Comics review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour – Martian Manhunt

(cover image courtesy Boom! Studios)

Fighting battles of any kind on Mars would be, you would have to think given its otherworldliness and hostility to life, be a fairly big deal.

After all, it’s not like you’re duking it out on the green, green grass of home.

But in The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Martian Manhunt, written by Ben Blacker and illustrated by J. Bone, it’s both deeply dangerous, what with Quadrilaxian killers on the loose and thieves and brigands ambushing grav-assisted stagecoaches, and utterly, gloriously hilarious.

Based on the popular Hollywood stage show and podcast which brought some good old Wild West wild adventure and ’50s movie serial fun back to a tired, all too safe-and-predictable world – granted so not so much now with COVID-19 running ruinously rampant – The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Martian Manhunt is all kinds of oneliner-rich, quip-heavy, almost Monty Python-esque fun, a trip not so much down memory lane since no one is that old, as to a past, and in this case, also a future, where impressively advanced technology and old world sensibilities come together with a joyously entertaining edge-of-your-seat exuberance.

In this world where Mars is settled by an avaricious Earth who claim the surface lands while the dispossessed, after a fashion blue-tinged Martians live in urbanised solitude below, Marshal Sparks Nevada, possibly washed out of the military arm of the United Systems Solar Alliance where his somewhat estranged dad and his seemingly sweeter mum call the shots, is the law in a wild and woolly world awash with robotic criminals and bounty hunters with all kinds of escapee-capturing enhancements at this beck-and-call.

Intended as a backstory to the lynchpin relationship of the stage show and the podcast, that of Sparks Nevada and Croach the Tracker, an indigenous Martian, the story of this highly-entertaining graphic novel is designed as a way of giving longtime fans of this madcap universe some extra character exposition.

But it also stands brilliantly on its own two red-earthed feet, a feat of storytelling that manages to play to established fans while still offering a standalone story that won’t just make sense to a newbie to the franchise, such as yours truly, but delight and thrill them at the same time.

The genius of the graphic novel is the way it brings together all kinds of story types and issues to tell a tale that is fantastically over-the-top, as all the best gripping serials must be, but also grounded in some rich, raw humanity that, while it may not be as grittily confronting as your favourite indie film, nevertheless delivers some lo-fi emotionally resonant moments.

(image courtesy Boom! Studios)

It is chiefly though a rip-roaring adventure that takes us over the red-hewn dramatic landscape of Mars, which is stubbornly ye olde shoot ’em up, run ’em down Wild West-y, from one of its rugged terrain to the other, as Nevada does his best to keep a stagecoach of innocent travellers safe from the marauding ne’er-do-wells that have made the red planet just as dangerous as any old Western.

Travelling between settlements which have saloons, general stores and maybe even gelato establishments, The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Martian Manhunt is quirky as hell, a sensibility which sits quite happily against its propensity for full-on action and justice taking on the lowlifes, human and robotic who are doing their best to get a slice of the new world pie.

(Only it’s not so new if you’re a Martian, who in the role of native Americans, suffer many of the indignities and dispossession sadly common to their more Earthbound brethren.)

Modelled on the old time radio plays, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, which ran from 2005 to 2015 at the Largo nightclub in Los Angeles, possessed all kinds of fun and suspense and featured Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars as the lead story of a three-act episode which usually ended with stories about married mediums Frank and Sadie Doyle (“Beyond Belief”).

Given how loved a character he was, and clearly still is, it makes sense that he would be given a backstory deserving of a likably flawed character who wants to make a go of policing the lawlessness of a Mars thousands hence from the present day, and who actually quite good at it when the chips are down, but who weighed down by all kinds of baggage and ennui.

What makes him so damn entertaining is the way that Blacker manages to make the consummate action hero while also giving some of the best lines of comedy to come out of any story.

Case in point is when he is battling yet another gang of tenacious outlaws who are using all kinds of weapons to make the life of Nevada, his Deputy Bots who proving ridiculously susceptible to be being taken down by the enemies of truth and justice yada yada yada and the poor souls inside the stagecoach a living hell.

In the midst of a ragingly, over-the-top battle, Nevada and the man leading the outlaw gang discover they know each other, old classmates from the United Systems Solar Alliance Academy.

What follows is a shortlived but very funny exchange between two people who may have been rivals back in them thar olden days of yore and youth but who, wrapped in the warm, rose-tinted glow of nostalgia, simply feel like reconnecting.

Not everyone around them is amused but they are having a fine old time until the battle between good and evil reasserts itself and it’s on for young and old once again.

The argy-bargy back-and-forth banter between Sparks and Croacher, the latter of whom does not want anything to do with a lawman he neither respects nor wishes to be in partnership with – an old Martian idea of “onus” or obligation means he has no choice but to discharge his social debt and rather amusingly demand the same back of Nevada at one point – is a highlight of The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Martian Manhunt which is so smile-inducingly, laugh out loud generating silly and goofy, that you really don’t want the story to end.

But end it does, sadly, buoyed by a suitably larger-than-life finale and Bones’ gorgeously realised artwork which really makes you feel like you are a long way from home and in the midst of a story so big and expansive that there is no end to where the narrative could go.

Possessed of a witty soul, a healthy sense of the ridiculousness, a storytelling momentum that never really stops and takes you quite happily along with it, The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Martian Manhunt is that quirky piece of graphic novel adventuring you’ve been longing for, serving up memorably idiotic characters who are actually as skilled with a clever line as they are battling it out over the deserts of Mars, beguilingly immersive narrative, thrilling, nail-biting action (brought to life by vivacious, thoroughly imaginative artwork) and just enough humanity to make you realise that for all their futuristic historicalness that these are people just like you.

Only with robots fists of justice and really who wouldn’t want that?

(image courtesy Boom! Studios)

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