While I greatly enjoyed the U.S. Bronze Age I was, and remain, more of a fan of '70s Brit comics. Gonna talk about such a series now. It ain't exactly Howard The Duck, knoworrimean?
2000AD EXTREME EDITION #18
(Published by Rebellion, 31 October 2006,£2.99)
SHAKO by Pat Mills(w), John Wagner(w), Ramon Sola(a), Arancio(a), Dodderio and Lopez-Vera
Tharg’s Future Shocks: The Shop That Sold Everything by Grant Morrison(w) and John Stokes(a)
PROJECT OVERKILL by Kelvin Gosnell(w), Ian Gibson(a) and Jesus Redondo(a)
As you can tell from the above 2000AD EXTREME was a UK magazine that reprinted the most Zarjaz Thrills from the past of The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic but today we’ll be all about the SHAKO.
“SHAKO! The Eskimo Word For The Great White Bear. It Means Simply…KILLER!”
In The Artic Circle a plane carrying the C.I.A.’s deadliest weapon crashes and its cargo of viral death is swallowed by the ambling bear men will come to know as SHAKO! A desperate race is on to recover the capsule without destroying it! Civilisation vs Nature! Man vs. Bear! In the land of SHAKO Man’s destiny is DEATH!
SHAKO was originally presented during 1977 in thirteen weekly installments of around six pages each. Every episode basically involved SHAKO meeting a new threat and being hurt by it before overcoming and eating it. The wider narrative involving the hunt for him lingered around the edges. Despite the necessarily formulaic nature and page limitations of the presentation the writers were able to stuff a whole load of goodies in there to keep the kids minds active. What? Oh yeah, this relentlessly brutal and savage tale was printed in a comic sold to children. I read it when I was a kid. Now, it isn’t something I’m proud of but young me really dug the sight of a polar bear washing its paws in a man’s face while the guy screamed stuff like “Oh God! The claws! Its terrible claws are tearing my soft face apart like toilet paper in the rain! The pain! Jesus wept! The pain! He’s eating me alive! Sweet Mercy…..!” SHAKO is fast paced pulp action so visceral and raw that it seems to have been chucked onto the page. This impression is mostly due to the artwork which is cheap and rushed looking. The best of the artists is Sola(?) who starts the series off with art that balances detail and urgency in just about the right measure. Things get a bit choppy after that with the next best art being that of Dodderio(?) whose work looks like a less talented Young Mike McMahon. As variable and hasty as the art may be it does manage to convey the required vicious urgency. It is also possible that a tale as mind bogglingly violent and unrepentantly trashy as SHAKO doesn’t need art that’s polite or pretty. It doesn’t really matter though as the real treat is the overheated and shrill writing. There’s real art to writing something which is at once as contradictorily awful and awesome as SHAKO appears to my age addled mind. So I’ll be banging on about the writing from here on in. With hindsight this stuff reads as though the writers really weren’t that keen on kids. Gave us some memorable comics though. In thirty years time I doubt I’ll remember CRIMINAL as vividly as this chaotically charming series. Maybe that’s because things imprint more vividly on fresh minds, maybe, but it’s probably because in thirty years time I’ll be dead. Thanks to my youthful reading though it won’t be at the claws of a polar bear. Nope, I’m not going near any polar bears anytime soon, pal. Because other than maliciously scaring the hot poop out of children SHAKO contained important lessons about misanthropy and the dangers of the natural world; sound preparation for any child. It isn’t healthy that children should be insulated from fear but it is healthy that they should fear the right things; these, on this evidence, being bears and the entirety of humankind.
2. “These Humans Were FUN!” Humanity in SHAKO is largely presented as being a bunch vile fools who are basically content to prod nature for their own amusement or profit until nature gets suitably miffed and tears off their face to wave in front of their lidless eyes like a bloody hanky. The only exception to this is a child who befriends and saves SHAKO (thus naturally leading to more deaths!). Unk, as he is known, is too innocent and unspoiled by civilisation to fear Shako and so meets him on his own terms and is rewarded by survival. Yes, I know that sounds horrible and preachy, but that’s what happens. If you want me to lie to you money will have to be involved, I have principles you know. Surprising precisely no one (particularly not anyone who has read a Pat Mills comic) the big theme/message of SHAKO is that nature=Good and civilisation=Bad. Now, no one who drives a car wants to hear that, so Mills/Wagner bury it under a thick blanket of inventive violence and research.
3. “Like All Polar Bears He Was Very Curious…” Yes, Mills and Wagner have done their research. The whole tale is peppered with instances of scientifically verified bear behaviour. Polar Bears do forage in the trash near human settlements, they have been known to fight Walruses, they do kill their prey by crushing the head in their jaws, etc. The bit where Shako cunningly covers his black button of a nose to sneak up on his prey is probably more folkloric than scientific, but it does demonstrate the breadth of their research. Not actually knowing either Pat Mills or John Wagner personally and given the curious absence of academic attention given to SHAKO, I’m unsure as to whether they read several dusty tomes by learned men with frostbitten cheeks or just flicked through The Ladybird Book of Bears. The point is they read something and worked it into their narrative. This does give the sensationalistic shenanigans some slight veneer of plausibility. Which is handy because without it SHAKO would be pulp nonsense at its most scruffily bloody and lacking in any plausibility in which to couch its polemical teeth.
4. “The Humans Were Hurting Him Again. They Must Be Taught A Lesson…” In keeping with the ideological premise Shako is a bear and he is just bearing about doing his bear thang until humanity ruins his day with its ill advised chemical weapons in easily swallowed capsule form. SHAKO’s not sadistic as such he just has different terms of reference what with him being a bear and all. Often when he is throwing people around like screaming rag dolls or rolling around on them crushing every bone in their body he is fact “playing”. Later though SHAKO does start hating and playtime is most definitely over. But to be fair by this point he’s lost his mate and cubs, wrestled a Russian(!), been shot, stabbed, prepped for surgery, escaped from a sinking helicopter and just generally been really mucked about. So the fact that he’s a little less temperate in the area of self control might not be excusable but it is understandable. SHAKO – more sinned against than sinning!
SHAKO is smarter than the average bear though; he is able to enter a house so quietly that he is mistaken for a towel by a showering Texan. (“Holy Moses To BetseeEEAH!”). And the writers are smart enough to use him as a means to give the very English love of antiauthoritarianism a good airing. This gets down even to the level of criticising the cosmetics industry. Rooting through the Texan’s bathroom cabinet SHAKO is attracted to a lipstick which is as colourful as berries but does it taste as nice…”IT DID NOT!” See, you thought I was just being sarky warky but, no, there’s subtext all over this thing! See: obviously SHAKO is in blithe defiance of the U.S. Military Industrial Complex but he also metes out just desserts to a strict schoolmarm and a ward nurse who is a bit quick with her fists. As you can tell SHAKO had no truck for authority and a pioneering attitude to gender equality; women are as bad as men and both make fine snacks.
5. “The Polar Bear Who Brought The Cold War To Flashpoint!” Well, that’s all just super, I hear you snore, but there are different societies and it’s hardly fair to tar all societies with the same beary brush is it now? It’s okay because luckily the Artic turns out to be a pretty busy place what with Russians, Americans and even the French turning up. Mills and Wagner pay particular attention to replicating the authentic idioms of each - Russian:"You speak "BAD things to The KGB!", American:"Ya there, Ellie May, Honey? " and, my favourite, French:"Sacre Bleu! Zat is one big bear,eh, Mon Ami!".
The Americans are goal-orientated and tech-savvy but fail to accommodate the difficulties and nuances of the environment in which they are battling. Could Shako be the first Vietnam analogy involving a polar bear? Perhaps. Meanwhile The Russians are blinded by unthinking subservience to dogma and the need to best the Americans. Initially they don’t know why the polar bear is of note they only know that the Yanks want it so they capture it and take it aboard their Whaling ship cum KGB spy ship. This turns out quite badly. In fact, so disputed does the bemused bear become that a nuclear interaction is only narrowly avoided. Could Shako be the first Cuban Missile crisis analogy involving a polar bear? Perhaps.
6. “The Bear Took My GUN ARM. So This Is Personal, See?” Now while humanity can be painted in broad strokes as a bunch of callous buffoons certain individuals are singled out so we can have someone to root for or someone to boo in this polar pantomime of pant soiling terror. While the characterisation is blunt as a stump it is redeemed by its brash energy. You certainly know who everyone is and what everyone wants. Jake “Foulmouth” Falmouth, for example, wants to get that danged bear so he can get that capsule for his government masters. Well, that’s his initial stance but following Shako’s aggressive appropriation of his arm Falmouth vows a sweary vow to get that dingdanged bear and kind of lets the capsule take a back seat. This is pretty much the depth of character development you’ll find in SHAKO. Look, it’s about a killer polar bear so I’m not sure how much character development you were expecting there. Falmouth is the Bad Man, The Hunter who becomes consumed by The Hunt and then literally consumed by The Hunted. Basically he’s Robert Shaw in JAWS but without John Milius’ dialogue. So yeah, Falmouth is pretty great.
7. “WHITE MAN’S Methods Have Failed To Kill SHAKO – Now I’ll Do It The ESKIMO Way…” The most sympathetic human here is called Buck Dollar (I guess Burger MacFries was taken or something). Anyway Buck Dollar is a half Inuit/half American who clearly represents the intermingling of cultures and the tension between nature and civilisation. Almost immediately Buck has a chance to finish Shako off but refuses as he recognises the inherent spiritual purity of a beast which enjoys clawing people like scratch poles. Personally as much as I am expected to sympathise with Buck I wouldn’t want him to be making any decisions my life might depend on. Later in the penultimate confrontation Buck faces Shako with a combination of traditional spear and war cry ("MANICHOK!"). While this is thematically faithful, alas, in practical terms this is a quite frankly terrible plan and results in both parties being badly wounded.
Naturally in the final confrontation atop a mound of refuse Shako is dispatched by the power of Buck’s faith in his own heritage and his rejection of the ways of civilisation. No, not really. Buck shoots Shako with a bazooka at point blank range. Which kind of confuses the message, I think. I also think that the capsule everyone has been concerned with not damaging must have been somewhat more robust than previously thought. I think maybe someone might have shot SHAKO with a bazooka somewhat sooner really. I think they pulled this ending out of their backside is what I think. Such are the perils of writing a weekly series that can be cancelled at short notice due to poor reader reaction.
8. “AT LAST!”
And so the cautionary tale of Shako ends with Man and Bear dead in the garbage of a civilisation which is implacably and unthinkingly encroaching into the wild. Through everything Shako was true to himself. Yes, a lot of people died horribly, some children were irreparably traumatised and The Cold War almost heated up with a nuclear fire but in the end “…SHAKO DIED WELL!” When I was a child I read SHAKO and it was EXCELLENT! When I became a man I read SHAKO again and it still ain’t half bad.