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.

Rabbit Wars

For some reason Watership Down gets played at Easter. Nothing to do with the Christian or Pagan celebration. Just because it has rabbits in. Which is fine by me because that film is one of my all time favourites.

What I wanted to say here was that today, having seen the film was on television and getting into the last third of it, as I always do, I felt compelled to grab the book and read a bit. I was looking for something, I can’t quite remember what. I think Bigwig taking a swing at Campion just because Woundwort wondered if he could take him. Such a typical Bigwig moment.

Anyway, I sent the afternoon skim reading the last part of the book.

If you’re a fan of the film and not read the book, I highly recommend you do. It is well written, not hard to read or follow at all and gives a lot more insight into the characters. Especially the Efrafans.

The book helps us get to know various members of the so-called bad guys. We find some are vicious, like Vervain, and others are only following orders, like Groundsel and Ragwort. Then we have Campion, a loyal captain and yet also someone the good guys respect, because he’s always ready to throw himself into the mud and dark along with his patrol. Campion seems a noble and brave rabbit, whose loyalty to Woundwort keeps him from questioning him.

Woundwort himself is much more than a 2D villain. Even the film gives some glimmers of this. But not much. In the book, we understand Woundwort. Losing his family while young, witnessing his mother be killed, he became ferocious. He went looking for fights. They say, later on in the story, that they think he was unlike any other rabbit. Their natural instinct was to run and hide. He wanted to fight. He wanted to make rabbits safe by making them strong and fearsome. He did this by personally leading and inspiring them. Hell, even Bigwig, for as much as he loathes the regime under the General, admires him for his ability to command. Woundwort leads where others fear to go, and so becomes an admirable but brutal adversary.

The other thing to mention is that the book explores the life in Efrafa much deeper than the film can. That does manage to tell us that their society is breaking down, but in the book we see it for all it is – the good and the bad. Woundwort took over the warren, then moulded it into his image. They feared him, yet many under him respected him and some even admired him. He made them feel strong. Gave them hope.

His society is one of strength and stealth. Rules are ruthlessly enforced. Rabbits can’t even shit where they want, for fear of leaving signs of where they live. Woundwort honed his warren to be one where everything is for the good of the community. Everyone has their place, has their role. You do your job, don’t cause a fuss, and things will go well. In fact, this harsh life has helped them flourish, to the point where Efrafa is overcrowded.

That’s what is so interesting about this society. It is one where the individual wants and wishes are overridden, and it works, but many feel miserable and resentful. Woundwort keeps it together, but you can already see the cracks. It is a facist/communist society. There is a secret police of sorts, led by the reviled Vervain. No one can leave. Order must be maintained. Promotion is highly sought after for the prestige and the rewards. But also many do believe in their way of life and want to do well for their people.

I loved this mention I came across today. After Bigwig helps some escape to Watership Down, there is an incident between him and Blackavar, who he helped escape. Blackavar warns him of something going wrong and Bigwig doesn’t listen, so after it has, he lets Blackavar know he should have listened to him. Blackavar says he has no idea what he is talking about. Turns out, in Efrafa, lessers are so deeply taught to follow their betters, that if a subordinate gives advice that isn’t heeded, he or she will forget about it. Basically, Blackavar genuinely has put that out of his mind, because he can’t show up his better. To him, Bigwig was never wrong, never ignored his warning. Efrafa breeds strong rabbits who are ranging wide across the land, but there is a weakness in their heads and hearts.

As I said, it is a fascinating depiction. A society that flourishes because of its own brutal and regimented nature, and yet is suffering for it too. Woundwort led them to greatness, but then kept them in his grasp. He wanted to stay in charge at any cost. He didn’t believe anyone else could do what he had. Maybe he was right.

Anyway, I love the film, with its melodic score at times and intense drumbeat at others, and the comedy and gore, yet the book is a must read. Woundwort and his followers are more colourful and more intriguing. I feel the story benefits as the world is shown to us via more than one group of characters. Differing views, challenging philosophies, conflicting personalities = more fascinating and engaging story.

I know they’re just rabbits, yet Woundwort and Bigwig remain two of my favourite characters and are a big influence on my writing. Their bloody showdown – depicted with more tactical thought and personal fear in the book – was everything those two promised us. I can only hope to deliver the same one day.

I Am Still Legend

About a year ago I posted my feelings and thoughts on the audio version of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend.

For one reason or another, one today did I complete listening to it properly. I began yesterday, had some issues so had to stop, resumed today and concluded. As I said in my previous post, I had been listening to it on the BBC radio, but had missed the odd episode and then missed the end.

Having sat down and listened to it to completion, I have to say what an engaging and admirably written tale it is. Robert Neville is a very understandable character, yet vibrant in his lonely rants. He isn’t a genius scientist trying to cue a disease or a highly trained soldier seeking revenge. He is a just a man, getting by on his routine, hurt by loss, turning to drink, despising those who seek his life. Even when he does begin to analyse and figure out the vampiric disease that has blighted the human race, he does so in a procedural and practical way. Even I could follow his logic!

The ending was great. I liked Neville yet also found him flawed. Consciously so.

As I pointed out before, the movie – the Last Man on Earth – fits the story best.

However, here is the audio version I listened to. If you haven’t read the book, I’d highly recommend listening to this:

Heart of Darkness

I have just read Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad. Not quite what I expected. My main understanding of this book was the film, Apocalypse Now. I can see how this inspired that film, yet they are a long way apart. Kurtz in this book is more of a wraith than the imposing, bald figure of Marlon Brando. I had more understanding for what the film’s Kurtz was about too. Why he did what he did, what he had done, the depths he had sunk to and the effects it had had on others.

In this book, Kurtz reminded me of Captain Flint in Treasure Island or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings – a figure who dominates conversations yet doesn’t appear. Well, okay, Kurtz does show up physically, finally, yet he feels like he is fading fast and beyond his powers. But the build up to him was impressive. I wanted to meet this enigmatic figure of such deeds, just as Marlowe did. I wanted to know so much more about him! That was perhaps my main disappointment. I wanted to really get into Kurtz, listen to him talk, find out all that he done, how he had become like a god to the natives and what he had led them to do. We get the most fleeting of tastes. Perhaps that is what makes the book compelling. There is so much left for us to think about.

I understand why people have issues on the racist tone of this book, but honestly, it felt right. This was a racist time, where white Europeans mastered Africa with contempt for those living there. That is clearly shown. This isn’t some bullshit World War Two movie where white and black soldiers fight alongside each other against the mean old Nazis, pretending only the enemy were racists. This shows how the invaders sought plunder and the means to get it. They would use anything and anyone. Kurtz epitomises that. He is like a monstrous apparition of Europe’s greed. To try to sanitise the racist views would be to try and hide the truth.

Still, it can make for uncomfortable reading, not least as you suspect there are elements of truth here. There are several people that many suspect Conrad based Kurtz on. Imperialism was never kind to the colonies. It could have benefits to some, sure, but also serious problems. Here, we see a messy mass of greedy interlopers out for themselves. Kurtz may be worse than them all, yet he has something outstanding about him too. He never comes across as petty. He is avarice in human form. He is greatness in all its terrible splendour. He has intelligence, sophistication, strong will, a commanding presence – all the materials to be a leader in a new territory. In many ways he could be someone held up as a great example of a European hero, conquering and commanding. But he is one in the true sense – ruthless, savage, cruel. He could be an Ahab, leading others by sheer force of personality. The Russian Harlequin Marlowe meets proves this. It would have been great to know more of him this way, driving into the jungle, into the people, and finding just how far he could go. He is a man of great resourcefulness and self-determination. But that also makes him someone to be feared. By the other white agents too. His success has become anathema to them. Marlowe has to bring him back because Kurtz won’t be restrained. Yet Kurtz is already dying. Almost as if his own rapacious nature has worn him out.

Kurtz feels less of a human being, less of a fully rounded character, than an apparition, an example, a metaphor of sorts. He possesses lots of qualities others boast about, and he brags of them too, and yet lots of atrocities to carry as a sin. He represents so many things, but we can never define him. Again, this could be the lure. I read to the end expecting some revelation that could help me grasp him. I never got one. I never quite got why Marlowe found him so entrancing and why he felt so loyal to him. Of course, there was his voice, which doesn’t work on a reader. Still, I struggled to understand the power of this figure. So often I hear the lesson ‘show, don’t tell’. Well in Heart of Darkness most of what we get is characters telling Marlowe, and so us, of Kurtz and then he tells his listeners, and they all are in awe. I needed awe to be shown.

Even so, there was something compelling about Kurtz. Makes you want to create a character like him. Someone so complex, so marvellous and yet so horrifying, and to explore that nature. For all that I wanted more from him and this story, he does fit with the likes of Ahab, Dracula, Nemo, Coriolanus and others. Individuals who could impress their will on others, who could captivate through sheer personality and even lead others to their doom, willingly, if it suited their own drives. They could also lead themselves to the same fate.

I’m sure once this book would have been fascinating to read to learn about Africa, but by today it adds little and portrays so much through the eyes of those who care nothing for it that it comes across as crass. Natives are deemed stupid, savage, worthless. There is some good description of the jungle and river travel, but nothing that gives you a feel for Africa. Again, that fits to the intent of the narrative, but for me, having read books and watched documentaries, it is dull if not barbaric. It is a tale for the white man of the past. The invader, the conqueror, the glutton.

Marlowe is a decent enough character, but he is designed to be passive. He is regaling others with his past so he is not the focus. He isn’t meant to stand out. We do meet a series of individuals, though. Most without names. They have, however, notable characters. I was quite impressed with how Conrad could describe the details of a man Marlowe would meet, then imprint the personality, and all for someone we won’t even spend much time with. The sly manager who boasts of never falling ill so he can outlast anyone, who resents and fears Kurtz. The Russian Harlequin who reveres Kurtz and sees only the best in him, to pass on that concept to Marlowe and us. Even the pilot who Marlowe despises for his incompetence and yet deeply regrets his death. Stark characters. Stark while brief.

It was an interesting read. Quick too. I got into it easily enough, became intrigued by the journey, although I was surprised at how long it took to get going. Being stuck along the river with the boat needing repairs was almost as frustrating for me as it was for Marlowe. It could be a bit slow to some readers but I felt there was plenty going on to keep me reading.

I’m not sure I would have read this if it hadn’t been the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, which is one of my favourite films. But I do think that even without it, I would have been drawn in enough to keep reading. Kurtz is a striking and influential personality, although not as much as Brando’s performance was. It was worth reading. Yet now I have it in my head, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever read it again. The wraith that was Kurtz was all I took in truth, and all I wanted to take.

Farewell to an Inspiration

So Terry Pratchett has just died and, while we all knew this was coming, I’m upset and also a bit angry that someone so smart and skilled as a writer and thinker has gone. This is one of my authors, the ones I read devotedly and still revere. His books were sat on a shelf with David Gemmell’s and theirs only. So here’s my emotional splurge I just threw onto Facebook:

Pratchett wasn’t just funny, he was damn smart as a writer (and person). His mysteries were really good. The plot about poisoning the Patrician, where he puts it right in front of the reader but you (well, me) don’t see it until all is revealed is sublimely done. The fact Gaspode would say woof, not go woof, was a bit of humour that also showed you how nuanced a description can be.
Granny Weatherwax is one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever come across. Gender identity among dwarves was played out and resolved with amusing maturity. Rincewind is more of an inspiration due to being a coward, not a hero. Assassins wouldn’t dress all in black because that would actually show up too well in the darkness. Camels were brilliant mathematicians, dubbed You Bastard. Words had power, ideas could become more real than reality itself, and gods depended on believers, not the other way around.
David Gemmell, and also Janrae Frank later on, taught me how to write heroic fantasy, although I’m a poor imitator of both. Pratchett taught me how to write comedy, how to write smart with comedy, and how that even an orang-utan or the Death of Rats can become an interesting character.

Hector in High Noon

So Hector is often seen as the true hero of the Iliad. Achilles is impressive but also a childish glory-seeker. Odysseus is clever but yet to come into his own as he does in the Odyssey. In fact it was often the way of Ancient Greek lore to portray their heroes and champions with flaws intact. Not for them the perfect figment of the imagination. They knew even Heracles/Hercules wasn’t pure of heart. Everyone was merely human. Even the gods.

But Hector is a very noble character. He lives for family and homeland. He is a great warrior, second only to Achilles, and leads Troy’s defence. He is proud to do so. He gives everything he can to defend his people. There are other strong fighters on both sides. I always liked Diomedes, daring enough to stab Aphrodite in the wrist when she tries to interfere with his fight with Aeneas. The two Ajaxes are fearsome. Aeneas himself, later claimed to found Rome, is also a brave and powerful fighter. Hector, though, is a cut above. But perhaps the reason his courage and honesty wins out is that he is the one who has to face his nemesis. In this regard, the Iliad is a lot like High Noon.

Now in High Noon, we have Marshal Will Kane, who has just resigned, heading out of town when an old foe is said to be coming back. He picks up his badge again to defend the town, but no one will help him. Miller, the criminal he put away, has three men waiting for him. Everyone decides Will is a dead man walking. But Will refuses to run. He fights. He wins. Huzzah!

Hector has the same kind of problem. After he kills Achilles’s cousin, Patroclus, and provokes the greatest fighter in the war to rejoin it, he knows he will lose to him. Hector is called out, so to speak. Their clash is now inevitable. Hector could try to keep away from Achilles, but he knows Achilles will come for him every time, and he’ll kill a lot of Trojans to get to him. Hector values honour, courage and loyalty. He won’t be a coward, even when facing Achilles. He knows he is going to face a far superior opponent, although I’m sure some part of him is set to win. He was a warrior, after all. But he seems his doo coming in the person of the Greek warrior. Before he goes out to lead the Trojan counter attack, as he says farewell to his family, there is something final for him, even then.

But just as Will Kane had to face superior odds, so does Hector. For Will, it is four against one. For Hector, it is one versus one but that one is a worth a lot more than four average fighters. They both know and believe in doing their duty. They both set out to protect those they care about. Yet the outcomes are very different.

Hector is famous for falling to Achilles. This, I suspect, is why he was defined as a noble and inspiring figure to knights, being touted as one of the Nine Worthies, one of the heathen three to be exact, along with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This is the doomed hero who refuses to be cowed by his fate. This is the tragic but noble warrior who meets his killer with a straight gaze and a strong heart. He is set to die, anyone who knows their Greek history knows this as they read the Iliad, but he faces the consequences of his earlier actions, as he knows he must. Brave to the last, caring and loyal to his end, and fighting with the last of his will. Hector typifies to many what a true warrior should be. Not the lustful glory of Achilles. Not the folly of Priam, the rashness of Paris, the strong-arming of Agamemnon. Hector is the one.

The Iliad is an epic, containing many themes and sub-plots. But to break it down to its essence and by claiming Hector as the main character, you see the Ancient Greek version of High Noon. More complex, true, but the same driving force. Of course, the good guy loses this time, if such Hector could be called. He was still a killer, after all. Achilles isn’t all bad, either, and we know he is equally doomed. The war for Troy was tragic on all sides, much like the tale of the Levite’s concubine from the Bible. It is about loss on all sides. A doom for almost all involved. It is about love and lust and pride and greed, but honour and comradeship and loyalty remain. War is depicted as brutal and glorious. An honest account. Therefore Hector was set to die. A movie set in modern(ish) times could not end that way, although I’d love to see it. In the midst of so much tragedy, Hector’s death is not alone, nor the worst – just look at Greater Ajax’s miserable suicide. He can die, so he does, but the manner of his death is what seems to define him the most.

Facing your doom yet overcoming it is brave. Facing your doom and meeting it seems that bit more braver and noble. It is a fantastic story telling device and I hope both continue to be used and used well.