2000ad Villains Takeover Special
Judge Death “The Judge Who Laughs” by Rob Williams, Henrik Sahlstrom and Simon Bowland.
So for context, 2000ad are riffing gently on the character design of “The Batman who Laughs” which bears more than a passing resemblance to this weeks titular character. For added sauce, this story also leans gently on “The Killing Joke” by former 2000ad alumnus Alan Moore. So far so meta, but is it any good? Thankfully yes.
Judge Death is a constantly reinvented character. From horrifying anti-Dredd to Cassandra’s nemesis via figure of ridicule. He’s recently come back to his alien superfiend roots in the genre-surpassing Deadworld but this is in the Dredd continuity so he’s allowed to be more loquacious, less gory.
The problem with dealing with aspects of Death’s character is that it’s difficult not to fall into parody. The Devil on the shrink’s couch is a one panel cartoon and you just can’t get away with that. Williams is too skilled to fall into that trap, however. Death is, after all, a man, albeit one horribly transformed. He’s allowed to have issues, even performance anxiety to a certain extent. He’s certainly allowed to hate, so why not feel fear? His righteous certainty is without question. He doesn’t doubt his mission here, but after so many thwarted attempts, he is allowed a degree of introspection. Williams handles it deftly, allowing Deaths worries to tease themselves out naturally. Dredd is the only rival for Deaths own bodycount after all, so it’s understandable that he’d have some admiration for him, even if it is kept subconscious through obvious necessity.
The horrifying introduction of yet another escape from Iso-Block 666 and the recapture by (who else?) Dredd at the conclusion bookend this session perfectly. It’s all beautifully painted by prog newcomer Henrik Sahlstrom, who moves effortlessly between action and interview, using light and shadow to convey a sense of stillness in the psychiatrists office far srom the chaos outside. His foray into Deadworld hits all the nostalgia buttons. Thankfully not copying the Bolland droid but giving his own take on what went before.
Another creative team pick up Death and do him justice. Used sparingly, he’s still got some life in him.
Brass and Bland “The Professionals” by Karl Stock, Kael Ngu, Barbara Nosenzo and Oz Osborne.
Brass and Bland are an odd feature of the Rogue Trooper timeline. With a strong feel of Wint & Kidd from Diamonds are Forever, they give moral ambiguity to the North v South monochrome of Nu Earth. They’re not strictly villains in the sense of the Traitor General. They’re out only to make a bit of cash but they would happily stab you in the back to do so. Who are the villains in Rogue Trooper anyway? The Norts? Maybe in the Finlay-Day days but now? With Jaegir and The 86ers filling out the world, the Southers aren’t exactly squeaky clean themselves. At least Brass and Bland are honest in their motivations.
Stock’s got them to a tee here. An oasis of professional urbanity in the jarhead gung-ho landscape, the dialogue between the two is a beautiful contrast to the chaos surrounding them. Too classy to be called ‘banter’ it’s as sparkly and crisp as champagne from an iced glass. Their politeness and lack of physical threat makes their competitors underestimate them, usually fatally. Kael Ngu’s artwork captures them perfectly. Both umimposing; one slender, one stocky but neither a physical threat. Not frail or intimidated though. They’re at least as survivors as the meaty mercenaries they deal with.
Nosenzo’s colouring steals the show though. Nu Earth is a paradise for colourists, just see the recent Jaegir strips for evidence. There’s something about the haze of a chem cloud that brings out the best in the colour team. With cool cyan breaking up the warm earthtones it’s a real shift of gear when it inevitably kicks off.
The brief brutality on the penultimate page is proper old-school Rogue too. The blood spatter is War Machine, the shiny Amoks are classic Rogue. The penultimate page gives us a feel of Cinnabar, arguably the greatest Rogue story, with Osborne’s massive lettering dragging us right back to 1989. A great team effort. Moral ambiguity with a twist, showing future war isn’t old hat.
The Lord Weird Slough Feg “Lord of the Hunt” by Pat Mills, Kyle Hotz and Ellie De Ville.
Slough Feg is one of Pat Mills’ greatest creations. Grotesque and disgusting, he delights in his own foulness and depravity. He manages to serve Slaine as both an adversary and a warning of what he may become.
In Lord of the Hunt we see Feg’s activities away from the main story of Slaine. The chase of his sacrifices through his cave isconfusing as if we were funning with the children. All the while Feg taunts them with the words prog readers have become very familiar with over the decades. Hotz’ artwork complements this perfectly. As insanely detailed as classic Belardinelli Slaine, each panel oozes with dank slime. The rot in Feg’s world reflects his own mind and here you can practically smell it. Hotz’ Slaine here is in the Bisley mould, but thankfully not a copy. His tartan and his horned sporran give him a place in the timeline as a return from his wanderings when he was at the height of his powers, replacing Feg as the new Horned God. He’s dynamic, youthful and virile. Everything Feg is not and Hotz captures both beautifully.
But Feg, like real monsters, doesn’t function in isolation. In for equal amounts of Mills opprobrium are the human enablers of his evil. Mills’ firebrand mistrust is vented towards the end, adding an extra spice of human complicity from the Drune Lords and, by extension, the children’s parents. Fantasy stories are full of tales of the village sacrificing a virgin to the nearby dragon but this goes so much further. The genius here is in how interwoven it is in their lives. Feg isn’t some local dragon, he’s their god. The locals justify it with the Drunes’ good works of charity, hospitals and schools, inviting the obvious parallels with Mills’ well-recorded grievances with the Catholic church. Mills manages to make that more uncomfortable than the preceding slimy chase. 40+ years on and still raging against the machine, Mills is a legend.
Stix “Sleeping Dogs Lie” by Matt Smith, Chris Weston and Simon Bowland.
Smith and Weston give us a light bounty hunting yarn, told from the viewpoint of one of the most enigmatic dogs from the Doghouse. The unlikely teamup of Stix and Alpha is unreliably narrated as a bedtime story from mama Stix with a double twist that is a masterpiece in tight, efficient storytelling.
Weston’s artwork in this is on point. There’s a pleasing solidity to everything in this world. From the wooden door at the beginning to the temple at the end, it all has a weight on the page. It’s in the characters that it all comes through. Weston, in tribute to the late Carlos Ezquerra, seems to have adapted his style slightly for this story. Weston’s no stranger to a fleshy face, but here he looks to have adopted some of Ezquerra’s hazy lines, giving it a classic Strontium Dog feel.
Skip to the end of the prog and you’ll see another tribute to the great man as Weston brings to life many of Ezquerra’s most memorable creations in a poignant moment that perfectly concludes this special.
Tharg’s Terror Tales “The Last of the Hellphibians” by The Feek, Henry Flint and Ozvaldo Sanchez.
But we’re not done yet! Cleanse your palate with an unpalatable tale of lust from the swamp. The hellphibians are looking for mates and they won’t be denied. Not even by cricketing nuns
It’s a great grotesque tale in the best traditions of 2000ad so who better to draw it than Zombo’s own Henry Flint? The master of schlock horror has gleeful fun with the parade of madness in this story. He also manages a note of pathos in the final payoff. A crestfallen hellphibian is a tricky feat to achieve but when you see the horror in store for them, you can’t help but feel some sympathy. Great fun.
Villains takeover is a huge success. Every story is a winner and the Weston Ezquerra tribute would bring a tear to a glass eye. Add an extra point to the rating for only costing you 99p if you want.