Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


M.A.R.S. Patrol: Total War

2004 - available in soft cover

Written by uncredited. Pencils by Wally Wood. Inks by Tony Coleman, Dan Adkins.
Colours/Letters: uncredited.

Reprinting: Total War #1, 2, M.A.R.S. Patrol #3 (1965-1966)

112 pages

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cover price: $12.95 US.

Originally published by Gold Key Comics in the mid-1960s, M.A.R.S. Patrol (originally titled Total War for its first two issues) was a short lived mix of sci-fi and military adventure. Despite the mis-leading acronym, the MARS in question stands for an elite, fictional American military branch -- the Marine Attack Rescue Service -- and the action starts up when the U.S. is invaded by a mysterious army. At first it's assumed it's a foreign nation...until they get reports that nations all over the world, including the U.S.S.R., are likewise besieged.

This TPB collection from Dark Horse Comics reprints the first three issues that were drawn by comics legend Wally Wood, and they are fast paced action pieces as the core, four man MARS unit is sent to one hot spot after another as the invaders attack, then retreat, with equal mysteriousness. The characters even end up in Canada for a sequence, aiding the Canadian army when the invaders strike at both sides of Niagara Falls.

Why Dark Horse should choose to reprint these obscure stories now is a question. Perhaps with their recent successes publishing Marvel's old Star Wars and Conan comics, and a massive Magnus Robot Fighter hard cover on the way, Dark Horse is just hot for reprints these days. There is a modest enjoyment level to the stories -- they're fast paced and crisply illustrated by Wally Wood. But although Gold Key has had its peaks, it's not exactly known for its thinking man comics, and in the 1960s, it seemed happy to hold its ground of simplistic stories even as DC and, especially, Marvel, were attempting to break new narrative ground when it came to plotting and characterization.

The plotting is pretty rudimentary, as the invaders attack various bases or towns, and our heroes fight them off. There are clever strategies, occasionally, but its all told with brevity -- barely do we know what the invaders next strike will be when, a couple of panels later, our heroes have devised a counter-strategy. There's little attempt to milk suspense from a sequence in favour of just keeping things fast and furious. It's also a combat/action series, so there's little (in these issues at least) of change-of-pace stories, either emphasizing suspense or human drama. Nor is there much obvious science fiction -- despite the back cover extolling Wood as a master of drawing SF comics. There's little characterization to speak of -- the MARS patrol men are a fairly generic lot where even the letterer and colourist sometimes had trouble recognizing who was who, occasionally with word balloons pointing to the wrong speaker, or one character wearing another's colours. Sgt. Ken Hiro seems the most likely to threaten to become an individual...and even he is mainly just a little feistier than the others.

Yeah, you read right -- Ken Hiro. An Asian-American. Whatever MARS Patrol lacked in sophistication, it gets points for its multi-ethnic heroes (also including a black guy and two whites). Practically unprecedented in 1960s comics -- and contemporaneous movies and TV. And they were of equal importance to the action, not just a white guy and his minority sidekicks (best exemplified in the third issue, where we follow each of the four on separate solo missions). The comic also touched on the idea of racism and, at least in the first issue, the grim realities of war, as the heroes (briefly) struggle with the morality of striking at the enemy, knowing innocent American civilians will be "collateral damage". All that stuff is surprisingly sophisticated, and adult...for a comic that, otherwise, isn't particularly.

The first issue is the best, creating a genuine sense of danger and paranoia, as the invaders strike without warning. Scenes of the heroes coming upon the aftermath of battles, or hearing gunfire in the distance, create an eerie sense of plausibility, moreso than if the heroes were always in the thick of it.

But by the end of these issues, you still don't know who the invaders are (though that may've been revealed in the subsequent, non-Wood issues that Dark Horse may or may not plan to collect). And there isn't even a sense that we're building to a revelation. Each issue ends with the characters reiterating the fact that they know nothing about the enemy...but it's not like there are any clues or hints accumulating from issue to issue.

Wood apparently worked on the infamous "Mars Attacks" trading cards from a few years previous to these comics, and one can see the influence, as plot and characterization is tossed aside in favour of what seems more like visual set pieces, as if MARS Patrol was all ready to be featured on its own set of trading cards (though it wasn't). Wood's art is good -- I've certainly been an appreciator for years. But I'm not sure it's good enough to justify this collection all by itself, particularly as that's what Dark Horse seems to be selling. Wood has a clean, clear style, but it works best when serving a stronger script. Who actually wrote the stories is a bit vague. Certainly some have implied it was Wood himself (the cover even says "Wally Wood's MARS Patrol"), but scenes where the visuals clash with the script (like having a Canadian flag flying overhead...after the characters have already returned to the U.S. side of the border) would suggest a miscommunication between a writer and an artist.

There's also a certain roughness to the presentation. Visually, it looks almost as though Dark Horse reprinted this from the comics, rather than the original galleys -- the reproduction is a bit smudged at times. It still looks good, just not as crisp as you might expect. And there are even a few pages, in the second issue, that are printed in reversed order! On the plus side, although this only reprints three issues, each one was 32 pages, making the story page count a full 96 pages. But it's still kind of pricey for what it is, particularly given the lack of care taken in reprinting the issues.

Still, the book can be moderately fun, particularly for its fast paced tempo. It never slows down enough to be boring. And there's an appealing, childish innocence at work. At the same time, it is a war comic more than a science fiction one, and a violent comic at that. It's not gory or anything, but it is a brutal depiction of kill or be killed, total war (as the title indicates) -- a fact that then clashes a bit with the cavalier jingoism of the heroes, who seem to be able to take on any number of invaders and receive nary a scratch.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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