Tooth Review: Prog 2008 (obligatory spoiler warning)

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Prog 2008Quote of the issue: “Did you see my televised debate — the one where I made Richard Dawkins cry? I wanted to use a picture of that on my personalised Christmas cards but the Archbishop wouldn’t let me.” Unnamed Church of England operative, Caballistics, Inc.

It’s finally arrived! And it’s a good’un…

Cover: Clint Langley draws Dredd in the foreground, with the other characters featured in this issue in the background.

Bit of a damp squib this. The non-Dredd characters are merely taken from other artists while there is something about the face of Dredd that I don’t like. I think it is the slightly pointed helmet.

The twin-logo design doesn’t exactly do it any favours either. I hope this “2000 sideways AD” logo isn’t here to stay as it is awful – a complete throwback to the bland logo they used around 2000. The fat exclamation mark design is a classic – if there’s no reason to change the name, there’s no reason to change the logo.

Strips: Droid Life, Judge Dredd, Shakara, Kingdom, Nikolai Dante, Stickleback, Sinister Dexter, Caballistics Inc, Strontium Dog.

Features: Best ever covers, letters, three “great moments of thrill power” pinups (The Apocalypse War by Boo Cook, The Angel Gang by Clint Langley, Nemesis the Warlock Book IV: The Gothic Empire by Bryan Talbot.

Spoilers…

Judge Dredd: The Spirit of Christmas. A pretty succinct summary of all the major plot developments in the Dredd strip over the past 12 months, with a clear indication of where the strip is headed.

Plotwise, the story is pretty perfunctory. Dredd visits his niece Vienna (the daughter of his clone “brother” Rico) and meets her latest boyfriend. He fights a gang of thieves in a medical facility – coincidentally the one which Joe and Rico break (their clone “father”) Fargo out of in “Origins” (1505-1519, 1529-1535). This makes him think of his family, and in particular his mutant relatives who he was forced to turn away from the city in “Mutants in Mega City One” (1542–1545) due to the strict anti-mutant laws of the city. This helps him come to the conclusion that he has not pushed Chief Judge Hershey hard enough on reforming this law. He meets with her and offers him an ultimatum: either she works with him to reform the law and allow mutants into the city, or he will resign. Fearing the consequences of his resignation (last time he did it the whole city went down the toilet), she acquiesces – a decision that will no doubt have fateful consequences.

Prog 172In addition to the aforementioned references, there is also a passing reference to Mayor Ambrose (in fact the homicidal maniac PJ Maybe), the first time he has been mentioned outside of the Megazine, and Dredd and Hershey discuss Lopez – the Judge that Dredd forces to eat the Oracle Spice to help him track down the Judge Child (156-181). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that is the first time Lopez has been mentioned in the strip in 27 years (not counting any godawful Dredd strip not written by Wagner which is probably best forgotten).

So where does this all get us? Well, it’s clear that Wagner is lining his ducks in a row and there should be some major ructions in the new year. The ambiguous ending of “Mandroid: Instrument of War” last week also indicates that some of the younger judges no longer regard Dredd with the reverence that he takes for granted (not to mention that several judges appeared to be conspiring with General Vincent). It is clear that we are in for some kind of civil war developing. To what extent Dredd carries out Fargo’s wishes at the end of “Origins” and attempts to restore democracy remains to be seen. And as an added stroke of genius, Wagner has given in Mayor Ambrose the one politician that Dredd actually respects. But I’ll discuss that in more detail when I review this month’s Megazine.

The art? Colin MacNeil at the top of his game. A little unspectacular maybe, but no complaints here.

Shakara: The Defiant part 1. The brutal history of the Shakara is retold in flashback. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the story is being told to a new character – Eva Procopio – who will presumably form the basis of this new storyline.

For those of you who haven’t read the first two books, Shakara tells the story of an alien – the last of his kind – who travels the universe avenging the genocide of his race. Eva it emerges is the daughter of one of the aliens that Shakara killed as part of his mission of vengeance.

This series glories in its utter weirdness. In the very first episode, Morrison and Flint destroy the last human, a contrivence which frees them to come up with ever more strange looking aliens week after week. I enjoyed the first book (1273-1279) immensely. The second one (1441-1449) dragged on a bit and ended up being just one long fight scene. I’ve often thought that this is very much Robbie Morrison’s answer to erstwhile editor Andy Diggle’s briefly famous “shot-glass of rocket fuel” manifesto. Another way of looking at it is that it is Morrison’s attempt to exorcise the ghosts of his “failed” strip Vanguard (which I for one would have liked to see continue).

So it’s early days yet, but while I don’t expect this to be the greatest strip ever, if Morrison can keep the right balance between strangeness and plot then I’m pleased to see it back. As for Henry Flint’s artwork – it’s always a joy but the style he uses here is particularly great. He always draws this strip in black and white, but with judicious use of primary colours (usually red, but in this episode blue) to make things stand out. I love it.

Kingdom: the Promised Land part 1. Gene Hackman (no, not the Gene Hackman – think bipedal bald rottweiller with knives) is back following his impactful first series (Prog 2007, 1518-1525). His pack wiped out, Hackman explores the World beyond “Anarchticy” killing lots of “them” – insectoid buglies – along the way.

This is another strip which indulges in weirdness. We were given some information in the first series – the dog soldiers of which Gene is but one were created to protect their human masters, who went into suspended animation until the alien invasion had been wiped out. The series is narrated using the pidgin language of the dog-soldiers. As anyone who has read his strips will be aware, Dan Abnett loves playing with language (cf. the endless punnage in Sinister Dexter, “Atavar“…) and he seems to particularly delight in creating a dialect here which is distinctive, odd yet understandable at all times.

Again, it’s early days here. Lots of bug fights and something to do with some nasty looking mite-creatures. Richard Elson’s art here is, as ever, excellent, and suits the strip perfectly.

Nikolai Dante: Destiny’s Child. The story of Odessa, the Tsar’s personal oracle who it emerges is a fan of Dante. Kidnapped by The Devil’s Martyrs (cultists who venerate Rasputin), Dante has to rescue her. Dante resists the temptation to have Odessa tell him his destiny (beyond informing him that he will die “spectacularly”) and takes her to his mansion in Rudinshtein (where he is governor) to give her a few days of freedom before taking her back to the Tsar. “It is Christmas after all”

It’s a simple story which mainly serves to introduce Odessa who I suspect we will be seeing more of in future – a woman who knows the Tsar’s future will no doubt prove a very useful ally for Dante. Morrison pitches the story perfectly for John Burns’ style and Burns himself produces some of his best work. It’s beautiful.

Stickleback: England’s Glory part 1. Dear reader, I’m sure you must be getting heartily sick of me describing 2000AD strips as weird, but this is another one which is mad as snakes. Written and drawn by the creative powerhouse which is Ian Edginton and D’Israeli/Matt Brooker (of Scarlet Traces and Leviathan fame), Stickleback tells the tale of the criminal mastermind of a fantastic Victorian London. The first series (Prog 2007, 1518-1525) saw him dispatch one set of rivals. Now, with the help of the Queen, it appears he is to combat a new menace from the East.

Stickleback himself is a monstrously deformed old man whose spine forms a beetle-like carapace. He leads a gang of misfits and oddballs who run his various brothels, drug cartels and protection rackets. Picture The Godfather meets Tod Browning’s Freaks. The overall effect, thanks to D’Israeli’s wonderfully evocative artwork is a combination of whimsy and horror. In short, this is something to look forward to and savour.

Sinister Dexter: Inner Waldorf Hire and Dice. There’s always got to be one duff strip I suppose and this is surely it. Essentially the conceit here is that Sinister and Dexter are watching their own biopic starring Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy.

A few in-jokes aside about the dubious morality of the strip itself, this whole strip could have been summarised in a single page, if not a pin-up. The fact that Hollywood has a nasty habit of ruining its source material is neither original nor particularly interesting.

Simon Davis’ art is fine as far as it goes, but the overall effect of the strip is to rather highlight the derivative nature of his photo-reference style. His Scarlet Johansson is cute, but he doesn’t do Kirsten Dunst any justice at all.

Not a huge fan of this series at the best of times, this strip is exceptionally weak. Who cares?

Caballistics, Inc: The Nativity. Three representatives of the “HM Government’s ultra-covert occult operations policy” – one from the Star Chamber, one from Special Branch and one from the Church of England – meet together to discuss what to do about Demon Jenny’s pregnancy. The concern is that the child – the unholy spawn of a homonculus and a demon – could be a potential vessel for a reincarnated Ethan Kostabi (killed off at the end of the last series) or even worse.

Meanwhile, Demon Jenny and apparently the only other surviving member of Caballistics, Inc – her lover Solomon Ravne – appear to be having trouble with the staff. Or at least what’s left of them (Dom Reardon’s full page reveal of a pregnant Jenny smoking a fag while sitting next to a bed covered in human remains is one of the highlights of this prog). And in the Sudan, the dead are rising from the ground – in particular a certain Lieutenant Francis X. Littlejohn (albeit with more than a passing resemblance to Harry Kipling) who someone has activated to commit murder most foul.

I was wondering where this strip had to go after the last series, but it is clear that Gordon Rennie hasn’t quite finished with it yet. The status of Chapter and Verse remains unknown – given Rennie’s lack of sentiment, we can probably assume they’re dead.

For more info on Caballistics, Inc, check out this great mini-site on 2000ad.org.

As usual Dom Reardon’s art is terrific and overall this makes for an entertaining one-off which will hopefully lead to a new run sometime soon in the new year.

Strontium Dog: The Glum Affair part 1. Wagner and Ezquerra reunite on their other celebrated creation. This time, Johnny Alpha and Wulf are investigating the case of Billy Glum – the leader of the Milton Keynes Mutant Ghetto residents association – who is about to be executed for murder. Haunted by the hatred his apparent betrayal in “Traitor to his Kind” (1406-1415) has inspired amongst his fellow mutants, Johnny does a rash thing and decides to spring Glum from jail.

Like “Traitor to his Kind” this is very old school Strontium Dog but with a slightly more grown up twist. While previous strips tended to present the whole mutant/norm apartheid thing in black and white terms – Johnny was a hero of the revolution and adored by his kind – this version (Strontium Dog was “rebooted” in 2000 when Wagner decided to simply ignore the fact that both main characters had been killed off in the eighties) is much more nuanced and complex. Given that Alpha has always been a tortured character, this new version is a much better match.

Definitely a strip to look forward to but again a bit too early to see where they are going with it.

Overall, this has been a fantastic issue and the series that are to spin off from it next prog – Shakara, Kingdom, Stickleback and Strontium Dog are a very strong line up. It has made me realise quite what a strong roster of creators 2000AD has working for it at the moment – the strongest in 20 years or more. This is a great opportunity to hop on board.

I’m going to start reviewing the Megazine from now on as well – it should be up soon. And I’m planning to do a review of the year. Meanwhile, here’s 2000AD related clip from crap eighties ITV kids show Saturday Starship featuring Madness’ Chris and Suggs in their “Fink Brothers” guise (I should point out here that Saturday Starship is one of the things which convinced me as a child that 2000AD was Not For Me. I used to get particularly annoyed by Tharg’s frequent guest appearances. O foolish me!):

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