Edited by Ryan C Thomas (Permuted Press)
by Pat Mills et al (Rebellion)
Reviews by Pat Black
They’re out there – claw-clicking, mandible-clacking, slime-secreting, city-squashing giant monsters. Falling from the skies, spending their kindergarten years in laboratory test tubes, cranky after being woken up from millennia-long sleeps, stirring in the sludge at the bottom of lakes, bursting out of most deep-water seaports, harassing Japanese people. Bullets bounce off their carapaces, fire doesn’t scorch their scales, even the furry ones can probably launch their follicles at you like tree-sized spears, and if you chop them up, the pieces only go and reform on you and create more giant monsters. And, oh yes, did I mention? They have big appetites.
Actually, they’re not out there at all, but we shouldn’t split hairs when it comes to our gods and monsters. As Steve Alten - the author of the wonderful Meg series of novels about giant, pissed-off prehistoric sharks - notes in the foreword to Monstrous, there’s a great cultural fascination over enormous beasties, especially if they can eat you alive. Like many great horror stories, they have a tendency to reflect the concerns of the ages. In the Cold War era we had the giant bug movies and invaders from Mars, arriving at a time when mankind faced the threat of extinction through nuclear holocaust with two great superpowers facing off against one another, politically polarised and mutually suspicious. But there are just as many themes as there are types of colourful, bitey creatures to choose from in the 20 short stories on offer in this selection.
Giant bugs are present and correct, as are massive sea beasts, big cats and reptiles. For monster-lovers it’s a smorgasbord; and if it’s schlock you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place. British author Guy N Smith’s “Crabs” has a nightmarish saucy British seaside postcard scenario, with an army of extra-large versions of the titular creatures attacking a holiday beach. It’s wonderfully seedy, with four people trapped inside a foul-smelling bunker normally used as a latrine/bordello by local teens as the giant, decapitating crustaceans wait outside for them to get too thirsty to stay where it’s safe.
James Thomas Jean’s “Nirvana” mixes its genres well, a novel take on the zombie holocaust scenario where scientists hit upon the genius idea of breeding giant super-maggots as a means of taking the shuffling undead out, with no headshots or decapitations required. The plan has one snag; perhaps annoyed at centuries of being sold as fish bait by the half-pint, the squiggling nightmares develop a taste for the flesh of the living as well as the dead.
But there are some surprises, too. The first story, “Present Tense, Future Perfect” sees DL Snell envisaging a doomsday future where scientists have managed to create giant spiders and insects which completely over-run mankind. But it’s not quite as simple as a man-versus-bugs survival tale; the narrator is a time-traveller, able to move in and out of this awful future world when he lapses into comas due to a mysterious neurological condition. But real-life events chime awkwardly with the themes of these chronological journeys; is it possible that the narrator is delusional? Is the plight of his brain-damaged son and alienated wife connected to these visions and possible fantasies in uncomfortable ways? And in the politician he pinpoints as the burgeoning cause of the giant bug problem, is he simply seeking a scapegoat for the cruel twists and turns his own life has taken? Reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s classic “A Sound of Thunder”, but much more psychologically disturbing, this opener will lunge out of the shadows and seize the unwary.
Also noteworthy is Paul Stuart’s “The Long Dark Submission”, which illuminates the chilly scenario of two deep-water Japanese fishermen menaced by a giant anglerfish with startling insights into Buddhist philosophy. Modern-day horrors are countenanced by R Thomas Riley’s “The Locusts Have A King”, which sees a US army unit besieged by insects in an Afghan cave where a biblical prophecy appears to be reaching fulfilment. And Steve Alten weighs in with another big fish story, “Lost In Time”, an infidelity revenge tale with, shall we say, a bit of added bite.
The giant monsters genre is ripe for parody and spoofing, and there are a few examples of that here. As you might imagine, “Attack of the 500ft Porn Star” by Steven Shrewsbury has lots of laugh-out-loud insights into the adult entertainment industry and rivals Herman Melville for the honour of having the biggest Dick in literature. Cody Goodfellow’s “The Island of Dr Otaku” savages the Japanese kaiju movie conventions and has some interesting things to say about geopolitics by-the-by; meanwhile Randy Chandler’s “Cooties” sees a trailer trash tale of a cheating husband and an infestation of certain sideways-walking creatures elevated to near-Wagnerian levels of blood-letting and melodrama.
It’s the creepier stories that stick with you, though, and Nate Kenyon’s “Keeping Watch”, a deadly-straight tale of a man looking back on a childhood accident involving a lake in a remote woodland spot and the ancient, yellow-eyed thing that lives in it, will strike a chill down the most cynical of spines – perhaps one of the finest short stories of any description I’ve read in years.
And there’s a very poignant moment in Evan Dicken’s “Extinction”, a brilliant mix of knights-of-olden-times jousting and video-game monster-mashing where beastie wranglers use giant creatures to face off against each other in a tournament. It’s elegiac in tone and one of the last lines, regarding knights and dragons, sums up what I think of these tales of monsters, and the strange reverence we have for Godzilla, King Kong and their kind:
“We did kill them at first, but somewhere along the line they passed us by. Now, the people love the dragons. Perhaps they always did.”
:: A quick note about the indie publisher: Permuted Press specialises in apocalyptic fiction, with tales of zombies, vampires, werewolves and other kinds of snarly destruction to the fore. The other books it publishes look like many kinds of awesome and I’ll be swinging back around to some of those at a later date.
For our second feature presentation, we’re going back in time to the age of the dinosaurs... and also back to a particular period of British history and the strange rise of one of the few comic books (apart from DC Thompson’s indomitable comedy duo, The Beano and The Dandy) still published and still selling in the UK: 2000AD.
For the first time, Flesh sees two of the magazine’s earliest sagas from the 1970s collected in graphic novel form. Boiled down, the story sees a future human population suffering from chronic food shortages using time travel to harvest the flesh of the great dinosaurs to feed the population back home. Except, of course, that it soon turns into an examination of who’s eating who. Book one sees a cowboys-versus-dinos siege story; in book two, there are sea-faring fishermen fighting off the attentions of the great ocean reptiles on an offshore installation.
The 1970s saw a very different Britain to the one of today; riven by strikes and economic problems with governments changing hands several times, it paved the way for Thatcherism, the systematic murder of heavy industries and union power and a wave of fresh market-driven horrors in the 1980s. Against this political and economic background, popular culture received a kick in the pants from the rise of punk rock on British shores. And while Johnny Rotten snarled at the public from its new colour TV screens in 1976, boys up and down the nation were getting their own anarchic kicks from a comic, published by IPC Magazines, called Action.
Still fondly regarded as a classic, the comic lasted in its original format for little over a year before it was neutered, then finally closed, following a moral crusade in the press and television and the attendant public dismay. Up until this point, British-based comics for boys had largely followed a very staid template which had been originally set down in the previous century, with white, square-jawed, blond and blue-eyed heroes such as space pilot Dan Dare and ace footballer Roy Race dominating proceedings with an unfailing moral compass. Also, the Second World War still cast a great shadow over British comic art, for good or ill – DC Thompson’s wonderful Commando series of mini-books has lasted longer and possibly even killed more people than any modern war.
There had been no equivalent of the EC Comics furore in the States until the Action controversy; quite simply it was the most gruesome example of its kind ever seen in Britain, more like a throwback to the days of the penny dreadfuls than a children’s paper. Although ostensibly a series of rip-offs of Hollywood movies popular at the time – there was a very Harry Callaghan-esque US cop called Dredger, for example, and in Death Game 1999 you had a supercharged version of Rollerball with high explosives and motorbikes – it had a strong anarchic streak running all the way through it. The football story Look Out For Lefty featured violence on the terraces with one game abandoned after a fan pelts a player with a bottle; an all-too-real scenario in 1970s football. Even worse was the dystopian urban Lord of the Flies nightmare of Kids Rule OK, envisaging a world ravaged by disease which leaves only children still alive. This is the one where police officers are first seen being over-run and killed by children who then form gangs and hunt each other... A not too ridiculous concept to envisage.
Nothing in this comic was left to the imagination – lots of blood, decapitations, dismemberment and violent death – and nowhere was this more apparent than in the blatant Jaws rip-off, Hook Jaw. The gimmick here was that the titular great white shark had a gaff stick jammed in its lower jaw, which it would use to spear passing swimmers (as if biting the poor buggers wasn’t enough). Created by Pat Mills, Hook Jaw would munch his way through just about everyone in his stories, villains and heroes alike, taking pride of place in the comic’s all-colour centre pages. Even to an adult inured to his fair share of violent forms of entertainment, Hook Jaw still comes as something of a shock to the eyeballs. Imagine Jaws without any of the suspense or subtlety. Imagine that, when Spielberg shot the scene with the little boy on his inflatable raft, he didn’t cut the camera away when the poor lad is drawn into the water, but instead showed you everything, exactly what happened with each mouthful the fish took. That’s the level of nastiness in Hook Jaw – and if you don’t believe me, you can read a digitised version of the whole thing at www.sevenpennynightmare.co.uk.
Boys, the bloodthirsty little gits, loved it of course and Hook Jaw was far and away the most popular strip. Not only did they enjoy the violence, but the readership seemed attuned to writer Pat Mills’ sensibilities; that the shark was the hero, dreadful and murderous but acting in accordance with its own nature, not a villain to be destroyed. Hook Jaw takes on first an oil installation and then a bloated holiday resort complex, striking back for nature, bringing down the greedy overlords of these modern monstrosities. Not that he was a fussy eater; everyone was welcome at Hook Jaw’s table.
Alas, Action’s days were numbered despite excellent sales. Once the media got a hold of “the seven penny nightmare” it became front page news. Famously, the comic’s editor John Sanders appeared on the popular BBC news magazine show Nationwide to defend himself – ironically, his moral inquisitor was the seemingly avuncular Frank Bough, a presenter who latterly became infamous for frequenting certain houses your dad warned you about. The momentum was irresistible and amid a public clamour the magazine was heavily vetted, and finally cancelled.
A new magazine arose from the ashes in 1977 – the sci-fi themed 2000AD, again under the creative drive of Pat Mills. Flesh, which appeared in issue one, was basically Hook Jaw remodelled, with dinosaurs taking the place of sharks. The star of the show was a female tyrannosaurus called Old One Eye, fighting the effects of advanced age and certainly raging against the dying of the light. This time instead of greedy oilmen and entrepreneurs, it’s the businessmen behind processed meat production who end up going down the avenging beast’s gullet. (Not to spoil too much for you, but she has a beautiful death, incidentally – unique in this type of story.)
The artwork, by Hook Jaw’s Ramon Sola, as well as Massimo Bellardinelli and Boix, dials down the gore quotient from the Action strips, but there’s still lots of carnage for the gleeful, demoniac child that lurks within us. “No... not the jaws!” was many a hapless character’s valediction before they were given a rude lesson in their place in the food chain.
When the second book opens – sharing one surviving character from the first book, the hook-handed “Claw” Carver – the storyline is essentially transplanted to sea, with Old One Eye replaced by the giant nothosaur Big Hungry. In both cases, the bases are over-run by prehistoric creatures, just about everyone has been turned into monster chow and even the heroic characters are either marginalised or outright eaten. The machinery of capitalism and the ecological rapine carried out in its name is always quite literally destroyed. As before, Mills created a saga with a proto-environmentalist drive before such sensitivities became universally popular, with nature raging back against the impudent humans. In the fury of his anarchic motivations, Mills was always seeking to restore balance, if not harmony.
2000AD served as a nursery for writers and artists who went on to become the most famous in the art form; Allan Moore, John Wagner, Dave Gibbons, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon and many other British and Irish talents served their apprenticeship on the ground-breaking magazine. Mills himself, who is still working at the sharp end 30 years later, created iconic figures and stories for the title such as Slaine, the ABC Warriors and Nemesis the Warlock, and also played a major role in developing the character of 2000AD’s poster boy, Judge Dredd (remember Dredger?). He is properly regarded as the Stan Lee of British comics, a man who made the format cool in a way it never was before or since.
And in his wonderful foreword to this collection, he sets down his mission statement: “In my comics, the under-dog (or under-saur) wins. Never, ever the Establishment.” That’s the spirit of punk for you – even if it is slightly ahead of its time in the shape of slavering prehistoric monsters.