Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judge Anderson Psi-Division: Shamballa

(Reprints: Judge Anderson stories from 2000 AD Progs 700-711 and 1263-1272, and from Judge Dredd Megazine #2.10, 2.14, 2.22-2.24, 3.01-3.07 and 3.14)

Where a lot of the early Judge Anderson stories seemed like extensions of Judge Dredd with a different protagonist, by the period covered here--1990-1996 (plus an additional story from 2001)--the series had turned into Alan Grant's vehicle for exploring spiritual matters. The minutely observed, heavily photo-referenced artwork of Arthur Ranson might have made a peculiar match for the vagueness that's native to a series about a psychic's dealings with religious matters, but Grant and Ranson clicked right away with "Triad," and collaborated on Anderson on and off until 2006.


As Ranson put it in this interview, "Alan's stories are soft edged, suggestive of things outside themselves, making overt or implied connections to other stories, times and places, other ways of viewing existence and are often open-ended." That's true, and that means they provide a springboard for an artist like Ranson to cut loose, and use ultrarealist technique in the service of things that have never been seen by human eyes. The Grant/Ranson collaboration on Anderson is full of moments where Grant pulls back so that Ranson can deliver some kind of spectacular "soft-edged" visual, like Anderson's entry into the Buddha-mind in "Shamballa," or or the bit in "The Protest" where we see the Big Meg from above as a cell-scape of watercolor blobs beneath a pen drawing of Anderson, or that delicious image of an even-more-Debbie-Harry-than-usual Anderson as the Silver Surfer to Satan's Galactus. (Speaking of "soft-edged": is it me, or is every Anderson story required to include at least one blatant ass shot? That gets a little old.)


I can't get quite as enthusiastic about most of the writing here, for the most part. I admire the way Grant basically uses Anderson's psychic sensitivity as a device for grappling with religious doubt and the problem of evil and so on in the context of an action-adventure series; that sort of philosophical engagement hasn't happened too often in English-language serial comics outside of, say, the Dennis O'Neil/Denys Cowan run on The Question or the better periods of Master of Kung Fu. The problem is that Grant tends to mention deep stuff, and let that pass for depth; his take on it doesn't tend to go very far. "The Jesus Syndrome," in particular, is about as theologically subtle as a ninth-grade production of Jesus Christ Superstar. ("We can't have the citizens believing this Jesus is greater than us...") And, reading it almost exactly a year after Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide (and in the light of the genuinely world-changing protests about specific things, and the momentum of subsequent protests that are about broader systems, that have followed it), the punch line of "The Protest"--that even dissenters who value principle above their lives can be dissuaded from sacrifice, and from dissent itself, by the most trivial conciliatory gesture--comes off as insulting in any number of ways.

Subtlety is not the selling point of Dredd and its spinoffs, of course, but that's where the Grant/Ranson team hits a snag: Ranson's artwork is so much about serious tone and careful observation that the broad gestures and jokes that still came naturally to Grant are jarring in the context of these stories. "Satan" is a particular offender on that front: Satan's narration fluctuates between a Biblical tone and extreme casualness ("Yay! Let that fury flow! Awake the rage that threatened Heaven!") in a way that's completely jarring in the context of Ranson's grim visuals. And listing the atrocities of human history over the course of three pages, then letting slip that the Apocalypse War dwarfed them all, undercuts the argument badly. For a story that was the climax of two and a half years' worth of Anderson serials, "Satan" also goes from eschatology to apocrypha very quickly: Satan himself arrives on Earth, and Anderson dispatches him by confusing him until he talks like a Steve Ditko villain ("He made me! I'm not responsible!") and vanishes in a puff of illogic, leaving Cass with only a moment of psychic nosebleed Zen.


The problem may be that Grant is playing in John Wagner's upside-down, morally dubious world, without the advantage of Wagner's morally dubious protagonist. Anderson is sensitive, and Grant stacks the deck in favor of sensitive special people who shouldn't have to do ugly things. Compare, say, Anderson's relationship with her nemesis Judge Goon--a violent jerk with no redeeming qualities and a name that gives the game away--to Dredd's relationship with Judge Edgar, which is much more a battle between two terrible creatures with incompatible ideologies. And the supporting characters in these stories are often nothing but types, like the Sov professor who exclaims "Pah!" twice in three panels.

Still, I like the way Grant's writing on this period of Anderson is so often drastically different from the tone of his Dredd--his language, his pacing, even the narrative devices. On Dredd, he was mostly just staying out of Wagner's way by the '90s. (It seems like they weren't even reading each other's stories, actually. Shamballa suggests that Judge Corey's suicide in "Leviathan's Farewell" affected Anderson even more strongly than everything that happened with her father; I don't think Wagner has ever referred to it. "Necropolis" made a big deal of Anderson's despair at having a hand in the death of Kit Agee; I don't think Grant has ever referred to it.) These stories breathe. There are lots of silent reaction shots, and lots of moments when things are happening very slowly. There are name-checks of whatever Grant's been reading lately (as with the Fay Weldon Bad Girls). It's not quite a shot glass of rocket fuel, but it's good to have something else to drink occasionally.


"Shamballa"--which actually ran before "Engram," the final long story in The Psi Files vol. 1, although it's not reprinted there--was arguably the first time the Anderson series felt entirely like a thing of its own. The first episode, which ran in Prog 700, was (I believe) the first time a full-on map of Dredd's world had been published. (Have we seen Solomon City, Friendly City, Antarctic City or New Pacific City since?) Interestingly, it's distinctly a pre-"Necropolis" story, since Silver's the Chief Judge. It's got some very nicely turned sequences, like Anderson and Amisov's first in-the-flesh meeting, which Ranson breaks down into a series of tiny panels that underscore the intensity of their flirtation. It's peculiar and slightly off-putting to see Anderson as a romantic protagonist--a role that Dredd only ever plays as a bitter parody--and the weird mix of metaphysical and superphysical combat at the end of "Shamballa" doesn't quite work, but it includes so many extravagantly gorgeous moments that I can see why Grant and Ranson built on its look and feel for their subsequent Anderson serials.


I love the idea that Mega-City's residents' idea of theology is very different from the present-day version (and wish that it had been worked out more fully: Christianity being an obscure splinter sect by 100 years in the future is hard to swallow). "Grud" being substituted for "God" is a vestige of 2000 AD's origins as a comic book for young boys, but that as a conceptual shift is fascinating. (The prohibition on naming "God" can't have lasted long: "Goddam oxygen board!" exclaims one of the suffocating perps in prog 57.) I'm also amused that "Satan" has a brief sequence involving one Lobsang Gump. That first name has shown up a few times over the years in Dredd-universe stories (including one of the Branch Moronians, and the more recent "Lobsang Rampage"); it has to be a reference to the dubious British mysticist Lobsang Rampa.

A few bibliographic notes: there have been a couple of Anderson books called Shamballa, the earlier one of which (the Fleetway edition) only includes the story of the same title--I'm talking about the Rebellion edition here. (You know that clicking on the image of the book at the top of each post on this site takes you to a buy link for it, right? Right!) 


Also, I'd say that the problem with focusing on the Ranson material in Shamballa is that it leaves out a couple of significant pieces of the story. "Satan," in fact, picks up from the cliffhanger at the end of "Something Wicked," which isn't reprinted here; if I read BARNEY correctly, there was actually a second episode of "Reasons to be Cheerful," drawn by Siku, which ran after the episode reprinted here. (There was no "Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3," though.) I gather that Shamballa is going to be superseded by forthcoming volumes of The Psi Files; the cover art for the second one, due out in February or so, lists Steve Sampson as one of its artists, which means that it'll be going at least up to "Postcards from the Edge," i.e. Meg 2.60, as well as Ian Gibson, which suggests that it will include some of the stories from Annuals that the first volume skipped.

Next week, Graeme McMillan joins me to look at Mark Millar, Steve Yeowell and Nigel Dobbyn's Red Razors

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