Friday, December 1, 2017

Battletech #5

Christmas Toy Tie-in Comics:
Kid’s Stuff
Battletech #5
Just as boring and pointless as I remember it being

"A Sense of Foreboding”
Story - Pat Zircher
Editor-in-Chief – John Stephenson
September 1988

SoC is a lover of giant robots. He’s also a lover of games of all sorts. It would seem that Battletech, a game combining both of those things would be a favorite pastime of mine. But it isn’t. Why is that?

My introduction to Battletech, a tabletop game of giant robot figures that walk and shoot various types of weapons at each other, went something like this:

In the spring of 1986 I attend my first comic book convention. Unlike the conventions of today it was 98% male and 100% true geek stuff. Held at a tiny (by today’s con standards) hotel, it comprised of a dealer “hallway” where you could look at comics, a room showing around the clock Anime, a room showing around the clock vhs tapes of sci-fi movies, two rooms with D&D games in progress and a room where players had setup a Battletech tabletop game.

That con was my first time seeing Akira (blew me away).

It was also ALMOST the first time I saw a Battletech game.

I remember walking in to the small hotel conference room, no bigger than a standard hotel room, to find this huge table covered in what looked like a HO train modeler’s dream of a perfect forest landscape. There were two players in here, each with their mechs preparing to battle one another, and it appeared the game was just getting underway. Each had one clipboard per mech and it looked like player one had placed his mechs at key points on the board.

Player two, was still positioning his. I recall the conversation going something like a back and forth between two children discussing whether one had shot the other in a game of cowboys and Indians.

Player One: “…you’re placing (complicated mech name that henceforth will be called Mech2) on that rise?”
Player Two:. “Yes, and in the first round I will gain surprise on (complicated Mech owned by Player One henceforth to be called Mech1) for the first round because I am attacking from the rear.”
Player One: “Mech2 can’t see Mech1 because you don’t have line of sight through the forest.”
Player Two:. “But I’m elevated so I can see him over the treeline”
Player One: “No, you can’t. That’s (terrain name) and you can’t see through it.”
*argument ensues for 10 minutes while I wait patiently and really admire the mechs and the board*
Player Two:. “…so I can see him!”
Player One: “Fine, but you can’t attack him from there. You have to move 7 hexes to be within range. I can turn around in that time.”
Player Two:. “Yes, I can. I have (neat sounding weapon name that I’d like to see him do an attack roll for) and their range is (something sounding impressive).”
Player One: “You can’t use that in that way because of the forest terrain.”
*another 10 minute argument ensues, this time with checking rule books where each of them reads for about five minutes silently and then they compare notes*
Player Two:. “Fine. But if I had known that I wouldn’t have placed him there.
*picks up Mech2 and puts on side table*
Player One: “Okay. Where are you going to place him?”
Player Two: (thinks for 7 minutes and then starts long boring conversation about terrain types on the board)

I walked out then. I had eaten up about 20 minutes of my day and wanted to get back to watching the movies/animes. I came back twice before leaving the con that day. I was there for about 8 hours. Each time I came back it was the same two guys and the mechs had not changed positions or facing from where I saw them that morning nor was a pitched battle going on.

My assessment of Battletech was that the game comprised of long stretches of discussing things followed by more long stretches of discussing things followed by even more of those things. At no time did any of those figures get to move or shoot missiles at each other. In short, it wasn’t something I wasted my time on.

Well Blackthorne Publishing made a comic out of the BattleTech license back in 1988 and it approximates my experience with the BattleTech tabletop game to a “T”. The book is full of needless discussion and arguments between factions about what to do and setup-Setup-SETUP, and then it shows the Mechs sitting in a hanger undeployed for two pages and after that the issue ends like a child’s mother calling him home before the game even starts because it is 6 PM on a school night.

I’ve NEVER seen a comic so closely mirror an actual game experience in my entire comic reading existence.

So let’s get right to the suck, as I say, and see what’s up, chuck…

A brief synopsis: colonists from some kind of free faction are on a planet. The evil empire wants something that’s on the planet or they are just being evil dick heads. This may have been going on for FOUR issues already, although the website I found says the first four issues were filled with giant robot battles. I’ll believe it when another of these lands in the Crapbox. Until then, I’m choosing to believe that we haven’t even seen Mechs in those prior issues either, given how the tabletop game works.

Although I have it on good authority that they actually do have mechs in them. That fight and stuff. Just not the issue that I found. Maybe BattleTech has something against ME?

We begin with some laughable positioning of characters as this person sneaks aboard a ship called “The Faultless” a dropship for the Magistracy of Canopus, who are the “bad guys” in this. Think of them like the Empire in Star Wars. For now, let’s focus on the art shall we? Look at that leg that is on top of the guy kneeling down? Or is that supposed to be the same guy? WTF is going on here?

More things happen and the guy says “I’m in.” Which I don’t know what he’s in exactly because the book hasn’t really said, only vaguely alluded to a dropship.

But it kinda becomes clear by the third page that he is hitching a ride on a spaceship for a long journey. Why? Book is not dropping any hints as to what he is doing or his urgency or need for "sneak-recy" (I made that word up. It's a combination of sneaking and secrecy.)

Next page the top panel says people have seen a sentry from House Centralla walking around. Is this the guy we saw talking about going into the laundry chute? If so, what does it matter? Why wouldn’t the people who spotted him stop him? If this is a military vessel wouldn’t they automatically stop any civilian they saw on the ship? If it is a passenger vessel, couldn’t he just be a passenger? AND WHO IS SAYING THESE THINGS? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND!!

And the lack of explanation is beginning to bug me. I’m okay with dense plotting and lots of characters and court intrigue. What I’m not okay with is poor writing that doesn’t convey things like setup and stakes to the audience. Make me understand and care about what’s going on WHILE IT IS HAPPENING. That doesn’t happen here. What happens is this…

The laundry chute guy gets out and stabs a crewman (I think) while alarms are A-Rooga-ing, and then sends a message to a Lord Corwan that the ship he is on is filled with battle Mechs sent Canopian Magistracy to attack the people of the planet Vacarel. This information or even the hint that the laundry-chute guy was carrying a vitally important message three pages earlier would have heightened the atmosphere and made his actions MUCH more understandable.

Okay, I get where we are at. Does this guy, our hero have a name or someth-*

I love this first panel so much. It is like something from The Room. The gun is smoking. Laundry-chute guy is laying on the floor BUT STILL SENDING THE MESSAGE and then he says AAAGHT! Typically, artists like to SHOW the action when it happens, not skip it. A panel of him at the control board saying those lines with a gunman firing on him from behind would have been great. But not from our artist, no. He’s got the guy laying on the floor, the gun has been fired, yet he is still talking and then ENDs his conversation with a scream of pain.

I hope the rest of this book is this crazy.

Oh, and we get a villain’s name here. This book is FULL of boring, hard to idenitfy characters so get out a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. This is Major Akii-Bua. We do get the name of our dead guy. He was Sir Gerant of House Walkner.

Time for a quibble here: Not that the name in and of itself gives us that much additional information, but there is something about giving a character a name that allows the audience to have more empathy with that character. Before they die and stuff. Not after, like the author does here.

Moving on to what the actions of Sir Gerant of House Walkner mean to the inhabitants of the planet below, we drop in on this meeting between…oh holy hell!...put some characters in the freaking shot why don’t you. WHAT does Count Corwan Walkner even look like?

This is another problem the book has: it doesn’t know how to properly introduce characters to the audience. We get names of characters occurring as disembodied voices over panels of scenery and then we later see the person and we don’t make a connection. It is asking you to do WORK to figure out who is who, and that is never a good thing.

And don’t think this is me being lazy. I love me some Game of Thrones and there are like a million characters in that book series. Far more than what’s shown on HBO. Never once did I feel like I needed to keep a spreadsheet of their names, because Mr. Martin does an amazing job of introducing them in memorable ways so you know their unique place in his universe. That isn’t happening here and it is only going to GET WORSE!

So Count Walkner’s planet is in trouble. He informs the other factions on the planet that they must bend the knee to the Magistracy of Conopus (which, I guess is also the same as the Canopian Magistracy and the Magistracy of Canopus or the artist/letter made a screw-up in spelling it here. This book could do so much better if they stuck to a single convention for these names) or face a dropship full of armed mechs. Note that planet is now named Vakarel instead of Vacarel. This is what you get when you edit your own work. I should know as I find screwups I’ve made in the Crapbox all the time. However, this book cost money and the Crapbox is free. Bid difffference. (ha)

Don’t get excited, nothing involving mechs moving around occurs anywhere in this book. Just like at that convention I mentioned.

Anyway, as he is talking this guy named Precentor Cirilo shows up representing something called Comstar that might select the planet as a “permanent” something…it just isn’t made clear what Comstar is or what it does. At one point Cirilo’s right knee decides to join into the conversation as a badly place word balloon shows it to be talking instead of the Precentor. Also his retainer has what looks like a quiver of arrows on his back. That will be very helpful in battling the Mechs later, I’m certain.

And one last little irk at the artist on all this about his lettering: breaking up words just ruins word balloons. It breaks up the reading flow and creates confusion. Especially when there is no GOOD reason to do so. There is no need for ”Inter-fere” or “Sit-uation” to be broken up in the bubbles except sloppy lettering. I BARELY notice lettering EXCEPT when it is done so poorly, and here it is done exceedingly poor.

But back to the talking…

Which ends up being exposition upon exposition. Some of it is understandable. Most of it so riddled with questions of who is actually speaking and what they are talking about as to make it incomprehensible. What I do get is the Magistracy of Canopus has threatened their settlement for years and raiding forces are common… yet not so common that this planet has ACTIVE defenses. Just some old mechs in storage. So this part of the blathering doesn’t ring true.

Second panel: House Marik and Janos Marik is interested only in itself and doesn’t care about the planet Vacarel. That’s great and all, but who is Marik? Is that YOU, speaker? Are you speaking in third person? Are you saying that is someone in the Magistracy of Canopus? Is that YOUR liege lord and you are his delegate stating his position? Give the reader a clue, please writer.

Third panel: Captain General is the name used for Janos Marik of House Marik and why do I feel like I’m taking notes on who these people are now? This is not enjoyable. Oh and maybe the prior guy talking was Baron Omervoff…

I give…I don’t know who is who or why all this court intrigue matters and where the hell are my giant robot battles?

This fat, balding guy with a mustache stands up and acts like he owns the Mechs. Next thing you know he’s saying he won’t let them fire a shot and…I’m close to being done with this mess.

This book is doing so many things to annoy me. I can’t tell which character is whom by the awful dialogue and artist cues. And the lettering is getting worse, I swear. Above this big space panel showing space talking is a panel I didn't show that has a word balloon that breaks the word sister into "Sis -ter" so it fits on the line. And this one breaks "useful" into words "Use-ful." That make you ask “You’ll make Lt Vaughn use full what?”

There is plenty of room for the artist doing the lettering NOT to do that too.

And I’ve given up on the story. Here these people vote to not defend their planet because it is a worthless hunk of ice and I’m checking out. Good! Give it to the Ma-gistracy even though the Duchy of Or-iente and Baro-ness Sabell want to fight. Or better idea: instead of fighting with mechs, use your broken lettering to attack them. Should be very effective because right now it’s killing me.

And who needs armored battle mechs when you have these gloriously huge word balloons to hide behind. The enemy won’t even be able to find you with as large as these things can get. 

I know you don’t believe me, so here’s proof. They’ve gotten so large that they had to pull the camera out to the middle of SPACE just to be able to see them. 

Sorry about losing the story here but seriously: look at that page and tell me you have a desire to read all of this badly split exposition and explanation. I rarely quit on a story, but this one gives me characters I can barely identify talking for hours about an attack that it should instead be SHOWING me using so many words that I’m drowning in them.

And that panel is so insulting. Who is actually speaking? What do they look like? One of them is Torac, but which one? And don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters which character you're shoving this encyclopedia of words out of.

LONG story short, there are crystals on the iceball planet of Vakarel that are valuable. The book never explains WHY they are valuable. The leader knows it, but doesn’t tell everyone. The vote swings back in favor of fighting off the invaders. Torac convinced the guy with beard and mustache to fight.

New characters who are given names are brought in to pilot the defense forces. We are given a chance to understand their motivations and personalities in a moving scene where they accept their orders.

Or exactly the opposite of that. “Here is one guy and here is a different guy. There audience! Remember who these two are. Now let’s pull back so you can’t tell who’s speaking and then pull out to space so you really have no clue who is saying what.” Look at the bottom balloon in the third panel, it has given up attempting to point to someone and just sits there without a call back arrow.

Then a VERY short story happens.

These two soldiers, shown sparing at first are drafted by the Baron guy (I think) who will be providing the mechs to do some repairs on them The tech guy is Harleigh and the Sargent is Miranda.  

They suit up and head to the hanger being told not to let the ugmars bite.

We get to see Mechs…and I start feeling better about where this is heading.

They have some banter with the bearded guy, who I still can’t name, while they work on the robots that I am hopeful will get to move around and attack things soon.

THEN a page of crap with the leader breaks up all my good feelings as someone comes and tells him they have Vibro-bombs, which due to balloon placement I don’t know if it truly is “vibro-bombs” or “vibrobombs.” What I do know is it sounds more like a sex toy than something I’m worried about damaging a giant man-shaped robot.

And then ANOTHER FULL PAGE where Torac asks Lord Cowan if he can pilot one of the mechs…

And zzzz….oh! back to the people in the hanger! Maybe they are going to take one out and shoot something now?

But no. they are attacked by vicious sludge monsters. People sized sludge monsters. Which begs the question why they don’t start up a mech and squish them.

In a battle that is over far too quickly to be considered “action” the soldiers make it out of the hanger alive.

By now the artist and writer appear to be fighting over page space. Balloons float everywhere jumping the gap between frames, getting lost in the shuffle, being read out of order. What a freaking mess.

And right on time, the issue ends just as someone comes in to TELL that dropship makes it to the planet. So that brief panel of mechs is all we see.
What a letdown. The series lasted six issues, which gave this story one more issue to wrap this mess up in, one annual and one 3-D issue. There was a short lived three issue mini after this called BattleForce that made it two issues before imploding under the weight of its own word balloons.

I have it on good authority that the other issues contained actual fighting, but how decent that was pulled off, I can’t say for sure. If it was anything like this steaming turd, I’m not likely to enjoy finding another in the Crapbox.

To any fans of Battletech the game, I apologize. If you live in or around the DFW area and would like to show me the error of my ways I’m open to the challenge of watching a game. Just tell me what three day weekend I have to block off so I can see it from start to finish.

There were many Battle tech video games I’d like to try out as well. 

Also in 1994 Battletech got an animated series (to go alongside a videogame called MechWarrior) that was exclusively mechs shooting at each other. I mean that as in “no real plot, just lots of shooting.” As one YouTube poster stated “I miss cartoons when shit just got blown up non-stop.” That’s what the Battletech cartoon was, a half hour filled with explosion after explosion as if it were attempting to make Mr. Rogers cry. There were even bad 240p computer graphics added in to “accentuate” the action sequences.

Battletech the animated series (click link to see all the episodes) lasted one season of 13 episode, all available there. I believe all that mech on mech battle action happening so fast and furious was an attempt to make up for something, or at least it feels that way to me.


  1. The best part about MechWarrior 2 was needing to graft eighteen new fingers on to the palms of each hand in order to pilot your Mech successfully. The new fingers would often be rejected so it felt like you were back at the microsurgeon's office every week. When it worked, though, you could both clunk around in your mech *and* attack enemies simultaneously which was almost fun.

    1. I think I played a store display of one of the Mechwarrior games for about 5 minutes one time. What I learned was that my playstyle tended to make them overheat and stop moving suddenly. (or I was struck by too many missiles. One of those.)

    2. That sounds about right. Heat management was half the game, the other half was figuring out what way your legs were pointing relative to your upper body. The graphics were amazing for the time and the gameplay was pretty deep as far as I remember, and it came with a cool poster with all of the (many, many) key mappings...

  2. Another great review! Looks like the Crapbox failed you this time.

    I used to play BattleTech when I was younger (along with AD&D, Warhammer, and a few others) and you got shafted by watching some rule-lawyer asshats play in an unregulated game. I played the game on a competitive level at those old cons with a squad of 3 other friends and there is SUPPOSED to be a timer so the turns don't take longer than 5 minutes and a referee whose job it is to stare at the books and spout the rules AS you're hustling to beat the clock. And speaking of the video games, if there is ONE property that deserves a video game reboot on modern systems, it's MechWarrior.

    1. These guys never got down to playing. They spent the entire Saturday of the convention doing the initial placement of their forces. I would have killed for a timer on them. I so wanted to see hot Mech on Mech action!


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