Tuesday, 5 October 2010

2000AD Part 2: Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd

Having discussed my personal history with 2000AD in part 1, let's take a look the most recent progs in my possession, progs 1689 to 1702.

That's 13 progs, three-month's worth. It's amazing how quickly they pile up! I only make it to the comics shop once a month or so (Gosh in London, by the way, and consider this a plug for the friendliest friendly comics shop in London) and so I've been reading them in a slightly different way to how I read it in the past. Instead of three or four page bites, I've been reading the stories in longer stretches. Some of them, I've been hoarding up and reading all in one go, and some of them I've gone through and re-read again for the purposes of this review.
This is more like how I've been reading the reprint volumes I've been reviewing than how I used to read progs in the old days, and it's thrown up a few contrasts between then and now, but I'm probably going to hold on to these until the end of the series. Howzabout that then, suspense fans? In the meantime, though I'm going to look at each story in some detail (some more than others), starting with two of 2000AD's most enduring characters, Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha.

This cover did it's job and drew me in.

The Johnny Alpha story that begins in prog 1689 was the one that made me decide to start picking up 2000AD again. I'd just finished the first Strontium Dog collection from Rebellion, and I was starting to wonder what my old friends were doing now, and then, there he was staring out at me from the shelves of the comics shop.

I talked about my feelings regarding Johnny when I reviewed the Strontium Dog Vol 1 collection, so I won't go on about it here. Suffice it to say, that although it began in Starlord and didn't officially become a 2000AD character until the two titles merged (prog 86? I could check, but let's let my guess stand), few would disagree that he is one of the definitive 2000AD character.

Why they chose to kill him off, therefore, is a bit of mystery. Johnny died sometime before I finally dropped 2000AD first time around, and I have vague memories of an odd story focusing on the types of alternate dimensions introduced in the “Journey to Hell” storyline, and ending up with Johnny takling the marty's way out and Feral taking over the lead role in the strip, perhaps (if my wonky memory is right) under the “Tales From the Dog House” title. I also seem to recall stories featuring Middenfacw McNulty.

It was all very odd and unsatisfactoyr, and wikipedia says that Ezquerra refused to draw the story and John Wagner now admits that it was a mistake (quoting from the Thrill Power Overload book which I haven't read, by the way, preferring to maintain the mystery of Tharg the Mighty).

So, this story has the feeling of a reboot. It focuses on Precious Matson, a character who may have appeared in SD in the past (but I don't remember her) and who is now a writer researching the life of Johnny Alpha. In this capacity she searches out Middenface McNulty in an attempt to resolve various contradictions in the story of Johnny's last days. It becomes apparent that something's not right, and that perhaps Johnny survived his final encounter, so she and McNulty begin a quest to find the last witnesses and find out what really happened.
As much as I wanted this story to work, it's somewhat uncompelling. There's a whole lot of talk here, and very little action, particularly at the start. In fact, it begins with a big page of text of the sort I always skip in comics - big pages of text do not belong in comic books, chums!. The first episodes are full of long, dense speech bubbles while Matson and McNulty interrogate various old mutie about the events surrounding Johnny's death. I'm disinclined to say stuff like “this is the wrong medium for this story!” but if you are going to attempt a dialogue-based investigative story, you need to find ways to dramatise it visually.

Wagner and Ezquerra take a resolutely trad approach that's far more suitable for Johhny's old fashioned action-packed adventures. I might have been able to put up with some "putting the pieces" type episodes in the middle, but a feel that a Strontium Dog story ought to start with a bang and keep on banging all the way through!

Ugh, that is one ugly space ship.
 I also thought Precious Matson was an odd choice of character. Precious is a mutant whose mutation is a fifty per cent increase in female secondary sexual characteristics – ie, she has three tits. I don't recall if she has history with the strip, and this is an economical use of an existing character, but this just seems like a really odd mutation to choose. Combined with the diminutive name - “Precious” - it gives her a disturbingly puerile edge, very much undercutting her sobre approach. Would it have been too dull just to make her green or something and call her Loretta?

It just to me that if you are going to go down this road with a character you either go all the way or choose another mutation. That said, perhaps this character has a history I am unaware of where all this made sense, and has been chosen on the basis of convenience and not because of her peculiar physical characteristics.

I also felt the Ezquerra art here looked a little stale. His eye for weird invention seems a little muted, although it's not helped by the fact the story begins with Precious poking around murky old pubs and run-down mutant estates in Dundee and Norwich. Really, if you've got Carlos Ezquerra to hand, you don't want to be wasting his time with Dundee and Norwich! Even so, when we get out to space, Ezquerra's spaceships lack their old, spiky, bristling, asymmetric charm and look a little lumpy and perfunctory.

Flashes of the old Ezquerra later in the series.
Things pick up a bit when the search leads them to Feral, who was there for Johnny's last moments. Feral who is now imprisoned by some alien wierdos for various crimes subsequent from his bounty hunting career choice. There are glimmers of the old magic here, as the aliens have a thing about noses that neatly combines absurdity and brutality. The whole encounter around the aliens and Feral's execution has a nifty Vancian feel than makes me wonder about an Ezquerra adaptation of the Demon Princes (and as a related thought how about Belardinelli adapting The Dying Earth? Man, that would have been something to see...)
Bloated, de-nosed and burned to death:
an igniminious end for Feral.

Feral's fate is of particular interest. Feral was the edgy, violent, Wolverine-tinged replacement for Johnny for a while, a new Strontium Dog for Da Kidz, as it were, and a signal for me at the time that 2000AD was no longer for me. The Feral we get here is old and obese, having been fattened up for execution by his captors, and before he is killed he suffers the indignity of having his nose cut off. It's hard not to see this humiliation (and McNulty plays his part here) as a repudiation of changes that were made in those days, particularly as this strip seems to promise the return of Johnny Alpha.

So, does Johnny turn up alive and kicking? Alas, the matter remains unresolved as after eleven episodes the story ends with a “to be continued”. Very frustrating! I will talk some more about the duration of stories in the present day 2000AD, but for now, let's move on.

Judge Dredd is nearly synonymous with 2000AD. Judge Dredd was always my second favourite thrill (and thus second in this review!) to some other thing that might be going on at the time. Occasionally it busted through to the top of my hit parade – The Cursed Earth and Judge Child Quest and the first few Judge Death/Dark Judges stories, for example, are unalloyed thrill power classics, amongst the very best comics ever – but by and large it was second in my heart to the best of Strontium Dog, Ro-Busters at its peak, Slaine and the better series of Nemesis and ABC Warriors.

That said, a consistent second is still an outstanding record. It's a brilliant concept that allowed for all sort of interesting stories to be told, and the quality was always consistently high. Well, until I got fed up with it all. By time I abandoned 2000AD first time around, I really felt that it had started eating itself in a combination of over-stretched metaphor (America was really the last word, I think) and obsession with continuity (machinations within the Justice Department always bored me, and I really don't think we needed Guinness drinking oirish judges). It's the classic danger of any ongoing serial, as far as I can tell.

As at prog 1689 we come in at the tail end of a mega epic, Tour of Duty. Mega-epics are one of the reasons I soured on Dredd, as they seemed to encourage the series' worst instincts. This one appears to have been about some kind of internal corruption and wrangling around the appointment of Chief Judge, which doesn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm - these stories of internal politics are about as interesting as a day at the office. I prefer the image of the Justice department as aloof and remote, an almost perfected class of citizens, and the stories that focus on the city and how the Judges react to it.

Coming in at the end, the story's kind of unfathomable to me and the art by Ezquerra once again lacks his customary flair. I don't know if it's just that his regular art duties on the story coincided with my gradual trailing of interest, but I never really liked his art. I know he designed the character and the world, and if anyone gets it, surely HE does, but ... well, he doesn't get it!

If you take a look at the classic Bolland or McMahon Dredd strories, they are overflowing with funny visual references and odd design choices. Characters are all sorts of shapes and sizes, with all sorts of faces. In Ezquerra's hands, though - and this was true in the 90s - everyone looks Ezquerra. Everyone has the Ezquerra body shape, and one of his three Ezquerra faces (two if you're a woman, hot or ugly). He has a bunch of design choices that he repeates again and again, whereas the great Dredd artists threw in odd steers and wierdnesses all the time.

Ezquerra works well in a story with a strong consistent visual look - Strontium Dog, of course, and his Stainless Steel Rat adaptations similarly benefits from the highly consistent hard(ish) SF setting - but Mega City is a technicaolour, Po-Mo, multicultural hodge podge of contradictions, and Ezquerra's approach robs it of that vital, quirky energy. In his hands, this story looks like a drab police procedural rather than the wild and zany world of borderline madness that I always imagined Mega City to be.

The Conoisseur: great art by
Karl Richardson
Anyway, Tour of Duty ends in prog 1693, and we get a few shorter stories thereafter by diverse hands covering fairly familiar Dredd territory. “Fat Fathers” written by John Wagner falls into the metaphor stretched too far category (with truly awful art by Jon Hayward), while “The Connoissuer” is a more run-of-the-mill Dredd against unusual sci fi villain kind of thing, written by Dan Abnett with pretty decent art from Karl Richardson. In 1698 and 1699 we get a couple more fill-ins – "The Slow Walk", a decent story by Rob Williams enlivened by fairly great art by Boo Cook, and "A Home For Aldous Mayo" by AL Ewing and P J Holden, far less interesting and with very poor artwork to boot. Both these fit in the very familiar Dredd story shape, in this case put-upon citizen is driven to a crime due to tragic circumstances.

I like the art from Richardson and (especially!) Cook, but what the hell are Jon Hayward and P J Holden doing illustrating 2000AD's premier product? The presentation here is sub-summer special! There's a style of art that has evolved in the UK in mags put out by Panini and Titan that evidently focuses on broad strokes and quick turn around, and these artists are seemingly working in that mode: blank backgrounds, characterless faces, unimaginative page layouts and visualisations, just boring, ugly and badly done. To be fair, I've probably blocked out the shitty fill-in artists of the seventies and eighties but even so we had guys like Ewins and McCarthy and Ian Gibson providing fill-in stories, and that's aside from Bolland, McMahon and (always interesting, sometimes rather stiff) Ron Smith.

The Slow Walk: a nice filler story with excellent art
by Boo Cook.
Starting from 1700 we're on to another multi-episode story “The Skinning Room”. This combines a sector-based crime crackdown with the tale of a Jeffrey Dahmer-style serial killer. This series has launched in with some good bits of action and pretty great art from Ben Willsher. I'm also intrigued by the presence of Judge Walther the sniper, and wonder what role he's going to play in the future? I'd say this is one to keep up with and has a lot of potential if all the elements come together.

Judge Walther the sniper: hopefully we'll see more of him.
Adnire the great art from Ben Willsher!
However, I'm really not rocking the serial killer stuff. I don't know if it's just me, but I find serial murders incredibly boring, and increasingly hackneyed. And there's the clunking great clue/joke/I-don't-know-what, that the killer lives in the Ed Gein block. The more serious elements of the current serious tone of Dredd just doesn't seem to gel with this style of silly joke. What used to seem deadpan just sounds silly now.

In all, I have to say I've been a little disappointed by both these classic thrills. They're not awful (thankfully!), and the current serial in Dredd shows some promise, but there's something tired, and inward looking about them.They seem to be cut well adrift from the cultural climate that bred them – the spaghettti westerns of the sixties and seventies in the case of Strontium Dog and the fascistic super-cops of the post-sixties era that lay behind Judge Dredd.Over time, these series have become the type of serial continuity laden story that we complain about in mainstream American supers.

The latter are saved by occasional reinvention by remarkable creators – Grant Morrison in particular comes to mind, but this has never quite worked for 2000AD. I was never a fan of Garth Ennis's Dredd stories – he's not a writer I really like anyway, but even so he was a poor match for Dredd – so I don't know if Dredd's just too long in the tooth or if the right writer has yet to be found. I don't really recall who took over Strontium Dog in the post-Wagner days – I'm pretty sure he was responsible for the death of Johnny Alpha first time around – but this whole thrill needs a major injection of imagination and action.

Well, on with the rest of the stories! There's plenty of new and interesting material here, and I'll get to that soon. Stay tuned  for part three, where I take a look at the current output of the magnificent Mr Pat Mills.


  1. Boring, ugly and badly done? Really?

    I think you'll find yourself in a minority there. Try looking past your own artistic preferences and decide if the art really is bad, or if you just don't like the style. Unbelievable as it might sound, one doesn't automatically equal the other.

  2. Well, also excellent and great! You can cherry pick the positive or negative as you please.


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