Reviews: Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts

Judge Dredd: America – Lost & Found, the Rediscovered Scripts,
John Wagner, Colin MacNeil,
Rebellion

Rights? Sure. I’m all for rights. But not at the expense of order. That’s why I like to see that Statue of Judgement standing there, towering over Liberty. Kind of a symbol. Justice has a price. The price is freedom.”

Judge Dredd: I’ve been reading his tales every since the very beginning, way back in 1977. I’ve been fascinated by the adaptability of the character and the story format- across more than four decades we’ve seen everything from broad comedic farce to tragedy, from short, punchy tales of a few pages only (which nevertheless often lodge in the brain long after, despite their brevity) to huge, widescreen epics like the Apocalypse War. And Dredd himself, the unbending, iron man of the total law of Mega City One? Clever storytelling has given us Dredd as both heroic at times and at other times a freedom-crushing fascist stormtrooper.

I find it remarkable that one strip and one character can can be so astonishingly flexible, go to such extremes. The writers and artists of Dredd have made us cheer for him as he is battered and broken by often unimaginable events and opponents, way past the point where even a mythic hero might have given up as a lost cause, but not Dredd, he keeps going, dogged, determined, he stands till the end, the the bad guys are vanquished, it’s a tenacity on which the entire survival of the city and sometimes the world has depended.

And at other times we see the cold, hard machinery of Mega City Justice Department, how it bears down crushing those it is meant to serve, unbending adherence strictly to every rule to the most ridiculous level, smallest infractions dealt with via immediate and hard, violent response, while no threat to the supremacy of the Justice Department will be tolerated. It is this latter aspect we first saw in America, by the Dreddfather himself, the great John Wagner, and the equally superb Colin MacNeil, who here delivers some amazing painted artwork, which is something else to behold, be it depicting a tender, intimate moment of friendship and love and intimacy or dreadful acts of violent outbursts.

For many decades America has, for me, been one of the finest Dredd stories of all time: it has action, romance, characters that are flawed and believable as humans rather than cyphers to advance a plot, it has humour and love and tragedy and wades into the swampy lands of Morality, not afraid to show the complexity behind the simplistic ideas of good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard Rebellion was re-issuing it complete with some of Wagner’s rediscovered original scripts I was excited, although part of me also thought, how does this story hold up in the world of 2020?

How will I feel when I re-read it now, at this point in my life and with the world around me as it has become, instead of remembering it through a glow of nostalgic love for earlier 2000 AD? I needn’t have worried myself on that score, however: this is Wagner and MacNeil, I was always in safe hands with these masters of the comics form, and, if anything, sadly aspects of the story are actually more relevant to our troubled world of today than they were when this was written, even in the supposed democracies of the Western World. And that emotional punch, that you just know is coming yet you can’t look away? It’s still there, still so strong it will wrench your heart.

I’d imagine most DTT readers will already be familiar with this story, but for those who are coming to this Dredd classic for the first time, let’s have a quick recap of the actual story. We start with foreshadowing, with Dredd, always an impressive, ominous figure at the best of times, here depicted in full page splashes by MacNeil from a low perspective, as if we’re under his feet, trampled beneath the heel of the Justice Department (much later we will loop back to this scene and realise its dreadful context), with the quote about rights and freedom that opened this article. It is an opening that in two pages and images already tells you that this is a story that will not have a happy ending. This is Mega City One, not Disney.

From those threatening, huge splash pages we moved into smaller panels, the inside of a nightclub, the dressing rooms, a young woman, attractive yet with an air of terrible sadness around her, getting ready for a performance. She is the one who starts the main story going, she tells us of America and of Bennett Beeny, right from the very beginning, as she is born kicking and screaming into the world of Mega City One to immigrant parents, who in gratitude for their new home decide to christen their baby daughter “America”. Even in this happy moment, as their friends congratulate the couple on their new arrival, there are hints of the storm clouds to come, when her father, still new to the city, quotes “America, God shed hees grief on thee”, only for a friend to point out it is “grace”, not “grief”, but I think we already know in this case it will be grief. The America the Jara family thought they had emigrated to no longer exists, except as a dream. A dream that will burn in young America throughout her short life.

Benny and Ami are the best of friends as kids, but even as children it is clear they are different: Benny is good natured and effectively rolls with the system as it is, not liking it, but doing his best to make the best life he can have under the circumstances, while Ami hates the life they are forced to live and yearns to make the world a better place. Even at this young age we see the Judge system, but from the perspective of small children, these huge, armoured, imposing figures towering above them, instilling fear now – like the Jesuits who wanted to start their teaching young so they would have the later grown person for life, the Judges lay down heavy examples even to small children.

It is not a pretty sight, and it also serves effectively to show the two different characters: Ami seethes as this treatment, you can see her thinking how do I change this, take away this power the Judges have over us all, while Benny is complaint, “no, sir, thank you, sir” types to the threatening Judge. A scene a little later shows them as young adults now, and MacNeil beautifully frames their view of the vast city from a high vantage point through a broken chain-link fence. It’s beautiful visual shorthand (the story is replete with similar examples), this should be an awe-inspiring view across the city, but instead it gives the impression they are exhibits in an old, broken-down zoo, Benny already cowed, will stay behind the wire, fearful, Ami is seen looking out through the mesh of the fence into the world beyond, seeing something more, something better, if only she can manage it.

There’s such bittersweetness around this point, as the two who had been inseparable are now growing up, becoming more the adults they will become, so too they are growing apart. We’ve probably all been there, with childhood friends we thought we’d have forever, and some we do sometimes manage to keep but there are always others than our life paths take away from one another, keeping in touch at first, but less so as time goes on and the world slowly makes us drift apart. That feeling is evoked so well here, and added to by the fact we can see how clearly Benny loves Ami, not just as his lifelong friend, but he years for her as a lover, he is hopelessly lost in love with her, and he knows that while she cares for him she’s never going to love him that way.

Their paths diverge and they lose contact, although she is never far from Benny’s thoughts, he still carries a torch for her and always will. Some may see that as weak, as Benny refusing to move on emotionally, and perhaps it is, but you could also argue that it is a beautifully pure form of love, an idealised version he carries inside himself, aware that the grim reality of the real world can never give him what he has in his heart. Benny becomes rich and famous with his comedic songs and gets to live a comfortable life – he may be in a cage like any Mega City citizen, but his is gilded and comfortable thanks to his huge success. Ami, when she finally crosses his path again, has been less fortunate.

Ami’s path has been hard, her dedication to the older freedoms before the Judges has brought her into conflict with the Justice Department with the predictable heavy response. But it’s not just the heavy handed tactics which have further enraged her, it’s the basically cruel turning of the screw to teach her a lesson – for instance her child is decreed not to come up to genetic standards and so banished from Mega City. This only hardens her in her convictions to do anything to fight the system (and it is hard not to sympathise with her). It even leads to scenes with the two reunited briefly, but leaves the reader to question if Ami does so only to manipulate Benny into helping her and her comrades, or because she really does care for him and perhaps yearns for even a brief respite of peace and love? Wagner cleverly leaves that very much to the readers, even in his accompanying script notes he says it’s best not to answer that, let the readers ponder…

And I won’t go too much further into the plot for those who haven’t yet read America, because I have no wish to ruin it for you. Suffice to say do not go looking here for roses and kisses and a happy ending in the sunset. But do expect drama and love and moral clashes and trust and betrayal and tragedy. And for none of the characters to come out of this untarnished: Dredd and the Judges, glimpsed mostly in the background of this story, are clearly the fascistic power of repression here, Benny well-meaning but spineless and out of his depth, Ami driven by The Cause, one which we may even admire her fighting for, except she will use any method, even brutal killing, to serve The Cause (as with many in the real world their causes, however well intentioned, can often become more important than the lives of people).

I came back to America not just in our troubled world of 2020, but also after reading the second Judges prose omnibus by Mike Carroll, Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot Coleman for the second Cymera SF festival back in June (you can still see the hour long discussion on Cymera’s YouTube channel, while the book is reviewed here). That book explores the early world of the Judges, before the Mega Cities, with the first generation of Judges operating alongside the final years of traditional law enforcement in near-future America. Those stories often evoked America as I read them – in those books we see the Judges created precisely because current law enforcement has failed. It is corrupt, police almost untouchable even when they commit violent, unprovoked attacks, clearly carrying a huge racial bias, all things the Judges are trained to ignore: they will serve the law equally upon all, regardless of class, race, gender, wealth or position.

When I was reading those stories in preparation for our Cymera talks we were all watching with horror the racially motivated judicial killings in the US of people of colour, the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the awful,violent response those demonstrations often received, not just from far right civilians driving cars into crowds, but police then federal government forces gassing, shooting and arresting peaceful demonstrators. The parallels to Dredd’s Mega City One were horribly, wretchedly visible to many of us. Dredd has always carried a strong element of social commentary, not to mention dark satire, but this echoed so much with that fictional world that it was painful.

I’m not going to soap-box on those aspects, this is a review, not a social commentary piece, albeit about a story with a strong social commentary component, of course, but re-reading it I think it is fair to say I found America fitted in far too closely with aspects of our contemporary world, far, far too closely for comfort. Ami’s life in some ways echoes that of the nation she is named for: born with idealised notions of freedom and equality for all, only to see that dream constantly perverted to suit those in the positions of power, and likewise with Mega City One.

But that’s the point – to realise the threat to the Dream we have to see it and know it for what it is, call it out, stand up to it. The idealised version of that Dream may always be ultimately unattainable, like most potential utopias, but it is a noble vision and striving towards it hopefully means we make a better, fairer world for all as we try to reach it, and not to let others corrupt and subvert it for their own ends. Wagner himself sums it up in his own notes with his accompanying script pages:

America – not so much a place as an ideal. In these times of increasing authoritarianism, even in the Western world – when the reins of power have fallen into the hands of crooks, self-serving conmen and shameless liars – the message in the story is more pertinent than ever.

We’ve got to keep looking for America.”

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Judges Omnibus Volume 2

Judges Omnibus Volume 2,
Michael Carroll, Maura McHugh, Joseph Elliott-Coleman
Rebellion/2000 AD

This second volume collects three novellas by 2000 AD regular Mike Carroll, joined by Maura McHugh and Joseph Elliot-Coleman. Mike, I am sure, most readers on DTT will be more than familiar with, Maura – among her many other writings from short stories to collections to scripts for stage, screen and even computer gaming – will be known to DTT readers for some of her very fine Irish comics work such as Jennifer Wilde (illustrated by Stephen Downey), while Joseph’s writing came to the attention of Mike (series editor) via his contribution to Not So Stories, which featured writers of colour from round the globe keeping the wonder of Kipling’s tales but re-imagining them without the period imperialist, colonialist, racist elements.

I must confess, I am not normally that keen on prose tales based on comics. I don’t know why, perhaps my prose and my comics reading sections of my brain like them in their own compartments, but whatever the reason, it isn’t my normal choice, so imagine my delight in finding that these weren’t just interesting tales, but extremely compelling stories, offering glimpses into some of the blank spaces in the history of Judge Dredd, and, like many a Dredd tale, also commenting on current social and political problems.

In fact, as I was reading the three novellas in this collection in preparation for chairing and event with the authors at the Edinburgh-based Cymera festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror literature (like many such events the festival was cancelled, but the amazing team then re-created it online; it has been recorded so hopefully the 2000 AD panel will be on YouTube in the near future), I found that in a disturbing coincidence of timing that some of the elements from all three stories, not least Elliot-Coleman’s “Patriots” tale, were terrifyingly close to the dreadful events we have seen unfolding in the US. So much so that several times as I sat reading them, I had to pause. I’ve been reading Dredd since the beginning, I’ve seen some excellent socio-political commentary woven into the series (not to mention its rich seam of dark satire), but this was something else…

For those not familiar with the series, Judges is inspired by the now-classic thirtieth anniversary Dredd: Origins by the Dreddfather, John Wagner and the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra, which saw flashbacks to the early days of the Judge system. With a number of decades to explore and huge blank spaces to fill in (while keeping true to over forty years of established Dredd history), the Judges series is going decade by decade, with a few tales from each, not exhaustively covering the pre-history year by year, more like spotlights on certain moments, and will continue on taking us closer to the time we know from the original years of Dredd.

Opening the collection is Mike Carroll’s “Golgotha”. This is long before Dredd and the Mega Cities, this is still America, albeit an America that is crumbling and failing socially, economically and politically, it’s only a short few years from our own time, making it very familiar to us, and it is fascinating to see Judges not in Mega City One, but patrolling Main Street in small US towns. Under Fargo the Judge system is expanding, slowly replacing the traditional police force and legal system, but with both having to work in parallel for some time. For those who remember the earliest Dredds this will bring back memories – those stories showed police working under the Judges in the Big Meg, something that slowly faded away from the comics.

Here we see Quon, the very last officer to graduate from an American police academy. Quon has always wanted to be a police officer, and is a straight arrow, very by the books, disgusted at laziness and corruption in the Force, but also filled with loathing for the the incoming Judge system – she believes in due process, civilian policing, a court of peers at trial, not in giving any one person the powers of instant justice and sentencing. Ironically her attitude and unbending adherence to the law make her prime material to train as a Judge, but she isn’t interested, while those same qualities mean her fellow officers, also bitter at the new Judges, despise her too, but she’s going to have to find a way to work with them for an investigation.

In Psyche, McHugh expands on her previous Judge Anderson work for the Dredd Megazine, taking us back to the very first use of Psi-Judges – here called “Psykes”, a covert team of Judges who have been studied and trained with civilian scientists who have long believed there were those with psionic abilities and that if there were, some would be dangerous and therefore the new Judge system would need its own equivalent to protect citizens from harmful Psis. Fargo agrees and sanctions more training and the formation of a black-ops unit, off the books, something nobody will know about if it doesn’t work.

It’s a cleverly-structured two-timeline narrative: in what would be present-day Mega City One (i.e. the same era we see in the weekly comics) Psi-Judge Pam Reed, a pre-cog, literally unearths part of history, exploring old buildings below a collapsed City-block, which happens to contain the original offices of the Psyke research team. Reed’s abilities in this location somehow allow her mind to astrally travel to that era and communicate with Judge Wise, one of the first Psis. As well as being a gripping story (with inferences that if Reed in the future cannot help the nascent Psis in her past, her future may never happen), McHugh also deftly explores the outsider nature of the Psis. Even in Dredd’s time most other Judges aren’t keen on Psi-Division, seeing them as odd, peculiar – Judges are trained to stand apart, but Psis can’t help but feel what citizens feel and this makes them more empathic and human. This outsider status goes doubly here in the early days when most don’t even believe such powers are real, and there is an interesting question mark over freedom of choice: as with the Psi Corps in Babylon 5, there’s little freedom for a Psi, if they are detected they are expected to serve and that’s it.

In “Patriots”, Elliot-Coleman has Judges on the mean streets of New York. This is a New York that has more in common with the dirty, crime-ridden NYC of the 1970s than today, and draws on many influences from that era, from films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver et al, while also rather satisfyingly mixing in elements of The Manchurian Candidate and Carpenter’s classic cops-under-siege Assault on Precinct 13. Right-wing patriots, who see themselves as heirs to the original American Revolution are trying to defy the advance of the Judges system, seeing it as a surrender of liberty and democracy. And they may well be right, but the problem is like many fanatics they are willing to kill many innocents – for their own good, of course – for their cause, and while they call out the banner of liberty and freedom they also won’t accept anyone differing from their opinion.

Judges, even early era Judges like these, are just as stubborn and determined in the application of the Law, of course, so we have two unyielding paradigms clashing violently for the soul of the nation. And in “Patriots”, and indeed in “Psyche” and “Golgotha” too, we see both sides of the pro and anti-Judge argument and resistance, and the thing is, both sides have some moral validity, this is a moral quagmire, not a straight black and white morality, and that makes it far more thought-provoking for the reader (and also more dramatically satisfying too). For all their violent methods and their disregard for the safety of their fellow citizens (the ones they proclaim they are protecting), they do have some grounds, the Judges do mark a huge erosion of traditional liberty and freedom. But the Judges have been created because the existing system has failed – they have been trained to be impartial upholders of law to all, unlike courts and politicians, they will not discriminate on grounds of the colour of someone’s skin, their social class, wealth. The crumbling system badly needs them to try and stabilise it. But at what cost?

Each of these stories has been published as a novella on its own, but I read it in the Judges Volume 2 Omnibus, which collects all three, and I’d recommend tackling them that way if you can. While all three shine a light on a different aspect of pre-Dredd history and are their own beasts, they also, like the various comics series over the years, work very well together, feeling separate but also connected, part of a greater whole. For the long-term Dreddheads this is a compelling must-read, a very welcome exploration of how the Judge system first began in America and how it starts, decade by decade to show how it leads up to the post Atomic War world of the Mega Cities we know in 2000 AD, all layered with some complex morality, multiple mirrors to our own very troubled times and a nicely diverse cast of characters. I look forward to more in the series.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

The clockwork worlds – Edginton and Culbard’s glorious Brass Sun

Brass Sun Hardcover,

Ian Edginton, Ian Culbard,

Rebellion

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A thousand times a thousand years ago the Blind Watchmaker set the wheel of worlds upon the firmament. And upon those worlds he set the lost tribes of man. Each planet and populous were tasked with their own form and function – each a fine movement. A celestial increment within the greater machine.”

For me, ever since I first saw one in a museum as a very young boy there has been something enchanting about an Orrery, those beautiful, intricate old clockwork and brass moving models of the solar system, little brass and copper planets rotating around a brass sun, tiny metal moons around the planets, each orbiting in their own path and time. Of course cosmology has moved on and today we are confronted by a universe that seems infinitely more complex, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of even our tiny local neighbourhood of it all. And yet that relatively simple clockwork, moving model of the solar system still holds a certain magical fascination, all the heavens displayed at a human scale, in a simple, ordered fashion even a child can understand. Now take that child-like fascination and scale it up – right up – to planetary levels and we have The Orrery, an actual series of real worlds set on their metal rings to orbit their sun like the clockwork model.

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It’s a simple but utterly dazzling and wonderful notion and right from the start it affords us some truly glorious science fiction artwork as Ian Culbard delivers achingly beautiful splash pages, from the intricate cogs of the clockwork mechanism (and even in our day of digital tech and touch screens, isn’t there still something delightful about moving machinery of intricate clockwork?) and then pulling back to show us this astonishing solar system, all the little worlds mounted on their stands and rotating around one another and their sun on a clockwork system of wheels and cogs and gears (you can see a preview on the blog here). I think I fell in love with this story right at that early point.

Now imagine that this clockwork solar system is slowly winding down, the environment in the worlds is changing. Like our own world they face environmental change and possible collapse, and like too many in authority in our own world some are ignoring the facts, or in the religious world young Wren lives in, any attempt to use science to examine the changes and devise a plan is seen as heresy, leading to a death sentence. But in the best traditions of the epic quest tale this young woman is about to be catapulted onto an immense journey, and the fate of all these clockwork worlds will be in her hands, as her grandfather, once the high priest, now secret scientist, entrusts her with the knowledge he has gleaned and, as things fall apart on their world, sends her alone, fleeing, beyond all that she has known.

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Wren finds herself “riding the rails” – the connecting spars that make up this gargantuan Orrery, engineering spaces from its construction, and fortunately for her she meets some of the few who still attempt to study and maintain it, engineers, and a young apprentice befriends her and, again in finest quest tale tradition joins her, the pair travelling further and further, seeking the broken parts of a key her grandfather thinks can fix the slowly declining Orrery, all the time wondering about the nature of the “Blind Watchmaker” who may, or may not, be the creator of this entire, amazing series of interlinked worlds.

I was reminded several times of Ursula Le Guin’s superb Earthsea, not the story so much, but rather the small, different but connected worlds of Brass Sun putting me in mind of the archipelago of islands from Le Guin’s wonderful fantasy classic, while the adventure and quest elements are familiar from any number of fantasy tales, not to mention the original myths which fed those fantasies – an epic-scale journey into the unknown, dangers on all sides, finding new friends along the way who will be true no matter what (and how their emotional bonding also bonds the reader to them, invests us not just in the big-scale wonder of the tale but in the person-level emotions), and how Wren will have to change and grow on her journey, as all the best heroes always have to .

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It’s an achingly gorgeous looking piece of Clockpunk science fiction, and we’ve raved about it as we followed the serialisation in the pages of the much-beloved stalwart of Brit comics, 2000 AD (almost four decades on and still nurturing new work like this). But it’s not just the beauty of the art and the concept, it is a cracking adventure tale, a magnificent quest for our young, untried heroes, who are going to have to grow up fast and face all sorts of challenges, some physical (dangerous environments, nasty people trying to kill them, many now ignorant of how the Orrery was created, or of the other worlds), some mental (the sheer challenge of continuing on into the unknown, the burden placed on such young shoulders), some metaphysical (religion, science, both dealing with the nature of belief and what happens if those beliefs prove to be wrong), and with a subtle message about managing our own environment.

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It is a tale to let yourself fall into, to become hopelessly entangled into it until the Orrery and its characters feel almost real to you (just all the best quest tales have always done, drawn us so very deeply in until we feel we are part of their epic journey). And oh, that glorious artwork. I’ve always held that science fiction and fantasy delivers one quality more than any other literary genre: the sheer sense of wonder. And here Edginton and Culbard will fill your head with wonder and beauty and danger and daring. One of the finest series of the year, now collected into a handsome hardback edition, an absolute must-have. As I said, a story to let yourself fall in love with.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Zenith, Phase One

Zenith Phase One Hardcover,

Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell,

Rebellion/2000 AD

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I hadn’t realised the scale of their plans… Millions of worlds, moving towards alignment… The war that never ends… The Omnihedron… Oh, we’re so small… so…

Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Zenith – a rare superhero outing for UK science fiction stalwart 2000 AD – must be one of the most requested reprint titles we’ve been asked for over the years. When will it be reprinted and collected? Finally after a lot of behind the scenes problems (which we won’t go into here, it could fill a whole article on its own) the first of a much-anticipated series of reprints arrives, in a nice hardback edition that resembles the quality bande dessinee of the Franco-Belgian comics market. 2000 AD has a proud history of nurturing new comics talent, and in the mid 1980s they were making a point of giving new series and creators more space, with one of those series turning out to be Zenith. Morrison, of course, has been working away for several years by this point (starting with work in Near Myths in the mid 70s, a collaborative comics work which included early Bryan Talbot work and which came out of the old Edinburgh Science Fiction Bookshop, which would later become Forbidden Planet), but this was one of his major breaks and proved to be a huge hit with the readers.

We open with a flashback to the closing days of World War Two, but this is an alternate history, the final battles taking place in 1944, not ‘45. The Nazis have developed their ‘ubermensch’, a superpowered being, Masterman, but the British, with the help of German scientists who defected to the Allies, develop their own version, Maximan, and the story begins with these two colossally powerful beings in a fight to the death in the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. A fight Maximan is losing to the Nazi creature, who is, it is hinted, more than just a product of science, he is part of a greater scheme involving the ‘Many-Angled Ones’, beings of vast, cold intellect that live among other dimensions and, like Lovecraft’s elder gods, seek to seep into our world, influence and then rule it. But before he can deliver the coup de grace an American bomber, carrying the first operational atomic bomb, delivers its deadly cargo, obliterating the city and both superbeings…

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In the 1980s we meet Zenith, one of the few superpowered beings in the world after an international ban on superbeing research – he is the offspring of parents who were part of Cloud 9, a British superteam of the 1960s, developed using the original wartime research, designed to be heroic, patriotic, unquestioning super-soldiers like Maximan. But this was the 60s and like many young people of the time Cloud 9 rebelled, tuned in, dropped out, refused to wear uniforms, to follow any order they didn’t agree with. By the 80s most are gone, some killed, some vanished mysteriously (including Zenith’s own parents) and the remainder have lost their powers over the years. Zenith is no heroic figure either, using his abilities in a purely selfish manner, a very 1980s creature, out for number one, only interested in himself and his pop career and celebrity status.

Until Ruby Fox enters his life; one of the Cloud 9 survivors, now working as a journalist, seemingly now without her powers. But when a secret society resurrects a stored twin of the Nazi Masterman and he attacks her, she finds in extremis that she can still use her powers (allowing her to direct electricity) to fight him long enough to escape and seek Zenith. The petulant, spoiled 80s brat doesn’t really believe her, much less want to help her, but is persuaded when she offers to tell him what happened to his parents if he does. Together they seek out The Red Dragon, a Welsh member of Cloud 9, but the Red Dragon is now plain Siadwell, and he is constantly pickled, and Mandala, a Cloud 9 survivor with powerful mental abilities, who became a 60s transcendental hippy, but has now gone in the other direction and become a golden boy of Thatcher’s Tory government as MP Peter St John. St John refuses to believe them or help, but events may force him to change his mind, as the new Masterman appears on the streets of London…

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And I won’t go any further on the plot for fear of ruining it – I know a lot of readers will have encountered this story many years ago, but it will still be new to quite a few and I don’t want to spoil it. It is fascinating to look back at this decades on, especially in the light of later work as Morrison moved from fan-favourite at 2000 AD to being an international comics god. Many of the approaches and ideas behind Zenith would be developed and mutated into even more compellingly weird and wonderful shapes for his later work – with that handy beast Hindsight it is particularly interesting to look at Zenith again in light of what Morrison would do with series like the remarkable The Invisibles, for instance.

Not content to simply serve up superheroes even at that early stage in his career, Morrison creates alternate timelines and dimensions, hidden histories, Lovecraftian multi-dimensional beings (who are behind the whole creation of superbeings for their own dark agenda), a serious questioning of accepting authority unquestioningly (see where that dutiful approach got poor Maximan, after all) or taking it as read that the world is at it appears but instead delving behind the curtains of reality to show there is far more (shades of both Lovecraft and Moorcock and more), all ably assisted by Steve Yeowell who crafts some lovely, clear black and white art (although Brendan McCarthy worked on the early designs for the series), rendering a wide variety of scenes, from WWII battlefields to 1980s London to the innards of a hideous dimensional being with equal grace and style.

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In some ways this has remained a timeless tale of a young, hungry writer getting to let loose with some of the ideas that had been fermenting in his brain, getting to stretch himself and his concepts of not just what storytelling could be but what you could so with the comics medium, something Morrison has pretty much continued to do throughout his career, frequently altering, changing, mutating both his approach and what you can do with the paper-based artificial reality of a world of comics, and it is a pure pleasure to see him again here at that early phase of his career, letting loose with those ideas and developing them.

In other ways though there are a number of elements which remain very much of their time, remain very 1980s, from the spoiled, selfish me-me-me generation epitomised by Zenith to some serious digs not just at the age-old British establishment but specifically at Thatcher and her government (one of the returned Many-Angled Ones seeing the former hippy turned right-wing Tory MP Peter St John remarks to him casually oh yes, we have many allies among you, inferring just how far some on the right would go for power). Those elements are still amusing to those of us old enough to remember the era, they probably don’t mean as much to younger readers encountering this for the first time. But those are only minor elements of the tale, and all tales will have some reflection of the era that shaped them, after all.

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But the main story and concepts remain powerful and compelling, and while superbeings behaving badly or the idea of WWII era super-soldiers is not new, Morrison created a very British, cynical, take on superheroes and what it would be like if they actually existed, and fused this superhero and science fiction approach with horror elements to create something remarkable and magnificent (and sometimes some nice humorous observations – such as how do you get from A to B when you fly? Just having the power to fly doesn’t mean you know where you are going in the air, something I’d never thought of about superheroes till Morrison cheekily worked it in, and when you see it you think of course, why didn’t I think of that before??). A fascinating work in its own right, a ‘lost’ classic of Brit comics now finally available again and an essential part of Morrison’s considerable oeuvre that you have to have on your shelves. Welcome home, Zenith.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The clockwork universe: Edginton & Culbard’s beautiful Brass Sun

Brass Sun #1

Ian Edginton, INJ Culbard

Rebellion

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Regular readers will no doubt have heard several of us on here mention Brass Sun, a wonderful science fiction series created by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard for the mighty 2000 AD. Have you ever, as an adult or a child, been entranced by the simple beauty and wonder of an old clockwork orrery? A seemingly perfect little moving model of the solar system, all the worlds and moons orbiting around the sun, driven by clockwork, representing each world’s distance from the mother sun and length of rotation and orbit relative to its fellows, an intricately fashioned device. Our understanding of celestial orbits and dynamics has increased enormously since those models were first fashionable and we know the universe to be far more complex than we ever dreamed of when first the craftsmen took Newton and Keppler’s laws and applied them so lovingly to these brass representations of the heavens.

And yet the orrery remains such a beautiful piece of work, conjuring dreams of wonder, a marriage of the craftsman’s art, as precise as a hand-built clock, with scientific learning; engineering and art and imagination all in one lovely device, for some a demonstration of what Sagan called “the magnificent machinery of nature”, for other’s proof of a benign deity, a magical clockmaker in the heavens. Now imagine there were real worlds, little realms actually on such an orrery, all living on their little realms rotating around that central sun on their brass wheels. A “wheel of worlds” set by a blind watchmaker… That’s the set up for Brass Sun, which several of us on the blog have been loving in the weekly 2000 AD, but now as part of the ongoing expansion of 2000 AD series (especially to the North American markets) the series (so far, it is still ongoing in the weekly Prog) is being collected into US-style comics of 32 pages, starting late in May, a perfect way to get into it if you missed it in 2000 AD.

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Frankly I have to say the Ians had me at that simple but beautiful and wondrous concept alone. And oh, it is beautiful, achingly beautiful – Culbard does wonderful close-up character scenes but he’s also a master of the magnificent splash page, and our first glimpses of this clockwork solar system is a glorious piece of comics art, tapping into that most precious of sensations that science fiction – in both graphic and prose form – does pretty much better than any other genre in literature: the sheer sense of wonder.

But wonder alone isn’t enough – a story requires narrative drive, it requires characters, and we’re in the hands of two of the UK’s very best here. We meet young Wren and her grandfather – he has been committing a dangerous heresy in a very religious and orthodox world, studying the skies with his telescope. He knows he will be noticed and reported, that the guards will come for him, that he will face burning at the stake for his heresy. But he has gained knowledge from old papers, secret papers, and with his scientific study of the sky applied to this he knows that the seemingly relentless icy winter which is pushing into their world, killing all before it, is no accident but a sign of something wrong in the very system of their wheel of worlds. He equips his grand-daughter Wren, entrusting her with information and a ‘quaycard’ and sends her off, knowing that he himself will be dragged before the religious authorities. Indeed we now find out he was once a bishop himself but what he learned turned him from orthodoxy. Now beaten and in chains he argues with the religious leader:

I was like you – I did as the Cog commanded – but the ice still came. Our people freeze and starve by the million. Prayers and persecution cannot hold the inevitable at bay. There must be another way.”

Faith! Faith is the only way!

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It’s not hard to see these scenes alluding to the persecution by the church of early astronomer’s for daring to suggest that their observations and calculations showed the progression of the heavens to be different from what the religious authorities of the day said, threatened with torture and worse for daring to speak what we now know is commonsense truth. And it’s not a major leap to see these scenes also as a commentary on some zealots today who refuse to acknowledge rational debate and scientific evidence (think on demands to give creatonism space on a school curriculum alongside evolution). But the world doesn’t care what blinkers people put on and what fables they tell themselves are true, it will do with it will, and in this case it seems the wheels have been slowing for centuries, but religious dogma has chosen to ignore this. Now Wren is sent away from her doomed grandfather, beyond her own world and into the spaces beyond armed with his journals. He hopes she can escape, but more than that, perhaps she may be able to do something to help the people of her world, of the other worlds…

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And so we get a wonderful melding of different story types, the science fiction with a hint of Steampunk for the clockwork solar system, the medieval religious mind meeting the early scientific thinking and then the classic young but determined hero (or heroine) being forced onto a dangerous quest. All of this is set up within this first issue, a terrific bit of storytelling from both writer and artist – introducing such a lovely concept for a world (or series of worlds), characters and quest, all within 30 odd pages, but then again as both are used to working with four of five pages in a weekly Brit anthology comics format those are skills in economy of storytelling you have to hone to work well in that format.

I was totally taken with the first runs of Brass Sun in the weekly 2000 AD and am delighted to see it being offered in this new format so more readers get a chance to experience it (same US comic book format as was used for the recent, highly successful Dredd movie sequel tale), and it is also a great way to wave the flag to a wider reading audience for some of the fine works that still come out of the House of Tharg and from our top Brit comics creators. A gorgeous, intoxicating story, beautifully illustrated and carrying us on a tide of wonder. Brass Sun #1 is published late May and is available to pre-order on our comics subscription site.

This pen was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Insurrection

This review was originally written for the Forbidden Planet blog in December 2011:
Insurrection Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil 2000 AD/Rebellion Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry. Mining Colony K-Alpha 61, a mineral working remote space outpost for Mega City One. Except the colony no longer considers itself a colony of the distant Big Meg. The colony has declared independence and renamed itself Liberty. And the Judges are not happy about it. Abnett and MacNeil set up the backstory very quickly, economically and efficiently, with a single page showing the senior Judge Marshall for the colony, Karel Luther delivering his statement of intent and the reasons for this radical – especially for a trained Judge – move: An alien species invaded and when despite repeated requests for help from Earth no assistance arrived the Marshals knew they needed everyone on the colony to fight the vicious Zhind, not just Judges and citizens, but also the large underclass which the majority of the workload – vital to the Big Meg’s industries and economy – relies on, the mutants, sentient robots and genetically uplifted apes, to take up arms. As these being have no real rights under Mega City Law (we’ve known since Dredd’s earliest days how the law disparages the Mutie and the robot) why would they fight for the colony? The Marshals have been granted leave to confer full rights of citizenship on them, giving them the same rights and freedoms of any other person in the colony. And just as the freed black slaves flocked to join the Union banner after the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War this underclass is not only willing to join up and fight, they are if anything more determined than anyone else to prove themselves, even at the cost of their lives. Then when the desperate struggle is won with no help from Mega City One word comes from Earth, well done, now the threat is over you can go ahead and revoke their citizenship. Luther and fellow Marshals like Freely are trained Judges, it is against all they believe in to rebel even against such a tyrannical, immoral order. But their first loyalty, Luther explains, isn’t to the law it is to justice. And to go back on the citizenship deal after so many fought and died for it would be unjust. So he tells MC-1 where to go, knowing full well this time they will come out to the colony that they failed to help before. And in a force that he knows he cannot beat, but there comes a time when a person has to take a stand, regardless of the odds, for what they believe in… It’s a great set up, the struggling underdogs, heroic and with right on their side but with little chance of success, up against an unjust, inflexible, greater power; not the first time the Dredd universe has painted the Judges as complete fascist bully boys, of course, but it works so very well and it means we get some serious future space-war combat action thrills but as it comes with a strong moral-political imperative we can enjoy the spectacular action (and MacNeil gives us some cracking big scenes, from a fleet of vicious judicial starships to ground action as the Special Judical Squad – the feared SJS who deal with other Judges – come in force) and feel no guilt over the violence. (all art in this post by Colin MacNeill, (c) Rebellion) Of course one long fight on Liberty against the odds could become a bit repetitive, and it is to Abnett’s credit that he anticipates this, so the doomed fight for Liberty is only the opening third of the tale. From the start the Marshals know that no matter how hard they and their ragtag army fights this is one battle they simply cannot win; it is clear that the SJS would be quite prepared to blast the entire colony from orbit and wipe it out if the assault fails. So when massive civilian casualties are threatened Luther has no option but to offer a surrender; he has given the SJS the biggest bloody nose it ever took in its history, he made a point, made a stand. And although Liberty has fallen under their jackboot the struggle itself goes on. Other colonies are slowly hearing about this, other worlds with their own large underclasses of robots, muties and uplifts, not to mention humans that MC-1 care nothing for really, as long as the raw materials are shipped back to Earth. Why should they be beholden to a power that doesn’t protect them, doesn’t care for them, doesn’t even recognise many of them in law with any rights? And so a few of them escape the surrender to carry on the new war, the ideological war – and another colony starts to turn, renaming itself, in honour of the French revolution, Fraternity, to stand morally alongside Liberty… Now I won’t go on into this second part of the book because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you that is is, if anything, even more gripping than the first half. Abnett and MacNeil move on to a classic guerilla campaign for freedom and also a war of ideals. But it isn’t entirely straightforward good freedom fighters versus evil imperial power, Abnett is too canny and experienced a writer for that, and he mixes in some shades of gray too. Although I suspect most readers will still predominantly have their sympathies on the side of the rebels, the guys introduce some other elements, not least the SJS leader’s argument to Luther as to why not just MC-1 but the entire Earth desperately needs the colonies as they are, which does muddy the formerly clear moral waters a little. It’s a fine combination of science fiction, war action, morality, ideology and heroism that makes for a gripping, absorbing tale that draws you right in, deftly weaving in references to other fights for freedom, such as the French and American Revolutions as well as more recent history (you could read part of it as a comment on fighting foreign wars largely based on the chance to exploit the natural resources of another land, dressed up in ideology to mask naked greed). And throughout Colin MacNeil’s art is superb. The Dredd Megazine has, like its 2000 AD parent, been fortunate in having had a roster of extremely fine artists over the years and MacNeil has long been a fan favourite. I’ve admired Colin’s art for many years myself, not least for his ability to create quite different styles to suit different tales – he’s a brush jockey who can go from the very cartoony to the highly stylised to the realistic as the story he’s working on demands. And here he has created a visually stunning wash of monochromatic art that is as at home depicting epic starship fleets as it is individuals, giving real character to the human and the uplift, mutie and robots alike, while also treating us to some brilliant large splash pages showing vast colonial landscapes and action scenes. The monochromatic nature of the art suits the story perfectly, both visually stunning and clear and yet still moody and atmospheric at the same time. I look forward to more of this intriguing new aspect to the expanded Dredd universe.