Night Raven: House of Cards

Night Raven: House of Cards

By Jamie Delano & David Lloyd (Marvel)
ISBN13: 978-1-85400-288-4

This (regrettably!) one-off sequel to Night Raven: The Collected Stories (ISBN13: 978-1-85400-557-3), although the second comic-strip adventure, actually followed a long and impressive run of prose tales that appeared in a huge variety of Marvel UK titles throughout the 1980s, written by such luminaries as Alan Moore and Jamie Delano, and eerily illustrated by some of Britain’s top artists. This utilisation of such a pulp-fiction style character in a modern equivalent of the originating genre was very fitting and those stories will hopefully be gathered together in a collection one day.

House of Cards is set in those fabled gangster days and tells a complex tale of tragic love and futile vengeance. Night Raven – who gets an origin of sorts here – is fascinated by the nearly-fallen-flower Inez Pearl. In the Depression-era Big City a girl does whatever she has to, but although in love with Soldier Jack, a charismatic Trigger-man for Tall Saul’s mob, she has remained mostly clean. That’s all going to change once she sings in Tall Saul’s Speakeasy, though…

When corrupt Congressman Harry Chase decides he wants Inez, Tall Saul orders Soldier Jack to lend the politician his girlfriend, precipitating a savage clash that devastates the underworld and leaves no winners, and even the enigmatic Night Raven is helpless to affect the outcome of this star-crossed melodrama.

Night Raven: House of Cards

The writing of Jamie Delano is in the modern florid, faux-poetic style and as such seems almost untrue to its pulp origins, which worked on a staccato rhythm of tough, clipped prose. Nevertheless it does work and the subtly washed-out, painted artwork by David Lloyd more than compensates for any perceived failing. The dreamy, muted tones belie the intensity of the events and make the action and the sad, still moments all the more powerful. This is a beautiful book to look at and one you should own.

A Prestige-format, comic-book sized edition was also released in 1992.

© 1991, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Night Raven: The Collected Stories

Night Raven: The Collected Stories

By Steve Parkhouse, David Lloyd & John Bolton (Marvel)
ISBN13: 978-1-85400-557-3

In the good old days comic stories were pithy and punchy, (like the all-but-dead and much-missed prose short-story) relying on mood and action rather than excessive exposition and breast-beating pseudo-poetry to enthral their readers. A perfect example would be the three page instalments of pulp-noir magic created by Steve Parkhouse and David Lloyd for the weekly Hulk comic produced by Marvel UK in 1979.

Gathered in this volume and coloured (the originals were captivating in stark, moody black and white) they outline the earliest adventures of Night Raven, a helmeted, trench-coating wearing vigilante who stalked the grimy streets and alleys of Prohibition-era America dealing out fearsome personal justice to a succession of low-life hoods and thugs. Lloyd masterfully illustrated Night-Time in the City, Blind Justice, Gang Rule, In the Frame, The Assassin and Scoop before leaving the strip, but his replacement was another British star on the rise.

The Dragon is an eerie drama of the mythic Chinese Tongs that resonates with Parkhouse’s long fascination with all subjects Oriental, powerfully realised by John Bolton, in the days just before he made it big with King Kull, Marada the She-Wolf and Classic X-Men.

Clean, simple and irresistibly compelling these action vignettes serve to show how far we’ve come since the 1970’s, and sadly just how much we’ve lost in telling comic stories. But at least we can still see how it should be done…

©1979, 1990, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Daily Mirror Book of Garth

(GARTH ANNUAL 1975)

The Daily Mirror Book of Garth

By Jim Edgar & Frank Bellamy (IPC)
No ISBN

This wonderful Softcover book was released whilst the amazing Frank Bellamy was still alive and astounding fans with his phenomenal illustration and design on the Mirror’s long-running time-travelling adventure strip (for fuller background you could Google ‘Garth’ or even check out our own archives for Garth: The Cloud of Balthus – ISBN: 0-90761-034-X or The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection – ISBN: 0-948248-06-8).

This large tome is printed on thick newsprint and if you’re at all moved by the physical nature of comics as artefact, as well as the power of the work itself, the texture and even smell of such an item is as effective a time travel method as any used by our burly hero. Also, for some reason the art just seems to look better on off-white, gritty paper rather than the admittedly more durable slick and shiny stock favoured these days.

So if you can track down this book – and there are still a few out there – you can luxuriate in the majesty of Bellamy and Jim Edgar’s masterful, sexy thrillers with the first collection of The Orb of Trimandias, Ghost Town, The Cloud of Balthus, Women of Galba, Sundance (which Bellamy inherited from artist John Allard three weeks in) and Wolfman of Ausensee. I will digress and admit that the all-original cover created for this last story was a major factor in reviewing this annual. It’s a sight every comic art fan ought to be familiar with.

© IPC Magazines 1974.

Thunderbirds… In Space

(THUNDERBIRDS COMIC ALBUM VOLUME 2)

Thunderbirds… In Space

By Frank Bellamy, with Steve Kite & Graham Bleathman, edited and compiled by Alan Fennel (Ravette Books/Egmont)
ISBN: 1-85304-407-5

This second collection of adventures culled from the pages of TV 21 once again features the magical artwork of Frank Bellamy in three more fantastic adventures of the original International Rescue team. Written by Alan Fennell, these thrillers for all ages capture the energy and wonderment of the original Gerry Anderson puppet shows without the budgetary restrictions that always dog fantasy shows, and mercifully the colour reproduction of the photogravure artwork is infinitely better in this volume than in its predecessor (Thunderbirds … To The Rescue, ISBN: 1-85304-406-7).

The Space Mirror is a deep space thriller featuring an orbital platform used to melt the polar ice-caps; Operation Depthprobe sees a sabotaged fuel-rocket seconds from destroying its launch facility; and The Atlantic Tunnel features the devilish Hood whose machinations nearly end not only a new transport system but also the lives of Brains and Alan Tracy.

Augmented by cutaway technical features on Thunderbirds 3, 4 and 5, this fabulous comic album is a superb example of the quality of those old British comics and especially the brilliance of Frank Bellamy. There will never be a greater argument of the necessity for a new and permanent collection of his strips and illustrations.

© 1991 ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. Licensed by Copyright Promotions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War Book IV: Blue’s Story

Charley’s War Book IV: Blue’s Story

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-323-8 ISBN-13: 978-1-84576-323-7

The fourth instalment of the magnificent anti-war comic strip picks right up from the cliffhanging ending of the previous volume and shows the hairbreadth escape of boy-soldier Charley Bourne and his mum from the Silvertown munitions factory targeted by a Zeppelin bombing London, before launching into the experimental narrative of the eponymous ‘Blue’.

Writer Mills fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on this First World War series, and as his own commentary relates, was always amazed at what he got away with and what novelties his editors pulled him up on. Firstly, for a weekly war comic like Battle it was rare to allow the hero time away from the action, but here Charley spent the entire story on leave – although hardly safe or sound. Secondly, although unwittingly embroiled in the black market trade in new identities for deserters by his unscrupulous brother-in-law, the hero’s humanity compels him to side against the dictates of patriotism and duty.

Most importantly, whilst aiding the escape of Blue – an Englishman serving with the French Army in the living Hell of Verdun – the episodes become depictions of Blue’s War: A story within a story with the strip’s lead character reduced to an avid and appalled listener.

The horrors of Verdun (the longest single battle in history), related by a British rebel (based on the real-world ‘Monocled Mutineer’ Percy Toplis) wrapped in a tense flight from Military Police and the fearsome ‘Drag Man’ (a obsessive hunter of Deserters) through the eerie streets of a bombed out London, makes for one of the most sophisticated and adult dramas ever seen in fiction, let alone the pages of a kid’s war comic. It is compelling, emotionally draining and dauntingly earnest. But it works.

Lifted to dizzying heights of excellence by the phenomenal artwork of Joe Colquhoun, ‘Blue’s Story’ is a masterpiece of subversive outrage within the greater marvel that is Charley’s War. I pray it never becomes a film or TV series, but I’d bribe Ministers to get these wonderful books onto the National Curriculum.

© 2007 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Stingray… Stand By for Action

(Stingray comic album volume 2)

Stingray… Stand By for Action
By Ron Embleton, with Steve Kite, written, edited and compiled by Alan Fennel (Ravette Books/Egmont)
ISBN: 1-85304-457-1

This album from the early 1990s (when Gerry Anderson’s unforgettable creations enjoyed a popular revival on TV and in comics publishing) reprints three unforgettable strip thrillers from the legendary weekly comic TV21. Launching in late January 1965, TV Century 21 (its full title – the unwieldy “Century” was eventually dropped) captured the hearts and minds of millions of children in the 1960s.

Filled with high quality art and features, printed in glossy photogravure, TV21 featured such strips as Fireball XL5, Lady Penelope (Frank Bellamy’s Thunderbirds did not begin until the second year of publication), Supercar and Stingray. Anderson’s epic submarine series featured a crack team of aquanauts pitted against a bizarre and malevolent plethora of beings who lived beneath the waves. The BBC were represented by a full-colour strip starring The Daleks.

Although the reproduction leaves something to be desired, ‘The Monster Jellyfish’, ‘Curse of the Crustavons’ and ‘the Atlanta Kidnap Affair’ – all written by Alan Fennell – are cracking fantasy rollercoaster rides full of action and drama and illustrated with captivating majesty by the incredible Ron Embleton.

He supplemented his lush colour palette and uncanny facility for capturing likenesses with photographic stills from the TV shows, and whether for expediency or artistic reasons the effect on impressionable young minds was electric. This made the strips “more real” then and the effect has not diminished with time. This is a superb treat for fans of all ages, and this series is also long overdue for a deluxe collected edition.

© 1992 ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. Licensed by Copyright Promotions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
ISBN: 0-285-62865-8

Although perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony – and despite being twenty years old – this sharp and immaculately depicted slice of satirical buffoonery still affords a chuckle or two, but the truly magical aspect of this book is the unforgettable collection of black and white cartoons delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic warmth that only Searle can instil with his wild yet considered line-work.

By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer. You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff!

© 1988 Ronald Searle.

Thunderbirds… To the Rescue!

(THUNDERBIRDS COMIC ALBUM VOLUME 1)

Thunderbirds… To the Rescue!

By Frank Bellamy, with Steve Kite & Graham Bleathman, edited and compiled by Alan Fennel (Ravette Books/Egmont)
ISBN: 1-85304-406-7

Growing up in 1960’s England was the best of all possible worlds for a comic lover. As well as US imports you were treated to some frankly incredible weekly publications, and market bookstalls sold second-hand comics for at least a third of their cover price. We also had some of the greatest artists in the world working on some of the best licensed properties around. A perfect example is the TV – and especially Gerry Anderson properties – anthology comic TV Century 21.

This slim volume from the 1990s reprints three of the best adventures of the Band of Brothers from Tracy Island, illustrated by the incredible Frank Bellamy, and although the reproduction is rather poor (nothing available to modern printers seems able to fully reproduce the magical and luxuriant quality of photogravure printing, alas) ‘The Earthquake Maker’, ‘The Revolution’ and ‘The Big Freeze’ are Thunderbirds adventures in the classic manner.

Despite the colour inadequacies, the astounding design skill and sheer bravura of Bellamy’s rendering makes these tales of unnatural disasters, tensely written by Alan Fennell, as absorbing now as they were then. A collection was released in 2002, but we’re long overdue for a major treatment by a major publisher. Let’s hope it’s soon…

© 1991 ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. Licensed by Copyright Promotions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament

Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament

By various (Knockabout)
ISBN: 0-86166-054-4

This cracking all-star oddment is actually still in print, unlike so many of the graphic novels and collections I recommend, but if you’re a devout Christian you be best advised to just jump to the next review. Originally released in 1987, it features a varied band of British creators adapting – with tongues firmly in cheeks – a selection of Biblical episodes, and the results are earnest, bitter and darkly funny.

‘Creation’ is the preserve of Arthur Ranson, whilst Donald Rooum explores Eden in ‘Gandalf’s Garden’ and Dave Gibbons puts a decidedly modernistic top-spin to the saga of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. Alan Moore and Hunt Emerson examine ‘Leviticus’ (that would be the one with all those Commandments) whilst Neil Gaiman tackles ‘The Book of Judges’ accompanied by Mike Matthews (both the introduction and ‘The Tribe of Benjamin’), Julie Hollings (‘Jael and Sisera’), Peter Rigg (‘Jephthah and His Daughter’), Graham Higgins (‘Samson’) and Steve Gibson (‘Journey to Bethlehem’) and even finds time to produce ‘The Prophet Who Came to Dinner’ (From the Book of Kings) with long-time collaborator Dave McKean.

Closing the volume are Kim Deitch with ‘The Story of Job’, ‘Daddy Dear’ (from Ecclesiastes) by Carol Bennett and Julie Hollings and the incredibly graphic ‘A Miracle of Elisha’ (also from the Book of Kings) by the magnificent Brian Bolland.

Powerful and memorable, these interpretations won’t win any praise from Christian Fundamentalists but they are fierce, subtle and scholarly examinations of the Old Testament from passionate creators with something to say and an unholy desire to instruct. As free thinking adults you owe it to yourself to read these stories, but only in the spirit in which they were made.

© 1987 Knockabout Publications and the Artists and Writers. All Rights Reserved.

The Eagle Book of Cutaways

The Eagle Book of Cutaways

By L Ashwell Wood, edited by Denis Gifford (Webb & Bower)
ISBN: 0-86350-285-7

It seems inconceivable today, but one of the most popular features in the most popular comic of the 1950’s wasn’t a comic strip at all. When Eagle launched on April 14th 1950, it was a black and white, tabloid-sized periodical, combining strip and prose on good paper with a fuller-than-full-colour front, back and inner cover. The same high quality photo-gravure was used on the centre sheet; four more glorious colour pages for drab, grey, austere post-war Britain.

Across the very centre of those was a painted spread depicting ‘The New Gas Turbine-Electric Locomotive – The 18000’. That was a magnificent train with the engine and operating system exposed, pertinent points numbered and an explanatory block of text explaining all the details. Boys (and, I’m sure, girls) and their dads were transfixed and continued so for the next nine hundred and ninety issues. Each week a new technological marvel of the Space Age and an emergent Modern World would be painted in mind-boggling detail and breezy efficient clarity to captivate and fascinate the readers.

Most of them were crafted by the marvellous L Ashwell Wood (of whom precious little is known; for what there is you should go to Steve Holland’s wonderful and informative Bear Alley website) and although not a new concept, they have become part of the shared psyche of British comic fandom. Ever since then, the fascinating allure of cutaway drawings has bewitched readers, from TV21 to 2000AD and every comic in between.

This grand book reproduces 46 of the very best, from that aforementioned wonder of the rails through other trains and boats and planes and even to that Marvel of a future Age, Dan Dare’s rocket-ship Anastasia (originally revealed on February 7th 1958). This book commands some pretty terrifying prices – and even though I’m prepared to say that it’s worth it, the best solution would be for some enterprising history or popular culture publisher to get the thing back into print immediately – if not sooner.

Illustrations © 1988 Fleetway Publications/Syndication International. All Rights Reserved.