Daredevil Masterworks volume 3

By Stan Lee, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5953-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Everybody’s Truest Meaning of the Season… 10/10

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him an astonishing acrobat, formidable fighter and living lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero for most of his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the roster of brilliant artists who had illustrated the strip. He only really came into his own, however, after artist Gene Colan signed up for the long haul…

The natal DD battled thugs, gangsters, mad scientists and a plethora of super-villains (and – as seen in this collection – even the occasional monster or alien invasion), quipping and wise-cracking his way through life and life-threatening combat.

Covering November 1966 through September 1967 and re-presenting Daredevil #22-32 and Daredevil Annual #1, this third compilation (in both paperback and eBook formats) sees a marked improvement in overall story quality as scripter Stan Lee begins utilising longer soap operatic plot-threads to string together the unique fight scenes of the increasingly bold Colan, who gradually shook off the remnants of his predecessor’s art style.

In a very short time John Romita had made the Sightless Swashbuckler his own before graduating to Spider-Man, so when Colan took over on Daredevil he initially kept the clipped, solid, almost chunky lines whilst drawing the Man without Fear, but increasingly drew everything else in his loose, fluid, near-tonal manner. With these tales his warring styles coalesced and the result was literally poetry in non-stop motion…

Following a fond reminiscence from Colan himself – in an Introduction first written in 2005 -the action opens with ‘The Tri-Man Lives’ (Lee, Colan, Frank Giacoia and Dick Ayers), containing Gangland themes whilst sharing focus with super-menaces Masked Marauder and Gladiator, whose eponymous killer android proves less of a threat than expected…

The villains had sought control of crime organisation The Maggia but their plan to murder the Man without Fear to prove their worthiness goes badly awry after the kidnapped hero refuses to lie down and die…

Concluding in #23 with ‘DD Goes Wild!’ the ending found our hero trapped in Europe, but he soon makes his way to England and a violent reunion with Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar who has become the prime suspect in #24’s ‘The Mystery of the Midnight Stalker!’ This tale contains my vote for the Most Obnoxious Misrepresentation of England in Comic-books Award when a policeman – sorry, “Bobby” – warns, “STAY BACK, PLEASE! THE MILITIA WILL BE ARRIVING IN JIG TIME!”

After clearing the English hero’s name, Matt Murdock returns to America in time to enjoy the less-than-stellar debut of a certified second-rate super-villain as ‘Enter: The Leap-Frog!’ introduces a crook dressed like a frog with springs on his flippered feet (yes, really).

However, the big event of the issue is meeting Matt’s hip and groovy twin brother Mike

By the time of ‘Stilt-Man Strikes Again’ (DD #26, March 1967) Colan was fully in command of his vision and a leaner, moodier hero was emerging. The major push of the next few issues was to turn the hopeless romantic triangle of Matt Murdock, best friend and Law-firm partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page into a whacky quadrangle by introducing a fictitious twin brother Mike, who would be “exposed” as Daredevil to divert suspicion from the blind attorney who actually battled all those weird villains…

Confused, much…?

Still skulking in the background was arch-villain Masked Marauder who was slowly closing in on DD’s alter ego. He gets a lot closer in ‘Mike Murdock Must Die!’ (with Giacoia inks) after Stilt-Man teams with the Marauder and the ever-fractious Spider-Man once more clashes with old frenemy Daredevil before the villains meet their apparent ends.

The Sightless Swashbuckler “enjoys” his first encounter with extraterrestrials in #28’s moody one-trick-pony ‘Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Planet!’ – an Ayers-inked thriller wherein alien invaders’ blindness-inducing rays prove inexplicably ineffective against the Crimson Crimebuster.

John Tartaglione inked the next tale, a solid, action-packed gangster-thriller entitled ‘Unmasked!’ whilst issue #30 begins a protracted and impressive epic clash with old Thor foes the Cobra and Mister Hyde, complete with an Asgardian cameo in ‘…If There Should Be a Thunder God!’

Attempting to catch the super-criminals DD masquerades as Thor only to encounter the real McCoy. Unfortunately, the mortal hero is ambushed by the villains once the Thunderer departs and as a result of the battle that follows loses his compensating hyper-senses. Thus, he must perpetrate a ‘Blind Man’s Bluff!’ which almost fools Cobra and Hyde…

Sadly, it all goes wrong before it all comes right and against all odds Murdock regains his abilities just in time ‘…To Fight the Impossible Fight!’

Wrapping up the devilish derring-do is the first Daredevil Annual: a visually impressive but rather lacklustre rogues’ gallery riot from Lee, Colan & Tartaglione, detailing five old foes ganging up on Daredevil in ‘Electro and the Emissaries of Evil!’

The Man without Fear quickly puts a pretty definitive smack-down on the electric felon, plus his acrimonious allies the Matador, Gladiator, Stilt-Man and Leapfrog.

Of more interest are the ‘Inside Daredevil’ pages, explaining his powers, providing the ‘Blueprint for an All-Purpose Billy Club’ and recapping the Matt/Mike Murdock “Faked News” situation, plus offering stunning pin-ups of Karen, Foggy, Ka-Zar, DD and a host of old foes such as Gladiator, Leap Frog, The Owl and Masked Marauder.

Rounding out the experience is a short comedy tale ‘At the Stroke of Midnight!: an Actual Unrehearsed Story Conference with (and by) Stan and Gene!’ plus a gallery of original art pages by Colan, Giacoia, Ayers & Tartaglione.

Despite a few bumpy spots Daredevil blossomed into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s compelling formula for success: smart stories, human characters and magnificent illustration. If you’ve not read these tales before I strongly urge you to rectify that error as soon as superhumanly possible.
© 1966, 1967, 2012, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969

By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-78565-325-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Truly Traditional Licence to Thrill… 9/10

There are sadly few British newspaper strips that can rival the influence and impact of the classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon, let alone Blondie, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye – and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good. You should really read them if you haven’t yet…

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? Garth? I’d hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names.

Until the 1950’s…

Something happened in the Britain of the New Elizabethans – and I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did. Now we’re moving on.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics got carried along on the wave. Eagle, Lion, the regenerated Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into visually receptive high gear… and so did daily newspapers at a time when print was everyone’s major source of staying in touch with the world…

Thanks to another canny and comforting luxury repackaging – just in time for the Christmas presents rush! – I can once more communally reminisce about one of British strip-cartooning’s greatest triumphs, since Titan Books have a new addition to their line of lavish, oversized (294 x 277 mm) monochrome compilations of Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond.

Debut 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and subsequently serialised in the Daily Express from 1958: initiating a sequence of paperback novel adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence (a jobbing writer for American features who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) signed on for The Man with the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the authorial canon to strip format.

When that mission was accomplished, Lawrence was invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s ultimate demise in 1983.

Illustration of the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky provided art the until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and – although perhaps lacking in vivacity – the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily coped with the astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members…

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who also debuted on Golden Gun; instituting a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane vim and verve of the 1960’s. Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express ceased carrying Bond and the then-running case suddenly switched to The Sunday Express (from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

Here, however, the heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death is at an all-time high in this addictively accessible fourth volume which finds the creators on top form as they reveal how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe and highly entertained…

The frantic derring-do and dark, deadly last-ditch double-dealings commence once superstar screenplay writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough; Die Another Day; Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace; Skyfall and Spectre as well as Johnny English) share some secrets and observations in their Introduction ‘Adapting Bond’.

Then ‘Octopussy’ (Daily Express 14th November 1966 – 27th May 1967) unfolds: a classic Ian Fleming tale. Originally a short story, under the skilful hands of Lawrence & Horak, a simple smuggling caper in the West Indies blossoms into a complex tale of Nazi Gold, murdered agents and exotic deaths in exotic locales as Bond pits his wits against deplorable rogue Major Smythe….

Bowing to the wave of popularity caused by the blockbuster films of the time, there are even a few Q Branch gadgets on offer. Horak excels at the extended underwater sequences and the action is frenetic and non-stop. Moreover, thanks to the enlarged landscape pages of this edition, every picturesque detail is there to be drooled over…

The sea also plays a major role in ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ (29th May – 16th December 1967) which details the true fate of a new Royal Navy robot weapon which seemingly fails but has in fact been stolen by flamboyant millionaire and career sadist Milton Krest. At his most dashing undercover best, Bond infiltrates the wealthy sicko’s glamorous circle in a terrific tale full of innovation and intrigue. You won’t believe how many ways there are to kill with fish!

Having exhausted Fleming’s accumulated prose canon, all-original material begins with ‘The Harpies’ (4th October 1968 – 23rd June 1969) as Bond adopts he persona of ex-copper Mark Hazard to infiltrate defence contractor Simon Nero’s factory and rescue a kidnapped scientist whilst seeking to end the depredations of a deadly gang of female flying bandits.

Here Horak’s extreme design style and dynamic lines impart tremendous energy to scenes that must labour under the incredibly difficult restrictions of the 3-panel-a-day newspaper format.

Wrapping up the sinister espionage shenanigans is Lawrence’s second addition to 007 lore – and what a cracker it is! In ‘River of Death’ (24th June – 29th November 1969) Bond must penetrate the Amazon River stronghold of a maniacal oriental scientist and former Red Chinese torturer Dr. Cat. This latest madman is supplying trained animals to international criminals for the purposes of robbery, espionage and murder…

Horak’s intense illustration is approaching a career peak here and easily copes with action, mood, cutting edge science, beautiful women and exotic locales as diverse as the Alps, sultry Rain Forests, London’s underworld and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s masterful creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. That’s what dictates how you respond to the latest movie, game or novel. Here, however, is James Bond at his suave and savage best and as close to his original conception and roots as you will ever find.

Fast, furious action, masses of moody menace, sharply clever dialogue and a wealth of exotic locales and ladies make this an unmissable adjunct to the Bond mythos and a collection no fan can do without. After all, nobody does it better…

Octopussy © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1966. The Hildebrand Rarity © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1967. The Harpies © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1969. River of Death © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd. 1969. James Bond and 007 are ™ of Danjaq LLC used under licence by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969 will be published on November 24th and is available for pre-order now.

Yoko Tsuno volume 12: The Titans

By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-302-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Alluring Epic of Understanding Overcoming Suspicion… 8/10

Indomitable intellectual adventurer Yoko Tsuno debuted in Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and is still delighting regular readers and making new fans to this day. Her astounding, all-action, excessively accessible adventures are amongst the most intoxicating, absorbing and broad-ranging comics thrillers ever created.

The globe-girdling, space-&-time-spanning episodic epics starring the Japanese technologist-investigator were devised by monumentally multi-talented Belgian maestro Roger Leloup, who began his own solo career after working as a studio assistant on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative and – no matter how implausible the premise of any individual yarn – always solidly grounded in hyper-realistic settings underpinned by authentic, unshakably believable technology and scientific principles, Leloup’s illustrated escapades were at the vanguard of a wave of strips to change the face of European comics in the mid-1970s.

That long-overdue revolution centred on the rise of competent, clever and brave female protagonists, all taking their places as heroic ideals beside the boys; uniformly elevating Continental comics in the process. Happily, most of their endeavours are as timelessly engaging and potently empowering now as they ever were, and none more so than the trials and tribulations of Miss Tsuno.

Her very first outings (the still unavailable Hold-up en hi-fi, La belle et la bête and Cap 351) were simple introductory vignettes before the superbly capable electrical engineer and her valiant if less able male comrades Pol Paris and Vic Van Steen properly hit their stride with premier full-length saga Le trio de l’étrange in 1971 with Spirou’s May 13th issue…

Yoko’s exploits generally range from explosive exploits in exotic corners of our world, time-travelling jaunts and sinister deep-space sagas – such as this one – with the secretive, disaster-prone alien colonists from planet Vinea.

There have been 28 European albums to date, with today’s tale originally serialised in 1977 and collected a year later as 8th album Les Titans. Technically the 13th Yoko Tsuno exploit – and the fourth to feature the extraterrestrial Vineans – it appears here via UK translation powerhouse Cinebook, offering a chilling clash of alien cultures tempered and ultimately quelled by human sentiment and empathy in equal measure…

In their first outing together, Yoko, Vic and frivolous Pol discovered a race of dormant extraterrestrials hibernating in the depths of the Earth. After freeing them from robotic tyranny the valiant humans helped the alien refugees rebuild their lost sciences. Eventually they even went with the Vineans on their first scouting mission when the awakened sleepers opted to return to their own system and the supposedly dying homeworld they had fled from two million years previously.

Set a few months after that initial bold excursion, The Titans finds Yoko, Vic and Pol back for a second visit; this time carrying samples of Earth fauna and pest control to help the Vineans regain control of a world that has grown wild and unmanageable in the intervening eons…

Old friend and boon companion Khany has a specific reason for requesting the curious trio bring samples of insect life and assorted chemical weapons. As the Vineans slowly expanded out into all the corners of their recovered world they found some strange and unsettling artefacts. Comparisons with Yoko’s Earth specimens confirm them as strikingly similar to Terran insect limbs: albeit two metres long and augmented by titanium medical implants…

The worrying assessment results in an exploratory expedition to the newly-recovered marshy region. Lying beyond the controlled environment of the artificially managed temperate zone, the are is a lush floral wonderland to be meticulously examined in search of the Vineans’ greatest fear: that in the millennia of their absence another sentient, scientifically advanced species has evolved on their world…

The expedition soon goes disastrously wrong. Gigantic aquatic centipedes attack the researchers, the base camp is wrecked, and eventually all but Khany and Yoko vanish without trace…

As the desperate pair search the mire forest of colossal abundant verdure, they encounter another centipede locked in mortal combat with a titanic insect. However, the metres-tall (25 at least!) grasshopper-like creature is not only intelligent but telepathic and Yoko refuses to let it be killed by a ravenous monster…

After ending the centipede with a disintegrator, Yoko and Khany befriend the Titan Xunk and learn of its space-faring culture, noting especially that the insectoids have established a base on Vinea with a view to colonial expansion…

With Xunk a willing ally, the humanoids invade the monumental starbase, striving to convince hive director The Great Migrator to release the Vineans and humans it holds and seek a peaceful solution before inevitable interspecies warfare destroys them all…

Sadly, before a diplomatic solution can be reached, the humans have to survive the self-preservation instincts, violent attacks and coldly rational scientific probing of the giant savants who have been examining the earthly exhibits – dead bugs pinned to boards – and reached the logical conclusion that the two-legged beings are masters of insect genocide…

Terse, suspenseful and action-packed, this moody “Big Sky” sci fi thriller combines drama with potent and never-more-timely messages about ecological ethics and the benefits of diversity and cooperation, and, as ever, the greatest advantage of this breathtaking yarn is the astonishingly authentic and staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship and storytelling, which superbly benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail.

A powerful fable and phenomenally engaging romp, The Titans is a life-affirming epic to delight and amaze any lover of wide eyed wonderment, stuffed with twists and revelations, and delivering a powerfully moving denouement.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1978 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2017 © Cinebook Ltd.

The Adventures of Red Sonja volume 1

By Roy Thomas, Bruce Jones, Frank Thorne, Dick Giordano, Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-93330-507-3

Once upon a time, girls expertly wielding swords and kicking butt were rarer than politicians who respected personal boundaries. These days, though, it seems no lady’s ensemble is complete without a favourite pig-sticker and accompanying armour accessories. You can probably trace that trend back to one breakthrough comics character…

Although Diana Prince, Valkyrie and Asgardian goddess Sif all used bladed weapons none of them ever wracked up a bodycount you’d expect or believe until ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ (Conan the Barbarian #23, February 1973, drawn, inked and coloured by Barry Windsor-Smith) introduced a dark-eyed hellion to the world.

The tale became one of the most popular and reprinted stories of the decade, winning that year’s Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards in the Best Individual Story (Dramatic) category.

Although based on Robert E. Howard’s Russian warrior-woman Red Sonya of Rogatine (as seen in the 16th century-set thriller The Shadow of the Vulture, with a smidgen of Dark Agnes de Chastillon thrown into the mix) the comicbook Red Sonja is very much the brainchild of Roy Thomas.

In his Introduction ‘A Fond Look Back at Big Red’ he shares many secrets of her convoluted genesis, development and achievements as part of this first archival collection (available in trade paperback and digital editions) of her Marvel Comics appearances.

Released at a time when the accepted wisdom was that comics starring women didn’t sell, Marvel Feature (volume 2) was launched to capitalise on a groundswell of popular interest stemming from Sonja’s continuing guest shots in Conan stories. This initial compilation collects issues #1-7 (November 1975-November 1975) and opens with a then scarce-seen reprint…

Sonja graduated from cameo queen to her first solo role in a short eponymous tale scripted by Thomas and illustrated by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan in the first issue of the black-&-white, mature-reader Savage Sword of Conan magazine cover-dated August 1974. Colourised (by Jose Villarrubia) and edited, it filled out the premier generally-distributed Marvel Feature, revealing in sumptuous style how the wandering mercenary undertook a mission for King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah: a task which led to her first meeting with Conan and one for which she was promised the potentate’s most treasured gift. When that turned out to be a position as his next wife, Sonja’s response was swift and sharp…

That captivating catch-up yarn leads to ‘The Temple of Abomination’ (Thomas & Dick Giordano) as the restless warrior stumbles upon a lost church dedicated to ancient, debauched gods and saves a dying priest of Mitra from further torture at the hands of monstrous beast-men…

MF #2 saw the last piece of Red Sonja’s ascendancy fall into place when Frank Thorne signed on as illustrator.

Thorne is one of the most individualistic talents in American comics. Born in 1930, he began his comics career drawing romances for Standard Comics beside the legendary Alex Toth before graduating to better paid newspaper strips. He illustrated Perry Mason for King Features Syndicate and at Dell/Gold Key he drew Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and The Green Hornet, as well as the first few years of seminal sci-fi classic Mighty Samson.

At DC he produced compelling work on Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk before being hired by Roy Thomas at Marvel to illustrate his (belated) breakthrough strip… Red Sonja. Forever-after connected with feisty, earthy, highly sexualised women, in 1978 Thorne created outrageously bawdy (some say vulgar) swordswoman Ghita of Alizarr for Warren’s adult science fantasy anthology 1984/1994 as well as such adult satirical strips as Moonshine McJugs for Playboy and Danger Rangerette for National Lampoon.

He has won the National Cartoonists Award for comic books, an Inkpot Award and a Playboy Editorial Award.

Applying his loose, vigorous style and frenetic design sense to a meticulously plotted script from Bruce Jones, Thorne hit the ground running with ‘Blood of the Hunter’ wherein Sonja tricks formidable rival Rejak the Tracker out of a mysterious golden key. She has tragically unleashed a whirlwind or torment, however, as the hunter remorselessly stalks her, butchering everyone she befriends and driving her to the brink of death before she finally confronts him one last time…

Issue #3 reveals the secret of the golden key after Sonja takes some very bad advice from an old wise-woman and reawakens a colossal death-engine from an earlier age in ‘Balek Lives!’, after which the mercenary’s endless meanderings bring her to a village terrorised by a mythological predator. However, when she looks into the ‘Eyes of the Gorgon’ she discovers that the most merciless monsters are merely human…

That same lesson is repeated when ‘The Bear God Walks’, but after joining a profitable bounty hunt for a marauding beast, Sonja and her temporary comrades soon find that fake horrors can inadvertently summon up real ones…

With Marvel Feature #6, Roy Thomas returned as scripter and immediately set up a crossover with Conan and his then-paramour pirate queen Bêlit.

Although the concomitant issues of Conan the Barbarian (#66-68) aren’t reproduced here the story is constructed in such a way that most readers won’t notice a thing amiss…

Thus, ‘Beware the Sacred Sons of Set’ finds Sonja – after routing a pack of jackal-headed humanoid assailants – commissioned by Karanthes, High Priest of the Ibis God, to secure a magical page torn from mystic grimoire the Iron-Bound Book of Skelos in demon-haunted Stygia. She is barely aware of an unending war between ancient deities, or that old colleague and rival Conan is similarly seeking the arcane artefact…

After clashing repeatedly with her rivals and defeating numerous beasts and terrors, Sonja believes she has gained the upper hand in ‘The Battle of the Barbarians’, but there is more at stake than any doughty warrior can imagine…

To Be Continued…

Topped off with a full colour-remastered cover gallery by Gil Kane and Frank Thorne, this is a bold and bombastic treat for fantasy action fans of all ages, genders or persuasions.
RED SONJA® and related logos, characters, names and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Red Sonja Corporation unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip volume 1

By Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-89493-780-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal Family Fare for Family Affairs… 10/10

Tove Marika Jansson was born into an artistic, intellectual and practically Bohemian Swedish family in Helsinki, Finland on August 9th1914. Father Viktor was a sculptor, and her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson enjoyed a successful career as illustrator, graphic designer and commercial artist. Tove’s brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist/writer and photographer respectively. The family and its close intellectual, eccentric circle of friends seems to have been cast rather than born, with a witty play or challenging sitcom as the piece they were all destined to act in.

After a period of intensive study from 1930-1938 (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’Ecole d’Adrien Holy and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris), Tove became a successful exhibiting artist through the troubled period of the war.

Intensely creative in many fields, she published the first fantastic Moomins adventure in 1945: Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood or more euphoniously The Moomins and the Great Flood): a whimsical epic of gentle, inclusive, accepting, understanding, bohemian, misfit trolls and their strange friends…

An over-achiever from the start, between 1930 and 1953 Tove worked as an artist and cartoonist for the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, and achieved some measure of notoriety with an infamous political sketch of Hitler in nappies that lampooned the Appeasement policies of Chamberlain and other European leaders in the build-up to World War II. She was also an in-demand illustrator for many magazines and children’s books. She had also started selling comic strips as early as 1929.

Moomintroll was her signature character. Literally. The lumpy, big-eyed goof began life as a spindly sigil next to her name in her political works. She called him “Snork” and claimed she had designed him in a fit of pique as a child – the ugliest thing a precocious little girl could imagine – as a response to losing an argument about Immanuel Kant with her brother.

The term “Moomin” came from her maternal uncle Einar Hammarsten who attempted to stop her pilfering food when she visited by warning her that a Moomintroll guarded the kitchen, creeping up on trespassers and breathing cold air down their necks.

Over many years Snork/Moomin filled out, became timidly nicer – if a little clingy and insecure – a placid therapy-tool to counteract the grimness of the post-war world.

The Moomins and the Great Flood was relatively unsuccessful but Jansson persisted, probably as much for her own therapeutic benefit as any other reason, and in 1946 the second book Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was published.

Many commentators believe this terrifying tale is a skilful, compelling allegory of Nuclear destruction, and both it and her third illustrated novel Trollkarlens hatt (1948, Finn Family Moomintroll or occasionally The Happy Moomins) were translated into English in 1952, prompting British publishing giant Associated Press to commission a newspaper strip about her seductively sweet surreal surrogate family.

Jansson had no prejudices about strip cartoons and had already adapted Comet in Moominland for Swedish/Finnish paper Ny Tid. Mumintrollet och jordens undergängMoomintrolls and the End of the World – was a popular feature and Jansson readily accepted the chance to extend her message across the world.

In 1953 The London Evening News began the first of 21 Moominsagas that captivated readers of all ages. Tove’s involvement in the strip ended in 1959, a casualty of its own success and a punishing publication schedule. So great was the strain that towards the end she recruited her brother Lars to help. He proudly and most effectively continued the feature until its end in 1975.

Free of the strip she returned to painting, writing and her other creative pursuits, generating plays, murals, public art, stage designs, costumes for dramas and ballets, a Moomin opera, and another nine Moomin-related picture-books and novels, as well as thirteen books and short-story collections more obviously intended for grown-ups.

Her awards are too numerous to mention but consider this: how many modern artists – let alone comics creators – get their faces on the national currency?

She died on June 27th 2001.

Her Moomin comic strips were collected in seven Scandinavian volumes and the discerning folk at Drawn & Quarterly translated them into English for your sheer delight and delectation as a series of luxurious oversized (224 x 311 mm) hardback tomes.

Tove Jansson could use slim economical line and pattern to create sublime worlds of fascination, and her dexterity made simple forms into incredibly expressive and potent symbols. In this first volume the miraculous wonderment begins with ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ as our rotund, gracious and deeply empathic hippo-like young troll frets about the sheer volume of free-loading visitors literally eating him out of house and home.

Too meek to cause offence and simply send them packing he consults his wide-boy, get-rich-quick mate Sniff, but when all their increasingly eccentric eviction schemes go awry Moomin simply leaves, undertaking a beachcombing odyssey that culminates with him meeting the beauteous Snorkmaiden.

When the jewellery-obsessed young lass (yes, she looks like a hippo too – but a really lovely one with long lashes and such a cute fringe!) is kidnapped by bandits, finally mild-mannered Moomin finds his inner hero…

‘Moomin and Family Life’ then reunites the apparently prodigal Moomin with his parents Moominpappa and Moominmamma – a most strange and remarkable couple. Mamma is warm and capable but overly concerned with propriety and appearances, whilst Papa spends all his time trying to rekindle his adventurous youth. Rich Aunt Jane, however, is a far more “acquired” taste…

‘Moomin on the Riviera’ finds the flighty Snorkmaiden and drama-starved Moominpappa dragging the extended family and assorted friends on an epic voyage to the sunny southern land of millionaires. On arrival, the small-town idiosyncrasies of the Moomins are mistaken for the so-excusable eccentricities of the filthy rich – a delightfully telling satirical comedy of manners and a plot that never gets old – as proved by the fact that the little escapade was expanded to and released as 2015’s animated movie Moomins on the Riviera

This first incomparable volume of graphic wonderment concludes with fantastic adventure in ‘Moomin’s Desert Island’, wherein another joint family jaunt leaves the Moomins lost upon an unknown shore where ghostly ancestors roam: wrecking any vessel that might offer rescue.

Sadly, the greatest peril in this knowing pastiche of Swiss Family Robinson might well be The Mymble – a serious rival for Moomintroll’s affections. Luckily Snorkmaiden knows where there are some wonderfully romantic bloodthirsty pirates who might be called upon to come to her romantic rescue…

These are truly magical and timeless tales for the young, laced with the incisive observation and mature wit that enhances and elevates only the greatest kid’s stories into classics of literature. These volumes are an international treasure and no fan of the medium – or biped with even a hint of heart and soul – can ever be content or well-read without them.
© 2006 Solo/Bulls. All Rights Reserved.

Incredible Hulk Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, Bob Powell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5883-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Evergreen Entertainment… 9/10

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast. As a result of ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years the gamma-irradiated gargantuan finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, The Hulk shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him and this second trade paperback (or eBook) volume covers his first few years as co-star of Tales to Astonish; specifically issues #59-79, spanning September 1964 to May 1966.

Way back then, the trigger for the Hulk’s second chance was a reprinting of his origin in the giant collection Marvel Tales Annual #1 (the beginning of the company’s inspired policy of keeping early tales in circulation and which did so much to make fervent fans out of casual latecomers). Thanks to reader response, Greenskin was awarded a back-up strip in a failing title…

Giant-Man was the star turn in Tales to Astonish, but by mid-1964 the strip was visibly floundering. In issue #59 – and kicking off the all-out action here with absolutely no preamble – the Master of Many Sizes is tricked by old foe the Human Top into battling the still-at-large man-monster in ‘Enter: The Hulk’.

Crafted by Stan Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman the clash is little more than a colossal punch-up, setting the scene for the next issue wherein the Green Goliath’s own feature began.

Following a full-page house ad for the debuting solo feature,‘The Incredible Hulk’ (TtA #60, October 1964)) opens with Bruce Banner still working for General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, despite the military martinet’s deep disgust and distrust of the puny milksop who had won his daughter’s heart. Banner is still aloof and standoffish, keeping secret his astounding condition: an affliction which subjects him to uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction.

The 10-page instalments were uncharacteristically set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, not New York, and espionage and military themes were the narrative backdrop of these adventures.

Lee scripted, Ditko drew and comics veteran George Roussos – under the pseudonym George Bell – provided the ink art. The first tale details how an anonymous spy steals an unstoppable suit of robotic armour built by the radiation-obsessed Banner, which concludes with a shattering battle in the next episode ‘Captured at Last!’

Cliffhanger endings such as the exhausted Hulk’s imprisonment by Ross’s military units at the end of the yarn would be instrumental in keeping readers onboard and enthralled. The next chapter ‘Enter… the Chameleon’ has plenty of action and suspense as the spy infiltrates Ross’ command, but the real stinger is the final panel that hints at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery – the enigmatic Leader – who would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis.

The minor Spider-Man villain works well as a returning foe, his disguise abilities an obvious threat in a series based on a weapons scientist working for the US military during the Cold War. Even the Leader himself has dubious connections to the sinister Soviets – when he wasn’t trying to conquer the world for himself.

Preceded by a titanic Jack Kirby Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of the Green Goliath, ‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ (Astonish #63, January 1965) provides an origin for the super-intellectual menace whilst setting up a fresh subplot wherein new cast addition Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. The action comes when the Leader tries to steal Banner’s new anti-H-bomb device from a moving train….

The next episode ‘The Horde of Humanoids!’ features the return of guilt-stricken sidekick Rick Jones who uses his Avengers connections to obtain a pardon for the incarcerated Banner just by letting the American President in on the secret of the Hulk! Ah, simpler times!

Free again, Banner joins Talbot on a remote island to test his hotly sought-after atomic device only to be attacked by the Leader’s artificial warriors – providing a fine example of Ditko’s unique manner of staging a super-tussle.

The battle continues into the next issue when Ayers assumes the inks and Banner is taken prisoner by those darn Commies. ‘On the Rampage against the Reds!’ sees the Hulk go wild behind the Iron Curtain: a satisfyingly gratuitous crusade that spans #66 – ‘The Power of Doctor Banner’ inked by Vince Colletta – and ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ (#67, and inked by Frank Giacoia).

His Commie-Busting fury finally expended the Hulk reverts to human form and is captured by Mongolian bandits who see a chance to make lots of ransom money…

Jack Kirby returned as illustrator – supplemented by Mike (“Mickey Demeo”) Esposito – in Tales to Astonish #68. ‘Back from the Dead!’ sees plucky Glen Talbot help extricate the tragic scientist – although he loses him again on the way back to America. Even so, Banner falls again into military custody and is ordered to activate his Atomic Absorbatron for one last test.

Yet again the process is interrupted by the Leader’s attacking Humanoids, but this time the Veridian Villain succeeds and the Hulk is ‘Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!’ …but only until the US Army bursts in…

Issue #70 saw Giant-Man replaced by the Sub-Mariner, making Tales to Astonish a title typified by aggressive, savage anti-heroes. Increasingly the Hulk stories reflected this shift, and ‘To Live Again!’ sees the furious Leader launch a 500-foot tall Humanoid against the local US missile base, with the Jade Giant caught in the middle.

Kirby reduced his input to layouts and Esposito handles the lion’s share of the art with #71’s ‘Like a Beast at Bay’: a minor turning point with the Hulk actually joining forces with the Leader. Next episode ‘Within the Monster Dwells a Man!’ then has Major Talbot getting ever-closer to uncovering Banner’s dark secret.

‘Another World, Another Foe!’ (with the great Bob Powell pencilling over Kirby’s layouts) details how the Leader dispatches Hulk to The Watcher’s homeworld to steal an ultimate weapon, just as an “unbeatable” intergalactic rival arrives. ‘The Wisdom of the Watcher’ resorts to all-out, brutal action with a shocking climax, and is followed by TtA #75’s return to Earth and to basics as the rampaging Hulk falls victims to one of Banner’s most bizarre atomic devices…

‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ sees the man-monster helplessly hurled into a devastated dystopian future, and in ‘I, ‘Against a World!’ (featuring pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”) the devastation is compounded by a fierce duel with the time-lost Asgardian immortal The Executioner.

A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the tragic physicist’s dread secret is finally exposed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby layouts) ‘Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concluded the time-travel tale and revealed the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition to the military and the general public.

It didn’t make him any less hunted or haunted, but at least now the soldiery were in an emotional tizzy when they tried to destroy him.

With #78, Bill Everett began a short but lovely run as art-man (Kirby remaining on layouts throughout). To his very swift and last regrets, megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Zaxon tries to steal and tap the Gamma Monsters’s bio-energy in ‘The Hulk Must Die!’ and before his body is even cold, follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ conclude proceedings here with a bombastic battle against recently Earth-exiled Olympian man-god Hercules.

Although some of these adventures might seem a bit hit-and-miss, with visceral suspenseful thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the artistic endeavour should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These tales are key to the later, more cohesive, adventures, and even at their worst – or most anonymised – the magic of Kirby, Ditko, Everett, Kane, Powell and the rest in full butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is an unadorned thrill to delight the destructive 8-year-old in everyone.

Hulk Smash(ing)!
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the Days of The Mob

By Jack Kirby, Vince Colletta, Mike Royer Sergio Aragonés & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4079-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Ideal Alternative to Any Movie Blockbuster… 9/10

There’s a magnificent abundance of Jack Kirby collections around these days (though still not every single thing he ever did, so I remain a partially disgruntled fan) and this sturdy oversized hardback re-presents the complete “King’s Canon” of one his most personal – yet subsequently misunderstood and mishandled – DC projects.

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II – all grist for his imaginative mill and the basis for this particular publishing project.

He saw Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

On returning from World War II, with his long-term creative partner Joe Simon, he created the entire genre of Romance comics for the Crestwood/Prize publishing outfit. Prior to that, however, Joe and Jack plundered history books and the daily papers to craft a raft of edgy, adulted oriented crime thrillers for titles such as Headline Comics, Real Clue Crime Stories and Justice Traps the Guilty. The genre was one they made uniquely their own…

Changing tastes and an anti-crime, anti-horror witch-hunt quashed the comics industry, so under a doctrinaire, self-inflicted conduct code, publishers stopped innovating and moved into more anodyne areas. This established holding pattern persisted until the rebirth of superheroes.

Working at a little outfit dubbed “Atlas”, Jack partnered with Stan Lee and when superheroes were revived, astounded the world with a salvo of new concepts and characters that revitalised if not actually saved the comics business.

Kirby understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and always toiled diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the type-and-picture medium – especially from insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies’ world” they felt trapped in.

However, after a decade or so, costumed characters again began to wane. Public interest in genre topics and the supernatural was building, with books, television and movies all exploring the subjects in gripping and stylish new ways.

The Comics Code Authority was even ready to slacken its censorious choke-hold on horror titles to save the entire industry from implosion as the 1960s superhero boom fizzled out.

Experiencing increasing editorial stonewalling and creative ennui at Marvel, in 1970 Kirby accepted a long-standing offer from arch rival National Periodical Publications AKA DC Comics…

Before he was let loose on DC’s continuity with his epic, controversial, grandiose Fourth World project Kirby looked for other concepts which would stimulate his vast creativity and still appeal to an increasingly fickle market. General interest in the supernatural was rising, and America was enjoying a protracted love affair with period gangster yarns thanks to shows like The Untouchables, and books and movies such as The Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde

Promised freedom to innovate, one of the first projects he tackled was a new magazine format carrying material targeting adult readerships. He devised Spirit World – a supernatural-themed, adult-oriented monochrome magazine – and sister title In the Days of the Mob, dedicated to revisiting the heady era when crime ran wild in America.

For the full story of how that worked out, you can read Mark Evanier’s acerbic article in companion volume Jack Kirby’s Spirit World. The net result of constant editorial cowardice and backsliding was that Kirby and his small team were left to create magazines that DC didn’t promote or support and cancelled even before they hit the news-stands.

After decades of obscurity the work was at last gathered into two glorious and oversized (282 x 212 mm) hardback compilations, each collecting the superb but poorly received and largely undistributed first issues launched in the summer of 1971, plus whatever remained of the unpublished second issues.

In the Days of the Mob #1-and-only was released with no discernible marks or connections to DC/National Comics with a September 1971 cover-date through a subsidiary called Hamilton Distribution and vanished without trace. The historical details plus other contextual treasures are provided in ‘Crime and Punishment Pinball: An Introduction by John Morrow’ wherein the esteemed historian, collector and publisher describes the state of play in the Bad Old Days, before the comics wonderment begins.

Ghetto-kid Kirby used his own childhood experiences to flavour the graphic reconstructions of the explosive careers of legendary gangsters and this long-awaited revival In the Days of the Mob forsakes continuity in favour of plot and mood-driven tales related by a sinister narrator-host.

Printed in redolent sepia monotones, the premier issue combined comics stories (because DC wouldn’t spring for colour photography) with prose and monochrome “Foto-Features”, all furiously fuelled by the King’s unique perspective.

Inked by Vince Colletta the stories were journalistic biographs delivered with a supernatural twist as the stories came direct from the horse’s mouth from the Ultimate Big House as seen in ‘Welcome to Hell!’ which introduced the sardonic Warden Fry, gatekeeper of a hell made especially for mobsters and murderers.

The first of Fry’s cautionary tales is ‘Ma’s Boys’, detailing the rise and fall of the infamous Barker bandit clan and their psychopathic domineering mother, after which ‘Bullets for Big Al’ offers just one little snippet from a modern mythology packed with atrocious acts of violence.

Featurette ‘The Breeding Ground’ then provides a word-&-photo snapshot of the era’s poverty and privations whilst text article ‘Funeral for a Florist’ by Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman describes the war between Capone and Johnny Torrio for control of Prohibition-era Chicago, after which graphic action resumes with the lowdown on the ‘Kansas City Massacre’ of FBI agents which made Pretty Boy Floyd a legend and Public Enemy No. 1.

Obsessive angler Country Boy is caught by examining his ‘Method of Operation’ before Sergio Aragonés lightens the mood with two pages of gangster gags in ‘Killjoy was Here’ and the criminal capers conclude with a reproduction of the ‘John Dillinger Wanted Poster’ that came free with the original magazine.

Comics need a huge amount of creative lead-in and preparation and by the time Kirby learned the title was scrubbed the second issue was all but complete. Here, for the first time fans can now see how the magazine might have developed as – inked by Mike Royer and printed in standard black line – the majority of that unpublished material follows.

Leading off is a salutary moment with Warden Fry and a double-page spread starring Hitler before the bloody vendetta between Brooklyn brothers Meyer, Willie and Irving Shapiro and aspiring mobster Kid Twist led to the creation of organised crime in the form of ‘Murder Inc.’

Devised as a full-length account the story diverts to describe ‘The Ride!’ as Twist orders his pet goons to get rid of a stool-pigeon giving information to up-&-coming lawman Thomas E. Dewey…

Another diversion follows as Kirby details ‘the Colorful, Beautiful, Pragmatic, Inscrutable, Ladies of the Gang!’ revealing how Mrs. Tootsie, Miss Murder Inc., The Kiss of Death Girl and the Decent Kid make the best of life as attendants (willing or otherwise) of men with a price on their heads, before the saga comes to savage end in ‘A Room for Kid Twist!’

Wrapping things up is a rare comedy outing for Kirby as he postulates a variety of technical innovations crooks might benefit from in an outlandish catalogue of ‘Modern Technology and the Getaway Car!’

Jack Kirby always was and remains a unique and uncompromising artistic force of nature: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-&-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work shaped the entire American scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. He’s still winning new fans and apostles, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. In this, his centenary year, Jack’s work is still instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst simultaneously mythic and human.

Wherever your tastes take you, his creations will be there ready and waiting. So, if cops and robbers are your bag, it would a crime to miss out on these classic treasures.
© 1971, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not literal jingoistic madness.

Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his – generally incompetent – successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying.

Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that – despite being almost a decade old – could well be the best thing you’ll read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and by some assessments still running but with another name…) this multi-layered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and the craziest lies leaders can concoct and yet still seemingly prosper.

As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory, Temperance will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a modern, timeless tuned-in epic blending Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedom and honour – personal and communal – foolishly but willingly surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery.

Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) – this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …
© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Thelwell Goes West

By Norman Thelwell (E P Dutton/Magnum/Eyre Methuen)
ISBN: 978-0-87690-189-2 (HB)                  978-0-41701-110-3 (PB)

Norman Thelwell was and remains one of Britain’s greatest cartoonists. His genteel yet rowdily raucous artistic endeavours combined Bigfoot abstraction with a keen and accurate eye for detail, not just on the horse-riding and countryside themes that made him a household name, but on all the myriad subjects he turned his canny eye and subtle brushstrokes to.

His wittily wry observations and gloriously rendered pictures are an immaculate condensation of a uniquely unchanging United Kingdom – everything warmly resonant, resolutely Post-War and Baby-Boomingily British, without ever being parochial or provincial – starring a dangerous realm where all animals and inanimate objects loathe humanity and will go to any extreme to vex or even harm us…

His work has international implications and scope, neatly distilling and presenting us to the world. There were 32 collections of his work during his lifetime and every aficionado of humour – illustrated or otherwise – could do much worse than own them all.

From 1950 when his gag-panel Chicko first began in the Eagle, and especially two years later with his first sale to Punch, Thelwell built a solid body of irresistible, seductive and always funny work. His canny cartoons appeared in a host of magazines, comics and papers ranging from Men Only to Everybody’s Weekly. His first curated cartoon collection – Angels on Horseback – was released in 1957 and in 1961 he made the rare return journey by releasing a book of all-original gags that was subsequently and rapturously serialised in the Sunday Express.

His dry, sly, cannily observed drawings were a huge success and other books followed to supplement his regular periodical appearances. He is most famous for his countryside and equine subjects. The phrase “Thelwell Pony” is an instant verbal shortcut to a whole other world of adroit, goblin-like little girls constantly battling malevolent, chubby mini-horses gifted with the guile of Machiavelli, the mass and temerity of a deranged mule and the cheery disposition of Bill Sikes.

The artist’s fascination and endless reservoir of dressage drollery originated with a pair of short obnoxious muses in the field next door to his home, where also roamed two shaggy ponies. They were, in his own words “Small and round and fat and of very uncertain temper” – and apparently owned by “Two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few ounces themselves….”

“As the children got near, the ponies would swing round and present their ample hindquarters and give a few lightning kicks which the children would side-step calmly as if they were avoiding the kitchen table, and they had the head-collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away; but they were planning vengeance – you could tell by their eyes.”

His observations were best depicted in the classic Penelope and Penelope Rides Again, but in this particular instance, the master of the hounds and hilarious horseflesh cast his gaze a little further afield for a wickedly insightful and memorable draughtsman’s discourse, acutely weighing the benefits and pitfalls (oh, so very many painful falls) of Brit and Yank riding preferences and techniques.

After his introductory comparison/blueprint ‘The English Rider’ and ‘The Western Horseman’ Thelwell pits cocky little Cowboys against surly Show-jumping Schoolgirls in such compelling, picture packed chapters as Western Riding, What to Wear, Western Horses, Quick on the Drawl, How to Understand Your Horse, On the Trail, How to Manage a Mean Horse, How to Cross Water and Rodeo Dough before ending with a comprehensive Western Quiz.

So, which is best: East or West?

The answer, of course, is simple: Best to avoid all close encounters of an equine kind and read this book instead.
© 1975 Norman Thelwell.

Batman: Harley and Ivy The Deluxe Edition

By Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Ty Templeton, Shane Glines, Dan DeCarlo, Ronnie Del Carmen, Rick Burchett, Stéphane Roux & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6080-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Psychosis and Spice and Everything Nice… 9/10

Created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. Ostensibly for kids, the breakthrough TV animation series revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and immediately began feeding back into the print iteration, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all iterations of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, reshaped the grim avenger and his extended team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form that the youngest of readers could enjoy, whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to…

The series offered a superbly innovative retro makeover for many classics super-villains and even added one unexpected candidate to the Rogues Gallery. Harley Quinn wasn’t supposed to be a star… or even an actual comicbook character. As would soon become apparent, however, the manic minx had her own off-kilter ideas on the matter…

Harley was first seen as the Clown Prince of Crime’s slavishly adoring, abuse-enduring assistant in Joker’s Favor (airing on September 11th 1992) where she instantly captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers.

From there on she began popping up in the licensed comicbook and – always stealing the show – infiltrated mainstream DC comicbook continuity and into her own title. Along the way a flash of inspired brilliance led to her forming a unique relationship with toxic floral siren and plant-manipulating eco-terrorist Poison Ivy… a working partnership that delivered a bounty of fabulously funny-sexy yarns…

Collecting the eponymous 3-issue miniseries from 2004 plus Batman Adventures Annual #1 (1994), Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 (1995), Batman and Robin Adventures #8 (July 1996), Batgirl Adventures #1 (1998) and material from Batman: Gotham Knights #14 (April 2001) and Batman Black and White #3 (2014) this deluxe hardback (and eBook) is an amazing cornucopia of comic treasures to delight young and old alike.

It begins with a global-spanning romp written by Dini, illustrated by Timm & Shane Glines from Batman: Harley & Ivy #1-3 as the ‘Bosom Buddies’ have a spat that wrecks half of Gotham before escaping to the Amazon together to take over a small country responsible for much of the region’s deforestation and spreading a heady dose of ‘Jungle Fever!’.

Once Batman gets involved the story suddenly shifts to Hollywood and the very last word in creative commentary on Superheroes in the movie business as ‘Hooray for Harleywood!’ delivers showbiz a devastating body blow it can never recover from….

As we all know, Harley is (literally) insanely besotted with killer clown The Joker and next up Dini, Dan DeCarlo & Timm wordlessly expose her profound weakness for that so very bad boy as she’s released from Arkham Asylum only to be seduced back into committing crazy crimes and stuck back in the pokey again, all in just ‘24 Hours’

‘The Harley and the Ivy’ comes from Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 wherein Dini and Ronnie Del Carmen depict the larcenous ladies going on an illicit shopping spree after kidnapping Bruce Wayne thanks to a dose of Ivy’s mind-warping kisses…

‘Harley and Ivy and… Robin’ (Batman and Robin Adventures #8, by Dini, Ty Templeton & illustrator Rick Burchett) features more of the same except here the bamboozled sidekick becomes an ideal Boy Toy Wonder: planning their crimes, giving soothing foot-rubs and bashing Batman until a little moment of green-eyed jealously spoils the perfect set-up…

Batgirl Adventures #1 was the original seasonal setting for ‘Oy to the World’ (Dini & Burchett) as plucky teen Babs Gordon chases thieving thrill-seeking Harley through Gotham’s festive streets and alleys only to eventually team up with the jaunty jester to save Ivy from murderous Yakuza super-assassins.

Batman: Gotham Knights #14 yielded up brilliantly dark but saucily amusing tale ‘The Bet’ written by Dini and illustrated by Del Carmen. Incarcerated once more in Arkham, the Joker’s frustrated paramour and irresistible, intoxicatingly lethal Ivy indulge in a little wager to pass the time: namely, who can kiss the most men whilst remaining in custody. This razor-sharp little tale manages to combine innocent sexiness with genuine sentiment, and still packs a killer punch-line after the Harlequin of Hate unexpectedly pops in…

The madcap glamour-fest finishes with a moment of monochrome suspense as ‘Role Models’ (Dini & Stéphane Roux) sees a little girl escape her manic kidnapper and find sanctuary of a sort with the pilfering odd couple…

DC Comics sat on a goldmine of quality product for years but now they’re finally unleashing a blizzard of all-ages collections and graphic novels such as this one: child-friendly iterations of their key characters all stemming from the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman series. These adventures are consistently some of the best comics produced of the last three decades and should be eternally permanently in print, if only as a way of attracting new young readers to the medium.

Batman: Harley and Ivy is a frantic, laugh-packed hoot that manages to be daring and demure by turns. An absolute delight, well worth the price of admission and an irresistible seasonal treasure to be enjoyed over and over again.
© 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2014, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.