Thursday, June 2, 2011

2000 AD's Free Comic Book Day Prog

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 2000 AD's Free Comic Book Day Prog (Rebellion, 2011).

Here's a book that, if I may say so, is long overdue. Every year for about the last decade, the principal comic book distribution company, Diamond, has sponsored this event where retailers order a bunch of comics to be given out freely to customers. The idea is that the comic shops will promote a big event at their store and guests will arrive to reacquaint themselves with how great it was to read funnybooks, and established customers will pick up a couple of new titles. 2000 AD, despite being the most consistently entertaining and rewarding comic book published over the last three decades, has never joined the party until this year. At last, there's a free 2000 AD comic to promote in the US. Free Comic Book Day has come and gone, but it's possible - in fact, it's almost likely, considering the leftover stock that I see in some stores - that there may be a copy or two floating around for new readers to try.

2000 AD is an anthology book, and this issue gives people a reasonably good idea what to expect from any given issue, with a quibble or two. Judge Dredd, as always, is the star of things, and the rest of any given issue is taken up with a mixture of recurring series, serials and short one-off stories. Here, Dredd is ably represented by a short story written by his creator John Wagner and illustrated by Val Semeiks and Cliff Robinson. It's a good introduction, letting people know that Dredd lives in a world where life is violent and technology is downright weird.

The principal backups are Slaine by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, Kingdom by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, and Shakara by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint. Kingdom and Shakara are each very recent and popular series - Shakara actually reached its bug-eyed, mad, memorable conclusion earlier this year - and they are each represented by their initial installments. Kingdom is the lyrically paced (if that makes sense) story of a dog soldier called Gene the Hackman, who, with his pack, is defending Antarctica from huge insectoid aliens. Shakara tricks readers into thinking that it's the story of the very last human, an astronaut who was in space when bizarre aliens destroyed Earth, but then it swerves, magically, and shows off that it is not about that at all. Both are completely terrific, and collected editions of each are already available in England. American editions, distributed by Simon & Schuster, will be arriving in a few months' time.

The Slaine story is a pleasant surprise. Slaine has actually been running since 1983 with a dozen different artists illustrating Pat Mills' scripts. The episode here is the first in a series of adventures called "The Books of Invasions" that was painted / photomanipulated by Clint Langley. Langley's tenure on the strip is available in three hardback editions, with a fourth scheduled for later in the year, but I don't believe that these are planned for separate American release (and, presumably, promotion) at this time.

The comic is bookended by a couple of short one-offs, a Tharg story from 1977 illustrated by Kevin O'Neill that introduces readers to the concept of this comic having an alien editor who programs robots to write and draw the features, and a one-page Zombo short by Al Ewing and Henry Flint which is just violent and ridiculous and wonderful. Frankly, 2000 AD should run silly little single pages like this more frequently.

As an introduction, I think this does a pretty good job, although I might quibble that it emphasizes the over-the-top, hyperviolent side of 2000 AD perhaps a little more than I might like. This led at least one store in Atlanta to restrict the freebie to adults only. (I protested that all Earthlet children should be exposed to thrillpower at the earliest possible age.) While 2000 AD, it must be said, isn't for everybody - and a regularly-scheduled, stereotype-avoiding, female-led series is long overdue and would help there - many of its best series are nowhere as dementedly gruesome as the offerings suggested here, and I'm not sure that this really gives readers a feel for how broad the scope of 2000 AD is.

Another eight pages could have introduced readers to the classical pirate adventure of The Red Seas or the weird Victorian crime drama of Stickleback or the Western-in-Hell Ichabod Azrael or the brand new cops vs. demons Absalom, all of which are certainly violent, but not quite as visceral and outlandish as what's on offer here, and I think that might have been a bit more of a balance. Well, now we know for next year! Certainly recommended.

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