Persia Blues volume 2: Love and War


By Dara Naraghi & Brent Bowman (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-977-9

All creative people are a little bit chained to their art-form, and Iranian ex-pat Dara Naraghi far more so than most. As well as his own celebrated Big City Blues comic he’s been responsible for adapting to comics such licensed properties as Robert Patterson’s Witch & Wizard novels, Terminator: Salvation, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Ghostbusters, writing for DC, Image and IDW and running his own publishing house Ferret Press.

His breakthrough graphic anthology Lifelike set new standards for expressive exploratory tale-telling and he was a founding member of comics creators collective PANEL. He also scripts (and occasionally draws) utterly wonderful tales covering every aspect of the human experience from wild fantasy to chilling slice-of-life in a splendid series of webcomics.

Artist and illustrator Brent Bowman has created art for the Age of Empires collector card game and worked at Caliber Press and Image Comics. He too is a member of PANEL, devoted to pushing the envelope (probably after covering it with doodles and sketches) of graphic narrative.

Together they have conceived a trilogy of graphic novels cunningly blending real-world reportage with fantastic fantasy in a mythic manner both intriguing and captivating. Initial outing Persia Blues: Leaving Home won the 2014 Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo prize for Best Graphic Novel.

That tome introduced spirited young woman Minoo Shirazi who had a history of troublemaking and parental issues in two very different worlds dubbed for discomfort “There” and “Here”…

Far away and long ago a bold warrior woman with an inexplicable incendiary power in her hands battled beside her lover Tyler against brigands and worse to retrieve a holy book in the heyday of the Persian Empire. We’ll call that “Here”…

Over “There” in our world, a forthright, independent Iranian architecture student named Minoo was seen at various moments of her life, constantly challenging the authority of her father and the far more dangerous agents of the theocracy…

In Ancient Persia the war-woman painfully and at first-hand learned of the eternal struggle between the light of Ahura Mazda and dark evil of demonic Ahriman, before becoming embroiled in the struggle – as did her scholarly lover – when a priest was slaughtered by the devil-lord Himself.

A giant, wingless talking griffon then despatched them to distant Persepolis to meet her long-lost mother. The divine messenger also decreed Minoo the Warrior would play a crucial role in the battle between good and evil and must accept her fate…

En route, they encountered famed and legendary Anusiya battling an horrific army of scorpion men and other beasts. Dashing to join the hard-pressed Persian Royal Guard, they turned the tide and the grateful soldiers escorted them to an audience with the Emperor…

In modern times when word of Minoo’s latest brush with the authorities reached her father, once-eminent history professor Bijan Shiraz took unwelcome and unwanted steps to protect the last member of his family.

For years he had been a thorn in the side of the religious fundamentalists rewriting and revising the grand and glorious history of Persia to suit the self-serving demands of a theocratic, clerical dictatorship and consequently his entire family had suffered…

Bijan and his wife Manijeh argued for years. She wanted the family to leave but the scholar refused to leave the proud history of Persia in the hands of revisionists. Minoo often listened, terrified her parents were divorcing, but older brother Ramin was always there to calm her fears…

Three years ago Minoo and her father discussed her recent graduation. Her prospects had long been a brittle bone of contention, and she would not accept the aging intellectual’s argument that she should pursue a Master’s Degree. Not in a country that openly suppresses choice and opportunity for women…

She was utterly astounded when he reveals he had changed his mind and would use all his resources, contacts and waning influence to secure her a University place outside Iran…

And in Persepolis the supreme ruler is revealed as Empress Purandokht, Queen and Protector of the Persian Empire who greets her wandering daughter but does not recognise her…

This is a tale of interconnected contrasts, with the modern scenes – deliberately convoluted by mixing the chronological sequence of flashback events – rendered in stark black line whilst the exotic and thrilling Persian adventure is presented as lush, painterly pencil-grey tones.

Moreover, although the general dialogue and idiom of the ancients is what you’d expect in an historical drama, Tyler and mystic Minoo speak like American 20-somethings, eventually admitting to Purandokht they are from somewhere called “Columbus”…

Following a graphic reintroduction to the major players and a quick recap in ‘Our Story Thus Far’ the twin-tracked tale-telling recommences over “There” in Tehran eleven years ago as young teenager Minoo goes ski-boarding for the first time and meets a boy. Over-protective Ramin’s response is not what she anticipated…

Way back “Here” Tyler and Minoo soon get bored cooling their heels in the palace and – avoiding Purandokht’s hyper-maternal oversight – sneak out to find the nation’s ultimate hero Rostam who might be the only hope to defeat Ahriman’s converging dark forces…

Modern Minoo meanwhile is still settling in at the University of Ohio in America. It is one year ago…

Her fellow Students are all very welcoming but the culture is so different in its minutiae and daily details. However, when she introduces herself to her father’s old friend Professor Yazdi she finds him with a charming young man discussing his Graduate Degree. His name is Tyler Clarke and he is obsessed with the culture and history of Iran. Even more so apparently, after meeting Minoo…

In the wilds of Persia, a wild ride and valiant quest at last leads the strange warriors to mighty Rostam and his wonder steed Rakhsh. Finishing off the demon he has been toying with the heroic marvel joyously accompanies them back to embattled Persepolis…

In Columbus as Tyler and Minoo get better acquainted, the scene suddenly shifts to Iran twelve years previously. The Shiraz family are fragmenting and the kids are dealing with Bijan and Manijeh’s divorce very differently. Jumping ahead seven years, the dutiful daughter is still arguing with dad after he’s been beaten up… again…

Rostam’s tumultuous return to Persepolis is none too soon: his glorious welcome parade is barely begun when the monster armies of Ahriman turn up…

Ten years ago in Tehran, Minoo finally gets to watch football-crazy Ramin play, even if the trip nearly gets her arrested. It’s the best game of his life and the last time she will ever see him…

The battle for Persepolis is long and hard and only the direct intervention of Ahura Mazda saves overmatched Minoo when her flame powers fail…

In America six months ago Tyler took Minoo camping and learned a lot about her, such as her family history and troubles and the fact that she is a demon with a game console…

“Here” as Persepolis reels from the catastrophic assault, “There” in Tehran twenty-one years ago another parental clash left Minoo alone with Daddy, who proudly read his little girl the far-from-bedtime story of the Seven Labours of Rostam

Although forced from the battlefield Ahriman is undeterred and directly attacks Purandokht in the palace. Although her formidable daughter is in time to drive the devil off, the queen is stricken by the beast’s poisons…

In Tehran eleven years ago the fractured family gather at the hospital. Manijeh’s chemotherapy has failed and surgery is now the only option. Minoo cannot comprehend her father’s reactions…

As before, glimpses of a greater truth come from a brace of Epilogues. The first sees Minoo in Columbus three months ago: Skypeing with the dad she still doesn’t trust but blithely unaware of the trouble he’s in, whilst the second focuses on Persepolis where a distraught daughter is confronted by the all-wise Griffon. He challenges the warrior woman’s understanding of her strangely incomplete existence and asks difficult questions about the father she cannot remember…

To Be Concluded…

Gilded with excerpts of classical poetry by Rumi (13th century Persian poet, jurist, scholar, theologian and Sufi Mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī AKA Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī or simply “our master”: very cool and totally worthy of your further attention…), this is a smart and subtle melding past and present, fact and fiction, revelling in exploiting reader expectation and confusion whilst crafting a beguiling multi-layered tale of family, responsibility, guilt, oppression and the hunger for independence which carries the reader along, promoting wonder and second-guessing whilst weaving a tantalising tapestry of mystery.

Engaging, rewarding and just plain refreshingly different, Persia Blues looks set to become a classic for all time…
© 2015 Dara Naraghi and Brent Bowman.

In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way


By Marcel Proust, adapted and illustrated by Stéphane Heuet and translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Gallic Books)
ISBN: 978-1-90831-390-4

I love comics, both in form and function, and wouldn’t ever be without them. I also read the odd book or two.

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, although arguably an acquired taste, wrote what is considered by many to be one of the very best ones – actually a succession of them classed as one big one – and even though there are no uncanny monsters, rampaging robots or alien invasions and precious few fights of any sort, the incredibly bold and ambitious Stéphane Heuet has undertaken to adapt Á la recherché du temps perdu to the comics medium and has gone about it in a most satisfying manner.

Long known in English as Remembrance of Things Past, the current graphic narrative iteration produced by the adaptor and his erudite translator has plumped for the contemporary option In Search of Lost Time for its umbrella title – which is what it was called when originally translated by C. F. Scott-Moncrieff, who turned the seven volumes (3200 pages) of delicately phrased French into English between 1922 and 1931.

When Penguin’s 1995 edition was released, the complete reworking by scholars from three countries settled upon the latter as a more fitting title. Now the forthcoming pictorial volumes will also be distinguished thus and given individual titles to demarcate each singular tome.

What’s it about? In broad short form it ponders the huge social changes which occurred in France, especially the diminution of aristocracy and the advancement of the Middle Classes from the Troisième République (French Third Republic – 1870 until the Nazis installed the Vichy Government in 1940) to the fin de siècle or turn of the 20th century, as seen by one family and their rather large coterie of friends, lovers, social associates, climbers and hangers on.

It’s also about the force of memory and nostalgia and how the senses can become irresistible doorways into our pasts. It’s about a guy recalling the village where he grew up. It is a vast achievement with over 2000 characters, acknowledged as a masterpiece of the written word. You really should try it some time.

We’re talking about Heuet’s adaptation now though, and in this first volume – reissued by Gallic Books as a magnificent, oversized full colour hardback – adapts the initial tome Swann’s Way plus ancillary tales Swann in Love and Place-Names: The Name in a staggering potent, gloriously understated and phenomenally powerful Ligne Claire style which seems the very epitome of all that is French.

The collection is augmented by a compelling and beautiful map of Paris in those days, a fascinating and educational ‘Translator’s Introduction’ from esteemed scholar Arthur Goldhammer discussing underlying themes and motifs such as the effects of music, a full illustrated Glossary of terms and contextual ephemera, and a breathtakingly lovely pictorial guide to the 71 key characters introduced at this stage, courtesy of ‘The Narrator’s Family Tree’.

Also included are a non-fictive biography of the author himself and a beguiling glimpse at ‘Proust’s Family Tree’, complete with maps and views of the rural idyll which inspired the novel.

Most people know only two things about Á la recherché du temps perdu: the Narrator is never named or identified and everything kicks off when a pastry – a Madeleine – he dips in his tea as an adult triggers an avalanche of involuntary memories, taking him back to his childhood…

As the Narrator ponders how night in his bedroom opens his mind to recollection, the revelations of our story begin in ‘Combray’; a quiet hamlet his family lived in for much of his childhood…

The times were full of little incidents he barely understood. His parents were of a certain social standing. There were people they welcomed into the home, others they sought to entice there and some they actively – if politely – sought to ostracise…

One of the most intriguing was the inspirationally debonair demi-outcast Charles Swann.

Sometimes he was welcome and at other times not. He had a daughter named Gilberte who the young Narrator found oddly fascinating…

That’s all you’re getting. The whole point of these intricate revelations and interlocking relationships is unpicking them yourself, and Heuet’s methodically efficient yet light and inspired visuals make that job a sheer delight…

Accompanying the bucolic yet cosmopolitan travails and aspirations of the family is the tangential and hugely absorbing tale of Swann in Love which offers further insights into and revelations of the great man’s other life in Paris. Through an extended period it traces the over-educated sophisticate’s meeting with a fashionable demimondaine name Odette de Crécy and follows the course of their placidly tempestuous affair to a most familiar denouement where a most surprising conclusion is reached…

Ending this initial foray into literature is Place-Names: The Name, which returns to the inner landscape of the Narrator for an elegiac and stunningly beautiful celebration of childhood intrigues and obsession, couched in terms of place visited and those others merely longed-for. Simultaneously tempering and honing those early passions is a period spent in Paris where the wide-eyed boy unknowingly added to his store of precious memories through his frequent but irregular afternoon meetings with the characters of the Champs-Elysées… particularly the whimsical and unpredictable Gilberte Swann…

This is a sweet and subtle, marvellously European confection both beguiling and oddly fulfilling. The stylish, muted palette and seeming preponderance on head-shots might at first deter potential readers – Lord, I hope not – but that’s nothing to quibble over: Heuet’s skill comfortably accommodates the wide cast and will certainly entice and reward any reader prepared to persevere…

Classics Illustrated used to adapt books into comic form and they became a short-cut for school cheats who couldn’t be bothered to read great literature or were too busy to study for exams. This superb tome – and all its companion volumes – is far more than a précis in pictures; this worshipful adaptation is a companion to, not a substitute for; and thus is another brilliant example of the range of our art-form, and well worthy of your serious attention.
First published in France as Du côté de chez Swann: Édition Intégrale by Éditions Delcourt 2013. © Éditions Delcourt 2013. Translation © Arthur Goldhammer 2015. All rights reserved.

In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way will be released on February 1st 2016 and is available for pre-order now.

Iznogoud and the Jigsaw Turk


By Goscinny & Tabary, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-209-6

For the greater part of his far-too-short lifetime René Goscinny (1926-1977) was one of the most prolific and widely-read writers of comic strips in history.

He still is.

Amongst his most popular and enduring comic collaborations are Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas, Signor Spaghetti and, of course, Asterix the Gaul, but there were so many others, such as the despicably dark deeds of a dastardly usurper whose dreams of diabolical skulduggery perpetually proved to be ultimately no more than castles in the sand…

In the wake of the Suez crisis, the French returned – by way of comics, at least – to the hotly contested Arabian deserts after Goscinny teamed with hugely gifted Swedish émigré Jean Tabary (1930-2011) – who numbered Richard et Charlie, Grabadu et Gabaliouchtou, Totoche, Corinne et Jeannot and Valentin le Vagabond amongst his other hit strips – to detail the innocuous history of imbecilic Arabian (im)potentate Haroun el-Poussah.

However, as is so often the case, it was the strip’s villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud, who stole the show… possibly the conniving little blackguard’s only successful insurrection.

Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah was created for Record; the first episode appearing in the January 15th issue of 1962. A petite hit, the feature subsequently jumped ship to Pilote – a new comics magazine created and edited by Goscinny – where it was artfully refashioned into a starring vehicle for the devious little Tuareg toe-rag who had been hogging all the laughs and limelight.

Insidious Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, the affable, easy-going Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little second-in-command has loftier ambitions, or as he is always declaiming “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”…

The retooled rapscallion resurfaced in Pilote in 1968, quickly becoming a massive hit, resulting in 29 albums to date, his own solo comic, a computer game, animated film, TV cartoon show and even a live-action movie.

Like all great storytelling, Iznogoud works on two levels: for youngsters it’s a comedic romp with adorably wicked baddies invariably hoisted on their own petards and coming a-cropper, whilst older, wiser heads can revel in pun-filled, witty satires and superbly surreal antics.

Following Goscinny’s death in 1977, Tabary began scripting his own tales, switching to book-length complete adventures rather than the short, snappy vignettes which typified his collaborations. Upon his own passing, Tabary’s children Stéphane, Muriel and Nicolas took over the franchise.

The deliciously malicious whimsy is always heavily dosed with manic absurdity, cleverly contemporary cultural critiques, brilliantly delivered creative anachronisms and fourth-wall busting episodes which serve to keep the assorted escapades bizarrely fresh and hilariously inventive.

La tete de turc d’Iznogoud (The Turkish Head of Iznogoud) was originally released in 1975, the 11th mirthfully malignant album compilation, offering a rather remarkable quartet of trend-setting tales with our ambitious autocrat as ever scheming to seize power from his good but gullible Lord and Master. Following the traditional preface page introducing our tawdry star and other regulars, the devious deceptions resume with the epic length saga of ‘The Jigsaw Turk’.

With Baghdad gripped in a strike by refuse collectors, a fuming Vizier visits the freshly-opened magical accessories shop of Dokodah Bey in search of something to solve his promotion-impeding problem. The proprietor is an annoyingly jolly japester who typically meets his intellectual equal in the Vizier’s foolish flunky Wa’at Alahf, but finds time between pranks to sell the surly insurgent a magic puzzle of a Turk’s head.

All one has to do is complete the 10,000 piece jigsaw, but just before adding the final tile, think of the thing you want to get rid of: he/she/it will crumble into as many fragments as the puzzle with the addition of that last component…

And thus begins a catalogue of chaos, with every moment of the weeks that follow finding the Vizier intolerably interrupted. Eventually however he finally finishes the infernal pasteboard pastime only to discover the last piece is missing. Now he has to endure an epic voyage to the faraway factory to replace the missing trigger to all his dreams coming true, but even after he secures it, Iznogoud has no idea his problems are only just beginning…

A commotion in the harbour at Basra is the opening movement in the next cacophonous composition of calamity as the Vizier and his hulking henchman buy a most unlovely mermaid trawled up by Crawdad the Sailor. The deaf, daft seadog needs to get rid of the Siren in his bathtub because ‘The Freezing Song’ she shrieks paralyzes all who hear it…

Smelling opportunity, the ambitious autocrat buys the garrulous nymph and sneaks her into the palace, but as usual there’s hitch after hitch and in the end it’s the Vizier’s stinking scheme which ends up going flat…

Next up is a tantalising oddment. ‘The Adventures of Caliph Haroun Al Plassid: The Sheik’s Potion’ looks to me like an earlier yarn of Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah from Record, recycled and remastered for the contemporary series. In it a much altered Iznogoud attempts to administer a shrinking potion to his Lordly Master but, after a furore of frantic attempts meet with ever-diminishing success, only succeeds in making himself look small…

This sublime selection ends on a superbly surreal note as the Vile Vizier consults a chronally adrift Gypsy seer and buys ‘The Magic Calendar’ which will allow its careful owner to move about in time. With such an arcane addition to his arsenal, surely his ambitions must be realised?

Of course the most important word here is “careful” and before/after/between long the impatient impotentate is lost many somewheres in time and ends up annoying a most confused cartoonist who only wants a little time to finish his latest script about that obnoxious oaf who wants to be Caliph instead of the Caliph…

Such convoluted witty, fast-paced hi-jinks and craftily crafted comedy set pieces have made this addictive series a household name in France where “Iznogoud” is common parlance for a certain kind of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and frequently insufficient in inches (or should that be centimetres?).

Desiring to become “Caliph in the Caliph’s place” is a popular condemnation in French, targeting those perceived as overly-ambitious, and since 1992 the Prix Iznogoud is awarded annually to “a personality who failed to take the Caliph’s place”.

Nominees are chosen from prominent French figures who have endured spectacular failures in any one year and been given to the likes of Édouard Balladur (1995) and Nicolas Sarkozy (1999). The jury panel is headed by politician André Santini, who gave himself one after failing to become president of Île-de-France in regional elections in 2004.

When first released in Britain during the late 1970s and 1980s (and again in 1996 as a periodical comicbook) these tales made little impression, but at last this wonderfully beguiling strip has deservedly found an appreciative audience among today’s more internationally aware, politically jaded comics-and-cartoon savvy connoisseurs…
Original edition © 2012 IMAV éditions by Goscinny – Tabary. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 5: The Happy Prince


Adapted by P. Craig Russell (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-981-6

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

Although his fanciful, meticulous, classicist style was joyously derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and his craftsmanlike visual flourishes of Art Nouveau were 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 – completely reworked and re-released as Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996 – or Batman: Robin 3000.

As the industry at last matured – in the midst of a fantasy boom – Russell returned to comics with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further co-adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in Epic Illustrated magazine 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 showcase for his earlier experimental adaptations; not simply operatic dramas but also rousing timeless adventure tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and other literary classics.

In 1992 he began adapting the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, with this fifth volume (in its second printing) deftly transforming the author’s heartbreaking and salutary allegorical fable of pure virtue and human hypocrisy into a work of capital “A” graphic Art.

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems – the others being The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket – and here adaptor Russell utilises all his skills to staggering effect and creates an evocative, beguiling sensation.

Sacrificing the usual Wildean bon mots for wickedly earnest and ferociously barbed social criticism, this riveting fable is set in a prosperous town where all the important people revel in the beauty of the golden, gem-bedecked statue of a former prince who died young and spoiled in the lap of overwhelming luxury.

Now his spirit resides in a gleaming, glittering statue and from his lofty perch the gilded potentate can view the entire town. However, within his metal frame his lead heart is crushed by the suffering and poverty of the poor he sees in every dark, ignored corner of the metropolis.

As the seasons turn the suffering statue convinces the last swallow in the land to forego migration to Egypt and has the plucky, cocky bird methodically strip him of the jewels and gold which make him such a resplendent sight before secretly redistributing these riches to those who need them most…

As winter comes and the statue’s resources dwindle, the swallow too is failing. The rich folk are soon embarrassed by the state of their former premier monument and react typically, all blithely unaware of the subtle change which has embraced the lower classes, who are now warm, fed and happy for the first time… but only at a terrible unsuspected cost to the boy and the bird…

I wasn’t kidding about heartbreaking. Our Victorian ancestors knew the value and power of pathos and sentiment and weren’t shy in using it to give kids all the emotional tools they needed for growing up.

It’s a gift we sadly lost sometime in the 1980s when we began cocooning and obsessively shielding our young from life’s darker aspects, and whilst it might have saved a few parents having difficult talks with their children, it deprived future generations of much-needed understanding and empathy.

This is a very sad story – think “Feed the Birds” in the Mary Poppins movie and lay in sufficient supplies of hankies – but one that every child and their appointed caretakers absolutely must see, especially in today’s world of cruel, crushing, crippling One-Percentism and facile, vapid, selfish self-aggrandisement…

Like all the other volumes in this series, The Happy Prince is another high point in Russell’s splendid, stellar career: an incredibly lovely, irresistibly readable example of superb writing – so go and read Wilde’s original prose tomes too – and sublime comic art at its very best.

Now that it’s finally back in print, you simply must avail yourself of this magically meaningful masterpiece…
© 2012 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

The Spectre volume 1: Crimes and Judgements


By John Ostrander & Tom Mandrake (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4718-8

The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast stable, created by Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily in 1940 for More Fun Comics #52 and 53, but just like Siegel’s other iconic co-creation, he soon began to suffer from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful. In fact, unlike Superman, he’s already dead, so he can’t really be dramatically imperilled by anything.

Starting out as a virtually omnipotent ghost and single-minded fighter of evil, the Sinister Spirit ultimately resolved – over various returns and refits spanning more than five decades – into a succession of tormented souls bound to the merciless personification of the biblical Wrath of God. That last revelation came about thanks to a piece of inspired rethinking in a revival from the early 1990s.

The character had been rebooted and resurrected many times, but none better than this superbly incisive iteration, wherein scripter John Ostrander shifted the narrative spotlight onto the relative Tabula Rasa that was Jim Corrigan, a depression era cop whose brutal murder unleashed The Spectre into the burgeoning world of costumed heroes.

His story was a genuinely gruesome one: on the eve of his wedding police detective Corrigan was captured by the Gat Benson mob, shoved in a barrel of cement and pitched off a pier. Called back to the land of the living, he was commanded by a glowing light and disembodied voice to “confront Evil”.

Over the following decade in his subsequent dark crusade fighting crime and crushing demonic monsters, the Avenging Astral Angel was indisputably the most formidable hero of the Golden Age.

For most of the Spectre’s time on Earth, Corrigan had been its human face: a way for readers to glimpse the softer side of a relentless punisher of misdeeds. Ostrander’s take on the character delved deeper. For nearly five years he and artistic collaborator Tom Mandrake lent a tragic, barbaric humanity to a champion who was simply too big and too strong for periodical comics.

After far too long a wait DC recently began releasing compilations of Mandrake’s stellar run. Initial offering Crime and Judgements gathers issues #1-12 of The Spectre (volume 3 from December 1992 to November 1993) in a deliriously dark trade paperback of macabre mood and shocking suspense in which Corrigan and the Spectre finally learned the truth about their relationship…

It begins as Corrigan visits the bedside of dying thug Louis Snipe in ‘Crimes of Violence’. Fifty years previously this gunsel was one of the gang who murdered Corrigan, but before their potentially final exchange can progress they are interrupted by social worker Amy Beitermann, who gets a strange vibe off the ex-policeman…

Moments later she inadvertently witnesses his uncanny secret in action as the Spectre emerges to deliver gory justice to gangbangers perpetrating a drive-by shooting on the steps of the hospital…

She keeps the unbelievable details of the resultant bloodbath from Police Inspector Nate Kane. She knows the older man has a crush on her, and isn’t above using his doting interest to ply him with questions about a former cop named Corrigan…

Later, as the Spectre is concluding his business with Snipe, somewhere in the city, a blood-spilling serial killer takes his latest victim and Corrigan once more questions the point of his existence.

Half a century of punishing the guilty and nothing has changed…

‘Crimes of Passion’ opens with the Ghostly Guardian drawn to a house where a repeating phantom constantly relives her own murder. When she refuses to disclose any details of the crime or perpetrator Spectre reacts with typical furious overkill…

Elsewhere Amy is entering the storefront of fortune teller Madame Xanadu. Her enquiries have traced private eye Corrigan to an office in the building, but an abrupt meeting with the sultry seer proves more than she can handle after the sorceress summarily demands she find Corrigan for her…

The driven spirit they’re pursuing has been just as inquisitive. Unfortunately his questioning of the unquiet ghost’s husband, lover and sister leads to nothing but death and damnation for all the wrong people…

And at the docks Nate Kane inspects the site of the latest atrocity attributed to “the Reaver” but finds himself unexpectedly encumbered with two bodies: one of them encased in cement and in a fifty year old barrel…

‘Crimes and Punishments’ finds Amy visiting Kane at the Precinct house. Poking around, she is aghast to find a concrete corpse and beyond words when she sees it has Jim Corrigan’s agonised face…

Across town commercial artist Danny Geller is thinking about passion and the kind of woman he likes, but the Spectre is busy, or at least Corrigan is.

Having caused the suicide of an innocent, the human half of the Astral Amalgamation is in need of confession and seeks out Amy. He can’t understand why, but Jim is inexplicably drawn to her…

It’s exactly the wrong moment for a street gang to jump them and the Spectre’s revolting response-in-kind utterly disgusts the stunned social worker. When she questions why such violence is necessary, Spectre mystically shows her Corrigan’s savage childhood with an abusive, travelling-preacher father and later how the cop he became met his eventual end.

Although that panorama is too awful to bear, Amy takes some solace in seeing how happy Jim once was with his fiancée Clarice Winston

The revelatory visions conclude with ‘Crime and Judgment’ as Corrigan re-experiences his meeting with God’s Will in Limbo. Amy intangibly observes his mission laid out again and realises the newly dead man missed something the first time: the Voice actually saying “Confront Evil. Confront and Comprehend”…

Flashing back in time to the moment the Spectre began, Amy watches as Clarice is killed and how Corrigan dragged her back from Heaven. His beloved lived again… but she shouldn’t have…

Challenging the Spectre only causes him to turn his excoriating gaze upon Amy. He probes and exposes her greatest guilt. Once she was married to an unfaithful man. When she caught her spouse in his lustful betrayals she spitefully reacted just like him and unknowingly passed on the killer contagion he had afflicted her with to many of her one-night partners.

In her own eyes she is every inch a killer too…

However when the aroused Spectre seeks to administer judgement, Corrigan rises to resist his other half and, after a tremendous struggle, a deal is struck…

A new story arc begins with a road accident that leaves a kidnapper dead before the missing child can be found. With no hope remaining, Amy asks Jim for specialised help and the detective follows the abductor’s soul to its reward in The Pit. Ignoring his own justly-suffering father, Corrigan probes deeper into the Abode of the Damned and meets again Shathan the Eternal. Their epic battle triggers ‘A Rage in Hell’ before the Ghostly Guardian gets what he needs and the child is saved…

The Devil landed a last telling blow, however, citing the legend of how a demonic Prince of the Damned escaped Hell. This Spirit of Wrath volubly and piously repented and was bound to a human. Together they roam Earth, doing Heaven’s work. The story deeply unsettles the Spectre…

With uncomfortable suspicions of infernal taint destabilising his usually implacable composure, the Ghostly Guardian seeks out Amy. Although her condition has forced her to avoid intimacy with guys like poor Nate, she feels comfortable in the arms of a dead man, and takes the opportunity to talk Jim into trying to ameliorate his alter ego’s excesses. The inconclusive initial results are seen as Spectre goes on a rampage against a succession of callous casual murderers and greedy gangbangers in ‘The Bleeding Gun’.

Greater forces are in play, however. Xanadu, urgently seeking her ghost lodger, unleashes magic forces against uncooperative Amy even as Danny Geller makes another killing. Every day he’s getting closer to the one woman he really wants…

With Jim and Amy trapped in a fantastic realm, ‘Vision and Power’ reveals that whilst Xanadu was sheltering Corrigan after his latest resurrection, she began tapping tiny slivers of the Spectre’s mystic energies and has become addicted. Taunting her victims by claiming this magic could even cure Amy – something the Spectre would never allow – the seer then steals all that arcane might but is promptly overwhelmed by the force of the mission underpinning the power…

With Xanadu on a brutally bloody rampage of distorted judgment and punishment, Corrigan – free and free-thinking for the first time in decades – has no choice but to convince her to surrender the infinite force before picking up his burden once again…

The second act of Shathan’s vengeance begins when his diabolical lieutenant Azmodus – carried back to Earth in the wrathful Spectre’s wake – begins possessing mortals and sowing destruction. Nate, meanwhile, discovers all the Reaver’s victims were HIV-positive like Amy and gets an uncanny inkling of what’s really going on when he finally realises the ex-cop she was asking about and the concrete corpse both have the same face as the creepy new guy she’s been seeing…

When he confronts them his ‘Righteous Anger’ leads to a shattering series of further revelations…

Kane learns ‘No Good Deed Goes Unpunished’ as news of the HIV angle goes public and he’s made the police’s scapegoat for their failure to catch the Reaver. As the Spectre is dragged from Amy’s side when body-hopping Azmodus begins a campaign of spectacular slaughter, the Astral Avenger is trapped by his own zealousness within the demon whilst it continues its appalling kill-spree…

Geller too has been busy and although his body-count is far less impressive it has a single purpose. All this time he’s been hunting the harlot who infected him with a vile death-sentence and now he’s found her. The ‘Unforgivable Acts’ by all the players then continue with the restored Xanadu pondering Amy’s destiny, well aware that not even the Spectre is mighty enough to foil Fate.

The Supernal Spirit has other ideas however and follows the killer’s latest victim to the Gates of Heaven, determined to glean the Reaver’s identity. Unfortunately Archangel Michael won’t permit that and the Spectre finally finds a foe he cannot defeat…

‘The Deepest Cut’ begins the end as cashiered Nate Kane – who has pluckily stationed himself outside Amy’s home – also falls to the Reaver, but the inevitable attack is delayed once Azmodus arrives.

The devil has been gathering power with each possession and bloodbath but now he has found the perfect host in Danny Geller. Drawing the Spectre into the Greater Realms for a catastrophic final confrontation, Azmodus leaves Danny enough autonomy to fulfil his dark dream and deal Amy her ‘Final Fate’

The physical and ethereal demons have both made the same mistake, however: underestimating the victim’s will to live, Madame Xanadu’s desire to atone and Nate’s dying wish to save the woman he loves…

And as always the Spectre will be there at the end to scourge the truly guilty…

With a stunning cover gallery by Mandrake, Glen Fabry, Sandy Plunkett, Charles Vess, Garry Leach, Dan Brereton, Matt Wagner, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Greg Hildebrandt & Bryn Barnard, this tome offers a powerful and deviously convoluted tale that goes beyond the genre’s usual cause-&-effect, calamity-&-rescue mode to examine the nature of Love and Hate and Good and Evil.

Powerful, scary and often shocking, the intricate developing relationships and interactions all compel The Spectre’s mortal aspect to confront the traumas of his long-suppressed childhood as he relives his own death and the ghastly repercussions of his return.

With intense, brooding art from Mandrake, this incarnation of the character was by far the most accessible and successful and if it had launched a year or so later might well have been a star of the budding Vertigo imprint, but even as a spooky of the mainstream DC Universe it stood alone in its maturity and complexity.

This is a book no lover of grown-up super-sagas can afford to miss.
© 1992, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Serenity: Better Days


By Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-162-1

Just like the TV show and movie, comics about the crew of the Firefly Class 03-K64 trading ship Serenity are remarkably good and pretty addictive. This slim tome collects second 3-issue miniseries Serenity: Better Days, continuing in rip-roaring style the unlikely exploits of a nomadic semi-piratical bunch of lovable yet lethal scofflaws in a world not unlike our own…

After they used up Earth, Humanity migrated to the stars and settled another star-system packed with hundreds of more or less hospitable planets and satellites. Now it’s the 26th century and mankind is living through the aftermath and reconstruction period of a vicious internecine conflict known – by the victors – as the Unification War.

This still-fresh, tender and, for far too many, unfinished system-wide conflagration saw the Outer Colonies crushed after attempting to secede from the authoritarian Alliance of first-settled Inner Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds fought valiantly and passionately for the Rebel/losing side and now spends his days eking out a living on the fringes of an increasingly repressive and dangerous universe: a fiercely free agent skippering a small cargo vessel filled with surprisingly capable misfits and odd sorts.

Hopefully work means just shipping cargo and people from world to world whilst trying to avoid the ever-expanding Alliance’s oppressive representatives and security forces, but occasionally survival means bending the law a mite….

It’s hard, risky work: often illegal and frequently dangerous – especially since the outer regions are where the insane cannibal berserker savages dubbed Reavers restlessly prowl.

Life changed forever after Serenity gave passage to fugitive Alliance doctor Simon Tam: on the run after stealing/rescuing his apparently psychic sister River from a top secret research project.

The Government spared no effort or expense to get her back, hounding the fugitives from pillar to post until one day Mal and his crew finally pushed back. After too many close shaves and at the cost of too many friends, Reynolds and Co at last uncovered the horrific secret the Alliance were so desperate to keep hidden in River’s head and broadcast it to the entire ’Verse…

Before that moment, however, and for this saga, the restless voyagers are back at the daily grind of making money without getting killed. Without preamble scripters Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews, illustrator Will Conrad, colourist Michelle Madsen and letterer Michael Heisler launch right in, revealing how a simple heist goes explosively wrong and the merry mob are once more running for their lives with a dangerous chunk of ambulatory weapons tech.

Life being what is they get away with the loot but still get stiffed…

Their long-term paying passenger Inara the Companion is busy with a client whilst all that shooting is going on, learning from former militia man Ephraim of the rebel terrorists known as “Dust Devils” who retaliated against the Alliance long after the War ended. He has been tasked with routing out and eradicating their last remnants but for the moment has more pleasant actions in mind…

Stuck with a weapon they don’t want, the Firefly crew grudgingly accept a tip from the client who fooled them once already. He tells of a vast amount of money just waiting to be picked up by the right team. All they have to do is get the forgotten fortune out of the fully occupied temple where it was stashed by the thieves who first acquired it…

Incomprehensibly, the raid goes off without a hitch or even any weapon being fired by or at them. Before long the astounded spacers are sharing increasingly bizarre daydreams of what they’re going to do with their share of more money than they ever dreamed existed…

As they all kick back, Inara questions Mal about Dust Devils and gets the uncomfortable impression that he has first hand knowledge of their activities, but doesn’t push the matter as the ship is about to land on Pelorum, resort world of the mega-rich.

As the windfall-drunk crew start splurging, however, elsewhere a certain arms dealer has at last located down the bandits who swiped his favourite death-machine and Ephraim prepares his hand-picked taskforce for the moment they bag themselves a vile terrorist Dust Devil…

The Serenity crew’s strangest caper continues as they become acclaimed and feted heroes to the filthy rich after stopping a planet-wide heist, but the unlikely afterglow of the approbation only puts Malcolm off-guard long enough for Ephraim to spring his trap…

With his prize brutally in tow, the hunter prepares to escape but there’s a slight snag. There is indeed a dreaded former Dust Devil aboard Serenity, but it isn’t Malcolm Reynolds…

Moreover before Ephraim can get his head around that faux pas a very ticked off death-merchant and his private army turn up, looking for revenge but happy to just kill everybody and let God or Accounting sort it out…

Proving the hard – but extremely entertaining – way that money doesn’t buy happiness or even an ounce of security, this power-packed digest-sized rollercoaster romp is supplemented with stunning cover/chapter breaks of the crew from Adam Hughes and a crisply hilarious Introduction from Adam (don’t call him Jayne) Baldwin.

Crackling with fun and attitude, blackly sardonic and riotously daft between bouts of breathtaking action and delivering a thrilling, scary and supremely satisfying resolution, this is space opera of the very best kind.

Flash forward, go above and beyond and get lost in Space with this magical taste of things to come…
Serenity: Better Days © 2008 Universal Studios Licensing. The movie “Serenity” is ™ and © Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

I.R.$. volume 2: Blue Ice


By Vranken & Desberg, coloured by Coquelicot and translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-74-8

As I’ve frequently stated before, the most appealing aspect of European comics is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age-ranges their efforts address and the audiences support.

Thus this quirky but exceedingly readable, deviously all-action Franco-Belgian thriller-series with a tantalising twist offers a deliciously different spin on the tried-and-true trope of the driven mystery-man superspy.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government, which once upon a time started employing super-cool, infallibly effective special agents to go after the type of tax-dodger well beyond the reach of the law. These days, perhaps every nation should have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg is one of the bestselling comics author in France. He was born in Brussels in 1954, son of an American lawyer (the European distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother. Stephen began studying law at Université Libre de Bruxelles but dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz.

He began with plots and eventually scripts for Will (Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Spirou, growing into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers before launching his own in the Stéphane Colman illustrated Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (see for example The Garden of Desire) and in 1999 he created contemporary thriller IR$, with historical drama Le Scorpion added to his catalogue of major hits a year later.

Bernard Vranken was an award winning artist by the time he was fifteen. A year later he was working for Tintin. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career-path was set. Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg and in 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money and launched I.R.$.…

The premise is simple and delicious, and Cinebook’s second translated English edition from 2009 once again doubles the bang for your buck by combining the third and fourth European albums – Blue Ice and Narcocratie – into one compelling compilation.

Blue Ice (originally released in 2001) opens with stylish American bean-counter Larry B. Max relaxing in his palatial home. The quiet start offers the observant reader a few hints into Larry’s past – and motivations – before he renews his odd, long-distance, anonymous relationship with favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise.

Larry hates complications in his life but there’s just something about her voice and attitude…

A little later he attends a piano rehearsal and promises his little sister he’ll be there for the recital on Friday. It’s just asking for trouble…

Meanwhile downtown, three very bad men are meeting excessively violent ends and at Los Angeles airport an American passenger from Mexico triggers a wave of security alerts. Typically, though, just too late for the inattentive security staff to do more than watch him spectacularly disappear into the city leaving two dead agents behind…

Later at DEA HQ, a high level meeting of numerous Federal agencies convenes to discuss Ryan Ricks. During his tour in Vietnam Ricks began managing the money of his platoon-mates and used it to make a killing on the Stock Exchange.

Slightly wounded, he then shipped out for home and was eagerly pursued by finance houses who saw he had a unique gift for using money and making it. He settled in at a major tobacco company and started creating wealth.

They didn’t notice – or perhaps care – that Ricks was making side-deals, nor that being utterly amoral he went where the money was to be easily found: terrorist nations…

When the IRS found out he was using dirty cash to make the company more money – and making himself fabulously rich at the same time – Ryan was fired. He claimed to have no understanding of why terrorist money was bad but profits from giving people cancer was good…

Ricks was a man ahead of his time. Even before the Cold War ended he was saying that New Capitalism would be beyond any laws and consequently followed that philosophy to its logical extreme. Specialising in creating off-shore accounts, he became the world’s greatest money-launderer and devised an international network for tax evasion.

That’s when Larry Max first encountered him, but the wily finance wizard simply vanished and a swathe of alphabetised American agencies has been waiting for him to turn up ever since…

Now twelve years later he’s back in USA so scores can be settled and pride regained. Some of the bigwigs however are unconvinced. With so many major players in the Monterrey Cartel gunned down in the street, the feds would rather concentrate on a clearly-brewing turf war than some nebulous cash-converter.

Late-arriving Larry is “only” a tax collector, not a true cop, but he can’t help wondering why they all think the events are unconnected…

Consulting his own researches, Mr Max coolly exposes a traitor in the cross-agency conclave and predicts things are going to get very dramatic for the Monterrey Cartel, but is fobbed off with only two agents to assist him. Hanson’s shadowy spook-show has access to covert satellite surveillance and phone monitoring whereas Ella Hidalgo of DEA is a stone killer everybody call “Blue Ice”.

She’s going to be useful once the lead starts flying…

Across the border the prediction has already come true. Dion Monterrey, the aged, untouchable head of the clan, has begun cleaning house, eradicating all dissent before heading to LA for the most important meeting of his life…

Aided by cutting-edge covert spy technology, the hunt for Ricks moves into high gear and it’s not long before Larry and Hildalgo are quietly closing in on their target. Then a second traitor inadvertently tips his hand too soon and the astounded IRS agent has the key piece of information he needs to complete the puzzle…

Ultimate harbinger of unfettered Free Enterprise Ricks has returned to America because he’s acting as facilitator for the deal of the ages: selling off one of world’s biggest drugs cartels…

Larry is not satisfied. The facts just don’t add up and as he ponders the mystery and sweats the details Ricks is closing the deal and Dion is ensuring there’s no one left to contest the sale…

With every party understandably edgy the final handover is set to occur on the roof of a luxury shopping mall. With the fanatical Ricks describing the way business will be conducted in the until-now inefficiently managed, under-exploited market of modern coke consumption, the good guys quietly close in. They have all grossly underestimated the guile and paranoia of their targets though and soon the entire scene is a hellish firefight of lethal proportions…

As ever, the end result is a pile of bodies, massive collateral damage and Ricks a ghost in the wind, but this time Larry is on his tail…

Without a pause for breath the story concludes in Narcocracy as Max arrives in Tijuana, just as the next move in Ricks’ grand strategy goes live: acquisition and expansion…

Before dawn breaks in the seedy hell-hole many of the proud cartel hold-outs opposing the new order are gone and the game plan is clear. It’s not a consolidation or merger Ricks and his mystery backers have in mind for the already lucrative drug trade, it’s a hostile takeover…

The only fly in the ointment is a certain white-haired American who implacably follows the money magician everywhere and is proving utterly impossible to kill…

Help comes from a most unexpected quarter as the Mexican Federal Bureau of Narcotics picks up the taxman, claiming he’s about to blow a massive sting operation. Larry keeps his thoughts to himself as meets the country’s top brass and warns them of Rick’s current ambitious activities. After all, money talks, this is a country notorious for corruption and the wizard of wealth-creation has more cash than any other crook in the world…

Soon he is partnered up with the Bureau’s top investigators and chasing his elusive quarry but even though Larry knows a trap is waiting to spring somewhere he’s not quite sure when or who’s going to. Moreover, behind all the criminal double-dealing and staggering slaughter, he can perceive the kind of chicanery that only real, Harvard-style business types are capable of. All he has to do is find out who and prove it…

Inevitably the hammer falls and bodies begin to drop and just for a moment it looks like someone’s going to miss a piano concert…

Complex, fast-paced, suspenseful and incredibly violent, this yarn is pure movie blockbuster: a sleek, lean and lithe action-fest to seduce any devotee the thriller genre.

IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty thriller series that will delight fans of modern mayhem in all its literary and artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely, economical package…
Original edition © 1977 Editions du Lombard (Le Lombard/Dargaud SA) 2001-2002 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation 2008 © Cinebook Ltd.

Essential Amazing Spider-Man volume 7


By Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, Len Wein, Ross Andru, Sal Buscema, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1879-4

After a shaky start in 1962 The Amazing Spider-Man quickly rebounded, soon proving a sensation with kids of all ages and rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Soon the quirky, charming, action-packed comicbook soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old costumed-crimebusters of previous publications.

You all know the story: Peter Parker was a smart but alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider during a school science trip. Discovering he had developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed with a need for vengeance, Peter hunted the assailant who had made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, finding, to his horror, that it was the selfsame felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them.

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base and this seventh exceedingly enthralling monochrome compilation of chronological web-spinning adventures sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through one of the most traumatic periods of his career.

By the time of these tales Lee’s hand-picked successor Gerry Conway was giving way to fresher authorial hands. Nevertheless, scripts continued to blend contemporary issues (which of course often feel quite outdated from here in the 21st century, Man!) with soap opera subplots to keep older readers as glued to the series as the outrageous adventure and bombastic battle sequences beguiled the youngsters.

Thematically, there’s further decline in the use of traditional crimes and gangsters, overwhelmed by outlandish villains, monsters and capers, but the most sensational advance was a super-science plot which would reshape the nature of the web-spinner’s adventures for decades to come…

Nevertheless the Wallcrawler was still indisputably mainstream comics’ voice of youth; defining being a teenager for young readers of the 1970s, tackling incredible hardships, fantastic foes and the most pedestrian and debilitating of frustrations.

High School nerd Peter Parker had grown up and gone to college. Because of his guilt-fuelled double-life he struggled there too, developed a stress ulcer but found true love with policeman’s daughter Gwen Stacy

This volume, spanning November 1974 to September 1976, collects Amazing Spider-Man #138-160, Annual #10 and incorporates team-up tales from Giant-Size Spider-Man #4-5. Eagle-eyed completists might notice the third Giant-Size issue has been omitted: that’s because there the Wallcrawler met Doc Savage and Marvel no longer hold the license to publish the magnificent Man of Bronze…

With no particular fanfare the action opens with Conway still very much in charge as ‘Madness Means… the Mindworm!’ – illustrated by Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt – finds Parker relocating downmarket to Queens in time to encounter a macabre psychic parasite feeding of the denizens of the district. Then issue #139 introduces a bludgeoning brute with a grudge against J. Jonah Jameson on the ‘Day of the Grizzly!’ When Spidey intervenes he is beaten and handed over to the costumed crazy’s silent partner the Jackal who melodramatically reveals he knows the hero’s true identity. Even though Peter escapes his diabolical trap in ‘…And One will Fall!’ the maniac flees and remains at large…

A long-running comedy thread ends as the ridiculous Spider-Mobile ends up in the river, but the Wallcrawler barely has time to care as an apparently dead enemy returns in #141’s ‘The Man’s Name Appears to be… Mysterio!’

Despite the psychological assaults escalating and Pete continually questioning his own sanity, the mystery is solved in ‘Dead Man’s Bluff!’ before Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 (April 1975 and inked by Mike Esposito) which sees an eagerly-anticipated reappearance of Marvel’s most controversial antihero in an expanded role.

‘To Sow the Seed of Death’s Day’ finds the Webslinger forced into one of the Punisher’s cases when ruthless arms dealer Moses Magnum perfects a lethal chemical-weapon and begins testing it on randomly kidnapped victims.

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

The Lone Gunman was created by Conway, John Romita Sr. and Andru; an understandably muted response to popular prose anti-heroes like Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner: the cutting edge of a bloody tide of fictive Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime in the early 1970s.

Although one of the industry’s biggest hits from the late 1980s onwards, the compulsive vengeance-taker was an unlikely and uncomfortable star for comicbooks. His methods were always excessively violent and usually permanent. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Black Widow or Wolverine come readily to mind) Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public simply shifted its communal perspective; he never toned down or cleaned up his act…

That same month in Amazing Spider-Man 143 ‘…And the Wind Cries: Cyclone!’ saw Peter in Paris to deliver a ransom for the kidnapped Jameson and battling a hyper-fast French super-villain. The story was average but the real kicker was the overly-fond farewell casual chum Mary Jane Watson expressed: a kiss that finally shifted traumatised, depressed Peter’s thoughts from his beloved and recently murdered Gwen

Conway, Andru, Giacoia & Hunt capitalised on the situation when Pete returned as #144 launched ‘The Delusion Conspiracy’ and #145 exposed a baffled girl’s confusion and terror at everyone’s reactions when she comes home and the entire world screams ‘Gwen Stacy is Alive …and, Well…?!’

With Gwen somehow resurrected and Peter on the edge of a breakdown, Aunt May was hospitalised just in time for another old foe to strike again in ‘Scorpion… Where is Thy Sting?’, but the real kick in the tale was irrefutable scientific reports which proved the increasingly bewildered Miss Stacy was not an impostor…

Giant-Size Spider-Man #5 (July 1975, inked by Esposito again) offers a strange yet welcome break from the mental tension as ‘Beware the Path of the Monster!’ sees Parker despatched to Florida to photograph the macabre Man-Thing only to discover the lethal Lizard is also loose and hunting ‘The Lurker in the Swamp!’ It takes all the web-spinner’s power and the efforts of a broken man in sore need of redemption to set things right in the climactic conclusion ‘Bring Back my Man-Thing to Me!’

Back in the Big Apple for #147, Peter finds some answers as further tests prove Gwen is a clone – remember, this was new and cutting-edge stuff in 1975 – but all too soon he’s distracted by another foe bad-guy with a grudge and hungry to prove ‘The Tarantula is a Very Deadly Beast’ (Andru, Esposito & Hunt).

It’s all part of a convoluted revenge scheme and the hero is ambushed by a mesmerised Gwen at the behest of an archfiend as ‘Jackal, Jackal, Who’s Got the Jackal?’ at last shares some shocking truths about one of Peter’s most trusted friends before the Delusion Conspiracy explosively concludes with #149’s ‘Even if I Live, I Die!’ (Andru & Esposito).

Learning he and Gwen had been cloned by their biology teacher Miles Warren, the Amazing Arachnid has to defeat his alchemical double in a grim, no-holds-barred identity-duel, with neither sure who’s the real McCoy. The battles eventually results in the copy’s death… maybe…

That moment of doubt over who actually fell informs anniversary issue Amazing Spider-Man #150, as Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Esposito & Giacoia take the hero down memory lane and up against a brigade of old antagonists to decide whether ‘Spider-Man… or Spider-Clone?’ survived that final fight, before new regular scripter Len Wein joins Andru & John Romita Sr. to launch a new era of adventure…

After disposing of his duplicate’s corpse in an incineration plant, Spider-Man finds time to let Peter Parker reconnect with his long-neglected friends. However a jolly party is soon disrupted as blackouts triggered by a super-menace lead the Wallcrawler into the sewers for a ‘Skirmish Beneath the Streets!’, resulting in our hero almost drowning and nearly being ‘Shattered by the Shocker!’ (Andru, Esposito & Giacoia) in the conclusive return engagement…

A moving change-of-pace tale sees a blackmailed former football star give his all to save a child in ‘The Longest Hundred Yards!’ (Andru & Esposito) but it is left to Spider-Man to make the computer-crook culprits pay, after which #154 reveals ‘The Sandman Always Strikes Twice!’ (art by Sal Buscema & Esposito) – but with little lasting effect – until murder-mystery ‘Whodunnit!’ cunningly links three seemingly unconnected cases in a masterful “Big Reveal”…

A long-running romance-thread resulted in the oft-delayed wedding of Pete’s old flame Betty Brant to reporter Ned Leeds, but the nuptials are interrupted by a new costumed crook in ‘On a Clear Day, You Can See… the Mirage’ (Andru & Esposito), even as a sinister hobo who had been haunting the last few yarns came fully into the spotlight…

Much of the previous Essential Spider-Man volume was taken up with a protracted struggle for control of New York with Spidey and elderly May Parker caught in the middle. The devilish duel concluded with a nuclear explosion and the seeming end of two major antagonists but #157 exposed ‘The Ghost Who Haunted Octopus!’ when the debased long-limbed loon turned to Aunt May for his salvation.

With Peter in attendance, the many-handed menace seeks to escape a brutal ghost but their combined actions actually liberate a pitiless killer from inter-dimensional limbo in ‘Hammerhead is Out!’, leading to a savage three-way showdown with Spidey ‘Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm with Doctor Octopus’ to save the horrified Widow Parker…

A new insectoid arch-foe debuted in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #10, courtesy of plotter Wein, scripter Bill Mantlo and artists Kane, Esposito & Giacoia as ‘Step into my Parlor…’ depicts obsessed Spider-hater Jameson hiring unscrupulous biologist Harlan Stilwell to create a tailor-made nemesis to eradicate the Wallcrawler.

Elsewhere that detested hero is breaking up a vicious hostage situation manufactured by psychotic Rick Deacon, but when the killer escapes and breaks into a certain lab he is rapidly transformed into a winged wonder-man hungry for payback on the web-spinner in ‘…Said the Spider to the Fly!’

This copious compendium then concludes with the opening shot in an extended epic as a criminal inventor who is one of the web-spinner’s oldest enemies recovers Spidey’s ditched vehicle and tricks it out to hunt down its original owner if #160’s ‘My Killer the Car!’ (Wein, Andru & Esposito)…

Despite some qualifications this is still a superb selection starring an increasingly relevant teen icon and symbol. Spider-Man at this time became a crucial part of many youngsters’ existence and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow.

Blending cultural veracity with glorious art whilst making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive prime time melodrama moments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

The tales in this again proved Spider-Man was bigger than any creator and was well on the way to becoming as real as Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan.
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 2011 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tamsin and the Deep


By Neill Cameron & Kate Brown (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-77-3

In January 2012 Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched a traditional anthology comics weekly aimed at under-12 girls and boys which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and content.

Each issue offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read it…

Like the golden age of Beano and Dandy the magazine masterfully manages the magical trick of marrying hilarious humour strips with potently powerful adventure serials such as the subject of this latest compilation: a wondrous seaside sorcerous saga with intriguing overtones of The Little Mermaid, by way of the darker works of Alan Garner.

Written by Neill Cameron (Mega Robo Bros, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) and beguilingly illustrated by Kate Brown (Young Avengers, Manga Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Fish + Chocolate), the fishy tale opens with a ‘Prologue’ on the Cornish coast as a young girl berates her older brother Morgan. He promised to teach her how to surf but is just messing about with his mates.

Fed up, she leaves her dog Pengersek on the sands, swipes a bodyboard and paddles out alone. After all how hard can it be?

When the big wave hits and she goes down for the final time, she’s sure she feels a grip on her foot and sees a green fishy face…

The story proper starts when ‘Tamsin’ drags herself ashore coughing and gasping. Somehow she’s drifted miles down the coast and with nobody there to help has to make her own way home. Her leg hurts and the bus driver won’t let her on (she’s soaking wet and without cash) but at least she’s still got that old stick she picked up somewhere to lean on…

There are even more surprises when she finally staggers home. Mum goes absolutely crazy and Morgan is clearly scared. Maybe it’s because their dad was lost at sea nine years ago, but it’s probably the fact that Tamsin vanished a month ago and has been declared drowned…

The police have loads of questions she can’t answer but as far as Tamsin knows she was only gone a few minutes, so eventually life settles back into a normal routine – apart from Morgan acting oddly and her own increasingly nasty dreams.

Things get bad again a few nights later. Awakening from a particularly vivid nightmare, Tamsin discovers she’s clutching that stick and riding a surfboard… hundreds of feet above the town! Moreover, from her shocking vantage point, she can see Morgan. He’s slowly walking into the sea…

Without pausing, she zooms into the roaring brine and yanks the sleepwalker out, blithely unaware that hostile, piscatorial eyes are angrily watching…

Morgan is shattered. He’s been having nightmares too, and sleepwalking. It’s probably from guilt but every time he wakes up he’s been heading for the sea…

‘A Nice Day Out’ sees Tamsin taking a little “me time”. Finding a secluded spot to practise flying with the aid of what is clearly a magic stick, she revels in her new gifts but from high above she sees Morgan is still unsettled. He’s sworn not to go near the water and even quit the local surfing competition but he’s clearly scared of something. Later, to cheer up her kids, mum drags them to the beachside amusements where Morgan meets an enigmatic girl who convinces him to re-enter the event…

Tamsin meanwhile has had another strange encounter: after having her ice cream stolen by a pixie thing, she meets a cocky Blackbird (he says he’s a Chough) who snidely and loquaciously tells her it was an Undine before warning her to keep Morgan well away from water…

She’s almost too late: her brother has wiped out in the early heats and is being pulled under by a gloating mermaid when Tamsin blasts into the depths on her board. She explosively rips him free of her clawed clutches, hurtling them both high into the air before landing in a terrified heap on the beach…

With the sorcerous she-wight fuming below the waves and planning further mischief, in the sunshine Tamsin shares her secret with traumatised big brother before discovering a little ‘Family Mythology’ after that smug bird returns…

Knowledge comes at a steep price however and her learning curve involves an awful lot of fighting against a lot of awful creatures before Tamsin is ready to save Morgan from a horrible fate hundreds of years in the making…

Apprised of a fantastic heritage and now fully prepared to combat a generational curse that has seen all the males of her line swallowed by ‘The Deep’, Tamsin prepares herself for a fantastic battle against the finned demon, but the foe is impatient and launches her own monstrous invasion of the surface-world which soon has the entire town in uproar…

Once the foam settles triumphant Tamsin tries to ease back into a normal routine but that ill-omened bird returns for an ‘Epilogue’, explaining that she now has a mission for life – protecting Cornwall from all mystic threats – and her next crisis has already started…

This yarn is a fabulous blend of scary and fabulous, introducing a splendid new champion for kids of all ages to cheer on with the promise of more to come in the forthcoming Tamsin and the Dark

Boisterous, bold and bombastically engaging, this is a romp of pure, bright and breezy supernatural thrills just the way kids love them, leavened with brash humour and straightforward sentiment to entertain the entire family.

Text © Neill Cameron 2016. Illustrations © Kate Brown 2016.
Tamsin and the Deep will be released on February 4th 2016 and is available for pre-order now.

Scarlett Couture


By Des Taylor (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-062-7

During the early 1960s the world went crazy for suave and stylish superspies like James Bond, Napoleon Solo & Ilya Kuryakin, Matt Helm and Derek Flint. They even accepted – to a lesser degree – such distaff operatives as Modesty Blaise, Honey West and April Dancer (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.).

Now with our multimedia-mad world again embracing the astonishing entertainment value of espionage extravaganzas there’s a healthy new crop of shadowy spooks, urbane operatives and ferocious femmes fatale vying for our attention but none more sleekly eye-catching than this late entry from triple-threat creator Des Taylor…

Simple, straightforward and as on-target as a sinister sniper sortie, this eye-catching yarn deftly blends the ultra-glamorous worlds of high fashion and movie blockbuster spy-craft; with this initial compilation collecting first 4-issue foray ‘Project Stardust’.

As is so often the case, the drama begins with a beautiful woman being tortured by a maniac…

She is no ordinary victim, however, but one of a number of high profile supermodels from the Chase Couture Agency, abducted during gigs in Las Vegas. The story is soon top of the news all over the world, but all those fervid journalists would be even more strident if they knew the truth.

The celebrated cheesecake-and-clothes club is actually a highly specialised CIA front dating back decades to when luscious Chase Carver created “The Showroom” for “The Company”: building a bevy of beautiful, glamorous patriotic honey-traps extensively trained to get information from powerful but ultimately fallible and predictable men…

Now the project is a very visible (quasi) legitimate concern, Chase is the indomitable matriarch of a fashion empire and her daughter Scarlett is the business’ extremely formidable Chief of Security. Some of the most accomplished girls on their books are still proper spies though…

Scarlett is a girl with a past. As a teenager she was kidnapped herself: held for more than a week until rescued by some very special agents who then became her teachers in a number of unique disciplines and skill-sets. Now they also work for mommy dearest…

Tonight the daughter is hot on the trail of her missing employees and has tracked them to a warehouse in Brooklyn, but as she breaches the seedy building all her suspicions are confirmed as a lethal trap closes around her…

The over-zealous gunmen are no match for Scarlett or her support team, but the nasty surprise the crazy torturer left on one of the captive girls almost ends the investigation before it’s begun…

And as the ultra-rich masterminds behind the scheme confer it becomes clear what the stakes are in a truly high risk game: one that has a shocking connection to the Couture family line…

When a third SC model is found executed in her own New York apartment Scarlett and her handler at Covert Investigations Group back-trace her to Vegas too, and attentions switch to Sin City “businessman” Dante Ramon just as the rest of the world’s focus is on the US Secretary of Defense’s visit to the city…

And that’s only the opening gambit in this rollicking, rollercoaster romp set solidly in the style of the Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan Bond extravaganzas, involving shady pasts, sinister cabals, crazy radical terror groups, Machiavellian Get-Super-Rich-Quick villains, sunken planes, Nazi-bio-weapons and a proper sting in the tale; all the tried-and-true tropes of sexy spy thrillers from Charlie’s Angels via Emma Peel to La Femme Nikita

Delivered in a superbly enticing animation-based illustrative style, this deceptively enticing spicy package also includes Special Bonus material such as ‘Dossiers & Mission Log’ offering profiles on ‘Scarlett Eva Carver’, her mega-mysterious mum ‘Chase Elizabeth Carver’, tutors/sidekicks ‘Spencer Kelly’ and ‘Trent Wayland’ as well as crusty curmudgeon/NYC cop dad ‘Lt. Jack Andrew Gillis’.

Adding to the attractions are a mocked-up photo-cover of ‘Hot Profile Magazine: The Chase Couture Collection Issue’, ‘Somebody Call Security’ a faux fashion-mag interview with Scarlett and a plus-sized ‘Gallery section’ featuring covers, photos (of actual model Viktoria Dobos – the visual inspiration for her), sketches, promo artwork, unused cover art and a selection of book covers from a proposed run of novels entitled ‘Scarlett Couture Pulp Designs’

Glitzy, fast-paced, inviting and superbly seductive, this is an action-packed asset to secure the undying attention of every red-blooded armchair operative.

Scarlett Couture will return in…
Scarlett Couture is ™ and © 2015 Des Taylor.