14 June 2020

The Masterworks of Military Science Fiction (Comics): DYNAMO JOE

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 special issue was designed to bring the possible comic buying public up to speed on the Dynamo Joe storyline and setting with detailed articles on the characters, factions in the Orion War, and the Dynamo battlesuits used by the Alliance. It even broken down the events of First Adventures # 1-5. In February of 1987 through January of 1988 when the series concluded in issue #15.  According to interviews with Doug Rice, Dynamo Joe was supposed to run for two years and while the series ended the way the creative staff had wanted, it was very much rushed. During the run of the regular DJ series, Phil Foglio and Doug Rice would take on other projects like Comico’s wonderful Starblazers limited series in began in April of 1987. Doug was chosen due to his work on Dynamo Joe and it perfectly depicted the world of Starblazers. When DJ ended in winter of 1988, Phil Foglio and Doug Rice would again work on another Starblazers limited series in May of 1989. For awhile, the future seemed bright for DJ, with some hints about the property being optioned for TV. Of course, nothing came of this due to DJ cancellation. While the party was long over for DJ by 1988, its publisher First Comics seemed to be on the cuff of being a major power in the American Comicbook publishing world with adventurous titles like Time Beavers, ShatterTeam Yankee, Lone Wolf and Cub and TMNT. In that year, First Comics paired up with Berkley Publishing to buy the rights to the Classic Illustrated. At one time, Classic Illustrated published comic book adaptations of classic literature like Last of the Mohicans and Ivanhoe.
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
In the 35th century, the so-far explored Milky Way galaxy contains three spacefaring races' the Terrans, the feline Tavitan, whose homeworld, Londree is located in the Sirius system, and then the mysterious Imperium. The Terran Confederation is the largest in terms of interstellar real estate and manpower, but the Imperium has some of the finest warriors, due to the conditions that were infused into the society by the Immortal Magna Kahn. While related to the Terrans, the Imperials are nearly a different race. Around the 2100, Magna Khan left Earth with a harem of about 400 women to jumpstart a completely new civilization based on education, arts, and culture; all in the purse of the prefect human. What set apart the Imperium from other Terran settlements was that Kahn had figured out the secret to immortality. While he had ruled directly over the day-to-day affairs of the Imperium for centuries, his direct children made up princes and princess that did govern the small empire. About 10 years before the comic, the Queen-Mother of the Tavitans reached out for common alliance with the Terran Confederation due to her sensing a coming extra-galactic threat. When colonies and ships began going down on the galactic rim, the Terran Confederation sent their fleet to stop the threat. More than half of the Terran fleet was wiped out and most of the senior leadership, in what is now called the Rim Battle Massacre. The alien organic enemy was unlike anything seen before and it was wiping out the military forces at an alerting rate. The enemy, called “Mellanares” were obsessively moving in a direct path to Terra and Lodree. It was during this desperate moment, that the moons of Fergusson were reinforced into fortresses that blocked the enemy’s path and the new footsoldier of the Orion War, as it was called, the Dynamo battlesuits. Among the 70,000 suits serving, was “Joe” crewed by Travitan Pomru and Imperial Daro. This is where our story opens, as the fortified moon of Fergusson 8 is about to fall to the unstoppable enemy. Over the course of nearly 25 comics, we read the adventures of the Dynamo suit Joe and the progress of the Orion War all wrapping up in issue #15  in 1988.         

Making the case for Dynamo Joe being the Masterwork of Military SF Comics 

Intriguing Setting
Honestly, I’ve never read a comic like Dynamo Joe, let along one that deals with bedrock military sci-fi of themes of mecha, space warfare, and the complex nature of allies during wartime. While space warfare using mecha is nothing new in the realm of comics or animation,  this presented a challenge to the creative team of DJ on how to create a universe where these mecha could live and be intriguing enough for the buyer to pick up this comic from the magazine rack for a higher price than the average comic at the time. One element greatly helping the cause of Dynamo Joe to stand apart was it setting. The enemy of DJ was not another mecha-using government, but a single-minded super-organism species that designed all manner of nightmare creatures. In addition, the battlesuits were updated several times in the series and were not magically war machines that came out victorious against the alien enemy, but many were lost, along with their crews, and they are a tool, an effective tool, but a tool none the less. Space warfare using mecha is nothing new in the realm of comics or animation and presented a challenge to the creative team on how to create a universe where these mecha could live and be intriguing enough for the buyer to pick up this title from the magazine rack for a higher price than the average comic at the time in the 80's.
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
If your work centers around a mech, then mech needs to be amazing and win over fans to the design. Given the creative team’s experience with mecha-centered anime, like Mobile Suit Gundam, they knew that the design for Joe had to be amazing and it was. I've always thought that the design of Joe was similar to the RX-78-2 from Gundam. The series came at a time when mecha was a hot property in some circles  Moreover, I was always impressed that Dynamo robosoldiers evolved over the course of the series to the tune of three times. While Joe is a dynamic suit that involved technology beyond our understanding, it seems more real and like a machine, not a magically item. The Dynamo suits are more like modern day tanks or aircraft with scenes of the mechs being refitted reloaded and being lost in combat during battles. Equipped with all manner of weaponry, these 70 foot, 120 ton nuclear-powered mecha were the soldiers of the Orion War that fought all manner of environments and conditions and it was symbol of the war and the comic. For me, the creative team, made 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. 

The Runners-Up:

Alien Legion 
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.   

Strikeforce Morituri 
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.  

Rogue Trooper
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.  

The 388th
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?
Here is the eternal question when related to some of the title we cover here on FWS. As we have seen with SAAB and Firefly, the quality of a work is not always related to its popularity. In my experience with popularity, good taste does not always relate to popular works...just watch TMZ and see some prime examples. While the comic was planned out for two years’ worth of storyline concerning the Orion War, the creative staff had to condense the Orion War into just 15 issues. Unfortunately, the plan to cancel the series was made prior to decision to add in another side-story called “Cargonauts” penned by Paul Guinan of Heartbreakers and Boilerplate fame. Why is this unfortunate? Cargonauts was enjoyable and it was nice to see another side to the DJ universe, but it cut into the number of pages that could be devoted to the primary DJ story and there was already criticism in the fan mail pages about how lean DJ when to compared to high cover price (nearly $2 in 1987 money). It is likely that the axe fell on Dynamo Joe for several reasons. First Comics was not a big press that could not allow under-performing sale figures and DJ was a niche comic. In issue #15, it was clearly laid out in the "Dear Tabby" fan mail section that this was the last issue and it was due to sales not being able to cover the cost of printing any more adventures of Daro and Pomru. While it seems that First Comics themselves were fans of Dynamo Joe, they were honest in saying that they were not interesting in "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,
Artist and writer Paul Guinan had connected his projects together with the Gyrax agents attempting to acquire genetic technology and knowledge for profit from different times and realities. One in the BioVoc company as Mr. Ward and the other agent was a Mr. Larvate that was involved with various commerce activities. In Heartbreakers #4, it is revealed that one of the main characters in the Heartbreakers universe was an Gyrax agent by the name of Mr. Ward, who was part of the leadership of the BioVoc mega-corporation. Once shot, the alien revealed itself, much like what happened in DJ #11. In the end page of Heartbreakers #4, both events are tied together. It seems that both agents (no. 13 and no. 27) where lost in the same relativity week in the pandimensional location where the Gyrax live. If DJ was allowed to continue for its full run, I am not sure if the Gyrax would have returned.

Next Time on FWS...
When Military Science Fiction was established with the founding classic of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds in 1898, it also established the tradition of mecha within this genre of science fiction and that mecha from the dying Martian civilization was oddly a tripod design. In the upcoming installment of Our Enemies, Yoel and I will be exploring and explaining the inclusion of hostile tripod alien enemies in the realm of military sci-fi!


  1. Great post, as always. I am waiting for your post about The War of the Worlds, one of my favourite novels.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful comic. Dynamo Joe was a fun read for me when I was younger and your high praise has emboldened me to go reread it. The behinds the scene information and history of the comic are fascinating. Thanks again for all the hard work you do.

    P.S. I had no idea Phil Foglio was involved with Dynamo Joe and look forward to rereading it with this in mind.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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