Friday, July 31, 2015

No. 37 Mark Millar


First Prog: 643
Final Prog: 1030

First Meg: 1.07
Final Meg: 1.15

Total appearances: 218
-including a huge amount of work in various 2000 AD specials and annuals. But not including his long stint writing Daily Star Dredd epsiodes. Which I have neither read nor even seen any of. I wonder if they'll ever be reprinted?



Creator / co-creator credits:
Silo; Red Razors; Insiders* Big Dave; Purgatory**; Canon Fodder; Babe Race 2000; The Grudge Father

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Robo-Hunter
Rogue Trooper (Friday edition)
Janus, Psi Division
a fair number of future shocks / one offs

Actually, the Maniacs were misunderstood
Art by Steve Yeowell
Notable character creations:
Red Razors
Maniac 5
Big Dave
Canon Fodder


Notable character destructions:
Sam Slade, Hoagy and Cutie
Mega City Justice Department
The meaning of the word ‘satire’

Notable characteristics:
Ultraviolence; pitting main characters against powerful villains that are ultimately solved by hitting them hard enough; poking fun in every possible direction; embracing bad taste; being incredibly prolific



A cool death needs a pithy one-liner. Making sense is optional.
Art by Mick Austin

On Mark:
Millar is one of a small coterie of people widely considered to be 2000 AD’s worst regular writers. Which is kind of surprising, given how much work he saw printed in the comic over a fairly swift 5-year period – and even more surprising in light of the fact that he went on to become one of the best-selling writers in comics generally. 

Millar's plan for conquering American comics.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
One can’t help but feel that some of the antipathy towards Millar – by comics fans at large, not just 2000 AD fans – is partly the result of his success, but also his very public persona, which may or may not have anything to do with his actual personality. Simply put, Mark Millar is very good at self-promotion, and at talking up the strengths (and huge popularity) of certain parts of his output. Why this makes him come across as objectionable, I’m not sure. But it really kind of does.

Anyway, let’s get back to the point – what did Mark Millar do for 2000 AD, and how is this best celebrated? Well, to begin at the beginning, no one could accuse Millar of conning his way in. He wrote his share of Future Shocks (and, later, other one-offs), the traditional training ground for new creators. And honestly, his efforts in this arena were generally perfectly good. There’s a level of craft involved in the mechanics of a Future Shock: introducing characters, describing a situation, letting a story unfold to an inevitable twist, followed, ideally, by some sort of ironic counter-twist or at least a cruel joke. And Millar nailed that craft right from the start. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Millar is a pretty linear storyteller, with narratives that are easy to follow.

Occasionally, a Future Shock hits upon an excitingly original idea, or is in some way bizarre. Series creator Steve Moore is a rare writer who nails this tone as often as not. I don’t recall any Mark Millar Future Shocks breaking the mould, but, as I say, they were often simple and effective – harder than it might look.

Millar embraces meta-fiction
Art by Keith Page

Presumably on the back of his Future Shocks, Millar was able to pitch a short, one-off series: Silo. Elevated by some wickedly atmospheric Dave D’Antiquis art, this creepy thriller, set in a nuclear missile silo, was well-liked at the time, and is still held as one of Millar’s best 2000 AD efforts – with one major reservation.

As pointed out by a reader letter at the time, and indeed as noticed by almost anyone who reads Silo, there’s a sequence in it lifted from the film Die Hard. The villain makes a point of noticing that the hero is bare-footed, so he deliberately shoots out some windows, and the hero is forced to run, barefoot across the broken glass, and then to tend to his wounds.

Plagarism or pop art?
Art by Dave D'Antiquis

I’m bringing this up in excruciating detail to make a point: Mark Millar has some brass balls. This is probably going to come across as a really horrible thing to say, but for me, Millar epitomises that old saying ‘no one ever lost money by underestimating an audience’. My perception is that Millar knew full well he was lifting a scene from a film to use in his story. A such, it is technically plagiarism, but it’s such a small part of both works that I’m not overly offended by this on moral grounds. (After all, anyone is allowed to photocopy and distribute 5% of a book, although you should of course acknowledge your sources!). The objection is more along the lines of ‘how could he think people wouldn’t notice’? And I think the answer is that he didn’t care – because he’s canny enough to judge that, chances are, as many as 50% of the readers really wouldn’t notice, and would just think it was a cool action sequence. Die Hard is (and was at the time) an incredibly popular film. But there are always more people who haven’t seen it, even among a limited audience of people who also read 2000 AD. So, Millar gambled that the inherent cool of the idea would outweigh the inherent uncool of copying.

Not a Terminator
Art by Jose Casanovas and son
And, if I’m honest, a lot of the things about Mark Millar comics that put me off do seem to come down to his somewhat mercenary attitude of ‘more people will find this cool than will find it irritating’. Time and money have shown Millar to be a good judge of this! I might find some of his work derivative (if not outright plagiaristic), and I might find some of his themes to be a bit trite or obvious, but a heck of a lot of readers don’t. Not because they’re stupid or anything, but because they just haven’t read many comics / seen many films before. And Millar, laudably, is after a readership of people who are new to comics, and not bothered one jot if the small handful of comics superfans like his work (especially since that exact audience is probably going to buy his comic anyway, even if only to moan about them on the internet later!).***

Part of the price paid for this is that when Millar comes across something that is incredibly popular, he is willing to channel that more or less directly into his own work. And it gets results! Just as 1988’s Die Hard appears in Silo, so did 1991’s Terminator 2 appear in his first RoboHunter story.

And this attitude, I think, is true of his 2000 AD work. He was writing it with almost no eye at all to what had gone before, and what he thought might please the fans. He surely noticed that at the time, writers enjoyed a certain amount of cachet through being cynical, and having supposedly ‘nice’ characters being horrible. Picking up this baton, Millar thought he’d see how far he could push it. And that’s why he wrote a story about Santa Claus being taken off benefits. There’s something funny in there, but it’s fighting to get out around the extreme unpleasantness, one feels. 

Santa at the employment bureau
Art by Ron Smith

Of course, the most egregious example of this tendency was his RoboHunter. Just as newcomer Garth Ennis was put to work on Judge Dredd and Strontium Dogs, Mark Millar was tapped to have a go at bringing Sam Slade back to the Prog. Where Ennis was, if anything, too respectful to what had gone before, Millar went the other way. I’m sure he did go back and read some old RoboHunter stories, but there’s little evidence that he absorbed much of it. 

OK, I admit, this made me laugh
Art by Anthony Williams


Instead, he wrote a large number of stories about violently murderous robots. Much as I hate his first story in particular (not sure if it has its own name), I can’t deny he wrote some decent panels that allowed for cool Casanovas art. It’s even true that the story has an honest-to-goodness theme! Much of the world of RoboHunter is about robots doing human jobs. So unemployment is a problem. Millar poses the question of what happens when even the human robot-hunters become replaceable. I’m not enamoured of his answer, but I can’t fault the question as a good fit for the series. Later Slade stories involved more murderous robots with humour provided not by robots-acting-like-human quirkiness, but Slade fumbling around on bad sitcom style dates and unintentional gay-bashing. Oh, Mark Millar, your heart is clearly in a liberal place but your pen keeps slipping.


Slade's old robot becomes a vicious torturer.
Art by Casanovas and son

Slade fights a mass-mudering robot version of himself
Art by Anthony Williams

 When Millar turned his hand to Judge Dredd, the same sort of thing happened. He’d obviously read enough older stories to get a basic idea of the set-up. He’d even more obviously worked out that what readers really liked was when Dredd was a) an utter bastard or b) a beat-all-the-odds hero. So he pushed both of those measures as hard as he could.

Dredd is harder than a 3,000 year-old Mummy.
Co-scripted with Grant Morrison
Art by Dermot Power
 
And, enough times, this worked for me. Dredd is a sufficiently strong character to function as a repetitive gag strip comic, with the gag being that he is a bully, utterly righteous and also utterly ruthless. The best Judge Dredd stories go way beyond that very simple dissection, of course, but it’s not Mark Millar’s fault that a lot of his stories were published over a short space of time.

Of course, this ignores the issue of plot. And while Millar, I think, is great at coming up with situations and even characters (derivative thought they may be, at times), his 2000 AD work didn’t show a great deal of flair when it comes to the actual plots.

Here’s a breakdown of a typical Mark Millar story, Judge Dredd: Frankenstein Division

Stage 1: meet the unstoppable foe.

Look, he even SAYS he's unstoppable.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
 Stage 2: meet the hardman hero.

Not entirely out of character, but usually when he goes it alone he's making a point about the system.
Art still by Carlos Ezquerra
 Stage 3: set them against each other.

Because this wouldn't kill either of them.
Honestly, if you can't recognise Ezquerra's work at 10 paces, why are you even reading my blog?

Stage 4: hero wins, by punching the unstoppable foe in the face with sufficient force.
 
Seriously, that's all it takes. A big punch. I don't think Ezquerra understood it, either, which is why he has
Dredd's fist sort of disappearing in some unexplained face mush.


This story is all the more frustrating because I actually like the premise (dead bodies made up of Sovs killed during the Apocalypse War, reanimated by pure hatred of Dredd), and think Ezquerra did a good job designing the hilarious villain. Is it really that hard to come up with a way for Dredd to win the fight without just punching him? That’s all the story would have needed, if you ask me. (See also: Ace of Slades; Book of the Dead; Crusade and probably many others).

Is this Millar being self-aware? Or just playing his own plot super straight?
Art by Steve Yeowell.

Some other Millar efforts with solid premises that didn’t quite go anywhere:
Maniac 5 – human soldier with tragic past stuck inside a robot killing machine in some kind of war with aliens in future Europe. Awesome Steve Yeowell art.
 
What's worse than Maniac 5..?
Art by Richard Elson

Red Razors – ex-gang leader turned Sov Judge in a city obsessed by late 20th Century pop culture icons. Awesome Yeowell art again. (And let’s forget book 2 which involved nothing but cartoon violence mismatched with Nigel Dobbyn artwork)

Red Razors was angry a lot. And had a talking horse.
Art by Steve Yeowell
Purgatory – incredibly angry ex-Judge organises a prison break. Ultra-ultra-violence coupled with ultra-OTT personalities suggest fun times, but never quite convince. Ezquerra obliges with steroidal characters and continuous grimaces.
A villain-as-protagonist needs an even viler villain to fight against.
Just don't ask how Kurtz got appointed in the first place.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
Babe Race 2000 – all-girl biker race across Europe with points scored by killing each other and any bystander. As touched on in the Anthony Williams post, this was notionally a satire on the idea of male-gaze-y obsessions with fetish wearing buxom ladies with big guns. Only Millar kind of forgot to provide characters, plot or any satire beyond actually making the series happen at all. There was some potential there, though.
Big Dave - more satire that was light on the satire. One gets the impression that Millar, co-writer Gratn Morrison, and then-editors Alan McKenzie and Richard Burton all thought it was terrifically funny as the scripts were coming in, but it's such divise stuff. Honestly, I applaud its inclusion in the Prog, but I never really got the joke.

I think you're meant to laugh both at the filthy foreigner
AND at the idea of finding that sort of thing funny
AND there's supposed to be another level, too, maybe?
Art by Anthony Williams
This leaves a couple of odd ones out. I’ll leave the Grudge Father aside for now, as it was, after all, “based on an original grudge by Jim McCarthy”, so it’s not entirely clear how much of it was Millar’s work, although the flimsy plotting ending with the ‘hero’ winning by, basically, punching the ‘villain’ is classic Millar. I actually like the Grudge Father as a work of extremely gory body horror. It is very weird, in a good way.

The GrudgeFather has religious overtones. Sign of a good Millar story.
Art by Jim McCarthy
 And then we have Canon Fodder, probably the most beloved of Millar’s creations. This is a story heaving with fantastic ideas, intriguing characters, the start of a plot, something of an interesting resolution, and something of a mess hiding beneath a surface of genuine 2000 AD cool. In case you don’t know, Canon Fodder is a priest, only he’s a ‘priest’ in the same way that Joe Dredd is a ‘judge’. His job is to bring the law of God to the teeming masses of people who have all been resurrected at the Day of Judgement, only to find that the ‘Day’ has spun out into decades because God has buggered off without doing the ‘Judgement’ bit.

So what you get is a semi-futuristic world populated by literally everyone who has ever lived, including a bunch of fictional people who really should have lived, e.g. Sherlock Holmes. When you have an artist with the boundless imagination of Chris Weston let loose on this kind of setting, you get heavenly results.

What a way to start a story!
Art by Chris Weston
Meet the Devil
Art by Chris Weston
 Now, I don’t know if anyone could really make this premise work, but Millar wisely doesn’t even try to show what life is like in this world. Instead, he sends the Canon off on an adventure to find God. And it’s a fun romp, marred only by some slightly odd jokes and a certain failure to make sense. To be honest, it shouldn’t have to make sense, but Millar’s general mode of storytelling is clarity rather than Smithian obfuscation, so the reader expects it to be more coherent than it actually is. No matter, it’s a delight of silliness. 

In general, Millar is likely to be better when he’s got a religion theme going on, as this seems to be something he has actual opinions about, rather than when he’s trying to guess which pop-cultural references his audience might be tickled by.

By the time he got onto the Friday incarnation of Rogue Trooper, and the Janus, Psi Division stories he co-wrote with Grant Morrison, Millar had found something of a solid groove, if a not terribly memorable one. And, yes, a few more unstoppable villains who need a good punch.




Mark Millar – not as terrible as his rep, but with few big, memorable hits to his name either.

More self-awareness..? (ho ho ho)
Art by Paul Johnson


Personal favourites:
Silo (that sequence aside, this is a neat little chiller)
Future Shocks: Nightmare on Ses*me Street (incredibly cynical, but I’m no Sesame St fan so that didn’t rouble me)
Judge Dredd: the Great Brain Robbery (not a popular opinion, but I liked seeing the villain here get his ludicrous comeuppance)
Purgatory (for whatever reason, the outrageousness seemed to work in this one instance)
Maniac 5 (I wish it had more of a story, but the art and basic premise carry it through)
Cannon Fodder

(It says a lot that I’m having to justify the list of stories I like!)

 
Murder of letters: genuinely witty.
Art by Brian Williamson

More on Mark Millar
By the far the most detailed analysis that will ever be researched and written comes from the keyboard of comics blogger extraordinaire Colin Smith. He’s undertaken a career-spanning review of the man’s work, which is still ongoing. The 2000 AD bit starts here.
The Hipster Dad touches on him here
And a recent interview at Big Glasgow Comic that is mostly about his successes today


*I’ve read a bunch of Crisis, but haven’t come across Insiders. I love a bit of Paul Grist so it’s probably worth checking out

**Purgatory is a Dreddworld story, its main character an old Judge Dredd antagonist, not created by Millar. But it feels like its own thing, really, so I’d cite it as a new creation.

***Arguably, no less a creator than Pat Mills is guilty of the same thing - only when he appropriates ideas, he takes them in his own mad direction rather than regurgitating them wholesale. Certainly Mills doesn’t care what his readers think of him!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

No. 36 Anthony Williams


First Prog: 707
Latest Prog: Prog 2014 – and I’d be surprised not to see him back one day.

First Meg: 3.68 (aka 171)
Latest Meg: 333

Total appearances: 220

Kicking off with some comedy death.
Might be from an episode of Mark Millar's RoboHunter?
 
Creator credits:
Kola Kommandoes, the Mean Arena (the reboot, which had literally nothing in common with the original series), Babe Race 2000

Words by Garth Ennis


Other art credits:
Judge Dredd
Anderson, Psi Division
Robo-Hunter (both the Mark Millar version and, very briefly, the Samantha Slade version)
Big Dave
Mean Machine
Sinister Dexter
The VCs
Various one-offs

Notable character creations:

CT Hall
The cross-dimensional collection of Slades

Notable characteristics:
Fluid lines. Characters who can gurn and grimace with the best of them. Wiry limbs. And I gather he’s fantastically fast at putting it all together, too.
 
On Anthony:
I don’t know how long Anthony Williams had been working in comics before he came to 2000 AD, but he’s one of those artists who seemed to appear fully formed. His style has developed and changed (how could it not over 25 years), but his very first effort, no less than a Wagner-scripted PJ Maybe tale, set a tone that has remained consistent ever since.

Dig the colouring, bearing in mind this was way back in 1990. Love those evil eyes at the end.
Words by John Wagner

Most markedly, it was in direct contrast to the fully-painted Eurocomic shenanigans that were all the rage in the wake of Simon Bisley’s Horned God epic. Williams’s work, to me, is what I’d picture if someone told me that 2000 AD is a bit like the Beano but more grown up (but not in a Viz way). It’s cartoony. It’s funny. It’s got a lot of energy to it. And, strange thing to say maybe, it’s comforting. I relax into an Anthony Williams story. And maybe this is because at the time I was 12, and Williams was, to some extent, a good fit for younger readers in a comic struggling to cater to young and old alike (and, in this period, doing either tolerably well but rarely both). I can see why he might not top readers’ lists of favourites, as he’s not at all flashy, but I applaud him for providing consistent, clear, and dynamic comics.

After a promising start, Williams had what you might call an unfortunate run of drawing stories that weren’t especially good. I will say that he made them better! Tasked with the sillier Ennis Dredds (and I mean silly in a good way here – in fact, these were some of Ennis’s best), he effortlessly brought out the ridiculousness of the citizenry, in the tradition of Ron Smith. 

You can't beat a two-panel gag.
Words by Garth Ennis

Willaims is not afraid to embrace the gross.
Words by Garth Ennis
 
Over in Mark Millar’s RoboHunter, and Millar and Morrison’s Big Dave, he tackled the broad comedy head on, selling the jokes as hard as he could to audience. Not much else he could do I suppose, and you’ve got to think the writers were happy. If you don’t like the humour behind them, you’re probably not going to love the art that goes with it, though!

Williams runs with Millar's invitation to stereotype like crazy.
 
Casting Bruce Campbell as Sam Slade: +20 points.
Implying he's about to abuse a crying woman: -10 points
Winking at the audience for the same reason: -50 points
Words/context by Mark Millar


 
He did find a moment to slip in this casually delightful piece of design work amongst the stereotyping:

At least it's consensual. Also, cool pad.
Words by Mark Millar
 His first all-new series was, ultimately, a bit of a mess. Kola Kommandos began with a huge amount of promise. It started as a kind of slice-of-life sci-fi, veering between office comedy and conspiracy thriller. Somewhere along the way, writer Steve Parkhouse threw in a couple of vigilantes, freedom fighters (the titular Kommandos) and generally stirred too much into the pot too fast for my tastes. But it did all give Williams a chance to strut his stuff.

Office comedy; nice painting, too.
Words by Steve Parkhouse

Sci-Fi conspiracy thriller
Words by Steve Parkhouse


Hired killer C T Hall swoops in for obscure reasons
Wordplay by Steve Parkhouse

Mean Arena was a much more coherent story, but it did perhaps suggest Williams wasn’t the best fit for something completely straight. Leading man Sam Grainger, deliberately as plain as they come, got to run the gamut of pain and anger, but this story needed either more jokes or more left-field weirdness a la Belardinelli.

Sam Grainger: not nearly as mean as the Mean Machine.

For his final all-new series, Williams took on knowing exploitation fest Babe Race 2000. The brainchild, one assumes primarily, of Mark Millar, this series was intended (I think?) to be so over the top in its exploitation of the ‘bad girls with guns’ genre that readers would laugh all the way through. For all sorts of reasons, it didn’t work.

Some decent scene setting falls apart into meaningless death
Words by Mark Millar

Part of it may be that for all the effort Williams put into drawing absurdly long legs, and wrapping the Babes™ in fetish gear, he was kind of too tasteful. I mean, there were boobs and butts a-plenty, but somehow in a sort of childish idea of what porn is like, and somehow overtly not sexy - as if Williams knew that this would just be wrong. On a more positive note, uniform snarls aside, he managed to make each character distinctive enough that it really showed up Millar’s failure to do the same. As a reader, it was hard to follow any motivations, or to care about who did what to whom and why. I know this was not the point, but if Millar liked the idea of the setting more than the story, he should’ve just asked Williams to draw a series of star scans for an imaginary series called Babe Race 2000 – which might’ve actually been more effective at both celebrtaing the inherent delight of girls with guns, and of pointing out the chauvinism inherent in this as a concept (not that girls shouldn't be gun-toting badasses, rather that girls who tote guns should have a story behind them, not simply be tittilation objecta.)

Williams finally hit the jackpot in partnership with Dan Abnett. Taking over from Henry Flint is no easy task, but Williams took the new VCs and made them his own. He kept his way with character comedy – a perfect match for a series that was at times a sitcom on a space battleship – but also had the chance to do some soap opera, and of course plenty of gun-based violence.

Ryx doesn't like Geeks, you see. Awesome body language there from Williams.
Words by Dan Abnett
  
VC bar brawl!
Words by Dan Abnett

For a while after that, he was the series regular on Sinister Dexter, using the same skillset again, only with added sarcasm. I was pretty taken with his design for the clockwork doctor who heals Dexter’s back injury at tone point (elevating an otherwise irritating bit of plot contrivance).



Priceless expressions
Words by Dan Abnett
(My apolgies to Messrs Willaims and Abnett, but I can't for the life of me remember which specific stories these panel scame from)

Anthony Williams has been absent from the Prog of late after other artists have taken on Sinister Dexter in their latest situation. But surely he’s on hand for more Dredd, and I think he’d be a good fit for a 3riller* that played up the comedy.

Personal favourites:
Judge Dredd:  Wot I did during Necropolis, The Kinda Dead Man, A Man called Greener
Kola Kommandos
Sinister Dexter: pretty much all of it.
The VCs



More on Anthony Williams
His website (and alter ego) is the Comicstripper 
The obligatory Covers Uncovered interview


*If that’s how it’s spelled. You know what I mean, the three-part future shock jobs.

Friday, July 24, 2015

No. 35 Rob Williams



First Prog: 1313
Latest Prog: 1940 (currently working on Judge Dredd: Enceladus)

First Meg: 201
Latest Meg: 346

Total appearances: 225 and counting
-including Orindary, his creator-owned series with D’Israeli that was aired in the Megazine.

Creator credits:
Family, Asylum, Breathing Space, The 10 Seconders, Low Life, Meet Darren Dead, The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael, Ordinary

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd – with increasing regularity, it should be said
a handful of one-offs

Notable character creations:

Malloy, Harris and various Gods from the 10 Seconders. (I’m partial to Damage, and to some extent the Scientist*)

Damage: not the Thing
Art by Mark Harrison

Aimee Nixon
Dirty Frank
Ichabod Azrael (and his talking horse)
Sensitive Klegg




Notable characteristics:
He's scaly yet sensitive
Art by D'Israeli
Working to genre; meta-commentary; verbal jokes; visual jokes; putting his characters through the wringer (you definitely don’t want your day-to-day life story written by this guy); finding stories to tell that no one else is telling.


Jokes.
Art by Richard Elson
 
On Rob:
In interviews, Rob Williams comes across as pretty quiet and unassuming, with an undercurrent of frighteningly intelligent. By contrast, his writing output for 2000 AD is remarkably, and laudably ambitious. For my money, this took a while to come off, but over the last few years I’d say he’s become, perhaps, 2000 AD’s most exciting current writer. He still has the ambition to tell stories with big ideas, and has managed to marry this up seamlessly with inventive characters, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) wit, and straight up exciting action. It doesn’t hurt that he puts in a lot of meta-texture, e.g. with Dirty Frank and the narrator of Ichabod Azrael; I’m a sucker for meta-texture.

The unnamed writer in Ichabod Azrael looks suspiciously like a speccy balding Welshman...
(also, I wish more internet comics commentators would use the complaint
"he has not been established prior" when complaining about poor plotting / Deus ex Machina endings.)
Art by Michael Dowling

Massive flattery out of the way, here’s where I proceed to explain why I didn’t really enjoy his first few years at 2000 AD…

I wonder if he was maybe trying too hard, early on. His first series was Asylum – sufficiently successful that it had a sequel. The story was about aliens trying to find a new life on Earth, only an evil cabal of right-wing religious nuts were killing them. It was an overt but somewhat skewed 2000 AD take on the real-world concerns about asylum seekers / immigrants trying to move from the third world to the first world. Nothing wrong with that, and the series had a charming protagonist in Holt (although I think Boo Cook’s design carried a lot of the weight of that). The conspiracy story itself was fine, but the villain’s motivation really rubbed me up the wrong way. Still, a noble and definitely notable debut. After all, when was the last time someone tried to tackle a real-world issue head on?

Too evil to be taken seriously not quite evil enough to be Torquemada
Art by Boo Cook

Next up, a full-on murder mystery – another largely neglected genre in the Prog. Breathing Space again combined some excellent ingredients: clever setting, gorgeously moody art (from Peter Doherty and ably followed up by Laurence Campbell), a page turning plot – but, again, didn’t quite pull off the full whammy of believable characters. It did show the first signs of Williams’ facility with the world of Judge Dredd and Mega City 1, mind.

Murder mystery comics: more please.
Art by Peter Doherty
 
Over in the Megazine, Family took on yet another popular but under-used story idea: gangsters. Only, gangsters with super powers. Another top artist, another decently constructed story.

Unashamed ganster stylings from 'the Family'
Art by Simon Fraser
The 10 Seconders picked up on super powers again, in a way not seen since Zenith, although it couldn’t have been more different from that. It’s something of a spiritual successor to the likes of Miracleman / Marvelman and The Boys: partly ‘what if these people were real?’, but from the non-powered humans point of view, with its superpowered Gods as villains through and through. So, definitely ambitious!

In the world of the 10 Seconders, the Gods talk like they're scripted by Grant Morrison.
The humans are not impressed.
Art by Shaun Thomas
As if to undercut that, this series saw the first use of a later Williams staple – the comic relief character who really knocks the wind out of any possible ‘take me seriously’ moments. Harris, the useless Welshman.** And Williams’ general tone very much acknowledges that of course super-powers are a fantasy. He wisely eschews going the New Statesmen or Watchmen route of going into politics.

I do love the juxtaposition of unbeatable foes with uncaring heroes. Proper 2000 AD, that is.
Art by Dom Reardon

For my money, the 10 Seconders was a tale with great characters, and a genuinely intriguing take on an old premise, but too often the sense of awe invoked by both writing and especially the art got in the way of an actual story.

And then back to the world of Dredd for what has become his signature series: Low Life. Tales of undercover Judges are not scarce, but Williams has made astonishingly good use of the concept of pointedly picking the most unlikely protagonists of any long-running series. Put simply: an ugly woman. A repulsive, mentally unstable middle-aged man. A baby. An old woman.*** 

Not your average leading lady
Art by Henry Flint

It works so well because the world of Dredd, from a readers point of view, is mostly about weird future crime. The Low Life – a nickname for an especially run-down sector of Mega City 1 – trades on that weirdness by design. To go undercover in the weirdest sectors, you have to be pretty weird in the first place.

Aimee Nixon, original star of the series (and lately turned full-on Judge Dredd antagonist, for reasons that have escaped me), is a classic anti-authoritarian character. Wally Squad Judges have always been used to poke at the monastic lifestyle of Mega City Judges. Nixon has proved to be very good at this.

Aimee Nixon struggles with identity. A proper recurring theme.
Art by Simon Coleby

Follow-up stories with the beardy man and the baby were arguably on the wrong side of too silly, but only just. (Heavy Metal concerts and genre Conventions were perhaps too-easy targets for the satire gun) And then, as if by magic, Williams found the sweet spot he’d been circling around for so long, and he’s never looked back.

Getting meta with Dirty Frank
Art by D'Israeli
 
Creation blew my socks off with its audacious embracing of actual religion vs religion as drug, coupled with the profundity and insanity of Dirty Frank. Exploring the nature of corruption and loyalty in Hostile Takeover moved Low Life firmly into serious drama territory, with a strong undercurrent of comedy, as opposed to the other way around. The Deal had giant hologram battles in Hondo City. Over in the Megazine, Aimee Nixon explored Union politics and employment in War Without Bloodshed. Saudade had Mr Overdrive.

Nixon and Frank discuss philosophy.
Art by D'Israeli
  
Nixon gets political
Art by Rufus Dayglo

Meanwhile, Williams has been killing it on Judge Dredd, again juggling real-world concerns with outright weird comedy and serious examinations of the Justice system.

Reassurance through violence
Art by Richard Elson

The inner workings of Tech Judge McTighe
Art by Henry Flint

And then there’s The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the dead left in his wake). Reteeming with Dom Reardon (last seen on 10 Seconders book 2), Williams picks up another obvious but neglected genre, the western, and finds new gold. He mixed in a bit of religion, a couple of nods to Preacher and Missionary Man, but was rapidly off into uncharted waters. It may have western trappings, and delightful western-style language, but this is a story about the nature of tragedy (you know, in an Aristotle way), and also about the unknown fate awaiting us all in the afterlife.

Ichabos Azrael has the power to kill what does not live. But what does that mean for us?
Art by Dom Reardon
 
If it flagged a little in the time and space hopping journey of series two, it pulled it all back together for the full-meta fun of series three. Simply glorious. And, yes, worth celebrating for making righteous good use of the talents of its artists, in this case Reardon and Dowling (and Antonio Fuso on parts of Book 2) – something Williams has proved as capable of doing as the likes of Pat Mills. I would also say that Book I especially is as much an exercise in a particular style fo writing. If you're into the Western narrator tropes, florid language complex grammar and all, it's just brilliant. Oh, and it manages to be a comic that is entirely about the redemptive power of love, and yet not be cloyingly horrible about it. Superlative stuff.

A dead man hanged for his crimes. What does THIS mean? Williams has some answers.
Art by Michael Dowling

Just time to mention Orindary, another story of super powers but this time perfect in conception, characterisation and execution. Go and read it yourself if you want to find out why!

It’s like watching a master at work, reading a new Rob Williams story. I can’t gush enough.


Personal favourites:
Breathing Space
Low Life: Creation, the Deal, War Without Bloodshed, Saudade
The 10 Seconders: Godsend
Judge Dredd: Outlaw; Bald Ambition, Scavengers, Titan, The Heart is a lonely Klegghunter, Enceladus
The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the Dead left in his wake)
Ordinary


More on Rob Williams
Williams' own website
He talks to the Big Comics Page here about his latest Dredd epic
A chat about Low Life on 2000 ADs own site.
Destroy the Cyborg discusses Orindary.
 
Dirty Frank gets attached to his inflatable friends, puncturing the tension of the story.
Art by D'Israeli

*I used to be quite into the Fantastic Four, who provided very direct inspiration for these two Gods in particular.

**Whose dialogue is definitely best enjoyed in a Welsh accent (sadly I don’t know which region/city specifically, although I’d imagine Welshman Rob Williams had something very specific in mind)

***No disrespect to Si Spurrier and Frazer Irving’s creation, Jack Point. A Wally Squad judge who is also a Simp, and in his way even more unlikely than the Low Life crew. Who should definitely team up with Dirty Frank again, if only so their inner monologue caption boxes can have a fight.