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FS 57: BEIGE PRIME

18 Nov

PROG: 135 – Time Trap

Script: Roy Preston (as P. Wildbeest)

Art: John Cooper

Letters: P. Bensberg

Plot: Johnnie Collins plays with his toy metal frog while his mother prepares a special meal for his father’s return from work. However when Jim Collins returns home he curtly informs his wife that his project with The Time Monitoring Department means he will have to go straight to his study and continue working. As Chrissie Collins explains to young Johnnie why his father has come and gone so quickly she breaks into tears and is comforted by her son. Johnnie, with his toy frog, march to his father’s home lab as Jim Collins is about to start another time machine test. His father angrily shouts at him and smacks ‘Mister Frog’ from his hands. Jim then finishes working on the control desk and moves to enter the time machine capsule. Convinced he can stop the machine, Johnnie moves to the desk to reverse his father’s settings.

Shock: Johnnie’s well-intended meddling firstly places his father in an infinite loop and then accidentally break the controls. Jim Collins is trapped in the time machine in his basement, free to be seen by his family all day, every day.

Thoughts: The final Future Shock before a year and a half absence from the Prog is an unsatisfying meld of various established tropes. Mechanical problems with time machines have been seen several times and John Cooper has been the ‘go to’ artist for Shocks involving small children twice before. However a key element of the script’s failure to engage is that this time the child isn’t a cipher the reader can identify with. Whereas previous stories with children have had stroppy, defiant, independent kids, here Johnnie Collins is a wimpy mewlling child carrying around ‘Mister Frog’ much like Linus does a blanket. It seems unlikely any reader who thrills in the action of Dredd or has picked out a favourite ABC Warrior is going to have much time for Johnnie Collins. An additional problem is that the shock itself, in terms of the fate of Jim Collins, isn’t really well explained. Is Jim trapped in a ground-hog day scenario? Is he in stasis while the world grows old around him? Why is there a smiling image of Chrissie and Johnnie on the screen? Regardless of how negligent a parent and partner he had been, wouldn’t they be upset that he is trapped? Can’t the damage be undone by fixing the damaged box? With three pages there was more than enough room to have set up a clearer fate for Jim’s comeuppance but the strip is too busy showing weeping gal and Johnnie in their emotional distress. Cooper’s art is of its usual excellent standard, Chrissie Collins being a particularly pretty young mum and Johnnie as wide-eyed as it is possible for an innocent child to be. However three pages of talking heads and one panel of violence against a child is pretty hard to make interesting.

Shock’d?: The cause of the shock, the well-intended meddling of an upset child, is a novel one but the actual execution is neither clear nor visually very interesting. A more central problem is that Time Machine Shocks only end a limited number of ways and this one is particularly obvious and not very engaging.

FS 56: MANY HANDS MAKES STRIP WORK

16 Nov

PROG: 117 – Hand Of Friendship

Script: John Richardson

Art: John Richardson

Letters: Peter Knight

Plot: Brant and Jones, two Earth spacemen drifting in their Survival Pod, finally have their distress signal answered by a large alien war craft. The battleship informs them it cannot stop but will send them some supplies, as well as despatch their own supply ship when it becomes available. Concerned about alien foodstuff toxicity, the humans tell the aliens they can ‘give them a hand with just some bread and water‘ for now. A pod sends them over the food and they munch on the new supplies before turning to find out what was for dessert…

Shock:  They open an alien container to find several bagged human hands. Grant and Jones realise the ‘supplies’ craft coming for them might not be good news.

Thoughts: John Richardson becomes the first droid to have a second ‘joint credit’ for scripting and drawing duties. This time his art isn’t as impressive, although not bad it lacks any real dramatic set-pieces or outstanding panels, but the story is much better.  In the modern 2000AD this would be a Terror Tale rather than a Future Shock but back then that remained the sole banner for short stories; although that would soon change with the introduction of Ro-Jaws RoboTales (Prog 144). The simple visual joke of ‘being given a hand‘ plays out nicely and is tweaked that little bit by introducing the concept that a ship that was to supply them may now become a ship to supply them to the warship’s kitchens. Eight panels and 1.5 pages make this an excellent efficient early Terror Tale.

Shock’d?: Whether the ‘give us a hand’ prompt would have been picked up depends on how attentive the reader is; certainly the story on page one could have been the set-up for a longer different type of Shock but on turning the page the reader gets a half page of bagged hands floating towards him and the strip is done. And no less enjoyable for it.

FS 55: LA PIU BELLA

14 Nov

PROG: 119 – Colin’s Dream

Script: Chris Stevens

Art: Massimo Belardinelli

Letters: Peter Knight

Plot: While his wife shouts for him to wake up, Colin Ross continues in his slumber. He dreams of hand-to-hand combat against a fearsome massive many-tentacled beast, finally decapitating the monster. Inevitably awoken by his wife’s incessant calling, he moans about being disturbed just as he had seized victory in his dream-battle.

Shock: Colin’s wife enters the room, she is the same species as the monster from his dream! She warns him in the future she’ll make sure he gets up when he is told. Tharg warns the reader that in the 25th century Human-Alien marriages were common ‘but not always happy‘.

Thoughts: Two pages, seven panels, including one magnificent full-page panel, an epic battle, a gruesome monster, a decapitation and a joke about annoying wives / mothers makes an absolutely magnificent Future Shock. The ‘waking up and…’ device has been regularly used in early Future Shocks (FS 53, FS 37) and the ‘pestering wife’ has featured in Casanova’s beautiful debut in FS 32 however this is still a great entry into Future Shocks largely due to it’s efficiency and the stunning work of Belardinelli. Futureshockd never shows the ‘shock’ panel in a story but the temptation to here is almost overwhelming. The full-page of image of a ‘pretty’ version of the above alien, all extended eye-lashes and pouting-lips and a domestic-goddess pinny, towering over a terrified Colin is a complete joy. Never reprinted, it is a neglected classic sitting in the 2000AD vaults. Readers at the time could clearly substitute ‘parents’ for the ‘wife’ element and empathize with Colin’s wish to keep dreaming rather than go to work / school.

Shock’d?: Strongly reminiscent of the twist in FS 1, the domesticated alien does come out of the left field as the nagging is not given enough time to establish itself as the ‘counter’ narrative to Colin’s dream; however it is a great visual shock due to the space given to allow Belardinelli to draw a truly marvelous monstrous image.

FS 54: OCCUPY TARKA III

13 Nov

PROG: 109 - Sacrifice!

Script: Alan Hebden

Art: Mike White

Letters: Jack Potter

Plot: The Planetary Assessment Group approach Tarka III, a dust-bowl planet that they have funded the gradual reclamation of by paying billions to let settlers attempt to colonise. They have arrived to assess progress and decide on future funding. Met by Reed Benson, the colonial leader, they immediately take against the thin air and small pockets of growth they witness. Benson explains to them how they are unleashing deep pockets of air from underground and another ten years will see the planet flourish with growth. Distinctly unimpressed they tell Benson they will give their verdict in the morning. Deeply frustrated, Benson returns home and joins his daughter at a nearby archaeological dig. Wandering alone in an uncovered ancient chamber he uncovers a room where a mysterious  ‘telepathic recording’ informs him it is the voice of the ancient inhabitants and they are offering him a choice – if he sacrifices himself the ancient’s mining devices will be reactivated and massive amounts of oxygen will be released; if he refuses the planet will be destroyed rather than fall into the hands of the unworthy…

Shock: Benson makes the sacrifice and the aliens unleash their technology to furnish vast amounts of air on the planet. The PAG representatives reverse their decision to cut funding when they realize the sudden re-oxygenization will make the cost of the program much less. As they depart the planet they scoff that Benson would be delighted as ‘he couldn’t care less about the cost of anything’  Their craft flies off as Benson writhes in pain, enduring the cost  he has shouldered for saving the planet he loves.

Thoughts: A luxuriant seven pages given to a slightly strange scoff at penny-pinching accountants as opposed to the sacrifice of the idealist. The story has doesn’t have a ‘shock’ per se, more a choice for Benson and a juxtaposed disparaging comment by a PAG member on the final panel. Outside of that the story fails to make a lot of sense. Searching hard one could think of reasons why the aliens just didn’t re-inhabit the planet themselves (since they are able to do it almost instantaneously after Benson’s decision) and why Benson must actually suffer a painful fate rather than be excused after having shown the requisite commitment, but none of it is explained by the story. At seven pages the story-telling is extremely flabby by the standards of 2000AD; Benson isn’t introduced until the bottom of page 2 and by the end of page 4 the tour of the agricultural facilities is just ended. High on tension and drama this tale is not. The art has lots of nice individual panels showing a similar ‘space meets Midwest America’ as seen in Angel Zero and a fantastic panel where Benson steps up to make his choice but for seven pages there is a lot of talking heads and shots of farmland. An interesting Shock in the context of the series, both for page count and political content,  and featuring two creators who would go on to work on many more one-shots for the Prog, but overall not a great outing for the series.

Shock’d?: The story doesn’t read at all like a Future Shock. The nearest thing to any formal shock is the callous remark of the departing PAG member. It seems more a general small sci-fi tale and perhaps was originally commissioned for something other than Future Shocks.

FS 53: A SINGLE BODY OF WORK

11 Nov

PROG: 108 – TOGETHER

Script: John Higgins

Art: John Higgins

Letters: John Aldrich

Plot: Two Astro-Pliots, Dave & Ron, are on route to Proxima Centauri when a meteor storm causes their craft to crash. An alien spaceship surveys the wreckage and lifts the living biomass aboard. Unsure of the species they are dealing with, but confident of a similarity to their own physiology, alien surgeons try to save the life of the crew. Hours late Dave awakens and asks what has become of Ron.

Shock: The four-armed doctors don’t know of Ron’s whereabouts but a shocked Dave finally realises he has had Ron’s limbs grafted onto his own torso to create an eight-limbed body much like the aliens.

Thoughts: Long-haul Droid John Higgin’s first work in 2000AD is the third Future Shock to be written and drawn by the same person (FS 4 – Kevin O’Neil, FS 50 – John Richardson). For a début in the comic its a remarkably strong piece of work. His unique drawing style, most clearly visible in his technique for drawing faces, has clearly changed little over thirty years; probably because it is so good it has little need to. The art is clearly a strong point; there is an excellent panel-breaking swooping spaceship in the first page, a pair of surgeons who look remarkably like Bryan Talbot’s rendering of Blackblood from the ABC Warriors, and the reveal panel is a great multi-limbed alien doctor with, it has to be said, a neck and face like a swollen beaten male appendage.  The inking is magnificent and the most remarkable thing is that Higgins would only pick up the odd Future Shock and Time Twister before his prolonged stint on Judge Dredd from the mid-400s. It is clear from work like this that he would have been ready long before that. As for the story, it has a fairly retro vibe and is quite conventional but there is also a lot to praise. The shock itself is fairly easy to spot, certainly as the reader turns to the last page they know that something awful is going to be the result of the alien’s good-natured attempt at aid.. just look at those looming surgeons (above), how could something sinister not result. Naturally ‘waking up in hospital to something bad’ isn’t the most original of framing devices but the drafting and execution are superior. It also deserves praise for being a great example of a story that comics can tell that the purely written medium cannot. A drawn image can hide descriptive detail, creating ambiguity from what it doesn’t show and what it leads the reader to imply; whereas the word, with its need to specify simply cannot achieve the same degree of implication. Where a writer would have to specify what the aliens looked like in considerable detail, the image can lead you to assume they have 4 limbs not 8. This is one of the great joys of comics, one of the skills that talented comic writers and artists can create and it this small tale is a magnificent example of it.

Shock’d?: The specific shock is fairly corny and the story makes no attempt to hide that something terrible is going to come from the operation, what that specifically is being gloriously revealed on the last page. In many ways the story telling is of its time and the shock isn’t as gorily rendered as it might have been but it is still a great moment to turn to the final page and find out Ron and Dave’s fate.

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