Shell-Shocked! (Rogue Trooper: Volume Two)

2000 AD: The Ultimate Collection #48. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 280-301 & 303-336.

It’s September 1982. “It’s still a mad, mad, mad nu world.” Returning to the world of Rogue Trooper immediately gives you a swift reminder of the many things that work really well in this series. I identified them in the review for Volume One, but it comes down to the striking imagery of the lone soldier walking the ravaged landscape, the detailed and grounded artwork, and the short but dense storytelling. Reaching the end of Volume Two, the overall feeling is that the artwork and imagery remains strong (in fact better), but that the plotting has lost its way a bit.

63ac9b09-8dd9-4cb5-959b-b7d2f056cd12Gerry Finley-Day is an interesting writer, and particularly an interesting writer for 2000 AD. I wrote in Volume One that his experience had given him a strong approach with methodical and clear plotting, but that his old-school dialogue and exposition didn’t really fit well with the other series around at the time. From what I can tell, he makes one very positive change to his approach here, and one not-so-great one.

Starting positively, he does a pretty good job of addressing one of the big challenges with the series set-up. The bio-chipped equipment is a cool sci-fi idea, but it’s innately problematic from a story perspective. They’re largely inanimate objects that can only act as a sort of Greek chorus for Rogue. As they are basically main characters in this series, that makes it very difficult to tell stories that involve them in anything other than minor ways. Finley-Day takes a different tack with them across this collection of stories that highlights the interdependence between Rogue and the trio of Helm, Bagman and Gunnar. There’s a run of stories that use this as a central premise of the plot – “Hats Off to Helm (1982)” highlights their lack of mobility and reliance on the G.I.; “Fort Neuro (1982)” sees Rogue’s equipment being lost one by one and shows how this makes things harder; and “Major Magnam (1983)” puts Rogue and his pals in the position of having to be subordinate to another bio-chipped weapon.

But the story that hits this point most effectively, and may be my overall favourite in this collection, is “The Marauders (1982)”. Finley-Day’s strength with plotting is really on show here, as he takes the series premise he developed (with Dave Gibbons) and then asks the very obvious dramatic question – what would happen if you gave all Rogue’s equipment to another soldier? This plot device is a great way of crystallising the relationship between Rogue and his digital pals, and at the same time serves to push the Traitor-General storyline forward as well.

But overall the plotting and writing of these stories is the biggest issue facing this collection. Volume One just managed the make the tension between the old-school writing and crazy future sci-fi work, but the balance is lost here in the second Volume. Finley-Day’s exposition-heavy dialogue becomes almost unreadable in parts, and his old-fashioned attitude to women in these kinds of stories is cringe-worthy. I think even in ’84 someone should have been having a word with him about his “girl soldiers” with their “jealous-lover syndrome”.

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“Mill-Com Memories (1983)” suffers from some of the same issues (Venus Bluegenes for example), but also relies on the credulity-stretching idea that Rogue suffers an injury that leaves him able to deliriously mumble out detailed and individual mysterious backstories for Helm, Bagman and Gunnar. The attempt to fill in some of the background for all the characters is welcome, but even by 1983 the device used to do it must have seem cliched and overdone.

The centrepiece of this collection, the 19-part “Fort Neuro”, is a good showcase for the nagging sense that the wheels are falling off Rogue Trooper a tad. The intial interesting concept – an endless siege has turned Souther troopers a bit isolated and mad – is used as a vehicle for comedy. Of all Finley-Day’s skills, comedy isn’t really one of them. 2000 AD has a healthy streak of humour all the way through of course, and there’s room for the odd joke even in Rogue Trooper, but 19 episodes of incredibly broad jokes that rely entirely on stereotypes, cliches and accents is about 18 too many. I wonder if the comedy was an editorial decision, as the whole thing feels so out of place – Rogue having to hit the disco dancefloor is so far beyond the conception of the character it almost reads like Finley-Day going “fine, you want crazy comedy, I’ll give you crazy comedy!”

There are some parts of “Fort Neuro” that work. I actually quite like the robo-runners (robots that pass messages between the Souther troops), and as discussed above separating Rogue from his equipment raises the stakes. Rogue having to try and defend a place that’s filled with people too mad to really help him out also has some tension. But nothing here justifies spending 19 episodes with this plot. Finley-Day’s plotting was one of the biggest strengths of Volume One, but the length of “Fort Neuro” is a number of odd decisions that he makes here. Finding the Traitor-General and then quickly losing him again in “Marauders” is another – if anything justified nearly 20 weeks of story, surely it should have been Rogue’s main quest?

But the one thing that continues to lift Rogue Trooper out of its story issues is the consistently excellent art from returning artists Colin Wilson and Cam Kennedy, and new-to-Rogue Brett Ewins. There isn’t a page in this collection that falls below “great” standard, and the artists do a good job of adding gravitas and urgency to plots or dialogue that strive for those things but often don’t reach them. These three artists are excellent choices for the landscapes and technology that fill out Nu Earth, and there is always some new detail to find when scanning their pages.

I’ve come down a bit hard on this Volume, even though Rogue is still a fun character to spend time with. Let’s hope Volume Three sees the story find its footing again, and artists still firing on all cylinders.

Next time: The mighty Thrillshots spreadsheet has Robo-Hunter: Volume Three up next, but it’s still a while away from release Down Under. So we’ll circle back to that down the track, and instead tackle the first of a few Alan Moore-focused collections with D.R. & Quinch / Skizz.

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