Programme 3 (12-Mar-1977)

Cover: And what's free this week? It's some kind of a (I assume) plastic wallet to keep your secret resistance papers in. I'm sure it will come in handy once the Volgans attack after all, they'll never think to check inside the plastic 'Red Alert Survival Wallet' Man, I wish comic books had come with free gifts when I was growing up. Once in a blue moon I'd get a set of 3D glasses. And despite what Marvel might tell you, a Mylar bag sealing the comic away from dangerous air does not, in and of itself, constitute a 'free gift'.

As for the story pitched on the cover, three weeks in the editors seem to have figured out that 'Flesh' is the best story they've got. Not only does it get a thrilling action shot on the cover, but a label actually lists it as the 'Top Thrill!' The cover even seems like something that might literally appear in the issue. After all, Joe is clearly being grabbed non-fatally by those teeth, so all Earl Reagan has to do is figure out some way of extracting Joe without killing him.

Thrill 1: INVASION! (No Credits Listed)

Invasion opens with another splash page, this one depicting Volgan atrocities. Then we cut to a small room where Bill Savage lounges in a chair, rubbing his shotgun with an oily cloth. At the end of the last Invasion story, I couldn't help but point out the surprisingly homoerotic implications of the last panel, as the bespectacled man stared intently at Savage's backside. I was relatively sure at the time that it wasn't an intentional move on the writer or artist's part, but this panel, accompanied by Savage's dialogue, leave me wondering.

'Cleaning his weapon'

I promise to try to cut down on the gay jokes from here on in. Also note how the new Vichy Prime Minister is named “Creepton”. I'm just amazed they had the self-control to keep from making his Christian name Richard.

It turns out that yes, the spectacled man is a Lieutenant in the British resistance named Silk. He and a group of resistance fighters show up at Savage's hideout, intent on capturing him. Savage gets the drop on them, but before Silk can make his pitch for joining forces, a squad of Volgans conveniently shows up, just in time for Savage to turn his cannon on someone more deserving.

With all the Volgans dead, Savage agrees to join the resistance, reasoning that if they're so inept that a Lorry-driver with a shotgun could manage to get the drop on them, then they'll need his help if they're going to have a prayer against the Volgans. This is some pretty solid reasoning, actually.

Something odd happens right at the end of the issue, actually. After killing all the Volgans, Savage has a thought bubble where he reminds himself that every Volgan he kills helps even the score for the death of his family. It's an odd thing to throw in there, but I suppose that when you're putting out a story that goes on week after week it's important to re-explain the premise to new readers, still, this is a particularly awkward way to do it. As the story drags on, I wonder if the attempts to explain things will get smoother, or even more painful to read?

Special Gift: The next page outlines what's going on with the free gift. Apparently inside the wallet is a codebreaker that allows the kids who bought the issue to make their own coded messages. Far more interesting than the instructions on coding and decoding is this section at the bottom, which offers suggestions for codenames to use when forming your own resistance group. I'm going to let the suggestions speak for themselves:

yeah, you read that right

Thrill 2: FLESH (No Credits Listed)

Flesh picks up exactly where it left off last week, with Joe being snatched into their air by a Pteranodon! Two rangers in an Air Buggy rush to the rescue, announcing that they've got an 'Amber Alert' on their hands. If another ranger being dragged away by a bloodthirsty dinosaur only warrants an Amber Alert, what exactly would happen to deserve a Red? Dinosaurs developing thumbs and learning to use guns?

The Pteranodon is shot by the air-Rangers, who are so busy congratulating themselves on a job well done that they don't notice a giant female Tyrannosaur sneaking up behind them. This is the first dinosaur to be given a bio, so it's obviously a key figure in the story. She's a hundred and twenty years old, and while it's hard to get a great sense of scale from the art, somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty feet tall. Only three issues in and in two of them an epicly large monster has managed to sneak up on a Ranger, who would presumably be trained to deal with this sort of thing. Who knew dinosaurs were so stealthy?

Surviving the drop from the Pteranodon's mouth, Joe proves himself to be one of the unluckiest men in the distant past, as the giant dinosaur quickly scoops him up in its jaws. Or perhaps he's one of the luckiest, as Earl Reagan rides up on a horse, just in time for Joe to beg to be shot, allowing the cover to literally appear in the issue. Yay for truth in advertising!

It's up to Earl to save the day, which he does by jumping onto the dinosaur's head and jamming his dino-prod into its eye. This seemingly kills the dinosaur, allowing the other rangers to drag Joe from out of her mouth. Now it's simply a matter of getting Joe help for his injured legs in nearby Carver City.

Two of my favorite things: restaiting the strip's premise for latecomers, and future-slang!)

Then, in a surprise twist, it turns out the giant dinosaur wasn't dead at all! And now, despite having a brain the size of a cat, she's out for vengeance against the specific human that blinded her! It turns out this dinosaur is 'Old One-Eye', the strip's main dinosaur villain. I'd remembered her existence, I just had no idea she was introduced this quickly. It makes sense, though. After all, if you're going to be doing an Ahab/Moby Dick thing, to establish both characters as soon as possible.

Thrill 3: Harlem Heroes (No Credits Listed)

The Harlem Heroes find themselves moved way up in the batting order this time around. After ending the last issue in the Thrill 5 slot, they've been promoted up to Number 3. I have no idea what this means. Obviously the most important story in the issue is the one that gets the centerfold spread, with its two pages of colour art in an otherwise black and white magazine, but beyond that, I have to figure they're ordering the stories by popularity, or at least, at this point, perceived popularity—after all, how much market research could they have done in three issues?

The story picks up with a first-panel recap, by now a familiar sight in these pages. What's interesting is that the recapping is done by a colour commentator narrating the opening of an Aeroball match for the people watching at home. So this is the first time that the laborious expositing of the strip's premise actually has a logical reason to be there.

Zack, the team newcomer, is surprised to discover that the team they're playing against, the Baltimore Bulls, is a team consisting entirely of Baltimore police officers. I know they needed a newcomer character in the story so they other characters could explain things to him, and by extension us, the readers, but isn't this something that Zack should know? I mean, if he's crazy enough about Aeroball that he built his own jetpack to play it, why doesn't he know the first thing about the professional Aeroball teams out there?

The game starts, and through his reckless hotdogging, Zack lets the Bulls get possession of the ball. They throw it at the goal, but King, the veteran, manages to block it with his body. Unfortunately, the force of the impact knocks him into the score holes, which is against the rules. He's sent not to a penalty box, but to a barred penalty cage that hangs in mid-air, floating in the middle of the stadium so everyone can share in the disgrace.

Zack tries to redeem himself by scoring a goal, but in doing so he kicks a Bull in the back of the neck. While a totally acceptable move in street Aeroball, it's against the rules here, and he's cautioned – one more foul and he goes to the cage as well. Annoyed at having the Bulls call him a delinquent for disregarding the rules, Zack tries to show off by speeding around the stadium. This ends with him running into a camera's boom arm, and his jetpack exploding. We leave the Heroes with one of their number falling fast for the floor. Now that's a cliffhanger. Nice to see they're getting more confident with these.

From now on I'm going to keep track of the rules of Aeroball, mostly because I'm interested to see if they make any kind of sense. So far we know:

28 – Don't touch the score posts.

? - Don't kick people in the back of the head.

And finally, to track my prediction that Chico and Sammy will get less than ten lines combined over these next five issues, here's their dialogue count for this issue: 0

Thrill 4: Dan Dare (Art: Belardinelli)

When we left Dan Dare, the thing from the Hell Planet had just materialized on the bridge of the spaceship Odyssey. Commander Monday, the nine-foot albino Martian, wants it disintegrated immediately, but Dan wants to study it. Guessing that its horns must logically be its weak point (you know, how they're the weakest point on all other horned animals, like the ram, rhino, walrus...) Dan jumps up and grabs them in his hands. Amazingly, this does knock the creature out, and it's moved to sick bay.

After an examination, they find out some interesting things about the monster. It doesn't have a mouth, and its brain is huge, so naturally it must be psychic. Most interestingly, the giant black and yellow grid on its chest is exactly what it looks like: Solar Power Cells. The scene caps off with a line that would have fit neatly into any monster movie of the 50s, and made me smile broadly as a result.

Finally believing Dan Dare's crazed theories about Jupiter, Monday accompanies Dan on a trip down to the surface in a special atmospheric landing craft. On their way there, the encounter another cliffhanger, in the form of a radio storm!

So Dan and Monday are heading down to the surface. One's a space explorer from the dawn of the space age, woken up in a bizarre future. The other's a nine-foot tall, super-strong, super-intelligent man from Mars. The only question I have is how many issues until Monday sacrifices himself heroically to save Dan's life. I'm guessing 6.

Tharg's Nerve Centre: By the second issue, Tharg was already demonstrating the egotism and totalitarianism that define his character. In this Nerve Centre, he apologizes for putting out a comic with two mis-spelled words, and then offers a comic strips showing how he tracked down the robot responsible (drawn to look like a man in a suit), and disintegrated him as he fled for his life. Nice work, Tharg.

In a side note, Tharg refers to his race as 'THARGS' in the opening spiel. I had thought he was a Betelgeusian, but I could be remembering it wrong, or this could be one of those things they hadn't made up yet. Only time will tell.

Thrill 5: MACH 1 (No Credits Listed)

The story is simple enough: An experimental NATO mini-battleship has mysteriously sunk! By the time recovery vessels have arrived, a fishing ship from one of the WP countries has set up over the exact spot where it sank. John Probe(the MACH Man)'s mission? Get onto the foreign ship and find out if it's really fishing, or if it's trying to recover the sunken ship. Probe wants to know why they can't just challenge it, but Sharpe, his boss, explains that they can't risk an international incident if it turns out to be a harmless coincidence.

Of course, it seems like Probe's time could be better spent salvaging sensitive technologies off of the battleship, after all, even if the trawler really is a salvage craft, what can they do about it? Maybe my maritime law is shaky here, but after a ship sinks, doesn't it become the property of whoever finds it first?

So Probe swims over, wearing his pea-coat and slacks, and finds that the trawler is, in fact, a disguised salvage ship with a special hole build in the middle, so they can use a crane to pull the battleship straight up. I don't know if this kind of ship design would actually work, but it certainly is awesome. Probe jumps to the conclusion that the 'Eastern Powers' must have also been responsible for sinking the battleship, even though he has no evidence of this.

Despite that he's specifically supposed to be avoiding an international incident, Probe decides that he shouldn't just sabotage the salvage equipment, stopping their recovery efforts. No, without further orders from his boss, Probe decides to head below decks to sabotage the engine. On the way he's attacked by an Eastern man in a mechanized diving suit. After quickly killing the man, Probe disconnects the engine's oil pipes, causing the ship to begin tearing itself apart. Then, putting the lie to my comments about the '70s being a less litigious era, we get this panel and caption:

That's right kids, don't set yourself on fire, then dive off an exploding ship!

Back on the British craft, Sharpe is understandably annoyed. The whole international incident thing, you understand. Probe replies that since it wasn't a fishing ship, he had to act quickly. No one mentions the fact that there are like fifteen ways he could have stopped the salvage operation without destroying the ship and killing everyone on board. Then the issue ends with what I hope is a bit of foreshadowing:

Are you sure he hasn't already turned against you?

If the plot of this issue sounded familiar to you, it's probably because the broad strokes - fake fishing trawler turning out to be a spy ship/recovery effort on british boat/attack by guy in mechanized diving suit– were all plot points in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, which came out four years after this comic. I'm not saying that that James Bond was ripping off MACH 1 necessarily, since any of those elements could have appeared in one of the Bond novels or short stories. Still, it's an interesting coincidence.

Thrill 6: JUDGE DREDD! (No Credits Listed)

This story deals with Judge Dredd's miraculous capture of a man who has an instant face-changing operation. It seems 'Scarface' Joe Levine has killed six people, and Dredd is right on his tail. So Levine hurries into a face-changing clinic and forces them to, at gunpoint, change his face, so the cameras won't be able to recognize him.

Later, as he's driving away to safety, he can't resist saying hello to Judge Dredd as he drives by, taunting the Judge with his success. Of course, Dredd figures out who he is right away, and shoots Levine's car, causing it to crash. Admitting his defeat and knowing he's headed off to 'Time-Stretcher' jail, Levine wants to know one thing: how did Dredd catch him? Simple, the justice department had Levine's voice prints on file. The lesson? When you've made the perfect getaway, don't be so damn smug about it.

A hugely improved second outing, this story was a simple and effective example of basic 'futuristic' writing, in that it took a common situation, and tried to put a couple of sci-fi twists on it. A criminal wants to escape justice, so he uses science(!) to do it. Little does he know that the law also has science(!) on its side. The only disappointment is just how un-futuristic the science is. Plastic surgery was commonplace by the late '70s, the only change here is that it's quick and painless. And while the police may not have been widely using voice identification at the time, I'm sure the technology already existed.

I was hoping to start a counter here, keeping track of just how many people Judge Dredd kills, but, amazingly, he doesn't kill anyone this issue. Huh. So I'll just mention Whitey's two sidekicks, who he gunned down last issue, bringing the total to 2.


Best Story: Flesh – Three weeks in a row! Not only does the gory action keep coming, but an actual continuing story seems to be building up. Introducing the visually identifiable dinosaur with a grudge has given the strip its Moby Dick, and if my memory serves me, it only gets better from here.

Worst Story: Dan Dare – With Judge Dredd's leap up in quality, Dare is back on the bottom. He's closely followed by MACH 1, though, which could not live up to the promise of last week's pitch. No, Sharpe, stopping a salvage operation is neither more dangerous nor more exciting than preventing a nerve gas bomb from being dropped on London.

Biggest surprise: Just how fundamentally weak the first appearance of Judge Dredd was. Given the character's level of importance, it seems like there should have been more here. Batman got a great first story, so did Superman. Even the X-Men's first issue wasn't bad. Between the shoddy writing and the fact that it's buried at the back of the comic, it seems like no one was expecting Judge Dredd to do much for the comic. Live and learn, huh?

Best Panel of the Week:

This shows what an odd handle they had on the world of Judge Dredd right from the start. Mega-City 1 is quickly established as mind-bogglingly huge. In case the type is too small and smudged to read, it stretches from Old Montreal to the north all the way down to Old Georgia in the south. This raises an interesting question – do people have different accents and cultures in the different areas of Mega-City 1? Are there rivalries between the north and south? Is living on the east next to the Black Atlantic better than living on the west by the Cursed Earth?

Of course, they couldn't have thought of that point, because, I'm shocked to report, the Cursed Earth did not exist yet. No, to the west of Mega-City 1 was something called the United States of the West. In a bit of a spoiler alert, as far as I know, the USW never appears, and somewhere in the next hundred issues, they decide that there's absolutely no civilization for most of the distance between the coasts. Which is a setup for a really easy joke, so I won't make it. I can't help but wonder what the USW was going to be, though. Would they be the remaining non-fascist areas of America, or would they have been worse than the Big Meg? Is there political tension between them, is the split the result of a second civil war? Who knows, because the concept was clearly abandoned quickly.

1 comment:

Graham said...

It wasn't plastic, it was cardboard. I still have mine from 1977!