Meg Review: 266

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Megazine 266Quote of the month: “I’d recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a sixteen-year elaborate pornography together. I think they’ll find it works wonders.” Alan Moore

Cover: Cliff Robinson draws Dredd, Armitage and new character Tempest. Workmanlike and always a crowd pleaser, it is nonetheless nothing we haven’t seen before.

Strips: Judge Dredd, Armitage, Tempest, Bob the Galactic Bum (reprint)

Features: Interrogation (interview with Alan Grant), Dredd Files (summary of Dredd strips from days of yore), New Comics (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s The Lost Girls), New Movies, Dreddlines (letters)

I’ve been reviewing 2000AD every week here for a while now, so why not the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine? Well, the short answer to that is that I often don’t read all of it. The Megazine has always been less consistent than 2000AD and some of the strips contained within it have been very weak indeed. I remember reading an interview with Alan Grant in the 90s when he confidently predicted that 2000AD would merge into the Megazine before the decade was out; so much for that theory.

Why has it always been the weaker of the two titles? Partly it is because it has always had a very confused identity. Various editors have sought to rebrand it as either the JUDGE DREDD Megazine or the Judge Dredd MEGAZINE. The former implies a comic focussed on Judge Dredd and his world, which has meant that most of the strips over the past 18 years have been about a Judge in another country or setting (A Samurai Judge! A grumpy Inspector Morse-type Judge! A Wally Squad Judge [lots of Wally Squad Judges in fact]!) or a direct spin-off from the Dredd strip itself (Anderson, Hershey, DeMarco, Mean Machine, Chopper… you name it).

The latter implies something more generic. For a period in the early noughties this meant a series of strips that were related to Dredd in the sense that they were noirish, focussed on crime and/or filled with black humour. This lead to strips ranging from The Bendatti Vendetta
through to Xtnct (by Doctor Who/Human Nature scribe Paul Cornell).

More recently though, this has implied taking a more magazine-ish approach to the comic, leading up to the current vogue to make the publication its own fanzine. This has had mixed success. Some of the articles have been stronger than others and occasionally they have dominated to the extent that it resembles a magazine about British comics, complete with free fannish content, with a monthly Dredd strip included as an afterthought.

The other big problem it has faced is its monthly format. While in the US, monthly, single-strip comics continue to thrive (if thrive is the right word for it), in the UK we have tended to opt for weekly anthology titles (a gross simplification if ever there was one since 2000AD, Beano and *ahem* Dandy Xtreme are the only ones left!). Once again, the Megazine has flitted between the two extremes. Monthly comics are tough to follow, especially the wilder ones such as Pat Mills and John Hicklenton’s recent Blood of Satanus III (which was sadly not worth the wait when I finally got around to reading it in one go last month) and while most successful 2000AD strips tend to be between 10 and 15 parts long, such length is an impossible task for a monthly strip.

Sadly, going fortnightly didn’t seem to help the comic either, as it was in the mid-nineties. While that enabled it to develop a stable of ongoing strips and helped develop a number of careers including Robbie Morrison, Frank Quitely and Gordon Rennie, much of its content was at best rushed and a worst downright rubbish. The then-fad for sub-Bisley painted artwork didn’t exactly help either.

Nonetheless, it certainly has its moments and has launched the careers of several top flight artists and writers. The fact that it has survived at all is pretty remarkable given that for a good year in the late nineties it only had 16 pages of original material in it every month.

As of this issue, the Megazine has had a relaunch and yet another reboot (although a less extreme one than some of its predecessors). Gone are the indy backup strips (an opportunity for upcoming artists to show their wares; a bunch of free material for the magazine); back is the cheap US reprint material.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here commenceth the review:

Spoilers…

Judge Dredd: What I did for Crissmas. It seems like he never left, but P.J. Maybe – now masquerading as Mega-City One Mayor Byron Ambrose – is back. This time, someone is out to kill him and without really bothering to find out who, P.J. embarks on another rampage, only to discover that it is his Swedish love droid Inga who was behind it all.

After a 7 year hiatus between 1993 to 2000, Maybe has rapidly risen to become Dredd’s arch-nemesis. There was always something about the character, the way he casually slaughters pretty much everyone he lays eyes on while breezily recounting it all in his badly spelt journal, that made an impact in his very first appearance. I remember it well.

The character’s hook was originally that he was just a child. Since he grew up (he’s in his early 30s now – all but my contemporary albeit 122 years in the future), Wagner has kept the character going by way of a variety of face changes (and in one story, a heart transplant as well). The addition of Inga – who manages to combine childlike innocence with an eagerness to go along with whatever Maybe is up to – was a particular stroke of genius as it gives him a love interest without compromising the character (she’s basically a 22nd century blow up doll with moving parts).

But where does the character go from here? To be honest, all these strips end up pretty much the same: Maybe kills lots of people and Dredd fails to cotton on, let alone catch him. This episode is no exception. It’s enjoyable enough and written with a wicked sense of humour, but it’s nothing we haven’t read before.

Making Maybe the mayor however is a brilliant move, especially given the fact that at the end of Origins Fargo implored Dredd to restore democracy in the city. While completely oblivious to his real identity, Dredd actually to a grudging respect for a mayor who has actually done a good job. As Maybe writes: “It seems the organizashunal skills perfected in my years as a mass murderer are just right for being in hi office too.” Here is Wagner audaciously having his cake and eating it: making the case for smashing the Judicial system and for keeping it in place at the same time. In years of reading Dredd I’ve never quite got my head around what exactly Wagner’s politics are. I can’t say the same of, to name but three, Pat Mills, Alan Grant or Alan Moore – fine writers all but who often lapse into pontification (especially the former).

It’s very clear that Wagner has some serious fireworks planned soon, and I’m looking forward to them.

Simon Fraser’s return to drawing a Wagner Dredd script is also welcome. I seem to recall him incurring Wagner’s ire when he drew Dredd’s unhelmeted face (as a child) in Blood Cadets (Progs 1186 – 1188) a few years ago. He’s a great Dredd artists and captures the city perfectly. I wish he’d draw more. But then I wish he’d draw more Nikolai Dante as well!

Interrogation: Alan Grant part one. Alan Grant is a writer I have some mixed feelings about. His partnership with John Wagner was incredibly creative and resulted in many of my all time favourite strips. But he has an iconoclastic instinct which often confuses drama for body count. His first Dredd work with Wagner involved killing off the Angel Gang – a mistake they have rued ever since. His final Dredd work with Wagner (not counting the Dredd/Batman crossovers) resulted in a huge argument about whether or not to kill off Chopper. Wagner won and Chopper lived, leading to the masterpiece “Song of the Surfer” (Progs 654 to 665). The less said about the character since then the better however, leading one to wonder which of the two writers were right.

Either way, his solo Dredd work seemed to get progressively worse while his Anderson stuff has been highly variable. On the plus side however, his work on Batman was always very strong – DC’s decision to ditch him was criminal in my view (although it is surely no coincidence that his more commercially-savvy US editors would never allow him to kill off characters with such glee – forcing him to stick to character probably helped him).

Back to the interview, David Bishop really goes into quite some detail here and by the time this part ends we haven’t even got to the 1980s when Grant and Wagner started their partnership.

It’s a fascinating read, real slice of life stuff which makes you realise quite how much the UK has changed over the past 40 years or so (not just the comics!). I already knew much of the basics here, that Grant and Wagner first met working at DC Thompson (publishers of the Beano) in Dundee. I didn’t know however that Grant had been imprisoned for drugs possession. The passion Grant and others felt for 2000AD in its early days really shows through.

Definitely worth a read. Is this the return of David Bishop on a regular basis after what seems like a long hiatus? We shall see.

Armitage: Dumb Blong part 1. Dave Stone and his character return after more than 4 years. Veteran artist John Cooper returns after decades.

Armitage is one of those strips which always feels like it is on the verge of greatness but doesn’t quite get there. The long hiatuses don’t help; neither did Charlie Gillespie’s awful artwork at a critical juncture (I refer you to the aforementioned moan about sub-Bisley painted artwork). There have only been two other strips since 1995 and the plot doesn’t seem to have moved on much since then (of course, Armitage has also guess starred a Virgin Judge Dredd novel while Stone shoehorned his archvillain Efil Drago San into a Big Finish audio drama).

What we have here seems like more of the same and soap operatics concerning the supporting cast to boot (it’s interesting to note that that back when this strip came out started, having a married lesbian couple was probably considered daring; now its a footnote in Heat magazine). It’s hard to care if the strip vanishes for years on end (and is this set just a few months after the main events of the strip 12 years ago or in current Dredd continuity, i.e. 12 years later?). As is my frequent complaint with 2000AD, the odd catch-up page wouldn’t go amiss; this goes double in a publication that is padded out with articles anyway.

Will I have changed my mind and decide I care about this strip after all by the end of its run? We shall have to see.

Bob the Galactic Bum: The Piker part 1. Something I already own, a reprint from 1997. Bob the Galactic Bum is a particular curio because it is so idiosyncratically Wagner/Grant that it hurts, yet at the same time it was originally published by DC in the States. It’s commerciality appeared to rest solely on the basis that a few Brits would buy it out of loyalty to the creative team while the yanks at the time bought anything starring Lobo. Since a follow up was never commissioned, we must assume it wasn’t regarded as a success.

Of course, they were past offenders in this respect; their earlier Outcasts with Cam Kennedy was pure 2000AD as well, and they two ended up getting shoe-horned into a Lobo-starring spin off called Unamerican Gladiators.

To no great surprise Lobo, this month’s Editor’s Letter explains, will not be appearing in the Megazine version of this strip due to copyright reasons. Already, the Khunds of DC lore have been replaced by the even less subtly-named Guunts. It will be interesting to see what he has been “transformed into” next issue. In the meantime we have a strip which resembles a mash up of Strontium Dog and Ace Trucking Co, starring a character who is obviously an homage to W.C. Fields.

For all that derivation, there is much to enjoy here. Bob himself is well written and many of the jokes are genuinely funny. Ezquerra’s black and white artwork is always a delight and removing the US colour greatly improves the strip.

So ultimately, I don’t greatly begrudge the return of this strip and should enjoy all the little alterations they have to make to keep it legal.

TempestTempest: Here Comes Trouble part 1. This is very well executed for something which, at the end, begins to look dangerously like one of those Judge-with-a-quirk strips I was bemoaning above. Up until the last page with the appearance of the eponymous Tempest, what we had was what looked like a typical heist plotline about a smalltime crook looking to rip off the mob whose plans go slightly awry.

So who is Tempest? A Judge who took the Long Walk? A Judge who thinks he’s a Samurai Warrior gone Ronin? Both “twists” have been done before in the Megazine with Missionary Man and Shimura respectively. Is he both? Is he neither? I’m hoping for the latter but I fear I’ll be disappointed.

But for outclassing the flabbier Armitage, Ewing and Davis-Hunt deserve credit. This is a strong debut for them both (actually, Ewing has written numerous one-shots, but this is his first stab at a longer story). I’m particularly impressed by Jon Davis-Hunt, who appears to have come from nowhere (his name defies Google itself!), and yet whose style seems to have sprung fully formed.

Nostalgia and derivation appears to have been the name of the game in this issue of the Meg. Not sure that is a particularly sustainable recipe, and Tempest is the closest thing we have to freshness. Here’s hoping it takes us off in a new direction next month.

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