Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Star Slammers: The Complete Collection by Walter Simonson

Adventure stories live on superlatives. Batman isn't just a pretty smart guy in good shape: he's the world's greatest detective and an outstanding martial artist. You never hear about a woman who's pretty darn cute for this neighborhood, or a kid who can hit the target a lot more often than you'd expect, for his age. Everything is heightened and clarified, everyone is the best at what they do (and what they do isn't very nice, usually).

You could make a pretty long list of stories about the greatest mercenary company ever -- David Drake alone has a solid shelf full of novels and stories, and I've got a soft spot myself for Glen Cook's Black Company books -- even before you get into the world of comics. But in comics, one of the best examples of that idea is Walt Simonson's Star Slammers. They haven't appeared all that often -- one graphic novel from the early '80s that reworked a pre-professional story, and then a mini-series a decade later -- but their brightly colored neo-Kirby outfits make them stand out in any crowd and their killing prowess is up there with any of their fictional competition.

And both of those Star Slammers stories are appearing together between two covers for the first time this spring in Star Slammers: The Complete Collection, a hardcover from the fine folks at IDW. [1] The two stories are utterly separate, taking place hundreds (maybe thousands) of years apart, but they have one thing in common: the Slammers themselves, and their overwhelming ability to dole out violence.

The first story is rougher and the worldbuilding substantially shakier, as we'd expect from a much younger Simonson. The universe is medium-future space opera, with humans spread across dozens of planets with multi-day transit times between them. (Some of the humans seem to have speciated a bit more than others, but they're all humans: no sign of other sophonts here.) Three Slammers arrive on one planet, hired to intervene in a local dispute. They do so quickly and definitively, and take their spoils -- all of the weapons of the defeated side -- and head back to their secret home planet. The Slammers, we learn, were noble savages living on a low-tech planet, the descendants of criminals dumped there. The source of those original settlers, the planet Orion, has more recently taken to using the Slammer's planet as their personal playground for the most dangerous game, until one Slammer fought back and galvanized the Orions to decide to wipe the entire Slammer planet clean. And so we get the Big Battle to Save Their World, as we must.

(A lot of this story is too pat and doesn't make much sense -- how do the Slammers get into space to begin with if they're low-tech nomads? did Simonson really mean that the Slammers would turn the threat of genocide back on Orion at the end? how did the Slammers get so good at using weaponry they don't have on their planet? did this really all happen in about twenty years? -- but it works fine for an adventure story about the hard-bitten band of warriors defending their homeland from the evil forces of decadence and treachery.)

The second story is set in the same universe, but it's completely unconnected, set many centuries later. Another Slammers engagement has ended with one of them captured -- a very rare event -- and being transported, sedated, under heavy guard and telepathic monitoring, to the center of the empire he attacked. Of course he escapes, and of course things are more complicated then they look at first. This is a stronger story, from Simonson in his prime, with great craggy art and strongly-drawn heroic characters in heroic clothing.

These are not Simonson's best comics -- even the later Star Slammers story is pretty much a straight-ahead adventure story, with no pretensions to anything more. But the first one is an interesting peek at a great creator near the very beginning of his career, and the second is a great space opera romp. And it's great t have them back and collected together.

[1] I saw this book digitally through NetGalley, and it included only the story pages -- dropped right into the first story in a way that made me think pages were missing, actually. So I can't speak to any other aspects of the book -- introductions, reproduction, or any additional matter. IDW's page for the book says it also features the first version of the origin story, done by Simonson as his thesis project at Rhode Island School of Design, but those pages were not in the digital copy I saw.

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