Doug: We here at the BAB hope all of our U.S. friends enjoyed a nice Independence Day weekend. Our former Oregonian Edo Bosnar fills the scripter's chair today with a visual treat for those of us who loved all things Battlestar Galactica back in the 1970s.
Marvel’s other licensed space opera property: Battlestar Galactica (a rambling, retrospective overview)
All right, everybody, you’re not going to get any Team America reviews, at least not from me, but I can give you Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica, because in this case, I do have the entire run, even though – unlike the case of Team America – back in the day I only had the first few issues when the series was actually coming out.
The way I now have the entire 23 issue run of this series is kind of odd, by the way. I have the only two (so far) trade paperbacks that collect any of the series, published by Titan Books, called “Saga of a Star World” and “The Memory Machine.”
The first one collects the first five issues of the series, plus, oddly, issues 15 and 16. The second one collects issues 6-13. And Titan never released a book that collected the rest of the series. Because of their odd incompleteness, I wouldn’t have bought these normally, but a few years ago, while browsing on eBay, I stumbled across two different sellers, both in the UK, offering them with a starting price of one pound (or rather 99 pence) and no bidders. And both cited really (unbelievably) reasonable postage – I placed bids without even thinking, and acquired both of these books for less than $10 total (something to the tune of $9 and change). However, once I got them, I realized that I now had the driving need for the rest of the series, especially since they don’t include the stuff I really wanted: the last stretch of issues drawn, and also written, by Walt Simonson. So I eventually tracked down bought the missing single issues (14, 17-23) to complete the set. Anyway, sorry for the lengthy digression…
The first five issues are just straight-up adaptations of the pilot movie and the following two-part episode (you know: the one in which Jane Seymour’s character, Serina – spoiler alert! – dies at the end).
These were competently done as far as adapted stories go. Thinking about it now, they stack up pretty well against the far more popular Star Wars comics coming out at the same time. The art generally looks better – well, the art in issues 4 and 5, by Walt Simonson and Klaus Jansen, certainly does. Ernie Colon did the first three issues, and while I usually like his art, in these BSG books it often looks bit rushed and sketchy – in fact, in some places it looks like something drawn by an artist who’s still learning the craft.
Then, starting with issue #6, the series went into this long, meandering story arc that continued for a full eight issues, revolving around a device called the Memory Machine (hence the name of the second TPB). Those of you who watched and remember the original series, the story in the episodes immediately following the pilot movie saw the Galactica and the colonial fleet enter a starless void. In the show, they found the ancient planet of Kobol (allegedly the original home of the human race) at the end of the void, and that was it.
Not so in the comic book series, as they stay in the void after leaving Kobol, all the way until issue #13. I suspect that this may have had something to do with the ongoing TV series at the time – probably an edict handed down from the studio that none of the comic book stories could tamper or conflict with the show’s continuity.
And in fact, writer Roger McKenzie actually found a way to make travelling through a void work. First, Commander Adama is put out of commission right away, as he enters a mind-probe device, the aforementioned ‘Memory Machine’, to try to recall some hieroglyphs he briefly saw on Kobol which apparently revealed how to get to Earth. However, the device doesn’t work in a straightforward fashion: whoever enters it goes into this dream-like trance and starts vividly recalling all kinds of memories without any particular reason or rhyme (and there’s a monitor that displays these dreams on a screen).
This opens up an interesting plot-line. Since Adama chairs the Council of Twelve, basically the government of what’s left of the colonies, his decision to enter the memory machine leaves a power vacuum. A corrupt council member, Sire Uri (who was a minor character in the original TV series), exploits this fact to engineer a coup in the council and have himself elected president, and also commander of the fleet. An additional twist is that some henchmen acting under Uri’s orders damage the memory machine’s controls, which basically means Adama is trapped in it. It’s interesting that McKenzie introduced the idea of political drama and intrigues to Battlestar Galactica, something that, to the best of my recollection, never really came into play in the original series – but then became one of the prime drivers of the story in the more recent re-imagined Galactica.
The memory machine plotline also gave Marvel’s writers an opportunity to delve into the pre-cataclysm past of the Galactica and its crew, as Adama recalls some of his earlier adventures. Of course, these were mainly filler issues, not written by regular writer McKenzie, but rather by Bill Mantlo (in issues 8 and 9) and Tom Defalco (issue 10). It was also during this arc that Walt Simonson also began either plotting or co-plotting, or so-scripting various issues (he took over as the series’ writer in issue #20).
By the way, a really interesting concept was introduced during this story arc: Scavenge World. This is an immense agglomeration of old space ships and other technological debris all bolted together right in the middle of the void. It’s inhabited by space-faring aliens of all sorts who love to latch onto any ship lost in the void and then rip it to pieces for spare parts. They’re led by a strikingly beautiful, yet ruthless and manipulative telepathic “queen” named Eurayle (who, like any self-respecting buccaneer, spacefaring or otherwise, wears an eye-patch). She, naturally, takes a shine to Starbuck, as she’s intrigued by the fact that he’s the only one who seems to be able to resist her telepathy (which includes mind-control abilities).
However, the memory machine bit did drag on, and letters pages in the subsequent issues (the ones I have as singles) indicate that quite a few of the regular readers were getting tired of it. That plotline actually winds down with a big dust-up at Scavenge World between the Galactica, a Cylon war fleet that had been stalking them in the void, and the denizens of Scavenge World itself. Adama finally emerges from the Memory Machine with the help of Eurayle’s telepathy; her price for this assistance is to demand that Starbuck remain with her on Scavenge World, as her “general” (but more like boy-toy). This is another interesting and unusual twist, as Starbuck is in fact absent from the series for the better part of five issues.
The next three issues (#s 14-16) contain done-in-one stories, although issue #14 has a bit of a denouement to the Memory Machine arc, since Sire Uri is formally convicted of treason and imprisoned – this one actually should have been included in the TPB. But the focus of the story is on my least favorite BSG character, Boxey (Apollo’s adopted son), who’s upset about the fleet leaving Starbuck behind and starts acting out. He ends up wandering into a room with a radiation leak, and almost dies. However, his robotic pet, Muffit, saves him at the price of frying his circuitry.
Issues 15 and 16, which, as noted above, are included in the first TPB, are quite possibly the best of the series. In the first one, the Galactica sends a search party to track down a distress signal with a colonial signature, which ends up being a derelict Caprican battle-cruiser. Boomer boards the craft, and finds it infested with gigantic mutated vermin, and there are human corpses everywhere. He eventually finds a woman about to die who explains how the ship got there; she also makes a shocking revelation.
In #16, the Galactica comes across a planet rich in minerals they need to replenish their fuel supply. However, they find a satellite in orbit which ends up being a Cylon beacon. The Galactica begins transmitting a jamming signal while a team of technicians goes out to disable the beacon. However, the satellite is booby-trapped, and it also triggers another defense mechanism, as a strange ship appears and begins strafing the colonial Vipers defending the tech crew. Apollo engages the ship in a dogfight and they both end up crash-landing on the planet. The pilot of the mysterious ship is an unusual Cylon, a prototype for a new, more intelligent and dangerous centurion that was left stranded on that planet with a ship incapable of interstellar flight, because the Cylons were afraid of their creation. Apollo eventually takes it out, but the epilogue indicates that it can reconstruct itself.
The reason I like issues 15 and 16 so much is not just the really well-told stories; it’s also because Simonson was just hitting it out of the ballpark with his art. It’s quite apparent that he was really having fun at this point, drawing really great action sequences, and designing really cool-looking ships and even a wicked, sword-wielding killer robot that would have been right at home in the now legendary Manhunter stories he did with Archie Goodwin.
The Galactica next comes to a lush planet which could be a plentiful source of food for the fleet. It’s interesting to note that the fleet will remain at this planet until the series ends with issue #23.
There’s a two-part story in which they learn that a type of fruit on the planet which gives off this pungent yet compelling odor turns humans into giant, Red Hulk-looking savages who eventually lose their minds (by the way, in a letter to the editor printed in issue #20, an irate fan who wasn’t too fond of the story used – very likely coined – the term ‘red Hulk’). The Galactica’s biologists later learn that this fruit can be treated and turned into a nutritional paste.
Starbuck makes his triumphant return in issue #19, which is another case of those damn banner ads ruining a fantastic cover (my personal favorite). Starbuck comes hurtling into the Galactica’s dock in a ramshackle craft that he found and patched up on Scavenge World. He realized it was an ancient human ship, of the type probably used by the inhabitants of Kobol when they first flew out to the stars. He thought – correctly, it turns out – that it may hold clues as to the course for Earth. There’s also this pretty well-done sequence of split pages in this issue, in which Starbuck explains to everyone how he left Scavenge World: he puts a positive shine on everything, while the panels on the other side show the reader what actually happened.
So of course, the none-too-happy Eurayle came storming after Starbuck, and once she and her henchmen find the fleet, there’s a showdown. Starbuck and Eurayle have a duel to the death in space suits, which Eurayle apparently wins, although when the issue closes, it’s revealed that it involved a bit of subterfuge devised by Apollo to keep Starbuck both alive and in the fleet while Eurayle saves face in front of her people.
The story in issue #21, written by Steven Grant and drawn by Brent Anderson, is a bit of an interlude that centers on Apollo’s sister, Athena (who was otherwise an unfairly neglected character in both the TV and the comic book). After passing through a wormhole, she gets stranded on a planet inhabited a powerful yet lonely alien creature who tries to create a paradise for her in order to convince her to stay. The outcome is rather sad, but this is a pretty solid SF story.
The series then wraps up with a really good story that started out as a subplot a few issues earlier: the main character is Jolly, a colonial warrior who was an entirely minor character on the TV show. Here, he takes center stage as he goes on an undercover mission to catch a ring of pirates who are somehow stealing food and other supplies – he does so in this rather outlandish outfit, which is supposedly how merchants from the Geminon colony dress.
It ends up that the richest people in the fleet, many of them good buddies with the disgraced and imprisoned Sire Uri, are behind it all. They created a hideout in Sire Uri’s ship, The Rising Star, where they live in the opulence to which they’re accustomed, while everyone else in the fleet has to live in cramped quarters and ration food. Again, this is a theme that was never really explored in the original show, i.e., social stratification and class warfare among the colonials, but which would later be a major aspect of the re-imagined Galactica. Incidentally, a rather harsh punishment is meted out to these malefactors: they’re exiled from the fleet in their own little ship, and after the fleet departs its star drive malfunctions.
All in all, I can say that I really like Marvel’s BSG. It had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was solid, with some really outstanding individual issues. I’ve read it all the way through twice now, and it seems like the series really kicked into gear somewhere during the Memory Machine arc. Something just gels at that point (and the idea of Scavenge World is brilliant – it deserved its own mini-series at least). By now, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Walt Simonson, so I’m particularly fond of that last batch of issues, from about #15 onward, in which he did most of the art and took over as writer. Each time I got to the end of that last story, I found myself thinking, “Damn! I could read at least a dozen more issues of this!” And apparently some readers back then shared my opinion, as evidenced by this letter to the editor:
Just a few more thoughts on the TPBs: first, I really dislike the covers (which are posted above); they have that airbrushed quality that makes them look kitschy. And another point against them is the way the covers to individual issues are reprinted. Instead of simply being printed like the rest of the material over the full page, they are rather unattractively featured in shrunken and distorted form, often two per page.
Some points in their favor, on the other hand, are the short text pieces that provide some information on the show, the comics and other, ancillary aspects of the Galactica phenomenon – including brief introductions in both books by the original Captain Apollo himself, Richard Hatch. For the uber-geeks, there are even technical specs on all of the spacecraft: the Galactica, Colonial Vipers, the Cylon Raiders, etc.
The text on the various comic book versions of BSG makes the odd claim that Marvel’s series was actually meant to have a limited run, i.e., that the 23 issues had been planned from the start. I find this claim questionable, first and foremost because there are no indications in the editorial comments in the letters pages that this was the case. Otherwise, there’s also a text on the BSG merchandise, and I hope Karen and Doug don’t mind me including these here (because this is already a very image-heavy post) – mainly because I think BAB regular David B. will get a kick out of them.