Buffy the Vampire Slayer volume 1


By Joss Whedon, Christopher Golden, Daniel Brereton, Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Paul Lee, Eric Powell, Joe Bennett, Cliff Richards, & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-784-6

Blood-drenched supernatural doomed love is a venerable if not always creditable sub-genre these days, so let’s take another look at one of the ancient antecedents responsible for this state of affairs in the shape of Dark Horse Comics’ translation of the cult TV show franchise Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Collected here in the first of seven big bad Omnibus editions is material from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike & Dru #3 (December 2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Origin (January-March 1999) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer #51-59 (November 2002 to July 2003); nearly three hundred pages of full-colour mystical martial arts mayhem and merriment.

As explained in comicbook Editor Scott Allie’s Introduction, although the printed sagas and spin-offs were created in a meandering manner up and down the timeline, this series of books re-presents them in strict chronological continuity order, beginning with a perilous period piece entitled ‘All’s Fair’ (by Christopher Golden with art Eric Powell, Drew Geraci & Keith Barnett) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike & Dru #3 originally from December 2000.

Although Buffy was a hot and hip teen cheerleader-turned-monster-killer, as the TV series developed it became clear that the bad-guys were increasingly the real fan-favourites. Cool vampire villain and über-predator Spike eventually became a love-interest and even a suitably tarnished white knight, but at the time of this collection he was still a jaded, blood-hungry, immortal, immoral psychopath… every girl’s dream date.

His eternal paramour was Drusilla: a demented precognitive vampire who killed him and made him an immortal bloodsucker. She thrived on a stream of fresh decadent thrills and revelled in baroque and outré bloodletting.

There has been an unbroken mystical progression of young women tasked with killing the undead through the centuries, and here we see the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, where Spike and Dru are making the most of the carnage after killing that era’s Slayer. The story then shifts to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 where the undying mad lovers are still on the murderous prowl. However, the scientific wonders of the modern world displayed in the various exhibits are all eclipsed by one scientist who has tapped into the realm of Elder Gods as a cheap source of energy.

To further complicate matters Spike and Dru are being stalked by a clan of Chinese warriors trained from birth to destroy the predatory pair and avenge that Slayer killed in Beijing…

Gods, Demons, Mad Scientists, Kung Fu killers, Tongs and terror all combine in a gory romp that will delight TV devotees and ordinary horrorists alike.

Next up is a smart reworking of the cult B-movie which launched the global mega-hit TV.

Starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry and Rutger Hauer, the film was released in 1992 with a modicum of success and to the lasting dissatisfaction of writer/creator Joss Whedon. Five years later he got to do it right and in the manner he’d originally intended. The ensemble action horror comedy series became something of a phenomenon and inspired a new generation of Goth gore-lovers as well as many, many “homages” in assorted media – including comics.

Dark Horse won the licensing rights in the USA, subsequently producing an enthralling regular comicbook series plus a welter of impressive miniseries and specials. In 1999 the company – knowing how powerfully the inclusivity/continuity/completism gene dominates comics fan psychology – finally revisited that troublesome cinematic debut with miniseries Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Origin running from January to March.

Scrupulously returning to the author’s script and core-concept, restoring excised material, shifting the tone back towards what Whedon originally intended, whilst reconfiguring events until they better jibed with the established and beloved TV mythology, adaptors Christopher Golden & Daniel Brereton with artists Joe Bennett, Rick Ketcham, Randy Emberlin & J. Jadsen produced a new 3-issue miniseries which canonically established exactly what the formerly vapid Valley Girl did in her old hometown that got her transferred to scenic Sunnydale and a life on the Hellmouth…

It all kicks off in ‘Destiny Free’ as shallow yet popular teen queen/cheerleader Buffy Summers shrugs off recurring nightmares of young women battling and being killed by vampires throughout history to continue her perfect life of smug contentment. Even a chance meeting with grungy stoner bad-boys Pike and Benny can’t dent her aura of self-assured privilege and studied indolence.

The nightmares keep mounting in intensity, however, and all over town teenagers are disappearing…

Things come to a head the week her parents leave town for a trip. In a dark park, a maniac attacks Pike and Benny and is only driven off by the intervention of a mysterious, formidable old man. Even so the assailant manages to take the screaming Benny with him…

Next day the same old geezer is at school, annoying Buffy. She is blithely mocking until he tells her about her nightmares and explains that she has an inescapable destiny… as a slayer of monsters…

Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of the Earth a monster is marshalling his forces and making terrifying converts out of the spoiled worthless children of California…

Buffy’s strange stalker is exceedingly persistent and that night, despite her disbelieving misgivings, she and Merrick – an agent of an ancient, monster-hunting secret society – lurk in a graveyard waiting for a recently murdered man to rise from his fresh grave…

When he does – along with unsuspected others – Buffy’s unsuspected powers and battle reflexes kick in and, against all odds, she spectacularly overcomes…

‘Defenseless Mechanisms’ finds the aggressively altered Buffy grudgingly dropping her fatuous after-school activities and friends to train with the increasingly strident and impatient Watcher Merrick. Even though her attitude is appalling and her attention easily diverted, the girl is serious about the job, and even has a few new ideas to add to The Slayer’s traditional arsenal…

Even as she starts her career by pretending to be a helpless lost girl to draw out vile vamps, across town Pike is in big trouble. He also knows what is happening: after all every night Benny comes to his window, begging to be let in and offering to share his new life with his best buddy…

At school the change in Buffy is noticeable and all her old BFFs are pointedly snubbing her, even as every sundown Lothos’ legion gets bolder and bigger. A fatal mistake occurs on the night when Slayer and Watcher save the finally outmanoeuvred Pike from Benny and the Vampire Lord. Only two of the embattled humans survive and escape…

The tales escalates to a shocking climax when the undead army invades the long-awaited Hemery High School dance looking for Buffy and fresh meat/recruits. With his bloodsuckers surrounding the petrified revellers and demanding a final reckoning, Lothos believes his victory assured, but in all his centuries of unlife he’s never encountered a Slayer quite like Buffy Summers…

As Allie’s Introduction already revealed, there are major hassles involved in producing a licensed comicbook whilst the primary property is still unfolding. Thus, as the print series was winding up the editors opted for in-filling some glaring gaps in the Slayer’s early career. Buffy the Vampire Slayer #51-59, spanning November 2002 through July 2003, addresses the period between the film’s end and her first days in Sunnydale, leading off with ‘Viva Las Buffy’ (Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Cliff Richards & Will Conrad) which details what the Slayer did next: abandoning her disintegrating family as they prepared to leave LA and the reputation their daughter has garnered.

Buffy hooks with sole survivor and wannabe monster-hunter Pike and they eventually fetch up in Nevada to investigate the apparently vampire-run Golden Touch Casino. The young warriors have no idea that a dark solitary stranger with a heavenly name is stalking them or that somewhere in England a Council of arrogant scholar-magicians are preparing a rather controversial candidate to join her as the new Watcher…

Sadly Rupert Giles has a rival for the post who is prepared to do literally anything to secure the position…

Whilst Pike and the Slayer infiltrate the gambling palace as menial workers, moodily formidable solo avenger Angelus has gone straight to the top and been hired as an enforcer for the management. When both independently operating factions are exposed, the Vamp with a Soul is tossed into a time-trap and despatched back to the 1930s whilst Buffy and Pike battle an army of monsters before confronting the ghastly family of monstrosities running the show in two eras.

The living and undead heroes endure heartbreak and sacrifice before this evil empire is ended forever…

Paul Lee then reveals the bizarre story of ‘Dawn & Hoopy the Bear’ wherein Buffy’s little sister accidentally intercepts a Faustian gift intended for the absent Slayer and finds herself befriended by a demonic Djinn who seems sweet but is pre-programmed for murder…

Through the narrative vehicle of Dawn reading her big sister’s diary, the last piece of the puzzle is revealed in ‘Slayer, Interrupted’ (Lobdell, Nicieza, Richards, Conrad, Lee & Horton) as Buffy’s own written words disclose her apparent delusional state. With no other choice her parents have their clearly troubled teen committed to a psychiatric institution.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Giles – having overcome his own opposition – completes his training preparations by undergoing a potentially lethal ritual and confronting his worst nightmare before heading to the USA, where Angelus and demonic attendant Whistler are still clandestinely watching over the Slayer.

That’s all to the good, as the asylum has been infiltrated by a sorcerous cult intent on gathering “brides” for infernal night-lord Rakagore

As Buffy undergoes talk therapy with the peculiar Dr. Primrose, she comes to realise the nature of her own mission, her role as a “Creature of Destiny” in the universe and, most importantly, that the elderly therapist is not all she seems either…

With her head clear at last, all Buffy has to do is prove she’s sane, smash an invasion of devils, reconcile with her family and get ready for the new school year at Sunnydale High…

To Be Continued…

Supplementing the hoard of supernatural treasures is a copious photo, Title Page and Cover Gallery with material from Ryan Sook, Guy Major, Bennett, Gomez, Jadsen, René Micheletti, Paul Lee & Brian Horton.

Visually impressive, winningly scripted and illustrated and most importantly proceeding at a breakneck rollercoaster pace, this supernatural action-fest is utterly engaging even if you’re not familiar with the vast backstory: a creepy chronicle as easily enjoyed by the most callow neophyte as by the dedicated devotee.

Moreover in this era of TV binge-watching, with the shows readily available on TV and DVD, if you aren’t a follower yet you soon could – and should – be…
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ™ & © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 1


By Garth Ennis, Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg, Carlos Ezquerra, Hector Ezquerra & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-255-4

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comics in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but no one admits to reading them in my circle), he may well be the only creator regularly contributing to the genre in the entire English language.

After crafting an occasional sequence of superb War Stories with the industry’s top illustrative talent for DC’s mature reader Vertigo imprint, he then moved on to craft more of the same for Dynamite Entertainment through themed-anthology series Battlefields, which began publication in November 2008.

Here he continued to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British comics combat strips he read as a lad. This first Complete Edition (available in both hardback and softcover editions as well as a digital release) gathers the first nine issues – comprising three separate triptychs set in World War II – which all delve below the standardised Hollywood glitz of a conflict we all think we have a passing familiarity with to reveal the grimy guts of combat in self-contained arenas most of us never knew existed…

Illustrated by Russell Braun, the first offering is a tale told from two opposing viewpoints, with both inexorably destined to ultimately and finally clash. Kurt Graf is a young German soldier on the Eastern Front; clinging to life and increasingly appalled by the behaviour of his comrades as they strive to crush the dogged resistance of the Soviets defending their homeland.

Elsewhere, the Russians are about to unleash their latest counter-weapon… women pilots…

Despite being despised by their male counterparts and generally saddled with the worst equipment, these dedicated warriors – especially the night-bomber squadron to which diminutive Lieutenant Anna Kharkova belongs – quickly begin to take a toll on the war-weary invaders, earning the name Nachthexen‘The Night Witches’

As the months pass we follow both narrators deeper into hell, where all passions are temporary but overwhelmingly ferocious. And then, as the continually mounting toll of atrocities seems more than any could possibly bear, the protagonists at last meet under the most inauspicious conditions and the inevitable happens…

The pulse-quickening pitched cinematic battles of the Russian Front are replaced with more sedate but no less sinister and horrifying scenes in ‘Dear Billy’ – limned by Peter Snejbjerg – which beguilingly examines other repercussions of love in wartime. Carrie Sutton is a British nurse who barely survived the wanton slaughter and worse which the Japanese inflicted following their conquering Singapore.

After a frankly miraculous escape Carrie is taken to hospital in Calcutta where, after her body has recuperated, she is pressed into service on the wards. Here, even if she cannot forget what was done to her, she can strike back by helping heal the soldiers, sailors and airmen who will eradicate the inhuman enemy.

Her dreary half-life changes after meeting pilot William Wedgewood. Despite the appalling injuries inflicted upon him by the oriental devils he remains upbeat, and upon recovery is eager to get back in the air and punish the enemy. Meanwhile, Carrie too has found an occasional yet deeply personal way to get back at the foe…

The torrid relationship lasts the length of the war; with each prosecuting the conflict in their own way, but when Hiroshima and Nagasaki end hostilities and it’s time to put away weapons and make friends again, one traumatised soul realises the vengeance-taking can never end…

Spectacularly uproarious and doused with Ennis’s signature coal-black humour, ‘The Tankies’ is drawn by venerable old collaborator Carlos Ezquerra and inked by his son Hector. Set in the days immediately after the Normandy Landings in June 1944, the saga follows the crew of a British Churchill Tank after their upper class commander is killed in a most grotesque manner.

The work-shy, callow Londoners are at a bit of an impasse until taken in hand by a battle-hardened tank-man Non-Com who has fought his way from Africa all the way up into Italy and now intends to kill a few more foes here.

If only he wasn’t a bloody Geordie, babbling his bizarre northern jibber-jabber wot no normal bloke could understand…

Still, with Corporal Stiles in charge, the unlikely lads are soon rumbling forward to support the rapidly-diminishing ranks of British and Canadian infantry. Everything will be fine just as long as they don’t meet any Panzers or Tiger Tanks…

Emphatically highlighting with gory attention to detail the idiocy of command and incredible bravery of the under-trained allied soldiers inexorably forcing back the entrenched German veterans, this is prime Ennis: ghastly, hilarious and unforgettable…

Also included are a fascinating and informative Afterword from the author, recommended further reading, covers and variants by John Cassaday & Garry Leach, plus extensive sketchbook sections featuring character designs, layouts, pencils and finished art from Braun, Snejbjerg and the Ezquerras.

These are not stories for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, the carefully constructed moments of tension, terror and relief strike home and strike hard; whether he is aiming for gallows humour, lambasting the Powers That Be always ready to send fodder to slaughter or, as seen most frequently here, examining in excoriating detail how the acts of war makes mortals into monsters.

These hyper-authentic yarns reek of grim veracity and are a tribute to the spirit of people at their very best and worst. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2009, 2011 Spitfire Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 1: The Assassins Road


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-502-4

Whichever English transliteration you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – the grandiose, thought-provoking hell-bent Samurai tragedy created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt one of those all too rare breakthrough global classics of comics literature.

The epic Kozure Okami began as a serial in Weekly Manga Action, running from September 1970 to April 1976, and was immediately followed by a direct sequel (Shin Lone Wolf & Cub) as well as science fiction offshoot Lone Wolf 2100. The story has broken out into other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The 7000 thousand pages of staggeringly beautiful black and white narrative art produced by these gifted creators eventually filled 28 tankobon volumes, gripping and captivating generations of readers around the world. More importantly, the sensitively nihilistic saga, with its timeless themes and iconic visuals, has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies the stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this particular edition, has referenced the series in his science fiction saga Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is an unashamed tribute to this Japanese masterpiece. Even children’s cartoons such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement in graphic literature.

We in the West first saw the series as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. The company foundered before getting even a third of the way through the canon. Then, from September 2000 to December 2002, Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, about 300-ish pages per), before recently putting the entire sequence online through its Dark Horse Digital project.

This initial lean, mean, martial edition offers a Glossary providing detailed context on the term used in the stories, plus profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the first instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’: an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Of course the true meat is the captivating, grimly compelling combination of revenge fable and action-adventure which opens here with intriguing episodes of stripped-down mystery, gripping intensity and galvanic bloodletting as the first tale introduces a scruffy indigent pushing a homemade bamboo pram with a 3-year-old boy in it.

A banner on the contraption proclaims ‘Son for Hire, Sword for Hire’ and as the man stoically ignores mockery and derision from louts on the road, his advert soon attracts the attention of four deadly men who have been warned of an assassin carrying his baby boy with him…

A certain formula informs all the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido. The protagonist is also possibly the most dangerous swordsman in the world…

You won’t learn it until the end of this tome, but the fore-doomed killer-wanderer was once the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami Ittō lost it all and now roams feudal Japan as a doomed soul hellbent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

When the nomad’s wife was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous and politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor ordered Ōgami to commit suicide. Instead, he rebelled, choosing to become a despised Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they were all dead or Hell claimed him. His son, the toddler Daigoro, also chose the way of the sword and together they roamed the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of doom and with death behind and before them.

Frequently the infallible assassin’s best ploy is to allow himself to be captured, endure unimaginable torture and then fight his way out having slaughtered his target…

The tactic is again employed in ‘A Father Knows His Child’s Heart, as Only a Child Can Know His Father’s’ as the wolf sends willing Daigoro to penetrate the unyielding defences of Takai Han so that Papa can kill a dishonourable usurper…

Another aspect of Ōgami’s methodology emerges in ‘From North to South, From West to East’. The assassin insists on a personal interview with all his clients and demands not only who is to die, but why. Perhaps the cautious killer only wants to know the extent of what he’s getting into, but we know he’s judging: seeing whether the target deserves death… or if the client does…

The legend of the Lone Wolf and Cub quickly spreads and when faithful guards briefly hire Daigoro to help their beloved mistress, it is with full knowledge of what the boy’s father is. In ‘Baby Cart on the River Styx’ that knowledge is crucial to Ōgami’s plan for quashing a gang turf-war before it begins even whilst bringing down a corrupt yet untouchable lord…

Shocking to us is the accepted conceit that the father is fully prepared to sacrifice his son to achieve his mission and fulfil his promises. In ‘Suio School Zanbato’ little Daigoro willingly becomes a hostage to fortune so that his dad can lure a swords-master – and all his honourless students – into an officially sanctioned duel, and kill with no legal ramifications or repercussions…

A lyrical twist on the theme of star-crossed lovers, ‘Waiting for the Rains’ then sees the little boy befriending a dying woman even as his father waits to carry out his next commission – expunging the man she so patiently awaits…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us westerners just won’t grasp on first reading – even with the contextual help provided by the bonus features. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating. Also, a little unsettling is the even-handed treatment of women in the tales. Within the confines of the incredibly stratified culture being depicted, females – from servants to courtesans, prostitutes to highborn ladies – are all fully-rounded characters, with their own motivations and drives. His female allies are valiant and dependable, and his foes, whether ultimate targets or mere enemy combatants in his path, are treated with professional respect by Ōgami. He kills them just as if they were men…

In ‘Eight Gates of Deceit’ the indomitable killer is ambushed by an octet of female assassins hired by the wolf’s latest client who foolishly chooses to discount the professional honour of his hireling in favour of clearing up loose ends. That’s his last mistake…

‘Wings to the Birds, Fangs to the Beast’ finds the tireless wanderer stumbling into a hot-spa village recently taken over by bandits. To their eternal cost, and despite the newcomer’s every forbearing effort, the human animals refuse to believe the man with the baby-carriage wants no trouble…

This first stunning collection ends with some of the answers the reader has been looking for as the scene shifts to the recent past and Shogun’s palace in Edo for an origin. There, thanks to the political manoeuvrings of ambitious Lord Yagyu, the Shogun’s Executioner Ōgami Ittō has been ousted and his clan disgraced. With wife Asami dead, the austere warrior outfoxes his opponent – who thought an honourable suicide the only option he’d left his enemy – by opting to travel ‘The Assassin’s Road’ with his baby son momentously choosing to follow him to Meifumado or victory…

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you must not miss.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Season One


By Antony Johnson, Wellinton Alves, Nelson Pereira & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5643-7

Much as I’d love to believe otherwise, I accept that the Cold War era, transistor-powered, pre-cellphone masterpieces of my youth are often impenetrable to younger fans – even when illustrated by graphic gods like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Joe Orlando or Wally Wood.

Perpetual renewal – or at least the constant tweaking of the background ephemera which passes for it in our business – is the irresistible force driving modern comics. There must be a constant changing of the guard, a shifting of scene and milieu and, in latter times, a regular diet of death, resurrection and rebirth – all grounded in relatively contemporary terms and situations.

Even for minor or secondary stars the process is inescapable, with increasing supra-comicbook media adjuncts (films, TV, movies, games, Films and FILMS) dictating that subjects be constantly updated because the powers-that-be believe goldfish-minded consumers of today apparently can’t understand or remember anything that’s more than one week or three cinematic releases old.

Alternatively, one could argue that for popular characters or concepts with a fifty-year pedigree, all that dogmatic back-history can be a creative deadweight and readership-daunting deterrence, so radical reboots are a painful but vital periodic necessity like a conceptual thinning of the herd…

Publishing ain’t no democracy, however, so it’s comforting to realise that many of these retrofits are exceptionally good comics tales in their own right and anyway, the editors can call always claim that it was an “alternate Earth” story the next time the debut saga is modernised…

Released in 2012, Daredevil: Season One was part of an all-new hardback graphic series intended to renovate, modify and update classic origin epics (accompanying Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man): all clearly intended as background story-bibles for newer, movie-oriented fans and readers.

Written by Anthony Johnson (Dead Space, Wasteland, the Alex Rider graphic novels) with competent, workmanlike art from Wellinton Alves & Nelson Periera (Nova, Incredible Hulks, Red She-Hulk) it was far more of an in-filling exercise than radical restoration or reconstruction, leaving most of the canon untouched, and using signature battles against super-foes as background to tell a more contemporary story of City Hall corruption, as young lawyers Matt Murdock and Franklin “Foggy” Nelson fought to save a place of worship from civil malfeasance and racketeering depredations.

Young Matt grew up in the slums, raised by his father Battlin’ Jack Murdock; a second-rate prize-fighter. Determined that the boy would amount to something, Jack extracted a solemn promise from his boy never to fight. Mocked by other kids, who called him “Daredevil”, Matt stuck to his vow, but secretly trained his body to physical perfection.

One day he saved a blind man from a speeding truck, only to be struck in the face by its radioactive cargo. His sight was burned away but his other senses were super-humanly enhanced and he gained a sixth, “radar-sense”.

He told no-one, not even his dad…

Key events are all visited in swift, economic manner before jumping to Daredevil’s first night when the adult Matt donned a distinctive mask and costume to hunt down his father’s killers…

Battlin’ Jack was a boxer in dire financial straits. As his career declined he signed with The Fixer, knowing full well what the corrupt promoter expected from his fighters. Yet somehow his career blossomed. Never aware that he was being set up, Murdock got a shot at the Big Time, but when ordered to take a dive, he adamantly refused. Winning was the proudest moment of his life and when his bullet-riddled corpse was found, the cops had suspicions but no proof…

Heartbroken Matt graduated college with a law degree and set up in business with his room-mate Foggy. They hired a lovely young secretary named Karen Page and opened an office in Murdock’s childhood-home district of Hell’s Kitchen. With his life on track Matt now had time to resolve his father’s murder.

A old promise and his new limits as an officer of the Court stopped him from acting as Murdock…but what if he became “somebody else”…?

In the climactic clash the Fixer perished and the fresh revelations begin here as Daredevil lights a candle in St. Finnian of Clonard Catholic Church. Now that his mission of vengeance has concluded, serious doubts begin to bedevil him, but unbeknownst to the neophyte Man Without Fear, his accidental midnight meeting with the new priest are the start of a critical new relationship.

Just how much so he doesn’t realise it until after meeting the Fantastic Four and defeating high-voltage villain Electro. The next day Father Mullen hires Nelson and Murdock to save St. Finnian’s from being closed down by the City’s corrupt Land Board…

A further distraction occurs when Karen is kidnapped by Leland Owsley – the infamous Owl – and the city almost succumbs to the pheromone-fuelled mental-domination of Killgrave, the Purple Man

Daredevil still feels he hasn’t got to grips with his superhero persona and is oblivious as diligent Foggy proceeds with the case, uncovering an odd connection between Mullen, the Land Board and golden boy Mayoral candidate Councilman William Doyle. Whilst Daredevil and the media are distracted by the Mysterious Masked Matador, a hitman starts making Doyle’s problems go away, and, finally forced to use his brains instead of his fists, Matt finally starts connecting the dots of a criminal tragedy that goes back decades and spans the continent…

Despite pressure mounting from all directions to drop the St. Finnian’s case, Matt and Foggy persist, until Daredevil is again diverted, this time by the mighty-muscled Ox and electrified bandit the Eel, working for mad menace Zoltan Drago in a Fellowship of Fear…

After that climactic battle Matt finally realises his true place in the city’s superhero pantheon and makes some drastic changes to his modus operandi, but it might be too late as Foggy, Karen and Mullen have vanished. With no time to spare Matt swings into action, ready to give the Devil his Due…

Also included in this enticing, compelling hardback is the lead story from the then-latest reboot of the Man Without Fear: (Daredevil #1, 2011, by Mark Waid, Paulo Rivera & Marcos Martin), returning the grim Avenger to his swashbuckling roots in a bombastic battle against teleporting terror The Spot plus ‘A Bonus Tale’ by Waid & Martin, charmingly detailing how his super-senses work.

Fast-paced and action-packed, this entire package rips along like a TV show recap, spartan, on-point and tantalising, and despite poor response from comics aficionados remains a solid primer for newcomers looking for a little brief background to the history and the characters.
© 2011 and 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Clifton volume 3: 7 Days to Die


By Turk & De Groot, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-08-3

Seeing ourselves through other’s eyes is always a salutary experience and our Continental cousins in the comics biz are especially helpful in that respect as regards the core characteristics of being British

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – most especially the French and Belgians – seem fascinated with us. Maybe it’s a shared heritage of Empires in Decline and old cultures and traditions in transition? An earlier age would have claimed it’s simply a case of “Know your Enemy”…

Whether we look at Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable scientific adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or the further travails of Long John Silver, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles cut a dashing swathe through the pages of Europe’s assorted strip-magazines and albums.

Clifton was originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for iconic Tintin Magazine; a doughty True Brit troubleshooter who debuted in December 1959, just as a filmic 007 was preparing to set the world ablaze…

After three albums worth of material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot left Tintin for arch-rival Spirou and his eccentric comedy crime-fighter forlornly floundered until Tintin brought him back at the height of the Swinging London scene and aforementioned spy-boom, courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg (Michel Régnier).

These strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

Then it was back into retirement until 1971 when first Greg (in collaboration with artist Joseph Loeckx) took his shot; working until 1973 when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois fully revived the be-whiskered Brit for the long haul. They produced ten tales of which this – 7 jours pour mourir from 1979 – was the fourth.

From 1984 on, artist Bernard Dumont – AKA Bédu – limned De Groot’s scripts before eventually assuming the writing chores as well, until the series at last concluded in 1995.

…But Not For Long…

In keeping with its rather haphazard Modus Operandi and indomitably undying nature, the Clifton experience resumed yet again in 2003, crafted by De Groot & Michel Rodrigue for four further adventures; a grand total of 25 to date.

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

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

This particular tale however strays somewhat from well-trodden humour paths and indulges in some frantic action and sinister suspense bombastic whilst still resolutely going for comedy gold.

In this third translated Cinebook album – first seen in 2005 – the Gentleman Detective is notably absent as the tale opens in London at the secret Headquarters of MI-5. Veteran warhorse and ultra-capable spymaster Colonel Donald Spruce is having a little bit of a crisis…

A battled-scarred survivor of simpler times, Spruce longs for one last field mission, but is instead swamped with petty admin nonsense. That all changes in an instant as the computer boffins in charge of Betty – latest in the line of “Thinkover” super-calculators – discover a little problem.

In the age of automation, Betty controls every aspect of physical eliminations for the agency. It is an infallible electronic assassination expediter. Information on a target is fed in and Betty commences a contract, contacting outside agents to do the dirty work and providing all the details they will need to complete the commission. No hostile has ever lasted more than a week when Betty is concerned: she provides efficiency, expediency, economy and utter deniability…

Except now the harassed technos are enduring a severe tongue-lashing from Spruce who has noticed that the latest print-out is retired agency star and his old chum Harold Wilberforce Clifton. As Spruce fumes and fulminates the abashed boffins try to explain that the process is irreversible. They can’t contact the contractors to cancel the hit. Clifton is as good as dead…

With no other choice the Colonel frantically phones the retired agent and gives him the bad news. Our hero, unwilling to bow out gracefully, immediately goes on the run, using all his cunning and years of tradecraft to stay one step ahead of his faceless hunters. His stalkers however are seasoned professionals too and luck more than guile is the only thing saving him from an increasingly spectacular succession of devastating “accidents”…

Thematically far darker than previous tales, 7 Days to Die is nevertheless stuffed with hilarious moments of slapstick and satire to balance some pretty spectacular action set-pieces as frantic flight, devious disguise and even coldly calculated counterattack all fail to deter the implacable assassins. However as the climax approaches Clifton and Spruce individually come to the same stunning conclusion: this selection by Betty might not have been an accident after all…

Visually spoofing the 1970s’ original era of Cool Britannia and staidly stuffy English Mannerism with wicked effect, these gentle thrillers are big on laughs but also pack a lot of trauma-free violence into the eclectic mix. Delightfully surreal, instantly accessible and doused with serous slapstick à la Jacques Tati and deft, daft intrigue like Carry On Spying or Morecambe & Wise’s The Intelligence Men, this romp rattles right along offering readers a splendid treat and loads of to think about.
Original edition © 1979 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.

Murder by Remote Control


By Janwillem van de Wetering & Paul Kirchner (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80560-3

“Graphic novels” are utterly ubiquitous these days, even though a huge part of the population can’t or won’t differentiate between the big books we insiders mean and the flimsy, pamphlet periodicals comprising the bulk of items on sale.

Can I at least muddy the waters a little more?

Yes I Can.

Something that gathers a selection of previously-published material – strips, comicbook issues, selected stories on a theme – used to be an Album, Collection, or even, God help us, an Omnibus or Trade Paperback. These included any re-presentation of superhero sagas like Archives or Essentials, themed conglomerations like Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told or Marvel Visionaries or even the groundbreaking Cerebus “phone-book” editions.

Anything serialised in periodicals, but intended from conception to be eventually gathered into one unified form, was a graphic novel (Maus, Watchmen, Persepolis or Cerebus – confusing ain’t it?)

Any long-form tale utilising sequential narrative (A Contract with God, Sabre, Pride of Baghdad) released in one big bite is a true Graphic Novel. That’s what Will Eisner, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams were getting at when they started using the term in the late 1970s and it’s what we should mean when lobbing these terms about willy-nilly.

For every person who agrees with those categorisations, there are a dozen who violently disagree and can cite at least one package which correctly refutes and defies the definition. And because I’m a wilfully contrary pixie, I’ll just remind you that Charles Dickens published his greatest books as periodical magazine part-works before some bright spark stitched them all together in single complete editions called novels…

I don’t care: just remember all modern comics publishers crave the cachet of the term graphic novel attached to their product but it is one that has been adopted and most ardently championed by retailers and distributors who – from the moment big books of drawn stories started appearing – needed some way to pigeon-hole and differentiate them from cookbooks, coffee-table tomes, kids story-books and other releases packed with pictures.

Murder by Remote Control is a true Graphic Novel – arguably one of the very first planned and premeditated examples of the form – and after decades in obscurity you have the chance to see it in all its intended glory…

In the 1980s American comics got a huge creative boost with the advent of high quality magazines such as Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated which showcased adult-oriented material with high quality graphics and formats such as had taken Europe by storm a decade earlier.

Previous US experience of such work had been limited to the Underground Comix scene – in terms of content if not production values, at least – and the occasional independent, out-market experiment of such maverick luminaries as Wally Wood, Steve Ditko and Steranko.

When Heavy Metal premiered in April 1977 – looking very much like its French conceptual “parent” Métal Hurlant – there was precious little original American material to supplement the sumptuous continental work therein. One of the first US creators to join the magazine was Paul Kirchner (The Bus, Realms, Dope Rider), who had worked as an assistant to Wood in the early 1970s, contributing to such projects as Big Apple Comics.

Born in 1952, Kirchner was in his third year at Cooper Union School of Art in New York when Neal Adams and Larry Hama introduced him to the horror editors at DC, whose anthology titles always needed fresh blood. He thereafter assisted Tex Blaisdell on Little Orphan Annie and in 1973 joined Ralph Reese at Wood’s studio.

A young man in tune with many of the spiritual and conceptual tropes prevalent during those culturally cosmopolitan times, there was a thoughtful, underplayed intensity in his meticulously-crafted work, but Kirchner was hampered by his slow working-speed, at a time when quick turnaround always trumped artistic merit and quality. He eventually drifted out of comics to find far better-paying work in the advertising, animation and design trades.

Part of the reason for the transition is explained in his Introduction, which describes his meeting with Dutch expatriate author Janwillem Lincoln van de Wetering (The Empty Mirror, Grijpstra and de Gier crime novels, Hugh Pine (the Porcupine), Judge Dee Plays His Lute); a global-traveller and Zen Buddhist scholar who eventually settled in Maine. Under circumstances best enjoyed first hand by reading the actual Intro, the exuberant writer and jaded cartoonist met in 1981 and decided to work together on a dream project: a crime mystery in comics form…

The project took Kirchner a few years to complete but when ready for publication the real hard work began. Most publishers prefer to work in 20-20 hindsight: happy to jump on a successful bandwagon but preferring to chew off their own arms rather that risk money on being first with something new that can’t be easily categorised…

The completed work was schlepped around for two years until in 1986 Ballantine bought it. This was the period in which Maus, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchman all simultaneously slapped the world in the face and the public went ga-ga for graphic narratives.

Ballantine – who had decades earlier introduced America to comicstrip paperbacks with its digest-sized collections of Mad reprints – was willing to take a chance on a mass-market edition, albeit in a diminished size and format, even though as Moord Op Afstand the tale had been a success in Holland and elsewhere as a lavish, full-sized hardback album. Despite favourable coverage from Gahan Wilson in The New York Times Book Review, the bowdlerised Murder by Remote Control sank without trace and the creators reluctantly moved on to other things.

Now, after far too long, I can retire my battered old copy since Dover have added the sublime metaphorical masterpiece in monochrome to their crucial list of rescued comics treasures, restored to its intended page size (278 x 218 mm) and with the original cover replacing the sliced-&-sampled multiple-panel mock-up of the 1986 edition…

The story itself would have been groundbreaking if it had been released in 1983 and remains decidedly off-key and devilishly off-beat. Resonances of Agent Dale Cooper, Blue Velvet and later cult entertainment icons eerily abound here…

After obnoxious property speculator Mr. Jones starts buying up sections of idyllic Maine coastline, he suddenly turns up dead in his little fishing dingy. The death occurs in full view of four residents who each might have a strong motive to remove the interloper, but the County Sheriff is extremely keen on ruling the case an accidental death.

However, his report results in the unwelcome arrival of agonisingly restrained and refined – almost emotionless – Detective Jim Brady from the Augusta Office. Cool and preternaturally calm, the self-effacing little man has a way of seeing deep into the hearts and minds of everybody, and he quickly rules it a homicide by most arcane means.

Now he’s going to stick around, probing the characters and backgrounds of the uniquely baroque quartet of suspects and undoubtedly sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong…

Informed by Zen principles, the story unfolds as Brady flamboyantly deconstructs each potential suspect, consequently uncovering far more secrets than any little rural enclave could possibly contain before reaching his conclusions.

However, even with the case closed his actions remain at odds with your run-of-the-mill Copper, and there’s one last twist still in store…

Cool, surreal and challengingly psychedelic, the plot is realised with sleek and understated panache; mixing the welcoming warmth and idiosyncratic style of Ditko’s figure-work and facial expressions with the glossy sleek glamour and factual solidity of Wally Wood. This book is a delicious treat for the eyes and a therapeutic exercise for the mind…

Supplemented by Stephen R. Bissette’s incisive and expansive Afterword ‘A Man, A Boat, A Bay, A Bite, A Beer Can…’ offering historical context and artistic commentary, this is a magnificent lost gem, rightly restored to its place in the history of our art form, but it’s also a beautifully-crafted, intellectually challenging Bloody Good Read.

Go get it.
© 1986, 2016 by The Wetering Family Trust and Paul Kirchner. Afterword © 2016 by Stephen R. Bissette. All rights reserved.

Murder by Remote Control will be published on 24th June 2016 and is available for pre-order now. Or if you still wander actual streets it might already be on the shelves of your local comic shop…

Kings Watch


By Jeff Parker, Mark Laming & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-486-2

Like so many other old fogies and devoted fanboys, I was convinced that I was going to hate this latest reconstruction of three of the oldest characters in comics. The newspaper strip triumvirate of Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician and particularly The Phantom were in many ways the blueprint for all comicbook superheroes who followed them, and as major properties had been re-imagined many times over the years, with varying degrees of reverence and success…

By most lights Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. He debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as an answer to the revolutionary, inspirational, but rather clunky Buck Rogers strip by Philip Nolan & Dick Calkins (which also began on January 7th, five years earlier). Raymond, however, added two welcome new elements to the wonderment; Classical Lyricism and astonishingly seductive visuals.

Where Buck mixed traditional adventure and high science concepts, Flash Gordon reinterpreted Fairy Tales, Heroic Epics and Mythology, spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for spells, swords and steeds – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic craft and contraptions standing in for Galleons, Chariots and Magic Carpets.

Most important of all, the sheer artistic acuity of Raymond – his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for sumptuous detail and just plain gift for drawing beautiful people and things – swiftly made this the strip that all young artists swiped from.

When original-material comicbooks began a few years later, dozens of talented kids weaned on the strip’s clean-lined, athletic Romanticism entered the field and their interpretations of Raymond’s mastery became a ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. To be fair almost as many mimicked Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (and to see one of his better disciples check out Beyond Mars, illustrated by the wonderful Lee Elias) and they didn’t fare too badly either…

For over a decade sheer escapist magic in a Ruritanian Neverland, blending Camelot, Oz and every fabled paradise that promised paradise yet concealed hidden vipers, ogres and demons, enthralled the entire world, all cloaked in a glimmering sheen of sleek art deco futurism. Worthy adversaries such as utterly evil, animally magnetic Ming, emperor of a fantastic wandering planet; myriad exotic races and fabulous conflicts offered a fantastic alternative to the drab and dangerous real world and made their own mark on the landscape of popular culture…

Regarded by many as the original American superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted on 11th June 1934 (although creator Lee Falk had originally tried to sell the strip a decade previously), illustrated with effective understatement by the superb Phil Davis.

Educated at the fabled College of Magic in the Himalayas, the suave sorcerer roamed the world with his faithful African friend Lothar and his beautiful companion (and finally, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne; solving crimes and fighting evil. Star of stage, screen (large and small), radio and a thousand forms of merchandising, Mandrake has always been one of the top guns of strip comics powerhouse King Features Syndicate.

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendents to destroying pirates and criminals. The Phantom fought crime and injustice from a base deep in the Jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa was known as the “Ghost Who Walks”; considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken dynastic line, in a never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created globe-trotting Jungle Avenger at the request of his publishers, who were already making history and public headway with his first strip sensation Mandrake. Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before artist Ray Moore took over the illustration side. The Sundays feature began in May 1939.

Fan favourites for generations, the trio periodically made the sideways move into comicbooks, but never really teamed up until 1986 when TV cartoon series Defenders of the Earth updated and united all three and their support teams into a league resolved to save the world from alien invasion in the distant future of 2015 AD. This iteration had its own short-lived Marvel/Star Comics funny book series.

In 2013, the stars realigned again and Licensed-Properties specialist Dynamite Entertainment produced a remarkably engaging retro-futurist thriller which managed to pay due homage to the past iterations whilst opening the characters up for the latest generation of frantic fans. In the 5-issue miniseries Kings Watch scripter Jeff Parker and illustrator Marc Laming (with the invaluable assistance of colourists Jordan Boyd and letterers Simon Bowland) crafted a fast-paced, suspenseful and, most importantly, fun-filled yarn telling a big, bold, bombastic blockbuster story which also set up the three leads for new follow-up series…

Jeff Parker has worked in all aspects of the industry but is probably best-known for his wide variety of comics scripts, including Aquaman, Bucko, Batman ’66, Agents of Atlas, Spider-Man: 1602, X-Men: First Class, many of Paradox Press’ Big Book of… and more…

British collaborator Marc Laming is an unashamed tea-drinker who has flitted hither and yon throughout the business since 1990, alighting occasionally and only to superbly render such varied projects as bits of Revolver, American Century, The Dreaming, Grindhouse, Planet Hulk, Fantastic Four, Uncanny Avengers and many others.

The story here begins with the world beguiled by lights in the sky and wracked by communal nightmares of invading monster armies. As the ancient and vile Cobra cult searches ruthlessly and relentlessly for a supernal crystal that could spell doom for Earth, in East African Bangalla, in a grandiose hermitage in California and on a palatial estate in Connecticut, three amazing individuals ready themselves to fight the battle of their lives…

Rather than have me ruin the fun for you, just thrill in anticipation to the knowledge that a thrill-addicted playboy, a broken sorcerer and sham hero crushed by the weight of years of service will somehow become the planet’s saviours after intergalactic warlord Ming the Merciless acquires the enigmatic Kings Watch artefact and unleashes the hordes of the empire of Mongo upon an unsuspecting helpless humanity…

The ever-popular Bonus Features include a full Parker script, attendant script-to-completed art production pages and a gallery of covers and variants by Laming, Adam Street and Ramón K. Pérez but the real prize is the superbly fast-paced action-romp which easily mixes monsters, aliens, rocket-ships, mad doctors, feisty capable women, wicked villains, exotic locales and epic battles into a ripping yarn every fan of fantasy adventure will be unable to resist.
Flash Gordon © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dreamworks Dragons – Riders of Berk volume 5: The Legend of Ragnarok


By Simon Furman, Jack Lawrence, Sara Richard & various (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-080-1

DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk and its follow-up Defenders of Berk are part of one of the most popular cartoon franchises around. Loosely adapted from Cressida Cowell’s engagingly energetic children’s books, the show is based upon and set between the How to Train Your Dragon movies. Of course if you have children you are almost certainly already aware of that already.

Wowing young and old alike across the globe, the series also spawned a series of comic albums. This fifth digest-sized collection features another epic encounter scripted by the ever-enthralling Simon Furman and ably illuminated Jack Lawrence, plus a delicious solo vignette.

In case you’re not absolutely au fait with the exhilarating world of the wondrous winged reptiles: brilliant but introverted boy-hero Hiccup saved his island people from being overrun by hostile dragons by understanding them. Now he and his unruly teenaged compatriots of the Dragon Rider Academy gleefully roam the skies with their devoted scaly friends, getting into trouble and generally saving the day.

When not squabbling with each other, the trusty teens strive to keep the peace between the vast variety of wondrous Wyrms and isolated Berk island’s bellicose Viking settlers.

These days, the dragons have all been generally domesticated, and the Riders’ daily duties generally involve finding, taming and cataloguing new species whilst protecting the settlement from attacks by far nastier folk such as Alvin the Treacherous and his piratical Outcasts and – all too often – fresh horrors and menaces…

As usual, before the comic confrontations commence there’s a brace of information pages reintroducing Hiccup and his devoted Night Fury Toothless, as well as tomboyish Astrid on Deadly Nadder Stormfly, obnoxious jock Snotlout astride his Monstrous Nightmare Hookfang, portly dragon-scholar Fishlegs on ponderous Gronckle Meatlug and the dim, jovially violent twins Tuffnut & Ruffnut on two-headed Zippleback Barf &Belch. Also afforded quick name-checks are Hiccup’s dad Chief Stoick, chief armourer/advisor Gobber and insidious arch-enemy Alvin too…

Completed by the colouring wizardry of Digikore and lettering from Jim Campbell, ‘The Legend of Ragnarok’ opens with our young champions romping in the sky as, far below, village pest and incurable dragon-hater Mildew rants on about the End of Days and unavoidable coming of the all-consuming Midgard Serpent.

Gobber and Stoick don’t give much credence to his babblings about Ragnarok, but they are concerned by the recent sea-quake, and subsequent whirlpools and tidal surges. In response the Chief reluctantly orders the recall of the fishing ships and sea patrols…

Hiccup, meanwhile, has troubles of his own. He’s never yet met a dragon he couldn’t befriend but the unruly Changewing he’s currently trying to train at the academy might ruin his spotless record. Not only is she incredibly hostile, but whenever he looks into her eyes the beast hypnotises him. He’s pretty fed up with regaining consciousness in the rafters of the great hall or on the edge of cliffs…

Turbulent seas continue to batter the island and as the Berk boats come in obsessed marauder Alvin takes his chances and launches a full invasion. The bizarre conditions have also unsettled the dragons, so Hiccup and Astrid are braving the skies on watch when they spot a stampede of terrified wild saurians from other islands. As they close in, however, the roiling seas are breached by the biggest monster they have ever seen.

Can the island-sized beast possibly be the Midgard Serpent, herald of the world’s ending?

Alvin doesn’t care. It wrecked his ships and his plans so he’s considering temporarily allying with Stoick to destroy it…

As it rears above Berk, ready to smash the island to shards, learned Fishlegs identifies it as a Leviathan-class Seashocker – commonly known as a Purple Death – before rallying with the villagers, Alvin’s Outcasts and the Dragon Riders for their last battle.

Hiccup meanwhile has hatched a desperate plan involving the cantankerously mesmerising Changewing which might save them all… as long as his newest conquest plays along…

Counterbalancing the apocalyptic action is a short tale starring Astrid by Furman & Sara Richard. ‘Queen of the Hill’ finds the feisty female warrior and faithful Stormfly washed up on a mystery island and menaced by a horde of Smothering Smokebreaths. With her dragon wounded and her axe lost, Astrid has to devise a cunning way to keep the predators at bay until help comes or her companion heals…

Although ostensibly crafted for excitable juniors and TV kids, this is another sterling example of supremely smart and funny adventure-sagas no self-indulging fun-fan or action aficionado of any age or vintage should miss: compelling, enticing, and splendidly satisfying.
© 2015 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

Marvel Adventures Hulk volume 4: Tales to Astonish


By Peter David, Juan Santacruz, Raul Fernandez & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2981-3

In 2003 the ever-expanding House of Ideas instituted the Marvel Age line: an imprint updating classic original tales and characters for a new and younger readership.

The enterprise was tweaked in 2005, evolving into Marvel Adventures with core titles morphing into Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man. The tone was very much that of the company’s burgeoning TV cartoon franchises, in delivery if not name. Supplemental series included Super Heroes, The Avengers, Iron Man and Hulk. These ran until 2010 when they were cancelled and replaced by new volumes of Marvel Adventures: Super Heroes and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.

Most of the re-imagined tales have been collected in cheerfully inviting digest-sized compilations such as this one which features the final four mini-epics from the Green Giant’s own short-lived series. In the original mainstream continuity Bruce Banner was a military scientist accidentally caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result he would unexpectedly transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury when distressed or surprised.

Alternating between occasional hero and mindless monster, he rampaged across the Marvel Universe for years, finally finding his size 700 feet to become one of young Marvel’s most resilient stars.

A hugely popular character both in comics and greater global media beyond the printed page, he has often undergone radical changes in scope and direction to keep his stories fresh and his exploits explosively compelling…

Culled from Marvel Adventures Hulk #13-16 (covering September to December 2008) this quirky quartet of tales features Banner and the Hulk in essentially the same roles older fans will remember: a brilliant scientist and hunted man who turns into a fury-fuelled green gargantuan when provoked. The major difference of this version – other than the updating to modern times – is that here former juvenile delinquent Rick Jones was his lab-assistant when the gamma blast hit Banner and joins in his fugitive flight across America bringing a lab monkey (dubbed “Monkey”) which he stole before escaping from the army units of general Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross

For months the tortured trio have been making their way across the country staying below the radar, seeking a cure for Bruce’s condition and somehow always stumbling across rampaging villains and conflicted heroes who don’t know whether to help the Hulk or fight him…

If you’re of a compulsive disposition continuity-wise, these breezily bombastic blockbusters all take place on Marvel’s Earth-20051 but you should also be aware of one other thing: outrageous humour – from broad slapstick to surreal whimsy to bitingly sharp continuity in-jokes – plays a big part in the proceedings…

Written throughout by Peter David, winningly illustrated by Juan Santacruz & Raul Fernandez, with colours from Angel Marin and letters by Dave Sharpe, events kick off with ‘Are You My Mummy?’ as Bruce, Rick and Monkey sneak into New York City only to find the populace have been turned into shambling zombies wrapped in rotting bandages – even the Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Mighty Avengers

When the enwrapped heroes attack Bruce “Hulks out” and battles his way to Central Park, leaving Rick to be chased into a museum. Here the terrified teen discovers mutant maniac the Living Pharaoh is behind the catastrophe, but after Monkey swipes the villain’s control wand the mutant uncontrollably shifts into cosmic powerhouse the Living Monolith.

This only gives the frustrated Hulk a better, bigger target to smash…

The fugitives are in town to surreptitiously use the Gamma-tech and atomic devices of Bruce’s old mentor Professor Trimpe in their quest for a cure, but as they break into his lab in ‘Small Doubts’ they are disturbed by janitor Sam Sterns and, in the melee that follows, the machinery goes wild and Banner goes green and the trio are sucked through a wormhole into a subatomic world.

Before long they’re battling to save its benighted, downtrodden masses from the emotion-warping tyrant Psycho-Man

Eventually catapulted back to their own size and situation, they’re just in time to rescue the United Nations’ delegates and diplomats from ‘Following the Leader’. The release of all that gamma energy had turned floor-sweeper Sterns into an evil, giant-headed super-genius able to grow androids in instants and mind-control humans (especially politicians) who knew he could rule the world more efficiently that self-serving humans…

Thankfully Trimpe’s all-purpose accelerator in conjunction with Hulk’s unreasoning anger and pummelling fists are enough to handle the crisis and, after dumping megalomaniac and his plastic minions into the Microverse, Rick, Bruce and Monkey can finally try to sort out that cure…

Tragically that’s not to be as a sudden anti-nuclear protest upsets the applecart. Although the distraction allows our heroes to sneak into the lab, they are caught by sadistic spy Emil Blonsky. Impersonating a security guard, the killer had planned on swiping some plutonium, but now he’s prepared to settle on simply blowing up the nuclear plant…

In the resulting struggle Trimpe’s machines trigger again and Bruce is mutated to ‘The 7th Level’ into an ever more monstrous Hulk.

Blonsky fares even worse, metamorphosed into a ghastly gamma-spawned Abomination able to pound the Hulk to pulp and still determined to turn the entire state into a radioactive hole in the ground…

Fast-paced, enthralling and deliciously witty, these riotous super-sagas are augmented by a pulse-pounding cover gallery by Sean Gordon Murphy, David Nakamura & Guru eFX, Santacruz & Vicente Cifuentes, Tom Grummett, Gary Martin & Moose Bauman.

Never the success the company hoped, Marvel Adventures was superseded in 2012 by specific comics tied to Disney XD TV shows designated “Marvel Universe cartoons”, but these kid-friendly comics collections are still an intriguing, astonishingly entertaining and more culturally accessible means of introducing long-established stars and concepts to newcomers and represent a fantastic reservoir of fresh and entertaining Fights ‘n’ Tights fun for all lovers of the genre.
© 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Newsboy Legion volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with Arturo Cazeneuve, Gil Kane & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2593-3

Just as the Golden Age of comics was beginning, two young men with big dreams met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes. As kids they had both sold newspapers on street-corners to help their families survive the Great Depression …

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented young man with five years experience in “real” publishing; working from the bottom up to become art director on a succession of small paper such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American.

He then moved to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc.; a production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses all eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely Comics (now Marvel) and became acquainted with young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a legion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed a stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even sub-genres.

They produced the influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and of course the million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

Famed for his larger than life characters and colossal cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual hard-working family man who lived though poverty, gangsterism and the Depression. He loved his work, hated chicanery of every sort and saw a big future for the comics industry…

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were not comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two strips that were in the doldrums until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around veritably overnight before, once established and left to their own devices, creating the “Kid Gang” genre (technically “recreating” as the idea was one of the duo’s last innovations for Timely in 1941’s Young Allies) with a unique juvenile Foreign Legion dubbed The Boy Commandos.

The little warriors began by sharing the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics, but before long they had won their own solo title which promptly became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling US comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up.

S&K assembled a creative team which generated so much material in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Pitched halfway between a surly bunch of comedy grotesques and charming naive ragamuffins as seen in the Our Gang/Little Rascals film shorts (1922-1944), the Newsboy Legion comprised four ferociously independent orphans living together on the streets, peddling papers to survive. There was earnest, good-looking Tommy Tompkins, garrulous genius Big Words, diminutive, hyper-active chatterbox Gabby and feisty, pugnacious Scrapper, whose Brooklyn-based patois and gutsy belligerence usually stole the show. They were headed for a bad end until somebody extraordinary entered their lives…

Their exploits generally offered a bombastic blend of crime thriller and comedy caper, leavened with dynamic superhero action and usually seen from a kid’s point of view. The series debuted in Star-Spangled Comics #7, forcing the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy off the covers. The youngsters remained lead feature until the end of 1946, when without fanfare or warning issue #65 found them gone: ousted and replaced by Robin, the Boy Wonder.

His own youth-oriented solo series subsequently ran all the way to SSC #130 in 1952, by which time superhero romps had largely been supplanted throughout the industry by general genre tales.

This first superb hardback collection reprints the first 26 episodes, spanning Star-Spangled Comics #7-32 (April 1942-May 1944), includes all the stunning covers by Kirby, inker Arturo Cazeneuve, Fred Ray and teenager Gil Kane) and opens with a lyrical and revelatory reminiscence from Joe Simon himself. His invaluable Introduction ‘Birth of the Legion’ leads straight into a potent tale of skulduggery pitted against idealism to create optimism in the darkest of urban outposts as ‘The Story of the Newsboy Legion’ introduces rookie cop Jim Harper walking a beat in the inner city hellscape dubbed Suicide Slum.

When he is jumped by a gang of thugs and severely beaten, Harper takes an unlikely step: raiding a costume store and putting together an outfit to obscure his identity (complete with mask, shield and crash-helmet) before hunting down his attackers and giving them the thrashing they so richly deserve…

Happily, his illegal actions accidentally result in the capture of an infamous kidnap ring, and the mysterious figure is dubbed the Guardian of Society by the newspapers selling like hotcakes on street corners. Harper has no intention of repeating his foray into vigilantism but when he catches Tommy, Big Words, Gabby and Scrapper shoplifting, his life changes forever.

The tough little monkeys are headed for reform school until the cop makes an earnest plea for clemency on their behalf and the judge appoints him their guardian. They are far from grateful and send him packing but when their next get-rich-scheme gets them involved with armed bandits the kids realise the mettle of the man they’re saddled with…

Now hopelessly implicated in the crimes of murderous mobster Frankie the Fence – and witnesses to his crimes – the boys are about to die when a human thunderbolt in a mask and helmet comes to their rescue.

In actual fact it’s unclear who saves whom, but the in the end the Newsboy Legion are finally set on a righteous path, but with their suspicions are aroused. Frustratingly, no matter how hard they try, the boys can’t prove that their two Guardians are the same guy…

And so the scene was set: the kids constantly looking for broadly legal ways to make a living whilst Harper hovered over them as a guide and his alter ego worked tirelessly behind the scene to keep them alive and extricate from the trouble that always found them on the streets and alleys of the most-crime-infested slum in America…

The very next month Tommy stumbled onto the hideout of fugitive killer Black Leo Lucas and his abduction to ‘Last Mile Alley’ led the fighting mad Guardian to a confrontation with the latest Big Boss who thought he was untouchable, after which ‘The Rookie Takes the Rap’ saw Harper framed by devious gambler Sure Thing Kelly and only cleared by the actions of his now-devoted foster-kids…

To be frank, the relationship between Jim and the boys was never properly defined. Although he was responsible for keeping them out of trouble, they never lived with him and generally provided for themselves whilst – presumably – still sleeping on the streets…

Having now made a few headlines of their own, the boys were offered the chance to be ‘Kings for a Day’ in Star-Spangled Comics #10: running various municipal departments in a grand civic publicity stunt. Sadly, the event was hijacked by mobster The Mark, whose plans to plunder the entire city would have succeeded had he not underestimated those pesky kids temporarily in charge of the emergency services…

Many stories worked powerfully against a pervasive backdrop of crushing poverty and social injustice. Issue #11 saw the boys arrested by a heartbroken Jim for burglary and sent to the State Reformatory. What he didn’t know was that the boys had learned of corruption at the ‘Paradise Prison’ and were determined to expose unctuous, sanctimonious Warden Goodley for the sadistic grafter he truly was…

With little kids starving in their hovels and resorting to petty theft, the boys next decided to make a documentary with borrowed film equipment. Naturally their hunt for perfect locations dropped them right in the laps of a gang of bank bandits resulting in a ‘Prevue of Peril’ requiring another last-minute save by the blockbusting blue-&-gold mystery man with the pot on his head…

With the clue in their name, the Newsboy Legion still made the majority of their living vending newspapers. Whenever the tabloids weren’t selling, things got tough and in SSC #13 falling sales spurred the lads to create their own local periodical. With Harper’s assistance the premier issue of the Slum Sentinel proved a huge success but ‘The Scoop of Suicide Slums!’ made the area too hot for the crooks in their warrens. However, in trying to crush the little newsmakers, the city’s biggest racketeer only exposed himself to the Legion’s scrutiny and their Guardian’s furious fists…

Philanthropist Wilbur Whilling was a man with a plan. Using the Legion as his unwitting shills, he convinced the slum dwellers to donate everything they had to build a new modern apartment project to house them all. ‘The Meanest Man on Earth!’ never expected the kids to uncover his fraudulent alliance with the lawyers and planners to repossess the spiffy new complex, and certainly wasn’t ready for the personal retribution doled out by Scrapper and the man in the mask.

Arturo Cazeneuve came aboard as prime inker with ‘Playmates of Peril!’ in #15 as Patrolman Harper’s frequent absences led to his being partnered with an ever-present supervising sergeant. That didn’t stop his trouble-magnet wards wandering into another criminal caper and being taken hostage, necessitating a storm of frantic improvisation to save the kids, his job and his secret identity…

After Tommy saved a little boy from being run over he was eagerly adopted by rich banker Willis Thornton. He didn’t want to go but his pals forced him to take his shot at escaping the ghetto. All too soon ‘The Playboy of Suicide Slum!’ was framed for a robbery at the Thornton mansion and needed his true brothers to clear his name, after which ‘The Newsboy Legion versus the Rafferty Mob’ found the boys in a turf-war with a rival gang of street toughs led by the toughest girl they have ever encountered. Hostilities ceased as soon as a gang of gunsels started using the distraction as a way of trapping the Guardian…

‘The Education of Iron-Fist Gookin’ saw the slum’s most brutal thug taking elocution lessons from Big Words, and picking up a few morals – plus a pardon and new start – along the way, after which ‘The Fuehrer of Suicide Slum’ focused on Scrapper and took the odd narrative liberty to depict the boys battling Nazis after a sneak attack and invasion of New York City…

Steve Brodie inked the return to comicbook reality in Star-Spangled Comics #20 ‘The Newsboys and the Champ!’ with the kids helping hillbilly boxer Zeke Potts negotiate the lethally crooked fight biz in the big city before ‘The House Where Time Stood Still’ (Cazeneuve inks) found the kids – selling war bonds – invading a derelict house and discovering a pair of be-whiskered hermits who had shunned the world for decades.

The belligerent old Presby brothers soon changed their isolationist attitudes after Nazi spies moved into their home so it’s a good thing the Legion didn’t take that first “no” for an answer…

Gabby wrecks an automobile and incurs a dubious but huge debt in ‘Brains for Sale!’ (Cazeneuve), and his proposed payment solution only leads the entire team into deadly danger from an underworld surgeon after which ‘Art for Scrapper’s Sake’ (inked by John Daly) sees the bellicose boy discover his extremely profitable creative side. Typically, he’s far from happy to find that he’s just the patsy for a high-end art fraud…

Cazeneuve returns as regular inker with ‘Death Strikes a Bargain’ in SSC #24, as a crackdown on crime in Suicide Slum leads to the kids being parachuted into a luxurious new life in a bold social experiment. Sadly, however, the reformer in charge has a murderous ulterior motive for his seeming benevolence…

A vacation growing vegetables on a farm in ‘Victuals for Victory’ only lands the kids in more trouble as their nearest neighbours turn out to be bucolic bandits hiding out after a big city crime spree whilst ‘Louie the Lug Goes Literary’ sees the masked Guardian bust a major felon and inadvertently spark a massive hunt for the racketeer’s favourite tome and the incredible secrets it holds

Star-Spangled Comics #27 finds the lads volunteering as fire-fighters just in time to encounter an arsonist-insurance inspector eager to ‘Turn on the Heat’ whilst #28’s ‘Poor Man’s Rich Man’ sees kindly night watchman Pop O’Leary inheriting a fortune. Immediately lavishing largesse on all the others unfortunates in Suicide Slum, Pop only starts to worry as his unpaid bills mount and the lines of credit dry up, and the Newsboys discover the generous geezer is the victim of a cruel plot by saboteurs. They furiously take appropriate action, with the two-fisted Guardian coming along for the ride…

Always looking for a sold investment, the kids then hop on the publishing bandwagon in ‘Cabbages and Comics’; hoping to make a million peddling their own strip magazine. Their big mistake is incorporating local hoodlums’ likenesses and overheard snippets of gossip in the final mix, but naturally their masked protector is on hand to prevent them perishing from the rightful indignation – and guns – of the plunderers they inadvertently exposed and plagiarized…

In SSC #30 a reformed crook is framed and ‘The Lady of Linden Lane’ suddenly abandons her miserly ways and starts acting very strangely, leading the lads to uncover a devilish fraud after which neophyte Gil Kane illustrates ‘Questions, Please?’ with brilliant Big Words and even his less cerebral comrades becoming radio quiz sensations on the very night the dread Purple Mask gang raid the studio.

This stunning assemblage of astounding articles then concludes with Star-Spangled Comics #32 as the boys act as ‘The Good Samaritans!’ (Kane & Harry Tschida), unknowingly sheltering a gang of impoverished and starving thieves who have millions in hot cash they can’t spend… yet…

After years of neglect the glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material available these days is a true testament to his influence and legacy, and this magnificent and compelling collection of his collaborations with fellow pioneer Joe Simon is another gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth, scope and sheer thundering joy of the early days of comics.
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