Co-Op Encounters

Not strictly Silver Age, but what the heck...
Continuing my mining of comics for economic themes, I'm reading an educational comic from Canada called "Co-Op Encounters" – especially relevant, as the U.N. has declared this The Year of the Co-Op.
Interesting premise, too – information on co-ops wrapped up in a sci-fi storyline. Does it work? Welllll…
The good ship CFDP3 (hey, that's catchy) is heading for the planet Xonn when Engineer Trent makes a dire discovery: "We're losing pressure fast, Captain Scott! We can't sustain speed."
"Reducing speed will force the oxygen generator to use more fuel, and the water convertor might cut out. It's dicey," says the Captain, who looks like a Mambo King in a Dave Cockrum outfit.
"Aye," says Trent, "And if our reduction doesn't match warp, we'll lose the vertical flaps and won't be able to land." (Are starships really this fragile, or are they trying to keep it under warranty?)
Anyway, first mate Donna pronounces that Thion is the nearest planet with the parts they need.
"Do we have an option, Donna? Thion is a very troubled planet these days."
Unfortunately, says Trent, there's no choice. In fact he's already logged the repair specs into the system on Thion. (Nice of him to tell the captain about this.)
Cleo-haired Donna announces they'll be reaching Thion in fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, they dock at Thion Space Port. Fifteen seconds after that, they're in trouble. An unnamed official, Head of Security it seems, insists on putting their ship in quarantine. With his scraggly beard, long face, Egyptian-style eyes and  purple-blue complexion, this functionary looks like nothing so much as Ming the Merciless in Darth Maul-esque makeup. (Although that's probably his natural coloring – Thion is chock-a-block with all kinds of aliens, as we're about to see.)
Even though he's giving Captain Scott grief, "Ming Maul" finds time to make someone else's life miserable. A soldier (or cop) comes up and says,"Sir, the Eqqus expedition requests permission to leave. Captain Chevalier says the Kite-Mites set Dr. Girac and Dr. Jandor adrift in shuttlepods with indeterminate coordinates."
"Compassionate reasons? HA! Negenthropic intervention has no place on Thion. Permission denied!" (Negenthropic? Maybe writer Stefan Haley means negentropic, creating order out of chaos. Or maybe it's just word jazz.)
"You see, Captain Scott, we know how to deal with cranks of Thion," says the wine-stained Jaffar.
Scott and Donna object to this treatment of such prominent scientists, but they soon have their own concerns. The functionary "suggests" they prepare for a long stay, which triggers the captain's requisite hot temper. This is where artist Owen McCarron falls down. He's great on the props, costumes and scenery, but some of his poses are just too stiff. I've seen this "Hold me back" bit Trent and Scott are doing done much more convincingly – by Archie and Jughead.
Oh, and they're being observed by a bearded figure in a brown robe. (He might be their only hope.)
It's not a smart move to threaten the head of a security force when he's backed by several guards, all carrying blasters. Ming the Purple-Puss tells him to enjoy his stay at the hostel and Scott squeaks out a "Thanks."
Next page we join Scott and co. in mid-conversation. Donna is saying,"But we could make repairs and get away from here forever." (Huh? Need another rewrite, Stefan.) This is interrupted by two big purple aliens beating up a skinny turquoise alien. Scott takes this opportunity to salve his macho pride by leaping into the fray. (And his fighting stance is quite good – I hesitate to suggest McCarron had an easier time finding a swipe file, but…)
Scott is a dab hand with the hit and the wit: "This would be a punch in the nose – if you had one!" Then the security guards show up and take control. (I'm surprised they don't arrest Scott for the brawl.)
With no pause for breath, Scott is called to the reception. "The Space Centre has approved the repairs to your ship, Captain, but the edict remains in force. Please note you will be expected to leave, without delay, once the edict is lifted."
"This is crazy," says Donna. "They want us to stay, they want us to go. What's going on?" The group is huddled in what could be a hotel lobby as Trent gives us the potted history of Thion:
"Thion… the name means 'Jewel of the Universe'… was once the greatest of the city-planets. A centre of commerce and culture. Business flourished. Artists and scholars flocked here to work… then everything changed."
Now we get a full page of skiffy art, with the heads of several different types of aliens at the top and scenes of space and ground warfare at the bottom. Trent goes on: "The unbridled competition that made Thion bloom began to destroy it. The races fought among themselves and with other city-planets. Thion has suffered civil strife for over a century… no end in sight and it's getting worse."
Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but I can't help but wonder if a Canadian comic, talking about a once-mighty centre (note the spelling) of business and art, home to many different races, being torn apart by unchecked competition, isn't a commentary on a certain country to the south. I'm reminded of an issue of Guardians of the Galaxy, written by Steve Gerber, where lunatics from fifty different planets were exiled to an asylum planet and managed to recreate late-20th Century America.
"That's sad," says Donna, "but I've had a long day, and I'm feeling sleepy. Yawn!" (One of the stiffest yawns I've ever seen.)
Trent is going in search of female company. He mentions an engineer known to both him and Scott, saying that she's been stranded by the edict too. Scott tells him to invite her to dinner tomorrow. "We might as well enjoy ourselves."
The next evening, Scott hasn't heard from Trent in nearly 24 hours. He is paged to come to reception and pick up a secret note: "I have news about Trent. Will meet you at hostel tonight." And it's signed by his date from the previous evening.
Later that night we see this woman of mystery in person. She has almond eyes and skin the same hue as Pieface, in his first appearances. [Hey, a Silver Age reference!] Her wavy hair is the color of cotton candy and is held back by a white headband with a red diamond-shaped patch. (On the cover her headband is hammered gold with an actual diamond; McCarron was simplifying things for repetition's sake.) This exotic creature is named…
Swear to FSM, Betty.
Now I know why Haley (or perhaps his editor or his client) went this route. This is not so much a science fiction story as an educational comic (with a reeeeeeeeally slow buildup) and as such has to be made friendly to a non-SF reading audience. That's why no attempt is made to translate Earth units of time, among other things. But given that, surely there were more suitable Earth names that could be used – Desiree, perhaps, or Jasmine. (Her full name is Betty Scorpio. I'm not sure if that's better or worse.)
Betty's story: "There was nothing I could do. Trent was waiting for me. Some Gelstin agitators began to demonstrate. It turned violent and Trent was killed by random fire. It was terrible. I'm so sorry."
Good thing Scott knows her from a previous acquaintance. He accepts her story completely and invites her to take Trent's place as their engineer. They decide to defy the edict and claim their ship the next night. (And the mysterious bearded figure is still listening. For visitors to a police state, this bunch is remarkably un-circumspect. Maxwell Smart practiced better security.)
The next night they have a two-minute window before the guards come back. After some notably wooden running they make it. Donna is checking life-support and Betty the scanners when –
"Don't make a sound!"
One of Ming's guards steps out of the shadows. Holding Betty at blasterpoint, he tells Scott, "I mean you no harm, but you must take me with you!"
"I haven't time to argue. You will have to accept my command, and surrender the gun."
"I'll keep the gun till take-off."
"That won't do! The only way we can break the force field around this compound is to put ourselves in suspended animation during blast-off. We need Warp 7 at least. Surrender your gun, now."
"Very well, captain." (He bought it!)
By the way, this isn't the same guy who was eavesdropping earlier – he's still lurking in the shadows. This guard is an exile named Steve. (Yeah, sure, why not?) Steve is about to give his backstory when Scott says, "If we don't blast off soon, we never will. Better one guard than the whole Thion army."
Another of McCarron's tour de forces: Scott pushes the button for blastoff and the cast is bathed in a rainbow field. The CFDP3 (which is shaped like an office building) flies through a spin-art painting.
Minutes later the crew is up and about, rechecking the instruments. Scott says as soon as they're done they'll get Steve's story.
"Let's hope we don't find any more Steves on board," says Betty. (I think this is called, "Hanging a lampshade.")
Yes, it's time for our eavesdropping hermit to reveal himself. Incredibly, he is known to the Captain: "Professor Tryst! I haven't seen you since my days at Galaxia University." (You know what they say, get stranded on Thion and you'll eventually meet everyone you know.)
The professor goes on. "I was invited to Thion to lecture. After my arrival I was put under house arrest and forced to work for the Thion secret service. I escaped a few days ago and began watching the compound."
"But how did you sustain Warp 7?"
"I suspended my vital forces by using the ancient techniques of Yoga." (HUH? Well, I guess the techniques are the same as Earth yoga but the Professor's term for it would be something quite different; we just got the translation.)
Scott and co. are anxious to get on with their mission, reaching the Space Foundation on Xonn and delivering the CFDP3. (Haley, there's a reason why so many ships in sci-fi go by their names – Enterprise, Falcon, Firefly, Martian Maggot…)
"Xonn?" says the Prof. "Then you haven't heard? The planet Xonn was destroyed by an invasion of Kite-Mites three days ago." And for once we see the scene described: The Kite-Mites are red kite-shaped ships that could be manned or unmanned.
"This ship," says Professor Assignation – I mean, Tryst – "is now officially salvage."
"It's junk, you mean," says Donna.
"Don't be harsh. This ship was once among the bravest in the universe. It was never armed. It was sent on a voyage of philosophical discovery by some very dedicated people. It was lost many years ago, before my time. But he computer banks contain valuable information. That was what the Xonn Foundation wanted. We can't save Xonn – but we can save ourselves." The professor goes on to say they can produce food using the solar collectors and some simple protein and cellulose chain technologies. "I've been doing it for years."
"If the professor says he can do something," says Scott, "he can do it!"
"I'm glad we can believe someone," says Betty.
"What do you mean by that?" says Steve.
"Betty's being unfair," adds Donna. "The signal generators were damaged during blastoff and Steve fixed them. I trust him." Seems like a pretty important plot point to keep offstage. In fact, I'm going to jump ahead a bit and reveal Steve's story:
"I was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Thion. The pirates got into a fight with some guards and killed one. I made my escape in the guard's uniform."
So that's three members of our cast – Betty, Steve and Professor Tryst – with stories we're asked to take on faith. If this were Star Trek, any of them might be lying; if this were Babylon Five, all three would be. But this isn't that kind of story. We're just about to discover what kind it really is.
Scott welcomes Steve to the crew and then says, "We all have some decisions to make. Professor Tryst says we can use this ship to find a better planet… far from the strife of this part of the universe." (When did he say that?) "This ship was made to search out correlatives. It was programmed with fundamental values, and sent to search for planets where those values were understood and used." (I'd be scared of traveling in a fundamentalist ship.)
Steve pitches a softball. "What values, professor?"
"Equality, Equity, and Mutual Self-Help. These values were treasured by the beings who built this ship. There are tales that the CFDP3 was about to complete her mission near a planet named Earth when she was captured by pirates. I've often dreamed of finding her and completing that mission. It could lead us to a better world. What do you say?"
"It would involve all of us, and it might be dangerous," says Scott. "I think it calls for a democratic vote. Do you agree, Professor?"
"Democracy is part and parcel of the values this ship stands for."
"What are those values, Professor Tryst?" (Weren't you listening, Steve?)
In answer, Professor Tryst calls up the words "Equality," "Equity," and "Mutual Self-Help" on the computer. Each is given its own screenful of definition.
We're on page 17 of a 40-page story and now we're getting into the co-op part. From here on out it's going to be the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation, with Tryst calling up words and history lessons on the screen and the rest of the crew asking questions in goggle-eyed amazement. If you don't mind, I'm going to skip a straight play-by-play; there are other ways to get this information.
Haley and McCarron try to change things up a bit, first by bringing on a Kite-Mite attack. Steve saves the day with some double-talk, adjusting the fibrillation monitor on the waveform simulator to render the ship invisible to the kites. (Well sure, what else can you do in that situation?)
Now there's ten pages of Canadian co-op history, mostly talk with a few pie charts. The crew makes comment on how Thion is a perfect example of non-cooperation. (I thought it was just straight-on repression.) The CFDP3, in contrast, is supposed to be a veritable model of co-op values because they take votes on important issues, like whether to accept Steve. (Except in emergencies, when Captain Scott's word is law.) Then on page 29 a strange ship starts to close in.
It takes all of pages 32 and 33 to track the ship (actually a shuttlecraft), bring it aboard and await its passenger(s). And what do you know, it's an old friend of the Professor's: Dr. Girac of the Eqqus Expedition. "Not the Equitable Quest for Universal Serenity?" exposits Captain Scott. (Remember Ming refused to help them, back on page 3.)
"So who were you expecting," says Dr. Girac, "Tom Selleck? (Just a little Earth joke.)" Dr. Girac is the most overtly alien of the speaking cast, with his green scales, orange antennae and buck teeth. Yes, he's a "cute" alien, in the tradition of E.T. or Orbitty.
Aside from his opening quip, Dr. Girac is quite sobersided, and mainly serves to spell Professor Tryst at the lectern. He tells the crew about a new flavor of co-op called "direct charge." And then it's time to wrap things up.
Professor Tryst and Dr. Girac will take the CFDP3 and go in search of Dr. G's compatriot, Dr. Jandor. ("Indeterminate coordinates were never his strong point.") In exchange, Scott, Donna, Betty and Steve will take Dr. Girac's shuttle and splash down near present-day Canada. (So this wasn't a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away? Howzabout that?) There they plan to learn about co-ops firsthand. (Good thing they all look like Earth humans, huh?)
This could be a diverting introduction to co-ops if you've never experienced them, but it doesn't really give the feel of the day-to-day operations. It doesn't use the comics medium to best advantage – way too much telling, as against showing. I'm guessing this is because the comic was commissioned by Co-Op Atlantic and it was felt they had to gussy it up with all that sci-fi junk the kids like. A more realistic depiction of present-day co-ops might have been felt too plebeian.
Cover Shot:
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