I haven't been a regular reader of 2000 AD for years now, but I always make the effort to pick up the annual bumper Christmas anthology, and the new comic strips on offer have on more than one occasion prompted me to make a weekly investment, if only for a short time.
I suspect that this will not be the case in 2012, although it's no reflection on the quality of the individual strips, most of which are quite good; indeed one of the stories is almost worth the cover price alone, but it's a one-off so there's no reason to come back for the next issue for more.
The Strontium Dog strip is perhaps the weakest of the lot, a middle chapter in a longer saga, presented without context and quite antithetical to the anthology's stated objective of attracting new readers. I'm not a big fan of the series — although Carlos Ezquerra's art is always a rough-edged delight — but I am somewhat familiar with the history of the strip and even I was lost; it's one for long-term fans only, I suspect. Sinister Dexter also seems to be part way through an existing tale — although the strip presented here is a little more self-contained — but still comes across as tired, relying on half-hearted cameos from other 2000 AD characters as its hook. Nikolai Dante is also mid-story — mid-epic might be a better description of this sprawling tale of futuristic Russian nobles and their conflicts, betrayals, wars and romances — but I'm always pleased to see Simon Fraser's art, so there's still much to enjoy.
"Dandridge" offers up a self-contained Christmas ghost story, perhaps even a little too discrete as there's nothing to bring a reader back for more. Grey Area and Aquila are the new strips introduced this year and while both have their strengths, both are also a bit too generic-2000 AD in terms of content to rouse much interest; Grey Area, for example, is a bit The V.C.s here, a bit Asylum there, and the big hulking protagonists and cold palette are somewhat reminiscent of Kingdom. With strips like these, it feels like the comic is recycling itself, rearranging its past glories — and failures — and presenting them as new.
Absalom is not a new strip, but the episode here stands more or less on its own. The London-coppers-versus-the-supernatural setup is compelling, Gordon Rennie's writing is strong and the black and white art — from the splendidly-named Tiernan Trevallion — is appropriately grotesque. As such, it's probably the only one of the included strips of which I'd like to see more when the weekly release schedule resumes in January.
That said, the aforementioned highlight of the entire issue is not Absalom, but a Judge Dredd strip from the brilliant Al Ewing. On a superficial level it's a standard Dredd episode, with some hapless citizen of Mega-City 1 getting into trouble through no fault of his own and yet receiving no sympathy whatsoever from Dredd — not even at Christmas — who pursues and punishes him with the full force of the law. The joy of the piece comes from the structure; Ewing introduces an interactive gimmick, setting the story with reader choices — like the Fighting Fantasy book series or 2000 AD's own ill-fated mid-'80s spin-off Dice Man — allowing for a number of different paths through the plot and even a few alternate endings, but it also works if read start to finish as a standard story. It must have been a nightmare to put together, but it all comes together well and is one of the cleverest comic strips I've read in a long time, reminiscent of Alan Moore's classic Chronocops — also from 2000 AD — except perhaps even better. Yes, it's that good.
Of the venerable anthology's annual special editions, Prog 2012 is not the best, and it is worrying that it seems to be getting thinner and more expensive each year, but the Judge Dredd strip is so clever and brilliant that it almost makes up for it.
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, The Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.