The Adventures of Buck Danny volume 3: Ghost Squadron


By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése: translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4 (Album PB)

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long, historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan.

The US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and initially depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (The Agony of the Bismark – published in Spirou in 1946).

Charlier and René Goscinny were co-editors of Pistolin magazine from 1955 to 1958 and created Pilote in 1959. When they, with fellow creative legend Albert Uderzo, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comic strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

Thereafter his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties. Aged 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he took the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny, beginning with 41st yarn ‘Apocalypse Mission’. He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few tales for the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy and Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl. Gil Formosa replaced Winis in 2015, and the full tally thus far is 58 albums…

This third Cinebook volume is another astonishingly authentic yarn: a tense, rip-roaring and politically-charged contemporary war story originally published in 1996 as Buck Danny #46 (L’escadrille fantôme and coloured by Frédéric Bergése). It deftly blends mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blistering blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1995 and, above Sarajevo, Tuckson and pioneer female fighter pilot Cindy McPherson are patrolling as part of the UN Protection Force. “UnProFor” is the West’s broad and criminally ineffectual coalition to stop various factions in the region slaughtering each other.

The flight takes a dark turn when Cindy’s plane is hit by Serb rockets in contravention of the truce rules. Incensed, Tuckson peels off to open up with machine gun fire without obtaining the proper permissions.

Nursing Cindy’s burning plane back to their carrier in the Baltic, Sonny doesn’t care how much trouble he’s in, but rather than a Court Martial, the impetuous lad’s punishment is rather unique…

Called to interview with the Admiral, the pilot expects at the very least to be thrown as food to the skipper’s vile dog O’Connor, but instead meets the enigmatic Mr. Tenderman and is seconded to a top secret “Air Force/Navy Coordination” mission. Buck, meanwhile, is part of an op to locate a strange radar echo in an area supposed to be neutral and empty…

After wishing Cindy a fond farewell and hinting at his big CIA secret posting, Sonny ships out by helicopter to land at Prevesa Airbase in Greece. Bewilderment is replaced with terror and rage once he unpacks and discovers O’Connor has stowed away in his kit…

Now stuck with the infernal, nastily nipping mutt, Sonny’s screams draw an old friend into his room: maverick test pilot and old partner in peril Slim Holden. The inveterate rule-breaker also has no idea what they’ve been roped into…

The next day the conundrum continues as they and a small group of other pilots with no idea of why they’re here or where they’re going are shipped to a secret base in the mountains. After the military’s usual “hurry up and wait” the wary fliers are greeted by a familiar face…

Buck is introduced as Colonel Y by the grimly competent General X, who assigns each of the pilots a number from 1 to 16. All they know is that they have all committed serious breaches of military discipline which will be wiped from their records once the mission is over. Moreover, as long as they’re here they will only refer to each other by their code numbers…

Awaiting them are anonymous, unmarked F-16s without radios. They are to train on the jets in preparation for an unspecified single task under the strictest security conditions, until finally apprised of their specified purpose.

Days of exhausting preparation and pointless speculation are almost disrupted when an unidentified MiG-29 buzzes the base at extremely low altitude. Although Buck rapidly pursues, the quarry eludes him, but the chase does reveal their so-secret base is being covertly observed by a radar station on the Albanian border…

With no viable options, Buck returns and the training continues at full pace. Inevitably the regimen results in a fatality. With the warning of more to come before the strafing and low-level bombing runs end, the practicing goes on and rumours mount over what the actual targets of their illicit ground-attack squadron might be…

Back at the official war zone, tensions mount when two US Navy F-18s are shot down over Bosnia – apparently by a flight of unidentified jets – whilst at the hidden base, Buck’s security overflights still register radar tracks from an unknown source.

Buck and General X have no idea which of the many warring factions might be operating the MiGs or mobile radar unit, but have no choice except to proceed with their original plan. They might be far more concerned if they realised that one of the downed – official – combatants was Cindy McPherson…

With the situation worsening, word is given to go and the unofficial spectre squadron finally learn what they’re expected to do: take out the armoured concentrations and artillery emplacements relentlessly bombarding Sarajevo.

In the face of increasingly obvious NATO and UN impotence, it has been decided the Pan-Serbian aggressors need to be taught a hard lesson about keeping their word regarding cease-fires…

The mission is unofficial, with no radio contact and disabled ejector seats. Moreover, they all have permission to respond in kind to any attack – even by American forces…

As the doomed Ghost Squadron roars across the Adriatic to their targets, the Navy mission to rescue or recover their downed reconnaissance pilots proceeds and an ever-vigilant AWACS plane picks up the inexplicable bogeys heading for Sarajevo.

Of course, they reach the only conclusion possible…

When Major Tumbler and his Flight are despatched after the mystery jets an inconclusive dogfight leads him to suspect the nature and identities of some of his targets, but after breaking off hostilities the officially sanctioned Navy planes are ambushed by MiGs from a third faction…

Things look grim until NATO support arrives in the form of French Mirages and British Tornados. As the ghosts fly on to complete their punishment run, in the mad scramble behind them Tumbler tracks a MiG that has had enough and exposes a hidden Bosnian hangar housing a phantom flight of their own. Unfortunately, they see him too and he is shot down…

The CIA covert mission has been a success and a massive catalyst. In the aftermath, planes from many surrounding nations are tearing up the skies, and in the confusion, Tumbler makes his way from his landing point into the MiG base to discover old enemy and maniac mercenary Lady X running the show. He also learns that a beloved comrade may well be a traitor in her pay but resolves to save his friend and let the chips fall where they may…

This is a stunning slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant series has lasted for so long. Complex politics, personal honour and dastardly schemes all seamlessly blend into a breakneck thriller suitable for older kids of all ages.
© Dupuis, 1996 by Bergése. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Namor, the Sub-Mariner Epic Collection volume 1 1962-1966: Enter the Sub-Mariner


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Wallace Wood & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2836-0 (TPB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer: a hybrid being of immense strength; highly resistant to physical harm; able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics). He shared honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated monochrome version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age.

In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its costumed character “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two), Everett returned for a run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but-forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal, if not grandiose, antihero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal limiting the number of titles they could release per month. In 1968 the company ended this commitment and expanded exponentially.

This first celebratory volume – available in trade paperback and eBook formats collects all those early 1960’s guest shots in one tumultuous tome. Here you’ll find Fantastic Four # 4, 6, 9, 14, 27, 33 and Annual #1; Strange Tales #107 & 125; Avengers #3-4; X-Men #6, Daredevil #7 and the first arc of his own series from Tales to Astonish #70-76. These span May 1962 – February 1966 and open without preamble on that fateful first encounter in this cataclysmic clutch of curated classics…

Crafted by Lee Kirby & Sol Brodsky, Fantastic Four #4 proudly shouted ‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’, reintroducing (or introducing) the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis. The star of Timely’s Golden Age had been lost since 1955 – almost a lifetime for the kids believed to be the prime consumer of comics.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by teen delinquent and AWOL Human Torch Johnny Storm. Namor rapidly returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. After its demise amidst a mass of collateral destruction, Sub-Mariner espies and falls for the Invisible Girl: a fascination that will fuel many a monumental battle…

This saga is when the Fantastic Four series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed Richards was the star of the pin-up section reprinted here…

FF #5 debuted the diabolical Doctor Doom who returned in the next issue after duping and teaming up with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack the quarrelsome quartet heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ – inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.

Issue #9 declared ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as Sub-Mariner Prince Namor returns to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his talent for caricature…

Of course, Sub-Mariner’s film project is simply a ruse to divide and conquer and everything is settled with bombastic action and typically off-kilter romantic twist…

The saga is topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

By this time kid-friendly teen Johnny Storm had been awarded a solo-starring lead series in former mystery anthology Strange Tales. Scripted by Larry Lieber and limned by Ayers, #107 featured a splendidly mindless punch-up with the ‘Sub-Mariner’ – a tale powerfully reminiscent of the spectacular and immensely popular Golden Age battles of their publishing forebears.

It’s back to Fantastic Four next as #14 (Lee, Kirby & Ayers) features the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’: with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other, after which 1963’s Fantastic Four Annual #1 offers a spectacular 37-page epic battle as, finally reunited with their wandering prince, the warriors of Atlantis invade New York City and the rest of the world in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’ by Lee, Kirby & Ayers.

A monumental tale by the standards of the time, the saga saw the FF repel the undersea invasion through valiant struggle and brilliant strategy, and includes the secret history of the secretive race Homo Mermanus. Nothing is really settled except a return to the original status quo, but the thrills are intense and unforgettable…

Also included is a rousing pin-up of Namor from ‘A Gallery of the Fantastic Four’s Most Famous Foes!’.

By now Marvel had many more superheroes and Namor met some in Avengers #3. In the previous issue, the volatile Hulk quit the nascent team in disgust, only to return here as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman). This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clash in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos, Avengers #4 was a groundbreaking landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation returned in another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, the menacing majesty of Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary capped by vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

The creators had hit on a winning formula by including other stars in guest-shots – especially as readers could never anticipate if they would fight with or beside the home team. FF #27 again finds the undersea anti-hero in amorous mood, but after abducting Sue, he finds the boys have called in called in Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts to aid them in ‘The Search for Sub-Mariner!’

Delivered by Lee & Kirby, X-Men #6 features ‘Sub-Mariner Joins the Evil Mutants!’: a self-explanatory tale of gripping intensity elevated to magical levels of artistic quality as superbly slick inker Chic Stone adds crisp clarity to proceeding when potential mutant Namor is duped into joining malevolent Magneto and his sinister brotherhood. The issue also incorporates a stunning ‘Special Pin-up page’ starring “Cyclops”.

Impetus was building and support growing for renewed sub-sea skirmishes starring Namor, and Strange Tales #125 (October 1964) presented another bombastic battle between the old adversaries as the Torch and Thing picked a fight with the sea lord in ‘The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped!’ courtesy of Lee, Ayers & Reinman.

The princely PR campaign then blossomed into unlikely alliance as FF #33 saw the team ‘Side-by-Side with Sub-Mariner!’ (Lee, Kirby & Stone): bringing the aquatic antihero one step closer to his own series as they lend surreptitious aid to the embattled undersea monarch against deadly barbarian Attuma and supplemented by a glorious Kirby & Stone ‘Prince Namor Pin-up’.

As previously stated, prior to Tales to Astonish, Namor appeared in numerous titles as guest villain du jour. One last guest shot with Namor acting as a misunderstood bad-guy was Daredevil #7 (April 1965): a tale that qualifies as a perfect comic book and a true landmark – to my mind one of the Top Ten Marvel Tales of all Time.

Here, Lee and creative legend Wally Wood concocted a timeless masterpiece with ‘In Mortal Combat with… Sub-Mariner!’ as Prince Namor of Atlantis – recently reunited with the survivors of his decimated race – returns to the surface world to sue mankind for their crimes against his people. To expedite his claim, the Prince engages the services of Matt Murdock’s law firm; little suspecting the blind lawyer is also the acrobatic Man without Fear.

Whilst impatiently awaiting a hearing at the UN, Namor is informed by his lover Lady Dorma that his warlord Krang has stolen the throne in his absence. The tempestuous monarch cannot languish in a cell when the kingdom is threatened, so he fights his way to freedom through the streets of New York, smashing battalions of National Guard and the dauntless Daredevil with supreme ease.

The hopelessly one-sided battle with one of the strongest beings on the planet shows the dauntless courage of DD and the innate nobility of a “villain” far more complex than most of the industry’s usual fare at the time.

Augmented by a rejected Wood cover repurposed as ‘A Marvel Masterwork pin-up: Namor and D.D.’ this yarn is merely a cunning prequel…

A few months later Tales to Astonish #70 heralded ‘The Start of the Quest!’ as Lee, Gene Colan (in the pseudonymous guise of Adam Austin) & Vince Colletta set the Sub-Mariner to storming an Atlantis under martial law. The effort is for naught and the returning hero is rejected by his own people. Callously imprisoned, the troubled Prince is freed by the oft-neglected and ignored Lady Dorma…

As the pompous hero begins a mystical quest to find the lost Trident of King Neptune – which only the rightful ruler of Atlantis can hold – he is unaware that treacherous Krang allowed him to escape, the better to destroy him with no witnesses…

The serialised search carries Namor through a procession of fantastic adventures and pits him against a spectacular array of sub-sea horrors: a giant octopus in ‘Escape… to Nowhere’; a colossal seaweed man in ‘A Prince There Was’ and a demented wizard and energy-sapping diamonds in ‘By Force of Arms!’

As the end approaches in ‘When Fails the Quest!’, revolution grips Atlantis, and Namor seemingly sacrifices his kingdom to save Dorma from troglodytic demons the Faceless Ones.

In issue #75 ‘The End of the Quest’ finds the Prince battling his way back into Atlantis with a gravely-injured Dorma, before the saga calamitously concludes in ‘Uneasy Hangs the Head…!’ with the status quo restored, Namor again on the stolen throne and further danger and drama to come…

Supplemented with House ads, a full cover gallery, unseen, unused and original artwork pages and more, this assemblage of tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, with creative verve and enthusiasm shining through.

Perhaps more vicarious thrill than fan’s delight, many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find irresistible.
© 2021 MARVEL.

Ordinary


By Rob Williams & D’Israeli (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-009-2 (HB)

Admit it. We’ve all wondered – and both comics and movies have explored at length and in various tones and styles – a particularly thorny contemporary question: what happens if everybody wakes up with superpowers?

Collecting a rather witty riff on that quandary, this wickedly charming little fable from Rob Williams & Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker – first seen in Judge Dredd Megazine #340-345 at the end of 2013, then as a Titan Comics miniseries and here gathered into one scintillating colour hardback or digital tome – takes the big question a step further by positing that on that day of astounding ascension everybody becomes a modern Prometheus but you…

After an effusive Introduction from Warren Ellis the strange tale of off-the-books plumber and inept gambler Michael Fisher begins one apparently typical morning as he wakes up in Queens, NYC. He’s late for another call-out and stumbling almost unthinkingly straight into a great big bunch of complete insanity…

Narrowly escaping a thorough thumping from Samoan thugs he owes cash to, the harried divorcee arrives at his latest job just in time to see the elderly client rapidly de-age to squelchy nothingness and short-tempered boss Brian turn into a talking bear.

Metamorphic madness is everywhere. Giants, flaming men and snotty dragons are popping up every second, but all Michael can think of is calling his ex, Sarah to see if their son Josh is okay.

As freaked-out military rapidly fail to control the situation, the truth slowly dawns. Not just New Yorkers but all of humanity has, in the space of an instant, become a race of shapeshifters, superhumans and worse.

Everyone except Michael…

As madness and panic grips the world, Mike naturally heads for a bar. When Brian joins him they watch the President’s emergency news conference. It would have gone much better if someone had been able to tell PotUS that his new power is broadcasting his actual thoughts in little cartoon thought balloons above his head…

When TV news shows Josh’s school is on fire, Brian urges Michael to get across the river and find his boy, but the now-empowered Samoans almost catch him and it takes low cunning, a Midas touch and a cosmically aware cabbie to save the day…

With chaos and carnage ravaging the nation, deep in the Pentagon the President is visibly losing it as his fundamentalist Vice-President stridently argues that the power proliferation is a Heaven-sent blessing intended to help the Land of the Free smite all the world’s unbelievers.

Scottish Genomics Professor and resident scientific expert Dr. Tara McDonald has a more reasoned argument. The situation is a literal plague and uncontrolled super-abilities will destroy mankind unless a cure is quickly found. Already, America’s enemies are gathering and nations all over Earth are marshalling their burgeoning meta-resources to settle age-old scores and eradicate contemporary rivals.

However, before McDonald can even postulate a remedy, they have to find someone immune to the catastrophic contagion…

Against all his normal instincts and incredible odds – which comprise both transformees and the increasingly hard-pressed, savagely dictatorial remnants of the civil authorities – Michael has made his way into Manhattan even as in Washington, McDonald’s best efforts have yielded pitiful results.

Things really go south after a nuke detonates in Afghanistan and the Veep seizes command. The rabid Christian doesn’t want a cure and when the only man in existence without uncanny abilities becomes a minor media celebrity by rescuing his son from a New York school, the acting Commander-in-Chief’s zealots are only one of a number of ruthless factions instantly targeting unfortunate Mr. Fisher…

Now it’s a race against time as deadly opponents from warring and friendly nations alike contend to control the unluckiest, most useless man in the world, with the fate of humanity in the balance. Fate and science, however, have teamed up to deliver a big surprise for everybody…

Augmenting this thought-provoking package is a gallery of guest pinups from Edmund Bagwell, Ben Oliver, Laurence Campbell, Brian Ching & Michael Atiyeh, Brendan McCarthy, Neil Googe, Dom Reardon, Henry Flint, Alison Sampson & Ruth Redmond, James Harren, Ale Aragon, Mark Buckingham & D’Israeli, plus a little learned discourse – stuffed with the illustrator’s behind-the-scenes sketches and working drawings – on ‘Ordinary Science’ from Evolutionary Biologist and comics fan JV Chamary (PhD)…

Devilishly clever, cruelly passionate, potently humane and devastatingly funny, this sharp treatise on the true meaning of power politics offers a uniquely British spin on the eternal fantastic flight of idle fantasy and will delight all lovers of the genre with a world-weary eye to the way life really works…
Ordinary is ™ and © 2014 Rob Williams and Matt Brooker. All rights reserved.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9 (HB)

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

Arguably at the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, funny, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, animator, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980.

The reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking, oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection) or its notional spin-off series Frank (of which Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature whilst 2018’s Poochytown marked Woodring’s last Frank foray to date). Perhaps it was Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features like his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics that hit home but, always, there is never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play …and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning yet totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superbly sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation (also available digitally) gathers earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome: offering the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, cementing his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and JIM cover illustrations, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’, as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the premier strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’, and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating relationships, hallucinations and life-drawing, after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes – in prose and pictures – another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter, a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation. The macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ then leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him, whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’explains how you can live life without ever going outside again – and how’s that for prophetic and timely?

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark, distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’, before largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ after which bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ whilst little Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, before an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years passed, many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’, whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like. ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyaging with a homey homily, and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more, and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full-bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.

IR$ volume 1: Taxing Trails


By Vranken & Desberg, coloured by Coquelicot: translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-51-9 (Album PB)

The most appetising thing about European comics (and manga too, although we only ever see the tip of that vast iceberg in English) is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age ranges of material available.

The same used to be true of British and US comics, but creeping cultural colonisation by calcified fan-bases has slowly but surely eradicated many types of tale that might pique interest beyond the generalised ghettoes of superheroes, space opera, sexy horror and merchandised adaptations. Even crime and war comics are a rare exception these days.

Thus, finding that this quirky but exceedingly readable thriller series with a tantalising twist has finally arrived as eBooks is a welcome treat even if the Franco-Belgian original first saw print in 1999.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government. Once upon a time these dedicate civil servants started employing super-cool and infallibly effective agents to go after the type of tax dodger far beyond the reach of the law. These days, every country should have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg remains one of the bestselling comics authors in France. Son of an American lawyer (who was the distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother, he was born in Brussels in 1954 and studied law at Université Libre de Bruxelles. However, he dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz…

Starting with plots and eventually scripts for Will (AKA Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, he developed into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers before launching his own in the Stéphane Colman illustrated Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s, he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire), and in 1999 created this modern thriller before capping it all a year later with exuberant historical drama Le Scorpion joining his catalogue of major hits.

Bernard Vranken was an award-winning artist by the time he was fifteen and working on Le Journal de Tintin a year later. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc, he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career path was set. Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg, and in 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money and launched IR$

The premise is simple and delicious, and this English edition doubles your money by combining the first two albums – La voie fiscal and La stratégie Hagen – into one compelling compilation.

As Taxing Trails it opens with stylish American mystery man Larry B. Max calling his new favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise (Larry hates complications in his life) to kill some time before heading out.

A few days previously a Swiss banker had been rather ostentatiously splurging cash on a visit to California when he ended up as a freeway statistic. However, his spending spree and sudden demise raised a few red flags…

A right place, wrong time kind of guy, Larry was decisively ending a convenience store hold-up he’d stumbled into when he got a call and soon was working his way up a deadly chain of wealthy reprobates trying to track down who had issued the contract on the banker…

Before long Max identifies the former Luc Cretier as a minor banker and major blackmailer who pushed someone too hard and paid the price. That said, the person he was putting the squeeze to is of far more interest to the tax detective.

Jewish-American Abraham Loewenstein is a rags-to-riches holocaust survivor who turned tragedy into a life of success and good works. Larry, however, has seen something the rest of the world has not, and his interview with the aged activist (as an author investigating the scandal of Jewish gold illegally held in Swiss Banks) puts him on another profitable track…

Those esteemed institutions always found some legal chicanery to deny the claims of survivors and family members who tried to attempted to retrieve their property, but recent years – due to the efforts of people like Loewenstein – have seen frustrated victims begin to win justice through court cases exposing bank practises.

Now Larry’s forensic investigation leads straight to those so-secretive Swiss Banks and a generations-long scandal regarding the illegal retention and redistribution of Jewish funds deposited whilst Hitler was rising to power.

Although the Nazis are apparently long gone, their heritage of plunder remains in those Helvetic vaults and somehow, enigmatic, untouchable multi-billionaire survivor of the Death Camps Moshe Geldhof is involved…

Larry knows he’s on to something when his car is sabotaged and less feasible accidents – such as a girl on a motorbike blasting him with a machinegun – complicate his investigation. Undaunted, he confronts Geldhof in a fancy New York restaurant and finds hot lead is the first course on the menu…

After Abraham is murdered for knowing too much, a spectacular, breakneck car chase results in Max arresting Geldhof, but for once, the infallible tax man has grossly underestimated the sheer power of money…

The story concludes in The Hagen Strategy as the scene shifts to 1943 for the incredible truth about Moshe Geldhof, as the indefatigable Max delves deeper into the history of the man who has the ear of governments, especially Israel’s…

In America, the man himself seems to be “too big to fail” but his sudden liberation only pushes Larry to greater efforts. That means heading to Bern and cultivating the attentions of Geldof’s ferociously Amazonian daughter Lenni whilst dear daddy is tangled in red tape…

No sooner has Larry broached the palatial fortress-like mansion, however, than the sinister patron turns up and the hunt is on, with a cadre of heavily armed killers at his well-shod heels…

Larry has finally gleaned the true appalling secret of the contemporary Croesus and the truth is something his government can’t cover up for him. Now he has only one possible ally in his all-or-nothing war against the money-man… and places a call to Mossad.

Sleek, lean, almost Spartan in its lithe, muscular tribute to James Bond movies, IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty thriller series to delight fans of modern mayhem in all its literary and artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely economical package…
Original edition © 1977 EDITIONS DU LOMBARD (Dargaud-Lombard) 1999-2000 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Papyrus volume 6: The Amulet of the Great Pyramid


By Lucien De Geiter, coloured by B. Swysen: translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-240-9 (Album PB)

Papyrus is the astoundingly addictive magnum opus of Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter. Launched in 1974 on the pages of legendary weekly Le Journal de Spirou, it has run to 35 albums and spawned a wealth of merchandise, a TV cartoon series and video games.

Born in 1932, the author studied at Saint-Luc Art Institute in Brussels before going into industrial design and interior decorating. In 1961 he made the jump to sequential narrative, first via ‘mini-récits’ (half-sized, fold-in booklet inserts) for Spirou, starring his jovial cowboy ‘Pony’, and later by writing for art-star regulars such as Kiko, Jem, Eddy Ryssack and Francis.

He later joined Peyo’s studio as inker on ‘Les Schtroumpfs’ (The Smurfs), took over long-running newspaper strip ‘Poussy’ and launched mermaid fantasy ‘Tôôôt et Puit’ when Pony was promoted to Spirou’s full-sized pages. Deep-sixing the Smurfs, de Gieter expanded his horizons by joining a select band contributing material to both Le Journal de Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey.

From 1972-1974 he worked with cartooning legend Berck on ‘Mischa’ for Germany’s Primo whilst perfecting his dream project: a historical fantasy which would soon occupy his full attention and delight millions of fervent fans for decades to come.

The annals of Papyrus encompass a huge range of themes and milieux, mixing Boy’s Own adventure with historical fiction, fantastic action and interventionist mythology. The Egyptian epics gradually evolved from standard “Bigfoot” cartoon style and content to a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration. Each tale also deftly incorporated breaking historical theories and discoveries into the beguiling yarns.

Papyrus is a fearlessly forthright young fisherman favoured by the gods who rises against all odds to become an infallible hero and friend to Pharaohs. As a youngster, the plucky Fellah was singled out and given a magic sword, courtesy of the daughter of crocodile-headed Sobek, before winning similar boons and blessings from many of the Twin Land’s potent pantheon.

The youthful champion’s first accomplishment was freeing supreme deity Horus from imprisonment in the Black Pyramid of Ombos and restoring peace to the Double Kingdom, but it was as nothing compared to current duty: safeguarding Pharaoh’s wilful, high-handed and insanely thrill-seeking daughter Theti-Cheri – a dynamic princess with an astounding knack for finding trouble …

The Amulet of the Great Pyramid was 6th-&-last-to-date Cinebook translation (the 21st album of the series, originally released in 1998 as Le Talisman de la grande pyramide). It’s an enthralling rollercoaster romp through living mythology and a spooky trial for the plucky chosen one which begins when Papyrus is dragged from the palace – and a rare reward from Theti-Cheri for saving her life and soul again – by spookily intelligent donkey Khamelot.

The savvy beast of burden belongs to court jester Puin and whenever it comes running in such a manner, it means the funny little man has found more trouble…

An eventful trip to the Giza plateau with its royal necropolis and great pyramids of Kheops, Khefren and Mykerinusresults in the daring lad finding not only his diminutive friend but also a desiccated yet extremely active mummy unearthed by tomb-robbers.

Puin has been hearing ghastly screams emanating from the tombs and convinces the boy-hero to stay and listen for them too. He never anticipated his bold friend to look for what made them…

The sinister sounds lead deep into the nobles’ grave fields, but as they proceed, the searchers stumble upon another acquaintance. The unconscious man is one of the three Pepi brothers charged with keeping the recently-restored Sphinx free of desert sands. Leaving the comatose victim in Puin’s care, Papyrus presses on. Before very long though, the eerie events prove too much and the panicked Professional Fool bolts. His pell-mell rush carries him down a passage far under the Kheops pyramid where he is confronted with the spirit of Seneb the Dwarf, magician and priest of that august and long-deceased pharaoh…

The garrulous ghost is in need of a favour and urges his terrified “guest” to carry his jewelled heart scarab to Papyrus who will know what to do with it…

Scrabbling out of the ancient passageway, Puin is eventually rescued by his donkey and impetuous Theti-Cheri – who again refused to be left out of any action and secretly followed her bodyguard into peril.

Papyrus, meanwhile, plunges deeper into the necropolis and is attacked by a pack of spectral jackals. Even his magic sword is no help and the malign mobbing only ends when Anubis himself calls a halt to it. The God of the Dead is angered by the sudden increase in grave-robbing and has abducted two of the caretaking Pepi brothers, thinking them desecrators.

Unfortunately, rather than admit a mistake, the jackal-headed judge demands Papyrus retrieve Kheops’ heart amulet in return for their liberty. Anubis needs it to weigh the king’s soul before he can remove all the wandering spirits of the region to a place where the living can no longer disturb them…

And thus ensues an astonishing race against time as the young champion has to scour the Great Pyramid from top to bottom (magnificently detailed and scrupulously explained in some of the best action illustration the author has ever produced); defeating deadly traps, defying spectral sabotage and godly interventions and solving the riddles of the dead to accomplish his mission.

However, even after more than satisfying the demands of Anubis, there’s still the murderously mundane menace of the real grave-robbers holding Theti-Cheri hostage to deal with before the canny champion can rest easy…

Epic, chilling, funny, fast-paced and utterly engaging, this is another amazing adventure to thrill and enthral lovers of wonder from nine to ninety-nine, confirming Papyrus to be a sublime addition to the family-friendly pantheon of Euro Stars who wed heroism and humour with wit and charm.

Any avid reader who has worn out those Tintin, Lucky Luke and Asterix albums would be wise beyond their years to add such classic chronicles to their bookshelves, and actively agitate the publishers to get on with releasing the rest of these too-long buried treasures.
© Dupuis, 1998 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2015 Cinebook Ltd.

Haru’s Curse


By Asuka Konishi translated by Hannah Airriess (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1949980264 (Tankōbon PB)

Manga has an unfair reputation for being lightweight and genre-centric in the west, but if that’s true in any way it’s more an artefact of what we’ve seen translated into English rather that an inherent aspect of the form. Here’s a deceptively dark and subtly off-kilter example of my point from Asuka Konishi, who’s most successful offering to date is gangster romance Raise wa Tanin ga li.

Like that remarkable thriller, Haru’s Curse (which first saw life as Haru no Noroi 1 and 2 in Gekkan Komikko Zero Samu from Ichijinsha, Inc.) also examines the Japanese tradition of arranged marriage, but this time in purely emotional terms as it outlines a potent romantic triangle fuelled by filial devotion and societal expectation.

And pressure. Lots and lots of self-imposed, guilt-tinged pressure…

A comedically mature romance with sharp edges and dangerous corners, the relationship blossoms in seasonally-themed chapters which begin with ‘Spring is gone’ as boisterous, overactive underachiever Natsumi Tachibana reels in grief following the death of her beloved younger sister Haru. The shattering sense of loss over her meek, mild eternal soulmate is peppered with anger and shame when she attends the funeral rites and meets again the stiff-necked, stand-offish rich boy her little Haru was forced to become engaged to, but whom she grew to adore…

Although now just an ordinary middleclass family – apart from having a status-diminishing stepmother thanks to father’s scandalous divorce – the Tachibana’s are of a proud and ancient lineage. So, when the matriarch of a spectacular rich banking family wanted a wife for her heir, she didn’t much care which daughter her son Togo Hiragi picked.

Natsumi was just happy it wasn’t her, and quite baffled at the genuine affection Haru felt. However, after Haru’s debilitating disease and tragic demise, the pressure was on again to honour the contract…

A distant and reserved discussion with the emotionless golden boy results in a bizarre devil’s bargain. Togo seems as reluctant to pursue matrimony as she is, but family duty compels them both, and Natsumi is consumed with curiosity as to what her sister ever saw in the big oaf. She accepts the situation on condition that he takes her to every place and re-enacts every date he had with Haru. At least this way, the sisters can be together again, after a fashion…

The campaign begins in ‘July’ and carries on into ‘August’ with all concerned going through the very painful motions, but gradually dislike and shame (Natsumi feels cursed and dreads public scorn for betraying her sister’s memory and “cheating” on her with her fiancé) turns to neutrality and grudging interest.

Events take a surprising twist in ‘September (Parts One and Two)’ after Natsumi finds Haru’s online diary and is forced to make radical changes to her own flighty lifestyle and assessment of her devoted departed…

Small, apparently incidental developments finally bring Togo out of his defensive shell, and by the time ‘November (Part One and Two)’ rolls round a major familial earthquake is set to upset everybody and redefine the future of all concerned in ‘and winter will come’

The secrets of the changes of stance are explored at the end via a brace of sidebar vignettes. ‘Bonus comic 1 and 2’ reveal how small incidental moments can spark big responses…

At heart a very mature modern romance, Haru’s Curse is a splendid example of how very alike we all are, and how social mores aren’t worth a damn when we’re truly honest with ourselves…
© 2016, 2017 Asuka Nonishi. All rights reserved.

The Black Project


By Gareth Brookes (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-908434-20-3 (PB)

As I eagerly await Gareth Brookes’ imminent latest release, let’s look at his first award-winning work: one that set the scene not just for his trademark versatility of style and artistic weapons of choice, but also the uniquely skewed mindset that finds the extraordinary in everyday life and those weird things called people…

Brookes is a capital-A artist, printmaker, textile creator and educator who learned his craft(s) at the Royal College of Art and who has subsequently appeared in ArtReview; Kus; The British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition and numerous classrooms and lecture theatres as inspirational teacher.

He began literally crafting comics in 2015 with an astounding, disturbing and hilarious epic entitled The Black Project. In essence it’s a paean to uncomfortable, outsider British youth: the ones shunned and ignored by those who overachieve in class, look like gods on the sports field and have great hair and no trouble talking to girls or the right boys. If you’re old enough, try humming “David Watts” (either The Kinks or The Jam versions) while reading this and you won’t go far wrong…

It’s the 1990’s and schoolboy Richard is at that difficult age. Status, social pressure, shifting relationships are all acting on a bizarrely changing body, but at least he’s not overly worried about proving his burgeoning manhood. According to him, getting a prestige-enhancing girlfriend is simple. All you need is time, peace and quiet and the right components…

Sadly, once Richard has completed his amatory endeavours, there’s the small matter of keeping her secret from his few – rather unpleasant – friends, assorted adults in his family circle, teachers and overly-fussing mother. He may not be able to express why, but the clever lad instinctively knows nobody will understand what he’s done, or why…

Inevitably, disaster strikes and “Laura” is lost to him, but Richard is not daunted. He simply adjusts, regroups and starts the laborious creative process again. And again and…

Darkly hilarious and outrageously clever, powerfully mired in the minutiae of English suburban nostalgia and peppered with twisty subplots and red herrings, The Black Project is rendered with mastery in stark monochrome imagery, generated by deftly-chiselled lino cuts and pieces of painstakingly-sewn embroidery. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and equally unique in terms of narrative.

Supplemented by a revelatory Q&A Afterword delving deep into the methodology and inspiration for the book, this is a graphic triumph no fan of the medium or lover of dark fiction should be without.
© Gareth Brookes 2013. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Epic Collection volume 6 1969-1970: At War with Atlantis


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, John Romita, Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2202-3 (TPB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comics forever. Happy Anniversary!

This epic and extras-packed full-colour compendium – also available in digital editions – gathers issues #88-104 and Annual #7 (cumulatively spanning July 1969 – November 1970) plus Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure #1 (2008). It covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and shaky transitional start of a new era. And includes diverse bonus treats including a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados, only finally released in April 2008.

As seen in the ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma pass, they solemnly agree to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.

Throughout the 1960s the FF was the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his creative prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot, whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed… which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

And then, he was gone…

Without preamble the magical wonderment resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #88 which focuses on the five champions (Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal had been standing in for Sue who was until recently enjoying a hard-earned maternity leave) back in the USA after defeating Doctor Doom. They are soon looking at an unconventional new house found by determinedly domesticated Mrs. Richards in her perpetual quest to carve out a relatively normal life for her new – and still unnamed – son.

Regrettably the trendy, extremely isolated detached dwelling in ‘A House There Was!’ has been designed by the team’s oldest enemy. No sooner do they all move in than ‘The Madness of the Mole Man!’ turns the deadly domicile against them even as the maniac’s goal of rendering the entire world blind and wiping out the extended heroic family comes within inches of succeeding…

The Thing then takes centre-stage in an extended epic as he is stalked and pressganged to another world when ‘The Skrull Takes a Slave!’ in #90. Abducted to fight in gladiatorial games on a colony world patterned after Earth’s 1920s gangster era, ‘The Thing… Enslaved!’ introduces rival Skrull mobs vying for planetary supremacy and a noble slave destined to slaughter our shanghaied champion. ‘Ben Grimm, Killer!’ efficiently ramps up the tension as Ben Grimm and mechanoid marvel Torgo discover their home-worlds are hostage to their fortunes and ferocity in the arena…

Elsewhere, Reed, Johnny and Crystal have not been idle. While Ben is at ‘The Mercy of Torgo!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) his Earthly comrades are enacting a desperate plan to swoop in, save him and destroy the Skrulls doom-weapon… a task undertaken and accomplished with great speed and in stunning style…

Fantastic Four #94, began a string of single-issue stories with the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’. The eponymous recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they can catch the FF off-guard by attacking while the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

At a time when superhero sales were in a slump and magical mystery themes resurgently returned, this rollercoaster ride of action, battle and suspense is most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name – Franklin Benjamin Richards – after literally years of shilly-shallying…

Technological super-assassin The Monocle is resolved to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (Giacoia inks) once again ambush the team and still prove to be no match for the fab foursome…

A tense and moody episode further cashing in on the growing trend for creepy creatures and supernatural shenanigans manifests as ‘The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!’ in #97, offering a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously homages as the First Family try to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting sea-beastie hunt…

Both Sinnott and the robotic Sentry Sinister return in #98’s turbulently then-topical ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own numerous visits to our satellite, beginning with issue #13) results in a cracking yarn wherein the team stop the extra-galactic Kree Empire sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space.

In FF #99 heartsick Johnny Storm at last snaps, invading the hidden home of the Inhumans. His intent is to reunite with his lost love at all costs, but of course, tempers fray, everything escalates and ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With Crystal happily in tow, the 100th anniversary adventure features a daft, extremely rushed but nonetheless spectacular all-out battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’ Nuff Said!

With the anniversary cataclysmically concluded, issue #101 provides a far more intriguing imbroglio when dastardly criminal combine the Maggia buy the team’s skyscraper HQ in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to appropriate Reed’s scientific secrets, resulting in total ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

Fantastic Four #102 sported the first cover not drawn by The King as John Romita (senior) prepared to jump into the artistic hot-seat following Kirby’s abrupt move to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics left the House of (mostly his) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC to craft his Fourth World Magnum Opus plus a host of other game-changing comic book classics…

An era ended at Marvel when the King abdicated his seemingly divinely-ordained position. Left to pacify and win back the stunned fans were Lee and a couple of budding talents named Romita and Buscema…

Kirby was not quite gone, however, as he and Sinnott opened an impressive extended epic wherein mutant menace Magneto uses guile and subterfuge to turn ‘The Strength of the Sub-Mariner’ and his undersea armies against the FF and entire surface world…

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-flow, depicting an embattled America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ before malign Magneto inevitably turns on Namor, inspiring the Prince to ally with the Fantastic Four to prevent the mutant’s dream of ‘Our World… Enslaved!’

That was more or less the end. Romita drew a couple more issues and eventually John Buscema took up the challenge, although a later issue baffled us fans by inexplicably pairing the new artist with a somehow returned Kirby…

Before that, the cover of all-reprint Fantastic Four Annual #7 brightens our day, as does its contemporary photo-feature, revealing each and every member of the burgeoning Marvel Bullpen.

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’ which “reintroduced” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale. This was modified with new sequences illustrated by John Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more via the portal in Reed’s lab.

Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

The origins of that yarn are convoluted and circuitous but are eruditely explained by archivist John Morrow in his article ‘Fantastic Four #108: Kirby’s Way’, supplemented by (almost) the entire original story reproduced from photostats of Kirby’s pencils and published pages from #108.

In 2007 those fragments and Kirby’s story notes were used by Lee, Joe Sinnott and Ron Frenz to reconstruct the tales as the King drafted it. The result was ‘Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure’ which here offers a gloriously tantalising slice of times past as the team (circa 1970) tackle a seemingly schizophrenic super-villain in ‘The Menace of the Mega-Men!’

It doesn’t really fit anywhere into continuity but it is a superbly nostalgic rush for devotees of the classics…

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of original art pages and covers from issues #88-90, unused cover art, house ads, portfolio and poster art and more: a graphic bonanza no fan could resist.

Epic, revolutionary and unutterably unmissable, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment. They remain some of the most important superhero comics ever crafted. Verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shine through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
© 2020 MARVEL.

No Country


By Patrice Aggs & Joe Brady (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-183-3 (PB)

This is the scariest book I’ve read in decades.

That’s an odd thing to say about a collection of strips from a wholesome children’s comic like The Phoenix, but true nonetheless, so I’ll qualify that statement by adding that it’s beautifully illustrated by Patrice Aggs with a complete absence of gore, supernatural terror or zombies of any kind, casting its chilling pall thanks to a subtle, understated script by Joe Brady, who convincingly speculates on the current global and national political situation…

Just imagine a Britain where the Prime Minister ignores the law, suspends Parliament and rules by ministerial fiat. Consider curfews and lockdowns, shortages in the shops and direct monitoring and control of what teachers can say and do. Further ponder on what happens when strident, impassioned protestors organise into militant groups and start systematically and violently resisting daily interventions and oppressions doled out by an ever more heavy-handed police force and too-readily deployed army…

No Country is set in Britain and follows middle schooler Bea, her little brother Dom and frequently bossy older sister Hannah as they daily adapt to a draconian new reality. Their dad used to work as a local councillor, but now looks after the kids and spends his downtime in quiet secret meetings with other adults with worried faces…

Mum has been gone for a while now, but still talks to them via the internet whenever there’s enough electricity. She’s in another country somewhere, trying to get exit visas and paperwork so the family can be reunited… somewhere safe.

Daily tensions ratchet up when the long-declared Martial Law edict is shockingly enforced by new army divisions who occupy the town and “requisition” everything not nailed down. Hannah just got her first boyfriend and is acting really weird, especially after he reveals he’s part of the patriotic rebel front called the Free Kingdom – the other side in a rapidly escalating, ideologically fanatical civil war, ripping sedate stuffy Britain apart.

As hunger grows, home raids and “searches” intensify and friends and teachers start disappearing, Mum finally contacts them that the documents are ready and the family must act immediately. Tragically, not everyone is there to get the message but there’s no time to wait. This is the moment to run…

To Be Continued…

A superb and gripping exploration of the refugee crisis with the comfy, cosy UK all-too-convincingly substituting for Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar (please feel free to look up why I chose those countries). This is a brilliant introduction to real world problems any kid can grasp and be moved by, in exactly the same way books like Animal Farm, A Kestrel for a Knave, Ring of Bright Water or Lord of the Flies ushered in a new, transformational understanding for generations of youngsters.
Illustrations © Patrice Aggs 2021. Text © Joe Brady. rights reserved.