Dull Margaret


By Jim Broadbent & DIX (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-098-0

Sequential graphic narrative is arguably the most effective and all-encompassing art form we possess, able to depict the most colossal spectacles and conflicts involving entire populations or the most obscure, internalised, micro-expressive emotional minutiae of a single character (human or otherwise) with equal bombast or subtlety.

It’s also a medium capable of the both broadest brushstrokes and forensic incisiveness, whether the creative intention is big belly laughs, moral outrage or heartbreaking empathy. The only thing that comes close to its infinite variety is acting.

Jim Broadbent is an actor. He’s won Oscars and BAFTAs and Emmys and more, and you’ve seen or heard him in stuff as varied as Brazil and Black Adder, Iris and Moulin Rouge, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, King Lear and Teletubbies. He has a keen understanding of human foibles, motivations and how life shapes actions.

He once had an idea for a film after being inspired by Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s painting Dulle Griet but couldn’t find the necessary finance. Another avenue presented itself when he began reading DIX’s mordant cartoon strip Roll Up! Roll Up! in The Guardian newspaper…

DIX began his artistic career at British comics publisher Fleetway before moving into grown up political and satirical cartooning with the co-creation of legendary magazine Purr. Since then he graduated to the big time with Roll Up! Roll Up! and recently released the graphic novel KLAXON with collaborator Si Spencer.

When actor met illustrator a kindred sentiment was confirmed and they began turning that Bruegel-triggered idea into a moody masterwork of isolation, privation and misery endured. Set long, long ago in the bleak marshes and salt flats of Broadbent’s Norfolk childhood, the result is Dull Margaret: a pocket-baroque in the grand grotesque tradition and a cautionary tale of Faustian consequences.

In the flat, drear wastes where mud flats meet the sea, a worn-down woman of indeterminate vintage lives alone, combing the mires for interesting articles and catching eels to sell in the local town market. She is bluff, determined, utterly alone and almost certainly a bit mad…

Lost in her own head too much, she ekes out a drear existence in a bleak and unrelentingly austere locale. Even her too-infrequent interactions with her customers only lead to humiliation, disappointment and even robbery/assault…

Eventually, it’s all too much and Margaret fulfils the promise of her fetid appearance by trying her hand at a bit of witchcraft. As always, it’s a cack-handed affair and the muddy crone isn’t sure if she’s accomplished anything…

Two favours she asked of the unheeding unknown: untold riches and a friend to love, but she’s prepared to settle for either or lose both…

And then something happens when a barge is stranded on the mud flats…

Hope, aspiration, greed and loneliness are all viewed through a world-weary lens as a series of events unfold with confounding inexorability, but always the grey mire of her days is pulling Margaret back and down…

Enticing and loathly, this sorry soggy fable abounds with rich mordant humour and powerfully seductive sentiment, all compellingly realised by DIX’s muted palette and amorphous, soft-edged designs. Dull Margaret is a dark delight of character and circumstance to beguile readers who have had their fill of shallow flash and dazzle.
Dull Margaret is © 2018 Jim Broadbent & Dix. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Dull Margaret is published on 17th July 2018 and available for pre-order. Copies are available now from selected retailers.

For those in London, Jim Broadbent and DIX will be attending events (and presumably signing copies and prints) at Gosh Comics on Wednesday 27th June and Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 28th June.

The Adventures of John Blake volume 1: Mystery of the Ghost Ship


By Phillip Pullman & Fred Fordham (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-91098-929-6 (HB)                    978-1-78845-059-1 (PB)

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun, fact and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The potent periodical is rapidly approaching the 300th issue and showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, the company is expanding its output through a range of graphic novels and a new imprint of cartoon and strip illustrated biographies highlighting historical and contemporary groundbreakers and Earthshakers. Keep your eyes peeled for our reviews – and more importantly the actual books – bearing the legend First Names

Today however, it’s the turn of another kind of landmark, one from that aforementioned growing library of graphic novels for young people, and heralding the advent of a new juvenile hero in the grand tradition of Jim Hawkins and Alex Rider

Prestigious and multi award-winning author Philip Pullman (The Haunted Storm, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, His Dark Materials) is a bit of a comics fan and – joined here by artist and painter Fred Fordham (Nightfall, Aces High, The Phoenix) – in 2017 introduced a bold new hero in beguiling and gripping sea yarn of mystery, imagination and literally timeless adventure.

Now available in a mass market paperback edition, Mystery of the Ghost Ship blends maritime swashbuckling, contemporary corporate skulduggery, sci fi bravado and high-octane espionage derring-do in a mesmerising rollercoaster ride of action and intrigue…

The eternal oceans obscure and contain many secrets, but none more baffling than the enigmatic Mary Alice: a roving phantom schooner perpetually wreathed in fog and mired in doom-laden prophecy and legend.

Seagoing folk have spoken of its comings and goings for decades – possibly centuries – and dread catching the attention of the red-shirted boy who gazes out from her silent, vaporous bow. The old adage says that those who look him in the eyes will be dead in a month…

In some ultra-modern quarters, the legends are taken extremely seriously. Tech-billionaire Carlos Dahlberg has been devoting precious time and immense amounts of his cutting-edge resources to tracking the Mary Alice, compiling sightings going back as far as 1614 Anno Domini.

He has to. Although notionally the most powerful man on Earth, his entire empire could be shattered by the appalling event he instigated one night in 1973 San Francisco: one witnessed and recorded by the ship’s youngest crewman…

Also obsessed with plotting the ship’s course and history is oceanographer Danielle Quayle Reid. So effective is she that her endeavours make her another target for Dahlberg’s ruthless and omnipresent organisation…

A third interested party is hyper-efficient British intelligence operative Commander Roger Blake. He and his superiors at the Admiralty have also been piecing together the myths surrounding the Mary Alice. They have a slight advantage in that they already know when, where and why the 1929 Einstein-Carmichael Expedition concealed an early high energy particle experiment that abruptly ended in a bizarre and uncanny accident.

What nobody knows yet is how that trip resulted in the luckless schooner being lost in the mists of time or what has happened to it since…

Someone with far more hands-on experience of the vessel is Australian schoolgirl Serena Henderson. When her woefully-inexperienced dad abruptly decided to sail his family around the world in 2017, Serena was promptly lost at sea somewhere in the South Pacific.

Tossed about in a huge storm she is plucked from a watery fate by an intense boy named John Blake and becomes the latest addition to a crew of seemingly-doomed seamen rescued by the ghostly crimson mist-runner.

As the boy tries to explain the strange meanderings of the ship, Serena gets to know the resolute, unflappable Captain Quayle and Davy Johnson, last survivors of the original 1929 crew and learns that all of the mariners are temporary travellers.

The ship perpetually (and apparently aimlessly) sails from age to age, epoch to epoch. Whenever the Mary Alice stops there is the chance of being attacked, picking up another sailor, and very occasionally visiting a port and time that allows a voyager to return to approximately their home era.

Serena’s current shipmates include Chinese trader Sammy Wu (picked up in the 1890s), British deckhand Charlie Banks (1790), 17th century Devon fisherman – and escaped slave of Barbary pirates – Dick Merryfield and Marcus Tullius Pallas, a Roman engineer hailing from the end of the 2nd century AD. They are all rather in awe of John, who seems to exert some control over the ship’s wanderings and is the only one to understand the arcane workings of the engine that moves them all.

As they progress about the sea through time and space, Serena is deemed to be far luckier than all of them as her initial outing looks to be her last. The schooner is heading for Fiji and remains – or has returned to – 2017…

In a world of satellites and instantaneous communications her return is suddenly big news and Danielle Quayle Reid is soon heading there too. She only makes it because Roger Blake intercepts and forcefully deals with the merciless mercenaries Dahlberg set on her trail…

When John brings Serena back to her family, more of the billionaire’s thugs are waiting to capture him, but the valiant kids double back, eluding them after a frantic high-speed chase culminating in their return to the swiftly-fading schooner…

Revealing close family ties to members of the ghost crew, Roger and Danielle compare notes and decide to go after Dahlberg even as, aboard the ship, John and Serena discuss their plight and the tech-entrepreneur’s reasons for hunting them.

John knows he is close to fixing the ship’s randomness and swears Mary Alice is both alive and helping him. After a chilling encounter with a true enigma of the deep, the schooner “fortuitously” approaches present-day San Francisco and a truly explosive showdown with Dahlberg, unaware that the missing piece of the puzzle rests with Roger and Danielle who are also closing in on the monied murder-fiend…

Also offering a full rundown on ‘The Crew’, this debut outing blends blockbuster action and superspy chic with eerie mystery and enchanting fantasy to entice and enthral readers who would love to see Horatio Hornblower, Dan Dare and James Bond team up to battle bad guys and trounce villainy in extreme HD and cosmic SurroundSound.

A non-stop joy from start to finish with the promise of more and even better to come…
Text © Philip Pullman 2017 and illustrations © Fred Fordham 2017. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of John Blake volume 1: Mystery of the Ghost Ship paperback edition will be released on 7th June 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

The March to Death – Drawings by John Olday


By John Olday, edited by Donald Rooum (Freedom Press)
ISBN: 978-0900384806

We tend to remember World War II as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil; of Us and Them. In these increasingly polarised days where any disagreement or demurring opinion on any issue is treated as heresy punishable by death or flogging, it’s valuable and comforting to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death was an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation.

Comics strips and especially cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) were, are and remain blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation.

He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943. For that he was imprisoned until 1946.

The accompanying text for this edition was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

Still readily available, the 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by cartoonist, letterer, and deceptively affable deep thinker Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

Makes you Think, right. Hopefully it will make you act, too.
© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.

Enemy Ace: War in Heaven


By Garth Ennis, Chris Weston, Christian Alamy & Russ Heath, with Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-982-9

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in issue #151 of DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War (cover-dated February 1965): home of the already legendary Sergeant Rock. Produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the increasingly industrialised business of mass-killing.

The sagas – loosely based on the life of “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen – were a magnificent tribute to the profession of soldiering whilst condemning the madness of war, produced during those turbulent days of foreign conflicts and intense home front unrest. They are still moving and powerful beyond belief, as is George Pratt’s seminal 1989 sequel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll.

In 2001, Garth Ennis – no stranger to combat fiction – took another look at the flyer on the other side in a 2-issue miniseries that extended his martial longevity by transplanting him to World War II and a far less defensible ethical position…

Bavaria, 1942 and forty-six-year-old Baron Hans von Hammer is visited by an old flying comrade who desperately urges him to come out of retirement and serve his country. No lover of Nazism, the old ace has kept himself isolated until now, but Germany’s attack on Russia has proven a disastrous blunder, and this last plea is as much warning as request…

The neophyte pilots on the Eastern Front need his experience and leadership, whereas Hitler’s goons and zealots don’t need much excuse to remove a dissident thorn…

Based loosely on the lives of such German pilots as Adolf Galland, book I of War in Heaven (illustrated by Chris Weston) finds von Hammer as indomitable as ever in the Eastern killer skies but unable to come to terms with the increasing horror and stupidity of the conflict and its instigators.

The phrase “My Country, Right or Wrong” leaves an increasingly sour taste in his mouth as the last of his nation’s young men die above Soviet fields…

Book II is set in 1945 and witnesses Germany on the brink of defeat with von Hammer flying an experimental early jet fighter (a Messerschmitt 262, if you’re interested); shooting down not nearly enough Allied bombers to make a difference and still annoying the wrong people at Nazi High Command.

He knows the war is over but his sense of duty and personal honour won’t let him quit. He is resigned to die in the bloody skies that have been his second home, but then he is shot down and parachutes into a concentration camp named Dachau…

With art from comics legend Russ Heath, this stirring tale ends with a triumph of integrity over patriotism: a perfect end to the war record of a true soldier.

This slim paperback volume (still findable, despite being incomprehensibly out of print and unavailable digitally) is supplemented by a classic anti-war tale of WWI by Kanigher & Kubert, taken from Star-Spangled War Stories #139.

‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ explores the Enemy Ace’s childhood and noble lineage as he endures the daily atrocities of being one of the world’s last warrior knights in a mechanised, conveyor-belt conflict. Just another day above the trenches but never away from them…

Here is another gripping, compelling, deeply incisive exploration of war, its repercussions, both good and bad, and the effects that combat has on singular men. This should be mandatory reading for every child who wants to be a soldier…
© 2001, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jamie Smart’s Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!


By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-003-4

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The publishers would be crazy not to gather their greatest serial hits into a line of fabulously engaging album compilations, but they’re not so they do. They’re not; but the latest star to make the jump to book-based legitimacy certainly is…

Devised by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Bunny vs. Monkey, Corporate Skull and bunches of brilliant strips for Beano, Dandy and others) from what I can only assume is keen close-hand observation and meticulous documentation comes Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!: a brilliantly bonkers new addition to the vast feline pantheon of truly horrifying hairballs infesting cartoondom.

This new magnum (dark, nutty, creamy and making your fillings hurt) opus features a totally anarchic kitty just like yours; cute, innocently malign and able to twist the bounds of credibility and laws of physics whenever the whim takes him…

Quite naturally, the epic begins with an origin of sorts as Mrs Alice Johnson brings home a kitten from the pet shop. Not one of the adorable little beauties at the front of the store, though, but the odd, creepy, lonely little fuzzy hidden at the back of the store…

The Johnsons are not your average family. Firstborn son Edwin watches too many horror films and keeps a book of spells in his room whilst Dad is a brilliant inventor who needs peace and quiet to complete his fart-powered jet-pack or potato-powered tractor. It’s not long before those days are gone for good…

The sweet little daughter isn’t all she seems either: when kitten Looshkin is subjected to an innocent tea party in the garden the toys all secretly warn the cat of the horrors in store. All too soon teddy bear Bear is subjected to a hideous cake-arson assault. Surprisingly, Looshkin takes it all in stride and even escalates the carnage and chaos. It seems he has found his natural home… or is it all in his be-whiskered little head?

Many of the short tales begin with “This Episode:…” and are frequently interspersed by hilarious pin-ups suggesting ‘What is This Biscuits?’, ‘Can I use your Toilet?’ or ‘Let’s Play… Pig or Fish?’ so consider yourself warned…

‘Colour in with Looshkin’ then details what happens if you let a cat help with home decoration after which Great (rich) Auntie Frank comes to visit with her precious ultra-anxious prize-winning poodle Princess Trixibelle. With an eye to a hefty bequest, the adults consign the kids and Looshkin to a bedroom where they can’t cause offence or make trouble. Challenge Accepted… so watch out for squirrels and exploding toilets!

…And where does that cat keep finding the wherewithal to phone Dial-a-Pig?

‘Mouse House’ then discloses the result of the cat’s dutiful attempt to deal with an invasion of rodents armed with cheese and firecrackers before arch-enemies manifest in the form of former TV host Sandra Rotund and her cat Mister Buns who soon come to regret exploiting Looshkin on the internet…

When the cat decides it’s his big day the rest of the house are too slow playing along and ‘Happy Birthday Looshkin’ becomes more of a battle cry and lament that celebratory wish after which all semblance of reality fades in ‘Blarple Blop Blop Frrpp! (Bipple!)’ when the frenzied feline gets a case of the friskies and starts rushing about…

‘Jeff’s Photocopying Services’ pits cat against street advertisers and a mystic masquerader leading to a longer saga wherein the Johnson’s engage the services of professor Lionel F. Frumples to assess their perturbed and petrifying pet. However, even “the World’s leading expert on Cat Psychology” is no match for the pint-sized barrel of crazy – especially after the kitty binges on super-sugary cereal…

As the insane antics mount, the cat finds a useful alibi after adopting glove-puppet Mister Frogburt to be his patsy in ‘I’m Not to Blame’, whilst ‘What a Lotta Otter Bother (it Nearly Rhymes!)’ reveals a perfectly understandable error: to whit, being sent a mail order shark instead of the cute river-dwelling mammal you wanted as a playmate…

‘The Sparrow (A Funny Story About Things)’ then sees the cat’s response to the advent of new superhero the Bluetit before circus acrobat Fido Lepomp becomes the latest victim of Looshkin’s lunacy and swears eternal vengeance utilising all his freakish carnival comrades…

Great (rich) Auntie Frank returns to be feted by a bonanza of ‘Cheeeeeeeeeeeese! (Please)’ but once again the cat’s misapprehensions lead to anger, upset and a rather nasty stain after which pretty new kitty Lucinda is on hand to see Looshkin at his most Looshkin-y in ‘Thpthbtthhhhhhhhhhhhonk! (How Rude)’.

An escaped penguin incites a bout of thermostat-abuse in ‘Cold for this Time of Year (I Can’t Feel my Legs!)’ and a door-stepping political candidate falls foul of the cat’s anarchic soul and disguise skills in ‘Old Lady Looshkin (Wears Frilly Knick-knacks!)’ after which the cat excels himself in causing catastrophe by consulting Edwin’s satanic grimoire whilst organising Bear’s birthday surprise…

Another dial-a-pig delivery then brings the house down in ‘You Did It (You Finally Did It)’ but – following a pin-up celebrating ‘The Enddddd!’ – one last episode declares ‘This Episode: insert title here. Make it something funny about pigs or monkeys or bottoms. Frilly Pants? Frilly Pants are Funny.’ and reveals why it isn’t clever or pro-survival to put a deranged cat or paranoid toy bear in your luggage and smuggle them aboard a passenger plane…

Utterly loony and deliciously addictive, this fiendishly surreal glimpse at the insanity hardwired into certain cats (probably not yours, but still…) is another unruly and astoundingly ingenious romp from a modern master of the rebellious whimsy that is the very bedrock of British children’s humour.

Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2018. All rights reserved.
Looshkin will be released on 3rd May 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird


By Björn Karlström, translated by Peter James (Hodder and Stoughton)
ISBN: 978-0-34023-081-7(HB)                      0-340-23081-9(PB)

In acknowledgement of today’s Centenary of the Royal Air Force, I’m reviewing a captivating combat classic starring one of the Service’s most glittering – albeit fictional – stars.

Although one of the most popular and enduring of all True Brit heroes, air detective Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth – immortally known as “Biggles” – has never been the star of British comics you’d reasonably expect.

Whilst the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Turpin, Sexton Blake, Dick Barton and others have regularly made the jump to sequential pictorials, as far as I can determine the only time Biggles hit the funny pages was as a beautiful strip illustrated firstly by Ron Embleton and later Mike Western for the lush, tabloid-sized photogravure weekly TV Express (issues 306-376, 1960-1962). Even then the strip was based on the 1960 television series rather than the armada of books and short stories generated over Johns’ 56-year career.

Much of this superb stuff has been reprinted in French and other European editions but remains criminally uncollected in the UK. Indeed Biggles is huge all over the Continent, particularly Holland, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of Biggles has ever made the transition back to Blighty…

Created by World War 1 flying veteran and aviation enthusiast William Earl Johns (February 5th 1893-June 21st 1968), the airborne adventures of Biggles, his cousin the Hon. Algernon Montgomery Lacey AKA “Algy”, Ginger Hebblethwaite and their trusty mechanic and dogsbody Flight Sergeant Smyth ran as prose thrillers in the magazines Modern Boy, Popular Flying and Flying – periodicals which Johns designed, edited and even illustrated.

Initially aimed at an older audience, the Biggles stories quickly became a staple of boys’ entertainment in anthology and full novels (nearly 100 between 1932-1968) as well as a true cultural icon. Utilising the unique timeless quality of proper heroes, Biggles and Co. have waged their dauntless war against evil as combatants in World Wars I and II, as Special Air Detectives for Scotland Yard in the interregnum of 1918-1939 and as freelance agents and adventurers in the Cold War years…

“Captain” W.E. Johns was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and wrote over 160 books in total as well as innumerable features and articles ranging from gardening to treasure-hunting, aviation, crime fiction, pirates and historical fact and fiction.

He created many heroic novel series which shared the same continuity as Biggles: 6 “Steeley” novels starring Deeley Montfort Delaroy, a WWI fighter ace-turned-crimebuster between 1936-1939, 10 volumes of commando Captain Lorrington King AKA Gimlet (1943-1954) and a 10 volume science fiction saga starring retired RAF Group Captain Timothy ‘Tiger’ Clinton, his son Rex and boffin Professor Lucius Brane who voyaged among the stars in a cosmic ray powered spaceship between 1954 and 1963.

Although much of his work is afflicted with the parochial British jingoism and racial superiority that blights so much of the fiction of the early 20th century, Johns was certainly ahead of his time in areas of class and gender equality. Although Algy is a purely traditional plucky Toff, working class Ginger is an equal partner and participant in all things, whilst Flight Officer Joan Worralson was a WAAF pilot who starred in 11 “Worrals” novels between 1941 and 1950, commissioned by the Air Ministry to encourage women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

In 1977, veteran Swedish author and cartoonist Björn Karlström returned to comics when publisher Semics commissioned him to produce four new Biggles adventures; ‘Het Sargasso mysterie’, ‘Operatie goudvis’, ‘De tijger bende’ and ‘Ruimtestation Aries’ (The Sargasso Mystery; Operation Goldfish; The Tiger Gang and Space Station Aries, respectively). These were picked up by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978, deftly translated by Peter James and released as Biggles and the Sargasso Triangle, Biggles and the Golden Bird, Biggles and the Tiger and Biggles and the Menace from Space

In 1983, two further albums were released, created by Stig Stjernvik.

Although deeply mired in the stylisation and tone of Hergé’s Tintin, to my mind the most authentic-seeming to Johns’ core concept was the second, highlighted here for today’s celebrations…

Swedish designer, author and aviation enthusiast Björn Karlström began working in comics for the vast Scandinavian market in 1938, producing scale-model plans and drawings for the magazine Flygning. In 1941 he created the adventure strip Jan Winther for them before devising international speculative fiction hit Johnny Wiking: followed up with another SF classic which closely foreshadowed the microscopic missionaries of (Otto Klement, Jerome Bixby and Isaac Asimov’s) Fantastic Voyage in ‘En Resa i Människokroppen’ (1943-1946), before taking over Lennart Ek’s successful super-heroine strip Dotty Virvelvind in 1944.

Karlström left comics at the end of the war and returned to illustration and commercial design, working on jet fighters for Saab and trucks for Scania.

Whereas most of his earlier comics were rendered in a passable imitation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, when he was convinced to produce the Biggles quartet Karlström adopted a raw, lean version of Hergé’s Ligne Claire style which adds a welcome sense of period veracity to the tales but often offends and upsets Tintin purists…

Biggles and the Golden Bird is set in the early 1930s and begins when the aerial adventurers are asked to pilot a new super-plane in an attempt to break the world long-distance flying record. Fact freaks might be intrigued to discover that the “Fairview” of this story is closely based on the record-smashing Fairey Long Range Monoplane, which stars in a splendid plans-&-diagrams section at the back that also includes the De Havilland C-24 Autogiro also featuring prominently in this ripping yarn…

When mysterious intruders brazenly steal the Fairview, intelligence supremo General Raymond dispatches Biggles, Algy and Ginger to track them down and retrieve the prototype air-machine. A crashed light plane and a rustic witness point the trio in the direction of Scotland and, dashing North in a ministry-provided autogiro (that’s a cross between a plane and an early kind of helicopter), they rendezvous with a fishing boat whose captain also witnessed strange sky shenanigans only to be attacked and overcome…

Their enigmatic adversaries had anticipated the pursuit and laid a trap, but with a typical display of pluck and fortune, Ginger turns the tables and drives off the thugs. The real Captain Gilbert then imparts his information and the autogiro brings them to a desolate ruined castle on a rocky headland, where Ginger and Algy are captured by an armed gang even as poor Biggles plunges over a cliff to certain doom…

Naturally the Ace Aviator saves himself at the last moment and subsequently discovers a sub-sea cavern – complete with deep-sea diving operation – just as his pals cunningly escape captivity. Fortuitously meeting up, the trio follow their foes and find a sunken U-Boat full of gold…

The uncanny reason for the theft of the Fairview and the mastermind behind it all is revealed when arch-enemy and all-around Hunnish blackguard Erich von Stalhein arrives to take possession of the recovered bullion before fleeing to a new life in distant lands. Having none of it the plucky lads strike, leading to a blistering battle and spectacular showdown…

Fast and furious, full of fights and hairsbreadth chases – although perhaps a touch formulaic and too steeped in the old-fashioned traditions for modern comics purists – this light and snappy tale would delight newer readers and general action fans and is readily available in both hardback and softcover editions, since the books were re-released in 1983 in advance of the star-studded but controversial British film-flop Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Perhaps it’s time for another revival and even some fresh exploits?
Characters © W.E. Johns (Publications). Text and pictures © 1978 Björn Karlström. English text © 1978 Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

The Nostalgia Collection: A Dog Called Bonzo


By George Studdy, with an introduction by Mary Cadogan (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-852-8

The history of popular culture is studded with anthropomorphic animals that have achieved legendary, almost talismanic status. Mickey Mouse, Tiger Tim, Garfield, Smokey (the) Bear, Bonzo

If that latter causes a puzzled frown that’s a shame because for a while this playful, charming dog-of-dubious-pedigree was a wholly British animorph to rival Disney’s mouse and duck combined.

Only the artistic integrity and creative drive of his creator George Earnest Studdy – always cautious where and how he allowed his canine star to shine – prevented the marvellous mutt from attaining the global domination (and subsequent tawdry commercialisation) of the Disney duo.

In 1878 Studdy was born in Devon to a military family, but a childhood injury prevented him from following that proud path, whilst his prodigious artistic talent moved him to an unsatisfactory position as an engineer before he eventually found his true niche as an illustrator and animator.

Studdy’s first artistic success was a series of Boer War pictures of the Royal Artillery, soon followed by cartoons and illustrations for such comics as Big Budget, Funny Pips, Jester and Wonder and others. He also regularly contributed to papers and magazines including The Graphic, The Humorist, Little Folks, London Magazine, Punch, Windsor Magazine, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated London News, The Field and especially The Sketch.

A superb general stylist, Studdy was most widely known for his animals although he was an early and memorably effective proponent of science fiction themes as well. Naturally, he worked extensively in the budding field of advertising…

Deemed unfit to fight in the Great War, he pioneered animation propaganda films that are still acclaimed for their quality and effectiveness. He first began producing pictures of a homely, engaging dog for The Sketch in the early 1920s, which were immensely popular. Eventually “the Studdy dog” became a permanent fixture and was christened Bonzo in the November 8th issue of 1922.

His luxuriously painted or drawn single panels gradually evolved into fully-sequenced gag-strips with the talking dog and his long-suffering lady-friend Chee-Kee captivating young and old alike with their playful yet slyly mature antics.

Despite Studdy’s decorum, Bonzo became a merchandising miracle of his time, lending his likeness and personality to many games and puzzles, toys of all types, figurines, china and dinnerware, cups, cruet sets and host of other household objects and all manner of advertising campaigns. He even had his very own neon sign in Piccadilly Circus.

Although Studdy voluntarily moved on from his creation to create many other pictorial marvels and to serve his country again in WWII as a draughtsman for the Royal Navy, the delightful dog continued under diverse hands in strips syndicated worldwide by King Features as well as in a series of wonderful books and annuals.

These began in 1935 and continued until 1952, with translations into many foreign editions. For a spectacular view of these you should see the superb websites at Studdying with Bonzo and Bonzo and George Studdy as well as this magical and far too short commemorative edition produced by Mike Higgs under his much-missed Hawk Books imprint. Thankfully this terrific tome is still readily available…

Funny, charming, sublimely illustrated, overwhelmingly successful and still every bit as entertaining today as it always was, the Bonzo experience is long overdue for an extensive repackaging job. Until such a happy event this little gem must act as a tantalising taster…

Go on, Fetch!
© 1990 the Estate of George Studdy. All Rights Reserved.

Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Scientists


By Adam & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-60-9

The educational power of comic strips has been long understood and acknowledged: if you can make the material memorably enjoyable, there is nothing that can’t be better taught with pictures. The obverse is also true: comics can make any topic or subject come alive… or at least – as here – outrageously, informatively undead…

The conceit in Corpse Talk is that your scribbling, cartooning host Adam Murphy (ably abetted off-camera by Lisa Murphy) tracks down – or rather digs up – famous personages from the past: all serially exhumed for a chatty, cheeky This Was Your Life talk-show interview that – in Reithian terms – simultaneously “elucidates, educates and entertains”. It also often grosses one out, which is no bad thing for either a kids’ comic or a learning experience…

Another splendid album release culled from the annals of The Phoenix (courtesy of those fine saviours of weekly comics at David Fickling Books) this timely themed collection is dedicated to quizzing a selection of famous, infamous and “why-aren’t-they-household names?” women from history in what would probably be their own – post-mortem – words…

Be warned, as we celebrate 100 years of female suffrage and you absorb these hysterical histories, you may say to yourself again and again “but… that’s not FAIR…”

Catching up in order of date of demise, our fact-loving host begins these candid cartoon conferences by digging the dirt with ‘Hatshepsut: Pharaoh 1507-1458 BCE’, tracing her reign and achievements and why her name and face were literally erased from history for millennia.

As ever, each balmy biography is accompanied by a side feature examining a crucial aspect of their lives such as here where ‘Temple Complex’ diligently details the controversial pharaoh’s astounding and colossal “Holy of Holies”: the Djeser-Djeseru Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

‘Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician & Philosopher 360s-415’ sketches out the incredible accomplishments, appalling treatment and tragic fate of the brilliant teacher and number-cruncher, and is supplemented here by a smart lesson in the almost-mystical concept of ‘The Golden Ratio’.

Throughout all civilisations, (mostly male) historians have painted powerful women with extremely unsavoury reputations and nasty natures. Just this once, however, the facts seem to confirm that ‘Irene of Athens: Empress of Byzantium 752-803’ was every bit as bad as her detractors described her. Her atrocious acts against friends, foes and her own son Constantine are offset in the attendant fact-feature ‘Spin Class’ revealing how Irene employed religious industrial espionage to break China’s millennial monopoly on silk production, complete with detailed breakdown of how the Byzantine silk trade worked…

Every comic reader or fantasy fan is familiar with the idea of women warriors but the real-life prototype for them all was the great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan. ‘Khutulun: Wrestling Princess 1260-1300s’ refused to be married off unless a suitor could defeat her in the Mongolian grappling martial art Bökh. So effective a fighter, archer and strategist was she, that the Khan appointed her his Chief Military Advisor and even nominated her his successor on his deathbed – an honour and can of worms she wisely sidestepped to become a power behind the throne.

Her incredible account is backed-up by an in-depth peek into the ferocious wrestling style she dominated in ‘Mongolian Moves’ after which ‘Joan of Arc: Saint 1412-1431’ explains how it all went wrong for her in asks-&-answers ‘How Do You Become a Saint?’

On more familiar ground, ‘Elizabeth I: Queen of England 1533-1603’ recounts her glorious reign and explains the how and why of her power dressing signature appearance in ‘A Killer Look!’ whilst transplanted near-contemporary ‘Pocahontas: Powhattan Princess 1596-1617’ shares the true story of her life before ‘Sad Ending, Continued…’ discloses the ultimate fate of her tribe at the hands of English Settlers.

Another astonishing character you’ve probably never heard of, ‘Julie D’Aubigny: Swashbuckler 1670-1707’ was a hell-raising social misfit who scandalised and terrorised the hidebound French Aristocracy. The daughter of a fencing teacher, she fought duels, broke laws, travelled wherever she wanted to, enjoyed many lovers – male and female – and even sang with the Paris Opera (now that’s a movie biopic I want to see!). What else could she offer as a sidebar but a lesson on duelling for beginners in ‘Question of Honour’?

‘Granny Nanny: Resistance Fighter 1686-1755’ started life as an Ashanti Princess, but after being taken to Jamaica s a slave, organised the ragtag runaways known as Maroons into an army of liberation. The workings of her rainforest citadel Nanny Town (now Moore Town) is explored in ‘Fortresses of Freedom’ after which a more sedate battle against oppression is undertaken with the interrogation of ‘Jane Austen: Novelist 1775-1817’, complete with cartoon precis of her subversive masterpiece ‘Pride & Prejudice (The Corpse Talk Version)’

‘Ching Shih: Pirate Queen 1775-1844’ tells of another woman who beat all the odds and has since faded from male memory: a young girl kidnapped by China Seas pirates who rose to become their leader. Ravaging the Imperial coast, she created an unshakable pirate code that benefitted the poor, outsmarted the Emperor and ultimately negotiated a pardon for herself and all her men and lived happily ever after! That salty sea saga is accompanied by the lowdown and technical specs on ‘Punks in Junks’ and followed by another bad girl with a good reputation.

‘Princess Caraboo: Con-Artist 1791-1864’ was never the Malayan royal refugee British High Society was captivated by, but rather a Devonshire serving maid who made the most of outrageous fortune and quick wits. Her story is backed up by a delightful opportunity to forge your own faux identity with ‘Caraboo’s Character Creation Course!’

Far more potent and worthy exemplars, ‘Harriet Tubman: Abolitionist 1822-1913’ ferried more than 300 of her fellow slaves from Southern oppression to freedom in America and what we now call Canada, supplemented here by a detailed breakdown of ‘The Underground Railway’ before emancipation martyr ‘Emily Wilding Davison: Suffragette 1872-1913’ shares her brief troubled life and struggle to win women the right to vote and participatory roles in society, backed up by an absolutely unmissable graphic synopsis of the long struggle in ‘A Brief History of Women’s Rights’

Someone who made every use of those hard-won concessions was ‘Nellie Bly: Journalist 1864-1922’, whose sensational journalistic feats and headline-grabbing stunts made her as newsworthy as her many scoops. One of the most impressive was beating Jules Verne’s fictional miracle of modernity by voyaging for ‘72 Days Around the World’ – as seen in the gripping sidebar spread – whereas the career of ‘Amy Johnston: Aviator 1903-1941’ was cut tragically short by bad luck and male intractability. Her flying triumphs are celebrated through a fascinating tutorial on her preferred sky-chariot the ‘De Havilland Gypsy Moth’.

The short and tragic life of ‘Anne Frank: Journalist 1864-1922’ follows, complimented by a detailed breakdown of the secret hideout and necessary tactics employed to conceal Anne, her family and friends in ‘The Secret Annex’.

Thankfully closing on an emotional high note, the rags to riches, riches to rags to riches life of dancer, comedian, freedom fighter and social activist ‘Josephine Baker: Entertainer 1906-1975’ details the double rollercoaster life of a true star and closes this book with her teaching the secrets of how to ‘Dance the Charleston’.

Clever, moving, irreverently funny and formidably factual throughout, Corpse Talk cleverly but unflinchingly deals with history’s more tendentious moments whilst personalising the great, the grim and the good for coming generations.

It is also a fabulously fun read no parent or kid could possibly resist. Don’t take my word for it though, just ask any reader, spiritualist or dearly departed go-getter…

Text and illustrations © Adam & Lisa Murphy 2018. All rights reserved.
Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Women will be released on 1st March 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

Garth: The Women of Galba


By Jim Edgar & Frank Bellamy (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-90761-049-6

It’s a big anniversary for Britain’s greatest comic strip adventurer this summer, but other than a few old collections and the online reprints, nobody seems much moved to celebrate the event or revive a genuine original of cartoon entertainment. Here however, with our eyes firmly set on great comics of every era and at least one and a half feet firmly planted in the past, we’re not going to let him slip by without any fanfare at all…

Garth was created in response to America’s publishing phenomenon Superman and debuted in the Daily Mirror on Saturday, July 24th 1943, the creation of Steve Dowling and BBC producer Gordon Boshell. His comic strip page mates at that time were regular features Buck Ryan, Belinda Blue Eyes, Just Jake and the irrepressible, morale-boosting glamour-puss Jane.

A blond giant and physical marvel, Garth washed up on an island shore and into the arms of a pretty girl, Gala, with no memory of who he was, just in time to save the entire populace from a tyrant. Boshell never actually wrote the series, so Dowling, who was also producing the successful family strip The Ruggles, scripted Garth until a writer could be found.

Successful candidate Don Freeman dumped the amnesia plot in ‘The Seven Ages of Garth’ (which ran from September 18th 1944 to January 20th 1946); introducing studious jack-of-all-scientific trades Professor Lumiere whose psychological experiments regressed the hero back through his past lives.

In sequel tale ‘The Saga of Garth’ (January 22nd 1946-July 20th 1946) his origin was finally revealed. Found floating in a coracle off the Shetlands, baby Garth was adopted by a kindly old couple and grew to vigorous manhood. On reaching maturity he returned to the seas as a Navy Captain until he was torpedoed off Tibet in 1943.

Freeman continued as writer until 1952 and was briefly replaced by script editor Hugh McClelland until Peter O’Donnell took over in 1953. O’Donnell wrote 28 adventures before resigning in 1966 to devote more time to his own Modesty Blaise feature. His place was taken by Jim Edgar; who also scripted western strips Matt Marriott, Wes Slade and Gun Law.

In 1968 Dowling retired and his assistant John Allard took over the drawing until a permanent artist could be found. Allard had completed ten tales when Frank Bellamy came on board with the 13th daily episode of ‘Sundance’ (reprinted in Garth: The Cloud of Balthus). Allard remained as background artist and general assistant until Bellamy took full control during ‘The Orb of Trimandias’.

Professor Lumiere had discovered something about his patient which gave this strip its unique and distinctive appeal – even before the fantastic artwork of Bellamy elevated it to dizzying heights of graphic brilliance: Garth was blessed – or cursed – with an involuntary ability to travel through time and experience past and future lives.

This concept gave the strip infinite potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits, pushing it beyond its humble origins as a US mystery-man knock-off.

This second (1985) Titan Books collection of the Frank Bellamy era spans the period from 7th September 1972 to 25th October 1973 with the artist at the absolute peak of his powers. It opens here with eerie chiller ‘The People of the Abyss’ wherein Garth and sub-sea explorer Ed Neilson are captured by staggeringly beautiful naked women who drag their bathyscaphe to a city at the bottom of the Pacific. These undersea houris are at war with horrendous aquatic monstrosities and urgently need outside assistance, but even that incredible situation is merely the prelude to a tragic love affair with Cold War implications…

Next up is eponymous space-opera romp ‘The Women of Galba’ wherein an alien tyrant learns to rue the day he abducted a giant Earthman to fight and die as a gladiator. Exotic locations, spectacular action and oodles more astonishingly beautiful females make this an unforgettable adventure…

‘Ghost Town’ is a western tale, and a very special one. When Garth, vacationing in Colorado, rides into abandoned mining outpost “Gopherville”, he is irresistibly drawn back to a past life as Marshal Tom Barratt who lived, loved and died when the town was a hotspot of vice and easily purloined money. When Bellamy died suddenly in 1976 this tale – long acknowledged as his personal favourite – was rerun until Martin Asbury was ready to take over the strip.

The final adventure re-presented here – ‘The Mask of Atacama’ – sees Garth and Lumiere in Mexico City. Whilst sleeping the blonde colossus is visited by the spirit of beautiful Princess Atacama who escorts him through time to the vanished Aztec city of Tenochtitlan where, as the Sun God Axatl, Garth attempts to save their civilisation from the voraciously marauding Conquistadores of Hernan Cortés. Tragically, neither he nor the Princess have reckoned on the jealousy of the Sun Priests and their High Priestess Tiahuaca

Adding extra value to this volume are a draft synopsis and actual scripts for ‘The Women of Galba’, liberally illustrated, of course. There has never been a better comic adventure strip than Garth as drawn by Bellamy, combining action, suspense, glamour, mystery and the uncanny in a seamless blend of graphic wonderment. In recent years, Titan Books has published a superb line of classic British strips and comics and I’m praying that with Modesty Blaise and James Bond now completed, they’ll return to Garth (and while I’m dreaming, Jeff Hawke too) on the understanding that it’s up to us to make sure that this time the books find a grateful, appreciative and vast audience…
© 1985 Mirror Group Newspapers/Syndication International. All Rights Reserved.

The World of Pont


By Graham Laidler, with an introduction by Richard Ingrams (Nadder Books)
ISBN: 0-90654-038-0

Graham Laidler was born in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne-on July 4th 1908, son of a prominent painter and decorator. Educated at Newcastle Preparatory school and Glenalmond in Perthshire, he was 13 when his father died and the family relocated to Buckinghamshire. Always captivated by cartooning, he channelled his artistic proclivities into more traditionally profitable avenues to support his widowed mother: training as an architect at the London School of Architecture from 1926-1931.

Perpetually dogged by ill-health, Laidler moonlighted as a cartoonist and in 1930 began a long-running domestic comedy strip entitled The Twiffs for The Women’s Pictorial. In 1932 he was diagnosed with a tubercular kidney and advised to live in healthier climates than ours. By August of that year he had sold his first cartoon to that most prestigious bulwark of British publishing: Punch.

Laidler was so popular that editor E.V. Knox took the unprecedented step of putting him under exclusive contract. With financial security established and his unique arrangement with Punch in place the artist began travelling the world. On the way he drew funny pictures, mostly of “The English” both at home and abroad, eventually generating 400 magnificent, immortal cartoons until his death in 1940, aged 32.

A charmingly handsome and charismatically attractive young man, Laidler visited Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, America and many other exotic, exceedingly not British places. He won his nickname and nom-de-plume in Rome during an incident with two “Vestal Virgin” travelling companions after which he was forevermore “Pontifex Maximus” or “Pont” to the likes of you and me…

His greatest gift was an almost-surgical gift for observation of social and cultural minutiae: gleaning picaresque detail and broad attitude which he disingenuously translated through his gently humorous graphic commentaries into simultaneously incisive and genteel, baroque and subtle picture-plays encapsulating the funniest of moments on every subject pertaining to the great Enigma of Being English in Public and Getting Away with It…

His work was collected into a number of books during his lifetime and since, and his influence as humourist and draughtsman can still be felt in many areas of comedy and cartooning.

Although he excelled in the strip cartoon format, Pont’s true mastery was in telling a complete story with a single perfect drawing. His carefully crafted images exemplified the British to the world at large and – most importantly – to ourselves.

During World War II the Nazis, with typical sinister efficiency, used his drawings as the basis of their anti-British propaganda when they invaded Holland, further confirming to the world the belief that Germans Have No Sense of Humour.

As Pont, for eight far-too-brief years, Graham Laidler became an icon and global herald of English life and you would be doing yourself an immense favour in tracking down his work. If you like Ealing comedies, Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford, St. Trinian’s and the Molesworth books or the works of Thelwell, Ronald Searle or Flanders and Swann, you won’t regret the effort.

Incomprehensibly, despite his woefully small output there still doesn’t seem to be a definitive archival collection of Pont’s work. One again I implore any potential publisher reading this to take the hint, but until then, for the rest of us there’s just the thrill of the hunt and the promised bounty in seeking out slim tomes such as The British Character, The British at Home, The British Carry On, Most of us are Absurd, Pont or this particularly rare magical compendium.

The World of Pont is the perfect primer of his historical hilarity; sampling the best of Laidler’s drawn divinations from his themed Punch series’ ‘The British Observed’; ‘The British at War’; ‘Popular Misconceptions’; ‘The British Woman’ and last but certainly not least, ‘The British Man’.

If you love great drawing and excoriating observational wit you’ll thank me. If you just want a damn good laugh, you’ll reward yourself with the assorted works of Pont.
© 1983, 2007 the estate of Graham Laidler.