Posted on

To Hell in a Habitat: the creeping horror of collapse in ‘Brink’

Welcome back to the Brink – to mark the new collection from Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s claustrophobic sci-fi procedural Brink, comics critic Tom Shapira examines how the series reflects a horror that is both profound and, for our world, all too prescient…

As I am writing this article the media is still talking about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos making their way to space. Granted, they’ve just barely made it, to the lowest rung of what we call space, but they are already talking big game about colonizing the solar system. Musk stated that Earth is basically kaput, and that the only way for the species to survive is off planet: “History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event, the alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species,” but here’s the thing about space – space doesn’t want to us. It’s cold and hard, and lacking of some basic necessities (like oxygen).

People sent to space for any length of time nowadays go through rigorous physical and psychological training to make sure they are well equipped to deal with various dangers of space living. What’s more, these people also have a dedicated ground crew keeping watch of their every move and advising them on how to proceed. Just putting on the right set of clothes to go out on the most basic of space-walks is a job in and of itself; And if anything goes wrong, the lightest thing, well… to quote a different 2000 AD serial – “You’re hit, you’re dead.”

Which brings us to Dan Abnett and I.N.J Culbard’s ongoing series Brink. In this strip humanity has moved on to space and found out exactly how hard it is. Taking place several decades after the final evacuation of a now-unliveable Earth, what’s left of humanity is surviving in a series of artificial satellites, called “Habitats,” each holding hundreds of thousands to millions of people. Each habitat is a pressure cooker: space is at a premium and only the wealthy are able to afford more than few private feet to themselves, food options are limited and population just barley keeps by with a combination of prescription (and off-prescription) drugs. 

As opposed to many other 2000 AD strips, in which space travel is incidental and easy, Brink is dedicated to show you how gruelling this type of existence would be. Characters constantly appear (and act) haggard, art and text note the unhealthy skin tone of most people, reactions to public violence appear incidental – people have gotten used to it. Little surprise that space law enforcement, in the form of Habitat Security Division (HSD) have their hands full. Moving off planet didn’t solve any of the old issues, just imported them to a new environment, but it did create several new ones.  Including a new series of dangerous cults that hold particular beliefs about the things that lurk in space, beliefs that appear at first to be unhinged… until they are not.       

Book 4 of Brink is called “Hate Box,” that’s a good name. the titular box is the unofficial name of omnipresent device in Salma Habitat, the largest habitat we’ve seen so far, which gives $1 fines to anyone uttering a swear word. The inherent irony, that a mechanism meant to suppress the surface face of negativity becomes itself a target of constant seething rage, is obvious. More than that, however, the device is a constant reminder to ongoing state of humanity – for what are the habitats themselves if not tiny boxes filled with hate? Constantly reminding people where they are (while taking their money), does not alleviate stress. More than anything this reminds me of anti-homeless architecture – the problem isn’t taken care of, but is simply sent away so people can keep ignoring it.

The key to Culbard’s art throughout is how cramped and tight it is – six to nine panel grids are the norm, and the layouts are often in the form of tight little squares. What appears, at first, to be simple conservative storytelling choice is revealed throughout to be rather brilliant mood piece. We experience the world as the characters do, as a series of cramped little boxes. Whenever the strip does allow itself to go big, a two panel page or even a full splash the results really are disorienting. Whenever someone of a lower status (most characters) finds themselves in an open space they kind-of freaked out, they can’t process all the extra room. Meanwhile, the rich (mostly seen in Book 2, “Skeleton Life”) have room to spare. 

Culbard’s art style is also reflected in the scripts, particularly in the manner characters communicate – words are often precise and clipped. Partly this is the result of the story being a police drama of sorts, the characters often find themselves in high-tension situation and cannot afford any misunderstandings, but this is evident in civilians as well. Life is so dangerous, and room is at such a premium, that even conversations become cramped. When a miscommunication does happen you can see how frustrated people become about the waste of time. The constant I.D. tags, explaining various bits of technology, also work on the same wavelength – they give the whole proceeding a sense of professional report. 

However, while everything is explained not everything is acknowledged. This is a main theme throughout Brink, and particularly in “Hate Box.” People ignore things because they are uncomfortable to talk about, people kicking the problem down the road hoping that someone else would take care of it. In “Hate Box” protagonist Bridget Kurtis is transferred to her old birth habitat, and discovers that the station is rife with crime and her precinct with corruption. Instead of doing something about it her new co-workers constantly tell her that that’s ‘how things are’ and that she should ‘learn to accept it.’ When Kurtis actually tries to take care of a major issue she’s called out for rocking the boat too much. 

This, in itself, becomes symptomatic of the whole society. Living on the brink, seeing the inevitable fall, but being told to ignore it. The mysterious Mercury Event, which seemingly hunts the entire social infrastructure since the end of the Book 1, is constantly in the background. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jerad Diamond refers to this phenomenon as ‘creeping normalcy’: “When I asked my Montana resident friends about the change, they were less aware of it: they unconsciously compared each year’s band [of snow] (or lack thereof) with the previous few years. Creeping normalcy or landscape amnesia made it harder for them than for me to remember what conditions had been like in the 1950s. Such experiences are a major reason why people may fail to notice a developing problem, until it is too late.”

Kurtis notices that things are not as they were, but this takes a huge mental effort (and death of a partner that helped to anchor her in the ‘normal’ way of thinking). She still finds it hard, even impossible, to convince many others to see what she sees. Just like many people today refuse to see global warming for what it is – to acknowledge would disrupt the flow of their life too much, so they simple compartmentalise deadly heatwaves and mass fires as the ‘way things are.’

Brink is a horror story. I am not taking about the monsters that might exist in the depth of the sun, or the edge of the solar system. I am not even talking about the human monsters who would kill with abandon simply to keep the budget balanced (see Book 3). I am talking about the horror of the human condition, about seeing what’s coming and not being able to stop it. It is thus scarier than any story of a tentacled beast or a madman with a knife – they are just symptoms, this is the disease. Welcome to the Brink.

Tom Shapira is the author of Curing the Postmodern Blues (Sequart, 2013) and The Lawman (PanelxPanel, 2020). His articles about comics have appeared in The Comics Journal, Haaretz, Shelfdust, PanelXPanel and others.

Brink: Book 4 is available to order now from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

Brink Books 1-3 are also available as an all-star audiobook adaptation. Listen now on Audible.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

The Levels Of Horror in Kek-W and Dave Kendall’s ‘Fall Of Deadworld’

The third volume of the acclaimed Fall of Deadworld series is out now! Kek-W (Indigo Prime) and Dave Kendall (Magic the Gathering) continue their new vision of the rise of the Dark Judges in a lavish hardback collection, including never seen before concept art and sketches.

Continuing our series of short essays commissioned from selected comics critics that explore 2000 AD and the Treasury of British Comics’ latest graphic novel collections, Ritesh Babu explores how, with its themes of chaos, doom, and decay, the Fall of Deadworld speaks to our present moment.

The world of Judge Dredd just isn’t the same without The Dark Judges. The four horsemen of the apocalypse envisioned so long ago by John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Brian Bolland are the definitive antagonists of the enterprise. From their striking silhouettes to their conceptual potential, they’re a powerful presence in any comic they star in.

They bring a sense of weight with them, as you see artist after artist recreate designs that are Bolland’s magnum opus. They underline the ultimate scathing truth about the fascistic policing structures and systems we’re stuck with by granting us operatic characters who embody its natural extremity: Life itself is a Crime. And it must be Punished. Its ludicrousness delivering home a point that’s impossible to miss.

But also, as fixtures of Judge Dredd, as iconic figures of the mythology going back over 30+ years, readers know what to expect from a story starring The Dark Judges. It’s an inevitability, as part of becoming iconic is forging expectations among readership. You’re familiarized with the beats, having seen Judge Anderson and Dredd take them down. You know at the end of the day that Dredd and Mega City-One must persist, for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic must go on! There is, thus, a sort of safety-net there, as The Dark Judges can never truly ‘win’ and deliver on their fundamental promise, the promise of sentencing all life in the world to death. It must always be avoided.

Kek-W and Dave Kendall’s Fall Of Deadworld is a series that circumvents this struggle entirely by being a prequel set in a different world entirely, charting the course of the horrific Deadworld that had to die to give rise to our Dark Judges. Here, too, the audience knows the inevitable conclusion, but rather than that being one of safety and assurance, it becomes one of dread. Deadworld cannot live, it will not survive. You know this horrific fact, and you are forced to watch these people, life itself, struggle against this. The absolute victory that never comes in regular Dredd tales is an inevitability in Deadworld, and that grants it a special potency that is both hard to come by, and also perfectly suited to a horror story.

And that’s what this is. Kendall’s an artist who takes the aesthetics of Dredd and plunges them down an even deeper pit of operatic maximalist horror that etches every possible detail of life it can. Kendall’s His figures have dimension, they have weight, you see sinew tear and blood flow, and thus the presence and power of death itself is rendered far more potent. And Kek-W writes to that, playing to the gory, chilling visions that Kendall excels with. It’s what makes this book almost akin to watching a slow decomposition, as you see life leaving something. (It will not surprise readers to know that Kendall is also a Warhammer 40k artist.)

But it only really works because of precise framing. If most Dark Judge tales have them at their heights, Deadworld avoids that. These four aren’t quite there yet. It’s not an origin story for them (though we explore their pasts) but it’s about the final stage before they truly morphed into the ultimate antagonists who eliminated all of life. That means they have shreds of humanity left in them, in ways their iconic selves do not. 

Judge Death cannot let go of his bond with his father. Judge Fear has performance anxiety when someone actually stands up to him. Judge Fire is in love and must learn to let go. Judge Mortis is jaded, struck with a deep and corrosive ennui. All of these are ironic hurdles for the Dark Judges to overcome and conflicts for them to wrestle with until they finally become who they’re bound to be. That’s something incredibly unique to what W/Kendall are doing here, particularly in this third volume, joined by letterers extraordinaire Annie Parkhouse and Simon Bowland. And there is a special kind of layer here, as one witnesses The Dark Judges granted these touches of humanity.

But this treatment alone wouldn’t quite have made the series click in the way it does. The real reason it works is it eliminates a key component of the typical Dredd/Dark Judges story – the protagonist is not Dredd or Anderson or a hypercompetent Judge. While it is a sprawling epic of a story, it is one centering upon a little girl named Jess Childs. Judge Fairfax, who seems like he will be the pivotal protector of the girl across the whole story, is immediately taken out of that role, and Jess must fend for herself volume after volume, leading a revolution to save the world.

This is where Deadworld mines its potency. At the end of the world, as everything’s going to hell, the prophesied, put-upon savior and champion is…a poor, traumatized little child who is forced to kill. The typical Chosen One narratives of genre fiction become wretched here, as you watch a poor little girl’s innocence shattered, forced into becoming something she never should have had to. The burdens we put on our youth to save our world, our future, even as we’ve doomed it all, even as it may perhaps be too late, that’s what one sees in Jess Childs, and it’s devastating. Even more so when viewed through the clear political context of this work about America and American power’s place in a dying world.

Here you have an America that’s been sold away, divided and destroyed from the inside, by President Boone, who is a Russian tool, which is what leads to and allows The Justice Department run by The Dark Judges to be where it is. That this is a text of the Trump era is obvious, as the team shows us the ex-President obsessing over his golf even in Russia, while being a puppet of Putin. We even get Judge Mortis talking about manipulation of truth itself, which is absolutely keyed into this moment we’re in.

But that little girls like Jess must bear the burden of bringing about salvation for us all, for the errors and horrific impulses of the old guard, of the powerful? That they don’t even get to live, they don’t get to grieve, but must pick up what they can from the carcasses of their parents to go and try to salvage and ‘save’ the world, which is falling apart due to its monstrous masters? That’s a far more chilling and striking horror story than the kind possible with Dredd at the center.

Ritesh Babu is a freelance writer and comics critic whose work has appeared in outlets such as Panel x Panel, Shelfdust, ComicBookHerald, and many more. He has far too many thoughts on The British Invasion, and can be found obsessing over comics history over at @riteshwriter on Twitter.

The Fall of Deadworld Book Three is available now from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

“The Mediator Between Face and Fist Must be the Heart!”: police and justice in ‘Megatropolis’ and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’

The collection of Kenneth Niemand and Dave Taylor’s stunning Elseworld-style art deco noir Megatropolis is out this week!

Continuing our series of short essays commissioned from selected comics critics that explore 2000 AD and the Treasury of British Comics’ latest graphic novel collections, Harry Kassen explores the deeper connections between the series, which plays on the world and themes of Judge Dredd, and Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 movie Metropolis.

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Megatropolis

Through the years, many of my favorite comics were the ones where creators got to just throw continuity to the wind and have a ball, the wilder the better. This is why I was so pleased to see Megatropolis by Kenneth Niemand, Dave Taylor, and Jim Campbell.

Functioning as a sort of Elseworlds for the Judge Dredd universe, it translates all the things you know and love from Mega-City One into the world of Megatropolis, a sort of Jazz-Age-cum-techno-dystopia that can only be described as the unholy lovechild of The Great Gatsby and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, an inspiration that Niemand and Taylor tout in the title itself.

The influence of Metropolis is undeniable, shaping the city into a chasm interrupted by towering blocks of glass and concrete, with a sky full of airships, criss-crossed by floating highways, all lit up by the twinkle of a million incandescent lamps. Despite this, the story of Megatropolis owes just as much to the context of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film as it does to the content. The city of Megatropolis exists as a physically and socially stratified world, with the rich floating high above in their towers and hovercraft, separated completely from the poor who live below. The cast of characters as well, will be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of the classic Jazz Age and Depression noir tales, with crusading reporters, high society psychics, and corrupt police chiefs. None of this is a particular surprise though. From the title to the marketing to the backmatter design notes, Metropolis is hailed as an influence on the book. Any overlap of aesthetics or premise is virtually promised to any reader at the door. What struck me about Megatropolis is the deeper level on which it integrates the philosophy and themes of Metropolis.

“Motto: The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”

Metropolis is a movie that wears its themes on its sleeves. It opens with an epigraph, pictured above, stating its moral, a line that is often repeated throughout the movie, and serves as the film’s closing line. The basic conflict of the film is that Freder Fredersen, son of the leader of Metropolis, sees the squalid conditions of the working class, and seeks to change them, but at the same time the working class rise up and wreak havoc, as a mass of angry people with no direction. It’s more complicated than this, obviously, but the solution comes about when Freder steps in to mediate between the workers and his father, the master of Metropolis, since they clearly cannot live without each other, but also cannot come to terms unassisted. This is a message and political philosophy that is at best harnessed by liberals to support incrementalist attitudes and policies of reform, and at worst channeled by fascists as evidence that society dissolves without their ironclad hold on culture and labor, and rigid insistence on traditional and ritual practices.

Similarly, from what I understand, Judge Dredd as a franchise does little to conceal its messages. Dredd stories, and Niemand’s Dredd stories in particular, do little to conceal the strip’s core message – that policing is a problematic institution and needs to be dismantled. Due to the overwhelming number of Dredd strips, I’ll let this point stand on its own.

What interests me in all of this is where Megatropolis is on this axis. It follows a traditional noir plot, focusing on Detectives Joe Rico (our Dredd stand-in) and Amy Jara as they investigate the rampant corruption in the city government and police force, as a mysterious vigilante murders their suspects. While this is very different from the story of Metropolis, it aligns itself time and time again with the idea of a mediator or a middle way. The very fact that the book focuses on the police as its heroes, with both the corrupt city leaders and the vigilante targeting them framed as being in the wrong, demonstrates where its values lie. Even the labor leader John Clay, the only non-criminal member of the lower classes with any significant narrative presence, is shown to be hostile to the police, and somewhat suspect as a result.

The clearest manifestation of Megatropolis’themes is at the climax of this volume. Rico and Jara are at a high society party where they believe the vigilante robot known as “Judge Dredd” will attempt to assassinate the corrupt mayor. When Dredd makes his appearance, he grabs the mayor and moves to throw him to his death, but is stopped by Rico, who engages it in a debate over the law. Dredd’s position, that it’s been programmed to believe, is that any law that protects criminals is corrupt. Rico’s stance is that the law has to be pure, even if the people who uphold it and benefit from it are corrupt. This line of reasoning short circuits Dredd, who then submits to execution by other cops on the scene. In scenes following this confrontation, we see that Rico is now the head of a task force tasked with cleaning up Megatropolis, and that Dredd’s creator is using Rico as a model for what Dredd was missing: a conscience.

This is clearly a different position than the usual stance Dredd comics take on policing, and while it doesn’t map neatly onto Metropolis’ conflicts, its ultimate resolution is very similar, to say the least. As I said before, comparing this comic to Fritz Lang’s movie is the obvious move, but the degree to which Niemand and Taylor have recast the source material in the mold of their inspiration is fascinating, and a sharp way of manipulating the material to drive at certain questions. Will the series continue to espouse the reformist-at-best philosophy of Metropolis or will it attempt to interrogate those ideas in future volumes? I couldn’t tell you now, but wherever it goes, I’m excited to see what it does.

Harry Kassen is a writer and comics critic, currently working as the Features Editor at Comics Bookcase, where he created the recurring ‘Comics Anatomy’ feature. You can find him on Twitter at @leekassen, where he shares his thoughts on comics, food, and everything else.

Megatropolis is out this week from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

Rat turned ratcatcher: outsiders and authority in Gosnell & Ezquerra’s ‘Stainless Steel Rat’

Long out of print, the adaptation of Harry Harrison’s science-fiction classic The Stainless Steel Rat by Kelvin Gosnell and Carlos Ezquerra is back in a gorgeous new edition!

Continuing our series of short essays commissioned from selected comics critics that explore 2000 AD and the Treasury of British Comics’ latest graphic novel collections, Ritesh Babu explores how Gosnell and Ezquerra’s adaptation of Harrison’s SF novels accentuates the conflicted anti-authoritarianism that spun out of the author’s own life.

Terry Pratchett once remarked that it wasn’t Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that he found to be the funniest science-fiction novel ever published, but rather Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero. But one was a colossal success, while the other was not.

This, he noted, was because back when it was published in the mid-’60s, SF hadn’t become pervasive and established enough for the audience to ‘get’ what was being spoofed by Bill, The Galactic Hero. Harrison was taking the absolute piss out of Robert Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the kind of poor SF it represented to him, but the audience wasn’t yet big enough to really catch all that by then for it to truly take off. Whereas by the time Hitchhiker’s hit in the late ’70s and early ‘80s, SF had been entrenched and familiarized enough that the jokes landed better.

This anecdote has long struck me as the perfect distillation of Harry Harrison as a creator. Never quite as big as those he was taking the piss out of, and the notable names that would come after him, but big enough to be prized among those who remembered. Not an overlooked genius, but certainly a treasured name among your favourite creators of old.

His most chronicled character, and arguably most personal creation, returns to print in graphic form with the new deluxe The Stainless Steel Rat, the legendary Kelvin Gosnell and the inimitable Carlos Ezquerra’s striking take on the novels. Adaptations like these, particularly with this caliber of talent, are not all too common in 2000 AD, and this is perhaps the cream of the crop, bathed in the aesthetics of the iconic artist who brought us into the world of Mega-City One.

It’s a classic of 2000 AD’s first ‘Golden Age’, produced in the late ‘70s and up to the mid-‘80s, adapting three of Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels.

And sitting down with it now, in 2021, makes for a curious exercise. Stainless Steel Rat is very much defined by its tensions, the push-and-pull between things, and the contradictions that seem to be essential to his make-up. It’s a pulpy SF vision of the future, set thousands of years ahead where crime is largely minor, with 99% of it being ‘petty’ attempts which the police of the future will detect and stop. It’s a post-war society, wherein the last war took place over 5,000 years ago, and peace treaties signed since then have held up. There’s the sense of utopian outlook here, wherein the only crooks of note, that tricky 1%, are sneaky criminals driven not by seeming need, but pure thrills. The entire setup isn’t particularly new, and is inherited from Harrison’s predecessors. But it’s tempered with an adoration and fascination towards the outsider element who’d typically be the crooked antagonist to be arrested by the heroic lawman in such stories, to maintain balance.

That’s what gets you James Bolivar diGriz, aka Slippery Jim, the gentleman thief and conman who resents authority, who loves the thrill of risk, and relishes the art of crime. He’s the man who could easily lose the police patrol on his tail, but keeps them just to screw with them. He values style above all else, and is a man whose morality prevents him from killing, even those who seek to kill him.

Things get interesting, however, when this rogue outsider is recruited by The Special Corps, the super-cops of the universe. The most highly effective agents and operators of the law, who almost have a mythic reputation, for none caught by them is ever seen again. The Criminal is now The Cop. Tellingly, The Special Corps is made up entirely of ex-criminals – the biggest crooks of the cosmos are now the cops. There’s something darkly funny about that, and that’s the kind of odd tension I mean when discussing this.

Harrison’s work had a tongue-in-cheek quality to it, almost always going for a laugh when possible, with these tensions being part of that comedy. The work feels married to and in conversation with that which has come before, the pulpy space opera pioneers of the past, which espoused a certain vision, whilst clearly having its own preference of the criminal element. So the choices feel like a strange attempt to marry these tensions and contradictions. The tension extends further, when you have the dynamic between Slippery Jim and Angelina, the femme fatale fated to be his eventual partner. Angelina will kill ruthlessly, while Jim cannot. They however marry. The ‘how’ of that, the how it all works out and plays, the messy gap and tension there, that’s where a lot of the work seems to exist.

In a lot of ways, Stainless Steel Rat feels like the embodiment of Harrison’s own personal relationship to authority, power, and violence. He’d been drafted into the U.S Army Air Forces in the ‘40s during World War II, and he bloody hated it. He was dreadfully bored, but beyond that, he came to utterly loathe the military. But nevertheless, that doesn’t mean he could divorce himself from his own history, his own militarist past of being a military policeman. And that’s reflected in Jim diGriz, with an anti-authority figure forced to become a figure of said authority. One who gets out and escapes, and yet cannot outrun or erase that past, even as he goes from bachelor to a happy family man.

Across these pages, which span cosmic-trickery, Time-Wars, and election rigging in a fascist foreign land, it’s hard not to argue that Kelvin Gosnell and Carlos Ezquerra’s take on the material is perhaps the most interesting. Taken from the hands of its maker, and placed into the hands of these 2000 AD giants, it acquires a different flavour. The tension that underlies this world and the characters becomes more pronounced, the world itself much more openly dystopian under the pen of the man who helped imagine Judge Dredd.

The troubling elements and ideas of pulpy SF such as this, like Angelina’s mind-alterations, become even more horrific. What Harrison intended as big comedic punchlines acquire an additional layer, especially as Gosnell pairs down the novels with precision. The comedy clicks on the page between the deliveries of letterers Jack Potter and Pete Knight, who bridge Gosnell’s script with Ezquerra’s exquisite cartooning.

And never has the Stainless Steel Rat looked as exciting as he does here, under Ezquerra’s pen, with his visage modelled after actor James Coburn.

So return to this strange world, where the tension between things is palpable, where utopian and dystopian visions co-exist, wherein contradictions are the name of the game, and witness a classic of science-fiction and 2000 AD. Witness this fantasy of the outsider swallowed by the system to become the authority, for it still holds relevance.

Ritesh Babu is a freelance writer and comics critic whose work has appeared in outlets such as Panel x Panel, Shelfdust, ComicBookHerald, and many more. He has far too many thoughts on The British Invasion, and can be found obsessing over comics history over at @riteshwriter on Twitter.

The Stainless Steel Rat Deluxe Edition is available now from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

The Art of Revenge: what Simon Fraser brings to Judge Hershey’s quest for vengeance

The collection of Hershey: Disease is out now, with critically acclaimed creative team Rob Williams (Suicide Squad) and Simon Fraser (Doctor Who) telling a globe-spanning, gritty story of retribution featuring fan favourite Dredd-world character, Judge Barbara Hershey.

In the next of a series of short essays commissioned from selected comics critics that explore 2000 AD and the Treasury of British Comics’ latest graphic novel collections, Graeme McMillan looks at how artist Simon Fraser’s stylistic choices and portrayal of the veteran Judge are an intrinsic part of its impact.

As it happens, the true star of Hershey is not former Chief Judge Barbara Hershey, a longstanding character finally given her due in a series that fully embraces her contradictions and, thrillingly, her internal anger after almost four decades. Instead, I’d argue, the true star of Hershey is Simon Fraser, whose visuals are undoubtedly the best in a career that’s already included co-creating fan-favorite 2000 AD serial Nikolai Dante.

That’s not intended as a slight for the writing from Rob Williams at all. Few have more regard for what Williams has been doing in recent years than I do, whether it’s his Dredd work, rebooting Roy of the Rovers into something surprisingly compelling even to a non-football fan like me, or his work for U.S. publishers like AWA or DC. There’s an argument to be made that Williams is one of the finest writers in the British comic book industry today, and Hershey is a fine demonstration as to why that might be true. Just in terms of writing, it’s a bold, exciting read that stands alongside the best of crime comics, no matter the country or era of origin. 

And yet, Simon Fraser is still the star of the show.

If all Fraser had done for Hershey was the line work, it would still be an amazing looking book; there’s a sharpness to his line here that makes the art look breathtakingly fresh and kinetic at times, moody and atmospheric at others. Fraser can make scenes with minimal lighting work in a way few others can, and he gets the opportunity to demonstrate that skill more than once here. There are action sequences in the first collection that put paid to the notion that “cinematic” should be the ambition for contemporary comics, offering scenes that move in a way that most movies couldn’t even imagine, placing the reader in the centre of events in such a way that the blows are almost physically palpable. Check out the very first page of “Brutal” for proof of that; you can almost hear, feel, the punches.

His work is also particularly successful in evoking specific physical spaces, which proves to be useful in a serial that moves from the future mushroom-shaped megatropolis of Mega-City One to the slums of what used to be Columbia and beyond, each world with a feel and look all its own. One gets the feeling that he’s spent an impressive, likely unreasonable, amount of time working out the ways in which the experiences of the upper and lower classes in Ciudad Barranquilla differ, merely based on their surroundings alone, and that work on the page — behind the page — makes the experience all the richer for the reader as they venture through the strip.

Attention should be paid, too, to the way Fraser draws people. It’s not just that he’s a gifted character actor, with Rijkaard, Juninho and De Andrade wonderfully human and singular every time they appear on the page, with Fraser offering physical cues to their personalities and dynamics with other characters even before they’ve had a chance to define themselves through dialogue or action; it’s that Fraser manages to suggest that these are characters with histories, with Hershey looking her age — or something close to it; Mega-City One science and comic book aging have played their part to some degree, after all — for perhaps the first time since the 1980s. There’s something brutally effective about seeing Hershey displaying the physical toll her career has taken on her, whether it’s the permanent scowl lines etched into her face or the wrinkles suggesting the emotional weight she’s been carrying for years by the point the story begins.

However, Fraser has done more than just the line work in Hershey, and the choices made when it comes to color in the series are almost as important and effective as his lines. Hershey uses minimal color, with — for the most part — just one color on each page, in addition to black and white. It’s a move at once reminiscent of the first couple of years of 2000 AD annuals, where limited color kept print costs low, but used far more intentionally and intelligently, with the colors leading the reader’s eye across the page but also feeding into the emotional reading of any given scene.

In the rare occasions where multiple colors are employed, it feels almost jarring, the dissonance between them — especially in the closing pages of “Disease,” the first story arc in the series — an indicator that something important is happening. It’s a subtle, but thoroughly successful, creative decision that makes Hershey stand out, and differentiate itself from the traditional Dredd world as fans know it, whether things are either black and white or full color. Things are quite so straightforward for Hershey, and Fraser manages to key everyone looking at the pages into that in a smart, almost underhanded, manner.

Letterer Simon Bowland deserves no small amount of praise, as well, when it comes to setting the aesthetic for the series. In addition to delivering narrative captions and dialogue in ways that seem almost invisible, always a sign of successful comic book lettering, he also plays games with the series logo across the individual episodes of the first storyline, seemingly echoing Hershey’s emotional state as the story progresses. The vertical lettering of the logo — and the announcement of the shift of setting in the first episode, for that part — is something else that makes the strip stand out amongst its peers.

Hershey is a strip that plays fair by its complicated, difficult eponymous lead character, and the situations in which she’s found herself; one that doesn’t reveal everything up front, but instead offers discoveries and opportunities for growth as things progress. With Simon Fraser installed as the artist responsible, Hershey manages to deliver on every single one of those promises, and then go even further in convincing the reader of what’s happening in front of them.

Graeme McMillan is a freelance comics and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon, whose work has appeared in The Hollywood ReporterWiredPolygonPlayboy, and countless other outlets. He has more opinions about the output of Tharg the Mighty and associated entities than is probably reasonable.

Hershey: Disease is available now from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

The Judge With No Name: the enigmas at the heart of Abnett and Winslade’s ‘Lawless’

Colonial Judge Marshal Meta Lawson is back in the third volume of Lawless, the acclaimed sci-fi Western set in the universe of Judge Dredd.

In the first of a new series of short essays commissioned from selected comics critics that explore 2000 AD and the Treasury of British Comics’ latest graphic novel collections, Graeme McMillan looks at the questions at the heart of Lawless and how Abnett’s writing and Winslade’s art have worked together to produce one of the most enthralling Dredd-world stories of the last decade…

Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade’s Lawless feels, at times, like a series of interconnected confidence tricks centered around its main character. 

It’s a story that is as defined by what it isn’t, as what it is; a story filled with feints towards particular ideas and genres that never quite allows the reader to settle into one particular version of what it is at heart. It’s a western, except it isn’t — there are robots and aliens and multiple elements that break the tropes in two beyond simply playing with them. The events of “Ashes to Ashes” go far beyond anything the genre is capable of, in wonderful ways, underscoring the ways in which the series is far more than a western, despite its creators claiming otherwise.

It’s also a story set in the world of Judge Dredd, except even that isn’t quite true. Obviously, it is a Dreddworld story — the main character is a Judge, after all, and there are allusions to the larger Justice Department setting of Dredd throughout, including the mega-corporation Munce, Inc., named for a fictional foodstuff that was first mentioned in a 2000 AD strip decades ago — but in both tone and setting, it’s entirely removed from what readers have come to expect from Dredd. There’s no Mega-City One, and one of the slyest running jokes of the strip is the ways in which Metta Lawson and other characters act in ways that directly contradict from the citizens of the average Dredd strip. There’s even actual swearing to be found in Lawless, as much as Joe Dredd would scowl at the notion.

Perhaps more importantly, Lawless is a series that purposefully plays its cards close to its chest in terms of narrative intent. If the first few episodes, collected in Welcome to Badrock, left a number of questions unanswered to set up future stories, the conclusions of those stories in “Ashes to Ashes” nonetheless comes as a surprise: who really saw that particular turn of events coming? Did anyone really foresee these answers to the questions we all knew were out there?

All of which is to say: Abnett and Winslade have modeled the series after its lead character in the most appropriate, honest way imaginable. Just as Lawless is a marvel at distracting the reader from its mysteries and true nature by force of its charm and humor, so is Colonial Marshall Metta Lawson. Lawson is, to be blunt, one of the greatest series leads in 2000 AD and Megazine history — at once blunt in such a way that it feels as if she doesn’t have any filter or the ability to be anything other than honest in any situation, but also very clearly Someone With A Past™ that may not even be who she claims to be. 

Add in no small amount of humor, a brusque no-nonsense attitude towards any kind of bullshit, and you have an enjoyable variation on the iconic western trope of the Man With No Name… not that Lawless is really a western, mind you.

All of the above suggests that Dan Abnett’s writing does the heavy lifting when it comes to Lawless’ appeal, but that’s not the case; as much as Abnett’s mystery box writing, and his humor, for that matter, is central to why Lawless works, the series is entirely reliant on the unique artwork of Phil Winslade for the atmosphere and life he brings to proceedings. His highly detailed black and white line work brings with it echoes of everything from classic mid-century magazine illustration to the Eurocomix artwork of the likes of Moebius, to artistic contemporaries like Glenn Fabry or Steve Pugh, paying equal attention to the surroundings and the shanty town of Badrock as he does the sneers and smiles of the cast. 

Every page of Lawless is a bravura performance, whether it’s an intimate conversation between Lawson and Deputy Pettifer, or a spread of the war between multiple factions that makes up the bulk of “Ashes to Ashes.” (Does that count as a spoiler? The mildest of all, if so.) Each page showcases Winslade’s attention to detail, and the different ways that manifests throughout the series — whether his character acting, which manages to be at once both subtle and dynamic enough to work as good comics, his unmatched ability to suggest a physical space with just a handful of lines, or action sequences that manage to successfully convey a vertiginous sense of motion throughout — make this a series that looks unlike anything else out there, in every sense a compliment to just how good Winslade really is.

Without Winslade’s artwork, Metta Lawson wouldn’t work; it takes the level of humanity that he brings to each of the characters in the series to translate her intentionally elliptical personality into something that feels honest and fully-formed. The combination of Abnett and Winslade work magic together, somehow knowing how to play together so that just enough information is visible to the reader — whether visually, or in Lawson’s dialogue or actions — for her to feel like a believable figure, one that’s easy to empathize with and root for, even as we try and figure out just what her secret is.

Throughout its run to date, Lawless is a story of absences, and voids — of things that are missing, and elements defined by what they are not, more often than what they are. (We should take a brief second to note that even the title of the series nods towards this: Lawless, the absence of something being implied right there — this is a story defined by what it isn’t, indeed.) When secrets are revealed and cards are turned over in the third collected edition, it’s all the more impressive and fulfilling because, thankfully, they fit exactly into the spaces left for them — and, even as they arrive, they bring new absences and voids for the series to fill as it moves towards whatever lies in Badrock’s future.

Graeme McMillan is a freelance comics and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon, whose work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Wired, Polygon, Playboy, and countless other outlets. He has more opinions about the output of Tharg the Mighty and associated entities than is probably reasonable.

Lawless: Ashes to Ashes is available now in paperback from all good book and comic book stores and online retailers, the 2000 AD webshop in paperback and digital, and in digital from the 2000 AD app.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

Third World War: The Time of Tribulation

With Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War being reprinted in its entirety for the first time, the Treasury of British comics has commissioned short essays from selected comics critics that examine different aspects of this seminal political series from the pages of Crisis.

Tom Shapira’s essay on 3WW’s presiebce can be read here and in the second piece Kayleigh Hearn discusses the strip’s use of branding.

In the third and final piece, Kelly Kanayama, looks at the strip’s satire of American evangelical Christianity, embodied in the character of Trisha…

Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War is rightly hailed as a prescient satire of contemporary political and economic hegemonies, with its focus on the damage that globalised capitalism can inflict upon vulnerable populations. For me, though, what makes it really stand out is its recognition of the role that politicised evangelical Christianity would play in these dynamics, as embodied in the character of Trisha.

(I grew up evangelical, so am familiar with what that looks like. The comic that Trisha whips out to prove that roleplaying games are Satanic? I know that comic. I’ve been subjected to the messages of that comic. I’m wondering, right now, whether it’s worth it to buy my own d10s so my character in Scion can get a good roll for once.)

What makes Trisha so fascinating is her complete sincerity. As Eve notes, Trisha joins Market Force out of a genuine desire to help people – unlike, say, the swaggering, bellicose Garry, who mostly wants official dispensation to grind a boot into some foreign faces. Trisha signs up in order to provide for her ‘long-term unemployed’ parents under the Parent-Help Scheme, which provides a weekly stipend plus a single disbursement to people whose children volunteer.

Of course, it turns out that her parents aren’t the most sympathetic characters. Trisha’s family fled South Africa after ‘the 1996 revolution’, which considering that she is white suggests that the revolution overturned apartheid; it’s worth remembering that Third World War debuted two years before apartheid was repealed in South Africa, and five years before the first South African general election where the country’s black citizens were granted full suffrage. When telling Eve about it, she says that her parents’ unemployment was due to their inability to break away from their former privileged lifestyles: ‘Dad just wasn’t cut out for the jobs they offered him. In South Africa they had a swimming pool…stables…cocktails at six…they never had to lift a finger’. They also had a black houseboy, whom they called ‘Sixpence’ – his real name is not mentioned, presumably because Trish and her family never bothered to learn it even though they ‘thought the world’ of him – and whom they allowed to ‘stay in a shed at the bottom of the garden’ out of the supposed goodness of their hearts.  

This short anecdote is highly illuminating in terms of how Trisha sees the world. While she may love marginalised people, it is a love that clings to authoritarian power structures: the same structures that marginalise said people in the first place. Thus it is virtuous that ‘Sixpence’ was given shelter, albeit in a form that excluded him from the very house he maintained. And thus it is similarly virtuous to spread the predatory corporate gospel of Multi-Foods, because they seek to promulgate a Western standard of living that falls in line with the greater power structure that has dictated Trisha’s life so far. As Eve puts it in her narration, ‘She thinks politicians are appointed by God to rule over us and therefore to question authority is to question God’ – a point emphasised by Trisha’s revelation that she initially joins Market Force because of a ‘direct command from the Lord’. Obedience is paramount: not just obedience to one’s chosen individual journey, but obedience to the institutions, voices and structures seeking to dictate that journey.

The point of delving into all this is to say that we are in Trisha’s world now. While there are of course numerous incredibly complex factors surrounding the rise of Trump in America and the snarled mess of whatever Brexit currently is in the UK, what underpins both these phenomena is a collective belief in the powers that seek to keep the marginalised that way. No matter how benevolent or generous the manifestation of such belief might be, the fact remains that a lot of people – people with more melanin than you, or with funny last names, or who eat foods you don’t – are going to bleed, and I wish that were only a metaphor.

Not that this is entirely new. From about 2001 onwards, especially after 9/11, global politics were dominated by such a mindset, in the sense that the George W Bush presidential administration leaned heavily on the worldview put forth by the same sort of neo-conservative evangelical Christianity espoused by Trisha and, due to America’s international hegemony, much of the world followed suit. However, given that America was and is a locus of global militarism and corporatism, the unquestioning trust in authority required by this brand of evangelicalism became inextricably entangled with initiatives in these arenas as well. Which is how you get to a point where authority, or authoritarianism, can act with impunity, because a power you can’t argue with wills it.

What gives me hope is Trisha’s turning point late in Book 1, where she faces a choice between knuckling under to the authority she has been taught all her life to obey and defying that authority – and thankfully she chooses the latter. The choice comes about when her unit is ordered to bring some orphaned children to their commanding officer, ostensibly so they can be rehoused, but actually so their bodies can be cannibalised for black market organs. When Trisha finds out what happens to the children they’re meant to retrieve, she lies to her commanding officer’s face, telling him that they didn’t find any children, even though she spoke directly to at least one child.

Such a lie might seem like a small step, but as someone who’s been bombarded with the messages of evangelicalism like Trisha has, I can tell you that it constitutes rebellion, which is a major sin. Rebelliousness was what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and therefore is the reason we live in a world where bad things happen. To have a rebellious spirit is to reject God. And to reject God is to question the highest authority, or perhaps vice versa.

Trisha’s decision, therefore, signifies the possibility that the people who uphold the power structures that keep her going could expand their worldviews to fully acknowledge the flaws in said structures, even if it goes against everything they know. Let us believe that her real-life analogues are capable of following suit, and of opening the door to a less oppressive world.

Kelly Kanayama is a comics critic and scholar who was born and raised in Hawaii but now lives in Scotland. Her work has been published in the critical anthologies Working-Class Comic Book Heroes and Critical Chips Vol. 1 and 2, among others. Currently she is writing a book on the comics of Garth Ennis, to be published by Sequart.

Third World War is available now in paperback from all good book and comic book stores, online retailers, and the Treasury of British Comics webshop in paperback and limited hardcover editions.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

Third World War: The Future’s Arrived

With Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War being reprinted in its entirety for the first time, the Treasury of British comics has commissioned short essays from selected comics critics that examine different aspects of this seminal political series from the pages of Crisis.

Tom Shapira’s first essay in the series can be read here. In the second essay, Kayleigh Hearn discusses how the series predicted, from the 1980s, how the rapacious nature of corporate America would use mascots, slogans, and branding to dehumanise and exploit…


“Forget science fiction, man. The future’s arrived: the greenhouse floods…identity cards…electronic tagging…police video cameras…you never know what the techno-pervs are going to dream up next.”

So says a member of Freeaid’s so-called peace force—a group of troubled, forcibly conscripted teenagers operating in South America—in Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War. Science fiction told us that in 2020 we’d have time travel and giant robots, so it’s a shock encountering a comic like this, originally serialized over thirty years ago, that isn’t just prescient, but exactly right. With its images of “forever wars” benefitting global corporations and sub-tropical forests burning to provide land for future Happy Meals, Third World War was a scalding prediction of late-stage capitalism. The future’s arrived.

Published between 1988 and 1991 in Crisis magazine, a spin-off of 2000 AD, Third World War is set in the then-future of, a-ha, 2000 AD. Among its accuracies is its depiction of young people at the dawn of the new century; its main character, Eve, wasn’t called a Millennial then, but she is one now. A politically conscious, black teenage girl growing up in the shadow of white, western paternalism, Eve is deemed “unemployable” by the country’s youth selection board and forced to join Freeaid. (As an example of the thin vein of dark humor that runs through the book, Eve knows she’s doomed when she tells the board that she’s studying art, English, and sociology.) “I’d always thought things would get better by 2000 A.D.” Eve confesses.  “I hadn’t realized they’re getting worse. That it was so late…later than you think…”

Eve and the rest of her Freeaid team—consisting of a punk, an eco-pagan, an evangelical, and worst of all, a volunteer—are sent to win over the hearts and minds of the South Americans who are being forcibly displaced and culturally annihilated for the sake of western corporations. One such corporation is Multifoods, a fast-food empire represented by its impish, ghoulish mascot, Mickey the Multifoods Dragon. A glance at the cover of this new Treasury of British Comics release of Third World War shows us a blood-red Eve ripping apart a Mickey plush toy, her Multifoods Global Village t-shirt fixed with a slash of a pen—Multifoods Global Pillage. Like the rest of her generation, Eve distrusts soulless mascots, empty slogans, and the back-breaking, environment-destroying corporations behind them. The headline writes itself: “Are Millennials Killing the Mickey the Multifoods Dragon Industry?”

Self-expression is one of the few weapons Eve has in a world that wants to bulldoze free-thinkers like her and replace them with pasty white faces in army fatigues. Like the P that transforms “village” into “pillage,” words of protest are scrawled all over the book, on every available surface: walls, planes, bodies. This is a distinct part of Third World War’s visual identity; Mills and Ezquerra (along with artists Angela Kinkaid and D’Israeli) synthesize the art and text—incorporating everything from Chumbawamba song lyrics to Lorraine Schneider posters into the pages. The unique reading experience that results is apparent from the very first page. Our eyes are first drawn to Eve and her internal monologue. But then we notice her “Meat is Murder” button and the “WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE SELECTED” Freeaid poster completed by red graffiti: “PANIC.” Third World War is a book that demands to be read. It’s a manifesto, a polemic, and a protest sign, with layers of dense storytelling in a compact volume of two-hundred pages. Like a chicken bone caught in your throat, it’s impossible to ignore.

Third World War is an eye-opening book, as it shows death squads, mass graves, and other atrocities that are the bitter, pesticide-poisoned fruit of western imperialism, and dares the reader to look away. It’s an immensely heavy read, but its strength is that it never feels like a lecture; Mills and Ezquerra say what they need to through their characters instead of to them. Eve is a fallible, human lead, but she possesses a durable integrity and keeps a diary that is a document to everything that happens to her—the truth, not propaganda spewed from the mouth of a cartoon dragon. She isn’t in a platoon of strawmen, either; a lesser creative team would have reduced them to predictable stereotypes (Ivan the punk, Trisha the evangelical, etc.), but they’re shockingly believable in what they do and how they relate to each other. Think of them not as The Breakfast Club, but The Breakfast Sandwich Club, perhaps. Unfortunately, like so many other young people conscripted into meaningless wars, they’re grist for the Multifoods mill.

And, once again, we’re in the shadow of the dragon. Mickey the Multifoods Dragon is inescapable in Third World War, appearing on every tv screen (even the pirate channels!), peering at us over a folded page flap, or splitting a globe apart like juicy orange slices. It’s not a small detail that the Multifoods mascot is a beast known for its greed and rapacious appetite, or that he shares a name with the real world’s most monopolizing mascot. (And how fitting is it that the opponent of a fast-food dragon is named after the woman who first ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?) Ezquerra is a visual master, turning Mickey from cute to sinister with a flick of his pen.

If there’s one thing Third World War is missing—simply because Mills and Ezquerra aren’t oracles—it’s the internet; only Twitter could make that universe worse. But Mickey is a recognizable enemy in our current social media age where mascots and trademarks seem more alive than ever. Cartoony brands pretending to be just like you when they’re the smiling façades for corporations where the junk food they produce is the least of their sins? Mickey would love ‘em. Multifoods dehumanizes everyone it comes in contact with, from the vile lieutenant that seems to transform into Mickey while arguing with Eve, to Mrs. Garcia, a woman resettled by Freeaid who then commits suicide via immolation as protest, and becomes known only as “the hamburger lady.” In Third World War, meat is the message.

I hope I haven’t made Third World War sound too hopeless or cynical. That would be a disservice to its wit and depth, or its striking visuals (green-haired Ivan skateboarding in front of an inferno, firing his gun in the air, is just one image that sticks with me). It throbs with the kind of anger that’s usually accompanied by gamma radiation, but it’s a call to action rather than despair. With its depiction of endless war, blood-sucking corporate mascots, and a trapped generation of young people, Third World War creates a world recognizable as our own. The future’s arrived—time to do something about it.

Kayleigh Hearn is the Reviews Editor for Women Write About Comics, and has written for PanelxPanel, Shelfdust, and The MNT.

Third World War is available now in paperback from all good book and comic book stores, online retailers, and the Treasury of British Comics webshop in paperback and limited hardcover editions.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.

Posted on

Still Angry After All These Years: Third World War in the 21st century

With Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War being reprinted in its entirety for the first time, the Treasury of British comics has commissioned short essays from selected comics critics that examine different aspects of this seminal political series from the pages of Crisis.

Tom Shapira discusses the strip’s sense of deep-seated anger and asks whether this makes it even more relevant today…

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, a book which arrogantly predicted the final triumph of Western-style liberal democracy, and the capitalist ideology which guides it. There would be no more large wars, no clash of ideologies. It was the book for the 1990s, a decade in which cynicism and irony ruled with an iron fist – a world with seemingly nothing left to fight for. 

Taken in that context it is little wonder that Third World War, published between 1988 and 1991,didn’t become the hit its creators hoped it would be: it was too political, too talky, too angry. Like its writer, Pat Mills, it was too much of everything for the 1990s. Third World War did not want to hear that all conflicts were over, it was a book that came out looking for a fight. Which means it’s probably just about right for now.

The series was part of Crisis, a spin-off magazine from 2000 AD meant to appeal to a more mature audience. While Crisis didn’t last long, its competition, in the form of Deadline, made it all the way to 1995. Deadline was young and hip, the herald of the 1990s. Strips like Tank Girl, Johnny Nemo and A-Men were violent and funny and took a boot to The Man with great style an air of ironic detachment.  

This was ‘the problem’ of Third World War – it was not cool or detached. It didn’t want to make you laugh, it wanted you to stand up straight and protest and even riot. It was probably the wrong thing to ask of Generation X. Pat Mills, already part of the old guard of British comics by the time the story started, was always a passionate writer. His greatest strength was that no matter how disposable the strip was in theory, he seemed to take 100 per cent seriously as piece of art and social commentary. Hook Jaw, commissioned as a Jaws cash-in, was used as vehicle to condemn rich industrialists and their mistreatment of the environment; while the comedic Ro-Busters constantly had class issues on its mind.

Third World War is Mills unleashed and unbound. Without the limitations of a young audience it gives us a story of the capitalistic oppression of a ‘third world’ country in the onset of the 21st century. Presenting the struggle in all its gory details, from death squads to forced resettlements, illustrated with an unusual baroque flair by 2000 AD mainstay Carlos Ezquerra (with occasional chapters by Angela Kincaid and D’Israeli). Yet the single fights on the page were not the limits of the book’s scope. Its main interest was in a wider discussion: what does it means when the first world ‘intervenes’ with the third; Cui Bono? Ask Mills and Ezquerra throughout the story. Answer – never the ‘peasants’, in whose name the fighting is done.

The plot of the story, revealed through the diary written by fresh recruit Eve as her unit is sent to “capture hearts and minds” an in unnamed South American country, allows Mills’ script a rare laser-focus. For a writer whose tendency has always been to attack the reader with an endless barrage of characters and concepts this is a work of singular vision: it knows the story it wants to tell, it knows the information it wants to explain and it knows how it wants its readers to feel at the end. Is it subtle? Of course not! Nor was it ever trying to be. This the type of comics George Orwell could appreciate.

The downside for all of this is that the script rarely allows the reader a moment of rest. Quite possibly this is the result of reading in a singular sitting what was meant for serialization, but even taking that into account there’s a certain lack of modulation throughout the story: it’s just a barrage of pain coming your way. Charley’s War, an earlier work written by Mills, also came with a similar bleak emotional tone overall, but changed its presentation between chapters – allowing the readers a moment of inspiration and elation before plugging them back into the horrors of the trenches.  Nothing like that here. Ezquerra, of course, as the co-creator and one of the leading artists of Judge Dredd knows a thing or two about tuning the horrific into the entertaining.

It is Ezquerra who provides some of the most interesting bits of the story. Used as he is to high melodrama and big action moments, the script calls for many scenes of talking and emotional downtime. When you do get a rare action moment it’s unpleasant and ugly: you’re not meant to enjoy the baddie being blown away, or to snigger at a particular nasty brutalization. Still, even going against the grain Ezquerra remains a superb artist. If there exist a mythic ‘bad Ezquerra page’ I’ve never seen it.

There’s some standout pieces here that really seem to take Ezquerra to a new direction: one page in particular breaks into three sections with the middle one showing a single figure approaching our protagonist in the most threatening manner while they freak out as he comes closer and closer. Another bit, close to the ending of Book I, takes a moment that should be ridiculously on-the-nose and charges it with exceedingly creepy energy. The series manages to preserve Ezquerra’s typical professionalism, which made him such a peerless storyteller, while adding more complicated layouts and imagery.  

There’s sadness to these characters, and the world they inhabit, that is expressed purely through the visual: like the way Trish is keeping a façade of cheerfulness, fooling herself enough to believe all is well as she performs one act of horror after another; or the look in Garry’s eyes the moment he first kills a man. Even the character of Paul, that the script over lionizes in a manner more fitting for typical heroic adventure series, is given some sinister edge in his movement and expression.

Stylistically it’s still recognisable as the Ezquerra we know and love, but there’s some added emotional burden here. The artist suppresses his tendencies for big and bold in favour of more downbeat presentation. This is Ezquerra drawing with the weight of the years upon him. This is as it should be. This is a story meant to make you feel that weight.

Thirty years after it ended Third World War now sees the light of day again. The faults are still there, but in the harsh light of the third decade of this century it seems everything that made the comics work, including the bloody single-mindedness, shines ever brighter. As we enter the 2020s it’s only appropriate for a new generation to find this old book – and get angry all over again.

Tom Shapira is a critic who has written for Sequart, Shelfdust, The Comics Journal and others. His book, The Lawman, a long-form appreciation of the first Judge Dredd story, is set to be published by PanelXPanel Magazine.

Third World War is available now in paperback from all good book and comic book stores, online retailers, and the Treasury of British Comics webshop in paperback and limited hardcover editions.

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.