Sublife Volume 1

Sublife

Sublife

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-946-3

Self-publishing wizard and minicomic genius John Pham has joined with the wonderfully progressive Fantagraphics to release the first volume in a proposed twice-a-year book series dedicated to the sheer joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, miracle-free world, which any adult fan just won’t be able to resist.

This initial offering, a sublimely designed landscape-format tome printed in quirky two-tone (Magenta and Cyan combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading Beano or Dandy) features a series of intertwined tales featuring the odd denizens of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

Poignant and surreal by turns, the lives of exhausted ‘Mildred Lee’, dubious stud ‘Vrej Sarkissian’, the tragic and disturbing religious studies teacher ‘Hubie Winters’ and those guys ‘Los Hermanos Macdonald’ are a captivating and laconic examination of the kind of people you probably wouldn’t like or make time for…

The silent, deadly pantomime of the house cat seeking safety outside is worth the price of admission alone, but when the abstract and symbol-stuffed existences on display here shuffle into your head and just sit there twitching, you too will wonder how you ever got on without this creator on your “must-read” list.

© 2008 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.

Blondie and Dagwood

Blondie & Dagwood

Blondie & Dagwood

By Dean Young & Rick Marschall (Arthur Barker Limited)
ISBN: 0-203-16830-8

Blondie was for decades the most popular – for which read most commercially successful – newspaper strip in the world. She and her hapless husband Dagwood celebrated 75 years of publication in 2005 and are still going strong today both in print and online. In 1981 this fabulously inclusive and authoritative anniversary compilation was released, and I’m starting early in my campaign to commemorate their 80th – in autumn 2010 – by agitating for its revision and re-release.

The strip was created by Murat Bernard “Chic” Young and handled by King Features Syndicate. It launched on September 8, 1930, the result of a startling game of one-upmanship between Young and King’s general manager Joe Connolly.

A success with the flapper strip Beautiful Bab, Young followed up with the hit Dumb Dora in 1924. He was on a fast track to stardom when the stock market crash wiped out his savings in 1929. Broke and with a new bride, he wanted a new contract for a new feature that he owned and controlled.

Understandably the management had other ideas, but when the artist packed up and took ship for Paris Connelly caved and Blondie was born. She was an instant sensation, spawning 28 movies (1938-1950) starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, who also voiced a radio show (1939-1950) as well as three TV series in 1954, 1958 and 1968-69. The comicbook adventures from Harvey, King and Charlton ran for decades…

In the early days tension was high as the wealthy Dagwood family tried to stop their idiot scion from marrying a low, common blonde, but in 1933, disinherited but happy, they finally wed and the real magic of this everyday family comedy began.

Chic Young drew Blondie until his death in 1973, when his son Dean took over. He has worked with many artists on the strip, including Jim Raymond, Mike Gersher, Stan Drake, Denis Lebrun and most recently, John Marshall. Through it all, Blondie has remained uncannily popular, appearing in more than 2,300 newspapers in 55 countries, translated into 35 languages. Chic Young won the Reuben Award in 1948 for the strip and in 1995 the strip was honoured as one of twenty selected as part of the Comic Strip Classics series of commemorative US Postage Stamps.

This book reprints hundreds of the best strips backed up by wonderfully chatty and informative text-pieces from the junior Young and historian Rick Marschall to provide an enchanting treat for all the family. I don’t know how easy this book is to find and of course other collections are available (most notably 2007’s Blondie: the Complete Family History, published by Thomas Nelson- ISBN-13: 978-1-40160-322-9) but I’ve never found one that featured as broad a spread of strips from this comic landmark’s incredibly long history. Good hunting, and don’t forget to bring a sandwich…

The book was originally published in the US under the title Blondie & Dagwood’s America.

© 1981 King Features Syndicate Inc. World Rights Reserved.

JSA Volume 3: The Return of Hawkman

JSA: The Return of Hawkman

JSA: The Return of Hawkman

By David S. Goyer, Geoff Johns & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84023-572-2

This third collection (reprinting issues 16-26 of the monthly comic and portions of JSA Secret Files #1) revived the greatest victim of DC’s perpetual massaging of their in-house continuity – an event considered impossible by many of the company’s top-guns – and accomplished it in a manner that is both impressive and enjoyable.

Hawkman was created by Gardner Fox and Dennis Neville for Flash Comics #1, released in 1940 and one of the most visually arresting characters of the early days of comics. He ran until the end of the Golden Age, led the Justice Society for nearly its entire history and even alternated cover slots with the eponymous Flash.

He vanished with so many others at the beginning of the 1950s, and was revived both as a new concept for the Silver Age, and in his original persona when the JSA met the Justice League of America. Although seemingly incapable of supporting a mass-market book for any sustained period, he is an icon of DC’s line and was savagely retconned many times. In the parlous times of the mid-1990s he seemingly vanished into Limbos both literal and literary.

With a timeline considered “toxic” by the DC powers-that-be he was left to languish until the incredibly audacious scribes Goyer and Johns decided to bring him back and do him right in his true home: the JSA comicbook. And although that’s what this collection reprints, the road took a few twists and turns before it got there…

Kicking off is a five part saga sub-titled ‘Injustice Be Done’ as the Faustian mastermind Johnny Sorrow gathers a team of super-villains and executes a strategic assault on the multi-generational group of heroes. As if it matters those reprobates are Count Vertigo, Killer Wasp, Rival, Blackbriar Thorn, Geomancer, the Icicle, Tigress, the Thinker, Shiv and Black Adam, but the unconfined joy of this fights ‘n’ tights romp is the return of the Spectre to this most influential of teams.

At the climax of the action extravaganza, the Flash is lost in time and the interlude tale ‘Guardian Angels’ details his meeting with the heroes of ancient Egypt – including the flying Warrior Prince Khufu, whose murder led to a cycle of heroic reincarnations that culminated in the birth of Hawkman.

The Big Show then follows with ‘The Return of Hawkman’ a four part spectacle that spans thousands of years and trillions of miles as Hawkgirl and a team of JSA-ers travel to the devastated planet Thanagar to resurrect the Winged Wonder from non-being and destroy a soul-eating demon who has turned the entire planet into a vast charnel house playground.

As well as reconciling the convoluted histories of Hawkman into a viable whole and kicking off a highly entertaining spin-off series this dramatic tale is pure superhero flash and dazzle – the kind of bravura fantasy that no other medium of expression has ever managed to match.

It’s not witty, it’s not significant and it’s not capital A “Art” – but it is spellbinding, breathtaking adventure. What more can a fan-boy want?

© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Gotham Adventures

Batman: The Gotham Adventures

Batman: The Gotham Adventures

By Ty Templeton, Rick Burchett & John Beatty (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-616-3

The Batman Animated TV series masterminded by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini revolutionised the Dark Knight and led to some of the absolute best comic book adventures in his nigh seventy-year publishing history. The miniseries collected here features the entire Batman Family in adventures set directly following the Batman Adventures: the Lost Years miniseries.

‘With a Price on his Head’ is an unforgettable yarn as a millionaire victim puts an open bounty on the Joker, and Batman’s protective custody plan goes horribly wrong. With the Clown Prince loose in the Batcave and the team hunting down assorted opportunistic super-criminals only Alfred and Batgirl can save the day.

Two-Face commandeers a live game-show in a powerful and stylish tale of parenting entitled ‘Lucky Day’ whilst Batman is saved by his ultimate hero the Grey Ghost in ‘Just Another Day’, a charming shocker featuring the Scarecrow.

Catwoman deals savagely with a millionaire-model who enjoys animal-testing in the hard-hitting ‘Claws’ and the tragic Mister Freeze returns in ‘Polar Opposites’ before the magic concludes with ‘Last Chance’ as Nightwing returns to his circus roots and meets the legendary ghost of Boston Brand – better known to all comic fans as Deadman.

Without ever diluting the power and mood of the character, these tales perfectly honed the grim hero and his team to a wholly accessible and memorable form that the youngest of readers can enjoy, whilst adding shades of exuberance and style that only the very rarest of “real” Batman comics have come near to achieving. This is Bat-Gold and every fan should own it.

 

© 1998, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers Disassembled

Avengers Disassembled

Avengers Disassembled

By various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1482-3

A few years ago the “World’s Mightiest Heroes” were shut down and rebooted in a highly publicised event known as Avengers Disassembled. Of course it was only to replace them with both The New and The Young Avengers. Affiliated comic-books such as the Fantastic Four and Spectacular Spider-Man ran parallel but not necessarily interconnected story-arcs to accompany the Big Show.

Said Big Show consisted of the worst day in the team’s history as a trusted comrade betrayed the World’s Mightiest Superteam resulting in the destruction of everything they held dear and the death of several members, all of which originally appeared in issues #500-503 plus the one-shot Avengers Finale. It is one of the best out and out superhero “Last Battles” ever created, and loses little impact whether this is your five hundredth or first experience with these tragic heroes.

Shocking and beautiful, there is a genuine feeling of an “End of Days” to this epic, and Bendis and the assembled artists David Finch, Danny Miki, Frank D’Armata, Alex Maleev, Steve Epting, Lee Weeks, Brian Reber, Michael Gaydos, Eric Powell, Darick Robertson, Morry Hollowell, Mike Mayhew, Andy Troy, David Mack, Gary Frank. Mike Avon Oeming, Pete Patanzis, Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, Justin Ponsor, Steve McNiven, George Perez, Mike Perkins, Neal Adams and Laura Martin are on top form to deliver a memorable and worthy Armageddon.

I hope I’ve been vague enough to give away nothing whilst making this intriguing. I hope I’ve convinced new readers to try something they might not have. I hope you’re ready for an incredible reading experience.

© 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Justice League International Volume 2

Justice League International

Justice League International

By Kieth Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, Al Gordon & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-886-7

The revised follow-up volume of the (then) All-New, All-Hilarious Justice League completes the year long story-arc that introduced businessman and 1980’s archetype Max Lord, who reshaped the World’s Greatest Super-team for his own mysterious purposes.

The stories themselves (issues #8-13 of the monthly comicbook and Justice League Annual #1, plus the corresponding issue #13 of Suicide Squad – another great series long overdue for a decent trade paperback series!) are taken from a period when the major comics publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event.”

This hard-on-the-pockets innovation basically crafts a really big story involving every publication in a company’s output, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because there are “middles” with no beginnings or endings. In this case the problem is deftly solved by inserting (mercifully) brief text pages explaining what’s happened elsewhere. It also doesn’t hurt that being a comedy-adventure, plot isn’t as vital as character and dialogue in this instance.

The merriment begins with ‘A Moving Experience’, where the heroes take possession of their various new UN embassy buildings, a sly and cynical tale of institutionalized ineptitude which is possibly one of the funniest single stories in American comic book history. Most main episodes at the start were followed by a brief back-up vignette drawn by Keith Giffen. ‘Old News’ deals with the closure of previous UN super-hero resource the Dome – which was summarily axed when the League achieved its international charter status.

‘Seeing Red’ is the first of two episodes forming part of the Millennium crossover hinted at above. Broadly, the Guardians of the Universe were attempting to create the next stage of human evolution, and their robotic enemies the Manhunters wanted to stop them. The heroes of Earth were asked to protect the Chosen Ones, but the robots had sleeper agents hidden among the friends and acquaintances of every hero on the planet.

Millennium was DC’s first weekly mini-series, and the monthly schedule of the other titles meant that a huge amount happened in the four weeks between their own tied-in issues: for example…

The Rocket Red attached to the JLI is in fact a Manhunter, who first tries to co-opt then destroy the team with an oil refinery, but by the second part, ‘Soul of the Machine’, the team are jarringly in deep space attacking the Manhunter home planet as part of a Green Lantern strike force. Nevertheless, the story is surprising coherent, and the all-out action is still well-leavened with superbly banter and hilarity.

The back-ups follow the suddenly unemployed Dome hero Jack O’Lantern to the terrorist state Bialya in ‘Brief Encounter’ and show an unfortunate training exercise for Blue Beetle and Mister Miracle in ‘…Back at the Ranch…’

JLI #11 began resolving all the mysteries of the first year by exposing the secret mastermind behind the League’s reformation. With ‘Constructions!’ and ‘Who is Maxwell Lord?’ (in #12) the series came full circle, and the whacky humour proved to have been the veneer over a sharp and subtle conspiracy plot worthy of the classic team. The drama and action kicked into high gear and the characters were seen to have evolved from shallow, if competent buffoons into a tightly knit team of world-beating super-stars – but still pretty darned addicted to buffoonery.

These two full length yarns precluded back-up tales but Giffen illustrated all of #13, wherein the team ran afoul of America’s highly covert Suicide Squad (super-villains blackmailed by the government into becoming a tractable metahuman resource – and without the annoying morality of regular superheroes).

‘Collision Course’ found the US agent Nemesis imprisoned in a Soviet jail with the League forced into the uncomfortable position of having to – at least ostensibly – fight to keep him there. The concluding part ‘Battle Lines’ from Suicide Squad #13 (written by John Ostrander and illustrated by Luke McDonnell and Bob Lewis) is a grim and gritty essay in superpower Realpolitik and a still a powerful experience two decades later.

This volume ends with ‘Germ Warfare’ from the first JLI Annual, drawn by Bill Willingham and inked by Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, Bill Wray, R. Campanella, Bruce Patterson and Dick Giordano. It is an uncharacteristically grim horror tale involving inhuman sacrifice and sentient Germ-warfare.

This collection is a breath of fresh air in a time where too many comic-books are filled with over-long, convoluted epics that are strident and oppressively angst-ridden. Here is great art, superb action and the light touch which still mark this series as a lost classic. So read this book and eagerly wait for further compilations to be released.

© 1987, 1992, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

DC Archive: Hawkman volume 2

DC Archives: Hawkman 2

DC Archives: Hawkman 2

By Gardner Fox & Murphy Anderson (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0161-X

When the revived Hawkman series finally made the jump to a full title rather than a try-out or back-up feature the timing couldn’t have been better. Superheroes were rapidly becoming the major draw of the funnybook industry and the new adventures by the incredibly creative Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson blended history, mystery science fiction and bombastic action with unforgettable impact.

Katar Hol and his wife Shayera were police officers on the planet Thanagar. They originally travelled to Earth from the star system Polaris in pursuit of a spree-thief named Byth who had stolen a drug which gave the user the ability to change into anything. For further information and a real reading treat you should consult the previous volume in this gloriously deluxe hardcover series (ISBN: 1-56389-611-7) or if you’re a fan of black and white artwork, pick up the superbly economical compendium Showcase Presents Hawkman: volume 1 (ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1280-3).

This second volume collects the first eight issues of this classic comic, kicking off with Hawkman #1 (cover-dated April-May 1964).

Two of the most visually arresting characters in comics, the Hawks also had one of the most subtle and sophisticated relationships in the business. Like Sue and Ralph Dibney (Elongated Man and wife) Katar and Shayera were equal partners, (both couples were influenced by the Nick and Nora Charles characters of the Thin Man movies) and the interplay was always rich in humour and warmth.

In ‘Rivalry of the Winged Wonders’, and whilst accommodatingly recapping their origins for newcomers, the couple decided to turn their latest case into a contest. Hawkgirl would use Thanagarian super-science to track and catch a band of thieves whilst Hawkman limited himself to Earth techniques and tools in solving the crime. This charmingly witty yarn was balanced by the action thriller ‘Master of the Sky Weapons’ as Chac, an ancient Mayan warrior, threatened the civilized world with alien super weapons.

‘Secret of the Sizzling Sparklers!’ was an action-packed thriller concerning trans-dimensional invaders, and issue #2 closed with ‘Wings across Time’ a mystery revolving around the discovery of the flying harness of the legendary Icarus. Another brain-teaser opened the third issue. Scientific bandits proved less of a menace than ‘The Fear that Haunted Hawkman’, but common thugs and an extraordinary alien owl resulted in our heroes becoming ‘Birds in a Gilded Cage’.

Issue #4 opened with a tale that would revolutionise DC comics. ‘The Girl who Split in Two!’ introduced Zatanna, daughter of a magician who had fought crime in the 1940s only to “mysteriously disappear”.

Zatarra was a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who’d fought evil in the pages of Action Comics for over a decade beginning with the very first issue. During the Silver Age Gardner Fox had Zatarra’s young and equally gifted daughter, Zatanna, searching for the missing magician by teaming up with a selection of superheroes Fox was currently scripting (if you’re counting, those tales appeared in Hawkman #4, Atom #19, Green Lantern #42, and the Elongated Man back-up strip in Detective Comics #355 as well as a very slick piece of back writing to include the high-profile Caped Crusader via Detective #336 – ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’. The saga concluded in Justice League of America #51 ‘Z – As in Zatanna – and Zero Hour!’ )

This epic long-running experiment in continuity proved to the creators – and publishers – that there was a dedicated fan-base out there with a voracious appetite for experimentation and relatively deep pockets. Most importantly it finally signalled the end of the period where DC heroes lived and battled in a world of their own. ‘The Machine that Magnetized Men!’ is another fine tale, as the winged Wonders use reason and deduction to defeat thieves who are impossible to touch.

‘Steal, Shadow– Steal!’ in Hawkman #5 was the first full-length thriller in the run, as the ruthless Shadow Thief returned to seek revenge, believing that triggering a new Ice Age to be an acceptable consequence of his schemes. Issue #6 is another long tale, and one that exploited DC’s peculiar obsession with gorillas to create a classic adventure.

‘World Where Evolution Ran Wild!’ drew our heroes to fabled Illoral where a scientist’s explorations had stretched Selection to un-Natural limits. Bold, brash and daft in equal proportions, this is still a fabulous romp and seeing again the cover where Hawkman struggles for his life against a winged gorilla makes the adult me realise those DC chaps might have known what they were doing with all those anthropoid covers!

By issue #7 (April-May 1965) the world was gripped in secret agent fever as the likes of James Bond, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., and a host of others shook and stirred across our TV screens, and even comics were not immune, though spies had been a staple element there for nearly two decades. Before Hawkman joined that crowd however he had to deal with the rather mediocre threat posed by ‘The Amazing Return of the I.Q. Gang!’ They were quickly returned to prison and the Hawks moved on to face the ‘Attack of the Crocodile-Men!’, a high-octane super-science thriller that introduced C.A.W. – the Criminal Alliance of the World!

Another supremely captivating cover adorned #8 – the last in this lovely book – as the Hawks had to defeat an ancient Roman artificial intelligence built by the not-so mythical Vulcan himself in ‘Giant in the Golden Mask!’, and then defeat an alien Harpy who’d been buried for half a million years in ‘Battle of the Bird-Man Bandits’.

Hawkman was one of the most iconic and visually arresting characters of the second superhero boom, not just for the superb art but also because of a brilliant, subtle writer and a supremely talented artist. These tales are comfortably familiar and grippingly timeless, perfect for warming hearts and firing imaginations of kids of all ages. If you love great reads this book and its predecessor deserve space on your bookshelf.

© 1964, 1965, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Goth’s Cage

Goth's Cage

Goth's Cage

By Yasushi Suzuki (DGN/DrMaster Publications)
ISBN 13: 978-1-59796-157-8

Yasushi Suzuki is one of the design world’s most respected artists. In illustration, design and the realm of computer and video games his eerie ethereal art has charmed and mesmerized millions, and his powerful manga Purgatory Kabuki (ISBN13: 978-1-59796-070-0) has won him fans for his ability to tell a story.

This slim (32 pages) little tome is a reworking of much pre-existing artwork into a bleak and beautiful picture book for adults. Surreal and deeply moving the book relates three short tales of love and horror, all rendered in a dazzling blend of styles but forming darkly memorable comic narratives.

‘Glass Magic’ stars a willfully cruel princess, ‘The Feeling of Pain’ traces the morbid journey of a little boy and the collection concludes with the dire love experience of ‘The Pair.’

Suzuki’s sublime skill with colour and line here blend with evocative line and wash creations and the incredibly high production values of this book, utilising the most modern of print techniques and processes to highlight the art make every page turn the doorway to fresh delights.

The narrative is simplistic and often obscure, but here plot is not as desirable as emotional reaction and the audience – hopefully much wider than the Lolli-goths and game-boys-&-girls it’s clearly targeting – should find itself drawn into an all-encompassing other world without worrying too much about how they got there.

This is an ideal and lovely present for the fantasist in your life, a fine piece of classic fantasy in its own right and well worth your time a-questing for it.

© 2008 Yasushi Suzuki. © 2008 DGN Production Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Hulk

Essential Hulk

Essential Hulk

By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2374-3

The Incredible Hulk was Marvel’s second new superhero title, although technically Henry Pym debuted earlier in a one-off yarn in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962), but he didn’t become a costumed hero until the autumn, by which time Ol’ Greenskin was not-so-firmly established.

The Hulk crashed right into his own bi-monthly comic and after some classic romps by Young Marvel’s finest creators, crashed right out again. After six bi-monthly issues the series was cancelled and Lee retrenched, making the character a perennial guest-star in other Marvel titles (Fantastic Four #12, Amazing Spider-Man #14, The Mighty Avengers from #1 and so forth) until such time as they could restart the drama in their new “Split-Book” format in Tales To Astonish where Ant/Giant-Man was rapidly proving to be a character who had outlived his time.

Cover-dated May 1962 the Incredible Hulk #1 saw puny atomic scientist Bruce Banner, sequestered on a secret military base in the desert, perpetually bullied by the bombastic commander General “Thunderbolt” Ross as the clock counts down to the World’s first Gamma Bomb test. Besotted by Ross’s daughter Betty, Banner endures the General’s constant jibes as the clock ticks on and tension increases.

At the final moment Banner sees a teenager lollygagging at Ground Zero and frantically rushes to the site to drag the boy away. Unknown to him the assistant he’s entrusted to delay the countdown has an agenda of his own…

Rick Jones is a wayward but good-hearted kid. After initial resistance he lets himself be pushed into a safety trench, but just as Banner is about to join him The Bomb detonates…

Miraculously surviving the blast Banner and the boy are secured by soldiers, but that evening as the sun sets the scientist undergoes a monstrous transformation. He grows larger; his skin turns a stony grey…

In six simple pages that’s how it all starts, and no matter what any number of TV or movie reworkings or comicbook retcons and psycho-babble re-evaluations would have you believe that’s still the best and most primal take on the origin. A good man, an unobtainable girl, a foolish kid, an unknown enemy and the horrible power of destructive science unchecked…

Written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby with inking by Paul Reinman, ‘The Coming of the Hulk’ barrels along as the man-monster and Jones are kidnapped by Banner’s Soviet counterpart the Gargoyle for a rousing round of espionage and Commie-busting. In the second issue the plot concerns invading aliens, and the Banner/Jones relationship settles into a traumatic nightly ordeal as the scientist transforms and is locked into an escape-proof cell whilst the boy stands watch helplessly. Neither ever considers telling the government of their predicament…

‘The Terror of the Toad Men’ is formulaic but viscerally and visually captivating as Steve Ditko inks Kirby, imparting a genuinely eerie sense of unease to the artwork. Incidentally, although you won’t see it in this black and white edition, this is the story where the Hulk inexplicably changed to his more accustomed Green persona.

Although back-written years later as a continuing mutation, the plain truth is that the grey tones used to cause all manner of problems for the production colourists so it was arbitrarily changed to the simple and more traditional colour of monsters.

The third issue presented a departure in format as the longer, chaptered epic gave way to complete short stories. Dick Ayers inked Kirby in the transitional ‘Banished to Outer Space’ which radically altered the relationship of Jones and the monster, the story thus far is reprised in the three page vignette ‘The Origin of the Hulk’ and that Marvel mainstay of villainy the Circus of Crime debuts in ‘The Ringmaster’. The Hulk goes on an urban rampage in #4’s first tale ‘The Monster and the Machine’ and aliens and Commies combine with the second adventure ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space!’

The Incredible Hulk #5 is a joyous classic of Kirby action, introducing the immortal Tyrannus and his underworld empire in ‘The Beauty and the Beast!’ whilst those pesky commies are in for another drubbing when our Jolly Green freedom-fighter prevents the invasion of Lhasa in ‘The Hordes of General Fang!’

Despite the sheer verve and bravura of these simplistic classics – some of the greatest, most rewarding comics nonsense ever produced – the series was not doing well, and Kirby moved on to more appreciated arenas. Steve Ditko handled all the art chores for #6, another full-length epic and an extremely engaging one. ‘The Incredible Hulk Vs the Metal Master’ has superb action, sly and subtle sub-plots and a thinking man’s resolution, but nonetheless the title died with this issue.

After shambling around the nascent Marvel universe for a year or so, usually as a misunderstood villain-cum-monster, the Emerald Behemoth got another shot. Following a reprinting of his origin in the giant collection Marvel Tales Annual #1 (the beginning of the company’s brilliant policy of keeping early tales in circulation and which did so much to make new fans out of latecomers) he was given a back-up strip in a failing title.

Giant-Man was the star feature of Tales to Astonish but by mid-1964 the strip was floundering. In issue #59 the Master of Many Sizes was tricked by an old foe into battling the man-monster in ‘Enter: The Hulk’ by Lee, Ayers and Reinman; a great big punch-up that set the scene for the next issue wherein his second series began.

‘The Incredible Hulk’ found Banner still working for General Ross, and still afflicted with uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction. The ten page instalments were uncharacteristically set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, not New York and espionage and military themes were the narrative backdrop of these adventures.

Lee scripted, Ditko drew and comics veteran George Roussos – under the pseudonym George Bell – provided the ink art. The first tale concerned a spy who stole an unstoppable suit of armour, concluding in the next episode ‘Captured at Last’. The cliffhanger endings such as the Hulk’s imprisonment by Ross’s military units would be instrumental in keeping readers onboard and enthralled. The next tale (Tales to Astonish #62) ‘Enter… the Chameleon’ has plenty of action and suspense but the real stinger is the final panel that hints at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery – the enigmatic Leader – who would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis.

The Spider-Man villain worked well as a returning foe, his disguise abilities an obvious threat in a series based on a weapons scientist working for the US military during the Cold War. Even the Leader himself had dubious connections to the sinister Soviets – when he wasn’t trying to conquer the world for himself. ‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ provides an origin for the super-intellectual menace as well as setting up a plotline where new cast member Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. The action comes when the Leader tries to steal Banner’s new anti-H-bomb device from a moving train.

Number #64 ‘the Horde of Humanoids!’ features the return of Rick Jones who obtains a pardon for the incarcerated Banner by letting the President in on the secret of the Hulk! Ah, simpler times!

Free again, Banner joins Talbot on a remote Island to test his device only to be attacked by the Leader’s artificial warriors – providing a fine example of Ditko’s unique manner of staging a super-tussle. The battle continues into the next issue when Dick Ayers assumes the inks and Banner is taken prisoner by those darn commies. ‘On the Rampage against the Reds!’ sees the Hulk go wild behind the Iron Curtain, a satisfyingly gratuitous crusade that spans #66 (‘the Power of Doctor Banner’ inked by Vince Colletta) and #67 (‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ inked by Frank Giacoia) before reverting to human form and being captured by Mongolian bandits.

Jack Kirby returned, supplemented by Mike (“Mickey Demeo”) Esposito in Tales to Astonish #68. ‘Back from the Dead!’ returned the tragic scientist to America, military custody and his Atomic Absorbatron for one last test, once again interrupted by the Leader’s Humanoids. This time the villain succeeds and the Hulk is ‘Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!’ but only until the Army bursts in…

Issue #70 saw Giant-Man replaced by the Sub-Mariner, making Astonish a comicbook of brutal anti-heroes, and increasingly the Hulk stories reflected this shift. ‘To Live Again!’ had the furious Leader launch a giant Humanoid against the local US missile base, with the Jade Giant caught in the middle.

Kirby reduced his input to layouts with #71’s ‘Like a Beast at Bay’, a minor turning point as the Hulk actually joined forces with the Leader. The next episode ‘Within the Monster Dwells a Man!’ saw Major Talbot getting closer to uncovering Banner’s dark secret, whilst ‘Another World, Another Foe!’ (with the great Bob Powell pencilling over Kirby’s layouts) had the Hulk dispatched to the Watcher’s world to steal an ultimate weapon, just as an intergalactic rival arrives.

‘The Wisdom of the Watcher’ was all-out, brutal action with a shocking climax, followed by #75’s return to Earth and to basics as the rampaging Hulk falls victims to one of Banner’s most bizarre atomic devices. ‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ hurls the man-monster into a dystopian future, and in #76’s ‘I, Against a World!’ (featuring pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”) the devastation is compounded in a fierce duel with the Asgardian Executioner.

A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the dread secret was revealed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby roughs) ‘Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concluded the time-lost tale and exposed the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition. It didn’t make him any less hunted or haunted, but at least the military were in an emotional tizzy as they tried to destroy him.

Bill Everett began a short but lovely run as art-man (Kirby remained as layout artist throughout) with #78. The insane scientist Zaxon tried to tap the beast’s bio-energy in ‘The Hulk Must Die!’ and the follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ featured a bombastic battle with the man-god Hercules. Not-so-immortal Tyrannus returned in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’, losing a desperate war with fellow subterranean despot the Mole Man and seeing the Hulk as a weapon of last resort, before new villains Boomerang and the insidious Secret Empire debuted in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’, a convoluted mini-epic that spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner.

‘The Battle Cry of the Boomerang’, ‘Less then Monster, More than Man!’, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ wove lots of sub-plots into a gripping whole which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was, but obviously such tight coordination between series caused a few problems as art for the final episode is credited to “almost the whole blamed Bullpen” (which looks to my jaded eyes as mostly Kirby, Everett and Jerry Grandinetti). At the climax the Hulk is marauding through the streets of New York City in what I can’t help but feel is a padded, unplanned conclusion…

Everything’s back on track with #85 as John Buscema and John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ as yet another spy diverts an experimental rocket onto the city. The obvious discomfort the realism-heavy Buscema experienced with the Hulk’s appearance has mostly faded by the second part, ‘The Birth of the Hulk-Killer!’, and the return of veteran inker Mike Esposito to the strip also helps.

As General Ross releases a weapon designed by the Leader to capture the Grim Green Giant he has no inkling what his rash act will lead to, but by #87’s concluding part ‘The Humanoid and the Hero!’ he’s certainly regretting it… Gil Kane returns for #88 and ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both his and the Hulk’s savage power.

Tales to Astonish #89 once more sees the Hulk become an unwilling weapon as a near-omnipotent alien sets him to purging humanity from the Earth. ‘…Then, There Shall Come a Stranger!’, ‘The Abomination!’ and ‘Whosoever Harms the Hulk…!’ is a taut and evocative thriller which also includes the origin of a malevolent Hulk counterpart who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner.

This first volume of Hulk adventures is rather hit-and-miss with visceral thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, but the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the artistic endeavour should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These tales, in raw and gritty black and white, are key to the later, more cohesive adventures, and even at their worst the work of Kirby, Ditko, Everett, Kane, Buscema and the rest in butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is a thrill to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone. Hulk Smash(ing)!

© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Chinese Hero: Tales of the Blood Sword volume 8

Chines Hero 8

Chines Hero 8

By Wing Shing Ma (DGN/DrMaster Publications)
ISBN13: 978-1-59796-149-3

This is the final volume in the spellbindingly action-packed but narratively nonsensical martial arts drama. Fans of the bizarre yet so enthralling series will be delighted and probably amazed that the spectacular fighting and action scenes are ratcheted up to an even more frenetic pitch as Hero Hua and the remnants of his family continue to defend the mystical Blood Sword from the meanest and most accomplished master villains of the veritable horde of vicious, exotic baddies determined to use its powers for evil.

If you need a starting context, it all kicked off when a gangster tried to steal the Sword, which Hero’s family had guarded for centuries. That fight’s collateral damage included most of Hero’s family, and began a bloody vendetta encompassing half the planet. The Foes are thoroughly evil, masters of every fighting art and dirty trick whom Hero and his incomprehensibly wide circle of friends and associates – coming and going with dazzling brevity – must fight unceasingly to preserve the Sword and achieve their vengeance.

I’ve said it before and it’s still true: Hong Kong comics are beautiful. Produced using an intensive studio art-system wherein any individual page might be composed of painted panels, line-art, crayons and coloured pencils – literally anything that will get the job done.

They’re wonderful to look at, but don’t expect them to make much sense, because fundamentally this genre of comic is one glorious, spectacular exhibition of Kung Fu mastery. Like much of the region’s classic cinema, all other considerations are suborned to the task of getting the fighting started and just keeping it going.

Remarkably that carries on right up until the very last page here. There’s no resolution – at least not in any recognisable western manner – just a brief cessation of violence, and as a tacked on text epilogue explains, all the varied combatants will go on making their plans and fighting for and against evil. The adventure never truly ends.

If you’re looking for characterisation, sharp dialogue or closure, look elsewhere. If, however, you want Good Guys thumping Bad Guys in eye-popping ways, give this fantastical series a shot. I never really “got it” but I think I’m going to miss it!

© 2006 Culturecom, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.