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Return to Armageddon (2000 Ad)
Return to Armageddon (2000 Ad)
by Malcom Shaw
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.19

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you're going through hell, keep going!, 24 Aug 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
2000AD has a long-running tradition of one-off stories called Future Shocks - short, punchy sci-fi yarns with a twist ending. `Return to Armageddon' is, in length at least, the total antithesis to a Future Shock - but in spirit, it's like a marriage of virtually every classic Future Shock idea the weekly prog has ever seen, all jammed into one completely mad, marvellous, Manichean saga. Biblical allusions? Check. Rebellious robots? Check. Interplanetary destruction? Check. Temporal anomalies, interstellar zombies and aliens who aren't quite what they seem? Check, check and double check. If writer Malcolm Shaw had only thrown in a virtual reality prison, we'd have had the full house.

Originally running in 2000AD in 1980-81, `Return to Armageddon' concerns the exploits of the demonic Destroyer - "a creature with the power to end all life" - and his blonde twin brother Amtrak, unwisely cloned from the corpse of a devilish alien found on a frozen world. Prematurely aged to adulthood, Amtrak quests to stop his brother's machinations, eventually aided by Seeker, a forthright, no-messing robot, who is probably the most likeable character in the story. But Amtrak's quest is far from free of complications, and he spends a protracted and gruesome period as a shambling abomination, unable to die, but existing in perpetual agony.

Shaw delivers an apocalyptic yarn that is part fantasy, part sci-fi, part horror, part Genesis and part Book of Revelation. At first glance his writing leans in the direction of Inferno's Tom Tully - one quite-literally damned thing after another - but whilst there's no shortage of mad ideas, the story is a lot more controlled than Tully ever managed, and one has the sense throughout that Shaw has a definite destination in mind. The tale is also structured into three clear sections - an opening third in which the twins are cloned and exist in infancy, a memorable middle with Amtrak immortal and tormented, and a cataclysmic conclusion with our hero rejuvenated and dealing with a very literal hell on earth. The story's also blessed with a pleasing and delicious nastiness - Amtrak really gets put through the ringer, and even Seeker spends most of the series partially dismembered.

With the exception of a two episode fill-in by Johnny Johnson, art is by the wonderful Jesus Redondo, best known for Nemesis the Warlock Bk II and, most notably, Monster from IPC's late lamented Scream! weekly. If there's one thing Redondo can do well, it's horror, and this tale gives the Spanish master plenty of opportunities to strut his artistic stuff. Whether it's space zombies, the damned writhing in torment, or hairy winged devils, Redondo delivers with nightmarish relish - Amtrak's lurching, degenerate form even seems something of a precursor to Monster's infamous Uncle Terry!

Overall, `Return to Armageddon' is a crazed romp, with a core of pure, subversive imagination. Every time you think you've figured out where it's going, it throws you for a loop: they don't make comics like this any more, folks, and more's the pity. As ever, thrill-power custodians Rebellion deserve the highest praise for dredging up a less-obvious but clearly fondly-remembered tale from Tharg's archives and presenting it with such care. Indeed, the collection even includes a brief bout of colour for both the covers gallery and for the story's one-off appearance at the comic's centre-spread. As such, you need to get a copy in your claws pronto, sinners - 'cos if you don't, there'll be hell to pay!


Judge Dredd: v. 23: The Complete Case Files
Judge Dredd: v. 23: The Complete Case Files
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Hide of Scars Stretched Over a Heart of Stone, 21 Aug 2014
After Case Files 22’s rather lacklustre performance, this newest volume of Judge Dredd’s adventures takes a pretty dramatic upswing in quality. We kick off with ‘Goodnight Kiss’, a rare return appearance by Garth Ennis, who’s only written two other Dredd stories since. This isn’t the pinnacle of Ennis’s work on Dredd (that’s the superb ‘Monkey On My Back’ from 2003) but it’s pretty darn close. Tying together several threads from Ennis’s earlier tales, this nine-parter sees Dredd fall foul of both assassin Jonni Kiss and the Cursed Earth’s Brotherhood of Marshals. As ever, Dredd’s defining characteristic under Ennis is his sheer toughness, but the writer also takes us on a memorable trip into Dredd’s psyche with a hallucinatory sequence making great use of both Kraken and The Dead Man. There’s an attention to detail and continuity in ‘Goodnight Kiss’ that is much appreciated in the wake of the ludicrous Millar / Morrison days – the sequence where Dredd disarms a colleague’s lawgiver feels particularly authentic, as does the much-lauded episode in which he tracks a foe to a mutant schoolhouse. True, Nick Percival’s fully-painted art isn’t really my cup of tea, but it’s not a deal-breaker, and it’s certainly atmospheric enough. Great story.

Following this, John Wagner is back with a series of solid one-offs, some comedic, others laying groundwork for ‘The Pit’. These days, it’s quite rare to see Carlos Ezquerra brought out for anything less than an epic, so it feels a bit of a welcome novelty to see him on several shorter stories here. In the midst of this run of Wagner gold is something of an oddity – Pat Mills and Paul Johnson retelling ‘The Return of Rico’ from prog 30. The story was prompted by the Stallone Dredd movie, featuring Joe’s aforementioned clone brother, but it does little that its more concise McMahon predecessor didn’t already manage in six pages. Aside from Mills getting his own continuity wrong – Rico’s return predates the Cursed Earth saga, it doesn’t follow it - I was never particularly impressed with Pat’s invention of straw-man-style laws to have Rico criticise. There is no MC-1 prohibition against human / alien relationships, Pat – that’s from your own strip, Nemesis the Warlock.

Thankfully, we can rely on John Wagner to provide the strongest story in the collection - the brilliant five-parter ‘Bad Frendz’. This tale, a direct antecedent to 'The Pit', introduces the Mega-City Frendz and their crimelord Nero Narcos, along with Vitus Dance, radland assassin and psychic. Dance is a hugely exciting and original villain, with quirky powers and a really creepy long-faced design by Ezquerra. Unfortunately, Wagner also provides the worst story in Case Files 23, the 2000AD material ending with the absolute clanger that is ‘Awakening of Angels’ - an infamous story that sees the unwelcome resurrection of Pa and Junior Angel from ‘The Judge Child’ saga. Wagner has since admitted this was a bad idea, which is rather like suggesting the Apocalypse War was a bit violent – an understatement of the highest order. As a result of this realisation, the pair have only ever appeared in two subsequent tales, one of which is this volume’s Megazine cover story, ‘The Three Amigos’ – a spirited romp in which Dredd teams up with both Judge Death and Mean Machine Angel to combat the mutant army of President Clinton Box. I’m no fan of playing Judge Death for laughs, but complaining about that at this stage is pretty futile, so I recommend you enjoy this for what it is – a big, mad action-comedy romp with hugely impressive art by Trevor Hairsine. In fact, Hairsine’s work is probably the highlight of the whole collection, channeling the big-booted spirit of Mike McMahon and the craziness of prime Ron Smith, yet still remaining wholly its own entity.

The other Megazine material is mostly decent, although the art is often weaker than the scripts. Take ‘Bug Crazy’, which sees the triumphant return of Olympic staring champion Agnes ‘Laser Gaze’ Bolton – great Wagner script, but Charles Gillespie’s rather wooden posing struggles to keep up. The same holds true for Siku’s work on the daft-but-fun ‘Whatever Happened to Bill Clinton?’, though the artist's idiosyncratic take on Dredd does have its fans. Aside from the work of Wagner, we get one-offs from Jim Alexander, Chris Standley, Gordon Rennie and Robbie Morrison – none are awful and none are outstanding, though Morrison carves out an odd niche for himself as a writer of somewhat over-emotional Dredd tales, something that works for Wagner only because he does it so rarely.

Overall then, this is a pretty great collection. ‘Bad Frendz’, ‘The Three Amigos’ and ‘Goodnight Kiss’ are all excellent stories, and the weaker stories are few and far between. Call it four and a half stars – I couldn’t give five stars to any volume that contains ‘Awakening of Angels’.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 29, 2014 11:07 AM BST


Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 4 (2000 Ad)
Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 4 (2000 Ad)
by John Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "See you on the other side, blue boy!", 28 Jun 2014
What happens when the mission’s over and the war’s finished and the main character’s walked off into history? Flashbacks, that’s what. Lots and lots of flashbacks. And that’s very much the case in this fourth volume of the Genetic Infantryman’s exploits. It would not be accurate to say that this completes the published history of Rogue Trooper – the character returned to co-star for a while in the adventures of his successor, Friday – but outside of the post-‘War Machine’ continuity, this predominantly black-and-white collection is pretty much it for the original blue-skinned avenger and his bickering equipment.

This collection kicks off with ‘Cinnabar’, which is also the main reason to buy the volume. One of uber-scribe John Smith’s earlier 2000AD stories, the story is pencilled by Steve Dillon and inked by Kev Walker: quite a successful combination, as Dillon’s dynamic layouts and posing are complemented by Walker’s crosshatch-heavy fondness for detail. The tale begins with Rogue crucified, crippled with an AIDS-style virus, and teamed up with a bunch of deserters – and things just keep getting worse from then on in! For many, ‘Cinnabar’ is one of the greatest Rogue Trooper stories: personally, I’d agree that it’s definitely one of the greatest stories ever set within the world of the titular G.I., but it’s sure as hell not the kind of thing Finley-Day would ever have written! In fact, the whole 10-part story has what might best be described as a ‘mature readers’ sensibility. Rogue himself, though central to the story, spends a good two-thirds of it in a state of severe physical and mental illness, meaning that he’s more victim than hero – a far cry from the days when his all-consuming mission drove the plot forward. In his place, the biochips really take centre-stage – and what a vicious bunch they are. Though Helm comes off as fairly optimistic, albeit cynical, Smith takes Gunnar beyond his regular status as team psycho and writes him as an utter bitch, cattily spewing venomous comments as readily as he sprays bullets. And it works – he gets most of the best lines in the story! Meanwhile Bagman, always my personal favourite of the chips, is true to form as the ostensible voice of reason who is in fact quietly but spectacularly insane – his brand of meticulous madness is played to remarkable effect in the series finale, which is one of the most imaginative and elaborately nasty set-pieces in 2000AD’s history. In short, ‘Cinnabar’ is an unforgettable read and the highpoint of the book.

The next story is John Tomlinson’s ‘Remembrance Day’, largely a retelling of Rogue’s early history, with colour art by co-creator Dave Gibbons. It links into ‘Mercy Heights’ and ‘Tor Cyan’ continuity, and is most memorable for its vision of Nu-Earth as a war grave – quite a moving final page. After that, we’re into the Gordon Rennie run, a lengthy series of black-and-white flashback tales set during the hunt for the Traitor General, which comprise most of the collection. I stopped reading 2000AD for a while whilst these were being published, and they didn’t have much of an impact on me at the time, but reading them now, they’re actually very good. Rennie pretty much nails the ‘classic Rogue’ vibe, and some of the black and white art is a real treat – great work all-round by Staz Johnson, Mike Collins, Dylan Teague, Simon Coleby and PJ Holden. The run is capped-off with a three-parter by Ian Edginton and Steve Pugh – eye-catching art, script so-so – and then we’re nearly up to date with Gerry Finley-Day’s brief but rather triumphant return to the character for Prog 2011, in a doppelganger-based tale that could have come straight out of his classic run.

After that, we’ve got the ‘bonus material’ from annuals and specials (mostly in colour). Sadly, we start with a pair of genuinely awful Mark Millar stories. The first tale is the better of the two (a very relative term) though reuniting Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy on art serves only to emphasise how badly the story is ripping off ‘Bad Company’! Meanwhile, the second tale is barrel-scrapingly bad, one of the worst pieces of drivel ever published under the 2000AD banner – its purported account of Helm’s death bears zero resemblance to the actual facts of the situation and is impossible to reconcile with correct continuity. Oddly, both stories feature somewhat homophobic portrayals of camp villains – this was very much Millar’s thing in the 90s. Go figure. Thankfully Gordon Rennie and Richard Elson swiftly step in to show us how it should be done with ‘Survival Lesson’, and we follow-up with an Andy Diggle ‘What If...?’ tale, which sees Gunnar surviving the Quartz Zone instead of Rogue. Despite the great Colin Wilson art though, it’s more ‘So What?’ than ‘What If...?’ The volume concludes with a text piece from the Megazine, recounting Rogue’s history, and a cover gallery.

Overall, this is an extremely solid volume – though there are one or two low-points, the vast bulk of the stories are good through to excellent, and ‘Cinnabar’ is a genuine 2000AD highlight. War may indeed be hell, but ‘Tales of Nu-Earth 4’ isn’t too far from comics heaven.


Judge Dredd: v. 21: The Complete Case Files
Judge Dredd: v. 21: The Complete Case Files
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "What's crazy old McGruder going to do next?", 23 Mar 2014
Hallelujah, we're back on track! Yep, this is the volume where Dredd-creator John Wagner makes his triumphant return as full-time chronicler of Old Stoney Face's adventures. Cue wild applause.

The bulk of this volume is devoted to `Wilderlands' and related stories, in which Dredd's attempts to dethrone Chief Judge McGruder backfire spectacularly. Instead of immediately ending ol' Hilda's reign, Joe's own falsification of anti-Mechanismo evidence is revealed, earning him a trip to the Titan penal colony. But McGruder combines the journey with a diplomatic stop-over at Hestia, the `tenth planet' - a stop-over that leads to sabotage. With the cast marooned in Hestia's hostile Wilderlands, danger lurks at every turn - and not all of it is Hestian...

This particular arc begins with `Conspiracy of Silence', in which Dredd discovers that the Mechanismo programme is still on-going, despite his best attempts to stop it. Art is by Mark Harrison and is a bit of an acquired taste - some of my fellow reviewers seem to love it, and I quite enjoyed it at the time, but looking at it now, I don't feel the story-telling is up to scratch (and the judicial shoulder-pads don't look right, either!) We eventually move on to the Wilderlands prologue, a perfect match for Peter Doherty's characterful art (he does a great McGruder) and then `The Tenth Planet', which introduces hostile Hestia and its native Dune Sharks. Wagner clearly loves these beasties - they make a magnificent return to the strip under the penmanship of Henry Flint a couple of years later, and serve as focus of subsequent epic `The Hunting Party.' Ezquerra also has fun with them, though their introduction coincides with his permanent shift to computer colouring his art. The results are exactly the same as the first time you or I had a go of an art package in the 90s - filters, textures and fills turned up to 11, all competing in a luridly brain-melting melange.

Next stop is `Wilderlands' itself. It isn't the greatest Dredd epic - it falls pretty squarely into the second-tier category along with `Doomsday' and `The Hunting Party' - but it is a good story, and serves as culmination of plot-threads that have been simmering ever since `Mechanismo' began. Furthermore, it works much better read in one go than it ever did split across 2000AD and the Megazine - the idea was that those who read only one of the two titles would still get a complete story, resulting in a fair number of duplicated scenes. The Megazine half, drawn by then up-and-coming art-droid Trevor Hairsine, is told from the perspective of Judge Laverne Castillo, McGruder's adjutant, a character who to me seems a bit of a dry-run for Judge De Marco in `The Pit'. Indeed, `Wilderlands' sees Wagner experimenting with number of the techniques that would come to fruition in that later masterpiece - not least the use of an ensemble cast. The story is also Wagner's second crack at the `dodgy Chief Judge' tale, one that at time of writing he's tried three times. Each has been very different - Judge Cal was a flamboyant lunatic and Judge Sinfield illustrated the banality of evil, whereas McGruder retains a number of admirable qualities and is never an actual baddie, just pig-headed, unbalanced and misguided. Her darkest moment (ordering the execution of an alien native) is accordingly pretty shocking, particularly when you consider she was once amongst the greatest of MC-1's Chief Judges.

As for the non-Wilderlands content, there's some perfectly enjoyable tales by `Sonny Steelgrave', Dan Abnett and Chris Standley, whilst on the Wagner front, we have a mixed bag. `The Time Machine' is great fun (and an interesting study in contrast - first episode traditional Ezquerra colour, second episode computerised), whilst `A Guide to Mega-Speak' sees the final ever appearance of the legendary Ron Smith in the prog. `Casualties of War' is a crossover with Friday-era Rogue Trooper, and originally occupied the whole of prog 900 - the John Higgins art is smashing. Unfortunately, `Judge Death: The True Story' continues the denigration of Dredd's one-time nemesis into a comedy figure - the nadir comes when we discover that the Dark Judges stole their dimension jumps from a reality-hopping race who stopped off on Deadworld to use the toilet.

Overall though, the quality has soared since Case Files 20 - if you've been skipping the Wagner-lite Case Files (16-20), you might want to get back on-board here. (Though as a word of warning, the next one is a bit wobbly...)


Judge Dredd: v. 22: The Complete Case Files
Judge Dredd: v. 22: The Complete Case Files
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pax vobiscum, creep!, 22 Mar 2014
Another schizophrenic Dredd collection from an era in which the strip was dragging itself out of the darkness and into a bright new dawn - but in the tradition of the best horror movies, there's an unexpected grab of the ankle by a threat thought dead, before the series makes its final escape. Short review - not a bad collection, but not as good as CF21. Long review? Read on...

The volume kicks off well with `The Candidates' / `Voting Day' - a brief but superb piece of prime Wagner, in which Dredd finally runs for Chief Judge. Art is by Mick Austin and Carlos Ezquerra - the latter seems to have sorted out some of the computer colouring issues that made `The Tenth Planet' and `Wilderlands' so garish, and has opted for a more muted, rather bleached approach. He's not quite there yet, but it's a definite improvement on his man-gone-mad-with-filters period.

After that, though, is a protracted period in which the series fails to shine. First comes Pete Hogan's lengthy but completely inconsequential `The Big Sleet', in which Dredd is relegated to bystander in his own strip by Norse god Odin. And then we're into `The Exterminator', which sees Dredd time-travelling to 2001 to prevent a space-plague from decimating his own era. `The Exterminator' is that rarest of things - a lengthy John Wagner story that doesn't really work, though it works a damn sight better read in one go than it ever did in drawn-out weekly instalments. Apparently it was a rewritten script for a `Terminator' story - a bystander even describes Dredd as looking like Arnie's famed cyborg, which of course, he doesn't. Consensus seems to rate John Burns's art for the first two parts as superior to Emilio Frejo's for the rest - personally, I'd say Frejo's energetic work was the best thing about the story.

A rare misfire from Wagner then - but hot on its heels is the real dreck. Yup, you thought you'd seen the last of the Morrison / Millar Dredd with Case Files 20, but here they are, back for one long, unwelcome encore with `Crusade'. True, `Crusade' is by no means as dire as `Inferno' or `Book of the Dead', but still contains the usual mischaracterisation, cultural stereotypes and disastrous plot holes, along with the faint whiff of school-boy misogyny which dogs most of the duo's work on Dredd. The plot concerns judges from around the world duking it out at the South Pole, with custody of a transmogrified Tek-Judge (who may have spoken to God) as prize. Mick Austin's art is good - his design for Vatican Judge Cesare is suitably vampiric - but the story pays little heed to Dredd-world continuity, almost thumbing its nose at `Shimura' and `Devlin Waugh'.

The 2000AD half of the volume (and it is around half - there's a lot of Meg material in this collection) finishes with a wild upswing in quality with `Escape From Kurt Russell', showcasing some brilliant Paul Marshall art over a solid Wagner script, and then we're into the Meg. There's a few good Wagner character pieces in here (`Crash Diner', `Poor Johnny', `The Strange Case of Bill Clinton' and best of all, `Terror With Mrs. Gunderson') and a couple of extremely forgettable Si Spencer tales - `A Very Creepy Christmas' shouldn't be a Dredd story at all, and will make no sense unless one has read Spencer's `Creep' series. More notable is `Skar', which is a fairly straightforward Wagner monster yarn, but with very distinctive and likely fan-polarising art by Ashley Wood. The highlight for me though is `The Secret Life of Judge Pal', in which we learn of the special leeway given to Mega-City One's most effective Judge - and it's not Joe Dredd!

Overall, this volume probably averages out at about three-and-a-half stars - `Crusade' drags it down, `The Exterminator' doesn't help on the buoyancy front, and whilst the Megazine stuff's mostly good, there's nothing to match `Giant' or `Howler' from CF 20. Worth a buy though, provided your expectations aren't too high, but a slight dip compared to CF 21.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 9, 2014 9:47 AM BST


Judge Dredd: v. 20: The Complete Case Files
Judge Dredd: v. 20: The Complete Case Files
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Never - NEVER - cook my cow!", 1 July 2013
Here is it, Case Files 20 - the collection that fans have been dreading (some of the 2000AD material) and longing for (the Megazine stories) in equal measure. To be more specific, this is the period in the strip's history when scripting chores in 2000AD were handled by Mark Millar, Grant Morrison and `Sonny Steelgrave' (of whom more later.) At first glance, it might be difficult to see why this would be a bad thing - Morrison on-form is one of the finest scribes in the medium, and Millar is possibly the most commercially successful comic-writer of his era. The problem? This isn't Morrison on form. And this is Mark Millar, barely out of his teens and brought up on a diet of Superman comics, wildly out of both his element, and, as he has since honestly admitted, his depth.

The collection begins by lulling us into a false sense of security, opening as it does with John Smith and Peter Doherty's `Roadkill', a cruel but straightforward tale in which Smith's usual eccentricities are surprisingly reined in. (Two pages are transposed in part 2 though, as they were on original publication.) After that, however, we're off the road and off a cliff and plummeting straight into the Morrison/Millar straits. As it turns out, their version of Dredd is basically an arrogant, surly brute, without any of the nuance we've been used to - in fact, he's only a few pit-bulls and a Mancunian accent away from being Big Dave. The stories he's involved in are accordingly poor, such as `Book of the Dead', which recycles Egyptian cultural stereotypes and tropes like there's no tomorrow. (It does at least feature artist Dermot Power, someone who would really come into his own with later work on `Slaine'.) Other stories go beyond poor into utterly nonsensical, such as `Frankenstein Division', whose lapses in logic and coherence are legendarily flabbergasting - a truly terrible script, but almost too poorly written to actually hate (and featuring some great art by Carlos Ezquerra - what a waste!)

In amongst all this nonsense is a two-part Cursed Earth tale with both art and script by John Higgins - perfectly solid stuff, and artistically gorgeous, but one I'd completely forgotten was ever published. As for the `Sonny Steelgrave' work - it's a bit of a mixed bag. Steelgrave, I believe, was a pseudonym used by both Alan Mackenzie and John Tomlinson - certainly, the Steelgrave stories are, if at times lacking in excitement, more consistently competent and closer in `feel' to what Dredd should be. `The Enemy Below' (the definite highlight) and `The Manchu Candidate' are the most interesting, the latter hinting at the Sino-Cit war that Morrison and Millar had planned if they'd stayed on, whilst `Sugar Beat' does the same thing as `Book of the Dead' (Dredd goes abroad, encounters stereotypes. And yes, I know John Wagner is hardly innocent of this sort of thing either.)

But wait. Did somebody mention John Wagner? Because if Case Files 20 has sounded distinctly unappetising so far, the Megazine half (well, more like two-fifths) serves as a serious counterpoint, showcasing as it does some cracking Wagner stories (along with a couple of perfectly acceptable ones from Gordon Rennie, Robbie Morrison and Jim Alexander.) In many ways, it's right that the likes of `Bury My Knee At Wounded Heart' be seen in the context of the dross being published in 2000AD at the time - it only serves to emphasise how much of a modern master Wagner truly is. `Bury My Knee...', the tale of an old man struggling to give his late wife a little dignity, is frequently regarded as one of the finest Dredd stories ever written - all the finer for showing us a side of the character we very rarely see. (The Peter Doherty art is also perfectly judged.) This is followed by a fairly forgettable Mean Machine Angel story, and then `Freefall', an excellent emotional vignette. Soon we're onto `Giant', in which Wagner teams with Ian Gibson for a superb tale of the Dreddverse's finest supporting character, Judge Giant Jnr. (It also features the weturn of another wather hard-done-by member of the cast.) Finally, the volume closes with `Howler', which features some ultra-stylised 90s-era Mike McMahon art. Said art has proved to be very much the comic-book equivalent of Marmite, as far as fans are concerned - as far as my own taste goes, it's absolutely brilliant beyond belief, and the tale of an over-the-top intergalactic dictator shaped like an angry bowling ball is classic Dredd through and through.

So, Case Files 20: I'd predicted it would be the nadir of the line, but I now think that was actually 19. (Subjectively speaking, there's nothing in Case Files 20 that leaves a worse taste in the mouth than `Inferno' - several stories which are less technically competent, true, but few that show the same contempt for the series.) For those who weren't reading at the time, this collection really does give you a sense of how schizophrenic the `Dredd' line once was - but for future volumes, the only way is up.

One final note: this volume finally includes title pages with creator credits for the stories. Well done, Rebellion - this was definitely needed for the Megazine ones in particular, as these don't have the familiar 2000AD credit box.


Shako
Shako
by Pat Mills
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.96

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The bear's pullin' off my pants! I - I don't believe it!", 13 Dec 2012
This review is from: Shako (Paperback)
"Shako! The Eskimo word for the great white bear. It means simply... killer!" This gloriously over-the-top piece of narration (pure Pat Mills in every respect!) begins one of the odder sagas in 2000AD's storied history. Running originally in 2000AD Progs 20-35, 'Shako' was scripted by Mills and Dredd-creator John Wagner, and drawn principally by 'Flesh' artist Ramon Sola (with contributions from other artists of the era.) The story concerns an unfortunate polar bear, who has accidentally consumed a CIA-manufactured capsule containing a deadly bone-melting virus (which is about the extent of the sci-fi in the story.) The bear is then hunted by US agents who are desperate to retrieve the bio-weapon, but are unable to simply shoot Shako, lest the virus be spread. In the course of this, lots of people get eaten, clawed, ripped to pieces and maimed, whilst Shako himself also gets drunk, wields a gun and boxes a Russian.

Yes, really.

To my way of thinking, as a strip 'Shako' has two clear relatives in British comics. Its father is undoubtedly 'Hookjaw', the monstrous shark-with-a-lip-piercing from 'Action'. The connections are clear: Pat Mills, Ramon Sola, and a merciless force of nature crunching its way through humans either deserving of death through wickedness or stupidity, or simply through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, the hero of 'Shako', Eskimo hunter Buck Dollar, is a fairly clear amalgam of 'Hookjaw's two main good guys, the Pacific island native Sharky and the ill-fated Rick Mason. Likewise, CIA-agent Jake Falmuth is pretty much 'Hookjaw's Red McNally in all but name. However, 'Shako's older brother as a strip is clearly 2000AD's 'Flesh' - again, Pat Mills, Ramon Sola, and dinosaurs on the rampage, as a merciless force of nature crunches its way.... well, you know the rest.

However, Shako differs from its relations in a couple of ways. It's never as relentlessly horrific as 'Hookjaw' - it certainly tries, but I'm not sure any strip since has ever recreated the bloodthirsty energy spawned by 'Hookjaw's sheer vital nastiness. Nor does 'Shako' quite reach the levels of hysteria in which 'Flesh' indulges - the concept of a killer polar bear just doesn't give Mills the same scope for flat-out, operatic insanity as his dinosaur tale.

As such, 'Shako' effectively falls between two stools, though it has plenty of strengths. I mean, it's a story about a polar bear eating people - it'd be hard to get wrong. One particular stand-out is the art of both Sola and Juan Arancio. Some of the other work is a bit variable, but these two always manage to imbue Shako with real character - not easy to do with a bear! I am especially fond of the Arancio panel where a whiskeyed-up Shako, seeing double, decides to dispose of one of the 'two' men he sees before him: the look on the bear's face as he prizes the man's lips open with his claws is priceless. Shako's invasion of Ice Station Delta is also a highlight - some nightmarish imagery collides with the blackest of comedy as a small Eskimo boy accidentally leads his bullying teacher straight into Shako's jaws. Indeed, the strip has a very dark vein of humour throughout, which instead of undercutting the horror serves only to strengthen it.

'Shako' has been reprinted before, in part in annuals and in whole in an Extreme Edition, but this version also features the 10-page 'origin' story, 'White Fury' from the 1978 annual, as well as a suitably gory cover from modern 2000AD alumni Jock - both good enough reasons to pick it up again. (Shako's later appearance in 'Armoured Gideon' is not included, understandably.) I actually feel 'Shako' has aged fairly well (some of the art aside) - the prime viciousness is always a treat, and it's fun to cheer the bear on. Make no mistake - as readers we are very squarely on Shako's side. Not all his victims may deserve it, but as a species, mankind undoubtedly does, and this story is quick to celebrate that fact.

(Oh, and a quick note: at the time of writing, Amazon is listing this book as hardback. Just so you know, it's not.)
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Malatesta's Carnival of Blood [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Malatesta's Carnival of Blood [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Janine Carazo

5.0 out of 5 stars Rollercoaster... of Blood!, 10 Aug 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Stylish. Insane. Gory. Experimental. Mind-blowingly surreal. 'Malatesta's Carnival of Blood' is an unearthed gem of 70s US low-budget horror (for my money, the most exciting sub-genre going) and, once viewed, is unlikely to ever be forgotten. The plot, such as it is, concerns Vena (Janine Carazo) who arrives with her parents at the titular carnival, where she begins working. However, the family are really here to seek their missing son, whom their pistol-packing patriarch believes may well have suffered a terrible, vengeance-requiring fate. It quickly turns out, however, that disappearances are more than common around these parts, and Vena's investigations (aided by a concerned carny) quickly plunge her into a disorientating realm of hallucinogenic horror, presided over by the playful and yet sinister Malatesta himself.

It's difficult to convey in that brief summary, however, how wonderfully mad this film is. The plot is basically an irrelevance - most of the film consists of bewildered characters roaming around the carnival, both above ground and in the claustrophobic world below, being assailed by gibbering cannibalistic ghouls. If you are one of those folk who require their viewing include a tight and sophisticated plot, character development and all that jazz, you won't find any of it here. This film is completely devoted to achieving a dream-like (or more accurately nightmarish) ambience - we're in the territory of 'Lemora' or 'Messiah of Evil' here, but more eccentric than either, if somewhat less coherent. (Your appreciation of 'Death Bed: The Bed That Eats' might be the best gage of how much you'll like this.) For my money, the movie stands or falls on what you make of its out-there visuals. If you are like me, you will find yourself entranced by sights like the upside-down VW Beetle with the mouth in its bonnet, or the ghoul cinema where Malatesta's degenerate clan enjoy old silent movies. (They also like to sing before meals.) You will find a chill going up your spine every time the shambling form of William Preston's wonky-eyed cannibal staggers onto the screen, and you will learn to fear the rollercoaster near which he is frequently found. You will revel in the low budget grimness and playfulness, and you will find Jerome Dempsey's portrayal of the unambiguously named 'Mr. Blood' worryingly ingratiating. You may even develop a tolerance for Herve Villechaize's Bobo. (That's his character's name, before you ask.)

On the other hand, you may just regard it as a load of surreal nonsense. There's no doubt that this film is definitely an acquired taste, just like the very particular taste Malatesta's deranged family also enjoy. For my money, director Christopher Speeth should be proud of the singular nature of his achievement, and we should all be grateful that a print of this long-lost gem was discovered in an attic and unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. It is worth noting that the quality of said print is not perfect - the start of the film has visible hairlines and minor artefacts, but these mostly die away in the first ten minutes. The film was also stripped of its goriest segments by censors, prior to its original release - some of these are included on this DVD as extras, though it would have been good if they could have been reintegrated into the film. Nonetheless, an utterly subjective five stars for this movie, though feel free to knock a point (or more) off for the film's fairly plotless nature - personally, I find that an asset.

And if you're worried for the heroine - well, it's all right. Her boyfriend Johnny's on his way, and he'll make everything ok.

Won't he?


Strontium Dog: the Life and Death of Johnny Alpha
Strontium Dog: the Life and Death of Johnny Alpha
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.37

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life in the Old Dog...?, 27 July 2012
Johnny Alpha, mutant bounty hunter, is one of 2000AD's best-loved characters (although he in fact began life in Starlord comic.) When he was blinded and then killed, sacrificing himself to help save his fellow mutants from a demonic abomination, it was a spectacle few would forget. Since then, all the Wagner / Ezquerra 'Strontium Dog' stories have been flashbacks, set earlier in Johnny's continuity.

Until now.

In 'The Life and Death of Johnny Alpha', we follow the investigations of a down-at-heel Middenface McNulty and the triply-buxom journalist Precious Matson, seven years after the events of 'The Final Solution'. Matson has information suggesting Alpha's death may not have happened exactly as we had previously believed, and soon the pair are on the trail of metamorphic mutant Feral, who was with Johnny at the end, and on whose account of events 'The Final Solution' is now said to be based. Over the course of their two-year search, Matson and McNulty make a remarkable discovery, which, if one of them is prepared to make a hefty sacrifice, might give them the opportunity to right a great wrong...

In Part Two, 'The Project', we find out the consequences of their decision. And that's all I can say for fear of utterly massive spoilers (but see below.) Suffice to say, the stories herein are at times very dark, never less than intriguing, and probably quite unique in the 2000AD canon. Ezquerra (with the help of son Hector) certainly delivers the goods on an artistic level, imbuing events with a rather grimy atmosphere. And as for the nature of those events...

Well, that brings us to the second part of this review. In short, it is virtually impossible to discuss this collection in any depth at all without referring to a hugely controversial and major plot development, your attitude towards which will totally colour your views on the stories within. If you want it kept a surprise, STOP READING NOW. Otherwise...

SPOILERS BELOW

*

HONEST, GUV

*

ALL RIGHTY THEN...

*

Johnny Alpha comes back to life.

For a Marvel or DC fan, used to the revolving door of the comic-book afterlife, this is very much 'so what?' territory. But in 2000AD, things are different. Dead invariably means dead, and Johnny's heroic demise had a massive impact on the fans (actor Simon Pegg's in-character reaction has become particularly well-known.) Reversing it was always going to be controversial, and there is no doubt that for a proportion of the readership, this was a step too far. Indeed, Wagner flat-out contradicts some of what we saw in 'The Final Solution', claiming these were inaccurate reports derived from Feral's lies. Furthermore, Feral's later adventures, the 'Strontium Dogs' series, are dismissed outright as the fabrications of 'notorious fantasist Ho Gan', a reference to Pete Hogan, who succeeded Garth Ennis on said series. Feral himself is reserved particularly savage treatment, and it's frequently none-too-hard to hear the metafictional voice of Wagner echoing through Middenface McNulty's views on the character.

But then, Wagner's attitude to 'Judge Dredd' continuity has always been that if he wrote it, it counts, and if he didn't, it only counts if he chooses to make use of it. 'The Life and Death...' simply sees him applying similar logic to 'Strontium Dog'. 'The Final Solution', of course, was written by Alan Grant, who'd become Alpha's sole scribe, gaining custody of Johnny when his writing partnership with Wagner dissolved after 'Judge Dredd: Oz'. Likewise, Carlos Ezquerra was never keen on killing Johnny at all, and flat-out refused to draw it - Colin MacNeil was instead handed the onerous task of eviscerating Alpha. So, bringing Johnny back is not totally without precedent, as far as his actual creators are concerned. He's their character, after all.

Speaking personally, this was the series that brought me back to reading the weekly prog, after a several-year hiatus. Whilst the flashback tales, which I've since read in their collected forms, were often excellent ('Blood Moon' is a particular stand-out), I would rather see the strip moving forward in terms of continuity and chronology. Like as not, this collection certainly does that, with Johnny plunged into a new and deadly adventure, and hampered by some unforseen factors concerning his return. Whether moving 'Strontium Dog' forward needed Johnny Alpha to be resurrected, or whether an entirely new lead could have been found (as was originally the plan with Feral) is up to you, and will probably be the defining factor in how much you enjoy these stories.

Still, at least his resurrection isn't entirely without a catch.

As hinted above, Johnny doesn't come back alone...


Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files: v. 18
Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files: v. 18
by John Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.49

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Trial by machine is here!, 16 May 2012
He's got it! By Garth, he's got it! Welcome to an extremely historically-interesting volume of the future lawman's adventures - from my perspective, this is the one where Garth Ennis suddenly figures out how to write `Judge Dredd'.

That may seem a bit of a cheeky remark, but it's actually intended as a compliment. Even reading at the time, and not being a fan of Ennis's take on Dredd (I like his work much better in retrospect) I remember a sustained run of one-shots that genuinely felt like Ennis was really honing his craft. Week out, week in, something almost indefinable just seemed to click and we were delivered a string of excellent little 6-pagers, such as `A, B or C Warrior', `Ex-Men' and the brilliant `Unwelcome Guests', which provides us with one of the truly iconic moments of Ennis's oeuvre - "Where were YOU on Judgement Day?" We even get the only PJ Maybe tale written by anyone other than Wagner, in which Dredd gets to finally fulfil one of his long-time fantasies.

True, there's the odd wobbly relapse into the less successful, parodic aspects of Ennis's run: `Blind Mate' and `The Magic Mellow Out', for instance, both come across as pointless and dated. And yes, the art throughout is a bit inconsistent and leans towards the overpainted pseudo-Bisleyisms that so epitomise 90s 2000AD. But this is forgivable when we have real triumphs like the moving `Last Night Out', with stark stylised art by Brett Ewins, or the John Burns-assisted `Raider', in which another member of Dredd's increasingly infamous class of '79 surfaces on the wrong side of the law. Whilst it'd be hard to pretend Ennis ever wrote Dredd himself with the depth and complexity John Wagner gives the character (it'd be hard to argue anyone writes any 2000AD character with the depth and complexity Wagner gives Dredd), Ennis had by this stage certainly got Mega-City One and its crazed citizens down pat, in a way that Gordon Rennie would also eventually master many years hence.

And the Megazine content? Well, there's a few one-offs by both John Wagner and Alan Grant (separately), the highlight being `Resyk Man', blessed as it is with some glorious art by the late John Hicklenton. But for the most part, the Meg is all about Wagner's `Mechanismo'. The central idea is that Chief Judge McGruder wants robot-judges to be the future of law-enforcement (she'll have odder ideas - cybernetically-controlled dunesharks in `The Hunting Party') but Dredd's having none of it. Predictably, the robots go wrong, and in the sequel one of them escapes. By Wagner's standards, it's a bit of an obvious concept with no real surprises or swerves in-store, but it scores on two counts. The first is the art of Colin MacNeil, whose colourful, chunky designs are a joy to behold - Peter Doherty does art on the sequel and acquits himself well, but his delightfully crumpled style isn't the most obvious fit for a tech-heavy tale. The second is the way the story introduces some slow-burning tension between Dredd and McGruder, which becomes an extremely important plot thread for the future of the series, and which does indeed take a few unexpected swerves.

So Ennis has found his voice, Wagner is busy laying long-term plot foundations, Case Files 18 as a whole is a definite improvement on 17 - everything's going great guns, right? Well... not quite. Y'see, there's a fairly innocuous (albeit completely terrible) strip in this collection called 'Happy Birthday Judge Dredd'. It is written by Mark Millar, and is the proverbial tip of a particularly rubbish iceberg whose full girth will become apparent in Case Files 19 & 20. Batten down the hatches and splice the mainbrace, folks - this one's a last hurrah before the choppy waters ahead...


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