Friday, July 12, 2013

The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore - reviewed

The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore. Illustrated by Ian Gibson. Rebellion £13.99

Reviewed by Mike Chinn

Halo Jones made her first appearance in 2000AD’s “Prog 376” way back in 1984 and continued over a two year period in three “books”. Her final adventures ended in 1986 after writer Alan Moore and Fleetway – the comic’s publishers – had a major disagreement over ownership rights. As things stand, those adventures won’t be continuing anytime soon (originally nine books had been planned). So we’ll have to enjoy what there is of the girl’s adventures.

Our first sight of Halo is as an eighteen year old, living in the Hoop – an enclosed, floating torus off the coast of Manhattan where America’s long-term unemployed are dumped. She’s sharing an apartment with Rodice (something of a stereotypical teenaged girl), Brinna, and a robot dog (a Ripper, model Iliac Six Hundred) named Toby. There’s also Ludy, a talented musician with the band Ice Ten: nervous and lacking in self-belief. The action takes place over a single day. Rodice finds out that they’ve run out of food – which means they’re going to have to risk a shopping expedition. Ludy has to practise so Halo goes out with Rodice – along with a reluctant Toby – armed with sputstiks and zenades as defence against other Hoop inhabitants. It’s a disaster from the start, with circumstances conspiring to ruin Rodice’s carefully-planned timetable. Rodice also manages to blow herself up with a zenade (which at least gives Halo the chance to make up time by taking a short cut outside; although the blissfully tripping Rodice comes round before they get back inside), and squirt a nausea-inducing sputstik into her own face. When they finally get back to their apartment, Brinna is dead – cut to shreds in what looks like a robbery gone wrong. Whilst Halo is struggling to absorb that, Ludy comes in: she’s become a member of a youth cult – the Different Drummers – whose implanted brains have a constant rhythm pounding out real life. Something snaps in Halo and she decides to sign on the E.S.S. Clara Pansy. She and Rodice agree to meet on Charlemagne: last one to arrive buys the drinks.

Book two documents Halo’s life as a hostess on board the Clara Pandy. There’s a framing device revealing that Halo is the study (and obsession) of an academician of the far future, which also cleverly serves as a re-introduction to the character after half a year’s absence from the comic. Now she shares a cabin with Toy – another hostess, who’s seven-foot tall and afraid of nothing – and a character so self-effacing and lacking in self-esteem that she almost literally fades into the background. Halo is besotted with the ship’s cyberneticist (it’s unreciprocated, of course), still has Toby (though that turns out to be a very mixed blessing) and has long conversations with the ship’s steersman: a dolphin named Kititirik Tikrikitit (Kit for short) – she learned to speak cetacean back in the Hoop when she was a member of the Ritit Rikti fan club. She also helps a Rat King that is on board – helping to find a replacement rat when one of the five tail-knotted rodents falls terminally ill and the creature’s linked mind starts to come apart. That simple act of kindness has implications that will echo down the years to come. And on the last night before they reach Charlemagne, at a Chop Party (named for mega-rich Lux Roth Chop who owns the Clary Pandy), even though Halo is spurned by the cyberneticist for a media celebrity, she shares a dance with a an unassuming guy she bumped into earlier: none other than Lux Roth Chop himself (though she discovers that a little belatedly). Quitting the ship, Halo finally contacts Rodice from a run-down bar – only to find her old friend is still back in the Hoop, with no real intention of leaving it.

The third and final book finds Halo marooned on Pwuc: not only down on her luck but about as far down as she can get. Even the Hoop compares favourably. When a military recruitment ship touches down, and Halo finds that her old cabin-mate Toy is already signed on, she – maybe not so eagerly – joins up. After all, they were just a peacekeeping force; there practically no chance she’d get sent to the Tarantula warzone. But part of the peacekeeping mission is on a backward planet called Lobis Loyo, fighting a guerrilla war against terrorists. Somehow she survives – though the experiences leave her emotionally scarred and embittered. From there she’s shipped to Moab: a vast planet within the warzone that has a gravitational pull so powerful it not only leaves anyone unprotected as a puddle, it actually slows time. Halo and her squad plod out onto the surface, exchange shots with the enemy, and return to their gravity-shielded base to finds days have elapsed inside. In a final irony, whilst they are out on one sortie, the Earth’s economy collapses and the cetaceans negotiate a cease-fire – weeks before Halo returns. Peace settles, and Halo even finds a love in the huge shape of General Luiz Cannibal – but then she finds out exactly what role the King Rat she saved back on the Clary Pandy has had in the war against Tarantula. Disillusioned again, she takes a spacecraft and once more, goes out.

Even though it’s some thirty years old, The Ballad of Halo Jones is refreshingly undated – possibly timeless. Alan Moore crams in satire, sly references, puns (is the name Clary Pandy a play on Para Handy: the “hero” of Neil Munro’s Vital Spark short stories for instance?), and crazy slang (“come on” becomes “come off” – the fictional origins of which we can speculate on some other time…). It’s likely he had Vietnam in mind when scripting the guerrilla fighting on Lobis Loyo, but it’s no less relevant today: a despised occupying force fighting against locals they loathe with equal vigour. Many of the “terrorists” turn out to be children (sound familiar?). The section on Moab – with its time-distortion – reminded me strongly of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. And although the Hoop is a dystopia of a type quite popular within 2000AD’s pages, the mind-set of its rejected inhabitants still resonates.

Ian Gibson’s artwork clearly improves over the three books – becoming more subtle; his line work finer – but there is still a great vitality: busy without being overcrowded. His females are shapely without being sexual caricatures. And he can even portray a dolphin’s amusement at its own joke. I don’t know if Moore chose his illustrator or if Fleetway simply assigned Gibson, but it’s a pairing that works effortlessly.

In addition to the reprinted strips, the book comes with a Foreword by writer and journalist Lauren Beukes, a gallery of Halo Jones covers (with pin-up of Halo, Rodice and Brinna), and an example of an original Alan Moore script – so everyone can appreciate just how detailed they are. It’s a pity Moore never had the chance to finish the saga – apparently there were plans to take her into old age – but as the man once said: never say never.

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