Tuesday, April 7, 2015

No. 9 Dan Abnett

First Prog: 895
Latest Prog: Currently producing Grey Area, with, one assumes, more Kingdom and Sinister Dexter on the way. I shouldn’t wonder if he’s got all new stories on the go, too. Dan Abnett is not going anywhere. (I fervently hope)
First Meg: 4.01 (or 181 in new money)
Latest Meg: 254 saw the end of the first series of Lawless (hopefully to be a long-recurring series).

Total appearances: 721 and counting
-which includes a handful of Sinister Dexter stories originally written for Metal Hammer magazine, later reprinted in the Megazine; but doesn’t include a text story produced for the 1991 Judge Dredd Annual.

Creator/co-creator credits:
Sinister Dexter (and spin-offs); Sancho Panzer; Black Light; Roadkill; Badlands; Atavar; Black Atlantic; Kingdom; Insurrection; Grey Area; Lawless

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd (but, strangely, only three episodes, and all very early on in his 2000 AD career)
Durham Red, first taking the baton from Peter Hogan to move her out of the regular Strontium Dog Universe, then, basically with an all-new premise, a trilogy set in the far, far future.
Rogue Trooper (the Friday iteration)
Venus Bluegenes (an iteration that was, I think, the same person in both the original run and the Friday reboot?)
Flesh: Chronocide – which featured the return of Earl Regan and was better than most ‘official’ chapters of the Flesh saga.
Wardog – Abnett’s first Megazine credit, based on a Rebellion computer game. Likely this job involved him essentially giving an actual character to ‘Jack Wardog’, and maybe even designing and defining the world he operated in? Not sure where this counts in the ‘created’ vs ‘working on an existing property’ divide…
The VCs, one of the more successful reboots to run in 2000AD.
A fair number of Vector 13 episodes and other one-offs.

Notable character creations:
Gene the Hackman – one of the more recent breakout stars of the comic, already part of the pantheon of characters worthy of being in a 2000AD montage.
Marhsall Karel Luther, and indeed the notion of mutates, uplifts and robots (originating in Insurrection) as significant subcultures in the wider Dreddverse.
Marshall Lawless (or whoever she really is…)
Finnigan Sinister, Ramone Dexter, and an incredibly strong supporting cast of characters. I’ve always been partial to Kal Cutter, Rocky Rhodes and the short-lived Whack Pack.
Emma Paris from Black Light was a decent protagonist who didn’t get enough of a shot at being a recurring character.

Notable characteristics:
Puns. And humour generally, but especially the puns. Really, this whole entry could just be a list of language-based jokes.

Art by Gary Erskine; pun by Abnett
(For me it’s a real shame that Mills didn’t give his blessing to Abnett’s take on Flesh,
as there’s a wealth of wordplay to be indulged in with prehistoric naming conventions).

Art by Simon Davis.
Not a pun this time. Another type of joke.

Art by Trevor Hairsine
Not sure if this counts as a pun. It's definitely some form of wordplay.

Beyond the puns, Abnett’s work is noteworthy for its solid characterization mixed with solid plotting. And coherent themes. You know, the sort of storytelling basics that you’d think any professional writer could deliver - but Abnett is one of the few who has nailed the fundamentals so well that his work is always a pleasure to read, balancing the needs of each element rather than getting so obsessed with one that the others fall apart.

On Dan:
Abnett is a rarity in the 2000AD stable. He was part of a necessary new wave of creators arriving in the early 1990s, stepping in to fill a void left by a host of writers who’d had their eye on the lucrative American comics market, and made the jump across the pond. Unlike other new bloods of the day, Abnett was at this time already an established pro in that very market, having written series for Marvel UK and indeed Marvel USA before joining the House of Tharg. It’s a bit as if then-Tharg had decided he needed to get a proper, reliable writer in to help sort out the somewhat loose mess 2000AD had found itself in at the time. And it paid off in spades.

The first, most obvious spade was of course Sinister Dexter, a series originally commissioned to fill a block of progs that proved so popular it just kept coming back. And back.

Art by Andy Clarke
It's not all jokes, although there's a sort of meta-joke here about
just how long Sinister Dexter has been running.
Time for a small rant. I love Sinister Dexter. It’s had some downs, sure, but its presence in any given Prog means a reliable chuckle at the very least. It’s fine that some readers don’t like it. Now, it’s often pointed out that the strip was originally inspired by the film Pulp Fiction – but people say this as if this was a bad thing! Why is this a bad thing? After all, most if not all of the founding strips of 2000 AD were very deliberately inspired by popular films of the day, specifically films that children weren’t allowed to watch.* Pulp Fiction was exactly that kind of film (It was, coincidentally, the first 18-rated film I saw in the cinema, aged 16).

And really, the only way in which Sinister Dexter is ‘based on’ Pulp Fiction is that its lead characters are hitmen, one black one white, who chit-chat idly and with each other while going about their deadly work. Yes, there’s also lots of comedic gunplay, but frankly some form of ultraviolence is pretty much standard for 2000AD, rather than being a Tarantino homage. I guess there must be something to that simple formula, as it works fantastically in Pulp Fiction and also in Sinister Dexter.

But the reason why the strip has endured for 20 years (putting it well into the top tier of enduring British comic strips) is because of everything else the strip has in it. The city of Downlode. The simple, jokey narrative style. The fact that Abnett has managed to find an endless supply of themes to play around with for hundreds of one-off episodes (see also Wagner & Grant on Judge Dredd). And a huge part of its enduring appeal is the rotating team of artists who all bring a sense of fun to proceedings (again, see also Dredd). One assumes that at a certain point Abnett was writing scripts to suit specific artists, and that’s been a real success, too. Certainly Simon Davis, and, later, Anthony Williams have made the strip their own for longer narrative arcs, but there’s always room for any given artist to have a go.

A typical Dan Abnett trick to keep Sinister Dexter fresh: playing around with the style of narration. Here, he juxtaposes children's TV narration with gunplay. And then pushes it further by going into the mind of teenage hero Billi Octavo.
Art by Simon Davis

Reading back over the collected editions, I was quite surprised to find out how early on in the run active continuity kicks in. And various changes to the status quo of the strip happened quite early and quite often, too. Mostly, these have been a good thing, although I confess I prefer the short one-offs, on the whole, to the long-running arcs. Anyway, rant over. Sinister Dexter is well worth celebrating.
Art by Steve Roberts. Look, it's in the credit box.
Another meta-joke?

Early in his 2000 AD career, Abnett had a crack at a number of different types of story. Sure, some have somewhat faded in the memory (Sancho Panzer, Atavar, Black Atlantic), but these were never less than good, solid reads. But the hits! Oh the hits. It seems that Abnett's spiritual home is in the realm of the Space War saga...

Abnett also had a pretty lengthy run on the VCs. A great example of a series with an overall arc that found room for short stories at the same time. In my opinion, Abnett’s VCs was at its best in Book 2 – a collection of one or two-part character vignettes (which also, cleverly, push the wider story along as well). The rest of Abnett’s VCs was excellent, too. Less insane than the original, but with a much more satisfying, and certainly less clichéd, overall narrative. Outside of Savage, it’s far and away the best revamp/revisit to an old series that Tharg has published.

Re-booted VCs: kinda like the old one, but also different.
Art by Anthony Williams
Abnett’s run on Durham Red may also be fairly considered as a revamp more than it was ever a continuation of Red’s story. It is, nominally, set in a far future where humans and mutant humans still hate each other, but the space opera setting, coupled with the lack of overt mutations on display, make it feel like an entirely separate story from Wagner and Grant’s original Strontium Dog set-up.

A big hit in its day, the series has somewhat faded in the memory. There’s plenty to like, especially the humour and the interpersonal stuff between the characters, but it’s also very much the Mark Harrison show more than it is the Dan Abnett show. If there’s one thing I would credit to Abnett, it’s the laudable sense of ambition in moving the story on quite radically in between each book in the series, without losing the overall thread. Some of the sparse dialogue is fun, too.

Art by Mark Harrison
Perhaps the series has faded a bit because Abnett’s two more recent 2000 AD efforts, Kingdom (not really spacewar) and Grey Area (kind of space war), have raised the bar. He seems to have learned the lesson of focussing on the detail of the characters and what they get up to, with less of an eye on attempting to make sense of the overall set-up. (That said, if there’s one thing I haven’t taken to with the otherwise excellent Grey Area, it’s that I don’t understand why so many different aliens are so keen to get to Earth that they’re willing to sit in holding cells for ages. Sure, it’s an analogy for real-world immigration, but since we don’t know anything about the aliens’ lives or home worlds, the analogy falls flat for me.) But both series are excellent examples of creating lasting characters, making room for humour, wrapped around tense plots.

Grey Area operatives investigate good old-fashioned murder mystery: a forgotten art in comics?
Art by Lee Carter

Keeping up with the comic dialogue
Art by Patrick Goddard

Art by Richard Elson

For a 20-year 2000 AD veteran, it’s very much worth noting that Abnett’s newer series have been amongst his very best. I’m pretty sure that the first series of Insurrection (none more spacewar) is the single best story ever to appear in the Megazine**. Definitely noteworthy for being one of the first non-Judge Dredd stories to really open up the reality that the Mega City 1 justice system is, for want of a better word, evil. Lawless, a follow-up of sorts to the world of Insurrection, is proving equally delightful.

Art by Colin Macneil
Who doesn't love religious robots?

Metta Lawson doesn;t take any shit. Also, she is narrated in the style of TV shows for very young children.
It seems to work.
Art by Phil Winslade
Abnett just keeps getting better and better!

Oh, and if you’re into that sort of thing (as I am), his US superhero work, mostly co-written with Andy Lanning, is equally high-standard, with jokes and puns carefully mixed in with properly-plotted, deftly characterized action stories. He makes it look easy - it’s definitely not.

Before we leave, let's pause to remember Abnett's hand in one of the greatest 2000 AD 'wait, who is that character really?' stories***

Art by Simon Coleby
This series was called 'Malone'. Get it?

My personal favourites:
Sinister Dexter: Murder 101, Things to do in Downlode, Mother Lode & the Red Admiral, Bullfighting Days, Slow train to Kal Cutter
Vector 13: Marion; Blackout
Flesh: Chronocide
Durham Red: The Vermin Stars
VCs Book 2
Insurrection: Books 1 and 2
Grey Area: This Island Earth; Nearer my God to thee

some favourite puns and jokes:
Venus on the frag-shall
No fun atoll
that thing where Finnigan Sinister exclaims using the formula ‘Jesus initial surname’ (Jesus H Macy; Jesus F Kennedy, Jesus J Holden etc)
That ‘telephone call of the wild’ gag from Kingdom. (Not to mention the naming convention for the dogs)

*For example, Rollerball becomes Harlem Heroes; Dirty Harry becomes Judge Dredd

**OK, it’s not as good as America, but Insurrection II is, marginally, better than America II. (I love both, in case that’s not clear)

***This side of 'The Dead Man', anyway.


  1. Considering the earlier parallels you made between JD and Sinister Dexter re: number of episodes and number of artists, I'm surprised you didn't also make a more overt connection between Dead Man and Malone...

  2. Hah! Good one. I do think Dabnett is the closest 2000AD currently has to a Jwagner, a writer who can make you really, really want to read the next episode NOW in an ongoing saga, or just to enjoy another funny one-off.