Louise Brooks: Detective


By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics/Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-952-6

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. Before settling on his current muse – true crime examinations via his Treasury of Victorian Murder and Treasury of XXth Century Murder series – he worked for decades 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 his unique ability to create sublimely understated stories by stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose a moving, often melancholy and always beguiling whole first made him a national treasure.

Geary has grown into a grand master and unique presence in both comics and true crime literature through those aforementioned forensic reconstructions of some of the most infamous and groundbreaking murder mysteries since policing began, but in his latest release he has marvellously repurposed his eye for historical verity to concoct something new and truly fascinating.

Here his fixation with mercurial silent movie star Louise Brooks coincides with the recorded historical facts of her fall from global fame and subsequent disappearance into the American heartland. A little casual speculation, a few wry ruminations and this cleverly gripping yarn is the result…

In ‘Louise: An Introduction’ Geary précis’ how, for a brief flickering moment in 1927, dancer and actress Louise Brooks became the toast of world cinema, her face known from America to Zanzibar before she inexplicably declined to renew her Paramount Pictures contract, moved to Germany to star in erotic classic Pandora’s Box and began an inexorable decline into obscurity.

She returned to the US in 1930, but parts were hard to find. Returning to club dancing, she married twice and divorced both men by 1940 when, aged 33, she suddenly chucked everything and returned to the family home in Kansas…

Following a triptych of the author’s trademark maps (Central Wichita, the area south east of the city and rural Burden, Kansas in 1941-1942) the cartoon chapter-play begins with ‘Back to Wichita’ as Louise retreats to the fractious, unwelcoming Brooks household and desperately begins hunting for a job. Increasingly however she is drawn into the town’s only topic of conversation: the seemingly impossible “locked-room” murder of wealthy widow Edna Leach, which is like something out of a movie…

Louise strikes up an acquaintance with a mousy shop assistant at the music store, but ‘My Friend Helen’ only has two topics of conversation: her never-seen boyfriend Walden Pond and the grisly demise of Mrs. Leach…

After America enters World War II and her latest business venture fails, Louise sets out upon a new career path as a writer, but undertaking such ‘A Pilgrimage’ is daunting so she seeks out a former New York playwright who has lately taken residence in nearby Burden.

Borrowing her brother’s car she sets off one morning in June 1942, having first made plans to meet Helen and her elusive beau, but encounters ‘Unforeseen Difficulties’ en route and subsequently stumbles upon a deeply personal tragedy inadequately explained by ‘Helen’s Story’

Finding herself lost in the middle of an actual murder mystery where everything is painfully real and terrifying, the performer soon realises she even has doubts about ‘The Victim’ and reluctantly takes on the unlikely role of ‘Louise Brooks, Detective’

It’s a part she was born to play but after nearly losing her own life putting together the disparate strands and winkling out the culprit, she says ‘Farewell, Wichita’ and heads back to New York with her dreams reinvigorated and her future again filled with untapped potential…

Combining a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and meticulously detailed pictorial extrapolation with his fascination with the lethal propensities of humanity, Geary’s forensic eye has scoured police blotters, newspaper archives and history books to compile his irresistibly enthralling documentaries. Happily all that expertise is soundly utilised for his first major fiction feature and once again he has proved bloody murder is always a black and white affair…

A superbly engaging crime conundrum, the only thing that could improve this book is a sequel…
© 2015 Rick Geary.

Ghetto Brother – Warrior to Peacemaker


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

How’s your modern history? What about your familiarity with the development of contemporary music? Before you answer you might want to take a look at a potent and powerful new graphic documentary created by author and photographer Julian Voloj and artist/illustrator Claudia Ahlering.

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

Those emptied Manhattan regions now comprise some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the Big Apple…

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

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

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

…And then something miraculous happened…

This stunning graphic testament tells in the impassioned words of Benjamin Yellow BenjyMelendez how, in the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, he formed the Ghetto Brothers, quickly turning it into the largest and most powerful Puerto Rican gang.

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

With fighting curtailed, all those bored, frustrated kids needed new outlets for their pent-up energies and what slowly emerged was today’s Rap and Hip-Hop movement…

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

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

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

Snakepit Gets Old: Daily Diary Comics 2010-2012


By Ben Snakepit (Microcosm Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-62106-596-8

If you’ve ever made your own comics or art or music you probably know how addictive that act of creation can become. Pity then poor Ben Snakepit; a bass-playing DIY punk living in Austin, Texas…

He attended Virginia Commonwealth University as a graphic arts major and in 2000 after living his life for a bit began documenting his day. He has done so ever since, three panels per diem, rain or shine, in sickness or in health; immortalising his dire, dreary day-jobs, the bands he’s in and out of (Ghost Knife, Modok, Shit Creek, Shanghai River, J-Church, The Sword), his romantic life, meals, the war against expanding waistlines, sundry friendships, an apparent addiction to computer games, various Star Trek iterations and so many movies and comics. The irresistible making and selling and reading of funnybooks…

The journal cartoons are all delivered in a raw yet deliciously engaging, self-deprecating manner that is impossible to resist, and at the start of this collection he explains why, even though he swore to only draw the strip for ten years (beginning in the summer of 2000), he just can’t stop, before going on to delineate some of the most important moments of his life so far in a non-stop parade of funny, sad, sweet, pitiable and enviable inky snapshots…

Constantly decrying his ability to draw the simplest or most familiar things, he has shared his life in the strips (previously progressively gathered as The Snakepit Book, My Life in a Jugular Vein, Snakepit 2007, Snakepit 2008, Snakepit 2009 and the tome under review here).

As this sublimely readable tome proves, there are actually no unremarkable lives and Snakepit Gets Old is an experience celebrating simple happiness and everyday contentment which you won’t soon forget by a very special author who doesn’t know how to quit…

You can’t see it, but this volume includes a second invisible cover overprinted on the first and only to be seen by holding the book up to the light in a skewed manner. Cool…
He hasn’t said it but I’m guessing © 2015 Ben Snakepit.

Justice Society of America: The Bad Seed


By Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, Jesus Merino & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2714-2

The Justice Society of America was created for the third issue (Winter 1940/1941) of All-Star Comics, an anthology title featuring established characters from various All-American Comics publications. The magic was sparked by the simple expedient of having assorted heroes gather around a table and tell each other their latest adventure. From this low-key collaboration it wasn’t long before the guys – and they were all white men (except Red Tornado who merely pretended to be one) – joined forces on a regular basis to defeat the greatest villains and challenge the social ills of their generation. Within months the concept had spread far and wide…

And so the Justice Society of America is rightly revered as a true landmark in the development of comicbooks. When Julius Schwartz re-energised the superhero genre in the late 1950s, the game-changing moment came with the inevitable teaming of the reconfigured mystery men into a Justice League of America.

From there it wasn’t long until the original and genuine article returned. Despite many attempts to revive the team’s popularity however it wasn’t until 1999, on the back of both the highly successful rebooting of the JLA by Grant Morrison & Howard Porter and the seminal but critically favoured new Starman series by Golden Age devotee James Robinson, that the multi-generational team found a new mission and fan-base big enough to support them. As the century ended the original superteam returned and have been with us in one form or another ever since.

This iteration, called to order after Infinite Crisis and Identity Crisis, found the last surviving heroes from World War II acting as mentors and teachers for the latest generation of young champions and metahuman “legacy-heroes” (family successors or inheritors of departed champions’ powers or code-names): a large, cumbersome but captivating combination of raw talent and uneasy exuberance with weary hard-earned experience.

And this slim compilation, collecting JSA volume 3 #29-33 (September 2009 to January 2010) details their greatest challenge, how they met it and what resulted from it…

Accepting the necessity of becoming elder statesmen to the next generations of heroes as well as defenders of the right, the already ponderous organisation began inviting ‘Fresh Meat’ to sign up. Unfortunately as they induct effusive All-American Kid and moody teen King Chimera, the JSA discover their mystic guardian Obsidian has been reduced to an inert egg of dormant ebony energy…

Even as they interview the newbies and probe the cause of the dark avenger’s strange transformation, news arrives of a massive super-villain army attacking the city.

Exactly how to respond reignites a doctrinal debate between old school brawler Wildcat and military martinet Magog, but soon the heroes head off en masse, leaving super-genius Mr. Terrific to mind the juniors and investigate Obsidian’s condition…

The metahuman confrontation is a trap. An unknown mastermind has gathered an army of super-creeps specially chosen to counter individual JSA-ers and put bounties on all the heroes’ heads…

As a colossal battle ensues in the heart of the city something strange becomes apparent. Although the brutes, beasts and monsters run amok and mercilessly assault the JSA-ers they actually attack each other whenever teen hero Stargirl gets into the firing line.

For some reason the mystery Machiavelli behind the coalition of evil has specified that if she is even scratched nobody gets paid…

And as the super-war escalates, back at the JSA Brownstone Mr. Terrific is brutally stabbed by the last person he expected…

Caught completely by surprise the JSA are soon reduced to baffled Stargirl and defiant Jay Garrick standing over the battered bodies of their comrades. The first Flash is forced to risk everything on the villains obeying orders as he rushes off in ‘Hot Pursuit’ of major reinforcements and returns almost instantly with Doctor Fate: a crime-fighting mage with the powers of a god… or so the villains believe…

With the bad guys fleeing in terror the thrashed heroes regroup at their HQ and discover Terrific bleeding out. As magic-wielders and medical doctors strive to keep his fading spark alive, Magog and Wildcat renew their argument about how the team should be run and already-frayed tempers snap…

‘New Blood, Old Blood, Spilled Blood’ sees the medical contingent working miracles to keep Terrific alive as Flash and Power Girl begin reconstructing the murder attempt and grilling the few villains they managed to capture. Soon the big scheme is starting to become clear – even if Stargirl’s sacrosanct status is not – and when the reconvened evil army attacks, even the worst possible news about Terrific is not enough to hinder the fighting mad champions in ‘The Worth of a Hero’

The truth about the traitor comes out in the final climactic clash and even though the greater plot remains unsolved, the resurgent team storms to another astounding against-the-odds victory. However in the rubble of their home and shattered unity it becomes clear that to survive at all the Justice Society has to ‘Split Up’

To Be Continued…

Scripted with deft skill by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges and compellingly limned by Jesus Merino – who should be paid a major bonus for keeping distinct and dynamic the hordes of heroes and villains populating this shocking saga – The Bad Seed is another blockbusting epic that will delight the already informed but might well be all but unreadable to anyone not deeply immersed in the complex continuity of DC’s last three decades.

Nevertheless, if you love Fights ‘n’ Tights mass melodrama and are prepared to do a little reading around then you might find yourself with a whole new universe to play in…
© 2009, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Asterix and the Picts


By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, translated by Anthea Bell (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4440-1167-8

Asterix began life in the last year of the 1950s and has become part of the fabric of French life. His adventures touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comic serial subsequently collected into book-length compilations, in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – was the first to be released as a complete original album prior to serialisation. Thereafter each new album was an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees, but none more so than this one, created by Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) – who landed the somewhat poisoned chalice after he retired in 2009.

Happily the legacy is in safe hands, and this first book at least has been meticulously overseen by Uderzo every step of the way…

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a punfully sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, the new tale is just as engrossing as the established canon and English-speakers are still happily graced with the brilliantly light touch of translator Anthea Bell who, with former collaborator Derek Hockridge, played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so palatable to English sensibilities.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics are set in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the rest take place in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 B.C., a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resisted every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Amorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be pacified. The Romans, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the Gauls come and go as they please. Thus a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by simply going about their everyday affairs, protected by a miraculous magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Astérix chez les Pictes was released in October 2013, simultaneously hurtling off British shelves as Asterix and the Picts, and opens in February with snow piled deep in the village and all around its weathered stockade. Eager to avoid the usual spats, snipes and contretemps of their fellows, doughty little Asterix and his affable pal Obelix go for a bracing walk on the beach and discover lots of flotsam and jetsam: Roman helmets, old amphorae, a huge cake of ice with a strange tattooed giant inside…

Swiftly taking their find back to their fascinated friends, the pals are informed by Getafix that the kilted fellow appears to be a Pict from distant Caledonia on the other side of the sea – another tribe ferociously resistant to Roman rule.

The find polarises the village: the men are wary and distrustful but the women seem to find the hibernating Hibernian oddly fascinating. So great is the furore over the discovery that nobody bats an eyelid when Roman census-taker Limitednumbus sidles into the village eager to list everything going on and everyone doing it…

Before long Getafix has safely defrosted the giant but the ordeal has left the iceman speechless. That only makes him more interesting to the wowed womenfolk…

A smidgeon more Druid magic gives him a modicum of voice – although very little of it is comprehensible – and before long Chief Vitalstatistix orders his mismatched go-to guys to take ship and bring the bonnie boy back to his own home, wherever it is.

…And with the gorgeous tattooed giant gone, the bedazzled village women will go back to normal again. At least that’s the Chief’s fervent hope…

After tearful farewells (from about half of the village) the voyagers head out and are soon encouraged when the Pict suddenly regains his power of speech. In fact he then can’t stop gabbing, even when the Gauls meet their old chums the Pirates and indulge in the traditional one-sided trading of blows.

The reinvigorated hunk is called Macaroon and soon is sharing his tale of woe and unrequited love even as the little boat steadily sails towards his home.

Macaroon lives on one side of Loch Androll and loves Camomilla, daughter of the chieftain Mac II. However ambitious, unscrupulous rival chieftain Maccabaeus from across the water wanted to marry her and cunningly disposed of his only rival by tying him to a tree-trunk and casting him into the freezing coastal waters…

Meanwhile in Caledonia, a Roman expeditionary force led by Centurion Pretentius has arrived and makes its way to a rendezvous with a potential ally: a chief of the Maccabees clan willing to invite the devious, all-conquering empire into the previously undefeated land of the Picts…

Once Macaroon and his Gallic comrades reach home turf they are feted by his amazed and overjoyed clan whilst across the loch the traitor is trying to placate his own men who have witnessed the giant’s return and believe him a ghost…

Villainous Maccabaeus is only days away from becoming King of all the Picts. He even holds captive Camomilla – whom he will wed to cement his claim – and with the Romans to enforce his rule looks forward to a very comfortable future. He will not tolerate anything ruining his plans at this late stage…

Things come to crisis when Macaroon has a sudden relapse and the Druid’s remedy to restore him is lost at the bottom of a loch thanks to the playfulness of the tribe’s colossal and revered water totem “the Great Nessie”.

When Asterix and Obelix helpfully offer to retrieve it they discover a tunnel under the loch which leads into the Maccabees fortress which is simply stuffed with lots of lovely Romans to pummel…

With the jig up and Camomilla rescued, the scene is set for a spectacular and hilarious final confrontation that will set everything to rights in the tried-and-true, bombastic grand old manner…

Fast, funny, stuffed with action and hilarious, tongue-in-cheek hi-jinks, this is another joyous rocket-paced rollercoaster for lovers of laughs and devotees of comics to accept into the mythic canon.
© 2013 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2013 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra


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

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

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

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

America’s history of Jim Crow laws and institutionalised racism throughout the media had driven him away and long-stifled the dreams of generations of African-Americans looking for a hero of their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now with the first epic extravaganza compiled into one scotching saga, action fans have a chance for another bite of the cherry (sorry, couldn’t resist)…

During the Great War, Matthew “Mad Dog” Day found fame and a little prosperity as a soldier-of-fortune fighting all over the world; attaining the respect and acclaim no North Carolina negro could have by staying in America…

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

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

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

Years passed and in 1923 the boy and his sister learned another salutary lesson when their parents were murdered by unknown assassins in Spain.

By 1935 Arron has surpassed his father and become a globetrotting man of wealth and means by way of his own martial talents. Possessing a keen sense of justice and never one to shy away from conflict or confrontation, he has used that money to challenge the American Way by buying a palatial home on Manhattan’s West Side, flying in the face of hostility and outright bigotry, even from the city police …

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

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

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

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

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra will be in stores from July 15th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or comic shop

Twin Spica volume 9


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-23-0

Kou Yaginuma first captured the hearts and minds with poignant short story 2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi (2015: Fireworks, published in Gekkan Comics Flapper, June 2000), before expanding the subject and themes into a major manga epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

2024 AD: diminutive teenager Asumi Kamogawa has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the solitary child gazed up at the stars with imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially gripped by the twinkling glow of Virgo and alluring binary star Spica.

An isolated, serious child, she lived with her father, a common labourer who had once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

When Asumi was one year old, the first Japanese manned launch ended in catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded during its maiden flight: crashing to earth on the coastal city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother.

Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster Japan set up an astronautics and space sciences training facility where, after years of determined struggle, Asumi was accepted by the Tokyo National Space School. Slowly making friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (who used to bully her as a child in school), boisterous Kei Oumi, chilly and distant Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool Shu Suzuki, Asumi inexorably moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Against all odds – she is small, shy, retiring, looks weak and is very poor – Asumi endures and always succeeds. She still talks with Mr. Lion, who seems to be the ghost of an astronaut from the Shishigō

Individual instalments in these compelling monochrome volumes are presented as “Missions”, methodically combining into an overarching mosaic detailing the subtle interconnectedness of generations of characters, all linked by the call of the heavens.

Volume 9 comprises numbers 47-55, and also includes a brace of enchanting autobiographical vignettes from the author’s own teenage years.

As Asumi sleeps the story resumes with Mission: 47 and a flashback to happier times in Yuigahama when the class buried a time capsule and revealed what they wanted to do as adults. There and then brash little Fuchuya found a library book with a picture of an astronaut who had come from the tragic town…

The repose resolves into a rush as Asumi and Kei hurry to their first day as Juniors at the Tokyo School. En route they discover classmate Shu Suzuki has become an overnight celebrity as news of his short-listing to join a US space mission has become public. They are even door-stepped at the gate by an inquisitive reporter who has his own reasons for remembering the Lion…

The jaded hack’s breath is taken away when enigmatic, aloof Ukita follows them in. He has seen her before – or a least someone from long ago who looks exactly as she does now…

Tetchy Fuchuya’s impatience with the Principal’s welcome speech is only exacerbated when the girls of the new intake bombard him with stupid questions about classmate and superstar Shu. His mood is only changed later when he inadvertently discovers proud Ukita is secretly working in a coffee shop…

Nothing stops Kei flying off the handle when a bunch of loudmouths snipe behind Suzuki’s back, accusing him of using Space School to further his well-connected family’s political ambitions. Only Shu himself can convince the infuriated girl to back down and apologise. He doesn’t care what anybody says: he’s one step closer to space…

And at Asauri News HQ, journalist Ichimura finally finds a photo of that troubling girl from decades ago…

Mission: 48 sees Asumi welcoming new student Mikan Tokushima to the Seagull Hostel before reporting to class for the latest in the never-ending series of gruelling physical and mental challenges designed to winnow out all but the very best potential astronauts. The arduous decompression tests seem to have a salutary effect on Oumi though; she has never seemed so determined or uncomplaining. Perhaps it’s because she loves Suzuki and wants to be worthy of him…

When a little kid gives Asumi a note and map, the trail takes her to a certain coffee shop and a strange confrontation with Marika. It seems the ice-maiden has been taking steps to learn how to interact with people…

Asumi is unsettled. As she discusses things with Mr. Lion that night, it feels like she is the only one incapable of change or progress. She couldn’t be more wrong, as unwilling big-shot Shu points out to Mikan whilst they watch her doggedly run on the sports track next day. Everyone else in class envies her determination and covets her stamina: she’s the one the entire new intake should be patterning themselves on…

Mission: 49 offers another revelatory flashback as a relentless and troubled man finally uncovers the truth behind the Lion: how government cost-cutting, political chicanery and PR glad-handing resulted in a second-rate spaceship and a rush to launch before every detail was checked. Now in possession of the full facts, aggrieved Dr. Sano is ready to make the guilty ones pay and he’s starting with Space School Chair Mr. Shiomi

As he’s taken away by police, Sano asks Asumi to give a package to her dad; his fellow disgraced rocket design engineer on the Lion project…

In the wake of the Shishigō disaster, Tomoro Kamogawa was assigned by the corporation who built the ship to head a reparations committee. Guilt-wracked and personally bereaved, the devastated technologist had to visit and formally apologise to each and every survivor or victim’s grieving family. The experience completely destroyed him.

He lost all joy and faith in the space program, having lost his wife, his career and his pride to the race for the stars. He raised his daughter alone by working two and often three menial jobs at a time for over a decade and could not countenance losing the very last of his loved ones to the cold black heavens.

Eventually he accepted Asumi’s decision and dream but as Mission: 50 opens, the records Sano has sent to his old lab partner carry him spiralling back to those heady days of his own stellar ambitions…

Sano has his own memories to torment him: a wonderful woman who loved him and went to Yuigahama to witness his “triumph”, even though he stubbornly refused to go.

A little later, the old engineering comrades meet up again and share a new dream…

Life goes on and training continues in Mission 51 with the Junior year experiencing their first taste of the G-Force simulator. When Shu has an adverse reaction, Ukita is particularly concerned. She has seen his symptoms before but Suzuki brushes it all off and asks her not to report what she suspects…

The quixotic class frontrunners are slowly becoming inseparable friends and as days pass Marika becomes embroiled by a strange new mystery: someone is leaving her odd cartoon messages at work…

And in a playground lonely Mr. Lion is lost in his own memories; concerned if he is really helping his “little one”…

Mission 52 finds Asumi coping with an unexpected and perhaps unwelcome visitor. Kasane Shibata is an old schoolmate from Yuigahama whom Asumi barely knew, but now she’s come looking for something but cannot explain what or why…

In 53 the mystery deepens as Kasane’s obvious lie about attending preparatory exam classes is proved false when Fuchuya catches her sleeping in a park, but Asumi’s gentle confrontation in Mission 54 not only uncovers the roots of her fellow crash survivor’s problems but also offers her a new path to happiness…

The story glides to a temporary halt with Mission 55 as at Asauri News, Ichimura gets closer to an astounding conclusion whilst at Space School the Juniors learn of their next extra-curricular exercise. There is a frightening subtext to the outing: they will be competing against robots that the funding authorities are considering using in space instead of – not beside – living astronauts…

Moreover, whilst the students fret and train, journalist Ichimura intently watches Marika, having just uncovered her improbable connection to life-sciences mogul Senri Ukita, a publicity-shy mystery-man the reporter knows from long ago…

To Be Continued…

Also included in this volume are two more wistfully autobiographical ‘Another Spica’ vignettes culled from author Yaginuma’s lovelorn days as a part-time server on a soft-drink stand in a theme park; the first focussing on his youthful ambitions – girls or drawing – whilst the latter ponders the power and worth of regret…

These magically moving marvels originally appeared in 2006 as Futatsu no Supika 10 and 11 in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeted at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica ran from September 2001-August 2009: sixteen volumes tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to trained astronauts, and the series has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful saga has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery and frustrated passion, alienation, angst and true friendships; all welded seamlessly into a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones, raucous humour and masses of sheer sentiment.

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma/MEDIA FACTORY Inc. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

Green Manor volume 2: The Inconvenience of Being Dead


By Bodart & Vehlmann, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook Expresso)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-64-9

The French are generally considered more passionate than us Brits and always eager to dole out grandiose appellations and epithets about creators, but they’re very seldom wrong in their acclamations. Writer Fabien Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”.

Vehlmann entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, studying business management before taking a job with a theatre group. In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Spirou, he caught the comics bug ands two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a quirky, mordantly dark and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor.

The blackly funny pastiche of Victoriana’s seamy underside appeared sporadically until 2005 (and was revived in 2011), whilst the author spread his wings with a swathe of other features such as Wondertown (with Benoît Feroumont) and hugely popular children’s thriller Seuls (with artist Bruno Gazzotti) before undertaking a high-profile stint on prestigious all-ages adventure strip Spirou et Fantasio.

Vehlmann continues to craft enticing, engaging tales for kids (Samedi et Dimanche) but is equally at home with more mature fare like Sept psychopathes (with Sean Phillips). For a while he even drew his own strip Bob le Cowboy

Partner-in-perfidy on Green Manor Denis Bodart studied at the Saint Luc academy in Brussels before taking up teaching. He too soon descended into a life in comics, debuting in 1985 with Saint-Germaine des Morts (scripted by Streng) for publisher Bédéscope.

Three years later he co-created – with writer Yann (Yannick Le Pennetier) – Célestin Speculoos for Circus and Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes whilst earning a crust as a jobbing freelance comics artist with work regularly appearing in Spirou and elsewhere.

Following his highly acclaimed turn here he moved on to succeed Jean-Maire Beuriot as artist of Casterman’s prestigious Amours Fragiles.

This double-length compact Cinebook edition compiles the final pair of original volumes – De l’inconvénient d’être mort and Fantaisies meurtrières – which saw Green Manor’s continual catalogue of high society crime, calumny and depravity lead to its inevitable sorry conclusion…

The premise is deliciously simple and wickedly palatable. As seen in the first collection, prominent alienist Dr. Thorne has become obsessed with an inmate known as Thomas Below currently incarcerated in the infamous Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital.

That poor unfortunate had served as a discreet domestic in a private Gentleman’s Club for his entire life and became violently delusional mere days before retirement. Thorne questions the madman and realises the sorry soul before him believes he is Green Manor incarnate. He has certainly been privy to all that strange place’s secrets, surprises and hushed-up scandals, but can the horrific and bizarre tales he shares possibly be true in whole or in part?

The Inconvenience of Being Dead resumes the unconventional interviews in 1899 as Thorne is dragged from his bed to attend Below once again, but this time the need is most urgent. The old retainer has escaped, broken into a house and taken a family hostage.

Hesitantly the healer makes his approach and engages the affable maniac in conversation and all too readily Below begins telling more tales of rich, powerful and ostensibly honourable men at their most excessive and unbearable…

The macabre menu of skits and sketches begins with ‘Child’s Play’ from March 1871 wherein cruel Lord Virgil observes and is incensed by a passive, gentle servant with the patience of Job instantly resolving to turn the saint into a murdering thing of evil.

Admitting to possessing a foolproof, infallible and much proven method of killing-by-proxy to a roomful of The Great and the Good gathered around, Virgil determines to drive good-natured George into eternally debasing and damning himself by using the process to save himself from torment.

Sadly one man’s torment is another man’s test of faith and the good George is far from predictable…

In 1885 dilettante supernaturalist Joseph Sharp returned from Prague after a fruitless shopping trip for magical spells and objects to find his best friend Mark Abbott languishing under the force of a family curse. However, detailed investigation of ‘The mark of the beast’ and a ghastly family secret in a crypt only proved once again that the unknown has very little force or impact when measured against a mother’s hate, the infinite patience of the tormented and a victim’s fevered imagination…

One night in 1876 Lord Justice Sherman realised he had condemned an innocent man to death, even though not a shred of evidence existed to confirm his opinion. With one night remaining to save his man, the elderly jurist took to the streets of London to find the true culprit and succeeded, utterly unaware that the malefactor involved had already taken vengeance for the judge’s noble act in advance of its completion and Sherman’s ‘Last Wishes’

In 1897 bombastic, belligerent General Miller gloated at the Club that he had at last come into possession of the fabled Spear of Longinus. The military martinet had no fear of the legends and many deaths laid upon the artefact or ‘The Centurion’s Shadow’, but was beguiled by its repute as a tool to make great men all-conquering.

Nevertheless he was soon one more corpse attributed to the talisman – and not the last – until a pair of the Club’s armchair investigators applied learning and logic, exposing a deadly trap constructed by one of history’s greatest thinkers…but just a little too late…

With the hostage crisis coming to end Below tells his most shocking epigram as ‘Voodoo Night’ finds the gathered gentlemen casually dissecting a juicy murder one night in December 1870 over cigars and brandy.

With irreconcilable facts and impossible assumptions heatedly flying about, soon only absurdity or the supernatural are left as answers to the mystery of the slaying of boorish lout Lord Killian, but in another room the genteel conversation of the closeted Ladies married to the assemblage of tobacco-smoking idiots soon reveals a so-simple truth…

The last legends of the Club are gathered in Murderous Fancies as the increasingly obsessed Thorne receives word that Below has passed away. Briefly thinking himself free at last, it is with mixed feeling that the doctor takes custody of the illegible scrawls of the troubled retainer and wearily, warily begins to decipher them…

‘Endgame’ relates an incident from June 1871 when the Club was driven to distraction by the will of recently paralysed Lord Wyatt. It was in the form of a nonsense riddle and the first to solve it would win all Wyatt’s prodigious wealth…

At the same time the executor secretly consults with dementia expert Dr. Sheffer over the mental state of his master. The aristocrat claims his parlous condition is the result of a murder attempt and this riddle might well be a trap to catch the assailant. Sheffer knows better but soon has every reason to regret his rash conclusions…

‘A Small Crime Serenade’ finds an aged and innocuous gentleman in garrulous mood one night in 1867, sharing with a dutiful Club servant his great gift and passion: a life-long ability to get away with murder. Sadly his boast of capping his career with one final killing is derailed by a most unanticipated event…

In 1827 talk at Green Manor was of only one matter: the recent demise of a radical libertarian poet. Especially fervent was young devotee Dr. Daniel Ballantyne who promptly fell for a cruel prank when the Club grandees purportedly offered him a chance to autopsy the body and look ‘In the Head of William Blake’. They had arranged that what he saw would be like nothing he had ever experienced…

Ballantyne disappeared that night and in the cold light of day an inexorable campaign of terror began as the japesters were slowly driven mad by notes threatening vengeance from the “Tygers of Wrath”…

In lighter vein, ‘Fight to the Finish’ related how two bored big game hunters invented an imaginative game in May 1859. Their aim was to determine who exactly was the absolute best. The prey was to be each other but, although the rules of the competition were strict and fair, as the days progressed it seemed that neither Lord Bennett nor Lord Turner were as able or as gentlemanly as they claimed…

The dead man’s tales ended with a chilling homily from 1872 wherein the cream of society discussed the strange case of Lord Sanders who had blighted his own financial empire and destroyed his greedy heirs by cruelly and carefully tying the purse-strings of their inheritances.

The dominating oligarch had left a vast list of tasks for his four children to fulfil in ‘The Testament’; far too many for any person or persons to complete before getting their undeserving hands on his ill-gotten gains.

Of course even he could not predict how and where greed and frustration could take a desperate man…

And with that final story shared, Below no longer plagued the good doctor’s days, but his influence remained long after he was gone…

Wry, witty, wickedly funny and sublimely entertaining, The Inconvenience of Being Dead offers a supremely damning glimpse at High Society’s low morals which will delight and astound lovers of sly crime fiction, rich black comedy and classy comics confabulations.
Original edition © Dupuis 2005 by Vehlmann & Bodart. All rights reserved. English translation 2008 by Cinebook Ltd.

Small Press Sunday

I started out in this game just before the pyramids were built, making minicomics, collaborating on fanzines and concocting stripzines with fellow weirdoes, outcasts and comics addicts. Even today, seeing the raw stuff of creativity in hand-crafted paper pamphlets – or better yet professionally printed packages which put dreamers’ money where their mouths are – still gets me going in ways that threaten my tired old heart…

With that in mind here’s a quartet of little gems and treats that have landed in my review tray recently…

Wolf Country #1-4
By Jim Alexander, Will Pickering & Luke Cooper (Planet Jimbot)

No ISBNs:

As well as stunning graphic novels, independent publisher Planet Jimbot (likely lads Jim Alexander & Jim Campbell) also deliver proper comicbooks, and possibly their best title of the moment is an eerie ongoing otherworld religio-political saga with disturbing echoes of Westerns like Unforgiven and The Searchers.

Of course here the “good guys” are a sect of devout vampires stuck in a fort in the desolate badlands, surrounded by hostile tribes of werewolves, whilst their own progress-minded government are methodically abandoning the old ways they cherish in favour of a soulless, ruthless, rationalist super-state…

Wolf Country #1 by Alexander and illustrator Luke Cooper opens in the big city and introduces ‘Luke’, a young man with a potent future which begins to unfold when a gigantic wolf-thing goes rogue in the metropolis yet is somehow miraculously destroyed by the inconsequential waif.

Three years later the infamous “Boy Who Killed Wolf” has relocated to The Settlement, a fundamentalist outpost on the frontier between vampire and werewolf territories where the faithful follow the doctrines of their Holy Scriptures and daily confront their eternal enemies in the traditional ways. Here, after a close encounter with the hirsute savages, young Luke explains what actually happened that night to his companion, mentor and chief scout Carmichael

The boy’s unlikely feat made him an overnight sensation among vampire-kind, a symbol of prophecy proved; but the adulation and agendas of others were not for him and as soon as he reached his majority – and despite being an unbeliever – he headed out to The Settlement to live his own life and seek his own answers…

Perhaps it was that drive that compelled him to go native and stay out all alone in the wilderness after he and Carmichael narrowly escaped a wolf attack…


Wolf Country #2 finds Will Pickering taking up the illustrator’s burden – although Cooper remains as cover artist – as ‘Kingdom Come’ follows Settlement leader Zealot Halfpenny as he reluctantly transports a captured werewolf back to the decadent, science-loving city.

It is not his idea. As the helicopter takes the sacrificial beast to The Kingdom for the populace’s regular Bread-and Circuses bloodletting, Halfpenny is ordered to stay aboard whilst a contingent of arrogant, irreverent, heavily-armed troops billet themselves in his spartan badlands fort.

It seems the High Executor himself wants to see the leader of the quaint religious freaks. Apparently there is talk and fallout over The Settlement’s loss of the legendary and beloved “Boy Who Killed Wolf”…

Later, whilst menacing atheist Sergeant Urquhart attempts to intimidate and dominate the settlers, in faraway City Chambers Halfpenny learns the real reason he has been summoned…


The suspense mounts in ‘Wax and Wane’ (WC #3, which also proudly lists the plethora of awards the first two issues garnered) when, at the Settlement, Urquhart presses the devout throwbacks into joining him in a sortie against the lupine tribes just as the moon enters its most dangerous phase.

Meanwhile in the Kingdom, Halfpenny is dragooned into working as a stalking horse for the draconian Department of Purity, interviewing a radical named Fabian currently living in the bloodily bohemian enclave of wrong-thinkers and backwards-lookers dubbed “Free State”…

In the badlands natural foes Carmichael and Urquhart warily test each other out and quite forget who their real enemies are, but in Free State Halfpenny’s interview with Fabian goes disastrously awry. The rebel has honeyed words and access to sacred writings which shake the pious outsider to his core, but before he can properly form a response the Executor’s troops move in and start slaughtering…

Meanwhile back at the Settlement, with the soldiers and male settlers still deep in-country, the massed wolf tribes attack the fort…


Fresh off the presses, Wolf County #4 (with supplemental interior art from Cooper) brings us up to date and pops the mounting tension bubble with all-out action as the Settlement walls are breached before the ‘Cavalry’ arrive, whilst in Free State a murderous riot ensues and Halfpenny reveals the uncanny abilities which underpin his ferocious reverence to Scripture…

And in the bloody aftermath at the fort, an unchecked and out-of-control Urquhart now turns his sadistic attention on the settlers in his quest for the truth about Luke’s whereabouts…

To Be Continued…

Brooding, intriguing and utterly compelling from the get-go, Wolf Country takes an overworked trope and transfuses it with new sparkle and true potency as heroism, passion, faith and ambition all take a pounding as a war between Church and State becomes increasingly derailed by hairy barbarians at the gate and the visions of an outrider from the wilderness divining a dangerous and radical third way for all…

Story © 2013, 2014, 2015 Jim Alexander. Art © 2014, 2015 Will Pickering. Issue one art © 2013, Luke Cooper.

Wolf Country and other fine comics and books are available at the Planet Jimbot shop so go to : https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PlanetJimbot