Military science fiction and comic books have a complicated relationship. While it seems that the comic book industry has no issue with publishing comics based on established military sci-fi titles, it does not have a good track record on publishing new military sci-fi themed comics. The ones that are published fail within a year it seems. With this in mind and with the amount of time it took to acquire and read the titles under consideration, it took over a year to come to a hard decision about what is the best military science fiction comic book. With that in mind, this entry into the Masterworks series, was not one I was looking forward to at all and to be fair, I had to establish considerations to prevent Star Wars, Star Trek, and ALIENS comics from being considered for the award and overrunning me with choices. Based on everything, I have selected the First Comics 1986-1988 mecha war comic series Dynamo Joe! For those long-term readers of FWS, we did an Forgotten Classics article back in 2011 about Dynamo Joe and this article enhances that original Forgotten Classics article with new information.
Requirements for Title Consideration
Given the vast array of military science fiction comic books, FWS had to lay down some criteria for consideration or else this would have been completely maddening:
• Cannot be manga. That will be considered in its own Masterwork entry.
• Cannot be a limited series, which ruled out The Forever War graphic novels by NBM.
• Cannot be tie-in a movie, toyline, or TV show. This ruled out the vast amount of titles included Star Trek, ROBOTECH, ALIENS, Predator, Warhammer 40K, and Star Trek titles
• Cannot be just a graphic novel. They will be considered in their own Masterwork entry
What is “Dynamo Joe”?
To tell the story of just what the hell Dynamo Joe is, we must tell the tale of its creator, Doug Rice and its publisher First Comics. Rice was born in 1950 and served in the US Air Force up until the 1970’s. When he returned to civilian life, Rice attended university and attempted to break into the world of art via comic books and animation. It was during this time that the 2nd Wave of Anime was being brought into the American market by programs like Battle of the Planets and one of the fan organization supporting this was Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO) that even published their own “zine” beginning in November of 1977.
In January of 1981, Doug Rice and Jim Engel would found the Chicago chapter of C/FO. Then in February of 1981, C/FO would show Mobile Suit Gundam at the very first Capricorn Con in Chicago. It was also during this time, that Doug and Philp Foglio, and the foundation of the creative team behind Dynamo Joe was laid down. In November of 1982, First Comics, founded by Rick Obadiah, would publish their first issue. At the time, First Comics was a small operation with only four employees, and one of them was Doug Rice.
It was not until First Comics started to gain traction in the marketplace of comic book publishing that at the time was dominated by the Big 2 out of New York (Marvel and DC) that Doug Rice, Jim Engel, and Philp Foglio were able to bring the adventures of the Alliance Robosuit during the Orion War. The love of Japanese animation mecha by the creative team and the upswing in popularity of anime/manga/giant robots finally convinced Rick Obadiah to greenlight Dynamo Joe in 1984. The title has an odd publishing history to say the least. The first three issues of Dynamo Joe were published in the First Comics MARS (similar to Dark Horse Presents) series between October and December of 1984 in issues #10-12. The continuation of that storyline was picked up in the anthology series “First Adventures” in issue one through five that were published from December of 1985 through March of 1986. Then the decision was made based on sales and fan mail that First Comics tasked Doug Rice, Jim Engel, and Foglio to helm a limited 3-issue series beginning in May of 1986 was to conclude in July of 1986. Then there is a gap between issue 3 and DJ becoming a regular First Comics monthly series in February of 1987. During this time, First Comics would publish Dynamo Joe Special in January of 1987.
This would be the last major project undertaken by First Comics just before the company was spinning the finical drain around April of 1991. Then the story gets odd. It seems that First Comics was one of the seven companies put under the Classics International Entertainment company umbra in 1992. This new company headed by CEO Richard Berger and was an attempt to form an empire comprised of a chain of comic book shops and publishing channels. It did not last long and by 1996, Classics International Entertainment fired the last 144 employees and Berger was the last man standing in a empty office hoping to scare up some new finical backers that never came. From what little information I could find, what was First Comics was ended by Classics International Entertainment when they no longer what to publish comics and the former First Comics employees left or were fired. Mentioned in some of the articles was how hard the mid-1990’s were for the comic book industry as a whole. Quite recently, First Comics has announced a comeback and a return to comic publishing and no, Dynamo Joe is not being resurrected.
The Setting of Dynamo Joe
Making the case for Dynamo Joe being the Masterwork of Military SF Comics
At the time, there was a ton of comics and comic companies attempting to set themselves apart from everyone else, including the Big 2. However, there was nothing like Dynamo Joe and for fans of ROBOTECH, this title was more interesting than the Comico comic book interpenetration of ROBOTECH because it was so original. I've read and reread DJ for years now, I still think it is refreshingly original than most military sci-fi settings I've seen in any media. First, even though the three races of the Alliance are allied against the common threat, there is mistrust, conspiracies, unfair commitment to the alliance, and divisive arguments that nearly tear the alliance apart. The organic enemy are layered, varied, and their reason for coming to the Milky Way is damn compelling. In addition, the Orion War is a war with loss and moments of fear and boredom. In the battles drawn, the battlesuits are lost and Joe itself suffers damage time and time again.
Great Main Characters and Great Writing to Support Them
So often in mecha-centered works, we see our massive humanform war machine piloted by teenagers that somehow are more equipped with the skills than veteran pilots. Thankfully, Dynamo Joe avoids that oddity along with having Joe NOT being crewed by humans. This is refreshing along with the complex relationship that Pomru and Daro share. That complexity moves to the relationship between the three races in the alliance. While facing a common foe made the governments unite, that does not apply to the individuals, and racism come out that causes fights and mistrust. This crops up repeatably within the main character's lives, especially Daro. Within these characters that inhabit the world of the Orion War, is two very special characters: Wolf-1 and its pilot, Vantravers. This alien battlesuit was a fan favorite and we all knew that a showdown between Joe and Wolf-1 was coming. The story of Wolf-1 give a mystery for the characters to explore not only in the alien mecha, but the "pilot", Colonel Vautravers. All of this ramblings adds up to a simple element: the team behind DJ, gave us a wonderful cast and solid dialog to fill their mouths.
Wonderful Art and Design
Art and design are subjective and while some like me may love the art and design laid down by Doug Rice; others may not. Dynamo Joe has its own unique style that has constructed its own world. The art has touches of manga style, but it is fluid, dynamic, and filled with details that take time to take in and process. While some of the designs are fantastical, very futuristic 80's style, and the uniforms are bizarre...they are fun for the eyes and visual delight. I loved the way the comic is designed and drawn back in 1986 and even today.
The Dynamo Class Robosoldiers
the tropes associated with using giant humanoid mecha soldiers used as the footsoliders to an interstellar war their own. After all, it is not at all new, even at the time that Doug Rice was dreaming up the world that Joe would inhabit back in the 1980's, but somehow the team being the comic would make all of the tropes their own and oddly fresh and interesting.
For some time, I firmly believed that this Epic Comic of an intergalactic French Foreign Legion would be the clear winner for the best Military SF comic…but, then I re-read it along side Dynamo Joe. While Alien Legion is impressive, it is also terribly uneven in presentation and setting. The first series was nearly too vanilla for its own good and never made much of the setting. When series 2 came, it capitalized on the setting with dramatic art and arresting designs for the alien races, ships, and weaponry. If that series had been the default than it could have been the best MSF comic. In my mind, it is a finalist and a damn fine comic when it is hitting on all cylinders, but was rare.
After Alien Legion was ruled out, I then thought that this bold piece of risk taking in 1980’s comic book storytelling could be the winner. Strikeforce Morituri is one of the best Marvel superhero Comics of all time due to just how different it is than the standard format we saw back in the 1980’s. After rereading the comic a few months ago, I was impressed, but remembered it as being much better back when it originally came out. While bold and gritty for a 1980’s mainstream comic book publisher, Strikeforce Morituri suffers from too much “comic book” dialog at some points, weakened art and story after the original creators left. I was impressed with the comic and the lack of articles online about this forgotten classic, that has fueled FWS to discuss the comic in next month more in-depth.
This British military science fiction comic book by 2000AD is the single longest running military science fiction comic book title in history and it has spawned its own franchise to the point of a possible live-action film in the works. I read some of Rogue Trooper here and there, but the bombastic style could be too much after a while, like eating the whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting. At some point, FWS will write about this important franchise, but I just felt it was just too much to be the best military science fiction comic.
This webcomic by Tony Bourne is damned impressive and worthy of checking out, but I was unable to read the entire comic and it is still a little rough around the edges for masterwork consideration. FWS will be reviewing The 338th in the near future along with interviewing the creator.
If Dynamo Joe Was so Great Why Was It Cancelled?
losing large sums of money every month" with printing more issues of DJ. It is my belief that First Comics was in a delicate position in 1988. They were pumping some damn cool titles and this costs money and we know that in 1989, First Comics sued their printer for overcharging them and this forced First Comics to seek out another comic printer. I personally think that First Comics overextended themselves and when the comic industry slowed down, First Comics was holding the bag and the end came for the entire company by April of 1991.
The Connection Between Dynamo Joe and Heartbreakers
In the backpages of the Dynamo Joe comic series was a brief series by Paul Guinan called Cargonauts from issues #4 through #11. In issue number 11, the crew of the cargo vessel Star of Milwaukee is confronted by a crab-like alien that has been inhabiting a false human body. This comes out of nowhere seemingly and these aliens are never explained or the shadow company they have established within the run of DJ. It turns out that these pandimensional aliens, called "Gyrax"have the largest commercial empire anywhere in the multiverse. The design for the alien was made by Alex Wald in 1987. The explanation for this alien in Dynamo Joe #11 was finally explained when I read the Dark Horse Heartbreakers limited series #4 from July of 1996,
Next Time on FWS...