Friday, May 22, 2015

No. 20 Gerry Finley-Day

First Prog: 1
Final Prog: 449
Comeback Prog: Prog 2011 – the end of year special from 2011, not the upcoming standard weekly Prog. I guess it’s unlikely he’ll come back again, but you never know.

Total appearances: 382
- inlcuding his stories for Tornado, but not including his staggeringly vast array of credits across Battle, Action and perhaps above all the 1980s Eagle comic.

Co-Creator credits:
Ant Wars, BlackHawk (the Tornado version), Invasion/Disaster 1990*, Fiends of the Eastern Front, The VCs, Rogue Trooper, Harry 20 on the High Rock

Wealthy industrialist get eaten by ants in Ant Wars. Commited goofiness.
Art by Lozano

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Dan Dare
Wagner’s Walk, published in Tornado - a sequel to Hellman of Hammer Force, an older Battle / Action strip Finley-Day had written. Wagner’s Walk  (That’s Vaaagner, not Wagg-ner, presumably) tells the tale of a German PoW escaping from a Soviet camp in Siberia and making his way to India, and is perfectly decent. (Not coincidentally (I suspect), the basic concept is similar to the true story of a Polish escapee from the 1955 book ‘The Long Walk’, recently turned into the film ‘The Way Back’.)

Notable character creations:
Steve Smith and the VCs
Rogue, Helm, Bagman, Gunnar, the Traitor General, Venus Bluegenes, Bland & Brass; I’ve got a lot of time for Major Magnam and Colonel Kovert, among various one-off characters.
I don’t think it’s fair to credit Finley-Day with the character of Bill Savage, but perhaps Peter Silk was his?
Harry Thompson (he’s not a number any more!); The Big Red 1; Ben 90
Bland and Brass, the Body Looters. Art by Brett Ewins
Colonel Kovert. He's a shady and mysterious officer who organises secret (or 'covert') operations.
Picking up the idea and running with it, Cam Kennedy on art duties.

Notable characteristics:
Crazy ideas, war jargon, straight up non-stop action storytelling, exemplified by rather tight plots. In 4-6 pages, Gerry Finley-Day would routinely throw a his characters into a very particular situation, come up with some bizarre bit of kit, set up a problem, resolve it using said kit, and maybe even get some kind of irony out of the ending. And he made it look a heck of lot easier than it actually is.

Danger, solution, joke, set up for next episode - it's not ground-breaking, but you gotta admire the funcitonality.
Art by  Mike White (or possibly Alan Willow)

On Gerry:
Finley-Day was part of a very small pool of old-guard British comics writing talent that Pat Mills deemed good enough / smart enough / irreverent enough to be a major part of the original 2000AD line-up. He contributed at least one story to virtually every Prog for the first 450 issues, and the popularity of those stories was always up there with contributions from Wagner, Grant and Mills himself. He was no slouch, on work rate or on ideas! And yet, it’s not entirely surprising that he dropped out of rotation in the mid 80s. At the time, he was a mainstay of the revived Eagle comic, squarely aimed at 8-12 year olds, while 2000AD of the time was more openly courting a 20+ readership.

However, it’s not fair to dismiss Finley-Day as a children’s writer, partly because writing for children is every bit as complex a job as writing for teens or indeed adults, but also because his story ideas were as weird, if not weirder than anyone else’s – weird in a way that younger readers would easily embrace, while adults might occasionally think was a step too far from realism. 

Child-friendly yet pleasingly weird
Art by Cam Kennedy
Or maybe the difference is that Finley-Day really only worked in one tone – playing it straight - and that he wore his themes on his sleeves. Unlike, say, Pat Mills, Finley-Day didn’t make a feature of this. Instead, he got along with the task of telling a story that had an imaginative plot, lashings of violence, and a bit of a message, too. 

Death by acid, and 10 years before RoboCop.
Art by Mike Dorey
I find a Finley-Day tale demands the work to be taken at face value, and is not at all camp, or knowingly funny. Even the disco scenes of Fort Neuro are weirdly un-camp (at least from Finley-Day’s perspective, if not Brett Ewins’s…)
Silliness by Finley-Day;
Knowing smile by Ewins
Certainly there are jokes from time to time (and as often as not these are fairly childish), but mostly these are of the 1970s B-movie nihilist kind. Pretty much 2000AD stock-in-trade really, especially in the early years. But also not really fashionable with a readership that likes to be more self-aware.

Finley-Day’s most beloved creation was of course Rogue Trooper, the genetically created soldier who exists only to fight a war, but whose moral compass leads him to strive for justice more than victory. More than any other long-standing 2000AD hero, Rogue is, for me, an unambiguously ‘good’ guy. Sure, he fights for one side against another in a war, but he’s been known to take down evil Southers and help out kindly Norts in equal measure. Even his ‘revenge’ agenda often seems less important than him just striding over the next hill and finding out what situation he’s going to be in next.**

And therein lies the charm, because there’s no one like Gerry Finley-Day for coming up with a bizarre situation for a hero to find themselves in. He’d been working on war comics for goodness knows how long at this point (and continued to produce them alongside his 2000AD work, too, of course), so I wonder if he made an extra effort to throw weirdness into his plots for war strips Invasion, the VCs and Rogue Trooper precisely to make his scripts feel more right for 2000AD – a science-fiction comic, but also a home for downright weirdness. Fiends of the Eastern Front being the zenith of this approach, and it remains a cracking horror. That said, each of these strips, and not forgetting the Roman soldier action with BlackHawk, managed to fit their share of wartime accuracy into 4 pages of story.

Just look at the fear on Hans Schmidt's face as he sees the Fiends in action.
Art by Carlos Ezquerra
Random facts that expose traitors -
a staple of boy's mystery comics.
Art by Azpiri

It has been discussed before that Finley-Day had a reputation with the editorial department for needing a lot of work to tidy up his scripts. The specifics of what this meant remain mysterious (Alans Grant and Davis have alluded to certain logic problems / inconsistency here and there on his Harry 20 scripts), but at the very least I suspect he had a level of craft that was worth the pain. And I for one admire his creative ethic at always looking for the new idea with each story, rather than endless visits to the same old characters and settings that seem to be the province of superhero comics.

As I only came to 2000AD after Finley-Day had essentially been dumped as a writer, I read his works in big chunks in back Progs and reprints, rather than on a weekly basis. I suppose it was probably editorial mandate rather than anything else, but I was always deeply impressed that he developed these stories that clearly could have run endlessly, but in fact always built slowly up to an actual ending, often a satisfying one, plot-wise. Spoilers ahoy in the next paragraph!
Well-choreographed violence.
Art by John Richardson

Invasion ended its first run with Bill Savage set up a proper channel to the US for help, and the clear hope of pushing the Volgs out of Britain; Disaster 1990 sees a definitive end to the flood and the defeat of some evil dudes***; the VCs sees an end to the war with the Geeks; Harry 20 conquers the High Rock; Rogue Trooper gets his revenge on the Traitor general, and then goes on to see an armistice for the whole Nort-South war! Only poor old BlackHawk was abandoned mid-story, cruelly kidnapped by aliens and transported to Belardinelli-land when Tornado merged with 2000AD.

That’s a lot of loose ends tied up, and indeed the final chapters of many of these sagas were amongst the most exciting. I could have done with seeing more mid-period VC weirdness before it all came to a boil (and maybe less mucking about in boats in Oxfordshire…), and of course the original Rogue Trooper need not have ended quite when it did. Re-gene was fun enough, but everything after that felt too much like a character in search of a story, despite some neat Jose Oritz artwork.

The old 'feigning madness' ploy
Art by Alan Davis
I would like to single out Harry 20 on the High Rock for special praise at being a long story (20-odd episodes in the Prog) that had exactly the right pace, the right number of plot twists and story beats, and such a perfect ending. I can well believe that Alan Grant (who sub-edited the scripts long before the series saw print, I believe) and especially master story-teller Alan Davis fixed things here and there to make it work on a panel-by-panel basis, but I’m betting the overall story was all Finley-Day all the way. Sure, it’s clichéd as anything, but perhaps because it was the first prison break story I encountered, it’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Personal favourites:
Invasion! (although I'm hard pressed to pick out specific stories)

The VCs (the first series is pretty much one long ongoing saga, and, racial stereotyping aside, there’s not a dud episode in the series to my mind)
Rogue Trooper: The Dreamweavers, Body Looters, Bio Wire, Major Magnum, The Gasbah, Colonel Kovert
Harry 20 on the High Rock

More on Gerry Finley-Day
David Bishop posts his two-part interview with the man himself here and here.
There's a neat round-table discussion about GF-D's return to Rogue Trooper in Prog 2011 on the Forbidden Planet blog.

*Invasion was originally set up by Pat Mills, but Finley-Day was on scripting duty right from the off, and presumably had a strong hand in defining the tone of the series, as well as inventing vairous characters along the way.
Spin-off prequel Disaster 1990 has all the hallmarks of being a Finley-Day joint, with no Millsian input whatsoever…

**He’s not a million miles from the TV version of the Incredible Hulk, come to think of it.

***Of all Finley-Day’s strips, this one is the real stinker. I mean, there are some nice bits but for a Bill Savage story it’s just too tame.

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