Uncanny X-Men Vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.


By Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Bachalo, Kris Anka, Tim Townsend, Al Vey & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-628-1

During the cataclysmic events of Avengers versus X-Men, staunch and steadfast ScottCyclopsSummers – transformed and possessed by the overwhelming Phoenix Force – killed his beloved mentor and father-figure Professor Charles Xavier.

In the aftermath Summers united with former comrades Magik, Magneto and Emma Frost in a hard-line alliance devoted to preserving mutant lives at all costs: even, if necessary, by sacrificing human ones.

This attitude appalled many of his friends and associates, creating a schism in the ranks of Xavier’s legion of protégés. Discarding Scott, his surviving “First Class” team-mates Beast and Iceman sided with second generation X-Men Wolverine, Psylocke and Storm: staying true to Xavier’s dream and opting to protect and train future X-generations of mutant kids through traditional methods at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning in Westchester, New York.

The opposing sides of the mutant question frequently clashed as the world experienced constant challenge and attack from all quarters. Amid the rising chaos new mutants began appearing in increasing numbers, all with more impressive talents than ever before.

Through careful orchestration, brilliant media massaging and by avoiding unprovoked acts of violence, Cyclops’ Extinction faction began winning the trust and respect of many oppressed sectors of humanity: the poor, the disenfranchised, the rebellious, the young…

When Xavier’s teenaged First Class of X-Men were brought into their own future and our Now (see All-New X-Men: Here Comes Yesterday) they initially stayed with the teachers and students of the Grey School but following the events of X-Men: Battle of the Atom, Hank “Beast” McCoy, Bobby “Iceman” Drake, Warren “the Angel” Worthington, fiercely idealistic young Scott, Jean Grey, as well as teenaged female Wolverine clone Laura “X-23” Kinney and even Grey School Head Professor Kitty Pryde shockingly defected to the mutant terrorist band they were summoned to counteract.

After a very public humiliation of Government-sponsored human/mutant team Uncanny Avengers, the internecine conflict had already heated up when the elder Cyclops – utterly convinced of his species’ imminent and inevitable eradication at human hands – offered a place to any Grey’s student wishing to join his own academy, the New Charles Xavier School: a covert college dedicated to training mutants to fight and survive rather than placidly wait for mankind to turn on them…

With Uncanny X-Men volume 3, #19.NOW and #20-24 (May-October 2014) scripter Brian Michael Bendis and primary illustrators Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend (and additional inkers Jamie Mendoza, Mark Irwin, Victor Olazaba, Wayne Fauch & Jon Holdredge) rake the coals as a long-brewing plot pot boils over and the answers to a few long-running questions shake both mutant and human antagonists…

The eponymous 4-part drama opens in Atlanta where recently expelled Extinction student David Bond – AKA Hijack – is “detained” by a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. heavies personally led by Director Maria Hill demanding to know the location of Scott Summers.

Almost from the start Magneto had been playing a double (or even treble) game; regularly betraying the mutant outlaws to Hill whilst also telling Cyclops at least some of what he was doing for her.

He then went missing after visiting the island of Madripoor where he found shapeshifter Mystique had created her own mutant utopia from the former rogue state. This exactly coincided with Alison Blaire, S.H.I.E.L.D. Mutant Liaison code-named Dazzler, being replaced by the chameleonic mutant Machiavelli …

Now the ongoing duel between the planet’s paramount paramilitary peacekeeping force and the Extinction faction is swiftly coming to a head.

The situation has been tensely escalating for months. The Extinction leaders had all suffered inexplicable major alterations to their powers after Xavier’s death and their public appearances usually resulted in attacks by robotic super-Sentinels which S.H.I.E.L.D. denied all knowledge of.

It was as if some undetected third force was in play…

In Madripoor the real Dazzler is in a coma, her body used to produce the highly addictive drug Mutant Growth Hormone. However when reprehensible Fred (The Blob) Dukes uncovers the secret it’s not long before his old boss Magneto knows too…

Meanwhile in Canada, Summers and time-bending student Eva Bell have used super computer Cerebro to hone in on a new mutant in Chicago and led the team into an ambush. The Sentinels awaiting their arrival possess the ability to disrupt their powers but happily are completely unable to withstand Magik’s demonic gifts…

Then in the catastrophic aftermath of the clash Cyclops sees common humanity again turning against his kind and declares war on S.H.I.E.L.D….

In Atlanta, Hill has gleaned only one useful titbit of information from Hijack. She now knows Summers is convinced S.H.I.E.L.D. is behind the Sentinel attacks but as she moves her team out to Chicago in the awesome and formidable Helicarrier she is psychically invaded by the mutants who probe her mind for confirmation.

In an act of bravado she opens her mind and shows that she knows nothing of the mechanical monsters. What she cannot prove – even to herself – is that some other faction of the Byzantine organisation is responsible, so she contacts her mutant expert Special Agent Dazzler…

And elsewhere the true power behind attacks gloats as his endgame approaches…

Back at base Summers finally deduces how their unknown foe has been targeting them with Sentinels and closes down Cerebro, whilst in Atlanta Hijack decides to strike out on his own, blithely unaware that he is being followed.

A brilliant, unconventional tactician, Cyclops makes a move nobody expects and pays a call on the Jean Grey School and enlists the aid of the elder Hank McCoy: his former comrade and a man who now despises him and everything he stands for…

However as he tries to question the Beast, his malfunctioning optic power goes wild and destruction rains down on the School just as, in the skies above, Hill arrives in the Helicarrier and Dazzler issues S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ultimatum…

Meanwhile in Madripoor the outraged Magneto has freed the real Alison, but as they make their way back to America the crisis is already peaking. On the grounds of the decimated school Hill and Summers face off but, even with suspicions at fever pitch on both sides, talk rather than action seems to be winning through.

Seeing all his schemes unravelling the mystery mastermind is forced into precipitate action, overriding the Helicarrier’s weaponry controls and raining down death and destruction on mutants and S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiery alike.

When Magneto and Dazzler arrives at the hidden Extinction Base he picks up the impatiently waiting students and fellow tutors before heading for Westchester to confront Mystique-as-Dazzler, unaware of the shattering clash already underway and utterly ignorant of the fact that the expelled and angry Hijack is also racing there…

At the Grey School the dreaded Mutant Extinction looks to be in full swing as the co-opted Helicarrier is reinforced by an army of Sentinels, driving outlaw Homo Superior, officially sanctioned X-Men and S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiery into a desperate alliance…

Bombastic and spectacular, all the plot threads and devious twists are drawn together and the true villains thoroughly dealt with in a classic and staggering resolution which will delight fans of mutant mayhem and Fights ‘n’ Tights furore… but this superb action-fest doesn’t end here.

Kris Anka steps in to render the last two issues – a shocking chapter in the then-ongoing Mortal Sins Crossover Event which begins when the sensational She-Hulk turns up at the battered Jean Grey School. She has a distressing and disturbing function to execute in her role as metahuman lawyer Jen Walters: the reading of ‘The Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier’

The first onerous and almost impossible task is to gather all the aggrieved, bereaved and estranged students of the pioneering mutant messiah in one room…

In the secret Canadian fortress that houses the Extinction Team and students of the New Xavier School Alison Blaire is considering what Mystique did to her. She is not coping well…

And in South Carolina a young man named Matthew feels the first stirrings of unrelenting power within his body. Soon he will be the only survivor of a catastrophic detonation and the target of all S.H.I.E.L.D.’s deadly anti-mutant technologies and capabilities…

Eventually Cyclops is convinced to attend the reading, much to the dismay and disgust of his former team-mates.

Everybody knows that Xavier considered Scott his son and believes the first X-Man will be the main beneficiary despite also being the Professor’s murderer. Tension is high as this thought simmers in every mind even though Cyclops has already declared that he won’t accept any bequest…

However when the recorded video message finally plays what the great saviour reveals is no dispensing of gifts and chattels but a disclosure of Charles Xavier’s greatest, darkest secret…

To Be Continued…

With cover-&-variants by Bachalo & Townsend, Anka, Alexander Lozano, J. Scott Campbell, Adi Granov and Terry & Rachel Dodson as well as the usual digital extras accessible via the AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) which give access to story bonuses once you download the free code from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.

Combining incredible adventure with clever characterisation and a colossal amount of comicbook carnage, this is a wonderfully cathartic conclusion and restart which no Costumed Drama addict could possibly resist.

™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Modesty Blaise: The Young Mistress


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-709-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: unmissable comics for fans of classic blockbusting adventure… 9/10

Modesty Blaise and her lethally adept platonic partner Willie Garvin were superior criminals who retired young, rich and healthy – without ever getting too dirty – from a career where they made far too many enemies.

They were slowly dying of boredom in England when British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. They jumped at his offer of excitement and a chance to get some really evil sods.

With that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the pair embarked upon a non-stop helter-skelter thrill-ride that has pitted them against the World’s vilest villains and maddest maniacs…

The legendary femme fatale first appeared in The Evening Standard on May 13th 1963 and over the following decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a light-hearted adventure strip from the 1950’s itself long overdue for revival and compilation) produced a treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero and others assumed the art reins, taking the daredevil duo to even greater heights.

Modesty has been syndicated world-wide and the partners in peril have also starred in 13 prose novels and short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002.

The tales are always stylish and engaging spy/crime/thriller fare in the vein of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories (as opposed to the super-spy’s sometimes over-the-top cinema exploits) although Modesty and Willie are competent, canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly human.

Reproduced in stark and stunning black & white – as they should be – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulous serial re-presentations of the ultimate newspaper troubleshooter continue here with O’Donnell and perennial collaborator Romero at the top of their game in a trio of tales spanning August 5th 1991 to November 2nd 1992, each prefaced with informative prose introductions from devotee and historian Lawrence Blackmore.

The rollercoaster ride begins with eponymous thriller ‘The Young Mistress’ (originally seen in The London Evening Standard from August 5th 1991 – January 6th 1992) which delves into the thorny subject of domestic abuse and the high-stakes world of art forgery.

When Modesty and current paramour Dr. Giles Pennyfeather aid a young woman thrashed with a riding crop they are astounded when the terrified Marian Hall refuses to press charges against shady art dealer Bruce Lacey.

Not only does the sadistic bully have unsubstantiated links to the underworld but he clearly enjoys inflicting pain. However when he surprises Marian’s rescuers, his attempts to teach Modesty “a lesson” rebound on him painfully and humiliatingly. They even take his toy girlfriend away…

Safely ensconced with Modesty and Willie, Marian explains that it’s not love but fear and guilt that keep her with Lacey. The young commercial artist is a brilliant copyist and when she first began seeing the astoundingly well-connected gallery owner, he convinced her to counterfeit a valuable painting before selling it on to an unsuspecting collector.

As a participant (albeit innocently) in fraud, she is in the monster’s pocket. Moreover Lacey was intending to use Marian to forge a borrowed Rembrandt and subsequently kidnaps her and her understanding old boyfriend to ensure the talented lass’ compliance in his nefarious multi-million-dollar scheme.

Determined to end the beast’s predations and thoroughly aware that Lacey will never rest until he has subjected Modesty to the brutal tortures that push his sick buttons, Willie and Modesty undertake a convoluted sting to break his power base, but are unaware of just how vicious and violent Lacey can be.

He, of course, has completely underestimated the lengths to which Modesty will go to defend the helpless…

‘Ivory Dancer’ (January 7th – June 5th 1992) changes tack as Modesty and Willie take their feisty, horse-mad prodigy Samantha to Kentucky for a vacation with billionaire John Dall.

The equine enthusiast is an old lover of Modesty’s as well as owner of the world’s most successful and valuable race horse, but the dream holiday unfortunately coincides with a cruel attempt to kidnap the four-legged superstar by ruthless gangster Gallo.

Sadly for the murderous thugs little Sam has an almost preternatural connection with the horse and once the steed goes missing she’s hot on his trail.

…And Willie and Modesty are hard on her heels; in no mood to be gentle with thugs who steal horses and threaten children…

The addictive action concludes in a classic espionage extravaganza as ‘Our Friend Maud’ (June 8th – November 2nd 1992) reintroduces Sir Gerald’s top agent in a clever tale of brainwashing, contract killing and international intrigue.

Maud Tiller is a top operative and when occasional dalliance Willie Garvin is blanked by her in a French restaurant he simply assumes she’s undercover on a mission. However his danger-honed senses are troubled and a little quiet checking reveals that the agent has gone AWOL.

Liaising with Modesty and Tarrant, Willie soon discovers that Maud has been kidnapped by fixer-for-hire the High Contractor and deduces she is being slowly programmed to assassinate somebody important and generally untouchable…

Linking up with Modesty, the outraged Garvin tracks Maud down and with the aid of unconventional Gallic operative Code-Name: Henri proceeds to infiltrate the upper echelons of grand society to rescue his English Rose, consequently dismantling one of the most dangerous international terror rings ever to threaten world peace…

These are unforgettable stories from brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the majesty of an iconic creation. As timeless adventure romps packed with sex appeal, dry wit and devastating tension, the stories here are more enthralling now than ever and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.

Modesty Blaise © 2014 All rights reserved.

An Age of License – a Travelogue


By Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-768-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a fresh taste of all that’s right about comics and creators… 8/10

Since I first started reading comics (sometime soon after the discovery of fire) the industry and art form has undergone a magical transformation in styles and formats and a huge expansion in content.

Where once the medium was populated with heroes and horrors, fantasies and wish fulfilment exercises, these days literally anything can become the engrossing and absorbing meat of graphic narrative, dependent only upon the skill and passions of dedicated and inspired artisan creators.

A superb example of this broadening of strip horizons is globe-girdling cartooning diarist and epicure Lucy Knisley who has made a career out of documenting her life as it happens, detailing her experiences and fascinations in an engaging and entertaining manner through such graphic missives as French Milk and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.

Now she’s back with another beguiling slice of graphic verité whish covers a European working vacation come bittersweet lovers tryst.

This latest voyage begins in 2011 when the cat-loving cartoonist was invited to be a guest at Norway’s Raptus Comics Festival. After some understandable dithering and consultation with pals and fellow pros the author agreed, planning to turn the Work Jolly into the start of an extended visit to friends in Germany and vacationing family in France…

As the time nears the daunting plans all come together and Lucy prepares herself by immersing in personal Scandinavian-ness: researching the family history of her Swedish grandparents…

Events obtain a sharper edge in New York in the months immediately preceding the trip as she meets visiting Henrik: a most fanciable lad she agrees to visit in his Stockholm home after the convention…

With her six-venue itinerary sorted all that’s left is for the journey to begin…

Packed with intimate detail and engaging introspection, rendered in clean, clear compelling black line – augmented by occasional bursts of painterly watercolour illustration – this is a fabulously absorbing voyage with a most delightful and forthright travel companion who unstintingly shares her thoughts, feeling and experiences in a manner guaranteed to win over the most jaded fellow passenger – especially as she always garnishes her slivers of new experience with her trademark adventures and observations through the welcoming lens of regional foods made and enjoyed.

Through work, relaxation, the hazy indolence of a love affair and its gradual ending, a phrase she heard in the winemaking region of Beaune in France comes to haunt her.

L’Age license – a time of freedom for youth to try, fail, experiment and learn – fascinates and captivates her and she spends much of her time in France and beyond, searching for its truth, origins and meaning…

Exceedingly funny, sweet, disarmingly incisive, heartwarming, uncompromising and utterly enchanting, this beguiling, moving memoir is a comics experience unlike any other and fans of travel, storytelling and a life well-lived will adore the open, sharing experience it vicariously offers.
An Age of License © 2014 Lucy Knisley. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bart Simpson 2015 Annual


By various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-449-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fun festive Frolics in the old school style… 9/10

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the children’s annual, a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare Brit who never received a colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, pop stars, television, film or radio franchises and personalities such as TV21, Radio Fun, Arthur Askey, Dr Who, Star Wars or even peculiar and ephemeral somethings trending at a given moment.

There were also sports books and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn and special generational unmissables such as Giles, The Broons, Oor Wullie or the always glorious Rupert Annuals.

The Simpsons first aired as a series in December 1989 after debuting as a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. It is currently the longest running sitcom, longest-running animated program and longest-running scripted primetime television series in American entertainment history. Once the show became a runaway hit, Bongo Comics was formed in 1993 by Steve and Cindy Vance, Bill Morrison and inspirational creator Matt Groening as an adjunct to the TV show, to provide extra Springfield madness for the masses.

British Comics have always fed heavily on other media and as television grew during the 1960s – especially the area of children’s shows and cartoons – those programmes increasingly became the staple source for the Seasonal Annual market, replacing radio and movie personalities as fodder for fun and imagination. As the years passed, there would be a profusion of stories and strips targeting not readers but young viewers and more and more often the stars would be , not British.

Perhaps the nation’s most impressive and long-lived modern purveyor of the once ubiquitous gifting standby is the mini-franchise of monthly comics and books starring the aforementioned cartoon phenomenon and this year’s Cool Yule offerings boast a family fun-fest featuring all of the Springfield Irregulars but also a canny collection of capers starring the poster child for children who belong on wanted posters…

This collection of strip shenanigans – all culled from the pages of the mighty Bongo Comics – opens with ‘Elementary School Dropout’ (by Earl Kress, Joey Nilges & Andrew Pepoy) which details how, after a particularly unsavoury expression of recreational nudity, young Bart finally succeeds in being expelled from school.

After failing to get the anarchic little nonconformist into any other educational establishment in the country Marge and Homer are depressed, defeated and resigned to having the smug horror at home for good, but eventually boredom and ostracism compel Bart to get himself back into school… with the connivance of a most unexpected ally…

The madness expands to include professional Scotisher Groundskeeper Willie who takes centre stage to reminisce aboot his pop-star days as a drummer in ‘Willie and the Weasels’ (Mary Trainor, James Lloyd & Pepoy): a shocking expose of the cruel and callous treatment sensitive musicians endured in the swingin’ sixties…

Then ‘Mrs. Bart Krabappel!’ (Tom Peyer, Nilges & Pepoy) outrageously details how Bart’s appetite for chaos causes his long-suffering teacher to be arrested. In an example of pure ingenuity the Judge sentences her to live with the Simpsons, where a strange relationship gradually develops…

Bart and best bud Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten subsequently test the boundaries of science, nature and imagination in ‘With Great Power…’ (Max Davison, Nina Matsumoto & Pepoy), engineering “accidents” and even nuclear calamities in a wild quest to develop superpowers before the discovery of a strange book creates the perfect conditions for a children’s cult in ‘One for All and Alpha One’ (by Trainor, Lloyd & Pepoy)…

The world turns upside down when School Superintendent Chalmers fires Mr. Skinner and makes Bart ‘Principal Simpson’ (Peyer, Mike DeCarlo & Ken Wheaton) for a day. Oddly, the exercise seems to the liberation of both and leads to a strange rapprochement after which ‘Treehouse of Chimps’ (John Zakour, John Delaney & Pepoy) concludes the seasonal celebration in fine style as three of Professor Frink’s lab monkeys – hopped up on Primate Intelligence Enhancer - set up their own science experiment to observe the wild, undomesticated inhabitants of Springfield in their (un)natural environments…

Wry, hilarious, surreal and satirical, abounding in slapstick and poor taste gags, these dynamic tales of the world’s foremost mischief test-pilot shine in this sterling oversized (297 x 222mm) full colour hardback collection of edgy, barbed spoofs: another timeless piece of comic ordinance that we should use to get kids into comics. And of course, once we have them, we need even more stuff of this quality around to keep them here….
The Simpsons ™, created by Matt Groening, is the copyrighted and trademarked property of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Bart Simpson 2015 Annual © 2014 Bongo Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man: Rings of the Mandarin


By Kieron Gillen, Luke Ross, Joe Bennett, Scott Hanna, Cliff Richard & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-616-8

Supreme survivor Tony Stark has changed his profile many times since his 1963 debut when, as a VIP visitor in Vietnam observing the efficacy of weaponry he had designed, the arch-technocrat wunderkind was critically wounded and captured by a Communist warlord.

Put to work with the spurious promise of medical assistance upon completion, Stark instead built a prototype Iron Man suit to keep his heart beating and deliver him from his oppressors. From there it was a small jump into a second career as a high-tech Knight in Shining Armour…

Ever since then the former armaments manufacturer has been a liberal capitalist, eco-warrior, space pioneer, civil servant, Statesman, and even spy-chief: Director of the world’s most scientifically advanced spy agency, the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.

Of course, he was also a founder member of the world’s most prominent superhero assemblage, the Mighty Avengers, and affirmed Futurist; an impassioned advocate of inevitable progress by way of building better tomorrows…

For a popular character/concept weighed down with a fifty-year pedigree, radical reboots are a painful periodic necessity. To stay fresh and contemporary, Stark’s origin and Iron Man’s continuity have been radically revised every so often, but never so drastically as during his latest revamp – the final collected chronicle of which here re-presents Iron Man volume 5, #23.NOW – 28, spanning March to June 2014.

What Just Happened: following a few notable escapades in outer space, the once-jaded Armoured Avenger uncovered a few surprises in his own past (for which see the two-volume Iron Man: The Secret Origin of Tony Stark) and discovered that he had been adopted by industrialist Howard and Maria Stark to deceive a manipulative alien device with big plans.

Rigellian Recorder 451 - one of millions of sentient automatons programmed to travel the universe acquiring knowledge – had developed a programming flaw and struck out on its own, slowly furthering its own secret agenda.

The renegade had been working with his parents to genetically alter their unborn child and make it a technological super-warrior capable of defending Earth from exponentially increasing alien attacks that were to come as the universe responded to the deadly potential for destruction of Humankind…

Recorder never realised Howard was deeply suspicious and – after decoding the genetic alterations 451 had installed in the foetus – tampered with some of them…

Years later, after a spectacular struggle, Tony Stark defeated the deranged robot Rigellian and returned to Earth where further enquiries into his family’s shady history uncovered an astonishing, life-altering discovery kept hidden for years by his brilliantly paranoid father: Tony had an older brother who was the actual subject of 451’s genetic manipulation.

Arno Stark was a bed-ridden, technological genius who was forever trapped in an iron lung, locked away and raised in isolation at the Maria Stark Foundation Hospice, but now the brothers were gloriously reunited. There was only one small caveat to Tony’s unbounded joy. He was no blood relation to Arno, but apparently secretly adopted as a ploy to deceive the alien automaton…

With a brother even more brilliant than he, Tony began bigger, bolder enterprises such as the construction of a modular super-city to save humanity from self-inflicted extinction. The creative geniuses dubbed it Troy, but no sooner had they unveiled their Iron Metropolis than they were targeted by the alien super-weapons previously employed by arch nemesis The Mandarin.

The ill-considered location of their World of Tomorrow was Mandarin City: a private island off the coast of mainland China long ignored and avoided by the nations of the world since the death of the villain who controlled it.

It was the perfect site on which the Starks could make their vision live… but only after driving out the Triads and other vermin profiting from a legally tenuous citadel no world power was confident enough to annexe. The villain’s Rings, meanwhile, had somehow achieved a cooperative (to an argumentative point) co-consciousness and begun enacting their own destructive agenda by seeking out host-wearers whose personalities and ambitions were compatible with their own…

In London, radical journalist Abigail Burns was seduced by a sentient flaming Ring which deemed her worthy but her brief time as Red Peril led to mutilation and eventually revelation.

The other cosmic adornments also found troubled partners and began sowing destruction, countered by Tony, former War Machine pilot James Rhodes (now all decked out as the Iron Patriot) and immobile Arno, who took remote control of the city’s mechanical police force. Dispatching thousands of empty Armour suits as a Trojan Guard he saved lives and property and thwarted the Rings’ initial assault.

Unfortunately a far more arcane and malign player became involved when Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed then began slaughtering Ring wearers in search of a full set for himself…

Scripted by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Luke Ross, Joe Bennett, Scott Hanna & Cliff Richard, the latest stage in the evolution of Iron Man takes up from where Iron Metropolitan dramatically paused as, in the Asgardian Nine Realms, Malekith gloats over the Rings he now grips in his cruelly taloned hand.

Later on Earth, when Iron Man tackles another deranged new Mandarin, the battle explosively ends when the Dark Elf ambushes the combatants and bloodily takes another Ring for his own.

Fed up with playing catch-up, Tony changes tactics and hires Shevaun Haldane (former Dark Angel and mystic mercenary) to act as his handler and advisor as he attempts to infiltrate his eldritch enemy’s magical home turf of Svartalfheim

Unfortunately it involves leaving his best weapon behind as “cold iron” is anathema to Elves and they can spot him coming if he goes in fully kitted-up…

Naturally the mission goes wrong from the start and the covert intruder pops up in the royal throne room. Following a bombastic battle the technological mortal is soon being harried by the Wild Hunt through the outer reaches of a mythical hellscape…

Back on Earth Arno is proving to be as devious and many-layered as his foster-brother and enters into an unconventional political alliance with Abigail Burns even as Tony opts to sacrifice his intended escape route home for Shevaun sending in his fearsome Iron Man assault suit…

Soon the tables are totally turned. Although Malekith’s psychological assaults – claiming baby Tony might be an Elven changeling – hit home hard, the Fairy devil has no real defence against a mightily ticked off Iron-shod Avenger and his problems only multiply when the remaining six Ring-Wearers drop in, determined to maintain their new-found autonomy by destroying the magical abomination trying to control them all…

Besieged on all sides, the Accursed Elf is forced to capitulate and surrenders his four Rings and an escape route to the triumphant Tony, but as always has an ulterior motive and craftily takes something from the Maria Stark Foundation Hospice that may in time prove far more valuable and deadly than the trinkets he has grudgingly surrendered…

With four Rings in custody Tony, Arno and devoted inspirational AI H.E.L.E.N. begin reverse-engineering the sublime extraterrestrial devices and soon have enough data to construct a true counter to the star-tech’s unsurpassed might and collectivised intellect.

Their final solution then engages the enemy in the Mandarin’s City, miles deep under London where Ring-wearer Mole Man has convened a meeting of his fellow hosts to outline his plan for revenge. The meeting is cut short when Iron Man, Red Peril and Arno – in a formidable life-support battle suit – blaze in to end the threat but subsequently find one of their own is in the enemy camp…

Riotously wrapping up the blockbusting future-flavoured epic in spectacular, cathartic fashion, this action-packed Fights ‘n’ Tights rollercoaster splendidly closes one chapter in the ongoing escapades of the Golden Gladiator whilst setting the scene for more metal-machined marvels to come.

Bold, imaginative and supremely engaging, this expansive, explosive repositioning of the Stark dynasty comes with a cover-&-variants gallery by Mike Del Mundo, Christian Ward, In-Hyuk Lee, Jennifer Parks, Joe Quinones, Mike Perkins and Paul Renaud as well as the usual digital extras accessible via the AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) which give access to story bonuses once you download the free code from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.
™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Megahex


By Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-743-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: laugh-out-loud, falling-down-daft, crying from the heart … 8/10

Simon Hanselmann is a well-travelled cartoonist of Tasmanian origin who has been, since 2009, producing one of the best cartoon strips of all time.

Although mostly found on his girlmountain.tumblr site, other episodes of his engagingly deceptive, inappropriately pigeon-holed “stoner comedy” Megg, Mogg & Owl have appeared in places as varied as Kus, Smoke Signal, Gangbang Bong and assorted minicomics, but can now all be found in a sturdy, full colour hardback compilation which also boasts a further 69 pages of new and previously unseen material.

Hanselmann’s signature characters – loosely based on childhood memories of a series of British children’s books, filtered through a druggy haze and a desperate deadline – are Megg, a depression-afflicted druggie witch who lives with her mean-spirited feline familiar Mogg and sensitive, insecure, affection-starved Owl.

When not confronting or testing each other or hanging with the wrong crowd, they spend most of their time in a post-modern haze of self-inflicted ennui or on dope-fuelled junk-food binges in the apartment or in front of the TV…

They probably don’t like each or themselves much but dwell in a fug of dangerous co-dependency and their strange adventures have finally been collected into a sturdy and most improper tribute to a life lived more wryly through chemistry and sarcasm.

This book is packed with drug references, violent sexual imagery and outrageous situations intended to make adults laugh and think.

If the copy above hasn’t clued you in, please be warned that this book uses potentially disturbing images of abuse, sexual intimacy, excess and language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom, drunken street brawls – and probably school playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present – to make its artistic and narrative points.

If the mere thought of all that appals and offends you, read no further and don’t buy it. The rest of us will just have to enjoy some of the most astounding cartoon experiences ever created without you.

Lethargically anarchic and cruelly hilarious, the escapades of insecure Megg, malicious, experience-craving Mogg and their poor, pitiful companion open with ‘Fire’ as the pharmacologically paralysed Owl tries to dissuade his flatmates from testing his potential flammability after which ‘Beach’ finds Megg & Mogg defeated by the tantalising ever-expanding expanse between sand and surf…

‘Kate Bush’ reveals the embarrassment arising from catching someone in the act of singing along to something naff whilst ‘Horrible Party’ introduces wizard Mike and manic hedonist Werewolf Jones who will clearly go to obscene lengths to get noticed after which ‘Found Pills’ portrays some distressing transformations.

A first hint of darker intent is seen in ‘Drive Through’ when Owl passes out and his “friends” treat his body with an extreme lack of consideration and affection, whilst ‘Water’ goes straight to the gross-out core of slapstick before witch and familiar try to gatecrash a childrens’ show audition in ‘Theatre’ and Owl daydreams whilst passing through ‘Ham Parade’

Things get cattily scatological with an unattended plate of ‘Spaghetti’ and escalate when caught-short Owl is barred from the toilet and remanded to the ‘Yard’ after which Megg wires up her cat for an evocative rendition of ‘Mogg’s Noise Show’.

More casual cruelty ensues in ‘Taut Psychological Thriller’ when the flatmates palm off Owl with bogus drugs after which a rendezvous at the ‘Mall’ allows cat and conjuress to ruin the long-suffering dupe’s latest sexual conquest. This petty meanness is capped by the thrilling showboating of ‘Werewolf Jones’ Excitebike’ extravaganza…

‘Owl’s Birthday’ is as bad as the poor sap fears and his party ends with shocking abuse and assault, but even after he has moved on – without the intervention or apology of his buddies – a meeting with girl of his dreams ‘Peyote’ again leads to a situation of personal shame and legal terror…

Even fetching a ‘Sandwich’ can lead to unthinking humiliation for the avian also-ran, whilst for ‘Werewolf Jones & Friends’ every night is a party – but not one you’d want to attend…

After losing an appreciable amount of their lives to an iCarly marathon, Megg & Mogg head for the ‘Video Store’, utterly ignoring Owl’s cry for help regarding his AA meetings, and subsequently spike his health smoothie.

Owl is unfortunately a belligerent drunk and can’t understand why he’s abusing the other store patrons…

When “the munchies” hit, food crazed Megg & Mogg burgle a kebab shop but the guilt and fear engendered by the ‘Heist’ soon drives them to near madness, whilst ‘Scene Politics’ scares the crap out of everybody as Werewolf lays down his law.

‘Silver Sequin Mini-Skirt’ exposes Megg’s vulnerability after she receives some bad news, leading to an extended and keenly focused exploration of mental illness beginning with ‘Megg’s Depression’, ricocheting manically into ‘Megg’s Good Mood’, an interlude with her concerned house-sharers in ‘Bad Brains’ and a swingeing attack on mental health professions in ‘Megg’s Therapy’

After an odd encounter passing a ‘Graveyard’ Megg’s obsession with ‘Pregnancy’ kicks in again, but not in time to stop her friends tampering with her testing kits and, whilst reeling with indecision, she capitulates to her cat’s bizarre predilections in ‘Rimming’.

Seeking change she doses Mogg with ginger ‘Hair Dye’ which alters his look but sadly not his temperament after which a possible visit by the landlords provoke a hearty bout of ‘Paranoia’ that lasts until Werewolf arrives with a huge quantity of ‘Acid’ which takes everyone on the trip of their lives…

Change is in the air and when Owl tries to sort out his life with a real job Mogg & Megg have no choice but to tamper with the ‘Alarm Clock’ and other accoutrements of his longed-for normal life. As the shamed jobseeker simmers, Mogg returns to his own dark desires and ruins the concept of ‘Cinnamon’ for everybody else…

Events come to a life-changing head in ‘Cocktails’ when all the neurosis, blasé fronting, passive-aggression, negative feelings, overwhelming love, depression, drugs, sexual profligacy and cycles of dependency boil over and the gang break up forever…

Despite its similarity to some kind of no-harm, no-foul adult situation comedy – and believe me there are outrageous laughs by the bucketful – there is a strong, often overwhelming narrative progression to these quirky beguiling stories and Megahex navigates with easy confidence the tightrope between sordid and surreal, hilarity and horror, survival and sinking away.

Dark, affecting and unforgettable, this is a book no lover of truly mature fiction will be able to ignore.
Megahex © 2014 Simon Hanselmann. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A beguiling glimpse into the early thoughts of a narrative master … 9/10

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

At the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980. Even though the reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection), its notional spin-off series Frank (of which the volume Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature), maybe Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features such as his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics, there is still never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning but totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superb and sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation – which gathers his earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome – offers the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from breakthrough autobiographical magazine JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, and certainly cements his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and cover illustrations from JIM, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’ as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the first strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’ and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers those indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating life-drawing, relationships and hallucinations after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes in prose and pictures another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’ introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation before the macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’ explains how you can live life without ever going outside again…

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark and distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’ before the largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ before bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts a bunch of cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ after which young Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, after which an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years progressed many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures had slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’ whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like, after which ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyages with a homey homily and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.

Asterix and Obelix All at Sea


By Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-0-75284-778-8

A son of Italian immigrants, Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927 in Fismes on the Marne. As a child reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien he showed artistic flair from an early age and dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic. Albert became a French citizen when he was seven and found employment at thirteen, apprenticed to the Paris Publishing Society, where he learned design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When World War II broke out he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany and joined his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled and fascinated Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being mooted, the region was the only choice.

In the post-war rebuilding of France, Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the recovering nation’s burgeoning comics industry.

His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose own masterpiece The Beast is Dead is far too long overdue for a commemorative reissue…).

The tireless Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist and illustrator for France Dimanche, and created the vertical comicstrip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir.

In 1950 he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

An inveterate traveller, the artistic prodigy met Rene Goscinny in 1951. Soon becoming fast friends, they resolved to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, following which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they resulted in a western starring a “Red Indian” who eventually evolved into the delightfully infamous Oumpah-Pah. In 1955, with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replaced Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine and in 1957 added Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

The following year, he made his debut in Tintin, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and a rapturous audience. Uderzo also drew Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane.

When Pilote launched in 1959 Uderzo was a major creative force for the new magazine, collaborating with Charlier on Tanguy et Laverdure and launching – with Goscinny – a little something called Asterix

Although the gallant Gaul was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working on Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure, but once the first hilarious historical romp was collected in an album as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially since the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas.

By 1967 Asterix occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention, so in 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation. When Goscinny passed away three years later, Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes until 2010 when he retired.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comic serial subsequently collected into book-length compilations, in 1974 the 21st (Asterix and Caesar’s Gift) was the first published as a complete original album before serialisation. Thereafter each new release was an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for the strip’s millions of fans…

More than 325 million copies of 35 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s best-selling international authors, and now that torch has been passed and new sagas of the indomitable are being created by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad…

One of the most popular comics on Earth, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut, with twelve animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys, merchandise and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, naturellement)…

Like all the best stories the narrative premise works on more than one level: read it as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a-cropper if you want or as a punfully sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads. We Brits are further blessed by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to English tongues.

Many of the intoxicating epics are set in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, with the Garrulous Gallic Gentlemen reduced to quizzical tourists and bemused commentators in every fantastic land and corner of the civilisations that proliferated in that fabled era. The rest – more than half of the canon – take place in Uderzo’s beloved 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.

The land is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces of Celtica, Aquitania and Amorica, but the very tip of the last just refuses to be pacified…

Whenever the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat the last bastion of Gallic insouciance, futilely resorted to a policy of absolute containment. Thus the little seaside hamlet was permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

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

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export from the mid-1960s onwards, Asterix the Gaul continues to grow in quality as new creators toil ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas and building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold…

Uderzo’s sixth session as sole creator was Asterix and Obelix All at Sea (originally entitled La Galère d’Obélix): released in 1996 and the 30th volume of the ever-unfolding saga. It began in the cruel and callous capital of civilisation wherein the Master of the World was having a bit of a bad day. Not as bad however as his Grand Admiral Crustacius, who has just allowed a bunch of galley slaves to mutiny and steal Julius Caesar’s personal galley…

As the severely tongue-lashed mariner and his browbeaten aide Vice-Admiral Nautilus scurry away to pursue the fugitives, aboard the magnificent vessel magnificent Greek rebel Spartakis – bearing a striking resemblance to the magnificent Kirk Douglas in all his glory – debates with his recently-liberated comrades from many nations on where in the Rome-ruled world they can go to remain free…

A British oarsman then suggests a certain Gaulish village on the coast of Armorica which the empire has never conquered…

Meanwhile in the faraway subject of their discussions, Asterix and Obelix are in an argumentative mood too, but their clash is put aside when word comes that the entire complement of all four encircling garrisons are massing on the far side of the forest.

Always eager for a little martial recreation the villagers dose up on Getafix the Druid’s strength-boosting magic potion. Once again Obelix is frustrated in his attempt to get a share of the tantalising elixir and stumbles off in high dudgeon.

The generally genial giant had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby and grown up a permanently superhuman, eternally hungry hulk who hated being told no and didn’t believe more of the mouth-watering miracle mixture could harm him…

The Romans are utterly unaware of the danger insouciantly sauntering towards them, engaged as they are in drill to celebrate the imminent arrival of Admiral Crustacius. Thoroughly thrashing the amassed legions, the victorious Gauls wonder why Roman-bashing addict Obelix is absent and Getafix, dreading the worst, dashes back to discover his greatest fears realised.

The intransigent idiot has imbibed deeply from the potion and been turned to stone…

Nothing the Druid can conceive seems able to cure the calcified colossus and it’s during this time of trouble that Spartakis and his freed slaves arrive, requesting sanctuary. As the welcoming villagers carry the huge ornate galley into the village, the Obelix ordeal takes a strange turn as his stony spell wears off and the former fighting fool returns to flesh and blood – albeit as the puny helpless little boy he was before ever falling into the potion pot. The little wimp can’t even eat roast boar anymore…

The little lad is the darling of the town but cannot abide his weak ineffectual status. The situation becomes truly intolerable after the boy is captured by Crustacius and shipped off to Rome. After suitably castigating the soldiery, Asterix, Getafix and faithful mutt Dogmatix give chase in Caesar’s ship, manned by Spartakis and his valiant crew.

Powered by potion, the pursuers easily overtake the Romans, who have been hampered by the obnoxious antics of Obelix and the predations of the perennially, phenomenally unlucky pirates to whom – after a period of traditional chastisement – Asterix gives Caesar’s stolen galley.

Crucially, however, in his haste the little warrior leaves behind a barrel of potion when his comrades and little Obelix all transfer to a new, less noticeable vessel.

As the Gauls sail off in the pirate’s ship, Getafix has an inspired idea and suggests to Spartakis that they make for the last remnant of Atlantis, explaining that the idyllic Canary Islands survived the inundation of the magic continent and the people living there now are reclusive beings of great power and knowledge who might be able to restore Obelix to his natural state…

When they finally arrive in that beautiful land of miracles they are greeted by old man Absolutlifabulos and hordes of beautiful, happy children riding dolphins, centaurs, swans and winged cattle. The jolly dotard explains that the Atlanteans have reverted themselves to carefree immortal childhood, but their powers cannot do anything to cure Obelix.

As the downhearted Gauls make their way home, Spartakis and his men opt to stay and become forever kids too…

Meanwhile on Caesar’s galley Crustacius has discovered Getafix’s stashed potion and powered up, dreaming of ousting his foul-tempered boss and making himself Emperor, even as leagues away a Roman boarding party invades the pirate galley and menaces the powerless Gauls.

With Asterix about to be killed, little Obelix goes berserk and the emotional overload restores him to his corpulent, hyper-charged self, much to the distress of the terrified soldiers…

By the time Crustacius reaches Rome he has made the same mistake Obelix did and his rapid overdosing on potion only provides Julius Caesar with another statue for the Circus Maximus

In Gaul however, Obelix, with a lot of frustration to work through, debarks at recently repaired Aquarium for a spot of cathartic violence before he accompanies his faithful chums back to the village for a celebratory feast…

Packed with thrilling action, good-natured joshing, raucous, bombastic, bellicose hi-jinks and a torrent of punishing puns to astound and bemuse youngsters of all ages, this rollicking fantasy and paean to true friendship cements Uderzo’s reputation as a storyteller whilst his stunning illustrative ability affords glimpses of sheer magic to lovers of cartoon art. Asterix and Obelix All at Sea proves that the potion-powered paragons of Gallic Pride will never lose their potent punch. © 1996 Les Editions Albert René, Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translations © 1998, 2002 Les Editions Albert René, Goscinny/Uderzo. All rights reserved.

Superman-Batman: Absolute Power

New Revised Review

By Jeph Loeb, Carlos Pacheco, Ivan Reis & Jesus Merino (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0447-1 (hardcover):         978-1-4012-0714-4 (trade paperback)

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were best friends and the pairing made perfect financial sense as National/DC’s most popular heroes could cross-sell their combined readerships.

When the characters were redefined for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths 1980s and 1990s, they were remade as cautious (but respectful) co-workers who did the same job whilst deploring each other’s methods.

They preferred to avoid contact whenever possible – except when they were in the Justice League… but then, the character continuity of team titles has always been largely at odds with heroes at home in their own titles…

However, after a few years of this new status quo the irresistible lure of Cape & Cowl Capers inexorably brought the pair together again with modern emotional intensity derived from their incontestably differing methods and characters in a series of epic adventures packed with high-value guest-stars.

This visually intoxicating tour of alternate times and places, collecting issues #14-18 of Superman/Batman (January-April 2005 and scripted by Jeph Loeb with art by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino), again revisits and resets the original team-up concept, seeing the most important heroes in the universe uniquely co-opted by a trio of menaces from a very familiar tomorrow…

It all begins in ‘I Pledge Allegiance…’ wherein a rocketship crash in a Kansas cornfield and a murder in Gotham City back alley take a turn into the unknown thanks to a trio of time travellers. Decades pass and Kal-El of Krypton and 10-year old murder witness Bruce Wayne are reared by the cunning chrononauts to become the heroes they were destined to be, but with decidedly different ethics and motives.

The manipulators are far from idle over those years, intercepting other key events and ensuring Barry Allen, Arthur Curry, Hal Jordan and alien J’onn J’onzz all die before becoming Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern and the Manhunter from Mars.

However destiny is hard to thwart and other champions will always arise to try and restore the way reality should be…

Even as global rulers Superman and Batman are eradicating annoying gadfly Green Arrow and celebrating their anniversary of dominance with fond foster parents Lightning Lord, Cosmic King and Saturn Queen of the 31st century Legion of Super Villains, in a dank subway under America’s former capital a determined Amazon invader is using her Lasso of Truth…

Galvanised by her Grecian gods, Diana of Themyscira has tracked down the mystical embodiment of the Human Spirit and restored his memory.

Now Uncle Sam is ready to set the world right once again…

Wearing the power ring intended for Hal Jordan and liberating his original team of Freedom Fighters (Phantom Lady, Dollman, The Ray and Human Bomb) from their time-overwritten new lives, he leads them and Diana in a bold counterattack against the Cape & Cowl oppressors’ HQ in ‘What Price Freedom…?’

Their targets meanwhile, have just survived their closest call yet, destroying the mystic city of Nanda Parbat but almost falling before the possession powers of Deadman Boston Brand

By the time Superman and Batman return, Uncle Sam’s team have already defeated a team of thralls from the erstwhile Legion of Super-Heroes and, with no quarter asked, Diana kills Batman before herself being slain by his vengeance-crazed foster brother. The Freedom fighters press on to capture their target – the future felons’ time machine – but when Kal detonates the Human Bomb with his lethal heat vision the co-mixing of alien energies disrupts the time bubble and rends the very fabric of space-time.

And in a place beyond all universes, an unlikely assemblage of reluctant allies consider how best to remedy the situation they have instigated…

Superman and the somehow restored Batman awaken in a strange Earth where animals talk and act like men, and after a violent confrontation with Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth, abruptly find themselves phased into another impossibly confused iteration of their home.

Here western gunfighters El Diablo, Bat Lash, Tomahawk, Scalphunter, Jonah Hex (packing bullets made from a glowing green meteor) and other cowboy crusaders hunt them down on behalf of President Lex Luthor and execute them both…

Alive again in that non-dimensional other-place, Man of Steel and Darkest Knight are confronted by Darkseid, knowledge god Metron, Etrigan the Demon and an older wiser Superman, who apprise them of the stakes in play ‘When Time Goes Asunder…’ before instructing the notional heroes how only they can repair reality.

Of course the Master of Apokolips does nothing for free…

Sent through time to mend their own origin tales, the saving of Jonathan and Martha Kent goes perfectly but when faced with allowing his parents to be killed again Bruce Wayne baulks and kills their assailant before the thief can pull the trigger.

As the Caped Crimebuster vanishes from reality, Superman is catapulted forward in time to ‘A World without Batman…’, or indeed any superheroes. Attacked by Sgt Rock’s Easy Company and the Haunted Tank, the Action Ace fights back valiantly before discovering that immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul is the undisputed dictator of Earth and he has destroyed every metahuman the world ever knew…

Retrenching Clark Kent then seeks out the Waynes and their playboy son Bruce in an attempt to restore some semblance of the only man ever to defeat “The Demon’s Head”…

Despite his many failings, Bruce is still a strategic genius and soon devises a horrific way to bolster the hard-pressed heroes’ forces before their final, doomed assault on Al Ghul. Tragically the World’s Finest warriors have not realised that their foe has allied himself with the time-tampering Villains’ Legion, nor that their former foster parents have plundered the future for murderous metahuman reinforcements…

The chronal carnage concludes with a spectacular confrontation in ‘Thy Will be Done’ (with additional pencilling by Ivan Reis) as Superman on the edge of utter defeat turns his enemies’ time-bending tactics to his own advantage and finds allies of his own from another furious future…

Although a superbly engaging piece of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction, this temporal tempest of a tale suffers from the most common ailment to afflict such time-warping sagas – the reader already knows it will come OK in the end.

The art however is astoundingly beautiful and, subtly augmented by Laura Martin’s colouring, is one of the prettiest cascades of chronal Armageddons you will ever see…

Although an aging fan-boy’s dream and featuring a vast amount of fondly familiar razzle-dazzle from scripter Loeb, Absolute Power is probably a yarn best enjoyed by dedicated fans equipped with the memories to keep it all straight.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 3: The Skyriders


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-014-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Skyriders is the third album of the translated Cinebook series (chronologically the eighth French volume ‘Les cavaliers du ciel’) and opens with Chesterfield dashing to see his severely wounded pal. However, when he finds out Blutch has bribed a surgeon to declare him unfit for duty, the doughty sergeant goes through the roof…

Dragging Blutch back to the Front lines, the sergeant is just in time to be ordered by frankly quite mad Captain Stark to join him in another heroic cavalry charge against the massed Rebel infantry. The division has suffered a few losses recently so the unstoppable wave of valiant Union horsemen will number exactly three…

The assault naturally fails and the deranged officer is captured, with Blutch and the deeply shaken Chesterfield making it back to their own lines more by luck than skill.

The Union generals are in a bit of a tizzy. They have plenty of artillery and ground troops but are being worn down by the swift-moving Confederate cavalry’s harrying tactics. What they need is some method of observing the enemy’s position. Also, with the news of Stark’s capture comes the apprehension of his revealing key positions so the strategists are forced into trying something new.

All they need are a big balloon and a couple of expendable idiots…

The first observation flight is a huge success, so much so that the generals go up themselves after the principle is proved. Sadly, the Brass are far better fed than Blutch and Chesterfield and the wicker basket they crowd into proves painfully insufficient to their needs…

Broken and battered the big bosses choose to keep their bandaged feet on the ground from then on and our Bluecoats remain the army’s only airborne soldiery, enduring shot and shell as they spy on the enemy from above…

Stark meanwhile has not talked and the Confederates are beginning to lose traction in the battle. Correctly blaming the balloon for their reversals of fortune, the Gray commanders determine to destroy their aerostatic nemesis at all costs and a daring sortie on the observation post enables them to cut the balloon free from its moorings…

Adrift in the sky the hapless duo try everything to get down safely – consequently causing great consternation to the Rebel forces – before finally crashing to earth on top of their own already balloon-damaged commanding officers.

Ordered to rescue Captain Stark or face a firing squad, Chesterfield then devises an audacious, suicidal plan: using the balloon at night, he and Blutch will infiltrate the Confederate camp and bust their mad boss out.

What could possibly go wrong?

As always their manic midnight misadventures result in pain, humiliation and not a few explosions and, incredibly, victory and success – of a sort…

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

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1976 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.