Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Conqueror #4

Sci-Fi January 2018
Conqueror #4

The space opera that launched a failed comic book company

"Open Plane”
Script – Martin Lock
Art – Dave Harwood
Editor – Martin Lock
Editoral Consultant – Alan Moore
February 1985

Martin Lock and Dave Harwood created the adventures of the H.M.S. Conqueror space ship and its valiant crew sometime before 1979. We know this because that’s the publication date of the first Conqueror story in the obscure British anthology comic BEM. Conqueror popped up all over the small British press scene, even earning a coveted spot as the “new talent showcase” free content pages of Marvel UK’s digest The Mighty World of Marvel. (Dug this nugget out from Slow Robot’s Starlogged blog, worth a peek)

Conqueror was becoming modest success and in the “everybody’s doing it” age of 1984, that meant that Lock and Harwood should form their own comic book company and get rich quick like those Turtle guys. Thus Harrier Comics was born and many British comic book luminaries gave the company accolades and support. Titles at Harrier faced uncertain drop dates and most were shelved after a year or two.

Conqueror got 10 issues, 2 specials, and space as a back up story in another title before the company collapsed under its own weight in 1989.

My experience with Harrier began and ended with Redfox, the not-sure-if-it-is-a-parody fantasy title which made me want to stab my eyes out with sharp objects earlier in the Crapbox history of torturing me. So I didn’t have high hopes for Conqueror. I was in for a nice surprise.

Lock is a decent scripter, not fantastic but serviceable. The art that Harwood fills the page with looks good, tells the story well enough, and competently conveys the story. So everything that Redfox isn’t, this book is, basically.

I’m doing everyone a disservice because the majority of this issue focuses on two of the principle characters in the book, sort of a solo story if you will, and that means I don’t get the interactions among the entire cast. I know nothing of the H.M.S. Conqueror or its mission, but it seems to be part of a highly militarized Star Trek-like federation. This story gives the impression that they can act as part of civilian police forces if the situation calls for it.

But enough spoilers, let’s begin the first of the two tales in this no-ads book. Oh, and before I forget, the title clocked in at 29 story pages with ZERO ads, fully justifying the extra $1 cover charge.

We begin with Lieutenant Fl’ff, the cat-like female of the crew, on assignment that takes her to the sleazy side of a planet where it is the going fashion for all women to wear revealing outfits. Yes, that is not me editorializing, that is what’s in the story. 

So Fl’ff gets to spend much of the issue in a swimsuit and thigh-high black boots to remain undercover. She’s brought along Fen, an intelligent talking dog, whose origin story I would pay money to read. They are here to catch a criminal, but there are problems with the storyline from the onset. See if you can tell from the above panel.

Got it? The story relies on one of the characters not being told information critical to the task at hand so there will be a big reveal. That’s a major crutch to get over. If we had any idea why Fl’ff knows the assignment but Fen doesn’t, I’d be kinder to this piece. If the book showed the dog to be a blabber mouth or unable to keep things to himself or something, I might grant it some slack. That doesn't happen, so the withholding of crutial pieces of information in a mission that could mean the life or death of one or both agents is arbitrary and dumb. As it progresses, you’ll see that at one point Fen not knowing puts the bad guys in a position of throwing them both out an airlock and escaping.

I’m getting way ahead of things here, so let’s put ourselves back in the story. To prove that this is the “wrong side of town,” as soon as the pair exits the taxi Fl’ff is accosted by men who want to rape her. 

Okay so the book doesn’t say that exactly, but that’s what’s implied. Lucky for her that her faithful, loyal and trustworthy companion is by her side. Except for that trustworthy part, because she isn’t trusting him with critical mission data. She tells him to hush and goes to check in with Commander Nolan, the local “federation” officer.

Nolan fills Fl’ff in on the human trafficking done by this dastardly pair.

So killers, smugglers, blackmailers, and slavers. Sounds like quite an assignment for one lady and one dog. But all Fl’ff says she’s here to do is gather material for a report, given that the planet they are on has strategic value to the “federation”. Possibly as a place to send all their pubescent boys in men’s bodies, given that woman have to dress so slutty that Fl’ff makes the dog wait in the bathroom while she changes into evening wear appropriate to the planet. 

And Fen gets how crappy he’s being treated by Fl’ff. She could tell him more…but that would ruin the plot reveal, which is dumb. Just tell him the mission details, jeeze.

But instead she heads out for a bar to make herself bait for the slavers. A detachment of Space Navy Soldiers follows shortly behind her, unbeknownst to Fen who also shadows her.

The Navy guys get into a fight with a couple of street gangs and the brawl escalates to the point that all of them are hauled off by the local police. And thus Fl’ff’s plan goes all to heck in a basket of some kind.

She gets slipped a mickey by one of the bad couple’s plants…

…and when Fen goes to help her, he’s struck by a slow-moving van and knocked unconscious. That’s what you get for not trusting your partner. You get captured by sex slavers.

When Fen finally wakes up, he drags himself back to the Hotel Astora where he bumps into a waiting Nolan.

Nolan is surprised at first to know that Fen is actually an intelligent being, but recovers quickly. He makes plans with Fen to tackle the pair based upon some new information he was at the Astora to deliver. He sends the dog to rest and heads home.

Next morning arrives, bringing Nolan with news that he’s found out where Fl’ff is being held. The Commander and the dog make their way to the warehouse…

…when all of a sudden, Fen is taken out by some dog-specific knock out gas. He awakes with Fl’ff, bound and collared. She should feel pretty stupid about not sharing the information she had that Nolan was a double agent working for the bad guys now. 

And the reason WHY she didn't tell him is LAME AS SHIT.

You endangered Fen's life by doing this, lady. As bad as she feels for not telling him, it pales before the fact that she’s about to get sold as a sex slave by these two scum.  But you know...That's what you get! Fen could have called on a REAL police guy to come save you and to arrest Nolan...but no. Off to be someone's pet you go Fl'ff. Next time, trust your partner.

It would be funny if this is where the issue ended. Like "well, you screwed up royally by not letting your backup know the scoop on the mission, so...", but instead our heroes get a chance to rally back. But not before they are hustled aboard a sleek black spacecraft while lodged in a packing crate.

She’s warned that her days of slave training won’t be pleasant, but they can by an absolute nightmare if she provokes Coral, the female criminal. She’s also forced to have dinner with them and Nolan, which leads to some interesting conversation. Again she makes the dog wait in the bathroom while she changes…which is just weird.

We find out the Coral, who breaks the slave girl’s wills is a bit of a nasty sadist. A fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by Fl’ff. 

How could she avoid noticing it, from that position?

The next morning, she is released by Nolan’s driver and Fl’ff makes a play to turn her to their side. It appears that she hadn’t considered that Nolan cashing out might include her as part of the price. As she leaves Fl’ff uncuffed, the lieutenant goes through her suitcase and finds a few items hidden in plain sight that might assist.

One of them is a hard light holographic projector that she uses to trick the guards into thinking officer Frank of the Conqueror has snuck aboard.

Which nets her a gun and her freedom. Also, those bits of bondage gear come in very handy.

And while we go through the motions of Fl’ff capturing EVERY single person on the ship except the three heads of this slaving operation, I wanted to give you a full page look at Harwood’s style of laying out a page. He has a bit of artistic flair to it but my only complaint would be there are a lot going on in those panels. Harwood and Lock paired up nice in shoving in tons of content given the density that Lock packed into his stories. I can see why they won the accolades of the British comic-buying public and assistance from Alan Moore himself on promoting their comics.

Story-wise, there is yet another thing that Fl’ff didn’t tell her canine companion: she’s got some kind of tracker on her that will draw a space navy ship to them ending this ride rather abruptly. But before that happens she wants to bag our three main bad guys.

At that very moment, Coral and Mel are discussing Fl’ff’s fate on the bridge, when she and her hard-light accomplish burst in. Noland shoots the fake Frank hologram in the back…

Which starts a page long shoot out where Fl’ff takes out Mel’s pistol hand and then injures the driver, Coral makes her move by punching Fl’ff in the jaw, and Nolan finds out what it feels like when a talking dog disarms you.

Coral and Fl’ff’s conflict continues on the next page with some well placed slugs from Fl’ff resulting in the slaver eating some spaceship floor. And with that the Space Navy arrives to take everyone into custody.

We end with Fl’ff back in her regular dress uniform (which I didn’t know until the last page of this story because she’s never shown in it) hanging out with the real Frank.

And as the story starts to wind down, I realize from Fl’ff’s hand placement on Franks upper, upper thigh that there might be something going on between the pair. Then she brings up the fact that she brought one of the more revealing outfits back with her and she forces him to go stand in the bathroom while she changes into it if he wants to see her in it. *AHEM* I think Frank is getting lucky tonight.

"Ball Game”
Script – Martin Lock
Art – Dave Harwood

You would assume that after 23 pages of story, we’d be done, right? I would have. That’s a lot to pack into an independent mag even at the extra buck pricing this issue cost over a Marvel or DC book at the time.

Not for Harrier, though. Now we move on to a six page backup story about Fl’ff bringing shipmates Nette and Kath a “training” device in the form of a ball.

Once touched the orb is activated and much like Harry Potter’s snitch, avoids contact with living beings, as Nette soon discovers.

Kath has an idea to use the water hose to spray the ball into the box…

…which ends up getting Nette sprayed in the face. Also Fl’ff loses track of the pesky little orb, which like any teenager makes for…

…The women’s locker room and shower. Naughty, naughty little ball. After the entire last story, where I expected some actual nudity given the slavery running bad guys and the sadomasochistic Coral’s predilections, it is odd to have three random panels of nude women. Nicely done pictures and not really “adult” since they aren’t shown in the context of sex.

As for our chase story, the ball continues to elude our trio of females, bounces down a busy corridor, and into a sensitive piece of ductwork. Fl’ff has a master switch to deactivate it, but that appears to be on the fritz.

Meanwhile the ball exits the ducts in the zero-G training room.

Not giving up, Nette and Kath hatch a plan that has them suiting up in zero-G spacesuits and headbutting the ball back into its box.

Fl’ff has to explain herself to the Captain, who makes mention of the fact that she isn’t dressed in proper bridge attire. As “punishment” he sends her love interest Frank, who is just going off-shift to escort her to her quarters. Then the book makes a slightly crass reference to the fact that he slept with her. Then it ties up the ball storyline by saying they shoved it out an airlock, which has to violate the Prime Directive by leaving that nuance floating around in space where just anyone could find it.

Hard to get a good bead on Conqueror from this particular issue. The crew consists of more than just Fl’ff and I feel the adventure in question more of a “space police” than what might be typical. The art is top notch and the value for the money is there, so I would buy them again if I saw them. Just not real sure what the crew of the H.M.S. Conqueror actually does from this.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Transmetropolitan #20

Sci-Fi January 2018
Transmetropolitan #20

Because the future isn’t Gonzo enough

"The New Scum 2: New City”
Writer – Warren Ellis
Penciler – Darick Roberson
Inker/Finisher – Rodney Ramos
Letterer – Clem Robins
Colors – Nathan Eying
April 1999

Transmetropolitan is an amazing series that I bought end-to-end in trades one summer from Half-Price. I remember reading it through all the way one time and LOVING every page of it.

The story takes place in a future where humanity has become disconnected from each other, much the way we are now. Our central character is a former journalist by the name of Spider Jerusalem. Ellis writes Spider like a futurist Hunter S. Thompson, a half-drugged out visionary who sees Rome burning and longs to both put out the fire and to fan the flames (possibly while roasting marshmallows on it). The huge series consisted of ten arcs wherein Spider takes down one presidential administration, nicknamed by Spider as “The Beast,” only to see the next become even more callous and cruel. Running out of time due to a medical condition, Spider works to remove this second President ( a guy by the name of Gary Callahan whom Spider nicknames “The Smiler,”) before it is too late for America.

The book frequently feels like a future take on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it lives and breathes around the antics of Spider and his two female helpers (nicknamed his “filthy assistants”). Ellis captured the very soul of the real-world figure he sought to star in his drama. Just like Thompson, Spider weaves in and out of future culture in such a way that you find truths in the oddest of places. It is a meandering, roundabout story that takes its time getting its legs out from under it where Ellis creates a great timeline and characters, placing the plot of uprooting the government structure on a long, slow burn that spools out over sixty issues to properly tell. The strange thing? It remains entertaining and enjoyable, the antics of this odd but wise degenerate anti-hero playing out at such volume that we can't wait to see what he does next.

It’s enough to make you believe in the quote from Hunter S. Thompson “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” It works for Spider too. Oh, one more to add to that list, though: technology. In Spider’s future, technology is just one more way to tune in and drop out of the world around you, a fact that many issues make a point of showing. In all, it’s a future you wouldn’t want to live in, but one that draws parallels to and makes some pointed remarks about our present.

This issue, number 20, comes at the beginning of the fourth story arc and the start of the rise to power of The Smiler, Spider’s chosen one to replace The Beast. However, from the very start Spider appears to have second thoughts on which of them is the lessor of two evils. In the last arc, Year of the Bastard, The Smiler orchestrated the death of someone close to Spider and now he is seeking the presidential nomination.

At present, Spider has descended to the city streets on a sort of walkabout, absorbing culture and society by mixing with it, becoming a part of it and then commenting on it. The title of this is “The New Scum” and it refers to the full-page pictures of people Spider encounters as he wanders the streets seeking the soul of The City. It’s always assumed by me that The City itself is future New York although this is never confirmed.

Anyway, here is Spider immersing himself in The City.

Spider’s narration really sells the Thompson vibe that Ellis attempts to capture, that plus the more nihilistic bent to everything he says. Spider is the savior of the city yet he refers to himself as something darker and deadlier. Perhaps due to a belief by Spider that the collective “we” of society isn’t something worth preserving in its present state.

Case in point, these jackasses.

Spider rushes down the alleyway to find a group of fellows dressed identically, like a gang from the movie The Warriors, stoning a citizen. Spider interrupts them to get to the bottom of things. Since he is so well known, they stop and offer an explanation.

These six are members of the church of Rechristianity, an extreme branch of religion that believes in returning to the fundamental precepts of the Christian faith, or at least that’s what they are doing according to their spokesperson. This apparently includes killing people instead of forgiving them.

Spider asks why stoning, which anyone could tell you is Old Testament type bull-plop. He could argue at this point about Christ saying let he who is without sin case the first stone…but instead…

…Spider’s my kind of hero. The kind that comes with a gun that makes his enemies have explosive diarrhea. 

With this first sequence finished, we have to speak a bit about Darick Robertson, the American artist who brought Ellis’s vision to life. Robertson is a hugely gifted artist with a list of works as long as both my arms. I “discovered” him through his recent work on The Boys with writer Garth Ennis, but his art is littered through-out the crapbox. I have a bunch of respect for Robertson. In the right books, his style is just the right mix of realism and comic art to “sell” the idea of a persistent world at play. Transmetropoltian and The Boys both prove this point in different ways with Robertson’s stylistic contributions adding to the darker tone of each.

With that being said, we get back to Spider as he wanders the streets of the city under the ever-present specter of the coming political fight and his adversary, The Smiler. The streets are full of more than just the hustle of business people and commuters, Spider realizes. There is something going on here…

…something about those young men setting up that odd green glowing cordoned-off area. Suddenly, Spider has it! In a flurry of pornographic remembrances, he realizes they are about to activate an Information Bomb…

…which is more dramatic than it sounds, as the “explosion” creates a Technology-Free Zone that takes out people’s personal, wearable technology, cell phones, storage devices and credit cards. The activists behind this little stunt step up to claim their due and I can’t help but feel that the book is saying they share some of the energy and goals as Spider does – only their outlook is hopeful whereas his is not.

We get the second of the book’s pictures of “the new scum,” these being refugee children who are immigrating to Norway (possibly because the USA won’t take them in). These pictures are not meant to represent true “scum,” that is just Spider’s ironic nomenclature for them. He seeks to create for his audience ( the ones he is writing the articles for in the book’s world) the clear understanding that this is how the government views us. We are below or beneath it, only fun as a diversion or something that can be ground under it’s heel. There are hard-hitting lessons this book teaches that feel authentic. Not sure if Ellis lifted these from Thompson’s works or if they are his own inventions, but they resonate so well at this present time. 

Who are the undesirables in the world we live in? Why? What makes a human “valuable?” Is it income earning potential or… something else. Something incalculable in money, but is rooted in the soul of each of us. I believe Ellis is saying that. That we all are unique and special. That we matter as individuals.

And Spider knows it too, but he lives in a world convinced otherwise and that maddening fact drives him to fight against the system every way he can.

A system that everyone seems determined to forget. No one is interested in the election that might decide their very fate. They are ignorant to the danger Callahan represents. Only Spider sees it.

This is one of the books big turning points, where Spider sets his course in firm opposition of Callahan. Spider seeks to undermine his candidacy and cause him to lose the election. His frustration at the general populace making him even more resolute.

I like the swipe at the Bible here.

Like really, really resolute.

Time for another slice of life one-pager, only this time aimed at the negative effects consumerism has on people. This doesn’t make us look worth saving, but the message behind it is very clear: we can be easily lead to anything…even eating other people…if the argument is made for doing so. If Spider decides to take on The Smiler all he need do is sell the self-absorbed populace on a line and they will bite with the same gusto as these two kids are on those French people’s legs.

Back at Spider’s apartment, his two assistants are watching television and discussing the topic of the moment, which happens to be that Yelena slept with Spider. It becomes Channon’s favorite topic.

In fact, Channon is nursing an unhealthy need for details of their intimacy.

Definitely unhealthy…

…and as Yelena points out, possible driven by a desire to sleep with Spider herself. Channon looks to be in a state of denial about harboring any such aims.

Of course, this is just background noise to the big news they have when Spider finally gets back to the apartment.

That’s right, Spider one-on-one with The Smiler. If ever there was a chance to take him out of the race, it’s now.

This entire series is gripping and full of the things so missing in today’s politics. We need more straight shooters like Hunter S. Thompson and Spider Jerusalem to call out the current administration Washington from their backward, twisted up, counter-culture point of view. And I don’t just mean Trump or the Republican side. I mean both sides. All sides. Our government is full of people who vote down things we the people want so they can serve their special interests instead.

Brilliant guys like Spider, while not being someone you’d care to live with for any period of time are the exact element so necessary to a growing society. Like Socrates, they bring wisdom from an uncommon viewpoint and they make us uncomfortable with their insight. I think that’s exact what we need more of these days.