Friday, November 8, 2013

1987 and all that 017: gerbil pellets

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils #1 (Harrier)
By John Jackson

On a conceptual level, there’s nothing wrong with the premise behind 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' : a team of intelligent, anthropomorphic, partially-robotic Gerbils from the future trying to survive in modern times. It’s not the most original or enticing idea, but there’s something vaguely amusing about it, and surely it’s a workable starting point. The problem is that the comic stops there, without adding any purpose to the Gerbils’ lives aside from not wanting to be discovered or killed. They’re not trying to get back to their own time, or establish a stable home in ours, or accomplish much of anything beyond making it from the start of the day to the end of it without dying. In the four short stories contained in this comic, the Gerbils see their fair share of action and danger, but they never go anywhere or give the reader much of a reason to get into their adventures. It’s not all that clear why this comic was made, and why these stories had to be told. They are too airy and brief, with a laziness to the humor and structure that makes me wonder how seriously writer/artist John Jackson even took this project. It feels more like a half-baked gag that was accidentally published than a legitimate attempt at comic book entertainment.

This 1987 issue published by Harrier Comics was not the first appearance of the Cyborg Gerbils. They began life a couple years earlier at Trigon Comics, until that publisher went under. I’ve never read those original issues, but according to the inside cover material of the Harrier book, they were drawn by Jackson but written by Brian Cuffe. Apparently, Jackson decided he worked better alone, and took the characters to Harrier for this solo outing once Trion had collapsed. I’d be curious to see how his writing stacks up against Cuffe’s, because visually, 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' is not as bothersome as it is narratively. On stronger scripts, I can see Jackson’s art making for an enjoyable, lighthearted read about these high-tech animals bumbling their way through our world. His style is goofy and broad, and the Gerbils are nothing if not expressive, so if the stories surrounding them were a bit richer, this might be a much stronger product. Not that the art is astounding, because it’s too simple and straightforward for that. It’s black-and-white, involves a lot of blank backgrounds, and is generally sparse even when we do see the details of the setting. But Jackson seems to be aiming for something in the vein of a classic kid’s cartoon, where the animals are built like people and the people all look rounded and doughy and off. In that, at least, he succeeds, making the comic look like a lot more fun than it really is once you dig in.

The first story is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, almost an obligatory introduction to who and what the Cyborg Gerbils are. On the very first page, one of their number (Jezz) is captured by a wicked professor and his equally wicked assistant to be dissected and studied, so the rest of the gang has to save him. Luckily, they have super advanced weaponry on hand to get the job done. In relatively short order, they find the professor’s lab, burst in guns blazing, decapitate the assistant with a blast from their most powerful weapon, and escape intact. It’s a brief but brutal bit of violence, almost ill-fitting in the otherwise tonally comedic narrative, but the sheer ridiculousness of the image of the professor’s assistant having his head blown off makes up for its underlying intensity and overlying gore. Once the skirmish is over, the Gerbils regroup, and wonder if they’re truly safe from the professor just because they got away this time. It’s a valid question, even interesting, but they quickly push it aside because it’s time for this story to conclude so that the next can start. The potential future foe/threat for the Gerbils is hand waved out of existence to make room for something truly mundane.

Following the eight-page opener is a four-pager about the Gerbils’ failed attempt to inconspicuously steal food from a supermarket. Not surprisingly, someone notices them, since they choose to raid the store during it's normal business hours for poorly thought-out reasons. The woman who spots them is understandably quite startled by the sight of cyborg rodents climbing up the shelves, so she screams about it, drawing the attention of everyone in the store. The Gerbils quickly hide from anyone else’s view, so by the time store security shows up to help the frightened woman, she seems like a lunatic, rambling about “rats, in uniforms…with rifles.” The security guard assumes she’s crazy, which I suppose is the natural reaction, so rather than seriously look into her claim, he condescendingly shuffles her out of the store. The Gerbils watch with some amazement as the person who nearly blew their cover is insulted and removed, then laugh indulgently at both their own good luck and the woman’s misfortune, closing the story on a note of “better her than us”. It doesn't cast them in the most sympathetic light, but under the circumstances their behavior makes a certain amount of sense. What were they to do, run out from their hiding spots and declare that the woman wasn't nuts, that in fact there were gun-toting gerbils among the canned goods? No, remaining unseen is certainly the right move, and I can see why the immense relief they’d feel at not getting caught would lead to laughter. What bothers me about this story isn't what anyone does, then, but the overall pointlessness of the whole thing, start to finish. The main characters almost have something happen to them, but then the problem solves itself at the expense of an innocent woman, and the story’s over. Who is this for? What value could anyone imagine it holds? It’s a self-defeating narrative where the protagonists barely have a role to play, acting more as mere catalysts than proper characters.

The strongest characterization comes from the third story, six pages wherein the Gerbils take it upon themselves to murder some drug dealers. That’s pretty much a summary of the plot right there. One of the Gerbils, Edam, protests for a few panels, but once he decides to go with the plan of killing the dealers, he commits completely, and ultimately sets their house on fire too. I’m not sure what the intention is here, but I have to assume that Jackson thought drug dealers would be universally disliked enough that nobody would mind watching them get shot to death repeatedly. Whatever his aims, what he achieves in this section is to paint the Gerbils as psychotics who murder for sport whenever they can cook up a flimsy argument about why their victims are bad guys. Maybe that’s the goal though, and whether Jackson wants it or not, those are the most memorable character portraits he offers. Four Gerbils who are bored, crazy, mean, and well-armed enough to shoot random dudes for little to no reason.

Somehow, almost impressively, Jackson puts the worst and best of his writing into the final tale, also six pages long. After four painfully empty pages of the Gerbils killing time on the hood of a car with activities like shadow puppets, fly-swatting, and yawning, suddenly comes the smartest, most self-aware dialogue in the comic:

It happens extremely late in the game (two panels from the end of the book), but that seems like a pretty clear declaration that Jackson’s meandering, off-putting narrative style was more on purpose than not. Which almost alleviates some of the effect, except for that all-too-familiar “Sigh,” at the end there. That’s exactly the reaction this comic provokes. Not a chortle or even a scoff but a sigh, a tired admission of defeat at the hands of boredom and disappointment.

To the best of the knowledge that my Internet research skills can provide, this volume is the last Cyborg Gerbils material to ever be published. And for all I know, that was the plan. The cover matter I mentioned above indicates as much in some of what it says, and there’s nothing about “next time” anywhere that I can see. I doubt if anyone missed this when it was gone. As for Jackson, I can’t dig up anything on him, so if anybody’s aware of what he got up to after this, let me know. I can imagine reading and enjoying him in a comic strip format, where the stories would come in shorter bursts, if he could find content that inspired him a bit more. Alas, 'Tales of the Cyborg Gerbils' was not that.

1 comment:

  1. Wow...iv'e never read anyone write about my stuff in any depth...thanks a lot for this...I just did a quick search on the net to see if anyone remembered the gerbils and came across your article. I agree with a lot of it...back in those days I was interested more in quantity than quality...I wanted to get my name out there as often as I could to get noticed and to some extent it worked...I was given work by London editions around 1990/1 and drew postman pat the magic roundabout duckula dangermouse and the mr men etc.
    In 1996 fat city films took a shine to my gerbils and jezz hall redesigned them for animation...
    there was a period where they were possibly going to be a cartoon but then talk died off and apart from two unpublished gerbils comics both written by me they sank without a trace.
    four of five years ago I got into animation and my efforts can be found under anthillmob100 on you tube...the first couple of efforts are rubbish but the power of atom ra is getting there and I will have a new one up in a coupe of months or so.
    as for the gerbils? im prepping them for a cartoon on my you tube site...check back in about a year or two...It will happen.
    John Jackson