Manga Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream


By William Shakespeare, illustrated by Kate Brown and adapted by Richard Appignanesi (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-0-9552856-4-6

With the Bard of Avon seemingly everywhere at the moment, I’m taking the chance to leap on yet another bandwagon and using this jolly little graphic treat to opportunistically make myself seem a bit clever…

As far as we can tell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written and first performed between 1590 and 1597. It is a fantastical comedy of wonder and folly dealing with the unlikely concatenation of events surrounding the marriage of Athenian Duke Theseus to stately Hippolyta. The impending nuptials affect four young lovers who don’t know their own heads – let alone hearts – and a half-dozen of hoi-polloi workers wanting to perform a celebratory play for their lord.

Sadly in those days, fairies and supernatural sorts gleefully messed with mortals when not selfishly scoring points off each other, and the spiteful machinations of occult overlord Oberon when crossed by his wife Titania has startling repercussions for the humans of every class and manner…

The immortal story has made it into comics form numerous times and, if you’re one of the precious few people unfamiliar with the tale (firstly, shame on you and secondly, go watch it right now; there are many excellent filmed versions in every possible language) this imaginatively welcoming rendition is extremely easy to take up…

SelfMadeHero is a British publisher specialising in literary graphic novels. Their top lines include a number of Shakespeare adaptations in child-friendly manga form and Eye Classics, concentrating on modern masterpieces by the likes of Poe and Kafka. Also in their expanding repertoire are Sherlock Holmes tales, Crime Classics and sequential narrative biographies…

There’s no point précising the plot [see the damn’ play!], but adaptor Richard Appignanesi (Italia Perverso, Yukio Mishima’s Report to the Emperor) with the assistance of consultant Nick de Somogyi and splendorous illustrator Kate Brown (Young Avengers, Fish + Chocolate, Tamsin and the Deep) have conspired to create a truly engaging scenario.

Visually casting the unfolding events in a nebulous near-future where the deathless prose (iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets actually…), forest frolics and pastoral scenes are accompanied by interior settings and costumes at once authentically vintage and comforting futuristic – togas, tee-shirts and sneakers: like an old episode of Dr. Who or Star Trek – the overall effect is at once accommodating, exotic and intriguing.

Augmented by textual features ‘Plot Summary of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘A Brief Life of William Shakespeare’, this appetising colour-&-monochrome treat is a terrific read and timeless visit to the realm of romantic wonder. Better yet, it’s still readily available through many online vendors…
© 2008 SelfMadeHero. All rights reserved.

Little Adventures in Oz volume 1


By Eric Shanower (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-589-0

We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz – or at least the bare bones of it as harvested to make the admittedly stunning 1939 movie classic – but the truth is that there is a vast surplus of fantastic wonders from that legendary 1900 novel by jobbing journalist and prolific author Lyman Frank Baum that remained unfilmed.

Happily this collection of superb and faithful extrapolations by rabid fan Eric Shanower draws heavily from the prose canon, restoring almost all of those glaring tinseltown omissions and alterations whilst keeping in play all those beloved stars the wider world knows. He does so with stunning skill, wondrous wit and mesmerising charm.

As superb an illustrator as author, Shanower (whose far too occasional “straight” comics work includes Prez: Smells Like Teen President, The Elsewhere Prince and the astoundingly ambitious Age of Bronze) produced five original albums set in Baum’s magic kingdom for independent publisher First Comics’ groundbreaking line of graphic novels, all codified as Adventures in Oz.

Between 1986 and 1992 he crafted The Enchanted Apples of Oz, The Secret Island of Oz, The Ice King of Oz, The Forgotten Forest of Oz, and The Blue Witch of Oz; since then going on to release a new prose work, numerous short stories and scholarly contributions to various academic and critical volumes on Baum and his creations.

In 2007 Shanower paired with Skottie Young at Marvel Comics to adapt the original Baum books in a stellar sequence which utterly reinvigorated the immortal franchise. That inspired the repackaging of his earlier one-man show and the comic tales were eventually compiled into a set of scintillating chronicles as Little Adventures in Oz. This initial volume reproduces the first and third so-very beautiful Shanower albums, repackaged and remastered in a splendid new edition, bundled up with a glittering hoard of visual treasures and behind-the-scenes gems to delight every devotee of the canon and lover of modern fairy tales.

The extraordinary excursion to miraculous lands and climes opens with a beautiful map of the incredible kingdom and its environs, before launching into 1986’s The Enchanted Apples of Oz.

Kansas expatriate Dorothy Gale is strolling along the Yellow Brick Road with Scarecrow and wise hen Billina when a magical castle materialises. Entering the sparkling keep, they meet stately Valynn who has in the courtyard ‘The Apple Tree’ which has sustained Oz since time began. Its enchanted fruits are what underpin the realm’s magic; allowing chickens to talk, imbuing inanimate objects with life and dangerously capable of breaking any enchantment…

Such a resource has made the place a target for evil-doers so for many lonely centuries solitary sentinel Valynn has defended the castle, most notably from sinister sorcerer Bortag

Touched by the guardian’s lonely plight, Dorothy takes her to see Queen Ozma, in hope of relieving her of the onerous duty. Bortag, however, has not ended his depredations and swoops down on his flying swordfish Drox, making short work of Scarecrow and Billina who have volunteered to guard the tree in Valynn’s absence.

His sack full of stolen fruit, the sinister scrumper then rushes to the edge of Oz – just where it meets the Deadly Desert – and feeds his plunder to a hideous sleeping hag. She is the legendarily evil Wicked Witch of the South and, horrifically, at first touch of the plundered pippins ‘The Witch Awakes’

Secrets are revealed in ‘Bortag’s Unfortunate Past’ as the homely Quadling mage is spurned by the monster he has loved for countless ages. She immediately returns to the tree and begins voraciously consuming Enchanted Apples. With each bite magic diminishes and the fabulous denizens of Oz become increasingly mundane. Billina barely has time to convince the jilted wizard to fix the crisis his unrequited love has caused before she reverts to a mere clucking fowl…

With all Oz’s mystical champions helpless before the Witch, it’s up to Dorothy and grieving, repentant lovelorn Bortag to stop the Witch’s brutal depredations. Luckily, they still have one advantage: ‘The Magic Belt’

Witty, wise, thrilling and potent with the narrative power of comradeship and redemption, this stunning yarn is followed by another lavishly-limned suspenseful thriller as The Ice King of Oz opens with ‘The Proposal’

The Emerald City is abuzz with excitement as a heretofore-unknown realm sends a diplomatic delegation to Oz. After the usual exchange of fantastic gifts the ambassador Popsicle drops his bombshell. The Ice King intends to cleave to other traditional forms of alliance by marrying Princess Dorothy…

The revelation is greeted with great surprise and a gentle but firm refusal which only results in ‘Treachery’ as the icy embassage vanishes overnight, taking Ozma with them as a flash-frozen prisoner.

A hurried council-of-war results in hastily-assembled rescue party, supplemented by new companion Flicker. Originally a human Candle-Maker, he was turned into a one of his own tapers by the Wicked Witch of the West. Only recently restored to life, he remains a man made of wax with a head fiercely aflame…

Transported in a magical vehicle by Glinda the Good’s sorcery, Dorothy, Scarecrow, tin man Nick Chopper and Flicker voyage ever southward to ‘The Land of Ice’ enduring many sub-zero perils until they broach the snowy wastelands and find themselves ‘In the Ice Palace’

However, after a calamitous confrontation against the cold commander’s amassed legions, our heroes seem doomed to remain ‘In the Ice King’s Power’ until Dorothy’s common sense and Flicker’s valiant determination find a way to pierce his frozen façade…

Compellingly, hypnotically illustrated and written with beguiling grace, this is a fabulous romp for devotees and newcomers alike, and this captivating collection also includes a vast treasure-trove of extras beginning with a sublime Art Gallery of original covers, painted cover studies, character designs, early concept-art, plus the first four pages of an as-yet unfinished tale entitled ‘General Jinjur of Oz’.

Word of Warning: do not read this. It’s utterly brilliant and causes a real wrench when you realise there’s no more and no conclusion…

Also included are a lovely painting of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, 5 pages of pencil art layouts for The Enchanted Apples of Oz, a gallery of Shanower Christmas Cards and a watercolour vignette disclosing ‘A Concise History of the Marvelous Land of OZ’.

If you still constantly crave to visit the lost lands of childhood wonder, this superb picture parade is probably your only passport to adventure…

© 2010 Eric Shanower. All rights reserved. © 2010 Idea and Design Works, LLC.

Marvel Adventures Avengers: Captain America


By Scott Gray, Roger Langridge, Todd Dezago, Roger Stern, Craig Rousseau, Matteo Lolli, Lou Kang, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4562-3

Since its earliest days Marvel always courted the youngest comicbook consumers. Whether animated tie-ins such as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, Super Rabbit Comics, Duckula, assorted Hanna-Barbera and Disney licenses and a myriad of others, or original creations such as Millie the Model, Homer the Happy Ghost, Li’l Kids and Calvin – or as in the 1980s Star Comics line – an entire imprint for originated or licensed comics targeting peewee punters, the House of Ideas has always understood the necessity of cultivating the next generation of readers.

These days, however, general kids’ interest titles are all but dead and, with Marvel characters all over screens large and small, the company usually prefers to create child-friendly versions of its own proprietary pantheon, making that eventual hoped-for transition to more mature comics as painless as possible.

In 2003 the company instituted a Marvel Age line which updated and retold classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, mixing it with the remnants of the manga-based Tsunami imprint, all intended for a younger readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, evolving into Marvel Adventures with core titles transformed into Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man. The tone was very much that of the company’s burgeoning TV cartoon franchises, in delivery if not name. Additional Marvel Adventures series included Super Heroes, The Avengers and Hulk. These iterations ran until 2010 when they were cancelled and replaced by new volumes of Marvel Adventures: Super Heroes and Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man.

Those tales have all been collected in welcoming digest-sized compilations such as this one which gathers a selection of yarns starring the Sentinel of Liberty. This particular patriotic play-list comprises three all-ages tales – taken from Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #8 and 12, plus an early outing from Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up #2 and rounded out with a mainstream continuity yarn from Captain America volume 1 #255 from March 1981.

The Sentinel of Liberty was created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby at the end of 1940 and launched straight into his own Timely Comics’ (Marvel’s earliest iteration) title. Captain America Comics #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was a monster smash-hit. Cap was the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. He was also one of very the first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

When the Korean War and Communist aggression dominated the American psyche in the early 1950s Cap was briefly revived – as were his two fellow superstars – in 1953 before sinking once more into obscurity until a resurgent Marvel Comics once more needed them. When the Stars-&-Stripes Centurion finally reappeared he finally found a devoted following who stuck with him through thick and thin.

Soon after taking over the Avengers, he won his own series and, eventually, title. Cap waxed and waned through the most turbulent period of social change in American history but always struggled to find an ideological place and stable footing in the modern world, plagued by the trauma of his greatest failure: the death of his boy partner Bucky

If you’re of a slavish disposition continuity-wise, the first three Star-Spangled sagas all occur on Marvel’s Earth-20051 whilst the last is situated in the regulation Earth-616.

It opens with an updated origin – in keeping with the later filmic iteration – as ‘The Legend Reborn’ (by Scott Gray & Craig Rousseau as seen in MASH #8, April 2009) sees World War II’s greatest hero decanted from an arctic iceberg by agents of SHIELD.

Future-shocked and mistrusting, Steve Rogers breaks out of protective custody and explores the 21st century beside teen-rebel and street-performer Rick Jones, until secret society Hydra try to “recruit” him and Cap is finally forced to pick a side…

The introductory epic is augmented by an enticing war-time tale. ‘Spy for the Cameras!’ (Roger Langridge & Rousseau) finds Cap and annoyingly plucky reporter Rosalind Hepburn exposing an undercover plot in Hollywoodland…

Issue #12 (August 2009) saw Cap and Rick return in ‘Web of Deceit’ by Gray & Matteo Lolli. Here the time-lost hero is transported into Hydra’s digital domain to face unimaginable and lethally implausible peril, until Rick’s buddies in the Online Brigade log in to save the day…

This is followed by another deliciously wry WWII romp from Langridge & Rousseau, with news-hen Rosalind, Cap and Bucky battling a prototype mutant cyborg in ‘If This Be P.R.O.D.O.K.!’

‘Stars, Stripes and Spiders!’ is by Todd Dezago, Lou Kang & Pat Davidson (originally debuting in Marvel Age Spider-Man Team-Up #2, December 2004 and inspired by Len Wein and Gil Kane’s tale from the original Marvel Team-Up #13).

When a certain wall-crawling high-school student and part-time hero stumbles into Captain America tackling an AIM cadre stealing a super-soldier serum, the nervous lad learns a few things about the hero game from the guy who wrote the book. Not making that lesson any easier is petrifying super-villain the Grey Gargoyle

Closing out this fast-paced primer of patriotic action is a classic retelling of Cap’s early career by Roger Stern & John Byrne. The story was the finale in a superb run by the duo: a mini-renaissance of well-conceived and perfectly executed yarns epitomising all the fervour and pizzazz of Captain America in his glory days. ‘The Living Legend’ is a moody, rocket-paced origin saga which was the definitive version of the hero’s nativity for decades…

Never the success the company hoped, the Marvel Adventures project was superseded in 2012 by specific comics tied to those Disney XD television shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”, but these collected stories are still an intriguing, amazingly entertaining and superbly accessible means of introducing characters and concepts to kids born sometimes three generations or more away from the originating events.

Beguiling, enthralling and impressive, these riotous super stories are extremely enjoyable yarns, although parents should note that some of the themes and certainly the violence might not be what everybody considers “All-Ages Super Hero Action” and might perhaps better suit older kids…

© 1981, 2000, 2009, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Deliverer


By Nemanja Moravic Balkanski & various (the Publishing Eye)
ISBN: 978-0-986844-01-0

As I’ve often stated, some comics creators seduce and beguile whilst others choose to inform and affect with confrontational shock tactics. One of the most evocative and uncompromising efforts that I’ve ever seen came from Belgrade émigré Nemanja Moravic “NeMo” Balkanski. Don’t just take my word for it, track down his stunning FIB Chronicles, compiling much of his early material. …And now he’s done it again…

Balkanski was born in Belgrade in 1975 and, after indulging in and mastering a multitude of artistic disciplines from comics to graphic design, theatre arts to film-making, and poetry to performance, emigrated to Vancouver in 2007. When not working as an Art Director or storyboard artist for big and little screen productions he continues to produce thought-provoking comics.

It has all clearly been an inspirational experience and NeMo – a skilful plunderer of social tropes and cultural memes – has absorbed the meat and ephemera of his new environs to produce a stunningly confrontational allegory and state-of-the-union fairy tale with plenty of bite.

Canada, not long from now: society is on the edge of collapse and has been for as long as anyone can recall. And that’s not long: crass, shallow media has all but lobotomised the people, making them sensation-seeking celebrity-hungry drones told how to think and act and especially what to buy from the rich bastards to own everything.

King of those rats is the aged billionaire whose Watchmaker Labs and Watchmaker Studios strives tirelessly to mechanise and monetise every last iota of humanity and spirituality. They have already successfully commoditised sport and sex and are close to replacing their fragile flesh-&-blood customer base with mechanical hybrids…

A land like that expects its citizens to do nothing more than work and be consumers, so it employs a certain kind of lawkeeper: semi-cyborg sadists like Canuck, macho psychotics such as talking police dog Le Chien, lickspittles like Token Indian Winnetou and even sometimes starry-eyed do-gooders like hapless Mountie Sergeant Prickstone, but they’re just not enough to keep order in a city which – although tacitly owned by Watchmaker – still moves to its own decadent rhythms…

When uncompromising natural force Cayenne the Shark eats half of Vancouver – despite the army of gigantic robotic buildings and trucks slowly superseding humanity – a new kind of champion emerges.

The Deliverer used to bring pizza to the slavishly mass media-addicted self-medicating hoi-polloi, making money to buy time with certified sex-worker Lula, but as the end rushes closer he finds that selfishly helping himself is actually working to repair the world…

Clearly the world is made up of far more than what Watchmaker can grasp in his withered, grasping hands and as Prickstone and the Deliverer join the Vancouverite Underground to help the declining First Nation regain their stolen mystic Mojo a concatenation of unlikely circumstances look like turning them into Canadian humanity’s last hope of survival…

Abstruse, blackly humorous, shockingly explicit, complacently violent and bleakly hilarious, this disquieting parable uses the modern go-to story form of the summer Action Blockbuster to tenaciously attack media mass-produced self-image and the casual hypocrisy which runs the world and picks enough scabs off that you simply have to stop and think.

This substantial full-colour landscape-format  hardback is another strident, sardonically whimsical cartoon diagnosis of the state of our society: a uniquely entertaining read the brave and bold and reasonably old must not miss…
© 2015 The Publishing Eye.

Why not scope out the official website and trailer at http://www.thepublishingeye.com/books/the-deliverer/

Clifton volume 2: The Laughing Thief


By De Groot & Turk, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-07-4

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – most especially the French and Belgians – seem fascinated with us Brits. Maybe it’s our shared heritage of Empires lost and cultures in transition? An earlier age would have claimed it’s simply a case of “Know your Enemy”…

Whether we look at Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or even the further travails of Long John Silver, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles cut a dashing swathe through the pages of the Continent’s assorted magazines and albums.

And then there’s Clifton

Originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for iconic Tintin Magazine, the doughty True Brit troubleshooter first appeared in December 1959. After three albums worth of material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot left Tintin for arch-rival Spirou and his eccentric comedy crime-fighter sadly floundered until Tintin brought him back at the height of the Swinging London scene, courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg (Michel Régnier).

These strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

Then it was back into retirement until the early 1970s when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois revived Clifton for the long haul, producing ten tales of which this – Le voleur qui rit – Clifton from 1973 – was their second collaboration.

Thereafter, from 1984 on, artist Bernard Dumont – AKA Bédu – limned De Groot’s scripts before eventually assuming the writing chores as well, until the series ended in 1995. In keeping with its rather haphazard nature and typically undying nature, the Clifton experience resumed once again in 2003, crafted by De Groot and Michel Rodrigue in four further adventures; a grand total of 25 to date.

The setup is deliciously simple: pompous and irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, ex-RAF, former Metropolitan police Constabulary and recently retired from MI5, has a great deal of difficulty dealing with being put out to pasture in rural Puddington. He thus takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, occasionally assisting the Government or needy individuals as an amateur sleuth.

Sadly for Clifton – as with that other much-underappreciated national treasure Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – he is too keenly aware that he is usually the only truly competent man in a world full of blithering idiots…

In this second translated album – first seen in 2005 – the Gentleman Detective is embroiled in not one but two uncanny incidences, beginning with eponymous epic ‘The Laughing Thief’ wherein the still much-missed lawman rather forcefully inserts himself into a current case baffling Scotland Yard.

London is being wracked by devilishly clever crimes executed with infallible precision by a crack crew of blaggers, but the profits of each caper seem far below what such expert criminals should be bothering with. Moreover, each perfectly executed heist is preceded by a telephone warning from a braying braggart with the most annoying and distinctive laugh imaginable…

The crooks are incredibly bold and arrogant. Even after Clifton intervenes in the second robbery, the scoundrels easily outwit him, leave the dapper sleuth unconscious with dozens of other peculiarly proud and strangely supportive victims…

Moreover, although police “higher-ups” welcome Clifton’s help, officer-in-charge Lieutenant Hardfeeling doesn’t want the show-stealer around and is doing all he can to impede the Colonel’s investigations, despite the protests of his senior colleagues and the bobbies on the beat…

Nevertheless, persistence is its own reward, and when Clifton finally deduces the true reasons for the publicity-seeking crime-spree the resultant confrontation is both spectacularly satisfying and hilariously rewarding…

Being British and an ex-spy, Clifton has hung on to the odd gadget or two, such as an amazingly tricked out umbrella which plays a major part in this volume’s second tale ‘The Mystery of the Running Voice’. A suspenseful spooky yarn, it begins when the unhappy retiree meets old comrade Donald McDonald Muckyduck, who appears to have worn out every vestige of verve and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown…

Close consultation reveals that the former police Inspector is being haunted by a robber ghost; one that has already claimed six victims. However upon viewing the crime scene photos Clifton gains an inkling into how the trick is done and temporarily moves to bucolic village Flatfish-on-Apron, setting himself up as bait for a diabolical genius with a penchant for clever gimmicks…

Visually spoofing Swinging Sixties London and staidly stuffy English Manners with wicked effect, these gentle thrillers are big on laughs but also pack a lot of consequence-free action into their eclectic mix. Delightfully surreal, instantly accessible and doused with daft slapstick à la Jacques Tati and intrigue like Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, this brace of romps rattle along in the grand old tradition of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim – or Wallace and Gromit if you’re a callow yoof – offering readers a splendid treat and loads of timeless laughs.
Original edition © 1973 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1988 by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.

New Crusaders Legacy


By Rich Buckler, Ian Flynn, Robert Kanigher, Stan Timmons, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Gray Morrow, Alec Niño, Tony DeZuñiga, Jerry Gaylord, Ben Bates, Alitha Martinez & many more (Red Circle/Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-22-8

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman began creating a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t; now relished only as trivia by sad old blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

MLJ were one of the quickest publishers to jump on the Mystery-Man bandwagon, following the spectacular successes of the Man of Tomorrow with their own small yet inspirational pantheon of gaudily clad costumed crusaders, beginning in November 1939 with Blue Ribbon Comics. Soon followed by Top-Notch and Pep Comics, their content was the standard blend of two-fisted adventure strips, prose pieces and gag panels and, from #2 on, superheroes…

However, after only a few years Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater spotted a gap in the blossoming market and in December 1941 nudged aside their masked heroes and action strips to make room for a far less imposing hero; an “average teen” who would have ordinary adventures like the readers, but with triumphs, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Pep Comics #22 featured a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed goof who clearly took his lead from Mickey Rooney’s popular Andy Hardy matinee movies. Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. A 6-page tale introduced Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper as well as his unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones in their small-town utopia of Riverdale.

The feature was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had won its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first solo-starring magazine and with it began the gradual transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of wealthy, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the comicbook industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon (Superman being the first)…

By 1946 the kids had taken over, so MLJ renamed itself Archie Comics; retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family comedies. Its success, like Superman’s, changed the content of every other publisher’s titles, and led to a multi-media industry including TV shows, movies, a chain of restaurants and even a global pop hit “Sugar, Sugar” (a tune from their animated show).

Nonetheless, the company had by this stage blazed through a rather impressive pantheon of mystery-men who would form the backbone of numerous future superhero revivals, most notably in the High-Camp/Marvel Explosion/Batman TV show-frenzied mid-60’s era…

The heroes impressively resurfaced under the company’s Red Circle imprint during the early days of the Direct Sales revolution of the 1980s, but after a strong initial showing, again failed to sustain the public’s attention. Archie let them lie fallow (except for occasional revivals and intermittent guest-shots in Archie titles) until 1991, when the company licensed its heroes to superhero specialists DC for a magically fun, all-ages iteration (and where’s that star-studded trade paperback collection, huh?!). Impact Comics was a vibrant, engaging and fun all-ages rethink that really should have been a huge hit but was again cruelly unsuccessful…

When the line folded in 1993 the characters returned to limbo until DC had one more crack at them in 2008, attempting to incorporate the Mighty Crusaders & Co into their own maturely angst-ridden and stridently dark continuity – with the usual overwhelming lack of success.

Recently the wanderers returned home to Archie for a superbly simplistic and winningly straightforward revival aimed squarely at old nostalgics and young kids reared on highly charged action/adventure cartoon shows: brimming with all the exuberant verve and wide-eyed honest ingenuity you’d expect from an outfit which has been pleasing kids for nearly seventy years.

Released initially online in May 2012 – followed by a traditional monthly print version that September – the first story-arc made it to full legitimacy with a thrill-packed trade paperback collection, equally welcoming to inveterate fanboys and eager newcomers alike.

The series introduced a new generation of legacy heroes rising from the ashes of their parents’ and guardians’ murders to become a team of teenaged gladiators carrying on the fight as the New Crusaders.

This collection supplements and follows on from that magical makeover: having new team mentor The Shield train the potential-filled juniors through the records of their predecessors. The stories included here come from those aforementioned 1980s Red Circle episodes; culled from the pages of Mighty Crusaders #1, 8, 9, The Fly #2, 4, 6, Blue Ribbon #3, 8, 14, The Comet #1 and Black Hood #2, spanning 1983-1985…

Following an engaging reintroduction and recap, current creative team Ian Flynn, Jerry Gaylord, Ben Bates & Alitha Martinez reveal how the grizzled, flag-draped veteran has trouble reaching his teenaged students until he begins treating them as individuals, and sharing past Crusaders’ cases.

Starting with personal recollections of his own early days as America’s first Patriotic superhero in ‘The Shield’ (from Mighty Crusaders #8, Marty Greim, Dick Ayers & Rich Buckler), Joe Higgins explains his active presence in the 21st century, leading into a recapitulation of the first Red Circle yarn.

‘Atlantis Rising’ comes from Mighty Crusaders #1, by Buckler & Frank Giacoia, which found psionic plunderer Brain Emperor and immortal antediluvian Eterno the Conqueror launching a multi-pronged attack on the world. They were countered by an army of costumed champions including the Golden Age Shield, Lancelot Strong the (other) Shield (for a while there were three different ones active at once), Fly and Fly-Girl, Jaguar, The Web, Black Hood and The Comet, who communally countered a global crime-wave and clobbered the villains’ giant killer robots…

This is followed by a modern interlude plus pin-up and data pages on Ralph Hardy AKA ‘The Jaguar’ before a potent vignette by Chas Ward & Carlos Vicatan from The Fly #4 reviews the animal-master’s Aztec origins and rebirth in ‘Renewal’

‘The Web’ offers the same data-page update for masked detective and criminologist John Raymond before ‘The Killing Hour’ (Blue Ribbon #14, by Stan Timmons, Lou Manna, Rex Lindsey & Chic Stone) sees the merely mortal manhunter join his brother-in-law the Jaguar in foiling a nuclear terrorism plot…

More modern pin-ups and data-pages reintroduce ‘The Comet’ before Bill DuBay, Jr., Carmine Infantino & Alec Niño reworked the original 1940’s origin tale by Jack Cole from Pep Comics #1 in 1940.

Reproduced from 1984’s The Comet #1, this chilling yarn detailed how an idealistic scientist became the most bloodthirsty hero of the Golden Age, with a body-count which made the Punisher look like a pantywaist…

The infomercial for ‘Steel Sterling’ precedes a wild and whimsical origin-retelling of the star-struck, super-strong “Man of Steel” by his 1940s scripter Robert Kanigher, illustrated with superb style by Louis Barreto & Tony DeZuñiga from Blue Ribbon #3, after which ‘Fly Girl’ gets star treatment in a brace of tales, augmented as always by the ubiquitous fact-folio.

‘A Woman’s Place’ by Buckler, Timmons, Adrian Gonzales & Ricardo Villagran (from The Fly #2) clears up an exceedingly sexist old-school extortion ring whilst ‘Faithfully Yours’ (Fly #6) saw her movie-star alter ego Kim Brand subjected to a chilling campaign of terror from a fan. Timmons, Buckler, Steve Ditko & Alan Kupperberg took just the right tone in what might be the first incidence of stalking in US comics…

‘Black Hood’ has no modern iteration in the New Crusaders. Still active in contemporary times, he did encounter the kids during their debut exploit and is phenomenally cool, so he gets a place here. Following the customary introductory lesson he appears in a gritty, Dirty Harry themed adventure (from Blue Ribbon #8 by Gray Morrow) as undercover cop – and latest convert – Kip Burland who sidesteps Due Process to save a kidnapped girl and ensure the conviction of crooks hiding behind the law. The gripping yarn also discloses the centuries-long justice-seeking tradition of “The Man of Mystery” …

That’s followed by a snippet from Rich Margopoulos, Kupperberg & Giacoia entitled ‘A Hero’s Rage’ wherein Kip discovers his uncle Matt (the Golden Age Black Hood) has been murdered and ditches his leather jacket and ski-mask in favour of the traditional costume before joining the Mighty Crusaders…

Without doubt the most engaging reprint in this collection and by itself well worth the price of admission is ‘The Fox’ from Black Hood #2. Written and drawn by the inimitable Alex Toth, this scintillating light-hearted period comedy-drama finds the devilish do-gooder in Morocco in 1948, embroiled with wealthy expatriate ex-boxer Cosmo Gilly who has no idea he’s become the target for assassination…

The recondite recollections surge to a climax with ‘Old Legends Never Die’ (Mighty Crusaders #9, by David M. Singer, Buckler & Ayers) as the first Shield is accused of excessive force and manslaughter when his 1940’s crime-fighting style seemingly results in the death of a thief he most forcefully apprehended. With Joe Higgins’ costumed friends in support but out of their depth in a courtroom, the convoluted history of the three heroes bearing his codename are unpicked during ‘The Trial of the Shield’ before the uncannily sinister truth is finally exposed…

Supplemented by a plentiful cover gallery and packed with the kind of ephemera that sends old Fights ‘n’ Tights fans into paroxysms of delight, I fear this is probably a book only the wide-eyed young and dedicated aged nostalgists could handle, but it is such a perfect artefact of the superhero genre I strongly urge anyone with a hankering for masked adventure and craving Costumed Dramas to give it a long look.
NEW CRUSADERS and RED CIRCLE COMICS ® ACP, Inc. © 2013 Archie Comics Publications. All rights reserved.

Annihilation Classic


By Todd Dezago, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald, Bill Mantlo, Doug Moench, Scott Edelman, Roy Thomas, Derec Aucoin, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Paul Ryan, Mike Mignola, Tom Sutton, Mike Zeck, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3410-7

Annihilation was another of those company-wide publishing events that “Changed the Marvel Universe Forever” (and don’t they all?) which ran for most of 2006, involving most of the House of Ideas’ outer space outposts and cosmic characters. Among the stalwarts in play were Silver Surfer, Galactus, Firelord, Moondragon, Quasar, Star-Lord, Thanos, Super-Skrull, Gamora, Ronan the Accuser, Nova, Drax the Destroyer, Watchers and a host of alien civilisations such as the Kree, Skrulls, Xandarians, Shi’ar et al., all falling before a invasion of rapacious Negative Zone bugs and beasties unleashed by the insectoid horror Annihilus.

If you’re new to the Marvel universe and that bewildering list of daunting data didn’t leave you screaming in frustration, then please read on…

As is usual in these public thinnings of the herd, a number of good guys and bad died and had their trademark assumed by newer, glitzier models whilst some moribund careers got a successful and overdue shot in the arm…

The event spawned a number of specials, miniseries and new titles, (subsequently collected as three volumes plus this Annihilation Classic compilation which reprinted key and origin appearances of some major players) and led to follow-up event Annihilation: Conquest. Of particular interest to fun-loving screen-watchers should be early appearances of Galaxy Guardians Rocket Raccoon and Groot

This smart selection comprises of and contains pertinent material from Bug #1, (March 1997), Tales to Astonish #13, (December 1960), Nova #1, (September 1976), Quasar #1 (October 1989), Rocket Raccoon #1-4 (May-August 1995) Marvel Spotlight #6 (May 1980), Logan’s Run #6 (June 1977) and Marvel Premiere #1 (April 1972) and opens with the frenetic and light-hearted solo outing for Galactic Warrior Bug (originally a cheeky stalwart from the 1970’s toy-license phenomenon Micronauts)…

Here in ‘Apples and Oranges’ by Tod Dezago, Derec Aucoin, Rich Farber & Ralph Cabrera, the insectivorid from the Microverse accidentally clashes with all-consuming cosmic menace Annihilus and gets stuck in a time/space warp.

Bounced around the history of the Marvel Universe, the warring weirdoes reveal their unheralded contributions to the origin stories of a number of the company’s greatest stars before Bug finally triumphs…

With accompanying pinup by Pat Broderick and hilarious game pages by Fred Hembeck including ‘Bug’s Brain -Tik- lers’, ‘The Help Bug Right the Time/Space Continuum Board Game’, ‘What’s Wrong with This Picture?’ and ‘Bug’s Catch-All Activity Page’, this is a splendidly engaging and irreverent treat, followed by an absolute classic of the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” genre as a humble biologist saved earth from a rapacious walking tree in ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ (from Tales to Astonish #13 by Stan Lee/Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers).

Next to grab the spotlight is The Man Called Nova who was in fact a boy named Richard Rider. A working class nebbish in the tradition of Peter Parker – except he was good at sports and bad at learning – Rich attended Harry S. Truman High School, where his strict dad was the principal. His mom worked as a police dispatcher and he had a younger brother, Robert, who was a bit of a genius. Other superficial differences to the Spider-Man canon included girlfriend Ginger and best friends Bernie and Caps, but Rich did have his own school bully, Mike Burley

An earlier version, “Black Nova” had apparently appeared in the author Marv Wolfman’s fan-mag Super Adventures in 1966 (produced with fellow writer Len Wein), but with a few revisions and an artistic make-over by the legendary John Romita (Senior) the Human Rocket was launched into the Marvel Universe in his own title, beginning in September 1976, ably supported by the illustration A-Team of John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.

‘Nova’– which borrowed heavily from Green Lantern as well as Spider-Man’s origin, was structured like a classic four-chapter Lee/Kirby early Fantastic Four tale, and rapidly introduced its large cast before quickly zipping to the life-changing moment in Rider’s life when a star-ship with a dying alien aboard transferred to the lad all the mighty powers of an extraterrestrial peacekeeper and warrior.

Rhomann Dey had tracked a deadly marauder to Earth. Zorr had already destroyed the idyllic world of Xandar, but the severely wounded vengeance-seeking Nova Prime was too near death and could not avenge the genocide. Trusting to fate, Dey beamed his powers and abilities towards the planet below where Richard Rider was struck by the energy bolt and plunged into a coma. On awakening Rich realised he had gained awesome powers and the responsibilities of the last Nova Centurion…

Wendell Vaughn had debuted at the end of 1977 as SHIELD super-agent Marvel Boy in Captain America #217, graduating to Quasar during a stint as security chief of Project Pegasus during the early 1980. He finally got an origin with his own title Quasar #1 in October 1989. He learned ‘The Price of Power!’ courtesy of Mark Gruenwald, Paul Ryan & Danny Bulanadi in a stirring tale wherein he washed out of agent training for lack of a killer instinct. Whilst acting in a security detail Wendell donned alien quantum wrist-bands to stop them falling into the hands of AIM, even though they had vaporised every SHIELD operative who had test-piloted them. As well as not dying he gained incredible powers and began his brief but glorious career as Avenger and Protector of the Universe…

Rocket Raccoon was a minor character who appeared in brief backup sci fi serial ‘The Sword in the Star’ (specifically Marvel Preview #7 in 1976). He won a larger role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May 1982), and like Wolverine years before refused to go away quietly.

Reprinted here in its entirety is the 4-issue Rocket Raccoon miniseries (cover-dated May to August 1985 as crafted by Bill Mantlo, Mike Mignola, Al Gordon & Al Milgrom): a bizarre and baroque sci-fi fantasy which blended the charm of Pogo with the biting social satire of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all whilst ostensibly describing a battle between Good and Evil in a sector of space completely crazy even by comicbook standards.

Rocket was one of many talking animals in the impenetrable, inescapable Keystone Quadrant; a Ranger in charge of keeping the peace as robots and anamorphic beasties went about their holy, ordained task of caring for the distinctly odd and carefree humans known as The Loonies on their idyllic, sybaritic planet Halfworld.

However when a brutal shooting war between voracious apex toymakers Judson Jakes and Lord Dyvyne led to Rocket’s girlfriend Lylla Otter being kidnapped, the planet went wild, or more accurately… ‘Animal Crackers’.

In rescuing her, Rocket and his faithful deputy Wal Rus had to contend with a murderous army of mechanised Killer Clowns, face an horrific, all-consuming bio-weapon at ‘The Masque of the Red Breath’, and even team up with arch-foe and disreputable mercenary bunny Blackjack O’Hare before uncovering the horrendous truth behind the mad society he so tirelessly defended in ‘The Book of Revelations!’

The final chapter then shook everything up as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ saw the end of The Loonies, allowing Rocket and his surviving companions to escape the confines of the eternally segregated Keystone Quadrant into the greater universe beyond…

 

Starlord (without the hyphen) premiered in monochrome mature-reader magazine Marvel Preview # 4 in 1976, appearing thrice more – in #11, 14 and 15 – during the height of a Star Wars inspired Science Fiction explosion.

Years previously, a warrior prince of an interstellar empire was shot down over Colorado and had a fling with solitary Earther Meredith Quill. Despite his desire to remain in idyllic isolation, duty called the starman back to the battle and he left, leaving behind an unborn son and a unique weapon. A decade later, the troubled boy saw his mother assassinated by alien lizard men. Peter Jason Quill vengefully slew the creatures with Meredith’s shotgun, before his home was explosively destroyed by a flying saucer.

The newly-minted orphan awoke in hospital, his only possession a “toy” ray-gun his mother had hidden from him his entire life. Years later his destiny found him, as the half-breed scion was elevated by the divinity dubbed the “Master of the Sun”, becoming StarLord. Rejecting both Earth and his missing father, Peter chose freedom, the pursuit of justice and the expanse of the cosmos…

Here, from Marvel Spotlight volume 2 #6 Doug Moench & Tom Sutton revisit and clarify that origin saga as the pacifistic Quill and his sentient starship return to Sol and discover the truth about his nativity and ascension as well as the true nature of The Master of the Sun…

Logan’s Run was a short-lived licensed property tie-in and #6 incongruously featured a 5-page short starring mad Titan Thanos in battle against his precision-crafted nemesis Drax the Destroyer: a typically inconclusive out-world clash over ‘The Final Flower’ by Scott Edelman & Mike Zeck before this star-studded compilation concludes with an allegorical masterpiece by Roy Thomas, Gil Kane & Dan Adkins from Marvel Premiere #1.

During a time of tremendous social upheaval Thomas transubstantiated an old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four throwaway foe into a potent political and religious metaphor. Debuting as a dreaded mystery menace, the character dubbed Him was re-imagined as a contemporary interpretation of the Christ myth and placed on a world far more like our own than the Earth of Marvel’s unique universe.

‘And Men Shall Call Him… Warlock’ adroitly recapitulated the artificial man’s origins as a lab experiment concocted by rogue geneticists eager to create a superman they could control for conquest. After facing the FF, Him subsequently escaped to the stars and later initiated a naive clash with Thor over the rights to a mate before returning to his all-encompassing cocoon to evolve a little more.

Now that stellar shell was picked by the moon-sized ship of self-created god the High Evolutionary who was wrapped up in a bold new experiment. The hand-made hero observed as the evolutionary created a duplicate Earth on the far side of the sun, running through billions of years of evolution in mere hours. The man-god’s intent was to create a civilisation without aggression or rancour, but the Evolutionary collapsed from exhaustion just as proto-hominid became Homo Sapien and his greatest mistake took instant advantage of the fact…

Years previously Man-Beast had been hyper-evolved from a wolf and instantly became his creator’s nemesis. Now he and his equally debased minions invaded the ship and interfered with the experiment: reintroducing evil to the perfect creatures below and, in fact, making them just like us. At incredible speed Earth’s history re-ran with the creature in the cocoon afforded a ring-side seat to humanity’s fall from grace…

When the High Evolutionary awoke and fought Man-Beast’s army, Him broke out his shell and helped rout the demons, who fled to the despoiled Counter-Earth. With calm restored, the science-god prepared to sterilise his ruined experiment: a world now indistinguishable from our own. No superheroes; disease and poverty rampant; injustice in ascendance and moments away from nuclear Armageddon… but the cosmic newborn begged him not to.

He claimed the evil tide could be turned and begged the Evolutionary to stay his hand. The grieving, despondent creator agreed… but only until the rechristened Adam Warlock should admit that humanity was beyond redemption…

And this ends a magnificent compendium of genuine magical Marvel moments: an eclectic but hugely entertaining procession of thrills, spectacle and laughs no comic fan or interested neophyte could possibly resist.
© 1960, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1989, 1997, 1997, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monster on the Hill


By Rob Harrell (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-075-9

Once upon a time in England – but not our England – decent, hardworking folk went about their lives in every county-town, their hearts swollen with well-earned civic pride. Content and progressive Victorians one and all, they congratulated themselves upon their achievements and most especially upon the terrifying merits of their local monsters.

By the year of Our Lord 1867 each minor metropolis had for simply ages been twinned with a ferocious giant creature who would occasionally rampage through the municipality, wrecking shops, houses and public works; thereby doing wonders for the local building professions and tourist trade.

Thriving communities would vie with each other for the distinction of being most periodically and ritually terrorised by their assigned Brobdingnagian beast, with the most fearsome of the creatures even being celebrated with local souvenirs and their images engraved on collectible cigarette cards and albums…

Not so the poor, benighted citizens of Stoker-on-Avon. Their monster was something of a disappointment. In fact he was a bit rubbish…

One morning, soon after a properly petrified family returned from a truly frightful encounter with Tentaculor in neighbouring conurbation Billingwood, plucky ragamuffin, town-crier and newsboy Timothy is peddling his papers. The headline is very similar to many previous ones, declaring that it has been 536 days since their monster last appeared…

Thus he’s on hand to overhear firsthand that disgraced mad scientist Dr. Charles Nathaniel Wilkie has been summoned to meet the town fathers. They have bravely offered to reinstate his license and even let him back into his laboratory – despite past embarrassments and misdemeanours – if he can cure, pep up or somehow put some vim back into their monster…

After struggling up the so-very-steep hill from which the formerly ferocious force of nature surveys his neglected domain, the baffled physician discovers his gimcracks and implements have been jettisoned by the stowed-away Timothy, but that’s not really important. Nothing he has bought or built could possibly have helped the colossal winged-but-flightless non-terror known as Rayburn.

The scourge of Stoker-on-Avon is depressed and doesn’t want to perform. He’s lost all confidence and believes he is a failure…

And thus begins a deliciously funny romp – with a generous plenitude of surreal diversions and divertissements – following the classic lines of a coming-of-age road-trip buddy-movie redemption scenario, as the unlikely human team find a perilously peripatetic way to restore Rayburn’s Mojo, which involves getting too close to another town’s terror, humiliating lessons in stomping, smashing and smooshing and the horrifying, shocking and not at all funny revelation of why every town actually has its own monster…

Crafted with verve and supreme slapstick deftness by strip cartoonist Rob Harrell (Big Top, Life of Zarf) this wondrous cartoon fable is joy for fun and fantasy lovers of every stripe and vintage.
Monster on the Hill ™ & © 2013 Rob Harrell. All Rights Reserved.

Thorgal volume 3: Beyond the Shadows


By Rosiński & Van Hamme, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-45-8

One of the best and most celebrated adventure series of all time, Thorgal achieves the seemingly impossible, pleasing critics and selling in vast quantities. The prototypical Game of Thrones debuted in iconic weekly Tintin in 1977 with album compilations beginning three years later.

A far-reaching and expansive generational saga, it has won a monolithic international following in fourteen languages and dozens of countries, generating numerous spin-off series, and thus naturally offers a strong presence in the field of global gaming.

In story-terms, the series offers the best of all weird worlds with an ostensibly historical milieu of bold Viking adventure seamlessly incorporating science fiction elements, horrendous beasts, social satire, political intrigue, soap opera, Atlantean mystique and mythically mystical literary standbys such as gods, monsters and devils.

Created by Belgian writer Jean Van Hamme (Domino, XIII, Largo Winch, Blake and Mortimer) and Polish illustrator Grzegorz Rosiński (Kapitan Żbik, Pilot Śmigłowca, Hans, The Revenge of Count Skarbek), the feature grew unstoppably over decades with the creative duo completing 29 albums between 1980 and 2006 when Van Hamme moved on. Thereafter the scripting duties fell to Yves Sente who has collaborated on a further five collections to date.

By the time Van Hamme departed, the canon had grown to cover not only the life of the titular hero and his son Jolan but also other indomitable family members through a number of spin-off series (Kriss de Valnor, Louve, La Jeunesse de Thorgal) under the umbrella title Les Mondes de Thorgal – with all eventually winning their own series of solo albums.

In 1985 American publisher Donning released a superb series of oversized hardcover book translations but Thorgal never really found an English-speaking audience until Cinebook began its own iteration in 2007.

The original French series wanders back and forth through the hero’s life but here, for the present, continuity reigns as Cinebook’s this third double-album edition (comprising 5th & 6th collections Au-delà des ombres and La Chute de Brek Zarith from 1983 and 1984 respectively) leads directly on from the last book wherein Thorgal Aegirsson lost everything that made him human…

The hero was recovered as a baby from a ferocious storm and raised by Northern Viking chief Leif Haraldson. Nobody could possibly know the fortunate foundling had survived a stellar incident which destroyed a starship full of super-scientific aliens. Growing to manhood, the strange boy was eventually forced out of his adopted land by ambitious Gandalf the Mad who feared the young warrior threatened his own claim to the throne.

For all his childhood Thorgal had been inseparable from Gandalf’s daughter Aaricia and, as soon as they were able, they fled together from the poisonous atmosphere to live free from her father’s lethal jealousy and obsessive terror of losing his throne…

Some time later, they were enjoying the hard but gratifying life of simple peasants in a village of serfs. Thorgal was a happy, industrious farm-worker, with solid dependable friends and a wife mere weeks away from birthing her first child. The only problem in their idyllic life was the obsessive love headman’s teenage daughter Shaniah had developed for the glamorous Viking…

Her lies at a harvest feast resulted in Thorgal being implicated in a plot against the land’s overlord Shardar the Powerful, King of Brek Zarith. A suspect inquisition saw Thorgal humiliate arrogant, decadent Prince Veronar. Shardar’s forces were actually in the region seeking information on the whereabouts of fugitive rebel Galathorn, and Thorgal was sentenced to join other captives at the oars. Even here, his indomitable spirit made enemies amongst the slave-masters and new friends of his fellow captives…

Sometime later turncoat Jarl Ewing tried to recruit the Viking to his cause – seizing Shardar’s throne. Veronar overheard and sentenced both warriors to a painful death but as sentence was being carried out their Black Galley was attacked by a small fleet of Viking drakkars (raiding ships). In the chaos Thorgal escaped, freed the oar slaves and dealt permanently with Veronar…

The raiders were old friends. Thorgal reunited with hulking Jorund the Bull and learned that Gandalf had died. His banishment ended, the exile was invited to return home with the Northern Vikings, but refused. All he needed was Aaricia and his coming child.

However, when he reached the village all he found was ash, corpses and Jarl Ewing. The traitor had hired mercenaries to await Thorgal’s return, intending to use Aaricia as a hostage to ensure her husband’s cooperation. She chose death and drowned herself, refusing to be a weapon aimed at her man’s heart…

The debacle sparked a disaster. The mercenaries went wild and pillaged the hamlet, but after taking his revenge Thorgal was left bereft and broken…

The saga resumes a year later in ‘Beyond the Shadows’ as gaunt shaman Wargan wanders into a vile tavern in a sordid settlement in search of noble warrior Thorgal Aegirsson. He quickly stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble amongst the brutal warriors polluting the hamlet.

After a macabre magical death and violent chase, the wizard drags a stinking, shambling shell-shocked derelict and a sad, over-protective girl named Shaniah to a strange plain of bizarre stone structures where they meet the rebel Galathorn. The Prince still wants to reclaim Brek Zarith from Shardar, but for that he needs Thorgal restored to vital, vibrant humanity…

The task is simpler than the plotters expected. When the Viking hears that Aaricia still lives, his wits return instantly, and when he further learns that she is dying he instantly agrees to travel into the Second World and beyond to save her. The epic path leads to duels with supernatural creatures, a reunion with a notionally friendly goddess and confrontation with the one who weaves life’s threads and cuts them. Although Thorgal convinces the uncanny reaper to restore his beloved wife to health and vigour, there is a frightful cost…

The chilling and spectacular odyssey through the underworld is followed by a far darker and more visceral adventure in ‘The Fall of Brek Zarith’ as deranged potentate Shardar hunkers down in his lavish but unassailable coastal citadel.

When he’s not playfully slaughtering his obsequious, treacherous barons, Shardar spends all his time with Aaricia and her son Jolan. His mages have divined incredible power within the boy and the aging usurper wants it.

He doesn’t seem to care that Galathorn and Thorgal have raised a rebel army which has taken back almost the entire country, nor that their ally Jorund the Bull is leading a fleet of forty berserker-packed drakkars against the sea coast, fuelled with the promise of first pick of Brek Zarith’s treasure vaults…

With the Vikings in clear sight and Galathorn’s forces a day away, Shardar seems remarkably unperturbed. A partial answer to his sanguine mood comes after his soldiers and wizards unleash a devastating secret weapon which routs Jorund’s ships…

Smugly content, the madman resumes his attempts to turn Aaricia to his cause. His courtiers descend into a mad bacchanal that night and are blissfully unaware that a lone scout has penetrated the impregnable keep. Nothing could keep Thorgal away with his wife and son so close and in such peril…

What the warrior finds stuns him: proof positive that Shardar is completely insane or, worse yet, utterly evil beyond human comprehension…

What follows is an astounding battle of wills as the warrior relentlessly pursues the diabolical dictators, escaping an unceasing barrage of deadly traps and devilish devices. However, what neither hunter nor prey is prepared for is the uncanny power of seeming-innocent Jolan or the ferocious devotion of his traumatised, single-minded mother…

Fierce, fantastic and phenomenally gripping, this magnificently illustrated, astonishingly addictive tale offers a multitude of enchanting wonders. Thorgal is every fantasy fan’s ideal dream of unending adventure. How can you possibly resist?
Original editions © Rosiński & Van Hamme 1983-1984 Les Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard). English translation © 2007 Cinebook Ltd.

Small Press Sunday

I started out in this game when marks on paper were considered Cutting Edge, 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 still gets me going in ways that threatens my tired old heart…

With that in mind here’s a selection of tantalising treats that have landed in my review tray recently…

I’ve been collecting comics for more than fifty years now and my biggest regret is that for all the magnificent things I’ve read and enjoyed, only a pitifully fraction of the superb Alternative/Small Press/Self Published stuff I’ve seen has ever been collected in the online or graphic novel boom of this century.

I don’t know how to fix that problem – maybe a communal site where old stuff can be posted for readers to enjoy – but that means finding shy, lost or embarrassed creators and securing permissions and, most distressingly, so many of the creative folk I loved most are dead, vanished or cured now…

I’m not going to let such great material pass un-eulogized though, so whenever I feel like it I’m going to review something ancient, handmade and wonderful, and if the paper gods permit, perhaps you’ll find copies lurking in back-issue bins (do they still exist?) or at conventions or maybe the forgotten ones will re-emerge to take their long-deserved bows.

I’m going to start with a glorious prototype graphic novel compilation far ahead of its time, solely because creator Bob Lynch has already preserved it – and all of his other work – online. Skip my babblings and go right to his site if you wish.

Behold the Hamster

By Bob Lynch (Bob Comics)
No ISBN:

Most British comics devotees first noticed the self-effacing Bob Lynch through his contributions to the wonderfully eclectic self-publishing phenomenon Fast Fiction. From 1981 through 1990 Paul Gravett, Phil Elliott and Ed Pinsent’s Little Creative Co-operative That Could made conventions, comic-marts and monthly meetings of the Society of Strip Illustrators and Comics Creators Guild distractingly fun and bemusingly intoxicating with hand-crafted magazines of tiny print-runs yet immeasurably vast and broad comics entertainment.

Bob’s work first featured in the middle teens of the run (my memory is even more worn out than I am) and Behold the Hamster ran in #19, 20 and 22 – amongst other Bob bits such as Sav Sadness and rhymic slug Samantha – before being collected by your man himself in the book under discussion here and The Whirlpool of Disaster and Sadness in Space.

Lynch’s artwork is deceptively simple and astoundingly stylish, with puckish characterisations rendered in strong, bold black lines (sheer self-defence in an era where paper printing plates and public photocopiers were the acme of affordable reproduction technology for most of us). He was – hopefully still is – also one of the most surreal and simultaneously inviting story-men in the business; incorporating shared cultural icons from all vistas of the TV-watching, pub-going, comics-reading UK public into whacky whimsies and gently barbed observations on the human condition. You know: all the usual stuff…

This little A-5 64-page pamphlet has brightened my day on many occasions since I bought it in 1991, with its mad mash-up of time-travel, Frankensteinian science, detective mystery, true love and daft humour starring a star-crossed hamster named Behold who was brought back from beyond the grave to achieve an incredible destiny and save something or other…

Don’t take my word for it: check out –
https://www.flickr.com/photos/8424687@N08/sets/72157618049179283/

If I’ve piqued your interest you can catch a different flavour of Bob’s fantastic life at http://savsadness.blogspot.co.uk/