unfair cops

One-Eyed Jack: duck season

Surfacing from the oceans of 1970s British comics as part of Rebellion’s current salvage operation comes police detective Jack McBane, curing New York’s crime problem one .44 Magnum-sized entry wound at a time. John Wagner created One-Eyed Jack for Valiant when Judge Dredd was just a gleam in the writer’s eye, although the conspicuously rigid moral code and ballistic approach to justice makes the connection between the strips too tempting to resist. But One-Eyed Jack‘s roots are more interesting than its descendants. As well as giving his creation a name adjacent to Ed McBain, Wagner knew the air of enchanted alarm about 1975 New York brewing in British kids who were observing the place through endless episodes of Kojak, and picturing all American cops as the guy called Dirty Harry in something too X-rated to get into. Harry would never have squeezed himself into a luggage locker just so he could leap out and shoot the criminal who opened the door; but when McBane does it, it’s cue Lalo Schifrin all the same. I read and reviewed the reissued comic for Tripwire.

The Leopard From Lime Street is another reprint in the same series and from a similar era, this time from Buster. In theory the big-hearted boy scratched by a radioactive leopard is a character aimed at a young audience, but the cues that writer Tom Tully takes from Stan Lee include the one about aiming above his readers’ heads and carrying them upwards in the draught.

And at the same place, a quick look at Dredd/Anderson: The Deep End, three comics stories set in the world of the 2012 Dredd film. As it happens I liked Dredd a lot, although it was four and a half years ago and spin-offs from it at this stage might have something to do with keeping the breadth of a live-action Dredd property on display just as a Mega-City One TV show starts to move forward. It’s not as if the comic hasn’t mapped Cassandra Anderson’s early days nicely already, but the character is one of the few that’s rich enough for all the parallel what-ifs to stay appealing.

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The Last American: nuclear states

Each era’s flavour of imminent extinction is different, but the sour taste of 1980s nuclear anxiety comes back pretty quickly while reading The Last American, Marvel’s 1990 Epic Comics series just republished by Rebellion. A post-apocalyptic road trip with one human being and one inevitable destination, it’s a howl of unhappiness on the part of its creators, and since they happen to be British it has the same air of brutalised trans-Atlantic complicity that powered other anti-war petitions like the BBC’s Threads half a decade previously. Exposure to a pop-culture that’s operating without an irony safety-net is now an automatic time-warp and alien enough to give you vertigo, and it’s not just the calendar that makes the book feel like art at the end of its tether, or possibly just at a dead-end; but equally, some of the book is performative and caricatured enough to count as war poetry under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. And if humane compassion ever stops being a net positive in art, then we’re all in trouble anyway. I reviewed it for Tripwire and tried to give it its due.

At the same venue: 2000AD gave US superheroes short shrift at one point, its founders inclined to fend off fascistic do-goodery with sticks. A new selection of Judge Dredd’s run-ins with recognisable Ubermenschen of one kind or another shows how views of the superhuman brigade have shifted – towards the favourable, to no great surprise.

And: the Slaine strip has featured great artists before, but Simon Davis is just about the perfect fit.

 

Gallery

disassembled

Five comics characters who lost a little something of themselves, via Tom Spurgeon.

living history

gary groth

Gary Groth: a single forty-year bound

No amount of arm-waving can link the appearance of 2000AD and the creation of Fantagraphics too directly, even though they appeared at almost the same moment. 1976 London was not 1976 Vermont, and rebellious insiders are not rebellious outsiders. 2000AD has always had to fit its inherited air of punky rebellion around life as a corporate brand, and hasn’t resisted that obligation for a while; Fantagraphics has gone from being a proper rouser of rabbles to one of the strongest curators of its art form that we have – the ten-year project to translate Guido Crepax is a full-scale cultural intervention – while still being prepared to take an artistic punt on material that might scare the horses.

But both have survived four decades of turmoil, so both feel like living history when you hold the books in your hand. And now both have an official biography, for the libertarian war stories and near-bankruptcies and court appearances and clarifying who exactly threw sharp objects at whom. I read the two books for Tripwire, and as always the termite art is probably where more of the action is. Neither book has any doubts about the value of making art in the first place, though.

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punks, not dead

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Cadet Anderson and friend: futures not so bright

Carlos Ezquerra’s art is essentially caricature, which made me lose my bearings when I first saw it, back while obsessed with the slanty panels and alarming trousers of George Pérez. Now the upsides are much clearer, especially when the style gets buoyed up by current production standards and Ezquerra’s recent design habits – those are two serious characters up there, especially the one on the right who has a lifetime of heroism and agony ahead of her. For Tripwire I read the new Cadet Anderson collection from 2000AD, which didn’t make me change my dim view of prequel stories, but didn’t damage my admiration for Alan Grant either.

And: Martians invade and England prevails in Scarlet Traces, leading to a great many Victorian faces caught in flashes of fright, which happens to be one of D’Israeli’s areas of expertise.

And: several months of 1998 Judge Dredd collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 28, some of which is smothered by the year of its creation to the point of oxygen starvation. Retrospective satire is always lumbered with knowledge of all the cyclical failures that followed – barring the odd outlier like Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, which hovers above irrelevance on an updraught of pure dissatisfaction –  so the news that Mega-City One politics includes a Liar Party prompts a muted response in light of all events on planet Earth everywhere at the time or since. On the other hand, John Wagner and Ezquerra’s close look at Judge Galen DeMarco’s workplace dilemmas is timelessly potent. Soap opera with a purpose.

mystic twangs

sam waterston as richard helms

Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast

Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.

And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.

Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.

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As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.

If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.

Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.

the empire of signs

stevehatesfish

For Sight & Sound, a preview of the live-action end of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The knotty issue of whether films of any length, or art at all, should be dealing in “explorations rather than solutions, atmosphere rather than answers” isn’t supposed to have an easy answer, although Amos Vogel did the world a favour in 1970 by phrasing it that way as a test of which way the wind is blowing. But at some point British films’ reluctance to stray from one side of the street and inclination to fetishise atmosphere at the expense of all else will have to be prised open for a look inside. The festival subsequently gave its top prize to a British short that felt particularly parochial, neatly summarising the dilemma faced jointly by the filmmakers, the mechanisms they work within, and the festivals which should ideally set about doing the prising.

In the Sight & Sound October print issue I reviewed Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which for all its comedy and foreseeable outcome is at least aware of both atmosphere and answers. Anticipation that a director of particular sensibilities will perturb the workings of Marvel’s less than cinematic pre-fab manufacturing operation has been misplaced in the past and may prove to be again; but Waititi seems to be made of sterner stuff, so who knows?

On the Tripwire website, a look at the two-thousandth issue of 2000AD, as an early warm-up exercise for the comic’s fortieth anniversary next year. Anniversary issues usually end up pulled in tight fluffy circles, but as Joe McCulloch pointed out 2000AD has a role as living history over and above whatever it actually publishes. So Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill probably have the right idea, returning to Nemesis and expressing suitable disdain for the power of nostalgia by simply carrying on where they left off several corrupt Archbishops ago.

Clever science: using a thread of spider silk as a focusing lens in a microscope, thanks to the strange things that can happen when light falls on very small cylinders and spheres.

As is: improved diagnosis of potential oesophageal cancer, by modifying both the fluorescent marker that identifies malignant tissue and the endoscope that takes a look – this being the latest from the prolific cancer research efforts emerging from the University of Cambridge.

And also: working out why exactly retinal implants don’t deliver high quality vision to patients by mapping what happens on a cellular level, and then tweaking things so that they might be able to.

carry on england

anderson

Cassandra Anderson: judge not

Alan Grant and Cliff Robinson did a Judge Dredd story in 1990 with the characters turned into versions of the Carry On team, but it was such a sublime echo of Jack Davis and Mad Magazine that it never felt all that British, despite Judge Bristol responding appropriately to comments about taking down her particulars. Dredd’s most properly Anglo moments, it turns out, were already spreading themselves out across the years of Daily Star newspaper strips, in which Grant and John Wagner moulded their Mega-City melodrama into strict single-tier portions with clear glee for how strips like Jeff Hawke and Modesty Blaise ticked, and for the pulse of a three-panel rhythm shoving a cartoon forwards every twenty-four hours. Rebellion’s archiving of everything on its books has started to collect the daily strip into hardcovers, and will eventually get to things that Wagner and Grant didn’t script – but in the meantime the ones which they did steer are getting their due, including the times that Psi-Judge Anderson slinks off her motorbike and stands side-on.

A fair accounting is also the aim of The Mighty One, a memoir by Steve MacManus about the first decade and a half or so of 2000AD as well as the few years before the comic came into existence. Tales from the 2000AD trenches are not unfamiliar by now, but the prenatal warm-up period from 1973 to 1976 is at least as significant. Several of the UK’s cultural tectonic plates shifted into position – or possibly just seized up – at a time when what was about to happen to British publishing was impossible to predict, and what was about to happen to sci-fi looked as likely as psychic judges. A certain wistful nostalgia for the simpler days of Valiant is hard to shake if you were mastering joined-up writing at the time, and any nostalgia for the later days of Robert Maxwell is very ill-advised, but MacManus keeps the world outside his office in sight while outlining what was going on inside it as his trade progressed from one of those eras to the other – which is about the best you can expect of any pop-culture autobiography, even when few of them bother to do it.

Gallery

Non-Comics

Five Favorite Non-Comics Works By Comics Creators (via Tom Spurgeon):

 

foresight

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1975: Doctor Strange meets early twitter adopter, detects trouble ahead.