Friday, July 01, 2011

Review of War of the Worlds Goliath: Outpost, in Heavy Metal Magazine

For those not in the know, (and it’s an easy mistake to make) Heavy Metal magazine is a monthly publication featuring comic strips for a mature audience, and not a certain brand of music. If I had said adult audience, you’d almost certainly have made another assumption, though if truth be told, there is a high proportion of female flesh on show, nothing particularly offensive it must be said, but I feel it fair to give the warning should anyone feel inspired by this review to go out and buy it. I’ve not actually bought a copy before though I am aware of the French magazine that inspired this American version and own several anthologies of material published there. I have to say, that on that admittedly incomplete comparison I was less impressed by the American publication as a whole. The French edition (based it must be said again on the anthologies I own) certainly did not shy away from “mature” content, but it seems far more sophisticated in nature. Heavy Metal USA seems to be pandering very determinably to a very specific demographic.

But presumably that’s not why you are reading this review. You want to know about the War of the Worlds comic strip contained within, called War of the Worlds Goliath: Outpost. The story is set in a post Martian invasion world, where abandoned Martian tech has been reverse engineered by the human race. You should also know (if you didn’t already) that the story is a preamble to a forthcoming animated War of the Worlds movie that Heavy Metal is helping to finance. On that basis I worry considerably for the movie, because this is a not terribly successful introduction.

Make no mistake; there are things to like here. The art by Popia is pleasing to the eye and the gory fight scenes certainly have a raw visceral power. If I were to make a comparison, if the original War of the Worlds was the film Alien, this would be its sequel Aliens.  It’s basically a massive gung ho battle, with a group of rag tag marines trapped in an Antarctic base (there’s a bit of The Thing mixed in here) going toe to toe with the Martians. Judged entirely as an “action movie” type story it ticks all the required (what few there are) boxes of the genre. There’s surely potential to be had from the idea of bigging up The War of the Worlds in this manner, but rather than bringing two different genres together in a careful melding of ideas into something new and exciting, this feels like they were raced toward each other at break neck speed and rammed together. In other words, it’s a bit of a wreck.

Now, if you’ve looked at what I write, you’ll know that I’m pretty keen on the idea of stretching the original novel in new directions. It’s a story ripe for re-imagination and collecting and cataloguing anything related to The War of the Worlds is a passion of mine. But there are certain things I would prefer were left well alone. Hence I’m really not happy for writer Chi-Ren Choong to have transformed the aloof and enigmatic Martians into wise cracking smart arses. I literally cringed to read dialogue like, “You know how it is with eating humans. Half an hour later you’re hungry again.” What! The other big problem is that nothing really significant happens in the story. For sure there’s some attempt to inject token characterisation into the marines, so all have their little back story/sob story that got them dumped in the snowy wastes, but we’ve seen this sort of thing so many times now that the novelty has worn off and little in the way of sympathy is generated.

So as the Martians penetrate the base in exoskeleton tripod devices (nice designs but haven’t we seen that in Independence Day?) we’re treated to various gory decapitations and dismemberments. As mentioned previously, Popia turns in some stylishly grisly scenes and certainly seems to know his anatomy, but it’s a by the numbers story of attrition. The problem is, as the marines are bumped off one by one, I just couldn’t bring myself to care, there’s just not enough time in the short story to develop feelings for these characters. Perhaps 16 year olds will find all the gore and profanity amusing, but nothing about this story felt compelling or deep enough to draw me in. In fact the language (and not just the incredible level of crass profanity) seemed horribly out of place. I’m sure that behind closed doors your average Victorian could and did swear like a trooper, but the dialogue here feels far too modern for the 1914 setting. There is of course a propensity at the moment for making period pieces with modern slang and cadence, but it’s getting old, and my fear is that this is the approach taken by the movie. There’s a Heavy Metal summer special due out any day now that will contain a number of other War of the Worlds strips, so I’ll reserve judgement for now, but sorry to say this is not an auspicious start.