The Boondocks: Because I Know You Don’t Read the Newspapers


By Aaron McGruder (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-0-7407-0609-7

Unlike editorial cartooning, newspaper comic strips generally prosper by avoiding controversy. Other than a few notable exceptions – such as the mighty Doonesbury – daily and Sunday gag continuities aim to keep their readers amused and complacent.

Such was not the case with Aaron McGruder’s brilliant and much missed The Boondocks.

The strip ran from February 8th 1996 and ended – despite promises of a swift return – with the February 28th 2006 instalment. You might have seen the adapted and animated version on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim a few years ago…

The feature was created for pioneer online music website Hitlist.com and quickly began a print incarnation in Hip-Hop magazine The Source. On December 3rd, the feature began appearing in national periodical The Diamondback but, after an editorial bust-up, McGruder pulled the strip in March 1997.

Nevertheless, it thrived as it was picked up by the Universal Press Syndicate. Launched nationally, The Boondocks had over 300 client subscribers, reaching – and often offending – millions of readers every day. Such was the content and set-up that the strip was regularly dropped by editors, and complaints from readers were pretty much constant.

What could possibly make a cartoon continuity such a lightning rod yet still have publishers so eager to keep it amongst their ever-dwindling stable of strip stars?

The Boondocks was always fast, funny, thought-provoking, funny, ferociously socially aware and created for a modern black readership. And Funny.

The series never sugar-coated anything – except harsh language – whilst bringing contemporary issues of race to the table every day. This was a strip Afro-American readers wanted to read… even if they didn’t necessarily agree with what was being said and seen…

The narrative premise is deceptively sitcom-simple but hides a potent surprise in its delivery. Huey Freeman is an incredibly smart and well-informed black youngster. He spent his formative years on Chicago’s South Side, immersed in black history, the philosophy of power, radical and alternative politics and The Streets.

His little brother Riley is mired in Hip-Hop and the trappings of Gangsta Rap. Yet suddenly one day they are both whisked out of their comfort zone as their grandfather Robert assumes custody of them and moves the entire family to the whiter-than-white suburb of Woodcrest in semi-rural Maryland.

It’s mutual culture shock of epic proportions on both sides…

Huey (proudly boasting that he’s named for Black Panther co-founder Dr Huey Percy Newton) perpetually expounds his radical rhetoric and points out hypocrisy from the well-meaning but inherently patronising all-Caucasian township but saves equal amounts of hilarious disgust and venom for those overbearing, overhyped aspects of modern Black Culture he regards as stupid, demeaning or self-serving…

Riley mostly likes scaring the oh-so-polite white folks…

In this initial monochrome paperback collection – re-presenting material from April 19th 1999 to January 29th 2000 – includes a potent Foreword from Hip-Hop Activist and Media Assassin Harry Allen on the way we’ve all managed to stop actual progress on the issues of race by politely agreeing not talk about them – the property values start to wobble just a bit when Huey and Riley arrive in Woodcrest.

The place really freaks them out: the air is clean, there are no tagged walls or take-out stores and old white people keep coming up to say hello…

Th first semblance of normality occurs when another new family moves in next door. Thomas and Sarah Dubois are woolly liberals: yuppies and lawyers and Woodcrest’s first interracial couple, and – although she doesn’t understand any of the stuff Huey taunts her with – their daughter Jazmine is the suburb’s third black child… ever…

She never thought of herself as any colour, but Huey is determined to raise her consciousness… when he’s not taking her establishment-conditioned dad to task on what colour he actually is…

Huey’s far less keen on the attentions of Cindy McPhearson, the little girl from school who has fully embraced TV’s version of Black Culture. She wants to meet – or be – Snoop Doggy Dogg. She hasn’t heard the term “Wigga” yet and Huey ain’t doing nothing but avoiding her: a tricky proposition as she sits behind him in class asking dumb questions.

The boys enrolling at Edgar J. Hoover Elementary School caused few sleepless nights for Principal Williams but he cleverly borrowed a few videos (Menace II Society; Shaft’s Big Score) to get him up to speed on the special needs of “inner city ghetto youth” and is confident his terrified teachers can handle any possible hurdles the variance in backgrounds might cause…

Don’t go away under the misapprehension that The Boondocks is a strident polemical diatribe, drowning in its own message. First and foremost, this is a strip about kids growing up, just like Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes. Some of the most memorable riffs come from the boys’ reactions to the release of the Star Wars: Episode 1 (although admittedly, Jar Jar Binks gets a fully-deserved roasting for his ethnic Minstrel performance), the worthlessness of high-priced merchandise and the insipid, anodyne street names. At least here, Riley and his paint spray cans can help out…

As the year progresses we also see outrageous takes on Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as the boys’ investigation of the Santa Clause and Kwanza scenarios and their own hysterical Inner City, Keepin’ It Real alternative to all those manufactured holidays and causes…

Smart, addictive and still with a vast amount to say The Boondocks is a strip you need to see if you cherish speaking Wit as well as Truth to Power…
The Boondocks © 2000 by Aaron McGruder. All rights reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 6


By Jack Cole & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0154-8

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958, at the peak of his greatest success, he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

“Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian was a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he was saved by a monk who nursed him back to health and proved to the hardened thug that the world was not just filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible elasticity, Eel resolved to put his new powers to good use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with.

Creating a costumed alter ego, he began a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon reluctantly adopted the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks was a dopey, indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was blessed in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces felt like it.

After failing to halt the unlikely superman’s determined crime spree, Plas appealed to the scoundrel’s sentimentality and, once Woozy tearfully repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again. The oaf was slavishly loyal but perpetually back-sliding into pernicious old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembled, Winks was the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, morally bankrupt reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

This sublimely sturdy sixth full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #5 and 6 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics #59-65, covering October 1946 to April 1947. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Michael T. Gilbert offers an appreciation of Cole and his gift for concocting uniquely memorable characters in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of his fifth solo-starring vehicle commences with ‘They Call Him Weapons’ as a seemingly innocuous gunsmith graduates from selling his ordnance innovations to criminals to becoming a bandit himself. His bloody trail leads Plas and Woozy to a house the tinkerer has tricked up into an inescapable death trap…

Cole’s constant and ever-growing pressure to fill pages led to his hiring artists to assist in the illustration of his madcap scripts. Alex Kotzky pitched in for ‘The Mysterious Being Called Hate’ as our chameleonic crime-crusher faces sorcerous neophyte Mr. Giglamp after the infernally inquisitive fool finds himself a satanic sponsor and becomes a demonic danger to society.

Woozy had his own back-up solo feature in Plastic Man and here the Stalwart Simpleton inspires a down-at-heel gangster to modify a heroic legend to his own unscrupulous ends in ‘Robin Hood Returns’ (drawn by Bart Toomey), after which prose puzzler ‘Snig River’ sees a simple fishing trip prank land a basket full of fugitive crooks. A baffling mystery then confounds the populace in ‘The Evil of Moneybags’. When millionaire Aloysius P. Japers starts giving away all his money only the stretchable sleuth notices that all the beneficiaries start turning up dead and penniless…

In Police Comics #59 Woozy and Plas are helpless before ‘The Menace of Mr. Happiness’ (Cole & Andre LeBlanc) as a drug store clerk accidentally invents a serum which paralyses victims with joy whilst #60 invoked the author’s fascination with mad scientists in ‘The Man Who Built Himself a Body’ (Cole & LeBlanc) as weedy Professor Spindrift constructs a series of robot suits so that he can muscle his way to the top of the underworld…

A million-dollar bounty on Plastic Man leads to ‘A Bundle of Trouble’ (Cole & LeBlanc) in Police #61, culminating in a baby-sized assassin infiltrating the hero’s home as a heavily armed foundling, before Plastic Man #6 opens with criminal genius Scientific Sherman stealing the astronomical discoveries of ‘The Moon Wizard’ and seemingly stranding Plas and Woozy on the distant lunar orb.

‘The Crimes of Mother Goose’ features a crook committing fairy tale-inspired thefts to bewilder the Ductile Detective and his partner after which Woozy hunts alone for ‘The Zwili Cat’ (Cole & Kotzky) obsessing crooks and bad-men all over town, before text tale ‘Scarlett Goes Straight’ finds our hero helping an ex-con capture his former unrepentant associates.

To close the issue, a common jewel thief gains incredible leaping powers and becomes costumed crook ‘The Grasshopper’ (Cole & Kotzky) but is ultimately unable to escape the relentless and remarkable reach of his pliable pursuer.

Police Comics #62 finds flashy socialite Leda Van Doom interviewing prospective husbands only to lose one in suspicious circumstances in ‘The Cupid’s Bow Murder’.

After solving that thorny mystery Plas and Woozy combat a macabre gambling boss moonlighting as a marine marauder dubbed ‘The Crab’ in #63 and paint a ‘Bulls-Eye on Crime’ a month later as they expose a candy factory operating as a clearing house for stolen gems before wrapping up this compendium of comedic crime-busting by helping homeless newlyweds find a place to live.

Sadly, that task entails evicting and arresting a house full of deadly spies and clearing all the death traps out of ‘The Apartment of Dr. Phobia’

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious covers, this is another unmissable masterclass of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans would be crazy to avoid.
© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Thor Epic Collection: To Wake the Mangog


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Vince Colletta, George Klein, Bill Everett, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9173-5

The Mighty Thor was the title in which Jack Kirby’s restless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s career-defining string of power-packed signature pantheons all stemmed from a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-and-true comicbook concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by fledgling Marvel Comics to add a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

This bombastic full-colour tome – also available in eFormats – offers more Asgardian exploits from Thor #154-174, collectively covering July 1968 to March 1970 as the Universe Jack built slowly began to succumb to the weight and stricture of Marvel’s abiding continuity whilst the King sought ever more challenging innovation and spectacle…

Once upon a time lonely, lamed American doctor Donald Blake took a vacation in Norway only to encounter the vanguard of an alien invasion. Trapped in a cave, Blake found a gnarled old walking stick, which, when struck against the ground, turned him into the Norse God of Thunder!

Without any hesitation or preamble the reborn godling was soon defending the weak and smiting the wicked. As months swiftly passed, rapacious extra-terrestrials, Commie dictators, costumed crazies and cheap thugs gradually gave way to a vast panoply of fantastic worlds and incredible, mythic menaces. Eventually the magnificent warrior’s ever-expanding world of Asgard was a regular feature and mesmerising milieu for the hero’s earlier adventures, heralding a fresh era of cosmic fantasy to run almost tangentially to the company’s signature superhero sagas.

The action begins here after another calamitous clash with evil stepbrother Loki as vanquished troll warrior Ulik accidentally releases an ancient unstoppable beast in ‘…To Wake the Mangog!’

A creature imprisoned by Odin in his ancient prime, the monster – embodying the power and last remains of a billion, billion predatory warriors – emerges furious at his incarceration and brutally rampages towards the heart of Asgard to trigger Ragnarok in ‘Now Ends the Universe!’ laying waste to everything in its path. All the Golden Realm’s martial resources are unable to slow its deadly progress in ‘The Hammer and the Holocaust!’ but the valiant delaying tactics, depicted in unimaginably powerful battles scenes from Kirby – a genius on fire – resulted in a last-minute save in #157’s ‘Behind Him… Ragnarok!’

Although short on plot development, the astounding battle to save Asgard is a masterful expression of the artist’s hunger for bigger stories and might well have underpinned his later Fourth World series at DC…

Here and then however the peculiarities of the Don Blake/Thor relationship were examined and finally clarified; beginning with ‘The Way it Was!’ – a framing sequence by regular creative team Stan Lee, Kirby & Vince Colletta- that book-ended a reprint of that very first Thor story from JiM #83, ‘The Stone Men of Saturn’ (inked by Joe Sinnott).

This neatly segued into ‘The Answer at Last!’ which took the immortal hero back to his long-distant youth and revealed Blake to be no more than a Odinian construct designed to teach the Thunder God humility and compassion by living amongst mortals as one of them…

With his true nature re-established, Thor then answered a call from the Colonisers of Rigel, plunging into the depths of space to face a cosmic menace. ‘And Now… Galactus!’ reintroduced old companion The Recorder whilst pitting the Devourer of Worlds against living planet Ego, a clash concluded with the Thunderer’s heavy-handed aid in ‘Shall a God Prevail?’

The cosmic wonderment then escalated in ‘Galactus is Born!’ as Asgardian magic finally reveals a tantalising fragment of the terrifying space god’s origins…

For #163 and 164 Thor was summarily returned to Earth to battle an invasion from a ghastly dystopian future. ‘Where Demons Dwell!’ finds his beloved Lady Sif investigating a bizarre energy vortex until captured by mutate monsters controlled by rogue Greek god Pluto. The Asgardians decimate the horrors from tomorrow ‘Lest Mankind Fall!’ and as valiant comrade Balder joins them in cataclysmic combat a mysterious cocoon hatches a man-made god…

‘Him!’ (Thor #165) and its conclusion ‘A God Berserk!’ sees the creature created by evil scientists to conquer mankind (and who would eventually evolve into the tragic cosmic saviour Adam Warlock) wake amidst the turmoil of the battle and, seeing Sif, decide it is time he took a mate…

Trailing the naive artificial superman across space and assorted dimensions with the outraged Thor, Balder witnesses his gentle comrade’s descent into brutal “warrior-madness”, resulting in a savage beating of Him. By the time the Thunderer regains his equilibrium, he is a shaken, penitent and guilt-ridden hero eager to pay penance for his unaccustomed savagery…

In ‘This World Renounced!’ (featuring a cover by John Romita: the first ever not drawn by Kirby) almighty Odin punishes his son for succumbing to Warrior Madness by exiling him to deep space, where he must atone by locating the enigmatic world-devourer Galactus. Just before departure, however, the Prince of Asgard clears up some outstanding old business, including another confrontation with his stepbrother Loki, Prince of Evil…

The superb George Klein came aboard as inker for ‘Galactus Found!’ with Balder and the Warriors ThreeFandral, Hogun and Volstagg – babysitting Earth whilst Thor roams the heavens on his lonely mission. As a new threat emerged in Red China, in the deep unknown Galactus came to Thor to disclose ‘The Awesome Answer!’ to his origins: a dose of pure Kirby Kosmology of truly staggering proportions…

Meanwhile back home the terrifying Thermal Man was making things too hot for both his Chinese creators and the Lands of the Free…

In Thor #170 ‘The Thunder God and the Thermal Man’ (with comics legend Bill Everett assuming the chores of inker) the starlost hero returns to Earth with mission accomplished, and discovers New York besieged by a walking atomic nightmare. Tumbling straight into cataclysmic combat beside his Asgardian comrades against the unstoppable mechanoid menace, Thor is suddenly deprived of his allies at the height of the struggle with Balder, Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg arcanely abducted to Asgard by Loki and the Norn Queen. Nevertheless, the turbulent Thunder God triumphed…

Alone on Earth Thor faced a series of single-issue situations: confronting ‘The Wrath of The Wrecker!’ to crush the Norn-empowered bandit before foiling the body-swapping plot of billionaire Kronin Krask in ‘The Immortal and the Mind-Slave!’ and the earthbound fury of ‘Ulik Unleashed!’ (with old adversaries The Circus of Crime thrown in for good measure).

This epic compilation then concludes with a strength-stealing robot running amok in ‘The Carnage of the Crypto-Man!’ before the last great epic of the Kirby-era began, but that’s a saga for another time and place…

More than any other Marvel strip Thor was the feature where Jack Kirby’s creative brilliance matched his questing exploration of an Infinite Imaginative Cosmos: dreaming, extrapolating and honing a dazzling new kind of storytelling graphics with soul-searching, mind-boggling concepts of Man’s place in the universe.

The Kirby Thor is a high-point in graphic fantasy and all the more impressive for its sheer timeless readability. These tales are an absolute must for all fans of the medium.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Billy and Buddy volume 4: It’s a Dog’s Life


By Jean Roba & various translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-171-6

Known as Boule et Bill on the Continent (at least in the French speaking bits, that is; the Dutch and Flemish call them Bollie en Billie), this evergreen, immensely popular cartoon saga of a dog and his boy debuted in the Christmas 1959 edition of Spirou.

The perennial fan-favourite resulted from Belgian writer-artist Jean Roba (Spirou et Fantasio, La Ribambelle) putting his head together with Maurice Rosy – the magazine’s Artistic Director and Ideas Man who had also ghosted art and/or scripts on Jerry Spring, Tif et Tondu, Bobo and Attila during a decades-long, astoundingly productive career at the legendary periodical.

Intended as a European answer to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Boule et Bill quickly went its own way and developed a unique style and personality, becoming Rosa’s main occupation for the next 45 years.

He crafted more than a thousand pages of gag-strips in a beguiling, idealised domestic comedy setting, all about a little lad and his exceedingly smart Cocker Spaniel before eventually surrendering the art-chores to his long-term assistant Laurent Verron in 2003.

The successor subsequently took over the scripting too, after Roba’s death in 2006.

Jean Roba was born in Schaerbeek, Belgium on July 28th 1930 and grew up reading a lot of American newspaper strip translations and reprints. He was particularly fond of Rudolph Dirks and Harold H. Knerr’s Katzenjammer Kids and after the War began working as a jobbing illustrator before adopting the loose, free-wheeling cartooning style known as the “Marcinelle School” and joining the Spirou crew.

He followed Uderzo on Sa majesté mon mari and perfected his craft under Franquin on Spirou et Fantasio before launching Boule et Bill as a mini-récit (a 32-page, half-sized freebie insert) in the December 24th 1959 Spirou.

Like Dennis the Menace in The Beano, the strip was a big hit from the start and for 25 years held the coveted and prestigious back-cover spot. Older British fans might also recognise the art as early episodes – (coincidentally) retitled It’s a Dog’s Life – ran in Fleetway’s legendary anthology weekly Valiant from 1961 to 1965…

A cornerstone of European life, the strip has generated a live-action movie, animated TV series, computer games, permanent art exhibitions, sculptures and even postage stamps. Like some select immortal Belgian comics stars, Bollie en Billie have been awarded a commemorative plaque and have a street named after them in Brussels….

Large format album editions began immediately, totalling 21 volumes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These were completely redesigned and re-released in the 1980s, supplemented by a range of early-reader books for toddlers. Collections are available in 14 languages, selling in excess of 25 million copies of the 32 albums to date.

As Billy and Buddy, the strip returned to British eyes in enticing Cinebook compilations from 2009 onwards: introducing to 21st century readers an endearingly bucolic late 20th century, sitcom-styled nuclear family set-up consisting of one bemused, long-suffering and short-tempered dad, a warmly compassionate but painfully flighty mum, a smart, mischievous son and a genius dog who has a penchant for finding bones, puddles and trouble…

Originally released in 1974, Une vie de chien was the 9th European collection, and here simply serves to further explore the timeless and evergreen relationship of a dog and his boy (and tortoise) for our delight and delectation. This time however, we’re left in no doubt as to who is running the show…

Delivered as a series of stand-alone rapid-fire gags, quips and jests, the progress and behaviour of seven-year old Billy is measured by carefree romps with four-footed friend Buddy: indulging in spats with pals, dodging baths, hunting and hoarding bones, outwitting butchers, putting cats and school friends in their place, misunderstanding adults, causing accidents and costing money; with both kid and mutt equally adept at all of the above.

Buddy is the perfect pet for an imaginative and playful boy, although the Machiavellian mutt is overly fond of purloined food and ferociously protective of boy and bones and his ball. The pesky pooch also cannot understand why everyone wants to constantly plunge him into foul-tasting soapy water, but it’s just a sacrifice he’s prepared to make to be with Billy…

Buddy also has a fondly platonic relationship with tortoise Caroline (although this autumnal and winter-themed compilation finds her again largely absent through hibernation pressures) and a suspicious knack for clearing off whenever Dad has one of his explosive emotional meltdowns over the cost of canine treats, repair bills or the Boss’ latest impositions.

Taking pride of place in this tome are numerous close escapes from kids intent on involving the dog in their crazy games of cowboys, hunting encounters, pranks and practical jokes, strange romantic encounters (with cats and other lower life forms) …

Unwise intrusions onto film sets abound this time and there are more brushes with belligerent birds, adoring girls, impertinent mannequins and voracious fleas (or at least so the humans think), as well as hitchhiking hilarity and an embarrassing almost-accident involving ancient automobiles and crusty dowagers.

The onset of snow season brings fresh confrontations with the neighbour’s cat Corporal and, humiliating ice-capades, skid patches and sliding competitions, snowball wars, indoor blizzards and the unique experience of romantically-inclined sleepwalking tortoises as well as Buddy’s debut as a soccer referee for schoolboy games and more displays of the dog’s social pulling power and food-procuring acumen.

Gently-paced and filled with wry wit and potent sentiment, these captivating funny pages run the gamut from heart-warming to hilarious, silly to surreal and slapstick to satire: a charming tribute to and lasting argument for a child for every pet and vice versa.

This is another splendidly enticing and engaging family-oriented compendium of cool and clever comics no one keen on introducing youngsters to the medium should be without.
Original edition © Studio Boule & Bill 2010 by Roba. English translation © 2013 Cinebook Ltd.

Red Range: A Wild West Adventure


By Joe R. Lansdale, Sam Glanzman & various (It’s Alive!/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1631409943

Once upon a time, not that very long ago, nearly all of fiction was engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians. As always happens with such periodic popular phenomena – for example the Swinging Sixties’ Superspy and Batmania booms or the recent trend for Vampire and/or Werewolf Boyfriends – there was a tremendous amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few irrefutable gems that would affect public tastes from then on.

Most importantly, once such surges have petered out there’s also generally a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn its passing and, on growing up, resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad…

Following World War II the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by the antiseptic anodyne branch of Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comicbooks had encompassed Western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy crusaders in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-slinging idols to replace the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the historical figures would quickly find a home and of course facts counted little, as indeed they never had with cowboy literature…

Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, for the longest of times Cowboy comics largely vanished from our funnybook pages: seemingly unable to command enough mainstream commercial support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and the furiously seductive futurescapes.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist and produced some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world…

Happily, however, an American revolution in comics retailing and print technologies at the end of the 20th century allowed fans to create and disseminate relatively inexpensive comicbooks of their own and, happier still, many of those fans are incredibly talented creators in other genres. A particularly impressive case in point is this captivating lost treasure originally published by independent creator-led outfit Mojo Press.

The brainchild of Richard Klaw (publisher, reviewer, essayist, writer, historian and self-confessed geek maven), the little outfit published some amazing and groundbreaking horror, fantasy, science fiction and Western graphic novels and prose books between 1994 and their much-lamented demise in 1999.

As revealed in Klaw’s informative Introduction ‘When Old is New and New Old’, Red Range was probably their most controversial release: an uncompromising adventure tale and deftly-disguised (a tad too much so, apparently) attack on contemporary racism and institutionalised bigotry astoundingly approached as an ultra-violent cowboy revenge yarn.

Originally published in stark black and white in 1999, Joe E. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman’s amazing unfinished odyssey has been remastered and adapted to full-colour (courtesy of Jorge Blanco & Jok and letterer Douglas Potter) and given a new lease of life in this sublime hardcover edition, just as America’s latest President seems set to return the nation to those days of implicit supremacism, casual segregation and wealth-based Jim Crow laws…

A Word of Warning: if your sensibilities and senses are liable to freak out at profoundly yet historically accurate scenes of violence or repeated use of the “N” word as used by drawn representations of murdering racist bastards in white sheets, don’t buy this book. Actually, do buy it; just don’t whine that you weren’t warned…

In Texas in the late 19th century a band of Klansmen are brutally torturing a black family who have had the temerity to buy land and plant crops. The ignorant butchers’ repugnant fun is mercilessly interrupted when a masked negro vigilante known as The Red Mask attacks, killing many of them and driving off their leader Batiste.

The unlikely avenger is too late to save the parents but does take their son Turon under his wing. As they ride to his hideout, the lone rider confides in his youthful new companion.

Caleb Range’s story is appallingly similar to the boy’s own recent tragedy. It’s probably one repeated hundreds of times every day in America since the Black Man was emancipated…

Back in town, Batiste recruits a specialist tracker and plenty more white men eager to teach coloureds their rightful place. Hunting down Red Mask the bigot again underestimates his quarry’s determination and facility with weapons…

Angry, frustrated and humiliated, Batiste gathers yet more men and sets out to end his nemesis forever. The relentless pursuit leads into the desert wastes and straight out of any semblance of rationality as Caleb and Turon survive one more cataclysmic battle before falling into a lost world of ancient tribes and ravenous dinosaurs with Batiste and his few surviving killers hard on their heels…

In this place however, the so-superior white men are seen as less than human by the indigenous humans: nothing more than prey and provender. Regrettably, they hold pretty much the same opinion regarding Caleb and Turon, who quickly discover they might not just be lost in space but also time…

To Be Continued…

Vivid, shocking, staggeringly exciting, ferociously uncompromising and yet often outrageously, laugh-out-loud funny, Red Range has both message and moral but never for a moment lets that stand in the way of telling a great story. Hopefully, this long-overlooked gem will get fair shake this time around…

Adding value and enlightenment, this opening chapter in a hopefully longer saga is augmented by ‘Beneath the Valley of the Klan Busters: (A Sort of) Afterword by Stephen R. Bissette’ which offers some historical and social context to the proceedings and inside gen on creators Lansdale and Glanzman, as well as a potted history of the role of black people in western movies from 1920s star-turn Bill Pickett to Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.

The bonus goodies continue with a silent monochrome masterpiece of action and bleak, black humour in ‘I Could Eat a Horse!’ (first seen in Wild West Show, 1996), with the artist displaying a firm grip of both killer slapstick and grim irony as Cowboy, Indian and other beasts go in search of meal, before Bissette rides us into the sunset with an erudite and fascinating trip down memory lane for “Pop Culture Cowpokes and Carnosaurs” with ‘A Brief History of Cowboys & Dinosaurs’

These fresh looks at an overexposed idiom prove there’s still meat to found on those old bones, and cow-punching aficionados, fans of nostalgia-tainted comics and seekers of the wild and new alike can all be assured that there’s a selection of range-riding rollercoaster thrills and moody mysteries still lurking in those hills and on that horizon…

What more could you possibly ask for?
Red Range: A Wild West Adventure © 1999-2017 Joe R. Lansdale. “I Could Eat a Horse” © 2017 Sam Glanzman. “When Old is New and New Old” © 2017 Richard Klaw. “Beneath the Valley of the Klan Busters” and “A Brief History of Cowboys & Dinosaurs” © 2017 Stephen R. Bissette. All rights reserved.

Red Range: A Wild West Adventure is scheduled for publication June 28th 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

X-Men Masterworks volume 4


By Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Dan Adkins, Ross Andru, Don Heck, John Tartaglione, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1607-3 (HC)                    :978-0-7851-5072-5 (PB)

X-Men was never one of young Marvel’s top titles but it did secure a devout and dedicated following, with the frantic, freakish energy of Jack Kirby’s heroic dynamism comfortably transiting into the slick, sleek attractiveness of Werner Roth as the blunt tension of hunted outsider kids settled into a pastiche of college and school scenarios so familiar to the students who were the series’ main audience.

The core team still consisted of tragic Scott Summers/Cyclops, ebullient Bobby Drake/Iceman, wealthy golden boy Warren Worthington/Angel and erudite, brutish genius Henry McCoy/Beast in perpetual training with Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound (and temporarily deceased) telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent race of mutant Homo Superior.

By the time of this turbulent compilation (re-presenting X-Men #32-42 and spanning May 1967 to March 1968) attitudes and events from the wider world were starting to inflict an era of uncertainty on the Merry Mutants and beginning to infuse every issue with an aura of nervous tension. During those heady days, Marvel Comics had a vast following among older teens and college kids, and youthful scribe Roy Thomas spoke and wrote as they did. Coupled with his easy delight in expansive character casts this initially made X-Men a very welcoming read for we adolescent baby-boomers but with societal unrest everywhere those greater issues were beginning to be reflected in the comics…

A somewhat watered down version of the counter-culture had been slowly creeping into these tales of teenaged triumph and tragedy, mostly for comedic balance, but they were – along with Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man – some of the earliest indications of the changing face of America.

Illustrated by Werner Roth with John Tartaglione inking, ‘Beware the Juggernaut, My Son!’ augmented that aura of oppression and dire days ahead as Professor X is abducted by clandestine agency Factor Three and the X-Men are forced to stand alone against an unstoppable mystic monster.

The blistering battle against the Juggernaut was interrupted by a helpful guest-shot from Doctor Strange (and his mentor the Ancient One) leading to a life-saving trip ‘Into the Crimson Cosmos!’ Armed with knowledge of the nature of their enemy the mutants were able to vanquish the unstoppable Cain Marko, but when the dust settled the kids were left with almost no resources to rescue their abducted leader…

Dan Adkins – in full Wally Wood appreciation mode – memorably illustrated #34’s ‘War… In a World of Darkness!’ as the desperate team’s search for Xavier took them into the middle of a subterranean civil war between Tyrannus and the Mole Man, and he also inked Werner Roth on ‘Along Came A Spider…’

When absent ally Banshee was captured mid-sentence during a crucial communication with the X-Men, everybody’s favourite wall-crawler was mistaken for a Factor Three flunky. When the desperate and distraught mutants found him the webslinger was forced to battle for his life against the increasingly unstable teens.

‘Mekano Lives’ (with art from Ross Andru & George Roussos, nee Bell) found the team of cash-strapped kids delayed in their attempts to follow a lead to Europe by a troubled rich kid with a stolen exo-skeleton super-suit but his defeat gave them the wherewithal needed to resume their search…

Don Heck stepped in as inker over Andru’s pencils with #37 as ‘We, the Jury…’ saw the mutants finally find Factor Three – allied to a host of their oldest and most venal mutant foes – and primed to trigger an atomic war between the Americans and Soviet Union. Heck then assumed the penciller’s role for ‘The Sinister Shadow of… Doomsday!’ (inked by Roussos), before concluding the tense Armageddon saga with good and evil mutants temporarily united against a common foe in ‘The Fateful Finale!’ (embellished by Vince Colletta).

Werner Roth had not departed the mutant melee: with issue #38 a classy back-up feature had commenced, and his slick illustration was perfect for the fascinating Origins of the X-Men series. Inked by John Verpoorten ‘A Man Called… X’ began unveiling the hidden history of Cyclops, also revealing how Xavier began his cozy relationship with human FBI agent Fred Duncan

The second instalment ‘Lonely are the Hunted!’ displayed humanity in mob-mode as terrified citizens rioted and stalked the newly “outed” mutant Scott Summers: scenes reminiscent of contemporary race-riots that would fuel the racial outcast metaphor of the later Chris Claremont team.

Back at the front of the comicbook, Thomas, Heck and George Tuska ushered in a new era for the team with #40’s ‘The Mask of the Monster!’ as – now clad in individual costumes rather than superhero school uniforms – the young warriors tackled what seemed to be Frankenstein’s unholy creation whilst in the second feature Scott Summers met ‘The First Evil Mutant!’

‘Now Strikes… the Sub-Human!’ and the sequel ‘If I Should Die…’ introduced the tragic Grotesk, whose only dream was to destroy the entire planet, and who instituted the greatest and most stunning change yet.

I’m spoiling nothing now but when this story first ran, the shock couldn’t be described when the last page showed the heroic, world-saving death of Charles Xavier. I’m convinced that at the time this was an honest plot development – removing an “old” figurehead and living deus ex machina from a “young” series – and I’m just as certain that his subsequent “return” a few years later was an inadvisable reaction to dwindling sales…

From the rear of those climactic issues ‘The Living Diamond!’ and ‘The End… or the Beginning?’ (this last inked by neophyte Herb Trimpe) signalled the beginning of The Xavier School for Gifted Children as solitary recluse Professor X took the fugitive Scott under his wing and began his Project: X-Men…

These tales perfectly display Marvel’s evolution from quirky action tales to the more fraught, breast-beating, convoluted melodramas that inexorably led to the monolithic X-brand of today. Well drawn, highly readable stories are never unwelcome or out of favour though, and it should be remembered that everything here informs so very much of today’s mutant mythology. These are stories for the dedicated fan and newest convert, and never better packaged than in this wide range (hardback, softcover and eEditions) of releases. Every comics fan should own this book, so do…
© 1967, 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 1


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9109-2

Nearly 79 years ago Superman started the whole modern era of fantasy heroes: outlandish, flamboyant indomitable, infallible, unconquerable.

He also saved a foundering industry and created an entirely new genre of storytelling – the Super Hero.

Since June 1938 he has grown into a mighty presence in all aspects of art, culture and commerce even as his natal comicbook universe organically grew and expanded.

Within three years of his Summer debut, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy, but once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors.

In comicbook terms at least Superman was quickly master of the world, and utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Moreover, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of originators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster went on to inform and infect the burgeoning studio which grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This new compilation of the original stories – re-presented in chronological publishing order – covers June 1938 to December 1939 and features the groundbreaking yarns from Action Comics #1-19, Superman #1-3 and his pivotal appearance from New York’s World Fair No. 1 and although most of the early tales were untitled, here, for everyone’s convenience, they have been given descriptive appellations by the editors.

Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and offering a scientific rationale for his incredible abilities explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins with Action #1’s primal thriller ‘Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!’ as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair and roughing up a wife beater, the tireless crusader worked over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse – and outed a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment in Action #2 (July 1938) saw the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the war-zone to spectacularly dampen down the hostilities already in progress in ‘Revolution in San Monte Part 2’ before ‘The Blakely Mine Disaster’ found the Man of Steel responding to a coal-mine cave-in to expose corrupt corporate practises and afterwards cleaning up gamblers who ruthlessly fixed games and players in #4’s ‘Superman Plays Football’.

The Action Ace’s untapped physical potential was highlighted in the next issue as ‘Superman and the Dam’ pitted the human dynamo against the power of a devastating natural disaster, after which in #6 canny chiseller Nick Williams attempted to monetise the hero – without asking first. ‘Superman’s Phony Manager’ even attempted to replace the real thing with a cheap knock-off but quickly learned a very painful and memorable lesson in ethics…

Although Superman starred on the first cover, the staid and cautious editors were initially dubious about the alien strongman’s popular appeal and fell back upon more traditional genre scenes for the following issues (all by Leo E. O’Mealia and all included here).

Superman – and Joe Shuster’s – second cover appeared on Action Comics #7 (December 1938) and prompted a big jump in sales even as a riotous romp inside revealed why ‘Superman Joins the Circus’ with the caped crusader crushing racketeers taking over the Big Top.

Fred Guardineer then produced genre covers for #8 and 9 whilst the interiors saw ‘Superman in the Slums’ working to save young delinquents from a future life of crime and depravity and latterly featured the city cops’ disastrous decision to stop the costumed vigilante’s unsanctioned interference in ‘Wanted: Superman’.

That manhunt ended in an uncomfortable stalemate…

Action Comics #7 had been one of the highest-selling issues ever, so #10 again sported a stunning Shuster shot whilst Siegel’s smart story of ‘Superman Goes to Prison’ struck another telling blow against institutionalised injustice with the Man of Tomorrow infiltrating a prison to expose the brutal horrors of the State Chain Gangs.

Action #11 featured a maritime cover by Guardineer whilst inside heartless conmen were driving investors to penury and suicide before the Metropolis Marvel interceded in ‘Superman and the “Black Gold” Swindle’.

Guardineer’s cover of magician hero Zatara for issue #12 incorporated another landmark as the Man of Steel was given a cameo badge declaring he was inside each and every issue. Between those covers, ‘Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers’ provided a hard-hitting tale of casual joy-riders, cost-cutting automobile manufacturers, corrupt lawmakers and dodgy car salesmen who all felt the wrath of the hero after a friend of Clark Kent was killed in a hit-&-run incident.

By now the editors had realised that the debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry, and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow topping the bill on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such early DC four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and gas-masked mystery avenger The Sandman.

Following an inspirational cover by Sheldon Mayer, Siegel & Shuster’s ‘Superman at the World’s Fair’ described how Lois and Clark are dispatched to cover the gala event, giving the hero an opportunity to contribute his own exhibit and bag a bunch of brutal bandits to boot…

Back in Action Comics #13 (June 1939 and another Shuster cover) the road-rage theme of the previous issue continued as ‘Superman vs. the Cab Protective League’ pitted the tireless foe of felons against a murderous gang trying to take over the city’s taxi companies. The tale also introduced – in almost invisibly low key – The Man of Steel’s first great nemesis – The Ultra-Humanite

Next follows a truncated version of Superman #1. This was because the industry’s first solo-starring comicbook reprinted the earliest tales from Action, supplemented with new and recovered material – and that alone is featured here.

Behind the iconic Shuster cover the first episode was at last printed in full, describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and journey to the big city as ‘Origin of Superman’.

Also included in those six pages (cut from Action #1, restored for solo vehicle and designated ‘Prelude to “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”’) was the Man of Steel’s routing of a lynch mob and capture of the real killer which preceded his spectacular saving of the accused murderess that started the legend…

Rounding off the unseen treasures is the solo page ‘A Scientific Explanation of Superman’s Amazing Strength!’, a 2-page prose adventure of the Caped Crime-crusher, a biographical feature on Siegel & Shuster and a glorious Shuster pin-up from the premier issue’s back cover.

Sporting a Guardineer Zatara cover, Action#14 saw the return of the manic money-mad scientist in ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ wherein the mercenary malcontent switches his incredible intellect from incessant graft, corruption and murder to an obsessive campaign to destroy the Man of Tomorrow.

Whilst Shuster concentrated on the interior epic ‘Superman on the High Seas’ – wherein the heroic hurricane tackled sub-sea pirates and dry land gangsters – Guardineer illustrated an aquatic Superman cover for #15, as well as the Foreign Legion cover on #16 wherein ‘Superman and the Numbers Racket’ has the hero save an embezzler from suicide and subsequently wreck another wicked gambling cabal.

Superman’s rise was meteoric and inexorable. He was the indisputable star of Action, plus his own dedicated title; a daily newspaper strip had begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, which was swiftly garnering millions of new fans.

A thrice-weekly radio serial was in the offing and would launch on February 12th 1940. With games, toys, and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s favourite hero…

The second issue of the Man of Tomorrow’s own title opened with ‘The Comeback of Larry Trent’ – a stirring human drama wherein the Action Ace cleared the name of the broken heavyweight boxer, coincidentally cleaning the scum out of the fight game, and is followed by ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ before ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’ depicts the hero once more going up against unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon.

‘Superman and the Skyscrapers’ finds newshound Kent investigating suspicious deaths in the construction industry, leading his alter ego into confrontation with mindless thugs and their fat-cat corporate boss, after which a contemporary ad and a Superman text tale bring the issue to a close.

Action Comics #17 featured ‘The Return of the Ultra-Humanite’ in a viciously homicidal caper involving extortion and the wanton sinking of US ships and featured a classic Shuster Super-cover as the Man of Steel was awarded all the odd-numbered issues for his attention-grabbing playground.

That didn’t last long: after Guardineer’s last adventure cover – an aerial dog fight – on #18 and which led into ‘Superman’s Super-Campaign’ with both Kent and the Caped Kryptonian determinedly crushing a merciless blackmailer, Superman just monopolised all the covers from #19 onwards. That issue disclosed the peril of ‘Superman and the Purple Plague’ as the city reeled in the grip of a deadly epidemic created by the Ultra-Humanite.

Closing this frenetic fun and thrill-filled compendium is the truncated contents of Superman #3, reprinting only the first and last strips contained therein, since the other two were reprints of Action Comics #5 and 6.

‘Superman and the Runaway’, however, is a gripping, shockingly uncompromising expose of corrupt orphanages, after which – following a brief lesson on ‘Attaining Super-Health: a Few Hints from Superman!’ – Lois finally goes out on a date with hapless Clark simply because she needs to get closer to a gang of murderous smugglers. Happily, his hidden alter ego is on hand to rescue her in the bombastic gang-busting ‘Superman and the Jewel Smugglers’

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these primitive and raw, completely captivating tales of corruption, disaster and social injustice are just as engrossing and speak as powerfully of the tenor of the times. The perilous parade of rip-roaring action, hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels are all dealt with in direct and enthralling manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No continued stories here!

As fresh and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics perfectly display the savage intensity and sly wit of Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster created the basic iconography for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1938, 1939, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Krazy and Ignatz 1927-1928: Love Letters in Ancient Brick


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-507-6

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is quite possibly the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz (as it is dubbed in these fabulous commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics) is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. Over its many years of abstracted amazement the series gradually developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – whilst abstrusely exploring the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding and without ever offending anybody… except a few local newspaper editors…

Sadly, however, it certainly baffled far more than a few…

Krazy Kat was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and others) all adored the strip, many regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is evergreen and deceptively simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous Ignatz Mouse. It’s the old story of opposites attracting but here the oodles of affection are unreciprocated and the love is certainly only going one way…

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably and inexplicably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his diabolical and un-reconstructable rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Collaboratively co-populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; wandering hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable – often unintelligible – Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters, all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Kokonino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Oft times Herriman even eschewed his mystical meandering mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops…

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered and reclaimed by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience.

This tantalising tome – covering 1927-1928 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) monochrome softcover edition as always offers added value as context, background and other cartoon treats are delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in his puckish Introduction essay of short informational snippets ‘Pilfering Mrs. Kwak-Wak’s Good Old Goods and Goodies Bag’

Here press clippings of a near-death experience for Herriman and fellow strip man Jimmy Swinnerton are re-presented beside early gag pages such as Embarrassing Moments and excepts from Hearst Joke Book editions of The Dingbats. Also included are a wealth of strips by Herriman’s contemporaries, rivals and plagiarists…

On to the strips then: within this compelling chronicle of undying amours utterly unhorsed by smirking Fate, the perpetual play unfolds as always but with some of those intriguing supplementary characters increasing coming to the fore.

We open with the change of years bringing weeks’ worth of seasonal disorders and sartorial shenanigans as Krazy further pursues that dream of a singing career. Ignatz, meanwhile, hunts for the perfect projectile which over and again draws him into the clutches of mountebanks, charlatan and magicians…

That search for ammunition leads to many more brick-based broadsides but these days Bull Pupp is far wiser to the Mouse’s modus operandi…

An occasional strictly visual pun session plays well against the numerous slapstick antics, even as Ignatz devises ever-more convoluted ways to bounce his bricks off the Kat’s bean whilst the weird landscapes and eccentric elemental conditions increasingly add to the humorous inspiration with apocryphal wind witches and snow squaws making their invisible presences felt…

Recurring cousins Krazy Katfish and Krazy Katbird pop up to muddy the romantic waters, whilst Kat and Mouse frequently indulge in the growing freedom of the skies and waterways via balloon and other aeronautical apparatus or maritime machine.

Joe Stork continues to divide his time between the delivery of (generally unwanted) babies and other, less legal packages and there’s a many a jest regarding the total illegality of easily obtained hooches and fire-waters…

As the years progress Ignatz spends ever-longer periods in jail yet seldom fails to find a way to deliver the punishing skull blows Krazy yearns for…

Many cast members become obsessed with being struck by lightning and other electrical intercessions, but the biggest surprise is undoubtedly a time-warping origin sequence which carries us back to the obscure infancies of Krazy, Ignatz and Bull…

There are more wandering wonderments as certain elephantine geological features again take up unescorted perambulation and the county even catches a touch of meteor fever as the landscape is beset by falling stars and fiery flotsam from space.

The year again concludes with uncharacteristic chills and spills as Kokonino is subjected to squalls of snow but worst of all is a plague of politicians, prophets and preachers all proselytising on the path to peace, forcing the residents make their feelings acrimoniously clear…

…And always plain mischief rules, whenever Herriman pictorially plays hob with the laws of physics, just to see what will happen…

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is a peek at one of the earliest and rarest of merchandising items – a 1920s wooden Ignatz doll – as well as another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’ (providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed). One final fillip is a selection of out-of-sequence replacement pages plus a sequence of pertinent daily strips which tie into the regular run of Sundays collected here…

Herriman’s epochal classic is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, inspiring auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this companiable compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2002, 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Blood & Valour – Legends of the Knight Sir Bevis


By Matt Beames, Marcus Pullen, Guy Stauber & various
ISBN: 978-0-99575-110-1

As well as being a monumentally terrific way of entertaining yourself, comics are a supremely efficient means of bringing history and literature to life. That in no way means they are a substitute for the original source matter, although in this instance I can forgive anybody not immersing themselves in the texts that inspired this trusty monochrome paperback celebrating the adventurous life of an all-but forgotten mythic warrior every bit the equal of King Arthur, Robin Hood or Beowulf…

Boeve de Haumtone or Bevis of Hampton is an Anglo-Norman and later Middle English Metrical romance saga about a classic warrior hero which spread across Europe during the middle ages and is still held in high regard in most of the world but here.

As a mediaeval prose epic, it was translated into French, Dutch, German, Italian, Irish, Venetian and Welsh. From there the tale migrated ever eastward, becoming part of many national mythologies through translations into Old Norse, Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Belarusian and Russian. This is a champion with a truly international pedigree.

To celebrate the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, The Digital Art Program of Eastleigh Borough Council and the Eastleigh Tech Hub in conjunction with the Agincourt 600 Programme conceived a series of projects to mark the occasion and advertise the key role the town which would eventually become the Port of Southampton played in those epochal days.

One such is the comics series this tome is the first compilation of: an adaptation of the life and adventures of a legendary chivalric local hero inextricably linked to the area.

Written and adapted by Matt Beames with illustration by Marcus Pullen and colour-insert photo splash-pages by Guy Stauber, this initial volume only opens the epic account, detailing Bevis’ childhood and novice warrior training before closing with the dark betrayal that sets him upon his savage life’s path…

Sir Guy, Earl of Hampton was a mighty warrior who came late to marriage. His bride was the daughter of the King of Scotland and by no means a willing partner in the arranged match. Rumours abounded that the Countess already had a lover, German prince Conrad. She was also a witch, but Guy seemed oblivious to his wilful young wife’s faults. He truly loved her, even though she took no pains to hide her aloof hostility to him or his southern demesne.

Even the birth of their son Bevis did not soften her. She rejected the child at the moment of his birth, leaving him to be reared by wetnurses, nannies and latterly the Earl himself with his trusted battle-comrade and brother Sir Saber. By the time he was ten years old, Bevis was a master of sword and lance: a truly formidable fighter awaiting only the full strength of his maturity…

As the boy grew, his mother increasingly chafed at her fate and resolved to be happy again, whatever the cost. Thus she plotted with old lover Conrad to murder her husband, using corrupt knight Sir Murdour as her go-between and emissary to Germany.

Through vile treachery Sir Guy was ambushed and butchered by Murdour and an army of Teutons before Conrad installed himself as the new Lord of Hampton beside the willing and murderous Countess who was the architect of all their woes.

When Bevis challenges his mother, she banishes him to the sheep flocks and the custody of his Uncle Saber but later decides it would be best if the lad died after Bevis attempts to re-enter the family castle to exact revenge…

When Conrad baulks at the thought, she blackmails Saber to accomplish the vile task but he too cannot descend to so low a deed and instead fakes the boy’s murder before sending Bevis away from England to grow into the mighty man he must be to avenge his sire. However, before leaving the boy begins to balance the scales of justice by despatching Sir Murdour…

To Be Continued…

With a Foreword by Dr Cheryl Butler and contextualising Afterword by Dr Lynn Forest-Hill, plus a behind-the-scenes section detailing the entire creative process from script and visual design to finished art by way of a photo-reference shoot, this bold revival of a mythic British hero is heavy on action and suspense and affords a most engaging introduction to one of our most slighted icons.
Story & scripts © 2016/2017 Matt Beames. Panels © 2016/2017 Marcus Pullen. Covers & splash pages © 2016/2017. Guy Stauber. All rights reserved.

Immortal Iron Fist volume 3: Book of the Iron Fist


By Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Travel Foreman, David Aja, Gil Kane, Larry Hama & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2536-5

To save you looking up old graphic novel reviews (but please don’t let me stop you if you feel so inclined) Iron Fist was an early entry from Marvel during the 1970s Kung Fu boom, although the character also owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s Golden Age super-hero Amazing Man who graced various Centaur Comics publications between 1939 and 1945.

The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane although a veritable host of successors (writers and artists included Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Pat Broderick and Al McWilliams) followed them in what was a relatively short run on the adventures of the “Living Weapon”.

Little Danny Rand travelled with his parents and uncle to the Himalayas, searching for the “lost city of K’un Lun” which only appears once every ten years. The boy’s father Wendell was murdered by the uncle and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save her child. Alone in the wilderness, the city found him and he spent the next decade mastering all forms of martial arts.

As soon he was able, he returned to the outer world intent on vengeance and armed with a mystic punch gained by killing the city’s guardian dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. When Iron Fist eventually achieved his goal the lad was at a loose end and – by default – a billionaire, as his murderous uncle had turned the family business into a multi-national megalith.

The series ran in Marvel Premier (#15-25; May 1974 to October 1975), before Chris Claremont & John Byrne steadied the ship and produced a superb run of issues in his own title (Iron Fist #1-15, November 1975 – September 1977). After cancellation, the character drifted until inspirationally paired with street tough hero Luke Cage.

Power Man & Iron Fist ran from #51 until the book ended in 1986 (#125). The K’un Lun Kid has died, come back and cropped up all over the Marvel universe as guest star, co-star, team-player and even in a few of his own series.

Revived and somewhat re-imagined as The Immortal Iron Fist in 2007, a new series revealed that there has been a steady progression of warriors (66) bearing the title for centuries – if not millennia – and in The Last Iron Fist Story Danny discovered that his predecessor Orson Randall went rogue, refusing to die for the Holy City, roaming the Earth ever since. He was also a partner and mentor to Danny’s dad…

This third compilation concentrates on some other Iron Fists by gathering issues #7 and 15-16 of the monthly comicbook, sidebar one-shot Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death (2008) as well as that introductory tale from Marvel Premier #15-16, released in 2008 as Immortal Iron Fist: The Origin of Danny Rand.

The reinvigorated series’ title stems from the hitherto unknown fact that there are in fact seven mystical martial arts-venerating cities in this universe and every 88 years their celestial orbits coincide to permit a grand combat tournament. Each city has a champion as puissant and dedicated as Iron Fist and they must fight with the climax deciding which hidden metropolis will intersect the Earth plane for the next nearly-nine decades …

The peeks at times past begin with ‘The Story of the Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi: The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay’, written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction with art from Travel Foreman, Leandro Fernandez, Khari Evans, Derek Fridolfs and Francisco Paronzini, wherein a feisty little girl starving on the streets of K’un Lun is singled out by mighty Lei Kung the Thunderer to be trained as the first female Iron Fist.

After achieving this impossible goal, audacious Wu Ao-Shi finds that duty and even true love are insufficient to satisfy her. Exiling herself to Earth, she lives a short but triumphant existence as mercenary, warrior hero and leader of pirates. She dies before her thirty-third birthday…

That lyrical oriental fable neatly segues into the saga of another Iron Fist tied to Earth. ‘The Story of the Iron Fist Bei Bang-Wen (1827-1860)’ – by Fraction, Evans & Victor Olazaba – finds K’un Lun’s greatest battle strategist exiled to Earth and losing the Chi-reinforced power of Shou-Lau whilst battling the British Army during the Boxer Rebellion.

Imprisoned, Bei befriends fellow mystic hero and freedom fighter Vivatma Visvajit whose personal connection to the Prana power of Brahma also vanished whilst fighting England’s Imperialism. Together they escape and recover their mystic gifts whilst battling demonic forces. Bei dies in his early thirties, free and proud…

Issue #16 then returns to the current Iron Fist as Danny Rand gives back to the community in New York City. ‘Happy Birthday Danny’ (Fraction, David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth) finds the young billionaire teaching and feeding poor kids at his Thunder Dojo whilst patiently attempting to divest himself of the immeasurable tainted wealth his family has ruthlessly accrued over the years.

The “day in the life” tale sees sleepless Danny reconnect with financier/mentor Jeryn Hogarth and fellow crusaders Luke Cage and Misty Knight and continue his studies of the recently-acquired Book of the Iron Fist with the other Immortal Weapons before enduring a brief break enforced by friends who want him to celebrate his thirty-third birthday…

Next-up is a rip-roaring pulp-style adventure as prodigal Iron Fist Orson Randall, his allies the Confederates of the Curious and side-kick Wendell Rand reunite in the face of relentless pursuit by Immortal Weapon John Aman, Prince of Orphans.

Orson is the only Iron Fist to live beyond 33 years and spent precarious decades on Earth fighting injustice, but his time is coming to an end. Aman believes he is justly acting on behalf of the Seven Cities in hunting a traitor but as the extended pursuit evolves comes to realise that something corrupt lies at the heart of his mission: a secret the august rulers have been keeping from their subjects…

Scripted by Fraction with individual chapters illustrated by Nick Dragotta, Mike and Laura Allred, Russ Heath, Lewis LaRosa, Stefano Gaudiano, Hollingsworth and Mitch Breitweiser, Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death is a rousing decades-spanning romp tracking the aging Iron Fist and the kid who will one day father Danny Rand as they encounter bandits, evil cowgirls and another maniac claiming to be the last Frankenstein, with the Prince of Orphans dogging their steps all the way…

Closing this volume is the contents of Immortal Iron Fist: The Origin of Danny Rand, a modified reprint of ‘The Fury of Iron Fist!’ by Thomas, Kane and inker Dick Giordano and its sequel from Marvel Premier #15 and 16 wherein a young masked warrior defeats the cream of a legendary combat elite in a fabled other-dimensional city before returning to Earth.

Ten years previously, little Daniel Rand had watched as his father and mother died at the hands of Harold Meachum whilst the party risked Himalayan snows to find the legendary city of K’un Lun.

Little Danny had travelled with his wealthy parents and their business partner in search of the fabled city – which only appeared on Earth for one day every ten years. Wendell had some unsuspected connection to the fabled Shangri La but was killed before they found it, and Danny’s mother sacrificed herself to save the child from wolves and her murderous pursuer.

As he wandered alone in the wilderness, the city found Danny. The boy spent the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise and enduring arcane ordeals, living only for the day he would return to Earth and avenge his parents…

After conquering all comers and refusing immortality, Iron Fist returned to Earth a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch…

Reaching Manhattan, #16‘Heart of the Dragon!’ (Len Wein, Larry Hama & Giordano) found Iron Fist reliving the years of toil which had culminated in a trial by combat with a mystic dragon: earning the power to concentrate his fist “like unto a thing of Iron” and other unspecified abilities. The epic clash permanently branded his chest with the seared silhouette of the fearsome wyrm.

His recollections are shattered when martial arts bounty hunter Scythe attacks, revealing that Meachum knew the boy was back and had put a price on his head…

Danny had sacrificed not only immortality for vengeance but also prestige and privilege. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his brother…

Bracketed by a new framing sequence by Fraction and Kano the classic yarn serves to set the scene for further revelations to come…

Swift and compellingly exotic, this mesmerising tome offers twin highpoints of Marvel’s long history of Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy and should certainly prove a timely read as Iron Fist makes his live action small screen debut…
© 2007, 2008, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.