Sunday, 17 February 2013


2000 AD, I’m told, used to be a must-buy for every comic fan in Britain. It was the home of Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, and the ABC Warriors. It was the comic you bought for a sense of humour and a healthy dose of creativity. Perhaps more importantly it was the comic that gave early career exposure to creators and artists such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Alan Davis, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Kevin O’Neill, and Dave Gibbons. 2000 AD earned a reputation early on in its life as a book of very high quality, and one that wasn’t afraid to give unknowns a chance.

Sadly the modern 2000 AD has lost a little of this lustre. The dark drive Marvel and DC undertook in the 80s and 90s, ironically spearheaded largely by writers and artists who had received their starts at 2000 AD, stripped away part of the mystique of the British title. So did the increased availability of those companies’ titles in Britain.

While the weekly release still features the likes of Dredd it’s rare for a series to reach the heights of popularity enjoyed by strips decades ago. Occasionally though there are still flashes of ingenuity when a particularly enjoyable strip gets commissioned. One such title was brought to us in 2006 when writer Ian Edginton and artist D’Israeli brought us Stickleback. Despite the familiar mix of steampunk and Victoriana it felt fresh and exciting.

The first set of issues, collected under the name England’s Glory, introduces us to the titular Stickleback. Clearly meant to put readers in mind of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty, he is a criminal mastermind with a gaggle of freakish henchmen at his beck and call. He bears a deformity himself: his spine spikes out through his back, visible in an ever-present sight gag sticking through whatever he happens to be wearing.

It’s this physical attribute that gives the character his name apparently, although I’m a little unclear as to why. I always thought a stickleback was a type of fish.

The pacing of the book is predictably good. That’s a trick that 2000 AD titles usually pull off well, thanks to the six pages generally given to each instalment of a story. It means that more plot has to be packed into a smaller amount of space than the comics of larger companies, discouraging authors from including anything that can’t be deemed essential.

The supporting cast of criminals are based on tropes of Victorian literature. There’s a tribal midget with a blowpipe, a giant strongman, conjoined twins, and a well-to-do gentleman who’d pass fine in polite society if it weren’t for his charred skin. It’s surprising how little they appear across the first (and currently only) collection’s pages, but Edginton does a good job of making them seem as though they mean something by giving us reasons to empathise with them.

Opposing Stickleback and his crew are Detective Valetine Bey and Sergeant Leonard Chips. Their status as law enforcers means we’re expected to view them as villains, being that the protagonists are criminals and all. They’re enjoyable enough characters, although for the first part of the collection it feels as though they’re a little too prominent.

The book follows the criminals’ misadventures in and around London, covering other elements of Victoriana. Far eastern mummies, clanking robo-men and Lovecraftian horrors (perhaps they’re a little later than the Victorian Age but they feel like they belong) all crop up to interact with gang. Action is the order of the day.

Truth be told the stories, while well-constructed and readable, aren’t going to blow your mind. Plot twists tend to feel a little underwhelming and it’s left to the imagery and artwork to hold the reader’s attention. D’Israeli’s art is wonderful to look at, suffused with plenty of detail but never seeming overly complex. His use of deep shadows and knack for conjuring up striking characters that appear only in a few panels marks him as a great talent. He’s definitely someone who deserves to be more highly thought of than he is. It’s a shame that his art style isn’t something mainstream comics are interested in using.

Stickleback is a quirky little title with a unique blend of ideas aided by fantastic artwork. It proves that 2000 AD still has access to writers and artists who can turn out something worthwhile that isn’t part of the company’s larger history. It also shows that the compilation book can still be relevant if given a chance. Perhaps Tharg should get around to releasing a second volume.

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