COMIC REVIEW: Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter #1

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Title: Ian Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter #1

Author: Andi Ewington, Simon Coleby, Len O’Grady, and Jim Campbell

Publisher: Titan Comics

Published: 17 May 2017

RRP: $3.99 USD

The year is 2024: eighteen months after an unknown virus wiped out over eighty-five percent of the world’s population. The remainder were faced with a new world order where violence and chaos rule unchallenged. Former I-400 Driver, Bella De La Rosa, is one of the fifteen percent – living every day as if it were her last. She must hone her racing skills to become a scavenger of the Freeway, and survive any way she can. Based on the Fighting Fantasy book Freeway Fighter by Ian Livingstone.

Andi Ewington’s comic book adaptation of Ian Livingstone’s 1985 Freeway Fighter gamebook is an unrelentingly kinetic and compelling tale of post-apocalyptic vehicular savagery and survival that deserves its place among the canonical works of the ‘dystopian action’ genre. Powerfully rendered by the pencils and inks of Simon Coleby and further elevated by the exquisite colours of Len O’Grady, the Freeway Fighter comic astutely blends tropes of apocalypse and ‘survival horror’ while honouring the legacy of the original Mad Max film of 1979 and its “silent movie with sound” techniques.

Drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, long hair, and law-breaking: the muscle car culture of the late 1960s and 1970s mortified the Australian mainstream and was synonymous with ‘loose morals’ and criminality. To the conservative middle class especially, each souped-up Ford XY Falcon GTHO Phase III 351, Holden HG Monaro GTS 350 V8 or Chrysler VH Valiant Charger R/T was an unbridled, supercharged, nightmare juggernaut of social decline, akin to a “fuel-injected suicide machine.” When director George Miller married the already intimidating rev-head culture to punk menace and berserk motorbike gangs in his bleak dystopian vision of a not-too-distant future Australia teetering on the brink of collapse, Mad Max brought to cinema an ugly, lawless and violent ‘social apocalypse’ that polarised viewers and critics alike.

Actual apocalypse (on screen, at least) soon followed, as did two film sequels: Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Whereas the many iconic originalities of Thunderdome were somewhat overshadowed by the more ‘Hollywood-ised’ and ‘family friendly’ production, The Road Warrior portrays balls-to-the-wall survival in the face of uncompromisingly barbaric and sexually ambiguous warbands whose thirst for blood, death and leather is only exceeded by their thirst for gasoline. Despite being published in the same year as Thunderdome’s cinematic release, Livingstone’s Freeway Fighter gamebook – with the adventurer’s (i.e. reader’s) mission to drive “the armed Dodge Interceptor” across “the wilderness to the far-distant oil refinery at San Anglo and bring vital supplies back to the peaceful town of New Hope” – thankfully draws upon the broad narrative elaborated in The Road Warrior.

Although the Mad Max films had by then established a devoted cult following, the Freeway Fighter gamebook remained a risky departure from the dependable sword-and-sorcery adventures that had propelled Fighting Fantasy to ‘publishing phenomenon’ status. Gamebooks in the series that had strayed from the familiar settings of Allansia and Orb – particularly those set in outer space like Starship Traveller and Space Assassin – were poorly received, at least by Fighting Fantasy’s sensational sales standards. However, building upon the enduring niche appeal of the Car Wars roleplaying game (published in the USA by Steve Jackson Games in 1980) and the Battlecars wargame (published by Games Workshop in 1983) and buoyed by the release of Thunderdome, Freeway Fighter was well received and respected in its own right.

Three decades would pass before the Mad Max series would get its deserved re-boot in the form of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. During that time various ‘car combat’ video games, gamebooks and wargames would come and go – ranging from the Autoduel RPG video game of 1985 to Games Workshop’s 1988 miniature-based wargame Dark Future and the late Joe Dever’s Freeway Warrior gamebook quartet of 1988-89. Even so, none of these efforts were ‘standouts’ and the genre as a whole seemed tired and, by the mid-1990s, oddly irrelevant (‘oddly’ given the rampant feasibility of a peak oil induced societal collapse). That Ewington’s superbly muscular comic book adaptation of Freeway Fighter has ducked into the dust-choked slipstream of Fury Road would surely bring a smile of relief to the grim visage of Max Rockatansky himself.

The Freeway Fighter comic pits former racing car driver Bella De La Rosa against the unknown-virus-induced apocalypse and all that comes with it. The dominant aesthetics of the original Mad Max trilogy (i.e. the motorbike gangs of Mad Max, the post-punk / new wave ‘goodies-in-white-versus-baddies-in-black’ of The Road Warrior, and the punky-feral pseudo-exotica of Thunderdome) have been replaced with a prevailing look evidently drawn from the vicious, chrome-venerating dieselpunk of Fury Road. Grimy, menacing buggy contraptions with large calibre, turret-mounted automatic weapons prowl the wasteland like metallic hyenas, but in the face of Bella’s ice cold driving skills they’re left with little choice but to plunge off embankments and surrender their fuel. With her nose ring, sleeve tattoos, booze slugging, and penchant for talking with her car, Bella is more Tank Girl than Furiosa.

While Main Force Patrol’s maddest driver did find himself, post-apocalypse, scrounging and scavenging and even eating dog food, there was an ever-present whiff of pending derring-do – after all, he wasn’t simply a man driven insane by the tragic deaths of his wife and toddler son (not to mention the collapse of civilisation), he was a hardened pre-apocalypse cop conditioned to the grim reality of arresting or otherwise eliminating ‘scags’, ‘scoot jockeys’ and ‘nomad trash’ (demographic groups representing a significant proportion of the post-apocalypse population). Whether the re-booted Freeway Fighter’s protagonist – essentially a civilian with high speed driving skills – will prevail against the amassed forces of the pursuing pack of villainous vehicles and their ill-intentioned occupants remains to be seen.

Rating: 4.5/5

Reviewer: Paul Hardacre

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