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Sunday, January 25, 2009


England's 2000 A.D. sci-fi weekly is no stranger to "war in space" stories, but the short-lived original run of THE V.C.s gets my vote as the best of the lot. Clocking in at a mere twenty-two chapters, THE V.C.s scores high points for all of the elements that make for a great military science-fiction story and has the common decency not to glorify warfare in the least, instead showing it to be the ugly, wasteful and inevitably destructive ravager of lives and cultures that it is. When measured against the majority of strips considered classics from 2000 A.D.'s golden age — 1977 through roughly 1984 — THE V.C.s is a surprisingly quiet series, much more interested in the dysfunctional dynamics of its battle-hardened protagonists than the zero-G shoot-'em-up pyrotechnics that go part and parcel with the genre.

Written by Gerry Finley-Day (co-creator of 2000 A.D.'s most famous space-war series, ROGUE TROOPER) and Steve McManus, the series kicks off in the year 2531 and follows raw recruit Steve Smith as he enters a savage conflict between our solar system and the vicious invasion forces of the mysterious "Geeks," a multi-form race who can correctly be read as extra-terrestrial Viet Cong. Expecting to be placed within a standard combat unit, Smith receives an unpleasant surprise when he finds himself assigned to the ship of The V.C.'s, a motley crew composed of men from several colony worlds, each of whom bears no love for native Earthmen like Smith. Derogatorily referred to as "Earthworm," Smith is treated like he's lower than dogshit by every one of the ship's crew (except for their gruff-but-tolerant commanding officer, Jupe) and his complete lack of actual combat experience does not gain him any fans or sympathy. The philosophy of the V.C.'s is simple, "You're hit, you're dead," and damned if it isn't the truth; during the course of the narrative there is much death on both sides of the battle and Smith takes all lessons learned during all the deep-space horror to heart, gradually evolving into a space trooper every bit as ruthless and capable as his crewmates, but that's to be expected when dealing out the kind of carnage necessary to keep the spaceways of our solar system clean of would-be-conquerors. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the term "V.C.'s" is the crew's self-deprecating nickname that's short for "vacuum cleaners."

Displaying surprisingly little of the levity that 2000 A.D. was known for at the time, THE V.C.s is a taut and tense entry that deserves its place in the pantheon of early Two Thou winners and the art by Mike McMahon — whose unique style contributed immeasurably to the success of JUDGE DREDD and later SLAINE — , Cam Kennedy (also a contributor to ROGUE TROOPER) and Gary Leach (who memorably illustrated the stunning first story arc of Alan Moore's classic MIRACLEMAN) certainly did the series no harm, creating a gritty and unpleasant galaxy in which the heroes fight and die, and occasionally looking so grime-encrusted that you'll want to climb into the strip's panels and force the characters to bathe at gunpoint.

The original run of THE V.C.s is complete in this volume and serves as the essential primer for what comes when the series was revived in 2002, some twenty-two years after it was last seen. I have no explanation as to why the series lay fallow for so long, especially considering how 2000 A.D. is notorious for bringing back some strips year after year — and in the case of some, running them into the ground well after they ceased to be of any interest or worth, most notably the once-excellent SLAINE which is now an interminable and incoherent mess — but the second V.C.s series is just as much fun as the original, so I'll be on board for when those are collected (I only read the second run's first story arc, but that was enough to convince me that's it's worth keeping up with).

And a final word of caution to would-be collectors of these current collections of classic 2000 A.D. material: the one downside to having so many of the magazine's most celebrated series becoming available in the U.S. is their comparatively steep import prices. The thicker phonebook-sized volumes can go for as much as $35.00 and a smaller collection like THE V.C.s retails at $22.50 (both prices are the in-store cost; if you order via Amazon expect heinous overseas shipping costs on top of the import rate), so unless you have cash to burn in these uncertain times, as much I recommend most of what Two Thou has to offer I also recommend choosing what you buy with frugality in mind.

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