Avengers Masterworks volume 2

By Stan Lee, Don Heck, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3202-8 (HC)                    978-0785137085 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immortal masterpieces to savour forever… 9/10

Whenever Jack Kirby left a title he’d co-created it took a little while to settle into a new rhythm, and none more so than the collectivised costumed crusaders called the Avengers. Although writer Stan Lee and the fabulously utilitarian Don Heck were perfectly capable of producing cracking comics entertainments, they never had The King’s unceasing sense of panoramic scope and vast scale which constantly searched for bigger, bolder blasts of excitement. After Kirby, the tales starring Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, The Wasp and scene-stealing newcomer Captain America concentrated on frail human beings in costumes, not wild modern gods bestriding and shaking the Earth…

Following another Stan Lee introduction, the wonderment herein contained (covering issues #11-20, December 1964 – September 1965 and available in Hard Cover, Trade Paperback and eBook editions) begins with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’; a clever and classy cross-fertilising tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of time-bending tyrant Kang the Conqueror. Here, he attempts to destroy the team by insinuating a robotic duplicate of the outcast hero within their serried ranks. It’s accompanied by a Marvel Master Work Pin-up of ‘Kang!’ and followed by a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with Fantastic Four guest-villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost.

This was another Marvel innovation, as – according to established funnybook rules – bad guys stuck to their own nemeses and didn’t clash outside their own backyards….

‘This Hostage Earth!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) is a welcome return to grand adventure with lesser lights Giant-Man and the Wasp taking rare lead roles, but is trumped by a rousing gangster thriller of a sort seldom seen outside the pages of Spider-Man or Daredevil, which introduced Marvel universe Mafia analogue The Maggia and another major menace in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’

After failing in his scheme to frame the Avengers, Nefaria was crushed, but the caper ended on a tragic cliffhanger as Janet Van Dyne is left gunshot and dying, leading to a peak in melodramatic tension in #14 (scripted by Paul Laiken & Larry Lieber over Stan’s plot) as the traumatised team scour the globe for the only surgeon who can save her.

‘Even Avengers Can Die!’ – although of course she didn’t – resolves into an epic alien invader tale with overtones of This Island Earth with Kirby stepping in to lay out the saga for Heck & Stone to illustrate, which only whets the appetite for a classic climactic confrontation as the costumed champions finally deal with the Masters of Evil and Captain America finally avenges the death of his dead partner Bucky.

‘Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ in #15 (again laid-out by Kirby, pencilled by Heck but now inked by Mike Esposito) features the final, fatal confrontation between Captain America and Baron Zemo in the heart of the Amazon jungle, whilst the other Avengers and Zemo’s cohort of masked menaces clash once more on the streets of New York City…

The battle ends in concluding episode ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (again visually broken down by Kirby before being finished by Ayers) which presaged a dramatic change in concept for the series; presumably because, as Lee increasingly wrote to the company’s unique strengths – tight continuity and strongly individualistic characterisation – he found juggling individual stars in their own titles as well as a combined team episode every month was just incompatible if not impossible.

As Cap and teen sidekick Rick Jones fight their way back to civilisation, the Avengers set-up changes completely with big name stars retiring only to be replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Eventually, led by perennial old soldier Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention (the Sentinel of Liberty did have a regular feature in Tales of Suspense but it was at that time recounting adventures set during the hero’s WWII career), evolved into another squabbling family of flawed, self-examining neurotics, enduring extended sub-plots and constant action as valiant underdogs; a formula readers of the time could not get enough of and which still works superbly well today…

Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man, the neophytes seek to recruit the Hulk to add raw power to the team, only to be sidetracked by the malevolent Mole Man in #17’s ‘Four Against the Minotaur!’ (Lee, Heck & Ayers), after which they then fall foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’ – necessitating a quick trip to a thinly disguised Viet Nam analogue dubbed Sin-Cong and a battle against a bombastic android…

This brace of relatively run-of-the-mill tales is followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces starting with a 2-part gem providing an origin for Hawkeye and introducing a rogue-ish hero/villain to close this sturdy, full-colour compendium.

‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ premiers a dissolute and disreputable swashbuckler – with just a hint of deeply-buried nobility – who attempts to force his way onto the highly respectable team. His rejection lead to him becoming an unwilling pawn of a far greater menace after being kidnapped by A-list world despot the Mandarin.

The conclusion comes in the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ – inked by the one-&-only Wally Wood – wherein the constantly-bickering Avengers finally pull together as a supernaturally efficient, all-conquering super-team.

Augmented by original art, production-stage corrections photostats plus the usual round of Biographies, these immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Killing Game

By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78565-300-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Derring-do and the Perfect Postprandial Tonic… 9/10

Infallible super-criminals Modesty Blaise and her lethally charming, compulsively platonic, equally adept partner Willie Garvin gained fearsome reputations heading underworld gang The Network. They then retired young, rich and healthy.

With honour intact and their hands relatively clean, they cut themselves off completely from careers where they made all the money they would ever need and far too many enemies: a situation exacerbated by their heartfelt conviction that killing was only ever to be used as a last resort.

When devious British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant sought them out, they were slowly dying of boredom in England. The wily old bird offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. They jumped at his offer and have been cleaning up the dregs of society in their own unique manner ever since …

From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the dynamic duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a never-ending succession of tense suspense and inspirational action for more than half a century. And now this final 30th collected paperback album completes their astounding run of newspaper strip escapades leaving us dedicated devotees delighted and simultaneously bereft…

The inseparable associates debuted in The Evening Standard on 13th May 1963 and over the passing decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in approximately three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a lost strip classic just as deserving of its own archive albums) crafted a timeless treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero (and occasionally John Burns, Neville Colvin and Pat Wright) assumed the art reins, taking the partners-in-peril to even greater heights.

The series has been syndicated world-wide and Modesty has starred in numerous prose novels, short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play, an original American graphic novel from DC, a serial on BBC Radio 4 and in nearly one hundred comic adventures until the strip’s conclusion in 2001 with the trio of titanic tales collected in this volume.

The pictorial exploits comprise a broad blend of hip adventuring lifestyle and cool capers; combining espionage, crime, intrigue and even – now and again – plausibly intriguing sci fi and supernaturally-tinged horror genre fare, with ever-competent Modesty and Willie canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly human defenders of the helpless and avengers of the wronged…

Reproduced in stark and stunning monochrome – as is only right and fitting – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulously chronological serial re-presentations of the ultimate cool trouble-shooters conclude here, with O’Donnell & Romero offering three last masterpieces of mood, mystery, mayhem and macabre mirth. The high-octane drama is preceded by a brace of preambles: affecting reminiscence ‘Modesty and Me’ from O’Donnell’s grandson Paul Michael and the true secret of writing the perfect comic strip in the author’s own ‘All in the Mind’, penned before his death in 2010.

The pulse-pounding pictorial perils premiere with ‘The Last Aristocrat’ (originally running in The Evening Standard from December 16th 1999-19th May 2000), as old – and mostly unwanted – acquaintance Guido the Jinx embroils Willie, Sir Gerald and Modesty in his last journalistic scoop.

Sadly, the stakes this time are terrifyingly high, as a former criminal rival returns selling grotesque bacterial weapons of mass destruction forcing the dynamic duo to infiltrate an island fortress to prevent a disastrous terrorist coup…

As ever each tale is introduced by a connected celebrity: Daphne Alexander who plays Modesty in the BBC radio series adds her thoughts to the first and final adventures whilst eponymous central story ‘The Killing Game’ (22nd May June-October 17th) benefits from the insights of Radio Drama Producer Kate MCall.

Here Modesty and Willie are abducted from an innocent British Church Fete by a cabal of ultra-rich, exceedingly jaded “sportsmen” (and woman), intent on spicing up their annual safari by including the proverbial Most Dangerous Game on their private tropical preserve and in their sights…

Marooned in New Guinea, our heroes experience a debilitating setback when they find a stray teenager and her newborn baby obliviously squatting in the killing fields, but as always, Modesty and Willie are up to the challenge and soon turn predators into prey…

The themes shift to criminal skulduggery and doomsday cults – with just a hint of bloody vengeance – in ‘The Zombie’ (October 10th 2000 to April 11th 2001) as an old associate from Modesty’s Network days is kidnapped for use as leverage…

What seems to be a simple turf war between gangs squabbling for markets get decidedly nasty and strange as the kidnappers are revealed as adherents of computer pioneer Professor Nicomede Katris, whose dream is to replace all the world’s fallible, venal governments with an incorruptible super-computer of his own design.

He knows he’s right: after all, his years of programming his doctrines have transformed his own daughter Leda into a coldly logical killing machine and ideal tool of societal transformation.

The wily Prof only ever made two mistakes: ordering his human zombie to guard empathic, charming abductee Danny Chavasse and presuming he could extrapolate and predict the actions of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin when they inevitably come for their friend…

These are incomparable capers crafted by brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the sheer perfection of an iconic creation. Startling shock and suspense-stuffed escapades packed with sleek sex appeal, dry wit, terrific tension and explosive action, these stories grow more appealing with every rereading and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.

And, hopefully, now that the entire saga has been compiled, we can soon expect sturdy hardback deluxe collections in the manner of the companion James Bond volumes…
Modesty Blaise © 2017 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

The Complete Peanuts volume 2: 1953-1954

By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-032-8 (Canongate):        978-1-56097-614-1 (Fantagraphics)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The ultimate Family Treat… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, dying from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived, and showed that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a moving reminiscence from legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, this second gargantuan (218 x 33x 172 mm) landscape hardback compendium (also available in digital formats) offers in potent monochrome the third and fourth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving procession of insight and hilarity in still-fresh episodes seldom seen or reprinted once the strip had achieved its global domination.

Here a still rather outgoing and jolly Charlie Brown and high-maintenance – but essentially dog-like – mutt Snoopy interacted with bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty all out doing kid things. Now, however, the supporting cast had expanded to include Violet, Beethoven-obsessed musical prodigy Schroeder, obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy, and infant addition Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant.

They are memorably joined in this volume by human dust storm Pig-pen as well as the invention of a certain mystic tranquiliser dubbed the Security Blanket…

By the end of 1952 the daily diet of rapid-fire gags had evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, and even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought

The relationships, however, were increasingly evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continued to develop. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, such as Snoopy’s extended cold war with baby Linus over treats, or Lucy’s hidden talents for golf and skipping…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, learning to read, the new domestic sensation of television, coping with kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown begins and his feelings of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the star here, with episodes seeing her expelled from Kindergarten as her insufferable know-it-allness grows. There’s also repeated evidence of what passes for her softer side too, as her fascination with Schroeder develops into a true crush, but, oh!, what she does to her little brother when nobody’s watching…

The first hints of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and, as previously mentioned, the uncleanable kid Pig-pen arrives and shakes up everybody’s world…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

By the end of this book Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’ rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954 (Volume Two) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2004 Walter Cronkite. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Golden Age All Winners Marvel Masterworks: Volume 1

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Al Avison & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6635-1

Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel Comics took quite a while to get into producing expensive archival tomes such as this one reprinting some of their earliest comic adventures. In the cold hard light of day, it’s often fairly clear why.

The sad truth is that much Golden Age Marvel material is not only pretty offensive by modern standards, but is also of rather poor writing and art quality. Something of a welcome exception, however, is this venerable collection of quarterly super-hero anthology All Winners Comics #1-4 – available in hardback, paperback and digital formats.

Over the course of the first year’s publication (from Summer 1941 to Spring 1942) the stories and art varied incredibly (thanks to poor pay rates and the constant call-up of creators to serve overseas), but at least in terms of sheer variety the tales and characters excelled in exploring every avenue of patriotic thrill that might enthral ten-year old boys of all ages.

As well as Simon & Kirby, Lee, Burgos and Everett, the early work of Mike Sekowsky, Jack Binder, George Klein, Paul Gustavson, Harry Sahle, Paul Reinman, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle and many others can be found as they dashed out the adventures of Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Black Marvel, The Angel, The Mighty Destroyer, and The Whizzer.

This spectacular deluxe full-colour compendium opens with a fulsome and informative introduction from Roy Thomas – architect of Marvel’s Golden Age revival – ably abetted by Greg Theakston, detailing the strife and exigencies of churning out fun-fodder under wartime restrictions, after which All Winners Comics #1 commences with Human Torch and flaming kid Toro hunting insidious Japanese agent Matsu as the spy terrorises the peaceful pro-American Orientals of New York’s Chinatown in ‘Carnival of Fiends’ (by Carl Burgos), whilst Stan Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele set Indian-reared perfect specimen Black Marvel on the trail of ‘The Order of the Hood’: a well-connected gang of West Coast bandits…

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby then contribute a magnificent Captain America thriller-chiller in ‘The Case of the Hollow Men’: battling a plague of beggars turned into marauding zombies by Nazi super-science.

Stripling Stan Lee & Ed Winiarski contribute a thinly disguised infomercial text tale of ‘All Winners’ after which an untitled Bill Everett Sub-Mariner yarn sees the errant Prince of Atlantis uncover and promptly scupper a nest of saboteurs on the Virginia coastline whilst the inexplicably ubiquitous Angel travels to the deep dark Central American jungle to solve ‘The Case of the Mad Gargoyle’ with typical ruthless efficiency in an engaging end-piece by Alan Mandel

All-Winners #2 was cover-dated Fall 1941 and began with Harry Sahle’s Human Torch thriller ‘Carnival of Death!’ wherein the incendiary android and his mutant sidekick tackle a madly murderous knife-thrower running amok in a winter playground for the wealthy, after which ‘The Strange Case of the Malay Idol’ (Simon & Kirby) finds the Sentinel of Liberty and his youthful aide on a tropical island battling a sinister native death-cult secretly sponsored by the Nazis…

Lee graduates to full comic strips in ‘Bombs of Doom!’ as Jack Binder illustrates the All Winners debut of charismatic, behind-enemy-lines hero The Mighty Destroyer; followed by text feature ‘Winners All’: another Lee puff-piece embellished with a Kirby group-shot of the anthology’s cast before second new guy The Whizzer kicks off a long run with a Lee/Paul Reinman tale of spies and society murderers on the home-front.

After a page of believe-it-or-not ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a ghost artist illuminates ‘The Ghost Fleet’ to end the issue with another Sub-Mariner versus Nazi submariners all-action romp…

All Winners #3 pits the Torch against Japanese terrorists in ‘The Case of the Black Dragon Society’, a rather over-the-top slice of cartoon jingoism credited to Burgos but scripted by Sahle and drawn by another anonymous ghost squad.

Simon and Kirby had moved to National Comics by this issue and Al Avison was drawing Captain America now – with background inking from George Klein – and scripts by the mysterious S.T. Anley (geddit?), but ‘The Canvas of Doom!’ still rockets along with plenty of dynamite punch in a manic yarn about an artist who predicts murders in his paintings, before The Whizzer busts up corruption and slaughter at ‘Terror Prison’ in a rip-roarer from Lee, Mike Sekowsky & George Klein.

‘Jungle Drums’ is standard genre text filler-fare after which Everett triumphs once more with a spectacular maritime mystery as ‘Sub-Mariner visits the Ship of Horrors’ and The Destroyer turns the Fatherland upside down by wrecking ‘The Secret Tunnel of Death!’ in a blistering epic limned by Chad Grothkopf.

The final issue in this compendium was cover-dated Spring 1942 and – with enough lead time following the attack on Pearl Harbor – the patriotic frenzy mill was clearly in full swing.

A word of warning: though modern readers might well blanch at the racial and sexual stereotyping of the (presumably) well-intentioned propaganda machines which generated tales such as ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge’ and ‘The Terror of the Slimy Japs’, please try to remember the tone of those times and recall that these contents obviously need to be read in an historical rather than purely entertainment context.

The aforementioned ‘Terror of the Slimy Japs’ by Burgos & Sahle has Human Torch and Toro routing Moppino, High Priest of the Rising Sun Temple (and saboteur extraordinaire) from his lair beneath New York, whilst Cap and Bucky content themselves with solving ‘The Sorcerer’s Sinister Secret!’ (Avison & Klein) and foiling another Japanese sneak attack before The Whizzer stamps out ‘Crime on the Rampage’ in a breakneck campaign illustrated by Howard “Johns” nee James.

‘Miser’s Gold’ is just one more genre text tale followed by an Everett inspired-&-guided but ultimately unknown creative team’s take on the other war as ‘Sub-Mariner Combats the Sinister Horde!’ …of Nazis, this time… after which the Destroyer brings down the final curtain by hunting down sadistic Gestapo chief torturer Heinrich Bungler in and declaring ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge!’.

Augmented by covers by Alex Schomburg, Jack Binder & Avison, a string of rousing house ads and other original ephemera, this is a collection of patriotic populist publishing from the dawn of a new and cut-throat industry, working under war-time conditions in a much less enlightened time. That these nascent efforts grew into the legendary characters and brands of today attests to their intrinsic attraction and fundamental appeal, but this is a book of much more than simple historical interest. Make no mistake, there’s still much here that any modern fan can and will enjoy.
© 1941, 1942, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 1: Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Golden Sickle and Asterix and the Goths

By René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion/Hodder-Darguad/Brockhampton)

Omnibus ISBN: 978-1-44400-423-6

Individual Orion ISBNs: 978-0-75286-605-5: 978-0-75286-613-0 & 978-0-75286-615-4

Sorry, Baudelaire, Balzac Proust, Sartre, Voltaire, Zola and all you other worthy contenders; Asterix the Gaul is probably France’s greatest literary export.

The feisty, wily little warrior who fought the iniquities and viewed the myriad wonders of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire with brains, bravery and – whenever necessary – a magical potion imbuing the imbiber with incredible strength, speed and vitality, is the go-to reference all us non-Gallic gallants when we think of France…

In eager anticipation of the publication of the 37th Asterix volume next month, here a little refresher course for the classicist cognoscenti and a gentle but urgent plea to the uninitiated to get their collective fingers out and get au fait with one of Earth’s genuine comics phenomenons…

The diminutive, doughty hero was created at the very end of the 1950s by two of the art-forms greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and even though the perfect partnership ended in 1977, and Uderzo no longer crafts the comedic chaos, the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

René Goscinny is arguably the most prolific and remains one of the most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever known. Born in Paris in 1926, he grew up in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age René showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts, graduating in 1942.

In 1945 while working as junior illustrator in an ad agency his uncle invited him to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After National Service in France he returned to the States and settled in Brooklyn, pursuing an artistic career and becoming in 1948 an assistant for a little studio which included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (Morris, with whom from 1955-1977 Goscinny produced Lucky Luke) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé).

He also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and Jerry Spring Goscinny was promoted to head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his ultimate creative collaborator Albert Uderzo. In his spare time Rene created Sylvie and Alain et Christine with Martial Durand (Martial) and Fanfan et Polo, drawn by Dino Attanasio.

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent syndicate Édipress/Édifrance, creating magazines for business and general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo René generated Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and even illustrated his own scripts for Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny clearly patented the 40-hour day. Using the nom-de-plume Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé) and in 1956 began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing for various illustrators including Attanasio (Signor Spagetti), Bob De Moor (Monsieur Tric), Maréchal (Prudence Petitpas), Berck (Strapontin), Globule le Martien and Alphonse for Tibet, Modeste et Pompon for André Franquin, as well as the fabulous and funny adventures of the inimitable Indian brave Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo. He also wrote for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured re-launched versions of Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet, new serials Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard) plus a little something called Asterix the Gaul, inarguably the greatest achievement of his partnership with Uderzo.

When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became Editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television but never stopped creating strips such Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record illustrated by Swedish artist Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote.

Goscinny died – probably of well-deserved pride and severe exhaustion – in November 1977.

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927, in Fismes, on the Marne, a child of Italian immigrants. As a boy reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien Alberto dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic. He showed artistic flair from an early age and became a French citizen when he was seven. At 13 years old he became an apprentice of the Paris Publishing Society, learning design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When WWII broke out he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany, joining his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being decided upon the region was the only choice.

In the post-war rebuilding of France Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the country’s burgeoning comics industry. His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose masterpiece The Beast is Dead is long overdue for the world’s closer attention…).

Young Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist, as an illustrator for France Dimanche, and created the vertical comic strip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir. In 1950 he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

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

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they produced a Western starring a very Red (but not so American) Indian who evolved into the delightful and (eventually) popular Oumpah-Pah. In 1955 with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replacing Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine and in 1957 added Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

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

When Pilote launched in 1959 Uderzo was the major creative force for the new magazine, limning Charlier’s Tanguy et Laverdure and a little something called Asterix

Although Asterix was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (subsequently Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first ancient world adventure was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death, the publication rate dropped from two per year to one volume every three to five).

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

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the tenth most-often translated French-language author in the world and the third most-translated French language comics author – after his old mate René Goscinny and the grand master Hergé.

So what’s it all about?

Like all entertainments the premise works on two levels: as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a-cropper for younger readers and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, transformed here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue).

Originally published in Pilote #1-38 (29th October 1959-4th July 1960, with the first page appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, distributed on June 1st 1959), the story was set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast in the year 50BC. Here a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the world-beating Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Unable to defeat these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorts to a policy of containment and the little seaside hamlet is hemmed in by the heavily fortified permanent garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine by just going about their everyday affairs, protected by a magic potion provided by the resident druid and the shrewd wits of a rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic best friend…

In Asterix the Gaul this immaculate comedy-drama scenario is hilariously demonstrated when Centurion Crismus Bonus, fed up with his soldiers being casually beaten up by the fiercely free Frenchmen, sends reluctant spy Caligula Minus to ferret out the secret of their incredible strength.

The affable resistors take the infiltrator in and, dosed up with potion, the perfidious Roman escapes with the answer – if not the formula itself…

Soon after, the Druid Getafix is captured by the invaders and the village seems doomed, but wily Asterix is on the case and breaks into Compendium determined to teach the Romans a lesson. After driving them crazy for ages by resisting all efforts at bribery and coercion, wizard and warrior seemingly capitulate and make the Romans a magic potion – but not the one the rapacious oppressors were hoping for…

Although comparatively raw and unpolished, the good-natured, adventurous humour and sheer energy of the yarn barrels along, delivering barrages of puns, oodles of insane situations and loads of low-trauma slapstick action, all marvellously rendered in Uderzo’s seductively stylish art-style.

From the second saga on the unique and expanding cast would encroach on events, especially the unique and expanded, show-stealing sidekick Obelix who had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby and was a genial, permanently superhuman, eternally hungry foil to the smart little hero…

These albums are available in a wealth of differing formats, and earlier translated editions going all the way back to the first Brockhampton editions in 1969 are still readily available from a variety of retail and internet vendors – or even your local charity shop and jumble sale.

Be warned, however, that if pure continuity matters to you, only most recent British publisher Orion has released 36 albums in chronological order – and in Omnibus editions; three tales per tome.

Also, on a purely artistic note, some of the Hodder-Dargaud editions have a rather unconventional approach to colour that might require you to wear sunglasses and put blinkers on your pets and staff…

Asterix and the Golden Sickle originated in Pilote #42-74 and recounts the disastrous consequences of Getafix losing his ceremonial gold sickle just before the grand Annual Conference of Gaulish Druids. Since time is passing and no ordinary replacement will suffice to cut ingredients for magic potion, Asterix offers to go all the way to Lutetia (you can call it Paris if you want to) to find another.

As Obelix has a cousin there, Metallurgix the Smith, he also volunteers for the trip and the punning pair are swiftly off, barely stopping to teach assorted bandits the errors of their pilfering ways but still finding a little time to visit many roadside inns and tavern serving roast boar…

There is a crisis in Lutetia: a mysterious gang is stealing all the Golden Sickles and forcing prices up. The druid community is deeply distressed and, more worrying still, master sickle-maker Metallurgix has gone missing…

Asterix and Obelix investigate the dastardly doings in their own bombastic manner and discover a nefarious plot that seems to go all the way to the office of the local Roman Prefect…

The early creative experiment was quickly crystallizing into a supremely winning format and the next epic cemented the strip’s status as a popular icon of Gallic excellence.

Asterix and the Goths ran from 1962-1963 and followed the plot-thread of the Druid Conference as Getafix, brand new sickle in hand, sets off for the Forest of the Carnutes to compete. However on the Gaul’s Eastern border savage Goths – barbarians who remained unconquered by the might of Rome – crossed into pacified Roman territory. The barbarians are intent on capturing the mightiest Druid and turning his magic against the rule of Julius Caesar.

Although non-Druids aren’t allowed into the forest, Asterix and Obelix had accompanied Getafix to its edge and as the competition round of the Conference ends in victory for him and his power-potion, the Goths strike, abducting him in his moment of triumph…

Alerted by fellow Druid Prefix, the heroic duo track the kidnappers but are mistaken for Visigoths by Roman patrols, allowing the Goths to cross the border into Germania.

Although Romans are no threat, they can be a time-wasting hindrance so Asterix and Obelix disguise themselves as Romans to invade the Barbarian lands…

Well-used to being held prisoner by now, Getafix is making himself a nuisance to his bellicose captors and a genuine threat to the wellbeing of his long-suffering translator. When Asterix and Obelix are captured dressed as Goths, the wily Gauls conceive a cunning plan to end the permanent and imposing threat of Gothic invasion – a scheme that continues successfully for almost two thousand years…

If, like me, you’re particularly interested (my wife calls it “obsessive”) in absolutely all the iterations you might also want to seek out back issues of British comic weekly Ranger (1965-1966 and every one a gem!) plus early issues of Look and Learn immediately after the two titles merged (beginning with #232: 25th June 1966).

Among the many splendid strips in the glossy, oversized photogravure weekly was a quirky comedy feature entitled ‘Britons Never, Never, Never, Shall Be Slaves!’ which featured the first appearance of Goscinny & Uderzo’s masterpiece – albeit in a rather radically altered state.

In these translations Asterix was “Beric”, Getafix the Druid “Doric” and Obelix was dubbed “Son of Boadicea”. More jingoistically, the entire village was editorially transported to England where a valiant population of True Brits never ever surrendered to the Roman Occupation!

Similar intellectual travesties occurred during two abortive early attempts to introduce the gutsy Gauls to America as a heavily re-edited family newspaper strip…

Asterix is one of the most popular comics in the world, translated into more than 100 languages; with a host of animated and live-action movies, assorted games and even his own theme park (Parc Astérix, near Paris). More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have been sold worldwide, making Goscinny & Uderzo France’s bestselling international authors.

This is sublime comics storytelling and you’d be as Crazy as the Romans not to increase that statistic by finally getting around to acquiring your own copies of this fabulous, frolicsome French Folly.
© 1961-1963 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Batman and the Outsiders volume 1

By Mike W. Barr, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Pérez & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1401268121 (HC)

During the early 1980s the general trend of comics sales was yet another downturn – although team-books were holding their own – and the major publishers were less concerned with experimentation than with consolidation. Many popular titles were augmented by spin-offs, a recurring tactic in publishing troughs.

At the time the Dark Knight was the star of two and two half titles, sharing World’s Finest Comics with Superman (until its cancellation in 1986) and appearing with rotating guest-stars in The Brave and the Bold, as well as his regular lead spots in both Batman and Detective Comics. He was also a member of the Justice League of America.

In July 1983 B&B was cancelled with issue #200, but inside was a preview of a new Bat-title. One month later Batman and the Outsiders debuted…

All the details can be found in ‘Out with the Bold, in with The Outsiders’: scripter Mike W. Barr’s introductory reminiscence to this commemorative hardback collection (also available as an eBook) gathering a daring departure for the Gotham Gangbuster and re-presenting The Brave and the Bold #200, BATO #1-13 and a crossover episode which spread into New Teen Titans #37, collectively spanning July 1983-August 1984.

The core premise of the new series was that Batman became increasingly convinced that the JLA was not fit for purpose; that too many problems were beyond their reach because they were hamstrung by international red tape and, by inference, too many laws.

It all kicks off in ‘Wars Ended… Wars Begun!’ with a revolution in the European nation of Markovia (nebulously wedged into that vague bit between France, Belgium and Russia) and details a telling personal crisis when Bruce Wayne’s friend Lucius Fox goes missing in that war-torn country. As neither the US State Department nor his fellow superheroes will act, Batman takes matters into his own hands. He begins sniffing around only to discover that a number of other metahumans, some known to him and others new, are also sneaking about below the natives’ radar.

Markovia’s monarchy is threatened by an attempted coup, and is being countered by the King’s unorthodox hiring of Dr. Jace, a scientist specialising in creating superpowers. When King Victor dies, Prince Gregor is named successor whilst his brother Brion is charged with finding their sister Tara who has been missing since she underwent the Jace Process.

To save his sister and his country, Brion submits to the same procedure. Meanwhile two more Americans are clandestinely entering the country…

Rex (Metamorpho) Mason is a chemical freak able to turn into any element, and he wants Jace to cure him, whereas Jefferson (Black Lightning) Pierce is infiltrating Markovia as Batman’s ace-in-the-hole. Things go badly wrong when a ninja assassin kills the General Pierce is negotiating with, and he is blamed. As Batman attempts to extricate him the Caped Crusader finds a young American girl in a bombed-out building: a teenager with fantastic light-based superpowers… and amnesia.

As Prince Brion emerges from Jace’s experimental chamber, revolutionaries attack and not even his new gravity and volcanic powers, or the late-arriving Metamorpho, can stop them. Brion is shot dead and dumped in an unmarked grave whilst the Element Man joins Batman, who – encumbered by the girl – is also captured by the rebels. The heroes and Dr. Jace are the prisoners of the mysterious Baron Bedlam

The second issue provides the mandatory origin and plans of the Baron, but while he’s talking the new heroes are mobilising. Like the legendary Antaeus, Brion (soon to be known as Geo-Force) is re-invigorated by contact with Earth and rises from his grave, whilst the girl (code-named Halo) is found by the ninja ‘Katana’.

Together they invade the Baron’s HQ during ‘Markovia’s Last Stand!’ Not to be outdone, the captive heroes break free and join forces with the newcomers to defeat the Baron, who now has powers of his own courtesy of the captive Jace.

As introductory stories goes, this is well above average, with plenty of threads laid for future development, and the tried-&-tested super-team formula (a few old and a few new heroes thrown together for a greater purpose) that worked so well with the New X-Men and New Teen Titans still proved an effective one.

As always Barr’s adroit writing meshed perfectly with the understated talents of Jim Aparo; an artist who gave his all to a script…

Issue #3 began a long run of high-quality super-hero sagas with ‘Bitter Orange’, as the new team get acquainted whilst stopping a chemical terrorist with a hidden agenda, and is followed by that preview from B&B #200: a hospital hostage crisis tale designed to tease and introduce new characters, followed here by ‘One-Man Meltdown’ (BATO #4) in which a radioactive villain from Batman’s past returns with malice in mind but acting on a hidden mastermind’s agenda…

New Teen Titans #37 (December 1983) features next. ‘Light’s Out, Everyone!’ by Marv Wolfman, George Pérez & Romeo Tanghal is the first part of a cross-over tale wherein Dr. Light and the Fearsome Five kidnap Dr. Jace and Titans and Outsiders must unite to rescue her. Concluding with ‘Psimon Says’ in BATO #5, its most notable feature is the portentous reuniting of Brion with his sister Tara, the Titan known as Terra.

‘Death Warmed Over’ and ‘Cold Hands, Cold Heart’ tell the tale of The Cryonic Man, a villain who steals frozen body-parts, before ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’ offers a sinister supernatural Christmas treat guest-starring possibly Aparo’s most fondly remembered character (most certainly for me) The Phantom Stranger.

Issue #9 introduces a new super-villain gang in ‘Enter: The Masters of Disaster!’ (the first half of a two-part tale) plus a brief back-up tale of Halo in ‘Battle For the Band’, written by Barr and illustrated by Bill Willingham & Mike DeCarlo.

Illustrated by Steve Lightle & Sal Trapani, ‘The Execution of Black Lightning’ epically concludes the Masters of Disaster saga, before issue #11 begins exposing ‘The Truth About Katana’: exploring her past and the implications of her magic soul-drinking blade. ‘A Sword of Ancient Death!’ is by Barr & Aparo and continues with ‘To Love, Honour and Destroy’, leading directly into #13’s impressive final inclusion.

‘In the Chill of the Night’ (illustrated by Dan Day & Pablo Marcos) sees the desperate team attempting to capture a drugged, dying and delusional Dark Knight as his fevered mind and memories pit him against the gunman who murdered his parents…

With a full cover gallery – including the diptych assemblage of NTT #37 and BATO #50 – original Aparo art, house ad and preliminary character designs, this is a splendid package to appeal to dedicated Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics. Although probably not flashy enough to cross the Fan-Barrier into mainstream popularity, Batman and the Outsiders was always a highly readable series and is re-presented here in most accessible manner. An open-minded new reader could do lots worse than try out this forgotten corner of the DCU.
© 1983, 1984, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Rick O’Shay and Hipshot: The Great Sunday Pages

By Stan Lynde (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-12522-6

Once upon a time, Westerns were the most popular genre in American mass entertainment, with novels, magazines, films, radio shows, TV series, comicbooks and of course newspaper strips all devoted to “Men Doin’ What They Gotta Do”: Riding Ranges, Rounding up stuff, Gun-fighting and all the other timeless iconic cultural activities we all think we know…

Over the decades hundreds of Western strips have graced the pages and increased the circulation of newspapers; from singing cowboy film-star Roy Rogers to Red Ryder, Casey Ruggles, the Lone Ranger, Lance and so many more. Even staid Britain got into the act with such lost masterpieces as Buffalo Bill, Matt Marriot, Gun Law and Wes Slade ranking highest amongst fans around the world…

With such a plethora of material concentrated in one genre it’s no surprise that different takes would inevitably develop. Thus, alongside The Big Country, High Noon, Soldier Blue or Unforgiven there blossomed less traditional fare such as Destry Rides Again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Blazing Saddles.

Falling straight into the same comedy Western territory as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Support Your Local Sheriff – whilst predating both – came one of the earliest and most successful modern gag-a-day continuity strips, blending iconic scenarios with memorable characters, playing out their daily antics against a spectacular backdrop of lavishly illustrated natural beauty.

Stan Lynde was born in Billings, Montana on 23rd September 1931, the son of a sheep farmer who grew up with a passion for comic strips. His first efforts appeared in the High School paper and after studying journalism at Montana State he served in the Navy from 1951-1955. During that tour of duty he created the strip Ty Foon for a Services magazine.

After the Navy, Lynde tried a succession of jobs and ended up in New York working for the Wall Street Journal. Whilst there he created Rick O’Shay which eventually found a home with the mighty Chicago Tribune Syndicate (home of Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates and many others). The feature premiered as a Sunday page on April 27th 1958, adding a daily black-&-white strip from 19th May that year.

Lynde produced the strip until 1977 when he left the Syndicate to produce another wonderful Western Latigo (1979-1983). Tribune-News Syndicate owned Rick O’Shay outright and continued the feature with substitutes Marian Dern, Alfredo Alcala and Mel Keefer, but it just wasn’t the same and the strip was allowed to die in 1981.

Rick O’Shay took Western conventions to sly and winningly whimsical extremes as it followed the life of Rick, Deputy Marshal of the little town of Conniption. The series was set in the rugged Montana countryside where Lynde grew up and to which he returned as soon as the strip proved successful enough to support him.

Conniption was too small for a full Marshal and whatever order needed keeping was easily handled by the easy-going Deputy Rick and his friend; grizzled veteran gunslinger Hipshot Percussion. Apart from drinking, fighting and gambling, the township’s most serious problem was criminally bad puns, personified in the likes of saloon owner Gaye Abandon, newspaper editor Clarion McCall, hotelier Auntie Climax, town drunk Mooch McHooch, gunsmith Cap’n Ball, banker Mort Gage, gambler Deuces Wilde and a rather feisty young ‘un dubbed Quyat Burp.

The town’s spiritual needs were catered to by Reverend Jubal Lee and the local Indian tribe was led by Chief Horse’s Neck

As years passed the dailies began spoofing contemporary events such as the James Bond craze, pop music and TV shows but the Sunday episodes (such as the grand selection from 1972-1976 reprinted in this paperback sized, but regrettably monochrome collection) retained their integrity and continued to spoof the traditions and shibboleths of the mythical Old West.

Bright and breezy slapstick rib-ticklers and laconic, tongue-in-cheek jokes involving drunks, card-games, guys joshing with each other, the malicious recalcitrance of horses and other inanimate objects resonated beside perennial duels and showdowns. Hipshot facing down a succession of goofy young wannabes regularly called the old gun-hawk out to steal his rep played and replayed continuously; all set against the breathtaking geography of Montana’s “Big Sky Country”…

Lynde moved to Ecuador and continued working in the Western genre, producing the strip Grass Roots, new material for Swedish magazine Fantomen, assorted graphic novels and – after regaining the rights to Rick O’Shay for his own Cottonwood Publishing company – new works and chronological collections of this classic strip until his untimely death in August 2013.

This nifty and delightful book from 1976 actually belonged to my wife until I took greedy full-possession of it: part of that glorious 1970s era of easily concealable paperback collections featuring classic strips like Peanuts and The Perishers and so many other magical ways to lose yourself whilst teachers droned on around you in interminable obliviousness.

Most of the books were even returned at the end of term, although some unscrupulous educators operated a “confiscation is forever” policy…

Fun and fulsome entertainment, this little gem won’t be easy to track down, but if giggles, guffaws and gunfights are your thing you’ll definitely want to round up those later Rick O’Shay Cottonwood releases and hopefully his family will be able to convince some major publisher – digital or otherwise – to get these magical strips and yarns into comprehensive mainstream collections for comics posterity…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Dracula Marries Frankenstein! – An Anne of Green Bagels Story

By Susan Schade & Jon Buller (Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-62991-815-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For All Those Who’ve Been Extra Good This Year… 9/10

Based in New York, Papercutz are a company committed to publishing comics material for younger readers, combining licensed properties such as The Smurfs and Nancy Drew with intriguing and compelling new concepts such as The Wendy Project and this tasty tantalising gem, released just in time for Halloween.

In her first adventure – where she found her long-missing dad – Anne Blossom and her family moved to the sleekly antiseptic metropolis and model community of Megatown. It was initially an uncomfortable fit. On her first day at school the other kids dubbed her Anne of Green Bagels because of the health-food spirulina lunch her grandmother had baked…

Eventually, however, she settled in, the town grew more human, she made some friends…

In this follow-up tale she and one of those pals – Otto Immaculata – decide to make a movie, and, being fans of spooky stories opt for a thriller-feature starring Frankenstein and Dracula.

As is always the way in these ventures, whilst scouting shooting venues, the plot evolves and by the time they have convinced the exceedingly eccentric owner of gothic mansion Herringbone Hall (which actually predates the entire city of Megatown) the project has morphed into a comedy romance entitled Dracula Marries Frankenstein.

The project proceeds apace but when the usually sweet dowager Augusta Herringbone realises the kids are contemplating and condoning “same-sex marriage” she reacts in a most peculiar and astounding manner!

And when her over-the-top response goes viral, Herringbone Hall suddenly catches fire! Has the kid’s innocent summer-fun project unleashed a wave of hatred and intolerance in Megatown, or is there an even more incredible secret to be exposed? Maybe this ill-starred tale is a horror story after all…

Smart, funny and warmly inclusive whilst tackling adult issues in an accessible manner, Dracula Marries Frankenstein blends mystery, laughs and adventure in the grand style, all delivered by creative – and wedded – couple Susan Schade & Jon Buller in their hybrid graphic novel (alternating illustrated text chapters with cartoon strip episodes, in the manner of our own Rupert Bear Annuals) format.

An excellent children’s romp for modern times and forward-thinking families.
© 2017 Susan Schade & Jon Buller.

Avengers Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Chic Stone & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-0883-2 (HC)                    978-0 7851 3706 1 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Classics to Enjoy Forever … 10/10

After a period of meteoric expansion, in 1963 the burgeoning Marvel Universe was finally ready to emulate the successful DC concept that cemented the legitimacy of the Silver Age of American comics.

The concept of putting a bunch of all-star eggs in one basket which had made the Justice League of America such a winner had inspired the moribund Atlas outfit – primarily Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko – into inventing “super-characters” of their own. The result in 1961 was the Fantastic Four.

Nearly 18 months later the fledgling House of Ideas had a viable stable of leading men (but only sidekick women) so Lee & Kirby assembled a handful of them and moulded them into a force for justice and soaring sales…

Seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963, The Avengers #1 launched as part of an expansion package which also included Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and The X-Men

Marvel’s Masterwork’s collections – available in hardcover, paperback and digital formats – are only one of many series faithfully compiling those groundbreaking tales and this premier volume gathers #1-10 of The Avengers spanning March 1963 to November 1964: a sequence no lover of superhero stories can do without…

Following an introduction from Stan the Man himself, the suspenseful action kicks off with ‘The Coming of the Avengers’: one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, Stan & Jack (plus inker Dick Ayers) assumed readers had at least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles and wasted very little time or energy on introductions.

In Asgard, Loki is imprisoned on a dank isle, hungry for vengeance on his half-brother Thor. Observing Earth, the god of evil espies the monstrous, misunderstood Hulk and mystically engineers a situation wherein the man-brute seemingly goes on a rampage, simply to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster.

When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance, devious Loki diverts the transmission and smugly awaits the blossoming of his mischief. Sadly, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp also pick up the redirected SOS….

As the heroes converge in the American Southwest to search for the Jade Giant, they soon realize that something is oddly amiss…

This terse, epic, compelling and wide-ranging yarn (New York, New Mexico, Detroit and Asgard in 22 pages) is Lee & Kirby at their bombastic best and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales) and is followed by ‘The Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Paul Reinman), wherein an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within.

With latent animosities exposed by the malignant masquerader, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team in disgust, only to return in #3 as an outright villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’

This globe-trotting romp delivers high-energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history as the assorted titans clashed in abandoned World War II tunnels beneath the Rock of Gibraltar.

Inked by George Roussos Avengers #4 was an epic landmark as Marvel’s greatest Golden Age sensation was revived for another increasingly war-torn era. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need: stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, Sub-Mariner and even subtle social commentary and – naturally – vast amounts of staggering Kirby Action.

Reinman returned to ink ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’: another staggering adventure romp as the team battle superhuman subterraneans and a world-threatening mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk…

However, even that pales before the supreme shift in quality that was Avengers #6.

Chic Stone – arguably Kirby’s best Marvel inker of the period – joined the creative team just as a classic arch-foe debuts. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ reveals how Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo is forced by his own arrogance and paranoia out of the South American jungles he’s been skulking in since the Third Reich fell, after learning his hated nemesis Captain America has returned from the dead.

To this end, the ruthless war-criminal recruits a gang of super-villains to attack New York City and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between valiant heroes and the vile murdering mercenaries Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is an unsurpassed example of prime Marvel magic to this day.

Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits for the Masters of Evil as Asgardian outcasts Enchantress and the Executioner ally with Zemo just as Iron Man is suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawning of the close-continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others)…

It may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’ but Avengers #8 held the greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers) relinquished his drawing role with the superb and entrancing invasion-from-time thriller which introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror!’

The Avengers evolved into an entirely different series when the subtle humanity of Don Heck’s work replaced the larger-than-life bombastic bravura of Kirby. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the massive number of pages his expanding workload demanded.

Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, progressing under his pencil, sub-plots and character interplay finally got as much space as action and spectacle.

His first outing was the memorable tragedy ‘The Coming of the Wonder Man!’ (inked by Ayers) wherein the Masters of Evil plant superhuman Trojan Horse Simon Williams within the ranks of the Avengers, only to have the conflicted infiltrator find deathbed redemption amongst the heroes…

This glorious collection concludes with the introduction of malignant master of time Immortus who briefly combines with Zemo’s devilish cohort to engineer a fatal division in the ranks when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’

Accompanied by a Marvel Masterwork Pin-Up of ‘The One and Only Cap’ the bonus features in this titanic tome include September 1963 house ads for the imminently debuting Avengers, a previous Kirby Masterworks cover colourised by painter Dean White, original cover art for Avenger #4 and Alex Ross’s recreation of it for the 1999 Overstreet Guide to Comics plus the usual round of Creator Biographies.

These immortal epics are tales that defined the Marvel experience and a joy no fan should deny themselves or their kids.
© 1963, 1964, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jeff Hawke: The Ambassadors

By Sydney Jordan & Willie Patterson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-598-9

One the world’s most captivating comics strips is inexplicably almost unknown amongst modern readers, but this appalling state of affairs could so easily be rectified simply by seeking this spiffy deluxe hardback from Titan Books – and its recently reviewed predecessor and falling under the intoxicating spell of some of the wittiest, most intriguing and outright astounding British science fiction ever written or drawn.

In both style and quality these superb tales from the 1960s are the only serious rival to the legendary Dan Dare that Britain has ever produced.

Sydney Jordan began his saga of a thinking man’s Flash Gordon in the Daily Express on February 2nd 1954, writing the first adventures himself. In 1956 his old school friend and associate Willie Patterson moved from Scotland to London to assist with fifth adventure ‘Sanctuary’, and stayed on to script the next one – ‘Unquiet Island’ – whilst sorting out his own career as a freelance scripter for such titles as Amalgamated Press’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Caroline Baker – Barrister at Law and eventually Fleetway’s War Picture Library series.

Jordan was never comfortable scripting, preferring to plot and draw, but his choice of collaborators was always immaculate – comicbook creator and sci fi novelist Harry Harrison wrote ‘Out of Touch’, (October 10th 1957 – April 5th 1958), Nick Faure and Martin Asbury worked with him in the 1970s and during the feature’s final days Syd hired a couple of talented tykes named Brian Bolland and Paul Neary to assist…

Patterson continued to supplement and assist Jordan intermittently until 1960 when – with fourteenth tale ‘Overlord’ – Patterson assumed the writing duties on a full-time basis, thereby launching the strip’s Golden Age. He remained the wordsmith-in-chief until 1969.

This second superb hardback volume (begging for re-release – or at least revival via a digital edition) opens with another fascinating memoir from Jordan himself before the wonderment begins.

‘Pastmaster’ (August 3rd – October 18th 1961) sees Space Scientist and trouble-shooter Hawke visiting the British Moonbase just as a crazed time-traveller from the future materialises, intent on changing history by transporting the entire complex back 10,000 years, and giving humanity a huge technological jump-start in the race’s development.

A terrific mix of sly comedy and startling action in the inimitable, underplayed style of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the best of John Wyndham, this romp of time-bending cops-&-robbers is a splendid appetiser for ‘The Immortal Toys’ (October 19th – 5th April 1962) which immediately follows.

Here, ancient Hindu jewels in the shape of insects are revealed to be something else entirely, leading Hawke and a rambunctious archaeologist reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s bombastic Professor Challenger to a long-hidden tomb and concrete evidence of alien visitors from Earth’s earliest pre-history.

No fan of Indiana Jones would want to miss this yarn – especially as here all the science, history and stunts are both plausible and possible and there are no nuke-defying fridges to be found anywhere…

‘The Ambassadors’ (6th April 1-13th July) is a winningly sharp, slick social satire with a brace of avian aliens – looking just like owls – arriving in London to offer Earth – free, gratis and for nothing – a device that will do away with work forever.

Instantly politicians and the media descend like vultures and the dry, self-deprecatory comedy of films like The Mouse That Roared resonates beside the wit and influence of Jonathan Swift as events snowball to a conclusion. Patterson could employ humour like a scalpel and, augmented by Jordan’s fantastic artwork and rich, incisive facility with expressions, produced here a gentle satire to rival the best of Private Eye, Tom Lehrer or TW3. If you’re also a devotee of Robert Sheckley or Eric Frank Russell, you’ll delight in how this yarn celebrates and exposes the worst of humanity…

Trust me, you’ll believe an owl can cry…

Exotic high adventure and Big Concept science dominates ‘The Gamesman’ (14th July – September 23rd) as a bored alien employs sub-atomic worlds for role-playing diversions; abducting a giant warrior, a technical wizard, a feisty “princess” and Hawke and his assistant from their respective worlds to play with – and for – him.

Unfortunately, ambition is a universal problem and the extraterrestrial dungeon-master quickly finds himself “played”…

The last tale in this sublime volume is another human-scaled fable touching on contemporary concerns, but although humour is still present in ‘A Test Case’ (September 24th 1962- 2nd January 1963), the over-arching theme is nuclear terror, as a second-rate scientist is granted ultra-advanced atomic knowledge by well-meaning aliens who have no idea how fragile a human mind can be…

The frantic desperation and tension as Hawke and the authorities scour London for a super-nuclear device primed to eradicate them all is chillingly reminiscent of the Boulting Brothers 1950 film classic Seven Days to Noon and makes of this memorable tale a timeless salutary warning…

Maybe we should send a copy to Pyongyang and Mar-a-Lago…

These are stories that appeared in daily episodes and their sardonic grasp of the nature of “the man-in-the-street” make them a delightful slice of social history as well as powerful and pure escapist entertainment.

Jeff Hawke is a rightly revered and respected milestone of graphic achievement almost everywhere except his country of origin. Hopefully there will be further attempts to reprint these graphic gems that will find a more receptive audience, and maybe we’ll even get to see those elusive earlier stories as well for a more receptive audience in the 21st century World of Tomorrow.
© 2008 Express Newspapers Ltd.