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Captain Condor: Operation Catastrophe
Keith Watson and Frank S. Pepper
D.S. Publications £19.95
review by Andrew Darlington
"London had now become a vast green wilderness where the death-like silence was broken only by the eerie whisper of countless ever-growing tendrils slithering through the ooze..." A description of a transfigured urban landscape that recalls the garish strangeness of J.G. Ballard, yet is contained in a single text-box for Captain Condor. Although he gets no script-credit here, the writer responsible is the amazingly prolific Frank S. Pepper, who created 'Roy Of The Rovers' and 'Rockfist Rogan', but was most proud of originating the "Space Patrol's most daring adventurer." He scripted every 'Captain Condor' episode from the launch of Lion on the 23 February 1952 through to the final text-tale The Man-Eating Lake dated 14 November 1964. During that cycle of tales he collaborated with any number of artists. Many of them were pretty dire. Brian Lewis was great. And Keith Watson was great. Watson had started out as a junior member of Frank Hampson's Dan Dare team for Eagle. He quit to prove his worth by producing just three Condor tales single-handed (from 24 September 1960 to 23 December 1961) before returning to navigate Dare through his final Eagle years. His style characterised by sharply defined hard-edged monochrome blocks and slabs of blacks. But now, the first of his Condor adventures is collected into this single reproduction-volume, Operation Catastrophe - and from its dramatic cover on in, it's a treat of galactic proportions.
"It was the year AD 3010," and Earth is "the centre of a spreading empire of stars and planets." Condor is a stark and austere space hero who takes on increasingly Dare-like visual qualities as the plotline develops. Obviously, due its weekly two-page publication schedule, the structure is episodic; building to a thrill-packed climax intended to tide you into the next seven-day gap. But Pepper's skill is such that he assembles the thrills through an arc of connected modules that build smoothly towards the tense space shootout conclusion. The crisis first appears in "the primitive jungles of South America" where New Rio is "ambushed by the writhing plants of doom" that "grow at bewildering speed." Then the action rapidly up-shifts to the orbital Masterman Electronic Brain, which consists of "transistors and magnetically energised wire," located in space where "the delicate braincells... carrying the entire sum of all human knowledge... can't be affected by changes of climate, atmosphere, or temperature."
"Nothing can go wrong," reassures Condor's personal assistant, Quartermaster Burke. But, of course, it does. The computer has begun constructing its own enlarged memory-banks! Just as abruptly they're hurled back to London, also now overgrown, to observe the destruction of Tower Bridge and to rescue survivors trapped in the Ludgate Hill Tube Station, while the to-nuke or not-to-nuke equation counts down over their heads. The threat escalates as the "fantastic plants which seem to possess almost human intelligence" are reinforced by freak "monstrous bugs that have been feeding on them."
"A nightmarish calamity was sweeping over the world. Its cities being smothered by a jungle of giant weeds in which monstrous insects were breeding in countless millions," while Condor is plunging into "the grim threat of deadly insect dive-bombers" in the atomic-radiation zone of Harwell City with its zombie inhabitants controlled by radio pulses from outer space. At last Condor realises that it's the mutant Electronic Brain that's responsible "it eventually became aware of its own existence, and from that moment humanity was doomed," and because it's programmed with all human knowledge, it defeats them at every turn. "Earth is finished," announces Condor grimly, so they retreat to Triton, "dark bleak inhospitable moon of Neptune" to evolve a new science it doesn't know. The plotting is hard and fast, punctuated with abrupt shocks and twists. The sweeping space-scapes are visually powerful, the battling spaceships inventively dramatic. Of course, monstrous mutant plant-growth intent on global domination, is an occupational hazard for all space heroes of the period, including Dan Dare himself in a couple of years time. But even by today's widescreen ultra-violent 2000 AD graphic novel literacy, Operation Catastrophe makes for a powerful read.
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