Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

By Karl Zinsmeister, Dan Jurgens & Sandu Florea (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1516-8

It’s always good to see a publisher venture outside its self-constructed ghetto of Proprietary Characters, rather than endlessly re-hash the names it’s already trademarked, and doubly so when it is to venture into genres that it has previously abandoned.

Sadly, in some cases the question then becomes one of seeking new markets as opposed to simply looking for fresh dramatic resources to exploit. Comics have a long and chequered history when it comes to militarism, ideological witch-hunting and band-wagon hopping. Despite that being said, there aren’t enough carefully-considered war comics around these days and this 2005 offering was then and remains now one of the few the genre had to offer.

Combat Zone features “real-life accounts” of US combatants in the 2003-2004 Iraq War, although “some incidents have been combined to make for a more condensed read”, and of course names have been changed to protect, etc. etc. …

Writer Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter during the conflict so I’m sure the events are as true as he saw them, but the overall feeling after first reading the book is one of curious detachment.

Maybe the modern military life does consist of immense boredom, talking to buddies and telling everyone how cool your ordnance is, interlaced with the occasional skirmish, but if such is the case it shouldn’t be in a drama-oriented comic-book.

It’s hard not to compare this series with the excellent Real War Stories produced in the late 1980s by Eclipse or even such personal visions as Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story and Don Lomax’s gruelling, compelling and, informative Viet Nam Journal, perhaps because all of those take the part, and the authorial voice, of the ordinary man not the war’s sponsors. Moreover, there was an implicit understanding that, though necessary, the job at hand was neither easy nor fun.

Even Robert Kanigher’s declamatory Sgt. Rock tales boast metafictional verisimilitude but that’s not what’s on offer here.

In Combat Zone when a character dies, the response is so anodyne that we know nobody really cares. There is more than the hint of the Press Release about it. Often it feels like the entire comic has passed through the same Pentagon ‘fact-checker’ that news reports do. A far cry, then, from Real War Stories #1, which the US government attempted to suppress. Alternatively, maybe that’s the way Uncle Sam manages conflicts these days…

On a narrative level, the problem here is one of heroic stature. When two desperate guys with nothing more than an old pick-up truck and a machine gun, give their lives in a dramatic, doomed attempt to stop an onslaught of high-tech juggernauts from crushing their homeland, those ought to be the heroes, not the “bad guys”!

There’s also a bit too much platitudinous speechifying in character’s mouths: presumably here to show the reader how justified the war might be, and no mention of the disastrous early days of allied blunders or numerous friendly fire incidents.

“Those didn’t happen where I might see them” is not an excuse in a documentary which has been subjectively edited “to make for a more condensed read”. You don’t get to pick and choose between Dramatic Authenticity and Journalistic Veracity at will, and not expect a few hits for it.

Illustrated by comic super-star Dan Jurgens – downplaying his usual bombastic Fights ‘n’ Tights styling – this collection didn’t sit well with me at first. My initial response was disappointment, but a careful rereading and 13 years of further constantly evolving conflict made me rethink. Maybe this really was telling it like it is. Maybe war has moved beyond comics fare and this is what feels like to serve today?

I can’t decide. What about you?
© 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

DC Comics: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know

By Liz Marsham, Melanie Scott, Landry Q. Walker, Stephen Wiacek & many and various (Dorling Kindersley)
ISBN: 978-0-24131-424-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fact-packed, Superhero Fun and Fantasy… 9/10

Some reviews are way harder to write than others and occasionally not for the reasons you’d expect. My other job is being a writer for money and, despite having typed whole bunches of stuff pertaining to comics, I’ve never before had the slightest inclination to review anything with my name on it. It’s unnecessary, arrogant and just not done…

Nevertheless, I’m publicly humiliating myself by baldly stating that this book is one of the best and most engaging comics primers for kids on the market, especially if you have nippers you want to introduce into comics.

A bright, bold, reassuringly oversized (235 x283 mm) hardback perfectly conceived for gift-wrapping, DC:AEYNK (as we called it while hammering away at a tight deadline) culls and distils the coolest, daftest, most thrilling and funniest factoids from more than 80 years of comics published by the makers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Kamandi, Captain Carrot, Zatanna and countless others.

As logged and related by Liz Marsham, Melanie Scott, Landry Q. Walker, me and especially our long-suffering editor and design team, this fabulous full-colour tome divides up into accessible categories such as Characters: Super Heroes and Super-villains; Teams (goodies & baddies) and Science and Magic whilst latterly offering snippets of forbidden knowledge regarding DC geography in From Here to Eternity and taking you on a quick tour of The Multiverse

Augmented by the best clipped art money can license, this bumper compendium appeals equally to neophyte youngsters and the most nit-picky of aging fanboys by providing a fast and furious flow of smart examples and exemplars even whilst answering such pertinent questions as “where can you go if Heaven and Hell exclude you?”, “what’s the hardest job in Central City?” or “what is the most powerful weapon in existence?”

Jam-packed with art by generations of DC contributors, the infographic-inundated double-page features provide a nostalgia-tinged fresh look at the DC Comics Universe, its astounding diverse characters, fantastic weapons, uncanny technology, strange planets, exotic places and parallel worlds through breezy, accessible text, teeming with key data, fun facts, lists, quotes and stats.

An ideal gift, DC Comics: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know is wholehearted and wholesome funnybook joy and, as there’s also a Marvel edition, you ought to get that one too.
© 2018 DC Comics. All related characters and element are © and ™ DC Comics.

JLA Deluxe volume 7

By Joe Kelly, Rick Veitch, Dennis O’Neill, Doug Mankhe, Duncan Rouleau, Tang Eng Huat, ChrissCross, Darryl Banks & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1 4012 5528 2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Festive Fights ‘n’ Tights Fun… 8/10

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – were relaunched in 1997 the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones; but the intoxicating sheen of “fresh and new” never lasts and by the time of these tales there had been numerous changes of creative personnel – usually a bad omen…

However, Joe Kelly’s tenure proved to be a marvellous blend of steadying hand and iconoclastic antics through which the JLA happily maintained their tricky task of keeping excitement levels stoked for a fan-base cursed with a criminally short attention span.

Kelly’s run on the series has some notable highs (and lows) and this portmanteau collection (gathering issues #77-93 of the monthly comicbook, spanning March 2003 – April 2004) happily falls into the former category as the team readjust to modern life after their time-lost traumas experienced in the Obsidian Age (see the previous volume of this enthralling deluxe series).

However, the adventure actually kicks off with an impressive, clever and fast-paced fill-in tale from Rick Veitch, Darryl Banks & Wayne Faucher wherein the team – Superman, Batman, Atom, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern John Stewart and Firestorm – are attacked by a civilisation-crushing cosmic wanderer which achieves its goals by invading brains and stealing knowledge in ‘Stardust Memories’

That threat successfully circumvented, the World’s Greatest Superheroes learn of an interplanetary conflict that looks likely to divide the team forever in the eponymous two-parter ‘Rules of Engagement’ by Kelly, Doug Mankhe & Tom Nguyen.

With half the team travelling, uninvited, many light-years to stop a war, the remainder of the JLA stay back to police Earth, giving the opportunity to add some long-missed sub-plots to the usually straightforward storytelling; specifically, some unpleasant hints into new member Faith’s clouded past, a long-deferred romantic dinner for Bruce Wayne and Amazonian Princess Diana and the beginnings of a very hot time for the Martian Manhunter with fiery potential paramour Scorch

On the distant world of Kylaq, Leaguers Superman, Wonder Woman, Manitou Raven, Major Disaster, GL Stewart and mystery girl Faith act unilaterally to prevent the invasion of the Peacemaker Collective. The champions are keenly aware that once they succeed, they must leave the rescued world to the mercies of its own highly suspect government… especially Defense Minister Kanjar Ro, intergalactic slave-trader and one of their oldest, most despotic foes…

We then get some hints into Faith’s shady background as the reunited team are called to an Oregon cult compound where a new Messiah has created Safe Haven: a separatist enclave for metahuman children in the first chapter of socially-controversial thriller ‘The White Rage’.

Unfortunately, the Federal Authorities are not prepared to leave them alone and the resultant clash of ideologies leaves a thousand dead children on the crippled consciences of the devastated superheroes…

Yet something isn’t right: why does each JLA-er believe that they alone are responsible for the massacre? Moreover, what is the actual goal of master manipulator Manson and how does neo-Nazi taskforce Axis America fit into the scheme?

The action-packed mystery saga comes courtesy of Kelly, Duncan Rouleau & Aaron Sowd and is followed by a chilling change of pace in ‘American Nightmare’ by Joe Kelly, Chris Cross & Tom Nguyen.

Clean, clear-cut, high-concept tales here give way to more involved, even convoluted storyline and an increasing dependence on other series’ and characters’ continuity. After an alien telepathic presence puts American President Lex Luthor into a brain-dead coma before assaulting the entire League, investigations lead to an alien incursion more than twenty thousand years ago the in epic 6-part ‘Trial by Fire’ with Doug Mahnke pencilling the chilling proceedings.

During the ice age a monstrous presence was defeated at huge cost by a band of cavemen led by the League’s oldest foe, but it appears that the diabolical beast known as The Burning might not have died forever…

Ranging back even further in DC history it appears that the Guardians of the Universe, immortal taskmasters of the Green Lantern Corps, were involved in the creation of The Burning, and their dispassionate, implacable genetic meddling may have been instrumental in the origins, rise and potential fall of one of Earth’s greatest heroes…

Plagued by cruelly debilitating visions and psychic assaults, as are a sizable portion of humanity, the heroes are desperately struggling as one of their own is possessed by the malevolent entity Fernus who is only seconds away from turning the entire world into a radioactive cinder.

Can the JLA get their act together in time to prevent Armageddon? Of course they can, but not without paying a brutal, tragic price…

A palate-cleansing change of pace follows as ‘Perchance’ (Kelly, ChrissCross & Nguyen) resolves the Batman/Wonder Woman romantic entanglement in a most imaginative manner…

Wrapping up the team-tribulations is a return for veteran scribe Dennis O’Neill who reveals how a phenomenally powerful and benevolent alien returns to Earth after eons away.

Illustrated by Tang Eng Huat, ‘Extinction Part 1: The Coming’ relates how the voyager is checking in on the species he felt was destined to evolve into the planet’s dominant species. The JLA are quite perplexed and very nervous about how to tactfully explain that mankind have almost hunted the silver masked monkey into oblivion…

Things get even more tense in ‘Extinction Part 2: The Lesson’ as the unwilling ambassadors try to convince the troubled tourist of the better qualities on Earth’s actual masters before events come to a cataclysmic head in ‘Soul Survivor’

The JLA has – in all its incarnations – a long history of starting strong but losing focus, and particularly of coasting by on past glories for extended periods. Luckily the New/Old Dog still had a few more tricks and a little life in it before the inevitable demise and reboot for the next generation after Final Crisis.
© 2003, 2004, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

90th Anniversary Double Feature!! Two reviews to celebrate a cartooning milestone

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in Color

By Geoffrey Blum, Thomas Andrae, Floyd Gottfredson, Carl Barks & various: produced by Another Rainbow Publishing Inc. (Pantheon Books 1988)
ISBN: 978-0-39457-519-3 (HB)

Created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse was first seen – if not heard – in the silent cartoon Plane Crazy. The animated short fared poorly in a May 1928 test screening and was promptly shelved.

That’s why most people cite Steamboat Willie – the fourth Mickey feature to be completed – as the debut of the mascot mouse and his co-star and paramour Minnie Mouse. It was the first to be nationally distributed, as well as the first animated feature with synchronised sound.

The film’s astounding success led to the subsequent rapid release of its fully completed predecessors Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and The Barn Dance, once they too had been given new-fangled soundtracks.

From those timid beginnings grew an immense fantasy empire, but film was not the only way Disney conquered hearts and minds. With Mickey a certified solid gold sensation, the mighty mouse was considered a hot property and soon moved in on America’s most powerful and pervasive entertainment medium: comic strips…

Floyd Gottfredson was a cartooning pathfinder who started out as just another warm body in the Disney Studio animation factory who slipped sideways into graphic narrative and evolved into a pictorial narrative ground-breaker as influential as George Herriman, Winsor McCay or Elzie Segar. Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse entertained millions of eagerly enthralled readers and shaped the very way comics worked.

He took a wild and anarchic animated rodent from slap-stick beginnings, via some of the earliest adventure continuities in comics history: transforming a feisty everyman underdog – or rather mouse – into a crimebusting detective, explorer, lover, aviator or cowboy: the quintessential two-fisted hero whenever necessity demanded.

In later years, as tastes – and syndicate policy – changed, Gottfredson steered that self-same wandering warrior into a more sedate, gently suburbanised lifestyle via crafty sitcom gags suited to a newly middle-class America: a fifty-year career generating some of the most engrossing continuities the comics industry has ever enjoyed.

Arthur Floyd Gottfredson was born in 1905 in Kaysville, Utah, one of eight siblings born to a Mormon family of Danish extraction. Injured in a youthful hunting accident, Floyd whiled away a long recuperation drawing and studying cartoon correspondence courses, and by the 1920s had turned professional, selling cartoons and commercial art to local trade magazines and Big City newspaper the Salt Lake City Telegram.

In 1928 he and his wife moved to California and, after a shaky start, found work in April 1929 as an in-betweener at the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios.

Just as the Great Depression hit, he was personally asked by Disney to take over newborn but ailing newspaper strip Mickey Mouse.

Gottfredson would plot, draw and frequently script the strip for the next five decades: an incredible accomplishment by of one of comics’ most gifted exponents.

Veteran animator Ub Iwerks had initiated the print feature with Disney himself contributing, before artist Win Smith was brought in. The nascent strip was plagued with problems and young Gottfredson was only supposed to pitch in until a regular creator could be found.

His first effort saw print on May 5th 1930 (Floyd’s 25th birthday) and just kept going; an uninterrupted run over the next half century.

On January 17th 1932, Gottfredson created the first colour Sunday page, which he also handled until his retirement. In the beginning he did everything, but in 1934 Gottfredson relinquished the scripting, preferring plotting and illustrating the adventures to playing about with dialogue.

His eventual collaborating wordsmiths included Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris, Dick Shaw, Bill Walsh, Roy Williams and Del Connell. At the start and in the manner of a filmic studio system Floyd briefly used inkers such as Ted Thwaites, Earl Duvall and Al Taliaferro, but by 1943 had taken on full art chores.

Mickey Mouse in Color is a lavish hardback compendium reprinting some of the most noteworthy early strips with fascinating text and feature articles – including interviews with Gottfredson – but the real gold is the glorious strips.

A mix of Sunday page yarns comprising ‘Rumplewatt the Giant (1934)’, ‘Dr. Oofgay’s Secret Serum (1934)’, the magnificent and mesmerising ‘Case of the Vanishing Coats (1935)’ and a whimsical ‘Robin Hood Adventure (1936)’ are, although superlative, mere appetisers.

The best stories and biggest laughs come with the rollickin’ comedy thrill-ride serials ‘Blaggard Castle (1932)’, ‘Pluto and the Dogcatcher (1933)’, ‘The Mail Pilot (1933)’ and the astoundingly entertaining and legendary ‘Mickey Mouse Outwits the Phantom Blot (1939)’.

Consistency is as rare as longevity in today’s comic market-place, and the sheer volume of quality work produced by Gottfredson remained unseen and unsung for generations until Fantagraphics released a complete library of the Mouse’s US-crafted strip adventures. We’ll be covering those in greater detail over the months to come but until then, books like this comprehensive primer (still readily available through online retailers), should be welcomed, cherished, and most importantly, shared.
© 1988 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in The World of Tomorrow – Gladstone Comic Album #17

By Floyd Gottfredson, Bill Walsh & Dick Moores (Gladstone
ISBN: 978-0-94459-917-4

Floyd Gottfredson’s influence on graphic narrative is inestimable: he was one of the very first to move from daily gags to continuity and extend adventures, created Mickey’s nephews, pioneered team-ups and invented some of the first “super-villains” in the business.

In 1955 – by which time Mickey and his fellow pantheon stablemates were mainstays of comics in dozens of countries – Disney killed the continuities; dictating that henceforth strips would only contain one-off gag strips. Gottfredson adapted easily, working on until retirement in 1975. His last daily appeared on November 15th and the final Sunday on September 19th 1976.

In this still-easy-to-find oversized paperback album from the 1980s, Gottfredson’s middle period of cartoon brilliance comes to the fore and opens with an uplifting and supremely funny saga originally running from July 31st to November 11th 1944 and designed to counteract the woes of a war-weary world…

After D-Day and the Allied push into Occupied Europe, the home-front morale machine began pumping out conceptions of what the liberated happy future would be like. A strip as popular as Mickey Mouse couldn’t help but join the melee and new scripter Bill Walsh produced a delightfully surreal, tongue-in-cheek parable in ‘The World of Tomorrow’: full of brilliant, incisive sight-gags and startling whimsy whilst pitting the Mouse against arch-enemy Peg Leg Pete, who was in extreme danger of conquering the entire planet, using the double-edged advances in modern science!

Walsh, Gottfredson & inker Dick Moores also produced the remainder of this delightful book for kids of all ages, which comprise a dozen one-off gag dailies from 1944 and 1945, plus a cracking sea yarn ‘The Pirate Ghost Ship’ (first serialised from April 17th to July 15th 1944) which found Mickey and faithful hound Pluto searching for treasure, defying black magic and battling sinister buccaneers in a rollicking rollercoaster of fun and frights.

Walsh (September 30th 1913 – January 27th 1975) loved working on the strip and scripted it until 1964 when his increasingly successful film career forced him to give it up.

Like all Disney comics creators these stalwarts worked in utter anonymity, but thanks to the efforts of devout fans efforts were eventually revealed and due acclaim accorded. Gottfredson died in July 1986 and Walsh did achieve a modicum of fame in his lifetime as producer of Disney’s Davy Crockett movies, and as writer/producer of The (original) Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, That Darn Cat!, The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and many others.

He was Oscar™ nominated for his Mary Poppins screenplay.

Even in these modern, accepting times anthropomorphic comics are still often derided as kids’ stuff – and indeed there’s nothing here a child wouldn’t adore – but these magical works were produced for consumers of ALL AGES and the sheer quality of Gottfredson and Walsh’s work is astounding to behold.

That so much of it has remained unseen and unsung is a genuine scandal. Thankfully most of the Gladstone Mickey Mouse albums are still readily available and we now have the scholarly and comprehensive Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Archives so you have no reason not to indulge in some of the greatest comic tails of all time.
© 1989, 1945, 1944 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Ghosts

By Leo Dorfman, Murray Boltinoff, John Broome, Jack Miller, Joe Samachson, George Kashdan, Bob Haney, Richard E. Hughes, Carl Wessler, Tony DeZuñiga, Jim Aparo, Sam Glanzman, Carmine Infantino, Sy Barry, Frank Giacoia, John Calnan, Bob Brown, George Tuska, Wally Wood, Curt Swan, Ruben Moreira, Irwin Hasen, Leonard Starr, Jerry Grandenetti, Nick Cardy, Ramona Fradon, Art Saaf, Michael William Kaluta, Jack Sparling, Win Mortimer, Ernie Chan, Buddy Gernale, Nestor, Quico & Frank Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Gerry Talaoc, Nestor Malgapo, E.R. Cruz, Rico Rival, Abe Ocampo, Ernesto Patricio & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-836-1

Boo! Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Perfect Serving of Sinister Comics Spookiness… 8/10

American comicbooks started rather slowly until the invention of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and established a new entertainment genre. Implacably vested in World War Two, the superman swept all before him (occasional her or it) until the troops came home and the more traditional themes and heroes resurfaced, and eventually supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Whilst a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in their reading matter. The war years had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and, as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

As well as Western, War and Crime comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent. Gradually another cyclical revival of spiritualism and public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly more-ish horror comics. These spanned the range from EC and Simon & Kirby’s astoundingly mature and landmark scary fictions to grotesquely exploitative eerie episodes from pale imitators and even wholesome, family-friendly fear tales from the industry’s biggest players.

The company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the (December 1951/January 1952) release of The House of Mystery, at the same time turning venerable anthology Sensation Comics (the magazine that had starred Wonder Woman since 1942) into a fantasy vehicle with square-jawed he-men such as Jonny Peril battling the encroaching unknown with issue #107.

That conversion was completed when the title became Sensation Mystery with #110 in July 1952.

Everything changed when a hysterical censorship scandal and governmental witch-hunt created a spectacular backlash (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April- June 1954 into your search engine at any time… You can do that because it’s more-or-less still a free country).

The crisis was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority became sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the appetite for suspense was still high. For example: in 1956 National introduced the sister title House of Secrets which debuted with a November/December cover-date and specialised in taut human-interest tales in a fantasy milieu.

Stories were dialled back into marvellously illustrated, rationalistic, fantasy-adventure vehicles which dominated the market until the 1960s when super-heroes (which had started to creep back after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them. When the cape-and-cowl craziness peaked and popped, sales began bottoming out for Costumed Dramas and comics faced another punishing sales downturn.

Nothing combats censorship better than falling profits. As the end of the 1960s saw the superhero boom end with so many titles dead and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain too, the publishers took drastic action.

This real-world Crisis led to the surviving players in the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in public interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of spooky stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all, spooky comics came back to quickly dominate the American funnybook market for more than half a decade. DC started by converting The House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into mystery suspense mags in 1968 and followed by resurrecting House of Secrets (August-September 1969) which had been cancelled in 1966.

Soon supernatural mystery titles were the dominant force in the marketplace and DC began a steady stream of launches along narrowly differing thematic lines. There was gothic horror romance title Sinister House of Secret Love, a combat iteration in Weird War Tales and from late summer 1970 a bold new book which proudly boasted “True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural!” and challenged readers to read on if they dared…

This first monochrome encyclopaedia of the eerie and uncanny collects the first 18 issues of Ghosts, covering like a shroud September/October 1970 to September 1973 with lead scripter and supernatural enthusiast Leo Dorfman producing most of the series’ original material for a title he is generally credited with creating.

Dorfman was one of the most prolific scripters of the era (also working as David George and Geoff Brown) and a major scripter of comic horror stories for many DC and Gold Key titles.

The thrills and chills begin with a graphic ‘Introduction’ from Tony DeZuñiga – probably scripted by editor Murray Boltinoff – before ‘Death’s Bridegroom’ (Dorfman & Jim Aparo) told of a conniving bluebeard conman who finally picked the wrong girl to bilk and jilt. Sam Glanzman illustrated the fearsome tale of a shipbuilder slain while sabotaging a Nazi U-Boat who returned as a vengeful ‘Ghost in the Iron Coffin’, after which ‘The Tattooed Terror’, by John Broome, Carmine Infantino & Sy Barry, offers a slice of Golden Age anxiety from Sensation Mystery #112 (November 1952) when a career criminal is seemingly haunted by his betrayed partner.

Broome, Infantino & Frank Giacoia then relived ‘The Last Dream’ (Sensation Comics #107, December 1951-January 1952) when a 400-year old rivalry resulted in death for a 20th century sceptic, and this initial issue ends with a Western mystery in ‘The Spectral Coachman’ by Dorfman & DeZuñiga.

Issue #2 began with a predatory ghost-witch persecuting a Carpathian village in ‘No Grave can Hold Me’ by Dorfman, John Calnan & George Tuska, whilst ‘Mission Supernatural’ (art by Bob Brown & Wally Wood) revealed a WWII secret which perpetually plagued a modern English airport.

A brace of revered reprints begin with light-hearted romp ‘The Sorrow of the Spirits’ from House of Mystery #21 (December 1953, by Jack Miller, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley) wherein a plague of famous phantoms attempted to possess their descendents’ bodies whilst ‘Enter the Ghost’ (Joe Samachson & Ruben Moreira from House of Mystery #29, August 1954) found an actor endangered by a dead thespian jealous of anyone recreating his greatest role…

With Dorfman still writing the lion’s share of the new material, DeZuñiga illustrates the sorry fate of an unscrupulous diver seduced by the discovery of a ‘Galleon of Death’ whilst Miller & Irwin Hasen’s ‘Lantern in the Rain’ (originally from Sensation Mystery #113, January/February 1953) recounts an eerie railroad episode, and Dorfman & Glanzman reunite to tell an original tale of ‘The Ghost Battalions’ who still haunt the world’s battle sites from Gallipoli to Korea.

Dorfman & DeZuñiga visited 17th century Scotland for #3’s opening occult observation wherein a sea-born princess demanded her child back from a wicked Laird in ‘Death is my Mother’, after which ‘The Magician who Haunted Hollywood’ George Kashdan & Leonard Starr, from HoM #10, January 1953) reveals how actor Dick Mayhew might have been aided by a deceased escapologist when he played the starring role in the magician’s bio-pic…

‘The Dark Goddess of Doom’, drawn by Calnan, reveals how a statue of Kali deals with the ruthless collector who stole her, after which the anonymously authored ‘Station G.H.O.S.T.’ (limned by Moreira from HoM #17, August 1953) discloses how a man’s scheme to corruptly purchase a house haunted by his ancestor went weirdly awry.

Tuska draws the saga of a WWII pilot who crashes into a desert nightmare and fatefully meets a ‘Legion of the Dead’, whilst, after a reprinted fact-file on ‘Ghostly Miners’, Jerry Grandenetti depicts the story of a French landowner who unwisely disturbed a burial ground and met ‘The Screaming Skulls’

Ghosts #4 starts with a secret history of one of America’s most infamous killers in ‘The Crimson Claw’ (Tuska & cover artist Nick Cardy) before ‘The Ghostly Cities of Gold’ (Grandenetti) reveals the truth about fabled, haunted Cibola and the first reprint features ‘The Man Who Killed his Shadow’ (Miller, Swan & Burnley: HoM #16, July 1953) wherein a murdered photographer reaches from beyond the grave for justice.

Thereafter, Ernie Chan limns ‘The Fanged Spectres of Kinshoro’ with a Big Game hunter pitting 20th century rationality against an ancient Ju-Ju threat, whilst the superb team of Bob Haney, Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris shine again with ‘The Legend of the Black Swan’ (HoM #48, March 1956) wherein three sceptical American students in Spain have an eerie encounter with doomed 17th century sailors. This issue concludes on ‘The Threshold of Nightmare House’ with Calnan & Grandenetti illustrating the inevitable doom of a woman who was haunted by her own ghost…

During the invasion of China in 1939 a greedy Japanese warlord meets his fate – and the spirits of the Mongol warriors whose tomb he robbed. Issue #5’s lead tale ‘Death, the Pale Horseman’ (by Dorfman & Art Saaf) is followed by ‘The Hands from the Grave’ (Calnan) which somehow saves a young tourist from an early death, after which reprint ‘The Telltale Mirror’ (by an unknown author & Grandenetti from HoM #13, April 1953) shows the dread downside of owning a looking glass that reflects the future…

Original yarn ‘Caravan of Doom’ (Jack Sparling), tells of an uncanny African warrior aiding enslaved Tommies in WWI Tanganyika, and is balanced by uncredited reprint ‘The Phantom of the Fog’(illustrated by Moreira; HoM #123, June 1962) wherein valiant rebels overthrow a petty dictator with the apparent aid of an oceanic apparition, before Grandenetti’s ‘The Hearse Came at Midnight’ ends the issue with spoiled college frat boys learning an horrific lesson about hazing and initiation rites…

With Ghosts #6, the page count dropped from 52 to 32 pages and the reprints were curtailed in favour of all-new material. Proceedings begin with Dorfman & Saaf’s cautionary tale of an avaricious arcane apothecary when ‘A Specter Poured the Potion’ before ‘Ride with the Devil’ (Calnan) told of a most unexpected lift for an unwary hitchhiker whilst ‘Death Awaits Me’ (Grandenetti) exposes the eerie premonition that marked the bizarre death of dancer Isadora Duncan.

A rare DC outing for mercurial comics genius Richard E. Hughes closed this slimline edition with ‘Ghost Cargo from the Sky’, illustrated by Sparling and exposing the incredible power of wishing to Pacific Islanders in the aftermath of WWII.

Michael William Kaluta stood in for Cardy as cover artist for #7 but Dorfman remained as writer, beginning with ‘Death’s Finger Points’ (Sparling art) as a bullying Australian sheep farmer falls foul of aborigines he’d abused, whilst President in waiting Lyndon B. Johnson becomes only the latest VIP to learn the cost of ignoring a Fakir’s warning in the Saaf-illustrated ‘Touch not my Tomb’.

Calnan then closed things out with ‘The Sweet Smile of Death’ in a doomed romance between a 20th century photographer and a flighty Regency phantom who refused to let this last admirer go…

‘The Cadaver in the Clock’ (art by Buddy Gernale) opened Ghosts #8, as a succession of heirs learned the downside of an inheritance which perforce included a mummified corpse inside a grand chronometer, but Glanzman’s ‘The Guns of the Dead’ shows a far more beneficial side to spectres as US marines are saved by their deceased yet unstoppable sergeant in 1944. ‘Hotline to the Supernatural’ – lovingly limned by the wonderful Nestor Redondo – recounts numerous cases of supernatural premonition, whilst ‘To Kill a Tyrant’ (Quico Redondo) implausibly links the incredible last hours of Rasputin to the so-necessary death of Stalin decades later…

Issue #9 begins with Calnan’s ‘The Curse of the Phantom Prophet’, as an Indian holy man continues his war against the insolent British and rapacious white men long after his death by firing squad, ‘The Last Ride of Rosie the Wrecker’ (gloriously illustrated by Alfredo Alcala) detailed the indomitable determination of a destroyed US tank that shouldn’t have been able to move at all, and Grandenetti’s ‘The Spectral Shepherd of Dartmoor’ showed how a long-dead repentant convict still aided the weak and imperilled in modern Britain. Events end on an eerie note when vacationers see horrific apparitions but discover that ‘The Phantom that Never Was’ has created a real ghost out of a hoax disaster in a genuine chiller drawn by Bob Brown & Frank McLaughlin.

Fact page ‘Experimenters Beyond the Grave’ – from Dorfman & Win Mortimer – details the attempts of Harry Houdini, Mackenzie King and Aldous Huxley to send messages from the vale of shades before storytelling resumes in #10 with the Gerry Talaoc/Redondo Studio illustrated tale of a Vietnamese Harbinger of Doom in ‘A Specter Stalks Saigon’.

Increasingly, a host of superb Filipino artists would take on the art chores for the ubiquitous Dorfman’s scripts such as ‘The Ghost of Wandsgate Gallows’ by Chan, detailing the inevitable fate of an English noble who hires and then betrays a contract killer.

Although naval savant Sam Glanzman could be the only choice for the US maritime mystery ‘Death Came at Dawn’, Nestor Malgapo artfully handles horrific saga ‘The Hell Beast of Berkeley Square’, which for decades slaughtered guilty and innocents alike in prosperous Mayfair…

Ghosts #11 opened with Eufronio Reyes (E.R.) Cruz’s contemporary thriller wherein Nazi war criminals recovering long-hidden loot finally pay for their foul crimes in ‘The Devil’s Lake’, before Chan delineates a subway journey where the ‘Next Stop is Nowhere’.

Graphic master Grandenetti visually captures ‘The Specter Who Stalked Cellblock 13’ (of San Quentin), and Bob Brown returns to illustrate the story of a church organ which killed anyone who played it in ‘The Instrument of Death’, after which Sparling charts the sinister coincidences of ‘The Death Circle’ which dictates that every US President elected in a year ending in zero dies in office.

Of course, not everyone today is happy that the myth has been debunked…

Ghosts #12 featured ‘The Macabre Mummy of Takhem-Ahtem’ (Calnan art): more a traditional monster-mash than purportedly true report, after which ‘Chimes for a Corpse’ (Grandenetti) saw a German watchmaker die for his malicious treatment of an apprentice before the always amazing Glanzman-limned ‘Beyond the Portal of the Unknown’ closed proceedings in magnificent style when French soldiers in 1915 uncover a terrible tomb and unleash a centuries old vendetta of vengeance…

Dorfman & Brown open issue #13 with ‘The Nightmare in the Sandbox’, detailing a war of voodoo practitioners carried out in Haitian garden, whilst ‘Voice of Vengeance’ (Calnan) depicted the macabre vengeance of marionettes on the embezzling official who silenced their maker. ‘Have Tomb, Will Travel’ (Talaoc) sees contract killers using a scrapyard to lose their latest corpse discover that their brand-new car comes with his unquiet spirit as an angry extra… Nestor Redondo then depicts the inexplicable experience of two lost GIs who spend a night in a castle that isn’t there and endure ‘Hell is One Mile High’

In #14, an heirloom wedding dress that comes with a curse doesn’t stop Diane Chapman from marrying her young man in Gernale’s ‘The Bride Wore a Shroud’, whilst ‘Death Weaves a Web’ (by George Kashdan & Chan) sees a bullying uncle live to regret destroying his little nephew’s spider collection – but not for long…

‘Phantom of the Iron Horseman’ (Talaoc) finds a young train driver and a host of passengers saved from disaster by the spirit of his disgraced grandfather before the issue ends with a catalogue of global portents warning of the appalling Aberfan tragedy in 1966 in Cruz’s ‘The Dark Dream of Death’.

Gernale opened #15 with ‘The Ghost that Wouldn’t Die’, another case of domestic gold-digging, ectoplasmic doppelgangers and living ghosts, whilst ‘A Phantom in the Alamo’ (Carl Wessler & Glanzman) revealed the ghastly fate of the American who sold out the valiant defenders to the Mexican invaders. Alcala lent his prodigious gifts to the Balkan tale of a corpse collector who abandoned morality and began profiteering from his sacred trust in ‘Who Dares Cheat the Dead?’ and Rico Rival delineated a gripping yarn wherein a corrupt surgeon was haunted by the hit-and-run victim he’d silenced in ‘Hand from the Grave’.

Ghosts #16 told of a Spanish gypsy cursed to see ‘Death’s Grinning Face’ whenever someone was going to die in a stirring thriller from Rival, and Glanzman again displays his uncanny knack for capturing shipboard life – and death – when, after 25 years, a deserter finally joins his dead comrades in ‘The Mothball Ghost’. Talaoc then delineates Napoleon Bonaparte’s services to France after the Little Corporal dies and becomes ‘The Haunted Hero of St. Helena’

Issue #17 finds a phantom lady save flood-lost children in Dorfman & Alcala’s moving ‘Death Held the Lantern High’ after which editor Murray Boltinoff & Talaoc reveal ‘The Specters Were the Stars’ when a film company tries to capture the horror of the 1920 Ulster Uprising, before Kashdan & Calnan expose the seductive lure and inescapable power of traditional Romani using ‘The Devil’s Ouija’ to combat centuries of prejudice…

This first terrifying tome terminates with Ghosts #18 and Alcala’s account of a hateful Delaware medicine chief who still lures white men to his watery ‘Graveyard of Vengeance’, centuries after his death, whilst Abe Ocampo details the unlikely ‘Death of a Ghost’ at the hands of a very smug inventor who has just moved into a haunted mansion.

Frank Redondo describes how villagers in old Austria knew young Adolf would come to a bad end because the boy had ‘The Eye of Evil’ and the spookiness at last ceases with ‘Death Came Creeping’ – by Ernesto Patricio & Talaoc – when a visiting Egyptian merchant and his unique pet stop a sneak thief’s predations in an age-old manner…

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s almost certain that they saved DC during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Their blend of sinister mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such children’s series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators.

Everybody loves a good healthy scare – especially today or even on those dark Christmas nights to come – and this beautiful gathering of ethereal escapism (sadly, still only available in monochrome and paperback) is a treat fans of fear and fantastic art should readily take to their cold, dead hearts…
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Great North Wood

By Tim Bird (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-36-3 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Glorious Ramble to Shake Loose the Cerebral Cobwebs… 9/10

Lots of comics, and most forms of fiction, in fact, depend on strong – or at least memorable – characters and plenty of action to capture the attention. You need to be really good and quite brave to try anything outside those often-infantile parameters.

That’s actually a pretty good description of London-based cartoonist and author Tim Bird whose sundry works explore themes of time and place, history, memory and myth as well as our connection to the planet in such comics as the award-winning From The City To The Sea. He calls these forays psychogeography…

Here that empathy is transformed into a far-too-brief lyrical travelogue and sharing of lost folklore as this oversized (178 x 279 mm) colour paperback traces the slow decline and curtailment of the vast forest that swathed Britain before humanity, whilst highlighting those icons of modernity and great survivors who seem to adapt to all changes with dogged aplomb.

As Man took hold, the trees grew small and fragmented, so our far-ranging focus takes in the range of Southern England described in the title and relates experiences from before writing to just a few moments from now…

The scene is set with symbolic guile in ‘An Ancient Forest’ before focusing in to define ‘The Great North Wood’ then and now. The origins of place names such as ‘Norwood’ and its satellites are accompanied by captivating expositions on local tales such as ‘The Vicar’s Oak’. It’s interesting to consider just how many comics artisans and popular arts creators have lived in the many sites listed in Bird’s introductory map. I’m just one of them. I could list dozens more…

The origin of the ‘Honor Oak’ leads to outlaw glamour in ‘The Story of Ned Righteous’ whilst ‘Gipsy Hill’ (a place and a person) segues beguilingly into ‘Bombs’ after which a visit to the still relatively-abundant ‘Sydenham Hill Woods’ takes us to a hopeful note in ‘A Forest Again’

Even now I’ll recite the chapter headings like a mantra and remember the places cited herein where I’ve lived over the last four decades and feel I’m also part of something bigger than me…

This paean to a feeling of belonging – to both time and space – evokes the same vibrant elegiac tone as Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s 1936 documentary Night Mail (with its evocative poem/soundtrack by W. H. Auden and score by Benjamin Britten). It’s a feeling no one can decry or wish to end…

Sadly, this glorious celebration is not available digitally yet, but that just means you can give physical copies to all your friends, suitably gift-wrapped and ready to be properly appreciated by all the tactile senses as well as cerebral ones…

A graphic marvel to savour and ponder over and over again.
© Tim Bird 2018. All rights reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 8

By Gerry Conway, Mike Friedrich, Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Starlin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6623-8 (HB)

First conceived in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a time when the economy was booming and “Commie-bashing” was an American national obsession, the emergence of a new and shining young Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity, wealth and invention to safeguard the Land of the Free and better the World, seemed an obvious development. Combining the then-sacrosanct faith that technology and business in unison could solve any problem, with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, Tony Stark – the Invincible Iron Man – seemed an infallibly successful proposition.

Of course, whilst Tony Stark was the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism – a glamorous millionaire industrialist/scientist and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his alter-ego – the turbulent tone of the 1970s soon relegated his suave, “can-do” image to the dustbin of history.

With ecological disaster and social catastrophe from the myriad abuses of big business the new zeitgeists of the young, the Golden Avenger and Stark International were soon confronting a few tricky questions from the increasingly politically savvy readership.

With glamour, money and fancy gadgetry not quite so cool anymore the questing voices of a new generation of writers began posing uncomfortable questions in the pages of a series that was once the bastion of militarised America …

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium – available in hardback and digital editions – navigates that transitional period; reprinting Iron Man #39-53 (July 1971 to December 1972) as the title experienced an unprecedented and often uncomfortable number of creative personnel changes whilst the country endured a radical and often divisive split in ideology.

Tone and context for the times comes courtesy of Gerry Conway’s Introduction ‘A Few Last Words’ and the follow up essay from Mike Friedrich writer who replaced before Conway & Herb Trimpe open the graphic proceedings with ‘A Twist of Memory… a Turn of Mind!’ Insidious oriental mastermind White Dragon deviously turns Stark into a brainwashed pawn, thereby inadvertently enslaving the Golden Avenger too.

Stark’s devoted assistant Kevin O’Brian comes to the rescue, but is led down a path to inevitable doom when he assists his mind-locked employer in a torturous ‘Night Walk!’ (by regular penciller George Tuska & Jim Mooney) to save his sanity and defeat their sinister foe.

Simultaneously, Marianne Rodgers, the woman they both love, begins a slow glide into madness as her telepathic powers gradually grow beyond her control and eat at her mind…

Issue #41 continued a long and convoluted storyline dealing with mystery mastermind Mr. Kline. (For the full story you should also track down contemporaneous Daredevil and Sub-Mariner issues: you won’t be any the wiser but at least you’ll have a full set…)

‘The Claws of the Slasher!’ sees a squabbling pair of paranormal saboteurs attack Washington DC during a Senate investigation into Stark Industries; accidentally triggering a psychic transformation in Marianne.

She temporarily morphed into a mind-warping harpy in ‘When Demons Wail!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), culminating in a blockbusting, extra-long battle against psionic godling Mikas in ‘Doomprayer!’(Mooney inks).

During that cataclysmic conflict O’Brian dons his own super-armour to join the fray as The Guardsman; causing his own mental state to rapidly deteriorate and making his eventual showdown with Stark ever more unavoidable…

Plotted by Conway, scripted by DC A-Lister Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tuska & Vince Colletta, Iron Man #44 finds Stark near death after his last battle.

In ‘Weep for a Lost Nightmare!’ he is watched over by Kevin and Marianne as Kline dispatches a robotic copy of old Stark enemy The Night Phantom to finish the ailing hero off. The tale is truncated midway and completed in the next issue – presumably due to deadline problems.

Gary Friedrich scripted concluding chapter ‘Beneath the Armour Beats a Heart!’ in #45, after which Stark faces a revolt by his own Board of Directors who convince the jealousy-consumed O’Brian to stand with them.

When student protestors invade the factory, greed-crazed capitalist and reactionary revolt instigator Simon Gilbert convinces O’Brian to don his Guardsman suit and murderously teach the kids a lesson, leading to a horrific escalation in ‘Menace at Large!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) wherein Iron Man intervenes to save lives and causes the out-of-control O’Brian’s death…

In the aftermath Stark traumatically reviews his origins, twin careers and now-obscured objectives in the classic ‘Why Must There be an Iron Man?’ (# 47, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Mooney) after which, emotionally reinvigorated, the Armoured Ace welcomes new scripter Mike Friedrich and old artists Tuska & Colletta to face a renewed threat from radical incendiary anarchist Firebrand in ‘The Fury and the Inferno!’

Meanwhile, whilst attempting a new start in life, Marianne’s final breakdown begins…

‘… There Lurks the Adaptoid!’ finds her experiencing horrifying precognitive visions of a power-mimicking robot attacking Iron Man, leading to her accidental betrayal of the man she loves when the automaton arrives and evolves into an unbeatable new form in #50’s ‘Deathplay’.

This coincides with equally-troubled Z-list villain Princess Python attempting to kidnap Tony, even as the hero is targeted by power-leeching sub-atomic tyrants, before the bizarre saga concludes with bombastic battle in ‘Now Stalks the Cyborg-Sinister!’

New Age mysticism and West Coast celebrity-cults informed Iron Man #53 as Stark confronts ‘Raga: Son of Fire!’: an emotion-fuelled, flaming maniac trained by an evil guru who subsequently takes over from his failed disciple when things get too hot.

‘The Black Lama!’ (with additional pencils from star-in-waiting Jim Starlin) is also unable to destroy the Golden Avenger, but would subsequently return to become one of the hero’s greatest foes of the period.

Don’t fret folks; it all turns out alright in the end…

The galvanised wonderment also includes the cover of Iron Man Annual #2 and a selection of house ads to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator being carefully politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself.

With this volume Marvel further entrenched itself in the camp of the young and the restless, experiencing first hand, and every day, the social upheaval America was undergoing. This rebellious teen sensibility and increased political conscience permeated the company’s publications as their core audience evolved from Flower Power innocents into a generation of acutely aware activists. Future tales would increasingly bring reformed capitalist Stark into many unexpected and outrageous situations…

But that’s the meat of another review, as this engrossing graphic novel is done. From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains. These superhero sagas are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Best of Battle

By Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully, Steve McManus, Eric & Alan Hebden, Mark Andrew, Gerry Finley-Day, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Eric Bradbury, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Cam Kennedy, Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Jim Watson, Mike Dorey, John Cooper & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-025-3 (PB)

For most of the medium’s history, British comics have been renowned for the ability to tell a big story in satisfying little instalments and this, coupled with superior creators and the anthological nature of our publications, has ensured hundreds of memorable characters and series have seared themselves into the little boy’s psyche inside most British adult males.

One of the last great weekly anthology comics was the all-combat Battle, which started service as Battle Picture Weekly – launched on 8th March 1975.

Through absorption, merger and re-branding (becoming in swift succession Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and Battle Storm Force) it was eventually subsumed into the revived, faltering but too-prestigious-to-fail Eagle on January 23rd 1988. For 673 blood-soaked, testosterone-drenched issues, it had fought its way into the bloodthirsty hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever told.

This action-packed compendium features the opening salvos of some of the very best from those 13-odd years produced by a winning blend of Young Turk writers – Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve McManus, Mark Andrew and Gerry Finley-Day – and stalwarts of the old guard – Tom Tully, Eric and Alan Hebden. The art comes from Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Jim Watson, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Eric Bradbury, Mike Dorey, John Cooper and Cam Kennedy.

The strips featured are D-Day Dawson (a sergeant with only a year to live and nothing to lose) by Gerry Finley-Day, Ron Carpenter & Colin Page, spy serial Day of the Eagle (by ex-SOE agent Eric Hebden and artist Pat Wright), The Bootneck Boy (a little lad who lives his dream by becoming a Marine), by Finley-Day, Ian McDonald & Giralt, and the legendary Dirty Dozen-inspired Rat Pack, by Finley-Day and featuring some of the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra’s earliest UK artwork.

Ezquerra also shone on Alan Hebden’s anti-establishment masterpiece Major Eazy, whilst Fighter from the Sky is the first of the comic’s groundbreaking serials telling World War II stories from a German viewpoint. Written by Finley-Day and drawn by the superb Geoff Campion, it tells of a disgraced paratrooper fighting for his country, even if they hated him for it…

Hold Hill 109 by Steve McManus & Jim Watson was a bold experiment: basically a limited series as a group of Eighth Army soldiers have to hold back the Afrika Korps for seven days, with each day comprising one weekly episode. Unbelievably, only the first three days are collected here, though, as apparently there wasn’t room for the complete saga!

Darkie’s Mob (John Wagner & Mike Western) is another phenomenally well-regarded classic wherein a mysterious British (?) maniac takes over a lost and demoralised squad of soldiers in the Burma jungles, intent on using them to punish the Japanese in ways no man could imagine.

Then Finley-Day & Campion’s Panzer G-Man tells of a German tank commander demoted and forced to endure all the dirty jobs foisted on the infantry that follow behind the steel monsters, before Johnny Red – by Tom Tully and the great Joe Colquhoun – follows a discharged RAF pilot who joins the Russian air force to fight in the bloody skies over the Soviet Union.

Joe Two Beans by Wagner & Eric Bradbury traces an inscrutable Blackfoot Indian through the Hellish US Pacific campaign, The Sarge (Finley-Day& Mike Western) reveals the trials of a WWI veteran as he leads Dunkirk stragglers back to England and then on to North Africa, and Hellman of Hammer Force (Finley-Day, Western, Mike Dorey & Jim Watson) follows a charismatic and decent German tank commander as he fights Germany’s enemies and the SS who want him dead.

Alan Hebden and Eric Bradbury’s Crazy Keller is an US Army maverick who steals, cheats and breaks all the rules. He was also the most effective Nazi-killer in the invasion of Italy, whilst The General Dies at Dawn sees Finley-Day and John Cooper repeat the miniseries experiment of Hold Hill 109 (this time in 11 instalments, each representing one hour – pre-dating Jack Bauer by two decades) as Nazi General and war hero Otto von Margen tells his jailor how he came to be sentenced to the firing squad by his own comrades even as Berlin falls to the allied forces.

I don’t really approve of Charley’s War being in this book. Despite it being the very best war story ever written or drawn, uncompromising and powerfully haunting, as well as Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun’s best-ever work, it’s already available in beautiful hardback collector volumes and economical paperback editions so the 15 pages here could have been better used to complete Hold Hill 109 or even reprint some of the wonderful complete-in-one-part war tales the comic often carried.

Enough barracking: Fighting Mann, by Alan Hebden & Cam Kennedy, was the first British strip set in Viet Nam, and follows the hunt of retired US Marine Walter Mann who goes “in-country” in 1967 to track down his son, a navy pilot listed as a deserter. This terrific tome (still unavailable in any digital format, as far as I can tell) then concludes with Death Squad!: A kind of German Rat Pack full of Wehrmacht criminals sent as a punishment squad to die for the Fatherland in the icy hell of the Eastern Front. Written by Mark Andrew and illustrated by the incomparable Eric Bradbury, this is one of the grittiest and most darkly comedic of Battle’s martial pantheon.

This spectacular blend of action, tension and drama, with a heaping helping of sardonic grim wit from both sides of World War II – and beyond – offers a unique take on the profession of soldier, and hasn’t paled in the intervening years. These black-&-white gems are as powerful and engrossing now as they’ve ever been.

Fair warning though: Many of the tales here do not conclude. For that you’ll have to campaign for a second volume…
© 2009 Egmont UK Ltd. All rights reserved.

Justice League of America: The Silver Age volume 4

By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8061-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wholesome, Wholehearted Super-Action… 8/10

The day the Justice League of America was published marks the moment when superheroes truly made comicbooks their own particular preserve. Even though the popularity of masked champions has waxed and waned many times since 1960 and other genres have re-won their places on published pages, in the minds of America and the world, Comics Means Superheroes.

The JLA signalled that men – and even a few women – in capes and masks were back for good…

When Julius Schwartz began reviving and revitalising the nigh-defunct superhero genre in 1956, his Rubicon move came a few years later with the uniting of these reconfigured mystery men into a team…

The JLA debuted in The Brave and the Bold #28 (cover-dated March 1960) and cemented the growth and validity of the revived sub-genre, consequently triggering an explosion of new characters at every company producing comicbooks and spreading to the rest of the world as the decade progressed.

Spanning June 1963 to September 1964, this latest full-colour paperback compendium of classics (also available digitally) re-presents issues #31-41 of the epochal first series with scripter Gardner Fox and illustrators Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs seemingly able to do no wrong…

And while we’re showing our gratitude, lets also salute stalwart letterer Gaspar Saladino for his herculean but unsung efforts to make the uncanny clear to us all…

The adventures here focus on the collective exploits of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, J’onn J’onzz – Manhunter from Mars, Green Arrow, The Atom, hip and plucky mascot Snapper Carr and latest inductee Hawkman as the team consolidate their hold on young hearts and minds whilst further transforming the entire nature of the American comicbook experience…

JLA #31 finally saw the induction of the Winged Wonder into ‘The World’s Greatest Superheroes’ – and not before time. However, in this ancient world of Boy’s Clubs and willing segregation, his dutiful wife and partner Shayera would have to wait for more than a decade before she herself was invited to join as Hawkgirl. Hawkman would be the last successful inductee until Black Canary joined the team in #75.

‘Riddle of the Runaway Room’ sees an alien wish-granting machine fall into the hands of second-rate thug Joe Parry, who nonetheless makes life pretty tough for the team before their eventual victory over his bizarre amalgamized multi-powered villain Super-Duper (no, really!).

The visually impressive Hawkman must have been popular with the creators, if not the fans, as he was prominently featured in all but one of next half-dozen adventures. Issue #32’s ‘Attack of the Star-Bolt Warrior!’ introduces the uncanny villain Brain Storm who attacks the League to avenge his brother who had been “murdered” by one of their number!

The entire universe was once again at stake in time-travelling thriller ‘Enemy from the Timeless World’ as the team strive to counter a chronal monster dubbed the Endless One, after which a persistent old foe had yet another go in #34’s ‘The Deadly Dreams of Doctor Destiny!’: a thriller packed with an army of guest-villains.

The team are attacked by their own clothes in issue #35’s supernatural adventure ‘Battle Against the Bodiless Uniforms’, a devilish fall-back plan concocted by the antediluvian demons Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast, which had been slowly percolating since the end of JLA #11.

Issue #36’s ‘The Case of the Disabled Justice League’ sees the team raise the morale of despondent kids with disabilities by overcoming their own recently-inflicted physical handicaps to defeat the returning Brain Storm. This tale was in fact inspired by ‘A Place in the World’, a Justice Society of America adventure from 1945’s All Star Comics #27. That yarn was produced at a time when returning servicemen, maimed and disfigured in combat, were becoming an increasingly common sight on the streets of America…

The third annual JLA/JSA team-up follows, a largely forgotten and rather experimental tale wherein the Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 wrests control of the genie-like Thunderbolt from his Justice Society counterpart and uses its magic to alter the events that led to the creation of all Earth-1’s superheroes.

Then it’s JSA to the rescue in a gripping battle of wits in #37’s ‘Earth – Without a Justice League’ and the concluding ‘Crisis on Earth-A!’

Issue #39 was an Eighty-Page Giant reprinting Brave and the Bold #28 and #30 and Justice League of America #5 (represented here by its evocative cover), so we jump to #40 and the ‘Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island’: a challenging mystery wherein an astral scientist’s machine to suppress Man’s basest instincts almost causes the end of humanity. The result is an action-packed psycho-thriller stuffed with villainous guest-stars and oodles of action before this compendium concludes with JLA #41 which introduces a modern version of an old Justice Society villain.

The Earth-1 mastermind called The Key is a diabolical scientist who employs mild-altering psycho-chemicals to control the behaviour of our heroes in ‘The Key – Master of the World!’

With iconic covers by Sekowsky & Murphy Anderson, these tales are a perfect example of all that was best about the Silver Age of comics, combining optimism and ingenuity with bonhomie and adventure. This slice of better times also has the benefit of cherishing wonderment whilst actually being historically valid for any fan of our medium. And best of all the stories here are still captivating and enthralling transports of delight.

These classical compendia are a dedicated fan’s delight: an absolute gift for modern readers who desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic…
© 1964, 1965, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Golden Age Human Torch Marvel Masterworks: volume 1 #2-5A

By Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Paul Reinman, Joe Simon, Al Gabriele, Harry Sahle, George Mandel, Stan Lee, Sid Greene & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1623-3 (HB)                    978-0785167778 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A little fireside fun and frolic… 8/10

During the early Golden Age, a novel idea and sheer exuberance could take you far, and since the alternative means of entertainment escapism for most kids were severely limited, it just wasn’t that hard to make a go of it as a comic book publisher.

Combine that once in a life-time moment with a creative work-force which kept being drafted, and it’s clear to see why declining standards of story and art didn’t greatly affect month-to-month sales during World War II, but promptly started a cascade-decline in super-hero strips almost as soon as GI boots hit US soil again.

In 1940 the comicbook industry was in frantic expansion mode and every publisher was trying to make and own the Next Big Thing. The Goodman pulp fiction outfit leapt into the new industry and scored big through debut anthology Marvel Comics in the Fall of 1939 (becoming Marvel Mystery with its second issue), with both the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner finding huge favour amongst the burgeoning, fickle readership. Two out of seven was pretty good: Action and Detective Comics only had the one super-star apiece…

An editorial policy of rapid expansion was in play: release a new book filled with whatever the art and script-monkeys of the comics “shop” had dreamed up and not yet sold. Shops – freelance creative studios who packaged material on spec for publishing houses – were the big facilitators of the early days, and Martin Goodman bought all his product from Lloyd Jacquet’s Funnies Inc.) Like every other money-man, he kept the popular hits and disregarded everything else as soon as sales reports came in.

In quick succession Daring Mystery Comics #1 (January. 1940) and Mystic Comics #1 (March 1940) followed, with limited success and a rapid turnover of concepts and features. Timely Comics – or occasionally Red Circle – as the company then called itself, had a huge turnover of characters who only made one or two appearances before vanishing, never to be seen again until various modern revivals or recreations produced new, improved versions of heroes like Black Widow, Thin Man, the original Angel, Citizen V or Red Raven.

That last one is especially relevant here. Although fresh characters were plentiful, physical resources were not and when the company’s fourth title Red Raven #1 was released with an August 1940 cover-date it failed to ignite any substantial attention with either title character or B-features Comet Pierce, Mercury, Human Top, Eternal Brain and Magar the Mystic, despite being crammed with the stunning early work of young Jack Kirby.

The magazine and its entire cast was killed and the publishing slot and numbering handed over to a proven seller. Thus, Human Torch launched with #2 (Fall 1940) – the first issue to solo star the flammable android hero, and one which introduced his own fiery side-kick.

Just so’s you know; the next two releases fared a little better: Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941) and inevitably, a singular title for Sub-Mariner (Fall 1941)…

Although the material in this collection is of variable quality and probably not to the tastes of modern fans, for devotees of super-heroes, aficionados of historical works and true Marvel Zombies there’s still lots to offer here. It’s probably best to also remind readers that these stories were created in far less enlightened times and racial depictions and treatments leave a lot to be desired. But that’s history, and we need to see it, warts – not to mention slurs and gross misconceptions – and all…

After a knowledgeable and informative introduction by Roy Thomas, the hot-dogging begins with ‘Introducing Toro – the Flaming Torch Kid’ by Carl Burgos wherein the blazing star discovers a circus boy possessing all his own incendiary abilities, before fighting a criminal strongman with a ray-gun.

The misnamed elder Torch was actually a miraculous android and not at all human, but here he acquires a plucky, excitable teen assistant who would become his faithful comrade for (almost all) the remainder of his career…

This is followed by Bill Everett’s ‘Sub-Mariner Crashes New York Again!!!’ as sub-sea stalwart Prince Namor once more attacks America, after which ‘Carl Burgos’ Hot Idea’ and ‘Bill Everett’s Hurricane’ provide text features supposedly detailing how the respective creators came up with their tempestuous brain-children…

The remaining stories are pretty pedestrian. ‘The Falcon’ by Paul Reinman features a young District Attorney who corrects legal shortcomings and miscarriages of justice as a masked vigilante, ‘Microman’ (Harold Delay & Paul Quinn) stars a young boy exploring his own garden at insect-size before Mandrake knock-off ‘Mantor the Magician’ (by Al Gabriele) saw a fez-topped modern wizard battle crooks posing as ghosts.

Joe Simon’s Fiery Mask actually debuted in Daring Mystery #1 and ended his career here with ‘The Strange Case of the Bloodless Corpses’, with the multi-powered physician hunting a remorseless mad doctor terrorising the city…

Issue #3 is actually pretty impressive, with an ambitious and spectacular untitled 40-page Torch epic which reveals Toro seduced by Nazism, before seeing the patriotic light and burning off Hitler’s moustache, whilst John H. Compton’s text piece ‘Hot and Wet’ has the two elemental stars debate whose creator is best before a 20-page Sub-Mariner crossover (anticipating Marvel’s successful policy of the 1960s onward) finds Namor and the Torch teaming up to trash Nazi vessels sinking Allied convoys, and latterly scuttling a full invasion together.

By Human Torch #4 much of the work is clearly being ghosted to a greater or lesser degree. The Torch takes far too long solving the ever-so-simple ‘Mystery of the Disappearing Criminals’, after which Ray Gill introduces star-spangled hero The Patriot in a 2-page text piece.

At least Everett is still very much in evidence and on top form when the Sub-Mariner takes ten beautiful pages to save an Alaskan village from plague, blizzards, an onrushing glacier and incendiary bombs in a genuine forgotten classic, before lacklustre Captain America knock-off The Patriot shambles through a proper comic-strip tale of Bundist (that’s German/American Nazi sympathizers to you, kid) saboteurs to close the issue.

That line-up continued in the last issue reprinted here (Human Torch #5A, Summer 1941, and the “A” is because the series did a little lock-step to catch up with itself: the next issue would also be a #5). Here, however, the fiery star and his Flaming Kid clash in a two-part epic with a mad scientist named Doc Smart in ‘The March of Death’, then join forces again with Namor in a Stan Lee scripted prose vignette entitled ‘The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner Battle the Nazi Super Shell of Death!’

Sub-Mariner and guest-star the Angel followed, fighting Nazi zombies in ‘Blitzkrieg of the Living Dead’ (attributed to Bill Everett, but clearly overwhelmed by lesser hands in the inking and perhaps even pencilling stages) after which The Patriot wraps thing up in a bold and experimental job from future art great Sid Greene. Here the Red, White and Blue Home-front Hero tracks down a Nazi who kills by playing the violin…

I’m happy to have this book (available in premium hardback, trade paperback and digital formats), even with all the quibbles and qualifications, but I’m a funnybook addict and can understand why anyone other than a life-long Marvel fan would baulk at a rather steep price-tag, with a wealth of better-quality and more highly regarded Golden Age material available. Still, value is one thing and worth another, so in the end it’s up to you…
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