Monsters! and Other Stories


By Gustavo Duarte (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-309-8 (PB)                     eISBN: 978-1-62115-886-8

In comics, Less Is More.

There are already pictures. They should be clearly understood. Deathless prose so often just gets in the way…

This stunning compilation of Brazilian graphic raconteur Gustavo (Bizarro, Guardians of the Galaxy) Duarte’s earlier works is a sublime masterclass in cartoon humour: three engrossing mini-epics hallmarked by breakneck pace, captivating atmosphere, escalating surreality, inspired sight-gags and superb drawing.

Following an effusive Introduction extolling the virtues of pantomimic comics and the sheer wonder of silent comedy from indisputable maestro Sergio Aragonés, the twisted triptych of hilarious terror tales opens with ‘Có!’ (2009): a sardonically sinister saga of pig and chicken rearing practises, alien abductions, existential confrontation and the unmitigated horror of extraterrestrial metamorphoses…

Moodily unfolding next, ‘Birds’ (2011) pecks at the cutthroat business world. A sinister murder mystery ensues, swiftly degenerating into a bloodbath where only Death holds true dominion…

Concluding this quiet extravaganza is the bombastic ‘Monsters!’ (2012): a manic celebration of Kaiju (that’s city-stomping, rampaging giant beasties to you and me) as a recreational angler reels in a colossal lizard to tear up the town. As the creature inevitably attracts gargantuan rivals ashore for a showdown and the human populace panic, an elderly gentleman patiently gathers ingredients for a very ancient and special potion…

This manic, mostly monochrome tome is the acme of artistic thrills and chills, perfectly capturing the addictive wonderment of monster stories.

Less is More. Silence is Golden. Read this Book.
™ & © 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 Gustavo Duarte Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The Witching Hour volume 1


By Alex Toth, Bob Haney, George Kashdan, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Carl Wessler, Dennis O’Neil, Steve Skeates, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Jack Oleck, Mike Friedrich, Alan Riefe, Dave Kaler, Phil Seuling, Jack Phillips, Murray Boltinoff, Sergio Aragonés, Nick Cardy, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Wally Wood, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, Bob Brown, Gray Morrow, Murphy Anderson, Pat Boyette, Bill Draut, Howard Sherman, Howard Post, Jerry Grandenetti, John Celardo, Art Saaf, Jack Sparling, Michael Wm. Kaluta, José Delbo, Lee Elias, Sid Greene, Jeff Jones, Tony DeZuñiga, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Aparo, John Calnan & many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-196-6

American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and the far too occasional her) until the troops came home and more traditional genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of the world, and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this. As well as Western, War and Crime comics, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another periodic revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown acting as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken or control with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948 – although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon, who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before launching a regular series in 1951.

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long-milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947), but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and its boldly obscure psychological drama anthology companion Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics eventually bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time… you can do that because it’s still notionally a free country at time of writing) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules.

HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, which nevertheless dominated the market until the 1960s when super-heroes (which had started to creep back after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing The Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom and a slew of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which even forced dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books.

However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed, leading to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles at that time but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the supernatural, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Thrillers

With Tales of the Unexpected #105 and House of Mystery #174 National/DC switched to anthology horror material before creating an all-new title to further exploit the morbid fascination with all thingies fearsome and spooky (they even resurrected the cancelled House of Secrets in late 1969) for those heady days when it was okay – and profitable – to scare the heck out of little kids by making them laugh.

Edited until #14 by Dick Giordano, The Witching Hour first struck at the end of 1968 (with a February/March 1969 cover-date). From the outset it was an extremely experimental and intriguing beast and this amazingly economical Showcase Presents collection reprints the first 19 issues, completely covering the first three years as the fear fad grew to become the backbone of DC’s sales. It is perhaps the most talent-stuffed title of that entire period…

Hopefully, as DC continues its archival conversion of Silver Age classics into new full-colour and digital editions, this collection will be available too in all its gory hues and glory…

In this graphic grimoire the traditionally cool and creepy horror-hosts who introduce such spooky fare are three witches. Based as much on Macbeth as the ancient concept of Maiden, Mother and Crone this torrid trio constantly battled to outdo or out-gross each other in the telling of terror tales. Moreover, Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred – as well as shy monster man-servant Egor – were designed and usually delineated by master artist Alex Toth; making framing sequences between yarns as good as and sometimes better than the stories they brazenly bracket.

One minor quibble: records from the period are not complete and occasionally a creator is unknown, but this volume also sadly misattributes the artist too. I’ve attempted to correct the mistakes when I’m certain, but please be warned and beware – I’m not always right either…

Following a stunning Nick Cardy cover, Toth starts the ball rolling by introducing the sinister sisters and their ongoing contest before Dennis O’Neil & Pat Boyette relate the story of a time-travelling tap-dancer in ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.

Toth then writes and illustrates a compelling period piece of peril in ‘Eternal Hour!’ and Jack Sparling relates the eerie fate of wave-obsessed Stanley’s search for ‘The Perfect Surf’.

Toth’s scary sisters then close out the premier issue (with, I suspect, additional inks from Neal Adams), but still find room for ‘Silk Gauze’, an informational page by persons unknown which first appeared in Tales Unexpected#126.

Although attributed to Toth, #2’s introductory episode is by his old Standard Comics stable-mate Mike Sekowsky (inked by Giordano) and leads into Sparling’s dream-chiller ‘Scream!’, after which young José Delbo delineates shocking period tale of slavery and vengeance ‘The Trip of Fools!’ before Sid Greene’s short ghost story ‘The Beat Goes On!’ and Sparling’s ‘Once Upon a Surprise Ending!’ end an issue regrettably short on writer credits.

Following another Sekowsky/Giordano intro, Toth & Vince Colletta illustrate Don Arneson’s medieval mood masterpiece ‘The Turn of the Wheel!’, whilst Alan Riefe & Sparling told a decidedly different ghost-story in ‘The Death Watch’, after which Steve Skeates & Bernie Wrightson reveal a very alterative fantasy hero in ‘…And in a Far-Off Land!’, followed by the first of a series of short prose vignettes: an anonymous fright-comedy entitled ‘Potion of Love’.

Toth illustrates the sisters’ ‘Witching Hour Welcome Wagon’ (a useful identifying rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that the master usually signed his work – and was allowed to…) after which new kid Gerard Conway spectrally scripted ‘A Matter of Conscience’ for art veterans Sparling & George Roussos. Another anonymous prose piece ‘If You Have Ghosts’ precedes a smashing yarn entitled ‘Disaster in a Jar’ by Riefe & Boyette and Conway scripts period witchfinder thriller ‘A Fistful of Fire’ for Delbo – a vastly underrated artist who was on the best form of his career at this time.

Toth’s Weird Sisters close out that issue and eerily, hilariously open #5 before Wrightson lavishly embellishes a nifty but uncredited (as is every script in this one) nautical nightmare ‘The Sole Survivor!’, followed by text-teaser ‘The Non-Believer!’ and Boyette’s stunning, clownish creep-feature ‘A Guy Can Die Laughing!’

Stanley Pitt & Giordano’s dating dilemma ‘The Computer Game’ was one of the first to explore that now-hoary plot., and after Toth signs off the witches, there’s an added one-page black-comedy bonus from Sid Greene with ‘My! How You’ve Grown!’

Sekowsky & Giordano limned Dave Kaler’s take on the sisters’ intro for The Witching Hour #6 after which a far darker horror debuts as ‘A Face in the Crowd!’ by Conway, Mike Roy & Mike Peppe, wherein Nazi war-criminal and concentration camp survivor meet in an American street; Marv Wolfman & Delbo described a tale of neighbourly intolerance in ‘The Doll Man!’ and ‘Treasure Hunt’ by Skeates, John Celardo & Giordano showed why greed isn’t always good. Also included were Conway’s prose tale ‘Train to Doom’, ‘Mad Menace’ – a half-page gag strip by John Costanza – and ‘Distortion!’; another Greene-limned one-pager.

Toth & Mike Friedrich were on spectacular form for #7’s intro and bridging sequences, whilst Bill Draut was compulsively effective in prison manhunt saga ‘The Big Break!’, whose scripter Steve Skeates also wrote modern-art murder-mystery ‘The Captive!’ for Roussos. Then Friedrich & Jack Abel advise a most individual baby to ‘Look Homeward, Angelo!’. Whilst text piece ‘Who Believes Ouija?’ and Jack Miller & Michael Wm. Kaluta’s gothically delicious ‘Trick or Treat’ round out the sinister sights in this issue.

Sergio Aragonés & Neal Adams provide the witch-bits for #8, bracketing their own satanically sardonic ‘Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!’, as well as ‘Three Day Home Trial!’ (Aragonés & Cardy) and staggeringly inventive ‘Computerr’ by that man again and Toth.

‘The Career Man’ is a witty but anonymous prose piece and the issue closes with a Twice Told Tale by Ron Whyte & Sparling, as an urban myth is revealed in ‘The Sign of the Hook!’

Toth & Draut began #9, after which Bob Brown & Murphy Anderson illustrate ghostly tale ‘The Long Road Home!’ and, after text story ‘The Dark Well’, peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ (by Len Wein & Sparling) makes a welcome appearance.

Delbo delightfully delineates a terrifying tale of Old China in ‘The Last Straw’ and, after George Tuska takes over the Weird Sisters link-segments, a doomsday debacle closes the dramas with a ‘Trumpet Perilous!’ drawn by Sparling & Abel.

The witches opening issue #10 are once more by Toth & Draut, promptly followed by a magnificent illustration job by the great Gray Morrow on regrettably uncredited ‘A Warp in Time… Loses Everything!’ after which the all-word ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ precedes Conway & Toth’s superb forbidden romance ‘Hold Softly, Hand of Death!’. Tuska handles the Sisters before Sparling’s faux-fact page ‘Realm of the Mystics’ ends this excursion into the outer dark.

Toth drew the intro and Jack Oleck’s ‘The Mark of the Witch’ (inked by Draut) in #11, whilst – following text-tale ‘Retired Undefeated!’ – Tuska inspirationally illustrates creepy chronal conundrum ‘The Sands of Time, the Snows of Death!’

The Witching Hour #12 is similarly blessed, as after a sinisterly sexy Skeates/Toth intro, the devilish duo then describe an horrific ‘Double Edge’ battle between witch-queens and valiant mortals, followed by a Machiavellian actor’s ‘Double Take’ (Skeates & Tuska) and a demonic duel and ‘Double Cross!’ by Skeates & Gil Kane. The ever-anonymous prose piece is the mordantly merry ‘The Dead Can’t Talk But…’

Giordano’s last issue as editor was #13, which opened in grand style as fellow comicbook hosts Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch (from Houses of Mystery and Secrets and The Unexpected, respectively) attend ‘New Year’s Eve at the Witching Hour’ (illustrated by Neal Adams), followed by a marvellously experimental and effective psycho-thriller by Alan Gold & Gray Morrow entitled ‘The Maze’: a far more traditional but no less scary story ‘The Accursed Clay!’ (Miller, Sparling & Frank Giacoia) and the just plain strange tale of ‘The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!’ by Wein & Delbo.

As an added treat the text token is ‘The Witching Hour Mistree’ by that shy but not retiring rogue Egor…

When veteran editor Murray Boltinoff assumed the reins with #14 (April-May 1971) an element of experimentalism was surrendered but the more conventional material was no less welcomed by the horror-hungry readership: more proof, if any were needed, that artistic endeavour and envelope-pushing aren’t to everybody’s taste.

George Tuska replaced Toth as regular illustrator of introductory and bridging sections, but otherwise most fright-seeking kids could hardly tell the difference.

The all-science fiction issue’s terror-tales open with a beautiful yet oddly-stilted yarn from Conway and Jeff Jones who explore the solitary burdens of ‘Fourteen Months’ in deep space, whilst ‘Which Witch is Which?’ (by Kaler and drawn by Stanley & Reg Pitt) depicts the comeuppance of an intergalactic Lothario.

As “Al Case”, Editor Boltinoff provides text feature ‘Dead Letter Office’ before the issue ends on a classic visual high note with ‘The Haunted House in Space!’ illustrated by the dream team of Al Williamson & Carlos Garzon.

After the usual grisly graphic girl-talk TWH #15 starts with a murder masterpiece from George Kashdan & Wally Wood revealing ‘Freddy is Another Name For Fear!’, after which Al Case scripts ‘End of a World’ before Phil Seuling & Gray Morrow steal the show with the fearsome fable of the ‘Bayou Witch’ and Case & Art Saaf ring down the curtain with ‘I Married a Witch!’

Issue #16 saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC titles for the next couple of years – opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience.

The mysterious magic began after Tuska’s punchy prelude with cautionary ‘Never Kill a Witch!’ by Carl Wessler, John Calnan & Bernie Case, after which Boltinoff – as Bill Dennehy – provides a slick, edgy reinterpretation of a classic fairytale for Morrow to lavishly limn in ‘The Spell of Sinner Ella!’, before switching back to his Case persona for the Tony DeZuñiga illustrated duelling drama ‘You Can’t Hide From Death’.

The classic reprints began with ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (drawn by the legendary Lee Elias from House of Secrets #58), followed by a Joe Orlando illustrated, Charles King scripted text piece ‘Last Meal’ and Howie Post and Draut’s ghoulish period parable ‘The Curse of the Cat’ which both came originally from House of Mystery #177.

Kashdan & Heck open #17 with a modern magic myth in ‘This Little Witch Went to College’ after which a classic 1950’s fear-feature from Sensation Mystery Comics #109 saw Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella devastatingly depict the ‘Fingers of Fear!’ whilst from House of Secrets #46, Howard Sherman delineated ‘The Second Life of Simon Steele’. Dennehy, Calnan & Colletta provide a new yarn with an old moral in ‘The Corpse Who Carried Cash!’ before Wessler & mood-master Jerry Grandenetti fantastically finish the fear-fest with ‘The Man in the Cellar’.

The same team open #18 with ‘The Worm that Turned to Terror’, a schizophrenic slice of domestic hell followed by ‘The Diggers!’: a nasty, vengeful yarn from Bobs Haney and Brown with Giacoia inks that encompasses half a century of French war and regret.

Tales of the Unexpected #13 was the original source of both the Ed Herron/Jack Kirby conundrum ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ and the Herron/Cardy creepy-crime caper ‘I Was a Prisoner of the Supernatural’, after which modernity resumes with Jim Aparo’s ‘Hypnotic Eye’ and Kashdan, Calnan & Colletta’s cautionary tale ‘When Satan Comes Calling!’

The final issue in this superbly spooky compendium is The Witching Hour #19 which – after the customary Tuska drawn kaffeeklatsch with Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia – commences in a stylish, sparkling Jack Phillips & Grandenetti chiller ‘A Tomb for the Winning!’, swiftly followed by ‘The Four Threads of Doom’ (by anonymous & Cardy from Tales of the Unexpected #12) after which a different anonymous and Tuska provide a fresh new thriller in ‘Stop Beating, Heart! You’re Killing Me!’.

One final Cardy reprint ‘The Lamp That Changed People!’ (House of Mystery #20) follows before this wonderful debut volume of witchly wonderment concludes with Kashdan/Elias shocker ‘What Evil Haunts This House?’

These terror-tales captivated reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s indisputable that the supernatural sector saved DC during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of garish mordant mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such shows and series as Dimension 404, Goosebumps, Horrible Histories, and their many imitators.

If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully gore-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chaos, stay up past The Witching Hour as long and as often as you possibly can…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Streak of Chalk


By Miguelanxo Prado, translated by Jacinthe Leclerc & Mary McKee (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-116-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For Magic All Year ‘Round… 10/10

With the season of moody weirdness well upon us now I’m absolutely delighted to focus on a work of truly groundbreaking import and astounding beguilement making a welcome return to bookshelves and whatever their digital equivalents are. I’m also pretty stoked to be adding a Magical Realist work of genuine global importance to our annual Halloween spooky soiree…

Miguelanxo Prado was born in A Coruña in 1958, and studied architecture before moving into the comics industry. The multi award-winning Galician graphic prodigy has worked for Les Humanoïdes Associés and other European publishers, and released numerous albums such as Chienne de Vie (1988), Manuel Montano (1989), Chroniques absurdes and Ardalén (2012).

He illustrates for others – such as Esquivel’s The Law of Love – and in his other lives writes novels, works as a commercial painter and makes animated movie such De Profundis. If you mainly read mainstream English-language comics you might have enjoyed Prado’s phenomenal painted storytelling on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Endless Nights where he limned ‘Dream: The Heart of a Star’.

His most celebrated work is unarguably Trait de craie, which took Europe by storm in 1993, garnering a boatload of prestigious prizes and trophies from the numerous translated editions (including the one I can read) as Streak of Chalk, which became NBM’s initial ComicsLit Imprint release in 1994…

Now, to celebrate 40 years in the business, NBM have released a new-&-improved hardback edition packed with all-new extras that you’d be bonkers to miss.

A moody lyrical and deliciously brooding dark affair, the story deals with a remote island and its effect on the two regular inhabitants when strangers arrive…

Beautiful and desolate, the expansive rock appears on no maps and offers little more than an abandoned lighthouse, a general store and a huge jetty where occasional visitors (seldom more than two boats a year) scrawl graffiti messages and bon mots before sailing away again…

When solitary sailor Raul ties up at the height of summer, the wall of scrawls fascinates him. Soon he is sharing the sullen but expansive hospitality of the trading post/hotel run by dowdy Sara and her brutish son Dimas. Everyone seems to be mutually looking for company, gossip and something else. Something intangible…

There is another mariner visiting, but she is a returnee and a woman who fiercely treasures her privacy. Despite Raul’s awkward preoccupation with Ana, the blond enigma wants nothing to do with the newcomer. His conviction is that persistence will eventually win her over…

The sultry, sluggish tension grows more oppressive when a third vessel arrives, carrying two boisterous and unsavoury men. Sara is even more withdrawn: nothing good has ever happened when three boats moor at the same time…

Tragically, she is quickly proved right in the most appalling manner, but after the bloodletting stops, Raul incredulously discovers that something impossible is happening and that he is bewilderingly mired right in the middle of it all…

Enticing and intoxicating, this tale unfolds at the pace of a seeping wound and is as impossible to ignore. A graphic narrative masterpiece in every sense of the term, Streak of Chalk gets under your skin and stays with you long after the final page is turned.

However, before that happens this expanded Second Edition offers an enchanting Epilogue chapter plus an Afterword by Prado, a tribute sequence set on the island starring International Treasure Corto Maltese in ‘A Tribute to Hugo Pratt’ and a wealth of Additional Material, offering sketches, roughs designs, maps of the island, framing studies in ink and paint and covers for various foreign language editions.

One of comics’ most powerful achievements, this is a grown-up book no fan should ignore.
© 2003, 2017 Miguelanxo Prado, represented by Norma Editorial S.A. © 1994, 2017 NBM for the English translation.

John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 1: Original Sins (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-300-6-7

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint.

This collection is available in paperback and digital formats, collecting John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-9 plus crossover chapters from Swamp Thing #76-77; cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and beginning a renaissance in comicbook horror that thrives to this day.

Back in 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line and metaphorical underpinnings.

‘Hunger’ and ‘A Feast of Friends’ also established another vital fact. Anyone who got too close to John Constantine tended to end very badly, very quickly…

‘Going for It’ then successfully equated Conservative Britain with Hell, with demons trading souls on their own stock market and Yuppies getting ahead in the rat race by selling short. Set on Election Day 1987, this potent pastiche never loses sight of its goal to entertain, whilst making telling points about humanity, individuality and society.

Constantine’s cousin Gemma and tantalising splinters of his Liverpool childhood are revealed in ‘Waiting for the Man’: a tale of abduction and ghosts which introduces disturbing Christian fundamentalists the Resurrection Crusade, and a mysterious woman known only as Zed.

America is once again the focus of terror in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ as the Vietnam war breaks out again in rural Iowa, before we pop back to Blighty for ‘Extreme Predjudice’.

Skinheads, racism demons and more abound as Delano cannily joins up lots of previously unconnected dots to reveal a giant storyline in the making. The Damnation Army are up to something, but nobody knows who they are. Now everything’s going bad and somehow Zed and the Resurrection Crusade are at the heart of it all…

Brett Ewins & Jim McCarthy briefly replace magnificent regular artist John Ridgway for the first three pages of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, before the beautifully restrained and poignantly humanistic stylism returns with Constantine further unraveling the Damnation plot by catching up with the Coming Thing: the cutting edge mysticism dubbed cyber-shamanism.

In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist…

Alfredo Alcala signs on as inker with ‘Intensive Care’ and the drama ramps up to a full gallop as the plans of both Crusade and Army are revealed, and the value and purpose of Zed are finally exposed. All Constantine can do in response is make the first of many bad bargains with Hell….

The volume then takes a stranger turn due to the nature of periodical publishing…

The storyline in Hellblazer #1-8 ran contiguously, before converging with Swamp Thing, wherein the wizard reluctantly lends his physical body to the planetary plant elemental so that the vegetable guardian can impregnate its human girlfriend Abigail Arcane.

Thus, in the ninth issue, there’s a kind of dissolute holding pattern in play as the weary wizard confronts the ghosts of all the people he’s gotten killed to allow all the pieces to be suitably arranged. ‘Shot to Hell’ (Delano, Ridgway & Alcala) then neatly segues into Swamp Thing #76-77 for the conception of a new messiah. Sort of…

The post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics were long neglected after the author’s departure, but eventually fans realised that writer-artist Rick Veitch – aided by veteran inker Alcala – produced a stunning sequence of mini-classics well worthy of serious scrutiny. The issues built on Moore’s cerebral, visceral writing as the world’s planet elemental became increasingly involved with ecological matters.

Having decided to “retire”, Swamp Thing (an anthropomorphic plant with the personality and mind of murdered biologist Alec Holland) was charged by his ephemeral overlords in “the Green” with facilitating the creation of his/its successor. However, the ancient and agonising process was contaminated by consecutive failures and false starts, leading to a horrendous series of abortive creatures and a potentially catastrophic Synchronicity Maelstrom.

Alec, “wife” Abigail and the chillingly charismatic Constantine are eventually compelled to combine forces – and indeed some body-fluids – in ‘L’Adoration de la Terre’ (Swamp Thing #76, by Veitch & Alcala) – to create a solution before the resultant chaos-storm destroys the Earth.

The process is not with risk – or shame – but the affair is brought to a successful conclusion in ‘Infernal Tringles’ (Swamp Thing #77, and with Tom Mandrake pencilling) and with terrestrial order restored, the participants go their separate ways… but the events have affected them all in ways that will have terrible repercussions in the months and years to come…

Rounding out the so-sophisticated spook-fest is an original covers gallery by Dave McKean and John Totleben, and an “in-world” exposé of Constantine by faux journalist Satchmo Hawkins in ‘Faces on the Street’.

Also included are other relics of the antihero’s sordid past such as the lyrics from Venus of the hardsell – a single from John’s aberrant punk band mucous membrane – plus extracts from the magician’s medical file whilst he was an inmate of the Ravenscar Secure Psychiatric Facility

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should be without.
© 1987, 1988, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Inhumans Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-41419 (HC)                 978-0-7851-4142-6 (TPB)

Debuting in 1965 and conceived as one more incredible lost civilisation during Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s most fertile and productive creative period, The Inhumans are a secretive race of phenomenally disparate beings genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s primordial pre-history.

They subsequently evolved into a technologically-advanced civilisation far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens and isolated themselves from the world and barbarous dawn-age humans, first on an island and latterly in a hidden valley in the Himalayas, residing in a fabulous city named Attilan.

The mark of citizenship is immersion in the mutative Terrigen Mists which further enhance and transform individuals into radically unique and generally super-powered beings. The Inhumans are necessarily obsessed with genetic structure and heritage, worshipping the ruling Royal Family as the rationalist equivalent of mortal gods.

With a new TV series debuting to mixed reviews and reactions, it’s worth taking a look at how the hereditary outsiders first impacted the Marvel Universe and this tome (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions) compiles their first solo-starring appearances from the Tales of the Uncanny Inhumans back-up series in Thor #146-153, a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #15, their run in Amazing Adventures #1-10, plus a guest shot in Avengers #95, spanning the period November 1967 to January 1972. Also included are a trio of spoof features taken from Not Brand Echh #6 and 12 (February 1968 and February 1969).

Designed to delight all fanboy truth-seekers, the Introduction by Mark Evanier sets the ball rolling with candid and informative behind-the-scenes revelations detailing the true publishing agenda and “Secret Origin of the Inhumans”, before reintroducing the Royal Family of Attilan. Black Bolt, Medusa, Triton, Karnak, Gorgon, Crystal and the rest would soon become mainstays of the Marvel Universe.

The hidden race began their first solo feature in from Thor #146: a series of complete, 5-page vignettes detailing some of the tantalising backstory so effectively hinted at in previous appearances. ‘The Origin of… the Incomparable Inhumans’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott) plunges back to the dawn of civilisation where cavemen flee in fear from technologically advanced humans who live on an island named Attilan.

In that futuristic metropolis, wise King Randac finally makes a decision to test out his people’s latest discovery: genetically mutative Terrigen rays…

The saga expands a month later in ‘The Reason Why!’ as Earth’s duly-appointed Kree Sentry visits the island and reveals how his masters in ages past experimented on an isolated tribe of primitive humanoids. Now observing their progress, the menacing mechanoid learns that the Kree lab rats have fully taken control of their genetic destiny and must now be considered Inhuman…

Skipping ahead 25,000 years, ‘…And Finally: Black Bolt!’ then reveals how a baby’s first cries wreck the city and reveal the infant prince to be an Inhuman unlike any other… one cursed with an uncontrollable sonic vibration which builds to unstoppable catastrophic violence with every utterance…

Raised in isolation, the prince’s 19th birthday marks his release into the city and contact with the cousins he has only ever seen on video screens. Sadly, the occasion is co-opted by Bolt’s envious brother Maximus who tortures the royal heir to prove he cannot be trusted to maintain ‘Silence or Death!’

Thor #150 (March 1968) saw the start of a lengthier continued tale as ‘Triton’ leaves the hidden city to explore the greater human world, only to be captured by a film crew making an underwater monster movie. Allowing himself to be brought back to America, the wily manphibian escapes when the ship docks and becomes an ‘Inhuman at Large!’

The series concluded with Triton on the run and a fish out of water ‘While the City Shrieks!’ before returning to Attilan with a damning assessment of the Inhumans’ lesser cousins…

The first Inhuman introduced to the world was the menacing Madame Medusa in Fantastic Four #36: a female super-villain joining team’s antithesis the Frightful Four. This sinister squad comprised evil genius The Wizard, shapeshifting Sandman and gadget fiend The Trapster and their battles against Marvel’s first family led to the exposure of the hidden race and numerous clashes with humanity.

In 1967 a proposed Inhumans solo series was canned before completion, but the initial episode was retooled and published in the company’s try-out vehicle Marvel Super-Heroes. Written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Gene Colan & Vince Colletta, ‘Let the Silence Shatter!’ appeared in #15 (July 1968), revealing how the villainous quartet were temporarily reunited after the Wizard promises a method for control Black Bolt’s deadly sonic affliction in return for Medusa’s services. As usual, the double-dealing mastermind betrays his unwilling accomplice but again underestimates her abilities and intellect, resulting in another humiliating defeat…

A few years later, bi-monthly “split-book” Amazing Adventures launched with an August 1970 cover-date and the Inhumans sharing the pages with a new Black Widow series. The big news however was that Kirby was both writing and illustrating the ‘The Inhumans!’

Inked by Chic Stone, the first episode saw the Great Refuge targeted by atomic missiles apparently fired by the Inhumans’ greatest allies, prompting a retaliatory attack on the Baxter Building and pitting ‘Friend Against Friend!’ However, even as the battle raged Black Bolt was taking covert action against the true culprits…

Issue #3 sees the uncanny outcasts as ‘Pawns of the Mandarin’ when the devilish tyrant tricks the Royal Family into uncovering a mega-powerful ancient artefact, but he is ultimately unable to cope with their power and teamwork in the concluding chapter ‘With These Rings I Thee Kill!’

AA #5 (March 1971) ushered in a radical change of tone and mood as the currently on-fire creative team of Roy Thomas & Neal Adams took over the strip after Kirby shockingly left Marvel for DC.

Inked by Tom Palmer, ‘His Brother’s Keeper’ sees Maximus finally employ a long-dormant power – mind-control – to erase Black Bolt’s memory and seize control of the Great Refuge.

The real problem however, is that at the moment the Mad One strikes, Black Bolt is in San Francisco on a secret mission. When the mind-wave hits, the stranger forgets everything and as a little boy offers assistance, ‘Hell on Earth!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) begins as a simple whisper shatters the docks and the vessels moored there…

As Triton, Gorgon, Karnak and Medusa flee the now utterly entranced Refuge in search of Black Bolt, ‘An Evening’s Wait for Death!’ finds little Joey and the still-bewildered Bolt captured by a radical black activist determined to use the Inhuman’s shattering power to raze the city’s foul ghettoes. A tense confrontation in the streets with the police draws storm god Thor into the conflict during ‘An Hour for Thunder!’, but when the dust settles it seems Black Bolt is dead…

Gerry Conway, Mike Sekowsky & Bill Everett assumed the storytelling duties with # 9 as The Inhumans took over the entire book. Reaching America, the Royal Cousins’ search for their king is interrupted when they are targeted by a cult of mutants.

‘…And the Madness of Magneto!’ reveals Black Bolt in the clutches of the Master of Magnetism who needs the usurped king’s abilities to help him steal a new artificial element but ‘In His Hands… the World!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) soon proves that with his memory restored nothing and no one can long make the mightiest Inhuman a slave…

The series abruptly ended there. Amazing Adventures #11 featured a new treatment of graduate X-Man Hank McCoy who rode the trend for monster heroes by accidentally transforming himself into a furry Beast. The Inhumans simply dropped out of sight until Thomas & Adams wove their dangling plot threads into the monumental epic unfolding from June 1971 to March 1972 in The Avengers #89-97.

At that time Thomas’ bold experiment was rightly considered the most ambitious saga in Marvel’s brief history: an astounding saga of tremendous scope which dumped Earth into a cosmic war the likes of which comics fans had never before seen. The Kree/Skrull War set the template for all multi-part crossovers and publishing events ever since…

It began when, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his chief enforcer Ronan the Accuser. The rebellion results in humanity learning aliens hide among them, and public opinion turns against suerheroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

A powerful allegory of the Anti-Communist Witch-hunts of the 1950s, the epic sees riots in American streets and a political demagogue capitalising on the crisis. Subpoenaed by the authorities, castigated by friends and public, the Avengers are ordered to disband.

Oddly omitted here, issue #94 entangles the Inhumans in the mix, disclosing that their advanced science and powers are the result of Kree genetic meddling in the depths of prehistory. With intergalactic war beginning, Black Bolt missing and his madly malign brother Maximus in charge, the Kree now come calling in their ancient markers…

Wrapping up the graphic wonderment here, ‘Something Inhuman This Way Comes…!’ (from Avengers #95, January 1972) coalesces many disparate story strands as aquatic adventurer Triton aids the Avengers against government-piloted Mandroids before beseeching the beleaguered heroes to help find his missing monarch and rescue his Inhuman brethren from the press-ganging Kree…

After so doing, the Avengers head into space to liberate their kidnapped comrades and save Earth from becoming collateral damage in the impending cosmos-shaking clash between Kree and Skrulls (a much-collected tale you’d be crazy to miss…).

Appended with creator biographies and House Ads for the Inhumans’ debut, the thrills and chills are topped off with three comedy vignettes. The first, from Not Brand Echh #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” of February 1968) reveals how ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton, and is complimented by ‘Unhumans to Get Own Comic Book’ (Arnold Drake, Thomas & Sutton) and ‘My Search for True Love’ by Drake & Sutton: both from Not Brand Echh #12 (February 1969).

The first of these depicts how other artists might render the series – with contenders including faux icons bOb (Gnatman & Rotten) Krane, Chester (Dig Tracing) Ghoul and Charles (Good Ol’ Charlie…) Schlitz, whilst the second follows lovelorn Medoozy as she dumps her taciturn man and searches for fulfilment amongst popular musical and movie stars of the era…

These stories cemented the outsiders place in the ever-expanding Marvel universe and helped the company to overtake all its competitors. Although making little impact at the time they are still potent and innovative: as exciting and captivating now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative and followers of Marvel’s next cinematic star vehicle.
© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Et Cetera volume 1


By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

Lex Luthor: A Celebration of 75 Years


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Edmund Hamilton, Len Wein, Cary Bates, Elliot S. Maggin, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello, Paul Cornell, Geoff Johns, John Sikela, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan, Jackson Guice, Howard Porter, Matthew Clark, Lee Bermejo, Frank Quitely, Pete Woods, Doug Mahnke & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6207-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Sound Reason to Keep up with Science Classes as well as Reading… 9/10

Closely paralleling the evolution of the groundbreaking Man of Steel, the exploits of the mercurial Lex Luthor are a vital aspect of comics’ very fabric. In whatever era you choose, the ultimate mad scientist epitomises the eternal feud between Brains and Brawn and over those decades has become the Man of Steel’s true antithesis and nemesis as well as an ideal perfect indicator of what different generations deem evil.

This stunning compilation – part of a dedicated series introducing and exploiting the comics pedigree of venerable DC icons – is available in hardback Trade Paperback and digital formats and offers a sequence of snapshots detailing how Luthor has evolved in his never-ending battle with Superman.

The groundbreaking appearances selected are preceded here by a brief critical analysis of the significant stages in the villain’s development, beginning with ‘Part I: 1940-1969 The Making of a Mastermind’. After history and deconstruction comes sinister adventure as the grim genius debuted in ‘Europe at War Part 2’ (by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster from Action Comics #23, April 1940).

Although not included here Action #22 had loudly declared ‘Europe at War’ – a tense and thinly-disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA – and as the Man of Tomorrow tried to stem the bloodshed the tale became a continued story (almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing).

Spectacularly concluding in #23, Clark Kent’s European investigations revealed a red-headed fiend employing outlandish science to foment war for profit and intent on conquering the survivors as a modern-day Genghis Khan. Of course, the Man of Steel strenuously objected…

Next comes ‘The Challenge of Luthor’ from Superman #4 (Spring/March1940) and created at almost the same time: a landmark clash with the rogue scientist who, back then, was still a roguish red-headed menace with a bald and pudgy henchman. Somehow in the heat of burgeoning deadlines, master got confused with servant in later adventures and the public perception of the villain irrevocably crystalized as the sinister slap-headed super-threat we know today…

This story – by Siegel & Shuster – involves an earthquake machine and ends with Luthor exhausting his entire arsenal of death-dealing devices in attempts to destroy his enemy with no negligible effect…

From Superman #17 (July 1942), ‘When Titans Clash’, by Siegel & John Sikela, depicts how the burly bald bandit uses a mystic powerstone to survive his justly deserved execution and steals Superman’s abilities. However, the Action Ace stills maintains his wily intellect and outsmarts his titanically-empowered foe…

Jumping ahead ten years, ‘Superman’s Super Hold-Up’ World’s Finest Comics #59 (July 1952, by Bill Finger, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye) is a supremely typical duel of wits in which the Einstein of Crime renders the Metropolis Marvel helpless with the application of a devilish height- and pressure-sensitive mega explosive device – but only for a little while…

World’s Finest Comics #88 (June 1957) provides ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye) which finds “reformed” master criminals Lex and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – and as it happens quite correctly…

As the mythology grew and Luthor became a crucial component of Superman’s story, the bad boy was retroactively introduced into the hero’s childhood. ‘How Luthor Met Superboy!’ (from Adventure Comics #271, April 1960 by Siegel & Al Plastino) details how Superboy and the budding genius were pals until a lab accident burned off the human’s hair and in his prideful fury Lex blamed the Kryptonian and swore revenge…

In ‘The Conquest of Superman’ (Action Comics #277, June 1961 by Bill Finger, Curt Swan & John Forte) the authorities paroled Lex to help with an imminent crisis only to have the double-dealer escape as soon as the problem was fixed. By the time Superman returned to Earth, Luthor was ready for him…

Superman #164, October 1963, featured ‘The Showdown between Luthor and Superman’ (by Hamilton, Swan & George Klein): the ultimate Silver Age confrontation between the Caped Kryptonian and his greatest foe, pitting the lifelong foes in an unforgettable confrontation on the post-apocalyptic planet Lexor – a lost world of forgotten science and fantastic beasts – which resulted in ‘The Super-Duel!’ and displayed a whole new side to Superman’s previously two-dimensional arch-enemy.

Part II: 1970-1986 Luthor Unleashed previews how a more sophisticated readership demanded greater depth in their reading matter and creators responded by adding a human dimension to the avaricious mad scientist, as seen in ‘The Man Who Murdered the Earth’ from Superman #248 (February 1972 by Len Wein, Swan & Murphy Anderson).

Here Luthor dictates his final testament after creating a Galactic Golem to destroy his sworn enemy, and ponders how his obsession caused the destruction of Earth…

For the 45th anniversary of Action Comics Superman’s two greatest enemies – the other being Brainiac – were radically re-imagined for an increasingly harder, harsher world. ‘Luthor Unleashed’ in issue #544 (June 1983, by Cary Bates Swan & Murphy Anderson) saw the eternal duel between Lex and Superman lead to the destruction of Lexor and death of Luthor’s new family after the techno-terror once again chose vengeance over love. Crushed by guilt and hatred, the maniacal genius reinvents himself as an implacable human engine of terror and destruction…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Al Williamson then offer a glimpse into the other motivating force in Luthor’s life by exposing ‘The Einstein Connection’ (Superman #416, February 1986) wherein a trawl through the outlaw’s life reveals a hidden link to the greatest physicist in history…

The Silver Age of comicbooks had utterly revolutionised a flagging medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning sub-genre of masked mystery men. However, after decades of cosy wonderment, Crisis on Infinite Earths transformed the entire DC Universe and led to the creation of a harder, tougher Superman. John Byrne’s radical re-imagining was most potently manifested in Luthor, who morphed from brilliant, obsessed bandit to ruthless billionaire capitalist… as seen in the introduction to Part III: 1986-2000 Captain of Industry

The tension begins with ‘The Secret Revealed’ (Superman #2, February 1987 by John Byrne, Terry Austin & Keith Williams) when the relentless tycoon kidnaps everyone Superman loves to learn his secret and after collating all the data obtained by torture and other means jumps to the most mistaken conclusion of his misbegotten life…

‘Metropolis – 900 Miles’ (Superman volume 2 #9, September1987 by Byrne, & Karl Kesel) then explores the sordid cruelty of the oligarch as he cruelly torments a pretty waitress with a loathsome offer and promises of a new life…

‘Talking Heads’ appeared in Action Comics #678 (June 1992, by Roger Stern, Jackson Guice & Ande Parks) set after Luthor – riddled with cancer from constantly wearing a green Kryptonite ring to keep Superman at arms’ length – has secretly returned to Metropolis as his own son in a hastily cloned new young and handsome body. Acting as a philanthropist and with Supergirl as his girlfriend/arm candy, young Luthor has everybody fooled, Sadly, everything looks like falling apart when rogue geneticist Dabney Donovan is arrested and threatens to tell an incredible secret he knows about the richest man in town…

‘Hostile Takeover’ comes from JLA #11 1997) wherein Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell opened interstellar saga ‘Rock of Ages’ with the Justice League facing a newly-assembled, corporately-inspired Injustice Gang organised by Lex and run on his ruthlessly efficient commercial business model.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman are targeted by a coalition of arch-enemies comprising Chairman-of-the-Board Lex, the Joker, Circe, Mirror Master, Ocean Master and Doctor Light with ghastly doppelgangers of the World’s Greatest Heroes raining destruction down all over the globe.

Even with new members Aztek and second generation Green Arrow Connor Hawke on board, the enemy are running the heroes ragged, but the stakes change radically when telepath J’onn J’onzz detects an extinction-level entity heading to Earth from deep space…

The action and tension intensify when the cabal press their advantage whilst New God Metron materialises, warning the JLA that the end of everything is approaching.

As ever, these snippets of a greater saga are more frustrating than fulfilling, so be prepared to hunt down the complete saga. You won’t regret it…

A true Teflon businessman, Lex ended the millennium running for President and Part IV: 2000-Present 21st Century Man follow a prose appraisal with ‘The Why’ from President Luthor Secret Files and Origins #1 (2000, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark & Ray Snyder). Here the blueprint to power and road to the White House is deconstructed, picturing the daily frustrations and provocations which inspired the nefarious oligarch to throw his hat into the political ring…

The next (frustratingly incomplete) snippet comes from a miniseries where the antagonist was the star. ‘Lex Luthor Man of Steel Part 3’ by Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo offers a dark and brooding look into the heart and soul of Superman’s ultimate and eternal foe: adding gravitas to villainy by explaining Lex’s actions in terms of his belief that the heroic Kryptonian is a real and permanent danger to the spirit of humanity.

Luthor – still believed by the world at large to be nothing more than a sharp and philanthropic industrial mogul – allows us a peek into his psyche: viewing the business and social (not to say criminal) machinations undertaken to get a monolithic skyscraper built in Metropolis. The necessary depths sunk to whilst achieving this ambition, and Lex’s manipulating Superman into clashing with Batman, are powerful metaphors, but the semi-philosophical mutterings – so very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead – although flavoursome, don’t really add anything to Luthor’s character and even serve to dilute much of the pure evil force of his character.

Flawed characters truly make more believable reading, especially in today’s cynical and sophisticated world, but such renovations shouldn’t be undertaken at the expense of the character’s heart. At the end Luthor is again defeated: diminished without travail and nothing has been risked, won or lost. The order restored is of an unsatisfactory and unstable kind, and our look into the villain’s soul has made him smaller, not more understandable.

Lee Bermejo’s art, however, is astoundingly lovely and fans of drawing should consider buying this simply to stare in wonder at the pages of beauty and power that he’s produced here. Or read the entire story in its own collected edition…

Rather more comprehensive and satisfying is ‘The Gospel According to Lex Luthor’ as first seen in All-Star Superman #5. Crafted by Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant from September 2006, here an unrepentant Luthor on Death Row grants Clark Kent the interview of his career and scoop of a lifetime, after which ‘The Black Ring Part 5’ (Action Comics #894, December 2010 by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods) confirms the genius’ personal world view as Death of the Endless stops the universe just so she can have a little chat with Lex and see what he’s really like…

This epic trawl through the villain’s published life concludes with a startling tale from Justice League volume 2, #31 (August 2014) as the post-Flashpoint, re-rebooted New 52 DCU again remade Lex into a villain for the latest generation: brilliant, super-rich, conflicted and hungry for public acclaim and approval. In ‘Injustice League Part 2: Power Players’ by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne & Christian Alamy, bad-guy Luthor has helped save the world from extradimensional invaders and now wants to be a hero. His solution is to make the real superheroes invite him to join the Justice League, and that can be accomplished by ferreting out Batman’s secret identity and blackmailing the Dark Knight into championing his admission…

Lex Luthor is arguably the most recognizable villain in comics and can justifiably claim that title in whatever era you choose to concentrate on; goggle-eyed Golden Age, sanitised Silver Age or malignant modern and Post-Modern milieus. This book captures just a fraction of all those superb stories and offers a delicious peek into the dark, unhealthy side of rivalry and competition…

This monolithic testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1940, 1942, 1952, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1972, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: A Death in the Family


By Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Pérez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401225162 (HC)                        978-1-4012-3274-0 (TPB)

Modern comicbooks live or die on the strength of their “Special Event” publishing stunts but every so often such storylines can get away from editors and publishers and take on a life of its own. This usually does not end well for our favourite art form, as the way the greater world views the comics microcosm is seldom how we insiders and cognoscenti see it. Just check out the media frenzies that grew around the Death of Superman or Death of Captain America crossovers…

One of the most controversial comics tales of the last century saw an intriguing marketing attention-grabber go spectacularly off the rails – for all the wrong reasons – to become instantly notorious whilst simultaneously and sadly masking the real merits of the piece.

Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson, Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940): a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a greedy mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still undergoes the odd tweaking to this day

The child Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as a sign of the turbulent times, he flew the nest, to become a Teen Wonder and college student. His invention as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with had inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed sidekicks and kid crusaders throughout the industry, and Grayson continued in similar vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious youth culture.

Robin even had his own solo series in Star Spangled Comics from 1947-1952, a solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s which he alternated and shared with Batgirl, and a starring feature in anthology utility comic Batman Family. During the 1980s the young warrior led the New Teen Titans, re-established a turbulent working relationship with Batman and reinvented himself as Nightwing. This of course left the post of Robin open…

After Grayson’s departure Batman worked alone until he caught a streetwise young urchin trying to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Debuting in Batman #357 (March 1983) this lost boy was Jason Todd, and eventually the little thug became the second Boy Wonder (#368, February 1984), with a short but stellar career, marred only by his impetuosity and tragic links to one of the Caped Crusader’s most unpredictable foes…

Todd had serious emotional problems that became increasingly apparent in the issues leading up to A Death in the Family wherein the street kid became more callous and brutal in response to the daily horrors he was being exposed to. When he caused the death of a vicious, abusive drug-dealer with diplomatic immunity, Todd entered a spiral that culminated in the first unforgettable story-arc collected in this volume (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions), collectively comprising Batman #426-429, and #440-442 as well as New Teen Titans #60-61 and material from Batman Annual #25.

As Batman #426 (December 1988) opens, Jason is acting ever more violently. Seemingly incapable of rudimentary caution, he is suspended by Batman who believes the boy has not adjusted to the death of his parents. Meanwhile, the Joker is again on the loose. But rather than his usual killing frenzy, the Clown Prince is after mere cash, as the financial disaster of “Reaganomics” has depleted his coffers – meaning he can’t afford his outrageous signature murder gimmicks…

Without purpose, Jason wanders the streets where he grew up. When he sees an old friend of his parents, she reveals a shocking secret. The woman who raised him was not his birth-mother…

She knows of a box of personal papers indicating three women, each of whom might be his true mother. Lost and emotionally volatile, Jason sets out to track them down…

His potential mother is either Lady Shiva, world’s deadliest assassin, Mossad agent Sharmin Rosen or Dr. Sheila Haywood, a famine relief worker in Ethiopia. As the lad bolts for the Middle East and a confrontation with destiny, he is unaware Batman is also in that troubled region, hot on the Joker’s trail as the Maniac of Mirth attempts to sell a stolen nuclear missile to any terrorist who can pay…

The estranged heroes accidentally reunite to foil the plot, and Jason crosses Rosen off his potential mom-list. As Batman offers to help Jason check the remaining candidates the fugitive Joker escapes to Ethiopia. After eliminating Shiva, who has been training terrorists in the deep desert, the heroes finally get to Jason’s true mother Sheila Haywood, unaware that she has been blackmailed into a deadly scam involving stolen relief supplies with the Clown Prince of Crime…

I’m not going to bother with the details of the voting fiasco that plagues all references to this tale: it’s all copiously detailed elsewhere (just Google and see) but suffice to say that to test then-new marketing tools a 1-900 number was established and – thanks to an advanced press campaign – readers were offered the chance to vote on whether Robin would live or die in the story. You can even see the original ad reproduced here…

Jason dies.

The kid had increasingly become a poor fit in the series and this storyline galvanised a new direction with a darker, more driven Batman. The changes came almost immediately as Joker, after killing Jason in a chilling, unforgettably violent manner, becomes UN ambassador for Iran (later revised as the fully fictional Qurac – just in case) and – at the personal request of the Ayatollah himself – attempted to kill the entire UN General Assembly during his inaugural speech.

With echoes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman then becomes a government watchdog tasked with stopping Batman from breaching diplomatic immunity as the vengeance-hungry Caped Crusader attempts to stop the Joker at any cost, leading to a spectacular yet chillingly inconclusive conclusion with the portents of dark days to come…

And here is the true injustice surrounding this tale: the death of Robin (who didn’t even stay dead) and the voting debacle took away from the real importance of this story – and perhaps deflected some real scrutiny and controversy. Starlin had crafted a clever and bold tale of real world politics and genuine issues which most readers didn’t even notice…

Terrorism Training Camps, Rogue States, African famines, black marketeering, charity relief fraud, Economic, Race and Class warfare, diplomatic skulduggery and nuclear smuggling all featured heavily, as did such notable hot-button topics as Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan’s Cruise Missile program, the Iran-Contra and Arms for Hostages scandals and the horrors of Ethiopian refugee camps.

Most importantly, it signalled a new and fearfully casual approach to violence and death in comicbooks.

This is a superbly readable tale, morally challenging and breathtakingly audacious – but it’s controversial in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. But don’t take my word for it: read it and see for yourself.

The saga is appended here by an afterword from Marv Wolfman, before the sequel he penned introduces the third kid to don the cape and pixie boots…

After Grayson’s departure and Jason’s death the shock and loss traumatised Batman. Forced to re-examine his own origins and methods, he becomes a far darker knight…

After a period of increasingly undisciplined encounters Batman is on the very edge of losing not just his focus but also his ethics and life: seemingly suicidal on his frequent forays into the Gotham nights. Interventions from his few remaining friends and associates prove ineffectual. Something drastic had to happen if the Dark Knight is to be salvaged.

Luckily there was an opening for a sidekick…

The second story arc here is a crossover tale originally running in Batman #440-442 and New Teen Titans #60-61 from October to December 1989. Plotted by Wolfman and George Pérez, scripted by Wolfman with the Batman chapters illustrated by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, and the Titans sections handled by Pérez, Tom Grummett & Bob McLeod, a new character enters the lives of the extended Batman Family; a remarkable child who will change the shape of the DC Universe.

‘Suspects’ sees Batman rapidly burning out, but not only his close confederates but also an enigmatic investigator and a mystery villain have noticed the deadly deterioration. However, as the criminal mastermind embroils the wildly unpredictable Two-Face in his scheme, the apparently benevolent voyeur is hunting for Dick Grayson: a mission successfully accomplished in second chapter, ‘Roots’.

The first Robin had become disenchanted with the adventurer’s life, quitting the New Teen Titans and returning to the circus where the happiest and most tragic days of his life occurred. Here he is confronted by a young boy who has deduced the secret identities of both Batman and Robin…

‘Parallel Lines’ then unravels the enigma of Tim Drake, who as a toddler was in the audience the night the Flying Graysons were murdered. Tim was an infant prodigy, and when, months later he saw new hero Robin perform the same acrobatic stunts as Dick Grayson, he instantly realises who the Boy Wonder must be – and thus, by extrapolation, the real identity of Batman.

A passionate fan, Drake followed the Dynamic Duo’s exploits for a decade: noting every case and detail. He knew when Jason Todd became Robin and was moved to act when his murder led to the Caped Crusader going catastrophically off the rails.

Taking it upon himself to fix his broken heroes, Drake determines to convince the “retired” Grayson to became Robin once more – before Batman makes an inevitable, fatal mistake. It might all be too little too late, however, as in ‘Going Home!’, Two-Face makes his murderous move against a severely sub-par Gotham Guardian…

Concluding with a raft of explosive and highly entertaining surprises in ‘Rebirth’, this long-overlooked Bat-saga introduces the third Robin (who would get into costume only after years of training – and fan-teasing) whilst acknowledging both modern sentiments about child-endangerment and the classical roles of young heroes in heroic fiction. Perhaps a little slow and definitely a bit too sentimental in places, this is nevertheless an excellent, key Batman story, and one no fan should be unaware of.

This combined compilation offers also a full cover gallery by Mike Mignola & Pérez plus a lost treasure for fans and aficionados. Printed comics are produced with a long lead-in time so when the phone poll to determine Jason’s fate was launched, the editors had to prepare for both outcomes. Wrapping up proceedings here is the alternate final page by Aparo & DeCarlo depicting Robin’s survival to gratify the dreams of those who originally voted against what these days would have been agonisingly and inappropriately dubbed “R-exit”…

Potent, punchy and eminently readable, this is a bold Bat-treat well worth tracking down and devouring.
© 1988,1989, 2006, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Frederic Mullally’s Amanda


By Frederic Mullally, John Richardson & “Ken” (Ken Pierce Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91227-703-5

When I reviewed the comic strip collection Danielle recently, I declaimed at long length about having to become an apologist for some of the themes and content of what used to be called “cheesecake” or “girly” strips: a genre stuffy old-fashioned Britain used to excel at and happily venerate.

After all, aren’t we proud that we’re that sort of culture? Saucy postcards, Carry-On films, ingenuously innocent smut and a passion for double entendre which have for decades obscured and obfuscated genuine concerns such as entrenched gender pay-gaps, unwarranted interest in and control of female reproductive rights and sexual behaviour, double standards for men and women’s work and recreational behaviours, and that incomprehensible Mystery of Mysteries: just why men are utterly certain that anything they fancy automatically fancies them back and is therefore fair game for creepy jollity and unwanted attentions excused as “just having bit of fun” or “paying a compliment”…

Yes, it’s one of those days…

Meanwhile, back at this book and in a time long gone but not forgotten – as John Dakin points out in his introduction to this particular short-lived strip-siren – The Sun (original home of the lady in question) was the country’s best-selling newspaper and was proudly, provocatively populist. That translated into low laughs and acres of undraped female flesh everywhere except the sports section – and even there when possible… because the readers where mostly blokes and lads in search of that aforementioned easily digested little bit of fun…

By 1976 the battle for female equality had mostly moved from headlines and leader columns to the business pages: the frenzied height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, fair pay and honest treatment had passed (so isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things sorted now?). Contraception-on-demand and burning bras were gone – except for the provision of comedy fodder – and most men had generally returned to their old habits, breathing a heavy sigh of relief…

Written by journalist, columnist, novelist, political writer and editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune) Frederic Mullally, Amanda launched on January 26th 1976, and initially seemed a low-key, low-brow reworking of his prestigious Penthouse satire O Wicked Wanda!

However, there were marked differences for anybody looking below the satin-skinned surface…

Amanda Muller is the beautiful (naturally), sequestered heir to the world’s largest fortune, and once her old fossil of a father finally kicks the bucket she decides to become a teen rebel and have all the fun she’d missed growing up in an old castle with only prim staff and her cousins Wiley and Hunk for company. With thief turned companion Kiki, she determines to splurge and spree and have anything she wants…

The strip ran for a year and the first illustrator was John Richardson, a highly gifted artist with a light touch blending Brian Lewis with Frank Bellamy: a veteran visual storyteller who worked practically everywhere in Britain from 2000AD to DC Thomson to Marvel UK, as well as for specialist magazines such as Custom Car, Super Bike and Citizen’s Band.

The introductory story here sees Amanda – shedding her clothes at every opportunity – attempt to buy a noble title, only to fall foul of a Mafia plot to seize control of Italy’s Nudist Beaches, before moving on to a “career” as a pop-star – which once more draws her into a world of unscrupulous sharks and swindlers…

Whilst looking for a new maid, Amanda and Kiki then become embroiled in a continental burglary ring, before the author’s political and ethical underpinnings break loose as brainy cousin Wiley is invited to display his new electronic Chess brain behind the Iron Curtain. Naturally physical Adonis Cousin Hunk wants to come along – it’s just before the next Olympic Games after all – and the girls tag along just for kicks.

Since you just can’t trust a Commie they’re all soon in lots of trouble, but naturally the frolicsome foursome escape with relative ease. The next adventure, and all the remaining strips, are illustrated by somebody who signs him (or her) self “Ken”, and who, I’m ashamed to say, I know absolutely nothing about. Competent, but a tad stiff and hesitant, and lacking the humorous touch of Richardson, I’d lay money on the enigma being an Italian or Hispanic artist – but I’ve been wrong before and I will be again…

Safely home again, Amanda resolves to create a feminist magazine entitled New Woman, and despatches Kiki to interview the world’s greatest Chauvinist Pig – fashion designer “Bruno” – only to once more fall foul of crooks; although this time it’s kidnappers and embezzlers.

Still in editorialising mode, the young proud kids then head to super-sexist banana republic Costa Larga, just in time for the next revolution; infiltrating the “Miss Sex Object” beauty contest with the intent of sabotaging it, before concluding their globe-trotting by heading for a tropical holiday just as the local government is overthrown by a tin-pot dictator…

All my cavils, caveats and frustrated kvetchings aside Amanda was series that started out with few pretensions and great promise, but, the early loss of Richardson and – I suspect – Mullally’s intellectual interests soon overwhelmed what charms it held. Nevertheless, this collection is a good representative of an important period and a key genre in British cartooning history: one we should really be re-examining in much greater detail.

Some of the gags are still funny (especially in our modern world where celebrity equates with exactly where drunken, stoned rich people threw up last) and if you are going to ogle and objectify naked women at least well-drawn ones can’t be harmed or humiliated in the process.

Also, I don’t think a drawing has ever contributed to anybody’s low self-esteem or body-dysmorphia issues; Dear God, at least, I hope not…
© 1984 Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.