Posts Tagged ‘Steve Dillon’

David J. Skal,”The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror” (1993, 2001); John Wagner/Mike McMahon/Brian Bolland/Ron Smith/et. al., “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04″(1980-81, 2011); & Michael Deforge, “Big Kids” (2016)

June 28, 2016

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Horror reflects the anxieties of its time – that’s really not an especially new or interesting observation, and while Skal delves into that here (especially in how the horror movies of the twenties and thirties reflected a depopulated and disfigured post-WWI world, and interestingly shows how the movies of the forties often directly avoided the then-raging second World War even while setting themselves in a mock image of “Europe”), he also shows how adaptive those horror metaphors are (Dracula and Frankenstein, the two primary subjects of the book, appear consistently throughout the decades and in changing forms), and how they are reflected back by society itself. The twentieth-century did not have a one-sided relationship with horror icons (including the ones pulled from previous centuries) – there was a long-standing relationship with horror imagery that appeared before film (as Skal shows in his overview of the Grand Guignol theatre tradition), and in many ways the kinds of body horror and violent obsessions of horror entertainment influenced the way people look at things. By mid-century, horror imagery became firmly ingrained into culture at large (seen in Diane Arbus’ photography, the rise of gory make-up effects “culture”, and even in novelty songs like “Monster Mash”), even as attempts to censor or eliminate the entire genre – and by the time horror became recognized as indelible, the culture became more like the horror it consumed; the latter half of book zones in on that idea especially. Horror is not just a genre, but a lifestyle, and while they are often derived from real terrors, figures like vampires have become potent symbols for marginalized communities as well, taking some of those dark traits and re-contextualizing them to more positive ends. As well, the book highlights how some of the more outlandishly ghoulish ideas from the films seem to become closer to reality as the century moved one – although the desire to find horror metaphors everywhere leads the author to some questionable arguments concerning the trans community and HIV that were contestable in 1993, but seem atrociously wrong these days.

Another fascinating line comes from not just discussing horror movies as some cultural objects that were collectively dreamt up (as these sorts of arguments sometimes lean towards), but as the products of people with their own ideas and their own reasons for making them. Tod Browning is the central figure here, as Skal looks at his fascinating life and brief filmography and finds several recurring themes – Browning’s very peculiar career trajectory is very much apparent in his work, and it’s an especially potent series of events where his childhood as a carnival act (as a man who would be buried in a casket and then “resurrected”, because sometimes things make too much sense) would ultimately lead him to direct Freaks, the film that destroyed his directing career. Browning is the figure the book is most fascinated with, but the history of the stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and the ugly business of securing the film rights) are equally important, and show in microcosm how individual directors, writers, actors, and businessmen interpreted these stories and helped create close-to-platonic conceptions of both those stories, crafting all future reinterpretations of the two most important horror symbols.

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After reading later volumes of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, I decided to walk my way backwards and see what I missed. This volume begins with a very long storyline that, while entertaining in parts, never comes together into much of anything. Considering how few of the stories have anything to do with the main plot (once Dredd and the other judges head into space, especially), one has to wonder if this whole idea was simply because the writers were bored of Mega City One and wanted to have an excuse to set the comics elsewhere for a while – and once they ran out of ideas for weird aliens or planets for Dredd to deal with (and considering how urgent his mission supposedly is, the points where has to stop and do something else because someone asked him are especially head-scratching), they went back to the main plot and finished it on an appropriate (but still maddening, especially if you were reading this weekly back in the eighties) anticlimax. It’s hard for me to even call most of the storyline padding, because most of the stories that happen between the early parts of the “Judge Child” saga and the end don’t even feel like they’re part of the same story – it’s more like they changed the premise of the strip for over half a year.

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It’s also frustrating because of how solid an artist line-up they have for an entire volume, with Ron Smith (who gets frequent opportunities to draw goofy cross-eyed expressions on people), Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, and Steve Dillon trading off stories, and there isn’t a bad-looking comic in the lot. Once the “Judge Child” story ends and you get back to the more anchored lunacy of Judge Dredd, things begin to click again (although the space stories weren’t bad per se, they lacked the spark of the Mega City One stories, with maybe the exception of the “Battlefield” story – one of two opportunities for Ron Smith to do ad parodies in this volume) – the first comic to follow it is a real nice character-focused piece with even nice Brian Bolland artwork, almost reintroducing readers to the actual point of the series. Subsequently, you get real fun premises like “Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic” and “Unamerican Graffiti” (probably the best of the stories in here, about as hilariously bleak as you can get), as well as the ridiculous action piece “Pirates of the Black Atlantic”, which somehow manages to be many different sorts of stories all at once (you go from a story with mutant pirates to “oh, a whole section of the city has just been obliterated with a nuclear missile”, which understandably is a pretty grim turn), and even acts as prelude to the stories they’d be telling not long after (this volume ends up introducing several elements that the series would go back to for years to come.) After what felt like a long time away, the second half of volume 4 felt like coming home.

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One thing that struck me while reading Big Kids was the constantly shifting presence of very specific social power dynamics, a slightly unnerving sort of casual cruelty that sometimes appears in Deforge’s other works. There’s always a need for someone to be at the bottom of the hierarchy among Adam’s peer group, who are arbitrarily (although probably not that arbitrarily) chosen to be the target, and this is never questioned even by the designated target. When Adam changes into a “tree”, the dynamics change – he no longer becomes the target as the other teenagers sense something is different about him, people in his life who are still “twigs” become lesser beings (even when, or maybe especially when, they are former authority figures like Adam’s father, his policeman uncle, and his ex-boyfriend) – the twigs are, as the narration itself explains, not actually lesser in any real way, but they not only lack the gifts of extrasensory visualizing and interconnection. But they are also seen as these expressionless, simplistic shapes that are physically smaller and lack any of the “organic” features that define the trees. In a way, this dehumanizes them in a way that Adam seems willing to take advantage of, his new way of seeing the world allowing him to ignore the other level of reality he no longer has to deal with – like on the page where he simply picks up and throws his abusive uncle out a window, the change in their relative realities giving him the confidence to overthrow those who once domineered his life. But while this seems triumphant in that scene, it’s not difficult to see that this is just another arbitrary hierarchy being used – the trees’ “awakening” is random, and the trees’ distinctive societies and relationships are an unspoken agreement.

Another recurring theme is a strange ambivalence towards art and its ability to construct and deconstruct familiarity. When Adam becomes a tree, every object or concept (like sounds) in the world becomes a Deforge-style abstraction, a flowing liquidy shape or living thing – ideas are anti-Platonic in a way, and no ideas are invisible, always visible. Being able to see things in this seemingly nonconforming, elastic way is the gift and the curse of the trees, the world becoming a formless expression rather than rigidity, but one that ultimately gets in the way of understanding people without this artistic mind, and ultimately robs them of their memories of their older world. The computer program April develops with Adam’s mom is a sort of alternative form of expression, returning to some semblance of “realism” in order to preserve those memories, but it also demonstrates the imperfection of visual memory (an idea helped by the way Deforge draws people in this – simple faces that make the imprecise fudging of details more noticeable), every image of the world around us a always a illustration from a hazy thought rather than anything completely concrete. By the end, we see that there are people who seem to gain something from this new mode of interpretation that they can flow through themselves, a viable community, but to others it is ultimately an alienating force (like Adam’s mom, who chooses to physically deform herself to feel more at home among the twigs like her husband) – artistic extrapolation and reinvention being able to bring people together or keep them separate.

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John Wagner/Alan Grant/Jose Casanovas/John Cooper/Steve Dillon/Carlos Ezquerra/Ron Smith, “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 06” (1982-1983, 2007)

June 5, 2013

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(Sorry for the dearth in updates for the past month. I have been reading, although not necessarily at the pace I was hoping for. I’ve also been sidetracked by other projects in the meantime. I can’t guarantee that regular updates will return, but I do have some material to run through in the coming months.)

What’s interesting about this collection of Dredd stories, as pointed out in Douglas Wolk’s piece, is how it acts as a prime example of continuity management in an ongoing series. A good number of the stories in here show the fallout from the Block Mania/Apocalypse War story that ended prior, and it really seems that those stories managed to provide a lot of creative avenues for Wagner and Grant to explore. Radioactive waste, disease, food shortages, final remnants of the enemy army, increases in homelessness…by the end of the next year, it seems that Dredd had picked apart every possible side-effect the deck-clearing in “The Apocalypse War” left behind. Aside from that, there were also several stories that picked up other threads as well – “Destiny’s Angels” brought back a few characters thought long-gone (and openly getting rid of one who should have been), or the few stories like “Blobs” and “Prezzel Logic” that showed the meetings of the biggest criminals in Mega-City One. After deliberately reducing their setting, Wagner and Grant immediately choose to build it back up again, which provides for some truly entertaining stories and good bits of world-building.

This, I think, presents one of the real benefits of this sort of open-ended storytelling: having the stories bounce off one another, showcasing some imaginative cause-and-effect, and using one story to give you the momentum in later ones. The kind of major event represented “Apocalypse War” usually leads to endless attempts to one-up it in scale (and Judge Dredd would do just that in the years to come), which has the tendency to degrade their effectiveness – you can only have so many large-scale disasters in a world like this before they just become tiring. It is then refreshing for them to see the approach they took for these follow-up stories, in which they pull back on the scale (no especially long story lines in this volume) and essentially get back to “normal”, but to take into account all of the possible ramifications of the previous story. It give both the readers and the storytellers enough breathing room to really soak in the changes to the status quo, while avoiding the kind of event overload I mentioned before. Continuity and world building, at their best, present us with a living, breathing setting that changes while still staying mostly “in-character”, so to speak. We don’t just want to see what is set in stone already, but how the established rules and personalities in a place like Mega-City One react to the stories that are told within them. It gives the impression of it not only having depth, but also of being a truly dynamic.

The choice to have shorter story lines also benefits these comics because it gives each artist the opportunity to cover each arc on their own. This is a great volume to see the distinct strengths of many of the defining Dredd artists – Ezquerra getting the darker and more action-oriented stories like the Alien-clone “Starborn Thing” and “Destiny’s Angels”, and Smith using his MAD-esque caricaturing skills in the straight-up weird comedy of “Blobs” and “The Stupid Gun”, with Cooper and Dillon filling in for “The Last Invader” (which feels somewhere between Ezquerra and Smith in spots, and features some of my favourite jokes in the volume) and “Trapper Hag”. Smith and Ezquerra even get to try some stories outside their usual wheelhouses – Smith getting the straight siege semi-epic “Shanty Town” (which, at the very least, gives him the opportunity to draw some weird-looking goons) and Ezquerra getting even the slightest bit goofier in “Condo” and “The Prankster” (although that’s definitely not to say Ezquerra only does the serious stuff – his first story in the volume is “Meka-City”, where the villain is a robot wrestler named Precious Leglock) It feels a bit odd at first, but it is enjoyable to see them involved with a variety of stories throughout the volume.

The variety there also goes back to what I was talking about before – it’s rather incredible that we can run the gamut of concepts, including alien action stuff like “Starborn Thing” (which still manages to include a goofy recurring joke in Dredd’s “baby”) and “Trapper Hag”, goofy satirical concepts like “The League of Fatties”, and tragic crime fiction like “The Executioner”- all in the same world, and many of them tied together by the aforementioned continuity. The openness of the world, much like its organic development, is a major part of Dredd‘s appeal. Most of the long-running fictional worlds, especially in serial comics, share that anything-can-happen feeling, with the limitations understood to be mostly tonal. Dredd, by establishing a satirical universe from the get-go, widens its net even further, giving it the opportunities to have something like “Jimps” be followed by “Night of the Rad-Beast”. It’s always interesting to see how something so broad in genre can be hammered into some sort of shape – and these stories do just that. It’s primarily just a lot of goofy fun, but that world building aspect does add a lot to the reading experience.

Case Files 05 and 06 work well in tandem in this way – between the two of them, we get to see most of the major concepts (the bigger examples being Judge Death and the Apocalypse War in 05, and Mean Machine and the fall-out in 06) and story tricks that Wagner and Grant will continually utilize during their long tenure on the series, stories covering a vast range of material, essential artists like Ezquerra at the top of their game, and some good examples of both the epics and the smaller stories. As my introduction to Dredd, I couldn’t ask for better – in these books, Dredd and Mega-City One really come alive, and all the possibilities the world presents become quite clear. In the more specific cases of each book, 05 offered a great starting point, while 06 really hammered home what makes the stories and worlds of Judge Dredd interesting.

Pat Mills/Simon Bisley/SMS/Steve Dillon, “ABC Warriors: The Black Hole” (1988, 2011)

February 9, 2013

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I’ve come to expect certain things when I read a Pat Mills comic: sneering at authority, criticism of Judaic religions, elements of Pagan belief, and lots of pitch-black humour. It honestly seems like the only reason Mills decided to integrate the characters of ABC Warriors, an older creation, into the universe of Nemesis the Warlock was so he could include all those in as many different forms in all of his comics at once. The Black Hole is a fine enough demonstration of it: here, Mills weaves together the (seemingly?) disparate threads of pissing on government institutions (be they empires or bureaucracies), humanity’s vain attempts to destroy their connection to the natural world (which is tied in to both Paganism and the history of misogyny), and the always fertile ground of machines trying to understand emotion. These are all things Mills manages to include into a unabashedly juvenile action comic, as well, which makes all the text (rarely do any of these things played through subtlety) both more interesting and more problematic.

The tone here also shows how Mills is highly complemented by Bisley’s grotesque artwork: much as Kevin O’Neill did in Nemesis, Bisley supplements the mayhem ith his bulging cartoon figures and some little extra touches, jokes that sometimes make each panel look like a demented political cartoon. Images like the massive embodiment of evil reading an instruction manual, or the way Major Savard morphs between panels, are things thrown in that gel completely with Mills story – adding to the intentional ugliness and the humour. This, of course, also makes the strips where SMS takes over – a perfectly adequate artist, if somewhat unexciting – kind of disappointing and jarring. Much as what happened when I read some post-O’Neill Nemesis, you kind of miss the nuttiness brought to the comic when Mills finds a truly compatible artist. Such is the way of the factory-farmed comic.

One of the main thrusts of The Black Hole is to really show off the series’ moral grayness, with the small bits of focus on each character ultimately leading us to our send-off. From the onset, it’s established that the sinister-in-every-way-possible Blackblood is the least trustworthy individual in the book, a villain press-ganged into joining the team and always looking for a way out. The presence of Blackblood,or the monstrous Mek-Quake, on the team puts their mercenary nature at the fore – and then adds Deadlock, the spiritualist and follower of “Khaos”, whose motives are constantly in question (sure, he wants to stop the evil entity trying to destroy all of time – but his deal is to “spread anarchy throughout the stars”, so you have to wonder what his deal is, up until the book answers it for you.) So, about half the team is destined to be the “bad” ones – but, as we learn, the “good” ones aren’t much better. Joe Pineapples is an unrepentant killer, who’s journey to obtain human emotion seems to be only to make him capable of enjoying death and destruction (the oft-hyped mystery of what he keeps in his chest is a funny reminder of this, and is also a joke that Futurama would sort of use over a decade later). Team leader Hammerstein, who is already “afflicted” by human emotion, is essentially one of the few truly “good” individuals on the team, but his origin story in this book features an interesting spin on his “awakening” – his first real emotion is jealous rage (which is similar to how robots “learn” emotion in another much-later Sci-Fi work, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto). Of course, the problem is that this supposed to be a violent action comic, which truly morally-upright individuals would not be conducive to – on the other hand, Mills seems to be playing with that fact, noting that the violence inherent in human society, the same human society that produced these machines, is inherently irrational, which is reflected in the dilemmas faced by Hammerstein especially. Not much of an excuse for these comics to indulge in brutality for entertainment purposes, but it is a way to think about it nonetheless.

There’s also some semi-feminist concepts sprinkled throughout the story, which often relate back to the book’s critical outlook on imperialism and references to Paganism. The back story of the Worm Goddess/Termite God dichotomy, complete with modern religious persecution, seems to put the book in the camp railing against systemic/ideological basis for misogyny. The worm goddess, the “Cosmic Mother”, is associated with nature and with inclusion (it being “androgynous”); the termite god is, by name alone, made to invoke order, as imposed by the much-despised empires and bureaucracies it’s image is used to justify (“They’re all a bunch of fascists pretending they’re civilising people”, as spoken by middle-class representative Ro-Jaws). On the other hand, while female divinity is praised, the main women characters in the book leaving something to be desired. Terri, although as mean a fighter as the rest (which is why she gets to be “one of the boys”), is still not much of a character, seemingly existing as a counterpart/love interest for Hammerstein, and is taken out of the picture in the funniest/meanest way possible (and, of course, her boys-comics-stantard sexy design is there to cause problems as well). The villainous Major Savard, on the other hand, is treated as a joke by pretty much everyone, including Simon Bisley (leading up to the pretty-okay punch-line of the character)- a caricatured sadistic fascist, whose physical appearance and back story exist to set up the jokes. So, while the book is able to afford the concepts of femininity some depth and sympathy, that depth and sympathy doesn’t extend to the women characters themselves. Such is the way of the action-adventure comic.

The book’s mishmash of themes and love of dumb action is what complicates these issues, which is in turn a trademark of Mills’ stories. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading his blog, it’s that Mills is someone who is obviously very astute on the issues he brings into all his comics, but is also savvy enough in the field he works in to know how to get asses into seats, so to speak. The conflict between these proclivities is the most fascinating (and at other times, the most grating) aspect of his books.