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.

The Situation is Hopeless

The Situation is Hopeless

By Ronald Searle (Penguin Books)
ISBN: 0-1400-6312-9

Sometimes there is simply no need for complex story-telling. Just occasionally the graphic narrative only needs a title and the talents of an artistic phenomenon to convey not just a story, not only shades of depth and texture but also, most magically, the pure emotion of a situation made real with line and colour.

Ronald Searle, expatriate caricaturist and commentator, has been making pictorial wonders for decades. His surreal and abstract grotesques have been charming generations whilst he either makes telling points or just makes us want to laugh until we burst.

This slim collection of full colour animal drawings, criminally out-of-print (but mercifully readily available and inexpensive from a number of internet-based retailers) is one of his dark, sardonic and manic best.

Featuring such visual delights as ‘Imbecile rodent confident that it has a foolproof claim against the Disney Organization’, ‘Loquacious parrot convinced that it is teaching man a basic vocabulary’, ‘Aggressive chicken applying Kung Fu to a Peking Duck’ and ‘Baby seal under the impression that clubs are centres of social activity’ these thirty-two masterpieces of edgy madcappery could make a brick laugh out loud.

© 1980 Ronald Searle. All Rights Reserved.

Firkin Collection

Firkin Collection

By Hunt Emerson & Tym Manley (Knockabout)
ISBN: 0-861661443

Once again the adult magazine industry has provided a comic strip classic, and this time it’s in the scraggy form of a black and white cat. Running for more than twenty years in the top-selling Fiesta, Firkin (more correctly “that Firkin Cat…”) has observed and commentated, advised and mocked the frankly insane mating habits of Homo (not so very) Sapiens.

In two page instalments the wise and ignoble Moggy has lectured the horny and lovelorn, touching upon every aspect of sexuality in an unbroken string of hilarious, grotesque, bawdy and baroque strips from the fevered minds of writer Tym Manley and cartoon Renaissance Man Hunt Emerson.

For the detail-minded, Firkin is the office mouser of adult photographers and has therefore seen it all – although he’s also been a secret agent, superhero and everything else in between, too. Rude, crude, unbelievably vulgar and pant-wettingly funny, these strips are an international hit too, being translated into eight languages. If you’re an open-minded and amusable grown-up these cat’s tales are an addictive treat and hold the secret of the truest love of all…

© 1981-2000, 2007 Hunt Emerson & Tym Manley. All Rights Reserved.

Pow! Annual

<i>Pow!</i> Annual

By various (Odhams Books)
SBN: 60039607X

This quirky item is one of my fondest childhood memories and quite inspirational in directing my career path, and as well as being still a surprisingly qualitative read I can now see it as a bizarre and desperate little experiment. By the end of the 1960s DC Thomson had finally overtaken the monolithic comics publishing giant that had been created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century. By absorbing rivals such as Eagle’s Hulton Press, Fleetway/Odhams/IPC had stayed at the forefront of sales and by latching onto every fad they had kept their material contemporary, if not fresh, but the writing was on the wall.

The comedy strip was on the rise and action anthologies were finding it hard to keep readers attention. By 1970 when this annual was released the trend generated by the success of the Batman TV show was dying, so why release a book of all-new superhero strips in a title very much associated with comedy features and cheap Marvel Comics reprints? A last ditch attempt to revive the genre? Perhaps a cheap means of using up inventory?

I don’t know and I don’t care. What they produced was a wonderful capsule of fanboy delight, stuffed with thrills, colourful characters and a distinctly cool, underplayed stylishness, devoid of the brash histrionics of American comic books.

Within these pages lurked ‘Magno, Man of Magnetism’, ‘Aquavenger’, ‘Mr. Tomorrow: Criminal of the Future’, The Hunter and the Hunted’, ‘Electro’ (no relation to the Marvel villain – other than the high-voltage shtick), The fascinating ‘Esper Commandos’, ‘Marksman’, ‘The Phantom’ (again no relation to the US crime-fighter), the monstrous ‘Norstad of the Deep’ and the crusading ‘Time Rider’, purportedly all created by Alan Hebden and illustrated in alternating full colour (painted) and half-colour (black and magenta) sections by IPC’s European stable of artists. I’m not sure, but I think there’s some Massimo Belardinelli, Carlos Cruz and lots from that prolific bunch at the Giolitti studio.

These are all great little adventures, beautifully illustrated and singularly British in tone, even though most of the characters are American – or aliens (and no, that’s not necessarily the same thing) that easily withstand a critical rereading today, but the most important thing was the inspiring joy of these one-off wannabes. They certainly prompted me to fill sketchbook after sketchbook and determined that I would neither be a “brain surgeon or a bloke wot goes down sewers in gumboots”. This great little tome gave me that critical push towards the fame and fortune I now enjoy!

© 1970 The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

The Beano Book 1971

The Beano Book 1971

By various (DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.)
No ISBN

For many British fans Christmas means The Beano Book (although Scots worldwide have a pretty fair claim that the season belongs to them with collections of The Broons and Oor Wullie making every December 25th magical) and I’ve chosen this particular edition as another epitome of my personal holiday memories. As usual my knowledge of the creators involved is woefully inadequate but I’m going to hazard a few guesses in the hope that someone with better knowledge will correct me when I err.

In this little cracker are a number of David Sutherland’s Biffo the Bear strips as well as his Bash Street Kids and even a smashing action-adventure of boy super-hero Billy the Cat (I wonder if the editors distributed strips to artists in alphabetical order?). There are whirlwind tales of “fastest boy on Earth” Billy Whizz drawn by Malcolm Judge. Paddy Brennan worked as a dramatic artist for decades on General Jumbo (the heroic boy who radio-controlled an army of robot toys) and the Q-Bikes, a team of young adventurers with technologically advanced push-bikes. In this volume they trade in two wheels for four, and become the Q-Karts for an Australian adventure, whilst the aforementioned General captures a team of safecrackers in his home town.

These annuals were traditionally produced in the wonderful “half-colour” that many British publishers used to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections of the books with only two plates, such as blue/Cyan and red/Magenta: The versatility and palette range this provided was astounding. Even now this technique screams “Holidays” to me and my contemporaries.

Some of the Dennis the Menace strips are possibly drawn by original creator Davy Law, but are most likely the work of his style-chameleon replacement David Sutherland. They all feature his charismatic new co-star ‘Gnasher’, too. The woefully un-PC but astoundingly funny Little Plum strips are by Ronald Spencer, I think, as are The Nibblers; an anarchic gang – and weren’t they all in The Beano? – of mice.

The 3 Bears segments are by Bob McGrath whilst Lord Snooty (one of the longest running strips in the comic’s history – a record only recently overtaken by Dennis) is the work of Robert Nixon, as is the Roger the Dodger Family Album section. There are short romps with Pups Parade (or the Bash Street Pups – the unlovely pets of those unlovely kids) by Gordon Bell and exemplar of Girl Power Minnie the Minx gets her own 16 page mini-book in this annual – and who could stop her? – courtesy of the wonderful Jim Petrie, but I’ll admit to being totally stumped by Swinging Jungle Jim a frantic boy-Tarzan strip that has sunk without trace since those faraway times.

Topped off with activity and gag-pages, this is a tremendously fun book, and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid and with a small but noticeable decline in the mayhem and anarchy quotas, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is thirty seven years old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s DC Thomson annuals…

Divorcing the sheer quality of this brilliant book from nostalgia is a healthy exercise, but I’m perfectly happy to simply wallow – even today – in the magical emotions this ‘almost-colourful’ annual still stirs. It’s a good solid laugh-and-thrill-packed read, from a magical time (I was in my final year of primary school and a beloved, spoiled and precocious little snot with not a care in the world) and turning those stiffened two-colour pages is always an unmatchable Christmas experience.

© 1970 DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.

Oh, Wicked Wanda!

Oh, Wicked Wanda!

By Frederic Mulally & 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 sexual 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 and Will Elder, it ran intermittently from 1962 until 1988, and revived in 1998, illustrated by Ray Lago and Bill Schorr), publishing rival Bob Guccione wanted the same but better for his publication Penthouse.

He hired journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mulally to script the exotic, erotic adventures of Wanda Von Kreesus, the richest woman in the world, 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 illustrations in 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 Penthouse proprietor Guccione.

The bored and mischievous hellion is a sexually adventurous woman from a time when sexual politics and liberation were huge issues, and therefore prime targets for low comedy and high satire. Mulally peppered his scripts with topical references (many, sadly which 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 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.

Garth: The Cloud of Balthus

Garth: The Cloud of Balthus

By Jim Edgar and Frank Bellamy, with John Allard (Titan Books)
ISBN: 0-90761-034-X

The British Superman Garth first appeared in the Daily Mirror on Saturday, July 24th 1943, the creation of professional cartoonist Steve Dowling and BBC producer Gordon Boshell, at the behest of the editor who wanted an adventure strip to complement their other comic strip features, Buck Ryan, Belinda Blue Eyes, Just Jake and the immortal, morale-boosting Jane.

A blond giant and physical marvel, Garth washed up on an island shore and into the arms of a pretty girl, Gala, with no memory of who he was, but nevertheless saved the entire populace from a brutal tyrant. Boshell never had time to write the series, so Dowling, already producing the successful family strip The Ruggles, scripted Garth until a new writer could be found.

Don Freeman dumped the amnesia plot in ‘The Seven Ages of Garth’ (which ran from September 18th 1944 until January 20th 1946) by introducing the studious jack-of-all-science Professor Lumiere whose psychological experiments Regressed the hero back through some past lives. In the next tale ‘The Saga of Garth’ (January 22nd 1946 – July 20th 1946) his origin was revealed. As a child he’d been found floating in a coracle off the Shetlands and adopted by a kindly old couple. When grown he became a Navy Captain until he was torpedoed off Tibet in 1943.

Freeman continued as writer until 1952 (‘Flight into the Future’ was his last tale), and was briefly replaced by script editor Hugh McClelland (who only wrote ‘Invasion From Space’) until Peter O’Donnell took over in February 1953 (‘Warriors of Krull’). He wrote 28 adventures until he resigned in 1966 to devote more time to his own strip Modesty Blaise, and his place was taken by Jim Edgar; a short-story writer who also wrote such prestigious strips as Matt Marriott, Wes Slade and Gun Law.

Dowling retired in 1968 and his long-time assistant John Allard took over the strip until a suitable permanent artist could be found. He completed ten tales until Frank Bellamy began his legendary run with the 13th instalment of ‘Sundance’ (which ran from 28th June to 11th October 1971). Allard remained as background artist and assistant until Bellamy took full control during ‘The Orb of Trimandias’.

One thing Professor Lumiere had discovered and which gave this strip its distinctive appeal – even before the fantastic artwork of Bellamy elevated it to dizzying heights of graphic brilliance – was Garth’s 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, pushing it beyond its humble beginning as a British response to Siegel and Shuster’s American phenomenon Superman.

In ‘Sundance’ Garth is sucked back to 1876 to relive his life as an officer of George Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the Eve of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He has a brief but passionate love affair with the squaw Falling Leaf before dying valiantly for his beliefs and their love. It is an evocative, powerful tale that totally captures the bigotry, arrogance and futility of the White Man and the tragic demise of the Indian way of life.

‘The Cloud of Balthus’ shows the open, simple elegance of the narrative concept in Garth. Whilst vacationing in the Caribbean the hero becomes embroiled in an espionage plot involving freelance super-spies and a US space station, but even that is mere prelude to fantastic adventure and deadly terrors when he and his delectable, double-dealing companion Lee Wan are abducted by nebulous energy beings in a taut, tension-fraught thriller.

‘The Orb of Trimandias’ sends Garth back in time to the Venice of the Borgias, when he re-lives his life as English Soldier-of-Fortune Lord Carthewan, a decent man battling an insane and all-powerful madman for the secret of a supernaturally potent holy relic. This gripping, exotic yarn is replete with flamboyant action, historical celebrities, sexy women and magnificently stirring locales. It’s a timeless treasure of adventure that has the added fillip of briefly reuniting Garth with his star-crossed true love, the ethereal Goddess Astra.

This lovely volume concludes with a high-octane gothic horror story. In ‘The Wolfman of Ausensee’ Garth becomes the reluctant companion of movie starlet Gloria Delmar on a shoot at the forbidding Austrian Schloss (that’s a big ugly castle to you) of a playboy whose family was cursed by witches. Despite the title giving some of the game away this is still a sharp and savvy spook-fest that would sit easily amongst the best Hammer Horror films, and just gets better with each rereading.

Garth is the quintessential British Action Hero – strong, smart, good-looking with a big heart and a nose for trouble. His back-story gives him all of eternity and every genre to play in and the magnificent art of Frank Bellamy also made his too-brief tenure a stellar one.

Comic-strips seldom get this good, and even though this book and its sequel are still relatively easy to come by, it is still a crime and a mystery that all these wonderful tales have been out of print for so long.

© 198Mirror Group Newspapers. All Rights Reserved.

Citymouth

Citymouth

By Hunt Emerson (Knockabout)
ISBN: 0-86166-142-7

This slim collection of cartoons and strips is possibly the most innovative and surreal work that national treasure Hunt Emerson has ever produced. Surreal to the point of abstraction, these are purely visual statements and bon mots which run the gamut from slapstick to satire, shaggy dog story to barbed social commentary, and like all the great surrealist artists, these works aspire to instantaneous creation but in actuality have been crafted with extreme diligence and terrifying skill.

Somewhere strange creatures roam, little more than mouths on legs. In those cavernous maws are dwellings. Parks, villages, housing developments, even city-states. In mostly wordless displays Emerson examines society, progress and even the absurd nature of reality. He also quite clearly had vast amounts of mind-liberating fun, and so will you when you track down this pictorial delight.

© 2000 Hunt Emerson. All Rights Reserved