As a break from Dredd here's a look at a sci-fi horror outing remarkable for the artistry of its visual execution. I've not noticed anyone go on about this one, but I think it's worth going on about. So I did. DOGS OF MARS by Maybury, Zito, Trov, Wieser, Bautista
DOGS OF MARS Art by Paul Maybury Story by Johnny Zito,Tony Trov and Christian Wieser Lettered by Gabe Bautista Book Design by Pauk Maybury & Jordan Gibson Collects DOGS OF MARS#1-4, plus a couple of sketch pages, with pin ups by Steve Funnell, Viktor Kalvachev, Alexis Ziritt, Christine Larsen, Giannis Milonogiannis, Michel Fiffe, Rob Giullory, Jordan Gibson and Victoria Grace Elliot Image Comics, £7.99 (Digital) (2012)
I bought this on Comixology a while back and read it the other day due to circumstances having interposed a considerable distance between myself and my faithful paper pals. (This time of year I travel around unlocking the doors to lunatic asylums. I'm in Haddonfield on Saturday, watch out for me!) I'm glad I got round to reading it finally, because while it is a work few would grace with the term original it is effectively, efficiently and, I have to say, impressively done. I should probably set your trembling minds at rest right from the off that this has nothing to do with John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars; a film so execrable that all I can remember is the sight of Ice Cube stumbling about in camo “fat pants” (i.e. vanity pants designed to hide excess poundage) and the reliably stolid Charles Cyphers gamely failing to save this regrettable repetitive muddle of cinematic junk. (John Carpenter remains a cinematic God though.) No, this is completely different, by which I mean a bit similar. But then again DOGS OF MARS is a bit similar to a lot of things. That's not a problem. Borrow away; it's what you do with it that counts - that shall be the whole of the Law. And I have to say I was pretty impressed with DOGS OF MARS; particularly considering the only member of the creative team I'd heard of was Paul Maybury. The man no one calls “Magic Maybury” was the reason I found the book. I searched on his name, since Comixology won't find anything if you put in “derivative but fundamentally entertaining and surprisingly well executed genre entertainment”. Strangely “Paul Maybury” returns a lot more hits, I find.
Endearing itself to me right from the start DOGS OF MARS doesn’t piss about. It opens in media res; I think that's the term. Anyway stuff's kicked off already, we're dropped straight in and you have to run to catch up. Clearly things on Mars Base Bowie (ugh) are less than ideal; order is breaking down, an execution is in the offing, a murder has occurred and there's talk of something “out there”. Before you can get your bearings the space fan gets a good coat of space faeces and we whipcrack back to the start to see what went wrong. Turns out that what we've got here is a bunch of scientists and soldiers planning to terraform Mars by dropping a nuke into its guts and then then, uh, algebra, plants and, er, things because, science. Clearly it's a case of Chekhov's Nuke so the “science” doesn't matter. Also, it's an action-horror story set on Mars so worrying about the science might not be the best use of your time here. The plot's good in its urgent hokiness, the whole thing's delivered with a straight face and the thundering pace means it can barrel right over any disbelief that might stray into the road. It's also pretty icky stuff and manages to define its cast quickly and with elegant simplicity. Other than Maybury's visuals this might be where DOGS OF MARS impresses most. No matter how brief their appearance all the characters are discrete and their demises are affecting. I liked the burly sad guy who became an astronaut to impress his wife but, “She left me for the manager of a Mr. Cluck's Chicken in Utah.” He's barely in the book but he's funny, sad and when he goes...it's bad.
All the secondary characters, no matter their genre mandated impermanence, are similarly sketched by the creators with an efficiency lacking from (sshhhhhh!) many established writers. But the best bit of the book is the relationship which defines the two key protagonists: Zoe and Turk. They being two female characters who occupy the top spots in the Mars Base hierarchy and whose love/hate dynamic is so sharply defined you'll keep checking your fingers for punctures. Yeah, yeah, at first you might roll your eyes as it looks like Zoe's husband is the source of the sisterly friction, but it's soon apparent that that's just a symptom of a deeper and more realistic fracture. It's far less the usual rice cakes pressed into the shape of women that comics usually deal in. No sad lady assassins or sad lady robot assassins or ladies who are basically differentiated from the same male characters by their sadness. Nope, none of that sad crap. The interaction between Zoe and Turk is far more akin to the women in The Descent; which, yes, is a movie about weekend spelunkers menaced by cannibal throwbacks but, you know, fair's fair, is still pretty good on character. Honest. Horror always hurts more when you care about the characters, and because someone had bothered to write some characters DOGS OF MARS made me wince more than once.
Mind you there's a difference between writing and “story” which is what Zito, Trov and Wieser are actually credited with. It's entirely possible they gave Maybury their “story” and the distillation of it into a viciously entertaining comic is down to Maybury's alchemical finesse. Or his “storytelling”, as it is known. Because be in no doubt Maybury rocks these pages like honeymooners in a caravan. In the back there are sketches of the characters which are clearly defined and reader friendly in the extreme. But in the book itself Maybury discards this catchy clarity and goes for an approach so loose it gives David Cameron's grasp on truth a run for its money. It also, honesty demands I concede, at times gives lucidity a run for its money. But...that's okay. It really is. There are a number of approaches to horror – show it, don't show it, and show something but let it unsettle via its lack of clarity. (Hey, you want Kim Newman you go pay Kim Newman, Cochise.) It's this latter approach that gets most play from Maybury. Given there's an awful lot of body horror and panicked rushing about it also turns out to be the most aesthetically appropriate approach. From character designs, hardware and general atmospherics there's an obviously experimental edge to all of Maybury's work here, but never moreso than in the frequent and intentional dips into visual bedlam. None of which detracts from the pleasure of the reading experience. In fact this lurching in and out of coherency works in tandem with the unusual colouring choice of having just white and red. On occasion this is powerfully inverted and so guts spray out like cold white worms into a warmly carmine world. There's also some lovely dream imagery and a daring fragmentation of images into pixellated chaos. All of which ultimately raises what is at root a merely satisfying act of genre homage up several levels, into a propulsive and frenetically entertainingly unique beast. Woof , woof! DOGS OF MARS is VERY GOOD!
Mars wants – COMICS!!!