The Only Living Boy Omnibus


By David Gallaher & Steve Ellis (Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-54580-126-0 (HB) 978-1545801277 (TPB/Digital edition)

Here’s a rather short but exceedingly heartfelt and enthusiastic re-review for a mighty big book. Scripter Dave Gallaher (Green Lantern, Box 13) and illustrator Steve Ellis (High Moon) first began their stupendous science fiction saga in 2012 as a webcomic before being picked up by Papercutz. The hugely popular yarn (multiple reprintings and numerous award nominations) was collected as a quintet of graphic albums – Prisoner of the Patchwork Planet; Beyond Sea and Sky; Once Upon a Time; Through the Murky Deep and To Save a Shattered World – and when the tale is done was gathered in a bulky paperback (or eBook edition) recounting the complete saga plus fresh material from a Free Comic Book Day tie-in and other sources.

So, what’s it about?

Erik Farrell is 12 years old and scared. That’s why he runs into Central Park at the dead of night in a thunderstorm. In the morning he wakes up in the roots of a tree clutching a little kid’s teddy bear backpack that, for some inexplicable reason, he Must Not Lose. He’s also absent most of his memory. Even so, Erik’s pretty sure home never had wild jungles, marauding monsters, talking beasts and bugs or a shattered moon hanging low in the sky…

Chased by howling horrors and dimly aware that the decimated city ruins are somehow familiar, Erik is saved by a green warrior calling herself Morgan Dwar of the Mermidonians, but the respite is short lived.

All too soon they are captured by slaves of diabolical experimenter Doctor Once and taken to his revolting laboratory. It doubles as gladiatorial arena where the scientist’s involuntary body modifications can prove their worth in combat. Erik’s fellow captives soon apprise him of the state of his new existence. The world is a bizarre of patchwork regions and races, all of them at war with each other and all threatened by monstrous shapeshifting dragon Baalikar. The Doctor seeks the secrets of trans-species evolution and is ruthless and cruel in the pursuit of his goal. In the arena, however, Erik shows them all the value of cooperation and promptly escapes with Morgan and insectoid Sectaurian Princess Thelandria AKA Thea

Constantly running to survive, the boy slowly uncovers an incredible conspiracy affecting this entire world and even far-gone Earth. The big surprise is an unsuspected secret connection between his own excised past, Doctor Once and hidden manipulators known as the Consortium. On the way, just like Flash Gordon, Erik somehow inspires and unites strangely disparate and downtrodden races and species into a unified force to save the planet they must all share…

After a heroic journey and insurmountable perils faced, Erik’s story culminates in the answers he’s been looking for and a spectacular battle where the many races ultimately extinguish the evil of Baalikar. Sadly, though, that just makes room for another menace to emerge…

Adding bonus thrills to the alien odyssey are a complete cover gallery plus two lengthy sidebar tales. ‘Under the Light of the Broken Moon’ and ‘In the Clutches of the Consortium’ focus on the developing relationship between Morgan and Sectaurian Warlord Phaedrus and on the repercussions of failure for failed-tool Doctor Once at the hands of his backers…

Rocket-paced, bold and constantly inventive, The Only Living Boy is a marvellous and unforgettable romp to enthral every kid with a sense of wonder and thirst for adventure.
© 2012-2018 Bottled Lightning LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Incredible Hulk Epic Edition volume 8 (1976-1978): The Curing of Dr. Banner


By Len Wein, Roger Stern, Sal Buscema, Herb Trimpe, Jim Starlin, David Anthony Kraft, George Tuska, Keith Pollard, Joe Staton, Ernie Chan, Tom Palmer, Alfredo Alcala, Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, Joe Sinnott, Josef Rubinstein & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4879-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist accidentally caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result, stress and other factors trigger transformations into a big green monster of unstoppable strength and fury. One of Marvel’s earliest innovations and first failure, after initially troubled early years he finally found his size-700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of the company’s premiere antiheroes and most popular features.

The Gamma Goliath was always graced with artists who understood the allure of shattering action, the sheer cathartic reader-release rush of spectacular “Hulk Smash!” moments, and here – following in the debris-strewn wake of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe – Sal Buscema was showing the world what he could do when unleashed…

This chronologically complete compendium re-presents Incredible Hulk King Size Annual #6 and issues #201- 226 of his monthly magazine, spanning July 1976 – August 1978.

Crafted by writer Len Wein and illustrated by Buscema & Joe Staton, Hulk #201 features ‘The Sword and the Sorcerer!’ wherein the monster is marooned on a perilously primitive sub-atomic world just long enough to liberate its people from brutal despot (and demon-possessed pawn) Kronak the Barbarian before starting to shrink uncontrollably. He soon arrives in the promised land of his beloved long-lost alien love Queen Jarella

 ‘Havoc at the Heart of the Atom’ reveals how his last visit had rendered the barbarous world tectonically unstable and wrecked the ancient civilisation which once had the power to blend Banner’s mind with the Hulk’s body. Moreover, the once-gentle population then turned on the queen they held responsible…

Reunited with his beloved, the simplistic brute swears to fix the problem confronting the antediluvian horror who first hijacked him to the Microverse… and who still craves bloody revenge. Once again evil fails at great personal cost. The ‘Assault on Psyklop!’ delivers crushing defeat to the vile insectoid and a guardedly happy ending for the man-brute – until a rescue attempt from Earth brings Hulk home, carrying an astounded Jarella with him…

Herb Trimpe briefly returned in #204 to plot and pencil a tale of time-bending might-have-beens, as brilliant theoretician Kerwin Kronus offers to eradicate Banner’s problems by turning back time and undoing the accident which created the Hulk. Sadly, the experiment succeeds all too well: briefly forming an alternate timeline wherein original sidekick Rick Jones died and the time-master became an even greater menace to reality. Banner/Hulk must make a heartbreaking sacrifice to close that unacceptably ‘Vicious Circle’

‘Do Not Forsake Me!’ in #205 depicts the most tragic moment in the Green Goliath’s tortured life when Jarella sacrifices herself to save a child from rampaging robbery robot Crypto-Man, leaving the bereft Hulk ‘A Man-Brute Berserk!’ His trail of destruction leads from Gamma Base, New Mexico all the way to New York City where even his friends and allies cannot calm the grieving green goliath, leading to a brutal battle ‘Alone Against the Defenders!’ who finally realise compassion is the only method that will work against their traumatised ally-turned-foe…

The bereft beast is still beside Defender-in-Chief Doctor Strange for David Anthony Kraft, Trimpe and inkers Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito for Incredible Hulk King Size Annual #6’s ‘Beware the Beehive!’ wherein a band of mad scientists attempt to recreate their greatest success and failure. Morlak, Hamilton, Shinsky and Zota were a rogue science collective known as The Enclave, who – from their hidden “Beehive” lair – had originally spawned puissant artificial man Him (latterly AKA Adam Warlock).

Here, three of them reunite for another go at building a compliant god they can control, but when they abduct Stephen Strange to replace their missing fourth, the magician has the Jade Juggernaut save him from the experiment’s inevitable consequences: a compassionless super-slave dubbed Paragon whose first task is to eradicate Strange and subdue mankind. Happily, after a border-shattering, army-crunching global rampage, that’s when the Hulk kicks the wall in and goes to work…

In Incredible Hulk #208 Wein, Buscema & Staton reveal ‘A Monster in Our Midst!’ as Bruce Banner finally rejects ending his pain-wracked existence and begins a new and – hopefully – stress-reduced life where his alter ego will never be seen again. That resolve only lasts as long as it takes maniacal Crusher Creel – freed as a consequence of the Jade Juggernaut’s most recent rampage – to accept a commission from a triumvirate of hooded schemers who want the Hulk dead. Of course, even though ‘The Absorbing Man is Out for Blood!’, the super-thug proves no match for Hulk’s unfettered fury, but his well-deserved drubbing results in Banner collapsing unconscious in alley where he is eventually found by a mystic do-gooder in search of an ally…

With #210, Ernie Chan became Buscema’s regular inker as Wein’s ‘And Call the Doctor… Druid!’ finds both Banner and his brutish alter ego crucial to a plan to defeat ancient mutant Maha Yogi, his vast mercenary army and alien bodyguard Mongu before they complete their preparations for world domination. Although the battles of ‘The Monster and the Mystic!’ are a close-run thing, virtue is eventually victorious, but makes little difference to the Hulk’s former teen companion Jim Wilson as he hitchhikes across America, utterly unaware he is the target of a vicious criminal conspiracy. The plots hatch once Jim reaches New York City where his hidden tormentors decide that he must be ‘Crushed by… the Constrictor!’ Neither they nor their ruthless high-tech hitman expected the Hulk to intervene…

With a friend and confidante who shares his secrets, you’d expect Banner’s life to get a little easier, but the authorities never stop hunting the Hulk, who initially realises ‘You Just Don’t Quarrel with the Quintronic Man!’ (inked by Tom Palmer) before bouncing back to trash a formidable five-man mecha suit. As Chan returns, this bout leads to a frenzied clash with a new hyper-powered hero resolved to make his name by defeating America’s most terrifying monster in ‘The Jack of Hearts is Wild!’

Macabre old enemy Bi-Beast is resurrected in #215; still eager to eradicate humanity in ‘Home is Where the Hurt Is’ and nearly succeeding after seizing control of SHIELD’s Helicarrier. Only desperate action by General Thaddeus Ross saves the day, as the old soldier uses the carrier’s tech to shanghai Banner: letting nature take its savage course and hoping the right monster wins the inevitable blockbuster battle before a ‘Countdown to Catastrophe!’ leaves the planet a smoking ruin…

A moodily poignant change of pace comes in #217 as ‘The Circus of Lost Souls!’ sees the shell-shocked Hulk lost somewhere in Europe, defending a band of carnival freaks from the dastardly depredations of The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime: a solid demarcation signalling Wein’s move  away from scripting in favour of co-plotting, allowing Roger Stern to find his own big green feet to guide the Green Goliath’s future…

That begins with ‘The Rhino Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ (#218 by Wein & Stern, with George Tuska, Keith Pollard & Chan handling visuals) as super-strong, gamma-tainted psychologist “Doc” Leonard Samson takes centre stage battling the ruthless Rhino, whilst in #219 Banner learns ‘No Man is an Island!’ (Wein, Stern, Sal Buscema & Chan) after hiring on as a freighter deckhand, only to have it sunk from under him by submarine-based pirate Cap’n Barracuda. Washed ashore on a desert atoll, Hulk is befriended by a deluded soul who believes himself to be Robinson Crusoe. As events unfold an even stranger truth is revealed when Barracuda captures the madman to pluck the secret of making monsters from his broken mind. The cruel corsair has utterly underestimated the ferocious loyalty and compassion of the Hulk, who unleashes devastating destructive ‘Fury at 5000 Fathoms!’

With Stern in authorial control, Sal Buscema is joined by Alfredo Alcala for #221’s ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’, with still all-at-sea Banner rescued from drowning by marine explorer Walt Newell. He ferries his exhausted passenger back to Manhattan where he is recognised as Banner. Realising he has unwittingly unleashed The Hulk on a major population centre, Newell exposes his own secret identity as subsea superhero Stingray and pursues his former guest. The battle is painfully one-sided and Stingray near death when Jim Wilson intervenes, saving the marine crusader’s life, but only at the cost of Hulk’s trust…

Wein returned for one last hurrah in #222, scripting a plot by artist Jim Starlin (abetted by Alcala). A potently creepy horror yarn begins as the Jade Juggernaut tears through another unfortunate army unit before being gassed into unconsciousness. Banner awakens in the care of two children living in a cave, but they’re not surprised by the fugitive’s transformations: not since the radioactive stuff changed their little brother…

Now people have been disappearing and although they haven’t grasped the truth of it yet, Bruce instantly grasps what is involved in ‘Feeding Billy’… and what his intended role is…

Now firmly established, Stern began an ambitious storyline in #223 (illustrated by Sal & Josef Rubinstein) as ‘The Curing of Dr. Banner!’ sees the monster’s human half spontaneously purged of the gamma radiation that triggers his changes. Heading for Gamma Base to verify his findings, Bruce discovers the entire facility has been taken over: mind-controlled by his ultimate archenemy…

As the villain makes everyone ‘Follow the Leader!’, Doc Samson and General Ross escape and beg Banner to again sacrifice his humanity for the sake of mankind. Only the Hulk has ever defeated The Leader and their only hope is to recall and harness his unstoppable fury. Tragically, the halfway measures fail at the final moment and the villain has cause to ask ‘Is There Hulk After Death?’ With Bruce seemingly deceased, his compatriots jumpstart his system with another overwhelming dose of gamma rays and soon everybody involved has cause to regret the resurrection of the original Gamma Goliath as another ordnance-obliterating clash with the military in #226’s ‘Big Monster on Campus!’ (Stern, Buscema & Joe Sinnott) leads to the man-monster invading his old college and suffering a psychological trauma that could end his rampages forever…

To Be Hulk-inued…

Graced throughout with covers by Rich Buckler, John Romita, Trimpe, Dan Adkins, Dave Cockrum, Marie Severin, Giacoia, Ed Hannigan, Chan, Starlin, Rubinstein and Ron Wilson, this cataclysmically cathartic tome is rounded out with a blitz of bonus features. Front & back covers for The Incredible Hulk Marvel Treasury Edition #17 (1978) by Jeff Aclin & Tony DeZuñiga precede a panoramic landscape pin-up poster by Trimpe of Hulk smashing the Hulkbusters from a UK Marvel mag (by way of F.O.O.M. #19). These are followed by an airbrush treat by Ken Steacy, starring old Jade Jaws, Ant-Man & The Wasp as first seen on Marvel Comics Index #7A (1978) plus its star-studded frontispiece by Franc Reyes. Contemporary house ads lead into an unused Cockrum cover and a selection of original art by Buckler, Chan, Starlin, Alcala, Buscema & Rubinstein, said pictorial treasure treats climaxing with 5 stunningly beautiful pencilled pages of a never-completed story by Wein and Swamp Thing co-creator Bernie Wrightson.

The Incredible Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the cartoons, TV shows, games, toys, action figures and movies are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, earnestly vicarious experience of Might actually being Right, you can’t do better than these exciting episodes, so why not Go Green now?
© MARVEL 2023

The Last Days of American Crime



By Rick Remender & Greg Tocchini (Image Comics /Radical Books)
ISBN: 978-0-935417-06-4 (HB Radical) 978-1-53430437-6 (PB/Digital Image)

Elections on the horizon everywhere this year, and in advance of what I can pretty safely assume is more of the same and worse everywhere, followed by whole bunches of crushing dystopias, here’s a peek back at what we thought the end of civilisation would look like merely a decade ago…

If you’re in any more need of a sobering dose of deeply disturbing hyper-reality, I can highly recommend this brilliant, extremely adult, cross-genre thriller which posits a fascinating premise, starts a countdown clock ticking down and delivers a killer kick to finish the rollercoaster ride.

The Good Old USA is a mess and the government need to take drastic action if they want to keep control. Terrorism and crime are rampant but luckily the nerds and techies have come up with a radical solution: the American Peace Initiative – a broadcast frequency that utterly suppresses the ability to knowingly break a law.

Any law.

Taking the radical decision to make all lawbreaking impossible (which is the only logical flaw I can find: what politician is ever going to make bribery obsolete?), and fearing social meltdown in the run-up to going live, the Powers-That-Be also set up a distraction in the form of a complete switchover from a cash economy to universal electronic transfers – infallible, incorruptible, un-stealable digital currency.

From “D-Day” onwards, citizens will top up pay-cards from charging machines which are tamper-proof and impossible to hack. From that day every transaction in North America will be recorded and traceable thereby making every illegal purchase – drugs, guns, illicit sex – utterly impossible…

In the weeks before the big switchover there’s a huge exodus for the borders of Canada and Mexico and a total breakdown of law and order in the country’s most degenerate areas, but generally everyone seems resigned to the schemes – even after the anti-lawbreaking API broadcast plan is leaked…

With the world about to change forever, low-rent career crook Graham Bricke spots a chance for the biggest score of his life. He’s working as a security guard in one of the banks that will house the new currency technology and sees an opportunity to steal one of the charging machines before the system is locked down forever. Unfortunately, due to the API broadcast he has to pull off the caper before it becomes impossible to even contemplate theft…

In a hurry and needing specialised help, Bricke and his silent partner are forced to hire a crew of strangers, but as days dwindle he realises safecracker Kevin Cash and hacker Shelby Dupree are both trouble: a murderous psychotic and crazed libidinous wild-child with daddy issues. If only he can work out which is which…

There are other distractions. Graham is being hunted by a manic gangbanger and his posse and there’s a good chance at least one of his team is planning a double-cross…

A fascinating idea carried out with dizzying style and astounding panache: smart, sexy, unbelievably violent and utterly compelling: combining the brooding energy of The Wire, unremitting tension of 24’s first season and timeless off-centre charm of Reservoir Dogs. It had blockbuster movie written all over it – which is no surprise as Remender’s previous efforts include mainstream comic books like All-New Atom, X-Men and Punisher, computer games Dead Space and Bulletstorm and animated feature Titan A.E. and he’s since produced a welter of gritty stuff such as The Scumbag, Devolution and Anthrax: Among the Living.

Sadly, when it was filmed (released in 2020), none of that came through, so stick to the book not the box here…

Short. Sharp. Shocking, smartly concocted by Rick Remender and stunningly executed in dazzling colour by Greg Tocchini, the paperback includes an extensive sketch and design section, an interview with the author and a lavish cover gallery including variants by Alex Malleev, Jerome Opeña & Matt Wilson and Joel dos Reis Viegas.

What else do I need to say?
© 2010 Rick Remender and Radical Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents World’s Finest volume 2


By Jerry Coleman, Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton, Ed Herron, Dave Wood, Curt Swan, Jim Mooney, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Stan Kaye, John Forte, George Klein & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-053-6 (TPB)

For decades Superman and Batman were the quintessential superhero partners: the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends as well as colleagues and the pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes could cross-pollinate and cross-sell their combined readerships. This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in 1945, whilst in comics the pair briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure (in All-Star Comics #36, August/September 1947) and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

They heroic headliners had shared the covers of World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside, sticking firmly to solo adventures within. Once that Rubicon was crossed due to spiralling costs and dwindling page-counts, the industry never looked back…

This blockbusting monochrome chronicle gathers their cataclysmic collaborations from WFC #112-145, spanning September 1960 to November 1964, just prior to the entire planet going superhero crazy and Batman mad. Jerry Coleman, Dick Sprang & Sheldon Moldoff  crafted #112, featuring a unique and tragic warning in ‘The Menace of Superman’s Pet’, as a phenomenally cute teddy bear from space proved to be an unbelievably dangerous menace and unforgettable true friend. Bring tissues, you big baby…

In an era when disturbing menace was frowned upon, many tales featured intellectual dilemmas and unavoidable pests. Both Gotham Guardian and Man of Steel had their own magical 5th dimensional gadflies and it was therefore only a matter of time until ‘Bat-Mite Meets Mr. Mxyzptlk’ in a madcap duel to see whose hero was best with America caught in the metamorphic middle. WFC #114 saw Superman, Batman & Robin shanghaied to distant planet Zoron as ‘Captives of the Space Globes’ where their abilities were reversed but justice was still served in the end, after which ‘The Curse that Doomed Superman’ saw the Action Ace consistently outfoxed by a scurrilous Swami with Batman helpless to assist him. Curt Swan & Stan Kaye illustrated #116’s thrilling monster mash ‘The Creature From Beyond’ as a criminal alien out-powers Superman whilst concealing an incredible secret, and all the formula bases were covered as Lex Luthor used ‘Super-Batwoman and the Super-Creature’ to execute his most sinister scheme against the heroes.

For #118 Sprang & Moldoff illustrated ‘The Creature That was Exchanged for Superman’ as the Action Ace is hijacked to another world so a transplanted monster can undertake a sinister search with the Dynamic Duo fighting a desperate holding action, after which ‘The Secret of Tigerman’ (#119 and inked by Stan Kaye) reveals a dashing new hero in charge as the valiant trio attempt to outwit a sinister criminal mastermind. Veteran artist Jim Mooney began illustrating Coleman’s scripts in #120, starting with ‘The Challenge of the Faceless Creatures’ as amorphous monsters repeatedly siphon off Superman’s powers for nefarious purposes before the Gotham Gangbuster is eerily transformed into a destructive horror in trans-dimensional thriller ‘The Mirror Batman’ and #122 (Kaye inks) sees an alien lawman cause a seeming betrayal by the Dark Knight, leading to ‘The Capture of Superman’

Zany frustration and magical pranks were the order of the day in #123 as ‘The Incredible Team of Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk’ (Sprang & Moldoff) returned to again determine whose hero was greatest, whilst ‘The Mystery of the Alien Super-Boy’ (#124, art by Swan & Moldoff) pits our heroes against a titanic teenager with awesome powers and a hidden agenda whilst ‘The Hostages of the Island of Doom’ (Mooney & John Forte) has Batman & Robin used as pawns to force Superman’s assistance in a fantastic criminal’s play for power.

Luthor’s eternal vendetta inadvertently created an immensely destructive threat in ‘The Negative Superman’ (#126, by Ed Herron, Mooney & Moldoff) stretching Batman and Robin’s ingenuity to the limit, after which ‘The Sorcerer From the Stars’ (Coleman) challenges the heroes to stop his plundering of Earth’s mystic secrets and ‘The Power that Transformed Batman’ (#128, Coleman & Mooney) briefly makes the hero a deadly menace.

Dave Wood, Mooney & Moldoff pitted the World’s Finest team against their greatest enemies in #129’s ‘Joker-Luthor, Incorporated!’ whilst Coleman & Mooney posed an intergalactic puzzle with devastating consequences for the heroes in ‘Riddle of the Four Planets!’ and Bill Finger, Sprang & Moldoff present a stirring action thriller when the team inexplicably add a surplus and incompetent fourth hero to the partnership in #131’s ‘The Mystery of the Crimson Avenger’.

With Finger as regular scripter, tense mysteries played a stronger part, such as when Superman was forced to travel back in time to rescue ‘Batman and Robin, Medieval Bandits’ (art by Mooney) and clear their names of historical ignominy, whilst #133 sees ‘The Beasts of the Supernatural’ (Mooney & Moldoff) leeching the Man of Steel’s power. The Gotham Guardian is hard-pressed to fool the mastermind behind those attacks after which the heroes battle for their lives against an alien dictator and ‘The Band of Super-Villains’ (Mooney)…

World’s Finest Comics #135 (August 1963, inked by Moldoff) was Sprang’s last pencil job on the series and a superb swansong as ‘Menace of the Future Man’ has the heroes valiantly and vainly battling a time-tossed foe who knows their every tactic and secret, after which ‘The Batman Nobody Remembered’ (Mooney & Moldoff) pitches a paranoid nightmare wherein the Dark Detective faces a hostile world which thinks him mad, before ‘Superman’s Secret Master!’ (#137, Finger & Mooney) seemingly turns the Action Ace into a servant of crime… until Batman deduces the true state of affairs.

Finger bowed out in #138 with ‘Secret of the Captive Cavemen’ as an alien spy’s suicide leads the heroes back 50,000 years to foil a plot to conquer Earth, after which Dave Wood, Mooney & Moldoff provide eerie sci fi thriller ‘The Ghost of Batman’ and a classic clash of powers in #140’s ‘The Clayface Superman!’ (Mooney) as the shape-shifting bandit duplicates the Metropolis Marvel’s unstoppable abilities…

A new era dawned in World’s Finest Comics #141 (May 1964) as author Edmond Hamilton and artists Curt Swan & George Klein ushered in more realistic and less whimsical tales beginning with ‘The Olsen-Robin Team vs. “the Superman-Batman Team!”’, wherein the junior partners rebel and set up their own crime-fighting enterprise. Of course, there’s a hidden meaning to their increasingly wild escapades…

In #142 an embittered janitor suddenly gains all the powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes and attacked the heroes out of frustration and jealousy in ‘The Composite Superman!’ after which the Gotham Knight suffers a near-fatal wound and nervous breakdown in ‘The Feud Between Batman and Superman!’: a condition cured only after a deadly and disastrous recuperative trip to the Bottle City of Kandor. Super-villains were growing in popularity and #144 highlighted two of the worst when ‘The 1,000 Tricks of Clayface and Brainiac!’ almost destroy the World’s Finest Team forever before this stellar selection ends on an enthralling high note as Batman is pressganged to an alien ‘Prison For Heroes!’: not as a cellmate for Superman and other interplanetary champions, but as their sadistic jailer…

These are gloriously clever yet uncomplicated tales whose dazzling style has returned to inform if not dictate the form of DC’s modern television animation – especially Batman: the Brave and the Bold series – and the contents of this tome are a veritable feast of witty, charming thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have.
© 1960-1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan


By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-9 (HB)

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first true giants of comic strips: a hugely imaginative, highly skilled, immensely well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as that medium was born. His pictorial creations (even more so, his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language ever since.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and aged 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student, and eventually assistant to illustration colossus Frank Beard. Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining prestigious premier periodical Puck in 1880. Opper drew everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humourist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly forward-looking and perspicacious, he first dipped his toe in the burgeoning arena of newspaper strips with an abortive short-lived feature for the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration.

Undeterred by failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899. Starting on the New York Journal‘s Sunday Color Supplement, he devised a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which debuted on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at first – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long his efforts became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure lasting until 1932 when failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

The grand master never used assistants, but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan – and his other creations – household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip – Mister Henry Peck (1901) – was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904. Maud continued intermittently for decades and, on May 23rd 1926, became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded with the artist’s well-earned retirement on October 14th 1932.

Other strips included The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and perennial trier The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy or Maud and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but painfully bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is constantly made the inadvertent tool and plaything of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and – in general – a harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune. It’s a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. Many source cite Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback (sadly still not available yet in any digital form I can find) presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in varying forms of colour (2, 3 & full colour depending presumably on budgets of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from). The tome is compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction and biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of strips herein.

These range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905 (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905), and follow the sedentary sad-sack around the States and, after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret.  As always, these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in 6 movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly, Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully one day soon. superb graphic appetisers such as this will lead to further, more comprehensive collections (in print or electronically – I ain’t fussy), and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned genteel Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to compendia of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…
Published in 2009 by NBM. No © invoked.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Thor volume 3: The Trial of The Gods


By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Frank Giacoia, Art Simek, Sam Rosen & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4893-1 (TPB/Digital edition)

These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before, but today I’m once again focussing on format. The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line launched with economy in mind: classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological publishing order. It’s been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, hardback collectors editions. These editions are cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but at 152 x 227mm, they’re perfect for kids. If you opt for digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

Even more than The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor was the arena in which Jack Kirby’s boundless fascination with all things Cosmic was honed and refined through his dazzling graphics and captivating concepts. The King’s plethora of power-packed signature pantheons began in a modest little fantasy/monster title called Journey into Mystery where – in the summer of 1962 – a tried-&-true comic book concept (feeble mortal transformed into god-like hero) was revived by the rapidly resurgent company who were not yet Marvel Comics: adding a Superman analogue to their growing roster of costumed adventurers.

Cover-dated August 1962, JiM #83 saw a bold costumed Adonis jostling aside the regular fare of monsters, aliens and sinister scientists in a brash, vivid explosion of verve and vigour. The initial exploit followed disabled American doctor Donald Blake who took a vacation in Norway and encountered the vanguard of an alien invasion. Fleeing, he was trapped in a cave where he found an old, gnarled walking stick. When, in frustration, he smashed the stick into the huge boulder blocking his escape, his puny frame was transformed into the Norse God of Thunder!

Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by his brother Larry Lieber and illustrated by Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott (at this juncture a full illustrator, Sinnott would become Kirby’s primary inker for most of his Marvel career), that introduction was pure primal Marvel: bombastic, fast-paced, gloriously illogical and captivatingly action-packed. It was the start of a new kind of legend and style of comics’ storytelling…

Spanning February to October 1964, this third titanic tome reprints the godly exploits from Journey into Mystery #101-109 in a blur of innovation, seat-of-the-pants myth-revising and universe-building. By this time, the ever-expanding world of Asgard was fully established: a mesmerising milieu for Thor’s earlier adventures and exotic setting for fresh wonders hinting at an imminent era of cosmic fantasy to run parallel with the company’s signature Manhattan-based superhero sagas. ‘Every Hand Against Him!’ (by Lee, Kirby & Stone) combines both, as sinister step-brother Loki compels earthly miscreants Cobra and Mr. Hyde to kidnap and wound nigh unto death Thor’s forbidden beloved Jane Foster, even as Odin again overreacts to Thor’s affections for the mortal.

Following a stunning Kirby & Stone Thor Pin-up, and balancing that tension-drenched clash of Good and Evil, is a crafty vignette of Young Thor describing ‘The Defeat of Odin!’ in an old and silly plot sweetened by breathtaking battle scenes. It’s followed by the concluding clash with Cobra & Hyde, redefining ‘The Power of the Thunder God!’ With a major role for Balder the Brave and further integrating “historical” and contemporary Asgard in a spellbinding epic of triumph and near-tragedy, it’s complimented by a Loki Pin-up preceding a fable co-opting a Greek myth (Antaeus if you’re asking) as ‘The Secret of Sigurd!’ (inked by Vince Colletta) is ferreted out by youthful godlings Thor, Balder & Loki.

Journey into Mystery #112 gave readers what they had been clamouring for with ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’: a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “who’s stronger…”? Arguably Kirby & Stone’s finest collaborative moment, it details a private duel that apparently appeared off-camera during a free-for-all in The Avengers #3 when the heroes battled Sub-Mariner and the Green Goliath. The raw aggressive power of that clash is balanced by an eagerly anticipated origin yarn in ‘The Coming of Loki!’ (Colletta inks): a retelling of how Odin adopts the baby son of Laufey, the Giant King.

In #113’s ‘A World Gone Mad!’ the Thunderer – right after saving the Shining Realm from invasion – again defies Odin to court Jane: a task made more hazardous by the return of the Grey Gargoyle. A long-running plot strand – almost interminably so – was the soap-opera tangle caused by Don Blake’s love for his nurse: a passion his alter ego shared. Sadly, the Overlord of Asgard could not countenance his son with a mortal, resulting in another heavy-handed example of an acrimonious triangle.

The mythic moment at the back shared ‘The Boyhood of Loki!’ (inked by Colletta), a pensive, brooding foretaste of the villain to be, before JiM #114 began a 2-part tale starring a new villain of the kind Kirby gloried in: a vicious thug who lucks into overwhelming power.

‘The Stronger I Am, The Sooner I Die!’ sees Loki imbue hardened felon Crusher Creel with the ability to duplicate the strength and attributes of anything he touches, but before Creel endures ‘The Vengeance of the Thunder God’ (inked by Frank Giacoia as “Frankie Ray”) we’re graced with another Asgardian parable: ‘The Golden Apples!’

Issue #115’s back-up micro-myth ‘A Viper in our Midst!’ sees young Loki clandestinely cementing relations with the sinister Storm Giants, before a longer Thor saga began in #116, with Colletta becoming regular inker for both lead and support features. ‘The Trial of the Gods’ disclosed more aspects of Asgard as Thor and Loki undertake a brutal ritualised trial by combat, with the latter cheating at every step, after which ‘Into the Blaze of Battle!’ finds Balder protecting Jane even as her godly paramour travels to war-torn Vietnam seeking proof of his step-brother’s infamy.

These yarns are supplemented by stellar novellas ‘The Challenge!’ and ‘The Sword in the Scabbard!’, wherein Asgardian cabin-fever informs an official Quest instituted to expose a threat to the mighty Odinsword, the unsheathing of which will destroy the universe…

Journey into Mystery #118’s ‘To Kill a Thunder God!’ ramps up the otherworldly drama as Loki, to cover his tracks, unleashes ancient Asgardian WMD The Destroyer. When it wrecks Thor’s mystic hammer and nearly kills The Thunderer in ‘The Day of the Destroyer!’, the God of Mischief is forced to save his step-brother or bear the brunt of Odin’s anger.

Meanwhile in Tales of Asgard the Quest further unfolds with verity-testing talisman ‘The Crimson Hand!’ and ‘Gather, Warriors!’ as a band of literally hand-picked “Argonauts” join Thor’s flying longship in a bold but misguided attempt to forestall Ragnarok…

To Be Continued…

There’s a relative paucity of bonus material here but it’s all first rate: two pages of original artwork, and Kirby & Stones 1965 design for a tee-shirt.

These early tales of the God of Thunder show the development not only of one of Marvel’s core narrative concepts but, more importantly, the creative evolution of perhaps the greatest imagination in comics. Set your common sense on pause and simply wallow in the glorious imagery and power of these classic adventures and revel in what makes comic book superheroes such a unique experience.
© 2023 MARVEL.

The Last Queen


By Jean-Marc Rochette, translated by Edward Gauvin (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-914224-19-5 (HB)

In conjunction with scripters such as Jacques Lob, Matz, Oliver Bocquet, Bejamin Legrand and others, painter/illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette (Altitude, Bestiaire des alpes, Les loup, Les Aventures Psychotiques de Napoléon et Bonaparte, Le Transperceneige/Snowpiercer sequence) rapidly became one of the key bande dessinée artists to watch.

In 2022 he confirmed that status and surmounted it with the release of La Dernière Reine: a self-contained naturalist epic which quickly garnered many major awards. It was named “Book of the Year” by Lire Magazine Littéraire and Elle Magazine, was radio station RTL’s Grand Prix for Comics winner and was an Official Selection of the lauded Angoulême Festival 2023.

As can be seen in this new translation from SelfMadeHero, even in English, it’s a bloody good read.

Rendered in moody colour washes and stark line, The Last Queen took Rochette three years to complete and explores all the passions of its creator: love of wilderness, scaling mountains, contemplative solitude and the balance between humanity and nature.

Those fascinations are expressed here in the millennial history and last gasp of a clan of red-headed outsiders living on the Vercors Massif of the French Prealps since neolithic times. Often regarded as witches, the ancestors of doomed outcast Édouard Roux have lived with and in the wilds throughout history. His kind enjoyed a particular affinity for the great bears that were indisputable masters of the range for all of time, until as a child he witnesses the end of the last mighty monarch of the peaks.

As the 19th century closed, a she-bear dubbed “the Last Queen” is killed by a shepherd and her carcass gloatingly desecrated by villagers. The other kids cruelly call little Édouard “son of the bear” and say vile things about his mother, but he’s used to it.

When war comes in 1914, Roux marches off and is a hero of the Somme trenches. All it costs is the lower part of his face…

In 1920, the despondent pensioned-off warrior is on his uppers: a despised, pitiable gueule cassée – “broken face” – shrouding his disfigurement and shame beneath a sack-like hood. He is but one of thousands…

When Roux hears of a woman artist who helps injured soldiers, he travels to Paris and meets Jeanne Sauvage who builds a new lower face for Roux based on the visage of a Greek god. Based on actual sculptor and proto-feminist Marie Marcelle Jane Poupelet, Sauvage has been making supple, lifelike masks for France’s defaced heroes and – refusing payment he cannot afford – does the same for Édouard.

Soon they are lovers and she introduces him to her circle of artist friends in Montmartre …more dangerously disruptive outsiders in a world increasingly governed by inconspicuous wealth, covert prestige and urbane uniformity: one that simultaneously tolerates, despises and exploits them all.

When the city life grinds them down and spits them out, Roux takes Jeanne to the mountains and shows her the secrets of the massif and a long-held family secret: stone age cave paintings and a neolithic carved bear lost from human knowledge for hundreds of years. The bounty of wonders inspire her great artistic breakthrough but Jeanne’s creative triumph is swindled from her by the elegant, cultured elite of modern civilisation. She and Édouard retreat from the emerging world for a timeless natural idyll that is paradise on Earth, but their days of true happiness are already numbered…

Uncompromising, deeply poignant and painfully sad, this is a saga of love and extinction: a testament to the passing of the past, with raw nobility lost to greed, crushing conformity and rise of mass mediocrity. It’s a struggle with no room for mercy or grace allowed for the unconventional or out-of-step. A paean to the fading call of the wild, uncomfortable or troublesome heritage, these lovers’ loss encapsulates and symbolises so many small wonders destroyed by progress, with revenants and outsiders pushed beyond even the few oases of fringe and margins not taken from them yet…

In a world that has no place for so much any longer, The Last Queen is a powerful call to cherish and preserve what can so easily die and never be regained…
La Dernière reine © Casterman, 2022. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman – The Once and Future Story

Version 1.0.0

By Trina Robbins, Colleen Doran, Jackson Guice & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-373-5 (TPB)

Pioneering cartoonist, feminist, editor, author, activist, historian, seamstress/fashion designer and comics chronicler Trina Robbins died yesterday.

Born in Brooklyn on August 17th 1938, Trina Perlson was a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father was a tailor, her mother a school teacher and their child was obsessed from the get-go with comics and strips. Little Trina first found favour with Brenda Starr, Patsy Walker, Millie the Model and especially Katy Keene: early influences which winningly resurfaced in later life to become a major part of her cartoon output in many titles and even as “fashion cut-out” comics series such as California Girls.

When her mother eventually urged Trina to move on from kids’ stuff, the creative dynamo transferred all that passion and energy to science fiction fandom, becoming an early mover & shaker in fanzines like Habakkuk. In 1962, Trina wed magazine editor Paul Jay Robbins but the marriage ended after four years, in which time she enlisted and quickly quit Queens College. In 1969, whilst running her own boutique, Trina created the original costume for comics star-in-waiting Vampirella for New York publisher Jim Warren, sci fi writer/pundit Forest J. Ackerman & artist Frank Frazetta – although her later comments on what the credited male creators did with it thereafter are not very comfortable or complimentary…

A year later she was living in California when the Counter-Culture emerged and fostered an era of self-published “Underground Commix” and she began her own comics revival: generating cartoons, ads and strips in The East Village Other and Gothic Blimp Works. Moving to San Francisco, Trina worked for periodical Good Times, hung out with Joni Mitchell, The Byrds and The Doors, and dressed Mama Cass, David Crosby, Donovan and other rock stars. She also co-founded the first comic book made exclusively by women – It Ain’t Me Babe Comix. She followed up with mature-reader erotic comic Wet Satin and 20 years helming landmark anthology Wimmen’s Commix whose debut issue heralded her strip ‘Sandy Comes Out’ – the first story in US comics starring an “Out and Proud” lesbian.

Always busy, Trina was seen in a host of titles and was an early crafter of what would become graphic novels like Mama! Dramas. She adapted classic prose tales such as Sax Rohmer’s Dope and Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, before in 1984 becoming the first woman to officially draw DC’s Amazing Amazon in The Legend of Wonder Woman (albeit it written by mere male Kurt Busiek).

Passionately devoted to the concept of creative collaboration, over many decades Robbins contributed to countless anthology comics and projects like Strip AIDS U.S.A. (editor/ contributor), All Girl Thrills, Marvel’s Comix Book, Good Girls, Gay Comix, War News, Choices: A Pro-Choice Benefit Comic Anthology for the National Organization for Women, and more, eventually forming her own publishing imprint Angry Isis.

 In 1994 she co-founded Friends of Lulu, an advocacy group for female creators and readers dedicated to promoting comics consumption by and for women and girls. Throughout this creative bonanza Trina also sought – via a wealth of compelling non-fiction books – to liberate the lost legion of women who had worked in comics but had subsequently been “disappeared” by history.

These revelatory tomes included Women and the Comics (with Cat Yronwode), A Century of Women Cartoonists, The Great Women Superheroes, Great Women Cartoonists, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines (with Anne Timmons), Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896 – 2013, Babes in Arms: Women in Comics During the Second World War, Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age and many more chronicling a more generalised obscuring of women such as Wild Irish Roses: Tales of Brigits, Kathleens, and Warrior Queens, Eternally Bad: Goddesses with Attitude or Tender Murderers: Women Who Kill.

To learn more, I highly recommend Gavin Edwards’ obituary for her in The New York Times (April 11th 2024), her own memoir Last Girl Standing (2017): that glorious wealth of books about comics & strips by women creators, and of course, her remarkable canon of cartoon material, both independently created – like GoGirl! – and for mainstream corporate properties such as Wonder Woman, Marvel’s Barbie, Misty & Girl Comics, Honey West and The Phantom

Until then though, there’s this wonderful epic that remains inexplicably out of print and digitally unavailable…

Every so often the earnest intention to do some good generates an above-average comics product, such as this stunning one-shot created to raise awareness of domestic violence. A hugely important but constantly ignored topic- and one far too many unfortunate children are cruelly aware of from an early age – it is also one of the oldest “social issues” of comic book history. Superman memorably dealt out rough justice to a “wife-beater” in his very first adventure (Action Comics #1, June 1938) – the actual origin and genesis of our genre. It’s a true shame that we’re still trying to address let alone fix this vile situation…

Less visceral – and far more even-handed regarding such a complex debate than I would have thought possible – The Once and Future Story is a beautiful and subtle tale-within-a-tale from Trina Robbins, as illustrated by Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil, Legion of Super-Heroes, Power Pack, Neil Gaiman’s Chivalry, Sandman, Mangaman, Gone to Amerikay) & Jackson “Butch” Guice (Superman/Action Comics, Supergirl, Micronauts, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Birds of Prey, Resurrection Man, The Flash, Ruse).

It opens as Wonder Woman is summoned to an archaeological dig in Ireland by a husband-&-wife research team who hope their guest can verify the findings hidden within a 3000-year-old tomb. It seemingly contains the body and burial trappings of a princess from the fabled island of Themyscira…

As Diana translates the scrolls – detailing the story of Princess Artemis of Ephesus, daughter of Queen Alcippe and learning how the maternal monarch was taken as a slave by legendary Greek hero Theseus – she soon realizes the animosity of Dig-boss James Kennealy is perhaps more than professional jealousy, and his wife’s Moira’s defensive attitude and constant apologies may be masking a dark secret.

Artemis’s brutal, painful quest to rescue her mother mirrors Moira’s journey to awareness as both women – separated by millennia – ultimately take control of their so different, tragically similar lives.

Challenging, powerful but still wonderfully entertaining, this is a tale both worthy and worthwhile, and one far too long overlooked. Now what does that remind me of?
© 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Strange Deaths of Batman


By Gardner F. Fox, Cary Bates, Cary Bates, Bob Haney, David V. Reed, Gerry Conway, John Stanisci, Chuck Dixon, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, Curt Swan & Jack Abel, Jim Aparo, John Calnan & Tex Blaisdell, Rich Buckler & Frank McLaughlin, Sal Buscema, Greg Land, Drew Geraci & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2174-4 (TPB)

Compiled on the coat-tails of DC’s Batman R.I.P. publishing event (which ran May to November 2008, and with repercussions inspiring recent events in the ongoing mythology), this delightfully eccentric collection celebrates the recurrent demise of the Gotham Guardian by digging up a few oddments and some genuine valuable artifacts to amuse, enthral and amaze.

The wonderment begins with the quirkily eponymous ‘The Strange Death of Batman!’: a highly experimental mystery originating in Detective Comics #347 (January 1966) literally moments before the Dynamic Duo became household names all over the globe thanks to an incredibly popular TV show. Crafted by Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, it features a major contender for the title of Batman’s daftest super-foe – The Bouncer – but still delivers action, drama and an intriguing conundrum to challenge the reader…

It’s followed by ‘Robin’s Revenge’ (World’s Finest Comics #184. May 1969) wherein Cary Bates and artists Curt Swan & Jack Abel recount the Imaginary Story (see DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories for a definition if the term is somehow unknown to you) of Batman’s murder and the dark path that loss takes the Boy Wonder down. Hapless Superman acts as stand-in guardian but is helpless to forestall inevitable further tragedy…

‘The Corpse that Wouldn’t Die!’ is a superb tale guest-starring The Atom taken from team-up title The Brave and the Bold #115 (October/November 1974). Written by Bob Haney and magnificently drawn by Jim Aparo, it details how the Gotham Guardian is killed in the line of duty and how the Tiny Titan occupies his brain to reanimate his corpse and conclude the case that finished him…

Next is an extended saga from Batman #291-294 (cover dates September through December 1977) written by author David V. Reed and illustrated by John Calnan & Tex Blaisdell. Over four deviously clever issues ‘Where Were You the Night Batman Was Killed?’ sees hordes of costumed foes the Caped Crusader has crushed assemble to verify the stories of various felons claiming to have done the deed. This thematic partial inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s “Last Batman Story” kicks off with ‘The Testimony of the Catwoman’ followed by testimony from The Riddler, Lex Luthor and The Joker before satisfactorily concluding in a spectacular grand manner.

‘Buried Alive!’ by Gerry Conway, Rick Buckler & Frank McLaughlin (World’s Finest Comics #269 June/July1981) finds Superman and Robin desperately racing against time: hunting for a madman who entombed the Batman, after which ‘The Prison’ written and inked by John Stanisci, with Sal Buscema pencils, is a moody character piece featuring post-mortem reflections of Talia, Daughter of the Demon Ra’s Al Ghul as originally seen in Batman Chronicles #8, Spring 1997. This odd yet engaging tome terminates with a frilly, fluffy fantasy from Nightwing #52, (February 2001) as Catwoman imagines a morbidly mirthful ‘Modern Romance’ courtesy of Chuck Dixon, Greg Land & Drew Geraci.

Themed collections can be a rather hit-or-miss proposition, but the quality and variety of these inspired selections makes for a highly enjoyable read and the only regret I can express is that room couldn’t be found to include the various covers that fronted these tales. Include those in a new expanded edition and you’d have a book to die for…
© 1966, 1969, 1974, 1977, 1981, 1997, 2001, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Hole


By Charles Burns (Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-37542-380-2 (HB) 978-0-22407-778-1 (TPB)

On this day in 2019, those happy Big Science people at the Event Horizon Telescope Project released the first picture of a black hole as located at the centre of galaxy M87. No one’s done a graphic novel of that yet but there’s this superb tome that seems to have slipped from common consciousness…

One of the most impressive and justifiably lauded graphic novels ever, Black Hole is a powerfully evocative allegorical horror story about sex, youth and transformation, but don’t let that deter you from reading it. It’s also a clever, moving, chilling and somehow uplifting tale displaying the bravura mastery of one of the greatest exponents of sequential narrative the English language has ever produced – even if he has found his spiritual and commercial home producing comics in Europe.

Originally released as a 12-issue limited series under the aegis of Kitchen Sink Press, the tale was rescued and completed through Fantagraphics when the pioneering Underground publisher folded in 1999. On completion, Black Hole was promptly released in book form by Pantheon Press in 2005, although many fans and critics despaired at the abridged version which left out many of Burns’ most potent full-page character studies of the deeply troubled cast “an error of economy” corrected in subsequent editions. It won eleven of the comic world’s most prestigious awards and I’m revisiting my battered Jonathan Cape UK edition because it’s still not available digitally

It’s the 1970s in Seattle, and there’s something very peculiar happening amongst local teens out in the safe secure suburbs. In ‘Biology 101’, Keith Pearson can’t concentrate on properly dissecting his frog because his lab partner is Chris Rhodes, the veritable and literal girl of his dreams.

Trying to keep cool only makes things worse and when he suddenly slips into a fantastic psychedelic daydream, the swirling images resolve into a horrific miasma of sex, torn flesh and a sucking void. Suddenly he’s regaining consciousness on the floor with the entire class standing over him. They’re all laughing at him… all except Chris.

‘Planet Xeno’ is a quiet patch of woodland adults don’t know about, where kids can kick back, drink, smoke, get stoned and just talk. The big topic among the guys is “the bug”: a sexually transmitted disease that causes bizarre, unpredictable mutations like uncontrolled growths, extra digits, pigmentation changes, and new orifices that don’t bleed…

As Keith and best buds Dee and Todd shoot the breeze and goof off, they discover an odd encampment, strewn with old toys and bottles and junk. Some of the sufferers of the “Teen Plague” have relocated here to the forest, founding a makeshift camp away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. When Keith finds a girl’s shed skin hanging from a bush, he fears creepy mutants are closing in and suffers a crazy disorienting premonition…

In ‘SSSSSSSSSS’ Chris is dreaming: a ghastly phantasmagoria involving naked swimming in pollution, a bunch of strange guys, monsters and that fainting kid Keith turning into a serpent. It all ends with her examining the new holes in her body before ripping off her old skin and leaving it hanging on a bush…

She’s drinking illicit beer by the lake in ‘Racing Towards Something’, remembering that wild party a week ago and what she did with the cool guy Rob Facincanni. As she came on to him he kept trying to tell her something but she was in no mood to listen. She just didn’t want to be the good girl anymore…

She recalls the moment of explosive climax and horror when she discovered a hideous second mouth in his neck… and the noises. It seemed to be speaking…

In the sordid guilty aftermath she felt awful but had no idea what that furtive, disappointing assignation had done to her.

Rob is still sleeping with Lisa. She’s accepted the cost of the curse and the ghastly changes in her body, but what she won’t take is him screwing around. She has heard Rob’s second mouth talking as they lay together and needs to know ‘Who’s Chris?’

Keith and his bros are getting stoned again when he hears some guys have just watched the so-virginal Chris skinny-dipping and seen her sex-caused mutation. The virgin queen isn’t any more…

In ‘Cut’ their teasing proves too much and he storms off into the scrub, accidentally spotting the object of his desire as she gets dressed again. Guiltily voyeuristic, he’s prompted to action when she steps on broken glass and cries out. Dashing to her rescue he bandages her foot, too ashamed to admit just how much of her he’s really seen. All Keith knows is that someday he will be with her. Fate was obviously on his side…

‘Bag Action’ finds him and Dee trying to buy weed from some skeevy college guys, but our frustrated romantic is utterly unable to get lascivious, furtive, distracting naked images of Chris out of his mind.

However, after sampling some of the dope in the Frat boys’ dilapidated house, he meets their housemate Eliza: an eccentric artist extremely high, nearly naked and very hungry. Just as baked, achingly horny and fascinated by her cute tail (not a euphemism), Keith almost has sex with her but is interrupted by his idiot pal at just the wrong moment…

Many of those infected by The Bug are camped out in the woods now and ‘Cook Out’ finds them having a desperate party around a roaring fire. Rob is there, bemoaning the fact Lisa has kicked him out, but he’s also acutely aware that the sex-warped kids are getting oddly wild, manic, even dangerous…

‘Seeing Double’ finds downcast, devastated Chris talking things over with Rob at the outcast encampment. The naive fool has just discovered what’s she got and what it means. Lost and disgusted, convinced she’s a dirty monster with a biological Scarlet Letter as part of her flesh, Chris drinks and talks and, eventually, finds comfort in her bad boy’s arms…

In ‘Windowpane’ Pearson, Dee and Todd drop their first tabs of acid and head for a party at Jill’s house. Increasingly morose and troubled Keith is feeling ever-more isolated and alienated and the LSD coursing through his system isn’t helping, When Dee and Jill start to make out, he leaves and finds her big sister crying outside. After she shouts at him he turns and, still tripping off his nut, heads into the woods.

Lost and confused, he sees horrific and bizarre things in the trees and bushes before stumbling into some of the infected kids around their fire. In a wave of expiation he begins to talk and keeps on going, slowly coming down amongst temporary friends. Keith has no suspicion that some of the things he saw were not imaginary at all…

‘Under Open Skies’ sees Chris and Rob playing hooky. Fully committed to each other now, they head to the coast and a perfect solitary day of love at the beach. They think it’s all going to be okay but the voice from Rob’s other mouth says otherwise…

Back home again, Chris’ recent good times are ruined by her parents’ reaction. Grounded, the former good girl makes up her mind and, gathering a few possessions, elopes with her lover to a new life in ‘The Woods’ where grotesquely bestial but kindly Dave Barnes takes them under his wing.

Although they have bonded, Rob cannot stay with Chris and returns to his home and High School. Although he spends as much time as possible at the encampment, Chris is too often alone and on one of her excursions into the wilds finds a bizarre and frightening shrine. Little does she know it’s one of the things the tripping Keith thought he’d hallucinated…

Summer grinds on and Pearson plucks up nerve to go back to the college guys’ house. ‘Lizard Queen’ Eliza is on the porch, drawing but obviously upset by something. Confused, scared and without knowing what they’re doing. they end up in bed consummating that long-postponed act of drug-fuelled passion…

Chris’ days of innocent passion end suddenly when Rob is brutally attacked by a lurking intruder in ‘I’m Sorry’. She descends into a stupor for days until spotting nice safe Keith at one of the camp’s evening bonfire parties. Soon, he’s arranged for her to move into an empty property he’s housesitting over ‘Summer Vacation’ but even though he’s attentive, kind, solicitous and so clearly wants to be with her, he’s just not Rob.

Chris has been going slowly crazy since her beloved boy vanished: reliving memories good and bad, feeling scared and abandoned, playing dangerously with the gun he left her “for protection”. Keith is still plagued by nightmares and X-rated thoughts of Eliza in ‘A Dream Girl’, but hopeful he now has a chance with Chris. That swiftly changes when he checks on her and discovers the house he’s supposed to be guarding has been trashed. There’s garbage everywhere, a bunch of her fellow outcasts have moved in and she’s clearly avoiding him, locked in a room, constantly “sleeping”…

Despondent, confused Pearson doesn’t know what to do. Chris is having some kind of breakdown and the house – his responsibility – is a wreck. The lovesick fool is trapped and crumbling when Eliza breezes back into his life. If only his own bug mutation wasn’t so hideous…

Heading back to the home once more he finds Chris has gone and the pigsty has become a charnel house. All summer there has been a frightening, oppressive presence in the woods and with the Fall coming the mood is beginning to darken. When Dave is barracked and abused whilst trying to buy takeout food, he snaps and pulls out Chris’ gun. Calmly taking his fried chicken from the crime-scene he walks back to the woods and the troubled soul known as ‘Rick the Dick’. It’s going to be their last meal…

Keith meanwhile has found his own happy ending, ‘Driving South’ with gloriously free spirited, undemanding Eliza, but is still gripped by what he found at the house. At least he and Eliza helped survivors get away, but now – happily content with his idyllic artist girl and after all the horrible secrets they’ve shared – he can’t help wondering what happened to Chris.

That mystery and how Dave got the gun are only revealed in the compulsively low key and wildly visual climax ‘The End’

Complex, convoluted, utterly compelling, expressive, evocative and deeply, disturbingly phantasmagorical, Black Hole is a comics masterpiece of graphic genius and astoundingly utilised allegory and metaphor merged with the eternal dissatisfaction and alienation of youth. It explores and reexamines evolution and cultural ostracization as well as the verities of love, aspiration, jealousy and death to concoct a tale no other medium could (although perhaps Luis Buñuel, David Lynch or David Cronenberg might have made a good go of it in film).

If you are over 16 and haven’t read it, do – and soon.
© 2005 Charles Burns. All rights reserved.