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“You Owe Me A Father.” COMICS! Sometimes They Define “Ramage!”.

John Kane

In 1987 DC Comics published a 12-issue “Maxi-series” by British (apparently I forgot one of them is of American origin)  Creators.

It did not change the world of comics forever but since it featured a robot dog in a fez and shades, a living head in a bucket and stupid jokes by the pound while still being “about” something I thought we’d take a look. Me and my notions!

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OUTCASTS
Art by Cam Kennedy & Steve Montano
Written by John Wagner & Alan Grant
Coloured by Tom Ziuko & Nansi Hoolahan
Lettered by Bill Oakley, John Constanza & Augustin Mas
Published by DC Comics
12 issues, $1.75ea (1987/88)
Outcasts created by John Wagner, Alan Grant & Cam Kennedy

It is The Future and in Big City while the rich live in enclaves the poor are mutated and damned to shanty towns. It is The Future and the police are not your friends. It is The Future and The Mutant Clearances have begun. It is The Future and the TV is shit. It is The Future and Kaine Salinger wants revenge for her father’s death and answers to her questions. What is happening to the mutants? Who is murdering the city’s ruling elite? Can a 104 year old man get an erection? Who are The Satan Brothers? Why Aren’t They Funnier? Why is that dog wearing a fez and shades? All these questions and more will be answered but it’ll take THE OUTCASTS to do it!

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Since OUTCASTS has never been collected the reader will have no option but to read them in pamphlet format, doing so means they will soon find that around the edges of OUTCASTS floats the ghost of Alan Moore Past. His sublime presence can be felt in the form of a house ad for his and Brian Bolland & John Higgins’ THE KILLING JOKE; now here he is rearing magnificently up in an Advertorial with David Lloyd talking about their V FOR VENDETTA series. I understand that Alan Moore would go on to great success and pretty much redefine American genre comics as well as, with his and Dave Gibbons & John Higgins’ WATCHMEN, laying the foundations of the Great Internet Civil War of 2012. (Thanks, Alan!)

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However, OUTCASTS would see print and then fade from the collective memory; Alan Grant would find some success writing decent Batman comics and John Wagner would join him there for a time before they both pretty much confined themselves to 2000AD and creator owned properties like THE BOGIE MAN and SHIT THE DOG. Now, while Alan Moore, like Alan Grant (but not, Andrew Hickey reminds me below, John Wagner), is British (I bring you only the freshest (and wrongest) facts!) he was, at this point anyway, filtering it through a very American form of comics. Wagner &Grant (W&G), however, seem to have made little attempt to adapt to American comics. Other than the length of each episode OUTCASTS reads very much like a strip from 2000AD.

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Very, very much like a strip from 2000AD in fact. So familiar in fact that it seems likely that W&G were attempting to directly port across the sensibility that had worked so well over the pond in the hopes that American audiences would react equally enthusiastically. Or DC Comics were hoping for that reaction. The Big City setting is very reminiscent of Mega City One in Pat Mills John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s creation Judge Dredd as are the designs of the police officers, the fact that mutants are an important presence, the familiar contrast between the squalor of the masses and the empty plenty of the rich and the writers’ signature love of parodying the tranquilising distractions of mass media. The very presence of the talented Cam Kennedy is another echo of Judge Dredd. Since I’m about to chunter on about W&G I should take this opportunity to praise Cam Kennedy. DC Comics appear to have employed Steve Montano to tidy up Kennedy’s work,  so much so that on occasion it appears practically Gibbons-esque (now, why would that be?!?). Yet Kennedy’s slightly off-kilter art is so idiosyncratic that it retains its pleasingly lolloping figures and chunkily eroded environments and, thus, its personality. As with your partner in life, personality’s important in comic art and Cam Kennedy’s art has stacks of it.

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OUTCASTS could very likely have occurred in Judge Dredd’s world had Old Stoney Face been off (slowly) learning not to be a fascistic sh*thead off-planet. Any fan of Judge Dredd would find plenty to enjoy in OUTCASTS but the flavour of 2000AD is even more pervasive than that. The character B.D. Rickenbacker may obviously be a variation on W&G’s Dredd foe Mean Machine Angel but he is also an ex-Slaughterbowl player, as are the later characters “Killer” Kowalski” and “The Prof.” A key fixture in early 2000AD was the regular appearance of a strip about a fantastically violent sport (e.g. HARLEM HEROES, INFERNO, MEAN ARENA). Mutants were also all over the shop in 2000AD, not least in Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s excellent bounty hunting mutie strip STRONTIUM DOG. One of the Outcasts, Dag Skinnard, has blue skin and white hair which brings to mind Gerry-Finley Day and Dave Gibbons’ ROGUE TROOPER.  W&G also seem to have written it exactly as they would have a strip for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.

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OUTCASTS may be 12 issues in total but it seems W&G split the writing duties with Grant doing the initial 6 issues and Wagner taking on the home stretch. I don’t know because England is, contrary to popular belief, actually big enough to ensure that I have never met them. But there’s a clear change in the series’ tone and direction with issue 6. Initially the series has a bleakly dour cast spiced up with touches of absurdism to prevent it all getting a bit too humourless. You can also tell, roughly where it’s going and how, probably, it’s going to get there. It isn’t that it’s predictable as such it’s just that conventions, while being toyed with, are being upheld. With issue 6 that changes.

Now, I’m going to explain why I don’t really go in for plot synopses. I’ll usually put some bare bones of a thing at the top in an attempt to give a flavour of the contents, or sprinkle bits through the piece where it can’t be avoided, but mostly the hope is that if someone sourced the books I talk about they’d still have a few surprises in store. It seemed like a good idea at the time. OUTCASTS is a case in point. While it is hardly the cases that you’re going to soil yourself with surprise, the events in #6 and #7 should wrongfoot you enough to make the series a lot more enjoyable than you thought. That’s all. It isn’t “Oh God, they’re all ghosts!” or “His bum was The Devil all along!”, no, but it’ll ensure you keep reading. After that the series becomes more absurd with touches of gravity to prevent it all getting a bit too silly. So there’s a certain disparity of tone that readers might want to be prepared for.

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Another thing today’s reader may not warm to is the political aspect of the series. Now, this isn’t really political as such but it does involve pointing out that those who have will do whatever they can get away with to those who have-not, until those who have-not have not even life. Worse, the series has the temerity to point out that perhaps that’s a not entirely nice thing to do and when it all gets a bit out of hand maybe someone should do something about it. Which sounds reasonable enough to me, but I’ve been paying attention and I see times have changed, so someone somewhere will undoubtedly find all that violently objectionable and lily livered, verging perhaps on daydreamy pinko-liberalism. We just used to call such stuff basic human decency but, hey, it’s your future now. Just be kind to my son.

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This kind of decency is a hallmark of W&G’s work and I say that having been  reading their work since the ‘70s. Back then, since I am a traditionalist and have lived my life in a temporally linear fashion, I was a kid. When you’re a kid you learn things from the entertainment you consume and when I was a kid I consumed a lot of comics. Oh, there was TV, sure, but the kid’s stuff was only on for about 2 hours at tea time and mostly consisted of creepy puppets fixing things and Star Trek. So, while I can’t deny that a lot of my moral instruction came courtesy of Captain James T. Kirk and pals it would be more honest to accept that a lot more of it came from the pictures and words printed on paper one rung above bog roll in quality. There were proper books, yes, but this is a comics blog so I’ll concentrate on comics. After we’ve done talking about me, anyway.

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Well, the “me” who is standing in for an entire generation of 1970s male children anyway. Now, if a parent had bothered to actually look at what their little rascal was poring over with all the unsettling intensity of a serial killer choosing a knife, they would certainly have got all Wertham about it stuck him in the Scouts and probably given him a good hammering to boot. Yes, you could thump your kids back then; it’s true The Past is always better! Underneath the surface thrills of seeing malarial and insane Tommies slaughtering people from Japan (“Aieeee!!”) or a dinosaur chewing on time travelling cowboys like they were screaming mince (“My legs! Oh, God! It’s eating my legs!”) there was a strong moral component. Not in a preachy way, just in a foundational way; these creators were fundamentally decent people and no matter how outré and savage their output that decency would always seep through. Okay, not all of them as that’s a bit sweeping, but certainly in the case of W&G this is true. Oh, don’t worry W&G are never afraid to deflate the mood by having a bunch of cybernetically enhanced brain damage cases break into a rap while someone is mourning the dead.

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OUTCASTS is pretty much your basic Wagner & Grant comic what with its real life concerns almost apologetically presented alongside the drolly absurd and delivered with understatedly anthracitic humour. Cam Kennedy’s art is perfectly suited to the tone of the book with its collision of grittines and goofiness. If you see the series in the back issue bins I think you’d not regret plucking it out. Because as comics go OUTCASTS is GOOD! Oh yeah, you’ll be wanting to see the dog in fez’n’shades:

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And like the mutants after the clearances – I’m GONE!

Have a nice weekend everyone! Go read some COMICS!!!

7 Responses to “ “You Owe Me A Father.” COMICS! Sometimes They Define “Ramage!”. ”

  1. Wagner is actually American, though he’s lived most of his life in the UK. And Judge Dredd wasn’t created by Mills and Ezquerra but by Wagner and Ezquerra — Mills was the editor of 2000AD in the early days and wrote the first Dredd strip to be published, but not the first one written.

  2. Hah! I am appalled that I misattributed the creation of Judge Dredd. Particularly after I even went and checked and then still got it wrong! No excuse for that. I had, however, forgotten Wagner was of American origin. I thank you for the corrections, Andrew Hickey!

  3. We just used to call such stuff basic human decency but, hey, it’s your future now”

    I liked this, John. Great writing.

    I missed the Outcasts. Sounds like fun. When W&G were good, they were very good.

  4. Not sure how I didn’t buy this one way back then. I bought all the crap DC put out in the 80′s. I bought Electric Warrior! I bought Sonic Disruptors! I bought both Batman & The Outsiders AND The Outsiders every month! How did I miss Outcasts?

  5. [...] Commentary | John Kane looks back at the ’80s DC Comics maxiseries Outcasts. [The Savage Critics] [...]

  6. Dann:
    I have all the books you mentioned. Also, I may truly be the only person who would buy the final issues of Sonic Disruptors, should they be published…yep, they could have a print run of one and fully supply the demand.
    While I own the Outcasts, I haven’t yet read them. I didn’t know I wanted to, and now I do! Thanks John!

  7. @AndyD: Cheers, though I think I misjudged the tone a bit and come off like a broken down old wreck in a bedsit powered by cuppa soups and self hatred. I don’t even like cuppa soups!

    @Dann: ELECTRIC WARRIOR! In the future there will be electricity! It didn’t lie did it!

    @Comics A.M: Cheers for the link!

    @Brian Wiggett: Hmmm, I don’t think OUTCASTS is worth waiting that long to read but, dang, that’s some impressive self control you’ve got there.

    Thanks to all as ever!

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