Garth 036: The Big Game
Medium: comic
Year: 1943
Creator: Steve Dowling, Gordon Boshell
Artist: John Allard
Format: Newspaper comic strip
Website category: Comics
Review date: 21 November 2021
Garth was a British adventure comic strip that ran in The Daily Mirror from 1943 to 1997, usually drawn or written by John Allard. I've just read the 36th Garth story, The Big Game. In some ways, it's quite good. It's a well constructed SF adventure with reasonably interesting ideas and worldbuilding. The plotting's solid and has some nice touches. The SF creations are attention-grabbing and give Allard nifty stuff to draw.
Unfortunately, though, Garth himself has no characterisation at all. (Well, sort of. He has no romantic interest in the hot girl who's alongside him throughout this adventure, even though she comments on this. There's a girl somewhere else whom he's thinking of.) Think of him as a one-dimensional Hercules. He's strong. He's noble. He does the right thing... and that's it.
In fairness, I can see how newspaper strips could encourage that kind of writing. Three or four panels per episode. That's hardly enough time to take your coat off. That said, though, it's possible to make the format work and there's no excuse for something as unambitious as this. If Peter O'Donnell can write Modesty Blaise, then the perpetrators of Garth should hang their heads in shame. (O'Donnell was also an award-winning novelist, mind you.)
If you don't mind Garth being a tree trunk, though, this particular story's quite good. Garth gets kidnapped and taken off-planet... but his new home is unusual.
"So I'm on another planet?"
"No, you're in a mini-world, Garth. Big, custom-built job, houses over a hundred personnel. Fitted with the Vorgen Drive, so we have no acceleration problems."
His captors put a sensory capsule in his skull, because he's been brought here to participate in the Big Game. "Your every thought and emotion, every impression of the five senses... to a million hop-heads throughout the central galaxy... so they experience your part in the big game! You are like an old-time gladiator, Garth, but instead of watching your struggles, each hop-head experiences everything as if he were you. On a hundred worlds, countless hop-heads will have locked themselves in secrecy... each one lying in a coma that will last for weeks... fed by nutrition tubes, unaware of his own existence!"
He then gets dumped on to an asteroid that's been equipped with artificial gravity, an atmosphere and inhabitants (e.g. cavemen). To win the Big Game, he'll have to circumnavigate the asteroid. What comes next is deathmatches, fights and monsters (plus a nubile girl called Nubyl), but with a reasonable amount of originality. I appreciate Garth's respect for the cavemen and the way the story makes a threat out of plant respiration and planetary rotation.
"You know what this means, Garth? They're rotating the asteroid we're on! Garth, we've got to move on! If the night-side overtakes us, we'll die within the hour!"
"The night will kill us? What do you mean, Nubyl?"
"I mean we'll suffocate! This brown lichen that grows everywhere... it's a freak thing from Kariba Five! I've seen it before in a museum. Deprived of sunlight, it gives out large quantities of carbon dioxide, Garth! Enough to make night on this asteroid lethal!"
The dialogue can be clunky. The art's workmanlike and it does the job, but it's at best on the borderline of what you'd call "good". Also, Allard's shading technique can make his people look made of straw. Occasionally, a very little, he reminded me of Ian Gibson.
Is it good? In some ways, yes. Surviving for over half a century isn't something that happens by accident. Based on what I saw here, I assume the series is reasonably good SF/fantasy adventure that's not aiming for sophistication in its dialogue or characterisation. (That said, though, several different writers worked on Garth over the years and one of those was Peter O'Donnell, so maybe I was just unlucky in my choice of story to read.) It stands up better to rereading than Jane, anyway, which was its contemporary and also ran in The Daily Mirror.
"I'm not too sure what happens when I pull this trigger... but if you make a move, we'll both find out!"