Rogue Trooper: The War Machine by Dave Gibbons, Will Simpson and Bambos

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For many longtime 2000AD fans, the Rogue Trooper story created by Gerry Finlay and Dave Gibbons in 1981 was one of the most iconic titles the Galaxy's Greatest Comic produced. A full on future action war story about a renegade, genetically engineered soldier, seeking revenge for the massacre that killed his clone-brothers across a war-torn far flung planet, the warring factions loosely standing in as allegories for the Allies and Axis powers of World War II, rapidly became one of the comics most popular stories. The story included what was then a rather far out concept, that upon death, the memories and personality of a GI could be extracted on a biochip and slotted into other soldiers equipment, to keep it 'alive' until it could be uploaded into a new clone body - thus saving time and resources on training new troopers to such a high and costly degree. This idea wasn't new in science fiction but was still mostly unexplored in comics at the time; now of course, popular culture has caught up to wilder science fiction ideas and the biochip idea is getting more well known thanks to shows like Altered Carbon.

The story ran for 8 years, encompassing Rogue's quest to find the traitor behind the massacre, a story conceit that was the backbone of the bulk of the run...a run that slowly started to run out of steam, to a degree, after that storyline was resolved. Attempts were made to open up the story by expanding Rogue out into the role of a hitman on a mission, however these were short-lived. By 1989, Dave Gibbons had decided he wanted to reboot the concept, to freshen the story and go back to some of the original ideas regarding the character. 

So, in what was inarguably 2000AD's first Golden Age, at a time when both Slaine The Horned God and Judge Dredd: Necropolis were warping minds - both culminations of years and multiple stories leading up to mega-epics the likes of which even 2000AD had not attempted until then - Rogue Trooper: The War Machine had its debut. Against such incredibly well made stories as competition in the Prog, it would take something really special to stand out. Gibbons, with incredible art by Will Simpson and lettering by Bambos, not only managed to equal them and to hold its own, but their new version of Rogue, along with them, elevated the Prog to a higher degree than we had seen before. 2000AD had always, from the start, used social commentary to fuel their stories, they'd opened the minds of thousands of readers to new concepts, social awareness, given warnings of what might be if we didn't mend our ways. A lot of it though had been delivered with humour, or at least sarcastic knowing winks - in The War Machine, as with The Horned God and Necropolis, the Prog took a big jump into adulthood.

The War Machine was a treatise against war, the movement of corporations into governance and warfare, being a slave to the systems put in place before we were even born to keep those at the top at the pinnacle, while the rest of us scratch and claw and die for their comforts. For me at least, it still stands as probably the most effective and incisive anti-war/anti-capitalism stories 2000AD has ever printed. Whether Gibbons intended it to be so when he wrote it, or that commentary came about naturally as he progressed the story he was writing, I don't know, but it was something that has stuck with me ever since. It's one of those touchstone moments in your life that sticks with you, is never far from your mind when you are confronted with the injustices of the twisted societies we have created. Well, it is for me, as I said. The genius of Gibbons' story though, is that none of this is preachy, none of this is so in-your-face that it is a detriment to the movement of the story. It is so woven into the nature of the piece, it is such well written drama for the character to deal with, that at no point does it feel like an agenda piece. 

Instead, what it is is one of the best short-run stories 2000AD ever published. A war story that takes the core of the original Rogue Trooper and turns it into a perfectly paced journey. Still a quest for revenge, the story eschewed a scenery-chomping villain like the Traitor General to pursue, instead providing the much more insidious and far more realistic villain of the piece, Clavil - the troopers own genetic template 'father', the Eustace Fargo to the new Rogue, a corporate leader whose only interest was testing a genetic product to destruction in order to increase his profitability and business orders down the line. The entire war itself started as a way to stimulate business, with no care for the deaths of the ordinary people caught up in it. A tactic we thought was a dystopian future then; a reality we are seeing the beginnings of now, openly, with the behaviour of a businessman President using threats and fear to inflate his own wealth. Again, 2000AD was ahead of the curve. 

 

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Gibbons' writing was sharp, utterly to the point. To de-clutter the story he stripped away some of the iconic elements of the original story - no conveniently named biochips here, instead the equipment the new Rogue carries is gifted to him by the deaths of his comrades. Upgraded pieces due to their specialties, a more adult way to provide the gear capabilities from the original story while also providing emotional anchor points to the quest he puts himself on. His own name, instead of another convenient title card name given without much thought to the logic of it, is changed to Friday - something that has meaning to the story itself and his character, as he is a 'Friday-job", the last genetic alteration on the tech's assembly line before the weekend, an alteration to modify each foetus to be more obeying of commands, an alteration that didn't take in this GI and was never fixed. Friday is the one GI that is capable of disobeying commands when pushed too far, and the deaths of his friends, the abandonment of the survivors to their fate awakening his very human need to make someone pay for it all. 

Here we don't get the very black and white bad Norts vs Good Southers of the original, we get a full exploration of the original massacre that was never fully detailed in the original, and then a trek across the land to an objective, a way off-planet and back to Highside, the one place to find his answers and his revenge. A trek that gradually shows everyone, regardless of side, is just trying to survive the meat grinder they've been thrown in. We also get an ecological message as we go along with Friday - this is no Nu-Earth, no far flung battlefield. This is our Earth, ravaged by war and exploited by corporations to ecological collapse. Truly, Friday is searching for revenge on monsters, the kind we allow ourselves to be ruled by today, let alone a thousand years from now. 

The War Machine is a distinct counterpoint to the original Rogue story. My love for the original will never diminish, the concepts it explored alongside its Commando/Action inspired simple future war tale were mind-bending at the time, formative ideas even that pushed me into reading more and more serious-minded sci-fi literature. A true great of the early 2000AD lineup that still resonates through other stories and attempts to revive the universe still today - look to the masterfully done Jaegir as an example of one that got it right by trying to deepen the universe. However, the original tale never got to be the deeper story it should have been. The War Machine was Rogue Trooper for a growing readership, a stronger tale that not only made the character and mission he was on more relatable, but brought home the horror of war and the insidious nature of capitalism taken to extremes that perhaps a lot of us in the 2000AD readership hadn't been thinking of at the time. It wasn't ra-ra-shoot-the-Norts simple stories connected to a general arc, it was a more complex story of "why the hell is this going on and who is responsible for this horror". I think this deeper dive into reality through sci-fi is why I currently identify so strongly with Kek-W and Dave Kendall's Deadworld saga - they too took what was beforehand mostly dealt with in a superficial manner, and they turned it into a whole universe that was not only horrific, but real. Fantasy turned more to our reality, with something to say about where we are right now. 2000AD has always been at its best when it does this. Which leads me onto my final point regarding The War Machine - the only, ONLY quibble I have with it is that it was not left alone. As a standalone story, it is magnificent. Absolutely some of the best writing and the best artwork that I have seen in any comics publication. A story that you can race through as it builds and builds to a tremendously well-earned and satisfying conclusion. It absolutely should not have been followed up with the lesser stories, returns to the bang-bang simplicity of filler stories that started to creep into 2000AD in the early to mid-nineties, that it was. Friday suffered from this unneeded dilution, unfortunately. So for me, The War Machine stays a one-and-done epic, and my advice to anyone looking to familiarize themselves with Rogue Trooper as a whole is that they should leave Friday at the end of his quest in The War Machine. You'll be happier for it. 

And now of course, we have one of the best working directors of our time, Duncan Jones, a man who like a lot of us grew up on a steady diet of 2000AD, making a Rogue Trooper film. A man who knows Rogue Trooper and Friday inside out as many of us do, who is going to introduce him to a whole new and larger audience. Mr Jones absolutely has to put his own stamp on Rogue Trooper as a movie, and I have no doubt whatsoever he will nail it; but my own selfish hope is that he will take the aesthetics, the depth and the commentary of The War Machine as the backbone of his story, but add back in the iconic elements of the original such as the biochips to please the other fans. I'm keenly awaiting all the coming news on this project and wish it nothing but success; and if he suddenly announces he's adapting The War Machine itself, fully, I doubt I'd be able to get the smile off my face without surgery. 

Rogue Trooper is one of the iconic, historic pieces of 2000AD, of that there is no question. But the War Machine - that is where, for me, 2000AD grew up. 

 

 

 

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Zenith Phases 1 to 4, by Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell, Annie Parkhouse, Mark King, Gordon Robson

This site is mainly a way for me to get my thoughts out on some of the 2000AD and 2000AD related works that have meant a lot to me throughout my years as a reader, the ones that have kept me thinking or that helped shape my appreciation of comics, books, films. For me there are certain keystone pieces of work that hold 2000AD up to a higher standard than any other comics publisher. Slaine, The Horned God, Rogue Trooper: The War Machine, Judge Dredd: Necropolis and all the years-long story arcs that built into it, the Deadworld saga we see playing out at the moment. Zenith is among these epics, at the very peak of comics literature where I'm concerned. 

Alan Moore's Watchmen rightly gets a lot of credit for deconstructing the superhuman mythos and for elevating the medium to be something that people who normally wouldn't read comics have claimed among their new-found geek credentials, but I would argue that while Moore does a deeper dive into the insanity of what a superhero/vigilante hero would be, Zenith is by far a better story, and a better exploration of some far-out concepts that frankly blew my tiny mind as a kid. Still do today, to be fair. Zenith grips you from the start, and builds and builds through the four phases into a peak of Lloigor-fuelled insanity. Zenith is, quite simply, the greatest superhuman comic story ever written, drawn and lettered. 

For a saga that spans the multiverse, not to mention creates a whole new one, the story starts small with a World War 2 propaganda reel cheering on the exploits of the first British superhuman, Maximan, as he helps lead Allied forces onto supposed victory. This reel gives way very quickly to what sets the tone for much of the series, a dark and brutal story of superhumans vs dark gods, and building to the final revelation of what those dark gods actually were, something that really was a mind warp when first revealed. Not to mention how those dark gods are finally defeated, in itself a huge "wtf, oh that's bloody clever" moment that's as effective now as it was all those years ago. There are some stories you think are clever when you read them as a kid; they stick with you, you revisit them over the years but they gradually lose their power. You realize maybe they weren't quite as clever as you'd thought when you were younger. That's not the case with Zenith; if anything the opposite is true. This was a Lovecraft novel with pictures and dialogue, with better plotting, story and concepts. I'm still amazed and disappointed Zenith didn't spawn novels, or a miniseries, or movies. Perhaps it's better it didn't, could they ever have hoped to live up to those pages? I'm not sure. I wish though, even knowing that it couldn't have been as good. It feels like one of the greatest epics of comic literature that too few of us know about, as others that are far less deserving seem to get all the attention of late. 

For those of you who may happen upon this rambling of mine who have yet to read Zenith, first of all get that sorted, seriously, and second, there'll be spoilers from here on out. For me, this was my first introduction to the concept that superhumans, the supposed heroes of their own stories, could be total jerks. For that's what Zenith is at his core, a self interested, less than heroic superhuman only interested in himself, who has to be pushed or cajoled into the actions he takes for the greater good. I hadn't read Watchmen at this point so perhaps that's why Zenith seemed more of a revelation, more real to me - as a teen, I could easily see a young superhero with all the fame and power he had would be a total arse. Robert McDowell seemed like a real character to me then, he does still. That element of selfishness brings the fantastical elements going on around him into more of a reality, it also makes when he does take any action to help more of an effective moment in the story.

He is, arguably, not the true hero of the story. There are many as the phases go on, and this is part of what interests me most about the whole thing. Traditionally less relatable people such as a Tory minister are the ultimate powers of the piece; even though the good they did, they did partly for their own purposes. Peter St. John may have an ultimate plan for exploiting all he did, but it's more of the "if I manage to pull this off" level than the driving motivation. This duality of the characters, people who you'd hate in real life being the bigger 'hero' of the piece, the protagonist being the hero on occasion but more often acting only out of pure self interest is something that leads into the revelation of who the villains of the piece, the Lloigor truly are. Mankind, or supermankind fighting it's own nature in the most evolved form of a very human evil - our feelings of superiority to others ascended to a new level of barbarism. We're seeing this horrendous part of ourselves on the rise again, as it did in the time the first page of Zenith is set, again here in real life in the most powerful nation on earth at this time. The relevance of the Lloigor today, and knowing there are people out there now ruling nations who have the same detachment from humanity as they embraced in the story, well. It certainly gives Zenith as a whole a renewed sense of urgency to the story. We may not be facing the Many-Angled Ones, but we are certainly facing people who have given up their humanity for their own advancement and ascendancy, and that's equally as horrifying as we know full where this can lead. 

So the depth of characterization, the depth of the story, the levels at which the story can work for different people feels as fresh to me today still as it did when it was first being published. Morrison and Yeowell may have moved on to what they may consider better works, but to me this is their greatest work. The story is accessible to everyone but the layers build and build to what I see as a hell of a satisfying conclusion, a perfect payoff to what seemed a minor point planted earlier in the story, as well as a massive mind-fuck of a concept. The whole fourth phase paying off like that was a work of genius.

Each phase of this work has it's peaks, but I have to state that Phase 3 is the highest point of the whole work. Phase 4 is genius in how it pays off the story, but Phase 3 is where the story turns from "great" into "epic".  Zenith is one of the most satisfying epics of 2000AD's entire run; it ties up its story without leaving you hanging needing resolution, and it does so in one of the cleverest moments the comic has published. It's a dark story, it goes places you don't see coming when you're new to it - especially THAT moment in Phase 1 - and it absolutely kicks all other superhuman stories to the kerb. Marvel and DC get all the attention for the superhero genre, but as is always the case, it was 2000AD that did it the best. It's a work of staggeringly effective art, brilliantly plotted story and terrific characterization. For those of you who know it already, give it a revisit. You'll be glad you did. For those of you who have yet to read it, get it, get it now, and you'll thank yourself for doing so. 

Deadworld from Kek-W, Dave Kendall and Ellie DeVille

In terms of reviews, I'll start with what's a bit of a passionate love of mine in 2000AD. I've always been a sucker for a Dark Judges story from the very beginning. Those original Wagner stories warped my mind as a kid and left a deep love for those characters and that whole, in the main unexplored darker world they're from. I kept having that love for the characters as the years went on, paying off when we got to the magnificence that was Necropolis, surely still the standard for mega epics in comics as a whole, let alone 2000AD. That love for them stayed when their stories started veering into dark humor and then just flat out humor...where else could the writers take them, I'm guessing was the issue at that point. They'd taken them all the way to Necropolis, the only way was down from there, nothing could be more horrific surely. So I can understand why the Dark Judges then became fodder for more humorous stories as the horror of them was lightened, then lightened some more, then pretty much disappeared completely. Still loved them, regardless. 

Then we started getting more serious takes on them again after some years. Wagner wanting to return them to the horrors they'd been. We got some cracking stories leading up to another high achievement in the history of 2000AD - Dark Justice. A streamlined story some might say, but effective and razor sharp. A haunted house in space with the Dark Judges being properly horrific again, all set to the incredible art of Greg Staples. I thought at that point we'd seen the final peak, no-one would create such a perfectly balanced mix of writing and art for the ghouls. 

But then along comes Kek-W and Dave Kendall to happily prove me wrong. Inspired by genuine nightmares, they set about reinvigorating the characters again, achieving what I would have to say is for me the pinnacle of character work regarding the Dark Judges - more horrific than they'd ever been, while all the more understandable and revolting. From there, Kek and Dave progressed into filling out Deadworld itself and we are currently seeing a mega-epic unfolding week by week, story by story as they work their way through the exploration of Deadworld I myself had always wanted to see, with the horror of it so well thought out and considered, the art of it so perfectly tuned to the malevolence of it all that I struggle to think of a better written, better inked work in the history of the weekly progs. And they aren't even finished with it. The sheer thought behind every facet of the work, from the writing through the art and character design and through the lettering is staggering to me. The grinding terror of a world slowly changing and dying, of the governmental forces becoming a nightmare to the populace, to that populace itself turning against each other is something a lot of us can relate to in current times, if to a lesser degree than Deadworld is experiencing, but it's a hell of a mirror to hold up at this time. 

For anyone who is yet to give the Deadworld series a go, rectify that immediately. It has, for me, rapidly become the greatest modern work of 2000AD and just may well go down as the greatest thing 2000AD ever produced. Kek, Dave, Ellie and anyone even remotely connected to getting this series to the page should be incredibly proud of themselves for it. A masterpiece. 

Welcome to the Dredd Universe

Welcome to the first post of the new Dredd Universe website. This website is an offshoot of the @dredduniverse Twitter account. I'm looking to entertain myself and maybe one or two of you with some reviews, news and information from the world of 2000AD, its writers, artists, letterers and staff. I'll be linking to interesting articles from Dredd fans and website contributors, as well as giving my own opinion on the current happenings in the world of 2000AD and its connected offshoots. Be warned; there may well be occasional articles about Flash Gordon also, because why the hell not.