September 20th, 2011
I come to you, a lapsed Squaxx.
I stopped reading the Galaxy’s Greatest in any sort of regularity a long time ago. More than 15 years ago I reckon. That wasn’t always the way though. For a long time 2000AD was the most important comic in my life. I don’t really need to list the reasons – you’ve heard it all before no doubt. English comics fans proudly informing their bored US counterparts that they don’t know shit son, cos they weren’t there. But fucking hell man sometimes it was hard not to gloat – Millligan & Ewins on on the scorching psychedlic war strip Bad Company; Morrison & Yeowell on Zenith; Mills & O’Neill on the utterly original and frankly just plain crazy Nemesis; Mills & Bisley on the heavy metal nihilism of ABC Warriors; the incredible John Wagner (whose contribution alone to absolute fucking rock solid thrill power for the last 35 years means that, really, we should have a National holiday celebrating the man…); Brendan McCarthy; Mike Fucking McMahon; Bolland, Gibbons; Cam Kennedy’s incredible shattered war torn planetscapes that still absolutely kill it; Brendan McCarthy again; Halo Jones (Alan Moore’s best work, and it is so fuck off and it’s a proper tragedy but also kind of beautiful that it’ll never be finished); John Hicklenton (RIP); DR & Quinch; Big Dave;Dredd’s boots….JOHN MOTHERFUCKING SMITH….
Fuck, I did it anyway. Sorry…
But, I got bored of it too. The quality of strips in the 90′s began to dip wildly, and after a heady few years of total thrill power immersion, I unceremoniously dumped 2000AD.
So anyway I thought I should give buying it weekly another go. Come at it with a clean slate and keep at it, and see if I can love it again. I was mainly lured back by two things. I happened to hear that issue 1750 was one of their sem-regular deck-clearing anniversaries, where they start all new strips with an eye, I guess, to attracting new readers. Although, that said, the promotion was woefully unbecoming. Looking at the previous issue there was nary a mention of it, it was buried in the little Thargsplurge at the start (more on Tharg in a second). Pretty weak sauce really. Time was they used to trail new series with arty, cool as shit little teaser images for weeks beforehand. When I started reading as a kid (Issue 622 thanks) They were already hyping upcoming series like Mills & Bisley’s Frazetta-esque take on Slaine and Morrison & Yeowell’s Zenith Phase 3 (the best comic ever really). Fucking scrotnig mate.
The second, more important reason for starting reading it again was the return after way, way too long, of Indigo Prime, the utterly unique sci-fi series written by erratic, elusive lost comics genius John Smith. He’s a Mindless Favourite – we all have strongly ingrained memories of his twisted, terrifying, funny and utterly disturbing stories in 2000AD. He’s one of those writers who just hasn’t made the transition outside of British comics for whatever reason. But he’s regularly produced stunning work in recent-ish years, especially when paired with a talented co-creator. If you want a crash course in why he rules so hard, try and find a collection of his Devlin Waugh mega-epic ‘Sirius Rising’, drawn by Yeowell. It’s the absolute fucking business.
But Indigo Prime was always the pet-project he seemed the most committed to. It’s a dense, fully realised continuity and yet it’s been vastly underused by it’s creator. A sc–fi horror hybrid about undead psychic troubleshooters who try and prevent entropy throughout the multiverse…or sometimes bring it about. It was one of the weirdest and most original stories to emerge from the golden age of 2000AD, and produced at least one stone cold classic (Killing Time) – although I always dug the one and two parters as well, for their glimpses into different agents’ partnerships (they always work in twos) and collapsing realities. So the news that Indigo Prime was back was the deciding factor in my experiment in reading 2000AD regularly.
I set myself a few rules for the experiment. Firstly I would buy it from a newsagent not a speciality comics store. I used to get it delivered along with my Mum & Dad’s papers and I could never quite reconcile buying it form a comics shop. So I scoured a fair few newsagents in Central London looking for the fucker. Well I failed at that. My pathetic fantasy of picking up the Galaxy’s Greatest from a twinkly old lady in a shop that also sold sweets and crisps, as opposed to a shop that sells erotic busts of Wolverine was shattered at the first hurdle. So I bought it from a comic shop and stalked off home.
I ended up getting Progs (yes ‘Progs’ bitches, not ‘issues’)1750 and 1751, due to blowing my first deadline on this supposedly regular assignment. so, another rule broken.
Anyway – anyway – the fucking comic! Get on with it man…
First impressions – a pretty generic Dredd cover. Not too inspiring, a bit too murky and computer-gamey for me. Doesn’t really leap off the racks exactly. The current logo is pretty bland too. The comic’s had a few iterations of the logo over the years. For my mind the two best were the first from the mid 70′s:
and the classic sleek late 80′s model by desgn genius Steve Cook:
The current one is in thrall to that one, but it doesn’t seem very stylish or interesting.
Inside we still have Tharg’s Nerve Centre on the inside cover. Good – I would be very fucking cross if they had nixed that. The thing you have to understand about Tharg is that he’s fucking brilliant – the long running editor cum host of 2000AD, Tharg landed on Earth in the mid 70′s just in time for Punk rock and Thatcher’s Britain, and decided to bring thrill power to the masses in the form of an ebullient, irreverent, vicious and funny ‘boys weekly’ like no other before it. And he’s this totally intimidating Alien fucker who dresses like a disco lounge lizard, part Dr Strange part Ming the merciless. I was actually kind of scared of him as a kid – he was so bloody stern. You half expected to be blasted to atoms by a Rigellian hotshot sent screaming from King’s Reach Tower in London where Tharg had his Galactic swing pad.
So Tharg’s important. The Tharg in the current issues is okay, but a bit vanilla. He comes across kind of like one of those guys who implore/order you to buy bullshit off infomercials. He should be threatening me. There’s some perfectly serviceable story bios to bring new and lapsed readers up to speed and an offer to win a DVD. Whatever.
Now then. Judge Dredd by Wagner & Flint. That’s good. It has to be Wagner. I understand some other writers have done some good work in recent years, but y’know, it has to be Wagner. And Flint is part of a long lineage of great 2000AD artists, albeit one who has the curious effect of seeming like a mish mash of all of them at once. There’s strong shades of McMahon, Ezquerra, O’Neill and Bisley in there all at the same time. Kind of odd but undeniably pretty great looking, and he has a sure handle on Dredd. His stuff has the right combination of cartoonish exaggeration, along with the obsessive detailing and lumpy line-work that could almost be the Dredd house style.
Wagner has apparently been doing stellar work with Dredd in the past few years, building up a complex, labyrinthine political plot, which has resulted in some subtle status changes and development in Dredd’s character. What’s so fascinating about Dredd is that he changes – I mean he never stops being a bastard – but Wagner had the foresight to move the world around Dredd, to make him a relic in the system that he has given his life to. Dredd has aged perceptibly and if there’s any justice, when Wagner says enough’s enough, they should let Old JD take the Long Walk once and for all.
So the current story ‘The Fourth Faction’ seems to be part of a mega-epic called ‘Day of Chaos’ and deals with the ongoing and deadly ramifications of Dredd’s most notorious act of hard justice, when he nuked the whole of East Meg 1 during the 80′s grindcore classic ‘The Apocalypse War’.
It’s tightly plotted and economically scripted and the sure grip that Wagner has on these characters, this world is utterly gratifying. This is complex and mature storytelling that nonetheless feels like the Dredd I grew up with. in a nice touch (and I’m not sure why this is the case) Dredd has a throat injury and doesn’t utter a word throughout. Hardly a talker at the best of times, this only serves to make the taciturn big man all the more imposing. It looks like we’re heading into a return to Apocalypse War territory, but the bad karma that Dredd has accrued in that genocidal but necessary act all those years ago, is finally coming back to bite him on the chin. Fascinating stuff, reassuringly good. I’m gripped.
What’s up next? Ampney Crucis Investigates….hmmm. Unfamiliar this one, although a strong whiff of absolute unoriginality hangs over this. Some kind of English occult detective dandy…? Oh dear, I really feel this is well trodden territory – it’s even subtitled ‘the English Assassin’ for god’s sake. Please, a moritorium on Jerry Cornelius pastiches. He’ll be spinning in his sister’s grave… It’s written by Ian Edgington, a writer I have absolutely no strong feelings about. I know he’s done a lot of work over the years for various companies, and written some pretty great strips with D’israeli (more of whom later) including the rather wonderful ‘Stickleback’ and the genuinely odd ‘Leviathan’ for 2000AD, not to mention the almost great Scarlet Traces. However, this piss weak, derivative rubbish doesn’t exactly endear him to me. Peter Milligan and (Jim) McCarthy’s wonderfully quirky ‘Bix Barton’ was so much better than this – a hip flip cross between Dr Strange and PG Wodehouse, with lashings of ribald seaside humour and plenty of rum and uncanny happenings. The strip is also severely hampered by the ugly painted artwork of Simon Davis, who ‘s stiff, photo referenced faces sit awkwardly on simple figure-work and often incomprehensible storytelling. Quite frankly I hated it and what’s worse there was a double episode in 1750. Gak.
Thankfully 1751 featured a New Thrill by the name of Angel Zero, which meant that at least there was less Ampney Crucis by half which immediately earns it some good will. What’s the strip itself like? Hard to tell. First read through it left no impression on me, but to be fair I was drunk then, so I had to give it another chance. Angel Zero gets a meagre 4 pages to set up it’s premise and writer Kek-W elects to go heavy on the mysterious foreshadowing. I’m guessing it might be some kind of sci-fi twist on Angels and Devils but like I say it’s hard to tell at this stage. The writing’s fine – not too lumpen or prosaic, nor too purple, but I can’t say I was overly gripped. Art is provided by Brit stalwart John Burns, whose painted work is kind of reminiscent of the art that used to grace Tammy and Jackie and all those great girls comics of the 1970′s, but with a heavy Eur0-influence. I’ll give it at least a few Progs to find it’s feet, and at least at this stage it’s pretty mysterious.
So finally we get to the milk and cookies, Indigo Prime. I can’t deny that simply seeing Winwood and Cord alive(?) and well after the devastating ending of Killing Time brought a bit of a lump to my throat. The first few pages are pretty standard Indigo Prime fayre, although I like the fact that the story starts with the end of our reality. But something was missing – where was that patented jaundiced meat poetry that is Smith’s trademark? Not to worry, here it comes on page 4:
“A XENOCIDE-CLASS SPAWNBROKER DREADNOUGHT FLEEING THE BABY PHARMS OF JEZEBEL’S MAW CRASH WARPS INTO PARIS… MASS VIVISECTION AND FOETAL TISSUE HARVESTING OF THE HUMAN RACE BEGINS”
Yeah, that’s the stuff! BRING ON THE PURPLE!
That said, these first two episodes are relatively restrained – they have the feeling of a re-make/re-model of the series with one eye to hooking unfamiliar readers – something Smith wryly points out in the story; at one point Max states “Still there’s no point hankering over the past. It’s a new regime now.” This a slightly streamlined vision of the multiversal corporation, which utilises the slightly familiar gimmick of using a new employee’s tour of the world to introduce new readers to it (although in this instance the new recruit keeps offing himself at the madness he’s forced to witness by a bored and tetchy Winwood & Cord. I have a feeling that this new guy may be a character from Smith’s previous work ‘Cradlegrave’ which I haven’t read but was rapturously received by the loyal Squaxx. I’ll be getting the upcoming collected edition, and so should you.
I should mention here the art by Edmund Bagwell. It’s extremely confident and the storytelling is impeccable. If I had a minor quibble it’s that it’s a touch too American, and is missing the quirkiness that defined previous IP artists like Chris Weston, and Mike Hadley. But he handles Smith’s script requests with aplomb and the whole thing reads very nicely. I guess we’ll see what happens when the shit gets really strange.
Good to see Major Arcana too. I also like that Smith seems intent on keeping up the tradition of introducing new IP operative teams with great names – ‘Wenlock & Qilf’ being the latest addition to a roster that includes Winwood & Cord, Fervent & Loeb and Fegredo & Brecht. One of the most pleasing aspects of IP is Smith’s obsessively detailed world-building. When the strip debuted all those years ago, the back of the Prog had a list of all the different operatives and their relevant departments - Scene Shifters, Seamsters etc. Bar a few text stories in various Annuals and Summer Specials most of these characters were never, ever used again or even mentioned.
All in all, I got what I came for with IP, and if it’s a slightly different beast than the one I remember, then fuck it. No-one should stand still. I can’t wait to see where the story goes – deep into the heart of the weird I hope.
So finally we come to Low Life by Rob Williams and the aforementioned D’Israeli (aka Matt Booker). Now, a few words about D’Israeli. Since his earliest work on Fatal Charm for Deadline (RIP), and Lazarus Churchyard through to Kingdom of the Wicked, Scarlet Traces and Stickleback I have always loved this man’s work. He’s truly one of the best comic artists working today, and he deserves a shit-tonne more rescognition than he currently gets. His satisfying yet idiosyncratic chunky line work, strong design sense and impeccable use of colour, not to mention his huge cartooning chops… he’s brilliant really. So any strip he’s drawing I’m pre-disposed to like.
Thankfully Low Life is pretty great. It deals with the Wally Squad (the undercover Judges from Mega City 1), in particular one frazzled long-in-the tooth veteran who just might be fucking mental, called Dirty Frank. With his hunch-back, eye-patch and tremendous handlebar moustache he’s pretty great looking. In this particular series Frank is on the verge of losing his badge and being forced to take the Long Walk, due to his increasingly frayed behaviour. Instead he manages to convince his superiors to go under cover in the Honda City Yakuza to rescue one of his old team.
It’s basically a really solid set up, done with an amount of humour and style. The world is clearly established and the main character is instantly interesting. I like crazy, ugly protagonists and thankfully 2000AD has always excelled in producing these by the boatload. D’israeli’s art is of it’s usual impeccable standard, and I can’t wait to see Dirty Frank get, well..dirty.
Okay I make that three strips that are great, one with the jury out and one stinker – pretty standard 2000AD set up.
The prodigal Squaxx has returned to the fold. let’s see how long you can keep me….
SPLUNDIG VUR THRIGG.