Stinky


By Eleanor Davis (Toon Books/Raw Junior)
ISBN: 978-0-9799238-4-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Smells Like a True Favourite… 9/10

Once upon a time – and for the longest time imaginable – comics were denigrated as a creative and narrative ghetto cherished only by children and simpletons. For decades the producers, creators and lovers of the medium struggled to change that perception and gradually acceptance came.

These days most folk accept that word and pictures in sequential union can make stories and tell truths as valid, challenging and life-changing as any other full-blown art-form.

Sadly, along the way the commercial underpinnings of the industry fell away and they won’t be coming back…

Where once there were a host of successful, self-propagating comics scrupulously generating tales and delights intended to entertain, inform and educate such specific demographics as Toddler/Kindergarten, Young and Older Juvenile, General, Boys and Girls periodical publications, nowadays Britain, America and most of Europe can only afford to maintain a few paltry out-industry licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for younger readerships.

The greater proportion of strip magazines are necessarily manufactured for a highly specific – and dwindling – niche market, whilst the genres that fed and nurtured comics are more effectively and expansively disseminated via TV, movies and assorted games media.

Thankfully old-fashioned book publishers and the graphic novel industry have a different business model and far more sensible long-term goals, so the lack has been increasingly countered and the challenge to train and bring youngsters into the medium taken up outside the mainstream – and dying – periodical markets.

I’ve banged on for years about the industry’s foolish rejection of the beginner-reading markets, but what most publishers have been collectively offering young/early consumers – and their parents (excepting, most notably the magnificent efforts of David Fickling Books and their wonderful comic The Phoenix) – has seldom jibed with what those incredibly selective consumers are interested in or need.

In recent years however the book trade has moved with the times and where numerous publishing houses have opened comic medium divisions, one in particular has gone all-out to cultivate tomorrow’s graphic narrative nation.

Toon Books/Raw Junior was established by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly as an imprint of the groundbreaking and legendary alternative magazine to provide high-quality comics stories to entice pre-schoolers and starter-readers into a lifelong love affair with strips in particular and reading in general.

Their burgeoning stable of talented creators have produced a wealth of superbly superior comic tales in three accredited educational standards (Level 1: First Comic for brand new readers, Level 2: Easy-to-Read for Emerging Readers and Level 3: Chapter Books for Advanced Beginners) and the company even supplements their publications with an online tool.

TOON-BOOKS.com offers follow up such as interactive audio-versions read by the authors – and in a multitude of languages – and a “cartoon maker” facility which allows readers to become writers of their own adventures about the characters they have just met in the printed editions. Many books include a page of tips for parents and teachers on ‘How to Read Comics with Kids’

This particular yarn from Eleanor Davis sticks tight to traditional fare winningly rendered as she introduces a gloomy, anxious swamp monster whose smelly, dank world of pickled onions, possums, slugs, toads and especially stench seems likely to be upset forever after new neighbours move in…

There’s a town near the swamp and in it are kids. Kids who like baths and eat cake smell weird…

Stinky is especially nervous of a new kid. Somehow he’s even worse than the others. He’s called Nick, eats apples, likes toads and is building a tree house in Stinky’s swamp! Determined to drive off the newcomer, the moist monster undertakes a campaign of terror but the little human pest just accepts all the nasty surprises and keeps on building…

And thus begins an epic struggle which will result in a most unique friendship…

Gently hilarious, beautifully illustrated and heart-warmingly proving that it takes all sorts to make a world, Stinky is a fabulous walk on the wild side you’ll find impossible to forget – especially as your hosts have been kind enough to provide you with a detailed map to follow…
© 2008 RAW Junior, LLC. All rights reserved.

Why not check out the scene at: http://www.toon-books.com

Black Panther volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet


By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-302-90053-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Cat’s Whiskers for Comics Fans… 8/10

Regarded as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since July 1966 when he first met the Fantastic Four. You can even see how far we’ve all come in his fiftieth anniversary year as that intriguing introductory tale in included at the back of this slim new volume…

T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose hidden kingdom is the only source of a miraculous alien metal upon which the country’s immense wealth was founded. Those mineral riches – supposedly derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – had enabled Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. For much of its history it has been an isolated, utopian technological wonderland.

The tribal resources and people of Wakanda have been safeguarded since time immemorial by a human champion who derived cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb which ensure the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family.

The “Vibranium” mound had ensured the country’s status as a secret superpower for centuries but increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion and incursion in modern times.

Now this sleek, extremely engaging restart – collecting Black Panther volume 6 #1-4 and spanning June-September 2016 – introduces a whole new era of political unrest to Africa’s oldest surviving kingdom and Earth’s most advanced (human) nation…

Scripted by correspondent and author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) and illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Day Men) the story opens as T’Challa resumes the throne he had so recently surrendered to his sister Shuri before global catastrophe, economic collapse and consecutive invasions from Sub-Mariner’s Atlantis and Thanos’ extraterrestrial Black Legion wrought havoc amongst the Wakandans.

Now as he strives to reassure his people, a moment of indiscipline amongst his soldiers provokes disaster. As T’Challa addresses striking miners at the Great Mound, a gesture is misinterpreted and guards fire on protesters. Only the Black Panther’s senses can detect the presence of another influence, shaping emotions and triggering the escalating clash which follows…

Meanwhile, in The Golden City of Wakanda another crisis brews. A member of his formidable Dora Milaje elite bodyguards has acted beyond her station; punishing a local chieftain’s abusive treatment of wives and daughters with uncompromising finality.

For taking the law into her own hands Aneka must die…

Near the Nigandan Border a political cell of super-powered rebels takes stock. “The People” are dedicated to fomenting violent change in Wakanda using ancient sorcery, unsuspected connections to the palace and the fervent dream of a new nation…

Aneka’s resolve to face her fate bravely is challenged and swiftly withers when her comrade-in-arms and lover Ayo explosively breaks her out of jail. Wearing the latest in (stolen) Wakandan cybernetic war-armour, the women head into the wilds, seeking nothing but freedom but all too soon they are diverted by the horrific plight of abused women they continually encounter.

As the furious fugitives punish the awful ravages of malevolent bandits and rogue chiefs, emancipated women flock to their bloody banner. Wakanda’s growing civil war finds itself faced with a third passionate, deadly faction ready to die for their cause…

And in a place supposedly far removed from the cares of the world, recently deceased Queen Shuri is challenged by a mysterious stranger on The Djalia, the ethereal Plane of Wakandan Memory. Shuri is not destined for peace or rest but has a task to finish if the spirits of her ancestors are to be believed…

Tragically, as the opposing forces and ideologies converge in a very earthly hiding hole, the extremely rich white man funding much of the chaos gloats and further refines his grand plans…

To Be Continued…

Fast-paced, compelling and gloriously readable, this splendid blend of political thriller, action epic and mystic revelation comes with a stunning cover-&-variants gallery by Alex Ross, Stelfreeze, Olivier Coipel, Gabrielle Dell’Otto, Mark Brooks, Ryan Sook, Todd Nauck & Rachelle Rosenberg, Felipe Smith, Larry Stroman, Mark Morales & Jason Keith, Funko, Skottie Young, John Tyler Christopher, Neal Adams Dale Keown, Mike McKone & Frank Martin, Sanford Greene, Frank Cho, Jamal Campbell and Kyle Baker. There’s also a map of Wakanda and its encroaching border nation, a fascinating glimpse ‘Behind the Scenes with Brian Stelfreeze’ offering commentary, insights and a wealth of production art and sketches, and a feature on ‘Process and Development’ tracing typed word to printed page…

Moreover, following a comprehensive Black Panther Chronology and Creator Biographies, is followed by that aforementioned Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott classic. Here ‘The Black Panther!’ attacks the FF as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father.

A full-on rollercoaster ride no fan of Fights ‘n’ Tights furore will want to miss.
© 2016 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

Justice League of America: The Silver Age volume 1


By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Carmine Infantino, Bernard Sachs & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6111-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Comic Perfection and the ideal Stocking Stuffer… 10/10

After the actual invention of the comicbook superhero – by which we mean the launch of Superman in June 1938 – the most significant event in the industry’s progress was the combination of individual sales-points into a group. Thus what seems blindingly obvious to us with the benefit of four-colour hindsight was irrefutably proven – a number of popular characters could multiply readership by combining forces.

Plus of course, a whole bunch of superheroes is a lot cooler than just one – or even one and a sidekick…

And so the Justice Society of America is rightly revered as a true landmark in the development of comic books, and, when Julius Schwartz began reviving and revitalising the nigh-defunct superhero genre in 1956, the key moment would come a few years with the inevitable teaming of reconfigured mystery men…

When wedded to the relatively unchanged big guns who had weathered the first fall of the Superhero at the beginning of the 1950s the result was a new, modern, Space-Age version of the Justice Society of America and the birth of a new mythology.

When the Justice League of America was launched in issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold (March 1960) it cemented the growth and validity of the genre, triggering an explosion of new characters at every company producing comics in America and even spread to the rest of the world as the 1960s progressed.

Spanning March 1960 to January 1962, this latest paperback collection of timeless classics re-presents The Brave and the Bold #28-30 and Justice League of America #1-8 and also includes a titanic team-up from Mystery in Space #75 (May 1962).

That moment that changed everything for us baby-boomers came with issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold, a classical adventure title that had recently become a try-out magazine like Showcase.

Just in time for Christmas 1959 ads began running…

“Just Imagine! The mightiest heroes of our time… have banded together as the Justice League of America to stamp out the forces of evil wherever and whenever they appear!”

Released with a March 1960 cover-date, that first tale was written by the indefatigable Gardner Fox and illustrated by the quirky and understated Mike Sekowsky, inked by Bernard Sachs, Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson.

‘Starro the Conqueror’ saw Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and J’onn J’onzz – Manhunter from Mars defeat a marauding alien starfish whilst Superman and Batman stood by (in those naive days editors feared that their top characters could be “over-exposed” and consequently lose popularity). The team also picked up an average American kid as a mascot. “Typical teenager” Snapper Carr would prove a focus of fan controversy for decades to come…

Confident of his material and the superhero genre’s fresh appeal Schwartz had two more thrillers ready for the following issues. B&B #29 saw the team defeat a marauder from the future who apparently had history on his side in ‘The Challenge of the Weapons Master’ (inks by Sachs and Giella) whilst #30 saw the debut of the team’s first mad-scientist arch-villain in the form of Professor Ivo and his super android Amazo. ‘The Case of the Stolen Super Powers’ by Fox, Sekowsky & Sachs ended the tryout run and three months later a new bi-monthly title debuted.

Perhaps somewhat sedate by histrionic modern standards, the JLA was revolutionary in a comics marketplace where less than 10% of all sales featured costumed adventurers. Not only public imagination was struck by hero teams either.

Stan Lee was apparently given a copy of Justice League by his boss Martin Goodman and told to do something similar for the tottering comics company he ran – and look what came of that!

Justice League of America #1 featured ‘The World of No Return’, introducing trans-dimensional tyrant Despero to bedevil the World’s Greatest Heroes, but once again plucky Snapper Carr was the key to defeating the villain and saving the day.

The second issue, ‘Secret of the Sinister Sorcerers’, presented an astounding conundrum. The villains of Magic-Land sneakily transposed the location of their dimension with Earth’s, causing the Laws of Science to be replaced with the Lore of Mysticism. The true mettle of the costumed crusader heroes (and by this time Superman and Batman were allowed a more active part in the proceedings) was shown when they had to use ingenuity rather than their powers to defeat their fearsome foes and set two worlds to rights.

Issue #3 introduced the despicable Kanjar Ro who attempted to turn the team into his personal army in ‘The Slave Ship of Space’, and with the next episode the first of many new members joined the team.

Although somewhat chronologically adrift there’s solid sense in placing the next tale in this position as Mystery in Space #75 (May 1962), as the team guest-star in a full-length thriller starring Adam Strange.

Strange was an Earth archaeologist who regularly teleported to a planet circling Alpha Centauri where his wits and ingenuity saved the citizens of Rann from all sorts of interplanetary threats.

In ‘The Planet that came to a Standstill!’, Kanjar Ro attempts to conquer Strange’s adopted home, and our gallant hero has to enlist the aid of the JLA before once again saving the day himself. This classic team-up was written by Fox, and illustrated by the irreplaceable Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson.

Green Arrow saved the day in the science-fiction thriller ‘Doom of the Star Diamond’, but was almost kicked out in #5 as the insidious Doctor Destiny inadvertently framed him ‘When Gravity Went Wild!’

‘The Wheel of Misfortune’ saw the debut of pernicious and persistent master of wild science Professor Amos Fortune, who used weaponised luck to challenge the masked marvels whilst #7 was another alien invasion plot centred on an amusement park, or more specifically ‘The Cosmic Fun-House!’.

The never-ending parade of perils then concludes for the moment with January 1962’s JLA #8. ‘For Sale… the Justice League!’ is a smart crime caper wherein a cheap hood finds a mind-control weapon that enslaves the team before simple Snapper once again saves the day.

These tales are a perfect example of all that was best about the Silver Age of comics, combining optimism and ingenuity with bonhomie and adventure. This slice of better times also has the benefit of cherishing wonderment whilst actually being historically valid for any fan of our medium. And best of all the stories here are still captivating and enthralling transports of delight.

These classical compendia are a dedicated fan’s delight: an absolute gift for modern fans who desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic – especially with forthcoming iterations of the team due in both TV animation and live action movie formats.
© 1960, 1961, 1962, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Angel Catbird volume 1


By Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-063-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fuzzy Fantasy for Grown-ups… 8/10

Margaret Atwood is a multi-award winning novelist with a string of laudable, famous books (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin) to her name and a couple of dark secrets. As disclosed in her Introduction to this fun-packed fantasy romp, she loves cats and comics and has done so for most of her life…

Thus Angel Catbird; a series of original, digest-sized, full-colour hardbacks relating the adventures of creatures who have lived unknown amongst us from time immemorial and the crossbreed newcomer who shakes up their worlds…

Scripted and co-designed by Atwood, the lively saga is illustrated by Johnnie Christmas, coloured by Tamra Bonvillain and lettered by Nate Piekos of Blambot® and begins as genetic engineer and new private sector worker Strig Feleedus rushes to finish a crucial “super-splicer” formula for his creepy boss at Muroid Inc.

Owner Dr. Muroid has a thing for rats and is extremely eager for Strig to complete his assignment. The perpetual harassment even extends to covert surveillance through his mechanically augmented rat spies…

Upon learning Feleedus has made a midnight hour breakthrough, the deranged doctor pesters his wage-slave into bringing the results straight in, provoking a horrible accident involving Strig, his pet cat Ding, a passing owl, a speeding automobile and the spilled gene-splicing agent prototype…

When Strig comes to, he has been transformed into a bizarre human/cat/bird hybrid who can fly and voraciously gobble down rats, but that’s only the beginning…

Despite eventually regaining his original form, Strig is suddenly made aware of a whole new world he never imagined possible. His senses – especially smell – have become greatly heightened. Co-worker Cate Leone, for example, becomes far more interesting when his nose comes into play. Most intriguing is the fact that somehow Feleedus can understand what birds and alley-cats are saying…

Before long, Strig is submerged in an astonishing new existence: one where animals live exotic alternative lives as half-humans and one to which he has been admitted only through the auspices of his accidental exposure to the super-splicer compound.

Tragically, when he discovers just why Muroid wanted the serum in the first place, it sparks a deadly and explosive interspecies war with the “Angel Catbird” and his shapeshifting animal allies on one side and mad Muroid’s mutant rat hordes on the other….

To Be Continued…

This turbulent tome also includes a wealth of intriguing extras including a large art gallery by illustrative stars such as David Mack, Fábio Moon, Tyler Crook, Matt Kindt, Jen Bartel, Troy Nixey, David Rubín and Charlie Pachter; a fascinating and extensive annotated Sketchbook section from both Christmas and Atwood, plus a detailed and informative rundown on how Tamra Bonvillain turns line-art into extraordinarily complex colour pages.

This book has an ulterior motive and secret life too. The story is frequently footnoted with facts and advice on how to protect felines and avians from harm which originate from the charity catsandbirds.ca, and the tale you enjoy is designed to promote their message of simultaneously keeping cats safe and saving bird lives. Why not look them up and make a donation?

Playful and sly with slickly hidden, razor-sharp edges, this a fable of frolicsome fantasy all mixed up with Fights ‘n’ Tights fun that will delight animal lovers and old-fashioned superhero fans.
Angel Catbird™ & © 2016 Margaret Atwood. All rights reserved.

Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats


By Jim Benton (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-846-8

Although in something of a decline these days, for nearly 200 years gag-panels and cartoon strips were the universal medium to disseminate wit, satire, mirth, criticism and cultural exchange. Sadly, after centuries of pre-eminence, these days the cartoon has been all but erased from printed newspapers – as indeed the physical publications themselves have dwindled in shops and on shelves.

However, thanks to the same internet which is killing print media, many graphic gagsters and drawing dramatists have enjoyed resurgence in an arena that doesn’t begrudge the space necessary to deliver a cartoon in all its fulsome glory…

Mainstream cartooning remains an unmissable daily joy to a vast, frequently global readership whose requirements are quite different from those of hard-core, dedicated comic fans, or even that ever-growing base of intrigued browsers just starting to dip their toes in the sequential narrative pool.

Even those stuck-up holdouts who have pointedly “never read a comic” have certainly enjoyed strips or panels: a golden bounty of brief amusement demanding no commitment other than a moment’s close attention. Truth be told, it’s probably in our genes…

And because that’s the contrary nature of things, those gags now get collected in spiffy collections like this one (and also in e-book editions) to enjoy over and over again…

With that in mind, here’s a long-delayed peek at some less well known strips by one of America’s most innovative and mordantly surreal creative stars.

Jim Benton began his illustration work making up crazy characters in a T-Shirt shop and designing greetings cards. Born in 1960, he’d grown up in Birmingham, Michigan before studying Fine Arts at Western Michigan University.

Now earning a living by exercising his creativity he started self-promoting the weird funny things he’d dream up and soon was coining beaucoup bucks from properties such as Dear Dumb Diary, Dog of Glee, Franny K. Stein, Just Jimmy, Just Plain Mean, Sweetypuss, The Misters, Meany Doodles, Vampy Doodles, Kissy Doodles, jOkObo and It’s Happy Bunny in a variety of magazines and other venues…

The particular gags, jests and japes began life on Reddit and are delivered in a huge variety of styles and manners: each perfectly in accord with whatever sick, sweet, clever, sentimental, whimsical or just plain strange content each idea demanded.

Despite the risk of laughing yourself sick, you’ll want to see how some dads treat their kids; learn how deer see the hunters; explore the wonder of breasts; observe the lighter side of inebriation, seduction and mate-selection and much more.

You might discover Not-Facts that will change your life after gleaning Benton’s take on aliens, zombies, ghosts, assorted movie franchises, busking, business fashions and evolution in single page giggle-bombs ranging from strident solo panels to extended strips; silent shockers to poetically florid and verbose tracts.

You will laugh out loud and want more.

You will also want to send “How to explain things to the stupid” to all your friends.

Don’t.

Just make them buy their own copy of this glorious book.
© 2014 Jim Benton.

The Case of Alan Turing


By Eric Liberge & Arnaud Delalande, translated by David Homel (Arsenal Pulp Press)
ISBN: 978-1-55152-650-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A tale of Topical Tragedy… 8/10

After decades of cruel injustice and crushing, sidelining silence, British mathematician Alan Turing – one of the greatest intellects in humanity’s history – has at last become the household name and revered pioneer of science he has always deserved to be.

As well as books and films describing the amazing achievements and appalling way this brilliant, misunderstood man – arguably the creator of the modern world we inhabit – was treated by society, there’s now a second graphic novel (so if you’re interested you should also seek out Jim Ottaviani & Leland Purvis’ The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded) delineating the factual stuff whilst trying to get beneath the skin of a most perplexing and unique individual.

This gloriously oversized (231 x 13 x 287 cm) full-colour hardback biography – also available as an e-book – was first released in Europe as Le Cas Alan Turing in 2015 and employs an emphatic literary approach, more drama than documentary.

The moving script by author Arnaud Delalande (La Piege de Dante) – via award-winning translator David Homel – only touches on Turing’s early, troubled home life and post-war scandals as the genius descended into self-loathing and court-mandated chemical castration to “cure” his “social deviancy”.

Allegations or accusations of homosexuality destroyed many men until officially decriminalised in Britain’s 1967 Sexual Offences Act, and although Turing was posthumously pardoned in 2013 his loss to suicide probably deprived the entire world of a generation of marvels…

The major proportion of this tale concentrates on World War II and Turing’s work as a cryptographer and inventor at British code-breaking centre Bletchley Park, where the insular young man struggled to convince his officious, unimaginative superiors to let him construct a mechanical brain to defeat the Wehrmacht’s presumed-infallible Enigma machines. Turing’s victories cemented his reputation and ensured that the battle against fascism was won…

The key figures are all there: sometime fiancée Joan Clark, Professor Max Newman, and the weak, shady rent-boy who brought about Turing’s eventual downfall and demise, as are less well known figures: the MI5 operative who was his constant shadow before and after the war, boyhood lost love Christopher Morcom and many other unsung heroes of the intelligence war…

Played out against a backdrop of global conflict, Turing’s obsession with Walt Disney’s Snow White and a recurring motif of poisoned apples – the method by which the tormented soul ended his life – figure largely in a tale which reads like a movie in the making. Moreover, this powerful tale of an outsider’s temporary triumphs and lasting impact is beautifully and compellingly rendered by master of historical comics Eric Liberge (Monsieur Mardi-Gras Descendres, Le Dernier Marduk, Tonnerre Rampant, Les Corsaires d’Alcibiade), affording it an aura of unavoidable, impending destiny…

Balancing out the tragedy of chances missed is an informative photo-illustrated essay on ‘The Cryptography War’ by historian, educator and government consultant Bruno Fuligni detailing the development and use of different kinds of cipher and codes, how Enigma changed the rules of the spying game and how Turing changed it all again…

This is an astoundingly effective way to engage with a true story of incredible accomplishment, dedication and terrifying naivety, one that ends with horrific loss to us all and forever-unanswered sentiments of “What If?” and “If Only…”
Text © Éditions des Arènes, Paris 2015. Translation © 2016 by David Homel.

Glenn Gould – A Life Off Tempo


By Sandrine Revel, translated by Montana Kane (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-065-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Classical Interlude with real Artistic Appeal… 10/10

Publisher NBM have struck a seam of gold with their growing line of European biographies and their latest is one of the most impressive and thought-provoking to date.

Glenn Gould – A Life Off Tempo has been lovingly crafted by Sandrine Revel, author, cartoonist and comics artist (Jouvence la Bordelaise, Sorcellerie et dependences, Résurgences, Femmes en voie de resociabilisation, Le Jardin Autre Monde) as well as journalistic press illustrator for Sud Ouest Dimanche, Milan Presse and other magazines.

She’s also a devoted and passionate fan of the star of this elegiac and beguiling book: so much so that she’s also provided a menu of Appendices at the back to augment your appreciation and understanding of an archetypal troubled genius…

Painted in a number of extremely welcoming and effective styles, A Life Off Tempo offers up snippets from the strange, solitary and woefully short life of a Canadian musical child prodigy who hit the heights, changed the scene and left the world early as all revelatory, game-changing artists seem to do…

As you’ll see here, Gould – dubbed “the JD Salinger of the classical music world” – died in 1982 as the result of a stroke, nearly fifty years after his birth, and it’s as he dies that we share moments of his clearly difficult life, all deftly woven into a non-chronological narrative, dotted with observation from the paltry few people he allowed to get close to him.

You may or may not know he was a classical pianist with a unique style and manner who revolutionised how certain pieces were played and heard…

…Or how he opened up the Soviet Union to Western cultural arts tours despite playing less than 200 concerts in his entire career…

…And that he was either crippled by hypochondria ore suffered from a number of physical and psychological ailments as well as what might well have been undiagnosed Asberger’s Syndrome – or an ASD, to use today’s terminology. He certainly loved animals, despised cruelty and always bundled up as if he were freezing to death…

At the height of his fame Gould abandoned live performance to write music and experiment in recording techniques. He became a critic and broadcaster and invented pseudonymous identities so that he could savage his own recordings.

He was clearly a difficult man and beloved mystery to those around him, and this graphic account astutely gives you the how if not always the why…

The deliciously oversized (280 x 208 mm) full-colour, resoundingly substantial hardback is not a formal history or biography text, even though we meet Gould at various stages of his life and share key events and intimate moments.

You obviously won’t feel how his interpretations of hallowed pieces by Bach, Beethoven, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Mozart and more shook up the musical world – although if you follow the aforementioned ‘Appendices’ at the back and listen to the suggested playlist, track down the recordings cited in the ‘Glenn Gould Discography’ or use the ‘Further Reading’ and ‘Further Viewing’ lists to get a firm grip on the maestro’s output you’ll experience the innovation and won’t be at all disappointed…

Impassioned, enchanting and marvellously moving, this enigmatic engagement with a singular creative individual is a fabulous treat for lovers of comics and music and will stay for all time in your head like a favourite tune.
© Dargaud 2016 © 2016 NBM for the English translation.

Glenn Gould – A Life Off Tempo will be released on December 1st 2016. It can be pre-ordered now. It is also available wherever e-books are sold.
For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Batman: Birth of the Demon


By Dennis O’Neil, Norm Breyfogle & Tom various (DC Comics)
ISBNs: 1-56389-080-1 (original hardcover);                         1-56389-081-X (trade paperback)

Debuting twelve months after Superman, in May 1939 “The Bat-Man” (joined within a year by Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented DC/National Comics as the market and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the scope and parameters of the metahuman with their Man of Tomorrow, the magnificently mortal physical perfection and dashing derring-do of the human-scaled adventures starring the Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all four-colour crimebusters were judged.

Batman is in many ways the ideal superhero: uniquely adaptable and able to work in any type or genre of story, as is clearly evident from the dazzling plethora of vintage tales collected in so many captivating volumes over the years, vying equally with the most immediate and recent tales collected into albums scant moment after they go off-sale as comicbooks….

One the most impressive and well-mined periods is the moody 1970-1980s when the Caped Crusader evolved into a driven but still coldly rational Manhunter, rather than the dark, out-of-control paranoid of later days or the costumed boy-scout of the “Camp”-crazed Sixties.

There had been many “Most Important Batman” stories over the decades since his debut in 1939 but very few had the resounding impact of pioneering 1987 experiment Batman: Son of the Demon which capped a period when DC were creatively on fire and could do no wrong commercially.

Not only did the story add new depth to the character, but the package itself – oversized (294 x 226 mm), on high-quality paper, available in both hardback and softcover editions – helped kickstart the fledgling graphic novel marketplace. In 1991 the tale spawned an equally impressive sequel – Batman: Bride of the Demon – and a year later Scripter Supreme Denny O’Neil joined with illustrator Norm Breyfogle who painted this staggering saga (lettered by Ken Bruzenak) to complete a trilogy of outstanding graphic landmarks by providing Batman’s quintessential antithesis with an origin…

In the 1970s immortal mastermind and militant eco-activist Ra’s Al Ghul was a contemporary – and presumably thus more acceptable – embodiment of the venerably inscrutable Foreign Devil designated in a less forgiving age as the “Yellow Peril” and most famously embodied in Dr. Fu Manchu.

This kind of alien archetype had permeated fiction since the beginning of the 20th century and is still an overwhelmingly potent villain symbol even today, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at that time, seem to painfully embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s terrorist-obsessed world.

Possessed of immense resources, an army of zealots and every inch Batman’s physical and intellectual equal match, Al Ghul featured in many of most memorable stories of the 1970s and 1980s. He had easily deduced the Caped Crusader’s secret identity and wanted his masked adversary to become his ally…

Here the war between these astounding rivals has reached the end-stage. Al Ghul has extended his lifespan for centuries through arcane means, but as this saga begins the immortal warlord is dying; his network of life-restoring Lazarus Pits dismantled and destroyed by the implacable Batman. Moreover, every attempt to create a new version of the geographically-sensitive chemical bath is anticipated by the Dark Knight and foiled with brutal efficiency. With few options remaining the demon’s daughter Talia takes charge of the last possible potential pit but finds Batman – her one true beloved – waiting for her. She has no idea that he too is near his life’s end…

The lovers discuss how the Batman had anticipated all the possible moves of the Demon’s Head. He reveals how archaeologists had got a certain ancient manuscript to him at the cost of their lives, and how he had deduced its true meaning…

The scene then resets to 500 years previously in an Arabian kingdom. Here a good and brilliant doctor of peasant origins creates a unique immersion treatment to save the son of the ruling potentate from a mystery disease. The remedy came after a retreat to the desert where the doctor experienced visions and where he believes he battles a bat-demon…

However, when the prince emerges from the boiling chemical pit, he is an uncontrollable savage who assaults and kills the healer’s wife. Despite all he has done, the doctor is denied use of the Pit to revive her and soon learns first hand of the callous disregard rulers have for their subjects…

Subjected to unimaginable cruelty, the healer is left to die in the desert before being saved by a poor poet he has recently helped. Together they unite with a bandit chief to topple the wicked sultan and carve out a bloody empire. Using the Pit, they also extend their lives and plan to reconstruct the world into a fairer place.

Sadly, somewhere along the way the allies fall out as their organisation grows in strength and as centuries pass one of the triumvirate leaves a document that might spell the Demon’s undoing…

Returning to modern times the tale ends in a climactic duel between the dying giants on the lip of the last Lazarus Pit…

Epic, revelatory and powerfully mythic, Birth of the Demon is an emotionally evocative fable crammed with action, spectacle and suspense: one of the most moving mature-reader tales in Batman’s canon and one to delight fans and casual readers alike.

If you’re new to these older tales, or just want the entire saga in one (slightly smaller) package, all three Al Ghul stories are available in one collected volume – Batman: Birth of the Demon (Collected) first released in 2012.

© 1990 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons


By Agnès Rosenstiehl (Toon Books/Raw Junior)
ISBN: 978-0-9799238-1-4 (HB)                    978-1-935179-23-8 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Delight from First to Last… 10/10

Kids love to read and will do so for their entire lives if you start them off with the right material. Thankfully, after too many years without, the bookshelves and digital stores are stuffed with just such graphic narrative treasures. This particular award-winning cartoon treat for the very young comes from the magnificently prolific and talented Agnès Rosenstiehl, who has been one of France’s greatest kids’ authors for decades.

Rosenstiehl was born in 1941 to an artistic Parisian family, and, after attending Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse à Paris and the Sorbonne, has been enchanting European nippers with her efforts since 1968. I lost count at 159 books. There are probably more…

Her most popular and ubiquitous character is an adventurous tyke named Mimi Cracra (48 tomes thus far) who in 2008 hopped the pond and landed as Silly Lilly in a supremely engaging selection of vignettes showing the tot learning about and exulting in the ever-changing planetary cycle…

Crafted as mini-tales for very young and emerging readers, the explorations begin in playful callisthenics in Spring and ‘Silly Lilly at the Park’; moves on to Summer and ‘Silly Lilly at the Beach’; shuffles on in sensible warm clothes to Fall and ‘Silly Lilly and the Apples’, romps in Winter as ‘Silly Lilly Plays in the Snow’ before inexorably coming around to Spring again with ‘Silly Lilly and the Swing’.

Toon Books/Raw Junior was established by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly as an imprint of the groundbreaking alternative comics magazine to provide high-quality comics stories which would entice pre-schoolers and starter-readers into a lifelong love affair with strips in particular and reading in general.

Released as a child-sized (236 x 152 mm) landscape package, this magically compelling full-colour 32-page picture treat is available in both hardback and softcover: the kind of comforting illustrated exploration that opens young eyes to all the world’s wonders and will be read over and to again.
© 2008 RAW Junior, LLC. All rights reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange volume 1


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Don Rico, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4564-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Little Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural (especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk) were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time all – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilight troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962), launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed scientific wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, magician and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans and was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

After a shaky start, the Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art, echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This enchanting full colour paperback compilation – also available as a digital download – collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-141 and a titanic team-up from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2; spanning July 1963 to February 1966. Moreover, although the Good Doctor was barely cover-featured until issue #130, it also magnanimously includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superbly eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart outfit’s formative heyday by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Bob Powell, John Severin and others.

Following a fond reminiscence and commentary from Dean Mullaney our first meeting with the man of mystery comes courtesy of a quiet little chiller which has never been surpassed for sheer mood and imagination.

‘Doctor Strange Master of Black Magic!’ by Lee & Ditko debuted at the back of Strange Tales #110 and saw a terrified man troubled by his dreams approach an exceptional consultant in his search for a cure…

That perfect 5-page fright-fest introduces whole new realms and features deceit, desperation, double dealing and the introduction of both a mysterious and aged oriental mentor and devilish dream demon Nightmare in an unforgettable yarn that might well be Ditko’s finest moment…

A month later in #111 he was back, ‘Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo!’ which introduced a player on the other side…

The esoteric duel with such an obviously formidable foe established Strange as a tragic solitary guardian tasked with defending the world from supernatural terrors and uncanny encroachment whilst introducing his most implacable enemy, a fellow sorcerer with vaulting ambition and absolutely no morals. In the astounding battle that ensued, it was also firmly confirmed that Strange was the smarter man…

Strange Tales #114 (November 1963) was one of the most important issues of the era. Not only did it highlight the return of another Golden Age hero – or at least a villainous facsimile of him by Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers. Here’s a quote from the last panel. “You guessed it! This story was really a test! To see if you too would like Captain America to Return! As usual, your letters will give us the answer!” We all know how that turned out…

Nevertheless, for many of us the true treasure trove here was the fabulously moody resurrection of Doctor Strange: permanently installing an eccentric and baroque little corner of the growing unified universe where Ditko could let his imagination run wild…

With #114 the Master of the Mystic Arts took up monthly residence behind the Torch as ‘The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!’ (uncredited inks by George Roussos) found the Doctor lured to London and into a trap, only to be saved by unlikely adept Victoria Bentley: an abortive stab at a romantic interest who would periodically turn up in years to come.

The forbidding man of mystery was at last revealed in all his frail mortality as Strange Tales #115 offered ‘The Origin of Dr. Strange’, disclosing how Stephen Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man, yet greedy, vain and arrogant, he cared nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage to Tibet, where a frail and aged mage changed his life forever. It also showed his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo: thwarting a seditious scheme and earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

Eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog for at the fringes of humanity, challenging all the hidden dangers of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows…

‘Return to the Nightmare World!’ saw the insidious dream predator trapping earthly sleepers in perpetual slumber until the doubtful authorities asked Strange to investigate and invade his oneiric enemy’s stronghold after which ‘The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!’ apparently saw the malevolent mage devise an inescapable doom, which once more foundered after Strange applied a little logic to it…

The wildness and infinite variety of Strange’s universe offered Ditko tremendous opportunities to stretch himself visually and as plotter of the stories. In ST #118 the Master of Magic travelled to Bavaria to combat ‘The Possessed!’ and found humans succumbing to extra-dimensional invaders neither fully mystic or mundane, whilst ‘Beyond the Purple Veil’ found him rescuing burglars who had stolen one of his deadly treasures from ray-gun wielding slaver tyrants…

Strange Tales #120 played with the conventions of ghost stories after a reporter vanishes during a live broadcast from ‘The House of Shadows!’ and the concerned Doctor diagnoses something unworldly but certainly not dead…

Mordo sprang yet another deadly trap in ‘Witchcraft in the Wax Museum!’ but was once again outsmarted and humiliated after stealing his rival’s body whilst Strange wandered the world in astral form…

Roussos returned as an uncredited inker for #122’s ‘The World Beyond’ wherein Nightmare nearly scored his greatest victory after an exhausted Strange fell asleep before uttering the nightly charm that protected from him from attack through his own dreams.

Strange hosted his first Marvel guest star #123 whilst meeting ‘The Challenge of Loki!’ (Lee, Ditko & George Roussos as George Bell from August 1964) as the god of Mischief tricked the earthly mage into briefly stealing Thor’s hammer before deducing where the emanations of evil he sensed really came from…

Strange battled a sorcerer from ancient Egypt to save ‘The Lady from Nowhere!’ from time-bending exile and imprisonment, and performed similar service to rescue the Ancient after the aged sage was kidnapped in ‘Mordo Must Not Catch Me!’ after which Roussos/Bell moved on whilst Lee & Ditko geared up for even more esoteric action.

Strange Tales #126 took the Master of the Mystic arts to ‘The Domain of the Dread Dormammu!’ as an extra-dimensional god sought to subjugate Earth. In a fantastic realm Strange met a mysterious and exotic woman who revealed the Dread One operated by his own implacable code: giving the overmatched Earthling the edge in the concluding ‘Duel with of the Dread Dormammu!’ which saw Earth saved, the Ancient One freed of a long-standing curse and Strange given a new look and mystic weapons upgrade…

Restored to his homeworld and Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village, Strange solved ‘The Dilemma of… the Demon’s Disciple!’ by saving a luckless truth-seeker from an abusive minor magician and – after a stunning pin-up by Ditko – tackled a demonic god of decadence stealing TV guests and execs in #129’s ‘Beware… Tiborro! The Tyrant of the Sixth Dimension!’ (scripted by Golden Age great Don Rico).

Doctor Strange got his first star cover slot in Strange Tales #130 to celebrate the start of an ambitious multi-part saga which would be rightly acclaimed one of the mystic’s finest moments. ‘The Defeat of Dr. Strange’ opens with an enigmatic outer-dimensional sponsor entering into a pact with Baron Mordo to supply infinite power and ethereal minions in return for the death of Earth’s magical guardian…

With the ancient One assaulted and stuck in a deathly coma, Stephen Strange was forced to go on the run: a fugitive hiding in the most exotic corners of the globe as remorseless, irresistible forces closed in all around him…

A claustrophobic close shave whilst trapped aboard a jetliner in ‘The Hunter and the Hunted!’ expands into cosmic high gear in #132 as Strange doubles back to his sanctum and defeats the returning Demon only to come ‘Face-to-Face at Last with Baron Mordo!’ Crumbling into weary defeat as the villain’s godly sponsored is revealed, the hero is hurled headlong out of reality to materialise in ‘A Nameless Land, A Timeless Time!’ and confront tyrannical witch-queen Shazana.

Upon liberating her benighted land the relentless pursuit resumes as Strange re-crosses hostile dimensions to take the fight to his foes in ‘Earth Be My Battleground’. Returning to the enclave hiding his ailing master, he gleans a hint of a solution in the mumbled enigmatic word “Eternity” and begins searching for more information, even as, in the Dark Dimension, a terrified girl attempts to sabotage the Dread Dormammu’s efforts to empower Mordo…

As the world went super-science spy-crazy and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. took over the lead spot with Strange Tales #135, the Sixties also saw a blossoming of alternative thought and rebellion. Doctor Strange apparently became a confirmed favourite of the blossoming Counterculture Movement with its recreational drug experimentation subculture. With Ditko truly hitting his imaginative stride, it’s not hard to see why. His weird worlds and demonstrably adjacent dimensions were just unlike anything anyone had ever seen or depicted before…

‘Eternity Beckons!’ when Strange is lured to an ancient castle where an old ally seeks to betray him and, after again narrowly escaping Mordo’s minions, the Mage desperately consults the aged senile Genghis in #136 and makes a grave error in judgement. Once more catapulted into a dimension of deadly danger, Strange barely escapes a soul-stealing horror after discovering ‘What Lurks Beneath the Mask?’

Back on Earth and out of options the Doctor is forced to test his strength against the Ancient One’s formidable psychic defences to learn the secret of Eternity ‘When Meet the Mystic Minds!’ and after barely surviving the terrible trial translates himself to a place beyond reality to meet the embodiment of creation in ‘If Eternity Should Fail!’

The quest for solutions or extra might bears little fruit and as he despondently arrives on Earth he finds The Ancient One and his unnamed female friend prisoners of his worst enemies in anticipation of a fatal showdown…

Strange Tales #139 warns ‘Beware…! Dormammu is Watching!’ but as Mordo, despite being super-charged with the Dark Lord’s infinite energies, fails over and again to kill the Good Doctor the Overlord of Evil loses all patience and drags the whole show into his domain…

Intent on making a show of destroying his mortal nemesis, Dormammu convenes a great gathering in which he will smash Strange in a duel using nothing but ‘The Pincers of Power!’ and is again bathed to ultimate humiliation as the mortal’s wit and determination result in a stunning triumph in the concluding ‘Let There Be Victory!’ As the universes tremble Doctor Strange wearily heads home, blithely unaware that his enemies have laid one last trap…

To Be Continued…

After all that tense suspense there are a few treats still in store, beginning with one last Lee/Ditko yarn to enthral and beguile: Although a little chronologically askew, it is very much a case of the best left until last…

In October 1965 ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ (from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2) was the astonishing lead feature in an otherwise vintage reprint Spidey volume.

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the webslinger to arcane adventure and otherworldly realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the purloined Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back… and the cross-fertilisation probably introduced many fans to Lee & Ditko’s other breakthrough series.

But wait, there’s more! Wrapping up the proceeding is a selection of original art pages and contemporary T-shirt designs, a cover gallery from the 1970’s reprint revival of “Strange Tales” volume 2 with art from Gil Kane, Ed Hannigan, Dan Adkins, Klaus Janson, Frank Giacoia, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer, all nicely rounded off by a re-presentation of this collection’s previous Ditko/Dean White cover and informative ‘Biographies’ of the creative stars featured herein…

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a magical method for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.