Superman Vs. Brainiac

By Otto Binder, Jerry Seigel, Edmund Hamilton, Cary Bates, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Joe Kelly, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Gil Kane, George Pérez, Kerry Gammill, German Garcia, Kano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1940-6

Superman is the comicbook crusader who started the whole masked marvel genre and, in the decades since his debut in 1938, has probably undertaken every species of adventure imaginable. With this in mind it’s inevitable and constantly rewarding to gather up whole swathes of his inventory and periodically re-present them in specific themed collections, such as this calculated confection of cosmic clashes with alien arch-foe Brainiac.

Since his first appearance in Action Comics #242, the alien marauder has been a perennial favourite foe of the Man of Steel, and has remained so even after being subsequently upgraded and retooled many times. Brilliant and relentless, he has been continually refitted over the decades until he now stands as the ultimate artificial nemesis, a chilling remorseless thing of cogs, clockwork and undying computer code.

This superb collection represents appearances both landmark and rare from the many brilliant writers and artists who have contributed to the Kryptonian canon over the years, and with faultless logic opens with that aforementioned and extremely impressive introductory saga.

‘The Super-Duel in Space’ was crafted by Otto Binder & Al Plastino (Action #242, July, 1958) and details how an evil alien scientist attempts to add Metropolis to his collection of miniaturised cities in bottles.

As well as a titanic tussle in its own right, this tale utterly altered the mythology of the Man of Steel by introducing Kandor, an entire city full of Kryptonians who had escaped the planet’s destruction when Brainiac captured and bottled them as part of his vivarium of cultures and civilisations.

Although Superman rescued his fellow survivors, the villain escaped to strike again, and it would be years before the hero could restore his fellow Kryptonian survivors to their true size.

Next is a delicious sharp yarn from Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane#17 (May 1960), scripted by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by the sublime art team of Curt Swan & George Klein. ‘Lana Lang, Superwoman’ has the Man of Tomorrow temporarily imbue both Lana and Lois with superpowers to foil a blackmail/murder plot by the viridian villain, after which novel-length saga ‘The Team of Luthor and Brainiac’ (by Edmund Hamilton, Swan & Klein from Superman #167, February 1964) not only teams the hero’s greatest foes in an uneasy alliance but also reveals for the first time that the alien interloper is actually a malevolent mechanism in humanoid form, designed by the fearsome Computer-Tyrants of planet Colu to infiltrate and all destroy organic races across the universe.

Then there’s a big jump to the end of the 1970s for the next story, an epic 3-part clash which originally appeared in Action Comics #489-491 (November 1978-January 1979), scripted by the hugely undervalued Cary Bates and illustrated by Swan & Frank Chiaramonte.

‘Krypton Dies Again’ finds Superman once more battling Brainiac when the light from the decades-gone explosion of his homeworld finally reaches Earth. The resultant flash supercharges his Kryptonian cells leaving the Man of Steel helpless. ‘No Tomorrow for Superman!’ then sees an increasingly berserk hero unable to cope until joined by Hawkman to finally resolve ‘A Matter of Light and Death!’

In Action Comics #544 (June 1983) both Lex Luthor and Brainiac were given radical makeovers to transform them more apposite menaces for the World’s Greatest Superhero. Marv Wolfman & Gil Kane amped up the computer conqueror’s threat-level with ‘Rebirth!’ as uncanny cosmic forces reshape the humanoid horror into a mechanistic angel of death…

When DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 they also used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that the change was not before time. The new, back-to-basics Man of Steel was a sensation and members of his decades-old rogues’ gallery were suitably reimagined to match the new, grittier sensibility.

In this continuity ‘The Amazing Brainiac’ (Adventures of Superman #438, March 1988, written by John Byrne & Jerry Ordway, illustrated by Ordway & John Beatty) was Vril Dox: a monolithic disembodied intellect from the planet Colu who slowly inhabits and transmogrifies the body of showbiz mentalist Milton Moses Fine. Eventually, it grows beyond human physical limits in ‘Man and Machine’ (Action Comics #649, January 1990, by Roger Stern, George Pérez, Kerry Gammill & Brett Breeding) to eventually become a time-travelling ball of malignant computer code, reconstructing or co-opting ever-more formidable physical forms in its self-appointed mission to eradicate Superman…

By the time of ‘Sacrifice for Tomorrow’ (Action Comics #763; March 2000, and realised by Joe Kelly, German Garcia, Kano & Mario Alquiza), the fiend has transformed into its 13th iteration and converted Metropolis into an automated City of the Future.

The malware warlord has also learned how to possess human infants – including Lana Lang’s newborn son and Luthor’s daughter Lena

With a pin-up page of Brainiac 13 by Scott Beatty, Steve Kim & Tommy Yune (culled from Superman: Metropolis Secret Files #1, March 2000) this comprehensive collection of cyber-chillers offers the merest a taste of the monstrous horror Brainiac is capable of but remains a compelling introduction and overview of the undying enemy alien and a superb treat for fans of every vintage.
© 1958, 1960, 1964, 1978, 1979, 1983, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Buck Danny volume 1: Night of the Serpent

By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long yet historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan, the Balkans to Iran. With the current bellicose undercurrent informing or perhaps tainting America’s influence around the world, it’s interesting to imagine what tales might be told during the current administration…

The dauntless US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented scripter Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been first seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (The Agony of the Bismarck – published in Spirou in 1946).

With fellow master-storytellers Albert Uderzo & René Goscinny, Charlier formed Édifrance Agency, which promoted and specialised in communication arts and comics strips. Charlier and Goscinny were editors of the magazine Pistolin (1955 to 1958) and went on to create Pilote in 1959 but Charlier (whose greatest narrative triumph is iconic Western Blueberry, created in 1963 with Jean Giraud/Moebius) continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

On his passing artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who first replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in aviation storytelling, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties.

At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he won the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny with 41st yarn Apocalypse Mission’.

He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few episodes of the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy & Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far – with Zumbiehl & Gil Formosa now at the helm – the franchise has notched up 55 albums…

Like all the Danny tales this premier edition is astonishingly authentic and still worrisomely topical: a breezily compelling action thriller originally published in 2000 as Buck Danny #49: La nuit du serpent – with colouring by Frédéric Bergése (I’m assuming that’s his son, but I’m not certain) blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blockbuster adventure.

At Kunsan Airbase, South Korea, a veteran American pilot goes on dawn border patrol only to be hit by an uncanny light which blinds him and seems to negate all his F-16’s guidance systems. Despite his best efforts, the jet crashes in the De-Militarized Zone and the North Koreans claim a flagrant breaking of the truce and a huge publicity coup.

Strangely though, the downed Colonel Maxwell is still missing. The Communists don’t have him and the pilot’s tracking devices indicate he’s still out there somewhere: lost in the No Man’s Land between North and South.

The mighty US military swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds either a tangible or political victory. Buck, Tumbler and Tuckson are at a Paris air show when they get the call and are soon en route to Korea for a last-ditch, face-saving mission.

However, as the trio prepare to join the covert rescue mission, evidence emerges which casts doubt on the authenticity of the alleged super-weapon. Meanwhile Maxwell has stumbled into a fantastic secret beneath the DMZ…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension and spectacular action, this is a classically designed thriller which effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense before its captivating conclusion.

Suitable for older kids and the adventurous of all ages, the Adventures of Buck Danny comprise one endlessly enthralling tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss.

Bon chance, mes braves…
© Dupuis, 2000 by Bergése. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Tales from the Dreamspace

By Luke Melia, Vinny Smith, Bobby Peñafiel, David Anderson, Dennis O’Shea, Timothy Conroy, Steve Andrews, Rees Finlay, Jonny Pearson & various (Dreamspace Comics/CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
ISBN: 978-1-97629-398-6

As I’ve frequently proclaimed, I’m a huge fan of creators with the drive and dedication to take control of their own destinies and that’s why it’s such a delight to see another splendid home-grown tome from Luke Melia and his trusty band of cartoon collaborators.

Comprising comic strips, illustrated prose pieces and a scattershot selection of short, sharp, mood-setting epigrams, this particular package of perils stems from a communal spooky story session which grew into an online competition and resulted in the blood-curdling book of fearsome phantasms before us today.

Committed to full-colour paperback form as a macabre and unsettling graphic grimoire, the uneasy experiences begin with the true story of Dreamspace’s inception, after which a few tone-teasing text titbits lead into a darkly twisted hostage situation with ‘It’s in the Basement’.

Scripted by Luke Melia and illustrated by Bobby Peñafiel, the monster is designed by Christopher Wallace. It’s not what you’re thinking…

Following more zingy scary word-salads, Melia then segues into prose to propose a morally confounding challenge with a devastated mother failing in her own eyes and subsequently taking horrific steps to correct ‘The Imbalance’ before David Anderson & Steve Andrews resort to potent monochrome to expose – and expedite – a distressingly Kafkaesque ‘Skeleton in the Closet’

The micro-yarns are by many and varied contributors and suitably divide all the longer tales, which resume now with Dennis O’Shea’s prose piece ‘Motel’ revealing the awful aftermath of a well-nasty Boy’s Night Out, whereas coal black humour and sordid surreality colour an extended strip-saga splatter-fest of misbegotten youth, vengeance paid in full and the ‘Bath time Bastard’, courtesy of Melia, Vinnie Smith & Peñafiel…

Anderson switches to prose mode for a macabre tale of dystopian survival in ‘The Rat Queen’ after which Rees Finlay & Jonny Pearson illumine a shocking plunge into detention, demonic delirium and ‘Damnation’ before Melia & Timothy Conroy revisit Beauty and the Beast via the wedding vows with ‘In Sickness’ to bring the shock therapy to a close…

Like previous outings Oculus and The White Room of the Asylum, this compendium of bloody wit, dark humour and caustic circumstance is judiciously rendered in a range of palettes from full colour to black & red to overwhelmingly stark black-&-white, all combining to highlight the morbid power of narrative in service to night terrors: a menu of compulsive and terrifying tales you’d be absolutely crazy to miss, but wisest to peruse with the doors locked and all the lights on.
© 2017 Luke Melia. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Golden Age Volume One

By William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter & various
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7444-3

Wonder Woman was famously created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his formidable wife Elizabeth – and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a well-intentioned attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model.

Her spectacular launch and preview (that’s the comicbook heroine, not Mrs. Marston) came in an extra feature inside All Star Comics #8, home of the immortal Justice Society of America and one of the company’s most popular publications.

The Perfect Princess gained her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics launching a month later and was a huge and instant hit. She won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (cover-dated Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and miraculous adventures until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. Venerable co-creator H.G. Peter illustrated almost every WW tale until his own death in 1958.

Spanning December 1941 – February/March 1943, this superb full-colour deluxe softcover compilation (also available as an eBook edition) collects that seminal debut from All Star Comics #8, and her every iconic adventure from Sensation Comics #1-14, Wonder Woman #1-3 plus the first adventure from anthological book of (All) Stars Comics Cavalcade #1 and begins with ‘Introducing Wonder Woman’

On a hidden island of immortal super-women, an American aviator crashes to Earth. Near death, Captain Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence is nursed back to health by young Princess Diana. Fearing her growing obsession with the man, her mother Queen Hippolyte reveals the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they thenceforward isolate themselves from the rest of the world and devote their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, after Trevor explains the perfidious spy plot which accidentally brought him to the Island enclave, divine Athena and Aphrodite appear and order Hippolyte to assign an Amazon warrior to return with the American to fight for freedom and liberty.

Hippolyte diplomatically and democratically declares an open contest to find the best candidate and, despite being forbidden to participate, young Diana enters and wins. Accepting the will of the gods, the worried mother outfits Diana in the guise of Wonder Woman and sends her out to Man’s World…

A month later the story continued where the introduction had left off. Sensation Comics #1 declares ‘Wonder Woman Comes to America’: revealing the eager immigrant returning the recuperating Trevor to the modern World before trouncing a gang of bank robbers and falling in with a show business swindler. The major innovation here is the newcomer buying the identity of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince; elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her own fiancé in South America…

Even with all that going on, there was still room for Wonder Woman and Captain Trevor to bust up a spy ring attempting to use poison gas on a Draft induction centre before Steve breaks his leg and ends up in hospital again, where “Nurse Prince” is assigned to look after him…

Sensation #2 introduced deadly enemy agent ‘Dr. Poison’ in a cannily crafted tale which also debuted the most radical comedy sidekicks of the era…

The plucky fun-loving gals of the Holliday College for Women and their chubby, chocolate-gorging Beeta Lamda sorority-chief Etta Candy would get into trouble and save the day in equal proportions for years to come, constantly demonstrating Diana’s – and Marston’s – philosophical contention that girls, with the correct encouragement, could accomplish anything that men could …

With the War raging and in a military setting, espionage and sabotage were inescapable plot devices. ‘A Spy at the Office’ finds Diana arranging a transfer to the office of General Darnell as his secretary so that she can keep a closer eye on the finally fit Steve. She isn’t there five minutes before uncovering a ring of undercover infiltrators amongst the typing pool and saving her man from assassination.

Unlike most comics of the period, Wonder Woman followed a tight continuity. ‘School for Spies’ in #4 sees some of those fallen girls murdered by way of introducing inventive genius and Nazi master manipulator Baroness Paula von Gunther who employs psychological tricks to enslave girls to her will and set otherwise decent Americans against their homeland.

Even Diana succumbs to her deadly machinations until Steve and the Holliday Girls crash in…

America’s newest submarine is saved from destruction and a cunning gang of terrorists brought to justice in ‘Wonder Woman versus the Saboteurs’ before issue #6 has the Amazing Amazon accepting a ‘Summons to Paradise’ to battle her immortal sisters in Kanga-riding duels before receiving her greatest weapon: an unbreakable Lasso of Truth which can compel and control anybody who falls within its golden coils.

It proves very handy when Paula escapes prison and uses her invisibility formula to wreak havoc on American coastal defences…

‘The Milk Swindle’ is a pure piece of 1940s social advocacy drama with homegrown racketeers and Nazi von Gunther joining forces to seize control of America’s milk supply with the incredibly long-sighted intention of weakening the bones of the country’s next generation of soldiers.

Closely following in Sensation #8 is ‘Department Store Perfidy’ wherein the Amazon goes undercover in the monolithic Bullfinch emporium to win better working conditions and fair pay for the girls employed there.

There was a plethora of surprises in #9 with ‘The Return of Diana Prince’ from South America. Now Mrs Diana White, the young mother needs her job and identity back until her inventor husband can sell his latest invention to the US army. Luckily, Wonder Woman and an obliging gang of saboteurs help to expedite matters…

The next major landmark was the launch of the Amazon’s own solo title. The first quarterly opens here a text feature on the Amazon’s pantheon of godly patrons in ‘Who is Wonder Woman?’ after which comic action commences with a greatly expanded revision of her first appearance in ‘A History of the Amazons: The Origin of Wonder Woman’. This is swiftly followed by the beguiling mystery tale ‘Wonder Woman Goes to the Circus’ wherein Diana had to solve the bizarre serial murders of the show’s elephants and Paula von Gunther again rears her shapely head in ‘Wonder Woman versus the Spy Ring’ wherein the loss of the Golden Lasso almost causes the heroine’s demise and ultimate defeat of the American Army…

The issue ends with ‘The Greatest Feat of Daring in Human History’ as Diana and Etta head for Texas, only to become embroiled in a sinister scheme involving Latin Lotharios, lady bullfighters, lethal spies and a Nazi attempt to conquer Mexico…

Back in Sensation Comics #10 (October 1942) ‘The Railroad Plot’ celebrates Steve and Wonder Woman’s first anniversary by exposing a sinister plan devised by Japanese and German agents to blow up New York using the labyrinth of subway tunnels under the city, whilst ‘Mission to Planet Eros’ debuts the Princess’ long line of cosmic fantasy exploits as the Queen of Venus requests Diana’s aid in saving an entire planetary civilisation from gender inequality and total breakdown, before ‘America’s Guardian Angel’ – from Sensation #12 – finds the Warrior Princess accepting an offer to play herself in a patriotic Hollywood movie, only to find the production had been infiltrated by the insidious Paula and her gang of slave-girls…

Preceded by an illustrated prose piece about ‘The God of War’, Wonder Woman #2 comprises a four-part epic introducing the Astounding Amazon’s greatest enemy in ‘Mars, God of War’. He apparently instigated the World War from his HQ on the distant red planet but chafes at the lack of progress since Wonder Woman entered the fray on the side of the peace-loving allies. He now opts for direct action rather than trust his earthly pawns Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito

When Steve goes missing, Diana allows herself to be captured and ferried to Mars. Here she starts disrupting the efficient working of the war-god’s regime and fomenting unrest amongst the slave population, before rescuing Steve and heading home to Earth. ‘The Earl of Greed’, one of Mars’ trio of trusted subordinates, takes centre stage in the second chapter with orders to recapture Steve and Diana at all costs.

As the bold duo attempt to infiltrate Berlin, Greed uses his influence on Hitler to surreptitiously redirect the German war effort, using Gestapo forces to steal all the USA’s gold reserves…

With Steve gravely injured, the Amazon returns to America and whilst her paramour recuperates, uncovers and foils the Ethereal Earl’s machinations to prevent much-needed operating funds from reaching Holliday College where young girls learn to be independent free-thinkers…

With Greed thwarted, Mars next dispatches ‘The Duke of Deception’ to Earth where the spindly phantom impersonates Wonder Woman and frames her for murder. Easily escaping from prison, the Princess of Power not only clears her name but also finds time to foil a Deception-inspired invasion of Hawaii, leaving only ‘The Count of Conquest’ free to carry out Mars’ orders.

His scheme is simple: through his personal puppet Mussolini, the Count tries to physically overpower the Hellenic Heroine with a brutal giant boxing champion even as Italian Lothario Count Crafti attempts to woo and seduce her. The latter’s wiles actually worked too, but capturing and keeping the Amazing Amazon were two different things entirely and after breaking free on the Red Planet, Diana delivers a devastating blow to the war-machine of Mars…

This issue then ends with a sparkling double page patriotic plea when ‘Wonder Woman Campaigns for War Bonds’…

Sensation Comics #13 (January 1943) follows with ‘Wonder Woman is Dead’ as a corpse wearing the Amazon’s uniform is found and the astounded Diana Prince discovers her alter ego’s clothes and the irreplaceable magic lasso are missing…

The trail leads to a diabolical spy-ring working out of General Darnell’s office and an explosive confrontation in a bowling alley, whilst ‘The Story of Fir Balsam’ in Sensation #14 offered a seasonal tale concerning lost children, an abused mother and escaped German aviators which was all happily resolved around a lonely pine tree, after which the Immortal Warrior celebrated her next publishing milestone…

The 1938 debut of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and a year later the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair.

The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and The Sandman. In 1940 another abundant premium emerged with Batman added to the roster, and the publishers felt they had an item and format worth pursuing commercially.

The spectacular card-cover 96-page anthologies had been a huge hit: convincing the editors that an over-sized anthology of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition. Thus, the format was retained for a wholly company-owned, quarterly high-end package, retailing for the then-hefty price of 15¢.

Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 in Spring 1941, the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45-year run which only ended as part of the massive clear-out and decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths. During the Golden Age however, it remained a big blockbuster bonanza of strips to entice and delight readers…

At this time National/DC was in an editorially-independent business relationship with Max Gaines that involved shared and cross promotion and distribution for the comicbooks released by his own outfit All-American Publications. Although technically competitors if not rivals, the deal included shared logos and advertising and even combining both companies’ top characters in the groundbreaking All Star Comics as the Justice Society of America.

However, by 1942 relations between the companies were increasingly strained – and would culminate in 1946 with DC buying out Gaines, who used the money to start EC Comics.

All-American thus decided to create its own analogue to World’s Finest, featuring only AA characters. The outsized result was Comics Cavalcade

Cover-dated December 1942-January 1943 – and following Frank Harry’s gloriously star-studded cover to Comic Cavalcade #1 – Wonder Woman’s fourth regular star slot began with the company superstar solving the Mystery of the House of the Seven Gables (as ever the fruits of Marston & Peter’s fevered imaginations) wherein Diana Prince stumbles upon a band of Nazi spies. All too soon the Amazing Amazon needs the help of some plucky youngsters to quash the submarine-sabotaging brutes…

Wonder Woman #3 then dedicates its entirety to the return of an old foe; commencing with ‘A Spy on Paradise Island’ as the undergrads of Holliday College for Women girls – and Etta Candy – are initiated into some pretty wild Amazon rites on Paradise Island.

Sadly the revels inadvertently allow an infiltrator to gain access and pave the way for an invasion by Japanese troops…

Naturally Wonder Woman and the Amazon prevail on the day but the sinister mastermind behind it all is revealed and quickly strikes back in ‘The Devilish Devices of Baroness Paula von Gunther.’

Whilst the on-guard Amazons build a women’s prison that will be known as “Reform Island”, Wonder Woman – acting on information received by the new inmates – trails Paula and is in time to crush her latest scientific terror: an invisibility ray…

‘The Secret of Baroness von Gunther’ offers a rare peek at a villain’s motivation when the captured super-spy reveals how her little daughter Gerta has been a hostage of the Nazis for years and remains a goad to ensure the genius’ total dedication to the German cause… Naturally, the Amazing Amazon instantly determines to reunite mother and child at all costs after which ‘Ordeal by Fire’ confirms the Baroness aiding Diana and Steve in dismantling the spy network and slave-ring the Nazis had spent so long building in America… but only at great personal and physical cost to the repentant Paula…

Much has been posited about subtexts of bondage and subjugation in Marston’s tales – and, to be frank, there really are lots of scenes with girls tied up, chained or about to be whipped – but I just don’t care what his intentions (subconscious or otherwise) might have been: I’m more impressed with the skilful drama and incredible fantasy elements that are always wonderfully, intriguingly present: I mean, just where does the concept of giant war-kangaroos come from?

Exotic, baroque, beguiling and uniquely exciting, these Golden Age adventures of the World’s Most Famous female superhero are timeless, pivotal classics in the development of comicbooks and still provide lashings of fun and thrills for anyone looking for a great nostalgic read. If that’s you, you know what you need to do…
© 1941, 1942, 1943, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Smilin’ Jack: The Classic Aviator

By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)

Here’s another forgotten birthday boy seriously in need of an archival revival…

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips. These pictorial features were – until relatively recently – hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no social media or television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most poor or middle-income folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers.

“The Funnies” were the most common and an almost communal recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount – hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics” – and from these gag and stunt beginnings came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of prototype swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (the same day); both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions.

The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding frequency and rapidity. Not only strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comicbooks but all our popular fiction. Still most common, however, were general feel-good humour strips with an occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Arguably the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real-life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages and in movie newsreels, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of comics-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy – by Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest – the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins. It ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, and was swiftly followed by both Lester J Maitland & Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961. Close on their high-flying heels came such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He was also a keenly dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Joe Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons, Zack swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and with the December 31st episode the series was more snappily re-titled Smilin’ Jack. Apparently, Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office…

The page steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and, on June 15th 1936, was augmented by a monochrome daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow sky novices and unqualified pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series, Smilin’ Jack nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving and morphing with the times into a romance, war-feature, crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap opera.

More importantly, the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice-married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. At 67 years of age, Mosley wanted to spend his final years in the air, not crouched over a drawing board…

This fabulous (and shamefully scarce) collection gathers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name-changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties.

Meet here or be reintroduced to Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hillbilly mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort, not the fighter plane kind) Bonita Caliente and numerous spies, thugs, imbecilic passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books after WWII broke out…

This kind of strip is, I suspect and fear, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or George Cukor films, requiring the contribution of a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration from the reader, but the effort is absolutely worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…

A grand adventure and one you should undertake at your leisure…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m going on best evidence here: if somebody else actually owns the rights now, let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry).

Daddy is So Far Away… And We Must Find Him!

By Wostok & Grabowski, translation edited by Chris Watson (Slab-O-Concrete)
ISBN: 978-1-89986-610-6

In the last decade of the previous century, independent, alternative and international cartooning finally took off in the UK. It’s not that it suddenly got good, it’s simply that due to the efforts of a few dedicated missionaries, the readers finally noticed what Europe had known for years. Graphic narrative is as much about the art and the individual as it is about the money.

A superb case in point is this slim and eccentric softcover monochrome tome produced in English by the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete publishing/distribution outfit.

Daddy is So Far Away… is the surreal yet absorbing account of two-year old Poposhak and her faithful dog Flowers. The sad little lass stands at her mother’s grave and wonders where her father is. Suddenly he sees the tip of his beard sticking out of the front door and rushes towards it despite wise Flowers’ words of caution…

She will not stop, but follows the beard, through rooms, down tunnels, across plains, under oceans and even across the Milky Way itself, finding along the way friends and escaping monsters throughout all time and space. Always that long white beard unfurls ahead of them, a baffling enigma and a tantalising promise…

This eerie yet comforting blend of fable, bedtime story, shaggy dog tale and vision-quest is a compulsive and brilliantly drawn epic, more rollercoaster or video game than pictorial narrative, and encompasses the very best storytelling techniques of Eastern European animation…

Wostok and Grabowski, from the north Serbian town of Vršac, creatively and intensively collaborated together between1992 and 1997; both in the incredibly fertile Eastern European market but also internationally, with numerous works appearing all over the place before going their separate ways, and – as is usually the case – are criminally unfamiliar to the average comic punter. I hope you can find their astounding poetic, innocently melancholic and metaphysical work without too much trouble, because it’s well worth the effort.
© 1995-1998 Wostok, Lola & Grabowski. All Rights Reserved.

X-Men Epic Collection volume 5 1975-1978: Second Genesis

By Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Bill Mantlo, Bonnie Wilford, Dave Cockrum, Bob Brown, Tony DeZuñiga, John Byrne, Sal Buscema & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0390-9

In the autumn of 1963 The X-Men #1 introduced Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Bobby (Iceman) Drake, Warren (Angel) Worthington, Jean (Marvel Girl) Grey and Hank (The Beast) McCoy: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier.

The teacher was a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior; considered by many who knew him as a living saint.

After nearly eight years of eccentrically spectacular adventures the mutant misfits virtually disappeared at the beginning of 1970 during another periodic downturn in superhero comics sales. Just like in the closing years of the 1940s, mystery men faded away as supernatural mysteries and traditional genre themes once more dominated the world’s entertainment fields…

Although their title returned at the end of the year as a cheap reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the ongoing Marvel universe, whilst the bludgeoning Beast was opportunistically transformed into a scary monster to cash in on the horror boom.

Then, with sales of the spooky stuff subsequently waning in 1975, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas green-lighted a bold one-shot as part of the company’s line of Giant-Size specials and history was made…

This fabulous mass-market collection (in trade paperback and eBook editions) is perfect for newbies and neophytes, celebrating the revival and unstoppable march to market dominance through the exuberant and pivotal early stories: specifically, Giant Size X-Men #1, issues #94-110 of the definitely “All-New, All-Different” X-Men, as well as guest appearances in Iron Fist #14-15, Marvel Team Up #53, 69-70 and Marvel Team Up Annual #1, collectively and cumulatively spanning May 1975 to June 1978.

Tracing the reinvigorated merry mutants from young, fresh and delightfully under-exposed innovations to the beginnings of their unstoppable ascendancy to ultimate comicbook icons, in their own title and through an increasingly broad clutch of guest shots, the epic voyage begins without pause or preamble, in a classic mystery monster mash from Giant Size X-Men #1.

Len Wein & Dave Cockrum (the latter a red-hot property following his stint reviving DC’s equally eclectic fan-fave super-team The Legion of Super-Heroes) detailed in ‘Second Genesis!’ how the original squad – all but new Avengers recruit The Beast – had been lost in action…

With no other choice Xavier is forced to scour Earth and the entire Marvel Universe for replacements…

To old foes-turned-friends Banshee and Sunfire is added a one-shot Hulk adversary dubbed the Wolverine, but the bulk of time and attention is lavished upon original creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic-seeming German teleporter codenamed Nightcrawler; African weather “goddess” Ororo Monroe – AKA Storm, Russian farm-boy Peter Rasputin who turns into a living steel Colossus and bitter, disillusioned Apache superman John Proudstar who is cajoled into joining the makeshift squad as Thunderbird.

The second chapter of the epic introductory adventure ‘…And Then There Was One!’ reintroduces battered, depleted but unbowed team-leader Cyclops who swiftly drills the newcomers into a semblance of readiness before leading them into primordial danger against the monolithic threat of ‘Krakoa… the Island That Walks Like a Man!’

Overcoming the phenomenal terror of a rampaging rapacious mutant eco-system and rescuing the “real” team should have led to a quarterly Giant-Size sequel, but so great was the fan response that the follow-up adventure was swiftly reworked into a 2-part tale for the rapidly reconfigured comicbook which became a bimonthly home to the new team.

X-Men #94 (August 1975) began ‘The Doomsmith Scenario!’ – plotted by Editor Wein, scripted by Chris Claremont and with Bob McLeod inking man-on-fire Cockrum – in a canny Armageddon-shocker with a newly pared-down strike-squad deprived of Sunfire and the still-recuperating Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, Havok and Lorna Dane. The neophytes are called in by the Beast to stop criminal terrorist Count Nefaria starting an atomic war.

The insidious mastermind has conquered America’s Norad citadel with a gang of artificial superhumans and accidentally escalated a nuclear blackmail scheme into an inescapable countdown to holocaust, leaving the untrained, unprepared mutants to storm in to save the world in epic conclusion ‘Warhunt!’ (inked by Sam Grainger).

One of the new team doesn’t make it back…

X-Men #96 saw Claremont take charge of the writing (albeit with some plotting input from Bill Mantlo) for ‘Night of the Demon!’ Guilt-wracked Cyclops blames himself for the loss of his team-mate, and in his explosive rage accidentally unleashes a demonic antediluvian horror from Earth’s primordial prehistory for the heroes-in-training to thrash.

The infernal Nagarai would return over and again to bedevil mankind, but the biggest innovation in this issue is the introduction of gun-toting biologist/housekeeper Moira MacTaggert and the first inklings of the return of implacable old adversaries…

A long-running, cosmically-widescreen storyline began in #97 with ‘My Brother, My Enemy!’ as Xavier – tormented by visions of interstellar war – tries to take a vacation, just as Havok and Lorna (finally settling on superhero nom de guerre Polaris) attack: apparently willing servants of a mysterious madman using Cyclops’ old undercover alter ego Eric the Red.

The devastating conflict then segues into a spectacular 3-part yarn, as pitiless robotic killers return under the hate-filled auspices of mutantophobic Steven Lang and his mysterious backers in Project Armageddon. The action opens with #98’s ‘Merry Christmas, X-Men…the Sentinels Have Returned!’

With coordinated attacks capturing semi-retired Marvel Girl plus Wolverine, Banshee and Xavier, Cyclops and the remaining heroes co-opt a space shuttle and storm Lang’s orbital HQ to rescue them in ‘Deathstar Rising!’ (inked by Frank Chiaramonte): another phenomenal all-action episode.

The saga concludes on an agonising cliffhanger with the 100th issue anniversary tale. ‘Greater Love Hath no X-Man…’ (with Cockrum inking his own pencils) sees the new X-Men apparently battle the original team before overturning Lang’s monstrous schemes forever. However, their catastrophic clash destroys the only means of escape and, as a gigantic solar flare threatens to eradicate the satellite-station, their only chance of survival means certain death for another X-Man.

As #101 unfolded, scripter Claremont & artist Cockrum were on the on the verge of utterly overturning the accepted status quo of women in comics forever…

Led by field-leader Cyclops, the team now consisted of old acquaintance and former foe SeanBansheeCassidy, Wolverine, and new creations Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus and part-timer Jean Grey still labouring under the nom-de guerre Marvel Girl… but not for much longer…

‘Like a Phoenix from the Ashes’ (Chiaramonte inks) sees a space-shuttle cataclysmically crash into Jamaica Bay. The X-Men had safely travelled in a specially-shielded chamber but Marvel Girl had manually piloted the vehicle, unprotected through a lethal radiation storm…

As the mutants escape the slowly sinking craft, a fantastic explosion propels the impossibly alive Jean into the air, clad in a strange gold and green uniform and screaming that she is “Fire and Life Incarnate… Phoenix!”

Immediately collapsing, the critically injured girl is rushed to hospital and a grim wait begins.

Unable to explain her survival and too preoccupied to spare time for teaching, Xavier packs Banshee, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Storm and Colossus off to the Irish mutant’s home in County Mayo for a vacation, blissfully unaware that Cassidy Keep has been compromised and is now a deadly trap for his new students…

Within the ancestral pile, Sean’s mutant cousin Black Tom has usurped control of the manor and its incredible secrets before – at Eric the Red’s behest – contriving an inescapable ambush, assisted by an old X-Men enemy.

‘Who Will Stop the Juggernaut?’ (Grainger inks) sees the inexperienced heroes in over their heads and fighting for their lives, but still finds room to reveal the origins of Storm and provide an explanation for her crippling claustrophobia, before ‘The Fall of the Tower’ explosively ends the tale with mutant heroes and the Keep’s Leprechaun colony (no, really!) uniting to expel the murderous usurpers.

Although still bi-monthly at the time, the series kicked into confident top gear with ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Magneto’ as the weary warriors then divert to Scotland to check on Moira MacTaggert’s island lab: a secret facility containing myriad mutant menaces the X-Men have previously defeated.

It’s a very bad move since the ever-active Eric has restored the dormant master of magnetism to full power. The mutant terrorist had been turned into a baby – a strangely commonplace fate for villains in those faraway days – but he was all grown up again now and indulging in one last temper tantrum…

Freshly arrived from America, Moira and Cyclops are only just in time to lead a desperate, humiliating retreat from the triumphant Master of Magnetism. Scott doesn’t care: he realises the entire affair has been a feint to draw the heroes away from Xavier and Jean…

He needn’t have worried. Although in ‘Phoenix Unleashed’ (inks by Bob Layton) Eric orchestrates an attack by Firelord – a cosmic flamethrower and former herald of Galactus much like the Silver Surfer – Jean is now fully evolved into a being of unimaginable power who readily holds the fiery marauder at bay…

In the interim a long-standing mystery is solved as the visions which have haunted and tormented Xavier are revealed as a psychic connection with a runaway princess from a distant alien empire.

Lilandra of the Shi’ar had rebelled against her imperial brother and, whilst fleeing, had somehow telepathically locked onto her trans-galactic soul-mate Charles Xavier. As she made her circuitous way to Earth, embedded Shi’ar spy Shakari had assumed the role of Eric the Red and attempted to remove Lilandra’s potential champion before she arrived…

During the blistering battle which follows the X-Men’s dramatic arrival, Shakari snatches up Lilandra and drags her through a stargate to their home galaxy, and with the entire universe imperilled, Xavier urges his team to follow. All Jean has to do is re-open a wormhole to the other side of creation…

A minor digression follows as overstretched artist Cockrum gains a breather via a fill-in “untold” tale of the new team featuring an attack by psychic clones of the original X-men. ‘Dark Shroud of the Past’ is a competent pause by Mantlo, Bob Brown & Tom Sutton, set inside a framing sequence from Cockrum.

The regular story resumes in a wry tribute to Star Trek as ‘Where No X-Man Has Gone Before!’ (Claremont, Cockrum & Dan Green) finds the heroes stranded in another galaxy where they meet and are beaten by the Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes in the inimitable Cockrum manner), until bold interstellar rebel freebooters the Starjammers bombastically arrive to turn the tables once again whilst uncovering a mad scheme to unmake the fabric of space-time.

Lilandra’s brother Emperor D’Ken is a deranged maniac who wants to activate a cosmic artefact known alternatively as the M’Kraan Crystal and “the End of All that Is” in his quest for ultimate power. He’s also spent time on Earth in the past and played a major role in the life of one of the X-Men…

This tale (from issue #107) was Cockrum’s last for years. He would eventually return to replace the man who replaced him. John Byrne not only illustrated but also began co-plotting the X-tales and, as the team roster expanded, the series rose to even greater heights. It would culminate in the landmark Dark Phoenix storyline which saw the death of arguably the book’s most beloved and imaginative character and the departure of the team’s heart and soul. The epic cosmic saga also seemed to fracture the epochal working relationship of Claremont and Byrne.

Within months of publication they went their separate ways: Claremont staying with the mutants whilst Byrne moved on to establish his own reputation as a writer on series such as Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk and especially his revolutionised Fantastic Four

Here though, the X-Men and Starjammers battle the Crystal’s astoundingly deadly automated guardians, as this final chapter depicts the newly puissant Phoenix literally saving Reality in a mind-blowing display of power and skill.

Trapped inside a staggering other-realm, and appalled and enthralled by the intoxicating, addictive nature of her own might, Phoenix rewove the fabric of Reality and for an encore brought the heroes home again.

The conclusion of this ambitious extended saga was drawn by Byrne and inked by Terry Austin and their visual virtuosity was to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity.

However, even though the bravura high-octane thrills of ‘Armageddon Now’ seem an unrepeatable high-point, Claremont & Byrne had only started. The best was still to come, but it precluded ending their other ongoing collaboration: a mystic martial arts thriller…

From Iron Fist #14, ‘Snowfire’ inked by Dan Green – finds masked marvel Danny Rand and his combat colleague Colleen Wing running for their lives in arctic conditions after a vacation retreat to a palatial Canadian Rockies estate is ruined by a criminal raid.

Leading the plundering gang is deadly mercenary Sabretooth. Despite being rendered temporarily blind, the K’un Lun Kid ultimately defeats the mutant marauder, but his fiercely feral foe would return again and again to bedevil both Danny and the X-Men…

With Claremont & Byrne increasingly absorbed by their stellar collaboration on the revived and resurgent adventures of Marvel’s mutant horde, Iron Fist #15 (September 1977) was their last martial arts mash-up for a while. The series ended in spectacular fashion as, through a comedy of errors, Danny stumbles into a morass of misunderstanding and ends up battling the recently returned galaxy rovers Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Storm and Phoenix in ‘Enter, the X-Men’.

In X-Men #109’s ‘Home Are the Heroes!’ (Claremont, Byrne & Austin) Wolverine finally begins to develop a back-story and some depth of character whilst technological wonder Weapon Alpha attacks the recuperating team in an attempt to force the enigmatic Logan to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service.

Renamed Vindicator Alpha would later return leading Alpha Flight – a Canadian government sponsored super-team which would eventually graduate to their own eccentric high-profile series.

Somewhat out of chronological sequence, this is followed here by an extra-length exploit from Marvel Team Up Annual #1 (1976 and by Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito, from a plot by Mantlo, Claremont & Bonnie Wilford).

‘The Lords of Light and Darkness!’ features Spider-Man and newly minted X-Men Storm, Banshee, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Phoenix and Cyclops assisting Charles Xavier in combatting a pantheon of scientists mutated by atomic accident and elevated to the ranks of gods.

Like most deities, these puissant ones believe they know what is best for humanity and don’t like being disabused of the notion…

Mantlo then teamed with Byrne & Frank Giacoia to bring closure to a tale begun – and left hanging – in Marvel Premiere #31.

Set minutes after the Annual, Marvel Team Up #53 (January 1977) reveals a ‘Nightmare in New Mexico!’ as Spider-Man says goodbye to the X-Men and hello to The Hulk and troubled gene-splicing experiment Woodgod after the tragic bio-construct flees from corrupt Army Colonel Del Tremens. As Tremens tried to suppress the calamitous crisis and his own indiscretions by killing everybody, the final scene sees the webspinner trapped in a rocket and blasted into space…

The tale by Mantlo, Byrne & Frank Giacoia has very little to do with the X-Men, other than a rather gratuitous overlap and ends here without resolution, but still looks pretty damn good after all these years…

In X-Men #110 (April 1978) Claremont, and illustrators Tony DeZuñiga & Cockrum then detail ‘The “X”-Sanction!’: a rather limp and hasty fill-in as cyborg mercenary Warhawk infiltrates the Xavier mansion in search of “intel” for a mysterious, unspecified master… before getting his shiny silver head handed to him…

This initial compendium of uncanny X-episodes wraps up with the contents of Marvel Team Up #69 and 70 (May & June 1978) as in ‘Night of the Living God!’ (Claremont, Byrne & by Ricardo Villamonte) Spider-Man clashes with Egyptian-themed thieves and is drawn into the perpetual duel between cosmic-powered X-Man Havoc and his nemesis the Living Monolith.

When the battle turns against the heroes it requires the might of Thor to stop the ravening astral menace in the concluding chapter ‘Whom Gods Destroy!’ (inked by Tony DeZuñiga)…

Following the cover of 1975’s all-reprint Giant-Size X-Men #2, this volume concludes with a glorious and revelatory selection of extras including John Romita’s original design sketches for Wolverine; Byrne’s first X-Man work (a puzzle from Marvel Fanzine F.O.O.M. #7) and design material from Cockrum’s DC Comics proposal The Outsiders (the Legion of Super-Heroes spin-off he retooled to create Nightcrawler, Storm, Phoenix and the other New X-Men). There are even unused Cockrum pencil pages, initial sketches for the Starjammers, costume upgrades for Angel, the cover art for X-themed The Comic Reader #145, and model sheets for Nightcrawler, Storm, Phoenix and Colossus.

Further treasures are Gil Kane’s cover sketch and original art for Giant-Size X-Men #1, original Cockrum pages from GSXM #1 and F.O.O.M. #10 (the all-X-Men issue), articles from the fanzine – Mutation of the Species, X-Men! X-Men!. Read All About ‘Em! – a pin-up by Don Maitz, X-Men X-posé and spoof strip ‘EggsMen’; unused pages by Bob Brown and previous collection covers by Kane and Cockrum given a painted make-over by Dean White.

Entertaining, groundbreaking and incredibly intoxicating, these adventures are an invaluable and crucial grounding in contemporary fights ‘n’ tights fiction no fan or casual reader can be allowed to ignore.
© 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Books of Magic

By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3781-3 (HB)                :978-1-4012-4686-0 (PB)
:978-1-85286-470-5 (Titan Books Edition)

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC, he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format issues a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a supposedly typical London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his long-anticipated ascendancy. This meant becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for either Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous, the self-appointed mystic guides provide him and – through literary extension – us, with a full and dangerously immersive tutorial in the history and state of play of “The Art” and its major practitioners and adepts.

However, although the four guardians are not unanimous or even united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark, he has to die…

Thus, following an Introduction by master fantasist Roger Zelazny, the thaumaturgical thrills begin in Book I, painted by John Bolton.

Here the Phantom Stranger conducts his youthful charge on a trip through ‘The Invisible Labyrinth’ revealing to Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, and other Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin as well as mid-20th century crime-busting mystics Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton picks up the brushes for the second chapter, wherein irrepressible urban trickster-wizard John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the then-established DCU: introducing the wide-eyed lad to contemporary paranormal players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Terry Thirteen (AKA the Ghost-Breaker) and mystic super-hero Zatanna, who boldly organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala, Queen of Darkness and the diabolical opportunist Tannarak attempt to take matters – and Tim – into their own wicked hands…

For his third work-experience trip, Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) escorts the messianic boy on a voyage to the outer lands and Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘The Land of Summer’s Twilight’. This ethereal, beautifully evocative segment would inform much of Timothy Hunter’s later life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord/Travis Morgan, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, Etrigan the Demon, Cain, Abel and the (Gaiman-originated) Sandman Morpheus.

Bringing the initial educational experience to a close, ‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrinations as ruthlessly fanatical zealot Mister E whisks our astounded boy to the end of time, where the sightless fanatic attempts to twist Tim to his own bleak, black agenda. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time; progressing even forward past the Legion of Super Heroes, to the end of Order and Chaos, unto the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil; Magic or mundane?

Books of Magic still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today. Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone, this is still a cracking good yarn (available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and even a British edition from Titan Books), offers useful grounding for all things supernaturally DC and still has overwhelming relevance to today’s much rebooted continuity.

© 1990, 1991, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Comics at War

By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Very often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the debilitating nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not meant in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless -generally unrecognised and generally unlauded – creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of Lost, Forgotten or Buried Treasures into the mix.

A perfect example is this copious chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 to celebrate the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of childish pastimes and halcyon days.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – a casual reader with some of that fierce wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection, this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contributions to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output – in breadth if not depth – of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times, this book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and Jester cover stars Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as Be Prepared: with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

At War With the Army displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority – with episodes of Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (respectively by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy); Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

Tanks a Million! offers selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism (maybe not so much on that last one though?) and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker, or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics, or watch vintage films or cartoons – it’s your choice and your loss.

The strip that sparked this tirade is an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter highlighting the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and including many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and The Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent and usually allied non-white people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

At Sea with the Navy! highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, and by Albert Pease); Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton); Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden by Roy Wilson; Billy Bunter (Knock-Out by Frank Minnitt); Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst Sinking the Subs takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with In the Air with the R.A.F. featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and yet more Koko the Pup.

Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis! demonstrates and deftly depicts just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side, beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of misters Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with macerating mockery.

Doing Their Bit then gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry figures into another True Brit bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley (featuring Lucan & McShane), Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy included here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of Evacuation Saves the Nation! as our collective banishment of city-bred children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators.

Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up before Blackout Blues! finds the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors…

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len after which Gas Mask Drill finds the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella all encountering difficulties with Britain’s most essential useless fashion accessory…

Barrage Balloons! lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with examples from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (Larks and by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun whilst Tuning Up the A.R.P.! deals out the same treatment to the valiant volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. Those Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right (albeit roundly good natured) sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls finally get a go in the vanguard with Wow! Women of War! starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively); Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled Doing Their Best with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny and Big Eggo.

The peril of imminent invasion was always in the air and the embattled cartoonists sensibly responded with measured insolence. Hop It, Hitler! displays our pen-pushers’ fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, before espionage antics are exposed in I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye! in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men plus even more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

Wireless War! celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ sublimely wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

To Blazes With the Firemen! is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (whose dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the necessary measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boy from Tiny Tim’s Weekly; Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (courtesy of Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of Luvly Grub!

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of Salvage!, Comical Camouflage!, Workers Playtime! and Allies, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the India-rubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and immensely satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

V for Victory! sees a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows; featuring final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, It’s That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and – from Jingles – Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed even I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses these tales salvaged from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 5

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Vince Colletta, Joe Sinnott and others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5058-9 (PB)                     :978-0-7851-1184-9 (HB)

The monolith of Marvel all started with the quirky and fractious adventures of a small super-quartet who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now stems from their exploits and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hard cover, trade paperback and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #41-50 plus the third giant-sized Annual: issues of progressive landmarks spanning August 1965 to May 1966 with Stan & Jack cannily building and consolidating an ever-expanding and cohesive shared universe with the FF as the central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of that web of cosmic creation.

As seen in the landmark premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother – survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak.

Eschewing preamble, the titanic tales of suspense resume here with the first chapter of a tense and traumatic trilogy (inked by Vince Colletta) in which the Frightful Four (The Wizard, Sandman, Trapster and enigmatic Madame Medusa) brainwash the despondent and increasingly isolated Thing: turning him against his former team-mates.

It starts with ‘The Brutal Betrayal of Ben Grimm!’, continues in rip-roaring fashion as ‘To Save You, Why Must I Kill You?’ pits the monster’s baffled former comrades against their friend and the world’s most insidious villains and concludes in bombastic glory with #44’s ‘Lo! There Shall be an Ending!’

After that Colletta signed off by inking one of the most crowded Marvel stories ever: Fantastic Four Annual #3. Inexplicably here it is reassigned to the back of the book however so ignore the huge chronological blip and soldier on: we’ll get there when we get there…

Cover-dated November 1965, FF #44 was a landmark in many ways. Firstly, it saw the arrival of Joe Sinnott as regular inker, a skilled brush-man with a deft line and a superb grasp of anatomy and facial expression, and an artist prepared to match Kirby’s greatest efforts with his own. Some inkers had problems with just how much detail the King would pencil in; Sinnott relished it and the effort showed. What was wonderful now became incomparable…

‘The Gentleman’s Name is Gorgon!’ introduces a mysterious powerhouse with ponderous metal hooves instead of feet, a hunter implacably stalking Medusa. She then embroils the Human Torch – and thus the whole team – in her frantic bid to escape, and that’s before the monstrous android Dragon Man shows up to complicate matters.

All this is merely prelude, however: with the next issue we are introduced to a hidden race of super-beings secretly sharing Earth with us for millennia. ‘Among us Hide… the Inhumans’ reveals Medusa to be part of the Royal Family of Attilan, a race of paranormal aristocrats on the run ever since a coup deposed the true king.

Black Bolt, Triton, Karnak and the rest would quickly become mainstays of the Marvel Universe, but their bewitching young cousin Crystal and her giant teleporting dog Lockjaw were the real stars here. For young Johnny it is love at first sight, and Crystal’s eventual fate would greatly change his character, giving him a hint of angst-ridden tragedy that resonated greatly with the generation of young readers who were growing up with the comic…

Those Who Would Destroy Us!’ and ‘Beware the Hidden Land!’ (FF#46 – 47) see the team join the Inhumans as Black Bolt struggles to regain the throne from his brother Maximus the Mad, only to stumble into the usurper’s plan to wipe “inferior” humanity from the Earth.

Ideas just seem to explode from Kirby at this time. Despite being halfway through one storyline, FF #48 trumpeted ‘The Coming of Galactus!’ The Inhumans saga is swiftly wrapped up by page 6, with the entire clandestine race sealed behind an impenetrable dome called the Negative Zone (later retitled the Negative Barrier to avoid confusion with the gateway to sub-space that Reed worked on for years).

Meanwhile, a cosmic entity approaches Earth, preceded by a gleaming herald on a surfboard of pure cosmic energy…

I suspect this experimental – and vaguely uncomfortable – approach to narrative mechanics was calculated and deliberate, mirroring the way TV soap operas were increasingly delivering their interwoven storylines, and used as a means to keep readers glued to the series.

They needn’t have bothered. The stories and concepts were enough…

‘If this be Doomsday!’ finds planet-eating Galactus setting up shop over the Baxter Building despite the team’s best efforts, whilst his cold and shining herald has his humanity accidentally rekindled by simply conversing with the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia.

Issue #50’s ‘The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer!’ then concludes the epic in grand style as the reawakened ethical core of the Surfer and heroism of the FF buy enough time for Richards to literally save the World with a borrowed Deus ex Machina gadget…

Once again, the tale ends in the middle of the issue, and the remaining half concentrating on the team getting back to “normal”. To that extent, Johnny finally enrols at Metro College, desperate to forget lost love Crystal and his unnerving jaunts to the ends of the universe.

On his first day, the lad meet imposing and enigmatic Native American Wyatt Wingfoot, destined to become his greatest friend…

That would be a great place to stop but now at last you can see how Reed and Sue get hitched as Fantastic Four Annual #3 famously features every hero, most of the villains and lots of ancillary characters in the company pantheon (such as teen-romance stars Patsy Walker & Hedy Wolf and even Stan and Jack themselves).

‘Bedlam at the Baxter Building!’ spectacularly celebrates the Richards-Storm nuptials, despite a massed attack by an army of baddies mesmerised by the diabolical Doctor Doom. In its classical simplicity it signalled the end of one era and the start of another…

With these tales Lee & Kirby began a period of unmatched imagination and innovation which cemented Marvel’s dominance and confirmed that they were crafting a comics empire. The verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shines through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – better – world and time.
© 1965, 1966, 2011, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.