The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews
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Camelot 3000 199_ (SC TPB) 312 pages.
Written by Mike W. Barr. Pencils by Brian Bolland. Inks by Bruce Patterson, Terry Austin.
Colours: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Len Wein.
Reprinting: Camelot 3000 #1-12 (1982-1983 maxi-series)
Rating: * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 2
Re-reviewed: Dec. 8, 2009
Published by DC Comics
Suggested (mildly) for mature readers.
The King Arthur legends often end with the notion that Arthur will some day return, being the so-called "once and future king". Camelot 3000 runs with that notion by imagining a sequel to the traditional Arthur stories -- something which few writers have done, at least that come to mind, though it seems obvious enough (I did recently come upon an old comics magazine from 1978 with ads for an art portfolio by comics artist Jim Starlin featuring illustrations on the theme of "Camelot 4005").
Camelot 3000 is set a thousand years hence in a high tech future that is under siege from an alien invasion fleet. Into this reality Arthur is accidentally resurrected by a youthful archaeologist, Tom. Merlin follows suit and the rest of Arthur's knights are re-assembled. Unlike Arthur and Merlin, though, these are re-incarnations of the original characters, whose suppressed memories of their past lives are revived by magic. This leads to particular complications for Sir Tristan, who finds himself in a woman's body. Ostensibly King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have returned to thwart the invasion, led, as we soon learn, by Arthur's old nemesis, Morgan Le Fay. But that often takes a back seat to other conflicts, such as a revival of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle.
Camelot 3000 is a grand idea, and I was curious about it ever since seeing the striking ads for it in my youth (a coolly anachronistic image of the sword Excalibur rising out of what looked to be a power plant's water supply). At the same time, I may not be the target audience for this. I'm familiar with the Arthur saga, and have read and watched various interpretations over the years, but I'm no expert, have been as disinterested in various tellings as I have been interested, and can barely distinguish my Percivals from my Gallahads. (At the same time, the legend has been told and retold over the centuries that I'm not sure any one version can really claim to be "definitive" -- even Thomas Mallory's seminal work which this series credits). So a series like this has to engage me as much for itself, as out of any nostalgic resonance.
All that should be laid out up front, as even after a second reading (some years after the first) and even though I wanted to like this...it doesn't work for me.
Mike Barr is clearly an Arthurian fan and, in the editorials that accompanied the original maxi-series, claimed this was an idea he had been working on for years -- even before he started working for DC CComics! I've noted before that Barr can be an ambitious writer...but that he often isn't able to mould his big ideas into a satisfactory whole.
Barr seems so enthusiastic about conjuring the Arthurian mythos that it almost seems to get in the way of this story. Theoretically, the story is about fighting off an alien invasion. The saga begins effectively enough, with England being straffed by space ships and with descriptions of refugees fleeing to France...but then Barr kind of sidelines that whole concept for much of the series.
Occasional references are made to the invasion, but little is seen, and with little sense of any global impact. Arthur has a few battles with aliens throughout...but usually only when the aliens attack him at his orbiting satellite, New Camelot. In other words, Arthur and his knights do almost nothing to protect earth throughout most of the series -- which was surely why they've returned! What makes this most glaring is that Arthur's return inspires a global populist ground swell clamouring for Arthur to lead earth. This doesn't sit well with many of earth's corrupt leaders (modelled after 1983 geo-politics, including a still thriving Soviet Union, and a satirical U.S. cowboy president evoking a caricatured Ronald Reagan). But it seems wholly implausible. Arthur had barely appeared in public, let alone done anything, to warrant such a reaction. His main public act was to draw Excalibur from a stone on global TV -- a scene Barr intends to be dramatic and moving, not just for his characters, but for us, the reader. But since it's so obviously staged (even within the story, that is) it's more likely to alienate the public with its obvious grand standing than endear Arthur to them. Well, another act Arthur "performs" is to break the neck of one of the government's soldiers, which elicits cheers and grins from spectators -- a scene which Barr clearly means to be inspiring, but is really just unsettling. Bread and Circuses anyone?
As such, what's missing from the saga is an underpinning of plausibility. It's hard to believe in the world, or the people. Even the logic is inconsistent. In the first chapter, England is being systematically destroyed by aliens, and one character remarks they aren't taking prisoners. Yet later in the series, the English population seems largely unharmed, even permitted to make holy pilgrimages, with the aliens acting more as occupiers than exterminators. Presumably part of the advantage/disadvantage to a year long series is just as the creators have the freedom to tweak the plot as they go...they might equally lose track of where it had been!
Frankly it's a bit as if Barr (and co-creator Bolland) are more concerned with the moments, the ideas, and not how -- or if -- they hold together (which also allows for a few sequences where magic is conveniently used to solve a problem). Now, admittedly, any story allows for actions to occur that aren't depicted, that can be inferred by the audience. But how significant, and how frequent, are those missing scenes can impact on the overall sense of plausibility. When part way through the series Arthur refers to the earth governments as his "allies", and yet we hadn't seen Arthur exchange so much as a memo with any of them, it's hard to quite pin down the premise. At 12 issues, it just feels belaboured and padded, like Barr only had enough material for 6 issues.
With the overall narrative a bit ill-defined and under-utilized, what's left is the characters caught up in their personal foibles and machinations. This clearly is what Barr loves best, playing with these ancient icons. But even here I wasn't overly impressed. Barr's Arthur isn't the thoughtful, brooding king (some) interpretations paint him as, but more like a cross between the comic book versions of the Mighty Thor and Conan the Barbarian. In fact all the characters are a bit over-pumped on the testosterone and not exactly ingratiating. Guinevere is toughened up from being a spoiled Queen, and turned into a fellow warrior -- it's a move that may make her more contemporary, but also rather bland and just like all the other characters. In fact, many characters are barely defined at all. Gawain wants to return to his family, and mutters as such every few scenes; Galahad, reborn as a Japanese soldier, mutters on about honour -- but that's it, really, as far as making them 3-D people. The characterization Barr is clearly most pleased with is the gender bending idea of Tristan as a woman, and bitter about it, so much so that he-she considers making a deal with villainess Morgan Le Fay. But even here, the thing just gets repetitive, as Barr hammers away at it incessantly. And Barr might have been better to ressurect more of the old knights, if only to fill up the background -- as it is, a fighting force of less than a dozen hardly seems like something to turn the tide of an interplanetary war.
Part of the problem is that the characterization seems driven by the ideas, rather than vice versa. It's hard to empathize with, let alone care about, the characters, because it's hard to believe in their actions. Lancelot and Guinevere re-start their affair more because it's a staple of the legend rather than because Barr convinces us of a passion that will not be denied even though it might mean the destruction of earth! While Tom -- essentially the only "new" character in the group -- is infatuated with Tristan but it's not clear why. Such things could be forgiven used as minor undercurrents in a shorter series, but at 12 issues, they need to do a better job of convincing us. Admittedly, I've thought before that comics have a disadvantage compared to, say, movies, where an appealing actor can be all you need to "justify" a romantic attraction. Comics have to work harder.
Barr revives familiar ideas -- the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur thing, the quest for the Holy Grail (though, squeezed into a single issue, it's less a "Quest" than it is a Nip-Out-to-the-Corner-for-the-Grail) -- without really adding to them, or making them convincing, or even always integrating them into the narrative. The love triangle climaxes in bitterness...then is largely forgotten a few issues later. Likewise, the villains frame Arthur and his knights for a crime...but that plays no part in the ensuing events.
There are some neat ideas (forging the Grail into a suit of armour which, because of the Grail's healing properties, makes the wearer essentially invulnerable) and potentially interesting threads that would make nice sub-plots but, as noted, often they aren't sub-plots. They are the plot, and most just aren't that interesting, or convincingly fleshed out. The various villains plot treachery against each other, but since they all want the same thing -- Arthur dead -- it doesn't actually affect the plot any.
Barr also doesn't really milk the old-new idea of medieval knights fighting high-tech aliens very much, robbing the saga of an interesting concept.
And just as an aside: Barr throws in a peripheral Canadian character, which is kind of nice (since this is a global story)...and then proceeds to demonstrate that he has absolutely no idea what a Canadian accent is. Granted, I was more amused than annoyed, but still...
This was DC Comics first Maxi-Series (a limited series, but running more than the usual 3 or 4 issues of a mini-series) and its first experiment with expensive paper, direct sales, and "mature readers" subject matter. The latter amounts to less than half a dozen racy panels (a couple of bare backsides, as well as breasts in silhouette) -- not much compared to 288 pages! There's also a lesbian kiss or two (involving the gender conflicted Tristan) and some violence and horror-images.
Because it was the first, maybe DC and Barr were a little nervous about what they could do with it. One can't help thinking Barr should've dumped the whole alien invasion thing (since he gives it so little weight) and focused instead on Arthur battling corruption on earth, giving the saga a greater socio-political edge (much as T.H. White's classic mid-20th Century re-telling of the Arthur legend, The Once and Future King, re-envisioned the myth as a parable for the rise of fascism in Europe). Barr touches on corruption (even throwing in a cynical jab at a cowboy president) but he doesn't do much with it. As it is, for all the pomp and grandeur, for all the attempt to be dramatic and moving, this epic doesn't really seem to be about anything...except maybe for the open-mindedness to sexual orientation. Though even here, Barr (and DC) may have misjudged their audience. Perhaps the reason Tristan's inner torment is so protracted and belaboured is because, as possibly the first lesbian-themed plot in (more-or-less) mainstream comics, they felt they had to carefully build to its acceptance...but looking at some of the original letters, most readers we're okay with it and didn't understand why Tristan was so up-set (particularly once his true love, Isolde, is also reincarnated as a woman...and likewise has no problem with his feminine form).
The art is by popular artist Brian Bolland -- a British artist better known for supplying cover art this side of the pond, rather than interiors. I can only think of a handful of things he's done, of which the most noteworthy was Batman: The Killing Joke. A meticulous, detailed, realist artist, Bolland delivers nice art, particularly evoking a kind of Magnus Robot Fighter feel for this clean, high tech future. His eye for details (background figures with gestures and reactions, as opposed to just filling up space) enriches scenes, and the arcane aspects of the story (Merlin and Morgana's respective rooms) is also nicely filled up with eerie and grotesque brick-a-brack. However, though never confusing, his choice of panel composition is, mayhap, not always exciting -- I can't recall too many actively striking or breathtaking scenes. In fact, I'll be up front and say I'm not that big a fan of Bolland's work -- and even I don't know why! I'm often a fan of realist art, and Bolland's stuff is often meticulous in its realism. But I tend to find it a bit stiff.
In the end, this is great idea, but indifferently handled. Despite periodic action scenes, it doesn't really succeed as grand adventure, and despite a plethora of characters, the characterization isn't always involving. There are some interesting aspects, but most aren't realized to their potential. Although, interestingly, in the letters pages accompanying the original series, a surprising number of writers were women, moreso than the average comic book. Indicating that Barr and company, however unintentionally, may have stumbled upon a concept that appealed to both genders...something modern comics have been looking for for years. Perhaps because of the Arthurian topic, the comic was drawing a readership that wasn't strictly comic fans.
This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the maxi-series.
Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury 2005 (HC) 92 pages
a.k.a. Classic Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future - Marooned on Mercury
Written and illustrated by Frank Hampson, with Chad Varrah (script), Harold Johns, Greta Tomlinson (art)
Reprinting: the Dan Dare strip originally serialized in Eagle (vol. 3) #12-46 (circa the 1950s)
Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
Published by Titan Books
Though not especially well known in North America, Colonel Dan Dare was a British science fiction comic strip hero who adventured throughout the solar system in stories serialized in the 1950s and 1960s -- essentially Britain's answer to Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Whole generations of British children -- so it's been implied -- grew up thrilling to the adventures of Dan and his companions, as they did TV's Dr. Who. But though the glory days of British comics faded away, Dan enjoyed enough of marquee value that there have been periodic attempts to revive him, reflecting the tone of the times (the different revivals viewed as apocryphal and so ignore each other).
I came to Dan somewhat backward. My first encounter was in one such revival, by Garth Ennis (reviewed below). I quite enjoyed it and, as such, became curious about the original series.
And Britain's Titan Books had begun representing the old adventures in prestigious, hardcover editions.
Marooned on Mercury begins following Dan's previous adventure, where he triumphed over whatever villainy was at foot -- but with the result that he and his companions crash on the planet mercury. There they have adventures, encounter the local Mercurians...and discover the planet has been occupied by renegade Venusians, the Treen, and their despotic leader, the Mekon, whom Dan had thought died a storyline or two ago. The Mekon being essentially Ming the Merciless to Dan's Flash Gordon.
I knew the old strip was well regarded -- even reverentially so -- by its fans. But I wasn't sure how well it would read for a new, adult reader, uninfluenced by nostalgia, such as myself. But, there's juvenile...and then there's juvenile, as this website is full of great reviews for comics that were initially aimed at kids but still provide enjoyment for adult minds.
Serialized in two page (over-sized) instalments, it makes for a nice reading format, where you can read it in bits and bites -- or a bunch of instalments all at once. The two pages allowing for more content per instalment (panel-count wise, each week's chapter being the equivalent closer to three weeks of a comparable American newspaper's weekend instalment -- back in the day when Flash Gordon and others dominated the funnies pages), while at the same time, still ensure a fast, brisk pace to the story telling, with plenty of running about and cliff hangers.
The art is often quite gorgeous. Frank Hampson and his co-artists have a style that, while with hints of caricature (with Dan's elongated face) is nonetheless quite realistic, with a lot of attention paid to shadow and light, on modelling the figures and landscape for a truly eye-popping, three-dimensional appearance. The use of colours is extraordinarily rich and multi-toned, in contrast to American comics (and comic books) of the day which employed single hue colours. The strip almost looks painted. The downside is that the colours may've exceed the printing process of the times, as sometimes the images can look bit muddy, overwhelmed by the sheer variety of colours. But I've said that science fiction (and fantasy) is about escapism, and the visuals certainly allow you to escape your every day, with a vibrantly realized landscape (Mercury fairly glimmering with a multitude of colours) and with exceptional imagination put into crafting the ships and tools and alien cities, creating a consistent alien culture, all gorgeously -- and sometimes gaudily -- coloured.
The art can lack the dynamism one might expect from American comics. Like a lot of British comics art, it emphasizes low-key realism, well rendered figures and environments. Whereas American comic art often emphasized the storytelling, the dynamic impact. Here, there's a lot of use of long shots -- sometimes making it hard to tell what's going on.
Though "youth-aimed", this holds up quite well for an adult reader -- even with the obligatory dog along! (And he is kind of cute). Partly because of the two-page format (as opposed to one page), there's time out for banter, wit and character interplay. As with the visuals, Hampson and his team put a lot of effort into some of the dialogue, creating idiosyncratic voices for some of the characters, particularly the aliens, creating a real sense of other life forms...and an undercurrent of humour. One of Dan's sidekicks, who looks like a blue-skinned Howdy Doody, talks in a particularly quirky hyperbole. The nature of the short instalments means the story clips along, as the characters go from one scrape to another, getting captured, escaping, captured, etc. Yet it does ultimately move forward, tossing twists and turns as you go, surprise encounters that can keep you intrigued about where it will take you, meeting characters of whose motives you can't be sure, building to a climax as Dan and the gang gradually uncover the Mekon's dastardly master scheme and must thwart it.
The running and daring escapes remain mostly quite exciting, as Dan has to use cunning and wile as much as right hooks and laser guns. A sequence where Dan and the others are trapped on a ship locked in orbit, safe from the Mekon, but without food or water, creates some effectively off beat tension and suspense.
Yet even though there's interplay and character banter...I wouldn't say the characterization is especially deep, or given to profound, emotional moments. Part of that could be laid at the feet of the British stiff upper lip, with Dan the epitome of an unflappable Englishman. But characters might think one of their friends has died...and it barely seems to faze them!
It's also interesting to see how the times are both reflected, and maybe deflected, in the series. The heroes are English, and white -- yet lip service is paid to pluralism, as Dan technically works for a global planetary space fleet. And though the enemies are green-skinned Treens...one of Dan's closest friends and companions is the Treen Sondar. As well, the Mercurians emerge as sympathetic and trustworthy, and at one point Dan even identifies them as "human" when they hardly look that...implying a rather open and accepting definition of "humanity". Another of Dan's party, and, along with Sondar (and Dan), the brain's of the group, is Professor Jocelyn Peabody -- a woman, who is just "one of the guys", making the series seem surprisingly liberated. Except Peabody was actually one of the very few women to appear...in the entire run of the series (an absence of women -- in any capacity -- may well've been a trait of old British comics, at least based on some of the others I've read)!
Peabody is a smart, capable member of the team, which one could contrasts with Flash Gordon's Dale Arden -- not that Dale wasn't capable of holding her own, but could be viewed as Flash's arm candy. So that might make Dan Dare seem more sophisticated and progressive than Flash Gordon. On the other hand, you could contrast the fact that Flash and Dale were clearly romantically involved with the passionless celibacy of the Dan Dare characters. Which, arguably, makes Dan Dare a little more juvenile, eschewing the "mushy" stuff that might have boy readers squirming uncomfortably on their sofa cushions.
Having read only this one volume, I can't really compare it to the others. One commentary I read suggested this was an average, if unexceptional Dan Dare adventure. If so, that says good things about the series overall. Because this is an entertaining adventure, with beautiful, atmospheric visuals, and an exciting, well paced story. And it makes a perfectly good intro. It's a self-contained adventure that wraps up by the end, and though it doesn't feature all the supporting characters of the series, it features enough of the main ones -- Digby, Sondar and Peabody. And, of course, the evil Mekon.
I started on this not quite sure what to expect. As the pages went by, I was enjoying it. But, admittedly, I was thinking it was one of those things where, as much as I was enjoying it, I wasn't sure it necessarily was firing me to assemble a complete collection of Dan Dare adventures. That is: I was enjoying it but, honestly, could probably just re-read this sometime if I wanted another hit of Dan Dare (which is also a compliment to the story -- that it feels nicely quintessential).
But by the end...I dunno. Another "classic" Dan Dare volume might someday find a place on my shelf.
Dan Dare Omnibus 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 176 pages
Written by Garth Ennis. Illustrated by Gary Erskine.
Colours: Parasuraman A., others. Letters: Rakesh M. Mahadik. Editor: Charlie Beckerman.
Reprinting: Dan Dare #1-7 (2007-2008) - originally published by Virgin
Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 3
Published by Dynamite Comics
Note: Virgin Comics also released the first three issues in a collected edition -- an odd, perhaps mercenary, decision, since those issues don't form a story and end to be continued. So if you pick up this collection, make sure it's the complete 7 issue volume!
This review is going to be a bit of a mix of two perspectives -- my review of it after a first reading, with no previous knowledge of Dan Dare, and then a reconsiderations after having subsequently read Dan Dare: Marooned on Mercury (reviewed above).
Dan Dare was a popular British comic strip hero. Though relatively obscure outside of Great Britain (certainly here in North America), he was the sort of plucky, can-do hero whole generations of British children grew up on, like Biggles and others, though Dare was a science fiction strip, his adventures taking him around the solar system.
As frequently happens with such figures, his popularity has waxed and waned, and he's undergone revisions over the years. Though his original adventures in the 1950s and 1960s were fairly clean cut, there were later revivals that were part of a gritty, violent British comics sensibilities. As well, there was an obligatory revisionist deconstruction or two.
And now there's another revival, from Virgin Comics, a glossy, but troubled, publisher that seemed to come and go in the space of a couple of years -- hence why this collected edition is actually published by Dynamite Comics.
Ignoring all previous revivals, once more it takes the idea of a (slightly) older Dan, dragged out of retirement to save the solar system one more time from invasion by his arch foe. And it's written by Garth Ennis, whose work on Preacher and Hellblazer is marked by an unrelenting stream of four letter words and as many shock/punk concepts as he can cram into a panel. Even his entertaining Seven Brothers (also for Virgin) was an R-rated effort of profanity and violence.
So the biggest surprise about Ennis' Dan Dare...is how respectful it is of the character. This isn't a cynical deconstruction, or a scathing satire. It's grittier, darker, more adult than was the original, the language is a little harder ("damn") and the violence grimmer. But this isn't meant to turn off old fans and it's not too inappropriate for younger readers (I mean, not young-young readers, of course). It's PG, not R, rated. In a way, it reminded me a bit of Marvel's Prince Valiant mini-series from a few years ago.
And perhaps a mark of its success is that it can entertain and intrigue even if you know nothing about Dan Dare whatsoever -- like I did when I first read it. The story is clearly enough explained and the concepts and archetypes traditional enough, that you can appreciate the themes and story, and even the aura of nostalgia, regardless. Dan is a living legend, an unflappable Englishmen's Englishman, whose steely determination is tempered by his liberal compassion. Digby is his trusty, crusty, right hand man. And, of course, there's an arch foe -- The Mekon, an alien dictator that is Ming to Dan's Flash Gordon.
You might never have read a Dan Dare story before...but you certainly feel as though you have, because you inherently know who these characters are.
Reading some reviews of this, fans of Ennis' outrageous, profane storytelling on Preacher were a bit put off, finding it an oddly subdued project for Ennis. But presumably that's because they weren't aware of the other side of Ennis, his interest in gritty combat stories such as his War Stories one-shots.
Because although this is a science fiction tale, with elements of swashbuckling daring do, and with Dan a paean to the power of the individual, it is also very much a war tale, where action scenes are comprised of anonymous troops shooting at each other, or battle fleets blasting away at other battle fleets. Ennis -- who has kind have positioned himself as the modern Robert Kanigher with the number of gritty, war-themed comics he's written -- attempts to walk a fine line, doing both an obvious tribute to men and women in uniform, where victories are meant to get the readers pounding their fist in the air...without over glamourizing things, and where victories come at a cost, where "we've paid for the party with our dearest blood" as Captain Kirk said (to quote another of Dan's U.S. counterparts). There is a profound undercurrent of melancholy that adds to the air of maturity of the thing...and was absent from the old stories.
And it's all surprisingly entertaining. Though an adventure story, it's also quite talky, with characters standing around, discussing things a lot. Yet it remains compelling throughout. It's also quite cinematic -- reading it almost feels like you're watching a movie unfold. Part of that is because there's something unarguably evocative about it all, without it seeming like just a collection of tired cliches. And it works in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect it too. Dan is very much an unflappable guy, who never second guesses himself and is never wrong. It could be a boring character...but grows on you. Partly it's because Dan isn't cocky: he's a rock in a crisis, but doesn't need to flaunt it. Also, of course, it plays into British cliches of the stiff-upper-lip, a people who are never fazed. But Ennis keeps the cliche real, by maintaining an emotional undercurrent. When a tragedy occurs, Dan reacts with ridiculous nonchalance while it's happening...then quietly excuses himself from the room afterwards for a powerful moment that is as emotionally telling as any teeth gnashing, primordial scream.
Indeed, the series has an emotional impact overall, moments of victory...and heartbtreaking pathos -- all in a way I doubt the original series ever did.
Dan's steely, even grim determination is rarely tainted by personal rancour, or petty vendettas -- he fights because he has to, not because he wants to. As depicted here, he's precisely the kind of guy you'd want in charge, saving the universe.
The real question about this series is to wonder what Ennis is doing writing it! There's something bizarre, yet charming, to imagine the guy who wrote Preacher was once a guileless kid thrilling to weekly instalments of this establishment hero. Ennis pulls it off with only a modicum of tongue-in-cheek. That is, one could well imagine another tackling it with affection...but it would be an affection diluted by condescension, an inherent sense of parody. Certainly there's some of that. The stiff-upper-lips are so prominent here, the mustaches must be like bristol board, and characterization is hardly subtle, with pompous stuffed shirt antagonists and plucky stalwart protagonists. It's corny -- but deliberately so. That's part of the fun! Yet the overriding sense is one of sincerity -- even if it's a sincerity that occasionally winks at us. And maybe that's because, as I say, such archetypes are so much a part of British tradition...and a contrast to the more bombastic good ol' boys of American war stories.
Perhaps part of that is also thanks to artist Gary Erskine. When I first saw a few sample pages of this, I was unenthused. Erskine has a detailed, realistic style, yet one that tends to be unglamourous, and where the figures can be a bit dumpy, the action scenes a bit stiff. Yet once you're reading the story, it works quite well. Again, it's partly that sense of British tradition, aiming for realism, rather than Kirby-esque bombast. His composition, his environments, his space battles -- all are suitably grand and compelling. To use a cinematic comparison...it's a motion picture more than a made-for-TV movie. Though Erskine maybe touches up his work clumsily with an art program, as sometimes figures overlap in odd ways or one figure in a panel will be grainier than another -- suggesting in some cases the elements of a picture were drawn separately, then pasted together, sometimes quite sloppily! Or, in a picture of a body floating in space, you realize someone simply copied and pasted the right foot where the left foot should be. Still, despite such unprofessionalism, it's mostly effective, aided by the sharp colours, which like the rest of the book manages to straddle being vibrant and appealing while also ominous and sombre.
I first read this with no prior knowledge of Dan Dare (save, maybe, preconceptions and assumptions). But I sufficiently enjoyed this it couldn't help but whet my curioiusity to seek out the original. So how would it read for existing fans? I suspect...still pretty well. This isn't a seamless evocation of the old, nor is it meant to be. It's a grittier, more sombre version. Dan himself is credibly an older, more jaded version of himself. The Mekon is certainly the same. Ironically, the character who has undergone the most alteration is Digby -- ironic, because it was the old Digby that was more of a parody, whereas it's this Digby that is treated more seriously, as Dan's crusty right arm. The original series was more swashbuckling daring do, and running about, whereas this is more restrained, and more serious, where good people can come to bad ends. Yet the basic plot of a Mekon invasion is evocative of the old series.
A comparison that comes to mind is the old Dan stories are like the 1960s "Star Trek" TV series, and this is like the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", with its more navel tone, its battleships in space, its tale of an aging hero facing an old foe...and the undercurrent of melancholy. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Ennis was thinking of that film specifically as he wrote this.
Visually, as much as I just finished complimenting Erskine's art, it has tough competition from the old comics, particularly with their more vibrant and colourful palettes...rather than battleship grey. Though because Erskine uses bigger panels and more close ups, it has a more modern, dramatic feel than the old comics with their greater reliance on long shots.
Perhaps the biggest shift is the underlining themes. There are metaphors and political undercurrents. At one point a character suggests street level hooliganism, against which politicians campaign, is merely a response to political corruption -- the politicians are the role models for the very behaviour they abhor. And one can easily infer in the character of the prime minister an angry rejection of modern polticians -- maybe even a direct attack on Tony Blair (who many Britons felt became a puppet for George W. Bush).
The old Dan was one of those Star Trek-like optimistic futures, of a united earth. Here we learn the future took a dark turn, that the United States and China blew each other to bits, a united earth is no more, and Engand is practically the only remaining power on earth.
I've mentioned before, that being Canadian -- a country where many Canadian story tellers do everything they can to NOT acknowledge their story is Canadian -- I kind of have an affection for stories that revel in their own national identity (and provide a counterpoint to the American-centric pop culture that dominates western civilization). So the very Britishness of this Dan Dare is kind of fun...but can also go a little too far. Despite its overt British sensibilities, the original Dan still operated in a nominal international organization. But here the idea is Britain is the ruling nation -- the space fleet that sets out to face the Mekon and his armada fly British flags.
The story tries grappling with the ambiguity of nationalistic themes. But one can't help feeling that Ennis and the rest are nostalgic, not simply for the days of English pride, but for the days of the British Empire. Which is funny given Ennis is Irish! A scene where Dan and a group of marines heroically hold off a much larger (but less well armed) horde of aliens can't help but put you in mind of movies like "Zulu".
On one hand, there's a moderately significant character who's black -- something I'm guessing didn't happen often in the old Dare stories -- yet he remains pretty much the only non-white person in the series! So even as characters criticize racist, anti-immigrant politicians...the "archetypal" vision of English-hood they depict is still overwhelming white and Anglo-Saxon (and male -- even though there are some strong female characters...they remain the minority). And though we see a few green-skinned Treens who are not the enemy -- that's arguably less progressive than the original, where one of Dan's closest companions was Sondar, a Treen, and where other alien races appeared.
Of course Ennis might not be that comfortable with the sci-fi aspects (despite his horror/fantasy background). In both story and visuals, this is actually less blatanty science fiction than the original: no aliens other than Treens, ships that look like battleships in space rather than the colourful rocket ships of old. One of the neat things about Marooned on Mecury (the classic Dan Dare story I read, reviewed above) was the way they created and explored an alien civilization.
As much as I like this story, I'll admit after a couple of subsequent readings, I did find the nationalistic jingoism a bit over-the-top and even occasionally uncomfortable -- though that's more in the earliest chapters. As well, as mentioned, Ennis' template is clearly less the sci-fi serial influences of the original comics, and more a military drama that happens to take place in outer space. But there's a fine line between paying sincere homage to the men and women in uniform...and displaying a fetish for all things military, a line Ennis occasionally crosses. Even the fact that Dan's old scientist friend, Jocelyn Peabody, is now a politician, and Sondar nowhere to be seen, shifts a bit of the emphasis from space exploring scientists to simply grunts-in-space (in much the same way the Star Trek motion pictures signficantly played down the "exploring strange new worlds" theme in favour of Cold War metaphors).
Still, such food for thought aside, what emerges -- perhaps quite surprisingly for me, given my lack of familiarity with the character originally -- is a truly compelling, entertaining adventure. And after having now read an old Dan Dare story...I still like this. Despite its length it maybe comes across as a long movie rather than a true epic saga (and shorter than the old serialized adventures). But it does work on that level. Fast paced and exciting enough to work as an adventure, thoughtfully and occasionally, powerfully poignant enough to give weight to the heroics, and with a hero who, despite his unflappable demeanour, does emerge as a genuinely compelling protagonist.
It may not be a hundred percent true to the spirit of the original stories, but in its own way, is quite respectful of them.
Tally ho, boys...but remember to be back for tea, wot?
This is a review based on the original comics.
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