Wednesday, 7 October 2015

BEYOND OINK! #9: HAVOC

First up, this is the 150th post on here.  I know this is but a drop in the ocean for some blogs but seeing as how this started out as a little fun thing to do and I wasn't even convinced my attention span (which has let me down in the past) would last a year it's quite something.  I do try to put my heart and soul into each and every one and I do hope that comes across.  Fitting them around a full-time job also means they can take a few days each, so reaching this milestone and with the feedback I've received is a big deal for me, so thanks to you all for reading.

<< GO TO PART EIGHT: TEENAGE MUTANT HERO TURTLES ADVENTURES

Now back to the post proper and another very sadly short-lived comic, this time from Marvel UK and co-edited by John Freeman (alongside Harry Papadopoulos) who runs the Down the Tubes website and who asked me to review a certain 2000AD documentary recently which you can read here.  John has been great in helping me identify some of the artists in previous comics in this series and I also featured his hilarious work in the post for The Real Ghostbusters (which Harry also wrote for) with a text story he contributed to that fondly remembered title.  He's been very gracious and answered a few questions I had about this comic and his insights are scattered throughout this post.  Thanks again John.

So, the comic.  Maybe forgotten amongst many but once again fondly remembered by myself is Havoc, a weekly anthology comic featuring five action-packed strips which were strong on character and intriguing storytelling.  I was only thirteen when I happened across this brand new comic on my weekly excursion to the newsagents to see if anything popped out at me.  It was like finding the holy grail coming across a #1 and Havoc jumped out at me due to three key things, the first two being that eye-catching logo and the powerful cover:


The other was RoboCop but we'll get to him further down the post.

The cover above isn't completely indicative of what I saw when the comic caught my eye though as a free gift of a small 16-page introductory booklet was attached.  The front of this blacked out part of the main cover while maintaining the figure of the main protagonist, which was a clever and very striking way of presenting it.  I was pulled in to picking it up but flicking the first half of the booklet aside the full cover then leapt off the page and I had to have a look through the rest of this bold new comic.

What surprises me now is how the title and its monthly sister publication Meltdown were seen by its publishers.  As John explains, "When Paul Neary became Editorial Director at Marvel UK it was with the specific remit to expand the company's originated content, especially Stateside.  Paul spent some time developing the 'Marvel Genesis' project that kicked off with the first Death's Head II limited series by Dan Abnett and Liam Sharp.  Meanwhile, he also had to look at projects for the UK market to compliment existing titles and Marvel UK had a huge number, from nursery to teen, but had lost some when the company's Managing Director Robert Sutherland finally made a complete break from Marvel UK taking titles with him to Regan Publishing, which for some bizarre reason had been permitted to piggy back on Marvel UK's infrastructure for some time."

Meltdown promo on the
back of the free booklet

So with the British arm expanding its range to sell more titles in America there was a need for new ones to go with them over here too.  The main title in this assault would be Overkill, a new anthology comic with all brand new material from British creators but it'd take a while to organise so in the meantime something was needed to fill the gap.  With a mix of both licensed and original strips, all previously published in the US but never here, the two sister titles were released.  It's quite sad to hear one of my favourite comics, which I had so much hope for when it began, was seen as a stop-gap but that was the way of things at the time with Marvel UK trying to broaden its horizons and playing the long game.

John continues, "[Paul] had to be seen to be creating some new titles and that's where Havoc and Meltdown came in.  They were stop-gaps while he got the new books together, to show US bosses like Jim Galton and new Marvel UK MD Vincent Conran he was doing something."

Harsh to a fan who was left wanting when the comic abruptly ended, but fair when you take the big picture into account.  The comparison to the House of Tharg wasn't lost on me as what I saw was reminiscent of the aforementioned 2000AD but it seemed like so much more, with strips that seemed to my young mind as much bolder and more interesting to me at first glance.  The inclusion of a big licence like Mr Murphy in his robotic suit (and Conan the Barbarian too of course) also made it stand out and so I bought the first issue to try it out.  The booklet gave a great little introduction to the idea behind the comic and to each of the featured strips:



36 full-colour pages at only 55p was a bargain, especially seeing as how The Transformers had been the same price a whole two years previously and only two-thirds the size.  Add in the booklet and it seemed there was a good meaty read to get my teeth into if I enjoyed it all.  You see the thing was I really bought it for RoboCop and the main character on the cover seemed like fun, but the rest of it I had no expectations for.  I didn't think they looked boring or anything, I'd just never heard of any of them before and I'd never seen the Conan films either.  But the draw of Robo' and this new Deathlok character was enough to make me part with my pocket money to give it a shot.

A new comic was always exciting!

DEATHLOK


Well it appears Deathlok wasn't as 'new' as I'd thought at the time and had actually first appeared as far back as 1974 when his creators Rich Buckler and Doug Moench brought him to the pages of Astonishing Tales.  In 1990 the long-forgotten character was resurrected by the creative team of Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright and Jackson Guice, this time for his own American comic series and it's these stories Havoc was bringing across the water to us in the UK.

The first issue had a 8-page strip entitled Test Run which saw the Deathlok cyborg kill its human brain, which had belonged to one Colonel Kelly, when it computed he was holding it back from completing its mission.  Then from #2 we were treated to the ongoing serial (and an interesting interview with the creative team) and we met Michael Collins, a pacifist professor working for a corrupt oil company which was developing the Deathlok programme for their own interests overseas.  When Collins learns of the project he's sedated and his brain injected into the machine, which is only meant to need this human organ as a means of processing the huge amounts of data it comes into contact with out in the field.  Needless to say things aren't that simple for the company.

Below are three pages from the Test Run strip showcasing how the computer and brain were meant to interact with one another before things took a rather large turn for the worse.  It's written and drawn by the creative team mentioned above, with letters by Starkings:


The oil company treats this as a minor setback in the end and goes on the hunt for a suitable donor.  In #2 of Havoc we met Collins and while this part of the strip was much lighter on the violence quota I found it fascinating at my young age to read a comic which spent just as much time developing the characters as it did the storyline and action.  Here we meet our hero for the first time in a regular family setting for example.  To a thirteen-year-old used to comics which, while they had great characters, never dealt with them in such a fashion it felt very mature and grown-up for me.  Of course I'm used to it now, but this was all new to me at the time.  Havoc was certainly an education in how comics could tell their stories in such a varied way:


Collins would end up becoming conscious while on his first mission and was able to battle to take control of the computer.  Of course, the machine still wanted to carry on with its missions in the way it felt was the most efficient and it was up to its new brain to teach it about alternatives, about being human and how not killing could be of more use.  There were some brilliantly funny exchanges between the two in the final few issues of the comic and reading the interview in #2 now as an adult there's something very 'Michael and K.I.T.T.' about the intentions of the creative team, so I really must track down the full run of the American title as that aspect was great fun for me and I'd love to see how it developed.

I'd come to the comic mainly for the other cyborg strip but I'd decided to read the comic from front-to-back instead of diving into the movie-based story and Deathlok had me hooked before I even clapped eyes on...

ROBOCOP

I remember when the first movie came out on VHS my sister and her boyfriend rented it out and convinced my mum I'd love it, while warning her of the violence and bad language.  She said she'd watch it with us (in fact the whole family sat down to watch it together) and I had to agree that if she said so, it would have to be turned off.  Her shock at the above elements soon subsided though and while she was just doing the right thing with me being a lot younger than the certificate, she ended up really loving the story!

I adored it.  I knew there was also a cartoon but I never bothered with it as I didn't understand how an adult movie would make a good cartoon for kids, but I was eager to read the monthly American comics.  However they didn't get released here in their own title which was disappointing, so you can imagine how thrilled I was that I'd get to read them every single week in Havoc now!  (Murph also popped up later as a back-up strip in Marvel UK's Punisher comic.)

The character definitely got the star treatment and this started with the mini-booklet giving him a bit more space and detail on the actual franchise itself:


Of course we can look back now and see how the killer franchise did flounder and eventually disappear after a few years but at the time he was the next big thing and as far as readers were concerned he was here to stay.  I really enjoyed the live-action TV series which came about in the mid-90s and remember my mum and I sitting down together to watch it every week when we first had satellite TV installed.  Something the series brought back which the movie sequels lacked was the comedy and social commentary and I really enjoyed this aspect of the comic, especially the newscasts:


Released in 1990 in the States the RoboCop comic ran for an impressive 23 months in the end, with the stories seemingly set between the second and third movies and they certainly played up to the futuristic setting.  In fact they may have gone too far in that regard, with hover bikes and the like featuring even in this first part of the premiere story, which jarred with the movie's 'near future' setting and how it kept things grounded in reality, despite the over-the-top nature of the story.

But character was always at the centre of RoboCop and the comic took this from the first movie and expanded on it superbly, showing an Alex Murphy in eternal conflict with his situation, and preserving his family's safety while never being able to tell them who he really is.  The TV series (and the superb reboot movie a year or two ago) carried this strong sense of characterisation forward and I'll readily admit I shed a tear as a teen at that final episode of the TV show when his dad worked it all out.  I'm straying here, but I've always been a fan of the franchise even though it can drastically leap from one extreme to the other in quality.  But the examples I've mentioned were enough to keep me a fan all these years and it was a superb trip down memory lane to read this strip again after so long.

What I didn't know at the time was the fact some of the very best of British talent were actually behind this imported strip.  Kombat Zone was written by none other than Alan Grant, with Lee Sullivan on art duties (backed up by DeMulder and White) and Starkings on letters and takes on corruption in a wild futuristic contact sport but as ever it was Murphy's own arcs which intrigued me the most.  Below are a few pages from #2's section of the story to illustrate as such:


The American strips would eventually be handed over to Simon Furman to write but unfortunately I've never been able to read his contributions.  But for more of Simon and Lee's work and to see why I was a fan of both of their's as a kid you need look no further than my Transformers post.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN

This one was a surprise when I read the comic the first time around.  I knew of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies but they didn't look like something I'd have enjoyed even if I had been of the right age.  As such I thought the Conan strip would be one I'd either ignore or I'd read it simply to complete each issue, but I definitely wasn't anticipating anything great.  The artwork included in his section of the booklet was impressive though:


Then I got to the strip proper and it was part one of The Frost Giant's Daughter, written by Roy Thomas from the short story by Robert E. Howard (creator of the character) and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith. It was a classic tale in every respect, not only based on an original piece of Conan literature but it was also a story first published in the US by Marvel way back in 1970.  At the time I'd no idea it was an older strip compared to the others, in fact I've only just found out in researching Havoc for this!  Conan was a hugely successful comic book series for Marvel which was far different to anything else they were creating, such as endless superhero titles, and it certainly stood out.

As I said I was initially unimpressed with his inclusion but in keeping with my read-through from start-to-finish (RoboCop was actually the final strip and so the last one I read despite being the main reason I had jumped in at all) I came across this magical, mythical strip and I was transported into a mythos I wish I'd been able to read much more of.

Below is the complete inaugural part of the first (and still only) Conan tale I've ever clapped eyes on to show you what entranced me.  The setting, the speech patterns, the mystery and the adult nature of the storytelling was unlike anything I'd ever read or anything I'd expected from this comic.  It may only be one small section of the overall story but it spoke volumes to me and through his actions I was already beginning to learn a lot about this character who had been completely alien to me previously.

From a necessary evil in order to complete the whole comic to being one of the main reasons I came back for issue two, here's a very young Conan the Barbarian:


As I said it was very different to the usual Marvel fair, but then again that kind of summed up Havoc. Not a single leotard in sight, no goodie-goodies, no two-dimensional baddies and no predictable storytelling.  As John explains, "Paul definitely wanted Havoc to have a 2000AD feel despite being US reprint and aimed for that in the look and choice of strips such as Deathlok, Star Slammers and Conan.  The strips were all Paul's choices but I felt it was a good mix and as a 'dry run' for Overkill it helped us get used to Paul's working methods and the demands a weekly anthology would have."

Now if only Netflix had those Schwarzenegger movies.

While Meltdown included more in the way of features, over in my own weekly anthology Eye Level was the one-page update on everything in the worlds of comics, television and movies the editors felt the readers would be interested in.  #2 also included a separate page for the interview with the Deathlok creators, a giant fold-out poster for the character and the Eye Level focussed solely on the eagerly anticipated at the time Kevin Costner Robin Hood.  But just for some fun, and context for when the comic was released, I've included the premiere issue's entertainment news page below so you can see what we were all talking about in the summer of ol' 1991:


After enjoying Terminator: Genesis only a short month or two ago this page really does pile on the years, doesn't it?  But anyway back to the main attractions, the comic strips, and one which certainly intrigued me from the word go, even if it didn't fully live up to those first four pages.

STAR SLAMMERS

Just like Conan above I was unaware these weren't a new addition to the Marvel line in 1991 and instead the story had been originally published back in 1983 in the US as #6 in the Marvel Graphic Novel series.  The characters wouldn't get their own ongoing comic title until 1995 via another publisher (albeit one purchased by Marvel the previous year), but here in the UK we were to be shown their antics on a weekly basis:


Basically these guys were the galaxy's greatest mercenaries and they knew it.  Commanding extortionate fees they travelled to wherever the wallet was biggest and had no loyalties other than to themselves.

Unlike with other Marvel UK comics such as Transformers, Havoc altered the amount of pages given over to each strip every week as it saw fit.  Transformers had eleven pages for each main strip per issue and so the American ones would get chopped in half at the exact midpoint, whether it was a cliffhanger or not.  With this comic though it was a much more organic process and each strip was stopped at a suitable point to entice the reader back and also to make each small chunk feel like a complete chapter.

But this also meant some would have to be curtailed to fit in, yet it all seemed to work.  So whereas RoboCop and Conan in particular had meaty debuts in the first issue, the Star Slammers only had the four pages all to themselves, but I doubt it was a matter of that being all there was leftover for them and the editors did a great job of balancing the need to finish at an appropriate point for all five comics with the limited space.  It may have been a whopping 36-page weekly comic for us readers, but to fit in five ongoing strips originally designed to come in much larger segments, while giving a satisfying stopping point for each one every time was a feat in itself.  So kudos to the team.

These first four pages were certainly a nice tease for these characters:


Unfortunately the tease ended up being the best part for me personally.  The story developed with political intrigue and double-cross after double-cross and I'm sure for many readers it proved compulsive reading, but for teenage me it lacked development in the main characters, so I didn't really care about what was happening.  I've only got the first two issues nowadays for writing this up and the first two parts aren't exactly changing my mind, but it could be different if I were to read the whole story now of course.

I could see how it may have been fun for some to read how they outwitted their opponents at every turn, often before whoever was setting them up had even tried to do so; it's certainly something which sounds like it could've been a riot to read and the storyline has much potential.  But the main protagonists left me cold, I didn't care for them and it became a strip I'd read desperately wanting to get to know them more, but as the twisty-turny plot developed further and became more complex the characters remained two-dimensional.

Such a shame as the story could've been very involving.  Certainly the rest of Havoc was so rich, so full of character and depth, even in such short bursts and another great example of this is the final strip.  Again this was the first time I'd ever heard of the character (even though my friends already had) and it was a long time before Nicholas Cage donned the leather.

GHOST RIDER


The introductory booklet gave us new readers insight into what was to come and it's just as well it did, as it'd be the end of #2's strip before we'd see the Ghost Rider himself burst onto our pages and even then only on the last full-page spread.  We wouldn't see him in action until the third issue but knowing what this character looked like was enough to excite me into looking forward to the next week.

To set the scene, #1's part tells of how Dan (Daniel Ketch) and his sister Barb are set upon by a gang in a graveyard in the dead of night, after Dan has promised his older sister he'd take her to see Houdini's gravesite on Halloween Eve.  After the gang run off Dan and Barb hear a gunshot and a scream and follow the gang, thinking they're the perpetrators.  However they see the hooligans cowering in the undergrowth looking over a scene involving a masked man called Deathwatch facing down three of the Kingpin's goons.  A gun battle ensues and when Deathwatch breaks the neck of one of the men Barb screams out, giving their presence away and she's shot by crossbow.

This is how part one ends.  There's no indication of how Dan becomes the Ghost Rider, though we do know he does and it's all very serious and violent; it was like catnip for a teenage boy!  I was intrigued straight away and loved the tone and slow build-up, knowing what character was being put into place one step at a time.  You can imagine my excitement at being handed this next issue the following week by my newsagent (I'd already placed a regular order):


Each issue would feature a different character on the cover with the strip name below the Havoc title.  I dove straight into the Ghost Rider strip first and wasn't to be left disappointed!

Below are the final pages of part two of Life's Blood written by Howard Mackie, with art by Javier Saltares, Mark Texeira and Gregory Wright and lettering by Michael Heisler.  With his identity compromised, the Deathwatch sets his men out to kill Dan, who is carrying his injured sister into the nearby scrapyard where he comes across something... strange:


At last!  Turning the page to be met by that final image was breathtaking and again I was left gagging for the next part of Ghost Rider, not only eager to see how he'd dispatch of the men responsible for shooting his sister, but also to find out more about the character and the story behind him.  Researching this week I discovered the reason the movies tell such a different story is because they're based on the original supernatural Ghost Rider (though there was a Western one before that) and Dan's strip was a 1990s sequel.  The motorbike above had been possessed by a Spirit of Vengeance (sound familiar?) and the series would continue to explore links to the previous character, but to me he was the original as I'd never heard of the comic before this.

Unfortunately I wasn't to see how those links or the character would develop.

EARLY ENDINGS (AGAIN)

It was so exciting to see the origins of both Ghost Rider and Deathlok and I was certainly locked in as a reader now and knew I'd found a brand new comic I'd stick with for a long time.  I was already a huge fan and as the weeks rolled on I became more and more engrossed in the worlds of these characters, but then #10 didn't appear on Saturday morning as per usual.  I thought it was running late, but as the days of the week came and went it still didn't arrive.  Actually, it was never to arrive.

Back to John; "I'm not sure what the sales on Havoc and Meltdown were now, but they weren't by any means great.  As I said though, both were in some ways stop-gap titles while Paul planned his real salvo of both US format comics and a UK format anthology (Overkill).  That said, they weren't doomed to fail but their success wasn't necessarily seen as vital.  I just think Paul [only] saw Overkill, which was trailed in the last issue of Meltdown (albeit still unnamed), along with the Genesis project.  It was a shame Havoc was simply cancelled without warning, but internally at Marvel UK it served a purpose as 'proof of concept' if not content.  It certainly wasn't the first MUK title to be hatched and dispatched without warning down the years.  Both titles helped lay the groundwork editorially for the real project, so although they were short-lived they helped the company's approach to what Paul saw as the real prize."

Again, it's quite disheartening to hear how one of my very favourite comics of my youth, which I felt had such potential (I was also keen to see what other strips would be included in the future) and to which I was already devoted, was seen by Marvel UK and such a shame it only lasted two short months.  But for those nine weeks it was a pleasure to read and a hugely enjoyable experience.

Now if only the next comic my young self would begin collecting could last a bit longer than some of the ones I'd chosen before!

NEXT TIME

I'd nothing to worry about when just a couple of months later another brand new comic appeared and this time it was back to Fleetway once again.  Thankfully this time it was a huge success and I was happily able to collect it for nearly two years before I moved on.  But what kids' comic could contain such technical detail as below and keep us gripped from one fortnight to the next?:


Find out in a fortnight!

11 comments:

Grover said...

transformers?

KlownKrusty said...

I liked Havoc, despite having already read 2/3rds of the material before.

However, crucially, for me at least, the effect of Paul Neary's "proof of concept" thinking was that I'd become increasingly wary of Marvel UK titles, because the axe was never far away and readers were treated as insignificant--see also the way Overkill dropped strips (Pendragon) mid-flow, readers be damned! As such, this was the last UK title I followed with gusto--I even got a letter in one of the latter issues--and I remember being irked that it was cancelled without warning with only one episode (about 5 pages?) of Star Slammers left to run. A wrap-up issue would have ensured reader loyalty and built excitement for the next release, something Marvel had always handled so well up until this era.

Paul said...

I have very fond memories of collecting Havoc, my local newsagent didn't stock it, but back then I'd spend my weekends trawling all newsagents in walking distance of my house to find ccomics. Havoc was a particularly exciting find! I'd already read some of the Robocop strips in the US title, but the rest was all-new. I also bought Meltdown, which IIRC ran a Nightbreed strip, which was the most disturbing thing I'd ever read in a comic at that point.

I wish Havoc had stuck around. I did collect Overkill briefly, but at the time I wasn't interested in a Marvel UK version of 2000 AD, I was more intrigued by "exotic"US strips, of course, nowadays I'd kill for something like Overkill!

Phil Boyce said...

I was increasingly tired of the comics I fell in love with being cancelled too, KlownKrusty. In fact it could account for the fact I didn't collect many more, actually after the next one it'd be a couple of years before I started collecting my next (and final) childhood comic.

Phil Boyce said...

Strange thing is I'd no interest in 2000AD at the time, it seemed almost tame compared to Havoc. How wrong was I! Big fan of it now and reading back I missed some great comics.

Phil Boyce said...

Nope Grover, not Transformers. They've actually already been covered, if you go to the August posts in the Whole Hog section on the top left of the blog you'll find them.

John Pitt said...

No wonder I couldn't work out what this post would be - I never actually saw a copy of Havoc. I would have bought it, had I seen one.
Now I am equally as baffled what the next post is going to be!

Phil Boyce said...

I'd even thrown you a hint in my reply on the Turtles post ;)

Yes the very technical snippet does seem to have thrown people, many may be surprised when they find out what it is!

John Pitt said...

Ha ha! Doh! How dumb am I? So you did, you old tease, you!

Phil Boyce said...

Couldn't resist!

James Spiring said...

Thunderbirds?