Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chopper: Surf's Up

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 Chopper: Surf's Up (Rebellion, 2010).

The good droids at Rebellion are really doing a great job issuing big, chunky, color reprint volumes lately. Hot on the heels of the Al's Baby doorstop comes this complete collection of Chopper, an antagonist of Judge Dredd who graduated to his own solo series after finally eluding capture, for what we hope is for good. He first appeared as a teenage cut-up in three different Dredd adventures in the 1980s, galvanizing the city's bored youngsters with his exploits as a graffiti artist and, later, as a skysurfer, before escaping all the way to the Australian wilderness. These earlier exploits, reprinted within three volumes of Rebellion's Complete Case Files of Dredd, are summarized in an introduction to this book. This definitely starts this collection off right; I can't tell you how many other books I own that would benefit from pages like this.

Chopper returned in a four-week adventure that first ran in 1988, written by his creator, John Wagner, and illustrated in black and white by Colin MacNeil. This proved to be very successful, and paved the way for a really remarkable follow-up, "Song of the Surfer" in 1989-90. Legendary among 2000 AD's fan base, this serial, again by Wagner and MacNeil (but this time in color) truly is a damned incredible piece of work. In it, Chopper follows his destiny back to another skysurfing competition, this one with the stakes raised to absurd levels by a promoter who has decided to return the sport to the dangerous days of its early, illegal years. He has chosen to make it a blood sport again, and, despite the outrage, still finds enough surfers to make it a reality.

It's a terrific story that touches on the tricky subjects of fate and destiny with an assured hand, wrapping them in a brilliant parody of the absurd world of sports (and, perhaps more accurately, sports commentary, prefiguring Wagner's crowning glory of the form in The Taxidermist, due for a reprint from Rebellion in a couple of months). It's a drama of the highest caliber, with a masterful use of pacing as the stakes are raised and the race begins, but the way that Wagner is able to deftly insert moments of comedy and satire as the story rockets forward is just amazing. This would be a very good story even without the parody; that Wagner was able punctuate it with moments of gleeful, sick absurdity like the smiling sports reporter announcing his own injuries without derailing everything, that's proof that Wagner is one of the very best writers in the medium. Of course, the artwork is completely sublime throughout. Twenty-plus years later, and not one artist in comics has stepped forward to paint exit wounds as frightening as what MacNeil managed here.

"Song of the Surfer" reaches an inevitable and tragic conclusion that definitely knocked thousands of readers on their head and still maintains a visceral power. That, arguably, really should have been the end for the character, but the comic's editors wanted to keep a good thing going. Garth Ennis and John McRea took over the character for a story that appeared later in 1990 in the debut issues of Judge Dredd Megazine.

These and some other stories by noteworthy creators, including the late Martin Emond, Alan McKenzie, John Higgins and Patrick Goddard, have appeared every few years until Chopper's final appearance to date in 2004. None of these stories come close to "Song of the Surfer"s power and energy, but they're all quite good in their own rights, and it is very, very nice to see them all packaged so comprehensively in one book. McKenzie's story is perhaps the weakest by comparison, but even it has a good deal to recommend it, from the vibrant art by Higgins to the curious subplot of the Japanese mega-city rebuilding and repopulating the Californian mega-city, which had been destroyed in a previous Judge Dredd epic story. This was evidently intended as part of the groundwork for a planned storyline in Dredd that, with McKenzie's departure from 2000 AD, was abandoned.

In all, it presents a genuinely fun look at a character aging in real time, from his early twenties and full of fire, to his late thirties and ready to turn down the volume and relax. It was great fun to revisit the character, and Rebellion certainly did him right with this splendid collection. Happily recommended.

Note: I've built up enough of a backlog to resume posting again, but entries will be a little sporadic for a while, probably no more than 2-3 a week. Thank you for reading!


Tohoscope said...

I was lucky enough to be picking up 2000AD when Song of the Surfer was serialized, and it was transcendent. Really, it made all the other strips running in the same progs look pretty weak. Really great story that didn't need Dread or any back story. I can't recommend this enough.

Tam said...

welcome back sir, you've been missed...