Footrot Flats volume 1


By Murray Ball (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-335-7

You may or may not have heard of Footrot Flats. Created by Murray Ball on his return to his homeland of New Zealand, it ran from 1975 to 1994 in newspapers on four continents, yet for one of the most successfully syndicated strips in the world, it seems to have passed from common memory with staggering rapidity.

Once the series concluded, Ball – whilst running his own farm – continued to release books of new material until 2000, resulting in a total of 27 daily strip collections, 8 volumes of Sunday pages and 5 pocket books, plus ancillary publications such as calendars.

There was a stage musical, a theme park and a truly superb animated film Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tail Tale.

A well-travelled wanderer, Murray Ball moved to England in the early 1960s, becoming a cartoonist for Punch as well as drawing (ostensibly) children’s strips for DC Thompson and Fleetway as well as a more adult-oriented strip in Labour Weekly. Eventually home called and the artist headed back South. Resettling in New Zealand in 1974, Ball became busier than ever.

He bought a smallholding on the North Island and farmed in his spare time (for anyone not brought up in the country, that last bit was “sarcasm”). This inevitably led to the strip in question. Taking the adage “write what you know” to startling heights, the peripatetic artist promptly gave up sleeping altogether to craft these wickedly funny yarns about an oaf and his dog, and I for one will be eternally grateful. You might be old enough to remember it being syndicated here in the Today newspaper…

Then again, you might not be old enough to remember newspapers.

Wallace Footrot Cadwallader is a big, bluff farmer. He’s a regular bloke, likes his food; loves his Rugby. He owns a small sheep farm (the eponymous Footrot Flats) best described as “400 acres of swamp between Ureweras and the Sea”.

With his chief – and only – hand Cooch Windgrass, and a sheepdog who calls himself “Dog” Wal makes a living and is his own boss. Dog is the star (and narrator) of most of the strips: a cool know-all and blowhard, he’s utterly devoted to his scruffy, no-nonsense master – unless there’s food about or Jess (the sheepdog bitch from down the road) is in heat again.

Dry, surreal and wonderfully self-deprecating, the humour comes from the perfectly realised characters – human and otherwise – the tough life of a bachelor farmer and especially the country itself.

The cartooning is absolutely top-rate. Ball is one of those gifted few who can actually draw funnily. When combined with his sharp, incisive writing the result is pure magic. But be warned. Ball can also break your heart with a few terse words and the right confection of tightly-inked lines.

I’m reviewing the 1990 Titan Books edition, but the same material is readily available from a number of publishers and retailers although none of the varied volumes are particularly cheap. If any cartoon feature ever needed compiling in a comprehensive digital edition it’s this superb series.

Until then, If I’ve convinced you to give the Dog a go, your favourite search engine will be all the help you need…

Go on. Fetch!
© 1990 Diogenes Designs Ltd. All rights reserved.

Tiny Titans volume 1: Welcome to the Treehouse


By Art Baltazar & Franco (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2207-5

The links between animated features and comicbooks are long established and I suspect, for young consumers, indistinguishable. After all, it’s just entertainment in the end…

For quite some time at the beginning of this century, DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was arguably the last bastion of children’s comics in America and worked to consolidate that link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and many other video favourites.

The kids’ comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of the publisher’s proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Krypto the Super Dog as well as material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely similar in tone and content.

Perhaps the line’s finest release was a series ostensibly aimed at early-readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily all mooshed up together, Tiny Titans became a sublime antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling (all together now: “erm, uh… I think you’ll find that in…”) by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans Go! animated series, the far greater boutique of the mainstream comicbooks – and eventually the entire DC Universe – to little kids and their parents/guardians in a wholesome kindergarten environment.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with multi-layered in-jokes, sight-gags and the beloved yet gently mocked trappings and paraphernalia generations of strip readers and screen-watchers can never forget….

Collecting issues #1-6 (April-September 2008) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this debut volume begins after an as-standard identifying roll-call page at ‘Sidekick City Elementary’ where new Principal Mr. Slade is revealed to be not only Deathstroke the Terminator but also poor Rose’s dad! How embarrassing…

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) mastered a witty, bemusingly gentle manner of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with the assorted characters getting by and trying to make sense of the great big world while having “Adventures in Awesomeness” like Beast Boy getting a new pet and becoming Man’s Dog’s Best Friend’

The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

Back in class Robin and Kid Flash tease a fellow student in ‘Speedy Quiz’ even as ‘Meanwhile in Titans Tower’ (the treehouse of the title) finds Wonder Girl, Bumblebee, Raven and Starfire discussing whether to let Batgirl Barbara Gordon join their circle…

Later they all meet up and help scary blob Plasmus cope with an ice cream crisis but shocks still abound at school. Raven’s dad is an antlered crimson devil from another universe but his most upsetting aspect is as the class’ new substitute teacher!

Happily, however, at the treehouse the kids can forget their worries, as Wonder Girl Cassie’s new casual look – after initial resistance – wins many admirers among the boys…

The original comics were filled with activity pages, puzzles and pin-ups, so ‘Help Best Boy Find his Puppy Friend!’ and awesome group-shot ‘Awwwww Yeah Titans!!!’, offers an artistic break before the shenanigans resume with ‘Ow’ as new girl Terra persists in throwing rocks at the boys but knows just how to make friends with the girls…

Not so much for the little lads though: they’ve got into another confrontation with mean kids Fearsome Five. Is the only way to determine who wins to keep ‘Just a-Swingin’’ and ignore those bullies…?

After teeny-weeny Little Teen Titan Kid Devil finds a delicious new way to use his heat power, Beast Boy becomes besotted by Terra in ‘Shadows of Love’, even though his obvious affection makes him act like an animal. While ‘Easy Bake Cyborg’ saves the day at snack time, the lovesick green kid follows some foolish advice and transforms into a ‘Beast Boy of Steel’,

At least Kid Devil is making friends by providing ‘Charbroiled Goodness’ for a local food vendor, just as the Fearsome Five show up again…

Following a pin-up of the bad kids and a brainteaser to ‘Match the Tiny Titans to their Action Accessories!’ a new school day finds science teacher Doctor Light losing control in ‘Zoology 101’ thanks to Beast Boy’s quick changes, after which ‘Sidekick’s Superheroes’ debate status and origins whilst Rose’s ‘Li’l Bro Jericho’ causes chaos and closes school for the day.

When Robin brings some pals home Alfred the Butler is reluctant to let them check out the ‘Batcave Action Playset’. He should have listened to his suspicions: that way there wouldn’t be so much mess or so many penguins…

After Aqualad’s suggestion ‘Let’s Play: Find Fluffy!’ the Boy Wonder has a strange day, starting with ‘Robin and the Robins’ and culminating in a new costume. Before that though, you can see ‘Beast Boy at the Dentist’, Wonder Girl enduring a ‘Babysittin’ Baby Makeover’, meet ‘Beast Boy’s Prize’ and experience hair gone wild in ‘Do the ‘Do’’.

Eventually, though, ‘It’s a Nightwing Thing’ revisits the exotic yesteryears of disco mania as Robin’s new outfit debuts to mixed reviews and reactions…

Once done testing your skill with the ‘Tiny Titans Match Game!’ and admiring a ‘Little Tiny Titans Bonus Pin-up’ there are big thrills in store when ‘Playground Invaders’ introduces annoying Titans from the East side of the communal games area…

Sadly, the Fearsome Five are still around to tease the former Robin in ‘Nightwing on Rye’ even whilst continuing epic ‘Enigma and Speedy’ sees the Boy Bowman trapped in a very one-sided battle of wits with the Riddler’s daughter…

Robin’s costume crisis continues to confuse in ‘May We Take a Bat-Message?’, resulting in a kid capitulation and ‘Back to Basics’ approach to the old look, after which ‘Tiny Titans Joke Time!’ and a ‘Tiny Titans East Bonus Pin-up’ segues neatly into ‘Meet Ya, Greet Ya’ with newcomers Supergirl and Blue Beetle turning up just ahead of a host of wannabee Titans (Power Boy, Zatara, Vulcan Jr., Hawk & Dove, Li’l Barda and Lagoon Boy)…

With the riotous regulars away camping, Raven opens her eyes to a potential daybreak disaster as ‘Home with the Trigons’ finds her dressed by her dad for a change. Meanwhile, ‘Let’s Do Lunch’ finds Blue Beetle losing a very public argument with his backpack and when the kids bring their super-animal pals in, it all goes horribly wrong. At least they decide that the “First Rule of Pet Club is: We Don’t Talk About Pet Club”…

This insanely addictive initial collection then wraps up with visual and word puzzles ‘How Many Beast Boy Alpacas Can You Count?’ and ‘Blue Beetle Backpack Language Translation!’, a huge and inclusive Pin-up of ‘The Tiny Titans of Sidekick City Elementary’ and a hilarious ‘Tiny Titans “Growth Chart”’

Despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts or The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in pure American comic-bookery – are outrageously unforgettable yarns and gags no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1


By Stan Sakai (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-671-6(HB)     978-1-61655-609-9(PB)      eISBN: 978-1-63008-081-5

Usagi Yojimbo (“rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in Stan Sakai’s The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, premiering amongst assorted furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk in 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #1. He then graduated to a solo act in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up series in Grimjack.

In 1955, when Sakai was two years old, the family moved from Kyoto, Japan to Hawaii. Growing up in a cross-cultural paradise he graduated from the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, before leaving the state to pursue further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California.

His early forays into comics were as a letterer – most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer and the Spider-Man newspaper strip – before his nimble pens and brushes found a way to express his passion for Japanese history, legend and the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, inspirationally transforming a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

Although the deliriously expansive period epic stars sentient animals and details the life of a peripatetic Lord-less Samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible through selling his sword as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire), the milieu and scenarios all scrupulously mirror the Feudal Edo Period of Japan (roughly 16th and 17th century AD by Western reckoning) whilst simultaneously referencing other cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi to Godzilla.

Miyamoto Usagi is brave, noble, industrious, honest, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering and conscientious: a rabbit devoted to the tenets of Bushido. He is utterly unable to turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice. As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into an unending panorama of incredible situations.

Despite changing publishers a few times, the Roaming Rabbit has been in continuous publication since 1987, with more than 30 collections and books to date. He has guest-starred in many other series (most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show.

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys. Author Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The title was as much a wanderer as its star, migrating from Fantagraphics to Mirage and finally Dark Horse where after publishing more than two dozen paperback collections, the canny business types have sagely opted to re-bundle their earlier efforts into hefty tomes offering three times the thrills. There are even digital editions for forward-looking fans of the vintage wonderment…

This guest-star stuffed premiere monochrome masterpiece draws together yarns released by Mirage Publishing as Usagi Yojimbo volume 2 #1-16 and Usagi Yojimbo volume 3 #1-6

Following a fulsome Foreword from former editor Jamie S. Rich, pictorial rundown of dramatis personae in ‘Cast of Characters’ and rousing strip recap ‘Origin Tale’, an evocative Introduction from legendary illustrator and Dean of dinosauria William Stout leads into the magnificent and ever-unfolding medieval mystery play…

It all begins with 3-part crossover epic ‘Shades of Green’ wherein Usagi and his crusty companion Gennosuké (an irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taking rhino with a heart of gold) are recruited by Kakera: a ratty shaman in dire need of protection from the dwindling remnants of the once-mighty Neko Ninja clan.

The former imperial favourites have fallen upon hard times since they and the Ronin Rabbit crushed the Dragon Bellow plot of rebel Lord Takamuro. Now, the bat assassins of the Komori Ninja clan are constantly harrying, harassing and actively trying to supplant them in patron Lord Hikiji’s service…

Chunin (deputy leader) Gunji believes the rodent wizard would make a mighty useful slave, and is scheming to overthrow the new – female – clan chief Chizu whilst acquiring him…

With the Neko’s trap closing around them all, the sagacious sensei summons the spirits of four fantastic fighters to aid Usagi and Gen. The phantoms promptly possess a quartet of little Kamé (tortoises) and are reshaped into adolescent amphibian Ninja Turtles, identifying themselves as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello.

Usagi has fought beside one of their number before…

The subsequent battles go badly and eventually Gunji’s forces make off with Kakera-sensei. As Usagi leads the remaining heroes in relentless pursuit, the conniving Chunin makes his move. Gunji’s attempt to assassinate Chizu is bloodily and efficiently ended by the late-arriving Usagi who is astounded to be told by the lady he has saved that the Neko’s lethal interest in him is now at an end…

With Kakera rescued and Gunji dead, the adventure closes with the turtle spirits returning to their own place and time, leaving Gen and Usagi to follow their own (temporarily) separate roads…

‘Jizo’ then offers a delightful and gripping interlude as a grieving mother dedicates a roadside shrine to her murdered child and mysterious Karma places the killers in the path of a certain justice-dispensing, long-eared wanderer…

Next comes a brace of stories offering elucidating glimpses of the rabbit’s boyhood. Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate sent to spend his formative years learning the Way of Bushido from a gruff and distant leonine hermit Katsuichi.

The stern sensei taught not just superior technique and tactics, but also an ironclad creed of justice and restraint which would serve the Ronin well throughout his turbulent life.

In ‘Usagi’s Garden’ the callow pupil rebels against the arduous and undignified task of growing food until the lion delivers a subtle but life changing lesson, whilst in ‘Autumn’ a painful fall propels the lad into a nightmare confrontation with a monster who has trapped the changing of the seasons in a bamboo cage…

‘Shi’ is a 2-part tale wherein Usagi comes to the assistance of a valley of poor farmers under constant attack by bullies and brigands seeking to make them leave their impoverished homes. The thugs are secretly employed by a local magistrate and his ruthless brother who have discovered gold under the peasants’ land and want to extract it without attracting the attention of the local Lord’s tax collectors.

When the Ronin’s formidable opposition stalls the brothers’ scheme they hire a quartet of assassins whose collective name means “death”, but the killers are far less trouble than the head farmer’s daughter Kimie who has never seen someone as glamorous or attractive as the soft-spoken samurai…

Although there are battles aplenty for Usagi, the remorseless greed of the brothers finishes them before the Yojimbo can…

A delightful silent comedy follows as ‘The Lizard’s Tale’ pantomimically depicts the Ronin playing unwilling Pied Piper and guardian to a wandering flock of tokagé lizards (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles that populate the anthropomorphic world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem). The rambunctious trouble-magnets then repay the favour when the wanderer is ambushed in the snow-drowned mountains by an army of vengeful bandits…

The 3-chapter fable ‘Battlefield’ then discloses a key moment and boyhood turning point in the trainee warrior’s life.

It begins when a mind-broken, fleeing soldier shatters the boy’s childish dreams of warrior glory. The fugitive is a survivor of the losing side in a mighty battle and his sorry state forces Usagi to rethink his preconceptions of war.

Eager to ram home the lesson, Katsuichi takes his student to the battlefield where peasants and scavengers are busy snatching up whatever they can from the scattered corpses…

Usagi is horrified. To take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, but even so, a little later he cannot stop himself picking up a fallen hero’s Wakizashi (short sword)…

However, after concealing the blade in safe place, the apprentice is haunted by visions of the unquiet corpse and sneaks off to return the stolen steel soul.

Caught by soldiers who think him a scavenger and looter and about to lose his thieving hands, little Miyamoto is only saved by the intervention of victorious Great Lord Mifunė. The noble looks into the boy’s face and sees something honest, honourable and perhaps, one day, useful…

Following an Introduction on ‘Classic Storytelling’ from writer James Robinson, the Ronin roaming resumes with ‘The Music of Heaven’ wherein Miyamoto and a wandering flock of tokagé lizards encounter a gentle, pious priest whose life is dedicated to peace, music and enlightenment…

When their paths cross again later, the rabbit is almost murdered by a ruthless assassin who has since killed and impersonated holy man Komuso in an attempt to catch Usagi off guard…

Evocative and movingly spiritual, this classic of casual tragedy perfectly displays the vast range of storytelling Sakai can pack into the most innocuous of tales.

More menaces from the wanderer’s past reconnect in ‘The Gambler, The Widow and the Ronin’ as a professional conman who fleeces villagers with rigged samurai duels plies his shabby trade in just another little hamlet.

Unfortunately, this one is home to his last stooge’s wife, and to make matters worse, whilst his latest hired killer Kedamono is attempting to take over the business, the long-eared nomad who so deftly dispatched his predecessor Shubo strolls into town looking for refreshments…

Again forced into a fight he doesn’t want, Miyamoto makes short work of the blustering Kedamono, leaving the smug gambler to safely flee with the entire take. Slurping back celebratory servings of Saké, the villain has no idea that the inn where he relaxes employs a vengeful widow and mother who knows just who really caused her man’s death…

A note of portentous foreboding informs ‘The Nature of the Viper’, opening a year previously when a boisterous, good-hearted fisherman pulled a body out of the river and nursed his amazingly still breathing catch slowly back to health. If he expected gratitude or mercy the peasant was sadly mistaken, as the victim explained whilst killing his benefactor as soon as he was able…

The ingrate is Jei: a veritable devil in mortal form, who believes himself a “Blade of the Gods”; singled out by the Lords of Heaven to kill the wicked. The maniac makes a convincing case: when he stalked Usagi the monster was struck by a fortuitous – or possibly divinely sent – lightning bolt but is still going strong and still keen to continue his quest for the Ronin…

‘Slavers’ then begins a particularly dark journey for our hero as Usagi stumbles across a boy in chains escaping from a bandit horde. Little Hiro explains how the ragtag rogues of wily “General” Fujii have captured an entire town and are making the inhabitants harvest all their crops for the scum to steal…

Resolved to save them the rabbit infiltrates the captive town as a mercenary seeking work, but is soon exposed and taken prisoner and ‘Slavers Part 2’ finds Miyamoto stoically enduring the General’s tortures until the boy he saved bravely returns the favour… after which the Yojimbo’s vengeance is awesome and terrible…

However even as the villagers rebel and take back their homes and property, chief bandit Fujii escapes, taking Usagi’s daishō (matched long and short swords) with him.

As previously seen, to take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, and the monster not only has them but continually dishonours them by slaughtering innocents as he flees the Ronin’s relentless pursuit.

‘Daisho – Part One’ opens with a hallowed sword-maker undertaking the holy methodical process of crafting blades and the harder task of selecting the right person to buy them. Three hundred years later, Usagi is on the brink of madness as he follows the bloody trail of Fujii, remorselessly picking off the General’s remaining killers whilst attempting to redeem those sacred dispensers of death…

The chase leads him to another town pillaged by Fujii where he almost refuses to aid a wounded man until one of the women accuses him of being no better than the beast he hunts…

Shocked back to his senses, Miyamoto saves the elder’s life and in gratitude the girl Hanako offers to lead him to where Fuji was heading…

‘Mongrels’ then changes tack as erstwhile ally and hard-to-love friend Gennosuké enters the picture. The irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taker is on the prowl for suitably profitable prospects when he meets the Stray Dog: his greatest rival in the unpopular profession of cop-for-hire.

After some posturing and double-dealing wherein each tries to edge out the other in the hunt for Fujii, they inevitably come to blows and are only stopped by the fortuitous intervention of the Rabbit Ronin…

‘Daisho – Part Two’ sees the irascible rugged individualists come to a shaky truce in their overweening hunger to tackle the General. Mistrustful of each other, they nevertheless cut a swathe of destruction through Fujii’s regrouped band, but even after the furious Usagi regains his honour swords there is one last betrayal in store…

Older, wiser and generally unharmed, Gen and Usagi part company again as ‘Runaways’ once more delves into the wanderer’s past. Stopping in a town he hasn’t visited in decades, the rabbit hears a name called out and his mind goes back to a time when he was a fresh young warrior in the service of Great Lord Mifunė.

Young princess Takani Kinuko had been promised as bride to trustworthy ally Lord Hirano and the rabbit had been a last-minute replacement as leader of the “babysitting” escort column to her impending nuptials.

When an overwhelming ambush destroyed the party, Usagi was forced to flee with the stuck-up brat, both masquerading as carefree, unencumbered peasants as he strove to bring her safely to her husband-to-be through a seeming army of ninjas killers.

The poignant reverie concludes in ‘Runaways – Part 2’ as valiant hero and spotless maid fell in love whilst fleeing from the pitiless, unrelenting marauders on their heels. Successful at last, their social positions naturally forced them apart once she was safely delivered.

Shaken from his memories the Ronin moves on, tragically unaware that he was not the only one recalling those moments and pondering what might have been…

Originally collected as The Brink of Life and Death, the evocative and enticing third tranche of torrid tales opens with ‘Discoveries’ – a heartfelt and enthusiastic Introduction from comics author Kurt Busiek – before more epic sagas of intrigue intermingle with brief vignettes attending to more plebeian dramas and even the occasional supernatural thriller, all tantalisingly tinged with astounding martial arts action and drenched in wit, irony, pathos and even true tragedy…

Far away from our nomadic star a portentous interlude occurs as a simple peasant and his granddaughter are attacked by bandits. The belligerent scum are about to compound extortion and murder with even more heinous crimes when a stranger with a ‘Black Soul’ stops them…

His is called Jei… and nothing good comes from even innocent association with the Blade of the Gods. Still keen to continue his crusade, the monster deals most emphatically with the criminals before “allowing” orphaned granddaughter Keiko to join him…

‘Kaisō’ then finds Miyamoto Usagi befriending a seaweed farmer who’s experiencing a spot of bother with his neighbours…

At peace with himself amongst hard-toiling peasants, Usagi becomes embroiled in their escalating battle with a village of rival seaweed sellers – previously regarded as helpful and friendly – and soon realises scurrilous merchant Yamanaka is fomenting discord and unrest between his suppliers to make extra profit…

‘A Meeting of Strangers’ in a roadside hostelry introduces a formidable female warrior to the constantly expanding cast as the Lepine Legend graciously offers a fellow weary mendicant the price of a drink. A professional informer then sells Usagi out to the still-smarting merchant Yamanaka and lethally capable Inazuma has ample opportunity to repay her slight debt to the Rabbit Ronin when he’s ambushed by an army of hired brigands…

Despite – or perhaps because – it is usually one of the funniest comics on the market, occasionally Usagi Yojimbo can brilliantly twist readers’ expectations with tales that rip your heart apart.

Such is the case with ‘Noodles’ wherein the nomadic Ronin meets again street performer, shady entertainer and charismatic pickpocket Kitsune. She has been plying all her antisocial trades in a new town just as eternally-wandering Usagi rolls up.

The little metropolis is in uproar at a plague of daring robberies and when the inept enforcers employed by Yoriki (Assistant Commander) Masuda try – and painfully fail – to arrest the long-eared stranger as a probable accomplice, the ferociously resistant Ronin earns the instant enmity of the pompous official.

Following the confrontation, a hulking, mute soba (buckwheat noodle) vendor begins to pester the still-annoyed rabbit and eventually reveals he’s carrying elegant escapologist Kitsune in his baskets…

Astounded, the Yojimbo renews his acquaintance with her before the affable thieves go on their way, but trouble and tragedy are just around the corner…

The town magistrate is leaning heavily on his Yoriki to end the crime wave but has no conception Masuda is actually in the pay of a vicious gang carrying out most of the thefts. What they all need is a convincing scapegoat to pin the blame on and poor dumb peasant Noodles is ideal – after all, he can’t even deny his guilt…

With a little sacrificed loot planted, the gentle giant becomes the perfect patsy and before Usagi and Kitsune even know he’s been taken, the simple fool has been tried and horrifically executed…

‘Noodles Part 2’ opens as the aggrieved heroes frantically dash for the public trial and almost immediate crucifixion but neither pickpocket nor bodyguard can do anything to save the innocent stooge. All they can do is swear to secure appropriate vengeance and a kind of justice…

In sober mien the rabbit roves on, stumbling into a house of horror and case of possession as ‘The Wrath of the Tangled Skein’ finds Usagi returning to a region plagued by demon-infested forests. Offered hospitality at a merchant’s house he subsequently saves the daughter from doom at the claws of a demonic Nue (tiger/fox/pig/snake devil).

He is, however, almost too late and only alerted to a double dose of danger when a Bonze (Buddhist Priest) arrives to exorcise the poor child… just like the cleric already praying over the afflicted waif upstairs…

This duel with the forces of hell leads into ‘The Bonze’s Story’ as Usagi strikes up a friendship with the true priest and learns how misfortune and devotion to honour compelled elite samurai Sanshobo to put aside weapons and war in search of greater truths and inner peace…

Political intrigue and explosive espionage return to the fore in ‘Bats, the Cat, & the Rabbit’ as Neko ninja chief Chizu re-enters Usagi’s life, fleeing a flight of rival Komori (bat) ninjas. The winged horrors are determined to possess a scroll containing the secrets of making gunpowder and, after a tremendous, extended struggle the exhausted she-cat cannot believe her rabbit companion is willing to simply hand it over. She soon shrugs it off.

After all the Komori have fallen into her trap and quickly regret testing the purloined formula…

The peripatetic Yojimbo then walks into a plot to murder Great Lord Miyagi involving infallible unseen assassin Kuroshi at ‘The Chrysanthemum Pass’. The valiant wanderer is simply aiding karma to a just outcome despite overwhelming odds and a most subtle opponent, the act will have appalling repercussions in the days ahead…

Hunted woman and deadly adept Inazuma then proves ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ when found – as always – at the heart of a storm of hired blades trying to kill her. However, during one peaceful moment, she makes time to share with a fellow swordsmaster the instructive tale of a dutiful daughter who married the wrong samurai and, by exacting rightful vengeance upon his killer, won the undying hatred of a powerful lord and set her own feet irredeemably upon the road of doom…

Also included to round out in this epic collection are copious ‘Story Notes by Stan Sakai’, a full-colour ‘Gallery’ of the covers from both comicbooks and their attendant paperback compilations, annotated ‘Cover Sketches’ and designs plus biographical data ‘About the Author’.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, informative and funny, the saga alternately bristles with tension and thrills and frequently crushes your heart with astounding tales of pride and tragedy, evil and duty.

Bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is the perfect comics epic: a monolithic magical irresistibly appealing saga to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened haters of “funny animal” stories.
Text and illustrations © 1993-1998, 2014 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved. Foreword © 2014 Jamie S. Rich. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles © 2014 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved. All other material and registered characters are © and™ their respective owners. Usagi Yojimbo and all other prominently featured characters are registered trademarks of Stan Sakai.

Spirou & Fantasio volume 12: Who Will Stop Cyanide?


By Tome & Janry translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-355-0

Spirou (which translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter under his nom-de-plume Rob-Vel. The inspirational invention came at the request of Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in direct response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin for competing outfit Casterman.

Not long after, soon-to-be legendary weekly comic Spirou launched (on April 21st 1938) with Rob-Vel’s red-headed rascal as the lead of the anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous star was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a wry reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique) whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually grew into high-flying, far-reaching and frequently surreal action-comedy dramas.

Spirou and his chums have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was assisted by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the property, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, gradually sidelining the long-established brief, complete gag-vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials, introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal the Marsupilami to the mix.

Franquin continued crafting increasingly fantastic Spirou sagas until his abrupt resignation in 1969, and his tenure is remembered for the wealth of weird and wonderful players and villains he added to the cast. As well as comrade, rival and co-star Fantasio or perennial exotic arch-enemies such as Zorglub and Fantasio’s unsavoury cousin Zantafio, a particular useful favourite was crackpot inventor and modern-day Merlin of mushroom mechanics Pacôme Hégésippe Adélard Ladislas, the Count of Champignac (and sly tribute to an immortal be-whiskered druid dubbed Getafix…)

Franquin was succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring yarns tapping into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times: tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

However, by the 1980s the series was looking a tad outdated and directionless. Three different creative teams then alternated on the feature, until it was at last revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde – writing as Tome – and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry, who adapted, referenced and in all the best ways returned to the beloved Franquin era.

Their sterling efforts began with the tale under review here and quickly revived the floundering feature’s fortunes. They contributed fourteen more wonderful albums to the canon between 1984 and 1998, and allowed the venerable strip to diversify into parallel strands (Spirou’s Childhood/Little Spirou and guest-creator specials A Spirou Story By…).

Tome & Janry were followed on the core feature by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera, and in 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of astounding escapades…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, alternating between Tome & Janry’s superb reinterpretations of Franquin and earlier triumphs by the great man himself. Who Will Stop Cyanide? is the twelfth English-language release and officially the cartoon crimebusters’ 35th collected collaborative caper; originally published continentally as Qui arrêtera Cyanure? in Spirou #2427-2448 in 1984 before being subsequently released as Tome & Janry’s third album a year later.

Funny, frenetically-paced and potently sinister when most appropriate, the tale leans heavily on science fiction paranoia and opens as photojournalist Fantasio tries to return a defective new camera. After some truly appalling customer service he is fobbed off with a bizarre bucket of bolts which seems to be a semi-sentient little robot that takes polaroid snaps…

The “screwball gizmo” is a mischief-maker with a mind of its own and finds a kindred spirit in Spirou’s pet squirrel Spip, but that doesn’t stop it making a cunning bid for freedom at the first opportunity. In hot pursuit, the adventuresome lads frantically trail the demented droid out to worryingly familiar territory: the far from peaceful hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks. However, this time it’s not the mushroom-mad Count who’s behind an increasingly nerve-wracking situation…

Following a stern warning from the harassed Mayor – already well-acquainted with the kind of chaos that follows in Spiro and Fantasio’s wake – the jaunty journalists find the little gizmo at the dilapidated railway station. A furtive search through dank back rooms soon exposes an horrific scene: a beautiful woman tied to a chair and hooded.

The outraged heroes free the distressed damsel and are immediately attacked; both by her and a number of ordinary mechanical objects suddenly imbued with terrifying, violent animation…

After the former captive explosively escapes, the stunned lads meet dowdy Stationmaster Catenaire and hear an incredible story…

The little man is something of an unsung scientific tinkerer and when railway cutbacks left him with time on his hands he started dabbling in robotics. Firstly, he built the little droid – dubbed “Telesphore” – but eventually, craving a more exotic and comforting companion, moved on to formulate a comely android for his personal use.

Sadly, the Marilyn Monroe doppelganger he crafted gained instant sentience and an abiding abhorrence for humankind.

Calling herself Cyanide she played vicious jokes on people and even attacked them. When she started possessing machinery, Catenaire was forced to shut her down. Now, thanks to the gallant impulses of Spirou and Fantasio, she’s free and determined to make all meat-things pay…

And so unfolds a splendidly compelling and frantic game of cat-&-mouse as the lads chase the wicked automaton and she – thanks to the recent unwelcome advent of a huge fully-automated factory in the village – unleashes an army of mechanical monstrosities to crush them before expanding her horizons to encompass the village and eventually the rest of humanity…

Fast-paced and exuberant, Who Will Stop Cyanide? is a funny, thrilling rollercoaster romp easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductively wholesome élan. Catch it if you can…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1985 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2017 © Cinebook Ltd.

Jiggs is Back


By George McManus (City Lights/Celtic Book Company)
ISBN: 978-0-91366-682-1

Variously entitled Maggie and Jiggs or Bringing Up Father, the comedic magnum opus of George McManus ranks as one of the best and most influential comic strips of all time: a brilliant blend of high satire and low wit that drapes the rags-to-riches American dream with the cautionary admonition to be careful of what you wish for…

Relatively recently this magnificent series was celebrated with a lavish hardcover collection reprinting the strip’s captivating beginnings (see George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips) but that book, wonderful though it is, only prints black and white daily episodes, whilst this colossal softcover from 1986 concentrates on the exceptionally beautiful Sunday colour pages – a perfect proving ground for the artist’s incredible imagination to run wild with slapstick set-pieces, innovative page design and a near-mystical eye for fashion and pattern.

McManus was born on January 23rd in either 1882 or 1883 and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper.

At thirteen George swept floors, ran errands and drew when ordered to. In an era before cheap, reliable photography, news stories were supplemented by drawn illustrations; usually of disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed he had attended 120 hangings (a national record!) but still found time to produce cartoons: honing his mordant wit and visual pacing. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. The young hopeful splurged his cash reserves but on his last day got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and, in 1904, his first big hit The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured him away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s papers, The Newlyweds became the Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and, at last, Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose sudden and vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and inexplicably comely and cultured daughter Nora constantly sought acceptance in “Polite” society.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora perpetually feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs – who only wanted to booze and schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage – would somehow shoot down their plans; usually with severe personal consequences.

Maggie might have risen in society but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father launched on January 12th 1913, originally appearing three times a week, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features, plus all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets.

McManus died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation – a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy, but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the foundation of the strip’s success.

Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are something everyone is prey to. However, the deciding factor and real magic at work here is an entrancing blend of slapstick, social commentary, sexual politics and flashy fashion, all cannily composted together and delivered by a man who lived and breathed comedy timing and could draw like an angel.

The incredibly clean simple lines and the superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and Jazz Age philosophy – especially proffered in full colour – make this book a stunning treat for the eye.

This glorious rainbow of mirth includes an introduction from Pulitzer-winning author William Kennedy and an incisive analytical commentary from comics historian Bill Blackbeard for those that need or desire a grounding for their reading, but of course what we all want is to revel in the 48 magnificent, full-page escapades; thoughtfully divided into palatable sections starting with ‘The Joys of Poverty’ from 1923, wherein the family suffered a reversal of fortune and became once more poor, but happy.

This is followed by ‘The Vacation’ (December 9th 1939 to July 7th 1940), a visually spectacular epic following the wealthy-once-more family – complete with new aristocratic English twit son-in-law – on a city-by-city tour of America, and ‘Maggie, Do You Remember When…’ (selected from the peak period of the feature between 1933 and 1942): a shamelessly sentimental and dryly witty occasional series of bucolic recollections of “the good old days” that produced some of the most heart-warming and inventive episodes in the series’ entire history…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional unwholesome visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip is a little hard to find but well worth the effort. Hopefully some sagacious entrepreneur will eventually get around to giving Bringing Up Father the deluxe reprint treatment it so deserves or at least creating a digital collection for modern-minded old-fashioned comedy mavens to relish and revel in.
© 1986 Celtic Book Company.

Bunny vs Monkey Book 4


By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-79-1

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The publishers would be crazy not to gather their greatest serial hits into a line of fabulously engaging album compilations, but they’re not so they do. The latest of these is a fourth fabulous paperback-bound bout of ongoing conflict gripping a once-chummy woodland waif and interloping, grandeur-hungry hairy-brained simian…

Concocted with feverishly gleeful inspiration by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!), Bunny vs. Monkey has been a Phoenix fixture from the first issue: recounting a madcap vendetta between animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia which masquerades as a more-or-less mundane English Wood.

Book Four boldly delves deep into the pasts of the uncanny assortment of odd critters littering and loitering around the bucolic paradise – and not before time – as the rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz are now well underway in building something called a motorway through the sylvan glades and apparently unprotected parks…

Sadly all the tail-biting tension does nothing to derail the ongoing but so-far localised war of wits and wonder-weapons which began when an obnoxious simian intruder popped up after a disastrous space shot went awry.

Having crash-landed in Crinkle Woods – a scant few miles from his blast-off site – Monkey believes himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite the continual efforts of reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative Bunny. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just cannot contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who is a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating troublemaker…

These collected volumes dispense disaster-drenched doses of daftness in six-month courses of ill-treatment and this book describes Year Two: July-December after another vivid Contents page and character catch-ups and score-cards, plus a double-page spread pinup…

The already fraught atmosphere of the forest gets another unnecessary shot of adrenaline as ‘A New Challenger Appears’ in the fuzzy form of The Maniacal Badger, resolutely challenging resident reprobate Skunky (a brilliant inventor with a bombastic line in animal-themed atrocity-weapons and a secret agenda of his own) for the title of top mad scientist, after which Monkey wrecks a playground but loses face once Bunny gets him to share a ‘See-Saw!’

Skunky horrifies blithering innocents Weenie Squirrel and Pig when his ‘Grav-O-Box’ sets the river running backwards but when co-conspirator Monkey ruins the test flight of his Hot Air Balloon Jet Engines and propels them ‘Around the Woods in 80 Seconds’ the malcontents themselves are the only ones to suffer…

Sinking into over-indulgence the simian stinker has to take drastic action after becoming a ‘Fat Monkey’ before stealing some building machinery from the Hyoomanz in ‘Monkey at Work’

Skunky upsets the balance of nature – and value of custard – after creating aberrant lifeform ‘The Wobbles!’ before every animal pulls together when a Hyooman wanders in and Bunny orders ‘Battle Stations’. Skunky then stupidly makes things so much worse by splicing Science to Nature and releasing ‘The Vines’

An annoying game of ‘Poink!’ drives everybody bonkers but welcome terror returns after the colossal ‘Monkeytron!’ rampages through the trees, just in time to greet rocket scientists searching for a test monkey they lost in the very first episode…

Pig’s origin is revealed in the cleverly obfuscatory (not!) ‘A Pig on the Range’ after which Park Ranger Derek P. Brigstocke has a close encounter with a net and ‘A Bear Bum!’ and irrepressible yet lonely cyber-crocodile ‘The Incredible Metal Steve’ undergoes a ferocious metal-morphosis even as ‘Bunny Vs. Monkey!’ finds our notional stars getting back to bruising basics in their never-ending struggle…

After a troop of Hyooman cub scouts fail to ‘Catch That Bunny’ Pig and Squirrel dig up ‘Worms’ and take the slimy earth-movers fishing, but not in any way you’ve seen before, whilst ‘Goodbye, Bunny’ finds our pacifist protagonist plunging deep into the distant city in search of his origins even as Pig becomes a dragon-slaying knight in ‘Arise, Lord Wuffywuff!’

…And none too soon as it happens, since with snow falling the Maniacal Badger returns to worry the woodland folk with ‘The Thing!’ he’d stolen from the Hyoomanz Building Site, prompting a desperate search for natural leader Bunny: a trail that takes them to a comfortable suburban hutch and ‘A Place Where You Belong’

Reunited with the Crinkle Woods critters, Bunny finds a time machine and – by accidentally visiting ‘Once Upon a Time’ – discovers the true secret of Skunky’s vast and evil intellect in an extra-long extravaganza which segues straight into the formation of sadly deficient superhero team the Rather Good Squad in ‘Choose Your Side!’

With Christmas fast approaching, festivities are briefly disrupted by marauding ‘Snow Meanies’ before the Builders try secretly bulldozing the Woods only to be stopped by Monkey, gleefully brain-battered, bewildered former stuntman Action Beaver and ‘The Real Santa!’

The madcap mayhem concludes with a portentous epilogue as ‘Door B’ opens to reveal the ultimate triumph of the ultimate villainous mastermind, but that’s…

To Be Continued

The absolute acme of absurdist adventure, Bunny Vs Monkey is well on the way to becoming a British Institution of weird wit, brilliant invention and superb cartooning: an utterly irresistible joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids…
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2017. All rights reserved.

Bunny Vs Monkey Book Three will be released on 6th July 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

Sleaze Castle: Directors Cut (Part #0)


By Dave McKinnon & Terry Wiley with various (Cosmic Ray Gun Incorporated/Markosia)
ISBN: 978-1-905692-93-4                  978-1-62098-068-2

I’m old, me. I’ve been around for a bit and met a few folks. So, as occurs when I’m reviewing something by people I’ve gone drinking with, I feel compelled to admit to potential conflicts of interest such as here.

The Society of Strip Illustrators/Comics Creators Guild used to meet on the last Thursday of every month in London. In highly refined and dignified surroundings old lags and aspiring talents rubbed scruffy, grimy, dandruffed – occasionally scrofulous – shoulders, talking comics old and new whilst showing off what we were up to.

Always a fun, laid-back evening, those occasions when the laconic Terry Wiley would turn up from Points North with copies of the latest self-published issue of Tales From Sleaze Castle were especially un-memorable: a combination of subsidised booze and the fact that most folks immediately buried their heads in the mesmerising, transcendentally British, trans-dimensional, time-busting kitchen sink comedy/drama/nostalgic fantasy buddy-movie of a comic and lost all power of speech until they’d finished…

It’s just that good – probably the very best home-grown comic saga you’ve never read – and it also holds strong claim to probably exploiting the very best and most appalling literary puns in all sequential narrative.

Scripted by the equally demi-mythical Dave McKinnon, the epic adventure is rendered pretty straightforward but also nearly indescribable. The story unfolds in a progression of mini-chapters and vignettes which act as diary and six-month countdown to an inescapable, predestined event…

After a rather bemused Introduction from author McKinnon, this edition of the monochrome masterpiece of wacky understatement starts with ‘Another Earth, Another Dimension, Another Reason to Go Shopping’ and a brace of ‘Prologues’ in which we meet incomprehensibly ancient Pandadomino Quartile, puissant albino Empress of another Realm of Reality and undisputed dominant resident of the incredible, infinite domicile dubbed Sleaze Castle.

Also brought to our attention are the thoroughly grounded though no less implausible Dribble family of Earth; mother Poppy, younger daughter Petra and her older sister Jocasta, befuddled student and co-star of our show…

As post-grad Jo returns to college in the astonishingly attractive if uncivilised Northern wilds of England and her ongoing M.A. in Televisual Studies, far away in soft, cosmopolitan London, the Queen (not ours, the other, alien one) goes shopping. It is ‘Sep. ’86: Castaway’ and there’s about to be a small hitch…

When the time/space door malfunctions Pandadomino is annoyingly stranded here. Establishing shaky communications with home she is assured that things will be fixed but it will take six months to retrieve her. Moreover, the portal will only appear in another location…

An incoming call then gives further details and instructions. It’s from herself who has literally just returned to Sleaze Castle and she has some advice for her younger, stranded self. It’s quite bizarre, paradoxical and tediously specific instructions on what to do for the next 178 days so she’d better get a pencil…

Jocasta Dribble is on ‘Autopilot 11:23’ as she makes her way from the railway station to her room in the Ethel Merman Hall of Residence at the University of Novocastria.

As usual the trip is fraught with wool-gathering and petty weirdnesses but eventually she slumps onto her term-time bed and makes the acquaintance of her new neighbour.

The oddly naive girl with the shock of black hair, exotic face and too much eye makeup is from Thailand.

Sandracall me PandaCastle has absolutely no idea about living in England so Jo takes her under her maternal wing, blithely oblivious that her new friend is an unwilling extraterrestrial immigrant, used to commanding vast armies and geniuses of various species, cunningly disguised with dyes and contact lenses. Moreover, the strange stranger has used all her wiles to cheat her way into the room next door which will, some months’ distant, very briefly become an inter-dimensional gateway before snapping shut forever…

And thus begins the gentle and seductively enchanting story of the growing relationship between two of the most well-realised women in comics. As geeky outsider Jo at last blossoms into a proper grown-up – she even finds a boyfriend, more than a decade after her precocious schoolgirl sister Petra – her instruction of the oddly sophisticated “Thai” into British civilisation and college life is simultaneously heart-warming, painful, hilarious, poignant and irresistibly addictive to watch.

It’s also deliciously inclusive and expansive: packed with what 21st century consumers apparently call “Easter Eggs”. These hidden nuggets of in-jokes, wry observations and oblique cultural and comics references are witty and funny enough in their own right, but if you were in any way part of the comics scene in the late 1980s they are also an instant key into golden times past, packed with outrageous guest-appearances by many of the upcoming stars and characters of the British cartooning and small press movement.

(Whilst the absolutely riveting scenes of Jo and Panda trying out both Novocastria’s Women Cartoonist Society and all-male Komik Klub are timeless slices of shtick to you lot, they were a solid reminder of times past and people I still owe Christmas cards to…)

Panda spends her first Christmas ever with the Dribbles and their ferociously Italian extended family but, as the days are counting down, the displaced millennia-old queen is beginning to wonder what will happen once she leaves…

Astoundingly there are people and places and things and people and one person in particularly who is apparently unique and irreplaceable even in the unending pan-cosmic Reality she owns. There’s this friend she’s really can’t bear to lose…

Beautifully scripted, alluringly paced and exquisitely rendered, this book would be paralysingly evocative for any Brit who went to college between 1975 and 1990, but what makes it all so astonishingly good is the fact that this delightful melange of all the things that contributed to our unique culture are effortlessly smooshed together as mere background for a captivating tale of two outsiders finding friendship through adversity and by perpetually lying to each other…

There have been comparisons to Los Bros Hernandez’ Love and Rockets but they’re superficial and unfair to both. I will say though that both are uniquely the product of their own time and regional geography…

This collection also includes a cover gallery and pin-ups as well as the additional plus of ‘And Finally… Three Lost Tales’ which features an aspect of the business I really miss.

A few of the self-publishing community cameoed in the Women Cartoonist Society and elsewhere – in a spirit of communal tit-for-tat – collaborated on side-bar stories featuring Panda, Jo and the rest during the comic’s initial run. With commentary from McKinnon they are happily re-presented here, so even after the cliffhanger story-pause you can still have a laugh with ‘The Rules of the Game part I’ by Lee Kennedy, ‘The Rules of the Game part II’ by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and what I’ll call ‘An Idea in a Book is Worth Two in the Head’ by Jeremy Dennis.

You’ll need to buy this book to realise why…

Made even better by a gallery of gripping covers, calendar art and more, this a superb collation by lovers of comics for lovers of comics, and now that I’ve read this brand-new e-Edition with its remastered pages and fresh snippets of original material I’m going to forgo re-reading the next three volumes in those well-worn Gratuitous Bunny Editions I bought years ago in favour of these safely unwrinkled-able, spunkily perky digital tomes too.

And if you have your own temporal retrieval system or a computer and a credit card – you can do likewise…
Sleaze Castle is ™ & © 1992, 2012 Dave McKinnon & Terry Wiley. This edition ™ & © Dave McKinnon, Terry Wiley and Markosia Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved. Three Lost Tales © 1996, 2012 Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Lee Kennedy and Jeremy Day.

The Perishers Omnibus volume 1


By Maurice Dodd & Dennis Collins (Daily Mirror Books)
ISBN: 0-85939-031-4

Although written almost entirely by Maurice Dodd throughout its 48-year history, the National Treasure that is (are? am?) The Perishers was actually created in 1957 by artist Dennis Collins, writer Bill Witham (who went on to huge success with uniquely innocent everyman Useless Eustace) and cartoon editor Bill Herbert.

The daily tribulations, ruminations, exploits and misadventures of a bunch of typical kids (for the latter half of the 20th century at least) was first published in the Manchester edition of the Daily Mirror in February 1958. but after only a couple of frankly mediocre months the wacky adventures of Maisie and Marlon were withdrawn and retooled.

Jack-of-all-trades, budding artist and advertising whiz-kid Dodd was then approached by ex-paratrooper service comrade and drinking buddy Herbert. The freelance designer jumped at the chance to reinvent the characters in what was a meandering but beautifully illustrated, all-ages feature simply stuffed with untapped potential.

Drawing on his own life (he would describe it as shamelessly pilfering), Dodd created a plethora of new characters, animal and human – although with this strip the distinctions are loose and hard to defend – and rescued an early 1958 casualty in the unkempt and ill-maintained person of laconic orphan and philosophical dilettante Wellington.

This bewildered and anxious symbol of the post-war era was a street urchin who lived on his wits but still attended school and endured all the daily trials and indignities of British youth.

Relaunched in October 1959 in the London and national editions, the revamped Perishers strip quickly caught on and became a morning mainstay for generations of Britons, blending slapstick and surreal comedy with naive charm, miniaturised modern romantic melodramas (Maisie loves Marlon, Marlon loves fashion and “inventing”, and Wellington loves sausages), liberally laced with sardonic cultural commentary – especially a continuing and wonderfully twisted faux misperception of contemporary politics and the burgeoning advertising and commercial media.

Even in its earliest days the strip was superbly illustrated, conjuring up in a few judicious lines and cannily applied grey tones a communal urban wonderland we all knew as kids: a familiar post-war wonderland of shops and streets, building sites and overpasses, alleys and parks and fields where we could get on with our adventures and no adults could interfere or spoil the fun. The unsavoury old git in me still hungers in absentia on behalf of the youth of today who will never experience such freedom without being labelled “neglected” …or possibly “feral”.

The major protagonists of the series are Wellington and Boot, his old English Sheepdog (sort of: the wily, hairy chancer and raconteur considers himself a Manorial Milord “sufferin’ under the curse of a Gypsy wench”). They are ably unsupported by the formidable Maisie, a thoroughly modern miss torn between her self-delusion (for the utterly non-existent) boy of her dreams); sweets, an unsurpassed capacity for greed and unrelenting violence and a tremendous unslaked passion the aforementioned Marlon, who she thinks is what she wants.

Cool, suave and debonair are just three of the many, many words Marlon doesn’t know the meaning of, but lots of the girls at school fancy him anyway. If he grows up he wants to be a brain surgeon or a bloke wot goes down sewers in great big gumboots…

Being on his own, Wellington takes every opportunity to support himself with sordid scavenging and shoddy schemes – usually involving selling poorly constructed carts and buggies to Marlon who has far more money than sense: to be honest Marlon has more noses than sense…

Maisie is a shy beautiful maiden waiting for her true beloved to sweep her off her feet – and if he doesn’t, she gives him a thorough bashing up and nicks his sweets…

Other unreasonable regulars introduced here include Baby Grumplin’ – Maisie’s toddler brother and a diabolical force of nature, Plain Jane – a girl who asks too many questions, and the dapper Fiscal Yere: smugly complacent go-getting son of a millionaire and another occasional sucker for Wellington’s automotive inexpertise. Kids like him are what made today’s world what it is…

On the anthropomorphic animal front the extremely erudite Boot regularly encounters stroppy ducks, militant squirrels, socialist revolutionaries Fred the Beetle and his long-suffering wife Ethel, Asiatic bloodhound journalist B.H. Calcutta (Failed) and, latterly, a nicotine-addicted caterpillar who stunted his growth and became Fred’s inseparable comrade in the struggle against canine oppression. The little Trot is also an implacable rival for any food or dog-ends the Bolshevistic bug might find…

Notable events in this madcap melange include: Wellington gentrifying out of the large concrete pipe that he used to live in to take up residence in an old railway station abandoned after the Beeching Cuts decimated the train infrastructure, and the first couple of kids-only, unaccompanied camping holidays to the seaside (such innocent times).

Here they encounter sun, surf and the rock-pool crabs who worship the uncannily canine “Eyeballs in the Sky” which annually manifest in their isolated “Pooliverse”…

Utterly English, fabulously fantastical and resoundingly working-class, the strip generated 30 collections between 1963-1990, 4 Big Little Books, 5 novels and 2 annuals as well as an audio record and an immensely successful animated TV series.

The tome under review here was released in 1974; the first of a series of extra-sized recapitulations, and containing most of the contents of the first four Perishers collections (covering 1959-1965). It superbly sets the scene for newcomers with a glorious extravaganza of enchanting fun and frolics, liberally annotated by Dodd himself.

Dennis Collins magnificently and hilariously illustrated the feature until his retirement in 1983, after which Dodd himself took up the pens and brushes.

Eventually artist Bill Melvin took over the art chores whilst Dodd scripted until his death in 2006. Once the backlog of material was exhausted The Perishers finished on June 10th 2006.

Soon after, The Mirror began reprinting classic sequences of the strip to the general approval of everyone, so perhaps it’s not too much to hope that eventually – or even SOON – all the classic collections will once more be freshly available to one and all – even if it’s only on that new-fangled, never-gonna-last interwebtoobs…

Quite frankly, it’s what we need and what I deserve…
© 1974 IPC Newspapers Limited.

Cedric volume 5


By Laudec & Cauvin with colours by Leonardo; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-253-9

Raoul Cauvin is one of Europe’s most successful comics scripters. Born in Antoing, Belgium in 1938, by 1960 he was working in the animation department of publishing giant Dupuis after studying the print production technique of Lithography.

Happily, he quickly discovered his true calling was writing funny stories and began a glittering, prolific career at Spirou.

While there he concocted (with Salvérius) the astoundingly successful Comedy-Western Bluecoats plus as dozens of other long-running, award-winning series such as Sammy, Les Femmes en Blanc, Boulouloum et Guiliguili, Cupidon, Pauvre Lampil and Agent 212: cumulatively shifting more than 240 separate albums.

Bluecoats alone has achieved sales well north of 15 million copies thus far…

His collaborator on this superbly sharp and witty kid-friendly family strip Cédric is Italian born, Belgium-raised Tony de Luca, who studied electro-mechanics and toiled as an industrial draughtsman until he could make his own break into bandes dessinée.

Following a few fanzine efforts in the late 1970s, Laudec landed soap-style series Les Contes de Curé-la-Fl’ûte at Spirou in 1979. He built that into a brace of extended war-time serials (L’an 40 in 1983 and Marché Noir et Bottes à Clous in 1985) whilst working his way around many of the comic’s other regular strips.

In 1987, he united with Cauvin on the first Cédric shorts and from then on it was all child’s play…

We have Dennis the Menace (the Americans have their own too but he’s not the same) whilst the French-speaking world has Cédric: an adorable, lovesick rapscallion with a heart of gold and an irresistible penchant for mischief.

Collected albums (29 so far) of variable-length strips – ranging from a ½ page to half a dozen – began appearing in 1989 and are always amongst the most popular and best-selling in Europe, as is the animated TV show spun off from the strip.

…A little Word to the Wise: this is not a strip afraid to suspend the yoks in favour of a little suspense or near-heartbreak. Cedric is almost-fatally smitten with Chen: a Chinese girl newly arrived in his class yet so very far out of his league, leading to frequent and painful confrontations and miscommunications.

Whilst the advice given by his lonely widowed grandpa is seldom of any practical use it can pick open scabs from the elder’s long, happy but now concluded marriage which will reduce any normal human to tears…

This fifth Cinebook translation – from 2015 although first continentally released in 1994 as Cédric 7: Pépé se mouille – opens with ‘Democratic Debate’ as election fever sweeps the classroom after Miss Nelly tells her kids to choose a Representative for the school council. Of course, passions soon run high and dirty tricks start to replace reasoned argument…

‘A Fertile Imagination’ and an Oscar-winning performance allow the little rascal to skate on a very bad report card before the kid proves a very ‘Difficult Patient’ after coming off his board. At least that is until Chen comes to visit and sees him sans trousers…

‘Snowed In…’ explores how simple snowball fights can escalate into something quite earthshattering whilst ‘Make it Look Real…’ extends the ice-capades when the kids “borrow” Grandpa’s clothes for a snowman…

Cedric finds himself ‘In Hot Water’ when he can’t stop interfering in Chen’s first swimming lesson and still causing grief by ‘Dyeing With Laughter’ when Grandpa decides to get rid of his grey hair, after which ‘It’s a Fare Cop…’ sees Cedric and best bud Christian try to avoid a scouting hike by hitchhiking…

Christian’s umbrella almost causes a riot on a wet school morning, leaving Cedric ‘Fuming in the Rain…’ before Grandpa delights in a little family revenge when the young master gets a ‘Slick Cut…’ from the hairdresser, but still comes to the rescue when ‘The Apple of Their Eye…’ goes missing…

The old geezer’s dreams of skateboard glory come closer to fruition after a series of unfortunate circumstance result in a ‘Slam Dunk…’ in the park.

When a relative has her beloved pet stuffed, Cedric gets strange ideas about Grandpa in ‘Straw Man…’ after which a calamitous contretemps ensues after Chen becomes the latest victim of Cedric’s bullying ‘Cousin From Hell…’

Yolanda – AKA Yeti – is spoiled, nasty and just a bit racist, but ultimately no match for the quick-thinking, razor-tongued Chinese girl of Cedric’s dreams, after which a ‘Stormy Night…’ leads to sleeplessness and unnecessary inundation before father and son endure the ‘Exposed Nerve!’ of a joint dental check-up…

The mirthful moments wrap up with a smart salvo of telling sentiment when neglected Grandpa wants to share a trip down ‘Memory Lane…’ with his descendants and a box of faded photographs…

Sharp, rapid-paced, warmly witty yet unafraid to explore isolation or loss, the exploits of this painfully keen, beguilingly besotted rapscallion are a charming example of how all little boys are just the same and infinitely unique. Cedric is a superb family strip perfect for youngsters of every vintage…

© Dupuis 1994 by Cauvin & Laudec. All rights reserved. English translation © 2015 Cinebook Ltd.

Billy and Buddy volume 5: Clowning Around


By Verron, Veys, Corbeyran, Chric & Cucuel; coloured by Anne-Marie Ducasse and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-200-3

Known as Boule et Bill in Europe (at least in the French speaking bits, that is; the Dutch and Flemish call them Bollie en Billie), this evergreen, immensely popular cartoon saga of a dog and his boy debuted in the Christmas 1959 edition of Spirou.

The perennial fan-favourite resulted from Belgian writer-artist Jean Roba (Spirou et Fantasio, La Ribambelle) putting his head together with Maurice Rosy – the magazine’s Artistic Director and Ideas Man who had also ghosted art and/or scripts on Jerry Spring, Tif et Tondu, Bobo and Attila during a decades-long, astoundingly productive career at the legendary periodical.

Intended as a European answer to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Boule et Bill quickly went its own way and developed a unique style and personality, becoming Rosa’s main occupation for the next 45 years.

Roba launched Boule et Bill as a mini-récit (a 32-page, half-sized freebie insert) in the December 24th 1959 Spirou. Like Dennis the Menace in The Beano, the strip was a big hit from the start and for 25 years held the coveted and prestigious back-cover spot. Older British fans might also recognise the art as early episodes – (coincidentally) retitled It’s a Dog’s Life – ran in Fleetway’s legendary anthology weekly Valiant from 1961 to 1965…

A cornerstone of European life, the strip generated a live-action movie, animated TV series, computer games, permanent art exhibitions, sculptures and even postage stamps. Like some select immortal Belgian comics stars, Bollie en Billie have been awarded a commemorative plaque and have a street named after them in Brussels….

Large format album editions began immediately, totalling 21 volumes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These were completely redesigned and re-released in the 1980s, supplemented by a range of early-reader books for toddlers. Collections are available in 14 languages, selling in excess of 25 million copies of the 32 albums to date.

Roba crafted more than a thousand pages of gag-strips in a beguiling, idealised domestic comedy setting, all about a little lad and his exceedingly smart Cocker Spaniel before eventually surrendering the art chores to his long-term assistant Laurent Verron in 2003.

The successor subsequently took over the scripting too, upon Roba’s death in 2006. This edition is the first Cinebook translation to feature the series as crafted by “Veron” and his team of gag-writers Veys, Corbeyran, Chric & Cucuel

As Billy and Buddy, the strip returned to British eyes in enticing Cinebook compilations from 2009 onwards: introducing to 21st century readers an endearingly bucolic late 20th century, sitcom-styled nuclear family set-up consisting of one bemused, long-suffering and short-tempered dad, a warmly compassionate but painfully flighty mum, a smart, mischievous son and a genius dog who has a penchant for finding bones, puddles and trouble…

Originally released in 2003, Quel cirque! was the 29th European collection, and the first completed by Verron and his team, but it admirably continues in the approved manner: further exploring the timeless and evergreen relationship of a dog and his boy (and tortoise) for our delight and delectation. There are a few more mod-cons and a bigger role for girls such as skipping sharpie Juliet but, in essence, nothing has changed…

Delivered as a series of stand-alone rapid-fire gags, quips and jests, the socialisation and behaviour of little Billy is measured by carefree romps with four-footed friend Buddy: indulging in spats with pals, dodging baths, hunting and hoarding bones, outwitting butchers, putting cats and school friends in their place, misunderstanding adults, causing accidents and costing money; with both kid and mutt equally adept at all of the above.

Buddy is the perfect pet for an imaginative and playful boy, although the manipulative mutt is overly fond of purloined food and ferociously protective of boy and bones and his ball.

The pesky pooch also cannot understand why everyone wants to constantly plunge him into foul-tasting soapy water, but it’s just a sacrifice he’s prepared to make to be with Billy…

Buddy also has a fondly platonic relationship with tortoise Caroline (although this autumnal and winter-themed compilation finds her again largely absent through hibernation pressures) and a suspicious knack for clearing off whenever Dad has one of his explosive emotional meltdowns over the cost of canine treats, repair bills or the Boss’ latest impositions.

As well as shorter skirts and more modern toys the majority of this tome involves even more successful raids against the family fridge and local butchers’ shops, a marked improvement in successful bath attempts and the rather foolish addition of a doggy door. Sentimental burglars regularly fall for the dog’s cunning wiles and mum persists in trying to civilise her man, her son and that mutt, and of course enemy neighbour Madame Stick and her evil cat Corporal are always on hand to provide effective opposition…

One big revelation is that Buddy understands sign language – although how he learned is a shock – and when romance is in the air both boy and dog are similarly smitten and we discover that tortoises are not immune to the barbs of jealousy…

Despite the master’s passing his legacy is in safe hands. The strips remain genially paced and filled with wry wit and potent sentiment: enchantingly funny episodes which run the gamut from heart-warming to hilarious, silly to surreal and thrilling to just plain daft: a charming tribute to and lasting argument for a child for every pet and vice versa.

This is another supremely engaging family-oriented compendium of cool and clever comics no one keen on introducing youngsters to the medium should be without.
Original edition © Studio Boule & Bill 2003 by Verron in the style of Roba. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.