Chopper TPB – John Wagner, Garth Ennis, Alan McKenzie

4 out of 5

While only part of this collection is truly great – the sad and somber Oz epilogues scripted by Wagner, Soul on Fire and Song of the Surfer – even when things are on shaky ground, with the very wrong-footed Earth, Wind & Fire by Garth Ennis, the titular focus of this collection is such a unique creation amidst the Dreddverse that his exploits almost naturally lend themselves to being worthwhile reads, as though the heart of the character can’t allow things to go too far astray.

I can’t make this statement absolute, since I certainly haven’t read every 2000 AD prog and strip, but Chopper stood apart from the get-go, as a purposeful subversion of the ultra-cop fronting of the book, and the oft-used ‘citizens can never win’ routine, and allowed us an underdog for whom to root. Rather important to Chopper’s – Marlon Shakespere’s – identity is that he wasn’t particularly out to do anything world-changing, he just wanted to make a name for himself by spraypainting, and then skysurfing. This second run is where Wagner and Grant found a broader palette with which to paint Marlon’s characterization, and when we get to the 25-part Oz, although it wanders, it is definitely a unique sub-title in the Dreddverse at that point: very character-centric, and allowing for introspection over action. That’s the absoluteness of how Chopper stands out: while we’ve definitely had some deep Dredd tales over the years, they have to dig heavily into world-building, since Joe himself can’t be developed en masse in a single strip; and when we’ve branched out to other characters and corners, there’s often a concept as a focus, or the titles are necessarily action-bound.

This mood is solidified by Wagner’s solo-scripted followups, the angry and haunted Soul on Fire, and then the brutal – though still darkly comedic, as is John’s skill – Song of the Surfer, as drawn by Colin MacNeil, years before his current, pop-art stylized look (and definitely drawing some notes from his then-contemporaries like Cam Kennedy and Steve Dillon, though with a leaning towards Marvel-style “realism”). These are heavy, bleak things, very internal, and peaking in one of the most brilliantly downbeat is-it-a-win-or-loss conclusion when Chopper competes in yet another Skysurf.

…Rather undone by Garth Ennis and John McCrea on Earth, Wind & Fire. We’ll have to assume that Garth wasn’t wholly responsible for bringing Chopper back – I mean, it might’ve been his idea, but someone could’ve said ‘no’ – but he was a popular character, and so here we are. And to be honest, I think he did some okay things here; once we’re allowing for Marlon to return, setting him up as something of a protector of the Oz radbacks makes sense, and Ennis is lured by the “soul” of the series with which Wagner imbued it, inserting some struggles of personality (Marlon isn’t a local, after all, but he’s acting like one) and a corporate greed versus the will of the people premise – a big company wants to raze the radbacks for (insert nonsenes explanation) profits – is well in line with the underdog vibe. But it all gets away from Ennis, turning Chop into a Dirty Harry action star and, of course, featuring the writer’s usual share of crass (and dated) humor, and Marlon ends up getting completely lost in the story (as do some side characters who, like, disappear). John McCrea’s moody, painted art is fascinating, though – I doubt I could’ve picked this out at his work, given my familiarity of him through other Ennis pairings, like Hitman.

Writer Alan McKenzie and John Higgins right the ship a bit with another Supersurf, now in Mega City 2, which a Hondo Cit judge has been tasked (for various maybe-it-made-sense-at-the-time reasons) with escorting Chopper to, first as an adjudicator, then as a participant. McKenzie, at first, seems to treat Hondo Cit with some reverence, although there’s the stereotype of the honorable white man shtick in there, as the judge begins to see Chopper as a warrior, worthy of her taking peeks at from behind curtains, roused from when she’s sleeping in the nude, as all females do. However, something just happens like 3/4ths of the way though, and the strip suddenly jumps into horrible sushi puns and a really cheap and rushed ending. A half-step forward and back, as with Ennis, and again with notable art, painted by Higgins. (There seemed to be some unspoken rule from Song of the Surfer on to do painterly colors…)

The “true” righting of the ship comes, appropriately, with Wagner’s return, several years after the fact, with The Big Meg. While this a Chopper of the 90s, with short hair and acting more like a noir badass than a loner, that soul is still there: Chop returns to Mega City One (not for a Supersurf, thankfully, John rather indirectly asserting that that’s not the only reason for a Chopper story), trying to take care of some personal matters while dodging the pursuits of the long-memoried Dredd, and the internal monologue is weighted by the same introspection that drove Shakespere to be such a standout character in the first place. Patrick Goddard (not painting the art – colors by Chris Blythe) is a good fit for this era, and though this arc doesn’t stand on the same tier as the opening strips, it definitely does feel like the homecoming Chopper needed, and is a great way to close things out.

Also included are two one-shot tales, from Ennis and Wagner, and while they’re narratively blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em, anything with Martin Emond art automatically gets a bump in the ratings. You could buy the book for just his single prog and I wouldn’t fault you.

The collection has a summary of Chopper prior to the events within, and some covers. Alas, no title page.