Thoreau – A Sublime Life

By A.Dan & Maximilien Le Roy, translated by Peter Russella (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-025-6

We don’t get nearly enough access to philosophy or big thinkers in comics, but whenever some creator or other does set out to explore deeper issues regarding formative moments in human culture, the results are more often than not splendidly successful.

Author (and colourist of this book) Maximilien Le Roy has clearly given the genre much thought. He was born in Paris in 1985 and, after the usual education and socialisation, he studied Applied Art. Done with that, he began travelling the world, making socially-aware and incisively politicised comics…

His works challenging the situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Hosni, Gaza; a Stone in the Sea, Make the Wall) got him banned from entering any Israeli territory for ten years – from October 2015 onwards. He kept on examining those issues, drawing in other concerned creators to help tell stories and depict issues authorities would rather nobody saw, and ask questions members of the global public would love to have finally addressed…

His other apparent preoccupation is great artists and thinkers, resulting in comics volumes encapsulating the lives and achievements of Nietzche (To Create Freedom in collaboration with Michel Onfray), Gauguin – Far from the road, (with Christophe Gauthier) and, from 2012, this superbly haunting examination of Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts and influence upon the world.

Le Roy’s co-conspirator on La Vie sublime – Thoreau is Daniel Alexandre who prefers the pen-name A. Dan. A self-taught artist, his first work was seen on his blog in 2005. He then began to specialise in animal illustration and naturalistic subjects before working for Joker Editions in 2008 on heroic fantasy Jo-Bo, which he had created with scripter Benjamin Leduc.

A.Dan developed a more humanistic style for Algerian War tale Tahya El-Djazaï and WWI saga Pour un peu de bonheur (both with Laurent Galandon, in 2009 and 2012-2013) and recent historical epic La Faute au Midi with writer Jean-Yves La Nour.

The deliciously oversized (284 x 224 mm) full-colour hardback under review here is not a history or biography text. You won’t learn much about Thoreau’s formative experiences in New England or time at Harvard – although the comprehensive essay and appreciation ‘Thoreau, a Philosopher for Today’ by scholar Professor Michael Granger at the back of the book might fill a few gaps whilst clarifying the American intellectual icon’s place in history and legacy for the modern world.

Briefly then: Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817. The son of a pencil-maker, he studied at Harvard from 1833 and 1837. He left after refusing to pay a post-hoc fee to receive the Masters degree he had already earned (anybody believe the monetisation of education is a recent thing?).

Thoreau was an author, poet, philosopher, political thinker, working surveyor, historian and development critic who would have loved to have been best remembered today for his writings on nature and ecological systems. He was also an ardent abolitionist and opposed to unaccountable or over-intrusive government – especially ones driven by a profit-motive.

He refused to pay taxes to a government which fought wars of colonialism and supported slavery whilst publicly and hypocritically decrying it. He is now regarded as the father of Civil Disobedience, with Tolstoy, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many elements of the Occupy Movement amongst so many other non-violent resistors all citing his writings as the major influence on their actions.

Anything more you need can be gleaned from dozens of books or via the search engine of your choice…

Following Le Roy’s emphatic Foreword, the beguiling glimpse into the writer’s most productive period begins one day in March 1845 as the wanderer returns to Concord, borrows an axe from a blacksmith and wanders off into the woods.

Over the coming months he becomes a virtual recluse, building a cabin home beside a small lake; observes nature in all its wonder and begins collecting his thoughts for the book which will one day become Walden (his immortal treatise on simple living) and the essay Resistance to Civil Government

Through solitary, bucolic months he toils, writes or reads of other philosophers and foreign belief systems; learning more and more about the natural world by essentially becoming part of it. Eventually he is quietly arrested and graciously submits to prison for refusing to pay taxes to a government he does not approve of.

Determined and unrepentant he stays there uncomplaining until his jailers throw him out. They are uncaring that he has refused liberty. All they know or care about is that is that the principled prisoner’s humiliated relatives have paid the outstanding amount… over Thoreau’s strident protests…

Back at his Walden cabin, he opens his home to abolitionists and continues his studies. In 1849 he begins publicly speaking out across the region against the shameful practice and his slowly-coalescing beliefs on the nature and failings of Government. His works are published but sell slowly as he gradually takes a more active part in anti-slavery organisations…

In 1853 his travels bring him to an Indian enclave and he meets an entire people who are his spiritual and ethical brothers. His pronouncements on business and industry destroying nature begin to make some little headway in a young nation seemingly obsessed with exploitative money-making, and whenever he feels deflated or defeated a return to the woods rekindles his spirits…

Sadly his world is not isolated and many of his like-minded contemporaries do not share all his views. In 1853 militant Abolitionist John Brown begins a campaign of bloody terrorism against slave-owners and their supporters which will culminate on the attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (now regarded as the spark which ignited the War Between the States). Despite ardently disagreeing with the zealot’s methods, Thoreau mounts a spirited courtroom defence of Brown…

And so this glorious montage of preciously stockpiled little moments proceeds: revealing telling incidents of quiet intensity – all suitably garnished with appropriate quotes from the great individualist’s writings – which paint his character in ways dry facts just can’t equal, taking the reader through those final critical years until his death in 1862…

As you’d expect and hope, Thoreau- A Sublime Life is naturalistically lovely, lyrically composed and sweetly sensible: highlighting key moments of introspection, inspiration and revelation from one of the world’s earliest ecologists and most-revered rebel rationalists.

Clever, wise and passionate, this is a fabulous and welcoming treatment of a forward-looking individual increasingly in tune with the times and the people.
© 2012 A.Dan/Le Roy/Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S.A.). © 2016 NBM for the English translation.

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded

By Jim Ottaviani & Leland Purvis (Abrams ComicArts)
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1893-9

After decades of cruel injustice and crushing, sidelining silence, British mathematician Alan Turing – one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century – is at last becoming the household name and revered figure he deserves to be.

As well as books and films describing the amazing achievements and appalling way this brilliant, tormented man – arguably the creator of the modern world we inhabit – was treated by society, there’s now a new graphic novel delineating the factual stuff whilst trying to get beneath the skin of a most perplexing and unique individual.

It’s only fair to warn you: this is categorically not an adaptation of the 2014 film.

Spellbindingly scripted by Jim Ottaviani (who has similarly eulogised and dissected quantum physicist Feynman and primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas in Primates) and compellingly effective art by Leland Purvis (Vox, Pubo, Vulcan & Vishnu and Suspended in language: Niels Bohr’s life, discoveries, and the century he shaped – a previous collaboration with Ottoviani), this full-colour hardback biography divides Turing’s life into three broad sections, incisively and winningly reviewed as if in a documentary.

Events from his turbulent life are cleverly mixed with “interviews” and candid disclosures from those who knew him – his mother, the computing girls at Bletchley Park, fiancée Joan Clark, Professor Max Newman, engineer and lab partner Bayley and the weak, shady rent-boy who brought about Turing’s eventual downfall and death…

‘Universal Computing’ covers the difficult, solitary boy’s childhood and college years, with plenty of revelatory scenes showing how smart, obsessed and just plain different Turing was.

Top Secret Ultra’ focuses on the war years that made Turing’s reputation as a cryptographer and inventor at the “non-existent” base where the Enigma Code was cracked and the battle against fascism won.

The most painful and potent moments are seen in the post-war years at Manchester University, trying to beat the Americans in the race to build Thinking Machines and coming under increasing stress as his open homosexuality – accepted as fact and ignored at Bletchley – came to overtake and destroy the life of the mis-socialised simple genius whose thoughts and writings resulted in the breakthroughs everybody now knows as ‘The Imitation Game’

Rounding out the cruelly educational experience is a poignant and challenging ‘Authors Note’ touching on the still unresolved mystery of Turing’s death, a vast ‘Bibliography and Recommended Reading’ list and a bewilderingly comprehensive ‘Notes and References’ section, covering everything from the panel structures to the mathematics involved in and comprising much of the book’s subtly beguiling make-up.

This is an astoundingly inviting way to take in a true story of incredible accomplishment, dedicated passion and terrifying naivety, ending in a horrific loss to us all and forever-unanswered sentiments of “What If?” and “If Only”…
Text © 2016 Jim Ottaviani. Illustrations © 2016 Leland Purvis. All rights reserved.

The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded will be released on March 22nd 2016.

Hip Hop Family Tree Book 3: 1983-1984

By Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-848-9

Another year gone and at long last another spectacularly barnstorming, award-winning comicstrip history lesson from proudly self-confessed Hip Hop Nerd and cyber-geek Ed Piskor is here, detailing more secrets about the world’s most explosive musical discipline.

In astounding detail and with a positively chillin’ attention to the art styles of the period, Piskor resumes his astoundingly engaging exploration of the rise of the rhyme-&-rhythm musical art form – all whilst paying equal attention to the symbiotic and parallel growth of graffiti and street art – with wit, charm and astonishing clarity.

Kicking off with a crucial ‘Rogues Gallery’ of the 80 movers and shakers involved, this latest blockbuster-sized volume begins in 1983 after Hip Hop at last makes the leap from local parks and parties to the club scene and onto vinyl. It also sees the street wisdom that Rap doesn’t work on albums finally disproved forever…

Of course now that the strange noise and weirdly evocative dance moves are a proven commodity, the establishment business sharks begin to circle the pioneering proponents and all their hundreds of hungry wannabe, would-be stars…

‘The Freaks Come Out at Night of the Living Bassheads’ closely studies that inexorable rise, following a few key behind-the scenes-personalities like in-at-the-start devotee Russell “Rush” Simmons, fanatical white-boy Rick Rubin and miracle-working Swiss opportunist Charlie Stettler whose tireless efforts are slowly eclipsed as the movement goes global, tracking the tenuous migration to television via shows such as Graffiti Rock and documentaries Style Wars and Breakin’ and Enterin’ until even whites Rock-only MTV finally capitulates …

Filled with feuds, mash-ups and team-ups of the new talents, highlighting Rubin and Simmons unification as Def Jam and focussing closely on British support from landmark books such as Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Street Art, this titanic tome covers the start of the careers of Whodini, The Fat Boys, Slick Rick, LL Cool J and Doug E Fresh, sees The Beastie Boys adopt rap as their metier and follows Run DMC’s unstoppable rise.

As always the technical and stylistic innovations, musical struggles and physical battles, management shenanigans and recording landmarks are all encyclopaedically yet engaging revealed as Piskor connects a bewildering number of strands and weaves them into the coolest of tapestries …

To Be Continued…

Produced in the tone and style of those halcyon, grimily urban times and manufactured to look just like an old Marvel Treasury Edition (a tabloid sized 334 x 234 mm -reprint format from the 1970s which offered classic tales on huge and mouth-wateringly enticing pulp-paper pages), this compelling confection also includes a copious and erudite ‘Bibliography’, ‘Reference’ and ‘Funky Index’, a fun-filled Author Bio and another blazing collection of ‘Pin Ups’ with spectacular images from guest illustrators including TLC by Natalie Andrewson, Biz Markie by Miss Lasko Gross, Kool Moe Dee by Jonny Negron, Kool DJ Red Alert by Toby Cypress, Blowfly by Johnny Ryan, Jay Z by Jim Rugg, Wu Tang Clan by Benjamin Marra, Mantronix by Dean Haspiel, Dr. Dre by Jenny Goldstick, MC Hammer by Robert Crumb and Digital Underground by Skottie Young to get your pulses racing, if not your toes tapping…

Informative and irresistible, Hip Hop Family Tree is wild fun and deliciously addictive – and only a year until the next one…
This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All Hip Hop comic strips by Ed Piskor © 2015 Ed Piskor. Pin ups and other material © 2015 their respective artists. All rights reserved.

Hip Hop Family Tree book 1: 1970s-1981

By Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-690-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: way better than Record Tokens… 8/10

Comics is an all-encompassing narrative medium and – even after 30 plus years in the game – I’m still frequently amazed and delighted at the new ways creators constantly find to use the simple combination of words and pictures in sequence to produce new and intoxicating ways of conveying information, tone, style and especially passion to their target audience.

A particularly brilliant case in point is this compulsive compilation of strips and extras from self-confessed Hip Hop Nerd and cyber geek Ed Piskor (author of the astonishing Hacker graphic novel Wizzywig) which originally appeared in serial form on the website Boing Boing.

In astounding detail and with a positively chillin’ attention to the art styles of the period, Piskor details the rise of the rhyme-and-rhythm musical art form (whilst paying close attention to the almost symbiotic growth of graffiti and street art) with wit, charm and astonishing clarity.

Charting the slow demise of the disco and punk status quo by intimately following fledgling stars and transcendent personalities of the era, ‘Straight Out of the Gutter’ begins in the mid 1970s with the South Bronx block parties and live music jams of such pioneers as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa.

The new music is mired in the maze of inescapable gang culture but as early word-of-mouth success leads to at first rare vinyl pressings and the advent of the next generation, the inevitable interest of visionaries and converts leads to the circling of commercial sharks…

The technical and stylistic innovations, the musical battles and physical feuds, the management races by truly unsavoury characters to secure the first landmark history-making successes are all encyclopaedically yet engaging revealed through the lives – and, so often early deaths – of almost-stars and later household names such as Furious 4-plus-1, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, the Furious Five, and even three kids who will become Run-DMC.

The story follows and connects a bewildering number of key and crucial personalities – with a wealth of star-struck music biz cameos and ends with Hip Hop on the very edge of global domination following the breakout single Rapture (from new wave icons and dedicated devotees Blondie) and the landmark TV documentary by Hugh Downs and Steve Fox on the national current affairs TV show 20/20 which brought the new music culture into the homes of unsuspecting middle America…

To Be Continued…

Produced in the tone and style of those halcyon, grimily urban times and manufactured to look just like an old Marvel Treasury Edition (an oversized – 334x234mm -reprint format from the 1970s which offered classic tales on huge and mouth-wateringly enticing pulp-paper pages), this compelling confection also includes a copious and erudite ‘Bibliography’, ‘Discography’ and ‘Funky Index’, an Afterword: the Hip Hop/Comic Book Connection (with additional art by Tom Scioli) and a fun-filled Author Bio.

Moreover there’s also a blistering collection of ‘Pin Ups and Burners’ with spectacular images from guest illustrators including The Beastie Boys by Jeffrey Brown, Afrika Bambaataa by Jim Mahfood, Fat Boys by Scioli, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five by Ben Marra, Vanilla Ice by Jim Rugg, Run-DMC by Dan Zettwoch, Eric B. and Rakim by John Porcellino, Salt-n-Pepa by Nate Powell, KRS-One by Brandon Graham & Snoop Dogg by Farel Dalrymple to get your pulses racing, if not your toes tapping…

Cool, informative and irresistible, Hip Hop Family Tree is wild fun and deliciously addictive. It will be a harsh wait for the next volume…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All Hip Hop comic strips by Ed Piskor © 2013 Ed Piskor. Pin ups and other material © 2013 their respective artists. All rights reserved.

Little Nothings volume 4: My Shadow in the Distance

By Lewis Trondheim, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-523-8

With over 100 books bearing his pen-name, (Lewis Trondheim is actually Laurent Chabosy) the writer/artist/editor and educator is one of Europe’s most prolific comics creators: illuminating his own work, overseeing animated cartoons of adaptations of previous successes such as La Mouche (The Fly) and Kaput and Zösky or editing the younger-readers book series Shampooing for Dargaud.

His most famous works are the global hits ‘Les Formidables Aventures de Lapinot’ (translated as The Spiffy Adventures of McConey) and, with Joann Sfar, the Donjon (Dungeon) series of nested fantasy epics (translated as the conjoined sagas Dungeon: Parade, Dungeon: Monstres and Dungeon: the Early Years).

In his spare time, and when not girdling the globe from convention to symposium to festival, the dourly shy and neurotically introspective savant has written for satirical magazine Psikopat and provided scripts for many of the continent’s most popular artists – such as Fabrice Parme (Le Roi Catastrophe, Vénézia), Manu Larcenet (Les Cosmonautes du futur), José Parrondo (Allez Raconte and Papa Raconte) and Thierry Robin (Petit Père Noël).

He is a cartoonist of uncanny wit, piercing perspicacity, comforting affability and self-deprecating empathy who prefers to control scrupulously what is known and said about him…

A little while ago the well-travelled graphic self-critic began drawing a deliciously intimate cartoon blog wherein all the people Trondheim knows or encounters are rendered as anthropomorphised animals with him a dowdy, parrot-beaked actor/director. These marvellous meanderings have been periodically released as a series of enchanting full-colour albums. Page after page of whimsical, querulous and enticingly intriguing reportage deliciously rendered in watercolour tones has emerged since and now at last here’s another collecting his daily thoughts on 2009…

This collection focuses heavily on the global peregrinations of Trondheim, with and without his family, to such far-flung places as Iceland, America (for an extended and hilariously unsettling family vacation from New York to Las Vegas), Quebec and Canada, Germany, Prague, Madrid, Italy, Corsica, Argentina, Ushuaia, Antarctica and Africa, with all the attendant joys and night-terrors such voyages engender for him.

As ever he highlights the ways in which humans vary and yet remain intrinsically similar (although only my own German forebears could possibly have devised such a brilliant method of enhancing and yet sanitising men’s urinal experiences…) but also finds time and space to ponder the inevitable decline in quality of movie sequels, roaming credit-card charges, his health, travel etiquette and preparation, the pitfalls of snacking, airports everywhere, the urge to eavesdrop, the varying quality of hotels, weather and climate, forgetfulness, comics conventions, fans and professionals, personal space and getting old, skiing holidays, making your own music and what cats are good for, before concluding with an extended and rather grotesque episode covering his nasal polyp surgery and the inevitable overreaction to it…

These daily bulletins explore little events and really big themes and there are also purely visual moments that you just have to see to believe, whilst the ruminations, micro-dramas and amicably nit-picking pictorial monologues regularly range from his inability to de-clutter, toilet etiquette, gadgets, marriage, parenthood, computers, and getting old, which mercifully comes to us…

Little Nothings is easily one of the most comforting and compelling biographical comics series ever created; gently contemplative, subtly pleasing and ineffably something that no fan of any advanced or significant vintage would care to miss

I once more strongly suggest that if you need a little non-theological, un-theosophical yet hilariously existential spiritual refreshment you take advantage of this fortuitous collection toot da sweet

© 2009 Trondheim. English translation © 2011 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Approximate Continuum Comics

By Lewis Trondheim, edited & translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-410-8

With over 100 books sporting his name, (which isn’t actually Lewis Trondheim but Laurent Chabosy) the writer/artist/editor and educator is one of Europe’s most prolific comics creators: illustrating his own work and working with the industry’s top artists; overseeing animated cartoons of his print successes as La Mouche (The Fly) and Kaput and Zösky and even editing a younger readers book series Shampooing for Dargaud.

His most famous works are the global hits ‘Les Formidables Aventures de Lapinot’ (translated as The Spiffy Adventures of McConey) and, with Joann Sfar, the Donjon (Dungeon) series of nested fantasy epics (see the translated Dungeon: Parade, Dungeon: Monstres and Dungeon: the Early Years).

In his spare time he has written for satirical magazine Psikopat and his scripts for the continent’s most popular artists include Le Roi Catastrophe and Vénézia with Fabrice Parme, Les Cosmonautes du futur (Manu Larcenet), Allez Raconte and Papa Raconte (José Parrondo) and Petit Père Noël (Thierry Robin).

He is a cartoonist of uncanny wit, piercing, gentle perspicacity, comforting affability and self-deprecating empathy who prefers to control scrupulously what is known and said about him…

I first became aware of Lewis Trondheim’s subtly engaging comics mannerism in Fantagraphics’ Mome anthologies which reprinted excerpts of his comics blog Little Nothings wherein Trondheim’s friends and acquaintances, drawn as anthropomorphised animals (with him a dowdy, parrot-beaked central figure) revisit episodes of his life, flavoured with philosophy, personal introspection, whimsical inquiry and foible-filled observations.

These mini-treats have since been gathered into three terrific tomes of drawn diaries for constant re-reading (Little Nothings: Curse of the Umbrella, The Prisoner Syndrome and Uneasy Happiness) and are available as collected gift set entitled Bigger Nothings.

However, before all that Trondheim first explored the idea as a four issue American styled comicbook project in 1993 and those prototypical slices of wry and winning reportage are finally available in a translated black and white softcover collection.

Some of the very first autobiographical works on the French bande dessinée scene, these little gems were a genuine game-changer for cartoonists and storytellers, prompting a rise in personal stories that has produced many works to rival the best of Harvey Pekar himself…

In the collected Approximate Continuum Comics the trademark blend of visualised introspection and self-condemnatory flagellation finds the younger Trondheim questioning his own professional integrity, violently and graphically wish-fulfilling his way through rush-hour crowds (haven’t we all?), planning – for which read risk-assessing – his marriage, and dealing with his unfathomable Japanese publisher during the early days of creating his multi-media hit La Mouche.

He regularly gets lost in his own free-associating daydreams and rightly fears being castigated by his own conscience for swimming in megalomania, indecisiveness, forthrightness and deference.

Trondheim’s many inner voices don’t like him very much: there are myriad incidences of self-abuse where his alternate egos beat the crap out of him; counterbalanced with gloriously loaded “real-world” episodes where he lampoons and embarrasses his fellow studio-mates of publishing collective L’Association.

(To be fair these are fabulously balanced by a marvellous section at the book’s end where such maligned and injured creative colleagues as David B., Emile Bravo, Didier Tronchet, Jean-Christophe Menu, Killofer and Philippe Dupuy among others, as well as civilian friends, his wife Brigitte and even his mother all get a trenchant and often hilarious right-to-reply.)

The first inklings of the artist’s perennial problems with technology in general and computer games in particular appear here, as do many childhood memoirs and sundry diatribes against people and places either experienced or sometimes only imagined.

One of the best sequences concerns the trip-of-a-lifetime to America (first of many, but he didn’t know that then…) and his apparent inability to think of one single strip idea about it, only surpassed by his behaviour at a raucous party held in his beloved studio.

During the course of these cartoon capers, Trondheim married his fiancée, sired his first child and moved into a new home, but although these major events are thoroughly and compellingly covered they still pale into insignificance against the spectacular battles against his inevitably spreading paunch, obsessively mean-spirited self-criticism and the thunderbolt-like occasional phone call from his mum…

…And whenever that’s no longer painful enough there’s always the violent physical assaults and punishment-beatings from his inner selves…

Superbly skilled at switching imperceptibly from broad self-parody to cripplingly painful personal revelation, wild surrealism to powerful reportage and from clever humorous observation to howling existentialist inquisition, Trondheim’s cartoon interior catalogue is always a supremely rewarding and enjoyable experience and, as these ancient texts prove, always has been…

© 2001 Lewis Trondheim and Cornélius. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Bigger Nothings: The Little Nothings Gift Set volumes 1-3

By Lewis Trondheim, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: vol. 1: 978-1-56163-523-8 vol. 2: 978-1-56163-548-1 vol. 3: 978-1-56163-576-4
Gift pack ISBN: 978-1-56163-599-3

I first became aware of Lewis Trondheim’s subtly enchanting vignettes in Fantagraphics’ Mome comics anthologies rather than through its internet presence and it’s an utter delight for this old duffer (me, not him) to see this blend of cartoon philosophy, personal introspection, whimsical inquiry and foible-filled observations gathered into such handy tomes for constant re-reading.

With over 100 books sporting his name, (which isn’t actually Lewis Trondheim but Laurent Chabosy) the writer/artist/editor and educator is one of Europe’s most prolific comics creators: illustrating his own work, overseeing animated cartoons of such print successes as La Mouche (The Fly) and Kaput and Zösky and editing the younger readers book series Shampooing for Dargaud.

His most famous works are the global hits ‘Les Formidables Aventures de Lapinot’ (translated as The Spiffy Adventures of McConey) and, with Joann Sfar, the Donjon (Dungeon) series of nested fantasy epics (see the translated Dungeon: Parade, Dungeon: Monstres and Dungeon: the Early Years).

In his spare time he has written for satirical magazine Psikopat and provided scripts for many of the continent’s most popular artists – such as Fabrice Parme (Le Roi Catastrophe, Vénézia), Manu Larcenet (Les Cosmonautes du futur), José Parrondo (Allez Raconte and Papa Raconte) and Thierry Robin (Petit Père Noël),

He is a cartoonist of uncanny wit, piercing, gentle perspicacity, comforting affability and self-deprecating empathy and prefers to control scrupulously what is known and said about him…

A little while ago the well-travelled graphic introvert began drawing a deliciously intimate cartoon blog wherein all the people Trondheim knows are rendered as anthropomorphised  animals (with him a dowdy, parrot-beaked actor/director) which has been edited into a series of enchanting full-colour albums. Page after page of introspective, whimsical, querulous and enticingly intriguing reportage has emerged since, and thanks, presumably, to the global recession you can now pick up the first three in an extremely economical bargain gift pack…

Volume 1, The Curse of the Umbrella, features ruminations on gardening and possessing a vegetable death-touch, introduces his family, examines the love-hate relationship with technology and computer games and covers the dramas of becoming first time cat-owners at an advanced age. Hypochondria and the internet’s impact as an enabler of such recurs, as do work-processes for the self-employed, keeping fit, snacks, memory, death, bird-poop, the weather and travel to comics events in exotic locations such as the Reunion Islands and Edinburgh. The daily bulletins explore little events and really big themes and there are also purely visual moments that you just have to see to get…

In volume 2, The Prisoner Syndrome, the cascade of cartoon delights continues with more of the same whilst adding summer beach madness, floating with the fishes, exploring volcanoes, ecology and hotel wastefulness, comic convention memory (so different from the regular kind). There’s animal antics, travel, energy-saving, visiting Africa, Guadeloupe, Romania and London, the differences between men and women, global political crises and the heartbreaking helplessness and inevitable consequences of seeing your pet die.

Uneasy Happiness, the third and final volume in this collected set, sees the bird-faced gentleman amicably nit-picking and further musing his way through the life of an old and successful comic creator: travelling to conventions, making stories and dealing with the distressingly peculiar modern world, especially focusing on his increasing hoarding proclivities, concerns over his creative and financial legacy, mice in the bookshelves and packing…

The ruminations and anti-dramas regularly range from his inability to de-clutter (every comic maven’s weakness!), toilet etiquette (public and private), gadgets, marriage, parenthood, the actual science in TV shows, how mad cats are, brilliant ideas that come when you’re asleep, computers, and getting old, interspersed with reactions to the many wonderful places he has visited on the comics convention circuit (Venice, Portugal, Fiji, Australia and others in this volume).

All genteelly re-coloured for book publication, these Little Nothings have become some of my favourite 21st century graphic novels; gently contemplative, subtly pleasing…

I strongly suggest that if you need a little non-theological, un-theosophical yet hilariously existential spiritual refreshment you take advantage of this fortuitous collection with the utmost alacrity…

© 2010 Trondheim. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Captain Britain: End Game

By Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison & others (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-459-1

Marvel UK set up shop in 1972, reprinting the company’s earliest US successes in the traditional British weekly format, swiftly carving out a solid slice of the market – although the works of Lee, Kirby et al had already been appearing in other British comics (Smash!, Wham!, Pow!, Eagle, Fantastic!, Terrific!), and the anthologies of Alan Class Publications (which re-packaged a mesmerising plethora of American comics from Marvel, Charlton, Tower and ACG among others in comforting, cheap black and white) since their inception thanks to the aggressive marketing and licensing policies of and Stan and the gang.

In 1976 Marvel decided to augment their output with an original British hero in a new weekly – albeit in that parochial, US style and manner beloved by English comics readers. Although the new title still included fan favourites Fantastic Four and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. reprints filled out the issues, one bold departure was the addition of full colour printing up front for the new hero, and the equivalent back quarter of each issue.

Physics student Brian Braddock was in just the wrong place when raiders attacked the Atomic research centre on Darkmoor, but when he fled the brutal assault he stumbled onto a source of fantastic power and his inescapable destiny. Chosen by the legendary Merlin himself, Braddock was transformed into the symbolic champion of our Island Nation and battled incredible threats as the valiant Captain Britain…

This fifth volume chronologically completes the full-colour adventures of Marvel’s Greatest British super-hero prior to his being conscripted into the X-Men’s ponderous niche-continuity, gathered from Mighty World of Marvel #7-16 and the entire 14 issue run of Captain Britain volume 2 (January 1985-February 1986).

After a brief introductory reminiscence from multi-talented star-turn Alan Davis the action begins with ‘The Candlelight Dialogues’ by Alans Moore and Davis from Mighty World of Marvel #7 (and providing a plot-strand bled dry by Chris Claremont and successive X-Scribes over the next two decades in the US comicbooks)…

Two female internees converse in a prison camp after lights out: recounting tales of a legendary hero who will free them from bondage. The World has been taken over by fascist human forces incarcerating or destroying all the different ones… freaks, mutants, superheroes.

This tale introduces the amazing mystic metamorph Meggan who would become Captain Britain’s long-term inamorata, but the really big reveal is that our world also has a reality-warping Mad Jim Jaspers (see Captain Britain: the Siege of Camelot) – the big difference being that here he won and creation has become his instantly plastic plaything…

Issue #8 sets up a cataclysmic confrontation in ‘The Twisted World (Reprise)’ as infallible hero-killing super-weapon the Fury is still hunting, even though Jaspers has reworked the world into his own twisted version of a totalitarian paradise. Captain Britain, his sister Betsy, Omniversal fugitives Saturnyne and Captain UK, sole survivor of her murdered dimension, lead the last few rebels against the New Reality as Jaspers consolidates his psychotic hold on the nation. The fugitives’ consensus choice is “attack or die”…

Meanwhile in the higher realms, Merlin and his daughter move their human pieces in the great game to save our existence. In ‘Among These Dark Satanic Mills’ the good Captain struggles on but not without telling losses, confronting Jaspers as the madman begins his ascent to literal godhood in ‘Anarchy in the UK’.

Even so the cause seems hopeless until the long forgotten Fury enters the fray on nobody’s side but intent on taking out the greatest threat first in ‘Fool’s Mate’ – the beginning of an unbelievably intense and imaginative battle with Jaspers across the multi-verse using the building blocks of reality as ammunition. The chaotic clash continues in ‘Endgame’ with shocks and surprises aplenty, leading to unexpected victory, the death of a major player and in Mighty World of Marvel #13, ‘A Funeral on Otherworld’.

Moore left the strip with that wrap-up and re-set, leaving artist Davis to write (with the assistance of letterer Steve Craddock) the next episode ‘Bad Moon Rising’ which found the country recovering from the physical and psychic trauma of the Jaspers-Warp and the good Captain taking stock of the nation he represents. A less cosmic, more socially aware phase was beginning, and saw the hero meet the were-creature Meggan and make the most tragic mistake of his career.

‘Tea and Sympathy’ is a mini-masterpiece of sensitive, underplayed writing from Davis, following the hero as he meets the family of a boy who died as result of his actions and presaging the next extended epic, which begins in the Mike Collins co-scripted ‘In All the Old, Familiar Places…’

This last Mighty World of Marvel tale follows Betsy, Meggan and the surviving anti-Jaspers rebels as they take up residence at Braddock Manor, ancestral seat of Captain Britain’s family. However inimical forces are gathering to assault the weary champions and interdimensional raiders keep blipping in and out. Luckily Betsy’s psychic powers keep magnifying in strength…

The feature had been growing in popularity and was considered strong enough to carry its own title once more so in January 1985 Captain Britain volume 2 launched, with a selection of related strips and the Lion of Albion exploding into new adventures scripted by up-and-coming writer Jamie Delano.

‘Pictures, Puzzles and Pawns’ recapped the Captain’s career courtesy of Chief Inspector Dai Thomas, a cop with a grudge against metahumans, who had deduced the hero’s secret identity only to be sidelined by his own bosses. Meanwhile, not all the effects of Jasper’s reality-twisting had faded, and animated Alice in Wonderland characters the Crazy Gang were stranded on Earth with no visible means of support.

Vicious, demented and painfully simplistic, the larcenous loons went looking for a leader in ‘Law and Disorder’ finding instead Captain Britain’s most dangerous enemy whilst yet another trans-dimensional transgressor continued to make life difficult for Brian Braddock and friends…

Issue #3 saw the hero captured by Slaymaster and criminal mastermind Vixen in ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ and heralded a new and darker hero, whilst ‘Sid’s Story’ (written by Collins and Davis) provided a moody change of pace to leaven a monster story with a mighty dose of pathos, before Delano returned for ‘Double Game’ as the multiversal mercenary squad Gatecrasher’s Technet whisked the Captain to a Britain ruled by Nazis, uncomprehendingly leaving behind his fascist doppelganger to run amok on our world…

Trapped ‘A Long Way From Home’ Brian Braddock and Technet had to fight their way back to our Earth, only to find Betsy’s terrifyingly growing psychic powers had already saved the day, whilst in ‘Things Fall Apart’ the Manor’s sentient super-computer Mastermind reactivated and revealed the true origins and heritage of the Braddock clan…

The secret of Meggan and her true nature came under scrutiny in #8’s ‘Childhood’s End’ and government intelligence unit Resources Control Executive invited themselves to stay, wanting the mansion as an orphanage for “Warpies” – super-powered children mutated by Jaspers’ reality-shifts. Naturally it all went wrong, resulting in a big battle but the ‘Winds of Change’ had unexpected repercussions and Brian and Meggan stormed off, leaving Betsy and Mastermind in the pocket of the RCX.

The Braddock twins had an older brother, and his past exploits dragged the lovers Brian and Meggan into a shocking ‘African Nightmare’ after which the disheartened couple went searching for Meggan’s Romany roots and became ensnared in the mystic horrors of ‘The House of Baba Yaga’, after which Gatecrasher’s Technet shanghaied them to the height of the Incan Empire for a nasty case of “Bait-and-Switch” in ‘Alarms and Excursions’.

Finally home the young lovers found RCX in charge and Betsy had become the new Captain Britain. Furious, Brian quit but was back in the very next issue when Betsy tragically learned the excessively hard way that ‘It’s Hard to Be A Hero…’ written, as was the concluding ‘Should Auld Acquaintance…’ by Davis, wherein the reunited but far from happy family experienced one last hurrah rescuing a Warpy from a exploitation at the hands of a Glasgow vigilante, and still finding space to wrap up all the plot threads in an expansive Happy Ever After…

But wait… there’s more…

One of the back-up strips in Captain Britain was a four-part tale starring a group of Warpy children dubbed the Cherubim, who had escaped RCX control at the end of #11’s ‘Winds of Change’. Written and drawn by Mike Collins with inks by Mark Farmer ‘Playgrounds and Parasites!’ told how the homeless wanderers encountered a Fagin-like young charmer who was gathering Jasper’s mutants into a band for their own protection – and his profit.

That complete saga is re-presented here in the original black and white after which a young Grant Morrison closes the entertainment with a prose tale of alternate champion ‘Captain Granbretan’, lavishly illustrated by John Stokes and ‘A New Vision of Captain Britain’ close the book with a selection of captivating sketches and rare or unseen artwork.

Captain Britain End Game sees the character finally reach the absolute heights of his potential and features some of the industry’s greatest talents at the top of their game. This is not only a wonderful nostalgic collection for old-timers and dedicated fans but also a book full of the best that superhero comics can offer… Some of the very best material ever produced by Marvel, this is a book every reader would be happy to have.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 2011 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries, licensed by Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved. (A British edition from PANINI UK LTD)

Vlad the Impaler: the Man Who Was Dracula (paperback edition)

By Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (Plume/Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-452-29675-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 8/10: Perfect spin on the seasonal traditional terror tales

Here’s a handy “heads-up” Horrible History hint if you’re looking for an ideal Christmas gift for your horrors at home: an economical softcover edition of one of the best graphic biographies of 2009 unleashed just in time to read in front of the Yule Log.

As writer and editor, Sid Jacobson masterminded the Harvey Comics monopoly of strips for younger American readers in the 1960s and 1970s, co-creating Richie Rich and Wendy, the Good Little Witch among others, before working the same magic for Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, where he oversaw a vast amount of family-friendly material; both self created – such as Royal Roy or the superb Planet Terry – and a huge basket of licensed properties.

In latter years he has worked closely with fellow Harvey alumnus Ernie Colón on such thought-provoking graphic enterprises as The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation (2006) and its 2008 sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror. In 2009 their epic Che: a Graphic Biography was released: separating the man from the myth of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, universal icon of cool rebellion.

Ernie Colón was born in Puerto Rico in 1931: a creator whose work has been loved by generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor his contributions have benefited the entire industry from the youngest (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Harvey Comics, and many similar projects for Marvel’s Star Comics), to the traditional comicbook fans with Battlestar Galactica, Damage Control and Doom 2099 for Marvel, Arak, Son of Thunder and Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, the Airboy revival for Eclipse, Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant and so very many others.

There are also his sophisticated experimental works such as indie thriller Manimal, and his seminal genre graphic novels Ax and the Medusa Chain. Since 2005 he’s been hard at work on the strip SpyCat for Weekly World News.

Jacobson and Colón together are a comics fan’s dream come true and their bold choice of biography and reportage as well as their unique take on characters and events always pays great dividends. Vlad the Impaler is by far their most captivating project to date: a fictionalised account of the notorious Wallachian prince who was raised by his enemies as a literal hostage to fortune, only to reconquer and lose his country not once, but many times.

The roistering, bloody, brutal life of this Romanian national hero and basis of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is a fascinating, baroque, darkly funny yarn, capturing a troubled soul’s battle with himself as much as the Muslim and Christian superpowers that treated his tiny principality as their plaything.

With startling amounts of sex and violence this book makes no excuses for a patriot and freedom fighter who was driven by his horrific bloodlust and (justifiable?) paranoia to become a complete beast: clearly the very worst of all possible monsters – a human one.

Sharp, witty, robust and engaging, with a quirky twist in the tale, this is a good old-fashioned shocker that any history-loving gore-fiend will adore.

Text © 2009 Sid Jacobson. Art © 2009 Ernie Colón. All rights reserved.

Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics

By Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-166-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 9/10 Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, and this fabulous tome highlights the astounding wizardry of one of the most accomplished draughtsmen and yarn-spinners of that incredibly fertile early period.

As always you can save time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m going to froth on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to sit on your “favourites” shelf.

This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces the tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work of possibly the most technically accomplished artist of the US comicbook industry: a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree (he was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake) haunted by illness, an addictive personality and especially alcoholism, but a man who nevertheless raised a family, shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, broken lives saved by his becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and whilst recuperating in Arizona began a life-long affair with and battle against booze. For the rest of his chequered life “Wild Bill” vacillated between magnificent artistic highs and heartbreaking personal lows, covered with chilling frankness in this excellent biography, written in conjunction with the artist’s surviving family.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding legacy of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller who had the sheer naked ability to make all his own worlds real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories, which began in the heydays of the Pulps (see also Spicy Tales Collection) enthralled and inspired successive generations of fellow dreamers.

His beautiful artwork featured in a variety of magazines before his fortuitous stumbling into the right place at the right time secured Everett’s place in history forever with his creation of the first anti-hero in comics.

Yet even before the advent of the mutant hybrid Sub-Mariner who, along with his elemental counterpart The Human Torch, secured the fortunes of the budding Marvel Comics (covered in a fascinating and detailed account which clears up many controversies that have raged amongst fans ands historians for decades) Everett was a valued and admired writer/artist/letterer/designer whose early seminal triumphs are lovingly covered here in many reproduced strip extracts, sketches and an utterly invaluable collection of original art pages.

Bill Everett was a jobbing cartoonist who drifted into the new world of comicbooks: a budding industry that combined his beloved drawing with his other compulsion – making up stories. The first chronological art selection here features a plethora of his compelling and irresistible covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies, Blue Bolt, Target Comics, Amazing-Man Comics, Victory Comics, Heroic Comics, and the landmark Motion Picture Funnies Weekly (for which he produced not only the pre-Marvel/Timely Sub-Mariner, but also the all-important back cover sales pitch) and many designs and roughs for unpublished titles, interspersed with pages and spreads from early creations Amazing-Man, Dirk the Demon, Skyrocket Steele, Music Master, The Chameleon, Hydroman, Sub-Zero and of course Prince Namor.

The early days of Marvel Mystery Comics and the Sub-Mariner’s own feature title are thoroughly represented with many pages of original art starring not only his aquatic antagonist but also The Fin and Human Torch, and this section is also full of delightful sketches from his four years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers.

The industry had changed radically by the time Everett mustered out: superheroes were on the wane and other genres were rising in popularity. Returning as a freelancer to Marvel/Timely, Everett worked again on Sub-Mariner and even created the sexy spin-off Namora and stillborn kid crusader Marvel Boy, but it was with the series Venus that he moved in a new direction: glamorous, glorious horror.

For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive EC, with these lush and lurid examples of the hundreds of stunning covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages selected from such titles as Mystic, Menace, Astonishing, Adventures into Weird Worlds, Uncanny Tales, Suspense, Marvel Tales, Spellbound, Mystery Tales, Men’s Adventures and others. My only quibble is that unlike the companion volume featuring unsung genius Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light) there are no complete stories collected in this otherwise perfect primer.

Despite being unacknowledged as a master of terror, this period was probably Everett’s most technically adroit, but he also excelled in the other genre-ghettoes of the period. His ability to freeze manic action and convey tension into a single image made him the perfect choice for lead cover artist in the burgeoning military comics fields as can be seen in examples from Man Comics, Navy Tales, Battlefield, Navy Action, Navy Combat and others.

Everett truly excelled in the lush, stylistic depiction of action and horror themes – as well as the seductive delineation of sexy women, although he was equally effective in less histrionic arenas such as merchandising art, wholesome western, romances, cartoon and Bigfoot comedy styles, represented here by pages and covers from such diverse publications as Marvin the Mouse, Nellie the Nurse, Cracked, Jann of the Jungle, True Secrets, Girl Confessions, Bible Tales For Young Folk, Tales of Justice, Quick Trigger Western, Yellow Claw, Sports Action, Pussycat and so many others.

His final creative period follows his return to Marvel after time in the commercial art world and covers the creation of Daredevil, unsatisfactory runs on the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, Rawhide Kid and others as well as his stints inking Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Ross Andru, Herb Trimpe, Dan Adkins and Barry Windsor Smith, before, clean and sober after decades, he produced a landmark run on his signature Sub-Mariner.

Tragically, decades of smoking and alcohol abuse had taken its toll, and only four years after turning his life around he died of complications arising from heart surgery, just when he seemed on the cusp of a brilliant creative renewal as remarkable as his meteoric rise in the 1930s and 1940s.

Evocatively written by biographer Blake Bell, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this key figure of comics art is lovingly recounted here with hundreds of artistic examples from school days, army service, commercial and cartoon illustration and many intimate photographs supplementing the treasure trove of comics images. By tracking Everett’s early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art to the moody masterpieces of the 1950s and the Pop Art comics renaissance of the his later years, Fire and Water offers an opportunity to revel in the mastery of a truly unique pillar of America’s sequential Art establishment.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a overwhelming abundance of beautiful comics magic; from compelling page layouts, sketches and compositions to bold, vibrant pencils and slick luscious inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the jackpot of never-before-seen unpublished pages: penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards, as well as illustrations, family pieces and examples of his non-comics career

Brilliant, captivating, and utterly unmissable, this is the book Bill Everett deserves – and so do you.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.