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"See you on the other side, blue boy!"
on 28 June 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.