Thursday, October 30, 2014

Going Viral

Satan's Island by John Wagner, Kev Walker, Ben Willsher, Paul Marshall, Cam Kennedy, Chris Blythe and Tom Frame.

Here's another collection from my 2000AD gap years, and it's one I picked up after a suggestion from Flintlockjaw from the ECBT2000AD podcast about other Dredd stories which featured biological warfare. This one concerns the arrival of the floating Sin City in the waters off the coast of Mega-City One. With no laws on board it allows visiting citizens to gamble and debauch themselves to their hearts content while the Judges can only look on with disapproval. Chief Judge Hershey ostensibly allows it because it brings in much needed revenue for the Meg's coffers but her ulterior motive is the hunt for a wanted terrorist agent rumoured to be on board the pontooned palace of perversion, and naturally she sends Dredd to head up the investigation.

As ever the civilians get up to all kinds of futuristic nonsense and inevitably the terrorist is revealed and there is mayhem aplenty as one of Dredd's oldest foes steps out of the shadows. Look away now if you don't want any spoilers but it's that man again, Orlok the assassin is back and he's carrying vials of another deadly microbe to unleash on the unsuspecting citizens of the big Meg. This time it's a bacterium as opposed to the block mania neurotoxin that kicked off the Apocalypse War but it does seem that the Sov Judges are a bit repetitive in their attacks. Presumably all meetings of the Polit bureau feature some bright spark asking if they have ever considered weakening their enemies by poisoning their water supply first?

The recent IDW collection of the Apocalypse War led me to muse on how these comic book stories reflect society's fears at the time they were written, and made me almost nostalgic for the nuclear paranoia of the 1980s. Even further back in the 1950s when the space race was just getting started comics were full of mysterious invaders from other planets, and all sorts of heroes were gaining powers from strangely glowing meteorites. In 1963 the amazing Spider-Man, like most of his fellow Marvel superheroes, gained his powers from radioactivity but by the time it came to his first big movie in 2002 we seemed to have all lost our fear of the power of the atom and the spider that bites Tobey Maguire represents another branch of scary science, genetic modification. Although ten years later when they rebooted we seemed to have decided that GM was no big deal after all and it was, once again, an atomic powered arachnid that led Andrew Garfield to don the red and blue unitard. Maybe it was the fear of some terrorist with a dirty bomb that pushed radioactivity back to the top of the lethal list, or perhaps the writers just loved that line about radioactive blood from the cartoon show song. And to continue my theme I bet there were all sorts of comics in the 1970s about environmental concerns, Swamp Thing was created in that decade and he would go on to be at the forefront of Alan Moore's stories about man's careless attitude to his home planet.

One of John Wagner's great talents is how he uses the Dredd strip to satirise so many of the stranger aspects of our own modern lives, and he certainly knows what frightens us. Whether it is the horrors of nuclear war or the flesh eating terror of a contagious disease with a 90% mortality rate. This series originally appeared in 2002 so possibly Wagner had New Labour's plans to introduce super-casinos to the UK in his mind rather than our fear of a microbiological catastrophe, but reading it now when Ebola victims in Africa are literally bleeding from their eyes is a sobering experience.

In the case of Orlok the agent he releases here is said to be a bacterium which means that Wagner has run the full gamut of different microbial menaces. It was a virus with the catchy name of 2T(FRU)T which infected Mega-City Two and led Dredd to make his epic trek across the Cursed Earth. In 1982 the Judges had to deal with a lethal Fungal infection that left victims growing a nasty crop of mushrooms on their skin. And to bring things right up to date the Chaos Day organism was based on a Protozoa called Toxoplasma Gondii. The Block Mania agent is, I think, just referred to as a toxin so I presume it was something pharmacological that sent the citizens crazy and not a bug. That only leaves a few rare wee beasties for the Sovs to try unleashing on the big Meg.

Turning back to this volume there is terrific art from the accomplished Kev Walker and some very early Ben Willsher on the sequel Orlok story from Prog 1303. Then Paul Marshall and Cam Kennedy illustrate the last stories which puts Orlok on trial. All three of these back up stories are coloured by Chris Blythe and the whole volume is lettered by Tom Frame. It's another fine Dredd collection which was a pleasure to read, and so cheap and easy to download on the iPad app. Four stars and recommended.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Meg 353 Vs Prog 1903

Double thrills from the postie again and time for the monthly head to head.

Covers. Phil Winslade on the Megazine versus D'Israeli doing Stickleback on the Prog.
Two dramatic and eye catching covers. Winslade delivers something that recalls all those great science fiction pulp magazines or cheap paperbacks from the sixties and seventies. It's a great image and the colours make it pop off the newsstand. Normally I'm an absolute sucker for D'Israeli's richly textured black and white covers but this one suffers from not having the title character himself. In fact the three bad pennies haven't really been delineated in the strip so their significance is vague at the moment. If it was last year's marvelous image of Stickleback emerging dripping from the tank it would be a different matter but the colourful Megazine cover scores the first goal this month.
1-0 to the Meg

Judge Dredd Dead Zone by John Wagner, Henry Flint and Annie Parkhouse versus Block Judge by Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Annie Parkhouse.
What a surfeit of riches. The best classic era creator team up against the best modern team. It is impossible to tell them apart. In Block Judge Wagner and Ezquerra deliver the day to day details of Dredd's police work in fascinating sequences. And Dead Zone evolves into something different to what we first thought it would be. Both stories are maximum thrill power from the house of Tharg. This one has to be a draw, one point each.
2-1 to the Meg

Lawless by Dan Abnett, Phil Winslade and Ellie de Ville versus Stickleback by Ian Edgington, D'Israeli and Ellie de Ville.
Now we have two proponents of the best black and white artwork you will see in comics anywhere this month. And such different styles, Winslade produces incredible details in the crowded backgrounds and the story runs on nicely in its Deadwood in space style. Meanwhile D'Israeli produces another master class of texture work in the latest installment of Stickleback. I love all of Edgington and D'Israeli's output and this is no exception. Superb stuff from both comics but a win for Stickleback.

The Man from the Ministry by Gordon Rennie, Kev Hopgood and Simon Bowland versus Greysuit by Pat Mills, John Higgins, Sally Hurst and Ellie de Ville
I have really enjoyed The Man from the Ministry series and like the Matter of Life and Death references in this last episode. I could have done with some more British science fiction nods along the way but surely they will turn up in future stories. Greysuit looks good and it is written by Uncle Pat but it is only just getting going so I'm going to give this round to the Meg.
3-2 to the Meg

Uprise by Arthur Wyatt, Paul Davidson, Chris Blythe and Simon Bowland versus Ichabod Azrael by Rob Williams, Michael Dowling and Annie Parkhouse
All forms of Judges on display in Uprise: undercover, corrupt, rookie, robot and hard as nails Dredd himself. This is so much better that the Underbelly story. Wyatt seems to be developing a feel for how this different Dredd universe works and I'm hooked. Strangely I even prefer Davidson's artwork, I like Henry Flint to be on classic Dredd and not the film version.

I'm still not on top of the back story of Ichabod Azrael although Michael Dowling's art still reminds of the beautiful John Ridgeway work on the Dead Man saga. It's astonishing how different his black and white stuff looks compared with the recent colour landscapes he did in Dead End.
The result is another surprise win for Uprise which is good stuff, and look at what's coming next month with Boo Cook's action packed cover.
4-2 to the Meg

Lobster Random by Simpon Spurrier, Carl Critchlow, Ian Richardson and David Roach versus Kingdom by Dan Abnett, Richard Elson, Abigail Ryder and Simon Bowland.
I've read this Lobster Random before and it's all just mental nonsense from Spurrier's twisted imagination, and that's a good thing. In Kingdom Gene and co, catch breath before it's time for them to "Get whet!" again and the big onslaught of Aux Drift begins. It's a pity this can't transfer to the Meg and have a few more pages for each installment which might allow some more story elements to develop in between bug slashing mayhem.

Final result is a 5-2 walkover for the Megazine but the quality in the Prog is astonishingly high as well. It is a new golden age for 2000AD and long may it continue.

Apocalypse Now

IDW's licence to produce Judge Dredd comics for the US market includes some reprint material. They have produced a number of impressive hard backed volumes including this one which collects the classic Apocalypse War story. The creators involved represent most of the 2000AD hall of fame: it's written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, the artists are Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Steve Dillon, Brian Bolland and Carlos Ezquerra, and the letterers are Steve Potter and Tom Frame. The majority of the original pages were black and white so here they have been sensitively coloured by Charlie Kirchoff and Tom Mullin, and the whole thing is topped off with a striking new cover image by Jim Fern and Charlie Kirchoff.

The large format allows the pages to be reprinted pretty much in their original Prog size instead of the reduced format of the black and white Case Files, and they certainly look fantastic. Kirchoff and Mullin have done a lovely job with the colouring. They have clearly taken their palate from the original colour centre-spreads so that the colours perfectly suit all the different artists. And the artistic lineup is unbeatable: McMahon begins the Block Mania story and then Ron Smith takes over before Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland introduce the character of Orlok and reveal the truth behind the craziness afflicting the citizens of Mega-City One. And then in steps King Carlos Ezquerra returning to the character he co-created for the first time since his original designs. He drew all 25 successive parts of the Apocalypse War and it's an absolute artistic tour-de-force, and his pages beautifully coloured by Tom Mullin are worth the price of admission alone.

Wagner and Grant wrote an intense story line which swung from some typical Mega-City madness to the overwhelming devastation of nuclear war and then the resistance fight back led by Dredd. My memories of this epic were mainly about the Block Mania episodes and then Dredd's mission to East-Meg One. I had forgotten the horrors that Wagner, Grant and Ezquerra depicted in the middle section when the nukes fly back and forth. It is strange to think about now but in 1982 we were living in the shadow of the Cold War and the real possibility of nuclear war. The protest at Greenham common had started in 1981 and membership of CND was almost compulsory for me and my fellow students at university. It seemed an inevitability that one of the two super powers would at some point be pushed to the brink of war. Wagner and Grant took all of this unease and gave us a devastating portrait of a nuclear holocaust in the pages of a simple comic book. Two years later television viewers would be terrified when ITV broadcast the film Threads. And in 1985 the BBC finally had the guts to release Peter Watkins' The War Game which it had kept on a shelf for 20 years. But before all that 2000AD showed us the full horrors of nuclear war in the Judge Dredd strip. Reading it now is a genuinely unsettling experience and it really makes this epic tale stand out from the crowd.

And that is all before Dredd gets to do his stuff and save his city in his usual stoic and unstoppable fashion. Dredd is particularly brutal in this story as he wipes out Sov Judges, dying citizens and collaborators alike without even a flicker of emotion crossing his stony face, And of course his no negotiation policy with his retribution would return to haunt him in later life as that faithful button push would lead to the events of Day of Chaos. There's also a disdainful attitude to the citizens of the opposing Mega cities as both the East-Sov leader and then Dredd are asked about making announcements to the public about the war. Their replies are remarkably similar along the lines of "What has it got to do with them?". This is despite knowing that millions of the citizens were going to die as the missiles flew.

There is a long running debate about which book is best to hand to a new reader who wants a good introduction to the Dredd character. This beautiful hardback gives us the artwork at pretty much the original size and with the colouring job that the artists themselves would have done, and it has Wagner and Grant writing the epic tale against which all future Dredd epics would be judged. All this is available on Amazon for a mere £16 so this is the book I will be recommending to new readers from now on. Well done to IDW for a beautiful presentation of an immense story. Five stars to everyone involved.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dredd - The Illustrated Script

2000AD readers generally agree that the 2012 Dredd 3D movie was a fantastic adaptation of all the best features of the comic strip. It has achieved a certain cult status but unless the campaign to make a sequel succeeds then we are unlikely to see any more of Karl Urban as the iconic character. However thanks to this illustrated script book by Alex Garland and Jock we can learn a bit more about the behind the scenes work that went into the film.

Jock actually started producing art for how he thought a new film should look before he was contacted by the film-makers who had seen his work and invited him to work on storyboards and on character designs and other visuals for the production team. And his images are collected here in all their glory.

There are some interesting differences between the draft script and what we finally saw on screen. In Dredd's first action sequence he deliberately shoots through the body of an innocent bystander to bring down a perp. Although the bystander's wound is not life threatening I presume this was dropped so as not to make Dredd seem too unsympathetic. Ma-Ma is also depicted as a much older character than the Lena Headey version. Similarly the Clan Techie is shown wearing elaborate electronic goggles rather than the more subtle bionic eyes we saw in the movie. There is more background about the clan member Japhet and his wife whose apartment Dredd and Anderson seek shelter in. This looks to have been dropped for time reasons and instead Anderson's psychic flashes and a simple family picture tell us all we need to know.

The biggest change is the final showdown between Dredd and Ma-Ma which here is a more physical one on one fight without the detail of the bomb linked to her heartbeat. Like all the other big changes the version we finally saw makes much more sense and works better for a film, but it's intriguing to see how some of this stuff changed on its journey to the screen. The other thing this book tells me is quite how much work goes into making a film. It's no wonder we see all those hundreds of names listed in the end credits. Some of the effort that goes into even minor features that will only be glimpsed for a few seconds boggles the imagination.

It's a lovely package and Jock's illustrations are always great to look at. I have the paperback version which is currently about £25 on Amazon. The limited edition hardback is sold out but copies are presumably still out there for silly money. If you have not already picked up a copy then this may be a good one to add to the Christmas list, although you might be hard pressed to choose between this and the upcoming Daily Star Dredd collection. Recommended. Four stars.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Meg 352 Vs Prog 1899

Covers: Glenn Fabry on Dredd and the Calhab question versus Paul Marshall and Chris Blythe with Dredd and the Lawlords.
I'm not really a fan of either cover, both of which make Dredd look rather buffoonish. For some reason the Paul Marshall version looks like an action figure with all the colours being rather too bright for me. I prefer the muted tones on the Fabry cover so the Meg gets the win but neither cover will be making my top five of the year.
Result: 1-0 to the Megazine

Judge Dredd: Dead Zone by John Wagner, Henry Flint and Annie Parkhouse versus Cascade by Michael Carroll, Paul Marshall, Gary Caldwell and Annie Parkhouse.
Dredd has to step up the action in both stories. In Dead Zone he is perhaps on more familiar territory as he faces down a gang of rogue traders. Meanwhile in the Prog he has to deal with the overwhelming threat posed by the Lawlords. Cascade has been an interesting story which perhaps wraps up a little too soon and all too neatly but it's been fun to see Dredd back out in space again, and I'm always happy when Dollman turns up. It is difficult to tear these two stories and two great creator teams apart. Last month I gave the nod to the Wagner and Flint combination but this time I'm going with Carroll, Marshall and Caldwell for the overall story and the shock of bringing back the Lawlords.
Result: 1-1

Lawless by Dan Abnett. Phil Winslade and Ellie De Ville versus Aquila by Gordon Rennie, Leigh Gallagher, Dylan Teague and Annie Parkhouse
The Aquila arc wraps up with Gallagher's lovely art and Teague's vibrant colours stealing the show. I'm still not entirely sure what this particular installment has been about other than seeing Aquila defeat a series of big bad guys. Now is probably a good time for me to go back and read the whole thing from start to finish. It does end with a very creepy sequence so bonus points for that.

Lawless continues to establish the new Marshal in town scenario. Winslade's black and white artwork is lovely and he does some particularly fine textures on the backgrounds of the Megabuild. He does show us that Lawson's uniform is as impracticable and uncomfortable as her hairstyle but I can forgive that because of the fantastic science fiction panel of her chasing Jaroo on the robot cat leaper thingy (catchy name for it).
Result: 2-1 to the Megazine.

The Man from the Ministry by Gordon Rennie, Kev Hopgood and Simon Bowland versus Brass Sun by Ian Edgington, INJ Culbard and Ellie De Ville.
Dan Dare punches the Lovecraftian Slithoks while Professor Quatermass explains the plot. Einstein and Turing get their brief mentions just so we all can acknowledge how smart we are, and how terribly bigoted our grandparents were. Hopgood does some lovely stuff with lighting and shadows on faces and the Dan Dare moment is great but this seems to be treading water slightly. However it all kicks off next month so hold on tight till then.

More references in Brass Sun and, just to be clear, that is Kurt Vonnegut appearing as the Watchmaker as this latest arc wraps up with our protagonists on their way to another clockwork world with the deadly android in hot pursuit. I just love Brass Sun, maybe in bigger chunks than this but I still love it. And Culbard's colours are fabby. This one takes the point and do check out the US reprint or the trade which is due soon.
Result : 2-2 and so far I can't tear the two titles apart this month

Dredd: Uprise by Arthur Wyatt, Paul Davidson, Chris Blythe and Simon Bowland versus Future Shocks: Personality crisis by Eddie Robson, Nick Dyer and Ellie De Ville
The Uprise plot gets more convoluted. I presume Wallace is a member of whatever the Wally squad is called in this Dredd-verse, and he has joined up with the originator of the Uprise movement because her cause appears to have been hijacked by some corrupt Judges. This is getting rather interesting and that's without any mention of the robo-cops. Wyatt's version of Dredd could be a bit more intuitive and listen to what his rookie is trying to tell him rather than brushing her aside. And the other Judges just seem incompetent which always bugs me, the Judges should all be nearly as good at their job as Dredd is and shouldn't get wiped out easily by a lone gunman on a motorbike. But minor quibbles aside the story is much better than the first attempt at a sequel, and Davidson's artwork is perfect for this stuff. It's a top thrill.

The Prog's Future Shock did nothing for me. I always enjoy Dyer's art but the story and twist just passed me in a blur.
Result: 3-2. An easy win for the Meg

Calhab Justice by Jim Alexander. John Ridgway and Lol with lettering by Gordon Robson and Annie Parkhouse versus Black Shuck by Leah Moore, John Reppion, Steve Yeowell, Chris Blythe and Simon Bowland.
I haven't read the whole of Calhab Justice yet. I rarely do read all the floppies even though they are effectively free content. But even so it seems more entertaining than the confusion that is Black Shuck. I think the hero has a magic sword and teams up with a hammer wielding Were-Bear to defeat a Troll king but this is another one I need to go back an reappraise now that the story arc is complete. Watch this space for separate and more considered Aquila and Black Shuck reviews.

In the meantime it's another win for the Meg which takes this month's contest with the same 4-2 score that made Guy Britton so happy in the Man from the Ministry.

Still the best things in comics though and always give me a thrill when they drop through the letterbox.