Black Jack volume 1


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9 (Tankōbon PB)

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry…

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary working miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who makes surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

These translated, collected adventures – available paperback and digital formats – begin with the frankly startling ‘Is There a Doctor?’, wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second – ‘The First Storm of Spring’ – tells the eerie, poignant tale of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so, what was he truly like?

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures, the enclosed “spare parts” start to distend the body, appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion requires the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. Many Japanese have a frankly unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection – for more search “the Hibakusha” – and this case is a much about stigma and position as wellbeing…

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate, they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth. Overcoming incredible resistance, Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors, he then builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern, I mean lacking a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’, she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when undertaking a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables before the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved true sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from, this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades-old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ before this first collection concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate some people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, battles of a prescribing Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Japanese Magical Realism to rival the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Mostly though, these are highly addictive tales of heroism; ones that that will stay with you forever.
© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volute 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2 (Album PB)

The myths and legends of the cinematic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunslingers. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential all-ages classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud, the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18thalbum Blue retro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war). Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th European volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle, Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition, the Generals opt to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions. The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance. Then one bright, over-privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unusable Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, but his leg wound might be minor, self-inflicted or possibly utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can, but the simmering tensions and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away. Rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors try to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebels are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash, town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions.

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by our down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Clifton volume 1: My Dear Wilkinson


By De Groot & Turk translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905469-06-9 (Album PB)

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – especially the French and Belgians – are fascinated with us Brits. Gosh, I wonder if that’s still the case…?

Whether it’s Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or even the further travails of Long John Silver, or the amassed amateur sleuths of the Detection Club, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles have cut a dashing swathe through the pages of the Continent’s assorted magazines and albums.

And then there’s Clifton

Originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for Le Journal de Tintin, the doughty troubleshooter first appeared in December 1959.

After three albums worth of short strip material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot left the magazine to join arch-rival Le Journal de Spirou and the eccentric comedy crime-fighter floundered until Tintin revived and repurposed him at the height of the Swinging London scene courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg. These strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

He was furloughed again until the mid-1970s when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois revived Clifton for the long haul, producing ten tales of which this –Ce cher Wilkinson: Clifton from 1978 – was the fifth.

From 1984 onward artist Bernard Dumont AKA Bédu limned De Groot’s scripts before eventually assuming the writing chores too until the series folded in 1995. In keeping with its rather haphazard but Diehard nature, Clifton resurfaced again in 2003, crafted by De Groot and Michel Rodrigue in four further adventures; a grand total of 26 to date.

The setup is deliciously simple: pompous and irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, ex-RAF and recently retired from MI5, has a great deal of difficulty accommodating being put out to pasture in rural Puddington. He thus takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, occasionally assisting the Government or needy individuals as a gentleman troubleshooter.

Sadly, for Clifton – as with that other much-underappreciated national treasure Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – he is keenly aware that he is usually the only truly competent man in a world full of blithering idiots…

In this initial translated adventure first seen in 2005 – and at last available in digital formats – the forceful personality is seething at home one night, reading ghost stories when a sequence of odd events culminates in both he and his nationally celebrated cook and housekeeper Miss Partridge witnessing plates of food and glasses of wine flying about and crashing to the floor.

Fortifying themselves with the remaining sherry, the staunch duo repair to their separate beds unaware that a very live presence has been spying on them and playing pranks…

The next day finds the perplexed sleuth at the town library, scanning the stacks for reports of similar phenomena and tediously regaled by one of the whippersnapper counter-staff who just happens to be an amateur and closet psychokinetic: demonstrably and smugly able to move small objects with the power of his mind…

With proof of a rather more rational explanation for recent events and an appropriate reference tome, Clifton bones up and is soon made annoyingly aware of stage performer the Great Wilkinson who is reputedly the world’s greatest exponent of the art of psychokinesis.

A quick jaunt to London in the old red sports car soon sees the former spy getting along famously with a diminutive performer who happily agrees to come down to Puddington and recce the Colonel’s troubled home. To be perfectly frank, the smiling showman is far more interested in meeting celebrated chef Miss Partridge…

A pleasant afternoon is interrupted by old associate Chief Inspector John Haig of Scotland Yard who is drowning in an uncanny mystery and desperately needful of a second opinion from MI5’s most self-congratulatory alumnus. Giant safes are going missing, seemingly plucked from buildings as if by mighty, invisible hands…

Thus proceeds a wickedly fast-paced romp with a genuine mystery tale at its comedic core. Clifton and Co fumble their way past roguish red herrings and through a labyrinthine maze of clues to the lair of a canny criminal mastermind with what seems the perfect MO. However, long before justice triumphs, the tinderbox temper of the suave sleuth is repeatedly triggered by clodhopping cops, obnoxious officials, short-fused chefs, imbecilic bystanders and a succession of young fools and old clowns all getting in the way and utterly spoiling the thrill of the chase…

Delightfully surreal, utterly accessible and doused with daft slapstick in the manner of Jacques Tati or our own Carry Onfilms (sans the saucy “slap ‘n’ tickle” stuff), this light-action epic rattles along in the grand old tradition of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim – or Wallace and Gromit and Mr Bean if you’re a callow yoof – offering readers a splendid treat and loads of timeless laughs.
Original edition © 1978 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1988 by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 17


By Jim Shooter, Jim Starlin, Roger Stern, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, David Michelinie, Bill Mantlo, Mark Gruenwald, Sal Buscema, Dave Wenzel, Tom Morgan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1302903411 (HB)

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy, which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either. With the team now global icons, let’s look again at the stories which form the foundation of that pre-eminence.

Re-presenting Avengers #164-177, Avengers Annual #7 plus the concluding half of the legendary crossover epic from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (cumulatively spanning October 1977 to November 1978), these stories again see the team in transition and against the biggest threats ever imagined.

During this period Jim Shooter, having galvanised and steadied the company’s notional flagship, moved on, leaving David Michelinie to impress his own ideas and personality upon the team, even as Cosmic Doomsmith Jim Starlin recruited the team to inscribe an epic ending to his seminal interpretation of tragic antihero Adam Warlock

Opening this titanic tome is an informative Foreword from scripter Roger Stern, followed by a stunning 3-part saga by Shooter, John Byrne & Pablo Marcos which reinvented one of the team’s oldest adversaries.

It begins in #164 as, after months of speculation and experimentation, the resurrected Wonder Man is finally revealed to have evolved into a creature of pure ionic energy. Elsewhere, aging Maggia Don Count Nefaria recruits Whirlwind, Power Man (the original mercenary who had undergone the same transformative experiment as Wonder Man) and Living Laser to amass plunder for him. This tactic is mere subterfuge…

After the thieves trash a squad of Avengers, Nefaria uses his flunkies’ bodies as templates and power source to turn himself into a literal Superman before attacking the already-battered heroes in ‘To Fall by Treachery!’

The tension builds in #165 as ‘Hammer of Vengeance’ sees the out-powered team fall, only to be saved by elderly speedster The Whizzer who points out that, for all his incredible strength, Nefaria too is an old man with death inevitably dogging his heels…

Panicked and galvanised, the Overman goes berserk, carving a swathe of destruction through the city whilst seeking a confrontation with Thunder God Thor and the secret of his immortality. Before too long he had reason to regret his demands. The surprise arrival of the Thunderer in ‘Day of the Godslayer!’ ends the madman’s dreams but also highlights growing tensions within the victorious team…

This superb thriller is followed by ‘The Final Threat’ (Jim Starlin & Joe Rubinstein) from Avengers Annual #7, wherein Kree warrior Captain Marvel and Titanian mind-goddess Moondragon return to Earth with vague anticipations of an impending cosmic catastrophe.

Their premonitions are confirmed when galactic wanderer Adam Warlock arrives with news that death-obsessed Thanos has amassed an alien armada and built a Soul-gem powered weapon to snuff out the stars like candles…

Broaching interstellar space to stop the scheme, the united heroes forestall the stellar invasion and prevent the Dark Titan from destroying the Sun, but only at the cost of Warlock’s life…

Then ‘Death Watch!’ (Starlin & Rubinstein from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2) finds Peter Parker plagued by prophetic nightmares, disclosing how Thanos had snatched victory from defeat and now holds the Avengers captive whilst again preparing to extinguish Sol.

With nowhere else to turn, the anguished, disbelieving Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building, hoping to borrow a spacecraft, unaware that The Thing also has history with the terrifying Titan.

Although utterly overmatched, the mismatched champions of Life subsequently upset Thanos’ plans enough so that the Avengers and the Universe’s true agent of retribution can end the Titan’s threat forever… or at least until next time…

Back in the monthly, an epic of equal import was about to unfold. Shooter’s connection to the series, although episodic, was long-lived and produced some of that period’s greatest tales, none more so than the stellar – if deadline-doomed – saga which occurred over succeeding months: a sprawling tale of time-travel and universal conquest which began in Avengers #167-168 and, after a brief pause, resumed for #170 through #177.

In previous issues a difference of opinion between Captain America and Iron Man over leadership styles had begun to polarise the team. Cracks appeared and tensions started to show in #167 with ‘Tomorrow Dies Today!’ (Shooter, George Pérez & Marcos).

In the Gods-&-Monsters filled Marvel Universe there are entrenched and jealous Hierarchies of Power, so when a new player mysteriously materialises in the 20th century the very Fabric of Reality is threatened…

It kicks off when star-spanning 31st century superheroes the Guardians of the Galaxy materialise in Earth orbit, hotly pursuing cyborg despot Korvac. Inadvertently setting off planetary incursion alarms, their minor-moon sized ship is swiftly penetrated by an Avengers squad, and – after the customary introductory squabble – the future men (Charlie-27, Yondu, Martinex, Nikki, Vance Astro and enigmatic space God Starhawk) explain the purpose of their mission…

Captain America had fought beside them to liberate their home era from Badoon rule and Thor battled the fugitive Korvac before, so peace soon breaks out, but even with the resources of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the time travellers are unable to find their quarry…

Meanwhile on Earth, a mysterious being named Michael lurks in the background. At a fashion show staged by the Wasp, he achieves a psychic communion with model Carina Walters before they both vanish…

‘First Blood’ (Avengers #168) stirs up more trouble as Federal liaison and hidebound martinet Henry Peter Gyrich begins making life bureaucratically hot for the maverick team. In Colorado, meanwhile, Hawkeye gets a shock as his travelling partner Two-Gun Kid vanishes before his eyes whilst in suburban Forest Hills, Starhawk – in his female iteration of Aleta – approaches a quiet residence…

Michael/Korvac’s plan consists of subtly altering events as he gathers strength in secret preparation for a sneak attack on those aforementioned Cosmic Hierarchies. His entire plan revolves around not being noticed. When Starhawk confronts him, the villain kills the stellar intruder and instantly resurrects him minus the ability to perceive Michael or any of his works…

The drama screeches to a halt in #169, which declares ‘If We Should Fail… The World Dies Tonight!’ The out of context potboiler – by Marv Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt – sees Cap, Iron Man and the Black Panther scour the planet in search of doomsday bombs wired to the failing heart of a dying man, after which the major mayhem resumes in #170 with ‘…Though Hell Should Bar the Way!’ by Shooter, Pérez & Marcos.

As Sentinel of Liberty and Golden Avenger finally settle their differences, in Inhuman city Attilan, ex-Avenger Quicksilver suddenly disappears even as dormant mechanoid Jocasta (designed by maniac AI Ultron to be his bride) goes on a rampage before vanishing into the wilds of New York City.

In stealthy pursuit and hoping her trail will lead to Ultron himself, the team stride into a trap ‘…Where Angels Fear to Tread’ but nevertheless triumph thanks to the hex powers of the Scarlet Witch, the assistance of pushy, no-nonsense new hero Ms. Marvel and Jocasta’s own rebellion against the metal monster who made her. However, at their moment of triumph the Avengers are stunned to see Cap and Jocasta wink out of existence…

The problems pile up in #172 as Watchdog-come-Gadfly Gyrich is roughly manhandled and captured by out-of-the-loop returnee Hawkeye and responds by rescinding the team’s Federal clearances.

Badly handicapped, the heroes are unable to warn other inactive members of the increasing disappearances even as a squad of heavy hitters rush off to tackle marauding Atlantean maverick Tyrak the Treacherous who is bloodily enacting a ‘Holocaust in New York Harbor!’ (by Shooter, Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson)…

Answers to the growing mystery are finally forthcoming in ‘Threshold of Oblivion!’, plotted by Shooter, with David Michelinie scripting for Sal Buscema & D(iverse) Hands to illustrate.

As the vanishings escalate, the remaining Avengers (Thor, Wasp, Hawkeye and Iron Man – with the assistance of Vance Astro) finally track down their hidden foe and beam into a cloaked starship to liberate the ‘Captives of the Collector!’(Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Dave Wenzel & Marcos)…

After a staggering struggle, the heroes triumph and their old foe reveals the shocking truth: he is in fact an Elder of the Universe who foresaw cosmic doom millennia previously and sought to preserve special artefacts and creatures – such as the Avengers – from the slowly approaching apocalypse.

As he reveals that predicted end-time is here and that he has sent his own daughter Carina to infiltrate the Enemy’s stronghold, the cosmic curator is obliterated in a devastating blast of energy. The damage however is done and the entrenched hierarchies of creation may well be alerted…

Issue #175 began the final countdown as ‘The End… and Beginning!’ (Shooter, Michelinie, Wenzel & Marcos) sees the amassed and liberated ranks of Avengers and Guardians follow the clues to Michael, just as the new god shares the incredible secret of his apotheosis with Carina, before ‘The Destiny Hunt!’ and ‘The Hope… and the Slaughter!’ (Shooter, Wenzel, Marcos & Ricardo Villamonte) depicts the entire army of champions destroyed and resurrected as Michael easily overpowers all opposition but falters for lack of one fundamental failing…

Spread through a series of lesser adventures, the overarching epic ponderously and ominously unfolds before finally exploding into a devastating and tragic Battle Royale that is the epitome of superhero comics. This is pure escapist fantasy at its finest.

Despite being somewhat diminished by the artwork when the magnificent Pérez gave way to less inspired hands and cursed by the inability to keep a regular inker (Pablo Marcos, Klaus Janson Ricardo Villamonte and Tom Morgan all pitched in), the sheer scope of the epic plot nevertheless carries this story through to its cataclysmic and fulfilling conclusion.

Even Shooter’s reluctant replacement by scripters Dave Michelinie and Bill Mantlo (as his editorial career advanced) couldn’t derail this juggernaut of adventure.

If you want to see what makes Superhero fiction work, and can keep track of nearly two dozen flamboyant characters, this is a fine example of how to make such an unwieldy proposition easily accessible to the new and returning reader.

Available in hardback and digital iterations, and supplemented by original cover art by Pérez and Dave Cockrum, contemporary House Ads, editorial material and covers from previous compilations plus an epilogue strip by Mark Gruenwald & Tom Morgan, this archival tome and this type of heroic adventure might not be to every reader’s taste but these – and the truly epic yarns that followed – set the tone for fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas for decades to come and informed all those movies everybody loves. This tale can still boggle the mind and take the breath away, even here in the quietly isolated and no less dangerous 21st century…

No lovers of Costumed Dramas can afford to ignore this superbly bombastic book, and fans who think themselves above superhero stories might also be pleasantly surprised…
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Popeye Classics volume 6


By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1631403255 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-62302-786-5

How many cartoon classics can you think of still going after a century? Here’s one…

There are a few fictional personages to enter communal world consciousness – and fewer still from comics – but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a general handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator, house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house, he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, at age 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others in those hard times, he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most in the know today as the inventor of modern newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

The celebrated pioneer introduced Segar around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, the kid’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918, Segar married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a smart pastiche of cinema and knock-off of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory of stock players to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences. It didn’t stay that way for long…

The core cartoon cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl; their lanky, highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and the homely ingenue’s plain and (very) simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (latterly, just Ham Gravy).

Segar had been successfully, steadily producing Thimble Theatre for a decade when he introduced a brusque, vulgar “sailor man” into the daily ongoing saga of hapless halfwits on January 17th 1929. Nobody suspected the giddy heights that stubborn cantankerous walk-on would reach…

Many Happy Returns, you old matelot, you…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle. This one endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career. The feature even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great humour stylist: Bud Sagendorf.

After Segar’s far-too-premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the strip, even as the Fleischer Studio’s animated features brought Popeye to the entire world, albeit a slightly different vision of the old salt of the funny pages. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments. But then, finally, Bud arrived…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his drawing supplies – introduced the kid to the master cartoonist who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, after years on the periphery, Sagendorf finally took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf became the main man, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. Bud wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena for 24 years and when he died in 1994, he was succeeded by controversial “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London.

Young Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards was exclusive writer and illustrator of Popeye’s comicbook adventures. These launched in February of that year in a regular monthly title published by America’s unassailable king of periodical licensing, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not; a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone…

Naturally, as his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows, but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in their entirety in this beguiling full-colour hardback (also available in digital editions) are issues #25-29 of Popeye’s comic book series, produced by the irrepressible Sagendorf and collectively spanning July-September 1953 to July-September 1954.

The stunning, nigh stream-of-consciousness slapstick sagas are preceded by an effusively appreciative ‘Society of Sagendorks’ mission statement by inspired aficionado, historian and publisher Craig Yoe, offering a mirthful mission statement after which the regular collation of ephemera and a merchandise dubbed the ‘Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’ shares cover art domestic and foreign; themed key-rings, art from Segar Russell (Broom-Hilda) Myers and excerpts from Bud’s Artists Cartoon Course (1960). Also included are ghosted Thimble Theatre strips he did during the Tom Sim/Bela Zaboly era, commissioned cast sketches and assorted trivia such as packaging for the Popeye Funny Face Maker and a TV syndication ad.

We rejoin the ceaseless parade of laughs, surreal imagination and thrills with #25 which opens and closes with a prose yarn adorning both inside front and back covers. ‘Bread Time!’ reveals how a cow named Harriet deals with her unlikely passion for baked goods before the comic capers commence with ‘Shrink Weed!’ as some “wild spinach” reduces the old salt and baby Swee’Pea to the size of insects with potentially dire and outrageous consequences…

Sagendorf was a smart guy in tune with popular trends and fashions as well as understanding how kids’ minds worked. His tales are timeless in approach and delivery. In the era of rapid television expansion, cowboys were King, with westerns dominating both large and small screens as well as plenty of comics. Thus, many sagas featured Popeye as a horse-riding sagebrush wanderer who ran a desert railroad when he wasn’t prospecting…

‘Live Game’ finds infant Swee’Pea contending with a little Indian boy and his pet bear before teaming up to play a prank on the adults after which back-up feature Sherm features another bright spark youngster. Here the kid succumbs to the juvenile blandishments of the girl next door in ‘Ah Love!’

Issue #26 opens and closes with text tale ‘Cat Fish’ as an inner-city moggy imaginatively satisfies a yearning for fresh fodder, whilst ‘Popeye and the Gang’ face an invasion of ‘Spookers!’ intent of avenging themselves on senior reprobate Poopdeck Pappy after which ‘Popeye and Swee’Pea in “Kid Raising!!”’ finds Popeye and Olive using book learning to counter Swee’Pea’s pester power.

Following the trend for sci fi fun, new feature ‘Axle and Cam on the Planet Meco’ introduces a robotic father and son in a wild romp featuring a spare-parts scavenging rogue called the Black Mechanic

Popeye #27 (January-March 1954) starts with a prose parable about a blacksmith’s cat discovering a new toy in ‘Space Ball!’ before the entire cartoon cast visit ‘The Happy Little Island’ and confront subsurface creatures doing their darndest to spoil that jolly atmosphere.

Popeye and Swee’Pea then clash as the little nipper tries boosting his strength with a spinach overdose in ‘Full Power!’, before Axle and Cam on the Planet Meco! sees the clever kid construct a junk yard dog from junk yard junk…

In #28 ‘Fowl! Fowl!’ offers a text yarn about an alley cat promising a slap-up feed for his pals before ‘Popeye and Swee’Pea! in “Moneybag! Or Buddy, Can You Spare a Nugget?”’ sees old moocher Wimpy bamboozle himself when he sees Swee’Pea playing with Popeye’s bullion bags…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiably ravenous J. Wellington Wimpy debuted in the newspaper strip on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s pugilistic bouts. The scurrilous yet scrupulously polite oaf struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to solicit bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and “Let’s you and him fight” – Wimpy is the perfect foil for a simple action hero who increasingly stole the entire show… and anything else unless it was extremely well nailed down…

He’s no match for the kid, though…

Calamity strikes courtesy of the sinister Sea Hag next as ‘“Weed Shortage” or “Pass the Spinach!”’ finds the sailor man scuppered by a global spinach blight. Captured by his frightful foe, the weakened water warrior needs the motivation of Wimpy and sweety-pie Olive to save his own bacon…

Axle and Cam on the Planet Meco then clash as the junior robot starts copying human kids and their bizarre games, and dad tries to set him straight…

Closing the comic capers for now, Popeye #29 (July-September 1954) opens with prose poser ‘Nine for Nine’ wherein Garry the Cat plays fast and loose with his stockpile of spare lives. Popeye then excels in another epic confrontation with the Sea Hag, who unleashes magical menace ‘The Boo-Bird!’ in the certainty that the old salt has no defence. Yet again, the villain underestimates Olive and the restorative power of spinach…

When Popeye refuses to give his kid a dime, Swee’Pea consults Wimpy and crafts a brilliant get-rich quick scheme in ‘Pay Dirt!’ after which ‘Axle and Cam!’ sees dad swept off his feet by the boy’s latest fun invention…

Outrageous and side-splitting, these all-ages yarns are evergreen examples of surreal narrative cartooning at its most inspirational. Over the last nine decades Thimble Theatre’s most successful son has unfailingly delighted readers and viewers around the world. This book is simply one of many, but definitely top-tier entertainment for all those who love lunacy, laughter, frantic fantasy and rollicking adventure. If that’s you, add this compendium of wonder to your collection.
Popeye Classics volume 6 © 2015 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2015 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Who is Wonder Woman?


By Allan Heinberg, Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1233-9 (HB) 978-1-4012-7233-3 (TPB)

Wonder Woman debuted in October 1941. With such a big anniversary and her second movie out at last (sort of) this year seems ideal to focus some attention on her lesser-known graphic triumphs. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

When the Amazing Amazon was relaunched in the wake of mega-crossover events Infinite Crisis and 52 with art stars Terry & Rachel Dodson illustrating the scripts of TV heavy hitter Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C. and Sex and the City among others), there was much well-deserved media attention. However, the comic was plagued by missed deadlines and most of the series’ initial momentum was lost. After the fourth issue the saga was simply abandoned unfinished. A new writer stepped in with very impressive results (although that’s a tale for another time and, a separate review) while the original creators regrouped. The initial story-arc was eventually concluded in Wonder Woman Annual volume 2, #1.

When all the dust settled, the completed adventure was collected in this impressive if slim hardback and paperback and we can finally judge the story on its actual merit – unless you only read digital editions. Still. It can’t be long now, can it?

Following the reality realignments of Infinite Crisis, there was a hiatus of a year when Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman vanished. Sort of…

This story opens with an Amazon warrior battling some of Wonder Woman’s most fantastic villains and menaces, but she’s not Princess Diana of Themyscira. Rather Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl, has taken the role – and excelled – but said oldest enemies have joined forces under the aegis of a mysterious mastermind and captured the replacement – as well as the new Wonder Girl…

Enter Sarge Steel, super spy Nemesis and the latest recruit to the Department of Metahuman Affairs, field agent Diana Prince! In case you’re a complete neophyte regarding Amazon continuity, that’s supposed to be a big, bewildering shock because Diana is secretly the original Wonder Woman herself…

What follows is an enjoyable romp with glamorous and spectacular “big visuals” art from the Dodsons, as Diana ultimately resumes her place in DC’s Trinity of megastars whilst also assuming a valid “ordinary” human life to complement the superwoman persona – although that’s a fairly relative term when said life consists of a super-spy day job.

This big, bold extravaganza repositions Wonder Woman at the heart of DC continuity and attempts to rationalise the disparate, if not clashing, elements that kept various versions of the character at the forefront of debate for decades. Most fans ask not Who is Wonder Woman but rather, Which version is Best?

Perhaps, in cases of such vigorous debate, maybe it’s safest simply to get them all…
© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Invisible ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist


By Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-895-3 (HB)

Starting life as an underground feature in 1971, Bill Griffith’s absurdist commentary on American society Zippy the Pinhead has grown into such a prodigious and pervasive counter-culture landmark that it’s almost a bastion of the civilisation it constantly scrutinises and ridicules.

What I never suspected before and – according to the revelations stunningly catalogued and depicted in this powerful and absorbing Graphic Memoir, nor did he – was the subtle influence the gods of cartooning had been constantly exerting upon his family’s lives for generations…

As much a detective yarn and fond memorial to simpler (but just as complex) times as a straight biography, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist reveals how the cartoonist and social commentator (already long-schooled in the proud achievements of artistic ancestor and photographic pioneer William Henry Jackson) uncovered further pictorial predecessors and briefly became an impassioned genealogist and investigator after an elderly uncle decided it was time to pass on a boxful of dusty family memorabilia.

An uneventful yet evocative journey from Connecticut to North Carolina – miles slowly passing as the traveller is immersed in internet research – starts memories flowing and when Uncle Alan hands over a historical treasure trove the naturally contemplative cartoonist’s childhood memories are triggered and his instincts for a good story are piqued…

Griffith’s thoughts continually return to his own childhood in Levittown when he and his passionate, beautiful, aspiring-author mother regularly posed for neighbour and legendary pulp illustrator Ed Emshwiller’s many magazine covers. By the time the voyager stops discussing the past, Bill is powerfully aware of just how real and earthy and fallibly human his relatives were. As yet, however, the discourse still offers no insight into why his own cold, abusive father turned out the way he did…

Meticulous Alan is a mine of useful minutiae with his catalogue of familial foibles and passed-down stories, but even he is un aware of Barbara Griffith (nee Jackson)’s greatest indiscretion: a 15-year, full-on, tempestuous love affair with cartoonist, cartooning-teacher, publisher, comicbook pioneer, crime-writer and indefatigably restless entrepreneur Lawrence Lariar: an innocuously smooth operator who, although moderately successful for his entire life, was, in many ways, the Forgotten Man of Comics.

With the flow of information now going both ways, Bill shares the day in 1972 when word came of his dad’s imminent death and of how, in a moment of overwhelmed, grieving guilt  – and with the family all gathered at the hospital – his mother-the-widow of mere minutes confessed that she had been wife in all but name to another man since 1957…

As Bill further re-examines his own memories, cross-referencing with pictures, diaries and his mother’s epic unpublished novel which clearly and cleanly transfers her complicated life into the refuge of putative fiction, a series of pictures begins to form…

Startlingly frank, scrupulously detailed, diligently analytical and brilliantly reconstructed using a variety of styles, this is a fact-filled, graphic tour de force elevating the players to the rank of archetypes whilst still leaving them authentic, living creatures we are convinced we know.

Superbly applying the techniques of fiction to the discipline of documentary, Invisible Ink (available in hardback and digital editions) is a wonderful exemplar of real-world comics and one no serious reader can afford to miss.
© 2015 Bill Griffith. All rights reserved.

Spirit of Wonder


By Kenji Tsuruta, translated
ISBN: 978-1-56971-288-7 (Tankōbon PB)

Just re-read this and it’s still great…

Despite carrying all the trappings of a blistering science fiction comedy romp, acclaimed author/illustrator Kenji Tsuruta’s beguiling fantasy Spirit of Wonder is a sweet romantic comedy with genteel, anything is possible sentimental yearning as the driving force.

Set in a charming alternate time and place so like our own world, it follows the Byzantine trials and tribulations of feisty, beautiful tavern owner Miss China and her truly bizarre, indigent and obnoxious upstairs tenants – genuinely bonkers Professor Breckenridge and his gorgeous, hunky assistant Jim Floyd

Creator Tsuruta (Emanon, Wandering Island) was born in 1961 and studied optical science, intending to pursue a career in photography before happily making the jump to narrative storytelling as manga artist, designer, book illustrator and anime creator.

A lifelong fan of “hard science” science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein and the comics of Tetsuya Chiba and Yukinobu (Saber Tiger) Hoshino, Tsuruta began selling his own works in 1986 after years of producing self-published dōjinshi whilst working as an assistant to established manga stars. His short fantasy serial Hiroku te suteki na uchū ja nai ka (‘What a Big Wonderful Universe It Is’) was published in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine and his path was set.

Soon after, he began this enticing, enchanting scientific romance of gently colliding worlds which ran in both Weekly Morning and monthly magazine Afternoon – between 1987 and 1996 – before making the smooth transition to animated features and an award-winning TV series.

This English edition comes courtesy of Dark Horse Comics who published the first few translated episodes as a 5-issue monochrome miniseries in 1995-6.

In a comfortable faux-Victorian milieu, the exotic immigrant Lady China runs the Ten-Kai Tavern in the sleepy yet cosmopolitan port-town of Bristol. The generally peaceful burg hardly ever-changes, but China’s life is one of constant struggle to make a comfortable living, especially as she rents her upstairs rooms to a couple of crackpot deadbeats who continually mess up the place with their idiotic contraptions and persistently fail to pay rent.

The older guy is truly annoying and doesn’t care about anything beyond his latest weird invention but his assistant is a rather sweet and delightful young man who has captured China’s fast-beating heart…

The wonderment begins on another belated rent day with ‘Miss China’s Ring or Doctor Breckenridge and the Amazing Ether Reflector mirror!’ wherein the frustrated landlady is again forced to employ her formidable martial arts skills to get the insufferable scholar’s attention – if not the long-delayed and constantly accruing cash payable.

It’s really not a good time: Breckenridge is entertaining potential investors in his latest creation which promises safe travel to the Moon…

The meeting does not end well and both landlady and tenant depart unsatisfied, whilst in another part of town, Jim – whose responsibilities include doing everything and somehow finding the money to pay for it – is picking up a vital component from pretty “florist” Lily (a girl with amazing connections able to procure anything wayward inventors might ever require).

Unfortunately, China sees the object of her desire spending what should be rent money on a very pretty flower girl and goes ballistic…

Floyd adores China too, but as a typical guy is utterly unable to tell her. He can, however, thanks to his mad mentor Breckenridge and some astounding discoveries left by his own vanished father – another technological miracle man – give her the moon.

Literally…

Jim gives China a ring as a birthday present but she is too furious to care. She wants rent not trinkets from a flighty gadabout. If only she could calm down enough, she would see that the gift is carved from actual moon rock, but beaten into a strategic retreat, Jim realises he needs to make a somewhat grander gesture…

Heartbroken, China falls asleep and is much calmer when she awakes. Bringing her troublesome tenants tea, she looks up into the sky and sees the message Jim has carved into the shining luminous lunar surface…

Stunned and troubled, she moves through the days in a dream. Even with the evidence above his head Breckenridge still can’t get anyone to bankroll him and is driven to unwise acts. Soon the entire world is imperilled by his etheric meddling and the moon is plummeting on a deadly collision course with Bristol.

Luckily, the uniquely physical and practical talents of Miss China are of some use in averting disaster if not setting things totally aright…

‘The Flight of Floyd’ opens with the Mad Professor oafishly seeking to make amends by giving China a flying broomstick, before concluding that he will never understand women. The lovelorn landlady simply wishes she could make Jim pay attention to her, superstitiously wishing upon a shooting star, but the object of her infatuation is preoccupied with completing his missing father’s gravity disrupter and with off-handed tactlessness explains that she’s doing it wrong…

Once again the cause of increasing China’s woes, the hapless Floyd decides to use his Gravitation Gate to make things right – by creating a permanent rain of meteors for the lovely landlady to wish upon, momentarily forgetting that whilst pretty in the evening sky, a bombardment of incandescent rock packs a bit of a punch when hitting terra firma…

The marvellous merriment concludes with ‘China Strikes Back parts 1 and 2, or Doctor Breckenridge and the Astounding Instantaneous Matter Transmitter!’, which finds times hard in Bristol as the town shivers under a blanket of snow, and cash-strapped, customer-starved Lady China is forced to get increasingly heavy with her free-loading lodgers. She is also taking out her bad moods on the townspeople and the few customers still frequenting the inn for food and drinks.

However, when she once again busts in the upstairs door in search of her overdue payments, she finds the Professor and Jim have vanished, taking all their ludicrous junk with them.

They haven’t gone far, however. In fact, they haven’t gone anywhere at all, but simply set up a system by which China’s entrances and exits teleport her to and from an empty set of duplicate rooms, leaving the unscrupulous tinkerers free to stay at the tavern without being bothered.

Sadly, they hadn’t bothered to soundproof the floors of the upper rooms or warn black market tech dealer Lily of their latest innovation and when China discovers the scam – in the most embarrassing manner possible – Jim is forced into a fury of improvisation before he’s able to make things right…

This enchanting blend of Steampunk and gleeful science whimsy is a sharp, wry and fantastically ingenious human drama, filled with gentle good humour and warmth, rendered with such astonishing sensitivity and imagination that the most outrageous scenes appear thoroughly rational, authentic and real – although sadly some people might focus far too much on the innocent, unconscious and completely casual nudity rather than the superb story and characterisations on display.

Filled with extra cover illustrations, pin-ups and an engaging interview with the creator, Spirit of Wonder is a treat for every open-hearted, big-minded romantic and one no fantasy fan should be denied. Let’s hope it will be back in circulation ASAP…
© 1996 Kenji Tsuruta. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Roy Thomas, Marie Severin, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Jack Katz & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5048-0 (HB)

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

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the elementally appealing fire vs. water headlining team in the October 1939 cover-dated Marvel Comics #1 which became Marvel Mystery Comics with issue #2. He shared honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated monochrome version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Rapidly emerging as one of the industry’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb darkly timely fantasy tales, but even his input wasn’t sufficient to keep the title afloat and Sub-Mariner sank again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby began reinventing comic book superheroes in 1961 with the groundbreaking Fantastic Four, they revived the awesome and all-but-forgotten amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac anti-hero. Decidedly more bombastic, regal and grandiose, the returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Susan Storm.

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

This fourth subsea selection – available in hardback and eBook editions – collects Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner #14-25, spanning June 1969 to May 1970 and opens with another heartfelt appreciation and some creative secret-sharing from sometime-scribe and life-long devotee Roy Thomas in his Introduction.

Innovative action and shameless nostalgia vie for attention as Thomas, Marie Severin and Mike Esposito (moonlighting as Joe Gaudioso) decree ‘Burn, Namor… Burn!’ in Sub-Mariner #14, as the Mad Thinker apparently resurrects the original – android – Human Torch and sets him to destroy the monarch of Atlantis. This epic clash was one prong of an early experiment in multi-part cross-overs (Captain Marvel #14 and Avengers #64 being the other episodes of the triptych).

Inked by Vince Colletta, ‘The Day of the Dragon!’ finds Namor back in Atlantis after months away, only to find his beloved Lady Dorma has been abducted by old foe Dr. Dorcas. The trail leads to Empire State University and brutal battle against mighty android Dragon Man

“Gaudioso” returned for Namor’s voyage to a timeless phenomenon in search of mutated foe Tiger Shark who had conquered ‘The Sea that Time Forgot!’, after which the Sub-Mariner contends with an alien intent on draining Earth’s oceans in ‘From the Stars… the Stalker!’ pencilled in tandem by Severin and Golden Age Great Jack Katz, using nom de plume Jay Hawk.

The saga ends calamitously in ‘Side by Side with… Triton!’ (Thomas, Severin & Gaudioso) as, with the help of the aquatic Inhuman, Namor repels the extraterrestrial assault, but loses his ability to breathe underwater. Now forced to dwell on the surface, the despised Atlantean then crushingly clashes with an old friend in the livery of a new superhero in ‘Support your Local Sting-Ray!’ This bombastic battle yarn also offers a delicious peek at the Marvel Bullpen, courtesy of (ex-EC veterans) Severin and inker Johnny Craig’s deft caricaturing skills…

John Buscema returns for #20, with Thomas scripting and Craig inking a chilling dose of realpolitik. ‘In the Darkness Dwells… Doom!’ sees Namor lured by the promise of a cure to his breathing difficulties into the exploitative clutches of the mad Monarch of Latveria. Trapping the Sub-Mariner and keeping him, however, are two wildly differing concepts…

Informed of Namor’s condition, the armies of Atlantis are marshalled by Dorma and disgraced Warlord Seth in ‘Invasion from the Ocean Floor!’ (art by Severin & Craig) besieging New York and almost invoking a new age of monsters.

As Namor’s malady is treated by Atlantean super-science, a key component of a new Superhero concept begins.

Last of the big star conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually count amongst its membership almost every hero – and a few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there as initially they were composed of the company’s bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, but before all that later inventive approbation linked tales of enigmatic antiheroes as best exemplified by Prince Namor, and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills became simply irresistible…

Following on from Dr. Strange #183 (November 1969) – which introduced the infernal Undying Ones, an elder race of demons hungry to reconquer the Earth – February 1970’s Sub-Mariner #22 ‘The Monarch and the Mystic!’ brought the Prince of Atlantis into the mix, as Thomas, Severin & Craig relate a moody tale of sacrifice in which the Master of the Mystic Arts apparently dies holding the gates of Hell shut with the Undying Ones pent behind them.

In case you’re curious, the saga concludes on an upbeat note in Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970). You might want to track down that yarn too…

Even restored to full capacity, there’s no peace for the regal, and Sub-Mariner #23 finds Namor still contending with Dorcas and arch villain Warlord Krang after the human mad scientist uses his power-transfer process to create an Atlantean wonder with the might of killer whales in ‘The Coming of… Orka!’ The slow-witted psycho subsequently sets an army of enraged cetaceans against the sunken city as John Buscema & Jim Mooney step in artistically to depict how ‘The Lady and the Tiger Shark!’ finds Namor enslaved and Dorma making Faustian pacts to save Atlantis.

This scintillating volume concludes with a landmark tale as – restored to rule and ready to be riled – Namor becomes an early and strident environmental activist after surface world pollution slaughters some of his subjects. Crafted by Thomas, Sal Buscema & Mooney, ‘A World My Enemy!’ follows Sub-Mariner’s bellicose confrontation with the UN as he puts humanity on notice: clean up your mess or I will…

From this point on the antihero would become a minor icon and subtle advocate of the issues, even if only to young comics readers…

These tales feature some of Marvel’s greatest artists at their visual peak, with all the verve and enthusiasm still shining through. Many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure fans will delight in forever.
© 1968, 1969, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tales of the Batman: Steve Englehart


By Steve Englehart, Sal Amendola, Walt Simonson, Marshall Rogers, Irv Novick, Dusty Abell, Javier Pulido, Trevor Von Eeden & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9554-7 (HB)

Steve Englehart was born on April 22, 1947 and, after studying psychology and earning a Batchelor of Arts from Wesleyan University in 1969, began a multi-pronged creative career incorporating novels, games and comics. He began as an art assistant to Neal Adams: one of the inking all-stars dubbed the “Crusty Bunkers” but the early 1970s, had switched to scripting. He was one of the most popular and innovative writers of superheroes in the field on titles such as Captain America, Hulk, Captain Marvel and others. In 1973 he and collaborator Jim Starlin brought martial arts to comics with Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. In his near 50-year career he has created and scripted countless comics wonders, but will probably be best regarded foe his astounding efforts on Batman.

Although his contributions to the Dark Knight’s canon are relatively few, they are all of exceptional quality as proved by this commemorative hardback and digital tome, reprinting his stories from Batman #311, Batman: Dark Detective #1-6, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #109-111, Detective Comics #439, 469-476, Legends of the DC Universe #26-27 and The Batman Chronicles #19, cumulatively spanning March 1974 to September 2005.

Kicking off the tense drama and flamboyant action is stand-alone saga ‘Night of the Stalker’ (from Detective #439, 1974), illustrated by Vin and Sal Amendola, with Dick Giordano inking one of most powerful intense and stories in the canon, hinting at the psychological traumas driving Batman, and a precursor of many future tales. Here, the Dark Knight is helpless to prevent another young boy from losing his parents to crime and becomes a remorseless, relentless avenger until justice is done…

In the mid-1970s Marvel were kicking the stuffings out of DC Comics in terms of sales if not quality product. The most sensible solution – as always – was poaching away top talent. That strategy had limited long-term success but one major defection was Englehart, who had recently scripted groundbreaking, award-winning work on The Avengers, Defenders and Dr. Strange titles.

He was given the Justice League of America for a year but also requested – and was given – the Batman slot in flagship title Detective Comics. Expected to be daring, innovative and forward looking, he instead chose to invoke a classic and long-departed style which became a new signature interpretation, and one credited with inspiring the 1989 movie mega-blockbuster. It also gibed perfectly with the notions of artistic partner Marshall Rogers and his inseparable inker Terry Austin. However, initially Englehart was paired with artists Walt Simonson & Al Milgrom for the series, who jointly introduced not only a skeletal, radioactive new villain but also Gotham’s corrupt City Council chief, Rupert “Boss” Thorne in epic opening gambit ‘…By Death’s Eerie Light!’ and supplementary opus of corruption ‘The Origin of Dr Phosphorus’

Here the Caped Crimebuster is first politically isolated and then outlawed in his own city. The art team also limned sequel ‘The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!’, debuting another landmark character: captivating and competent Modern Woman Silver St. Cloud.

With issue #471 (August 1977) relative newcomers Rogers & Austin took over and true magic began to be made. As the scripts brought back revered golden-age A-list villains, the art recaptured and reinforced the power and moodiness of the strip’s formative years: all whilst adding to the unique and distinctive iconography of the Batman.

Last seen in Detective Comics #46 (1940), quintessential Mad Scientist Hugo Strange came closer than any other villain to destroying both Bruce Wayne and the Batman in ‘The Dead Yet Live’ and ‘I Am The Batman!’ (Detective #471 and #472 respectively), briefly stealing his identity and setting in motion a diabolical scheme that would run through the entire sequence…

Teen Wonder Robin returned in #473’s ‘The Malay Penguin!’ as nefarious Napoleon of Crime the Penguin challenges a temporarily reunited Dynamic Duo to an entrancing, intoxicating duel of wits, after which ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’updates an old loser for the second ever appearance of a murderous high society dilettante sniper (after an initial outing in Batman #59, 1950). The tale so reinvigorated the third-rate trick-shooter that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since; starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six: in a couple of eponymous miniseries and on both silver and small screens.

The best was saved for last, with all the sub-plots concerning Silver St. Cloud, Boss Thorne, Gotham City Council, and even a recurring ghost culminating in THE classic confrontation with The Joker.

The absolute zenith in this too-short, stellar sequence resurrecting old foes could only star the Dark Knight’s nemesis at his most chaotic. Cover-dated February and April 1978, Detective #475-476 introduces ‘The Laughing Fish’ before culminating in ‘The Sign of the Joker!’ One of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted, it was adapted as an episode of award-winning Batman: The Animated Adventures TV show in the 1990s.

In fact, you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you! Manic and murderous, the Harlequin of Hate goes on a murder spree after mutating fish. As seafood with the Joker’s horrific smile turn up in catches all over the Eastern Seaboard, the Clown Prince attempts to trademark them. When patent officials foolishly tell him it can’t be done, they start dying… publicly, impossibly and incredibly painfully…

The story culminates in a spectacularly apocalyptic clash among the city’s rooftops which shaped and informed the Batman mythos for decades after…

Having said all he wanted to say, Englehart left Batman and soon after quit comics for a few years.

He was enticed back for Batman #311 (May 1979, rendered by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin) as Batgirl joins the embattled hero to spoil a mad vengeance plot in Doctor Phosphorus is Back!’

Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths – which wiped multiple universes in exchange for a new unified, rationalised DCU – Legends of the Dark Knight was a Batman title employing star guest creators to reimagine the hero’s history and past cases for modern audiences. Englehart and illustrators Dusty Abell & Drew Graci contributed a sharp brain-twisting turn in issues #109-111 (August-October 2000) as ‘Primal Riddle’ – broken down into ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short!’, ‘Perhaps the Only Riddle That We Shrink From Giving Up!’ and ‘A Dumpster of Chèrées’, traces Batman’s recovery from a life-altering injury even as the manic Prince of Puzzlers offers his greatest and weirdest challenge yet…

For The Batman Chronicles #19 (Winter 2000) the writer skipped back to the earliest moments of Batman’s career, with artist Javier Pulido as ‘Got a Date with an Angel’ sees the neophyte avenger forced to choose between love and duty for the first time…

Legends of the DC Universe was an attempt by the publishers to bring updated classic stories to a fresh-eyed reading public. With #26-27 (March & April 2000), Englehart, Trevor Von Eeden & Joe Rubenstein present the flip side to the Joker-Fish sage as ‘The Fishy Laugh’ finds the Harlequin of Hate in Atlantis vying with Aquaman to be king of fish. The cod crisis only escalates until Batman finally swims in to end the ‘Reign of the Joker!’

Under Englehart, Rogers & Austin, Detective Comics had managed to be nostalgically avant-garde and iconoclastically traditional at the same time, setting both the tone and the character structure of Batman for generations. That made thoughts of a reunion run both constant and inevitable – like a school reunion where you forget yourself for a moment, then catch yourself pogoing to “God Save the Queen” in the bar mirror. Of course, the truth is you can’t ever go back and you just look like an idiot doing it now.

Although not quite as bad as that, miniseries Batman: Dark Detective #1-6 (running from July to September 2005) suffers from an excess of trying too hard as the titanic trio reunited to recount what happened after the major players reassembled on ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.

It begins as Silver St. Cloud returns to Gotham to help her new fiancé Senator Evan Gregory secure nomination as a Gubernatorial candidate. That means looking for donations from her old lover Bruce Wayne, and events are further complicated when the Joker announces his own run for the role. His tactics can be best described by his own slogan “Vote for Me …Or I’ll Kill You”. I think I’m seeing another parallel to modern real-world politics here…

The plot thickens in ‘You May See a Stranger’ when – amidst a growing body count – other lethal loons make their own sinister sorties. Now, as well as The Joker’s terrifyingly unconventional political tactics, Batman also has to deal with The Scarecrow’s unwitting release of Wayne’s repressed memories of a murder attempt upon himself the night after his parents were killed, and a frankly ludicrous clone-plot as Two Face tries to fix himself through Mad Science.

Before long, the shamefully inescapable occurs and Bruce and Silver succumb to unresolved passions in ‘Two Faces Have I’

Plagued by guilt – both long entrenched and of more recent vintage – the Dark Knight writhes in manufactured nightmares even as fresh horrors are actually happening in grim reality. ‘Thriller’ sees the Maniac of Mirth abduct Silver, and her recently un-engaged would-be Governor joins Batman in a rescue bid for ‘Everybody Dance Now’ that leads only to tragedy and doom in catastrophic concluding chapter ‘House’

These tales are just as fresh and welcoming today, their themes and scenes just as compelling now as then and this vision of Batman remains a unique and iconic one. This is a Bat-book everybody can enjoy: a lavish treat any Batfan or comics aficionado will always treasure.
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