Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 1: The Selfish Giant and The Star Child


Adapted by P. Craig Russell (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-056-1 (HC)        :978-1-56163-375-3 (PB)

Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to fame young with a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds.

Although his increasingly fanciful, meticulous, classicist style was derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy, and the craftsmanlike visual flourishes of Art Nouveau was greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry, the sheer power and beauty of his work made him a huge draw.

By the 1980s he had largely retired from the merciless daily grind, preferring to work on his own projects (generally adapting operas and plays into sequential narratives) whilst undertaking the occasional high-profile Special for the majors – such as Dr. Strange Annual 1976 (totally reworked and re-released as Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996) or Batman: Robin 3000.

As the industry grew up and a fantasy boom began, he returned to the comics industry with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in the magazine Epic Illustrated and elsewhere.

Russell’s stage-arts adaptations had begun appearing in 1978: first in the independent Star*Reach specials Night Music and Parsifal and then from 1984 at Eclipse Comics where the revived Night Music became an anthological series showcasing his earlier experimental adaptations; not just operatic dramas but also tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and other literary landmarks.

In 1992, with this tome (now in its fourth reprinting) he began adapting the assorted Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, deftly balancing tales of pious allegorical wonderment with a wry touch and clear, heartfelt joy in the originating material of the masterful yet misunderstood, much-maligned master of devastating, so-quotable epigrams who was briefly the most popular man in London Society…

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems.

The others within were The Nightingale and the Rose, The Devoted Friend, The Remarkable Rocket and poignant parable The Selfish Giant, upon which adaptor Russell here lavishes all his skills to staggering effect and creates an evocative, beguiling, heart-breaking evocation of spirituality for this graphic collection.

The children of a village once played in the most beautiful garden in the land, until its owner returned from a seven-year absence and took great umbrage at their trespass. Chasing them away, the ferocious giant built a colossal wall around his garden so nobody but he could enjoy it. Then a strange thing happened. When the seasons turned, the garden remained draped in chilling winter and spring never came, nor summer or autumn.

After an intolerable period of frozen bafflement, one morning the giant was awoken to a linnet’s song and found that spring had finally arrived. The children had found a gap in his stony barricade and come through to play on the trees, bringing warmth and green growth with them.

In one corner, however, winter still clung on as a tiny boy struggled to climb into the boughs of a snow-draped tree.

Wracked by revelation, the giant’s heart thawed too and he rushed out to help the lad into the tree, thereafter tearing down the walls and sharing his garden with everybody, although he never again saw the little boy he had so happily helped…

Years passed and the seasons resumed their normal course and eventually one winter he again saw the boy as something incredibly joyous yet grievously sad occurred…

Balancing that metaphor of Christian virtue and moral instruction is The Star-Child which was originally published in 1891, one of the quartet of stories in Wilde’s second book of stories for children: A House of Pomegranates.

Notionally a far more traditional-seeming fairy tale but again loaded with ethical life-lessons, it begins with a poor woodcutter finding a baby wrapped in cloth-of-gold after a falling star crashes to earth.

Although living on the edge of starvation, the peasant and his wife add the boy to their large, hungry family and care for him as if their own. The child grows up physically beautiful but exceedingly cruel and arrogant, viciously picking on the less fortunate souls around him and casually torturing the animals and lesser creatures.

As he approaches manhood a wandering beggar recognises him as her long-lost son but he savagely rebukes and rejects her for her shabby ugliness. The act has staggering repercussions, as he soon after transforms into a hideous frog-faced, snake-like wretch and flees from the only home he has ever known, reviled and chased away by people and all the forest beasts he once tormented…

His ceaseless wanderings eventually take him to a grand city where he is sold as a slave to a magician who treats him with great cruelty. The suffering slave is tasked with the hopeless mission of recovering great lost riches for the mage but, at his very lowest ebb, a rabbit shows pity on the homely slave and the reformation of the Star-Child begins…

A deeply moral tale of redemption through effort and grace through revelation, The Star-Child still retains much of Wilde’s barbed cynicism and astute social observation; providing the requisite happy ending whilst concealing a wry and wicked sting…

The brace of brilliant adaptations signalled another high point in Russell’s astounding career: another milestone in the long, slow transition of an American mass market medium into a genuine art form.

Most importantly, this and the other volumes in the series are incredibly lovely and irresistibly readable examples of superb writing (so please read Wilde’s original prose tomes too) and sublime examples of comics art their very best.

Most assuredly, you simply must avail yourself of this masterful confection…
© 1992 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend


By Geoffrey Hayes (Toon Books/Raw Junior)
ISBN: 978-0-9799238-0-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a perfect way to keep adults quiet whilst opening world of adventure for youngsters… 10/10

Once upon a time – and for the longest time imaginable – comics were universally denigrated as a creative and narrative ghetto cherished only by children and simpletons. For decades the producers, creators and lovers of the medium struggled to change that perception and gradually acceptance came.

These days most folk accept that word and pictures in sequential union can make stories and tell truths as valid, challenging and life-changing as any other full-blown art-form.

Sadly, along the way the commercial underpinnings of the industry went too far.

Where once there were a host of successful, self-propagating comics scrupulously generating tales and delights intended to entertain, inform and educate such specific demographics as Toddler/Kindergarten, Young and Older Juvenile, General, Boys and Girls periodical publications, nowadays Britain and America can only afford to maintain a few paltry out-industry licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for younger readerships.

The greater proportion of strip magazines are necessarily manufactured for a highly specific – and dwindling – niche market, whilst the genres that fed and nurtured comics are more effectively and expansively disseminated via TV, movies and assorted video and interactive games media.

Thankfully old-fashioned book publishers and the new graphic novel industry have a different business model and far more sensible long-term goals, so the lack has been increasingly countered and the challenge to train and bring youngsters into the medium taken up outside the mainstream – and dying – periodical markets.

I’ve banged on for years about the industry’s foolish rejection of the beginner-reading markets, but what most publishers have been collectively offering young/early consumers – and their parents (excepting, of course the magnificent efforts of David Fickling Books and their wonderful comic The Phoenix) – has seldom jibed with what those incredibly selective consumers are interested in or need.

In recent years however the book trade has moved with the times and where numerous publishing houses have opened comic medium divisions, one in particular has gone all-out to cultivate tomorrow’s graphic narrative nation.

Toon Books/Raw Junior was established by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly as an imprint of the groundbreaking alternative comics magazine to provide high-quality comics stories which would entice pre-schoolers and starter-readers into a lifelong love affair with strips in particular and reading in general.

Their burgeoning stable of talented creators have produced a wealth of superbly superior comic tales in three accredited educational standards (Level 1: First Comic for brand new readers, Level 2: Easy-to-Read for Emerging Readers and Level 3: Chapter Books for Advanced Beginners) and the company even supplements their publications with an online tool.

TOON-BOOKS.com offers follow up such as interactive audio-versions read by the authors – and in a multitude of languages – and a “cartoon maker” facility which allows readers to become writers of their own adventures about the characters they have just met in the printed editions. Many books include a page of tips for parents and teachers on ‘How to Read Comics with Kids’…

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend is part of an on-going multi-award winning series of tales starring a typical brother-and-sister act of (occasionally) wayward suburban mice.

Author Geoffrey Hayes is a veteran of the children’s entertainment scene, having written and/or illustrated more than 40 books (including Otto and Uncle Tooth, Bear by Himself, the Patrick Bear series and Margaret Wise Brown’s When the Wind Blew among so many others) and proudly affirms that all of Benny & Penny’s engaging anthropomorphic exploits are drawn in coloured pencil.

Here the boisterous argumentative tots are playing in the garden when Penny realises she cannot find her brother. An increasingly frantic search reveals him lost in dreams of being a pirate, but he’s so wrapped up in the game that he refuses to play with her and a fight inevitably starts…

As the regulation spat escalates tempers fray and eventually Mommy has to intervene. Forced to play with his little sister, Benny suggests Hide and Seek and, when Penny is safely lost, “forgets” to look for her…

Eventually, however, he starts to worry. She’s not making any annoying noises and soon Benny is really hunting for her with growing panic. He’s really worried and not so keen on playing on his own anymore…

So when Penny at last turns up, Benny is happy to pretend Penny isn’t always annoying and soon sees that she makes a pretty good pirate too…

Aimed at the four-and-above age-range and released as a child-sized (236 x1 62mm), gloriously evocative, beguilingly beautiful 32 page full-colour hardback, Benny and Penny in Just Pretend is the kind of pictorial treasure that kids and their minders will be drawn back to over and over again.
© 2008 Raw Junior, LLC. All rights reserved.

B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs volume 2


By Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, Herb Trimpe, John Severin, Peter Snejbjerg, Karl Moline & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-672-5

Hellboy is a creature of vast depth and innate mystery; a demonic baby summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists at the end of Word War II but subsequently raised, educated and trained by parapsychologist Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm to destroy unnatural threats and supernatural monsters as the lead field-agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

After decades of unfailing, faithful service in 2001 he became mortally tired and resigned. Itinerantly roaming the world, he still managed to constantly encounter weird happenstances, never escape trouble or avoid his own sense of duty. This book is not about him.

The massive full-colour hardback collection under review here (also available in digital formats) instead features the trusty comrades he left behind: valiant champions of varying shades of human-ness who also deal with those occult occasions which typically fall under the remit of the Enhanced Talents task force of the B.P.R.D.

If you’re having trouble with the concept, think of a government-sanctioned and internationally co-sponsored Ghostbusters dealing with Buffy-style threats to humanity.

The B.P.R.D. rapidly established itself as a viable publishing premise in its own right through a succession of interlinked miniseries, confronting an ancient, arcane amphibian menace to humanity in an immense epic which spanned eight years of comicbook releases.

Periodically collected as a series of trade paperbacks during that time, the entire supernatural saga – latterly dubbed Plague of Frogs – was remastered as a quartet of monumental full-colour volumes, of which this is the sinister second.

Gathering material from Hellboy Premiere Edition, MySpace Dark Horse Presents #8-9, B.P.R.D.: The Dead, B.P.R.D. volume 5: The Black Flame and B.P.R.D. volume 12: War on Frogs, this macabre triumvirate of terror opens with a handy recap page identifying key personnel of the B.P.R.D. before an equally handy Introduction from series editor Scott Allie provides context and background in the organisation’s struggle against the eons-old supernal force mutating humans into terrifying frog-monsters…

From there it’s a short hop (sorry, sorry!) to ‘Book One: The Dead’, written by Mignola and John Arcudi, illustrated by Guy Davis, lettered as always by Clem Robins and with colours from Dave Stewart. Firstly though that supernatural storm of woe is preceded by the prologue ‘Born Again’ (from Hellboy Premiere Edition) wherein pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, amphibious Abe Sapien, man-made marvel Roger the Homunculus and disembodied psychic Johann Krauss break into a secret tomb beneath a suburb of Chicago and arouse an extremely angry monster spirit warning of worse to follow.

In the aftermath of their spectacular triumph, Roger casually pockets a weird little artefact…

B.P.R.D. volume 4: The Dead properly begins a little later in North Dakota, when an investigation team is wiped out after discovering another nest of Frogs. At the organisation’s HQ in Fairfield, Connecticut the assessment is that the amphibian incursions are growing too rapidly and drastic measures are now called for…

Johann suggests that rather than instant eradication perhaps the answer is translating the bizarre glyphs found at every site. Abe is absent from this meeting, having travelled to Littleport, Rhode Island with psychologist Kate Corrigan in search of his own obscure origins…

Back at base the team meet new field commander Benjamin Daimio, a former marine and Green Beret officer. His qualifications for the new militaristic role include an impressive but classified record in covert operations and the still-unexplained fact that he came back to life on a morgue slab three days after dying in the line of duty…

A brusque man with deep pentagon connections, he quickly arranges for the entire B.P.R.D. to relocate to a super-secret, mothballed military complex in Colorado, much to the suspicious disgust of volatile Liz…

In Littleport, Abe locates the long abandoned house of Langdon Everett Caul and ponders its disturbing but undisclosed link to his own shrouded past…

The next few days are filled with busywork as the B.P.R.D. relocate to Colorado and strive to bring the vast Cold War mountain fortress up to speed and into the 21st century.

Tensions are high in the Enhanced Talents unit as Liz constantly rails against the new military style of working whilst worrying that impressionable Roger is being unduly influenced by Daimio’s forceful, take-charge personality.

Johann is also a cause for concern as his psychic talents seem to be drawing him into himself after he casually mind-scans the ancient edifice they now occupy…

Back in Rhode Island, Abe disturbs a ghost and is drawn into a trap baited with past happiness and bitter memories whilst in Colorado Liz awakens from a nightmare to find Johann acting as if possessed. With Roger in tow, she follows the bodiless medium down into the bowels of the base: a level not listed on any official map or blueprint, blocked by a colossal door covered in strange markings…

Breaking into a hidden chamber, Daimio and the investigators discover a huge cavern filled with skeletons covered in mushrooms, strange machinery and an old German who has been living there since the 1950s…

Quantum physicist Dr. Gunter Eiss worked for the Nazis on mystic science projects. He was sidelined after Hitler ditched his “Operation Himmelmacht” in favour of the Ragna Rok operation which brought Hellboy to Earth. The fringe scientist was scooped up by American forces and brought to Colorado when WWII ended to work on alternative energy research.

Then there was a catastrophic disaster which devastated the still under-construction base and when he regained consciousness Gunter had been entombed with all the dead: lost and forgotten…

Although Eiss seems harmless, nobody is comfortable with his inexplicable survival and reappearance and, all too soon, those misgivings prove well-founded as strange events start plaguing the fortress. Clarity comes when Johann, pressured by odd notions and weird warnings, makes contact with the spirits of Eiss’ dead colleagues.

It’s too late, but as the aged revenant unleashes a storm of insectile horrors inside the base and tries to complete his long-delayed Himmelmacht project, Johann and the recovered dead men are frantically cobbling together a countermeasure of last resort.

…And whilst the team strive to prevent a disaster of literally biblical proportions, in Rhode Island, Abe Sapien struggles to free himself from a ghostly prison of memories and, to his eternal regret, at last succeeds…

War on Frogs began life as a series of one-shots issued in 2008 and 2009. They were collected with ‘Revival’ from MySpace Dark Horse Presents #8-9 as the 12th B.P.R.D. trade paperback volume in April 2009, but as those tales are all set in 2005 during the early days of the battle against the manphibians, they appear next in this remastered compilation.

Each story focuses on one character and many are by guest illustrators, but the “bug-hunt” begins with an all-action engagement from Mignola, Arcudi, Davis, Stewart & Robins featuring Daimio, Liz, Roger and Johann as the enhanced heroes and an army of military specialists clear out a tunnel system overflowing with Frogs only to discover the site is a breeding nest…

Davis then inks Marvel superstar artist Herb Trimpe on an Arcudi script as Abe Sapien removes himself from active duty for a desk job, leaving an increasing martial-minded and bellicose Roger to lead the ground war. The struggle takes him back to Lake Talutah, New York where Hellboy and Abe first battled the Frog things and where the Homunculus discovers those original monsters never left…

Mignola, Arcudi, Davis & Stewart then combine in ‘Revival’ as travelling faith healers spread the Frog contagion throughout the American heartland until Captain Damio tracks them down and deals with the problem in his usual lethally efficient manner…

Arcudi, Stewart and Robins are then joined by the astounding John Severin, who etches a macabre masterpiece as a strictly human team of soldiers attempts to clear out a Frog-infested warship and succumb one by one to the terrors in the darkness.

Then Arcudi & Peter Snejbjerg (with colourist Bjarne Hansen and letterer Robins) depict a turning point in the conflict as psychic Johann realises he can see and communicate with the spirits of dead Frog monsters. Compelled to help the horrors move on, Krauss’ attempt only opens the door to greater terrors and deeper mysteries…

Moving on to B.P.R.D. volume 5: The Black Flame, Mignola, Arcudi, Davis, Stewart & Robins reveal how corrupt and complicit Zinco Industries executive Mr. Pope tries to convert Nazi sympathies and closeted secret knowledge into personal power by using the Frogs’ magic to turn himself into a super-villain.

Beyond his laboratories, the war seems to be going well. Roger has become a fierce and effective warrior, leading many sorties to stamp out the amphibian invaders. However that is about to change as Pope succeeds in cracking the language barrier and learning how to talk to the Frogs. Now, as the Black Flame, he seems to be their uncontested master…

During one battle Liz is given a strange blossom by a bystander and falls into a coma. In a misty dreamworld she is approached by a shrouded stranger who reveals that things are not as they seem and that the war is about to take a very bad turn as far as mankind is concerned…

Further research triggers a panic in B.P.R.D. boffin Professor O’Donnell who flies into a panic after realising Liz’s vision is a warning that antediluvian demon-deity Katha-Hem is coming back and all living things will transform at his vile touch. Suitably chilled, firestarter Liz tries to rouse and warn the Enhanced team, but is too late to save one of them…

As the Black Flame leads his gathered amphibian legions into a cavern system in Idaho, Abe, afflicted by guilt, returns to active duty even as Liz succumbs to further astral communications. The shaken team is far from combat-ready when news comes that Lincoln, Nebraska has been overrun. Before they can react, news comes of concerted attacks all over the North American continent. The Frogs are inexorably on the move and the summons has gone out. Katha-Hem is coming…

As a colossal horror beyond imagining starts destroying man’s cities, Pope realises he is a pawn in a far greater, incalculably older game, whilst Liz confronts her mystery informant before a clue to destroying the monster is grudgingly given. All she has to do is find an artefact Roger once idly picked up on an early mission against the Frogs…

The scene is set for an incomprehensible last battle, but the will the beaten and broken Black Flame remain a thrall of the foe or find redemption and his lost humanity in the final accounting…?

Wrapping up the strip thrills and chills, Arcudi and illustrator Karl Moline focus on the repercussions of the team’s victory in a trenchant Epilogue as shell-shocked, traumatised Liz goes through the motions of mopping-up, possibly finding a new significant other to lean on, but still plagued by visions of the enigmatic man in the mists…

Bonus features included here comprise an informative Afterword by Arcudi describing the behind-the-scenes scripting system he shared with Mignola, plus Notes from Scott Allie and a huge Sketchbook section offering roughs, designs and preliminary artwork from Davis and Mignola on The Dead, The Black Flame and War on Frogs.

With supernatural fantasy now a staple of TV and movie fashion, these unlikely heroes must be a top pick for every production company out there. Until then, why not stay ahead of the rush by reading these truly magical tales?
B.P.R.D. ™: Plague of Frogs volume 2 © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 Mike Mignola. Abe Sapien™, Liz Sherman™, Hellboy™, Johann™, Lobster Johnson™ and all other prominently featured characters ™ Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

Bob Powell’s Complete Cave Girl


By Gardner Fox & Bob Powell, with James Vance, John Wooley, Mark Schultz & various (Kitchen Sink/Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-700-3

Like every art form, comics can be readily divided into masterpieces and populist pap, but that damning assessment necessarily comes with a bunch of exclusions and codicils.

Periodical publications, like all pop songs, movies and the entirety of television’s output (barring schools programming), are designed to sell to masses of consumers. As such the product must reflect the target and society at a specific moment in time and perforce quickly adapt and change with every variation in taste or fashion.

Although very much an artefact of its time I consider “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” by The Buzzcocks to be the perfect pop song, but I’m not going to waste time trying to convince anybody of the fact.

For me, and perhaps only for me, it just is.

The situation is most especially true of comics – especially those created before they gained any kind of credibility: primarily deemed by their creators and publishers as a means of parting youngsters from disposable cash. The fact that so many have been found to possess redeeming literary and artistic merit or social worth is post hoc rationalisation.

Those creators striving for better, doing the very best they could because of their inner artistic drives, were being rewarded with just as meagre a financial reward as the shmoes just phoning it in for the paycheck…

That sad state of affairs in periodical publication wasn’t helped by the fact that most editors thought they knew what the readership wanted – safe, prurient gratification – and mostly they were right.

Even so, from such swamps gems occasionally emerged…

The entire genre of “Jungle Girls” is one fraught with perils for modern readers. Barely clad, unattainable, (usually) white paragons of feminine pulchritude lording it over superstitious primitive races is one that is now pretty hard to digest, but frankly so are most of the attitudes of our grandfathers’ time.

However, ways can be found to accommodate such crystallised or outdated attitudes, especially when reading from a suitably detached historical perspective and even more so when the art is crafted by a master storyteller like Bob Powell.

After all, it’s not that big a jump from fictionalised 1950s jungles to the filmic metropolises of today where leather armoured (usually white) Adonises with godlike power paternalistically watch over us, telling we lumpy, dumpy, ethnically mixed losers how to live and be happy…

Sorry, I all comics in all genres from all eras, but sometimes the “guilty pleasure” meter on my conscience just redlines and I can’t stop it. Just remember, it’s not real…

As businessmen, editors and publishers knew what hormonal kids wanted to see and they gave it to them. It’s no different today. Just take a look at any comic-shop shelf or cover listings site and see how many fully-clad, small-breasted females you can spot…

Cave Girl was one of the last entries into the surprisingly long-lived Jungle Queen genre and consequently looks relatively mild in comparison to other titles in regard to suggestive or prurient titillation.

Here the action-adventure side of the equation was always most heavily stressed and readers of the time could see far more salacious material at every movie house if they need to.

End of self-gratifying apologies. Let’s talk about Bob…

Stanley Robert Pawlowski was born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York, and studied at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan before joining one of the earliest comics-packaging outfits: the Eisner-Iger Shop.

He was a solid and dependable staple of American comicbook’s Golden Age, illustrating a variety of key features. He drew original Jungle Queen Sheena in Jumbo Comics plus other Jungle Girl features and Spirit of ‘76 for Harvey’s Pocket Comics.

He handled assorted material for Timely titles such as Captain America in All-Winners Comics, Tough Kid Comics plus such genre material as Gale Allen and the Women’s Space Battalion for anthologies like Planet Comics, Mystery Men Comics and Wonder Comics.

Recently he was revealed to have co-scripted/created Blackhawk as well as drawing Loops and Banks in Military Comics as well as so many more now near-forgotten strips: all under a variety of English-sounding pseudonyms, since the tone of the times was rather unforgiving for creative people of minority origins.

Eventually the artist settled on S. Bob Powell and had his name legally changed…

Probably his most well-remembered and highly regarded tour of duty was on Mr. Mystic in Will Eisner’s Spirit Section newspaper insert. After serving in WWII, Bob came home and quit to set up his own studio. Eisner never forgave him.

Powell – with his assistants Howard Nostrand, Martin Epp and George Siefringer – soon established a solid reputation for quality, versatility and reliability: working for Fawcett (Vic Torry & His Flying Saucer, Hot Rod Comics, Lash Larue), Harvey Comics (Man in Black, Adventures in 3-D and True 3-D) and on Street and Smith’s Shadow Comics.

He was particularly prolific in many titles for Magazine Enterprises (ME), including TV tie-in Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders, Red Hawk in Straight Arrow, Jet Powers and the short but bombastic run of quasi-superhero Strong Man.

Powell easily turned his hand to a vast range of War, Western, Science Fiction, Crime, Comedy and Horror material: consequently generating as a by-product some of the best and most glamorous “Good Girl art” of the era, both in comics and in premiums/strip packages for business.

In the 1960s he pencilled the infamous Mars Attacks cards, illustrated Bessie Little’s Teena-a-Go-Go and the Bat Masterson strip for the newspapers and ended his days drawing Daredevil, the Human Torch and Giant-Man for Marvel.

This captivating hardback compilation gathers all the Cave Girl appearances – written by ubiquitous jobbing scripter Gardner Fox – from numerous ME publications. The company employed a truly Byzantine method of numbering their comicbooks so I’ll cite Thun’da #2-6 (1953), Cave Girl #4 (1953-1954) and Africa, Thrilling Land of Mystery #1 (1955) simply for the sake of brevity and completeness, knowing that it makes no real difference to your enjoyment of what’s to come.

This splendid tome includes a Biography of Bob, an incisive Introduction from Mark Schultz and an erudite essay – ‘King of the Jungle Queens’– by James Vance and John Wooley, diligently examining the origins of the genre (courtesy of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, William Henry Hudson’s novel Green Mansions and a slew of B-movies); its development in publishing; the effect of the phenomenon and Powell’s overall contributions to comics in a far more even-handed and informed way than I can manage…

That done it’s time to head to an Africa that never existed for action and adventure beyond compare. Cave Girl started as a back-up strip in Thun’da #2; a primeval barbarian saga set in an antediluvian region of the Dark Continent where dinosaurs still lived.

In ‘The Ape God of Kor’ the mighty primitive encounters a blonde stranger who can speak to birds and beasts, and helps her escape the unwanted attentions of a bestial tyrant. When that’s not enough to deter the monstrous suitor, Thun’da and Cave Girl have no choice but to topple his empire…

In #3 the wild woman met ‘The Man Who Served Death!’ – a criminal from the outer world whose hunger for gold and savage brutality necessitated his urgent removal from the land of the living. Cave Girl’s beloved animal allies were being wantonly slaughtered to appease ‘The Shadow God of Korchak!’, forcing the gorgeous guardian of the green to topple the lost kingdom’s debauched queen, after which the tireless champion tackled a trio of sadistic killers from the civilised world in ‘Death Comes Three Ways!’

A rather demeaning comedy sidekick debuted in ‘The Little Man Who Was All There!’ from Thun’da #6 as pompous pigmy bumbler Bobo attached himself to Cave Girl as her protector…

From there the forest monarch leaped into her own title, beginning with Cave Girl #11. ‘The Pool of Life!’ delved back in time to when a scientific expedition was wiped out, leaving little blonde toddler Carol Mantomer to fend for herself. Happily, the child was adopted by Kattu the wolf and grew tall and strong and mighty…

The obligatory origin dispensed with, the story proceeds to reveal how two white explorers broach the lost valley in time to reap their deserved fate after finding a little lake with mystic properties…

Tables are turned when explorer Luke Hardin deduces Cave Girl’s true identity and convinces the wild thing to come with him to Nairobi to claim her inheritance. Already appalled by the gadgets and morass of humanity in ‘The City of Terror!’, Carol’s decision to leave is cemented by her only living relative’s attempts to murder her for her inheritance…

En route home, her wild beauty arouses the desires of millionaire hunter Alan Brandon, but his forceful pursuit and attempted abduction soon teaches him he has a ‘Tiger by the Tail!’

Her trek done, Cave Girl traverses high mountains and finds Alan and Luke have been captured by beast-like primitives and must face the ‘Spears of the Snowmen’ to save them both…

Even the usually astoundingly high-quality scripting of veteran Gardner Fox couldn’t do much with the formulaic strictures of the sub-genre but he always tried his best, as in Cave Girl #12 which opened with ‘The Devil Boat!’ – a submarine disgorging devious crooks in death-masks intent on plundering the archaeological treasures found by Luke… Then when an explorer steals a sacred cache of rubies he finds that even Cave Girl can’t prevent him becoming ‘Prey of the Headhunters!’

Fantastic fantasy replaces crass commercial concerns as ‘The Amazon Assassins’ ravage villages under Cave Girl’s protection, seeking to expand their empire. The Women Warriors have no conception of the hornet’s nest they are stirring up…

Cave Girl #13 took its lead tale from newspaper headlines as the jungle defender clashed with ‘The Mau Mau Killers!’ killing innocents and destabilising the region, after which ‘Altar of the Axe’ features the return of the all-conquering Amazons who believe they can counter their arch-enemy’s prowess with a battalion of war elephants.

Their grievous error then seamlessly segues into a battle with escaped convict Buck Maldin. ‘The Jungle Badman’ is beaten by Cave Girl but it’s greedy buffoon Bobo who quickly regrets claiming the reward.

Powell reached a creative zenith with the illustrations for Cave Girl #14 (1954), his solid linework and enticing composition augmented by a burst of purely decorative design which made ‘The Man Who Conquered Death’ a dramatic tour de force.

When a series of murders and resurrections lead Cave Girl to a mad scientist who has found a time machine, she is transformed into an aged crone but still possesses the force of will to beat the deranged meddler…

A tad more prosaic, ‘The Shining Gods’ finds a rejuvenated Cave Girl and Luke stalking thieves stealing tribal relics only to uncover a Soviet plot to secure Africa’s radium, after which the queen of the jungle is “saved” by well-intentioned rich woman Leona Carter and brought back to civilisation.

Happily, after poor Carol endures a catalogue of modern mishaps which equate to ‘Terror in the Town’, Cave Girl is allowed to return to her true home…

The official series ended there, but ME had one last issue ready to print and deftly shifted emphasis by re-badging the package as Africa, Thrilling Land of Mystery #1. It appeared in 1955, sporting a Comics Code Authority symbol. Inside however, it was still formulaic but beautifully illustrated Cave Girl who exposed a conniving witch doctor using ‘The Volcano Fury’ to fleece natives, restoring ‘The Lost Juju’ of the devout Wamboolis whilst stopping a murderous explorer stealing a million dollar gem and crushing a potential uprising by taking a fateful ride on ‘The Doom Boat’

And then she was gone.

Like the society it protected from subversion and corruption, the strictures of the Comics Code frowned on females disporting themselves freely or appearing able to cope without a man, and the next half-decade was one where women were either submissive, domesticated, silly objects of amusement or just plain marital manhunters. It would be the 1970s before strong, truly independent female characters reappeared in comicbooks…

Whatever your political leanings or social condition, Cave Girl – taken strictly on her own merits – is one of the mostly beautifully rendered characters in pictorial fiction and a tribute to the talents of Bob Powell and his team. If you love perfect comic storytelling, of its time, but transcending fashion or trendiness, this is a treasure just waiting to be rediscovered.
Bob Powell’s Complete Cave Girl compilation © 2014 Kitchen, Lind and Associates LLC. Cave Girl is a trademark of AC Comics, successors in interest to Magazine Enterprises and is used here with permission of AC Comics. Introduction © 2014 Mark Schultz. “King of the Jungle Queens” essay © 2014 James Vance and John Wooley. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 12: 1959-1960


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-876-2

Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur premiered on Sunday February 13th 1937: a fabulous full-colour weekly peek into a world where history met myth to produce something greater than both. Creator Hal Foster had developed the feature after leaving a groundbreaking and astoundingly popular run on the Tarzan of the Apes strip he had pioneered.

Prince Valiant offered action, adventure, exoticism, romance and a surprisingly high quota of laughs in its engrossing depiction of noble knights and wicked barbarians played out against a glamorised, dramatised Dark Ages backdrop. The weekly-unfolding epic followed the life of a refugee lad driven from his ancestral Scandinavian homeland of Thule who grew up to roam the world, attaining a paramount position amongst the heroes of fabled Camelot.

Foster wove his complex epic romance over many decades, tracing the progress of a feral wild boy who became a paragon of chivalric virtue: knight, warrior, saviour, avenger and ultimately family patriarch through a constant storm of wild, robust and joyously witty wonderment. The restless champion visited many far-flung lands, siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes, thereby enchanting generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

The strip spawned films, an animated series and all manner of toys, games, books and collections. Prince Valiant was – and is – one of the few adventure strips to have run continuously from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (more than 4000 episodes and still going strong) – and, even here at the end-times of newspaper strips as an art form, it continues in more than 300 American papers and via the internet.

Foster soloed on the feature until 1971 when John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt) succeeded him as illustrator whilst the originator remained as writer and designer. That ended in 1980, when he finally retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired, since when the strip has soldiered on under the auspices of other extremely talented artists such as Gary Gianni, Scott Roberts and latterly Thomas Yeates & Mark Schultz.

This latest luxuriously oversized (362 x 264 mm) full-colour hardback re-presents pages spanning January 4th 1959 to 25th December 1960 (individual pages #1143-1246) but before proceeding, clears the palate for adventure with Neal Adams’ erudite, illustration-strewn Introduction ‘Learning to Love Hal Foster’.

At the other end of this titanic tome Brian M. Kane continues to explore the master’s commercial endeavours with a lavish exhibition of stunning colour and monochrome illustrations revealing the rugged outdoors life through ‘Hal Foster’s Advertising Art: Johnson Outboard Motors’, but captivating as they are, the real wonderment is, as ever, the unfolding epic that precedes them…

What Has Gone Before: Having brought Christianity to Thule and repelled an invasion of England by Saxons and Danes, Val was despatched by Arthur Pendragon to Cornwall to root out treacherous local kings. Helping true love find its natural course, Valiant acquired a canny new squire in the form of homely yet brilliant Alfred of Lydney. The Prince cleared up the Cornish conspiracy – almost at the cost of his sacrosanct honour – and returned to Camelot after making the acquaintance of the most beautiful horse in the world…

Possessing the red stallion almost caused another war with the Northmen, after which Val returned to his Scandinavian homeland of Thule to reconnect with his family once more.

The reunion was brief, joyous and bittersweet, as the absent father saw how much his children had grown and realised the painful cost of a life of duty. He bid son Arn farewell as the lad was shipped off to enter the household of regal ally King Hap-Atla even as that ruler’s heir became foster-son and page to Valiant’s sire King Aguar.

Peaceful days were few and when a regal summons came from Camelot, the family again took ship. This time the call was for dutiful wife Aleta who blithely entered a hornets’ nest when aging Queen Guinevere was gravely offended by the young beauty’s popularity with the Courtiers and plotted to win an imagined war of favourites…

Valiant was elsewhere employed, leading Arthur’s armies against Danes and Saxons occupying Kent and Sussex. With war brewing again, Val sidelined aging Alfred in favour of young, vigorous and keen martial assistants Edwin and Claudius – a kind act he would later regret, as he did his brief and costly sojourn in the thieves’ paradise called London

Back in Camelot, a war of wills and clash of personalities between Queens Guinevere and Aleta was settled by most remarkable means, but Valiant still found little time for rest. His beloved friend Gawain had vanished and the trail led straight into the wilds of unruly Wales…

Employing Welsh knight Sir Ian Waldoc as guide and following an unearthly vision provided by largely-vanished mage Merlin, Valiant went westwards disguised as a troubadour, eventually fetching up at the forbidding castle of terrible King Oswick and his five beautiful daughters…

This twelfth knight’s collation resumes as jongleur Cid ingratiates himself at Oswick’s court, offsetting suspicions by feigning a paralysing love for strong liquor whilst scouting out the location of the captive Gawain.

Valiant finds his old comrade pent in a high tower at the very top of the castle, and forms a most dangerous and ingenious scheme involving guile, subterfuge, split-second timing, daredevil acrobatics and the elder chevaliers’s uncanny knack of enchanting women…

With Gawain free once more, the old pals and friendly rivals opt to compete in the Hamlin Garde tournament, but before they can even begin, Val falls foul of a sadistic noble named Coth whose bruised pride leads him to attempt murder most foul through vile assassins.

The monster also has intentions upon heiress Lady Alice of Hamlin, but has not noticed how much Val resembles that noble maid’s preferred suitor Kerwin

As the tourney plays out many men fall – Coth’s hired killers less noticeably than most – and the villain’s plans to destroy Kerwin fail once Val replaces the young suitor in mortal combat against the murderous malefactor…

With justice triumphant and true love secured, Gawain and Valiant spend calm but provender-poor days roaming the vast Salisbury Plain, and the younger man revels in teaching his civilised elder the tricks peasants use to feed themselves: tactics learned whilst the Prince was a boy growing up in coastal marshes. Unimpressed, Gawain instead cajoles their way into the retinue of a Great Lady’s passing baggage-train and thus embroils them in another saga of thwarted romance…

Impoverished Count Rathford has been forced to betroth his daughter Joan to Hume, heir to the House of Amesbridge to save his estate and dependent vassals. His headstrong child, however, has fallen in love with a lowly squire and plans to elope with him. When the “peasant’s” true station is revealed, however, rather than joy, Joan erupts in incandescent fury at being gulled and events take an even stranger turn after the estranged lovers both fall under Gawain’s reluctant care: the boy as his new squire and she as a far-from-devoted chattel…

Joan’s ever-increasing ire is only expended when the strange party reaches Camelot and artful Queen Aleta takes Joan under her wing…

Happy to avoid further domestic contention of any sort, Valiant undertakes a commission from King Arthur to wipe out a nest of outlaws plaguing the lands of the Earl of Lithway. Accompanied by former bandit-turned-forester Hugh the Fox, the canny Prince makes his way to the beleaguered demesne only to discover the situation is not what has been reported.

The Earl claims his tithes to Arthur were stolen by the errant woodsmen, but the men in the forest tell a different story: one of tyranny, torture, dispossession and oppression…

Acutely aware of evil when he sees it, Val determines to set the situation aright and see justice and order return to Lithway…

With Aleta increasingly aggrieved at Valiant’s wanderlust and neglect, tensions boil over in the apartments of the Prince of Thule, but it is not enough to stop her husband again heading out on a Royal Quest: perhaps the most crucial in Camelot’s troubled history…

In recent years the Knights of the Round Table have become obsessed with the search for the Holy Grail. Now Arthur, seeing his best and bravest constantly lost or maimed in search of it, charges Valiant with proving once and for all whether the story of the sacred cup is fact or myth…

The search takes Val the length and breadth of the nation, consulting wise men and wizards and eventually brings him to the Mendip hills in search of an island called Avalon. En route he exposes a cave troll as a broken-limbed victim of man’s cruelty and learns the poor soul once lived in Avalon, a marshy island housing three hills, Wearyall, the Great Tor and Glastonbury

Guided there by grateful, maimed Och, Valiant finds a Papal mission from Rome building a cathedral, and learns from a lay brother the official story of the Grail, but before he can question further the encampment is attacked by cruel raider chieftain Timmera the Terrible

Barely fighting off the marauder’s forces, the clerics immediately begin repairing the damage caused to their holy project, but Valiant resolves to help them by ending the predator threat forever. In this he is aided by Och, who was once the raider’s body-slave…

With the stunted man’s inside information, Val easily infiltrates Timmera’s fortress and brings down the monster’s army from within. On returning to Avalon, Valiant finds an old acquaintance from Ireland in charge of the reconstruction. The man now known as St. Patrick is happy to tell all he knows about the Holy Grail and the questor at last realises what he must tell Arthur…

Heading back, the warrior liberates a captive castle and finds time to play a splendid prank upon Gawain, but upon conferring with Arthur immediately sets off again to battle invading Angles and Saxons rather than attempt reconciliation with Aleta…

The war is brief and brutal and almost costs the prince his life. It takes a brush with near death to finally bring him and Aleta together again, and in the weeks that follow it is decided that the family will return to Thule for his recuperation. That period of painful inactivity completed, with son Arn in tow, the entire clan then head for Aleta’s ancestral kingdom in the Misty Isles, with Viking reiver Boltar providing escort to protect against the pirates of the Mediterranean…

Sadly, even in this sunny paradise peril dogs the family as rival ruler Thrasos makes clear his intention to add Aleta’s islands to his growing empire. The new Alexander, however, has never encountered as savvy a strategist as Aleta or canny tacticians like Valiant and Boltar and his dreams of a Mediterranean empire explosively founder against the devious ploys and armed might of the northern warriors, with even the elements conspiring to send Thrasos to the dustbin of history…

To Be Continued…

A mind-blowing panorama of visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a tremendous procession of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending epic fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama with shatteringly dark violence.

Lush, lavish and captivating lovely, it is an indisputable landmark of comics fiction and something no fan should miss.
© 2015 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2015 their respective creators or holders. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Jack and the Box


By Art Spiegelman (Toon Books/Raw Junior)
ISBN: 978-0-9799238-3-8 (HC)        978-1-9351793-0-6 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: One to share and explore whilst snacking under the tree… 8/10

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm in 1948 before the family moved to America and should have been a dentist. However, he rejected parental aspirations for a life in comics. He first began his exploration into his family’s history in 1972 when he created a short strip for the Underground anthology Short Order Comix, in which he first examined his own reactions and response to his mother’s suicide in 1968. That exercise led to a desire to understand his troubled father Vladek and a determination to turn his recollections and experiences as a Holocaust survivor into a series of strips.

The individual chapters of what would become Maus began appearing at the end of the decade as monochrome mini-comic inserts in Spiegelman’s experimental, increasingly prestigious art-house anthology Raw!

The first collected edition of the scratchy, primally evocative chapters were released in 1986 with a concluding volume published in 1991.

It’s a graphic masterwork everybody should read, but the man is not defined by that tale alone. Dedicated to the comics medium, Spiegelman has created many other impressive projects, but probably none as potentially worthwhile as Toon Books/Raw Junior.

With his partner and wife Françoise Mouly, Spiegelman set up the publishing firm as an imprint of his legendary alternative comics magazine to provide high-quality comics stories in formats that would entice pre-schoolers and beginning readers into a life-long love affair with strips in particular and reading in general.

Their stable of talented creators have produced a wealth of superbly superior comic tales in three accredited educational standards (Level 1: First Comic for brand new readers, Level 2: Easy-to-Read for Emerging Readers and Level 3: Chapter Books for Advanced Beginners) all of which the company supplement with on-line tool TOON-BOOKS.com which offers follow-ups such as interactive audio-versions – in many languages – plus a “cartoon maker” facility enabling readers to become writers of their own adventures about the characters they have just met in the printed editions.

Most books also include a page of tips for parents and teachers on ‘How to Read Comics with Kids’.

Having set up the system Spiegelman inevitably succumbed to his creative urges and crafted an actual book for the line…

Aimed at the very youngest beginners, Jack and the Box comes in landscape format (in both hard and softback editions), and at 237 x 159 mm will fit perfectly in tiny hands as it tells the tale of little Jack as he exults in a present from Mum and Dad.

The box prove resistant to his unwrapping assault but when he puts it down, a strange clownish creature springs out of it and gives him a fright…

It is a most wilful toy with a mind of its own and a fondness for sudden surprises. Soon, however, Jack is utterly intrigued as the toy’s pranks draw him into a world of games riddles and surprises such his/its name… Zack!

And once they’re properly acquainted Zack begins to share his secret gifts and puzzles, enticing Jack into a fabulous world of mystery, excitement and imagination where his many friends such as Mack and Quack are always ready to play their boisterous games…

This is a terrific tome for those just starting to read on their own (winner of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Children’s Picture Books of 2008, The White Raven Award 2009 and Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Book of the Year), delivering deliciously anarchic antics and explorations, reassuringly bolstered by parents who are supportively present but not oppressively dominant.

Moreover, rendered in delightfully pared-down, flat-coloured cartoon line, this is also a beguilingly seductive visual experience for bookworms and browsers of any vintage.
A Toon book ™© 2008 Raw Junior, LLC. All rights reserved.

Lovers’ Lane – the Hall-Mills Mystery


By Rick Geary (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-628-0

Rick Geary is a unique talent in the comic industry not simply because of his style of drawing but especially because of his method of telling tales.

For decades he toiled as an Underground cartoonist and freelance illustrator of strange stories, published in locales as varied as Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, Twisted Tales, Bop, National Lampoon, Vanguard, Bizarre Sex, Fear and Laughter, Gates of Eden, RAW and High Times where he honed a unique ability to create sublimely understated stories by stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose tales moving, often melancholy and always beguiling.

Discovering his natural oeuvre with works including biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and Trotsky and the multi-volumed Treasury of Victorian Murder series, Geary has grown into a grand master and unique presence in both comics and True Crime literature. His graphic reconstructions of some of the most infamous murder mysteries recorded since policing began combine a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and meticulously detailed pictorial extrapolation. These are filtered through a fascination with and understanding of the lethal propensities of humanity as his forensic eye scoured police blotters, newspaper archives and history books to compile irresistibly enthralling documentaries.

In 2008 he turned to the last century for an ongoing Treasury of XXth Century Murder series, with this volume focusing on a little-remembered scandal which seared the headlines during the “Gilded Age” of suburban middleclass America.

Lovers’ Lane – The Hall-Mills Mystery describes a case of infidelity which rocked staid, upright New Jersey in 1922 and – thanks to the crusading/muckraking power of the press – much of the world beyond its borders. The re-examination of the case begins here after a bibliography and detailed maps of ‘The City of New Brunswick’ and ‘Scene of the Hall-Mills Murders’, setting the scene for a grim tragedy of lust, jealousy, deception and affronted propriety…

The account proper opens in ‘Under the Crabapple Tree’ as a well-to-do conurbation of prosperous church-goers is rocked by the discovery of two bodies on park land between two farms.

Reverend Edward W. Hall of the Church of St. John the Evangelist was found with a single fatal gunshot wound, placed beside and cradling the corpse of Mrs. Eleanor R. Mills, a parishioner and member of the choir. Her fatal injuries easily fall into the category we would now call overkill: three bullet wounds, throat slashed from ear-to-ear and her throat and vocal cords removed and missing…

‘The Victims’ are soon the subject of a clumsy, botched and jurisdictionally contested investigation which nevertheless reveals Reverend Hall was particularly admired by many women of the congregation and, despite being married to a wealthy heiress older than himself, was engaged in a not especially secret affair with Mrs. Mills.

This fact is confirmed by the cascade of passionate love letters scattered around the posed corpses…

The case soon stalls: tainted from the first by gawkers and souvenir hunters trampling the crime scene and a united front of non-cooperation from the clergyman’s powerful and well-connected family who also insist on early burial of the victims.

However, the police doggedly proceed in ‘The Search for Evidence’, interviewing family and friends, forming theories and fending off the increasingly strident interference of journalists.

With pressure mounting on all sides – a persistent popular theory is that the victims were killed by the Ku Klux Klan who were active in the State and particularly opposed to adultery – the bodies are exhumed for the first of many autopsies. Not long after, the youngsters who first found the bodies are re-interviewed, leading to an incredible confession which later proves to be fallacious.

It is not the only one. A local character known as “the Pig Woman” also comes forward claiming to have been present at the killing. Eventually the police of two separate regions find themselves presiding over ‘The Case to Nowhere’: awash with too much evidence and too many witnesses with wildly varying stories which don’t support the scant few facts…

In the midst of this sea of confusion a Grand Jury is finally convened and peremptorily closes after five days without issuing indictments against anybody…

‘Fours Years Later’ the case is suddenly and dramatically reopened when the Widow Hall’s maid – whilst petitioning for divorce – is revealed to have received $5000 dollars to withhold information on her mistress’ whereabouts on the night of the double murder. When the New York papers get wind of this story they unleash a tidal wave of journalistic excess which culminates in a fresh investigation and a new trial, scrupulously and compellingly reconstructed here by master showman Geary…

With all the actors in the drama having delivered their versions of events at last, this gripping confection concludes with a compelling argument assessing ‘Who Did It?’

This is a shocking tale with no winners and Geary’s meticulous presentation as he dissects the crime, illuminates the major and minor players and dutifully pursues all to their recorded ends is truly beguiling.

The author is a unique talent not simply because of his manner of drawing but because of the subject matter and methodology in the telling of his tales. Geary always presents facts, theories and even contemporary minutiae with absorbing pictorial precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, re-examining each case with a force and power Oliver Stone would envy.

Seductive storytelling, erudite argument and audacious drawing give these tales an irresistible dash and verve which makes for unforgettable reading, and such superb storytelling is an ideal exemplar of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy entertainment. These merrily morbid murder masterpieces should be mandatory reading for every mystery addict and crime collector.
© 2012 Rick Geary.

Mighty Samson Archives: volume 1


By Otto Binder & Frank Thorne & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-579-7

These days all the attention in comics circles goes to the big-hitters and headline-grabbing groundbreakers, but once upon a time, when funnybooks were cheap as well as plentiful, a kid (whatever his or her age) could afford to follow the pack and still find time and room to enjoy quirky outliers: B through Z listers, oddly off-kilter concepts and champions far falling outside the accepted parameters of standard super-types…

A classic example of that freedom of expression was the relatively angst-free dystopian future of Mighty Samson, who had a sporadic yet extended comics career of 32 issues spanning 1964 to 1982.

Although set in the aftermath of an atomic Armageddon, the story of the survivors was a blend of updated myth, pioneer adventure and superhero shtick, liberally leavened with the kind of incredible creatures and sci fi monsters the industry thrived on back then.

As a publisher, Gold Key never really “got” the melodramatic, often-mock-heroic Sturm und Drang of the 1960s superhero boom – although for many of us, the understated functionality of classics like Magnus, Robot Fighter and Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom or the remarkably radical concepts of atomic crusader Nukla and crime-fighting iterations of classic movie monsters Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf were utterly irresistible. The sheer off-the-wall lunacy of features like Neutro or Dr. Spektor I will save for a future occasion…

This superb first full-colour hardback compilation – printed on a reassuringly sturdy and comforting grainy old-school pulp stock rather than glossy paper – gathers the first half dozen issues of Mighty Samson, as anonymously created by industry giants Otto Binder & Frank Thorne. It even includes some monochrome single-page fact-features and the mesmerising painted covers by unsung master illustrators Morris Gollub and George Wilson.

These covers were reproduced text-free on the back of each issue and probably graced many a kid’s bedroom wall way back when. You get those too, but I’d suggest scanners rather than scissors this time around…

Otto Binder was a quintessential jobbing writer. He and his brother Earl were early fans of science fiction and made their first professional sale to Amazing Stories in 1930. As “Eando Binder” their pulp-fiction and novels output ran well into the 1970s, with Otto rightly famed for his creation of robotic hero Adam Link.

From 1939 onwards, Otto was also a prolific comicbook scripter, most beloved for the invention and perfection of a humorous blend of spectacular action, self-deprecating humour and gentle whimsy which characterised the Fawcett Captain Marvel line of characters (and later DC’s Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen). He was also constantly employed by many other publishers and amongst his most memorable inventions and innovations are Timely’s Young Allies, Mr. Mind, Brainiac, Krypto the Super Dog and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

In his later life he moved into editing, producing factual science books and writing for NASA.

Frank Thorne is one of the most individualistic talents in American comics. Born in 1930, he began his comics career drawing romances for Standard Comics beside the legendary Alex Toth before graduating to better paid newspaper strips: illustrating Perry Mason for King Features Syndicate. For Dell/Gold Key he drew Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and The Green Hornet, as well as the first few years of this seminal sci-fi classic.

At DC he did compelling work on Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk before being hired by Roy Thomas at Marvel to illustrate his belated breakthrough strip Red Sonja. Forever-after connected with feisty, earthy, highly sexualised women, in 1978 Thorne created the outrageously bawdy (some say vulgar) swordswoman Ghita of Alizarr for Warren’s adult science fantasy anthology 1984/1994 as well as such adult satirical strips as Moonshine McJugs for Playboy and Danger Rangerette for National Lampoon. He has won the National Cartoonists Award for comic books, an Inkpot Award and a Playboy Editorial Award.

Thorne was still a fairly by-the-book illustrator at the time of this collection’s content and it was on Mighty Samson that he opened up, finding his own unique artistic vision which would carry him to the forefront of stylists with the satirical and erotic works of his later years.

That’s meat for other reviews, but here the creators combined to craft a beguiling other-world of action, adventure and drama suitable for most kids of all ages and which would be perfectly at home today on any Saturday Morning Kids channel.

The strip, its merits and the incredible careers of its originators are fully and lovingly discussed by Dylan Williams in his Foreword ‘The Mighty Samson Comics of Frank Thorne and Otto Binder’, and there are full ‘Creator Biographies’ at the end of the book, but what really matters is the sublime stories reprinted here: no-nonsense high-fantasy yarns at once self-contained, episodic, exciting, enticing and deceptively witty.

After that first magnetic painted cover from Gollub, the eponymous ‘Mighty Samson’ (#1, July 1964) introduces the bombed out former metropolis of N’Yark; a place where human primitives cling to the ruins, striving daily against mutated plants and monsters and less easily identified blends somewhere in between….

A strange event occurs one day when a toddler is grabbed by a predatory plant. The tot simply tears the terror apart with his podgy little hands. As years pass and the child grows tall and clean-limbed, it becomes clear that he too is a mutant: immensely strong, fast and durable…

Impassioned by his mother’s dying words – “protect the weak from the powerful, the good from the evil” – Samson becomes the champion of his people, battling the beasts and monsters of the city. Sadly the struggles are not without cost, such as when he kills the immense Liobear, but loses his right eye…

The clash proves a turning point in his life as his wounds are dressed by a stranger named Sharmaine. She and her father Mindor are voluntary outcasts in the city: shunning contact with superstitious tribes to gather lost secrets of science and work to bring humanity out of its second stone age…

Fired with inspiration, Samson agrees to join in their self-appointed mission and defend them from all threats as they carry out their work.

There were generally two full adventures per issue, and the quest continues in ‘Ancient Weapon’ as the trio’s constant scavenging leads them through a gauntlet of horrendous mutant monsters to an ancient armoury where sagacious Mindor deciphers the secrets of sticks which kill from a distance. Sadly, the discovery is observed by brutal warlord Kull the Killer who takes Sharmaine hostage to seize control of the death-technology. Thankfully the tyrant and his warriors never suspect Samson is as clever as he is strong…

It was nearly a year until a second issue was released (#2, June 1965), but when it finally arrived it was at full throttle. ‘The Riddle of the Raids’ saw the wandering science nomads buzzed by a flying saucer which proves to be the vehicle of choice of a new arch foe. Terra is an exotic mystery woman possessing many lost technological secrets who has emerged after years underground in a bunker from the old world. Her store of atomic batteries finally exhausted, she begins raiding across the toxic, monster-infested Huzon River from the wastelands of Jerz, and soon recruits Kull to her cause. Even working in unison however they are no match for Mighty Samson and once he drives them off, aged Mindor is able to add greatly to mankind’s store of recovered knowledge…

Intent on uncovering the truth about ‘The Maid of Mystery’, Samson makes the perilous excursion across the devastated George Washington Bridge to invade Terra’s subterranean fortress in Jerz. Although faced with Kull’s monstrous minions and captured, the one-eyed hero soon escapes, but not before making a lasting impression on the evil empress of forgotten lore…

More secrets of lost civilisation emerged in #3 (September 1965) after the atomic archaeologists unearth a ‘Peril from the Past’. Dr. John Pitt was working in an atomic bunker when the world ended, and after somehow falling into suspended animation is revived by the jubilant Mindor.

Determined to glean everything possible from the shaken survivor, hopes are continually dashed as a geological accident in an old chemical factory threatens to wipe out N’Yark with toxic clouds of radioactive poison. However, as the reawakened chemist works with his rescuers to end the threat, Sharmaine suspects the old-worlder is hiding something…

The tragic truth about Pitt comes out as he and Samson begin ‘The Desperate Mission’ to snuff out the source of the death cloud, but only as a prelude to a greater, final loss…

With Mighty Samson #4 (December 1965), the turbulent world of tomorrow expanded exponentially as N’Yark suffers raids by post-apocalyptic Vikings from pastoral paradise Greelynd. Barbaric despot Thorr leads ‘The Metal Stealers’ in stripping the ruined city of all its scrap alloys; sailing them to his distant Nordic castle where he has rediscovered the processes of smelting and forging.

Samson doggedly tracks him across unknown oceans, not just because he has stolen the city’s heritage and vital resources but also because the reaver kidnapped Sharmaine and seemingly turned Mindor’s head with promises of technological resources and total freedom to experiment…

Of course, all is not as it seems and when Samson invades Thorr’s ‘Sinister Stronghold’, to battle the tyrant’s legion of monsters, idealistic Mindor’s seeming compliance is revealed as a clever plan to defeat the resource raider…

Returned to their shattered home, Samson and his allies are helpless against the mounting radioactive peril of ‘The Death Geysers’ (#5, March 1966) erupting from beneath the city. With portions of N’Yark now no-go areas, hope seems to materialise in the form of Vaxar, a stranger versed in science, whom Samson rescues from a voracious Gulping Blob.

Vaxar eagerly joins their efforts to neutralise the geyser menace, but the researcher’s every invention is countered by a monstrous and bestial mutant named Oggar who is every inch Samson’s physical equal…

Once again, clear-headed Sharmaine is the one who deduces the truth about ‘The Double Enemy’ in their midst and, as Vaxar’s terrible secret is exposed, awesome natural forces are combined with a most terrifying artefact of recovered weaponry to end the threat of both Oggar and the geysers…

These utterly accessible, exultant and exuberant romps conclude in this volume with a sop to the then-escalating “space race” between Russia and the USA. Issue #6 (June 1966) opens with N’Yark bombarded by ‘The Sinister Satellites’ of a forgotten era, haphazardly crashing to earth around the city.

Consulting his preciously-hoarded records, Mindor ascertains they are lost technology he simply must possess, but finds that he is in deadly contention with Terra of Jerz for the fallen stars.

None too soon, suspicious Samson and Sharmaine discover the evil queen of science is actually pulling the satellites to earth with a magnetic cannon, but as they move to stop her, an unintended consequence of her meddling unleashes ‘The Monster from Space’ which grows exponentially and looks set to devour the entire continent should Mighty Samson not find some way to kill it…

This excellent tome has one last treat in store, as a brace of monochrome pictorial fact features – also illustrated by Thorne – reveal a few salient facts about the iconic Empire State Building in ‘The Mighty Tower’ and ‘The World’s Tallest’, originally produced as frontispieces for the advert-free original comicbooks.

Bizarre, action-packed and fabulously bombastic, Binder’s modern myth of a rationalist Hercules battling atom-spawned Titans and devils is a stunning spectacle of thrill-a-minute wonderment from start to finish, with artist Thorne visibly shaking off his artistic chains with every succeeding page. These tales are lost gems from an era when fun was paramount and entertainment a mandatory requirement. This is comics they way they were and really should be again…
Mighty Samson® Volume One ™ and © 2010 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media LCC. All rights reserved. All other material, unless otherwise specified, © 2010 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Women are from Venus, Men are Idiots – A Close to Home Collection


By John McPherson (Andrews McMeel Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-74079-739-2

Hc: 78 pgs Andrews McMeel Publishing; 01 edition (12 Jan. 2011) Dims: 135 x 135 mm

Although in something of a decline these days, for nearly 200 years gag-panels and cartoon strips were the universal medium of wit, satire, mirth and cultural exchange.

Sadly nowadays, after centuries of pre-eminence, the cartoon has been all but erased from printed newspapers – as indeed the physical publications themselves have dwindled in shops and on shelves – but thanks to the same internet which is killing print media, many graphic gagsters and drawing dramatists have enjoyed a resurgence in an arena that doesn’t begrudge the space necessary to deliver a cartoon in all its fulsome glory…

Moreover, no matter how we trumpet the sales of the latest hot comicbook or collection, we purveyors of sequential narrative have to admit that we can’t get anywhere near the reach of the creators of strips such as Dilbert, Prince Valiant or Doonesbury, whose daily readership might be numbered in millions, if not billions.

Mainstream 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 who have pointedly “never read a comic” have certainly enjoyed 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 hardback books like this one (and also in online editions) to enjoy over and over again…

With that in mind, here’s a long-delayed peek at a (relatively) recent strip celebrating all the traditional values of family life – boredom, resentment, acrimony, distrust, jealousy, etc – with verve and a keen eye for the surprise spit-take and involuntary belly-laugh…

Close to Home was created by John McPherson in 1992, after the mechanical design engineer and part-time cartoonist had spent a few years moonlighting: selling cartoons to periodicals as prestigious and varied as The Saturday Evening Post, Campus Life, Yankee, Christianity Today and others.

Delivered in the manner and style of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, McPherson’s daily cartoon panel was originally released through Universal Press Syndicate to 50 client papers, which has grown to 700 since the syndicate merged with online provider Uclick in 2009. The new entity – Universal Uclick – consequently absorbed United Feature Syndicate to become America’s largest Press Syndicate; marketing original print, online and mobile device material including lifestyle/opinion columns, strips, cartoons, puzzles and other content.

McPherson’s feature derives its name from its broad subject matter, casting a barbed and wickedly humorous eye on the unchanging travails which perennially hit “Close to Home” such as marriage, kids, employment, domestic duties, school life, sports and health. In this particular volume – one of dozens including Dangerously Close To Home, The Silence of the Lamberts and The Scourge of Vinyl Car Seats – the subject is sex and relationships, raging from the eternal battle between husbands and wives, getting back on that dating horse, boys and your daughters and the tricky hurdles of geriatric connubiality…

Grippingly grotesque, impressively irrepressible, remarkably even-handed and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Women are from Venus, Men are Idiots is a solid and rewarding example of an art form that we must not lose and one guaranteed to deliver delight over and over again to seasoned romantics who wear their scars with pride.
© 2010 by John McPherson. All rights reserved.

Hellboy volume 6: Strange Places


By Mike Mignola with Dave Stewart & Clem Robbins (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-475-3

Hellboy is a creature of vast depth and innate mystery; a demonic child summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists at the end of World War II. Intercepted and rescued by allied troops, the infernal infant was reared by Allied parapsychologist Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm. After years of devoted intervention, education and warm human interaction, in 1952 Hellboy began destroying unnatural threats and supernatural monsters as lead agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

As the decades of his career unfold, Hellboy gleans snatches of his origins, learning he is an infernal creature of dark portent: born an infernal messiah, somehow destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil. It is a fate he despises and utterly rejects…

This sinister sixth spellbinding compendium of pictorial paranormality and grave wit collects micro-series Hellboy: The Third Wish #1-2 (July-August 2002) and Hellboy: The Island #1-2 (June and July 2005); the latter augmented with a new 6-page Epilogue for this trade paperback edition.

Following an engaging Introduction from fellow multi-talented macabre-ist Gary Gianni, Mignola briefly explains the origins and antecedents of the marine marvel which follows after which the eldritch enigmas unfold.

At the bottom of the sea three mermaid sisters implore the mighty Bog Roosh to grant their wishes. Her compliance comes at a cost however: the marine maidens must somehow hammer a mystic nail into the head of her great enemy…

Hellboy is currently in Africa, estranged from the B.P.R.D. but still encountering mystic menaces that need stopping. Eventually he stops to listen to the tales of witch-man Mohlomi and is soon under the spell of the tale-teller. Falling into a deep sleep, he dreams of lions who foretell his future…

He awakens to find they have somehow moved to the coast. When Mohlomi tells him the ocean is calling, the baffled but resigned parapsychologist enters the roaring surf and is promptly dragged under the waves, protected only by a bell-charm the witch-man has given him…

Attacked by sea creatures and the three sisters, Hellboy is overcome as soon as he lets go of the jingling trinket and is helpless to prevent them driving in the nail…

Bound and helpless in the Bog Roosh’s power, Hellboy can only watch as the sisters are given theirs hearts’ desires and – in the usual manner of such things – suffer the cruel consequences of double-dealing demonry.

Wise in such matters, Hellboy tries to help the third mermaid avoid her fate but is powerless to prevent the sea witch granting the last wish. The kind act touches the mermaid’s heart and – whilst the witch tries to dismember Hellboy and all the powers of The Pit stand helpless to prevent the end of all their hopes and dreams – she sneaks back and frees him.

Released to vent his considerable anger, Hellboy ends the Bog Roosh and decimates her power, but is ultimately unable to save his saviour…

According to Mignola’s commentary, The Island was a tough tale to write and underwent many strange transmutations and permutations. When it finally appeared it signalled the grand finale of the First Chapter in Hellboy’s life. None of that difficulty is apparent in the tale that follows though: a bleak, moody suspense saga filled with all the answer fans had been craving since the hero’s debut…

Hellboy wades ashore in a drear limbo of shattered ships and broken vessels. Anxious but resolved, he trudges on and joins a motley assemblage of mariners in a protracted boozing session, only later realising he had been drinking with dead men.

A further shock to his system is delivered by old enemy Hecate, who appears gloating and glad that the Bog Roosh failed to kill him. As long as Hellboy lives she can still corrupt or conquer him…

Shunning the Goddess of the Damned, Hellboy wanders on and enters a dilapidated castle where he is sucked into an ancient vision which offers potential clues to his past and future but now only results in him battling ferociously but with little success against yet another gargantuan monster…

He awakes an unknowable time later on a dry, dusty plain with Mohlomi who offers yet more occluded, oblique advice before a revived ghost joins the conversation with the tale of his mortality in ancient Tenochtitlan.

This story of life, death and resurrection coincidentally reveals the secret history of creation, the inevitable end of mankind, what will follow and – most terrifyingly – the truth of Hellboy’s stone hand and his intended role in the ghastly Grand Scheme of Cosmic Doom…

Wrapping up the spectral showcase is an ominous all-new Epilogue as the arcane and infernal powers confer over what the revelations mean to Hellboy. The Fated One is now armed with knowledge but is only drifting closer to his future, no matter how hard he struggles to turn away from it…

Rounding out this apocalyptic endeavour is a stunning Bonus Section which includes the decidedly different first eight pages of the original iteration of The Island – specially inked and coloured for this book – followed by seven powerfully potent, all-action pencil art pages created and then abandoned in the second attempt to tell the tale. Wrapping up the behind-the-scenes extras is a selection of character designs and roughs to sweeten the pot for every lover of great comics art.

Baroque, grandiose, alternating suspenseful slow-boiling tension with explosive spectacle, Strange Places inexorably increases the pace in the race to Armageddon. Blending revelation with astounding adventure to enthral horror addicts and action junkies alike, it is another cataclysmic compendium of dark delights no comics fan or fear fanatic should miss.
™ and © 2006, 2005 and 2002 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. Introduction © 2006 Gary Gianni. All rights reserved.