Tiny Titans volume 1: Welcome to the Treehouse


By Art Baltazar & Franco (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2207-5

The links between animated features and comicbooks are long established and I suspect, for young consumers, indistinguishable. After all, it’s just entertainment in the end…

For quite some time at the beginning of this century, DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was arguably the last bastion of children’s comics in America and worked to consolidate that link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and many other video favourites.

The kids’ comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of the publisher’s proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Krypto the Super Dog as well as material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely similar in tone and content.

Perhaps the line’s finest release was a series ostensibly aimed at early-readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily all mooshed up together, Tiny Titans became a sublime antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling (all together now: “erm, uh… I think you’ll find that in…”) by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans Go! animated series, the far greater boutique of the mainstream comicbooks – and eventually the entire DC Universe – to little kids and their parents/guardians in a wholesome kindergarten environment.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with multi-layered in-jokes, sight-gags and the beloved yet gently mocked trappings and paraphernalia generations of strip readers and screen-watchers can never forget….

Collecting issues #1-6 (April-September 2008) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this debut volume begins after an as-standard identifying roll-call page at ‘Sidekick City Elementary’ where new Principal Mr. Slade is revealed to be not only Deathstroke the Terminator but also poor Rose’s dad! How embarrassing…

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) mastered a witty, bemusingly gentle manner of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with the assorted characters getting by and trying to make sense of the great big world while having “Adventures in Awesomeness” like Beast Boy getting a new pet and becoming Man’s Dog’s Best Friend’

The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

Back in class Robin and Kid Flash tease a fellow student in ‘Speedy Quiz’ even as ‘Meanwhile in Titans Tower’ (the treehouse of the title) finds Wonder Girl, Bumblebee, Raven and Starfire discussing whether to let Batgirl Barbara Gordon join their circle…

Later they all meet up and help scary blob Plasmus cope with an ice cream crisis but shocks still abound at school. Raven’s dad is an antlered crimson devil from another universe but his most upsetting aspect is as the class’ new substitute teacher!

Happily, however, at the treehouse the kids can forget their worries, as Wonder Girl Cassie’s new casual look – after initial resistance – wins many admirers among the boys…

The original comics were filled with activity pages, puzzles and pin-ups, so ‘Help Best Boy Find his Puppy Friend!’ and awesome group-shot ‘Awwwww Yeah Titans!!!’, offers an artistic break before the shenanigans resume with ‘Ow’ as new girl Terra persists in throwing rocks at the boys but knows just how to make friends with the girls…

Not so much for the little lads though: they’ve got into another confrontation with mean kids Fearsome Five. Is the only way to determine who wins to keep ‘Just a-Swingin’’ and ignore those bullies…?

After teeny-weeny Little Teen Titan Kid Devil finds a delicious new way to use his heat power, Beast Boy becomes besotted by Terra in ‘Shadows of Love’, even though his obvious affection makes him act like an animal. While ‘Easy Bake Cyborg’ saves the day at snack time, the lovesick green kid follows some foolish advice and transforms into a ‘Beast Boy of Steel’,

At least Kid Devil is making friends by providing ‘Charbroiled Goodness’ for a local food vendor, just as the Fearsome Five show up again…

Following a pin-up of the bad kids and a brainteaser to ‘Match the Tiny Titans to their Action Accessories!’ a new school day finds science teacher Doctor Light losing control in ‘Zoology 101’ thanks to Beast Boy’s quick changes, after which ‘Sidekick’s Superheroes’ debate status and origins whilst Rose’s ‘Li’l Bro Jericho’ causes chaos and closes school for the day.

When Robin brings some pals home Alfred the Butler is reluctant to let them check out the ‘Batcave Action Playset’. He should have listened to his suspicions: that way there wouldn’t be so much mess or so many penguins…

After Aqualad’s suggestion ‘Let’s Play: Find Fluffy!’ the Boy Wonder has a strange day, starting with ‘Robin and the Robins’ and culminating in a new costume. Before that though, you can see ‘Beast Boy at the Dentist’, Wonder Girl enduring a ‘Babysittin’ Baby Makeover’, meet ‘Beast Boy’s Prize’ and experience hair gone wild in ‘Do the ‘Do’’.

Eventually, though, ‘It’s a Nightwing Thing’ revisits the exotic yesteryears of disco mania as Robin’s new outfit debuts to mixed reviews and reactions…

Once done testing your skill with the ‘Tiny Titans Match Game!’ and admiring a ‘Little Tiny Titans Bonus Pin-up’ there are big thrills in store when ‘Playground Invaders’ introduces annoying Titans from the East side of the communal games area…

Sadly, the Fearsome Five are still around to tease the former Robin in ‘Nightwing on Rye’ even whilst continuing epic ‘Enigma and Speedy’ sees the Boy Bowman trapped in a very one-sided battle of wits with the Riddler’s daughter…

Robin’s costume crisis continues to confuse in ‘May We Take a Bat-Message?’, resulting in a kid capitulation and ‘Back to Basics’ approach to the old look, after which ‘Tiny Titans Joke Time!’ and a ‘Tiny Titans East Bonus Pin-up’ segues neatly into ‘Meet Ya, Greet Ya’ with newcomers Supergirl and Blue Beetle turning up just ahead of a host of wannabee Titans (Power Boy, Zatara, Vulcan Jr., Hawk & Dove, Li’l Barda and Lagoon Boy)…

With the riotous regulars away camping, Raven opens her eyes to a potential daybreak disaster as ‘Home with the Trigons’ finds her dressed by her dad for a change. Meanwhile, ‘Let’s Do Lunch’ finds Blue Beetle losing a very public argument with his backpack and when the kids bring their super-animal pals in, it all goes horribly wrong. At least they decide that the “First Rule of Pet Club is: We Don’t Talk About Pet Club”…

This insanely addictive initial collection then wraps up with visual and word puzzles ‘How Many Beast Boy Alpacas Can You Count?’ and ‘Blue Beetle Backpack Language Translation!’, a huge and inclusive Pin-up of ‘The Tiny Titans of Sidekick City Elementary’ and a hilarious ‘Tiny Titans “Growth Chart”’

Despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts or The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in pure American comic-bookery – are outrageously unforgettable yarns and gags no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures: Sheriff of Bullet Valley (Gladstone Comic Album #5)


By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-944599-04-4

From the 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion, writing and drawing a brilliantly timeless treasure trove of comedic adventure yarns for kids, building a splendidly accessible Duck Universe filled with memorable – and highly bankable – stars such as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose and Magica De Spell to augment the stable of cartoon properties from the Disney Studio. His most exciting works inevitably involved the rowdy, know-it-all nephews of Donald Duck: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Although catalysts of comedic chaos in other situations when the mallard miser was around, the devilishly downy ducklings’ usual assigned roles were as smartly sensible, precocious and a just a little bit snotty kid-counterfoils to their “unca”, whose irascible nature caused him to act like an overgrown brat most of the time.

Nevertheless, all too often the kids reverted to type and fell prey to a perpetual temptation to raise a ruckus…

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing Barks material and a selection of other Disney comics strips in the late 1980s and this – still readily available – paperback album is another of the very best.

Whilst producing all that landmark comics material Barks was just a working guy, drawing unforgettable covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and infallibly contributing perfectly formed tales to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters. Barks’ output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278 x 223mm), this terrific tome reprints the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics Series II #199 (October 1948) and draws much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself and offers the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture…

Titular lead Donald Duck is also an expert on the Wild West – after all, he’s seen all the movies – so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination.

Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch the rustlers who have been plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks and tommy-guns to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and Junior Woodchuck training defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

Also included here is a delightful comedy of farmyard errors from Daisy Duck’s Diary (Dell Four Color Comics Series II, #1150 December 1960), pitting the well-meaning old fussbudget against luck-drenched Gladstone Gander and consequently suffering from ‘Too Much Help’.

Donald and the nephews then return, finding themselves at odds with the self-same fowl of fabulous good-fortune in an untitled yarn from Walt Disney Comics & Stories #212 (May 1958), wherein our hard-luck hero and Gladstone race around the world in rocket-ships, cheerfully provided courtesy of that feathered modern Edison Gyro Gearloose. The diminutive ducky lads can only watch in nervous anticipation of inescapable disaster catching up to the feuding “adults”…

Even if you can’t find this specific volume (and trust me, you’ll be glad if you do) Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets and every one of his works is well worth reading. No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine.

Always remember, a fan’s got to do what a fan’s got to do…
© 1988, 1960, 1958, 1948 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Valerian – The Complete Collection volume 2


By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-356-7

Valérian is arguably the most influential pictorial science fiction series ever published – and yes, I am including both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in that expansive and undoubtedly contentious statement.

Although to a large extent those venerable newspaper strips formed the medium itself, anybody who has seen a Star Wars movie has seen some of Jean-Claude Méziéres & Pierre Christin’s brilliant imaginings which the filmic phenomenon has shamelessly plundered for decades: everything from the look of the Millennium Falcon to Leia’s Slave Girl outfit…

Simply put, more carbon-based lifeforms have experienced and marvelled at the uniquely innovative, grungy, lived-in tech realism and light-hearted swashbuckling roller-coasting of Méziéres & Christin than any other cartoon spacer ever imagined possible.

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent launched in the November 9th 1967 edition of Pilote (#420, running until February 15th 1968). Although it was a huge hit, graphic album compilations only began with second tale The City of Shifting Waters, as all concerned considered the first yarn as a work-in-progress and not quite up to a preferred standard.

You can judge for yourself, by getting hold of the previous hardcover compilation volume…

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in science fiction triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella. Other notable successes of the era include Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane cosmic excursions, which all – with Valérian – stimulated mass public reception to science fiction and led to the creation of dedicated fantasy periodical Métal Hurlant in 1977.

Valérian and Laureline (as the series became) was a light-hearted, wildly imaginative time-travel adventure-romp (a bit like Doctor Who, but not really all that much), drenched in wry, satirical, humanist and political social commentary, starring (at least at first) an affable, brawny, capably unimaginative and by-the-book cop tasked with protecting the universal time-lines and counteracting paradoxes caused by casual time-travellers…

In the course of the first escapade Valerian picked up fiery, capable Laureline – originating in the 11th century but later becoming our hero’s (far smarter) assistant and deputy. The indomitable girl trained as a Spatio-Temporal operative and was soon an accompanying Val on missions throughout time and space… luckily for him…

Valérian adventures were initially serialised in weekly Pilote until the conclusion of 13th adventure The Rage of Hypsis (January 1st-September 1st 1985) after which the mind-bending exploits were simply premiered as all-new complete graphic novels, until the magnificent saga concluded in 2010.

(One clarifying note: in the canon “Hypsis” is counted as the twelfth tale, due to the collected albums being numbered from The City of Shifting Waters. When Bad Dreams was finally released in a collected edition in 1983 it was given the number #0).

This splendid second oversized hardback compendium – designed to cash in on this summer’s spectacular movie adaptation from Luc Besson – once again boasts a wealth of text features. These include the next chapter of the continuing ‘Interview Luc Besson, Jean-Claude Méziéres and Pierre Christin’, after which Stan Barets picks out the creative highpoints and methodology of the creators in his essay ‘The Intergalactic Unites the Human Race!’.

‘Valerian in His Own Time’ traces the development of the strip in France, with unseen and remastered art examples. Between 1981 and 1985, Dargaud-Canada and Dargaud-USA published a quartet of albums in English (with a limited UK imprint from Hodder-Dargaud) under the umbrella title Valerian: Spatiotemporal Agent. Written by Will Eisner and Daniel Richie, the original Introductions to two pertinent early editions are included here after which ‘The Stories in this Book’ offers context and a taste of things to come…

Once more re-presenting a trio of classic formative fantasy-fests, the fabulous fun recommences here with The Land Without Stars. This originally ran in Pilote #570-592 (October 8th 1970 to March 11th 1971) and follows the Spatio-Temporal agents as they undertake a tedious pro forma inspection of a cluster of new Terran colonies in the Ukbar star-system at the very edge of inter-galactic space…

However, the mission soon goes awry when a wandering world is detected on a collision course with the system and Valerian, still labouring under the effects of too many local alcoholic “diplomatic protocols”, decides that they should investigate at close quarters…

Despite being pickled, the rather insufferable lead agent lands with his long-suffering assistant on the runaway planet and discovers that this celestial maverick is hollow. Moreover, a thriving ancient culture or three thrive there, utterly unaware that they are not the only beings in all of creation…

Typically, however, of sentient beings everywhere, two of the civilisations are currently locked in a millennia-old war, armed and supplied by the third…

After an accident wrecks their exploratory scout ship Valerian and Laureline deduce the constant warfare originally caused the hollow world to tumble unchecked through space and will eventually result in its complete destruction, so in short order the professional meddlers split up to infiltrate the warring nations of Malka and Valsennar.

However, they are in for more surprises. Both city-states are divided on gender grounds, with Malka home to prodigious warrior women who subjugate their effete and feeble males whilst the aristocratically foppish but deadly dandies of Valsennar delight in beautiful, proficient and lethally lovely ladies – but only as totally compliant servants and chattels…

The highly-trained Galaxity operatives quickly rise in the ranks of each court – from slaves and toys to perfectly placed, trusted servants – and soon have ample opportunity to change the nature of the doomed civilisations within the collision-course world, after which the heroes even concoct a cannily cunning method of ending the planet’s random perambulations; giving it a stable orbit and new lease on life…

All in a day’s work, naturally, although it does take a few months to sort out: still what’s time to a couple of brilliant Spatio-Temporal agents?

Happily, this mind-boggling socio-sexual satire is packed with astounding action, imaginative imagery and fantastic creatures to provide zest to a plot that has since become rather overused – sure proof of the quality of this delightful, so-often imitated original yarn – but, as always, the space-opera is fun-filled, witty, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious. Drenched in wickedly wide-eyed wonderment, science fiction sagas have never been better than this.

Welcome to Alflolol was first seen in Pilote #631-652 (December 1971-May 1972) and starts as the Spatio-Temporal agents depart from Technorog, a desolate industrial planet whose vast resources are crucial to the running of human civilisation.

So vital in fact, that Galaxity sends her best agents just to inspect it every now and then…

As the S-T agents carefully negotiate the immense forcefield and lethal asteroid belt that surrounds the harsh, ferociously capitalistic factory world, Laureline is repeatedly possessed by an uncanny force. The fits draw the couple to an immense ship which has foundered between the floating rocks and searing energy screen…

Investigating the vessel, which is purposely open to hard vacuum, Laureline again lapses into a glowing coma and eerily drifts towards a family of incredibly powerful yet rustically affable alien primitives sitting on the hull of their seemingly derelict vehicle.

Valerian, closely following behind, prevents a terrible accident to his companion and is warmly greeted by the strangers, who explain that the eldest of their contingent is very ill and in her fevered throes has locked minds with his female. If they’re not careful, both might die…

Garrulous, easy-going Argol agrees to let Valerian treat the problem, so his wife Orgal telekinetically transports the Earthlings, her entire family and their pet Gumun back to the Earthlings’ astroship in mere moments. Soon, Terran technology has saved both human and alien and Argol settles back to explain what has happened…

These wanderers are naively friendly and immensely long-lived – like all their species – and are simply returning to their homeworld Alflolol after an amusing and gentle perambulation through space. However, since their departure – 4,000 Earth years ago – somebody else has moved in…

Problems soon occur. Despite the Technorog Governor’s outraged protests, Galaxity law is clear and the Alflololians must be allowed back on their planet, no matter the cost to productivity or profits…

However, the wheedling plutocrat – secure in his job’s importance to the empire – realises he doesn’t have to hand over the keys, just make room for five meekly polite cosmic gypsies. The nomadic returnees, meanwhile, simply cannot grasp the concept of business and don’t understand why anybody would put up lots of flimsy, ugly buildings which spoil the hunting……

As Valerian allows the businessmen to walk all over the aliens’ rights, Laureline goes berserk: arguing for Argol’s family whilst indulging in a little light-hearted sabotage because the gentle giants won’t do it for themselves…

She needn’t bother though: their mere presence and incredible abilities are enough to disrupt the Governor’s precious productivity, especially when they get bored of sterile human accommodations and return to their ancestral ranges…

The real crisis only begins when the rest of the nomadic Alflololians return: one hundred separate ships full of natives protected by law and fully entitled to reclaim their homes.

The humans won’t leave, however, and soon the Governor is herding the wanderers onto a reservation and demanding they work if they want to eat.

Big mistake…

Poignantly challenging if not actually ruthlessly crusading, this is one of the earliest comics tales to catch the 1970s wave of ecological awareness and still ranks amongst the very best to explore the social iniquities which beset indigenous peoples at a time when most European ex-empires were still grudgingly divesting themselves of their colonial possessions.

The theme of Capitalism versus Native Culture and the eternal struggle between territorial imperatives, moral rights and holy profit have seldom been dealt with in such an effective, sardonic and hilariously surreal manner. Ending on an outrageous twist, the story has lost none of its wit and punch forty years later.

And, of course, there’s the usual glorious blend of astounding action, compelling imagery and fantastic creatures to leaven the morality play with space-operatic, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious wide-eyed wonderment…

Concluding the intergalactic investigations this go-round is Birds of the Master (originally serialised in Pilote #710-720 from June 14th to September 16th 1973) rejoining our now perpetually bickering odd couple as they are drawn into an eerie space Sargasso and marooned on a planetoid that has become a cemetery for spaceships.

Swept away by a tidal wave over a colossal waterfall, they are drowning amidst beds of kelp when a motley band of fisherfolk – comprised of many different species – haul the Spatio-Temporal agents aboard a ramshackle boat. In the skies high above, a vast cloud of malevolent birds circle, the same incredible creatures which had brought down their astroship.

Compelled to join in gathering the seaweed, the humans soon learn that the crop is destined for a mysterious unseen overlord dubbed The Master and the critically circling ugly avians are his enforcers: violent creatures inflicting madness with a bite…

The workers are nothing but despondent slaves. Bitterly discontented recent arrival Sül takes it upon himself to teach Valerian and Laureline what they need to know to survive as the slimy cargo is torturously shipped across bleak, unforgiving and forlorn terrain. As they toil onwards the newcomers observe an entire society all dedicated to providing vast amounts of food for the hidden overlord.

At the central gathering point where assorted food items from a hundred different sources are reduced to a liquid mass dubbed “Klaar” one of the starving toilers cracks, seeking to consume a morsel of the Master’s provender, and is immediately set upon by the sinister Birds of Madness. Furious Sül breaks too and – dashing to the worker’s aid – is similarly accosted. Cautious Valerian can barely stop his partner using her concealed ray-weapons in a futile attempt to save them…

When the Birds are done the battered survivors can barely speak. The first rebel now believes he can fly whilst Sül is left a babbling, aggressive shadow of his former self.

With the Klaar safely dispatched through a complex system of pipes to a distant hidden destination, the emaciated workers fall upon the spilled scraps before hurling the latest victims of the birds into the Pit of Crazies. Despite being thoroughly beaten in the melee, our heroes follow and join Sül in a peculiar enclave of deranged beings, each manifesting their own brand of bewilderment yet all sharing the same strange and disturbing speech impediment…

Valerian and Laureline are again viciously attacked when they seek aid from the “sane” slaves, and instead opt to follow the pipeline with the most ambulatory of the insane, heading deep into increasingly inhospitable country to confront the hidden cause of all their woes.

At first frantically followed by the outraged slave force, the strange crew eventually outdistance their pursuers as they head deeper into the harsh, barren wastelands until they are attacked by the ever-circling birds. As a result, the Spatio-Temporal agents are also infected by the speech-wrecking madness…

Pressing on regardless, the raving rovers follow an eerie glowing mist and at last face the vile creature which has lured, trapped and enslaved so many sentient beings. Subjected to an overwhelming psychic assault that no single mind – sane or otherwise – could resist, all hope seems lost.

Happily, the Master has never faced anyone as ingenious as Laureline and her desperate plan enables the assembled “Loonies” to fight back and drive the predatory horror off-planet and into the depths of space…

With the creature’s pernicious influence dispelled, the voyagers’ senses return and the victims head back to the settlements where the slaves have descended into a food-fuelled debauch. Surprisingly, once Valerian and Laureline have freed and repaired their astroship from the stellar graveyard, only Sül wants to leave with them…

Expansive, thrilling, funny, clever and holding back one last wry twist in the tale, The Birds of the Master might be one of the lesser galactic classics of this superb series, but it still packs a gripping narrative punch and some of the most impressive artwork ever to grace sci-fi comics.

These spectacular space-opera romps are fun-filled, action-packed, conceptually engaging and mind-bogglingly ingenious: drenched in wide-eyed fantasy wonderment, this is a slice of sheer science fiction heaven that has never been bettered…
© Dargaud Paris, 2016 by Christin, Méziéres & Tranlệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2016 Cinebook Ltd.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War


By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Quick & Flupke: Under Full Sail


By Hergé, translated by David Radzinowicz (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-4052-4743-6

Once upon a time in Belgium and many other places, the adventures of two mischievous young scallywags rivalled the utterly irresistible adventurer Tintin in popularity. It wasn’t that big a deal for Hergé and his publishers as Quick & Flupke was being produced by the young master and his studio team in conjunction with the dashing boy reporter.

In fact the strip probably acted as a test lab for the humorous graphic elements so much a part of the future world classic and the little terrors even cameoed frequently in the star vehicle…

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky Tintin and his entourage of iconic associates, but the hero was by no means his only creation. Among the best of the rest are Jo, Zette and Jocko and the episodic all-ages – and in the majority criminally unavailable – comedy gems highlighted here today.

On leaving school in 1925 Hergé worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A dedicated boy scout himself, Georges produced his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for Boy Scouts of Belgium monthly magazine the following year, and by 1928 the artist was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

Hergé was unhappily illustrating L’Extraordinaire Aventure de Flup, Nénesse, Poussette et Cochonnet (The Extraordinary Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonnet) – scripted by the staff sports reporter – when Abbot Wallez tasked him with creating a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues and rubbishing contradictory philosophies and ideologies?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi wanted to incorporate the innovation into his own work. He would create a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning on January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme, running until May 8th 1930.

The strip generated a huge spike in sales and Wallez allowed Hergé to hire Eugène Van Nyverseel and Paul “Jam” Jamin as art assistants. Naturally the Editor wanted to see a return in terms of more product, and – according to Remi’s later recollections – he returned from a brief well-earned vacation to find his staff had played an office prank by announcing that he was about to launch a second weekly strip…

Briefly flummoxed, he rapidly concocted a strip starring a little rascal over a few days, based largely on his own childhood and French film Les Deux Gosses (The Two Kids), and the impertinent pair (or at least one of them) premiered in the Le Petit Vingtiéme for January 23rd 1930. The strip would become Quick & Flupke when, three weeks later, a pint-sized partner in peril debuted, initially answering to “Suske” before soon evolving into Flupke (which is Flemish for “little Phillip”)…

Unleashed in weekly 2-page monochrome exploits, two working class rapscallions in Brussels played pranks, got into mischief and even ventured into the heady realms of slapstick and surrealism in the kind of yarns that any reader of Dennis the Menace (ours, not the Americans’) would find fascinatingly familiar. Readers everywhere loved them…

The strip was immensely successful, although Hergé paid it little heed and frequently only began each week’s episode a day or even mere hours before press-time. The fare was rapid-fire, pun-packed, stand-alone and often fourth-wall breaking which – as eny fule kno – never gets old…

Despite being increasingly sidelined after Hergé began The Adventures of Jo, Zette and Jocko for Cœurs Vaillants at the end of 1935, our likely lads larked about for over a decade, becoming more an artefact of the assistants (and latterly artist Johan de Moor) until the war and the pressure of producing Tintin meant they had to go.

Quick & Flupke were rediscovered in 1985 and their remastered, collected escapades ran for 12 full-colour albums in Europe and India until 1991.

As English translations, we only ever saw a couple of volumes such as this oversized (221 x 295 mm) hardcover compendium from 2009: delighting us with nearly two dozen sparkling romps for laughter-starved lovers of classic comics comedy.

Hopefully, now we’ve got a burgeoning digital reading base, they will all be available for folk too lazy to learn French (or Dutch or German or…) as digital editions. These lost classics are certainly long-overdue for rediscovery and are perfect light reading for kids of all ages.
© Hergé – Exclusivity Editions Casterman 1986. All Rights Reserved. English translation © 2009 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Captain America Epic Collection volume 3: Bucky Reborn


By Stan Lee, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, Wally Wood, Dick Ayers, Tom Palmer, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0419-7

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. After all, Julie Schwartz had scored incredible successes with his revised versions of National’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated the Timely/Atlas stable in those halcyon days.

A new youthful Human Torch premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 on and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. With reader-reaction strong, the real deal returned in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964). From there on, the only way was up…

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection re-presents Captain America #120-#139 spanning December 1969 to June 1971 and opens after the Sentinel of Liberty thwarts the Red Skull’s greatest vengeance scheme: having just trained a future partner in the form of Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon

As 1970 dawned Marvel imposed a moratorium on continued stories for most of their titles, and Cap – having returned to his hectic twin lives as SHIELD Agent and mighty Avenger – here hops on the disaffected youth/teen revolt bandwagon for a series of slight but highly readable puff-pieces promising nothing but delivering much.

Kicking off is ‘Crack-up on Campus!’ by Stan Lee, Gene Colan & Joe Sinnott; an odd mélange of student radicalism and espionage that sees itinerant Steve Rogers become a Physical Education teacher to foil a scheme by the sinister Modok and his AIM cohorts.

A demented bio-chemist then rediscovers the Super Soldier serum that had originally created Captain America in ‘The Coming of the Man-Brute!’ Sadly, the demented boffin picks the wrong candidate to become his Blockbuster stooge…

Spider-Man’s old sparring partner mugs the wrong guy in #122’s ‘The Sting of the Scorpion!’ and falls before Cap’s bludgeoning fists before issue #123 taps into the seemingly eternal “battle of the sexes” zeitgeist with ‘Suprema, The Deadliest of the Species!’ turning her espionage-tinged attentions to the Star-Spangled Avenger…

AIM returns with their latest hi-tech human weapon in ‘Mission: Stop the Cyborg!’ before Captain America #125 dips into more sensational contemporary headline fare when the Sentinel of Liberty is ‘Captured… in Viet Nam!’… although the mystery villain du jour is anything but politically motivated…

Frank Giacoia returned to ink the Avenger’s long-anticipated reunion with his erstwhile associate and partner in #126’s ‘The Fate of… the Falcon!’: gleefully tapping into the blossoming “blaxsploitation” trend to recount an entertaining (although, sadly, not always intentionally) caper of gangsters and radicals in funky old Harlem that still has a kick to it. Just play the (original) theme from Shaft whilst reading it…

Still working off-the-books for super-scientific government spy-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) Cap demands ‘Who Calls Me Traitor?’ (#127, July 1970, by Lee, Colan & Wally Wood), which finds the veteran hero framed and manipulated by friend and foe alike in the search for a double agent in the ranks, after which the embittered Avenger drops out and decides to “discover America” – as so many kids were doing – on the back of a freewheeling motorcycle.

‘Mission: Stamp Out Satan’s Angels!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) finds the Red, White and Blue wanderer barely clear the city limits before encountering a nasty gang of bikers terrorising a small-town rock festival, before his oldest enemy resurfaces to exact ‘The Vengeance of… the Red Skull’ as a simple by-product of his plane to start a Middle East war…

Issue #130 finds Cap ‘Up Against the Wall!’ as old foe Batroc the Leaper leads the Porcupine and Whirlwind in a fully paid-for ambush by villain unknown just as the Sentinel of the establishment is attempting to defuse an imminent college riot. The mysterious contractor then resorts to a far subtler tactic: launching a psychological assault in ‘Bucky Reborn!’

With the mystery manipulator exposed, the tragic true story behind the resurrected sidekick comes out in ‘The Fearful Secret of Bucky Barnes!’– a powerful, complex drama involving ruthless science terrorists A.I.M., their murderous master Modok and even Doctor Doom

Back in New York, Advanced Idea Mechanics again feature prominently in #133 as Modok foments racial unrest by sending a killer cyborg to create ‘Madness in the Slums!’, allowing Cap to reunite with his protégé the Falcon – whose name even began appearing on the cover from the next issue.

Operating as full-fledged official partners, the dynamic duo battle ghetto gangsters in ‘They Call Him… Stone-Face!’ (Captain America and the Falcon #134, with Ayers inking), before the Avenger introduces his new main man to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the chilling ‘More Monster than Man!’ (inked by Tom Palmer). Here a love-struck scientist turns himself into an awesome anthropoid to steal riches, only to end up in ‘The World Below’ (with the legendary Bill Everett applying his brilliant inks to Colan’s moody pencils) as a collateral casualty of the Mole Man’s latest battle with Cap.

With the Falcon coming to the rescue, the Star-Spangled Avenger is back on the surface when his new partner vaingloriously opts ‘To Stalk the Spider-Man’ – a typical all-action Marvel misunderstanding that is forestalled just in time for Stone-Face to return in #138’s ‘It Happens in Harlem!’ as John Romita the elder resumed his illustrative association with Captain America for the beginning of a lengthy and direction-changing saga…

Which will have to wait for the next volume to continue…

Rounding out the riotous adventure, bonus extras include the cover to the all-reprint Captain America Annual #1, assorted house ads, a selection of Colan’s original art pages and covers, rejected covers and sketches by Marie Severin…

Any retrospective or historical re-reading is going to turn up a few cringe-worthy moments, but these tales of matchless courage and indomitable heroism are fast-paced, action-packed and illustrated by some of the greatest artists and storytellers American comics has ever produced.

As the nation changed Captain America was finally discovering his proper place in a new era and would once more become unmissable, controversial comicbook reading, as we shall see when I get around to reviewing the next volume…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Barbe


By André-Francois Barbe (Volksverlag)
ISBN: 3-88631-075-2

I’m not saying this is setting any precedent, but to be honest there’s so much great comic material I’d like to share, and it’s not just separated from us by a gulf of years and publisher’s timidity: Lots of it has simply never been collected in English language editions.

So when I rediscovered this mostly wordless little gem, packed away since our last house-move, I thought “there’s probably whole ‘nother generation of fans out there who have no idea such graphic wonders exist”… and this review of an actual foreign book is the result.

If you Google the name André Barbe you’ll probably see lots of stuff about “Shift-add correlation patterns of linear cellular automata” and the like.

I, however am talking about the other one, the artist and cartoonist fascinated both by sex and by the progression and sequencing of pictures which slowly transform from one state of meaning to another.

This André-Francois Barbe was born in Nimes on St. Valentine’s day in 1936 and became a cartoonist in 1958, selling his comedic work to Le Rire, Hara-Kiri, Charlie Mensuel and Pilote. Fascinated by science and history he was a potent political activist and produced varied pictorial works encompassing volcanism, palaeontology, cinema, opera, history and other seemingly unconnected arenas of interest. He could draw really, really well.

Barbe died on February 9th 2014.

Much of Barbe’s output is lasciviously erotic, with many overtones and similarities to the designs and vision of Vaughn Bodé, but the silent panoramas collected in this ridiculously rare tome indicate very personal obsessions.

The fascination with minute pictorial changes which lead to a total transformation, not just of the physical representations but usually also the mental or spiritual state of the subject – as well as the content – make his drawings and strips a mesmerising, languid journey of discovery. He also has a wicked, sly, sardonic sense of humour.

I honestly don’t know where or even if you can find examples of his work. Perhaps some of our European readers might be able to offer some suggestions? All I know is that this is brilliant and innovative use of the techniques that are uniquely the province of graphic narrative and sequential art, and that such visual virtuosity should be applauded, appreciated and seen as widely as possible.
Artwork © 1981 André Barbe and Volksverlag. All rights reserved or Alles Rechte vorbehalten, if you prefer…

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection


By Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & various (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN: 978-1887591515(HB)             978- 1-887591-44-3(TPB)

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all arenas of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories…

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and the relatively recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of superb yet not-quite-transformational, essentially magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of insubstantial material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American mass family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West as already firmly established through paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s definitely a thought for another time and review.

Comicbooks reacted with a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling pantheon of costumed Mystery Men and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American comics tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most historical figures would quickly find a home and of course, facts counted for little, as indeed they never had with cowboy stories…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six titles in their admittedly eclectic stable had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the adequately scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within this beguiling hardback compilation cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a recreational peccadillo nor an extreme sport) and all fans of fabulous sequential narrative artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun, constantly forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots: a wandering warrior having far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have plenty to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ our put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad traditional touchstones of cinematic Western mythology.

This monochrome collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951), primarily featuring the stunning early illustration of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino – who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics – as well as stylish frontispieces by the masterful Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The latter’s elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap-n-cheerful DC giant phonebook format as seen with DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials – or at least in a comprehensive digital download?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and timeless action – what more could you possibly ask for?
© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.

Amazing Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt


By J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, Bob McLeod & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2330-9 (HC)                    978-0-7851-3450-3 (TPB)

A character with the longevity and sheer number of separate venues to shine in as Spider-Man throws up a lot of dross over the decades, but is also infinitely evergreen when thoughtfully handled by top flight creators. Sometimes the writers and artists involved don’t even realise at the time that their crafting something memorable and timelessly special…

Kraven’s Last Hunt (originally collected as Spiderman: Fearful Symmetry) is just such a saga and is thankfully handily available in a variety of formats from spiffy hardback to cheap‘n’cheerful trade paperback – and now even as a digital edition for all true sons and daughters of the 21st century…

Heck, there’s even a picture-free novelisation by Neil Kleid out there, but perhaps that’s a step too far for most comics addicts…

The eerie psycho-drama originally ran in the October and November 1987 issues of Web of, Amazing, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man; following darkly obsessed and suicidal Russian émigré Kraven the Hunter as years of rivalry and constant defeats are turned around, leading the aging monster inexorably to his greatest triumph and ultimate downfall.

In the process the sinister stalker conquers, inters and Oedipally replaces his arch-nemesis, before inevitably succumbing to his own tragic just deserts.

After years of pointless struggle, Kraven here is back-written into an intrinsically noble but twisted relic of a bygone era, whose compulsion to defeat Spider-Man spirals into a demented desire to consume and then become him. The Hunter’s initial success only serves to highlight the fundamental differences between him and his prey, such as how each man deals with the savagely cannibalistic rat/man hybrid Vermin who brutally rampages through the rain-soaked and terrified city in a compelling and efficient sub-plot, or with those ordinary people who impinge upon the lives of protagonist and antagonist equally.

After years of generally C-List villainy, Kraven’s latest plan initial succeeds in ‘Coffin’ (Web of Spider-Man #31) after the Hunter ritualistically devours his foe’s totems before ambushing the webspinner…

In ‘Crawling’ (Amazing Spider-Man #31), sewer-dwelling psychopath Vermin begins brutally marauding through a sodden city, drawing delusional “Spider the Hunter” – now wearing his foe’s pelt (for which read Spider-Man costume) – into conflict. Kraven is attempting to take his beaten enemy’s place even as newlywed Mary Jane Watson-Parker starts really worrying over the current whereabouts of her husband…

When she sees Spider-Man savagely thrashing a pack of street thugs, she knows the man standing before her isn’t Peter…

‘Descent’ (Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #131) sees Kraven capture Vermin and finally acknowledge that his own victory is not what he wanted, before seemingly dead and buried Peter Parker literally resurfaces in ‘Resurrection’ (WoS #31) to battle his own shattering psychological demons. Final scores are settled in ‘Thunder’ (ASM #32), before all the horror comes to a shocking halt in PPSS #132’s epic confrontation ‘Ascending’

Despite its heavy psychological underpinnings, Fearful Symmetry/Kraven’s Last Hunt is a gripping helter-skelter thrill ride, simultaneously moody and fast-paced. Writer J.M. DeMatteis curtails his tendency to overwrite, stifles his leanings toward snappy one-liners or maudlin sentimentality and lets terror and trauma rule, giving art team Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod plenty of opportunities to impress with traditional yet spectacular comic art set-pieces.

This series electrified Spider-Man fans when it first appeared and it has lost none of its power today. This is a must-have item for any fan of the Amazing Arachnid or the superhero medium.
© 1989, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle


By David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., Bob Layton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3095-6(HB)                 978-0-7851-2043-8(TPB)

Tony Stark is a millionaire inventor who moonlights as a superhero: wearing a suit of armour stuffed with his own ingenious creations. The supreme technologist hates to lose and constantly upgrades his gear, making Iron Man is one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. However, at the time of these tales (reprinting Iron Man #120-128 spanning March to November 1979), the unrelenting pressure of running a multi-national corporation and saving the world daily has started to show itself in the subtle increase in Tony Stark’s partying – and drinking.

This light, breezy compilation contains some of the best mainstream super-hero sagas of the 1980s but is also regarded as one of the most remarkable, transformative and powerfully redemptive tales of the period (crafted by David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., Carmine Infantino and Bob Layton), as an epic battle of Good against Evil became seditiously relevant to the readership through its full-on confrontation of a modern social evil.

Following an already stellar run of stories, ‘The Old Man and the Sea Prince!’ (by Michelinie, Romita Jr. & Layton) found the Armoured Avenger battling amphibian superman and sometime ally the Sub-Mariner before uniting against officious military martinets intent on dislodging aged hermit Hiram Cross from the strategically useful island he lived on.

And unsuspected in the background, financial predator Justin Hammer continued his preparations to destroy Iron Man and break Stark’s financial empire…

His first strike was to override the amazing armour in the middle of an underwater duel in ‘A Ruse by Any Other Name…’ but even with that handicap, Stark and his allies Bethany Cabe and Jim Rhode managed to expose unscrupulous conglomerate Roxxon as the cause of all Hiram’s woes… not that it did them any good…

Infantino then pencils a refitted recap of Iron Man’s origins in ‘Journey’ before Hammer steps up his campaign in #123’s ‘Casino Fatale!’ (Michelinie, Romita Jr. & Layton) as a small army of hired villains attack the hero in Atlantic City just when the Iron Man suit is at its most gremlin-afflicted…

The assault escalates in ‘Pieces of Hate!’ (“Layton & Friends” sharing inking duties) but even after scoring an incredible, improbable victory Stark is left reeling when Hammer plays his ace. Taking full control of Iron Man’s armour, the evil plutocrat makes Stark the unwilling accomplice and murder weapon in a monstrous crime, pushing the hero over the edge and into a spiral of despair…

After his super-sophisticated suit “malfunctions” again, killing a foreign ambassador at a major diplomatic function the disgraced and grieving Stark surrenders the armour to the authorities. However, undaunted and finally aware of what’s been going on, he enlists new Ant-Man Scott Lang to his small band of allies and goes undercover to find his hidden enemy in #125’s ‘The Monaco Prelude’.

Nonetheless, the villain seems triumphant when ‘The Hammer Strikes!’, abducting the heroes and gloatingly revealing his dastardly scheme. However, the smirking monster has grievously underestimated his rival’s capabilities and the power of Iron Man in the spectacular final clash ‘…A Man’s Home is His Battlefield!’

Tragically, when the dust settles and the bad guys are all disposed of, Stark has time to obsess over the lives lost and turns to the booze that has increasingly been his only solace in the past months…

The fall and rise of a hero is a classic plot, and it’s seldom been better used in the graphic narrative medium and never bettered in the super-hero field than in ‘Demon in a Bottle’ as the traumatised hero plumbs the depths of grief and guilt, buries himself in pity, and alienates all his friends and allies before an unlikely intervention forces him to take a long, hard look at his life and actions…

Available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook, Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle is a complex and very mature tale for kids of all ages, and an unforgettable instance of Triumph and Tragedy perfectly told. If you have let this tale pass you by, you are the poorer for it and should amend that situation as soon as possible.
© 1984, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.