Black Panther Marvel Masterworks, volume 1


By Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, Billy Graham, Keith Pollard, Klaus Janson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4198-3 (HB)

Acclaimed as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since his debut.

In fact, the cat king actually attacked Marvel’s First Family as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first black superhero in American comics, catapulting to instant fame and glory in Fantastic Four #52 (cover-dated July 1966).

As created by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee, T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose clandestine domain is the only source of vibration-absorbing wonder mineral Vibranium. The miraculous alien metal – supposedly derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – is the basis of the country’s immense wealth, enabling Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. These riches also allowed the young king to radically remake his country, creating a technological wonderland even after he left Africa to fight as one of the mighty Avengers.

For much of its history Wakanda has been an isolated, utopian kingdom with the tribal resources and people safeguarded and led since time immemorial by a human warrior-king deriving cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb. This has ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family…

The top-secret “Vibranium mound” had guaranteed the country’s status as a clandestine superpower for centuries but in modern times has increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion, incursion and even invasion as the world grew ever smaller.

After wandering around the Marvel Universe, enjoying team-ups and saving the world on a semi-regular basis as one the “Earth’s Mightiest Superheroes”, in the summer of 1973 the Black Panther finally won his own solo series, Scripter Don McGregor opted to return the King to his people for an ambitious epic of love, death, vengeance and civil war: inventing from whole cloth, and Kirby’s throwaway notion of a futuristic jungle, the most unique African nation ever seen…

Gathering the groundbreaking stories from Jungle Action volume 2 #6-24 (spanning September 1973 to November 1976 and available in hardback and digital formats), the saga opens with an erudite and informative Introduction by Don McGregor.

‘Panther’s Chronicles’ discusses the author’s work practises, close relationship with his artistic collaborators, and the cultural context and milieu surrounding the creation of the series at a time when segregation and civil rights were still a hot button topic in America…

Now with the Panther’s own big-budget big-screen blockbuster imminently expected, the long-lauded, brilliantly effective and fantastically poetic work of Don McGregor and his collaborators can be enjoyed as the groundbreaking narrative landmark it is, free of the torturous months-long wait between cliff-hanging chapters…

Jungle Action launched with an October 1972 cover-date, a cheap reprint vehicle for old Atlas-era Tarzan and Sheena knock-offs like Tharn, Jann and Lorna (…of the Jungle). The fifth issue abruptly changed tack, reprinting the Black Panther-starring contents of Avengers #62 as prelude to the start of T’Challa’s own all new adventures, which open here with #6 and the eponymous ‘Panther’s Rage’ illustrated by Rich Buckler & Klaus Janson.

The story opens with the Panther back in his African homeland and stumbling upon the torture of an elderly farmer. Despite his best efforts the victim dies in his arms, swearing he never lost faith in king or country…

Learning the attack is the work of a mysterious, brutal rebel leader named Erik Killmonger, T’Challa sets all the resources of his inner court circle to finding the monster. With reports of further atrocities mounting, he leaves his American lover Monica Lynne to hunt the perpetrators and soon confronts his potential usurper at the potently symbolic Warrior Falls roaring above the life-sustaining River of Grace and Wisdom.

The barbarous-seeming giant is not cowed by the Panther’s power or prowess and easily wins the no-holds barred battle that follows…

The initial episode is supplemented by detailed maps of Wakanda (the first fans had ever seen) before JA #7 mobilises ‘Death Regiments Beneath Wakanda’. Barely surviving his fight with Killmonger, T’Challa is nursed back to health by Monica at the Palace even as hideously disfigured American Horatio displays his skill with snakes and poisons to his friend N’Jadaka.

Known to their recruits as Venomm and Erik Killmonger, these rebel leaders plot their next attack which results in the reptilian insurgent ambushing T’Challa when the king investigates an illegal mine. This shocking atrocity is being used to siphon off raw Vibranium to pay for Killmonger’s increasingly violent and widespread attacks on the outlying population centres…

Although triumphant this time, T’Challa realises this is many-layered war: one he might not win…

Cover-dated January 1974, Jungle Action #8 introduced another super-powered rebel as – whilst the Black Panther renews his powers through ancient ritual – ‘Malice by Crimson Moonlight’ sees a spear-wielding wonder woman invade the Royal Palace.

Advisor Taku is interrogating Venomm and gradually making inroads into turning the bitter outcast when Malice attacks. Only the power of the Panther saves him and prevents the brutal jailbreak from succeeding…

After more maps of the hidden country and detailed plans of ‘Central Wakanda’s Palace Royale’ the saga resumes in #9 with ‘But Now the Spears Are Broken’ (illustrated by Gil Kane & Janson) as T’Challa goes in-country to learn the effects of the power-struggle on ordinary Wakandans.

After saving little boy Kantu from a rhino, the king is made painfully aware that the common people view his foreign woman Monica with as much suspicion as the constantly-raiding insurgents. That feeling even penetrates to the heart of the palace. When advisor Zatama is murdered, Monica is arrested for the crime…

T’Challa is not there to protest or defend her: he has returned to Kantu’s village to investigate strange disappearances, discovering a seeming mass-rising of zombies led by a skeletal maniac called Baron Macabre. Once more the Great Cat is forced to ignominiously retreat…

Supreme stylist Billy Graham takes over the pencilling with #10 as the Black Panther returns to the zombie nest, exposing a cunning charade beneath the deserted village as well as a super-scientific base run by a malignant, mind-warping mutant in ‘King Cadaver is Dead and Living in Wakanda!’

Accompanying the dark drama here are examples of ‘Black Panther Artistry’: specifically, Kirby’s first designs for the hero back when he was going by the provisional title of ‘The Coal Tiger’ and Buckler and Janson’s first depiction of ‘Erik Killmonger’

Due to an extremely unfavourable publishing schedule, Panther’s Rage unfolded with agonising slowness, but the lengthy wait between episodes allowed McGregor the latitude to pick and choose key events, with readers accepting that some stuff was actually occurring between issues.

In #11 (September 1974), the civil war had proceeded unchecked and ‘Once You Slay the Dragon!’ sees the Panther and his forces launching a long-awaited counterattack on Killmonger’s base in N’Jadaka Village. The battle is vicious and brief, introducing yet another powered lieutenant in the shape of pitiless high-tech armourer Lord Karnaj

And on the home front, T’Challa finally clears Monica and captures Zatama’s killer…

With Killmonger temporarily pushed back, the Panther goes on the offensive, using the rebel’s most inconsequential converts – Tayete and Kazibe – as guides to follow his ultimate enemy to his most secret strongholds. Heading into the mountains and the fabled Land of Chilling Mists, the Panther discovers mutagenic temple the Resurrection Altar.

Used by Killmonger to create his grotesque super-warriors, it is presided over by scientifically-spawned vampire Sombre. When T’Challa confronts them, he is again overpowered by Erik and left for the wolves to devour in ‘Blood Stains on Virgin Snow!’

Craig Russell inked the next chapter as, enduring incomprehensible hardships in sub-arctic conditions, T’Challa perseveres to follow Killmonger into the temperate swamps of Serpent Valley in #13.

However, this is only after facing a pack of Wakanda’s white apes. To survive, the Panther must blasphemously ignore the sacred religious aspect of the mighty carnivores and become ‘The God Killer’

Following a Venomm pin-up, JA #14 reveals that ‘There Are Serpents Lurking in Paradise’ (inked by Pablo Marcos) as T’Challa again clashes with Sombre and encounters an affable forest sprite guarding Serpent Valley. Pixie-like Mokadi asks difficult moral questions as T’Challa rushes towards his next battle with Killmonger, making him too late to stop the rebel capturing a legion of the valley’s awesome dinosaurs. The usurper even has time to leave one behind as a lethal parting gift for the embattled Wakandan chieftain…

The endgame rapidly approached in #15 as ‘Thorns in the Flesh, Thorns in the Mind’ (inked by Dan Green) finds T’Challa tracking his nemesis only to be overcome by Killmonger’s archer assassin Salamander K’Ruel and left to be dismembered by a ravenous Pterosaur before – against all odds – staggering back to Monica for another bout of recuperation…

Graham inked his own pencils for the beginning of the end in #16 as T’Challa and Monica’s time of idyllic passion culminates in catastrophe when ‘And All Our Past Decades Have Seen Revolutions!’ reveals the origins of Killmonger and sees the vast cast all converge for one final battle…

That comes in #17 as an army of war-trained dinosaurs invades Central Wakanda only to be finally crushed by the Panther’s forces and superior technology. The affair concludes as it began at Warrior Falls, but ‘Of Shadows and Rages’ also holds a shocking twist as the great game of kings is decided by a player no one considered of any relevance…

With its nuanced emotional interplay, extended scope and fiercely independent supporting cast, Panther’s Rage was a milestone in dramatic comics storytelling but it harboured one last punch in a gripping ‘Epilogue!’ (Jungle Action #18, November 1975). Bob McLeod inked McGregor & Graham’s forceful look at the repercussions of conflict as T’Challa and maimed security chief Wakabi are targeted by feral woman Madame Slay: Killmonger’s ardent and unsuspected lover who believes her loss can only be assuaged by having her pack of loyal leopards eviscerate the victorious Wakandans…

Cover-dated January 1976, Jungle Action #19 opened McGregor’s most audacious and ultimately frustrating project, as T’Challa accompanies Monica back to America. The Panther versus the Klan shifted focus from war stories to detective fiction, replacing fabulously exotic Africa for America’s poverty-wracked, troubled Deep South and a head-on collision with centuries of entrenched and endemic racism.

Illustrated by Graham & McLeod, ‘Blood and Sacrifices!’ sees Monica reunite with her family after her sister is murdered. All too soon T’Challa is battling a gang of purple-hooded killers who appear to have set up in opposition to the ancient white-hooded Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, both sects seem determined to conceal the truth of Angela Lynne’s death…

A break comes when bumbling, well-meaning reporter Kevin Trublood stumbles into an attack on the newcomers by the strangely multi-racial Klan sect calling itself the Dragon Circle

With neither townsfolk nor lawmen offering any welcome, T’Challa faces unbridled hostility and suspicion at every turn. He is even attacked by cops and a mob of citizens when he thwarts a knife attack on Monica. Although Sheriff Roderick Tate makes all the right noises and seems helpful, in ‘They Told Me a Myth I Wanted to Believe’, the Panther opts to pursue his own investigation before being overwhelmed by an army of white-robed Klansmen who tie him to a burning cross and leave him to die…

As Monica and Kevin puzzle out the convoluted web of mysteries, the Panther exerts all his gifts to escape becoming ‘A Cross Burning Darkly Blackening the Night!’ Later, as he slowly recovers in hospital, the family, Kevin and Tate review the few verifiable facts of Angela’s demise before patriarch Lloyd Lynne urges T’Challa to stop looking. He only has one daughter left after all…

Nevertheless, when the Panther and Trublood invade and disrupt a Klan rally, Lloyd is right there with them…

With Rick Buckler joining Graham on pencils and Jim Mooney alternating with McCleod on inks, Jungle Action #22 takes a bizarre turn as ‘Death Riders on the Horizon’ explores a Lynne family legend dating back to the formative days of the Klan in 1867 when old Caleb was targeted by the vile southern knights and their seemingly supernatural sponsor the Soul Strangler. As Monica listens to the ghastly, appallingly unjust tale, her mind fills in how T’Challa would have acted in such a hopeless situation…

Issue #23 (September 1976) was a deadline missed and a rapidly-sourced reprint from Daredevil #69 – represented here only by the pertinent cover and a Buckler pin-up – before this tantalising tale is unhappily cut short in final published instalment ‘Wind Eagle in Flight’ (by McGregor, Buckler & Keith Pollard).

The multi-layered, many-stranded plot suddenly expands as the Black Panther is almost killed by a mysterious new player who flies into the ever-more bewildering clash between cops, Klan, Dragon Circle and Lynne family, but, before the mystery could move any further, Jungle Action was cancelled…

A wholly different kind of Black Panther and utterly unrelated adventures would reappear two months later, under the auspices of returning creative colossus Jack Kirby. It would be years before the enigma of Angela’s death and the hero’s war against the Klan would be resolved…

So that’s what to look forward to in the next volume…

Here, however, a passionate reminiscence and appraisal follows in an ‘Afterword by Dwayne McDuffie’, as well as John Romita’s cover for Jungle Action #5; original cover art, pages and sketches by Buckler & Janson and Kane; pencils and layouts by Graham and Buckler as well as Steve Gerber’s ‘Jungle Re-Actions’ feature from JA #7, plus the un-inked Buckler story pages that would have been #25.

Also included are McGregor’s correspondence with then-fan Ralph Macchio and the author’s original working notes, plot synopses and candid contemporary photos of the close-knit creative team.

A truly bold masterpiece of comics narrative, Don McGregor’s Black Panther is stark, vibrant proof that the superhero genre works best when ambitious and passionate creators are given their head and let loose to get on with it. Now, supported by a major movie, perhaps readers will finally see how the Fights ‘n’ Tights game should be played…
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 2016 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Jonah Hex volume 9: Counting Corpses


By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Paul Gulacy, Darwyn Cooke, Dick Giordano, Jordi Bernet, Billy Tucci, Dave Stewart, Rob Schwager & Rob Leigh (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2899-6

When Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti revived DC’s western wild-man Jonah Hex, they cunningly incorporated an even more mordant, blackly ironic streak of wit than that pioneered by the lone gunman’s originators John Albano & Tony DeZuñiga to amplify the already sanguine view of morality and justice that permeates the feature. The gritty – often outright chilling – narratives thus result in some of the most accessible and enjoyable comics fiction ever.

The writers also had the services of extremely talented people like colourists Dave Stewart, Paul Mounts and Rob Schwager and letterer Rob Leigh plus a virtual Who’s Who of top artists to lend veracity, authenticity and sheer style to the always uncompromising tales such as those populating this ninth trade paperback (or eBook) compilation from 2010.

The contents comprise issues #43 and 50-54 of this much-missed iteration of the greatest gunman of all time: a perambulation passel of potent one-shot yarns to entice and bedazzle one and all…

The suspense-drenched action opens with ‘The Hyde House Massacre’ with art by Paul Gulacy & Schwager from issue #43 (July 2009). Hired to rescue a kidnapped hotelier and his daughter from an army of bandits, the bounty killer is only half successful, and makes the painful and foolish error of trying to negotiate with the clients about how much of his fee he actually deserves…

‘The Great Silence’ crafted by Darwyn Cooke & Stewart for anniversary issue #50 (February 2010) is a milestone of action and tragedy as Hex contracts to hunt down fifty outlaws even as old hunting ally and sometime dalliance Tallulah Black moves into a quiet little town to secretly bring her baby to term.

Of course, villains and mad killers can be found everywhere and when Hex’s surviving quarry lay a trap, grim fate intervenes to destroy his last hope for happiness before he even knows it exists…

Dick Giordano & Schwager then offer up a lush and sultry tale of grifters and men of faith when Hex is hired to track down bandits who murdered a prominent citizen of a frontier town. More importantly, those road agents also stole the ‘Divining Rod’ the victim used to ferret out gold, silver and water for the newly established boom town-to-be, and his decent god-fearing widow, the creepy preacher and the shocked citizens all seem more concerned with the theft than the killing.

Hex soon smells a rat but he’s underestimated quite how many…

A double bill for illustrator Jordi Bernet & Schwager opens with ‘Too Mean to Die’ (#52, April) as a gravely-wounded Jonah stumbles upon a cabin in the swamp and a mother nursing her infant. When she offers assistance and he accepts neither realise the family bonds of blood and vengeance they’re breaking… until the shooting (and stabbing and punching and drowning and…) starts…

Never one to make big plans, Hex plays against type and concocts a cunning trap to drawn in a gang of train robbers, before learning again that you can’t trust anybody – especially gorgeous, crafty saloon girls and actresses – before the dust settles in ‘“You’ll Never Dance Again”’, as limned by Billy Tucci & Mounts.

Bernet then shuts down the show in ‘Shooting Stars’ (#54, June) as Hex links up again with the one outlaw he won’t hunt to confront a lawman and his deputies who are far worse than any bandit, owlhoot or renegade…

With covers and variants by Gulacy, Cooke, Giordano, Bernet and Tucci, these smart, fast-paced, deliciously convoluted and compellingly gritty stand-alone sagas provide maximum bang for your buck and a front row seat as the darkest knight of the Wild West proves over and again why he’s the greatest antihero in comics.
© 2009, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tales from The Crypt volume 1


By Christina Blanch, Danica Davidson, David Anthony Kraft, Onrie Kompan, Scott Lobdell, Stefan Petrucha, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Miran Kim, Steve Mannion, John McCrea, Jolyon Yates, Bernie Wrightson & various (Super Genius/Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-62991-460-2

The EC comics of the Pre-Comics Code 1950s were possibly the most influential genre strips of all time. Their Crime, (anti-)War, Science Fiction and especially Horror anthologies targeted mature readers before the term even existed, purveying sophisticated, cynical, satirical, sardonic and always sublimely illustrated stories. These changed the lives of not only comics creators in waiting, laying the groundwork for the Underground Comix and counter-culture movements, but also spread far beyond the world of funny-book fans to influence novelists and film-makers.

The most influential of all was premiere title Tales from The Crypt. As well as spawning numerous companion mags and an avalanche of knock-offs, it inspired forays into movies (Amicus Productions produced Tales from The Crypt in 1972 and The Vault of Horror the following year, directed by Freddie Francis and based on two paperback reprint collections issued in 1965 by Ballentine Books) as well as many television iterations.

The hallowed title inspired George A. Romero and Stephen King to synthesise their personal fond childhood memories into Creepshow: a stylish portmanteau film using a horror comic-book as a maguffin and framing sequence for five darkly comedic tales of supernatural come-uppance.

The format of infernal introducer and short sharp shocker is eternally evergreen and although EC might be defunct as a publisher, it’s influence as a creative force remains strong as ever, and not only in the perpetual run of archival reprint volumes from Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Gladstone, Russ Cochran and others. In 2007, Papercutz revived the title and brand for a fresh run of parlous parables and fearsome fables from the likes of Kyle Baker, Don McGregor, Joe R. Lansdale and more.

This iteration lasted until 2010, but has now been gloriously, gore-iously revived under Papercutz’ mature Super Genius imprint, with the signature horror-hosts – the Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper and Old Witch – back in the house to leaven the dread proceedings with wry insights and lethally dreadful puns. What more could a certified “GhouLunatic” want?

Well, how about some vintage yet unseen 1970’s classic chillers by the greatest horror artist never to work for EC…?

Collecting the contents of the first two issues from 2017, this gruesome grimoire of graphic excess opens with ‘Stake-Out’: a deliciously dark spoof to get the ball rolling written and drawn by Bernie Wrightson for fanzine I’ll Be Damned #2 in July 1970 and remastered here by colourist Laurie E. Smith and letterer Tom Orzechowski.

Tapping into truly contemporary modern terrors, ‘Die-Vestment!’ by Stefan Petrucha, Jolyon Yates & JayJay Jackson then looks a little into a future where the world’s richest and most despised man extends his life by swindling the poor out of their organs. However, even he can’t survive without a modicum of public approval, so he listens to the PR consultant hired to soften his image. Big mistake…

David Anthony Kraft & Miran Kim detail the problems of wage-slave Marty whose daily grind and lovelorn life both spiral downwards after the undead infest his workplace in ‘Zombie Bank’, after which Scott Lobdell, John McCrea & Dee Cunliffe further pursue financial woes when the partners in an exploitative corporation are systematically wiped out by ‘The Were-wolf of Wall Street’

Social media, body-shaming and cyber-bullying come under the spotlight in Danica Davidson, Yates & Jackson’s ‘Picture Perfect’ after a vicious High School Mean Girl picks on the wrong victim, whilst in Christina Blanch & Kim’s ‘Undertow’ death, madness and retribution grow from the tragic consequences of a day at the beach…

Wrightson again exerts his gothic mastery in ‘Feed It’ – coloured up here from an original appearance in black-&-white magazine Web of Horror #3 (April 1970) – and advocating the wisdom of good pet care before the sinister storytelling ceases with grotesque social commentary and black comedy in ‘Leather or Not’ by Blanch & Kim. In the future, the rich will still want the most desirable fashions, even if the skins and hides now being trapped and traded are young, poor, pretty and human…

Also offering a stylish gallery of 8 covers and variants by Kim, Yates, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Kyle Baker & Steve Mannion, this casque of brash, irreverent and deeply disturbing yarns is a true treat for fright-fans of every vintage and a fine addition to the annals of an undying tradition of dark delights.
Tales from The Crypt © 2017 William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. The EC logo is a registered trademark of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission. “Stake-Out” and “Feed It” are © 1969, 1970, 2017 Bernie Wrightson. The Crypt-Keeper™, The Old Witch™ and the Vault-Keeper™ are registered trademarks of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission.

The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection volume 2: The Hulk Must Die


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, Bob Powell, John Buscema, Mike Esposito, Jerry Grandenetti, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0445-6

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast. As a result of ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years the gamma-irradiated gargantuan finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, The Hulk shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him and this trade paperback (and eBook) volume covers his years as co-star of Tales to Astonish; specifically issues #60-96, spanning October 1964 to October 1967, and even includes a silly spoof yarn from Not Brand Echh #3.

Way back then, the trigger for the Hulk’s second chance was a reprinting of his origin in the giant collection Marvel Tales Annual #1 (the beginning of the company’s inspired policy of keeping early tales in circulation and which did so much to make fervent fans out of casual latecomers). Thanks to reader response, Ol’ Greenskin was awarded a back-up strip in a failing title…

Giant-Man was the star turn in Tales to Astonish, but by mid-1964 the strip was visibly floundering. In issue #59 the Master of Many Sizes was used to introduce his forthcoming co-star in a colossal punch-up, setting the scene for the next issue wherein the Green Goliath’s own feature began.

‘The Incredible Hulk’ (TtA #60) opens with Banner still working for General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, despite the military martinet’s deep disgust and distrust of the puny milksop who had won his daughter’s heart. Aloof and standoffish, Bruce keeps secret his astounding condition: an affliction which subjects him to uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction.

The 10-page instalments were uncharacteristically set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, not New York, and espionage and military themes were the narrative backdrop of these adventures.

Lee scripted, Ditko drew and comics veteran George Roussos – as “George Bell” – provided the ink art. The first episode details how an anonymous spy steals an unstoppable suit of robotic armour built by the radiation-obsessed Banner, and concludes with a shattering battle in the next instalment as the Hulk is ‘Captured at Last!’

Cliffhanger endings such as the exhausted Gamma Giant’s imprisonment by Ross’s military units at the end of the yarn would be instrumental in keeping readers onboard and enthralled. Next chapter ‘Enter… the Chameleon!’ has plenty of action and suspense as the spy infiltrates Ross’ command, but the real punch is the final panel, hinting at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery. The enigmatic Leader would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis…

The minor Spider-Man villain works well as a returning foe; his disguise abilities an obvious threat in a series based on a weapons scientist working for the US military during the Cold War. Even the Leader himself has dubious connections to the sinister Soviets – when he isn’t trying to conquer the world for himself.

Preceded by a titanic Jack Kirby Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of the Green Goliath, ‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ (Astonish #63, January 1965) provides an origin for the super-intellectual menace whilst setting up a fresh subplot wherein new cast addition Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. The action comes when the Leader tries to steal Banner’s new anti-H-bomb device from a moving freight locomotive….

‘The Horde of Humanoids!’ features the return of guilt-stricken former sidekick Rick Jones who uses his Avengers connections to obtain a pardon for the incarcerated Banner just by letting the American President in on the secret of the Hulk! Ah, simpler times!

Free again, Banner joins Talbot on a remote island to test his hotly sought-after atomic device only to be attacked by the Leader’s artificial warriors – providing a fine example of Ditko’s unique manner of staging a super-tussle.

The chaotic clash continues into the next issue when Ayers assumes the inking and Banner is taken prisoner by those darn Commies. ‘On the Rampage against the Reds!’ sees the Hulk go ballistic behind the Iron Curtain: a satisfyingly gratuitous crusade that spans three issues with #66 – ‘The Power of Doctor Banner’, inked by Vince Colletta and ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ in #67, (inked by Frank Giacoia), cumulatively exhibiting the brute’s shattering might.

His Commie-Busting fury finally expended, the Hulk reverts to human form and is captured by Mongolian bandits who see a chance to make lots of ransom money…

Jack Kirby returned as illustrator – supplemented by Mike (“Mickey Demeo”) Esposito – in Tales to Astonish #68. ‘Back from the Dead!’ sees plucky Glen Talbot extricate the tragic scientist only to lose him again on the way back to America. Even so, Banner falls again into military custody and is ordered to activate his Atomic Absorbatron for one last test.

Yet again the process is interrupted by the Leader’s attacking Humanoids, but this time the Veridian Villain succeeds and the Hulk is ‘Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!’ …but only until the US Army bursts in…

Issue #70 saw Giant-Man benched and replaced by the Sub-Mariner, making Tales to Astonish a title dedicated to aggressive, savage anti-heroes. Increasingly the Hulk stories reflected this shift, and ‘To Live Again!’ sees the furious Leader launch a 500-foot tall Humanoid against the local US missile base, with the Jade Giant caught in the middle.

Kirby reduced his input to layouts and Esposito handles the lion’s share of the art with #71’s ‘Like a Beast at Bay’: a minor turning point with the Hulk actually joining forces with the Leader whilst ‘Within the Monster Dwells a Man!’ then has Major Talbot getting ever-closer to uncovering Banner’s dark secret.

‘Another World, Another Foe!’ (with the legendary Bob Powell pencilling over Kirby’s layouts) details how the Leader dispatches Hulk to The Watcher’s homeworld to steal an ultimate weapon, just as an “unbeatable” intergalactic rival arrives. ‘The Wisdom of the Watcher’ descends to all-out, brutal action with a shocking climax, and is followed by TtA#75’s conclusion: an abrupt return to Earth and to basics as the rampaging Hulk falls victims to one of Banner’s most bizarre atomic devices…

‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ sees the man-monster helplessly hurled into a devastated dystopian future, and in ‘I, ‘Against a World!’ (with pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”), the devastation is compounded by a doom-drenched duel with time-lost Asgardian immortal The Executioner.

A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the tragic physicist’s dread secret is finally exposed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby layouts), ‘Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concludes the time-travel tale and reveals the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition to the military and the general public.

It didn’t make him any less hunted or haunted, but at least now the soldiery were in an emotional tizzy whilst trying to obliterate him.

With #78, Bill Everett began a short but vividly evocative run as penciler (Kirby remaining on layouts throughout). To his very swift and last regrets, megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Zaxon tries to steal the Gamma Monsters’s bio-energy in ‘The Hulk Must Die!’ Before his body is even cold, follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ propels the fugitive gargantuan into a bombastic battle against recently Earth-exiled Olympian man-god Hercules.

Losing a desperate war with fellow subterranean despot Mole Man, not-so-immortal Tyrannus resurfaced in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’ Seeing the Hulk as a weapon of last resort, he abducts the man-brute to Subterranea, but still loses his last battle and when Hulk returns topside he shambles into a plot by the insidious Secret Empire in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’

The convoluted mini-epic spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner. Here, however, the monster is targeted by the Empire’s hired gun Boomerang as they strive to steal the military’s new Orion missile…

As the epic unfolds ‘The Battle Cry of the Boomerang’, ‘Less then Monster, More than Man!’, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ wove strings of sub-plot into a gripping whole which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was.

Obviously such tight coordination between series caused a few problems as art for the final episode is credited to “almost the whole blamed Bullpen” (which to my jaded eyes is mostly Jerry Grandenetti). During that climax the Hulk is marauding through the streets of New York City in what I can’t help but feel is a padded, unplanned conclusion…

Everything’s back on track with #85 however, as John Buscema and John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ as yet another spy diverts the experimental Orion rocket onto the city. The obvious discomfort the realism-heavy Buscema experienced with the Hulk’s appearance has mostly faded by second chapter ‘The Birth of… the Hulk-Killer!’, although the return of veteran inker Mike Esposito to the strip also helps.

As General Ross releases a weapon designed by the Leader to capture the Grim Green Giant, the old soldier has no inkling what his rash act will lead to, nor that Boomerang is lurking behind the scenes to make things even hotter for the Hulk…

Issue #87’s concluding part ‘The Humanoid and the Hero!’ depicts Ross’ regret as the Hulk-Killer expands his remit to include everybody in his path and Gil Kane returns for #88 as ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both the assassin and the Hulk’s savage power.

Tales to Astonish #89 once more sees the Hulk become an unwilling weapon as a nigh-omnipotent alien subverts and sets him to purging humanity from the Earth.

‘…Then, There Shall Come a Stranger!’, ‘The Abomination!’ and ‘Whosoever Harms the Hulk…!’ comprise a taut and evocative thriller-trilogy which also includes the origin of the malevolent Hulk counterpart who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner.

A new narrative tone comes with ‘Turning Point!’ (TtA #92, June 1967) by the superb and criminally underrated Marie Severin and inker Frank Giacoia, depicting the Jade Giant hunted through a terrified New York City as a prelude to a cataclysmic guest-battle in the next issue. Back then, the Hulk didn’t really team-up with visiting stars, he just got mad and smashed them. Such was certainly the case when he became ‘He Who Strikes the Silver Surfer!’; ironically battling with and driving off a fellow outcast who held the power to cure him of his atomic affliction.

Herb Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Marie Severin’s inker with #94’s ‘To the Beckoning Stars!’: the initial instalment of a terrific 3-part shocker which found the Hulk transported to the interstellar retreat of the High Evolutionary to battle against recidivist beast-men on ‘A World He Never Made!’ before escaping a feral bloodbath in #96’s ‘What Have I Created?’.

Returned to Earth by the now god-like Evolutionary, the Hulk was gearing up to the next being change in his life.

To Be Continued…

Adding even more lustre and appeal to this tome are a bevy of intriguing extras, starting with a not-so-serious alternative back-story in ‘The Origin of Brucie Banter… and Friend’, by Gary Friedrich & Severin from spoof mag Not Brand Echh #3 (October 1967).

That outing of the “Inedible Bulk” then segues into rare pencil art from Ditko, original pages by Kirby & Everett, Buscema & Tartaglione, Kane and Severin & Trimpe; T-shirt and sweatshirt designs by Kirby, Sol Brodsky & Joe Sinnott from 1965 and 1966 plus house ads and Kirby’s cover from Tales to Astonish #77 modified by painter Richard Isanove and used to front Marvel Masterworks: The Hulk volume 2.

This titanic tome of Hulk heroics is occasionally hit-and-miss, with visceral thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, but the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the awesome artistic endeavours should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These tales are key to the later, more cohesive adventures, and even at their worst the work of Kirby, Ditko, Everett, Kane, Buscema, Severin and the rest in full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is a thrill to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone. Hulk Smash(ing)!
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Garth: The Women of Galba


By Jim Edgar & Frank Bellamy (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-90761-049-6

It’s a big anniversary for Britain’s greatest comic strip adventurer this summer, but other than a few old collections and the online reprints, nobody seems much moved to celebrate the event or revive a genuine original of cartoon entertainment. Here however, with our eyes firmly set on great comics of every era and at least one and a half feet firmly planted in the past, we’re not going to let him slip by without any fanfare at all…

Garth was created in response to America’s publishing phenomenon Superman and debuted in the Daily Mirror on Saturday, July 24th 1943, the creation of Steve Dowling and BBC producer Gordon Boshell. His comic strip page mates at that time were regular features Buck Ryan, Belinda Blue Eyes, Just Jake and the irrepressible, morale-boosting glamour-puss Jane.

A blond giant and physical marvel, Garth washed up on an island shore and into the arms of a pretty girl, Gala, with no memory of who he was, just in time to save the entire populace from a tyrant. Boshell never actually wrote the series, so Dowling, who was also producing the successful family strip The Ruggles, scripted Garth until a writer could be found.

Successful candidate Don Freeman dumped the amnesia plot in ‘The Seven Ages of Garth’ (which ran from September 18th 1944 to January 20th 1946); introducing studious jack-of-all-scientific trades Professor Lumiere whose psychological experiments regressed the hero back through his past lives.

In sequel tale ‘The Saga of Garth’ (January 22nd 1946-July 20th 1946) his origin was finally revealed. Found floating in a coracle off the Shetlands, baby Garth was adopted by a kindly old couple and grew to vigorous manhood. On reaching maturity he returned to the seas as a Navy Captain until he was torpedoed off Tibet in 1943.

Freeman continued as writer until 1952 and was briefly replaced by script editor Hugh McClelland until Peter O’Donnell took over in 1953. O’Donnell wrote 28 adventures before resigning in 1966 to devote more time to his own Modesty Blaise feature. His place was taken by Jim Edgar; who also scripted western strips Matt Marriott, Wes Slade and Gun Law.

In 1968 Dowling retired and his assistant John Allard took over the drawing until a permanent artist could be found. Allard had completed ten tales when Frank Bellamy came on board with the 13th daily episode of ‘Sundance’ (reprinted in Garth: The Cloud of Balthus). Allard remained as background artist and general assistant until Bellamy took full control during ‘The Orb of Trimandias’.

Professor Lumiere had discovered something about his patient which gave this strip its unique and distinctive appeal – even before the fantastic artwork of Bellamy elevated it to dizzying heights of graphic brilliance: Garth was blessed – or cursed – with an involuntary ability to travel through time and experience past and future lives.

This concept gave the strip infinite potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits, pushing it beyond its humble origins as a US mystery-man knock-off.

This second (1985) Titan Books collection of the Frank Bellamy era spans the period from 7th September 1972 to 25th October 1973 with the artist at the absolute peak of his powers. It opens here with eerie chiller ‘The People of the Abyss’ wherein Garth and sub-sea explorer Ed Neilson are captured by staggeringly beautiful naked women who drag their bathyscaphe to a city at the bottom of the Pacific. These undersea houris are at war with horrendous aquatic monstrosities and urgently need outside assistance, but even that incredible situation is merely the prelude to a tragic love affair with Cold War implications…

Next up is eponymous space-opera romp ‘The Women of Galba’ wherein an alien tyrant learns to rue the day he abducted a giant Earthman to fight and die as a gladiator. Exotic locations, spectacular action and oodles more astonishingly beautiful females make this an unforgettable adventure…

‘Ghost Town’ is a western tale, and a very special one. When Garth, vacationing in Colorado, rides into abandoned mining outpost “Gopherville”, he is irresistibly drawn back to a past life as Marshal Tom Barratt who lived, loved and died when the town was a hotspot of vice and easily purloined money. When Bellamy died suddenly in 1976 this tale – long acknowledged as his personal favourite – was rerun until Martin Asbury was ready to take over the strip.

The final adventure re-presented here – ‘The Mask of Atacama’ – sees Garth and Lumiere in Mexico City. Whilst sleeping the blonde colossus is visited by the spirit of beautiful Princess Atacama who escorts him through time to the vanished Aztec city of Tenochtitlan where, as the Sun God Axatl, Garth attempts to save their civilisation from the voraciously marauding Conquistadores of Hernan Cortés. Tragically, neither he nor the Princess have reckoned on the jealousy of the Sun Priests and their High Priestess Tiahuaca

Adding extra value to this volume are a draft synopsis and actual scripts for ‘The Women of Galba’, liberally illustrated, of course. There has never been a better comic adventure strip than Garth as drawn by Bellamy, combining action, suspense, glamour, mystery and the uncanny in a seamless blend of graphic wonderment. In recent years, Titan Books has published a superb line of classic British strips and comics and I’m praying that with Modesty Blaise and James Bond now completed, they’ll return to Garth (and while I’m dreaming, Jeff Hawke too) on the understanding that it’s up to us to make sure that this time the books find a grateful, appreciative and vast audience…
© 1985 Mirror Group Newspapers/Syndication International. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 7


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott, with Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5062-6 (PB)                     : 978-0-7851-1585-4 (HB)

The FF was the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Jack Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot as Stan Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas that Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed.

This full-colour compendium – available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions – re-presents Fantastic Four #61-71 and includes the fifth giant-sized Annual: issues of progressive and increasingly impressive landmarks spanning April 1967 through February 1968 with Stan & Jack cannily leading from the front as an ever-expanding and cohesive shared universe grew around the fruits of their labours.

As seen in the landmark premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following a vivid reminiscence from star inker Joe Sinnott in his Introduction, the magic resumes with Fantastic Four #61.

Even though the team had just defeated a cosmically-empowered Doctor Doom and returned to the Silver Surfer his purloined life-energies there was never a dull moment: no sooner had the heroes relaxed than a new and improved foe attacked once more in ‘Where Stalks the Sandman?’.

This began another explosive multi-part tale wherein Johnny and his imprisoned beloved Crystal were reunited even as Reed is defeated in battle and lost to the anti-matter hell of the Negative Zone’s sub-space corridor…

It was Crystal to the rescue in ‘…And One Shall Save Him!’ as guest-star Triton (of the newly liberated Inhuman Royal Family) plucked the doomed genius from the jaws of disaster and inadvertently introduced another unique enemy who followed Reed back from the anti-matter dimension and straight into partnership with the still-seething Sandman. The resulting battle against ‘Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst!’ (FF #63, June 1967) wrecked half the city before some modicum of security was restored…

Looking for a little peace and quiet the exhausted team then tackled ‘The Sentry Sinister’: a frenetic south seas adventure romp pitting the vacationing heroes against a super-scientific robot buried for millennia by an ancient star-faring race.

This tropical treat expanded the burgeoning interlocking landscape to an infinite degree by introducing the ancient, imperial and alien Kree who would grow into one of the fundamental pillars supporting the continuity of the Marvel Universe.

Although regarded as a long-dead race, the Kree themselves resurface in the very next issue as the team is targeted by an alien emissary of vengeance ‘…From Beyond this Planet Earth!’ The formidable Ronan the Accuser has come looking to see what could possibly have destroyed an invincible Sentry and finds out to his great regret but whilst the fight ensues Bens’s blind girlfriend Alicia is abducted by a super scientific stranger…

The mystery of her disappearance is revealed in #66 in ‘What Lurks Behind the Beehive?’ as the outraged team trail the seemingly helpless artisan to a man-made technological wonderland where a band of rogue geniuses have genetically engineered the next phase in evolution, only to lose control of it even before it can be properly born…

‘When Opens the Cocoon!’ exposes the secret of the creature known as Him and only Alicia’s gentle nature is able to placate the nigh-omnipotent creature (who would eventually evolve into tragic cosmic voyager Adam Warlock), after which the tight continuity pauses to allow the Inhumans (a time-lost race of paranormal beings long secluded from mortal men) and old FF ally the Black Panther to share the stage in that year’s Fantastic Four Annual wherein the sinister invader Psycho-Man attempts to ‘Divide… and Conquer!’ the Earth.

Frank Giacoia inked this yarn, with the emotion-bending micro-marauder holding both the King of Wakanda and the Royal Family of hidden Attilan at bay until the FF can pitch in, delayed as they were by the news that the Sue Richards is pregnant… and soon to confined in the most appallingly sexist manner until the birth…

The Annual also includes another comedy insight into the creation of Marvel Epics as Stan, Jack and Frank ask ‘This is a Plot?’ and – after the now customary Kirby pin-ups (Inhumans Black Bolt, Gorgon, Medusa, Karnak, Triton, Crystal and Maximus, a colossal group shot of Galactus, the Silver Surfer and others plus a double-page spread of the quirky quartet) – a rapidly rising star-in-the-making got his first solo appearance in ‘The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer’: a pithy fable of cruel ingratitude reintroducing and upgrading the threat-level of the Mad Thinker’s lethal Artificial Intelligence murder-machine Quasimodo

In FF #68 (inked as ever by the remarkable Joe Sinnott), the Thinker resurfaces to enact his latest scheme, ‘His Mission: Destroy the Fantastic Four!’ beginning with the cogitating criminal replacing a famous doctor to subvert a potential cure for The Thing’s rocky condition.

Phase two involves a mind-warping scheme to turn the rocky stalwart against his comrades, progressing in ‘By Ben Betrayed!’ as the newly malevolent Grimm tries to mercilessly murder his comrades only to be driven temporarily away.

Desperately searching for their brainwashed friend, the FF quickly capture the Thinker and free Ben’s shackled mind in ‘When Fall the Mighty!’, but the victory leaves the heroes unconscious with only Sue conscious to tackle the villain’s last-ditch killer android in ‘…And So It Ends…’

Art lovers can also enjoy a boundless hidden bounty at the end of this volume as the titanic tome wraps up with a selection of Kirby pencil pages, including alternative covers to FF #64 and #71, plus a gallery of Sinnott-inked covers and pages from #61, 63, 65 and 66.

Epic, revolutionary and unutterably astounding, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment and remain the most unmissable superhero comics ever crafted.
© 1967, 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories


By Otto Binder, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, John Broome, Leo Dorfman, Edmond Hamilton, Jim Shooter, C.C. Beck, Dick Sprang, Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Bob Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0534-8

Alan Moore’s infamous epigram notwithstanding, not all comics tales are “Imaginary Stories.”

When DC Editor Mort Weisinger was expanding the Superman continuity and building the legend, he realised that each new tale was an event that added to a nigh-sacred canon: that what was written and drawn mattered to the readers. But as a big concept guy he wasn’t going to let that aggregated “history” stifle a good idea, nor would he allow his eager yet sophisticated audience to endure clichéd deus ex machina cop-outs to mar the sheer enjoyment of a captivating concept.

The mantra known to every baby-boomer fan was “Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not a Robot!” boldly emblazoned on covers depicting scenes that couldn’t possibly be true… even if it was only a comicbook.

Imaginary Stories were conceived as a way of exploring non-continuity plots and scenarios devised at a time when editors believed entertainment trumped consistency and knew that every comic read was somebody’s first …or potentially last.

This jolly little compilation celebrates that period when whimsy and imagination were king and stretches the point by leading with a fanciful tale of the World’s Mightiest Mortal as ‘Captain Marvel and the Atomic War’ (Captain Marvel Adventures #66, October 1946) actually hoaxes the public with a demonstration of how the world could end in the new era of Nuclear Proliferation, courtesy of Otto Binder & CC Beck.

‘The Second Life of Batman’ (Batman #127 October 1959) by Bill Finger, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris doesn’t really fit the strict definition either, but the tale of a device that predicts how Bruce Wayne’s life would have run if his parents had not been killed is superb and engaging all the same.

‘Mr. and Mrs. Clark (Superman) Kent!’ by Binder and the brilliant Kurt Schaffenberger, was the first tale of an occasional series that began in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #9 (August 1960); depicting the laughter and tears that might result if the plucky news-hen secretly married the Man of Steel. From an era uncomfortably parochial and patronizing to women, there’s actually plenty of genuine heart and understanding in this tale and a minimum of snide sniping about “silly, empty-headed girls”…

Eventually the concepts became so bold that Imaginary Stories could command book-length status. ‘Lex Luthor, Hero!’ (Superman #149, November 1961) by Jerry Siegel, Curt Swan & Sheldon Moldoff details the mad scientist’s greatest master-plan and ultimate victory in a tale as powerful now as it ever was. In many ways this is what the whole concept was made for…

No prizes for guessing what ‘Jimmy Olsen Marries Supergirl!’ (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, #57, December 1961) is about, but the story is truly a charming delight, beautifully realized by Siegel, Swan & Stan Kaye.

Once more stretching the point ‘The Origin of Flash’s Masked Identity!’ (The Flash# 128, May 1962) by John Broome, Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella, although highly entertaining, is more an enthusiastic day-dream than alternate reality, and, I suspect, added to bring variety to the mix – as is the intriguing ‘Batman’s New Secret Identity’ (Batman #151, November 1961, by Finger, Bob Kane & Paris).

‘The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue!’ (Superman #162, July 1963) is possibly the most influential tale of this entire sub-genre. Written by Leo Dorfman, with art from Swan & George Klein, this startling utopian classic was so well-received that decades later it influenced and flavoured the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman continuity for years. The plot involves the Action Ace being divided into two equal wonder men who promptly solve all universal problems and even the love rivalry between Lois Lane and Lana Lang!

The writer of ‘The Three Wives of Superman!’ is currently unknown to us but the ever-excellent Schaffenberger can at least be congratulated for this enchanting tragedy of missed chances that originally saw print in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #51, from August 1964.

‘The Fantastic Story of Superman’s Sons’ (Superman #166, November 1964) by Edmond Hamilton, Swan & Klein is a solid thriller built on a tragic premise (what if only one of Superman’s children inherited his powers?), and this bright and breezy book closes with the stirring and hard-hitting ‘Superman and Batman… Brothers!’, wherein orphaned Bruce Wayne is adopted by the Kents, but cannot escape a destiny of tragedy and darkness.

Written by Jim Shooter, with art from Swan & Klein for World’s Finest Comics # 172 (cover-dated December 1967) this moody thriller in many ways signalled the end of the carefree days and the beginning of a grittier, more cohesive DC universe for a less whimsical, fan-based audience.

This collection is a glorious slice of fancy, augmented by an informative introduction from columnist Craig Shutt, and bolstered with mini-cover reproductions of many tales that tragically never made it into the collection, but I do have one minor quibble: No other type of tale was more dependent on an eye-catching, conceptually intriguing cover, so why couldn’t those belonging to these collected classics have been included here, too?

Surely, it’s time for a re-issue in either print or eBook format with all those arresting covers included. Yes, it is… and don’t call me Shirley…
© 1946, 1959-1964, 1967, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marsupilami volume 1: The Marsupilami’s Tail


By Franquin, Batem & Greg; coloured by Leonardo and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-363-5

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentric, unpredictable, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and bastion of European storytelling who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handled the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant André Franquin who took the reins, slowly abandoned the previous format of short complete gags in favour of longer epic adventure serials and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

In 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers he devised a beguiling little South American critter dubbed Marsupilami to the mix. The little beast returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magic animal who inevitably grew into solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own. He increasingly included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades until he resigned in 1969…

Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Something of a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943 but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

During those formative early days Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite – AKA Will – (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four” who subsequently revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The eager novice ran with it for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own.

Almost every week fans would meet startling and zany new characters such as comrade and eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac. In the ever-evolving process Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, continuing their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory and “reporting back” their exploits in Le Journal de Spirou

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Journal de Tintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 but was now legally obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned for good, happily taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to on his departure – is Marsupilami, which in addition to comics tales has become a star of screen, toy store, console and albums.

Franquin, plagued in later life by bouts of depression, passed away on January 5th 1997 but his legacy remains, a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin kept the rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing new adventures of the fuzzy and rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist and illustrator Luc Collin (pen name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of comedy tales. Now numbering 30 albums (not including an all-Franquin short story collection volume #0), the first of these was La Queue du Marsuplami, released in 1987 and translated here as The Marsupilami’s Tale.

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a devious anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia, and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos…

Into that teeming life-web of the Palombian rainforest comes dissolute riverboat captain Bombonera and his idiot boilerman Innadeiz. They are ferrying impatient and irascible great white hunter Mr. Bring M. Backalive up the inaccessible Rio Huaytoonarro so that he can be the first to capture and exhibit the legendary long-tailed monkey to an unbelieving world.

Sadly, Backalive has just reached the inescapable conclusion that the bumbling, prevaricating river rogue hasn’t the faintest clue where Marsupilamis dwell…

With his life endangered, Bombonera thinks fast and remembers a native fisherman who might be able to help. Yafegottawurm is up for the change of pace too; anything is better than sitting on a log waiting for the vile and voracious piranha to bite… at least until he realises the crazy white man wants to hunt the infernal, trouble making Marsupilami…

And so begins a madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, crazy plans and close shaves as the humans stalk the unflappable golden monkey (and its unsuspected, equally formidable family), upsetting the rhythms of the jungle and making enemies of not just the beasts but the Havoca natives who should have known better than to ignore their better judgement and join the hunt for the supposedly wonderful tasting Marsupilami…

Fast-paced, furiously funny and instantly engaging, the riotous romps and cataclysmic chases instigated by the mesmerising Marsupilami are big hits and beloved reads of wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Now it’s your turn to join in the fun. Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah!
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 2017 by Franquin, Greg & Batem. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Sgt. Rock Archive Edition Volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Irv Novick, Jerry Grandenetti & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-841-9

Sgt Rock and his “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and most enduring creations of the American comicbook industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat, that it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics.

This gloriously gritty, full-colour hardcover collection musters all pertinent material in the evolution of the immortal “topkick” from the early salvo of battle blockbusters from Our Army at War #83-96 (including the tentative first steps in the character’s evolution from G.I. Combat #68 and Our Army at War #81-82): a period spanning the dog-days of 1958 to the summer of 1960, wherein the entire field of American comics was just beginning a staggering revolution in style, theme and quality.

Following a fascinating reminiscence from co-creator and comics legend Joe Kubert (and this inaugural battle-book also includes detailed creator profiles), the pictorial action commences with a stunning Jerry Grandenetti cover – the first of many in this impressive tome – from G.I. Combat #68 (cover-dated January 1959), and the simple, unassuming filler story by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert, of an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply, stubbornly refused to be lie down and be beaten…

When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men…

Although no more than another straight “ordinary guy finds his heroic niche” yarn for the anthology mill that proliferated in war comics of the era, something in this tale – other than the superbly taut script and stunning illustration – caught the attention of both the public and the editors…

Christened “Rocky”, the character returned as a sergeant in the Our Army at War (#81, April 1959), again facing overwhelmingly superior German forces as ‘The Rock of Easy Co.!’ in a brief but telling vignette by Bob Haney, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito before finally evolving an actual persona as Sgt. Rock in the next issue, with the Mort Drucker illustrated ‘Hold Up Easy!’: another harsh and declarative pocket-epic from Kanigher which saw everyman hard-luck heroes Easy Company delayed and then saved by callow replacements who eventually came good in the life-changing crucible of combat…

Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) then housed the true launch of the ordinary hero in ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ (by Kanigher & Kubert): wherein a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherded his callow men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here he met a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive warrior Joe Wall

Irv Novick illustrated ‘Laughter on Snakehead Hill!’ as the embattled dog-faces of Easy fought to take a heavily fortified citadel whilst OAAW#85 introduced the first continuing and marginally less-disposable cast member in the Kubert-limned ‘Ice Cream Soldier!’, wherein Rock assuaged a fearful replacement’s jangled nerves with tales of another hopeless “green apple” who grew into his job.

This ploy of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism-of-fire scenario would play over and over again and never get old…

Following a magnificent cover by master of realism Russ Heath, Haney returned in #86 to script ‘Tank 711’ for Kubert as the terse top-kick educated another newbie in combat etiquette. Kanigher returned to describe the taking of “No-Return-Hill” and the initiation of four more raw recruits in ‘Calling Easy Co.!’ after which Grandenetti illustrated a brace of tales in #88 and 89: ‘The Hard Way’ in which Rock suffered a shocking crisis of confidence and ‘No Shot from Easy!’ wherein the indomitable sergeant was forced to give his toughest ever order…

Issue #90 is classic Kubert from start to finish as ‘Three Stripes Hill!’ revealed the story of how Rock won his stripes, after which the traditionally anthological Our Army at War instead offered three complete Sgt. Rock stories in #91. These began with ‘No Answer From Sarge!’ as the NCO risked everything to drag a recruit out of a crippling funk, continued in ‘Old Soldiers Never Run!’ where he had to weigh an old man’s pride against Easy’s continued existence, and concluded with Haney’s tragic fable of a sole-surviving Scottish soldier in ‘The Silent Piper!’

Issue #92 saw Kanigher & Kubert tackle battlefield superstitions in ‘Luck of Easy!’, after which ‘Deliver One Air Field!’ introduced Zack Nolan, a son of privilege who had to learn teamwork the hard way whilst #94’s ‘Target… Easy Company’ pitted the battle-weary Company against a German General determined to eradicate the high-profile heroes at all costs…

OAAW #95 debuted the charismatic and ambitious Bulldozer Nichols in ‘Battle of the Stripes!’: the hulking giant wanted Rock’s rank and position but grew to become the second most-recognisable character of the entire series, and this premier deluxe edition closes its preliminary campaign with ‘Last Stand for Easy!’ which saw the still in-charge non-com compelled to relinquish his lead-from-the-front position after a by-the-book officer deems him too valuable to waste on a battlefield…

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as he does here – was an imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He is a writer no comics fan should ignore or dismiss.

With superb combat covers from Grandenetti, Kubert or Heath fronting each episode, this titanic tome is a visually intoxicating compendium and brilliant tonic for any jaded fan looking for something more substantial than simple flash and dazzle. It’s also long overdue for revival and translation to digital formats.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every fan should know.
© 1959, 1960, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads


By Erik Kriek (Canongate Books)
ISBN: 978-1-8689-214-0

If you don’t know what a murder ballad is you should start this sublime hardcover anthology by reading Jan Donkers’ superb background essay at the back of the book before treating yourself to the grim graphic glories crafted by Dutch artisan and illustrator Erik Kreik.

In ‘Murder Ballads’ you will learn the history of the ancient musical sub-genre as well as the direct genealogy of the quintet of sordid, sorry sagas adapted from sound to stunning words and pictures here…

However – and just because it’s you – the term generally applies to folk music story-songs from many countries dealing with love, crime, sex, social transgressions and unnatural death…

In 2016 Erik Kreik (creator of silent superhero spoof Gutsman; Little Andy Roid; Het Onzienbare/From Beyond) – adapted a number of vintage and modern Murder Ballads into strip format. A huge fan of all forms of popular Americana, he also covered the songs with his band The Blue Grass Boogiemen on a CD naturally entitled In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads.

The book won Germany’s 2016 Rudolf Dirks Award and the spin-off garnered Album of the Year 2017 from Dutch Comics.

Amsterdam-born Kriek is a graduate of the Rietveld Academy for Art and Design and a hotly in-demand illustrator of books (including Holland’s Tolkien and Harry Potter editions), magazines, apparel, skateboards, et cetera and can turn his hand to many styles and disciplines. Gutsman was reconceived as a soundless mime ballet in 2006 and his collection of Lovecraft adaptations Het onzienbare, en andere verhalen H. P. Lovecraft has been republished in many languages…

He has just released first children’s book Mika, the Little Bear That Didn’t Want to Go To Sleep

Now a multi-national phenomenon, In the Pines delivers its moody messages of ill-starred love in dreamy, two-coloured episodes. American fans will recognise the drawing style as echoing the very best EC horror tales by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels or the early Bernie Wrightson. The concert of terror opens with ‘Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter’: a much-covered traditional ditty (The Byrds; Judy Collins; The Stanley Brothers) rendered here in green and black on white crisp white pages. It details the doomed fate of a young man who fled to sea to escape his sins, only to see them resurface in death for his shipmates in a seemingly supernatural storm…

Tinted in sepia, ‘The Long Black Veil’ is a relatively modern song: composed and written by Marijohn Wilkin & Danny Dill in 1959 and most notably recorded by Lefty Frizzell, The Band, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Nick Cave and many others. It reveals how a farmer is faced with a staggering choice: hang for a murder he did not commit or betray the confidence of the adulterous women who is his only alibi…

Racially-charged and rendered in tones of muddy ochre, ‘Taneytown’ was originally written by Steve Earle: a synthesis of so many lynching incidents that shame and blight the history of early 20th century America. Here a young black man, sick of the life he’s subjected to in rural Maryland, takes the knife his negro war hero father used in the trenches of the Great War and heads for trouble in the whitest part of town…

Written by singer Gillian Welch, ‘Caleb Meyer’ is adapted in tones of chilling aquamarine and presents a young wife betrayed, terrorised and assaulted who wins for herself a potent dose of ironic retribution…

Closing the graphic grimoire in tones of watered down blood, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is based on the song created by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for their 1996 album Murder Ballads. Sung as duet with Kylie Minogue, the song was based on traditional air Down in the Willow Garden.

The story seen here presents a complex web of trauma and tension involving a murderous escaped convict, a gang of hidden outlaws, lost treasure, a solitary house in the deep woods and a protective mother conveniently absent.

However, neither the rapidly pursuing posse nor the vile-intentioned villain have any idea what young Elisa is truly capable of, or why her father called her his “wild rose”…

Making something compelling and beautiful from the worst aspects and acts of human behaviour is no mean feat, either in song or pictures, but In the Pines accomplishes the deed with gripping style, vibrant polish and immense charm. This is a book every lover of human foibles will adore: Potent and evocative with a sly gift to captivate and transport the reader just as the music intoxicates the mind’s eye through the ears.

One last note: Kriek relaxes in Irish bars – possibly drinking but mostly singing and playing the banjo – so my hopes are high that he’s got many more songs yet to draw…
© Erik Kriek, 2016. “Murder Ballads” © Jan Donkers. 2016All rights reserved.
In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads will be published on February 1st 2018.