Tamsin and the Deep


By Neill Cameron & Kate Brown (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-77-3

In January 2012 Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched a traditional anthology comics weekly aimed at under-12 girls and boys which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and content.

Each issue offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read it…

Like the golden age of Beano and Dandy the magazine masterfully manages the magical trick of marrying hilarious humour strips with potently powerful adventure serials such as the subject of this latest compilation: a wondrous seaside sorcerous saga with intriguing overtones of The Little Mermaid, by way of the darker works of Alan Garner.

Written by Neill Cameron (Mega Robo Bros, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) and beguilingly illustrated by Kate Brown (Young Avengers, Manga Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Fish + Chocolate), the fishy tale opens with a ‘Prologue’ on the Cornish coast as a young girl berates her older brother Morgan. He promised to teach her how to surf but is just messing about with his mates.

Fed up, she leaves her dog Pengersek on the sands, swipes a bodyboard and paddles out alone. After all how hard can it be?

When the big wave hits and she goes down for the final time, she’s sure she feels a grip on her foot and sees a green fishy face…

The story proper starts when ‘Tamsin’ drags herself ashore coughing and gasping. Somehow she’s drifted miles down the coast and with nobody there to help has to make her own way home. Her leg hurts and the bus driver won’t let her on (she’s soaking wet and without cash) but at least she’s still got that old stick she picked up somewhere to lean on…

There are even more surprises when she finally staggers home. Mum goes absolutely crazy and Morgan is clearly scared. Maybe it’s because their dad was lost at sea nine years ago, but it’s probably the fact that Tamsin vanished a month ago and has been declared drowned…

The police have loads of questions she can’t answer but as far as Tamsin knows she was only gone a few minutes, so eventually life settles back into a normal routine – apart from Morgan acting oddly and her own increasingly nasty dreams.

Things get bad again a few nights later. Awakening from a particularly vivid nightmare, Tamsin discovers she’s clutching that stick and riding a surfboard… hundreds of feet above the town! Moreover, from her shocking vantage point, she can see Morgan. He’s slowly walking into the sea…

Without pausing, she zooms into the roaring brine and yanks the sleepwalker out, blithely unaware that hostile, piscatorial eyes are angrily watching…

Morgan is shattered. He’s been having nightmares too, and sleepwalking. It’s probably from guilt but every time he wakes up he’s been heading for the sea…

‘A Nice Day Out’ sees Tamsin taking a little “me time”. Finding a secluded spot to practise flying with the aid of what is clearly a magic stick, she revels in her new gifts but from high above she sees Morgan is still unsettled. He’s sworn not to go near the water and even quit the local surfing competition but he’s clearly scared of something. Later, to cheer up her kids, mum drags them to the beachside amusements where Morgan meets an enigmatic girl who convinces him to re-enter the event…

Tamsin meanwhile has had another strange encounter: after having her ice cream stolen by a pixie thing, she meets a cocky Blackbird (he says he’s a Chough) who snidely and loquaciously tells her it was an Undine before warning her to keep Morgan well away from water…

She’s almost too late: her brother has wiped out in the early heats and is being pulled under by a gloating mermaid when Tamsin blasts into the depths on her board. She explosively rips him free of her clawed clutches, hurtling them both high into the air before landing in a terrified heap on the beach…

With the sorcerous she-wight fuming below the waves and planning further mischief, in the sunshine Tamsin shares her secret with traumatised big brother before discovering a little ‘Family Mythology’ after that smug bird returns…

Knowledge comes at a steep price however and her learning curve involves an awful lot of fighting against a lot of awful creatures before Tamsin is ready to save Morgan from a horrible fate hundreds of years in the making…

Apprised of a fantastic heritage and now fully prepared to combat a generational curse that has seen all the males of her line swallowed by ‘The Deep’, Tamsin prepares herself for a fantastic battle against the finned demon, but the foe is impatient and launches her own monstrous invasion of the surface-world which soon has the entire town in uproar…

Once the foam settles triumphant Tamsin tries to ease back into a normal routine but that ill-omened bird returns for an ‘Epilogue’, explaining that she now has a mission for life – protecting Cornwall from all mystic threats – and her next crisis has already started…

This yarn is a fabulous blend of scary and fabulous, introducing a splendid new champion for kids of all ages to cheer on with the promise of more to come in the forthcoming Tamsin and the Dark

Boisterous, bold and bombastically engaging, this is a romp of pure, bright and breezy supernatural thrills just the way kids love them, leavened with brash humour and straightforward sentiment to entertain the entire family.

Text © Neill Cameron 2016. Illustrations © Kate Brown 2016.
Tamsin and the Deep will be released on February 4th 2016 and is available for pre-order now.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 9: The Dictator and the Mushroom


By André Franquin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-267-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Mirth and madcap melodrama in a true comics classic… 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 for rival outfit Casterman.

Thus, a soon-to-be legendary weekly comic entitled Spirou launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as the lead of an anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous lead character was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique) whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually grew 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 sidelining the well-established short gag-like vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials, introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal the Marsupilami to the mix (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and eventually a spin-off star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums in his own right). Franquin continued crafting increasingly fantastic tales and absorbing 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 with 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 at last 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, and 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, the lad only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943 and when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels where he met Maurice de Bévère (AKA Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Peyo signed on with Dupuis and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist/illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. During those early days Franquin and Morris were being tutored by Jijé, who was the main 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 the 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) and he 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 comrade/rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac.

Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Zorglub and Fantasio’s unsavoury cousin Zantafio.

Incidentally, The Dictator and the Mushroom features the second appearances of Zantafio and strong, capable, female (!) rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine for these English translations)…

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 on Tintin. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon. Although he soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou – subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 – 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 Spirou 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.

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

Originally serialised in Spirou #801-838, between 1953 and 1954 and subsequently released on the continent in 1956 as hardcover album Spirou et Fantasio 7 – Le Dictateur et Le Champignon, this epic episode begins as globe-trotting troubleshooter Spirou and his short-tempered pal Fantasio approach the isolated home of eccentric inventor Count Champignac, resolved to return the mischievous Marsupilami to its natural habitat in the jungles of Palombia

Whilst they discuss their plan with the elderly savant, however, the mischievous monkey he’s been safeguarding has swiped the inventor’s latest mycoprotein marvel and headed for town…

Champignac calls the gaseous form of his newest mushroom extract “metalsoft” and that’s exactly what the stuff does: reduce the solidity of iron, brass, bronze, tin or whatever to the consistency of hot wax. By the time the prankish primate has finished innocently playing with the pump dispenser, the locals are in uproar and their village is practically a puddle…

With nobody in Europe objecting, the lads book passage on a South America-bound cruise ship, where once again the elastic-tailed terror causes a cacophony of comedic chaos. Eventually though, the increasingly irate and exhausted adventurers at last head in-country towards sleepy Palombia where a big surprise is waiting for them…

Thanks to Marsupilami, they are forced to travel the last ten miles to capital city Chiquito on foot and are astonished to observe the sheer number of military vehicles which constantly overtake them. In the city, an altercation with soldiers then leads to their arrest and interview with new supreme dictator General Zantas. The meeting is both a huge shock and unhappy reunion…

Fantasio’s cousin Zantafio had been only a little mean and perhaps misguided when they were all first hunting for the Marsupilami, but since then he has reinvented himself and graduated into a full-blown murderous megalomaniac: a cheap thug in a flashy uniform determined to carve himself a bloody empire and vast wealth through the conquest of his national neighbours.

Moreover, Zantafio/Zantas wants his countrymen to join him in the campaign of conquest, a horrific demand the reporters initially refuse.

Locked in jail, Spirou and Fantasio ponder how to stop the murderous scheme and realise the perfect counter to Zantas’ burgeoning war machine is Champignac’s Metalsoft. All they have to do is get a message to the inventor and have him send enough of the wonder stuff to destroy the ever-growing army…

Thus they apparently switch sides and are promptly installed as high ranking officers, but Zantafio is no fool and sets his most cunning spy to watch them; just waiting for the moment when they betray themselves.

Of course it’s not our heroes’ first rodeo either and, aware of their shadow, the lads engage in a prolonged and hilarious game of cat-&-mouse with the spook, all the while fretting that D-Day is approaching and still they have not been able to smuggle a message out…

A solution presents itself when go-getting journalist Cellophine makes contact. She’s been secretly covering the crisis for ages – without being caught like her mere male rivals – and offers to get the request for Metalsoft to Champignac ASAP…

Things aren’t all going Zantafio’s way. Even though weapons dealers are frantically auditioning their death-dealing wares for the General, Colonels Spirou and Fantasio are especially diligent and somehow able to find dangerous faults in everything on offer…

And then one night Cellophine sneaks back into Palombia with the secret weapon which will end Zantas’ dreams of empire…

Following a fantastical fight with the mushroom gas-wielding trio battling an entire modern military and a tense yet inconclusive showdown with Zantafio, peace and democracy breaks out and the boys finally complete their original mission.

Having at last safely returned the Marsupilami to his natural wilderness, Spirou and Fantasio wearily head back to civilisation, content in the knowledge that the lovable little perisher is back where he belongs.

Of course, the pestilential primate has his own ideas on the matter…

Stuffed with superb slapstick situations, riotous chases and gallons of gags, but barely concealing a strongly satirical anti-war message, this exuberant yarn is a joyous example of angst-free action, thrills and spills. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductively wholesome élan, this is another enduring comics treat from a long line of superb exploits, certain to be as much a household name as that other kid reporter and his dog…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1956 by Franquin. All rights reserved. English translation 2015 © Cinebook Ltd.

High Crimes


By Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-472-9

Generally I prefer to go into loads of detail regarding the plot of a book under review but sometimes that’s not possible or even fair. This is definitely one of those occasions…

High Crimes debuted as a 12-issue digital comic by writer Christopher Sebela (Screamland: Death of the Party, Captain Marvel, Escape from New York) and illustrator Ibrahim Moustafa (The Pound: Ghoul’s Night Out, The Flash: Season Zero), produced by Monkeybrain Comics, and its stunning blend of captivating big-sky concept, seedy suspense thriller and chase-movie blockbuster is just too heady an experience to deny fellow action fans.

The scintillating serial took the industry by storm; garnering immense praise and lots of award nominations and now that it’s completed Dark Horse have collected it in its entirety – along with sidebar stories and a wealth of behind-the-scenes and promotional material – into a splendid hardcover chronicle for a wider, more traditionally-minded, book-loving audience.

Once upon a time Suzanne Jensen owned the world. Now she’s an exile eking out a shabby life on its metaphorical roof. When she was a world-famous Olympic snowboarder the medals piled up, but after the authorities discovered that their public paragon of perfection was an unrepentant recreational drug abuser, “Zan” went to extraordinary lengths to escape, abandoning everything she knew and loved to avoid giving back those glittering but pointless symbols of her former greatness.

Drifting across the globe she eventually fetched up in Kathmandu, working as a fly-by-night cut-rate guide, living life one pharmaceutical hit and geological threat at a time. Despite all those promises to herself, however, she never quite made to the top of the granite goddess that dominated the view and attention of everybody around her, native, grifter or spoiled tourist…

She found makework and a fellow damaged soul in the form of aged burn-out Haskell Price, who preys on the families of rich idiots and starry-eyed dreamers risking everything to reach the top of Mount Everest. Haskell is a cold-hearted modern-day graverobber, collecting small personal effects and occasionally recovering the bodies of the so-many climbers who don’t make it.

More accurately he initially rescues just their right hands (for fingerprint identification), strong-arming grieving relatives into handing over cash to retrieve and return the complete cadaver for proper burial. The mountain takes a ferocious toll on the ever-increasing number of thrill-seeking visitors and even if only one bereaved family in a handful fall for the proffered “service”, it’s enough to get by…

Everything changes when he finds a corpse-icle lost near the summit for years. When those particular prints are faxed Stateside it unleashes an avalanche of terror in the form of an ultra-secret, black-ops hit-squad determined to find missing super-agent Sullivan Mars and – more importantly – the still-crucial secrets he absconded with so long ago…

Haskell can’t really help them when they turn up, since Zan has already swiped Mars’s journal and a minute canister of microfilm, but when she sees the collateral carnage the cleaner-squad are prepared to inflict she makes the craziest decision of her life.

As the merciless operatives force Haskell to take them on the arduous, weeks long trek to the summit and Mars’ body, she determines that with no place left to run she’s going to clean up her own mess for once.

Following in the footsteps of the killer elite Zan resolves to rescue Haskell or barring that at least finally get to summit of the overpowering mountain and see the world as it truly is before she dies…

Mirroring her slow and torturous progress with a succession of shocking revelations from Sullivan’s stolen secrets, and clocking up a startling bodycount, the epic odyssey offers a stupendous and breathtakingly vicarious journey of discovery no armchair adrenaline addict could possibly resist, with an emotional pay-off that is a joy and shock to experience.

Preceded by an Introduction from Greg Rucka, the compulsively enthralling yarn is complimented by a Bonus Features section which includes commentary by author Sebela, alternate cover sketches, the 3-page trailer vignette ‘Strange Truths’ from Free Comic Book Day 2014’s ‘Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Defend Comics’, a “declassified” ‘User’s Guide to High Crimes’, loads of character sketches and all the phenomenal, inspired and imaginative promotional postings and briefs issued to rouse interest in the series.

Epic, arduous and devastatingly addictive, something to treasure for all the right reasons and not just because it’s there…
High Crimes™ © 2013, 2014 Christopher Sebela & Ibrahim Moustafa. All rights reserved.

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra


By Alex Simmons & Joe Bennett (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79852-3

Here in the west nearly 150 years of popular publishing – and its spin-off art forms film, radio, television and especially comics – has produced a legion of legendary if human-scaled action adventurers. These larger than life characters have been called Pulp Heroes and their playground is all of human history and every tomorrow…

Whether you prefer Ivanhoe and Prince Valiant, Allan Quatermain, Sir Percy Blakeney, Richard Hannay, El Borak, Bulldog Drummond, Doc Savage, Mack Bolan, James Bond, Jason Bourne or even Indiana Jones, a succession of steely-eyed, immensely powerful men – and even the occasional woman – have prowled the world, righting wrongs and inspiring generations. Although some few had friends, colleagues or assistants of colour, I can’t think of a single protagonist who was black…

That all began to change in 1957 when Chester Himes began writing his tales of brutal, uncompromising cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones in the Harlem Detective novels, but then again he was writing them from exile in France.

America’s history of Jim Crow laws and institutionalised racism throughout the media had driven him away and long-stifled the dreams of generations of African-Americans looking for a hero of their own.

That all began to change in the radical 1960s when flunky stereotypes and dumb bad-guy representations began to give way to portrayals of fully-feeling human beings, intelligent moral champions and powerful, vital independent heroes – thanks to the efforts of the same media empires which had for so long censored any such image.

Sadly one look at today’s News tells us America still has some way to go. And of course for most of that time Britain has been no better…

That’s a rather longwinded and pompous way of introducing the latest in Dover’s superb line of lost and rescued graphic gems: a fresh edition of a compelling modern classic of the Good Old Bad Old Days, now resurrected in a softcover collection to astound and enthral all lovers of epic bravado and red-handed justice adventure, packed with the usual extras and bonus material.

Preceded with a Foreword from Joe Illidge and the author’s exhilarating Introduction ‘The Past: A Good Time for a Dark Hero’ before closing with an effusive Afterword by agent David Colley, a world of dangerous extremes perfectly realised by Brazilian born illustrator Joe Bennett (X-Men, 52, Supreme).

Alex Simmons is an award-winning African-American author, playwright, comicbook scripter and educator who has produced innumerable strips, games, shows and art-events all over the world. He’s worked for Marvel, DC, Disney, Archie and others and is a passionate advocate for and champion of equality and racial issues.

In 1996 he finally fulfilled a childhood dream by creating a black character as an equal to and worthy of the fictional meta-kingdom of all his childhood heroes as cited above. Following a cruelly recognisable usual pattern, however, the saga of Arron Day AKA Blackjack proved to be a monster hit everywhere but America…

Following the first two miniseries from Dark Angel Productions, Blackjack adapted to tough times in the comic biz by moving online as both prose and comics forms and through a serial in “Blaxploitation” magazine Bad Azz Mofo. In 2001 there was even an audio adventure – Blackjack: Retribution – recorded in front of a live audience at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York City.

Now with the first epic extravaganza compiled into one scotching saga, action fans have a chance for another bite of the cherry (sorry, couldn’t resist)…

During the Great War, Matthew “Mad Dog” Day found fame and a little prosperity as a soldier-of-fortune fighting all over the world; attaining the respect and acclaim no North Carolina negro could have by staying in America…

One particularly savage commission from a thankless Egyptian government sent him into the Sahara and pitted him and his fellow mercenaries against diabolical, nigh-messianic rebel Farouk Tea a la Af’a, know to insurgents everywhere as The Cobra.

After a climactic battle between eternal, implacable foes the Arab raider paid him the ultimate mark of disrespect by not bothering to kill him and his remaining comrades before vanishing back into the trackless wastes…

Back in Cairo days later the foreign survivors were publicly castigated by an ungrateful populace and Mad Dog’s young son Arron learned a harsh lesson. He knew who was truly to blame however and swore one day he would meet the Cobra…

Years passed and in 1923 the boy and his sister learned another salutary lesson when their parents were murdered by unknown assassins in Spain.

By 1935 Arron has surpassed his father and become a globetrotting man of wealth and means by way of his own martial talents. Possessing a keen sense of justice and never one to shy away from conflict or confrontation, he has used that money to challenge the American Way by buying a palatial home on Manhattan’s West Side, flying in the face of hostility and outright bigotry, even from the city police …

However, setting up home and aggravating the powers-that-be suddenly loses its appeal when a cable from Cairo arrives. His old uncle Silas – a white man who was Mad Dog’s trusted lieutenant – has learned that the Cobra is back and up to his old murderous tricks…

And so begins a spectacular, ferociously gripping duel in the desert as Blackjack hunts for the man who shamed his father – and might well have had him killed – encountering and outwitting corrupt rulers, suspect capitalists hungry for the region’s as yet untapped riches, and gangs of thugs.

Ferreting out the demon from his past accompanied by a trusted band of comrades and lethal new recruit Maryam, Blackjack blazes his way across the war-torn region to meet his promised nemesis and settle forever the family business so long delayed…

As spectacular as Lawrence of Arabia, as fast-paced as The Mummy and as satisfyingly suspenseful as Hidalgo, this is pure pulp experience no lover of the genre can afford to miss.
Story text © 1995 Alex Simmons. Illustrations © 1995, 1996 Joe Bennett. Cover art © 2015 Scott Hanna. All other material © 2015 its respective owners. All rights reserved.

Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra will be in stores from July 15th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or comic shop

Spirou and Fantasio volume 8: Tough Luck Vito


By Tome & Janry, colour by Stephane De Becker & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-248-5

For the majority of English-speaking comics readers Spirou might be Europe’s biggest secret. The phenomenally long-lived character was a rough contemporary – and shrewdly calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s globally popular Tintin, whilst the fun-filled periodical he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano.

Conceived in 1936 at Belgian Printing House Éditions Dupuis by boss-man Jean Dupuis, the proposed new enterprise homed in on juvenile audiences and launched on April 21st 1938; debuting neatly between DC Thomson’s The Dandy (4th December 1937) and The Beano (July 30th 1938) in the UK.

In America at that time a small comicbook publisher was preparing to release a new anthology entitled Action Comics. Ah, good times…

Spirou the publication was to be edited by 19 year-old Charles Dupuis and derived its name from the lead feature, which related improbable adventures of a plucky bellboy and lift operator employed at the glamorous Moustique Hotel (an in-joke reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Spirou the hero – whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language – was first realised by French cartoonist François Robert Velter under his pen-name Rob-Vel to counter the runaway success of Hergé’s carrot-topped boy reporter. Tintin had been a certified money-spinning phenomenon for rival publisher Casterman ever since his own launch on January 10th 1929 in Le Petit Vingtième, the kids’ supplement to Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle.

Spirou magazine premiered with the plucky bellboy and his pet squirrel Spip as the headliners in a weekly anthology which bears his name to this day; featuring fast-paced, improbable incidents which eventually evolved into high-flying, surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his pals have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of major 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 aided by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the feature, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took over. In 1944 he introduced Fantasio as Spirou’s new best friend and companion-in-adventure: a blonde headed reporter with a quick temper, uncontrolled imagination and penchant for finding trouble.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the reins, slowly sidelining the shorter, gag-like vignettes in favour of extended light-hearted adventure serials whilst introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars.

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

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction so three different creative teams were commissioned to alternate on the serial, until settling at last upon Philippe Vandevelde writing as Tome and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry.

Their winning approach was to carefully adapt, reference and, in many ways, return to the beloved Franquin era. These sterling efforts consequently revived the floundering feature’s fortunes, resulting in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998.

This one, originally entitled Vito la Déveine from 1991, was their 11th collaboration and the 43rd collected exploit of the tireless wanderers, whose exploits have filled more than sixty albums, specials and spin-off collections.

With the customary cavalcade of gags soft-pedalled in favour of scintillating suspense and riotous action this tale commences with former Mafia mastermind Don Vito “Lucky” Cortizone (last seen in Spirou & Fantasio in New York and now known as “Tough Luck Vito”) attacking his shady pilot Von Schnabbel after the unprincipled scoundrel tries to gouge the gangster for more money.

This is very bad idea as they are currently flying over the Pacific Ocean, ferrying the Don’s enigmatic “get-rich-again-quick” cargo, brazenly swiped from the Chinese Triads…

After kicking the conniving extortionist out of the plane, the infuriated Mafiosi is unable to prevent the craft crashing into a lagoon on a deserted atoll. At least there’s an abandoned hotel to shelter in and plenty of crabs to eat…

Months later Spirou and Fantasio are navigating stormy seas nearby in a sailing boat. Well, one of them is: Fantasio is too depressed and heartbroken over a girl he met in Tahiti to be of any use.

She was far more interested in the guy who rented them the good ship Antares and now the journalist is pining away his tragic existence, a soul-shattered, broken man…

As a result of the tropical typhoon the vessel is soon in a similar condition and barely limps into the shaded waters of an isolated lagoon. The shaken mariners are astounded to find the lovely isle surrounding it has a population of one: a ragged, skinny guy with a weird accent, hungry for food and companionship.

Physically Vito is unrecognisable and as the vessel limps into the sheltered, shark-infested waters he makes his plans to kill whoever’s aboard and sail away. As he laces the lush vegetation with deadly traps and pitfalls he thinks only of coming back and retrieving his precious cargo from the ocean floor.

Those plans swiftly alter when he realises that his rescuers are the interfering whelps who cost him his criminal empire…

They alter again after he walks into one of his own booby-traps and Spirou and Fantasio come to his aid. The do-gooders have no idea who he is and take him back to their boat to recuperate. Spirou even offers to dive down to the plane wreck and retrieve his cargo whilst they’re repairing the Antares’ damaged rudder…

Everything seems to be turning around for the hard-luck kid, but as he gorges on the ship’s stores and shaves, he soon starts to resume his former appearance and, after his first attempt to murder Spirou fails, the duplicitous Don opts for a more subtle revenge…

Drugging the sharp-witted red-haired lad, he then tells Fantasio who he is but claims his privations have made him a new, repentant and changed man. With Spirou apparently bedridden by “tropical fever”, Vito has the utterly gulled reporter finish salvaging the cargo in search of a spurious antidote supposedly packed in one of the sunken crates.

After all there’s plenty of time to kill them both once Vito has all his precious loot back…

Naturally things don’t quite work as he intended, but before our heroes can properly turn the tables on Tough Luck Vito, fate proves the aptness of his nickname when Von Schnabbel and the extremely put out original owners of the contentious cargo turn up, hungry for vengeance and not too worried about the odd case of collateral damage…

Swiftly switching from tense suspense to all out action, events spiral out of control and our now fully recovered heroes only need the right moment to make their move…

This kind of lightly-barbed, keenly-conceived, fun thriller is a sheer joy in an arena far too full of adults-only carnage, testosterone-fuelled breast-beating, teen-romance monsters or sickly sweet fantasy. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductively wholesome élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke and their ilk so compelling, this is another cracking read from a series with a stunning pedigree of superb exploits; one certain to be as much a household name as those series, and even that other pesky red-headed kid with the white dog…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1991 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2015 © Cinebook Ltd.

A Town Called Dragon


By Judd Winick & Geoff Shaw, with Jamie Grant (Legendary Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-93727-840-3

Legendary Comics (a print adjunct of Legendary Pictures – responsible for the latest Batman/Dark Knight movies as well as The Hangover, Man of Steel and 300) is an outfit that seems to specialise in graphic narratives tailored for big screen film franchises, and this latest trade paperback release feels like their best potential blockbuster offering yet…

Gathering a 5-issue miniseries (from September 2014 to January 2015) this no-nonsense thriller-romp is written by Judd Winick, illustrated by Geoff Shaw and coloured by Jamie Grant, and opens just before the end with a valiant band of outsiders facing the most terrifying creature in history…

Flashing back to Norway a thousand years ago a bit of backstory reveals that at that time an army of Norse heroes slew the last dragon in the world… but not before an egg was laid.

The vile wyrms were the greatest threat to mankind ever known, fast, deadly and voracious. Only after uncounted deaths over centuries did the Northmen finally devise a way to kill the monsters, and then only when they had matured. Newborn dragons hatch out fast, starving and utterly invulnerable…

The deadly seed also proved to be immune to all efforts at destruction, but the wise men had learned that intense cold kept them from hatching. Thus, wary King Olaf Truggvason, after exhausting every effort to destroy the ominous ovoid, bade intrepid explorer Leif Erickson to take the damned egg to the other side of the world and leave it there in the coldest place he could find…

Discovering a new continent after an epic voyage, Leif and his dedicated followers carried the lethal load halfway across the country, climbed a snow-capped mountain, sealed themselves in a cave and lay down to die…

In 2014 Dragon, Colorado is just another small town in the skiing belt trying to attract the tourist dollar, but not every citizen is on board with the Mayor’s schlocky schemes to capitalise on the name by turning every store and public building into a simulated saurian playground.

Failed football star and Olympic javelin hopeful Cooper Runyon is happy with his diner as is, big city outsider and very bad waitress Kelly is more interested in making sculptures and farmer Pete just wants to sell produce, not gussy-up his cows into some kind of tacky petting zoo…

Sheriff Castro’s kids Sam and Eric are having too much fun blowing up stuff to even get into drugs and other normal crap let alone dragons, solitary old man Garvey gives off a spooky CIA vibe and wants to be left alone and PhD. Malcolm just wants to study his ancient languages.

…And then there’s poor troubled, bi-polar Mickey who spends all his time scaling mountains like Devil’s Peak looking for a purpose to his life and perhaps a good way to die…

It’s whilst on one of those rash escapades that the climber discovers a bunch of German scientists secretly excavating a cave and, after alerting the disbelieving township, heads straight back up to the summit in time to see the egg hatch and all hell break bloodily loose…

Back home his crazy warnings aren’t disbelieved for long. Soon after he gets to town livestock starts disappearing, a strange lizard-skin is found in a tree and of course there’s the twenty-foot dragon ripping up Main Street and torching citizens just as a blizzard cuts off the rural paradise from all outside contact…

Trapped, terrified, vengeful but far from helpless, an unlikely team of heroes thrown together by a rather heavy-handed Fate are soon following instructions left by a thousand-years-dead Viking and attacking the greatest threat to modern humanity ever seen… but even after their astoundingly improbably triumph there’s a terrifying further threat in store…

Also incorporating a beautiful gallery of covers – in both pencilled and fully coloured final versions – this fast-paced, razor-sharp, witty and astoundingly action-packed monster mash rattles along with vivid characters and smart set-pieces in the manner of Tremors, Critters, Them! or perhaps even Bubba Ho-Tep: a satisfying scary rollercoaster romp tailor-made for transferral to the silver screen.

More please!
© 2015 Legendary Comics LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby, Dave Wood, France “Ed” Herron, Roz Kirby Wally Wood, Marvin Stein, George Klein & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3474-4

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes were being revived in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives – Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and still is – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written (such as Paul Kupperberg’s enthusiastic Introduction and John Morrow’s pithy Afterword in this superb hardback compilation) about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

I’m going to add a few words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best and most influential projects which, like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon.

When the comic industry suffered a witch-hunt-caused collapse in the mid-50’s, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (then simply a back-up strip in Adventure Comics) whilst creating the newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

He also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunately ill-timed Prize/Essankay/Mainline Comics ventures.

After years of working for others Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics with a much more sophisticated audience in mind, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies.

The Challengers were four ordinary mortals; explorers and adventurers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, pilot Ace Morgan, diver Prof Haley, acrobat/mountaineer Red Ryan and wrestler Rocky Davis summarily decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ in Showcase #6 (cover-dated January/February 1957 – so it was on spinner-racks and news-stands in time for Christmas 1956).

Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a creepily spectacular epic wherein the freshly introduced doom-chasers were hired by the duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Jack’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism, which grew even greater for the sequel, a science fiction drama instigated after an alliance of leftover Nazi technologies and contemporary American criminality unleashes a terrible robotic monster.

‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduced a necessary standard appendage of the times and the B-movie genre in the form of brave, capable, brilliant and beautiful-when-she-took-her-labcoat-off boffin Dr. June Robbins, who became the fifth Challenger at a time when most comics females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

The uncanny exploits then paused for a sales audit and the team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their respective shots at the big time. When the Challengers returned it was in alien invasion epic ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’.

Uniquely engaging comics realist Bruno Premiani (a former associate and employee from Kirby’s Prize Comics days) came aboard to ink a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase issue (#12, January /February 1958) the Questing Quartet were preparing to move into their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and inspired ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz would come two months later with the first issue of their own magazine.

Challengers of the Unknown #1 (May 1958) was written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks and presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature logo for the team. ‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pitted the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling loosed dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, before the team were actually abducted by aliens in ‘The Human Pets’ and had to win their freedom and a rapid rocket-ship (sphere actually) ride home…

The same creators were responsible for both stories in the second issue. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback for the very best reasons , after which ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against super-criminal Roc who can conjure and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

Issue #3 features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby and Marvin Stein again inking The King’s mesmerising pencils, as the fantastic foursome pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking-glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, but undoubtedly the most intriguing tale for fans and historians of the medium is ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’ wherein team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF #1 was released in November 1961) have fuelled speculation. In all honesty I simply don’t care. They’re both similar but different and equally enjoyable so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically immaculate as the sheer brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the illustration to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Woody’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – simply breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full length masterpiece of the art form as a series of bizarre robberies lead the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past rogue researcher Darius Tiko found a path to the far future. When he got there he intended robbing it blind, but the Challengers found a way to follow and foil him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a full-length contemporary thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet which bestows various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop action are intoxicating, but Kirby’s solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ has the boys kidnapped from Earth to perform in a interplanetary show, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for France “Ed” Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, wherein June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

Issue #7 is another daring double-feature both scripted by Herron. First up is relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts From Planet 9’, followed by a much more intriguing yarn on the ‘Isle of No Return’ as the team face a scientific bandit whose shrinking ray has left them all mouse-sized.

Issue #8 (July 1959) offered a magnificent finale to a superb run as Kirby & Wally Wood went out in stunning style with a brace of gripping thrillers – both of which introduced menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales.

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the unrelated Wally Wood, introduces Drabny – an evil mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the team dethrones him. This is a tale of spectacular battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, but the real gem here is space opera tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, (probably) written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of the fearsome autonomous automaton, Kra

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters. He then tapped into an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed and affected every team comic that followed – and certainly influenced his successive landmark triumphs with Stan Lee.

But then Jack was gone…

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with. Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were bitching, bickering and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

But that’s meat for another different book…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in that ideal setting of not-so-long-ago in a simpler, better galaxy than ours.

© 1957, 1958, 1959, 2004, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Spirou and Fantasio volume 7: The Rhinoceros’ Horn


By André Franquin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-224-9

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

The legendary title was launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as the lead of an anthology weekly comic which bears his name to this day.

The character began life as a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a reference to publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique) whose improbable adventures with his pet squirrel Spip eventually evolved into high-flying surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his associates 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 feature, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the reins, gradually sidelining the short, gag-like vignettes in favour of longer epic adventure serials, introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars and eventually creating a phenomenally popular magic animal dubbed Marsupilami to the mix (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and now a spin-off star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums all his own).

He crafted increasingly fantastic tales and absorbing Spirou sagas until he resigned in 1969.

He was succeeded 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 with 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 at last 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 consequently 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 main vehicle were succeeded by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera, and in 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of amazing adventures…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since October 2009, mainly translating Tome & Janry’s superb pastiche/homages of Franquin, but for the fifth episode (The Marsupilami Thieves), they reached all the way back to 1952 and the second appearance of the adorable wonder-beast by the great man himself.

With that brave experiment clearly having paid dividends they repeated the experiment here, but with times and taste having changed so radically felt the need to issue a heartfelt warning and carefully considered apologia regarding some content of The Rhinoceros’ Horn

I’ll précis it here: it was sixty years ago and our attitudes to hunting, minorities and especially the modern obscenity of killing for ivory and horn have thankfully changed. Please read this book with that in mind. The publishers, of course, phrased it much better…

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

In 1945 all but Peyo signed on with Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

All during those early days Franquin and Morris were being tutored by Jijé who was the main illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a perfect creative bullpen known as the La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four” who 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) and the lad 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 comrade and rival Fantasio and crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac. Along the way Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, continuing their exploits in unbroken four-colour glory.

The heroes travelled to exotic places, uncovering crimes, revealing the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Zorglub and Zantafio. This particular tale saw the debut of one of the first strong, capable female characters in European comics; rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine for this translation).

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.

In 1955 – around the time this story was collected into an album – contractual conflicts with Dupuis forced Franquin to sign up with rival outfit Casterman on Tintin. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

He soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957, but was obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959 on, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned, taking his mystic Marsupilami with him…

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 on his departure – is Marsupilami.

Franquin, plagued in later life by bouts of depression, passed away on January 5th 1997 but his legacy remains, a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

The Rhinoceros’ Horn was originally serialised in two sequences in Spirou: #764-787 (Spirou et la Turbotraction) and #788-797(La corne de rhinocéros), spanning late 1952 and early 1953 before being united in hardback album La corne de rhinocéros in 1955.

The story begins with Spirou exulting over the success of Fantasio’s latest enterprise – personal helicopters worn as backpacks – but his pal is rather down in the dumps. He’s just been dressed down by his editor on The Mosquito and warned that the paper has hired a new reporter: a real go-getting hotshot…

Dejected and desperate Fantasio determines to revive his career by staging a publicity stunt: robbing the Good Bazaar Department Store

As the rattled reporter draws up his plans and sends a warning to the store of his intentions, a colossal explosion shakes the town. Persons unknown have blown up the nearby Turbot car plant. With even more to prove now, Fantasio proceeds…

Dragged along for the ride to photograph the stunt, Spirou and Spip reluctantly join their pal in the hare-brained venture. Landing on the roof of the emporium courtesy of the petrol-powered “Fantacopters”, they deftly break in through the fire-door, Spirou recording everything with his gigantic flash camera.

Typically the lead-footed burglars make an appalling clatter and tremendous mess but no night-watchmen confront them. They’ve all been incapacitated and tied up by real robbers…

Hearing the villains approach, the lads take refuge in a wardrobe in the bedrooms department and discover an old acquaintance already there. Behring works for Turbot and was wounded in the explosion earlier. Moreover, he’s carrying blueprints for the company’s latest advancement and the burglars in the darkened store are actually bandits trying to finish him off to get them…

Handing the boys an envelope and begging them to get it to his employer Mr. Martin, the troubleshooter loses consciousness just as the nervous heroes are challenged by a shadowy figure demanding the precious prize. It’s not the bad guys however, but Fantasio’s new journalistic nemesis…

Cellophine is already streets ahead of them: she knows of the plot to steal Turbot’s revolutionary supercar. All she needs is the address Behring muttered to secure an interview with the in-hiding Martin and her next terrific scoop…

And that’s when the gun-toting bandits make their move, demanding blueprints and rendezvous address. Thankfully Spirou is still holding the camera and super-bright flashgun…

Hilariously and calamitously fleeing for their lives through the darkened store, the boys eventually make their escape via fantacopters from the top storey, allowing Cellophine to lock the bandits up on the roof before dragging Behring to safety.

The next morning the boys are in Whistleton but Martin has already fled. His note reveals nothing, but later a sinister stranger in a café advises them to surrender the blueprints and warns them not to join Martin in Bab-el-bled in North Africa.

Ignoring him and returning home, they encounter the distressingly persistent Cellophine and Spirou clues her in. Sadly the thugs have tracked them down and overhear the plans. When the boys catch a jet liner to Africa, the heavily disguised heavies are in the seats behind them…

They villains are on their tails all though the streets of Bab-el-bled, but a wig malfunction in the Souk warns Spirou they’re being followed and another hectic chase ensues.

Thinking they’ve at last shaken their pursuers our heroes go to Martin’s house only to learn he was ambushed by the bandits…

Happily the troubled Turbot exec escaped and fled further into North Africa. He’s rushing off to the M’saragba Animal Reservation but as the boys try to follow Cellophine appears and pips them to the last spot on the plane – stowed away in the baggage hold…

Forced to follow by train, it is eight days later when Fantasio and Spirou finally reach the Reserve and yet again – as the infinitely annoying Cellophine explains – they’ve just missed Martin. He was chased into the bush by the implacable bandits…

The youngsters go after him and, later that afternoon, find him just after the thugs do. Having shot Martin, the villains are smugly gloating when the sinister stranger from the café in Whistleton appears. He’s a cop and finally has enough evidence to arrest them for blowing up the factory…

They are all too late. The harassed entrepreneur has already got rid of his portion of the plans, giving them to a native friend to hide.

As Martin is carried to hospital, Spirou and Fantasio volunteer to retrieve the accursed documents but they have not reckoned on the quirky ingenuity of the chief of the Wakukus, the vastness of the reserve and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the local flora and fauna.

After days of unpleasant and painful adventures they finally locate the tribe and, following even more nerve-wracking moments convince the chief that they too are friends of Martin. That’s when the king delivers his bombshell.

Tasked with keeping safe the plans – now contained on a spool of microfilm – the wily Wakuku had his men capture a live rhino before drilling a hole in its horn and sealing the container within. He then released it back into the wild. He has no idea where it is now or even which of the 200 in the park it might be…

Determined to complete their mission, the lads spend months tracking and capturing the assorted beasts. The task becomes only slightly easier after they find a dipsomaniac white trader who sells them hunting gear and latterly, yellow paint so that they can tell the rhinos they’ve already checked from the ones so cunningly evading them…

It’s a backbreaking, heartbreaking and increasingly pointless task but only when their resolve crumbles and they brokenly give up and head for home do they find the prize in the very last place they looked…

Even the trip back is a tribulation, and eventually they collapse only to awake in a nice clean hospital with Martin and Cellophine offering to fill in the blanks on this baffling case…

Six weeks later the lads are recuperating at home when Behring shows up. He’s got a little reward for them from the grateful Turbot Company but, as usual, Cellophine is on hand to spoil it for Fantasio…

Stuffed with superb slapstick situations, riotous keystone kops chases and gallons of gags, this exuberant yarn is a true celebration of angst-free action, thrills and spills. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductively wholesome élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke, The Bluecoats and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another enduring comics treat from a long line of superb exploits, certain to be as much a household name as those series – and even that other kid with the white dog…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1955 by Franquin. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.

Hurricane Isle: The Best of Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs


By Roy Crane, edited by Rick Norwood (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-809-0

Modern comics evolved from newspaper cartoons and comic strips, and these pictorial features were until relatively recently utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public. They were also highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious and bumbling young store clerk when the feature debuted on April 21st 1924, but after only three months Crane re-evaluated his little enterprise and made a few changes which would reshape the entire art form.

Having Wash run away to the circus (Crane did much the same in the name of research) the artist gradually moved the strip into mock-heroics, then through a period of gently boisterous action romps to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series. It was the first of its kind and dictated the form for decades thereafter. Crane then sealed its immortality with the introduction of prototype he-man and ancestral moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales gradually became more exotic and thrill-packed, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick and sounding board. After a few bright and breezy types were tried and discarded, Crane decided on one who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war, in the fairytale kingdom of Kandelabra, Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a cell and history was made.

Before long the mismatched pair were inseparable; tried-and-true travelling companions hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely damsels in distress…

The bluff, two-fisted, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics: a taciturn, raw, square-jawed hunk played completely straight rather than the previously popular buffoon or music hall foil seen in such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page at this time.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but rattled along like the tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity.

Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster were eager fans taking notes and following suit…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane eventually bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated solely to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in wild and woolly escapades set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs.

Both together and separately, reprinted exploits of these troubleshooters became staples of the earliest comic books (specifically The Funnies from October 1936 and The Comics, March 1937 onwards).

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many strips since, especially the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz. They have all been collected in the four-volume Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips.

Those pages were a clearly as much of a joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA Syndicate’s abruptly and arbitrarily demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he quit NEA to create the wartime aviator strip Buz Sawyer, and Turner became the able custodian of the heroes’ fate.

Wash Tubbs ran until January 10th 1988.

Before all that however Wash was the affable and undisputed star of a never-ending parade of riotous daily black and white escapades and this superb hardback opens with two of them: part of a cherry-picked compilation of ten of the very best adventures of the bombastic buddies. Hopefully if this book is a hit it will lead to another complete reprinting such as the 18-volume series covering the entirety of the Wash Tubbs run – 1934-1943 and published by NBM from 1987-1992…

Before the non-stop nonsense begins author and pre-eminent comic strip historian Ron Goulart details all you need to know about the tales in ‘A History of Lickety Whop’ and editor Rick Norwood provides further background information in his copiously illustrated Introduction’ after which we’re all plunged into astounding adventure on ‘Hurricane Isle’ (which originally ran daily from February 23rd to June 6th 1928)…

At this time Wash and fellow inveterate fortune-hunter Gozy Gallup are gloating over securing an ancient map which once belonged to the dread pirate Edward Teach AKA Blackbeard!

As they research the infamous buccaneer and scrabble to find a ship to take them to their destination, they are unaware that aggrieved enemy Brick Bane – the Bandit King of Mexico – is hard on their trail and hungry for revenge. Stalking them as they journey from New Orleans to the Caribbean, he takes a nasty sea captain into his confidence and arranges for the sinister salt to hire out his ship to the treasure seekers. The skipper is unsavoury brute Bull Dawson: destined to become Tubbs’ – and later Easy’s – greatest and most implacable foe…

After travelling to the island with them Dawson, having already removed Bane, springs his trap and turns Wash and Gozy into enslaved labourers, digging with the crew to find the fabled horde. The lads soon rebel and escape into the jungle to search on their own, and also abortively attempt to steal Dawson’s ship.

The wily brute is always too much for them however and even after the boys finally locate the loot, the malicious mariner reappears to take it from them. The sadistic swine is preparing to maroon them when Bane shows up with a ship full of his Mexican bandits and a shooting war breaks out…

With bullets flying and bodies dropping, Wash and Gozy convince affable deckhand Samson to switch sides and the trio take off for civilisation with the treasure in the hold…

Money comes and goes pretty freely for these guys but by the time ‘Arabia’ (July 30th – December 12th 1928) begins they are still pretty flush and so opt for a luxurious Mediterranean cruise. Unfortunately Wash’s propensity for clumsy gaffes raises the ire of a very nasty sheik named Abdul Hoozit Hudson Bey and the affronted potentate swears vengeance when the ship docks in Tunis.

As if icing fate’s cake, when wandering through the bazaar Wash is glamoured by a pair of gorgeous eyes and inadvertently seals his doom by attempting to rescue a girl from a seraglio: Jada is not only a distressed damsel but Bey’s favourite wife…

Heeding the French authorities’ advice to leave town quickly, the lads take off on a camel caravan into the Sahara but have no idea they are heading into cunning Bey’s trap…

The fact that Jada is the favourite of the incensed chieftain saves them temporarily, but when the sheik finally finds a way to surreptitiously assassinate them, she and her devoted slave Bola dash into the deep desert to save them, and the quartet strike out for safety and freedom together.

That trek dumps them in the clutches of Bey’s great rival Abdullah Bumfellah and leads to a tribal shooting war. Happily Bola has been busy and found a Foreign Legion patrol to save the day.

And that’s when Jada drops her bombshell. She is actually a princess from a European principality, sold to Bey by her father’s Grand Vizier so that he could steal the throne. Now that she’s free again she must return to liberate her poor people. Despite having to get back to America, Wash won’t shut up about wishing he’d gone with her…

He soon gets the chance as ‘Kandelabra’ (April 11th – July 6th 1929) became the most significant sequence in the strip’s history; introducing Captain Easy in a riotous, rousing Ruritanian epic which we join after Wash reunites with Jada in the postage stamp kingdom she had been so cruelly abducted from.

Our little go-getter soon infiltrates the government and rises to the rank of admiral of the landlocked land but overplays his hand and is framed for stealing the army’s payroll. Delivered to a secret dungeon he (partially) escapes and finds a gruff fellow American who refuses to share his name but insists on being called “Easy”…

Busting out his new pal, soon Wash and the stranger are caught in a bloody revolution when the aggrieved army mutinies. Before long the Vizier’s cronies are ousted, the vile villain accidentally orchestrates his own demise and the regally restored Jada declares the birth of the continent’s newest democracy…

In ‘Desert Island’ (February 6th – June 7th 1930) Bull Dawson returns to steal Tubbs’ entire fortune, flying off across America in a bid to escape with his ill-gotten gains. The robbery becomes a nationwide sensation and we join the action as Wash and Easy frantically pursue the fugitive. Tracking him to San Francisco they continue the chase when the malign mariner takes off in a schooner with our heroes as stowaways and, before long, prisoners…

The sadistic Bull lose faces after being thrashed in a no-holds barred fight with Easy which was merely subterfuge to allow the southern soldier of fortune to pick Dawson’s pocket and recover Wash’s easily portable $200,000 in cash. As the battered thug recuperates the ship is hit by a monster typhoon which apparently leaves our heroes the only survivors aboard the shattered shards of the schooner.

The wreck fetches up on a desolate Pacific atoll where the boys soon fall into the routine of latter-day Robinson Crusoes. The isolated idyll becomes complicated when they find the place is already home to a young woman who was the only survivor of an attack by roving headhunters from Borneo.

Mary Milton is brave, competent and beautiful and before long the lonely pals are fierce rivals for her affections…

The situation grows dangerously intense and only stabilises when the savages return, forcing the warring suitors to stand together or fall separately…

When the brutal battle ends the westerners are in possession of a sturdy war canoe and decide to risk their lives on an epic ocean odyssey to the nearest outpost of civilisation. It is only after the voyagers are far out to sea that Wash agonisingly recalls that he left his stash of dollars behind…

The next adventure (running from June 9th – October 1930) immediately follows on as the weary travellers reach French Indo-China and, thanks to a friendly soldier, escape far inland via a mighty river. After days of travel they reach the previously hidden kingdom of Cucumbria and quickly fall foul of the toad-worshipping emperor Igbay Umbay who takes one look at Mary and decides he must have her…

Being a coward who stole the throne from his brother, the grand poobah hasn’t the nerve to simply take her and orchestrates a succession of scurvy schemes to get rid of Wash and Easy but the boys are too smart and bold to fall for them. Infuriatingly rising in power and status, aided by young prince Hilo Casino – freshly returned from college in America – the Americans finally seem be out of the Umbay’s hair after they agree to lead his armies against the supernatural rebel leader known as ‘The Phantom King’

Despite deep misgivings “General” Easy and his aide Washington Tubbs set out on a campaign that will ravage the hidden kingdom, unseat an emperor, cost thousands of lives and lose them the girl they both love…

A year later ‘Down on the Bayou’ (March 12th – July 25th 1931) found the world-weary wanderers nearing home again only to be arrested as they approach New Orleans in a stolen plane. They were fleeing a clever frame-up in infamous Costa Grande, but without proof could only evade their US Navy captors and flee into the swampy vastness of the Mississippi Delta…

Lost for days and starving, they are picked up by vivacious gangster’s moll Jean who recruits them into a gang of smugglers and rum-runners who inhabit a huge plantation somewhere between Pelican Island and Barataria dedicated to various criminal enterprises. Tubbs and Easy are soon comfortably settled in amidst the rogues and outcasts but everything changes when Jean’s brother returns from a smuggling trip. His name is Bull Dawson…

The pirate is prevented from killing our heroes by Jean and the huge Cajun in charge of the outlaw outpost, but Dawson takes it badly and with his gang of deadly bodyguards decides to take over the whole enterprise.

A couple of murders later Bull is big boss but also oddly friendly to his most despised enemies. Maybe it’s a ploy to put them off guard, but perhaps it has more to do with the gang of Chicago mobsters who have come down to put an end to the bootlegging mavericks cutting into their profits…

The troubles and bloodshed escalate exponentially and Jean drops her final bombshell: she’s a federal agent working with the Coast Guard to smash the budding criminal empire…

Once the dust settles she has one final surprise in store. In all the years of their friendship Wash could never get his taciturn pal to talk of his past or even reveal his real name. Now the government girl gives Mr. William Lee a message which sends him rushing across country to an old plantation home. Here the astounded Wash hears all about his pal’s shocking life, sordid scandals and abandoned wife …and then he learns the truth…

Soon the impediments and lies which blighted Easy’s life are all removed and the wanderer settles in to a well-deserved retirement with the girl he always loved but could never have. Tubbs moves on, quickly reuniting with old chum Gozy Gallup…

A few weeks later the ever-restless Wash is riding a tramp steamer headed for Europe, intent on paying Jada a visit in Kandelabra but, falling foul of rustic transportation systems, ends up in the similar but so different Principality of Sneezia

Apart from pretty girls, the tiny kingdom has only one point of interest: the world’s dinkiest railway service. Run by aged expatriate American Calliope Simpson ‘The Transalpina Express’ (August 13th – November 21st 1931) links Sneezia to sister kingdom Belchia and is the most unique and beloved (by its intoxicated customers at least) service in the world.

Wash is especially keen to learn the business since being the engineer has made octogenarian Cal the most irresistible man in two countries, fighting off adorable young women with a stick…

The lad’s greatest dream comes true when Simpson finally elopes with one of his adoring devotees and Washington Tubbs become sole operator of the Express, but his joy at all the feminine attention soon sours when Belchia and Sneezia go to war and both sides want to use his train to move men and material into combat. Of course the dilemma can only end in disaster and before long our boy is running for his life again…

There’s a big jump to the next yarn which finds Wash and Easy reunited and stowing away on the wrong-est ship imaginable. Quickly caught, they are quite understandably assumed to be part of the contingent of prisoners bound for the final destination – ‘Devil’s Island’ (June 9th – August 30th 1932)…

No sooner are they mixed in with the hopeless prison population than the planning of their inevitable escape begins, but success only leads to greater peril as they and their criminal confederates take ship with a greedy captain subject to murderous bouts of paranoia and madness…

‘Whales’ (April 24th – August 30th 1933) is probably the most shocking – to modern sensibilities – of the perennial wanderers’ exploits as Wash and Easy are drugged in a Dutch cafe and dumped aboard one of the last sailing ships to work the whaling trade.

Elderly and nostalgic Captain Folly has been convinced by psychotic First Mate Mr. Slugg to compete one last time against the new-fangled factory whaling fleets, unknowingly crewing his creaking old ship with shanghaied strangers…

The grim minutiae of the ghastly profession is scrupulously detailed as our heroes seek some means of escape but with Slugg becoming increasingly unbalanced and eventually murdering Folly, bloody mutiny soon leads to the ship foundering and both factions – or at least the survivors of each – being marooned on the arctic Alaskan ice, where naturally our heroes find the only pretty girl in a thousand square miles…

This fabulous treasury of thrills concludes with one last battle against Bull Dawson after the incorrigible monster links up with gorgeous grifter Peggy Lake, who fleeces gullible Wash of his savings and disappears into the endless green wilderness of the swamps of ‘Okefenokee’ (June 13th – July 24th 1935).

The crime leads to a massive police manhunt through the mire before the boys personally track down the villains and deliver one more sound thrashing to the malodorous malcontent and his pretty patsy…

Rounding off this superb collection is a thorough ‘Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs Episode Guide’ by Rick Norwood as well as a glorious graphic Mexican travelogue feature by Crane in ‘An Afterword in Pictures’ as well as the informative biography section ‘About the Authors’.

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim and gritty turmoil and drama thus far, please forgive me: Crane was a superbly irrepressible gag-man and his boisterous, enchanting serials abound with breezy, light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day.

Easy was the Indiana Jones, Flynn (The Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day – and, clearly blazing a trail for all of them – whilst Wash was akin to Danny Kaye or our own Norman Wisdom: brave, big-hearted, well-meaning, clay-footed, irrepressible and utterly indomitable everymen… just like all of us.

This superb monochrome landscape hardback (274 x 33 x 224 mm) is a wonderful means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer.

This is comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside her best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby and led irrefutably to the creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Hurricane Isle: The Best of Captain Easy and Wash Tubbs © 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy Strips © 2015 United Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The Mystery of the Crooked Imp – Tales of Fayt


By Conrad Mason & Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-42-1

In January 2012 Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched a traditional anthology comics weekly aimed at girls and boys between 6 and 12 which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and content.

Each issue still offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read it…

That same year “The Little Company that Could” also began publishing a trilogy of excellent children’s fantasy novels starring the strange denizens of a fantastic place called Port Fayt.

Conrad Mason’s enchanting saga of life’s underbelly in a bustling commercial harbour situated at the other end of the Ebony Ocean is wonderfully redolent of Sir Terry Pratchett’s sublime Discworld – both in tone and scope.

The seething dock community – shared by humans, trolls, elves, fairies, magicians and so many other sorts of fey folk and night people – is revealed though the continuing exploits of The Demon’s Watch – a pan-species band of volunteer police who do what the lackadaisical constables of the official Dockside Militia cannot or will not…

Trade is king in Port Fayt and the “Blackcoats” mustered by the dominant and immensely powerful Trading Companies are supposed to arrest pickpockets, smugglers and other business-harming riffraff, but the ordinary citizenry have far more faith in the Watch’s shark-tattooed brotherhood of bluecoats who do good because it’s right and not because they’re (badly) paid to…

Supplementing the prose novels, this superb graphic outing is magically illustrated by David Wyatt (Peter Pan in Scarlet, the Larklight Trilogy, Mortal Engines, assorted tomes of the aforementioned Mr. Pratchett and J.R.R. Tolkien amongst others) and opens with an informative background lecture in ‘Crafty Crocklewick’s Giude to Port Fayt’: a potted history complete with detailed and annotated maps of the region and its more infamous landmarks such as Manticore Playhouse, The Brig and Bootle’s Pie Shop – HQ and front office of the Demon’s Watch.

Their latest case opens one sparkling midnight when a band of desperate fairies hold up a coach and steal a very unusual human baby. It is most odd: fairies are notorious thieves but generally their preferred loot is sugar, not infants with sparkly eyes…

Next morning the child’s parents enjoy a visit from the Demon’s Watch offering assistance, but the wealthy Rattigans seem more annoyed than upset over little Clarence’s abduction and, whilst half-ogre Captain Newton, troll brothers Frank and Paddy Bootle, ancient elf Old Jon and young magician Hal quiz them, wise and crafty young apprentice Tabitha gets the impression their maid Joanna knows more than she’s letting on…

Soon however the Watch are tracking down the carriage driver – a dwarf by the name of Whelk – but there are still a few unanswered questions to ponder. For instance: where was the baby going in a coach at midnight and why weren’t the parents with him?

For that matter why haven’t these wealthy types called in the Militia?

The investigation leads to insalubrious inn the Rusty Anchor but when they arrive the Watch discover Whelk expiring with a cutlass in his guts. Leaving Hal and Tabitha to tend the dying dwarf, they pursue the assailants and Tabs catches Whelk’s dying words: “the crooked imp”…

In the crowded alleyways below they confront a most motley crew of blackguards and a ferocious battle ensues until late-arriving Tabs joins in and distracts Newton enough so that the killer clowns can escape…

As the elder watchmen ponder the mysteries, downhearted Tabs prowls the market, sulking whilst buying the cakes she’s been despatched for until she encounters a frantically fleeing fairy named Spoon. The flighty fool has become the target of an obsessive and hungry seagull and is most grateful for her help in escaping the feathered fiend. She even spends a little precious time getting acquainted with the self-proclaimed “Free Fairy”…

When they part company Tabs goes back to Pie Shop and Spoon goes home where his formidable mum makes him help feed that appalling human baby they snatched for their human client…

Captain Newton meanwhile has taken his team into the seamiest dives in Port Fayt in search of information, but no one knows of a Crooked Imp. Wily old elf Jeb does know something of a band of garish thugs however. They sound like the nasty cutthroats employed by a maniacally bonkers troll gang-boss known as The Actor

As Jeb fills them in on the monster’s likely lair – an old abandoned playhouse in the Marlinspike Quarter – the suspect is currently taking a meeting with an extremely dangerous client of his own: one nasty enough to give even a psychopathic troll pause and one who really, really wants the baby he was promised…

When the Watch tool up for a serious fight with The Actor’s crew Tabs is furious at being left behind again, but soon finds a new clue when Joanna turns up with a rather dubious ransom note for Clarence. It has been signed by the Free Fairies…

Whilst Tabs frantically hunts down Spoon, at the playhouse The Actor and his frankly terrifying employer are still engaged in heated debate when Newt and the lads storm in for a final dust-up. All manner of pointless carnage ensues but when our heroes return, bloodied, unbowed but without either Actor or Clarence, they find that Tabitha has discerned the secret of the Crooked Imp…

The Watch soon rescue Clarence and solve the case of his kidnapping, but it only leads to even greater danger as the role of the Actor and intentions of his eerie employer – as well as the ghastly Rattigans – is finally revealed. However before they can close the case the maniacs turn the tables on our heroes, capturing them all and attempting to make them walk the plank into a nest of artificial sharks. Once again it’s up to Tabs to save the day, so it’s a good thing she has Spoon and that crazy seagull on her side…

Topped off with a foreboding promise of Things to Come and a handy set of information pages on the Demon’s Watch, this boisterous blockbuster is bright, breezy and packed with pies and punch-ups: a rip-roaring mystery yarn that’s furious fun for the entire family. Grab this and prose novels The Demon’s Watch, The Goblin’s Gift and The Hero’s Tomb and surrender to Fayt…

Text © Conrad Mason 2015. Illustrations © David Wyatt 2015.
The Mystery of the Crooked Imp will be released on April 2nd 2015 and is available for pre-order now.