By Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, Andreas & Stéphane Blanquet translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-540-5

This slim tome is yet another part of the eccentric, raucous and addictively wacky franchise that it’s best to experience rather than read about. As well as Parade, Dungeon also covers Zenith, Early Years and Twilight. There’s this magic castle, right, and it’s got a dungeon…

The inhabitants of this weirdly surreal universe include every kind of anthropomorphic beast and bug as well as monsters, demons, smart-alecs and stroppy women-folk. There’s always something happening and it’s usually quite strange…

The nominal star is a duck with a magic sword which forces him to channel dead heroes and monsters, but by this stage Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the rank of Grand Khan – though he’s not quite sure how – and is the bad-guy in charge when the entire world of Terra Amata explodes. This volume starts as the survivors cling to isolated islands chaotically afloat on a global sea of molten lava…

Comprising two translated albums this book kicks off with ‘The Great Map’ in which unlikely hero Marvin the Red – an unsavoury bunny in super-powered armour – is dispatched by the enemies of the Grand Khan to find a magic chart that can predict the paths and trajectories of each individual floating island.

Sadly Marvin is no one’s idea of a hero and the distractions provided by food, danger and available women – including the Khan’s daughter Zakutu –provide more distraction than he can competently cope with. Always drawn in a superbly individualistic style, this volume and the next are illustrated by guest artists: in this case the phenomenally gifted Andreas with Stéphane Blanquet handling the follow-up ‘The Dark Lord’.

As chaos intrudes on every aspect of life left on the burning world of Terra Amata Grand Khan feels his power as Dark Lord slipping from him – and frankly, he couldn’t be happier. Regrettably it’s not the kind of job you can simply retire from and if Craftiwich is to safely resume a simpler life he has to outmaneuver all his former lieutenants who quite fancy the job themselves. And that idiot Marvin still hasn’t secured the Great Map of the floating islands…

Surreal, earthy, sharp, poignant and brilliantly outlandish, this fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read and the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of wild, graphic style. Definitely not for the young reader, Dungeon is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit read that older kids and adults of all ages will adore, but for a fuller comprehension I’d advise buying all the previous incarnations.

© 2002, 2003 Delcourt Productions-Tronfheim-Sfar-Andreas-Blanquet. English translation © 2008 NBM. All Rights Reserved.


Four Constables
Four Constables

By Andy Seto & Tony Wong (DGN/DrMaster Publications)
ISBN13: 978-1-59796-162-2

Originally a crafted as a novel by Wen Rui-An this spectacular adaptation of a martial arts classic finds a quartet of superlative students tasked by their brilliant teacher to protect the land from all threats. In this repackaged first adventure, the heroes must foil an insidious plot against the Emperor using only their brains and assorted Kung Fu “super-powers.”

Master Zhuge Khen-Wo “the Little Flower” is chief bodyguard to the Emperor of China. He has four disciples in various stages of training whom he uses to handle missions and tasks beyond the capabilities or too sensitive for ordinary agents of the Crown. Uncovering an extended murder-plot that goes back decades and threatens the fabric of Imperial Society master Zhuge dispatches “Emotionless” Yayu Sheng, “Iron Hands” Yuxia Tie, “Life Snatcher” Lieshan Cui and “Cold Blooded” Lingqi Len to expose a cabal of thirteen murderers whose depredations have been revealed as a methodical scheme to remove the Emperor himself.

Spectacular fights and mind-boggling names for every punch, kick and eyebrow-twitch just add to the exotic charm of this superb martial arts comic which has the blessed bonus – for Western eyes, at least – of an intriguing and comprehensible plot, even if the tradition of ending a book on a cliff-hanger means we’ll have to wait for the magic to conclude.

Tony Wong is called the “Stan Lee of Hong Kong” and you might know superstar creator Andy Seto from the film made of his previous series “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Previously released in standard trade paperback format this new 144 page edition is published in glorious full colour in a Manga-digest size (127x178mm) and sports a new wrap-around cover by Seto.

© 2008 Jade Dynasty Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


Santa Claus
Santa Claus

By Walt Kelly (Innovation)


Justifiably revered for his brilliant newspaper strip Pogo, and perhaps even his wonderful Our Gang tales, the incredible Walt Kelly also has a pretty strong claim to owning the traditional childhood Christmas. From 1942 until he abandoned comic-books for newsprint he produced stories and magazines dedicated to the season of Good Will for West Coast publishing giant Dell. Santa Claus Funnies and Christmas with Mother Goose were a Holidays institution in both their Four Color and Dell Giant incarnations and the sheer beauty and charm of Kelly’s work defined what Christmas should be for two generations. Kelly transferred his affinity for the best of all fantasy worlds to the immortal Pogo but still was especially associated with the Festive season. Many publications sought out his special touch. Even the Christmas 1955 edition of Newsweek starred Kelly and Co on the cover.

Thanks to Eclipse Comics some of this fabulous work resurfaced in the late 1980s and this slim book of reprints was put together after their collapse by the equally gone and just as much-missed Innovation outfit.

It starts as it positively must with an adaptation of Clement C. Moore’s inevitable classic poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’ before continuing with the delightful ‘Ticky Tack the Littlest Reindeer’ then the story of ‘Santa’s First Helper’ and the crazily captivating ‘Jeminy’s Christmas’ which proves that even farmyard animals need to be sure that they’re not naughty but nice. ‘Santa’s Story’ is a rather boisterous and action-packed romp with giants and fairy Queens which sets the scene for the concluding ‘How Santa Got his Red Suit’ which, augmented by a couple of pages of animal antics rhymes and celebratory articles by Betsy Curtis and Maggie Thompson, makes for a perfect Christmas package to start your kids on the road to comics addiction.

It absolutely baffles me that Kelly’s unique and universally top-notch Christmas tales – and Batman’s too for that matter – are not re-released every November for the Yule spending spree. Christmas is all about nostalgia and the good old days and there is no bigger sentimental sap on the planet than your average comics punter. And once these books are out there their supreme readability will quickly make converts of the rest of the world.

© 1990 the Estate of Walt Kelly. Cover art © 1990 the Innovative Corp.



By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-1862-4

The concept of putting all your star eggs in one basket was not new when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took a bunch of the new super-characters of the burgeoning Marvel Universe and combined them as a force for justice and high sales, but seldom has it ever been done with such style and sheer exuberance. Cover dated September 1963 the Avengers #1 launched as an expansion package with two other titles, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos and the X-Men, but with the advantage of a familiar if not totally successful cast.

‘The Coming of the Avengers’ is one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers assumed that they had a least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles, and wasted very little time or energy on introductions.

In Asgard Loki, god of evil, is imprisoned on a dank islet but still craves vengeance on his half brother the Mighty Thor. Observing Earth he finds the monstrous Hulk and engineers a situation wherein the man-brute goes on a rampage, the better to trick the Thunder God into battling the monster. When the Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance Loki diverts the transmission so they cannot hear it and expects his mischief to quickly blossom. However other heroes do pick up the SOS – namely Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp.

As the heroes converge to search for the Hulk they realize that something’s amiss…

This terse and compelling yarn is Lee and Kirby at their bombastic best, and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales of all time!) and is followed by ‘the Space Phantom’ by Lee, Kirby and Paul Reinman, another classic, in which an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the team from within. Ever-changing, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team only to return in #3 as the villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivered high energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history.

Avengers #4 was a true landmark as Marvel’s biggest sensation of the Golden Age was revived. ‘Captain America joins the Avengers!’ has everything that made the company’s early tales so fresh and vital. The majesty of a legendary warrior returned in our time of greatest need, stark tragedy in the loss of his boon companion Bucky, aliens, gangsters, Sub-Mariner and even wry social commentary – this one’s on the list too.

‘The Invasion of the Lava Men’ was another brilliant tale as the team battled superhuman subterraneans and an incredible mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk, but it paled before the supreme shift in quality that was #6.

Chic Stone – possibly Kirby’s best Marvel inker – joined the team just as a classic arch–foe debuted. ‘The Masters of Evil!’ called Nazi super-scientist Baron Zemo out of the South American jungles he’d been skulking in to strike at his hated foe Captain America. To this end the villain recruited a gang of super-foes to attack New York and destroy the Avengers. The unforgettable clash between our heroes and Radioactive Man, Black Knight and the Melter is unsurpassed magic to this day!

Issue #7 followed up with two more malevolent recruits as the Enchantress and the Executioner joined Zemo just as Iron Man was suspended from the team due to misconduct occurring in his own series (this was the dawn of the close continuity era where events in one series were referenced and even built upon in others). That may have been ‘Their Darkest Hour!’ but Avengers #8 held the greatest triumph and tragedy as Jack Kirby relinquished his drawing role with the superb invasion-from-time thriller that introduced ‘Kang the Conqueror’ (inked with fitting circularity by Dick Ayers).

The Avengers was an entirely different package when the subtle humanity of Don Heck’s work replaced the larger-than-life bravura of Kirby. The series had rapidly advanced to monthly circulation and even The King could not draw the huge number of pages his workload demanded. Heck was a gifted and trusted artist with a formidable record for meeting deadlines and, under his pencil, sub-plots and character interplay finally got as much space as action and spectacle.

His first outing was the memorable tragedy ‘The Coming of the Wonder Man!’ (inked by Ayers) wherein the Masters of Evil planted a superhuman Trojan Horse within the ranks of the heroes and next issue the master of time Immortus was responsible when ‘The Avengers Break Up!’

After a glorious Kirby Captain America pin-up the wonderment herein contained continues with #11 with ‘The Mighty Avengers Meet Spider-Man!’, a tale inked by Chic Stone and featuring the return of Kang the Conqueror. Kang’s pin-up is by Heck and precedes a cracking end-of-the-world thriller with guest Fantastic Four villains Mole Man and the Red Ghost. ‘This Hostage Earth!’ is followed by a rare gangster drama that introduced another major bad-guy in #13’s ‘The Castle of Count Nefaria!’– ending on a tragic cliffhanger as the Wasp was left gunshot and dying…

Issue #14 told how ‘Even an Avenger Can Die!’ – although of course she didn’t – in a classy alien invader tale laid out by Kirby and drawn by Heck and Stone which whetted the appetite for a classic climactic confrontation as the team finally dealt with the Masters of Evil and Cap finally laid to rest the ghost of his dead partner.

‘Now by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!’ and the concluding episode ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (issues #15 and 16) by Lee, Kirby, Heck, Mike Esposito and Ayers changed the set-up completely as all the big names were replaced by three erstwhile villains: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Led by the old war-horse Captain America, this relatively powerless group with no outside titles to divide the attention could become another squabbling family of neuroses and sub-plots; a formula that readers of the time could not get enough of.

Acting on advice from the departing Iron Man the neophytes seek to recruit the Hulk to add some raw power to the team, only to encounter the Mole Man in #17’s ‘Four Against the Minotaur!’ by Lee, Heck and Ayers, and fall foul of a dastardly “commie” plot ‘When the Commissar Commands!’ These less than stellar tales are followed by an ever-improving run of mini-masterpieces that begins with a two part gem that provides an origin for Hawkeye and introduces a favourite hero/villain.

‘The Coming of the Swordsman!’ by the regular team of Lee, Heck and Ayers is followed by the superb ‘Vengeance is Ours!’ inked by the one-and-only Wally Wood and featuring the Avengers debut of another unforgettable mastermind.

Without pausing for creative breath, #21 launched another big-name villain in the form of Power Man in ‘The Bitter Dregs of Defeat!’ whose diabolical plan with the evil Enchantress was only narrowly foiled in the concluding ‘The Road Back.’

A two part Kang tale follows as the team is shanghaied into the far-future to battle against and with the Master of Time. Avengers #23 (incidentally, my vote for the best cover Jack Kirby ever drew) ‘Once an Avenger…’ is inked by the wonderful John Romita (senior) and the yarn and this volume concludes with the epic ‘From the Ashes of Defeat!’ by Lee, Heck and Ayers.

Page for page this is one of the best comicbook compilations ever produced. Riveting tales of action and adventure, a charismatic blend of established and new characters and some of the best illustrated narrative in Marvel’s history makes this economical black and white tome one of the best comics collections you could ever buy. So why don’t you?

© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents The Flash vol 1

Flash Showcase 1

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1327-5

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age of the American comic book began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive the superhero genre when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955), Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955), Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and the aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953 – October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953 – October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the end of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” half-price bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once the DC powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner and Golden-Age Flash scripter Robert Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age, aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation. The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (a scientist named Jay Garrick who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent who was approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle) Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and an entire industry.

This gloriously economical, vast black and white tome superbly compliments Infantino’s talents, collecting not only all four Showcase tryout issues and the first full fifteen issues of his own title, but also kicks off with the very last Golden Age adventure from Flash Comics #104 (February 1949). In ‘The Rival Flash’ Kanigher, Infantino and inker Frank Giacoia re-examine the first Flash’s origin when an evil scientist recreates the secret of his speed. Exuberant, avuncular and hugely entertaining in its own right, it’s nonetheless a dated, clunky tale in comparison to what follows.

In sharp counter-point ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (scripted by Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated short stories that introduce the comfortingly suburban new superhero and firmly establish the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning the criminal exile Mazdan to his own century the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power.

Showcase #8 (June 1957) led with another Kanigher tale. ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’, a perplexing but pedestrian mystery, saw Frank Giacoia return as inker, but the real landmark is the Broome thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike the Golden Age the new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Bad guys would henceforth be as memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again. Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s pantheon of super-foes.

Joe Giella inked the two adventures in Showcase #13 (April 1958) ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’, written by Kanigher and Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ which introduced the outlandish Mr. Element, who returned in Showcase#14 (June 1958) with a new M.O. and identity – Doctor Alchemy. ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’ is a great crime-caper, but Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ is a masterful fantasy thriller and a worthy effort to bow out on. When the Scarlet Speedster graduated to his own title John Broome was the lead writer, supplemented eventually by Gardner Fox. Kanigher would return briefly in the mid-1960s and would later write a number of tales during DC’sRelevancy’ period.

The Flash #105 launched with a February-March 1959 cover-date (so it was out for Christmas 1958) and featured Broome, Infantino and Giella’s sci-fi chiller ‘Conqueror From 8 Million B.C.!’ and introduced yet another super-villain in ‘The Master of Mirrors!’. ‘The Pied Piper of Peril!’ in #106 introduced another criminal menace, whilst the second story introduced one of the most charismatic and memorable baddies in comics history. Gorilla Grodd and his hidden race of super-simians debuted in ‘Menace of the Super-Gorilla!’, promptly returning for the next two issues,

Presumably this early confidence was fuelled by DC’s inexplicable but commercially sound pro-Gorilla editorial stance (for some reason any comic with a big monkey in it markedly outsold those that didn’t in those far-ago days) but these tales are also packed with tension, action and engagingly challenging fantasy concepts.

Issue #107 lead with the ‘Return of the Super-Gorilla!’ by the regular team of Broome Infantino and Giella, a multi-layered fantasy thriller that took our hero from the African (invisible) city of the Super-Gorillas to the subterranean citadel of antediluvian Ornitho-Men, and ‘The Amazing Race Against Time’ featured an amnesiac who could outrun the Fastest Man Alive in a desperate race against time to save creation. With every issue the stakes got higher and the quality and narrative ingenuity got better!

Frank Giacoia inked #108’s high-tech death-trap thriller ‘The Speed of Doom!’ featuring trans-dimensional raiders but Giella was back for ‘The Super-Gorilla’s Secret Identity!’ wherein Grodd devises a scheme to outwit evolution itself. The next issue brought ‘The Return of the Mirror-Master’ with the first in a series of bizarre physical transformations that would increasingly become a signature device for Flash stories, whilst the Space Race provided a evocative maguffin for a fantastic undersea adventure in the ‘Secret of the Sunken Satellite’.

The Flash #110 was a huge landmark, not so much for the debut of another worthy candidate to the burgeoning Rogues Gallery in ‘The Challenge of the Weather Wizard’ (inked by Schwartz’s artistic top-gun Murphy Anderson) but rather for the introduction of Wally West, who in a bizarre and suspicious replay of the lightning strike that created the Scarlet Speedster became a junior version of the Fastest Man Alive. Inked by Giella, ‘Meet Kid Flash!’ introduced the first sidekick of the Silver Age (cover dated December 1959-January 1960 and just pipping Aqualad who premiered in Adventure Comics #269 which had a February off-sale date).

Not only would Kid Flash begin his own series of back-up tales from the very next issue (a sure sign of the confidence the creators had in the character) but he would eventually inherit the mantle of the Flash himself – one of the few occasions in comics where the torch-passing actually stuck.

Anderson also inked ‘The Invasion of the Cloud Creatures’ in # 111, which successfully overcomes its frankly daft premise to produce a tense sci-fi thriller and nicely counterpoints the first solo outing for Kid Flash in ‘The Challenge of the Crimson Crows!’ This folksy parable has small-town kid Wally West use his new powers to rescue a bunch of kids on the slippery slope to juvenile delinquency. Perhaps a tad paternalistic and heavy-handed by today’s standards, in the opening months of 1960 this was a strip about a little boy heroically dealing with a kid’s real dilemmas, and the strip would remain concerned with human scaled problems, leaving super-menaces and world saving for team-ups with his mentor.

In #112 ‘The Mystery of the Elongated Man’ introduced that super stretchable character to the DC universe in an intriguing puzzler whilst Kid Flash tackled juvenile Go-Carters and corrupt school-contractors in the surprisingly gripping ‘Danger on Wheels!’ The Trickster launched his crime career in #113’s lead tale ‘Danger in the Air!’ and the Kid took a break so that his senior partner could defeat ‘The Man Who Claimed the Earth!’ a full-on cosmic epic wherein the alien Po-Siden attempts to bring the lost colony of our world back into the Empire of Zus.

Captain Cold and Murphy Anderson returned for ‘The Big Freeze’, where the smitten villain turns Central City into a glacier just to impress Flash’s girlfriend Iris West. Meanwhile her nephew Wally saved a boy unjustly accused of cheating from a life of crime when he falls under the influence of the ‘King of the Beatniks!’ The Flash #115 featured another bizarre transformation, courtesy of Gorilla Grodd in ‘The Day Flash Weighed 1000 Pounds!’, and when aliens attempted to conquer the Earth he needed ‘The Elongated Man’s Secret Weapon’ as well as the guest-star himself to save the day. Once again Murphy Anderson’s inking gave the over-taxed Joe Giella a breather whilst taking art-lovers’ breath away in this beautiful, pacy thriller.

‘The Man Who Stole Central City’ had a seemingly fool-proof way of killing the Flash in #116, which took some outwitting, and Kid Flash returned in ‘The Race to Thunder Hill’, a father-son tale of rally driving, but with car-stealing bandits and a young love interest for Wally to complicate the proceedings. ‘Here Comes Captain Boomerang’ by Broome, Infantino and Anderson introduced the Australian super-criminal in what is still one of the most original origin tales ever concocted, whilst ‘The Madcap Inventors of Central City’ saw Gardner Fox (creator of the Golden Age Flash) join the writing team with an ill-considered attempt to reintroduce the comedy relief trio of Winky, Blinky and Noddy to the modern Flash Fans. The fact that you’ve never heard of them should indicate how well that went, although the yarn, illustrated by Infantino and Giella is a fast, witty and enjoyably silly change of pace.

Issue #118 highlighted the period’s (and DC’s) fascination with Hollywood in ‘The Doomed Scarecrow!’ (inked by Anderson), a sharp thriller featuring a villain with a unique reason to get rid of our hero whilst Wally and a friend had to spend the night in a “haunted house” in the Kid Flash chiller ‘The Midnight Peril!’

This wonderful first volume ends with The Flash #119, in which Broome, Infantino and Anderson relate the adventure of ‘The Mirror-Master’s Magic Bullet’, which our hero narrowly evades only to join an old friend in ‘The Elongated Man’s Undersea Trap’ which introduced the vivacious Sue Dibny (as a newly wed “Mrs Elongated Man”) in a mysterious and stirring tale of sub-sea slavers.

These earliest tales were historically vital to the development of our industry, but, quite frankly, so what? The first exploits The Flash should be judged solely on their merit, and on those terms they are punchy, awe-inspiring, beautifully illustrated and captivating thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old devotees. This lovely collection is a must-read item for anybody in love with our art-form

© 1949, 1956-1961, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Scott Pilgrim, Vol 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together

Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together

By Bryan Lee O’Malley (Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-93266-449-2

The always entertaining Bryan Lee O’Malley returns to thrill, chill and astound with the next instalment in his pictorial saga of Scott Pilgrim, the World’s most wonderful waste of space, time and infinite dimensions.

Scott’s a young post-Generation X-er, who’s more or less content to drift through life, but even he has problems he can’t escape, ignore, avoid or sleep through. When he finds himself jobless, homeless, aimless and arguing with the other members of his band that’s one thing, but when he realises that he’s increasingly emotionally dependent on his mysterious girlfriend Ramona Flowers… Something has to change.

It’s not being only halfway through death-duelling with her seven evil ex-boyfriends, or the fact that the girl-he-almost-had is back in town and mixing him up that’s causing the grief. It’s the suspicion that he and Ramona might actually have something real growing which forces the most drastic action yet – getting a job!

This volume includes a full colour 8-page vignette to supplement the incisive black and white cartooning. Surreal, mock-heroic, powerfully addictive graphic narrative informed by video games, anime and manga, this is a warm, funny and superbly well-crafted series that does more to break English-language comics out of its self-built ghetto than any superhero title ever possibly could. If you want a quality read, and would like to see the future of our medium, this should be on your shelf or shopping list.

™ & © 2007 Bryan Lee O’Malley. All Rights Reserved.

DC Archive: Adam Strange Volume 1

Adam Strange Archive

By Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino & Mike Sekowsky (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0148-2

For many of us the Silver Age of comics is the ideal era. Varnished by nostalgia (because that’s when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug) the clear, clean-cut, uncomplicated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies who troubled the grown-ups. The sheer talent and professionalism of the creators working in that temporarily revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph which brightened our young lives and remarkably still shine today with quality and achievement.

One of the most compelling stars of those days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If the new character sold well initially a regular series would follow. The process had already worked with phenomenal success. The revised Flash, Challengers of the Unknown and Lois Lane had all won their own titles and Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now wanted his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens.

Jack Schiff came up with the futuristic crime fighter Space Ranger (who debuted in issues #15-16) and Schwartz went to Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs to craft the saga of a modern-day explorer in the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #17 (cover-dated November-December 1958) launched ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’, and told of archaeologist Strange who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25 ft chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. He materialises in another world, filled with giant plants and monsters and is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language.

‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals that Rann is a planet recovering from an atomic war, and the beam was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races. In the four years (speed of light, right? As you Know, Bob… Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange would be a very willing prisoner on a fantastic new world.

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race named The Eternals invade, seeking a mineral that will grant them immortality. His courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the radiation finally fade, drawing him home before the adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. And thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a follow-up Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ saw him obtain the crimson spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders which also introduced the subplot of Rann’s warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development. This tale also appeared in Showcase #17.

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’ wherein the hero must outwit the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s city of Rannagar. With this story Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although he would return as soon as #19’s Gil Kane cover, the first to feature the title ‘Adam Strange’ over the unwieldy ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’. ‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales as the Earthman must out wit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. These tales were the last in Showcase (cover-dated March-April1959). With the August issue Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of the anthology comic Mystery in Space.

As well as a new home, the series also found a new artist. Carmine Infantino, who had worked such magic with The Flash, applied his clean, classical line and superb design sense to create a stark, pristine, sleekly beautiful universe that was spellbinding in its cool but deeply humanistic manner, and genuinely thrilling in its imaginative wonders. MIS #53 began an immaculate run of exotic high adventures with ‘Menace of the Robot Raiders!’ by Fox, Infantino and Sachs, followed in glorious succession by ‘Invaders of the Underground World’ and ‘The Beast from the Runaway World!’

With #56 Murphy Anderson became the semi-regular inker, and his precision brush and pen made the art a thing of unparalleled beauty. ‘The Menace of the Super-Atom’ and ‘Mystery of the Giant Footprints’ are sheer visual poetry, but even ‘Chariot in the Sky’, ‘The Duel of the Two Adam Stranges’ (MIS #58 and #59, inked by Giella) and ‘The Attack of the Tentacle World’, ‘Threat of the Tornado Tyrant’ and ‘Beast with the Sizzling Blue Eyes’ (MIS #60-62, inked by Sachs) were – and still are – streets ahead of the competition in terms of thrills, spectacle and imagination.

Anderson returned with #63, which introduced some much-needed recurring villains who employed ‘The Weapon That Swallowed Men!’, #64’s chilling ‘The Radio-active Menace!’ and, ending this volume, ‘The Mechanical Masters of Rann’, all superb short-story marvels that appealed to their young readers’ every sense – especially that burgeoning sense of wonder.

The deluxe Archive format makes a fitting home for these extraordinary exploits that are still some of the best written and drawn science fiction comics ever produced. Whether for nostalgia’s sake, for your own entertainment or even to get your own impressionable ones properly indoctrinated, you really need this book in your home.

© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN 0-9710249-1-X

The third collection in the daily travails of Milton Caniff’s post-war aviation adventurer covers the period from February 8th 1949 until February 18th 1950, which those fine people at Checker have subdivided into three episodes for your convenience.

‘Operation Snowflower’ leads off the excitement and originally ran (seven days a week, mind) until May 18th. It opens with Canyon and crew anxiously awaiting news of Happy Easter and the unscrupulous Cheetah who were last seen falling out of Canyon’s plane. However the arrival of ruthless millionairess Copper Calhoon soon distracts them all as she informs them that she now also owns the company which Canyon is working for.

As the post-revolutionary Chinese Republic began to flex its muscles in the build-up to the Korean War, the ever-contemporary Caniff began weaving the snippets of research and speculative news items he scrupulously collected into the grand story unfolding on his drawing board. Ever the patriot, his opinions and pro-“Free World” stance gives some of these strips a somewhat parochial if not outright jingoistic flavour, but as with all fiction viewed through the lens of time passed, context is everything.

Unlike his unpopular stance on Vietnam two decades later, this was not an issue that divided America. However the public and officials of the USA treated Communists and “Pinkos” within their own borders, the Red Menace of Russia and China was real, immediate, and actively working against Western Interests. The real talking point here is not the extent of a creator’s percieved paranoia, but rather the restraint which Caniff showed within his strip compared to what was going on in the world outside it.

Calhoon has Canyon flying uranium ores out of the rugged mountain country, and Red agents are agitating to get the raw materials for their own arms programs. The sabotage and unrest they’ve instigated have made the task dangerous and nearly impossible. As all the hard-bitten pilots continue their task Calhoon pressgangs young Reed Kimberly into becoming a companion for the locals’ mysterious ruler – “the Crag Hag”. Keeping the natives on-side is vital and the reluctant lad is nervous about his diplomatic role, but unbeknownst to all, the fearsome sounding Empress is actually a beautiful young teenager named Snow Flower, hungry to hear about the fabulous land of America, and desperate to see anyone her own age – especially boys!

The situation grows progressively worse as the Communist-backed rebels tighten their encirclement of the capital city of Damma. The fall is a foregone conclusion and Calhoon is making her escape plans whilst her men continue their ore flights out. As the city falls she is wounded, forcing Steve to fly her to safety on the last plane out. The Princess, Reed and the imposing Soldier-of-Fortune Dogie Hogan are forced to flee on foot, in a cracking sequence, pursued by the victorious and vicious rebels. When Canyon flies a rescue mission, only the heartbroken Kimberly awaits him. Snow Flower and Hogan have returned to the mountains to organise a resistance movement to fight the Communists.

‘Dragonflies’ follows, originally running from May 19th to October 9th. Steve and the recuperating Reed are cooling their heels, fretting about their total lack of cash or work, when the larger-than-life author and lecturer Romulus Brandywine commissions Steve to fly him around the highly volatile region on a research trip, accompanied by his secretary, the sassy and capable Summer Smith.

Whilst en route from India to the China coast their plane is forced down by Communist rebels, but after much intrigue and action they escape to become part of an anti-communist Foreign Legion of Pilots fighting a holding action against the seemingly unstoppable Red Hordes: The Dragonfly Squadron of the Western Chinese faction.

As if the ongoing conflict trapping the valiant fliers were not enough grief, Steve and Summer’s mutual attraction causes friction amongst the men, but when the hero finds himself once again in a last ditch siege, there’s a pleasant surprise in store as Happy Easter turns up, leading a division of anti-Red cavalry to – temporarily – save the day.

‘Teammates’ began on October 10th 1949 and ran well into 1950 (although this book concludes with February 18th instalment). It introduces a possible rival and definite complication with the unwanted arrival of a new flier at the temporarily reprieved airbase. Doe Redwood is an air-ace who flew half-way around the world to join the fight, in a brand-new top-of-the-line fighter plane, infinitely superior to the crates the veterans use. But she’s a woman and therefore trouble…

No sooner has the dust settled from the traditional culture-clash, battle-of-the-sexes than Steve and Doe have to go undercover into Communist-held territory to liberate vitally needed parts and supplies. However the mission goes spectacularly wrong when they encounter and old friend and foe – svelte Soviet Submarine commander Captain Akoola – and her ward Convoy…

Exotic, frenetic, full of traditional values and as always, captivating in both word and picture, this is another old-fashioned, unreconstructed delight. Caniff was the master of the daily strip drama and he always will be.

© 2004, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works
© Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1949, 1950. All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1947

Steve Canyon 1947 

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN 0-9710249-9-5

After leaving the incredibly successful and world-renowned Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip Milton Caniff created another iconic comic hero in the demobbed World War II pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage. Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious Orient could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write “Romeo and Juliet” as a young man, but needed more than passion and genius to produce “King Lear”.

Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a long period of public anticipation following a very conspicuous resignation from Terry. Always a master of suspense and adept at manipulating his reader’s attention, Caniff’s eponymous hero didn’t actually appear until January 16th (and then only in a ‘file photograph’). The public first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, bomber pilot, medal winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent charter airline operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.

By then eager readers had glimpsed his friends and future enemies, how acquaintances felt about him and even been introduced to ultra-rich and super-spoiled Copper Calhoun, the latest in a startlingly long line of devastating Femme Fatales created by Caniff to bedevil his heroes and captivate his audiences. And the magic promptly began.

This series of collections from Checker represents the strip in yearly segments and this one begins as Calhoun manoeuvres Canyon’s Horizons Unlimited charter line into flying her to countries where her pre-war holdings were disrupted, only to encounter deadly peril from both strangers and trusted employees. There’s also a goodly helping of old fashioned intrigue, jealousy and racketeering in the mix too.

The action and tragedy lead directly to an encounter with a couple of deadly female con-artists in ‘Delta’, and a gripping, yet light-hearted romp in the booming petroleum industry in ‘Easter’s Oil’ – which introduces the off-the-wall supporting character Happy Easter and the lascivious Madame Lynx, who would play such large and charismatic roles in the strip’s future.

The first volume ends with ‘Jewels of Africa’, a classic of suspense with the modern day pirate and Wrecker Herr Splitz falling foul of our heroes in a world rapidly becoming a hotbed of International tension. As Caniff’s strip became more and more a compass of geo-political adventure, his skill with human drama became increasingly mature and intense. This was comic strip noir that was still irresistible to a broad spectrum of readers. And that’s as true now as it was then. Steve Canyon is magnificent comic art at its two-fisted best.

© 2003, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works © Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1947.
All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All Rights Reserved.