Saturday, 13 June 2020

Ian Livingstone's Freeway Fighter



IAN LIVINGSTONE’S FREEWAY FIGHTER

Andi Ewington and Simon Coleby

Reviewed by Mark Lain

If you were to choose which entry from all the FF canon had the most potential for either a film/TV or graphic novel adaptation, then it has to be a choice between House Of Hell (which abortively did almost become a film a few years ago until it fell into a black hole of development hell) or Freeway Fighter (which, let’s face it is a rip-off of a film anyway given its striking similarity to the Mad Max franchise). The three Chadda Darkmane novels, with their conventional narratives, are also obvious choices and the first one, The Trolltooth Wars, did indeed get a GN adaptation a year or so before Freeway Fighter, but this was a fairly lukewarm affair made all the more lacklustre by a disastrous Kickstarter campaign that left most backers either totally hacked off or completely disinterested by the time it finally landed. It was initially also suggested that the Freeway Fighter GN might be funded by the Kickstarter route but it was ultimately picked up by Titan Comics and published conventionally over four monthly parts in standard comic book format, followed inevitably by a single combined volume trade paperback.

After the not actually too bad but also not that great experience that was Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars GN, I was wary of Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter potentially being a wash-out. The novel of The Trolltooth Wars is brilliant and bounces along as it takes the reader through an assemblage of much-loved FF lore. But the GN is a diluted affair with inappropriate art that does the material no justice at all. The Freeway Fighter gamebook is huge fun, but it is very dumb fun and is a far cry from the deeper fantasy material that FF mostly put out. So, other than a catalogue of mindless violence punctuated by a car driving across a post-apocalyptic wasteland (which would undoubtedly be very entertaining in comic book format) what could we expect from this GN? Well, the fact is that that is exactly what we get with Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter, but personally, other than the lead in to the gamebook (more on this later) I think this is actually what makes this such a winner as it is frenetic, fast-paced entertainment for its own sake. Just like the gamebook, it is straightforward, violent, and does not take itself too seriously, but there is also a lot more going on too in the characterisations.

The plot, such as it is, is the story of Bella de la Rosa, a road drifter, who stumbles across Ryan in the town of Baker, and agrees to take him as close to New Hope as they can get on the fuel they have. Thus we follow their journey together as they get repeatedly harassed by Doom Dogs who want her Dodge Interceptor. And this is the central maguffin of the story, as the real star of the show, and the actual subject of the GN, is the car itself’s backstory, starting in a Prologue where Bella races in it, and finally ending where it is getting souped-up ready for the journey to San Anglo that we play out in the gamebook. Throughout the GN, the car is treated as an entity – Bella chats with it, confides in it, sympathises with it, and cares for it. It is her one reliable constant in a futuristic world gone mad. The primary human characters she meets are mostly unreliable: the Doom Dogs are psychotic hooligans, and Ryan is pretty useless. Bella herself is a great lead. In classic action movie lead style, she is feisty, wise-cracking, very streetwise, but also massively haunted by personal demons and is hugely aware of her own mortality and constantly literally looks Death in the face. Ryan, on the other hand, is naïve, clumsy, nervous, and awkward, but ultimately means well and seems genuinely grateful to have met someone who does not want to kill him. Bella cares little for human company (her car is her only friend), but her humanity prevents her from abandoning Ryan to his inevitable fate.

Alongside these two new characters, and to make this feel familiar and connected, are a number of familiar faces and tropes from the gamebook itself. Spark Plug Pete shows up, The Animal drives the iconic Red Chevvy from the book’s cover, the ever-handy Flat-U-Fix gets put to use, and we meet Sinclair in New Hope right at the end. We even find a wrecked second Interceptor at one point and the wry observation is made that you don’t see many of those about! There are also many Easter Eggs for the eagle-eyed to pick out, some of which have FF meaning, some of which are just social commentary. Amongst these are: de la Rosa’s car is number 44 (this is Ian Livingstone’s “special” number); the helmet on the first Doom Dog that harasses Bella in the opening salvo of the GN has the number 13 on it (Freeway Fighter is FF #13); the keys to the Interceptor are on a four-leafed clover keyring (a Luck symbol); the Red Chevvy is present (as noted above); The Animal is also here; FF mega-collector and one-time Warlock Jamie Fry appears as a Doom Dog (he won a competition to be drawn into the book); and the only food Bella can find in an abandoned empty store is a bar of Trumpish Delight (presumably a wry nod to the pre-Presidency media belief that Donald Trump would start an apocalypse of some sort).

The point of most of the GN is simple violent entertainment, but it is bookended by a beginning and an end that have some real substance. The introductory pre-disaster car racing Prologue ends with the line “This isn’t going to end well” as it cuts into the Interceptor being pursued at high speed by a Doom Dog. This is a very cinematic concept: the opening action sequence that we join part-way through that then cuts to a similar juxtaposition but several years later and far more dangerous. This is a neat segue (and commentary on the whole piece), but the conclusion of the GN has an even neater segue: Sinclair notes that “I do have a use for a good driver. We’re running low on fuel. I need someone to go to the oil refinery at San Anglo for us” and thus, YOU presumably then come along after the GN ends as it leads directly into the gamebook. Equally, the final action scene sees the Interceptor being pursued to the gates of New Hope by the ever-present nuisance of the Doom Dogs. The gamebook tells us that Sinclair was kidnapped in an attack on New Hope by some bikers – the same ones that pursued Bella to NH in the GN perhaps?

Whilst there is a lot of cartoon violence in this GN and the action level and pace is full on, there are moments of quiet pathos too such as when Bella finds a couple who have overdosed on barbiturates. The way she talks to her car and sees it as a friend is a poignant commentary on loneliness and the need for human contact (or a substitute for this). The deep meaning in this is all the more intense as the car is a direct connection for her to her dead father and acts as his substitute too, hence the way she talks to it like it is her only true friend in an utterly lost world.

The Interceptor itself (really the star of the show) is at odds with that in the gamebook, however. The latter version as drawn by Kevin Bulmer is akin to a Lamborghini, whereas the Simon Coleby version in the GN bears a striking similarity to a Dodge Charger (although when I queried this with Coleby he did say that its look is a product of his imagination). Perhaps the I-400 Interceptor is a subconscious development of the Charger that we will one day still see lol. As this story comes before the gamebook, the Interceptor in the GN is nowhere near as tooled-up as the gamebook version, something that makes perfect sense as the gamebook’s Introduction does specifically say that it has been modified to resemble a battle-car.     

On the subject of Coleby’s art, this is key to the success of this GN. His action sequences are full of visible movement and there is a momentum and frenetic pace to his chase and battle images. The counterpoint to this is the way he captures the calm of the few moments of respite. Both of these points demonstrate just how skilled Coleby is in making his images really get across the various tempos of the piece. Coleby’s work for 2000AD always had these features and he has illustrated this GN perfectly in my opinion. The inappropriate Cartoon Network-style Gavin Mitchell art in Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars massively detracted from the effect it should have had. Coleby’s work in Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter however could not be better-suited and the decision to use him was inspired as his interpretation of the various scenes is perfect. Coleby produced the internals for the entire GN (ie all four parts) but, as is always the case with short multi-part comic books, the original individual issue versions came with a plethora of cover variants by numerous artists. However, the four Coleby covers are my favourites by far, again, because of the high octane imagery they portray. As Coleby’s interiors work so well, I find the variant covers by other artists to be rather less successful. To keep the collectors happy, each of Issues 2 thru 4 came with three cover variants. Issue 1 was offered with SEVEN variant covers: the standard A/B/C options of the next three issues, a Forbidden Planet exclusive using the original Jim Burns Puffin cover, a similar version with the Burns Battle Cars cover used on the Wizard reprint, a beautiful movie style poster cover, and a fanboy treat in the wraparound Adventure Sheet cover. There is actually an eighth variant too, but it is only a semi-variant isasmuch as Forbidden Planet offered for presale a version of the Burns red Chevvy cover signed by everyone involved (which annoyingly had one person missing who was late so missed the pre-signing event meaning only those copies where signatures were collected in person at the actual FP public signing event have him on them). Obviously the two Burns covers are fabulous, as is the movie cover. The Adventure Sheet cover is fun for the nostalgia but being just a black and white affair, it is actually rather downbeat. But, as I said before, of all the variants across the four individual issues, the Coleby versions win it for me. There is one particularly odd variant of Issue 1 where Bella has her hand in a dubious place and seems to be interfering with herself! Once the four parts were collected together into a single volume TPB, there were even two variants of this: the standard version uses the Coleby Issue 1 cover of the speeding Interceptor, whilst a FP exclusive uses the Burns red Chevvy cover again. In a neat touch, the Coleby cover TPB has a green spine (the Burns’ spine is orange) and each individual Issue has a green back cover. All nicely on-brand then.

Writer Andi Ewington is no newcomer to comic books and had written several before this piece came about. The whole thing is clearly a labour of love for Ewington and his attention to detail to make it consistent with and interconnecting to the gamebook is very apparent. The dialogue is snappy and suitably hard-boiled, and there is a sparcity to speech that suits the piece nicely. Dialogue plays second fiddle to action and the limiting of the speech bubbles allows the art to speak for itself and drive this through. I remember when the individual Issues first came out, that reading Issue 1 with its very limited amount of dialogue, really did make it feel like a pre-credits sequence, which it sort of is, as the real Mad Max-style violence, explosions, and converted road vehicles kicks in from Issue 2. A real credit to Ewington is that the GN works equally as well as a comic book for its own sake, as well as a FF fan confection, and there is definitely an intended market beyond the niche of FF fans as there is nothing here to alienate a reader with no knowledge of the source gamebook. For me, obviously, the pleasure is in getting another part of the FF cannon and growing the world, especially as this is a non-Titan set book and these generally get ignored in the overall world-building in FF.

The individual Issues and the combined GN included some additional material too, which is always welcome as it expands our understanding. In Ian Livingstone’s introduction he admits what we all suspected (that he deliberately cribbed from Mad Max) but he makes an odd remark when he says that the GN is “[an] adaptation of the interactive book as a linear narrative” which it quite simply is not. It is the Prequel and a completely different part of the story arc to that found in the gamebook. Generally though, IL’s intro is very useful and gives us an early history of FF for those readers who are not already familiar with it. There is also a nice and very heartfelt tribute to the original gamebook’s artist Kevin Bulmer, written by his ex-partner. This is actually very revealing and shows just how involved Bulmer was in video gaming in particular. His work with Jeff Wayne on War Of The Worlds is interesting to read and learn about too. Also included is a nice potted overview of Freeway Fighter itself by Jonathan Green and a few pages of Coleby’s concept art and prelims which are interesting to see. In other words, all of the “Special Features” (if this were a DVD) are worthwhile and add to the experience for those who want to know more beyond simply reading the GN.

And it is a good job that we do get this added value material as, if I have one criticism of this GN (and I really can only think of one) it is its brevity. In episodic format, each Issue is over in a few pages just as it gets going and, whilst this does leave you itching to read the next instalment, these are rather too short as comic books go. Indeed, even in its combined volume format, I reckon this takes no more than 15-20 minutes to read from cover to cover. On the one hand it can be argued that the shortness maintains its relentless pace and means there are no lulls or pointless filler parts. However, it would have been nice if it were longer as it does leave the reader feeling a little bit short-changed, especially compared to most TPBs I have read. But, as I said, this is literally the only issue I can take with this and it is otherwise very good indeed and hugely enjoyable.

For collector interest, in addition to the seven versions of Issue 1 and the three versions each of Issues 2 thru 4 (giving a total of 16 covers for the collector to get hold of), plus the two cover variants of the GN version, Forbidden Planet also produced a pair of exclusive 18” x 24” giclee prints of the two Burns covers, each limited to 25 units signed and numbered by Ian Livingstone and Jim Burns. Further promotional paraphernalia was also produced in the form of a set of two double-sided art postcards that were given away at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2, an A5-sized print signed by Livingstone that was exclusive to OK Comics in Leeds, plus the Burns variant of the collected TPB version also came with a print signed by all interested parties. Titan Comics (and indeed Forbidden Planet) rarely miss an opportunity to bankroll comic books nowadays meaning there is plenty out there for the completist to gather together.

The first attempt at a FF-based GN (Steve Jackson’s The Trolltooth Wars) was not a success overall. It suffered from misguided planning on many levels, was the work of largely untested creators in PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell, was marred by a farcical Kickstarter campaign to fund it, and is unlikely to appeal (or make any sense) to the non-FF fan reader. This second offering though from the talented creative team of Ewington and Coleby is very impressive and definitely does justice to its own concept as well as being very respectful to the original gamebook. The lead into the gamebook is smooth and effective, the action is breathtaking, the art is fantastic, and the whole thing just works brilliantly. OK, it is undeniably short and is light on plot but these are greatly made up for in its many positives. I have read it umpteen times and will continue to re-read it whenever I want a quick fix of mindless futuristic violence whilst feeling a bit of sadness for the average person who is just trying to eek out an existence in a collapsed society. I could sit and enjoy Coleby’s art in this GN for ages without even reading the text or following the story and therein lies, for me, the sign of a successful comic book: the art can stand on its own, the plot can stand on its own, and the whole thing meshes beautifully. There was talk at one point of Ewington producing another FF-based GN in the form of Deathtrap Dungeon, but sadly this project fell through, which is a huge shame as I would have loved to see more FF comics from Ewington as his first is really great stuff.



4 comments:

  1. Another top review. Here's Andi Ewington, Simon Coleby and Jim Burns discussing the Freeway Fighter GN at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2:

    Fighting Fantasy Fest 2: Freeway Fighters

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  2. Here here, we want more from Ewie!

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  3. Great review Mark. You just keep reading to get a 'Jamie' fix really!

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  4. Excellent review as always, damned good show. Though it does annoy me that I have the same name as this apparently mediocre and unprofessional artist. I'm even lumped in with him on Goodreads which is a mixed blessing in terms of publicity.

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