The V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens

Finally I got to read this!

When I was young, I somehow read the last few issues of the V.C.s in 2000AD comics. I think my brother was given or loaned a few and I got to read them, I’m not sure. But I certainly remember the V.C.s. I thought I had just read the very last issue, I only remembered a few things, but once I had read this graphic novel, I recognised moments from the last few chapters. So turns out I had seen more of the V.C.s than I thought.

So what hit me? Why had I remembered this for so long?

The scenes I remembered was mostly a showdown between the main character and a scummy snob called the Dishwasher, and another character who hated the main character for being from Earth yet still stepped in to kill the Dishwasher. I also recalled that the humans attacking the Geek world by the end.

But as I read toward the end of this book, I realised I had already seen that moment when Hen-Sho forced the other two to take the only escape pods. Then I knew I had seen Smith and Loon landing, and that I had seen what happens to Loon.

Whenever I thought about this weird sci-fi comic I had read once as a teenager, I knew I loved the showdown, the dark tone of the story, the vivid war with an alien race and how brutal it was depicted. Later I found out it was the V.C.s from 2000AD. I read over the wiki page I think, remembered a few things, but it wasn’t until I got Hell in the Heavens for Christmas (finally) that I was able to sit and truly appreciate this. It might sound weird to claim that a comic I had only read a final piece of somehow left a strong impact on me, and yet this one had all those traits I love. Gritty war stories. Dark scifi. Brutal depictions of conflict that cost the characters we are following. So yeah, that brief glimpse of the V.C.s stuck with me, even though I didn’t know the names.

Which leads me to mention Bad Company. This is another story from 2000AD. I picked up the first graphic novel years back and I devoured the first series in one afternoon. I literally couldn’t put it down. My book contained the first two stories; I later bought another graphic novel that had the third series. To be blunt, I didn’t love the other two stories as much as I revered the first, yet I did enjoy them a lot and became a Bad Company fanboy. This was just like the V.C.s yet on an alien planet instead of being set in space. It became a huge influence on me. I can’t imagine what kind of hold it would have had if I had read it when young, like I did with the V.C.s. Still, it hit me.

I bring up Bad Company because I feel there is a worthy comparison between the two. I think if you have read either of these, you’d enjoy the other. Both deal with humans versus aliens in a war in the future, with a high body count and a grim, macabre tone. I would say I still much prefer Bad Company. You can’t beat Kano, Thraxx, Mad Tommy Churchill and co. There are more V.C.s stories and I hope to read them later. Maybe there are better ones to come. Maybe, like Bad Company, the first run was the best. I would say I really liked the universe created in the V.C.s story and would love to see it developed more. It could make a great tv series, as we’re seeing more and more of now, like the Expanse and Sense8. Small cast, strong characters, lots of action, a universe to be delved into.

Okay, so I’ll finally get into the V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens. Oh, and I will get spoilerish.

To give a quick overview: the humans are fighting an alien race called the Geeks. At the beginning it is mostly a space war with the Geeks raiding human territory, so ships with startroopers patrol to intercept and destroy. Our main character is Steve Smith, a human from Earth, newly trained and placed on the ships of the V.Cs. Here, his five crewmates are all humans from other worlds, so they dislike the earthworm and he has to go through a lot before they even see him as tolerable. As the war goes on, things escalate between the humans and the Geeks, with major attacks on the solar system resulting in a revenge mission in search of the Geek homeworld. It has to be said, the humans get a real arse kicking for a lot of the story.

The characters are the strong point for me. I do think they could have been developed even more, yet they each have strong definitions and change to some degree over the course of the series. Smith is very eager to prove himself and often oversteps or screws up because he is trying to impress the rest. This makes him flawed, but I also liked that he didn’t shrink away as the others put him down. He gets proactive, even aggressive, in order to help win the war and become a true V.C. He goes from rookie to hardened fighter and leader. Jupe is the leader of the crew for most of it. His phrase sums it up – suck it in. Anything, everything that goes wrong for anyone, they get told by Jupe to shut up, take it and get on with things. He is the tough grizzled sargent you often see in films and shows, and you’d certainly hope to have in real life. He keeps people alive. He is tough on Smith, but stands up for him and listens to his ideas over time. Ringer hates Smith. Ringer is the nasty antagonist for much of the story, if also an excellent pilot. He can get a bit one note, but his turn at the very end made all of it worthwhile. The other characters are Loon, Dwarfstar and Hen-Sho. Loon is mad, having spent time on the Moon’s prison. Dwarf is more different looking, having been mutated in space travel. Hen-Sho is a proud Chinese Martian, who is also a bit easier on Smith than the rest. It has to be said, these three have the least depth to them, yet each have their moments. We meet Dwarf’s brother, spend time on Mars where Hen-Sho boasts of his people’s accomplishments, and Loon has a freak out in which he nearly skins Smith. I’d have liked more of these moments, but the crew’s overall story, their differences with Smith as he settles in, the ongoing war and how it changes – these become the bulk of the series. I loved Bad Company’s first story because it was character focused and driven. The second run was more plot driven. The V.C.s story is very much a mix of the two. There was a point toward the end where we were spending a lot more time on Smith alone than the crew together, which I wasn’t so into, but that wasn’t for long. In truth, I would say this is more a Steve Smith story than a story about the V.C.s as Smith is the main focus constantly and gets more to do as he gets sent on important missions. Still, Jupe and the rest stand out enough to make you care. At least, I thought so. As the war starts to cost the crew, I felt for the losses and certainly wished at least one happened differently. That was something I admired the story for. The V.C.s get sent on more and more dangerous missions, and those high risks can’t be avoided for ever.

As much as I say the characters are a strong point, I also felt the world – or universe – of the V.C.s was the other strong seller for me. Yes, it is a fairly typical space war and the Geeks are pretty much just faceless baddies to get vaped. Some might not appreciate how it is very much a good guys versus bad guys war, or rather, the characters are fine with killing the enemy and never question this conflict. The questionable aspect comes in when we meet the Dishwasher. The diplomats are, as can be so, the real enemy of the soldiers. If the Geeks are the opposing force to be defeated, the Dishwashers are the ones the V.C.s really come to hate as they screw up and get startroopers killed. One Dishwasher proves to be Smith’s mortal enemy. That’s certainly the viewpoint depicted in the V.C.s – much like Bad Company and other war movies like the Iron Cross and Paths of Glory – that when you’re the soldier fighting the war, you’re stuck in the middle and have to get through it as best you can with your comrades, struggling against the enemy in front of you while watching out against your superiors behind you.

What is unique with the V.C.s is the variety of humans. Unique might be pushing it, I’m not sure what else touched on this idea by the time the story was printed (in 1979!). I know I read some books by Anne McCaffrey which had heavyworlders in. Pretty good they were too. But few other things have gotten into the concept of humans being different because they are from different worlds. We’re too used to Star Trek and Stargate I think. Babylon 5 at least showed the issues of the Mars colony and others wanting independence.

In the V.C.s, we have Smith, an Earther, who is looked down on by the others. Ringer is from Saturn, Loon from the Moon, Jupe from Jupiter, Dwarfstar from Neptune and Hen-Sho, as mentioned, from Mars. There are indications that the others are tougher and better than Earthers. Jupe and Ringer are certainly stronger. I got the feeling they also saw those from Earth as arrogant and probably having gone soft. In return, though, the V.C.s are looked down on by the command of the human fleet. I’m not sure, but I think most of the frontline startroopers were colonists, and the commanding elite were Earthers. So this story dealt with prejudice going both ways, of conflict and variety among humanity, of the human race spreading out but not staying a happy and united family, as some scifi likes to present. The war with the Geeks is a bit straightforward, yet the current state of the human race is presented as being anything but.

Oh, and as I come to an end, I should say what the V.C.s means. Of course, any Brit with a knowledge of military history knows the VC stands for the Victoria Cross, which is the highest honour a soldier can get. So VC has a resonance. Yet in this case the V.C.s stands for the vacuum cleaners. Basically they are there to go around and clean up the mess. It is a neat little philosophy that tells you a lot about the crew early on – matter-of-fact, with a grim sense of humour and a disdain for the enemy. Geeks are rubbish to be removed. These blokes get the dirty work done.

Obviously I really enjoyed this graphic novel and plan to get the others sometime to see how they go. But for more, this had a special, personal side to it. When you’re young and developing your tastes in fiction and entertainment, certain things just click. Often, you become a fanboy/girl and they mean more to you than the same story does for others. Any remake or renewal usually doesn’t have the same power. You seen it all before. You’ve read this story. Little can get to you the same way that first glimpse into something you didn’t know you were into until you met it. That’s how the V.C.s were for me. A quick read when I was young, and yet I never forgot that image of the power-disc cutting through that fat neck. That bitter conflict and deadly exchange.

Very happy to finally be fully acquainted with you, V.C.s.

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