Vowels


By Skye Ogden (Gestalt Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-9775628-1-7

I’ve long admitted my love for comics in black and white and frequently expressed my admiration for creators who can tell a tale in utter silence, without benefit of text, and when this lavish and splendid digest sized (212 x 144mm) paperback arrived in my Review copies mailbag, it immediately became my favourite example of the form.

Created by Australian cartoonist, designer and illustrator Skye Ogden, Vowels is a phenomenally engaging sequence of five linked fables which mesmerically examines aspects of the human condition, all played out in an oddly welcoming, if harsh, desert landscape that houses hulking cavemen and their suitably formidable women, adorable lizards, wide eyed aliens and, latterly, extremely unpleasant invading soldiery…

This is one of those books you’ll thank me for staying non-specific about, so I’ll only go so far as to say that ‘a’ is a broadly comedic chase vignette starring the aforementioned dawn people and the unlucky reptile, whilst ‘e’ introduces a diminutive alien wanderer to the happy, hirsute couple before following the unhappy voyager into a most peculiar afterlife and rebirth…

In ‘i’ the little guy’s distant relatives take the stage in a bustling marketplace for a dose of Romeo and Juliet frustration and tragedy before overwhelming, abiding loss is expressively characterised in ‘o’ after which the fascinating, universally accessible discussion on the nature of existence concludes with the brutal horrors of war, occupation and vengeance…

Depicted in a beguiling timelessly engaging cartoon style, deliciously reminiscent of the legendary Vaughn Bode and employing all the devastatingly expressive, pantomimic artifices of Charlie Chaplin, Vowels is a masterpiece of the cartoonist’s craft where life, death, love, hate, jealousy, obsession, protectiveness, greed, raw naked aggression and cruelty are pared down to the bone and graphically, forensically explored in a manner which only makes us hungry for more.

Deeply enticing, appealingly slick and intoxicatingly addictive, Vowels is an irresistible torrent of purely visual drama and which will delight all aficionados of the medium who value comics for their own sake, and don’t need a route map or score card to enjoy themselves.
© 2007 Skye Ogden. All rights reserved.

Batman: Monsters


By James Robinson, Warren Ellis, Alan Grant, John Watkiss, John McCrea, Quique Alcatena & various(DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2494-3

In 1989, when DC found the world had gone completely Bat-crazy for the second time in twenty-five years, they quickly supplemented the Gotham Guardian’s regular stable of comicbooks with a new title designed to redefine the early days and cases of a revamped and revitalised Caped Crusader.

Three years earlier the publisher had boldly begun to retcon their entire ponderous continuity via the landmark maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; rejecting the concept of a vast multiverse and re-knitting time so that there had only ever been one Earth.

For new readers, this solitary DC world provided a perfect place to jump on at the start: a planet literally festooned with iconic heroes and villains draped in a clear and cogent backstory that was now fresh and newly unfolding.

Many of their greatest properties were graced with a reboot, all employing the tacit conceit that the characters had been around for years and the readership were simply tuning in on just another working day.

Batman’s popularity was at an intoxicating peak and, as DC was still in the throes of re-jigging the entire narrative continuity, his latest title presented multi-part epics rewriting established villains and classic stories: infilling the new history of the re-imagined, post-Crisis hero and his entourage. The added fillip was a fluid cast of premiere and up-and-coming creators each getting “their shot” at one of the most iconic figures of the industry

Most of the early story-arcs were collected as trade paperbacks, and helped jump-start the graphic novel sector of the comics industry, whilst the careful re-imagining of the hero’s early days gave fans a wholly modern insight into the highly malleable core-concept.

Later collections took a more selective approach, such as this one gathering Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #71-73, 83-83 and 89-90: mini-epics which could be comfortably grouped together under the theme of Monsters

After two seemingly unconnected murders in Gotham, ‘Werewolf’ (by James Robinson & John Watkiss from B:LDK #71-73, May to July 1995) finds the Dark Detective prowling the streets of London…

The killings are completely dissimilar: one a cool, precise hit by a professional and the other a savage, brutal attack by something strong and probably inhuman. The victims are only linked by their relationship to the Wayne Foundation.

The assassinated Fitzroy was investigating money-laundering in the London office whilst mauled and mutilated Dr. Hugh Downs had, at the behest of great friend Alfred Pennyworth, recently taken up a position with the company in America.

The latter death is further complicated by an eyewitness who swears the attacker was a werewolf…

Linking Downs’ murder to two similar killings overseas, soon hero and valet are stalking foggy London streets and moody rooftops in search of answers. As the hitman who most likely killed Fitzroy also hails from the Seat of Empire, Batman wastes no time in rousting the local underworld in search of ruthless mercenary Captain Carruthers and discovers the ex-Foreign Legionnaire used to be called Le Loup – “the Wolf”…

Unlike Gotham where the unwelcome vigilante is barely tolerated by the police, in London Batman is eagerly welcomed by Inspector Colman Nash, who first meets the masked avenger at an abattoir where the grisly remains of the two Wayne Foundation executives Fitzroy had been investigating are found hanging on meathooks.

With his butchered former employees’ guilt apparently confirmed, the Dark Knight then focuses on the werewolf’s English kills. That trail leads to a confrontation with psychotic East End gang lord Tommy Twist whose even crazier brother Danny was the second victim of the lethal lycanthrope…

Danny was a loan shark who died after putting the squeeze on defaulting maverick inventor Charles Blake, who has since gone missing. Possibilities start to gel when Batman – in cunning disguise – interviews the widow of the first mauled corpse and discovers that her first husband was the odd duck and person of interest Charles Blake…

With the more outré case seemingly solved but for an arrest, Batman turns his attention to finding Curruthers but is soon distracted by New Age celebrity Raven Maguire who claims the Werewolf is a primal god-beast that she and her acolytes have a right and duty to worship…

Days pass and the two cases remain frustratingly stalled until Batman tracks Curruthers to Docklands. However, after a blistering battle the hero only manages to hold onto the killer’s blood-money as the ferociously competent soldier-of-fortune spectacularly escapes to wreak more mayhem and vengeance…

When Batman returns to Scotland Yard, Nash has a lead on two more prospective victims Blake has targeted, but as the Dark Knight rushes to Belgravia, in a wave of roiling fog the Werewolf jumps him…

Smart, moody and action-packed, this yarn is actually a savvy classical detective thriller, brimming with notable characters, intricate chains of clues, devious plot twists and beguiling red herrings which all lead inexorably to a surprise shock ending that will delight fans of the genre.

Moreover, as magnificently rendered in the eerie illustration style of artistic Renaissance Man John Watkiss, the tale unfolds with a quintessentially British tone and timbre…

A far more visceral and cynical shocker comes in the two-part ‘Infected’ by Warren Ellis & John McCrea (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #83-83, from May and June 1996) which begins when a pair of biologically altered solders escape their (perhaps) rogue military doctors and begin slaughtering indigents and low level thugs in the dingy backstreets of Gotham.

The ghastly slaughter escalates when Chief Branden of Gotham SWAT takes over. A holdover from the city’s recent corrupt political regime, the barely rational gun-nut is as happy blasting away at the despised caped vigilante as at the clear and present danger…

For Batman, mere months into his obsessive war on crime, this first brush with rampant, unbridled super-nature goes badly wrong. When he tracks one of the beasts it shoots him with bone bullets manufactured from the harvested corpses of previous victims before escaping…

Despite his wounds the Dark Knight perseveres and doses the kill-crazy beast with a lethal nerve agent before retreating.

Back in the Batcave, as Alfred tends to his wounds, the battered champion’s formidable computer resources examine the bone bullet and uncover a doomsday project harking back to the Cold War paranoia of the 1970s which sought to create warriors who could fight on even after America had succumbed to atomic, bacterial and chemical Armageddon.

Now somebody has revived and completed the research and the results of this programmable cancer are loose in his city…

When word comes in that one of the creatures is dead, his first thought is that his weapon was responsible. However the truth soon comes out. The mutant killed itself, forcing Batman to consider that they too might be victims.

Further research then reveals a chilling codicil: the creatures are designed to work in pairs and if one dies the other immediately goes into reproductive mode. Somewhere in Gotham the other killer is already growing spore sacs. Soon they will explode, dispersing an airborne wave of instantly infectious transformative mutative contagion to reinforce the nightmare army…

Bleak, chilling and gut-wrenching, this ferociously manic countdown to catastrophe shows the Gotham Guardian at his most brutal and uncompromising…

This quirky compilation closes with a canny reworking of a silver age super-villain into a truly modern monster in Clay’ by Alan Grant & Quique Alcatena from B:LDK #89-90 (December 1996-January 1997).

Having been the Batman for less than a month, the neophyte crimefighter’s attempts to rescue a hostage girl from the goons of mobster Boss Xylas are brutally thwarted by a hulking mass of mud who casually tosses him aside before killing the captors and making off with the girl itself.

Although his body swiftly heals thanks to Alfred’s ministrations, Batman’s psyche and morale are crippled…

Elsewhere, Lisa is shocked to discover that the merciless mass of mud that saved her is actually her new boyfriend Matthew Hagen. Still besotted with him, the ingenuous lass fails to realise that he was also responsible for her plight, leaving her to carry the can when Xylas found him appropriating a haul of diamonds the gang had stolen.

In his desperate flight, ratbag Matt had stumbled into a submerged cave and a strange chemical pool which transformed him into this monstrous state. Horrified, Lisa swears to stand by him, determined to bring out the sweet, decent, honourable side the petty thug just doesn’t have…

In trying to calm the increasingly unstable “Clayface”, she accidentally seals her own fate by helping Hagen learn how to hone his powers and perfect the ability to mimic or duplicate anything he can visualise…

As Clayface goes on a robbing rampage, he discovers that there is a time-limit to his abilities, whilst under Wayne Manor the still-debilitated Dark Knight potters in his lab, creating an arsenal of weapons to fill his utility belt and augment his mere human prowess. He also begins devising tactics and strategies to make his crusade more efficient and all-consuming…

With the monster running wild in the streets and Xylas’ murderous goons hunting Hagen, eventually the psychologically-impaired Batman is compelled to leave his cave and return to action, but for all his preparation he is unable to handle Clayface… until he sees what the killer has done to Lisa.

In that ghastly moment the true agent of vengeance is born…

Oppressive, action-packed and deviously compelling, this frantic caper is a breathtaking Fights ‘n’ Tights fiesta for fans and casual readers alike, further redefining the Caped Crusader’s previously shiny, innocuous Gotham as a truly scary world of urban decay, corrupt authority, all-pervasive criminal violence and nightmarish insanity.

Taken in total this is another superb Batman extravaganza: dark, intense, cunning and superbly engaging. What more do you need to know?
© 1995, 1996, 1997, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Twin Spica volume 4


By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-934287-93-4

The hungry fascination, hopeful imagination and fevered anticipation of space travel which was an integral component of post-World War II society is the compulsive narrative engine for this inspiring manga epic from Kou Yaginuma, who began his voyage of discovery with his poignant short story ‘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 blending hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and 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 the imaginary friend Mr. Lion.

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

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

The shock 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 crushed him.

He is certainly no fan of the space program now; having lost his wife, his beloved engineering career and his pride to the race for the heavens. He raised his daughter alone, working 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 soon 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 the ghost of the Shishigō’s pilot…

All any student can think of is going to space, 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 only slowly adjusting to life in 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.

She had also inexplicably incurred the obsessive hostility of astrophysics lecturer Professor Sano. Unbeknownst to Asumi, he had a long-hidden grievance with her father and was determined to kick her out of the school at all costs. Now even his threat has been surprisingly neutralised by high-ranking friends she is still blithely unaware of and the scurrilous martinet has been abruptly replaced by the far more amenable and encouraging Mr. Shiomi

Individual stories are broken up into “Missions” and this mesmerising fourth volume covers numbers 14-18, and also offers a trio of sidebar stories including another autobiographical vignette about the author’s own teenage years.

‘Mission: 14’ begins with the class reassembling after summer vacation. Asumi and Oumi have returned to the Seagull hostel, but most of their attention is taken up with the even more strenuous new training program.

This semester they are dealing with weightlessness training and again Asumi’s small stature is a hindrance as they all toughen up in the gigantic buoyancy water tank used to teach and refine motor skills in spacesuits.

Although all the students struggle with the arduous regime and humiliating indignities of working for hours without toilet breaks, a more pressing problem for Asumi is the muscle weakness in her left hand. As a telling flashback reveals, the deficit is a result of injuries from the disaster, but back then her new friend Mr. Lion taught her exercises and tricks to strengthen it.

Now she realises she has to start doing them again…

A big shock occurs later when, following revelations about her immense wealth and a clash with her father, the still abrasive Marika Ukita is moves into the Seagull with them…

‘Mission: 15’ finds the class observing a satellite-rocket takeoff at Ogasawara Launch Centre only to encounter a strident demonstration by anti-spaceflight protestors. Although the government is keen to push through a full space program, many people still live in dread of another Lion disaster and feelings run high and scared…

Amongst the demonstrators is a young man who achingly reminds Asumi of a boy she used to know, but when she approaches he is less than friendly…

As she determinedly cracks the books and writes reports, Mr. Lion turns up in a playful mood and offers her some sage advice, even as elsewhere Marika has another unpleasant confrontation with her father who tries to drag her out of the Seagull and Space school…

Later when Asumi goes to the local planetarium for star gazing solace, the mystery boy is there…

More hints into the unique situation of Marika are disclosed in ‘Mission: 16’ as the girl ponders and discards her father’s assertion that she is “not normal”, swearing never to quit. He, unable to convince her and after cruelly cutting her off from all support, secretly pays all her bills and leaves Asumi and Oumi with a huge bag of cash to ensure all his stubborn child’s needs are met…

Later, cool Suzuki takes Asumi on a “date”, but only to show her the secret telescope he has stashed on a rooftop, and when she gets home she finds Marika sleeping and accidentally uncovers another aspect of her enigmatic origins…

Later as the girls struggle with Robot Arm training, Suzuki quizzes Fuchaya about Asumi and learns that she had a boyfriend in Middle School who died of cancer. They both agree that nobody can compete with a dead guy…

Later, wandering through the city, Mr. Lion sees Ukita pensively dump a handful of pills off a bridge…

It’s Christmas during ‘Mission: 17’ so Asumi takes Marika to a shrine. The willowy recluse has never been before, and their journey strangely coincides with the usually befuddled Mr. Lion reliving the time shortly after he died in the crash before again trying to sort the odd scraps into some kind of sensible order.

Clear-headed for the first time he makes his own pilgrimage and movingly bids farewell to someone he had tragically forgotten…

After a day of bonding Asumi then tries to get Marika talking to her dad, but the gesture misfires…

The unfolding epic pauses here with ‘Mission: 18’ as Asumi finds a rocket-shaped trinket which inexplicably links her to her somehow ubiquitous unfriendly mystery boy, after which the girls get their first real taste of the wild blue yonder by enduring an hour of recurring, momentary weightlessness in the training exercise known as the “vomit comet”…

In the disgusting aftermath, the new puke buddies are forced to clean up the jet and Oumi tells Marika of a friend who claims to be able to sense ghosts. She also pointedly asks if Ukita thinks the hostel is haunted. The pensive Marika says nothing but heads straight for Asumi’s private bolt hole…

To Be Continued…

Although the main event is temporarily suspended there are still some more affecting revelations in store, beginning with the ancillary tale ‘This Star Spica’ which again draws on Elementary school days in Yuigahama, where obnoxious little Fuchuya is tasked by his teacher with befriending and looking after that weird, lonely little girl who has an imaginary lion for a friend…

Then ‘Sentimental’ follows young artist Kamoi back down memory lane to his first love Kasumi after the school sweethearts have a brief encounter on a train years later, before ‘Another Spica’ finds author Yaginuma in autobiographical mode and back in his ambition-free teens, enjoying fireworks and relating his own experience with an inspirational, 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 to 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.

This sublime serial has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery, frustrated passion, alienation, angst, enduring friendships and just the right touch of spiritual engagement and 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 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.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle volume One


By Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-764-2

Sometimes words mean nothing, pictures tell every story and stuff is funny just because it is. That pretty much sums up the work of abstractedly absurdist comedy pioneer Michael Kupperman, whose oeuvre greatly consists of graphic samplings from old comics, strips and magazines – with especial focus on the advertising content of those forgotten favourites.

A beguiling agglomeration of the past’s guilty pleasures fill the pages of his far-too-infrequent comicbook kingdom Tales Designed to Thrizzle and have been sagely collected into a number of volumes you simply must have.

Kupperman is a cartoonist who clearly loves to draw and has an uncanny knack for isolating the innate insanity of modern living as well as the way we regard our own past – especially the trivial, oft-dismissed and not-so-important bits – which he serves up in a surreal graphic deadpan style that would turn Buster Keaton grey with envy.

Kupperman created the strips Found in the Street and Up all Night, has contributed pieces to The New Yorker, Heavy Metal, The Wall Street Journal, The Independent on Sunday, LA Weekly, The New York Times, Libération, Fortune, Screw and many similarly reputable magazines, as well as in such comics as Hodags and Hodaddies, Hotwire, Snake Eyes, Zero Zero, Blood Orange and Legal Action Comics amongst others.

Kupperman’s first book Snake ‘n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret (2000) led to his breaking into the heady world of adult animation and he has since illustrated many books, but Tales Designed to Thrizzle was always his best beloved vehicle, allowing him to concoct intensely stylish mind-games and display them against a dizzying cultural backdrop of “Men’s sweat mags”, True Confessions pulps, cheesy old comics, B-movies and a million other icons of low-class Americana, each and all given a unique twist and spin by a man whose head is clearly too small for his brain…

Originally released in 2009 in hardback, this new softcover edition, after a suitably off-kilter Foreword by Robert Smigel, collects the first four comically comic comicbook issues in full scintillating colour, each individual masterwork divided – because propriety is a virtue – into “Adults”, “Kids” and “Old People’s Sections”.

As such each contains a torrent of instant favourites such as the aforementioned Snake ‘n’ Bacon, The Manister (a hero who can transform into a banister), Underpants-On-His-Head Man, Cousin Granpa, Pagus (rowdy half-brother of Jesus) and many wildly misinformative fact features like Remembering the Thirties, Porno Coloring Books, Sex Blimps and Sex Holes and the inadequate meanderings of veteran weatherman Storm Cloudfront

The great philosophical topics of our times are also tackled, such as ‘Where is Shakespeare’s Gold?’, ‘Are Comics Serious Literature?’, ‘Are You Being Worn Out by Unnecessary Foreplay?’ ‘or ‘What’s in Your Glass of Water?’

Brash, challenging, agonisingly imaginative and always hysterically funny, Tales Designed to Thrizzle is a timely tome for every grown-up, couch-based life-form in dire need of a hearty guffaw every now and then – and much more Now than Then…
Tales Designed to Thrizzle © 2014 Michael Kupperman. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

The Fox: Freak Magnet


By Dean Haspiel, Mark Waid, JM DeMatteis, Mike Cavallaro, Terry Austin & various (Red Circle Comics/Archie)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-93-8

In the early days of the US comicbook biz, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, a rash of publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory.

Many thrived and many more didn’t, relished only as trivia by sad old blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

MLJ were one of the quickest outfits to pump out a mystery-man pantheon, following the spectacular successes of the Man of Tomorrow and Darknight Detective with their own small but inspirational pantheon of gaudily clad crusaders.

Beginning in November 1939 (one month after a little game-changer entitled Marvel Comics #1) with Blue Ribbon Comics #1: content comprising the standard blend of two-fisted adventure strips, prose pieces and gag panels and, from #2 on, costumed heroes. They rapidly followed up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. …

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

Pep #22 (December 1941) featured a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed goof who took his lead from the popular Andy Hardy movies starring Mickey Rooney. Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. The 6-page tale introduced Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper and his unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones in a small-town utopia called Riverdale.

The feature was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had won its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first solo-star magazine and with it began the gradual transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the comicbook industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon (as influential, if not so all-pervasive, as Superman)…

By 1946 the kids had taken over, and MLJ renamed itself Archie Comics; retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family comedies. Its success, like Superman’s, changed the content of every other publisher’s titles, and led to a multi-media industry including TV shows, movies, and a chain of restaurants. In the swinging sixties the pop hit “Sugar, Sugar” (a tune from their animated show) became a global smash: their wholesome garage band The Archies has been a fixture of the comics ever since.

Nonetheless the company had by this stage blazed through a rather impressive legion of costumed champions (such as The Shield – America’s first patriotic superhero – predating Captain America by 13 months) who would form the backbone of numerous future superhero revivals, most notably during the High-Camp/Marvel Explosion/Batman TV show-frenzied mid-60’s…

The heroes impressively resurfaced in the 1980s under the company’s Red Circle imprint but again failed to catch enough public’s attention. Archie let them lie fallow – except for occasional revivals and intermittent guest-shots in regular Archie titles – until 1991, when the company licensed its heroes to superhero specialists DC for a magically fun, all-ages iteration (and where’s that star-studded trade paperback collection, huh?!).

Impact Comics was a vibrant, engaging and fun all-ages rethink that really should have been a huge hit but was again incomprehensibly unsuccessful…

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

In 2012 the company began reinventing their superhero credentials with a series of online adventures under the aegis of a revived Red Circle subdivision, beginning with The Mighty Crusaders (reinforced by traditional monthly print versions six months later): new costumed capers emphasising fun and action which were equally welcoming to inveterate fanboys and eager newcomers alike…

One of the company’s most tantalising and oddly appealing Golden Age second stringers was a notional Batman knockoff dubbed The Fox. Debuting in Blue Ribbon #4 (June 1940), ambitious, go-getting young photojournalist Paul Patton initially dressed up as a costumed crusader to get exclusive scoops before properly catching the hero-bug.

The strip was scripted by Joe Blair and drawn by Irwin Hasen (who apparently later recycled the timelessly elegant costume design for DC/All American’s Wildcat in January 1942’s Sensation Comics #1), running until #22 – March 1943 – after which the dark detective vanished until revived as a walk-on in Mighty Crusaders #4 (April 1966).

He was particularly well-served during a subsequent 1980s revival when visual narrative genius Alex Toth illustrated many of his new adventures and now the character – or rather his son – has been singled out for solo stardom in the most recent electronic Red Circle incarnation.

This superbly riotous collection collects the first story-arc and a few cool on-line extras which were published in 2013 as the sublimely witty and engaging action-romp The Fox: Freak Magnet #1-5.

As seen in the recent New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes, this Earth’s masked heroes were generally enjoying a well-deserved retirement in the idyllic little city of Red Circle, until they were tracked down and murdered by old foe The Brain Emperor.

Only elderly Joe Higgins was left to save their kids and heirs: shepherding them through a long-practised escape plan devised by the heroic Mighty Crusaders to safety and the eventual attainment of their true potentials as heroes in their own right…

Higgins was a lucky choice: the world’s first masked superman and a trusty Shield against all evil and injustice…

At first, all that has very little to do with Paul Patton Jr., who has voluntarily followed in his own father’s footsteps both as a photojournalist and masked mystery man for the same venal reasons only to discover that both jobs come at an inescapable price…

In his case trouble and insanity always finds him, so he might as well be dressed and ready for the occasions…

Following a Foreword by Mike Allred, the further adventures of The Fox – as imagined by plotter/artist Dean Haspiel and scripter Mark Waid – begin with ‘Freak Magnet part 1: Public Face’ as the reluctant the hero accidentally exposes the shady secret of the world’s most beautiful social media tycoon whilst on a cushy photo assignment.

The magnificent Lucy Fur seems to have everything going for her, but the Fox’s infallible gift for stumbling into unfortunate situations soon “outs” the beautiful siren as manic monster Madame Satan

No sooner has the Roguish Reynard despatched her than he is accosted by an extradimensional princess in distress and desperately requiring a few good men in ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’

The frantic Queen of Diamonds has already shanghaied a number of Earth’s greatest champions, sending them to save her beloved husband from the wicked Druid who has transformed him into a ravening monster. Now, however, short of power – and viable options – she has finally arrived at the merely human but extraordinarily lucky Patton…

Given no chance to refuse, the fed-up Fox is soon questing through a bizarre world, enduring horrific hallucinations (including his not-so-understanding wife Mae who infrequently suits-up as the sultry She-Fox) and a succession of marauding man-things. After he defeats a particularly big beast it reverts to the battered form of missing pulp hero Bob Phantom

That issue also began a back up serial by JM DeMatteis, Mike Cavallaro & Terry Austin.

‘Shield: The Face of Hate part 1 – A Very Cold War’ finds aged but still vital Joe Higgins in a bar recounting one of his WWII exploits…

Debuting way back when in Pep Comics #1, Higgins was an FBI scientist who devised a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability, battling the USA’s enemies as The Shield in the days before America entered WWII. He also devised a serum which enhanced those powers, smashing spies, saboteurs, subversives and every threat to Democracy and decency.

This particular old soldier’s yarn concerns a 1944 mission in Antarctica to crush an Axis super-weapon but which found him facing not just a legion of monsters but also his Nazi and Japanese counterparts Master Race and Hachiman

Chapter three of Freak Magnet resumed with Haspiel & Waid’s lucky lad wandering through ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ like a lycra-draped Indiana Jones in Dante’s Inferno; en route defeating and curing mutated monster Inferno, the Flame Breather before rescuing gun-toting vigilante The Marvel from a macabre torture chamber.

Unfortunately, once released, the Scourge of Gangland was a little traumatised and could no longer tell friend from foe…

Meanwhile back in World War II, ‘The Face of Hate part 2 – The Enemy of My Enemy’ (DeMatteis, Cavallaro & Austin) saw the sworn enemies’ three-way battle spiral into berserker rage until a grotesque horror jumped all three of them…

In the Diamond Dimension, whilst Inferno tackled a maddened Marvel, The Fox had to face the Queen’s ensorcelled husband in ‘The Voodoo You Do’ (Haspiel & Waid) until the nigh-omnipotent Druid took a personal hand. Happily at that moment the more-or-less dutiful wives appeared, the power of love and engagement rings having allowed the Queen and Mae to cross the dimensional divide and tip the scales.

With the Druid blasted to chunks Patton thought the madness had subsided for awhile… until the Diamond Ruler blasted the Earthlings home and he arrived alone in the Antarctic, dumped into another insanely dangerous situation…

‘Shield: The Face of Hate part 3 – A Mind of Shattered Glass’ (DeMatteis, Cavallaro & Austin) saw the hate-filled human foes swallow their feelings to unite in combat against an incredible predatory horror which had grown from a fragment of a far greater being destroyed in antiquity and scattered throughout the universe.

This entity fed on hate and planned to transform Earth into a world of monsters, but just as it completed its evolution into a new, much more malign and menacing Druid, a black clad, long-eared and annoyingly familiar figure materialised…

The time-tossed twin sagas combine for the epic conclusion ‘Freak Magnet: Future’s End’ (by DeMatteis & Haspiel) as Fox, Shield, Hachiman and Master Race strive together to save humanity and find themselves forever changed by the cosmic experience…

A fulsome ‘Afterword by Dean Haspiel’ is followed by one more comics treat as the effulgent everyman crafts a delicious and hilariously thrilling short yarn starring Paul Patten Jr. and explains his choice of cameras in ‘Epilogue: A Picture Lasts Forever’

This delightful exercise in reviving the fun-filled excitement of comics that don’t think they’re Shakespeare or Orwell also includes such extra inducements as a vast (23!) covers-&-variants gallery by Haspiel, Darwyn Cooke, Fiona Staples, Mike Norton, Allen Passalaqua, Paul Pope, Mike & Laura Allred, David Mack, Howard Chaykin, Jesus Aburto, Mike Cavallaro & Alex Toth as well as a fact-packed ‘Special Feature’ section revealing some of The Fox Files’.

Beginning with the lowdown on the cagy crusaders in ‘Origin of the Freak Magnet’ and ‘She-Fox: The Vivacious Vixen’ there is even room for bonus featurette ‘Red Circle Heroes: Extra Pulp’, offering character insights and publication histories on ‘Bob Phantom’, ‘Inferno’ and ‘The Marvel’.

And best yet, there’s a great big tantalising “To Be Continued…” page…

Full of vim and vigour, this phenomenal Will Eisner-inspired romp provides no-nonsense, outrageously emphatic superhero hijinks drenched in slick, smart, tried-&-true comicbook bombast and action which manages to feel brand-new whilst simultaneously remaining faithful to all the past iterations and re-imaginings of the assorted superheroes.

Fast, fulfilling and immediately addictive, The Fox might just be Archie’s long-awaited superhero superstar…

If you yearn for the uncomplicated fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights furore of your youth – whenever that was – this is a book you must not miss.
THE FOX ™ and RED CIRCLE COMICS ® ACP, Inc. The individual characters; names and likenesses are the exclusive trademarks of Archie Comics Publications, Inc. © 2014 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Mystery of the Great Pyramid part 2 – The Chamber of Horus


By Edgar P. Jacobs, translated by Clarence E. Holland & Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-38-0

Master storyteller Edgar P. Jacobs pitted his distinguished duo of Scientific Adventurers Captain Francis Blake and Professor Philip Mortimer against a wide variety of perils and menaces in stunning action thrillers which merged science fiction, detective mysteries and supernatural thrillers in the same timeless Ligne claire style which had done so much to make intrepid boy reporter Tintin a global sensation.

The strip debuted in Le Journal de Tintin #1 (26th September 1946): an anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland. The new anthology was edited by Hergé, with his eponymous star ably supplemented by a host of new heroes and features…

Le Mystère de la Grande Pyramide was the second extended exploit of the peerless pair, originally running in Le Journal de Tintin from March 23rd 1950 to February 21st 1951 and, as seen yesterday, it saw the True Brits investigating murder, mayhem and mystery in modern Egypt…

With his great friend murdered, Mortimer is resolved to finish the case himself and begins by visiting the decidedly odd Doktor Grossgrabenstein in his mansion. He hasn’t made up his mind about the German, but the archaeologist’s staff – especially his thuggish foreman Sharkey – are definitely playing some deeper game…

The visit almost ends in disaster but once again a mysterious warning in Egyptian tips Mortimer off and he leaves before the gang can grab him. Later that night he meets again the aged holy man Sheik Abdel Razek and the enigmatic cleric gives him a strange talisman and a warning of the arcane forces he faces.

Rationalist sceptic though he is, the physicist keeps the artefact near and that night, when another vicious attempt is made on his life, the charm proves its worth…

Instructing Nasir to make discreet inquiries, Mortimer returns to the Giza excavation, unaware that he has picked up a silent shadow. A commotion then brings him to Razek’s dwelling where Sharkey is threatening the old man, but before the Professor can intervene the bully is sent scurrying by a shocking display of spooky pyrotechnics…

The house is incredibly ancient, built from reclaimed materials, and as he chats with the sheik Mortimer sees glyphs and symbols etched into the walls which can only have come from the original pyramids.

Razek is charmingly evasive however and Mortimer eventually leaves, but on his way back sees figures lurking around Grossgrabenstein’s work site.

Although he loses them, the chase gives him an opportunity to inspect the tunnels under the tomb. However further investigation is cut short when he clashes with native worker Abbas whom he suspects has been following him…

Things take a dangerous turn the next night when he returns to the German’s grand home. A sudden slip by Grossgrabenstein tips off Mortimer that the boisterous historian has at some stage been replaced by gifted mimic Olrik. After a mighty struggle, the Professor is captured and soon after Nasir too is bundled into the opulent cell he has been dumped in…

Their bacon is saved by the unexpected arrival of the police who storm the mansion with guns blazing. In the confusion a beloved old comrade resurfaces as Francis Blake sheds his own disguise to rescue his beleaguered friends.

When the gunfire subsides the triumphant police try to arrest the real Grossgrabenstein and, as they blunder around, slippery Olrik again escapes…

With all their nefarious opposition seemingly routed, Blake and Mortimer are free to concentrate on solving the mystery of the Chamber of Horus and why ultra-modern super-criminal Olrik was so obsessed by it.

Soon they are carefully exploring the claustrophobic tunnels beneath the Great Pyramid and eventually discover not only the incredible treasures of the pharaohs but their old arch-foe plundering the sacrosanct horde.

Olrik is as hard-headed and no-nonsense as his British adversaries and puts no faith in curses, talismans or magic, but the sudden arrival of Razek teaches all of the western heretics a lesson they will never forget… before carefully erasing their memories to protect the secrets his line has spent millennia protecting…

Fast-paced, action-packed, wry and eerie, this spectacular conclusion is a thunderous rollicking conclusion to the moody, mystery of the ancient world and a superb treat for fans of blockbuster sagas like The Mummy or Indiana Jones.

A sheer delight for lovers of fantastic fiction, Blake & Mortimer are the graphic personification of the Bulldog Spirit and worthy successors to the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain, Professor Challenger, Richard Hannay and all the other valiant stalwarts of lost Albion…

Original editions © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud – Lombard s.a.). © 1987 by E.P. Jacobs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Mystery of the Great Pyramid part 1 – The Papyrus of Manethon


By Edgar P. Jacobs, translated by Clarence E. Holland (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-37-3

Brussels-born Edgar P. Jacobs was a prodigy who drew from an early age and was besotted by music and the performing arts – especially opera. Upon graduation from commercial school in 1919, he promptly rejected safe, steady office work and instead avidly pursued his artistic passions…

A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses (everything from scene-painting to set decoration and even performing as both an acting and singing extra) supplemented private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His dream of operatic glory was crushed by the Great Depression, and when arts funding dried up following the global stock market crash he was forced to pick up whatever dramatic work was going, although this did include more singing and performing. He moved into illustration in 1940, with regular work for Bravo magazine and some jobs for short stories and novels and, when the occupying Nazi authorities in Belgium banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero Flash Gordon, Jacobs famously took over the syndicated strip to complete the saga.

His ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Occupation dictators, after which the man of many talents simply created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

During this period Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together, and whilst creating the weekly U Ray strip the younger man began assisting on Tintin, colouring the original black and white strips from The Shooting Star (originally run in newspaper Le Soir) for an upcoming album collection.

By 1944 Jacobs was performing similar duties on Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. He was contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

Following the Liberation, publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a few other comicstrip masters to work for his bold new venture. Founding publishing house Le Lombard, Leblanc also launched Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland. It was edited by Herge and would star the already legendary intrepid boy reporter plus a host of new heroes and features.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, Le Journal de Tintin featured Paul Cuvelier’s Corentin and Jacques Laudy’s The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers.

Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since their time together on Bravo, and the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred Captain Francis Blake: an English Military Intelligence officer closely modelled on him. The debonair spy was to be partnered with a bluff, gruff excitable British boffin – Professor Philip Mortimer

The serial ran from issue #1 (26th September 1946 to September 8th 1949) and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s very first album release with the concluding part published three years later. The volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982, supplemented in 1964 by a single omnibus edition.

In 1984 the saga was repackaged for English translation as three volumes during a push to win some of Britain’s huge Tintin and Asterix market, but failed to find an audience. The venture ended after seven magnificent, under-appreciated volumes.

Cinebook have had far more success publishing Blake and Mortimer since 2007 and recently completed a triptych of the very first adventure…

Chronologically, the next epic was this eerily exotic thriller which originally ran in Tintin as Le Mystère de la Grande Pyramide from March 23rd 1950 to February 21st 1951.

These are the second and third volumes of the current Cinebook series and pick up the ongoing adventures in the months following the defeat of Tibetan warlord Basam-Damdu and liberation of the planet from his monomaniacal tyranny…

The Mystery of the Great Pyramid, part 1 opens with the author’s fascinating and pertinent feature on everything Ancient Egyptian – complete with extremely handy maps and plans – before the story proper begins with fretful Professor Philip Mortimer taking some time off to pursue his occasional hobby.

A keen amateur archaeologist, the boffin has flown to Cairo with devoted assistant Nasir for a holiday and to help Egyptologist Ahmed Rassim Bey translate an astounding new find. However as they debark at the airport, the vigilant Indian thinks he spots an old enemy…

When no sign can be found the travellers move on, and the following morning Mortimer is examining some fragile scraps of papyrus attributed to legendary contemporary archivist Manethon. The ancient priest’s writings indicate that a secret treasure is hidden beneath a certain pyramid in a “Chamber of Horus”…

Cautious of the effect of such a sensationalistic discovery, the scientists decide to proceed carefully, blithely unaware that trusted assistant Abdul Ben Zaim is in the employ of a cruel and dangerous enemy…

Even after an evening of socialising the learned men are keen to get to work. Returning late to the laboratory of the Egyptian Museum they discover Abdul furtively loitering and Mortimer’s suspicions are aroused. When nobody is watching, the physicist craftily secures a portion of the papyrus and talks Ahmed into conducting a clandestine test…

Abdul is indeed playing a double game and his mysterious master is a man both subtle and exceedingly dangerous.

That night the leader tries to steal the documents but is surprised by Mortimer who has anticipated such a move. The canny scientist is just as surprised when the villain is revealed as Colonel Olrik.

The wily war criminal has been missing since the fall of warlord Basam-Damdu but has lost none of his lethal skills. Overpowering Mortimer, the rogue escapes, taking with him the last shred of papyrus the Professor had been holding…

In his lair, Olrik presses Abdul, who hastily translates the assembled fragments and declares the Chamber of Horus must be in the Great Sphinx on the Giza Plateau…

Under constant surveillance by Olrik’s gang, Mortimer and Nasir warily go about their business, hoping to lure the mastermind out of hiding. Meanwhile Abdul, believing himself undiscovered, returns to work at the museum, where flashy German Egyptologist Herr Doktor Grossgrabenstein is loudly informing everyone of his latest search for the tomb of Tanitkara.

The bombastic treasure-hunter invites Mortimer to visit him and view his unique collection but the boffin is too absorbed with shadowing Abdul – a task made far harder by the inept assistance of the local police.

When a lucky clue leads the resolute researcher to an antique store, Olrik’s scurrilous henchman Basendjas ambushes and imprisons Mortimer in the basement, but after a tremendous, extended battle the doughty doctor breaks free and calls in the cops.

Sadly, even on the defensive, Olrik is formidable and fights free of the encroaching authorities before vanishing into the warrens of the city…

After Abdul is killed by a hit-and-run driver the effusive Doktor Grossgrabenstein is present when Mortimer admits defeat and calls in a seasoned professional…

In London, Captain Francis Blake receives a cablegram and takes a leave from desk duty at security organisation I5. The Scotland Yard department is already investigating a surge of criminal activity in Northeast Africa and is happy to have their top man take a personal interest.

Blake heads out to Egypt by devious and complex means but, despite his circuitous route and customary caution, does not make it. Mortimer becomes increasingly impatient as he awaits the espionage expert’s arrival and to kill time finally accedes to his German colleague’s repeated requests to visit his dig at Giza.

When he arrives Mortimer finds bullying foreman Sharkey whipping native workers and is just in time to thrash the brute as he tries to attack an old Holy Man who has objected…

The enraged thug pulls a gun but is admonished by Grossgrabenstein, who then reluctantly allows the Professor to inspect the recently cleared chambers below the pyramid.

As Mortimer climbs back to the surface, a hasty, anonymous cry alerts him and he narrowly dodges a huge rock which crashes into the space where he stood. The area it stone fell from is empty and nobody recognises the voice which called out…

Making his way back to his hotel the weary scientist is then crushed to receive news that his best friend has been shot to death in a phone booth at Athens airport…

Bitter and enraged, Mortimer swears to make Olrik pay…

To Be Concluded…

Beguiling, suspenseful and fantastic in the grandest tradition of epic intrigue, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer is the very epitome of dogged heroic determination; delivering splendid Blood-&-Thunder thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with breathtaking visual punch. Every kid of any age able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it alternate earth history or bakelite-punk if you want) can’t help but revel in the adventure of their lives… and so will you.

Original editions © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud – Lombard s.a.). © 1986 by E.P. Jacobs. All rights reserved. English translation © 2007 Cinebook Ltd.

Ultimate Fantastic Four volume 3: N-Zone


By Warren Ellis, Adam Kubert & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-904159-93-1

After Marvel’s financial problems and creative roadblock in the late 1990s, the company came back swinging. A critical new concept was the remodelling and modernising of their core characters for an older and more sophisticated “youth culture”.

The Ultimate imprint abandoned monumental long-grown continuity – which had always been Marvel’s greatest asset – to re-imagine major characters in their own self-sufficient universe, offering varying degrees of radical makeover to appeal to the contemporary 21st century audience and offer them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Peter Parker became again a nerdy high-school geek, brilliant but bullied by his physical superiors, and mutants were a dangerous, oppressed ethic minority scaring the pants off the ordinary Americans they hid amongst. There were also fresh and fashionable, modernistic, scientifically feasible rationales for all those insane super-abilities manifesting everywhere…

The experiment began in 2000 with a post-modern take on Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate X-Men followed in 2001 and the Mighty Avengers were remodelled, becoming The Ultimates in 2002.

The stories, design and even tone of the heroes were reworked to cater to the apparently-different tastes of a new readership: (hopefully) new consumers unprepared or unwilling to deal with five decades (seven if you include Golden Age Timely tales retroactively co-opted into the mix) of interconnected story baggage.

The experiment prospered but quickly filled up with refashioned, morally ambiguous heroes and villains. Eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor.

In 2008, imprint-wide decluttering exercise “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of superhumans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan, courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

Long before then, though, Marvel’s original keystone concept was given its Ultimate work out and this third tumultuous collection, gathering Ultimate Fantastic Four #17-12 (January to June 2005), relates how a subtly different, still clandestine Awesome Foursome explosively came to public attention in their brand new, yet chillingly familiar world.

The most significant change to Stan & Jack’s breakthrough concept was a rather telling one: all four heroes were far, far younger than their mainstream antecedents…

Whereas in the original, middle-aged maverick genius Reed Richards, doughty college buddy Ben Grimm, ineffectual girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny survived a privately-funded space-shot which foundered when cosmic rays penetrated their vessel’s inadequate shielding before mutating into a quartet into quirky freaks, here a child prodigy and lonely super-genius was increasingly despised by his abusive blue-collar dad.

Bullied at school and obsessed with other dimensions, Reed’s only friend was classmate and school sports star Ben, who had unaccountably appointed himself the wonder-nerd’s protector…

Reed’s life changed the day his High School science project – teleportation – caught the eye of a government talent scout from a high powered think tank. Soon the kid was ensconced in a federally funded New York facility for budding geniuses…

Run by Professor Franklin Storm, the Baxter Building was a wonderland of top-flight resources, intellectual challenges and guarded support, but the school was primarily an ideas factory and the 100 strange, bright kids were expected to produce results…

The Chief Administrator’s little boy Johnny was there mostly as a courtesy, but daughter Sue was a biology prodigy and one of the biggest young brains on Earth…

Reed’s teleportation researches were just a necessary preliminary to his greater goal: mastery of a strange sub-dimension – a place the Baxter scientists call the Negative Zone. With their aid the passing years were largely spent in trying to fully access it, but regular studies continued too, with quite a few burn-outs and casualties.

Some kids thrived on the aggressive hot-housing; especially creepy, arrogant, insular Victor Van Damme who, after a particularly galling incident with Reed, somehow managed to swallow his seething animosity to collaborate on cracking the dimension calculations…

At last 21-year-old Reed and still-fractious lab partner Victor were shipped out to Nevada for the first full test of the N-Zone teleport system. The Storm kids went along for the ride, but as army technicians counted down, Victor argued with Reed before secretly changing the still hotly debated and contested calculations…

At that moment backpacker Ben Grimm had wandered into camp to see his old sidekick after more than a decade apart, and snotty Johnny distracted Reed by disclosing that his sister Sue had the hots for the long-obsessed but crushingly shy wonderboy…

The test firing was a literal catastrophe. The site was devastated in a shattering release of energy with Reed regaining consciousness some distance away as an amorphous blob of eerily boneless flesh, mistaken by the soldiers for an extra-dimensional invader.

Ben came to in Mexico, a huge rocky monster, and Johnny eventually called in from a hospital bed in France. He kept catching on fire without ever burning himself…

Sue simply vanished without a trace…

She was eventually recovered from miles below New York City, gifted with invisibility and force field powers but captured by disgraced, long-missing Baxter boffin Arthur Molekevic: a literal Mole Man re-populating ancient, previously inhabited caverns with a selection of his own dish-grown monsters and homunculi…

The unsavoury savant had deduced that the quartet’s uncontrolled projection through N-Space – utterly unprotected from whatever transformative energies and unknown physical laws might apply there – had transformed them on some unfathomable fundamental level. Their incredible new gifts and appearances were the result…

When Mole Man attacked the surface world the foursome had chaotically united to defeat him – although their participation had been covered up by the army, as were all their subsequent activities.

This third 6-part saga – by Warren Ellis, Adam Kubert, and inkers John Dell, Scott Hanna, Mark Morales, Nelson and Larry Stucker plus digital colour wizard Dave Stewart – picks up the story after Reed and his companions met again their old classmate Victor…

Always seeking the most intimate secrets of their incredible transformations, Reed’s quest for a cure to their conditions temporarily stalled after his clash with “Dr. Doom”, but upon returning to the Baxter Building the young genius resumed researching and as this tale opens has not only deduced how Johnny’s flame powers actually work but also discovered something new about the enigmatic N-Zone…

Before long he has convinced Dr. Storm – and military liaison General Thaddeus Ross – to let him pilot a reconditioned space shuttle into the mystery realm…

Greed and the thought of potential military advantage eventually seduce the reluctant adults in charge and soon the mutated quartet are exploring a completely new kind of space in a dimension previously impossible to define.

As they progress, Reed and Sue deduce that the crimson otherspace might be a sub-universe in the process of dying. The sheer amazement of the revelation is quickly surpassed however when they pick up a signal that can only have been made by thinking beings…

Johnny doesn’t really care: for the first time since he got his powers, he’s feeling sick…

Their rendezvous with an immense creature leads to a meeting with a wide variety of life forms on a colossal, ramshackle space station, but Ben has a hit upon a worrying thought that has escaped the wonderstruck Reed. If your world was ending, wouldn’t you try to find another?

Soon the heroes are being feted by the bizarre ancient insectoid their translator tech describes as “Nihil”. The ruler of a ragtag world of survivors from a myriad races and species is happy to share knowledge, explaining the true nature of multiversal architecture and the perilous state of the N-Zone.

Unfortunately as Johnny’s condition worsens and the humans prepare to take him back to Earth for medical treatment, the arthropod alien shows his true colours, attempting to kill Ben and Reed, determined to make their fresh, healthy young universe his own…

Breaking free and making a desperate dash for home, the explorers inadvertently bring a legion of hungry monsters with them and Earth learns of its newest heroes when the team is forced to battle the ravening hungry horrors who so spectacularly crash into Las Vegas…

With their unlikely triumph captured by a thousand phones and cameras, the Fantastic Four are now the world’s latest super-sensations and no amount of military manoeuvring can change the fact…

To Be Continued…

Rocket-paced, razor sharp and blisteringly action-packed, this riotous romp is also awash with smart engaging teen-oriented humour for the era of the acceptable nerd and go-getting geek, delivering another sublimely enthralling alternate view of Marvel’s most important title that will impress open-minded old fans of the medium just as much as the newcomers they were ostensibly aiming for.
© 2004, 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

 

Afterlife With Archie Book 1


By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Francesco Francavilla (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-61988-908-8

For nearly three quarters of a century Archie Andrews has epitomised good, safe, wholesome fun but the company has always been a deviously subversive one.

Family friendly iterations of superheroes, spooky chills, sci fi thrills and genre yarns have always been as much a part of the publisher’s varied portfolio as the romantic comedy capers of America’s clean-cut teens.

As you probably know by now, Archie has been around since 1941, spending most of those seventy-plus years chasing both the gloriously attainable Betty Cooper and wildly out-of-his-league debutante Veronica Lodge whilst best friend Jughead Jones alternately mocked and abetted his romantic endeavours and rival Reggie Mantle sought to scuttle his every move…

As crafted over the decades by a legion of writers and artists who’ve skilfully created the stories of teenage antics in and around the idyllic, utopian small town of Riverdale, these timeless tales of decent, upstanding, fun-loving kids have captivated successive generations of readers and entertained millions worldwide.

To keep all that accumulated attention riveted, the company has always looked to modern trends with which to expand upon their archetypal storytelling brief. In times past they have cross-fertilised their stable of stars through such unlikely team-ups as Archie Meets the Punisher, Archie Meets Glee, Archie Meets Vampirella or Archie Meets Kiss, whilst every type of fashion fad and youth culture sensation have invariably been accommodated into and explored within the pages of the regular titles.

In 2013 however the publishers took a bold and controversial step which paid huge dividends and created the biggest sales sensation in the company’s history.

It all began with a variant cover for Life With Archie #23 with illustrator Francesco Francavilla (Black Beetle, Zorro, Detective Comics, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy etc.) providing a moody spoof EC zombie graveyard scene. The variant was a sensation and cognitive cogs began to turn at the editorial offices…

When playwright, TV scripter and comicbook scribeRoberto Aguirre-Sacasa- whose many successes include Say You Love Satan, The Mystery Plays, 4: Marvel Knights Fantastic Four, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Sensational Spider-Man and Glee amongst others – got involved, it wasn’t long before a strange new enterprise was hatched.

Archie Comics is no stranger to horror titles. In the 1970s the company created the sub-imprint Red Circle for anthology terror tales during a supernatural boom time, before converting the line to superhero features as the decade progressed.

They even had a resident star-sorceress in Sabrina the Teenage Witch

However, whereas that venture was decidedly a newsstand project, the proposed 21st century endeavour took the company into uncharted waters.

When it was released, the 5-issue miniseries Afterlife With Archie was available solely through Direct Sales outlets and the first title in the company’s history to carry a parental advisory; “Rated Teen +”…

The sinister saga was an outright sensation, selling hugely and garnering phenomenal critical approval from sources as far-ranging as Salon, Fangoria, The Plain Dealer and NPR (National Public Radio) as well as all the usual comics review pundits. Each issue spawned further printings in a desperate race to keep up with demand…

I’m not going to dwell much on the plot, but suffice to say it doesn’t stray far from the time-honoured scenaria of the best sort of teen horror movies – minus the gratuitous sex and oafish dependence on guns – but it does hone all those tropes and memes to a superbly gripping point by inflicting them upon a beloved and intimately understood cast we all think we know…

It all starts one dark and ghastly midnight with Jughead hammering on the door of Sabrina’s house. A hit-and-run driver has killed the boy’s beloved pet Hot Dog and he needs her to bring him back…

Even with the arcane aid of her spooky eldritch elders the attempt fails, compelling the deeply moved Sabrina to try a spell she knows she should not and engendering for herself a most hideous punishment…

The next day, school starts out pretty much normal. Everyone is hyped about the upcoming Halloween Dance, although loud, obnoxious Reggie seems painfully preoccupied with some guilty secret and Juggie is absent…

Concerned, Archie stops in for a visit to find his friend in a bad way. The always voracious boy is weak and sickly and his arm is infected from a nasty bite. Hot Dog just sits far back in the dark under the house, growling and snarling…

That night at the Gym the party is in full swing with kids tricked out in all their innocent gory glory. As usual tensions are high between Betty and Veronica, Dilton and Chuck are furiously debating the merits of their favourite scary movies and Devil-May-Care Reggie is still acting strange…

Things take a dark turn once Jughead appears. His costume is amazing, like a scarecrow Zombie King. As yet nobody knows he’s already eaten one of the chaperones…

The shocking scenes soon start, and lifelong friends begin falling thick and fast. With no choice but to accept the impossible, Archie leads the stunned, surviving students to the fortress-like Lodge Mansion, with the inexorably growing army of infectious dead closely following…

With danger all around, tensions lead to many revelations, as years of suppressed feelings are finally exposed like raw nerves.

Although safe within the palatial citadel, the grieving Andrews boy needs to get out and discover what has happened to his parents and the rest of the town. As yet nobody is aware that one of the cowering kids is already carrying the unstoppable necromantic taint of the grave…

Bold, uncompromising, suspenseful, powerfully shocking and genuinely scary, this yarn is also astoundingly moving (there’s nobody more sentimental than a comicbook geek, but I’m not ashamed to admit that twice during this tale I teared up and had to reach for the tissues) as it takes a cast as familiar as your own family and puts them through hell and into damnation.

Literally nobody is safe and by the end of this first story-arc – comics fan or not – you will be gobsmacked and hungry for more.

Happily there is a Book 2…

This grim graphic grimoire also comes with an unholy host of extras beginning with the story behind the phenomenon in ‘Covers from the Darkside’ which talks about the genesis of the project, a full gallery of the 22 covers, variants and subsequent reprint covers by Francavilla, Tin Seeley, Andrew Pepoy, Tito Peña, Robert Hack and Jason Millet and is rounded off with ‘Sketches of the Dead’ which reproduces Francavilla’s glorious pencil layouts for much of the entire five chapter saga…

Dark gripping fun and one of the very best comicbook horror stories ever created, Afterlife With Archie is a brilliant experience no Funnybook Fan or Fear Aficionado should miss.

© 2014 Archie Comic Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

World War 3 Illustrated 1979-2014


By various, edited by Peter Kuper & Seth Tobocman (PM Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60486-958-3

Since the 1980s and proceeding ever more unchecked into the 21st century, nations and human society have been plagued with horrors and disasters exacerbated if not actually caused by a world-wide proliferation of lying, greedy, venal, demented and just plain stupid bosses and governments.

These paragons have finally succeeded in elevating politicians of every stripe to that phylum of generally useless tools and pimples on the butt of humanity once only occupied by ambulance-chasing lawyers, lifestyle coaches and management consultants.

Since then so many apparently entitled and greedy archetypes like bankers, astrologers, wedding planners, doorstep evangelists, CEOs, celebrity gossip columnists, newspaper editors, the shamelessly privileged and all types of psychics have joined their rarefied ranks, and I’m thinking I probably need to either grow my own provably unadulterated coffee or further refine my critical parameters…

The century before ours wasn’t much better, but it did spawn a global awareness of the sheer symbolic power of art to promote debate, action and change. Politically charged, culturally aware imagery has been used over and over again by the underdogs – and, to be honest, the more savvy oppressors – in countless intellectual clashes as irresistible Weapons of Mass Deliberation…

This is a book that should make you angry and inspired. That is its point and purpose…

Created in response to Ronald Reagan’s presidency – possibly the only thing non-Americans can be thankful to the mad, bible-thumping bastard for – World War 3 Illustrated was founded in 1979 by Pratt Institute art students Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman in the wake of a rising tide of political conservatism, religious fundamentalism and unchecked capitalist autocracy

The magazine quickly became a beacon and rallying point for artistic activists: a collective collaboration galvanising and powerfully polemical, covering a vast procession of issues the political Powers-That-Be and increasingly law-immune Corporate Hegemonies would prefer were never aired or exposed.

Always championing the ever-diminishing rights of the individual over the juggernaut of rapacious commercial expansion and global monetary domination, the magazine brought – and still brings – together creative freedom-fighters who oppose the insidious wave of creeping everyday injustices through art, information and – most effectively of all – opposing views and dissenting opinions.

Now the smart, informed publishing people of PM Press have released a spectacular and sumptuous hardback retrospective of World War 3 Illustrated; re-presenting some of the graphic gadfly’s greatest moments in a stunning collection no self-aware seditionist could afford to miss at a time when individual freedoms and planetary wellbeing have never been more endangered…

One crucial word of clarification: the Third World War hasn’t been declared and has no recognised Theatre of Operations. It’s an ongoing series of perpetual localised skirmishes intended to replace individuality with homogeneity, freedom with conformity, humanity with faceless consumerism and intellect, spontaneity and self-esteem with a slavish devotion to money and oligarchic, board-sanctioned options from a menu of consumerist choices designed to keep the merchant-machine running…

Stuffed with spot-art and themed chapters fronted by double-page Chapter Icons from Kuper, Scott Cunningham, Sabrina Jones, Tobocman, Susan Willmarth, Kevin C. Pyle, Rebecca Migdal, Sandy Jimenez, Ethan Heitner, Nicole Schulman, Christopher Cardinale and Hilary Allison, this grand bible of creative resistance opens with the rousing and informative ‘Introduction: In Cahoots!’ by veteran activist, educator and reformer Bill Ayers before the parade of artistic action gets underway.

Starting World War 3 reveals the way it all began in the essay ‘Manifesto’, by Tobocman & Kuper, before the early forays are revisited in ‘Old Pals’ by Peter Bagge, whilst “Dr. Froydo Baggins” diagnoses the scatological power structure of modern society in ‘Top Feces’ by Isabella Bannerman & Robert Desmond, and Chuck Sperry’s terrifying collage ‘Bud’ is followed by Tobocman’sstate of disunion revelation in ‘The World is Being Ripped’. The chapter is closed by ‘Dove vs. Technology (back cover #8)’ by Aki Fujiyoshi.

Theocracy unbound is the subject of In God We Trust? opening with ‘Rapture’ – Kuper’s terrifying visualisation of an actual speech by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell – after which Erik Drooker moodily relates his ‘First Encounter’ with The Lord and Mike Diana explains how ‘Jesus is Suffering for You’

Ryan Inzana describes his liberating escape from ‘One Nation Under Fear’ before ‘Pope Exposed (back cover #5)’ by David Shannon leads to the pantomimic revelation of ‘Jesus in Hell’ by James Romberger, and Isabelle Dervaux ends things on a blasphemous high note with ‘Walking on Water’.

The war on women is highlighted in Herstories, opening with Isabella Bannerman’s gripping ‘Herstories (cover #16)’ from 1992. This is followed by the evocative ‘Women’s Rights’ by Paula Hewitt Amram and the harrowing ‘Walking Down the Street’ by Sabrina Jones and a truly disturbing glimpse into the pressures on young girls to have sex in ‘K-9’s First Time’ by K-9 & Fly before Jones scores again with ‘Saudi Woman (back cover #14)’ to close the chapter.

Gentrification and the New York Elite’s attempts to forcibly relocate its poor by Fiscal Ethnic Cleansing are spotlighted in Captive City,beginning with the trenchant ‘Ave A’ by Anton Van Dalen and Tobocman’s ‘Why Are Apartments Expensive?’

Drooker then imaginatively shares some cold, harsh facts and statistics in ‘Shelter from the Storm’, whilst Steve Brodner plays Devil’s Advocate in ‘The Pound’ and Mac McGill interprets ‘Memories’ with apocalyptic panache.

Nicole Schulman then reveals why ‘You Can’t Go Home, Again?’ whilst Tobocman declares ‘War in the Neighorhood’ and Jeff Lewis wistfully bemoans how ‘I Was Raised on the Lower East Side’ to suspend the ongoing class war… until next time…

Autobiology focuses on differences of opinion such as the divisive nature of sneakers in ‘Skips’ by Sandy Jimenez, ineffectual relationships in Bannerman’s ‘No Visible Evidence’ and parenting in Scott Cunningham’s ‘Alien Metaphor’, after which Drooker relates a chilling anecdote in ‘The Fall’ and Kuper details how he was called as an expert witness in Mike Diana’s comics obscenity trial in the ‘Sunshine State’

The misrule of Law comes under excoriating scrutiny in Under Arrest, opening with ‘Police State America’ by Tobocman, detailing how a black woman in New York was gunned down by a SWAT Team for incurring rent arrears, whilst Drooker’s ‘Coup d’Etat of the Spirit’ movingly recalls a friend who got on the wrong side of a police action…

‘Yard In!’, by Mumia Abu-Jamal & Gregory Benton, wryly pinpoints one of the many cruel insanities endured by Death Row inmates before Drooker’s ‘Prison Issue (cover #24)’ leads to Kevin C. Pyle’s revelatory expose of the mean-spirited “Diesel Therapy” used to break prisoners’ spirits ‘On the Road’. Benton then returns to offer a shred of comfort in ‘#AM-8335’.

Sperry opens the chilling Biohazard section with a bleak confrontation of ‘My Mother, My Mother’ before Pyle produces the most horrifying piece in this collection with his documentary detailing of the grotesque criminal acts of the United States Public Health Service which began a near-forty year long, generational study of syphilis by deliberately withholding antibiotic treatments from the African American community of Macon County, Alabama in the shocking tale entitled ‘Pink Medicine’

Encroaching environmental catastrophe is the meat of Green House, Blue Planet, beginning with Tobocman’s captivating ‘What You Need to Know’, whilst Rebecca Migdal’s ‘The Food Chain (cover #41)’ precedes ‘Someday in the Future’ by Susan Willmarth, revealing how corporate misuse of the drug Diclofenac led to the near extinction of India’s vulture population and the almost complete destruction of the subcontinent’s food chain.

Drooker’s forbidding illustration ‘Moloch’, then leads to ‘Needle Factory’, a bleak cutting whimsy from Felipe Galindo, after which Sue Coe presents a series of ghastly images created in response to the monstrous Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2006 – ‘Murder in the Gulf’, ‘BP Burns Turtles’ and ‘Sold!’

At least Drooker is there to wrap it up with a hope-filled dream of ‘The Jungle’

We Y New York opens with the ‘9/11 Release Poster’ by Kuper & Sperry, and an autobiographical reverie in ‘9-11-01’ by Fly, before Ward Sutton briefly interjects a sardonic aside with the ‘Fear News Network’ whilst counterculture pioneer and seasoned campaigner Spain Rodriguez tellingly dissects all stripes of ‘Faith-Based Terrorism’ and Mac McGill offers up another evocative expression of architectural Armageddon in ‘IX XI MMI’

A discussion of Global Economy and the New World Empire begins with a strident lesson from Nichole Schulman in ‘Fossil Fuel’, whilst Kuper examines the concepts of war for oil in ‘Bombs Away’ and Tom Tomorrow lampoons government rhetoric and corporate Thinkspeak in ‘Are You a Real American?’ after which Chuck Sperry creates a visual icon for the new century in ‘Bush Hates Me’ and Tom Tomorrow hilariously peeks in on ‘Bush Dreams’.

The fertile soil is further ploughed by Sabrina Jones with the cruelly poetic ‘Chronicle of the New Crusade’, and Art Spiegelman doles out a strong dose of satire in his oil-mainlining Uncle Sam pastiche ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves, America!’, which is followed by Kuper’s infamous and controversial ‘Richie Bush in Hell’s Bells’ parody.

By brilliantly employing Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich character, the artist engendered the disapproval of US Customs who subsequently seized copies of this strip when it was reprinted in Slovenian magazine Stripburger

This chapter closes with ‘Talking Liberties (cover #34)’ by Mirko Ilic and a montage of various works and public events in ‘WW3 Arts in Action’.

Promised Land? examines the ongoing Israeli- Palestinian Conflict, beginning with ‘Casting Stones’ by Drooker before Kuper bares his heart and soul recounting his many trips to Israel and how the country devolved to a point and state he could no longer recognise in ‘Promised Land’, after which Sabrina Jones shares her own personal experiences of time in the Holy Land in ‘Fear and Firecrackers’.

‘Art Against the Wall’ is an photo-illustrated essay by Eric Drooker describing the construction, impact upon and creative response to Israel’s “Security Wall” by the Palestinians it imprisons and isolates; a subject then expanded upon in cartoon form in Tobocman’s biting ‘The Serpent of State’

Iniquities affecting the wider world come to the fore in Going Global, beginning with ‘The Quiet Occupation’ by Nicole Schulman, examining through specific, documented case histories, the incredible “Get Out of Jail Free” policy afforded to the American military in South Korea under SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

This appalling legislation has, since 1967, afforded absolute immunity to US personnel facing prosecution for crimes against the indigenous population ranging from theft and environmental damage to rape and murder…

The case of a San Salvadoran kid unfairly deported follows in Carlo Quispe’s ‘Pulgarcito de las Americas’, as does Jordan Worley’s provocative ‘Land and Liberty (cover #27)’, before a selection from Kuper’s visual diary of life in Mexico – specifically the brutal suppression of a Teacher’s strike – rounds out the chapter in ‘Oaxaca, Oaxaca’

The horrendous scandal of New Orleans’ Federal abandonment is covered in After the Flood, commencing with an emphatic if subjective impression of ‘Katrina’ by McGill, after which volunteer worker Christopher Cardinale records his thoughts and interactions with hurricane survivors in ‘Coming Together’, whilst McGill records the fate of ‘Mrs. Spencer’s Home’ and Tobocman details the resilience of the people who returned in ‘Post Katrina 2nd Line’

Attempting to end on lighter terms, Modern Times features outrageous and unbelievable exposé ‘On the Tea Party Trail’ by Kuper, then pictorialises the fine, independent folk of ‘Madison Wisconsin’ courtesy of Susan Semensky Bietila, before Tobocman & Jessica Wehrle delve in detail into the early moments of the ‘Occupy the City’ movement capped by another photo feature of ‘WW3 Arts in Action’ and Drooker’s sublime ‘May Day’ poster.

To add context to the collection Time Line then traces the history of World War 3 Illustrated through a short history of the planet since 1970, augmented by a stunning cover gallery of key issues of the magazine…

The most disheartening thing about this magnificent book is the realisation that so many of these issues – such as globalisation, one-percentism, women’s rights to equal pay and control of their own bodies, the maltreatment and exploitation of prison inmates, the disenfranchisement of African Americans and so much more – are still as being as keenly contested today as they ever were… although surely that’s only a reason to fight even harder and more creatively?

This is a book that belongs in every library and on every school bookshelf, and it most certainly needs to be in the hands of every person who dreams of a fairer, better world…

© 2014 World War 3 Illustrated, Inc. All art, photos and text © 2014, to the individual artists. All rights reserved.