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Home ¦ Reviews ¦ Progs 1421 - 1426 ¦2000AD Prog 1424

Prog 1423
2000AD Prog 1424
2000AD Prog 1424 - 2 February 2005
Judge Dredd (Rennie / Critchlow)

Second City Blues (Kek W/ Pleece)

Slaine (Mills / Langley)
Caballistics Inc. (Rennie / Reardon)
Nikolai Dante ( Morrison / Burns)
Synopsis by David Knight
1st Review by Andrew Howe
2nd Opinion by Ed Berridge

Summaries and reviews contain spoilers for this issue.
Cover by Simon Davis

AH: Let's imagine I previewed this week's cover as follows: "A gun-toting Hannah Chapter faces off against a hulking stone golem." Sounds like something that'd have you tearing open your subscription wrapper in anticipation, right?

Unfortunately, Simon Davis has drawn Ms. Chapter in a manner that defies the laws of gravity (she's effectively doing the limbo while holding a gun and a flashlight, not to mention being pelted with rocks), human nature (her expression is one of mild surprise, as opposed to fear, grim determination or a dozen other reactions we might deem appropriate to the occasion) and conventional wisdom (it’s curiously static for an action-oriented piece). Davis is a fine artist, but since Sin/Dex is his thing it's pointless to force him to draw characters he's obviously not comfortable with. Given the paucity of Caballistics covers to date, this ranks as a major disappointment.

EB: Interesting one this: I’m not totally convinced that this works as a Caballisitcs, Inc. cover. Perhaps I’m just missing the black and whites of the strip inside, or simply ruing the fact that Dom Reardon has yet to be allowed a Caballistics cover.

However, I can’t really find it in myself to dislike a Simon Davis cover; in fact, thinking about it, I can’t even remember one of his covers that I haven’t liked. He does a nice job of emulating Reardon’s Golem, and even adds in little details like the vial seen in the actual strip. Of course the best thing about any S. B. Davis cover is his use of colour: his use of unusual browns and purples is so unique that I can only really think to compare it to Brendan McCarthy. For example, witness the excellent colours in evidence of Chapter’s midriff, which really suggest something simply and believably real. Quite why this man hasn’t been snapped up to work for Oni Press, Avatar or some other publisher is a mystery to me, but I’m glad he’s still hard at work for 2000AD!

2000 AD: Judge Dredd
Script: Gordon Rennie
Art: Anthony Williams
Letters: Tom Frame

The Searchers

Judge Dredd
Product placement was still a problem in Mega City 1..

Synopsis: Three months after the Total War terrorist threat is ended, Judges Dredd and Guthrie are searching the Cursed Earth for survivors among the hundreds of thousands of citizens who fled Mega-City One in panic. They find scattered groups of vehicles abandoned by their occupants. Many have ventured into lethal radiation zones mistaking the rad-glow for the lights of a settlement.

The only living citizen they find is Howard Wootkins, who has survived alone after his family died of radiation sickness. He fires on Dredd and Guthrie with a Citi-Def issue sniper’s rifle. Dredd circles round behind the sniper and gives him one chance to surrender. Dredd fires a stun beam which fails to immobilise the enraged citizen, who returns fire, knocking Dredd to the ground. While Dredd is reasoning with the citizen, Judge Guthrie shoots Wootkins through the head.

Dredd tells Guthrie he did the right thing, and suggests that if Guthrie suffers any personal doubts about the incident, he should try wearing tighter boots to take his mind off it: advice handed down to Judge Dredd himself by another senior judge years before. Dredd and Guthrie resume their patrol.


AH:
Long-time readers will be familiar with the degeneration of Dredd’s character that occurred when John Wagner took a break from writing duties in the 90’s. The humanity Dredd displayed in The Cursed Earth and Bury My Knee at Wounded Heart was replaced with lines like “fewer citizens means less crime” (thank you, Mr. Ennis), and even Wagner hasn’t gone out of his way to set the record straight since returning to the fold. Dredd may be a borderline fascist, but he’s still a hero, and every time he refuses to act like one my interest in following his escapades continues to ebb away.

With stories like After Hours (Prog 1319) and War Crimes (Meg 201), Gordon Rennie reminded us why we bother. He’s at it again with The Searchers – when Joe shelves the heatseekers in favour of an unreliable stun beam on the grounds that “We came out here to rescue him, not kill him”, the Dredd we know and love is with us again.

The Searchers continues the Total War post-mortem, balancing the widescreen chaos of the main storyline by bringing the conflict down to a human level. Double-page spreads of nuclear incineration are well and good, but for sheer emotional impact it’s hard to beat the line “Two juves in the family – Mikey and Vanessa. Three more names off the list.” It’s painted on a small canvas – nothing much actually happens, but the meditative pacing and dust-choked atmosphere of despair are streets ahead of the “humorous” filler that pollutes the strip on a regular basis. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t applaud Rennie’s hugely enjoyable nod to Dredd continuity with the “tight boots” line (a reference to the events of Prog 667 that resonates with long-time readers without alienating the new), and Critchlow's art provides a suitably grimy backing to a downbeat story, even if Dredd occasionally looks like Lobster Random in a helmet. Deceptively brilliant.


EB: Any strip which references the classic John Wayne western in the title, or that features the gorgeous art of Carl Critchlow, is going to get my vote.

Yet the main reason that I like this strip is that it marks, for me, the moment that Gordon Rennie really came of age in his Dredd writing. Of course, I’m sure that most people had already long since reached this opinion, but I’d always remained something of a sceptic. But recently I’ve noticed how Rennie has been quietly eased nearer the reins of the strip: whether it was using key characters like Giant, Rico, Grice or Vienna; or inventing new ongoing storylines, such as last year’s Gulag. Yet now he’s been given the chance to write follow-up stories to last years blockbuster hit Total War.

Follow ups to Mega-Epics are difficult: the readership love them, but they have to be written right – not always an easy task (anyone remember Tales of Necropolis, or whatever it was called?). Yet Rennie matches the task pitch-perfectly: his Dredd, world-weary, and ready to hope that he can still save someone from the massacre created by Total War, perfectly catches the character as he now exists today, showing how much he has changed during that time. Add into the mix some classic Dredd humour (the malfunctioning Stunner Shot) and a reference to the classic A Question of Judgement, and you have a Dredd to match the classic Wagner/Grant follow ups to The Apocalypse War.

Many people, including John Wagner himself, have touted Rennie as the future of Dredd: up until now, I hadn’t really been interested in reading it.


Second City Blues
Script: Kek-W
Art: Warren Pleece
Letters: Ellie de Ville

Part 6

Second City Blues
Minger loses his cool

Synopsis: Now sponsored by the squid gangster Mr. Mourn Salter, the team arrive for training at a decrepit sports arena converted for slam ball.

Their new coach is slam ball veteran Vince Sergeant, former captain of the Torpedoes. They are put through a gruelling training regime.

Even though it might take two months to get the team into shape, their first league fixture is set for just five days’ time in Second City Sub-district Three, formerly Wolverhampton, where they will play against the Wolves.


AH: To anyone with a long memory, the failure of Second City Blues to ignite the readership shouldn't come as a surprise. Kek-W wasn't the worst writer to earn a crust at our expense in 1995, but The Grudge Father and Kid Cyborg aren't exactly revered as classics of the genre. In any event, the darkness at the heart of SCB can be summarised by the following excerpt from pages 2-3 of the current instalment: "I'm going to push you so hard during the next few weeks that you'll wish you had never been born!"

Dialogue doesn’t come much lazier than that, and these days we expect better from our paid professionals. We've seen the "training a bunch of losers to win the title" sequence a hundred times before, so the least a writer can do is inject a little originality into the proceedings. Instead we witness the cliché raised to a virtual art form, and while the low episode count for this story (God willing) works against an extended lead-up and leisurely character development it's still no excuse for not even trying.

Warren Pleece appears to have something of a following amongst the readership, and as this is my sole exposure to his work I'm tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I've never been a fan of this style of retro artwork, since the unrealistic facial expressions and minimal level of detail can derail the noblest of intentions. Then again, even Henry Flint couldn't have saved this particular train wreck, so if I was Warren I’d consider the script in more detail before accepting my next assignment.


EB: Funny strip this one: I started off thinking it was a load of poorly coloured rubbishy old tosh. I have to say that I’ve since been converted to its charms – not a popular opinion perhaps, but one that may possibly become so.

The script has obviously been written to purposely remind readers of the classic sports strips of yesteryear: the gang of misfits up against the odds; the mysterious benefactor; the grumpy veteran coach, who appears to have escaped from television puppet-fest Stingray – all the elements are in place. Perhaps it’s taken a bit of time to settle in, but I had to say that I was genuinely surprised at the breadth of storytelling on show here. The density of information that the mysteriously monikered ‘Kek-W’ manages to cram into the space of five pages really does remind one of the classic ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ writing of the classic Thrills of yesteryear. And he manages to pull off that most difficult trick in a team story: I’m actually aware of who all the characters are!

Nice to see Warren Pleece finally working for the Galaxy’s Greatest too. Although he’s maybe not the best suited artist to the slamboarding scenes, he has a lovely style for drawing the inter-team character stuff that really is the heart of any book like this. Plus he does some nice graffiti on the first page, so I’m happy! Not really sure about the colour though. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but I can’t help but feel that the strip might have achieved the ‘old school’ aesthetic it’s obviously reaching for had it been presented in black and white, as well as being a purer form to present Pleece’s lovely artwork.


Slaine
Script: Pat Mills
Art: Clint Langley
Letters: Ellie De Ville

The Books of Invasions - Tara - Part 6

Slaine
Morholt has a bad day.

Synopsis: Slaine meets the Goddess again in a clearing where other warriors have been turned to stone by the gaze of Morholt’s basilisk. Danu and Morholt taunt Slaine with jibes about his time being over and his kingdom passing on to the Atlantean invaders. The Goddess sets the basilisk onto Slaine and praises Morholt’s qualities in front of him. Slaine realises that Morholt’s helmet protects him from the monster’s transfixing gaze and wrests it away from him. Pushed in front of the basilisk, Morholt is turned to stone. Slaine puts on the helmet and shoots at the monster with a crossbow pistol.

While Slaine fights or his life, Mongan reanimates, and consels Slaine to do as he does and agree with whatever the Goddess says. Slaine chops off the basilisk’s head with Morholt’s sheers, and the Goddess threatens Slaine with her own crossbow. Slaine levels his at her in turn, but the Goddess tells him his weapon is empty.

Back in Tara, the Fomorian forces have broken through the fortress’s defences. Leora’s daughter Amber runs to her mother but is killed by Sethor with the Sword of the Moon on the orders of Odacon. Leora attacks Sethor in a rage but she too is killed.


AH:
I've always maintained that Zenith III was a brilliant story that would have been even better if Zenith wasn't in it, making it an enduring testament to the benefits of a vibrant supporting cast (see also practically every Dredd story regarded as a classic). I mention this because there are five pages in Prog 2005 that gave me hope for the future of Slaine. As Gael reflected on his love for Scota I realised I was experiencing an emotion I haven't felt while reading Slaine since, well, ever - I actually cared about what happened to this guy (and still do). Gael took the time to express his feelings of loss and regret, and often that’s all it takes to forge a connection with the reader. On the other hand, I doubt that anybody's ever harboured an iota of affection for Slaine, since invincible, psychopathic, socially challenged anti-heroes rarely inspire any form of attachment.

All of which suggests that the strip might be saved if Mills could bring himself to sideline Slaine and concentrate on a group of well-realised supporting players (and I don’t mean Ukko, whose absence from the series has made me realise how little I miss him – check out The Time Killer for a relevant case study). Instead we get a king-sized serving of the usual dross - Slaine fights Morholt and a basilisk, Slaine wastes Morholt and a basilisk, and Slaine faces off against the Goddess in a showdown that's unlikely to end in tears for anyone concerned.

The only notable things about this episode are the bizarre switch to an interior monologue while Slaine's doing his thing (he's actually unusually coherent in this sequence), and the vaguely unnecessary murder of a child to prove what a right bunch of bastards the Fomorians really are (it's a surprisingly good prog for infanticide, with the demise of Mikey and Vanessa over in Dredd). As always it’s the subject of another stunning turn by Langley, though I imagine he’s getting tired of pouring his soul into a strip that’s attracted so much flak.

Next prog another reviewer will doubtless express similar sentiments, but until Mills get the message we have to keep singing those songs of lamentation. And it's getting old fast.


EB: For me, Slaine seems to be such a mixture of highs and lows these days. Clint Langley’s art has continued to improve, but I’m still reminded sometimes of my first reaction when I saw his work – that of static photographs. Yet he’s clearly able to move beyond this, as evidenced by excellent fight between Slaine and the Basilisk. Indeed his lovely Basilisk design should be enough by itself to silence those who say that he’s nothing more than a photographer. However, occasionally these comparisons do return: I have to admit that I had to re-read the last six panels of the strip a couple of times before I actually understood what had actually happened in them.

Pat Mills keeps the story ticking over: Mills’ writing seems to leap from the interesting to being rushed with voracious rapidity. Characters like Morholt, something of a cheap Elfric rip-off, appear and then are suddenly and rather easily killed off; leaving one wondering what the point of them was in the first place, other than narrative necessity. However, Mills is still wily enough to realise the essential ridiculous nature of heroes such as Slaine, and in this case uses the figure of the Goddess to puncture his macho pomposity.

Mills is often most criticised in his ‘over-writing’ of the strip, and the repetition of phrases and situations, but as the strip is based largely in the Celtic legends of old Ireland, the strip actually cleverly matches the writing style of these earlier epics.

However, Mills’ writing can still prove to be occasionally frustrating: he often reaches these points where he seems to be taking the strip in a genuinely new direction, such as Slaine’s standoff with the Goddess at the issue’s close. Yet you can’t escape the nagging suspicion that next week the situation will be ended suddenly, without any real resolution. Sometimes you really want to see Mills try to take the train off the rails in the same way that he has been in Savage, and see what new directions he can take the strip in.


Caballistics Inc.
Script: Gordon Rennie
Art: Dom Reardon
Letters: Annie Parkhouse

Safe House - part 5

Caballistics inc
Brand uses old school techniques against the golem...

Synopsis: Back in 1960, young Ethan Kostabi ventures into the cellar of a boarded-up house to retrieve a football. Investigating a voice, he sees the mummy of one-time Department Q agent Emmanuel Konterman. A mystical force seems to seep out of the mummy and into Kostabi.

In the present, Hannah Chapter and Doctor Brand have to fend off Konterman’s golem come to life in the same cellar it was walled up in. Brand takes off its head with a sledgehammer, but it keeps on coming. Chapter defeats the monster with a continuous hail of armour piercing rounds. The golem and the mummy burn with a weird black fire, and the investigators grab what they can before fleeing.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, a television actor taking a break from filming on location is killed by a monster in a kilt, with the head of a wild boar with horns on its head as well as tusks, wielding a sword.


AH:
The current run of Caballistics fails to end with the usual cliffhanger, but it's been another fine ride nonetheless. I honestly wouldn't mind if the next few progs consisted of nothing but a hundred pages of this series, and every time I wonder if I'm rating it too highly I recall those exquisite “downtime” stories from Progs 1363-68 and my faith is restored. My sole suggestion is for Rennie to have someone read Hannah's incessant chatter aloud before he hands in the final copy - I can only assume the golem took a coffee break from the slaughter to allow her to finish that rave-on about "Appalachian cannibal clans" and their ilk.

Looking forward, I’ll simply express my fervent desire that Rennie really has plotted this series well in advance. It’s one of the few ongoing stories that actually appears to be working towards something, and it would be a shame if it degenerated into a meandering 10-year opus in the vein of Sinister Dexter. If the next outing consists of nothing more than the team chasing a boar-faced lunatic around the Scottish highlands there may be rumblings about whether Rennie is missing his chance, but on the strength of his two contributions to this issue I think Hannah & Co. are in safe hands.


EB: And as soon as it was begun it was over. I just hope that Mr. Rennie and Mr. Reardon don’t keep us waiting too long for the next instalment.

One of the great aspects to this series, and one that will no-doubt help it develop the inevitable ‘cult following’, is the way that the reader has to piece together the backstory that somehow involves the hidden history of Department Q, the deathless Solomon Ravne, and the enigmatic Ethan Kostabi. And finally it feels as though we’re getting close to the motherload – the mysterious truth behind Kostabi. Apparently it seems that Mr. Kostabi was somehow possessed by Emmanuel Konterman, formerly of Department Q, which also must provide a connection to the Jewish commandos and their Golem who were out to kill Ravne way back in Krystalnacht. However, if Rennie’s writing on the strip is anything to go by, he’s no doubt got quite a few rabbits to pull out of the hat yet.

My one complaint is the killing of poor old Tom Baker by some bloke, who looks like he’s escaped from the pages of the Slaine story Treasures of Britain, on the last page: surely an act of national treason? Yet it’s this kind of devil may care, two-fingers up style of writing that has made Rennie’s work on the strip such a success.

As for Dom Reardon: put simply, he should be chained to a desk and forced to draw living rock-men, Hassidic mummies, and all kinds of scary spook-tacular stuff until he either dies or his hand snaps off at the wrist.


Nikolai Dante
Script: Robbie Morrison
Art: John Burns
Letters: Annie Parkhouse

Agent of Destruction - Part 6

Nikolai Dante
Dante may have met his match...

Synopsis: On an underwater research facility, the stasis cage holding an experimental bio-weapon has been broken open, and the organism inside attacks every living thing within its reach. The monster wipes out Kraken’s men and reconfigures itself into the shape of a tyrannosaurus rex and then a giant scorpion as it chases Dante, Lauren, Marguerite and Kraken through the research complex. Although Dante’s Huntsman rifle having the ability to adapt its ammunition to its target, the bio-weapon is able to rapidly alter its own DNA, negating any combat advantage the rifle might confer upon its owner.

Faced with overwhelming odds, Kraken calls a truce, but receives a rifle butt in the face for his answer. Marguerite turns her pistol on Dante, suspecting him of being secretly in league with Kraken or working for Akita Sagawa or the Tsar. Lauren forces Marguerite to lower her gun. Kraken laughs as they turn against one another, but his jeering unites them against him instead.


AH:
My comments about "meandering opus" above define my disappointment with the current Dante offering. The Romanov war drove this story to its fondly remembered heights, but these days Nikolai seems to be all dressed up with nowhere useful to go. Dante fights, Dante cracks wise, and Dante might want to take a look at what happened to Slaine when the well ran dry. And seriously - "How about a group hug?" Otherwise Burns provides able support, and we wait as one for the next big development to finally roll around.


EB: “I think Robbie Morrison’s going Japanese, I think he’s going Japanese, I really think so.”

With the current Dante series set in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Shimura in Hondo City in the Judge Dredd Megazine, Morrison does seem to becoming something of a Japaholic. Unfortunately this episode is not the best example of his writing skills, or of Burns’ art: piracy on the high seas and human drama – yes; sf bio weapons and people in funny diving suits – no. I still don’t understand why exactly the bio-weapon suddenly changes into a dinosaur, then a giant scorpion. Plus the Kraken, leader of the villains, seems to be quickly losing his mystique and aura of evil: still, a sharp kick in the gonads of pompous villains is Dante’s usual style, I suppose.

Yet the strip regains its credentials in the three-way standoff at the end. And it makes me wish that Morrison would concentrate on this familial-intrigue aspect of the story, such as we witnessed between Dante and his mother in the first episode, as this seems to be where Burns’ characterisation really comes into its own.

Overall

AH: You could probably cut and paste any conclusion from the last month into this space – solid Dredd, Caballistics hitting the high notes, Dante boring but inoffensive, Slaine boring and offensive, and SCB making us wonder how it ever got past quality control.

However, this week I’m giving the nod to Dredd, since it’s another example of Rennie recapturing the spirit that even Wagner seems to have lost. The good outweighs the bad, but a poor replacement for Caballistics could see things go downhill very quickly next week.

PW: An excellent Dredd and Caballistics, Inc. make this an enjoyable prog, whilst Second City Blues, Nikolai Dante and Slaine keep ticking over comfortably. It’s good to see Tharg keeping the mix of old trusted strips and taking chances on new ones at the same time, and the comic seems to be maintaining a healthy level of quality that hasn’t been so consistent for a long time.

It’s nice to see a redesign of the Nerve Centre and Input pages that let’s me actually read the text! (Although why they don’t use accomplished Solar Wind and Whistler artist Bolt-01’s picture of Tharg, I’ll never know…) But any prog that contains a Droid Life with a reference to a terrible British sitcom will always get a thumbs up from me!

Best Story

AH: Judge Dredd.
EB:Caballistics Inc.

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