Milligan, Ewins, McCarthy, Dillon
Review by Pat Black
We’ve Squawked about comics before. We’ve even Squawked about 2000AD before. But now we finally arrive at the best of the best – Peter Milligan’s evergreen Bad Company.
2000AD is a lonely old soul out there in the firmament; a single blaze of colour travelling on across British newsstands, a battered survivor from the days when the racks were once filled with comics. In the quarter-century since 1987, when I began seriously getting into 2000AD, the home-grown comics market has become all but extinct. The Beano and Dandy are still clinging on, desperately hoping that all sorts of gimmicks and commercial tie-ins will drag them back from the brink. But I fear that it’s the dads and granddads who continue to buy these funny pages, not the children. The same is true for Commando, which continues in its own unique way, having lasted nearly ten times longer than the Second World War it depicts.
But the sci-fi themed 2000AD has never quite been for children. It was always too violent, too outré, and too unusual for my palate when I was a primary school child. But as I got older, everything clicked into place. Suddenly I saw the appeal: 2000AD was cool. Its heroes were cynical, not morally uptight like good old Dan Dare or Roy Race. They didn’t play fair or follow clean lines - and sometimes they even lost out to their enemies. And it was staggeringly violent; I’ve got an ABC Warriors review brewing, pending a belated delivery from Santa, but suffice to say I’ve never seen such carnage in a product ostensibly for children.
I recognised that the comic also had something to say about our world, even while depicting alien ones. I could appreciate Halo Jones’ boredom as she traipsed around shopping malls with her alien friends on other planets, and you didn’t have to be a genius to work out that super-cop Judge Dredd was taking a massive sideswipe at American culture, even while paying homage to its crime fiction.
It even had its own version of swearing – and by crud, I can’t have been the only boy whose raging hormones were thankful for the sight of women on its pages; lovingly-penned tips of the hat to the Marvel and DC heroines and villainesses whose curves entranced many a young man across the decades. You certainly didn’t get that in the Beezer. And even if supervixens like Judge Anderson or Durham Red weren’t quite real women, they were a welcome break from the lumpy, authoritarian irritants in polka-dot dresses and pearls that you saw in every other boys’ comic.
All of which leads us to Bad Company. This strip came about during that period of the eighties when Vietnam war movies were becoming major award winners as well as big box office – the era of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill and Casualties of War. Following 2000AD’s well-established history of reflecting popular culture as well as creating it, Bad Company took the conventions of these contemporary military dramas – raw recruits; harsh jungle; strange, unknowable enemies – and put them into outer space, on the planet Ararat.
The story is told through the eyes of Danny Franks, who fills in his diary while he takes his first tour against the vicious alien enemy, the Krool. These bug-eyed monsters are as fond of torture and cruelty as they are of military conquest, making them a particularly fearful foe. Young Danny’s unit soon comes under attack, but they are saved by the legendary Bad Company. Led by the Frankenstein-esque Kano, a victim of the Krool’s hellish torments who managed to escape their prison camp, they are a rag-tag bunch of psychopaths operating off the grid who only exist to put an end to their enemy – and sometimes, each other. The survivors from Danny’s unit band together with the Company in a grim battle against the Krool, the feral human tribes who scavenge the battlefields and even their own dead colleagues, reanimated as “war zombies”.
There was some unpleasant violence on these pages, delivered in a peculiar tone of dread and horror with grim scenes of decay and filthiness which conjured the atmosphere of the trenches in World War One. It also had the outright nihilism which makes 2000AD so unique even today; one panel depicting Kano executing a Krool prisoner was, frankly, a bit much, even if it was only a bug-eyed monster biting the bullets.
We had weirdness, too – with references beyond the reach of most 10-year-olds, you would hope. In one section, the soldiers encounter hallucinogenic headwinds while crossing one of Ararat’s plains, which make them face their own worst fears. In an almost too-cute nod to human recreational drug-taking, the soldiers suffer flashbacks to this experience in later episodes.
All the while, brooding Kano leads the gang on his own personal mission of revenge, the key to which resides in a black box he carries about with him.
This story was superlative – and disturbing. The moment when Danny comes face-to-face with a fallen comrade who gets reanimated as a zombie is unforgettable. But the first part of the saga is nothing like as chilling or effective as its barnstorming sequel, Bad Company II.
Here, we follow Danny – now the leader of Bad Company – as he follows Kano’s mission statement to rid Ararat of the foul Krool. But there’s trouble brewing among the ghetto planets nearby, with stories of a Frankenstein-esque creature who hunts both humans and Krool alike. Separate from this familiar-sounding menace, Danny enlists a new crew on a mission to take down the godhead of the alien empire - the Krool heart, a monstrous entity with near-omnipotence - as it nears the end of its life cycle and prepares to spawn a successor. But, this being Bad Company, it seems that the comrades-in-arms hate each other almost as much as they hate their target.
Bad Company II is... well, I want to say it’s The Empire Strikes Back to the first part’s Star Wars, but that doesn’t quite cover it; perhaps Lord of the Rings-to-The-Hobbit is a better comparison to make. It’s a sequel that not only improves on the original but also has much bigger themes on its mind, and a more pronounced psychedelic tone which might be a distraction were it not for the personal dramas that keep our attention from wavering.
As Kano returns, tormented (and sometimes taken over) by the Krool warrior his consciousness is fused with, so Danny begins to wonder about the relationship between human and Krool, between life and the universe, between pain and redemption, between the one and the many... and lots of other things which probably have no business hiding between the covers of a comic read by a boy aged 11.
That said, there are still thrilling moments of combat as well as intriguing personal animosities among the new members of the Company itself – the best of which is the relationship between De Racine, decadent member of Earth’s ruling Elite, and Protoid, the bizarre shape-shifting alien whose ship the Company uses to reach the Krool Heart.
The artwork by Brett Ewins, Steve Dillon and Jim McCarthy is also first-rate – an occasionally psychedelic journey beyond the grime, gunshots and gore that must have had all three licking their lips at the prospect of creating such bizarre worlds, both internal and external.
I was thrilled with this strip when I first read it as a laddie, but I was astonished when I re-read it in this book many years later. It is mind-blowing, epic stuff that dares to be cerebral. As a boy, reading this strip was a little like that fugitive feeling you got if you stayed up late to watch TV and stumbled upon a movie like Blade Runner; you didn’t quite get what it was all about, but you knew it was cool and stylish, you never forgot it, and you wanted to experience it again.
This book contains stories which appeared in annuals and later episodes of Bad Company – but the first and second stories are where it’s at; some of the very best in British comics.
This saga is hardly alone in the history of 2000AD. Away from the tired old superheroes and their over-familiar costumes, backstories, villains, sidekicks and girlfriends, 2000AD dares to be different, even today. Nothing lasts forever, of course, and god knows it’s done well to last so long with all its UK peers long consigned to history. But I hope 2000AD can carry on far into the future, even with the once-futuristic sounding dateline of its title far behind us.