The New Warriors: Beginnings

By various (Marvel)
ISBN13: 978-0-7851-2043-8

With the wealth of comics material Marvel has access to it constantly surprises me how poorly served the company’s faithful, mainstream fanbase remains. Whilst there’s always a book or collection with the key stories, name artists, latest edgy hit or crossover compilation available, strong, solid tales comprising pulse-pounding Marvel Madness of the type that made them Number One for so long just don’t seem to make it onto the bookshelves these days.

A perfect example would be this workmanlike gem from 1992, which collected the first unsteady steps of a kid team that grew to be one of the most consistently interesting superhero series of the later Marvel Age.

Created by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz before being assigned to Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley to develop, the team consisted of a bunch of failed young super-doers led by a new grim-‘n’-gritty kid millionaire with a grudge, a battle suit and (trust me, it works) high-tech skateboard calling himself Night Thrasher (I still wince at the name).

At their inception the team consisted of hyper-kinetic Speedball, mutant Firestar, telekinetic Vance Astrovic/Marvel Boy, a re-invigorated Nova the Human Rocket, and Sub-Mariner’s niece Namorita: a line-up seemingly designed to flop, but one which swiftly proved the old adage about there being no bad characters, only bad handling…

They made their first appearance in Thor #411 and 412 before launching into their own title, but here, with uncharacteristic consideration for the reader, the editors have led off with that first issue, ‘From the Ground Up!’ an origin of sorts, which sees Dwayne Taylor, man with a mission, gather up a disparate group of super-kids for a mysterious – and as yet unrevealed – project, only to fall foul of a resurrected cosmic powered ex-herald of Galactus named Terrax.

Overcoming the threat the young heroes band together as much to spite dismissive adults like the Avengers as to fight for Justice. This initial helter-skelter romp was written by Nicieza, drawn by Bagley and inked by the legendary Al Williamson.

From there we jump to those aforementioned Thor issues. ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Juggernaut!’ by DeFalco, Frenz and Joe Sinnott, was actually part of the Acts of Vengeance company event, wherein a coalition of villains arranged to trade enemies in a concerted attempt to wipe out the heroes. The Thunder God was targeted by the mystically enhanced X-Men nemesis, resulting in a spectacular, catastrophic battle that devastated much of New York, and the Asgardian Avenger was on the verge of losing his life until the woefully overmatched teens injected themselves into the battle…

New Warriors #2 ‘Mirror Moves’ found Taylor training his new team with his own adult mentors Chord and the enigmatic dowager Tai, when his mysterious past came back to haunt him in the form of old friends Silhouette and Midnight’s Fire, super-powered siblings who battled Korea-Town crime in their own rather unpalatable way. Also debuting were the human-weapon builders of the unscrupulous Genetech Company – destined to be a long-running thorn in the team’s collective side. When Silhouette was crippled in an ambush her brother instigated a murderous gang war that threatened to engulf the entire city…

As Larry Mahlstadt assumed the inking chores, ‘I Am, Therefore I Think’ further explored the budding relationships of the team whilst old Fantastic Four Foe the Mad Thinker took a decidedly deadly pop at the heroes courtesy of a little Genetech prodding, culminating in the New Warriors taking the battle back to them in the all-action ‘Genetech Potential’, which introduced the exceedingly odd gengineered combat force known as Psionex…

Whilst never going to the broadest of audiences these tales are a superb example of what Marvel used to do so well: cultivate a market and instill brand loyalty by producing the kind of thrilling action stories that always satisfied whilst keeping us hungry for more. This bread-and-butter approach ensured a following that was loyal and caring. They’re still there, but so much of what they want simply isn’t any more…
©1989, 1990, 1992, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Beasts! Book 1

By many and various, designed and edited by Jacob Covey (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-950-0

A few years ago an art director at Fantagraphics finally completed a dream project – to compile a catalogue of mythological creatures of all natures and cultures (defined and explained by writers Heidi Broadhead, Felicia Gotthelf, Paul Hughes and Rob Lightner) and brought to better-than-life by the cream of alternative artists. The result is captivating, wistful, funny and truly extraordinary – a Bestiary of the traditionally fantastic for the dreary 21st century where imagination and wonder have been formularised as crypto-zoology.

If you’re inclined towards shopping lists, this next paragraph lists each of the artists and their assignment, and please feel free to skip it if you’re impatient or in a rush, but if you’ve a favourite feel free to browse at your leisure. Like this superb book itself, that’s the point.

In page order then: Ray Fenwick – Beast Pattern, Art Chantry – American Buffalo, Gilbert Hernandez – Sea Hog, Tim Biskup – Amermait, Jason Robards – Acephalite, Ryan Clark – Aeternae, Charles Glaubitz – Ahuizotl, Esther Pearl Watson – Aitvaras, Ronald Kurniawan – Albastor, Jacob Covey – Argus, Deth P. Sun – Aries, R. Kikuo Johnson – Asp Turtle, Julie Murphy – Aspis, Martin Cendreda – Aswang, Brent Johnson – Auvekoejak, Colleen Coover – Baba Yaga, Katy Horan – Banshee, Dean Yeagle – Barguest, Kaela Graham – Barometz, Jesse LeDoux – Bautatsch-Ah-Ilgs, Marvin Kirschnik – Beast of Bray Road, Andrew Brandou – Big Ears, Renee French – Bigfoot, Lesley Reppeteaux – Black Annis, Eric Reynolds – Boa, Kenneth Lavallee – Boraro, Adam Grano – Brownies, PJ Fidler – Cacus, Brian Ralph – Carn Galver, Angela Kongelbak – Catoblepas, Keith Andrew Shore – Centaur, Amanda Visell – Cerberus, Mike Hoffman – Cheeroonear, Mat Brinkman – Chenoo, Scott Campell – Cliff Ogre, Dave Cooper – Bapets, Corey Lunn –Cyclopedes, Nate Williams – Cyclops, Alex Meyer – Disemboweller, Don Clark – Dog-Faced Bunyip, Kevin Cornell – Donestre, Nathan Jurevicius – Drac, Ron Regé, Jr. – Draug, Meg Hunt – Erinyes, Stan Sakai – Gaki, Marc Bell – Golem, Dan Grzeca – Gorgon, Johnny Ryan – Harpy, Little Friends of Printmaking – Hundred-Handed Giant, Kevin Scalzo – Kabandha, Bwana Spoons – Kappa, Mizna Wada – Kojiki’s Yamata No Orochi, Jeremy Fish – Kraken, Tyler Stout – Kukuweaq, Jordan Crane – Laestrygonians, Peter Thompson – Leveller, Scott Teplin – Loathly Worm, Maxwell Loren Holyoke-Hirsch – Loch Ness Monster, Martin Ontiveros – Long Wang, Chris Ryniak – Lou Carcolh, Andy Kehoe – Manticore, Atteboy – Melusine, Justin B. Williams – Mimick Dog, Jeff Soto – Minata-Karaia, Jason – Minotaur, Jessica Lynch – Monoceros, Nathan Huang – Nuckalevee, Kevin Dart – Odontotyrannus, Jesse Reno – Pegasus, Steven Weissman – Pey, Alan Mooers – Puk, Anders Nilsen – Sianach, Ted Jouflas – Siren, Foi Jimenez – Sphinx, James Jean – Succubus, Jay Ryan – Thunderbeast, Jason Miles – Thunderbird & Unceliga, Tony Millionaire – Leviathan, Josh Cochran – Triton, S.britt – Troll, Stella Im Hultberg – Tui Delai Gau, Seonna Hong – Unicorn, Sammy Harkham – Utukku, Sam Weber – Vampire, Richard Sala – Vodnik, Chris Silas Neal – Werewolf, Joe Vaux – Wihwin, Tom Gauld Wizard’s Shackle, Heiko Müller – Wolpertinger, Michael Slack – Yara-Ma-Yha-Who and Souther Salazar – Aunyainá.

The concept of a Bestiary – a chronicle of fabulous creatures – is probably older than the printed book itself and this incredibly broad and varied collection (originally released as a striking hardback in 2007) uses the very best of modern print technology and design sensibility to deliver an vivid package of sheer fantasy and artistic excellence, with as much emphasis on madcap humour as terror or wonderment. This edition also benefits from slick, coated paper and stunning gold ink, a text feature by “Yeti Hunter” Daniel Taylor, a family tree of Crypto-zoological creatures, an extensive bibliography and biographies of the 90 creators involved in the project.

Combining state-of-the-nation artists from a number of disciplines including comics, poster production, skate art, commercial illustration and gallery exhibitors, this is as much a catalogue of the contemporary US popular arts scene as a bible of the fantastic and a must-have for anyone who wants their eyes to bulge and protrude like a Tom & Jerry cartoon character. Hey? What page are they o…?
This edition © 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All images and text © 2008 their respective creator. All Rights Reserved.

Iznogoud Volume 1: the Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud

By René Goscinny & Jean Tabary, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-46-5

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

While working as junior illustrator in an ad agency in 1945 an uncle invited him to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After his National Service in France he settled in Brooklyn and pursued an artistic career becoming in 1948 an assistant for a little studio that included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”, with whom he produced Lucky Luke from 1955-1977) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé). He also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and ‘Jerry Spring’ Goscinny was made head of World Press’Paris office where he met his life-long creative partner Albert Uderzo (Jehan Sepoulet, Luc Junior) as well as creating Sylvie and Alain et Christine (with “Martial”- Martial Durand) and Fanfan et Polo (drawn by Dino Attanasio).

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent Édipress/Édifrance syndicate, creating magazines for general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo he produced Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and himself wrote and illustrated Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny seems to have invented the 9-day week. Using the pen-name Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé), and in 1956 he began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing stories for many illustrators including Signor Spagetti (Dino Attanasio), Monsieur Tric (Bob De Moor), Prudence Petitpas (Maréchal), Globule le Martien and Alphonse (both by Tibet), Modeste et Pompon (for André Franquin), Strapontin (Berck) as well as Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo. He also wrote strips for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue starred his and Uderzo’s instant masterpiece Asterix the Gaul, and he also re-launched Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet and began Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard). When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television. In his spare time he created a little strip entitled Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record (first episode January 15th 1962) illustrated by a Swedish-born artist named Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote.

Goscinny died – probably of well-deserved pride and severe exhaustion – aged 933, in November 1977.

Jean Tabary was born in Stockholm, and began his comics career in 1956 on Vaillant, illustrating Richard et Charlie, before graduating to the hugely popular boy’s adventure strip Totoche in 1959. The engaging head of a kid gang, Totoche spawned a spin-off, Corinne et Jeannot, and as Vaillant transformed into Pif, the lad even got his own short-lived comic; Totoche Posche. Tabary drew the series until 1976, and has revived it in recent years under his own publishing imprint Séguinière /Editions Tabary.

In 1962 he teamed with René Goscinny to produce imbecilic Arabian potentate Haroun el-Poussah but it was the villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud that stole the show – possibly the little rat’s only successful plot.

With the emphasis shifted to the shifty shrimp the revamped series moved to Pilote in 1968, becoming a huge favourite, spawning 27 albums to date, a long-running TV cartoon show and even a live action movie in 2005. Following their success Goscinny and Tabary created Valentin, and Tabary also wrote Buck Gallo for Mic Delinx to draw. When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary took over writing Iznogoud as well, moving to book length complete tales, rather than the compilations of short stories that typified their collaboration.

So what’s it all about?

Like all the best comics it works on two levels: as a comedic romp of sneaky baddies coming a cropper for younger readers, and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, much like its more famous cousin Asterix – and translated here with the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue.

Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little tyke has loftier ambitions, or as he is always shouting it “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”

The vile vizier is “aided” – and that’s me being uncharacteristically kind – in his schemes by his bumbling assistant Wa’at Alahf, and in this first album they begin their campaign with ‘Kissmet’, wherein pandemonium ensues after a talking frog is revealed to be an ensorcelled Prince who can only regain human form if kissed by a human. Iznogoud sees an opportunity if he can only trick the simple-minded Caliph into puckering up; unfortunately he forgets that he’s not the only ambitious man in Baghdad…

‘Mesmer-Eyezed’ finds him employing a surly stage hypnotist to remove the Caliph whilst ‘The Occidental Philtre’ sees him employ a flying potion obtained from a lost, jet-lagged western sorcerer, each with hilarious but painfully counter-productive results.

Tabary drew himself into ‘The Time Machine’ as a comic artist desperate to meet his deadlines who falls foul of a mystical time cabinet, but when he meets the vizier, that diminutive dastard can clearly see its Caliph-removing potential – to his eternal regret… In ‘The Picnic’ Iznogoud takes drastic action, luring Haroun Al Plassid into the desert, but as usual his best-laid plans aren’t, and the book concludes with ‘Chop and Change’ as the villain gets hold of a magic goblet which can switch the minds of any who drink from it, forgetting that Caliphs are important people who employ food-tasters…

Snappy, fast-paced slapstick and painfully delightful word-play abound in these mirthfully infectious tales and the series has become a household name in France; said the name has even entered French Political life as a term for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and usually short.

Eight albums were translated in the 1970s and 1980s, but made little impact here: hopefully this new incarnation of gloriously readable and wonderfully affordable comedy epics will finally find an appreciative audience among British kids of all ages. I’m certainly going to be one of them…
© 1967 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Goscinny & Tabary. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Hulk volume 3

By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Herb Trimpe, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1689-9

By the close of the 1960s the Incredible Hulk had settled into a comfortable niche and enjoyable formula as the tragic Bruce Banner sought cures for his gamma-transformative curse, alternately aided or hunted by prospective father-in-law US General “Thunderbolt” Ross and a variety of guest-star heroes and villains.

Herb Trimpe made the character his own, the “house” Jack Kirby based art-style quickly evolving into startlingly abstract mannerism, augmented by an unmatched facility for drawing technology and especially honking great ordnance and vehicles – all of which looks especially great in the crisp black and white of these magically affordable Essentials volumes. And of course no one can deny the cathartic reader-release of a mighty big “Hulk Smash” moment…

This chronologically accurate treat contains issues #118-142, as well as the corresponding parts of a couple of cross-overs, Captain Marvel #20-21 and Avengers #88, but the action begins with Incredible Hulk #118 (August 1969) wherein a duplicitous courtier at the Sub-Mariner’s sunken  citadel orchestrated ‘A Clash of Titans’, (as related by Stan Lee and Trimpe) before the Jade Giant stumbled into a South American country conquered by and ‘At the Mercy of… Maximus the Mad’, a two-part-tale which concluded with the Roy Thomas scripted ‘On the Side of… the Evil Inhumans!’

This all-out Armageddon with the Hulk also fighting the Costa Salvador army, the ubiquitous rebels, General Ross’ specialist forces and even a giant robot gave way to a moodier menace as Ol’ Greenskin returned to the USA – Florida to be precise – to find ‘Within the Swamp, There Stirs… a Glob!’, a muck-encrusted monstrosity that predated both DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s own Man-Thing; designed as tribute in equal parts to Theodore Sturgeon’s “It” and the Hillman Comics Character The Heap, who slopped his way through the back of Airboy Comics in the early 1950s.

Incredible Hulk #122 promised ‘The Hulk’s Last Fight!’ when the Fantastic Four thought they’d found a cure for Banner’s condition, but as the concluding episode ‘No More the Monster!’ showed, you don’t always get what you want – specially when gamma-super-genius the Leader has involved himself in the plan.

Seemingly cured of the curse of the Hulk Bruce Banner was set to marry his troubled sweetheart Betty Ross, but ‘The Rhino Says No!’ and the subsequent set-to (rather heavily inked by Sal Buscema) re-set the tragic status quo of hunted, haunted hero on the run…

Trimpe again took up the inker’s brush for the bludgeoning battle in #125 ‘And Now, the Absorbing Man!’ whilst Doctor Strange guest-starred in an other-dimensional duel with the malign Undying Ones: ‘…Where Stalks the Night-Crawler!’ (a tidying up exercise closing a saga from the good Doctor’s own cancelled title – and one which directly led to the formation of the anti-hero super-group The Defenders).

In ‘Mogol!’ (#127) the child-like, lonely Hulk was transported to the Mole Man’s subterranean realm where he thought he’d finally found a friend, only to face bitter disappointment once more, and his pain-filled rampage threatened to destroy California (#127) when he tore his way surface-ward via the San Andreas Fault. ‘And in this Corner… The Avengers!’ found a solution to the problem, even if they couldn’t hold the Green Goliath, leading him to more trouble when ‘Again, The Glob!’ attacked.

Next up is a two-part tale from Captain Marvel #20-21 (June and August 1970) where erstwhile partner Rick Jones sought Banner’s aid to free him from a twilight existence bonded to the Kree hero – and intermittent exile to the Negative Zone. Astoundingly illustrated by Gil Kane and Dan Adkins ‘The Hunter and the Holocaust’ and ‘Here Comes the Hulk!’ compounded the mismatched battle with topical student unrest, in a brilliant story that presaged a move towards more “relevant” comics fare throughout the industry.

Incredible Hulk #130 saw Banner separate himself from the Hulk in ‘If I Kill You… I Die’, but the separation had potentially disastrous consequences for Los Angeles, if not the world and only Iron Man could help when ‘A Titan Stalks the Tenements!’ This powerful tale introduced black ghetto kid Jim Wilson, and is made doubly enjoyable by the inking wizardry of the legendary John Severin who signed on for a three-issue stint.

In #132, the Hulk was ‘In the Hands of Hydra!’ – although not for long and to their eternal regret. His desperate escape left him stranded in the Mediterranean dictatorship of Morvania, an unwilling freedom fighter against the despicable Draxon on the ‘Day of Thunder… Night of Death!’ Sal Buscema returned as inker for the conclusion ‘Among us Walks… the Golem!’ in Incredible Hulk #134, and one of the strangest Marvel team-ups then occurred in ‘Descent into the Time-Storm!’ when Kang the Conqueror dispatched the Hulk to the dog-days of World War I to prevent the Avengers’ ancestors from being born, only to fall foul of the masked aviator known as the Phantom Eagle.

Moby Dick (among other cross media classics) was homaged in ‘Klattu! The Behemoth From Beyond Space’ and ‘The Stars, Mine Enemy!’ (this last inked by Mike Esposito) as a vengeance crazed star-ship captain pursued the alien beast that had maimed him, press-ganging the Hulk in the process and pitting him against old foe the Abomination.

It was back to Earth and another old enemy in ‘…Sincerely, the Sandman!’ (inked by Sam Grainger) as the vicious villain turned Betty Ross to brittle glass, whilst #139’s ‘Many Foes Has the Hulk!’ saw the Leader attempt to kill his brutish nemesis by exhaustion as seemingly hundreds of old villains attacked at once…

Another cross-over next, and a very impressive one as Harlan Ellison, Thomas, Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney produced ‘The Summons of Psyklop!’ for Avengers #88 where an insectoid servant of the Elder Gods abducted the Hulk to fuel their resurrection, which led directly into Incredible Hulk #140 and the landmark ‘The Brute that Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom’ (drawn by Grainger over Trimpe’s layouts). Trapped on a sub-atomic world, Banner’s intellect and the Hulk’s body were reconciled, and he became a barbarian hero to an appreciative populace, and the lover of the perfect princess Jarella…

only to be snatched away by Psyklop at the moment of his greatest happiness.

The sudden return to full-sized savagery was the insectoid’s undoing and the Hulk resumed his ghastly existence… at least until #141 when a psychologist proved a way to drain the Hulk’s gamma-energy to restore the crystalline Betty – and even turn himself into a superhero in ‘His Name is … Samson!’ (with Severin returned as inker).

This volume closes with a satirical poke at “Radical Chic” and the return of the “feminist” villain Valkyrie when the Hulk was made a media cause celebre by Manhattan’s effete elite in the oddly charming ‘They Shoot Hulks, Don’t They?’ But don’t fret, there’s plenty of monumental mayhem as well…

The Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the movies, TV shows and action figures, are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, honestly vicarious experience of Might actually being Right, you can’t do better than these yarns so why not Go Green (even if its only in monochrome and your own head)?

© 1969, 1970, 1971, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Green Lantern: Legacy – The Last Will & Testament of Hal Jordan

By Joe Kelly, Brent Anderson & Bill Sienkiewicz, with Ro & Bleyaert (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0365-8

Green Lantern has been a DC star in one form or another since the company’s earliest days, but often that’s led to some rather extreme revamps and odd takes on what seems to be an extremely pliable character with an invaluable shtick – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the Silver Age revival, true-blue test pilot Hal Jordan was bequeathed a power ring by a dying officer of an intergalactic police force run by benign, if austere, immortals known as the Guardians of the Universe.

During one of the interminable crises that beset the universe Jordan saw his home town of Coast City vaporised by an alien invader. He went mad, and sought to use his power to undo the carnage, in the process destroying his beloved GL Corps, stealing all the power rings and evolving into the time-bending villain Parallax. A menace to all reality, he redeemed his life and soul by sacrificing himself to reignite Earth’s sun when it was consumed by a monstrous sun-eater.

Whilst he was alive Hal’s best friend and confidante was Thomas Kalmaku, an Inuit flight engineer nicknamed “Pieface.” Although Tom survived the destruction of Coast City, the trauma led to his marriage failing and he climbed into a bottle of booze. Just as he’s fallen as far as its possible to go a lawyer turns up with a legacy left by the dead hero. Bitter and filled with self-loathing, and despite himself, Tom is saddled with a little boy named Martin Jordan who arrived with nothing more than the clothes on his back and a note that says “Fix it.”

Thomas desperately tries to unload Martin but when the Justice League and Green Lantern survivors try to confiscate the child, he realizes that once more he’s being manipulated. There’s something unnatural about the boy, a deadly monster is hunting them both and even the time-traveling Parallax is on their trail.

Just what is the true legacy of Hal Jordan, and who or what has to die to achieve it..?

This convoluted but highly readable sidebar to the epic Green Lantern mythology might deter the casual reader, but the genned-up fan will get a lot of enjoyment out of this bittersweet, action-packed yarn, especially with the ever-impressive Brent Anderson and Bill Sienkiewicz (ably assisted by some innovative colouring and effects from Ro & Bleyaert) in the illustrators’ seats.

© 2002 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

By Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham, Luca Rossi & various (Vertigo)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-120-5

Re-imagined under the impressive Vertigo umbrella, one of DC’s most venerable titles returns as a tribute to Something Old cunningly disguised as Something New. Apart from a brief period in the Bat-crazed super-heroic mid-1960s when the Martian Manhunter and the ineffably quirky Dial H for Hero seized control, HoM was an anthology title that told tales of mystery and imagination in the tasteful, sedate manner of its parent company. It launched with a December 1951/January 1952 cover date and ran for 321 issues, finally folding in October 1983. When superheroes fell out of favour at the end of the 1960s, it became one of DC’s top selling titles.

At a place where realities meet – or at least overlap – a ramshackle house of indeterminate size, shape and age sometimes stands. In its own capacious grounds the unique structure offers a welcome to the star-crossed and time-lost souls of infinity. The lower floor has been converted into a welcoming hostelry.

Like the bar in “Cheers”, creatures from literally anywhere (many looking like characters out of the previous comic-book incarnation) drop in for a brew and a chinwag, often paying their way with a novel yarn, but for a select few such as the Bartender, the Poet, the Pirate and the Drama Queen the house is more like “Hotel California” – in that they can check out any time they like, but they can never leave…

Fig Keele is an architecture student with a problem and a history. Her home fell apart and two spectral, floating horrors started chasing her. Fleeing in panic she fortuitously found an entrance to the House, but now it won’t let her go. Surprisingly, she adapted pretty quickly to the inhabitants, but what really freaks her out is that the house speaks to her…

Writer Matthew Sturges, with sometime collaborator Bill Willingham, has managed the near-impossible task of combining the best elements of the old within this compellingly fresh horror yarn, and even concocted a cocktail of actual mysteries to keep the pot boiling away. Strikingly illustrated by Luca Rossi, who has incorporated a stylistic ghost of Bernie Wrightson into his artwork, the story of Fig and her fellow residents is punctuated by a series of very classy “pub-stories” illustrated by some of the industry’s best and brightest talents.

Those vignettes include two by Willingham; ‘The Hollows’, a disturbing love-story by Ross Campbell, and the delightfully far-fetched ‘In Too Deep’ from Jill Thompson, whilst Sturges scripted the remaining three ‘Spats and the Neck’ from Zachary Baldus, ‘Familiar’ by Steve Rolston and Jordan‘s Tale’ by Sean Murphy.

Collecting issue #1-5 of the Vertigo comic book, this is enchanting blend of ancient and modern, horror and comedy, mystery and adventure: it’s also a huge amount of fun for anyone old enough to handle a little sex and a smidgen of salty language whilst unraveling the intricacies of a great big, all-absorbing puzzle. Just remember once you’re in you might never want to come out…

© 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Spider-Man volume 2

By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-78511-863-3

The second volume of chronological Spider-Man adventures sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero begin to challenge the dominance of the Fantastic Four as Marvel’s top comic book both in sales and quality. Steve Ditko’s off-beat plots and bizarre art had gradually reached an accommodation with the slick and potent superhero house-style that Jack Kirby was developing (at least as much as such a unique talent ever could), with less line-feathering, moody backgrounds and less totemic villains.

Although still very much a Ditko baby, Spider-Man had attained a sleek pictorial gloss. Stan Lee’s scripts were comfortably in tune with the times if not his collaborator, and although his assessment of the audience was probably the correct one, the disagreements with the artist over the strip’s editorial direction were still confined to the office and not the pages themselves.

Thematically, there’s still a large percentage of old-fashioned crime and gangsterism here. The dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists was still finely balanced with thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but those days were coming to an end too. When Ditko abruptly left the series and the company, the feared loss in quality – and sales – never happened. The mere “safe pair of hands” that John Romita (senior) considered himself blossomed into a major talent in his own right, and the Wall-Crawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

This volume (reprinting Amazing Spider-Man #21-43 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 and 3) kicks off with ‘Where Flies The Beetle’ featuring a hilarious love triangle as the Human Torch’s girlfriend uses Peter Parker to make the flaming hero jealous. Unfortunately the Beetle, a villain with a high-tech suit of insect armour (no sniggering, please) is simultaneously planning to use her as bait for a trap. As ever Spider-Man is in the wrong place at the right time, resulting in a spectacular fight-fest.

‘The Clown, and his Masters of Menace’ was a return engagement for the Circus of Crime (see Essential Spider-Man volume 1, ISBN: 978-0-7851-2192-3) and #23 was a superb thriller blending the ordinary criminals that Ditko loved to highlight with the arcane threat of a super-villain attempting to take over the Mob. ‘The Goblin and the Gangsters’ was both moody and explosive, a perfect contrast to ‘Spider-Man Goes Mad!’ in #24. This psychological thriller found a delusional hero seeking psychiatric help, but there’s more to the matter than simple insanity, as an old foe made an unexpected return…

Issue #25 once again saw the obsessed Daily Bugle publisher taking matters into his own hands: ‘Captured by J. Jonah Jameson!’ introduced Professor Smythe, whose robotic Spider-Slayers would bedevil the Web-Spinner for years to come, hired by the bellicose newsman to remove Spider-Man for good.

Issues #27 and 28 comprise a captivating two-part mystery featuring a deadly duel between the Green Goblin and an enigmatic new criminal. ‘The Man in the Crime-Master’s Mask!’ and ‘Bring Back my Goblin to Me!’ together form a perfect Spider-Man tale, with soap-opera melodrama and screwball comedy leavening tense thrills and all-out action. ‘The Menace of the Molten Man!’ (#28) was a tale of science gone bad and is remarkable not only for the action sequences and possibly the most striking Spider-Man cover ever produced but also as the story where Peter Parker graduated from High School.

In 1965 Steve Ditko was blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential superhero. ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ was the lead story in the second Spider-Man Annual, and spectacularly introduced the Web-Slinger to whole other realities when he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle the power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece. After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu. Also reprinted from that impressive publication are more pin-ups of Spider-Man’s fiercest foes.

‘Never Step on a Scorpion!’ saw the return of that lab-made villain, hungry for vengeance against not just the Wall-Crawler but also Jameson for turning him into a monster. Issue #30 was another off-beat crime-thriller which laid the seeds for future masterpieces. ‘The Claws of the Cat!’ featured the hunt for an extremely capable burglar (way more exciting than it sounds, trust me!), plus the introduction of an organised mob of thieves working for the mysterious Master Planner.

The sharp-eyed will note that scripter Lee mistakenly calls their boss “The Cat” in one sequence, but really, let it go. That’s the kind of nit-picking that gives us comic fans a bad name and reduces our chance of meeting girls…

‘If This Be My Destiny…!’ in #31 concentrated on the Master Planner’s high-tech robberies and led to a confrontation with Spider-Man, as well Peter in College, the introduction of Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, and Aunt May on the edge of death. This saga is probably Ditko’s finest moment on the series – and perhaps of his entire career. ‘Man on a Rampage’ showed Parker pushed to the very edge of desperation as the Planner’s men made off with the only substance that could save Aunt May, with a berserk Spider-Man trying to locate them. Trapped in an underwater fortress, pinned under tons of machinery, the hero faced his greatest failure as the clock ticked down the seconds of May’s life…

Which in turn produced the most memorable visual sequence in Spidey history as the opening of ‘The Final Chapter!’ took five full, glorious pages to depict the ultimate triumph of will over circumstance. Freeing himself from the fallen debris Spider-Man gave his absolute all to deliver the medicine May needed, to be rewarded with a rare happy ending…

Kraven returned in ‘The Thrill of the Hunt!’ and so did another old foe in #35’s ‘The Molten Man Regrets…!’ a plot-light but inimitably action-packed combat classic, whilst a deranged thief calling himself the Looter proved little trouble in ‘When Falls the Meteor!’ In retrospect these brief, fight-oriented tales, coming after such an intricate and passionate tale as the Master Planner saga, should have been seen as some sort of clue that things were not going well, but the fans had no idea that ‘Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot…!’ which featured a beleaguered Norman Osborn assaulted by his disgraced ex-partner and his frankly bizarre murder machines, and the tragic comedy of ‘Just a Guy Named Joe!’ – as a hapless sad-sack gains super-strength and a bad-temper – were to be Ditko’s last arachnid adventures. When Amazing Spider-Man #39 appeared with the first of a two-part adventure that featured the ultimate victory of the Wall-Crawler’s greatest foe no reader knew what had happened – and no one told them…

In ‘How Green Was My Goblin!’ and the concluding ‘Spidey Saves the Day! (“Featuring the End of the Green Goblin!”)’ as it so facetiously and dubiously proclaimed, the arch-foes learned each other’s secret identities before the Goblin “perished” in a climactic showdown. It would have been memorable even it the tale didn’t feature the debut of a new artist and a whole new manner of story-telling…

By 1966 Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could no longer work together on their greatest creation. After increasingly fraught months the artist simply resigned leaving Spider-Man without an illustrator. Romita had been lured away from DC’s romance line and given odd assignments before settling with Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Now he was given the company’s biggest property and told to run with it.

Issues #39 and 40 (August and September 1966) were a turning point in many ways, and inked by old DC colleague Mike Esposito (under the pseudonym Mickey Demeo) they still stand as one of the best Spider-Man yarns ever, heralding a run of classic tales from the Lee/Romita team that actually saw sales rise, even after the departure of the seemingly irreplaceable Ditko.

With #41, ‘The Horns of the Rhino!’ Romita began inking his own pencils and although the super-strong spy proved a mere diversion, his intended target, J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son was a far harder proposition in the next issue. Amazing Spider-Man #42 ‘The Birth of a Super-Hero!’, wherein John Jameson was mutated by space-spores and went on a rampage, was a solid, entertaining yarn but is only really remembered for the last panel of the final page.

Mary Jane Watson had been a running gag for years, a prospective blind-date arranged by Aunt May that Peter had avoided – and the creators had skilfully not depicted – for the duration of time that our hero had been involved with Betty Brant, Liz Allen, and latterly Gwen Stacy. In that last frame the gob-smacked young man finally realised that he been ducking the hottest chick in New York for two years!

‘Rhino on the Rampage!’ gave the villain one more crack at Jameson and Spidey, but the emphasis was solidly on foreshadowing future foes and building Pete and MJ’s relationship. This volume concludes with ‘…To Become an Avenger!’ (Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 3) as the World’s Mightiest Heroes offered the Web-Spinner membership if he could capture the Hulk. As usual all is not as it seems but the action-drenched epic, courtesy of Lee, Romita (on layouts), Don Heck, and Demeo/Esposito is the kind of guest-heavy package that made these summer specials a child’s delight.

This cheap and cheerful compendium is the ideal way to introduce or reacquaint readers with the early Spider-Man. The brilliant adventures and glorious pin-ups are superb value and this series of books should be the first choice of any adult with a present to buy for an impressionable child. Or for their greedy, needy selves…

© 1965, 1966, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-0534-8

Alan Moore’s famous epigram notwithstanding not all comics tales are “Imaginary Stories.” When DC Editor Mort Weisinger was expanding the Superman continuity and building the legend he knew that the each new tale was an event that added to a nigh-sacred canon: that what was written and drawn mattered to the readers. But as an ideas man he wasn’t going to let that aggregated “history” stifle a good idea, nor would he allow his eager yet sophisticated audience to endure clichéd deus ex machina cop-outs to mar the sheer enjoyment of a captivating concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue!’ (Superman #162, July 1963) is possibly the most influential tale of this entire sub-genre. Written by Leo Dorfman, with art from Swan and George Klein, this startling utopian classic was so well-received that decades later it influenced and flavoured the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman continuity for months.

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

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

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

This book is a glorious slice of fancy, augmented by an informative introduction by columnist Craig Shutt, and bolstered with mini-cover reproductions of many tales that didn’t make it into the collection, but I do have one minor quibble: No other type of tale was more dependent on an eye-catching cover, so why couldn’t those belonging to these collected classics have been included here, too?

© 1946, 1959-1964, 1967, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Rocky volume 2: Strictly Business

By Martin Kellerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-852-7

It’s too rare to see contemporary comics material from anywhere but the English-speaking or Japanese markets, so seeing the second volume of Martin Kellerman’s self-confessed “Fritz the Cat knock-off” is in itself a delight, but once again I fear a lot of the Swedish nuance and integral humour has been lost in a poor translation (I don’t speak the tongue – I’m simply taking the word of those who do).

Rocky is a cartoonist (and a dog) in a world of anthropomorphic animals acting out the parts of young folk in modern Stockholm: drinking, swearing, playing computer games, sleeping around and generally wondering what it’s all about while living pointless generation zero lives. Since Rocky is a cartoonist slowly getting established with his autobiographical strip, most of his friends, acquaintances and dalliances end up on public view in his work…

The strips are meticulous and rendered in a scratchy line very reminiscent of the US underground scene. In fact much of the narrative furniture of the strip is indistinguishable from America, with US movies, hip-hop/rap music and even fast food franchises being far more common than native Scandinavian references. I fear that’s the result of Cultural Imperialism rather than translation though: an awful lot of the world looks like Main Street, nowadays.

Which is a pity since, although the strips and Sunday pages here range from competent to riotously funny, the ones that stand out are invariably those where hints of local politics, socially distinct themes and home-grown issues still flavour the gags, quips and brickbats.

Although aiming at twenty-somethings also interested in getting laid, getting wasted and getting rich, Kellerman nonetheless manages to move beyond the ever-fertile grounds of the battle of the sexes, bodily functions and morning-after guilt-trips to produce a lot of work that is truly fresh, funny and uniquely personal. As his strip takes off, his first book collection is released and he takes a room-mate, a number of trips, and a succession of generally disappointed bed-partners…

Less raucous and more considered than the first collection (Rocky: the Big Payback ISBN-13: 978-156097-679-0) there’s the same cast of ne’er-do-wells, unattainable women, slackers of both sexes, salty language and cartoon humping, but the best moments are those where his cronies all seem to be actually settling down. Heck, best bud Manny even has a kid now and his own biological clock seems to be ticking a little louder…

Observational humour can be hit-or-miss at best and I’m decidedly uncomfortable with the translated dialogue, but despite all that there’s still lot to recommend this book, and I’m sure the next one will be even better…
All characters, stories and artwork © 2008 Martin Kellerman, Homework. This book © 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Flash: Emergency Stop

By Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Paul Ryan & John Nyberg, (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-148-9

Here’s a good old fashioned Fights and Tights romp given a bit of post-modern gloss as Caledonian wizards Morrison and Millar turn their considerable talents to the third incarnation of the Fastest Man Alive. Reprinting issues #130-135 of the monthly comic, we find Wally West living with his one true love Linda Park, whilst enjoying a celebrity life as the Scarlet Speedster.

The eponymous lead tale begins when a disembodied uniform attacks old villains, absorbing their powers – and eventually their lives – as it undertakes a sinister master-plan. Whether ghost, pre-programmed super-technology or something else, The Suit proves more than a match for Keystone’s peace officers and even her superhuman guardians. Max Mercury, Jay Garrick (the original Flash) and Impulse are not enough to save West from crippling injuries, and it takes a quantum leap in his abilities before Wally can save everybody from certain death…

Following this superb thriller the lads get a chance to show American writers how it’s pronounced as Scottish villain Mirror Master attacks the recuperating hero and his lady in ‘Flash Through the Looking Glass’. As ever the understated excellence of Ryan and Nyberg act as the perfect vehicle for all those high speed thrills, never better than when Jay Garrick takes centre-stage for the moving ‘Still-Life in the Fast Lane’, a poignant parable that shows how even the swiftest men can’t outrun old age and death…

The volume ends on what could have been a desperately annoying note, but is rescued by the sheer writing skill of the scripters. ‘Death at the Top of the World’ is the third and final part of a company crossover that began in Green Lantern #96 and continued in Green Arrow #130, dealing with the assault on an Arctic cruise ship by super-villains Sonar, Heat Wave and Hatchet, and culminating in an attack by the world-class menace Dr. Polaris.

At any other time I would trenchantly bemoan the inconsiderate planning that deemed truncating such an extended tale, but here the concluding part, played as a classic courtroom drama, really does work as a stand-alone story (though who knows how the equivalent GL or GA trade paperbacks would work?) and tops off this thoroughly readable tome in fine style.

Be warned though: the last two pages are a prologue/cliffhanger for the next collection: At least I can be Mister Grumpy about that…

© 1997, 1998, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.