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.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue