Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Living the Low Life

With Low Life currently running in 2000AD it was good timing to pick up the first two volumes of Mega-City Undercover in a Cardiff comic shop recently.

As the name suggests these stories are about plain-clothes Judges from the undercover Wally Squad. First up is Lenny Zero written by Andy Diggle with art by Jock. Zero is a fast talking, undercover cop mixed up in sting operation aimed at a powerful gangster. There is also an alien bounty hunter on the loose, and another Judge with a score to settle with Zero. It's all delivered at a frenetic pace with lots of cool one-liners and shoot outs. Imagine a 2000AD story filmed by Quentin Tarantino and you get the picture. Jock's artwork perfectly suits the tone of the story and his use of heavy black shadows is particularly atmospheric.

Next Rob Williams and Henry Flint bring us a group of undercover Judges in the roughest and most deprived area of Mega-City One, the Low Life of the title. From the fast Pulp Fiction feel of Lenny Zero the tone switches to Sci-Fi Noir. The lead character Judge Aimee Nixon is a punk rock heroine with a robotic arm, she reminds me of Halo Jones but with more more violence. Nixon has to find out who framed her for murder while trying to protect her fellow Wally squad Judges from a hired assassin.

Rob Williams gives us a dark and twisted story with a serious tone and it's beautifully illustrated by Henry Flint. Andy Diggle's introduction to the first volume discusses how the original idea for his story followed the suggestion that Frank Miller draw a cover for the Megazine. That cover never happened but it doesn't matter because here Flint seems to be channelling the very best aspects of Miller's artwork. Characters meet in darkened rooms, or on moon-lit rooftops, and wear long trench-coats that hark back to Ronin or the expressionist illustrations of Sin City. In fact I prefer Flint's work here to anything that Miller has done recently, these pages are just beautiful to look at. Later on Simon Coleby takes over as artist and does a very good job with a classic 2000AD look for his Low Life stories, but Henry Flint steals the show in Volume 1.

Volume 2 continues with Rob Williams' Low Life but the stories start to shift away from Aimee Nixon and bring one of the supporting characters to the forefront. Dirty Frank is a Wally squad Judge who has been undercover for so long that he has become somewhat eccentric. In fact Dirty Frank is barking mad, with very questionable hygiene, an interesting way of referring to himself in the third person, and a rather familiar appearance. Rob Williams states in his introduction to the Low Life stories that it was Henry Flint who decided to make Dirty Frank resemble comics' most infamous beardy-weirdy Alan Moore. The switch from Nixon to Frank allows Williams to write stories with more of the characteristic 2000AD dark humour that drives their best creations. In the first volume Williams has Aimee go undercover as a fattie in what is supposed to be a funny story but it doesn't seem to work the way Dirty Frank does. Aimee Nixon is best as a serious punk rock Noir heroine. It's Frank that allows Williams to inject some comedy into the Low Life.

The second volume begins with Nixon investigating corruption in a dock workers' union. It is illustrated by Rufus Dayglo and his work if perfectly good but I missed Henry Flint. Then one of my favourite 2000AD artists D'Israeli takes over for a Dirty Frank tale involving Yakuza gangsters, laser wielding Samurai, and giant robots! By this stage Rob Williams has nailed the character of Frank. He gives us that 2000AD humour while at the same time being an almost implacable force of nature who just drives on against the odds in much the same way that Dredd does. D'Israeli's illustrations are beautifully detailed and my only slight gripe with these two books is the fact that artwork has been shrunk down from the pages of the progs to the standard trade paperback size. This is most noticeable with the D'Israeli art where I am sure there are details I am missing on the smaller page.

I can't leave off without turning on my internal medic-droid and giving these stories a quick medical once over. Let's leave aside Dirty Frank's dubious personal habits, or the effects of the designer drug "Creation" which features in one of the stories, and instead look at Aimee's robotic arm. This makes her incredibly strong, particularly in the scene where she lifts a large dock-side container off a crushed worker. This raises the same problem that I always had with the Six Million Dollar Man, namely what is the arm attached to? Surely the arm can only be as strong as the body it is fiited to? When Aimee lifts that container all the pressure is being transmitted through her normal human body. Surely the robotic arm would rip off or she would collapse under the force, either way I am not sure a bionic arm would let her do what she is doing in this panel. Fortunately the rest of the stories don't rely on her arm to do anything too superhuman.

Medical nit-picks aside these are two terrific volumes of 2000AD goodness. They are currently dirt cheap on Amazon (other booksellers exist apparently) or in your local comic store (if you are lucky enough to have one). I can't quite decide whether I prefer the Dirty Frank stories or the earlier beautiful Noir artwork by Henry Flint, but either way these are must-read collections. And especially useful to help understand what is going on in current 2000AD story lines. A rousing 4 out of 5 stars for Mega-City Undercover. "Dirty Frank says check these volumes out or it's Bye-bye, Mr Teddy!"

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