Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again


By Frank Miller& Lynn Varley (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-929-4

Despite and because of all the controversy and uproar over The Dark Knight Returns, the clamour for a sequel began almost immediately. Auteur Frank Millar kept everybody hungry for almost fifteen years and when he finally did capitulate it was – as usual – not what anyone was expecting.

Originally released as a 3-issue prestige format miniseries between November 2001 and July 2002 under DC’s Elseworlds imprint (a line featuring key characters in non-canonical or out-of-continuity tales). Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again once more confounded reader expectations with its concentration on contemporary social commentary, other (lesser?) superheroes and political corruption as well as the dumbing-down and sexualisation of the media …

Three years after the climax of the original epic, America and the world are worse off than ever and following a mood-setting Introduction from veteran journalist “Vicki Vale”, Book One opens with a well-hidden Bruce Wayne assessing just how far his country has fallen: a tidal wave of Bread-&-Circuses on the airwaves saturation-lobotomising the populace with tawdry titillation and celebrity news soporifics whilst impossibly popular, implausibly avuncular President Rickard assures the complacent proles they’ve never had it so good…

The Batman knows a secret however: PoTUS doesn’t exist…

There’s still some dissent, but who listens nowadays to old dinosaurs like Jimmy Olsen constantly bemoaning the repeal of The Bill of Rights or carping on about how all the costumed heroes have somehow vanished.

Elswehere, an incredibly tiny man continues his daily battle against voracious monsters until suddenly he is plucked from his hostile micro-prison by a young girl dressed like an animal.

After years in Hell Ray Palmer is ready to help an old comrade take back the world, but first he and Catgirl Carrie Kelley have to battle their way through an army of federal heavies and rent-a-cops…

Young, independent bedroom-&-basement News-hackers run with the story of “Masks and Capes” making a comeback, prompting Rickard to extend Martial Law into its 19th month. Somewhere far away a former Bastion of Liberty is terrified of the repercussions. Superman is still permitted to save lives in the world… as long as nobody sees him doing it…

In a cave far below ground, Catgirl helps The Atom retool for the forthcoming fight whilst introducing the bemused physicist to the Dark Knight’s latest addition to his arsenal: a legion of former gangstas and protégés dubbed The Batboys.

Buried in the nightly teaser-fest entitled News in the Nude, the Prez is delivering another placating homily when his image suddenly fritzes. The word is now out with more and more people realising their beloved paternalistic patriarch might be nothing than a hologram mask for any anonymous monster or maniac…

In the White House Lex Luthor fears his grip on power is slipping, whilst far-too-close-for-comfort, quintessential investigator The Question listens and learns…

The long days of quiet resistance at last end when an explosion deprives the entire Eastern Seaboard of power, allowing Catgirl and the Batboys to move into Phase Two of the plan: liberating missing speedster Barry Allen from captivity and energy-generating slavery on a collosal power-grid-feeding treadmill.

The Flash is resistant – horrified and furious until Carrie reassures him that his beloved wife Iris is no longer a hostage of the American Government…

Deep in his lair Wayne contemplates his successes and calculates when exactly the Administration will send his old friend Clark after him again…

As the free and unsanctioned parts of the media speculate on the return of caped crusaders and the freaks quickly become a hot trend, out in space Superman contacts the long-hidden Wonder Woman and she joins him in a conference with Captain Marvel.

The World’s most powerful heroes are still castrated by the secret alliance of Luthor and Brainiac which has held their loved ones safety against them for years. After being horrifically reminded once more of the cost of disobedience, Superman heads after Batman but flies straight into a perfectly planned ambush and falls to a resurgent and growing rebel Justice League and a particularly vengeance-hungry Green Arrow

Book Two finds the nation gripped by “Superhero Chic” as a torrent of fashion-crazed wannabes spring up everywhere. Increasingly furious Federal spin-doctors and government apparatchiks are helpless to stem, denigrate or even belittle the tide.

Ignoring the media storm Batman takes a more active role, attacking Luthor’s strongholds, liberating the likes of Plastic Man, Elongated Man and the rest whilst striking fear into the hearts of the too-long-complacent oppressors…

In a momentous change of heart, eternal lovers Wonder Woman and Superman abandon their previous position and even allow their long hidden daughter Lara to join the struggle.

As Earth celebrates the “return” of Superman, Luthor unleashes a ghastly facsimile of The Joker to kill the returned champions one by one, whilst Brainiac utilises an alien monster to draw the Man of Steel into battle. Heroes begin to fall. Manhunter, Guardian, The Creeper and Captain Marvel die before Lara arrives to decide the outcome…

With Luthor and Brainiac on the defensive Bruce Wayne unmasks at a massive freedom concert in Gotham and beseeches the public to reclaim their country. This revolution is being televised…

The apocalyptic conclusion in Book Three finds the battle in full flow with the massed forces and resources of totalitarian government ranged against two generations of masked champions and more – such as the exiled Green Lantern – arriving every moment.

Batman still has unfinished business: freeing the captive bottle-city Kandorians whose possession by Brainiac has neutered The Man of Tomorrow for years, but despite a concerted and successful campaign the Dark Knight is captured and tortured by Luthor even as the faux Joker targets Catgirl.

The killer has a history with the Bat-dynasty and a personal score to settle with the aging hero’s newest junior assistant…

With chaos, anarchy and even freedom in the air, the beaten dictators opt for a Scorched Earth policy and before long the entire planet looks unlikely to survive…

This controversial sequel volume is packed with production drawings and a Designs Sketchbook to augment a unique and decidedly different Bat-saga at once bombastic, brutal, challenging and immensely entertaining.

Whilst certainly not the equal of its mythic predecessor, The Dark Knight Strikes Again is certainly a tremendously important tale no fan of comics should miss.
© 2001, 2002, 2005 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Twin Spica volume 5


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-02-5

This compellingly intimate paean to the wonder of the stars originated in a poignant short story: Kou Yaginuma’s ‘2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi’ (‘2015: Fireworks’), published in Gekkan Comics Flapper magazine in June 2000.

The author subsequently expanded and enhanced his subject, themes and characters into an all-consuming epic coming-of-age spellbinder which wedded hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days friendships the inescapable shocks of growing up.

Small, unassuming Asumi Kamogawa always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the lonely child had gazed with intense longing up at the stars, her only companion and confidante an imaginary friend dubbed Mr. Lion.

When she was a year old, the first Japanese space launch ended in catastrophe after rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”) exploded before crashing back to earth on the city of Yuigahama where the Kamogawas lived. Hundreds were killed and many more injured.

Perhaps the cruellest casualty was Asumi’s own mother. Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die and the long, drawn-out tragedy deeply traumatised her tiny, uncomprehending daughter.

The trauma also crushed her grieving husband who had worked as a designer on the rockets for Japan’s fledgling Space Program.

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

He is certainly no fan of the space program nowm having lost wife, beloved engineering career and his pride to the race for the heavens. Raising his daughter alone, he worked two – and often three – menial jobs at a time for over a decade and cannot countenance losing the very last of his loved ones to the cold black heavens…

In response to the Lion disaster, Japan set up an Astronautics and Space Sciences Academy. After years of passionate struggle and in defiance of her father’s wishes, in 2024 Asumi – an isolated, solitary, serious but determined teenager – was accepted to the Tokyo National Space School. Without her father’s blessing, she reluctantly left Yuigahama and joined the new class.

Amongst the year’s fresh intake were surly, abrasive Shinnosuke Fuchuya (an elementary school classmate who used to bully her as a child back in Yuigahama), jolly Kei Oumi, chilly Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool style-icon and fashion victim Shu Suzuki who all gradually became the shy introvert’s closest acquaintances.

Every day Asumi nudged inexorably towards her goal: the stars. Ever since the crashing rocket had shattered her family, she had drawn comfort from the firmament, with Mr. Lion staring up at the heavens at her side – especially drawn to the twinkling glow of Virgo and the alluring binary star Spica.

And now she was so tantalisingly close…

Small, poor, physically weak but resolutely capable, Asumi endures and triumphs over every obstacle and she still talks with Mr. Lion – who might just be a ghost of a crewman from the Shishigō…

All any student can think of is space travel, but they are harshly and perpetually reminded that most of them won’t even finish their schooling…

At just four feet, eight inches tall Asumi is constantly struggling to meet the arduous physical requirements dictated by the Academy but has already survived far greater problems. She is still adjusting to the busy life of Tokyo, sleeps in tawdry communal women’s dorm “The Seagull”, struggles with many of her classes and subsists on meagre funds, supplemented by part-time jobs.

Individual stories are broken up into “Missions” with volume five covering numbers 19-24, as well as offering an entrancing sidebar autobiographical vignette about the author’s own teenage years.

It begins in the Seagull hostel where mysterious Ukita – who has recently rejected her rich overbearing father’s domination – now resides with Asumi. The solitary girl is subject to strange spells and is clearly suffering from some mystery malady. Only recently, spectral Mr. Lion saw Ukita dump a package of pills off a bridge…

Now he informs concerned Asumi that she has arbitrarily moved into the storeroom but before he can disclose more their mutual attention is diverted by the spectacle of a satellite soaring through the night sky.

Their s turn to romance and the ghost tells of his love – a dalliance which changed his life…

It was summer and he was in third grade when a strange new girl (who looked just like Ukita) moved to a big mansion in the hills for the vacation months…

At the academy next day Oumi is teasing Asumi about a boy. He was part of an anti-space program protest but Asumi was drawn to him and they had a “moment” after he picked up a rocket-shaped trinket she had lost. He also reminded her of a boy from her past who died of cancer during elementary school…

Although she doesn’t know Kiriu yet, the orphan is utterly infatuated with Asumi, and when the bullies at his posh school – North Star High – attempt to take the trinket, the scholarship boy suffers a harsh beating trying to protect the keepsake…

Impetuous Oumi later drags the diffident Asumi to the gates of North Star to arrange a meeting but Kiriu, still smarting from his battle, reacts boorishly and sends the infatuated girl packing. Later, poor long-suffering Fuchuya finds Asumi tearfully watching the stars from a playground…

‘Mission: 20’ begins with unsinkable, meddlesome Oumi researching the survivors of the Lion disaster, trying to get a handle on Kiriu’s overreaction. What she discovers breaks her heart…

As the second year of study begins Fuchaya tries once more to penetrate Ukita’s shield of stoic isolationism as Mr. Lion warns Asumi that he might be away for a while.

As the cadets bury themselves in hard work and study, Oumi one day sees Kiriu leaving the Sunflower Children’s Home and has a heart-to-heart with him about Asumi. The little matchmaker then arranges for her dumbfounded friend to meet the fractious lad…

He’s not there when she visits the orphanage but Asumi is swiftly swamped by Kiriu’s adoring younger “brothers and sisters”. Meanwhile, the quiet scholar is turning the city upside down trying to replace or repair the rocket token smashed by his thuggish classmates…

Asumi eventually finds him scouring parkland outside his school searching for the fragments of the broken toy. As they hunt together he lets slip that once upon a time space was his only dream too…

At her lessons soon after, a package arrives for Asumi. It is the (badly) repaired rocket keychain.

Joy is quickly replaced by sadness and fear as ‘Mission: 21’ opens with a list of students who have been axed from the program. Budget cuts and public opinion have affected the future of astronaut school and although Oumi, Fuchaya, Ukita and Suzuki have made the grade too, only fourteen cadets now comprise the entire Second Year…

Later relaxing in the public Planetarium, Asumi again meets the boisterous youngsters from the Sunflower orphanage and learns lots more about Kiriu before indulging in some shared speculation about life on other worlds. Later she meets always-tense Fuchaya who has a new bee in his bonnet. His latest growth spurt has him worried that might grow too tall to be an astronaut…

His odd behaviour seems justified when the class face their next test: being locked in tiny escape pods for hours to learn their psychological reaction to enforced extended claustrophobia…

Sadly that’s only the first part of the problem. The second half is a survival exercise. When the students finally emerge from the capsules they are all marooned in deep woods. Separated from each other and with only minimal equipment, they have to fight their way to a distant pick-up point…

The whole effort is tough and scary for meek Asumi but elsewhere in the vast forest Ukita has even bigger problems: she’s begun to cough up blood…

In yet another wooded section Mr. Lion is visiting the old summer house of his first love and recalls how he broke all the rules to befriend the lonely sick girl imprisoned there…

The make-or-break endurance test continues in ‘Mission: 22’ as Asumi starts her arduous trek back to civilisation whilst pensive Mr. Lion follows a memory trail to the rocket he built of junk when he was kid.

He had been playing there when the girl from the house first found him. She was quiet and lonely and clearly quite ill. Her name was Marika Ukita…

Decades later another girl with that name is failing fast as ‘Mission: 23’ opens. The spirit of the Lion is lost in reverie, remembering how his Ukita used to sneak away and help build his – no, their – rocket in the woods.

She was fascinated by his tales of space flight and the history of exploration. She told him about the only joyous moment in her life, when her over-protective dad took her to see a play called Beauty and the Beast

When the big annual fireworks festival was beginning the boy made a lion-mask like the Beast’s to wear, but she never came. He had to break into the mansion to show her. She was very sick but wanted to dance with him…

And in the present, despite constantly doubting herself, Asumi struggles on and perseveres…

The intricate interlocking revelations conclude in ‘Mission: 24’ with Asumi storming towards the finish only to encounter another escape capsule, surrounded by droplets of blood. In another time, if not place, the tragedy of the past climaxes as the boy is confronted by Marika’s father who furiously beats the young intruder…

Later the horrified lad learns more of his friend’s terrible disease when her stern patriarch visits his own dad in a panic. The dying daughter had quietly rebelled when told she was being sent to a Swiss sanatorium for her health. She slipped out of the house when no-one was watching and has vanished. Of course the boy knows where she has gone and rushes off to save her…

To Be Continued…

Although the main event is temporarily suspended there is still more affecting personal revelation in store, as ‘Another Spica’ finds author Yaginuma in autobiographical mode and back in his ambition-free teens, sharing his own romantic travails with a confessor who might also be a phantom king of beasts…

These powerfully unforgettable tales originally appeared in 2003 as Futatsu no Supika and in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeting male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

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

Twin Spica has everything: plenty of hard tech to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery, passion, alienation, angst, enduring friendships and just the right touch of spiritual engagement feeding the wild-eyed wonder; all welded seamlessly into a joyous, evocative, addictive drama.

Rekindling the magical spark of the Wild Black Yonder for a new generation, this is the sublime poetry of science and imagination cast as a treat no imagineer with head firmly in the clouds can afford to miss…

© 2010 by Kou Yaginuma. Translation © 2010 Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

Showcase Presents Sea Devils volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, France E. Herron, Hank P. Chapman, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Joe Kubert, Gene Colan, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Jack Abel, Bruno Premiani, Sheldon Moldoff & Howard Purcell (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3522-2

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy and outrageous imagination in his signature war comics, as well as for the wealth of horror stories, romance yarns, “straight” adventure, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman (plus other genres far too numerous to cover here) at which he also excelled.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features “shop” at the beginning of the comicbook phenomenon where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for established features like Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote the Golden Age Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane – which Kanigher also scripted at the time.

When mystery-men faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved easily into other genres such as spy-thrillers, westerns and war stories. In 1952 he became chief writer and editor of the company’s small combat line: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.

He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his packed portfolio when Quality Comics sold their dwindling line of titles to National/DC in 1956.

In 1955 Kanigher devised historical adventure anthology The Brave and the Bold and its stalwart early stars Silent Knight, Golden Gladiator and Viking Prince whilst still scripting Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog and a host of others.

In 1956, for Julius Schwartz he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny if formulaic action arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank and The Losers, but he always kept an eye on contemporary trends too.

When supernatural comics took over the industry in the late 1960s he was a mainstay at House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Phantom Stranger and in 1975 created gritty human interest feature Lady Cop. Fifteen years earlier he had caught a similar wave (Oh Ha Ha…) by cashing in on the popularity of TV show Sea Hunt.

His entry into the sudden sub-genre deluge of scuba-diver comics featured the magic contemporary formula of a heroic foursome (Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Young Guy and A Girl) who would have all manner of (undersea) adventures from logical to implausible, topical to fantastical. He dubbed his team The Sea Devils

Re-presenting the turbulent, terrific try-out stories from Showcase #27-29 (July/August to November/December 1960) and Sea Devils #1-16, cover-dated September/October 1961-March/April 1964, this mammoth monochrome tome blends bizarre fantasy, sinister spy stories, shocking science fiction and two-fisted aquatic action with larger-than-life yet strictly human heroes who carved their own unique niche in comics history…

In almost every conceivable way the “try-out title” Showcase created the Silver Age of American comicbooks and is responsible for the multi-million dollar industry and nascent art form we all enjoy today.

Showcase was a try-out comic: a printed periodical Petri dish designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown, Flash and many more

The principle was a sound one which paid huge dividends. The Editors at National were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan – and most crucially sales – reactions.

Showcase #27 followed a particularly historic and fruitful run of successful debuts which included Space Ranger, Adam Strange, Rip Hunter…Time Master and Green Lantern. It seemed that the premier publication could do no wrong. Moreover, it wasn’t Kanigher and artist Russ Heath’s first dip in this particular pool.

Showcase #3 had launched The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team in WWII as they perilously graduated from students to fully-fledged underwater warriors. The feature, if not the characters, became a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) and other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. Now the time was right for a civilian iteration to make some waves…

The drama here begins in ‘The Golden Monster’ (by Kanigher & Heath) as lonely skin-diver Dane Dorrance reminisces about his WWII frogman father – and his trusty buddies – before being saved from a sneaky shark by a mysterious golden haired scuba-girl.

Judy Walton is an aspiring actress who, seeking to raise her Hollywood profile, has entered the same underwater treasure hunt Dane is engaged in, but as they join forces they have no idea of the dangers awaiting them…

Locating the sunken galleon they’ve been hunting both are trapped when seismic shifts and a gigantic octopus bury them inside the derelict. Happily third contestant Biff Bailey is on hand and his tremendous strength tips the scales and allows the trio to escape.

Now things take a typical Kanigher twist as the action switches from tense realistic drama to riotous fantasy with the explosive awakening of a colossal reptilian sea-monster who chases the divers until Judy’s little brother Nicky races in to distract the beast…

Temporarily safe, the relative strangers unite to destroy the thing – with the help of a handy floating mine left over from the war – before deciding to form a professional freelance diving team. They take their name from the proposed movie Judy wanted to audition for and become forever “The Sea Devils”…

In Showcase #28 Dane’s dad again offers his boy ‘The Prize Flippers’ he won for his exploits in the war, but Dane feels his entire team should be allowed to compete for them. Of course each diver successively outdoes the rest but in the end a spectacular stunt with a rampaging whale leaves the trophy in the hands of a most unlikely competitor…

A second story then sees the new team set up shop as “underwater trouble-shooters” only to stumble into a mystery as pretty Mona Moray begs them to find her missing father. Professor Moray was lost when his rocket crashed into the ocean, but as the divers diligently search the crash site they are ambushed by underwater aborigines and join the scientist in an uncanny ‘Undersea Prison’

Only when their captors reveal themselves as invading aliens do the team finally pull together, escape the trap and bring the house down on the insidious aquatic horrors…

Showcase #29 also offered two briny tales beginning with ‘The Last Dive of the Sea Devils’ wherein a recently-imprisoned dictator from Venus escapes to Earth and battles the astounded team to a standstill from his giant war-seahorse.

The blockbusting battle costs them their beloved vessel The Sea Witch but the crew make use of a handy leftover torpedo to end the interplanetary tyrant. Sea-born giants also abound in ‘Undersea Scavenger Hunt’ wherein the cash-strapped trouble-shooters compete in a flashy contest to win a new boat.

Incredible creatures and fantastic treasure traps are no real problem but the actions of rival divers The Black Mantas almost cost our heroes their lives…

Everything worked out though and nine months later Sea Devils #1 hit the stands with Kanigher & Heath leading the way. In ‘The Sea Devils vs. the Octopus Man’ our watery quartet are now the stars of a monster movie but when the lead beastie comes to lethal life and attacks them, all thoughts of fame and wealth sink without trace…

The second tale was scripted by the superbly inventive Bob Haney who riffed on Moby Dick’s plot in the tale of how Vikings hunted a mythical orca with a magic harpoon before latter-day fanatical whaler Captain Shark mercilessly sought the ‘Secret of the Emerald Whale’ with the desperate Sea Devils dragged along for the ride…

Haney wrote both yarns in the next issue, beginning with ‘A Bottleful of Sea Devils’ as mad scientist Mr. Neptune uses a shrinking device to steal a US Navy weapon prototype. With the aquatic investigators hard on his flippered heels, the felon is soon caught whilst ‘Star of the Sea’ introduced brilliant performing seal Pappy who repeatedly saved the team before finding freedom and true love in the wilds waters of the Atlantic…

Kanigher returned for #3’s ‘Underwater Crime Wave’ as the Devils clashed with a cunning modern Roman Emperor who derives his incredible wealth from smuggling and traps the team in his undersea arena after which Judy finds herself the only one immune to the allure of ‘The Ghost of the Deep’. Subsea siren Circe was utterly intent on making the boys her latest playthings and her human rival is compelled to pull out all the stops to save her friends…

Sea Devils # 4 led with ‘The Sea of Sorcery’ as the team investigate but fail to debunk any of the incredible myths of a supposedly haunted region of ocean, after which Haney detailed how the squad travelled into the heart of South America to liberate a tribe of lost pre-Columbian Condor Indians from a tyrannical witch doctor whilst solving ‘The Secret of Volcano Lake!’

‘The Creature Who Stole the 7 Seas’ (Kanigher) opened issue #5 as a particularly dry period for the trouble-shooters ends after a crashing UFO disgorges a sea giant intent on transferring Earth’s oceans to his own arid world. Oddly for the times, here mutual cooperation and a smart counter-plan save the day for two panicked planets.

Veteran writer Hank P. Chapman joined the ever-expanding team with a smart yarn of submerged Mayan treasure and deadly traps to imperil the team as they solve the ‘Secret of the Plumed Serpent’ before Kanigher returned with a book-length thriller in #6 which found the Devils seemingly ensorcelled by ancient parchments which depicted them battling incredible menaces in centuries past.

Biff battles undersea knights for Queen Cleopatra, Judy saves Ulysses from the Sirens, Nicky rescues a teenaged mermaid from a monstrous fish-man and Dane clashes with ‘The Flame-Headed Watchman!’, but is wise enough to realise that the true threat comes from the mysterious stranger who has brought them such dire documents…

The switch to longer epics was a wise and productive move, followed up in #7 with ‘The Human Tidal Wave!’ as the heroes spectacularly battle an alien made of roaring water to stop a proposed invasion, whilst in #8 they strive to help a fish transformed into a grieving merman from the ‘Curse of Neptune’s Giant!’ The malignant horror’s mutative touch temporarily makes monsters of them all too, but in the end Sea Devil daring trumps eldritch cruelty…

More monster madness followed in #9’s‘The Secret of the Coral Creature!’ as the team became paragliding US Naval medics to rescue an astronaut. That was mere prelude to an oceanic atomic bomb test which blasted them to a sea beneath the sea which had imprisoned an ancient alien for eons of crushing solitude, and who had no intention of ever letting the air-breathers go…

A concatenation of crazy circumstances creates the madness of #10’s ‘4 Mysteries of the Sea!’ as godly King Neptune decrees that on this day every wild story of the sea will come true just as the Sea Devils are competing in a “Deep Six Tall Tales” contest.

Soon the incredulous squad are battling pirates in an underwater ghost town, rescued from captivity by a giant octopus thanks to a friendly seal (Good old Pappy!), facing off against aliens of the Martian Canals Liars Club and saving Neptune himself from a depth charge attack…

The hugely underrated Irv Novick took over as primary illustrator with #11 as the Sea Devils agreed to test human underwater endurance limits in an ocean-floor habitat. Soon however Dane was near breaking point seeing a succession of monsters from the ‘Sea of Nightmares!’

Kanigher relinquished the writing to fellow golden age alumni France E. Herron who kicked off in rip-roaring form with a classy sci fi romp wherein Nicky’s growing feelings of inadequacy are quashed after he saves his comrades – and the world – from the ‘Threat of the Magnetic Menace!’

Always experimental and rightfully disrespectful of the fourth wall, editors Kanigher and George Kashdan turned issue #13 over to the fans for ‘The Secrets of 3 Sunken Ships’ as successive chapters of Herron’s script were illustrated by Joe Kubert, Gene Colan and Ross Andru & Mike Esposito for the audience to decide who was the best.

The artists all appear in the tale conducting interviews and “researching” the Deep Sea Daredevils as they tackle a reincarnated sea captain, travel to an ancient sea battle between Greece and Persia and meet the alien who kidnapped the crew of the Marie Celeste

The gag continued in Sea Devils #14 as illustrator Irv Novick came along for the ride when the amazing aquanauts try to end the catastrophic ‘War of the Underwater Giants’ which saw aging deities Neptune and Hercules battle for supremacy in Earth’s oceans.

Jack Abel was the artistic guest star in second story ‘Challenge of the Fish Champions!’ wherein the heroes enter a cash prize competition to buy scuba equipment for a junior diving club.

Unfortunately, crazy devious scientist Karpas also wants the loot and fields a team of his own technologically augmented minions. Before long the human skin-divers are facing off against a sea lion, a manta ray, a squid and a merman. After all, nobody said contestants had to be human…

Novick got into the act again illustrating #15 as author Herron revealed Judy and Nicky’s relationship to the ‘Secret of the Sunken Sub!’ When inventor Professor Walton vanishes whilst testing his latest submersible, it’s only a matter of time before his children drag the rest of the Sea Devils to the bottom of every ocean to find him and his lost crew.

The uncanny trail takes them through shoals of monsters, astounding flora and into the lair of an incredible sea spider before the mission is successfully accomplished…

Things regained some semblance of narrative normality with the final issue in this compilation as Hank Chapman contributed a brace of high adventure yarns beginning with ‘The Strange Reign of Queen Judy and King Biff’ superbly rendered by the wonderful Bruno Premiani & Sheldon Moldoff. When a massive wave capsizes the Sea Witch only Dane and Nicky seemingly survive, but the determined explorers persevere and eventually find their friends held as bewitched captives on the island of an immortal wizard. All they have to do is kidnap their ferociously resisting friends, escape an army of angry guards and penetrate the island’s mystic defences a second time to restore everything to normal. No problem…

This eccentric and exciting voyage of discovery concludes with ‘Sentinel of the Golden Head’ – illustrated by the always impressive Howard Purcell & Moldoff – as the restored aquatic quartet stumble onto the lost island of Blisspotamia in time to witness a beautiful maiden trying to sacrifice herself to the sea gods.

By interfering they incur the wrath of a legion of mythological horrors and have no choice but to defy the gods to free the terrified islanders from ignorance and tyranny…

These massive black-&-white compendiums are superb value and provide a vital service by bringing older, less flashy (but still astonishingly expensive in their original issues) tales to a readership which might otherwise be denied them. However this is probably the only series which I can honestly say suffers in the slightest from the lack of colour.

Whilst the line-art story illustrations are actually improved by the loss of hue, the original covers – by Heath and Irv Novick as supervised and inked by production ace Jack Adler – used all the clever technical print effects and smart ingenuity of the period to add a superb extra layer of depth to the underwater scenes which tragically cannot be appreciated in simple line and tone reproduction. Just go to any online cover browser site and you’ll see what I mean…

Nevertheless the amazing art and astounding stories are as good as they ever were and Showcase Presents Sea Devils is simply stuffed with incredible ideas, strange situations and non-stop action. These underwater wonders are a superb slice of the engaging fantasy thrillers which were once the backbone of American comicbooks. Perhaps a little whacky in places, they are remarkably similar to many tongue-in-cheek, anarchic Saturday morning kids animation shows and will certainly provide jaded fiction fans with hours of unmatchable entertainment.…
© 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

X-Force volume 12: Scar Tissue


By Peter David, Valentine De Landro, Emanuela Lupacchino, Pat Davidson, Guillermo Ortega & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4655-1

Since its 1980s debut, X-Factor has been a superbly effective umbrella title for many uniquely off-kilter iterations of Marvel’s mutant phenomena. Indisputably the most impressive and enduring assemblage was created by writer Peter David in 2006; mixing starkly violent suspense with cool detective mystery, laugh-out-loud comedy and fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights action even whilst slyly and subtly addressing social issues in a regular riot of superbly adult Costumed Drama.

It all began when Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man – a veteran of the formerly government-sponsored (and controlled) team – appropriated the name for his own to create the specialist metahuman private detective agency X-Factor Investigations.

Setting up shop in the wake of “The Decimation”, which had reduced the world’s mutant population to a couple of hundred empowered individuals and millions of distressingly humanised (ex) Homo Superior, he and a perpetually fluctuating team set out to discover why and how it had happened and, once that was settled, just kept going…

This splendid sampling of strange happenings – written as ever by your man David – collecting X-Factor #213-219 (February-July 2011) commences with ‘Keeping Things’, illustrated by Valentine De Landro, Pat Davidson & Jeromy Cox, as the freshly liberated from Asgardian-hell-Niffleheim heroes recuperate in Las Vegas after a nasty brush with Death Goddess Hela.

Braving damnation to rescue obnoxious oik Pip the Troll, the mutants had faced an eternity of undead combat until Armando “Darwin” Muñoz stretched his hyper-evolving gift to the utmost and became something far more than mortal to secure their release.

Now he finds that he just does not fit on Earth… as a succession of increasingly tense PTSD style confrontations with gamblers, gangsters and even his team-mates proves.

Eventually he takes his leave and walks out into the desert to be alone…

The recently rescued troll is eager to take his place, but X-Factor deftly duck him by matter-shifting back to New York, forgetting that the malodorous little troglodyte can teleport too. Pip is resolute in wanting to reward their deeds by serving them, but he actually has a secret boss and private agenda dictating his actions…

When mystery-powered mutant Layla Miller, GuidoStrong GuyCarosella, Theresa Rourke Cassidy (AKA Siryn), alien enigmas Longshot and Shatterstar all joined Madrox in his quixotic bid to save the troll, they behind left psionic super-woman Monet St. Croix – who was involved in a private case – and former lovers Rictor and RahneWolfsbaneSinclair.

The latter pair were dealing with the repercussions of Rahne’s swiftly developing pregnancy but Madrox now believes he has some shocking news for the already shell-shocked father-to-be.

Whilst in Niffleheim, Shatterstar (Rictor’s current lover) clashed with deceased wolf-god Hrimhari, where the vulpine zombie claimed Wolfsbane’s condition was his doing…

Thanks to a prenatal scan Rictor already knows and is dealing with being lied to in an uncharacteristically mature manner…

Issue #214 – with art from Emanuela Lupacchino, Guillermo Ortega & Matt Milla – then focuses on Armando as he wanders the wastelands trying to come to terms with his transformation. His solitary ruminations are derailed when a showgirl appears, chased by a colossal dragon.

Stepping in as any hero would, Darwin soon finds himself trapped in a bizarrely off-kilter ghost town facing down a gun-toting angel of death and herald of biblical Armageddon who calls himself “Tier”. The triggerman is straight out of The Book of Revelations and also claims that Rahne is/will be his mother, but the final climactic showdown only leaves more questions than answers…

De Landro, Davidson &Cox illustrate ‘Stake Out’ as, back in the Big Apple, the detectives are hired to prove that a man’s death-by-vampire attack (the story is set during the crossover event Curse of the Mutants) was more than it appeared. Distraught daughter Adina is convinced that her new stepmother is responsible, but when Layla and Madrox investigate they find a far more complex and chilling scenario in effect: one where all the players are both right and wrong in every aspect of their accusations and suspicions…

The remains of this volume focus on the fallout of the aforementioned solo case undertaken by Monet. When the abrasive telepath had agreed to psi-probe a woman plagued by dreams of atrocity she was rather surprised when her mental recalibrations scored a total success. Now the costs of that victory begin to hurt as mentally healed “Noelle Blanc” tracks down some former army comrades who don’t remember her at all…

Illustrated by Lupacchino, Ortega & Milla the tale begins to unfold as Mayor J. Jonah Jameson calls in a long-promised favour from Madrox and demands the detectives discover who murdered the former publisher’s oldest friend General Sam Ryan

As Spider-Man nosily tries to find out what JJJ’s up to, in Nebraska Noelle has turned a flamethrower on a meek doctor and awoken the dormant memories of another woman soldier transformed by a top-secret military experiment…

The revelations continue in ‘Deep Scars’ as the cyber-enhanced war-girls go looking for their final comrade – and more revenge – even as Madrox, Rictor, Shatterstar and Longshot investigate the General’s assassination in a graveyard and find a connection to a super-secret project…

Back in NYC increasing civil unrest leaves the remaining team-members stuck on bodyguard detail during a street protest, but it’s Jameson’s troubleshooting clandestine employee Black Cat who first discovers Blanc (nee Ballistique) and now un-deprogrammed allies Sylvius and Rococo as they move in to add Jonah to their lengthy list of successful hits. Strangely, though, despite the human weapons wanting the Mayor dead, that’s clearly not their endgame…

In the ensuing chaotic melee of a manufactured riot Guido goes down and does not get up again…

The drama continues in ‘Man Down!’ as the riot turns into a bloody debacle and the shooters make their escape. Guido dies on the operating table but incredibly revives later, yet only Layla is not overjoyed at the seeming miracle…

The drama concludes in ‘Lies, Damned Lies’ as Monet goes crazy, kidnapping the Mayor and compelling him to reveal the truth about Ryan. Years ago the General and scientist Dr. Young Soo Pock conceived a black ops revision to America’s Super Soldier program.

Strategic Capture And Retrieval (or S.C.A.R.s) gave three female volunteers numerous cybernetic enhancements which turned them into unstoppable killers. Sadly it also made them crazy and they began taking mercenary jobs before being caught, decommissioned and given mind-numbing amnesia.

Unfortunately even the US Military had turned the project down from the outset and Ryan had asked his old fried Jameson to fund it. The patriotic fool did and now the S.C.A.R.s girls have their memories back and they want revenge on everybody who messed with them…

As Layla apologizes to the bewildered Guido for what’s she “done to him” Madrox and the team have tracked down Young Soo Pock, arriving just as the cyber killers are extracting their revenge. A monumental battle ensues, but although Monet mercilessly deals with Ballistique for killing Guido she’s quite happy to let the others go…

To Be Continued…

With covers by David Yardin & Sonia Oback and ‘Opening the Sketchbook’ – an original-art crammed biography feature on artist Emanuela Lupacchino by John Rhett Thomas – this volume continues a superb run of challenging, compelling, compulsive and supremely scary funny tales, making this iteration of X-Factor the ideal example of mature Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction: utterly indispensable for everyone who needs wit to underpin their superhero soap opera shenanigans.
© 2011, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yuletide Treat Time… Now Give This!

We’re all sick as dogs with the Christmas Cold today so I’m inflicting another batch of cheesy, cop out re-hashed links to previous reviews to tide you over until tomorrow.

Just remember, we might be snot-filled cough-monkeys but these books are still brilliant and deserve to live in your houses…

An Age of License – a Travelogue
By Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-768-0
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Food and Family Favourites… 9/10

The Phoenix Presents… Bunny vs. Monkey Book One
By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-07-0
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A year’s Worth of Mirth… 9/10

Violent Cases Hardcover
By Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-360-5
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Memorable and Meaningful… 10/10

Hilarious Consequences
By Babak Ganjei (Records Records Records Books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-0-2
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Mature Everyday Wit and Invention… 9/10

Mitch O’Connell: World’s Best Artist
By Mitch O’Connell (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-773-0
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: World’s Best Present for Artists… 10/10

Invincible Iron Man: World’s Most Wanted volume 2


By Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3685-9

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

During the time when the Federal initiative known as the Super-Human Registration Act led to Civil War between costumed heroes, Stark was appointed the US government’s Security Czar: – a “top cop” in sole charge of a beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom, tasked with overseeing every aspect of the legislation’s enactment. He became the absolute last word in all matters involving the USA’s vast metahuman community…

However his mismanagement of a succession of crises led to the arrest and assassination of Captain America and an unimaginable escalation of global tension and destruction, culminating in a so-nearly successful Secret Invasion by shape-shifting alien Skrulls.

Discredited and ostracised, Stark was replaced by ostensibly rehabilitated super-villain Norman Osborn (the original Green Goblin), who assumed full control of America’s covert agencies and paramilitary resources. The ultimate control freak disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. and placed the nation under the aegis of his new umbrella organisation H.A.M.M.E.R.

Publicly acclaimed as a recovering schizophrenic, Osborn was still a deranged monster at his core and craved total power. Intending to appropriate all Stark’s resources, the “reformed” villain began stripping all of the ex-Avenger assets; financial, technological and even psychological.

Terrified that not only his weaponry but also the files containing the secret identities of almost all of Earth’s heroes would fall into a ruthless maniac’s hands, Stark systematically erased all his databases and began the process of doing the same with his own memories, effectively lobotomising himself to save everything before going on the run in a hopeless but valiant attempt to give his few remaining allies time to pull off a miracle…

Concluding the Dark Reign saga ‘World’s Most Wanted’ from Invincible Iron Man #14-19 (August to December 2009), the culmination of the global hunt for the fallen technocrat is crafted by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca (plus colourist Frank D’Armata) and opens here with ‘The Shape of the World These Days’ as the fugitive’s flight to his chain of long-hidden “Armories” across the planet sees him reverting to ever-earlier iterations of his fabled Iron Man suits as his ability to think diminishes.

Entering Russia clad in his first upgrade of the original mobile iron lung built to save his life, Stark is targeted by missile defences and shot down only to be confronted by old comrade Dmitri Bukharin wearing the Soviet-era war-suit known as Crimson Dynamo.

Over in New Jersey, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s last deputy director Maria Hill is on the run from H.A.M.M.E.R. forces and not that far away Stark’s trusted CEO Pepper Potts – using her own Osborn-embargoed armour codenamed Rescue – detects the use of StarkTech and heads for Russia…

Tony needs to get to Kirensk but knows he would be easily spotted by H.A.M.M.E.R. satellite surveillance and thus trades armour with Dmitri even as Pepper breaks her Cease-&-Desist order and jets to Eastern Europe. As expected Osborn easily spots her and demands that Russia grant his forces leave to enter their territory. High-ranking Colonel Dmitri Bukharin gleefully refuses…

In New York, Hill has made contact with another trusted ally of Iron Man, even as Stark heads deeper inland. High above the snowy wastes Rescue intercepts him, unaware that, his memory riddled with holes, her friend, employer and occasional lover does not recognise her.

The Crimson Dynamo’s attack brings them both explosively to earth even as another ex-lover surreptitiously lines up her sniper rifle. International criminal Madam Masque is Osborn’s willing ally, ready to end Stark as soon as America’s Chief of Homeland Security gives her the word…

‘The Danger We’re All In’ sees Hill rendezvousing with the Black Widow in New York, desperately trying to pass on the enigmatic computer drive Stark begged her to get to new Captain America Bucky Barnes whilst in Russia Tony and Pepper’s enforced romantic interlude is interrupted by Masque. As H.A.M.M.E.R. agents ambush the frantic spies in America, half a world away Masque works out some major unresolved issues by torturing Tony’s new girlfriend while he’s out getting firewood…

When Stark returns Masque’s passions switch from hatred to something else, giving Pepper time to activate the Rescue suit in ‘Titan of the Nuclear Age’. Osborn meanwhile is starting to come unglued waiting for news, but he’s probably better off not knowing how his agent’s obsession has resulted in a cataclysmic battle and shattering detonation in Kirensk…

In New York the Widow has stashed her exhausted companion in a safe place whilst she tries to discover what’s so important about the Stark drive, but H.A.M.M.E.R.’s influence is everywhere and even her most secure contacts can no longer be trusted…

Clad once again in his archaic Mark 4 suit, ‘Ashes and Snow’ finds Tony Stark flying towards Afghanistan and the site of his original iron apotheosis. His mind is all but gone and he’s running on instinct and sheer determination now. He’s completely unaware that Madame Masque has crawled out of the wreckage of his penultimate Armory and is informing Osborn that she will be returning to America. Potts is dead and the Rescue armour is now a much prized spoil of war…

Sensing victory, Osborn despatches a H.A.M.M.E.R. Helicarrier to Russia to pick up his agent, smugly brushing aside Russian protests even as his stateside operatives close in on Hill and the Widow. However their arrest catches the attention of a certain Star Spangled Avenger…

As the once brilliant and mighty Stark enters the war-torn region he’s been so eager to reach, the nearly completely mind-wiped Iron Man is blasted from the sky by a rocket propelled grenade…

‘Kids with Guns vs. the Eternal Angel of Death’ begins with the diminished inventor staggering into the cave lab where he and Chinese scientist Ho Yinsen first built the Iron Man so many years ago. As he reviews the original suit cached there he is interrupted by the boy warriors who shot him down and forced to brutally confront his many sins as a red-handed weaponsmith…

Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of H.A.M.M.E.R., Mariah Hill and Black Widow discover they have a most unexpected ally as they make a concerted break for freedom, whilst elsewhere in the organisation Osborn’s rollercoaster mental state is forcing more than one dedicated agent to reconsider their own loyalties…

As part of his takeover Osborn co-opted all Stark’s incredible war-suits, even repurposing one for his own use as the “Iron Patriot”, but as Hill and Widow break out a devastating virus attacks all the confiscated StarkTech…

‘Into the White (Einstein on the Beach)’ details the conclusion of Stark’s quest and his greatest triumph as the former genius, now little more than an animated vegetable clad in his very first iron suit, faces Osborn wearing the most sophisticated armour Tony has ever designed.

He engages his merciless adversary in pointless, futile battle, being brutally smashed to bloody smears, whilst back in America his faithful allies have retrieved the drive from Osborn’s citadel and laid the groundwork for the exultant maniac’s ultimate defeat…

Of course Stark will never know. Before he was battered into a Persistent Vegetative State by Osborn, his last memories faded, leaving nothing of his former self…

To Be Continued…

The tumultuous tome is rounded out with covers & variants by Larocca and Christopher Jones plus a number of the former’s unfinished pencil/ink art pages from this stunning, astoundingly engrossing thriller which will equally delight those seeking more cinema-style spectacle as well as print-based Fights ‘n’ Tights fans of the comic incarnation.
© 2009, 2010 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.