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Posts Tagged ‘Massimo Belardinelli’

Now here’s a name the like of which they don’t coin any more: Black Hawk the Intergalactic Gladiator. As Grant Morrison observed of the Justice League of America‘s chosen monicker – simple, direct, not afraid to be laughed at. Quite why the publishers of the book which bears this forthright soubriquet didn’t just go for the less-sniggerworthy Black Hawk I don’t know, but I suspect it may have something to do with legal issues and a DC-published character with a very similar name.

Anyway, the publication of the collected Black Hawk gives modern readers the chance to discover, or reacquaint themselves with, a character with one of the weirdest histories in UK comics, especially given that he was only in publication for about a year – initially in the shortlived Tornado, subsequently in the legendary 2000AD. Here the character was handled by creators of the calibre of Alan Grant and Massimo Belardinelli, and it’s probably their names that are the big attraction of this collected edition.

The cover of the actual book isn't by Belardinelli. So here's a cover that is!

That unwieldy title is potentially misleading as any intergalactic gladiating is limited to the middle section of Black Hawk’s career: when this strip was launched it was as a strictly historical affair, with perhaps the tiniest smidgeon of fantasy chucked into season it. The opening installment tells of a Nubian warrior, taken prisoner by the legions of Rome, whose martial pride and self-respect are restored after seeing a black desert hawk defeat a Roman eagle. Later, when pirates attack their ship, the Nubian saves the life of a senior Roman official who grants him his freedom and gives him a job commanding an auxiliary regiment. The Nubian adopts the black hawk both as his symbol and his name. (All this happens in just the first episode: none of this decompressed storytelling for IPC in the late 70s.)

What follows is solidly put-together fare, if very formulaic: Black Hawk and his soldiers get packed off on various apparently-suicidal missions to various parts of the Empire, which they invariably succeed at due to martial skill, personal courage, and the assistance of the hawk itself. There are various recurring enemies who Black Hawk never seriously bothers trying to kill, not much in the way of characterisation, and not really very much to make it distinctive beyond some reasonable art by Alfonso Azpiri and the historical setting itself. Even this is amusingly inconsistent – at the start of the first episode the date is given as 50BC, which changes to 50AD very soon after, and finally mutates into a much less specific ‘in the time of Rome’ – which is just as well as Black Hawk finds himself mixed up in the Iceni rebellion of 61AD for a long tranche of stories!

And then the weirdness starts. Tornado‘s sales weren’t strong enough to support the comic and it folded in 1979, but as was standard in the industry at the time, successful stories were transplanted into another comic in the hope that whatever readership they had attracted would follow them to their new home. The problem with putting Tornado strips into 2000AD, as Alan Grant points out in his introduction, was that Tornado didn’t have any SF or fantasy quotient and 2000AD was an explicitly SF-themed publication. In the case of Black Hawk, while one story in the Tornado annual had featured a sorcerous druid and werewolves, the main strip had never been more than ambiguous about any otherworldly happenings taking place.

So it must have come as a hell of a wrench to established readers when, in the final issue of Tornado, Black Hawk is given a strange prophecy which tells him his life is about to change forever, and then disappears amidst a funny glow in the last panels. Could it be that some Intergalactic Gladiating is on the cards for our boy?

Well, er, yes. Blackhawk (as he is known following the change of venue, though the strip is still technically called Black Hawk) has been teleported onto the ship of some passing aliens known as the Entertainers. The Entertainers roam around the galaxy putting on gladiatorial shows using various fighters from different planets, and Blackhawk (though not his black hawk, which has been left behind on Earth) has just been conscripted to join their number. As reformattings of ongoing series go, this must be one of the most extreme ever. I’ve often wondered about the possibilities of this kind of radical mid-game genre switch – whether it’s genuinely a good idea, if it messes with the audience’s expectations too much. Many times people play it safe – Predator, for example, opens with a shot of an alien ship heading towards Earth, presumably just so that it’s not too much of a shock when a ray-gun-toting invisible alien pops up in what until that point has really been a gritty war movie. I suppose it’s not unlike musical theory – the first note you play establishes the key of a piece of music, which in turn limits which other notes you’re ‘allowed’ to use in the rest of the piece.

That’s certainly the view taken by my former creative writing coach, who – when not busy persuading me that creative writing might not be such a good outlet for my energies after all – made it very clear that the opening of a story has to make it clear to the audience exactly what kind of story it’s going to be. You can pull surprises on audiences, but not the extent of having horrific aliens invade out of a blue sky midway through The Great Gatsby. Hence the slow but fairly obvious build-up in the zombie presence in Shaun of the Dead, I suppose. On the other hand, the movie version of Psycho – completely unlike the novel on which it’s based – gives no hint it’s arguably a horror movie throughout its first act, and the same is in some ways true of From Dusk Till Dawn.

Either way the original creators of Black Hawk can be excused as they had no idea of the direction the story would ultimately take (and weren’t actually involved in it anyway). Writer Gerry Finley-Day and Azpiri were replaced by a pseudonymical Alan Grant and the Italian maestro Massimo Belardinelli, without too much of a wrench – although the actual continuity of the transition, storywise, is far from perfect. It doesn’t really matter as the strip launches into a bold and imaginative new direction, in which, er, Blackhawk fights a new alien monster every couple of episodes, complains about the monstrous cruelty and heartlessness of his masters on an equally regular basis, vows to throw off his chains and regain his freedom, and never actually appears to do much to this end. This is pretty thin stuff redeemed only by Belardinelli’s matchlessly weird and detailed artwork. It seems that of all the old 2000AD strips I’ve ever wanted to read again – or read for the first time in a few cases – Massimo Belardinelli had a hand in most of them: Flesh, Ace Trucking Co., Meltdown Man, and now Black Hawk. As I say, throughout the gladiatorial stint of Blackhawk’s career it’s only the art that keeps it readable.

All good things must come to an end, but – luckily – tediously mediocre ones too. Kicking the weirdness quotient up by another factor of ten, space pirates attack the starship of Blackhawk’s masters and kill them – is this our boy’s chance to be free at last? Er, no: Blackhawk and some alien buddies leave the wreckage in a lifepod, which is promptly sucked into a black hole. Barely credibly, Blackhawk has bigger problems, just having had his soul sucked out by an alien monster (a particularly brilliant and obscene Belardinelli creation).

As fate would have it, within the black hole is a planet, ruled by a demonic creature known as the Great Beast: he knows where Blackhawk’s soul has ended up but will only tell him where it is if he takes on various violent and bloodthirsty challenges. As you may have perceived, what started out as a straightforward historical action strip has now transmuted from space opera into pretty-much full-on sword and sorcery (collapsing physical laws inside the black hole allow for various pseudo-magical plot devices and similar tropes, although I’m not sure how this explains Blackhawk ending up with a distinctly Stormbringer-esque magic sword). The byline for the strip now changes to ‘Warrior in search of his soul!’ to reflect the change of focus, too.

Well, the stories are a bit more interesting now, at least – and Belardinelli can really let rip with peculiar landscapes and creatures – but one definitely gets the sense of a writer scrabbling around for ideas to keep the whole enterprise going, especially once Blackhawk disposes of the Great Beast. Things finally resolve themselves as Blackhawk tracks down the soul-sucking monster and, after a very striking sequence of panels that recaps and openly acknowledges what a bizarre odyssey he’s been on, throws himself into battle with a genuinely moving declaration that ‘…if my destiny is to die, then I embrace death as a free man!’

Needless to say Blackhawk’s magic sword wins the day – but then an immense ‘gravity storm’ breaks the planet apart and Blackhawk and his companions are sucked into the heart of the black hole, to wink out of existence forever. There’s a vague suggestion that they may somehow survive, but this option was never exercised – a later Belardinelli-drawn strip visits the ‘DEAD’ drawer of the 2000AD editor’s filing cabinet, wherein Blackhawk is to be found grumbling about the long gap between appearances. The ending of Blackhawk’s 2000AD career – dissolving into a funny glow while giving a valedictory speech to his comrades – rather neatly echoes the way he finished his stint in Tornado, but the ending does seem inescapably arbitrary and contrived.

The collected edition nevertheless does a handsome job of pulling together virtually all the Blackhawk material ever published. Black Hawk may have been one of the premier strips in Tornado, but by the standards of 2000AD of the same period it is rather undistinguished (which is probably why the former flopped while the latter endures to this day). The sheer novelty value of the wild shifts in tone give it a certain interest even if most of the individual scripts are mediocre, and there’s always Belardinelli’s wonderful artwork to marvel at. That at least will stand the test of time.

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As someone who’s had an unhealthy interest in prehistoric beasties for over thirty years, there seemed to be something almost providential in the BBC launching its latest CGI extravaganza epic within days of the release of the collected edition of the Flesh strips from 2000AD. Both bulge at the seams with dinosaurs and their ilk, and while the TV show was a lot more respectable and aspired to educate, Flesh is concerned with nothing more than disreputable thrills and is generally a lot more fun.

Flesh surely owes some sort of debt to the movie Valley of Gwangi in that both originated from what’s essentially the same pitch: cowboys versus dinosaurs! But rather than being a lost world story, Flesh ups the SF quotient by sending the humans back to the Cretaceous to take on the dinos on their own turf. They’re there to ranch the herbivorous dinosaurs so they can be slaughtered and their meat transported to the 23rd century (where all the indigenous food animals have been wiped out). Not only is this threatening the dinosaurs with extinction, it’s removing the food supply of the local predators, who waste no time in supplementing their diets with human flesh…

Creator Pat Mills describes Flesh as ‘a metaphorical story whose symbolism could apply to any number of scenarios’, which probably makes it sound grander than it really deserves. The backers of this venture into time-travelling butchery are venal and gluttonous caricatures, the supposed protagonists are wafer-thin cutouts, and the wider ethics and ramifications of the concept are not really explored. (A prescient touch of allegory, given that this strip first appeared in 1977, is that the cowboy in charge of the doomed venture is named Reagan.) It’s very clear from early on that the writers are just itching to get to the scenes of the capitalist exploiters of the downtrodden dinos getting their gory just desserts.

There is always something odd about a story where the villain is the most vivid and memorable character, and for ‘odd’ you can substitute ‘extremely weird indeed’ when that villain is an ageing female tyrannosaurus rex. This is Old One Eye, the ‘hag queen’ of her species who’s gone on to achieve a certain legendary status both in her own right and as matriarch of a dynasty of tyrannosaur miscreants causing trouble in other 2000AD strips (a clone of her son once nearly ate Judge Dredd, for instance). Old One Eye doesn’t get any dialogue, obviously, but we are permitted access to the workings of her mind through a series of feverishly intense captions that do a lot to create the atmosphere of the story.

To be honest, well before the end, Book One of Flesh has abandoned both the cowboys-vs-dinosaurs motif and most of its narrative coherence in favour of lurid horror and gleeful carnage – tyrannosaurs and deinonynchii besieging the time-travelling interlopers I can buy, but with the appearance on the scene of giant spiders it’s difficult to shake the impression it’s all getting a bit silly and overblown. The conclusion of the series is also slightly off-kilter – there’s one very short episode to wrap up the main plot followed by an off-at-a-tangent epilogue, for one thing, but more seriously the story either loses the courage of its convictions or gets severely muzzled by the censors of the day – anyone expecting the promise of the series to be delivered by the main characters getting gobbled up by the carnosaurs is in for a disappointment.

Book Two basically reruns the whole story in a different setting (the Triassic), with a different focus (this time the corporation is fishing, not ranching), a different chief monster (Big Hungry the nothosaur is an inferior replacement for Old One Eye) and no giant spiders (there are giant sea-scorpions instead – looking on the bright side, these actually existed, but the repetition of the plot is surely unforgiveable). The human characters are even blander and more forgettable this time round – a nuisance-villain from Book One reappears alongside a total cipher of a hero, but they’re all just there to go through the motions.

Book Two is redeemed, however, by the stunning art of Italian creator Massimo Belardinelli, whose work graced numerous classic 2000AD stories. Belardinelli’s linework and attention to grotesque detail are a marvel to behold and with his departure two episodes before the end Flesh Book Two goes rapidly to bits.

Had this collected edition limited itself to this vintage material (plus a couple of utterly dispensible supporting strips from annuals and summer specials) it would have been a fun, nostalgic purchase. However the page-count has been boosted by the inclusion of a significant quantity of more recent material. If this meant it was the complete Flesh, that’d be great too – but it isn’t. Mills’ work on the strip from the 90s, along with Dan Abnett’s version, don’t make it into the book.

Instead we get ten episodes of ‘Texas’, what appears to be a close sequel to Book One, superficially taking it back to its conceptual roots. But I use the word ‘superficially’ with precision. It seems to me that the original Flesh is fundamentally about two things – the visual hook of the cowboys-vs-dinos imagery, and the conceptual hook of it being a horror strip about exaggeratedly unpleasant caricature characters being eaten alive by prehistoric monsters – very straightforward exploitation material.

It’s not that ‘Texas’ doesn’t look okay – although James Mackay’s artwork, despite its up-to-date depiction of Cretaceous fauna, is a bit too raw-looking to really be my cup of tea – or that it doesn’t have ideas. It just doesn’t have focus. There’s a new tyrannosaur villain whose exposure to time radiation gives him all sorts of special powers (this is basically a plot device for the benefit of readers troubled by the realisation that ‘normal’ dinosaurs wouldn’t actually be that hard to kill using modern weaponry), some stuff about environmental activism, some lazy stereotyping of religious fundamentalists, a bit of comic book feminism (i.e. you can shoot things and beat people up and still have really attractive breasts), and some satire of people dependent on anti-depressants… all of this stuff is slapped together seemingly at the whim of the writer with no particular point in mind.

Of course, it may all be going somewhere really clever, but there’s no way of knowing from this collection as the ‘Texas’ storyline isn’t concluded. It ends on a fairly muted cliffhanger which didn’t leave me particularly wanting to see what happened next. Mills is obviously aware that 2000AD’s core readership is much older than it used to be, and seems to be trying to make the stories more sophisticated as a result. Whether the dilettante ramble of ‘Texas’ counts as sophisticated I don’t know, but I’m not sure it’s what the audience actually wants even if it is.

Or, to put it another way – the original Flesh is a story which is very difficult to take seriously, which functions on the most lurid and obvious level, which frequently makes virtually no sense at all, and which doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a visually quirky horror strip about dinosaurs. And it’s vivid and involving, and a lot of fun.

The most recent incarnation, on the other hand, bends over backwards to be plausible and character-driven and do sophisticated satire about a range of different topics. It tries so hard to be worth taking seriously that it forgets that it’s a comic strip about cowboys fighting dinosaurs, and being taken seriously probably shouldn’t be an essential part of the game plan anyway. In the end you come away not sure what any of it was really about, nor much caring.

An appropriately-priced reprint of Books One and Two would be a good buy for anyone who enjoys vintage 2000AD strips: the excesses of the story in One and the art in Two should guarantee that. Including ‘Texas’, especially in its incomplete form, and bumping up the price accordingly, makes me hesitate before really recommending this collection to anyone – except on the grounds that the first two thirds of it show what was so great about the early years of 2000AD, and last third demonstrates some of the problems that the comic tends to have today.

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