Monday, 7 July 2014

A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The stories in A.B.C. Warriors: The Mek Files 01 (Rebellion, tpb, 308pp) are all written by Pat Mills, with artwork from a superstar cast of artists that includes Kevin O’Neill (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Brendan McCarthy, Mick McMahon, Carlos Ezquerra, Brett Ewins, and Simon Bisley (the only one I hadn’t heard of before is the mysterious S.M.S.). With a line-up like that you’d expect the book to be much better than it is, but it’s still pretty good.

The first batch of stories, drawn in a relatively straightforward and readable style, date from 2000AD’s early days – issues 119 to 139, from 1979. Here we see a group of eccentric robots joining Sergeant Hammer-stein for a special mission: Happy Shrapnel, Joe Pineapples, Deadlock (Grand Wizard of the Knights Martial), immense, vengeful Mongrol, reprogrammed Volgan war criminal General Blackblood, and molten monster The Mess. It’s gleefully violent: you wouldn’t give it to a child nowadays without asking a parent first. Once the team are assembled, they are packed off to tame Mars, the devil planet! The premise sets them up for a long run, but after dealing with cyboons, mutants, the red death, robot tyrannosaurs, and big George with five brains (none of which work properly), it wraps up very suddenly with a declaration that “we’ve straightened out this side of Mars now”. I enjoyed all of these stories, though they’re not so memorable that I didn’t realise until later that I’d already read them in the 2002 Titan collection The Mek-Nificent Seven.

The strip returned to 2000AD in 1988, nine years and four hundred issues later, the long gap perhaps explained by the problems that had “plagued the strip from beginning to end” (according to Kevin O’Neill, speaking in a reprint volume from 1983): “Group stories are like breaking rocks for writer and artist alike. Pat Mills broke the biggest rocks and the splinters flew off in all directions.”

The new setting – the future Earth known as Termight – suggests that in the interval the warriors have been involved in the adventures of Nemesis the Warlock. Joined by Ro-Jaws, Hammer-stein’s old friend from the Ro-Busters, and then Terri, a human who thinks of herself as a robot, the team battles foes including The Monad, the quintessence of human evil from the end of the world, who causes havoc after escaping into the time wastes. The art in this half of the book by Simon Bisley and S.M.S. is admirable in many ways – it’s challenging, energetic and expressive – but it’s difficult to tell what is going on, especially when events take place in one tunnel after another, with backgrounds often entirely white or entirely black. It’s trying very hard to be grown up and significant, and though the stories are still being written by Pat Mills, these aren’t half as much fun. I would probably pass on volume 02 if it took the same approach.

But even though the two parts are so different that it’s like reading a book that’s half Curt Swan, half recent Frank Miller, I liked it overall. Its best ideas are brilliant – poor old George staggering across the surface of Mars while his hands and feet argue with his head! – and it still comes as a surprise to see robot heroes killing humans, when mainstream entertainment so often goes out of its way to give human heroes zombies or robots to murder. I wouldn’t say that appealed, exactly (you’d worry about me if it did), but it still feels fresh and honest.

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