4 out of 5
While some of these thrills included across these progs are a little uneven – lacking in story, or maybe slight misfires on art – they all offer something, and perhaps more importantly, make for a perfectly varied sets of tones and visuals such that the benefits of an “anthology” can truly be taken advantage of: there’s always something different right around the corner.
Note that this review is focused on the progs after 2212, which was the 100-page Xmas issue. The ongoing stories actually started there, but it was definitely a quality issue in and of itself, featuring moody Laurence Campbell art on a Strontium Dog one-shot – a surprisingly fantastic match – an appreciated Survival Geeks coda (how I miss thee), a pretty good Visions of Deadworld that benefitted from some humor and quality artwork from Dave Kendall (I normally find his painted stuff a little too static), and an amusingly self-referential Time Twisters from T.C. Eglington and Warren Pleece.
On to the rest:
In the Dredd slot, we start off with Desperadlands, which is mostly important as a return for artist William Simpson after, apparently, two decades. Unfortunately, Michael Carroll’s type of Dredd plotting – which is normally heavy on history and setting – is beyond the artist’s abilities at this point, especially for the painted style he here employs. Dredd travels out to an airborne landscape in search of a quarry; the beats of a general hunt are in place, but man, the art simply destroys all clarity – you can’t tell which characters are which, and a sense of space (pretty important when we’re placed in an environment with shifting landmasses) is completely absent. I think the uniqueness of Simpson’s look is cool, it’s just not a good match for Carroll, or for the strip in general. Thereafter, the Dredds become fantastic, though. Ken Niemand’s / Dan Cornwell’s ‘Naked City’ is a hilarious take featuring a mall cop with x-ray vision – everyone appears nude – that would be a gag strip in a lesser writer’s / artist’s hands, but is equally hilarious and exciting throughout with this team; ‘Health & Happiness’ by Rob Williams is a little mean-spirited, but it’s a good jab at predatory businesses and false hope – plus, it gives Simon Coleby more strips on which to shine, and he’s a great match for moody Dredd stuff; Niemand returns on ‘Against the Clock’ – another interesting look at a background character in MC-1, a delivery-person, with some of Patrick Goddard’s best, most-balanced art to date, and fantastic colors from Dylan Teague; finally: Noam Chimpsky! This is actually a double-dip, as Noam appeared in the Xmas prog as well, and that’s almost ’nuff said: more Niemand greatness, with PJ Holden really settling in to his Dredd stylings on a murder mystery that our favorite judge-adjacent chimp has to solve.
Durham Red: Served Cold, by Alec Worley and Ben Willsher. This team’s updated take on Red have been promising, but this was the first outing that really felt solid all the way through. Willsher’s big, blocky style was a good fit for the setting – a winter-bound prison – and his great character designs worked well on the varied cast, comprised of various ne’er-do-wells who descend on the prison to kidnap Red. She convinces her guards to team up with her so they can go on defense. The emotional juggling Red goes through – her thirst versus the need to do right – is very well effected, and Worley keeps the plot moving along, while also delivering worthwhile story beats in each prog.
Slaine: Dragontamer. I am, by now, knowingly not a Pat Mills fan (at least in regards to the stuff I’ve read of his in the past decade or so), and especially not Slaine, which just never seems to go anywhere. I suspect with more of an appreciation for the strip’s initial runs I might appreciate it, but there’s not been enough to draw me back to those to find out. Dragontamer continues this sensibility, to the extent that I struggle to describe what it’s about, except that Slaine goes weird and slaughters some people. And there’s a dragon. And I hate being that glib, but the narratives on these are sincerely impenetrable to me – I can follow it from page to page, but end up having no idea what the overall gist is. That said, something works pretty well, here: new Slaine artist Leonardo Manco. I liked Simon Davis’ oddball stuff, but his work could equally be said to have added to my barrier-to-entry on Slaine, as it abstracted page flows and consistency to the point where it just doubled down on Mills’ wayward scripting tendencies. Manco, while maybe still lacking in eye direction when action amps up – it’s not always clear what the focus of a panel should be – otherwise delivers absolutely delicious and brutal artwork. It’s gorgeous, blood-soaked, detailed stuff, and so I enjoyed flipping through these pages and they made me want to read them, even if the effort to get into the story itself still ultimately failed.
The next Proteus Vex entry. Mike Carroll’s completely bonkers sci-fi adventure featuring super-spy type agent Proteus and his secret “flesh pilot” – a little being who rides inside his body and directs him – continues, with Jake Lynch taking over art from Henry Flint. While the forums suggested a lot of people missed Flint’s bonkers stylings on the strip – and I do agree that its incredibly striking nature was a big draw – I think Lynch does a great job of maintaining elements of it while streamlining the look somewhat, which also helps to visually clarify what’s a fairly complex strip. The plot takes an interesting, and similarly more focused, direction, with Vex uncovering a conspiracy involving a maligned race called The Quiet. It’s a visually compelling and narratively interesting addition to the world; I’m looking forward to – hopefully – more Vex, as well as a collected addition to be able to experience this stuff altogether.
Rob Williams and Simon Fraser bring us the next chunk of Hershey’s post-death story, The Brutal. I think it’s fun how Williams connects this to his other Dredd-world creations, but it’s in line with Williams’ writing in general: building up a lot of potential and then leaving much of it on the table. His stories seem to end abruptly, and that occurs here as well – Hershey’s journey is intended to be this punishing, fraught thing and the surface makes it seem like that, with a lot of violence, and Fraser’s stark art, but it’s not actually in the text. However, like Dragontamer, the look of this makes it compelling to dig in to, and I do think it’s a good setup and concept, even if it peters out by the end.
Thistlebone starts back up, which is exciting, but I’ll take that on in the next round of progs. Lastly, there’s a 3riller stuffed in here, from Roger Langridge and Brendan McCarthy. Firstly, it’s good to have McCarthy’s indulgences curbed and guided by another writer, and secondly, it’s nice to see him functioning in “normal” art mode and not defaulting to his usual psychedelic stylings. I dig that look, but it grows repetitive when it’s what he falls back on. This mini-detective yarn about a human copper and his robot assistant is a little stretched for puns (because it’s Langridge) but enjoyable over all. McCarthy’s art (whether “normal” or not) has a pixellated look to it as of late – dunno how he’s producing the stuff, or how the mag is, that makes this stick out, but it’s weird. Len O’Grady’s color assist helps to smooth it over, though.
A unique batch of thrills – Proteus Vex and several Dredds were standouts, with Durham Red coming in a solid second place, but otherwise a lot of stuff I might consider average. However, given how distinct each entry was, I was excited to dig in to each week’s prog, ultimately making it a very successful run.