Thursday, April 11, 2013

Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse

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 Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse (Rebellion, 2013).

John Smith wrote the last episode of an occasionally-appearing, and very weird, series called Indigo Prime way back in 1991. Mostly, in the years since it finished, he worked on long-form serials for 2000 AD, such as Firekind or Leatherjack or Cradlegrave. Many of these were highly regarded, and occasionally amazing, but there were always a few readers, myself included, who couldn't help but feel that no matter how interesting these stories were, a return to the bizarre multiverse of Indigo Prime could be even greater.

Somewhere around 2003, on some other website, I once speculated: "On the other hand, all times and places are relative to Indigo Prime; they could end up returning for a 13-week run when nobody suspects." That was kind of the feeling behind the groundwork of the series. It concerns a very strange organization of interdimensional troubleshooters who work as contract agents for the manipulation of empty universes and also police breakdowns of the barriers between worlds. They rewrite space, time, and dreams to keep reality in one piece. It's the best concept for a comic ever, and if it owes an obvious debt to TV's Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel - repaid with overt mentions at last in these new stories - it also builds on them with a huge cast of intriguing and fun characters.

About five years after I wrote that, Smith was wrapping up a serial called Dead Eyes, drawn by Lee Carter. It's pretty heady stuff, mixing ley lines, ancient mystical sites, stone circles, Agharta, ESP, and neanderthals into a modern military thriller. It starts to reach a very messy, inevitable, and blood-spattered climax when the protagonist, a soldier on the run named Danny, is abruptly removed from his reality - from the very comic serial in which he was starring - by two agents of Indigo Prime. For anybody unfamiliar with what was, then, a concept left unused since its last appearance seventeen years before, that was perhaps a weird and unsatisfying ending. For the rest of us, it was triumphant.

Danny and the two agents next appeared three years later, with Indigo Prime at last resurrected as a feature of its own. 2000 AD presented two short stories by Smith and artist Edmund Bagwell in 2011; these and Dead Eyes are all collected in the new book "Anthropocalypse." A further story, "Perfect Day," with art again by Carter, has since been announced as coming soon. We're all very pleased to see that, because as enjoyable and as entertaining as the stories in this book are, there's something about both the promise and the execution of Indigo Prime that leaves audiences desperately wanting to see more.

So, for those of you coming in blind, this is a dense, dense, dense series. It's beautifully drawn by Bagwell, who gives the technology and the phantasmagoria of the wild destruction of universes the sort of fired, imaginative sheen that was the hallmark of Jack Kirby in the 1960s and 1970s. His storytelling, layout, and character design are clear and straightforward, which is what this previously headache-inducing and complicated concept badly needed for its relaunch. The new Indigo Prime, at last introduced formally through an audience identification figure, is a giant assemblage of scrubs, spies, and super-agents. We meet a heck of a lot of new characters, and, strangely, the best-known pair from the original run only make a very brief appearance. Smith has evidently moved on, and he's interested in playing with concepts like agents operating in very deep cover, hidden away in strange realities for decades. Other new characters, surprisingly, have analogues in "our" reality: William S. Burroughs and Hawley Crippen are agents of Indigo Prime.

Apart from introducing readers to the weird world, there are a couple of big actions for the agency to take. There's the struggle to capture a dimension-jumping bewilderbeast, and the extraction/rescue of an agent from a universe that has reverse-engineered his time travel tech. If there's a legitimate complaint to be made, it's that perhaps a little more time might have been spent on character development than on fantastica; the agency's director Major Arcana, sort of a Kirby/Steranko-age Nick Fury, dominates the proceedings, and an imagineer named Mariah Kiss is instantly memorable, but the series would definitely benefit, going forward, from more one-offs and short tales letting us know more about the players before things get too weird and ragnarok starts thundering down again.

What we've got, though, accepting the minor quibbles of wanting to know more, is extremely good. The artwork is sublime throughout, and the concept and realization of such incredibly wild sci-fi ideas is peerless. If you've not sampled Indigo Prime before - an earlier book that collects most of their late 80s/early 90s appearances is also available - then this is a fine introduction, and it sets up some new plots that promise to resurface in future stories. About which, John Smith and 2000 AD's editor need to agree to produce at least 39 episodes every year. We have to make up for the two decades that the series was mothballed, you see. Very highly recommended and with wildest hopes for the future.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.

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