Essential Fantastic Four volume 7


By Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Chris Claremont, John Buscema, Rich Buckler, Ross Andru, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3063-5

By this seventh collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” the Fantastic Four had settled into a kind of comfortable stylistic nostalgia, although the stories – no longer fuelled by Jack Kirby’s staggeringly inventive imagination and High-Concept conveyor belt of mind-bending ideas – maintained the new taste for urbane melodrama and topically-tinged new characters all wrapped up in soap-opera methodology, science fictive social speculation and super-villain-dominated Fights ‘n’ Tights romps.

It wasn’t Stan and Jack but it stood up on its own terms…

This volume covers Fantastic Four #138-159 (June 1971- August 1973) and includes FF material from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2-4 as well as the other half of a rather significant crossover tale from Avengers #127.

In the previous collection the never-ending stress was forcing Sue Richards apart from her husband and Inhuman warrior-princess Medusa had taken her place in the team whilst the Invisible Girl (as she still was) cared for son Franklin, now a toddler with strange, undiagnosed cosmic powers and problems…

Mr. Fantastic was not taking the trial separation well and issue #138 saw him left behind in an increasingly disturbed depressive state when old comrade Wyatt Wingfoot came looking for assistance against impossible, unimaginable disasters.

Madness is… The Miracle Man’ by Gerry Conway, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott began a period when rocky everyman Ben Grimm became the de facto star of the Fantastic Four and here he, the Torch and Medusa travelled to Wingfoot’s tribal lands to battle the former hypnotist they had first seen in their third adventure.

Now, however, thanks to the charlatan’s subsequent studies under ghostly Cheemuzwa medicine men, the maniac actually could alter reality with a thought…

The battle concluded in the next issue wherein ‘Target: Tomorrow!’ saw the villain who could control matter but not himself spiralled frantically out of control with our heroes struggling indomitably on until the Miracle Man made a fatal error…

Reed’s travails took a darkerturn in Fantastic Four # 140 as ‘Annihilus Revealed!’ found the insectoid Negative Zone tyrant kidnapping the ever more powerful Franklin and invading the Baxter Building in search of new worlds to ravage. In triumph the bug horror disclosed his incredible origin to the helpless Wingfoot before dragging all his enemies back to his subspace hell to engineer ‘The End of the Fantastic Four!’

And as the heroes languished in the Negative Zone, on Earth Ben’s girlfriend Alicia was lured to the Balkans by another arch enemy…

However, even though the beaten heroes counterattacked and gained an unlikely victory, Annihilus’ prior tampering with Franklin had triggered a cosmic catastrophe. As the boy’s limitless power began to spiral out of control, his tormented father was compelled to blast the boy, shutting down his mutant brain and everything else.

Appalled at the callous cold calculations needed to put his own son into a coma, Johnny and Ben joined Sue in deserting the grief-stricken Mr. Fantastic and declaring their heroic partnership defunct…

With only ruthlessly pragmatic Medusa remaining, FF #142 saw the shell-shocked Richards with ‘No Friend Beside Him!’ (by Conway & new artist Rich Buckler – whose faithful pastiche of Jack Kirby under Sinnott inking produced a wave of favourable nostalgia in fans then and now) whilst the Thing followed Alicia to Europe.

Here they were attacked by a sinister supernatural horror named Darkoth the Death-Demon even as Johnny and Wyatt headed for Metro College to see their old sports coach Sam Thorne on his way to an Alumni reunion.

Reed was another attendee, despondently dragged there by Medusa, but nobody expected that weird foreign kid who had been expelled so long ago to turn up, leading to ‘The Terrible Triumph of Doctor Doom!’ (Conway, Buckler & Frank Giacoia)…

The Mad Monarch was never one to forgive a slight, real or imagined, and as he gloatingly revealed himself to be the creator of Darkoth and jailer of the Thing he also boasted to his captives of his latest scheme to eradicate human free will.

Typically, though, the Iron Dictator hadn’t considered how his death-demon might react to the news that he was an artificial puppet and the monster’s ‘Attack!’ (#144 with Buckler & Sinnott art) resulted in a cataclysmic clash and Doom’s defeat…

Back together but still disunited, the FF again parted company in #145, as the Torch then accompanied Medusa on a visit to Attilan – the hidden city of the Inhumans – only to be brought down by a lost race of ice people to endure a ‘Nightmare in the Snow!’ (art by Ross Andru & Sinnott).

The snow troglodytes’ plans to turn the world into an ice-ball only they could inhabit went bizarrely awry when the Thing joined the crashed heroes and a dissident faction trained by a Buddhist monk pitched in, leading to a happy ending all round in the concluding ‘Doomsday: 200° Below!’

This was period of great experimentation and expansion at Marvel and Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 (May 1974) launched as a forerunner in a line of supplementary double-sized titles starring the company’s most popular stars.

In this initial exploratory outing – the title became Giant-Size Fantastic Four with the next quarterly issue – Conway, Buckler & Sinnott crafted ‘The Mind of the Monster!’: a blockbusting battle team-up as Bruce Banner came calling, still seeking a cure for his mean green alter ego and the sympathetic and occasionally self-loathing Thing foolishly let him play with one of Reed’s devices…

Unfortunately their mutual meddling with the Psi-Amplifier only switched their minds leaving the Rampaging Hulk trapped and running amok in the Thing’s body whilst Ben/Hulk struggled to stop him.

The situation worsened when trans-dimensional Femizon Thundra pitched in, mistakenly believing she was helping her main squeeze Ben battle a big green monster, and the violence intensified when Reed, Johnny and Medusa got involved in  ‘Someone’s Been Sleeping in My Head’

Of course in the end it took everybody and a cunning plan to set the world to rights in the spectacular conclusion ‘…And in This Corner: the Incredible Hulk’

Fantastic Four #147 continued the action-tinged melodrama with ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ (Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) as Sue started divorce proceedings whilst taking comfort from long-time stalker Prince Namor.

When Reed, Johnny and Ben tried to “rescue” her, the Atlantean thrashed them and she sent them packing…

To add insult to injury the dejected men returned home to find the Baxter Building invaded by the Frightful Four and were forced to fight a ‘War on the Thirty-Sixth Floor!’ Sadly for The Sandman, Wizard and Trapster they had no idea their newest ally Thundra was smitten with the Thing…

Issue #149 then resolved the Sub-Mariner storyline as the undersea emperor invaded New York in ‘To Love, Honour, and Destroy!’, but his awesome attack was only a cunning plan to trick Sue into reconciling with her husband…

Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 then revealed a time-twisting ‘Cataclysm!’ courtesy of Conway, John Buscema & Chic Stone wherein cosmic voyeur The Watcher warned of a hapless innocent who had inadvertently altered history thanks to Dr. Doom’s confiscated time machine. Moreover the imposing extraterrestrial expected the FF to fix the problem…

With more than one temporal hot-spot, Reed and Johnny headed for Colonial America to rescue the Father of the Nation in ‘George Washington Almost Slept Here!’ whilst Ben and Medusa crashed into the “Roaring Twenties” and saved the time-lost wanderer from being rubbed out in ‘The Great Grimmsby’

Thinking their mission accomplished the heroes were astounded to then find themselves trapped in timeless Limbo battling a monstrous giant dubbed Tempus before escaping to their restored origin point in ‘Time Enough for Death!’

For months Johnny had been fretting that his first true love Crystal had decided to marry super-swift mutant Quicksilver but that plot-thread finally closed with a 2-part crossover tale that began in Avengers #127 as ‘Bride and Doom!’ (by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema & Joe Staton) saw the Assemblers travel to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the marriage of the aforementioned Pietro to elemental enchantress and Royal Princess only to stumble into a uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Once again the sinister robotic colossus Omega had incited revolt but this time it wasn’t insane usurper Maximus behind the skulduggery but an old Avengers enemy who revealed himself in the concluding chapter in Fantastic Four #150.

Here ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ ( Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) found both hero squads join Black Bolt’s Inhumans against the malign A.I and only saved by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last, ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ finally ended events on a happy note… for everybody but the Torch.

FF #151 then began revealing the truth about the mysterious Femizon as ‘Thundra and Lightning!’ introduced the male-dominated alternate Future Earth dubbed Machus and its brutal despot Mahkizmo, the Nuclear Man, who explosively invaded the Baxter Building in search of a mate to dominate and a new world to conquer…

Inked by Jim Mooney #152 revealed ‘A World of Madness Made!’ as the team were held captive in the testosterone dimension whilst Medusa seemingly fled, but actually sought reinforcements from the diametrically-opposed Femizon future alternity, resulting in two universes crashing together in the concluding ‘Worlds in Collision!’ by Tony Isabella, Buckler & Sinnott.

Reworked by Len Wein, Fantastic Four #154 featured ‘The Man in the Mystery Mask!’ – a partial reprint from Strange Tales#127 in which Stan Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman pitted Ben and Johnny against ‘The Mystery Villain!’.

Here, however, Bob Brown, Giacoia & Mike Esposito found that Reed’s early lesson in leadership had been hijacked by another old friend with explosive and annoying results…

The next extra-special adventure in Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3 revealed ‘Where Lurks Death …Ride the Four Horsemen!’ as Conway, Marv Wolfman, Buckler & Sinnott described the invasion of cosmic aliens intent on scourging the Earth. Forewarned after the team battled the first horror in ‘…There Shall Come Pestilence’, the harried heroes split up with Medusa and Johnny striving against international madness in ‘…And War Shall Take the Land!’ whilst Reed and Ben strove to conquer the personification of Famine in ‘…And the Children Shall Hunger!’, before all reuniting to wrap up the final invader in‘…All in the Valley of Death!’

A minor classic followed in Fantastic Four #155-157 as the long dormant Silver Surfer resurfaced in ‘Battle Royal!’ (by Wein, Buckler & Sinnott), apparently a murderous and willing thrall of Doctor Doom.

The dictator could command the Shining Skyrider because he held the alien’s lover Shalla Bal – had indeed threatened to take her in marriage – but as seen in ‘Middle Game!’ (with Roy Thomas joining as co-writer and Editor) the Surfer could not kill and merely delivered the FF as prisoners to the Devil Doctor’s citadel.

However there were schemes within schemes unfolding and Doom was playing a waiting game whilst he covertly stole the Skyrider’s Power Cosmic to fuel a deadly Doomsman mechanoid…

With Thomas in full authorial control ‘And Now… the Endgame Cometh!’ saw the heroes fight back to conquer the Lethal Latverian, but all were blithely unaware that the entire charade had been a crafty confection of malign and manipulative demon Mephisto

Meanwhile over in Giant-Size Fantastic Four #4 Wein, Chris Claremont, John Buscema, Chic Stone & Sinnott united to introduce ‘Madrox the Multiple Man’, a young mutant who had grown up on an isolated farm unaware of the incredible power he possessed.

When his parents passed away the kid was inexplicably drawn to New York but the hi-tech suit he wore to contain his condition began to malfunction and the boy became a mobile fission device that could endlessly, lethally replicate itself…

Thankfully the FF were aided by mutant Moses Charles Xavier who took young Jamie under his wing…

This formidable high tension Fights ‘n’ Tights tome terminates with another nostalgia-tinged 2-part epic which began in FF #158’s ‘Invasion from the 5th (Count it, 5th!) Dimension’ by Thomas, Buckler & Sinnott, wherein one of the Torch’s earliest solo scourges returned to occupy the land of the Inhumans.

Extra-dimensional dictator Xemu began his campaign of vengeance by dispatching Quicksilver to lure Medusa back to Attilan. The intention was to make the defiant Black Bolt utilise his doomsday sonic power on the invader’s behalf, but the conqueror needed the silent king’s beloved as a bargaining chip.

However, when the FF accompanied her into the obvious trap, they brought a hidden ally who unobtrusively turned the tables on Xemu, unleashing ‘Havoc in the Hidden Land!’ and thereby at last reuniting the First Family of comicbook fiction…

This power-packed package also includes unused cover versions for Fantastic Four #141, 155 and 156 to add to the overall Costumed Drama and delight fans everywhere.

Although Kirby had taken the unmatched imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Stan Lee carried the series for years afterwards. So once writers who shared the originators’ sensibilities were crafting the stories a mini-renaissance began…

Although the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” didn’t quite return to the stratospheric heights of yore, this period offered fans a tantalising taste of the glory days and these solid, honest and intriguing efforts are probably most welcome to dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but will still thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1973, 1973, 1973, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All Star Comics Archives volume 0


By Gardner Fox, Jerry Siegel, Ken Fitch, Bill Finger, John B. Wentworth, Sheldon Moldoff, Sheldon Mayer, Albert & Joseph Sulman, Creig Flessel, Jon L. Blummer, Martin Nodell, E.E. Hibbard, Chad Grothkopf, Stan Aschmeier, Bernard Baily, Howard Purcell, William Smith & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0791-X

I will never stop saying it: the creation of the Justice Society of America in 1941 utterly changed the shape of the budding comicbook industry. However before that team of All-Stars could unite they had to become popular enough to qualify, and this slim yet superb hardcover sampler gathers a selection of individual exploits featuring many of the soon-to-be beloved champions who would populate the original big team and guarantee their immortality long after the Golden Age of American Comics ended.

Following the runaway successes of Superman and Batman, both National Comics and its wholly separate-but-equal publishing partner All-American Comics were looking for the next big thing in funnybooks whilst frantically concentrating on getting anthology packages into the hands of the hungry readership. Thus All Star Comics: conceived as a joint venture to give the characters already in their stables an extra push towards winning an elusive but lucrative solo title.

As scrupulously detailed in Roy Thomas’s history-packed Foreword, characters from Flash Comics, Adventure Comics, More Fun Comics and All-American Comics were bundled into the new quarterly and ‘A Message from the Editors’ asked readers to vote on the most popular, even offering copies of forthcoming issues as prizes/bribes for participating…

The merits of the project would never be proved: rather than a runaway favourite graduating to their own starring vehicle, something different evolved. With the third issue, prolific scripter Gardner Fox apparently had the smart idea of linking the solo stories through a framing sequence as the heroes got together for dinner and a chat about their most recent cases.

With the simple idea that Mystery Men hung around together, history was made and from #4 the heroes would regularly unite to battle a shared foe…

This slim sublime hardcover tome collects the stories from the first two All Star Comics (cover-dated Summer and Fall 1940) and opens with a tale of a fantastic winged warrior…

Although perhaps one of DC’s most resilient and certainly their most visually iconic character, iterations of Hawkman have always struggled to find enough of an audience to sustain a solo title.

From his beginnings as one of the B-features in Flash Comics, Carter Hall has shone through assorted engaging, exciting but always short-lived reconfigurations. Over decades from ancient hero to re-imagined alien space-cop and post-Crisis on Infinite Earths freedom fighter, or the seemingly desperate but highly readable mashing together of all previous iterations into the reincarnating immortal berserker-warrior of today, the Pinioned Paladin has performed exemplary service without ever really making it to the big time.

Created by Gardner Fox & Dennis Neville, he premiered in Flash Comics #1 (January 1940) and stayed there, growing in quality and prestige until the title died, with the most celebrated artists to have drawn the Winged Wonder being Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Kubert, whilst a young Robert Kanigher was justly proud of his later run as writer.

Together with his partner Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman, the gladiatorial mystery-man countered uncanny and fantastic arcane threats, battled modern crime and opposed tyranny with weapons of the past for over a decade before vanishing with the bulk of costumed heroes as the 1950s began.

His last appearance was in All Star Comics #57 (1951) as leader of the Justice Society of America, before the husband-and-wife hellions were revived and re-imagined nine years later as Katar Hol and Shayera Thal of planet Thanagar by Julie Schwartz’s crack creative team Gardner Fox, Joe Kubert & Murphy Anderson…

Their long career, numerous revamps and perpetual retcons ended during the 1994 Zero Hour crisis, but they’ve reincarnated and returned a couple of times since then too…

Here Fox & Sheldon Moldoff offered the eldritch saga of ‘Sorcerer Trygg’ wherein the still-bachelor hero travelled to the mountains of Wales to crush a callous capitalist making zombies to work the mines he had stolen from his nephew and niece…

The Sandman premiered in either Adventure Comics #40 July 1939 (two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27) or two weeks earlier in New York World’s Fair Comics 1939, depending on which distribution records you choose to believe. He was originated by and illustrated by multi-talented all-rounder Bert Christman – with the assistance of young scripting star Gardner Fox.

Head utterly obscured by a gas-mask and slouch hat; caped, business-suited millionaire adventurer Wesley Dodds was cut from the radio drama/pulp fiction mystery-man mould that had made The Shadow, Green Hornet, Black Bat and so many more household names and monster hits of early mass-entertainment and periodical publication.

Wielding a sleeping-gas gun and haunting the night to hunt killers, crooks and spies, he was eventually joined and accompanied by plucky paramour Dian Belmont, before gradually losing the readers’ interest.

His fortunes were revitalised when Joe Simon & Jack Kirby took over the feature, but here in his salad days Fox & Chad Grothkopf spectacularly pitted him against ‘The Twin Thieves’ baffling and bamboozling the hapless cops with their murderous jewel capers…

Gary Concord, the Ultra-Man premiered in All-American Comics #8 November 1939, the son of a 20th century scientist who had awoken from a suspended animation sleep in 2174AD with incredible physical abilities.

His son inherited his attributes and became the guardian of a troubled future and official “High Moderator of the United States of North America”.

Created by Jon L. Blummer – working as “Don Shelby” – the Buck Rogers-inspired serial ran until issue #19 and is represented here with the then-topical treat ‘The European War of 2240’ wherein a conflict orchestrated in a foreign zone allowed a scurrilous third party nation to attempt seizing control of neutral America’s Uranium mines. Naturally the bombastic Ultra-Man quickly scotched the scheme and restored peace and prosperity to the world…

Devised, created and written by Gardner Fox and first drawn by Harry Lampert, Jay Garrick debuted as the very first Monarch of Motion in Flash Comics #1 and quickly – how else? – became a veritable sensation. He was the first AA character to win a solo title, mere months after All-Star Comics #3 hit the newsstands.

The Fastest Man Alive wowed readers in anthologies Flash Comics, Comics Cavalcade and All Star as well as All-Flash Quarterly for just over a decade before changing tastes benched him and most other Mystery Man heroes in the early1950s.

His invention as a strictly single-power superhero created a new trend in the burgeoning action-adventure funnybook marketplace, and his particular riff was replicated many times at various companies where myriad Fast Furies sprang up.

Then after over half a decade of mostly interchangeable cops, cowboys and cosmic invaders, the concept of human rockets and superheroes in general was spectacularly revived in 1956 by Julie Schwartz in Showcase #4 when police scientist Barry Allen became the second hero to run with the concept. It’s been non-stop ever since …

Here Garrick speedily solves ‘The Murder of Widow Jones’ (by Fox and signature illustrator Everett E. Hibbard) in the time it took the cops to simply report that a crime has been committed…

The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast stable of characters, created by Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily in 1940 and debuting with a 2-part origin epic in More Fun Comics #52-53.

For a few years the Ghostly Guardian reigned supreme in the title with flamboyant and eerily eccentric supernatural thrillers, but gradually he slipped from popularity as firstly Dr. Fate and successively Johnny Quick, Aquaman, Green Arrow and finally Superboy turned up to steal the show. By the time of his last appearance the Spectre had been reduced to a foil for his own comedic sidekick Percival Popp, the Super-Cop

The Ghostly Guardian was Jim Corrigan, a hard-bitten police detective who was about to marry rich heiress Clarice Winston when they were abducted by mobster Gat Benson. Stuffed into a barrel of cement and pitched off a pier, Corrigan died and went to his eternal reward. Almost…

Rather than finding Paradise and peace, Corrigan’s spirit was accosted by a glowing light and disembodied voice which, over his strident protests, ordered him to return to Earth to fight crime and evil until all vestiges of them were gone…

Just like Siegel’s other iconic creation, the Dark Man suffered from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful. Unlike the vigorously vital and earthy early Superman, however, the arcane agent of justice was already dead, so he couldn’t be logically or dramatically be imperilled.

Of course in those far-off early days that wasn’t nearly as important as sheer spectacle: grabbing the reader’s utter attention and keeping it stoked to a fantastic fever pitch. This the Grim Ghost could do with ease and always-increasing intensity.

In ‘The Tenement Fires’ Siegel & Baily pulled out all the stops for a sinister struggle against merciless arsonists and the Ethereal Avenger recruited the recently murdered victims to help dispense final judgement…

Although we think of the Golden Age as a superhero wonderland, the true guiding principle was variety. Almost every comicbook alsooffered a range of genre features from slapstick comedy to prose thrillers to he-man adventure on its four-colour pages, and More Fun Comics had its fair share of straight adventurers like freelance troubleshooter Biff Bronson, who debuted in #43 (May 1939) with sidekick Dan Druff for a near 30-issue run thrashing thugs, crushing crooks and exposing espionage. He last appeared in #67.

Here the special agent exposes scurvy spy ‘The Great Remembo’ in a smart thriller deftly detailed by brothers Albert & Joseph Sulman.

At this time all comicbooks also featured a prose story, and in All Star #1 Publisher Max Gaines’ niece Evelyn contributed a fanciful science fiction romp entitled ‘Exile to Jupiter’ that wasn’t up to much but was graced with illustrations by the wonderful Sheldon Mayer.

The comics sagas resumed with The Hour-Man stepping in to combat ‘The Forest Fires’ in a moody drama by Ken Fitch & Bernard Baily. He had started strongly in Adventure Comics #48 (March 1940) but slowly ran down until he faded away in #83, February 1943.

Tick-Tock Tyler, the Hour-Man” began by offering his unique services through classified ads to any person in need. Chemist Rex Tyler had invented a drug he called Miraclo which super-energised him for 60 minutes at a time and here he helped beleaguered loggers enduring sabotage and murder…

The first issue closed with long-lived and much loved light-hearted military strip Red, White and Blue by Jerry Siegel & William Smith.

Marine Sergeant Red Dugan, Whitey Smith of the US Army and naval Rating Blooey Blue were good friends who frequently worked for military intelligence service G-2 whilst saving trouble magnet Doris West from her own dangerously inquisitive nature…

The series began with All-American Comics #1 April 1939 and ran there and in sundry other titles such as World’s Finest Comics until 1946, with the trio turning up all over the world solving the USA’s problems.

Here they found themselves despatched to Alaska to find a missing G-2 agent, only to discover Doris already there exposing a slow infiltration by sneaky Asiatics of an ostensibly neutral nation in ‘The Volcano Invasion’

All Star Comics #2 immediately follows with Hawkman (by Fox & Moldoff) fighting an Aztec cult in America and the jungles of Mexico, desperately seeking to rescue the latest kidnapped ‘Sacrifice for Yum-Chac’

Green Lantern then debuted in ‘The Robot Men’ by Bill Finger & Martin Nodell. Technically the Emerald Gladiator was first seen All-American Comics #16 (July 1940 and practically simultaneously with this All Star appearance), devised by up-and-coming cartoonist Nodell and fully fleshed out by Finger in the same way he had contributed to the success of Batman.

Green Lantern was a sensation, becoming AA’s second smash hit six months after The Flash and preceding by 18 months the unprecedented success of the Amazing Amazon Wonder Woman.

Engineer Alan Scott survived the sabotage and destruction of a passenger-packed train due only to the intervention of a battered old railway lantern. Bathed in its eerie verdant glow, he was regaled by a mysterious green voice with the legend of how a meteor fell in ancient China and spoke to the people: predicting Death, Life and Power.

Instructing Scott to fashion a ring from its metal and draw a charge of power from the lantern every 24 hours, the ancient artefact urged the engineer to use his formidable willpower to end all evil – a mission Scott eagerly embraced…

The ring made him immune to all minerals and metals, and enabled him to fly and pass through solid matter amongst many other miracles, but was powerless against certain organic materials such as wood or rubber which could penetrate his jade defences and cause him mortal harm…

He won his own solo-starring title within a year of his premiere and feature-starred in many anthologies such as Comics Cavalcade for just over a decade, before he too faded away in the early1950s, having first suffered the humiliating fate of being edged out of his own comicbook by his pet, Streak the Wonder Dog

In this issue however he was at his mightiest and most impressive, battling a nationwide invasion of men turned into shambling monster slaves by an enemy spy…

Siegel & Baily then exposed The Spectre to ‘The Curse of Kulak’ wherein an antediluvian sorcerer returned to punish mankind for desecrating his tomb by inundating the world with a plague of murderous hatred…

The Sandman’s second stint featured a spooky science thriller by Fox & Creig Flessel as the Man of Mystery tracked down a killer using a deadly radioactive weapon – ‘The Glowing Globe’ – to terrorise and rob.

Siegel & William Smith’s ‘Invisible Ink Gas’ pitted Red, White and Blue against spies with a diabolical scheme for stealing Army documents whilst Johnny Thunderbolt’s All Star debut added even more light-hearted shenanigans to the mix when the imbecilic genie wielder became guardian of ‘The Darling Apartment’ (by John B. Wentworth & Stan Aschmeier).

Johnny Thunder – as he eventually became – was an honest, well-meaning, courageous soul who was also a grade “A” idiot. However, what he lacked in smarts he made up for with sheer luck, unfailing pluck and unconscious control of an irresistible magic force. The feature was always played for action-packed laughs but there was no getting away from it: Johnny was a simpleton in control of an ultimate weapon…

Decades before, the infant seventh son of a seventh son was abducted by priests from the mystic island of Badhnisia to be raised as the long-foretold controller of a fantastic magical weapon, all by voicing the eldritch command “Cei-U” – which sounds to western ears awfully like “say, you”…

Each month Johnny would look for gainful employment, stumble into a crime or crisis and his voluble temperament would result in an inexplicable unnatural phenomenon that would solve the problem but leave him no better off. It was a winning theme that lasted until 1947 – by which time the Force had resolved into a wisecracking thunderbolt-shaped genie – and Johnny was slowly ousted from his own strip by sultry new crimebuster Black Canary

For now though, back in America and seeking his fortune, he spent lots of time trying to impress his girlfriend Daisy Darling’s dad. In this exploit the irate property magnate was experiencing difficulties with a new building he was erecting and Johnny decided to tackle head on the mobsters holding up production…

After another Evelyn Gaines text vignette, ‘The Invisible Star’, Hour-Man battled murderous charlatan ‘Dr. Morte, Spiritualist’ by Fitch & Baily before the inimitable Flash closed out the stunning show in fine form by foiling thugs who had kidnapped an entire publishing company, becoming in the process ‘The One-Man Newspaper’ in a fast, furious and funny thriller from Fox & Hibbard.

Wit the entire Justice Society canon collected in eleven dedicated Archive Editions, this particularly impressive afterthought completes the resurrection of the rare and eccentric material which revolutionised comicbooks.

These early adventures might not be to every modern fan’s taste but they certainly stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s First Superheroes.

If you have a love of the way things were and a hankering for simpler times remarkable for less complicated adventures, this is another glorious collection you’ll cherish forever…

© 1940, 2006 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Blake and Mortimer volume 17: The Secret of the Swordfish Part 3 – SX1 Strikes Back!


By Edgar P. Jacobs, coloured by Philippe Biermé & Luce Daniels translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-174-7

After three years of stunning intrigue mystery and action, E.P. Jacobs’ groundbreaking saga of a battle for world peace and universal liberty concluded in a spectacular duel below the Earth and in the skies of the embattled world.

The saga concludes in SX1 Strikes Back!: a tension-drenched race against time as

Blake, Mortimer and the shattered dregs of Great Britain’s military forces prepare for a last ditch strike using the Professor’s greatest inventions to win freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world…

Brussels-born Edgar P. Jacobs was a prodigy who drew from an early age and was besotted by music and the performing arts – especially opera. After graduating commercial school in 1919, he rejected safe office work and instead avidly pursued his passions drama on his graduation.

A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses (which included everything from scene-painting to set decoration and even performing as both an acting and singing extra) supplemented private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His dream of operatic glory was crushed by the Great Depression, and when arts funding dried up following the global stock market crash he was forced to pick up whatever dramatic work was going, although this did include more singing and performing. He moved into illustration in 1940, with regular work for Bravo magazine and some jobs for short stories and novels, and when the occupying Nazi authorities in Belgium banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero Flash Gordon Jacobs famously took over the syndicated strip to complete the saga.

His ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Occupation dictators, after which the man of many talents simply created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

During this period Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together, and whilst creating the weekly U Ray strip the younger man began assisting on Tintin, colouring the original black and white strips of The Shooting Star (originally run in newspaper Le Soir) for an upcoming album collection.

By 1944 Jacobs was performing similar duties on Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. He was also contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

Following the Liberation, publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a few other comicstrip masters to work for a new venture. Founding publishing house Le Lombard, Leblanc also commissioned Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland, edited by Herge and starring the intrepid boy reporter plus a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, Le Journal de Tintin featured Paul Cuvelier’s ‘Corentin’ and Jacques Laudy’s ’The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’.

Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since their time together on Bravo, and the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred an English Military Intelligence officer closely modelled on Laudy, who worked with bluff, gruff British Boffin: Captain Francis Blake and Professor Philip Mortimer

The premiere serial ran from issue #1 (26th September 1946 to September 8th 1949) and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s very first album release with the concluding part published three years later. The volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982, supplemented in 1964 by a single omnibus edition.

Hergé and Jacobs purportedly suffered a split in 1947 when the former refused to grant the latter a by-line on new Tintin material, but since the two remained friends for life and Jacobs continued to produce Blake and Mortimer for the weekly comic, I think it’s fair to say that if such was the case it was a pretty minor spat. I rather suspect that The Secret of the Swordfish was simply taking up more and more of the diligent artist’s time and attention…

In 1984 the story was repackaged for English translation as three volumes as part of a push to win some of the lucrative Tintin and Asterix market, but failed to find an audience. The venture ended after seven magnificent if under-appreciated volumes.

Cinebook has been publishing the later Blake and Mortimer tales since 2007 and recently completed a triptych of the very first adventure…

In The Incredible Chase and Mortimer’s Escape a hidden cabal in the Himalayas launched a global Blitzkrieg at the command of Basam-Damdu, malign Emperor of Tibet. The warlord’s arsenal of technological super-weapons were wielded by an army of the world’s wickedest rogues – such as diabolical Colonel Olrik – and their lightning sneak almost accomplished all his ambitions in one fell swoop.

Happily, English physicist Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake were aware of the threat and when the attack came they narrowly escaped destruction in a devastating bomber raid…

Mortimer’s breakthrough Golden Rocket launched just as Olrik’s bombers attacked and easily outdistanced the rapacious Empire forces, leaving ruined homes behind them as they flew into a hostile world now brutally controlled by Basam-Damdu…

Seeking out British Middle East resistance forces, the fugitives’ flight ended prematurely when the Rocket crashed in the rocky wilds between Iran and Afghanistan. Parachuting to safety, Blake and Mortimer survived a host of perils and escaped capture more than once as they slowly, inexorably made their way to the distant rendezvous, before meeting British-trained native Sergeant Ahmed Nasir.

The loyal Indian had served with Blake during the last war and was delighted to see him again, but as the trio laboriously made their way to the target site, Olrik had already found it and seized their last hope…

Using commando tactics the heroes escaped in the Colonel’s own Red-Wing super-jet, but were again shot down – this time by friendly fire as anti-Lhasa rebels saw the stolen plane as an enemy target…

Surviving this crash too, the trio were ferried by the apologetic tribesmen to the enemy-occupied town of Turbat and sheltered by a friendly Khan administrator. However a faithless servant recognised the Englishmen and the Britons were ambushed…

Sending Nasir away, Blake tried valiantly frantically to save Mortimer whilst a platoon of Empire soldiers rapidly mounted the stairs to their exposed room…

Mortimer’s Escape saw the heroes initially avoid capture and flee Turbat, which was torn apart by a furious spontaneous rebellion but, unknown to the fugitives, the spy Bezendjas was hard on their heels. Moreover with the city in flames and fighting in every street the callous Colonel Olrik abandoned his own troops to pursue Nasir, Blake and Mortimer into the wastes beyond the walls…

After days of relentless pursuit they reached the rocky coastline where Blake realised that he had lost precious plans and documents he have been carrying since they fled England…

Knowing that somebody must reach the British resistance at their hidden Eastern base, the comrades split up, with Blake and Nasir going onwards whilst Mortimer returned for the plans. Finding them was sheer good fortune, but being found by Olrik’s troops was not. Despite a Horatian last stand the scientist was taken prisoner… but only after first successfully hiding the priceless documents…

Months later Olrik was called to account by Basam-Damdu’s ruling council, increasingly incensed with the Colonel’s lack of progress in breaking the captive scientist and even more infuriated by a tidal-wave of sabotage and armed rebellion throughout their freshly-conquered territories.

Olrik’s realised that his days as an agent of the Yellow Empire might be numbered…

Given days to make Mortimer talk, the Colonel returned to his base just as another rebel raid allowed Nasir to infiltrate the HQ. Blake was also abroad, having joined British resistance forces in the area.

A British submarine was roving the area, launched from a vast atomic-powered secret installation under the Straits of Hormuz, where the Royal Navy were preparing for a massive counter-attack. With daring raids freeing interned soldiers all the time, the ranks of scientists, technicians and soldiers were swelling daily…

Meanwhile, Nasir was working to free Mortimer, who was still adamantly refusing to talk of the mysterious “Swordfish” Olrik’s agents continually heard rumours of…

When devious Doctor Sun Fo arrived to interrogate him, the Professor explosively escaped into the fortress grounds during an earth-shattering storm. Trapped in a tower with only a handgun, he was determined to sell his life dearly, but was rescued by Blake and Nasir in a Navy Helicopter.

Using the storm for cover the heroes evaded jet pursuit and a naval sweep to link up with the British sub and escape into the night…

The final chapter opens with a stunning reprise of past events – cunningly compiled from a succession of six full page illustrations and presumably original covers from the weekly Le Journal de Tintin – after which a daring commando raid liberates a trainload of British prisoners.

Brought to a fabulous subterranean secret base, the assorted scientists and engineers discover an underground railway, factory, armaments facilities and even an atomic pile, all furiously toiling to complete the mysterious super-weapon dubbed “Swordfish”.

The former prisoners all readily join the volunteers, blithely unaware that supremely capable scoundrel Olrik is amongst them in a cunning disguise.

Days pass and as preparations for the Big Push produce satisfactory results, a series of disastrous accidents soon leads to one inescapable conclusion: there is a saboteur in the citadel…

Eventually Olrik becomes overconfident and Mortimer exposes the infiltrator in a crafty trap, but after a fraught confrontation the Colonel escapes after almost causing a nuclear catastrophe. Fleeing across the seabed, the harried spy narrowly avoids capture by diver teams and even a hungry giant octopus…

The flight takes its toll upon Olrik and he barely reaches land alive. Luckily for him Bezendjas had been checking out that region of coastline and finds the exhausted villain trapped in his stolen deep-sea diver suit. After a lengthy period the dazed desperado recovers and delivers his hard-won information. Soon Imperial forces are converging on the British bastion…

As air and sea forces bombard the rocky island and sea-floor citadel, Olrik dispatches crack troops to break in via a concealed land entrance, resulting in a staggering battle in the depths of the Earth.

They were almost in time…

After months of desperate struggle, Mortimer and his liberated scientists have rushed to complete the incredible Swordfish: a hypersonic attack jet with uncanny manoeuvrability and appallingly destructive armament.

Astoundingly launched from beneath the sea, the sleekly sinister plane single-handedly shoots the Empire jets out of the skies before sinking dozens of the attacking naval vessels. Ruthlessly piloting SX1 is Francis Blake; and even as he wreaks havoc upon the invading force he is joined by SX2 – a second equally unstoppable super-jet…

Soon the Yellow Empire is in full retreat and a squadron of Swordfish is completed. With the once-occupied planet in full revolt, it’s not long before Lhasa gets a taste of the flaming death it callously inflicted upon a peaceful, unsuspecting and now most vengeful world…

They were only just in time: the insane and malignant Emperor was mere moments away from launching a doomsday flight of atomic missiles to every corner of the planet he so briefly owned…

Gripping and fantastic in the truest tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of dogged heroic determination; always delivering grand, old-fashioned Blood-&-Thunder thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with astonishing visual punch. Despite the epic body count and dated milieu, any kid able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it alternate earth history or bakelite-punk if you want) will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.

This Cinebook edition also includes a fascinating illustrated essay ‘Jacobs: 1946, The Swordfish, starting point of a masterful work’ first seen in The World of Edgar P. Jacobs, a tantalising preview of new adventure The Oath of the Five Lords (by Yves Sente & André Juillard) plus a biographical feature and chronological publication chart of Jacobs’ and his successors’ efforts.

Original editions © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud – Lombard s.a.). © 1986 by E.P. Jacobs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Cinebook Ltd.

Good-Bye and Other Stories


By Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 0-87416-056-1

Don’t believe your loved ones: sometimes size really does make a difference.

Shuffling along my seemingly infinite shelves the other day I spotted a graphic album I haven’t really looked at in years.

It was an album-sized (275x210mm) black-&-white collection of Japanese human-interest dramas translated into English from a Spanish compilation and was, when I bought it, my first introduction to the incredible creative force that is Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

Since then I’ve become familiar with most of his translated works but the other day was the first time that I’ve actually compared the scale of his art in traditional manga formats with the big, bold nigh-abstract expansions of a really expansive page.

The sheer emotional power delivered by going large is just incomprehensible…

Beginning in the 1950s, compulsive storyteller Yoshihiro Tatsumi worked at the edges of the burgeoning Japanese comics industry, toiling for whoever would hire him, whilst producing an absolutely vast canon of deeply personal, agonisingly honest and blisteringly incisive cartoon critiques.

These dissections, queries and homages remorselessly explored the Human Condition as endured by the lowest of the low in a beaten nation and shamed culture which utterly, ferociously and ruthlessly re-invented itself during his lifetime.

Tatsumi was born in 1935 and after surviving war and the reconstruction of Japan he devoted most of his life to mastering – if not inventing – a new form of comics storytelling, now known universally as Gekiga or “Dramatic Pictures”.

This was in contrast to the flashy and fancifully escapist entertainment of Manga – which translates as “Irresponsible” or “Foolish Pictures” – and specifically targeted children in the years immediately following the cessation of hostilities.

If he couldn’t find a sympathetic Editor, Tatsumi self-published his darkly beguiling wares in Dōjinshi or “Vanity projects” where his often open-ended, morally ambiguous, subtly subversive underground comics literature gradually grew to prominence; especially as those bland funnybook-consuming kids grew up in a socially-repressed, culturally-occupied country and began to rebel.

Topmost amongst their key concerns were Cold War politics, the Vietnam War, ubiquitous inequality and iniquitous distribution of wealth and opportunity, so the teen upstarts sought out material that addressed their maturing sensibilities and found it in the works of Tatsumi and a growing band of deadly serious cartoonists with something to say…

Since reading comics beyond childhood was seen as an act of rebellion – like digging Rock ‘n’ Roll a decade earlier in the USA and Britain – these kids became known as the “Manga Generation” and their growing influence allowed comics creators to grow beyond the commercial limits of their industry and tackle adult stories and themes in what rapidly became a bone fide art form.

Even “God of Comics” Osamu Tezuka eventually found his mature author’s voice in Gekiga…

Tatsumi uses art as a symbolic tool, with an instantly recognisable repertory company of characters pressed into service over and again as archetypes and human abstracts of certain unchanging societal aspects and responses. Moreover, he has a mesmerising ability to portray situations with no clean or clear-cut resolution: the tension and sublime efficacy revolves around carrying the reader to the moment of ultimate emotional crisis and leaving you suspended there…

Narrative themes of sexual frustration, falls from grace or security, loss of heritage and pride, human obsolescence, claustrophobia and dislocation, obsession, provincialism, impotence, loneliness, poverty and desperate acts of protest are perpetually explored by a succession of anonymous bar girls, powerless men, grasping spouses, ineffectual loners, wheedling, ungrateful family dependents and ethically intransigent protagonists through recurring motifs such as illness, forced retirement, disabled labourers and sexual inadequacy all lurking in ramshackle dwellings, endless dirty alleyways, tawdry bars and sewers too often obstructed by discarded lives and dead babies…

Following an expansive discourse on ‘Japanese Comics’ by José Mariá Carandell, the well-travelled dramas begin with ‘Just a Man’ as, at the end of his working life, Mr. Manayana is sidelined by all the younger workers: all except kind Ms. Okawa whose kindly solicitousness rekindles crude urgings in the former soldier and elderly executive. With his wife and daughter already planning how to spend his pension, Manayana rebels and blows it all on wine, women and song, but even when he achieves the impossible manly dream with the ineffable Ms. Okawa, he is plagued by impotence and guilt…

‘The Telescope’ then brings a crippled man too close to an aging exhibitionist who needs to be seen conquering young women, leading only to recrimination and self-destruction…

In ‘Life is So Sad!’ a junior and senior bar girl clean up after the night’s toil, but young Akemi is clumsily preoccupied…

It’s time to visit her husband in prison. He is a changed, fierce and brutalised man and doesn’t believe she has kept herself for him all these years. When he threatens to become her pimp after his release, she is reluctantly forced to take extreme action…

Down in ‘The Sewers’ whilst daily unclogging the city’s mains, a harassed young man finds himself no longer reacting to the horror of what the people above discard: baskets, boxes, babies… even when the deceased detritus is his own…

‘Just Passing Through’ sees Kyoko return to her husband and mother-in-law after an unexplained 2-year absence. Nothing has changed. Her forgiving man froze time on the day she vanished: even the calendar has not moved a single day.

As he patiently rejoices in her return Kyoko realises the horrific passive-aggressive nature of his gesture and heads once more for the door…

‘Progress is Wonderful!’ sees an over-worked sperm donor foolishly allowing his latest “inspiration” to get too close with catastrophic results, after which the semi-autobiographical and eponymous ‘Good-Bye’ describes the declining relationship between prostitute “Maria” – who courts social ignominy by going with the American GI Joes – and her dissolute father; once a proud soldier of Japan’s beaten army, now reduced to cadging cash and favours from her.

Her dreams of escape to America are shattered one day and in her turmoil she pushes her father too far and he commits an act there’s no coming back from…

‘Unwanted’ brings the volume to conclusion by relating the inevitable fate of a placard carrier advertising a seedy massage parlour. Why can he get on with tawdry prostitutes of the street but not his own wife, with her constant carping about her unwanted pregnancy? Why is murder the only rational option?

This epic volume was, it transpires, wholly unauthorised but I was blown away by the seductive and wholly entrancing simplicity of Mr. Tatsumi’s storytelling and bleak, humanist subject matter.

Now that I know just when these stark, wry, bittersweet vignettes, episodes and stories of cultural and social realism were first drawn (between 1969-1977) it seems as if a lone voice in Japanese comics had independently and synchronistically joined the revolution of Cinéma vérité and the Kitchen Sink Dramas of playwrights and directors like John Osborne, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson – not to mention Ken Loach and Joe Orton – which gripped the West in the 1960s and which have shaped the critical and creative faculties of so many artists and creators ever since.

Tatsumi, like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, worked for decades in relative isolation producing compelling, bold, beguiling, sordid, intimate, wryly humorous, heartbreaking and utterly uncompromising strips dealing with uncomfortable realities, social alienation, excoriating self-examination and the nastiest and most honest arenas of human experience. They can in fact be seen as brother auteurs and indeed inventors of the “literary” or alternative field of graphic narrative which, whilst largely sidelined for most of their working lives, has finally emerged as the most important and widely accepted avenue of the comics medium.

These are stories no serious exponent or fan of comics can afford to miss… and they’re even better printed bigger…
© 1987 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Avengers: Ares


By Kieron Gillen, Michael Avon Oeming, Travel Foreman, Manuel Garcia, Stefano Gaudiano, Derek Fridolfs, Mark Pennington & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4406-9

After years of valiant, if often controversial, service to humanity, when the draconian Federal mandate known as the Superhuman Registration Act led to Civil War between costumed heroes, Tony Stark was hastily appointed the American government’s Security Czar – a “top cop” in sole charge of the beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom. As Director of high-tech enforcement agency S.H.I.E.L.D. he became the very last word in all matters involving metahumans and the USA’s vast costumed community…

Stark’s subsequent mismanagement of various crises led to the arrest and assassination of Captain America and an unimaginable escalation of global tension and destruction, culminating in an almost-successful Secret Invasion by shape-shifting alien Skrulls.

Discredited and ostracised, he was replaced by apparently rehabilitated and recovering schizophrenic Norman Osborn – the original Green Goblin – who assumed full control of the USA’s covert agencies and military resources, disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. and placed the nation under the aegis of his own new organisation H.A.M.M.E.R.

The erstwhile Spider-Man villain had begun his climb back to respectability after taking charge of the Thunderbolts Project; a penal program which offered a second chance to super-criminals who volunteered to undertake Federally-sanctioned missions…

Not content with legitimate political and personal power, Osborn also secretly conspired with a coalition of major menacing masterminds to divvy up the world between them. The Cabal was a Star Chamber of super-villains all working towards mutually beneficial goals, but such egomaniacal personalities could never play well together and cracks soon began to show, both in the criminal conspiracy and Osborn himself…

As another strand of his long-term plan, the Homeland Metahuman Security overlord subsequently sacked Iron Man’s Mighty Avengers and created his own, more manageable team consisting of compliant turncoats, tractable replacements and outright impostors. Constantly courting public opinion, Osborn launched his Avengers whilst systematically building up a personally loyal high-tech paramilitary rapid-response force.

One of Stark’s last Avenger recruits had been the Grecian war god Ares. Although a former villain (since debuting in Thor #129 in 1966 he had repeatedly battled both Hercules and the Avengers), he was seen by Stark as a fitting replacement for Founder member Thor, providing mythic hitting power and knowledge of non-earthly lore.

Ares was content to stay on when Osborn took over. The war god was always happy to serve under a truly strong commander…

A hard hero for harsh modern tastes, Ares is the star of this slim companion volume to the Dark Reign publishing event, gathering an eponymous initial 5-issue miniseries from 2006 by Michael Avon Oeming & Travel Foreman as well as the later 3-issue Dark Avengers: Ares run from 2009.

This myth-tinted martial chronicle opens with Oeming & Foreman’s canny reappraisal of the former foeman as the war lord, quietly living under the radar in New York and cursing all the works of his father and the Hellenic tradition of advancement through patricide, is called once more to duty for the brother-gods he despises.

Toiling as a simple builder, John Ares had dedicated himself to raising his son Alexander in a manner utter removed from the draconian, traditional manner of his own youth.

Thus when Hermes appears, demanding he return to wage war on Olympus’ latest enemies, Ares sends him packing. When his boy is abducted, all that resolve goes out the window and the Man of War is catapulted into a blistering ongoing campaign between his Hellenic brethren and invading devil-gods from the East.

Ares’ rage is initially aimed at Zeus, who has taken his own grandson as a bargaining chip, but by the time the War Lord reaches besieged Olympus, battered brothers Hercules, Apollo and Achilles regretfully admit that the boy has been taken by the unstoppable forces of undead deity Amatsu Mikaboshi – the August Star of Heaven – and held in the chill, dreary mist-lands of the Eastern Dead…

As the son of a god, Alexander has a birthright of power. Destined to become the God of Fear, the boy is plied with subtle gifts and undergoes many cunning treatments as the Japanese Death Lord endeavours to make the boy his greatest weapon in an eternal war of expansion…

In the rubble of Olympus, Ares cares nothing for cosmic politics: he wants his son back and is quite prepared to kill his own sire to achieve his aims. Nonetheless bloody years pass without progress as Alexander slowly succumbs to the blandishments of his captors and becomes the demon’s new lord of combat. Eventually even mighty Zeus goes down and the siege of Olympus staggers on until war god and son are pitted against each other on a field of the fallen.

Even with the belated and largely unwanted assistance of Japan’s Lords of Light the contest goes badly and comes down to a life or death duel between the dejected Ares and his bewitched and patricidal Alexander…

With a classically tragic, fore-fated combat cleverly, spectacularly and comprehensively subverted, restored father and son happily return to Earth for Dark Avengers: Ares (written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Manuel Garcia, Stefano Gaudiano & Mark Pennington) as the War Lord of Osborn’s Avengers is personally asked by the Security Czar to train the inexperienced paramilitary legions of H.A.M.M.E.R.

Accepting the challenge of turning ordinary soft soldiers into a puissant warrior elite, Ares loses himself in the task until manipulative goddess Hera manifests to “warn” him that his son – her grandson – is in danger…

On returning to earth Ares had entrusted Alexander to the care of rogue super-agent Nick Fury, but was never confident that the boy was truly secure. Now assembling his untested cadre of “Shades”, he again goes hunting and tracks the child to an abandoned base, only to realise once again why he despises his family.

The war god had sired many sons in his millennia of existence and Hera had never specifically said Alexander was the child in peril…

The family life of the Greek gods was always an open pit of horror, cruelty and tragedy, and monstrous Kyknos has somehow emerged from the forgotten corridors of the past and realm of Hades, sponsored by vile uncle Pluto to exorcise his own daddy issues through blood and pain and macabre slaughter…

As much a gritty vehicle for the poor mortal “red-shirt” Shades as the Hellenic hero, this is another dark and turbulent tale of tension and slaughter that will sit well with lovers of grim, sardonic cosmic adventure.

Although definitely not a book for younger fans, this is a magnificently illustrated and emotionally intriguing offering, providing an engaging peek at the sinister side of antiheroes and the deadly downside of family and duty.

© 2006, 2009 and 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Blake and Mortimer volume 16: The Secret of the Swordfish Part 2 – Mortimer’s Escape


By Edgar P. Jacobs, coloured by Philippe Biermé & Luce Daniels translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-161-7

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (March 30th 1904-February 20th 1987) is rightly considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output is relatively modest compared to most of his iconic contemporaries, the landmark serialised epic he created practically formed the backbone of the straight action-adventure comic in Europe, and his splendidly adroit yet roguish and thoroughly British adventurers Blake and Mortimer, conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, swiftly became an crucial staple of post-war European kids’ life, in exactly the same way that Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

Edgar P. Jacobs was born in Brussels, a precocious child who was always drawing but was even more obsessed with music and the performing arts – especially opera. He attended a commercial school but loathed the idea of office work and instead avidly pursued the arts and drama on his graduation in 1919.

A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses (scene-painting, set decoration and even performing as both an acting and singing extra) supplemented his private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His dreamed-of operatic career was thwarted by the Great Depression. When arts funding suffered massive cutbacks following the global stock market crash, he was compelled to pick up whatever dramatic work was going, although this did include more singing and performing.

Jacobs switched to commercial illustration in 1940, winning regular work in the magazine Bravo, as well as illustrating short stories and novels. He famously took over the syndicated Flash Gordon strip when the occupying German authorities banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero and the publishers desperately needed someone to satisfactorily complete the saga.

Jacobs’ ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Occupation dictators, after which the man of many talents simply created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

During this period Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together, and whilst creating the weekly U Ray strip, the younger man began assisting on Tintin, colouring the original black and white strips of The Shooting Star (originally run in newspaper Le Soir) for an upcoming album collection.

By 1944 Jacobs was performing similar duties on Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. He was also contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

After the war and liberation, publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a few other comicstrip aristocracy to work for his proposed new venture. Founding publishing house Le Lombard, Leblanc also commissioned Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with simultaneous editions in Belgium, France and Holland, edited by Hergé and starring the intrepid boy reporter plus a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, Le Journal de Tintin featured Paul Cuvelier’s ‘Corentin’ and Jacques Laudy’s ’The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’.

Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since their time together on Bravo, and the first instalment of the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred a bluff, gruff British scientist and an English Military Intelligence officer (who was closely modelled on Laudy): Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake

The initial storyline ran from issue #1 (26th September 1946 to September 8th 1949) and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s first album release with the concluding part published three years later. These volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982 in addition to a single omnibus edition released in 1964.

Hergé and Jacobs purportedly suffered a split in 1947 when the former refused to grant the latter a by-line on new Tintin material, but since the two remained friends for life and Jacobs continued to produce Blake and Mortimer for the weekly comic, I think it’s fair to say that if such was the case it was a pretty minor spat. I rather suspect that The Secret of the Swordfish was simply taking up more and more of the diligent artist’s time and attention…

In 1984 the story was reformatted and repackaged for English translation as three volumes with additional material (mostly covers from the weekly Tintin added to the story as splash pages) as part of a push to win some of the lucrative Tintin and Asterix market here, but failed to find an audience and ended after seven magnificent if under-appreciated volumes.

Now happily Cinebook has finally released the tale – albeit after publishing many later adventures first – and this second instalment carries the tale of the struggle against world domination to next epic level…

Although all the subsequent Blake and Mortimer sagas have been wonderfully retranslated and published by Cinebook in recent years, this initial epic introductory adventure and its concluding two volumes remained frustratingly in the back-issue twilight zone, possibly due to their superficial embracing of the prevailing prejudices of the time.

By having the overarching enemies of mankind be a secret Asiatic “Yellow Peril” empire of evil, there is some potential for offence – unless one actually reads the books to find that any presumed racism is countered throughout by an equal amount of “good” ethnic people and “evil” white folk, so please if you have any doubts please quell them and get these books….

Here and now, however, let’s recap The Incredible Chase, wherein a clandestine clique in the Himalayas launched a global Blitzkrieg at the command of Basam-Damdu, malign Emperor of Tibet. The warlord ruled a secret cabal of belligerent conquerors, whose arsenal of technological super-weapons were wielded by an army of the world’s wickedest rogues such as the diabolical Colonel Olrik who dreamed of ruling the entire Earth, and his sneak attack almost accomplished all his schemes in one fell swoop.

Happily however, English physicist Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake were aware of the threat and were already racing to finish the boffin’s radical new aircraft at a hidden British industrial complex.

When the attack came the old friends swung into immediate action and narrowly escaped destruction in a devastating bomber raid…

The Golden Rocket launched just as Olrik’s bombers attacked and easily outdistanced the rapacious Empire forces, leaving ruined homes behind them as they flew into a hostile world now brutally controlled by Basam-Damdu…

Seeking to join British Middle East resistance forces, the fugitives’ flight ended prematurely when the Rocket crashed in the rocky wilds between Iran and Afghanistan. Parachuting to safety, Blake and Mortimer survived a host of perils and escaped capture more than once as they slowly, inexorably made their way to the distant rendezvous, before meeting a British-trained native Sergeant Ahmed Nasir.

The loyal Indian had served with Blake during the last war and was delighted to see him again, but as the trio laboriously made their way to the target site, Olrik had already found it and seized their last hope…

Using commando tactics to infiltrate the enemy camp and stealing the villainous Colonel’s own Red-Wing super-jet, the heroes made their way towards a fall-back point but were again shot down – this time by friendly fire as anti-Lhasa rebels saw the stolen plane as an enemy target…

Surviving this crash too, the trio were ferried in relative safety by the apologetic tribesmen to the enemy-occupied town of Turbat and sheltered by a friendly Khan administrator. However the man’s servant, a spy of the Empire-appointed Wazir, recognised the Englishmen and Nasir realised far too late the danger they all faced…

Sending his loyal Sergeant away, Blake tried valiantly frantically to save Mortimer whilst a platoon of Empire soldiers rapidly mounted the stairs to their exposed room…

The frantic action resumes here in Mortimer’s Escape with soldiers bursting into an empty chamber before being themselves attacked by the Khan. After a bloody firefight the Englishmen emerge from their cunning hiding place and flee Turbat, which has been seized by a furious spur-of-the-moment rebellion.

Unknown to the fugitives, the devious spy Bezendjas is hard on their heels and soon finds an opportunity to inform Olrik. With the city in flames and fighting in every street the callous colonel abandons his own troops to pursue Nasir, Blake and Mortimer into the wastes beyond the walls…

On stolen horses the heroes endure all the ferocious hardships of the desert but cannot outdistance Olrik’s staff-car. After days of relentless pursuit they reach the rocky coastline and almost stumble into another Empire patrol, and whilst ducking them Blake almost falls to his doom. Narrowly escaping death, the trio continue to climb steep escarpments and it is dusk before the Intelligence Officer realises that he has lost the precious plans and documents they have been carrying since they fled England…

Realising that somebody must reach the British resistance at their hidden Eastern base, the valiant comrades split up. Blake and Nasir continue onwards whilst Mortimer returns to the accident site. Finding the plans is a stroke of sheer good fortune, immediately countered by an ambush from Olrik’s troops.

Despite a Herculean last stand the scientist is at last taken prisoner but only after successfully hiding the lost plans…

Three months later Olrik is called to account in the exotic city-fortress of Lhasa. Basam-Damdu’s ruling council are unhappy with the Colonel’s lack of progress in breaking the captive scientist, and even more infuriated by a tidal-wave of sabotage and armed rebellion throughout their newly-conquered territories. Even Olrik’s own spies are warning him that his days as an agent of the Yellow Empire might be numbered…

Given two days to make Mortimer talk, the Colonel returns to his base in Karachi just as another rebel raid allows Nasir to infiltrate the Empire’s HQ. Blake is also abroad in the city, having joined British forces in the area.

With less than a day to act, the MI5 officer rendezvous with a British submarine and travels to a vast atomic-powered secret installation under the Straits of Hormuz, where the Royal Navy are stoically preparing for a massive counter-attack on the Empire. With raids liberating interned soldiers all the time, the ranks of scientists, technicians and soldiers are swelling daily…

Meanwhile, Nasir has begun a desperate plan to free Mortimer, who is still adamantly refusing to talk of the mysterious “Swordfish” Olrik’s agents continually hear rumours of…

Aware of his danger and the Sergeant’s efforts, Mortimer instead cunningly informs Nasir of the lost plans’ location, even as the impatient Emperor’s personal torturer arrives from Lhasa…

Always concerned with the greater good, Blake and a commando team secure the concealed plans and are met by Nasir who has been forced from Karachi after realising the spy Bezendjas has recognised him. It appears that time has run out for their scholarly comrade…

Mortimer, however, has taken fate into his own hands. When the devious Doctor Sun Fo begins his interrogation, the Professor breaks free and escapes into the fortress grounds during an earth-shattering storm. Trapped in a tower with only a handgun, he is determined to sell his life dearly, but is rescued by Blake and Nasir in a Navy Helicopter.

Using the storm for cover the heroes evade jet pursuit and an enemy naval sweep to link up with a British sub and escape into the night…

To Be Concluded

Gripping and fantastic in the best tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of True Brit grit and determination; always delivering grand, old-fashioned Blood-&-Thunder thrills and spills in tried and true timeless fashion and with staggering visual verve and dash. Despite the high body count and dated milieu, any kid able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it alternate earth history or bakelite-punk if you want) will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.

This Cinebook edition also includes a tantalising preview of the next volume as well as excerpts from stand-alone adventure S.O.S. Meteors, plus a biography feature which offers a chronological publication chart of Jacobs’ and his successors’ efforts and a handy comparison and chronological publishing order of the Cinebook releases.

Original editions © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud – Lombard s.a.) 1985 by E.P. Jacobs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Cinebook Ltd.

JSA All Star Archives volume 1


By John Wentworth, Ken Fitch, Bill O’Connor, Sheldon Mayer, Charles Reizenstein, Bill Finger, Stan Aschmeier, Bernard Baily, Ben Flinton & Leonard Sansone, Howard Purcell, Hal Sharp and Irwin Hasen (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1472-2

After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero – indisputably the Action Comics debut of Superman in June 1938 – the most significant event in the industry’s history was the combination of individual sales-points into a group.

Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was proven: consumers couldn’t get enough of garishly-hued mystery men and combining a multitude of characters inevitably increases readership. Plus, of course, a mob of superheroes is just so much cooler than one…or one-and-a-half if there’s a sidekick involved…

It cannot be understated: the creation of the Justice Society of America in 1941 utterly changed the shape of the budding industry. However before that team of all-stars could unite they had to become popular enough to qualify and this superb hardcover sampler gathers the debut adventures of a septet of beloved champions who never quite made it into the first rank but nonetheless scored enough to join the big team and maintain their own solo spots for much of the Golden Age of American Comics.

Whilst the most favoured of the 1940s stalwarts have all won their own DC Archive collections in the past, this particular tome bundles a bunch of lesser lights – or at least those who never found as much favour with modern fans and revivalists – and features the first five appearances of seven of the JSA’s secondary mystery men: all solid supporting acts in their own anthology homes who were potentially so much more…

Gathered here are short, sharp and stirring tales from Flash Comics #1-5, Adventure Comics #48-52, All-American Comics #19-29 and Sensation Comics #1-5 collectively spanning January 1940 to May 1942 and all preceded by Golden Age aficionado and advocate Roy Thomas’ sparkling, informative and appreciative Foreword.

The vintage vim and vigour begins with a character equally adored and reviled in modern times. Johnny Thunderbolt as he was originally dubbed was an honest, well-meaning, courageous soul who was also a grade “A” idiot. However, what he lacked in smarts he made up for with sheer luck, unfailing pluck and the unconscious (at least at first) control of an irresistible magic force.

The series was played for action-packed laughs but there was no getting away from it: Johnny was quite frankly, a simpleton in control of an ultimate weapon – an electric genie…

John Wentworth & Stan Aschmeier introduced the happy sap in ‘The Kidnapping of Johnny Thunder’ from the first monthly Flash Comics (#1, January 1940) in a fantastic origin which detailed how decades before, the infant seventh son of a seventh son was abducted by priests from the mystic island of Badhnisia to be raised as the long-foretold controller of a fantastic magical weapon, all by voicing the eldritch command “Cei-U” – which sounds to western ears awfully like “say, you”…

Ancient enemies on the neighbouring isle of Agolea started a war before the ceremonies and indoctrination could be completed however and at age seven the lad, through that incomprehensible luck, was returned to his parents to be raised in the relative normality of the Bronx.

Everything was fine until Johnny’s 17th birthday when the ancient rite finally came to fruition and amid bizarre weather conditions the Badhnisians intensified their search for their living weapon…

By the time they tracked him down he was working in a department store and had recently picked up the habit of expleting the phrase “say you” which generally resulted in something very strange happening. One example being a bunch of strange Asiatics attacking him and being blown away by a mysterious pink tornado…

The pattern was set. Each month Johnny would look for gainful employment, stumble into a crime or crisis and his voluble temperament would result in an inexplicable unnatural phenomenon that would solve the problem but leave him no better off. It was a winning theme that lasted until 1947 – by which time the Force had resolved into a wisecracking thunderbolt-shaped genie – and Johnny was slowly ousted from his own strip by sexy new crimebuster Black Canary

Flash Comics #2 featured ‘Johnny Becomes a Boxer’. After stepping in to save a girl from bullies, Daisy Darling became his girlfriend and he became the Heavyweight Champion, leading to his implausibly winning the fixed contest ‘Johnny versus Gunpowder Glantz’ in #3. Only now Daisy refused to marry a brute who lived by hitting others…

The solution came in ‘Johnny Law’ when kidnappers tried to abduct Daisy’s dad. Following his sound thrashing of the thugs Johnny then joined the FBI at his babe’s urging…

This tantalising taste of times past concludes with ‘G-Man Johnny’ (#5 May 1940) as the kid’s first case involves him in a bank raid which resulted in his own father being taken hostage…

Although he eventually joined the JSA, and despite the affable, good-hearted bumbling which carried him through the war, the peace-time changing fashions found no room for a hapless hero anymore and when he encountered a sultry masked female Robin Hood who stole from crooks, the writing was on the wall. Nevertheless the fortuitously imbecilic Johnny Thunder is fondly regarded by many modern fans and still has lots to say and a decidedly different way of saying it…

Hourman by Ken Fitch & Bernard Baily was a far more serious proposition and actually had his shot at stardom, beginning by supplanting The Sandman as cover feature on Adventure Comics #48 (March 1940). Here his exploits run through issue #52 (July) establishing the unique and gripping methodology which made him such a favourite of later, more sophisticated fans…

In an era where origins were never as important as action, mood and spectacle, ‘Presenting Tick-Tock Tyler, the Hour-Man’ begins with a strange classified ad offering aid and assistance to any person in need. Chemist Rex Tyler had invented “Miraclo” a drug which super-energised him for 60 minutes at a time and his first case saw him help a wife whose man was being dragged back into criminal endeavours by poverty and bad friends…

‘The Disappearance of Dr. Drew’ found him locating a missing scientist kidnapped by thugs whilst ‘The Dark Horse’ saw the Man of the Hour crush a crooked and murderous bookie who had swiped both horse and owner before a key race.

Mad science and a crazy doctor employing ‘The Wax-Double Killers’ then added a spooky component of scary thrills and super-villain cachet for the timely hero to handle, whilst ‘The Counterfeit Hour-Man’ – which concludes the offerings here – saw our hero again battling Dr. Snegg in a scurrilous scheme to frame the hooded hero.

Hourman always looked great and his adventures developed into a tight and compulsive feature, but he never really caught on and faded out at the beginning of 1943 (#83). Perhaps all the current the buzz over the forthcoming TV series can revive his fortunes and finally make him a star in his own right…

Our next second string star is Calvin College student Al Pratt, a diminutive but determined lad who got fed up with being bullied by jocks and became a pint-sized, two-fisted mystery man ready for anything.

The Mighty Atom was created by writer Bill O’Connor and rendered by Ben Flinton & Leonard Sansone, beginning in All-American Comics #19. He was one of the longest lasting of the Golden Age greats, transferring from All-American to Flash Comics in February 1947 and sporadically appearing until the last issue (Flash #104, February 1949). He was last seen in the final JSA tale in All Star Comics#57 in 1951.

The tales here span #19-23 (October 1940-February 1941) and begin by ‘Introducing the Mighty Atom’ as the bullied scholar hooks up with down-and-out trainer Joe Morgan whose radical methods soon have the kid in the very peak of physical condition and well able to take care of himself.

However, when Al’s intended girlfriend Mary is kidnapped the lad eschews fame and potential sporting fortune to bust her loose and decides on a new extra-curricular activity…

He fashioned a costume for his second exploit, going into ‘Action at the College Ball’ to foil a hold-up and then tackled ‘The Monsters from the Mine’ who were enslaved by a scientific mania intent on conquest. The college environment offered many plot opportunities and in ‘Truckers War’ the Atom crushed a gang of hijackers who had bankrupted a fellow student and football star’s father. This snippet of atomic episodes concludes here with ‘Joe’s Appointment’ as the trainer was framed for spying by enemy agents and need a little atomic aid…

Although we think of the Golden Age as a superhero wonderland, the true watchword was variety and flagship anthology All-American Comics offered everything from slapstick comedy to aviation adventure on its four-colour pages.

One of the very best humour strips featured the semi-autobiographical exploits of Scribbly Jibbet, a boy who wanted to draw. Created by genuine comics wonder boy Sheldon Mayer, Scribbly: Midget Cartoonist debuted in the first issue (April 1939) and soon built a sterling rep for himself beside star reprint features like Mutt and Jeff and all-new adventure serial Hop Harrigan, Ace of the Airways.

However the fashions of the time soon demanded a humorous look at mystery men and in #20 (November 1940) Mayer’s long-term comedy feature evolved into a delicious spoof of the trend as Scribbly’s formidable landlady Ma Hunkel decided to do something about crime in her neighbourhood by dressing up as a husky male hero.

‘The Coming of the Red Tornado’ saw her don cape, woollen long-johns and a saucepan for a mask/helmet to crush gangster/kidnapper Tubb Torponi. The mobster had made the mistake of snatching her terrible nipper Sisty and Scribbly’s little brother Dinky (they would later become her masked sidekicks) and Ma was determined to see justice done…

An ongoing serial rather than specific episodes, the dramedy concluded in ‘The Red Tornado to the Rescue’ with the irate, inept cops then deciding to pursue the mysterious new vigilante but the ‘Search for the Red Tornado’ only made them look more stupid.

With the scene set for outrageous parody ‘The Red Tornado Goes Ape’ pitted the parochial masked manhunter against a zoo full of critters before this superb selection ends with ‘Neither Man nor Mouse’ (All-American Comics #24) as the hero apparently retires and crime returns… until Dinky and Sisty become the Cyclone Kids

A far more serious and sustainable contender debuted in the next issue, joining a growing host of grim masked avengers.

‘Dr. Mid-Nite: How He Began’ by Charles Reizenstein & Aschmeier (All-American Comics #25, April 1941) revealed how surgeon Charles McNider was blinded by criminals but subsequently discovered he could see perfectly in the dark. The maimed physician became an outspoken criminologist but also devised blackout bombs and other night paraphernalia to wage secret war on gangsters from the darkness, aided only by his new pet owl Hooty

After catching his own assailant he then smashed river pirates protected by corrupt politicians in ‘The Waterfront Mystery’ and then rescued innocent men blackmailed into serving criminals’ sentences in jail in ‘Prisoners by Choice’ (#27 and guest illustrated by Howard Purcell).

With Aschmeier’s return Mid-Nite crushed aerial wreckers using ‘The Mysterious Beacon’ to down bullion planes and then smashed ‘The Menace of King Cobra’, a secret society leader lording it over copper mine workers…

The Master of Darkness also lasted until the end of the era and appeared in that last JSA story and, since his Sixties return has been one of the most resilient characters in DC’s pantheon of Golden Age revivals, but the next nearly-star was an almost forgotten man for decades…

When Sensation Comics launched in January 1942 all eyes were rightly glued to the uniquely eye-catching Wonder Woman who hogged all the covers and unleashed a wealth of unconventional adventures every month. However like all anthologies of the time her exploits were carefully balanced by a selection of other features.

Sensation #1-5 (January to May 1942) also featured a pugnacious fighter who was the quintessence of manly prowess and a quiet, sedate fellow problem solver who was literally a master of all trades.

Crafted by Charles Reizenstein & Hal Sharp ‘Who is Mr. Terrific?’ introduced Terry Sloane, a physical and mental prodigy who so excelled at everything he touched that by the time of the opening tale he was so bored that he was planning his own suicide.

Happily, on the bridge he found Wanda Wilson, a girl with the same idea and by saving her found a purpose: crushing the kinds of criminals who had driven her to such despair…

Actively seeking out villainy of every sort he performed ‘The One-Man Benefit Show’ after thugs sabotaged all the performers, travelled to the republic of Santa Flora to expose ‘The Phony Presidente’ and helped a rookie cop pinch an “untouchable” gang boss in ‘Dapper Joe’s Comeuppance’.

His final appearance here finds him at his very best carefully rooting out political corruption and exposing ‘The Two Faces of Caspar Crunch’

Closing out this stunning hardback extravaganza is another quintet from Sensation Comics #1-5, this time by Bill Finger & Irwin Hasen: already established stars for their work on Batman and Green Lantern.

‘This is the Story of Wildcat’ is the debut appearance of one the era’s most impressive “lost treasures” and a genuine comicbook classic: a classy tale of boxer Ted Grant who was framed for the murder of his best friend the Champ and, inspired by a kid’s worship for Green Lantern, clears his name by donning a feline mask and costume and ferociously stalking the real killers.

Finger & Hasen captured everything which made for perfect rollercoaster adventure in their explosive sports-informed yarns. The mystery and drama continued unabated in the sequel ‘Who is Wildcat?’ as Ted retired his masked identity to contest for the vacant boxing title, but could not let innocents suffer as crime and corruption increased in the city…

In ‘The Case of the Phantom Killers’ Wildcat tracks down mobsters seemingly striking from beyond the grave, and his adventures altered forever with the introduction of hard-hitting hillbilly hayseed ‘Stretch Skinner, Dee-teca-tif!’ who came to the big city to be a private eye and instead became Ted Grant’s foil, manager and crime-busting partner…

The comic craziness concludes here with a rousing case of mistaken identity and old-fashioned framing as Wildcat has to save his tall new pal from a killer gambler in ‘Chips Carder’s Big Fix’

These eccentric early adventures might not be to every modern fan’s taste but they certainly stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s (not so) Greatest Superheroes. If you have an interest in the way things were and a hankering for simpler times marked by less complicated or angsty adventure this may well be a book you’ll cherish forever…
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Secret Invasion Fantastic Four


By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Barry Kitson (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851

Since Fantastic Four #2 (cover-dated January 1961) the Skrulls have been a pernicious cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse, the insidious intergalactic infiltrators were finally made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas.

The premise of Secret Invasion was simple: the former all-encompassing empire had been crippled and scourged by a devastating catastrophe which destroyed much of their power, and the race subsequently underwent a mass fundamentalist religious conversion. They became utterly resolved and dedicated to make Earth their new homeworld – just as their ancient scriptures foretold…

To this end they gradually replaced a number of key Earth denizens – most notably superheroes and villains. When the plot was first uncovered no defender of the Earth truly knew who was on their side…

Moreover the Skrulls had also unravelled the secrets of Earth magic and humanity’s unique genetics, creating amped-up equivalents to Earth’s mightiest heroes and villains. During this period they hid amongst us, primed, able and waiting to destroy the world’s champions in head-to-head confrontations.

Not all Skrulls were fanatics however. Earth also harboured a few dissidents opposed to the new regime or non-fanatics simply unwilling to get properly involved, and one of them became the unlikely star of the 3-issue Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four (July-September 2008) which makes up the premiere half of this tantalising tome. The rest of the book collects a triptych of her earlier appearances from Fantastic Four #300 and #357-358 (March 1987 and October-November 1991)…

Scripted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, pencilled by Barry Kitson and inked by Mick Gray, Scott Hanna, Paul Neary & Kitson, the main event opens with ‘No One gets Out Alive!’ and sees Invisible Woman Susan Richards ambushed at a most intimate moment and replaced by a sinister Skrull. A little later “she” calmly walks into the team’s top security home/HQ and catapults the entire top of the building into the eerie sub-space Negative Zone, trapping The Thing, Human Torch and the children Franklin and Valeria in an inescapable dimension of horror…

Stuck without their genius leader, Ben and Johnny are stuck trying to fend off the horrific, invasive beasts of the realm as at length “Sue” reveals herself to be Lyja – the Skrull agent Johnny once unwittingly married…

The drama continues as, after initial frantic and unresolved-issue fuelled combat Johnny and Lyja enjoy a sort of rapprochement and determine to join forces to bring everyone out of the Negative Zone. Linking up with Ben and the most formidable little kids in comics, the makeshift family battle their way across the ghastly inner cosmos to one of Reed Richards’ ongoing experiments – a super-penitentiary for super-criminals too dangerous for incarceration on Earth – to find an evil super-genius willing to help them return to save the world from the imminent and possibly already ongoing Secret Invasion…

Fun, frolicsome, action-packed and delightfully entertaining, this slight but charming family furore is counterbalanced with a selection of earlier Lyja appearances beginning with ‘Dearly Beloved…’ (Fantastic Four #300 by Roger Stern, John & Sal Buscema), wherein the Thing returned to Earth after an extended stay in outer space to find his best friend the Torch about to marry his old girlfriend Alicia Masters

After understandable friction and some fist-flinging Grimm sadly accepted the situation and even stood up as Best Man for his pal, but only Alicia’s evil step-father The Puppet Master had any suspicion at the true nature of events…

After a further 50-odd issues of wedded bliss the truth was shockingly revealed in FF #357 with Tom DeFalco, Paul Ryan & Danny Bulanadi’s ‘The Monster Among Us!’ as Puppet Master linked up with manic mentalist Mad Thinker and inadvertently forced Mrs. Storm to reveal her true nature…

This prompted the Fantastic Four to stage a rescue bid into Skrull Space to discover ‘Whatever Happened to Alicia?!’ in the concluding #358…

Heading into deadly danger the team encountered a new major menace in the super-augmented Paibok the Power Skrull but were mercifully aided by his old inamorata Lyja, who had gone native, professing to now love her human husband…

She even claimed to be carrying Johnny’s baby…

With covers by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer, Mike McKone, John & Sal Buscema, Paul Ryan & Danny Bulanadi and despite the cliff-hanging nature of the extra material, Secret Invasion Fantastic Four is a smart and slickly engaging Fights ‘n’ Tights romp that will meet every fan’s ecstatic approval.
© 1987, 1991, 2008, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mighty Avengers volume 1: The Ultron Initiative


By Brian Michael Bendis & Frank Cho (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2368-2

The Patriot Act changed America as much as the destruction of the World Trade Towers, and it’s fair to say that popular arts grow from the social climate as much as the target audience.

In post 9-11 America, creators and consumers now think different thoughts in different ways. Thus the company that first challenged the middle-class suburban status quo of the comic industry in the late 1960s made Homeland Security and the exigencies of safety and liberty the themes of a major publishing event in 2006.

After a TV reality show starring superheroes The New Warriors went hideously wrong and resulted in the deaths of hundreds in Stamford, Connecticut, popular opinion turned massively against masked crusaders.

The Federal government rushed through a scheme to licence, train and regulate all metahumans but the plan split the superhero community and a terrified and indignant merely mortal populace quivered as a significant faction of their former defenders, led by the ultimate icon of Liberty, Captain America, refused to surrender their autonomy and anonymity to the bureaucratic vicissitudes of the Superhuman Registration Act.

The Avengers and Fantastic Four, bedrock teams of the Marvel Universe, fragmented in scenes reminiscent of America’s War Between the States, with “brother pitted against brother”. As the conflict escalated it became clear to all involved that the increasingly bitter fighting was for souls as much as lives.

Both sides battled for love of Country and Constitution and both sides knew they were right…

The Ultron Initiative, re-presenting the first half-dozen issues of Mighty Avengers (volume 1, May 2007-February 2008) by Brian Michael Bendis & Frank Cho, is a gloriously wry and raunchy rollercoaster ride blending blockbuster action with cocky optimism and often outrageous humour which only serves to intensify the shocks and horror of a truly terrifying scenario starring Marvel’s ultimate mechanoid monster.

Following the divisive and brutal Civil War, staunch advocate of the SRA Tony Stark constituted a new Government-approved, S.H.I.E.L.D.-backed team of Avengers to take care of business whilst he worked on his Fifty States Initiative idea.

The objective was to eventually field squads of trained and licensed superheroes in every State of the Union, but first he had to restore public confidence…

The initial and so-sophisticated story-arc begins as he recalls recruiting Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, Wonder Man, the Wasp, Sentry and first-timer Ares, God of War just in time to tackle an invasion of monsters led by the Mole Man. Just as the new team send them packing Iron Man suddenly succumbs to a body-and-armour warping assault that apparently absorbs Stark and leaves in his place a gleaming naked metalloid reproduction of Janet Van Dyne

Ultron was originally created by size-changing erratic genius Henry Pym AKA Ant-Man before – in a Fights ‘n’ Tights riff on the classical Oedipus myth – the manic mechanoid evolved, hating his “father” and desiring his “mother”.

Having transferred that hatred to the Avengers, here the metal maniac has usurped his mum’s form, parading around naked in a shiny metallic semblance of the Wasp, whilst boasting of collaterally wrecking the Mole Man’s kingdom in “her” campaign to destroy the true foe.

The new Ultron easily overmatches even the most mighty Avenger and Jan is compelled to call in her estranged ex-husband to try and deal with the mess he originally created. Everybody is praying that somewhere within the gleaming murderous form Tony Stark still lives…

In Avengers Initiative training facility Camp Hammond, Pym and new girlfriend Tigra are enjoying some downtime when the call comes, and he is hustled off under close arrest by S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel just as, above New York City, Ultron hacks herself into the spy agency’s networks and shuts down all their operations. With Black Widow forced to take manual command of the organisation – everybody in earshot at least – the team begins a fresh if doomed attack only to receive a glimmer of hope in the form of an unhackable, failsafe, low-tech pre-programmed Iron Man suit with an inbuilt contingency plan…

Jan-tron meanwhile has re-tasked orbiting satellites to scourge the Earth of organic life and is in the process of advertising it to terrified TV-watching humanity when Pym arrives.

Notoriously unstable, he knows the other heroes don’t trust him – he barely trusts himself – and as Wonder Man and Sentry race to destroy the chain of orbital death dealers he struggles to find a way to back door his way into his ferociously hyper-evolved invention. In retaliation, Jan-tron goes on the attack, commandeering a brigade of spare Iron Man Armours to engage the team whilst she seemingly butchers Sentry’s wife Lindy

However with the Avengers proving more difficult to stop than calculated and the satellite ring disabled, the A.I. is forced to resort to the uninspired tactic of taking over Earth’s nuclear stockpiles even as Ares and Pym devise a way to destroy Jan-tron.

The only catch is that they have to activate it from inside her primary body – and even if it works there’s no guarantee that Stark’s physiology will survive the process…

With covers-&-variants by Cho and Francis Leinil Yu and stunning design sketches by the former included, this is a slick, sly and sublimely entertaining all-action rollercoaster romp which deliciously sets the scene for many compelling and far darker sagas to come, but also reads astounding well on its own merits.

Definitely one for inveterate thrill-chasers everywhere.

© 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dalton City: Lucky Luke volume 3


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Frederick W. Nolan (CineBook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-13-7

It’s hard to think of one of Europe’s most beloved and long-running comics characters being in any way controversial, but when the changing times caught up with the fastest gun in the West (“so fast he can outdraw his own shadow”) and the planet’s most laconic cowboy moved with them, the news made headlines all over the world.

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, lightning-fast cowboy who roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his horse Jolly Jumper and interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures of the genre.

His continued exploits over nearly seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (78 collected books and more than 300 million albums in 30 languages thus far), with spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and even a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

He was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) for the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, before launching into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880′ on December 7th 1946.

Prior to that, while working at the CBA (Compagnie Belge d’Actualitiés) cartoon studio, Morris met future comics super-stars Franquin and Peyo, and worked for weekly magazine Le Moustique as a caricaturist – which is probably why (to my eyes at least) his lone star hero looks uncannily like the young Robert Mitchum who graced so many memorable mid-1940s B-movie Westerns.

Morris quickly became one of “la Bande des quatre” – The Gang of Four – which comprised creators Jijé, Will and his old comrade Franquin: the leading proponents of the loose and free-wheeling artistic style known as the “Marcinelle School” which dominated Spirou in aesthetic contention with the “Ligne Claire” style used by Hergé, EP Jacobs and other artists in Tintin Magazine.

In 1948 said Gang (all but Will) visited America, meeting US creators and sightseeing. Morris stayed for six years, meeting fellow traveller René Goscinny, scoring some work from the newly-formed EC sensation Mad and making copious notes and sketches of the swiftly vanishing Old West.

That research would resonate on every page of his life’s work.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced another nine albums worth of affectionate sagebrush parody before reuniting with Goscinny, who became the regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of superstardom, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967 the six-gun straight-shooter switched teams, transferring to Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny produced 45 albums with Morris before his death, from whence Morris continued both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus the spin-off adventures of Rantanplan (“dumbest dog in the West” and a charming spoof of cinema canine Rin-Tin-Tin), with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac taking over the franchise, producing another five tales to date.

Moreover, apart from that very first adventure, Lucky (to appropriate a quote applied to the thematically simpatico Alias Smith and Jones) “in all that time… never shot or killed anyone”…

Lucky Luke first appeared in Britain syndicated to weekly comic Film Fun and again in 1967 in Giggle where he was renamed Buck Bingo. In all these venues – as well as the numerous attempts to follow the English-language successes of Tintin and Asterix albums from Brockhampton and Knight Books – Luke had a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip, but in 1983 Morris, no doubt amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad”, substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages if not the covers…) and Dalton City was the third of 50 albums (and counting), available both on paper and as e-book editions.

It was the 34th comic cowboy chronicle and Goscinny’s 25th collaboration with Morris, originally appearing in 1969 and featuring the first appearance of that most stupid of do-gooding doggy sidekicks Rantanplan. You have been warned…

The saga commences in Fenton Town, a city of utter depravity and villainy run by and for crooks, badmen and owlhoots by the cunning mastermind Dean Fenton; a mean man with the unsavoury hobby of collecting Sheriff’s stars… from their bullet-riddled bodies…

The night a lean, laconic lone rider ambled into town the murderous gambler’s fortunes changed forever, and when Luke spectacularly delivered the gang boss to justice, Fenton got 1223 years hard labour at Texas penitentiary, an imposing edifice already crammed with dozens of other varmints who failed to take Lucky Luke seriously.

And that’s where the trouble really starts…

Amongst the inmates are stupid sandbagging scallywags Averell, Jack and William Dalton and their smart, psychotic, bossy and short brother Joe, who had made things hot for our hero in the past. As they all crack rocks together the Dalton Gang are particularly influenced by Fenton’s tales of his little kingdom.

Contentedly ambling away from the prison, Luke and Jolly Jumper have no idea that an idiotic, incompetent telegraph operator is about to make their lives impossibly difficult. Handed a mis-transcribed message from the Governor to free inmate Joe Milton for Good Behaviour, the baffled Warden forcibly ejects the furiously insulted Dalton head honcho. Eventually calming down – at least as much as Joe Dalton ever can – the wily skunk promptly blows up an outer wall to liberate his scurrilous simpleton siblings and they all make tracks for the now-deserted Fenton Town.

Search parties of course trail them, but when vain, friendly and exceedingly dim prison hound Rin Tin Can absently-mindedly forgets himself and joins his quarry, the shame-faced guards have to return empty-handed…

Regretfully the Warden sends a telegram to Lucky Luke – again appallingly garbled – and the normally unflappable gunhawk is less than amused. It takes the pleadings of the Governor of Texas himself to convince him to go after his old enemies…

In the renamed DaltonCity, Joe and the boys have big plans. They’re going to operate a Mecca for all the criminals in the state: a safe place for badmen to hide and spend their stolen loot. Joe will be in charge, Jack will operate the hotel, William the stables and Averell will run the restaurant.

He even has faithful, omnivorous Rin Tin Can to test all his recipes on…

After much unlikely and unfamiliar had work the place is starting to come together when they get an even bigger boost by capturing their nemesis Lucky Luke spying on them. The hero had forgotten how stupid Rin Tin Can could be…

The hapless prisoner is then put to work testing their wares: surely if the service is good enough for Luke it will be perfect for the scum of the West? However the boys make the foolish mistake of listening to his suggestions for improvement…

The beginning of the end comes when Joe writes off to hire a singer and troupe of dancing girls. When the bombastic virago Lulu Breechloader and her associates Belle, Sugar Linda and Pearl arrive Lucky has all he needs to drive an amorous wedge into the solidarity of the felonious fellowship and, as an army of bandits and killers steadily roll into town looking for sanctuary and entertainment, they are invited to the wedding of the century…

The only persons unaware of the impending – and hard-fought for – nuptials of Joe Dalton and Lulu are the bride herself and her blithely unaware piano-playing husband…

In the ensuing chaos and explosive gunplay it isn’t hard for a smart cowboy crusader to make the biggest capture of wanted criminals in Texas’ history and ride off into the sunset with a new four-footed canine companion…

Once again the masterful wit and wicked deviousness of the indomitable hero triumphs in a splendidly intoxicating blend of all-ages action, seductive slapstick and wry cynical humour.

This is a grand old hoot in the tradition of Destry Rides again and Support Your Local Sheriff (or perhaps Paint Your Wagon, Evil Roy Slade or Cat Ballou are more your style?), superbly executed by master storytellers, and a wonderful introduction to a unique genre for modern kids who might well have missed the romantic allure of the Wild West that never was…

And in case you’re worried, even though the interior art still has our hero chawin’ on that ol’ nicotine stick, trust me, there’s very little chance of anyone craving a quick snout, but quite a high probability that they’ll be addicted to Lucky Luke Albums…

© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1969 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics.

English translation © 2006 Cinebook Ltd. This is the new 4th printing, 2014.