Revisiting Marvel's Spider-Man And Zoids

Feature James Stansfield 11 Jan 2013 - 08:58

Marvel's Spider-Man And Zoids comic featured some great early work from Grant Morrison. James heads back to the 80s...

Growing up in the 1980s, we really did have some awesome toys: Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Micro Machines and Rainbow Brite. Also: Zoids.

Divided into two warring armies of blue and red, Zoids were battery or wind-up powered machines driven by android pilots, mostly taking the form of dinosaurs or other reptiles and insects. Proudest among any child’s Zoid army would be the inclusion of the mighty Zoidzilla (a Tyrannosaurus rex and leader of the blue zoids), closely followed by the terrible Redhorn (a Triceratops and commander of the reds). Many entertaining hours could be had by setting up these two and watching them try to destroy each other on the living room carpet.

There were lots of Zoids to collect. From the big ones, such as Gore (an ape) and Mammoth (a mammoth, obviously), to the much smaller ones like Hellrunner (a sort of Velociraptor) and the Spider-zoid (a spider, yes!). But while the likes of Transformers and Care Bears were furnished with television and movie series to cash in on their products success, Zoids never quite permeated into the mainstream (a Zoids anime was eventually made, but this wasn't until 1999). They were, however, the recipients of their own comic story from Marvel UK.

Running for 51 issues between March 1986 and February 1987, Marvel UK produced the weekly title Spider-Man And Zoids. Back  when comics came in A4 size and cost just 35 pence an issue, this was a split title between reprints of The Amazing Spider-Man from around the time of the Venom costume saga, and an original strip called Zoids, which made up between five and six pages of each issue.

Containing a huge story arc that was still going on at the time of its cancellation, the Zoids comic strip is mostly remembered now for featuring some of the most notable early work by comics legend Grant Morrison, who penned the last few months of its run. It also featured artwork from Marvel UK regulars Geoff Senior and Steve Yeowell, and writing on some of the earlier issues from Simon Furman.

Zoids was a strip which probably seemed ahead of its time to many of its junior school readers. On reflection, it perhaps wasn’t quite as revolutionary as it first appeared, but merely drew its influences from films that its readers were too young to watch. Over the course of its life, there were obvious influences from The Terminator and Aliens in the story, as well as Shakespeare.

Zoid vs Zoid

The comic’s narrative essentially had three strands, which would frequently cross over. The first was the story of the Zoid war, which had been raging for years on the distant planet of Zoidstar. Told to the reader by a being known as The Namer, who purports to be the last survivor of the Zoidaryans - the race who created the Zoids - he tells us that the Zoids were created to conquer the galaxy.

When there were no more worlds to enslave, the Zoidaryans took to fighting each other in heroic combat using their creations. The only drawback of this, of course, was that everybody died, so androids were then used to pilot the mechanical monsters.

Along the way some Zoids were stranded on one of Zoidstar’s moons and upon return had modified themselves into the red Zoids. So began the war between red and blue.

The Namer’s narrative fit well with the first few issues of the strip. It filled in the back story while integrating it with the action of the Zoids scrapping it out. The comic often made good use of single page frames to emphasise the size and violence of the Zoids in combat. Although the artwork in the early issues was basic and hampered by having to squash a lot of panels and boxes on to one page, it was very effective when it came to the one page spreads of the Zoids.

If this part of the storyline had been purely about android operated robots beating all holy hell out of each other, it might have become a bit dull. The writers then had the foresight to furnish the Zoid’s android pilots with personalities of their own. Zoidzilla’s operator was a born leader, while Gore made up in brawn what he lacked in brains in keeping with his ape machine. Redhorn The Terrible was ruthlessly aggressive while Mammoth was portrayed as a cowardly traitor who defects from the blues to join the red Zoids in one of the strip's earliest issues.

The smaller Zoids also had their own habits, with the Spider-zoids congregating in nests and the airborne Terrazoids being characterised by suicidal attacks against much bigger enemies. The use of Zoid personalities led to some of the comic's occasional off-beat tales, which would fill a couple of issues when the main story took a break.

In a story reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone, two elderly Cosmozoids, Zed and Zee, have grown weary of the Zoid wars. They search for a place called Metalon, a sort of Zoids retirement home. On the way, Zed executes Zee after he is struck down in combat, believing he is not worthy of a place in Metalon. Upon arrival, though, Zed faces an even worse fate. Metalon is revealed not to be a paradise but an inescapable arena of constant fighting. This short story pulled a dark twist to its finish, in keeping with shows like Tales Of The Unexpected.

The highlight of the Zoids versus Zoids portion of the comic’s story was the setting up of a triple threat encounter between Zoidzilla, Redhorn and the bird-like Krark. Mammoth persuaded Redhorn to challenge Zoidzilla and Krark in combat. The devious Redhorn then separately visited each of his opponents to tell them he will ally himself with each of them in order to overcome the other. His plan is to destroy them both while they are fighting.

Unfortunately, neither Krark nor Zoidzilla had faith in Redhorn, and they team up to defeat the red Zoid leader. Mammoth then revealed to the fallen Redhorn that he knew this would happen, and tricked Redhorn into the situation, leaving the reds free to be commanded by himself. The destruction of Redhorn was a well scripted and twist-filled stunner, featuring the coming together of the three biggest Zoids in the strip for some brilliantly-illustrated combat.

The Celeste

The second strand of Zoids' overall story brought a human element into the mix, so that readers had something to identify with. The Celeste was a prison ship from Earth in the year 2274. The ship was on a mission to establish a new penitentiary on the supposedly deserted Zoidstar when it crash landed, killing almost all aboard. The survivors were led by the Celeste’s captain Drew Heller, who thought it’d be a good idea to bring his 14-year-old son Griff along for the ride too.

Heller and his crew joined forces with The Namer at the beginning of the story. Namer explained the Zoid wars to them and the reader simultaneously, which was a good way of filling in the background story of the Zoids. In another example of how good the writing on Zoids was, the main crew of the Celeste were all established within a couple of pages, from Heller and Griff to first mate Rolo, the mysterious prison officer Silverman and Carradine, the wrongly accused convict.

The first few months of the strip concentrated on the crew's struggle for survival on Zoidstar as they attempted to repair the ship and evade involvement with the Zoid wars - somewhat unsuccessfully. The theme of hope in the face of futility which ran throughout the comic’s life span was established with the arc regarding the humans. Even in the early days, the strip strongly indicated that their story would not have a happy ending, and delivered some particularly bleak and crushing moments for the crew of the Celeste.

A near standalone story, which could have been a direct influence on the Into Pitch Black special feature which supported that 2000 movie, saw a female salvage operative despatched to Zoidstar to ascertain what happened to the Celeste. Encountering a Hellrunner, she flees the planet on the assumption that the crew are long dead as Carradine’s shouts for her to come back go unheard over the noise of her hover cycle. A half eaten apple is all that remains of her visit.

Krark – Prince of Darkness

The third and least prominent story arc was commanded by the red Zoid known as Krark. Said to the be the ultimate red Zoid mutation and dubbed the Prince of Darkness, Krark took the shape of a gigantic bird-like Pterodactyl, who sought to combine the red and blue forces into one army under his leadership which could conquer the galaxy like the Zoids of eras gone by.

Of all the Zoids, Krark’s character was the most interesting, and the first visualisation of him was teasingly revealed - much like a monster in a horror movie. His story largely involved the mainly unsuccessful effort to persuade other Zoids to join his cause, and revolved around another of the strip's constant themes: that of identity and purpose.

Many of the Zoids Krark came across knew nothing other than war, and were incapable of seeing an alternative purpose for themselves. Krark had some luck, and his story introduced two of the comic’s most colourful Zoid characters - two reds known as Zaton and Zunder.

Zaton and Zunder were written as unappreciated scholars. Their dialogue was written in the voice of an archetypal English gentleman, and put the reader in mind of Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or at least, it would have if we hadn’t been 10-years-old at the time. The two were adopted as Krark’s lieutenants after he overheard them sharing his ideals. The Krark storyline lent another dimension to the strip, and furthered the idea of the androids that drive the Zoids having their own personalities.

Silverman

The Zoids comic constantly provided many fast and unexpected revelations to its story, but the greatest was the reveal of who - or rather what - prison officer Silverman was.

Silverman was portrayed as heartless from the beginning, but also a valuable part of the Celeste survivors. Only The Namer, being on the outside of the group and knowing the power of the Zoids, suspected that something may be amiss. He commented to himself that Silverman appeared unharmed after he is locked in a Scorpo-zoid's grip. There were more than a few hints like this dropped into the strip's first few months, which served to tantalise the reader.

After raiding the Zoids' factory for parts to patch up the Celeste, Silverman led Rolo, Carradine and convict Al Boston back to the ship, only for his true nature to be uncovered in a dramatic encounter with a Manta-Zoid. Taking two direct rounds of the Zoid’s fire power and getting immediately back up again, Silverman is revealed to be an MX-30 Supervoc, a specially-engineered robot made by the Earth government and an organisation called Cybersol, whose goal is to kill the remaining crew and return home alone.

The cyborg, covered in flesh, was quite clearly influenced by James Cameron’s The Terminator, released a couple of years before the comic. The way in which Silverman would appear over the coming issues as a robot with parts of his flesh hanging off him was very reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s T-800.

The Silverman character may also have been influenced by another 80s sci-fi robot. Although the majority of Zoids readers would have been way too young to even attempt to sneak into the cinema to see that year’s film, Aliens, Silverman was drawn with more than a passing resemblance to actor Lance Henriksen, who appeared as the android - sorry, artificial person - in that movie.

This twist in Zoids' tale was huge. The introduction of a possibly even deadlier threat to the crew of the Celeste was a hugely pivotal plot point,  and one which would go on to form the basis of the strip's greatest moment later on. Silverman quickly executed Al Boston. This was another example of the mature level on which the Zoids comic operated at times. There weren’t many other comics based on toy lines which had homicidal robots gunning people down in a violent fashion.

The artwork around Silverman, particularly when he was drawn by Geoff Senior, was often nightmarish and unpleasant. It left no doubt in the reader's mind as to who the real villain of the comic was. Cold, calculating, brutal and outright evil through and through, Silverman was a memorable bad guy.

In a further twist, Silverman was to reveal to Captain Heller during a showdown at an abandoned Zoid factory that the real nature of the Celeste’s mission to Zoidstar was to gather intelligence on the Zoids, using the crew and prisoners as bait, after which Silverman would report back to Cybersol.

The Black Zoid

Grant Morrison’s takeover of writing duties on Zoids was heralded by a two-part story in which a survivor from a world previously ravaged by the Zoids made his way to Zoidstar. The alien confronted a red Zoid android, showing him the effects of the Zoids' destructive power. He leads the alien to a blue Zoid factory with the intention of showing him what he had seen, only for Zoidzilla to mercilessly destroy the newcomer.

Morrison’s writing took up the theme of futility on the planet, which had long been running through the strip, but his writing was much more intense than had previously been seen in the comic. This short episode was a precursor to the story, which would become the pinnacle of the Zoids series, bringing the main three narrative strands together – The Black Zoid saga.

The story began with the revelation in a fevered dream to Heller that his wife was killed after working with the Cybersol corporation. In the dream, Heller was confronted by a vision of Silverman, looking like a hybrid between The Terminator, an alien Queen and Ash from Evil Dead 2, who tells Heller that he may be an android himself. This caused the Captain to question his identity in a way similar to Harrison Ford’s Deckard at the conclusion of Blade Runner, another sci-fi movie influence on the story.

Meanwhile, Zoidzilla was attacked by an unseen opponent, who left the blue Zoid leader in pieces - prompting others Zoids to believe that the legend of The Black Zoid, an unstoppable Zoid, the most dangerous ever, had come to pass.

The Black Zoid was revealed to be a colossal, deadly Zoid that could shed its outer shell when it became damaged. It takes on several forms, from a gigantic dinosaur robot to a flying wasp-like shape. And at its controls was the returning Silverman.

As a red Zoid leader, Mammoth was a failure, and with the fall of Zoidzilla, the red and blue armies united under the leadership of Krark. The Black Zoid saw Krark’s vision of one mighty Zoid army come true, and eventually, Silverman was subdued.

When Silverman emerged from the Zoid to battle Captain Heller one on one, he was a skeletal robot - again, much like the T-800 in The Terminator. Rocked by his loss of identity and purpose, Heller engages Silverman with little fear of reprisal, defeating him by smashing his head to smithereens after it sprouts legs in a final transformation, possibly inspired by the alien in John Carpenter’s movie, The Thing.

The Black Zoid arc was a tremendous pay-off for those fans who'd stuck with the comic for almost a year. It was the culmination of the three major storylines, with a threat which had been built up to be believably huge. Grant Morrison’s writing on the issues was superb, and the battle had the epic feeling it deserved, which was no small feat in a strip only given a few pages each week.

The end?

Spider-Man And Zoids only ran for another five issues after the conclusion of The Black Zoid story. The Zoids were originally scheduled to continue their story in their own monthly title, to be written by Grant Morrison, but the book was never to see print. In its final few parts, though, Morrison indicated that the story had much left to tell, and several new arcs were set up.

The most tantalising was the machinations of the Cybersol corporation on Earth. The strip here became even more heavily influenced by James Cameron’s Aliens. In an issue that was reminiscent of the scene in which Ripley is questioned by the Weyland Yutani board in the film, the salvage worker who investigated The Celeste on Zoidstar is interrogated by Cybersol suits. In a show of just how evil the company was, the worker was thrown out of a high rise window in order to keep her silent.

Cybersol, it seems, knew about the Zoids after a previous spacecraft beamed transmissions of them back to Earth, and the company had been intent on capturing one to use as a military weapon. Given the assumption that Silverman has failed to accomplish this, the strip introduced a mercenary called Sclater, who was to lead a team of colonial marines-style troopers to Zoidstar to finish the job, as well as kill any survivors of the Celeste they may happen upon. These characters were introduced, but readers never saw any more of them.

The final couple of issues dealt with the return of Redhorn, having rebuilt himself from the remnants of the destruction left by The Black Zoid. Redhorn confronted and destroyed Mammoth in the last issue to take his revenge and place as the leader of the red Zoids.

There were several plot strands besides that of the mercenaries coming to Zoidstar which were left unresolved. The Namer was revealed to have had a wife which was never explained any further. Griff Heller was left with amnesia. There was a hint that Silverman might not be dead, and in a weird issue, a suggestion was made that the Zoids universe was controlled by some higher beings playing a game.

Presumably, Grant Morrison would have addressed these plot lines in the monthly version of Zoids. An uncoloured version of the first issue has surfaced online in the last couple of years, but it did little other than fill in the back story.

The Zoids comic wasn’t as popular as Marvel UK’s other titles like Transformers, but it is remembered with great affection by those who read it at the time. It seemed incredibly grown-up in comparison to other comics that were readily available in WH Smiths on a Saturday morning, and little did we know that we were reading work by a man who would go on to become one of the best in the business: Grant Morrison.

It produced a long and complex story that tapped into plenty of the things that young sci-fi fans loved – spaceships, killer robots, war machines and a human fight for survival – as well as constantly recurring themes of identity and purpose which motivated almost all the characters.

The strip has never been republished. It’s not known why, but widely believed that rights to do with the toy line from which it originated may be the reason. The whole thing can be viewed online, where some kindly saviour has scanned the whole 51 issues in and more. It is definitely worth a look or a revisit.

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