4 out of 5
Almost every thrill over these past weeks came with an exception – maybe a conclusion fell off, or a scene didn’t land – but, on the whole, I found myself really enjoying and looking forward to strips I normally wouldn’t care for, and the whole anthology selling point of the mag worked in its incredible favor: when I’d hit one of these exceptions, the other strips would be there to prop it up.
In the Dredd slot, Rob Williams does a couple of followups to his Four Horsemen interesting-idea-but-stumblingly-executed mess: ‘Carry the Nine’ has Boo Cook on some really nicely grounded art, and though it continues Williams’ habit of rushing an ending, its approach of examining handling crime in MC1 from a financial standpoint instead of judge/jury/executioner is fascinating, and really gave Maitland more opportunity to shine as a fleshed out character. After this, ‘They Shoot Talking Horses, Don’t They?’ features – wouldn’t ya know – Ichabod’s horse from the Four Horsemen, and if this is the ultimate lasting feature from that storyline, Williams has done us a great favor. Up and coming Dan Cornwell on art, and he looks fantastic. Because this a a short, 2-parter, it’s fairly lighter stuff and remains fun the whole way through, as Anderson and Dredd track some curiosities out into the Cursed Lands. Finally, after the regened prog, another up-and-coming superstar – Kenneth Niemand – scripts a Simp story over Steve Austin’s meaty, John Higgins-esque art. Niemand has proven to be good at finding creative points of view to take in the Dreddverse, and this drilldown (and commentary?) on Simp culture, and attempts to “cure” it – and a Simp revolution that boils up as a result – was very interesting, and surprisingly emotional.
Sitckleback, with creators Ian Edginton and D’Israeli pitting Stickle and friends against London-toppling supernatural foes, which first require a jaunt through a dream-verse… I conceptually dig Stickleback – a sort of horror mystery / crime yarn with a fitting outlet for D’Israeli’s weirdest artistic inputs – but its actually storylines have never grabbed me too much. However, since Edginton made the choice to reveal his lead’s identity, it removes the narrative’s need to hang on that hook, and has opened up – I think – more opportunities for the characters and plot. And I was really enjoying Stickleback’s interactions with those around him, and the foray in to surreal realms in some shared dreams. But I don’t think D’Is necessarily scales up for big action well, and so when the team emerges from this to battle some gigantic monsters in London-proper, the story starts to feel clunky. It almost humorously breezes through this battle, though, recovering quickly.
Hokay: Skip Tracer, again handled by its creators, James Peaty and Paul Marshall. I have not liked Skip, and have not been happy that’s its been returning. Peaty is like a Brian Michael Bendis-style scripter to me: his stories are pretty predictable, dressed up with extra words to hide their genericness and dad jokes. That’s harsh sounding criticism, but I’ve enjoyed some Bendis work – any style of writing can entertain, in the right context – and, surprise, I mostly enjoyed this Skip Tracer. Peaty mostly just dropped trying to do any world- or character-building, essentially, and wrote a straight up action yarn: Nolan Blake is protecting a pop star, and that’s what he does. Being able to put on blinders to everything else and just leaning in to the strip’s genericness made it like a fun, straight-to-vid romp, telegraphed twists and everything. I also really enjoyed Dylan Teague’s sort of pastel-hued color palette this time out, as it seemed like the right match for the simplistic tone of the tale.
Fiends of the Eastern Front gives us Constanta’s origin, as told by Edginton and, given license to go buck wild with insane creatures, huge battle sequences, lots of violence, and awesomely defined characters, a slobber-over-every-page Tiernen Trevallion on art. The undertaking of this origin is pretty massive, and although it starts far and wide from its eventual “…and this is how I became a vampire” goal – meaning the transition from the former, more fantasy-infused aspects of its opening to its blood-slicked latter half is pretty jarring – I was hooked on this. It’s framed as one man telling a story to another, and it has the charm of that, of being presented with the flourish of storytelling. Having been given so many vampire origin stories across many, many books, movies, and comics, I really have to hand it to Ian and Tiernen for crafting one that managed to surprise, and have impact, and even give Constanta an emotional edge I wasn’t expecting.
In short bursts we also get Dan Abnett and Nicolo Assirelli and Steve Yeowell continuing Sinister Dexter, and some Deadworld one-shots from Kek-W and Dave Kendall. Sinister Dexter has really gone in some unexpected directions with its rogue AI storyline, and continues to do so. I have to believe we’ll return to status quo at some point, but Abnett has effectively sold the Big Changes he drops here, and I can’t wait for it to return (though I do hope we see Assirelli continue over Yeowell’s looser, empty-paneled work). Deadworld also landed on a format of isolated, small-stakes tales that really highlighted its creators’ strengths: Kek, to me, tends to go off the rails with larger stories, and Kendall, being a painted artist, doesn’t render big action sequences very excitingly, or all that clearly. As these are more “this is what was going on on the sidelines” one shots, it allows Kek’s creativity to shine, and Kendall can drill down on the grim details.
I’ve saved Hook-Jaw’s ongoing strip for last, because… man, I really did not enjoy this. This was the only thrill that I struggled through, consistently. The classic killer shark turned in to a sort of vengeful killer god – seemingly capable of, like, attacking anywhere, anytime – is a good “in” for revitalizing and modernizing Hook-Jaw, and you given me Leigh Gallagher on art and I should be good, but this was just unpleasant. It was unpleasant people whose motivations beyond “escape shark” were never really clear, and Alec Worley stitched it together in a very unnecessarily time-jumpy format that further prevented these people and their motivations from having a sense of consistency. And then Gallagher’s instructions seemed to be to just lean in to the gore, which could be okay – his artwork is undeniably visceral and, on some level, “cool,” – but mapped to the unpleasant storyline, it just came across as, like, torture porn.
But lookit all the good combatting Hook Jaw: for 12 weeks of progs, I was pretty damned engaged in 80% of the mag, and tuned in to stories I normally didn’t care for.