Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Savage: Grinders

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 Book Nine of Savage: "Grinders" (Rebellion, 2015).

Thirty-eight years ago, writer Pat Mills came up with a fun idea for a gritty comic series set in the not-very-distant future. It was 1977, and Mills posited that in the year 1999, the "Volgan Republic" would invade Great Britain, and that the guerrilla resistance would find a home for a former truck driver named Bill Savage and his shotgun. Over the next six or seven years, Mills would set other stories in the aftermath - some in the centuries-later aftermath - of the Volgan invasion of the UK. Since these were stories in 2000 AD aimed at imaginative eight year-olds, there were many contradictions and plot contrivances between all the tales, but it never really mattered at the time.

Except... in 2004, Mills returned to the character of Bill Savage in a more nuanced and mature take on the invasion, and also began filling in the blanks in the very popular cousin series The ABC Warriors. Stepping back to the canvas after so long away, Mills began to see how he'd flung so very many things at the wall to see what stuck, and that it was now possible to actually draw a spiderweb of connections between all of the events that previous stories had only mentioned.

And so, in recent ABC Warriors stories, Mills and artist Clint Langley have been working backward, addressing old questions about what happened to certain characters. And in Savage, which is wrapping up its ninth and final story, we're seeing the 2010 conclusion of the second Volgan occupation, and, at long last, the explanation of how the unscrupulous defense contractor Howard Quartz, got himself transplanted into a robot body.

The first three Savage stories, set in 2004 and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, were an amazing, real-world take on how this invasion might have played out. Starting with the fourth, Patrick Goddard took over art duties and it's there that the wild sci-fi elements of ABC Warriors and the robot wars that it referenced begins. These tales begin in 2007 and see the rudimentary use of robot soldiers and some wilder-than-reality technology.

The six books of Mills-Goddard Savage, despite all the fun technology, weirdness, and great cast of characters, not to mention that great little sidetrack to recruit the former hippie rock star who'd been researching teleportation, never quite made their way out from the long shadow of the original three stories. (Honestly, not nearly enough has been written praising the climax of book two, which is one of the crowning achievements of Mills' long career and One Of The Damndest Things I've Ever Seen In A Comic, Ever.) But they've still got so much to recommend them, and this latest book caps off a great series.

I think one reason that Savage works so well is that, certainly after the first three, 2004-set stories, Mills let the character evolve into something close to Parker, from the Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels. He's lethally dangerous and frightening, but he keeps his emotions in check and can think his way out of any problem before he needs to pull his gun. Plus, Mills never, ever makes it easy for him. Savage's enemies are not stupid, and keeping the hero one step ahead of them is a remarkable balancing act. When his enemies do make slips - and Quartz makes a big one in this story - Savage is able to quietly step in and change the narrative. There's a brief bit in this story involving a mute button, and one of the rules of comic book foreshadowing tells us that we're going to see this plot point again a few chapters later. When we do, even knowing there was more to come, I still punched the air. It's cold, brutal, and completely wonderful.

A case might be made - though I certainly won't make it - that the surprise return of Bill's brother Jack is one coincidence too far. It's terrific. Readers learn early on in the story something that Bill, for all his cool planning and insight, misses: that Jack cannot be trusted. It builds to an amazing confrontation involving insurgents called "grinders" who've taken on cyborg enhancements in order to override the American combat robots, and Bill losing his temper for the first time in a very long time, and possibly the last time.

"Grinders" is an excellent story, and runs for thirteen episodes. You can get it in serial form from 2000 AD's online shop by purchasing progs 2015 and 1912-23. The smart money's on it being included as a collected edition with books seven and eight, but that's not yet been announced; maybe next year? But yes, this is certainly recommended however you purchase it.

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