Friday, January 31, 2014

The Batman versus That Man

Here we have all of Dredd's encounters with the Dark Knight, and another crossover with the DC comics character Lobo. Fictional crossovers are a long established trope in books, films and comics. We seem endlessly fascinated by the idea of our favourite characters meeting up, and the endless debates about whether Superman could defeat Dr Manhattan and so on. Most of the time this stuff leaves me cold, I'd rather read good stories in the character's own universe than wonder if Johnny Alpha could beat up the Punisher. Still Batman versus Dredd has to at least raise an eyebrow of interest doesn't it?

There are some parallels between the two characters' histories. Both had their early, somewhat silly stories with clownish opponents, wacky machines and giant dinosaurs. And both have evolved into their current grim and gritty story lines. I still find Dredd's world much more interesting, particularly because the man himself has been allowed to age, and has started to question his own obsessive dedication to the law. Meanwhile Batman stays pretty much the same throughout everything.

The cover by Mike Mignola may be my favourite thing about the whole collection, shame there is none of his art inside. However we do have art by Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry, Carl Critchlow, and Cam Kenmedy. Bisley and Fabry both seem too brash and nineties for me, but they are fan favourites and the lovely reproduction here is sure to satisfy many. My own preference would be Carl Critchlow and Dermot Power on The Ultimate Riddle story, and Cam Kennedy's work in Vendetta in Gotham.

It's all written by John Wagner and Alan Grant who produce solid stuff but I wouldn't regard this as their greatest work by some way. The Ultimate Riddle story may be the most fun even if if does just retread the classic trope of having warriors from different times and places plucked away to take part in a gladiatorial contest. More crossover nonsense, still at least Captain Kirk and the Gorn don't show up.

It is a very pretty collection and if you're looking for your Dredd versus Batman fix then this will do the job nicely. Personally I'm still hoping for something which has the same impact as Mutants in Mega-City One.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Quarter to Fear

A Quarter to Fear is a neat collection of four supernatural short stories from classic writers who are better known for their more mainstream fictional works. It is compiled, edited and annotated by Mr Jim Moon, the host of the excellent Hypnobobs podcast.

Mr Moon has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all matters macabre. Like the Shadow he knows what fear lurks within the hearts of men, and is an expert on the fictional worlds of spooky stories from films, television, and, of course, books. This collection is a follow up to his previous septet of stories published last year, the Seven of Spectres. The difference this time is that he has chosen four interesting tales by unusual authors. They are The Superstitious Man's Story by Thomas Hardy, The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sea Raiders by H.G.Wells, and The Head by E.Nesbit

Each tale is introduced and annotated by Jim and presented with a suitable spooky illustration. They are are creepy and interesting stories but the pick of the bunch for me is Nesbit's tale of a gruesome obsession and revenge. Jim Moon's comments and notes are fascinatingly helpful and all in all this is a splendid collection which is currently available for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper. Highly recommended, Five stars and please, Mr Moon, may we have some more?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Judge Dredd Megazine 344

Can the Meg maintain its solid run of form into a new year? 344 kicks off with an eye grabbing cover by John Burns. I love the perspective of the hand coming out at us over the title. Not so sure about the awkward thigh twist needed in order to keep little Claude hidden from view, but hooray for another brilliant Tharg pun.

Dredd: The Man comes around by Rob Williams, RM Guera, Giulia Brusco and Annie Parkhouse.
Another meditation on Dredd's age and mortality with plenty of scars both physical and mental to consider. The plot about another doomed maniac with mind control that will work on all the judges apart from Dredd is almost an irrelevance. The best bits are Guera's downtrodden Dredd and the moment with the black horse, is that another reference to the return of Judge Death? I hope that Williams is setting something up with this.

DeMarco P.I. The Whisper part 2 by Michael Carroll, Steve Yeowell and Ellie De Ville
Steve Yeowell is still filling in the backgrounds and providing a reasonable amount of detail on the main characters. He must have been listening to all those podcasts about the Red Seas. I didn't really buy the cliché that DeMarco gets straight through to the captive mutant by offering him a chocolate bar when all other attempts to talk to him have failed. Nor did I believe that the Judges would let Claude out to act as her guide but it is all rather fun and I'm enjoying the story so far.

Ordinary part 5 by Rob Williams, D’Israeli and HV Derci
Once again this rises so high above the ordinary. I love the artwork, I love the Pink Floyd references, and I love all the minor background mutations on display. On top of all that there is the strange symbolism of the child who is only half visible to one of his separated parents. Apparently this ends next month but hopefully will be back soon. More please, Mr Tharg.

Anderson. Psi Division: Dead End part 2 by Alan Grant, Michael Dowling and Simon Bowland.
Probably the best thing I can remember Alan Grant writing for a while. Grim and nasty. In fact the whole Megazine has a slightly downbeat feel to it this month, not that that is a bad thing, especially when there is crazy nuttiness like Ulysses Sweet going on in the Prog.

The Megazine rolls into 2014 with four great stories in a cracking issue. Anderson heads the pack for me for the tone and for Dowling's beautiful colours. (Nope, still not reading the interviews)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Mutants in Mega-City One

Mutants In Mega-City One

Santa brought me this collection of Mutant themed Dredd stories ranging from Prog 22 in 1977 right the way through to a story from Prog 2011. It features writing by John Wagner, Al Ewing, Warren Ellis and Michael Carroll; and art from Carlos Ezquerra, Ian Gibson, Henry Flint, Duncan Fegredo, John Burns, Chris Weston and many more.

First of all you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but wow, what a cover. There’s been a lot of tributes to Jack Kirby recently as more comic book fans discover the work of the legendary creator. Ben WIllsher produces one of the best tributes I've seen and delivers it on a lovingly crafted pastiche of a classic Marvel cover. Unsurprisingly someone on the 2000AD forums has already snapped up the original art from Mr Willsher. Pity I can’t vote for this one in the Pete Wells block vote for the best cover of 2013, but maybe it will turn up on the 2000AD covers uncovered blog at some point.

The stories inside start with the earliest days of 2000AD when Mutants were just there for a bit of fun and to allow the artists to draw some weird and wonderful variants of the human form. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Tour of Duty storyline by Wagner and Colin MacNeil, with Dredd responding to a challenge from a Mutants rights campaigner and visiting the Cursed Earth resettlement camps he has been sending Mutants to for years.

The concept of mutation as an allegory for all forms of prejudice and bigotry has been around since the silver age of comics. John Wagner is perhaps unique in that he has told the story from both sides of the coin. In Strontium Dog he has given us the history of oppressed mutants leading right up to the second mutant war that is playing out in the Prog now. But Judge Dredd is all about the oppressor himself, and he is no mere camp guard who was “only following orders”. His very catchphrase tells us that he is the living embodiment of a law that discriminated against one group of humans and exiled them from the city to live in the appalling conditions of the Cursed Earth. This terrible duality has always made Dredd such a fascinating character, we admire his dogged determination and ability to withstand the horrors his city has been subjected to, but at the same time we recognise that he is the red right hand of a police state which delivers plenty of horrors of its own.

John Wagner is the master storyteller who has shown us the slow change of Dredd’s beliefs over 35 years. Because I am a British male of a certain age I am, of course, a fan of the american TV show The Wire. Wagner is the best comic book equivalent I know of the writing on that show. He delivers hints and suggestions and leaves us to fill in the gaps ourselves. In the early 2000AD progs Dredd had thought bubbles to deliver plot points to a younger target audience but as the strip and the readership have matured these have been discarded. Now we only have his words and actions to tell us what he is thinking. The rest is left to the artist and the readers to fill in the gaps. It is tremendous stuff.

While the complete history of Dredd is collected in the Case Files these eclectic collections give us particular story-lines or themes from Dredd’s world. If I wanted to show a new reader how Judge Dredd started out and what he has become since, then I can think of no better introduction than to hand them this volume. Five out five stars from me and thank you Santa. Now if I can just track down Mr Willsher to sign the cover for me.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

2000AD Prog 1862

Prog 1862 review
A new year, a new prog, and some new stories.

Cover by Henry Flint.
Cover of 2014 so far! I love seeing Dredd in an action figure outfit like Carl Critchlow’s deep sea diver Dredd on the cover to 1843. Nice to see Flint using elements of the movie uniform in the space suit. A very cool image indeed. Just one question though: where is Dredd’s right arm?

Judge Dredd: Titan part one by Rob Williams, Henry Flint & Annie Parkhouse.
Brilliant opener. Loved all of it. Flint’s city-scapes and moonbase scenes are perfect, Dredd’s conversations with the cadet and the space marine are hilarious, and the story is perfectly set up with this cinematic intro. Not sure how many episodes this is set for, I hope it’s more than three.

Future Shocks: Dying Wishes by Eddie Robson, Jake Lynch & Ellie De Ville
This made much more sense to me on the second read through. It’s a pretty good sci-fi twist and Lynch’s artwork is lovely to behold. Haven’t read a really memorable Future Shock for quite some time and I don’t think this one will linger long but it’s a pretty good effort. ComicBookDB says this is only Jake Lynch’s second appearance in the prog, though he has done a cover for the Dogbreath fanzine. On the basis of this I’m ready to see more of him in 2000AD.

ABC Warriors: Return to Mars part 2 by Pat Mills, Clint Langley & Annie Parkhouse
Tubal Caine (or Happy Shrapnel as he used to be) gets in a bar fight and that’s about it. Admittedly it’s a very pretty looking fight and Langley seems to have toned down some of his more extreme art tricks to tells the story well, but I’ve never really got into the ABC warriors and this still doesn’t grab me. Nice shiny robots though.

Ulysses Sweet: Centred part two by Guy Adams, Paul Marshall, Chris Blythe & Ellie De Ville
An uncontrollable maniac for hire with a chip in his brain and a costume inspired by Zardoz or Borat, in a story with all the usual 2000AD dark satire, including a Britney Spears analogue and the bloody death of Flipper. It’s all a bit dull though isn’t it? I know we are supposed to be impressed because it came from Grant Morrison’s crazy cranium, but actually I would have preferred to leave this character sleeping in the archives.
Strontium Dog: Dogs of War part two by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra & Simon Bowland
All out war between Mutants and the Norms with plenty of references to modern technology and politics to make us feel a bit uncomfortable. I know some people are bothered by the morality of this new hard-nosed Johnny Alpha, but to me it works perfectly. He has been through so much now, and seen so many atrocities committed against his people that he has become an implacable war general. I’m fully on board to see how this conflict plays out. John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are the masters of the format. Did I mention how I bought them both a pint at Kendal?

Pick of the prog is Dredd for that perfect pre credits sequence.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Big Finish - Jago & Litefoot series two

Clearing the last of my Big Finish backlog ready for a new year of adventures. Here are more frantic frolics from that pair of intrepid investigators Jago & Litefoot.

Just like series one there are four linked stories: Litefoot and Sanders by Justin Richards, The Necropolis Express by Mark Morris, The Theatre of Dreams by Jonathan Morris, and The Ruthven Inheritance by Andy lane. All directed by the delightful Lisa Bowerman. This time the linking story arc concerns a new villain, Gabriel Sanders, played by another actor with a fine voice David Collings.

I should really write at more length about this marvellous series. For now I will just say that I am currently having more fun with the Jago and Litefoot stories than I am with the main range Doctor Who series. I suspect the same will be true about the new Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes box set. I just have a thing for creepy Victoriana at the moment.

Once again Messrs Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are on delightful form and the supporting cast are splendid. Lisa Bowerman keeps the series on track with her notes about the characters and what must be a fairly clear brief for the writers. It's all simply splendid and equals the high 4.5 out of 5 theatrical impresarios that the first series achieved.

And that's it I've caught up with my reviews for everything I have listened to so far. Series three of Jago & Litefoot, the Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes, and the 2000AD Crime Chronicles wait patiently on my iPod. Corks!

Big Finish - The Trial of the Valeyard

Being a subscriber to the main Big Finish monthly Doctor Who stories means I get the yearly bonus release and here is Trial of the Valeyard by Alan Barnes and Mike Maddox, directed by Barnaby Edwards.

The Sixth Doctor is back in the Time Lords' courtroom again but this time he is defending the prosecutor from his own show trial. Can the Doctor untangle the web of lies surrounding his possible future self and reveal some of the dark secrets in Gallifrey's past?

I confess I haven't ever watched any of the Trial of the Time Lord series at all. I am also one of those Doctor Who fans who find the rest of the Time Lords rather boring and annoying. They have dull, pompous attitudes and tend to wear ridiculous robes and silly hats. One of the smart things that Russell T Davies did when he revived the show in 2005 was to scrap all that nonsense and leave the Doctor as the last survivor of his race. So this story was always going to have a hard time impressing me.

Colin Baker, Lynda Bellingham and Michael Jayston all tackle their roles with relish and sound like they are having a lot of fun. They are also all very charming in the CD extras interviews. But this was all rather dull for me. I'm not interested in whether the Doctor has twelve regenerations, or twenty four or a hundred. I'm still surprised that Robert Holmes introduced the concept in the 1970s but presumably that had something to do with making the Doctor appear mortal to some extent.

Last year's bonus release was the rather splendidly spooky Night of the Stormcrow which is now available to buy from the Big Finish site. My advice would be to go and buy that instead. 2 out of 5 Time Lord helmets for Trial of the Valeyard. Onwards!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Big Finish - Afterlife

Bang up to date with the latest release in the Big Finish regular monthly range: Afterlife by Matt Fitton, directed by Ken Bentley.

This is a direct follow on from the events in Gods and Monsters with Ace grieving for the loss of her friend Hex, and the Seventh Doctor coming to terms with the consequences of his actions. Ace persuades the Doctor to deliver a letter from Hex to his grandmother and to tell her about Hex's death. Meanwhile Ace gets mixed up in a local gang war and comes across a criminal with a surprising resemblance to her old friend.

So much of the action involves the Doctor sitting down with Mrs Schofield (played with Liverpudlian relish by Jean Boht) and discussing the life and death of her grandson. It is quite touching stuff with the Doctor forced into a position he has no real experience of. The B plot about a turf war between feuding criminals was rather less interesting, as was the predictable alien involvement. Personally I could have done with more of the Doctor and less of the usual running around. However Sylvester McCoy is still flying off to New Zealand so Big Finish have to cut their cloth accordingly, and a second plot line for the separated companion is traditional after all.

Now I am going to enter spoiler territory so look away if you plan to listen to this audio but have not done so as yet. This story is all about the Doctor and Ace dealing with the death of Hex, and the consequences. All powerful stuff, but it all seems totally negated by bringing him back to life at the end of the play. Alright his memory has been wiped and he's essentially a different character played by the same actor, but for me this just wasted all of the build up that led to Hex's sacrifice in Gods and Monsters. I know that Philip Olivier has been a popular actor with the Big Finish crew and I'm sure they wanted to bring him back somehow I just wish they had found a different way to do so.

Still the conversations between McCoy and Boht are very well done so it's another 3 star story for me. Where they go from here with Hex remains to be seen, maybe I'm wrong and they will produce something interesting.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Big Finish - Son of the Dragon

Son of the Dragon by Steve Lyons, and directed by Barnaby Edwards.

Another quickie review for something I listened to ages ago. I believe this was cheap in a sale at some point. This is a purely historical story with the Fifth Doctor and Peri encountering the son of Vlad the Impaler. There are no science fiction or supernatural elements other than their arrival in the Tardis and in the tradition of Doctor Who historicals the events take place over weeks and months rather than days.

James Purefoy plays Vlad's son and Douglas Hodge is his opponent in battle Radhu. Both have great voices for a radio play and this all cracked along splendidly and I rather enjoyed it. Another 3.5 out of 5 star story.

Big Finish - The Assassination Games

The final story in the 1963 trilogy: The Assassination games by John Dorney. Directed by Ken Bentley.

I'm falling behind with these reviews and I have quite a few more Big Finish releases lined up for New Year listening so I'll be brief. It's 1963 and the Doctor and Ace are mixed up in political intrigue surrounding a missile test. Fortunately the Counter-Measures team are on hand to help out.

With Sylvester McCoy nipping back and forth to New Zealand to work on the Hobbit movies Big Finish have filled in the gaps by adding plenty of supporting characters to the Seventh Doctor stories. It's a tactic that works well here as the Counter-measures team step up to fill out this story. The political comings and goings plus the usual capture and escape tropes work well and this was the most enjoyable of the 1963 trilogy for me.

But it is several weeks since I listened to it and I can't really remember much more about it. 4 out of 5 votes in the Commons and on towards the Afterlife.

What is the Megazine for?

When I returned to the 2000AD fold a few years ago I took out a combined subscription to the Prog and the Megazine because it seemed like the thing to do. But to be honest I've always regarded the Meg as the poor relation of the main event. Getting that weekly thrill power infusion seemed like the real thing. Meanwhile the Megazine had Dredd stories that seemed to have little consequence for the character and his world, and then there were other strips which baffled or bored me. And unlike other popular publications I don't buy it for the interviews which I rarely read.

However this year all that has changed. Possibly because the Prog has been struggling to match the heights of the Day of Chaos storyline, or the “kicking your door in” impact of Trifecta, but for whatever reason the weekly has not had the same impact. But the Megazine has taken up the slack and given us a cracking year. OK, so I am still perplexed by American Reaper and what was going on there, but we had a great Dan Francisco story, a terrific Henry Flint cover for the Dredd movie sequel, and the start of Rob Williams and D’Israeli’s Ordinary which is anything but.

The real star of the show for me this year has been the final chapter of Insurrection. Abnett and MacNeil’s space war epic had me eagerly anticipating each issue, and seeking out the first trade. Towards the end it had that same elegiac feel that I remember from the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, and it was all wrapped up with that beautiful cover to the November edition. Lovely stuff.

Turning to the latest issue Cliff Robinson gives us one of his iconic hard-arse Dredd covers . It might be Dylan Teague’s colours but this and their cover to 338 remind me of those classic images that Brian Bolland produced in his heyday, particularly on the Timeout cover from 1982.

Judge Dredd: Donner & Blitzin’ by Michael Carroll, Duane Leslie, Eva De La Cruz, & Annie Parkhouse.
A slightly cartoonish look to this story that gives us the other side of the stolen loot plot in Prog 2014. The best thing is the battle of wills between Dredd and Florence Donner, it feels like Dredd has met his match in terms of determination and knowledge of the law. So much so that the battle with the gang of robbers gets knocked into second place, and just feels like a bit of routine business for Dredd, although his hard nosed approach to Donner’s resettlement seems slightly out of place with the recent softening of his character.
If Leslie’s portrayal of Dredd and the cadets is a bit cartoony he more than makes up for this with some great panel layouts. He almost gives us a couple of circular panels like the ones that the Whittle admires so much in the early issues of 2000AD.

DeMarco P.I. The Whisper part 1 by Michael Carroll, Steve Yeowell and Ellie De Ville.
I’ve just read The Pit again so I’m nearly up to speed with Galen De Marco and her private investigations since she gave up being a Judge (the free floppy with this Meg also helps). Mike Carroll quickly fills in the background of her new assignment in Mega-City Two and Steve Yeowell seems keen to prove that he can do backgrounds by giving us plenty of cityscapes and mega blocks. The story about mysterious missing persons and an urban legend menace are intriguing and I’m hooked and ready for more in 2014.

Ordinary part 4 by Rob Williams, D’Israeli and HV Derci
The story is touching and funny, the artwork and colours are extraordinary, and there’s the mystery if what exactly Dr MacDonald’s super power is. All this with an added Kaiju, an Eric and Ernie song and dance number, and an appearance by Dr Bunsen Honeydew. It’s fantabulous, get on board now.

There’s a great one page teaser for the Dark Judges story coming in 2014 from John Wagner and Greg Staples with Judge Anderson looking a lot like a certain model. Let’s hope Wagner has found a new way to empower Death and his cronies and make them a real threat to what’s left of the Mega-City.

Anderson. Psi Division: Dead End part 1 by Alan Grant, Michael Dowling and Simon Bowland.
This looks very promising as well with an older, world weary Anderson up against something other than the usual psychic Satanic cult nonsense. Dowling’s coloured artwork is lovely and reminds me of european artists like Moebius in Heavy metal, or Geoff Darrow’s work on Hard Boiled. Personally I could do without Dredd popping up in this story and would just let Anderson take the lead but we’ll see where it goes.

An outstanding year for the Megazine which looks to be getting even better for 2014. And no, I still haven’t read the interviews yet.