The Bluecoats volume 6: Bronco Benny


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-146-4

The glamour of the American Experience has fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé was an absolute devotee, and the spectrum of memorable comics ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and Lucky Luke, and even to colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World or Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer.

Les Tuniques Bleues began at the end of the 1960s, created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Colvin – who has solo-written every best-selling volume since. The strip was created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and his rapidly-rendered replacement swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series on the Continent.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – although still broadly comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian-born (in 1936) and – after studying Fine Art in college – joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian and before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling as a comedy writer and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou.

In addition to Bluecoats he has written dozens of other long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The sorry protagonists of the series are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch: a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of mythic America.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but with the second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this tale was rewritten in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ to describe how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war). All subsequent adventures, despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers but simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Bronco Benny is the sixth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 16th French volume) and opens with our surly stalwarts waiting at a rail depot for much-needed fresh materiel…

As usual the war has stalled due to lack of crucial resources. This time the dearth is horses to ride, but when the train carrying the replacement mounts unloads, what Chesterfield and Blutch find is a shambles which makes them want to laugh and cry…

The smugly-isolated General Staff quickly retire to their comfortable residence and are soon back in high-level conference. Callously obnoxious Young Turk Captain Stillman posits a most practical – if appallingly unethical – solution to the equine stalemate: don’t pay the soldiers until after the forthcoming battle and use the money to purchase mounts from horse traders beyond the western mountains. To make sure the sale and transport goes according to plan the Captain intends sending the smallest military detail possible, but they will be accompanied by Bronco Benny, the greatest horse-breaker in the world…

Next day, luckless Blutch and Chesterfield set out on the suicide mission they have been volunteered for with strong, silent Benny in attendance. They are astounded by how easily they pass through Confederate pickets and defences. They also have no idea that the enemy is well aware of the plan and is allowing them expedited passage…

Travelling the arid rocky region to the traders’ ranch our heroes are surprised when a band of Indians attack. The Bluecoats only escape through sheer dumb luck and after rendezvousing with the mustang-hunters discover the natives are in uproar because the horsemen have captured a magnificent white stallion the Indians revere as a god…

It’s love at first sight for Benny. He is utterly smitten with the mustang dubbed “Traveller” and the next few days fade to a bruised blur as he strives to break the mighty wonder horse. Sadly, after he does, the true nature of the horse-traders is exposed and Blutch and Chesterfield realise they’ve been suckered yet again…

However, even after being deprived of cash, horses and dignity and left to die at the hands of the furious Indians, Sarge has a plan to fix things and, whilst it doesn’t exactly work as expected, it does get him and his pals back to Union lines in time to witness one more horrific, pointlessly stupid battle and subsequent slaughter with no apparent winner…

This is another hugely amusing savagely anti-war saga targeting young and less cynical audiences. Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1980 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 3


By Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, Howard Porter, Mark Pajarillo, Arne Jorgensen John Dell & various (DC Comics) ISBN: 978-1-4012-3832-2

Infinitely rewarding comics concepts such as the Justice League of America generally wax and wane with terrifying regularity over the decades: constantly being reinvented for fresh generations before tailing off until the next big idea.

After numerous reboots came and went, in 1997 Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell, took their shot: offering a back-to-basics line-up of heroes battling in cutting-edge conceptual chillers and thrillers.

The result was a gleaming paradigm of comicbook perfection which yet again started magnificently before gradually losing the attention and favour of its originally rabid fan-base. Apparently, we’re a really shallow, jaded bunch, us comics fans…

These stories were smart, fast-paced, compelling, challengingly large-scale and drawn with effervescent vitality. With JLA you could see on every page all the work undertaken to make it the best it could be. Moreover their example – at least initially – was mirrored by all other creators brought in to craft the hero-team’s later adventures…

This third Deluxe Edition (available in hardback, paperback and eBook formats) gathers issues #18-31 of the resurgent series, spanning May 1998 to July 1999: re-presenting astounding epics of cosmic wonder and universal upheaval which still pack a punch nearly two decades later…

With a team that consists of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Hourman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Connor Hawke (a second generation Green Arrow), Plastic Man, Huntress, Steel, fallen angel Zauriel, covert information resource Oracle and New Gods Orion and Big Barda you’d imagine there would be little the JLA had to worry about, but you’d be wrong…

Scripter Mark Waid steps in for ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Julian September’: a scary, surreal and utterly enthralling two-part thriller that begins with ‘Synchronicity’ (illustrated by Porter & Dell) which finds the World’s Greatest Heroes hard-pressed to combat the rewriting of Reality by a luck-bending scientist. Walden Wong then joins the art team to conclude the spectacular last-chance battles against a world riotously remaking itself in the ‘Seven Soldiers of Probability’ – featuring a particularly impressive guest-shot by lapsed former JLA-er the Atom

Adam Strange then makes one of his far too infrequent appearances to combat a splendid ‘Mystery in Space’ (Waid, Jorgensen & Meikis) as the League travels to distant planet Rann only to be betrayed and enslaved by one of their oldest allies; an epic encounter resoundingly resolved in the Doug Hazlewood-inked ‘Strange New World’, after which Morrison, Porter & Dell return for a multi-layered extravaganza as the team’s most uncanny old foe resurfaces…

‘It’ finds the world under the mental sway of insidious space invader Starro, where only a little boy, aided by the (post Neil Gaiman) Morpheus/Lord of Dreams/Sandman can turn the tide in the breathtaking finale ‘Conquerors’

Issues #24 begins with Morrison, Porter & Dell introducing a brand-new super-team in ‘Executive Action’ as the American military, in the form of General Wade Eiling, announces its own metahuman unit “The Ultramarine Corps”.

The four-person squad is officially tasked with pre-emptively defending America from paranormal threats, but as the JLA (and long-term DC fans) are well aware, Eiling has a long history of covert, “black-bag” and just plain illegal operations compelling the JLA to remain duly suspicious…

When the Corps steal the artificial body of League bête noir Shaggy Man everyone concerned knows it bodes badly, but even they are unprepared for ‘Scorched Earth’ wherein Eiling pits his Ultramarines and the US army against the heroes…

Meanwhile the New God JLA-ers are preparing for the imminent cosmic threat they had enlisted to confront whilst Batman, Huntress and Plastic Man infiltrate the General’s base to discover his real motives…

The spectacular, revelatory conclusion comes in ‘Our Army At War’ (with art by Mark Pajarillo & Wong) as Eiling’s plans are exposed and the truth about the Ultramarines uncovered. The net result is the disillusioned, lied-to super-soldiers setting up their own operation independent of any national influence and beginning to gather like-minded costumed champions for a First-Strike force. They would soon return…

Time-travelling future-robot Hourman replaced the Martian Manhunter for a while at this juncture as Mark Millar, Pajarillo, Wong & Marlo Alquiza craft ‘The Bigger They Come…’ a delightfully retrospective yarn which sees size-changing physicist Ray Palmer return to active duty as the Atom after power-stealing super-android Amazo is accidentally reactivated.

The main event of this volume is JLA/JSA team-up ‘Crisis Times Five’ by Morrison, Porter & Dell. The Thunderbolt Genie of Johnny Thunder returns with a new master and reality is grievously assaulted by unnatural disasters and magical monsters. Somehow, Triumph, an old friend and foe of the League is at the heart of it all, but promptly finds himself trapped in a true Devil’s Bargain…

With reason on the run in ‘World Turned Upside Down…’ the assembled champions of League and Society battle rampant magical chaos, all the while revealing and retrofitting a little more secret history. The assorted sprites, Djinn and pixies of the Silver Age DC Universe are revealed to be something far more sinister, and ‘Worlds Beyond’ finds those wishing wonders reduced to civil war; concluding with ‘Gods & Monsters’ as a vast army of united heroes save reality in the nick of time and space…

Compelling, challenging and never afraid of nostalgia or laughing at itself, JLA was an all-out effort to be Smart and Fun. For that brief moment in the team’s long, chequered career these were definitely the “World’s Greatest Superheroes”, in increasingly ambitious epics reminding everybody of the fact. This is the kind of thrill nobody ever outgrows repackaged in graphic novels to be read and re-read forever…
© 1998, 1999, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Seekers Into the Mystery – the Complete Collection


By J. M. DeMatteis, Jon J Muth, Glenn Barr, Michael Zulli, Jill Thompson & various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80843-7

Isn’t everybody looking for ultimate truth and a bit of personal revelation?

That spiritual quest for enlightenment has moved millions of souls, thousands of philosophers, thinkers and mystics and – at conservative estimates – hundreds of writers and artists over the centuries.

At the dying fringes of the 20th century spiritually invested thinker and writer J. M. DeMatteis convinced a high-powered publishing company to let him look for Revelation in the pages of a comicbook.

As detailed in his Introduction ‘And Ye Shall Find’ – which details the origins and simultaneously troubled yet blessed release of the tale as a periodical publication from DC Comics’ creator owned Vertigo imprint – his story concerned a modern man lost and yearning for something greater than his sorry self and pointless, dead-end existence.

In the nature of such things, the series briefly blossomed and – like so many spiritual moments – tragically faded before a clean, clear-cut culminating finish.

However, viewed as an instructional excursion in this new complete compilation from Dover Books, Seekers into the Mystery is a superb fantasy-drenched magical mystery tour that asks big questions with no real answers through a cast of utterly amiable characters you’ll wish were real.

DeMatteis, whose other works include long runs on numerous mainstream costumed champions such as Justice League, Defenders and Spider-Man, introspective, genre-warping serials such as Moonshadow and a string of uniquely quirky graphic novels such as Blood: A Tale, The Last One, Brooklyn Dreams and Greenberg the Vampire, is a smart scribe with a solid appreciation of the light side of life as well as comics’ usual trendy angst-driven nihilism.

Thanks to that broad vision, SITM abounds with human warmth, sentimental uplift and wild whimsy to counterbalance the horrific sight of a man who slowly drives himself through hell and madness in pursuit of a dream…

This is not a book you want me to be too specific about. Like the adage goes, it’s all about the journey, but here at least are few directions you might appreciate…

Seekers into the Mystery gathers all fifteen episodes of the Vertigo series, subdivided in a sequence of self-contained Books which open with ‘The Pilgrimage of Lucas Hart’ as a washed up, crashed-&-burning Hollywood screenwriter begins to see that he is not just destroying himself, but also taking with him his devoted girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter as well as everyone who ever knew or cared about him.

And then the universe reaches out to him, in the form of visions and visitations: bombarding Hart with every kind of hint and message and above all else a recurring image of a gentle beatific man all the new age weirdoes suddenly afflicting him refer to as “The Magician”. More obnoxious and certainly most noisome is the recurring appearance of a foul, homeless lunatic dubbed Charlie Limbo who might just be God’s agent on Earth…

Illustrated by Glenn Barr with an Epilogue Chapter crafted by Jon J Muth, the horrors and wonders Lucas experiences inescapably lead to a shocking revelation that his memories of an idyllic childhood are all false: his formative years were actually the stuff of nightmare he has forgotten that he forgot, leading him to make a leap of faith and search out a woman who actually knows the Magician…

Michael Zulli (with Muth again contributing an Epilogue segment) beatifically illuminates the next stage of our suffering pilgrim’s progress as ‘Falling Down to Heaven’ traces the writer’s search for Absolute Truth and the elusive Man Who Knows Everything; encompassing encounters with psychics and mediums, confrontations with Angels, Aliens, Elves and Demons, and a shocking revelation that Lucas’s daughter Aimee has been seeing all theses impossible visitors since the day she was born…

The journey culminates with Hart reaching a tipping point in his own re-creation, but that only gives rise to his greatest challenge yet in Book Three as ‘God’s Shadow’ (art by Jill Thompson) makes her presence known.

Maya, the malevolent Spirit of Illusion, is determined to derail Lucas’ evolution towards enlightenment and employs torment and seduction in equal measure to achieve her aims. She has not, however, fully appreciated the power her intended victim’s loved ones still exert over him and his own desire for ultimate clarity and truth…

When all the illusions are at last undone, Lucas is in possession of the totality of his occluded memories for the first time in decades, but one last horrifying recollection indicates that there is only one possible outcome which manifests in ‘Finale: The Death of Lucas Hart’. As is normal for this story that does not mean what you think it means…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Barr, Muth, Zulli and John Bolton, plus a large selection of Character Sketches from the series’ artic originator Glenn Barr, this monumental voyage of miasmic self-discovery is a weird, thrilling, disquieting, scary, enlightening and magnificently engaging walk on the astral wild side: one that readers in search of a different comics experience will be well-rewarded by…
© 1996, 1997, 2017 J. M. DeMatteis. Introduction © 2017 J. M. DeMatteis. All rights reserved.

Seekers Into the Mystery will be released February 24th 2017 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or local comics-store or bookshop.

Man, I Hate Cursive – Cartoons for People and Advanced Bears


By Jim Benton (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-1-4494-7889-6                  eISBN: 978-1-4494-8414-9

I love cartoons. Not animated films, but short, visual (although most often text-enhanced) stylised drawings which tell a story or potently and pithily express a mood or tone. In fact most people do. That’s why many historians and sociologists use them as barometers of a defined time or era.

For nearly 200 years gag-panels and cartoon strips were the universal medium to disseminate wit, satire, mirth, criticism and cultural exchange. Sadly, after centuries of pre-eminence and ferocious power, these days the cartoon has been all but erased from printed newspapers – as indeed the physical publications themselves have dwindled in shops and on shelves.

However, thanks to the same internet which is killing print media, many graphic gagsters and drawing dramatists have enjoyed resurgence in an arena that doesn’t begrudge the space necessary to deliver a cartoon in all its fulsome glory…

Cartooning remains an unmissable daily joy to a vast, frequently global readership whose requirements are quite different from those of hard-core, dedicated comic fans, or even that ever-growing base of intrigued browsers just starting to dip their toes in the sequential narrative pool.

Even those stuck-up holdouts proudly boasting they have “never read a comic” certainly enjoy strips or panels: a golden bounty of brief amusement demanding no commitment other than a moment’s close attention. Truth be told, it’s probably in our genes…

And because that’s the contrary nature of things, those gags now get collected in spiffy collections like this one (and also in eBook editions) to enjoy over and over again…

Jim Benton began his illustration work making up crazy characters in a T-Shirt shop and designing greetings cards. Born in 1960, he’d grown up in Birmingham, Michigan before studying Fine Arts at Western Michigan University.

Now tirelessly earning a living exercising his creativity, he started self-promoting those weird funny things he’d dreamed up and soon was raking in the dosh from properties such as Dear Dumb Diary, Dog of Glee, Franny K. Stein, Just Jimmy, Just Plain Mean, Sweetypuss, The Misters, Meany Doodles, Vampy Doodles, Kissy Doodles, jOkObo and It’s Happy Bunny in a variety of magazines and other venues…

His gags, jests and japes can most accessibly be enjoyed on Reddit and are delivered in a huge variety of styles and manners: each perfectly in accord with whatever sick, sweet, clever, sentimental, whimsical or just plain strange content each idea demanded.

This particular collection was released at the end of last year and is still fresh, strange and irreverent enough to have you clutching your sides in approved cartoon manner…

Here you will explore the innocently horrific inner world of children and monsters, learn to appreciate anew the contributions to society of teachers and experience Benton’s satirical side as bigots and racists are convicted out of their own mouths.

There are heaping helpings of animal antics – both wryly sardonic and barbarously slapstick – and wicked observations on the dating scene, plus true love pictured in all its infamy, how robots need a little tenderness too as well as the inside track on what it means to be Death…

You’ll see some of the strangest and most disquietingly surreal gags ever penned – such as the dysfunctional band made of animate body parts or the bizarrely extrovert characters comprising ‘The Sideshow’ and even a truly unique take on historical personages and superheroes of the screen and comics pages…

As ever, there are trenchant swipes at the worlds of Art and Big business as well as incisive explorations of the relationship between us and our pets, the perils of inventing stuff and a pants-wetting section on the downside of air travel…

And best of all, the artist sets aside time and space to share with us God’s Plan and proves that the Almighty’s sense of humour is both wicked and petty…

You might discover Not-Facts that will change your life after gleaning Benton’s take on loneliness, fast food, binge eating, farting, periods, disabilities, growing up, Big Pharma, and the business of medicine in single page giggle-bombs ranging from strident solo panels to extended strips; silent shockers to poetically florid and verbose tracts.

There are also loads of jokes about bears….

Another uproarious compilation to make the sourest persimmon laugh as sweetly as pie (there are no joke about pies in this volume)…
© 2016 Jim Benton. All rights reserved.

S.H.I.E.L.D volume 1: Perfect Bullets


By Mark Waid, Carlo Pacheco, Humberto Ramos, Alan Davis, Chris Sprouse, Mike Choi, Chris Renaud & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9362-3

Just as the 1960s espionage fad was taking off, inspired by the James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man, war hero Nick Fury “re-debuted” in Fantastic Four #21 as a spy.

That was December 1963 – between issues #4 and 5 of his own blistering battle mag – and the perpetually grizzled warrior was re-imagined as a cunning CIA Colonel lurking at the periphery of big adventures, craftily manipulating the First Family of Marvel superheroes into taking on a racist demagogue with a world-shattering secret…

Fury was already the star of the little company’s only war comic: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable and decidedly over-the-top, wild WWII-set series similar in tone to later movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen.

When spy stories went global in the wake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the veteran’s elder iteration was given a second series (from Strange Tales #135, August 1965), set in the then-present. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions and sinister schemes of World Conquest by hidden, subversive all-encompassing enemy organisation Hydra – all gift-wrapped with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgets and explosive high energy. It was set firmly in the heart of the slowly burgeoning Marvel Universe…

Once iconic imagineer Jim Steranko took charge, layering in a sleek, ultra-sophisticated edge of trend-setting drama, the series became one of the best and most visually innovative strips in America, if not the world.

When the writer/artist left and the spy-fad faded, the whole concept simply withdrew into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe, occasionally resurfacing in new series but growing increasingly uncomfortable to read as the role of spooks “on our side” became ever more debased in a world where covert agencies were continually exposed as manipulative, out-of-control tools of subversion and oppression.

In 1989 a six issue prestige format miniseries reinvigorated the concept. As a company targeting the youth-oriented markets, Marvel had experienced problems with their in-house clandestine organisation. In almost all of their other titles, US agents and “the Feds” were usually the bad guys. Author Bob Harras used this theme as well as the oddly quirky self-referential fact that nobody aged in comic continuity to play games with the readers…

Fury had discovered that everybody in his organisation had been “turned” and was now an actual threat to freedom and democracy. With his core beliefs and principles about leading “the Good Guys” betrayed and destroyed, he went on the run, hunted by the world’s most powerful covert agency with all the resources he’d devised and utilised now turned against him.

As part of the resolution SHIELD was reinvented for the 1990s: a leaner, cleaner, organisation, nominally acting under UN mandate, and proactive throughout the Marvel Universe. The taste of betrayal and seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away though…

Following numerous global crises – including a superhero Civil War – Fury was replaced as SHIELD director. His successor Tony Stark proved to be a huge mistake and after an alien invasion by Skrulls, the organisation was mothballed: replaced by the manically dynamic Norman Osborn and his fanatically loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. project. As America’s top Fed, he was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of the burgeoning metahuman community.

Osborn’s ascent was an even bigger error. As America’s Director of National Security the former Green Goblin and not-really-recovering psychopath instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the nation into a paranoid tinderbox.

This spectacularly poor choice was, however, also directing a cabal of the world’s greatest criminals and conquerors intent on divvying up the planet between them. The repercussions of Osborn’s rise and fall were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections throughout the entire fictive continuity. His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret powers of the planet and his ultimate defeat destabilised many previously unassailable empires…

Fury, a man driven by duty, fuelled by suspicion and powered by a serum which kept him vital far beyond his years, didn’t go away. He just went deep undercover and continued doing what he’d always done: saving the world, one battle at a time. Even after Osborn was gone, Fury stayed buried, preferring to fight battles his way and with assets and resources he’d personally acquired and built…

Since the concept became an integral part of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe, the comics division has laboured to find a way to rationalise their two wildly dissimilar iterations of SHIELD. In 2015 scripter Mark Waid and a rotating squad of illustrators finally settled on a way to square that circle…

S.H.I.E.L.D. – now standing for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division – is still a major player in defending humanity from the unimaginable, but movie icon Phil Coulson, his core TV team of Melinda May, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, plus hybrid versions of print-turned-screen stars such as Bobbi (Mockingbird) Morse have been deftly hived off into their own niche of comicbook continuity with Coulson in charge of an official sub-agency where – supplemented by SHIELD resources – his own geekishly vast and deep knowledge of metahuman trivia and contacts with the entire super-heroic community combine to tackle unnatural crises on a case-by-case basis…

The result – written by the master planner Mark Waid and illustrated by a rotating roster of star artists – is a fresh and supremely appetising blend of spies, sinister secret villains and super folk that is a joy to behold…

Collecting issues #1-6 of the breakthrough series (technically S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 3, spanning February to July 2015, if you’re keeping count) this volume commences with the eponymous ‘Perfect Bullets’ (illustrated by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo & Jason Paz, with Dono Sanchez Almara providing the colours) as SHIELD Special Ops Supreme Commander Coulson is forced to rally his barely wet-behind-the-ears unit to tackle a middle-eastern terrorist who has somehow latched onto a magic sword allowing him to summon all the monsters of mythology to batter the Earth.

As all the planet’s heroes wage a losing war against the invasion of gargantuan terrors, Coulson’s team rapidly identify the true owner of the blade and deploy the two ideal superheroes able to counter its threat…

Sadly, however, when the sword is restored to its rightful wielder, a hidden extra-dimensional presence is unleashed, forcing Coulson to improvise a final solution…

Then, adding funny to the fast and furious, a brace of comedic shorts follows. Crafted by Joe Quesada and starring boy-genius Fitz and his digital avatar H.E.N.R.Y., these strips were originally concocted to amuse the cast and crew of the TV show…

The all-comics action resumes with ‘The Animator’ (art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazabo & Edgar Delgado) as Xenobiology specialist Simmons is sent undercover to a High School in Jersey City to crack a smuggling ring. Of course, being a SHIELD Special Ops mission, the contraband being sought is not drugs of guns or something equally mundane, but rather weapons and tech stolen from super-villains.

Things instantly go bad when a Wizard power-glove stashed in a locker spontaneously activates, causing a riot. Thankfully fresh new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan is a student at the beleaguered institution and steps up, impressing Coulson in the process…

Sadly it’s not the only crisis on campus as bio-plasm from genetic meddler Arnim Zola infects the cafeteria food, turning hungry kids into ravenous monsters…

With that catastrophe stomach-churningly averted, Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. make another mirthful appearance before Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and colourist Matthew Wilson make the pictures for ‘Home Invasion’ as Coulson, Spider-Man and mystic parolee Mr. Rasputin break into the bewitched citadel of Doctor Strange to battle mystic mercenaries hired to raid the storehouse of magical wonders.

The thieves think they had it covered but their meddling unleashes forces that imperil the entire Earth. Moreover, in the aftermath Coulson sees something which sets him thinking that one hand might be behind the many threats his team has recently tackled…

After another delightful Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. escapade, Chris Sprouse, Carl Story & Almara illustrate a deeply disturbing tale as Invisible Woman Susan Richards is seconded to the Special Ops unit to save a reluctant Hydra informant from a radioactive prison five miles underground. Sadly as ‘Fuel’ unfolds she discovers the truly vicious duplicity of her opponents and endures cruel whims of fate as the Mole Man attacks everybody and Coulson is forced to intervene before atomic Armageddon ensues…

The fifth instalment starts drawing disparate plot points together as the world’s mystics and supernatural champions are systematically gunned down by an assassin firing purpose-built ‘Magic Bullets’ (with art by Mike Choi and colourist Rachelle Rosenberg)…

With his resources reduced to the Scarlet Witch and professional sceptics Fitz and Simmons, Coulson uncovers a connection to Asgard and a mystery magical mastermind, only to have his team supernaturally suborned as the hidden manipulator makes his long-anticipated move…

This immensely entertaining epic concludes as Earth is afflicted with an arcane plague transforming humanity into mindless monsters compelling Coulson to assemble a squad of intellect-deficient atrocities – zombie Simon Garth, the Living Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and Man-Thing – into an all-new unit of Howling Commandos to invade the ‘Dark Dimensions’ (illustrated by Paul Renaud & Romulo Farjado, Jr.) and stop the contagion and its creator at the source.

And because he’s the sneaky bastard he is, Coulson also takes along a secret weapon: the last villain anyone might expect to save the universe…

Fast-paced, action-packed, imaginative, thrilling, funny and superbly illuminated throughout, Perfect Bullets offers fantastic enjoyment for any Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a smattering of Marvel history in their heads, but will particularly reward any TV aficionado willing to peek into the convoluted comicbook universe the SHIELD show sprang from.
© 2015 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved.

Thor, God of Thunder volume 4: The Last Days of Midgard


By Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic, Agustin Alessio, Simon Bisley, R.M. Guera, Ive Svorcina & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8991-6

Created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, The Mighty Thor began his stellar career delivering an unceasing procession of spectacular fantasy-flavoured adventures which encompassed everything from crushing crime capers and smashing sinister super-villains to crushing mythical monsters saving entire universes from cosmic doom.

As the decades passed he survived numerous reboots and re-imaginings to keep the wonders of fabled Asgard appealing to an increasingly more sophisticated – and therefore jaded – readership. An already exceedingly broad range of scenarios spawned even greater visual variety after the Thunderer’s introduction to the pantheon of cinematic Marvels and his ongoing triumphs as a bona fide movie sensation.

A relatively recent publishing iteration of Marvel’s most tempestuous hero began by simultaneously focusing on the Storm Lord in the past, present and future. Thor, God of Thunder ended with #25 with this compilation gathering #19.NOW through to that momentous anniversary climax (cover-dates April to October 2014) bringing that conceit to its natural, if staggeringly apocalyptic, conclusion.

Crafted primarily by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic, this chronicle visits two vastly separated eras as the Lord of Storms tackles two ultimate enemies of Earth in two distinctly different times.

‘The Last Days of Midgard’ opens with an appraisal of how, across the universe, many worlds are inexplicably expiring even as, on Earth, Thor is renewing his ineffable bond with the blue planet he loves so much.

Having recently made the acquaintance of junior S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Rosalind Solomon and been more than a little impressed, he is thus on hand when she begins her job in the agency’s new Environmental Hazard Division and uncovers a high-tech underwater Japanese whaling fleet hunting inside a UN undersea preserve.

As her solo assault fails Solomon is surprised – and a tad annoyed – to be rescued by the almighty storm god who soon routs and destroys the poachers. Meanwhile in Alaska, the new CEO of super-corporation Roxxon is unveiling his latest moneymaking scheme…

Unctuous yet menacing wunderkind Dario Agger is proudly publicising his new project to bring clean – albeit exorbitantly expensive – mined ice for drinking water from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Of course, he neglects to mention his company’s covert countervailing activities: secretly polluting water tables, melting Earth’s icecaps and befouling the atmosphere to maximise the profit potential of Roxxon’s newest line….

Under his new business model Roxxon intends to ecologically destabilise the planet so that they can monetise their brand of high-tech stopgap solutions…

Agger’s first foray goes embarrassingly awry when Thor hijacks his press launch; hand-delivering an entire mountain of clean ice and promising all Earth might ever need…

Furiously brushing aside Agent Solomon’s thinly veiled threat that S.H.I.E.L.D. is onto him, the self-proclaimed god of money vows vengeance and brings in his lawyers and lobbyists. Superheroes and even S.H.I.E.L.D. enforce laws, but corporations own the politicians who make and – where necessary – rewrite them…

In the far distant future the universe is winding down and All-father Thor is a weary, maimed but still stubborn god. The end of time has almost no deities left in it, save the aged, one-eyed, one-armed Last King of Asgard, with only his (recently liberated from slavery yet ferociously independent) granddaughters Atli, Ellisiv and Frigg for company.

He spends his days sitting on and mourning the burned-out, nigh-dead Earth he loves so much, but Thor’s ancient passions for the planet are stoked back to blazing fury when world-devourer Galactus arrives, determined to consume at last the only celestial morsel ever to frustrate his unending hunger…

‘All Worlds Must Die’ opens in that aforementioned far distant future as All-Father Thor banishes his tempestuous granddaughters back to Asgard whilst he prepares to die at long last defending his barren charge. Back in the Now his younger self has returned to the town of Broxton, Oklahoma; a place he sometimes calls home.

After a previous Ragnarok brought the extra-dimensional realm of Asgard to destruction and scattered the souls of the gods, a mysterious voice summoned the deceased Thor back to life – on Earth – in a crack of shattering thunder. Revived for an unspecified purpose the solitary godling swiftly set about retrieving the souls of his fellow Aesir, all scattered and hidden inside human hosts, and set up Asgard-on-Earth a few paltry feet above the ground of Oklahoma…

Following many battles and conflicts the mystic floating city – now dubbed Asgardia – was officially declared an Embassy of the Gods by the US government, and life for the rural humans below settled down to a pattern of strangely heightened, intense friendly cooperation with their amazing neighbours…

Outraged at what Solomon has told him of Roxxon and contemptuous as ever of mortal laws, Thor then causes the destruction of all the corporation’s flying pollution factories, provoking Agger to move the hero up his agenda and retaliate…

In his corporate lair the billionaire revels in the power of money and science whilst murderously “inspiring” his ineffectual think-tank to find solutions to his god problem. The gorily bloodletting brainstorming session soon arrives at a perfect response, but also inadvertently reveals a stunning secret about the cruel plutocrat…

With Agger setting his plans into motion in the present, at the end of time the last King of Asgard refuses to surrender his beloved Earth to Galactus and, as the battle ferociously escalates, readies himself to die gloriously with his wounded world…

‘God, Inc.’ sees the apparent defeat of the elder god, whilst in his past the unstoppable power of money and influence as applied by Roxxon has moved clerical mountains and brought misery to the younger Thunderer.

The corporation has moved into Broxton with a spurious scheme to bring jobs, prosperity and progress to the isolated farming town. Of course the first step is buying up all the land they can and splitting up the community. That is quickly followed by establishing a second wave of atmosphere-poisoning flying factories over their bewildered heads…

Correctly assessing what Thor’s furiously impatient response will be, smug Agger is waiting with a legion of lawyers and writs waiting to serve the god with injunctions, cease-&-desist orders and damages suits. After the CEO refuses the Asgardian’s offer to buy back Broxton with the unlimited wealth of the Eternal Realm, only Rosalind’s frantic pleading stops the enraged Thunderer from blowing his top and getting himself arrested and even deported from Earth…

In a distant Tomorrow Galactus has defeated the ancient Thunder Lord and thrown his battered body into space, whilst in the Now Agger initiates the next phase in his blueprint for vengeance, summoning monstrous troll Ulik and his troglodytic legions to literally undermine Broxton and Asgardia and slay Thor when he inevitably intervenes…

‘For Thor So Loved the World’ finds the world-devourer preparing to render the defenceless future Earth to rubble when the incomparable and ever defiant Atli, Ellisiv and Frigg return, bearing an arsenal of god-killing weapons, whilst in present day Oklahoma Thor resorts to guile and patience – two things he is legendarily short of – whilst Rosalind leads the fight back against Roxxon.

Things soon go wrong though when she is targeted by hungry trolls…

As defeated King Thor rallies at the end of the universe and storms towards the place where the most ultimate of weapons is cached, in the present Thor confronts Agger and is astonished to see him transform into a bloodthirsty beast-monster easily the match of a mere god…

‘Blood of the Earth’ features even more spectacularly climactic cataclysmic combat on two time-fronts with ravening monsters equally served their just deserts, topped off with a brace of twist endings each serving to set the scene for forthcoming dramas, but the graphic drama does not end there.

Thor, God of Thunder #24 featured ‘The Last Days of Midgard Epilogue: Adieu, Midgard, Adieu’ (illustrated by Agustin Alessio & colourist Ive Svorcina with Ribic), offering a rather downbeat conclusion to the bombastic epic as – beaten but undeterred – Dario Agger pleads possession by uncanny forces and puts all Roxxon’s resources behind a campaign to remove the terrifying, alien, immigrant Asgardians from American – if not Earth’s – holy soil…

Amidst an aura of almost constant super-powered strife, it’s ludicrously easy to sway public opinion and All-Mother Freyja decides its time for the repaired and fully restored city of wonders to leave for another, more welcoming place in the unending cosmos. But before they go, Thor has one last invaluable gift for all the friends in Broxton he feels he has failed…

Closing this collection and that era of the never-ending chronicles of Thor comes issue #25, disseminating ‘Tales of Thunder’ written as always by Aaron who takes the opportunity to delve into the secret histories of many of the lesser characters whilst laying the foundations for Thor’s Next Big Evolution.

This would happen as a result of the Original Sin Crossover Event which ended with a completely different Thunderer holding the Hammer of Thor…

Cloaked in a framing sequence where All-Father Thor’s granddaughters are forced to study excerpts from history the lessons begin with ‘The 13th Son of a 13th Son’ (limned by R.M. Guera and coloured by Giulia Brusco) which luxuriously details the sordid development of an elf sold into slavery by his mother. Rising from that cruel and demeaning state due to his ruthlessness and affinity for sorcery, the goddesses’ research shows how and why Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed became leader of the Wild Hunt and enemy of all that lives…

Next Simon Bisley spectacularly illuminates a tale of Thor’s Boyhood when he rode with the Vikings of Midgard against invading Frost Giant’s in a war of ‘Blood and Ice’. Despite emerging triumphant, the young prince of Asgard made an error of judgement which would cost him dear in centuries to come…

The school session ends soon after the last war maidens of Asgard consult a forbidden tome and learn of a woman who held mighty Mjolnir after the son of Odin was found to be ‘Unworthy’ (art by Ribic & Svorcina) which tantalisingly leads into another book for another time…

This blistering book of battles, trickery, triumphs and tragedies affords furious thrills and fabulous Fights ‘n’ Tights furore no fan of mythic cosmic adventure could possibly resist, so why not surrender to an irresistible force of full-on fun?
© 2012, 2015 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved.

Thunder Agents Classics volume 2


By Wally Wood, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-832-6                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-448-2

The meteoric lifespan and output of Tower Comics is one of the key creative moments in American comicbook history. The brief, bombastic saga of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and the era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the James Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage genre. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (premiering in September 1964); bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten was commissioned to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. He brought in creative maverick Wally Wood, who called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan, there was a magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funnybook – which outlasted everything else – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones, Gil Kane and Ralph Reese contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s other top talents to illustrate on the adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seemed inescapable…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November). Better yet, all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-Page Giant format, offering a huge amount of material in every issue.

All that being said these tales would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, subtly more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This second lush and lustrous compilation collects T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5-7 and the first blockbusting issue of spin-off title Dynamo – originally released between June and August 1966 – with the incomparably cool concept and characters going from strength to strength.

For those who came in late: When brilliant Professor Emil Jennings was attacked by the forces of the mysterious Warlord, the savant perished. However UN troops salvaged some of his greatest inventions: these included a belt that increased the density of the wearer’s body until it became as hard as steel, a cloak of invisibility and a brain-amplifier helmet.

The prototypes were divided between several agents to create a unit of super-operatives to counter increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable, honest but far from brilliant file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and codename Dynamo. Contributing scripter Len Brown had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had puckishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag until the comic rolled off the presses…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan was once aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into an android body and was then gifted with the invisibility cape. If his artificial body was destroyed Dunn’s consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

John Janus seemed the perfect UN employee: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet. Sadly, he was also a deep cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity. All plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened his mind’s full potential, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mind-reading powers, but it also drove all evil from his mind. When the Warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

A fourth super-spy was added when Guy Gilbert of the crack Mission: Impossible style T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad was required to beta-test an experimental super-speed suit. The gung-ho hyper-fast Lightning was proud to do so, even if every use of the hyper-acceleration gimmick shortened his life-span…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 again gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy with the power to smash anything was pinpointed as the weak link of the agency and subjected to a three-pronged attack by Warlord and his subterranean race in ‘Dynamo and the Golem’ by a sadly unrecorded writer with art from Crandall, Wood & Adkins. The stupendous underground duel with the monstrous mechanical was even augmented by guest walk-ons (a rare treat in the mid-1960s when most editors feared over-exposing their heroes) by other T.H.U.N.D.E.R. stars…

The modern master of a tribe of primordial men returned as ‘NoMan: In the Caverns of Demo’ (by Pearson, Kane, Wood & Tony Coleman) saw the invisible agent lured into a trap and temporarily lose his wonder cape. After Adkins’ gloriously panoramic ‘Lightning Pin-up’, Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia then reveal how a leftover Nazi scientist blackmails a trusted engineer and wrecks new aircraft for the agency with his deadly “slow-down” dust in ‘Lightning: Return of Baron Von Kampf’

The author of ‘Menthor vs. The Entrancer’ is unknown but the unmistakable John Giunta limns the dark tale of the mind master’s duel with a petty thief who steals a magic gem and almost conquers a country before the concluding ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents: Double For Dynamo’ (Skeates, Wood, Adkins & Coleman) sees the entire team unite to tackle another plot by duplicate maker Mastermind to place his felonious android facsimiles in positions of power…

Issue #6 opened with ‘Dynamo and the Sinister Agents of the Red Star’ (author unknown, Wood & Adkins) as the sinister Sino-spymaster introduced a devastating judo expert who could use the human powerhouse’s strength against him. Poor Len had to use his brain (for a change) to stop the brazen theft of America’s newest super-submarine…

Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia had fun with a teleporting criminal in ‘Lightning: The Origin of the Warp Wizard’ and shockingly let the villain win, after which ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. vs. Demo’ – illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Adkins – the vile plotter ambushed NoMan and used his stolen cape to gather tons of cash and the other Jennings devices.

The arrogant thug’s great mistake was trusting his sultry sidekick Satana, who unreasonably bore a grudge for that time he’d abandoned her to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. and the cops…

‘Menthor: The Carnival of Death’ (art by Giunta & Carl Hubbell) pitted the mind-reading agent against a spy who was a natural telepath. Despite tremendous odds Janus foiled an insidious assassination attempt but lost his power-bestowing helmet in the process…

The best tale in this issue – and probably the entire book – is ‘NoMan: To Fight Alone’ by Skeates & Steve Ditko wherein the immortal agent is the only one capable of defying anti-democratic demagogue Mr. Image. This maniacal malcontent has the power to control any and all living beings in his vicinity, but of course, NoMan is only “living” in a strictly technical sense…

The final T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents inclusion is #7; a true landmark which opens with Dynamo in ‘Wanted: Leonard Brown, Code Name “Dynamo” Suspicion of Treason’ (illustrated by Wood, Adkins & Ralph Reese) with our hero on the run from his former friends.

Gullible Len has been framed by the delectable Rusty (revealed as the svelte and sinister Iron Maiden; a vivacious villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the likely puberty trigger for an entire generation of boys…) but still manages – more by charm and luck than skill or wit – to turn the tables on the real crooks and vindicate himself…

Next follows a frantic showdown which leaves Lightning possibly crippled for life after enduring ‘The Warp Wizard’s Revenge’ (Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia), after which the years-long secret war against invaders from Earth’s core comes closer to final resolution in the George Tuska illustrated ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents: Subterranean Showdown!’

A council of Warlords opt to abduct Dynamo which leads to a shattering battle they ultimately fail to win, whilst, after a pulse-pounding Wood & Adkins ‘Iron Maiden: Pin-up’, NoMan suffers a psychological breakdown in ‘To Be or Not To Be’ by Pearson, Giunta & Sal Trapani.

Although Dr. Dunn is now a thing of plastic and wire, he is still susceptible to feminine allure and that unresolved dichotomy almost costs him – and Earth – everything…

The issue ended with a tale which blew the mind of most kids reading it in the summer of 1966. ‘Menthor: A Matter of Life and Death’ written by Adkins, with art by Ditko & Wood was an utter shock to readers who had never seen a hero die before. We were so sheltered back then; cowboys and cops only ever shot guns out of bandits’ hands…

When a beloved and trusted super-agent is shanghaied to Subterraneana as bait for a trap, he does what any hero would do rather than betray his friends…

This second cathartic classic fun-fest concludes with the contents of Dynamo #1 as Tower’s top draw became the first hero promoted to his own solo title. It began with sheer sci fi spectacle as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. spots a staging post on Luna and sends Len on what might be a one-way trip (it’s three years before the Apollo moon shots, remember?) to scotch a potential invasion from space in ‘Menace From the Moon’ by Wood & Adkins.

That astounding blockbuster is followed by a deliciously wry romp as ‘A Day in the Life of Dynamo’ (Sekowsky & Giacoia) finds the invulnerable operative harried around the world from pillar to post in pursuit of the elusive Red Dragon, the wicked Warlords, rampaging giant robots… and a date with his boss’ attractive assistant Alice

Then Crandall, Wood & Adkins apparently take Dynamo ‘Back to the Stone Age’: revealing the secret of Demo’s seemingly inexhaustible stock of cavemen and dinosaurs after the devilish villain breaks out of jail with Mastermind in tow, after which Ditko, Wood & Adkins craft another action-packed mini-masterpiece as ‘Dynamo Meets the Amazing Andor’.

Decades previously the so-very-patient Warlords stole a human baby and spent long years turning the waif into a biological superman devoid of sentiment or compassion. Sadly, when they finally unleashed Andor on the surface civilisations – although they anticipated the dogged resistance of humanity and even the newly-constituted T.H.U.N.D.E.R. – the subterranean geniuses hadn’t factored in how their living weapon might react to the first woman he had ever seen…

The tongue-in-cheek dramas wrap up with a bright, breezy spoof as ‘Wonder Weed, Super Hero’ – illustrated by Giunta – reveals how merely mortal – and mildly jealous – agent William “Weed” Wylie is tricked by a magician/enemy agent into thinking he has powers too.

Of course, Weed is cocky, suggestible and avaricious but nobody’s fool…

With stories all shaded in favour of fast pace, sparse dialogue, explosive action and big visuals, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was decades ahead of its time and certainly informed everything in Fights ‘n’ Tights comics which came after it. These are truly timeless comic classics which improve with every reading, and there’s never been a better time to add these landmark superhero sagas to your collection of favourites.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 2 © 2013 Radiant Assets, LLC. All rights reserved.

Graveslinger


By Shannon Eric Denton, Jeff Mariotte, John Cboins, Nima Sorat & various (IDW Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-364-3

The iconography and intrinsic philosophy of the western is so strong that it will readily mix-&-match with any other narrative genre.

Space Cowboys? Done.

Murder mystery? War?

Culture clash; political thriller; buddy movie; coming-of-age-drama; romance; epic quest? All covered in landmark cowboy books and/or film tales.

However – probably due to the brutal nature and subtext of the Wild West mythos – the most effective genre-mash-ups have always involved broad humour or supernatural shock.

Intriguing case in point is this short, sharp saga written by Shannon Eric Denton (The Revenant) and Jeff Mariotte (Desperadoes), beguilingly brought to un-life by illustrators John Cboins and Nima Sorat, with the whole chilling confection coloured by Chris Wood & Carlos Badilla with lettering courtesy of Ed Dukeshire.

Originally released in 2009 as a 4-issue miniseries, the tale is by no means an original one, but is stylishly undertaken (that’s a freebie from a veteran punslinger, folks) and rattles along at a breakneck pace to its gory conclusion…

The drama begins in ‘The Devil’s Playground’ as a strangely gaunt man closes in on a night-time campfire. With little ceremony the top-hatted old timer despatches the man-like things basking in the fire’s glow and dumps them unceremoniously in the coffin on the wagon pulled by his trusty mule Lucifer

In the growing daylight Frank Timmons meets some riders whilst crossing spartan cattle country and learns that a range war is brewing between the independent ranchers and merciless cattle-baron Harvey Newell.

Frank has no time for their petty problems as he is involved in a relentless pursuit. He used to be the undertaker at Gila Flats Territorial Prison and, after a recent incident, has been tasked with tracking down some very dangerous escapees…

As Timmons heads on, one of the cowboys joins him. Will Saylor already suspects something nasty is occurring and, since the manhunter’s course is in a direct line for his own stead – where his wife and daughters are waiting – Will thinks he ought to be heading home…

As they near the ranch Will’s worst suspicions are confirmed. Timmons is no normal bounty killer and the things threatening his family stopped breathing a long time ago. They also seem immune to his bullets and crave living human flesh…

The old man does have a few advantages of his own, however, and before long has the dead men on the run and the women-folk back with the horrified Will…

The hunter’s problems grow in ‘The Undertaker’s Lament’ as Frank shares a few more unwholesome truths with Will, even as miles distant, the bulk of the risen dead Timmons has been following introduce themselves to local tyrant Newell.

Timmons was not a good man when he worked at Gila Flats: abusing his position for profit and living the high life with a local woman named Dorothy. Things started to go bad in 1878 when Frank was cursed by hardened killer Bart Bevard as he fought the noose around his neck. They then got much worse when Frank desecrated the corpse of Mexican witch-man El Brujo to steal the shaman’s fancy amulet.

That night 117 corpses dug themselves out of the Boneyard and went on a ravenous killing spree, slaughtering an entire town… including Dorothy…

And that’s when something truly diabolical spoke to Frank: offering him a deal he could not refuse. Hell wanted its escaped souls back and, if Frank delivered them. he might be reunited with Dorothy…

As Frank and Will reach the local town to spread a warning, they are caught in a lethal ambush. However it isn’t Bevard’s corpse gang but Newell’s bully boys gunning for them. Faced with ‘The Good, the Bad, & the Undead’ Frank needs to make a quick decision about temporarily abandoning his unholy mission…

After an horrific gun battle he manages to convince a few cowed survivors to join him in a raid on Newell’s ranch for a showdown with the human monster before his own final apocalyptic confrontation with Bevard and ‘The Malevolent Six’ zombies he still commands…

And when the shooting stops Frank and Lucifer the mule head for the sunset, painfully aware that they still have 107 more soiled souls to send to the inferno before they can rest…

Simple, straightforward, eerily evocative and leavened with just the right amount of gallows humour, Graveslinger was quickly optioned for eventual movie glory – although to me it smacks more of numerous TV episodes rather than 120-odd minutes of supernatural shoot-outs – but the original comicbook inspiration has all but vanished from sight, despite its welcoming premise, solid action ethic and the vast gallery of guest art (three dozen potent and powerful pieces by the likes of Adam Archer, Bloodworth, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Geiger, Phil Noto, Tom Mandrake and others) that came with the collected edition.

If you’re in the mood for spooky six-gun thrills, Graveslinger is well worth tracking down in either printed or digital editions.
© 2009 Shannon Eric Denton and Jeff Mariotte. All rights reserved

Stuff about Sex for Guys Who Are Not Like, Total Idiots


By David Mellon (Top Shelf Productions)
ASIN: B01BMV519A

Whilst not actually a graphic novel, I couldn’t resist adding this outrageous little comicbook essay to my St. Valentines Day celebrations, and wholeheartedly recommend it to any oldster who likes a gentle, knowing laugh or any young man in need of a little understanding pep talk before setting out to find a mate – either for a night, a while or a lifetime…

In the manner of a relatively non-judgemental older sibling, David Mellon talks frankly and in the most simple of terms on how to start having sex and the onset of adult relationships; dispelling myths, addressing if not positively coddling neuroses and especially bestowing actual useful advice (yes, really! Wash often and wear clean clothes!) to help nervous neophytes meet women and not nauseate them…

Beautifully rendered in accessible monochrome cartoons, Mellon takes us through the initial obstacle of ‘Shame!’, arguing that ‘It’s the Same for Everybody’ and claiming ‘Everybody Wants to Drop that Mask!’

Nothing is held back as the author sensibly deals with ‘Personal Hygiene’ and tackles issues such as ‘Premature Ejaculation’, ‘Masturbation’, the pros and cons of ‘Virginity’ and even asks the big question… ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’

Even the great imponderables get a look in as we examine ‘Normal’ and discuss ‘What Women Want’

Smart, sensible, unflinching but never harsh or mean, Mellon’s mature approach to an age-old traumatic experience and rite of passage should be mandatory reading in schools (but won’t be because of all the naked men and women he’s drawn here) as a serious aid to sex education.
Stuff about Sex ™ & © 2012 David Mellon. All rights reserved.

Fresh Romance volume 1


By Kate Leth & Arielle Jovellanos, Sarah Vaughn & Sarah Winifred Searle, Sarah Kuhn & Sally Jane Thompson, Marguerite Bennett & Trungles, Keiron Gillen & Christine Norrie & various (Rosy Press/Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-62010-346-3                  eISBN: 978-1-62010-347-0 (Kickstarter exclusive)

Once upon a time romance comics were the backbone of the comicbook industry, selling in the millions and capturing the crucial yet elusive and fickle women’s market where war, westerns and superhero titles just couldn’t get a foothold.

Times passed, fashions changed and the genre all but vanished in comics form, to occasionally resurface in rare re-emergences filled with quality writing and art but still unable to justify the expense of a regular print slot.

Thankfully the internet changed all that, with devotees able to create, disseminate and consume articles of visual amour free of draconian and tawdry business pressures. One such enterprise was anthological enterprise Fresh Romance from Rosy Press which offers startlingly uncompromising modern love stories in a broad variety of styles and themes and tones from simple person-meets-person encounters to classical pastiches to rom-com rollercoaster rides.

So well-received were these tales that in partnership with Oni Press the stories have made the retrograde jump back into physical form such as this initial collection…

Supplemented throughout with round-robin discussions and commentaries from the creators involved the wide-eyed wonderment opens with a no-holds-barred, ferociously contemporary spin on the coming-of-age ritual known as Prom Night…

‘School Spirit’ by scripter Kate Leth, illustrator Arielle Jovellanos, colourist Amanda Scurti and letterer Taylor Esposito details the build up to that very special occasion, focussing on unwitting chick-magnet Miles, haughty queen-bee Justine, moody Corrine and eager-beaver over-achiever Malie.

None of their peers are privy to their true natures, though. Miles’ reputation is largely bogus, allowing him to act as a beard for two of the girls whilst the lass he really likes has a secret she joyously shares with him alone: she’s a witch with fantastic powers she’s just desperate to exercise even though her dads forbid her getting intimate with mortals…

Pressure mounts as the Prom approaches and all four are reaching emotional crisis points: all they want to do is be themselves and be done with secrets…

But when the subterfuge falls apart just before the big event all the quartet can do is make it a night everybody will remember…

In stark contrast ‘Ruined volume 1’ by Sarah Vaughn & Sarah Winifred Searle (lettered by Ryan Ferrier) serves up a heaping helping of stolid and claustrophobic Regency romance in the manner of Jane Austen as young Catherine dolorously acquiesces to parental pressure and marries a man she does not know. As her parents constantly remind her, it’s the best she can hope now that her reputation has been so utterly despoiled by her recent indiscretion…

Her marriage into the prestigious but impoverished Davener family was never going to be a famous love match but after being packed off to his decrepit and distant estate Catherine’s slow acceptance of her taciturn, inscrutable husband is constantly impeded by one inescapable quandary. If no decent man would want her in her present state, why has Andrew Davener made her his bride?

Does he want her? Is he, in fact, a decent man?

A beguiling and compelling take on the traditional gothic novel – complete with troubled sister-in-law and antagonistic elder dowager in residence – Ruined does not conclude in this volume and leaves the reader hungry for a resolution…

From staid conformity to wild abandon as ‘The Ruby Equation’ by Sarah Kuhn & Sally Jane Thompson (coloured by Savanna Ganucheau and lettered by Steve Wands) pursues wild whimsy in a little coffee shop which serves as a dating drop-in centre run by extra-dimensional super-entities masquerading as baristas and waitresses.

These wondrous creatures are intent on helping their unwitting human clients find true happiness, but impatient young operative Ruby can’t wait to finish this dumb assignment and progress to missions of truly cosmic importance.

Sadly for her, Ruby can’t close the deal with prospective happy couple Josh and Megan, and she’s the only one who can’t see that they are not perfect soul-mates. Not when one of them is actually the only being Ruby could ever love…

A dark reinterpretation of a very familiar fairytale, ‘Beauties’ by Marguerite Bennett & Trungles – lettered by Rachel Deering – sees a beautiful beast captured and enslaved by a callous prince and his cruel daughters, only to win over one of his tormentors and trigger an uncanny transformation. With love triumphing over every adversity the liberated lovers must then seek escape or death together whatever the ultimate cost…

As icing on the cake this collection closes with a delightful bonus vignette by Keiron Gillen & Christine Norrie. ‘First, Last and Always’ slyly reveals the cautious, cunning politics that underlie that initial brushing of lips that presages the start of everything…

Powerful, charming, engaging and endearing, these yarns of yearning and fulfilment are superb examples of how varied comics can be. Why not let a little romance into your heart today?
Fresh Romance volume One © 2016 Rosy Press. All individual stories are the property of and © their respective creators. All rights reserved.