2000 AD in Stages

Stage 15 - Zenith & the Wizards of Oz

Progs 535-570: 1987-1988

It feels like the new Tharg starts to find their feet in this phase, which delivers some of 2000 AD's all time classic thrills in a powerful mix of old and new. This might be considered a second golden age, or just a grittier comic, but it certainly feels different. No surprise, as not only has Tharg reincarnated but the comic changes publisher around the prog 540 mark and then changes logo in the new year prog 555.

Longer thrills sometimes still suffer either from scheduling blips or from multi-artist solutions (something the modern prog largely avoids), and this seems to be the beginning of a period where strips often get split awkwardly across the centre-spread story with its colour pages.

Alongside the known quantities we get the introduction of a raft of new thrills (some more important than others) in the forms of Zenith, Universal Soldier, Freaks, Bradley, Hap Hazzard & Tyranny Rex.

An out and out classic that succeeds in taking a superhero reality to the UK: something that still feels unique today. It sets out its stall early as an alternate reality in which the war in Europe (of World War II) was ended by dropping an atom bomb on Berlin. Thrown into the mix are scientifically wrought superheros, dark gods akin to those of the Cthulhu mythos and the yuppie culture of 80s Britain. For all that it features a Nazi superman with laser-beam eyes, it feels real in a way that perhaps no other story in the comic ever has.

The level of care and artistry attached to this story sets it up there vying for position as the best thrill ever published in the comic. It has a careful history that is sewn into the plot, at times seeming just like backstory and then later coming back to the fore. It has "Next prog..." captions that are all song titles (and some playlist). It has beautiful art by Steve Yeowell and supporting covers by Steve Dillon, Brendan McCarthy & Dave Gibbons (a roster of some of the best artists at work on the prog). Brendan McCarthy did the character designs for the series (as mentioned in Ben Hansom's 2013 review of a collected edition).

Letting us know that the series is not yet done, progs 558 & 559 present A Zenith Interlude, providing some backstory and deepening the context.

Phase II starts up in 1988's late summer prog 589...

Strontium Dog
The Royal Affair (from the previous stage) closes out before the four-part Sorry Case has Alpha attempt to transport Sorry Bobbs from A to B, with the metaphysical problem that Bobbs causes misfortune to those around him: the closer you are to him, the worse things go for you.

The Rammy is a ten-parter that has Alpha team up with Middenface McNulty on a scheme not too far removed from 81's The Bad Boys Bust, 84's The Killing and 85's Big Bust of '49. In those terms, it's a bit formulaic.

Finally for this stage, Stone Killers features Johnny, Durham Red and McNulty in a pun-laden escapade featuring go-to never-quite-defeateds the Stix brothers.

Stone Killers continues through to the next stage...

Mean Team
Just to get you up to speed, Bad Jack Keller, an enslaved future sport gladiator, is head of the titular Team, who have absconded to a weird Grimm's Fairy-Earth where technology doesn't work (except for human-brain-in-a-panther's-body team-mate Henry Moon's electronic vocalizer) and Jack discovers his sister (Emerald Eyes), and that they're both entirely immune to damage (except when a random unicorn-centaur gives them the stink eye).

Like a demented D&D campaign inspired by Ray Harryhausen, we're taken through a gladitorial arena and a sort of river-borne Jason and the Argonauts segment before tumbling down seemingly into hell itself (replete with hot coals), all on a quest for the Rod of Power! The rod turns out to be a poorly made crutch that has the power to destroy the ultimate evil that infests the earth, but only if you remember the magic words [see title]. With that done, technology starts working again, Jack and his sister revert to being vulnerable and (because they are all wanted murderers) a spaceship pops in and summarily executes them all (from behind) in a low-key and rather grim denouement.

Despite everyone apparently being disintegrated (look closely, eagle-eyed readers), a spin-off series starts up for one of the characters in 1989's prog 639...

Judge Dredd
Alabammy Blimps is a fondly remembered flatin' five-parter (with excellent art by Steve Dillon) set up as a Cursed Earth rescue mission with a difference. That this works so well is partly down to the setting (the Alabama Morass), as it takes us away from the more standard baked desert, but also aided by the humor inherent in the caricatured inhabitants.

Marlon 'Chopper' Shakespeare started out as King Scrawler in 1981's Unamerican Graffiti but was then remoulded as a sky-surfer in 1985's Midnight Surfer, where he won Supersurf 7 and became a hero figure of the citizens, only to be cubed by the Judges. Now, clearly advertized as a Mega-Epic and with a cut-out support kit, we get Oz, a 26-part saga where Chopper escapes encubement and tries to make it to Supersurf 10 in Oz, half a world away. The comic utterly embraces this as a multi-artist comic event, with (count 'em) Jim Baikie, Steve Dillon, Dave Elliot, John Higgins, Barry Kitson, Garry Leach, Brendan McCarthy, Liam McCormack-Sharp, Cliff Robinson and Will Simpson all involved in the 198-page, 9-cover, 5-poster epic.

Of course, it's not all about Chopper and Supersurf, as this is a story with two narrative threads: one of which introduces a Justice Department splinter group from the distant past, the Judda, who are intent on a hostile takeover of Mega-City One. This suggests (quietly) the character of Kraken, a Dredd clone and part of the Fargo bloodline. This idea of a bloodline (and, as with Dredd's clone-brother, Rico) the common flaw of corruption within it, becomes another throughline that echos (like democracy) into the future of the strip.

The next stage returns us to a more regular Dredd schedule...

Tharg's Future Shocks
FACT CANNON: fifty-six percent of the progs in this stage contain Shocks.
More in the next stage...

Universal Soldier *NEW THRILL*
Escape from New York meets The Matrix (marking this as clearly ahead of its time): an agent has been provided with some tech that allows them to adopt whatever combat technique best fits the situation (that's the Matrix-y bit) and is dropped into an open air prison to retrieve a target. The odd part of the tech is that when they adopt a combat technique they hallucinate an altered reality (including one which is an homage to A Man Called Horse): as do we as the readers.

Slightly less compelling as comic fare, the adventure is Basil-Expositioned from the perspective of a darkened board-room where nobody moves, sometimes with entirely blacked out panels. An unsatisfactory conclusion (and really a lack of a recognizable hero) allows this to peter out. As the nameless corporate bastards in the board room lack any care for their agent, so we the readers have been given no reason to root for him (beyond his being a puppet).

We have to wait three years for an unexpected second series, starting in 1990's prog 672...

Tales From Mega-City One
We get one more of these: [Fire!].
Taking the naming entirely literally, the next one of these is in 2012 in the Megazine, but there have been others inbetween that fit the mould. There's a "Tale of Mega-City One" in prog 605, for a really obvious example. Utimately, it's an anthology series that didn't take off: maybe because you can do almost exactly this just in the weekly Dredd.

An attractive yet shallow and selfish yuppie finds himself transported to the world of the Kakkaks, where he's the ugly, weird one. Him being the alien, the locals want to harvest him for military secrets and biological study, which he's none too keen on. He falls in love with a brave local and together they (and a sentient pet) attempt to escape the machinations of the evil-doers. Like an 80s US sitcom, the strong moral message that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, is lathered on thickly from beginning to end, with some laughs in the middle.
There's a text story in the winter special Prog 2004 and then a sequel series starts in 2004's prog 1412.

Bradley *NEW THRILL*
Spinning in from a Future Shock in the previous stage, here we get Bradley's Birthday, which introduces his friends Milton (giant psychopathic child that all adults and most children are afraid of) and Annabella (who uses her smarts and chutzpah to pacify Milton). We also get [Bradley and the Bandit] and A Krissmas Karol (where Santa is captured). There's still a byline that suggests we're on another planet, so it'll be interesting to see how that gets dropped (or if it does) when Bradley starts meeting Earth-bound pop stars later in the history of the strip.
Bradley's one-offs are sporadic and we don't get the next one until prog 606...

Nemesis the Warlock
Like a nightmare in comic form, John Hicklenton's art brings the horror of The Two Torquemadas (Book VII) to ghoulish life. The initial premise is odd: the modern day Torquemada is being taken through a hypnotic regression to witness his past lives and arrives at Tomas de Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition, who is being observed by a magically disguised Nemesis and Purity Brown (themselves on the hunt for Nemesis's wayward son Thoth, known to be murdering incarnations of Torquemada from throughout time). Medieval torture, time travel, spirit-walks, descents into madness, dinosaur-love and chainsaw massacres follow.

Following on immediately from Book VII (in the very next prog, and narratively the very next panel) we get Book VIII, Purity's Story: in some sense a Purity Brown origin story and also some background as to how she and Nemesis began working together. The larger theme is that of Purity being used by Nemesis as a plaything, as he toys with humans as a human might toy with insects (or, as in the strip, actual termites). It ends with Nemesis making Purity forget, and so he continues to abuse her by controlling her thoughts. Pretty dark stuff.

Part of the story continues with the ABC Warriors but Book IX of Nemesis (Deathbringer) starts after that, next stage, in prog 586...

Bad Company II: The Bewilderness
A thinly-disguised Kano is rampaging through scrubby landscapes as a Frankentein's monster, massacring human and Krool alike, until it's revealed that the other half of his Krool brain is locked away somewhere but taking control of his body from time to time. Elswhere Danny Franks and the sparse remnants of Bad Company go on a recruitment drive to up their numbers with a roster of deliberately unlikeable weirdoes.
Part 2 of Bad Company II (The Krool Heart) starts next stage in prog 576...

The A.B.C. Warriors: The Black Hole
Simon Bisley kicks the door down with the opening four episodes, where the ABC Warriors go up against the Mekaniks in an attempt to find their way to the control room of the time wastes. Bisley's art style was very unique and a crowd pleaser, so it felt odd that it was then switched every four episodes with S.M.S., who was also a great artist: but who'd want to follow Bisley on stage?

The plot, as you'd expect, ties back to Nemesis, with the Monad (from Book VI) in there as a foil. In terms of warriors, we get our first human, Terri (who falls in love with Hammerstein) and the return of Deadlock, who we must suppose stopped being a subsumed aspect of Nemesis when we weren't looking.

Dark Jimbo says:

That's presumably still to due to happen in the future, but the Warriors have travelled back through the Time Tubes to an earlier era, when Deadlock is still kicking around as his own bad self.

Blackblood loses a leg and replaces it with a road drill. There's an unusual backstory when Hammerstein dies and then, through traumatic memory recall, brings himself back to life.

The story continues in the next stage after a six-prog break...

Hap Hazzard *NEW THRILL*
Set on Fred's World, but it could just be Camden Town on Halloween, these are the relatively innocuous misadventures of young man about town Hap Hazzard, who gets into trouble with young women, gangsters and drunken sailors.
Returns next stage...

Tyranny Rex *NEW THRILL*
A woman (the title character) with a lizard tail is a criminal mastermind running an illegal pop-star cloning racket. That description feels like a disservice, as great art from Steve Dillon and a mind-bending (but coherent) story from John Smith, make this one of the historical highlights of the comic.
This quick three-parter is followed by another in the next stage, after a thirteen-prog wait...

Rogue Trooper
Realizing that thirty-five progs since the last instalment is a bit much, prog 567 has a two-page catch-up with The Legend. In Hit Two, Rogue assassinates a souther commander but then gets shirty with his alien overlords and demands intel in advance of further missions. Wonderful art from Steve Dillon lifts this above a disappointing premise.
Continues directly into the next stage...


Simon Harrison provided his take on Joe Pineapples (as the back cover of prog 535) to foreshadow the return of the ABC Warriors in their own series (The Black Hole) in prog 555: