Monday, 18 October 2010

2000AD Part Three: Savage and Defoe

I keep saying this about different people, but if there's one guy who really embodies the values of 2000AD, it's Pat Mills. He was, of course, one of the motive forces behind establishing the title back in the seventies, and over the years he's never been far away. You could say the same about John Wagner and Alan grant, of course, who were similarly involved in 2000AD's earliest days, but it seems to me that no one quite expresses the conflicting impulses of 2000AD quite like Mr Mills.

While I've been reading the reprint volumes (you can find the reviews by clicking the 2000AD tag, an Harlem Heroes is awaiting review, NB) I think it's his stories that I have – so far – enjoyed the most. I don't think I'll be going back for more Robo-Hunter or Rogue Trooper, but I am hungry to get to ABC Warriors and to read more Nemesis. His stories have a restlessness about them, an impatience that expresses itself in a wilful, almost destructive desire to make us face up to the darkness that the stories are built on. It's right there at the start of Dredd (and Mills wrote a lot of the early classic strips, including the entirety of the Cursed Earth series, which contains a lot of intriguing morality plays), and in Ro-Busters, which starts as an amusing and enjoyable Thunderbirds-style adventure story and develops to combine elements of animal cruelty (via some very explicit references to Black Beauty) and – more obviously – slavery. It's almost as if Mills can't bring himself to write this stuff any more, as if he feels this massive moral obligation to a bunch of comedy boys' comic robots, to take them seriously and address their concerns.

It sounds ridiculous, but that's what makes him such a compelling writer. He doesn't compromise and, for good or ill, he is incapable of being lazy or taking the easy way out.

It doesn't always work of course, and if he has a fault it's the old partisan's error of failure to see the humanity of his opponents. Marshall Law, for example came out at the same time (more or less – possibly a year or two earlier) as Watchmen, and makes some of the same types of points about super-heroes: far from innocent fun, once you peel back the surface it's a pretty murky business of sexual fetishism and vigilante justice. What Moore has that Mills doesn't, however, is an understanding of the appeal of this sort of thing. Mills's work is angry and full of fire. Moore can be withering in his own way, but he doesn't quite share Mills's splenetic energy.

Bill Savage in vintage Volg killing action.
Mills's desire to make vigorously overt political points has been an important part of UK comics culture. From early on, from before 2000AD in stories like Charley's War in Battle, he has been addressing the injustices and darkness that children’s adventure stories used to hide hide. He was undeniably instrumental in providing this space in trad British comics. Without him there would be no Alan Moore, no Garth Ennis or Grant Morrison.

Mills had an intolerance with the limitations of the boys' comics genre, and he strove to move 2000AD beyond the cosy Eagle-era assumptions of the genre. That's one of the reasons that the classic era of 2000AD is so good – striking against the barriers produces brilliant sparks, slashing out from the obvious, saying things in the background and the subtext, letting a mind find the moral gristle of a story for itself. That's what young minds want and need. Hell, it's what old minds like mine – cranky, stinky old minds – want.

The comic that 2000AD is today, is very much a venue that he created to tell the types of story that he wanted to tell. It takes more cues from Crisis and Toxic than it does from the 20000AD of the IPC era, and so, it's interesting to take a look what he does with the freedoms he fought so hard for.

In prog 1689 we pick up, in episode five Savage: Crims, chronicling the further adventures of Bill Savage, formerly of original thrill Invasion (starting in prog 1). Bill's original run centred on his role in the British underground following the Volgan invasion of Britain in 1999, and later he took the lead in Disaster: 1990, which detailed his further – or rather previous – adventures dealing with a Britain that's suddenly been flooded on some pretext that I don't quite recall now.

I remember that I didn't like Invasion much  – at the time it made me think of those annoying sci fi shows that weren't really sci fi at all, things like Survivors, that never featured aliens or spaceships or people turning into robots or pools of sentient slime or anything interesting like that. M.A.C.H 1 was the same (until the final story, an absolute cracker featuring a stranded alien).

However, Savage I really enjoyed Savage. This is Savage Book 6, so I've obviously missed quite a bit of continuity here, but Bill is operating undercover as  a resistance organiser in a Britain living under the Volgan jackboot. He seems a less chippy sort of character than I remember: I seem to recall a kind of old fashioned, Sun-reading working class psycho, cheerfully blowing Volgs away with his shot gun with a merry quip and a wink for the ladies. This story is set years after that, and the years have worn Bill Savage down; the man we see here is an entirely grimmer, more dour sort of guy.

Patrick Goddard brings an air of  palpable threat to this excellent cliff hanger.
Crims has him recruiting a rag-tag gang of former criminals to perform a raid on the Volgan's new teleporting facility, which is causing all sorts of trouble for American efforts to free Britain from the Volgan yoke. By the time I join the story he's already recruited an army of former thugs and heavies who are being drilled to imitate Volgan soldiers. In 690 he recruits a nonce-killing computer expert, and in 1691 and 1692, a reclusive former rockstar and physics genius.

In contrast to my nine-year old self, I quite enjoyed Savage's new adventures. This story had an agreeably pulpy feeling that reminded me of classic TV shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals, or classic Brit crime thrillers, like Layer Cake, The Italian Job and Get Carter. In fact. when he puts on his specs, Savage even looks a little like Harry Palmer. The black and white art from Patrick Goddard catches the grim noirish feel with a nicely understated cinematic rhythm to the layouts. It's got a very English look to it: the people look right, the buildings and he makes great use of photo references (I'm guessing!), and the grimy, back-street-cafe-and-bookies locations do a lot to generate that Brit-crime period atmosphere.

Mills makes good use of the episodic format and captions – you hardly ever see captions in comics these days! I liked the early references to Mills's longer continuity – War Droids, Howard Quartz and Ro-Busters – and I am genuinely intrigued about how this might all fit together at some stage, ultimately reaching far into the future with Nemesis. It's generally considered a symptom of the Brain-Eater for a sci fi author to try and connect up all their various works, but Mills has been at it so long, and the seeds were (I suspect inadvertently) laid so long ago that there's something entirely natural about it.

Some old friends link the story up with Mills's Ro-Busters/ABC Warriors/Nemesis stories.
  The down-beat atmosphere of Savage is very much in contrast to Mills's other current contribution to 2000AD, which returns in prog 1700, Defoe. The story turns on a simple, and pretty fun, idea. In 1666, after the great fire, a zombie plague rises up and begins doing what zombie plagues do. Yes, we're all a bit zombied out these days, but Mills adds a twist of Witchfinder General and a dash of distinctly British Protestantism to the recipe to create a story with some of the atmosphere of Nemesis. The mixture of magic and christianity echoes the pseudo Catholic inquisitors of Termight, but here here it's the turn of the Protestants whose puritanical capitalism sees the zombies chained to treadmills to work doing... well, I don't know what, exactly, but something profitable, I'll bet!

Like  Savage, this in illustrated in stark black and white - I wonder if that's a Mills choice? Either way, as with Goddard's art in Savage, it provides all the atmosphere you need, and Mills is happy to sit back and let the images do the work. The magical steampunk atmosphere is oozes from the pages thanks to Leigh Gallagher's deliciously grotesque art.

Ghoulish grotesques from Leigh Gallagher.
The characters are believably ugly and mis-shapen, the figures have heft and weight, and the brings depth and solidity to the fast moving, somewhat melodramatic plot. He has a great eye for the zombie-killing and seems to take real pleasure in depicting the macarbre nature of the living dead and the cast of oddball characters that Mills has assembled. It's in the latter, however, where this story comes a little unstuck.

There's too many of them, particularly for the three episodes I've had a chance to see here. This story (“A Murder of Angels”) begins in the year 1669, so clearly there's been a few years worth of events already and I really felt the weight of the previous continuity here. As the story opens, and we find Defoe on the ramparts of The Tower of London defending it from a wave of undead, he has at least ten very distinct secondary characters with him. These don't look like cannon fodder – I don't have the backstory here, but they all look like they've been featured characters at one stage or another. A double page spread in the first ep here where another of these characters make a quick role call in the form of a long as-you-know-john kind of speech doesn't help much!

Practical, unsentimental puritan capitalism at work!

Coming in fresh, it's a lot to cope with and they all demand time from the story to have their little moments, which slows it down and dilutes the pace of the plot. Add to this elements of other supernatural goings on – demons, a pagan shaman type character, some kind of demonic character in a dungeon, and you begin to get a bit dizzy. Unlike Savage, which I grasped immediately, I couldn't tell you exactly what this one is about.

It looks to me like the series has been accumulating baggage along its way, and all this gets in the way of a rather simple concept. This might also be a bit of Mills thing – Slaine began to get a little confusing as time went on from a fairly simple beginning – and it's something that's exacerbated by the current habit of short-runs, as nothing in the current 2000AD seems to run more than a dozen episodes. This is a topic I shall return to in due course, however!

Another great cliff hanger!

Despite these cavils, I enjoyed both Defoe and Savage. It's great to see new ideas in 2000AD – that's what we loved it for first time around, after all – and gratifying in particular that an old warhorse like Mills (with respect!) can still deliver something interesting and fresh. I'm looking forward to reading more of these.

Next up we'll be taking a look at a couple of stories that debuted around the time I gave up first time around, but have since found their way on to the roster of 2000AD classics, Sinister Dexter and Nikolai Dante.


  1. Excellent analysis of Mills' work (and as the Godfather of British Comics he does warrant close inspection), especially "if he has a fault it's the old partisan's error of failure to see the humanity of his opponents" which mirrors some of my concerns. His anger, fire and "splenetic energy" are what really make him stand out and he is at his best when has something to say and he isn't afraid to smash your head into the point he is making, just to drive it home.

    If you want to get up to speed on Defoe the Wikipedia page is kept up-to-date and should help. However, although this is the fourth story and there is a large cast, most of what a new reader will need is in this instalment (even if the start felt a little infodumpy it was done well enough to be interesting in its own right). The exception is the chap who pops up in the last part - it's Faust (hope that isn't a spoiler for anyone) who was revealed as being the man who is pulling all the strings.

    It'd be well worth picking up the first trade paperback too, as Defoe is one of the best stories in the recentish crop.

  2. Hi Emperor, thanks for the comment, I'm pleased you enjoyed this post. Pat Mills is great, isn't he? I will definitely be picking up the Defoe trade at some point - I'll write about it here when I do!


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