Saturday, June 30, 2018

No. 115 Dave Stone

First Prog: 948 (although, before that, the 1993 Winter Special)
Latest Prog: 1128

First Meg: 1.09 (and, published in the same month, the 1991 Judge Dredd Mega Special AND the 1992 Judge Dredd Yearbook)
Latest Meg: 321

Total appearances: 78
Not including a handful of text stories, or his four novels and two audio dramas set in the world of Dredd.

Art by John Cooper

Creator credits:

Treasure Steel
Soul Sisters
Culling Crew

Other writing credits:
Judge Dredd
Judge Hershey
A handful of one-offs

Notable character creations:
Treasure Steel

Armitage & Steel react with characteristic detachment.
Art by Charlie Adlard

Notable characteristics:
Well, this is a toughy, as Stone is so strongly aligned to just one series that it’s hard to know what’s him, and what’s just inherent to Armitage. But I would say that he’s very much big on anti-establishment themes, and on lone male heroes with tragic backstories who are a bit gruff and don’t really know how to make friends, alongside lone female heroes who have distinctive hairdos, are generally hyper-competent if prone to outbursts of extreme temper.

Actually, Treasure Steel is more often than not holding in her temper...
...for a while.
Art by Sean Phillips

Despite his central characters professing to be loners (and making it hard not to imagine that Stone sees himself as something of a loner), Stone in fact likes to lace his scripts with as much banter as possible, perhaps because he enjoys writing dialogue, but just maybe because he’s making a larger thematic joke about people who say they are loners being idiots, because in reality most people enjoy and indeed thrive when working with others…

OK, so the characters aren't exactly getting along, but the interplay generally helps define the tone Stone prefers: people being people, even in the face of brutal murder investigations.
Art by Charlie Adlard

Stone is also big on slipping in jokes, only they’re the kind of jokes one suspects he finds hilarious but don’t always travel well.

I’ve a feeling he is, at heart, more comfortable as a prose or even script writer than he is as a comics writer. No evidence for this, mind, just a feeling.

Art by Sean Phillips
On Dave:
Dave Stone was part of the first wave of new talent picked for the Megazine, off the back of a couple of early works in the old Judge Dredd Mega Specials. Presumably he was ‘discovered’ by Steve McManus and then nurtured (is that the word?) by David Bishop. I don’t know the full details of his working history, but early on he got to write quite a few novels relating to both Judge Dredd, and his own Dredd-world creation, Armitage, (well, co-creation along with D. Bishop, who I imagine helped dream up the characters and setting for the first story at the very least) as well as some of those text stories that filled out Yearbooks and Specials back in the day.* And, since then he’s been almost exclusive to the world of Dredd.

Stone's very early work, heavy on the 'meaningful' prose.
Art by Dean Ormston

Stone did get a couple of goes at 2000AD, including a fun Future Shock (or, technically, a one-off that didn’t run under any banner title) from an old Winter Special,

More big prose, again coupled with awesome art from an up-and-coming legend...
Henry Flint
and a Pulp Sci-Fi episode that had the potential, I think, to become a recurring thrill: the Shutdown Man.

Less prose, more pure comics fun!
Art by Ben Willsher

Stone’s attempt to actually launch a new character, Tracer, had a whole two outings but was less successful. One could argue that this was hindered by that strip’s origins as something meant for ‘Earthside 8’, the abandoned attempt to create a 20000AD for younger readers in the early 90s. Or one could argue that it was too clich├ęd in character and setting, with not enough actual story.

Eddie Cassavetes, the 'Tracer' is Armitage light. He, too, is a gruff, working class loner with a tragic past, who works with a female AI on a screen and is prone to bumbling into danger without warning.
Art by Paul Peart-Smith
One difference: Tracer is pointedly not British, nor set in Britain.
Over in the Megazine, Stone was far more prolific. Armitage proved a hit right from Volume 1 of the Meg, and has appeared, albeit sporadically, ever since. Then, early on in Volume 2, Stone was the first of a handful of writers tasked with making a Judge Hershey solo strip work.

Stone's vision for what Hershey does on her day off.
Art by Paul Peart-Smith (wish he'd done more for 2000AD)
Just time to mention in passing his Justice-sanctioned assassin story, Culling Crew

Fetish-gear-clad lady dishes out extreme violence - a Dave Stone special.
Art by Steve Sampson
(and to note that the protagonist of this thrill was definitely in the Judge Dredd novel Wetworks, and may or may not be the same character that appeared many years later in a couple of Armitage stories).

…before we get to the main event. Because, when you’re a 2000AD fan talking about Dave Stone, it’s the Armitage show all the way...

Art by Shaky Kane
...Alright, alright, so before we get into that let’s pause to acknowledge the existence of Soul Sisters (co-written with David Bishop), which has lovely art and potentially a fun hook, but I honestly can’t remember what it was really about. I only know that I read it when it came out and hated it, re-read once when doing a Megazine re-read, and hated it a second time so much that I threw out the whole of Volumes 2 and 3 of the Meg.**

Page by page, Soul Sisters is not horrible. If you like Shaky Kane, it's even marvelous fun to look at.
But there's no through-line! And, by Stone's own admission, no jokes either.
Art by Shaky Kane
So anyway, Armitage. Regularly described as ‘Inspector Morse in Brit Cit’, which is fair in terms of the main character’s dress and gruff manner,*** but really the stories themselves have little to do with the sort of crimes Morse investigates. 

Second in a long line of changing hairstyles for Treasure Steel, while Armitage doesn't change at all.
Art by Charles Gillespie
The early stories especially, but kind of all the way along, are really about how Detective Judge Armitage (plainclothes) is a good, genuinely uncorrupt (if unlikeable) cop working for a Justice System that is, in part, designed to protect the interest of an ancient British old boys’ network.

Senior Judge Warner, old boy supreme.
Art by Charles Gillespie

This part annoyed the hell out of me at the time I first read the strip. Mostly because it seemed to get in the way of some actually rather decent murder mystery plots and some compelling world-building, but also because, being myself a public schoolboy, I get shirty when being lumped together with some great cabal of evil that is asserted to be only a mild exaggeration of the world we live in today.**** Sure, there really is an old boys’ network and absolutely it privileges those few over many others, and that is objectively a bad thing. But if you think for a moment they’re competent or even coherent enough to form any sort of successful country-shaping cabal, you’ve never spent time in that world. They’re neither smarter nor stupider than anyone else, and they’re certainly not known for having the necessary specialist skills in cooperation.

Anyway, I’ve got over that (a bit) now, and have come to appreciate that this level of corruption is simply a part of Stone’s concept for Brit Cit, and something that makes it fundamentally different from Mega City 1, Hondo City, and a handful of other future societies in the wider Dreddworld. (Even if I also think Stone, both rightly and wrongly, is cross about the current reality of elitism in Britain and doesn’t mind injecting this into his strips)

Compared to Mega City 1, Brit Cit has a similar Judge system, and largely the same level of tech and money, but has this strong undercurrent of the people at the top thinking they deserve to be there and doing what they can to preserve that set-up, even when it means indulging the odd bit of horrible murder. It does get a little tedious when Stone returns again and again to the well of ‘the rich and powerful like to do a bit of cheeky murder, and will stop at nothing to protect their own’.

The Royal Family gets a bigger kicking in Armitage than it did in Big Dave!
Art by Charlie Adlard

But then he sometimes spices it up with crazy demons.

Religious-themed Demons are a recurring feature of Armitage; in contrast to religion itself, which has been banned.
Art by Charlie Adlard
I will say that Stone works pretty hard to find a genuine mystery to solve with each new Armitage story, and this is both rare and admirable in comics (or at least, the comics I generally read). I found the first story a little confusing, but loved the setting; the next batch left me rather cold with a bit too much ‘let’s hint at Armitage’s secret, tragic past’ nonsense, but once that was out of Stone’s system, each new Armitage case is, typically, a treat. As the series progressed, he got very good at not making it all about Armitage himself, making full use of an incredibly consistent and enjoyable supporting cast.

Ah, the jokes! Actually, as the series goes on, Armitage's continued grousing but actual respect
for his colleagues becomes very endearing.
Art by Sean Phillips

Treasure Steel is arguably the real protagonist for most of the stories, even before she got her own solo strip outings. Yes, at one point she got her own somewhat overblown tragic backstory (see the Mancunian Candidate), but on the whole she fills the role of young, over-eager sidekick with constant home-life problems. And, for all that the decision to cast her as a black lesbian feels like it might’ve been trying too hard, it is actually a well-handled example of representation, and on its own often helps Brit-Cit feel more diverse than Mega City 1.

Steel has her own secret past, too, part tragic part salacious.
Also credit to Stone for using the metaphor 'vanilla' at least 20 years before it became overused on telly.
Art by Charles Gillespie

Steel's natural mode - righteous fury
Art by Charlie Adlard

Steel's marriage is a recurring soapy subplot, and actually a lot more interesting than the usual
'detective sidekick homelife' stuff you get on TV.
Art by Charlie Adlard

Senior Judge Warner is a reliable thorn in Armitage’s side. 
Mary Turner, the resident forensic pathologist, is always charming, and the cliches in her character are forgivable as she predates the enormous number of Bones-alike characters that litter our TV screens today.
Lisa Marsh, the IT wizard and sex club afficionado errs a bit too much on the side of boys own fantasy figure, but luckily she doesn't turn up too often.
Timbo, Steel's temporary replacement and old-boy with a heart of gold is yet another challenge to Armitage's prejudices, and a good thing too.

A little less fun is Efil Drago San, a recurring villain who is almost never the actual villain behind any given mystery, but who Stone wants so desperately to be a Moriarty figure that he just grates every time he shows up - even the times he doesn’t show up but is referenced. It doesn’t help that he’s another in a line of 2000AD wheelchair hobgoblins (TM and C SpaceSpinner 2000).

Efil Drago San checks so many lists!
Face disfigured by jewel: check; Campy dialogue: check; pusher of made-up future drug 'keesh': check
Has secret hold on our hero: check; Is hyper-competent: check
Art by Charlie Adlard
The upshot is that Armitage is often allowed to just be his gruff, grumpy, hyper-competent self. Like Judge Dredd, he's able to just be a detective reacting to - and solving - crimes, without always having to be the centre of attention plot-wise.

Armitage dissects his own series rather astutely.
Art by John Cooper

Beyond the characters, perhaps the key thing to note about Armitage is that Stone has slowly but surely crafted a coherent backstory for BritCit, and by implication has revealed a few key tidbits about the still-unknown backstory of how the Judges came to be, and the nuclear war that cemented their rise to power in enormous conurbations around the world. Some of this came in the two Flashback tales to the days of young Armitage, both strong on atmosphere but short on memorable plots (old Armitage turned out to be way more interesting, frankly). But a lot of it is just fed in here and there through other stories, and that works. Except when Stone reveals fairly key details in his prose novels, which I haven't read!*****

There's that 'total drama meets goofy comedy' tone again.
Art by Charlie Adlard

Armitage’s longest story so far, City of the Dead, had a really neat basic idea: what if a demon started causing chaos in Brit Cit while everyone else was distracted fighting zombies during Judgement Day? But it suffered from fairly horrible execution with a too-well-connected Steel and a too well-prepared Armitage (not helped for my eyes by some early and only half-the-time good Charles Gillespie artwork). But ever since then, pretty much all the Armitage stories have been good or great, focussing mostly on Armitage's brush-ups with the elite and the odd bit of weird murder. Much like a reliable TV show, there's a neat mix of familiar repeated character beats and just that beat of room for the bigger characters to breathe and take on new challenges.

In his introduction to the first of the two Hachette collections, Matt Smith suggests that he thinks Armitage is as likely as not to turn up again in the pages of the Megazine. I don’t know the reality of it, but I like to think that Stone waits until he has a decent idea and then pitches it, rather than churning out scripts to order, which is how he’s been able to maintain such a steady rate of quality.

More on Dave Stone:
Not much out there on the web! You might be best off with the first Hachette Armitage collection, in which he's interviewed by Mike Molcher.
There's the vaguest review of one of his novels, Psykogeddon, on Goodreads 
And if you're interested in Brit-Cit, I recommend this wikia entry. It doesn't say much about Stone himself, but does go into some of the details he has brought to the history of Brit-Cit, and, by extension, Judge Dredd's world.

Art by Sean Phillips

Personal favourites:
Armitage: Armitage; Dumb Blond; The Mancunian Candidate; The Unpleasantness at the Tontine Club
Pulp Sci-Fi: the Shutdown Man

The Shutdown Man is like the Dolph Lundgren movie version of Indigo Prime -
jumping into realities to fix things through the medium of big guns and bigger muscles.
Art by Ben Willsher

*I refuse to read text stories that are printed in comics on principle. Even the John Smith ones that are no doubt full of hilariously gory body horror.

**Something I do now regret, although in fact all the good and indeed bad stories from those two volumes have now been reprinted, thanks to Hachette’s Mega Collection – except, of course, for Soul Sisters...

***And perhaps also because co-creator David Bishop is a HUGE Morse fan.

****See also Pat Mills’ Greysuit.

*****OK, I don't know this for sure, but later Armitage strips make reference to the dissolution of one of the elite cabals in Brit Cit that I don't recall happening on the page.