Thursday, April 23, 2015

No. 14 Robbie Morrison

First Prog: 927
Latest Prog: 1815, a surprisingly long time ago, but surely there’s more to come.

First Meg: 2.12 (or #32 if you prefer)
Latest Meg: 341. Again, I’d imagine he’s got things cooking, between regular Dredd work and Hondo City exploits still to explore.

Total appearances: 525
-including the three issues of Blackheart that were reprinted in the Megazine, but not including his run on the Daily Star Dredd strip, or on ‘Lawman of the Future’.

Creator credits:
Nikolai Dante, Shimura, Blackheart, Maelstrom, Wynter, Brit-Cit Brute, Vanguard, Shakara, the Bendatti Vendetta, Marauder

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd – and quite a few tales, too. In fact, Morrison is in the top five for most Dredd episodes as writer*
Judge Hershey – one of a handful of writers to have a go at making Hershey a workable star with stories that couldn’t be ‘Judge Dredd’ stories. No one has quite nailed this, for whatever reason.
DeMarco, PI – specifically, Morrison was the first to move the character out of Dredd and into her own series as a private investigator. It was a good move.
Hondo City Justice – spinning off largely from his own work on Shimura / Inaba, but making some use of Wagner/Grant’s early forays into the world of Hondo City, too. Not sure how one credits this kind of creation, frankly!
Various one offs.

Notable character creations:
Inspector Inaba, who span out of Shimura and went on to her own solo series.
DeMarco’s ape assistant, Travis Perkins
Shakara, the first post-Year 2000 icon from the comic.
Some Russian dude and his girlfriend. (And a big chunk of their supporting cast, too.)

Notable characteristics:
Incredibly thorough background concepts; lead characters trying to escape/repay a sad past; narrative captions with florid prose; dense plotting; emotional manipulation (which I take to be a good thing – stories should actively try to make readers feel stuff, you know?). 

Art by Simon Fraser

Writing female characters with the same attendant strengths and flaws as his male characters. Obviously most if not all 2000 AD writers have done this, and perfectly well, but Morrison seems to make more of a point of it. And it’s worth applauding that, I think.

Art by John Burns
She's a bad 'un.

Art by John Burns
She's talking about his mother. She's a good 'un.
Art by Steve Yeowell
Art by Colin MacNeil.
She's a curious one.
On Robbie:
Morrison will forever be associated with, and celebrated for, his 12-year epic saga the Adventures of Nikolai Dante. It’s bloody marvellous, isn’t it. 
Art by John Burns

But he’s had plenty of other hits to his name, and has been one of Tharg’s go-to creators for at least 20 years now. Morrison emerged in the early 90s as part of David Bishop’s drive to get new talent into the Megazine. His opening salvo, Shimura, remains the longest-lasting ‘Judge story in a different city’ trick that seemed to be the initial remit of the Megazine’s line-up. The one-two art punch of Frank Quitely and Colin MacNeil on the opening stories for Shimura helped a lot, but the essence of the story is strong enough by itself. Judge-Inspector Shimura, a Dredd-style hardman, finds himself working for a much more obviously corrupt system than MegaCity 1. As well as fighting that system, he also trains up an even more noble-minded new Judge (Inaba). Tons of conflict – and, as the series progressed, no shortage of villains with interesting abilities (machine-men and fire-breathers come to mind). 

Art by Frank Quitely
Turns out he's a bad guy.
Art by Simon Fraser
This is definitely a bad guy.
If there’s a problem, it’s that Morrison’s wider stories are often so well thought-out that there’s an awful lot to explain even in a single episode, never mind across a multi-part story. Lovely as they are to look at, the first couple of Shimura stories were a little confusing. Maelstrom, I think, was the biggest victim of this tendency – really, it’s a fantastic story, but it’s bloody hard work. Vanguard, on the other hand, perhaps went too far the other way. The space epic that never happened, it was perfectly good but just maybe not too straightforward in its basic plot and characterisation to enthuse the readers.

Art by Colin MacNeil
You know your story's complicated when one character has to mutate twice!
Art by Colin MacNeil.
This was the end of book 1. It didn't return for Book 2.

The Adventures of Nikolai Dante, of course, is where it all came together (which is an odd thing to say, since it’s pretty much the first thing he did for 2000 AD!). A saga that really needed, and made use of, its sprawling page count. Mixing up long and sometimes plot-heavy epics with fun little one-offs was a great tactical move. Of course the star is the hero himself, a hero genuinely not like any other – he’s both arrogant and self-deprecating, ridiculously good at the derring-do business, but also perfectly defeatable. He’s essentially a good person, but constantly given over to betrayal and even cowardice, sometimes for noble reasons but often for selfish ones. And of course it’s important to celebrate Dante the series for being one of the few comics that celebrates human sexuality at all. That it makes sex something funny and childish and grown up and delightful all at once is even better. Dante is a unique part of 2000 AD history, and one of British comics’ very finest artistic achievements.

Art by Charlie Adlard

Art by John Burns
This one's more of a Carry On kind of sexuality...

Art by Steve Yeowell
How about Morrison’s Dredd? I don’t know that I’ve seen it discussed much, but he’s sort of the quintessential ‘caring, sharing’ Dredd scribe. Morrison, I think, is interested in pushing the hero to see what kind of reaction he can get – what situations will see Dredd having some sympathy for a perp, and what situations will make the reader hate Dredd when he is unsympathetic. 

Art by Tom Carney
The crazy-eyed man is a Judge guarding the West Wall from mutants.
Will Dredd side with the law or with the oppressed?
As this epsiode was written by Robbie Morrison, not Alan Grant, you can guess.
 Morrison’s justice system is pure evil in the Alan Grant mode, but the citizens he writes about are, on the whole, nobler than the schmucks and weirdoes most writers choose to focus on. And Dredd himself, more often than not, gets to be ‘nice’. I wouldn’t want to read this kind of Dredd all the time, but the character benefits from it. However, when the fiocus moves away from Dredd an onto the citizens in question, we end up with Marauder, one of several rather good 'vigilatnes in Mega City 1' stories.

Every now and then Morrison decides to go full 'rocket fuel' and let his silly side hang out. There's always room for some OTT high-end silliness in the Prog and Meg.** 

Art by Stuart Mac

Art by Ben Willsher
Desire to kill a lot of people by R. Morrison

And this leads neatly into the odd beast out in Morrison’s catalogue: the mighty Shakara

Art by Henry Flint

Morrison doesn’t get enough credit, I think, for being a great facilitator for artists. He’s been well served by the likes of Colin MacNeil, Simon Fraser and John Burns, who spare no expense at building up the world around their characters as well as the characters themselves – but this is surely because Morrison gives them the information to work from.

Art by Henry Flint
But with Shakara, there’s no doubt that Morrison wanted to let Henry Flint off the hook (especially after seeing what he could do in the first series). Famously, the last human in the galaxy dies in episode 1, and from there it's giant eyeballs, spaceship-sized weapons and all manner of thrill-powered alien goodness. Described by Morrison, rendered by Flint. If there’s a theme, it’s about reader joy at seeing horrible people getting their comeuppance – and, in later series, there’s the puzzle-solving fun of ‘just how can these horrible people find a way to stop an unstoppable foe’? Morrison is a good a dealer of mayhem as Tharg has unleashed, but he's got the wit to make it intersting, too.

Art by Henry Flint

Robbie Morrison, a modern legend.

Personal favourites:
Nikolai Dante, obviously the whole thing, but, because much of the epic series worked as individual stories, I’ll single some out:
  • The original 12 prog run (aka Nikolai Dante / The Romanov Dynasty)
  • The Great Game
  • The Rudinshtein Irregulars
  • How could you believe me…?
  • Sword of the Tsar
  • Amerika
Judge Dredd: the Face of Justice; the Incident; Word of the Law (the tale that later spawned Marauder)
Maelstrom (I struggled with it at first but on a re-read it holds up amazingly well, and is filled with characters and situations that linger in my mind)
Shakara – all of it, but the first book especially was a real standout at the time it first ran, and it remains a concentrated blast of thrill-power.
Shimura: Dragonfire; The harder they come
More on Robbie Morrison

You can see him on YouTube talking about a non-2000AD project, White Death, a rather splendid if deep[ly sad tale of the War.
He talks to comics journalist and my near-namesake Alex Fitch about his career more generally here.

*Hmm, I feel a new stats project coming on...

**And whatever 'Havok' was - a mysterious pull-out mini-comic that came sporadically with Progs 1024-1036 and featured crazy space war death written by Morrison and drawn by Rob McCallum. I have included in the count, by the way.

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