peter Milligan's best comic -- that would be Enigma, though Rogan Gosh is the best comic he's ever been part of, if you get my distinction -- but it's probably his most nakedly confessional: a big, overwrought metaphor for creative living in a world you don't especially identify with. It's not an easy sit, no; being a book about a sensitive, misunderstood arty type who knows his shit better than anyone, it *constantly* flirts with bathetic irritation, teetering between self-pity and barely-disguised arrogance, to say nothing of its mildly prickly alterna-dream girl love interest who exists solely to wake the hero/author up to his own bomb-ass potential... it's like a story written by a teenager, complete with risible canards like 'mentally ill persons as prisoners of a square society,' and unctuous jeremiads against such top cultural threats as Andrew Lloyd Weber and Pop Art. I swear to fucking god, the first genre comics lifer I hear express even a mild admiration for Roy Lichtenstein is getting a letter of recommendation for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, American or not...
Oh god, this is the same book as The Sculptor, isn't it? It's the same damn thing!
But much in the way a Future Shock by a prominent writer can be interesting for encapsulating later obsessions in an unrefined manner, this book sees most of Milligan's preoccupations -- questions of identity, ambivalence over popular culture -- distilled into a sort of juvenile yowl, immediate enough for young readers to groove on yet interesting to olds in laying out his whole psychic map in a compact arrangement, Joycean puns and allusions and all. And given that Milligan's take on 'madness' here translates to seeing the world as interpretable literature, it's fitting that he risks a certain opacity of storytelling in ways you don't get from even his more self-consciously psychedelic works. I'm thinking Zenith will work the same way for some Grant Morrison fans, although this isn't specifically juvenilia, just unusually raw and immediate and unprotected, which makes the difference for me. (Cataloging the problems with The Sculptor I will leave to historians, who will have their work cut out.)
Also: art by Jamie “Gorillaz” Hewlett, who (let's face it) is the sole reason this isn't something you'd get for free with an issue of Judge Dredd Megazine. Hewlett had a strange, brief tenure at 2000 AD circa '89-'90, almost always acting as either co-artist or a late-coming replacement for Brendan McCarthy. Hewligan's Haircut was his only original feature, and he really does pour it all out in a manner I've never quite seen from him elsewhere. You've got photo collage, fine art mimicry, heavy paints, excellent b&w linework... I don't think it all comes together as much more than a promenade of licks, granted, but it's nonetheless heartening to see such an out-there effort going down the year after Simon Bisley blew the doors off of color processes with Sláine: The Horned God. It wasn't all musclemen in pale imitation. It never had to be.
Harry 20: On the High Rock
By Gerry Finley-Day & Alan Davis
TUCKER: For those without a serious, life-redeeming interest in the work of Alan Davis, this story of an off world prison space station will be a middling version of a tale that’s been told better in at least fifty other versions, the most obvious being that staple of basic cable reruns, The Shawshank Redemption. That film (and the short story it was based on) have no more claim to innovation than Harry 20 does, but at least you can get through them in less than 180 minutes without feeling like they aren’t being given their proper due. Why this one was selected for American distribution is beyond me; more than most of what 2000 AD has recently made available, this, we have plenty of.
JOE: Fun history behind it, though. Like, when I mention 2000 AD *having* to use every script they paid for at a certain time, this was specifically the book I was thinking about, as Alan Grant wound up doing extensive rewrites to beat Finley-Day's work into publishable shape - the serial ran '82-'83, but the original scripts were definitely older than that. I like Finley-Day; Invasion! is my personal high water mark for irresponsibly breakneck fun-at-any-cost ‘70s thrill power, but apparently his compositional aptitude was questionable enough that some of the 2000 AD spaceman lingo, like “scrotnig,” came from misspellings in his submitted scripts. There’s a great anecdote in Thrill-Power Overload with Finley-Day turning in a story where one starship is pursuing another through the dead of space, and the pilot of the ship in front smashes out the driver’s side window and starts shooting behind him...
By Ian Edginton & D’Israeli
TUCKER: One of the more recent new serials from S&S [the stuff in here dates '03-'05], Leviathan was a reportedly well-received thing about a massive ship that disappeared in the late '20s. After a brief newsreel detailing the ship’s launch, the plot leaps twenty years into the future, confining itself with the unfortunate passengers and telling a whodunit murder tale. The story isn’t specifically predictable, although you’ve probably already guessed that the murder will lead to the discovery of why the ship disappeared in the first place. It’s not wholly surprising that this story had some success in 2000 AD -- it’s much bolder than some of the other off-the-beaten path stories in the magazine -- but outside of that “it doesn’t read like Judge Dredd or Rogue Trooper” context, it’s hard to say anything special about it. This collection includes two later spin-off stories; both are set prior to the events of the main one, and neither are the slightest bit interesting. D’Israeli’s distinct black, white and gray art has some charms to it, but it’s still “good soldier” comics, the sort of drawing that you respect but can’t really fall for.
JOE: The ‘20s, eh? My own experiences with Ian Edginton -- an odd duck, in that he enjoyed a prolific career in North American superhero and media tie-in comics prior to most of his 2000 AD work -- do sort of place him as a ‘period’ guy; projects like Stickleback (also with the invaluable D’Israeli) and Ampney Crucis Investigates revel in heavy deployment of old-time slang and outmoded dignities, albeit spiced up with violent horror images. “[B]older than some” seems right. Oddly, what I’ve read of his earliest, longest series -- the now-concluded The Red Seas, with Steve Yeowell -- is comparatively bland, maybe by virtue of having started before he got used to the water.
Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds
By Ian Edginton & I. N. J. Culbard
JOE: But for North Americans, this is probably Edginton's highest-profile work as a writer right now, insofar as Rebellion packaged it as a comic book miniseries last year with an eye toward Direct Market penetration in addition to S&S distributing this hardcover compendium. I've read Brass Sun twice, first as a weekly serial and then as a comic book, and it's pretty easy to see why it's getting such a hard push - it reads like 2000 AD's big entry into contemporary YA territory, with an endearingly sour, almost Adèle Blanc-Sec-like girl hero -- privy to secret knowledge and competent beyond her peers -- getting thrust into a struggle against authoritarian forces, ultimately revealing the secrets behind the clockwork world inhabited by her and several new friends. It could have run in The Phoenix if not for the occasional blast of gore, though Culbard's exceedingly smooth color art blocks anything supremely off-putting from quite registering as such; this is very sturdy, efficient craft, and its familiarities of situation and theme may yet deepen into resonance as future volumes arrive.
Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 01-02
Ro-Busters: The Disaster Squad of Distinction
Durham Red: Bitch
Sláine: Book of Invasions 1
The Ten Seconders: American Dream
Button Man: Get Harry Ex
All-Star Future Shocks
Tharg's Creepy Chronicles
By several writers, and several more artists
JOE: So here's the inevitable roundup of miscellaneous books that Tucker didn't get around to reviewing, and that I neither own nor have read enough of via other venues to comment upon with much authority. The two Rogue Trooper books collect most of the really well-regarded early-to-mid-'80s space infantry comics written by Gerry-Finley Day, drawn in large part by Dave Gibbons, Cam Kennedy, Colin Wilson and Brett Ewins; there's two more UK volumes you can import. Ro-Busters was a Pat Mills-written predecessor robot strip to ABC Warriors, for which Rebellion put together a complete collection; the S&S edition, at 112 pages, looks to be a bit slimmer than the UK edition. Durham Red bears the dubious distinction of being the only passage from Judge Dredd creators John Wagner's & Carlos Ezquerra's Strontium Dog mutant bounty hunter opus to be released by S&S; no doubt the sexy vampire heroine built confidence in this 1987 storyline written with Alan Grant. The Sláine is the first third of a Pat Mills-scripted 2003-06 Celtic barbarian saga which does not appear to have books two or three slated for release by S&S; it's notable for insanely garish neo-photocomic digital art by Clint Langley. The Ten-Seconders is a collection of 2006-08 humans vs. superhumans comics written by Rob Williams, one of the reliable latter-day 2000 AD scriptmen, with the majority of the art by Mark Harrison, who is quite good; I've only read a later storyline, which was (mostly) drawn by Edmund Bagwell, who's also quite good, although the comic itself was pretty dull. Maybe it was better earlier. Button Man is actually a creator-owned(!!) John Wagner/Arthur Ranson strip which had been ousted from Toxic!, a rival magazine that Wagner had co-founded; it's a hugely violent crime story notable for Ranson's terrifying hyper-real drawings, which only encourage Wagner's appetite for violence. Frazer Irving drew a later storyline not collected here. All-Star Future Shocks is an S&S custom anthology, repeating a lot of stuff from the 2008 Rebellion collection The Best of Tharg's Future Shocks (i.e. many Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman pieces), while deleting the likes of John Smith in favor of more recognizable names such as Mark Millar. Tharg's Creepy Chronicles also has some Millar -- his ultra-obscure 1990 serial Silo with artist Dave D'Antiquis -- but the main event is Storming Heaven, a 2002 Gordon Rennie/Frazer Irving allegory about '60s counterculture kids getting superpowers from LSD that plays out as exactly the sort of dissolve-on-contact lark that Zenith kept insisting it was.
Sláine: Warrior’s Dawn
By Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Angie Kincaid, Mike McMahon
TUCKER: The original Sláine stories may appear Conan-esque, but it doesn’t take long before the visual cues wear off, leaving one with the sensation that they’re reading the final project of a caffeine-addled Dungeons & Dragons fan more than remixes of the Howardscape. But when Mike McMahon is given control, Sláine does make an excellent argument for the supremacy of image work alone. A style that he later claimed to have invented out of the absolute certainty that Sláine should be drawn in no other way -- even if that meant taking the series by force away from its co-creator (Kincaid, who happened to be the writer’s wife at the time) -- Sláine comes so vividly to life in those pages that it’s hard to criticize how rudimentary everything he’s doing happens to be. Basically, you won’t care that you don’t care, and by the time you do, you’ll have caught up with Simon Bisley - which is when the story got good anyway.
ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven
By Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Brendan McCarthy, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon
TUCKER: If you’re a hardcore (really hardcore) completionist, there’s also an eight-page Alan Moore/Steve Dillon short in the back of this collection, which was enough to earn Moore equal billing in the bio section alongside Pat Mills (who wrote the other 190 pages). That grumble aside, this is one of the good ones: more realized than Judge Dredd is at the beginning, ABC Warriors spends the first half of the book putting the team together (seven murderous robots, ordered to achieve goals, seemingly free to determine how they will do so) and then spends the other half going to war against the corporations that fight to control a newly settled Mars.
This being a Mills comic, no amount of satirical bludgeoning is spared: the government (which seems to be the Army) is irritated with the way big business keeps throwing its weight around, and, like the television show COPS and poor people before it, sends in the ABC Warriors to remind everybody that there’s something more powerful than being rich, and that is the power to make somebody dead. It’s pointless to say “in other hands, this comic would be” when you’re dealing with a comic that wouldn’t exist in other hands, and so instead, we’ll say this: this is leaps and bound beyond most of the team comics people available for people to read, and its insanely talented line-up of artists, all of whom seem to have relished in the artistic freedom that this bizarre cast allows -- one of the members is a unkillable liquid named “The Mess”, and Brendan McCarthy’s take on The Mess in battle made my imagination hurt -- deliver throughout. As good as this is -- and it’s quite good -- it was a mere shadow of what was to come, in...
ABC Warriors: The Black Hole
By Pat Mills, Simon Bisley, S.M.S.
JOE: I believe you once referred to this as “the most avant-garde comic ever made,” Tucker, and I’d like you to expand on that. Since apparently I’m your fucking editor.
TUCKER: The statement you’re referring to comes from Twitter, but I’ll stand by it, hyperbolic as it is. My initial experience with reading ABC Warriors was actually this volume, and it was due to the level of intensity of storytelling that sent me searching for The Meknificient Seven, described above. It’s funny to come back to Black Hole after having done a marathon re-read of Faust with you, because one of the aspects of Black Hole that really, really resonates with me is the extremely macho hero pose panels, which is something that Simon Bisley and S.M.S. have a tendency to revel in when they’re given the chance. I’d be really curious to find out what a script to some of these comics look like, because the end result is a fascinating combination of terse dialog and realllllly flowery philosophy lacing muscular drawings of robots swinging swords or striking bodybuilder poses. Almost half of this book reads like it came from somewhere else, as if these are pages yanked from the sketchbooks of artists who were listlessly looking through untranslated Jodorowsky comics, and when the other half of the book appears -- the part where there’s a plot, about a team of robots traversing a collapsing galactic war zone to repair time itself while fending off mortality, love, and constant betrayal, and not just by their teammates, but gravity and their own programming as well -- it feels like Mills is struggling to stay ahead of your comprehension more often than he is turning out a cohesive narrative. The conclusion sees the team “fight” a gigantic psychic beast “formed from the evil of all humanity” who is working in the service of the Cosmic Mother of the Universe, and while there’s moments where the visuals make sense, the pages mostly document what one often sees in modern action movies: there’s a bunch of incoherent visual noise that’s engaging on a visceral level, and at the end you figure out who won because it’s the character that can still talk. In this, a comic where facial expressions are kept as close to zero as it can get -- they’re robots, remember -- the amount of interpretation of left to the reader expands to include the entirety of the emotional landscape. With very few exceptions (for a short while, the team includes a human woman who believes she is a robot, her mortal flesh eventually outing the truth), Mills and his team of cyberpunk barbarian artists ignore feelings entirely, allowing the reader to do the same trick cat owners to do: the invention of personality, as opposed to the acknowledgement of programming.
That’s mostly a side project though. Later ABC Warriors stories revert to Meknificient Seven style war n’ satire action; it’s Black Hole that capitalizes on the sort of weirdness that guys like Milligan and Morrison would later exploit (to great reward) in more popular genres. This is classic acquired taste comics - the sort of shit you read in the back of the class, one claw wrapped around the notebook where you’re obsessively scrawling your own.
JOE: Ha, you’ve got that right; so much of the art in here seems to anticipate the pose-laden excesses of the Image founders -- this was 1988, mind you, so Lee & Liefeld were still on Alpha Flight and Hawk & Dove -- yet you can tell from Bisley’s love of excessive Will Elder-ish chicken fat and S.M.S.’s... everything, that these guys are also fascinated by a somewhat older vintage of comics. It feels weirdly American post-underground: not exactly countercultural, but at least cognizant of the thrill of countering culture, and trying to synthesize that into a special, manic glee. Star*Reach EX*TREME. Luckily, Mills is the kind of writer who’ll just ride that bull where it takes him - how many others might have just harrumphed at these crazy delinquents?
Sláine: The Horned God
By Pat Mills & Simon Bisley
TUCKER: According to the introduction (which is written by the book’s author), this is the best selling 2000 AD graphic novel ever published, and whether that’s accurate or not, it’s unarguably one of the most influential comics to have ever come out of the magazine, even if that influence now seems mostly confined TO the magazine. It’s also, out of all the books that Simon & Schuster has produced, the most attractive one by an unquestionable margin. And if I can add one more: it’s the one thing that vies with the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files as the best. A beautifully painted story told in three distinct chapters, The Horned God is Mills at his most openly political best, telling the story of how a barbarian united Ireland and bested the patriarchy through his fervent faith in a matriarchal line of power, from the point of view of the barbarian's longtime servant, a crude dwarf named Ukko. It’s an exceptional comic, and Sláine -- who Bisley depicts as a hybrid of Mega City punk and Robert E. Howard’s Conan -- when given a purpose, is a thoroughly engaging character. Due to the source texts that Mills relies on (Celtic mythology and proto-Wiccan jargon), Horned God sounds different than the comics that it's most commonly classed amongst, even if, at times, the twists it takes are much the same.
JOE: Every time I revisit The Horned God, I’m filled with these weird suspicions - like, aren’t I giving this too much credit for simply proving more complex than average for the forum? Isn’t Pat Mills doing just what you mention Alan Grant doing above, Tucker - reclining in indulgent satisfaction over his subversion of gender/genre expectations? Isn’t a lot of this a little too mindful, a little too self-aware of its maturity, in the long, awkward tradition of adolescent entertainment outgrowing its early ambitions? Does it not still summarize prior storylines in a chunky exposition dump over its first dozen pages? Are there not multiple fake-out endings, carefully poised to avoid killing off any of the popular and profitable lead characters? Even Bisley’s trailblazing art - if we’re gonna be genuine dickslap Comics Journal critics here, we’d basically *have* to point out that compared to Richard Corben and Bill Sienkiewicz before him, Bisley here is awfully conservative in compositional aims, and even somewhat timid in terms of explicitness... likely as a byproduct of working in 2000 AD, sure, but even compared to Sam Kieth’s plowing the same field in The Maxx a couple years later at fucking Image, the difference is obvious.
What I’m saying is, I was certain we saw Sláine’s dick at some point, but it turned out we didn’t, and I was sad about that.
And yet, The Horned God has a cohesion that frustrates the value of these qualms. Given the rigid contours of its serialization, it’s amazing how well this book reads as a single unit; structuring the work as a series of vignettes narrated by a peripheral character not only evokes the oral traditions from which Mills draws so much inspiration, it deftly covers the chapter breaks whereby every eight pages we’d be cutting to Zenith or Tharg's mailbag or something. Better yet, there’s a genuine logic and detail to everything - Mills may be awfully (and rightly) proud of his matriarchal spin on a hulking dude swinging mighty blades, but he backs it up with a hugely detailed set of plausible spiritual motivations for his entire cast. I was especially struck by how much space Mills devotes to laying out the religious attitudes of the story’s villains; so many genre comics (and movies, video games, etc.) are content to offer shorthand or purely melodramatic or simply non-existent rationales for epic struggles between societies, but Mills understands that culture and tradition and HISTORY powers so much actual violence between peoples... so much that the whole first third of the book is background, and all of it feels totally necessary.
Plus, it turns out that a slightly more subdued Bisley is actually pretty effective; Mills mentions in his annotations toward the back that Bisley’s best pages are the ones where people are just talking, and I agree - the faces in this book are terrific, as is Bisley’s aptitude for dramatic, unreal lighting and shade. There’s this sequence with a dwarf exploring an undersea cave in a weird, cartoon diving suit that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen from Bisley - I think his Ralph Steadman influence has more room in shine in here than any of his subsequent works, which for a while leaned very, very heavily on the hugely contorted, hyper-muscled figures of which there’s relatively few until the final act of this book, and only then in tandem with Mills’ descriptions of wild, form-shifting battle styles, themselves tied into both the literary antecedents and core themes of the story, which is all about CHANGE.
Mills is very blunt in his introduction that Sláine wasn’t so good for a long time after Bisley left. I haven’t read many of the later ‘90s stories, but I do know that I can’t imagine anyone else having drawn or painted this book. This, I expect, was the secret of its success as a “graphic novel” of the sort a book publisher like S&S would jump on as crucial backstock - the first from 2000 AD, and a signal that the future had once again found the future.