Monday, November 20, 2006

Random Prog review: 1978 Sci-Fi special

Courtesy of ebay and a Mr G. Logan, I give you the 1978 Sci-Fi Special.

For collectors and purists, it's technically the first ever, but a year before had seen the 2000 AD Summer Special Super-Comic, which I have yet to see a copy of. There's no cover date on the 1978 model, but such specials were usually released in June. So, this particular edition came out around about the time I was born, meaning there's an extremely outside chance that my dad was reading it in the waiting room.

I'd like to think that more than one person with a passing interest in Sci-Fi would be intrigued by the cover, a Kev O'Neill effort that neatly sums up the ethos of 2000 AD - bad-ass alien sheriffs blowing holes out of sinister robot thieves. With a skull in the background for good measure.
Honestly, though, this is pretty much the best thing in the comic, and that's because it doesn't have any pesky script robots to spoil things. The weekly Progs at the time had a reasonably good balance of story and art, but this special is all about the art. Oh, and a bunch oif colour photos from contemporary Sci-Fi movies, which is the sort of thing that specials like to run features on. I kinda like film reviews, so no complaints from me. Shame that 'Warlords of Atlantis' turned out to be a bit silly, although I remember it quite fondly from Bank Holidays past.

We start with Dan Dare, drawn by Gary Leach, a top illustrator. Written also by Gary Leach - h'mmm.
Here we can see a great draftsman at work, but falling into the classic trap of using the words to explain what is apparent in the picture. Indeed the whole story involves Dare talking to himself rather a lot, a trait I don't recall being central to the character. Luckily, the story itself is neat enough, although it feels like a mish-mash of Solaris and other 60s novels. I must admit that outside of 2000 AD, I've never read a Dan Dare story. I'm told that the Eagle originals are much better. Whatever - I like the Star Trek inspired Kelvin Gosnell/Dave Gibbons version on display here.

Verdict - a good start

MACH Zero, drawn by the mighty Kevin O'Neill. Written by Henry Miller

And here we have the Beano story. I keep mentioning the Beano, and maybe I should pause to explain why (if I haven't before). Along with its sister title the Dandy, it's Britain's longest running comic - weekly since 1938 - take that, Superman! It's overtly for pre-teens, featuring characters in one or two page strips getting up to various japes, and is mostly funny. The Beano is slightly more sinister than the Dandy, and has a little more of the 2000 AD about it (I believe Pat Mills even wrote for it once upon a time). It's also characterised by ludicrous plots and events that just don't happen in real life, much to the chagrin of youngsters around Britain who try to copy them (or was that just me?). 2000 AD normally is tightly plotted, so anytime a truly ludicrous chain of events appears, I play the Beano card. Got that?

Anyway, MACH Zero, who is not at all like the Incredible Hulk, wanders into a train station, where he fails to befriend the station master's robot son. Unfunny madness ensues, but it's all expertly livened up by O'Neill. It leads up to this choice panel:
Then there's a train crash and a surprisingly poignant ending. Truly, truly this is an oddity, even by 2000 AD standards.

Verdict: deserves a reprint in a collection of 'surely that never got approved' stories

MACH One, drawn by Trev Goring, written by Mike Lake

This story is very bad. MACH one goes to the Moon, where he fights evil alien robots to stop them from invading Earth. I suppose it was worth the experiment to see if MACH one in space was a workable idea, but in the hands of Mike Lake, it doesn't work (no offence Mr Lake) Goring's art is OK, but not terrific - witness this panel showing great grit in the face, but rather awkward posture in the full-figure pose.

Verdict: I'm afraid its time to bring out the Pain again. Here's what Finnigan Sinister had to say:

Judge Dredd, drawn expertly by Brendan McCarthy (hiding behind 'the Subliminal Kid'). Written by, well, William Nilly. Good pseudonym, there - I expect that means it was J. Wagner himself, but you never know, could have been McCarthy at the helm in what seems to be an all-artist special...

This is pretty clumsy Dredd, such as you would find in the Case Files 1 collection. i.e. cool ideas, but a pretty feeble chain of events that involve Dredd being nearly killed far too easily by today's standards. Also featuring Walter the Wobot, a character I never quite warmed to, but I have to respect that he gave Dredd reason to be compassionate at times. Saving grace is of course McCarthy's art:
X-13, the robot villain of the piece, is cut from the same cloth as Bender. i.e. he's basically human and rather mean. Excellent organic metallurgy from McCarthy, and I love the fact that the villain is found in his lair playing with his decks - surely a forewarning of times to come for 2000 AD: about 15 years later Tharg would be desperately trying to pass himself of as a D.J. Whoops. Stick to the jumpsuit, we all say.

Verdict: put this tale in a collection of McCarthy Dredds, yes please.

The bulk of this rather fat special is taken up with a reprint from an old 50s magazine called 'Super Detective Library'. Written by one of my favourite SF writers of all time, Harry Harrison (he of Stainless Steel Rat fame), and drawn in a very 50s-looking style by Ron Turner. Yes, it's:
It's outrageously goofy, and in some respects makes you glad that we live in the era of 2000 AD now, where heroes are flawed - unlike the all-too heroic, brainy, resourceful and good-looking Mr Random. On the other hand, there are some delightful touches to the tale that seem utterly ignored by current SF writers - namely, explaining the science behind the conepts introduced, such as Hyperspace. Also, if you read the whole story using voices from a black and white 40s/50s B-movie, the story is twice as fun. Go on, try it out using these two segments:

Of course there's a bit of pseudo science at work here, but it's handled respectfully, not just used in a self-mocking way by the likes of a Grant Morrison on retro-comics duty.

Rick Random did of course get his own short series in 2000 AD shortly after this special came out - a murder mystery which I've enjoyed both times I've read it, well after the original publication. Although on reflection the solution to the mystery is a bit cliched. Who cares if the reader doesn;t know that, though? Anyway, the SOS from Space adventure has none of that. Instead it features a plethora of future science, alien races, telepathy, plastic surgery, shooting, sexual chemistry and everything else you could want. I salute you, Harry Harrison.

Verdict: solid retro stuff. By today's comic art and script standards, of course, it's a bit rubbish.

Overal verdict: Don't bother. I mean, really don't bother. I guess if you want a complete collection you'll seek this out, but it's not one to read and re-read like some old Progs and serials. Fun to flip through for the art, though.


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