Toys in the Basement


By Stéphane Blanquet, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-402-6 (HB)

It’s a bumper time if you have kids who love the grimmer side of storytelling.  Here’s a superb slice of macabre all-ages Euro-whimsy, courtesy of the wildly talented and incredibly prolific Stéphane Blanquet (more than 64 art books, graphic novels, collaborative works and books for kids published since 1994 including Dungeon: Monstres volume 2, Kramer’s Ergot, and Zero Zero).

Do you remember the heart-wrenching scene in the 1964 stop-motion television classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer when he finds the Island of Misfit toys? Do you recall how all they wanted was children to love them? Hold on to that thought…

At a Halloween fancy-dress party a disgruntled little boy is sulking. In his heart he’s a vicious pirate king, but his cheapskate mother would only pay for a pink bunny costume nobody else wanted…

As the other kids tease and bully him, he retreats to a corner where he meets a geeky kid in a chicken suit.

Poultry boy has a broken leg and a raging thirst, but his friend – a girl in a kitten outfit – has been down in cellar fetching drinks for ages. After some pleading, Pink Bunny, keen to avoid further embarrassment, or to be seen with a nerd dressed like a chicken, goes after her.

At the bottom of the stairs he finds her paralysed with fear: the basement is filled with maimed and broken toys, alive, angry and determined to wreak bloody vengeance on the cruel children who maltreated and abandoned them. Luckily, because of their stupid outfits, the toys assume the kids too are dolls, because if they were real children…

Playing for time, Catgirl and Bunnyboy follow the maladjusted playthings to a vast underground cavern where all broken toys are massing, readying for the day they will rise and take over. The children gasp in horror at the artificial army’s secret weapon – a gigantic ravenous Frankensteinian beast named Amelia, cobbled together from thousands of discarded toy fragments, all hungry for righteous slaughter…

It’s at that moment Chicken-boy stumbles upon them and blows their cover…

Dosed with dry, mordant wit and just the right tone of macabre Ghost Train suspense, Toys in the Basement is a simply terrific goose-bumpy thriller rendered magical by the wildly eccentric, brilliantly imaginative and creepily fluid artwork of Blanquet. This dark delight – sadly only available in physical hardback form – also has the perfect moral message for loot-hungry, attention-deprived youngsters – and their kids and grandchildren too.
© 2005 Editions La Joie de Lire SA. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 9


By Steve Englehart, John Warner, Tony Isabella, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins, Herb Trimpe & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-3029-0345-9 (HB)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a bombastic, dynamic and highly visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss.

He faded away during the post-war reconstruction but briefly reappeared after the Korean War: a harder, darker sentinel ferreting out monsters, subversives and the “commies” who lurked under every brave American kid’s bed. Then he vanished once more until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time for the turbulent, culturally divisive 1960s.

By the time of the tales gathered in this nifty ninth Masterworks volume (available in luxurious hardback and accessible eBook formats and re-presenting issues #176-192 of Captain America and the Falcon from August 1974 to December 1975), the once convinced and confirmed Sentinel of Liberty had become a lost symbol of a divided nation, uncomfortable in his red, white and blue skin and looking to carve himself a new place in the Land of the Free. Calamitous events were about to put paid to that particular American dream…

Following an informative behind-the-scenes farewell reminiscence from scripter Steve Englehart in his Introduction, the action opens here with a shocking transformation.

At this time America was a nation reeling from a loss of idealism caused by Vietnam, Watergate and the (partial) exposure of President Richard Nixon’s crimes.

The general loss of idealism and painful public revelations that politicians are generally unpleasant – and even possibly ruthless, wicked exploiters – kicked the props out of most Americans who had an incomprehensibly rosy view of their leaders, so a conspiracy that reached into the halls and backrooms of government was extremely controversial yet oddly attractive in those distant, simpler days…

Following an attempt by sections of the elected government to undemocratically seize control of the country by deceit and criminal conspiracy (sounds like sheer fantasy these days, doesn’t it?) Captain America had foiled and exposed the plot but could no longer be associated with a tarnished ideal.

Issue #176 sees shocked, stunned Steve Rogers search his soul and realise he can not be the symbol of such a country. Despite the anxious arguments and advice of his Avenging allies he decides that ‘Captain America Must Die!’ (by Englehart, Sal Buscema & Vince Colletta).
Unable to convince him otherwise, staunch ally Sam Wilson/the Falcon carries on alone, tackling the following month an invasion by body-snatching old X-Men foe in ‘Lucifer be thy Name’ before wrapping up the threat in KIf the Falcon Should Fall…!’

Meanwhile, as Steve Rogers settles into an uncomfortable retirement, a number of painfully unqualified civilians begin trying to fill the crimson boots of Captain America… with dire results…

Captain America and the Falcon #179 finds unsettled civilian Rogers hunted by a mysterious Golden Archer whose ‘Slings and Arrows!’ convince the ex-hero that even if he can’t be a Star-spangled sentinel of liberty, neither can he abandon the role of do-gooder: leading to a life-changing decision and ‘The Coming of the Nomad!’ in #180. Typically, the sinister Serpent Squad turn up again with psychotic Princess Python in tow and maniac nihilist Madame Hydra murderously assuming the suddenly vacant role of the Viper

When “the Man Without a Country” tackles the ophidian villains, he fares badly but stumbles across a sinister scheme by the Squad and Sub-Mariner‘s arch-nemesis Warlord . The subsea tyrant – in the grip of ancient evil forces – seeks to raise a sunken continent and restore an ancient civilisation in ‘The Mark of Madness!’

At the same time Falcon is ignoring his better judgement and training a determined young man to become the next Captain America…

A glittering era ended with #182 as Sal Buscema surrendered Captain America and newspaper-strip creator Frank Robbins came aboard for a controversial run, beginning with ‘Inferno!’ (inked by Joe Giella). Whilst Nomad successfully mops up the Serpent Squad – despite well-meaning police interference – Sam and Cap’s substitute encounter the Sentinel of Liberty’s greatest enemy… with fatal consequences…

The saga shifts into high gear as ‘Nomad: No More!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) find shamed, grief-stricken Steve Rogers once more taking up his stars and stripes burden as the murderous Red Skull simultaneously attacks the hero’s loved ones and dismantles America’s economy by defiling the banks and slaughtering the financial wizards who run them.

Beginning in the chillingly evocative ‘Cap’s Back!’ (Herb Trimpe, Giacoia & Mike Esposito), rampaging through the utterly shocking ‘Scream of the Scarlet Skull!’ (art by Sal Buscema, Robbins & Giacoia), it all climaxes in ‘Mindcage!’ (with additional scripting from John Warner and art by Robbins & Esposito) wherein our titular hero’s greatest ally is apparently revealed as his enemy’s stooge and slave…

The Red Skull, in all his gory glory, gloatingly revealed that his staggeringly effective campaign of terror was as nothing to his ultimate triumph, and that the high-flying Falcon had been his unwitting secret weapon for years: originally a cheap gangster named “Snap” Wilson, radically recreated and reprogrammed by the Cosmic Cube to be a perfect partner for Captain America and a tantalising, ticking time bomb waiting to explode…

Captain America and the Falcon #187 opens on ‘The Madness Maze!’ (Warner, Robbins & Frank Chiaramonte) with the Skull fled and a now-comatose Falcon in custody of super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Suddenly, the Star-Spangled Avenger is abducted by a mysterious flying saucer and attacked by alchemical androids employed by a rival espionage outfit, culminating in a ‘Druid-War’ (Warner, Sal B & Colletta), before Tony Isabella, Robbins & Chiaramonte put Cap into an ‘Arena For a Fallen Hero!’ wherein psychological warfare and unarmed combat combine into a risky shock therapy to kill or cure the mind-locked Wilson.

Just as the radical cure kicks in, an old foe takes over S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying HQ in ‘Nightshade is Deadlier the Second Time Around!’ (Isabella, Robbins & Colletta), after which the crimes of forcibly-reformed Snap Wilson are re-examined and judged in an LA courtroom in climactic wrap-up ‘The Trial of the Falcon!’ (Isabella, Bill Mantlo, Robbins & D. Bruce Berry): proffering a predictable court ruling, a clutch of heroic cameos and a bombastic battle against the sinister Stilt-Man – hired by mob bosses to ensure Snap’s silence on his gangland activities…

With the narrative decks cleared, Captain America and the Falcon #192 featured an ingenious, entertaining filler written by outgoing editor Marv Wolfman, illustrated by Robbins & Berry, wherein Cap hops on a commercial flight back to the East Coast and finds himself battling deranged psychiatrist Dr. Faustus and a contingent of mobsters on a ‘Mad-Flight!’ thousands of feet above New York.
With all plots safely settled, the stage was set for the return of Captain America’s co-creator: Jack Kirby was returning with a bombastic fresh take that would take the Sentinel of Liberty into regions never before explored… but that’s the concern of another book and review…

Back here, however, there’s still more fun to be had via selections from Marvel fan mag FOOM #8: an all cap issue.

As well as a John Romita & Esposito cover, there’s historical overview “Well Come on, All You Big Strong Men…” by Roger Stern – and with early art from John Byrne -, text profiles of Bucky (‘Manchild in a Troubled Land’) and Falcon (“He Was Only Waiting For This Moment to Arise…”) and a photo-feature on the wartime cinema serial in ‘Star of the Silver Screen’.

The extracts conclude with bio page ‘Joe Simon and Jack Kirby: “By their works shall ye know them” and a back cover by Romita and Byrne, after which the cover of all-reprint Giant-Size Captain America #1 precedes a gallery of original art pages by Ron Wilson, Romita & Giacoia, Buscema & Colletta, and Robbins and Chiaramonte & Berry. Wrapping up the extras are the Cap & Falcon pages by Romita from The Mighty Marvel Calendar for 1975.

Despite the odd cringe-worthy story moment (I specifically omitted the part where Cap battles three chicken-themed villains for example, and still wince at some of the dialogue from this forthright and earnest era of “blaxsploitation” and ethnic awareness) these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed, totally engrossing fights ‘n’ tights that no comics fan will care to miss, and joking aside, the cultural significance of these tales were crucial in informing the political consciences of the youngest members of post-Watergate generation…

Above all else ‘though, these are fabulously fun tales of an irresistible American Dream…
© 1974, 1975, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 8

By Chris Claremont, Chuck Austen, Joe Kelly, John Byrne, Ron Garney, Doug , Jerry Ordway, Tom Nguyen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6342-3 (TPB)

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – were relaunched in 1997, the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones. However, fans are fickle and the intoxicating sheen of “fresh and new” never lasts. By the time of these tales – spanning May to November 2004 from JLA #94-106 plus material from JLA Secret Files 2004 #1 – there had been numerous changes of creative personnel… usually a bad omen… and a certain straying from the clear missions of the earliest adventures…

As you’ve come to expect by now, this volume is available in all digital formats as well as traditional trade paperback…

After battling all manner of contemporary and futuristic foes, in ‘Suffer the Little Children’ the World’s Greatest Superheroes now find themselves pitted against an ancient malevolence from out of Earth’s oldest nightmares. Contrived by a trio of the industry’s biggest talents – Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Jerry Ordway – the expansive saga originally ran in issues #94-99 of the monthly title.

When team mystic Manitou Raven divines that a great evil has come hunting, he is suddenly silenced before he can warn his comrades. As Batman and Flash follow a rash of global child disappearances, Superman is astonishingly defeated by a pair of strange juvenile runaways.

Comparing notes with other JLA members the heroes discover a pattern of metagenic abductions: someone or something is taking super-powered children…

Meanwhile an enthralled Man of Steel has become the slave – and ambulatory lunchbox – of diabolical vampire lord Crucifer, whose race of undying leeches has been secretly working to conquer the world since their initial defeat and extra-dimensional banishment by the Amazon warriors of Themyscira thousands of years previously.

‘The Enemy Within’ sees team boffin The Atom lost in a microverse within a magic artefact and meeting a lost race with a hidden connection to the crisis, even as a mysterious third force of freaks maneuverers for advantage in the background. When Wonder Woman consults ancient scroll records she is betrayed and attacked by her closest ally and the crucial data is erased…

As the beleaguered and outclassed heroes strive to cope, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ sees Martian Manhunter use his unique gifts to trace the Atom, but even as master tactician Batman works to counter the infallible plans of their hidden enemy, his ace in the hole Faith falls to Crucifer’s power…

And in the background, that shady band of outcasts undertakes their own plan to save the day…

‘Interludes on the Last Day of the World!’ sees the vampire resurgence edge ever closer. With Crucifer’s abducted metahuman victims acting as shock troops and physical hosts for the bloodsucking arcane exiles, the embattled remnants of the JLA reconsolidate and ally themselves with the skulking outsiders watching them, just as the vampire lord opens a hole into hell and bids his kin to freely enter…

The fightback begins in ‘Convergence’ with the rescue of the Atom whose fresh data provides the answer to the mystery of Crucifer’s seeming invulnerability, leading to a mass assault and ultimate victory by the competing teams of heroes in ‘Heartbreaker!’

The former X-Men creative team supreme reunited for this supernatural romp, but their old magic was sorely lacking: Byrne co-writing with Claremont and pencilling for the criminally underappreciated Jerry Ordway to ink and embellish is a far better “look” than “read”.

Comic fans love these sorts of nostalgia stunts, but sadly, the results here don’t really live up to expectations, resulting in a competent but predictable heroes-versus-vampires yarn that suffers greatly because it’s painfully obvious that the whole thing is a high-profile, extended gimmick designed to kick-start Byrne’s then-forthcoming reinvention of the Doom Patrol, and not really a JLA story at all…

Most comic books – indeed all popular fiction – are a product of or reaction to the times in which they are created. In the grim, authoritarian, morally ambiguous climate of post 9-11 America writer Joe Kelly wrote an issue of Action Comics (#775) addressing the traditional ethics and practices of ultimate boy scout Superman in a world where old values were seen as a liability and using “The Enemy’s” own tactics against them was viewed with increasing favour by the public.

‘What’s So Funny about Truth, Justice and the American Way’ (not included here) introduced super-Esper Manchester Black and his team of Elite metahumans who responded proactively and with extreme overkill to global threats and menaces in such a drastic and final manner that Superman was forced to take a long, hard look at his core beliefs before triumphing over a team who saw absolutely no difference between villains, monsters or people who disagreed with them…

In a distressing sign of those times, The Elite proved so overwhelmingly popular that they returned in JLA #100. ‘Elitism’ – by Kelly, Doug Mahnke & Tom Nguyen – depicts how the team, led now by Black’s cyborg sister Vera, at first oppose and eventually cooperate with the traditionally-minded JLA to save Earth from a catastrophic ecological and metaphysical meltdown – but all is not as it seems…

Vera Black correctly assesses the fundamental flaws in her methodology but also similar weaknesses in the JLA’s. She proposes becoming the League’s “Black Ops” division, gathering intel, working undercover and decisively dealing with potential threats before they become global crises. Her team will get their hands dirty in a way the JLA simply cannot afford to…

Over Superman’s protests, but with stringent oversight in place and using a combination of Elite and League volunteers, the plan is adopted and Justice League Elite subsequently won their own 12-issue series with Major Disaster, Green Arrow, Manitou Raven, and Flash joining Vera, energy manipulator Coldcast, human bio-weapon arsenal Menagerie and Naif al-Sheikh (a human spymaster who acts as): Director, Adjudicator and Conscience for a unit designed to neutralise organizations and nations that threaten World Security before things ever reach a boiling point.

JLA Secret Files 2004 develops the controversial theme in ‘Same Coin’, by Kelly, Byrne, Mahnke & Nguyen, wherein the two teams work separately – and mostly at odds – to stop a Hitlerian Ragnarok from occurring thanks to illicit use of mystic doomsday weapon the Spear of Destiny…

Getting over a post-celebration hump is always tricky for a long-running comic series. An anniversary or centenary is usually celebrated by some large-scale cosmos-shaking exploit which it’s impossible to top, leading to an anti-climactic “day in the life” venture. In the case of story arc Pain of the Gods – reprinting JLA #101-106 – Chuck Austen & Ron Garney take that hoary tradition, and indeed the equally tired plot of heroes’ soul-searching angst after a failure to succeed, and run with it to produce a stirring, potent exploration of humanity too often absent in modern adventure fiction.

Each chapter deals with an emotional crisis affecting an individual Leaguer who fails to save a life, beginning with Superman in ‘Man of Steel’ as the perfect hero misjudges the abilities of a new costumed champion and witnesses the wannabe hero perish in explosive conflagration…

‘Scarlet Speedster’ treads similar ground as Flash misses two children whilst evacuating a burning building and Green Lantern misjudges the homicidal determination of a domestic abuser in ‘Emerald Gladiator’. Throughout each of these tragedies a single family reappears; fuelling the emotional turmoil pushing each hero into obsession and psychosis.

In ‘Manhunter from Mars’ team telepath and philosophical lynchpin J’onn J’onzz is forced to confront the life-long emotional barriers distancing him from his companions and resulting from surviving the death of his entire species, whilst Wonder Woman faces her own mortality whilst battling a super-killer in ‘Amazonian Warrior’ before Batman ultimately must acknowledge that he can’t know and do everything alone in ‘The Dark Knight’

The entire story can be viewed as a treatise on fallibility and post-traumatic distress with superheroes acting as metaphors for Police and Firemen, and the cleverly-inserted sub-plot of a seemingly mundane family seeking redress plays well against the tragic grandeur of the stars. It’s grand to see a superhero tale that thinks with a heart rather than acts with gaudily gloved fists for a change…

The JLA – in all its incarnations – has endured a long history of starting strong but losing focus, and particularly of coasting by on past glories for extended periods. Luckily the team still had a few more tricks left during this period and a little life in it before the inevitable demise and reboot for the next generation after Final Crisis: offering plenty of fun and thrills for casual readers and full-on fans alike.
© 2004, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Umbrella Academy volume 3: Hotel Oblivion


By Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá, with Nick Filardi & Nate Piekos (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50671-142-3 (TPB)

Superheroes have been around so long now that they’ve been able to evolve into different sub-sets: straight Save-the-World continuity types as championed by DC and Marvel, obsessively “real” or rationalist iterations such as Marvelman, Crossfire or Kick-Ass, comedic spins like Justice League International or Next Wave and some rare ducks that straddle a few barstools in between.

Addressing the same Edgy, Catastrophic Absurdism as Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol, the archly anti-didactic antics of The Umbrella Academy offered readers a subtly subversive take on the idiom which impressed the heck out of everybody and lured many disillusioned fans back to the pitifully tired and over-used genre when first released. Author creator Gerard Way even parlayed the extraordinary success of the Weird Science heroes into a TV series for the team and built a second creative career steering DC’s outré, off-the-wall Young Animal imprint of alternative heroes…

Now a decade later, a new miniseries has resulted in the long-awaited third collected volume (available in trade paperback and digital formats) and is presented here with an effulgent Introduction from star writer and late-converted fan Jeff LeMire…

Once upon a time a strange event occurred. All across Earth, 43 babies were unexpectedly born as the result of apparent immaculate conceptions – or perhaps some kind of inexplicable parthenogenesis.

The births even surprised the mothers, most of whom discarded, abandoned, sold or arranged adoption of their unexpected, terrifying newborns.

Notorious scientist, entrepreneur and closet extraterrestrial Sir Reginald Hargreeves – inventor of the Levitator, mobile umbrella communicator, Clever Crisp cereal, Televator and a process which enabled chimps to speak – had a secret plan, and he knew these kids would all be special. He thus acquired seven of these miracle babies for an undisclosed purpose, subsequently rearing and training the children to become his private superhero team to enact it.

He was in no way a “good” parent…

The callously experimental family, after a spectacular early career, eventually proved to be unmanageable and the Umbrella Academy – created and trained “to save the World” – sundered in grief and acrimony, but not before poor Ben, Number 6 AKA “The Horror”, pointlessly lost his brave young life and Number 5 “The Boy” took a short trip into the future and never came back…

The surviving members of the utterly dysfunctional superhero team parted but were reunited twenty years later when the news broke that Hargreeves – whose nom de guerre was The Monocle – had died. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the news…

In the interim, Number 1 son Luther had become an off-earth defender and pioneer, so hideously damaged by a doomed journey to Mars that to save him, Hargreeves had grafted The Spaceboy‘s head onto the body of a colossal Martian Gorilla.

Poor, neglected Vanya, whose musical gifts Hargreeves deemed utterly useless, became a drop-out and wrote a scandalous tell-all book before becoming a voluntary exile amidst Earth’s lowest dregs. When Number 7 returned she was again rejected by her “family” and summarily seduced by a manic musician who unleashed her true potential and almost destroyed the world with her untapped power…

The Boy returned after 60 years of ranging through the time-stream and materialised in the body of the 10-year old he had been. However, his physical form was frozen and he stopped aging at that moment…

Favourite friend, technologist, housekeeper, actual lifelong care-giver and talking chimp Dr. Pogo had died in Vanya’s – or rather The White Violin‘s – apocalyptic attack which had left Allison (Number 3, The Rumor) with her throat severed, apparently forever deprived of her talent for warping reality with a word…

Diego (Number 2, The Kraken) remained the obsessive scary vigilante psychopath he’d always been but Klaus (Number 4, The Séance) was even weirder than before: a floating, shoeless space-case who talked to the dead and pulled the wings off the laws of physics…

Once upon a time, long ago and whilst still children, the Umbrella Academy saved Washington DC from an animated and extremely angry Lincoln Memorial. They’ve had an odd relationship with American Presidents ever since…

Having saved the entire world from prophesied destruction, the dysfunctional quintet were at a loss and killing time in the rubble of their old home until a fresh crisis boiled over and was cleaned up after The Boy’s hidden sponsors (ruthless chronal cops the Temps Aeternalis) sought to make him fulfil the mission they had originally recruited and rebuilt him for…

Now in the aftermath of the global carnage that generated, the battered survivors recuperate unaware that old ‘Evil’ is manifesting in their midst. Long ago, Hargreeves had taken steps to create the ultimate penitentiary for the violent, vicious, crazy and too-powerful foes of his pet Academy, but now the “guests” of his Hotel Oblivion are successfully checking out…

As The Boy explosively pursues the minion’s of The Perseus Corporation, elsewhere Spaceboy is consulting with aged savant Doctor Zoo. The old duffer is planning a trip into the bizarre region dubbed “Afterspace” in search of a lost legend…

The Séance has fallen very low, trading seedy encounters with dead loved ones for drugs, but when he attempts to scam his biker-thug minders events overtake him just when his old allies leave the universe behind in KMiniature War in a Miniature Home’

With Hargreeves’ guests loose in the hotel, ‘Violence’ mounts in a range of places and dimensions but the greatest threat comes as the nigh-omnipotent Scientific Man gathers his god-like powers and the deadly Murder Magician secures a televator back to Earth…

Chaos increases exponentially as the Academy heroes battle alone against a host of foes and heir own selfish agendas even as Spaceboy braves ‘The Labyrinth’ and discovers lost legend St. Zero hibernating in

The crisis breaks after The Boy’s current target – Perseus X – infiltrates the hotel to liberate his dad and realises that he’s too late… and that something even more diabolical is ‘Free’

With a host of monsters and super-creeps like Doctor Terminal, the Mothers of Agony and Medusa ravaging Earth, as well as the quandaries of an imminent attack by a trans-dimensional behemoth and a mysterious wonder baby and its revenant, rampaging mother to deal with, the scattered young comrades grudgingly work together against ‘The Fear You Cannot Speak’ but their late collaboration is all for naught as a new team of empowered players materialise with a shocking revelation in concluding chapter ‘Reunion’.

Sadly, the big reveal is a cosmic cliffhanger so be prepared for some major frustration…

Big on mood, bafflement-by-design and astounding action, this is compelling adventure if you’re fully au fait with the previous books and prepared to give the events your full attention, but Hotel Oblivion is only the beginning of the drama and should not be consumed casually. Trust me, though, it’s going to be worth it in the end…

Accompanying all the meta-real wonderment are a wealth of sketches, character drawings and variant covers by Way and Bá under the broad remit ‘Designing the Umbrella Academy Hotel Oblivion’.

Whilst happily swiping, homaging, sampling and remixing the coolest elements from many and varied comics sources, The Umbrella Academy offers a unique synthesis to achieve its own distinctive originality within the tired confines of the superhero genre. It’s a reading experience no jaded Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should miss.
© 2019 Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. All rights reserved. The Umbrella Academy™ and all properties are trademarks of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá.

The Adventures of Captain Pugwash: Best Pirate Jokes


By Ian D. Rylett & Ian Hillyard (Red Fox/Random House)
ISBN: 978-1-862-30793-3

The problem with pirates is that they don’t know when enough’s enough, so here’s another review to reconnoitre: tangentially celebrating the greatest buccaneer of all…

John Ryan was an artist and storyteller who straddled three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative if not financial success.

Born in Edinburgh on March 4th 1921, Ryan was the son of a diplomat, served during WWII in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to Fulton Press publications, in the company’s glossy distaff alternative Girl, but most especially in the pages of the legendary “boys’ paper” The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day.

The Eagle was a tabloid-sized paper with full-colour inserts alternating with text and a range of various other comic features. “Tabloid” is a big page and one can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash – The story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many Sticky Ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required throughout the comic every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran (or more accurately capered and fell about) until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship for Ryan who had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent as a full-page (tabloid, remember, an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) from Eagle #16. (I really must reinvestigate the solidly stolid sleuth too sometime soon…)

Tweed ran as a page for three years until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture

In 1956 the indefatigable old sea-dog (I mean old Horatio Pugwash but it could so easily be Ryan) made the jump to children’s picture books. He was an unceasing story-peddler with a big family, and somehow also found time to be head cartoonist for The Catholic Herald for forty years.

A Pirate Story was first published by Bodley Head before switching to the children’s publishing specialist Puffin for further editions and more adventures. It was the first of a vast (sorry, got away with myself again there!) run of children’s books on a number of different subjects.

Pugwash himself starred in 21 tomes; there were a dozen books based on the animated TV series Ark Stories, plus Sir Prancelot and a number of other creations. Ryan worked whenever he wanted to in the comics world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The primary Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations to illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler (1982) entire sequences were lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels per page, and including word balloons. A fitting circularity to his interlocking careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

After A Pirate Story was released in 1957 the BBC pounced on the property, commissioning Ryan to produce five-minute episodes (86 in all from 1957 to 1968: later reformatted in full colour and rebroadcast in 1976). In the budding 1950s arena of animated television cartoons, Ryan developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline.

He began with Pugwash, keeping the adventure milieu, but replaced the shrewish wife with a tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only capable member of a crew which included such visual archetypes as Willy, Barnabas and Master Mate (fat, thin and tall – and all dim), instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule.

Ryan also drew a weekly Captain Pugwash strip in The Radio Times for eight years, before going on to produce a number of other animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge, The Friendly Giant and the aforementioned Sir Prancelot. There were also adaptations of some of his many other children’s books and in 1997 Pugwash was rebooted in an all-new CGI animated TV series.

The first book – A Pirate Story – sets the scene with a delightful clown’s romp as the so-very-motley crew of the Black Pig sail in search of buried treasure, only to fall into a cunning trap set by the truly nasty corsair Cut-Throat Jake. Luckily, Tom is as smart as his shipmates and Captain are not…

A 2008 edition of A Pirate Story from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books came with a free audio CD, and just in case I’ve tempted you beyond endurance here’s a full list of the good (ish) Captain’s exploits that you should make it your remaining life’s work to unearth…:

Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story (1957), Pugwash Aloft (1960), Pugwash and the Ghost Ship (1962), Pugwash in the Pacific (1963), Pugwash and the Sea Monster (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Ruby (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Treasure Chest (1976), Captain Pugwash and the New Ship (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Elephant (1976), The Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book (1977), Pugwash and the Buried Treasure (1980), Pugwash the Smuggler (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Fancy Dress Party (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Mutiny (1982), Pugwash and the Wreckers (1984), Pugwash and the Midnight Feast (1984), The Battle of Bunkum Bay (1985), The Quest of the Golden Handshake (1985), The Secret of the San Fiasco (1985), Captain Pugwash and the Pigwig (1991) and Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward (1991). They are all pearls beyond price and a true treasure of graphic excellence…

Although currently out of print, the assembled Pugwash canon (the only sort this band of rapscallions can be trusted with) are still widely available through online vendors and should be a prize you set your hearts on acquiring.

As you might expect, such success breeds ancillary projects, and cleaving close to the wind and running in the master’s wake is this minor mirthquake that no sassy brat could possibly resist. Compiled by Ian D. Rylett and copiously illustrated by Ian Hillyard in stark monochrome, it’s a fairly standard cartoon joke book as beloved by generations of youngsters and loathed beyond endurance by parents, guardians, older siblings and every other adult whose patience is proven quite exhaustible…

Divided into themed chapters ‘The Captain’s Crackers’, ‘Jakes’ Jests’, ‘Blundering Bucaneersk, KHysterics in the Harbour’, ‘Fishy Funnies’ and ‘All Aboard’, the level of wit is almost lethal in its predictability and vintage (Q: why did the irate sailor go for a pee? A: he wanted to be a pirate.) but the relentless pace and remorseless progression is actually irresistible in delivery.

With the world crashing down around us and the water levels inexorably rising, we don’t have that much to laugh at, so why don’t you go and find something to take your minds off the chaos to come? Your kids will thank you and if you’ve any life left in your old and weary soul, you will too…
Pugwash books © 1957-2009 John Ryan and (presumably) the Estate of John Ryan. All rights reserved.
Best Pirate Jokes © Britt-Allcroft (Development Ltd) Limited 2000. All rights worldwide Britt-Allcroft (Development Ltd) Limited.

Pirate Penguin Vs Ninja Chicken: Troublems with Frenemies


By Ray Friesen (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-071-1 (HB)

Yo Ho-Ho, me Hearties! You know what day it be? International Burble like a Buccaneer Day! Or somesuch festival at least…

Pirates have been a cornerstone of popular fiction for centuries and these days the very best of the genre can usually be found issuing from European shores. However, even these salty swabs often aren’t enough to satiate modern attention-deficient little (sea) urchins, so it’s probably best to beef up the proceedings with an equally-prolific sub-set of thrillingly iconic evil-doers from the recent past, popular mythology and the New World…

Some cartoonists and childrens’ authors like to beguile and bemuse the readership: building mesmerising plots and seducing the attentions. Others – like Ray Friesen – instead choose to hit them with a million gags a minute, getting ‘em all shook up like fizzy, sugar-saturated drinks inexorably building to a big, bombastic explosion and imagination-overload coma…

Making his name with vibrant all-ages volumes such as Lookit! A Cheese Related Mishap, Another Dirt Sandwich or Fairy Tales I Just Made Up: Snarky Bedtime Stories for Weirdo Children, self-made zany Friesen here introduces lifelong foes and best buds each dedicated to propounding their own swashbuckling action-packed philosophies and fighting styles in initial outing ‘Smoothies and Scuffling’ in which the fowl fiends can’t help but prove that they can’t get on for long…

The hunt for appropriate animal companions comes to a typical conclusion in ‘Pet Store Peer Pressure’ and gender identity is cautiously explored in ‘Sticks and Stones and Sugar and Spice’ before ‘Shiny Power Costs Extra’ sees the fighting fools one-upping each other in the armaments race…

A cunning third force and potential mutual adversary debuts in ‘Chameleon Short Circuit’, after which the war of wills resolves into a ‘Question Inquizition’, but halts to allow re-provisioning. Sadly, the clash with ‘Selfish Shellfish’ leaves Ninja Chicken ‘All Alone’ with a deadly yoyo, before the Penguin privateer pops back for tonsorial advice in ‘Follicle Follies’ and makes the ninja deal with a pushy spider in ‘Arachnophobia’

An untitled origami lesson – tricky if you’ve got a hook instead of flippers – then finds ‘Ninja Chicken Vs Somebody Else’ after which ‘Quick! Everybody Disco!’ sees a battle dance off result in a clear victory for one of the ancient adversaries…

Following a fraught and inflammatory ‘Breakfast of Champions’, reality itself gets a soft makeover in ‘Tough yet Fluffy’, after which the dire disadvantages of a ‘Night Fight’ soon become painfully apparent whilst packets of gum cause ‘Bubble Problems’ and inspire a musical interlude in ‘Revenge! The Musical’ as well as a petty encore in ‘Revenge! Revenge Against Stupid Dry Cleaners!’

A flurry of silent gags follows under the umbrella heading of ‘Pirate Penguin Vs Ninja Chicken: Card Trick or Treat’ after which the war goes wide screen in ‘The Biggest, Giantest, Epicest Pirate Penguin versus Ninja Chicken Story Evar!’ (consider yourself warned…)

It all starts over ‘Breakfast’ when Astronaut Armadillo comes to call and the Chicken heads to Vegas for a Ninja convention…

Feeling abandoned, Penguin has ‘More Breakfast’ whilst learning there are worse things than an eternal frenemy. The Chicken also has second thoughts. After enduring an ‘Inflight Snack’, ‘Telephone Calls’ and ‘Walking Calamari’ the allure of hotel accommodation is beginning to pall, but by now the restless pirate soulmate has headed off-planet, encountering ‘Sandwich Inna Tube’, ‘Fancy Space Chocolates’ and a ringside seat to a clash of titans in ‘Astronaut Armadillo versus Cosmonaut Capybara’. Meanwhile, the evil genius behind all the mayhem shares his Machiavellian schemes and things start getting a bit strange…

It all wraps up in blistering fight fashion in ‘Land Ho!’ with a trans-dimensional ‘Epilogue’, offering clarity and the “Endingest End” imaginable…

Added attractions to occupy anybody left capable of coherent thought or movement include an Activities section revealing ‘How to Make a Pirate Hat’, ‘How to Draw Pirate Penguin {both the Quick and Geometric methods!})’, mazes, puzzles, ‘Ninja Chicken’s Extra Hard SuDontku’ and ‘How to Make a Pair of Nunchuks’. Capping it all is a vast (Avast! Gettit?) gallery of guest drawings by the likes of Roger Langridge, Katie Cook and others of the cast and a Fumetti Outroduction from Friesen himself…

Frantic fun, ferociously daft, and available on paper or via the electric ethers, this is a cartoon corsair no kid of any age should steer clear of…
© 2011 Ray Friesen. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 14


By Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Rich Buckler, Ross Andru, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5963-6 (HB)

Monolithic modern Marvel truly began with the adventures of a small super-team who were as much squabbling family as coolly capable costumed champions. Everything the company produces now is due to the quirky quartet and the groundbreaking, inspired efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby…

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover and digital editions – collects Fantastic Four #142-150 (January-September 1974) and includes a blockbusting battle-bouts from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 and Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2, as well as the other half of a rather significant crossover tale begun in Avengers #127.

What You Should Already Know: maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged tag-along little brother Johnny miraculously survived an ill-starred private space-shot after cosmic rays penetrated their stolen ship’s inadequate shielding. As they crashed back to Earth the uncanny radiation mutated them all in unimaginable ways…

Richards’ body became astoundingly elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and project forcefields whilst Johnny could turn into living flame and tragic Ben devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. They agreed to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born the Fantastic Four.

Before the pictorial pleasures commence, scripter Gerry Conway offers more behind-the-scenes insights in his Introduction ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ after which dramatic tensions resume with the team in tatters.

In the previous collection the never-ending stress forced Sue Richards apart from her husband and Inhuman warrior-queen Medusa had taken her place in the team whilst the Invisible Girl (as she was condescendingly dubbed) cared for son Franklin, now a toddler with strange, undiagnosed cosmic powers and problems. When an attack by antimatter tyrant Annihilus escalated little Franklin’s powers and triggered a cosmic catastrophe, his tormented father was compelled to blast the child, shutting down his mutant brain and plunging him into a coma to save the universe. The act of desperation revolted his teammates and triggered mass resignations…

Appalled at the callous cold calculations needed to neutralise his own child, Johnny and Ben joined Sue in declaring their heroic partnership defunct. With only ruthlessly pragmatic Medusa remaining, FF #142 finds the shell-shocked Richards with ‘No Friend Beside Him!’ (as Conway inker Joe Sinnott were joined by new artist Rich Buckler, whose faithful pastiche of Jack Kirby produced a wave of favourable nostalgia in fans then and now) whilst the Thing followed long-time girlfriend Alicia Masters to central Europe.

She has been lured to the Balkans with promises of a medical breakthrough that can cure her blindness, but after Ben arrives, they are promptly attacked by a sinister supernatural horror named Darkoth the Death-Demon

Back in the USA, Johnny and old pal Wyatt Wingfoot head for Metro College to see their old sports coach Sam Thorne on his way to an Alumni reunion. Reed is another attendee, despondently dragged there by Medusa, but nobody expects that weird foreign kid who had been expelled so long ago to turn up, leading to ‘The Terrible Triumph of Doctor Doom!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia)…

The Iron Dictator was never one to forgive a slight, real or imagined, and as he gloatingly reveals himself to be the creator of Darkoth and jailer of the Thing, Victor von Doom further boasts to his captives of his latest scheme… to utterly eradicate human free will.

Typically, though, the tyrant hasn’t considered how his death-demon might react to the news that he is sham. The outraged artificial puppet rebels and the monster’s ‘Attack!’ (#144 by Buckler & Sinnott) results in a cataclysmic clash and Doom’s defeat…

Back together but still disunited, the FF part company again in #145, as the Torch accompanies Medusa on a visit to the Himalayan citadel of Attilan – the hidden city of the Inhumans – only to be brought down by a lost race of ice people and forced to endure a ‘Nightmare in the Snow!’ (illustrated by Ross Andru & Sinnott).

The snow troglodytes’ plans to transform the world into an ice-ball only they can inhabit go bizarrely awry as the Thing joins the frozen heroes. When a dissident faction trained by a Buddhist monk pitch in too, the conclusion is a happy ending all round in ‘Doomsday: 200 Below!’

This was period of great experimentation and expansion at Marvel, with new formats and lines launching almost continuously. Giant-Size Super-Stars #1 (May 1974) was a forerunner in a line of supplementary, double-sized titles starring the company’s most popular stars.

In this initial exploratory outing – the title became Giant-Size Fantastic Four with the next quarterly release – Conway, Buckler & Sinnott crafted ‘The Mind of the Monster!’: a shattering reprise of earlier titanic team-up triumphs as Bruce Banner came calling upon the FF, still seeking a cure for his mean green alter ego. Unfortunately the Thing is overly sympathetic, and in his self-loathing foolishly allows the fugitive physicist to modify one of Reed’s devices…

Unfortunately, that mutual meddling with the Psi-Amplifier switches their minds, leaving the Rampaging Hulk trapped and furiously running amok in the Thing’s body whilst Ben/Hulk struggles to stop him.

The situation descends into more chaos when trans-dimensional Femizon Thundra pitches in, mistakenly believing she is helping her intended main squeeze Ben battle a big green monster, and the violence intensifies to the max when Reed, Johnny and Medusa get involved in second chapter ‘Someone’s Been Sleeping in My Head’

Ultimately it takes everybody and a cunning plan to set the world to rights in the spectacular, full-throated conclusion ‘…And in This Corner: The Incredible Hulk!’

Following a bunch of editorial extras from the special, the monthly mayhem continues in

Fantastic Four #147, which offers up action-tinged melodrama with ‘The Sub-Mariner Strikes!’ (Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) wherein Sue starts divorce proceedings whilst taking comfort in the arms of long-time admirer/stalker Prince Namor of Atlantis. When Reed, Johnny and Ben tried to “rescue” her, the Atlantean thrashes them and she sends them packing…

To add insult to injury, the dejected men return home to find the Baxter Building once more invaded by the Frightful Four and are forced to fight a ‘War on the Thirty-Sixth Floor!’ Sadly for The Sandman, Wizard and Trapster, they have no idea their newest ally Thundra is smitten with the Thing…

Issue #149 then finally resolves the scandalous Sub-Mariner storyline as the undersea emperor invades New York in ‘To Love, Honour, and Destroy!’. Happily, his awesome attack is only a cunning plan to trick Sue into reconciling with her husband…

Giant-Size Fantastic Four #2 then reveals a time-twisting ‘Cataclysm!’, courtesy of Conway, John Buscema & Chic Stone, wherein cosmic voyeur The Watcher warns of a hapless innocent who has inadvertently altered history, thanks to Dr. Doom’s confiscated time platform.

Moreover, the imposing, supposedly non-interventionist extraterrestrial expects the FF to fix the problem…

With more than one temporal hot-spot, Reed and Johnny head for Colonial America to rescue the Father of the Nation in ‘George Washington Almost Slept Here!’ whilst Ben and Medusa crash into the “Roaring Twenties” and save the time-lost wanderer from being rubbed out by racketeers in ‘The Great Grimmsby’

Thinking their mission accomplished, the heroes are astounded to then find themselves trapped in timeless Limbo, battling monstrous giant Tempus before escaping to their restored origin point in ‘Time Enough for Death!’

For months lovelorn Johnny had fretted and fumed that his first true love Crystal intended to marry super-swift mutant Quicksilver. That plot-thread finally closes with a 2-part crossover tale opening in Avengers #127. ‘Bride and Doom!’ (by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema & Joe Staton) sees the Assemblers travel to the hidden homeland of the Inhumans for the wedding of the aforementioned Pietro to elemental enchantress and Royal Princess, only to stumble into an uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives.

Once again, sinister robotic colossus Omega has incited revolt, but this time it isn’t insane usurper Maximus behind the skulduggery but an old Avengers enemy who reveals himself in the concluding chapter from in Fantastic Four #150.

‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ (by Conway, Buckler & Sinnott) finds both hero teams joining Black Bolt’s Inhumans against the malign A.I., but only saved by a veritable Deus ex Machina after which, at long last, ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ finally ends events on a happy note… for everybody but the Torch, that is…

The narrative concluded for the moment, one last treat is supplied via a selection of contemporary house ads to wrap up this morsel of Marvel magic.

Although Kirby had taken the unmatched imagination and questing sense of wonder with him on his departure, the sheer range of beloved characters and concepts he had created with Stan Lee carried the series for years afterwards. So once writers who shared the originators’ sensibilities were crafting the stories a mini-renaissance began…

Certainly the “World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” didn’t quite return to the stratospheric heights of yore, but this period offers fans a tantalising taste of the glory days and these solid, honest and intriguing efforts will be welcomed by dedicated superhero fans and continuity freaks like me, but will also thrill and enthral the generous and forgiving casual browser looking for an undemanding slice of graphic narrative excitement.
© 1974, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

A. Einstein: The Poetry of Real


By Manuel García Iglesias & Marwan Kahil, translated by Peter Russella (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-6811-2202-1 (HB)

Some people are too just too big for one biography. They affect the world in so many ways, and are so multi-faceted, that you simply can’t grasp the enormity of their existence in one go. Such a person was Albert Einstein who was born in Ulm, Germany on March 14th 1879 and who died on April 18th 1955 at Princeton University in the USA.

Between those dates he revolutionised the world, changed the accepted belief on universal reality, and grew into a saddened man whose great message went misunderstood and largely unheeded…

This absorbing luxurious monochrome hardcover (also available in digital formats) – whilst acknowledging the key intellectual breakthroughs – concentrates on the lesser known thoughts and attitudes of the most important being in human history. Over the troubled years of his childhood and formal education, his self-exile to Switzerland, clerical toil and part-time re-evaluation of the world’s workings, we see his development whilst meeting men like Max Talmud, Michele Besso and Marcel Grossman: friends and mentors whose relationships shaped Albert, his processes of cogitation and deduction and especially how he viewed the morality of the beings who inhabited his reconfigured universe…

Darting up and down his chronological timeline during the most globally-dangerous age of scientific enquiry, writer Marwan Kahil and artist Manuel García Iglesias – quoting heavily from Einstein’s many interviews, speeches and correspondence via a parade of social meetings, lectures and conversations – reveal how a most uncommon intellect deconstructed the secrets of creation. They also depict the physicist’s eternal and contiguous struggle against the worst aspect of human behaviour: war and unthinking aggression and how his discoveries were twisted to serve them…

Gradual and understated in tone, this investigation is compelling in its examination of the world’s first celebrity scientist’s devotion to and advocacy of pacifism; leaving a disturbing echo of the disappointment he must have felt that his world-changing discoveries were being entrusted to agencies and attitudes who only wanted to use them for wicked purposes…

Some of that bleak tone is thankfully mitigated by the closing Epilogue, set at the CERN project in 2015, where knowledge, wisdom and the traditional continuity of scientific progress are seen to triumph over those darker drives, even in these modern days of imminent catastrophe and pointless self-destruction…

Augmented by incisive timeline Key Dates in the Life of Albert Einstein, a fulsome list of further reading in Biography and Sources and a copious illustrated collection of quotes ‘To Reflect On…’, this is a visual delight celebrating a unique mind and personality, and one you should see as soon as you can.
© 2017 Blue Lotus Prod. © 2019 NBM for the English translation.
For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing

Where’s My Cow?


By Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Melvyn Grant (Doubleday)
ISBN: 978-0-38560-937-1

Here’s a charming little thing. Not strictly a comic strip or a graphic novel, but rather a beautifully illustrated picture book. Originally a plot device from Thud!, one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld prose fantasy novels, until some bright spark wisely decided to manufacture the thing for real. They also pulled the same trick for The World of Poo, as seen in Snuff

What’s it all about?: Watch Commander Sam Vimes is the best copper in Anhk Morpork (the most unpleasant city in all fact and fiction), and his day job ranges from colourful to sheer hell. What makes worth living for him is to get home, kick off his boots and breastplate, and read his baby boy their favourite bedtime story – and do all the noises too.

And so can you if you get this wonderful book (sadly only available in hardback, not digital editions) which manages to be both an engaging, clever side-bar to the novels and also a superbly illustrated easy reader for the very young.

If you’re a fan of the Discworld you’ll want this, if you’re not, buy the novels and become one, and if you have small kids get them one of the prettiest picture books on the market. It’s the first sure step to getting them hooked on pictorial wonderment, and a darn fine thing besides.

Text © 2005 Terry Pratchett & Lyn Pratchett. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations © 2005 Melvyn Grant. All Rights Reserved.W

Signal from Space/Life on Another Planet


By Will Eisner with Andre LeBlanc (Kitchen Sink Press/DC Comics/W.W. Norton & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-014-3 (Kitchen Sink colour HB): 0-87816-370-0 (KSP B&W PB):
978-1-56398-677-4 (DC Comics Library PB): 978-0-39332-812-7 (WW Norton PB)

Here’s a long-lost contemporary cartooning classic which – although readily available in a number of formats – is still seen best in its first release. Ambitious and deliberately targeting an adult book-reading rather than comics audience, this initial collection of Will Eisner’s trenchant political thriller-cum-social commentary proves once more that sometimes the medium really is the message…

William Erwin Eisner was one of the pivotal creators who shaped the American comicbook industry, with most of his works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. From 1936 to 1938 he worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production hothouse known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets.

Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew opening instalments for a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas, Westerns, Detective fiction, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes… lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert for the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of the nickel and dime marketplace, creating three series which would initially be handled by him before two were delegated to supremely talented assistants.

Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead feature for his own and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 he had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips. He began working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind him.

After too long away from his natural story-telling arena, Eisner creatively returned to the streets of Brooklyn where he was born on March 6th 1906. After years spent inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he capped that glittering career by inventing the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in strip form were released as a single book: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. All the material centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing impoverished Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, refining his skills not just on The Spirit but with his educational and promotional material. In A Contract with God he honed in on unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary to examine social experience.

One of the few genres where Eisner never really excelled was science fiction – and arguably he doesn’t in this tale either as, in Signal from Space, the big discovery is just a plot maguffin to explore politics, social interactions and greed – all premium Eisner meat…

As ‘Life on Another Planet’ the material in this collection was originally serialised as eight 16-page episodes in Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine from October 1978 to December 1980, rendered in toned monochrome (a format adhered to and title revived in subsequent Kitchen Sink, DC and W.W. Norton collections).

However, for this luscious hardback, the auteur and long-time confederate Andre LeBlanc fully-painted the entire saga using evocative tones and hues to subtly enhance the sinister, cynical proceedings…

One momentous night, lonely radio astronomer Mark Argano – based at a New Mexico observatory – picks up ‘The Signal’: a mathematical formula originating from Barnard’s Star and thus proof positive of extraterrestrial intelligence…

One colleague wants to inform the public immediately, but Argano is adamant that they go slowly as he (secretly) harbours schemes to somehow “cash in”. Unfortunately, the other scientist he shares the secret with is a Soviet sleeper agent…

Almost immediately the first murder in a long and bloody succession is committed as various parties seek to use the incredible revelation to their own advantage. World-weary science advisor and maverick astrophysicist James Bludd is dispatched by the CIA to verify and control the situation, but he walks straight into a KGB ambush and narrowly escapes with his life…

There’s now a deadly Cold War race to control contact with the mysterious signallers and ‘The 1st Empire’ follows recovering addict Marco as he turns his life around; using the now-public sensation to create a personality cult dedicated to leaving Earth and joining the aliens. Whilst Marco’s Star People grab all the headlines, ruthless plutocrat Mr. MacRedy uses his monolithic Multinational Corporation to manipulate Russia and America, intending to be the only one to ultimately capitalise on any mission to Barnard’s Star…

Since travel to far space is still impossible for humans, MacRedy sanctions the unethical and illegal creation of a human/plant hybrid and starts looking for volunteers to experiment on in ‘A New Form of Life’, whilst Bludd – now more reluctant spy than dedicated scientist – accepts another undercover assignment.

Casualties moral, ethical and corporeal mount in ‘Pre-Launch’ whilst in distressed African nation Sidiami, a desperate despot declares his bankrupt nation a colony of Barnard’s Star to avoid UN sanctions and having to pay back his national debt to Earthly banks…

Soon, he’s offering a base to Multinational for their own launch site and sanctuary to those Star People anxious to emigrate…

In ‘Bludd’ the scientist and his sultry KGB counterpart find themselves odd-bedfellows just as the Mafia get involved in the crisis – for both personal and pecuniary reasons – whilst in America, MacRedy prepares to install his own President to expedite his company’s requirements…

Now determined to take matters into his own hands and screw all governments and interests, Bludd is caught up in an unstoppable, uncontrollable maelstrom of events in ‘Abort’, and, after the American President has a fatal accident in ‘The Big Hit’ MacRedy thinks he’s finally won. He is utterly unprepared for Bludd’s unpredictable masterstroke in ‘The Last Chapter’

Signal from Space is a dark and nasty espionage drama as well as a powerfully intriguing ethical parable: a Petrie dish for ethical dilemmas where Eisner masterfully manipulates his vast cast to display human foible and eventually a glimmer of aspirational virtue. This is a hugely underrated tale from a master of mature comics guaranteed to become an instant favourite. And it’s even better in this sumptuous oversized edition which is well worth every effort to hunt it down.

After all, Per Ardua ad Astra

However, if you can’t find this version, there are numerous later editions, in the original black & white that have their own potent appeal and if you were a really dedicated fan, you’d only be happy with both, wouldn’t you?
© 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.