Robot 6

Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs | Warlord of Io vs. Science Fiction

Warlord of Io

Warlord of Io

I have a confession to make. It’s nothing I’m proud of, but I’ve learned to live with it. I don’t like Sci-Fi.

Sure I love Star Wars and Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy and I especially love James Turner’s Warlord of Io, which is the inspiration for this post, but I can’t get through an Isaac Asimov anthology to save my life. Not even when all the stories are about robots. I like a lot of Warren Ellis’ creator-owned stuff, but the only one I truly love is Anna Mercury.

When I first discovered this, I was a bit disappointed in myself. I’d grown up thinking of myself as a Sci-Fi fan. I loved John Carter of Mars. Killraven was one of my favorite Marvel characters. I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong with me just because no amount of Jack Kirby could get me interested in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I was nine; I expect I’d have a different reaction today, but that would be all Kirby’s doing and none of the concept’s.)

Of course, it’s the hardcore Sci-Fi fans who are telling me that I don’t like their genre. Star Wars isn’t real science fiction. It’s fantasy. There’s no actual science to it. It’s just Lord of the Rings with spaceships and blasters instead of dragons and magic wands. But you know what? I’m okay with that now. Let the hardcore Sci-Fi folks have their label. I’ve found another one I like better anyway.

What it is and what’s the difference after the break.

Yes, please.

Is this Science Fiction?

In genre-naming circles, the stuff I dig is usually called Space Opera, but I don’t like that name either. It reminds me of singing valkyries and Days of Our Lives, not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things. They’re just not what I’m looking for in an outer space story. And what Space Opera really refers to is the huge scale of the story, not the level of awesomeness in it. What I’m looking for is awesomeness. What Grant Gould once described to me as Sexy Sci Fi. Weird planets, cool ships, laser guns, wildly imaginative aliens; bubble helmets and jet packs. The term that describes all that, I think, is Space Pulp.

But the Space Pulp label also comes with some problems. It makes no claim to any kind of literary quality and that’s a weakness. There’s no reason why a fun and exciting story shouldn’t also be a meaningful one. I have no patience for stories that are all plot with no character development and no point. In fact, I have much less tolerance for those than I do for weighty, important stories that aren’t all that exciting.

But given my choice, I’d rather have both. I’d rather have a book like Warlord of Io. It’s got Zing, whose primary responsibility as Prince of Io was playing video games, but now has to figure out how to rule the empire since his father is retiring for an orgy-filled life in the Pleasure Domes of Zur. His idealistic best friend Moxy Comet is willing to help, but first they have to escape the assassination attempts of Io’s would-be usurpers, led by the Demonic (meaning that he looks a lot like Kirby’s Demon) General Grymak.

Zing and Moxy on the run

Zing and Moxy on the run

The plot’s fairly simple, but it overflows with awesome. Turner has a boisterous imagination and it spills all over every page, making everything better. The villains are an eclectic group of crocodile-men, warbots, mud monsters, asteroid ants, jello people, and others too nuts to describe. Zing is helped by a miniature robot named Urk who makes R2-D2 look like C-3PO. There are also talking ray guns, a philosophizing sapling, a cybernetic death-rat, and of course Tiki Space Pirates.

It has heart too though, mostly thanks to Moxy Comet, the only person – including Zing – who seems to believe that the new emperor is capable of ruling well. Turner’s not heavy-handed with this, but it permeates the book and adds a different element to the concept of Wrong vs. Right. If – as Moxy believes – it’s Right for Zing to rule Io, then his slacking is just as much an obstacle to it as General Grymak is, which makes it just as Wrong.

I know there are lots of other great space stories like this, whether we call them Sci-Fi or Space Pulp or whatever. They may not teach a lot of science, but they teach us something about ourselves and let us have a great time in the process. So, the Questions for the Week are: What are they? What are your favorite comics set in space and why? And which bona fide Science Fiction comics are also good at human stories? Because in spite of what I said earlier, I’d really like to read them and see if I can start calling myself a Sci-Fi fan again.

Not from Warlord, but Kate Beaton explains the difference between Science Fiction and Awesome. Click the image to read the whole thing.

Not from Warlord, but Kate Beaton uses Verne and Wells to explain the difference between Science Fiction and Awesome. Click the image to read the whole thing.



I’m not a big fan of ‘hard’ sci-fi in practice but love it in theory. I am generally, what’s the word, infatuated? with Warren Ellis’ treatment of science in his comics but was turned off his work to the point of not reading another of his books for four or five years because of ANGEL STOMP FUTURE, probably his most ‘sci-fi’ of sci-fi stories. (oh, sure, TRANSMET would probably qualify, but the sci-fi is really just the clothing covering the body of that story.)

My favorite space-fi story is the miserably missed FEAR AGENT because it’s exactly what it says it is: A Space-Pulp story with no pretention to literary qualities. It’s a comic about a drunk cowboy in space shooting aliens because he feels compelled to. That’s pretty god-damned great in my book. I’d probably be an asshole if I didn’t mention ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE for being another example of space-pulp, which is much more about the people than about the things exploding or the science-y jibber-jabber but is pretty damned cool anyways.

I wasn’t sure how to categorize the comic I’m currently writing. I had been calling it “space opera” but I’m now thinking “space pulp” is a better description.

You can check out the trailer here if you’re interested:

“Space pulp.” I approve

See, I say I like sci-fi and fantasy, but I don’t like Wars, Trek, Lord of the Rings… any of that standard stuff. I hate swords and sorcery, I fall asleep with space diplomacy and plastic models shooting lasers at other plastic models.

But Doctor Who? That I can get behind. Science fantasy of the best kind. (Mostly) hard sci-fi works for me too, which I guess is what Ellis would fall under. And “literary” sci-fi like, I dunno, Kurt Vonnegut, love me some of that. And space westerns (just about any genre hybridization, really. Why don’t we have space lawyer shows?).

I think that much of (though not all of) Warren Ellis’ work qualifies as “hard science fiction” in that he tries to present scientific explanations for many of the fantastic elements. That said, he never lets it get in the way of telling a human story as ultimately, he’s more interested in humanity than gadgets (unlike most “hard SF” writers.)

Don’t feel bad, Micheal; most people couldn’t tell the difference between Star Wars and true Science Fiction to save their lives (and the No-Longer-Named-Sci-Fi-Channel exploits this.) Science Fiction was invented at a time when popular literacy was at its infancy; just exploring the basics of a scientific concept (talking robots, for example) was enough to build a whole story around it. But after they became commonplace they just turned into background material for more typical stories. There’s nothing wrong in liking one sort over the other just as some people cannot read anything that has the least bit unrealistic element to it. Different Strokes for Different Folks.

Also, thanks for introducing me to Warlord of Io- it sounds fun indeed! It sorts of reminds me of El Tigre cartoon, with its morally ambivalent young protagonist and his girlfriend who has more common sense than he does. Not to mention the crazy stuff constantly going around them. :D

F***ing sub-genres, how do they work?

Thanks for the kind words about Warlord of Io, Mr. May!

I read a good deal of both science fiction and science fantasy when I was younger, and quite enjoy them both. I watched things like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who when I was a kid. They’re great fun. Sci-pulp takes real science and then stretches it out like taffy to fit (or enable) a story. The ‘science’ is just there to explore an aspect of the human psyche, or just as new background dressing for mythology.

Hard SF requires me to engage much more brainpower and go slower. Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford, for example, required much more focus than A Warlord of Mars, or even Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson.

Warlord of Io harkens back to that earlier era of Space Pulp, embodied in the work of Frank R. Paul ( and the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The title of the graphic novel is directly inspired by ERB’s Warlord of Mars. There are a few bits of science around the edges but they’re not key to the script and they certainly don’t drive it. I think history wound up playing a bigger role in the book’s subtext.

Love Asimov’s work, particularly his early stuff. The second Foundation trilogy became more of a character focused soap than the earlier, more dispassionate and distant original. It’s a very unusual series of books, compiled out of serials that ran in magazines. It carries an underlying narrative to a greater degree than Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which is far more emotive. It’s more about creating mood than exploring politics. Foundation reminds me of Edward Rutherford’s historical fiction books, like Russka, that cover thousands of years of history through multiple characters who are barely, if at all, connected to each other. The main character, you might say, is Russia, rather than an individual, just as Foundation’s focus is the fall of re-establishment of civilization. It will be interesting to see if they can actually adapt Foundation for film, as I understand they’re attempting to adapt it.

I’d also include Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in the sci-fantasy category. It’s a beautifully written and melancholy book (okay, compilation of short stories), and they have literary merit to me. Others certainly disagree, but, well, they’re wrong. Bradbury’s use of language I find inspirational and poetic; he certainly hits on very human, and emotional, themes. I suspect some people discount his work simply because they’re biased against his chosen genre.

In terms of science fiction comics, I enjoyed the old Dan Dare strips and Flash Gordon, but can’t really think of many others. My exposure to the genre is mostly straight prose books and film/tv: The Mote in God’s Eye, Riverworld, Ringworld, Day of the Triffids, We, Brave New World, 1984, Childhood’s End, Rama, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Startide Rising, Starship Troopers, Footfall, Lucifer’s Hammer, Star Wars, Trek, Who, Blake’s 7, that sort of thing. All classics. I’m not really up on the latest and greatest. There’s an incredible wealth of fascinating material out there, but I’ve probably fallen a full generation behind now on the latest and greatest.

I doubt I could ever write a hard core sci-fi book; my knowledge of science just isn’t that extensive. Sci-pulp, on the other hand, is wonderful fun and I don’t need to be concerned with getting all the science right. I can stretch it like taffy to suit/enable the story I want to tell.

James Turner

Wow, James. I just now discovered this comment, so I’m sorry I didn’t reply before. You’ve seriously padded out my reading list for the next year or two.

Always happy to pad reading lists! There’s so much fascinating material out there it’s hard to decide where to start. Choice induced paralysis. I think David Brin’s Startide Rising strikes a particularly nice balance between speculation and breathless action. Warlord of Io is funnier tho…


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