Monday, December 10, 2012

The Stainless Steel Rat

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 Stainless Steel Rat (Rebellion, 2010).

One thing that has marked the last dozen years of 2000 AD is the number of recurring series has skyrocketed, to the point that quite a few series routinely only show up for a single story every couple of years. There are just so darn many strips in the mix that there isn't room for all of them. That wasn't the case in the late nineties, when the comic was home, principally, to one-off serials. I started thinking, then, about how successful the comic's three adaptations of The Stainless Steel Rat had been. I wondered, then, what other classic pulp sci-fi could be adapted into 2000 AD serials. Fred Pohl, perhaps, or E.E. "Doc" Smith? Maybe something really ambitious, like Asimov's Foundation?

But no, there would be no space for such things as 2000 AD refocused on lots of recurring players. Harry Harrison's character of Slippery Jim DiGriz has been the only classic SF hero to make his way to the pages of the comic, in three early '80s storylines - each about 75 pages - that adapted the novels The Stainless Steel Rat, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, and The Stainless Steel Rat for President. DiGriz is a very ethical master criminal, if by "ethical" you include the definition "able to convince himself that what he's doing really isn't all that wrong, since he doesn't wish to actually hurt anybody." He's a con man, a master of disguise and self-defense, and can squirm out of just about any trouble with seconds to spare.

The adaptations, by Kelvin Gosnell, are little miniature masterpieces in the art of adaptation. The novels can hardly be accused of being very challenging or layered with subtext, but to distill them into punchy, all-action comics so well is a real feat. Gosnell, one of 2000 AD's unsung heroes of its early days, really uses the comics' structure and form perfectly, with each episode balancing the advancing plot, some thrilling action and witty narrative, and a perfectly-timed cliffhanger. Anybody with an interest in writing comics should study these things closely to see just how amazingly well Gosnell manages the pace and timing.

That said, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World suffers just a hair from being incredibly complex. It's a wild story about a criminal called "He" who begins wiping out his enemies in the galactic Special Corps via time travel. Harrison must have had a ball in the original 1972 novel - I confess I've not read that one - playing with the "timey-wimey" loops and possible futures and causality that Doctor Who only started playing with a few years back. It's a head-scratcher in places, and even Slippery Jim thinks that events get so weird he doesn't want to deal with them any longer, but it sure is clever.

The artwork is by Carlos Ezquerra, and it's reliably fantastic. It's just really great, lazy afternoon pulp fiction that reads like a roller coaster. Rebellion's long overdue collection reprints all three serials in their original black and white - in their only previous reprint, for Eagle Comics in the mid-80s, they had been badly colorized and shrunk to traditional American funnybook dimensions, although they did include some terrific new art by Ezquerra for their covers - and has a short foreword by Harrison, who sadly passed away earlier this year, leaving behind the twelve Rat novels and a whole mess of other books besides. I had no freaking idea that Harrison ghost-wrote Vendetta for the Saint, wherein Simon Templar, implausibly, breaks up the Mafia. Made a good two-part TV episode with Roger Moore, mind.

Although such a thing is very, very, very unlikely, what with rights issues and 2000 AD's own gigantic bank of recurring series that never seem to have room, I sure would love to see more comic adaptations of Slippery Jim. And Bill, the Galactic Hero. Him, too. In fact, I still wouldn't object to somebody, somewhere, drawing up some stories based on Hari Seldon's theorems. Anyway, this book is definitely recommended.

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