HAVOC #7: ONE MAN DOWN (CYBORGS UP)

Alex Murphy returns to the cover once more as Havoc #7 set newsagent shelves alight back in 1991. There’s something missing from the wonderful looking cover though and that’s any mention of Conan the Barbarian. As stated in the previous issue the Cimmerian would be taking a break for one week and on the contents page under his banner are simply the words “Back next week”. So why has he been forced out of the issue?

Two of the strips here, namely our title star RoboCop and Star Slammers get more pages apiece, particularly Robo who ends up with more than any strip has been given in any issue so far and this brings his current story to an end after three issues instead of the usual four. Each character would get a different number of pages every issue depending on what was happening in their individual stories, while also taking into account the following chapters, cliffhangers, endings etc, not just the current issue’s contents. 

For example, on the letters page this week the replacement for Star Slammers in #11 is mentioned. Swapping out finished strips, working out suitable lengths for each chunk of story and planning for each issue to have as much content as possible would require some flexibility, especially as they were dealing with strips not written for this anthology format. To get the best out of each strip, including Conan, they may have to drop one for an issue to ensure things run smoothly in the long run.

Speaking of the editorial team, there’s been a bit of a shake up. Launch editors John Freeman and Harry Papadopooulos have jumped ship already, leaving the tiller in the capable hands of Jacqui Papp (editor for titles such as Motormouth, Die Cut and Battle Tide, all comics from the Marvel UK Genesis Project) and Steve White (colourist for Transformers, Jurassic Park’s Xenzoic Tales and editor on Visionaries). Their first issue is a doozy, so let’s get started with Deathlok.

Up to this point Deathlok has been full of action, strong character development and some rather terrifying moments when Michael Collins awoke. I’ve previously mentioned how I remembered there being a lot of humour too, particularly between Michael and the monotone computer operating the Deathlok cyborg. We get to see quite a bit of this in part six of Brains of the Outfit, such as the computer’s recalculating moment and when they finally destroy the massive tank and it looks like the killer cyborg is about to see off its driver Ben, a former colleague of Michael’s, only for the above to happen instead.


“Who asked you?”
“You did.”
*sigh*

Exchange between Michael Collins and the Deathlok computer

It shows how Michael has successfully reprogrammed the machine and the humiliation of Ryker is probably all the worse for the head of Cybertek; not only is he spectacularly defeated, but his cyborg war machine has avoided murdering someone again and it’s had a laugh at his expense in the process. Brilliant stuff! In the sewers we get more of this sort of thing as Michael forgets his thoughts are now part of the machine.

However, as you can see the strip can flip in an instant, from genuinely funny moments to those of terror and heartache. Michael arrives home and obviously Tracy isn’t going to believe him when he tries to tell her who he is. Already devastated by the news of his death, this is almost too much to bare. That final moment when he repeats his funny comment about their son from #3 before running off is a much more perfect cliffhanger than any action scene could be. For all its bravado, Dwayne McDuffie and Gregory Wright’s story has a human heart running through it that’s just as compelling.

For only being seven pages, this really has it all! What a superb story and he’s definitely a Marvel character that deserves much more exposure today. It’s a crying shame he hasn’t had his own movie or TV show by now. Speaking of movies, Eye Level doubles in size this issue thanks to two of the most hotly anticipated movie sequels of the 90s. One would go down as an absolute classic, the other not so much.

On first reading I don’t think the writer was too enamoured with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, although they were right in that the film did end up as one of the most successful of all time. Personally I loved it and remember watching it on VHS in school on the last day of term after it came out in the home market. Not the best way to watch it first time around but it still made an impact and I enjoy it to this day. All of the things about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze meant to improve upon the original are the reasons why my friends and I never liked it, so these were massive misjudgements on the part of the director and studio.

That competition at the end though, with “no captions complimentary to Mr. Ice” allowed… how very Havoc!

RoboCop uses his hand spike to take control of the ED-209’s weaponry

RoboCop: Murphy’s Law Part Three takes up the centre of the comic with a large nine page chapter this issue, ending the story earlier than expected. OCP’s Laszlo has ordered his criminal contacts to kidnap a police officer so that his reprogrammed ED-209s can rescue them and prove their superiority over RoboCop while Murphy’s brain (distraught from losing a civilian) has shut down his systems. But Nixco have also sent their new Nixcops to do the same. RoboCop awakens when he learns that his partner Lewis is the officer in question, snapping him back into life. It’s all set for an explosive climax.

But first, either the ED-209s have shrunk since the movie or that’s one hell of a big van! Also, if dealing with other civilian crimes is only ‘Law Enforcement Program 231’ what are the other 230 before it? I’m nitpicking, so I’ll just ignore these and get on with the main bulk of the story. The two sets of rogue robots start to take each other out, both believing they have the proper authority to rescue Lewis and that the other is breaking the law. An ED-209 even attempts to kill Alex because it deduces he’s trying to stop it rescuing her.

Pinned down on all sides, his car trashed and time running out for Lewis, Robo’s solution is one that I wish we could’ve seen in a movie or the show. Using his spike (a way of interfacing with other computer system ports) he accesses the ED-209 that tried to shoot him and takes command of its weaponry, eliminating all of the Nixcops in a few seconds flat.

Lewis may be tied at the wrists but she isn’t a damsel in distress. Taking advantage of the commotion outside distracting her kidnappers enough for them to be lined up at the first storey window, she rushes them and pushes two of them out to their death. But the final one slaps her to the ground and takes aim at her head just as Alex enters the building downstairs. Knowing he won’t reach her in time he scans up through the ceiling and I just wanted to let you see how another of his well known abilities is represented in comic form, thanks to (new editor) Steve White’s colour work in particular.

You can see what’s going to happen here and after the kidnapper crashes through the floor, landing at his feet, RoboCop appears to be back to normal again. It’s been a more action-packed story than the one from the first four issues, but taken together they work really well to bring us both sides of the character, the logical and the human. You’d think having both this and Deathlok together in one comic would feel repetitive, but they work really well together as two completely different takes on the same basic idea. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for Murphy.

Part seven of Ghost Rider: Life’s Blood is up next as the lengthy origin story continues and it feels like it’s wrapping up the action quotient of the tale here, so I can only guess that perhaps next week’s part will feel like an epilogue and deal with the aftermath for the characters involved. If I’m right I’m all for that, the variety in these little weekly chunks heightening the tight scripting by Howard Mackie.

The gangs fighting over the suitcase are destroying whole city blocks in their war for the canisters, with the kids who stole it in the first place caught in the middle. No longer the cocky street gang of earlier issues here they’re cowering for their lives after seeing one of their own killed. But one roar of a motorbike engine later and things take a decidedly different turn. Danny Ketch has transformed again into the Spirit of Vengeance and I love this particular page above, introducing another skill of the flamed rider’s.

This is just the kind of thing teenage me would’ve lapped up. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m lapping it up right now at the ripe old age of 44. Ghost Rider approaches the kids, the same gang that terrified Danny in the first issue and reaches out his hand, telling them he means them no harm. I was surprised at this, I just didn’t expect it from the character and it’s a nice touch. However, he’s soon involved in the fight again and one of Kingpin’s men has had enough, pulling out what looks like a rocket launcher from the boot of his car!

With the demon rider (the gangs may have named him this but they still believe he’s just a person wearing a flaming helmet) the gangs are down to their last two survivors. Joining together to force a confession out of the girl who took the suitcase, while ready to double-cross each other, the tension builds until a sudden chain flick from behind knocks them both out and in their place stands that very same flaming skull, with his hand outstretched once again to help her to her feet.

Again, this proves what I said earlier about the cliffhangers Havoc’s editors would choose, not always relying on the shocking action scenes. For example, it would’ve been easy to end Ghost Rider with the rocket scene above but instead we get a further couple of pages and this ending of the terrifying demon reaching out his hand to help the innocent. It’s just as much of a surprise as the explosion and it works so much better in my opinion as a moment to end on for now. I want to see more of this character, much more.

If you’re only coming to these reviews now let me explain that this was my introduction to the character back in the early 90s and in the intervening years I haven’t read any Ghost Rider comics or even seen the movies. This is pretty much introducing me to him all over again, so it’s basically all new. As with some of the other Havoc stars there’s a lot more beneath the surface of the character to discover and I for one find him a fascinating creation so far. I’m eager to learn more, so little moments like this are huge to me.

Less fascinating are the Star Slammers. Also getting a good portion of the comic, we see how Grandfather and Sphere first met, the former as a senator bringing a warning of a future planet wipe, the other the leader of the people on the planet used for sport. As the Slammers prepare for the war at last, Sphere and Grandfather reminisce about that first meeting, how the elder had to prove himself and how he engineered the Mindbridge.

Able to communicate psychically already, his equipment and injections were to lead them to a point when they could all communicate as one, the whole race combined as one unstoppable force. Only then could they face their hunters, the Orions. The name ‘Star Slammers’ is taken from one of their weapons and it’ll be the name they use as they fight for others to make money and collect the weapons and ships they need. There’s also a hint that the exiled humans are closer to their ancestors than the ones consumed by hatred (the ones who hunt them for sport because they’re different).

It’s here that the main problem with the strip rears its ugly head, one of pacing. At some points in previous issues nothing much has happened at all, in others we’ve been treated to some nice action or background details. But more often than not it’s felt a bit muddled, as if it was just buying time until the next issue. As we all know by now, Star Slammers wasn’t written as a monthly comic, instead it was a complete story in #6 of Marvel Graphic Novel. I’ve said previously how maybe it wouldn’t have any of these problems if read in one go, as was originally intended. Now, I’m not so sure anymore.

Even here, with a flashback to those early meetings it just reads like forced exposition, a far cry from similar scenes in #4 when we got the background to the animosity between Grandfather and Kryllik. But by this stage in the story it feels like any interesting story sections are being rushed through, like space is running out and writer Walt Simonson has to suddenly squeeze everything in. This is a similar feeling to the one I got when reading the final chapter to the Jurassic Park movie adaptation, also written by Walter.

What could’ve been a fascinating origin story here isn’t helped with pretty bad dialogue either, combining to give an impression of everything being forced just to get the story to the actual battle it’s been predicting since the beginning. Could Simonson’s galaxy-spanning tale full of relevant social commentary simply have been too ambitious for the final page count in Marvel Graphic Novel? Perhaps. But here at least we get an inkling that some excitement could be on the cards next issue.

With the war about to begin we close off all of our strips for this week with Cry Havoc and the second instalment of readers’ letters. Kicking things off with the promise of t-shirt prizes for star letters, ironically the issue number given for when this would start will actually be the first one to never appear in the shops. Then it seems the issue after that one was to be the first with a new strip since #1, with the Star Slammers having ended by then. Intriguing little hints about the future that was not to be, followed by a surprisingly young person’s advert on the back page.

Having said that, I did love Fiendish Feet and kept eating them well into my teens too.

That’s us at the end of another issue and, despite it being one character short and extra pages given to my least favourite strip, it was another goodie. I will look forward to a full deck of anti-heroes next week though. Speaking of which, that next issue will be the penultimate one already! Where has this summer gone? Join me again soon. Havoc #8’s review will be here from Wednesday 24th August 2022.

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