Axa volumes 5 and 6


By Donne Avenell & Enrique Badia Romero (Ken Pierce Books)
Vol. 5 ISBN: 0-912277-21-1   Vol. 6 no ISBN: 0-912277-22-X

Although the “Swinging Sixties” is thought of as the moment when we all lost our prudish innocence, the real era of sexual liberation was the early 1970s. In that period of swiftly shifting social and cultural morés and rapidly evolving attitudes to adult behaviour British newspapers radically altered much of their traditional style and content in response to the seemingly inexorable wave of female social emancipation and reputed sexual equality.

All the same, this still allowed newspaper editors plenty of leeway to squeeze in oodles of undraped women, who finally escaped from the perfectly rendered comics strips and onto the regular pages (usually the third one), the centre-spreads, pop pages and fashion features…

However the only place where truly affirmative female role-models appeared to be taken seriously were the aforementioned cartoon sections, but even there the likes of Modesty Blaise, Danielle, Scarth, Amanda and all the other capable ladies who walked all over the oppressor gender, both humorously and in straight adventure scenarios, lost clothes and shed undies repeatedly, continuously, frivolously and in the manner they always had…

Nobody complained (no one important or who was ever taken seriously): it was just tradition and the idiom of the medium… and besides, most artists have always liked to draw bare-naked ladies as much as blokes liked to see them and it was even educational for the kiddies – who could buy any newspaper in any shop without interference even if they couldn’t get into cinemas to view Flashdance, Trading Places or Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone without an accompanying adult…

Sales kept soaring…

Take-charge chicks were practically commonplace when the Star Wars phenomenon reinvigorated public interest in science fiction and the old standby of scantily-clad, curvy amazons and post-apocalyptic wonderlands regained their sales-appeal. Thus The Sun hired Enrique Badia Romero and Donne Avenell to produce just such an attention-getter for their already well-stacked cartoon section.

Romero had begun his career in Spain in 1953, producing everything from westerns, sports, war stories and trading cards, often in conjunction with his brother Jorge Badía Romero. He even formed his own publishing house. “Enric” began working for the higher-paying UK market in the 1960s on strips such as ‘Cathy and Wendy’, ‘Isometrics’ and ‘Cassius Clay’ before successfully assuming the drawing duties on the high-profile Modesty Blaise strip in 1970 (see Modesty Blaise: The Hell Makers and Modesty Blaise: The Green Eyed Monster), only leaving when this enticing new prospect appeared.

In 1986 political and editorial intrigue saw Axa cancelled in the middle of a story and Romero returned to the bodacious Blaise until creator/writer Peter O’Donnell retired in 2001. Since then he has produced Modesty material for Scandinavia and a number of projects such as Durham Red for 2000AD.

Axa ran in The Sun Monday to Saturday from 1978 to her abrupt disappearance in 1986 and, other than these slim volumes from strip historian Ken Pierce, has never been graced with a definitive collection. It should be noted also that at the time of these books the strip was still being published to great acclaim.

In ‘Axa the Eager’ opens with the winsome wanderer and her current paramour Dirk drifting along barren coastlines until they encounter a bird-like man-creature and are drawn inescapably into a clash of ideologies between two factions of tree-dwelling humanoids.

One, led by the boisterous dreamer Zeph, wishes to remain in the safety of the canopies until they evolve into true fliers whilst his brother Galen wishes to return the Sky People to the Earth and the ways of technological progress. The division also splits Dirk and Axa and to complicate matters further the solid ground they’re all squawking about is surrounded by deadly mutated toad monsters…

Powerful and impressively philosophical, this tale of family discord could only end in tragedy…

‘Axa the Carefree’ finds the chastened explorers travelling inland to a new and desolate landscape concealing a sedate well-hidden village. Impossibly it seems to have escaped unscathed the horrors of the Great Contamination and investigating further Axa and Dirk discover a population of simple peasants blithely thriving, unaware of the horrors of the last hundred years. However, as always, things are not as they seem and the farmers are only a satellite branch of specialist technological guilds collectively dubbed “The Artisans”.

Ever curious the nubile nomad sneaks into the mountain citadel of the Artisans to find a virtual paradise where her wild beauty captivates one too many of the masters of the Craft Guilds that run the place. She is also reunited with her lost companion Mark 10, a robotic servant she won and lost in Axa volume 3.

Tensions are already rising when the bored and enamoured Galen stumbles onto the scene and, as her very presence incites the normally-stable creative types into a kind of madness, there looks to be a revolution in the Artisans’ immediate future unless Axa can broker a return to productive rationality…

Axa 6 dispenses with tedious text and dashes straight into the graphic action of ‘Axa the Dwarfed’ with the glorious gladiatrix and Mark 10 abandoning the Artisans to trek across a bleak wasteland until they stumble into an old government research facility where the flora and insect life has grown to immense proportions. Moreover, truly advanced and properly civilised scientists appear to be running the whole show…

Typically however, even this technological Garden of Eden has a serpent in the form of one boffin with a little too much ambition, so it’s a lucky thing old flame Matt has been tracking Axa for months and finally reunites with her just as the unscrupulous mastermind makes his move…

‘Axa the Untamed’ finds the fiery fury dragging Matt and Mark 10 into a different kind of danger when the trio encounter a tribe of Gipsies who have proliferated into a modern horde of nomadic Mongol plainsmen, trading horses and other valuable commodities in a mad, macho wonderland of testosterone and arrogance.

Even Axa’s freedom-fuelled head is turned by the attentions of Gipsy Prince Django, much to Matt’s dismay, but it isn’t too long before the glamour fades and the worth of women in Django’s world leads her to reassess its value. It’s a lot harder to cure her love affair with his magnificent horses though…

These tales are superb examples of the uniquely British newspaper strip style: lavishly drawn, subversively written, expansive in scope and utterly enchanting in their basic simplicity – with lots of flashed flesh, emphatic action and sly, knowing humour. Eminently readable and re-readable (and there’s still that dwindling promise of a major motion picture) Axa is long overdue for a definitive collection. Here’s hoping there’s a bold publisher out there looking for the next big thing…
© 1984 Express Newspapers, Ltd.

Jak volume 15 (1983)


By Jak (Express Newspapers)
ISBN: 0-85079-133-2

The truly sad if not terrifying thing about rereading topical news cartoons this long after the fact is how distressingly familiar the subjects and hot topics still are.

For example this volume taken from 1983 features crass greed and duplicity amongst our financial elite, Prince Andrew starring in all the wrong sort of headlines, returning British soldiers, children easily subverting electronics systems designed to deny them access to things they shouldn’t see, all the wrong sorts of weather in the most inconvenient places, Sectarianism (Irish and otherwise), railways under-performing, overcharging and under the cosh, football violence and footballers peccadilloes (look it up if you must), Middle East madness, industrial action and business inaction, heat waves and water shortages, crises in Greece, controversies in definitions of rape, strangers making themselves at home in Buckingham Palace and a Tory Government that simply adored shooting off its collective mouth whilst simultaneously shooting itself in the foot…

This compendium even closes with looming public cynicism about an impending global sporting event…

Sometimes our industry is cruel and unjust. This collection of cartoons by Raymond Allen Jackson, who, as Jak, worked for thirty years as political cartoonist for London Evening Standard and its later incarnation The Standard – is one of many that celebrated his creativity, perspicacity and acumen as he drew pictures and scored points with and among the entire range of British Society.

His gags, produced daily to a punishing deadline as they had to be topical, were appreciated, if not feared, by toffs and plebs alike and were created with a degree of craft and diligence second to none. Even now, decades later, they are still shining examples of wit and talent… and they’re still bitingly funny too.

Artists like Jak who were commenting on contemporary events are poorly served by posterity. This particular volume (re-presenting a selection of single panel-gags from September 15th 1982 to August 12th 1983), like all of these books, was packaged and released for that year’s Christmas market, with the topics still fresh in people’s minds.

Decades later the drawing is still superb and despite perhaps the wry minutiae escaping a few the trenchant wit, dry jabs and outraged passion which informed these visual ripostes are still powerfully effective. And obviously human nature never changes and there’s nothing new under the sun…

It’s a terrible shame that the vast body of graphic excellence which topical cartoonists produce has such a tenuous shelf-life. Perhaps some forward looking educational institution with a mind to beefing up the modern history or social studies curricula might like to step in and take charge of the tragically untapped and superbly polished catalogue of all our yesterdays.

Clearly they’re all short of a bob or two these days and I’m pretty sure these cartoon gems could find a willing market eager to invest in a few good laughs…
© 1983 Express Newspapers Limited.

Omaha the Cat Dancer Complete Set (part 2)


By Reed Waller & Kate Worley with James M. Vance (NBM/Amerotic)
Set ISBN: 978-1-56163-601-3
Vol. 4 ISBN: 978-1-56163-451-4, vol. 5 ISBN: 978-1-56163-451-4, vol. 6 ISBN: 978-1-56163-451-4, vol. 7 ISBN: 978-1-56163-451-4

These books are intended to make adults laugh and think and occasionally feel frisky. If the cover images haven’t clued you in, please be warned that these items contain nudity, images of sexual intimacy – both hetero and homosexual – and language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom and probably school playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present.

If that sort of thing offends you, read no further and don’t buy these books. The rest of us will just enjoy one of the best graphic novel experiences ever created without you.

Omaha the Cat Dancer began during the 1970s as an “underground” venture and over slow torturous decades grew into a brilliant but controversial drama of human fallibility were all the actors just happened to be ordinary people with animal characteristics. What most people noticed was the matter-of-fact and constant inclusion of graphic sex acts, extremely well rendered.

As there’s only so much a man of my hard-lived years can endure and certainly only so much me you can stand, I’ve divides this graphic novels review of the series and specifically the glorious seven-volume complete set that prompted it in two (see yesterday’s post for the rest). The entire supremely economical shrink-wrapped gift set is available for your reading pleasure and you’d be bonkers not to not take advantage of the fact, but if you are of a cautious nature most individual editions can still be obtained through internet retailers.

The stunning, addictive saga of the erotic dancer, her bone-headed boyfriend and the anthropomorphic extended ensemble cast takes a dark and dreadful turn with Volume 4 (re-presenting the Kitchen Sink Omaha issues #10-13 and the one-page gag strip ‘Alterations’ from Fire Sale #11988-1989) as the mysterious death of Charles Tabey Sr., the increasing violence and oppression of the Campaign for Decency and a seemingly constant stream of personal revelations strain Omaha and Chuck’s relationship to the breaking point.

The Story resumes after an introduction from writer James Vance (who married Kate Worley after she split up with Waller and worked with the artist to finish the saga from her notes after her untimely death in 2004), before the tense drama kicks into high gear as Chuck comes to terms with the shocking knowledge that his mother didn’t die decades ago. The pressure seems to be affecting him badly – or perhaps the thought of all the wealth and responsibility – and the decent young man is becoming as exploitative, abusive and creepy as his manic dad was, but even though he’s acting paranoid, it doesn’t mean he’s hasn’t got real and deadly enemies. The situation isn’t helped by learning that somewhere his beloved Omaha has a husband she hasn’t quite divorced and never ever mentioned…

The sinister Senator Bonner is ratchetting up the pressure of his anti-smut campaign and even close ally Jerry is working to his own agenda, with the assistance of avaricious partner Althea. Confused, lonely and neglected, Omaha devotes her energies to dancing for the upcoming video for Shawn’s band, and Rob confronts Shelley whom he believes ordered the attempt on his life and torching of his studio…

At long last the will is read and Chuck does indeed inherit the bulk of his father’s holdings and, apparently, many of Tabey Sr.’s deranged obsessions. The far more intriguing than she appears Shelley acts on Rob’s misperceived accusations whilst her lover/carer Kurt Huddle finds part-time employment with the mysterious Mr. Lopez – the last major player in an increasingly complex game. Meanwhile high-powered call-girl, blackmailer and keeper of Secrets Joanne re-insinuates herself with Jerry and Chuck and Bonner in a terrifying confrontation threatens to destroy Omaha and Chuck in his own blackmail scheme…

During the video shoot Omaha and Joanne compare notes on Bonner, after which the capable call-girl enlists Rob’s photographic aid in a scheme to get the goods on the hypocritical Senator – with whom she shares a highly secret and extremely specialised professional relationship…

Whilst both Joanne and Rob are practising their unique skills the senator is murdered in the most compromising of all positions and the story moves effortlessly from human drama to dark murder mystery. Abandoned, bewildered, angry and very hurt, Omaha leaves town unaware that both she and Joanne are suspects in the Bonner murder case…

As she heads for a new life in rural Wisconsin, Chuck is learning some long-forgotten personal history from his mother, but no matter how she disguises her appearance that increasingly popular video means the cat dancer will never be truly safe or unseen…

Volume 5 is introduced by Neil Gaiman, after which issues #14-17 (1990-1992) find the lovers painfully adapting to life apart, with all of Omaha’s old friends wondering where she’s gone. Meanwhile in Lawrenceville, Wisconsin, after an abortive stab at office work for an all-too-typical, male-dominated factory, “Susan Johnson” goes back to honest work dancing in the town’s only strip joint, making some reliable new friends and meeting a young man who will become far more…

In Mipple City, Joanne and her lawyer finally clear her of suspicion in Bonner’s murder, Jerry is planning to reopen infamous bordello The Underground as a legitimate nightclub, and Chuck is making new friends and intimate acquaintances whilst spending his days trying to save the Bohemian A Block district from redevelopment, inadvertently getting far closer to the heart of all the various intrigues that threaten the players in the drama, and Jerry’s business partner Althea reveals her true colours and allies. At Senator Bonner’s funeral Lopez reveals an unsuspected connection to the venomous politician…

Shelley has made new friends too (in a scathing and utterly delightful episode exposing unexpected biases in certain sorts of feminists and do-gooders), Joanne is increasingly at odds with Rob regarding the films of Bonner’s last moments and when Jerry invites Chuck to become a partner in his new nightclub Althea tries to secure the deal by offering herself as sweetener… or does she actually have another reason for her bold advances?

Kurt and Shelley’s relationship begins to show signs of strain but in Lawrenceville “Susan” is relaxed and happy, with the strength to contact the friends she ran out on.

In Mipple, the cops are slowly uncovering some uncomfortable facts about everybody in the Bonner case when the Senator’s private secretary comes forward with new information, whilst Joanne is finally securing her final weapon necessary to expedite her plans…

The final Kitchen Sink issues (#18-20, 1993-1994) comprise the major part of the sixth volume, and follow an introduction from Terry Moore, a brief discourse on the cat dancer cast’s other appearances and a few shorts pieces from diverse places.

First there’s a delightful humorous foray into mainstream comics from Munden’s Bar Annual #2 in 1991. ‘A Strip in Time’, wherein the exotic kitty pops up in the legendary pan-dimensional hostelry, after which two short and sexy vignettes originally produced for The Erotic Art of Reed Waller , one untitled and the other graced with the subtly informative designation ‘Waking Up Under a Tent’, act to somewhat offset the angst and drama of the main event.

Rob learns what Shelley’s actual role was in the arson attack on his shop, Joanne takes a live-in position with Mr Lopez and after many abortive attempts Chuck and Omaha finally speak. As Thanksgiving dawns many of Omaha’s friends gather for a momentous dinner, things start to unravel for the bad-guys trying to destroy A Block and in Wisconsin, just as she is becoming reconciled with Chuck, the cat dancer’s fling with appreciative punter Jack intensifies to a crisis point. Meanwhile elsewhere, somebody with an intimate knowledge of her recognises the hot dancer in a rock video and begins making fevered inquiries…

When Shawn’s touring band reaches Lawrenceville and discover “Susie” is Omaha, the scene is set for her return to Mipple City, where, after being arrested in connection with Bonner’s murder, Chuck’s mother reveals the whole story of her past and the sordid truth of Calvin Bonner’s obsessive depravity and Charles Tabey’s bi-polar affliction. In light of the horrific revelations Chuck seems to go completely off the deep end and, far too late, his friends and family realise that money and looks might not be the only things the son inherited from the father…

Next, just a smidge out of chronological order, comes ‘Tales of Mipple City: Rob Steps Out’ a charming first date tale which first appeared in the anthology series Gay Comics #22 (1994) after which the tension and revelations resume as the cops release Maria Elandos Tabey, whilst her son is sectioned. In Lawrenceville, Susie gets an unforgettable farewell from Jack after which she returns to her true love who has never needed her more…

The final volume in this magnificent series features the last four issues published by Fantagraphics as Omaha the Cat Dancer volume 2, #1-4 (1994-1995). The series has at times seemed cursed: plagued by illness and creative problems which have taken its toll on all the creators. The creators ended their relationship in spectacular fashion at this time and only began working together again in 2002. Soon after Kate Worley died from cancer and it seemed the saga was destined to remain an unfinished masterpiece, but in 2006 Waller and Worley’s husband James Vance began to finish the job from her notes, with the concluding chapters serialised in the magazine Sizzle. When those final instalments are finally collected the completed Omaha the Cat Dancer will be possibly the finest adult comics tale in history…

For now however the brilliant yarn reaches a kind of conclusion here as after an introduction from honorary Mipple City resident Denis Kitchen, and a stunning cartoon recap Omaha and Chuck renew their relationship, Jerry and Shelley and Rob and Joanne reach workable détente agreements and that missing husband tracks the cat dancer to her new home. Set over the Christmas/New Year period, all the various plot threads come together during an unforgettable party at Chuck’s palatial new house, although the hung-over aftermath promises that there are still stories to be told and loose ends to be knotted off once and for all.

Even if the saga stopped here, Omaha the Cat Dancer would be an incredible narrative achievement and groundbreaking landmark of comics creation, but with the promise of a final resolution still to come, it looks set to become an icon of our industry, celebrated forever for moving beyond simple titillation and happy, innocent prurience to become a fully matured work of Art.

Captivating, intense, deeply moving and addictively engrossing, Omaha never forgets to be also be fun and fabulous and utterly inclusive: full of astonishingly well drawn, folk (admittedly largely furry or feathered folk) happily naked and joyously guilt – free… at least about sex…

No cats, dogs, birds or ferrets were harmed, abused, distressed or disagreeably surprised in the making of these lovely, lovely books, so if you’re open-minded, fun-loving and ready for the perfect grown-up adventure please take advantage of this unmissable opportunity. You won’t regret it….

© 1987-1996 Reed Waller & Kate Worley. Contents of these editions © 2005-2008 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Omaha the Cat Dancer Complete Set (part I)


By Reed Waller & Kate Worley with James M. Vance (NBM/Amerotic)
Set ISBN: 978-1-56163-601-3
Vol. 1 ISBN: 978-1-56163-451-4, vol. 2 ISBN: 978-1-56163-457-3, vol. 3 ISBN: 978-1-56163-474-3

These books are intended to make adults laugh and think and occasionally feel frisky. If the cover images haven’t clued you in, please be warned that these items contain nudity, images of sexual intimacy – both hetero and homosexual – and language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom and probably school playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present.

If that sort of thing offends you, read no further and don’t buy these books. The rest of us will just enjoy one of the best graphic novel experiences ever created without you.

Omaha the Cat Dancer began during the 1970s as an “underground” venture and over the torturous decades grew into a brilliant but controversial drama of human fallibility with all the characters played by funny animals. What most people noticed was the matter-of-fact and constant inclusion of graphic sex acts.

The series was subject to many obscenity seizures by various muddle-headed stickybeaks over the years, inspiring the formation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. One classic case apparently involved the local defenders of morality raiding a comics store because Omaha promoted Bestiality!

As there’s only so much excitement a man of my advanced years and proclivities can endure (and probably only so much me you can stand) I’ll be to reviewing these seven tomes in two batches rather than in totality but I will remind you each time that the whole saucy saga is available in a supremely economical shrink-wrapped gift set that you’d be crazy to not take advantage of.

After an introduction by late-coming co-scripter James Vance and Reed Waller’s original intro from the 1987 collected edition, The Complete Omaha the Cat Dancer volume 1 gathers the short story appearances from a number of Counter-culture Commix as well as some out-of-continuity infilling short pieces so readers can enjoy what can best be described as the official Directors Cut of the tale.

The wicked wonderment begins with the very first ‘Adventures of Omaha’ from Vootie in 1978. Vootie began in 1976 as a self-published fanzine founded by Reed Waller and like-minded artistic friends who bemoaned the loss of anthropomorphic comics – once a mainstay of US comicbooks.

When contributors also griped that there wasn’t much sex in comics either, Waller, taking inspiration from R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat and responding to an intensification of local Blue Laws, created the evocative, erotic dancer and compared her free and easy life-style against a typical, un-elected, interfering know-it-all moral guardian busybody. Blue Laws are particularly odious anti-fun statutes – usually instigated by religious factions – designed to keep the Sabbath holy by dictating shop-opening hours and generally limit or ban adult entertainments like clubs and pubs, and their repressive use (in fact and fiction) became a major narrative engine for the series.

‘Why they Call Her Omaha’ introduces young stripper Susie Jensen who hits the metropolis of Mipple City, Minnesota (a thinly concealed Minneapolis) and signs up with a modelling agency where she meets fellow dancer Shelley Hine. Over lunch they bond and pick a better stage name for the gorgeous but naive newcomer, whilst ‘Kitten of the Month’ and ‘Omaha centrefold’ reveal the first glorious results of her managements efforts. No-holds barred sexual action returns in ‘Shelley and Omaha’ with the girls, now popular erotic dancers, meeting some guys who will play a big part in the unfolding drama to come.

In ‘Chuck and Omaha’, which officially heralded the beginning of scripter Kate Worley’s stunning contribution to the series, Jerry – one those aforementioned pick-up guys – introduces Omaha to Chuck Katt, a shy artist who will become the great love of the sexy kitty’s life. ‘Adventures of Omaha’ sees the budding relationship progress whilst ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ moves the grander story arc along when Mipple bans nipples in the opening shot of a political power-grab using Christian and Family-morality pressure groups as unwitting, if fervent, patsies…

Although it comprises less than 50 pages the preceding material took nearly fifteen years to produce. For years Omaha had no fixed abode; peripatetically wandering from magazine to Indie book and even guest-shots in the occasional mainstream publication. From Kitchen Sink’s Bizarre Sex #9-10 in 1981-2, a pastiche page in E-Man (in 1983 and included in volume 2), Dope Comix #5 (1984), she even starred in a story from Munden’s Bar Annual #2 in 1991. Often stalled for creative, not censorship, reasons Omaha finally won her own title in 1984 from SteelDragon Press, but vanished again until 1986 when Kitchen Sink Press finally took over publication. For further details I strongly advise checking the lovely official website at www.omahathecatdancer.com.

Volume 1 switches to high gear and addictive narrative mode with the 40 page ‘Omaha #0’: a single page recap followed by a powerfully compelling yarn wherein the forces of decency make life increasingly difficult for the adult entertainment industry. With stripper bars closing Omaha is recruited to dance for “The Underground”: an exclusive, ultra-secret, high-class bordello that caters to the darkest desires of America’s ultra-elite of: businessmen and politicians many of whom are actively leading the Decency campaign…

Shelley is involved too, recruiting contacts from her old profession for more hands-on roles. Meanwhile Chuck has reapplied for his old advertising job where his old girlfriend Joanne makes life uncomfortable. However she has other problems as powerful forces are drawing Omaha and Chuck into a far-reaching and sinister scheme…

On opening night all the elements for disaster converge as the “Movers and Shakers” get more debauchery than even they can handle: someone has doped the entire proceedings leading to a violent, destructive orgy and set up cameras to record the whole event for blackmail purposes. As they flee the club hitmen try to kill Chuck but shoot Shelley instead. Believing her dead, Omaha and Chuck run for their lives. Heading for Joanne’s house Chuck reveals that he is the son of Charles Tabey: monomaniacal millionaire businessman, undisputed ruler of Mipple City and the probable target of the assassination…

Narrowly escaping another murder attempt they find Tabey and Joanne are intimately involved and are horrified to find that the millionaire was behind the whole thing, intending to mould Chuck into the kind of son he needs. The man is also clearly raving mad…

The traumatised, terrified young lovers jump into their car and head for California in the short ‘Adventures of Omaha’ vignette and the first volume concludes with the contents of ‘Omaha #1’ as they reach San Francisco tired, hungry and broke.

Grateful for the kindness of strangers, they soon discover Joanne waiting for them and find that Tabey is not their only persecutor. During a drunken three-way another hired killer almost ends them all…

From a well-intentioned, joyous celebration of open living free-loving modernity Omaha had evolved into a captivating adult soap opera and conspiracy thriller of mesmerising intensity and complexity…

Volume 2, with a reprinted introduction by Kate Worley, eases into the enticing adult entertainment with the aforementioned ‘Hotziss Twonkies’ parody from First Comics’ E-Man #5 before issues #2-5 enlarge the sinister saga. In the aftermath of their latest close shave, Chuck and Joanne antagonistically spar whilst the increasingly traumatised cat dancer wanders the streets of San Francisco. When she is abducted by Tabey, who is moving against all his old enemies, Chuck and Joanne fall into bed…

Meanwhile Jerry, who also works for Tabey, is busying sorting the fallout from the club riot and shooting. In a secluded palatial beach-house Omaha discovers that Chuck’s dad has been watching over them for some time and soon discovers another shocking secret….

Omaha was utterly groundbreaking in its mature treatment of gay and disabled relationships; offering the sound and common sense opinion that this is what all people think and do and after all, “it’s just sex”…

Paralysed but not deceased Shelley is also sequestered in the house. She is a long-term Tabey employee and slowly developing a relationship with her nurse Kurt Huddle, and the manic tycoon has convinced Omaha to stay and help care for her. Back in Frisco Chuck has rekindled his old relationship with Joanne, utterly unaware that she has the films and photos taken at the club on that terrible night.

Rob Shaw, gay photographer, enters the picture, as developer and guardian of the contentious materials and old friend of Joanne. Chuck misses Omaha and the tension leads to him splitting with Joanne and moving in with Rob. The cat dancer too is lonely and finds unsatisfactory solace with Jerry again, but when Tabey goes off his meds Jerry arranges for Chuck and Omaha to reunite, leading to a dreadful confrontation between father and long-estranged son, as an apparent result of which the millionaire takes his own life…

Together again at last, Omaha and Chuck comfort each other as the repercussions of Charles Tabey Sr.’s demise shake the country and the cast. The close-knit group endure loss, guilt and outrageous press scrutiny as the matter of inheritance crops up. Against his wishes, Chuck might be incredibly rich and saddled with unwanted responsibilities but there are some unspecified problems with the will.

The plots thicken when Joanne and Rob have a falling out and as all this is going on, back in Mipple City a powerful new threat makes his move. Senator Bonner was one of the patrons at the Underground that fateful night but now he’s making a move for total power, stirring up a wave of fundamentalist hatred and anti-smut indignation with his “Crusade for Decency”…

Volume 3 (covering issues #6-9 and with an introduction by Trina Robbins) follows the action back to Minnesota, but things are difficult for Chuck and Omaha who can’t seem to re-establish their earlier, innocent rapport. They go house-hunting, whilst in San Francisco Rob Shaw is visited by thugs after the photos of the riot at The Underground. His shop destroyed, the photographer narrowly escapes burning with it…

Mipple City’s Blue Laws are more draconian than ever. When Omaha and Shelley, who has moved into the ground floor of the Cat dancer’s new house, visit their old workplace the Kitty Korner, they discovers that the performers now have to dance behind plate glass – which makes tucking punter’s tips into g-strings really tricky…

When old friend Shawn turns up he tells Chuck and Omaha of the plan to redevelop A Block – that part of town where all the artists, musicians and strip clubs are. Something needs to be done to stop it – and now, Chuck might just be the richest, most influential degenerate in town…

As the lovers go furniture shopping Shelley and Kurt look for a suitable physical therapy clinic – preferably a non-religious, non-judgemental un-condescending one – and later whilst Omaha helps Shelley move in, Chuck and Jerry make plans to fight the destruction of A Block, but as ever, there is far more going on than the lovers can imagine…

Omaha wants to get back into dancing and as Chuck becomes increasingly mired in the running of his father’s many businesses, Kurt learns some of Shelley’s murky history and Joanne and Jerry compare notes and make plans.

Rob turns up in Mipple after more attempts on his life, convinced that he needs to find his attackers’ boss before his luck runs out and the book ends on a shocking note for Chuck when he discovers that long-dead mother isn’t…

All these volumes, printed in black and white and at 8½ inches by 11, much larger than the original comicbooks, also contain many full page illustrations (many from the delightful art-book The Erotic Art of Reed Waller). This saga is one of the turning points of comics history – a moment when we could all provably say “this is socially relevant, capital “A” Art” – as viable and important as the best play or film or symphony: don’t miss this opportunity to make the whole marvellous classic yours forever…

© 1978, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987-1996 Reed Waller & Kate Worley. Contents of these editions © 2005-2007 NBM. All Rights Reserved

Max


By Giovanetti (Macmillan, New York)
No ISBN

Pericle Luigi Giovanetti was a huge star in the cartoon firmament in the years following World War II and one look at his work will instantly show you why. Born in 1916 in Switzerland, this doyen of brilliant penmen launched his most famous character in Punch in April 1953 – from whence most of these scintillating escapades sprang (the remaining pieces are courtesy of Nebelspalter and Glamour).

Max is a small, round furry creature most likened to a hamster, whose wordless pantomimes were both cute and whimsical – as well as trenchantly self-deprecating. Don’t ask me how a beautifully rendered little puff-ball could stand for pride brought low and pomposity punctured, but he did. The weekly incidents were also blissfully free of mawkish sentimentality; a funny animal for adults and children.

Max was syndicated across the world, (known as Mr. Makkusu-san in Japan) numbering such diverse luminaries as Jason Robards and Charles Schulz as fans and even lending its image and cache to the British Navy and Swiss Air Force as mascot and figurehead.

There were four collections between 1954 and 1961: this one, Max Presents, Nothing But Max and the Penguin Max. Like these, two other collections, Beware of the Dog and Birds without Words, are also criminally out of print.

In this initial 96 page hardback the hairy hero happily demonstrates the challenges inherent in assorted musical instruments, ink-pens, all kind of cooking, drink, hats, hobbies and a host of other occupations and interests…

For all his trenchant ability to convey meaning and offer salutary warnings without uttering a sound, Max’s origins – and indeed species – was a subject of much dispute in the four corners of the globe until Clive King and Giovanetti revealed all in the magical children’s book Hamid of Aleppo, (written in 1958) which delightfully revealed the little wonder’s true origins, antecedents, taxonomy and species: Max is a Syrian Golden Hamster!

The sheer artistic virtuosity of Giovanetti is astounding to see and the fact that his work should be forgotten is a travesty and a crime. If you ever find a collection of his work do yourself the biggest favour of your life and grab it with both hands.

The internet is a wonderful thing. Just as it finally provided me with a book I’d been hunting out for decades it also revealed that I’d been a short-sighted idiot for not looking further afield – or indeed across the Channel.

A French edition was released in 2003 (ISBN-13: 978-2-21107-074-4) because our Gallic cousins have a far more informed opinion of comics and cartooning than us Anglos – and since all these glorious cartoons are wordless masterpieces that shouldn’t hinder anybody wishing to make the acquaintance of this magical superstar of yesteryear – and, hopefully tomorrow…
© 1954 Pericle Luigi Giovannetti. All Rights Reserved.

Jak volume 13 (1981)


By Jak (Express Newspapers)
ISBN: 0-85079-117-0

I reviewed one of Jak’s earliest collections a few years back and churlishly bemoaned the lack of contextual grounding, utterly forgetting that a brief time later the editors of the series began doing just that so here’s another bite of a superb cartoon cherry that’s still not impossible for the determined fan to find.

The truly sad if not terrifying thing about rereading topical news cartoons years if not decades later is how distressingly familiar the subjects and hot topics are.

For example this volume taken from 1981 features an impending Royal Wedding, bombings in Ireland, nuclear contamination, BP cocking up the planet, banking scandals, insane cuts in military spending, increased unemployment – especially for school and college leavers, brutal spending cuts, a chancellor who couldn’t add up (Geoffrey Howe back then), cynical disinformational bitching about overpaid Council and public sector workers plus a Tory government falling apart and attacking itself and its partners.

However, that time the Government saved itself by fighting a war with somebody thousands of miles away over oil, but there’s no chance of that happening aga…

Hey, wait a minute…

Even the quirky “silly season” stories seem afflicted by generational déjà vu then and now: ITV’s breakfast show was suffering a star-strapped meltdown, the space shuttle was big news (the first not last ever flight into orbit), Prince Andrew was embarrassing us in the eyes of the world, a major acting star went spectacularly off the rails and we were “all in it together” with even rich people cutting down on luxuries (slightly) and England had an appalling football team…

This compendium even closes with the threat of impending war in Libya…

Sometimes our industry is cruel and unjust. This collection of cartoons by Raymond Allen Jackson, who, as Jak, worked for thirty years as political cartoonist for London Evening Standard – renamed by this time as The Standard – is one of many that celebrated his creativity, perspicacity and acumen as he drew pictures and scored points with and among the entire range of British Society.

His gags, produced daily to a punishing deadline as they had to be topical, were appreciated, if not feared, by toffs and plebs alike and were created with a degree of craft and diligence second to none. Even now, decades later, they are still shining examples of wit and talent. Most of them are still scathingly funny too.

Artists like Jak who were commenting on contemporary events are poorly served by posterity. This particular volume (re-presenting a selection of single panel-gags from September 5th 1980 to October 19th 1981), like all of these books, was packaged and released for that year’s Christmas market, with the topics still fresh in people’s minds. Thirty years later – although the drawing is still superb – although the minutiae might escape a few – the trenchant wit, dry jabs and outraged passion which informed these pictorial puncture wounds is still powerfully present. And clearly human nature never changes…

It’s just a huge shame that the vast body of graphic excellence that news cartoonists produce has such a tenuous shelf-life. Perhaps some forward looking university with a mind to jazzing up their modern history or social studies curricula might want to step up and take charge of the tragically untapped and superbly polished catalogue of all our yesterdays…
© 1981 Express Newspapers Limited.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 5: Wha’s a Jeep?


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-404-7

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894.His father was a handyman and Elzie’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator and house-painter and played drums, accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre. When the town got a movie house he played for the silent films, absorbing the staging, timing and narrative tricks from the close observation of the screen that would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, aged 18, he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio (from where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would launch Superman upon the world), before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – arguably the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

The senior artist introduced him around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916. In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York headquarters of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a pastiche of Movie features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies with a repertory cast to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies, for vast daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, their lanky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later just Ham Gravy).

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15; a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (surely, no relation?).

A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match. His brilliant ear for dialogue and accent shone out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, shambled on stage midway through the adventure ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and once his part was played out, simply refused to leave. Within a year he was a regular and as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he became the star. Eventually the strip was changed to Popeye and all of the old gang except Olive were consigned to oblivion…

Popeye inspired Segar. The near decade of thrilling mystery-comedies which followed revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his self-aware humour) and utterly captivated the whole wide world.

These superb oversized (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches) hardback collections are the ideal way of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales. This fifth huge volume also contains an insightful introductory essay from Richard Marschall ‘Character and Personality in Thimble Theatre’ a captivating article of the period (‘Segar’s Hobbies Put Punch in Popeye Comics’) reprinted from Modern Mechanix and Inventions and a fascinating end-piece covering the assorted original art teasers editors used to promote upcoming tales in the magical days before television or viral ad campaigns over and above the increasingly incredible tales from the daily and Sunday strips.

The black and white Monday to Saturday section opens this volume, (covering July 25th 1935 to December 12th 1936) and encompassing one-and-a-half major storylines, beginning with the long-awaited conclusion of ‘Popeye’s Ark’ wherein the bold sailor-man carried out an ambitious plan to set up his own country of Spinachova. The incredible scheme was funded by misogynist millionaire Mr. Sphink who insisted that the new country be absolutely without women – and Popeye went along with it, recruiting a host of disaffected guys looking for a fresh start…

Soon however the thousands of able-bodied men populating the country were starving for any kind of female companionship – even Olive Oyl – who was currently exiled on an island of her own. Things got very strange when the lonely Spinachovans discovered a tribe of mermaids frolicking off the coast, but romance was soon forgotten when Brutian despot King Zlobbo decided the new nation must be his in ‘War Clouds’.

To scout out the potential opposition Zlobbo dispatched the beautiful spy Miss Zexa Peal, but as the most beautiful woman in the country – and indeed 50% of Spinachova’s female population – she wasn’t exactly inconspicuous…

When war broke out it resulted in Popeye’s greatest victory – with just a little excessively violent help from feisty “infink” baby Swee’ Pea…

By the conclusion of that epic tale all the players had returned to America, just in time for the introduction of the star of this tome. ‘Eugene the Jeep’ was introduced on March 20th 1936, a fantastic 4th dimensional beast with incredible powers that Olive and Wimpy used to get very rich very quickly, only to lose it all betting on the wrong guy in another of Segar’s classic and hilarious set-piece boxing matches between Popeye and another barely human pugilist…

This was an astonishingly fertile period for the strip. On August 4th Eugene was instrumental in kicking off another groundbreaking and memorable sequence as the entire ensemble cast took off on as haunted ship to undertake ‘The Search for Popeye’s Papa’.

When Popeye first appeared he was a shocking anti-hero. The first Superman of comics was not a comfortable hero to idolise. A brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority; uneducated, short-tempered, fickle (when hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be.

Popeye was the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wants kids to be themselves but not necessarily “good” and a man who takes no guff from anyone. As his popularity grew he somewhat mellowed. He was always ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”… but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed by 1936 – so Segar brought it back again…

This memorable and riotous tale introduced the ancient and antisocial crusty reprobate Poopdeck Pappy and his diminutive hairy sidekick Pooky Jones during another fabulous voyage of discovery. The elder mariner was a rough, hard-bitten, grumpy brute quite prepared and even happy to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line… Once that old goat was firmly established Segar set Popeye and Olive the Herculean task of ‘Civilizing Poppa’ which is where the monochrome adventures conclude…

The full-colour Sunday pages in this volume span April 4th 1935 to September 13th 1936, and see the bizarrely entertaining Sappo (and Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle) supplemental strip gradually diminish to allow the Popeye feature even more room to excel and amaze. Eventually Sappo became a cartooning tricks section which allowed Segar to play graphic games with his readership and Popeye’s Cartoon Club also disappeared, as the focus inexorably shifted to Popeye and Co. in alternating one-off gag strips and extended sagas. However the Sailor-Man had to fight for space with his mooching co-star J. Wellington Wimpy…

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents or kissing pretty girls, Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive Oyl with exceptional verve, if little success, but his life was always made more complicated whenever the unflappable, so-corruptible and adorably contemptible Wimpy made an appearance.

The engaging Micawber-like coward, moocher and conman was first seen on 3rd May 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s regular boxing matches. The scurrilous but polite oaf obviously struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, eager to take a bribe and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘let’s you and him fight’ Wimpy is the perfect foil for a simple action hero and often stole the entire show.

Infinitely varying riffs on Olive’s peculiar romantic notions or Wimpy’s attempts to cadge food or money for food were irresistible to the adoring readership, but Segar wisely peppered the Sundays with longer episodic tales, such as the cast’s Gold prospecting venture to  the inhospitable western desert of ‘Slither Creek’ (April 14th – August 25th 1935) and the sequel sequence wherein the temporarily wealthy but eternally starving Wimpy buys his own diner – the ultimate expression of blind optimism and sheer folly…

The uniquely sentimental monster Alice the Goon returned to the strip on February 23rd 1936, permanently switching allegiance and becoming the nanny of the rambunctious tyke Swee’ Pea and a cast regular by the end of April.

August 9th saw Eugene the Jeep make his Sunday debut and demonstrations of the fanciful beast’s incredible powers to make money and cause chaos fill out this fifth fantastic tome…

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought on hearing the name is an unintelligible, indomitable white-clad sailor always fighting a great big beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: the animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into Thimble Theatre and wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure…

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. However with only one more volume of Elzie Segar’s comic masterpiece to come – starring the very best Popeye of them all – don’t you think it’s about time you sampled the original and very best?

© 2011 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2011 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Buz Sawyer: The War in the Pacific


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-362-0

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were until relatively recently utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public – and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip that evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. Crane produced pages of stunning, addictive quality yarn-spinning whilst his introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929 led to a Sunday colour page that was possibly the most compelling and visually impressive of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1)

Almost improving minute by minute Crane’s imagination and his fabulous visual masterpieces achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of those pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé, giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz and comics creators like Alex Toth and John Severin ever since.

The work was obviously as much fun to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les turner in 1937 was the NEA/United Features Syndicate’s abrupt and arbitrary demand that all its strips must henceforward be produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate their being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated – although the compelling text features in this book dedicated to his second masterpiece reveal a few more commercial and professional reasons for the jump from the small and provincial syndicate to the monolithic King Features outfit.

At the height of his powers Crane just walked away from the astounding Captain Easy page, concentrating on the daily feature, and when his contract expired in 1943 he left United Features to create the World War II aviation strip Buz Sawyer, lured away by the grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

Where Wash Tubbs was a brave but comedic Lothario and Easy a surly tight-lipped he-man, John Singer “Buz” Sawyer was a happy amalgam of the two: a simple good-looking popular country-boy who went to war because his country needed him.

After the gripping and informative text feature ‘Crane’s Great Gamble’ by Jeet Heer the strip explodes into action on Christmas Eve 1942 as new Essex Class Aircraft Carrier USS Tippecanoe steams for the Pacific Theatre of Operation carrying 100 fighter-bombers and an extremely keen pair of cartoon warriors.

Buz Sawyer was a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, musically inclined pilot and his devoted gunner Rosco Sweeney a bluff, simple ordinary Joe – and one of the best comedy foils ever created. The strip is a marvel of authenticity: picturing not just the action and drama of the locale and situation but more importantly capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing whilst staying alive.

Like contemporaries Bill Mauldin and Milton Caniff, Crane was acutely aware that all his readers had someone involved in the action and therefore felt he had a duty to inform and enlighten as well as entertain. Spectacular as the adventure was the true magic is the off-duty camaraderie and personal moments that pepper the daily drama.

This beautiful archival hardback covers the entire war years of the strip from November 1st 1943 to October 5th 1945 wherein the great artist perfected his masterly skill with craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect used to add greys and halftones which Crane used to add miraculous depths and moods to his superb drawing) and opens with the lovable lads shot down whilst tackling a Japanese carrier.

Marooned, their life raft washed up on a desolate desert island where they’re hunted by enemy troops and discover a German farmer and his beautiful daughter. At first hostile, the lovely fraulein, April, soon succumbs to Buz’s boyish charm. Helping Buz and Roscoe escape, the trio only make it as far as the next islet where fellow pilot and friendly rival Chili Harrison had also been stranded since his plane went down.

Eventually rescued the Navy fliers return to “the Tip” for training on new planes (Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, in case you were wondering) in preparation for the push to Japan. Amidst spectacular action sequences shipboard life goes on, but during a raid on an occupied island Buz and Sweeney are once more shot down. In the middle of a fire-fight they effect repairs and head back to the Tippecanoe, but not without cost. Rosco has been hit…

Sawyer’s exploits haven’t gone unnoticed and, whilst Sweeney is recovering from wounds, he’s selected for a secret mission deep into enemy territory; ferrying an intelligence agent to a meeting with enigmatic underground leader the Cobra.

It all goes tragically wrong and the American agent is captured. With the enemy hunting high and low for the pilot, Buz then fell back on his most infuriating ability: falling into the willing laps of beautiful women.

‘Sultry’ was a gorgeous collaborator high in the favour of the occupying Japanese, but she too finds the corn-fed aviator irresistible. Of course it might simply be that she’s also Cobra…

This extended epic is a brilliant and breathtaking adventure that blends action, suspense, love and tragedy into a compelling thriller that took Buz all the way to December 1944. As a result of his trials the hero is sent home on a thirty day leave – enabling Crane to reveal some enticing background and invoke all the passions, joys and heartbreaks of the Home Front.

Buz doesn’t want to go but orders are order, so to make things a little more bearable Buz takes the still recuperating Sweeney with him. It isn’t that the young flier despises his origins – indeed his civilian life is a purely idyllic American Dream – it’s simply that he wanted to get the job done against the enemy. Nevertheless, with a warrior’s grace under pressure, he resigned himself to peace and enjoyment whilst his comrades soldier on. If he knew the foe he would face in his little hometown, Buz would probably have gone AWOL…

Crane’s inspirational use of the War at Home was a brilliant stroke: it’s not a world of spies and insidious Bundists but just a sweet little burg filled with home-comforts and proud people – the kind of place the soldiers were fighting to preserve and a powerful tool in the morale-builder’s arsenal. It’s also a place of completely different dangers…

Buz was the son of the town’s doctor; plain, simple and good-hearted. In that egalitarian environment the kid was the sweetheart of Tot Winter, the richest girl in town, and when her upstart nouveau riche parents heard of the decorated hero’s return they hijacked the homecoming and turned it into a publicity carnival.

Moreover the ghastly, snobbish Mrs. Winter conspired with her daughter to trap the lad into a quick and newsworthy marriage. Class, prejudice, financial greed and social climbing were enemies Buz and Sweeney were ill-equipped to fight, but luckily that annoying tomboy-brat Christy Jameson has blossomed into a sensible, down-to-earth, practical and clever young woman. She’s scrubbed up real pretty too…

After a staggeringly smart and compelling soap opera sequence that would do East Enders or Coronation Street proud, Buz ended up (accidentally) engaged to Tot after all. Mercifully the leave was over and he and Sweeney had to return to the war… but even then they were disappointed to discover that they wouldn’t immediately be fighting again.

Posted to Monterey, California, they were to be retrained for new planes and a new squadron, reuniting with rowdy rival Chili Harrison: but Mrs Winter was determined to have a war hero in the clan and pursued them with Tot in tow, determined to get Buz married before he returned to the Pacific.

Insights into another aspect of the military experience (Crane had almost unfettered access, consultation privileges and the grateful willing cooperation of the US Navy) were revealed to the readers as the whiz-kid was suddenly back in school again – and usually in the dog-house because of his hot-dogging. Dramatic tension was evenly split between Buz’s apparent inability to be a team-player and the increasingly insistent ploys of Mrs. Winter.

Moreover, the squadron’s training commander had an uncanny ability to predict which pilots would die in training or combat and Buz’s name was high on that list…

At last the training was over and, miraculously alive and unmarried, Buz and Sweeney shipped back to the Pacific and the relatively easy task of ending the war. Part of a massive fleet mopping up the island fortresses en route to Tokyo they were soon flying combat missions and before long, shot down once more. This time they were taken prisoner aboard an enemy submarine…

After another incredible escape and rousing triumph the war ended, but Crane actually ratcheted up the tension by covering the period of American consolidation and occupation as Buz and Sweeney awaited demobilisation. Whilst posted to a medical facility in Melatonga the boys and Chili came across a woman from Buz’s chequered past they had all believed long dead…

When their discharge papers finally arrived (in the episode for September 9th 1945) an era of desperate struggle was over. However with such a popular and pivotal strip as Buz Sawyer that only meant that the Era of Globe-Girdling adventure was about to begin…

This superb black and white hardback also contains a selection of Sunday strips in full colour. The eternal dichotomy and difficulty of producing Sunday Pages (many client papers would only buy dailies or Sunday strips, not both) meant that many strip creators would produce different story-lines for each feature – Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon being one of the few notable exceptions.

Crane handled the problem with typical aplomb: using the Sundays to tell completely unrelated stories. For Wash Tubbs he created a prequel series starring Captain Easy in adventures set before the mismatched pair had met; in Buz Sawyer he turned over the Sabbath slot to Rosco Sweeney for lavish gag-a-day exploits, big on laughs and situation comedy. Set among the common “swabbies” aboard ship it was a far more family-oriented feature and probably much more welcome among the weekend crowd of parents and children than the often chilling or disturbing realistically and sophisticated saga that unfolded Mondays to Saturdays.

Also included here in delicious full-page fold outs are fifteen of the best – many with appearances by Buz (spanning November 28th 1943 to 25th February 1945) – a cheerily tantalising bonus which will hopefully turn one day into a archival collection of their own. Whilst not as innovative or groundbreaking as Captain Easy, they’re still proficient works by one of the Grand masters of our art-form.

This initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s second magnum opus – spectacular, enthralling, exotically immediate adventures that influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. Buz Sawyer: War in the Pacific ranks as one the greatest strip sequences ever created: stirring, thrilling, funny and moving tale-spinning that is unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible.

Strips © 2010 King Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Axa volumes 3 and 4


By Donne Avenell & Enrique Badia Romero (Ken Pierce Books)
Vol. 3 No ISBN: 0-912277-00-9  Vol. 4 no ISBN: 0-912277-00-9

During the 1970s British newspapers radically altered much of their style and content to varying degrees in response to the seemingly inexorable move towards female social emancipation and sexual equality. Nevertheless, this somehow allowed newspaper editors to squeeze in even more undraped women, who finally escaped from the perfectly rendered comics strips and onto the regular pages, usually the third one, the centre-spreads and into the fashion features…

The only place where truly strong female role-models were taken seriously was the aforementioned cartoon sections but even there the likes of Modesty Blaise, Danielle, Scarth, Amanda and all the other capable ladies who walked all over the oppressor gender, both humorously and in straight adventure scenarios, lost clothes and shed undies repeatedly, continuously and in the manner they always had…

Nobody complained (no one important or who was ever taken seriously): it was just tradition and the idiom of the medium… and besides, artists liked to draw bare-naked ladies as much as blokes liked to see them and it was even educational for the kiddies – who could buy any newspaper in any shop without interference even if they couldn’t get into cinemas to view Flashdance, Trading Places, Octopussy or Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone without an accompanying adult…

Sales kept going up…

Take-charge chicks were almost commonplace when the Star Wars phenomenon reinvigorated public interest in science fiction and the old standby of scantily-clad, curvy amazons and post-apocalyptic wonderlands regained their sales-appeal. Thus The Sun hired Enrique Badia Romero and Donne Avenell to produce just such an attention-getter for their already well-stacked cartoon section.

Romero had begun his career in Spain in 1953, producing everything from westerns, sports, war stories and trading cards, often in conjunction with his brother Jorge Badía Romero. He even formed his own publishing house. “Enric” began working for the higher-paying UK market in the 1960s on strips such as ‘Cathy and Wendy’, ‘Isometrics’ and ‘Cassius Clay’ before successfully assuming the drawing duties on the high-profile Modesty Blaise strip in 1970 (see Modesty Blaise: The Hell Makers and Modesty Blaise: The Green Eyed Monster), only leaving when this enticing new prospect appeared.

In 1986 political and editorial intrigue saw Axa cancelled in the middle of a story and Romero returned to the bodacious Blaise until creator/writer Peter O’Donnell retired in 2001. Since then he has produced Modesty material for Scandinavia and a number of projects such as Durham Red for 2000AD.

Axa ran in The Sun Monday to Saturday from 1978 to her abrupt disappearance in 1986 and other than these slim volumes from strip historian Ken Pierce has never been graced with a definitive collection. It should be noted also that at the time of these books the strip was still being published to great acclaim.

In the first two volumes Axa, a pampered citizen of a sterile, domed community in 2080AD, rebelled against her antiseptic society’s cloying strictures and escaped to the ravaged, mutant-infested post apocalyptic wilderness to be free. Her journeys took her across the ravaged planet, discovering lost enclaves and encountering bizarre new tribes and cultures.

The third volume opens with an avid appreciation by C.C. Beck, the “Crusty Curmudgeon” most celebrated as co-creator of the Shazam!-shouting Captain Marvel before the nubile nomad resumed her explorations in ‘Axa the Brave’ with her latest companion Jason Arkady in tow. Crossing a frozen wasteland reclaimed by wolves after man’s Great Contamination excised human civilisation, the pair stagger into a lush tropical valley populated by dinosaurs and cavemen.

The historical anomalies are disturbing and dangerous enough, but when they were invited to join the new stone-agers they uncovered an even greater enigma: the cave-walls were covered in paintings of robots and weird machines… The secret of the hidden valley is yet another example of the brilliance and folly of the lost human civilisation and leads the unstoppable freedom-seeker to a swamp-city where an enclave of scientists had survived the disaster…

The hidden sages had a big plan to reshape the world and wanted Axa aboard, so they built her the perfect companion: a faithful, semi-sentient laser-wielding robot dubbed Mark 10 who instantly aroused the jealous ire of Jason. As so often the case however, Axa’s male benefactors had hidden plans for her but the scientists had built too well and the utterly devoted Mark came rattling rapidly to her rescue…

In ‘Axa the Gambler’ the winsome wanderer, with Mark and Jason faithfully following, stumbled onto a community where wagering was the basis for existence and pilgrims came from miles around to bet with the fervour of religious zealots.

In The City of Hope patrons worshipped Las Vegan relics, seeking instant gratification for their greedy, hungry prayers. Soon Jason had caught the bug and gambled away all their meager possessions including the magnificent ancient sword Axa had carried since her first escape from the Domed City.

Of course the game was fixed, but with Mark’s cybernetic intervention Axa recouped all their losses, narrowly escaping the hidden penalty that underpinned the barter-economy of the City: when you don’t have any more goods to wager with, you become the property of the house…

When Jason discovered a historic family link to big boss Mr. Nero he switched allegiance and Axa ended up fighting for her life and liberty in the gladiatorial arena beside motorcycle warrior Dirk. With freedom her greatest love, Axa inevitably engineered Nero’s bloody fall, but lost Jason to the lure of greed and an idle life of pleasure…

Axa 4 begins with an appreciation and “previously on…” by publisher Bernie McCarty before ‘Axa the Earthbound’ saw the blonde bombshell and Dirk hunting the missing mechanical Mark 10 through a haunted, monster-haunted swamp until they stumbled upon a lost oasis of beauty – a veritable paradise amidst the ruins of the world.

In a ramshackle old house lived aged Joy Eden who happily welcomed the wanderers to stay. Axa was subtly drawn to the aged free spirit’s talk of Mother Earth and pagan renewal but Dirk had his suspicions: did the old lady thrive despite the mutants and mud-monsters… or because of them?

Deeply steeped in Earth-magic and transformative mysticism, did the lonely old crone have another reason for keeping Dirk and Axa within the tumbledown walls of her “Seventh Heaven”… and just what did happen to the coldly technological but absolutely loyal Mark?

Ending as always in bitter revelation, chilling conflict and spectacular conflagration the denouements led the explorers back into the desert wastes in ‘Axa the Tempted’. Their trek brought them to the coast where mutated seaweed and giant sea-life threatened to end their trials for ever and whilst fleeing giant land-crustaceans the couple found an ancient beached ocean-liner from where inbred pirates raided other coastal settlements for slaves, provisions and “Old People” technological artifacts.

Escaping from “The Crewmen”, Axa and Dirk allied themselves with the united sea-villagers and the heroic Cap, King of the Coast, who protects the scattered communities from pirate depredations. The wily wild-girl was strangely attracted to the larger-than-life champion and his luxurious life of adventure, excitement and bold deeds, but Dirk had mysteriously vanished and something just didn’t ring true about the magnanimous warrior-king…

Once more bitter disappointment and righteous indignation awaited Axa as she once more learned that no matter where she roamed men were all the same whilst greed and depravity had not vanished with the Old Ones and their Great Contamination.

These tales are superb examples of the uniquely British newspaper strip style: lavishly drawn, subversively written, expansive in scope and utterly enchanting in their basic simplicity – with lots of flashed flesh, emphatic action and sly humour. Eminently readable and re-readable (and there’s still that dwindling promise of a major motion picture) Axa is long overdue for a definitive collection. so here’s hoping there’s a bold publisher out there looking for the next big thing…

© 1983 Express Newspapers, Ltd. First American Collectors Edition Series ™ & © 1983 Ken Pierce, Inc.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and the Junior Woodchucks


By Carl Barks and others (Gladstone Comic Album #18)
ISBN: 978-0-944599-18-4

Amongst the other benefits to derive from the radical shake up of the American comics industry in the 1980s (specifically the creation of a specialist retailing sector that ended the newsstand monopoly by sale or return distributors) was the opportunity for small publishers to expand their markets. A plethora of companies with new titles quickly came and went, but there was also the chance for wiser or luckier heads to get their product seen by potential fans who had for so very long been subject to a DC/Marvel duopoly.

Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Disney strips in oversized albums based on a format popular for decades in Scandinavia and Europe. Reintroduced to the country of their birth the archival material quickly led to a rapid expansion and even resulted in new comicbooks being created for the first time since Dell/Gold Key quit the comics business.

Carl Barks was born in Oregon in 1901 and reared in the wilder parts of the West during some of the leanest times in American history. He had many jobs before settling into storytelling with pen and brush. He drifted into cartooning in the 1930s, joining the Disney animation studio before quitting in 1942 to work in the fresh field of comicbooks.

Destiny called when he and studio partner Jack Hannah (also an occasional strip artist) adapted a Bob Karp script for a sidelined animated short feature into the comicbook Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (Dell Four Color Comics #9). Although not Barks’ first published work, it was the story that dictated the rest of his career.

From the late 1940’s to the mid-1960s Barks beavered away in seclusion writing and drawing a vast array of comedy-adventures for kids, based on and expanding Disney’s Duck characters stable. Practically single-handed he built a cohesive feathered Universe of memorable and highly bankable characters such as Gladstone Gander (1948), Gyro Gearloose (1952) and Magica De Spell (1961) and the great granddaddy of all money-spinners Scrooge McDuck who premiered in the Donald Duck Yule yarn ‘Christmas on Bear Mountain’ (Four Colour Comics #178 December 1947).

Throughout his working career Barks was blissfully unaware that his efforts (uncredited by official policy as was all Disney’s comicbook output), had been singled out by a discerning public as being by “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated devotees finally tracked him down, his belated celebrity began.

So potent were Barks’ creations that they inevitably fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his comic work was done for the licensing company Dell/Gold Key, and not directly for the studio. The greatest tribute was undoubtedly the animated series Duck Tales, heavily based on his comics output of the 1950s-1960s, particularly on the exploits of the hilariously acerbic boy-scouting skits featuring Donald and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie – capable members of the unflappable “Junior Woodchucks”…

This irrepressible catalogue of delight opens with ‘Operation Rescue Saint Bernard’ (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #125 February 1951) in which the kids, ever-hungry for Woodchuck merit badges and the concomitant glory they bestow, decide to train Donald’s useless, snow-fearing couch-potato dog in the fine art of Alpine Rescue. It would have gone so well if only Donald had not decided to take charge of the program…

Barks’ inestimable and lasting influence was felt around the globe, as the next tale, produced by the criminally anonymous Scandinavian-based Gutenberghus Group laconically reveals.

In ‘Protective Cacophony’ Woodchuck Supremo S.Q.U.A.C.K.B.O.X. (a running feature of the ersatz scout tales was outrageously faux titles and obscurely verbose acronyms for assorted ranks; thus Subliminal Quieter of Unctuously Athletic Caterwaulers and Kiboshers of Bombastic Oratorializing Xenophobes) orders the lads to ensure that a rare bird nesting in Duckberg remains undisturbed. However, when sometime twitcher (that’s birdwatcher to you and me) Donald insists on helping, his overenthusiastic participation almost gives the nervous avian a coronary.

Fun, fast and fanciful, this fable is a perfect example of the Barks method in action…

From Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #132 (September 1951) comes another memorable Barks original. ‘Ten-Star Generals’ is a wry and raucous romp wherein the rank-hungry duck boys attempt to win even more badges and attain high status among their fellow wilderness pioneers. Donald, whose own boyhood scout troop “the Little Booneheads” were far less stringent and ethical, wants to aid them in any way possible, even cheating on their behalf, but decency and Woodchuck moral fibre wins out in the end – as Donald learns to his cost…

The highly competent Gutenberghus Group also crafted ‘Course Play’ as the boys seek the admiration of their diminutive peers in a pathfinder competition only to once more suffer for Donald’s less than scrupulous meddling. As always, however fair play and quick wits win the boys their undeniable due in the end.

After a sharp single-page entrepreneurial gag starring the nephews from Donald Duck’s appearance in Four Colour Comics #408 (July-August 1952) this jolly jamboree ends in a classic confrontation in the eternal battles of the sexes.

‘The Chickadee Challenge’ (from Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #181, October 1955) finds the lads and the entire Woodchuck troop compelled to defend their prowess, pride and manly craft skills after an insulting dare from the rival Little Chickadee Patrol. Bristling under the implied insult of being challenged by mere girls the Woodchucks haughtily accept but nothing goes right for them…Donald, as always, thinks it best if he lends a surreptitious underhanded hand…

As always this album is printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) – although dedicated collectors should also seek out the publisher’s superb line of Disney Digests and the comicbooks which grew out of these pioneering tomes for more of the most madcap, wryly funny all-ages yarns ever concocted.

Dry wit, artistic verve and sly satirical punch made Carl Barks supreme among his very talented contemporaries and one of the most important anthropomorphic storytellers in fiction. No matter what your vintage or temperament if you’ve never experienced the captivating magic of Barks, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine. So why don’t you…?

© 1989, 1955, 1952, 1951, 1950 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.