Punks Not Dead: London Calling

No spoilers, but Punks Not Dead: London Calling is obviously the last Punks Not Dead for a while. It’s the second Punks Not Dead series and it’s excellent, but it’s clearly finite when you’re reading the early issues. It’s a wrap-up series. It’s not growing. Writer David Barnett and artist Martin Simmonds are tying off threads versus stretching them out.

So when the series manages not to feel reductive, it’s a feat. The mystery of lead Fergie’s dad, which is pretty much the A plot throughout, works out. Sure, Fergie’s sidekick, Sid, gets reduced to a supporting player but so does everyone. So does Fergie. Instead of the characters driving the narrative, the narrative acts as a VW bus and drives the cast to their next scenes.

Insert super-film snobby reference to Other Side of the Wind here, which no one will get unless you did.

Barnett’s got some solid set pieces and some great observations–particularly how disappointing punk turned out to be in terms of social change–and nice characterizations. Culpepper’s still great and she’s still around, she’s just not a force of nature like before. Her sidekick, young agent Baig… well, even though he’s ostensibly got an important role to play in events… he really does feel shoehorned in as the gay Muslim dude.

And it really feels like there’s at least a missing issue about the bonding between Fergie’s mom, Julie, and his crush, Natalie. Barnett’s in a hurry, after all; he’s got to resolve the cliffhanger stuff from the previous series while introducing and working to a series conclusion in this series. It’s a lot.

The sequel series to close-off the first series is an indie comic publication trope at this point (though it didn’t really happen at old school Vertigo, which is about the closest comparison to what Black Crown Press has managed to do–make an imprint of comics worth reading at least once; major props to Shelly Bond). Barnett and Simmonds do well enough in their wheelhouse; Simmonds does a lot of double-page spreads in the middle of the series and a lot less towards the end. He could’ve used some at the end, to the point I thought I was missing a page. Or two or three.

Maybe I was missing those pages… it would explain a lot, but I don’t think so. I think they were just rushed and had to wrap it up, which is a shame; Punks Not Dead introduced a fantastic cast and was primed for far more than just one sequel series.

Hopefully the band will get back together someday.

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Judge Dredd 1 (December 2015)

JudgeDredd_MC001_cvrJudge Dredd is a venerable British pop culture icon who’s only recently grabbed a toehold in American pop cultural consciousness. Doctor Who, another sci-fi icon as British as The East India Tea Company, has made far more progress towards American popularity. The two couldn’t be further apart in terms of personality, although the stewards behind both franchises have made worthy efforts over the decades to use the sci-fi genre as an exploratory tool for ideas and satire, in addition to being a platform for fantastical adventure. One entirely valid explanation for the disparity in popularity is that Dredd is an inimitable archetype while The Doctor is, superficially, more relatable to an audience despite his not being human. Dredd is both a hypermasculine power fantasy and self-reflexive critique of that fantasy’s fascist authoritarianism – not unlike the American film he inspired, Robocop, whose darkly humorous irony is also often lost on audiences taking the premise at face value.

Doctor Who, despite hefty volumes of back story across decades of adventures, is nonetheless what he appears to be: a nerd in a scarf. His cosplay won’t deplete your bank account, and his esoteric, extraterrestrial lack of communication skills are a gentle reassuring nod to the socially withdrawn. He is a genteel aspirational role model of science and justice, whereas Dredd is a living setup to rude and irreverent punchlines about how life in a dystopic future metropolis isn’t all that different from the present day.

The most significant cause of Doctor Who surpassing Judge Dredd in an American popularity contest, of course, is that today’s nerds have never been less likely to read a comic book. The BBC continues to produce Doctor Who shows. Dredd 3D tanked because 1995’s Judge Dredd was so bad that the stench lingered for almost 20 years. Word of mouth gave it enough of an American cult following that the character was no longer a joke, but short attention spans still dictate the consumption habits of geeks. If it’s not a TV series or movie franchise in 2015, it doesn’t exist. Witness the multitudes who’ve never read The Killing Joke blowing Heath Ledger’s mummified member, or the middle management drone who couldn’t tell you Judge Death from Judge Judy informing me that Dredd 3D “finally got it right.” I don’t expect people to pass some bullshit nerd test designed by the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Role-Playing Club before being allowed to have an opinion – but could everyone please stop pretending to be an informed longtime fan just to state that they enjoyed some recent movie or Netflix original series?

IDW, admirably, grabbed the post-Dredd surge of interest in the character with both fists, publishing Dredd artist collections, colorized reprints of classic stories like The Dark Judges and The Apocalpyse War, and most excitingly, a new regular title and various mini-series for the new American audience. The range of success has been inconsistent – Anderson, Psi-Division and Judge Dredd: Year One were forgettable, while Mega-City Two and Mars Attacks Judge Dredd were fun romps. The flagship series was a platform for selectively incorporating pieces of favorite storylines and characters, like Marvel’s “Ultimate” reboot, and maintained a fairy consistent level of quality across 30 issues from writer Duane Swierczynski and Nelson Daniel. Its only real shortcoming was the absence of variety in artists or writers that 2000 AD enjoyed; an unavoidable production difference between a weekly-produced strip and a monthly book.

When a series is relaunched, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the move is an act of desperation in the face of sluggish sales or affirmation in good faith of continued success – number one issues tend to sell well either way.

The all-new Judge Dredd 1 is a competently made, narratively risky point of entry for any new reader not already following IDW’s revival. It’s unclear if there’s meant to be continuity from the previous regular series (probably not) but it wouldn’t matter at the offset of this initial storyline anyways: Ulises Fariñas, the excellent illustrator of Mega-City Two and his co-writer Erick Freitas have gone all Crossed +100 on Dredd and flung him into the post-post-Apocalpse, a storyline entitled Mega-City Zero, where he finds himself at the moss covered remains of what might be the last Mega-Block on Earth. The concept is certainly intriguing, as is the business calculation that a casual fan of Dredd 3D will feel familiar enough with the character to begin investment in a story where he’s out of his element.

Or rather, it’s a refutation of what had to be a really underwhelming response to 2000 AD‘s own attempt to appeal to Dredd 3D fans directly.

The proposal is thoughtful insofar as Dredd 3D also stranded him without support from the Justice Department, though it also stands to reason that anyone picking up this comic in lieu of a Dredd 2 would want to see more of Mega-City One, rather than Dredd again bringing The Law to another block under control by a despotic ruler. Granted, the issue ends before any major antagonist is revealed, so it would be nice if the storyline isn’t as predictable as it seems. Anderson makes a pointless cameo at the beginning of the story, hopefully this tossed-off introduction isn’t solely so she can later save Dredd’s hash as she’s often done when Old Stony Face gets stranded in another time or dimension.

Plot aside, Fariñas & Freitas’ script has some nice contrast between Dredd’s by-the-book proceduralisms and the slang of the kid hoodlums he first encounters outside the perimeter of the lone Year Zero block. There are some world-building details in spite of the usual rules not applying – robot judges guard the block, humanoid animals are seen outside (the Mutant/mutie slur goes unuttered) and Dredd reviews the ammunition of his Lawgiver – as did Dredd 3D. I’m a little irritated that the trio of ragamuffin savages who are arrested by Dredd and thereby taken under his protection get almost as much of the spotlight as he does, in this new debut.

Dan McDaid’s art is less clean and precise than Nelson Daniel’s, which at least fits the grunginess of this particular story. The lack of detailing only really hurts peoples’ faces – it feels even sparser than Mega-City Two. His figure composition has a nice Mike McMahon-esque dynamism, including during the action sequences. Ryan Hill’s colors bring an appropriately lush earthiness to the outdoor meadows – I’d just like to know what their Mega-City One will look like.

The new Judge Dredd’s opening arc might not turn out to be the best initiation for new fans, but as Dredd adventures go, this one seems to have serviceable talent behind it.

CREDITS

Mega-City Zero: Part One, writers, Ulises Fariñas and Erick Freitas; artist, Dan McDaid; colorist, Ryan Hill, letterer, Chris Mowry; editor, Denton J. Tipton; publisher, IDW.

Back to the Future 1 (October 2015)

BttF01_cvrIt’s been less than a month since Back to the Future Day and now we are all, like David Byrne sang in “The Book I Read,” living in the future. The Back to the Future book I read marks a personal point of no return for Back to the Future fandom which I didn’t know I had; the moment the train finally jumps the holographic Jaws 19 shark right into Clayton Ravine. This isn’t a terrible comic, merely “meh”, but that mediocrity forces the question to even the most strident BTTF fan: when is it all enough?

With “(x) years until hoverboards” jokes stale forevermore and the first film’s 30th anniversary also in the DeLorean rearview, subsequent Back to the Future revivals are going to feel pretty redundant when fans have already been treated so well by the nostalgia factory of modern pop culture. In the immediate and intervening years after Part III  there was the cartoon spinoff, the Universal Studios ride, exhaustively spiffed-up DVD and Blu-Ray re-releases, frequent parodies and homages, and new official merchandise virtually every year since 1991. Fans who waited for some type of Back to the Future Part IV more or less got their wish with a very well designed adventure game by Telltale Games in 2010, for which Christopher Lloyd voiced Doc Brown and Thomas F. Wilson recently recorded Biff’s dialogue for the re-release. At some point, insisting on yet more celebrations and revivals of these characters starts to come off as obsessive and greedy. Ultimately there’s just not all that much depth to be plumbed with these characters. Marty McFly isn’t exactly Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Oedipal complexities notwithstanding.

The trilogy’s co-writer Bob Gale has been the guiding hand behind BTTF’s continued vitality, serving as story consultant on the cartoon, the adventure game and now (unsurprisingly) this four-part mini-series comic, all the while giving interviews to anyone who’s ever asked about the continued vitality of BTTF. On the last page before the ads he writes an editorial about his goals for the book, basically stating that since the franchise has already spun out maximum mileage on alternate timeline tomfoolery, this comic could best be utilized to tell new backstories about our beloved Doc and Marty. Prequels! They’re like sequels, only more unnecessary! He’s mostly right to acknowledge that people loved the movies because of the characters, but let’s get real, there’s only two types of Back to the Future fans. There’s people who like the quirky, magical love story of the first one and also have some affection for the sweet, sincere love story of the third, and then there’s people who like screaming UNLESS YOU’VE GOT POW-AHHH!!! and seeing Thomas F. Wilson play seven different versions of the same hilarious asshole. Everything Back to the Future related since the third movie has catered to the latter, partially because it’s the bigger audience but pragmatically because Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson are more expendable. Just ask Jeffrey Weissman.

Issue one of Back to the Future: The IDW Comic launches two storylines. One is Doc telling Clara, Jules and Verne flashback stories about stuff that happened back in the future – in this installment, how he met Marty. In the other, we join Doc circa 1943 apparently being recruited for The Manhattan Project by Robert Oppenheimer. They both read like middling fan fiction, which is really, really bad for stories conceived and partially co-scripted by the series’ original co-author. The biggest problem may be that the trilogy’s appeal is so intractable from its great filmmaking; the excellent cast well directed in a clockwork story seamlessly rendered with expert photography, editing and music. I turn the pages of this book trying to hear the actor’s voices speaking the lines with Alan Silvestri’s music cues behind them, but it just isn’t happening. Like licensed-property video games, comic books have come a long way, but the less spectacle in the franchise the harder the translation. Not that Back to the Future isn’t closer to Star Wars than Crimes and Misdemeanors, but without any time travel in the story, it quickly becomes obvious that we had already had all the facts we needed about Doc and Marty before they started their adventures.

The art on the second story is by Dan Schoening, one of IDW’s top talents who does routinely high quality work on some of their other licensed books like Ghostbusters. His character’s faces are cartoonish but solidly constructed, and set atop realistically proportioned bodies, which is an odd mix when Oppenheimer shows up. His backgrounds are well detailed, which makes the 1940s period setting convincing – Doc’s messy apartment, the Caltech campus, it all looks terrific, as do Luis Antonio Delgado’s colors. But it’s only 6 pages long. The 14 page opening feature story about young Marty breaking into Doc’s garage to steal something for Needles, and then getting offered a job…eh, the art by Brent Schoonover is just as underwhelming as the plot, and next to Schoening’s it’s kind of embarrassing. Kelly Fitzpatrick’s colors aren’t great either, everything is unnaturally primary or fluorescent. It manages to be garish and boring at the same time.

The back cover of Back to the Future is an ad for Back to the Future: The Card Game. An equally superfluous product, it may still be more inspired than this comic. At this point, Bob Gale should hang up the Flux Capacitor and instead redirect his efforts towards raising some long-overdue attention for his and Zemeckis’ abandoned children, Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

 

CREDITS

When Marty Met Emmett; story, Bob Gale; script, Bob Gale & John Barber; artist, Brent Schoonover; Inks, David Witt; Colors, Kelly Fitzpatrick; Looking For a Few Good Scientists; story, Bob Gale; script, Erik Burnham; artist, David Schoening; publisher, IDW.

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