PROG: 166 – YE FIRST ROBOT
Script: Gary Rice
Art: Brendan McCarthy
Letters: Tom Frame
Plot: In 1820 an unnamed man mourns the loss of his only child. Whilst brooding over how fate has robbed him of his wife, in labour, and their only child, he decides to create a replacement son from steel and steam. Eventually he emerges from his workshop with a large lumbering humanoid device he calls ‘Robert’, named after his son. Taking the machine to his friend Herr Wilhem he is pleased with its’ reception, even though the elderly gentleman mispronounces its name as ‘Robot’. However, on his return home he finds the local peasants take the machine’s coal fire engine and smokey emissions as a sign that it is the devil’s work. They begin to rally against the defenseless ‘Robert’…
Ending: The locals destroy ‘Robert’, leaving the inventor, once more, all alone. However the whole event has been overseen by two observers, one a dignified aristocrat, the other his man-servant. They ponder re-creating the ‘Robert’ experiment but with flesh and blood instead of steel and steam. As they leave the aristocrat is assured of success by the servant, after all he is Baron Frankenstein!
Thoughts: A very curious Robo-Tale, surrealistically introduced by Ro-Jaws in a Judge’s wig, is written in a most unusual style as a ‘lost journal’ with extensive textual exposition of the images contained beneath each passage. It looks very similar to the ‘illustrated prose’ technique that would be used by Ian Edginton’s Twas The Fight Before Christmas (Prog 2009), or even the word/picture juxtaposition in Alan Moore’s The English / Philondrutian Phrasebook (Prog 214), also illustrated by McCarthy. However by the middle of the second page the separation of text and image has broken down and word-balloons creep increasingly into the story. Adding to the unusual visual effect is the fact that none of the images have a panel boarder and the sides of the pages are made to look like the inside of a ring-binder journal. Why a ring-binder is being used for something seemingly written in 1820 is unclear. By Prog 166 McCarthy had contributed to several substantial stories in the Prog (ABC Warriors, Judge Dredd) but his art here isn’t terribly impressive, certainly a long way from the style that would firmly establish him as a reader favourite. The story itself suffers from having Ro-Jaws act as interlocutor as this limits the narrative’s ability to link the un-named protagonist and the observing Baron Frankenstein. Had not Ro-Jaws told the story it would have made more sense to have had either the Baron or the robot’s builder relate the tale and then explain their link to each other. Certainly it would have been cleverer to have had Frankenstein be a descendant or associate of ‘Robert’s’ creator than just ‘passing by’ as it would have allowed his voice to link into the tale earlier than simply as observing the final act. As a causal character thrown in on the last three panels his presence does strike as an after-thought in a story that was already clearly riffing on Mary Shelley’s classic yarn. The story also loses points for managing to posit Baron Frankenstein being inspired some two years after his own tale had been published in 1818. Basic research from the writer could have set the story in 1810 without altering any key elements. Future Shocks had already re-grounded the Dracula myth (FS 50) so Frankenstein’s turn was always on the cards, sadly this wasn’t the greatest attempt at having fun with the well-trodden source material.
Thrill Power: Pretty minimal. The strange story-telling device makes for a plodding technique which is constantly interrupting the flow of the tale and neither the prose nor the art is compelling enough to compensate. It deserves credit for attempting to play with the form but with the story so obviously echoing The Modern Prometheus and the tacked-on appearance of the Baron constituting the twist it is all quite uninteresting and dull. Easily the best thing about the tale is the unexplained appearance of Ro-Jaws in a Judge’s wig.
PROG: 98 – The Four-Legged Man!
Script: Mike Cruden
Art: Mike Dorey
Letters: Peter Knight
Plot: An alien craft lands on a future planet Earth, one devastated and devoid of life after war. From the craft emerge several humanoids and one, clearly a teacher, instructs the others that their Archaeological Practical Exam is to construct a model of the deceased ‘man’ from the ruins. Diligently the student set to work, finding small pieces to construct a whole specimen..
Shock: …of a television set. Ominously, Tharg, in a text box, asks us ‘Did television sets ever dominate life on your planet?‘
Thoughts: Mike Cruden, until this juncture the most prolific Future Shock writer, departs the series, and the comic, with this slight page and a half social comment. A dig both in the archaeological sense and at the medium that would challenge comics for the attention of readers. The only problem comes with the fact that the set-up seems somewhat botched. The final panel makes an obvious reference to the ‘dominant force’ of TV but the students weren’t directed to find the ‘dominant species’ or the like, they were specifically directed to find ‘the dominant life-form called ‘Man’‘. Given this to come up with something called ‘TV’ is simply illogical and a presumed fail for the students. A slight tweak of the script to remove the proper noun and the Shock would have been much more convincing in its bite. It is also unfortunate that the shock comes in a final text box rather than from the mouths of one of the characters; the portly professor certainly could have delivered a rant as to the goggle-box’s pernicious influence and the Earth’s decline. The art is competent but unexciting, the script doesn’t give much to work with save the arriving spacecraft and the final reveal panel. That the final reveal panel is people standing around a switched off television sums the excitement levels up. There is a foxy female archaeologist years before that became an overpopulated field but save for guns, breasts and Indiana Jones-esque escapades it’s pretty hard to make pottering around in ruins that interesting. Barney lists the art as by Carlos Pino but the Prog credits, and the style heavily suggests, Mike Dorey as the artist.
Shock’d?: Sadly the botched nature of the set-up and hiding the delivery of the strip’s message in the final text panel takes away some of the impact of what otherwise would have been a nice and clever set-up.
PROG: 94 – COLD KILL
Script: Mike Cruden
Art: Garry Leach (as Gary Leach)
Letters: Peter Knight
Plot: In a harsh cold part of the Earth a Hunter drags his bounty of slain animals towards his settlement. Aware he is surrounded by a gathering pack of wolves he manages to warn off the majority with a series of gunshots, however one of them leaps at him intent on the kill. The Hunter is wounded but, after eventually managing to slay the lupine foe, he loads his kayak for the final part of his journey. Tharg’s voice interjects to ask why we are seeing this Hunter, what is a tale of Canadian Hunters doing in the Prog?
Shock: The Hunter’s kayak arrives at his settlement, a frozen tundra with Big Ben at its centre! Mankind is in ‘the third Ice Age‘ and we have been witnessing life in London. The Hunter states ‘They Attacked me in Battersea Park. It’s a wild, lifeless place now. I won’t go there again in a hurry!’
Thoughts: A very curious Future Shock that subverts the format by directly using Tharg’s authorial voice to nudge the reader in the wrong direction before delivering an excellent switcheroo in a stunning final full-page splash. There is very little to the tale but a two page track-and-fight and then the final subverting reveal. Again Mike Cruden chooses not to burden his characters with over-detail, here we have a grizzly hunter stereotype, denoted by image and the most cursory of dialogue, whose purpose is to serve as the vehicle for the shock rather than engage the reader as a character. As with the previous Prog’s Future Shock this mean everything turns on the quality of the shock itself and Cruden has shown he understands the importance of a strong final Panel. In an era long before Hollywood could CGI-destroy famed landmarks ten-a-penny, the sight of Parliament beneath an ice flow was a fantastic kicker and Garry Leach does a first-rate job in conveying it. Leach’s art has moved up a notch since his debut in FS 28, delivering art with much greater detail (as well as more convincing head-gear). The stand-out element of his art is the degree of perspectives he uses, rarely showing two panels from the same horizontal or range, while still retaining the flow of the story with clarity and drama. He also draws one hell of a mean wolf. Cold Kill is very different fare to the traditional Future Shock, and Cruden’s decision not to invest in character is in stark contrast to the rest of the comic, but it certainly is an excellent use of three Prog pages.
Shock’d? The reveal about London is very disjointed from the rest of the tale, a problem coming from the character being so impersonal and lacking a localised narrative or dialogue that can set up the reveal. In acknowledgement of this the unusual step of having Tharg’s voice move from the traditional introductory spiel to directing the narrative mid-strip must be seen as an attempt to draw the reader back into thinking about the location to allow the ‘shock’ that it is London to work. On that level the drama of the two page fight is rather unconnected from the shock but given the beauty of the final splash page the editor and reader probably couldn’t care less.
PROG: 93 – PANDORA’S BOX
Script: Mike Cruden
Art: Mike White
Letters: Steve Potter
Plot: In 1984, the Prime Minister of the UK celebrates the unveiling of his own Statue with cementing in place a time capsule containing important artifacts of 20th Century culture. Centuries later mankind has passed through a series of wars to emerge in a new ‘Golden Age’ were war is a thing of the past and disease is eradicated. Two archaeologists find the 1984 Capsule and take the unopened box to the ‘Science Centre’ for further investigation. At the Centre this relic from ‘the Dark Ages‘ is immediately deemed to be dangerous and unsuitable for opening.
Shock: One of the Archaeologists rebels, she condemns the attitude of refusing to open the box as ‘being frightened of the unknown‘. In secret she opens the box and she and her colleagues marvel at the culture contained within, claiming that ‘There is nothing dangerous about these things‘. However within minutes the time-sealed bacteria has ravaged their bodies and killed them.
Thoughts: Mike Cruden repeats the ‘gruesome’ final panel trick of FS 43 hinting that the astounding rotting corpse by Belardinelli had been a big hit with the readers. Mike White, best known as the artist of Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz, turns in a nicely horrific pair of decayed bodies in a final panel which is much the best element of the tale. His first work for 2000AD is marred only by poor layout on the first page that necessitates horrible direction arrows to guide the reader’s eye. Otherwise the strip is well drawn if in a slightly dated orthodox ‘boys comic’ style. Cruden’s strip falls into his series of ‘adults suffering horrific fates’ and while the War Of The World lesson may be clichéd to an adult it probably was pretty eye-opening to a young reader. The strip uses two and a half pages to cram in a lot of elements, from the counter-factual British Prime Minister to the final opening of the capsule and death. Chosing to introduce the main characters on page two is a brave move, leaving page one to be packed full of the alternate history detail but suffering perhaps from a lack of time to establish any character in the various protagonists. Indeed it is only in the fourth panel of the second page that we learn our main protagonist is not only an archaeologist but a very young very pretty Professor. Up until that point the two scientists doing field work resemble more a curious courting couple in a forest, not least because one is seen strumming a Lyre. Maybe it is some sort of high-tech future archaeological kit that just happens to look like a Lyre. Given this lack of characters to invest in, the strip simply turns on the success of the idea and in the context of 1978’s 2000AD it may not be original but it is effectively deployed by the image of the rotting corpses.
Shock’d?: The idea of bacteria from the past / another world destroying an entire species is, of course, a rather well trodden trope in Science Fiction; however for any young reader not yet exposed to it this is a fine little rehash. The Shock is one of the ‘final panel reveals’ that work so well in comics and Mike White’s drawing does the story proud.
PROG: 89 – CHILDS PLAY
Script: Mike Cruden
Art: Trevor Goring
Letters: Steve Potter
Plot: Johnny and his parents are out on a day-trip and he has completed a circular ‘building’ with his ‘building bricks’. As his mother rests by a large stone formation his father demands he hurry up so they can get off home. Johnny is pleased with his effort which his parents praise as ‘unusual’ and ‘imaginative’.
Shock: Johnny’s imagination will continue to attract interest years in the future as he has constructed none other than Stonehenge
Thoughts: A real disappointment of a Future Shock from two talents who had previously produced excellent tales. Cruden’s story is a less interesting re-hash of FS 11 with building bricks / Stonehenge replacing The Moon / Billiard Ball as the object of ‘the problem of scale’ scenario. Cruden’s strip, which once again places a young subject the age of the readership at the core of the tale, has a tough time of convincing that the stones of Stonehenge were once ‘building bricks’. The family are shown in 60s/70s clothing so large lumps of stone seem a curious childs toy for such an ‘advanced’ civilization. However while the script is barely re-fried seconds the art really jars and ensures this is a story to be forgotten. Trevor Goring’s final appearance on art chores in a Future Shock is a real let down, the various family members all appear static and light-boxed from photo-reference; the mother in particular straight from a 70’s Freemans catalogue. Even more frustrating their positions relative to each other continually changes from panel to panel in contrast to the flow indicated by their dialogue. A final oddity is that in one panel the mother seems pressed, in fashion-faux ecstasy, up against a giant rock face.. therefore one that is presumably 100s of miles higher than the tiny ‘Stonehenge’ being built at her feet. Strangely his granite mountain doesn’t appear to have survived to 1978’s Salisbury Plain while some tiny ‘building blocks’ have. Given how excellent his other two strips were the art here must have been down to some external factor such as time pressure or toying with a new technique. Those wishing to see just how good a 2000AD artist Trevor Goring could have been should look to his previous two Future Shocks.
Shock’d?: Cruden’s regular focusing on characters of the same profile as the reader may have engaged the then readership with the story and delighted with the ‘shock’ but to a contemporary audience the whole family are dull, lacking character and frankly boring. That the son builds Stonehenge is mildly amusing at best but, like the whole of the strip, poorly executed compared to both FS 11 and it’s subsequent third rehash (Dominoes / Stonehenge) in Prog 371’s The Domino Theory.