The first story in the Atari Force Special is also the longest, a full-length, 21-pager relating Dart's origin story. Or...not her origin, exactly, just her history, how she became a mercenary and met Blackjak and the like. If any character deserved a more complete background, it was Dart, and so I am pleased to have this story in existence. I just wish it was a little more original or innovative, instead of the string of cliches it actually is.
Dart is the stereotypical outcast in her youth, seen as a freak by the other girls at the New Earth Military Academy because of her parents' past traveling through the Multiverse and the strange powers it gave her. She gets bullied by what amounts to the popular clique, and, as is to be expected, only has one real friend, her roommate Dalia. The two of them get into a fight with their rivals, which of course the mean girls initiate but, predictably, the blame falls on Dart and Dalia. So they are sent away, basically going from one military school to another, only the new one is more of a mercenary camp, run by a somewhat menacing bald old dude named Drago. He is an archetype, the sensei character, imparting all his skills and knowledge to these promising new students. And Dart and Dalia rise quickly through the ranks, as they must, so that Drago soon puts them in charge of their own mission. They join one side of a civil war on the planet Kolb, and it costs Dalia her life. Shortly after, Dart discovers that, in fact, Drago's people were fighting on both sides, that her master is a greedy scumbag who creates conflict for his own gains. So, still an archetype, just not the one he seemed to be at first. Finally and inevitably, Dart confronts and defeats Drago, and the student becomes the master in yet another story.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on the story. Andy Helfer and Paul Kupperberg do use a lot of tired tropes in their script, yes, but admittedly they are not the tropes of the sci-fi or superhero genres, necessarily, which are the worlds in which Atari Force has its feet planted. Still, I found myself underwhelmed by this narrative because it never really surprised me, never did anything out of the ordinary. Glad as I am to have the details of Dart's younger years, it would have been preferable if they'd been as unique and compelling as she was as a character in the main series. Instead, they feel borrowed from other places, and her history becomes a weird puzzle where all the pieces have been used before in more impressive ways.
It does turn out that Dart is responsible for Blackjak losing his eye, a result of Drago pitting them against each other even though they both worked for him. And it is Blackjak who helps Dart carry out her vengeance against their boss for her lost friend, so that the strongest romance from the series also has its beginnings here, and we gain some insight into Blackjak's past as well. I did like that, even if, again, it wasn't wholly unexpected.
And it's a nicely drawn story, with pencils from Marshall Rogers, who does a good job of aging Dart down and handles all of the action well. His design for Drago is about as familiar as the man himself, another mean old bastard with no hair and a wicked grin. But Rogers makes up for it with the native species of Kolb, who are described in the script as being "too bogged down by their corporeal forms to actively participate in any physical activity." Rogers takes that idea and makes them into miniature, blobby Incredible Hulks, stout little green people with legs that barely seem capable of holding them up. It's a throwaway visual gag, but also one of the best parts of the artwork in this story. And the artwork is the best part of the piece as a whole, anyway.
When Dart and Dalia are training, and then again when Dart fights Drago (lots of D names up in here), Rogers packs a lot of action into single panels. And there is a powerful natural chemistry between Dart and Dalia, whether at school or on the battlefield, that helps add some oomph to Dalia's death. Rogers' work didn't melt my face, but it certainly improved the overall quality of this section of the special. Had it been uglier to look at, the cliched nature of the narrative would have been that much more grating.
A final complaint: the way Dart ultimately defeats Drago is by stabbing him in the back. Now, that's all well and good on its own, but Drago's reaction/the writers' explanation for how she was able to pull off such a direct attack is that he never taught her to fight like that. Um...what? You're trying to tell me that a master mercenary, who has been in the business for decades, and who teaches his employees "combat of every style" is completely unprepared for anyone to attack him from behind? That is just ridiculous. And it didn't need to be there, anyway. Dart and Blackjak double-team Drago, and when he's focused on the latter, the former drives a sword through his back. It didn't need to be explained or excused, and trying to force in the "I never taught you" nonsense significantly weakens what should be the dramatic peak. Instead, it becomes comedically absurd, and unbelievable to boot.
I am glad to have read this. I am glad it was written. I love Dart, and as I said, she deserved to have her past fleshed out more than anyone else in the book. But this particular story didn't do her justice, didn't rise to the challenge of giving her a fittingly awesome origin. It's not terrible, but it's one heck of a missed opportunity.