Friday, April 8, 2016

Lab Rats #1 (2002)

Lab Rats #1 (June, 2002)
"Game Space"
Creator/Writer/Artist - John Byrne
Colorist - Noelle Giddings
Separations - Digital Chameleon
Associate Editor - Ivan Cohen
Editor - Mike Carlin
Cover Price: $2.50

I've been on a bit of a John Byrne kick of late.  Regardless of the publisher, I try and grab anything "JB" that I can.  Recently over at DC in the 80's, I wrote a Usenet Fandom piece which discusses a bit of the proto-Internet reaction to Mr. Byrne's post-Crisis pending arrival to the Superman family of books... I figured this may be a good time to revisit one of Byrne's later DC efforts, the comparably little-known, Lab Rats.

When this title launched, I (and I'll assume many other fans) didn't quite know what to make of it.  Over at the John Byrne forum Byrne Robotics, JB himself stated on January 21, 2012:

Click to enlarge
I did buy the first issue off-the-rack, not thinking much about it... saw it was a John Byrne book and a DC Comic, so into my pile it went.  The first time I read it... well, if I'm being honest... I don't think I made it more than a handful of pages in before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn't for me.  If I'm continuing to be honest, I don't think I'd given Lab Rats a second thought ever since.  Apparently, I'm not alone.  Information on Lab Rats on the Internet is scarce at best and what little there is, is often comprised solely of snarky comments.  I cannot even find any information as to whether or not this Creator-Owned series took place within the mainstream DC Universe (see: Sovereign Seven, Young Heroes in Love).  Ninja Edit: Future covers feature Superman, so that answers that.

Lab Rats would only run for eight issues, and ends on a rather somber note.  Let's see if time has been kind to this turn-of-the-century series.


We open on a group of teenagers being chased by a dinosaur.  A young girl named Gia reaches out to a young man maned Poe, however, they are unsuccessful in saving her life.

We quickly switch scenes to an office in a campus.  Mr. Quinlan is interrupted by a woman called Sara who informs him that the "kids are dying".  We also meet an injured young lady who is upset she couldn't be with the rest of her team.  We come to find that the teens are all neurally connected to a machine, and the dinosaur chase was something of a simulacrum.  Virtual, though it may seem... it now appears as though if one of the 'Rats dies "in game" their body outside will also die.

Back "inside", we meet the rest of our team.  Alex, an attitudinal young lad with longish blonde hair, the ambiguous Dana whose ears are overly pierced, and Wu, a young man with a mulleted ponytail.  Poe appears to be their team leader.

The team is on a sort of platform attempting to allude the dinosaur.  Wu disconnects some live wires from the control panel and shocks the dino which aids in their escape.  They do not escape unscathed however.  Besides the tragic loss of Gia... Poe himself takes a tumble into the jungle below, where he winds up surrounded by a quartet of smaller dinosaurs.

Back on campus, the injured girl observes a new recruit being escorted inside... a "very yum" new recruit.

I will from now on only refer to attractive people as "very yum"
Back in game, the remaining three 'Rats argue about their current plight.  Alex is annoyed that their platform's wiring is screwed.  Wu thinks he's figured out the game altogether... he explains that the game will do whatever they think it will do... like, they have a measure of control over everything around them.  He says they can still fly the platform... as long as they think they can.  We are also given information about the fatal end of the games "beta testers".

Back on campus, a team of doctors attends to Gia's lifeless body.  They check her "bio-stat hot links", which illustrate that she was being chewed at her time of passing.  Meanwhile, our injured girl meets Mr. Yum, who appears as though he doesn't have the brains God gave a peanut.

Back inside, Poe is being chased... it's almost as though the dinosaurs are playing with him.  He recalls his studies, and notes that the fossil record does not reflect this type of behavior in these creatures... it appears he may be putting two and two together as well.  He is chased up to the edge of a cliff.

The team arrives, hovering over Poe.  Alex extends his hand to pull him on.  Poe refuses, and instead jumps off the edge of the cliff.  The cliff now appears to be much higher than it was, giving the team enough time to swoop in for a save.  It is implied that the cliff's height was affected by Poe's desire.  Poe is rescued, but the dinos are still in hot pursuit.

Back on campus, we receive a bit of insight as to what the game may be.  Mr. Quinlan explains to a doctor that "Game Space" is a sophisticated military training system wherein any potential combat situation can be acted out.  Injured Girl and Box o' Rocks wander by, and she tells him about the missions she and the team go on... how her leg injury was due to their last mission... and finally about how they are all just a bunch of Lab Rats.

Oh, now I get it.
Back inside, the dinosaurs are still chasing our teens.  Wu shuts his eyes tightly and reimagnines their former platform into a tremendous aircraft armed with lasers and thrusters.  The team talks about their ability to "change the rules" of the game.  They also discuss Gia's suicidal ideations as a potential cause for her passing.

The team decides the only way they will survive this ordeal is if they themselves overload the game.  They all open up their minds and let in a torrent of their worst nightmares.  We shift back to the doctors who can only watch as the system overflows.  Back to the kids, the environment becomes more and more full.  Back to the docs, the system is out of memory.  Back inside... the system... crashes.

This was really quite well done.
Sometime later, we join the team as they recuperate.  They also meet Mr. Yum, who we find is named Isaac.  We also learn that Injured Girl is called Trilby.  Mr. Quinlan enters and tells the kids they'd earned a vacation.

As we close, we see what appears to be a military base.  Two ne'er do wells are messing around on some of the equipment when suddenly they are attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.  We are... [to be continued...]


Well, that was something.

I can't say it was outright bad.  I feel perhaps its being a comic book is what hurts it.  If this premise was placed into a light-novel with a plucky young female lead and aimed at the YA audience, I think this could have been a goldmine for Mr. Byrne (and would have likely had at least one feature film by now).  The concept is solid, and quite interesting.  Aiming this story at the aging and rutted comics reader, under the DC Comics umbrella may have been a poor decision.  As JB claims in the above quote, Retailers refused to order it for their paying customers.  I cannot speak for the validity of the statement, however, if it even has an ounce of truth in it... the books' failure was a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You don't make a product available to market... the market cannot support it... the product goes away.

So, the concept/premise I dig.  The dialogue... is kind of evocative of Chris Claremont writing "teen"... not embarrassingly bad, but definitely provides a measure of "cringe" now and again.  The characters, in the short time we are with them thus far are all given pretty decent "ticks", archetypal as they may be... but this works in providing each 'Rat with a personality and motivation.

The art felt a tad looser than I'm accustomed to from John Byrne.  Again, not by any means bad... but, loose.  A few of the characters appeared to be ambiguously designed.  There is brief mention at Byrne Robotics that this was done on purpose, especially in the case of Dana.

All told, I'm having trouble putting into words how I feel about Lab Rats.  There just seems to be so much potential here that was stifled, and perhaps twisted pretzel-style into standard comic book fare, when it really could have been so much more.  Is it worth checking out?  Well, if you're a John Byrne fan, you probably already have it.  Otherwise, I'm not sure I could give a proper recommendation, sadly.  It's a novelty, and an oddity.  If them's part of your comics diet... give it a go.  This is a mainstay in cheap-o bins locally... if you find this for a buck-or-below, I don't think you'll be disappointed.


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  1. I don't remember this book at all! Though not long after this, Byrne's mystifyingly boring run on Doom Patrol began, and after that I fairly well turned my back on the man...and based on this review, I don't think I was too hasty about it!

    1. This was certainly an oddity. I can't even remember seeing issues 2-8 of this on the shelf. This issue sold about 25k... the last issue didn't even break 9k.

      The Doom Patrol reboot/relaunch/reimagining/rejiggering was most definitely among my least favorite Byrne work. I hated that he scrapped everything that came before. I gotta wonder if DC would have let him do that if Morrison wasn't hanging his hat on the X-Men around that time. Such a chore to get through, I don't think I've ever read it in its entirety.


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