The Children’s Annual

By Alan Clark (Boxtree)
ISBN: 978-1-85283-212-4

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

It’s a rare person indeed who never received a sturdily reassuring colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or television, film or radio franchises and personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, TV21, Radio Fun or some hallowed star of a bygone age.

There were even sports annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious and awe-inspiring Rupert Annuals.

The history and development of this glorious holiday tradition are lovingly shared by the enthusiastic and erudite Alan Clark in this wonderful book. Never lapsing into too much detail, Clark introduces his subject – always lavishly illustrated – offers a tantalising taste and then moves on.

His goal is always achieved. Once you’ve seen, you will want to see more. This kind of nostalgic paean is our industry’s best weapon in the fight to build sales, both of new material and back issues.

When was the last time you bought something old or untried at a comic shop? Give your Nostalgia Vision a workout for a change, and if you’re still a little dubious, this book should be your guide to tip the scales.
© 1988 Alan Clark.

Lion Annual 1974

By many and various (Fleetway)
No ISBN – SBN 85037-067-1

Being almost universally anthology weeklies, British comics over the decades have generated a simply incomprehensible number of strips and characters in a variety of genres ranging from the astounding to the appalling. Perhaps it’s just personal bias based on being the right age at the right time, but the 1970s adventure material from Fleetway Publications seems to me the most imaginative and impressive of a long line of pictorial pleasures.

Fleetway was a small division of IPC – then the world’s largest publishing company – and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English outfits producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications.

As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy finally won when Fleetway sold off its dwindling comics line to Egmont Publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.

The 1950s had ushered in a revolution in British comics. With wartime restrictions on printing and paper lifted, a steady stream of new titles emerged from many companies and when the Hulton Press’ The Eagle launched in April 1950, the very idea of what weeklies could be altered forever.

The oversized, prestige package graced with lush photogravure colour was exorbitantly expensive, however, and when London-based publishing powerhouse Amalgamated Press retaliated with their own equivalent, it was (understandably) a more economical affair.

I’m assuming they only waited so long before the first issue of Lion debuted (dated February 23rd 1952), to see if their flashy rival periodical was going to last…

Like The Eagle, Lion was a mix of prose stories, features and comic strips and had its own cover-featured space-farer… Captain Condor – Space Ship Pilot.

Initially edited by Reg Eves, the title eventually ran for 1156 weekly issues until 18th May 1974 when it merged with Valiant. Along the way, in the traditional manner of British comics (which subsumed weaker-selling titles to keep popular strips going), Lion absorbed Sun in 1959 and Champion in 1966; even swallowing Eagle itself in April 1969 before merging with Thunder in 1971.

Despite its being one of the country’s most popular and enduring adventure comics, Lion vanished in 1976 when Valiant was amalgamated with Battle Picture Weekly.

Despite the weekly’s demise, there were 30 Lion Annuals between 1953 and 1982, all targeting the lucrative Christmas market, combining a broad variety of original strips with prose stories; sports, science and general interest features; short humour strips and – increasingly from the 1970s – reformatted reprints from IPC/Fleetway’s vast back catalogue.

This edition is technically the penultimate “proper” Lion Annual. In May 1974 the long-running title was merged with Valiant as very much the junior partner.

Valiant itself would be absorbed into Battle Picture Weekly two years later but although the title itself was on its uppers, the Christmas Annual market worked on different principles and retailers seemed ever-eager to see familiar names when stocking up on one-off big-ticket items.

The memory of many defunct comics survived for years beyond their demise because publishers kept on banging out hardback collections for titles parents and retailers remembered from their own pasts.

Lion Annual 1974 was released in Autumn 1973, the 21st volume since the comic began. There would be nine more before the hallowed name finally vanished from vendors’ shelves…

Boasting the traditional blend of full-colour, duo-tone and monochrome sections, this titanic tome kicks off in procedural manner and rainbow hues as ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ (art by Ted Kearon) finds the motorcycle cop spectacularly solving theft at a logging camp after which a prose outing for ‘The Spellbinder’ (probably written by Tom Tully and spot-illustrated by regular strip artist Geoff Campion) reveals how young Tom Turville and his ancient alchemist ancestor Sylvester accidentally activate – and thwart – a terrorist fifth column menacing Britain…

‘Mowser the Priceless Puss and his Enemy James the Butler’ sees Reg Parlett’s cosseted kitty score another hilarious win in his ongoing war with malign manservant (and obnoxious, obstreperous, uppity snob) James after his cat-loving boss suggests a picnic, before ‘Secrets of the Demon Dwarf’ (Alfonso Font art) finds time-displaced WWI mad scientist Doktor Gratz still trying to reverse the result of the Great War by attacking modern-day Britain with robot stormtroopers, mole machines and his infamous armoured Zeppelin…

Campion’s ‘World Beaters: Peugeot Bébé’ delivers a fact-filled profile of the tiny foreign car after which Ian Kennedy depicts ‘Paddy Payne and the Battle of Eagles’ with the Air Ace seconded to the Maginot Line and embroiled in a grudge match between obsessed officers on both sides fighting to retain or retrieve a hotly contested battle standard…

‘Mowser’ then puts paid to James’ spotless reputation and – following two pages of general ‘Jokes’ – prose thriller ‘The Giant Dog of the Mause Valley’ explores the legend of a mythical hound before a bunch of irrepressible youngsters dubbed the ‘Can- Do-Kids’ thwart a conniving property tycoon in text treat ‘Moving House’…

Created by E. George “Ted” Cowan & Alan Philpott, The Jungle Robot debuted in the first issue of Lion in 1952, before vanishing until 1957. On his triumphant return in the 1960s as Robot Archie, “old tin bonce” became one of the most popular and long-lasting heroes of British comics.

Here the amazing and iconic automaton and his hapless handlers Ted Ritchie and Ken Dale find themselves fighting fake sharks and cunning gold thieves on the Amazon River in a sterling strip limned by Ted Kearon, after which photo-feature ‘Waterspeed’ outlines the intrinsic allure of powerboats.

Another ‘Jokes’ selection segues into sinister drama ‘The White-Eyes’ with wicked mad mastermind Ezra Creech using his super-strong zombie mind-slaves to steal army weapons and further his war against humanity. Happily, plucky teens Nick Dexter and Don Redding still have the measure of the malign maniac and his shambling myrmidons…

After ‘Mowser’ enjoys a spot of fishing, ‘The Spellbinder’ returns in strip form to lay a few unhappy ghosts at a Suffolk stately home after which another Campion ‘World Beater’ – ‘Meganeura Super Bug’ offers a glimpse at a prehistoric dragonfly before we all head back to WWII where schoolboy strategic prodigy ‘General Johnny’ (illustrated by Renato Polese perhaps?) sees the modern Alexander caught behind German lines and forced to fight his way back to safety…

Fire alarm foolishness makes ‘Mowser’ all warm inside and out after which ‘The Last of the Harkers’ finds hapless last surviving heir Joe and his ghostly coach attempting to reclaim a dead ancestor’s trophy and title for the Arduous Training and Obstacle Course in Glen Sporran. Joe was attempting to recover all the clan’s past prizes as a legal requirement to save the family seat, whilst villainous speculator Bert Swizzle saw the contests as his opportunity to take over the ancient pile…

This time, the rogue thought swapping dummy ordnance for the real thing would stop Joe, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

Brits of this period much preferred fantastic villains and antiheroes to straight do-gooders, and prose yarn ‘The Shadow of the Snake’ here heralds the return of an extremely popular serpentine super-crook.

Angus Allan & John Catchpole’s had begun the ophidian epic in the weekly Lion in 1972; cataloguing outrageous crimes of mad scientist Professor Krait who could transform himself into a reptilian rogue with all the assorted evolutionary advantages of the world’s reptilian denizens.

Here the bizarre bandit’s plan to plunder a bullion train is countered by his mortal nemesis and former lab assistant Mike Bowen, who regularly advises the bewildered, overmatched police…

A text examination of Alexander Selkirk – ‘The Real Robinson Crusoe’ – leads into a moth-eaten episode for ‘Mowser’ after which ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ monochromatically features the canny cop scotching a criminal scheme operating as a civil war re-enactment whilst prose account ‘Anchored to a Blazing Hurricane!’ retells a shocking event from the Battle of Britain.

Following a prose outing details Robot Archie liberating a Burmese ruby mine from river pirates, photo-feature ‘Do It Yourself War’ celebrates table-top military gaming, ‘Mowser’ meets a snooty pedigree mutt and a full-colour match starring underage professional footballers ‘Carson’s Cubs’ (art by Fred T. Holmes) details how a subversive dietician can wreak more havoc than a bent referee on a successful team…

Stuntmen brothers Joe and Sandy then earn their title as ‘The Speed Kings’ after stumbling into a plot to sabotage a powerboat record attempt whilst text thriller ‘Noah’s Ark’ reveals how survivors cope with a flooded world before this walk down memory lane wraps up with the surely prophetic ‘“Stop this Man” Say the Camelot Clan’ wherein wealthy American speculators plan to turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant gasworks.

Only a disparate and slightly bonkers Historical Preservation Society stand in their way, but these fulminating little Englanders have a few tricks up their sleeves and the latest foray – to pave over Loch Ness and build a power station – flops for the strangest and most obvious reasons…

This is a glorious lost treasure-trove for fans of British comics and lovers of all-ages fantasy, filled with danger, drama, hobby-data and diverse delights, illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the history of the medium. Track it down, buy it for the kids and then read it too. Most of all, pray that somebody somewhere is actively working to preserve and collect these sparkling and resplendent slices of our fabulous graphic tradition in more robust and worthy editions.
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1974. All rights reserved.

The Dandy Book 1982

By various

For many British readers – comics fans or not – the Holiday Season means The Beano Book, but publisher D.C. Thomson produced a wide range of weekly titles over the decades, most of which also offered superb hardcover annuals.

Way back when, most annuals were produced in a wonderful “half-colour” which British publishers utilised in order to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections or “signatures” of the books with only two plates, such as Cyan (Blue) and Magenta (Red) or Yellow and Black.

The sheer versatility and range of hues provided was simply astounding. Even now this technique inescapably screams “Holiday Extras” for me and my aging contemporaries. This particular example boasts the barely-yesterday year of 1982 (and would have hit shop shelves in late August 1981) when printing technology was still expensive and complicated, and full colour a distant dream.

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937). Premiering on December 4th 1937, it broke the mould of its traditionalist British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under sequential picture frames.

A huge success, The Dandy was followed eight months later on July 30th 1938 by The Beano – and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were received.

Over decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and dearly-beloved household names to delight generations of avid and devoted readers, and their end-of-year celebrations were graced by bumper bonanzas of the weekly stars in extended stories housed in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule. On September 6th 1941 only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The normality of weekly editions only resumed on 30th July 1949 but before long the bonnie books were once more an unmissable part of the Christmas experience.

The frolicsome fun begins on the inside front cover as veteran star Desperate Dan (illustrated by Charles Grigg?) gets the ball rolling with some typically macho pancake racing endeavours – which wrap up with a powerful punchline at the show at the end – before Korky the Cat graciously introduces the forthcoming festivities.

Rather than the usual set of gag-favourites, this edition properly commences with light-drama yarn ‘Tufty’s Lucky Terrier’, revealing how a lonely lad’s school sporting career takes a bold turn thanks to his beloved pet pooch…

The Smasher is a lad hewn from the same mould as Dennis the Menace and in the first of his vignettes (drawn by Hugh Morren or perhaps David Gudgeon) the bombastic boy carves a characteristic swathe of anarchic destruction to beat sporting bullies and win a heaving table full of goodies to scoff. Then well-meaning cowboy superman Desperate Dan (limned by Peter Davidson?) moves heaven and earth to join the town band in another typically destructive and traumatic extended outing…

Larcenous snack addict Tom Tum (Keith Reynolds) keeps fit by outsmarting and burgling his parsimonious neighbour whilst Grigg’s Korky the Cat confounds a gamekeeper before popping back to introduce cartoon puzzle ‘A Super “Ice” Scream from Korky’ after which feuding fools The Jocks and the Geordies (Jimmy Hughes) renew their small nationalistic war in a wax museum infested with dull exhibits and nasty teachers…

David Mostyn’s Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle finds the prankish lad having fun with his inventive relative’s super vacuum cleaner, and Harry and his Hippo (Andy Fanton?) sees the exiled African animal outsmart his human hosts to secure a warm bed on a cold night before mighty pooch Desperate Dawg (George Martin) spars with a circus strongman.

Jack Silver (by Bill Holroyd) then finds the alien schoolboy and his human pal Curley Perkins still on fantastic planet Marsuvia and battling a giant thieving Fuzzy Face covertly employed by super-villain Captain Zapp.

A game of cowboys goes typically wrong for Bully Beef and Chips (Gordon Bell?) whilst Tom Tum briefly indulges in tape-recording fun before reverting to hunger-fuelled type, Korky renews his decades-old conflict with the house mice and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa (Ron Spencer) sees the pint-sized pensioner creating a chaos-prone circus act using white rats as his savage beasts.

Korky’s Gallery of Schoolboy Howlers precedes Holroyd’s young DIY enthusiast in The Tricks of Screwy Driver, after which Greedy Pigg (George Martin), makes his mark as the voracious teacher (always attempting to confiscate and scoff his pupils’ snacks) switches targets and swipes the headmaster’s dinner instead.

Radio-tagged golf and cricket balls cause carnage in Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle after which Desperate Dan clashes with a cow-pie snaffling escaped circus lion and George Martin’s Izzy Skint – He Always Is! finds the youthful entrepreneur failing spectacularly to monetise the family dog.

More food theft preoccupies The Smasher before Korky tests your wits once more with visual brainteasers in Here’s a Hoot! Spot the “Owl”! and Holroyd – or perhaps Steve Bright – conjures up equine excitement starring schoolboy Charley Brand and robotic pal Brassneck when the manmade schoolboy wins a racehorse and opts for a career as a steeplechase jockey.

Bully Beef and Chips finds both terroriser and perennial victim suffering from poetry homework even as Greedy Pigg comes to a slippery end in pursuit of illicit dinners. The Jocks and the Geordies play nocturnal pranks on UFO spotters and The Tricks of Screwy Driver result in an uncontrollable powered snow cart and icy duckings all around…

Desperate Dawg then employs a giant cowbell to stop a stampede, Korky’s crockery mishaps win him a most unwelcome new job and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa foils a jewellery heist with his micro roller-skating skills before the show closes with Izzy Skint – He Always Is! who sagely allows thieving bullies to defeat themselves in another masterful mirth moment from George Martin.

Stuffed with glorious gag-pages and bursting with classic kids’ adventure, this is still a tremendously fun read and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is nearly four decades old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s such D.C. Thomson annuals as this…
© 1968 D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.

Superman Annual 1969 with Batman and Superboy

By Jerry Seigel, Leo Dorfman, E. Nelson Bridwell, Edmond Hamilton, Jerry Coleman, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, George Papp, Jim Mooney, Bob Brown & various (Top Sellers, Ltd by arrangement with the K. G. Murray Publishing Co.)
No ISBN – ASIN: B00389XM8C

Before DC and other American publishers began exporting comicbooks directly into the UK in 1959, our exposure to their unique brand of fantasy fun came from licensed reprints. British publishers/printers like Len Miller, Alan Class and Top Sellers bought material from the USA – and occasionally Canada – to fill 68-page monochrome anthologies – many of which recycled the same stories for decades.

Less common were strangely coloured pamphlets produced by Australian outfit K. G. Murray: exported to the UK in a rather sporadic manner. The company also produced sturdy Annuals which had a huge impact on my earliest years (I suspect my abiding adulation of monochrome artwork stems from seeing supreme stylists like Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson strut their stuff uncluttered by flat colour…).

In Britain we began seeing hardcover Superman Annuals in 1950 and Batman Annuals in 1960. Since then a number of publishers have carried on the tradition. This particular tome emerged at the close of the Batman TV phenomenon which briefly turned the entire planet Camp-Crazed and Bat-Manic; offering a delightfully eclectic mix of material designed to cater to young eyes and broad tastes.

This collection – proudly proclaiming second billing for Batman and Superboy – is printed in a quirky mix of monochrome, dual-hued and full-colour pages which made Christmas books such bizarrely beloved treats and opens with ‘Clark Kent’s Great Superman Hunt’ by Leo Dorfman & Al Plastino and originally a back-up in Superman #180 (October 1965).

Here, to the disgust of his friends, the Daily Planet star reporter seemingly exhorts the public to come forward with information to unmask the Man of Steel. Of course, there’s a deeper scheme in play here…

‘Prison for Heroes’ and ‘The Revenge of Superman’ come from World’s Finest Comics #145 (November 1964): an enthralling and dramatic thriller where Batman is hypnotically pressganged to an alien internment citadel: not as a cell-mate for Superman and other interplanetary champions, but as their sadistic jailer…

Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan & George Klein shine in this potent yarn, delivering a superb team-up tale to excite fans of all ages.

Switching from full-colour to black-&-magenta, ‘You Too can be a Super Artist’ (Superman #211, November 1968) sees Frank Robbins, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito offer advice and starter tips on depicting the Action Ace, after which ‘Batman Kwizzlers’ test your general knowledge and short strip ‘The Superboy Legend: Superboy’s Secret Hideaways’ (by E. Nelson Bridwell, Bob Brown & Wally Wood from Superboy # 161, December 1969) reveals the secret treasures stored in the Boy of Steel’s Smallville home.

Drastically modified and abridged from Superboy # 147 (May-June 1968 and illustrated by George Papp), ‘The Origin and Powers of the Legion of Super Heroes’ offers a pictorial checklist of the Future’s greatest champions, supplemented by Bridwell’s prose history lesson ‘The Lore of the Legion’.

Next comes some participation events beginning with ‘Superman’s Christmas Quiz: Christmas in Many Lands’ (most likely written by Jack Schiff and definitely illustrated by Ruben Moreira from many different contemporary venues) and ‘Superman… and his Space Zoo!’ puzzles.

Then, again truncated and culled from many separate tales, ‘The Origin of the Bizarro World’ takes clips drawn by Wayne Boring and John Forte to precis the whacky backwards super-clowns; ‘Metropolis Mailbag’ answers readers’ questions about all things Kryptonian and the activity section closes with brain-busting conundrums in ‘The Batman Whirly-Word Game’.

Full colour comics action resumes with ‘The Spell of the Shandu Clock’ (Superman #126, January 1959: by Jerry Coleman, Boring & Stan Kaye) providing spooky chills, supposedly supernatural chills and devious ploys to outwit a malevolent criminal mastermind.

From Superboy #109 (December 1963) Jerry Seigel & Papp revealed how a timid Earth orphan is transported to another world to become planetary champion ‘The Super-Youth of Brozz’ after which ‘The Sweetheart Superman Forgot’ by Seigel & Plastino (Superman #165, November 1963) aspires to the heady heights of pure melodrama as the Man of Tomorrow loses his powers, memories, and the use of his legs before loving and losing a girl who only wants him for himself.

In a most poignant moment, the hero recovers his lost gifts and faculties and returns to his old life with no notion of what he’s lost and who waits for him forever alone…

Romance is also on the cards in Dorfman & Mooney’s ‘Zigi and Zagi’s Trap for Superman!’ (Action Comics #316. September 1964) wherein juvenile alien delinquents lure the hero to their homeworld and set him up romantically with their spinster aunt Zyra

With their eclectic selection of tales, Annuals like this one introduced generations of kids to the wild wonderment of the American comics experience and to readers of a certain age remain a captivating, irresistible lure to more halcyon times and climes.
© National Periodical Publications Inc. New York.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house, my day and my rules…

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.=

Father Kissmass and Mother Claws

By Bel Mooney & Gerald Scarfe (Hamish Hamilton Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-24111-700-2

If you’ve finally grown up, Christmas is traditionally a time for tales of monsters and horrors so I’ve dredged up and re-exhumed this wonderful and superbly chilling graphic slice of satire from a time when horrific ghastly beasts stalked through Britain, sowing discomfort and dread where e’er they trod, without a clue what they were doing or a thought for the poor souls they stepped on and destroyed.

In this cold, dark country, the brittle, demonic and so very cruel Mother Claws broods and frets. It’s time once again to put something in the stockings of the Nation’s inhabitants, but she Doesn’t Want To.

She would rather cut things from their stockings – and so she does, with her corpulent, greedy Father Kissmass egging her on.

So very carried away are they, that her herd of Tamedeer – sycophantic self-servers though they be, even Tebbie and Hestle – rebel.

On Christmas Eve they ignore her whips and pull her sleigh to a hovel with a star above it. A homeless couple, with a special newborn baby, reach out to her needing just a little help…

Father Kissmass And Mother Claws was produced at the height of the Thatcher regime and uses dark, strident imagery from brilliant ethical Rottweiler Gerald Scarfe to concoct a savage sidebar to the nativity story for devastating satirical effect.

This swingeing allegory of Thatcher’s Britain is infested with her cabinet’s “Big Beasts” tellingly depicted as cowed pack animals by Scarfe’s flick-knife art, whilst Bel Mooney’s prose is as comforting as a velveteen cosh. This is the best of what graphic satire can do. It’s just a pity today’s leaders don’t warrant the same loving attentions…

No wait, look at the papers! It’s a Christmas miracle! They bloody do. Just squint a bit and tell yourself the names have been changed to protect the far-from-innocent…
Text © 1985 Bel Mooney. Illustrations © 1985 Gerald Scarfe. All Rights Reserved.

The Snowman – 35th Anniversary Edition

By Raymond Briggs (Puffin)
ISBN: 978-0723297420 (HC)            978-0723275534 (PB)

Released to celebrate 35 years since the debut of the perennial children’s favourite in 1978, and with the 40th anniversary swiftly bearing down on us, it’s a fitting time and the right season to re-examine this wonderful book, free of the huge ancillary industry and multi-media branding that’s grown around it, strictly in terms of pure graphic narrative.

Despite being repackaged as numerous book spin-offs, and dogged by impact-diluting sequels, animated films and even a stage musical, The Snowman started out as a slim (32 page) picture book: A lyrical tale of forgotten winter joy.

I can’t remember the last time we had enough snow to even baffle my cat (if you’ve never seen a pampered house-moggy’s first response to solid-seeming-cold-wet-white-stuff, then you’ve never laughed so hard the cocoa came out of your nose) let alone coat the world in a clean blanket of wonder, but that’s what happens here.

This is a subtle and compelling story. A young boy awakens to a heavy snowfall. Dressing, he dashes outside and romps among the falling flakes. He spends all day building a snowman, and even when he he’s snugly back inside, he can’t stop looking at his magnificent creation. Happy and exhausted he goes to bed.

When everybody’s asleep he invites the now-animate icy golem indoors where they play, share a meal, and – naturally – do the washing up when they’ve finished. Outside the skies are clear and the white flakes no longer fill the heavens. Having seen the boy’s world, the Snowman offers to show his own, and the pair soar aloft on a wondrous voyage over land and sea where the snows are falling still.

On eventually returning to the mundane Earthly home, they say goodnight. The boy goes reluctantly back to bed and the frosty sentinel takes up his abandoned position in the garden. In the morning the boy dashes out, but only heartbreak and disappointment await, for the new morning has melted his midnight companion.

This truly beautiful tale is no cheery, mawkish fantasy; it is an examination of the intense nature of a child’s life and the poignancy of change. We never know if the adventure was simply a dream or an actuality, but the knowledge that such all-encompassing wonder is fleeting is a lesson we all learn as we grow.

The ability to recapture such a lesson – both its joys and its pains – is a rare and awesome thing, and what a tribute to Raymond Brigg’s abilities that we don’t hate him for making us enjoy re-experiencing it.

Utterly wordless, in panels deprived of dark borders and hard edges, Briggs spins a delicate web of magic. Using the child’s own creative tools of pencil and crayon he crafts lyrical pastel picture-poems that are truly evocative and spellbinding. Despite being co-opted by the Christmas Industry this isn’t merely a seasonal tale but a timeless one. There’s no Bright Red or Holly Green to dazzle and break this charm: Briggs, as always uses presentiment and understatement as his basic tools.

Our industry seems to wilfully neglect this creator whose graphic narratives have reached more hearts and minds than Spider-Man, The Spirit or Spawn ever will, yet his works remain among the most powerful and important in the entire field. The Snowman, despite my pompous pontificating, remains a work of sublime and simple universal beauty. Get it for your kids, get it for yourself, but when the cartoon comes on again this Christmas, don’t watch that, Read This.
© 1978 Raymond Briggs. All Rights Reserved.

The Transformers UK Classics Volume One

By Steve Parkhouse, Simon Furman, James Hill, John Ridgway, John Stokes, Geoff Senior, Mike Collins, Barry Kitson, Will Simpson, Jeff Anderson & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-943-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Nostalgia-Fuelled Read to Toy With… 8/10

The metal-morphing Transformers toys took the world by storm in the 1980’s and a tie-in monthly American Marvel comicbook was a smash hit. Marvel’s UK division quickly produced their own fortnightly (ultimately weekly) periodical reprinting the US material, but the scheduling disparity soon necessitated the creation of original material.

As you’d expect from a top brand, the supremely popular shiny shapeshifters have been the jewel in the crown of numerous publishers ever since. The license currently resides with IDW and as part of their line, the new guys have kindly added archival editions of past glories to enthral new readers and give inveterate nostalgics a potent reminder of the good old days…

It should be noted that although a toy and cartoon show tie-in, the weekly British comic – when not reprinting US Marvel stories – seemed to pitch their material at a slightly older, if not necessarily more mature, readership…

As well as re-presenting originated material from The Transformers #1-44 (September 20th 1984 – January 18th 1986), this initial hardback/Trade Paperback/eBook archive also includes an erudite and extremely informative introduction – ‘A Complete History of Transformers UK’ – by James Roberts (following his Foreword) – detailing not only the origins and impact of the toys but the nuts and bolts of the creation of the British material. There’s even a list of feature pages, ads and premium give-aways!

Moreover, each episodic strip adventure is preceded by fulsome notes and commentary as well as a complete cover gallery – and that’s a lot of covers!

Following more candid background data the comics magic begins with ‘Man of Iron’ by Steve Parkhouse, John Ridgway & Mike Collins; coloured by Gina Hart & Josie Firmin and lettered by Richard Starkings.

The 4-part thriller ran in Transformers #9-12 (January 12th to February 23rd 1985) and revealed that a lost and unknown Autobot had periodically emerged for millennia from a crashed ship buried deep beneath rural England.

A castle built on the grounds provided year of sightings and legends but the era of mystery abruptly ends when both modern-day Autobots and Decepticons zero in on the legendary figure…

Weekly comics are hugely labour-intensive and time-critical, necessitating a vast turnover of staff – all duly recorded here. After the UK’s surprise hit periodical reprinted more US-originated material another Made-in-Britain epic began with the debut of star scribe-in-the-making Simon Furman who wrote ‘The Enemy Within!’ for #13-17 (March 9th – May 4th). Illustrated by Ridgway, Collins, Hart & Starkings, the saga details how rival Decepticons Megatron and Starscream vie for supremacy whilst vile spy Ravage infiltrates the Autobots’ Ark to action a malign mechanoid plan involving framing the Good Robots for an attack on a human military base…

‘Raiders of the Last Ark!’ #18-21 (May 16th – 29th by Furman, Collins, Jeff Anderson, Hart, Starkings & John Aldrich) then finds a Decepticon attempt to seize the Ark derailed when the vast ship’s AI consciousness manifests as a judgemental Auntie who proposes assessing the worthiness of both sides and eradicating those she finds lacking…

Following found text feature ‘Robot War! From Cybertron to Earth: The Story So Far!’ and another tranche of covers ‘Decepticon Dam-Busters’ (#29-30 October 5th – 12th 1985 and by Furman, John Stokes, Steve Whitaker & Starkings) attempts to marry toy, TV and comics universes in a brutal clash of ideologies and metal muscles in a tale adapted from an animated television episode.

Then it’s back to comicbook basics for #31-31 (October 19th – 26th) as Dinobots Grimlock, Sludge, Snarl and Slag face ‘The Wrath of Guardian!’ by Furman, Barry Kitson, Hart & Annie Halfacree as the tragic Autobot turned into a Decepticon slave battles his former allies before eventually succumbing to ‘The Wrath of Grimlock!’ (Furman, Kitson, Mark Farmer, Scott Whittaker & Mike Scott).

Preceded by ‘Robot War II: The Saga of the Transformers!’ and Geoff Senior’s black-&-white try-out art assignment, ‘Christmas Breaker!’ (James Hill, Will Simpson, Hart & Starkings from #41 December 28th) sees human robot hunter Circuit Breaker declare a temporary truce with her quarry to save a child, after which ‘Crisis of Command!’ (#42-44, January 4th – 18th 1986) – written by Collins & Hill, illustrated by Senior & Stokes, coloured by Steve Whitaker, John Burns, Gina Hart & Stuart Place & Starkings, and lettered by Mike Scott – sees burned out Optimus Prime under pressure from his own friends to create Super Autobots. The moral machine is severely embattled but knows becoming worse than Decepticons is no way to win the million-year-war…

Meanwhile, waiting in the shadows, Ravage lurks, ready to exploit the Autobots’ hesitation…

This initial compilation heads toward a conclusion with the all-UK material created for The Transformers Annual 1986; released in Autumn 1985 for the Christmas trade.

After plenty of candid, behind-the-scenes creative secrets shared, the narratives resume with

‘Plague of the Insecticons!’ (Furman, Collins, Anderson, Hart & Starkings) as a new breed of robots are catastrophically unleashed just as the Autobots are invited to the White House for a parley with President Reagan…

Then Tales of Cybertron takes us back eons to the robot homeworld where and when ‘And There Shall Come… A Leader!’ (by Furman, Stokes, Hart & Starkings) reveals the origins of the Autobot leader.

Annuals used prose stories to beef up the content and cut down on illustrating costs and a brace follow here.

Written by Hill with spot illos from Ridgway & Hart, ‘Missing in Action!’ details how neophyte Autobot Tracks gets accidentally involved in a bank robbery whilst ‘Hunted!’ finds Bumblebee battling for his life against Ravage in the Amazon jungle…

Rounding out this procession of childhood delights is a big bunch of ‘Adverts and Ephemera’ reprinting numerous toy infomercials and ‘Interface Fact Files’ offering byte-sized (sorry!) bursts of data on the galvanised Goodies and Baddies…

Fast-paced and furious in intensity, this cosmic drama for all ages still carries a punch today and the early work of modern graphic luminaries is a distinct pleasure for today’s fans to see.

Chock full of high-tech, explosive-but-not-gratuitous action, this book fairly barrels along: A solid read for aficionados and thrill-seeker of all ages.
The Transformers Classics UK vol. 1. Hasbro and its logo TRANSFORMERS and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro and are used with permission. © 2011 Hasbro. Circuit Breaker and all related characters are ™ and © Marvel Entertainment LLC and its subsidiaries All Rights Reserved.

Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor volume 2: Fractures

By Robbie Morrison, George Mann, Brian Williamson, Mariano Laclaustra, Hi Fi & various (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-301-7 (HB)                    978-1-78276-659-9 (SC)

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

The British love comic strips and they love celebrity and they love “characters.”

The history of our graphic narrative has a peculiarly disproportionate amount of radio comedians, Variety stars and film and television actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Flanagan & Allen, Winifred Atwell, Jimmy Edwards and their ilk as well as actual shows and properties such as Whacko!, ITMA, Old Mother Riley, Supercar, Pinky and Perky plus hundreds more.

Anthology comics such as Radio Fun, Film Fun, TV Fun, Look-In, TV Tornado, TV Comic and Countdown translated our viewing and listening favourites into pictorial gold every week, and it was a pretty poor star or show that couldn’t parley the day job into a licensed comic property.

Doctor Who premiered on black-&-white televisions across the UK with the first episode of ‘An Unearthly Child’ on November 23rd 1963, and in 1964 his decades-long association with TV Comic began in #674 (the premier instalment of ‘The Klepton Parasites’).

On 11th October 1979 (although adhering to the US off-sale cover-dating system so it says 17th) Marvel’s British subsidiary launched Doctor Who Weekly. It became a monthly magazine in September 1980 (#44) and has been with us – under various names – ever since. All of which only goes to prove that the Time Lord is a comic hero with an impressive pedigree.

The comicbook division of the Whovian mega-franchise has roamed far and wide and currently rests with Titan Comics who have sagaciously opted to run parallel series starring many individual incarnations of the trickily turbulent Time Lord…

These tales – starring the Peter Capaldi iteration – comprise issues #6-10 of the monthly periodical plus a short tale from Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor Free Comic Book Day 2015 with our tetchy Time Lord still gallivanting all across the universe in the company of schoolteacher and “Impossible Girl” Clara Oswald.

Scripted by Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante, The Authority) and illustrated by Brian Williamson (Torchwood, Primeval, Spider-Man) with assistance from Hi Fi Colour Design, the calamity commences soon after the defeat of self-proclaimed goddess Kali (see volume 1)

Strange occurrences are plaguing the area around Coal Hill Secondary School in Shoreditch, East London where Miss Oswald has a teaching job. They all centre around young Molly Foster whose dad – a Unified Intelligence Task-Force scientist – recently died in a car crash.

The family is naturally devastated, but little Molly’s black mood turns quite suddenly after she pulls the somehow not-deceased Dr. Foster out of a hole in the air…

When the TARDIS alarms reveal that something is trying to tear down the walls of the Multiverse, Clara and the Doctor warp into UNIT HQ and find the militarised boffins have been meddling with Foster’s last experiment… a Trans-Reality Gate…

Molly has no idea that the Daddy she’s hiding from the rest of the bereaved family in the shed in the garden comes from a parallel world where he was the only survivor of the traffic wreck. Paul only knows he’s found his lost loved ones again. The Doctor knows the reality breaches are eroding the crucial interdimensional barriers preserving Reality.

Nobody has any notion that the universes have their own safeguards and upholders of the Laws of Reality until merciless energy beings calling themselves ‘The Fractures’ leak into our dimension, possess humans and start hunting for the transgressors: Paul Foster, little Molly and anyone aiding and abetting them.

Since he considers Earth under his personal protection, The Doctor – despite utterly disapproving of Foster’s experiment and familial sentimentality – is resolved that the rampaging Fractures’ brutal police action will not go unpunished…

Bombastic ultra-cosmic invasion and last-ditch combat action gives way to cool wit, slick moves and devious criminal intent as ‘Gangland’ (with additional art by Mariano Laclaustra) sees Clara and The Doctor pop back to 1963 Las Vegas to catch a concert by the inimitable “Wolf Pack”.

Sadly, Frankie, Dino and the Boys are blithely unaware that their Mafioso employers are in a spot of extraterrestrial bother…

Millenia previously, the Hyperion War between the universe’s great races ended with the chief Time Lord employing a deadly chronal gun in a game of chance with Count D’if of the Cybock Imperium. The gambit – known as “Rassilon’s Roulette” – ensured Gallifreyan dominance for uncounted eons.

Now, however, the surviving Cybock octoids have stolen Rassilon’s legendary pistol and created a gangster syndicate on Earth. The intention is to subjugate the planet and reconstitute their Imperium as a criminal enterprise through which they can ultimately conquer the galaxy, but they have not counted on the ruthless greed and stubbornness of Earth mobsters, the devil-may-care pluck of drunken entertainers or the deadly wiles of the last Time Lord…

Scripted by George Mann and illustrated by Laclaustra & Luis Guerrero, ‘The Body Electric’ comes from Doctor Who – The Twelfth Doctor Free Comic Book Day 2015.

Short, sharp and shocking, the tale reveals how the Time Lord and Clara arrive on quartz planet Asmoray just as the humans mining the world for its electricity begin dying. It doesn’t take the grumbling Gallifreyan long to determine that the world is neither lifeless nor exclusively owned by humanity. Then all he has to do is stop two species eradicating each other…

All in a day’s work really…

Enthrallingly entertaining and wickedly witty, this titanic time-space tome comes with a gallery of alternate and variant covers by Blair Shedd, Brian Williamson & Luis Guerrero, Rian Hughes and AJ, so if you’re a fervent fan of the television Time Lord, this book – also available as a digital download – could well make you an addict of the print iteration too.

Fractures is a splendid romp for casual readers, a fine additional avenue for devotees of the TV show to explore and a perfect opportunity to cross-promote comics to anyone minded to give strip sagas another go…
BBC, Doctor Who (word marks, logos and devices) and Tardis are trade marks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence. BBC logo © BBC 1996. Doctor Who logo © BBC 2009. Tardis image © BBC 1963. First edition April 2015.

Mega Robo Bros volume 2: Mega Robo Rumble

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

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

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

It’s the Future!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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

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

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