The Piper

By J. Aldric Gaudet & Paul Schultz
ISBN: 978-1-329-73359-6

Dark, gritty – usually adult-oriented – re-workings and reinterpretations of traditional fairytales have been a staple of modern popular entertainment for some time now. Perhaps they are an easy way into the consciousness of the audience or maybe it’s just that the best plots are endlessly adaptable…

In this brief – perhaps introductory or pilot – tale of a possible future, humanity is slowly recovering from a global climatic collapse which has destroyed modern technologies and reduced survivors to frantic daily scrabbling for existence.

The fatal trigger was a wandering planet which passed too near Earth, causing super-magnetic storms, monolithic gravity-induced tidal waves and a 40-day flood. In the aftermath pockets of humanity eke out a hard-fought life on isolated island enclaves, serviced by maritime explorers, mail-carriers and traders sailing between them.

‘The Future Past’ – scripted by author and screenwriter J. Aldric Gaudet (5 Fables for the Young at Heart, The Littlest Hobo) and illustrated by Paul Schultz of Jaded Dragon Studios – opens as one of those sailing ships docks at a particularly embattled colony.

Life is hard, trade is crucial and the grain harvest is disappointing. There’s worry that blue spore mould will decimate the specialised quick-growing crop but rather than carry what produce the farmers have, the mariners want to leave the precious sacks behind to salvage a stranded vessel and save pre-disaster books from being lost…

Young Digger and his dad are taking a sensible long view but the landsmen have a valid point too. If the grain is left behind the plague of giant Northland rats infesting the island will get it all and the growers will earn nothing in return…

Eventually a compromise is reached and the partners in peril retire to celebrate. Later when the ship sails, it carries fliers advertising the desperate need for a professional exterminator…

Life goes tenuously on but soon everything changes as a macabre individual arrives in a converted coach pulled by horses. It’s none too soon. The giant rodents are bold enough now to attack humans as they congregate in their meeting halls…

The vermin eradicator is frankly terrifying: employing savage dogs and bizarre bagpipes making an infernal din. He also drives a hard, harsh bargain but eventually a deal is struck.

Then all that’s left is herding the pests into a secure killing-zone where the farmers can safely destroy them but the over-eager growers also shoot the Ratcatcher’s dogs and refuse to recompense him for his loss…

It’s a stupid, venal mistake that will cost hem dearly…

After creating an explosive distraction the stranger steals all the children and babies; heading out and resolved to sell them in the thriving slave markets he frequents. In response the resource-poor community can only spare ten individuals to go after them. Everybody else has to stay to repair the incredible damage the stranger has left in his wake…

Before the children are saved and some sort of order is restored the rescuers will confront death and destruction at close hand and learn some shocking secrets about the rats and the grain everybody depends upon…

Stark, bleak, and relentlessly uncompromising, this suspenseful saga of the struggle for survival also shows the irresistible power of unity and offers a message of hope that will certainly impress all lovers of dystopic fiction.
© 2016 J. Aldric Gaudet. All rights reserved.

Star Trek Classics volume 1 – The Gorn Crisis

By Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta & Igor Kordey (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-129-7

The Star Trek franchise has had many comic book homes. This action-heavy paperback tome (also available digitally) was originally released in the early years of the 21st century by DC/WildStorm and is narratively positioned during the period when Deep Space 9 was first being broadcast on television.

The book therefore tangentially informs and contributes to a seasons-long storyline featuring an intergalactic war between the Federation and its Alpha Quadrant allies on one side and the J’em Haddar warriors of The Dominion on the other. So if you’re a bugbear, completist or unfamiliar with the mileau, you might be left feeling a little bewildered. Nevertheless if you’re of a forgiving mien this adventure is a real ripsnorter…

In case you were wondering, The Gorn were an aggressive civilisation of reptiles who appeared in an episode of the original 1960s Star Trek TV show. The story was in fact an adaptation of a classic SF short story by Fred Brown entitled “Arena”, in which Captain Kirk and his Gorn opposite number were co-opted by a super-advanced race to represent their species in a brutal duel for galactic supremacy. The loser race would be curbed to avoid horrendous, bloody and nigh-eternal space-war.

A century later mankind and its intergalactic partners are losing just such a conflict with the Dominion and desperately seeking fresh allies. Thus Captain Jean-Luc Picard has been dispatched to the embargoed Gorn solar system to renew relations and broker a military alliance, but the USS Enterprise arrives just as the reptile’s own black-crested Warrior Caste – frustrated by a century of enforced peace – stages a bloody coup and subsequently launches an all-out attack on neighbouring worlds.

These planets are now, perhaps unwisely, packed with human colonists and Federation/Klingon bases…

Beaming down just in time to be captured amidst the remains of the Administrative caste, Picard, Dr. Beverly Crusher and their Away Team are promptly captured and can only subtly influence the outcome as Commanders Will Riker and amazing android Data battle with brilliance on two very different fronts to stop the marauding Gorn war-lovers…

With no back-up available from hard-pressed Starfleet, the Next Generation stalwarts must act independently and ingeniously to quell the barbarous uprising, restore order and build that elusive alliance with the Gorn. Their efforts won’t just dictate how the humans, Federation and reptiles will co-exist in the future, but might well decide if they exist at all…

Although not to everybody’s taste, and despite an occasional certain rough hesitancy in Igor Kordey’s fully-painted artwork, this tale from Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta does rattle along in the approved Star Trek manner, and even casual readers will come away with a sense of expectation fulfilled.

Moreover, augmenting the interstellar excitement is a comprehensive fact-file on the sinister sarurians entitled ‘The Gorn Dossier’, contributed by illustrator Kordey who apparently moonlights as a “Federation Anthropologist”. Here he highlights his root and branch redesign of the alien antagonists with biology, language, symbology, livery and weaponry all updated for discerning modern readers

Fast, fierce fun for lovers of high quality Space Opera so boldly go and give it a look.
Star Trek ® & © 2011 CBS Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Solomon Kane volume 2: Death’s Black Riders

By Scott Allie, Mario Guevara, Juan Ferreyra & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-590-2

Following on from their revitalisation – if not actual creation – of the comicbook Sword and Sorcery genre in the early 1970s with their magnificent adaptation of pulp superstar Conan the Barbarian, Marvel Comics quite naturally looked for more of the same, and found ample material in Robert Ervin Howard’s other warrior heroes such as King Kull, Bran Mac Morn and dour Puritan Avenger Solomon Kane.

The fantasy genre had undergone a global prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and the 1960s resurgence of two-fisted action extravaganzas by such pioneer writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Fritz Lieber. This led to a generation of modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-starting their literary careers with contemporary interpretations of man, monster and mage. Without doubt, though, nobody did it better than the tragic Texan whose other red-handed stalwarts and tough guys such as El Borak, Steve Costigan, Dark Agnes and Red Sonya of Rogatino excelled in a host of associated genres and like milieux.

As a prose paragon, Solomon Kane debuted in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales in a gripping tale of vengeance entitled “Red Shadows”; thereafter making seven more appearances before abruptly vanishing in 1932 as his creator concentrated on the far more successful Conan.

Three more tales, some epic poems and a few unfinished ideas and passages remained unpublished until 1968 when renewed interest in the author’s work prompted publishers to disinter and complete the yarns.

Apart from two noteworthy 4-colour exceptions, during the 1970s and 1980s, Marvel was content to leave Solomon Kane to monochrome adaptations of canonical Howard stories in Dracula Lives, Savage Sword of Conan, Monsters Unleashed and other older-reader magazines, but with his 21st century transfer to the Dark Horse stable, the Holy Terror has flourished in broader, lavishly-hued and much-expanded interpretations of the short stories and assorted unfinished snippets left when the prolific Howard took his life in 1936.

Beginning in 2008 and released as a succession of miniseries, these almost-new adventures offer modern fans a far darker and more moody iteration of the driven, doom-laden wanderer. This second volume features as graphic narrative short story Rattle of the Bones combined with a mere fragment of recovered prose latterly dubbed Death’s Black Riders, with scripter Scott Allie fleshing out the meagre fare for modern audiences. The strips were originally published in 4-issue miniseries Solomon Kane: Death’s Black Riders and are supplemented here by an all-new short continued saga which originally ran online in MySpace Dark Horse Presents #27 and 28.

For the uninitiated: Kane is a 17th century disenfranchised English soldier-of-fortune on a self-appointed mission to scour the Earth doing God’s Work. He interprets that to mean punishing the wicked and destroying devils and monsters. With no seeming plan, the devout Puritan lets fate guide his footsteps ever onwards towards trouble…

The drama opens here where the previous collection left off. Having survived epic clashes with demon wolves, devilish pagans and satanic thralls, the surly pilgrim is still lost in Germany’s vast and foreboding Black Forest and eager to find his way out.

Sadly, his wanderings merely lead to more conflict as he encounters the remains of a band of slaughtered gypsies where an extremely capable Frenchman named Gaston battles against a vile pack of voracious double-mouthed, distressingly equine talking horrors.

Joining the fray, the chilling churchman kills three of ‘Death’s Black Riders’, but not in time to save any but Gaston from the beast’s butchery…

Although something about the Frenchman disturbs and unsettles him, Kane accompanies the sole survivor as they make their way on foot through the benighted forest, eventually coming upon a lonely inn, blithely unaware that the hostelry is afflicted by ‘The Rattle of Bones’

The deeply suspicious landlord is far from welcoming but the wanderers’ misgivings are offset by inclement weather and the fact that the four-legged devils are still at large and probably close at hand. Despite gaining entry behind the stout walls and sturdy doors the travellers are cautiously on guard as they assess their temporary dwelling, especially after discovering their room cannot be secured from the inside…

Searching for bars and barricades, they come upon a room with a skeleton chained to a wall and Gaston – in an act of courage-bolstering bravado – smashes the aged links with his sword. Not long after, the Frenchman makes his long-delayed move, ambushing Kane and attempting to steal his purse. Too late the puritan recognises infamous bandit Gaston the Butcher, but before he can save himself the demented innkeeper strikes…

This madman had been preying on visitors for years, despatching those unfortunate enough to share his hospitality. The lunatic even managed to kill a travelling sorcerer and was wise enough to chain up his corpse so that the enchanter could not strike back at from beyond the grave…

Thus, although recently added to the murderer’s tally, Gaston’s revenge comes as the skeleton prowling the inn finds the target it has waited decades to meet again, and in the gory aftermath the aghast Kane prepares to take his chance with the forest when a pounding comes upon the door. It is a terrified Catholic priest and at his heels is a pack of ravening horse-like monsters…

The terrifying tension rises to fever pitch as ‘The Black Riders Return’ to lay siege to the inn with puritan and priest trading doctrinal sallies whilst battling the bludgeoning beasts outside and evading the unquiet sorcerer’s unburied corpse within the house…

As a shattering storm rages, the war of Good and Evil reaches an appalling crescendo, and when day breaks only one man walks away…

A non-stop parade of peril and explosive action, the art here is both beguiling and emphatically evocative with Mario (The Lone Ranger and Tonto) Guevara’s pencils ably augmented by the potent palette of colourist Juan Ferreyra (Rex Mundi), but the tone changes utterly as Guy Davis assumes the illustration chores for Allie’s eerie follow-up ‘All the Damned Souls at Sea’

Here the exhausted, world-weary horror hunter takes ship for his long-missed England, intent on seeing once more his beloved childhood haunts of Devon.

Typically, however, Kane clashes with a witch before boarding and, as he reminisces during the crossing of his previous voyages battling the Spanish navy, an uncanny transformation grips the ship, remaking it into a predatory beast hungry for sailors’ souls…

As always, this turbulent battle-scarred tome is packed with fascinating artistic extras and behind-the-scenes bonuses such as a gallery of covers and art pieces from Mike Mignola, Jason Shawn Alexander and Darick Robertson plus creative insights via ‘The Art of Solomon Kane’ with sketches, designs, process art and commentary by Guevara, Davis, Chad Vaughn and Allie.

Powerful, engaging and sumptuously spooky, this fight-filled fantasy fear-fest will delight both fans of the original canon and all lovers of darkly dreaming, ghost-busting thrillers.
© 2009 Solomon Kane Inc. (“SKI”). Solomon Kane and all related characters, names and logos are ™ and ® SKI.

Genre Annuals

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

It’s a rare and tragic individual who never received a colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning; full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, The Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or TV, film or radio franchises/personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, Thunderbirds, Radio Fun or Arthur Askey. There were even sports and hobby annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious Rupert Bear or Giles Annuals.

Here then is a brief celebration of the kinds of genre celebrations which delighted kids and their parents…

Bimbo Book 1981

By many and various (DC Thomson & Co, Ltd)
ISBN: 0-85116-190-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rant over…

Bimbo was a high production value weekly title intended for nursery age and pre-school children first released by DC Thomson in 1961. The name came from its lead character, an adventurous lad originally drawn by Bob Dewar, whilst the rest of the comic featured numerous strips, stories games and puzzles. Bimbo ran until 1972, with Annuals continuing well into the 1980s.

The comic was especially noteworthy because it wisely adapted stars from its older range magazines to appear in simpler tales suitable to a younger audience.

Amongst the migrants thus gainfully employed were Dudley D. Watkins’ Tom Thumb from The Beano, Patsy the Panda from girl’s weekly Twinkle and Bill Ritchie’s mischievous scamp Baby Crockett from Beezer.

This particular inspirational and entertaining tome hit the shelve in 1980 and adults would have read to their younglings an enchanting procession of beautifully illustrated, full-colour strips, puzzles and stories that challenged little minds but didn’t confuse them with such modern contrivances as word balloons or sound effects. Bimbo was strictly old-school and only offered prose or the traditional text-block-&-cartoon panel comics.

The wonderment begins with an expansive double page spread frontispiece with a battalion of mice attacking a giant cheese – a conceit concluded at the end of the book where readers could see the incredible sculpture the rowdy rodents made while consuming their beloved fave-food – after which a cunning rebus welcomes the audience with ‘A Letter From Bimbo’

The first block-&-text strip depicts ‘A Merry Mouse Christmas’ as little Lily pilfers snacks from the human’s indoor tree to create a feast for her many brothers and sisters after which ‘Wiggles’ the Worm goes looking for a less earthy home whilst tiger cub ‘Brave Little Bertie’ breaks down barriers of prejudice by inviting the fearsome crocodile Snapper to the animals’ picnic in a delightful prose story with superb illustrations by a cruelly anonymous artist.

As the strips resume, the farm animals unite to find a new wallow for ‘Roly-Poly Percy’ after his pig pen dries up whilst bold pigeon ‘Puffy’ and his pal Seagull Sam go sightseeing in London and an unseen artist demonstrates the joys of ‘Dotty Doodles’ with Robby Rabbit

‘Pantomime Puzzles’ then offer a variety of paper-based games and age-appropriate brain-teasers and ‘Patsy Panda’ finds an equitable solution to a farmer’s woes after hungry rabbits start consuming his carrot crop…

Illustrated poem ‘The Christmas Robin’ segues into a mesmerising prose fantasy as little Joanna discovers a magical train still stops at the shut-down rail station near her house. Her eye-opening excursion on the ‘The Bumble-Bee Line’ then leads to strip ‘A Holiday trip for Terry’ as a plodding tortoise gives his invertebrate pals a ride and discovers activities that don’t demand rush or hustle…

‘The Funumbers – the Fun Folk who live in Numberland’ combines comic fun with counting skills after which cover-star ‘Pip Penguin’ (by Bill Ritchie?) turns his new fancy dress costume into a useful new career whilst ‘Twirlies’ share the secret of how to make a transformation game out of old scraps and crayons…

Toy bear ‘Jimpy’ gets up to comic strip hijinks with a bunch of elves whilst a kind-hearted bird helps a wounded fairy and is rewarded with ‘Bobbie’s picnic party’.

Prose parable ‘Lenny’s Long Walk’ teaches a wilful puppy the wisdom of not wandering off and a snowbound mallard experiences ‘Ducky’s lucky day’ after getting warm new attire before wits are exercised with a ‘Zoo puzzle-time’

Young Squirrel-Tail makes himself unexpectedly useful in a ‘Riverbank rescue’, after which strip fun resumes as hedgehog ‘Wandering Willie’ undertakes his evening perambulations in a poetic manner whilst ‘Models-to-make’ imparts D-I-Y details on constructing lions, camels, turtles, porcupines, hippos, elephants and snakes with household odds and ends.

Wrapping up the story time is a worrisome tale of a lost pet who finally resurfaces in ‘Pussycat-kitten gets a name’ and a last lovely strip as a little girl finds her station in life as the Keeper of ‘The Royal Robins’

Superbly entertaining and magnificently crafted, this is a children’s tome certain to inculcate a lifetime love affair with comics.
© DC Thomson & Co., Ltd 1980.

Roy of the Rovers Annual 1995

By many and various (Fleetway)
ISBN: 85037-615-7

Roy of the Rovers started his dazzling career on the front cover of the first Tiger; a new weekly anthology comic published by Amalgamated Press (later IPC and/or Fleetway Publications) which launched on September 11th 1954.

The “Sport and Adventure Picture Story Weekly” was a cannily crafted companion to Lion, AP’s successful response to Hulton Press’ mighty Eagle (home of Dan Dare). From the kick-off Tiger concentrated heavily on sports stars and themes, with issue #1 also featuring The Speedster from Bleakmoor, Mascot of Bad Luck and Tales of Whitestoke School amongst others.

In later years racing driver Skid Solo and wrestler Johnny Cougar joined more traditional, earthy strips such as Billy’s Boots, Nipper, Hotshot Hamish and Martin’s Marvellous Mini, but for most of its 1,555-issue Tiger was simply the comic with Roy of the Rovers. Such was his cachet that he starred in 37 of his own Christmas Annuals between 1958 and 2000.

Roy Race was created by Frank S. Pepper (who used the pseudonym Stewart Colwyn) and drawn by Joe Colquhoun (who inherited it when he took over scripting the feature). The scripting eventually devolved to Tiger’s Editor Derek Birnage (credited to “Bobby Charlton” for a couple of years), with additional tales from Scott Goodall and Tom Tully.

In 1975 Roy became player-manager and the following year graduated to his own weekly comic, just in time for the 1976-77 season, premiering on September 25th and running for 855 issues (ending March 20th 1993).

Roy started as a humble apprentice at mighty Melchester Rovers, and gradually rose to captain the first team. After many years of winning all the glories the beautiful game offered, he settled down to live the dream: wife, kids, wealth, comfort and sporting triumph every Saturday…

The end-of-year Annuals began in 1957 (Roy of the Rovers Football Annual 1958): sturdy hardbacks blending sporting stories and strips with games, quizzes and short fact features. The tradition lasted until 2000, although as the years passed and photography became cheaper to incorporate, the fiction began to lose out to photo features and pin-ups…

This glittering tome comes from 1984 when the comic was regularly selling half a million copies a week. The stories were always much more than simply “He shoots! He’s scored!!!” formulaic episodes: they’re closer to the sports-based TV dramas of later decades like Dream Team (litigiously so, in some cases…).

This particular touchline tome begins with photo-spread ‘Watch Out for Wark!’ featuring a winning moment for Ipswich and Scotland midfielder John Wark, before ‘Roy of the Rovers’ (by Tully or Barrie Tomlinson & David Sque?) sees the player-manager employ horse doctoring methods to get Melchester Rovers match-fit…

A selection of ‘Super Colour Photos’ of players you probably won’t remember leads to a reconditioned reprint in black-&-white as ‘Mike’s Mini Men’ details how a boy expert in tabletop football (definitely not Subbuteo!™) adopts his strategic skills to the real thing after joining the school soccer squad.

Dotted with star pin-ups throughout, the book then offers a photo-feature on reader Malcolm Dickenson who won the Mattel Electrolympics tournament in ‘Champion!’ and ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ from cartoonist Nigel Edwards before ‘Yesteryear’ offers picture-strip histories of Celtic and Manchester United in dazzling red, black & white duo-colour.

Then centre-back Johnny Dexter renews his comedic battle of wills with Danefield United manager Viktor Boskovic in ‘The Hard Man’ (Tomlinson & Doug Maxted) before more men in short shorts are photographically celebrated in ‘Internationals on Parade’.

‘Tommy’s Troubles’ (Fred Baker & Ramiro Bujeiro?) found a footy-mad lad trying to run his own team whilst attending a rugby-only school and outwitting his bullying classmates and – after more ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ from Peter Williams – details in monochrome photo-reportage ‘Saturday at Spurs’

There are loads ‘More Colour Photos’ of soccer stars in action before extended epic ‘Mike’s Mini Men’ concludes and ‘Go For Goal!’ tests sporting knowledge before the two-colour entertainment resumes with manager Dan Wayne and his groundsman Joe Croke continuing their struggles to keep minor league minnows ‘Durrells Palace’ afloat…

Gag veteran Clew provides more ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ before ‘Running For Roy’ photo-focuses on the weekly comic’s editorial team as they competed in the St. Albans mini-marathon, after which ‘Roy’s Talk-In’ reviews recent real-world seasons and – following more footy photos – details the newsworthy events in the comic with clip essay ‘Roy Hits the Headlines!’

‘Mighty Mouse’ (Baker & Julio Schiaffino) then delivers in crisp black-&-white another unlikely exploit of short, fat and myopic medical student Kevin Mouse whose uncanny ball skills and physical speed and dexterity won him a place on the team at beleaguered First Division Tottenford Rovers before proceedings are brought to full time with a closing photo-spread of ‘Norman the Conqueror’ (Norman Whiteside) in a moment of international glory…

Old football comics are never going to be the toast of the medium’s Critical Glitterati, but these were astonishingly popular strips in their day, and produced for maximum entertainment value by highly skilled professionals. They still have the power to enthral and captivate far beyond the limits of nostalgia and fashion – even when they were steadily losing ground to pin-ups and photo opportunities. If your footy-mad youngster isn’t reading enough, this might be best tactic to catch him – or her – totally offside…
© IPC Magazines Ltd., 1984.

Girls’ Crystal Annual 1974

By Many and various (Fleetway)

Like most of my comics contemporaries I harbour a secret shame. Growing up, I was well aware of the weeklies produced for girls but would never admit to reading them. My loss: I now know that they were packed with some great strips by astounding artists, many of them personal favourites when they were drawing stalwart soldiers, marauding monsters and sinister aliens.

Moreover, whenever I pass a mirror I’m well aware that me and my mates could have benefited from some make-up tips and fashion advice in our formative years…

Seriously though, It’s a bit ungracious – but quite typical – to lump in a token Girls Comic Annual in my Genre section as the quality and quantity of the output for young females was staggering, but it’s an area where my meagre knowledge of British-originated material and creators is practically non-existent, even if my late-found admiration is totally genuine.

I actually think. in terms of quality and respect for the readership’s intelligence, experience and development girl’s periodicals were far more in tune with the sensibilities of the target audience. They read pretty good today too…

The vast range of titles from numerous publishers all had Christmas Annuals and I’ve picked one at random: Girl’s Crystal Annual 1974, a time just before changing tastes slowly transformed the distaff side of the industry from story-based content into photo-packed, fashion and pop trend-led miniature life-style brochures like Cosmopolitan.

The comic had a spectacular pedigree. The Crystal launched on October 28th 1935 before renaming itself Girl’s Crystal nine weeks later. It was another story-paper success for Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press but retooled as a comic with some prose material with the March 21st 1953 edition. It merged with School Friend in May 1963. As was often the case the brand continued through the Annuals however, running from 1939 (that would be Girl’s Crystal Annual 1940) to 1975 (a 1976 cover-date). I suspect parents and relatives were attracted at Gift-Giving Time to a familiar name from their own childhoods…

Like all such Annuals, this one features a mix of text stories, features, pin-ups, puzzles and comic strips – both new and cunningly recycled reprints – and opens with a duo-hued thriller as little Joanna Jones and her pals stumble across a baffling yet affable boffin whose newly discovered dinosaur becomes ‘The Burglar Catcher’.

The riotous strip is rendered by a tantalisingly familiar Spanish or South American artist and is followed by a cartoon-embellished, light-hearted exposé of ‘Superstitions’ and ‘The Mobile Music Makers’; a prose yarn of young entrepreneurs setting up a travelling discotheque…

Cartoon Fox and Chicken strip ‘Pete and Pecker’ segues into a splendid monochrome reprint yarn as resized and recycled adventure serial ‘Casey of the Crazy K’ (as seen in Schoolgirl Picture Library) kicks of a monochrome section.

The premise was simple but intriguing: British teen Casey Kildare inherits a ranch in Arizona and becomes embroiled in all manner of cowboy shenanigans when she goes west…

Brain-bending follows with ‘It’s Puzzling!’ and dazzling glamour when ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ reveals the history and lore of the gem trade before text thriller ‘All in a Day’s Work’ sees a young ballet student uncover smugglers at work inside her touring troupe.

A modern day Scrooge is socialised after enduring ‘A Carol for Christmas’ (strip art by Ortiz perhaps?) when some subsequent meddling by Anne and her school friends evoke the traditional change of heart. Another perplexing ‘Teaser Time’ leads to a prose panic as a Jean and Julia have a supernatural close shave in ‘The Pine Wood’

That shifts us quite sensibly into an examination of ‘Curious Curses’ before more classic comedy-adventure ensues with ‘Aunt Jemima on the Warpath’: another resized repeat from story digest June and School Friend Picture Library #376.

Here a remarkably adept lady detective in the classic mould of Margaret Rutherford gives her niece Mandy and chums Sue, John and Steve on-the-job training in catching crooks…

At a suitably tense moment the saga pauses to examine quaint ‘Festivals and Customs’ before moving prose poser – illustrated by the wonderful Brian Lewis – ‘Ferdy Comes Home’ details the heroic acts of an extremely challenging canine…

‘Sally: Dancer in Disguise’ (which looks like Arthur Ferrier art to me) sees a world-famous ballerina seek solitude by changing her looks, only to become entangled in a deadly conspiracy, which after a doggy ‘Pin-up’ leads to another lengthy text tale as Miranda helps out at her brother’s hotel and encounters blackmail, scandal and other forms of skulduggery in ‘Never a Quiet Moment!’

Strip ‘The Lady of the Manor’ sees orphan Mary McMay bamboozled into a bizarre bequest tangle after complete – and completely obnoxious – stranger Sylvia McMonk invites her to view a Scottish castle which is apparently their shared inheritance, before ‘Patsy’s Country Walk’ reveals hidden secrets of nature.

Demonstrating all her junior Modesty Blaise aplomb, globe-trotting action-ace Miss Adventure tackles a particularly nasty missing-persons case in ‘Jacey Takes Command’ after which ‘Never a Quiet Moment!’ concludes and ‘With Nature’s Help Look Beautiful’ reveals astounding historical secrets of the cosmetician’s art.

‘Janet’s Day of Dreams’ depicts the idly feverish ruminations of a star-struck girl stuck in bed with measles, whilst herb lore is explored in ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ and ‘Aunt Jemima on the Warpath’ explosively wraps up.

‘The Mystery of Artist Island’ then details in terse text the tale of art student Vicky Danvers who exposes a forgery ring on her holidays.

Upholding a cherished stereotype, equestrian strip ‘No Horse for Heather!’ reveals how an impoverished girl trounces posh snobs in the show ring and wins her own steed, whilst ‘The Girl Who Conquered Fear!’ details the astounding feats of a missionary’s daughter before returning duo-colour signifies the imminent end of our travels.

Gag page ‘Time for a Laugh’ is followed by a fact feature on ‘Wise Old Owls’, ‘It’s Puzzling!: Answers’ and the animal antics of a wild girl in ‘Janie’s Jungle Jinks’ before one last strip reveals how a palace skivvy rises to an elevated status thanks to the interventions  of ‘The Cat and the King’.

Far more wide-ranging and certainly inexpressibly well written and illustrated; this a magnificent example of comics at their most enticing. It’s well past time that there was a concerted effort to get this stuff back into print…
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1973.

Star Wars: The Marvel Covers

By Jess Harrold & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9838-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect Last-Minute Stocking-Stuffer… 9/10

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the mythology of Star Wars. What you might not know is that the first sight future fanatics got of its breathtakingly expansive continuity and the mythology-in-the-making way back in 1977 was the premier issue of the Marvel comicbook tie-in. It hit shelves two weeks before the film launched in cinemas, setting the scene for a legion of kids and beginning a mini-phenomenon which encompassed the initial movie trilogy and expanded those already vast imaginative horizons.

Marvel had an illustrious run with the franchise – nine years’ worth of comics, specials and paperback collections – before the option was left to die.

Comicbook exploits were reinstated in 1993 by Dark Horse Comics who built on the film legacy with numerous titles – and a three more movies – until Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars in 2012. Around the same time, the home of Donald & Mickey also bought Marvel Comics and before long the original magic was being rekindled…

When Marvel relaunched the enterprise, they included not just a core title but also solo books for the lead stars. Star Wars #1 debuted on January 14th 2015, with Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Poe Damaron coming soon after.

That auspicious, eagerly-anticipated event was supplemented by a crucial component of modern comics publishing: variant covers. These are alternative frontages for the same comicbook, usually by big-name artists of as part of sub-tropes of the medium such as images “homaging” earlier covers or as part of an ongoing event, commemoration or even trends such as Skottie Young’s occasional series of star characters as comedic babies…

Star Wars #1 had a staggering 70 individual variant covers. Successive issues also had a plethora of the same. What is most interesting here is how many of the name artists – and writers – were inspired by the comics they had read as kids as well as the films. Thus this gleefully exuberant hardcover art-collection, gathering those myriad covers for the new launch and interviewing the creators responsible…

Following an Introduction from Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonzo, writer Jess Harold and those writers and artists discuss their childhood memories of the phenomenon and current revival in ‘The Force is Strong with This #1’. There are reviews of the media’s reaction to the relaunch in ‘Search Your Feelings’ whilst ‘Never Tell Me the Odds’ analyses the breakdown in percentages of which character made the most appearances on the variant covers.

Then John Cassaday provides monochrome art and intimate secrets in ‘You Cannot Escape Your Destiny’ before the first tranche of covers is revealed in ‘The Force is Strong with This One’. The variants deluge includes black-&-white versions or pencils-only iterations of fully-coloured covers and both are seen side by side here.

That stunning parade includes work from Cassaday, Laura Martin, Joe Quesada, Daniel Acuña, Simone Bianchi, Mark Brooks, J. Scott Campbell, Nei Ruffino, Pascal Campion, Frank Cho, Jason Keith and John Tyler Christopher plus photo-still movie variants.

‘I Have a Bad Feeling About This…’ concentrates on John Tyler Christopher’s faux action-figure packages and is followed by a feature on comics-only creation Jaxxon (a giant green rabbit) with photo covers and more variations on the theme from Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, Muntsa Vicente, Gabriele Dell’Otto,  Mike Del Mundo, Mike Deodato Jr., Frank Martin, Dave Dorman, Pasqual Ferry, Frank D’Armata, Jenny Frison, Stephanie Hans, Adi Granov, Greg Horn, Dale Keown, Jason Keith, Justin Ponsor, Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado, Alex Maleev, Mike Mayhew, Rainier Beredo, Mike McKone, Bob McLeod, Mike Perkins, Andy Troy, David Petersen, Sara Pichelli, Joe Quinones, Humberto Ramos, Paul Renaud, Alex Ross, Stan Sakai, Mico Suayan and Chris Sotomayor.

The aforementioned jovial junior japes of Skottie Young are then explored and exhibited in ‘Aren’t You a Little Short for a Stormtrooper?’ before ‘Chapter Two: Star Wars #2-6’ dissects successive releases in ‘The Circle is Now Complete’ with Jordan D. White talking to writers Jason Aaron (Star Wars), Kieron Gillen (Darth Vader) and Mark Waid (Princess Leia) about their formative years and the franchise. This is augmented by covers-&-variants by Cassaday & Martin, Sergio Aragonés, Howard Chaykin & Jesus Aburtov, Tyler Christopher, Ramos & Delgado, Leinil Francis Yu, Keith, Marte Gracia, Nick Bradshaw, Giuseppe Camuncoli & Israel Gonzalez and Phil Noto.

Chapter Three: Darth Vader #1-6’ concentrates on the Sith Lord’s series with ‘Give Yourself to the Dark Side…’ supplemented by covers from Granov, Bianchi, Mark Brooks, J. Scott Campbell & Ruffino and movie stills whilst ‘Never tell Me the Odds’ features images from Cassaday & Martin, Tyler Christopher, Del Mundo, Horn, Land, Larroca & Delgado and Whilce Portacio & Sotomayor.

‘There is No Try…’ concentrates on the contributions of mega-star illustrator Alex Ross with numerous covers and an in-depth examination of his working process from posed models to pencils to finished work, before a gallery of more Vader pieces by Suayan, Sotomayor, Young, Granov, Dave Dorman, Larroca & Delgado and Noto.

‘Chapter Four: Princess Leia #1-6’ concentrates on the avenger from Alderaan as ‘There is Another…’ offers background and a wealth of original art by series illustrators Terry & Rachel Dodson. Then comes their covers plus more from Brooks, Campbell & Ruffino, Cassaday & Martin, Tyler Christopher, Amanda Conner, Dell’Otto, Granov, Jackson Guice, Horn, Land & Ponsor, Ross, Suayan, Sotomayor, Young, Maleev, Francesco Francavilla, Noto and more movie photo-covers.

Wrapping up the fabulous picture-fest is a stroll down memory lane in ‘Star Wars: The Original Marvel Years’ harking back to ‘A Long Time Ago’ with a short selection of classic covers by Rick Hoberg & Dave Cockrum, Chaykin, Carmine Infantino, Walter Simonson, Ron Frenz, Cynthia Martin, Bill Sienkiewicz and Klaus Janson, plus a range of modern tributes by Granov, Chaykin, Greg Hildebrandt, Gene Day & Delgado and Tom Palmer.

It would appear that there is an inexhaustible appetite for views of “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” and the Star Wars franchise has spawned an awful lot of comics. This fascinating art compendium celebrates the verve, vitality and sheer impact of the printed material in a way no fan could possibly resist – especially as the latest cinematic chapter is about to unfold…
STAR WARS and related text and illustrations ™ and/or © of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates. © & ™ of Lucasfilm Ltd.  All rights reserved.

Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor volume 1: Terrorformer

By Robbie Morrison, Dave Taylor, Mariano Laclaustra, Hi Fi, Luis Guerrero & various (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-177-8 (HB)                    978-1-78276-501-1 (SC)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Timeless Traditional Treat… 8/10

The comicbook division of the Whovian mega-franchise has roamed far and wide and currently rests with British publisher Titan Comics who have sagely opted to run parallel series starring the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth incarnations of the trickily turbulent Time Lord.

These tales – starring the Peter Capaldi incarnation – comprise the first five issues of the 2014 monthly comicbook with the tetchy Time Lord still gallivanting all over creation with schoolteacher and “Impossible Girl” Clara Oswald.

Scripted by Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante, The Authority) and illustrated by Dave Taylor (Zorro, Batman, Judge Dredd) with assistance from Mariano Laclaustra, colourists Hi Fi & Luis Guerrero and letterers Richard Starkings & Jimmy Betancourt, the deadly dilemmas begin after the Doctor takes Clara skiing on his favourite ice-world. On arrival however they discover the entire planet has been re-sculpted – down to each trademarked palm leaf – into a tropical paradise by Kano Dollar: the Richest Human in the 25th Century.

His team have transformed the entire eco-structure in a sun-drenched paradise for mega-millionaires to romp through, but things are slowly going very wrong on the most primal levels…

When the Doctor begins throwing his intellectual weight around he quickly discovers the terra-formers’ meddling has awakened an ancient threat locked deep in the planet’s bowels for millennia. In the universes earliest era a race of living suns began eradicating races and could only be defeated by an alliance of Gallifrey with the cosmos’ other great races. Now with the Time Lords gone, only the Doctor is left to face a vengeance-crazed solar devil as “Hyperios Rises”…

Having pulled off another miracle, the chronal voyagers use the TARDIS to answer a plea for help from a former Companion. Tragically they arrive too late to save him and trigger a deadly duel in two time periods – Mumbai in 2314 and Madhya Province in 1825 – against insidious alien bloodsuckers seeking ‘The Swords of Kali’

With the assistance of renegade Indian Amazon and harem guard Rani Jhulka, the Doctor strives to prevent a diabolical mass sacrifice orchestrated by the sub-continent’s wealthiest family which will free the thing that created the cult of Thuggee.

The extra-dimensional devil also claims to be death goddess Kali and almost takes another of the Time Lord’s adored partners in peril before the furious time master pulls off his greatest feat of misdirection and save the day…

Sharp, spooky and wickedly witty, this premier volume comes with a vast gallery of alternate and variant covers (photographic, digitally manipulated, painted and/or drawn) by Mariano Laclaustra, Brian Williamson, AJ, Alice X. Zhang and Rob Farmer.

If you’re a fervent fan of the television Time Lord, this book – also available as a digital download – might well make you an addict to the print iteration too. Terrorformer is a glorious treat for casual readers, a fine additional avenue for devotees of the TV show to explore and a perfect opportunity to cross-promote our art-form to anyone minded to give comics a proper go…
BBC, Doctor Who (word marks, logos and devices) and Tardis are trade marks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence. BBC logo © BBC 1996. Doctor Who logo © BBC 2009. Tardis image © BBC 1963. First edition April 2015.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 3: The Birthday of the Infanta

Adapted by P. Craig Russell with Galen Showman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-214-5 (Signed HC)        978-1-56163-775-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Comicbook Gift of the Graphic Magi… 9/10

Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to fame young with a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds.

Although his increasingly fanciful, meticulous classicist style was derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and his visual flourishes of Art Nouveau were greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry, the sheer power and beauty of his illustrative work made him a huge draw.

By the 1980s he had largely retired from the merciless daily grind, preferring to work on his own projects (generally adapting operas and plays into sequential narratives) whilst undertaking the occasional high-profile Special for the majors – such as Dr. Strange Annual 1976 (totally reworked and re-released as Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996) or Batman: Robin 3000.

As our industry grew up and coincided with the global fantasy boom, Russell returned to the comics industry with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in the magazine Epic Illustrated and elsewhere.

Russell’s stage-arts adaptations had begun appearing in 1978: first in the independent Star*Reach specials Night Music and Parsifal and then from 1984 at Eclipse Comics where the revived Night Music became an anthological series showcasing his earlier experimental adaptations; not just operatic dramas but also tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and other favourite literary landmarks.

In 1992, he began adapting the two volumes of Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, deftly balancing tales of pious allegorical wonderment with a wry touch and clear, heartfelt joy in the originating material of a mercurial misunderstood, much-maligned master of devastating, so-quotable epigrams who was briefly the most popular man in London Society…

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems. The others within were The Nightingale and the Rose, The Devoted Friend, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant.

It was followed in 1891 by A House of Pomegranates; Wilde’s second book of stories for children which held The Young King, The Fisherman and his Soul, The Star-Child and our subject today The Birthday of the Infanta, with adaptor Russell utilising all his skills to staggering effect to deliver a masterpiece of sardonic whimsy and casual cruelty.

In the glittering court of the King of Spain, the monarch is celebrating his beautiful daughter’s twelfth birthday. For such an occasion the normally closeted, haughty child is allowed to play with other, lesser youngsters whilst conniving courtiers look on and seek any moment of advantage which might further their own prospects.

There’s little chance of that, however. The King is not the man he was and has languished in growing misery since his beloved wife died soon after delivering the sole heir. So bereft is he at the loss of his flighty French bride’s boundless spirit and joyous joie de vivre that he cannot bear to have her interred. Instead her mummified corpse still occupies the chapel in the grand palace…

Thus the Infanta grew up isolated by her elevated position and swamped with magnificence, drowning in privilege and inundated in all things beautiful, but deprived of companionship. Today she takes full advantage of the youthful playthings around her, revelling in every boisterous dance and all attentions paid by the sons and daughters of the Court. The entertainments are even more thrilling: acrobats, jugglers, jongleurs, dancers, magicians and wild beasts all amaze, but nothing delights the lovely child more than the hideous, malformed dwarf-boy who dances for her, lost in his own simple, insensate world.

The deformed, inadvertent fool is a present from two particularly noxious nobles who had seen him capering innocently in the forests and promptly made off with him. The blithe simpleton knows nothing of this, only that his actions in this immaculate garden of boughs and flowers make the most beautiful creature in the world happy… and that her laughter is music to him…

His idiot caperings concluded, the dwarf is given a perfect white rose by the Infanta before the nobles’ children are escorted away. This casual, indifferent act drives him to even greater paroxysms and in his head a dangerous idea forms…

Later he sneaks into the Palace, finding room after room of breathtaking opulence and dazzling magnificence until he reaches at last the Infanta’s apartments. Curiously peeking in, he spies a coarse, misshapen monster mimicking his every move. Never has he seen such a thing of such utter ugliness…

What follows is one of the saddest, most relentless withering denouements in literature; a thinly-veiled yet ferocious condemnation of the brutal force of vanity and deadly power of surface glamour devastatingly depicted with debilitating detail by Russell and his assistant/letterer Galen Showman.

Bring tissues, and probably a stiff drink. You’ll need them.

A deeply moving, studiously horrific and truly tragic fairytale that shows not all endings are happy or even just, The Birthday of the Infanta displays Wilde’s razor-edged social commentary and scathingly beautiful cynicism to full effect; denying us the requisite happy ending and harbouring a cruel barb to prick and train the conscience…

This unsettling yet unmissable adaptation signalled another high point in Russell’s astounding career: another milestone in the long, slow transition of an American mass market medium into a genuine art form.

Most importantly, this and the other volumes in the series are incredibly lovely and irresistibly readable examples of superb writing (so please read Wilde’s original prose tomes too) and sublime examples of comics at their most potent.
© 1998 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

Doctor Who Graphic Novels #23: The Highgate Horror

By Mark Wright, Jonathan Morris, Steve Lyons, Roger Langridge, Jacqueline Rayner, Scott Gray, David A. Roach, Mike Collins, John Ross, Adrian Salmon, Martin Geraghty, Dave Gibbons, John Ridgway, Dan McDaid & various (Panini Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-749-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Tradition… 9/10

The British love comic strips and they love celebrity and they love “Odd Characters.”

The history of our graphic narrative has a peculiarly disproportionate amount of radio comedians, stars of theatre, film and TV: folk like Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Askey, Winifred Atwell, Max Bygraves, Charlie Drake and their ilk, as well as actual shows and properties such as Whacko!, ITMA, Our Gang, (a British version of the Hal Roach film sensation by Dudley Watkins in The Dandy as well as the American comicbook series by Walt Kelly), Old Mother Riley, Supercar, Pinky & Perky and literally hundreds more.

Anthology variety comics such as Radio Fun, Film Fun, TV Fun, Look-In, TV Tornado, TV Comic and Countdown amongst others translated our viewing and listening favourites into pictorial escapism every week, and it was a pretty poor lead or show which couldn’t parley the screen job into a licensed comic property.

Television’s Doctor Who premiered with part one of ‘An Unearthly Child’ on November 23rd 1963, and the following year a decades-long association with TV Comic began in issue #674 and the first instalment of ‘The Klepton Parasites’.

On 11th October 1979 (although, adhering to US off-sale cover-dating system, it says 17th) Marvel’s UK subsidiary launched Doctor Who Weekly, which regenerated into a monthly magazine in September 1980 (#44), efficiently entitled Doctor Who Monthly. It has been with us through various title-changes ever since. All of which only goes to prove that the Time Lord is a comic hero with an impressive pedigree and big shoes to fill.

Panini’s ongoing process of collecting every strip from the prodigious annals and archives in a uniform series of over-sized graphic albums – each concentrating on a particular incarnation of the deathless wanderer – reaches its twenty-third volume here as the Twelfth Doctor returns in another (inter)stellar line-up of comic strip sagas.

This particular tome gathers stories from DWM #484 and #489-500; spanning March 2015 to July 2016; starring Peter Capaldi’s irascible old chrononaut and his saucy sidekick Impossible Girl Clara Oswald in unforgettable action across the universe and every Elsewhen imaginable.

The adventures of the Grumpy Gallifreyan are – as always – described and delineated by a rapidly rotating roster of British creators who also provide a treasure-trove of background information in the Commentary section at the back, comprising story-by-story background, history and insights from the authors and illustrators, supplemented by scads of sketches, roughs, designs, production art and photos.

None of which is relevant if all you want is a darn good read. However all the imagineers involved have managed the ultimate task of any artisan – to produce engaging, thrilling, fun work which can be enjoyed equally by the merest beginner and the most slavishly dedicated and opinionated fans imaginable.

That feast of fun – coloured throughout by James Offredi and lettered by the multi-talented Roger Langridge – opens with ‘Space Invaders!’ by Mark Wright, Mike Collins & David A. Roach as The Doctor and Clara fetch up at an orbiting storage facility just as the owners start their latest sell-off of unclaimed items. Sadly, the time-travellers are not quite quick enough to stop the avid bargain-hunters opening a container full of just hatched planet-eating monster eggs…

Following smart social satire is a multi-part action romp. ‘Spirits of the Jungle’ by Jonathan Morris & John Ross sees our heroes joining an extraction mission to recover lethal intelligent weapons-tech before apparently walking into trap on a planet where the forests have their own definition of World Wide Web…

Gothic horror and vintage thrills permeate Wright, Roach & Collins’ superb chiller ‘The Highgate Horror’ wherein Clara, her immortal straight man and neophyte Companion Jess Collins hunt vampires and satanic covens in a 1970s London cemetery and instead encounter a race of ancient predators who want far worse than mere blood…

As conceived and realised by Steve Lyons & Adrian Salmon, ‘The Dragon Lord’ was a radical activist attempting to save magnificent saurians from human fun-seekers who hunted them for sport on a medieval-themed fantasy resort world. By the time our wandering troubleshooters turn up however, things have turned decidedly bloody and it looks like nobody is getting out alive…

Roger Langridge then offers an all-him treat as Harry Houdini sends out a distress call and old pal The Doctor dutifully answers. Sometimes even fakers and charlatans have power and really resent being de-bunked by upstart human escapologists playing in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’

A new time-bending miscreant debuts in Jacqueline Rayner, Martin Geraghty & Roach’s epic tale of persecution and justice as temporal prankster Miss Chief infiltrates Clara’s workspace. After causing havoc at Coal Hill School the trickster drops Miss Oswald in the vicious clutches of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, leaving The Doctor to either participate in a time duel or somehow search the entire 17th century for his missing school chum in a ‘Witch Hunt’ with potentially fatal and final consequences…

Our temporal tintinnabulations conclude with a splendidly appropriate anniversary party get-together of old friends and foes that will delight long-tern fans without baffling newbies or casual readers.

Written by editor Scott Gray, ‘The Stockbridge Showdown’ returns The Doctor to the alien-beleaguered British village just as cosmic corporate conqueror Josiah W. Dogbolter thinks he’s finally leveraged the keys to time itself.

As the universe nears a shocking “Going Out of Business” sale, the wily Gallifreyan and many allies from the past 500 issues unite to teach the richest man in creation the paucity of his resources and the lesson of his life in a tale crafted by artists past and current, including Dave Gibbons, Langridge, Salmon, Dan McDaid, Ross, Collins, John Ridgway, Geraghty and Roach…

This is another marvellous book for casual readers, a fine shelf-addition for dedicated fans of the show and a perfect opportunity to cross-promote our particular art-form to anyone minded to give comics one more go…
All Doctor Who material © BBCtv. Doctor Who, the Tardis and all logos are trademarks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence. Licensed by BBC Worldwide. Tardis image © BBC 1963. Daleks © Terry Nation. All commentaries © 2016 their respective authors. Published 2013 by Panini UK Ltd. All rights reserved.

Walt Disney: Return of the Gremlins

By Mike Richardson, Dean Yeagle, Fabio Laguna, Nelson Rhodes & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-669-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Charming Offensive Celebrating all Spanners in the Works … 9/10

In 1940, fighter pilot Roald Dahl survived a plane crash and was despatched to America to recuperate and perhaps do a little spying…

During that period he began writing. His first children’s book – The Gremlins – formalised much of the myth and superstition fondly fostered by pilots and airmen in a lovely story about a pilot named Gus who survived a dreadful crash and learned the truth about the mischievous, pixie-like creatures who wrecked aircraft like his…

A fortuitous meeting with an American doctor who knew Walt Disney put Dahl in touch with the studio in an endeavour to create a morale-building feature film. It never got off the drawing boards and Leonard Maltin’s Introduction ‘The Gremlins Got ‘Em: How Walt Disney and Roald Dahl Didn’t Get to Make a Movie Together’ tells you why in captivating detail: just one of the splendid treats in this superb hardback collection from 2008 – and now available in a digital download edition.

The company facilitated publication of the illustrated book in 1943 with the Disney publicity machine doing as much preparatory work as the writers, story-boarders, layout men, animators and other studio staff, so the winningly wicked wreckers also saw daylight as strip-stars in licensed Dell comicbook Walt Disney Comics and Stories (#33-41, between June 1943 and February 1944): in usually silent gag shorts by limned Vivie Risto and the legendary Walt Kelly.

In more recent times 3-issue miniseries Return of the Gremlins revived the concept and this splendid tome gathers that new material and bundles it up with a wealth of vintage treasures into a book that will delight young and old alike.

Following Maltin’s sprightly history lesson the revival begins in a jolly tale scripted by Mike Richardson, rendered by Dean Yeagle (with backgrounds by Nelson Rhodes), coloured by Dan Jackson and lettered by Michael David Thomas, revealing how years after World War II ended Gus’ American grandson returns to a certain dilapidated house in the north of England…

He had recently inherited the old place plus its wild woodland and only came over to sell the place to the local council and their pet property developer. However what he finds in the trees and suspiciously tidy abandoned cottage soon changes his mind and alters his life forever…

Finding love with a like-minded local girl whilst battling ruthless monied interests who won’t take no for an answer (in ‘Chapter Three’, illustrated by Fabio Laguna), Gus secures a permanent homeland for the multitudinous, malarkey-making Gremlins in an uproarious kids romp that would also make a terrific family movie.

It also seemed to promise more adventures to come, but we’re still waiting for those…

Accompanying the breezy yarn is a picture-packed voyage through Yeagle and Laguna’s sketchbooks in ‘Making of Return of the Gremlins’ which also includes complete unused covers. Then the Golden Age greats come to the fore in ‘Classic Gremlins Comics’ and ‘Gremlins the Early Years’, re-presenting the cover of Walt Disney Comics and Stories #34 (volume 3, #10), a strip adaptation of Dahl’s story illustrated by an anonymous aggregation of Disney Studio artists and half a dozen slapstick vignettes by Kelly and Risto starring Gremlin Gus and the Widgets (baby Gremlins).

Also on show are a number of ‘World War II Air Force Service Patches’ created by Disney artists for branches of the service and a Gremlin-infested 1943 magazine ad pieces for Life Savers (you and me call them Polo Mints).

‘Winter Draws On: Meet the Spandules’ was a 1943 booklet created by Disney for Army Air Force pilots. Rendered in blue and black ink and reproduced here in full, it stars arctic Gremlins illustrating all the ways cold, snow and ice can wreck aircraft and is followed by a truncated version of Dahl’s original prose tale – again copiously illustrated by Disney staffers – and writing by the author under the pen-name “Pegasus”.

‘“The Gremlins’” was a planted pre-publicity feature for the prospective movie, created for the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine and includes editorial pages, full reproduction of the book’s cover and even a painted tableau ‘Introducing the Gremlins’

Wrapping up the treats is a fulsome section highlighting the ‘Collectible Toys’ Dark Horse commissioned to supplement the comicbook revival and their reissue of the original 1943 Dahl/Disney novel. There’s even as a peek at said tome to ice the cake.

Peppered throughout with Laguna’s Puckish marginals of playful Gremlins, this a gloriously whimsical treat to delight the fanciful and far-seeing dreamers of every age imaginable.
© Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved throughout the world by Walt Disney Productions.

Pigeons from Hell

By Joe R. Lansdale, Nathan Fox & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-237-6

Robert Ervin Howard is justly celebrated for his burly, barbarian sword-&-sorcery creations such as Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn and others, but he was a successful jobbing writer in the heyday of pulp fiction and also turned his blazing typewriter to most of the other popular genres of the era.

Moreover, as aficionados of his blistering fantasy fiction are well aware, he was a dab hand at inculcating tension, suspense and moody macabre horror.

During the too-brief time of his creative peak he crafted a number of chilling supernatural stories set in the evocative southern milieu known as ArkLaTex – a doom-shrouded, Deep South meeting-point of the darkest corners of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and his beloved Texas.

Inspired by old stories heard at his grandmother’s knee, Howard transformed oft-told anecdotes into masterpieces of terror such as ‘The Shadow of the Beast’, ‘Moon of Zambebwie’, ‘Black Hound of Death’, ‘Black Canaan’ and the particular masterpiece under scrutiny here: a creation described by Stephen King as “one of the finest horror stories of our century”…

The tirelessly prolific Howard committed suicide in 1936 and the prose Pigeons from Hell (unsold since its drafting in 1932) was published posthumously in the May 1938 edition of premier pulp Weird Tales.

It has become a classic not just of the genre but also a notional inclusion into the prestigious literary canon of the Southern Gothic movement of writers such as William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and others.

In 1988 the original prose short story was incorporated into a stunning, lavishly painted adaptation by Scott Hampton, released by West Coast maverick publishers Eclipse, which remains one of the best graphic novels ever produced.

You should do your damnedest to track down and heartily absorb both it and the original text versions.

In 2008, Dark Horse – current holders of the license for Howard comic adaptations – approached esteemed author, occasional comics scripter and devout REH fan Joe R. Lansdale to adapt and update the story, crafting a notional sequel: first as a 4-issue miniseries and then as this sterling terror tome which is every bit as potent and gripping as the Eclipse release.

Illustrated by Nathan Fox with colours by Dave Stewart and letters from Richard Starkings & Comicraft, the story is translated to contemporary times but still centres on the desolate, dilapidated, dank and doom-laden Blassenville House and the swamp-encircled former plantation grounds it festers in.

As the sun sets a car with five forthright youngsters pulls up at the ravaged mansion deep in the Acadiana boondocks. Scaring away an army of fluttering pigeons, the deeply disappointed travellers are far from impressed with the inheritance sisters Janet and Claire have come from Texas to view.

Risking their lives on the shaky stairs the curious, disgusted kids reach the attic and find a mountain of dead birds. For all their tough talk and brave fronts the place is getting to them and their bold bravura starts to fade. Going back down, the first casualty occurs and the horrified friends head straight for the car and anywhere but here…

They don’t get far and the survivors are soon forced to return to the house where something vile and uncanny continues to pick them off…

Faced with appalling events and now certain that Grandmas’s crazy old horror stories were not just true but toned down for the kids, the Blassenville girls resolve to save who they can and then get the hell out.

They’re true believers now; having been separated from their friends and barely escaped a bloody shambling horror in the house. A vast sea of anxious spirits congregated in the fields around it also add veracity to everything the old lady once spooked them with. When these amorphous shades chase them into the sceptical arms of a local sheriff the sisters agree to go back inside but it’s not long before the lawman is also fully aware that ghosts are real and extremely dangerous…

Escorting them into the woods he takes the Blassenvilles to a crazy old witchman (he once thought…) who clues them all in on the history of the house before giving them vital clues they need to fight the thing inside and perhaps end the horror at long last…

Blending compulsive suspense with riotous splatter-action and a wry undertone of trenchant sassiness, this ferociously effective homage includes context and commentary in Lansdale’s ‘Notes from the Writer’, critique and historical background from Howard scholar Mark Finn in his ‘Afterword: The Brothers Gothic’ and a full Cover Gallery from the comic books.

Adding to the informational overload is a stunning picture-packed treasure trove as ‘The Sketchbook from Hell, with commentary from artist Nathan Fox’ reveals secrets of the creative process whilst guest artists Tomer Hanuka, Hector Casanova, Greg Ruth, Guy Davis, Paul Maybury, Jim Mahfood, Brandon Graham, David Crosland, Paul Chatem and Nathan Fox offer alternative outlooks in a copious ‘Bonus Pinups’ section.

Not only is the original prose work one of the best pieces of horror fiction ever written, but in this rare instance the follow-up – like the movie Alien and its gung-ho sequel Aliens – slips sneakily from one classic genre to another and makes both the better for it. This is a coming classic of graphic narrative; something every fright fan should see – but only with all the lights on…
Pigeons from Hell © 2008, 2009 Robert E. Howard Properties Inc. (“REHP”). All rights reserved.