Bosnian Flat Dog

By Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-740-7 (PB)

Very much in the far-too-large category of “why is this out of print and not available digitally?”, here’s a bizarre treat from long ago that you can still find with luck and persistence. And you should…

This manic lost gem is a startling and powerful excursion into the “collective unconsciousness of the Balkans” which resulted in a surprisingly compelling and funny tale from two of Sweden’s finest comic makers. It first emerged appeared in Death & Candy #2-4 before being remastered for this deliciously dark and daft tome which broke loose in 2006. Ostensibly, this is the account of a journey by the creators to Slovenia and an alternative cartoonists convention that spirals inescapably into a manic road-movie quest.

Just after they decide to reimburse an old friend for a story they had “borrowed” for their latest comic creation, an out-of-control ice cream truck begins shooting at them. After miraculously surviving, they discover amongst the debris an engraved grenade shell with the word “Sarajevo” on it. Taking this as sign that they must do the right thing, they resolutely embark on a Kafka-esque trip to the troubled Balkans. Along the way they encounter zombies, mummies, war atrocities and a man who has a refrigerator in his car containing the corpse of Marshal Tito (look him up if you have to and, in your next life, stay awake in history class).

Not to mention that rare breed of hound: The Bosnian Flat Dog

More treatise than adventure, and savagely underpinned by the appalling realities of the Sarajevo crisis at its worst, this thought-provoking psycho-comedy has compelling pictures, dark whimsy and enough fourth-wall contravention to supply the reader with much metaphysical and social meat to digest long after they’ve finished reading. As surreal as it seems, though, there is still a distressing amount of truth still to be found amid the icons of the fantasy world. This is a damned compelling book if you want a read that will wake you up and not lull you to sleep.
© 2006 Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, John Tartaglione & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5959-9 (HB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top, rowdy and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunchand The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963; one of three action teams concocted by creative men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as the comics publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when TV espionage shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Mission: Impossible and the James Bond film franchise became global sensations.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics and tales, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: people and places grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable. The artist had served in some of the bloodiest battles of the war and never forgot the horrific, heroic things he saw (and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at numerous publishers). However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences couldn’t help but seep through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – sadly – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic and was quickly moved on, leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire original run of the series (95 issues plus Annuals) until its transition with #121 (July 1974) to a reprint title. This version carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981, with #167.

Former serviceman Lee remained as scripter until he too was pulled away by the developing Marvel phenomenon, after which a succession of youthful, next-generation writers took over, beginning with Roy Thomas who provides welcome background and informative anecdotes in his Introduction, after which this fourth ferocious hardback and eBook compendium re-presents Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #33-43; spanning August 1966 to June 1967).

Crafted by regulars Thomas, Ayers and inker John Tartaglione, the action opens with ‘The Grandeur that was Greece…’as the squad are despatched to aid partisan and freedom fighters keep Greek treasures and historical artefacts out of Nazi hands. Unfortunately, it’s an elaborate trap that leaves many good men dead and the unit captured with only Fury free to save them…

Bloodied but unbowed, Fury then reviews his barnstorming early life and ‘The Origin of the Howlers!’ before #35 sees him infiltrate the heart of Nazi darkness to stage a ‘Berlin Breakout!’ of the captive Commandos, with the assistance arch rival Sgt. Bull McGiveney and old comrade Eric Koenig: an anti-fascist German with plenty of reasons to fight the Reich…

With the mission deemed a qualified success, ‘My Brother, My Enemy!’ sees Koenig join the squad, replacing a Howler who didn’t return intact. His first official outing takes the team to neutral Switzerland to intercept a Nazi strategist en route to Italy, burdened with the secret that their fanatical target was once his dearest childhood friend…

Issue #37 takes the squad to North Africa in search of charismatic Nazi rabble-rouser The Desert Hawk inciting attacks on British forces. The fiend’s capture reveals a shocking surprise when the warriors find themselves ‘In the Desert… to Die’

Wounded in escaping Berlin, one Howler has been recuperating in Hollywood. His recovery would be greatly aided if a certain doctor could be extracted from occupied Scandinavian island Danton. That and the title ‘This One’s for Dino!’ is all you need to know, after which #39’s ‘Into the Fortress of… Fear!’ focuses on action as the Howlers are despatched to invades a highly-fortified base and destroy a new super-weapon. The site is commanded by steel-fisted fanatic Colonel Klaue, but even he is no match for the Howlers…

After a far from lengthy recovery period, Dino returns in time to cheer on our heroes as they save a French Resistance leader in ‘…That France Might be Free!’, before Klaue returns, leading the Commandos’ arch enemies the Blitzkrieg Squad. The mission also involves an unlikely spy inside the Allied ranks base who pays the ultimate price for the ‘Blitzkrieg in Britain!’

It isn’t named as such, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder grips a Howler in ‘Three Were A.W.O.L.!’, which saw the first script contributions of future scribe Gary Friedrich. When a veteran hero absconds, Fury goes after him, leaving his squad in the unwelcome charge of Bull McGiveney in a demolitions mission deep inside occupied Europe. When the absentees return, it’s only just in time to save them all…

The unlikely escapades pause here with a return trip to North Africa and a brush with Rommel, as ‘Scourge of the Sahara!’ (By Thomas, Friedrich, Ayers & Tartaglione) finds the weary warriors in pursuit of a protype super-tank that could reverse the Desert Fox’s failing fortunes…

Adding lustre to these military milestones, this volume also includes a selection of readers’ designs for the Howlers’ unique unit arm patch (Shoulder Sleeve Insignia for all you army buffs), and a gallery of original art covers and pages by Ayers & Tartaglione.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, practically anti-war explorations of combat and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Couch Tag

By Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-676-8

In modern trend for graphic novels combining autobiography with a touch of therapy as they recount the lives of their authors is well established now, but once such “tragicomics” were a scarce but inviting commodity. Immensely appealing and frequently painfully unforgettable, they prove our medium fully capable of tackling the most contentious issues. One of the most moving and impressive came from veteran Indie cartoonist and mini comics self-publisher Jessie (Dreamtoons; Ten Thousand Things to Do; Lovf: An Illustrated Vision Quest of a Man Losing His Mind) Reklaw: who’s generated unmissable thought-provoking strips and stories since 1995 when he was working towards his doctorate in Artificial Intelligence.

Born in Berkley, California in 1971, he grew up in Sacramento before attending UC Santa Cruz and Yale, and his earliest publications – just like most of his modern output – delved into the phenomena and imagery of dreams. The experimental Concave Up led to syndicated weekly strip dream-diary Slow Wave, which uses readers’ contributions as the basis of the episodes. It ran from 1995 to 2012 in both printed periodicals and as a webcomic and is sorely missed.

His graphic autobiography is just as beguiling: a life reduced to brief vignettes serially grouped into 5 innocuous-seeming chapters which, through cleverly layered and carefully tailored reminiscences, describe Recklaw’s strangely unconventional (if not actually dysfunctional) family and personal struggle for stability.

Primarily crafted in monochrome wash, the history sessions begin with ‘Thirteen Cats of My Childhood’ – which older readers will recognises from Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, where it was also published – wherein succinct and ferociously functional recollections of a succession of ill-starred family pets serves as a splendid and powerfully effective narrative conceit to introduce the far from ordinary Walker clan.

By following the brief lives of ‘Black Star’, ‘Frosty’, ‘The Triplets’, ‘Mischief’, ‘Figgy Pudding’, ‘Gene’, ‘Survivor’,‘Tiger’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Harry’, we see a family of decidedly alternative outlook whilst also relating the rules of the furniture-based children’s game which gives this book its title.

‘A Note About Names Part One’ follows, revealing more about the sensibilities of the author’s parents, after which ‘Toys I Loved’ continues the amazingly instructive anecdotes about formative influences, as games and playthings act as keys to memory in increasingly unsettling, discordant and disturbing tales beginning in infancy with cuddly toy ‘Ruff-Ruff’ and skipping through a childhood dotted with sibling rivalries and sporadic best-friendships.

Jess, Sis, Mom and “Daddy Bill” are all defined courtesy of ‘The Mask’, ‘Me’s’, ‘Blankie’, ‘Sprinkler’, ‘Play-Doh’, ‘Stretch Armstrong’, ‘Six-Million-Dollar Man’, ‘The Hulk’, ‘Firecrackers’, ‘Green Cup’, ‘Diecast Robots’, ‘Drawers’, ‘Comic Books’, ‘Action Figures’, ‘Dirt Pile’, ‘Doll House’ and ‘Barbies’, before the life-changing advent of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

‘The Fred Robinson Story’ details the potentially obsessive nature of teenage pranks with Jess and like-minded buddy Brendan – over a number of years – bombarding a complete stranger with a barrage of creative celebration; turning a random name in a phone book into the recipient of odd gifts and star of music and handmade comic books in ‘The Box’.

The lads develop their musical tendencies in ‘Los Angeles’ and penchant for creative vandalism in ‘Batsigns’, before returning to their lengthy cartooning crusade in ‘Fred Robinson X-ing’: relating how the prank publishing campaign mushroomed and Brendan’s girlfriend Kristin changes the status quo, after which Jess gets a ‘Letter from Norway’ and‘Better Fred’ reveals how things eventually ended…

‘The Stacked Deck’ recounts educational episodes and memorable moments resulting from the entire extended family’s passion for card games and tendency towards compulsive behaviour, as seen in ‘War’, ‘Go Fish’, ‘Spades’, ‘Pinochle’,‘Crazy Eights’, ‘Speed’, ‘Poker’, ‘31’, ‘Rummy’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Spite & Malice’ and ‘Ascension’

Final chapter ‘Lessoned’ is delivered in a succession of distressed colour-segments: raw and disturbing pages of evocative collage and experimental narrative dealing out a unique tarot set of A-to-Z insights and disclosures, beginning with ‘Adults’, ‘Birth’ and ‘the Crash’.

Ranging between early days and contemporary times, the alphabetical summary and keen self-diagnosis continues with ‘Disease’, ‘Earache’, ‘Family’, ‘Gifted’, ‘Humor’ and ‘Invulnerability’, turning a corner towards understanding with ‘Joint’, ‘Kiersey Test’, ‘Legal Guardian’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Number’ and ‘Obsession’.

After cleverly addressing the revelations of the author’s bipolar mood disorder and explosive determination to take control of his life by rejecting sickness and weakness, ‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Question’, ‘Role-Playing’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Tests’ and ‘Unconscious’ carry the account to a new normal with ‘the Vandal’, ‘Walker’, ‘X-Mas’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Zero’.

Bleak yet uplifting, nostalgic and distressing, harsh and blackly funny, Couch Tag is a devastatingly moving account of coping with adverse heredity, sexual deviancy, social nonconformity and familial discord which I suspect could only be told in comics.

This is not a book everyone can like, but it’s definitely a story to resonate with anyone who has felt alone, odd or different.

And surely that’s all of us at some time…
© 2013 Jesse Reklaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Spectacular Spider-Man: Lo, This Monster

By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2064-7 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a character and concept which matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. That thought might well have contributed to a rare Marvel misstep during the 1960s as the House of Ideas increasingly challenged the dominance of DC; finally collected here in its own nostalgia-soaked trade paperback and digital tome for your delight and delectation…

After a shaky start, the Wondrous Wallcrawler quickly became a sensational “must-see” with kids of all ages. Before long, the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics drama would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the (relatively) staid thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated teenager bitten by a radioactive spider during a high school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the Parker did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Crafting a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night, he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made doting Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. When, to his horror, he discovered it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop, and that irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public generally baying for his blood even as he saves them.

Already the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia, the Amazing Arachnid’s rise increased pace as the Swinging Sixties closed, with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades well on the way to being household names. Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as perceived by most kids’ parents at least – and an increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

In 1968, the company finally broke free of a restrictive distribution deal and exponentially expanded. All these factors combined to prompt a foray into the world of oversized mainstream magazines (as successfully developed by James Warren with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) which could be higher priced and produced without restrictive oversight from The Comics Code Authority. The result was the quarterly Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2 (July-November 1968): a genuinely wonder-filled thrill for 9-year-old me, but clearly not the mainstream mass of Marvel Mavens…

Re-presented here are both issues, material from the unpublished third and a variety of background supplements, beginning with that first bombastic booklet.

Following a painted cover – Marvel’s first – by John Romita (senior) and illustrator Harry Rosenbaum, the main feature of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was ‘Lo, This Monster!’ by Lee, John Romita (senior) & Jim Mooney: an extended, political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh tirelessly campaigning to become Mayor, but targeted and hunted by a brutish titan seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter directing the monster’s campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale as described above. ‘In the Beginning…’ is crafted by Lee, with brother Larry Lieber’s pencils elevated by inks-&-tones from the legendary Bill Everett. Rounding out the experience is a tantalising ‘Next issue’ ad which neatly segues into an all-Romita painted cover and the magazine experiment’s premature the conclusion…

Three months later The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 came out. It was radically different from its predecessor. To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had swiftly switched to a smaller size and added comic book colour. It also sported a Comics Code symbol.

A proposed third issue which would have debuted the Prowler never appeared. It was to be the last attempt to secure ostensibly older-reader shelf-space until the mid-1970s. At least the story in #2 was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing in the monthly comic book series by finally revealing how Norman Osborn had shaken off selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic closing battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Green Goblin personality… for the moment…

A full colour teaser for never-seen #3’s “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” leads off the extra features, followed by a Dean White version of #2’s cover which fronted 2012’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 7 and house ads from various 1968 Marvel comics for Spectacular Spider-Man #1 & 2.

Also included are Romita’s original pencils for the covers of both, with the painted end-products by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita respectively and a 1988 text feature from Marvel Visions #29 detailing ‘The Greatest Comics Never Seen’, and offering sketches and unused pages of the antihero we know as The Prowler (who was legendarily invented by schoolboy John Romita Jr.).

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. If you fancy a taste of something simultaneously tried-&-true and spectacularly radical, this might be the book for you.
© 2019 MARVEL

The Steel Claw: Invisible Man

By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-906-4 (TPB)

One of the most fondly-remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973the stunningly gifted Jesús Blasco and his small studio of family members thrilled the nation’s children, illustrating the angst-filled adventures of scientist, adventurer, secret agent and even costumed superhero Louis Crandell.

The majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully, but initially follows the premise of HG Wells’ original unseen adversary as prolific science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer devises a modern spin on the Invisible Man

Another stunning salvo of baby boomer nostalgia from Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand, this first collection is available in paperback and digital editions. The Steel Claw: Invisible Man gathers material from timeless weekly anthology Valiant, spanning 6th October 1962 to 21st September 1963 and stories from the Valiant Annual 1965 and 1966.

Following an Introduction from Paul Grist, the tense drama begins with our eventual hero debuting as a rather surly assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer, working to create a germ-destroying ray.

Crandell is an embittered man, possibly due to having lost his right hand in a lab accident. After his recovery and itsreplacement with a steel prosthetic he is back at work when the prof’s device explodes. Crandell receives a monumental electric shock and is bathed in radiation from the ray-device which, rather than killing him, renders him totally transparent. Although he doesn’t stay unseen forever, this bodily mutation is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his metal hand to disappear.

Kids of all ages, do not try this at home!

Whether venal at heart or temporarily deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society and destruction of property throughout Britain which culminates in an attempt to blow up New York City before he finally coming to his senses. Throughout Crandell’s outrages, Barringer is in guilt-fuelled pursuit, determined to save or stop his former friend…

The second adventure channels another classic (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), intriguingly pitting the Claw against his therapist, who – in an attempt to treat him – is also traumatically exposed to Barringer’s ray. Instead of permanent invisibility, Dr. Deutz develops the ability to transform himself into a bestial ape-man who malevolently turns to crime and frames Crandell for a series of spectacular robberies and rampages.

On the run and innocent for once, Crandell is saved by the intervention of Barringer’s niece Terry Gray. After weeks of beast-triggered catastrophe and panic in the streets, the Steel Claw is vindicated and proved a hero… of sorts…

Bulmer’s next tale changes location to the Bahamas as our star shifts from outlaw to hero. While recuperating on an inventor-friends yacht, Crandell is accidentally embroiled in a modern-day pirate’s attempt to hijack an undersea super-weapon system…

After would-be bullion bandit Sharkey and his nefarious gang steal the device and use it to capture a submarine, their convoluted scheme to rob an ocean liner falters when a steel fisted ghost starts picking them off one by one…

More than any other comics character, the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashions. Starting out as a Quatermass style science fiction cautionary tale, the strip mimicked the trends of the greater world, becoming a James Bond-style super-spy strip with Crandall eventually tricked out with outrageous gadgets, and latterly, a masked and costumed super-doer when TV-show-triggered “Batmania” gripped the nation and the world. When that bubble burst, he resorted to becoming a freelance adventurer, combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals. Before we head too far down that path however, his contributions to Valiant Annuals 1965 and 1966 (released Autumn 1964 and 1965 respectively) afford rather more constrained thrills and chills as Crandell defeats a gang using an electricity-supressing gadget to rob a blacked-out London and one year later aid the Metropolitan police force corral a bunch of apparently invisible bandits dubbed the Phantom Raiders

The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s captivating classicist drawing, his moody staging and the sheer beauty of his subjects make this an absolute pleasure to look at. Buy it for the kids and read it too; this is a glorious book, and brace yourself for even better yet to come …
© 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Last Lonely Saturday

By Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-743-8 (HB)

Award-winning Jordan Crane is a child of the 1970s and first garnered notice in comics circles with his 1996 anthology NON: an experimental vehicle very much in the manner of Art Spiegelman’s Raw and latterly quarterly anthology Uptight.

Working far too slowly for my greedy appetites, he’s also released a trio of graphic novels to date, Col-Dee, children’s adventure The Clouds Above and this one – his first and most moving.

Available in both hardcover and digital editions, The Last Lonely Saturday is crafted in a strange blend of vivid-yet-muted reds and yellows and comedically lugubrious cartoon style. Delivered in two panels per page, it recounts – almost exclusively without dialogue – one quiet day in August when a lonely widower once again diligently makes his way to the florist’s, the cemetery and inevitably the grave of his beloved Elenore.

It’s a ritual he’s enacted for many years, indulging in bittersweet memories as he clings to life while yearning to be reunited with his truly beloved. However, as the endless duty unfolds, events take an oblique turn and melancholy whimsy becomes something more as we’re reminded that it’s not just the living who feel the pangs of loss or yearn for reunion…

Smart, charming, witty and devilishly wry, this is a lost delight that proves the deceptive potency of comics and enduring power of love.
© 2000 Jordan Crane. All rights reserved.

Aquaman: Deadly Waters – The Deluxe Edition

By Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1779502940 (HB)

Aquaman is one of a handful of costumed champions to survive the superhero collapse at the end of the Golden Age. For most of that time he was a rather nondescript and genial guy who – when not rescuing fish and people from sub-sea disasters – solved maritime crimes and mysteries.

The Sea King was created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris, debuting in More Fun Comics #73 (November 1941) in the wake of and in response to Timely Comics’ antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner. Strictly a second stringer for most of his career, Aquaman nevertheless continued on beyond many stronger features; illustrated by Norris, Louis Cazaneuve, Charles Paris, and latterly Ramona Fradon who drew almost every adventure from 1951 to 1961.

When Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s taste for costumed crimefighters with the advent of a new Flash in 1956, National/DC updated its small band of superhero survivors, especially Green Arrow and Aquaman.

As the sixties opened, Aquaman was appearing as a back-up feature in Detective and World’s Finest Comics. Following a team up with Hawkman in Brave and the Bold # 51 and a try-out run in Showcase #30-33, Aquaman made his big leap. After two decades of continuous nautical service, the marine marvel finally got his own comic book (cover-dated January/February 1962).

Now with his own title and soon to be featured in groundbreaking must-see cartoon show the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, our Finned Fury seemed destined for super-stardom, but despite increasingly bold and innovative tales presented with stunning art, his title was cancelled just after the decade closed. Towards the end, outrageously outlandish crime and sci fi yarns gave way to grittily hard-edged epics steered by revolutionary editor Dick Giordano and hot new talents Steve Skeates & Jim Aparo that might arguably be the first sallies of comic books’ landmark socially conscious “relevancy” period…

This compelling compilation – collecting Aquaman volume 1 #49-56 (February 1970 to April 1971) – is available in hardback and digital formats, offering potent dramas that changed perceptions of the amiable aquatic avenger forever as well as concluding his first foray as solo headliner…

Way back in Aquaman #18, (December 1964 and not included here) the marine marvel met extradimensional princess Mera, who became ‘The Wife of Aquaman’ in one of the first superhero weddings of the Silver Age. Talk about instant responsibilities…

A few years later new scripter Steve Skeates and equally fresh-faced illustrator Jim Aparo began an epic extended tale wherein the Sea Lord abandoned all regal responsibilities to hunt for his beloved after she was abducted from his very arms.

After rescuing Mera (in an extended epic collected in a previous volume) Aquaman moved back to Atlantis just in time to become embroiled in one of the earliest incidences of righteous eco-advocacy in American comics. Issue #49 stylishly blends a trip to Alaska, industrial waste dumping, greedy factory owners and an old ally acting as judge, jury and executioner while blowing up chemical plants in terse, potent thriller ‘As the Seas Die’.

With Aquaman and young partner Aqualad reeling from indecision over genuinely momentous issues, the tone abruptly switches for #50 as ‘Can This Be Death?’ sees Aparo stretch his creative muscles and enter the realms of psychodelia when the sea king is ambushed by aliens and banished to an incomprehensible otherworld.

The plot is ostensibly triggered by vengeful archenemy Ocean Master, but Skeates provides plenty of twists and surprises for Neal Adams to cover in his back-up slot ‘Deadman Rides Again!’

A complex braided crossover unfolds over the next three issues with Aquaman surviving bizarre threats and incomprehensible rituals in his exile realm, while the ghost of Boston Brand acts invisibly and intangibly to save the Sea King and prevent an alien invasion plot.

‘The Big Pull’ in #51 sees Aquaman assisted by a mute, nameless companion as he searches for a way home, whilst ‘The World Cannot Wait for a Deadman’ finds the spirit flitting between dimensions with shapeshifting enigma Tatsinda, before the parallel plots converge and complete in #52’s ‘The Traders Trap’ – with Aquaman accidentally abandoning his faithful companion to slavers and returning to face fresh hellion Black Manta before ‘Never Underestimate a Deadman’ sees the extraterrestrial invaders sent packing by the ghost and his new pal…

An element of wry satire underpins ‘Is California Sinking? in #53, as agents of O.G.R.E. dupe a wealthy conservative to buy a nuke and bomb Atlantis in the deranged conviction that his actions will prevent the Golden State from being submerged by tectonic forces. This all happens – and fails – without Aquaman’s interference since he’s still dealing with Black Manta…

It’s back to the surface and a return outing for the gangster who orchestrated Mera’s kidnap in #54 as ‘Crime Wave!’ in a chilling psychodrama which sees ordinary citizens engulfed in mind-controlled malevolence after being “killed” by “Thanatos”. Strangely, a brush with humanity’s death-urge doesn’t do much to stop Aquaman…

Seeking to clear up a loose end, Aquaman seeks to liberate his former otherworldly companion in #55’s ‘Return of the Alien!’ but gets a big shock when he confronts the slavers after which short sharp salutary vignette ‘Computer Trap!’ offers a never-untimely parable warning of the perils of mechanisation, dangers of conformity and benefits of youthful rebellion.

Despite producing some of the most avant-garde, intriguing, exciting and simply beautiful adventures of Aquaman’s entire career, Skeates & Aparo signed off with the next issue, more victims of the industry shift from Super Hero to supernatural themes. Aquaman #56 saw the series cancelled but the creators went out with a typically multi-layered bang as ‘The Creature that Devoured Detroit!’ saw the Sea King battling a mammoth unstoppable fungal bloom inundating Motor City, thanks to perpetual sunlight caused by a satellite designed by a vigilante to cut crime by abolishing night and shadows…

The madcap, trenchant and action-packed yarn is counterbalanced by a short Aquagirl yarn warning of ‘The Cave of Death!’

Augmented by a brace of Skeates-scribed ‘The Story Behind the Story’ text pages from Aquaman #52 and #54; creator biographies and a truly stunning gallery of eye-catching experimental covers by Nick Cardy, this collection is a treasure of lost wonders, worthy of far more attention than they’ve received. Time to balance those scales, adventure fans…
© 1970, 1971, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Zara Slattery (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-66-5 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-912408-78-8

Since the pandemic struck, everyone’s notion of what terror looks and feels like has fundamentally changed. That has never been more apparent than in recent medical dramas and attains even more horrific poignancy when the story being told is true.

That’s certainly the case in this astounding autobiographical inner excursion from cartoonist, illustrator and educator Zara Slattery, who barely survived an inexplicable and escalating medical crisis in 2013 that forever changed her life and those of her husband and children.

As she battled for her life in the Intensive Care Unit of Brighton hospital – spending 15 days in a coma and months after in recovery – her overwhelmed man Dan and their kids began recording events in diaries. This was at the suggestion of the nurse in charge, whose own medical notes append the saga: written in ICU to update the critical patient of what was occurring for when – or if – she woke up…

All those disparate records were used by Slattery to craft an interlocking narrative of how life went on around her and act as a grounding touchstone for the other portions of this book. These sections are wildly delirious and hallucinogenic trials experienced by the comatose artist who recalls ceaseless, terrifying, guilt-&-shame flavoured trials and phantasms, possibly triggered by exterior events unconsciously absorbed as she lay dying…

Broken into day chapters spanning ‘Wednesday 22nd May’ to ‘Saturday 8th June’, the intimate excursion details how as Zara slowly succumbs to agonising infection; how Dan adapts to being a sole parent to children too smart to fool for long, and how a host of friends and relatives desperately rally round to wait out the crisis, retreating into comforting routine, platitudes and endless hope…

It’s easy – and painfully correct – to declare that a graphic narrative this intensely personal attains universal poignancy in these days of plague, but even if the last two years never happened, Coma would still be an incredible blend of prosaic everyday coping, paean to nurturing support and horrific hell-bound rollercoaster ride.

Its interweaving of matter-of-fact necessities with the blistering shock of comatose fever dreams powerfully unpicks cruel modern myths – such as any ailment can be defeated if the “victim” fights hard enough, or notions of “unfair” or “undeserved” illness – and focuses attention on where it belongs: on patients, suffering friends and despondent family helplessly watching from the side-lines and indomitable medical professionals prove themselves the world’s real heroes.

Mesmerising, compelling and potently understated, this pictorial memoir is unlike any graphic novel you’ve ever seen, but you know the cure for that, right?
© Zara Slattery 2021. All rights reserved.

Coma is schedule for release on May 13th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

The Hidden

By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-385-6 (HB)

One of the cruellest side-effects of the current pandemic is its power to cut you down emotionally and fill you with guilt over things you have no power to control. Prime offender for me is finding out people I like admire or just simply know have gone, and I’m probably the last to know. Just like this guy…

Richard Sala was a lauded and brilliantly gifted exponent and creator of comics who deftly blended beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly cheesy comics and old horror films – with a hypnotically effective ability to tell a graphic tale.

A child who endured sustained paternal abuse, Sala grew up in Chicago and Arizona. Retreating into childish bastions of entertainment he eventually escaped family traumas and as an adult earned a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. He became an illustrator after rediscovering the youthful love of comic books and schlock films that had brightened his youth.

His metafictional, self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw, Blab! and Prime Cuts and animated adaptations of the series were produced for Liquid Television.

His work remains welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events, monsters and manic mysteries, with girl sleuth Judy Drood and the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia the most well-known characters in his gratifyingly large back catalogue.

Sala’s art is a joltingly jolly – if macabre – joy to behold and has also shone on many out-industry projects such as his work with Lemony Snickett, The Residents and even Jack Kerouac; illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake.

One of my personal favourites is The Hidden which revels in the seamy, scary underbelly of un-life: an enigmatic quest tale following a few “lucky” survivors who wake up one morning to discover civilisation has succumbed to an inexplicable global Armageddon. The world is now a place of primitive terror, with no power, practically no people and ravening monsters roaming everywhere.

Trapped on in the fog on a mountain, Colleen and Tom emerge into the world of death and destruction before promptly fleeing back to the wilderness. As they run, they encounter an amnesiac bum, who uncomprehendingly leads them to other young survivors – each with their own tale of terror – and together they seek a place of sanctuary in the desert and the shocking true secret of the disaster…

Clever, compelling and staggeringly engaging, this fabulous full-colour hardback (also available in digital formats) is a perfect introduction to Sala’s world: a sublimely nostalgic escape hatch back to those days when unruly children scared themselves silly under the bedcovers at night. It is an ideal gift for the big kid in your life – whether he/she/they are just you, imaginary or even relatively real…
© 2011 Richard Sala. All rights reserved.

The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime

By Ted Cowan, Jerry Siegel & Reg Bunn (Rebellion)
ISBN 978-1-78108-905-7 (TPB)

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at certain comic collections is to make sure to remove the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week in the long ago and long-missed.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself – no pleasant task, I assure you – I can honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling, caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two (later three) pages per episode, so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

Part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand and available in paperback and digital editions, The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime is the opening salvo of what I hope is many welcome returnees. It gathers material from peerless weekly anthology Lion spanning June 26th 1965 to June 18th 1966 and that year’s Lion Annual which for laborious reasons is designated 1967.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal of all time. As conceived by writer/editor Ted Cowan – who among many other venerable triumphs, also scripted Ginger Nutt, Paddy Payne, Adam Eterno, and created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – the flamboyantly wicked narcissist begins his public career by recruiting a crime specialists safecracker Roy Ordini and evil inventor Professor Pelham before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

A major factor in the eerily eccentric strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating – not to say downright creepy – artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His intensely hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing or more believable weird weapons and monsters.

Bunn was an absolute master of his field art whose work in comics – spanning 1949 to his death in 1971 – such as Robin Hood, Buck Jones, Black Hood, Captain Kid and Clip McCord – was much beloved. Once the industry found him, he was never without work. He died on the job and is still much missed.

Also scripted by Cowan, second adventure ‘The Return of the Spider’ sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a swaggering arrogant super-criminal who uses incredible optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider must crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity.

The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but must settle for his defeated rival after weeks of devious plotting, bold banditry and spectacular serialized thrills and chills.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to the Man of Steel.

The aforementioned criminal scientist of the title here is another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle – broken on repeated occasions by a crafty subplot wherein the mastermind’s treacherous, newly-expanded gang of thugs seek to abscond with his stockpiled loot whenever he appears to have been killed – is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics.

By the time of the final serialised saga herein contained – ‘The Spider v. The Android Emperor’ – the page count was up to 4: packed with fabulous fantasy and increasingly surreal exploits as the Arachnid Archvillain battles the super science of a monster-making maniac who might have survived the sinking of Atlantis but somehow gets his fun from baiting and tormenting the self-styled king of crime. Big mistake…

The book concludes with a short yarn from the 1967 Lion Annual. ‘Cobra Island’ gives the artist a chance to show off his skills with brushes and washes as the piece was originally printed in the double-tone format (in this case black and red on white) which was a hallmark of British annuals.

It finds the mighty Spider and Pelham drawn to an exotic island where plantation workers are falling under the spell of a demonic lizard being… but all is not as it seems and the very real danger is more prosaic than paranormal…

Also offering an introduction from Paul Grist and full creator biographies, this initial collection confirms that the King is back at last and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

Bizarre, baroque and often simply bonkers, The Spider proves that although crime does not pay, it always provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun…
© 1965, 1966, 1967 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.