With the last Forgotten Classics blogpost series about a Outer Limits episode not going over well, I decided to whip out a classic from my comic collecting day...Terminator: the Burning Earth from NOW Comics circa 1990. For Terminator fans like me, it was not Skynet's human-shaped death machines traveling back through time to kill Sarah Conner or other common plot-points in the Terminator universe that intrigued us, but the dark future war against the machines that haunted us. There was just something about the night battlefields lit up with plasma bolts, littered with skulls and darkened with the ashes of the pre-Judgement Day world. Sadly, most comics, movies, and TV shows with the Terminator label give us little of the dark world of 2029, and the desperate conflict. That was not so in 1988, when NOW Comics gave the world a monthly Terminator series taking place in 2031 with various resistance groups. The series would end in 1990, but was soon followed up with the subject of this blogpost, Terminator: the Burning Earth (T:TBE).
The Plot of Terminator: The Burning Earth (SPOILERS!!)
Published by NOW Comics between March and July of 1990, the Burning Earth continued the story laid down in the original series with their vision of John Conner and his organization, and a few characters, like Tim Reese (brother of Kyle Reese). Any new reader of the Terminator: the Burning Earth could go into this series cold, without the knowledge or pollution of the NOW regular series. It is around the year 2041, and the war is not going well for the human resistance. We see John Conner's once elite band of mobile fighters worn down and unable to mount an offensive against the machines. Skynet has also grown tried of the four decades old war, and has been waging a massive offensive against the humans with nuclear strikes, spraying of biological and chemical weapons, which are taking their toll. During a desperate battle, Conner puts a plasma pistol in his mouth to commit suicide. Just before he pulls the trigger, he witness two resistant fighters, one wounded, and one refusing to leave her side, get run over by an H/K ground unit. That awakes Conner the hell up, and proposes a bold strike on the HQ of Skynet, Thunder Mountain, Nevada, a former NORAD center, to end once and for all, win or lose.
Issue one detail the losing battle in the valley, and the horror of fighting in 2041, where even Conner is starting to doubt that humanity can win against the machines. At the end, once the ground and aerial HKs drive Conner's army from the field, Skynet deploys simple robotic soldiers, less complex than the Terminator model. In issue two, we are introduced to Skynet narrating it's own POV, and it's new female Terminator model, Aurora. Before you ask, I have no good idea why writer Ron Fortier even bothered with adding this element, she doesn't really come up again during T:TBE. At the end of issue two, Conner tells the ragtag group that they are hitting Skynet HQ, and they see the first wave of nuclear equipped aerial Hunter-Killers on their way to bomb the ashes of the old world. There is some nice writing here at the end. The next issue opens with what appears to be the Rocky Mountains. Now, I've been to the Rockies several times, and it looks more like Mars than Colorado or even Nevada. Added to this, the cover art has a Terminator holding a plasma rifle that bears a striking resembles an Colonial Marines M41a1 Pulse Rifle. While one team under Conner takes the main path, and suffers from stiff resistance, another smaller non-motorized team under Conner's third in command, sneaks in to disable Skynet's power plant. As the comic closes, team one is agreed by a massive Terminator welcoming committee. Here is the weird thing, most, if not all of the 'nators are wearing skins and sunglasses....why?
Conner Issue four opens with Skynet carpet nuclear bombing the remains of humanity in the rubble, and the Earth rebelling against the use of nukes. Conner and company are in deep serious, unable to move forward, until a nuclear-explosion wind pushing the humans over the cliff and onto the balcony. Earthquakes and the wind, damage the former NORAD complex, giving the humans the moment to invade the complex. More of the second team are cut down by mud-slides and quakes, leaving three to take on the power plant off-line. By the final issue, Conner (called Bear in the comics), is fighting QRF 'nator units, but gets to the central core of the machine. Blazing away with this plasma rifle, John Conner takes his rage out on the massive banks of computers, until a Terminator gets him on the ground, and just before it pulls the trigger, the second team comes through, knocking off the power. There is the end dialog: "Was that my own heart beating at triple time? Then the lights went out. For a second, I was bathed in darkness. Then came the silence. Oh, god, the sweet silence. The puppet's strings had been cut. Skynet was gone. The metal monster just stood in front of me waiting for further instructions that would never come."
The Historical Context of T:TBE
What Happened to T:TBE?You might ask if T:TBE was so epic, than why didn't it led to anything? It just seems it died off, and Dark Horse Comics took over in 1990, ignoring the NOW Comics story line. Terminator: the Burning Earth was the right move for the Terminator comics, it was just too late. By this time, any comic collectors had been turned off by the lame story and art of the NOW comic line, and it didn't help the T:TBE series that a uber-lame 1990 Terminator: All My Future's Past was published right after the original run of the Burning Earth. It was reprinted into a trade paperback by iBooks in 2003, which was a reprint of the 1990 trade paperback that came out just before NOW Comics shut down. It mainly lives on in the mind of old collectors like me...
Why is T:TBE a Classic?
As I've stated a few times on this blogpost and other posts, I'm a huge fan of the war against the machines, and there have been a few works devoted to the dark future, Dark Horse's recent 2029 miniseries, for example. All but one have been unable to show the horror of fighting the machines in the post-Judgement Day world, that is Now Comics Terminator: the Burning Earth. These five comics display the full horror of fighting Skynet, and how the toll of this endless war is felt on the main characters with all the blood, mud, and blazing blue plasma bolts to boot.
Much of the credit for the success of the book in most people's mind is the muted glory of Alex Ross's art work. Terminator: the burning earth was his first published comic work.
Within his watercolor-based art for the comic, are celebrity cameos, Cindy Crawford was the basis of the Aurora female Terminator unit, one of the bums killed my a nuclear bomb was based off William Defoe, and even David Letterman makes an appearance in issue #4 as a rebel fighter. One of these bums were also based of the cover art of Jethro Tull's 1971 Aqualung. On the cover of issue number five, Alex Ross put a series of numbers and letter made to appear to be the POV of a terminator unit, and there in the code is the words: NOW COMIX BLOZ. Nice.
NOW Comics Interpretation of the Terminator Universe
It had no choice. Their defense grid was smashed. We'd won. Taking out Conner then would make no difference. Skynet had to wipe out his entire existence." This point was made by a reader via a letter, and NOW response was shitty, saying that their comic was not a history textbook. That gives you the level of thinking here in this series. This extends to the machines of Skynet, no HK tanks are seen, only the aerial units, and all appear the same has the film, then all of the terminator units seen are infiltrators, with grown skins, new clothing and sunglasses. Yes, most to all, 'nators in the NOW comics wear sunglasses...even at night. Which makes no damn sense. Only one infiltrator seen in #7, tries to do its job like we fans imagined. When in comes to the skin-covering for the infiltrators, NOW created these 'flesh farms' where real humans live in a community, only to be slaughtered later for their skins. In #10, one 'nator unit uses skin from one of its victims to repair its damaged exterior. But it does really matter, the 'nators look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a world of humans always on the brink of starvation! This level of illogical things applies to Skynet itself, which treats itself has a god, and often interacts with its terminator units via normal oral communication as do the terminators when among themselves...WTF?
What is a real shame, besides the substandard art, and writing, is that most of the time in 2031, there are blue skies and greenery returning to the world. Which completely breaks the mood of the original film.
Should you buy/steal/read Terminator: the Burning Earth?
If you are fan of the war with the machines, especially the dark the better, than the burning Earth is for you. It does suffer from a few gaps in logic, like most of the NOW Comics Terminator comics, but the art, like a empty-headed supermodel, makes up for it. This book, even now, is pretty goddamned beautiful. The muddy, soft tones of the watercolor coupled with the bright blue plasma bolts pairs brilliantly, giving the world of 2041 the right tone for expression Cameron's dark vision of the war.