Action mixed with great potential – 2000AD Prog 1901

Nick Percival brings us an ominous cover featuring Ichabod Azrael.

Nick Percival brings us an ominous cover featuring Ichabod Azrael.

After last week’s jumping-on issue brought us three new stories, Prog 1901 had a lot of potential to live up to. Judge Dredd, Stickleback and Kingdom are joined this week by the opening episodes of two new tales, so let’s waste no time in getting right into them.

When it comes to writing action-packed stories about a hard-nosed cop cleaning up the town, you really can’t beat John Wagner. In this week’s Judge Dredd story, Block Judge, Part Two, we see Wagner is on fine form.

This episode continues directly from last week’s with no summary for new readers but the gist of the situation is that Mega-City One megablock Grammercy Heights is a mess and Dredd has been called in to sort it out. He’s sorting it in his usual style: by busting a lot of heads.

Carlos Ezquerra continues on great form with some brilliantly gritty artwork. The citizens of this high-rise slum are suitably filthy, grimy and disgusting while the contrast between the brand new Judge robots for clean-up and the broken-down wrecks that were already in the block is instantly noticeable.

For the most part, Ezquerra’s jagged-outline style for picking a character out of the scenery is missing here but he’s making up for it with some funky panel borders instead. It all looks really cool and helps to add to the fast pace of the story by subtly jumbling the panels together. It’s a style that really works.

Moving on to Stickleback and we see that the pace is slowed greatly. Despite last week’s promising introduction, what we get here is just more introduction. I’m hoping the story starts to get moving next week otherwise this will be another title that fails to live up to its potential.

Pacing aside, Ian Edginton’s script is decent in terms of characterisation. He’s got a good handle on Victorian slang and word use, which gives the story a nice, timely feel to it. The characters are all suitably obnoxious for the setting and overall it’s not bad. Just a shame it’s so slow so far.

D’Israeli’s artwork continues to impress. It has a very old-fashioned feel to it and he makes great use of different angles to keep the story feeling like it’s moving along even when the script itself is plodding. It’s atmospheric, it feels like a classic film and it’s just really, really nice.

Next up is the start of another new story: Greysuit, by Pat Mills, John Higgins and Sally Hurst. Mills is a comic writer who should need to introduction to anyone who reads, or has read, British comics over the last forty years. It’s too early to tell whether this story is going to be able to stand up to his past work.

This is an introduction and as such it’s mostly scene-setting. We don’t get a good look at the main character and we certainly don’t get a real feel for what he’s about. We do get a lot of time spent on ancillary characters who are only there so the protagonist can show how powerful he is but that’s not exactly great from a reader’s point of view. In essence, there’s not enough here to get a good feel for the story, so we’ll have to come back next week to see how things progress.

John Higgins’ line art has a feel of older strips to it; I got a distinct impression that this is trying to look like old classics such as Button Man, which is of course no bad thing. The characters are all very distinctive and the facial expressions are brilliant – they do a lot more for characterisation than the dialogue, in fact. The landscape shot at the start of page five is particularly impressive but in truth, there’s not a bad panel in this whole story.

Sally Hurst’s colours give the story an awful lot of atmosphere. The locations feel cold and bleak, the water looks foreboding. This is really good stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

Next up we have another story in The Grievous Journey Of Ichabod Azrael (And The Dead Left In His Wake). This is a series I’ve been reading from the start and I’ll say this just to get it out there right away: I’ve never liked it. It’s one of those stories that tries a little too hard to use the style and cadence of the time it’s set in, but does so at the expense of its modern audience. With that said, let’s get into it.

The story opens with a decent summation of the plot so far; which is a definite plus point because you’ll need to know a lot of this if you’re new to the comic. It gives you a very clear sense of the writing style you can expect (old-fashioned and annoying) and quickly sums-up the motivations of the main players. So far, so not too bad.

This is also the last page you’ll see Michael Dowling’s beautiful colours on, as the rest of the comic takes place in black and white. Colours in Ichabod Azrael represent the living world and since our protagonist is dead, we don’t see a lot of them. It’s a visual shorthand that really works to not only remind the reader which world the plot is currently playing out in but it also helps to set the mood.

The world of the living is all light shades and soft watercolours, giving us a peaceful, serene view of the story. The world of the dead is all stark shadows, minimalist background detail and grimy characters picked out sharply from the immense amounts of white space.

Purgatory, the world of the dead, is mostly empty and when I first saw Ichabod Azrael way back when, this made the comic look sparse and lazily-drawn. I’m sorry to say I missed what the creators were going for at that point. The world of the dead looks empty because that’s the point. It’s a wasteland; a cruel and heartless place without soul. Dowling’s artwork really presses that point home.

Moving back to the story, there’s really not a lot to discuss in this part. As with Greysuit, this is an opening episode and all it’s really here to do is set up the rest of the story. Ichabod is angry and we see his character laid out very well for new readers through his murdering of the first person he meets and his venturing out on a quest to kill God; apparently with a talking horse as his guide. It’s that kind of story. Let’s see what next week’s episode has in store for us before we make any decisions on this one.

Finally we come to Kingdom, the third of the three stories that began in last week’s jumping-on issue. In Dan Abnett’s usual style, this is an action-packed episode that reintroduces Gene the Hackman’s army of humanoid, augmented dogs while displaying their fighting prowess. Also in typical Abnett style, the entire story is full of the most groanworthy pun names possible. It’s fun, in an action movie kind of way.

The art is typically high class. Richard Elson has done superb work on the line art and given the whole comic a really grimy, Mad Max look to it. Characters are instantly distinguishable and each design has personality to it. The fight scenes have a good sense of movement and it all looks superb.

While Elson’s art would probably stand up rather well on its own, what really seals the deal on this being a spectacular visual feast is Abigail Ryder’s colours. Not only is everything bright and the characters look like they’ve just stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon (which really compliments the action movie style of the story) but she’s done some amazing work with the backgrounds.

Mountains are blue-shifted, setting them back from the foreground and giving each panel a sense of depth. Skylines are coloured in a murky style, which sets them apart from the mountains. There are blurs and focal shifts on long shots, giving the panels a seriously deep look to them. At some points it feels like you could actually step into these images. This is really, really good stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

So there you have it: two amazing, action-packed stories and three slower burners that are brimming with potential once they get cranked up. 2000AD continues to please and here’s hoping next week’s issue keeps this long run of excellence going.

Look for this issue, Prog 1901, in UK stores on Wednesday 01 October (overseas copies will appear later in the month) and in digital form internationally on the same day.

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