Jaegir: Beasts Within TPB – Gordon Rennie

4 out of 5

Jaegir is something of a compressed masterpiece for writer Gordon Rennie.  As a long-time 2000 AD contributor, Rennie had run the gamut of originals and existing property additions, many with an eye on serving the title or format; meaning: From some writers you expect some layers folded into their writing, and from some you expect (or hope for) a great story.  The unique thing about 2000 AD is how it seems to encourage the latter, with underlying analysis emerging over the history of a strip, scattered across several creative teams.  Sure, the initial skewering of whatever is already present in the Dredd / Rogue / etc. template, but you don’t enter in to a new thrill wondering what game-changer a certain writer is going to unleash; you read it (or at least I do) to be entertained.  And then subtly deeper things may reveal themselves.

So Rennie had served this same value / purpose over his years, with, by my opinion, a higher hit category than the others, as he allows his ideas to flow purely through the zeitgeist of whatever world in which he’s playing.

I haven’t read much Rogue Trooper.  It doesn’t seem as immediately accessible as Dredd, and whereas the latter is firstly sci-fi, fiddling with dystopian tropes with which I’m familiar, the former seems like a spin on war comics, which have rarely been of interest to me.  And like such books, much seems to rely on awareness of pre-known quantities; in reality-based war stuff that means who did what on what dates using which toys, and in Rogue, that has seemed to be knowing the major players on the opposing sides and what they’re fighting for.

But Jaegir suggests I might have been missing the point.  However, I think Rennie has enhanced the concept, making that point much more poignant while creating a deviously wizened new set of players in the Rogue universe.

In Rogue Trooper, the put-upon Southers are fighting off the Nazi-esque Nords on the chemical-ridden plains Nu-Earth.  To combat their oppressors, the Southers genetically manipulate their soldiers, resulting in the battle-hardened, blue-skinned G.I.s, like Rogue.  Gordon Rennie, in reading these adventures – and as explained in the intro notes – was curious: Why are the Nordland troops always so ugly?  Yes, because they’re the bad guys, but creative gears a’turned, and settled on an in-story explanation: That the response to the G.I. would be the Nords attempting their own manipulations, unfortunately fudging up their own bloodline in the process and leading to the mutations we see.  Further down the road, this “blood taint” can corrupt a soldier to madness, which is where we pick up the story in Jaegir.

Atalia Jaegir is the mixed Nord / Souther blood daughter of notorious Nord Kapiten Josef Jaegir, her ancestry making her the outcast amongst her three brothers, as well as frequently talked down to by her father.  ‘Beasts Within’ tracks Atalia through three varied interactions with the most extreme version of that blood taint, the so called Strigoi taint, after her four person ‘Office of Public Truth’ squad – dedicated to hunting down internal insurgents – is (via Atalia) convinced to moonlight working for the Office of Genetic Purity.

Obviously fascist concepts abound here, if the Nazi roots weren’t enough, but Rennie creates an incredibly nuanced – but still Nordlander, through and through – character with Atalia, whose muddled background and yet perseverance to become a respected o officer puts her in a good position to bounce some heady concepts off of.  However, Gordon never halts the Rogue Trooper world for an agenda; it all blossoms magnificently out of what’s already there, given root by this seedling idea and a character who can bridge the thought divide between Nord and South.

The art team of Simon Coleby and colorist Len O’Grady, meanwhile, bring the experience to dreary, red-skied life: Everything is dirty, and creaky, and bleary.  It’s perfect for the stories’ tones.  Coleby’s figures sometimes have an odd stiffness to them, but it ends up working well with their gnarled, lined features and general roboticism.  The Rogue Trooper world generally looks pretty empty to me; in this duo’s hands, though, it drops you right in the shit in a good way, slumming in the trenches with the slaves and soldiers.

Of the three main tales in this collection, opener Strigoi ends up feeling like a warm-up, when the subsequent Circe repeats similar beats but makes it clear the Rennie is worls-building.  Tartarus takes the conceptual quandaries underpinning the series and twists them, with Atalia suddenly fighting alongside Southers.  The character workbis so strong throughout (and Atalia’s team and family so fascinating or fun) that you’d be willing to go through countless iterations of similar tales to learn more.

So we know by now, quite well, that Rennie can write a thrilling sci-fi tale.  And Jaegir shows the writer taking all of those years of experience and turning in something very, very fresh – and compelling – within the seeming confines of a classic pre-existing universe.