Steve Jackson’s Car Wars was the game that everyone owned yet never played, at least in the geeky circles I used to frequent back in the day. The game suffered from the “Champions effect,” in which a compelling concept — Road Warrior-style vehicle battles, in this case — was hamstrung by slow-moving, math-heavy gameplay that tended to alienate all but the most dedicated of players.
The only attempt I’ve ever seen to sustain a Car Wars campaign past a single disappointing session was conducted by a physics grad student at my college who used his computer-like brain to optimize the ruleset and free the players from the bulk of the number-crunching tedium. He did an excellent job of it…until he made the typical geek of confusing the popularity of the game he ran with actual temporal power.
The role of charismatic dictator requires, well, charisma, and this ambitious individual’s penchant for overlong vacant stares and unleashing high-pitched giggles at inappropriate times failed to clear that important hurdle.
My anecdotal experiences aside, it was clear there were enough Car Wars enthusiasts out there to float an active fan community and a slew of supplements and other assorted spin-offs. It even got its own four-issue Epic imprint miniseries in 1991…
…which, in a bizarre twist of fate, was not bad as far as licensed game comics go.
Car Warriors is set in the early-stage apocalyptic era of the early 21st Century, where everyone — with the exception of totalitarian megacorps and the folks who sell 80s punk fashions — are having a shitty time of it. A devastating blight has transformed America’s breadbasket into a desert wasteland in which fortified communities attempt to hold out against predatory gangs of raiders.
One of these outposts, however, has managed to synthesize a new strain of blight-resistant wheat capable of removing the specter of widespread famine and crushing the country’s dependency on shady agribusiness combines. The only hitch is getting samples of the plant from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and across the lawless badlands to the state capital of Lansing.
Though the synthfood corps aren’t happy about this threat to their market share, they are more than willing to turn the “Delorean Run” into a public, wager-driven spectacle pitting a diverse field of contenders against each other and the savage outlaws on the corporations’ payroll.
There’s the suburban family in the upgunned station wagon, a zen-spouting cyberwarrior slaved into his death machine, an old pro looking for a final moment of glory, a determined gal trying to save her family farm, and the primary protagonist — Chevy Vasquez, a burned-out autodueler haunted by his parents’ murder at the hands of a sadistic motorganger.
Chevy is known as “Mad Mex,” because of his Mexican ancestry and whole car combat thing being inspired by Mad Max and I know, okay? He is also referred to as the “Meaner Beaner” which could be pointed commentary about the coarsening of culture during the slide into barbarism or — like the black autoduelist who wears a Confederate flag jumpsuit — a historic reminder of just how cluelessly tone deaf comics can be.
So it’s Death Race 2000 as directed by Hal Needham with a bit of Seven Samurai (by way of Battle Beyond the Stars) thrown in for derivative measure — and it kind of works.
Much of the credit for that goes to a pre-Vertigo Steve Dillon, whose cartoonishly gritty style was perfectly suited for a cartoonishly gritty romp through a near-future America in the terminal stages of decadent exhaustion.
On the writing side of things, Chuck Dixon stayed within the parameters of the assignment and resisted the temptation to elevate the material into something more ambitious. The deal was for a comic inspired by a tabletop game inspired by The Road Warrior, and that’s just what Dixon delivered.
The results may have been slightly clichéd and more than a little predictable, but in the same entertainingly cheesy fashion of the 1980s exploitation flicks they were intended to emulate. (They also helped to place some of Dixon’s more problematic writing tics into a thematic — if not entirely excusable — context.)
There may not have been a viable audience for Car Warriors back in 1991, although the same could be said about most products of that fire-and-forget era of optimistic bulk production. It’s one of those things where an inescapable sense datedness has amplified a work’s rough-edged charm, but not nearly enough to spare it from the scrapyard of Nobody’s Favorites.