When I read Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” as a kid, Mars seemed a terrifying destination. Blame it on stories like “Mars is Heaven!” (a.k.a. “The Third Expedition”). Paul Pope’s “THB” doesn’t change that. His version of the red planet is dangerous, a red wild frontier, but, to answer David Bowie’s query, there IS life on Mars: it’s fully peopled with subdued natives, colonial ex-Earthlings, collapsible robots, and all manner of unpredictable creatures.
HR Watson is a mischievous, spirited 13-year-old living in a Terra-formed Mars. She’s usually accompanied by her friend Lollie; her automatic footman, Augustus; something called a Pig-Dog: and a 7-feet inflatable purple rubber bodyguard called THB. THB is the Tri-Hydro-Bioxygenate compound created by Watson Robots, the gigantic industrial concern owned by HR’s father and located in V-City in the Middle Martian Continent. (T-City and P-City are also options for habitation.)
Bureaucratic and militaristic masked men ( “bugfaces” ) control the continent through such bureaus as the Orwellian / Bradburyan “Department of Suspected Poets.” But overall, it’s a privileged life for HR, until the day a tin foil robot shows up with intent to assassinate her, which happens to be the same day she receives a beautiful Steinway piano.
The piano is ALSO an assassin.
Things get complicated, the way they do in Mars. HR goes on the run from shadowy government forces, but “THB” skews “on-the-run-from-shadowy-government-forces” sci-fi cliches. Instead, it almost plays like a whimsical homage to the Hernandez Bros., specifically the Mechanics stories in early “Love and Rockets.”
Pope improves immensely over “The Ballad of Doctor Richardson,” coming into his own not only visually (his inky world would be worth the rocket trip) but also as a writer. This is a hooky-story with characters that feel human despite their alien-ness. The story-telling in “THB” isn’t ‘tight’, ( too many set-ups offer no pay-off ) but somehow it all works. Pope has been pretty upfront about his lack of planning, exploring the story the way he would explore a new planet, opening himself to surprises as they suggest themselves to him. Fun bit: the mercenary comic-book publisher, a villainous Stan Lee stand-in.