Friday, July 29, 2016

No. 76 Michael Fleisher

First Prog: 671
Final Prog: 939

Total appearances: 116

If you put a powerful weapon in the wrong hands, it can have disatrous consequences.
Art by Ron Smith

Creator Credits:
Harlem Heroes (reboot)

Other writing credits:
Rogue Trooper: FrIday bits

Notable character creations:
Assuming they were his creations, I’d cite the core Harlem Heroes:
Deacon, Slice, Silver, Trips and Patrice

Notable characteristics:
A hired assassin needs to kill more people.
Art by Steve Dillon and Kevin Walker
Violence. Santized swearing. One thing after another plotlines. Being insanely prolific. Not worrying about the details. Uncomplicatedly evil villains.

On Michael:
It’s sometimes said that American comics writers don’t get 2000AD*. This is, I assume, almost exclusively based on the unfortunate 2000AD career of Michael Fleisher – perhaps the comic’s least fondly-remembered creator droid. I might remind blog readers that the principle here is to celebrate the good stuff, but I can’t ignore the derision that tends to surround the poor man.

His 1970s run on The Spectre is, I gather, what put his name on the map, and made him seem like a good fit for 2000AD come the late 1980s, when editorial needed some new but seasoned writers to fill some gaps. It’s a fun comic from an art and insane nastiness point of view. The actual scripting, on the other hand, is pretty much on the same level as his later 2000AD work. Which is to say, not very sophisticated but perfectly fine. And yes, I can see why a 2000AD editor might take a chance on him based on this work.

In the end, it didn’t work out all that well, despite three attempts at getting new series on the go, and a regular supply of scripts that kept Fleisher’s name in the Prog almost continuously for two years. I don’t know if he was locking other creators / stories out, but he was certainly keeping the machine fed. And, if you didn’t read it too closely, the baseline of violence and gore was spot on for tone.

Who knows – if he’d been given the chance maybe 10 years earlier, Fleisher might have had a friendlier reception. Basically what he was doing was writing violent boys’ action thrillers, designed to be read at such a pace that you don’t stop to worry about the plot, you just want to latch onto the characters and hope they’ll pull through the next cliffhanger. Not a million miles from, say Tom Tully or Gerry Finley-Day.

Crazy one-liners - although it usually helps if they make sense, no?
Art by Steve Dillon
As a 12 year-old reader when Fleisher started, that style suited me pretty well. Certainly I was excited by Harlem Heroes for a good 8-10 episodes, before it all started to stop making any sense overall; likewise Junker part 1 was good solid entertainment with a gruff edge; I remember looking forward to part 2! How little I knew of what was to come... Rogue Trooper, the original version, might well have been a decent fit. But, I as shall go onto explain in excruciating detail, asking him to continue Friday’s story was on a hiding to nothing.

Back to the beginning. Harlem Heroes had a cast of somewhat cookie-cutter characters – but they worked. Especially with the likes of Dillon and Walker to bring them to sneering, sniping life. And, episode by episode, plenty of the action sequences were intelligible and fun.

Delivering death - it's what 2000AD readers demand!
Art by Dillon/Walker

Hallucinatory headphones - one of the more fun/intersting ideas Fleisher deployed during his tenure.
Art by Dillon/Walker

Base villainy at work
Art by Dillon/Walker

Sad to say, the overarching plot just made no sense whatsoever, from the raison d’etre of the team, to the motivation of the villains, and above all the absolutely bonkers ‘plan’ enacted by said villains.

This particular problem would go on to form a pattern. Even in the two short Harlem Heroes spin-offs, featuring Silver and Slice, fun moment-to-moment action was undercut by somewhat absurd villain motivation.

Emotional blackmail for Slice
Art by Geoff Senior
Comical shenanigans for Silver
Art by Ron Smith
Fleisher’s other original series, Junker, had perhaps the other problem. The overall story, clichéd as it was, managed to be coherent. Episode by episode, however, it will forever remain notorious for having a scene wherein the hero sticks his arm out of a spaceship window to shoot at the ship behind him (while in space). Artist John Ridgway wisely re-imagined the scene.

Hero Dennehy, and his animal-esque sidekick Razzo, were tolerably fun, if rather too close to Han Solo/Chewbacca, but the less said about femme fatal Veejay the better, I fear.

High stakes mix with healthy sarcasm; nothing wrong here.
Art by John Ridgway

Tedious villainry and casual misogyny, less good
Art by John Ridgway
 Which leaves us with Rogue Trooper: the further adventures of Fr1day. Having lately re-read these strips,** I actually feel a little sorry for Fleisher. He was given something of an impossible job. On the one hand, the goal was surely to produce some gung-ho future war violence fests, featuring action, gore and one-liners aplenty. To a certain extent, Fleisher was good at this, and delivered. But on the other hand, he had to keep it in the same basic milieu as previous story The War Machine.

That story was, in large part, a poetic meditation on the nature of war – in its tone, visuals, its narrative style and even its plot. Fleisher borrowed the narrative style (sort of), and attempted to borrow the tone, too – but that’s the hardest to pull off without having the other two things in tow.

As far as I can tell***, Fleisher’s overall plan for Fr1day was to chuck him onto a planet that is in the aftermath of a devastating war. Pockets of rebels (for want of a better word) are still fighting, although they don’t necessarily know why or who. FrIday ends up battling with pretty much everyone at some point. But there are some proper baddies, too. 

Great villain design; could use some help with the invective;
even a children;s comic should come up with better swears!
Art by Ron Smith
More inventive gruesomeness: death spheres!
Art by Ron Smith

These are, I think, various subsidiaries of Clavel corp who are set on exploiting various natural resources on this dead planet, presumably to mine/produce stuff they can sell on other planets, and most especially taking delight in ravaging the fragile eco-system of Earth (or Nu-Earth, or wherever – it’s never entirely clear to me what planet Fr1day is on…). So the goodies end up being eco-warriors, lead by the appropriately-named Gaia.

Key exposition finally revealed in like the penultimate epsiode. Maddening.
Art by Simon Coleby (with a big shout to colours from Gina Hart, too)

If he’d actually explained this at any point, Fleisher might have got away with this set up. But he’s hampered by the first-person narration thing, left over from Gibbon’s ‘grown up’ version of Rigue Trooper. Part of the schtick of the story is that our man, Fr1day, generally has no clue what is going on around him – but that means we the reader are similarly lost. To an extent, this very fact is perhaps the part of Fleisher’s run that best captures the tone of Gibbons and Simpson’s work. War is not only hell, it’s also hella confusing.

WHAT is going on? Still, it reflects a certain poetical pure war
Art by Ron Smith
But what it meant was that all we ever saw was Fr1day tumbling from one random violent encounter to the next, never really clear on how or why he knew who to trust, except for that one lady he has a massive crush on.

The full extent of character development across three 12-part series of Rogue Trooper...
Art by Simon Coleby

But, you know, from time to time there’s classic 2000AD silliness in seeing big men with big guns kill each other while making snide remarks, and context doesn’t always matter.

The ingredients are all there: bizarre villain, high-tech hero, blazzing gun action.
But that dialogue! I don't even know if that counts as a put-down.
Art by Ron Smith (doing his level best, poor bastard)
 And this, in essence, was the final fate of Michael Fleisher. Blessed/cursed with a mixture of prolific output and, arguably, careless editorial handling, 2000AD was left with a bunch of scripts they had to publish but didn’t really want to. Rogue Trooper recovered his biochips in a mess of a story about the villainous Scavenger of Souls

Don't even ask what his deal is.
Art by Simon Coleby

years later, the Harlem Heroes were tarted up both through dialogue playfulness and an artistic clash of old-school Kevin Hopgood pencils beneath hyper-stylized painting from Siku.
Minimal intervention from Bishop and Siku
Art by Kev Hopgood (with Siku colours only, I'd guess?)

Bishop and Siku turn it up to 11
-and I'll be honest, I had a lot more fun re-reading this series of HH than I did the first one.

It was, I think enough to make for sufficient entertainment week on week, if an utterly unmemorable whole.
Michael Fleisher - both better and worse than you remember...

More on Michael Fleisher:
I can't find any interview or very much about the man himself, specifcally from his 2000AD years, so instead, some alternative opinionizing for you:
Paul B. Rainey's excellent ProgSlogBlog is still available to read. Here's his page on Harlem Heroes.

The Tea Room of Despair's blog has a lovely general 2000AD life-story piece that namechecks Fleisher's role in farily typical fashion.

I also couldn't resist sharing this little tidbit from a review of 'The War machine' collection (you have to scroll down a fair way I'm afraid):
Plus, there’s a smattering of post-Gibbons/Simpson stories in the back of the book, which is a bit like watching a time-lapse film of a slice of bread decomposing, qualitatively.

Personal favourites:
Harlem Heroes: Grey Ghost Overflight is good clean fun, if high on the silly side
Rogue Trooper: The Saharan Ice-Belt War + Apocalypse Dreadnought were fun the first time around, with me age 12/13. They haven’t entirely held up.

One more hit of goofy dialogue for your thrill-receptors.
Art by an unadulterated Kevin Hopgood

*Clearly untrue, bearing in mind that no less a 2000AD hero than John Wagner is in debt to the good ol’ US of A for a fair part of his formative years.

**Which are, I fear, not fit for reprinting even as a Megazine floppy.

***I even bought the Rogue Trooper Annual on ebay, which bridges ‘The War Machine’ and ‘Golden Fox Rebellion’, hoping it would clear things up. Not so much!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

No. 75 Kek-W

First Prog: 940
Latest Prog: 1981 (new series of both The Order and Deadworld are in the works, yes?)

Total appearances: 117 and counting

Kek-W outdoes Mark Millar at his own game
Art by Jim McCarthy
Creator Credits:
Kid Cyborg
Rose O’Rion
Second City Blues
Angel Zero
The Order

Other writing credits:
Canon Fodder
The Grudge Father
Fall of Deadworld (the latest series of which might well count as an original creation, since it uses all-new characters)
A whole bunch of one-offs of various stripes

Notable character creations:
Deacon Blue*
Kid Cyborg (sure, he’s been a punchline often enough, but he’s memorable)
Rose O’Rion (the kick-ass redhead heroine after Durham Red but before Synnamon)
Anna Kohl

Anna Kohl, meet Ritterstahl. Is he a robot, or is he the immortal spirit of an ancient knight
downloaded into a robot head?
Art by John Burns

Notable characteristics:
Idea, ideas, ideas. Throwing stock characters into particular situations. Has made a rather specific effort to use female protagonists, without necessarily making a big show of this. Plots with lots of threads. And, of course, his fair share of one-liners.

When tackling vampires, it's important not to be cheeky.
Art by Leigh Gallagher
On Kek-W**:
A mainstay in the Prog in recent years, Kek-W begun as something of a perennial nearly man. A Future Shock / Vector 13 / Pulp Sci-Fi here and there, a crack at a short series or two, often threatening to be the next John Smith but never quite climbing to the top of the thrill-power pole. Delightfully enough, he got there in the end, giving hope to wannabe script droids up and down the land that if you keep plugging away, greatness will come. 

Over the Top is a fun mode
Art by Jim McCarthy
Bizarrely, Kek-W’s actual first published work was as a Mark Millar replacement, of all things. (Although he may have written some of his Future Shocks first, I shouldn’t wonder). He took over on second series of The Grudge Father (actually artist Jim McCarthy’s baby, rather than Mark Millar’s), and then on a second series of Canon Fodder (which Millar was apparently less happy about).

Just for fun, it’s worth comparing and contrasting two very different writers.
Millar’s work is loud, attention-gettingly over the top, straightforward, violent, features one-note characters, and has plots that are often, for want of a better word, stupid.
The man is also incredibly self-promoting, and, ultimately, one of the world’s most successful ever comics scribes.

Kek-W’s work is weird, veers to the side of being straightforward, violent, over the top, features two-note characters, and has dense plots that can be hard to follow but always end up being coherent. The man hides behind a pseudonym, and is, one imagines, not widely thought of as a comics superstar.

If there’s a message here, it’s that age-old one – no-one ever lost money underestimating their audience.

A twist on a twist to bake your noodle  -Kek-W is not afriad of complex plotting
Art by Steve Yeowell

Do note that there are, pointedly, two similarities marked above: violence, and going over the top. Combining the two is, of course, part of the essence of 2000AD, and a guaranteed way to get some humour into your strip.

Now, I don’t want to make the simple case that Kek-W is a far superior writer to Mark Millar. I do think he’s a much better 2000AD writer, based mostly on the strength of his ideas. Early Kek-W definitely lacked a certain discipline that could make his word hard to follow, or, rather, it’s that while the ideas were generally pretty smart, some of the storytelling around it needed more room to breathe to match up. It’s telling that the success he’s had lately with Angel Zero (well, I liked it a lot) and especially The Order were both much longer serials that he’d had before.

Let’s get back to specifics. Grudge Father, as an excuse for extreme gore with a bit of noodling around with the concept of cloning, made more actual sense in Book II than it did in Book I. But really it’s the art that’s to be celebrated, for me.

Kek-W out-Smiths John Smith with full-on body horror
Art by Jim McCarthy
Canon Fodder II doubles down on this. What’s notable, though, is that while CFII: Dark Matter has a complex plot that does actually add up across the whole, it did lack a little of the balls-out crowd pleasing of Book I. Sure, Millar’s original set-up made no sense, but you really wanted to follow Holmes and Moriarty into the rabbit hole of finding God.

It's all non-science, of course, but at least he puts the effort into explaining it.
Art by Chris Weston

Kek-W’s first proper creation was Kid Cyborg, centred around a winning protagonist and his journalist buddy. The pair end up on the run from the US military-industrial complex, and it’s all very 1990s conspiracy-theory / media studies stuff. Honestly, if it’d been maybe twice as long, it could have been a lot better. Too many characters, emotions and ideas and not enough space for anything beyond a bit of a chase and some funny lines.

Character-identification through disorientation
Art by Jim McCarthy

Kid Cyborg's rise to the White House was all too rapid. Also, more one-liners.
Art by Jim McCarthy

 Much later, Angel Zero explored some similar themes (minus the media angle), and for whatever reason that one really worked. I think it might have been simply that we had a couple of early episodes to get to know our hero before she’s then catapulted into a chase / fight / flashback rush. Certainly that strip was high on the emotional impact of having your life turned upside down, and leaving loved ones behind.

Conversational calm (ish)...

...before a mad idea storm.
Art by John Burns
Long before then, of course, Kek-W had a stab at two classic 2000AD genres.
1) Unbeatable scheming bounty-hunter woman in space, in the form of Rose O’Rion. Picking up from a Pulp Sci-Fi introduction, her two outings were fun but unremarkable. To some extent it serves as a warning to the fact that just having a woman as your hero isn’t quite enough. I blame Tharg for that one, more than Kek-W himself.

Damsel in distress? Not for long...
Art by Andy Clarke

O'Rion alwyays has an ace up her sleeve.
Art by Andy Clarke

Defusing the tension with a little joke there. More cocky antics from O'Rion.
Art still by Andy Clarke
2) Sci-Fi sports romp, in the form of Second City Blues. I’ve a lot more time for this effort. Given the restrictions of the genre, Kek-W does a truly admirable job to try to bring something fresh to the tale. He was even given room to let it work, but in all honesty I think it needed even more room if it was really going to become a recurring feature.

There's an awful lot going on in this set of panels to set up character interactions.
uch credit for selling this, of course, to artist Warren Pleece

Think about how much is going on: pointedly using future Birmingham as a setting. Six different protagonists, each with a proper personality and backstory to explore. An actual sport to play, with obligatory training sequences as well as matches. Having to set up vaguely how the sport works. Having to demonstrate why this particular team is good at the sport. And, of course, an evil owner with his own mysterious agenda. It’s this last part which ended up being both the most interesting and most derailing thing about the strip overall.

In a traditional of evil sports team owners

Bloody alien tossers indeed! A delightfully 2000ADish villain lurking behinis the scenes of the strip.

As with all future sports stories, the game itself - slamboarding - is pretty important. I’d say its more coherent than Street Football and Inferno, not quite as persuasive as Aeroball (clearly the main inspiration). 

Continuing the Sci-Fi sports tradition of teams with ridiculous costumes
The ‘living ball’ element is a lovely touch – there’s a nod to Harry Potter’s snitch, but combined with the silver balls of death from Phantasm. Nicking ideas from two completely different places and splicing them together – that’s right back into originality.*** 


Rogue death ball in play! If the game doesn't turn bloody, it's barely worth reading about, eh?

I could say a lot more about the cast of heroes, too. At the time it all came across a bit clichéd, but the recent Meg reprint has revealed it to be stronger than that – you get the impression that with a second series, each character would have really come into their own, after getting past ‘first episode of a sitcom-itis’ that plagues all intros.

A second series remains a distant possibility...
All above art by Warren Pleece

Which leads us to the man’s two greatest successes so far, The Order and Deadworld.
2000AD had a serious gap in the market for using knights in armour, which The Order fills neatly across two different time periods and three locations so far. There are women at the heart of it all, once again, but this time surrounded by older man. Best of all, the readers were thrown so utterly into the deep end that we’re learning what’s going on at the same time as the characters. Less time for clichés, more time for mad mental craziness with wurms and robot heads and Teutonic legends and, of course, ultra-lush John Burns scnerey and period costumes.

Delightful weirdness
Art by John Burns
Series two was even more mad, starting with conquistadors in Columbia (or whatever it was called in those days), before launching into Tudor London, and yet somehow harking back to the Medieval shenanigans of series one. Who knows where series two will take us? I for one can’t wait to find out.

Trying to follow the plot of The Order is hard work
Art by John Burns
Deadworld, too, comes unburdened by backstory. Partly because we already know the story, following as it does years of Judge Death mythology. But mostly because the whole thing was literally inspired by a dream. Much like the Grudgefather, Dreams of Deadworld came from an artist first, with Kek-W called in to try to put some sort of narrative structure to it.

Also much like Grudgefather, that source dream, belonging to Dave Kendall, must have been seriously dark and frightful. 

Mortis struggles with ennui
Art by Dave Kendall

Judge Fear is afraid - a superbly simple yet logical idea
Art by Dave Kendall

Judge Death cracks a joke
Art by Dave Kendall

Follow-up series Tainted is likely a bit more Kek-W’s baby. The overarching plot is I suspect 2000AD’s most nihilistic yet. We are watching nothing less than the decay and death of an entire planet. And even within that, we’re not given any heroes as such to root for. As if following a pattern, it’s not been entirely clear what is going on, but what I can piece together through the grime and horror is:

Ultra-fascist police state oppresses people. Groups of rebels are hoping to fight back. Meanwhile, within the ruling police force, a new group (lead by Sidney De’ath) is taking control, with the aim of literally killing EVERYONE, partly by means of truning the very climate of the world into some sort of festering pit of decay. So some of the (basically evil) cops find themselves fighting against other cops, and may or may not wish to ally themselves with the rebels. Who are not exactly nice either. And EVERYONE IS DOOMED TO DIE. Let’s just hope it’s not all a prescient metaphor for the real world (as science fiction often is…)!

Plus, of course, the whole thing is laced with laughs.
Art by Dave Kendall
Somehow, Kendall and Kek-W keep it readable, even emotionally accessible. And it’s a great set-up to allow for some purple prose to paint a picture of permanent putrefaction. (without having to resort to cheap alliteration to score points). It’s almost irrelevant what’s actually going on from episode to episode.

So much insanity going on in this series! Amazing stuff
Art by Dave Kendall

Kek-W, a droid ever on the rise – we salute you!

More on Kek-W:
Here’s his website
And a recent-ish interview about The Order on Comics Bulletin

Personal favourites:
The Grudge Father: Skin Games
Canon Fodder: Dark Matter
Vector 13: In Hollow Lands
Past Imperfect: the man they couldn’t hang
Angel Zero
The Order
Dreams of Deadworld / Fall of Deadworld

Art by Jim McCarthy
*Giving credit for a character who is little more than a rock/pop pun is perhaps too much, but it delighted me then and delights me still.

**His real name is no secret, it’s Nigel Long, but since he’s only ever been published in 2000AD under his more fun pseudonym, I’m sticking with that.

***Let’s be honest, I’ve no idea where he got the ‘living ball’ idea from; I doubt it’s original to either JK Rowling or Don Coscarelli anyway.