Thrillpower For The New Year
Tripwire’s Man in the West Country TIM HAYES takes a look at a selection of new 2000AD collections…
The ancient Roman world at its bloody and unforgiving best arranges for one of Spartacus’s rebel slave army to get a second chance at existence in Aquila Blood of the Iceni – although not one that leaves him very happy. The ex-gladiator Aquila, nailed to a cross on the Apian Way in 71 BC, prays to all the gods he can think of for rescue; the only one who answers is Ammit The Devourer, a toothy Egyptian demon who supercharges Aquila with formidable strength and escapology skills and sets him loose across the landscape to harvest the souls of the wicked. There is no shortage of candidates.
In Gordon Rennie’s story, drawn by Leigh Gallagher and Patrick Goddard, Aquila’s episodic progress from Rome to Britannia and back again brings him into contact with historical characters like Boudicca, pursuing a murderous vendetta against the local authorities; former disciple Simon Peter, fresh from his guilty disavowals of Christ; and the very mad Emperor Nero, who involves Aquila in a plot intended to see the Roman ruler ascend to actual godhood. An array of other immortals, army deserters, fortune tellers and zombie babies become involved.
It’s very much a man’s world, not least since most of the women in the story are untrustworthy at best or monsters at worst. Boudicca’s violent slaughters go well beyond acceptable limits, justified or not, while Nero’s in-house sorceress Locusta is even more wicked and conniving than he is. The book’s vision of Rome owes something to the flamboyantly over-the-top melodramas of the BBC’s I Claudius, with less nudity but many more swords driven through faces.
But mostly it’s a world in flux, with future civilisation up for grabs. The gods and demons flitting around the fringes of humanity, cajoling and threatening and jostling for position, aren’t going to go quietly just because the Christian god is preparing for the moment when He makes the others irrelevant. Gallagher and Godard’s art has some flamboyant facial destruction, emphasised in flat perspectives and brutal front-facing action, as the human characters are shunted around the landscape by powers well beyond their control. Aquila is a plaything, on his way to an unclear destiny that might conceivably involve some forgiveness; but there’s still plenty of energetic slaughtering for an indestructible gladiator to take care of in the meantime.
Slaine Brutania Chronicles Book Two: Primordial by Pat Mills and Simon Davis
Thanks to the way the 2000AD prog numbers break down, the latest Slaine collection starts with Pat Mills’s Celtic warrior in the middle of one desperate crisis and ends with him up to his neck in another, with a relatively modest narrative occupying most of the space in between. But story dynamics are only ever the surface texture for Slaine stories. The meat of the experience is Mills’s energetic stirring of ideas and allegories, politics and sorcery, beauty and decay – along with the art that puts them all into vigorous motion.
Book Two of the Brutania Chronicles finds Slaine Mac Roth and his companion Sinead caught up in a tense historical moment. Lord Weird and his despotic forces are working towards the creation of a super-warrior called the Primordial, and have allied with the Trojan army currently marauding across the landscape of Albion, while Weird also pursues a more personal vendetta against Slaine for the killing of Slough Lord Feg back in Slaine: The Horned God. Meanwhile an unearthly presence called an Archon impassively occupies a mountain on the landscape, although what its agenda might be none can be sure.
Mills’s overtly political discussions are as fiery as ever. Sinead, freed from a life spent in breeding pens but with a clouded mind and an opiate addiction for her troubles, has had her world-view corralled into one of passivity and conformity. The forces of evil plan to improve humanity by turning it into mindless slaves, and Sinead’s passage through their education system has been designed to instil blind unquestioning obedience. “She’d be better off dead,” notes Slaine, whose efforts to foster a more free-thinking and independent Albion free of Lord Weird’s tyranny of thought is moving forward one decapitation and disembowelling at a time.
Simon Davis’ painted art catches plenty of detailed sinew and gristle in its rich watercolour wash, and the facial expressions switch smoothly between subtlety and spittle-flecked exaggeration. Plus the figure work is sometimes gorgeous; Sinead, listless and coated in woad, almost floats off the page, and in the midst of action the characters seem to hover, suddenly uprooted from the Earth.
As anti-authoritarian as ever, Slaine resists every army sent out to crush, cripple or chain him, drawing his fury from mythology and psychology in equal measure. His creator seems to be a long way from running out of steam too. Pat Mills still draws his own strength from opposition to things that won’t be going away any time soon: repression, conformity, and closed thought. After all these years in the business Mills is still always on attack, barking at the next army barging in the door. Both writer and character have still never met a complacent status quo that wasn’t well worth overthrowing.
Judge Dredd: Dead Zone by John Wagner, Henry Flint and Richard Elson
All cities are built on blood, bodies and bad memories. Mega City One has more of all of them than most, and Dead Zone confronts Judge Dredd with the direct after effects of previous unspeakable, unthinkable atrocity: the deaths of 350 million citizens from a virus attack in Day of Chaos, which was itself a consequence of Dredd’s personal decision to annihilate millions during The Apocalypse War.
That disaster was thirty years ago, both for Dredd and for readers, but John Wagner’s use of it to leverage a readjustment of the Dredd strip via the cull of Mega City One’s population is designed to prove that history casts a long shadow. The obvious echoes of real-world concerns and paranoia speak for themselves, but the end result is a focus on one of the strip’s most adult and consistent themes: that life is still possible under extreme pressure, and hope never quite blinks out.
And so Dead Zone, collected from the recent Megazine storyline of the same name and drawn by Henry Flint, finds a young couple with hardly any reason to be hopeful heading for Mega City One anyway, looking for a better life. They end up in the clutches of some suitably odious grave robbers, who are dipping into the foul caverns of dead bodies buried in pits outside the city. And they have a baby on the way, ensuring that both of them are equally ripe for exploitation and sadistic abuse.
While Dredd gets involved in a murder at the Chaos Memorial site, a wild card element arrives in the form of a mysterious device of alien origin, found in the burial pits and duly pursued first by judges and criminals, and later by time travellers from the twenty-eighth century.
Those same time travellers turn up in this collection’s second story, Breaking Bud by Wagner and Richard Elson and taken from 2000AD, as the Judges try to work out what the alien artefact can do and who is after it. This second, and distinctly lighter, story works rather better. Elson’s art flows more fluidly, and the many flashback sequences have some subtle visual identification, which is more than they do in Dead Zone itself.
It also has more interaction between Judges and more problem-solving by Dredd, two of the strip’s evergreen aspects. The best bits of Judge Dredd have always been not so much the newsflash that civilian life is brutish and short, but the look into what the law does – or doesn’t – do when that’s the case, for better or worse. And Dredd himself is as consistent as ever. “This could all have been cleared up without violence,” moans a handcuffed criminal to Dredd, surrounded by the usual accumulation of bodies and rubble. “Not to my satisfaction,” comes the reply.
Judge Dredd The Complete Case Files 26 by Various
The Complete Case Files collections have reached the first half of 1997 – or 2119 if you’re on Mega City One time – presenting more or less everything Dredd-related from that period’s 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine side by side. Inevitably such a wide swath of stories and creators produces greatly varying success levels, and a lot of the material here has been round the proverbial City Block already.
A big portion of the 2000AD material is taken up with John Wagner’s multi-part story about a bunch of rookie judges on a trek out from Mega City One across America under Dredd’s tutelage. As a world-building exercise it never really solidifies beyond a sequence of travelogue episodes much in the style of the original legendary Cursed Earth storyline, although Sean Phillips and Henry Flint are among the artists involved and both are very good here; Flint’s energetic cartooning in particular adds some spice whenever he pops in and out of the storyline.
But the smoother art of John Burns and Jim Murray in two other stand-alone 2000AD quickies elsewhere in this volume feels more potent. Best of all is Mad City, Wagner’s cross-section of general Mega City nuttiness which Greg Staples illustrates with some exaggerated European-style flair.
Over in the Megazine, edgier mid-Nineties artistic styles are the order of the day. The big centrepiece is Fetish, John Smith’s five-part story taking Dredd to Africa for a meeting with Devlin Waugh and some evil demons rising from the African soil, flamboyantly painted by Siku in a style sometimes reminiscent enough of Bill Sienkiewicz and Elektra:Assassin to summon up 1987 rather than ’97. Seeing Dredd out of his comfort zone is fun once in a while, and the politics of southern Africa seep in around the story’s edges.
The other Megazine stories cycle through fairly familiar Dredd story loops. Robbie Morrison sends Dredd to Japan on the trail of stolen weapons, where he eventually offers the local law enforcement his grudging respect for getting the job done. Gordon Rennie depicts one of Mega City One’s occasional zero tolerance crackdowns – a relative concept – during which Dredd stumbles across a serial killer of homeless youths.
Collections like the Complete Case Files are always likely to prove that the average of any long-running character sits lower in the quality scale than you might imagine from its highest achievements, and the general tone of the strip has to be re-established after every few steps forwards. But on the other hand, the sheer quantity of Dredd material and the variety of artistic interpretations are what gives the character his iconic status, and dipping back into the wellspring always finds a few suitably memorable moments of Dredd doing what he does, as cherishable and lethal as ever.