vol 3. Escape from Aquatraz
(2010) Chris Bentley (ed.), Reynolds & Hearn, £14.99, trdpbk, 151 pp, ISBN 978-1-904-67408-5
re-packaged (2013) as from Titan Books, ISBN 978-0-857-68264-2
vol 4. Above and Beyond
(2010) Chris Bentley (ed.), Reynolds & Hearn, £19.99, hrdbk, 151 pp, ISBN 978-1-904-67415-3
vol 5. Menace from Space
(2011) Chris Bentley (ed.), Signum Books, £24.99 / Can$ 34.00 / US$29.95, hrdbk, 160 pp, ISBN 978-0-956-65342-0
These are three more anthology volumes of comic strips based on the various of Gerry Anderson sci-fi television series. Newcomers to these volumes are best advised to read my review of the first two volumes of Century 21: Classic Comic Strips From The Worlds of Gerry Anderson for the background to these iconic 1960s shows and the world of century 21. Meanwhile those familiar with these collections can read on…
These volumes have strips based on the following series: Captain Scarlet, Fireball XL5,Thunderbirds, UFO and Zero X. In addition volume 4 has a Stingray strip while volume 5 does not. Many of the strips are in full colour.
All these anthologies are very fine with, in the main, good production values: good quality gloss art paper and sound hardback binding with gold leaf lettering wrapped in full colour, varnish washed dust jacket as well as having a high standard of printing. Added value is given by an introductory essay to each volume. The essay for volume 5 is particularly interesting as one of the things it does is to show how Century 21's different publishing and television arms attempted to reconcile contradictory elements to the 21st century timeline and especially the Mars problem: Mars is inhabited by rock snakes in Thunderbirds and Zero X as well as being the home of the Mysteron civilization in Captain Scarlet (who incidentally was also on the crew of one of the Zero X missions, but not our Paul Travers Zero X crew). Indeed two of the volume 5 Captain Scarlet adventures feature the Thunderbirds Are Go Zero X Martian rock snakes.
The volumes also have potted bios of the various strips artists and writers as appendices. Each volume sees the comic strips collected by loose theme. For example vol. 3 Escape from Aquatraz sees a water or liquid related threat to the strips' protagonists; though in the case of one Zero X story its molten wax coating the craft and in a Fireball XL5 story it is ice from living alien snowmen. But in another Zero X story there is no discernable liquid threat other than the draining of liquid from alien bodies defeats them. The title story of this volume, 'Escape from Aquatraz' is a Stingray story and relates to Titan's underwater prison that was mentioned (but not seen) in the first TV episode of the series.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the publishing house has changed. The price of volume 4 is also 25% higher though the page count is only up by 7% despite just one year's worth of inflation at around 2% between the publication of volumes 4 and 5. Quite frankly I can easily live with this and I suspect that most SF enthusiasts who remember Gerry Anderson's series will too. A minor series continuity thing is the word 'volume' and the volume number are missing from the cover of what would have been volume 5 but I have retained it in the above publication details for catalogue coherence purposes. This dropping of the volume number (mildly irritating as it is) was probably done because these anthologies have not been compiled with any sense to the publication date of the original material: strips from different years are brought together in non-publication date order but instead by loose theme. And so presumably the publishing editor sees no need to continue to have a volume number. All that distinguishes the contents of one volume from another is the very loose theme: sky and space and then threats from space respectively in these two volumes. (See the volumes' respective publication details at the top of this review.)
As said the production values are in the main high. Volume 4 is, though, badly let down by the lack of a small gutter between the strips that straddle both recto and verso pages (vols 3 and 5 less so). This means that in these strips, some of the lettering vanishes into the spine page fold. Not good: a very small white gutter between the pages would have been preferable to losing content into the spine fold. (I previously noted this problem with the first two volumes of Century 21: Classic Comic Strips From The Worlds of Gerry Anderson.)
One niggle that is going to confound future SF academics charting the genre's history, is the dating of each strip's original publication in TV21 as this is denoted as exactly 100 years on (in the 2060s) from the true date (1960s). This was part of the original (20th century) comic's 21st century presentation giving the illusion that the comics were published in the 21st (not as they were in the 20th) century. However now we are really in the 21st century and just a few decades away from 2060, so, without any explanation or clarification, this 'joke' dating is likely to be a source of future confusion. As it is, the credits for the strips that originally appeared in Countdown are given as the correct date and so will appear to a far future reader that these were published long before the TV21 strips as opposed to the decade after, which is what happened in real life. Anyway, that is future SF historians' problem and not mine, but if the commissioning editors are in part producing these volumes for posterity then they might want to give this matter some thought should they ever produce other editions (which I hope they do).
Returning to the Countdown strips, their accompaniment to the TV21 strips is a very welcome move. I have a near complete collection of the original Countdown comics and can let you know that if these volumes continue with such material included then there is some good stuff to come even if some will only be in black & white.
The stories are all great and will be especially loved by that generation (now (2013) in their late 50s) who actually grew up with Gerry Anderson series in initial broadcast sequence.
Of course it has to be said that this really is sci-fi we are taking about and a bit (if not a lot) of fun: it is not serious SF. And so, for example, we see a vol. 4 Thunderbirds strip 'Destination Sun' with some spurious eruption from the Sun cause freak weather events and earthquakes so necessitating Thunderbird 3 going on a mission near to the Sun to collect a sample. It then gets into trouble and so Thunderbirds 1 and 2 are (unbelievably quickly!) fitted for space travel to rescue Thunderbird 3 from a Venus lake. When there Thunderbird 3 releases radioactive fuel isotopes to shake off a Venusian monster and then later Thunderbird 4 releases radioactive waste to do much the same thing. Great environmental ethics International Rescue!
Hotchpot SF plotting aside, these stories are fun in a kind of Golden Age of SF sort of a way.
So, what is it with this change of publisher between the volumes? Well, apparently Reynolds & Hearn went bust in the summer of 2010. Signum was launched in the autumn of that year and as Marcus Hearn gets a credit acknowledgement on the masthead page of volume 5 one presumes that those from the original publishers are involved with the new publishing house.
Word on the net suggests that the 'new' publishing house may not be so reliant on selling through traditional bookshops as the slow-payers among these apparently caused the original Reynolds & Hearn publishers cash-flow problems. Meanwhile the new publishers, Signum, are using Titan as a distributor. Having said, that Signum are not raising the low profile of these volumes above that of their predecessor publishing house. Following my 2009 review of the earlier volumes I did e-mail Reynolds & Hearn enquiring as to whether there would be any more in the series? Not being favoured with the courtesy of a reply, let alone marketing details, I assumed that the first two volumes were just one-offs and that was that. So you can imagine my surprise when in 2013 I saw these recent volumes in a Forbidden Planet bookshop. Yet a more recent internet browse reveals hardly any on-line reviews of these titles, no mention of the volumes on other major SF/F websites and even little on the new Signum website other than a mention of some marketing at Fanderson. Nor did the volumes appear in trade promotional vehicles such as the Book Buyers' biannual guide. Now while the Fanderson fan group is undoubtedly the place to market these volumes of strips based on the Gerry Anderson shows, Gerry's series had a far, far bigger appeal in the SF community than to his (smaller) core following: remember the original TV21 comics had a peak circulation getting on for a million! Indeed Gerry was a Guest of Honour at the 1998 Festival of Fantastic Films and 1995 Worldcon. The publishers are therefore missing out on a sizeable potential market.
At the end of the day it all boils down to this. Despite very minor production niggles, these volumes will be of great interest to many in the SF community of a certain age (those in their mid-to-late fifties). They are indeed fine works and have the potential to find many good homes on bookshelves in a sizeable number of SF aficionados homes as well as possibly (less likely) to introduce a new generation to Anderson's 21st century. However given low profile outside of niche Fanderson fans in the broader SF community that these publishers have afforded these volumes, I suspect that large sales will not be realised. Indeed I suspect that these volumes' print runs were not particularly high. So if perchance you are reading this review just a few years after its original posting then you may have your work cut out finding these treasures. However do make the effort to seek them out, for if back in the 1960s Gerry Anderson's television series did help you find your SFnal way, then you really will greatly enjoy these graphic compilations.
Stop Press: See also the 2014 Sam Denham The Gerry Anderson Comic Collection and the 2015 Marcus Hearn Thunderbirds: The Vault reviews.
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