Red Ranger Came Calling – A Guaranteed True Christmas Story


By Berkeley Breathed (Little, Brown & Co.)
ISBN: 0-316-10881-2 (HB)                978-0316102490 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: To Be Read Every Christmas Until the Stars Grow Cold… 10/10

After a surprisingly brief and deservedly glittering career as a syndicated strip cartoonist and socio-political commentator (so often the exact same function) Berkeley Breathed retired Bloom County and its successor Outland and took up a new career as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. He lost none of his perception or imagination, and actually got better as a narrative artist. He also didn’t completely abandon his magical cast of unique characters.

We sneer at sentimentality these days but in the hands of a master storyteller it can be a weapon of crippling power. This glorious fable is purportedly one told every Christmas Eve to the author by his own father before being generously shared with us in mesmerising prose and captivating illustrations.

In 1939 young Red Breathed was well on the way to becoming a snotty, cynical wiseacre. Sent to spend the Holidays with his Aunt Vy, he mooches about all day with her old dog Amelia, while lusting as only a child can after an Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star Hopper bicycle.

Tweed, of course, is the famous movie serial star “Red Ranger of Mars” and the only thing capable of brightening the benighted life of this woeful, unfairly exiled child. Times are tough though, and Red knows his chances of getting that bike are non-existent, but he just can’t stop himself hoping…

On his way home he sees an odd, pointy-eared little man heading for the ramshackle house of that reclusive old man Saunder Clős. Since he’s a big kid now, Red knows there’s no Father Christmas and none of that hokey magic stuff is true, but even so he finds himself sneaking up to the old house that Christmas Eve night…

This is a gloriously powerful tale that fully captures the magic of believing and the tragedy of realisation, and yet still ends with a Christmas miracle and a truly surprise ending. Get this book for the kids, get this book for yourself, but get this book – and on pain of emotional death, don’t peek at the last page until the time is right!
© 1994 Berkeley Breathed. All Rights Reserved.

Land of the Giants: The Complete Series


By Paul S. Newman, Tom Gill & various (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-93256-343-6

Land of the Giants debuted in America in September 1968, the fourth of producer Irwin Allen’s incredibly successful string of TV fantasy series which also included Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Time Tunnel.

The key premise was that in the then far-future of 1983 the passengers and crew of Sub-Orbital Space-liner flight 703 from Los Angeles to London fall through a space-warp and crashes in an incredible world twelve times larger than ours (mimicking the dimensions of the Brobdingnagians in Gulliver’s Travels).

To make things even scarier, the giant society closely parallels Earth in the primitive era of the mid-1960s, with crime, Cold War espionage, cultural paranoia and social injustice obsessing every anxious citizen of the Big New World…

The motley and disparate occupants of the ailing Spindrift thus have to survive and seek ways to return home whilst giant beasts, agents of totalitarian governments of that colossal planet, greedy opportunists and their own perverse natures all conspire against them.

The fact that doom is always looming above them is exacerbated by a perpetual dilemma: the ship is still space-worthy and the dimensional warp a permanent fixture but Spindrift is drained of the electrical energy needed to achieve high orbit.

Daily existence consists of staying alive and free whilst somehow scavenging – like high-tech Borrowers – enough motive power from the hulking natives to blast off forever…

The TV series generated 51 episodes and ran until 1970 with many re-runs throughout the intervening decades. It spawned a Viewmaster reel and book, a comicbook series, numerous games and toys plus a string of excellent novels by pulp Sci Fi legend Murray Leinster.

While the show aired it was the most expensive television series ever produced, but a special effects budget was no hindrance to publisher Gold Key whose five comicbook issues – released between November 1968 to September 1969 – honed in on the perilous plight of the starlost Spindrifters via the scripts of Paul S. Newman (Turok, Son of Stone, Lone Ranger) and sagely meticulous illustrator Tom Gill (Flower Potts, Lone Ranger).

Collected in this sturdy hardcover archival edition (also available in eBook editions), the miniscule voyagers’ odyssey is preceded by an effusive photo-filled ‘Introduction: Revisiting Gulliver’ by Chris Irving, covering every aspect from series production to the history of Gold Key before the graphic reverie opens with ‘The Mini-Criminals’ from Land of the Giants #1.

Behind the evocative photo-montage cover (each issue boasted one), Part I – ‘The Power-Stealers’ – sees the crew’s perpetual search for fuel sources to re-energise Spindrift lead to capture by opportunistic and imaginative thief Carlo Krogg.

In this action-oriented adventure the focus is on passengers Mark Wilson, fugitive conman Fitzhugh and he-men crew members Captain Steve Burton and co-pilot Dan Erickson who toil mightily to free hostage stewardess Betty Hamilton from Krogg’s clutches whilst pretending to burgle a jewellery store for him.

Issue #2 featured ‘Countdown to Escape’ and opens with flighty socialite Valerie Scott revealing an unsuspected talent for falconry after catching and training a giant raptor to carry the ship on ‘The Wings of an Eagle’

Sadly, the plan goes agonisingly wrong for ‘The Little Buccaneers’ after animal keepers recapture their missing exhibit, inadvertently marooning the Little People in a zoo. Although this presents them with an astounding opportunity to secure their energy-needs, the end result is another frustrating return to square one…

In ‘Giant Damsel in Distress’, Val and Betty befriend a young woman unjustly accused of a terrible crime and on the run. Colossal fugitive Linda offers to restore the stranded ship’s energy reserves with ‘Mirror Power’ but before they can benefit from the deal, the real criminals track her down, leading to a catastrophic and one-sided battle in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’

LotG #4 reveals a daring ‘Safari in Giantland’ as the mini-marooned break into a department store to steal super-strong power cells in ‘Assault and Battery’. Typically, however, even after purloining model trucks from the kids’ wing to transport their electrical booty, the ‘Babes in Toyland’ lose the precious batteries when a giant rat attacks…

The last issue is uncharacteristically dark and grim for comics of the period. By never signing up to the draconian overreaction of the bowdlerizing Comics Code Authority, Dell/Gold Key became the company for life and death thrills, especially in the arena of traditional adventure stories.

If you were a kid in search of a proper body count instead of flesh wounds you went for Tarzan, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Tom Corbett and their ilk. That’s not to claim that the West Coast outfit were gory, exploitative sensationalists – far from it – but simply that the writers and editors knew that fiction – especially kids’ fiction – needs a frisson of danger and honest high stakes drama to make it work.

‘Operation Mini-Surgeon’ begins with ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma…’ as juvenile Spindrift passenger Barry Lockridge – who had been travelling unaccompanied to meet his parents in London – succumbs to a deadly infection. The adult castaways determine to take the boy to a giant physician, whatever the risk, and are on hand when a diplomat from a hostile foreign power is caught in an assassin’s bomb blast…

Although under government scrutiny and initially unable to save the dying Premier Klosson, surgeon Dr. Rains is still willing to aid the Little People in curing Barry. In return Mark and Steve enter the dying Klosson’s wounds to repair the tyrant from the inside in ‘A Life in Their Hands’

Tragically, before the eternally-grateful Rains can deliver the batteries that would send the aliens home, political intrigue and expedience make him a martyr to someone else’s cause…

Stuffed throughout with cast stills and candid photos, the rocket ride down memory lane concludes with ‘Photos, Artwork, and Collectibles’, offering a bonanza of stills, production photographs, promo material, posters, cast shots, original artwork from the comics, bubble gum cards, pages from Mort Drucker’s Mad Magazine parody “Land of the Giant Bores”, box art from a jigsaw puzzle and the Aurora model kit of the Spindrift, plus a picture gallery of the show’s celebrity guest stars.

Even more tantalising treats include Leinster’s novel covers, the View Master packaging, colouring Book covers and the cover of the British TV21 1971 annual…

TV themed compendia of screen-to-page magic were an intrinsic part of growing up in Britain for generations and still occur every year with only the stars/celebrity/shows changing, not the package. The show itself has joined the vast hinterland of fantasy fan-favourites and is immortalised in DVD and streamed all over the world but if you want to see more, this sparkling tome is a treat you won’t want to overlook.
Land of the Giants® is © 1968, 1969 and 2010 Irwin Allen Properties, LLC and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved throughout the world.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Johnny Craig with Roy Thomas, Don Heck, Dan Adkins & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3493-0

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that – and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal – the company was contractually tied to a limit of 16 publications per month.

To circumvent this drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two features per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where Iron Man was joined by Captain America with #59 (cover-dated November 1964). When the division came, the armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collectors Item First Issue” – after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that squared divergent schedules – with Cap retaining the numbering of the original title; thus his “premiering” in number #100.

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous millionaire industrialist and inventor – and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the ultra- high tech armour of his alter-ego, Iron Man.

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course, it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

With an Iron Clad promise of stunning adventure and suspenseful drama this iconic hardback (and digital) chronological compendium covers Iron Man #2-13, spanning June 1968 – May 1969 and also includes an educational Introduction from comics historian Dewey Cassell, running down the stellar career and achievements of debuting artist George Tuska. Also tipped in to enhance the reading experience is a comedy short gleaned from Marvel’s comedy pastiche magazine Not Brand Echh #2.

A new era began with Invincible Iron Man #2. Long-established illustrator Gene Colan had moved on and ‘The Day of the Demolisher!’, saw EC star Johnny Craig assume the art-chores. His first job is a cracker, as scripter Archie Goodwin introduces Janice Cord as a new romantic interest for the playboy inventor. The problem is the monolithic killer robot built by her deranged father and the start of a running plot-thread examining the effects of the munitions business and the kind of inventors who work for it…

Goodwin and Craig then brought back Stark’s old bodyguard Happy Hogan in time to help rebuild the now-obsolete Iron Man armour and consequently devolve into a monstrous menace in ‘My Friend, My Foe… the Freak!’ for #3 and retool a long-forgotten Soviet super-villain into a major threat in ‘Unconquered is the Unicorn!’

This particular tech-enhanced maniac was dying from his own powers and thought Tony would be able – if not willing – to fix him…

With Iron Man #5 another Golden Age veteran joined the creative team. George Tuska – who had worked on huge hits such as the original (Fawcett) Captain Marvel and Crime Does Not Pay plus newspaper strips such as The Spirit and Buck Rogers – would illustrate the majority of Iron Man’s adventures over the next decade and become synonymous with the Armoured Avenger…

Inked by Craig, ‘Frenzy in a Far-Flung Future!’ is an intriguing time-paradox tale wherein Stark is kidnapped by the last survivors of humanity, determined to kill him before he can build the super-computer that eradicated mankind. Did somebody say “Terminator”…?

A super-dense (by which I mean strong and heavy) Cuban Commie threat returned – but not for long – in ‘Vengeance… Cries the Crusher!’

Next the sinister scheme begun way back in Tales of Suspense #97 finally bore brutal – and for preppie S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (assigned as Stark’s security advisor) – painful fruit in two-part thriller ‘The Maggia Strikes!’ and ‘A Duel Must End!’ as old Daredevil foe the Gladiator leads a savage attack on Stark’s factory, friends and would-be new love…

The saga also reveals the tragic history of mystery woman Whitney Frost and lays the seeds of her evolution into one of Iron Man’s most implacable foes…

A bold 3-part saga follows as ultimate oriental arch-fiend The Mandarin resurfaces with a cunning plan and the certain conviction that Tony Stark and Iron Man are the same person. Beginning with a seeming Incredible Hulk guest-shot in #9’s ‘…There Lives a Green Goliath!’, proceeding through the revelatory and explosive Nick Fury team-up ‘Once More… The Mandarin!’ before climaxing in spectacular “saves-the-day” fashion as our hero is ‘Unmasked!’, this epic from Goodwin, Tuska & Craig offers astounding thrills and potent drama with plenty of devious twists, just as the first inklings of the social upheaval America was experiencing began to seep into Marvel’s publications.

As the core audience started to grow into the Flower Power generation, future tales would take arch-capitalist weapon-smith Stark in many unexpected and often peculiar directions. All of a sudden maybe that money and fancy gadgetry weren’t quite so fun or cool anymore…?

Goodwin and artists George Tuska & Johnny Craig conclude their sterling run of solid science-flavoured action epics with the introduction of a new sinister super-foe in #12 as ‘The Coming of the Controller’ sees a twisted genius using the stolen life-energy of enslaved citizens to power a cybernetic exo-skeleton. Along the way he and his brother embezzle the fortune of Stark’s girlfriend Janice Cord to pay for it all. Of course, Iron Man is ready and able to overcome the scheming maniac, culminating in a cataclysmic climax ‘Captives of the Controller!’ as the mind-bending terror attempts to extend his mesmeric, parasitic sway over the entire populace of New York City…

As well as some Tuska original art pages and covers, this galvanic grimoire ends by supplementing and counterpointing the traumatic tension with a slice of period silliness from spoof comic Not Brand Echh #2 (September 1967). Here Roy Thomas, Don Heck & Dan Adkins pit clownish 20th century crusader the Unrinseable Ironed Man against a parody-prone 40th century stalwart fans will recognise even if here he’s known as ‘Magnut, Robot Biter!’

This is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career and one that perfectly encapsulates the changes Marvel and America went through: seen through some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply stellar band of creators.
© 1968, 1969, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor volume 2: Fractures


By Robbie Morrison, George Mann, Brian Williamson, Mariano Laclaustra, Hi Fi & various (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-301-7 (HB)                    978-1-78276-659-9 (SC)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Timeless Traditional TV-Toned Treat… 8/10

The British love comic strips and they love celebrity and they love “characters.”

The history of our graphic narrative has a peculiarly disproportionate amount of radio comedians, Variety stars and film and television actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Flanagan & Allen, Winifred Atwell, Jimmy Edwards and their ilk as well as actual shows and properties such as Whacko!, ITMA, Old Mother Riley, Supercar, Pinky and Perky plus hundreds more.

Anthology comics such as Radio Fun, Film Fun, TV Fun, Look-In, TV Tornado, TV Comic and Countdown translated our viewing and listening favourites into pictorial gold every week, and it was a pretty poor star or show that couldn’t parley the day job into a licensed comic property.

Doctor Who premiered on black-&-white televisions across the UK with the first episode of ‘An Unearthly Child’ on November 23rd 1963, and in 1964 his decades-long association with TV Comic began in #674 (the premier instalment of ‘The Klepton Parasites’).

On 11th October 1979 (although adhering to the US off-sale cover-dating system so it says 17th) Marvel’s British subsidiary launched Doctor Who Weekly. It became a monthly magazine in September 1980 (#44) and has been with us – under various names – ever since. All of which only goes to prove that the Time Lord is a comic hero with an impressive pedigree.

The comicbook division of the Whovian mega-franchise has roamed far and wide and currently rests with Titan Comics who have sagaciously opted to run parallel series starring many individual incarnations of the trickily turbulent Time Lord…

These tales – starring the Peter Capaldi iteration – comprise issues #6-10 of the monthly periodical plus a short tale from Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor Free Comic Book Day 2015 with our tetchy Time Lord still gallivanting all across the universe in the company of schoolteacher and “Impossible Girl” Clara Oswald.

Scripted by Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante, The Authority) and illustrated by Brian Williamson (Torchwood, Primeval, Spider-Man) with assistance from Hi Fi Colour Design, the calamity commences soon after the defeat of self-proclaimed goddess Kali (see volume 1)

Strange occurrences are plaguing the area around Coal Hill Secondary School in Shoreditch, East London where Miss Oswald has a teaching job. They all centre around young Molly Foster whose dad – a Unified Intelligence Task-Force scientist – recently died in a car crash.

The family is naturally devastated, but little Molly’s black mood turns quite suddenly after she pulls the somehow not-deceased Dr. Foster out of a hole in the air…

When the TARDIS alarms reveal that something is trying to tear down the walls of the Multiverse, Clara and the Doctor warp into UNIT HQ and find the militarised boffins have been meddling with Foster’s last experiment… a Trans-Reality Gate…

Molly has no idea that the Daddy she’s hiding from the rest of the bereaved family in the shed in the garden comes from a parallel world where he was the only survivor of the traffic wreck. Paul only knows he’s found his lost loved ones again. The Doctor knows the reality breaches are eroding the crucial interdimensional barriers preserving Reality.

Nobody has any notion that the universes have their own safeguards and upholders of the Laws of Reality until merciless energy beings calling themselves ‘The Fractures’ leak into our dimension, possess humans and start hunting for the transgressors: Paul Foster, little Molly and anyone aiding and abetting them.

Since he considers Earth under his personal protection, The Doctor – despite utterly disapproving of Foster’s experiment and familial sentimentality – is resolved that the rampaging Fractures’ brutal police action will not go unpunished…

Bombastic ultra-cosmic invasion and last-ditch combat action gives way to cool wit, slick moves and devious criminal intent as ‘Gangland’ (with additional art by Mariano Laclaustra) sees Clara and The Doctor pop back to 1963 Las Vegas to catch a concert by the inimitable “Wolf Pack”.

Sadly, Frankie, Dino and the Boys are blithely unaware that their Mafioso employers are in a spot of extraterrestrial bother…

Millenia previously, the Hyperion War between the universe’s great races ended with the chief Time Lord employing a deadly chronal gun in a game of chance with Count D’if of the Cybock Imperium. The gambit – known as “Rassilon’s Roulette” – ensured Gallifreyan dominance for uncounted eons.

Now, however, the surviving Cybock octoids have stolen Rassilon’s legendary pistol and created a gangster syndicate on Earth. The intention is to subjugate the planet and reconstitute their Imperium as a criminal enterprise through which they can ultimately conquer the galaxy, but they have not counted on the ruthless greed and stubbornness of Earth mobsters, the devil-may-care pluck of drunken entertainers or the deadly wiles of the last Time Lord…

Scripted by George Mann and illustrated by Laclaustra & Luis Guerrero, ‘The Body Electric’ comes from Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor Free Comic Book Day 2015.

Short, sharp and shocking, the tale reveals how the Time Lord and Clara arrive on quartz planet Asmoray just as the humans mining the world for its electricity begin dying. It doesn’t take the grumbling Gallifreyan long to determine that the world is neither lifeless nor exclusively owned by humanity. Then all he has to do is stop two species eradicating each other…

All in a day’s work really…

Enthrallingly entertaining and wickedly witty, this titanic time-space tome comes with a gallery of alternate and variant covers by Blair Shedd, Brian Williamson & Luis Guerrero, Rian Hughes and AJ, so if you’re a fervent fan of the television Time Lord, this book – also available as a digital download – could well make you an addict of the print iteration too.

Fractures is a splendid romp for casual readers, a fine additional avenue for devotees of the TV show to explore and a perfect opportunity to cross-promote comics to anyone minded to give strip sagas another go…
BBC, Doctor Who (word marks, logos and devices) and Tardis are trade marks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence. BBC logo © BBC 1996. Doctor Who logo © BBC 2009. Tardis image © BBC 1963. First edition April 2015.

The Jack Kirby Omnibus volume 2 – starring The Super Powers


By Jack Kirby with Joe Simon, Mike Royer Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3833-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Entertainment… 9/10

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who had lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

There’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular magnificent hardback compendium re-presents most of miscellaneous oddments of the “King’s Canon” crafted for DC – at least those to which the company still retains rights.

The licenses on stuff like his run on pulp adaptation Justice Inc. (or indeed Marvel’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comic) will not be forthcoming any time soon…

This massive tome begins with pages of hyper-kinetic Kirby pencil pages and a moving ‘Introduction by John Morrow’ before hurtling straight into moody mystery with a range of twice told tales.

On returning from WWII, Kirby reconnected with his long-term creative partner Joe Simon. National Comics was no longer a welcoming place for the reunited dream team supreme and by 1947 they had formed their own studio. They enjoyed a long and productive relationship with Harvey Comics (Stuntman, Boy’s Ranch, Captain 3-D, Lancelot Strong, The Shield, The Fly, Three Rocketeers and more) and created a stunning variety of genre features for Crestwood/Pines supplied by their Essankay/Mainline studio shop.

These included Justice Traps the Guilty, Fighting American, Bullseye, Police Trap, Foxhole, Headline Comics and Young Romance amongst many more (see the superb Best of Simon and Kirby for a salient selection of these classic creations): a veritable mountain of maturely challenging strip material in a variety of popular genres.

One of those was mystery and horror and amongst that dynamic duo’s “Prize” concoctions was noir-ish, psychologically-underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and latterly a short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams. These comics anthologies eschewed the traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and – until the EC comics line hit their peak – were far and away the best mystery titles on the market.

When the King quit Marvel for DC in 1970, his new bosses accepted suggestions for a supernatural-themed mature-reading magazine. Spirit World was a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Issue #1 – and only – launched in the summer of 1971, but editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going.

Material from a second, unpublished issue eventually appeared in colour comicbooks Weird Mystery Tales and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion but with his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company, Kirby opted again for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the supernatural with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe. The Demon only ran a couple of years but was a concept later, lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

His collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales, no matter what genre avenues they pursued, blazing trails for so many others to follow and always reshaping the very nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality.

As with all their endeavours, Simon & Kirby offered stories shaped by their own sensibilities. Identifying a “mature market” gap in the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood and Prize they saw the sales potential for high-quality spooky material. resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October/November 1950 cover-date), supplemented in 1952 by boldly obscure psychological drama anthology The Strange World of Your Dreams: a title inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid and punishing night terrors.

Dealing with fantastic situations and – too frequently for comfort – unable or unwilling to provide pat conclusions or happy endings, cosmic justice or calming explanations were seldom available to avid readers. Sometimes the Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… and never whole or unchanged.

Thus, this colossal compendium of cult cartoon cavortings commences with DC’s revival of Black Magic as a cheap, modified reprint title.

The second issue #1 launched with an October/November 1973 cover-date, offering rather crudely re-mastered versions of some astounding classics. Far better reproduced on the good quality paper here is ‘Maniac!’ (originating in Black Magic #32 September/October 1973); an artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how – and why – a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away. This is followed by ‘The Head of the Family!’ (BM #30 May/June 1954, by Kirby & Bruno Premiani), revealing the appalling secret shame of a most inbred clan…

DC’s premier outing ended with a disturbing tale first seen in Black Magic #29 (March-April 1954). Specifically cited during the1954 anti-comicbook Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of them All!’ told a tragic tale of a freak hiding amongst lesser freaks…

DC’s second issue – cover-dated December 1973/January 1974 – opened with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’ (BM #26, September/October 1953) wherein a petty thug stumbles into a Mephistophelean deal and revealed how ‘The Cat People’ (#27 November/December 1953) mesmerised and forever marked an unwary tourist in rural Spain before ‘Birth After Death’ (#20 January 1953) retold the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ (#23 April 1953) sketched out the tale of a painter who could predict imminent doom…

‘Nasty Little Man!’ (#18 November 1952) fronted DC’s third foray and gets my vote for creepiest horror art job of all time. It saw three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents. ‘The Angel of Death!’ (#15 August 1952) then detailed an horrific medical mystery far darker than mere mystic menace…

As the 1950s editions grew in popularity, Simon & Kirby were stretched thin. Utilising a staff of assistants and crafting fewer stories themselves meant they could keep all their deadlines…

The ‘Cover art for Black Magic #4, June/July 1974’ sensibly segues into ‘Last Second of Life!’, from Black Magic volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man, obsessed over what the dying see at final breath, learns to regret the unsavoury lengths he went to in finding out: their only contribution to that particular DC issue.

There were two in the next release. ‘Strange Old Bird!’ (Black Magic #25 June/July 1953) is a gently eerie thriller of a little old lady who gets the gift of renewed life from her tatty and extremely flammable feathered old friend and ‘Up There!’ from the landmark 13th issue from June 1952 – the saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere scaring the bejabbers out of a cool test pilot…

DC issue #6 reprises ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ (BM #11 April 1952) exposing the immense but fragile power of self-belief whilst the ‘Cover art for Black Magic #7, December 1974/January 1975’ (originally #17 October 1952) provides a chilling report on a satanic vestment ‘The Cloak!’ (from BM #2 December 1950/January 1951) and ‘Freak!’ (from the aforementioned #17) shares a country doctor’s deepest shame…

DC’s #8 revisited The Strange World of Your Dreams, beginning with “a typical insecurity nightmare” ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ (from #2, September/October 1952). The Meskin-inspired anthology of oneiric visions eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-ending yarns in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological unease and inexplicable unease: tension over teasing…

Following up with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from the same source (requesting readers’ ideas for parapsychologist Richard Temple to analyse), DC’s vintage fear-fest concludes with # 9 (April/May 1975) and ‘The Woman in the Tower!’ as originally seen in The Strange World of Your Dreams #3, (November/December 1952) detailing the symbolism of oppressive illness…

Kirby continued creating new material with Kamandi – his only long-running DC success – and explored WWII in The Losers whilst creating the radical, scarily prophetic, utterly magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he was lured back to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Before then, though, he unleashed a number of new concepts and even filled in on established titles. As previously moaned about, however, his 3-issue run on Justice Inc. adapting licensed pulp hero The Avenger is not included here, but at least his frankly astounding all-action dalliance with martial arts heroics is…

Debuting in all-new try-out title 1st Issue Special #1 (April 1975, and inked by D. Bruce Berry), ‘Atlas the Great! harked back to the dawn of human civilisation and followed the blockbusting trail of mankind’s first super-powered champion in a blazing Sword & Sorcery yarn.

1st Issue Special #5 (August 1975, Berry) highlighted the passing of a torch as a devout evil-crusher working for an ancient justice-cult retired and tipped his nephew – Public Defender Mark Shaw – to become the latest super-powered ‘Manhunter’

A rare but welcome digression into comedy manifested as ‘The Dingbats of Danger Street’ (1st Issue Special #6, September 1975) with Mike Royer inking a bizarre and hilarious revival of Kirby’s Kid Gang genre starring four multi-racial street urchins united for survival and to battle surreal super threats…

Always looking for work Kirby – and Berry – stepped in for #3 of troubled martial arts series Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter (August/September 1975). Scripted by Denny O’Neil, the savage shocker pits the lone fighter against an army of assassins in ‘Claws of the Dragon!’

‘Fangs of the Kobra!’ comes from Kobra #1, released with a February/March 1976 cover-date. The tale is strange in both execution and delivery, with Kirby’s original updating of Dumas’ tale of The Corsican Brothers reworked by Martin Pasko, Steve Sherman and artists Pablo Marcos & Berry.

It introduces brothers separated at birth. Jason Burr grew up a normal American kid whilst his twin – stolen by an Indian death cult – was reared as Kobra, the most dangerous man alive. Sadly for the super-criminal, young adult Jason has been recruited by the authorities because of his psychic connection to the snake lord: a link which allows them to track each other and also feel and experience any harm or hurt the other incurs…

When Simon & Kirby came to National/DC in 1942 one of their earliest projects was revitalising the moribund Sandman strip in Adventure Comics. Their unique blend of atmosphere and dynamism made it one of the most memorable, moody and action-packed series of the period (as you can see by reading complete Sandman edition which is a companion to this volume).

The band was brought back together for The Sandman #1 (cover-dated Winter 1974); a one-shot project which took the name and created a whole new mythology…

Scripted by Simon and inked by Royer ‘General Electric’ revealed how the realm of dreams was policed by a scarlet-&-gold super-crusader dedicated to preventing nightmares escaping into the physical world. With unwilling assistants Glob and Brute, the Sandman also battled real world villains determined to exploit the unconscious Great Unknown. The heady mix was completed by frail orphan Jed, whose active sleeping imagination seemed to draw trouble to him.

The proposed one-off was a minor hit at a tenuous time in comics publishing, and DC opted to keep it going, even though the originators were not interested. Kirby & Royer did produce the ‘Cover art Sandman #2, April/May 1975’ and ‘Cover art Sandman #3, June/July 1975’ before returning to the series with #4.

‘Panic in the Dream Stream’ – August/September 1975 – was scripted by Michael Fleisher, and revealed how a sleepless alien race attempted to conquer Earth through Jed’s fervent dreams: a traumatic channel that even allowed them to invade the Sandman’s Dream Realm. The next issue (October/November 1975) heralded an ‘Invasion of the Frog Men!’ into an idyllic parallel dimension before the next issue reunited a classic art team. Wally Wood inked Jack for Fleisher’s ‘The Plot to Destroy Washington D.C.!’, with mind-bending cyborg Doctor Spider, subverting and enslaving Glob and Brute in his eccentric ambition to take over America…

Although Sandman #6 (December 1975/January 1976) was the last issue, another tale was already completed and it finally appeared in reprint digest Best of DC #22 in March 1982. ‘The Seal Men’s War on Santa Claus’ with Fleisher scripting and Royer handling the brushwork was a sinister seasonal romp with Jed’s wicked foster-family abusing the lad in classic Scrooge style before the Weaver of Dreams seconds him to help save Christmas from bellicose well-armed aquatic mammals…

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow. Many toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, and Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrating a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

In ‘Power Beyond Price!’, ultimate nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker the monsters jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin as Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront a cosmically-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island. With the ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies. All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’, before the King steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: cosmos-shaking conclusion ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster leads into a nostalgic reunion as DC Comics Presents #84 (August 1985) reunited Jack with his first Fantastic Four.

‘Give Me Power… Give Me Your World!’ – written by Bob Rozakis, Kirby & Theakston (with additional art by the legendary Alex Toth) – pits Superman and the Challengers of The Unknown against mind-bending Kryptonian villain Zo-Mar, after which the ‘Cover art for Super DC Giant S-25, July/ August 1971’ (inked by Vince Colletta) segues into the Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, requiring practically every DC hero to unite to end the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’ before Earth’s scattered champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Rounding out the astounding cavalcade of wonders, are a selection of Kirby-crafted ‘Who’s Who Profiles’ pages from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe 1985-1987: specifically, Ben Boxer, the Boy Commandos, Challengers of the Unknown, Crazy Quilt, Etrigan the Demon, Kamandi, the Newsboy Legion, Sandman (the Dream Stream version from 1974), Sandy, the Golden Boy and Witchboy Klarion.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and will never be supplanted.
© 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond™ volume 2: Eidolon


By Warren Ellis, Jason Masters, Guy Major & Simon Bowland (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-5241-0272-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Stunning Blockbuster Fun… 9/10

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s masterful creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. This is one of the better ones and as much worthy of your attention as any movie, game or novel.

There are also some exceedingly enjoyable comicbook and newspaper strip versions detailing the further exploits of Agent 007 which have never really found the appreciation they rightly deserve. This collection is just one of the most recent, compiling the second six issues of the James Bond comicbook series from licensing specialists Dynamite Entertainment.

Thanks to uber-action scribe Warren Ellis, it’s one of the best Bond adventures ever seen…

Dumping decades of gaudy paraphernalia that’s grown around the brand, Ellis, illustrator Jason Masters, colourist Guy Major and letterer Simon Bowland have opted for a stripped-down, pared-back, no-nonsense iteration that means nothing but business.

The shocking saga opens with Britain’s Powers-that-Be still working to close the Double-O department, and labouring under a Home Office ruling depriving Bond and other agents of their weapons whilst on British soil.

Despite fighting hard, M is losing this battle…

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Bond’s latest mission is interrupted by old comrade Felix Leiter.

The CIA operative has a friendly warning for his old pal. The supposedly-routine mission to extract a mole whose cover has been blown has acquired hidden ramifications…

Later, as Bond scoops up blithely unaware Cadence Birdwhistle, enraged Turkish security forces are only seconds behind and a savage battle ensues. Barely getting out alive, Bond notices the heavies are sporting CIA-issue guns…

Cadence is baffled. Her field is forensic accounting and whatever the cloaked financial pipeline she recently uncovered in the Turkish Consulate’s finances is, it should not justify the murderous response she and Bond have barely survived. It’s just some illegal money transfers to an account in Britain. An account dubbed “Eidolon”…

After a brief period of lying low, Bond and Birdwhistle head for LAX only to be attacked by a CIA hit team. By the time the refugees reach Britain, the bodies have been discovered and Bond is in trouble with the boss. Again…

When another band of assassins attack before they even exit Heathrow Airport carpark, it’s clear that whatever Cadence uncovered is something far from conventional and by no means inconsequential…

The clear-up afterwards confirms it. Thus far the unknown assailants have involved three countries and utilised agents, tactics and weapons from the Turkish Secret Police, CIA and now the British SAS and SBS. The conspiracy – whatever it is – has its claws in the very heart of the international security community…

As MI5 officiously insert themselves into MI6’s investigation and claim jurisdiction, Bond and M realise there is no one they can trust, even as Birdwhistle uses Q branch’s technology and computer specialists to crack the dark money trail. The breadcrumbs lead to a secret, subterranean arms dump long believed to be a secret service myth and yet another cataclysmic shooting war…

Illegally armed by Q, Bond’s investigation deep beneath British soil suddenly exposes an uncanny and unexpected secret army of the disenfranchised at the heart of the nation’s ruling elite, sponsored by SPECTRE to rise if the covert organisation ever fell. Now long-dormant terror cells have embarked on a horrific “Death or Glory” mission to excise the British intelligence hierarchy and strike a shattering blow against the seat of democracy…

The end when it inevitably comes is deadly, up close and extremely personal…

With a gallery of gripping covers by Dom Reardon, this sleekly sinister paranoid plot is fast, furious, brutally bellicose and potently ferocious: another witty, superbly smart and impeccably stylish perfect James Bond thriller.

Bond Will Return and you should be ready…
© 2017 Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. James Bond and 007 are ™ Danjaq LLC, used under license by Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6792-1

Inspired by the James Bond films and pioneering TV shows like Danger Man, ultimate super-spy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963): a grizzled and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of big adventures. In typical spook style, he craftily manipulated the First Family of Marvel superheroes into invading a sovereign nation, just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off.

What’s weird about that? Well, the gruffly capable everyman was already the star of the little company’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in – depending on whether you were American or European – the middle or beginning of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series (similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen) had launched in May of that year. Fury’s post-war self became a big-name star when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became global sensations and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales#135 (August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden, enemy-organisation Hydra: all with captivating Jack Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and, later, iconic imagineering from Jim Steranko whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the art form to a whole new level.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury seems to be a pure Jack Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Following another typically exuberant Stan Lee Introduction this first Trade Paperback (and eBook) memorial compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1-13 (spanning May 1963 to December 1964) opening – just as you’d expect – with blistering premier ‘Sgt. Fury, and his Howling Commandoes’ (that’s how they speled it in the storree-title – altho knot ennyware else).

Crafted by Lee, Kirby and inker Dick Ayers the rip-snorting yarn is bursting with full page panels interrupted by ‘Meet the Howling Commandos’ – a double-page starring the seven members of First Attack Squad; Able Company. This comprised Fury himself, former circus strongman/Corporal “Dum-Dum” Dugan and Privates Robert “Rebel” Ralston (a jockey), former student Jonathan “Junior” Juniper, jazz trumpeter Gabriel Jones, mechanic Izzy Cohen and glamorous movie star Dino Manelli.

Controversially – even in the 1960s – this combat Rat Pack was an integrated unit with Jewish and black members as well as Catholics, Southern Baptists and New York white guys all merrily serving together. The Howling Commandos pushed envelopes and busted taboos from the very start…

The first mission was a non-stop action romp pitting ‘Seven Against the Nazis!’ and putting the squad through their various paces as the ragged band of indomitable warriors tackled hordes of square-necked Nazis and saving D-Day by rescuing a French resistance fighter carrying vital plans of the invasion. They even brought back a high-ranking “kraut” prisoner. There was even room for a Kirby fact-page comparing and contrasting six different side-arms of the period in ancillary feature ‘Weapons of War’

Issue #2 found the ‘7 Doomed Men!’ up to their ripped shirts in Germans as they first infiltrated a French coastal town to blow up a U-Boat base and got back to England just in time to be sent on another suicide mission. This time it was to destroy a secret facility at Heinemund in the heart of the Fatherland where Nazi scientists were doing something sinister and nefarious with “hard water”…

These overblown fustian thrillers always played fast and loose with history and logic, so if you crave veracity above all I’d steer clear, but if you can swallow a heaping helping of creative anachronism there’s always great fun to be had here – especially since nobody drew atomic explosions like Kirby…

This drama was topped off with more fact pages as ‘The Enemy That Was!’ explored the capabilities of ‘The German Infantryman’ whilst ‘Weapons of War: “Chatter Guns” of World War II’ details everything you need to know about submachine guns…

Rough and ready gallows humour and broad comedy became increasingly important to the series from #3 onwards, with home base rivalries and wry comradely sparring leavening the outrageous non-stop carnage of the missions. ‘Midnight on Massacre Mountain!’ finds the septet explosively invading Italy to rescue a US army division caught in a Nazi trap. Along the way they meet a brilliant OSS officer training partisan troops, and Fury thought that young Reed Richards would go far…

Supplementing this exploit is a fascinating feature revealing what ordnance and hardware cost in ‘America’s World War II Shopping List!’

‘Lord Ha-Ha’s Last Laugh!’ in #4 began an inking tour of duty for George Bell (AKA 1950s Kirby studio-mate George “Inky” Roussos) and introduced a love interest for the Sarge, when he meets Red Cross volunteer Lady Pamela Hawley during an air raid in London. How cruel and tragic was fate then, that the Howlers’ very next mission took them to Berlin to kidnap a young British nobleman with the same name, acting as a crucial propaganda mouthpiece for the Wehrmacht…

The mission was a double disaster. Not only did Pamela’s ignoble brother perish but the debacle also cost the life of a Howler…

‘Weapons of War: Combat Rifles of World War II’ then ended this shocking, surprisingly grim and low-key melodrama…

Fury’s appearance in FF#21 – not included here – was released between that issue and #5, but no mention was made of it when the dark and cunning yarn introduces one of Marvel’s vilest, greatest villains. ‘At the Mercy of Baron Strucker’ sees Fury humiliated and defeated in personal combat against an Aryan nobleman before candid filmed footage is used as a propaganda tool of the Nazis. Only too late did dashing Dino pointed out how the nonplussed noncom had fallen for the oldest trick in Hollywood’s playbook…

The riotous rematch went rather better after which ‘Weapons of War: Light Machine Guns of World War II’ ends matters in a graphically educational manner, whilst ‘The Fangs of the Desert Fox!’ in #6 dumped the Squad in the desert to tackle the hordes of General Erwin Rommel in a mission foredoomed to fail…

‘The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury’ then provides a glimpse at the hard-bitten hero’s past and offers insights into his tempestuous relationship with immediate superior Captain Samuel “Happy Sam” Sawyer. Of course, to get that information we have to watch Fury endure a dramatic trial after seemingly sabotaging a mission and striking a commanding officer…

Although continuing to draw the magnificent, eye-catching covers, Kirby left the title with this issue. His astounding abilities were more profitably employed in the superhero titles, even as Lee began consolidating the ever-expanding Marvel Universe by utilising more WWII iterations of contemporary characters.

‘The Death Ray of Baron Zemo!’ in #8 pits the Howlers against a Captain America villain recently debuted in The Avengers. Ayers & Roussos capably depict the unit’s attempts to capture the Nazi scientist and a weapon which could shape the outcome of the entire war. The tale also introduced Junior Juniper’s replacement: a rather fruity caricature of a British soldier named Percival Pinkerton, resplendent in horn-rimmed specs, pencil moustache, fuchsia beret and impossibly utilitarian umbrella…

In #9 the implausibly audacious ‘Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler!’ goes awry after the latest Howlers’ invasion of Berlin again brings Fury face-to-face with Wolfgang von Strucker; leading to temporary capture and an astounding escape whilst ‘On to Okinawa!’ in #10 sees the squad achieve greater success when despatched to the Pacific to rescue a captured US colonel from the Japanese.

This tale also saw the debut of a bearded bombastic submarine commander who would become a series regular before eventually winning his own series (Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders) in 1967.

The pace had visibly slowed and melodramatic subplots increased by #11, with ‘The Crackdown of Capt. Flint!’ depicting Happy Sam briefly replaced by a spit-and-polish officer who soon learns the limitations of his ways, after which in #12, a raid on a V1 factory in the heart of Europe seemingly prompts Dino to join the Nazis ‘When a Howler Turns Traitor!’

It was just a pre-arranged ploy though, but sadly nobody told the American commander, who latterly stuck the star in front of a firing squad…

This issue also included a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of Fury by Ayers.

Closing the show on a true high, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13 is arguably the best issue of the entire 167 issue run. The title says it all…

‘Fighting Side-by-Side with… Captain America and Bucky!’ reunited Lee, Kirby & Ayers in a blistering battle yarn as the Howlers crossed paths with the masked Sentinels of Liberty after both teams stumble across a top secret Nazi operation to build an invasion tunnel under the channel to England. To resort to the terms of the times: “Wah-Hoo!”…

Gilding this gladiatorial lily, the book signs off with several contemporary house ads, and full creator biographies.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level if no other, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1963, 1964, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

A Wish for Wings That Work


By Berkeley Breathed (Little, Brown & Co.)
ISBN: 978-0-31610-758-7 (HB)                    978-0-31610 691-7 (PB)

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s Berké Breathed dominated the American newspaper comic strip scene with his astoundingly funny surreal political fantasy strip Bloom County – and latterly Outland – (both fully still available digitally – so don’t wait for my reviews, just get them now!).

At the top of his game he retired from strip cartooning and began to create a series of lavish children’s fantasy picture books – such as Red Ranger Came Calling and Mars Needs Moms! – that rank among the best America has ever produced.

That first foray into the field was A Wish for Wings That Work: a Christmas parable featuring Breathed’s signature character, and his most charmingly human. Opus is a talking penguin, reasonably educated (for America), archaically erudite yet ultimately emotionally vulnerable; insecure yet unfalteringly optimistic. His most fervent dream is that one day he might fly like a “real” bird…

As Christmas approaches his desperation and desolation grow, but he remains dolorously earthbound. And then on December 24th Santa Claus has an accident…

Breathed’s first children’s book is still in many ways his most poignant and joyous. It’s an old-fashioned Christmas miracle tale, laconically told and beautifully painted; stuffed with dry wit and uproarious belly-laughs to melt the hardest heart and it belongs on the bookshelf of every parent.

When the family have almost ruined the holiday, of if you find yourself somewhere other than where you’d want or expect to be, this is what you want to restore your spirits. Kids might like it too…
© 1991, 1995 Berkeley Breathed. All Rights Reserved.

Mega Robo Bros volume 2: Mega Robo Rumble


By Neill Cameron with Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-81-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Future of Fun… 9/10

After far too long an interval, the second sterling all-ages outing for Neill (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) Cameron’s marvellous metal and plastic paladins return to share more of their awesome adventures and growing pains!

It’s the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex and his younger brother Freddie are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, always arguing, but devoted to each other and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were constructed by the mysterious Dr. Roboticus (before he vanished from all human knowledge) and are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

They recently became super-secret agents too, but almost the entire world knows that…

It’s enough for the digital duo that Mum and Dad love them, even though the boys are a bit more of a handful than most kids. They live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of the Mega Robo Routine combining boring lessons, fun with friends, playing games, watching TV and training in the covert combat caverns under RAID HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions for bossy Baroness Farooq, head of government agency R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence). They think it’s because they are infinitely smarter and more powerful than the Destroyer Mechs and other man-made minions she employs…

However, although Dad may be just your average old guy it’s recently become clear that Mum is a bit extraordinary herself and, as renowned boffin Dr. Nita Sharma, harbours some surprising secrets of her own…

All the same, life in the Sharma household is pretty normal. Freddie is insufferably exuberant and over-confident whilst Alex is at the age when self-doubt and anxiety begin to manifest. Of course, their parents’ other robot rescues can be a bit of a trial.

Baby triceratops Trikey with his dog-programming is ok, but French-speaking deranged ape Monsieur Gorilla can be mighty confusing whilst gloomily annoying, existentialist aquatic fowl Stupid Philosophy Penguin constantly quoting dead philosophers all the time makes most people rapidly consider self-harm or manic mayhem …

Culled from the pages of fabulous UK weekly comic The Phoenix, this fistful of fun kicks off with ‘Chapter 1: Mega Robo Schooldays’ as Alex gets a hard time from classmates Mira and Taia. They used to be best friends, but with all his extra-curricular activities the girls are feeling a bit neglected. Alex’s guilt turns to something far worse on Monday at Oak Hill Primary School after a heated football match leads bully Jamal to make a startling accusation. But actually, how do we know if Alex is a Boy or a Girl…?

Deeply shaken the startled hero naturally asks Mum, and she’s never been more grateful for a sudden sneaky Surprise Giant Robot Attack…

In ‘Chapter 2: Mega Robo Underground’ Alex and Freddie are called in by Baroness Farooq, and jet over to Aldgate Tube Station to battle a colossal driller-droid. Further investigation leads the lads and a R.A.I.D. science team deep, deep into the abandoned transport tunnels beneath the city.

Here they encounter an army of rejected and rebuilt robots all undertaking the bizarre agenda of a crazy bag-lady calling herself “The Caretaker”. When she abruptly loses control of her precious charges, all Hell breaks loose. After a massive fight, she escapes to an even more secret lair and an ongoing repair project with hidden ramifications that will have dire consequences for the bombastic boys and the entire world…

Freddie gets to see Mum’s stern side when she takes him – kicking and screaming – clothes shopping in ‘Chapter 3: Mega Robo Weekend’ after which shameful incident ‘Chapter 4: Mega Robo Celebrities’ zooms in on the price of fame when Prettiest Girl in School Jamila finally notices Alex.

With his shiny head all turned around, he’s in no mood for Freddie’s jealous response: candid home videos posted on VuTube. He’s even less chuffed when the postings go mega-viral but cheers up when Freddie’s celebrity bubble inevitably implodes in a most unfortunate manner…

Wrapping up with a spectacular big finish, ‘Chapter 5: Mega Robo Expo’ finds the kids – and their surprisingly famous mum – as guests of a massive Robot Show. After taking down obnoxious, fame-craving mech-makers Team Robotix in a gladiatorial contest, the lads think the action portion of the entertainment has ended, but then the Caretaker’s darkest secret bursts in with mass-murder in mind…

The huge rampaging robot quickly reinforces all humanity’s fears and anxieties about sentient mechanicals, but as the Mega Robo Bros drive the belligerent Wolfram off, Alex realises with alarm that Mum knows far more about the rogue – and her own “sons” – than she’s letting on…

To Be Continued…

Crafted by Cameron and his doughty colouring assistants Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea), this is another exceedingly engaging romp which rockets along like anti-gravity rollercoaster, blending mirth with warmth, wit and incredible verve. Alex and Freddy are utterly authentic boys, irrespective of their artificial origins, and their antics strike exactly the right balance of future shock, family fun and bombastic superhero action to capture readers’ hearts and minds. What a movie this would make!

Unmissable excitement for kids of all ages and vintage, this is a true “must-have” item.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2016. All rights reserved.

And while we’re talking perfect X-Mas gifts, why not pick up Mega Robo Bros volume 1 and enjoy the whole superb saga to date?

Oor Wullie & The Broons: Cooking Up Laughs!


By Robert Duncan Low, Dudley D. Watkins, Ken H. Harrison & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-0-84535-614-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Fun and an Ideal Last-Minute Gift… 10/10

We always get a wee bit Caledonian come Christmas in Win Wonderworld, so here’s another loving look at a matched pair of Scotland’s greatest exports whilst simultaneously revelling in the Good Old Days of comics…

If you’re too busy to read yet more of my lecturing, hectoring blather, please feel free to skip the review… just as long as you buy these books for yourself or someone in severe need of a good cheering up and infectious laugh…

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest-running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low (1895-1980) in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins (1907-1969); DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips were collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

The shape and structure of British kids cartoon reading owes a huge debt to Robert Duncan Low who was probably DC Thomson’s greatest creative find.

He started at the Scottish publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publications where – between 1921 and 1933 – he conceived and launched the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys. Those rip-roaring illustrated prose periodicals comprised Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

In 1936 his next brilliant idea resulted in The Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post consisting primarily of comic strips. The illustrated accessory premiered on 8th March and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie – both rendered by the incomparable Watkins – were its indisputable stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad unforgettable vernacular. Ably supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.

That came in December 1937 when Low launched DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 (Happy Anniversary, guys!) and early-reading title The Magic Comic the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers. To supplement Beano and Dandy, the ball started rolling again with The Topper, closely followed by a host of new titles such as Beezer and Sparky.

Low’s greatest advantage was always his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s.

Hailing from Manchester and Nottingham, Watkins was an artistic prodigy. He entered Glasgow College of Art in 1924 and before long was advised to get a job at Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating boys’ stories led to comic strip specials and some original cartoon creations.

Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks and Wandering Willie, The Wily Explorer made him a dead cert for both lead strips in the proposed Fun Section and, without missing a beat, Watkins added The Dandy’s Desperate Dan to his weekly workload in 1937, and The Beano’s placidly and seditiously outrageous Lord Snooty seven months later.

Watkins soldiered on in unassailable magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. For all those astonishingly productive years he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week.

His loss was a colossal blow to the company and DC Thomson’s top brass preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven long years before replacement artists were agreed upon. The Dandy reran his old Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with the first Oor Wullie book a year later (thanks to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946) and for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

Every kid who grew up reading comics has their own personal nostalgia-filled nirvana, and DC Thomson have always sagely left that choice to us whilst striving to keep all eras alive with carefully-tooled collectors’ albums like this substantial (225 x 300 mm) hardback Gift Book.

Bright and breezy, the compilation focuses on the characters’ relationship with food – particularly Scotland’s unique and evocative cuisine – through festive occasions, seasonal celebrations and in everyday contexts: especially in comedic situations as comfort or consolation or even hard-won prizes. It’s also jam-packed with some of the best-written and most impressively drawn strips ever conceived: superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…

Moreover, rather than a chronological arc tracing from particularly bleak and fraught beginnings in British history through years of growth, exploration and cultural change, we’re treated to a splendid pick-&-mix protocol: a surprise on every turn of a page with Low and Watkins ably succeeded by Tom Lavery, Peter Davidson, Robert Nixon, Ken H. Harrison, Iain Reid, Tom Morton, Dave Donaldson, Morris Heggie and more.

So What’s the Set Up?: the Brown family dwell together in a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street in timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial everytown Auchentogle (sometimes known as Auchenshoogle and based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow).

As such it’s an ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing. And naturally, such a region was the perfect sounding board to portray all the social, cultural and economic changes that came after the war…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding culinary commander-in-chief Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw and their battalion of stay-at-home kids. These comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane” plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence yet always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage and constantly tries to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and a chance to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But ‘n’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) to fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936 with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The premise is sublimely simply and eternally fresh: an overly-imaginative, impetuous scruff with a weakness for mischief, talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental or adult retribution when appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with too much time on his hands who can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular supporting cast includes Ma and Pa, local beat-Bobby P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and his pals Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later years he’s been caught in the company of sensible schoolgirls like Rosie and Elizabeth

A compilation in monochrome – with some full-colour pages – Cooking Up Laughs! was released in 2016 as part of the admirable drive to keep early material available to fans: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) offering a tasty and tantalising selection curated with an emphasis on the eating habits of the stars.

Eating has always been a perennial and fundamental aspect of both strips (don’t get me started on the sociological value and importance of food in a communal or tribal setting: I’ve been to college twice and did all the reading they told me to!), and the topic has even generated a spin-off line of Maw Broon Cook Books

Divided by colour cover or title-pages from previous Annuals, the endless escapades of the strip stars comprise the happily standard fare: kids outsmarting older folk to score sweets and prohibited provender; pompous male adults making galling goofs and gaffes when cooking; family frolics and festival events: rules of rationing and home-grown garden gifts; etiquette outrages: the penalties of gorging; stolen candies, Christmas revels, how to drink Tea and even some full-colour puzzle pages to digest…

Also on show are Scots-specific treats and techniques such as Clootie Dumpling disasters; the mysteries of Fruit; the makings of “a Piece”; Fish Suppers and the miracle of Cheps; how to present Crofter’s Porridge; the marvel of Mince ‘n’ Tatties; better things to do with Neeps; dieting dos and don’ts and every manner of sweet and savoury sampling of succulence and sinfulness…

With snobs to deflate, bullies to crush, duels to fight, chips to scoff, games to win and rowdy animals (from cats to cows) to escape, the eternally affable humour and gently self-deprecating, inclusive frolics make these superbly crafted strips an endlessly entertaining, superbly nostalgic treat.

Packed with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy holiday without that, can you?

© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2016.