Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mega-City Undercover

(Reprints Lenny Zero stories from Judge Dredd Megazine #3.68, 4.01-4.02 and 4.14-4.15, and Low Life stories from 2000 AD Progs 1387-1399, 1425-1428, Prog 2006, 1484-1490, and 1521-1524)

This week's special guest is Deb Chachra, an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, who does work on the engineering student experience. She also thinks a lot about music, culture and technology, is behind the Daily Idioms site, and is very much worth following on Twitter. Kick it off, Debcha!

DEB: Dredd, and 2000 AD, has always been a giant hole in my knowledge of contemporary comics, and "Low Life" is the first Dredd that I've read. I must admit I cheated; I knew it was a long-running and beloved series, and I'd be throwing myself into the middle of it. I wasn't really confident that I'd be able to handle a black start, so I skimmed the Judge Dredd Wikipedia entry to try to orient myself to the universe.

I probably needn't have bothered—not because there are references I wouldn't have gotten (like "Black Atlantic"), but because it's completely full of references I don't get, or so I infer from the copious presence of references I do get.

But it's clear, even from this small set of stories, how much the sensibility of a cohort of UK creators—not just comic book writers and artists, but also writers, designers, and more—has its roots in the Dredd universe.

DOUGLAS: That's a big statement to make (designers!), but a defensible one, I think--but I'm going to ask you to defend it! I'd love to know what sensibilities, exactly, or maybe what creators' sensibilities (especially creators outside comics) you see as being connected to what you see here...

It's true enough that a lot of comics writers from the British Isles, in particular, got early breaks in 2000 AD and then started doing work in the U.S., too: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dan Abnett, Mike Carey, Mark Millar, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and a handful of others. (Neil Gaiman wrote four Future Shocks and a prose Judge Hershey story; Warren Ellis wrote... one five-page Dreddverse horror story in an early issue of the Megazine.)

But one thing I think is interesting about "Low Life," in particular, is that it's sort of the sensibility that came out of 2000 AD and then passed through other comics returning to the source. "Low Life" first appeared in the spring of 2004, and in some ways it's a very post-Transmetropolitan series--its rhythms, its sense of comedy, its grime, its overall sense that the city is a damned place. (And Dirty Frank is, visually, Alan Moore by way of early Spider Jerusalem.) In the second volume, D'Israeli takes over as the main "Low Life" artist... and he'd previously drawn the Ellis-written series "Lazarus Churchyard" in the early '90s (which was reprinted in the Megazine in the early 2000s).

(Side note: D'Israeli's just astonishing. I particularly love his recent blog posts on how he's been drawing the current "Low Life" serial--which turns out to allude to a lot of imagery he saw in early 2000 AD!)

Similarly, "Con Artist"--the serial-killer convention story--keeps recalling Gaiman's serial-killer convention in Sandman. And "Rock and a Hard Place" has roots in "Heavy Metal Dredd" and maybe Alan Moore and Alan Davis's "The Hyper-Historic Headbang"... I want to say filtered through Sex Bob-Omb, but it's hard for me to imagine that Rob Williams or Simon Coleby would have read Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life before they started working on a story that was serialized in early 2005.

DEB: In terms of recognising the Dredd sensibility from UK creators, including non-comics creators...I talked to my friend Adam to help articulate this, and he reminded me of the piece Matt Jones, of the influential London-based design consultancy BERG, wrote for io9 a couple of years ago: "The City Is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future" (although watching my friends in NYC deal with Sandy this week, it feels a bit like that particular exoskeleton took a direct hit and seized up, with its human trapped inside). When I think of London’s design community, I think of future-facing/experimental work on cities, sensors, and biology—sound familiar? To my North American perspective, the whole UK tech and design scene has this uniquely British-feeling mixture of humour and the unexpected–playfulness, in other words—and that’s what immediately felt familiar to me when I read “Low Life.” That community seems deeply rooted not just in 2000 AD, but in Boys’ Own and Dan Dare, and other British visions of the future (versus, say, Star Trek) And BERG themselves were named by Warren Ellis, who is closely linked with that scene, after the British Experimental Rocketry Group in The Quatermass Experiment.

And of course, given a choice of ur-texts to inspire the scenius of creative technologists, I’ll take the Dan Dare and 2000 AD of Silicon Roundabout over the Atlas Fucking Shrugged of Silicon Valley any day of the week.

DOUGLAS: YES. High five.

Another thing that fascinates me about "Low Life" is how well it works. It debuted within a couple of months of "The Simping Detective," the other durable series about undercover Judges in the nasty parts of town that's currently running in 2000 AD, and the first serial wraps up in a fairly conclusive way... but, by my thumbnail calculation, "Low Life" has run the fourth-greatest number of pages of any Dredd spinoffs, after "Anderson - Psi Division," "Armitage" and "Devlin Waugh." Part of that may be that it's become a very different sort of series over the past eight years or so: first it's Nixon's story, then it's an ensemble piece, and by the end of this volume Dirty Frank is stealing so many scenes that the way the series later shifts to belong to him makes sense.

I'm curious about the references you don't get vs. do get balance; rereading the "Low Life" this volume with that in mind, the only part of it I noticed where a joke would be entirely lost if you didn't know its antecedent was "Dirty Frank wants to take the Long Walk." How much did you end up picking up from context? (A different way of asking that: If you'd believed "Low Life" and "Lenny Zero" shared a setting but didn't directly refer to anything earlier, what might you have made of them?)

DEBBIE: Yeah, no, totally didn’t get the Long Walk allusion, and would not have seen any relationship between “Low Life” and “Lenny Zero” besides that shared setting.

In terms of references that I get and don't get, there are really two kinds: those that are internal to the Dreddverse and those that are allusions to the larger culture. Just in the Lenny Zero section, the latter case includes the reference to the Laws of Robotics in "Dead Zero" and the Resyk Dogs and Usual Perps posters in Zero's apartment. But those are just the references that I twigged--which suggests that there are others I don't get. For example, the poster on the bottom left of the last page of "Wipeout" looks tantalizingly familiar. 

Like pretty much everyone else, I love pop (and, for that matter, high) culture references. When you get them, they inevitably make you feel like one of the cognoscenti (and when you don't get them, they usually just slide past you, rather than making you feel dumb). I'm convinced that a large component of the success of The Simpsons was its ability to make viewers feel like they were in on an endless series of in-jokes, although it'll be interesting to see how well they date, bereft of their original cultural context. But the other reason why I love these sorts of references is for how they both define and celebrate a cultural commons--their success is predicated on a shared knowledge of cultural touchstones, whether it's Tarantino movies or Asimov novels. 

Conversely, references to other parts of the Dreddverse (like the allusion to "Black Atlantic," which I only got because of my Wikipedia cheatsheet) help cement its reality, its independent existence. As a non-superhero reader I had heard of DC- and Marvel-universe partisans, but didn’t really believe they existed until the day that I got caught in the crossfire between a comic book store clerk and a customer. But I am sympathetic to having grown up within these giant connected worlds and the power they hold over you.

I didn’t read comics as a child—I didn’t get into them until I was a teenager, and started straight in on Morrison and Miller and Gaiman. But I did grow up on Star Wars and Tolkien. My favourite moment in the movie Galaxy Quest is when Captain Nesmith contacts the young fanboy, Brandon, who begins by protesting that he knows it’s just a story. Nesmith cuts him off with, “It’s all real,” and Brandon’s first response is, “I KNEW IT!” Similarly, China MiĆ©ville talks about how “There are people playing home-brewed RPGs set in Bas-Lag and there is no higher compliment.” It’s like there’s a bit of our brain that squirts out some endorphins when we make the connection between different bits of the universe that reveal its unity. Not, now that I think of it, unlike my moment of revelation in high school when I understood how trigonometric identities in calculus worked—that they weren’t just algorithmic steps but the logical consequence of the underlying structure of mathematics.

DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Tangentially to that, though, for shared-universe (science) fiction to really have power for me as a reader, I think it has to have something beyond what Wikipedia calls "a primarily in-universe" perspective--that is, it can't rely only on knowledge of the fictional world for its meaning. (This is one of the reasons I have trouble enjoying X-Men comics, even though I absorbed nearly all of them for an eight-year-or-so period in the '80s and like a lot of other comics by other people who work on them these days; when I look at them now, they're just about moving the familiar pieces around in circles.)

I like this period of Low Life at least in part because it's a nifty premise on its own--"undercover cops have gotten in so deep they kind of don't belong topside any more." (Lenny Zero has a sort of similar premise--"undercover cop flips to the dark side"--as well as a tone borrowed from the Reservoir Dogs/Usual Suspects cluster of movies, which I understand were much bigger in the U.K. than in the U.S.) Both of them are secondarily made much richer by the Mega-City One setting, which has a whole lot of pre-established fun stuff on its own, as well as a much-larger-than-life aesthetic that means there can be something new and outlandish at every turn.

By "every turn," I mean in part every page turn. I think some of the reason that cluster of British creators hit it big in America is that they'd all gotten used to working in miniature. Most of the episodes of Low Life in this volume are five pages long; distilling a complete, satisfying chunk of story (that ends with a cliffhanger) into that little space isn't easy. Even so, Williams is great at making space for visual spectacle. I think every episode of "Paranoia" opens with an impressive splash panel and includes some other striking image somewhere. (He's gotten even better at that, now that he's working with the intensely simpatico D'Israeli; there's something worth staring at on every page of the current serial, "Saudade.") Lenny Zero doesn't have quite as many set-pieces to look at, but it has that plot-twist-every-page trick that I like a lot too.

There's another Rob Williams-written Dredd-universe spinoff, "Breathing Space," a serial that ran back in 2005. It's a clever concept--a noir/hard-boiled detective story set on the moon--and I enjoyed most of it enormously, until it hit its resolution, which hinges on some things that had been well established in that fictional universe but never mentioned in the story itself up until that point, and that don't have anything to do with "Breathing Space"'s genre, either. It's as if it reached out to the fictional universe to solve its plot, which feels like a little bit of a cheat.

(On the other hand, I do appreciate what I read as a metafictional touch in "Heavy Duty": the suggestion that while Judge Dredd's occasional use of enormously fat characters for comedy's sake sometimes does work, there's also something really offputting about that kind of body-policing. Are Williams and Flint trying to have it both ways? Maybe--although the specialty of this particular shared universe is having things both ways.)

This is, as you suggest, a (fictional) world in which it's easy to spend lots of time, both with a book in your hands and without one; over time I'm coming to appreciate, even more, the devotion of 2000 AD's readers and creators to each other. This week's issue, #1807, includes a big, beautifully executed surprise; people have been saying things online like "wow, I've been reading this series for 20/25/30 years and I didn't see that coming." And as nice as it is that it's still capable of thrilling surprises like that, the fact that so many people have been reading it for that long is even more heartening.

DEB: It’s funny that you describe X-Men as ‘just about moving familiar pieces around in circles’–that is also, of course, how people normally describe soap operas, another medium that is defined and constrained by its own pocket universe. But people writing comics have far less excuse to run out of ideas, since they have the whole multiverse to play in. I often describe the difference between ‘realistic’ fiction and science fiction/fantasy as the difference between whole numbers and real numbers: both are infinite, but the infinity of real numbers is still bigger.

My Twitter feed was all abuzz about prog #1807—I haven’t seen any spoilers about what happens in it, and to be honest, a newcomer to 2000 AD I doubt I would understand it (and I certainly wouldn’t appreciate the impact) of it. But I’m really delighted that the investment of long-time readers into the universe was repaid.

You commented on how hard it is to write a satisfying story in miniature, and one of the things I noticed was how closely linked the visuals are to the text. Douglas Hofstadter talks about this in his book on translation, Le Ton Beau de Marot, which riffs on a 16th-century French poem in which each line is only three syllables long, with a tight rhyme scheme that alternates with the sentence breaks. Translating the poem is an exercise in trying to juggle the semantics and the structure, with basically no wiggle room. Six pages seems like a comic book analogue of that—trying to figure out how to most effectively combine the two elements (text and graphics) to convey everything about the story. In “Low Life: Paranoia”, you could see this in the economy of the flashback sequences, but it was most evident in the temporal gaps. When the narrative transitions from Nixon fighting her way out of the club to recovering at Link’s place, it’s heralded by a single floating squared speech bubble, the tiniest fraction of the page, but the transition actually happens during the page turn. A pretty efficient use of real estate!

DOUGLAS: I think more even than soap operas, most mainstream comics franchises are required to put the pieces back where they started. My favorite Marvel-and/or-DC series in recent months was the Kieron Gillen-written run on Journey Into Mystery, which ended a week and a half ago in a very impressive way that I will also attempt not to spoil. (Gillen's another one of those British writers whose work has 2000 AD somewhere in its DNA, I suspect.) Tom Ewing wrote a really good piece about it called "The House Always Wins," which centers on what Stan Lee supposedly called "the illusion of change": the Big Thing that happens and then, eventually, un-happens, to restore the original premise of superhero comics, basically every single time. Neil Gaiman touched on it, thematically, in Marvel 1602; I haven't gotten to finish reading AvX yet, but as I understand it ends by undoing most of the major changes Brian Michael Bendis set up at the beginning of his Avengers run.

And one thing I love about 2000 AD is that it very often does kick over the toys for keeps. Supporting characters die and don't (usually) come back. Lead characters even die and don't come back, Johnny Alpha notwithstanding. There's no cosmic reset button. Changes are permanent. Stories end. Low Life can't go back to "Aimee Nixon's latest wacky mission." Even old reliable Dredd is structured to head very slowly toward some kind of ending: I can't imagine it'll be any time soon, but it also can't go on forever. (He's close to 70 years old now; over the past 35 years' worth of stories, MC1 has lost over 90% of its population. His job is shifting from defending the city to deferring the inevitable.)

DEB: A number of people I know—probably not coincidentally, mostly in the UK comics scene—are super-excited about Risk Legacy, the newest version of the boardgame, which came out last year. One of the amazing things about the game is that the rules all evolve as you play, depending on the choices made by players. It comes with a number of sealed components, and each has a specific condition under which it’s opened. Those new rules take effect permanently (as in, “affix this sticker to the board,” “rip up this card,” and the like). So it’s more like the 2000 AD of boardgames—decisions made lead to continuing changes—than the ‘everything resets to the beginning’ mode of most boardgames and comics.

Jumping back a bit, I wanted to pick up on  your thoughts on the body-policing and enormously fat characters: I think that they are, to some extent, trying to have it both ways. At the start of “Heavy Duty” I was like, “Oh yeah, here we go, getting the comedy from the fat people.” I was surprised by how sensitive it was, including Tyrone Appleby’s comeuppance for the crime of, basically, making his overweight charges feel like shit. Having said that, Rob Williams pretty much went straight to the “let’s make fun of women who don’t look like Barbie” well for in “Rock and a Hard Place” by putting Thora into full fetish gear, for no adequately explained reason.

The way these stories handled the visual portrayal of gender was similarly schizophrenic. I was immediately impressed that Lenny Zero’s girlfriend ‘Mona’ was shown, on the very first page, as pretty normal-looking. Overly-sexualized female characters are the canary in the comic coal mine for me – if open a book and see a character whose boobs are falling out of her top and whose ass is on display for no reason, it’s usually a clear sign that the creators don’t care about the character, or her contribution to the story (as with Thora in “Rock in a Hard Place”). And “Low Life” does a decent job with its female characters, although there’s the occasional move into T&A territory, sometimes explained (Aimee Nixon was required to dress as a prostitute in two successive cases, really?) and sometimes completely inexplicable (who goes out on a mission in underwear, a trenchcoat, and nothing else? or why do most Judges get armour over their chest, but Nixon gets a transparent panel?).
Speaking of Aimee Nixon... Dirty Frank is amusing, but Nixon is my favourite of the three protagonists, hands-down. She’s the anti-Batman. Bruce Wayne watched the killing of his parents when he was a child, and he grew up to be a fabulously wealthy loner vigilante, who uses his money to make boys’ toys. Not only was Nixon not helpless in the face of her parents’ death, but it was her own actions as a child (patricide) that made her an orphan. Rather than standing outside the system like Batman, she chose to find a place in the system and became a Judge. Instead of living alone in a fabulous manor, her home is together with the poorest people in Mega-City One. And while Batman famously has no special powers, Nixon had her arm amputated, voluntarily, and replaced with a prosthetic. That’s a fascinating lacuna, incidentally: the only explanation  given is that she wanted to “blend in,” which seems fairly inadequate, especially when you look at all the other Low Life Judges. Body Integrity Identity Disorder?

DOUGLAS: Neat link! I think the running joke with Wally Squad Judges is that they're able to "blend in" because they look unlike anybody else around them--nobody expects freakish-looking, mentally unstable types to be cops.

I love the idea of Aimee Nixon as the anti-Batman, though. I think you can extend that, too. Batman obsessively stays to his side of the border between himself and the people he opposes; Nixon knows that the difference between herself and her perps is not much more than nominal--that she's not just in the Low Life but of it. Remember, she does have one special power of sorts: she can lie exactly as convincingly as she can tell the truth. And without giving anything away about subsequent "Low Life" stories (some of which I'll be getting to in January), that becomes significant later on (so does the arm, actually!), and is relevant to the "not putting the pieces back where they used to be" point.


(A small bibliographical note: the book we're looking at is the first Mega-City Undercover collection, which is, I believe, still in print in the U.K., but got carved up oddly for the States. The early Lenny Zero stories have gotten bumped over to the American collection Lenny Zero and the Perps of Mega-City One, alongside the Bato Loco and Slick Dickens material; the Low Life stories from this volume are collected in the U.S. as Low Life: Paranoia--except that "He's Making a List" isn't included there. Who knows why?)

Thanks again to Deb! Next week: Josie Campbell joins me to discuss Total War.

1 comment:

  1. It was a pleasure to read such a learned and enthusiastic inter-disciplinary discussion of those stories. Warren Ellis's involvement with BERG was news to me, and The House Always Wins (linked to above) illustrates exactly what I find most valuable about 2000ad.

    Well, with the exception of Awakening of Angels and what appears to be going on with Johnny Alpha. Two times in 35 years isn't bad going, I suppose.