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.

MONTY FRESCO/DAILY MAIL/REX
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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain