Wednesday, May 6, 2015

No. 15 Gordon Rennie

First Prog: 987
Latest Prog: 1924 saw the end of the latest Survival Geeks. Despite past suggestions that he’s had enough of writing comics, Rennie keeps coming back with new series and new stories. Good! Ongoing thrills include Absolom, Aquila, and Jaegir as well as Survival Geeks - and one always holds out hope for a final outing of Caballistics, Inc

First Meg: 2.29 (or 49)
Latest Meg: 359 saw the last episode of Angelic. In many ways Rennie’s spiritual home, I can’t imagine he won’t have new stories in the Meg in future, too. I’m hopeful at least for more of his creator-owned Man from the Ministry.

Total appearances: 504 (and counting)

-not including his always entertaining rant-column from the Megazine, or his extended run on DC comics’ ‘Dredd: Lawman of the Future’ series. Which I’ve not read a single issue of.

Creator credits:
Missionary Man, Witch World, Glimmer Rats, Rain Dogs, Necronauts, Storming Heaven, Caballistics, Inc, Bato Loco, The 69ers, Cursed Earth Koburn, Absolom, Jaegir, Aquila*, Survival Geeks, Man from the Ministry.  Satanus Unchained!**

Art by Colin MacNeil
This story, featuring Satanus, was not authorized by Pat Mills. Never mind. It was fun anyway.

Phew! That’s a long list.

Other writing credits:
Third-most prolific Judge Dredd writer after Messrs Wagner & Grant
and it’s worth noting that he has done a fair bit of work with Dredd’s supporting cast, in particular Guthrie and Giant, two of the few Judges to get a whole Judge Dredd story to themselves in which Dredd himself never appears.
Art by Andrew Currie - his judges wear their badges LOW
This is the story where the bad guys were George Clooney and Vin Diesel.
Any remember that one?
See also Angelic, another Dreddworld spin-off.
Rogue Trooper (I suppose one could suggest that the 69ers and Jaegir belong in this part of the list, too)
A merry bunch of one-offs, especially Pulp Sci Fi.

Notable character creations:
Preacher Cain
The entire cast of Caballistics, Inc (one of 2000 AD’s strongest ensemble casts, ranking right up there with the ABC Warriors). If I had to pick standouts, it’d be Chapter and Verse. I mean, the name alone is glorious.

Art by Dom Reardon
she's Chapter
Art by Dom Reardon
he's Verse
Rafe – somewhat forgotten these days but a rare headlining female character for the Prog.
Inspector Absolom
Katalina Jaegir
Planet Gary – a location rather than a person, but no less a character.

Notable characteristics:
An interest in religion; a bigger interest in Forteana – weird happenings, the occult, gothic horror - and films/books/comics based on that wide-reaching realm. Meta commentary on the same. 

Art by Frazer Irving
Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle meet Charles Fort. It's high concept, innit.
 Gruff characters (male and female alike). Being mean to poking fun at 2000 AD fans, and indeed rival creators...
The crying 'Morrison' is Robbie, not Grant. R. Morrison being noteworthy for writing tearjerker Dredds.
Art by Len O'Grady

On Gordon:
Rennie put in some hard graft on his way to being one of Tharg’s go-to writers. He started out in the Megazine with Missionary Man, had a go at a handful of Dredd stories there, got his foot in the door at 2000AD through a host of Vector 13s and Pulp Sci-Fis before finally getting a chance at longer series such as Witchworld, Rain Dogs and Glimmer Rats.

Eventually - I’d argue with the arrival of Necronauts – Rennie became one of Tharg’s premiere script droids. He went on, rather rapidly, to produce top work on the return of the original Rogue Trooper, faultless Dredd stories (both single episodes and longer stories), and scored hit after hit with new series, from Storming Heaven to Caballistics, Inc and spin-off series Absolom. Not to mention Aquila, Jaegir and, most recently, Survival Geeks (co-written with Emma Beeby) - one of just a handful of strips that have graduated from a one-off into a recurring series. He’s not short of imagination or drive to produce new work!

Bet let’s go back to the beginning. Rennie’s first series, Missionary Man, hit the Megazine at a time when the quality of that publication was, shall we say, a little inconsistent. Speaking for myself, I didn’t really understand the strip at first, although I loved the Frank Quitely artwork. 

Art by Frank Quitely
A subtle introduction to the Missionary Man

It seemed to be about an unkillable killer (a much-despised 1990s comic trope) with a secret backstory and vague motivation (another 90s cliché) working his way through the Cursed Earth, with Biblical references thrown in for flavour (strike three). But by the time Preacher Cain reaches New Orleans (aka the Big Sleezy), it started to come together for me. Leaving aside questions of authorial intent, my take now is that Rennie was using the series to pose a strikingly original question:

What if a corrupt Judge found religion, repented of his sins, and then proceeded to live as if God was on his side? Furthermore, what if God really exists, and actually IS on his side?

This explains both Cain’s motivation, and also why he can’t be killed. (And at one point, the dude is poisoned, shot multiple times, drowned and trapped in a cave - all at the same time!). It also gives Rennie an excuse to mix ultraviolence with Biblical language, a natural but, within the Prog, unique fit for 2000AD. It ends up a winner. Still, the series took time to hit its stride, I feel.

Ignoring authorial intent again, one can explore Rennie’s further stories in a similar vein.

What if HP Lovecraft wasn’t writing fiction? – Necronauts
What if EVERY horror-themed piece of fiction was in fact non-fiction? – Caballistics, Inc
What if every SF / horror-themed piece of fiction was in fact non-fiction but the people in the story essentially know that they are just characters in a story? – Survival Geeks

Art by Neil Googe; words co-written with Emma Beeby
General malaise towards Cthulu and steampunk feels pretty Rennie...

What if Humans went to war in the actual Hell? – Glimmer Rats

Art by Mark Harrison
Glimmer Rats was, perhaps, more fun to think about and look at than to actually read.

What if taking lots of drugs actually gives you the superpowers it feels like you have when you’re on drugs? – Storming Heaven

What if someone not named Wagner or Grant or Finley-Day wrote Judge Dredd or Rogue Trooper properly? (Mind, since Rennie paved the way, several other writers have shown they can do it, too.)

You’ll notice I haven’t attempted to come up with a pithy summation of every story Rennie has concocted. This is partly because I’m not clever enough, but mostly because the man himself is more versatile than that. The likes of Witch World and Rain Dogs may not be much celebrated, but both are perfectly decent works of genre fiction, as are the justly celebrated Glimmer Rats and Necronauts. (Although I would say that these last two examples benefitted enormously from having exactly the right artists to bring their worlds to life). 

Art by Colin Wilson
Pet theme: exploring the enmity of science and religion
Newer ouput such as Jaegir, Aquila and Absolom show Rennie being, I think, more interested in character than setting. Katalina Jaegir and Aquila, the characters, are essentially noble people caught up fighting on the wrong side (I’m painting both the Norts and the Romans as villains here. Not too controversial I think?). The plots for individual stories build from there, rather than the other way around. Absolom is more the classic ‘gruff old man with a noble past he’s trying to live down’ vibe. It’s brought to life partly by enjoyable plots that continue to explore Rennie’s obsession with old British SF/horror, but benefits from a stream of fun side characters, too. He’s another writer in the Mills/Wagner vein that makes it look easy to just throw new characters into a story to see what happens. I’m really sure it’s not easy.

Art by Simon Coleby
The Strigoi - another set of delightful but disposable characters
I don’t know where the likes of Cursed Earth Koburn or Bato Loco fit into this ill-thought-through scheme of mine. Both are occasionally recurring characters that grew out of a one-off Dredd; both are compelling enough that I’d happily read more. Like Pat Mills, however, Rennie does seem to have a tendency to dash off characters only to leave them in the wind, his mind focussed on newer things.

Keeping on keeping on, Mr Rennie.

Personal favourites:
Missionary Man: Legend of the Unholy Drinker; The Promised Land
Judge Dredd: After Hours; Judgement; Road Stop; Regime Change
Rogue Trooper: the Realpolitik collection, (90% Rennie), is some of the best Rogue Trooper going.
Caballistics, Inc – basically all of it is ace
Cursed Earth Koburn – again, all great
Absolom: Ghosts of London
Survival Geeks

Art by Garry Marshall
More on Gordon Rennie
A very recent interview with Down the Tubes
And here's a lovely Q&A going all the way back to his earliest work from Everything Comes Back to 2000 AD
He's had a long association with the Games industry, writing games and reviewing and such. It's well out of my wheelhouse, but you could start with Spong

*Aquila is clearly a loose update of the old Tornado hero Blackhawk – even down to the 2000AD revamp where he loses his soul – but the emphasis is on the word ‘loose’. The series feels sufficiently different that I’d class this as a Rennie creation. But I’d be curious to know if he pitched it cold, or if Tharg put out a call for writers to pitch series based, however vaguely, on thrills past.

**Satanus Unchained! was a short-running hard comedy action strip that happened to feature Judge-Dredd era Satanus (originally createed by Pat Mills for the Cursed Earth saga). Word is he didn't like his character being used by another writer and he got cross. Not sure why I'm bringing it up, really, except to say that every other character in the story was created by Rennie (although it involves a 'Trapper', too - a kind of furry Predator-style hunter character from an old Wagner/Grant Dredd episode. They didn't get cross.)

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