Technicolour dimensions: John Smith and Edmund Bagwell's Indigo Prime

Anthropocalyptic.

Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse
John Smith (W), Lee Carter (A), Edmund Bagwell (A)
Rebellion, 160pp, £14.99

The British comics weekly 2000 AD will always be primarily identified with its anti-hero Judge Dredd, the rugged cop of the fascist, futuristic Mega-City One. In addition, the title hosts a couple of other series which, while not reaching the same iconic heights, are certain to summon a wistful smile in comics fans of a certain age – Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine, to name just a few.

But one of the strengths of the magazine's anthology format – each week, it features six to eight pages each of five different stories – is that it can bank on those core properties while also taking the sort of risks that are uncomfortably rare in mainstream genre comics.

One of those risks which paid off is Indigo Prime. The original series, which ran on and off from 1988 to 1991, detailed the exploits of the eponymous extra-dimensional agency, which is charged with maintaining the multiverse. Written by John Smith, with the majority of the art by Chris Weston, the series was a frenetic introduction to the organisation and its agents, climaxing with a ten-part story called "Killing Time" involving a journey on a time travelling train with a variety of Victorians including Jack the Ripper.

It was odd.

Over 20 years later, Smith has resurrected Indigo Prime – the agency and the series – in two stories collected in the Anthropocalypse paperback. But, as always with the writer, it's not quite that simple.

The first story, Dead Eyes, initially appears to have nothing to do with Indigo Prime at all. Described by Smith as an attempt to write "cavepunk" (think hi-tech neanderthals), and illustrated by Lee Carter, a new (at the time) artist whose highly textural work would later be put to better use drawing the religious horror Necrophim, Dead Eyes is conspiracy-theory-as-fiction.

A young soldier wakes up in Porton Down, where he's subject to horrific medical trials designed to unlock some latent ability in him. He escapes, and, evading a masonic conspiracy, finds his way to the underground city of Cthonia, the home of a race of Neanderthals who mastered advanced technology and escaped the rise of humanity.

It's imaginative stuff, but Dead Eyes flunks the execution. Carter's artwork looks muddy after the colouring, with whole pages the same hue. Detail gets washed away, and it can get hard to work out what is actually going on. That's a fault shared by Smith, whose plotting this time falls just the wrong side of inventive. Ideas are thrown at the wall on every page – "Down's syndrome orphans moulded by Masonic mind-control techniques into post-modern metrosexual killing machines for the state", reads one description – but the success rate is low, and too frequently the ones which work are also the ones cast aside by the next panel.

But everything takes a turn for the better on the last page of Dead Eyes, as the world melts around our protagonist and he wakes up in a clone-grown body in the recruiting bay of Indigo Prime.

Recontextualised by that last page, Dead Eyes is still sub-par, but is also an important introduction to Danny Redman, our viewpoint character as we return to a world last seen, if at all, two decades ago. And from there, everything gets much better.

The second story, presented in two parts as Everything and More and Anthropocalypse, pushes Smith's strengths in exactly the right direction. Partially, this is achieved through being paired with an artist far more suitable to the story at hand. Edmund Bagwell's high-contrast colouring and detailed linework allows for a level of detail in each panel which Carter couldn't match, and clarifies a story which rests on rapid shifts in location and time.

But it's also because the world of Indigo Prime itself is intrinsically suited to Smith's writing style. An agency working to repair the multiverse naturally drops into a a lot of parallel universes, and that lets Smith visit for a second the sort of ideas which other writers would turn into a ten-part miniseries.

"A XENOCIDE-CLASS SPAWNBROKER DREADNOUGHT FLEEING THE BABY PHARMS OF JEZEBEL'S MAW CRASH-WARPS INTO PARIS"

"THE JURASSIC GATECRASHES THE HOLOCENE IN A RIOT OF FEATHERS AND FLESH"

"LOVESICK FREEDOM FIGHTERS STRANDED ON THE SHORES OF THE MAMRE ENTROPY REEFS AS MASS WARHEADS DETONATE"

Each is shown for a fleeting panel, illustrated in glorious technocolour, and then abandoned. But rather than being distractions, dragging down the plot, they are almost the point. Anthropocalypse begins with a hunt for a bewilderbeast, a cross-dimensional herbivore, which dizzyingly spins through dimensions. It's the same trick used in the opening of Everything and More, but it hits even harder the second time. And as that story ends on a cliffhanger, I hope there'll be a third.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

The Tolkien Trust
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Beren and Lúthien: Love, war and Tolkien’s lost tales

Expanded and augmented version of tale which first appeared in Silmarillion mirrors Tolkien's own relationship with wife Edith.

In a woodland glade white with flowers, a young woman danced for her soldier husband. It seems a vision from a lost world, and for that Somme veteran in 1917 it was: a glimpse of joy as if sorrow, sickness and horror had never been. For Second Lieutenant J R R Tolkien the dance in the glade inspired a fairy tale, written that same summer in hospital, after a relapse of Somme trench fever. To call it a difficult birth would be the understatement of a century: it has taken 100 years for the story of Beren and Lúthien to become a book in its own right.

Of the nine years since Tolkien and Edith had met as fellow lodgers (and orphans), three had been spent under a communication ban imposed by his guardian. Reunited after Tolkien turned 21, they had married just weeks before he was sent to the trenches. There for four months with the Lancashire Fusiliers, mostly as a battalion signals officer, he repeatedly witnessed the carnage that he later called simply “animal horror”. He also lost many friends, including two of his dearest. Part exorcism, The Book of Lost Tales, begun when he got back to England, was his first attempt at recounting a mythological war over three “holy jewels” called the Silmarils – the multi-threaded epic he later named The Silmarillion.

Beren and Lúthien contains one thread, woven in turn from strands as diverse as the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen and the German “Rapunzel”. Tolkien’s big idea was that his “Lost Tales” were the pure, ungarbled originals of such oral stories. Aided by his storytelling verve, and embedded in his matrix of invented history, geography and language, it rises far above pastiche. A wild, ragged wanderer and an elf princess meet by unlikely chance and fall in love. Her scornful father sets what seems an impossible marriage condition – regaining one of the Silmarils from the iron crown of the satanic enemy Morgoth.

That inspirational moment in the wood at Roos, Yorkshire, was central both to Tolkien’s creative and to his personal lives. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved under his name (1973) and Edith’s (1971) on their Oxford headstone. So this book – with watercolours and pencil sketches by the veteran Tolkien artist Alan Lee – is presented by its editor, their third child, Christopher, as a memorial to his parents. And it is the capstone to a job Christopher began with The Silmarillion, published in 1977 – a seamless editorial construct from a bewilderment of posthumous papers, which he gave the full scholarly treatment in his later, 12-volume History of Middle-earth.

Isolating the thread of the Beren and Lúthien story, Christopher (now 92) walks a difficult line, but successfully conveys its evolution by making generous selections from Tolkien’s own versions, with some bridging comments of his own. The book includes the early “Lost Tales” plus nearly 3,000 lines of a verse version begun in 1925 and abandoned in 1931, The Lay of Leithian. Interspersed are portions of chronicle-style retellings from successive Silmarillions written in 1926, 1930 and 1937 – the last of these abandoned in mid-flow when a publisher demanded a sequel to the newly published Hobbit instead.

Christopher follows the thread beyond the end of the story proper to show how the lovers’ quest leads to later redemption and victory in the war against Morgoth. He discusses how their fates fit in with the concepts of mortality and immortality central to the whole “legendarium”. Finally, he adds a sequence from a rewriting of The Lay of Leithian begun with redoubled power after The Lord of the Rings, but again abandoned. So this is also a memorial to a story that might have been.

There is much to relish, even for those who have read The Silmarillion. Of all the 1916-19 “Lost Tales”, this one changed most. The early version, doubtless written for Edith, is a rollicking fairy tale crossed with a kind of “Just So Story” about why cats fear dogs; yet in its latter stages it steps up several gears and attains a mythic power. The verse Leithian is in this higher gear all along, setting the tone for The Silmarillion. Germanic saga rises to the surface, and so do war memories:

. . . the mighty field . . . turned to dust,

to drifting sand and yellow rust,

to thirsty dunes where many bones

lay broken among barren stones.

Nothing shows the gear change more clearly than that Beren’s captor in the earliest version is a demonic cat but in later versions the captor is the wolvish Necromancer – whom Tolkien in 1937 renamed Sauron. When in The Lord of the Rings Frodo first sees a vision of Sauron’s eye, “yellow as a cat’s”, he gazes into the deep well of Tolkien’s creative past.

In all the forms of the story here, Lúthien is the key figure, “more fair than mortal tongue can tell” but also more resourceful than Beren. It is she who springs him from prison and defeats his captor. When together they reach the end of the quest in Morgoth’s throne room, everything falls to her. If this is meant to be the lost original of “Rapunzel”, it is strikingly in tune with much more recent, female-centred fairy-tale revisionings. It is also a hymn to Edith – and to her power to lift Tolkien out of the depths. 

Beren and Lúthien
J R R Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins, 288pp, £20

John Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War” and is writing a book on Tolkien and the 20th century, “Tolkien’s Mirror”

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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