X-Men: Bloodline


By Brian Wood, Matteo Buffagni, Phil Briones, Clay Mann, Gerardo Sandoval,Seth Mann, Paco Diaz & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-622-9

Since its revival in 1975 Marvel’s Mutant franchise has always strongly featured powerful and often controversial female characters, so when the fourth volume of the adjectiveless X-Men launched it was no real surprise to see that the leading line-up comprised exclusively women warriors.

This third collected chronicle, scripted by Brian Wood, re-presents issues #13-17 (from April to July 2014) – a spectacular, all-action five-part thriller ‘Bloodlines’ lavishly illustrated by Matteo Buffagni, Clay & Seth Mann, Gerardo Sandoval and Paco Diaz.

In recent times vampire mutant Jubilation Lee turned up at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning as a devoted new mother to mystery baby Shogo.

A littler later, in a clash with mutants from the future, Storm’s teenaged daughter appeared, apparently deeply involved with a grown-up Shogo and after the time-bending clash concluded, Kymera opted to stay in our time-period for unspecified reasons of her own.

Now a few of that wonder baby’s secrets are revealed when, in a distant land, the most dangerous man on Earth slaughters his way out of an inescapable jail and heads for America, determined at all costs to reclaim his baby boy…

At the Jean Grey School Jubilee is attending her baby’s latest check-up with resident mutant medical savant Henry McCoy. The Beast has good news about Shogo but is concerned over the foster mother’s state of mind…

The quiet times then end suddenly when one of the students playing in the school grounds is shot by a sniper…

As the facility goes into immediate lock-down and McCoy begins operating to save Primal’s life, another student – Sprite – is suddenly struck down by a mystery toxin and Jubilee receives a text message threatening death for everyone unless she surrenders Shogo. It is signed “The Future”…

The first three issues also contained a supplementary back-up tale illustrated by Wood & Phil Briones.

Eager to help, a band of older boys head for the Danger Room to prove to combat tutor Psylocke that they are ready to graduate to the big leagues and front lines during this current crisis. However, the ‘Bromo-Superior’ squad of Hellion, Rockslide, Broo and Anole find they may have bitten off more than they can chew against an army of orcs and monsters after Psylocke turns off all the safeguards and makes the test “pass or die”…

Back at the main event wonder woman Monet St. Croix and Marvel Girl Rachel Grey (the alternate Earth daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey) have tracked down and captured the shooter even as The Beast, out of safe options, opts to use denatured genetic material from ancient alien meteor-borne infection and über-predator Arkea (see X-Men: Primer) to repair the damage done to Sprite and Primal.

It is not a decision he makes lightly…

In a quiet alcove Storm presses the stranger who will be her daughter for information and learns that the threat of The Future is the reason she stayed in this fluid time before her birth. Knowing what the child-obsessed assassin will do, she has gambled everything on changing the past – even if it means committing murder and suicide.

As Kymera’s plan begins, however, the school shudders to a wave of cataclysmic explosions…

In the wake of the destruction the girl from tomorrow briefs Storm and her team on the exact nature of what she’s resolved to prevent and fateful plans are laid to end that fate, whatever the cost…

Unfortunately it all seems futile as, when the seemingly unbeatable assassin makes his move, he cuts through the defenders like a scythe through ripe wheat and casually makes off with Jubilee: a perfect hostage to trade for his boy…

With their testing over, the battered but unbowed Bromo-Superior squad break the fully recovered Primal and Sprite out of the infirmary and – with Psylocke surprisingly backing them – convince Storm to let them all join the pursuit team. The undisputed leader of this latest band of mutant warriors is determined that the future she has heard described will never occur, and if that means blooding the next generation under full combat conditions, then that’s what has to happen…

The trail leads deep into the Adirondack Mountains where The Future and his slavish cult of killers have initiated a deadly prototype techno-organic defence-system. “Bloodline” uses the maniac’s own ichor to animate and turn the environment into a savagely hostile geological attack-dog which psychically renders most of the mutants helpless, but when the fanatical father demands his “property” back in return for Jubilee, Kymera uses little Shogo to pull a supremely risky masterstroke…

With a gallery of covers by Terry & Rachel Dodson, Briones and Paul Renaud, this fast and furious adventure offers clever characterisation, wry laughs, taut tension and a colossal amount of comicbook carnage in a no-nonsense rollercoaster romp of Fights ‘n’ Tights fun mutant mavens and Costumed Drama addicts will adore.
™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Storm


By Tim Minchin, DC Turner, Tracy King & various (Orion)
ISBN: 978-1-4091-5625-3 (tpb): 978-1-4091-5209-5 (HB): 978-1-4091-5210-1(eBk)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a cartoon bible of common sense… 10/10

The world is a magical, wondrous place stuffed with miracles and mysteries.

However there’s not one single atom of it that depends on the eldritch, mystic or supernatural and none of it – or the greater universe around it – is wrought from the efforts of supreme beings or operated on principles of forgotten lore denied us common folk.

It’s all explainable, utterly rational and absolutely subject to revision by us every time we find out or disprove something that previously has been a puzzle. To do otherwise is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

No Gods, no ghosts, no witchcraft, no magic crystals. Got it?

It’s amazing how many people haven’t and how the latest anti-science fad or fashion can cause genuine harm to the world, deprive generally sensible folk of their money and too often make dinner parties a theatre of war…

Tim Minchin is a creative whirlwind and multi-media entertainment polymath originally from Australia who performs musical stand-up comedy, composes award-winning stage musicals like Matilda and acts in hit shows like Jesus Christ, Superstar.

He’s very smart, very funny and doesn’t believe in goblins or faith-healing.

In 2006 his 90-second diatribe ‘If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (Take My Wife)’ – a “refutation of the plausibility of astrology, psychics, homeopathy and an interventionist God” impressed and delighted fans. In 2008, after a close encounter with a pontificating new-agey nitwit at a party where the reasonable, rationalist Mr. Minchin politely opted not to contest a stream of bubble-headed nonsense, he took his ire and indignation and turned it into a piece of true inspiration: a beat poem, Socratic dialogue and “anthem for critical thinkers”…

It’s a very funny, edgy slice of entertaining refutation and I-wish-I’d-said-that-ism which was used as the closer for the Ready For This? Tour for more than two years.

In Britain animators/illustrators/producers Dan “DC” Turner and Tracy King saw the show and determined that at all costs they must turn that paean to logic and sense into an animation and, as described in the Introduction by Tim Minchin and the Afterword by Turner and King, after some wheeler-dealing, they did just that.

Storm became an internet sensation with three million hits on YouTube after its launch in 2011, and now the artists and Tim have completely reworked that cartoon sensation into an astoundingly compulsive and scathingly funny graphic novel which opens at an intimate soiree in North London where the narrator and his wife sit down to sup with friends and are force-fed a stream of nonsensical blather by a beautiful girl with a tattoo of a fairy.

Her name is Storm and this time the quiet man she inanely and arrogantly lectures is not going to hold his tongue…

By turns tense, barbed, hilariously evocative and furiously cathartic, this stunning visual feast delivers the barrage of scathing sense we’ve always wanted (but been too polite) to unleash on evolution-deniers, pseudo-scientists, astrological aroma-therapy advocates, vaccination-withholders, ghost-chasers and every other stripe of pontificating irrationalist in a graphic tumult of colour, line and typography that will simultaneously stun and galvanise.

This magnificent reinterpretation also includes a Foreword by Neil Gaiman, Biography pages for Minchin, Turner & King and – because it’s all about the fun – a selection of variant covers by Ricky Earl, Freya Harrison, Andy Herd, Dave “Swatpaz” Ferguson and Stuart Mason & Rachael King which might have graced the issues had this yarn been serialised as comicbooks rather than released as a complete book…

There has been and always will be a valuable and cherished place for fantasy, imagination and all the wild and woolly boggles and phantasms of a rich realm of tradition and ignorance. Indeed I believe it’s absolutely necessary for every child to be fully acquainted with all aspects of fairies and spectres and wish-fulfilling rings and lamps, but there comes a time when they must retire to a place of nostalgia and fun, regularly revisited for amusement but never, never, never used to dictate the content of school curricula, divert funds from genuine medical research or be employed as justification to persecute whole sectors of society or even one single “different” individual…

Storm is an edgy pictorial tour de force that will delight and enchant readers who love the funny and fantastic but never forget where the horizons of fantasy end and the borders of imagination begin…

Text © Tim Minchin 2014. Illustrations © Tracy King and Daniel Charles Turner 2014. All rights reserved.
Storm will be published on October 16, 2014 and available in trade paperback and eBook formats as well as in a 1000 copy Limited Edition Deluxe Hardback with extra content.

Batman Annual 2015


By Ivan Cohen, Jim Zubkavich, Matthew Manning, Luciano Vecchio, Neil Googe, Dario Brizuela & various (Titan Comics)

ISBN: 978-1-78276-189-1

A staple of Christmas mornings since the early 1950s, Seasonal annuals featuring DC superstars (generally Superman and Batman plus a few other less enduring icons) slowly became a shadow of themselves as the 20th century concluded.

By the end of the 1970s the Superman and Batman Christmas books were a slim and slight shadow of their former bumper selves, even though during the mid-1980s a new crop of editors and designers found a way to invigorate and add value to the tired tomes.

The perennial favourites’ fortunes waxed and waned as different companies attempted to reinvent the tradition but sadly the “World’s Finest” superheroes disappeared completely from British stockings for most of the 21st century.

Thankfully they were revived by British sequential arts bastion Titan Books last year and the current crop are ready and waiting to liven up a few more Christmas mornings…

The first Batman annual was dated 1960, with two separate publishers releasing Holiday collections during the heydays of “Batmania”, and this current one is the thirty-fifth (not counting a series of five combination Superman and Batman tomes for 1975-1978) and the publishers have again wisely played up the characters’ small and larger screen presence throughout.

Most of the stories and features are taken from the US comicbook tie-in to the tragically controversial CGI television series Beware the Batman; specifically #2-5 from January to April 2014, with a particularly tasty “in-continuity” comics bonus from Legends of the Dark Knight 100-page Super Spectacular #1, (December 2013).

The power-packed peril kicks off with ‘Son of Man-Bat’ by Ivan Cohen & Luciano Vecchio wherein the still barely qualified Caped Crusader, two-fisted butler Alfred and junior assistant Katana become embroiled in a comedy of errors when monstrous mutate Man-Bat begins another midnight rampage of terror and destruction.

However, thanks to the timely assistance of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (who moonlights as clandestine information analyst Oracle), it soon becomes clear that the leathery-winged horror terrorising the city is not Kirk Langstrom but a little kid who was in the wrong place when the afflicted scientist was testing out the latest cure for his mutation…

Soon the Batman and his eerie counterpart are hunting together and the desperate Langstrom is forced to choose between using his one shot at redemption on himself or a stupid, innocent child…

Next up is quirky psychological thriller ‘Diagnosis’ (by Jim Zubkavich & Neil Googe, originally seen in Legends of the Dark Knight 100-page Super Spectacular #1) which sees the Gotham Gangbuster in a tense standoff with former psychologist Harleen Quinzel. As Harley Quinn the demented Joker-groupie has Batman in a bad situation that he can only escape by allowing her to psychoanalyse him, but the daffy death-dealer has completely underestimated the hero’s determination and ingenuity…

Being a British Christmas book there’s a sheaf of extra features and the DC Nation Secret File lowdown on Catwoman nicely clears the emotional palate for the final comics clash as ‘Rule of Three’ (by Matthew Manning & Dario Brizuela from Beware the Batman #2) offers the origins of Batman, Alfred and Katana as backdrop to the shocking tale of a family visiting Gotham who are incomprehensibly targeted by psychotic eco-maniac Professor Pyg.

The porcine plunderer has no idea of the storm he has provoked by trying to deprive a small boy of his parents…

The mayhem and magic then wraps up with a DC Nation Secret File on Gotham gang boss Black Mask

This fabulously engaging oversized (292 x 227mm) hardback bonanza, stuffed with additional big, bold pin-ups and portraits, is an impressive tome that will be of much interest to aging chronic nostalgists like me, but will also delight and enthral the younger members of your clan – the ones you can’t quiet down with a shot of hooch and a Great Escape DVD…
© 2013, 2014 DC Comics, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company. All rights reserved.

Uncanny X-Men Vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.


By Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Bachalo, Kris Anka, Tim Townsend, Al Vey & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-628-1

During the cataclysmic events of Avengers versus X-Men, staunch and steadfast ScottCyclopsSummers – transformed and possessed by the overwhelming Phoenix Force – killed his beloved mentor and father-figure Professor Charles Xavier.

In the aftermath Summers united with former comrades Magik, Magneto and Emma Frost in a hard-line alliance devoted to preserving mutant lives at all costs: even, if necessary, by sacrificing human ones.

This attitude appalled many of his friends and associates, creating a schism in the ranks of Xavier’s legion of protégés. Discarding Scott, his surviving “First Class” team-mates Beast and Iceman sided with second generation X-Men Wolverine, Psylocke and Storm: staying true to Xavier’s dream and opting to protect and train future X-generations of mutant kids through traditional methods at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning in Westchester, New York.

The opposing sides of the mutant question frequently clashed as the world experienced constant challenge and attack from all quarters. Amid the rising chaos new mutants began appearing in increasing numbers, all with more impressive talents than ever before.

Through careful orchestration, brilliant media massaging and by avoiding unprovoked acts of violence, Cyclops’ Extinction faction began winning the trust and respect of many oppressed sectors of humanity: the poor, the disenfranchised, the rebellious, the young…

When Xavier’s teenaged First Class of X-Men were brought into their own future and our Now (see All-New X-Men: Here Comes Yesterday) they initially stayed with the teachers and students of the Grey School but following the events of X-Men: Battle of the Atom, Hank “Beast” McCoy, Bobby “Iceman” Drake, Warren “the Angel” Worthington, fiercely idealistic young Scott, Jean Grey, as well as teenaged female Wolverine clone Laura “X-23” Kinney and even Grey School Head Professor Kitty Pryde shockingly defected to the mutant terrorist band they were summoned to counteract.

After a very public humiliation of Government-sponsored human/mutant team Uncanny Avengers, the internecine conflict had already heated up when the elder Cyclops – utterly convinced of his species’ imminent and inevitable eradication at human hands – offered a place to any Grey’s student wishing to join his own academy, the New Charles Xavier School: a covert college dedicated to training mutants to fight and survive rather than placidly wait for mankind to turn on them…

With Uncanny X-Men volume 3, #19.NOW and #20-24 (May-October 2014) scripter Brian Michael Bendis and primary illustrators Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend (and additional inkers Jamie Mendoza, Mark Irwin, Victor Olazaba, Wayne Fauch & Jon Holdredge) rake the coals as a long-brewing plot pot boils over and the answers to a few long-running questions shake both mutant and human antagonists…

The eponymous 4-part drama opens in Atlanta where recently expelled Extinction student David Bond – AKA Hijack – is “detained” by a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. heavies personally led by Director Maria Hill demanding to know the location of Scott Summers.

Almost from the start Magneto had been playing a double (or even treble) game; regularly betraying the mutant outlaws to Hill whilst also telling Cyclops at least some of what he was doing for her.

He then went missing after visiting the island of Madripoor where he found shapeshifter Mystique had created her own mutant utopia from the former rogue state. This exactly coincided with Alison Blaire, S.H.I.E.L.D. Mutant Liaison code-named Dazzler, being replaced by the chameleonic mutant Machiavelli …

Now the ongoing duel between the planet’s paramount paramilitary peacekeeping force and the Extinction faction is swiftly coming to a head.

The situation has been tensely escalating for months. The Extinction leaders had all suffered inexplicable major alterations to their powers after Xavier’s death and their public appearances usually resulted in attacks by robotic super-Sentinels which S.H.I.E.L.D. denied all knowledge of.

It was as if some undetected third force was in play…

In Madripoor the real Dazzler is in a coma, her body used to produce the highly addictive drug Mutant Growth Hormone. However when reprehensible Fred (The Blob) Dukes uncovers the secret it’s not long before his old boss Magneto knows too…

Meanwhile in Canada, Summers and time-bending student Eva Bell have used super computer Cerebro to hone in on a new mutant in Chicago and led the team into an ambush. The Sentinels awaiting their arrival possess the ability to disrupt their powers but happily are completely unable to withstand Magik’s demonic gifts…

Then in the catastrophic aftermath of the clash Cyclops sees common humanity again turning against his kind and declares war on S.H.I.E.L.D….

In Atlanta, Hill has gleaned only one useful titbit of information from Hijack. She now knows Summers is convinced S.H.I.E.L.D. is behind the Sentinel attacks but as she moves her team out to Chicago in the awesome and formidable Helicarrier she is psychically invaded by the mutants who probe her mind for confirmation.

In an act of bravado she opens her mind and shows that she knows nothing of the mechanical monsters. What she cannot prove – even to herself – is that some other faction of the Byzantine organisation is responsible, so she contacts her mutant expert Special Agent Dazzler…

And elsewhere the true power behind attacks gloats as his endgame approaches…

Back at base Summers finally deduces how their unknown foe has been targeting them with Sentinels and closes down Cerebro, whilst in Atlanta Hijack decides to strike out on his own, blithely unaware that he is being followed.

A brilliant, unconventional tactician, Cyclops makes a move nobody expects and pays a call on the Jean Grey School and enlists the aid of the elder Hank McCoy: his former comrade and a man who now despises him and everything he stands for…

However as he tries to question the Beast, his malfunctioning optic power goes wild and destruction rains down on the School just as, in the skies above, Hill arrives in the Helicarrier and Dazzler issues S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ultimatum…

Meanwhile in Madripoor the outraged Magneto has freed the real Alison, but as they make their way back to America the crisis is already peaking. On the grounds of the decimated school Hill and Summers face off but, even with suspicions at fever pitch on both sides, talk rather than action seems to be winning through.

Seeing all his schemes unravelling the mystery mastermind is forced into precipitate action, overriding the Helicarrier’s weaponry controls and raining down death and destruction on mutants and S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiery alike.

When Magneto and Dazzler arrives at the hidden Extinction Base he picks up the impatiently waiting students and fellow tutors before heading for Westchester to confront Mystique-as-Dazzler, unaware of the shattering clash already underway and utterly ignorant of the fact that the expelled and angry Hijack is also racing there…

At the Grey School the dreaded Mutant Extinction looks to be in full swing as the co-opted Helicarrier is reinforced by an army of Sentinels, driving outlaw Homo Superior, officially sanctioned X-Men and S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiery into a desperate alliance…

Bombastic and spectacular, all the plot threads and devious twists are drawn together and the true villains thoroughly dealt with in a classic and staggering resolution which will delight fans of mutant mayhem and Fights ‘n’ Tights furore… but this superb action-fest doesn’t end here.

Kris Anka steps in to render the last two issues – a shocking chapter in the then-ongoing Mortal Sins Crossover Event which begins when the sensational She-Hulk turns up at the battered Jean Grey School. She has a distressing and disturbing function to execute in her role as metahuman lawyer Jen Walters: the reading of ‘The Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier’

The first onerous and almost impossible task is to gather all the aggrieved, bereaved and estranged students of the pioneering mutant messiah in one room…

In the secret Canadian fortress that houses the Extinction Team and students of the New Xavier School Alison Blaire is considering what Mystique did to her. She is not coping well…

And in South Carolina a young man named Matthew feels the first stirrings of unrelenting power within his body. Soon he will be the only survivor of a catastrophic detonation and the target of all S.H.I.E.L.D.’s deadly anti-mutant technologies and capabilities…

Eventually Cyclops is convinced to attend the reading, much to the dismay and disgust of his former team-mates.

Everybody knows that Xavier considered Scott his son and believes the first X-Man will be the main beneficiary despite also being the Professor’s murderer. Tension is high as this thought simmers in every mind even though Cyclops has already declared that he won’t accept any bequest…

However when the recorded video message finally plays what the great saviour reveals is no dispensing of gifts and chattels but a disclosure of Charles Xavier’s greatest, darkest secret…

To Be Continued…

With cover-&-variants by Bachalo & Townsend, Anka, Alexander Lozano, J. Scott Campbell, Adi Granov and Terry & Rachel Dodson as well as the usual digital extras accessible via the AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) which give access to story bonuses once you download the free code from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.

Combining incredible adventure with clever characterisation and a colossal amount of comicbook carnage, this is a wonderfully cathartic conclusion and restart which no Costumed Drama addict could possibly resist.

™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Modesty Blaise: The Young Mistress


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-709-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: unmissable comics for fans of classic blockbusting adventure… 9/10

Modesty Blaise and her lethally adept platonic partner Willie Garvin were superior criminals who retired young, rich and healthy – without ever getting too dirty – from a career where they made far too many enemies.

They were slowly dying of boredom in England when British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant 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 of excitement and a chance to get some really evil sods.

With that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the pair embarked upon a non-stop helter-skelter thrill-ride that has pitted them against the World’s vilest villains and maddest maniacs…

The legendary femme fatale first appeared in The Evening Standard on May 13th 1963 and over the following decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a light-hearted adventure strip from the 1950’s itself long overdue for revival and compilation) produced a treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero and others assumed the art reins, taking the daredevil duo to even greater heights.

Modesty has been syndicated world-wide and the partners in peril have also starred in 13 prose novels and short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002.

The tales are always stylish and engaging spy/crime/thriller fare in the vein of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories (as opposed to the super-spy’s sometimes over-the-top cinema exploits) although Modesty and Willie are competent, canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly human.

Reproduced in stark and stunning black & white – as they should be – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulous serial re-presentations of the ultimate newspaper troubleshooter continue here with O’Donnell and perennial collaborator Romero at the top of their game in a trio of tales spanning August 5th 1991 to November 2nd 1992, each prefaced with informative prose introductions from devotee and historian Lawrence Blackmore.

The rollercoaster ride begins with eponymous thriller ‘The Young Mistress’ (originally seen in The London Evening Standard from August 5th 1991 – January 6th 1992) which delves into the thorny subject of domestic abuse and the high-stakes world of art forgery.

When Modesty and current paramour Dr. Giles Pennyfeather aid a young woman thrashed with a riding crop they are astounded when the terrified Marian Hall refuses to press charges against shady art dealer Bruce Lacey.

Not only does the sadistic bully have unsubstantiated links to the underworld but he clearly enjoys inflicting pain. However when he surprises Marian’s rescuers, his attempts to teach Modesty “a lesson” rebound on him painfully and humiliatingly. They even take his toy girlfriend away…

Safely ensconced with Modesty and Willie, Marian explains that it’s not love but fear and guilt that keep her with Lacey. The young commercial artist is a brilliant copyist and when she first began seeing the astoundingly well-connected gallery owner, he convinced her to counterfeit a valuable painting before selling it on to an unsuspecting collector.

As a participant (albeit innocently) in fraud, she is in the monster’s pocket. Moreover Lacey was intending to use Marian to forge a borrowed Rembrandt and subsequently kidnaps her and her understanding old boyfriend to ensure the talented lass’ compliance in his nefarious multi-million-dollar scheme.

Determined to end the beast’s predations and thoroughly aware that Lacey will never rest until he has subjected Modesty to the brutal tortures that push his sick buttons, Willie and Modesty undertake a convoluted sting to break his power base, but are unaware of just how vicious and violent Lacey can be.

He, of course, has completely underestimated the lengths to which Modesty will go to defend the helpless…

‘Ivory Dancer’ (January 7th – June 5th 1992) changes tack as Modesty and Willie take their feisty, horse-mad prodigy Samantha to Kentucky for a vacation with billionaire John Dall.

The equine enthusiast is an old lover of Modesty’s as well as owner of the world’s most successful and valuable race horse, but the dream holiday unfortunately coincides with a cruel attempt to kidnap the four-legged superstar by ruthless gangster Gallo.

Sadly for the murderous thugs little Sam has an almost preternatural connection with the horse and once the steed goes missing she’s hot on his trail.

…And Willie and Modesty are hard on her heels; in no mood to be gentle with thugs who steal horses and threaten children…

The addictive action concludes in a classic espionage extravaganza as ‘Our Friend Maud’ (June 8th – November 2nd 1992) reintroduces Sir Gerald’s top agent in a clever tale of brainwashing, contract killing and international intrigue.

Maud Tiller is a top operative and when occasional dalliance Willie Garvin is blanked by her in a French restaurant he simply assumes she’s undercover on a mission. However his danger-honed senses are troubled and a little quiet checking reveals that the agent has gone AWOL.

Liaising with Modesty and Tarrant, Willie soon discovers that Maud has been kidnapped by fixer-for-hire the High Contractor and deduces she is being slowly programmed to assassinate somebody important and generally untouchable…

Linking up with Modesty, the outraged Garvin tracks Maud down and with the aid of unconventional Gallic operative Code-Name: Henri proceeds to infiltrate the upper echelons of grand society to rescue his English Rose, consequently dismantling one of the most dangerous international terror rings ever to threaten world peace…

These are unforgettable stories from brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the majesty of an iconic creation. As timeless adventure romps packed with sex appeal, dry wit and devastating tension, the stories here are more enthralling now than ever and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.

Modesty Blaise © 2014 All rights reserved.

An Age of License – a Travelogue


By Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-768-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a fresh taste of all that’s right about comics and creators… 8/10

Since I first started reading comics (sometime soon after the discovery of fire) the industry and art form has undergone a magical transformation in styles and formats and a huge expansion in content.

Where once the medium was populated with heroes and horrors, fantasies and wish fulfilment exercises, these days literally anything can become the engrossing and absorbing meat of graphic narrative, dependent only upon the skill and passions of dedicated and inspired artisan creators.

A superb example of this broadening of strip horizons is globe-girdling cartooning diarist and epicure Lucy Knisley who has made a career out of documenting her life as it happens, detailing her experiences and fascinations in an engaging and entertaining manner through such graphic missives as French Milk and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.

Now she’s back with another beguiling slice of graphic verité whish covers a European working vacation come bittersweet lovers tryst.

This latest voyage begins in 2011 when the cat-loving cartoonist was invited to be a guest at Norway’s Raptus Comics Festival. After some understandable dithering and consultation with pals and fellow pros the author agreed, planning to turn the Work Jolly into the start of an extended visit to friends in Germany and vacationing family in France…

As the time nears the daunting plans all come together and Lucy prepares herself by immersing in personal Scandinavian-ness: researching the family history of her Swedish grandparents…

Events obtain a sharper edge in New York in the months immediately preceding the trip as she meets visiting Henrik: a most fanciable lad she agrees to visit in his Stockholm home after the convention…

With her six-venue itinerary sorted all that’s left is for the journey to begin…

Packed with intimate detail and engaging introspection, rendered in clean, clear compelling black line – augmented by occasional bursts of painterly watercolour illustration – this is a fabulously absorbing voyage with a most delightful and forthright travel companion who unstintingly shares her thoughts, feeling and experiences in a manner guaranteed to win over the most jaded fellow passenger – especially as she always garnishes her slivers of new experience with her trademark adventures and observations through the welcoming lens of regional foods made and enjoyed.

Through work, relaxation, the hazy indolence of a love affair and its gradual ending, a phrase she heard in the winemaking region of Beaune in France comes to haunt her.

L’Age license – a time of freedom for youth to try, fail, experiment and learn – fascinates and captivates her and she spends much of her time in France and beyond, searching for its truth, origins and meaning…

Exceedingly funny, sweet, disarmingly incisive, heartwarming, uncompromising and utterly enchanting, this beguiling, moving memoir is a comics experience unlike any other and fans of travel, storytelling and a life well-lived will adore the open, sharing experience it vicariously offers.
An Age of License © 2014 Lucy Knisley. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bart Simpson 2015 Annual


By various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-449-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fun festive Frolics in the old school style… 9/10

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the children’s annual, a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare Brit who never received a colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, pop stars, television, film or radio franchises and personalities such as TV21, Radio Fun, Arthur Askey, Dr Who, Star Wars or even peculiar and ephemeral somethings trending at a given moment.

There were also sports books and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn and special generational unmissables such as Giles, The Broons, Oor Wullie or the always glorious Rupert Annuals.

The Simpsons first aired as a series in December 1989 after debuting as a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. It is currently the longest running sitcom, longest-running animated program and longest-running scripted primetime television series in American entertainment history. Once the show became a runaway hit, Bongo Comics was formed in 1993 by Steve and Cindy Vance, Bill Morrison and inspirational creator Matt Groening as an adjunct to the TV show, to provide extra Springfield madness for the masses.

British Comics have always fed heavily on other media and as television grew during the 1960s – especially the area of children’s shows and cartoons – those programmes increasingly became the staple source for the Seasonal Annual market, replacing radio and movie personalities as fodder for fun and imagination. As the years passed, there would be a profusion of stories and strips targeting not readers but young viewers and more and more often the stars would be , not British.

Perhaps the nation’s most impressive and long-lived modern purveyor of the once ubiquitous gifting standby is the mini-franchise of monthly comics and books starring the aforementioned cartoon phenomenon and this year’s Cool Yule offerings boast a family fun-fest featuring all of the Springfield Irregulars but also a canny collection of capers starring the poster child for children who belong on wanted posters…

This collection of strip shenanigans – all culled from the pages of the mighty Bongo Comics – opens with ‘Elementary School Dropout’ (by Earl Kress, Joey Nilges & Andrew Pepoy) which details how, after a particularly unsavoury expression of recreational nudity, young Bart finally succeeds in being expelled from school.

After failing to get the anarchic little nonconformist into any other educational establishment in the country Marge and Homer are depressed, defeated and resigned to having the smug horror at home for good, but eventually boredom and ostracism compel Bart to get himself back into school… with the connivance of a most unexpected ally…

The madness expands to include professional Scotisher Groundskeeper Willie who takes centre stage to reminisce aboot his pop-star days as a drummer in ‘Willie and the Weasels’ (Mary Trainor, James Lloyd & Pepoy): a shocking expose of the cruel and callous treatment sensitive musicians endured in the swingin’ sixties…

Then ‘Mrs. Bart Krabappel!’ (Tom Peyer, Nilges & Pepoy) outrageously details how Bart’s appetite for chaos causes his long-suffering teacher to be arrested. In an example of pure ingenuity the Judge sentences her to live with the Simpsons, where a strange relationship gradually develops…

Bart and best bud Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten subsequently test the boundaries of science, nature and imagination in ‘With Great Power…’ (Max Davison, Nina Matsumoto & Pepoy), engineering “accidents” and even nuclear calamities in a wild quest to develop superpowers before the discovery of a strange book creates the perfect conditions for a children’s cult in ‘One for All and Alpha One’ (by Trainor, Lloyd & Pepoy)…

The world turns upside down when School Superintendent Chalmers fires Mr. Skinner and makes Bart ‘Principal Simpson’ (Peyer, Mike DeCarlo & Ken Wheaton) for a day. Oddly, the exercise seems to the liberation of both and leads to a strange rapprochement after which ‘Treehouse of Chimps’ (John Zakour, John Delaney & Pepoy) concludes the seasonal celebration in fine style as three of Professor Frink’s lab monkeys – hopped up on Primate Intelligence Enhancer - set up their own science experiment to observe the wild, undomesticated inhabitants of Springfield in their (un)natural environments…

Wry, hilarious, surreal and satirical, abounding in slapstick and poor taste gags, these dynamic tales of the world’s foremost mischief test-pilot shine in this sterling oversized (297 x 222mm) full colour hardback collection of edgy, barbed spoofs: another timeless piece of comic ordinance that we should use to get kids into comics. And of course, once we have them, we need even more stuff of this quality around to keep them here….
The Simpsons ™, created by Matt Groening, is the copyrighted and trademarked property of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Bart Simpson 2015 Annual © 2014 Bongo Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man: Rings of the Mandarin


By Kieron Gillen, Luke Ross, Joe Bennett, Scott Hanna, Cliff Richard & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-616-8

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

Put to work with the spurious promise of medical assistance upon completion, Stark instead built a prototype Iron Man suit to keep his heart beating and deliver him from his oppressors. From there it was a small jump into a second career as a high-tech Knight in Shining Armour…

Ever since then the former armaments manufacturer has been a liberal capitalist, eco-warrior, space pioneer, civil servant, Statesman, and even spy-chief: Director of the world’s most scientifically advanced spy agency, the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.

Of course, he was also a founder member of the world’s most prominent superhero assemblage, the Mighty Avengers, and affirmed Futurist; an impassioned advocate of inevitable progress by way of building better tomorrows…

For a popular character/concept weighed down with a fifty-year pedigree, radical reboots are a painful periodic necessity. To stay fresh and contemporary, Stark’s origin and Iron Man’s continuity have been radically revised every so often, but never so drastically as during his latest revamp – the final collected chronicle of which here re-presents Iron Man volume 5, #23.NOW – 28, spanning March to June 2014.

What Just Happened: following a few notable escapades in outer space, the once-jaded Armoured Avenger uncovered a few surprises in his own past (for which see the two-volume Iron Man: The Secret Origin of Tony Stark) and discovered that he had been adopted by industrialist Howard and Maria Stark to deceive a manipulative alien device with big plans.

Rigellian Recorder 451 - one of millions of sentient automatons programmed to travel the universe acquiring knowledge – had developed a programming flaw and struck out on its own, slowly furthering its own secret agenda.

The renegade had been working with his parents to genetically alter their unborn child and make it a technological super-warrior capable of defending Earth from exponentially increasing alien attacks that were to come as the universe responded to the deadly potential for destruction of Humankind…

Recorder never realised Howard was deeply suspicious and – after decoding the genetic alterations 451 had installed in the foetus – tampered with some of them…

Years later, after a spectacular struggle, Tony Stark defeated the deranged robot Rigellian and returned to Earth where further enquiries into his family’s shady history uncovered an astonishing, life-altering discovery kept hidden for years by his brilliantly paranoid father: Tony had an older brother who was the actual subject of 451’s genetic manipulation.

Arno Stark was a bed-ridden, technological genius who was forever trapped in an iron lung, locked away and raised in isolation at the Maria Stark Foundation Hospice, but now the brothers were gloriously reunited. There was only one small caveat to Tony’s unbounded joy. He was no blood relation to Arno, but apparently secretly adopted as a ploy to deceive the alien automaton…

With a brother even more brilliant than he, Tony began bigger, bolder enterprises such as the construction of a modular super-city to save humanity from self-inflicted extinction. The creative geniuses dubbed it Troy, but no sooner had they unveiled their Iron Metropolis than they were targeted by the alien super-weapons previously employed by arch nemesis The Mandarin.

The ill-considered location of their World of Tomorrow was Mandarin City: a private island off the coast of mainland China long ignored and avoided by the nations of the world since the death of the villain who controlled it.

It was the perfect site on which the Starks could make their vision live… but only after driving out the Triads and other vermin profiting from a legally tenuous citadel no world power was confident enough to annexe. The villain’s Rings, meanwhile, had somehow achieved a cooperative (to an argumentative point) co-consciousness and begun enacting their own destructive agenda by seeking out host-wearers whose personalities and ambitions were compatible with their own…

In London, radical journalist Abigail Burns was seduced by a sentient flaming Ring which deemed her worthy but her brief time as Red Peril led to mutilation and eventually revelation.

The other cosmic adornments also found troubled partners and began sowing destruction, countered by Tony, former War Machine pilot James Rhodes (now all decked out as the Iron Patriot) and immobile Arno, who took remote control of the city’s mechanical police force. Dispatching thousands of empty Armour suits as a Trojan Guard he saved lives and property and thwarted the Rings’ initial assault.

Unfortunately a far more arcane and malign player became involved when Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed then began slaughtering Ring wearers in search of a full set for himself…

Scripted by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Luke Ross, Joe Bennett, Scott Hanna & Cliff Richard, the latest stage in the evolution of Iron Man takes up from where Iron Metropolitan dramatically paused as, in the Asgardian Nine Realms, Malekith gloats over the Rings he now grips in his cruelly taloned hand.

Later on Earth, when Iron Man tackles another deranged new Mandarin, the battle explosively ends when the Dark Elf ambushes the combatants and bloodily takes another Ring for his own.

Fed up with playing catch-up, Tony changes tactics and hires Shevaun Haldane (former Dark Angel and mystic mercenary) to act as his handler and advisor as he attempts to infiltrate his eldritch enemy’s magical home turf of Svartalfheim

Unfortunately it involves leaving his best weapon behind as “cold iron” is anathema to Elves and they can spot him coming if he goes in fully kitted-up…

Naturally the mission goes wrong from the start and the covert intruder pops up in the royal throne room. Following a bombastic battle the technological mortal is soon being harried by the Wild Hunt through the outer reaches of a mythical hellscape…

Back on Earth Arno is proving to be as devious and many-layered as his foster-brother and enters into an unconventional political alliance with Abigail Burns even as Tony opts to sacrifice his intended escape route home for Shevaun sending in his fearsome Iron Man assault suit…

Soon the tables are totally turned. Although Malekith’s psychological assaults – claiming baby Tony might be an Elven changeling – hit home hard, the Fairy devil has no real defence against a mightily ticked off Iron-shod Avenger and his problems only multiply when the remaining six Ring-Wearers drop in, determined to maintain their new-found autonomy by destroying the magical abomination trying to control them all…

Besieged on all sides, the Accursed Elf is forced to capitulate and surrenders his four Rings and an escape route to the triumphant Tony, but as always has an ulterior motive and craftily takes something from the Maria Stark Foundation Hospice that may in time prove far more valuable and deadly than the trinkets he has grudgingly surrendered…

With four Rings in custody Tony, Arno and devoted inspirational AI H.E.L.E.N. begin reverse-engineering the sublime extraterrestrial devices and soon have enough data to construct a true counter to the star-tech’s unsurpassed might and collectivised intellect.

Their final solution then engages the enemy in the Mandarin’s City, miles deep under London where Ring-wearer Mole Man has convened a meeting of his fellow hosts to outline his plan for revenge. The meeting is cut short when Iron Man, Red Peril and Arno – in a formidable life-support battle suit – blaze in to end the threat but subsequently find one of their own is in the enemy camp…

Riotously wrapping up the blockbusting future-flavoured epic in spectacular, cathartic fashion, this action-packed Fights ‘n’ Tights rollercoaster splendidly closes one chapter in the ongoing escapades of the Golden Gladiator whilst setting the scene for more metal-machined marvels to come.

Bold, imaginative and supremely engaging, this expansive, explosive repositioning of the Stark dynasty comes with a cover-&-variants gallery by Mike Del Mundo, Christian Ward, In-Hyuk Lee, Jennifer Parks, Joe Quinones, Mike Perkins and Paul Renaud as well as the usual digital extras accessible via the AR icon sections (Marvel Augmented Reality App) which give access to story bonuses once you download the free code from marvel.com onto your smart-phone or Android-enabled tablet.
™ & © 2014 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. All rights reserved. A British Edition published by Panini Publishing, a division of Panini UK, Ltd.

Megahex


By Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-743-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: laugh-out-loud, falling-down-daft, crying from the heart … 8/10

Simon Hanselmann is a well-travelled cartoonist of Tasmanian origin who has been, since 2009, producing one of the best cartoon strips of all time.

Although mostly found on his girlmountain.tumblr site, other episodes of his engagingly deceptive, inappropriately pigeon-holed “stoner comedy” Megg, Mogg & Owl have appeared in places as varied as Kus, Smoke Signal, Gangbang Bong and assorted minicomics, but can now all be found in a sturdy, full colour hardback compilation which also boasts a further 69 pages of new and previously unseen material.

Hanselmann’s signature characters – loosely based on childhood memories of a series of British children’s books, filtered through a druggy haze and a desperate deadline – are Megg, a depression-afflicted druggie witch who lives with her mean-spirited feline familiar Mogg and sensitive, insecure, affection-starved Owl.

When not confronting or testing each other or hanging with the wrong crowd, they spend most of their time in a post-modern haze of self-inflicted ennui or on dope-fuelled junk-food binges in the apartment or in front of the TV…

They probably don’t like each or themselves much but dwell in a fug of dangerous co-dependency and their strange adventures have finally been collected into a sturdy and most improper tribute to a life lived more wryly through chemistry and sarcasm.

This book is packed with drug references, violent sexual imagery and outrageous situations intended to make adults laugh and think.

If the copy above hasn’t clued you in, please be warned that this book uses potentially disturbing images of abuse, sexual intimacy, excess and language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom, drunken street brawls – and probably school playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present – to make its artistic and narrative points.

If the mere thought of all that appals and offends you, read no further and don’t buy it. The rest of us will just have to enjoy some of the most astounding cartoon experiences ever created without you.

Lethargically anarchic and cruelly hilarious, the escapades of insecure Megg, malicious, experience-craving Mogg and their poor, pitiful companion open with ‘Fire’ as the pharmacologically paralysed Owl tries to dissuade his flatmates from testing his potential flammability after which ‘Beach’ finds Megg & Mogg defeated by the tantalising ever-expanding expanse between sand and surf…

‘Kate Bush’ reveals the embarrassment arising from catching someone in the act of singing along to something naff whilst ‘Horrible Party’ introduces wizard Mike and manic hedonist Werewolf Jones who will clearly go to obscene lengths to get noticed after which ‘Found Pills’ portrays some distressing transformations.

A first hint of darker intent is seen in ‘Drive Through’ when Owl passes out and his “friends” treat his body with an extreme lack of consideration and affection, whilst ‘Water’ goes straight to the gross-out core of slapstick before witch and familiar try to gatecrash a childrens’ show audition in ‘Theatre’ and Owl daydreams whilst passing through ‘Ham Parade’

Things get cattily scatological with an unattended plate of ‘Spaghetti’ and escalate when caught-short Owl is barred from the toilet and remanded to the ‘Yard’ after which Megg wires up her cat for an evocative rendition of ‘Mogg’s Noise Show’.

More casual cruelty ensues in ‘Taut Psychological Thriller’ when the flatmates palm off Owl with bogus drugs after which a rendezvous at the ‘Mall’ allows cat and conjuress to ruin the long-suffering dupe’s latest sexual conquest. This petty meanness is capped by the thrilling showboating of ‘Werewolf Jones’ Excitebike’ extravaganza…

‘Owl’s Birthday’ is as bad as the poor sap fears and his party ends with shocking abuse and assault, but even after he has moved on – without the intervention or apology of his buddies – a meeting with girl of his dreams ‘Peyote’ again leads to a situation of personal shame and legal terror…

Even fetching a ‘Sandwich’ can lead to unthinking humiliation for the avian also-ran, whilst for ‘Werewolf Jones & Friends’ every night is a party – but not one you’d want to attend…

After losing an appreciable amount of their lives to an iCarly marathon, Megg & Mogg head for the ‘Video Store’, utterly ignoring Owl’s cry for help regarding his AA meetings, and subsequently spike his health smoothie.

Owl is unfortunately a belligerent drunk and can’t understand why he’s abusing the other store patrons…

When “the munchies” hit, food crazed Megg & Mogg burgle a kebab shop but the guilt and fear engendered by the ‘Heist’ soon drives them to near madness, whilst ‘Scene Politics’ scares the crap out of everybody as Werewolf lays down his law.

‘Silver Sequin Mini-Skirt’ exposes Megg’s vulnerability after she receives some bad news, leading to an extended and keenly focused exploration of mental illness beginning with ‘Megg’s Depression’, ricocheting manically into ‘Megg’s Good Mood’, an interlude with her concerned house-sharers in ‘Bad Brains’ and a swingeing attack on mental health professions in ‘Megg’s Therapy’

After an odd encounter passing a ‘Graveyard’ Megg’s obsession with ‘Pregnancy’ kicks in again, but not in time to stop her friends tampering with her testing kits and, whilst reeling with indecision, she capitulates to her cat’s bizarre predilections in ‘Rimming’.

Seeking change she doses Mogg with ginger ‘Hair Dye’ which alters his look but sadly not his temperament after which a possible visit by the landlords provoke a hearty bout of ‘Paranoia’ that lasts until Werewolf arrives with a huge quantity of ‘Acid’ which takes everyone on the trip of their lives…

Change is in the air and when Owl tries to sort out his life with a real job Mogg & Megg have no choice but to tamper with the ‘Alarm Clock’ and other accoutrements of his longed-for normal life. As the shamed jobseeker simmers, Mogg returns to his own dark desires and ruins the concept of ‘Cinnamon’ for everybody else…

Events come to a life-changing head in ‘Cocktails’ when all the neurosis, blasé fronting, passive-aggression, negative feelings, overwhelming love, depression, drugs, sexual profligacy and cycles of dependency boil over and the gang break up forever…

Despite its similarity to some kind of no-harm, no-foul adult situation comedy – and believe me there are outrageous laughs by the bucketful – there is a strong, often overwhelming narrative progression to these quirky beguiling stories and Megahex navigates with easy confidence the tightrope between sordid and surreal, hilarity and horror, survival and sinking away.

Dark, affecting and unforgettable, this is a book no lover of truly mature fiction will be able to ignore.
Megahex © 2014 Simon Hanselmann. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A beguiling glimpse into the early thoughts of a narrative master … 9/10

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

At the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980. Even though the reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection), its notional spin-off series Frank (of which the volume Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature), maybe Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features such as his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics, there is still never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning but totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superb and sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation – which gathers his earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome – offers the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from breakthrough autobiographical magazine JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, and certainly cements his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and cover illustrations from JIM, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’ as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the first strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’ and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers those indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating life-drawing, relationships and hallucinations after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes in prose and pictures another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’ introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation before the macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’ explains how you can live life without ever going outside again…

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark and distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’ before the largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ before bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts a bunch of cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ after which young Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, after which an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years progressed many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures had slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’ whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like, after which ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyages with a homey homily and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.