MMAD for it!A column article, Fool Britannia by: Regie Rigby
Yes, I know, I’ve been writing a lot about 2000AD of late. There’s a reason for that. It’s good. But I’m not going to spend this column and the next one (because this’ll be a two parter) delving through the pages of the latest prog – fun though that would be. No, I want to look at the wider reach of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, and the presence it has beyond the news stand and the comic shop. ‘Tooth has a bigger reach than you’d think. I mean, we don’t want to get carried away here – it’s a comic that isn’t aimed at the under twelves, and as such it flies pretty comprehensively below the radar of pretty much everybody that isn’t already a comics reader, and I teach a lot of kids between the ages of eleven and nineteen who claim never to have heard of it – but it does have more of a foothold in British popular culture than you’d think. For a start, in recent years, ‘Tooth has been increasingly successful in its efforts to reach audiences who wouldn’t dream of picking a weekly comic up from the news stand, and who certainly wouldn’t contemplate going into a genuine honest to goodness comics shop. You see, ‘Tooth – or at least some of the finest work from the comic’s pretty colossal archives – is being systematically collected into big, solid square bound books and sold through regular bookshops. And so far as I can see, it’s selling well. I confess that I’m in two minds about this. In fact, I’m in rather more than two minds and am bordering on being seriously conflicted. Because, you see, there’s a part of me that thinks this is just brilliant. Anything that puts comics – especially good comics in front of the regular mundane audience* is a great thing. These reprint books also put really good old stories in front of a contemporary audience who might otherwise never have the chance to read them, which is a very very good thing indeed, because until recently this is something that comics didn’t do enough of. Other media have had this issue cracked for generations, and it’s a real pity that it’s taken comics so long to catch on. If somebody writes a good novel, the chances are that it’ll remain in print pretty much forever, which means anyone can discover it any time they like. So, I can read the works of Jane Austen, or Emily Bronte**, or Aldus Huxley, even though they were written years before I was born. TV caught on to this idea right off the bat – where would we be without that staple of the cash strapped scheduler, the repeat***? Indeed, TV is so good at this that people get a little sick of seeing the same thing over and over again, but personally I think it’s worth it. How else would anybody under the age of thirty ever have seen Prorridge? How else would somebody my age ever have seen The Prisoner? Or Thunderbirds?**** Classic material which deserves to be seen by each successive generation. That’s how I feel about the classic 2000AD stories that are now getting the Trade Paperback treatment. We’ve spoken before about the outstanding phonebook sized***** collections of classic Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog that are looking so good on my bookshelf******, and I can confirm that they look equally good on the shelves of bookshops, where they really are attracting a new audience. On a recent visit to a local bookseller I had a brief conversation with a bloke a couple of years older than me who was almost literally exploding with delight as he flicked through one of the Nemesis the Warlock collections. He’d been an avid ‘Tooth reader as a kid in the early eighties, but had given up on comics as a teenager when he discovered more distracting things like girls and beer.******* He was wallowing in nostalgia. And genuinely surprised that ‘Tooth was still going – he hadn’t seen one on the stands for years and had just thought it had gone the way of so many of the things we enjoyed in the eighties. As I continued browsing I noticed with a smile that he bought several volumes – I like to think that he also stopped in at his newsagent and asked them to save him a copy of ‘Tooth every week… Beautiful as they are though, these collections are black and white, which while perfect for the early work from the days when the only colour in ‘Tooth was on the centre pages, is not quite so ideal for the more recent stuff. I’m not exactly sure when ‘Tooth went full colour********, but it was probably nearly twenty years ago now so there’s an awful lot of colour in those archives. Which brings me to the three collections that landed on my doormat last week. Oh my goodness, but they are beautiful. Sqaure bound on heavy, slightly glossy paper, they look utterly fantastic and are a real pleasure to hold in the hand – kinda solid, if you know what I mean. Like the phonebook collections, they’ve been resized a little, so they’re the same height as a regular US comic, which also makes them a little bit easier to handle. All that’s fine and dandy of course, but looks aren’t everything. Reading these books and wallowing in nostalgia is all very well for me, I read these stories when they first came out and they bring back memories. What if I was coming at them cold? Are they actually any good? Well, yes. The first volume out of the envelope was Button Man: The Confessions of Harry Exton by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson. This was the sequel to the original Button Man story, which told the story of Harry Exton, a former solider caught up as a player in a game where men like him, so-called “Button Men” fought to the death for the entertainment of ultra rich sponsors. The sequel details Exton’s attempts to quit the game, originally published in 1994 (in progs 904 – 919 if you’re interested). I don’t think I’ve read it since, and I’d forgotten just how good it is. Wagner’s script is taught and pacey – it has the feel of one of the better spy/crime thrillers from the sixties or early seventies. The characters are surprisingly credible given the subject matter, and there’s no attempt to romanticize anything. Sure you’re rooting for Harry, but Wagner never tries to convince you he’s a hero – he’s a killer. Exton himself is under no illusions either, and perhaps it’s the honesty at the core of the character that makes it possible to relate to him in the way that you do. That, and perhaps the fact that Exton is an underdog with the cards very much stacked against him. Ranson’s art (which you might have seen recently in various X books) is superb. It’s very fine linework, overlaid with what looks like either water colour or coloured ink colouring which is intricate and subtle. This is not garish, flashy artwork, but it’s dynamic and expressive and perfectly matches the dark and gritty tone of the narrative. Y’know? I take back the analogy I made between reprint books and repeats on the telly. This is better than that. This is more like a DVD box set, a story carefully selected and skilfully repackaged to serve both the nostalgia of people who remember it from the first time around, but also to appeal to people who neither know nor care how old it is, and just want a decent story. Given that this Button Man story is now fourteen years old, it’s dated exceptionally well, and could have been set in 2008 simply by changing the dates on Exton’s typed confession. This does not feel like a story out of the nineties, it’s as sharp and fresh as the moment it was first published, and it’s well worth the price of admission at £14.99. So, if this book is as good as I say it is (and it is) and the other books that arrived with it are of the same standard (and they are) why am I conflicted about them? And what are the other two books that arrived with Button Man? How do you keep in idiot in suspense? I’ll tell you later! See you in seven for the stunning conclusion! *Thus hopefully making them less mundane. **Not that I’d want to read the work of the latter – Bronte is just so damn depressing. And don’t be telling me that Wuthering Heights is a work of genius, because it isn’t. Wuthering Heights is about two people who meet, fall instantly and insanely in love, and then decide to prove that by making each other miserable for the rest of their lives. Kathy and Heathcliffe – two characters in search of a slap – seriously, they’re more annoying than Romeo and Juliet, and that takes some doing! ***Note to Americans. “Repeat”=”Re-Run”. ****I mean the wonderful Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” puppet series from the sixties, obviously, and not the terrible terrible movie. *****Well, they’re not really phonebook sized. They’re as thick as a phonebook but with a page size closer to your regular US comic. ******And if I can be permitted to be a bit cheeky here, can I just stress how happy I’d be to receive some more of those for review? *******I seem to be unusual in that I discovered girls and beer around the same time I discovered comics and never regarded them as mutually exclusive. ********Well, I say full colour, actually ‘Tooth still runs black and white strips if that’s the best format for them.