I'm a confirmed fan of NZ comics creator Richard Fairgray. I've already reviewed two excellent independent comics produced by him, first the one-shot Drinking Mercury, followed by the subtle three parter Falling Leaves. Both are excellent examples of how devotion and good writing can shine through a cost-effective production, black and white panels, and pencils done by somebody who is a first-class writer but is not necessarily a gifted fine-art illustrator.
It was with a sense of anticipation then that last year's splurge at a half-price NZ comics sale netted me a six-part series "Blastosaurus: Test Pattern" and a follow-up three-part sequel "Blastosaurus: Deep Focus". A quick glance indicated dinosaurs, ray-guns and robots. What more could a boy ask for?
Note - It turns out that the Blastosaurus released in 2008 (and which I purchased and read) is not to be the final version. The entire story is to be reworked and re-released. More on that at the bottom of the page. Read on with that thought in mind.
I settled down with Blastosaurus #1. Standard comic size, glossy monochromatic cover, 24 pages - 22 of comic story, 1 page advertisement for the NZ comics anthology New Ground, and one page prose story indirectly describing events of the robot wars. We'll get to the robot wars eventually. The entire 22 page comic story contains one single line of dialog, on the final two-page spread. The bulk of the tale is told in simple black and white artwork, and that story goes like this:
A capsule (of human origin) appears from nowhere and descends to the planet's surface where dinosaurs abound. The capsule ejects a chemical cannister. Four velociraptors (made famous by Jurassic Park and XKCD) are affected by the cannister and become sentient. They kill a mother Triceratops. The Triceratops child (vegetarian, didn't ya know) is also affected by the chemicals, and seeks revenge. The raptors run to the capsule and push the "Return" button. The Triceratops is dragged back through space and time with them, and arrives (alone for now) in Freak Out City.
That's it. Twenty-two pages in one paragraph, and there's really not much more to it. The following five issues show the Triceratops having landed in the future and encountering the few remaining humans, devastated first by the robot wars (in the 1930's robots were used in WWII, until they turned upon humanity and almost destroyed them), and later by the raptors (in the 2000's some sentient raptors appeared from nowhere and essentially did destroy humanity).
The "future humans" give the Triceratops a blaster and send him back to the 2000's to defeat the raptors and change history. Back in that time the Triceratops speaks English, befriends some kids, dresses like Humphrey Bogart, fights the raptors (now dressed in leather jackets) once, and joins the police force. The raptors link up with the evil corporate bad guys who sent the capsule that created them.
By that stage we're up to issue #6 of 6 in the first story arc, and all we've really done is set the scene for future action. Not a lot of happenings for six full-length issues. Think what Spider-Man had done after six issues, eh?
Let me change tack here for a moment, if I may. I have a good friend who I worked with for many years. He was a marketing/sales/customer-relations guy, and he worked his butt off to make a success for our company. He typically had no resources and he had to beg/steal/borrow technical support to make anything happen. But make things happen he did, with spectacular success.
A couple of years ago he was finally given a seven-figure budget and a full-time team. He worked just as hard, but the results were no greater (possibly even less) than what he achieved when he had nothing to work with. Some people work best under savage constraints. I think Richard Fairgray is one of those guys.
His one-issue Drinking Mercury and his three-part Falling Leaves are superb. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with Blastosaurus, it just lacks any sense of denseness. It ambles, shuffles and coasts its way along. Blessed with a steady flow of page space, it loses the rich sense of storytelling which pervades Fairgray's earlier work.
It's not helped by the fact that, to be honest, Fairgray is not a great artist. He's perfectly serviceable when supporting a rich, dense, innovative storyline. But when given much more space, his weakness as an illustrator is more starkly exposed.
Bottom line, Blastosaurus fails to satisfy. I can appreciate the intent of the layers of story that Richard is trying to construct. The robot wars back-story is built up in prose pages in each issue, though it doesn't really pay much of a part in the story proper. But the result just feels like a bunch of cool ideas spread around without a great deal of purpose. There action is thin on the ground, the characters aren't convincing, the art is nothing to write home about, and the ideas themselves remain too ephemeral. Finally and most fatally, the subtle and ambiguous sub-text that echoed in his earlier work is completely absent here.
Postscript: I just read the second story arc, the three part "Deep Focus" which runs through issues #7 through #9. It compounded the fundamental problem with the first issues which was the sheer sprawling, bloated nature of the saga. Several more characters were introduced, more plot points and sub-plots were added, but nothing of any substance was resolved. After nine issues, this series is simply collapsing under its own weight.
Post-Postscript: Richard contacted me soon after this review hit the 'Net and gave me some further background. It seems that this version of Blastosaurus was rushed out the door in order to get the intellectual property in print as soon as possible. Richard tells me that he has a near-total rewrite project in the works which ostensibly improves the story significantly, including addressing many of the issues I mentioned in my review.
That's a bit of deja vu, given that basically the same situation occurred with another NZ comic, "Tour Girls". See Tour Girls #0 & Comma Cut #1 for the original book and Tour Girls Revisited for the re-release. In both cases, a draft version was rushed out the door, and then a rewrite was planned to improve a story which in hindsight was... not as good as it could be.
"Publish in Haste, Repent at Leisure", one might say. Well, kudos are awarded in both cases for recognizing the problems and moving to repair them. Kudos also for actually getting something in print where many just dream. But I can't really find it in myself to fully forgive either Victoria Dreyer (of Tour Girls) or Richard Fairgray for putting an inferior product on the market. I'm the customer... I walked in there and handed over my hard-earned cash for those comics. I shouldn't have to go buy the same comic twice just to get a decent read.
Printing a bad comic book "just to get it out there" is massively self-defeating. Writers exist on their reputations, and they only get one reputation.
In Richard's case, I'll be giving him a second chance based on the great work he's done in the past. But I can't guarantee a third chance...