Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 01


By John Wagner, Pat Mills, Carlos Ezquerra, Ian Gibson, Mike McMahon, Brian Bolland & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-90426-579-5

Britain’s last great comic icon could be described as a combination of the other two, combining the futuristic milieu and thrills of Dan Dare with the terrifying anarchy and irreverent absurdity of Dennis the Menace. He’s the longest-lasting adventure character in our admittedly meagre comics stable, having been continually published every week since February 1977 when he first appeared in the second issue of science-fiction anthology 2000AD – and now that The Dandy’s gone, veterans Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan might one day be overtaken in the comedy stakes too…

However, with at least 52 2000AD strips a year, annuals, specials, a newspaper strip (in the Daily Star and later The Metro), the Judge Dredd Megazine, numerous reprinted classic comics collections, some rather appalling franchised foreign comicbook spin-off titles, that adds up to a phenomenal amount of material, most of which is still happily in print.

Judicial Review: Dredd and his dystopian ultra-metropolis of Mega-City One – originally it was to be a 21st century New York – were created by a very talented committee including Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and others, but with the major contribution coming from legendary writer John Wagner who has written the largest portion of the canon under his own name and several pseudonyms.

Joe Dredd is a fanatically dedicated Judge in the super-city, where hundreds of millions of citizens idle away their days in a world where robots are cheaper and more efficient than humans, and jobs are both beloved pastime and treasured commodity. Boredom has reached epidemic proportions and almost everybody is just one askance glance away from mental meltdown. Judges are peacekeepers who maintain order at all costs: investigating, taking action and trying all crimes and disturbances to the hard-won equilibrium of the constantly boiling melting pot. Justice is always immediate…

Dredd’s world is a polluted and precarious Future (In)Tense with all the key analogues for successful science fiction (as ever a social looking-glass for the times it’s created in) situated and sharply attuned to a Cold War Consumer Civilisation. The planet is divided into political camps with post-nuclear holocaust America locked in a slow death-struggle with the Sov Judges of the old Eastern Communist blocs. The Eastern lawmen are militaristic, oppressive and totalitarian – and that’s by the US Judges’ standards – so just imagine what they’re actually like…

The Judges are necessary fascists in a world permanently on the edge of catastrophe, and sadly, what far too many readers never realise is that the strip is a gigantic satirical black comedy with oodles of outrageous, vicarious cathartic action.

Such was not the case when the super-cop debuted in 2000AD Prog (that’s issue number to you) #2 on March 5th 1977. He was stuck at the back of the new weekly comic in a tale finally scripted – after much intensive re-hashing – by Peter Harris and illustrated by Mike McMahon & Carlos Ezquerra.

The blazing, humourless, no-nonsense (all that would happily come later) action extravaganza introduced the bike-riding Sentinel of Order in the cautionary tale of brutal bandit Whitey, whose savage crime spree was ended with ferocious efficiency before the thug was sentenced to Devil’s Island – a high-rise artificial plateau surrounded by the City’s constant stream of lethal, never-ending, high-speed traffic…

In Prog 3 Dredd investigated ‘The New You’ in a cunning thriller by Kelvin Gosnell & McMahon wherein a crafty crook tries to escape justice by popping into his local face-changing shop, whilst #4 saw the first appearance of the outcast mutants in ‘The Brotherhood of Darkness’ (Malcolm Shaw & McMahon) as the ghastly post-nuclear pariahs invade the megalopolis in search of slaves.

The first hints of humour began in Prog 5’s ‘Krong’ by Shaw & Ezquerra, with the introduction of Dredd’s little-old-lady Italian cleaner Maria, wherein deranged horror film fan and hologram salesman Kevin O’Neill – yes it’s an in-joke – unleashes a giant mechanical gorilla on the city. The issue was the first of many to cover-feature old Stone Face (that’s Dredd, not Kev)…

‘Frankenstein 2’ pits the Lawman against an audacious medical mastermind, hijacking citizens to keep his rich aging clients in fresh, young organs, whilst #7 sees ruthless reprobate Ringo’s gang of muggers flaunting their criminality in the very shadow of ‘The Statue of Judgement’ until Dredd lowers the boom on them…

The first indications that the super-cop’s face is somehow hideously disfigured emerge in #8, as Charles Herring & Massimo Belardinelli’s ‘Antique Car Heist’ finds the Judge tracking down a murderous thief who stole an ancient petrol-burning vehicle, after which co-creator John Wagner returned in Prog 9 to begin his staggering run of tales with ‘Robots’, illustrated by veteran British science fiction artist Ron Turner.

The gripping vignette was set at the Robot of the Year Show, and revealed the callous cruelty indulged in by citizens upon their mechanical slaves as a by-product of a violent blackmail threat by a disabled maniac in a mechanical-super chair… This set the scene for an ambitious mini-saga comprising #10-17.

Those casual injustices paved the way for ‘Robot Wars’ (alternately illustrated over the weeks by Ezquerra, Turner, McMahon & Ian Gibson) wherein carpenter-robot Call-Me-Kenneth succumbs to a mechanical mind meltdown and emerges as a human-hating steel Spartacus, leading a bloody revolution against the fleshy oppressors.

The slaughter is widespread and terrible before the Judges regain control, helped in no small part by loyal, lisping Vending droid Walter the Wobot, who graduated at the conclusion to Dredd’s second live-in comedy foil…

With order restored, a sequence of self-contained stories firmed up the vision of the crazed city. In Prog 18 Wagner & McMahon introduced the menace of mind-bending ‘Brainblooms’ cultivated by another little old lady (and career criminal), and Gerry Finley-Day & John Cooper described the galvanising effect of the ‘Muggers Moon’ on Mega-City 1’s criminal class before Dredd demonstrated the inadvisability of being an uncooperative witness…

Wagner & McMahon then debuted Dredd’s bizarre paid informant Max Normal in #20, whose latest tip ended the profitable career of ‘The Comic Pusher’; Finley-Day & Turner turned in a workmanlike thriller as the super-cop tackles a seasoned killer with a deadly new weapon in ‘The Solar Sniper’ and Wagner & Gibson showed the draconian steps Dredd was prepared to take to bring in mutant assassin ‘Mr Buzzz’.

Prog 23 comfortably catapulted the series into all-out ironic satire mode with Finley-Day & McMahon’s ‘Smoker’s Crime‘ when Dredd stalks a killer with a bad nicotine habit to a noxious City Smokatorium, after which Malcolm Shaw, McMahon & Ezquerra reveal the uncanny secret of ‘The Wreath Murders’ in #24.

The next issue began the feature’s long tradition of spoofing TV and media fashions as Wagner & Gibson concoct a lethal illegal game show in ‘You Bet Your Life’ whilst #26 exposes the sordid illusory joys and dangers of the ‘Dream Palace’ (McMahon) before #27-28 offer some crucial background on the Judges themselves when Dredd visits ‘The Academy of Law’ (Wagner & Gibson) to give Cadet Judge Giant his final practical exam. Of course, for Dredd there are no half measures or easy going and the novice barely survives his graduation…

With the concluding part in #28, Dredd moved to second spot in 2000AD (behind brutally jingoistic thriller Invasion) and the next issue saw Pat Mills & Gibson tackle robot racism as Ku Kux Klan-analogue ‘The Neon Knights’ brutalised the reformed and broken artificial citizenry until the Juggernaut Judge krushes them…

Mills then offered tantalising hints on Dredd’s origins in ‘The Return of Rico!’ (McMahon) as a bitter criminal resurfaces after twenty years on the penal colony of Titan. The outcast is looking for vengeance upon the Judge who had sentenced him., but from his earliest days as a fresh-faced rookie, Joe Dredd had no time for corrupt lawmen – even if one were his own clone-brother…

Whitey escapes from Devil’s Island (Finley-Day & Gibson) in Prog 31, thanks to a cobbled-together contraption that turns off weather control, but doesn’t get far before Dredd sends him back, whilst the fully automated skyscraper resort ‘Komputel’ (Robert Flynn & McMahon) becomes a multi-story murder factory that only the City’s greatest Judge can counter before Wagner (using his frequent pseudonym John Howard) took sole control for a series of savage, whacky escapades beginning with #33’s ‘Walter’s Secret Job’ (Gibson).

Here the besotted droid is discovered moonlighting as a cabbie to buy pwesents for his beloved master….

McMahon & Gibson illustrated the two-part tale of ‘Mutie the Pig’: a flamboyant criminal and bent Judge, and performed the same tag-team effort for ‘The Troggies’, a debased colony of ancient humans living under the city and preying on unwary citizens…

Something of a bogie man for wayward kids and exhausted parents, Dredd does himself no favours in Prog 38 when he bursts in on ‘Billy Jones’ (Gibson) and exposes a vast espionage plot utilising toys as surveillance tools.

On tackling ‘The Ape Gang’ in #39 (19th November 1977 and drawn by McMahon), the Judge seamlessly graduated to the lead spot whilst quashing a turf war between augmented, educated, criminal anthropoids in the unruly district dubbed “the Jungle”…

‘The Mega-City 5000’ was an illegal and murderously bloody street race the assembled Judges were determined to shut down, but the gripping action-illustration of the Bill Ward drawn first chapter is sadly overshadowed by hyper-realist rising star Brian Bolland, who began his legendary association with Dredd by concluding the mini-epic in blistering, captivating style in Prog 41. Bolland, by his own admission, was an uneconomically slow artist and much of his later Dredd work would appear as weekly portions of large epics with other artists handling other episodes, to give him time to complete his own assignments with a minimum of pressure…

From out of nowhere in a bold change of pace, Dredd is then seconded to the Moon for a six-month tour of duty beginning in Prog #42. His brief is to oversee the rambunctious, nigh-lawless colony set up by the unified efforts of three US Mega-Cities there. The colony was as bonkers as Mega-City One and a good deal less civilised – a true Final Frontier town…

The extended epic began with‘Luna-1’ by Wagner & Gibson, with Dredd and stowaway Walter almost shot down en route in a mysterious missile attack before being targeted by a suicide-bomb robot before they can even unpack.

‘Showdown on Luna-1’ introduces permanent Deputy-Marshal Judge Tex from Texas-City, whose jaded, laissez-faire attitudes get a sound shaking up as Dredd demonstrates he’s one lawman who isn’t going to coast by for the duration of his term in office.

Hitting the dusty mean streets, Dredd starts cleaning up the wild boys in his town by outdrawing a mechanical Robo-Slinger and uncovering yet another assassination ploy. It seems that reclusive mega-billionaire ‘Mr. Moonie; has a problem with the latest law on his lunar turf…

Whilst dispensing aggravating administrative edicts like a frustrated Solomon, Dredd chafes to hit the streets and do some real work in #44’s McMahon-limned ‘Red Christmas’. An opportunity arises when arrogant axe-murderer ‘Geek Gorgon’ abducts Walter and demands a showdown he lives to regret, whilst ‘22nd Century Futsie!’ (Gibson) finds Moonie Fabrications clerk Arthur Goodworthy cracking under the strain of over-work and going on a destructive binge, with Dredd compelled to protect the future-shocked father’s family from Moonie’s over-zealous security goons…

The plotline concludes in Prog 46 with ‘Meet Mr. Moonie’ (Gibson) as Dredd and Walter confront the manipulative manufacturer and uncover his horrific secret.

The feature moved to the prestigious middle spot with this episode, allowing the artists to really open up and exploit the comic’s full-colour centre-spreads, none more so than Bolland as seen in #47’s ‘Land Race‘ as Dredd officiates over a frantic scramble by colonists to secure newly opened plots of habitable territory. Of course, there’s always someone who doesn’t want to share…

Ian Gibson then illustrated 2-part drama ‘The Oxygen Desert’ (#48-49), wherein veteran moon-rat Wild Butch Carmody defeats Dredd using his superior knowledge of the airless wastes beyond the airtight domes. Broken, the Judge quits and slides into despondency, but all is not as it seems…

Prog 50 featured the debut of single-page comedy supplement Walter the Wobot: Fwiend of Dwedd – but more of that later – whilst the long-suffering Justice found himself knee-boot-deep in an international interplanetary crisis when ‘The First Lunar Olympics’ (Bolland) against a rival lunar colony controlled by the Machiavellian Judges of the Sov-Cities bloc escalates into assassination and a murderous, politically-fuelled land grab.

The conflict was settled in ostensibly civilised manner with strictly controlled ‘War Games’, yet there is still a grievously high body-count by the time the moon-dust settles…

This vicious swipe at contemporary sport’s politicisation was and still is bloody, brutal and bitingly funny…

Bolland also illustrated the sardonic saga of ruthless bandits who were up for a lethal laugh in #52’s ‘The Face-Change Crimes’, employing morphing tech to change their appearances and rob at will until Dredd beats them at their own game.

Wagner & Gibson then craft a 4-part mini-epic (Progs 53-56) wherein motor fanatic Dave Paton’s cybernetic, child-like pride-and-joy blows a fuse and terrorises the domed territory: slaughtering humans and even infiltrating Dredd’s own quarters before the Judge finally stops ‘Elvis, The Killer Car’.

Bolland stunningly limned a savagely mordant saga of a gang of killer bandits who hijack the moon’s air before themselves falling foul of ‘The Oxygen Board’ in #57, but only managed the first two pages of 58’s ‘Full Earth Crimes’, leaving Mike McMahon to complete the tale of regularly occurring chaos in the streets whenever the Big Blue Marble dominates the black sky above…

It was a fine and frantic note to end on as, with ‘Return to Mega-City’, Dredd rotates back Earthside and resumes business as unusual. Readers were probably baffled as to why the returned cop utterly ignored a plethora of crime and misdemeanours, but Wagner & McMahon provide the logical and perfect answer in a brilliant, action-packed set-up for the madcap dramas to come….

This first Case Files chronicle nominally concludes with Wagner & McMahon’s ‘Firebug’ from Prog 60, as the ultimate lawgiver deals with a seemingly-crazed arsonist literally setting the city ablaze. The Law soon discovers a purely venal motive to the apparent madness…

There’s still a wealth of superb bonus material to enjoy before we end this initial outing however, and kicking off proceedings is the controversial First Dredd strip (illustrated by Ezquerra) which was bounced from 2000AD #1 and vigorously reworked – a fascinating glimpse of what the series might have been.

It’s followed by the eawliest Walter the Wobot: Fwiend of Dwedd stwips (sowwy – couldn’t wesist!) from 2000AD Progs 50-58.

Scripted by Joe Collins, these madcap comedy shorts were seen as an antidote to the savage and brutal action strips in the comic and served to set the scene for Dredd’s later full-on satirical lampoonery.

‘Tap Dancer’ was illustrated by Gibson and dealt with an embarrassing plumbing emergency whilst ‘Shoot Pool!’ (Gibson) has the Wobot again taking his Judge’s instructions far too literally…

Bolland came aboard to give full rein to his own outrageous sense of the absurd with the 5-part tale of ‘Walter’s Brother’: a bizarre tale of evil twins, a cunning frame-up and malign muggings that inevitably result in us learning all we ever needed to know about the insipidly faithful and annoying rust-bucket.

Dredd then had to rescue the plastic poltroon from becoming a pirate of the airwaves in ‘Radio Walter’ before the star-struck servant finds his 15 seconds of fame as the winner of rigged quiz-show ‘Masterbrain’ before this big, big book concludes with a trio of Dredd covers from Progs 10, 44 and 59, courtesy of artists Ezquerra, Kev O’Neill and McMahon.

Always mesmerising and beautifully drawn, these short, punchy stories starring Britain’s most successful and iconic modern comics character are the constantly evolving narrative bedrock from which all the later successes of the Mirthless Moral Myrmidon derive.

More importantly, they are timeless classics no real comic fan can ignore – and just for a change something that you can easily get your hungry hands on. Even my local library has copies of this masterpiece of British literature and popular culture…
© 1977, 1978, 2006 Rebellion A/S. All rights reserved. Judge Dredd & 2000AD are ® &™

The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection


By Peter O’Donnell, Jim Edgar, Barrie Tomlinson, Steve Dowling, John Allard, Frank Bellamy, Martin Asbury, Reg Smythe, Jim Holdaway, Jack Greenall, Jack Clayton, John Gillatt & various, compiled by Mike Higgs (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-1-89944-175-4

The Daily Mirror has been home to a number of great strips over its long history – beginning with one of the Empire’s greatest successes Tiger Tim, (who debuted there in 1904) and culminating with the likes of the war-winning morale-boosting naive nymph Jane, not to mention The Perishers, Garth, Andy Capp and many others.

Two of the above cited feature in this beautiful compilation from Mike Higgs’ Hawk Books which did so much over the years to keep British cartoon history alive. This particular triumph gathers sample selections from the newspaper’s back catalogue in a spiffy, luxuriously oversized (280 x 180 mm) hardback that is stuffed with fun, thrills and quality nostalgia.

The illustrious Garth is the first star, featured in an adventure from 1957 by series originator and longest serving creator Steve Dowling (1943-1969) – and then succeeded by his assistant John Allard, then Frank Bellamy and finally Martin Asbury.

Garth is a hulking physical specimen, a virtual human superman with the involuntary ability to travel through time and experience past and future lives. This simple concept lent the strip an unfailing potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits.

‘The Captive’ – written by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated by Dowling and Allard – is a contemporary tale with our hero abducted from Earth as a prize in a galactic scavenger hunt instigated by bored hedonistic aliens who don’t realise quite what they’ve gotten themselves involved with…

A second adventure, ‘The Man-hunt’, is the last that Frank Bellamy worked on. The astounding Bellamy died in 1976 whilst drawing this story of beautiful alien predators in search of prime genetic stock with which to reinvigorate their tired bloodlines. Written by Jim Edgar, the strip was completed by Asbury who took over with the 17th instalment. This tongue-in-cheek thriller is full of thrills and fantastic action, yet never loses its light humorous touch.

Andy Capp is a drunken, skiving, misogynistic, work-shy, wife-beating scoundrel who has somehow become one of the most popular and well-loved strip characters of all time. Created by jobbing cartoonist Reg Smythe to appeal to northern readers during a circulation drive, he first saw the light of day – with long-suffering, perpetually abused-but-forgiving wife Florrie in tow – on August 5th 1957.

This volume reprints 37 strips from the feature’s 41-year run, which only ended with Smythe’s death in 1998, but the sheer magic of this lovable rogue is as inexplicably intoxicating as it always was, defeating political correctness and common decency alike: A true Guilty Pleasure.

Romeo Brown began in 1954, drawn by Dutch artist Alfred “Maz” Mazure, and starred a private detective with an eye for the ladies and a nose for trouble. The feature was a light, comedic adventure series that added some glamour to the dour mid-1950s, but really kicked into high gear when Maz left in 1957 to be replaced by Peter O’Donnell and the brilliant Jim Holdaway, who would go on to create the fabulous Modesty Blaise together. Romeo shut up shop in 1962 and is represented here by a pair of romps from the penultimate year. ‘The Arabian Knight’ and ‘The Admiral’s Grand-daughter’ combine sly, knowing humour, bungling criminality and dazzlingly visuals in a manner any Carry-On fan would die for.

Useless Eustace was a gag-panel (a single-picture joke) that ran from January 1935 to 1985. Created by Jack Greenall, its star was a bald nondescript everyman who met the travails of life with unflinching enthusiasm but very little sense. Greenall produced the strip until 1974, and other artists continued it until 1985. The selections here are from the war years and the 1960s. Another comedy panel was Calamity Gulch, a particularly British view of the ubiquitous “Western” which invaded our sensibilities with the rise of television ownership in the 1950s. Created by Jack Clayton, it began its spoofing and sharp-shooting on 6th June 1960, and you can see 21 of the best right here, Pardner.

A staple of children’s comics that never really prospered in newspapers was the sports adventure. At least not until 1989 when those grown up tykes opened the Daily Mirror to find a football strip entitled Scorer, written by Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Barry Mitchell, and eventually John Gillatt. Very much an updated, R-rated Roy of the Rovers, the strip stars Dave ‘Scorer’ Storry and his team Tolcaster F.C. in fast, hot, sexy tales of the Beautiful Game that owed as much to the sports pages it began on as to the grand cartoon tradition.

‘Cup Cracker’, included here is by Tomlinson & Gillatt from 1994, and shows that WAGS (Wives And GirlfriendS, non-sports fans) were never a new phenomenon.

Not many people know this – or indeed, care – but before I review an old book (which I arbitrarily define as something more than three years old) I try to locate copies on the internet. It’s a blessing then to still see this wonderful and utterly British tome is readily available in France, Germany – most of Europe in fact and even in Britain. Surely that’s a testament to the book’s quality and desirability, and if that’s the case maybe The Mirror Group or some print philanthropist should expedite a new edition – or even a few sequels…
© 1998 Mirror Group Newspapers, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Noggin the King and Noggin and the Whale


By Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1- 4052-8152-2 (King)                 978-1- 4052-8153-9 (Whale)

I had originally prepared these reviews as part of a forthcoming week of TV-related books and graphic novels but, following the news of the death of the wonderful Peter Firmin on July 1st, I found myself feeling painfully bereft and quite woeful.

So, just because I want to and as a public acknowledgement of the gifts of a brilliant creator who shaped my entire life (as well as so many millions of others), there is a change to today’s scheduled viewing…

Peter Arthur Firmin was born in Harwich on 11 December 1928. After training at Colchester School of Art and National Service in the Royal Navy he went to the Central School of Art and Design in London from 1949 to 1952. A creative man of many talents and disciplines, he then worked as a stained-glass designer, jobbing illustrator and lecturer.

Whilst teaching at Central in 1957 he was targeted by up-and-coming children’s TV writer Oliver Postgate who believed (quite rightly) that clever individuals could produce high-quality kids viewing at reasonable cost.

After producing backgrounds for Postgate’s Alexander the Mouse and The Journey of Master Ho, Firmin became a full-partner in new venture Smallfilms, which would be based in a shed at the artist’s Canterbury home. The kindred spirits initially produced hand-drawn cartoons and eventually stop motion animation episodes for series including Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, Pogle’s Wood/The Pogles, Bagpuss and The Clangers. Postgate wrote, voiced and filmed whilst Firmin drew, painted, built sets and made puppets.

During those early days Firmin seemed tireless. In addition to the Smallfilms job he also devised, designed and populated other kids shows such as The Musical Box and Smalltime. In 1962 with Ivan Owen he created a fox puppet for The Three Scampies. The puppet soon had his own show and career as Basil Brush

Throughout his life, Firmin continued his cartooning and illustration career. This included writing and/or illustrating a number of books such as Basil Brush Goes Flying, The Winter Diary of a Country Rat, Nina’s Machines and Seeing Things – An Autobiography as well as working as a printmaker and engraver, designer and educator. In 1994 Firmin was asked to create a British postage stamp and produced a magnificent offering featuring Noggin and the Ice Dragon.

Even at their most productive and overworked, Postgate and Firmin always ensured there was plenty of ancillary product such as Christmas Annuals, comic strips and spin-off books, games and puzzles for their devoted young fans. Between 1965 and 1973 Postgate and Firmin crafted a series of books in an early-reader format featuring the further adventures of the Nicest Norseman of Them All…

Recently re-issued in superb hardcover editions perfect for tiny hands, the first two are Noggin the King and Noggin and the Whale, both originally released in 1965; a brace of charming, gently humorous escapades starring the TV cast and beautifully illustrated in a variety of duo-toned line-&-colour with wit and subtle charm by the irrepressible Firmin.

On the death of his father, quiet, unassuming Noggin becomes king of the northland Viking tribe known as the Nogs. He rules with understanding and wisdom – generally thanks to his advisors: bluff Thor Nogson, talking green cormorant Graculus and his wife Nooka who hails from the far north (we’d call her an Inuit princess these days).

Despite many fantastic adventures, Noggin prefers a quiet home life with his people and his boisterous son Knut

Noggin the King opens with bucolic pastoral scenes of the Nogs and the good-hearted sovereign helping his people however he can. However, whilst happily repairing the roof of an old farmer, the ruler dislodges a bird’s nest. Bringing the nest and its occupants back to his castle, he cares for the fledglings and mother and wonders if he is also the King of birds in the Land of Nogs. If he is then they are his subjects too and thus he is responsible for their safety and welfare.

Riven with doubt, the King then sets out on a short quest with Nooka beside him to confirm his suspicions and is rewarded by the feathered kingdom with a great but grave new honour…

Noggin and the Whale offers a far more light-hearted aspect of kingship as the mild monarch celebrates his birthday in the usual manner: doling out gifts to all the children of his realm. This year they all get musical instruments, but when they hold an impromptu concert on a boat in the little walled harbour, the merriment is interrupted by a most insistent whale.

Every time the kids get going the cetacean surges up under the boat and eventually even placid Noggin loss his temper and orders the sea-beast to swim away.

Instead it glides over to the open harbour gate and sulkily blocks the way just as the fishing boats are trying to moor up for the night. Nothing the townsfolk can do will shift the surly creature.

Suddenly Prince Knut has an idea. He realises why the whale has been acting so strangely and, after consulting with his father, commissions Royal Inventor Olaf the Lofty to create a unique present for the morose marine mammal…

Charming, engaging and endlessly rewarding (both these books and their much-missed, multi-talented originators) the works of Postgate and Firmin affected generations of children and parents. If you aren’t among them, do yourself a great favour and track down those DVD box sets and books like these. You won’t regret it for an instant…
Text © The Estate of Oliver Postgate 1965. Illustrations © Peter Firmin/The Estate of Peter Firmin 1965.

Battler Britton


By Garth Ennis & Colin Wilson (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-560-6

Today marks the centenary of the Royal Air Force. Weather permitting – it’s Wimbledon fortnight after all – there will be a magnificent flypast of craft modern and vintage over London and many other events all over the place to celebrate.

Sadly, we comics folk don’t venerate our own past achievements nearly as much, so instead of a fabulous Paddy Payne collection, Biggles Archive or any of dozens of other British comics Fly Boys we ought to be commemorating here, I’m re-recommending something a bit modern. At least it’s still a bloody good show…

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comic books in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but even now no one admits to reading them in my current circle), he may well be the only creator working in the genre in the entire English Language.

His credentials are well established now and illustrator Colin Wilson has long been lauded for his superb illustration, so it’s no surprise that this re-visitation with one of British comics’ most gallant warriors is an absolute delight.

Battler Britton was first seen in January 1956. “The fighting ace of Land, Sea and Air” debuted in The Sun (back when it was actually a proper comic and before the title was appropriated for the tabloid red top screed joke it is today); the feisty brainchild of Mike Butterworth and the astounding Geoff Campion.

The doughty pilot graduated to the front cover and lead spot in 1958 and took over completely in 1959 when the periodical briefly became Battler Britton’s Own Weekly.

When the title merged with Lion, Britton carried on until 1967 and even transferred to sister title Knockout during 1960-1961.

He also became a key returning feature in the publisher’s range of complete digest series, such as Thriller Picture Library, Air Ace Picture Library and War Picture Library, illustrated by such astounding luminaries as Francisco Solano Lopez, Pat Nicolle, Graham Coton, Ian Kennedy and Hugo Pratt.

He was also a regular standby – in reformatted reprint form – in numerous Fleetway Christmas Annual for years after his comics sorties ended. Why there has never been a concerted effort to restore this treasure trove of comics glory in some kind of archival format is utterly beyond me, but at least he’s with us in this bold adventure which first saw print as a 5-issue miniseries in 2006…

North Africa, October 1942: The dark days before Montgomery’s big push against the seemingly invincible Afrika Korps. Wing Commander Robert “Battler” Britton and his Flight are sent to train an inexperienced group of American pilots hidden behind German lines as a harrying force.

Tensions between smug Brits and pushy Yanks are high and at first it’s doubtful whether the allies or the enemy pose the biggest threat, but in tried-and-true tradition a growing mutual respect eventually leads to successful outcomes.

In spirit, ‘Bloody Good Show’ is one of Ennis’ most faithfully traditional war strips. His love and reverence to the source material is obvious and there’s less of the writer’s signature gallows humour on view than you’d expect, but don’t think that this is watered down in any way.

The dark, ironic madness of battle and disgust with the chinless, smug officialdom that instigates it without getting personally involved is present and potent. Idiots and worse make wars and then send decent people to fight and die in them.

This is a rare thing, here, a reworking of a nostalgia icon that will appeal to the greater part of audiences contemporary and ancient. That it’s a ripping good yarn also means that anybody could read and enjoy it. So you should.

Compilation © 2006, 2007 DC Comics and IPC Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Battler Britton and all characters used are ™ & © IPC Media Limited & DC Comics.

Oh, Wicked Wanda!


By Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton (Penthouse)
No ISBN

Not all comics are for kids nor ever were they. The men’s magazine trade has often featured graphic narratives, usually sexually explicit in nature, often highly satirical, invariably of a much higher quality than their mainstream contemporaries, and always much better regarded and financially rewarded.

Where Playboy had Little Annie Fanny (created by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder: it ran intermittently from 1962 until 1988, and revived in 1998, illustrated by Ray Lago & Bill Schorr), publishing rival Bob Guccione wanted the same but better for his own publication Penthouse.

Used to getting his way, he hired journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally to script the ongoing exotic, erotic adventures of Wanda Von Kreesus, the richest woman in the world. The sultry star would be accompanied by Candyfloss, her insatiable jailbait paramour and an outrageous coterie of faithful employees including an all-girl army, a mad scientist and a brutal looking thug with the soul of a poet.

To illustrate he secured the talents of oil painter and comic strip veteran Ron Embleton (who had astounded comic readers with his lush and vibrant strip Wulf the Briton in Express Weekly and his numerous stunning illustrations in weekly fact-based periodical Look and Learn).

Oh, Wicked Wanda! was originally a prose serial illustrated by Bryan Forbes, beginning in 1969 before becoming, in 1973, the unbelievably lavish and torrid strip reprinted here, continuing until 1980 when it was replaced by Sweet Chastity, also painted by Embleton, and scripted by proprietor Guccione himself.

The bored and mischievous hellion on parade here is a sexually adventurous woman from a time when sexual politics and liberation were huge issues (not like now, of course), and therefore prime targets for low comedy and high satire.

Mullally peppered his scripts with topical references (many of which, sadly, would escape today’s casual reader, I’m sure) and the phenomenal Embleton would depict them with hyper-realistic accuracy.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Ted Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Mao Tse-tung, showbiz icons such as John Wayne or Bob Hope, and even comic strip greats like Pogo, Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat, all meandered through the glossy pages, a cross between a Greek Chorus and pictorial ad-libs.

Many celebrities were actively parodied participants. Henry Kissandrun, mafia Don Marlon Blondo/Burpo, Jane Fondle and demented California Governor Ronald Reekin’ all found themselves victims of the wilful minx and her team. Also, classical and contemporary erotic allusions abound ranging from a little “nymphette” lounging about reading William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to visual and verbal references to Shelley’s Leda and the Swan.

This slim album reprints the earliest adventures as Wanda collects the rich and the famous for a Museum of Deviancy, takes on the Mafia, the CIA and the Cubans and does her bit to solve the Oil Crisis.

Later adventures saw her romp through the ages in a time machine but to my knowledge these tales have never been reprinted – although they really, really should be.

Perhaps a little dated, definitely for easy-going adults only, Oh, Wicked Wanda! is nonetheless still a funny read and inarguably one of the most beautiful British strips ever made. It is a tragedy that such work is unavailable to aficionados of comic art.
© 1973, 1974, 1975 Penthouse International Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Phoenix Colossal Comics Collection volume one


By Robert Deas, Jaimie Smart, Laura Ellen Anderson, Dan Boultwood, Joe List, Jess Bradley, Chris Riddell, Mike Smith & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-056-0

It’s summer and the kids will soon be on holiday and perpetually underfoot. Bored, whiny and in desperate need of entertainment and relief, their parents will try anything to win a moment’s peace…

I’m sure you’ve already exhausted every modern option so why not try something old school and get ‘em a book. But not just any book…

Reminiscent of and in the tradition of those bumper comics summer specials that enthralled and defused generations of children afflicted with too much downtime, The Phoenix Colossal Comics Collection volume one contains a cartoon cornucopia of fun and thrills to bemuse the most demanding over- or under-achiever – and even those we’ll necessarily codify as Achievement-Adjacent…

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

Now that similarity to days of yore progresses a step further with a summer (presumably Annual?) edition. Jam-packed within these glossy, full-colour pages are more exploits culled from the periodical pages, starring a pantheon of firm favourites.

Acting as a spine for the entire show and divided into four lengthy serialised chapters, scattered through the book, junior star warrior Troy Trailblazer leads off.

As crafted by Robert Deas (November, Manga Shakespeare: Macbeth, Medikidz) Troy the boy is an impetuous stellar sentinel who debuted in The Phoenix #10: offering riotous sci fi adventure combining light-hearted sidereal shenanigans with just a touch of dark and dreadful doom…

With his crew – advanced tactical droid Blip, animalistic alien associate Barrus and super-cool ultra-capable former bounty hunter Jess Jetrider – he roams the spaceways in a fabulous ship dubbed The Pathfinder.

Here Troy’s intense and absorbing gaming session is agonisingly spoiled at a crucial moment by a long-dormant cosmic super-intellect called the God Brain. After ages imprisoned by the oppressive Galactic Military organisation, the reawakened cyber deity’s first move is to take over the vast Cosmic Archives with his terrifying shapeshifting BioTeks… unless the constantly-squabbling Trailblazers can stop him…

Fast-paced, fun and not afraid to be really scary when it counts, this stunning interstellar thriller – excitingly told in a broadly manga manner – pauses for a faux ad and games break brought to you by Jess Bradley and the makers of yummy Squid Bits before a section dedicated to an ongoing vendetta between woodland warriors commences.

Concocted with feverishly glee by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve! and other stuff), Bunny vs. Monkey has been a Phoenix fixture from the first issue: recounting a madcap war of nerves and ideologies between animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia which masquerades as a more-or-less mundane English Wood.

The tail-biting tension and (so far) localised war of wits and wonder-weapons began when an obnoxious simian intruder popped up after a disastrous space shot went awry. Having crash-landed in Crinkle Woods – a scant few miles from his blast-off site – Monkey believes himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite the continual efforts of reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative Bunny to convince him otherwise.

For all his patience, propriety and poise, the laid-back lepine just cannot contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who is a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating troublemaker. Things escalated once the simian interloper teamed up with a mad scientist skunk who is the master of many malign sciences and technologies…

In this tranche of turbulent tiny terrors Monkey manifests mayhem and almost causes a ‘Wrestlepocalypse’ in Skunky’s robotic Chomp-O-Tron before turning his own stomach when attempting to weaponize some very nasty stuff he finds on the ground in ‘Gross!’

With snow on the ground Monkey then finds a way to spoil the Great Sled-Off in ‘Tobog-Gone!’ and set back mammal-robot relations by picking on newcomer ‘Metal Steve 2!’, before a seemingly new menace terrorises the woodland folk in the dark guise of ‘Destructo!’

When the weather clears up Monkey’s Double-Barrelled Supercharged Snow-Cannon-Tank is suddenly deprived of ammo until the devilish pest repurposes his toy to fire chutney. Sadly, even this resultant chaos is insufficient to his comprehending ‘The Message!’

A brief and sudden return of ‘Skunky!’ only leads to disappointment, but his crazed influence remains to monsterize the ‘Pretty Flowers!’ whilst the debut of bounty hunter ‘Alan!’ (Armoured Locating Armadillo Network) threatens to destabilise the ongoing conflict until the big bully gets on the wrong side of gentle, peace-loving Pig’s ice cream…

Too much of the good life slows down our friends so they convince Le Fox to help them ‘Get Fit!’ just in time to face Skunky’s robotic Vulturaptors in ‘Terror from the Skies’, but when night falls huge ‘Bobbles!’ from the sky spark fears of alien invasion…

The good guys then try to invade Skunky’s new HQ ‘The Temple!’ just in time for ‘The Audition!’ to join the mastermind’s new gang the League of Doom. Sadly, the only one to make the grade is meek Pig in his new guise of ‘Pigulus!’

As concocted by Chris Riddell & Mike Smith And Now for Something a Little Bit Random provides a portion of palate-cleansing carton whimsy, after which Joe List proffers a raft of daft detective adventures starring improbable sleuth Doug Slugman P.I.: an ambitious, go-getting gastropod mollusc with a million secret origins and a drippy determination to dig out the truth, no matter how surreal, nonsensical or hilarious…

After ten of these single-page icky exploits and crazy cases, the titanic Trailblazer saga resumes – and seemingly concludes – as Troy and team save the Cosmic Archive and the intergalactic cyber network in an epic battle.

However, all is not as it seems…

And Now for Something Else a Little Bit Random offers more abstract titbits before true wickedness is highlighted with the return of an old favourite…

Conceived and created by children’s book illustrator and author Laura Ellen Anderson (Kittens, Snow Babies, My Brother is a Superhero{with David Solomons}), Evil Emperor Penguin lurks in a colossal fortress beneath the Antarctic, where he strives tirelessly towards his stated goal of absolute global domination.

His only assistance – if you can call it that – comes in the form of an army of hench-minions: most notably stylish, erudite administrative lackey Number 8 and cute, diminutive, fuzzy, loyal, utterly inventive abominable snowman clone Eugene. Evil Emperor Penguin had originally whipped up a batch of 250, but none of the others are anything like Eugene…

EEP then appointed the fluffy, bizarrely inventive tyke his Top Minion but somehow never managed to instil within him the proper degree of ruthless evilness. The hairy halfwit is, however, a dab-hand with engineering, building stuff and cooking spaghetti hoops, so it’s not a total loss…

The polar pirate starts this latest campaign of terror by attempting to become ‘World Misleader’ with his fearsome Freeze Ray. First off though he must get himself invited to the notoriously select World Leaders Annual Disco…

‘Diet Another Day’ sees the wicked fiend creating a super-addictive Abominable Snowbar taste-treat. That world-domination scheme would have worked, too, if only he hadn’t tried just one bite…

‘The Good, The Bad & the Paulo’ parts one and two find the villain meeting his match when he is accidentally captured by animal keepers and dumped in Metropolis Zoo. Helpless before the mobbed-up gangster penguin who runs everything, EEP can only thank his lucky stars that Eugene and number 8 quite like being bossed about…

Safely home, the minions plan a ‘Happy Hatch Day Surprise’ for their great leader but keeping him from finding out about it almost ends in disaster…

Another dose of Jess Bradley’s diverting digressions courtesy of sub-par sponsor Squid Bits then logically segues into an adventure of Squid Squad! (by Dan Boultwood, Esq.). Dwelling “way down deep in the ocean” and sworn to “protecting Octopolis from evil commotion”, this trio of junior tentacled marine marvels have their undersea school trip ruined by the predations of insidious collector The Diver and are forced to physically join forces in the coolest way imaginable…

After another aggregate assemblage of ephemera in And Now for Something That’s Still Pretty Random the Trailblazer epic continues as our young hero basks in his well-deserved universal adoration. He even gets to star in his own TV show. Before long, however, Troy’s swelled head and the devious machinations of his unctuous new manager have alienated the entire team…

And that’s when the cunning God Brain strikes, replacing Troy with an evil avatar and wrecking his galactic reputation whilst advancing its own diabolical agenda…

One last heaping helping of Squid Bits precedes the arrival of the last star turn as Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!! adds a sleek sheen of feline frenzy to the mix.

Devised by Jamie Smart (yeah, the chap who did Bunny vs. Monkey, Corporate Skull and bunches of brilliant strips for Beano, Dandy and others) this is a brilliantly bonkers addition to the vast feline pantheon of truly horrifying hairballs infesting cartoondom.

This anarchic kitty is just like yours: cute, innocently malign and able to twist the bounds of credibility and laws of physics whenever the whim takes him…

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

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

The sweet little daughter isn’t all she seems either: when kitten Looshkin is subjected to an innocent tea party in the garden, her toys all secretly warn the cat of the horrors in store. All too soon teddy bear Bear is subjected to a hideous cake-arson assault.

Surprisingly, Looshkin takes it all in stride and even escalates the carnage and chaos whenever and however he can. It seems he has found his natural home… or is it all in his be-whiskered little head?

The selection continues with a visit from Great (rich) Auntie Frank with her precious ultra-anxious prize-winning poodle Princess Trixibelle. They are extravagantly feted with a bonanza of ‘Cheeeeeeeeeeeese! (Please)’, but once again the cat’s misapprehensions lead to anger, upset and a rather nasty stain…

A door-stepping political candidate falls foul of the cat’s anarchic soul and disguise skills in ‘Old Lady Looshkin (Wears Frilly Knick-knacks!)’ after which all semblance of reality fades in ‘Blarple Blop Blop Frrpp! (Bipple!)’ when the frenzied feline gets an attack of the friskies – and a frying pan – before starting to rush about…

‘Colour in with Looshkin’ details what happens if you let a cat help with home decoration whilst ‘Jeff’s Photocopying Services’ pits cat in almost-mortal combat against street advertisers and a mystic masquerade before ‘The Sparrow (A Funny Story About Things)’ recounts the cat’s response to the advent of new superhero the Bluetit defending with daring and dedication the local streets and avenues…

The moggy madcappery then concludes when an escaped penguin incites a bout of icy thermostat-abuse in ‘Cold for this Time of Year (I Can’t Feel my Legs!)’

Utterly loony and deliciously addictive, this diabolically daft glimpse at the insanity hardwired into certain cats (probably not yours, but still…) is another unruly and astoundingly ingenious romp from a modern master of rebellious whimsy, acting as a perfect counterpoint to the bombastic, all-guns blazing finale of Trailblazers as the team reunite to save public enemy number 1 Troy and crush the menace of the God Brain forever!

Or have they…?

Packed with fun, thrills and the type of bizarre, nonsensical wonderment kids love but can’t explain to anyone over 21, The Phoenix Colossal Comics Collection volume one is a superb package of British-style children’s humour and adventure any parent should be proud to own. Deploy as required…
Text and illustrations © 2018Robert Deas, Jamie Smart, Laura Ellen Anderson, Dan Boultwood, Joe List, Jess Bradley, Chris Riddell, Mike Smith as appropriate. All rights reserved.

Dull Margaret


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The March to Death – Drawings by John Olday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enemy Ace: War in Heaven


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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