Monday, January 10, 2011

The Complete Harlem Heroes

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Complete Harlem Heroes (Rebellion, 2010).

With The Complete Harlem Heroes, Rebellion continues the gold standard they've been setting with really comprehensive reprints of archival material. This is a series that ran in 2000 AD's first 27 issues in 1977 before taking a short break and resurfacing, two months later, as Inferno, where it continued for a further 40 episodes. Of principal interest to American readers, the first 24 installments were drawn by Dave Gibbons before he stepped down to take over art duties on Dan Dare, whose artist at the time, the late Massimo Bellardinelli, switched over to this series. So this is a big thick doorstop of a book, one-third of which is drawn by Gibbons.

This is a genre of story mostly unseen in American comics: sports adventure. It's set in 2050 and concerns a sport called aeroball, which is played by teams of seven wearing jetpacks. It's sort of an amped-up version of basketball, and the Harlem Heroes are among the best in the league and headed for the postseason when the team's "roadliner" crashes, killing half the team. Throughout the series, the focus shifts from building a new squad, playing new matches, and solving the mystery of who's got it in for them. After the pilot script by Pat Mills, the series was written by Tom Tully, who specialized in these sorts of stories - he would later write a virtual clone of this series, Mean Arena, for 2000 AD from 1980-1982, in between writing one of Britain's best-loved sports comics, the long-running Roy of the Rovers - and who had an amazing ability to keep the action moving and recap all the offstage subterfuge and make threats out of menacing, shadowy conspiracies who want to murder our protagonists.

It's all amazingly ridiculous, of course. If you can imagine a series where Payton and Eli Manning get their old man out of retirement to (a) play football again and (b) solve crimes with him, then you're probably visualizing the greatest Saturday morning cartoon ever, and that's what this feels like, only with the violence ramped up to eleven. The climactic episode of the first Harlem Heroes story even sees half the cast killed off, suddenly and unmourned, to clear the decks for the rethink.

In Inferno, it's revealed that actually, aeroball was a dying sport anyway, only cared about by hopeless obsessives. The real sports action is in Inferno, a game which is something like ice hockey played with jet packs, motorcycles and harpoon guns, and so the Heroes - the ones who made it through the carnage of the last episode - switch sports, with slightly more success than when Michael Jordan decided that he was done with hoops and wanted to go play baseball with the Birmingham Barons. But, wouldn't you know it, somebody else has got it in for the new Harlem Hellcats, and so they've got to investigate mysterious clues and nonsense again! It's just as ridiculous, with its inclusion of brains-in-tanks, androids and cyborgs, and just as bloody. One amazing incident, in which a villain pours gasoline all over one of our helpless heroes, intending to set him on fire, came within a hair's breadth of getting 2000 AD canceled for going too far.

So all in all, no, it's really not very good, but it's incredibly entertaining and over the top. I especially love the constant reuse of the idea that neither the Heroes nor the Hellcats have ever even seen film of the opponents of their next match, who are invariably revealed to take whatever nickname that team came up with far too seriously. There's never an aeroball-standard uniform at play here. The Montezuma Mashers dress like Aztec warriors and there's a team that dresses like oil riggers and a team that dresses like Cossacks and as for the Long Island Sharks... Before I die, I want to see the Vikings and the Panthers play a game like that. It's elevated by the artwork. Gibbons' pages are just beautiful, and I think that Belardinelli was initially rushing to keep up, but the more far-out and downright weird setting of the Inferno storyline is more his speed. At one point towards the end, Belardinelli drew himself as a spectator egging on the mayhem, which is just beautiful.

There's probably good reason they don't make 'em like this anymore, but Harlem Heroes retains a lot of its dated charm in its insensible presentation and wild artwork. Rebellion's collection includes all 67 episodes, along with some good bonus features. These include four pages of unlettered artwork by Carlos Trigo from one of 2000 AD's inhouse ashcan editions, which is the sort of neat extra that all books like this should seek to include. I think that younger and newer readers will find this even more stilted and contrived than the 1960s DC books that get collected in the Showcase series, so I can't really recommend this wholeheartedly, but it's certainly worth a look for the curious or the nostalgic, and absolutely for the art.


Felicity Walker said...

A Google image search for “ ‘Harlem Heroes’ Gibbons” shows that this was early in his career, before he’d quite gotten the hang of drawing people. (The art looks like it’s probably from before Doctor Who and definitely from before Green Lantern, which was when his art became perfect.) He sure knew how to draw cities and machinery, though, and that’s the hard part. It’d be cool to see Harlem Heroes with the same layouts and pencils but new inks by present-day Dave Gibbons.

G.G. said...

Oh yeah, this was two and a half years before his first Doctor Who, but I would dispute that he hadn't got the hang of drawing people here. His art is fabulous, across the board. I actually prefer Harlem Heroes to some of his Doctor Who pages, because he had trouble capturing Tom Baker for a while.