Jack Kirby’s The Losers


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-184856-194-6 (HB)

There’s a glorious profusion of Jack Kirby material around these days but much of the best and rarest stuff is still – unforgivably – somehow hard to access. This astounding collection of his too-brief run on DC war comic Our Fighting Forces is, for far too many, an unknown delight. You can still find it in the original 2009 hardback edition, but as far as I know, there’s neither digital or even an English-language trade paperback edition to satisfy the desires of fans lacking an infinite bank balance…

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, the King was a decent, spiritual man from another generation, and one who had experienced human horror and bravery as an ordinary grunt during World War II. Whether in the world-weary verité of his 1950s collaborations with Joe Simon or the flamboyant bravado of his Marvel creation Sgt. Fury, Kirby’ combat comics always looked and felt real: grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably not setting any sales records at DC, and while he tentatively pondered a return to Marvel, Jack took over the creative chores on a well-established and compelling but always floundering series that had run in Our Fighting Forces since 1970.

The Losers were an elite unit of American warriors cobbled together by amalgamating three pre-existing war series that had reached the end of their solo star roads. Gunner and Sarge (supplemented by “the Fighting Devil Dog” Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959 to August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navaho Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82 (December 1960). He flew solo until issue #115 (1966).

The final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18-issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comics warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years (and beyond) when their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero group adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 (January/February 1970). Once again written primarily by Kanigher, the episodes were graced with art from such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Ross Andru and Joe Kubert.

With the tagline “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small, passionate following. In an inexplicable dose of company politics, the discontented Kirby was abruptly given complete control of the series with #151 (November 1974).

His radically different approach was highly controversial at the time but the passage of years has allowed a fairer appraisal and whilst never really in tune with the aesthetic of DC’s other war-books, the King’s run was a spectacular and singularly intriguing examination of the human condition under the worst of all possible situations.

The combat frenzy kicks off in ‘Kill Me with Wagner’ as the Losers infiltrate a French village to rescue a concert pianist before the Nazis can capture her. The hapless propaganda pawn has one tremendous advantage… nobody knows what she looks like.

As with most of this series, a feeling of inevitable, onrushing Gotterdammerung permeates the tale: a sense that worlds are ending and new one’s a-coming. The action culminates in a catastrophic wave of destruction that is pure Kirby magic…

Most of DC’s war titles sported Kubert covers, but #152 featured the first in a startling sequence of hypnotic Kirby illustrations, almost abstract in delivery, to introduce the team to the no-hope proposition of ‘A Small Place in Hell!’ as they find themselves the advance guard for an Allied push, but dropped in the wrong town: one that has not been cleared…

The spectacular action here is augmented by a potent 2-page Kirby fact feature: Sub-machine guns of WWII, and it should be noted and commended that this collection is also peppered with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs.

Our Fighting Forces #153 is one of those stories that made traditionalists squeak. Behind another Kirby cover, the story of ‘Devastator vs. Big Max’ veers dangerously close to science fiction, but the admittedly eccentric plan to destroy a giant German rail-mounted super-cannon isn’t any stranger than many schemes actual Boffins dreamed up to disinform the enemy during the actual conflict, actually…

That yarn – with two beautiful info-pages on military uniforms and insignia – is followed by a superb parable about personal honour. A bombastic Kirby cover segues into the team’s deployment to the Pacific to remove a Japanese officer whose devotion to ‘Bushido’ has inspired superhuman loyalty and resistance to surrender among his men. The means used to remove him are far from clean or creditable…

Bracketed by 2 pages on war vehicles plus a wonderful pencil cover-rough, and two more on artillery pieces and the pencils for the cover to that issue, ‘The Partisans!’ (OFF #155) takes the Losers into very dark territory indeed, before the team return to America for ‘Good-bye Broadway… Hello Death!’, wherein the lads experience the home-front joys of New York whilst hunting for a notorious U-Boat commander. Naturally there’s more to the story than first appears…

This fast-paced thriller is complemented by a history of battle headgear and another pencilled rough. Issues #157 and 158 comprise a 2-part saga concerning theft, black marketeering and espionage featuring truly unique personage ‘Panama Fattie!’ Her criminal activities almost alter the course of the war; and conclude in the highly charged ‘Bombing Out on the Panama Canal’ with accompanying pages on ships, subs and Nazi super-planes.

Behind the last Kirby cover (#159), ‘Mile-a-Minute Jones!’ details a smaller-scaled duel between a black runner who embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and the Nazi ubermensch he defeated, reigniting on the battlefield with the Losers relegated to subordinate roles.

Kubert and Ernie Chan handled the three remaining covers of this run, an indication that Kirby’s attentions were being diverted elsewhere, but the stories remain powerful and deeply personal explorations of combat. In ‘Ivan’ (OFF #160) the Losers go undercover, impersonating German soldiers on the Eastern Front, and have an unpleasant encounter with Russian Nazi sympathizers whose appetite for atrocity surpasses anything they have ever seen before (supplemented by a 2-page tanks feature) whilst the hellish jungles of the Burma campaign prove an unholy backdrop for traumatic combat shocker ‘The Major’s Dream.’

The volume and Kirby’s DC war work ends with a sly tribute to his 1942 co-creation the Boy Commandos. ‘Gung-Ho!’sees young Gunner training a band of war orphans in Marine tactics only to find fun turn to dire necessity when Germans overrun their “safe” position. This is an optimistic, all-out action romp ending on a note of hope and anticipation, even as the King made his departure for pastures not-so-new. From issue #163 Kanigher resumed the story reins, with artists like Jack Lehti, Ric Estrada and George Evans illustrating, and the Losers returned to their pre-Kirby style and status, with readers hardly acknowledging the detour into another kind of war.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that his work from 1939 onwards shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations, and which still garners new fans and apostles from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. Jack’s work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral and deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human.

These tales of purely mortal heroism are in many ways the most revealing, honest and insightful of Jack’s incredibly vast accumulated works, and even the true devotee often forgets their very existence. As Neil Gaiman’s introduction succinctly declaims, “they are classic Kirby… and even if you don’t like war comics, you may be in for a surprise…”

You really don’t want to miss that, do you?
© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Promethea: Book One – 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition


By Alan Moore, J H Williams III & Mick Gray, with Charles Vess, José Villarrubia & Jeromy Cox (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-40128-866-2 (HB)

After far too long away, let’s welcome back a notable addition to the canon of not-embarrassing, happily recommendable “Strong Female Characters” in hardback and digital editions that do her justice

I wonder if, when Alan Moore first conceived this series as part of his private superhero universe (now inexorably subsumed into the greater DC cosmology), he realised quite how far he would take this tale, or just how far he and long-haul collaborators J H Williams III & Mick Gray would push the boundaries of Graphic Narrative?

Ignoring the superficial resemblances to Wonder Woman – herself more archetype than property these days, but don’t tell the lawyers I said that – what’s on offer here? Promethea #1-12 are collected in this first Deluxe volume and are preceded by Moore’s introduction: ‘The Promethea Puzzle : An Adventure in Folklore’ (clipped from the first issue)…

Sophie Bangs lives in the big city, in a world of Science Heroes, multi-powered villains and real, scary monsters. She’s a smart kid, if not traditionally pretty, doing teen-age things with her best friend Stacia. She’s also a student researching a term paper on a name that has cropped up in esoteric poems, art and popular culture since the 5th century AD. Sophie seems inexplicably fascinated by and drawn to the concept of Promethea

After interviewing the widow of the writer of a Promethea comic book, she’s attacked by a shadowy demon and rescued by the widow, who is the comic heroine she’s been researching. It transpires Promethea is a little girl taken into the Immateria, the Realm of Imagination. She became a concept.

Throughout history, she has since become real by incarnating in women who inspire art and creativity. These women – and even some men – have been able to manifest as incarnations of a Spirit of Imagination residing in the greater world of the unconscious. The Immateria is where all Gods, Stories and Ideas dwell. As the shadow-monster returns, Sophia finds her own artistic method of contacting the fable realm and becomes its latest physical incarnation…

Having discovered the metaphysical nature of Promethea Sophie begins to adjust. In real terms that means she can transform into a super-powerful flying Amazon, and perhaps join the legions of Science Heroes who protect – and frequently endanger – the world, but as her story unfolds, she begins to see just how different her version of the old story can be. Sophie is not some frustrated do-gooder suddenly flush with new-found power; she is and always has been concerned with knowing things.

Thus begins a journey of metaphysical as well as metahuman adventure. Sophie fights monsters and meets heroes, but the never-ending battle is not what this series is about. She obsessively wants to know more, and whilst various flamboyant forces array themselves against her, she is constantly seeking deeper answers for questions she never knew she had.

As various real-world forces align themselves in response to the latest resurgence of Promethea, Sophie explores the Immateria, hunting answers and examining the careers of her predecessors. When those antithetical forces attack the hospital where her new friend Barbara is slowly dying, the resultant battle with the forces of Hell reveal just how potent a weapon Promethea can be. The serious reader is advised to examine closely the running sub-plot with hero team The Five Swell Guys and psychotic serial killer The Painted Doll. As well as divertingly action-packed in an otherwise very cerebral tale, the long-running side-bar will have major repercussions in volumes to come.

Having dealt with the demon-horde, and the secret organisation that summoned them, Sophie again deviates from the expected in her dealings with infamous sorcerer Jack Faust, and has a Y2K monster battle before the volume ends with a mystical primer on the history, meaning and symbolism of The Tarot that is the closest I’ve seen the printed page get to a multi-media experience.

Moore’s sly and subversive scripting, in a superhero universe pushed to its illogical extreme, is superbly matched by artists Williams III & Gray, who increasingly raise the bar on graphic creativity and printing technology for a visual experience that is simply staggering to behold.

Adding extra lustre to the affair, Brad Meltzer offers an Afterword asking ‘Who Wants to Read a Fantasy Comic?’ and Moore’s script for issue #3 a fascinating diagnostic appointment with the creative process, augmented by Williams III’s artwork for the issue.

Promethea always had the most experimental aspirations. It will never have universal appeal, but if you are serious about comics it is an experience you owe yourself to try. And don’t be fooled. This book isn’t a lecture or a lesson, it’s a journey…
© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks Luke Cage, Power Man volume 3


By Marv Wolfman, Don McGregor, Chris Claremont, Bill Mantlo, Ed Hannigan, Roger Slifer, Frank Robbins, Lee Elias, Marie Severin, Ron Wilson, Bob Brown, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1635-0 (HB)

As a sickly pale kid growing up in a hugely white area of the Home Counties in the 1960s and 1970s, I got almost all my early experience of black people from television and films (for which I’m most profoundly sorry) – and, of course, comics – for which I’m not.

Blithely unaware of other people’s struggle for equality in my formative years, the incredible consciousness-raising explosion of Black Power after the 1968 Olympic Games rather politicised me, and even though some comics companies had by this time made tentative efforts to address what were national and global socio-political iniquities, issues of race and ethnicity took a long time to filter through to the still-impressionable young minds avidly absorbing knowledge and attitudes via four-colour newsprint pages that couldn’t even approximate the skin tones of African-Americans, Africans, Asians or even white folk with sun-burn or a deep tan.

As with television, breakthroughs were small, incremental and too often reduced to a cold-war of daringly liberal “firsts.” Excluding a few characters in Jungle comic-books of the 1940s and 1950, Marvel clearly led the field with a black member of Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos (the historically impossible Gabe Jones who debuted in #1, May 1963, and was accidentally re-coloured Caucasian at the printers – who clearly didn’t realise his ethnicity – for the debut issue), as well as the first negro superheroes Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), and the Falcon in Captain America #117 (September 1969).

The honour of America’s first black hero to carry his own title came in a little-remembered or regarded title from Dell Comics. Lobo was a gunslinger/vigilante in the old west who sought out injustice just like any cowboy hero would, first appearing in December 1965, and created by artist Tony Tallarico & scripter D.J. Arneson.

Arguably a greater breakthrough was Joe Robertson, City Editor of Marvel’s Daily Bugle, an erudite, brave and magnificently ordinary mortal distinguished by his sterling character, not a costume or skin tone. He first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man # 51 (August 1967), proving in every panel that the world wouldn’t end if black folk and white folk worked and ate together…

This big change slowly grew out of raised social awareness during a terrible time in American history – although Britain had nothing to be smug about either. Following the advent of the “Windrush Generation”, race riots in Blighty had started early in the Sixties here (in all honesty, they weren’t a new thing then, either) and left simmering scars that only comedians and openly racist politicians dared to talk about. Shows such Till Death Us Do Part and Love Thy Neighbour made subtly telling headway but still raise a shudder when I see clips today…

Back in the USA, more positive ethnic characters were slowly let in, with DC finally getting a black hero in John Stewart(Green Lantern #87 December 1971/January 1972), although his designation as replacement Green Lantern might be construed as more conciliatory and insulting than revolutionary. The first DC hero with his own title was Black Lightning, who didn’t debut until April 1977, although Jack Kirby had introduced Shilo Norman as Scott Free’s apprentice (and eventual successor) in Mister Miracle #15 (August (1973).

As usual, it took a bold man and changing economics to really promote change, and with declining comics sales at a time of rising Black Consciousness cash – if not cashing in – was probably the trigger for “the Next Step.”

Contemporary “Blacksploitation” cinema and novels had fired up commercial interests throughout America and in that atmosphere of outlandish dialogue, appalling apparel and barely concealed – if justified – outrage, an angry black man with a shady past and apparently dubious morals debuted as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in the summer of 1972. A year later the Black Panther finally got his own series in Jungle Action #5 and Blade: Vampire Hunter debuted in Tomb of Dracula #10.

Cage’s origin was typically bombastic: Lucas, a hard-case inmate at brutal Seagate Prison always claimed to have been framed and his inflexible, uncompromising attitude made mortal enemies of the racist guards Rackham and Quirt whilst not exactly endearing him to the rest of the prison population – such as proudly adamant bad-guys Shades and Comanche

The premiere issue was written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by George Tuska & Billy Graham (with some initial assistance from Roy Thomas and John Romita), detailing how a new warden promised to reform the hell-hole into a proper, legal and decently administered penal institution.

Having heard the desperate con’s tale of woe, new prison doctor Noah Burstein convinced Lucas to participate in a radical experiment in exchange for a parole hearing…

Lucas had grown up in Harlem, a tough kid who’d managed to stay honest even when his best friend Willis Stryker had not. They remained friends even though walking different paths – at least until a woman came between them. To be rid of his romantic rival, Stryker planted drugs and had Lucas shipped off to jail. While he was incarcerated, Lucas’ girl Reva – who had never given up on him – was killed when she got in the way of bullets meant for Stryker…

With nothing left to lose, Lucas underwent Burstein’s process – an experiment in cell-regeneration – but Rackham sabotaged it, hoping to kill the con before he could expose the guard’s illegal treatment of convicts. It all went haywire and something incredible happened. Lucas, now incredibly strong and pain-resistant, punched his way out of the lab and the through the prison walls, only to be killed in hail of gunfire. His body plunged over a cliff and was never recovered…

Months later, a vagrant prowling the streets of New York City stumbled into a robbery. Almost casually downing the felon, he accepted a cash reward from the grateful victim, prompting a bright idea…

Super-strong, bullet-proof, street-wise and honest, Lucas would hide in plain sight while planning his revenge on Stryker. Since his only skill was fighting, he became a private paladin – A Hero For Hire

Whilst making allowances for the colourful, often ludicrous dialogue necessitated by the Comics Code’s sanitising of “street-talking Jive” this was probably the edgiest series of Marvel’s early years (especially under the always evocative and culturally astute Don McGregor) but even so, after a few years the tense action and peripheral interactions with the greater Marvel Universe led to a minor rethink and the title was altered, if not the basic premise…

The private detective motif proved a brilliant stratagem in generating stories for a character perceived as a reluctant champion at best and anti-hero by nature. It allowed Cage to maintain an outsider’s edginess but also meant adventure literally walked through his shabby door every issue.

Cage had set up an office over a movie house on 42nd Street and met a young man who would become his greatest friend: D.W. Griffith – nerd, film freak and plucky white sidekick. Dr. Burstein resurfaced, running a rehab clinic on the dirty, deadly streets around Times Square, aided by beautiful Dr. Claire Temple. Soon, she too was an integral part of Luke’s new life…

This turbulent third hardback (or eBook) compilation collects #32-47 of Luke Cage, Power Man as well as his first Annual – spanning June 1976 through October 1977 – and begins with McGregor’s passionate Introduction ‘Luke Cage and the Big Bad City’ before the inner city, “outasight” action resumes….

Having rebranded himself Luke Cage, Power Man the urban privateer made ends meet whilst seeking a way to stay under police radar and dreamed of clearing his name. A new level of sophistication, social commentary and bizarre villainy began when McGregor took over as writer to craft a run of macabre crime sagas, culminating in saving the entire city from stolen nerve gas…

Issue #32 opens with Cage in the leafy suburbs, hired to protect a black family from literally incendiary racist super-villain Wildfire in ‘The Fire This Time!’ (by McGregor, Frank Robbins & Vince Colletta). This champion of moral outrage is determined to keep his affluent decent neighbourhood white, and even Power Man is ultimately unable to prevent a ghastly atrocity from being perpetrated…

Back in Times Square again, Cage is in the way when a costumed manic comes looking for Noah Burnstein, and learns that ‘Sticks and Stone Will Break Your Bones, But Spears Can Kill You!’ Even as shady reporters, sleazy lawyers and police detective Quentin Chase all circle, looking to uncover the Hero for Hire’s secret past in ‘Death, Taxes and Springtime Vendettas!’ (inked by Frank Springer), Cage’s attention is distracted from Burstein’s stalker by a deranged wrestler dubbed The Mangler, leading to savage showdown and near-fatal outcome in ‘Of Memories, Both Vicious and Haunting!’ (plotted by Marv Wolfman, dialogued by McGregor and illustrated by Marie Severin, Joe Giella & Frank Giacoia) wherein the reasons for the campaign of terror are finally exposed…

Power Man Annual #1 follows as ‘Earthshock!’ – by Chris Claremont, Lee Elias & Dave Hunt – takes Cage to Japan as bodyguard to wealthy Samantha Sheridan. She is being targeted by munitions magnate and tectonics-warping maniac Moses Magnum, who intends tapping the planet’s magma core, even though the very planet is at risk of being destroyed.

Thankfully not even his army of mercenary is enough to stop Cage in full rage…

Next is the cover for Power Man #36 (October 1976). Another casualty of the “Dreaded Deadline Doom”, it reprinted LCHFH #12, which featured the debut of the villain who follows in #37’s all-new ‘Chemistro is Back! Deadlier Than Ever!’ by Wolfman, Ron Wilson & A Bradford, as the apparently grudge-bearing recreant attacks Cage at the behest of a new mystery mastermind. He clarifies his position in follow-up ‘…Big Brother Wants You… Dead!’ (Wolfman, Bill Mantlo, Bob Brown & Jim Mooney) as minions Cheshire Cat and Checkpoint Charlie shadow the increasingly-frustrated PI, and repeated inconclusive and inexplicable clashes with Chemistro lead to a bombastic ‘Battle with the Baron!’ (inked by Klaus Janson) who turns out to be a rival mastermind hoping to corner the market on crime in NYC…

The crazed and convoluted clash concludes in ‘Rush Hour to Limbo!’ (Wolfman, Elias & Giacoia) as one final deathtrap for Cage turns into an explosive last hurrah for Big Brother and his crew…

Inked by Tom Palmer, a new vigilante debuts in #41’s ‘Thunderbolt and Goldbug!’ as a super-swift masked hero makes a name for himself cleaning up low-level scum just as Cage is hired by a courier company to protect a bullion shipment. Sadly, when the van is bombed and the guards die, dazed and furious Cage can’t tell villain from vigilante and takes on the wrong guy…

Answers if not conclusions are forthcoming in ‘Gold! Gold! Who’s Got the Gold?’ (with Alex Niño on inks) as Luke learns who his real friends and foes are, only to be suckered into a deathtrap only barely escaped in #43’s ‘The Death of Luke Cage!’ In the aftermath, with the legal authorities closing in on his fake life, Cage flees town and sheds the Power Man persona, but even in the teeming masses of Chicago can’t escape his past as an old enemy mistakenly assumes he’s been tracked down by the hero he hates most in all the world…

Plotted by Wolfman and scripted by Ed Hannigan with Elias & Palmer on regular artistic duties, ‘Murder is the Man Called Mace!’ sees Luke dragged into the dishonoured soldier’s scheme to seize control of America and despite his best and most violent efforts, beaten and strapped to a cobalt bomb on ‘The Day Chicago Died!’ (Wolfman & Elias).

Sadly, after breaking free of the device, it’s lost in the sewers, prompting a frantic ‘Chicago Trackdown!’ and another savage showdown with Mace and his military madmen in a chilling ‘Countdown to Catastrophe!’ (scripted by Roger Slifer) as a fame-hungry sniper starts shooting citizens whilst the authorities are all searching for the missing nuke…

With atomic armageddon averted at the last moment, this collection – and Cage’s old life – end on a well-conceived final charge. With issue #48, Cage’s life – and his comics title – would be henceforth be shared with mystic martial artist Danny Rand in the superbly enticing odd couple feature Power Man and Iron Fist, but before that there’s still a ‘Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight!’ courtesy of Claremont, George Tuska & Bob Smith as Chicago is attacked by brain-sucking electrical parasite Zzzax! Thankfully, our steel-skinned stalwart is more than a match for the mind-stealing megawatt monstrosity…

With the comics sagas suspended, there’s still treats aplenty here, beginning with a house ad for 1976 Annuals, continuing with Wilson and Joe Sinnott’s art for the ‘Marvel Comics’ Memory Album Calendar 1977’ and ending with a short selection of original art pages by Brown, Mooney & Janson.

Arguably a little dated now (us in the know prefer the term “retro”), these tales were nonetheless instrumental in breaking down many social barriers in the complacent, intolerant, WASP-flavoured American comics landscape, and their power – if not their initial impact – remains undiminished to this day. These are tales well worth your time and money.
© 2019 MARVEL.

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming


By Frank Stack (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-780-3 (TPB)

One of the earliest exponents of the US counter-culture, at least in terms of his contributions to Underground Comix, Frank (Foolbert Sturgeon) Stack has sadly missed out on the benefits of fame and notoriety of such contemporaries as Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.

He may well be the perpetrator of the first ever Underground Commix (a split decision with the late Jack Jackson, both of whom released work in 1964 – although a collection of Stack’s delirious doodles was compiled and Xeroxed by Shelton in 1962-3 as “The Adventures of Jesus”) but I’m sure he’s not that bothered.

What is important is that these throwaway scribbles by all these weirdo drop-out freaks changed the nature of comics and did a huge amount to reshape the society they came from and operated within – a bit like old JC himself, in fact…

Stack’s weapon of choice was the divine redeemer Jesus Christ, whom he made the star of an occasional series of strips satirising America. These intermittently appeared between 1964 and (since there’s new material in this collection) the present day.

A lot of the bite may seem dissipated by time, but that simply shows how effective and successful they were – and actually still are. Many people have pondered on what the Messiah would do if he came back today (sadly not enough of them people in power…), but no-one else could deliver the gentle, telling punches of ‘The Dog Messiah’, ‘Jesus Meets the Armed Services’ (released at the height of the Vietnam War, remember, and more pertinent than ever as America and Russia spar to see who’s best at being World Police), ‘Jesus Joins the Academic Community’ or ‘Jesus on Ice’.

In this collected epistle – available in traditional print and the miracle of digital formatting – those fables and parables are supplemented with the all-new ‘Jesus Meets Intellectual Property Rights’ which shows there’s room – and still a crying need for – Stack’s style of commentary.

This collection is extensive, informative (as well as a commentary from Stack, there are pieces from both Crumb and Shelton) but above all fun to read. You might not get Saved but you will get your money’s worth in entertainment, and if you have a soul it will be blessed and maybe even sanctified…
Text & art © 2006 Frank Stack. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra


By Alex Simmons & Joe Bennett (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79852-3 (TPB)

Here in the west nearly 150 years of popular publishing – and its spin-off art forms film, radio, TV and especially comics – has generated a legion of legendary (if human-scaled) action adventurers. These larger than life characters have been called Pulp Heroes and their playground is all of human history and every tomorrow…

Whether you prefer Ivanhoe and Prince Valiant, Allan Quatermain, Sir Percy Blakeney, Richard Hannay, El Borak, Bulldog Drummond, Doc Savage, Mack Bolan, James Bond, Jason Bourne or even Indiana Jones, a succession of steely-eyed, immensely powerful men – and even the occasional woman – have girdled the globe righting wrongs and inspiring millions of dreamers. Although some few had friends, colleagues or assistants of colour, I can’t think of a single leading man who was black…

That all began to change in 1957 when Chester Himes began writing his tales of brutal, uncompromising cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones in the Harlem Detective novels… but then again, he was writing them from exile in France.

America’s history of Jim Crow laws and institutionalised racism throughout the media had driven him away from his birthland and long ago stifled the hopes and aspirations of generations of African-Americans looking for a hero all their own.

That started changing in the radical 1960s, when flunky stereotypes and dumb bad-guy representations began to give way to thoughtful portrayals of fully-feeling human beings, intelligent moral champions and powerful, vital, independent heroes – thanks to the efforts of the same media empires which had for so long censored any such image.

Sadly, one look at today’s News tells us America still has some way to go. And of course, for most of that time Britain has been no better…

That’s a rather longwinded and pompous way of recommending a splendid release from Dover’s superb line of lost and rescued graphic gems: a revived edition and a compelling modern classic of the Good Old, Bad Old Days, resurrected in a softcover or digital collection to astound and enthral all lovers of epic bravado and red-handed justice, packed with the usual extras and bonus material.

Preceded with a Foreword from Joe Illidge and the author’s exhilarating Introduction ‘The Past: A Good Time for a Dark Hero’ and bookended by an effusive Afterword by agent David Colley, you can experience a world of dangerous extremes perfectly realised by Brazilian-born illustrator Joe Bennett (X-Men, 52, Supreme).

Alex Simmons is an award-winning African-American author, playwright, comicbook scripter and educator who has produced innumerable strips, games, shows and art-events all over the world. He’s worked for Marvel, DC, Disney, Archie and others and is a passionate advocate for and champion of equality and racial issues.

In 1996 he finally fulfilled a childhood dream by creating a black character as an equal to and worthy of the fictional meta-kingdom of all his childhood heroes as cited above. Following a cruelly recognisable usual pattern, however, the saga of Arron Day AKA Blackjack proved to be a monster hit everywhere… except America…

Following the first two miniseries from Dark Angel Productions, Blackjack adapted to tough times in the comic biz by moving online as both prose and comics forms and through a serial in “Blaxploitation” magazine Bad AzzMofo. In 2001, there was even an audio adventure – Blackjack: Retribution – recorded in front of a live audience at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York City.

Now, with the first epic extravaganza compiled into one scorching saga, action fans have a chance for another bite of the cherry. During the Great War, Matthew “Mad Dog” Day found fame and a little prosperity as a soldier-of-fortune fighting all over the world; attaining the respect and acclaim no North Carolina negro could have by staying in America…

One particularly savage commission from a thankless Egyptian government sent him into the Sahara and pitted him and his fellow mercenaries against diabolical, nigh-messianic rebel Farouk Tea a la Af’a, know to insurgents everywhere as The Cobra.

After a climactic battle between eternal, implacable foes the Arab raider paid him the ultimate mark of disrespect by not bothering to kill him and his remaining comrades before vanishing back into the trackless wastes…

Back in Cairo days later, the foreign survivors were publicly castigated by an ungrateful populace and Mad Dog’s young son learned a harsh lesson. Arron knew who was truly to blame however and swore one day he would meet the Cobra…

Years passed and in 1923 the boy and his sister learned another salutary lesson when their parents were murdered by unknown assassins in Spain. By 1935 Arron has surpassed his father and become a globetrotting man of wealth and means by way of his own martial talents. Gripped by a keen sense of justice and never one to shy away from conflict or confrontation, he has used that money to challenge the American Way by buying a palatial home on Manhattan’s West Side, flying in the face of hostility and outright bigotry, even from the city police …

However, setting up home and aggravating the powers-that-be suddenly loses its appeal when a cable from Cairo arrives. Old uncle Silas – a white man who was Mad Dog’s trusted lieutenant – has learned the Cobra is back and up to his old murderous tricks…

And so begins a spectacular, ferociously gripping duel in the desert as Blackjack hunts for the man who shamed his father – and might well have had him killed – encountering and outwitting corrupt rulers, suspect capitalists hungry for the region’s as yet untapped riches, and gangs of thugs.

Ferreting out the demon from his past accompanied by a trusted band of comrades and lethal new recruit Maryam, Blackjack blazes his way across the war-torn region to meet his promised nemesis and settle forever the family business so long delayed…

As spectacular as Lawrence of Arabia, as fast-paced as The Mummy (1999) and as satisfyingly suspenseful as Hidalgo, this is pure pulp experience no lover of the genre should miss.
Story text © 1995 Alex Simmons. Illustrations © 1995, 1996 Joe Bennett. Cover art © 2015 Scott Hanna. All other material © 2015 its respective owners. All rights reserved.

I Love This Part



By Tillie Walden (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-91039-532-5(HB) 978-1-91039-517-2 (TPB)

Happy St. Valentines’ Day. I’m stifling my usual curmudgeonly attitudes for a while and reviewing a book that’s solidly on the side of being in love, but not so disingenuous as to tell you that it’s all hearts and flowers…

Sweet but not calorific, I Love This Part deliciously pictorializes the happy, introspective, contemplative and aspirational moments of two schoolgirls who have found each other. Shared dreams, idle conversations, disputes and landmark first steps, even fights and break-ups are seen and weathered. Novelty, timidity, apprehension, societal pressure and even some unnecessary shame come into it, but generally it’s just how young people learn to love and what that inevitably entails…

Apart from the astoundingly graceful and inviting honesty of the tale, the most engaging factor is the author’s brilliant dismissal of visual reality. These interactions are all backdropped by wild changes in dimension and perspective, abrupt shifts in location and landscape and shots of empty spaces all adding a sense of distance and whimsy to very familiar proceedings.

Tillie Walden is a great admirer of Little Nemo so fellow afficionados will feel at home even if neophytes might experience the odd sensation of disorientation and trepidation. Like being in love, I suppose…

Glorying not just in the relationships but also in the sheer joy of drawing what you feel, Texas-raised Tillie is still a relative newcomer – albeit a prolific and immensely gifted one – who has garnered heaps of acclaim and awards. Whether through her fiction or autobiographical works (frequently combined in the same stories), she always engenders a feeling of absolute wonder, combined with a fresh incisive view and measured, compelling delivery in terms of both story and character. Her artwork is a sheer delight.

Before globally turning heads with such unforgettable tales as On a Sunbeam, A City Inside, Spinning, and Are You Listening? she followed up on her Ignatz Award-winning debut graphic novel The End of Summer with this fluffy yet barbed coming-of-age tale.

You’d have to be bereft of vision and afflicted with a heart of stone to reject this comic masterpiece – available in hardback, softcover and digital formats – which no one should miss.
© Tillie Walden 2016. All rights reserved.

Ghetto Brother – Warrior to Peacemaker


By Julian Voloj & Claudia Ahlering (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-948-9 (TPB)

In I971 New York City was a broken, dirty metropolis increasingly divided by top-down, enforced gentrification. From the end of the 1950s the mostly ethnically European population of the Bronx had been moving out into the suburbs – a process dubbed “White Flight” – whilst poorer inner-city newcomers, mostly Blacks and Hispanics, were driven or priced out of their cheap bohemian enclaves in Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and Soho to fill the vacated places. Those emptied Manhattan regions now comprise some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the Big Apple…

Further social assault came when ruthless urban reformer and City Planner Robert Moses slashed the newly-coalescing community of “foreigners” in half by steamrollering the Cross Bronx Expressway right through the formerly scenic Borough.

Subsequent urban blight, administrative neglect and lack of funding soon turned the whole region into isolated islands of forgotten residents, and their hopeless, opportunity-starved kids began forming fiercely territorial gangs to defend spurious concepts of dignity, personal honour and the little territory they called theirs…

The South Bronx became a global byword for urban decay and a breeding ground for violence by the poor upon the poor. By December 1971 it seemed inevitable that the more than 100 gangs situated in the Borough would wipe each other out and possibly take the entire city with them.

…And then something miraculous happened…

This stunning graphic testament and graphic documentary by author and photographer Julian Voloj and artist/illustrator Claudia Ahlering relates in the impassioned words of Benjamin Yellow BenjyMelendez how, in the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, he formed the Ghetto Brothers, quickly turning it into the largest and most powerful Puerto Rican gang.

It further reveals how the senseless murder of one of his closest friends led to the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting: a tense, protracted conference where rival gang-lords talked instead of fought and astonishingly agreed to a truce which all but ended gang warfare for a generation.

With fighting curtailed, all those bored, frustrated kids needed new outlets for their pent-up energies and what slowly emerged was Rap, Hip-Hop and by extension today’s big money musical industry and cultural movement of self-expression…

Melendez’s path also encompassed music, but he spent most of his time and energies on turning the Brothers into a rough and ready outreach project for the community, with the gang forming an association with organisations of Puerto Rican nationalism, including the then-new Puerto Rican Socialist Party.

Highlighting long-forgotten events of a critical time through one key individual’s incredible epiphany, this amazing tale – still available in trade paperback and digital formats – then reveals his chance discovery of a hidden and quite shocking personal truth that changed Benjy’s life forever…

Addressing a growing cultural zeitgeist attuned to that time and place as recently seen in books and movie documentaries like Fresh Dressed, Rubble Kings, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s and Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, this utterly absorbing monochrome chronicle is bracketed by an Introduction from Jeff Chang (author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation) and the compelling, informative photo-essay ‘The Story Behind the Story’ which further explores that groundbreaking meeting at Hoe Avenue and offers biographies and further reading.
© 2015 Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering.

Civil War Adventure volume 1


By Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz with Esteve Polls, Enrique Villagran, Silvestre & Erik Burnham and various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-48679-509-6 (TPB)

From its earliest inception, cartooning and graphic narrative has been used to inform. In newspapers, magazines and especially comic books the sheer impact of pictorial storytelling – with its ability to distil technical recreations of time, place and personage whilst creating deep emotional affinities to past or imagined events – has been used to forge unforgettable images and characters within us. When such stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force they can apply in a commercial, social, political or especially educational arena is almost irresistible…

Thus, the compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political, social or historical component.

Comics have brought the past to life since they began. Superb examples of a broad view include such triumphs as Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos and Comanche Moon or Of Dust and Blood by Jim Berry & Val Mayerik, but the medium is equally adept in crafting more personal biographs such as Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle’s With Only Five Plums and others…

And that brings us to another superb re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels (available in trade paperback and digital formats) designed to bring “The War Between the States” to life for younger readers.

Originally published by History Graphics Press in 2009 as Civil War Adventure 1: Real History Stories of the War that Divided America, this marvellous monochrome tome – crafted primarily by comics veterans Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz – switches between actual historical events – with handy maps, diagrams and found writings – and a fictionalised thread of tales depicting how the conflict affected one poor Southern family.

The graphic re-enactments are preceded by a ‘Map of the United States’ detailing the division of the States in 1860 and a‘Civil War Timeline’ which marks key moments and battles (sensibly linking them directly to the stories which follow), after which ‘Choice of Targets’ by Dixon and Esteve Polls offers a text vignette explaining the development of snipers and sharpshooters.

That’s counterpointed by a pithy moment during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when opposing marksmen find themselves in a life-or-death duel…

‘Berdan’s Sharpshooters’ is a short cartoon lesson on the inspired Union soldier who invented the concept of snipers, and is promptly followed by a chilling and heartrending incident of battlefield misfortune in Dixon & Kwapisz’s ‘Home Again’ plus an illustrated info-&-glossary page which reproduces an actual letter from a Confederate lad the night before he fell…

All-Kwapisz affair ‘Mosby Bags a General’ combines a potted history of the South’s most successful raider with a compelling strip revealing how bold Lieutenant John Mosby infiltrated far behind Union lines to capture 58 horses, thirty prisoners and their captain, plus sleeping General Stoughton, all in one night…

‘Tempered in Blood’ (Dixon & Kwapisz) then introduces the narrative strand as the modest Campbell clan are torn apart when, after heated family discussion, both father and first son Tybalt sneak off from the farm to enlist in the Spring of 1861. Each confidently assures themselves that all the shooting will all be over long before harvest as they unknowingly individually abandon Mrs. Campbell and the little sisters to link up with overconfident volunteers massing for what everybody believes will be one fast knockout blow…

After barely surviving the brutal training that turns hunters, croppers and ploughmen into real soldiers, the Southern heroes finally learn what warfare means at Bull Run…

More contemporary terms, facts and historical insight are offered in ‘The War is Joined!’ before ‘The Devil’s Due’(Kwapisz) delves into the atrocity of total warfare as a Bluecoat patrol diligently follows its bald orders to “turn the South into a wasteland”…

A fact-feature page on ‘John Singleton Mosby’ leads to a feature on rising star and flamboyant self-aggrandiser George Armstrong Custer whose rash adventuring leads ‘The Boy General’ (Dixon & Enrique Villagran) into desperate straits against overwhelming rebel opposition… resulting in Custer’s First Stand…

Data pages on the devastating ‘Sharps Rifle’ and double-pronged naval blockade of the Mississippi River spins off into an account of the duel between ironclad vessels and the brilliant countermeasure devised by Colonel Charles Ellet in ‘Ram Squadron’ (Dixon & Silvestre), capped off by a Kwapisz segment detailing ‘Hell on the Mississippi’, as a Union flotilla horrifically fails to sneak past the naval guns established above Vicksburg…

‘Tempered in Blood II’ returns to the troubled Campbell Clan as Ty wakes in the bloody aftermath of battle to discover his best friend Seth has had enough and absconded. However, by the time he’s found and brought back Seth, Ty discovers his own father has similarly fled.

The elder is not running from bloody death but heading home to save his farm from ruin and family from fever, but that won’t make any difference if he’s picked up by ruthless and remorseless Confederate Picquets…

The tragic true tale of ‘Colonel Cocke’ and his unseemly death gives way to the ribald eccentricity of ‘Darnel Dingus is a…’ which reveals the insane and impecunious ends to which some States descended to ensure their manpower obligations were met. The tale is couched in the story of famous war artist Winslow Homer and a practical joking jackass who learns the hard way that war isn’t funny: appended by a grim examination of ‘The Ultimate Punishment’ for desertion under fire and other – even worse – infringements…

The strip section closes with a sobering and ironic tale of comeuppance in ‘The Letter’ (by Erik Burnham & Kwapisz) wherein a burned-out sawbones steals a missive from one of his less-lucky patients and chases a dream to a woman he’s fallen for based solely on her handwriting and prose…

Following one last Kwapisz-illustrated info page – on ‘Battle Field Surgery’ – this stunning introduction to the birth of modern warfare ends with a comparative list of ‘Further Reading’ and a moving notification of how to learn more in ‘If the Valley Was Lost’.

Similar in tone and style to the best of Harvey Kurtzman’s magnificent anti-war classics from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this is a rousing, evocative, potently instructive collection amalgamating history and horrific entertainment – and not a little grim wit and actual belly-laughs – to bring a pivotal time to vivid life.
© 2009 Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Marvel Team-Up Marvel Masterworks volume 4

By Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Jim Mooney, Sal Buscema, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN:  978-1-3029-1520-9 (HB)

In the 1970s, Marvel grew to dominate the comic book market despite losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators. They did so less by experimentation and more by expanding proven concepts and properties. The only real exception to this was an en masse creation of horror titles in response to the industry down-turn in super-hero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

The concept of team-up books was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of this new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch. In those long-lost days, editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure – and since super-heroes were actually in a decline at that time, they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, Marvel Team-Up was the second full Spider-Man title (abortive companion title Spectacular Spider-Man was created for the magazine market in 1968 but had died after two issues). It launched in March 1972, and was a resounding hit.

This fourth fabulous compilation (in hardback or digital formats) gathers material from MTU #31-40 plus the contents of team-up styled Giant-Size Spider-Man #4-5, spanning March to December 1975, and opens with an informative recollection from former Editor Ralph Macchio in his Introduction before we plunge into the many-starred dramas…

Another attraction of those early comics combos was an earnest desire to get things “done in one”, with tales that concentrated on plot and resolution with the guest du jour. Here on the crest of a martial arts boom in film and TV, the action explosively commences with MTU #31 as the webspinner and kung fu star Iron Fist experience time unravelling whilst battling reverse-aging Drom, the Backwards Man in ‘For a Few Fists More!’ by Gerry Conway Jim Mooney & Vince Colletta.

This is followed by Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 (April 1975, by Conway, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) which sees an eagerly-anticipated reappearance of Marvel’s most controversial antihero in an expanded role. The Giant-Size titles were quarterly double-length publications added to the schedule of Marvel’s top tier heroes, and the wallcrawler’s were used to highlight outré and potentially controversial pairings such as Dracula and Doc Savage. Here, ‘To Sow the Seed of Death’s Day’ finds the webslinger uncomfortably allied with the Punisher when ruthless arms dealer Moses Magnum perfects a diabolical chemical weapon and begins testing it on randomly kidnapped victims.

Tracking down the monster in ‘Attack of the War Machine!’, the unlikely comrades infiltrate his ‘Death-Camp at the Edge of the World!’ before summary justice is dispensed… as much by fate as the heroes’ actions…

That same month back in MTU, Conway & Colletta welcomed Sal Buscema aboard as penciller in #32 for a fiery collaboration between Human Torch Johnny Storm and Son of Satan Damian Hellstrom, who inflicts ‘All the Fires in Hell…!’ on a demon possessing Johnny’s pal Wyatt Wingfoot and assorted fellow members of his Native American Keewazi tribe.

The craving for conventional continuity commences in #33 when Spider-Man and Nighthawk acrimoniously tackle raving mega-nutcase Norton Fester – who had forgotten he had super strength – in ‘Anybody Here Know a Guy Named Meteor Man?’

Whilst Nighthawk is happy to drop the case at his earliest opportunity, Defenders comrade Valkyrie is ready to step in and help Spidey finish off the looney Looter, but they both miss the real threat: mutant demagogue Jeremiah, Prophet of the Lord, who has acquired Fester’s home to house his mind-controlled cult of human psychic batteries in ‘Beware the Death Crusade!’

The religious maniac’s predations only end in Marvel Team-Up #35 when the Torch and Doctor Strange save Valkyrie from becoming a sacrifice in the zealot’s deranged ‘Blood Church!’

Giant-Size Spider-Man #5 (July 1975, by Conway, Andru & Esposito) offers a strange yet welcome break from conventionality as ‘Beware the Path of the Monster!’ sees Peter Parker despatched to Florida to photograph the macabre Man-Thing, only to discover the lethal Lizard is also loose and hunting ‘The Lurker in the Swamp!’

It takes all the web-spinner’s power and the efforts of a broken man in sore need of redemption to set things right in climactic conclusion ‘Bring Back my Man-Thing to Me!’

In Marvel Team-Up #36 Spider-Man is kidnapped and shipped off to Switzerland by assuredly insane Baron Ludwig Von Shtupf, who proclaims himself The Monster Maker in ‘Once Upon a Time, in a Castle…’

The bonkers biologist wants to pick-&-mix creature traits and has already secured The Frankenstein Monster to practise on, but after the webslinger busts them both out and they stumble upon sexy SHIELD Agent Klemmer, their rapid counterattack goes badly wrong. Von Shtupf unleashes his other captive – the furiously feral Man-Wolf – and only big Frankie can prevent a wave of ‘Snow Death!’ in #37.

As writer Bill Mantlo and inker Esposito join Sal Buscema, the Amazing Arachnid is back in the USA for MTU #38, meeting again The Beast and barely surviving the ‘Night of the Griffin’ when the former X-Man’s constantly-evolving manmade monster foe goes on a ruthless murder spree…

Ending this shared glory session, another extended epic begins when Spider-Man and the Torch are simultaneously targeted by supposedly deceased archenemies Crime-Master and The Big Man in #39’s ‘Any Number Can Slay!’ The masked mobsters are fighting for control of the city and each has recruited their own specialist meta-thugs – Sandman and The Enforcers respectively – but the shady double-dealers are all utterly unprepared for the intervention of mystic kung fu collective The Sons of the Tiger in #40’s concluding ‘Murder’s Better the Second Time Around!’

Capping off this collection is the cover to all-reprint Giant-Size Spider-Man #6 (December 1975 and starring Spidey and the Torch in tale from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4) plus a selection from the ‘Mighty Marvel Calendar for 1975’, featuring new art by John Romita, Barry Windsor-Smith, Rick Buckler, John Buscema, Mike Ploog, Gil Kane & Sal Buscema, wedded to classic clip art from Marvel’s mightiest artists, topped off with house ads and Romita’s front and back cover art for tabloid-sized Marvel Treasury Edition #8 AKA Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag.

Although not really a book for the casual or more maturely-oriented enthusiast, there’s lots of fun on hand and younger readers will have a blast, so why not make this tome part of to your comics library?
© 1974, 1975, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shaft Volume 2: Imitation of Life


By David F. Walker, Dietrich Smith & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-52410-260-9 (TPB)

For most of modern history black consumers of popular entertainments have enjoyed far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. A lot of the characters stemming from those days come from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, the films, books, music and art were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder, flunkies or flamboyant villains.

One of the earliest movie icons of the genre was the man called Shaft. His filmic debut in 1971 was scripted by journalist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection; High Plains Drifter; A Force of One) who adapted his own 1970 novel. Tidyman authored six more between 1972 and 1975, with his timeless urban warrior simultaneously starring in numerous films and a (far, far tamer) TV series. He even starred in his own retro-themed, adults-only comic book…

An eighth prose novel – Shaft’s Revenge – was released in 2016, written by David F. Walker. Amongst his many talents – you should hunt down his online culture-crunching ‘zine BadAzzMoFo: you won’t be sorry – Walker numbers writing intriguing, hard-edged comics (Occupy Avengers; Cyborg; Red Sonja, Planet of the Apes, Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes and many more), so in 2014 it was probably inevitable that he be invited to write that long-overdue comics iteration…

Blockbusting premier miniseries Shaft: A Complicated Man – relating the lone wolf’s origins – happily led to this sequel in 2016, illustrated by Dietrich Smith and coloured by Alex Guimarães (Walker lettered the series himself), and whereas that comic book took its look, settings and tone from the novels more than the Richard Roundtree films, this one gradually refocuses and aims for a satisfactory blending of the prose and film iterations.

Originally released as a 4-issue miniseries, Imitation of Life finds the detective ‘Before and After’, regretting his life choices, successes and recent notoriety as the highly publicised rescue of an abducted girl suddenly make him a famous man…

It’s nothing he wanted: he was literally forced to take the job by a big-time mobster no one in their right mind ever refuses, and now after sorting the problem in his inimitably pitiless manner, Shaft is slowly drinking himself to death on the huge fee he also couldn’t safely turn down…

Eventually guilt and boredom compel him to get back in the game and, with no money worries, he can pick and choose from a big list of inquiries. That said, Shaft can’t explain just why he takes on the pointless problems of the Prossers; a hick couple desperate to find their son. Mike is 18; a good-looking homosexual (we say “gay” today) kid swallowed up by the sleaze-peddlers of 1970s Times Square. He’s legal and not even a real missing person, but there’s something Shaft can’t get out of his head about this particular runaway…

Convinced it’s all pointless, Big John hits the appropriate bars and clubs but no one knows anything: they never do. And then a kid named Tito recognizes him and just like that, the violence starts coming…

Surviving a homophobic attack – and teaching a few bigots the cost of intolerance – Shaft finds his case stalled just as shady wannabe filmmakers seeks to hire him to consult on their new (blaxsploitation) flick The Black Dick. It promises to be an easy gig, but they never are…

Before long Shaft is writhing in discomfort as the script ludicrously bastardises his career and reputation, but when Tito turns up and bamboozles the detective into facing off with a Mafia pornographer just as the secret moneyman behind his own filmic fiasco starts demanding an early return on his investment, it stops being a laugh and becomes deadly serious again. Once more, he remembers there’s no such thing as ‘Easy Money’

As the fictional and real worlds increasingly intersect, Vice cops contact Shaft and he sees that somehow all his irons seem to be stacked in the same fire. When the ludicrous leading man is abducted and troublemaking Tito pops up again with some very dangerous photographs from his own incessant snooping, Shaft discovers in ‘Love & Loss’ just what happened to Mike Prosser and tools up to rescue one bad actor while invading a film set where pornos and snuff films are the preferred hot product…

The strands all pull together in a typically cathartic climax as ‘All the World’s a Stage’ sees order restored, the bad guys dealt with righteously and even sets up a delicious funny ending to usher us out…

Revisiting a foetid cesspool of civic corruption, warring mobsters and get-rich-quick chancers, this tour of a mythic milieu is another wry and intoxicating crime thriller no fan of the genre should miss…
Shaft is ™ and © 2016 Ernest Tidyman. All rights reserved.