The Boy Commandos by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby volume 2

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5817-7

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off, two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years hard-earned experience in “real” publishing. He had worked from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an illustrator and art/photo retoucher.

With comicbooks exploding onto every newsstand, Simon – with a recommendation from his boss – joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering comics production “shop” Funnies Inc.: generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its groundbreaking star attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his explosive, imaginative stride with The Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon & Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, drew Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, invented a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a rather popular guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby promptly jumped ship to industry leader National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a mighty chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit and bursting with ideas the cautious company were not comfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, the dynamic duo were left to their own devices and – returning to the “Kid Gang” genre they pioneered with Young Allies at Timely – drafted a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

The young warriors initially shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics but before long their solo title would frequently number amongst the company’s top three sellers…

Boy Commandos was such a soaring success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for the dreadful moment their star creators were called up.

With their talented studio team, S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a such a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get back to another time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy second full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilation, re-presenting further exploits of the courageous and internationally diverse Young Lions from Detective Comics #74-83 and 85, World’s Finest Comics#10-13 and Boy Commandos #3-5.

Spanning April 1943 to March 1944, these tales comprise a superb salvo of stunning combat classics, bombastic blockbusters and cunning comedy capers that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil could never simply be just “Us & Them”…

We never learned how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to take a quartet of war-orphans with him on a never-ending succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Andre Chavard (originally dubbed “Pierre” before being unobtrusively renamed), little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only adults had given us a chance…

Following a scholarly and incisive appraisal from publisher John Morrow in his Introduction ‘Don’t Sit Out This War!’, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular reintroduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour and frustration entitled ‘The Trial of Captain Carter’ from Detective Comics #74 April 1943.

A truly tense drama, it sees the bold Captain risk disgrace and worse to cover up for a soldier under his command in a tale packed with tension and spectacle after which the heroes then challenged prejudices with the tale of a pacifist Scots farmer and the extraordinary events that led to his becoming a ‘Double for Death’ (Detective #75).

An astoundingly popular hit combo, the kids were also a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics too. From #10 (Summer 1943), ‘Message to Murmansk’ sees the juvenile terrors endure the hardships of convoy duty to Russia, and destroying a U-Boat base in Norway to prove to the Allies’ Red comrades hat they have not been forgotten…

The seemingly insatiable demand for fresh stories was partly assuaged by a quarterly solo title with Boy Commandos #3 (Summer 1943) offering a fabulous tranche of tales, beginning with ‘A Film from the Front …Uncensored’. Here, puny but fervent newsreel cameraman Spud Mattson goes far above and beyond his normal duties on a doomed mission to Greece…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and frequently sheer fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. A perfect example is ‘War Album No. 1 – The Siege of Troy’ wherein the squad are transposed root and branch to the Trojan War where abducting scoundrel Paris is a dead ringer for Adolf Hitler. He suffers ignominious defeat there and then too…

Broad comedy leavens the turmoil of conflict in ‘Cyril Thwaites Rides Again, or, The Recruiting Sergeant Should Have Looked Twice!’ as a pompous and vainglorious weedy braggart is afforded the chance to change and determine the course of the war before a deadly faceless nemesis resurfaces in ‘The Return of Agent Axis’ only to be defeated and finally exposed by rip and the lads…

Detective Comics #76 (June 1943) afforded a guest-packed foray back to the USA as the Sandman & Sandy and the Newsboy Legion – with their masked Guardian – unite with a new gang of Kid Commandos to rescue Rip and Co. when they are kidnapped by Nazi spies planning ‘The Invasion of America’.

James Hilton’s Shangri-La is heavily referenced in ‘The Valley of Destiny’ (Detective #77) when super-advanced monks judge the worth and philosophy of the warring sides in the global conflict. The despicable but cunning Nazis seem to have the upper hand over the Boy Commandos but eventually everyone’s true nature is revealed…

Sheer dynamic bravado carries the tale from #78 as the team invade the heart of Europe to aid the German resistance and the broadcasters of ‘Freedom Station’

World’s Finest Comics #11 (Fall 1943) then find the globetrotting kids in Tunisia to winkle out diehard holdouts from Rommel’s defeated Afrika Korps in ‘Sand Dunes of Death!’ before Boy Commandos #4 (Fall 1943) offers a bold new kind of adventure in a book-length saga entitled ‘The Invasion of Europe!’.

‘Chapter One: Flames at Dawn!’ opens with the famous squad pre-empting D-Day in brutally prophetic fashion, blasting their way onto the beaches of France only to be separated from the main force and each other…

‘Chapter Two: Brooklyn Revere’s Ride!’ offers astounding drama and heartbreaking tragedy as the American warrior attempts to warn a French village and the Allied forces of a devasting German counter-offensive whilst ‘Chapter Three: The Madman of Mt. Cloud!’ finds Alfie sheltered by a brave matron before infiltrating a gothic asylum used by both the oppressors and the Resistance to extract secrets…

Apparently killed in a parachute drop, Dutch boy Jan links up with a trio of youthful freedom fighters led by a vengeful girl. ‘Chapter Four: Toinette the Terrible!’ sees them rescue the now-captured Boy Commandos before ‘Chapter Five: West Meets East’ drops into prose mode to detail the brief encounter between the kids and a very lost band of Russian aviators.

The ambitious and fanciful novel moves into finale mode for ‘Chapter Six: Bugle of the Brave!’ as the sacrifice of a true patriot unites his downtrodden countrymen in bloody rebellion against the Nazis before the stirring saga concludes with a speculative climax as ‘Chapter Seven: The Road to Berlin!’ carries the incensed and unstoppable forces of freedom to the gates of Berlin and a utopian future…

Over in Detective Comics #79 (September 1943) a short furlough ends when the boys find a dying Italian and learn of a scheme to murder all POWs. Before long a rescue is underway and when the team unite with ruthless Sicilian partisans ‘The Duce Gets a Hotfoot’

Scurrilous espionage at the heart of an English stately home reveals a shocking secret about ‘The Baronet of Bodkin Borders’ in Detective #80 whilst deadly vengeance informs a mission to Japanese-held Bataan in #81’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dynamite’. The mission is made the more memorable after Rip’s rascals meet a small band of American holdouts fighting a deadly guerrilla campaign behind the Tojo’s lines…

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) finds the lads incognito in seemingly-neutral Switzerland to track down hidden Nazi loot but their ‘Golden Victory’ accidentally takes them all the way to Berlin and a most satisfactory face to face meeting with the Fuhrer…

Boy Commandos #5 (Winter 1943-1944) opens with ‘Assignment in Norway’ as Andre gets lost on a raid and meets two women pilots of the unsung Bomber Ferry Command. Together they expose a hidden base and inflict another crushing blow on the hard-pressed Boche.

Supernatural retribution infuses ‘A Town to Remember’ as a mysterious officer commandeers the team and guides them to Czechoslovakia and the razed area where the citizens of Lidice were exterminated. Is it merely to save the last desperate hostages or is there another reason for the ill-starred raid?

On leave in London, the lads encounter ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mulani’ and trail what they consider to be the most inept spy they’ve ever seen. What a surprise when the incredible truth is revealed…

In a compelling foreshadowing of their later supernatural mystery yarns, Simon & Kirby – and their unheralded team of assistants – then disclose the eerie antics of a deadly powerbroker whose bargains with numerous influential Germans all come due at the same time as the Boy Commandos close in in the chilling ‘Satan to See You!

A true treat for those in-the-know, Detective Comics #82 (December 1943) features ‘The Romance of Rip Carter’: the tale of an indomitable bomber that refused to be shot down until her mission was accomplished. The plane was the “Rosalind K” and Jack had been married to wife Roz since May 1942…

Detective #83 mixed laughs with action as the boys prowled London hunting nefarious spies and an escaped music hall ape which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain American battle veteran. Sadly, when the curtain fell the villains’ downfall was ‘The Triumph of Cholly the Chimp’

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) offered another Home Front saga as a stolen racehorse led the lads to a ruthless criminal gang, heartfelt tragedy and ‘A Wreath for Sir Edgar of Wimpledowne’, before Detective #85 (issue #84 being a non-S&K fill-in by Joe Samachson & Louis Cazeneuve and not included here) brings the memorable missions to a close with ‘Curtain Call for Action’. Here the insidious Agent Axis returns yet again, taking over a touring USO show for the troops and attempting to substitute a Gestapo doppelganger for the army’s top general until Rip and the boys get stuck in…

Although I’ve rightly concentrated on the named stars, it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their most ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated comics aficionado should miss this classic collection.
© 1943, 1944, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

America’s 1st Patriotic Comic Book Hero – The Shield

By Irving Novick, Harry Shorten & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-87979-408-5

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t, remembered only as trivia by sad blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: Not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

The Shield was an FBI scientist named Joe Higgins who wore a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability. These advantages he used to battle America’s enemies in the days before the USA entered World War II. Latterly he also devised a Shield Formula that increased his powers.

Beginning with the first issue of Pep Comics (January 1940) he battled spies, saboteurs, subversive organisations and every threat to American security and well-being and was a minor sensation. He is credited with being the industry’s very first Patriotic Hero, predating Marvel’s iconic Captain America in the “wearing the Flag” field.

Collected here in this Golden-Age fan-boy’s dream (available as a trade paperback and in digital formats) are the lead stories from monthly Pep Comics #1-5 (January – May 1940) plus the three solo adventures from the hastily assembled spin-off Shield-Wizard Comics #1 (Summer 1940).

Following a Foreword from Robert M. Overstreet and context-providing Introduction from Paul Castiglia the wonderment opens with FBI agent and Joe Higgins smashing a Stokonian spy and sabotage ring in his mystery man identity of The Shield ‘G-Man Extraordinary’. Only his boss J. Edgar Hoover knows his dark secret and of the incredible scientific process that has made the young daredevil a veritable human powerhouse.

In Pep #2, as American oil tankers begin vanishing at sea, The Shield hunts down the ray-gun-wielding villains responsible and delivers punishing justice whilst in #3 mini parachute mines cause devastating destruction in US waters until the patriotic paragon discovers the undersea base of brilliant science-maniac Count Zongarr and deals out more all-American retribution…

There’s a whiff of prescience or plain military/authorial foresight to the blistering tale from Pep #4 (May 1940) when devious, diabolical Mosconians perpetrate a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Warned by a clairvoyant vision from new mystery man The Wizard Higgins hurtles to Hawaii to scotch the plot, and when fists and fury aren’t quite enough the Shield turns an exploding volcano on the murdering backstabbers!

With mission accomplished, Higgins takes an ocean liner home in issue #5 only to have the ship attacked by vengeful Mosconians. After thwarting the sinister ambushers and battling his way back, Joe arrives back in the USA just in time to thwart a tank column attack on Congress!

The blistering pace and sheer bravura of the Patriotic Paragon’s adventures made him an early hit and he soon found a second venue for his crusade in Shield-Wizard Comics. The shared titled launched in June 1940 and opened with an expanded origin for the red, white and blue blockbuster. In 1916 his father was a scientist and officer in US Army Intelligence.

Whilst working on a formula to make men superhuman, Tom Higgins was attacked by enemy agents and he lost his life when they blew up a fleet of ammunition barges. To make matters worse, the agent was posthumously blamed for the disaster…

Joe grew up with the shame but swore to complete his father’s work and clear his name…

By achieving the first – and gaining super-powers – Joe lured out spy master Hans Fritz (who had framed his dad) and accomplished the most crucial component of his crusade: exonerating Tom Higgins. Then, with his dad’s old partner J. Edgar as part of the secret, the son joined the FBI and began his work on America’s behalf…

Shield-Wizard #1 contained three complete exploits of the Star-Spangled Centurion with the second introducing Joe to his new partner Ju Ju Watson: a doughty veteran dedicated to completing the young operative’s training. Together they investigate a steel mill infiltrated by crooks holding the owner hostage and aiming to purloin the payroll…

Young Higgin’s next case involves grisly murder as corpses are found concealed in a floating garbage scow and the trail leads back to vice racketeer Lou Zefke whose ongoing trial is stalling for lack of witnesses. With only the slimmest of leads but plenty of enthusiasm, The Shield steps in and cleans up the mess…

Raw, primitive and a little juvenile perhaps, these are still unadorned, glorious romps from the industry’s exuberant, uncomplicated dawning days: Plain-and-simple fun-packed thrills from the gravely under-appreciated Irving Novick, Harry Shorten and others whose names are now lost to history.

Despite not being to everyone’s taste these guilty pleasures are worth a look for any dyed-in-the-woollen-tights superhero freak and comprise a rapturous tribute to a less complicated time with simpler solutions to complex problems.
© 1940, 2002 Archie Publications In. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 4

By Bill Finger, Don Cameron, Joseph Greene, Joe Samachson, Jack Schiff, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7130-5

The history of the American comicbook industry in most ways stems from the raw, vital and still compelling tales of two iconic creations published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in relatively cheap, and gloriously cheerful, compilations.

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) confirmed DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Steel, the physical mortal perfection and dashing derring-do of the strictly-human Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crime-busters were judged.

Batman: The Golden Age is a series of paperback feasts (there’s also weightier, pricier, more capacious hardback Omnibus editions available, and digital iterations too) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Presented in original publishing release order, the tomes trace the character’s growth into the icon who would inspire so many and develop the resilience needed to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes that coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

Re-presenting astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #66-74, Batman #12-15 and pertinent stories from World’s Finest Comics #7-9, this book covers groundbreaking escapades from August 1942 to April 1943: as the Dynamic Duo continually develop and storm ahead of all competition.

As the heroes’ influence expanded, new talent joined the stable of creators. Jerry Robinson had already worked with writer Bill Finger and penciller Bob Kane, and during this period more scripters joined the ever-expanding team to detail adventures during the darkest days of World War II.

I’m certain it’s no coincidence that many of these Golden Age treasures are also some of the best and most reprinted tales in the Batman canon. With chief writer Bill Finger at a peak of creativity and production, everybody on the Home Front was keen to do their bit – even if that was simply making kids of all ages forget their troubles for a brief while…

This volume starts in grand style with the debut of a true classic villain as Finger, Kane & Robinson expose ‘The Crimes of Two-Face’ (Detective Comics #66): a classical tragedy in crime-caper form as Gotham DA Harvey Kent (whose name was later changed by editorial diktat to Dent) is disfigured in court and goes mad – becoming the conflicted thief and killer who remains one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes.

Batman #12 (August/September 1942) follows with another four classics. ‘Brothers in Crime’ – by Don Cameron & Robinson – reveals the tragic fates of a criminal family after which the Joker returns in ‘The Wizard of Words’ by Finger, Kane, Robinson and George Roussos.

Jack Burnley illustrated the spectacular daredevil drama ‘They Thrill to Conquer’ before ‘Around the Clock with Batman’ recounts a typical “day in the life” of the Dynamic Duo, complete with blazing guns, giant statues and skyscraper near-death experiences…

Then, from World’s Finest Comics #7 (Fall 1942), comes an imaginative thriller of chilly thrills and spills in ‘The North Pole Crimes!’ whilst Detective #67 features the Penguin as ‘Crime’s Early Bird!’, before Two-Face’s personal horror-story continues in ‘The Man Who Led a Double Life’ from #68.

Batman #13 (October/November 1942) tugged heartstrings when ‘The Batman Plays a Lone Hand’ but returned to more traditional ground after the Joker organized a ‘Comedy of Tears’ (by Jack Schiff, Kane, Robinson & Roussos). Although ‘The Story of the Seventeen Stones!’ (drawn by Burnley) then offered a deliciously experimental murder-mystery, the heroes slipped into comfortable Agatha Christie – or perhaps Hitchcock territory – as they tackled a portmanteau of crimes on a train in Cameron, Kane, Robinson and Roussos’ ‘Destination: Unknown!’ to close the issue.

Joseph Greene scripted the Joker’s next escapade in the astounding case of ‘The Harlequin’s Hoax!’ (Detective #68 before our heroes endure the decidedly different threat of ‘The Man Who Could Read Minds!’: another off-beat thriller from Cameron that premiered in Detective #70.

Cameron also wrote all four stories in Batman #14 (December 1942/January 1943). ‘The Case Batman Failed to Solve’ (illustrated by Jerry Robinson) is a superb example of the sheer decency of the Caped Crusader as he fudges a mystery for the best possible reason; ‘Prescription for Happiness’ (art by Bob Kane & Robinson) is a masterful example of the human-interest drama that used to typify Batman tales as a poor doctor discovers his own true worth, and ‘Swastika Over the White House!’ (Jack & Ray Burnley art) is typical of the spy-busting action yarns readers were gratuitously lapping up at the time.

The final story ‘Bargains in Banditry!’ – also from the Burnley boys – is another canny crime caper featuring fowl felon the Penguin.

Detective Comics #71 (January 1943, Finger, Kane & Robinson) featured ‘A Crime a Day!’ – one of the most memorable and thrilling Joker escapades of the period – whilst ‘Brothers in Law’ (by Schiff and the Burnleys from the Winter 1942 World’s Finest Comics #8) pits Batman and Robin against a Napoleon of Crime and feuding siblings who had radically differing definitions of justice…

Samachson, Kane & Robinson crafted Detective #72 which saw found our heroes crushing murderous con-men in ‘License for Larceny’ before Batman #15 (February/March 1943) lead with Schiff, Kane & Robinson’s Catwoman romp ‘Your Face is your Fortune!’ whilst Cameron and those Burnleys introduced plucky homeless boy Bobby Deen as ‘The Boy Who Wanted to be Robin!’

The same team concocted powerful propaganda tale ‘The Two Futures’, which examined an America under Nazi subjugation after which ‘The Loneliest Men in the World’ (Cameron, Kane & Robinson) was – and remains – one of the very best Christmas Batman tales ever created; full of pathos, drama, fellow-feeling and action…

Cameron, Kane & Robinson went back to spooky basics in Detective Comics#73 (March 1943) when ‘The Scarecrow Returns’, a moody chiller followed by the introduction of comical corpulent criminal psychopaths ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee!’ in #74, before this gripping volume concludes with the Batman portion of World’s Finest #9 (Spring 1943) as Finger, Robinson & Roussos recount the saga of a criminal mastermind who invented a sure-fire ‘Crime of the Month!’ scheme…

These are the stories that cemented the popularity of Batman and Robin and brought welcome surcease to millions during a time of tremendous hardship and crisis. Even if these days aren’t nearly as perilous or desperate – and there ain’t many who thinks otherwise! – the power of such work to rouse and charm is still potent and just as necessary. You owe it to yourself and your family and even your hamster to Buy This Book…
© 1942, 1943, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
ISBN: 978-0-28562-865-6

Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.

If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.

Ronald Searle was one of a very gifted few (I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.

During the Second World War he was a Japanese POW at the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived along with his incredible war sketches to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.

His mordantly funny cartoons appeared in many places such as Punch, Lilliput, The Sunday Express, and other collections of his work include Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The Terror of St. Trinian’s, Souls in Torment, Merry England, etc., The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go? and Pardong m’sieur.

Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings and the utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth (created with Geoffry Willans for Punch and released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane) influenced generations of children and adults and even played its part in shaping our post-war national character and language.

And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?

Although perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony – and still readily available despite being despite being 30 years old – this sharp and immaculately depicted slice of satirical buffoonery still affords a chuckle or two, but the truly magical aspect of this book is the unforgettable collection of black and white cartoons delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.

By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer.

You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost supply of ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1988 Ronald Searle.

Showcase Presents Strange Adventures volume 1

By John Broome, Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Joe Samachson, Gardner Fox, Dave Wood, Bill Finger, Harry Sharp, Sid Gerson, Jerry Coleman, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Sid Greene, Murphy Anderson, Sy Barry, Joe Giella, Jerry Grandenetti, John Giunta, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1544-6

As the 1940s closed, masked mystery-men dwindled in popularity and the American comicbook industry found new heroes.

Classic genre titles flourished; resulting in anthologies dedicated to crime, war, westerns and horror amongst most comics publishers. These were augmented by newer fads like funny animal, romance and especially science fiction which, in 1950, finally escaped its glorious thud and blunder/ray guns/bikini babes in giant fishbowl helmets pulp roots (as perfectly epitomised in the uniquely wonderful Golden Age icon Planet Comics) with the introduction of Strange Adventures.

Packed with short adventures from jobbing SF prose writers and offering a plethora of new heroes such as Chris KL99, Captain Comet, the Atomic Knights and others, the magnificent monthly compendium – supplemented a year later with sister-title Mystery in Space – introduced wide-eyed youngsters to a fantastic but intrinsically rationalist universe and all the potential wonders and terrors it might conceal…

This spectacular and economical black-&-white collection (astonishingly, there are still no archival collections of this stuff available to modern readers these days; not even via that future-fangled interweb) re-presents stories from the inception of the self-regulatory Comics Code.

Strange Adventures #54-73 covers March 1955 to October 1956, right up to the start of the Silver Age when superheroes began to successfully reappear, offering beguiled readers technological wonderment and the sure-&-certain knowledge that there were many and varied somethings “Out There”…

On a thematic note: a general but by no means concrete rule of thumb was that Strange Adventures generally occurred on Earth or were at least Earth-adjacent, whilst – as the name suggests – Mystery in Space offered readers the run of the rest of the universe.

Moreover, many of the plots, gimmicks, maguffins and even art and design would be cleverly recycled for the later technologically-based Silver Age superhero revivals…

This mind-blowing, physics-challenging monochrome colossus opens with the March 1955 issue and four classic vignettes, beginning with ‘The Electric Man!’ by John Broome & Sy Barry, wherein a geologist in search of new power sources accidentally unleashes destructive voltaic beings from the centre of the Earth.

As always – and in the grand tradition of legendary pulp sci-fi editor John Campbell – human ingenuity and decency generally solves the assorted crises efficiently and expeditiously…

‘The World’s Mightiest Weakling!’ from Otto Binder, Carmine Infantino & Bernard Sachs, offers a charming yet impossible conundrum after a puny stripling gains incomprehensible mass and density during the course of an experiment, whilst ‘Interplanetary Camera!’ (Binder, Gil Kane & Sachs) grants a photographer a glimpse of the unknown when he finds an alien image recorder and uncovers a plot to destroy Earth.

The issue concludes with another Binder blinder in the taut thriller ‘The Robot Dragnet!’, illustrated by Harry Sharp & Joe Giella, with a rip-roaring romp of rampaging robotic rage.

This tale was actually the sequel to an earlier yarn but sufficiently and cleverly recapped so that there’s no confusion or loss of comprehensibility…

Issue #55 led with ‘The Gorilla who Challenged the World’ by Edmond Hamilton & Barry, wherein an ape’s intellect is scientifically enhanced to the point where he becomes a menace to all mankind. So great was his threat that this tale also carried over to the next issue…

During this period editors were baffled by a bizarre truism: every issue of any title which featured gorillas on the cover always resulted in increased sales. Little wonder then that so many DC comics had hairy headliners…

‘Movie Men from Mars!’ (Hamilton, Sharp & Giella) sees our world the unwilling location for cinematographers from the Red Planet. Unfortunately, they’re making a disaster movie…

‘A World Destroyed!’ by Joe Kubert offered a fanciful yet gripping explanation for how the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter were formed and that cataclysm theme is revisited in ‘The Day the Sun Exploded!’ with Broome, Kane & Sachs depicting a desperate dash by scientists to save Earth from melting.

Sid Gerson, Murphy Anderson & Giella then wrap up by revealing the baffling puzzle of ‘The Invisible Spaceman!’

SA #56 opened whimsically with ‘The Fish-Men of Earth!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) as air density goes temporarily askew thanks to invading aliens, before ‘Explorers of the Crystal Moon!’ (Broome, Sharp & Sachs) finds a little boy going for a secret solar safari with visiting extraterrestrials.

Artist Paul Paxton then inadvertently becomes ‘The Sculptor Who Saved the World!’ when future-men ask him to make some highly specific pieces for them: a fast-paced yarn by Broome, Kane & Giella. Penitent Dr. Jonas Mills then corrects his evolutionary error by finally defeating his mutated gorilla in the concluding part of simian saga ‘The Jungle Emperor!’ by Hamilton & Barry.

Broome, Sid Greene & Sachs’ ‘The Spy from Saturn!’ opened issue #57 with a Terran scientist replaced by a perfect impostor, whilst ‘The Moonman and the Meteor!’ (Bill Finger & Barry) posits millionaires and aliens trying to buy or inveigle a fallen star from a humble amateur astronomer for the best and worst of reasons, after which Binder, Kane & Giella proffer ‘The Riddle of Animal “X”’ after a small boy finds a pet like no other creature on Earth…

Broome, Infantino & Giella then reveal an incredible ancient find to a Uranium prospector and some fugitive convicts desperate enough to try any means of escape in ‘Spaceship Under the Earth!’

Issue #58 opens with a police chief’s frantic search for a superhuman felon in ‘I Hunted the Radium Man!’ (Dave Wood & Infantino) whilst ‘Prisoner of Two Worlds!’ – Finger & Barry – sees the long-awaited return of genius detective Darwin Jones of The Department of Scientific Investigation.

Although an anthology of short stories, Strange Adventures featured a number of memorable returning characters and concepts such as Star Hawkins, Space Museum and The Atomic Knights during its run.

Jones debuted in the very first issue, solving fringe science dilemmas for the Federal Government and making thirteen appearances over as many years. In this third adventure he assists alien peace-officers in preventing a visiting extraterrestrial from taking a commonplace earth object back to his homeworld where it would become a ghastly terror-weapon…

‘Dream-Journey Through Space!’ (Broome, Kane & Sachs) depicts an ordinary human plucked from Earth to rescue an ancient civilisation from destruction as well as a humble but cunning ventriloquist who save our world from invasion by invincible aliens in Finger, Greene & Giella’s ‘The Invisible Masters of Earth!’

A young married couple have to find a way to prove they aren’t dumb animals on ‘The Ark from Planet X’ (Broome, Greene & Giella) which opened #59, after which ‘The Super-Athletes from Outer Space!’ came to our world to train in a heavier gravity environment and find the galaxy’s greatest sports-coach in a charming tale by Binder, Kane & Sachs.

Ed “France” Herron & Infantino then explore the domino theory of cause and effect in ‘Legacy from the Future!’ before Broome & Barry delve into ancient history and doomsday weaponry to discover the secret of our solar system and ‘The World that Vanished!’

Strange Adventures #60 featured a light-hearted time-travel teaser by Broome, Jerry Grandenetti & Giella concerning how historians gather together famous historic personages from ‘Across the Ages!’

‘The Man Who Remembered 100,000 Years Ago!’ (Binder, Kane & Sachs) is a terse, tense thriller as lightning provokes ancestral memories of a previous civilisation just in time for a scientist to cancel his unwitting repeat of the self-same experiment which had eradicated them…

Broome, Greene & Sachs then follow the life of a foundling boy who turns out to be an ‘Orphan of the Stars!’ before the issue concludes with a future-set thriller wherein schoolboy Ted Carter wins a place on a multi-species outing to the ‘World at the Edge of the Universe!’ (Binder & Barry).

In #61, ‘The Mirages from Space!’ (Binder, Kane & Sachs) are a portal into a fantastic other world and hold the secret of Earth’s ultimate salvation; ‘The Thermometer Man’ – Binder, Greene & Giella – sees a scientist striving to save a stranded Neptunian from melting in the scorching hell of our world and a lighthouse keeper is forced to play smart to counter a Plutonian invasion with ‘The Strange Thinking-Cap of Willie Jones!’ (Herron & Barry).

In conclusion Binder, Greene & Giella’s ‘The Amazing Two-Time Inventions’ finds an amateur inventor making fortuitous contact with his counterparts in 3000AD…

SA #62 introduced ‘The Fireproof Man’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs) whose equally astounding dog foils an alien invasion even as an ordinary handyman falls into another dimension to become a messiah and ‘The Emperor of Planet X’ (Broome, Greene & Giella). Binder, Kane & Giella then report an abortive ‘Invasion from Inner Space!’ before ‘The Watchdogs of the Universe!’ recruit their first human agent in a tantalising tale by Binder, Greene & Giella.

Joe Samachson, Grandenetti & Giella start #63 with ‘I Was the Man in the Moon!’: an intriguing puzzle for an ordinary Joe who awakes to find aliens have inexplicably re-sculpted the lunar surface with his face, after which a Native American forest ranger becomes Earth’s only hope of translating an alien warning in The Sign Language of Space!’ (Binder, Greene & Giella).

‘Strange Journey to Earth!’ by Jerry Coleman, Kane &Giella sees an ordinary school teacher deduce an alien’s odd actions and save the world before the issue ends in ‘Catastrophe County, U.S.A.!’ where Hamilton, Greene & Giella introduce scientists to the Government’s vast outdoor natural disaster lab…

Sales-boosting simians resurface in #64 as Finger, Infantino & Sachs deliver hostile ‘Gorillas in Space!’ who are anything but, whilst a first contact misunderstanding results in terror and near-death for an Earth explorer lost in ‘The Maze of Mars’ (Binder, Greene & Sachs).

Then a technological Indiana Jones becomes ‘The Man Who Discovered the West Pole!’ (Binder, Kane & Giella) and Samachson & Grandenetti craft a canny tale of planetary peril in ‘The Earth-Drowners!’

In #65 (February 1956) ‘The Prisoner from Pluto!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella, features an alien attempting to warn Earth of imminent Saturnian attack and forced to extreme measures to accomplish his mission.

A different kind of cultural upheaval is referenced in the quaint but clever tale of ‘The Rock-and-Roll Kid from Mars!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella). A stage mentalist outfoxes genuine telepaths in ‘War of the Mind Readers!’ by Binder, Infantino & Sachs before a biologist turns temporary superhero to foil an alien attack in ‘The Man who Grew Wings!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella to end the issue.

Issue #66 opens with Broome & Infantino’s tale of ‘The Human Battery!’ as an undercover cop suddenly develops an incredible power, whilst a guy in a diner mistakenly picks up ‘The Flying Raincoat!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) and accidentally averts an insidious clandestine invasion of our world.

Binder, Kane & Sachs then see Darwin Jones solve the ‘Strange Secret of the Time Capsule!’ and the metamorphic ‘Man of a Thousand Shapes!’ (Samachson, Infantino & Sachs) proves to be a being with a few secrets of his own…

‘The Martian Masquerader!’ (Strange Adventures #67, by Broome, Kane & Giella) plays clever games as editor Julie Schwartz (aka “Mr. Black”) is approached by an alien in need of assistance in tracking down an ET terrorist after which Hamilton, Greene & Giella hone in on a subatomic scientist desperate to find his infinitesimal homeworld in ‘Search for a Lost World!’

‘The Talking Flower!’ in chemist Willie Pickens’ buttonhole is a lost alien who helps him save the world in Samachson, Infantino & Sachs’ charming romance, but the time-travelling travails experienced by archaeologist Roger Thorn after he discovers the ‘Gateway Through the Ages!’ (Hamilton, Greene & Giella) lead only to danger and hard-earned knowledge…

Issue #68 starts with ‘The Man who Couldn’t Drown!’ (Broome, Infantino & Sachs): a tale of genetic throwbacks and unfathomable mystery whilst a ‘Strange Gift from Space!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) results in a safer planet for all, after which a chance chemical discovery produces a happy salvation in ‘The Balloons That Lifted a City!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella) and a common thief gets in way over his head when he robs a laboratory in Samachson, Greene Sachs’ witty ‘The Game of Science!’

SA #69 sees a time-traveller voyage into pre-history and help dawn-age humans overcome ‘The Gorilla Conquest of Earth’ (Broome, Kane & Sachs) whilst the arrival of ‘The Museum from Mars’ (Gardner Fox, Greene & Giella) offers almost irresistible temptation and deadly danger to humanity and ‘The Man with Four Minds!’ (Hamilton & Infantino) sees a man with too much knowledge and power eschew it all for normality. ‘The Human Homing Pigeon!’ (Samachson, Greene & Giella) then burns out his own unique gift in the service of his fellows…

The Triple Life of Dr. Pluto!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella in #70 deals with the dangers of a human duplicating ray after which Darwin Jones confronts a deadly dilemma when warring aliens both claim to be our friends and ‘Earth’s Secret Weapon!’ (Samachson, Kane & Giella).

An early computer falls into the hands of a petty thief with outrageous consequences in ‘The Mechanical Mastermind!’ (Samachson & Infantino) whilst the ‘Menace of the Martian Bubble!’ (Broome, Greene & Giella) is foiled by a purely human mind and the skills of a stage magician.

Issue #71 features ‘Zero Hour for Earth!’ (Broome & Barry) as a scientist at world’s end sends a time-twisting thought-message back to change future history, whilst invisible thieves of the planet’s fissionable resources are thwarted by a scientist with a unique visual impairment in ‘Raiders from the Ultra-Violet!’ by Binder, Greene & Giella. Writer Ray Hollis sees a star fall and encounters ‘The Living Meteor!’ (Fox, Kane & Sachs) whilst a guy with a weight problem discovers he has become ‘The Man Who Ate Sunshine!’ in a clever conundrum from Samachson, Grandenetti & Giella.

Strange Adventures #72 begins with a fabulous, self-evident spectacular in ‘The Skyscraper that Came to Life!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella, whilst a shooting star reveals an ancient ‘Puzzle from Planet X!’ which promises friendship or doom in a classy yarn from Hamilton, Greene & Sachs.

‘The Time-Wise Thief!’ (Gerson & John Giunta) provides a salutary moral for a bandit with too much technology and temptation before ‘The Man Who Lived Nine Lifetimes!’ (Binder, Kane & Giella) is aroused from a sleep of ages to save us all from robot invasion…

The initial flights of fantasy conclude with the contents of issue #73, beginning with ‘The Amazing Rain of Gems!’ by Broome, Greene & Giella, wherein a sentient jewel almost beguiles the entire world, whilst humans are hijacked to attend a ‘Science-Fiction Convention on Mars’ (Fox, Kane & Giella) and ‘The Man with Future-Vision!’ (Fox, Infantino & Sachs) discovers that knowing what’s coming isn’t necessarily enough…

The imaginative inspiration ends with a clever time-paradox fable in Hamilton, Greene & Giella’s ‘Reverse Rescue of Earth!’

Conceived and edited by the brilliant Julie Schwartz and starring the cream of the era’s writers and artists, Strange Adventures set the standard for mind-boggling all-ages fantasy fiction. With stunning, evocative covers from such stellar art luminaries as Murphy Anderson, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Ruben Moreira, this titanic tome is a perfect portal to other worlds and, in many ways, far better times.

If you dream in steel and plastic and are agonising and still wondering why you don’t yet own a personal jet-pack, this volume might go some way to assuaging that unquenchable fire for the stars…

Then again so might a spiffy new collection as part of DC’s Silver Age archive strand…
© 1955, 1956, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Graphic Canon volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons

By Many and Various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-376-6

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project, instigated by legendary crusading editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry. Much of the material here has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: indeed, as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was a realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustrated comics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired…

They certainly did for me…

Each piece is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment begins with a colourful and outrageously engaging ‘Three Panel Review: Hamlet’ by Lisa Brown after which grateful Acknowledgements and that aforementioned Editor’s Introduction lead directly into a delirious snippet from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like many contributions collected here, The Bull of Heaven – as adapted by Kent & Kevin Dixon – was already in production when invited into this book. The finally-completed saga has recently re-manifested and you can read of it here.

Those august remnants of lost Babylonian Tablets are followed by a delicious retelling of the origin of the stars in ‘Coyote and the Pebbles’. The beguiling and witty Native American Folktale is given a compelling reworking by Dayton Edmonds & Micah Farritor and leads seamlessly into a double dose of Homeric grandiloquence.

Alice Duke samples the duel between Paris and Menelaus from The Iliad after which Gareth Hinds dips into The Odyssey to re-present the monstrous duel between the lost Greeks and the ghastly Cyclops, after which we stay firmly in the cradle of civilisation to enjoy Sappho’s ‘Poem Fragments’ as embellished by Alessandro Bonaccorsi before Tori McKenna sums up the vengeful force of Euripides’ ‘Medea’.

Aristophanes’ still-shocking and controversial play Lysistrata is potently and hilariously précised in strip form by Valerie Schrag before J.T. Waldman powerfully synthesises the erotic vision of ‘The Book of Ester’ from the Hebrew Bible and Yeji Yun translates Plato’s Symposium into stark yet effective pantomimic visuals.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey have adapted numerous deep thinkers in their series Action Philosophers! ‘Tao Te Ching’ as dictated by Lao Tzu is both wickedly funny and thoughtfully compelling and perfectly offset by Matt Wiegle’s colourful heroic snippet ‘The House of Lac’ from The Mahabharata.

Van Lente & Dunlavey bring us some Analects and Other Writings of Confucius – called here ‘Master Kong’ – before the Hebrew Bible provides Benjamin Frisch with the golden-hued inspiration for dreamy fable ‘The Book of Daniel’, after which Tom Bilby & Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (AKA Two Fine Chaps) graphically discourse On the Nature of Things as originally cited by Lucretius.

Michael Lagocki captures the graceful ferocity of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ – specifically the founding of Rome – before master cartoonist Rick Geary astoundingly encapsulates the entirety of ‘The Book of Revelation’ from the New Testament and Sharon Rudahl restores calm and sanity with ‘Three Tang Poems: Frontier Song by Wang Han, A Village South of the Capital by Cul Hu and Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Bai’

Gareth Hinds grittily adapts the battle between hero and monster in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf after which idyllic romance is referenced by Molly Kiely through a series of portraits of some of the many erotic conquests of an ideal Japanese prince as inspired by Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Far darker and more troubled love guides the images crafted by Ellen Lindner to illustrate ‘The Letters of Heloise and Abelard’ after which Kiely illuminates the profoundly eco-activist poem ‘O Nobilissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen (look her up, you really should…).

Andrice Arp puckishly illustrates stories within a story for ‘The Fisherman and the Genie’ from The Arabian Nights, after which the same source – albeit the unexpurgated translation by Sir Richard Burton – provides racy and outrageously wry ‘The Woman with Two Coyntes’ as adapted by Vicki Nerino.

Coleman Barks translates a wonderful plenitude of ‘Poems’ by Sufi sage – and advocate of a loving universe – Rumi for Michael Green to spectacularly illustrate, after which a double dose of Dante Alighieri begins with Seymour Chwast’s smart and sassy take on The Divine Comedy. Hunt Emerson than adds his own unique spin to ‘The Inferno’ (The Eighth Circle, if you’re keeping score) whilst Sanya Glisic sustains the post-viva theme by offering views of the Eastern afterlife as cited in Padmasambhava and Karma Lingpa’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

Safely back among the living, we turn to the outrageous lifestyle of French poet and courtier François Villon, who penned in a jailhouse ‘The Last Ballad’ illustrated here by Julian Peters long before his actual end. It’s followed by another medieval masterpiece as Seymour Chwast deftly tackles the ‘Wife of Bath’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Staying in England, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is given a stunning treatment by Omaha Perez who illumines the parable of ‘How the Hart was Chased into a Castle and There Slain, and How Sir Gawaine Slew a Lady’

The reason we have so much European and Asian literature today is the sheer fact that it wasn’t deliberately eradicated. That’s tragically not the case for the pre-Columbian Americas and a great pity since sole surviving Incan play Apu Ollantay – adapted here by Caroline Picard – is a smart and potent family star-crossed love affair worthy of the Greeks or even Shakespeare…

Outlaws of the Water Margin is a vast and sprawling epic of heroes battling against corruption and injustice in ancient China. As Shi Nai’an’s opus is far too large to handle here, illustrator Shawn Cheng has instead offered a rogues’ gallery of some of the heroic characters who feature in the portmanteau classics, whereas Isabel Greenberg has time and space to lyrically adapt Japanese Noh play ‘Hagoromo (Celestial Feather Robe)’ in full.

Roberta Gregory then pictorialises the decidedly more wholesome and charming creation myth from Popul Vuh – the Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya – and Edie Fake illuminates ‘The Visions of St. Teresa of Ávila’ as first seen in the Spanish religious reformer’s autobiography.

Almost forgotten English poet George Peele penned his own interpretation of the drama of Solomon and Bathsheba centuries ago, a snippet of which is here transformed by Dave Morice into stunning op-art masterpiece ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’. Conor Hughes then expertly covers in more traditional form ‘The Sun Rises’ from Wu Cheng’en’s revered Chinese epic Journey to the West before Michael Stanyer adapts and Eric Johnson illustrates a mere fragment from Edmund Spenser’s unfinished opus The Faerie Queene.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most popular comic strip topics of all, but Maxx Kelly & Huxley King still add fresh zest and contemporary sparkle to the scene where Titania and Oberon haggle over the fate of an abducted child…

Ian Pollock then tackles The Bard’s darkest drama as King Lear challenges the heavens themselves before Will Eisner lends his unique light touch to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Robert Berry and Josh Levitas then translate Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ to an effectively modern setting whilst Aidan Koch applies a more esoteric approach to the eternally-mystifying ‘Sonnet 20’ before Noah Patrick Pfarr supplies a suitably raunchy setting and quirky twist to John Donne’s erotic poem ‘The Flea’.

Andrew Marvell’s equally celebrated devious love-ploy ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is given a sentimental 19th century makeover by Yien Yip after which real-life Restoration-Era Wonder Woman Aphra Behn provides moody inspiration for artist Alex Eckman-Lawn through her poem ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’.

John Milton’s magnificent Paradise Lost – specifically ‘the Fall of Satan’ – is astoundingly depicted by Rebecca Dart after which ‘Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag’ sees Gareth Hinds lovingly limning an extract from Jonathan Swift’s satirical salvo Gulliver’s Travels whilst Ian Ball uses abreaction to hammer home the finer points of Voltaire’s Candide.

Modern graphic crusader Peter Kuper then lambasts us with a lethally edgy visualisation of Swift’s brutally critical A Modest Proposal.

Benjamin Franklin’s scandalous epistle ‘Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress’ is accompanied by a sumptuous painting from Cortney Skinner before James Bosworth’s shocking and sordidly biographical London Journal is captivatingly interpreted by comix pioneer Robert Crumb in ‘A Klassic Komic: excepts from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763’.

Veteran cartoonist Stan Shaw then captures the wryly scatalogical spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (AKA ‘Fart Proudly’)’ and van Lente & Dunlavey return with another Action Philosophers! titbit clarifying Mary Wollstonecraft’s momentous political tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Molly Crabapple illustrates select moments from Choderios de Lacios’ dark and disturbing social satire Dangerous Liaisons to bring the art schooling to a close.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are suggestions of ‘Further Reading’ from Liz Byer, a full list of ‘Contributors’, plus details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to volume 1’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785137108 (TPB 2009)              978-0785191292 (HB 2015)

I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years. Just ahead of it are The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America and at the top Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force), Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed but, as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the readership’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordering his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing. The resulting team quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.

It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.

Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

This full-colour compendium (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats) collects the first 10 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to January 1963 – and opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue.

It sees maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when 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 and tragic Ben was a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, rocky body.

In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they promptly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and enslaves humanoids from far beneath the Earth.

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Torch. Namor then 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. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles.

Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner since the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teaming with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ (inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers).

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up, resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark, grandiose, cosmic-scaled off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Thing were the breakthrough high-points in #8’s ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another, detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

That issue – #9 – trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as the Sub-Mariner 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…

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee & Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic!

Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’

Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still undeniable classics of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2009, 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Haunted Tank volume 2

By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert, Sam Glanzman, Ross Andru, Doug Wildey & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0789-8

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics. He also exceled in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and many others too numerous to cover here.

Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash (Jay Garrick) and Hawkman, created Black Canary and Lady Cop, and so many memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last terrible temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio after Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’; the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to hero-hungry kids of the world.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot and The Losers as well as the irresistibly compelling “combat ghost stories” collected here in this second stupendously expansive war-journal.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents more blockbusting exploits of boyhood friends Jeb Stuart Smith, Arch Asher, Slim Stryker and Rick Rawlins (from G.I. Combat #120-156, October/November 1966 to October/November 1972) from a period during which superheroes rose to astonishing global dominance before almost vanishing into comicbook Valhalla once more.

Apparently immune to such tenuous trendiness, the battle-hardened veterans of the M-3 Stuart Light Tank – named for the legendary Confederate Army General who was a genius of cavalry combat, and haunted by his restless spirit – soldiered on, battling threats mortal and frequently metaphysical on many fronts during World War II. The series became – after Sgt. Rock – DC’s most successful and long-lived combat feature.

The tales were generally narrated by Jeb as he manned the Commander’s spotter-position (head and torso sticking out of the top hatch and completely exposed to enemy fire whilst driver Slim, gunner Rick and loader Arch remained relatively safe inside), constantly conversing with his spectral namesake who offered philosophy, advice and prescient, if often obscurely veiled, warnings …

Throughout the early days Jeb’s comrades continually argued about what to do with him. Nobody believed in the ghost and they all doubted their commander’s sanity, but since he began seeing the General, Stuart Smith had become a tactical genius and his “gifts” were keeping them all alive against incredible odds…

This volume opens with G.I. Combat #120 ‘Pull a Tiger’s Tail!’ – illustrated by Irv Novick – detailing how, after accompanying both Sgt. Rock and Navajo fighter-pilot Johnny Cloud on sorties, Jeb defies orders to capture a giant Tiger tank his own way…

Another spiritually-sponsored warrior, Cloud regularly communed with a mounted Indian Brave dubbed Big-Brother-in-the Sky, galloping across the heavens during his own high-flying missions.

The inspirational Russ Heath illustrated #121’s ‘Battle of Two Wars!’ wherein, after rescuing a shell-shocked pigeon, the tankers are inexplicably drawn back to WWI to save Sgt Rock’s father. He then returns the favour once the Stuart returns to its proper time, whilst in ‘Who Dies Next?’ (#122, with art by Novick), the General issues a dire proclamation that one of their own will not last the day out – a forecast that comes true in a most shocking manner…

Heath returned to the art with #123’s ‘The Target of Terror!’ as guest star Mlle. Marie returned with news of a secret weapon to be destroyed at all costs. Sadly, the French Resistance leader has partial amnesia and doesn’t remember exactly what or where…

In follow-up ‘Scratch that Tank!’ the crew’s shiny new replacement vehicle is a cause of acute embarrassment until it finally gains a few praiseworthy combat scars…

G.I. Combat #125 decrees ‘Stay Alive… Until Dark!’ as Jeb’s sorely reduced battle-group attempts to hold too much ground with too few tanks, culminating in a Horatian last stand in the shattered, cloistered streets of a tiny French town, after which the crew endure deadly desert warfare in a desperate search for Panzers hidden by a cunning ‘Tank Umbrella!’

Novick illustrated the gritty ‘Mission – Sudden Death!!’ in #127 as Mlle. Marie leads the tank-jockeys far from their combat comfort zone on an infantry raid to rescue her captured father, after which Heath returned to limn ‘The Ghost of the Haunted Tank!’

This superbly evocative thriller reveals the crew finally cracking during a brutal massed Panzer assault and restraining their clearly delusional commander for his own good. However, when solid, no-nonsense Slim takes the observer’s spot he too starts seeing the spectral sentinel and is forced to act on the apparition’s strategic advice…

Issue #129 is pure Kanigher poesy as ‘Hold that Town for a Dead Man!’ depicts the tankers rolling past an American soldier expired at his post, and swearing to eradicate the foes who felled him…

When the blistering cat-and-mouse duel seems to go against the crew they are saved by an impossible burst of gunfire fired by a cold, stiff hand…

In the afterlife all great military commanders sponsor mortal combatants. General Stuart is stuck looking after a pack of “Damned Yankees”, but the other side also has phantom patrons. G.I. Combat #130 sees the return of savage shade Attila the Hun, who directly attacks his revenant rival in a deadly ‘Battle of the Generals!’ Jeb can only watch helplessly whilst trying to save his tank from mundane but just as murderous German panzer, artillery and air attacks, until…

Their next mission took the crew and a band of savage child-warriors into the heart of Paris to rescue Mlle. Marie from the Gestapo in #131’s ‘The Devil for Dinner!’ The short-lived and extremely controversial Kid Guerrillas of Unit 3 had debuted in the Sgt. Rock tale from Our Army at War #194, June 1968.

Mike Sekowsky & Joe Giella stepped in to illustrate the follow-up wherein the Belle of La Resistance leads Jeb and the boy-soldiers – bizarrely disguised as a circus troupe – against merciless SS leader ‘The Executioner!’

The artists stayed on for #133’s ‘Operation: Death Trap’ as the Haunted Tank and crew are parachuted into North Africa to liberate enslaved natives working in a German diamond mine, before – following a ‘Special Battle Pin-up’ of the tankers by Joe Kubert – Ross Andru & Mike Esposito signed up for a stint, beginning with ‘Desert Holocaust’ wherein the tankers deal out vengeance for the three MacBane brothers; sibling tank-commanders slaughtered by the Afrika Korps.

Continuity was never a big concern for Kanigher and stories would often occur in no logical or chronological order. In #135 the lads are suddenly back in France, battling paratroopers and air-lifted Panzers with only aged WWI survivors to aid them in ‘Death is the Joker’, whilst ‘Kill Now – Pay Later!’ pits Tank against U-Boat and Jeb against its driven doom-obsessed Kommander in an improbable duel, before Heath returned in #137 to illustrate the African adventure ‘We Can’t See!’ Here the Americans are all temporarily blinded but nevertheless succeed in destroying a poison gas cache thanks to aid of a little Arab boy.

Kanigher often used his stories as a testing ground for new series ideas. G.I. Combat #138 introduced one of his most successful in ‘The Losers!’, when the Armoured Cavalry unit encounter a sailor, two marines and old friend Johnny Cloud, all utterly demoralised after losing the men under their respective commands.

Inspired by Jeb and a desire for revenge, the crushed survivors regain a measure of respect and fighting spirit after surviving a certain suicide-mission and destroying a Nazi Radar tower…

The new team were formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge (latterly supplemented by Pooch, the Fighting Devil Dog) were Pacific-based Marines debuting in All-American Men of War #67, March 1959 and running for fifty issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965).

Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82. The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115, (1966) whilst Captain Storm was a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite having a wooden left leg in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967. All three series were originally created by comics warlord Kanigher and The Losers swiftly returned as an elite unit of suicide-soldiers starring in Our Fighting Forces.

G.I. Combat #139 again saw the Haunted Tank parachuted into an Arabian nightmare when the crew interrupt a funeral and save the widow from being forced onto the pyre with her deceased husband. ‘Corner of Hell’ finds Jeb wedding and losing his bride to Nazi sympathizers and an ancient prophecy…

Issue #140 featured a reprint not included here – although the new Kubert introduction page is – before the graphic narratives resume with ‘Let me Live… Let me Die!’ wherein Kanigher & Heath confront the topics of race and discrimination in a powerful tale describing the plight of African-American soldiers who were used as porters, gravediggers and ammunition carriers, but forbidden from bearing or actually using arms.

When Jeb arrives at a recently decimated ammo dump, the sole survivor of the Segregated Negro unit demands to accompany the crew and be allowed to fight and die like a man. Rushing to reinforce Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company and despite the thinly veiled disdain of Slim, Arch and Rick, when Jeb is wounded the valiant tag-along finally gets his chance…

G.I. Combat #142 finds Jeb obsessed with the moment of his own death in ‘Checkpoint – Death!’ but when the General isn’t forthcoming soon forgets it as an unseasonal snowstorm turns the world into a frozen hell…

‘The Iron Horseman!’ sees a frustrated WWI tanker finally get a chance to be a hero when Panzers attack a convent and Jeb’s crew are ambushed. There follows an informational spread ‘Battle Album: General Stuart Light Tank M31A’ – by Kubert – before #144 reveals a retrofitted Heath-illustrated origin for the Haunted Tanker in ‘Every Man a Fort!’

Now with Jeb a Northern Yankee, the tale reveals how he has to win with his fists the respect of pure-bred Southerners Rick, Slim and Arch before they let him call himself Jeb Stuart, and cements that bond during their first foray under fire in North Africa…

The desert milieu continued in #145’s ‘Sun, Sand & Death!’ when a sandstorm forces the tank off-course and leads them to an abandoned B-25 bomber, giving the dying pilot a chance to redeem his lost honour, whilst #146 sees the M-3 and its crew endure debilitating hazards battling the Afrika Korps but still persevering when the General advises Jeb to ‘Move the World!’

For some Americans the wounds of the Civil War still festered, as Jeb discovers when he encounters the hostile commander of a ‘Rebel Tank’ in #147. Of course, the Germans are happy to remind the feudsters who is currently doing all the shooting, after which in #148 ‘The Gold-Plated General!’ (a thinly disguised analogue of George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton) demands a spit-and-polish war, but even under combat conditions leads by painful example…

American services discrimination was again confronted in G.I. Combat#149 when a Jewish soldier joins the division in ‘Leave the Fighting to Us!’ Many of the good guys have to eat their words when the tank group liberates a Nazi concentration camp…

A major visual change came in #150 with ‘The Death of the Haunted Tank!’ This saw the M-3 destroyed in combat and the crew jury-rigging a jigsaw replacement from the remnants of other scrapped and abandoned but, unsurprisingly, bigger, more powerful vehicles.

Proving again that men and not the machine are the heart of the partnership, the General sticks around and when the new Haunted Tankers passes through an alpine village they eerily relive a mediaeval battle against barbarian invaders in #151’s ‘A Strong Right Arm!’ before bringing a Nazi infiltrator aboard who turns their homemade rolling fortress into a deadly ‘Decoy Tank’ to lure Allied forces into an ambush…

Comics and animation legend Doug Wildey replaced Heath for #153 as sentimental fool Jeb adopts a lost piglet, orphan puppy and lame duckling before completing his tank’s transformation into ‘The Armored Ark!’ by packing in a homeless and displaced family. This all happens while tracking down and eradicating a hidden Nazi rocket silo, after which the series took on a far grittier and raw feel with the addition of a new regular artist.

With G.I. Combat #154 (June/July 1972), unsung master and battle-scarred veteran Sam Glanzman began his decades-long association with the feature, pencilling and inking the blistering improbable ‘Battle Prize!’ wherein Haunted Tank and crew are captured and paraded before Hitler in Berlin before busting loose and heading East.

Soon after being hijacked by Polish Resistance fighters, the Yanks are stranded in ice-bound, siege-locked Russia…

Shamefully, Sam Glanzman is one of the least highly-regarded creators in American comics, despite having one of the longest careers and certainly one of the most unique styles. His work, in genres from war to mystery, westerns, science fiction, sword & sorcery, horror, fantasy and even graphic autobiography is passionate, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

With a solid, uniquely rough-hewn style he has worked since the 1940s on a variety of titles for many companies, mostly on anthology material for fantasy, mystery, war and adventure titles, but also on serial characters such Attu, Sgt. Rock, Jonah Hex, Hercules and Jungle Tales of Tarzan for Charlton, Kona and Voyage to the Deep for Dell/Gold Key: magnificent action sagas that fired the imagination and stirred the blood, selling copies and winning a legion of fans amongst his fellow artists if not from the small but over-vocal fan-press.

His most significant works are undoubtedly semi-autobiographical graphic novels A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons, although his Vietnam set ‘The Lonely War of Willie Schultz’ and the subtly beguiling U.S.S. Stevens are arguably as important and unmissable.

Glanzman, born in 1924, was still active today producing online strips until his death in July 2017.

G.I. Combat #155 undertook ‘The Long Journey’ as the Haunted Tank experienced the worst horrors of war whilst trekking across the embattled Eastern Front. Aided by Russian partisans, women, children and dotards, they fought off the fascists with every drop of their blood and sweat whilst making their way to a port and the normal war…

This second sterling tome ends with the crew back in Africa where the desert and the Wehrmacht vie for the privilege of destroying the beleaguered tankers as their frantic search for fuel and water drags them ‘Beyond Hell’

An added attraction for art fans and battle buffs are the breathtaking covers by Heath and Kubert…

These spectacular tales took the Haunted Tank through tumultuous times when America fervently questioned the very nature and necessity of war. Vietnam was progressively blighting the nation’s sensibilities, and in response DC’s war comics addressed the issue and also confronted the problems of race and gender roles in a most impressive and sensitive manner.

As always, they combine spooky chills with combat thrills and a fierce examination of both war and warriors but always offer a powerful human message that has never dated and may well rank this work amongst the very best war stories ever produced. Hopefully someday soon you’ll be able to experience them in respectable modern archival editions too.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2008, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-445-X (HC)                   978-1-56163-445-3 (PB)

Josh Clayton is a good kid, pretty much. Sure, he lives in a typical American trailer park, and yes, his mother’s a bit of a tramp, but Josh has never been in any kind of real trouble…

Back from school, Josh is stuck tending to his baby brother again when Ma gets into another screaming match with her drug-dealer boyfriend. This time it doesn’t play out as usual though, and she kills him. When she comes out of the bedroom and tells Josh that he’s got to get rid of the body before his other brother and sister return, his life changes forever.

It’s hard enough being a sensitive teenager in America these days, especially if you’re dirt-poor and got no car. High School is hell and life generally sucks.

If you add to that the fact that the body just won’t stay buried, it all adds up to a pretty miserable time for Josh.

So, when pretty Michele inexplicably makes a play for him, the pressure and confusion soon reach fever pitch. And still Josh’s inevitable slide into a life just like his crappy mother’s seems to haunt him, sucking him further and further down.

Can Josh keep his family together, get the girl, survive school and ever sleep without screaming? Can he break out of this grim, dark spiral, or is he fore-doomed and fore-damned?

The answer makes for a superb slice of modern noir fiction that should tickle the palate of all those “mature” comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter. Neece and Collins-Rousseau (employed at the faculty of Sequential Art, Savannah College of Art & Design), have created an authentic story of realistic young people in extraordinary need. This is the kind of book (available in hardback soft cover and digital formats) that fans need to show civilians who still don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put “Born to Run” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about.
© 2005 Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Metamorpho, the Element Man

By Bob Haney, Gardner Fox, Ramona Fradon, Joe Orlando, Sal Trapani, Charles Paris & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0762-5

By the time Metamorpho, the Element Man was introduced to the costumed hero-obsessed world the first vestiges of a certifiable boom were just becoming apparent. As such the light-hearted, almost absurdist take struck a Right-time, Right-place chord, blending far out adventure with tongue-in-cheek comedy.

The bold, brash Man of a Thousand Elements debuted in The Brave and the Bold #57 (December 1964/January 1965) and, after a follow-up try-out in the next issue, catapulted right into his own title for an eclectic and oddly engaging 17-issue run. Sadly, this canny monochrome compendium – collecting all those eccentric adventures plus team-up tales from B&B #66 and 68 and Justice League of America #42) – is currently the only archival collection available. Until someone rectifies that situation, at least you can revel in some truly enchanting black-&-white illustration…

Unlike most of these splendid Showcase editions, the team-up stories here are not re-presented in original publication order but closeted together at the back, so if stringent continuity is important to you, the always informative old-school credit-pages will enable you to navigate the wonderment in the correct sequence…

Sans dreary preamble the action commences with ‘The Origin of Metamorpho’ written by Bob Haney (who created the character and wrote everything here except the JLA story). The captivating art is by Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris and introduces glamorous he-man Soldier of Fortune Rex Mason, currently working as a globe-trotting artefact procurer and agent for ruthlessly acquisitive scientific genius/business tycoon Simon Stagg.

Mason is obnoxious and insolent but his biggest fault as far as his boss is concerned is that the mercenary dares to love and be loved by the millionaire’s only daughter Sapphire

Determined to rid himself of the impudent Mason, Stagg dispatches his potential son-in-law to retrieve a fantastic artefact dubbed the Orb of Ra from the lost pyramid of Ahk-Ton in Egypt. The tomb raider is accompanied only by Java, a previously fossilised Neanderthal corpse Rex had discovered in a swamp and which (whom?) Stagg had subsequently restored to full life. Mason plans to take his final fabulous fee and whisk Sapphire away from her controlling father forever, but fate and his companion have other ideas…

Utterly faithful to the scientific wizard who was his saviour, Java sabotages the mission and leaves Mason to die in the tomb, victim of an ancient, glowing meteor. The man-brute rushes back to his master, carrying the Orb and fully expecting Stagg to honour his promise and give him Sapphire in marriage…

Trapped, knowing his time has come; Mason swallows a suicide pill as the scorching rays of the star-stone burn through him…

Instead of death relieving his torment Rex is mutated into a ghastly chemical freak capable of shape-shifting and transforming into any of the elements or compounds that comprised the human body: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, cobalt and so many others…

Hungry for vengeance, Mason follows and confronts his betrayers only to be overcome by the alien energies of the Orb of Ra. An uneasy détente is declared as Mason accepts Stagg’s desperate offer to cure him …“if possible”.

The plutocrat is further horrified when Rex reveals his condition to Sapphire and finds she still loves him. Totally unaware of Stagg’s true depths of duplicity, Mason starts working for the tycoon as metahuman problem-solver Metamorpho, the Element Man.

Brave and the Bold #58 (February-March 1965) reveals more of Stagg’s closeted skeletons when old partner Maxwell Tremayne kidnaps the Element Man and later abducts Sapphire to his ‘The Junkyard of Doom!’ Apparently, the deranged armaments manufacturer was once intimately acquainted with the girl’s mother and never quite got over it…

The try-out comics were an unqualified success and Metamorpho promptly debuted in his own title, cover-dated July-August 1965, just as the wildly tongue-in-cheek “High Camp” craze was catching on in all areas of popular culture; blending ironic vaudevillian kitsch with classic movie premises as theatrical mad scientists and scurrilous spies began to appear everywhere.

‘Attack of the Atomic Avenger’ sees nuclear nut-job Kurt Vornak trying to crush Stagg Industries, only to be turned into a deadly, planet-busting radioactive super-atom, after which ‘Terror from the Telstar’ pits the charismatic cast against Nicholas Balkan, a ruthless criminal boss set on sabotaging America’s Space Program.

Mad multi-millionaire T.T. Trumbull then uses his own daughter Zelda to get to Simon Stagg through his heart, accidentally proving to everyone who knew him that the old goat actually has one. This was part of the maniac’s attempt to seize control of America in ‘Who Stole the U.S.A.?’, but the ambitious would-be despot backed up the scheme with an incredible robot specifically designed to destroy Metamorpho.

Happily, Rex Mason’s guts and ingenuity proved more effective than the Element Man’s astonishing powers…

America saved, the dysfunctional family head South of the Border, becoming embroiled in ‘The Awesome Escapades of the Abominable Playboy’ as Stagg tries to marry Sapphire off to Latino Lothario Cha Cha Chavez. The wilful girl is simply trying to make Mason jealous and had no idea of her dad’s true plans; Stagg senior has no conception of Chavez’s real intentions or connections to the local tin-pot dictator…

With this issue the gloriously stylish Ramona Fradon left the series, to be replaced by two artists who strove to emulate her unique, gently madcap manner of drawing with varying degrees of success. Luckily veteran inker Charles Paris stayed on to smooth out the rough edges…

First up was E.C. veteran Joe Orlando whose 2-issue tenure began with outrageous doppelganger drama ‘Will the Real Metamorpho Please Stand Up?’ wherein eccentric architect Edifice K. Bulwark tries to convince Mason to lend his abilities to his chemical skyscraper project. When Metamorpho declines Bulwark and Stagg attempt to create their own Element Man… with predictably disastrous consequences.

‘Never Bet Against an Element Man!’ (#6 May-June 1966) took the team to the French Riviera as gambling grandee Achille Le Heele snookers Stagg and wins “ownership” of Metamorpho. The Creepy Conchon’s ultimate goal necessitated stealing the world’s seven greatest wonders (such as the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower) and, somehow, only the Element Man can make that happen…

Sal Trapani took over pencilling with #7’s ‘Terror from Fahrenheit 5,000!’ as the acronymic super-spy fad hits hard. Metamorpho is enlisted by the C.I.A. to stop suicidal maniac Otto Von Stuttgart destroying the entire planet by dropping a nuke into the Earth’s core, before costumed villain Doc Dread is countered by an undercover Metamorpho becoming ‘Element Man, Public Enemy!’ in a diabolical caper of doom and double-cross…

Metamorpho #9 shifted into the realm of classic fantasy when suave and sinister despot El Mantanzas maroons the cast in ‘The Valley That Time Forgot!’: battling cavemen and antediluvian alien automatons, after which a new catalysing element is added in ‘The Sinister Snares of Stingaree!’

This yarn introduces Urania Blackwell – a secret agent somehow transformed into an Element Girl and sharing all Metamorpho’s incredible abilities. Not only is she dedicated to eradicating evil such as criminal cabal Cyclops, but Urania is also the perfect paramour for Rex Mason…

He even cancels his wedding to Sapphire to go gang-busting with her…

With a new frisson of sexual chemistry sizzling beneath the surface, ‘They Came from Beyond?’ finds the conflicted Element Man confronting an apparent alien invasion whilst ‘The Trap of the Test-Tube Terrors!’ provides another attempt to cure Rex of his unwanted powers. This allows mad scientist Franz Zorb access to Stagg Industry labs long enough to build an army of chemical horrors…

The plot thickens with Zorb’s theft of a Nucleonic Moleculizer, prompting a continuation in #14 wherein Urania is abducted only to triumphantly experience ‘The Return from Limbo’

Events and stories grew increasingly outlandish and outrageous as the TV superhero craze intensified and ‘Enter the Thunderer!’ (#14, September/October 1967) depicted Rex pulled between Sapphire and Urania as marauding extraterrestrial Neutrog terrorises the planet in preparation for the awesome arrival of his mighty mutant master.

The next instalment heralded an ‘Hour of Armageddon!’ as the uniquely menacing Thunderer takes control of Earth until boy genius Billy Barton assists the Elemental defenders in defeating the mutant horror.

Trapani inked himself for Metamorpho #16; an homage to H. Rider Haggard’s She novels wherein ‘Jezeba, Queen of Fury!’ changes the Element Man’s life forever.

When Sapphire marries playboy Wally Bannister, the heartbroken Element Man undertakes a mission to find the lost city of Ma-Phoor. Here he encounters an undying beauty who wants to conquer the world and just happens to be Sapphire’s exact double.

Moreover, the immortal empress of a lost civilisation had once loved an Element Man of her own: a Roman soldier named Algon transformed into a chemical warrior two millennia previously.

Believing herself reunited with her lost love, Jezeba finally launches her long-delayed attack on the outside world with disastrous, tragic consequences…

The strangely appetising series came to a shuddering and unsatisfactory halt with the next issue as the superhero bubble burst and costumed comic characters suffered their second recession in fifteen years. Metamorpho was one of the first casualties, cancelled just as (or perhaps because) the series was emerging from its quirky comedic shell with the March-April 1968 issue.

Illustrated by Jack Sparling, ‘Last Mile for an Element Man!’ sees Mason tried and executed for the murder of Wally Bannister, resurrected by Urania Blackwell and set on the trail of true killer Algon. Along the way, Mason and Element Girl uncover a vast, incredible conspiracy and rededicate themselves to defending humanity at all costs.

The tale ends on a never-resolved cliffhanger: when Metamorpho was revived a few years later no mention was ever made of these last game-changing issues…

The elemental entertainment doesn’t end here though as this tome somewhat expiates the frustrating denouement with three terrific team-up tales beginning with The Brave and the Bold #66 (June/July 1966) and ‘Wreck the Renegade Robots’ where a mad scientist usurps control of the Metal Men just as their creator Will Magnus is preoccupied turning Metamorpho back into an ordinary mortal…

Two issues later (B& B #68 October/November 1966) the still Chemically Active Crime-buster battles Bat-Baddies Penguin, Joker and Riddler as well as a fearsomely mutated Caped Crusader in the thoroughly bizarre ‘Alias the Bat-Hulk!’ – both tales coming courtesy of Haney, Mike Sekowsky & Mike Esposito.

Sekowsky also drew the last story in this volume. Justice League of America #42 (February 1966) sees the hero joyfully join the World’s Greatest Superheroes to defeat a cosmic menace deemed The Unimaginable. The grateful champions instantly offer him membership but are astounded when – and why – ‘Metamorpho Says… No!’: a classic adventure written by Gardner Fox and inked by Bernard Sachs.

The wonderment finally concludes with a sterling pin-up of the Element Man and his core cast by Fradon & Paris.

Individually enticing, always exciting but oddly frustrating in total, this book will delight readers who aren’t too wedded to cloying continuity but simply seek a few moments of casual, fantastic escapism.
© 1965-1967, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.