The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans


By Rick Geary (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-179-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Cutting Edge Crime and a Ripping Holiday Read… 8/10

For decades he toiled as an Underground cartoonist and freelance illustrator of strange tales and wry oddments, published in locales as varied as Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, Twisted Tales, Bop, National Lampoon, Vanguard, Bizarre Sex, Fear and Laughter, Gates of Eden, RAW and High Times.

For these illustrious venues he honed a unique ability to create sublimely understated stories by stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose tales moving, often melancholy and always beguiling.

Discovering his natural oeuvre with works including biographies of J. Edgar Hoover or Trotsky and his multi-volume Treasury of Victorian Murder series, Geary has grown into a grandmaster and towering presence in both comics and True Crime literature.

His graphic reconstructions of some of the most infamous murders ever committed since policing began combine a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and meticulously detailed pictorial extrapolation. These are filtered through a fascination with and understanding of the lethal propensities of humanity as his forensic eye scours police blotters, newspaper archives and history books to compile irresistibly enthralling documentaries.

In 2008 he turned to the last century for ongoing series Treasury of XXth Century Murder, focusing on scandals which seared the headlines during the “Gilded Age” of suburban middle class America. He has not, however, forsaken his delight in fiction nor his gift for graphic biography.

Delivered in stark monochrome in either luxurious collectors’ hardback, accessible eBook or engaging paperback editions like this one, his investigations diligently sift fact from mythology to detail the grisliest events in modern history.

Geary’s tales are so compelling because the subject matter methodology resonates through his quirky illustration. Geary always presents facts, theories and even contemporary minutiae with absorbing pictorial precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, re-examining each case with a force and power Oliver Stone would envy.

This particular chiller-thriller comes – after far too long a wait – as a cheap-&-cheerful paperback release of a 2010 offering but it’s still a grand outing for lovers of macabre history…

Geary’s forensic eye scoured the data and scores a palpable if rather unpalatable hit here with a relatively unknown serial killer saga that would make an incredible film – if only the fiend had ever been caught!

In 1918 with the Great War moving into the inevitable End-game the iconic and legend-laden city of New Orleans suffered a chilling campaign of terror that lasted well over a year with far-reaching repercussions felt clear across the United States.

As explained in the captivating capsule history that opens this moreish monochrome and exceedingly noir thriller, New Orleans was founded by the French in 1717, lost to the Spanish in 1763, seized by Napoleon in 1802 and then sold to the Americans a year later. That makes it one of the oldest and certainly most eclectic, eccentric, artistic and elegant cities in the USA.

By 1918 it was a huge, sprawling and vital hub of trade and commerce, peopled by a vast melting pot of immigrant populations. On the night of May 23rd an Italian couple running a grocery store were hacked to death by an intruder who broke into their home and attacked them with their own household axe.

Over the next 18 months a phantom killer would, under the horrifying glare of public scrutiny, kill six people, maim and mutilate another half dozen and hold the entire city a virtual hostage with insane proclamations and demands. He – if it was, indeed, a man – was often seen but never apprehended.

Geary is as meticulous and logical as ever, forensically dissecting the various attacks, examining the similarities and, more importantly, the differences whilst dutifully pursuing the key figures to their unlikely ends.

All the victims were grocers of Italian origin (leading to a supposed Mafia connection) except for the ones who were not, which possibly refuted the theory but equally suggested opportunistic copy-cat killers. A number of personal grievances among the victims led to many false arrests and even convictions, and the killer or killers left many survivors who all agreed on a general description but all subsequently identified different suspects. There’s even a broader than usual hint of supernatural overtones.

Occurring at the very birth of the Jazz Age, this utterly compelling tale is jam-packed with intriguing snatches of historical minutiae, plus beautifully rendered maps and plans which bring the varied locations to moody life: yet another Geary production tailor-made for a Cluedo special edition!

The author presents the facts and theories with chilling graphic precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, and this enigma is every bit as compelling as his other homicidal forays: a perfect example of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy entertainment. This merrily morbid series of murder masterpieces should be mandatory reading for all comic fans, mystery addicts and crime collectors.
© 2010 Rick Geary. All Rights Reserved.

The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans will be published on December 15th 2018 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com.

William the Backwards Skunk


By Chuck Jones (Crown Publishers Inc.)
ISBN: 978-0517560631

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Classic Yarn Reeking of Sheer Quality… 10/10

There have been a few modern geniuses who wield a pencil and paintbrush. We tend not to notice them in the world of comics, which I suppose would explain why so many of our contemporary artists work in animation these days. I don’t know if Charles Martin Jones ever worked in comics – or even if he ever wanted to – but as ‘Chuck’ he produced some of the greatest and funniest animated cartoons the world has ever seen.

Chuck (September 21st 1912-February 22nd 2002) was filmmaker, screenwriter, animator, cartoonist, author and artist who worked for Warner Bros., MGM and others, ran his own studio – Chuck Jones Enterprises – and made billions of people laugh. His Looney Toons, Merrie Melodies and Tom and Jerry short films are unmistakeable and he probably wrote, produced and directed your favourite Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons and hundreds of others besides.

He was nominated for 8 Oscars and won three, and received an Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for his lifetime contributions.

During World War II he worked with Theodore Geisel – who abandoned cartooning and animation for a career in kid’s books as the legendary Dr. Seuss – on a series of educational cartoon features for the US Army featuring Private Snafu. That relationship would eventually and circuitously lead to the animated TV classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas (accept no live-action or computer-animated substitutes!).

Way back in 1986 Chuck Jones topped a career of astounding creativity and uproarious humour with this picture-book for the very young. William is a skunk with a little problem. The Usual Skunk not only has that potent chemical weapon we all know and dread, but they also have a beautiful bold stripe on their backs so as to give any big animal sneaking up on them a fair chance to change their minds. Sadly, William’s stripe is on his front, which causes problems for every animal in the forest.

This charming little fable about cooperation is a sweet delight and the art is utterly joyous. This is a man who knew “Cute” and how to milk it, and more importantly, when to lampoon it.

His critters positively drip with Attitude, and any child’s delight could only be marred if the adult reading this aloud is unable to stifle their own knowing chortles.

Jones’ work informed generations of kids and creators in comics as well as cartoons. His legacy can be found in titles as varied as Dell’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies comics, or the timeless Bugs & Daffy iterations still wowing contemporary kids in DC’s WB comicbooks.

Track down this fabulous hardback and you could be carrying on that tradition to the next generation…
© 1986 Chuck Jones Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mean


By Steven Weissman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-866-4

Steven Weissman was born in California in 1968 and grew up to be an exceptionally fine and imaginative cartoonist. He’s worked for Alternative Comics, Last Gasp, Dark Horse, Marvel, DC, Vice and Nickelodeon Magazine among others, and his artistic sensibilities have been influenced and shaped by such disparate forces as Super-Deformed manga, “Our Gang” comedies, Abbott and Costello, Dan Clowes, Mike Allred and Peanuts – the strip, not the versatile if sometimes potentially fatal foodstuff.

Much of his groundbreaking, award-winning early work, dating from the mid-1990s, offered a post-modern, skewed and alternative view of friendship, childhood, world weirdness and people’s meanness and can all be enjoyed over and over again in such stunning compilations as Tykes, Lemon Kids, Don’t Call Me Stupid, White Flower Day, Chocolate Cheeks and others. The French and Japanese – who really know quality comics – love him lots and have done so for years.

In 2012 Weissman literally went back to the drawing board, un-and-re-creating himself and his aesthetic methodology for a and unbelievably enchanting hardcover weekly online strip entitled Barack Hussein Obama which has since been collected into a series of stunning cartoon books about the unsuspected nature of modern America. Gosh, I miss those days…

Today though in the spirit of the season we’re revisiting some of his earlier material…

If there is such a thing as ‘Dark and Comforting’ then Weissman’s weird and wicked early cartooning is a perfect example. Following the success of Chewing Gum in Church and Kid Firechief, Fantagraphics promptly compiled earlier works from his self-published Yikes!; amply supplemented with other rare and even unpublished strips to create a lovely insight into the development of a truly unique graphic vision.

These 32 tales, (still available in paperback and digital editions) were all created between 1993 and 2002, and feature his cast of deeply peculiar children in a macabre tribute to Charles Schulz’s signature strip, but they are also literal embodiments of the phrase “little monsters”.

In simple childhood romps such as ‘The See-Thru Boy’, ‘The Loneliest Girl in Town’, ‘Inevitable Time-Travel Story’, ‘No Kiss!’ and many others, the bizarre cast of Li’l Bloody (a child vampire), Kid Medusa, Pullapart Boy and X-Ray Spence live an idyllically suburban 1950’s existence of school, fishing, skateboards, white picket fences, aliens, wheelchair jousting, marbles and weird science.

Weissman’s seductive cast all have huge round heads and ancient bodies like graphic progeria-sufferers, but the drawing is lavish, seductive and utterly convincing.

These are great comics about kids (but perhaps regarded as Best Not For Kids) that are a treat, a revelation and most definitely darkly comforting.
MEAN © 2007 Fantagraphics Books. All content © 2007 Steven Weissman. All Rights Reserved.

Faceache volume one: The First 100 Scrunges


By Ken Reid, with Ian Mennell & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-601-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterfully Macabre Mirthquakes… 10/10

If you know British Comics, you’ll know Ken Reid.

He was another of those rebellious, youthful artistic prodigies who, largely unsung, went about transforming British Comics: entertaining millions and inspiring hundreds of those readers to become cartoonists too.

Reid was born in Manchester in 1919 and drew from the moment he could hold an implement. Aged nine, he was confined to bed for six months with a tubercular hip, and occupied himself with constant scribbling and sketching. He left school before his fourteenth birthday and won a scholarship to Salford Art School, but never graduated. He was, by all accounts, expelled for cutting classes and hanging about in cafes.

Undaunted he set up as a commercial artist, but floundered until his dad began acting as his agent.

Ken’s big break was a blagger’s triumph. He talked his way into an interview with the Art Editor of the Manchester Evening News and came away with a commission for a strip for its new Children’s Section. The Adventures of Fudge the Elf launched in 1938 and ran until 1963, with only a single, albeit lengthy, hiatus from 1941 to 1946 when Reid served in the armed forces.

From the late 1940s onwards, Reid dallied with comics periodicals: with work (Super Sam, Billy Boffin, Foxy) published in Comic Cuts and submissions to The Eagle, before a fortuitous family connection (Reid’s brother-in-law was Dandy illustrator Bill Holroyd) brought DC Thomson managing editor R.D. Low to his door with a cast-iron offer of work.

On April 18th 1953 Roger the Dodger debuted in The Beano. Reid drew the feature until 1959 and created numerous others including the fabulously mordant doomed mariner Jonah, Ali Ha-Ha and the 40 Thieves, Grandpa and Jinx among many more.

In 1964 Reid and fellow unappreciated superstar Leo Baxendale jumped ship and began working for DCT’s arch rival Odhams Press. This gave Ken greater license to explore his ghoulish side: concentrating on comic horror yarns and grotesque situations in strips like Frankie Stein, and The Nervs in Wham! and Smash! as well as more visually wholesome but still strikingly surreal fare as Queen of the Seas and Dare-a-Day Davy.

In 1971 Reid devised Faceache – arguably his career masterpiece – for new title Jet. The hilariously horrific strip was popular enough to survive the comic’s demise – after a paltry 22 weeks – and was carried over in a merger with stalwart periodical Buster where it thrived until 1987. During that time he continued innovating and creating through a horde of new strips such as Creepy Creations, Harry Hammertoe the Soccer Spook, Wanted Posters, Martha’s Monster Makeup, Tom’s Horror World and a dozen others.

Ken Reid died in 1987 from the complications of a stroke he’d suffered on February 2nd, whilst at his drawing board, putting the finishing touches to a Faceache strip.

On Reid’s passing the strip was taken over by Frank Diarmid who drew until its cancelation in October 1988.

The astoundingly absorbing comedy classic is a perfect example of resolutely British humorous sensibilities – absurdist, anarchic and gleefully grotesque – and revolves around a typically unruly and unlovely scrofulous schoolboy making great capital out of a unique gift, albeit often to his own detriment and great regret…

Ricky Rubberneck early discovered an appalling (un)natural ability of scrunching (or “scrungeing”) up his face into such ghastly contortions that he could revolt, disgust and terrify anyone who gazed upon him. Over the weeks and years, the modern medusa worked hard to polish his gifts until his foul fizzog could attain any formation. Eventually his entire body could be reshaped to mimic any creature or form, real or imagined. Naturally, he used his powers to play pranks, take petty vengeances, turn a temporary profit, deal with bullies and impress his pals.

Just as naturally, those efforts frequently resulted in the standard late 20th century punishments being dealt out by his dad, teachers and sundry other outraged adults…

This stunning hardback (and eBook) celebration – hopefully the first of many – is part of Rebellion’s ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics and collects all 22 Jet episodes (spanning May 1st – 29th September 1971, plus the remaining 78 from Buster & Jet beginning with October 2nd and concluding with March 24th 1973.

The potent package is garnished with an appreciative Introduction by Alan Moore – ‘The Unacceptable Face of British Comics’ – a fondly intimate reminiscence in Antony J. Reid’s ‘My Father Ken Reid’ and a full biography of the great man…

What follows is an outrageous outpouring of raw cartoon creativity as Reid, writing and drawing with inspired effulgence, spins a seemingly infinite skein of comedy gold on his timeless theme of a little boy who makes faces at the world.

Weekly deadlines are a ferocious foe however, and a couple of strips reprinted were written by unsung pro Ian Mennell, whilst – between January and September 1972 – a fill-in artist (possibly Robert Nixon?) illustrated 16 episodes, presumably as Reid’s other commitments such as Jasper the Grasper, The Nervs or his numerous funny football features in Scorcher & Score mounted.

In these pages though, the accent is on madcap tomfoolery as the plastic-pussed poltroon undergoes a succession of fantastic facial reconfigurations: terrifying teachers, petrifying posh and pushy landowners, mimicking monstrous beasts, outraging officious officialdom and entertaining an army of schoolboy chums and chumps.

Orchards are raided, competitions are entered, plays and school trips are upstaged and aborted and even actual spooks and horrors are afforded the shocks of their unlives as Faceache gurns his way through an endless parade of hilarious hijinks.

These cartoon capers are amongst the most memorable and re-readable exploits in all of British comics history: smart, eternally funny and beautifully rendered. This a treasure-trove of laughs that spans generations and deserves to be in every family bookcase.
© 1971, 1972, 1973 & 2017 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. Introduction © Alan Moore. Faceache is ™ Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Sunday Classics 1943-1946


By Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray & various (Sterling)
ISBN: 978-1-1402-4718-2

For most of the 20th century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country and the planet, with millions of readers and accepted (in most places) as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books, it also paid better. The Holiest of Holies was a full-colour Sunday page.

However, it was always something of a poisoned chalice when a comicbook property became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint the strips in cheap accessible form?) to become a syndicated serial strip.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Archie Andrews and a few others made the jump in the 1940s and many features have done so since. One of the most highly regarded came late to the party even though it was probably the highest quality offering, both in its daily and Sunday format. It was called Batman and Robin.

Although a highpoint in strip cartooning, both simultaneous Batman features were cursed by ill-timing. The feature finally debuted during a period in newspaper publishing that was afflicted by rationing, shortages and a changing marketplace.

These strips never achieved the circulation they deserved, but at least the Sundays were given a new lease of life after DC began reprinting vintage stories in the 1960s in their 80-Page Giants and Annuals.

The superior quality adventures were ideal action-mystery short stories, adding an extra cachet of exoticism for young readers already captivated by enjoying tales of their heroes that were positively ancient and redolent of History with a capital “H”.

The stories themselves are broken down into complete single page instalments building into short tales averaging between four to six pages per adventure. The mandatory esoteric foes include such regulars as the Penguin (twice), Joker, Catwoman and Two-Face and all-original themed villains such as The Gopher, The Sparrow and Falstaff, but the bulk of the yarns offer more prosaic criminals, if indeed there is any antagonist at all…

A huge benefit of work produced for an audience deemed “more mature” is the freedom to explore human interest stories such as exonerating wrongly convicted men, fighting forest fires or discovering the identity of an amnesia victim. There is even a jolly seasonal yarn that bracketed Christmas week, 1945.

The writers of the strip included Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz with art by Bob Kane, Jack Burnley and Fred Ray and inking by Win Mortimer and Charles Paris. The letterer was tireless, invisible calligraphic master Ira Schnapp and the strips were all coloured by Raymond Perry.

This lovely oversized (241 x 318 mm) full colour hardback was originally published in conjunction by DC Comics & Kitchen Sink Press in 1991, and also contains a wealth of extra features such as biographical notes, a history of the strip, promotional artefacts, behind-the-scenes artwork and sketches, promotional features and much more. It’s long past time it was back in print – and eBooked too – as it’s a must for both Bat-fans and lovers of the artform and a certain anniversary is fast approaching…
© 1991, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7

HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY POPEYE!

Call me an idiot (you know you want to) but for years I laboured under the misapprehension that comics’ first superhuman hero debuted on January 29th 1929. Eventually. thanks to a superb collection of archival albums from the wonderful folk at Fantagraphics, I was disabused of that erroneous notion. Those mammoth oversized compendia are still the best books about the old Swabbie ever published…

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919; one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the silent movies of the era. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies (later and more famously renamed Minute Movies).

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on the cinema antics of the silent era. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy, would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period.

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they decided to sail for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day and in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of every reader: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale his walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye, already doing the work of twelve men, did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans. Before long, Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life…

Once home their newfound wealth quickly led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells constantly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along. The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed for good.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for the sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. When they escaped jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned and it grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Day by day he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny all at once.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities would lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork, who almost murders the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency: something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep the adventures tumbling along – even Mickey Mouse would don metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass (see Mickey and Donald and The Lair of Wolf Barker among many others).

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and 368 mm by 268 mm) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays; including testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first volume – and accompanied by the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period.

Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip but many were just filler. They were used so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled The 5:15, Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character.

Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and, when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly funny sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again, cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home should have.
© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Casey at the Bat and Other Diamond Tales


By Wilford Mullins with Ernest Thayer and various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-814-4

Happy Anniversary!

It’s a memorable day. In 1835 HMS Beagle set sail for Charles Island in in the Galapagos Archipelago. Ten years later the New York Knickerbockers formed and adopted the rule code for what would become “America’s favourite game” and in 1846 Johann Gottfried Galle and Heinrich d’Arrest located Neptune. There’s other stuff too. You should look it up…

Oddly I couldn’t find an appropriate book for two of those above-cited commemorations but here’s something for sports-lovers, cartoon connoisseurs and devotes of smart, big laughs…

Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 is probably the most famous piece of high-quality doggerel in the English Language. It was anonymously penned by writer and philosophy graduate Ernest Thayer whilst he was working for The Daily Examiner (later The San Francisco Examiner) and published in the June 3rd, 1888 edition.

It should be noted that “Phin”, as he called himself in print, was employed as a humourist, not a sports reporter…

The piece passed without much notice at the time, but was picked up (pinched, stolen, swiped, “popularised”) by Vaudeville performer DeWolf Hopper who made it his star turn on stage for decades to come. It’s mock-heroic excess and powerful meter also caused it to be plagiarized and adapted by other writers on a tight deadline almost continually ever since.

It has been co-opted to stage, large and small screen and almost every manner of media dissemination, with vocal luminaries from Garrison Keillor to James Earl Jones to actual baseball pitcher Tug McGraw all taking a hit at re-immortalising the daft ditty.

An actual landmark of American history and culture, the poem was used by the sport’s governing body in 1953 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the World Series. They issued a set of 14 drinking glasses – with one stanza per mass-produced goblet – as collectable premiums dispensed at ballparks across the nation.

To ensure the desirability of the items the vessels with the verses shared space with suitably comedic illustrations from America’s favourite sports cartoonist – a man who would eventually be awarded the title of “Greatest Sports Cartoonist of the 20th Century”…

Britain never really enjoyed the long and lovingly cherished tradition of sports cartoons enjoyed by America throughout the 20th century – more’s the pity – but in the Land of the Free, illustrated match précis’, captivating portraits, visual biographies, charismatic caricatures and plain old-fashioned gags in drawn form were a vital element of every national and local newspaper… and had been for generations.

Such sporting profiles, sketches, technical tips, skits and lampooning broadsides were borrowed by a new industry to become a staple of Golden Age comicbooks – and far too often the best drawn items in those fantasy-fuelled periodicals.

Willard Mullin (September 14th 1902 – December 20th 1978) captured the magic of America’s favourite game (and other strenuous pastimes) for almost half a hundred years: encapsulating the power, glory, glum disappointment, punishing optimism, heartbreak and incurable unflagging passion of players, managers, owners and fans in spectacular portrait biographies, potent editorial cartoons, gently ferocious caricatures and hilarious, knowing slapstick panels. You can enjoy further examples of his gifts in companion volume Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball – Drawings 1934-1972

Mullins’ illustrations for Casey were believed long lost until they resurfaced at an auction in 2002, whereupon Fantagraphics reproduced and collated them in this tasty hardback (or eBook) volume, further spiced up with a selection of the master’s other batting triumphs…

Following a Foreword by sporting legend Yogi Berra and a compelling overview in ‘Willard and Casey’: a photo-limned essay from baseball historian (head of Guilderland Public Library and Director of Research at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library), the full saga unfolds in magical form.

Then photo examples of the actual drinking vessels are accompanied by editor Michael Powers’ appreciative biography of ‘The Longfellow of the Sports Page’ which in turn lead to a selection of Mullin’s other pictorial triumphs – all of a similarly jocund and poetic nature…

A brace of very different paeans to ‘Iron Horse Lou’ (Gehrig) precede a hilarious argot script in prime “Brooklynese” and a trenchant revision of Walt Whitman’s O Captain, My Captain suitably framed to target the tragic Dodgers in ‘Brooklyn, My Brooklyn’.

Baseball ABC’s can be learned in ‘From April to Zeptember’ after which James T. Fields’ The Owl Critic is repurposed in tribute to Sal “the Barber” Meglie as ‘The Barber on Kept Shaving’ before the visual triumphs conclude with Mullins’ famous ‘Go-Go Mets!’ cover for Time Magazine.

Fantagraphics Books struck gold twice over by reviving and celebrating a lost hero and a nigh-forgotten sector of graphic narrative arts in this superb commemoration.

Whether you’re a fan of sports in general or Baseball in particular, if you’re reading this you love narrative art, and Willard Mullin was the Will Eisner of his field: clever, funny, bold, dramatic and capable of astounding emotional connection with his readers. This is a book no lovers of our art form should miss.

This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books. Willard Mullin and the Brooklyn Bum are ™ and ® the Estate of Willard Mullin, Shirley Mullin Rhodes, Trustee. Other material © its respective holders or owners as noted within.

Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round


By Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-1-4494-7387-7 (HB)                    978-1-4494-3721-3 (PB)

Cul-de-Sac translates as “bottom of the bag” so don’t say you never learned anything from comics.

Richard Thompson took the term in its urban planning derivation – a street/passage closed at one end or a route/course leading nowhere – to describe a convoluted, barricaded oasis of suburban life on the outskirts of Washington DC where a mercurial cross-section of modern humanity lives.

As such it became the setting for one of the best cartoon strips about kids ever created, and one I very much miss.

Richard Church Thompson was born on October 8th 1957 and grew up to become an award-winning illustrator and editorial cartoonist who worked for The Washington Post. He was best known for his acerbic weekly feature Poor Richard’s Almanac (from which came the crushing political prognostication “Build the Pie Higher” – so go google that while you’re at it).

His other mostly light-hearted illustrative efforts appeared in locales ranging from U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Air & Space/Smithsonian, National Geographic and The Atlantic Monthly as well as in numerous book commissions.

In February 2004 Cul de Sac began as a beautifully painted Sunday strip in The Post and quickly evolved into a firm family favourite. In September 2007, the strip was rebooted as a standard black-&-white daily feature with a process-colour Sunday strip and began global syndication with the Universal Press Syndicate and digitally distribution by Uclick GoComics.

It rightly gathered a host of fans, especially other cartoonists such as Bill Watterson and authors like Mo Willems.

The series was collected in four volumes between 2008 and 2012, with other iterations and recombinations (such as this colour & monochrome tome; 152 x 229 mm; released in 2013 and again in 2016) keeping the series popular even after it ended. This particular volume comes in hard, soft and digital formats.

There is precious little of Cul de Sac but what there is all pure gold. In July 2009 the artist publicly announced that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but carried on anyway.

In 2012 a number of fellow artists and devoted admirers – Michael Jantze, Corey Pandolph, Lincoln Peirce, Stephen Pastis, Ruben Bolling and Mo Willems – pitched in to produce the strip while Thompson underwent treatment. When he came back at the end of March, illustrator had Stacy Curtis signed on as inker, but by August Thompson announced he was retiring Cul de Sac.

The last strip appeared on September 23rd 2012.

Richard Thompson died on July 27 2016. He was 58 years old.

Happily, the brilliance of his wit, the warmth of his observation and the sheer uniqueness of his charmingly askew mentality will continue to mesmerise generations of kids and their parents.

So, What’s Going On Here…?

Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round offers an unforgettable introduction to the indivisible exterior and interior world of hyperactive four-year old Alice Otterloop as experienced by her family and a definitely quirky circle of friends.

Alice likes to dance, deploy glitter, get excited and be in charge of everything. Her forceful, declaratively propounded opinions make her respected – and most often feared – by the other kids in Miss Bliss’ class at Blisshaven Academy Pre-School.

Not that the other tykes, such as just-plain-weird peeping tom Dill Wedekind or hammer-wielding Beni, are traditional tots either. All these littluns are smart but untutored, and much of the humour derives from their responses to new facts and situations as interpreted through the haze of the meagre experience they’ve previously accumulated – whether taught or overheard…

The result is a winning blend of surreal whimsy and keenly observational gags, punctuated with input from Alice’s dolorous, graphic-novel-obsessed, sports-fearing older brother Petey and their permanently bewildered and embattled parents.

Other regulars include classmate Marcus who thinks he’s being stalked by his own mother; school guinea pig Mr. Danders (a boorish, self-important and pretentious literary snob in love with the sound of his own voice); Peter Otterpoop Senior’s impossibly small car; the family’s bellicose and feral Grandma and her appalling dog Big Shirley; the enigmatic, doom-portending Uh-Oh Baby and Alice’s deranged collection of terrifying spring-loaded toys…

Taking family humour to abstract extremes, Cul de Sac blends inspirational imagination with wry consideration to produce moments side-splitting, baffling and heart-warming in rapid succession.

It’s never too late to appreciate quality material and make lifelong friends, so track down Mighty Alice and Co as soon as you can…
© 2013 Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot


By Milton Caniff, edited by Shel Dorf (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-25-2

This little rarity (happily still available through assorted online vendors) is a delightful introduction to the old-fashioned world and magical artistry of possibly the greatest strip cartoonist of all time.

Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as a minor jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.

The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas adventure epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.

Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.

Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, breakout star Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart.

Created by Norman Pett in 1932, Jane ran in The Daily Mirror until 1959. She was infamously reputed to lose her clothes whenever the war effort needed a boost – always resulting in huge Allied successes.

Miss Lace was different. She spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.

After leaving the incredibly successful, world-renowned Terry, Caniff created another iconic comic hero in demobbed WWII pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.

Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed experience more than passion and genius to produce King Lear or The Tempest.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot was released in the mid-1980s when Caniff’s brand of patriotism was slowly giving way to a far more intolerant and infinitely crueller brand of paranoid nationalism. In many ways, it’s more valid now than ever before since these sublime excerpts from his vast body of graphic work forcefully remind the reader of a purer, more idealistic, welcoming and aspirational land of Freedom and Opportunity.

Here fans can delight in the chance to see some of the creator’s early reportage and portraiture, plus editorial cartooning and landmark strips such as the episode of Terry and the Pirates that was read into the Congressional Record. Also collected are Caniff’s public service drawings; a Steve Canyon sequence (from 1982) entitled ‘What is Patriotism?’ and many strips dedicated to departed comrades.

Of most moving consequence are the collected Armed Forces Day strips and every Steve Canyon Christmas Day episode (an unbroken string of graphic ruminations on the lot and role of the military everyman) spanning 1947 to 1987.

Stirring, gripping, heartfelt, these evocations from a master of his craft are the best tribute from, to and by an honest plain-dealer from an America we all long to see again. Simply Wonderful.
Artwork © 1987 Milton Caniff. © 2007 Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. Text features © their respective authors. All Rights Reserved

The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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