By focusing on old 2000 AD favourites, Tharg the Mighty misses an opportunity to give his comic a fresh shot of energy.
As 2000 AD has enjoyed its renaissance in recent years, these regular ‘jump-on’ issues, featuring a slate of new stories across the comic, have become something of a tradition.
As well as the big end-of-year Progs, we now have one in the (northern hemisphere) Spring, giving new and lapsed readers the opportunity to shake off the Winter blues once and for all; the lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn and a fresh set of Bastards with Big Guns are here to provide your weekly Thrill-Power Overload.
The tone is set from the cover: it’s always great to see new work from Brian Bolland, one of 2000 AD‘s seminal art droids, but while the triumvirate of Johnny Alpha, Judge Dredd and Sláine represent an iconic view of the comic’s history, the image could pretty easily have fronted an issue from the mid-1980s.
And that retrotastic vibe continues inside. Leaving aside the immovable object that is Judge Dredd, each of the four ‘new’ stories marks the return of an existing series. As well as the grizzled veterans on the cover, we have the return of alien immigration procedural Grey Area and espionage thriller Orlok: Agent of East-Meg One, starring a character who first appeared in 1981.
So let’s go through those stories (each of which comes with a text intro, as a concession to newbs). As ever, the comic starts with Dredd – more specifically, ‘Enceladus: New Life’ by Rob Williams and Henry Flint.
Following up on an earlier epic set on the judicial detention colony of Titan, this opener is steady rather than gripping; two judges work on the reconstruction of the distant prison while Dredd deals with a mass murder back in the Big Meg, where the arrival of an unidentified craft sets a mystery in progress. It’s a promising start from two (relatively) old hands who know what they’re doing.
Next up is the latest iteration of Celtic fantasy Sláine, written, as always, by the indefatigable Pat Mills. This forms the opening of ‘Primordial’ – Book Two of ‘The Brutania Chronicles’ – and reading these pages, you get the sense that the Mills droid is equipped with a subroutine that allows him to generate this sort of stuff on demand, almost indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Simon Davis seems to have found a bold new style since I last saw his work. It looks great, even if it still can’t quite enliven the dirgey chit-chat that nudges the pages along. Sláine’s failed attempt at a warp spasm is emblematic of a story that doesn’t seem to be quite catching fire.
The return of Grey Area (below left), by Dan Abnett and Mark Harrison, is the closest the issue comes to something really fresh and exciting, taking the cataclysmic climax of the previous arc – in which Bulliet and his team flew into the heart of a world-devouring ‘God Star’ and detonated a nuclear device – as the cue for a radical remix of the series.
The last time I saw Grey Area, Lee Carter’s photo-realistic style suited its documentary atmosphere, but Harrison’s altogether more inky and detailed approach creates a very different feel for the repurposed strip. Abnett’s script is characteristically scurrilous, and in Agent Resting Bitch Face and Agent Compelling Male Musk Odour he gives us two of the best-named 2000 AD characters since Halo Jones’s Procurator Bandaged Ice That Stampedes Inexpensively Through a Scribbled Morning Waving Necessary Ankles.*
Digging deep into Meg-history is Orlok (above right), by writer Arthur Wyatt and artist Jake Lynch, depicting the Sov Bloc agent’s nefarious activities before he came to Dredd’s attention in the Block Mania saga. Sending the agent to Oz to abduct an apparently clairvoyant painter, this is probably the weakest of the five strips, lacking clarity at a couple of key moments.
The Prog wraps up with Strontium Dog by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, the pair who created the strip for 2000 AD‘s short-lived sister comic Starlord back in 1978. The title of the arc – ‘The Stix Fix’ – and the appearance of some familiar-looking bods early on again indicate that the tale will be more of a treat for long-time readers.
Johnny Alpha’s exploits have become considerably more convoluted since I was a regular reader, including death, resurrection and a spot of trans-dimensional exile. The not-so-merry mutant we meet here – now a suicidal political prisoner – finds himself blackmailed by the ‘norm’ authorities into taking on a mission to find a kidnapped dignitary.
It’s great to see Carlos Ezquerra working to such a level after his reported health problems, even if his style has lost a little of its extreme edge, and Wagner continues to mine a familiar but welcome seam of laconic humour.
So looking at Prog 1924, it seems that the future (and Sláine’s prehistoric past) are largely what they were – and I’m sure a lot of old heads will find that very comforting.
However, given the range offered by the anthology format and the pool of talent open to 2000 AD, it’s a shame that Tharg didn’t take the opportunity to imbue his comic with a jolt of fresh energy and innovation. Better luck next time.
* Yes – I did need to look it up.
Various (W/A) Rebellion, £2.45, April 1, 2015