Just. Look. At. That. Cover. I mean, just look at it. David Pugh brings Loner to the cover of Wildcat for the first time in a suitably over-the-top way. The huge Beast he’s currently battling in his strip was a major highlight of the comic’s entire run; its terrifyingly giant mouth and dead eyes have proven unforgettable. It’s also just as exciting to have one of my most fondly remembered characters from any comic finally make the front page.

Inside, just as he did with #6 of Ring Raiders and #6 of Super Naturals, Wildcat’s creator and editor Barrie Tomlinson has decided it’s time to shake the running order up a bit, with the all-female crew and their leader Kitten Magee now the first all-action strip we encounter, written by Barrie’s son James. Still following Hobos, who is pretending to be their ally while leading them into all sorts of danger in an attempt to kill them, they finally make their way out of the jungle to an apparently safe swamp area. But when have you ever known a swamp to be a safe haven?

This horror goes by the name of a Zicker Beast and with Hobos floating high in the air out of harm’s way is Kitten starting to see through their apparent friend? To be fair, she’s been the only one in the team to distrust him so far. In an attempt to save her teammates, Kitten blasts at the monster and as it swipes at her with its giant claw she puts herself in front of its smaller head, only jumping out of the way at the very last moment. I love artist José Ortiz‘s depiction of the beast’s shock and pain at this point.

The resolution to this episode is even more creative. The smaller head is still alive and attempts to eat Doc as she’s trying to recover blood and tissue samples. Kitten kicks the head out of the way and it begins to bounce down the slope towards the swamp, where it appears to have summoned its body back (which had slipped away in defeat). Grabbing Casandra‘s trademark bazooka she blasts the ground underneath the bouncing head, flinging it into the air and straight into the open mouth of its body, which swallows it whole! Predictable this strip is not, and it’s followed up by the next mini-poster, which is of Kitten’s pet robot Crud, making up for his conspicuous absence in the story.

Still is his usual place is David Robinson‘s Joe Alien, his colour pages split as always into 3-page and 2-page chunks. He rescues his team member from a watery death by using his extendible arms but soon finds they’re all going to face trial by a court of trees! The crazy old human man who has assumed the role of God of the continent’s vegetation presides over the telepathic trial. Even’s Joe’s men can sense them talking and arguing but are unable to hear them or take part. The vote ends up split and the old man’s casting vote is to let them all leave in peace. It would seem the tale is at an end, until a tragic accident changes everything.

Fascinated by Joe’s external brain pack the man grabs it, snapping it off Joe’s head and turning him into the gibbering buffoon we last saw back in #3. He’s quickly saved by one of his troopers who snatches it back and replaces it onto Joe’s noggin. But in doing so he’s shoved the old man out of the way, who slips and falls down a hill, banging his head on a rock at the bottom. This is where the story stops while we catch up with Loner, but for the sake of the review we’ll jump ahead to the conclusion on the centre pages, which open up to reveal this spread.

I know I bang on about Ron Smith‘s art every fortnight, but can you blame me? Joe’s pages were always surround by a bright pink panel to make them stand out as the only colour ones in the comic, but Ron has added his own border here too. This, combined with the dynamic panels and the strip reading across the spread rather than as individual pages, makes this a stunning work of art in its own right worthy of some blu-tack and a place on the wall!

The story rockets into top gear here. From Joe realising the trees are going to kill them all and using his extending legs to track down their only hope of escape, to that cliffhanger with a superbly drawn, truly painful expression on his face. I mentioned last time how I was interested in the story with the old man and I was looking forward to seeing where it would lead. I’m disappointed he’s died and the story appears to have refocussed again on the basic action plot we had previous to his introduction. But I’ve learned never to second guess this comic. Plus, even if it has reverted to a more action-based story again, Ron’s art makes it a thrill to read.

Over the last few issues the tension has been ramped up to such a degree that this is a genuinely exciting moment

I made reference to Loner‘s placing in the comic. He’s been moved up the running order to Kitten’s previous position in the middle of the comic and it’s time for the climactic battle with the Beast. There are some lovely atmospheric panels here from artist David Pugh which may be small on the page but pack a big punch in Barrie Tomlinson‘s script. Using his telepathic weaponry on it seems to make it retreat at first, slinking into the shadows. But when it spits acid out of one of its tentacles (previewed on the cover) it’s clear that wasn’t the case at all.

When he’s fried upon again the acid takes out his shoulder armour, leaving him vulnerable. One more blast and he’s dead. Over the last few issues the tension has been ramped up to such a degree that this is a genuinely exciting moment. We’ve had glimpses of the creature, we’ve seen the devastation left in its wake, the bodies in its lair and the minions sent out in advance. Now it’s all or nothing for Loner as he takes aim at its chest, small as it is, seeing it as the only potential weak spot when it’s basically all mouth!

He soon realises this could take hours if he was going to try to beat it down bit by bit and the telepathic nature of the weaponry just won’t allow for that. He’s already exhausted, his mental energy completely drained, his brain fried from the exertion of such a powerful weapon even though it’s only making small dents in his enemy. But he notices it’s slowly sliding itself backwards with every blast. The vast cavernous lair has already been established as having cliffs, jagged rocks and huge spikes sticking out of the ground, so it’s time for some lateral thinking from our former mercenary.

As excellent as this ending is, I do have a bit of a problem with it. In my head this beast was a ginormous snake-like being. I was sure a later pin-up showed this but maybe I was wrong? I checked back over previous issues (because I don’t want to skip ahead) and found a panel from #4 I didn’t share at the time. When the Bellari lizard who sent Loner on this quest was describing what must be done we were shown an image of the Beast and I was right, it had been depicted as a snake (below is a photo of a panel from #4), but for some reason in our current issue it’s more of a massive head.

Maybe it was curled up? Perhaps its natural state is as shown in our current issue but it can extend its body out to form a snake-like shape for reasons we haven’t been privy too. Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out. After these scenes Loner is de-evolved back to his original form and given a headband to block telepathic signals from the lizard, who he dispatches in a couple of panels, thus ending the first chapter in his quest on the new planet.

I was a little disappointed the Bellari was dispatched so easily and surprised the story was wrapped already. The furballs wish him well, telling him the headband has attached itself to his brain and can’t be removed, but will translate all alien languages for him. It’s a very handy piece of equipment for the Wildcat crew to have at their disposal, so off he does to explore more and hopefully make his way back to the ship. I’d thought this story lasted for at least the original 12 issues so I’m excited to see what completely new Loner tale will take its place. I have absolutely no recollection so I eagerly await the next issue in a fortnight’s time.

Turbo Jones is the last of our expedition team leaders we catch up with this issue and things are going from bad to worse, which is par for the course on this planet, let’s face it. The story takes an unexpected turn this time, ending with everything turned around and heading off in a different direction. The Arglons send in a team to place a receiver underneath the collar of Turbo’s giant Terrosauron so they can control it remotely. Normally Robo would detect such signals (as has happened previously) but he decides he’s had enough and stays behind as Turbo leads some of the army out to capture the remaining enemy soldiers trapped within the city.

But as they approach the signal is sent out and he loses control of his dinosaur which begins viciously attacking all of the other creatures. The Burroids‘ leader The Brain (that still hasn’t been explained) assumes Turbo has turned on them, that he’s been biding his time until they were at their weakest. Meanwhile, The Ark has commanded Turbo is not to be killed and so the signal is sent for the Terrosauron to stop its attack. Instead, as Turbo climbs back on, it begins to lead him elsewhere through the night.

What I particularly like here is how, even after almost being killed, it’s clear Turbo has some kind of connection with his creature. While he’s not aware of the receiver or The Ark’s plans he somehow just knows that he’s safe again, that this was out of character for the animal and it’s now over. His affectionate “big fella” in the panel above says it all. He clings on, waiting to see where he’s being taken across the great plains. It’s not explained how they get out of the city after the defensive fences were raised last issue (which does appear to be something of an oversight) but they end up in enemy territory.

This creepy image by Vanyo is the last panel and shows The Ark in all of their skeletal glory, complete with a nice close-up of those mechanics inside the jaw we’ve only seen in smaller images before. While the cliffhanger itself is a good one in its own right, this image raises those questions again of whether The Ark and their council are truly alive or if they’re being controlled by someone or something behind the scenes, Wizard of Oz-style. With Turbo now their captive I’m hoping for some answers soon.

It’s a sudden change in direction for the story and I think it works a treat. There’s only so much we can get as an audience from a constant battle but I also like the fact it hasn’t been wrapped up. It’s still ongoing but with an ill-equipped army now on the defensive. An army that now sees Turbo as a deserter. A story that could’ve easily become repetitive and just an excuse for big battles has cleverly twisted itself and has piqued my interest again.

Jesús Redondo returns again to illustrate The Wildcat Complete: A Perfect Crime?, the latest in our anthology thrillers featuring the Wildcat itself. A crew has been assigned to clean the outer hull of moulds and growths before they become a problem to the ship’s integrity. One member of the team, Stefano, has career ambitions that require rather unorthodox means of promotion; kill off his teammates and by default he’ll be the boss. Seeing off his captain on the first page he’s passed over for his colleague Roderick Serling, which is a particularly brilliant name here!

In previous reviews I’ve mentioned how these stories have often felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone and I can only assume that was Barrie’s intention all along, now that they’ve used a very similar name to that of the show’s creator, Rodman (Rod) Serling. Furious that he’s still not captain, Stefano relishes another opportunity when a deserted alien craft drifts into their area of space and both he and Serling are sent to investigate. Upon arrival they discover an oxygen-rich atmosphere but decayed alien bodies. Concluding it’s a relic from a distant alien war, Stefano sees his chance and kills Serling, reporting back to base that a disease killed the crew, not a battle, and that Serling is sick.

“When your body gases start expandin’ you’re bound to… explode!”

Stefano to the body of Serling

Contacting Wildcat every few hours and falsely reporting how Serling is getting worse until he apparently succumbs to the disease, he dumps the body out of the airlock, telling Wildcat Serling didn’t want his wife and children to see his mutated body. He knows exactly what will happen when the body’s gases start expanding in the vacuum of space, as you’ll see below in the first panel of the last page. But this is when everything backfires in Stefano’s so-called perfect crime in a somewhat timely ending when read today.

An eternal quarantine. Forced isolation for the rest of his life. It makes ten days seem somewhat trivial, doesn’t it? Trapped knowing he either has to serve his time out where he is, surrounded by alien corpses, or admit to what he’s done and possibly face execution, we’re left not knowing which option he’ll choose. I think it’s a very worthy strip for Rod’s name.

We finish the issue with a quick look at the next one featuring a dark, foreboding image from what looks like the Kitten Magee story and a bright and cheerful back page strip from one of those lovely retro Weetabix advertisements from the late 80s.

If there’s one word to sum up this issue it would be “surprising”. I mean this in the best possible way, of course. The shifting about of the contents freshened things up, the strips contained twists and turns and new beginnings and Loner’s in particular has me puzzled as to what’s next. I’ll wait, even though a fortnight can feel like a long time when the next issue is sitting on the shelf in front of me all that time. Needless to say, please join me back here in 14 days as I continue rediscovering this childhood favourite.

Issue eight of Wildcat will be reviewed on Friday 28th January 2022.

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