Showcase Presents the Trial of the Flash


By Cary Bates, Carmine Infantino, Frank McLaughlin, Dennis Jensen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3182-8

Barry Allen was the second comicbook comet to carry the name of Flash, and his debut was the Big Bang which finally triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks after a series of abortive remnant revivals (Stuntman in 1954 and Marvel’s “Big Three”, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America from 1953 to 1955). There were also a few all-original attempts such as Captain Flash, The Avenger and Strongman from 1954-1955.

Although none of those – or other less high-profile efforts – had restored or renewed the popularity of masked mystery-men, they had presumably piqued readers’ consciousness, even at conservative National/DC. Thus the revived human rocket wasn’t quite the innovation he seemed: after all, alien crusader Martian Manhunter had already cracked open the company floodgates with his low-key launch in Detective Comics #225, November 1955.

However in terms of creative quality, originality and sheer style The Flash was an irresistible spark and after his landmark first appearance in Showcase #4 (October 1956) the series – eventually – became a benchmark by which every successive launch or reboot across the industry was measured.

Police Scientist – we’d call him a CSI today – Allen was transformed by a simultaneous lightning strike and chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity. Yet with characteristic indolence the new Fastest Man Alive took three more try-out issues and almost as many years to win his own title. However when he finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959), he never looked back…

The comics business back then was a faddy, slavishly trend-beset affair, however, and following a manic boom for superhero tales prompted by the Batman TV show the fickle global consciousness moved on to a fixation with supernatural themes and merely mortal tales, triggering a huge revival of spooky films, shows, books and periodicals. With horror on the rise again, many superhero titles faced cancellation and even the most revered and popular were threatened. It was time to adapt or die: a process repeated every few years until the mid-1980s when DC’s powers-that-be decided to rationalise and downsize the sprawling multi-dimensional multiverse the Flash had innocently sparked into existence decades previously…

Barry had been through the wringer before: in 1979 (Flash #275 to be precise) his beloved wife Iris was brutally murdered and thereafter the Scarlet Speedster became a darker, grittier, truly careworn hero. Gradually over four years the lonely bachelor recovered and even found love again but a harshly evolving comics industry, changing fashions and jaded fan tastes were about to end his long run at the top…

The Vizier of Velocity was still a favoured, undisputed icon of the apparently unstoppable Superhero meme and a mighty pillar of the costumed establishment, but in times of precarious sales and with very little in the way of presence in other media like films, TV or merchandise, that just made him a bright red target for a company desperate to attract a larger readership.

It soon became an open secret that he was to be one of the major casualties of the reality-rending Crisis on Infinite Earths. The epic maxi-series was conceived as an attention-grabbing spectacle on every level and to truly succeed it needed a few sacrifices which would make the public really sit up and take notice…

With such knowledge commonplace, long-time scripter Cary Bates went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Crimson Comet and the comic title which inspired a super-heroic revolution went out in a totally absorbing blaze of glory…

This momentously massive stand-alone monochrome collection gathers the pertinent chapters of an astonishingly extended and supremely gripping serial which charted the triumphs and tragedies of the Monarch of Motion’s last months and savoured the final moments of the paramount hero and symbol of the Silver Age.

Contained herein are Flash #323-327, 329-336 and 340-350, spanning July 1983 to October 1985, written throughout by Bates and pencilled by originating artist Carmine Infantino, opening on the day Barry is supposed to marry his new sweetheart Fiona Webb.

As the nervous groom dresses for the ceremony, however, an Oan Guardian of the Universe appears with appalling news. Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash has escaped from the timeless hell the vengeful Vizier of Velocity banished him to for murdering Iris…

Inked by Rodin Rodriguez, ‘Run Flash – Run for your Wife!’ sees the distraught hero pursuing and battling his ultimate enemy on the run all over he world as the clock ticks down, culminating in #324’s ‘The Slayer and the Slain’ (Dennis Jensen inks) with the police issuing a missing persons alert for the vanished Barry Allen.

Crushed Fiona finally gives up on her man and is leaving the church just as Zoom dashes in with Flash hard on his winged heels. The maniac has boasted that he will repeat himself by slaughtering his archenemy’s second love, but with femto-seconds to spare Barry goes into overdrive and grabs his foe by the neck…

When the dust settles the wedding guests see Flash trying to comfort the bride-to-be but Police Captain Darryl Frye and Detective Frank Curtis are distracted by something the speedster has not noticed: Zoom’s lifeless corpse…

The media circus begins in #325 as ‘Dead Reckoning’ sees the guilt-racked speedster go into heroic overdrive all around the world but somehow never quite outrunning the Press or his own remorse.

As friends and allies wonder where they stand, the vile miscreants of The Flash Rogues’ Gallery come together to steal Zoom’s cadaver. Captains Cold and Boomerang, Pied Piper, Weather Wizard and The Trickster actually despised the Reverse-Flash and need to desecrate his corpse for the utter embarrassment he has brought upon their association: letting himself get killed by the scarlet Boy Scout…

Their heartbroken foe meanwhile has stopped running, and Barry visits Fiona where she lies in hospital. The shock of Barry’s abandonment has traumatised and perhaps even deranged her, but worse is in store. After leaving her room in his Flash persona, the hero is reluctantly arrested by Captain Frye on a charge of Manslaughter…

‘Shame in Scarlet’ (inked by Gary Martin) opens on the arrest and arraignment but the madhouse of raving pressmen and downhearted cops is just what the recently captured Weather Wizard needs to mask a bold getaway scheme.

Ever dutiful, Flash eludes custody long enough to stop the rogue before surrendering himself again…

Fiona’s doctors refuse to believe the still-missing Barry Allen came to see her and diagnose a delusional breakdown, whilst out on the streets Frank Curtis is further distracted by teenaged Angelo Torres; a kid barely surviving in a tough gang-controlled area of Central City

Released on his own recognizance, Flash sneaks into his own apartment but as the realisation of his destroyed life finally sinks in, he loses control and trashes the place in an explosive outburst. By the time his terrified neighbours break in he has gone and the suspicion that someone has targeted the missing Police Scientist seems confirmed…

Roaming the streets the Crimson Comet sees Angelo fleeing from a mugging but is appalled to realise he has tackled the wrong guy. Torres was chasing the real thief…

Still reeling at how far he has fallen, the shell-shocked speedster is barely aware that he is bleeding badly (from self-inflicted wounds incurred when destroying his home), and allows a cop to take him to hospital. The good deed does not go unpunished. When he arrives, Fiona is there and suddenly flares into a state of total hysteria…

The horrors pile on in ‘Burnout’ (#327, inked by Jensen) as Flash reconciles with Angelo, unaware that the kid has been targeted by the malign Super-Gorilla Grodd as part of a convoluted vengeance scheme.

Flash is too preoccupied by his next personal crisis as the Justice League of America holds a special session to judge his actions and conduct. A nail-bitingly close vote of his crestfallen best friends will determine whether he can remain a member of the august group…

Flash #328 is a partial reprint exploring the Flash/Professor Zoom vendetta and not included here, so the saga resumes with ‘What is the Sinister Secret of Simian and Son?’ (#329, with new regular inker Frank McLaughlin picking up the pens the brushes). Grodd uses Angelo and other kids to perpetrate series of bold raids even as, in front of the maddened media cameras, unscrupulous, publicity-hungry celebrity criminal defense attorney Nicholas D. Redik attempts to insert himself into the “Case of the Century”, claiming to be Flash’s lawyer and only chance of acquittal…

The oblivious, troubled human thunderbolt has other ideas. He has already contacted “Barry’s” old friend Peter Farley to act on his behalf, blithely unaware that back home Grodd has taken over Angelo and Fiona has succumbed to a total mental breakdown…

The final confrontation with the über-ape begins in ‘Beware the Land of Grodd!’ (scripted by Joey Cavalieri over Bates’ plot) as Redik manipulates the media to force Flash to switch lawyers and Captain Frye pushes the ongoing search for the missing Barry to new heights. With all these distractions the Vizier of Velocity is easily ambushed by Grodd before Angelo, at the moment of truth in #331’s ‘Dead Heat!’, has a change of heart and mind. With a supreme effort of will the remorseful lad breaks the super-ape’s conditioning, allowing the speedster to triumph.

Returning the renegade to futuristic Gorilla City, Flash leaves the mental monster in the custody of his old comrade Solovar, returning to America just in time to hear Farley being murdered during a phone conference…

Bates rejoins Infantino & McLaughlin as ‘Defend the Flash… and Die?’ sees the Scarlet Speedster hurtle across the country to save his lawyer from a colossal explosion, but even he is not fast enough to prevent the victim incurring massive injuries.

As speculation runs riot in the media that someone is targeting Flash’s defenders, old enemy Rainbow Raider take advantage of the chaos to instigate a string of robberies, but even at his lowest ebb the hero is too much for the multicoloured malefactor…

Redik is now publicly offering to take the case for free, but Farley’s absentee business partner has already taken up her ailing associate’s celebrity caseload…

In issue #333, as inexplicably hostile attorney Cecile Horton confers with her newly inherited client, ‘Down with the Flash!’ reveals how certain elements of Central City have seemingly turned on their former champion. Fiona too is still drawing trouble, as a petty thug and his crazy brother break into the asylum treating her, looking for a little one-stop emergency therapy. Sadly for them the Monarch of Motion is still keeping an eye on his tragic fiancée…

N.D. Redik then attempts to bribe and/or bully Horton off the case, but despite clearly despising her crimson client, Cecile is determined to honour Peter’s wishes and save the speedster.

The mastermind stirring up anti-Flash sentiment is revealed in ‘Flash-Freak-Out!’ Just as the pre-trial manoeuvrings begin, the formerly supportive Mayor suddenly becomes the disgraced hero’s biggest detractor.

Pied Piper’s mind-altering influence even manages to make the hero apparently go berserk on live TV in ‘How to Trash a Flash!’, leaving even his most devoted fans wondering if their beloved champion has in fact gone crazy…

…And whilst Flash is trying to save the Mayor, at her secluded retreat Cecile Horton is caught in an explosive blast like the one that took out her partner…

‘Murder on the Rocks’ in #336 finds Flash arriving too late for once, but the ecstatic speedster is astounded to discover his lawyer has saved herself through sheer quick thinking – although another woman has been killed. The tabloid reporter had been bugging the supposed “safe house” and accidentally fallen foul of a couple of killers-for-hire…

The trail of death leads the forensically trained Flash inexorably to a man whose arrogant determination to be a star in the tragedy costs him everything…

Rather annoyingly the next three chapters are absent here. They would have shown how Flash finally finished the Piper and incurred the wrath of the Rogues who subsequently turned a hulking simpleton into a programmed super killer dubbed Big Sir before unleashing him on the Scarlet Speedster…

We rejoin the story with Flash #340 to ‘Reach Out and Waste Someone!’ as the hurtling hero turns the tables on Cold, Boomerang, Weather Wizard, Trickster and Mirror Master by befriending Big Sir. The danger averted, the Flash then surrenders himself to the courts.

After many months #341 sees proceedings finally open in ‘Trial and Tribulation!’ only for the weary defendant to discover that go-getting District Attorney Anton Slater has dropped the charges. The wily attention-seeker has abandoned his manslaughter case in favour of a charge of Second Degree Murder…

With the still at-large Rogues rampaging through the city, the opening arguments quickly start to make the stunned Flash appear like a cunning killer and, whilst he reels in court, Captain Cold and Co again brainwash the now docile Big Sir. When the shattered speedster leaves after his first bruising day the Brobdingnagian brute ambushes him, wrecking his face with a massive mace…

Maimed, dazed and reeling Flash flees in unconscious panic leaving Sir to assault the gathered media in ‘Smash-Up!’ Barely thinking, the wounded warrior heads for Gorilla City where the super simians’ miraculous medical technology saves his life. Recovered and ready to return, Flash is certain he has made the right decision by asking Solovar to use their advanced science to enact a certain alteration for him…

Upon his return the Vizier of Velocity again deprograms Big Sir and the odd couple make sure the Rogues can’t hurt anyone any more…

Flash #343 kicks the drama into even higher gear in ‘Revenge and Revelations!’ as the secret of why Cecile hates her crimson-clad client is exposed and merciless mobster monster Goldface attacks, even as in the far future another Flash foe escapes an unbeatable prison and heads for the present, intent on adding to the doomed hero’s historic woes…

‘Betrayal!’ in #344 is a partial reprint (by Bates & John Broome, Infantino, McLaughlin & Joe Giella) which combines the first appearance and an early exploit of Kid Flash with that devoted protégé’s devastating expert testimony under oath on the witness stand.

The reluctant lad’s damaging evidence is then compounded when Cecile makes an explosive mistake which exposes ‘The Secret Face of the Flash!’ to the courtroom and the world…

Confusion reigns in #346 as the shocking revelation is upstaged by reports that the actual victim might not be dead. A merciless yellow-and-red blur has been spotted all over Central City attacking civilians and destroying police records in ‘Dead Man’s Bluff!’

The Reverse-Flash has escaped certain death many times before but as he mercilessly attacks the other Rogues – with even the Jurors narrowly escaping certain doom – there is a sure and certain feeling that something is not right…

The trial concludes in #347’s ‘Back from the Dead!’ but even with the thoroughly thrashed Rogues and Police Captain Fry attesting the victim is still alive, more than one malign presence in the courtroom is affecting the jurors and ‘The Final Verdict!’ comes back “guilty”…

However the story is not over and #349 unleashes a cascade of staggering revelations revealing clandestine agents acting both for and against the harried Human Hurricane in ‘…And the Truth Shall Set him Free!’ before the extended extravaganza of #350 begins by declaring ‘Flash Flees’ and thereafter shows the Scarlet Speedster defeating his ultimate nemesis, clearing his name and even living happily ever after… until that fore-destined final moment in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Staggering in scope, gripping in execution and astoundingly suspenseful, these last days of a legend make for stunning reading: a perfect example of the kind of plot-driven Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction we just don’t see enough of these days.

If you feel a need for a traditionally thrilling kind of speed reading, this is a chronicle you must not miss.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Uncanny X-Men: Sisterhood


By Matt Fraction, Greg Land, Yanick Paquette, Terry Dodson, Jay Leisten, Karl Story & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4105-1

Since its revival in 1975 Marvel’s Mutant franchise has always strongly featured powerful and often controversial female characters and the balance has never rested solely on the side of light.

For every valiant woman – or indeed super-powered, conflicted teenage girl – fighting the good fight there has been a shady lady playing for the dark side.

This particular collection – gathering Uncanny X-Men #508-512, cover-dated June to August 2009 – primarily features a stupendous clash between the maligned mutant mavericks and a dastardly coterie of extremely wicked women warriors but also offers a fascinating insight into the occluded history of one of the endangered species’ most enigmatic survivors…

At this point in time, the evolutionary offshoot dubbed Homo Sapiens Superior is at its lowest ebb. As seen in both House of M and Decimation storylines, Scarlet Witch Wanda Maximoff – ravaged by madness and her own reality-warping power – reduced the world’s multi-million plus mutant population to a couple of hundred individuals with three simple words…

Most of the remaining genetic outsiders accepted a generous and earnest offer to relocate to San Francisco but, of course, trouble is always happy to make house calls…

Scripted throughout by Matt Fraction, the 4-part saga ‘Sisterhood’ – illustrated by Greg Land, Jay Leisten and colourist Justin Ponsor – opens following the shocking news of a massacre in Cooperstown, Alaska.

Terrorists had razed the isolated town to burning rubble because of reports that the first mutant baby since The Decimation had been born there…

Anti-mutant activist and passionate bigot Simon Trask was quick to stir the flames of panic and prejudice with his Humanity Now Coalition pushing the government to end the threat of mutants forever. With hysteria growing, even previously neutral outcasts began making their way to the mutant enclave of the Greymalkin Industries Facility on the Marin Headlands. However, even with an ever-growing host of feared and despised genetic pariahs housed in her city and the entire population potentially at risk from fanatics and mutant-hunters, Mayor Sadie Sinclair still stands firm on her offer of sanctuary.

The dark drama commences in a secluded private cemetery in Tokyo as the Sisterhood of Evil Mutants disinter a certain body. They are interrupted by probability-bending sometime X-ally Domino whose main talent seems to be landing in the wrong place at the right time.

Sadly, even her odds-altering powers and superspy training are not enough to stop the grave-robbing, and Regan and Martinique Wyngarde (daughters of the malevolent Mastermind), psychic assassin Chimera, cyborg killer Lady Deathstrike, extra-dimensional witch Spiral and the infernal spirit of Red Queen Madelyne Pryor get away with the corpse of ninja legend Kwannon

In San Francisco Henry McCoy convenes his newly convened X-Club; a unique think tank comprising human geneticist Kavita Rao, mutant tech-savant Madison Jeffries, atomic mutation expert Dr. Yuriko Takiguchi and former Nazi-hunting mutant mystery man James Bradley AKA Doctor Nemesis.

The Beast carefully outlines their intended goal: finding a way to reactivate the millions of mutants “cured” by the Scarlet Witch. Their first session soon concludes that she has somehow switched off the power-creating “X-Gene” in most of the mutant population, but they need to know more about the origin of their own species before they can turn them all on again…

Elsewhere in the city the Sisterhood have completely resurrected the purloined corpse and filled the body with a former host… or at least one of them…

Long ago (Uncanny X-Men #256-258, in fact) priests of ninja cult The Hand mystically transposed the mind of telepath Betsy Braddock – AKA Psylocke – into the physical shell of a lethally effective adherent named Kwannon. The brainwashing and mystic body-swapping turned the English Rose into a sultry, sexy Chinese bodyguard/concubine/siren and perfect gift for the undisputed overlord of the Orient, The Mandarin.

After much ado, myriad battles and many years, both mind-switched incarnations died in combat, but now the Red Queen has succeeded in reuniting the long-separated soul and form of the elite killer…

As the X-Men reach out and enlist former Canadian mutant hero – and media-savvy global Gay celebrity – Jean-Paul Beaubier (one-time Alpha Flight member Northstar), the sinister Sisterhood moves on to the next stage of Pryor’s convoluted game-plan…

With the enclave happily acclimatising and being welcomed by the mellow Californians, the demagogue Trask springs his latest nasty surprise from Washington DC. Proposition X demands legislation to ensure the mandatory sterilisation of mutants and all humans carrying the X-Gene…

The news drives the younger mutants at Greymalkin into a fury, whilst in the science labs cooler heads have devised a potential plan to study the origins of their kind: all they have to do is travel back in time and get blood samples from the first humans to conceive a mutant child…

Outmanoeuvred, the usually reticent and inspirationally obnoxious Bradley is forced to admit having been born in 1906, and that his own parents might well be the best possible candidates…

Before they can act, though, the Sisterhood invade the Facility using a prisoner in the detention centre to deactivate all the psychic security provisions. The assault is devastating and catches the X-Men completely off guard, but Pryor’s big mistake is underestimating the determination and sheer bloody-mindedness of student heroes X-23, Armor, Pixie and the telepathic gestalt called the Stepford Cuckoos

Following the kids’ counterstrike, the swift recovery and retaliation of the adult X-folk quickly drives the Sisterhood out, but Wolverine is forced to admit that the invaders got what they came for: a lock of hair from Jean Grey he’s been treasuring since her death.

The sample could provide the ghostly Pryor with the genetic material needed to grow herself a new body – one with all the power of the nigh-omnipotent Phoenix

The conclusion (with additional art by Terry & Rachel Dodson) sees the desperate X-Men rush to foil the plot and spectacularly triumph, not only ending the threat of cosmic resurrection but incidentally reclaiming one of their own fallen from the grave…

Following that all-out cosmic-tinged clash ‘The Origin of the Species’ (illustrated by Yanick Paquette & Karl Story) offers a taste of steam-punk and tragedy as the postponed jaunt to the dawn of the Mutant Age finally gets underway.

Accompanied by the restored Psylocke and Archangel, Beast’s “X-Club” of super science geeks pop back to San Francisco in 1906 on an extremely tight deadline to get blood samples from Dr. Nemesis’ parents but stumble into the birth of their worst nightmare…

Inventor Nicola Bradley and his wife Catherine have been striving to complete a generator that will provide free, unlimited broadcast power for humanity but are increasingly being threatened by thugs and brigands determined to steal it.

Cornelius Shaw and his mentor Lord Molyneux are using the sybaritic Hellfire Club to fund Bradley’s experiments but they want his incredible engine for purposes far darker than lighting the world.

Molyneux has visions of mankind crushed under the monstrous heel of a new superior race – “Overmen” – and needs the battery to power his colossal mechanical Sentinel. Against that even the aberrations-to-come will be helpless…

He’s also behind the attempted raids; hedging his bets in case Bradley cannot complete the job, so when the freakish X-Club turns up he knows the time to act is now…

Thankfully – and perhaps instinctively inspired by his wife’s pregnancy – Bradley solves the final problem, but soon regrets his actions as the Hellfire lords take his device and unleash a marauding mechanical myrmidon upon the populace.

…And that’s when the strangers with wings and blue fur and other incredible abilities reveal themselves…

Concluding in calamity, catastrophe and cruel, heartbreaking irony, this smart slice of time-tampering neatly wraps up a superb sample of Mutant Mayhem: at once exciting, enthralling and exceptionally entertaining.

This slim, stirring, supremely sensuous Fights ‘n’ Tights tome also includes a selection of cover reproductions and variants by Land, Ponsor, Paquette, Edgar Delgado, Laura Martin, J. Scott Campbell & Stéphane Roux, resulting in a treasure trove of treats for all fans of sexy superheroes and combat connoisseurs alike

© 2009 Marvel Characters In. All rights reserved.

Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book


By Harvey Kurtzman (Ballantine/Kitchen Sink)
ISBNs: 978-0-87816-033-4 (Kitchen Sink HB),      338-K (Ballantine original PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Hard To Find – but absolutely worth it… 10/10

Here in Britain we think we invented modern satire, and quite frankly it’s a pretty understandable notion, with The Great 1960s Wit Scare producing the likes of Peter Cook, John Bird, John Fortune, Bernard Levin, Richard Ingrams, Alan Bennett, Paul Foot, Ned Sherrin, Jonathan Miller, David Frost and institutions such as The Establishment club, That Was the Week that Was and the utterly wonderful Private Eye (long may She reign, offend, fly at Gads and survive repeated libel and defamation writs…).

Somehow our American cousins were not so copiously blessed. Their share of genuine world-changing, liberal-lefty intellectual troublemakers only really comprised Tom Lehrer and Harvey Kurtzman. Of course it a very large country with an unbelievable number of guns equally distributed amongst smart folks, idiots and lunatics alike…

Creative genius Kurtzman is probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century – even more so than Will Feiffer, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert or Will Eisner.

His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales and especially the groundbreaking, game-changing Mad) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and a restless innovator, commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings and just couldn’t stop making art to share his findings…

He invented a whole new format when he converted the highly successful colour funny book Mad into a black-&-white magazine, safely distancing the brilliant satirical publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s comics witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while creating challenging and powerfully effective humour strips such as Little Annie Fanny (for Playboy), Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too soon, far too young in 1993.

In 1959, having left Mad over issues of financial control and with both follow-up independent ventures Trump and  Humbug defunct, the irrepressible Kurtzman convinced Ballantine Books to publish a mass-market paperback of all-new satirical material.

The company had just lost the rights to publish Mad’s paperback reprint line and were cautiously amenable…

The intriguing oddment saw the Great Observer in top form, returning to his comic roots by spoofing and lambasting strip characters, classic cinema, contemporary television and apparently unchanging social sentiments in a quartet of hyper-charged tales. Unfortunately the project was the first of its kind in America and met with less than stellar success. No one had ever published 140 pages of new comics in one savage bite before, and even the plenitude of strip reprint books always had one eye to the kids’ market.

This stuff was strictly for adults who would happily read newspaper or magazine strips but didn’t want to be seen carrying a book of them. Duly enlightened Kurtzman returned to safer ground and launched Help! just in time for the Swinging Sixties’ satire boom…

The slim monochrome package might not have changed the nation but it certainly warped and affected a generation of budding cartoonists and writers. Quickly becoming a legend – and nearly a myth in fan circles – Jungle Book was rescued from limbo in 1987 when Denis Kitchen (that much-missed crusading champion of all things grand, esoteric, nostalgic and/or naughty in comics), released the entire lost volume as a deluxe oversized (214 x 149 x 19mm) collectors hardback edition through his Kitchen Sink Press.

It’s still one of the funniest, most marvellous examples of wit and creativity comics have ever produced, as well as Kurtzman’s longest single work and is long overdue for another go-round.

Large sized paperback editions were also released at the time, but are now just as hard to find…

Deemed one of the “Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century” by The Comics Journal, the racy, revelatory controversial – and in 1959 completely ignored – tome’s full title is Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book: Or, Up from the Apes! (and Right Back Down) – In Which Are Described in Words and Pictures Businessmen, Private Eyes, Cowboys, and Other Heroes All Exhibiting the Progress of Man from the Darkness of the Cave into the Light of Civilization by Means of Television, Wide Screen Movies, the Stone Axe, and Other Useful Arts and the Kitchen Sink edition augments its reproduction with an effusive and captivating ‘Intro’ from devoted fan Art Spiegelman plus an information-packed ‘Outro’ by editor and comics historian Dave Schriener.

The material itself is gloriously timeless and revelatory. In 1959 it gave the author an opportunity to experiment with layout, page design, narrative rhythms and especially the graphic potential of lettering, all whilst asking pertinent probing questions about the world changing around him.

‘Thelonius Violence, Like Private Eye’ is ostensibly a parody of groundbreaking TV show Peter Gunn, with the jazz-loving hipster “White Knight for Hire” scoring chicks and getting hit an awful lot as he infallibly and oh-so-coolly tracks a killer whilst protecting blackmail victim Lolita Nabokov

The tale is slick and witty and sublimely smart, whereas the next piece barely contains a lot of pent-up frustration for past sins and misdemeanours.

For ‘Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Executive Suite’ Kurtzman accessed his experiences working for bosses (such as Marvel’s Martin Goodman) to create the salutary tale of a decent young man’s progress up the corporate ladder at Shlock Publications Inc. The quasi-autobiographical impressionable and ambitious naïf in question is Goodman Beaver (who would be resurrected for Help! and eventually, improbably evolve into Little Annie Fanny) and his transformation from sweet kid to cruel, corrupt, exploitative typical business jerk makes for truly outrageous reading.

The title comes from a trio of contemporary bestsellers on the subject of men in business: Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley (1952), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson in 1955 and William H. Whyte’s 1956 drama The Organization Man.

‘Compulsion on the Range’ simultaneously spoofs top-rated western Gunsmoke and the era’s growing fascination with cod psychology and angst-ridden heroes as Marshal Matt Dolin’s far-reaching obsession with out-shooting infallible outlaw Johnny Ringding which takes him to the end of the Earth…

The volume wraps up with an edgily barbed tribute to Great Southern novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre and assorted works of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, filtered through a glorious froth of absurd melodrama, frustrated passions and steamy sex (by all accounts the Very Best Kind), all outrageously delivered via astoundingly rendered caricatures and inspired dialect and accent gags.

In ‘Decadence Degenerated’ us sees thet nothin’ evah changes in sleepy ole Rottenville. Then wun naht, when the boys is jus’ a-oglin’ purty Honey-Lou as ushul, somethin’ goes awry an’ it all leads to murdah an’ lynchin’ befoah a snoopy repohtah who claims he frum up Noath turn up thinkin’ he can fin’ the truth…

Soon violent passions is furtha aroused and nothin’ kin evah be the same agin…

Funny, evocative and still unparalleled in its depth and visual potency, Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book inspired and influenced creators and storytellers as disparate as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton and Terry Gilliam. This is a masterpiece of our art form which no true devotee can afford to be without.

© 1959, 1986 Harvey Kurtzman. ‘Intro’ © 1986 Art Spiegelman. ‘Outro’ © 1986 Dave Schriener. Entire contents © 1986 Kitchen Sink Press. All rights reserved.

© 1990 by Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc. Each strip © 1990 Harvey Kurtzman and the respective artist. All rights reserved.

Uncanny X-Force volume 1: The Apocalypse Solution


By Rick Remender, Jerome Opeña, Leonardo Manco, Dean White, Chris Sotomayor & various (Marvel) ISBN: 978-0-7851-4655-1

There’s no such thing as simple background when dealing with Marvel’s mutant mythology. Uncanny X-Force debuted as a monthly title in October 2010, replacing its previous convoluted incarnation X-Force volume 3 (itself the inheritor of nearly twenty years of chopping, changing and hyper-charged complexity).

The premise of the prior title was to describe the actions of a covert team of X-Men convened to perform covert black-ops – and even wetwork – missions at a time when mutants numbered no more than a couple of hundred endangered souls. The group acted with the blessing of Cyclops – titular head of the sorely diminished X-nation – during the Messiah Complex and Second Coming publishing events but were summarily disbanded when exposed to the shocked scrutiny of their understandably appalled fellow mutants…

Written by Rick Remender, the new iteration – and this collection (comprising material from Wolverine: The Road to Hell – November 2010 – and issues #1-4 of Uncanny X-Force published with December 2010 to March 2011cover-dates) – opens with ‘The First Day of the Rest of Your Life’ from the aforementioned Wolverine one-shot wherein the feral fury realises that there’s still a need for a squad ready to do whatever it takes to keep the species of Homo Sapiens Superior safe…

Illustrated by Leonardo Manco and colourist Chris Sotomayor the introductory vignette finds the man called Logan joining Archangel, Psylocke and Fantomex in secret base Cavern-X deep in the Arizona desert, all in agreement that they must continue their necessary work without Cyclops’ knowledge, if only to give him plausible deniability and a clean conscience…

All are troubled souls with blood on their hands. Archangel will fund the project and has in fact already begun their first mission, despatching insane assassin Deadpool to track down the most dangerous mutant monster in history…

Eponymous epic ‘The Apocalypse Solution’, with art by Jerome Opeña and colours from Dean White, then opens in Egypt as the mirthful maniac uncovers an underground Temple and finds devoted acolytes of Clan Akkaba led by the insidious Ozymandias resurrecting the recently slain Apocalypse with their own willingly spilled blood.

The monster had spent millennia testing mutantkind and frequently gathered prime examples to be his agents. Now as Deadpool searches the base he encounters a monstrous Minotaur. The resurrectionists have freed the Final Horsemen: Apocalypse’s last line of defence and the most wicked killers in history…

With contact lost the rest of the team rush to the site in Fantomex’s extraordinary sentient vehicle EVA (in actuality a biomechanical exterior nervous system for the stylish, bio-engineered mutant thief/adventurer) all resigned that the Scourge of Earth must die again at all costs.

Archangel is riven by doubt and apprehension. When he was merely the X-Man Angel Apocalypse ripped out his wings, remade his body and rewired Warren Worthington’s brain to make him one of his Horsemen. Thanks to the telepathic power of his lover Psylocke, Warren has regained autonomy now but lives in dread of that deep programming, constantly struggling to stop the murderous malice resurfacing. What will happen if and when he confronts his returned former master?

The rescue mission is only partially successful. Although they save Deadpool they are too late to prevent the Clan and revived Horsemen teleporting away with their newly restored yet strangely different master…

The second chapter finds the team apparently carving their way through a mass of minions at the Akkaba Temple until Archangel intrudes and discovers that the entire exercise is a simulation designed to accustom Psylocke to killing the winged wonder if Apocalypse should take him over or – worse yet – should his own dark nature win out over the personality of Warren Worthington…

With the chilling realisation that Wolverine has been preparing her to do the same for all of them, Warren is shocked from his dark thoughts by news that the fugitives have been tracked to the Blue Area of the Moon and expedites their pursuit in EVA…

However the raid immediately falters as the team is picked off by the arisen Horsemen even as, far below them in a colossal sentient Celestial ship, fanatical factotum Ozymandias experiences a few difficulties with his adored master.

The reborn En Sabah Nur is an innocent child who simply won’t accept the merciless philosophies of his former incarnation. Whilst his determined would-be killers rally and overcome their foes, edging ever closer, the return of the true Apocalypse seems destined to fail…

The blistering examination of relative moralities kicks into overdrive when Psylocke bursts into the child’s chamber just ahead of her red-handed comrades. Despite his warring personalities Archangel is ready to save the world; to Deadpool it’s just another hit and Wolverine knows that sometimes dark deeds are inevitable, but their readiness and resignation to execute the crying boy is nevertheless stalled.

Merciless, resolute Psylocke won’t let them harm the boy…

Tense, taut, bloodily action-packed and ethically challenging, The Apocalypse Solution offers a far darker side of the mutant question for fans – if not, perhaps, casual readers – to enjoy, leavening the grim tone with razor-sharp gallows humour and even moments of moving sentiment – which do nothing to dilute the shocking surprise ending…

This slim tome is further augmented by a covers-&-variants gallery by Mico Suayan, Jason Keith, Esad Ribic, Marko Djurdjevic, J. Scott Campbell, Edgar Delgado, Rob Liefeld, Thomas Mason and Clayton Crain, Behind-the-Scenes feature ‘Evolution of a Page: from Script to Colors’ plus a prose-&-picture history of recent ‘X-Force’ history narrated by Wolverine himself (as transcribed by Jeph York)…

Complex, compelling, compulsive and chilling, X-Force is a splendid example of mature Costume Dramas for everyone looking for a dash of darkness in their superhero soap opera shenanigans.
© 2010, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shazam! Archives volume 4


By William Woolfolk, C.C. Beck, Mac Raboy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0160-1

One of the most venerated and beloved characters of America’s Golden Age of comics, Captain Marvel was created in 1940 as part of a wave of opportunistic creativity which followed the stunning success of Superman in 1938.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett champion quickly moved squarely into the area of light entertainment and even straight comedy, whilst as the years passed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action, drama and suspense.

Homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard to be given the powers of six gods and heroes to battle injustice. He transforms from scrawny precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received light entertainment magazine for WWI veterans named Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and can-do demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

Captain Marvel was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant young illustrator Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Before eventually evolving his own affable personality the full-grown hero was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst junior alter ego Billy was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, bold, self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

After homeless orphan newsboy Billy was granted access to the power of legendary gods and heroes he won a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting and first defeated the demonic Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, setting a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel was published twice-monthly and outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing. They finally settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the Big Red Cheese vanished – as did so many superheroes – becoming little more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing powerhouse – and regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. In this fourth magnificent deluxe full-colour hardback compendium we can see one of their best manoeuvres at play as the company responsible for creating crossover-events invented a truly unforgettable villain, set him simultaneously loose on a range of costumed champions and used his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

Spanning the fraught yet productive period October 31st 1941 to May 13th 1942 and collecting in their entirety Captain Marvel Adventures #4-5, exploits from Master Comics #21-22, an adventure from fortnightly Whiz Comics #25 and another from anthology America’s Greatest Comics #2 – plus all the stunning covers by Beck and Raboy – this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classic commences.

Although there was increasing talk of inevitable war amongst the American public at the time, most of these tales were created before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, making the role of Adolf Hitler as a recurring villain and the creation of Captain Nazi in those by-no-means certain days acts of prophetic calculation…

However, as the thinly-veiled saboteur and spy sagas which previously permeated the genre until official Hostilities were finally established gave way to certainty, the Axis became the overarching threat of many comicbook heroes and this tome re-presents some of the very best clashes between exactingly defined polar opposites.

Of more interest perhaps is that at this period the stories – many of them still sadly uncredited – largely portray Marvel as a grimly heroic figure not averse to slaughtering the truly irredeemable villain and losing no sleep over it…

In those formative years, as the World’s Mightiest Mortal catapulted to the first rank of superhero superstars, there was actually a scramble to fill pages and, just as CMA #1 had been farmed out to up-and-coming whiz-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, these first two solo issues were rapidly compiled by anonymous scripters under the guiding hand of veteran Jack Binder (whose brother Otto would soon become the assorted Marvels’ definitive scripter), another rising star who drew the issues in a hurry, working from Beck and Parker’s style guides.

The first of those uncredited issues is Captain Marvel Adventures #4 (October 31st 1941) with possible authors including Parker, Rod Reed, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk, whilst the Jack Binder Studio consisted of the man himself plus neophyte artists and recent graduates from Pratt Institute including young Bob Butts and Bill Ward.

‘Sivana’s Revenge’ kicks things off with a return engagement for the Three Lieutenant Marvels (a trio of other kids named Billy Batson who somehow shared the magic of Shazam’s gift). Fat Billy, Tall Billy and Hill Billy were visiting their namesake when the Devil Doctor repeatedly attempted to murder the radio reporter before seemingly losing his life in the detonation of a trap consisting of one million tons of dynamite…

The next tale introduced Hitler as the German-accented “warlord” of an aggressor nation which used slave labour from conquered European countries to dig ‘The Tunnel of Invasion’ right into the heart of Florida. Upon discovering the plot Marvel helped complete the project… but only so that he could trap the entire Nazi army at the bottom of the Atlantic.

‘The Secret Submarine Base’ found Billy investigating a murder and wrecking a scheme by sinister Mr. Fog to hide ambushing U-Boats in South America before calling in his adult alter ego to smash the site. Thereafter he teamed up with crusading DA Shaw to destroy the criminal empire of mobster Giggy Golton and his band of merciless assassins ‘The Lawless Legion’

Captain Marvel Adventures #5 (December 12th) was communally illustrated by Beck’s “Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff” – which generally comprised Costanza, Marc Swayze, Pete Riss and Kurt Schaffenberger amongst others – opening with a stunning recap ‘Frontispiece’ before Sivana again rears his gleaming evil-stuffed head to perpetrate ‘Captain Marvel’s Double Trouble’ wherein a refugee princess is kidnapped by a boxer the wily genius has transformed through surgery. He’s still no match for the real deal though…

Nor is the volcano-making ‘King of the Crater’ who attempts to turn America into a bubbling ring of fire until Billy and the Captain spectacularly upset his engineering applecart, after which a reclamation project is saved from sabotage by a cunning mastermind and an aquatic monster when ‘Captain Marvel Solves the Swamp Mystery’

The issue ends with another bout of weird science as ‘Sivana’s Strange Chemical Potion’ transforms people into completely different… people!

When Billy is replaced by a new kid with no memory of the power of Shazam, it takes fate in the form of a bunch of kids playing Captain Marvel to release the hero and unleash justice…

Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s second – if lesser – leading light, with his own solo comicbook and the star spot in monthly Master Comics. However, that all changed with issue #21 (December 1941) and ‘The Coming of Captain Nazi’ by William Woolfolk & Mac Raboy. In the rousing tale Hitler and his staff despatch their newest weapon – a literal Übermensch – to spread terror and destruction in America and kill all its superheroes.

The murdering braggart gets right to work in New York City and soon Bulletman meets Captain Marvel as they both strive to stop the Fascist Fiend from wrecking the town and slaughtering innocents. The astounding battle – gracefully and immaculately rendered by Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy – only results in driving off the monster…

The saga picks up in Whiz Comics #25 (December 12th) with ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ (Woolfolk, Beck & Raboy) as the Nazi nemesis attempts to destroy a monumental hydroelectric dam before once again being foiled and fleeing…

When the monster tries to smash a new fighter plane prototype Captain Marvel stops him, but whilst pursuing the maniac is not quick enough to prevent him murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seems destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but remorseful Billy takes the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saves the boy’s life by giving him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Now he will live – albeit with a permanently maimed leg – and whenever he pronounces the phrase “Captain Marvel” he will become a super-powered invulnerable version of himself…

With the stage set the lad then rockets over to Master Comics #22 (January 1942) to join Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored assassinations in ‘Dr. Eternity’s Wax Death’ (by Woolfolk & Raboy), victoriously ending with a bold announcement that from the very next issue (not included here, curses!) the mighty boy will be starring in his own solo adventures…

The merits of the ongoing court-case notwithstanding, Fawcett undeniably took some of their publishing cues from the examples of Superman and Batman. Following on from a brace of Premium editions celebrating the New York World’s Fair, National Comics had released World’s Finest Comics; a huge, quarterly card-cover anthology featuring a host of their comicbook mainstays in new adventures, and early in 1941, Fawcett produced a 100-page bumper comic dedicated to their own dashing new hero and the other mystery-men in their stable: Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Minute Man and Mr. Scarlet & Pinky and more.

This startling slice of World War II Wonderment concludes with a Captain Marvel yarn from America’s Greatest Comics #2 (February 11th – May 13th 1942).

‘The Park Robberies’, anonymously scripted but illustrated by Beck, Berg and the Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff, features Billy’s battle to stop and redeem a gang of underage muggers headed for prison or worse, with Captain Marvel going undercover as an ordinary beat cop, but is most noteworthy today for introducing comedy sidekick – and by today’s standards, appalling minority stereotype – Steamboat Bill, who saved the day when real hardboiled thugs took over the scam…

After a rash of complaints, Steamboat was dropped and didn’t resurface when DC acquired the Fawcett properties and characters in 1973. The revived series brought the Captain and his genial crew to a new generation in a savvy experiment to see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

Re-titled Shazam! – due to the incontestable power of lawyers and copyright convention – the revived heroic ideal enjoyed mixed success and a live action TV series in his own unique world before being subsumed into the company’s vast stable of characters…

Notwithstanding, Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comic history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These magical tales again show why “The Big Red Cheese” was such an icon of the industry and proves that such timeless, sublime comic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…

© 1941, 1942, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Valerian and Laureline book 7: On the False Earths


By Méziéres & Christin, with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-190-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Stellar Entertainment to last the year through… 9/10

Valérian and Laureline is the most influential science fiction comics series ever created; an innovation-packed, Big-Ideas bonanza stuffed with wry observation, knowing humour, intoxicating action and sardonic sideswipes at contemporary mores and prejudices.

As Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent the strip debuted in the weekly Pilote #420 (November 9th 1967) and was an instant hit. It rapidly evolved into its current designation as his feisty, fire-headed sidekick developed into the equal partner – if not scene-stealing star – of light-hearted, fantastically imaginative, visually stunning, time-travelling, space-warping fantasies which nevertheless always found room to propound a satirical, humanist ideology and let loose telling fusillades of political commentary.

At first tough, bluff Valerian was an affable, capable (if unimaginative), by-the-book space cop tasked with protecting official universal chronology (at least as per Terran Empire standards) by intercepting or counteracting paradoxes caused by incautious time-travellers.

When Valérian landed in 11th century France during debut tale ‘Les Mauvais Rêves (‘Bad Dreams’ and infuriatingly still not translated into English yet), he was rescued from doom by a capable young woman named Laureline. He brought her back to the 28th century super-citadel and administrative capital of the Terran Empire, Galaxity, where the indomitable female firebrand trained as a spatiotemporal operative and began accompanying him on all his missions.

On the False Earths originally appeared in the newly monthly Pilote (issues #M31 to M34 (30th November 1976 -1st March 1977) before being collected as seventh album Sur le terres truquées – spectacularly reinforcing the “spatiotemporal” aspect of our heroes through a beguiling cosmic conundrum…

The story starts in frantic full flow as a very familiar figure fights valiantly and dies ignominiously during a pitched battle in 19th century Colonial India. He doesn’t go easy, however, using his ray gun to disintegrate an attacking tiger before beaming back crucial data stolen from a sinister maharaja equipped with technology he simply shouldn’t have…

In deep space distraught Laureline sees her man die, but her protests are ignored by heartless, man-despising historian Jadna. The scholar cares little for the oafish warrior undertaking a top secret mission for her. After all, there’s plenty more where he came from…

That’s literally the case as, a little later, another Valerian infiltrates Victorian London Society, breaking into a swank Gentleman’s Club and crashing a meeting of the Empire’s greatest movers and shakers. Once again these potentates are communicating with a hidden high-tech master, and once again the star cop expires trying to determine the mastermind’s exact whereabouts.

He resurfaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1895 where enquiries arouse the wrath of the local tongs. This Valerian perishes after noting an increasing number of anachronisms – such as an Easy Rider on a chopped Harley Davidson motorbike…

From their secure vantage point on a vast satellite Jadna and Laureline see their agent expire in another artificially constructed historical microcosm. The callous historian ruminates on their mystery opponent: a being capable of reshaping matter, crafting perfect little worlds and recreating human eras with the skill of a master artist whilst remaining utterly hidden from all their probing searches. If the enigma hadn’t been detected rifling through Terran time zones – presumably for research – no one would even know of its existence…

The creator’s simulacrums are progressively advancing through brutal but significant periods of Terran history, but each visit by Valerian brings the investigation team closer to the mysterious maker’s actual location. Soon our hero is cautiously exploring a slice of Belle Époque France, but his enigmatic quarry is cognizant of the constant intrusions and has taken a few liberties with verisimilitude.

Waiting in ambush for Valerian are American gangsters with Tommyguns…

Rubbed out before he can even begin, Valerian is swiftly replaced by another short-lived duplicate whilst the original and genuine lies comatose in a clone-command tank. This last rapid substitution, however, finally allows the watching women to zero in on their target’s true location and they instantly shift their ship through the universal continua to reach the incredible being’s astounding base… and none too soon, as Jadna posits that the creature’s next construction will most likely be World War I…

She is proved painfully correct. As they ready themselves for a confrontation with the maker Laureline and the scholar realise that the astral citadel is a perfect replica of a Great War battlefield. Seizing the initiative Jadna activates and musters all the remaining clones – as well as the original McCoy – programming them to play the marauding “boche” in an apocalyptic re-enactment simply as a diversion to allow her to get to the impossibly powerful being she so admires…

Caught up in the incomprehensible slaughter and its bizarre aftermath the two spatiotemporal agents can only watch in astonishment as Jadna and the seemingly all-powerful artisan discover just how much they have in common…

Trenchant, barbed, socially aware and ethically crusading, Valerian and Laureline stories never allow message to overshadow fun and wonder and On the False Earths is one of the sharpest, most intriguing sagas Méziéres & Christin ever concocted, complete with a superb twist in the tale to delight and confound even the most experienced starfarer.

© Dargaud Paris, 1977 Christin, Méziéres & Tran-Lệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

The Crazy World of Rugby


By Bill Stott (Exley)
ISBN: 978-1-85015-770-0

We are apparently a nation of avid armchair sportsmen here in Britain, so I’ve taken this opportunity to re-examine the so-very-English obsession with chasing balls and incurring life-changing injury through the far gentler medium of cartoon books and in particular a collection of dry, droll and often painfully accurate observations by one of my favourite unsung gagsters.

Another prolific but criminally near-forgotten staple of British gag graphics, Bill Stott’s manically loose line, stunningly evocative drawing and mordantly acerbic conceptions (which basically boil down to “no matter how strange, if it can happen it will happen to you, but only if somebody is watching…”) were a mainstay of Punch, Private Eye, The Times and many other papers and publications from 1976 onwards.

In his other life he was – and probably still is – a degree-level college painting and drawing tutor. Moreover he’s still in the game – such as it is in these days of magazine and newspaper cartoon paucity – and you can check out his latest stuff or even commission an original simply by visiting billstott.co.uk.

There might even be copies of this superb little rib-tickler on sale there…

British cartooning has been magnificently served over the centuries by masters of form, line, wash and most importantly clever ideas repeatedly poking (and here actually bending) our funny bones whilst pricking our pomposities and fascinations, and nothing says more about us than our crazy compulsion to thrash about in mud, smiting perfectly civil strangers in the name of fun and exercise…

Within the pages of the Crazy World of Rugby (released in both English and American editions as a hardcover and paperback) the wary watcher from the safety of the sidelines will learn the horrors and joys of Scrum and Ruck, the utter inefficacy of referees, the amusing things you can do with upright poles and the agonising dangers of tradition whilst developing a fascination for odd-shaped balls…

The role of parental support and the sweet angelic singing of burly men in shorts, the wonders of a robust appetite and attendant health benefits of a little regular fresh air are emphasised and the girl-pulling attractions of broken noses and mouths uncluttered by teeth are counterbalanced with observations on international rule interpretation.

Moreover, the idiosyncrasies of training regimens and the terrific indifference of the rules of physics and Laws of Momentum are redefined, all filtered through the hazy bonhomie of the friendly post-match booze-up…

One of a splendid range of themed collections issued by transatlantic publishing outfit Exley in both English and American editions, this fabulous full colour landscape tome is guaranteed to wring a wry smile from retired competitors whilst confirming for the rest of us what we’ve always assumed about this most manly of sports and most sporting of men…

These kinds of cartoon collection are perennial library/charity shop and jumble sale fare and if you ever see a Stott collections (others in this particular series include The Crazy World of Cats, Cricket, Hospitals, Housework, Marriage and Gardening) in such a place, do yourself a favour, help out a good cause and have a brilliant laugh with another true master of mirth.

As for me and my armchair… Books yes, Rugby not so much…

1988 Bill Stott. All rights reserved.

Batman: Going Sane


By J.M. DeMatteis, Eddie Campbell, Darren White, Joe Staton, Bart Sears & Steve Mitchell (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1821-8

An old adage says that you can judge a person by the calibre of their enemies, and that’s never been more ably demonstrated than in the case of the Batman. Moreover for most of his decades-long existence, and most especially since the 1970s, the position of paramount antagonist has been indisputably filled by the Harlequin of Hate known only as The Joker.

The epic battles between these so similar yet utterly antithetical icons have filled many pages and this slim, shocking tome (collecting stories from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #66-68 and #200 from November 1994 to February 1995 and April 2006) again proves how that unending war of wills always results in top quality Fights ‘n’ Tights entertainment.

LoDK began in the frenzied atmosphere following the 1989 Batman movie. With the planet completely Bat-crazy for the second time in 25 years, DC wisely supplemented the Gotham Guardian’s regular stable of comicbooks with a new title specifically designed to focus on and redefine his early days and cases through succession of retuned, retold classic stories.

Three years earlier the publisher had boldly begun retconning their entire ponderous continuity via the landmark maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; rejecting the concept of a vast multiverse and re-knitting time so that there had only ever been one Earth.

For new readers, this solitary DC world provided a perfect place to jump on at a notional starting point: a planet literally festooned with iconic heroes and villains draped in a clear and cogent backstory that was now fresh and newly unfolding.

Many of their greatest properties were graced with a reboot, all enjoying the tacit conceit that the characters had been around for years and the readership were simply tuning in on just another working day.

Batman’s popularity was at an intoxicating peak and, as DC was still in the throes of re-jigging narrative continuity, his latest title presented multi-part epics reconfiguring established villains and classic stories: infilling the new history of the re-imagined, post-Crisis hero and his entourage. The icing on the cake was a fluctuating cast of first-rank and up-and-coming creators each getting “their shot” at arguably the most paradigmatic figure of the industry.

Most of the early story-arcs were then quickly collected as trade paperbacks, helping to jump-start the graphic novel sector of the comics industry, whilst the careful re-imagining of the hero’s early days gave fans a wholly modern insight into the highly malleable core-concept.

With that in mind, 4-part psychological study ‘Going Sane’ by J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Staton & Steve Mitchell takes us back to a time when Batman was still fresh to the game and had only crossed swords with the Clown Prince of Crime twice before…

The tale starts with a murderously macabre circus-themed killing-spree in the idyllic neighbourhood of Park Ridge, exacerbated by the abduction of honest, crusading Gotham Councilwoman Elizabeth Kenner. The twin travesties weigh heavily on a far-too-emotionally involved Batman as he furiously plays catch-up, leading to a one-sided battle in front of GCPD’s Bat signal and a frantic pursuit into the dark woods beyond the city.

Driven to a pinnacle of outrage, the neophyte manhunter falls into the Joker’s devilishly prepared trap…

Caught in a horrific explosion, the Dark Knight’s shattered body is then dumped ‘Into the Rushing River’ by an unbelieving killer clown reeling in shock at his utterly unexpected ultimate triumph…

‘Swimming Lessons’ opens with Batman missing and Police Captain James Gordon taking flak from all sides for not finding The Joker or the savage mystery assailant who had murdered an infamous underworld plastic surgeon…

Under Wayne Manor faithful manservant Alfred fears the very worst whilst in a cheap part of town thoroughly decent nonentity Joseph Kerr suffers terrifying nightmares of murder and madness.

His solitary days end when he bumps into mousy spinster Rebecca Brown. Over passing days the two lonely loners find love in their mutual isolation and a shared affection for classic slapstick comedy. The only shadows blighting this unlikely romance are poor Joe’s continual nightmares and occasional outbursts of barely suppressed rage…

As days turn to weeks and then months, Alfred sorrowfully accepts the situation and prepares to close the Batcave forever. As he descends, however, he is astounded to see the Dark Knight has returned…

The mystery of Batman’s disappearance is revealed in ‘Breaking the Surface!’ as the Gotham Gangbuster slowly gets back into the swing of things, laboriously connecting the dots linking the plastic surgeon’s death and the Joker’s wherebouts.

When his broken body was carried out to the sleepy hamlet of Accord the shattered hero was ministered to by Doctor Lynn Eagles, an ex-Gothamite doubly brutalised during her time in the city. A strange relationship grew between her and the troubled man she called “Lazarus”, but his clear yearning for the loving serenity the town offered couldn’t match his inner fire and unshakable sense of duty…

The inevitable, tragic finale arrives with the ‘The Deluge!’ as Joe Kerr – fictive product of a deranged mind which simply couldn’t face life without Batman – pops like a soap bubble when confronted by his somehow-resurrected resolute nemesis.

The World’s Greatest Detective has relentlessly tracked his polar opposite to his new life, without ever knowing the Clown is no longer a threat and, with both unflinching enemies restored, their apocalyptic clash is terrible but never final…

This emotive examination of twinned lives equally deprived of peace and contentment by their own intransigent natures is followed by a more traditional but intensely gripping thriller written by Eddie Campbell and Daren White with art by Bart Sears.

‘Gotham Emergency’ opens with the Dark Knight carrying a dying Joker into the Wayne Foundation Public Hospital ER. The mass-murdering Maniac of Mirth has poisoned himself with his own laughing toxin – “Smilex” – but Batman is ferociously insistent that Doctor Natalie Koslowski desert all her other critical patients to treat the conscienceless killer.

The reason becomes apparent after a Joker-created virus attacks the hospital’s records database as well as all other civic computer systems. It’s part of a sustained assault on Gotham by the Harlequin of Hate and follows two catastrophic detonations already triggered by the dying lunatic.

The first catastrophically went off in a crowded and unsuspecting newspaper office but the second, at the Gotham Knights Stadium, quickly brought Batman and in the ensuing chaos of their combat Joker took a face-full of his own poison.

Now the already-stretched medics must struggle to save him – and his gang of suitably trounced thugs – because the caped crimebuster is convinced that somewhere in Gotham a third bomb is ticking down, hidden in another area packed with innocents: a transport hub, or school or even a hospital…

And no one is prepared for what happens after the dedicated doctors bring the homicidal Harlequin out of his near-death coma…

Perfectly portrayed at his most devious and devilish, this duel between two decidedly different shades of darkness conclusively captures the conniving essence of the Joker making this smart, rocket-paced and chillingly suspenseful extra-length epic another unmissable example the eternal struggle between two of comics’ most potent characters.

Wonderful stories, appealing art, immortal characters, satisfaction guaranteed…
© 1994, 1995, 2006, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pogo – The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 3: Evidence to the Contrary


By Walt Kelly, edited by Carolyn Kelly & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-694-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Possibly the Best Comic Strip Collection in the World… 10/10

Books of this stature and calibre are worth buying and reading at every moment of every day, and rather than waste your valuable time with my purely extraneous blather, you should just hit the shops or online emporia and grab this terrific tome right now.

If you still need more though, and aren’t put off by me yet, I’m honoured to elucidate at some length…

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and began his cartooning career whilst still in High School as artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935 he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on animated short films and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio.

His steady ascent was curtailed by the infamous animator’s strike in 1941. Refusing to take sides, Kelly quit, moving back East and into comicbooks – primarily for Dell who held the Disney funnybook license amongst others at that time.

Despite his glorious work on such popular people-based classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred and particularly excelled with anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy material.

For the December 1942-released Animal Comics #1 he created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum, wisely retaining the copyrights to the ongoing saga of two affable Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal actors stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly moved into journalism, becoming art editor and cartoonist for hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4th 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast of gloriously addictive, ridiculously exuberant characters began their strip careers, appearing in the paper six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although ostensibly a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its New York Star run (reprinted in Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1) the first glimmerings of an astoundingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary had begun to emerge…

When the paper folded Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate, debuting on May 16th 1949 in selected outlets across the nation. A colour Sunday page launched January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 and thereafter by his talented wife and family until the feature was at last laid to rest on July 20th 1975.

At its height the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections – which began in 1951 – eventually numbered nearly 50, collectively selling over 30 million copies… and all that before this Fantagraphics series even began…

In this third and much delayed (due to the sudden death of much missed editor and publisher Kim Thompson) volume of a proposed full dozen reprinting the entire Kelly canon of the Okefenokee Swamp critter citizenry, undoubtedly the main aspect of interest is the full-on comedic assault against possibly the greatest danger and vilest political demagogue America ever endured, but the counterattack against witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy is merely one of the many delights in this stunning mix of free expression and wild and woolly whimsy…

This colossal and comfortingly sturdy landscape compilation hardback (boasting three-hundred-and-fifty-six 184 x 267mm pages) includes the monochrome ‘Daily Strips’ from January 1st 1953 to December 31st 1954, and the Sundays – in their own full-colour section – from January 4th to December 26th of the same years.

Supplemental features this time comprise a Foreword from ward winning cartoonist Mike Peters (Mother Goose & Grimm), a wealth of deliriously winning unpublished illustrations and working drawings by Kelly and utterly invaluable context and historical notes in R.C. Harvey’s ‘Swamp Talk’ which also compellingly, almost forensically, details the rise and fall of rabblerousing “red-baiter” Joe McCarthy and how Kelly courageously opened America’s fight back against the unscrupulous, bullying chancer (and the movement for which he was merely a publicity-hungry figurehead) with an unbeatable combination broadside of ridicule and cool disdain…

The closing regular biographical feature ‘About Walt Kelly’ by Mark Evanier is supplemented by a comprehensive ‘Index of the Strips’ and a gloriously inspired selection of ‘Noteworthy Quotes’ to fill out the academic needs of the readers, but of course the greatest boon here is the strips and characters themselves.

Kelly was a masterful inventor of engaging and endearing personalities, all of whom carried as many flaws as virtues. The regular roll call (which some commentators reckon to be as many as 1000) included gentle, perpetually put-upon and bemused possum Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant alligator Albert, dolorous, sensitive Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompously ignorant know-it-all Howland Owl, sveltely seductive skunk Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, long suffering matron Miz Beaver, maternal Miz Groun’chuck and her incomprehensible, bitey baby Grundoon plus all the other bugs, beasts and young’uns of the swamp, but the author’s greatest strength lay in his uniquely Vaudevillian rogues, scoundrels and outright villains.

The likes of Tammanany Tiger, officious Deacon Mushrat, sinister, sycophantic beatnik communist Catbirds Compeer and Confrere, sepulchral Sarcophagus MacAbre, sloganeering P.T. Bridgeport and a trio of brilliantly scene-stealing bats named Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred were perfect confections to illustrate all manner of pestilential pettifogging, mean manners and venal self-serving atrocities as they intermingled and interfered with the decent folk volubly enduring the vicissitudes of such day to day travails as love, marriage, comicbooks, weather, rival strips, fishing, the problem with kids, the innocent joys of sport, cadging food, making a living and why neighbours shouldn’t eat each other…

In this volume the topics of exotically extravagant conversation include the longevity and worth of New Year’s Resolutions, the scandalous behaviour of Porkeypine’s kissing-thief Uncle Baldwin, a get-rich scheme involving dirt and opening shots at the burgeoning phenomenon of commercial television. However the gradual conversion of the Deacon’s Boy Bird Watchers society into a self-policing vigilante committee looking out for strangers and making sure all the citizens are right thinking and true looking would quickly insinuate itself into every corner of the feature…

The anti-foreigner sentiment peaks following the arrival of Deacon Mushrat’s old pal The Hon. Mole MacCarony; a blind, self-aggrandizing politico determined to root out all (undisclosed) threats, enforce conformity and stamp out the diseases obviously carried by strangers.

The xenophobic dirt-digger was based on Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran who briefly shaped paranoid public opinion on a platform of severely restricting immigration and implementing the speedy deportation of all communists and non-Americans.

Things got much darker – and therefore more effectively ludicrous – with the arrival of Mole’s malicious and ambitious associate Simple J. Malarkey whose bullying tactics soon began to terrify his fellow bigots as much as the increasingly outraged, off-balance citizens…

Eventually the villains fell out and triggered their own downfall with the mortified Deacon sheepishly denying his part in the fiasco. Peace and (in)sanity returned and with sunny days ahead weather-prognosticating frog Picayune debuted, but suffered a great loss when Albert accidentally ingested the amphibian’s pal Halpha – an amoeba who actually did all the meteorological messing about…

Voracious Albert generally swallowed a lot of things, but his biggest gaffe probably occurred after meeting Roogey Batoon, a pelican impresario who – briefly – managed Flim, Flam and Flo: a singing fish acted billed as the Lou’siana Perches

Many intriguing individuals shambled into view at this time: Ol’ Mouse and his tutorial pal Snavely (who taught worms how to be cobras and rattlers), cricket-crazed British bugs Reggie and Alf and family icons Bug Daddy and Chile, but the biggest mover and shaker to be introduced was undoubtedly a sporty Rhode Island Red chicken named Miss Sis Boombah.

The formidable biddy was a physically imposing and prodigiously capable sports enthusiast (and Albert’s old football coach), who wandered in as survey taker for “Dr. Whimsy’s report on the Sectional Habits of U.S. Mail Men” (a brilliant spoof of the societally sensational Kinsey Report on sexual behaviour in America) but her arrival also generated a succession of romantic interludes and debacles which eventually led to a bewildered Mushrat proposing marriage before leaving her in the lurch and disappearing into the deepest parts of the swamp…

Mole had already reared his unseeing head again, causing only minor mischief, but when the marriage-averse Deacon encountered the terrifying Malarkey lurking in hiding with sinister acolyte Indian Charlie (who bears a remarkable resemblance to then current US Vice-President Richard Nixon) the scene was set for another savage and often genuinely scary confrontation…

That’s also exactly what Miss Boombah had in mind as she set out with Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred to hunt down the scoundrel who had left her in the lurch at the church…

Other story strands and insane interludes include such epic mini sagas as the hunt for an abducted puppy – lampooning TV cop series Dragnet – and a long session on the keeping and proper sharing of secrets, much ado about gossip and the art of being a busybody.

Most memorable of all though are Churchy’s sudden predilection for dressing up as pretty little blonde girl, perpetually visiting Martians and poor Pogo’s oddly domestic recipe for A Bombs…

In his time satirical supremo Kelly unleashed his bestial spokes-cast upon many other innocent, innocuous sweethearts such as J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Clan, as well as lesser lights likes Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and – with eerie perspicacity – George W. Romney (U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and father of some guy named Mitt), but nothing ever compared his delicious and devilish deconstruction of “Tailgunner Joe” in the two extended sequences reprinted here…

Kelly’s unmatched genius lay in his seemingly effortless ability to lyrically, if not vivaciously, portray through anthropomorphic affectation and apparently frivolous nonsense language comedic, tragic, pompous, infinitely sympathetic characters of any shape or breed, all whilst making them undeniably human.

He used that gift to readily blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre. Generally though he usually toned down the satirical scalpels for the magnificently imaginative ‘Sunday Funnies’: concentrating instead on fantastic and unfailingly hilarious serial fables and comedy romps.

Some of the best he ever conceived conclude this volume, beginning with the epic saga of little faun Melonbone whose search for the Fountain of Youth inadvertently caused Sam Duck to revert to an egg. The distraught drake’s wife was not best pleased at having to hatch her own husband out at her age (she was no spring chicken)…

Churchy and Albert then fell afoul of sharp toothed tot Grundoon as the kid’s inability to converse led the alligator to accidentally swallow his turtle pal, after which the animal crackpots all got very lost for a long time in their own swampy backyard…

Howlan Owl’s latest get-rich-quick scheme – digging to China – resulted in his and Albert’s reluctant consultation of an Atlas and the shocking conclusion that the Russians had taken over Georgia.

The panicked reaction of the chumps then led to their accidentally awakening an oversleeping bear who decided to start celebrating Christmas in the middle of August. Eventually everybody caught up to him just in time for the true Yule event…

After the usual New Year’s shenanigans, 1954 really took hold as everyone’s favourite alligator tried to recount the amazing exploit of ‘King Albert and the 1001 Arabian Knights of the Round Table’ - despite each listener’s evident and express disinterest – before Howlan and Churchy became compulsively embroiled in a furious feud over pugilism.

Soon thereafter Albert was mistaken for a monster after getting his head stuck in a cauldron. Sadly, once the alligator was finally extricated from the calamitous cookpot, other unhappy folk become the infernal alembic’s’s unwilling method of locomotion…

No sooner did that catastrophe conclude than the whole sorry fiasco promptly kicked off again with a lovesick octopus now playing transient chapeau to a succession of unfortunate and duly startled swamp critters …

The hairy, scaly, feathered, slimy folk of the surreal swamp lands are, of course, inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodgepodge of all-ages delight – and we’ve never looked or behaved better…

This stuff will certainly make you laugh; it will probably provoke a sentimental tear or ten and will certainly satisfy your every entertainment requirement. Timeless and ineffably magical, Pogo is a giant not simply of comics, but of world literature and this magnificent third tome should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf, right beside the other two.

…Or, in the popular campaign parlance of the all politically astute critters – “I Go Pogo!” and so should you.

Pogo Vol. 3: Evidence to the Contrary and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2014 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2014 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Spirou and Fantasio in Moscow


By Tome & Janry, colour by Stephane De Becker & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-193-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a Wild Ride for Cold Winter Nights… 8/10

For the majority of English-speaking comics readers Spirou might be Europe’s biggest secret. The phenomenally long-lived character was a rough contemporary – and shrewdly calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s iconic Tintin, whilst the fun-filled periodical he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano.

Conceived in 1936 at Belgian Printing House Éditions Dupuis by boss-man Jean Dupuis, the proposed new magazine homed in on juvenile audiences and launched on April 21st 1938; debuting neatly between DC Thomson’s The Dandy (4th December 1937) and The Beano (July 30th 1938) in the UK.

In America at that time a small comicbook publisher was preparing to release a new anthology entitled Action Comics. Ah, good times…

Spirou the publication was to be edited by 19 year-old Charles Dupuis and derived its name from the lead feature, which related the improbable adventures of a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed at the glamorous Moustique Hotel (a sly in-joke reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Spirou the hero – whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language – was first realised by French cartoonist François Robert Velter under his pen-name Rob-Vel for his Belgian bosses in response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s carrot-topped boy reporter, who had become a guaranteed money-spinning phenomenon for rival publisher Casterman since his own launch on January 10th 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, the kids’ supplement to Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle.

Spirou magazine premiered with the plucky bellboy – and pet squirrel Spip – as the leads in an anthology weekly which bears his name to this day; featuring fast-paced, improbable cases which gradually eventually evolved into high-flying surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his pals have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939.

She was aided by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the feature, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took over.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the reins, slowly sidelining the shorter, gag-like vignettes in favour of longer adventure serials whilst introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars.

Eventually he created a phenomenally popular magic animal dubbed Marsupilami to the mix (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and now a spin-off star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums all his own), crafting increasingly fantastic tales until he resigned in 1969.

He was then succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring adventures that tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times with tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction and three different creative teams were commissioned to alternate on the serial, until it was at last revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde writing as Tome and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry.

Their winning approach was to carefully adapt, reference and, in many ways, return to the beloved Franquin era. Their sterling efforts consequently revived the floundering feature’s fortunes and resulted in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998.

This one, originally entitled ‘Spirou & Fantasio à Moscou’ from 1990, was their tenth collaboration and the 42nd collected exploit of the tireless wanderers.

Set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and effective end of Soviet socialism – there’s a lot of editorial footnoting gong on to maintain understanding and sustain context but it’s all done in a witty and amusing manner, so there’s no loss of narrative traction…

The drama begins with Spirou, Fantasio and Spip heading for a much deserved vacation in the sweltering heat of Tahiti when they are suddenly abducted by a gang of spooks. As the lads groggily recover from cruelly applied chemical coshes, their assailants offer a (hilariously shaded) review of Russian character and recent history since the end of the Communist State, paying especial attention to the fact that even in the newly capitalist country the KGB are still in charge…

Russia is in trouble. The fall of the Iron Curtain has resulted in an influx of gangsterism, with the Mafia paramount in seeking out new territory for their nasty old rackets. Lacking experience in this kind of struggle, the security forces have requested the assistance of experts, and the French government – for it is they who have shanghaied our heroes – are happy to serve up Spirou and Co in return for the return of a couple of well-connected teenagers who got themselves arrested for protesting in the Kremlin…

By the time the press-ganged press-men are conscious enough to refuse they are already on the chilly tarmac of Moscow Airport and being handed badges as fully-accredited – if temporary – members of the KGB…

As they drive – via a torturous and convoluted secret route – into the city under the care of rowdily boisterous Colonel Dubyoutyev, they are briefed on the untenable situation.

It is not only the newcomers’ past record of success against the Mob which has brought them, albeit unwillingly, to this sorry state of affairs, but also the fact that they aren’t Russian.

When the Mafia first started operating, they were quickly infiltrated by KGB operatives, whilst the gangsters did exactly the same thing to the state police. Now nobody can trust anybody else and the authorities are forced to outsource credible and dependable assistance…

Just as they are pulling up at the Kremlin the Colonel shows them a fuzzy photo of a strangely familiar face: suspected top mobster and fellow outsider Ivan Ivanovich Tanaziof. Then a shot rings out and the chauffeur slumps down. With the out-of-control car crashing onto the frozen river, in an office of the ministry, Count Nikita Bloyuredov places a call to his boss to claim “mission accomplished”…

Crawling from the wreckage, our battered but still intrepid lads opt to use their freshly-minted credentials to get to the French Embassy. En route in a commandeered taxi, Spirou shares his suspicions. Perhaps the ruthless westerner Tanaziof has some previous connection to them? Perhaps he’s Fantasio’s insane and merciless cousin Zantafio, back with another murderous scheme to grab power and wealth no matter who has to suffer?

They arrive just as a grand Fancy Dress Ball commences and the security guards refuse to let them enter. They do however let them see the Embassy Chief of Protocol and Count Bloyuredov is absolutely delighted to meet them… until he sees his master Prince Tanaziof crash the party with a gang of armed heavies…

Happily Spirou and Fantasio also spot the intrusion and take cover whilst the mobsters boldly rob the gathering and the jumped-up aristocrat arrogantly boasts that his next move to reclaim Russia for his family will be to steal the sacred relic of Lenin’s embalmed body from its utterly secure tomb in Red Square…

As the gangsters gleefully exit, agents “Spirov” and “Fantasiev” are contacted by the miraculously alive and rather wisely deep, deep, deep undercover Dubyoutyev who has also survived the crash…

Trading information, they all agree that Tanaziof/Zantafio is fraudulently proclaiming himself “White Prince of the Russian Mafia” whilst attempting to pass himself off as the next Tsar. The KGB Colonel is horrified to hear of the sacrilegious plot to desecrate Lenin’s mausoleum and dashes off to implement the appropriate security measures but his reluctant agents know it won’t be enough…

Returning to the now quiet Embassy the rightly suspicious visitors finally meet the Ambassador, who merely tells them it’s a Russian matter. On their way out the disgruntled pair receive an anonymous note promising the whereabouts of Tanaziof. Despite the certain knowledge that it’s a trap the neophyte spies later rendezvous at the spectacular outdoor spa known as the Moskva Pool

After a horrific “accident” once again kills the wrong people, delighted and oblivious Bloyuredov heads straight for Tanaziof’s palatial hideout to share the good news, utterly unaware of the two men and a squirrel on his tail…

The plan to steal Lenin is about to commence and without a moment’s pause Spirou and Fantasio disguise themselves and join the raiding party…

Cannily blending wry humour, broad slapstick, light-hearted action and rollicking adventure with a swift-paced espionage caper, all topped-off with the so-satisfying return of a world-class arch villain to sweeten the deal, this rollercoaster romp builds to a brilliantly madcap conclusion as funny as it is breathtaking and all lavishly smothered in oodles of wicked irony…

Since Tome & Janry’s departure both Lewis Trondheim and the team of Jean-Davide Morvan & Jose-Luis Munuera have brought the official album count to over fifty as well as a bunch of specials, spin-offs and one-shots (official and otherwise), creating a vast pool of superb comedy-adventure romps that simply cannot be translated fast enough for my liking.

This kind of lightly-barbed, keenly-conceived, fun thriller is a sheer joy in an arena far too full of adults-only carnage, testosterone-fuelled breast-beating, teen-romance monsters or sickly sweet fantasy. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductively wholesome élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke, The Bluecoats and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another cracking read from a long line of superb exploits, certain to be as much a household name as those series – and even that other pesky kid with the white dog…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1990 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.