2000 AD: The Ultimate Collection #43. Originally serialised in 2000 AD Progs 178-227.
It’s September 1980. Whatever else I think of this story, let’s first give writer Alan Habden and artist Massimo Belardinelli credit for creating something that is so Eighties and yet so early on in that decade! With a hero that would stand alongside Snake Plissken, fantasy adventure that could probably find a role for Arnold Schwarznegger and a macho vibe that fits far more eighties movies than I can link to, this whole book in retrospect feels like the foundation stone for 1980-1989 in popular culture.
Reading “Meltdown Man (1980)” today is a fascinating proposition. It’s a real outlier in terms of the Ultimate Collection, mainly due to its length – assuming no very unexpected additions to this series, this will be the only collection that just contains one long story. (If memory serves, there’s only one in the Mega Collection as well: Oz.) We also have a highlighted writer that isn’t one of the heavy hitters of 2000 AD that make up most of the rest of the Ultimate Collection. It’s certainly my first exposure to Hebden, although the behind-the-scenes material in the book points to him being an interesting character. (To be honest, I find the other series mentioned in that essay a bit more intriguing than this one! “Mind Wars” from Starlord in particular sounds fascinating.) I get the sense that this book is an acknowledgement that 2000 AD isn’t just about its successful returning series, but also about one-off sci-fi adventure stories. With its impressive length and generally solid story-telling, “Meltdown Man” feels a bit like a stand-in for all of those kinds of stories.
Looking at the story itself, there are a lot of positives. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first – there’s a brilliant achievement here in just telling a consistent story over 4 or so pages every week for 50 weeks. One of the big challenges of these collections of early 2000 AD stories in particular is that they’re really not meant to be read back-to-back this way. This is pure adventure serial, where stopping every handful of pages is the point. Because this was one entire story, I actually decided to try and read this one an episode at a time, having at least a 15-minute or so break in between. I’m glad I did, because spreading it out and letting each episode and cliffhanger stand on its own improved the reading experience a fair bit.
From that perspective this really works. Hebden is good at the structure needed here, giving each small episode its own stakes and goal, and delivering some breathless cliffhangers that would drag readers back to the comic next week. This particular strength of the story would be lost reading it all in one go. It’s a good reminder that so much of the success of the stories throughout both the Ultimate and Mega Collections is about nailing the structure.
Over 50 episodes, it’s clear that Hebden is just spinning this out as long as he’s been asked to. This is essentially made clear in Hebden’s interview at the back of the book, where he says he wasn’t exactly making it up as he went along but also wasn’t sure how long the story would end up being (imagine Tharg allowing that to happen now in today’s tightly organised and controlled Nerve Centre!). It’s easy to identify those seams showing a bit, particularly in the second half, but it feels a bit churlish to point it out. It’s almost refreshing in these days of five-year plans for interconnected movies, TV series and tie-in books to just go along with someone telling a story for as long as they need to. The only real sticking points are both the start and the end, which Hebden ridiculously tries to get over with in one page each! You can forgive him wanting to get to the main story as quickly as possible, but after 50 episodes commitment the ending is so rushed as to feel like a letdown.
Bellardinelli is, of course, the other fantastic thing on display here. Even separate from the quality of his art, which is great, it’s an incredible achievement to have this weekly series illustrated by the same artist for 50 straight weeks. To my unpractised eye at least, I can sense that he starts to flag a bit in the last third of the story and some of his usual detail gets a bit rushed, but really the quality of the start stays impressive all the way through. He’s called upon by Hebden to draw an incredibly diverse range of characters and locations, often within the same 4 pages, and he doesn’t miss a beat.
The story itself is a curious beast (pun intended). Grizzled tough-guy S.A.S. Sergeant Nick Stone is blasted by a nuclear explosion into an Earth turned upside down, with walking and talking animals – Yujees – subservient to terrible humans. Stone gets into an epic continent-crossing battle with human leader Leeshar, pulling together a motley band of Yujees to stage an uprising. Hebden keeps the concept broad enough to pull in a whole bunch of weird and wonderful ideas to keep things bubbling along. A conniving King Cobra who can mesmerise people! A double-crossing polar bear brigand! A cowardly mutant who can project his own image a few feet to the left! (That one had me in stitches.)
Hebden goes for a bit of a high fantasy/Tolkien vibe, even to the point of devoting two pages to a big map of the world Stone’s found himself in. The background material in the collection makes a lot of the Tolkien influence, but it doesn’t really hold much water. “Meltdown Man” jumps around a huge amount, and there isn’t really one ‘quest’ at the heart of this. The connection with classic fantasy that works best is that Hebden does a good job of forming a core group of characters that hold the 50 episodes together. Stone, Liana, Gruff and T-Bone are each distinctive (if stereotypical), and allow Hebden to split the story up in the second half.
There are a few elements that hold the story back. It’s hard to get past the overall issue that the story is pretty derivative, and is cobbled together from the tropes of other genres and stories. There’s lots of self-sacrificing with noble final words, lots of sarcastic wise-cracks as tables are turned, lots of unlikely team-ups. There’s not too much in here that wasn’t a cliche even by 1980. But, Hebden remixes them all together so that it all almost works. The clash of tropes and genres does produce some startling, almost disturbing images and moments. The mash-up of 80s action film and fantasy talking-animal story gives us anthropomorphic animals wielding AK-47s, which is certainly something that stays with you.
Hebden’s character work is surface-level at best, which goes double for the only female character he includes. There’s really no reason for this oversight in the construction of the story, particularly given Hebden apparently has some form with actually developing and writing some complicated and interesting women in his other stories. Liana the Catwoman is reduced to a pretty pussycat (she’s the most human of all the Yujees, for obvious reasons) to be put in peril through most of the book. There’s also some almost pantomime-level thought bubble dialogue throughout where we get huge amounts of exposition and character motivation.
But overall, “Meltdown Man” is a fun and engaging read that highlights one of 2000 AD’s absolute strengths – mad adventures in crazy worlds with a cliffhanger every handful of pages. This is just one of those adventures, but it stands in for so many other worlds that the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic has shown us. And we don’t even need to get hit in the face by a nuclear explosion to get to them.
Next time: It’s a double-bill of Massimo Bellardinelli as we pull out our Space Trucking Dictionary and attempt to translate Ace Trucking Co.: Volume One.