It's a dim future in 2074, as Evan Dorkin's crew of misfit smugglers hop from one hectic planet to another, dodging crazed politicians, psychotic mercenaries and rioting skinheads along the way.
22 February 2002

Writer/Artist: Evan Dorkin
Letterer: Kurt Hathaway
Collecting PIRATE CORP$ #1-4
Price: $12.95
Publisher: Slave Labor Graphics
ISBN: 0-943151-21-X

It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that without Evan Dorkin and HECTIC PLANET, I might not be reading comics today.

Back in 1988, like a great many British readers then and now, I was outgrowing 2000AD and not exactly being overwhelmed with further options for gratification through graphic storytelling. Then, along came DEADLINE, the brainchild of Steve Dillon (PREACHER) and Brett Ewins (SKREEMER).

A magazine anthology, DEADLINE featured - alongside a range of articles of widely variable quality - a fine selection of excellent sequential art. It's most associated with launching the juggernaut that was TANK GIRL, fondly remembered serials like HUGO TATE (by Nick Abadzis) and WIRED WORLD (by Philip Bond) and varied lunacy from the likes of Shaky Kane and D'Israeli.

But, just as significantly, it brought the American comic industry to my attention via reprints of classics like LOVE AND ROCKETS and the work of Evan Dorkin. The rest is history, and an ever-decreasing bank balance.

Though Dorkin's anarchic MILK AND CHEESE series grabbed more of the attention in DEADLINE, it was HECTIC PLANET (retitled from the original PIRATE CORPS$) that really hooked me with it's use of far-future space-opera action as a backdrop for realistic tragi-comic character interaction.

HECTIC PLANET is the story of the semi-competent and tragically unlucky crew of the Jersey Devil, a trading ship in the semi-legal Pirate Corps. The ship is owned by vaguely insectoid captain Ron Chitin (former keeper for the Jersey Devils hockey team) and run with the aid of two trusted sidekicks. Duck-faced medic Datsun Bleare has been with Ron since his hockey days, while the gentle-giant amnesiac "Charlie" sits in the pilot seat.

DIM FUTURE opens with the hapless and hopeless Devil crew botching a heist on Cota Darno. Governor Fleidermaus then blackmails them into fetching him something called the "Source of Life", with the aid of a heavily armed and highly dangerous robotic entity known as the TANC.

Our heroes are pursued by - among others - a rival Pirate Corps crew, Vroom Socko and the Screaming Retina Gang, the incredibly rich tycoon Mervyn LeGrande, and skull-faced organ trader Zygo Lukewarm. Lukewarm's attempts at achieving immortality through organ transplantation have kept him alive for two hundred years, but he's been a bit unstable since his face slid off his skull and into his soup.

The second story in the collection sees the Jersey Devil crew stop off at Calico spaceport to reequip and regroup, and the focus switches to the crew's younger members, Halby Durzell and Renensco P Blue, as they catch a gig by the famous ska band the Mad Planets. Things take a turn for the worse as a long-running civil war results in the destruction of the planet Yanmo, causing Yanmian crewmember Harlie to set off on a fight to the death against a planet full of drunks.

The futureworld of HECTIC PLANET is a berserk place, and gives Dorkin license to go wild with his designs. The main characters make for interesting visuals, from Ron's distinctive four-armed insectoid look to Renensco's featureless cueball head. The more dangerous characters (Socko, Harlie, the TANC) are imbued with a due sense of menace despite the general cartoon-like nature of the art. Dorkin doesn't skimp on the backgrounds either. From the sprawling cityscape of Cota Darno to the masses of interesting looking aliens drinking, dancing and throwing each other out of windows, there's always something intriguing to look at over the characters' shoulders.

All this detail adds texture and removes the need for Dorkin to resort to stilted exposition to establish just how different the future is. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. In this far future, Dorkin indulges himself by having ska and punk survive as the dominating musical sources. Logos for Fishbone, Blake Babies and the Buzzcocks abound. This musical motif also gives us one of the very best scenes, in the shape of the Mad Planets gig/riot.

Some of the early art - while exhibiting Dorkin's trademark energy - is a little rough - by this stage, he's on top of his game. To use an appropriately ska-related musical analogy, think of Madness circa "One Step Beyond" as opposed to "Our House".

As the gig degenerates into a riot, the hyperkinetic art is crammed to bursting point with vibrant detail. This is the kind of scene where comics can often achieve effects that are beyond other media. Prose couldn't convey the huge amount of action going on here, brought to life by Dorkin's action-packed artwork. But the static nature of the comic panel also allows the reader to contemplate the wealth of background detail that would pass by largely overlooked on film.

The pacing and structure do suffer a little from this being a collection of four issues from an ongoing series, rather than a purpose built graphic novel. The plot switches from the fairly straightforward and linear space-opera of the search for the Source, to the large array of character-driven parallel-plots that became the series' norm.

It's in the second half that the work really lives up to the "hectic" part of the name that it eventually acquires, exhibiting the kind of hyper-stimulated style that is a characteristic of future chapters. Structurally speaking, the collection does end with a couple of partially resolved plot threads that are carried through to the second collection, CHECKERED PAST. The series isn't neatly divided into story arcs, so there's no ideal breakpoint, but DIM FUTURE can be enjoyed on it's own merits.

If you're not yet persuaded to give DIM FUTURE a try, then the best way to sample of life on HECTIC PLANET would be to get hold of THE BUMMER TRILOGY. Published by Slave Labor Graphics in April 2001, this single issue collects three short stories that were originally published in the DARK HORSE PRESENTS anthology in 1997.

None of the three require any prior knowledge of events in HECTIC PLANET and they are acid-sharp takes on the idea of love in a hectic climate. As per the title of the collection, none has a particularly happy ending; but they are an ideal sample of Dorkin's HECTIC PLANET storytelling style.

Dorkin has spent the last few years busy with material as varied as the SPACE GHOST COAST TO COAST TV show and his own DORK comedy anthology, but has often expressed a desire to revisit the HECTIC PLANET characters, describing them as the "most personal" of all his projects.

The publication of BUMMER TRILOGY carries the promise of new HECTIC PLANET material in 2002, which is definitely something to look forward to. There's always room for more action-packed future-shocked angst-ridden space-opera like this on the shelves. Not that there actually is anything else like this on the shelves!

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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