Mega Robo Bros volume 2: Mega Robo Rumble


By Neill Cameron with Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-81-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Future of Fun… 9/10

After far too long an interval, the second sterling all-ages outing for Neill (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) Cameron’s marvellous metal and plastic paladins return to share more of their awesome adventures and growing pains!

It’s the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex and his younger brother Freddie are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, always arguing, but devoted to each other and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were constructed by the mysterious Dr. Roboticus (before he vanished from all human knowledge) and are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

They recently became super-secret agents too, but almost the entire world knows that…

It’s enough for the digital duo that Mum and Dad love them, even though the boys are a bit more of a handful than most kids. They live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of the Mega Robo Routine combining boring lessons, fun with friends, playing games, watching TV and training in the covert combat caverns under RAID HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions for bossy Baroness Farooq, head of government agency R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence). They think it’s because they are infinitely smarter and more powerful than the Destroyer Mechs and other man-made minions she employs…

However, although Dad may be just your average old guy it’s recently become clear that Mum is a bit extraordinary herself and, as renowned boffin Dr. Nita Sharma, harbours some surprising secrets of her own…

All the same, life in the Sharma household is pretty normal. Freddie is insufferably exuberant and over-confident whilst Alex is at the age when self-doubt and anxiety begin to manifest. Of course, their parents’ other robot rescues can be a bit of a trial.

Baby triceratops Trikey with his dog-programming is ok, but French-speaking deranged ape Monsieur Gorilla can be mighty confusing whilst gloomily annoying, existentialist aquatic fowl Stupid Philosophy Penguin constantly quoting dead philosophers all the time makes most people rapidly consider self-harm or manic mayhem …

Culled from the pages of fabulous UK weekly comic The Phoenix, this fistful of fun kicks off with ‘Chapter 1: Mega Robo Schooldays’ as Alex gets a hard time from classmates Mira and Taia. They used to be best friends, but with all his extra-curricular activities the girls are feeling a bit neglected. Alex’s guilt turns to something far worse on Monday at Oak Hill Primary School after a heated football match leads bully Jamal to make a startling accusation. But actually, how do we know if Alex is a Boy or a Girl…?

Deeply shaken the startled hero naturally asks Mum, and she’s never been more grateful for a sudden sneaky Surprise Giant Robot Attack…

In ‘Chapter 2: Mega Robo Underground’ Alex and Freddie are called in by Baroness Farooq, and jet over to Aldgate Tube Station to battle a colossal driller-droid. Further investigation leads the lads and a R.A.I.D. science team deep, deep into the abandoned transport tunnels beneath the city.

Here they encounter an army of rejected and rebuilt robots all undertaking the bizarre agenda of a crazy bag-lady calling herself “The Caretaker”. When she abruptly loses control of her precious charges, all Hell breaks loose. After a massive fight, she escapes to an even more secret lair and an ongoing repair project with hidden ramifications that will have dire consequences for the bombastic boys and the entire world…

Freddie gets to see Mum’s stern side when she takes him – kicking and screaming – clothes shopping in ‘Chapter 3: Mega Robo Weekend’ after which shameful incident ‘Chapter 4: Mega Robo Celebrities’ zooms in on the price of fame when Prettiest Girl in School Jamila finally notices Alex.

With his shiny head all turned around, he’s in no mood for Freddie’s jealous response: candid home videos posted on VuTube. He’s even less chuffed when the postings go mega-viral but cheers up when Freddie’s celebrity bubble inevitably implodes in a most unfortunate manner…

Wrapping up with a spectacular big finish, ‘Chapter 5: Mega Robo Expo’ finds the kids – and their surprisingly famous mum – as guests of a massive Robot Show. After taking down obnoxious, fame-craving mech-makers Team Robotix in a gladiatorial contest, the lads think the action portion of the entertainment has ended, but then the Caretaker’s darkest secret bursts in with mass-murder in mind…

The huge rampaging robot quickly reinforces all humanity’s fears and anxieties about sentient mechanicals, but as the Mega Robo Bros drive the belligerent Wolfram off, Alex realises with alarm that Mum knows far more about the rogue – and her own “sons” – than she’s letting on…

To Be Continued…

Crafted by Cameron and his doughty colouring assistants Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea), this is another exceedingly engaging romp which rockets along like anti-gravity rollercoaster, blending mirth with warmth, wit and incredible verve. Alex and Freddy are utterly authentic boys, irrespective of their artificial origins, and their antics strike exactly the right balance of future shock, family fun and bombastic superhero action to capture readers’ hearts and minds. What a movie this would make!

Unmissable excitement for kids of all ages and vintage, this is a true “must-have” item.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2016. All rights reserved.

And while we’re talking perfect X-Mas gifts, why not pick up Mega Robo Bros volume 1 and enjoy the whole superb saga to date?

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Omnibus volume 1


By Gaylord DuBois & Jesse Marsh with Robert P. Thompson (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-224-7                  eISBN: 978-1-63008-760-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic, Eternal Adventure… 9/10

I don’t know an awful lot about Jesse Marsh, other than that he was born on 27th July 1907 and died far too young: on April 28th 1966 from diabetic complications at the height of a TV Tarzan revival he was in some part responsible for. What I do know, however, is that to my unformed, pre-fanboy, kid’s mentality, his drawings were somehow better than most of the other artists and that every other kid who read comics in my school disagreed with me.

There’s a phrase we used to use at 2000AD that summed it up: “Artist’s artist”, which usually meant someone whose fan-mail divided equally into fanatical raves and bile-filled hate-mail. It seems there are some makers of comic strips that many readers simply don’t get.

It isn’t about the basic principles or artistic quality or even anything tangible – although you’ll hear some cracking justifications: “I don’t like his feet” (presumably the way he draws them) and “it just creeps me out” being my two favourites…

I simply got Jesse Marsh.

He was another Disney animator (beginning in 1939) who in 1945 moved sideways to become a full-time comics illustrator for the studio’s comicbook licensee Whitman Publishing. He never looked back and became the go-to guy for other ERB adaptations such as John Carter of Mars.

Situated on the West Coast, their Dell and Gold Key imprints rivalled DC and Marvel at the height of their powers, and they famously never capitulated to the wave of anti-comics hysteria that resulted in the crippling self-censorship of the 1950s. No Dell Comics ever displayed a Comics Code Authority symbol on the cover – they never needed to…

Marsh jobbed around the adapted movie properties – mostly on westerns like Gene Autry – until 1948 when Dell introduced the first all-new Tarzan comicbook. A newspaper strip had run since 1929 and all previous funnybook releases had featured expurgated reprints of those adventures. This changed with Dell Four Color Comic #134 (February 1947) which featured a lengthy, captivating tale of the Ape-Man scripted by Robert P. Thompson, who wrote both the Tarzan radio show and the aforementioned syndicated strip.

‘Tarzan and the Devil Ogre’ is very much in the Burroughs tradition: the sometime John Clayton AKA Lord Greystoke and his friend Paul D’Arnot aid a young woman in rescuing her lost father from a hidden tribe ruled over by a monster, an engrossing yarn made magical by the simple, underplayed magic of a heavy brush line and absolutely unmatched design sense.

Marsh was unique in the way he positioned characters in space, using primitivist forms and hidden shapes to augment his backgrounds, and as the man was a fanatical researcher, his trees, rocks, and constructions were 100% accurate. His animals and natives, especially the children and women, were all distinct and recognisable – not the blacked-up stock figures in grass skirts even the greatest artists too often resorted to.

He also knew when to draw big and draw small: the internal dynamism of his work is spellbinding.

His Africa became mine, and of course the try-out comicbook was an instant hit. Marsh and Thompson’s Tarzan returned with two tales in Dell Four Color Comic #161, cover-dated August 1947. This was a remarkable feat: Four Colour was a catch-all title showcasing in rotation literally hundreds of different licensed properties, often as many as ten separate issues per month. So rapid a return engagement meant pretty solid sales figures…

In ‘The Fires of Tohr’ (adapted by Thompson from an unsold radio script), Tarzan and D’Arnot rescue a stranded professor and his niece as they search for a fabulous lost city, only to fall foul of the crazed queen of that ancient race, whilst in follow-up tale ‘Tarzan and the Black Panther’ the Lord of the Jungle crushes a modern slave trader who thinks himself beyond the reach of justice.

Within six months the bimonthly Tarzan #1 was released (January-February 1948), a swan-song for Thompson, but another unforgettable classic for Marsh – and the first of an unbroken run that would last until 1965: over 150 consecutive issues. In ‘Tarzan and the White Savages of Vari’ Greystoke rescued a lost prospector from a mountain kingdom of Neanderthals and the issue also featured the first of many pictorial glossaries, Tarzan’s Ape-English Dictionary, giving generations of youngsters another language to keep secrets in…

‘Tarzan and the Captives of Thunder Valley’ (Tarzan #2, March-April 1948) introduced a few more recurring characters such as Manu the monkey and noble great ape Gufta in the first of many tales written by Gaylord DuBois.

The Editor and prolific scripter (Lone Ranger, Lost in Space, Turok, Son of Stone, Brothers of the Spear and many more) would be Marsh’s creative collaborator for the next 19 years.

The story detailed how the Lord of the Jungle goes to the aid of an English boy searching for his father, a scientist specialising in radioactive ores. A sinister plot is duly uncovered that threatens to destabilise the entire world and concludes in a spectacular climax worthy of a Bond movie.

Issue #3 introduces Greystoke’s African family. In ‘Tarzan and the Dwarfs of Didona’ Jane is left to mind the store when Boy – later called Korak – plays with baboons and gets lost on an island in the Great Lake. Threatened with blood sacrifice by aggressive white pygmies, the dauntless lad can only wait for rescue – and a severe chastising…

In issue #4, (July-August 1948), ‘Tarzan and the Lone Hunter’ plunges the reader deeply into the fantastic worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs as old friend Om-At the cat man from the lost land of Pal-Ul-Don (introduced in 8th novel Tarzan the Terrible) comes looking for his stolen mate and accidentally embroils the Ape-Man and his brood in a deadly battle with a megalomaniacal witch-doctor…

Two months later ‘Tarzan and the Men of Greed’ clashes in #5, as American gangsters unite with Arab slaver Hassan to steal Atlantean gold hidden in the vaults of the lost city of Opar. Their first move is to take Jane and Boy hostage, but they quickly learn that Clayton’s greatest asset is not his mighty limbs or bestial allies, but a cunning, devious brain…

Issue #6 returns to the primeval region of dinosaurs in ‘Tarzan and the Outlaws of Pal-Ul-Don’. The Jungle Lord and Boy are drawn beyond the Great Thorn Desert after beast-men abduct Jane and their quest soon sees Tarzan embroiled in a brutal civil war shaking that savage land…

More dinosaur delights are on offer in ‘Tarzan in the Valley of Monsters’ (#7) which sees an unsanctioned hot air balloon excursion dump Boy and his Waziri playmate Dombie in a secret valley infested with giant lizards and other antediluvian menaces. When Tarzan and Dombie’s dad Muviro fly after them in a plane, catastrophe ensues and the humans are forced into an arduous trek home across terrifying vistas and through lethal natural hazards…

Morris Gollub began illuminating the covers with #8 as ‘Tarzan and the White Pygmies’ finds the Greystoke, Muviro, Boy and Dombie still stranded far from home. As they laboriously traverse an immense mountain range, they are befriended by diminutive albino warriors and save their undiscovered city of Lipona from an invasion of predatory vultures…

In #9 our heroes resurface in Pal-Ul-Don where ‘Tarzan and the Men of A-Lur’ unite to save a bastion of civilisation from brutal insurrection whereas issue #10 provides two shorter, complete tales. Safely back in his home range ‘Tarzan and the Treasure of the Bolgani’ finds the erstwhile English Lord aiding Muviro after a band of city-dwelling gorillas abduct his fellow tribesmen. Then, Boy ignores adult warnings to mind his manners with the volatile monkeys and ends up in painful distress as ‘The Baboon’s King’

The Ape-Man makes new friends in #11 as ‘Tarzan and the Sable Lion’ sees him domesticate a magnificent feline predator before joining wandering warrior Buto in saving his captured tribe from the marauding slavers of Abou Ben Ephraim. ‘Tarzan and the Price of Peace’ in #12 then relates how the displaced English peer plays matchmaker, helping lovesick Kolu secure a bride-price for his beloved Leelah. Of course, the rich chief she was promised to has objections and many armed servants determined to make trouble…

Tarzan #13 (January-February 1950) opens a new era as a run of photo-covers – starring then-current movie Ape-Man Lex Barker – begins. Inside, ‘Tarzan and the Knight of Lyonesse’ has the heroic stalwart ally with Hal Hogarth, a knight errant of lost Crusader colony Carmel, founded 900 years previously by the followers of Richard the Lionheart.

The man out of time is on a quest to beard the Saracens for the honour of a fair lady and needs all the help he can get when the beastly revenants of Opar ambush him…

Balancing the high drama ‘Tarzan and the Ape-Hunter’ sees Greystoke dealing harshly with a ruthless trapper attempting to capture specimens of rare wildlife, whilst in #14 a return to the Valley of Monsters leads to another encounter with living history with ‘Tarzan and the Lost Legion’ detailing the discovery of an unknown Roman outpost, complete with its own power-crazed Imperator…

Backing up the epic ‘Tarzan and the Flying Chief’ adds light humour as a bullying native headman absconds with a small plane he cannot pilot and learns a most life-altering lesson…

‘Tarzan and the Cave Men’ is the lead in #15, revealing how a leisurely trip to Opar drops Tarzan into a plot by gigantic troglodytes to kidnap sublime Queen La, supplemented by ‘Tarzan and the Hunter’s Reward’ in which the Jungle Lord comes to the aid of another maiden being sold off in unwanted marriage.

This stunning paperback (and digital) compilation concludes with #16 (July-August 1950) ‘Tarzan and the Beasts in Armor’ as the wandering Lord revisits old ally Om-At and teaches Boy the finer points of training a triceratops, just as white outworlders attempt to conquer the primeval region. Then the marvels draw to a close as the indefatigable adventurer adds a colossal antelope to his collection of livestock and ends a nasty outbreak of human sacrifice in ‘Tarzan and the Giant Eland’.

Scattered throughout the fantastic fiction are educational features, back-cover pin-ups and information pages such as ‘Tarzan’s Friends’, ‘Jungle Animals’, ‘Tarzan’s Ape-English Dictionary’ and ‘Jungle World’, offering charming sidebars into the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ greatest creation.

Although these are tales from a far-off, simpler time they have lost none of their passion, inclusivity and charm, whilst the artistic virtuosity of Jesse Marsh looks better than ever. Perhaps this time a few more people will “get” him…
Edgar Rice Burroughs® Tarzan®: The Jesse Marsh Years Omnibus volume 1 © 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 2009 2017, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Tarzan ® Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Red Sonja volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Bruce Jones, Frank Thorne, Dick Giordano, Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-93330-507-3

Once upon a time, girls expertly wielding swords and kicking butt were rarer than politicians who respected personal boundaries. These days, though, it seems no lady’s ensemble is complete without a favourite pig-sticker and accompanying armour accessories. You can probably trace that trend back to one breakthrough comics character…

Although Diana Prince, Valkyrie and Asgardian goddess Sif all used bladed weapons none of them ever wracked up a bodycount you’d expect or believe until ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ (Conan the Barbarian #23, February 1973, drawn, inked and coloured by Barry Windsor-Smith) introduced a dark-eyed hellion to the world.

The tale became one of the most popular and reprinted stories of the decade, winning that year’s Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards in the Best Individual Story (Dramatic) category.

Although based on Robert E. Howard’s Russian warrior-woman Red Sonya of Rogatine (as seen in the 16th century-set thriller The Shadow of the Vulture, with a smidgen of Dark Agnes de Chastillon thrown into the mix) the comicbook Red Sonja is very much the brainchild of Roy Thomas.

In his Introduction ‘A Fond Look Back at Big Red’ he shares many secrets of her convoluted genesis, development and achievements as part of this first archival collection (available in trade paperback and digital editions) of her Marvel Comics appearances.

Released at a time when the accepted wisdom was that comics starring women didn’t sell, Marvel Feature (volume 2) was launched to capitalise on a groundswell of popular interest stemming from Sonja’s continuing guest shots in Conan stories. This initial compilation collects issues #1-7 (November 1975-November 1975) and opens with a then scarce-seen reprint…

Sonja graduated from cameo queen to her first solo role in a short eponymous tale scripted by Thomas and illustrated by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan in the first issue of the black-&-white, mature-reader Savage Sword of Conan magazine cover-dated August 1974. Colourised (by Jose Villarrubia) and edited, it filled out the premier generally-distributed Marvel Feature, revealing in sumptuous style how the wandering mercenary undertook a mission for King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah: a task which led to her first meeting with Conan and one for which she was promised the potentate’s most treasured gift. When that turned out to be a position as his next wife, Sonja’s response was swift and sharp…

That captivating catch-up yarn leads to ‘The Temple of Abomination’ (Thomas & Dick Giordano) as the restless warrior stumbles upon a lost church dedicated to ancient, debauched gods and saves a dying priest of Mitra from further torture at the hands of monstrous beast-men…

MF #2 saw the last piece of Red Sonja’s ascendancy fall into place when Frank Thorne signed on as illustrator.

Thorne is one of the most individualistic talents in American comics. Born in 1930, he began his comics career drawing romances for Standard Comics beside the legendary Alex Toth before graduating to better paid newspaper strips. He illustrated Perry Mason for King Features Syndicate and at Dell/Gold Key he drew Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and The Green Hornet, as well as the first few years of seminal sci-fi classic Mighty Samson.

At DC he produced compelling work on Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk before being hired by Roy Thomas at Marvel to illustrate his (belated) breakthrough strip… Red Sonja. Forever-after connected with feisty, earthy, highly sexualised women, in 1978 Thorne created outrageously bawdy (some say vulgar) swordswoman Ghita of Alizarr for Warren’s adult science fantasy anthology 1984/1994 as well as such adult satirical strips as Moonshine McJugs for Playboy and Danger Rangerette for National Lampoon.

He has won the National Cartoonists Award for comic books, an Inkpot Award and a Playboy Editorial Award.

Applying his loose, vigorous style and frenetic design sense to a meticulously plotted script from Bruce Jones, Thorne hit the ground running with ‘Blood of the Hunter’ wherein Sonja tricks formidable rival Rejak the Tracker out of a mysterious golden key. She has tragically unleashed a whirlwind or torment, however, as the hunter remorselessly stalks her, butchering everyone she befriends and driving her to the brink of death before she finally confronts him one last time…

Issue #3 reveals the secret of the golden key after Sonja takes some very bad advice from an old wise-woman and reawakens a colossal death-engine from an earlier age in ‘Balek Lives!’, after which the mercenary’s endless meanderings bring her to a village terrorised by a mythological predator. However, when she looks into the ‘Eyes of the Gorgon’ she discovers that the most merciless monsters are merely human…

That same lesson is repeated when ‘The Bear God Walks’, but after joining a profitable bounty hunt for a marauding beast, Sonja and her temporary comrades soon find that fake horrors can inadvertently summon up real ones…

With Marvel Feature #6, Roy Thomas returned as scripter and immediately set up a crossover with Conan and his then-paramour pirate queen Bêlit.

Although the concomitant issues of Conan the Barbarian (#66-68) aren’t reproduced here the story is constructed in such a way that most readers won’t notice a thing amiss…

Thus, ‘Beware the Sacred Sons of Set’ finds Sonja – after routing a pack of jackal-headed humanoid assailants – commissioned by Karanthes, High Priest of the Ibis God, to secure a magical page torn from mystic grimoire the Iron-Bound Book of Skelos in demon-haunted Stygia. She is barely aware of an unending war between ancient deities, or that old colleague and rival Conan is similarly seeking the arcane artefact…

After clashing repeatedly with her rivals and defeating numerous beasts and terrors, Sonja believes she has gained the upper hand in ‘The Battle of the Barbarians’, but there is more at stake than any doughty warrior can imagine…

To Be Continued…

Topped off with a full colour-remastered cover gallery by Gil Kane and Frank Thorne, this is a bold and bombastic treat for fantasy action fans of all ages, genders or persuasions.
RED SONJA® and related logos, characters, names and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Red Sonja Corporation unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

Benny Breakiron volume 1: The Red Taxis


By Peyo, with backgrounds by Will, translated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-409-4

Pierre Culliford was born in Belgium in 1928 to a family of British origin living in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. An admirer of the works of Hergé and American comics in Mickey, Robinson and Hurrah!, he developed his own artistic skills but the war and family bereavement forced him to forgo further education and find work.

After some time toiling as a cinema projectionist, in 1945 he joined C.B.A. animation studios, where he met André Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When the studio closed, he briefly studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts before moving full-time into graphic advertising. In his spare time he began submitting comic strips to the burgeoning post-war comics publishers. His first sale was in April 1946: Pied-Tendre, a tale of American Indians in Riquet, the comics supplement to the daily L’Occident newspaper. Further sales to other venues followed and in 1952 his knight Johan found a permanent spot in Le Journal de Spirou. Retitled Johan et Pirlouit, the strip prospered and in 1958 introduced a strange bunch of blue woodland gnomes called Les Schtroumpfs.

Culliford – who now used the nom de plume Peyo – would gradually turn those adorable little mites (known to us and most of the world as the Smurfs) into an all-encompassing global empire, but before being sucked onto that relentless treadmill, he still found time to create a few other noteworthy strips such as the titanic tyke on view here today.

In 1960 Benoît Brisefer – AKA Benedict Ironbreaker or (in Dutch) Steven Sterk – debuted in Spirou #1183 (December 1960). With a few slyly added tips of the hat to Siegel & Shuster’s Superman (check out that cover, fanboys!), the wry bucolic adventures star a small boy with superhuman strength living in a generally quiet and unassuming little French – or maybe Belgian? – town.

Quiet, well-mannered, gentle and a bit lonely, Benny is also the mightiest boy on Earth; able to crush steel or stone in his tiny hands, leap huge distances and run faster than a racing car. He is also generally immune to all physical harm, but his only real weakness is that all his strength deserts him whenever he catches cold…

Benny never tries to conceal his powers but somehow the adults never catch on. They usually think he’s telling fibs or boasting and whenever he tries to prove he can bend steel in his hands the unlucky lad gets another dose of the galloping sniffles…

Most kids avoid him. It’s hard to make friends or play games when a minor kick can pop a football like a balloon and a shrug can topple trees...

Well-past it Brits of my age and vintage might remember the character from weekly comics in the 1960’s. As Tammy Tuff – The Strongest Boy on Earth – and later as Benny Breakiron and Steven Strong – our beret-wearing champion appeared in Giggle and other periodicals from 1967 onwards.

With Peyo’s little blue cash-cows taking up ever larger amounts of his concentration and time, other members of his studio assumed greater responsibilities for Benoît as the years passed. Willy Maltaite (“Will”), Gos, Yvan Delporte, François Walthéry and Albert Blesteau all pitched in and Jean Roba created many eye-catching Spirou covers, but by 1978 the demands of the Smurfs were all consuming and all the studio’s other strips were dropped.

You can’t keep a good super-junior down though, and, after Peyo’s death in 1992, his son Thierry Culliford and cartoonist Pascal Garray revived the strip, adding six more volumes to the eight generated by Peyo and his team between 1960 and 1978.

Thanks to the efforts of US publisher Papercutz, these gloriously genteel and outrageously engaging power fantasies are available to English-language readers again, both as robust full-colour hardbacks and eBooks, and this initial exploit begins in the sedate city of Vivejoie-la-Grande, where the sweet kid goes about his rather solitary life, doing good deeds in secret and being as good a boy as he can.

However, his sense of fair play is outraged when aging taxi driver Monsieur Dussiflard becomes the target of a dirty tricks campaign by new company Red Taxis. When he and the incensed cabbie challenge the oily company CEO in his flashy high-rise office, Benny is shooed away and the elderly driver later vanishes.

Suspicions aroused, the boy investigates and is attacked by a gang of thuggish Red Taxi employees. Only after thrashing and humiliating the goons does Benny realise that he still doesn’t know where Dussiflard is, so he throws the fight…

Just as he is imprisoned with his fellow abductee, the worst happens and the bombastic boy comes down with a stinker of a cold! As helpless as any other eight-year old, Benny is stuffed in a crate with the codger cabbie and loaded onto a freighter headed to the Galapagos Islands…

With all opposition ended, the boss and his Red Taxi stooges begin the final stage of their devilish plot, utterly oblivious to the dogged determination of Benny who must escape the ship and an alluring tropical paradise and impatiently wait for his cold to clear up, before setting off on a race against time, the elements and his own woefully-lacking knowledge of geography if he is to stop the ruthless criminals…

A superbly genteel spoof and fabulously winning fantasy about childhood validation and agency, The Red Taxis offers a distinctly Old World spin to the concept of superheroes and provides a wealth of action, thrills and chortles for lovers of incredible adventure and comics excellence.
© Peyo™ 2013 – licensed through Lafig Belgium. English translation © 2013 by Papercutz. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volume 5: The Strange Encounter


By Van Hamme & Benoit, coloured by Madeleine De Mille and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-75-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Dashing Deeds in the Grand Manner… 8/10

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) was one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output was relatively modest compared to many of his iconic contemporaries, Jacobs’ landmark serialised life’s work – starring scientific trouble-shooters Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake – practically formed the backbone of the modern action-adventure comic in Europe.

His splendidly adroit, roguish and thoroughly British adventurers were conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, and quickly became a crucial staple of life for post-war European kids – much as Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the eleventh album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in Tintin, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues. He died on February 20th 1987, never having returned to or completing extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō.

That concluding volume was only released in March 1990 after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes. The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio.

The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined and familiar mid-1950s milieu whilst unfolding a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing.

The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the follow-up release, published in 1999, although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ credentials regarding threats in uncanny circumstances in The Voronov Plot by Yves Sente (Le Janitor, Thorgal) & André Juillard (Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek)…

Those charges can’t be levelled against Van Hamme & Benoit’s next outing. L’Étrange Rendez-Vous was released in 2001, the 15th official Blake and Mortimer tome and deftly combining elements of pure science fiction with sinister Cold War machinations and even the uncanny return of a former arch-fiend!

The story begins in October 1777 when British survivors of the Battle of Saratoga are fleeing for their lives. That night an uncanny light show shatters the sky and when it ends Major Lachlan McQuarrie has vanished, never to be seen again…

In Colorado 177 years later, another trio of light beams terrifies ranchers and cattle and investigation reveals the freshly expired and unaged cadaver of a British major in full War of Independence livery…

The case is discussed by Professor Philip Mortimer and his close friend Captain Francis Blake of MI5 as they wing over the Atlantic on separate missions to America. Blake has unspecified business with his US counterparts, whilst the boffin is travelling for a far more personal reason. Tried in absentia for desertion, Lachlan McQuarrie has been the black sheep of the Mortimer family for almost two centuries. Now, having been asked to identify the body recently recovered, the Professor harbours hopes of cleaning a stain off the clan’s escutcheon…

When they split up at the airport Mortimer heads to the SUFOS (Section of UFO Studies) Lab in Kansas whilst Blake heads to Washington DC. The scientist is accosted by rowdily over-friendly physicist Dr. Jeronimo Ramirez whereas the security man’s reception is far more dangerous since mysterious men in dark glasses trail him before targeting him with incredible futuristic weapons in an ambush he barely survives…

Meanwhile in Kansas, the Professor and Section Director Dr. Walter Kaufman convene and confirm with astonishment that the body under discussion is indeed McQuarrie. Born in 1743 he appears to have died of asphyxiation in the last couple of days. He still looks to be 34 years old.

Amongst his possessions is a leather baldric with a hastily inscribed but baffling message – “Yellow King, 8061, Danger, Light, Plutonian, H, Poplar Trees, Temple 1954”. Also found with the body was a strange pair of dark glasses and a metal rod that projects an unknown energy causing unconsciousness…

And thus begins a twist-packed, fast-paced mystery yarn of time-travel invasions, alien incursions, atomic armageddon, nuclear piracy and a bizarre scheme to resurrect and reinstate the most despised despot of the 20th century, with Blake and Mortimer battling separately on two fronts to save not only the precariously imperilled present but also prevent the worst of all possible futures from coming to pass…

Balancing suspenseful drama with blazing action, and fantastic science with scurrilous skulduggery and paranoiac espionage, this wild ride is a splendid tribute to 1950s B-Movie sci fi such as Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers: a devilishly devised conundrum overflowing with period style and grittily terse adventure. The Strange Encounter is another superbly entertaining addition to the captivating canon of the Gentleman Adventurers and one no fan of comics or entertainment should miss.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 2001 by Ted Benoit & Jean Van Hamme. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 13: Z is for Zorglub


By André Franquin, with Jidéhem & Greg, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-362-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterful Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Spirou (which translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter using his pen-name Rob-Vel for Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in direct response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin over at rival outfit Casterman.

Soon-to-be legendary weekly comic Spirou launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as lead feature in an anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous young hero was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed in the Moustique Hotel – a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique – whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually evolved into high-flying, far-reaching and surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his chums have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was assisted by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the property, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, gradually ditching the well-seasoned short gag vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials. He also expanded the cast, introducing a broad band of engaging regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal Marsupilami to the mix.

First seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952, the elastic-tailed anthropoid eventually spun-off into his own strip series; becoming also a star of screen, plush-toy store, console games and albums. Franquin continued concocting increasingly fantastic tales and spellbinding Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969.

He was followed by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring adventures which tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times: offering tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction: three different creative teams alternated on the feature, until it was overhauled and revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde (writing as Tome) and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry, who adapted, referenced and in many ways returned to the beloved Franquin era.

Their sterling efforts revived the floundering feature’s fortunes and resulted in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998. As the strip diversified into parallel strands (Spirou’s Childhood/Little Spirou and guest-creator specials A Spirou Story By…) the team on the core feature were succeeded by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera. In 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of amazing adventures…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, alternating between Tome & Janry’s superb reinterpretations of Franquin and earlier efforts from the great man himself.

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, he only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. There he met Maurice de Bévère (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 – with the exception of Peyo – they all signed on with Dupuis and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator; producing covers for Le Moustique and Scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

In those early days Franquin and Morris were tutored by Jijé – the chief illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a smooth creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”.

They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The new guy ran with it for two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as staunch comrade and rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac

Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to dangerously exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Fantasio’s rascally cousin Zantafio and the star of this particular tale, the maddest of scientists Zorglub.

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio over the years.

In 1955 contractual conflicts with Dupuis droved Franquin to sign up with rival outfit Casterman for Tintin magazine. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Although Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou – subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 (and Cinebook’s latest translated comedy star under the oddly inelegant title of Gomer Goof – and coming soon to a review near you!) Franquin was now contractually obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959 on, co-writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem increasingly assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his limit and resigned.

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to upon his departure – is Marsupilami.

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997. His legacy remains; a vast body of work which reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Z comme Zorglub was originally serialised in Spirou #1096-1136 between 1959-1960 before being released on the continent in 1961 as the 15th hardcover album.

This outrageous Bond Movie-flavoured sci fi rollercoaster ride begins as an oddly oblivious but extremely sturdy gentleman determinedly delivers a package to the home of our heroes. It looks like a hairdryer, but when vainglorious Fantasio tries it on his own unruly locks, the device plunges him into a coma.

In a panic, Spirou dashes for help and misses the next stage: a mind-controlled Fantasio leaving the house and getting into a remote-controlled car…

It isn’t very well remote-controlled however, and after a calamitous chase through the city crashes into a shop. A little later, baffled, angry and with a badly mangled foot, Fantasio angrily discharges himself from hospital, swearing vengeance on he knows not whom, but the hidden mastermind has not yet finished with the dauntless duo…

Spirou is the next and more successful victim of the mind-warping mystery villain, and the plan quickly becomes clearer: the evil predator is called Zorglub and he doesn’t care about the journalists. He’s simply using the adventurers to get at their inspirational acquaintance: mushroom-mad boffin Count Champignac…

When informed of the situation the sagacious tinkerer is not surprised, he remembers what Zorglub was like when they were at school together…

The enormity of the plot soon becomes clear when megalomaniacal Zorglub confronts his old chum at his mushroom-laden chateau in the generally placid hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks. The wicked mastermind has conceived a grand plan. He will conquer Earth and dominate the solar system but first he requires just a little technical assistance from the Count.

Zorglub cannot believe or accept Champignac’s unflinching refusal…

And thus begins an escalating duel of intellects and war of nerves and inventions as the smug madman tries ploy after ploy to force the Count’s compliance: capturing Fantasio, turning the Champignac-in-the-Sticks citizens into a rampaging mob hungry for blood and even creating an army of mind-warped “zorglmen” to pilot his incredible war machines against the Count and his doughty defenders…

The maniac is, however, caught completely off guard when Spirou, Spip and the Marsupilami enact a bold and rather rash counter offensive with Champignac, just as Zorglub triggers his grand plan and sends his fleet of rockets hurtling towards the Moon!

The end is a sudden, shocking, twist-laden comeuppance but the good guys have not seen the last of Zorglub…

Fast-paced, compellingly convoluted and perfectly blending helter-skelter excitement with keen suspense and outrageous slapstick humour, Z if for Zorglub is a terrific romp to delight devotees of easy-going adventure.

Stuffed with an astounding array of astonishing hi-tech spoofery, riotous chases and gazillions of sight gags and verbal ripostes, this exultant escapade is a fabulous fiesta of angst-free action and thrills. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductive élan, this is pure cartoon gold, truly deserving of reaching the widest audience possible.

Buy it for you, get another for the kids and give copies to all your friends…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1961 by Franquin, Jidéhem & Greg. All rights reserved. English translation 2016 © Cinebook Ltd.

Mr. Monster Presents…The Secret Files of Dr. Drew


By Jerry Grandenetti, Marilyn Mercer, Abe Kanegson with Will Eisner, compiled and edited by Michael T. Gilbert (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-532-0 (HC)                    978-1-62115-999-5

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

Superheroes pretty much carried the American comicbook business in the early years, but after WWII the Fights ‘n’ Tights boom started to fade and new kinds of champions from more traditional forms rose to the fore.

As had happened following the end of the Great War, the public’s entertainment appetites turned from patriotic adventure to crime and supernatural themes with funnybooks quickly cashing in on the trend.

Alongside dedicated horror anthology titles, regular comics publications also dabbled in monsters (such as The Heap in aviation adventure title Airboy for example) and a new kind of two-fisted ghostbuster began manifesting in lots of different publications.

One of the very best was sagacious supernatural sleuth Dr. Desmond Drew who appeared bimonthly in Ranger Comics from June 1947 to August 1951: 14 captivating cases crafted by Will Eisner’s top creative crew, writer Marilyn Mercer, artistic wunderkind Jerry Grandenetti and master calligrapher Abe Kanegson.

Although never a breakout hit or cover feature, the startlingly effective tales – spanning Ranger Comics #47-60 – were frequently reprinted before publisher Fiction House finally closed its doors. The adventures had a life-altering effect on modern comics auteur Michael T. Gilbert who claims these eerie escapades as a major influence on his own Mr. Monster character.

The hows, whens and whys of the Ghostbreaking Guardian – as well as his eventual fate – are all unravelled in the fascinating and abundantly illustrated ‘Introduction: The Secret Files of Dr. Drew!’ Scrupulously compiled by Gilbert for this superb hardcover archival collection (also available in eBook editions) the history lesson is the perfect aperitif before the fabulously chilling and enthralling tales are disclosed here.

Once you’ve absorbed all there is to know from a fan man devoted to sharing his great knowledge, the curious Case Files commence with an arcane parable of greed and vengeance as – preceded by a 2-page cartoon intro from Mr. Monster himself – ‘The Strange Case of the Absent Floor!’ (Ranger Comics #47, June 1949) opens…

The “Stalker of the Unknown” was visually based on actor Basil Rathbone in his role of Sherlock Holmes, and arrived sans origin tale: fully-formed with much idiosyncratic baggage to flesh him out. From his foreboding mansion atop brooding Bone Hill the consulting detective of all things unnatural would sally out in an old-fashioned horse-drawn buggy to tackle ancient horrors in the new Atomic Age especially in the twisted streets of the city stretched out below his daunting abode…

This initial escapade finds him rectifying a long-standing miscarriage of justice after an elevator operator begs him to investigate a previously unsuspected floor in the old Wainwright Building: an edifice which never boasted a thirteenth storey until the night an oddly dressed couple boarded his lift…

Incredible peril lurked much closer to home in ‘The Philosopher’s Stone!’ (#48, August) since Drew actually owned the potent talisman. However, as he could never get it to work, the doctor had no qualms in lending it to his old friend Gordon Kyle. When Kyle was then found instantly aged into decrepitude, a frantic hunt for a remorseless ancient predator began…

A young woman paralysed and in utter agony draws the ghostbreaker into battle against a vicious spurned lover employing ‘The Witch’s Doll!’ (#49, October) to gain vengeance, before ‘The Devil’s Watch!’ (December) pits Drew against his greatest adversary when he attempts to deny the Devil a legally-purchased old soul which just happens to now reside in an innocent young musician…

When an ethereal fog heralds a spate of debilitating sickness, victims – all male – are heard to utter ‘The Gypsy Girl!’ (#51, February 1950) before sinking into death. It takes all of Drew’s resources to connect the outbreak to a witch-burning three centuries previously, and achieves critical personal importance after he learns that his own ancestor had been one of the witnesses at Gypsy Anna’s trial. Thankfully, fate and wisdom provided the key to banishing the vengeful ghost in the nick of time…

The hardest part of his struggle against a Balkan bloodsucker haunting a movie set is being dragged out of Bone Hill and flown to Hollywood in ‘The Mark of the Vampire!’ (#52, April) but his clash with bizarre cult ‘The Order of Elusa!’ (Ranger Comics #53, June) proves far more arduous as the primordial murderous sect is located at the bottom of the sea and the immortal wizards almost seduce and corrupt the paranormal paragon with his greatest weakness: ancient, undiscovered secret knowledge…

When an aqueduct project falters, the construction bosses call in the dark detective to dispel a shipfull of land-locked phantom buccaneers in ‘The Pirates of Skull Valley!’ (#54, August) after which ‘The Curse of the Mandibles!’ (#55, October) finds a desperate client trying to prevent his imminent murder by a spirit which has decimated his entire family over centuries.

The true culprit behind the string of deaths is even stranger and more incomprehensible than can be imagined…

‘Sabrina the Sorceress!’ (#56, December) is a common criminal charlatan but when the fake medium is accused of murdering her client she suddenly faces true supernatural terror beside – and despite – Dr. Drew, after which the man of mysteries saves an anxious bridegroom from dying at the hands of his spectral bride in ‘Druid Castle!’ (Ranger Comics #57, February 1951).

Summoned to the local penitentiary, the thaumic troubleshooter faces body-snatching refugees from the fourth dimension in ‘The Dartbane Horrors!’ (April) before voyaging to Paris to clash with despised rival psychic Salazar whilst solving a string of murders perpetrated by an unworldly fiend who favours ‘The Ancient Reek of Brimstone!’ (June). The Keeper of Knowledge ends his comicbook crusade in London, bringing a theatrical monster to justice with the assistance of a ghostly actress who holds the crucial secret of ‘Sandini’s Trunk!’ (Ranger Comics #60, August 1951).

This fabulous book harbours further delights such as reminiscence-packed reverie ‘The Jerry Grandenetti Interview!’ (conducted by Gilbert before the master draughtsman died in 2010) as well as ‘The Secret Files of The Spirit’s Ghosts!’: a section copiously investigating ‘The Creators!’ and even laying to rest a true enigma of comics history by explaining the abrupt disappearance of Abe Kanegson who completely dropped off the map in 1950 and was never seen again by his comics colleagues!

Rendered in the unmistakeable style of classic Eisner Spirit episodes, with mature scripting from Marilyn Mercer (who left comics to become a writer, journalist and fashion editor) and Kanegson’s flamboyantly expressive lettering graphics, these are astonishingly compelling comic treasures no fan of the medium or lover of sinister suspense should dismiss. There’s even a selection of Ranger Comics covers and original inked art.

Eerie, gripping and timelessly enthralling, this is a minor masterpiece of monster-mashing comics fiction and one you’d be thrice-damned and really quite accursed to miss.
Mr. Monster Presents…The Secret Files of Dr. Drew™ © 2014 Michael T. Gilbert. Introduction, Jerry Grandenetti interview and creator biographies © 2014 Michael T. Gilbert. All rights reserved.

The Baker Street Peculiars


By Roger Langridge, Andrew Hirsh & Fred Stresing (KaBOOM!)
ISBN: 978-1608869282 (PB)             eISBN: 978-1-61398-599-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fresh New Romp to Enjoy Forever After… 9/10

Roger Langridge is a very talented gentleman with a uniquely beguiling way of telling stories. He has mastered every aspect of the comics profession from lettering (Dr. Who) to writing (Thor: The Mighty Avenger) to illustration (Knuckles the Malevolent Nun, Zoot!).

When he combines them (Fred the Clown, Popeye, Abigail and the Snowman), the approbation, accolades and glittering prizes such as Eisner and Harvey Awards can’t come fast enough.

He is also a bloody genius at making folk laugh…

The Baker Street Peculiars started life as an all-ages comicbook miniseries before being gathered in a titanic detective tome and craftily references a glittering reservoir of cool concepts encompassing the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, 1930s London, cosy crime mysteries, kid gangs and rampaging monster movies. Moreover, thanks to Langridge’s keen ear for idiom and slang, every page resonates with hilarious dialogue any lover of old films or British sitcoms will find themselves helplessly chortling over – if not actually joining in with…

Blimey, Guv’ner!

Illustrated by Andy Hirsch (Science Comics: Dogs, Varmints, Adventure Time, Regular Show) and coloured by the inestimable Fred Stresing, ‘The Case of the Cockney Golem’ opens in foggy old 1933 London Town, which is currently enduring an odd spot of bother. Exceedingly odd…

‘A Beast in Baker Street’ reveals that famous statues are going missing. Now, as one of the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square comes to life and bolts away down Charing Cross Road -unlike the crowds rushing about in panic – three wayward children (and a dog) chase after it. Soon they are embroiled in the story of a lifetime… perhaps several lifetimes…

Tailor’s granddaughter Molly Rosenberg, orphan street thief Rajani Malakar and neglected filthy rich posh-boy Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport (and his canine valet Wellington) are all out long after bedtime and keen on a spot of adventure.

Having individually chanced upon the commotion, they spontaneously unite to doggedly track the animated absconder to Baker Street where they enjoy a chance encounter with a legendary investigator…

Molly is especially intrigued: she has read all the exploits of the famous consulting detective. When he rubbishes their claim of moving statues – and claims to be too busy with other cases – she angrily suggests they act as his assistants. The detective complies, but is actually hiding an incredible secret not even his fanciful new deputies could ever imagine…

As Molly’s grandfather suffers another visit from thugs running an extortion racket for the nefarious Chippy Kipper “the Pearly King of Brick Lane”, the kids’ bizarre quest continues in ‘The Lion, the Lord and the Landlady’ after the junior sleuths meet up at 221B Baker Street. Although consoled with a fine meal, they are disappointed to find their hoped-for mentor absent.

Receiving further instructions from the great detective’s elderly cook Mrs. Hudson, the youthful team learn that Mr Holmes believes the statues are simply being stolen and that he wishes the dauntless children to post guard on Boadicea at Westminster Bridge and Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square…

Their sentinel duty bears strange fruit, however, as East End thugs perform a strange and dangerous ritual and the beloved tourist attractions come to menacing life. As the kids follow the ambulatory landmarks back to Kipper’s hideout, Molly strives to recall a story her grandfather used to tell her: a fable about a Rabbi in old Prague who used a scroll to bring a giant avenging clay statue to life…

As the colossal Chippy shares his own unique origins with his army of thugs and sculptures the youngsters sneak in but are quickly captured. Stuck in a cell they can only watch in horror as Kipper uses ancient magic to make a new kind of monster…

‘The Old, Hard Cell’ brings the plot to a bubbling boil as the terrified tykes swallow simmering resentments and work together to escape their predicament, even as elsewhere, other, more mature truth-seekers are forced to change their stubbornly-held opinions…

Someone else with a keen eye and suspicious mind is enterprising lady journalist Hetty Jones of The Mirror. Her own patient, diligent enquiries have brought her to Baker Street in time to collaborate with the aged detective-in-charge. With all eventualities except the impossible exhausted, the grown-ups must accept the truth and soon track down the missing lion. It’s probably too late though, since an army of animated marble and bronze artefacts are rampaging through London towards the East End, with only three kids (and a dog) ready to confront them…

With Chippy Kipper in the vanguard, the chilling regiment invades Molly’s home turf but ‘The Battle of Brick Lane’ is no one-sided affair. The plucky tyke has remembered the secret of the Rabbi’s Golem and has conceived a daring stratagem to immobilise the monstrous invaders. As for Kipper’s human thugs, they’ve underestimated the solidarity of hundreds of poor-but-honest folk pushed just a bit too far…

And when the dust settles, Sherlock Holmes has one last surprise for his squad of juvenile surrogates…

Adding to the charm and cheer is a cover-&-variants gallery by Hirsch and Hannah Christenson, sketch and design feature ‘Meet the Peculiars’ and a delicious sequence of all-Langridge strips starring his unique interpretation of the Great Detective in ‘The Peculiar Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’.

Reverently refencing and spoofing beloved old films and our oh-so-idiosyncratic manners and parlance with a loving ear for an incongruous laugh, The Baker Street Peculiars is a sheer triumph of spooky whimsy, reinventing what was great about classic British storytelling.

Fast, funny, slyly witty and with plenty of twists, it is an absolute delight from start to finish and another sublime example of comics at its most welcoming.

Don’t be surprised if it turns up as a movie or BBC TV special one of these days…
™ & © 2016 Roger Langridge & Andrew Hirsch All rights reserved.

Buster Book of Spooky Stories 1976


By various (IPC Magazines)
ISBN: 85037-199-6

Considering that Halloween is a still a children’s festival (tabloid press and TV reports of bingeing adult excess notwithstanding) I thought I’d re-review this delightful package that epitomises the veritable End of Days of the traditional post-war English Comics industry.

By 1975 the Halcyon era of the children’s periodical publishing business was swiftly fading. Accepted Wisdoms dictating that comics were only read by children who would eventually move on to better and more acceptable forms of entertainment (and these were opinions held by the monolithic managements which produced them!) were gradually being eroded by more creative types within the industry. They still saw potential in the medium and were backed up by an increasingly vocal fan movement which kept on buying and reading the iniquitous, garish little pamphlets even after they had all “grown up.”

Fleetway was an adjunct of the IPC (at that time the world’s largest publishing company) and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English companies producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications. As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy would finally win when Fleetway sold off its diminishing comics line to Egmont publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.

In 1974 Fleetway’s hidebound, autocratic bureaucracy still ruled the roost, even though sales had been steadily declining in all sectors of the industry (Pre-school, Juvenile, Boys and Girls, Educational) since the end of the 1960s, and increasingly the company were sanctioning niche products to shore up sales rather than expand or experiment.

A dashing young sub-editor on Buster, Dez Skinn – who would go on to produce a number of successful independent publications such as Starburst, House of Hammer and Warrior as well as partially reviving the fortunes of the moribund reprint house Marvel UK – proposed a kids horror comic called Chiller to fill a perceived gap in the market, even preparing new and revised reprint material to show the “higher ups.”

His always reactionary and overly cautious bosses nixed the idea but decreed that the prepared material would be used in one-off annuals as part of occasional themed series “The Buster Book of …”

These one-offs had begun in 1970 with “Gags” and provided cost-effective, profitable items with a longer shelf-life for the lucrative Christmas and summer holiday markets.

Of course, I knew none of this when I picked up this second Buster Book of Spooky Stories in 1975 (UK annuals are forwarded-dated), a period when I was far more interested in girls and beer than funnybooks.

It was a remarkable experience: instant, brand new nostalgia…

Behind its gaudy, soft card covers lay a delightful blend of novel and comfortably familiar; comedy strips, fact-features and scary adventure yarns that had been the stuff of my formative Christmas experiences throughout the 1960s.

The jollity commences with a Reg Parlett ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’ 2-page howler, teasing essay ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ and more ghost gags before the first lengthy scare-fest begins…

‘The Ghostly Guardian’ follows the trials and tribulations of young Jim Frobisher who escapes the home of his abusive foster-uncle and takes up residence with a stray dog and his own deceased ancestor – 17th century freebooting pirate Firebrand Frobisher.

This is a resized weekly serial collected from I know not where, but is still resonates with thrills, spills and comedy chills, delivered in beautiful moody monochrome as rendered by the Solano Lopez studio (sadly these credits are mostly guesswork as the work was deliberately un-attributed at the time).

Our eponymous star contributes the first of two ‘Buster’s Dream World’ episodes, followed by a Ken Reid ‘Face Ache’ yarn, the first of numerous ‘Spooky Scrapbook’ fact-files and a short tale of ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’ before the real gem of the book begins: the first of two paranormal exploits featuring Cursitor Doom; jazzed up for the sinister seventies by re-jigging them as cases of Curtis Bronson: Ghost Hunter.

Cursitor Doom first appeared in the revamped Smash in 1969, created by Ken Mennell and illustrated by the indescribably brilliant Eric Bradbury, an elderly mystical troubleshooter (Doom not Bradbury) who hires burly he-man Angus McCraggan to be his agent on the physical side of an eternal battle against manifest evil.

Here Angus has been redrawn to resemble contemporary anti-hero Charles Bronson and in ‘The Phantom Friar’ goes solo to defend a couple of damsels in distress from a spectral monk and greedy relative.

The next comedy tranche comprises ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’, ‘Chilling Chuckles’, an extended jape ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ and ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, neatly bisected by terse text terrors ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’ and another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ article before the original spooky thrill-fest resumes with ‘The Ghost of Gaunt Manor’ and a suitably themed ‘Puzzle Page’.

Stalking another ‘Spooky Scrapbook’, Ken Reid returns with an hilarious ‘Davy Jones Locker’ gag-strip before nefarious Buster regular Charlie Peace debuts in a Victorian shocker ‘The House of Thrills’.

Then tyrannical 15th century warlord Ungar the Merciless comes a cropper when he tries to steal ‘The Mystic Fountain’, after which ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’ and yet another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ precede the second and final instalment of ‘The Ghostly Guardian’.

More ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘Puzzle Page’ and ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ swiftly follow and a ‘Creepy Cackles with ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, after which ‘The 13th Man’ – a brief western terror-tale – provides some all-new thrills, balanced by more ‘Davy Jones Locker’, ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’, ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Face Ache’ and ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’

The serialised Mummy’s Curse then concludes as the final section opens with a last witchly romp for ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’ whilst ‘Curtis Bronson meets The Snake Mummy’: a Bradbury drawn drama which tingles with menace in which Cursitor Doom makes a telling appearance, albeit in the trendier guise of with-it witch man Septimus Drood.

Just to ensure there’s not too many nightmares ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘Spooky Scapbook’ and the other ‘Buster’s Dream World’ take their last bows before the book ends with an activity page, the ‘Haunted House Escape Game!’

In 1984 Fleetway released the short-lived Scream!, an excellent weekly kids horror anthology modelled on the inexplicably (to management, at least) successful 2000AD, but the supernatural zeitgeist of the 1970s was long gone and the comic foundered and was cancelled after four months, which probably means something, but I’m too polite to say what…

This book is a delightful monster-mish-mash and one that will delight older fans and deliver lots of laughs and shivers to the young. Well worth tracking down and rapturously reading over and over again.
© 1975 IPC Magazines. All rights reserved.

Guns of Shadow Valley


By James M. Clark, Dave Wachter & Thomas Mauer (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-435-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Forward-Looking Traditional Fun You Must Not Miss… 9/10

Westerns are very much in the eye of the beholder. Some of my very favourites include The Seven Samurai, The Thirteenth Warrior and Outland …and not a six-gun or Stetson in the bunch.

Actually, the form’s all about tone and timbre: motivation and resolution you see; trappings and locations are not as important as the Why and the How…

And as such, they lend themselves perfectly to crossing genres such as detective thrillers or horror. A superb case in point is superbly enchanting superhero shocker The Guns of Shadow Valley.

Concocted by Dave Wachter, James Andrew Clark and letterer Thomas Mauer and originally disseminated as a web-comic which began in 2007, the stunning saga was eventually collected as a sturdy landscape format hardback tome (with attendant eBook edition). It is one of the moodiest, most beautifully realised tales you’ll ever see.

The chills start with a freakish attack on a couple of surveyors foolishly assaying isolated Shadow Valley before ‘Welcome to Malice’ introduces Bill Dawson, sheriff of that lonely outpost of civilisation and a man with a strange secret.

When superfast shooter Frank BreakneckKelley hits town, the laconic lawman and his assistant “Killshot” prepare for a confrontation. Dean Cooper is an unmatchable marksman, and when using his 1874 Sharps Rifle is the most accurate and deadly long-distance shooter in the world.

However, the showdown goes down in a most unexpected manner and the permanently-drunk Kelley ends up in jail. Eventually Bill learns the speedster can outrun his own bullets and stays soused only so that he can slow down enough to interact with other people…

And not too far distant, an atrocity occurs. US Army Colonel Thaddeus Bale lost his left arm in the war and replaced it with a lethally multi-purposed artificial limb. A fanatical zealot, he runs a covert unit with special dispensation from President Grant to tackle problems and crises no decent soldier would countenance.

With his ruthless division of veteran soldiers and malignant metahuman servants Scorpion, Wurm and Shane Langston, Bale claims to be doing the Lord’s work and is getting ever-nearer to Malice, hunting an impossible dream hidden in the remote and forbidding region…

The cast and scope expand in ‘Incident at Holden Pass’ as a stagecoach is hit by something indescribable whilst at a nearby railroad navvy camp, cruel Chinese wizard Feng finally loses the trust and confidence of his super-strong disciple Shoushan.

Back in Malice meanwhile, blacksmith Clyde Elliot is showing off the properties of a strange mineral found in the valley. Clyde is a driven tinkerer and master maker, devising and building incredible devices to solve any conceivable problem. He’s never seen anything like the stone currently in his workshop…

If the sheriff knows what’s going on, he’s keeping it to himself, but that doesn’t stop him bringing Killshot and Breakneck with him when he inexplicably attacks a prison stagecoach to liberate a convicted felon.

Pearl Rivera is a gunfighter and gambler; risky careers for a woman but made a little easier because of her uncanny empathic abilities and talents as a human lie detector. Even she is unprepared for the effect of her runaway armoured coach when it smashes into the startled but ultimately unharmed oriental giant who has recently quit the railroad building business…

And Bale’s column gets closer, now transporting an unearthly child as the sole spoils of his many depredations…

‘Leave the Bottle’ offers hints into an ancient Indian tragedy that underpins all the mysterious events as Bale’s expedition reaches the valley and uncovers some of the mystery mineral. In Malice, wizened Indian outcast Kuecan the Crow haunts the main street whilst, in the desert scrub outside, Bale mystically confers with his true paymaster.

Robber Baron industrialist Thomas Percival Dumont is the most powerful man in America, a position gained by ruthless acts, devious planning and his powers of mind-manipulation. He wants to own and exploit whatever incredible energy-source rests in Shadow Valley and is now close to fulfilling his greatest ambitions. The wicked plotters are unaware that ferocious animal guardians afflicted by an ancient curse are watching them…

The black hats are the first to act as Bale’s sadistic multi-armed mercenary rides into town in ‘Tail of the Scorpion’. The brutal carnage he inflicts in Malice is reflected at the rail camp after Bale hands over his juvenile prize to Feng, but answers are equally unforthcoming. The only real result is a drawing together of lawmen and outlaws in the beleaguered town. Dawson now notionally leads the strangest posse in the annals of the West…

A dawn-age prairie myth becomes chilling reality as the true history of the region unfolds in ‘The Crow, the Coyote, and the Eagle’ with a supernal primordial – and largely mythological – event re-deciphered by modern eyes when the foredoomed Neci Indians, (shapeshifters accursed for eternity and awaiting the return of their tribe’s spirit and soul) finally make their move just as ‘The Best Laid Schemes’ presages the beginning of The End…

Dawson finally comes clean about what he’s been hiding as the forces of evil converge on Malice and battle is joined…

The arcane action escalates to a cataclysmic, revelatory conclusion in ‘Fools of Time and Terror’ before a tantalising ‘Epilogue’ set decades later posits that even when it’s over, it ain’t over…

Along with a Foreword by Gabriel Hardman and Afterword from Dave Wachter, plus full creator biographies, this blockbuster book also offers a large and fulsome Cast of Characters feature providing informative backstory and insight on all the major – and most of the minor – players.

Grandiose, ambitious and utterly compelling, The Guns of Shadow Valley is the best Sci-Fi/Horror/Western/Superhero summer-blockbuster action movie never made. You’d be an absolute gol’ dang fool not to at least read the bloody thing as soon as you can.
™ & © 2014 Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark. All rights reserved.