27 February 2014

FWS Forgotten Classics: HEARTBREAKERS (Dark Horse Comics)

For those that know me in the real world, know that I am not a spiritual or religious man at all, and I personally do not believe in fate. However, there times that something happens by luck or happy accident that allow you discover something new and surprising that make me wonder. Back in the late 1980's, I was seriously collecting darker, non-mainstream comics, especially Dark Horse's ALIENS series. It was around this time that I picked up Dark Horse Presents number 36 for the ALIENS vs. Predator storyline and happily discovered a military sci-fi comic by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett about cloned female soldiers called "the Heartbreakers". I become an instant fan of their work and these female soldiers and their struggles in a world similar to Shatter and BLADE RUNNER. No one in my circle of friends at the time read HEARTBREAKERS, and it seems that the comic disappeared quickly. When I founded FWS in 2010, HEARTBREAKERS was on my short list of things I wanted to discuss, and after some research and buying the back issues and three years, here is HEARTBREAKERS!

HEARTBREAKERS is work of two incredibly talented individuals: artist Paul Guinan and writer Anina Bennett. This husband-wife team out of Chicago has more recently come to the limelight due to their steampunk robot book Boilerplate, and could be transformed into a major motion picture by J.J. Abram's own Angry Robot. However, back when HEARTBREAKERS made its first appearance in the pages of Dark Horse Present in 1989, they were relatively unknown in the comic industry. Paul originality the story of a cloned female platoon, with the title "Double Helix", however it was First Comics' Rick Oliver that proposed that Paul and Anina changed the name of the work to "Heartbreakers", after Queenie's platoon in the first DHP series. While First Comics would pass on it, Randy Stradley of Dark Horse Comics approved HEARTBREAKERS for publication. From 1989-1996, Dark Horse would print three separate HEARTBREAKERS series, IDW would print another, and today, HEARTBREAKERS rests at Paul and Anina website: Big Red Hair. In the world of the HEARTBREAKERS, Paul is the artist and part of the story team, while Anina is the other half of the story team and script writer.  

It is the near future, and Earth's population is suffering from environmental damage that has caused a drop in fertility. Enter Dr. Therese Sorenson, inventor of the rapid cloning process that can turn out adult clones within 6 months that can have preloaded memories and skills. This process is known as "rapicloning", and it had a massive impact on global society. These clones became a slave population when the megacorporation BioVoc began mass producing clones for all manner of dangerous work and altered their biochemistry to allow these BioVoc clones to operate in conditions too dangerous for humans. Think of the Replicants from BLADE RUNNER and you get the idea.
This mass-cloning work force created a social issue that tore at the fabric of society. Some groups morally opposed cloning on the grounds of slavery and even other groups took issue with clones taking away jobs from the "naturals, like the United Federation of labor. This forged groups like the right-wing People's Front and the pro-clone human rights group League of Ones or LONE crashing, sometimes violently. All of this energy surrounded Therese Sorenson and the shadowy CEO of BioVoc, Vegas Ward. Dr. Sorenson was in the employment of BioVoc, and when she looked up from research, she saw her creations in chains. Dr. Sorenson would nearly be killed, and forced her to withdraw from public life. During this time, Dr. Sorenson prepared to take action against her employer and the state of her creations.
While not explained, it is believed that without Dr. Sorenson's help BioVoc could not complete their off-world mining slave labor force to export minerals from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Months before the events of the original 1989 Dark Horse Presents series, Dr. Sorenson would leave BioVoc labs, establish her own lab/compound, grow two lines of clones based on her own DNA: the Deltas and the Betas, and continue her own research on the mysterious Paracelsus Matrix. These Deltas are the lab assistants of Dr. Sorenson, and gifted with the mind as close to the good doctor as possible. The Betas were the bodyguard of Sorenson and her Delta clones. These tough female soldiers are called "the Heartbreakers". When the first comic opens, the situation at the lab compound as crumbled into violent and provoking Sorenson to get off-world.    

The Historical Context of HEARTBREAKERS
Per similar blogposts about 1980's comics that FWS has discussed, the 1980's were a time of great change in the American comic industry, and is not called either the "Iron Age of Comics" or "The Dark Age of Comic" due to the darker tone that comics took on in the 80's. While the Big Two (DC and Marvel) still dominated the comic book store racks with old familiar title like Spiderman, Superman, the X-Men, and Batman, there was a change in the air with the rise of smaller press comics focused on the stories that the Big Two wouldn't or couldn't tell and carted to tastes that were not mainstream. Comic publishers like: Dark Horse, Eclipse, First Comics, Viz Comics, and Comico comics. The label of "Dark Age of Comics" fits the title flowing out of these smaller presses that featured mature themes, bad language, and deeply flawed characters and situations. Also, with the rise in popularity of Japanese Anime, there was also the introduction of Japan Manga to the states via publishers like Viz. The Big Two got the message, and began launching their own spin-off, owner-owned comic lines, such as Marvel's Epic Comics. There was also the rise in direct market distribution that allowed for readers to order comics directly from the publisher, avoiding the comic stores and other venues for comics.
HEARTBREAKERS is a product of these times, along with some other trends populating the late 1980's. As seen on the helmets of the Beta Hearbreaker guards is Japanese writing, and "helmet art", which were all trends in the popular culture. The helmet art comes from the Vietnam War-era habit of soldiers writing various things on their helmet's or even smaller pieces of air, some have called this "helmet tattoos." This entered the common consciousness due to the rash of Vietnam War movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill. Of course, not only was popular war films also influencing the look of HEARTBREAKERS, but also popular sci-fi movies. Some of HEARTBREAKERS visuals are owed to1986's magnum opus ALIENS and 1982's groundbreaking cyberpunk movie BLADE RUNNER.

Series One: Dark Horse Presents #35/36/37 (1989) 
With only 82 days of life outside the cloning tanks, the Beta bodyguards, the Heartbreakers were buying time for Dr. Sorenson and her Deltas escaping the breached compound by the radical People's Front thugs. Their escape lays in the hands of BioVoc airbus transports, Sorenson's former employment. The CEO of BioVoc, Vegas Ward is wanting Dr. Sorenson to complete his mining clones for the asteroid belt and her new secret research, and betting that the violent situation at their lab will force back into the arms of BioVoc. When one of the airbus transports goes down, Sorenson orders her transport down to escape the BioVoc "gift". Sorenson wants away from the People's Front, away from Ward, and the violent of Earth. She needs a ride off-world for her and her clones. The Heartbreakers, the Deltas, and the Doctor all make a beeline for the underground secret lab of Dr. Zido Stept. However, Malinthe Stept, his daughter, is the right-hand woman of Vegas Ward. She gives Ward the location of the lab in the Asian District, and Ward sends high of security for BioVoc, Rusk, to bring back Stept and Sorenson, the rest of the clones were disposable.
At the lab, they link up with the sensei and arms supplier of the Heartbreakers, Tex Takeda. The goal of the surviving clones and the doctor is to get to the spaceport and hijack a shuttle off-world. At the close of the DHP#36, all hell breaks loose, with BioVoc soldiers storming the lab, as one element of the Heartbreakers engages them, while the remains of the Deltas, some of the Betas, Sorenson and Tex all make down the sewer pipes. While in the pipes, they encounter the racial street gang Black Sting led by an old girlfriend of Tex's, and she agrees to help them out escaping from Ward and BioVoc. Again, another desperate battle is fought by the Heartbreakers at the spaceport. During this bloody battle, Queenie, the commanding Beta clone of the Queen of Clubs, is wounded, but the lose of more sisters is worth it, Sorenson and some of her clones make it off-world, just as Ward also takes BioVoc off-world to their new HQ on Titan.

My Take on Series One
Back in 1989, this was my introduction to the world of HEARTBREAKERS, and after reading the other two Dark Horse HEARTBREAKERS comics, this is the most seminal work of these cloned lady warfighters. The background was not fleshed out, so in some ways that drives the mind of the reader to seek out answers and dwell on the work long after you've read it (especially if you're me). Plus, the art is rich and prefect for the black&white format, the Heartbreakers look like Colonial Marines, and the military aspect is stronger here than any HEARTBREAKERS works hence. Seriously, you can stare that the panels and pick little details on the gear of the femme fatales. Everything here is tightly controlled due to the limit of the space, and it really works. Considering the other two series that followed, I have to say that I enjoyed this story much more, and I count this 1989 comic as one of my influences for my own military sci-fi stories, and the story itself still holds up.

Series Two-Dark Horse Presents #50/51/52 (1991)
Some four years after the events in series one, Dr. Sorenson and her clones are living on a secret underground lab complex on Jupiter's moon of Ganymede. During this passage of time, more Delta and Beta clones are all joined together in Dr. Sorenson's work on the Paracelsus Matrix (named for the 15th century Swiss occultist), a genetic virus that can rewrite DNA. She hoped that the matrix would be used to cure hereditary disorder and disease, slow the aging process. During a route supply run to Ceres, the center of the asteroid mining operation, Sorenson and two of her clones run afoul of some dirty horny miners, resulting in a fight that attaches way too much attention. One of the miners leaves a tip to BioVoc to check out the three ladies, and after four years, Vegas Ward as found Dr. Sorenson. At the time, Ward was planning to use new clones for an all-out-assault on the asteroid belt to force out his competitors, making BioVoc, the masters of the belt. By the end of DHP#51, Rusk and other BioVoc EVA troops are on top of the complex. During this time, one Beta clone, our old friend Queenie is out on a early warning system repair mission with a Delta, Vector. During a tense shoot-out inside the moon complex, BioVoc EVA troops and Beta Hearbreakers engage in bloody close quarters warfare. All hope seems lost with BioVoc advancing deeper into the lab. Dr. Sorenson makes a terrible choice. Rather than risk herself, or her Delta clones from following in the hands of Ward, and the matrix being his to rule over Earth as a god, Sorenson detonates the auto-destruct. All but Queenie and Vector are killed, including the BioVoc troops, leaving these last two clones of Sorenson staring at the smoking crater.

My Take on Series Two
While series two came out in the pages of DHP in 1991, my Freshman year in High School, I did not know of its existence or read it until after the founding of FWS in 2010. After buying all of the Dark Horse HEARTBREAKERS comics from Lone Star Comics, I was underwhelmed by series two, and didn't pay it much mind until the research phase of this Forgotten Classics blogpost. After setting down and reading of three series together, I think that series two is the bridge between what was HEARTBREAKERS in 1989 and what HEARTBREAKERS would be come, making this more an emotion adventure for the property. While not as groundbreaking, it brings a nice ending to series one and the suffering of Dr. Sorenson. I had more respect for series two after reading the complete HEARTBREAKERS saga, and this only increased my disappointment with series three. While series two is not as good as series one, it still is better than series three.

Series Three-The HEARTBREAKERS Limited Series (1996)
Five years after series two, Dark Horse Comics finally gave Paul and Anina the chance to have their own four part limited series after putting HEARTBREAKERS on hiatus in 1994. Originally, Paul had completed issue #1 and was moving to issue #2 when he had go pay the bills. Dark Horse approached Paul and Anina about putting out the limited series in late 1995, but, Paul felt rushed by DH's time schedule, and the project was pushed back to April of 1996. This series picks up several months after the events on Ganymede, Vector and Queenie arrive back on Earth, and link back up with Tex Takeda. The situation on Earth is not good, the Labor Wars are still ongoing, BioVoc is planning a major strike that will cause the Belt War, and it is learned that Dr. Sorenson left a female android on Earth infused with the matrix. The first mission of Queenie, Vector, and Tex, is find the android before BioVoc. This search ends in a bar gun battle with BioVoc forces at the Buddha Club. It is also during this battle that a piece of the matrix is blown off and taken back to BioVoc's Earthside labs. Meanwhile on the BioVoc HQ on Titan, Ward is creating a cloned cyborg of Rusk, who was killed on Ganymede. Queenie and crew have been asked by clone rights group LONE to provide some security at a rally by the group's shy leader Cen. It is during this that Cen is wounded by an attempted assassination, and is only saved by the use of the matrix.
The clone cyborg assassin Rusk is being trained against clones of Queenie, and Queenie and Tex hook up. Due to the media attention, some people have approached Tex and Queenie about becoming Heartbreakers themselves. The matrix is used again, transforming these volunteers into Heartbreakers. Queenie instead of Tex goes out to buy some more arms for the new gals when she is captured by Rusk and hauled back to BioVoc. Ward, now on Earth, wants Queenie to be the bait for Vector to come and rescue her, so he can have Sorenson's cloning research and the matrix. So, a rescue mission ensues. Rusk is injected by Malinthe's lab with the matrix, and he goes fucking nuts, and nearly kills Malinthe, but she infected with the matrix. During the rescue attempt, Malinthe, now horribly mutated attacks and kills Ward. During the last few panels we see the truth behind Ward and a connection to the old First Comics military sci-fi series Dynamo Joe. At this point, the new Heartbreakers ally themselves with LONE, and rush off to help out clone workers. Thus ends the last of the HEARTBREAKERS comics.   

My Take on the HEARTBREAKERS Limited Series
Oh gods...where do I start? In a word, series three is a mess. While the story of clone rights and the battle of the belt by BioVoc is all very interesting, it is smothered in over-the-top-John-Woo gun-play that the reader can plainly see is all to worship the Queenie character. Realistic military tactics be damned! Queenie jumps in the line of fire, dual-wielding pistols, and spray the landscape with leads. All of these is played for style points, and it rings hollow. It just is too much, and causes the comic to lose focus and the theme of the original 1989 series. It also doesn't help that Paul wasn't doing the art in issue #3 and #4, and that entire subplot of the matrix and the Rusk cyborg clone assassin. None of these events were organic, and come off to be self-serving.  All of this was just too much for me, and the reader feedback mail in the back of each comic supports the same issues that I had. Out of all the HEARTBREAKERS series published by Dark Horse, this 1996 series is the most disappointing. Very quickly after this series was published, Paul and Anina abandoned the John Wood gun play style, for more kung-fu clones actions.

What Happened to HEARTBREAKERS?
To be fair, there were more HEARTBREAKERS comic released after the Dark Horse 1996 limited series, but they took a turn away from their military science fiction roots. After the 1996 limited series, Dark Horse did not publish anymore of the HEARTBREAKERS adventures, despite rumors of a continuing series or more limited series. The core remaining two characters, Vector, now called Delta, and Queenie, survived the events of the miniseries and were folded into team's other work, the Victorian-era robot known as Boilerplate. In 2005, IDW publishing would print the Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate graphic novel. Here, the Femiquin-44 was more of a character and an "love interest" to Boilerplate. Ugh. To be honest, while I've read Boilerplate, I will never read Heartbreakers meet Boilerplate. Most of the reviews speak highly of the look of the graphic novel that combines photographs and tradition art, but are critical of the story and writing that is called "weak" and "simplest". The story of the clones of late Dr. Sorenson and their robot from the future having advantages with a robot constructed in the 1890's is just plain odd and doesn't fit either world well. This was the only HEARTBREAKERS work published by IDW, and next two works were...I guess...self-published by Paul and Anina on their website: The HEARTBREAKERS Digest and the HEARTBREAKERS Super Digest. Things were qu,iet on the HEARTBREAKERS front until summer of 2013. During some conventions, Paul and Anina witness new fans of HEARTBREAKERS were being minted via backissues, and they decided to release series one digitally. Originally, the pair were going to go through comiXology, however, the people at Monkeybrain were able to convince Paul and Anina to release through them on comiXology. Today, you can pay series one of HEARTBREAKERS, broken up into two comics at comiXology for $2.    

One of the lucky breaks that HEARTBREAKERS was given was appearing the pages of DHP along with some very popular comics of the time. In series one of HEARTBREAKERS, they appeared along side the prequel to ALIENS vs. Predator. Then in series two, HEARTBREAKERS would be featured along with Frank Miller's Sin City. Personally, HEARTBREAKERS series one influence my first military sci-fi novel that wrote in 2009 and continue today to work on...six fucking rewrites later. As for others that were impacted by HEARBREAKERS is Carla Speed McNeil's comic Finder. From the picture above, you can see her wearing what I believe is Dr. Sorenson's cap from series one. Paul and Anina have also stated in an interview with Robot6, that Monkeybrain's Chris Roberson is a big fan of HEARTBREAKERS, and the team even sees tattoos of the cloned female soldiers during appearances. Some believe that HEARTBREAKERS was the one of the opening shots of the "bad sexy girls with guns" trend that became commonplace in the 1990's with Barbed Wire, Lara Coft, and even all the way down to Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. One other cool thing I noticed in the limited 1996 series, Queenie uses pistols with micro-grenade launchers! This is very similar to the Colonial sidearms used in the reboot Battlestar Galactica...I wonder if some of the BSG production crew are HEARTBREAKERS fans?

Is HEARTBREAKERS an "Forgotten Classic"?
What is and is not a classic is all relative. Some works are classics because they are widely accepted by the global community as such, like the works of William Shakespeare, the ATARI 2600, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and I Love Lucy. However, does HEARTBREAKERS met that standard, especially since many have never heard of the comic? I personally believe that the original 1989 series one that ran through DHP#35-37, is a classic, especially considering that it was ahead of the trend of "bad girls with guns" and widely acceptance of female soldiers in sci-fi that were not simple eye candy like 7-of-9 from ST: Voyager. However, by series two and certainly series three, the label of "classic" begins not to fit. While the original 1989 series holds up and is still enjoyable to read, series three is not, and beside the art in issue #1 and #2, there is not much here. In retrospect, I should have devoted this Forgotten Classics blogpost to series one instead of two and three. But, I felt like the complete story-arch should be explained. After all, when this posted in a weeks time, it will be one of the only sources on the internet about HEARTBREAKERS.

My Experience with HEARTBREAKERS
Back in 1989, I was in middle school, and beginning my exploration of darker science fiction that the my normal doses of Trek, Wars, and Asimov novels. ALIENS introduced me to a world of science fiction that was more real and dealt with topics that peaked my interest. Around this time, Dark Horse Comics was publishing their ALIENS and Predator comics, which I was collecting, and they were teasing the upcoming ALIENS vs. Predator limited series in a prequel storyline in the pages of Dark Horse Presents. Plus, it helped the sources that Paul and Anina drew from, like Full Metal Jacket, ALIENS, and BLADE RUNNER were all favorites of mine, and still are. In was in those pages that I discovered HEARTBREAKERS. However, the HEARTBREAKERS story was only in two of the ALIENS vs. Predator DHP comics, and therefore, I never read the ending of the 1989 series one HEARTBREAKERS until just recently. When I started FWS in 2010, I decided that HEARTBREAKERS should be mentioned, and I began to research the world of HEARTBREAKERS. Thankfully, Lone Star Comics had all of the back issues, and I bought series two and three, along with the conclusion to series one. Instead of being a teenager reading the adventures of the cloned soldiers and scientists, I was in my 30's, writing my own MSF, and that may have altered my POV on the comics themselves. As I said above, HEARTBREAKERS was one of my influences on my first military sci-fi novel.

What's Next on FWS?
 In FWS continuing mission to explore and explain military sci-fi, and in keeping with theme of female soldiers, FWS will be examining female soldiers, both in reality and in science fiction. It is my hope that this female soldier blogpost will detail the plight of current women in the military, the debate about women in combat, and the strange point-of-view that most science fiction as with female soldiers. Until then, Stay Frosty.

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