Ian Kennedy brings the goods this issue straight off the bat! Setting the atmosphere perfectly for this far out, dangerous mission, for the terrifying adventure into unknown, deep space. It actually refers to the Wildcat Complete tale this issue, the final strip in the comic which we'll get to below, but I just had to linger a little on this before we open up the fourth edition of editor Barrie Tomlinson's creation. This fortnight we've got man vs dinosaur, alien vs murderous plants, woman vs robotic tribesmen, man vs crazed newt and spacecraft vs vampire monster.
So, a busy issue then.
We'll start off as we always do with Turbo Jones. After that cover, the first panel on page two is no less intimidating. Turbo has decided he's going to tame the untameable Terrosauron and over the course of the first couple of pages the huge beast underestimates the tiny little man time and again. Using his small weapons in clever ways, Turbo manages to outsmart his opponent and soon he and his army are playing war games in preparation for the real battle.
Last time, the 'Next Issue' page left a little to be desired but the pay off for the Arglons' Great Ark and the Council of Elders is superb. A row of skeletal men, led by the Ark himself bark orders at their minions for their final battle with the Burroids. Some close up angles of the Ark show what looks like mechanics behind his jaw. Could it be they're all dead? Is this going to be leading up to a Wizard of Oz-type reveal later in the series? Or are these zombie-like leaders still alive and the answer is even more disturbing?
From here the story cleverly flips back and forth between Turbo and his army training, and the Arglons using giant Mantis-like creatures to dig a tunnel right underneath their enemy's stronghold and straight to their capital city. There are no captions to highlight the flip-flopping back and forth between the two scenes, giving the young readership the credit to follow along. As such, the tension builds superbly, Vanyo's detailed art giving the reader plenty for their eyes to take in over both scenes, until huge cracks begin to appear on the roads of the city just as the cliffhanger falls for this episode.
Our pin-up jumps from the back page (where a Weetabix Weetos advert now resides, the first full page advert in the comic's run so far) to page seven and this time it's my favourite strip star, Loner and his new found friends, the little fuzzballs themselves. In my head these little balls of fur were a sandy colour but here artist David Pugh has decided that's not the case. More from Loner in a bit.
From our newly coloured star to our regular coloured star, Joe Alien who is still in the grasp of a giant alien tree, his brain pack is in the hands of his teammates and his senses are goodness knows where. That quite horrific ending last time is literally washed away with a quick douse in a nearby pool of water, which luckily (as stated by one of the team) seems pretty normal for once. That is, until some form of seaweed starts to crawl out of the water and wrap itself around their limbs. Easily able to break free, they're still at a loss over Joe himself, precariously help up in the air, unable to even think for himself never mind free himself.
To me, it looks like this tree could be planning on using Joe to communicate, but his team obviously don't agree. Their solution? Blow it up, of course. But as it falls to the ground a piercing scream comes from within its body, a blood-curdling cry of pain. It seems the deadly silent killers aren't so silent after all. His brain pack clicked back into place, Joe has had enough and orders them all to quickly retreat back to their shuttle and return to the Wildcat. Simply put, this is no place for them to plant their feet (boom) and put roots down (boom, boom) but on their way back they hear someone crying for help from down a deep hole in the ground. We'll get back to their predicament in another five pages, but first it's Kitten Magee's turn to take centre stage.
Her's is a surprising strip this issue and that's quite the understatement. In fact, I really don't know what to make of it. But first things first and we open with Kitten still needing that Life Dust from her pet robot Crud, who seems to give it to her via an opening in her skin beneath her collar (she replaces the collar in the next panel once she looks young again). It's not quite clear in the shadowy forest, maybe in a future issue we'll get some clarification and maybe it's deliberately ambiguous here by José Ortiz. Just like this comic, and indeed this particular story, it just begs more questions to be asked and thus is keeping me hooked.
But you remember those tribesmen that welcomed Kitten and her team after she won the fight with their leader in a show of strength, but then set upon the humans via what appeared to be some kind of psychic link with the floating fat men? Well, it appears it wasn't so much a mental link than simple programming because when it looks like her team are going to be beaten, Kitten has no choice but to open fire, something she's been reluctant to do until now and look what happens when she does.
Robots? Apparently so! But why would the fat men (one of whom gets the name 'Hobos' this issue) go to all the bother of creating realistic tribesmen robots? When the above happens the other machines just stop, as if waiting instructions and it draws the women's attention to Hobos himself floating up in the trees. He flees as he's attacked and sets the robots on a deadly mission to wipe out the humans. They open fire with multiple eye lasers and even take to the air via rockets inside their feet and start to perform kamikaze style exploding suicide strikes!
Where did all this come from? At the time perhaps I would've been thrilled with this sudden change to the situation, but now with decades of hindsight and umpteen such stories across different mediums I found it a bit clichéd. But that's more the fault of passing time rather than the comic itself, which we have to remember was written in 1988. Taking a step back I again wonder why these were created? Maybe it wasn't Hobos' race that did so? Perhaps they hacked them? Or maybe they're sentient robots? Hopefully there'll be some answers next time, although I've a feeling I'll be left waiting for a while longer.
A "Kill-Co Bazooka" is a ludicrously brilliant weapon though.
Back to Joe Alien for the final two pages of his strip, once again beautifully coloured by artist Ron Smith to bring a burst of colour to the centre pages. What they saw down the pit was a two-headed alien which upon first glance I thought was covered in leaves, which set alarm bells ringing. But Joe and his team set about freeing him so I was then convinced those must be feathers instead.
But the final page shows us what's really up and I appear to have been right in the first place, although kudos to the team for making me doubt myself! Seeing a line of huge trees marching up to surround the team is a sight to behold, but that final panel wins the prize for the issue's best twist as the alien suit is ripped open and trees start to climb out.
Very clever trees! Plus, this means they are able to communicate. That scream earlier in the story (above) was a hint, but now we know for certain since they spoke to Joe and his teammates when disguised. While I've enjoyed Joe's strip before now, this cements it as a favourite (just behind Loner) as there's clearly going to be more to it than initially met the eye. I wonder, does this mean I was also right when I guessed it looked like Joe being held up in the tree's branches showed it was going to speak to him or through him? I'm liking the deepening mystery and can't wait for the next part.
There are a couple of interesting nuggets of story information in the Wildcat Time-Warp Data Link pages in response to readers' letters. One asks how many people are on board since the terms "hundreds" and "thousands" have both been used by now and in reply we're told that it was meant to be around 500 (in the preview it was over 700 though) but that it became clear after leaving Earth an enormous amount of stowaways came aboard too. No wonder Barrie isn't concerned about killing so many people off! But interestingly the answer goes on to tell us that, coupled with the animal and plant life, these stowaways have given Wildcat a total weight load far in excess of its original specifications. Will this be a plot point we'll return to?
Something else from the preview issue is queried; the fact we saw plants sway away whenever Kitten walked past them. The comic says the full details of this still aren't available but that Ms Magee has an amazing secret the plants seem to sense. More questions for me! Brilliant! Oh please, please, please may we get some answers before #12. For now though, some developments are in store for Loner.
Begging for the hallucinations inside his mind to stop, Loner agrees to track down the beast the villainous lizard wants him to kill before it kills the "overgrown newt" as Loner calls him, knowing full well that he'll end up his slave for the rest of his life anyway. Making his way into the depths of the caverns with the furry little ball creatures in tow, Loner wonders inwardly how he's going to be successful when all he has is a six-shooter. A voice echoes in his mind, "We can help you" and he's surprised to find that outside of the newt's telepathic range these little critters are intelligent, wish to help and have a backstory for both he and us, as you can read above.
This is the kind of surprising twist I prefer rather than the robots in Kitten and it's interesting to see the fur balls as pets and to be open about the fact that they were. They were happy with their existence and were loved by their owners. Their flesh was also poisonous so they were always safe from being eaten until the lizard showed up. We've seen the mental stability of the lizard (or lack thereof) before and now we know why. Then they lead Loner into a cave which is like his dream holiday location.
There's a catch though. In order to be able to use these his mental abilities need to be expanded like the creators of the weapons. He sits in a special chair and a large device is lowered over his head, the fur balls warning him he'll never be the same again. Before he can jump away the chair is turned on and we're left with him screaming in agony as a warning rings out, "At the end, you will consider yourself quite monstrous!" I couldn't remember anything about this from reading it in 1988, but one look at the Next Issue page brought back this visual at least.
We see a slight softening of Loner this issue. From his legitimate terror at the beginning to his joy at seeing a way out of his predicament and starting to bond, albeit slowly, with who he simply calls "fuzzballs". I love the developments this strip has brought with it every issue. Each five-page chapter adds so much to the overall story, every fortnight takes a big step forward in developing the story and, to a lesser extent for now, our main character. All wrapped up in superlative David Pugh artwork this is pure, unadulterated fun. It's actually hard to believe we're only four issues in and have had only 20 pages of Loner so far! I think of that thick trade paperback graphic novel collecting the entire Loner saga together and I can only imagine what could happen in all of those pages.
Last time, I mentioned how 11 people had already died in the pages of the comic and, although we now know there are more on board than originally thought, the Wildcat Complete on which the cover is based is called Death on Wildcat so I'm assuming the trend is going to continue. This is like living in Mega-City One, but in space surrounded by a vacuum!
Is it just me or has that picture of Wildcat been cut and pasted onto that panel? Look about halfway up its right side where the planet should disappear behind its hull and you can see what I mean. Maybe it wasn't big enough originally and they had to edit the picture when it was too late to get it redrawn? Who knows, but it looks like Enrique Alcatena's work, who returns for the first time since the premiere issue's ghosty story, this time with a Dr Jekyll and Mr Vampire Werewolf tale.
The Duty Commander, John Anderson is getting a bit cocky with the fact no crime has been reported on board for weeks now. Obviously some time has passed since the last issue. Now convinced Wildcat is a safe ship with a complete lack of lawlessness, he may as well be a guest star in the opening scene of Casualty because he's just asking for trouble. The Chief of Security barely has a moment to explain how boredom and the vast emptiness that surrounds them can, and will, have an effect on the human psyche before alarms begin to sound. A murder has been committed.
Already working alongside us, aliens are also part of the crew on the ship, helping us out as we search for a new home. With the comic being set in 2250, it's not beyond the realm of believability that we'd have made contact with some races before now. But now they appear to be the targets of another serial killer. The Chief believes Dr Timothy Lee is to blame, based on nothing more than a hunch because the first killing took place in his lab and he reads "ancient books" about Caesar, Dracula, Alexander the Great, Hitler and even Frankenstein. It's a thin theory so Anderson rejects it. But that doesn't stop the Chief from staking out Lee's lab and seeing the horrible truth, above.
A tussle ensues and the Doctor is subdued before being taken to a handy 'Examination Centre' that can look into the mind of a criminal and show memories of their crimes on a monitor. Simply wanting to be the Master of the Universe (that old chestnut), back on Earth Lee experimented on turning animals into super killing machines. Thinking he could control shifting back and forth between brilliant scientist and expert killing machine, obviously Robert Louis Stevenson wasn't on his reading list. As it turns out the animals back on Earth transformed uncontrollably after they left Earth, ravaging the already terrified population.
It's a simple tale with the main aim being to bring some child-friendly horror to the pages. The most interesting bits for me are the emphasis on just how fragile the peace is aboard the ship and the fact there are aliens already on board. I do hope to find out more about the latter and I'm sure these complete tales will continue to use the former to their storytelling advantage.
That's us for the first of three issues this December. The next one is the Christmas issue with that strange cover I clearly remembered when I recorded my quick video introduction to the comic, and which you can briefly see in the Christmas Preview video too. Be prepared for that cover! Until then, I hope you're all enjoying the start of the season and having three issues of Wildcat is definitely part of my celebrations this year.
The fifth issue of Wildcat will be reviewed right here on Thursday 17th December.