By Lamar Waldron & Rod Whigham with Susan Barrows (Donning/Starblaze)
During the 1980s a burgeoning science fiction and fantasy book market, bolstered by cinematic and even television blockbusters, fed into the new creative boom in the comicbook market, giving “graphic novels” their first tentative push into the real, bigger world outside established fandom as part of a greater zeitgeist. There was also a very real entrepreneurial creative buzz which led to many European and Japanese works finally breaking into the US market, and most importantly, a lot of attention was paid to new, homegrown material…
Among the important early players was The Donning Company Publishers, a Virginia-based outfit established in the 1970s who briefly blazed a pioneering trail with their Starblaze Graphics imprint.
Probably inspired by the innovative breakthrough work of Byron Preiss (Starfawn, Empire, The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell) Donning invested in lavish, visually impressive volumes targeting a broad crossover market. The began with a volume collecting the first chapters of Wendy and Richard Pini’s independent comics sensation Elfquest, and produced strip adaptations of popular prose properties such as Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures and the co-operative shared-universe fantasy series Thieves’ World. Along the way they also brought Colleen Doran’s first of A Distant Soil and Phil Foglio’s Buck Godot to a relatively small but crucially mainstream public.
The company’s output was small but highly effective and although the venture ended badly – in court, as many creators sued to regain control of their works – the beautiful, high quality works such as the graphic novel under review here showed that big, bold, expensive high-quality material was the future in an industry and art form that had always cut every corner, paid poorly and worked on miniscule margins…
Lightrunner is very much a product of its time, a riotous intergalactic rollercoaster rocket-ride which began life as a serial in the semi-pro fanzine Visions, and still packs a punch for any fan of brash, flashy space opera.
In the future, capitalism runs the universe in the form of planetary Corprostates held together by a web of trade undertaken by tachyon-driven solar sailing ships plying the perilous routes of the “Star Stream”. The Empyrean Alliance is a tenuous association of Free States, restive, politically insecure and greatly dependent on the trustworthy valour of the apolitical Empyrforce – a Navy-style peacekeeping/police militia.
The tale begins with young Burne Garrett, son of a legendary Empyrforce hero, who failed to make the grade and scrubbed out of his military training. Garrett is a pathetic disappointment to himself and everybody else. Now a lowly PR hack he is filming the initial tests of a radical new type of faster than light starship – The Stream Breaker – when calamity comes calling.
The new super-vessel suddenly comes to eerie life and takes off with him aboard, vanishing into the unknown, and the unwitting fool is suddenly Public Enemy #1! Framed, lost and desperate Garrett is soon plunged deep into the seedy underbelly of civilisation, a pawn of pirates and raiders until he is adopted by the spoiled, rich wild-child Lanie of Abul Sara (think Paris Hilton in lace-up high heel thigh-boots with a ray-gun… and now stop thinking of that because that’s not how she looks but what she’s like…).
The fugitive Garrett joins the tense and tentative crew of her beloved star-craft “Lightrunner.” Along the way he also picks up a pet monkey that might be the mightiest telepath in the galaxy…
As Garrett tries to clear his name, hunted by his own deeply disillusioned galactic-hero father and the true culprits who still want the Stream Breaker prototype he has so providentially hidden, the lad uncovers a clandestine plot of cosmic proportions that might just mean the end of the entire Alliance…
Although there have since been better variations of this plot and set-up, especially in films, this breezy, spectacular romp still reads incredibly well and looks great. Fans of this particular form of chase-based science fiction will be well rewarded for seeking out Lightrunner, and as the book is readily available and quite inexpensive all that fun can even be considered a bargain.
© 1983 Lamar Waldron and Rod Whigham. All Rights Reserved.