Monday, December 20, 2010

Fiends of the Eastern Front

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Fiends of the Eastern Front (Rebellion, 2010).

Of all the recent examples of contemporary funnybook writers paying tribute to, and rehabilitating the image of, mostly retired or deceased members of the industry, Pat Mills' talking-up of Gerry Finley-Day hasn't got a lot of press. You've got plenty of blogs and essays discussing Seth's curations of Doug Wright and John Stanley, and Eddie Campbell's defense of Vince Coletta got a lot of attention, but, as is disagreeably common, the British creators just don't get a lot of press in the American-dominated blogosphere.

The thing here is, most people aren't going to know what the heck that Finley-Day did that was allegedly worth discussing. We all like to call Pat Mills the godfather of British comics for his work on Battle Picture Weekly, Action and 2000 AD, but Mills is just as quick to cite Finley-Day as the man we should actually be praising, for his work creating and editing an apparently bleak and miserable girls' comic called Tammy, which ran from 1971-84. Mills later brought Finley-Day into Battle, where he wrote D-Day Dawson, and to 2000 AD, where he created The V.C.s, Harry Twenty on the High Rock and Rogue Trooper. The annual 100-page year-end edition of 2000 AD, available this month, features a new Finley-Day Rogue Trooper story, his first comics' work in more than twenty years.

Of course, a reputation's only worth what we can see. In the case of his heroes Wright and Stanley, Seth has the publisher Drawn & Quarterly on his side, putting out lovely editions of those artists' work. While most of his other, earlier work for IPC remains in limbo, Rebellion has repackaged most of his 2000 AD series and serials for everybody to enjoy. The most recent of these is Fiends of the Eastern Front, which ran for ten weeks in 1980, and is considered one of the downright oddest stories that appeared in 2000 AD in that decade.

Many things make Fiends stand out from its companion stories of the day, like its tone, unusual protagonist and brevity, but the real surprise is that it isn't a science fiction story at all. Of course, after more than thirty years of strips as widely divergent as Slaine and Bec & Kawl, that doesn't seem like a big deal, but an occult World War 2 thriller in which a German infantryman figures out that his Romanian allies are a company of vampires was really unusual at the time. What elevates it from curiosity to such a delightful pleasure is the twisting plot, the terrific framing device of having the tale recounted from a dead man's diary found in a present-day building site, and the great artwork by Carlos Ezquerra, done in between the first two serialized adaptations of The Stainless Steel Rat. Plus, it must be said that Captain Constanza is a truly great villain, all smiles and believably urbane charm when necessary, with a bloodthirsty streak just behind the surface.

After the serial, Fiends was retired as a lead feature for a respectable 26 years. It was reprinted a time or two - one of these coincided with a surprising one-off episode of The Scarlet Apocrypha by Ezquerra and Dan Abnett, in which the Romanians find that Russia has their own super-vampire weapon to oppose them - and found a new life in a series of four novels written by David Bishop. Bishop later collaborated with artist Colin MacNeil on a second comic story, serialized across eight issues of the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. It's not at all bad, although it reads as a little more choppy and fragmented in places than most of these episodic installments naturally do. Bishop came up with some excellent action set pieces in this story, and a terrific, underplayed enemy for the vampires in a beautifully-designed golem with a look quite unlike any other I've seen before.

So Rebellion's latest reprint is the most complete to date. It's still pretty slim; at just over 100 pages, this is not a concept that gets run into the ground. It includes Finley-Day and Ezquerra's original story, Bishop and MacNeil's 2006 revisitation, and Abnett and Ezquerra's 2002 one-off. That's everything save a silly cameo in a silly Garth Ennis Judge Dredd epic, which wouldn't have been necessary or sensible. The only complaint that I have is that sadly, there wasn't room in the budget to revisit the lettering on the MacNeil pages. Halfway through that run, mercifully, Ellie De Ville stepped in to letter the project; previously, MacNeil had been doing it himself with less-than-stellar results.

Otherwise, this is a terrific little book. It's nicely-priced for British readers at £9.95, and, in what must be a first for any 2000 AD project solicited through Diamond for the American market, it's actually priced at a proper exchange rate of $14.99, without some insane markup. Let's see more of that, please! Recommended? Absolutely! Now let's get somebody to reprint more of Finley-Day's ostensibly excellent 1970s stuff so Pat Mills can call his mission accomplished!

No comments: