Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War


By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-914-8

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating sheer comicstrip magic.

As affirmed in Neil Emery’s splendid appreciation ‘Into Battle: a Chronology of Charley’s War’, the landmark feature was originally published in British war anthology Battle (AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action etc.). A surprise hit, the serial launched in issue #200, running from 6th January 1979 until October of 1986.

It recounted, usually in heartrending and harrowing detail and with astounding passion for a Boys’ Periodical, the life of an East-End kid who lied about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

The stunning strip contingent contained within this superb Omnibus edition – 86 weekly episodes in all – form one of the most powerful and influential characterisations of the oh-so-ironic “war to end all wars”, touching upon many diverse aspects of the conflict and even the effects on the Home Front, all delivered with a devastatingly understated dry sense of horror and injustice and frequently leavened with gallows humour as trenchant as that legendarily “enjoyed” by the poor trench-bound “Tommies” of the time.

Before the tale commences however there are also a brace of educational and informative features to enhance the experience ‘Landships: the Evolution of the Tank’ by Steve White and a wonderful glimpse into the mind of that sublime and much-missed illustrator courtesy of  ‘Joe Colquhoun in Conversation’ by Stephen Oldman.

This magnificent monochrome mega-compilation opens with a 4-page instalment (for much of the middle run the series came in 3-page episodes) ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’ which followed 16-year-old London Bus Company worker Charley Bourne as he eagerly enlisted and so-quickly graduated to the unending, enduring horrors of the muddy, blood-soaked battlefield of The Somme.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for those brief bursts of manic aggression and strategic stupidity which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley in the Westshire Regiment and showed a rapidly changing cast being constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition.

The weekly hell showed lesser-known, far from glorious sides of the conflict that readers in the 1970s and 1980s had never seen in any other war comic. Each strip was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the simple lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and also cleverly utilised reproductions of cartoons and postcards from the period.

With Boer War veteran Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the far too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life.

Slowly but irrevocably the callow, naïve boy became a solid, dependable warrior – albeit one with a nose for trouble and a blessed gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. But as a result, and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied Commanders continue their plans for a Big Push. Thus Charlie is confronted with an agonising moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up.

This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant, ruthless aristocrat Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining and sabotaging every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the riffraff cannon fodder’s lives tolerable. The self-serving toff takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops his huge picnic hamper in the trench mud…

On July 1st 1916 The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many others, Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top” and expected to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves his squad but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice them. Many beloved characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are finally captured by “the Boche”.

As they await their fate the traumatised veteran reveals to Ginger and Charley the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he so wants to die. Moreover the sole cause of that appalling atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape, only to blunder into a gas attack and British Cavalry. The mounted men then gallop off to meet stern German resistance (resulting in some of the most baroque and disturbing scenes ever depicted in kids comics) whilst Bourne and Co. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however. Waiting for the order to attack, Lt. Thomas and his hard-pressed men are suddenly subjected to a terrific barrage. With horror the officer realises they are being shelled by their own big guns and dispatches a runner to Snell who has a functioning line to Allied HQ.

The role of messenger was the most dangerous in the army but, with no other means of communication except written orders and requests, failure to get through was never acceptable. By the time Charley volunteers a dozen men have failed. With British shells still slaughtering British troops Bourne is determined to pushing his luck as the “thirteenth runner”…

As previously stated Charley’s War closely followed key events of the war, using them as a road map or skeleton to hang specific incidents upon, but this was not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on the characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of heartrending action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was always amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on (more fully expanded upon in the author’s informative ‘Strip Commentary’ which concludes this Omnibus edition)…

With the Thirteenth Runner storyline, likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly began his descent from fresh-faced innocent to weary, battle-scarred veteran as the war reached beyond the cataclysmic opening moves of the Somme Campaign and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Frantically making his way to the rear positions Charley successfully passes the fallen twelve runners but only encounters more officer arrogance and Professional Soldier stupidity before the battle ends. Snell refuses to even read the message until he has finished his tea…

Helpless before the aristocrat’s indifference Charley angrily returns to the Front. Finding everybody apparently dead, he snaps: reduced to a killing rage he is only dragged back to normal when Ginger, Smith Seventy and the Sarge emerge from a shattered support trench.

The lad’s joy is short-lived. Thomas is arrested for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, and with him gone Snell now commands the unit of despicable disposable commoners…

Removed to the Rear to have their wounds treated, Charley and his pals meet Weeper Watkins. The former ventriloquist cries permanently. His eyes have been ruined by exposure to poison gas but he is still considered fit for duty…

Soon however they all fall foul of sadistic military policeman Sergeant Bacon who has earned his nickname as “the Beast” over and over again…

With a chance to blow off steam – such as a hilarious volunteer Concert Party show – Charley and Weeper are soon in the Beast’s bad books. However his first attempt to beat and break Bourne goes badly awry when a couple of rowdy Australian soldiers join the fray and utterly humiliate the Red Cap.

Bullies are notoriously patient and Bacon’s turn comes at last when Lt. Thomas is found guilty. Charley and Weeper refuse to be part of the firing squad which executes him and are punished by a military tribunal, leaving them at the Beast’s non-existent mercy. Enduring savage battlefield punishments which include a uniquely cruel form of crucifixion, their suffering only ends when the base is strafed by German aircraft…

With sentence served and Bacon gone, Charley is soon back in the trenches, just in time for the introduction of Tank Warfare to change the world forever.

A fascinating aspect of the battle is highlighted here as the strip concentrates heavily upon the German reaction to this military innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank to be an atrocity weapon in just the same way that modern soldiers do chemical and biological weapons.

In the build-up to the Big Push Charley is singled out by a new replacement. Unctuous Oliver Crawleigh is a cowardly spiv and petty criminal, but he’s also married to Charley’s sister Dolly. The chancer ignobly attaches himself to the young veteran like a leech, offering to pay Charley to either protect him or wound him some minor way which will get “Oiley” safely back to Britain…

The next day the Empire’s new landships make their terrifying debut with army infantry in close support and the effect on the Germans is astounding. In a ferociously gripping extended sequence Mills & Colquhoun take the readers inside the hellish iron leviathans as the outraged Huns devote their manic utmost efforts into eradicating the titanic terrors.

The carnage is unspeakable but before long Charley, Oiley and Smith Seventy are inside one of the lumbering behemoths, reluctantly replacing the dead crew of clearly deranged tank man Wild Eyes as the modern-day Captain Ahab drags them along for the ride: seeking a madman’s redemption for the loss of his comrades, the slaughter of a town and destruction of a church…

In the quiet of the weary aftermath Oiley deliberately puts his foot under a tank to “get a Blighty” (a wound sufficiently serous to be sent home to England) and attempts to bribe Charley into silence. The disgusted, exhausted teenager makes him eat his filthy money…

During this lull in the fighting, events on the German side saw despised commoner and Eastern Front veteran Colonel Zeiss spurn his aristocratic Junker colleagues’ outdated notions and devise a new kind of Total Warfare to punish the British for their use of mechanised murder machines…

Charley meanwhile is wounded and his comrades celebrate the fact that he will soon be home safely. Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the army medical contingent – especially the notorious “Doctor No”, who never lets a man escape his duty – means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle.

Bourne returns to the trenches just in time to meet the first wave of Zeiss’ merciless “Judgement Troops”, who stormed the British lines, slaughtering everyone – including German soldiers who got in the way – in a savage, no-holds-barred assault, whose “Blitzkreig tactics” overwhelm everything in the path.

Charley and his mates experience fresh horrors: battlefield executions, new and experimental forms of poison gas, flamethrowers, strafing by steel javelins and brutal, uncompromising hand-to-hand combat in their own overrun trenches before the bloody battle peters out indecisively…

Zeiss is subsequently cashiered by his own appalled superiors, but knows that one day his concepts of Blitzkrieg and Total War will become the norm…

Exhausted, battle-weary Charley is again injured, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked temporary amnesiac. His mother undergoes slow torture as she receives telegrams declaring her son, missing, dead, found wounded and lost again…

Mills & Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction; switching the emphasis to the Home Front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning.

Mills’ acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, when the troop ship carrying him and Bill Tozer back to Blighty is torpedoed…

When their perilous North Sea odyssey at last brings Charley back to Silvertown in London’s West Ham, it is in the wake of a catastrophic disaster in which fifty tons of TNT exploded at a munitions factory, killing more than seventy workers and injuring a further four hundred…

No longer comfortable around civilians and with no stomach for the jingoistic nonsense of the stay-at-homes or the covert criminal endeavours of boastful “war-hero” (and secret looter) Oiley, Charley hangs out in pubs with the Sarge and thereby reconnects with old soak and Crimean War survivor Blind Bob

London is a city under constant threat, not just from greedy munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland, but also increasingly common aerial bombing raids which provoke mindless panic and destruction at the very heart of the British Empire.

Focus here divides as Charley’s days are contrasted with the zealous mission of devoted family man Kapitan Heinrich von Bergmann who leads his squadron of Zeppelins in a carefully calculated night sortie against the hated English…

When Blind Bill is evicted from his rooms Charley invites him to stay with the Bournes and the beggar’s incredible hearing (coupled with the area’s quaint air-raid listening devices) provides enough warning to seal Bergmann’s doom, but not before the airman has rained tons of explosive death on the capital…

During the bombing Charley discovers his mum is still toiling in the local munitions works. The exploitative owner has decided not to sound his air raid evacuation alarm as he has his profits and contracts to consider. Charley is not happy and dashes to get her out…

This stunning collection ends with a sharp jab at the dubious practices of British recruitment officers (who got bonuses for very volunteer they signed up) as Charley stops his extremely little brother Wilf from making the same mistake he did, and teaches the unscrupulous recruiter a much deserved lesson

To Be Continued…

Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium and exists as shining example of how good “Children’s Comics” can be. It is also one of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever produced for readers of any age.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no strip that so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would inescapably undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message.

There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War is published on August 8th 2014.

The Beano and The Dandy: Favourites from the Forties


By many & various (DC Thomson & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-821-0

As we’re all feeling a wee bit Caledonian at present, I thought I’d take a look at some of Scotland’s greatest achievements whilst simultaneously revelling in the Good Old Days of comics…

Released in 2003 as part of the DC Thomson’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations for their children’s periodicals division – which has more than any other shaped the psyche of generations of kids – this splendid oversized (296 x 204mm) 144 page hardback compilation rightly glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during a particularly bleak and fraught period in British history.

Admittedly the book goes through some rather elaborate editing and paste-up additions whilst editorially explaining for younger readers the vast changes to the commonplace that have occurred over more than half a century, and naturally the editors have expurgated a few of the more egregious terms that wouldn’t sit well with 21st century sensibilities (Mussolini lampoon Musso the Wop becomes the far-less ethnically unsound “Musso” for instance) but otherwise this is a superb cartoon commemoration of one of the greatest morale-building initiatives this nation ever enjoyed.

They’re also superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…

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 The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames.

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

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted generations of avid and devoted readers, and the end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent bumper hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941 only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. They only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949…

This superb celebration of Celtic creativity is packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips. The fun starts on the inside front with a wonderful Biffo the Bear exploit, illustrated by indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins, followed by Korky the Cat by James Crichton and a listing of ‘Forty from the 40’s’ before the vintage fun properly proceeds, sensibly sub-divided into themed chapters.

Sadly none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists, but as always I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course I would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions…

Then and Now offers a smart selection of comparisons to life in the past compared to the 21st century with hilarious examples and contributions from Lord Snooty – by the incredibly prolific Watkins – cowboy superman Desperate Dan at the doctor’s, ostrich antics with Big Eggo by Crichton (or perhaps Reg Carter), lady Wild West sheriff Ding-Dong Belle from Bill Holroyd and a glimpse at primitive fast-food courtesy of Dandy’s Bamboo Town duo Bongo and Pongo limned by Charlie Gordon.

There’s more medical mirth with Desperate Dan, wash day blues with Mickey’s Magic Book (Crichton?) and a prose yarn pinpointing the funnier points of the class war in The Slapdash Circus – with a stirring illustration by Toby Baines – before Charlie Chutney the Comical Cook (Allan Morley) plays pie-man and Watkins produces another Biffo blast.

Next comes The Horse That Jack Built, a rousing medieval adventure yarn starring a clockwork charger by Holroyd, before the chapter concludes in another Desperate Dan fable about messing around growing vegetables…

Entertainment then explores how fun was had in the war years – i.e. before television – beginning with a phonographic Korky yarn and the first fine example of licensed film feature Our Gang illustrated by that man Watkins.

The Our Gang (later known as Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in American Film history. Beginning in 1922 they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids” (atypically, though, there was full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys) having idealised adventures in a time both safer and more simple. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (he directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others) and these brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.

As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

In 1942 Dell Comics in the USA released an Our Gang comicbook written and drawn by Walt Kelly who, consummate craftsman that he was, restored the wit, verve and charm of the cinematic glory days with a progression of short tales that elevated the lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy in Oz or Huckleberry Finn.

Long before then, however (1937 and The Dandy #1, in fact), DC Thomson secured the British rights and produced their own uniquely home-grown weekly escapades of Alfalfa Switzer, Scotty Becket, Spanky McFarland, Darla Hood, Buckwheat Thomas and the rest, such as the quirky keep-fit frolic here…

Desperate Dan then endured some cool radio fun with Aunt Aggie, Keyhole Kate (Allan Morley) had trouble with a magic Lantern show, and Biffo’s juggling act brought nothing but pain and strife.

As depicted by the wonderful Eric Roberts, Podge found drumming was unwelcome around the village and the not-so-wild animals of Bamboo Town struck up – and out – the band, after which both Biffo and Korky suffered terribly for their R-and-R.

Posh poseur Swanky Lanky Liz (Charles Holt) comes a-cropper in a brace of telling tales after which the aforementioned dictator of Italy is mercilessly lambasted in a cruel quartet of Musso strips by Sam Fair, Charlie Chutney bakes to excess, Our Gang take vengeance on a bullying boxer and Podge foils a bunch of schoolboy cheats.

How the daily travails of conflict were relieved is examined in Wartime 1 with Jimmy and his Magic Patch (Watkins) accidentally visiting bellicose Lilliput, Lord Snooty’s pals battling a Nazi spy and his pigeons whilst barmy barber Hair Oil Hal (by John Brown) cuts up in a clever quartet.

Sam Fair was in excoriating top form with the superbly manic Addie and Hermy slapstick assaults on Adolf Hitler and HermannWilhelm Göring/Goering, Meddlesome Matty (Fair or Malcolm Judge?) becomes a different sort of siren and Mickey’s Magic Book proves more hindrance than help during an air raid…

The complex world of Fashion begins with a plethoraof Korky on parade, Beano’s Ding-Dong Belle offered some six-gun hints on good manners, Doubting Thomas by Roberts was overwhelmed by a shop dummy and Meddlesome Matty went shoe shopping… for a horse…

Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter by Hugh McNeil was legendary for her unique looks – as seen in three strips here – but Swanky Lanky Liz, Charlie Chutney, Musso, Hair Oil Hal and Biffo all offer their own stylistic visions to round out this section before the un-PC past is more fully and shamefacedly explored in Out of Fashion withBiffo, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy (by the Torelli Brothers), Meddlesome Matty, Korky, Doubting Thomas, Bamboo Town and Mickey’s Magic Book all exhibiting behaviours we just don’t condone nowadays…

Strips depicting Transport follow with Multy the Millionaire (Richard Cox), Korky and Biffo all experiencing some distress and delay after which Watkins displays his superb dramatic style for 1946 fantasy adventure Tom Thumb.

There are also more travel travails for Korky, Ding-Dong Belle, Doubting Thomas, Podge, Swanky Lanky Liz and Desperate Dan before a prose chapter from an epic Black Bob serial (a Lassie-like wonder dog illustrated by Jack Prout) precedes a Big Eggo pantomime romp and a 1944 Watkins spectacular starring Jimmy and his Magic Patch as a slave on Roman ship.

The trip down memory lane ends with another bout of combat fever in Wartime 2, containing stunning contributions from Bamboo Town and Desperate Dan and a treat for Pansy Potter fans: four fill-in strips from those tenuous days illustrated by different artists who might or might not be McNeil, Basil Blackaller, Sam Fair, James Clark and/or Charles Grigg.

The campaign continues with a 1942 Tin-Can Tommy tale plus more Podge, Keyhole Kate, Doubting Thomas, Desperate Dan, Korky strips as well as more Jimmy and his Magic Patch and a lovely Lord Snooty and his Pals yarn with the kids helping the Home Guard before Biffo ushers us out just as he had invited us in…

A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out for a half-day to run amok once again.

© 2003 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Phoenix Presents… Corpse Talk Season 1


By Adam Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-01-8

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 – hilariously undead…

The conceit in Adam Murphy’s wonderful (Horrible Histories inspired?) cartoon feature Corpse Talk is that famous personages from the past are exhumed for a chatty, cheeky This Is (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…

The third collected album release culled from the annals of The Phoenix (courtesy of those fine saviours of weekly comics at David Fickling Books) opens with introductory page ‘And Here’s your Host…’ and a creepy contents section ‘In the Guest Graveyard This Season’.

Before the inspirational post-mortem autobiographies commence there’s also a splendidly informative archaeological burial-map entitled ‘Digging up the Bodies’ providing an effective contextual visual timeline for the likes of ‘Amelia Earhart’ and ‘Nikola Tesla’ to discuss their contributions to the modern world, whilst daring pirate ‘Anne Bonny’ provides a more lurid option for Careers Day, ably supplemented by an extra fact feature page ‘What a Drag!’ detailing one of the more unexpected problems for women dressing up as a male pirates…

Polar explorer ‘Ernest Shackleton’, national hero ‘Joan of Arc’ and go-getting statesman and consolidator ‘Genghis Khan’ then respectively plead their post mortem cases, after which largely unsung explorer and scientist ‘Alexander von Humboldt’ finally gets his moment in the limelight before ‘Marie Curie’ – also augmented by a fact-page on her daunting ‘Killer Research’ – and ‘Emmeline Pankhurst’ describe how their singular contributions changed the world forever.

Digging further back ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ discusses his inventions, boy Pharaoh Tutankhmun explains the strange reason for his many names in ‘King Tut’ and ‘Boudica’ reveals the shocking saga of her revolt against the Romans

Author Murphy captivatingly indulges himself with the history of artistic inspiration (Katsushika) ‘Hokusai’ – also expanded by a page dedicated to ‘A Brush with Greatness’ – after which famous figures ‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Dick Turpin’ dish the dirt on the truth behind their legends and ‘Florence Nightingale’ remembers the bad old days with a supplementary examination of her later ‘Duvet Days’

After ‘Grigori Rasputin’ and ‘Charles Dickens’ recount their own amazing careers a welcome break is offered in the form of a puzzle asking the reader to find and return the restless guests to their biers and sepulchres in ‘Body Count: the Graveyard’.

The cadaverous chat show resumes with ‘Winston Churchill’ and ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’ (complemented by ‘The Music Thief’ revealing the musical youth’s amazing powers of memory and discernment) after which ‘Mary Shelley’ discloses how her groundbreaking novel came about and ‘Julius Caesar’ details his rapid rise and fall.

The strips then expand to two pages each for the contribution of his infamous paramour ‘Cleopatra’, our own ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Gandhi’, whilst literary icon ‘Jane Austen’ includes her own appendix in ‘The Lost Austen’ – revealing what her sister Cassandra did to all her letters upon the author’s passing…

Honest ‘Abe Lincoln’ reveals why he freed the slaves and ‘Albert Einstein’ discusses the nature of everything, whilst oddly merciful pirate ‘Blackbeard’ also offers extra bounty with the ghoulish catalogue of his death in ‘Dreaded, Deaded, Decapitated and Dunked’

The mean man behind the myth is exposed in ‘Richard the Lionheart’ before ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ takes four pages to detail their respective moments as queen, and Scots freedom fighter ‘William Wallace’ rousingly records his achievements before the interviews wrap up with the astounding journey of scientist, botanist and gentle hero ‘George Washington Carver’

To end the sessions on a fun note there then follows another quizzical corpse hunt in ‘Body Count: the Beach’ just to restore a little order to the proceeding.

Smart, irreverent, funny and splendidly factual throughout The Phoenix Presents… Corpse Talk Season 1 cleverly but unflinchingly deals with history’s more tendentious moments whilst personalising the great and the good for the coming generation.

It is also a fabulously fun read no parent or kid could possibly resist. Don’t take my word for it though, just check with the spirits in question…

Text and illustrations © Adam Murphy 2014. All rights reserved.

The Phoenix Presents… Bunny vs. Monkey Book One


By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-07-0

The other day I heaped much well-deserved praise upon Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey whilst congratulating David Fickling Books both on its superb weekly comic The Phoenix and new line of graphic albums.

I also noted that their first two book releases had made this year’s list for The Reading Agency’s prestigious Summer Reading Challenge (which begins on 12th July): the first comic-books ever to have been awarded such an honour. It seems only fair then that I cover that other nominee – especially as it’s one of the funniest all-ages books I’ve seen in years.

Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!), Bunny vs. Monkey has been a fixture in The Phoenix from the very first issue, a madcap duel of animal arch rivals set amidst the idyllic arcadia of a more-or-less ordinary English Wood.

With precious little unnecessary build-up The Phoenix Presents… Bunny vs. Monkey opens with a ‘Prologue!’ introducing placid, wise, helpful Bunny and not-so-smart pals Pig and Weenie Squirrel.

The foolish innocents have found a hibernating bear and Bunny really wants them to stop trying to wake it up. Meanwhile, over the hill and not so faraway, a bunch of boffins are attempting to launch a really annoying monkey into space…

Year One: January to June then commences a barrage of seasonal silliness as the proposed launch goes hideously awry and the loud, stroppy, obnoxious simian lands in the snow covered glade and declares himself king of this strange alien world in with ‘Bunny vs. Monkey’

Monkey loves noise, strife, chaos and trouble and wants to raise a rumpus – everything genteel, contemplative Bunny abhors – so when the apish astronaut introduces techno music in ‘Keep it Down!’ the lines of battle are irrevocably drawn…

Thing escalate in February ‘When Monkey Met Skunky’: a brilliant inventor with a bombastic line in animal-inspired terror weapons such as the Cluck Cluck Zeppelin used to bomb the woods with 10-year old rotten eggs or the giant metal robot hands which give the destructive Monkey ‘Fists of Furry’

The winter draws on with ‘Soggy ‘n’ Froggy’ wherein a monstrous Frog-O-Saurus becomes the wicked duo’s latest Weapon of Meadow Destruction, after which poor little Pig is transformed into cyborg sensation Pig-O-Tron 5000 in ‘Robo-Chop’ and a simple change of pace sees Weenie and Pig put on a circus show to counter all the nasty animosity but get painfully caught ‘Clowning Around’

Up until now Monkey has been risking his own pelt road testing all Skunky’s inventions, but when a bewildered former stuntman turns up the sneaky simian is happy to leave all the dangerous stuff to ‘Action Beaver’

March leads to a profusion of beautiful buds and blossoms which delight the soul of nature loving Bunny.

Tragically they utterly disgust Monkey, who tries to eradicate all that flora in ‘Down with Spring!’ until he comes a-cropper thanks to a sack of spiky Hodgehegs, whilst in ‘Bonjour, Le Fox’ the spacy invader finally goes too far, forcing Bunny to align with a rather radical environmentalist possessed of a big, bushy tail and a French accent…

Some of Bunny’s friends are their own worst enemies. ‘Race to the Moon!’ sees Weenie and Pig build their own spaceship out of natural materials like moss and mushrooms only to have Monkey disastrously commandeer it, after which Skunky builds a terrifying cyber crocodile dubbed ‘Metal Steve!’ which promptly ignores its perfidious programming to spend the day swimming.

Such failures thus compel Monkey to steal a steamroller to personally get rid of all that hateful, ugly cherry blossom infesting the trees in ‘Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’!’

The war against nature intensifies in April as ‘Eat Your Greens!’ finds Skunky’s Caterpillar-Zilla devouring the forest foliage until a real creepy crawly steps in, whilst ‘The Whuppabaloo!’ shows the niffy tinkerer’s softer side as he drags Monkey on a wilderness trek to track down the most amazing thing in nature…

‘Hide and Squark!’ depicts the rabbit’s fight back thanks to the double-dealing help of a certain giant parrot, after which a momentary détente for a spot of angling soon turns into another heated duel in ‘Fish Off!’

There’s a brief falling out of the axis of evil in May as ‘Invisi-Monkey’ sees the strident simian squabbling with Skunky to possess a sneaky stealth suit before reuniting to spoil a joyous game of Cake-Ball with their monolithic, monstrous ‘Mole-a-Rolla!’ After that Monkey attempts to turn the Wood into an oil field in ‘Black Gold’ before spoiling Bunny’s dream of a ‘Quiet Day!’ with a giant Robot Cockroach

Blazing June opens with ‘Bring Him Back!’ as Action Beaver attempts to retrieve watery wanderer Metal Steve whilst simple souls Weenie and Pig accidentally kick off an invention Armageddon which only gets worse when that long-slumbering ursine finally wakes up in ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bear?’

‘The Bat!’ apparently introduces a nasty new faction to the ongoing conflict (but all is not as it seems), and there’s no confusing the stakes when Bunny agrees to a winner-take-all fight in ‘Wrestlepocalypse!’ where Monkey learns that cheats never prosper…

Just when things seem likely to settle down fresh chaos ensue when a violent piratical rabbit with an eye-patch storms in to cause stir up trouble in ‘Bunny B!’ leaving us with the delightful prospect of more hair-raising, masterfully magical cartoon mayhem to come…

Endlessly inventive, sublimely funny and outrageously addictive, Bunny vs. Monkey is the kind of comic parents beg the kids to read to them. Don’t miss out on the next big thing.

Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2014. All rights reserved.

The Phoenix Presents… Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey


By Lorenzo Etherington (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910200-02-5

These days, young kids are far more likely to find their formative strip narrative experiences online or between the card-covers of specially tailored graphic novels rather than the comics and periodicals of my long-dead youth.

Once upon a time, however, the comics industry was a commercial colossus which thrived by producing copious amounts of gaudy, flimsy pamphlets in a multitude of subjects and sub-genre, all subdivided into a range of successful, self-propagating, seamlessly self-perpetuating age-specific publications.

Such eye-catching items generated innumerable tales and delights intended to entertain, inform and educate such well-defined target demographics as Toddler/Pre-school, Younger and Older Juvenile, General, Girls, Boys and even Young Teens, but today Britain can only manage to maintain a few paltry out-industry licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for a dwindling younger readership.

Where once cheap and prolific, strip magazines in the 21st century are extremely cost-intensive and manufactured for a highly specific – and dying – niche market, whilst the beguiling and bombastic genres that originally fed and nurtured comics are more immediately disseminated via TV, movies and assorted interactive media.

There are one or two venerable, long-lived holdouts such as the Beano and 2000AD but overall the trend has been downwards for decades.

That maxim was happily turned on its head in January 2012 when Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched The Phoenix: a traditional-seeming anthology comic weekly aimed at girls and boys between 6 and 12 which revelled in reviving the good old days of picture-story entertainment Intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity in style and Content.

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

The Phoenix was recently voted No.2in Time Magazine’sglobal list of Top Comics and Graphic Novels and is the only strip publication started in the UK in the last forty years to have reached issue #100 (#129 and counting). The magazine celebrated its first anniversary by developing a digital edition available globally as an iPad application and is continually expanding its horizons.

It is, most importantly, big and bold and tremendous fun.

Moreover, whilst comics companies all seem to have given up the ghost, in this country at least, old-school prose publishers and the newborn graphic novel industry have evolved to fill their vacated niche.

With a less volatile business model and far more sustainable long-term goals, book sellers have prospered from magazine makers’ surrender, and there have never been so many and varied cartoon and comics chronicles, compilations and tomes for readers to enjoy.

Happily at long last many of the serials and series in The Phoenix have finally joined that growing market, having been superbly repackaged as graphic albums with the first two debuting in July 2014.

Both have already been selected for The Reading Agency’s prestigious Summer Reading Challenge (which begins on 12th July): the first comic-books ever to have featured on a Summer Reading Challenge list.

The one we’re looking at today is The Phoenix Presents… Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey: a dazzling display of cartoon virtuosity and brain-bursting comic challenges composed by Lorenzo Etherington, originally seen as captivating, addictively challenging weekly instalments of The Dangerous Adventures of Von Doogan.

The serialcombines captivating cartoon narrative with observational tests, logic puzzles and other kids’ favourite brain-teasers, craftily taking readers and participants on a magnificently constructed progressive voyage of adventure and discovery in 37 clue, game, maze and mystery-packed episodes.

Von Doogan and his partner in peril Jake Wingnut are brilliant and intrepid young explorers with a keen sense of justice and an insatiable thirst for action who here tackle all manner of conundra and – with your help – track down a band of pirate cutthroats, battle a magical monster and rescue a fantastic treasure from obscurity by solving such imposing posers as ‘The Nine Locks’, ‘The Telltale Cell’, ‘A Knotty Problem’ and ‘Finding Captain Nemo’

Naturally we aren’t all as smart as Von Doogan or a six-year old so this spectacular colourful cornucopia comes with a page explaining ‘How the Book Works’, an ‘Equipment Checklist’ and a fulsome secret section giving extra help with ‘The Clues’ and thankfully ‘The Solutions’.

There’s even a free printable download page providing your own handy dandy copy of ‘Doogan’s Danger Kit’ to stop you cutting up the one in this mesmerising manuscript of mystery.

Story! Games! Action! …and all there in the irresistible shape of entertaining pictures. How much cooler can a book get?
Text and illustrations © Lorenzo Etherington 2014. All rights reserved.

The Reading Agency is a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. The Summer Reading Challenge encourages children aged 4 to 11 to read six books during the long summer holiday.

Children can read whatever they like just as long as they are borrowed from the library. Every time children finish a book they get stickers and rewards and there’s a certificate for everyone who finishes. The Summer Reading Challenge is open to all school children and is designed for all reading abilities.

Visit www.readingagency.org.uk

To find out more about The Phoenix or subscribe, visit: www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk

Death Sentence


By Montynero & Mike Dowling (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-008-5

For most of us Sex Sells.

If that’s not you and you’re easily shocked or offended, stop Right Here, Right Now and come back for a less grown up review tomorrow…

As for the salacious, tawdry, vulgar rest of humanity, however, fornication is a force that cannot be resisted and we’re always gagging for it.

One outrageous potential result of that inescapable biological imperative was recently examined and scathingly lampooned in a dark and decadent fable from scripter, artist and games designer Montynero and sublime illustrator Mike Dowling. Death Sentence – after an initial and truncated appearance in Clint Magazine in 2012 – was retooled and completed in a breakthrough 6-issue miniseries which took the comics world by storm when it was released in October 2013.

Now the entire sordid episode has been compiled – along with a scintillating selection of irresistible extras – in a stout and sturdy hardcover collection that promises to be one of the most talked about books of the year…

The author’s own Introduction kicks everything off (and is complemented by another from Rob Williams) before the seductively apocalyptic tale begins with ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ wherein frustrated artist Verity Fette is getting some very distressing news in a Camden doctor’s surgery.

She’s just been diagnosed with G+: a new, universally fatal sexually transmitted disease that has a rather peculiar side-effect.

Although this STI kills in six months, for the length of that time the victim “suffers” from increased vigour, stamina, sex drive and even develops some form of super power…

Over in Primrose Hill, disgraced, shambolic and rapidly fading rock star Daniel Waissel AKA Weasel awakes from another unspecified period of debauched excess and tries to make sense of what his A&R man Russ is saying.

Apparently having G+ might be the only thing to revive his failing career and, if his power is music-related, perhaps he can still get all six of the albums he’s contracted for finished before he joins all the other dead legends going out in a blaze of lucrative glory…

Whilst Verity is quitting her meaningless job, over the river in a South Bank TV studio comedian, media darling, affirmed libertine and G+ carrier David “Monty” Montgomery is charmingly, charismatically, shockingly titillating the nation again; avowing that his final months on Earth won’t alter his pleasure-seeking behaviour or sensuous attitudes…

Later, Weasel’s powers at last manifest when a couple of irate drug dealers turn up, wanting payment for the prodigious amount of pharmaceuticals the creatively blocked musician has consumed, but neither he nor the other two G+ sufferers are aware that a shady government agency is keeping tabs on them.

Unfortunately, when the spooks decide to “acquire” Verity the result is spectacular and very messy…

Determined to keep the populace in the dark, the Department of National Security goes into utter bastard mode: blaming the gory fiasco on fictitious terrorists whilst covertly hunting the terrified ‘Dissolved Girl’ through the seedy streets of London.

Weasel is – as always – an emotional wreck, avoiding decisions – or making rock & roll – via a constant flurry of sex and drugs. His wake-up call comes when he realises his new normal has ended his latest bedmate in a most unsavoury manner…

Monty, however, is completely in control: aware of what he’s doing and not about to let a few interfering coppers get in his way.

Appalled and guilt-ridden, Verity regains consciousness on a remote Scottish island, where a very nice old lady makes her an intriguing offer before inviting the still-frustrated artist into the huge secret base beneath the heather…

‘Royals’ finds bored and increasingly irresistibly Monty pondering how to top his already prodigious and unsurpassed career of licentious excess before heading off to Buckingham Palace…

North of the border Verity is beguiled by talk of a cure and agrees to let Dr. Lunn train her in the use of her rapidly-expanding abilities whilst on a quiet London street fugitive Weasel sneaks into the bedroom of his son.

Leaving Mickey with his mother might well be only good thing he’s ever done in his whole wasted life…

This sentimental act is a big blunder though, as a flotilla of copters leads a blistering military ambush which, after a spectacular chase, finally leads to the capture of the musical rebel without a clue…

When he arrives on the island, the nice doctors are keen on helping Weasel learn about himself and sexy fellow inmate Verity. They happily provide space, time, tuition, medical grade drugs…

Down South, Monty, having crowned himself King of Britain, is barely able to contain his self-absorbed glee. ‘In the City’ sees him really stretching himself, and after a psionic flexing of his mental muscle, bloodily destroying a division of the army as well as the ruling elite of Britain, he declares London a city free from all laws.

Influenced as much by a sense of wild liberty as Monty’s surging mental influence, the population descends into gory debauchery, prompting the American President and NATO to take matters into their own hand before the seditious super-maniac works himself up into becoming a global threat…

In Scotland Dr. Lunn is helpless to prevent the DNS frantically turning her research subjects into weapons to use against the rogue G+ victim who has turned London into a sex-fuelled charnel house. Their main concern is to end the affair before the full NATO fleet steaming ominously towards Britain takes the matter into their own terrified, remorseless, thermonuclear hands…

‘This Woman’s Work’ ratchets up the tension as Monty increasingly opts for slaughter over sex whilst Verity and Weasel have no choice but to grudgingly accept that they might be the only way to stop him. The crisis then reaches a catastrophic climax in ‘To the End’…but not in a way you’d suspect or be comfortable with…

Each chapter is bolstered by a series of faux news articles and public service features ranging from ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ to a medical advice website page for potential G+ sufferers, and this lewdly lavish hardback tome also includes a fifteen-strong covers-&-variants gallery, a fulsome, informative and frequently hilarious ‘Death Sentence Commentary’ from Montynero and Mike Dowling, and more.

Bold, slick, immensely engrossing and intoxicatingly enjoyable, Death Sentence is a black, uproarious fairytale for adults that blends superhero tropes with outrageous cheek, deliriously shocking situations and in-your-face irreverence, making it one of the most notable and unmissable comics tales of the last half century…

Buy it, read it and spread it around to everyone…

Death Sentence ™ and © 2014 Montynero, Mike Dowling and Titan Comics. All rights reserved.

Babak Ganjei’s Road House


By Babak Ganjei (Records Records Records Books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-7-1

Comics are a uniquely universal and predominantly graphic engine of narrative which can be as clear, concise and precise as a diagram or as shaded and meaningfully obscurantist as “Beat” poetry or The Clangers.

Moreover, when sequential panels are loaded with layers of pristine clarity which are simultaneously hooded or non-specific imagery, the effects can be spectacularly engaging.

According to author/illustrator Babak Ganjei this particular pictorial feast results from a momentary connection of artistic drudgery to a state of pure channelled creativity.

“I was hung-over; sitting in my studio, everyone else was working around me. I had Road House streaming from Netflix, I started drawing it; more than anything just to look busy. However as I got through the first few scenes I thought how it would be nice to truly immerse myself in a project that would take some time and with that time become it’s own thing”

The enterprise grew and, despite overrunning the artist’s self-imposed time and space restrictions, gelled into a compulsive exhibition of artistic motor skills and disassociative construction of story elements. The brain wants logic and sees patterns: the hands and eyes just keep moving. Just ask any freelancer who has spent three days awake finishing a rush deadline job…

In case you haven’t caught it, Road House was released in 1989, a low-budget action flick starring Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott and Ben Gazarra. It was directed by Rowdy Herrington, and John Wilson (founder of the Golden Raspberry Awards) listed it as “one of the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made”.

The transformed, reconstituted result is a beguiling 192 page landscape hardback continuity (185 of which are the resultant images) delivered in a stark, enthralling monochrome which offers a truly raw storytelling experience, with one panel per page each captioned with brief, pithy “found” quotes from a wide range of other sources such as Foucoult, Foster Wallace and Baudrillard, Ali to Richard Pryor to Steve Martin…

A moodily effective, oddly gripping little (148 x 210mm) experimental treat, Babak Ganjei’s Road House is practically Dadaist in delivery and ferociously enticing, something no lover of comics or practitioner of the visual arts should miss… and perhaps later attempt for themselves.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new trend or Olympic sport…

Tantalising thought, no…?

© Records Records Records 2013.

Violent Cases Hardcover


By Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-360-5

Do you remember…?

Since its first release in 1987 Violent Cases has gone back into print many times, but regrettably remains a comics connoisseur’s secret. Now Titan Books have released a big, bold, lush and lavish commemorative oversized full-colour hardback (302 x 235mm), complete with extras culled from previous editions and new art material, in another sincere and sterling effort to give this tale the audience and acclaim it deserves.

There’s actually very little I feel happy saying about this enigmatic and compelling little teaser other than the basic facts. Too much detail or analysis will spoil the magic if you’ve never seen it – and if you have it’s probably not what you recall it being…

Initially published by the sorely missed publisher Escape – in association with Titan Books – in 1987, it marks the first collaboration of two then largely unknown creators who shared a more literary aspiration for comics than traditional newcomers to the craft, married to a novel approach and impassioned – if raw and hungry – storytelling talent.

It’s short, sweet, disturbing, utterly absorbing and probably impossible to translate into any other medium… and that is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

There’s this guy see, and he’s idly reminiscing about his childhood in the 1960s…

Years ago in Portsmouth a little lad hurt his arm rather badly whilst exchanging words about bedtime with his father. To fix the problem daddy took the 4-year old to see an osteopath. The elderly gentleman was an interesting fellow with an odd accent who told great yarns and mentioned that he had once treated somebody famous…

As the narrator tries to sort out the half-forgotten details – fragments of life and films and games congealed now with clearly conflated circumstances – the facts, fictions and shadily obscured and occulted misunderstandings concerning his perhaps difficult childhood, growing maturity and awareness and those hours with Al Capone’s bone-bender begin to emerge and coalesce… or do they?

Flickering back and forth, the narrative proffers a miasma of mixed memories and misapprehensions involving a memorably troubled old man, Mysterious Men in Dark Suits, a party, a scary magician, unexplained appearances and subsequent disappearances, unforgettable physical discomfort as a young arm was coaxed back into correctitude, tales of tailors and gangsters and Tommy Guns… which were always carried in Violent Cases…

Most of all it deals with unresolvable mysteries – because even the things we recall, we don’t always remember…

This entire book is all about stories, memories, perception, mis-perception and self-deception, painted by Dave McKean in a muted but cleverly targeted tonal colour-palette of blues, greys and browns, with splashes of electric vibrancy where appropriate (all reduced to straight monochrome for the very first edition, restored for those subsequent releases, and remastered here)…

This volume also includes Introductions by Paul Gravett, Alan Moore and the story’s author Neil Gaiman (from the 1997, 1987 and 1991 editions) as well as his Afterword from 2003, plus assorted covers and other art works by McKean and an illustrated Biographies section which is a marvel and joy to behold…

Despite being one of the key books in the 1980s’ war to prove that comics were an art form and valid mode of mature creative expression, Violent Cases remains a largely unknown artefact, seldom cropping up in the same discussions as contemporaries like A Contract With God, Maus, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, The Dark Knight Returns and V for Vendetta, let alone later acclaimed breakthroughs such as Ghost World, Black Hole, From Hell, Persepolis or even Sandman.

It is also an unforgettable pictorial memento mori – or is that topica tragoedia? – which beguiles and enchants, tests and subtly distresses in ways no lover of the comics medium could possibly resist.

If you haven’t read it, you must. If you have, read it again – it’s not at all what you remember…

™ & © 1987, 2003, 2013 Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean. All rights reserved. All other material © its respective author or creator.

The Secret Service: Kingsman


By Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons and Matthew Vaughn with Andy Lanning & Angus McKie (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-703-8

We Brits know everything about the spy-game and think we’ve probably seen it all, from Bond to Smiley, Harry Palmer to Johnny Worricker and Spooks to Carry On Spying.

So it’s not often we get a look at a fresh take, but that’s what’s on offer here as comicbook legends Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons team up with film director/producer Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to update the genre in a wickedly sly, cynically funny and irreverential thriller which nevertheless harks back to the glory-days of the “great game” of gentlemanly cloak-and-dagger as it was called when were still an empire, as well as the swinging superspy sagas of the 1960s and 1970s…

The original 6-issue miniseries The Secret Service was released as part of Millarworld’s unfailing hit-factory deal with Marvel Comics’ Icon sub-imprint, and this slick, sharp and wickedly tongue-in-cheek pastiche mixes all the favourite trappings and spectacle of big budget movie blockbusters with an archly satisfying class-war aesthetic that finds full expression following the traditional all-action opening attention-grabber, which finds actor Mark Hamill (almost) saved from abduction by an armed gang by an unlucky British secret agent…

The scene then switches to the urban wasteland of Peckham where Gary Unwin – known to his no-hoper wannabe-gangsta pals as “Eggsy” – is again at odds with the cheap thug who’s shacked up with his mum.

Dean is a former soldier. He’s also a bully and a brute: a typical South London Chav who thinks he’s hard and takes it out too often on Gary and his little brother Ryan as well as their long-suffering mother Sharon.

No wonder the jobless, shiftless teen spends all his time playing computer games, doing drugs, nicking cars and making mischief with his mates. Tonight is no exception, except for the part where the hapless joyriders crash their purloined ride and end up in police cells…

Meanwhile in the swank part of town, two movers-&-shakers in Intelligence are discussing a wave of mysterious abductions: actors from Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek have all disappeared, as have scientists, sporting legends and other notables. There is clearly some major scheme afoot…

Jack London (I gather they’ve changed his name in the film version) is a self-made man. He escaped his lowborn origins and remade himself into a suave, sophisticated international man-of-mystery and Great Britain’s top operative: the spy who never fails. Nobody does it better. He’s also Sharon’s brother and is once again forced to apply his influence to save his nephew from the consequences of his actions…

He’s had to step in before but he swears it’s the last time and, after an unpleasant confrontation, determines to get Gary out of the toxic environment he escaped from decades ago…

As a mass wedding in Hawaii is turned into a bloodbath by a mysterious mastermind’s hi-tech secret weapon, in Peckham Uncle Jack is telling Eggsy the unbelievable truth. He gets a chance to prove his outrageous claims when Dean’s loutish cronies pick a fight…

Jack, plagued with guilt for neglecting his shameful family, then offers his nephew a chance to better himself by joining the Secret Service training program that made him one of the deadliest men alive…

The boy jumps at the chance to get away and is soon an outcast amongst the cream of Britain’s posh-boy private school and military college recruits, doggedly learning unarmed combat, ballistics, weapons training, tactics, computer science, seduction techniques, languages, piloting any vehicle and every skill and trick needed to keep the world safe from invasion and subversion…

Despite his background and lack of social skills Gary thrives – and even excels – in many of the less salubrious exercises (such as killing drug-dealers on a live fire exercise) even as Uncle Jack returns to his mystery kidnapping case. He slowly makes progress across the world, tracking a certain mad young billionaire with dreams of saving the planet from the plague of humanity. Doctor James Arnold is also extremely keen on preserving his childhood heroes from the Armageddon he’s about to trigger…

At precisely the wrong moment Gary drags Jack back to London again. When the pauper student overhears his well-meaning but privileged comrades condescending and pitying him, Eggsy steals Jack’s gadget-laden, weaponised sports car and goes for an explosive drunken joyride with his real mates from the estate.

Now the super-agent is forced to take extreme measures to sort him out…

Gary wakes up in Colombia with nothing but his underwear and is told he has 24 hours to return to Britain. The Resource Test is the final stage of an agent’s training and is make or break: neither the agency nor his uncle will have anything to do with him if he fails…

He passes with flying colours, and even destroys a drug cartel in the process, leading Jack to take him on as an apprentice, offering style tips and a chance for a palate-cleansing final confrontation with Dean and his mates in Peckham before setting off together to foil Dr. Arnold’s deadly scheme.

…And that’s when it all goes terribly wrong, leaving Gary to cope with imminent world collapse all on his own…

The film was in production simultaneously with the creation of the original six-issue miniseries with Millar, Vaughn and illustrator Gibbons (aided by inker Andy Lanning and colourist Angus McKie) frequently cross-fertilising and amending the print and movie iterations to produce a stunningly clever, outrageously rip-roaring, high-octane read which will astound all us paper-jockeys and no doubt be satisfactorily mirrored in the upcoming filmic extravaganza.

But why wait? Grab some popcorn, hit your favourite chair and experience all the thrills, spills and chills you can handle right now just by picking up this fabulous action comics classic in the making…
© 2012, 2013, 2014 Millarworld Limited, Marv Films Limited and Dave Gibbons Ltd. All rights reserved.

Steak Night volume 3: Jobs


By various, edited by Babak Ganjei (Records Records Records books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-5-7

Some old fuddy-duddies like me still read prose as well as comics, and being a veteran consumer I can honestly say that what I miss most is the time when short stories – everything from epigrams to vignettes to novellas – were a thriving, vibrant pillar of storytelling.

Modern book publishing doesn’t like short stories and most magazines (with the possible exception of DC Thomson’s The People’s Friend) no longer regularly carry engaging snippets of fiction or indeed even value the creative discipline necessary to telling a tale succinctly.

The same was true of comics for years but with the recent surge of independent and small press creators that market is changing. There are now a few regular anthology titles, offering a variety of experiences rather than the far more commercially sensible multi-part epics mainstream print-houses always push.

Every book or comic is somebody’s first but how can you possibly build a solid readership with stories that can be twenty or forty or even more parts long? Life’s just too short.

So let’s all shout “well done” for books such as Steak Night which always offers an eclectic mix of strips, gags, art pages and brief prose pieces in an inviting hardback book format, produced with style, honesty, integrity and a broad range of views.

This third volume contains a selection of works dedicated to the theme of Jobs, and after a stirring pep-talk from the editorial team commences with a penetrating dose of reminiscing and self-flagellation in the text tantaliser ‘Keyser Söze’ by Victoria Manifold. Then multi-talented Tom Hall Colonial illustrates Henry Clark’s truly disturbing recollections of his early days as an undertaker and the charming on-the-job training he received at the hands of ‘The Butcher’

A strange and stridently silent cartoon ‘Jobs’ short about a career in extreme pest-control (also by Hall?) leads into another painful memory as Babak Ganjei illustrates Tom Oldham’s graphic explanation for why he turned down the chance to be a ‘Bigshot’ in the sex trade, after which ‘A Guide to Achieving Your Career Goals’ by Amelia Phillips definitively describes her self-perceived failure in clawing her way to the middle of the publishing biz before becoming a happily desperate freelancer…

Another ferocious fantasy comics page of sci-fi hi-tech ‘Jobs’ creation segues sweetly into an keenly observed if doggedly obscure ‘Office Romance’ by Florian Lunaire & Eleanor Summers, whilst Julia Scheele delightfully describes the dilemma all women face on ‘Sundays at the Comic Shop’ (actually it’s more a 24/7 thing) before Melissa Trender examines the role of women in a resolutely post-feminist society with the heartfelt and disturbing ‘Daughters’.

The industrious giant-bug bashing ‘Jobs’ interludes then end with mankind notionally still on top, whilst ‘Small Hours Dept’ by Peter Cline lovingly and lyrically examines the whimsical moments that quiet times can offer from an elevated position, after which Wallis Eates’ prose-&-picture fable ‘Where Are you Going?/Ground Please’ appealingly compares childhood memories with the solitary insights of a hospital cleaner, before former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong winningly describes his succession of dead-end jobs in Bournemouth (trust me: don’t eat the pizza) in a prose paean to the failings of school careers guidance information entitled ‘The Worst Bad Egg’.

The portmanteau of pictorial pleasures concludes with Harriet Gibsone’s hilariously dark and edgy advice on handling the ‘Big Interview’ and a manic glimpse at what it’s all about in ‘Going to Work’ by Grace Wilson…

Complete with a full contact-&-biography Contributors section, this is another superb sampling of contemporary cartoon culture that no lover of the art of storytelling should miss.
And kids remember, it’s a vocation, not a career, yeah?

© Records Records Records 2013.