Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meltdown Man

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 Meltdown Man (Rebellion, 2010).

You want proof that we live in a platinum age of comics? Freaking Meltdown Man is available in a single, big edition. If you told me, five years back, that such a thing would exist outside of privately-licensed small press editions, I'd have said you were nuts. Then again, I'd have said the same thing about Rip Kirby, and what are IDW up to now? Four hardcover $50 volumes of that? Heaven.

Odds are, casual readers have never heard of this series, which originally appeared in a record-setting, unbroken fifty-week run throughout 1980 and 1981 in the pages of 2000 AD. It's a collaboration between writer Alan Hebden, who did not work often for the comic, and the late, great Italian artist Massimo Belardinelli, whose work is still mostly unknown to the American comic media. He was overlooked at the time in favor of better-known, frequently-reprinted, fan-favorite artists like Bolland and Gibbons and only came up for a long-overdue reappraisal from fandom long after he'd retired.

Anyway, like a lot of 2000 AD series from the period, it starts with a really convoluted premise and then goes to work with a magical, wild touch. This time out, an ex-SAS officer named Nick Stone is blasted into a bizarre world after a nuclear explosion, where he finds a few pockets of lazy, bored humans who have created gigantic populations of anthropomorphic animal-people called "Yujees" to do all the work. Stone is instantly outraged by the backhanded cruelty displayed by these idiots and resolves to topple the order of things here. He's allied with a catgirl called Liana and a wolfman named Gruff in his battle with the corrupt human Leeshar, who commands an army of predators, weird technology, and a psychic, mind-controlling cobra in his bid for control of the planet, and steps up his scheming once Stone looks like he's going to be a problem.

Back in the eighties, when 2000 AD's publisher licensed its reprints out to third parties, Meltdown Man never resurfaced. Belardinelli was not a favorite of Titan Books' Nick Landau, and while a series that ran this long could have filled four of those skinny, black-spined albums that Titan used to release, neither Titan nor Eagle / Quality Comics wanted to reprint it. Of course, at the time, the perception of 2000 AD that other marketers wanted to emphasize was that the comic was the home of weird, freaky heroes unlike anything else in comics, and Nick Stone himself is a square-jawed, inventive hero of the classic tradition, despite the trappings of his wild world.

Actually, wild doesn't even begin to cover it. As I slowly amassed a piecemeal collection of back issues, Meltdown Man was the one strip, dipping into at random order, that I could not follow at all. That's because the serial is one of the most entertaining roller coasters in comics, with several parallel-running plotlines and a host of recurring characters who show up after weeks away. The story doesn't reach any natural breaks, and it isn't a collection of several short adventures, and it doesn't fall into any kind of predictable structure like comics of this sort do, where you know that, for example, at some point, the Harlem Heroes will get back into an arena to play another game. I finally read the thing start to finish across my back issues some years ago and was really stunned by how brilliantly constructed it is. A reread of this volume confirms it: this is a terrific, badly underrated comic. It's the sort of anything-goes, surprising adventure that the more recent The Red Seas feels like, but with a straight run of fifty weeks, Hebden and Belardinelli were able to accomplish so much more than The Red Seas' creators can, with so many aggravating breaks of so many months in their narrative.

As for the art, Belardinelli had drawn some pretty great pages before, for plenty of strips, and his greatest triumph, Ace Trucking Company, was yet to come, but I think that this was the point where he really nailed damn near everything. About the only grumble I have with the art is that Leeshar doesn't look like much of a threat with his ridiculously obvious costume, complete with "baddie cape" like a faux Germanic count or something. Other than that, this is a gorgeous, over-the-top book, full of gigantic waterfalls, massive explosions, armies of animal-people armed with freaky guns and lavishly illustrated extreme violence, and Belardinelli's pacing is just amazing. As events rush to a climax and Stone, in an uneasy alliance with a villain who's switched sides for his own interest, is caught on a frozen lake with a barrage of explosives around him, I don't think a reader's eye can keep from rushing from panel to panel, and the inevitable, grisly end to that turncoat villain is guaranteed to leave that reader punching the air. Plus, Belardinelli drew himself into the action in cameo appearances at least three times, which is always funny.

And as for the reprint itself, Rebellion have done another splendid job. I think I'd quibble about the cover, which is a recolored take on an old Dave Gibbons pin-up from the period. While I'd agree that there were no better images from the period to sell this book, there's a stodgy, macho, po-faced feel to that image that totally belies how weird and exciting the story actually is. That said, this is clearly a barely-known property and sales are going to be pretty low, so I can understand why the publishers went with this, rather than bend the budget to buy a new, better representative image from somebody like Boo Cook, who, it's been observed, has a style clearly influenced by Belardinelli. It really is a shame that this is going to be a low-selling book, because it's really fun and unpredictable and needs to be seen. I had a blast with it, and certainly recommend it highly.

1 comment:

Paddy Brown said...

Oh yeah. I love this strip. Alan Hebden had a gift for the cliffhanger serial that nobody, not even Tom Tully, whose serials were as cliffhangery but nowhere near as mad, could come close to - Mind Wars in Starlord (with Jesus Redondo) and The Angry Planet in Tornado (with Belardinelli) come to mind, but Meltdown Man was his masterpiece.

Belardinelli was a unique artist, and, much as I love Ace Trucking, I think Meltdown Man is probably his finest hour as well. With one possible, and controversial, exception. His Dan Dare was not in any meaningful sense Dan Dare - but it was frigging gorgeous. I don't have much of it, but those planetscapes are extraordinary.