Sunday, 19 September 2010

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu Earth 01

Rogue in action - brilliant work from Dave Gibbons.

War was a staple of boys' comics when I was growing up. In those days, I guess some of the older guys working on the comics could well have actually fought in the war. Certainly, guys of our Dad's generation were steeped in WW2, having grown up with it as a background to their own childhood. I guess the comics had to pass muster with the parents as well as the kids, so this stuff still sold. Even so, many of my contemporaries, not to mention my own older brothers, were intensely interested in World War 2, and all those Airfix kits and 1/32 scale model soldiers were a huge part of my childhood.
 In the dark days before 2000AD, when my brothers were reading comics like Valiant and Hotspur, and later Commando comics, WW2 stories were really common. While I was kind of interested in the violent action and tales of heroism, I found the historical context pretty boring. I'd be looking for the space or futuristic stories, but they were few and far between. That's why I fell on 2000AD with such enthusiasm as a kid: it seemed to be a comic made just for me, with all the boring crap cut out and just the futuristic and space strips.

However, creativity being what it is, while 2000AD was a clear break from that kind of traditional material, the structures and ideas of those stories were hard to shake. So, when the editors and publishers cast around for a new story, no doubt the old ideas still had some sway.

Gott in himmel... er, I mean Stak! Nain!
You can see these old structures lingering in Rogue Trooper, which first appeaerded in prog 228, 1981, just as 2000AD was entering its golden era. Instead of Tommies or brave American GIUs, we have the doughty Southers, and against them instead of Nazis, we have “Norts” who have a fascisty looking lightning bolt insignia and say stuff like “Nain!” and “Stak!” as their mowed down by our boys. The action happens on the planet of Nu Earth, a former paradise that's been rendered unfit for habitation by years of conflict. The titular Rogue Trooper is the last of the Genetic Infantry men (GIs) genetically engineered to be able to survive the poisoned atmosphere of Nu Earth.

As well as these physical enhancements, the Troopers' minds can be saved if their bodies die, by being downloaded into a chip that can be stored in another GI's equipment. Our hero carries his former comrades in his own gear. This was one of the first problems I had with the story. The idea of the chipped comrades was fine, and I got the reasoning – it's easier to grow a new body than train a new trooper, but it was his mate's names that made me scratch my head. I suppose “Gunnar” might not be an unlikely name for a soldier and, well, why not put his chip in the rifle? But Helm and Bagman? Unlikely names, compounded by the fact that they found their way into Rogue's helmet and backpack. I hope there were no troopers called “Codpiece” or “Enema Pump”.

As well as the sci fi gloss, the nature of war stories had changed enormously between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies, as current events changed the public's attitude to armed conflict. In comics, Pat Mills had written the story Charley's War for Battle, which took a more mature approach to the subject, although I've never actually read that (boring war stuff!) so can't comment. So, Rogue Trooper isn't quite a straight heroic story about good chaps being heroes. Rogue is a renegade, technically a deserter, although the last survivor of his platoon of genetic troopers. The search for the high-level traitor that caused the massacre.

Amazing detailed artwork from Colin Wilson
brings Rogue's world alive.
 As with all the best thrills in 2000AD the first thing to really smacks you in the face with this one is the art. The first episodes are illustrated by Dave Gibbons, who brings his typical fantastic eye for design for the character. He sets the agenda for all that's to come, with a vigorous, muscular style packed with energy and action. The future war vehicles are sleek and exciting looking, packed with intriguing details that make them look practical and real, however outlandish they are in practice.

 It's a brave artist that would follow Dave Gibbons at his best, but picking up from him from him after a couple of dozen episodes comes the amazing Colin Wilson. Perhaps he doesn't quite have Gibbons's eye for faces and expressions, but his figures and action are, if anything, even more dynamic, and his technological imagination even more detailed and realistic looking. Between these two, Rogue seems to inhabit a real and believable world of genuine futuristic warfare.

More awesome Colin Wilson art.

So, we fans are pretty happy with this, even if a few competent fill-in episodes from Mike Dorey seem a little lacklustre set next to these two spectacular talents, but the well of amazing talent is not dry! Within a few progs regular art duties are taken over by Cam Kennedy, who was familiar from another Finley Day future war story The VCs (which has been collected and I may get to one day, as I remember that one fondly), and early work from one of my favourite 2000AD artists, Brett Ewins. Ewins often worked in partnership with Brendan McCarthy (although not here) and I recall the first story they did for 2000AD (an early Dredd strip) and being bowled over then by their dense, stylish work right from the start. Later on I followed them to the wonderful, but short-lived, series Strange Days from Eclipse, and later Ewins's worked on Pete Milligan's hilarious Johnny Nemo, another old fave of mine (he often worked with Steve Dillon on that one, an artist whose work is kind of similar but I'm not a big fan, for various reasons).

Brett Ewins doing what he does best: outrageous quiffs!

Anyway, the whole thing is a visual feast, golden era 2000AD at its very best: vivid, fresh (even today) and exciting. What's not to like here? Well, sadly, the story is a bit rubbish.

Right from the beginning it doesn't seem certain if it's a series or a serial. The traitor plot implies there's going to be a end point, but is never treated with any urgency. Long periods pass where Rogue doesn't really engage with it at all, instead fannying about in fairly run-of-the-mill cliché battle front adventures. It's like a 70s era TV show, where he lurches from story to story getting drawn in to various scenarios without really addressing anything unique about the premise.

All sorts of battle field clichés rear their heads: a village of pacifists has to learn to fight after they're betrayed by the Norts; good kids become embittered and violent; over-zealous officers cause more trouble than they help. By and large, war is hell. Increasingly weird elements are chucked in to liven things up and a couple of battlefield scavengers are introduced as recurring characters, but they're those annoying pseudo gentlemanly types who call each other Mr Brass and Mr Bland that some writers seem to think are so bloody amusing (Mr Sun and Mr Moon from Strontium Dog's sojourn in Hell, eg,Neil Gaiman's done it a couple of times, and I'm pretty sure St Alan himself has used it). Finley-Day tries chucking in some patented 20000AD style zaniness at Fort Neuro, where battle fatigue has led the Souther battalions to adopt eccentric variations of Earth cultures, but it's thin stuff.

Brass & Bland point out a story that's
completely lost direction.

Perhaps the problem is Rogue himself. Unlike Judge Dredd or Strontium Dog, he doesn't really have any compelling reason to intervene in these situations, and no strong plan to enact in the way of Nemesis. When you read all the stories in a big gulp (as opposed to the tiny weekly bites they were first presented as) Rogue comes across as a bit passive and affectless, forever getting sidetracked and led astray without a strong will of his own.(A different type of writer working in a different era might have made something of this, of course.)

Other writers took over Rogue's story – including a stint from Dave Gibbons – but I'm not sure the story ever really found its sweet spot. This volume is rounded out by a couple of one-shots written by Alan Moore for an annual and a summer special, but even he can't find much of interest to do with the story (to be fair, he his second story, where Rogue comes across an old GI prototype is artfully done and given more space he might have done something more with the idea than we get here). Ultimately, Rogue Trooper's a near miss, saved by incredible art but without much of substance backing it up.


  1. When I was reading Rogue Trooper as new, so I guess early to mid 90s, it was after the re-vamp with a different GI - who later met the original Rogue in a yawn-fest Five Doctors kind of story - called Friday, and the slightly better chip names Top, Lucky and Eightball, at least one of whom had gone a bit mental as a result of the download process.

    I also later read the Rogue-era strips as reprints and had the same impression as you. They're basically refugees from Eagle.
    Friday's strips got over-extended later on but embraced the picaresque aspect rather better and were more Vietnam than WW2, a natural progression bearing in mind the influences on the newer generation of artists and readers. I think it was a better fit, but nonetheless Rogue Trooper was never something you'd go out of your way to read. I think it was consistently readable, though, at least in one prog's worth at a time.

  2. If you consider that this is the minimum level thrills had to pass, it's still a pretty good basic level of quality. Whatever other faults the story may have had, it gave those great artists plenty of opportunities to show off. The Mike Dorey episodes are indication of how it might have been with a lesser talent (to be fair, Dorey is probably suited to a different type of strip).

    There's a touch of the rebellious about this one - edgy loner, high-level corruption - that is, I think, a move away from the traditional Jolly Good Chaps narrative, but yeah, thinks became more overtly anti-war as they went on. There were also other stories (Bad Company, eg, by Ewins and Pete Milligan) that got closer to that.

    By the 90s, I was losing interesting in 2000AD and Rogue was one of the strips that, I think, became increasingly incoherent. I am reading current progs at the mo, and formulating some deep thoughts on how and why things have changed. Maybe that'll be my next post...

  3. I can recommend Charleys War as a great teenage comic. Although it had the Flashman problem (Charley ending up no only on Western and Eastern front, but also fighting the communists in russia after the war and then in WW2) I always found it did a great balance between 'WAR! stories for boys (TM)' and gently asking what the hell was the point and aren't we all the same.

    Also I agree with you Rogue Trooper. One reason I stopped with 2000AD was when they sent him to another planet full of human like animals of all sorts who were also fighting the war. Very silly.

  4. Yeah, I hope to get around to Charley's war one day. Reading all this 2000AD stuff is making me think a bit more about Mills as a writer. He sticks more within a trad comics thing than Big Al Moore, but there's definitely something individualistic and interesting about what he does.

    I feel bad about bad-mouthing Rogue Trooper. It was solid enough (and the art was at time sublime), but given the company it was keeping it just didn't pull it'e weight. Oh well!

  5. How dare ye.
    Rogue would wipe the floor with Dredds spangly uniform.


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