When originally serialised in the early 1990s, The Burning Earth was a landmark for being among the first Terminator stories in comics. While it’s now published by Dark Horse, it predated their acquisition of the Terminator licence, their first collection being Tempest. However, the greater significance now is The Burning Earth being the first professional comics produced by Alex Ross, five fully painted chapters in which he takes giant steps forward toward becoming the artist who’d establish himself with Marvels. Ross has long been a perfectionist, and credit to him for providing an afterword when his comments suggest he’d have preferred his earliest work remain secret, but he’s too harsh on himself, and many lesser artists would still point to much of The Burning Earth with pride. Writer Ron Fortier’s introduction notes his amazement on seeing the quality of the earliest pages from a new artist (the left hand sample art is the fourth), and Ross continues to present interesting viewpoints, great design and complete detail from start to finish. As it is his first work, there are signs of the novice. Some figures are distorted, and the faces don’t have the almost photo realism of his later painting, but the ambition is immense, and it’s debatable whether the vastly more experienced Ross could now paint such flowing action sequences.

Fortier’s editors tasked him with wrapping up the Terminator continuity as per the first movie, with the groundbreaking second not released at the time. Despite the SF trappings, it’s a desperate last stand war story. John Connor, here referred to as Bear, is a man in late middle age, and he and his ragtag band of allies have been fighting Skynet their entire lives. An inspirational sacrifice in the opening chapter sees Bear’s mojo restored, and subsequent events persuade him the time has come for a do or die, all-out assault on Skynet. Fortier’s dialogue is sometimes clunky, very formal, his transfers from one scene to another can be clumsy, and the cast never transcend action thriller archetypes to become anyone we can care about, but the plot just about works until the ending. Even allowing for the story being written in 1990 it’s hardly imaginative, Skynet revealed to have a conveniently vulnerable soft centre.

There are fluctuations in the art, the penultimate chapter showing signs of deadline problems despite the detail from midway, but seeing Ross take a completely different approach is fascinating. The pages are dark and scratchy, naturalistic, but not in the almost photo realistic manner of Ross’ subsequent work, with the imagination applied to the layouts ambitious for a novice artist. One consistently strange aspect, not addressed anywhere, is many Terminators resembling the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, although humanoid variations on the Arnie model are also used.

The Burning Earth is no lost masterpiece. It’s a steep learning curve for Ross, while time and sequels have long demolished Fortier’s idea of wrapping up the Terminator world. It leaves a curiosity, but more an itch to be scratched at discount than full price.