Out of the Vault – Comics Greatest World: Steel Harbor

Continuing a look back at Dark Horse’s short-lived 1993 attempt to create a shared superhero universe. In month 3, focus shifted from Golden City to Steel Harbor.

But first, the prologues: The first page of every issue formed a separate, parallel story written by Mike Richardson and illustrated by Lee Weeks. In month 1, aliens built a base under a desert in the American West. In month 2, that alien base was in the middle of a very delicate experiment involving some kind of dimensional wormhole, when the U.S. conducted a hydrogen bomb test just overhead on the surface. Now in month 3, American military forces descend to the base and approach the dimensional anomaly, only to discover that it causes them to mutate, developing monstrous bodies and/or amazing powers.

Cut to the first book of the Steel Harbor group, and it’s a name that even non-comics fans might be familiar with. Because Barb Wire, the tale of a hard-boiled, bounty-hunting bar owner with big boobs and a bad attitude, was adapted into a major motion picture starring Pamela Anderson.

What’s that? You say you were unfortunate enough to see Barb Wire and you don’t remember anything about superheroes or aliens? Well, no. The movie adaptation is an insufferably “gritty” reimagining of Casablanca. But since this isn’t Super Movie Monday, we’re here to talk about the comic book.

And in the comic book (written by Chris Warner with art by Paul Gulacy), Barb hunts supervillains, like this pyrokinetic dude named Ignition.

Barb is a serious bad-ass. But Ignition doesn’t stay in jail long, because he’s got a seriously high-powered lawyer. Turns out Ignition is a small fish working for a really big fish named Mace Blitzkrieg.

Blitzkrieg heads up the Prime Movers, a coalition of gangs that is planning a strike against the one gang in town not in the fold, not coincidentally the strongest gang in town–Wolf Gang. Barb suspects that something big is going down and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it. It’s a pain, because the bouncer at her club hasn’t shown up for work and the riff-raff are tearing the place up. But after Barb gets them all sorted out, she  contacts a man named Avram to help her.

And this is one thing that Chris Warner, writer of the Steel Harbor sequence, did differently from either of the two previous writers. Where Jerry Prosser and Barbara Kesel introduced each new character in his or her own book, Warner introduces or alludes to  all of the characters in the first book, and interweaves all of their stories in each issue. For instance, the Avram that Barb decides to contact in her issue is actually The Machine, title character of the second book in the Steel Harbor sequence, drawn by Ted Naifeh.

Avram is a cyborg who is tied in to the Matrix, the comic book equivalent of the just-launched World Wide Web (predating the Keanu Reeves movie by 6 years). He uses his machine powers to save Barb from Ignition’s attempt at retribution, and in the process, demonstrates that his skills are not limited simply to information retrieval.

Naifeh’s art works really well with this character. Avram tries to figure out what Mace Blitzkrieg is up to, and discovers his plan to attack Wolf Gang and take over the waterfront. Meanwhile, Mace Blitzkrieg gets tired of Ignition’s constant failures and excuses and kills him before ordering his people to move out. And Barb’s bouncer is arguing with voices in his head, while Avram discovers that the invisible aliens who have appeared in the previous two cities are in Steel Harbor as well, so he disconnects from the Matrix and rides with Barb to warn Wolf Gang.

Which take us to Wolf Gang, the third book in the sequence. Chris Warner is not only the writer for this issue, but does the art honors as well, becoming the first artist to repeat an issue. And he is also the first artist to provide both the interior art and the cover art, as the previous two covers were provided by Dave Dorman and Mike Mignola.

Barb rides her motorcycle to the waterfront to warn Wolf Gang, but is almost immediately attacked by gang members who don’t know who she is (which makes you wonder why she’s so desperate to warn them if she doesn’t know them). Her assailants are the superpowered thugs depicted on the cover, whose names are Burner, Bomber, Breaker and Cutter.

Wow, this is a gimmick that’s not going to wear well. I was tired of it by the second guy (who was actually a girl, but you know what I’m saying). I’m guessing the gang’s lawyer is Public Defender. Barb and Avram narrowly avoid death due to the timely arrival of Hunter, the gang’s leader.

I don’t think Hunter is actually her brother. From the way they relate in the rest of the story, it seems more a term of affection than relation.

Anyway, Mace Blitzkreig and his coalition of superpowered gangs attacks. Wolf Gang is surrounded and outnumbered. Things look bad for them, and for Barb. But remember Barb’s bouncer, the one who was hearing voices? He has attracted the attention of the inviso-aliens, and unluckily for them, they’ve drawn his attention as well.

Because he is Motorhead, the title character of the fourth Steel Harbor title, with cover and interior art by Vince Giarrano. We never learn much about him, although it’s implied that he’s got some piece of alien technology hidden under that scarf he wears. It talks to him and he argues back. And it’s also incredibly powerful, as we learn when he effortlessly kills the two aliens observing him.

He then flies down to Barb’s club, the Hammerhead, to see if she’ll give him his job back. When he learns that she’s trapped in the pitched super-battle between Wolf Gang and Blitzkrieg’s Prime Movers, he decides its time to take a hand. Or a you know, head.

The problem with Motorhead as character was that he seemed omnipotent, which doesn’t seem to allow a lot of places for the story to go. But it did provide a convenient ending for the Steel Harbor cycle, as Motorhead saves Barb, Avram and Wolf Gang, then asks if he can still work as Barb’s bouncer. She says yes, of course, because where does an omnipotent schizophrenic with a piece of alien technology in his head bounce? Wherever he wants.

Next week: Comics’ Greatest World concludes with Cinnabar Flats and the Vortex!

This entry was posted in Out of the Vault and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Out of the Vault – Comics Greatest World: Steel Harbor

  1. feud666 says:

    I was never into Motor head.. or the art……It’s the same guy that drew Manhunter for DC after Zero Hour reset everything…..Machine could have been something…Wolfgang was okay….but it should not have been a comic…..they were characters better suited for Barbwire…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *