Sunday, 5 June 2016

The V.C.s (2000AD #140-143, #145-165, #168-169, #171-175)

"Suck it in, Smith" - Jupe

Once upon a time, before trade paperbacks became a thing, the publishers of 2000AD exploited their rich back catalogue with a monthly compilation of a series from the early days of the comic.  This was the way I discoved things like The Ballad of Halo Jones, early Slaine, Strontium Dog and Nemesis The Warlock, and The V.C.sThe V.C.s was an epic tale of future war that saw the well worn trope of a rag tag band of military misfits buck authority and win a war against their galactic enemies, the insect like "G'egeekajee" or "Geeks" for short.  Set in the early 26th century all the human colony worlds were dragged into the conflict between Geeks and Human, and the V.C.s are made up a various colonists who tend to resent Earth born humans.  And it is one of the Earth born humans, an everyman called "Steve Smith" who is assigned to the V.C.s fresh out of military training school whose eyes we see the conflict through.  The V.C.s name is short for "Vacuum Cleaners" which they gained for their ability to score clean kills with little to no debris.  Nicknamed "earthworm" by the rest of the crew, Steve Smith narrates the story as he struggles to prove himself and gain acceptance from the rest of the crew.  It's magnificently grubby space opera with sterling early work from artists such as Mike McMahon, Cam Kennedy, Garry Leach and John Richardson. The script is by Gerry Finley-Day and Steve MacManus.  There has been a trade paperback of the strip released in 2008 called "You're Hit, You're Dead" but is infuriatingly out of print.  Luckily I own all three Best Of 2000ADs the story was serialised in (#30-32 if you're looking for a cheaper way to get a hold of the story) and this is where I am getting my scans from.  With that intro out of the way, lets dive in.
The original gang.
A brief history lesson, Earth had been at peace for a long time and it looked like the day of the professional soldier was over, when suddenly the Geeks appeared.  A Global Combat Corp was formed on Earth and sent out ships with squads of six aboard them to patrol and kill any Geeks they came across.  Steve Smith joined up and on the day of his graduation an old soldier says to him, "this is where you forget your training and start learning from experience!"
Steve then gets a harsh lesson in how the V.C.s operate.  His supply ship rendezvous with his new posting and the sergeant, Jupe flies out in his space suit to guide Smith to the ship as the coffin of Smith predecessor is ejected into space.  But then then the Geeks appear.  The V.C.s take them out, but the supply ship is destroyed in the process.  Smith protests that some survivors could have been saved but Jupe says, "Ain't no such thing as wounded in this war kid.  You're hit, you're dead - all clean and quick."
The whole sick crew.
Smith comes aboard and is surprised to see the rest of the crew are all half castes born on the colony worlds.  Jupe the sergeant, Ringer the ship's pilot, Dwarf Star the ship's gunner, Hen-Sho the missile man and Loon the second gunner.   Smith asks them what the nickname the V.C.s means.  Jupe says it's because they keep the system free from Geeks, "secure and clean".  Smith ponders the old general's advice and realise he has a lot to learn if he doesn't want to leave in a coffin as well.

We then cut to the V.C.s ship chasing down a Geek ship.  It manages to hide out in a field of wrecked spaceships.  Jupe and Smith suit up to go and smoke the Geeks out.  Smith is excited but Jupe wants him to stay "hard guard" in the airlock much to Smith's annoyance.  But a large Geek attacks him and Smith shoots it, and thousands of eggs pour out of its dead body.

Ringer hits the airlock button and the Geek and the egss are sucked out into space.  Smith is then chewed out for killing a "Kamikaze Geek".  Then the Geek ship is wracked by an explosion thanks to Jupe, and the gunners onboard the V.C.s ship blast it to pieces.  Smith thinks to himself he still has a lot to do to prove himself a V.C.
The V.C.s ship.
Next we find them passing Pluto the last post before deep space.  Then a Geek ship appears. Smith gets a head start and runs to the ships laser cannons, he hopes he can prove himself worthy by shooting down the Geek ship.  But his shots just spark off the Geek ship's hull, Dwarf Star yanks him out of his seat and cripples the Geek ship then angrily yells at Smith for not allowing him to get a clean kill.

The Geek ship ablaze drifts into Pluto's orbit and two life pods eject.  Jupe and Hen-Sho suit up to go kill them.  Smith wonders why they are bothering as the Geek'll die on Pluto within a couple of days.

Jupe: "Listen, Smith letting Geeks die in their own time may suit other troopers. But not the V.C.s!  We like to keep things clean, so we gotta follow them down and fight it out!"

Ringer is left as acting Captain and when Smith notices another two Geek lifepods eject, Ringer and Dwarf Star brush it off as more debris.  But Smith decides to suit up and go down to Pluto and watch Jupe and Hen-Sho's backs.
Off to hoover up the last bits of rubbish.
He lands and finds Jupe and Hen-sho easily disposing of the Geeks with a Blitz-cannon.  Then he spots the other Geeks sneaking up behind them.  And he realises he made a rookie mistake and didn't get the radio frequency to warn Jupe via his helmet comms.  So he steps out into the open and engages the Geeks.

Jupe finds the frequency and tells Smith to run over to them, he'll cover him and Smith can use his Hades grenade to deal with them which Smith does so. Jupe and Hen-Sho thank Smith for saving them and Smith is pleased to finally feel "my first bit of comradeship with these vacuum cleaners."
Geeks.
We next find the V.C.s ship under heavy attack and we're introduced to "Brother" the ship's sentient computer represented by a jester puppet.  He fritzes out and Jupe switches the ship to manual.  Then Dwarf Star calls up the bridge and says Loon has freaked out and is "hunting Geeks" again. Jupe and Smith go look for him while Dwarf Star fends off the attacking Geek ships.

Loon, armed with a knife and smeared in camoflage paint, leaps on Smith and tries to kill him. Jupe appears and knocks him out, he says he's gone too far this time and they'll dump him at the next planet they call at.  Then Brother comes back online but with a whole new personality.  He's now a sterotypical sixties hippie and refuses to countenance combat operations.  Smith has an idea and introduces Loon to him.   Loon as a "fellow hippie" convinces Brother to come around to the idea of war.  Brother thinks about it for a couple of hours then agrees, and this allows Loon to stay aboard as well.
Brother gets a new look.
The ship is at rest for a while, Jupe, Dwarf Star and Hen-Sho are starting to accept Smith but Ringer is still surly towards him and still calls him "earthworm".  Dwarf Star is happy because they are going to meet up with the ship his brother Midge is on. He has the same eerie appearance as Dwarf Star.  Early hyperspace travel did strange things to the people on board and "freaks" like him and his twin brother were the result.

Smith: "So you're like a couple of binary dwarf stars, huh?"

Dwarf Star: "I've heard it a million times Smith!  But I don't mind - you're gonna make out OK."

The reach Midge's ship and find it's been in recent combat.  Midge communicates to them over the comms, while Dwarf Star suits up and starts to fly over.  Midge repeats a phrase in his message to them to "Get Everything on an Even Keel".  Realising this is a message that the Geeks have Midge's ship captive they call Dwarf Star back to their ship saying he needs his weapon checked so as not to arouse suspicion, also three Geek ships are about to "back jump them" informs Brother.
Midge pleads for a mercy kill.
The V.C.s don't like traps and hit the incoming ships viciously, "let's put out the mat and start cleaning!" shouts Jupe. They take out the Geek attack ships, but Midge's ship is being readied to leave, Midge begs them not to let the Geeks take him alive.  The decision is left in Smith's hands.  Midge says to do it for Dwarf Star's sake.  So Smith takes the shot and destroys Midge's ship.  Even Ringer agrees it was the right thing to do, but Dwarf Star tells him he can't but hate Smith and to stay out of his way from now on.

Smith: "I did the right thing - the only thing.  I saved Dwarf Star's brother from a fate worse than death, but I blew any chance of being his buddy.   Yeah... I'm beginning to learn it's a dirty job keeping space clean."

We next encounter the V.C.s dealing with a swarm of tiny Geeks.  They are part of a Geek tactic called "Hiving".  They drop their eggs into nearby space and when they hatch they have a ready made army in enemy territory.  They atack the ship and although some of the V.C.s "vape" loads of them, they still start to overwhelm them and begin to breach the ship.

Armed and looking badass with swords and shield the V.C.s aboard the ship start fighting the Swarm. They fight until the are exhausted and on the verge of collapse.  But Ringer has managed to rig a sound that inteferes with the Geeks sonar and jamming it leaves the Geeks milling about in confusion. They deal with the leftover Geeks and blow up the asteroid they were hiving from.  Smith says they have some tidying to do.  "Cleaning Smith - cleaning" corrects Jupe.
Phobos Harbour.
Next they arrive  Phobos Harbour, the biggest spaceport in the system orbiting Mars colony. Jupe is concerned as to why so many troopers have been called there.  Hen-Sho proudly tells them of the city of New Peking built on the planet, Ringer just wants to hit the nightclubs and bars.

They dock and disembark and the V.C.s meet familiar faces apart from Steve who feels left out. We then meet the General who is a cyborg, they snap to attention "more out of respect to his war record than discipline."  He tells them there is a member of the Diplomatic Workforce, nicknamed "Dishwashers" by the soldiers, who is there to speak to them.

Smith: "We hated him and he knew it.  As soon as he walked in everyone sat down without waiting for the word."

He gives them the bad news.  They are making peace overtures to the Geeks and have withdrawn the bulk of the fleet leaving only a skeleton force in place.  Loon's friend Quicksilver freaks out at this and starts screaming abuse at the Dishwasher.  Before he gets killed, Smith knocks him out with a chair.
A "Dishwasher."
The Dishwasher comes up to Smith and thanks him and notes he is one of the few Earthborn humans there.  Smith doesn't want the attention from him, it's making him look bad. The men have a "Liberty Capsule" which means they can travel down to the Mars colony for some R&R. Jupe decides to stay on Phobos though.

Hen-Sho shows off New Peking a colony of forty thousand people.  Ringer says they want "bars, not culture."  But they are greeted by guards who say they don't like how Hen-sho is part of the decadent group known as the V.C.s.  Ringer aims a racial slur at them, the guard says they have to hand over their weapons before they can enter.  Reluctantly they do so.

Inside Hen-sho says drinking is forbidden but he knows of a bar they can go to.  Smith doesn't want to go get drunk so goes to the library computers and starts doing research on what is known about the Geeks which is not much.  He looks down and sees some guards closing in on the V.C.s. A big brawl ensues as more guards and troopers join in. Even Smith gets some shots in, he finds "I was beginning to enjoy it."

But then the Geeks launch a suprise attack many of them landing on the planet from the ships above. Hen-sho shows them a secret way out of the city and they get suited up in Mars colony space suits. They manage to vape some Geeks but soon realise they are trapped on the Mars surface and New Peking goes up in a massive explosion.  Mars and Phobos are dead and they would be soon if not for a miracle.
The Geeks surprise attack.
They are backed into a canyon and Geeks bear down on them, then a miracle does happen.  Jupe survived and sweeps down in their ship and picks them up.   He explains he and Brother moved the ship just before the Geek attack.  Mars has been destroyed and much of the fleet all because of a misguided peace initiative.

The Geeks have regrouped and are heading for the next planet, Earth!   Ringer picks a fight with Smith about why they should care and Smith loses his temper but Jupe keeps a lid on things.

Smith: "We returned to our controls and you could see each man was taut with the strain of worrying if his home would go the same way as Hen-sho's"

Later Smith is waxing lyrical about the Earth and Ringer mocks him for it saying it it's so great why doesn't he go back if he likes it so much and leave space to the guys who can take it.  Smith balls his fists in anger.  But before they can fight again a call comes through that they have to head for Earth, which renders Smith triumphant.
Earth, Transatlantic City.
He sees Transatlantic City sitting on the vidscreen, it's a city that floats between America and Europe and where his parents live.  He calls them up and his father is pleased to hear from him but also casually insults Jupe much to Smith's embarrasment.  Smith's dad says he knows with soldiers like him they know they have nothing to worry about and Ringer sneers at this sentiment.  Smith grabs him by the collar, but Jupe breaks them up again.

They discover a platoon of Geeks hiding out on the moon's darkside.  Helped by the soldiers from Lunar base they wipe most of them out, but some Geek ships reach Earth and completely destroy Transatlantic City, with at least 80 percent casualties.

Ringer:  "Yeah that's a helluva lot of worms cut up".
Ringer and Smith finally come to blows.
Smith punches him and they get into a full on brawl.  Angrily he says he'll take them all on, but Jupe grabs him.  Ringer goes to smash him in the head with a rifle butt but Jupe stops him and gives them some more bad news.

Jupe: "The Geeks have hit some more worlds. Gannymede in my system has been novad, with two million dead. They've hit one of Saturn's moons, too... the Geeks just started something - we're gonna finish. No more patrolling the system - I reckon we're going to take the war to the Geeks now."

Jupe says they've all suffered so don't laugh at Smith.  He asks if Smith wants to go on comassionate leave?   But Smith snarls he's a V.C. now, "I'm gonna find the Geek galaxy.  Rip back the mat and wipe that filth out! You hear me? Wipe them out!"
New Dishwasher, new plan.
Six months after the Geek attack a new bunch of soldiers have been trained and readied.  The resident "Dishwasher" says their job is to go out and wipe out the Geek homeworld.  Their ship has been refitted to work as part of a team of battle escort ships requiring retraining for all of them.  Ringer has a new toy, a "powered Kill Disc" which he throws at Smith narrowly missing him.

Then the recce craft return with information on where the Geek homeworld is so the battalion moves out to take the fight to them.  But as they warp in they are met by a huge Geek battlefleet.  The nearby twin suns have them running blind.  The troopships are to be protected at all costs, so one of the escort ships sacrifices itself to block a Geek attack and the debris from it blocks some of the suns light so they can see to return fire.

They make short work of the Geek battlefleet and escort the troopships to the Geek home planet.  The Earth troops beam down, but in the words of Admiral Akbar "It's a trap!". The city is a fake and waiting inside are thousands of heavily armed Geek troops.

The Dishwasher orders the fleet to disengage to avoid further losses and the troops left behind must fend for themselves.  No one is to leave their ships to mount a rescue via airlock.  But Smith tells Jupe they could leave by missile tube and fly down and organise the troops still on the planet.  Jupe agrees and down they go, but not before Ringer warns Smith nothing better happen to Jupe or it will be his fault.
Jupe organises the troops.
Jupe and Smith take control of the troops organising a more effective set of fighting tactics.  Then they are called by the Cyborg general who says although the Dishwasher is "going spare" he's stuck his neck out and thinks he can rescue them and the rest of the surviving troops.  He tells them to get the troops to the nearby big hill and at sundown he can come pick them up.  The sun sets and the Geeks retreat. They take off their armour to leave as decoys and surruptiously make for the hill.

They make it to the hill and vape the Geeks waiting, the suns starts to rise without their glar shields they'll bein trouble, but the ship arrives in time and picks them all up.  Unfortunately Jupe, who was holding off Geek pursuers with a Blitz Cannon looked at the suns too long and has been rendered blind.  Ringer is PISSED.

Smith: "I've let them down! I-I've destroyed Jupe! We've lost out leader!"

Angry at Smith and Jupe's disobediance the Dishwasher puts the whole squad on "punishment duties."  They are to be locked up, apart from Jupe in the hospital, and let out when they reach the next system and given the dirtiest jobs possible.

The fleet runs into an asteroid belt and they are assigned the job of going outside the ship and repairing the hull damage.  Ringer lunges at Smith with a laser cutter and they start fighting. Their oxygen is cut off and they are bought inside.  The Dishwasher says the penalty for fighting on duty is death and he pulls out his gun to carry it out.
Ringer is such an arsehole.
Then the cyborg general creeps up behind him dressed as a Geek.  They've created lifelike Geek suits so someone can go on an infiltration mission.  So Ringer and Smith are "volunteered" for a test run of this idea.  As they are suited up, Jupe appears and says he wants them to shake and make up, they agree but Ringer has a razor concealed in his palm and cuts Smith as they shake.

Smith and Ringer make a drop onto a planet that has severe weather conditions and can't be scanned.  He loses Ringer in the drop.  He changes out of his armour but hears some yelling and screaming for him, Ringer has been discovered and is being tortured.  Smith shoots the Geeks responsible and cuts Ringer down.  Ringer grudgingly expresses gratitude.

He puts the top half of his Geek suit back on and they carry on with their mission.  They stumble across a giant Geek base.  They have a wander round unchallenged, they even have speech translators in the suits.  Then a Geek commander says he has found their equipment, they know someone is on the planet.

The Geek leader starts inspecting everyone, he passes by Smith, but Ringer's razor disc cut a hole in his suit and he's discovered.  He starts begging for help from Smith again, but Smith doesn't want to blow his cover.

Smith:  "I heard him.  But I kept still... You're safe Smith.  You can turn away like any other Geek. Yeah, this is the chance you wanted.. you've got rid of Ringer at last."

He watches somewhat dispassionately as Ringer is tortured again. He turns away and finds a Geek comms outpost and transmits the details and coordinates of the Geek base to the ship.  Then he returns to Ringer and takes the Geek commander hostage.  They free Ringer who is almost catatonic and the three of them get picked up as the fleet above come down and attack.
Ringer breaks under torture.
Ringer is taken away to be looked after elsewhere now his spirit and mind has been broken.  The rest of the V.C.s watch the final destruction of the Geek base, and then see the Geek commander being lead away after having the "probe" used on him.  Ringer sees him and as the Geek commander passes an airlock he opens it and the Geek is sucked out.  In a rage the Dishwasher asks who is responsible.  None of the V.C.s own up so the Dishwasher says all of them will share in the infiltration missions now.

Now a Suicide Squad, the rest are dressed as Geek too.  The jump to what looks like a dead system, but are then challenged by a Geek ship which quickly sees through their deception. They ride it out to hide by a black dwarf star but there is a secret missile base there.  Dwarf Star manages to blow it up, but is hit and the others can only watch in horror as his turret cracks and splinters and Dwarf Star is sucked into space.  Angrily Smith says the Dishwasher is a cancer and he's going to kill him before he gets the rest of them killed.
The death of Dwarf Star.
He decides agains splattering the Dishwasher's brains out but does punch out a guard of his and is docked a years pay. The rest of the fleet fly to the black dwarf and take out the rest of the Geek forces and secret missile bases, "another victory for me!" crows the Dishwasher. Steve is about to kill him then spots a guard globe protecting him, he stops then sees Hen-sho had the same idea but hasn't seen the globe so he quietly knocks him out.

They say they'll get him next time, but don't believe there will be a next time, their Geek disguise ploy has run it's course, they'll be killed if they try it again.  Nevertheless they fly out and it looks like they hit the jackpot and found the Geek homeworld.  They are spotted and put up a valiant fight but the ship is lost and only two lifepods remain.   Hen-sho knocks Smith and Loon out and puts them inside sacrificing his life as the ship explodes around him.
Hen-Sho says farewell.
Their pods land on the moon above the Geek homeworld. Loon has retreated into a childlike state.  Smith manages to get him into a crater behind him so he  can hold off any attackers and protect him.  Down to his last powerpack things look bleak then the attacking Geeks turn back.  A Geek ship comes hovering down to look for them and Loon picks a bad time to jump back into Smith's crater and is blasted to pieces.

Gutted Smith hears a familiar voice then sees the strange sight of himself and his companions still alive.  Turns out the Geeks are doing their own bit of infiltration in diguise.  They are going to infiltrate the Flagship so they can ambush the rest of the fleet.  He has to warn them.
Loon is blown to bits.
He takes out his lookalike and takes his place.  As they make the jump back to the human fleet, he thinks about who he cares about, the Cyborg general and Jupe and Ringer stuck in sickbay. The jolt of coming out of hyperspace cuts Smith's cheek and the Geeks notice.  Smith desperately tries to warm the flagship but the Geeks shoot him, leaving him barely alive thinking, "you failed Smith, you failed."

He comes to a little later badly burned by the lazgun but still alive.  He makes his way onto the flagship which the Geeks have gained a foothold in.  He makes his way to the med bay and picks up Jupe and Ringer.  Jupe casually breaks a Geek's neck, Ringer is still terrified.
Smith collects Jupe and Ringer.
They see on a scanner screen connected to the bridge that the Dishwasher has cravenly given into the Geek's commands.  If they leave him alive he'll call the fleet and order them into a trap.  The cyborg general there calls him a coward and is clubbed to the ground.  Jupe says if they cut the power they can stop the comm signal, so head for the power room rather than the more heavily guarded bridge.

Smith hands Ringer a Kill disc, he receives it ungratefully. They shatter the ships power crystal and everything goes dark. Then they storm the bridge, Ringer gets his killing mojo back and Jupe takes out a couple close range as well.  With all the Geeks dead the Dishwasher turns on them saying he can't have evidence of his cowardice come out and he draws a gun on them.  Ringer throws his kill disc at him but takes a blast from the gun that was meant for Smith.  He dies stating that in the end Smith was a V.C.
Ringer goes out a hero.
The cyborg general is the new ships commander.  The flagship takes off and the rest of the fleet follow.  It jumps into hyperspace and Smith feels unwell as hyperspace is proving hard on his wounds.  The Geeks still think Smith is one of theirs. Smith starts to pass out, but visions of the dead V.C.s keep him going and they get right up close to the Geek flagship thanks to his deception of them.  Then they let go at it with everything they've got and destroy it taking out the whole of the Geek high command.

Then the rest of the human fleet arrive and a huge space battle occurs, though the loss of their flagship has demoralised the Geeks totally.  As the human troops drop down onto the Geek homeworld, Smith finally passes out and wakes up in sickbay  six days later to the news the Geeks have surrendered.
Cue epic space battle.
There is a reception commitee as more Dishwasher's arrive and take a ring off the finger of the traitorous one who Ringer killed.  It has a holographic message conerning Smith.  But before the Dishwasher can damn him after death, Jupe "accidentally" hoovers up the ring and destroys it.  The cyborg General says the Dishwasher was going to reward Smith for his gallant actions and should therefore be promoted.  Which he is, to second leiutenant.  Shaking hands with the General, Smith thinks:

Smith: "At last a bit of dirt, but the general and Jupe put their heads on the block to clean it up for me. Yeah, now I've got a new crew to form, maybe new wars to fight... but I'm never going to wipe away the memory of those first V.C.s... the Vacuum Cleaners."
Smith is finally rewarded for his heroism. The end?
And that brings this first V.C.s saga to an end.  A well remembered and well loved strip from the first few years of the comic, it inspired one young reader at the time, Dan Abnett to beg for and be allowed to write new V.C.s strips picking up the adventures of Steve Smith fifty years after the end of the first Geek War.  And I shall be coverning those in future UK comic months.  For now though this is a brilliant story, full of twists and turns, vivid characters, some clever wordplay around the concept of "cleaning" the Geeks up and a well established future world military.  Our bunch of misfits and Smith's quest for acceptance are fantastic plot drivers as the raw recruit just out of military school is forged into a man who would go on to save all of humanity, but only with the help of his friends and colleagues and their sacrifices to get him into that position to do so. All the artists turn in exceptional work, I have a liking for Cam Kennedy's episodes the best, but they are all good.  The writing takes all the cliches of the genre and runs with it gleefully and is a lot of fun to read.  This is not a subtle story, these are not subtle characters, the script is not at all subtle. This is a good, solid space bound military adventure and I hope the TPB comes back into print one day so more people can enjoy it.

6 comments:

  1. this looks epic! is this the oldest series you have covered so far?

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  2. Not quite, this ran '79 to '80 and the Cerebus The Aardvark which I started out my blog looking at began in 1977 so close, will probably be the oldest 2000AD strip I end up looking at though.

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  3. I absolutely love this series. If you count Dan Abnett's work as part of it, it's one of my favourite stories 2000 AD has done.

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  4. I've actually written up the first Dan Abnett book, it was going to run this month but then I thought "no, lets do the original, stop being lazy and move the damn boxes!" I'm glad I did, revisiting it was a real treat after 20 odd years. Never fear, I have moved the first Dan Abnett book to the next Uk comics month in December, you shall get props :)

    I wish the trade wasn't out of print, I'd double-dip for it on nice paper and all in one volume.

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  5. Alan Robertshaw28 July 2016 at 13:53

    Boring bit of trivia, but you can tell which artist was drawing the strip, beyond the obvious art styles, by counting the number of fingers on a Geek! :-)

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  6. That's a trivia bit I missed! next time I reread it I shall finger count assiduously, though some artists stand out more than most, I'm a big Cam Kennedy fan for a start and can spot his work a mile off.

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