Asterix and the Chariot Race

By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, colored by Thierry Mébarki and translated by Adriana Hunter (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-5101-0401-3 (HB)                    eISBN: 978-1-5101-0402-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Celebrate the Season in Classical Style… 9/10

Asterix debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years dissemination as weekly serials (subsequently collected into book-length compilations), in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – was the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation.

Thereafter each new tome became an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees. The eager anxiety hasn’t diminished any even now that Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) have taken up the creative role since his retirement in 2009.

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older-if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns are just as engrossing as the established canon.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics take place in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the alternating rest are set in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 BC, a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resist every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be properly pacified. The otherwise dominant overlords, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the irksome Gauls come and go as they please.

Thus, a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by uncaringly going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Astérix et la Transitalique was released on October 17th 2017, and simultaneously or soon after hurtled off the shelves of many nations as Asterix and the Chariot Race – or whatever the local language equivalent of the many nations addicted to these epics might be…

This time the narrative horsepower comes from sport, and as always there is a healthy helping of satirical lampooning of current affairs, administrative, political and regional and nationalistic…

Before this away game eventually takes in all of Italy it opens bombastically in the Roman Senate where shifty political chancer Lactus Bifidus is fiercely challenged about the appalling state of the Empire’s roads. Yes, they all still lead to Rome, but their maintenance is a major issue riddled with potholes that are a public disgrace and hazard to safe navigation…

Roused from a sneaky slumber and thinking too fast, the overly-defensive corrupt bureaucrat instantly declares a grand chariot race to span all of Italy and thereby prove the perfection of the byways under his management.

His big mistake is publicly declaring his magnificent trans-Italian rally open to “all the peoples of the known world”…

As a seething Julius Caesar is quick to point out in private, a competition spanning the entire Italic Peninsula is liable to stir up subject races and even other Italian cities if it’s won by anyone but a purebred Roman Citizen.

The Emperors then advises Lactus that it’s now the Senator’s sole responsibility to guarantee no barbarian crosses the finish line first…

In Gaul, the residents of a certain indomitable village are rowdily enjoying themselves at a huge market festival. Amidst the tooth pullers, weapons-sellers, fortune tellers and other vendors, one canny salesman spies an easy mark and lumbers gullible giant Obelix with a flashy racing chariot.

The superhuman simpleton’s friends soon cease their good-natured teasing at his foolish purchase after the announcement of the great Trans-Italic Race is read out and Chief Vitalstatistix agrees that it would be nice to bother the Romans on their own turf for a change…

Soon Asterix, Obelix and canine companion Dogmatix are off on those bumpy deplorable roads and heading for the border. From Modica they will pit themselves against a horde of teams hungry for victory as they chase down to the “boot of Italy” to the finish line at Neapolis under the grumbling fire mountain Vesuvius…

Most of their competitors seem decent enough folk, but amongst the racers from Breton, Lusitania, Kush, Liguria, Calabria and other desolate points of the Empire, Asterix notes a few teams to watch closely: the devious Cimbri, the rowdy Normans and Sarmatians but most especially the Roman squad and their always-masked, unbeaten charioteer Coronavirus…

There’s something not quite right about him…

And then, with wealthy sponsors Lupus Garum (the Fermented Fish-gut Sauce of Champions!) adjudicating every stage of the contest the valiant Aurigae (you know that means charioteers, right?) are off!

Spoofing sporting corruption, the ephemeral venalities of corporate sponsorship and the sordid power of petty nationalism, this rocket-paced rollercoaster ride is awash with sneaky plots, dirty tricks and rapid switches of allegiance; providing plenty of thrills and spills to garnish the madcap chase to the finish line, and even incorporates spacious room for plenty of twists, turns and deliciously doled-out just deserts.

With Asterix and Obelix at their most disingenuously heroic and charming, this unbeatable Race of the Century is furiously funny and hilariously jam-packed with and timeless jibes and cracking contemporary swipes, plus an enchanting double-surprise ending. Asterix and the Chariot Race is a sure win and another triumphant addition to the mythic canon for laugh-seekers in general and all devotees of comics.
© 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.

Betsy and Me

By Jack Cole & Dwight Parks (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-156097-878-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classic Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as The Comet, Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest contribution and lasting creation was zany Malleable Marvel Plastic Man who (with indispensable sidekick/gadfly Woozy Winks) quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me which began publication on Monday May 26th. Something about reaching the cartoonist’s Promised Land clearly did not meet with the infamously private Cole’s expectations and, on August 13th 1958, at the peak of his prowess and success, he took his own life.

The reasons – although highly speculated upon ever since – remain unknown.

The strip was handed to commercial cartoonist Dwight Parks who continued it until the editorial decision was made to end it. The last daily was published on Saturday, December 27th.

That great loss to the future of the industry and artform has for years clouded a greater truth: whatever his demons, Jack Cole was a master of comedy and narrative art in all its forms and Betsy and Me was, in its own niche, every bit as great as his glamour illustration and comicbook endeavours.

This mostly monochrome paperback – also available digitally – collects those long-lost newspaper efforts in a welcoming package which begins with the captivating solicitation page designed to entice new papers to buy the strip.

Then biography, history, context and analysis come courtesy of historian R. C. Harvey’s introductory essay ‘The Last of Jack Cole: His Life and Art and Why They Both Ended with Betsy and Me’. The heavily illustrated article also offers possible insights into Cole’s motivations, state of mind and possible reasons for suicide, before this superb collection of what should have been Cole’s greatest legacy opens…

Utilising a stripped-down minimalist style that was the astute acme of its time, this domestic comedy is recounted as a fireside tale by homely working stiff Chester B. Tibbit. He recalls and reminisces with unseen readers who daily learn of his romancing of and marriage to Betsy, his downtrodden life as a floorwalker at the Meyers department store and plodding climb up the ladder of middle class aspiration.

The move from apartment to house, the trepidatious purchase of consumer benchmarks such as white goods and even an automobile (in the most generous sense of the term), and the inevitable addition of a child are all gradually covered in a manner most wry and deliciously sardonic. All the laughs stem from an old cartoonist’s trick: the rose-tinted self-deluding narrative says one thing whilst the pictures tell the grim sordid truth, even when Chester can’t see it himself…

His admired and adored bosses are bullying martinets, his friends are shallow, fair-weather self-servers, Betsy isn’t a quiet, obedient little woman and his son is…

Well, the truth is that infant Farley actually is a genius: rude, brusque, impatient and utterly beyond the intellectual capabilities of his terrified, long-suffering parents. Even from his earliest moments in the crib the kid is the smartest one in the house – and that includes financially and emotionally…

The strips follow the traditional developmental path of courtship, marriage, home-making and child-rearing but always Cole’s needle-sharp social observations and uncontrollable whimsy are seditiously at work. At Meyers’ the infant blackmails his father’s superiors so they stop picking on the little nebbish and when Farley starts school he organises a student revolt…

The toddler even masters judo to protect his bewildered guardians from marauding criminals and spars continually with mooching, predatory Gus, a confirmed bachelor always hanging around Betsy with attentions that are clear to everyone but Chester…

Over the course of the summer of 1958 Betsy and Me steadily grew in quality, scope and popularity. When Cole died on August 13th he had submitted strips for a full month ahead. His last daily ran on September 7th and the final Sunday on September 21st.

Dwight Parks took over and whereas the pared-down artistic style remained, the uneasy edgy satire was lost in favour of more comfortable themes such as the new house being a broken-down money pit, interfering neighbours, kindergarten woes, dieting and “keeping up with the Joneses”: the stuff of TV sitcoms such as I Love Lucy

Critics have debated ever since Cole’s passing about whether, given time, Betsy and Me (or even a successor strip) would have cemented the brilliant raconteur as a master of all forms of graphic narrative or whether he had finally overreached himself. We’ll never know, but at least you can read what remains and judge for yourself.

And you really should.
© 2007 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2007 R. C. Harvey.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 13: Z is for Zorglub

By André Franquin, with Jidéhem & Greg, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-362-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterful Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Spirou (which translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter using his pen-name Rob-Vel for Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in direct response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin over at rival outfit Casterman.

Soon-to-be legendary weekly comic Spirou launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as lead feature in an anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous young hero was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed in the Moustique Hotel – a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique – whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually evolved into high-flying, far-reaching and surreal 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 ditching the well-seasoned short gag vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials. He also expanded the cast, introducing a broad band of engaging regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal Marsupilami to the mix.

First seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952, the elastic-tailed anthropoid eventually spun-off into his own strip series; becoming also a star of screen, plush-toy store, console games and albums. Franquin continued concocting increasingly fantastic tales and spellbinding Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969.

He was followed by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring adventures which tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times: offering tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction: three different creative teams alternated on the feature, until it was overhauled and revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde (writing as Tome) and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry, who adapted, referenced and in many ways returned to the beloved Franquin era.

Their sterling efforts revived the floundering feature’s fortunes and resulted in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998. As the strip diversified into parallel strands (Spirou’s Childhood/Little Spirou and guest-creator specials A Spirou Story By…) the team on the core feature were succeeded by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera. In 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of amazing adventures…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, alternating between Tome & Janry’s superb reinterpretations of Franquin and earlier efforts from the great man himself.

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, he only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. There he met Maurice de Bévère (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 – with the exception of Peyo – they all signed on with Dupuis and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator; producing covers for Le Moustique and Scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

In those early days Franquin and Morris were tutored by Jijé – the chief illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a smooth creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”.

They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The new guy ran with it for two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as staunch comrade and rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac

Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to dangerously exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Fantasio’s rascally cousin Zantafio and the star of this particular tale, the maddest of scientists Zorglub.

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio over the years.

In 1955 contractual conflicts with Dupuis droved Franquin to sign up with rival outfit Casterman for Tintin magazine. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Although Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou – subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 (and Cinebook’s latest translated comedy star under the oddly inelegant title of Gomer Goof – and coming soon to a review near you!) Franquin was now contractually obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959 on, co-writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem increasingly assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his limit and resigned.

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to upon his departure – is Marsupilami.

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997. His legacy remains; a vast body of work which reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Z comme Zorglub was originally serialised in Spirou #1096-1136 between 1959-1960 before being released on the continent in 1961 as the 15th hardcover album.

This outrageous Bond Movie-flavoured sci fi rollercoaster ride begins as an oddly oblivious but extremely sturdy gentleman determinedly delivers a package to the home of our heroes. It looks like a hairdryer, but when vainglorious Fantasio tries it on his own unruly locks, the device plunges him into a coma.

In a panic, Spirou dashes for help and misses the next stage: a mind-controlled Fantasio leaving the house and getting into a remote-controlled car…

It isn’t very well remote-controlled however, and after a calamitous chase through the city crashes into a shop. A little later, baffled, angry and with a badly mangled foot, Fantasio angrily discharges himself from hospital, swearing vengeance on he knows not whom, but the hidden mastermind has not yet finished with the dauntless duo…

Spirou is the next and more successful victim of the mind-warping mystery villain, and the plan quickly becomes clearer: the evil predator is called Zorglub and he doesn’t care about the journalists. He’s simply using the adventurers to get at their inspirational acquaintance: mushroom-mad boffin Count Champignac…

When informed of the situation the sagacious tinkerer is not surprised, he remembers what Zorglub was like when they were at school together…

The enormity of the plot soon becomes clear when megalomaniacal Zorglub confronts his old chum at his mushroom-laden chateau in the generally placid hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks. The wicked mastermind has conceived a grand plan. He will conquer Earth and dominate the solar system but first he requires just a little technical assistance from the Count.

Zorglub cannot believe or accept Champignac’s unflinching refusal…

And thus begins an escalating duel of intellects and war of nerves and inventions as the smug madman tries ploy after ploy to force the Count’s compliance: capturing Fantasio, turning the Champignac-in-the-Sticks citizens into a rampaging mob hungry for blood and even creating an army of mind-warped “zorglmen” to pilot his incredible war machines against the Count and his doughty defenders…

The maniac is, however, caught completely off guard when Spirou, Spip and the Marsupilami enact a bold and rather rash counter offensive with Champignac, just as Zorglub triggers his grand plan and sends his fleet of rockets hurtling towards the Moon!

The end is a sudden, shocking, twist-laden comeuppance but the good guys have not seen the last of Zorglub…

Fast-paced, compellingly convoluted and perfectly blending helter-skelter excitement with keen suspense and outrageous slapstick humour, Z if for Zorglub is a terrific romp to delight devotees of easy-going adventure.

Stuffed with an astounding array of astonishing hi-tech spoofery, riotous chases and gazillions of sight gags and verbal ripostes, this exultant escapade is a fabulous fiesta of angst-free action and thrills. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductive élan, this is pure cartoon gold, truly deserving of reaching the widest audience possible.

Buy it for you, get another for the kids and give copies to all your friends…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1961 by Franquin, Jidéhem & Greg. All rights reserved. English translation 2016 © Cinebook Ltd.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection volume 1 1962-1972

By George Gladir, Frank Doyle, Dick Malmgren, Al Hartley, Joe Edwards, Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick, Vince DeCarlo, Bob White, Bill Kresse, Bill Vigoda, Mario Acquaviva, Jimmy DeCarlo, Chic Stone, Bill Yoshida, Stan Goldberg, Jon D’Agostino, Gus LeMoine, Harry Lucey, Marty Epp, Bob Bolling, Joe Sinnott & various (Archie Comic Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-94-5

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch debuted in Archie’s Mad House #22 (October 1962), created by George Gladir & Dan DeCarlo as a throwaway character in the gag anthology which was simply one more venue for comics’ undisputed kings of kids comedy. She soon proved popular enough to become a regular in the burgeoning cast surrounding the core stars Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones.

By 1969 the comely enchantress had grown popular enough to win her own animated Filmation TV series (just like Archie and Josie and the Pussycats) and graduated to a lead feature in Archie’s TV Laugh Out before finally winning her own title in 1971.

The first volume ran 77 issues from 1971 to 1983 and, when a hugely successful live action TV series launched in 1996, an adapted comicbook iteration followed in 1997. That version folded in 1999 after a further 32 issues.

Volume 3 – simply entitled Sabrina – was based on new TV show Sabrina the Animated Series. This ran for 37 issues from 2000 to 2002 before a back-to-basics reboot saw the comicbook revert to Sabrina the Teenage Witch with #38, carefully blending elements of all the previous print and TV versions.

A creature of seemingly infinite variation and variety, the mystic maid continued in this vein until 2004 and issue #57 wherein, acting on the global popularity of Japanese comics, the company boldly switched format and transformed the series into a manga-style high school comedy-romance in the classic Shōjo manner.

A more recent version abandoned whimsy altogether and depicted Sabrina as a vile and seductive force of evil (see Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)

This no-frills massively monochrome trade paperback (or digital download) gathers and represents all her appearances – even cameos on the covers of other Archie titles – from that crucial first decade and kicks off with an informative and educational Introduction courtesy of Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick before chronologically unleashing the wonderment in a year-by-year cavalcade of magic mystery and mirth.

Clearly referencing Kim Novak as seen in the movie Bell, Book and Candle, ‘Presenting Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ (by George Gladir, Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick & Vince DeCarlo from Archie’s Mad House #22) debuted a sultry seductress with a wicked edge prankishly preying on mortals at the behest of Head Witch Della, whilst secretly hankering for the plebeian joys of dating…

Leading off the next year’s chapter, the creative team reunited for Archie’s Mad House #24 (February 1963), with ‘Monster Section’ depicting Sabrina bewitching boys the way mortal girls always have, whilst ‘Witch Pitch’ sees the young beguiler ordered to ensorcel the High School hockey team… with mixed results…

Archie’s Mad House #25 (April) focuses on the supernatural clan’s mission to destroy human romances. In ‘Sister Sorceress’ Della orders Sabrina to split up dating duo Hal and Wanda – with catastrophic results – before ‘Jinx Minx’ (AMH #26, June) finds Sabrina going too far with a love potion at a school dance…

Bob White’s Archie’s Mad House #27 cover (August 1963) leads into #28’s ‘Tennis Menace’ (inked by Marty Epp) with Sabrina’s attempts to enrapture a rich lad going infuriatingly awry. AMH #30 (December) offers pin-up ‘Teen-Age Section’ drawn by Joe Edwards, with Sabrina comparing historical ways of charming boys with modern mortal methods…

The 1964 material opens with a love potion pin-up ‘Teen Section’ by Edwards (from Archie’s Mad House #31, February) before Gladir & Edwards’ ‘Ronald the Rubber Boy Meets Sabrina the Witch Queen’ finds the magic miss disastrously swapping abilities with an elastic-boned pal.

Issue #36 (October, by Edwards) sees her failing to jinx her friends’ recreational evening in ‘Bowled Over’, after which (AMH #37, December) Gladir is reunited with Dan & Vince DeCarlo for a spot of ‘Double Trouble’ as gruesome Aunt Hilda tries to fix Sabrina’s appalling human countenance, only to become her unwilling twin…

In 1965 Sabrina’s only appearance was in a Harry Lucey-limned ad for Archie’s Mad House Annual, whereas the following year saw her triumphant return with illustrator Bill Kresse handling Gladir’s scripts for ‘Lulu of a Boo-Boo’ (Archie’s Mad House #45, February 1966). Here the witch-girl’s attempts to join the In Crowd constantly misfire whilst ‘Beach Party Smarty’ (#48, August) confirms this new trend as her spells to capture a hunky lad go badly wrong…

For ‘Go-Go Gaga’ (AMH #49, September) Gladir & Kresse pit the bonny bewitcher against a greedy entrepreneur planning to fleece school kids in his over-priced dance hall, whilst in #50 ‘Rival Reversal’ finds her failing to conjure a date and ‘Tragic Magic’ proves even sorcery can’t keep a teen’s room clean…

Art team Bill Vigoda & Mario Acquaviva join Gladir for 1967’s first tale. ‘London Lore’ (Archie’s Mad House #52, February) with Sabrina transporting new boyfriend Donald to the heart of the Swinging Scene but ill-equip him for debilitating culture-shock, after which ‘School Scamp’ (Gladir and Dan, Jimmy & Vince DeCarlo, from AMH #53, April) again proves magic has no place in human education…

In issue #55 Gladir, Dan DeCarlo & Lapick reveal how Sabrina’s wishing to help is a doubly dangerous proposition in ‘Speed Deed’ whilst in #58 (December and illustrated by Chic Stone & Bill Yoshida) the trend for ultra-skinny fashion models leads to a little shapeshifting in ‘Wile Style’

1968 opens with Gladir, Stone & Yoshida exploring the down side of slot-car racing in ‘Teeny-Weeny Boppers’ (AMH #59, February) after which ‘Past Blast’ (#63, September by Gladir, Stan Goldberg, Jon D’Agostino & Yoshida) sees the mystic maid time-travel in search of Marie Antoinette, Pocahontas and Salem sorceress Hester.

The year wraps up with ‘Light Delight’ (Gladir, White, Acquaviva & Yoshida: Archie’s Mad House #65, December) as Sabrina’s aunts Hilda and Zelda try more modern modes of witchly transport…

With the advent of Sabrina on television, the end of 1969 saw a sudden leap in her comics appearances to capitalise on the exposure and resulted in a retitling of her home funnybook.

Again crafted by Gladir, White, Acquaviva & Yoshida, ‘Glower Power’ comes from Mad House Ma-Ad Jokes #70 (September) with Sabrina duelling another teen mage before the cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #1 (December: rendered by Dick Malmgren & D’Agostino) leads into ‘Super Duper Party Pooper’ and the instant materialisation of a new sitcom lifestyle for the jinxing juvenile.

Sabrina yearns to be a typical High School girl. She lives in suburban seclusion with Hilda and Zelda and Uncle Ambrose. She has a pet cat – Salem – and is tentatively “seeing” childhood pal Harvey Kinkle. The cute but clueless boy reciprocates the affection but is far too scared to rock the boat by acting on his own desires.

He has no idea that his old chum is actually a supernatural being…

This opening sally depicts what happens when surly Hilda takes umbrage at the antics of Archie and his pals when they come over for a visit, whilst ‘Great Celestial Sparks’ (pencilled by Gus LeMoine) reveals what lengths witches go to when afflicted with hiccups…

A full-on goggle-box sensation, Sabrina blossomed in 1970, beginning with a little flying practice in ‘Broom Zoom’, boyfriend trouble in ‘Hex Vex’, fortune-telling foolishness in ‘Hard Card’, amulet antics in ‘Witch Pitch’, and kitchen conjurings in ‘Generation Gap’: all by Gladir, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida from Mad House Ma-Ad Jokes #72 (January).

The issue also offered sporting spoofs in ‘Bowl Roll’ (drawn by Dan DeCarlo).

The so-busy cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #2 (March 1970) segues into Gladir, Dan D, Lapick & Yoshida’s ‘A Plug for The Band’ with Sabrina briefly joining The Archies’ pop group, whilst LeMoine contributes a brace of half-page gags ‘Sassy Lassy’ and ‘Food Mood’ and limns ‘That Ol’ Black Magic’ wherein the winsome witch’s gifts cause misery to all her new friends in Riverdale…

Dan DeCarlo & Lapick’s June cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #3 leads into Malmgren-scripted ‘Double Date’ with hapless Harvey causing chaos at home until Ambrose finds a potential putrid paramour for Aunt Hilda.

Dan D & Lapick then launch an occasional series on stage magic in the first of many ‘Sabrina Tricks’ pages, before single-pagers ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’, ‘The Hand Sandwich’, ‘The Sampler’, ‘Never on Sundae’ and ‘Finger Licken Good’ reveal a growing divide between house-proud Hilda and accident-prone, ever-ravenous Harvey.

Interspersed with three more ‘Sabrina Tricks’ pages, the mystic mayhem continues with mini-epic ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ (Malmgren, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida) as our witch girl disastrously attempts to make Jughead Jones more amenable to Big Ethel’s romantic overtures.

Then the food fiascos resume with the LeMoine-limned ‘Good and Bad’ as Sabrina’s every good intention is accidentally twisted to bedevil her human pals

Taken from Mad House Glads #74 (August 1970), Gladir & LeMoine’s half-page chemistry gag ‘Strange Session’ is oddly balanced by the painterly ‘Blight Sight’ of long-forgotten never-was Bippy the Hippy, but we’re back on track and at the beach for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #4 (September, Gladir, Vigoda, Lapick & Yoshida).

In ‘To Catch a Thief’ Sabrina again assists Ethel in pinning down the elusive and love-shy Jughead, and rounding out the issue are single page pranks ‘Beddy Bye Time’ (DeCarlo & Lapick), another ‘Sabrina Tricks’ lesson and seaside folly ‘In the Bag’ from LeMoine & D’Agostino.

ATVL-O #5 (November) then offers up Gladir, Vigoda & Stone’s ‘I’ll Bite’ as Sabrina’s hungry schoolfriends learn the perils of raiding Hilda’s fridge and Gladir, DeCarlo & Lapick’s ‘Hex Vex’ as Della storms in, demanding tardy Sabrina fulfil her monthly quota of bad deeds…

Sabrina is an atypical witch: living in the mundane world and assiduously passing herself off as normal and 1971 opens with DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #6 (February) and ‘Match Maker’ by Frank Doyle, Harry Lucey & Marty Epp as Hilda tries to get rid of Harvey by making him irresistible to Betty & Veronica. No way that can go wrong…

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch’ (Gladir, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida) then uses her powers openly with some kids and learns a trick even ancient crone Hilda cannot fathom. Bolstered by a ‘Sabrina Tricks’ page, ‘Carry On, Aunt Hilda’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & Lapick) hilariously depicts lucky stars shielding Harvey from the wrath of irascible Aunt Hilda…

Bowing to popular demand, the eldritch ingenue finally starred in her own title from April 1971. Dan DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #1 hinted at much mystic mirth and mayhem which began with ‘Strange Love’ (Doyle, Dan D & Lapick), revealing the star’s jealous response to seeing Harvey with another girl. This is supplemented by ‘Sabrina and Salem’s Catty Quiz’ before hippy warlock Sylvester comes out of the woodwork to upset Hilda’s sedate life in ‘Mission Impossible’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & D’Agostino).

Another ‘Sabrina Puzzle’ neatly moves us to Doyle, Dan D & Lapick’s ‘An Uncle’s Monkey’ with Harvey and a pet chimpanzee pushing Hilda to the limits of patience and sanity…

The cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #7 (May) precedes a long yarn by Doyle, Bob Bolling & D’Agostino as ‘Archie’s TV Celebrities’ (the animated Archies, Sabrina and Josie and the Pussycats) star in ‘For the Birds’ with a proposed open-air concert threatened by the protests of a bunch of old ornithology buffs.

The celebrity pals then tackle an instrument-stealing saboteur in ‘Sounds Crazy to Me’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & D’Agostino), after which Sabrina cameos on the cover of Jughead #192 (May, by Dan DeCarlo & Lapick) before heading for the cover of her own second issue (DeCarlo & Lapick, July). Within those pages Malmgren scripts ‘No Strings Attached’ as the Archies visit their bewitching buddy just as Hilda turns hapless Harvey into an axe-strumming rock god…

‘Witch Way is That’ sees Hilda quickly regret opening her house to Tuned In, Turned On, Dropped Out Cousin Bert, after which Malmgren, Lucey & Epp show Archie suffering the jibes and jokes of ‘The Court Jester’ Reggie – until Sabrina adds a little something extra to the Andrews boys’ basketball repertoire..

At this time the world was undergoing a revival of supernatural interest and gothic romance was The Coming Thing.

In a rather bold experiment, Sabrina was given a shot at a dramatic turn with Doyle, Bolling, Joe Sinnott & Yoshida cooking up ‘Death Waits at Dumesburry’: a relatively straight horror mystery with Sabrina battling a sinister maniac in a haunted castle she had inherited…

Rendered by LeMoine & D’Agostino, the cover of Jughead’s Jokes #24 (July 1971) brings us back to comedy central, as does their cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #8 (August) and Malmgren’s charity bazaar-set tale ‘A Sweet Tooth’, with the winsome witch discovering that even her magic cannot make Veronica’s baked goods edible…

Dan DeCarlo’s cover for ‘Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #3 (September) foreshadows a return to drama but in modern milieu as ‘House Breakers’ (Malmgren, DeCarlo & Lapick) finds Harvey and Sabrina stranded in an old dark mansion with spooks in situ, after which ‘Spellbinder’ (Doyle, Al) sees Hilda cringe and curse when human catastrophe Big Moose pays Sabrina a visit.

Hartley & D’Agostino fly solo on ‘Auntie Climax’ as irresistibility spells fly and both Archie and Hilda are caught in an amorous crossfire before Malmgren, Bolling & Lapick show our cast’s human side as Archie, Jughead and Sabrina intervene to help a juvenile thief caught in a poverty trap in ‘The Tooth Fairy’

A trio of DeCarlo & Lapick covers – Archie’s TV Laugh Out #9 (September), Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals #66 (October) and Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #4 (October) lead into the teen thaumaturge’s fourth solo comicbook, where Doyle, Goldberg & D’Agostino set the cauldron bubbling with ‘Hex Marks the Spot’ as Aunts Hilda and Zelda nostalgically opine for their adventurous bad old days but something seems set on thwarting every spell they cast, after which ‘Which Witch is Right?’ (pencilled by LeMoine) finds obnoxious Reggie Mantle uncovering Sabrina’s sorcerous secrets.

Goldberg & Sinnott illustrate ‘Switch Witch’ as officious Della suspends Sabrina’s powers as a punishment and can’t understand why the girl is delirious instead of heartbroken whilst Hartley & Sinnott contribute a run of madcap one-pagers by Gladir & Malmgren Doyle with clue-packed titles such as ‘Out of Sight’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Teen Scene’, ‘So That’s Why’ and ‘Time to Retire’.

Wrapping up the issue is ‘The Storming of Casket Island’ by Doyle, LeMoine & D’Agostino, blending stormy sailing with sinister swindling skulduggery and menacing mystic retribution…

More covers follow: Archie #213 and Archie’s TV Laugh Out #10 (both November and by Dan DeCarlo & Lapick) and Archie’s Christmas Stocking #190 (Hartley & D’Agostino, December) which latter also contributes Hartley & Sinnott’s ‘Card Shark’, with Sabrina joining Archie and the gang to explore the point and purpose of seasonal greetings postings before DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover of Betty and Me #39 brings the momentous year to a close…

The last year covered in this titanic tome is 1972 and kicks off with DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Archie Annual #23, before their Sabrina’s Christmas Magic #196 cover (January) opens the book on a winter wonderland of seasonal sentiment. It all starts with ‘Hidden Claus’ (by featured team Hartley & Sinnott) as Sabrina ignores her aunt’s mockery and seeks out the real Father Christmas – just in time to help him with an existential and labour crisis…

‘Sabrina’s Wrap Session’ offers tips on gifting and packaging whilst ‘Hot Dog with Relish’ sees the witch woman zap Jughead’s mooching canine companion and make him a guy any girl could fall for.

Then Doyle, Goldberg & Sinnott concoct ‘The Spell of the Season’, depicting our troubled teen torn between embracing Christmas and wrecking it as any true witch should. Guess which side wins the emotional tug-of-war?

More handicraft secrets are shared in ‘Sabrina’s Instant Christmas Decorations’ before Hartley & Sinnott craft ‘Sabrina Asks… What Does Christmas Mean to You?’ and ‘Sabrina Answers Questions About Christmas’, after which cartoon storytelling resumes with ‘Mission Possible’ as Hilda and Zelda find their own inner Samaritans.

Despite a rather distressing (and misleading) title ‘Popcorn Poopsie’ reveals way of making tasty decorative snacks whilst ‘Sabrina’s Animal Crackers’ tells a tale of men turned to beasts before a yuletide ‘Sabrina Pin-Up’ and exercise feature ‘Sabrina Keeps in Christmas Trim’ returns us to the entertainment section.

An all Hartley affair, ‘Sabrina’s Witch Wisher’ examines what the vast cast would say if given one wish, after which Doyle, Goldberg & Sinnott conclude this mammoth meander down memory lane by revealing how an evil warlock was punished by becoming ‘A Tree Named Obadiah’. Now – decked out in lights and tinsel – he’s back and making mischief in Veronica’s house…

An epic, enticing and always enchanting experience, the classic adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch are sheer timeless comics delight that no true fan will ever grow out of…

© 1962-1972, 2017 Archie Comic Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The Witching Hour volume 1

By Alex Toth, Bob Haney, George Kashdan, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Carl Wessler, Dennis O’Neil, Steve Skeates, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Jack Oleck, Mike Friedrich, Alan Riefe, Dave Kaler, Phil Seuling, Jack Phillips, Murray Boltinoff, Sergio Aragonés, Nick Cardy, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Wally Wood, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, Bob Brown, Gray Morrow, Murphy Anderson, Pat Boyette, Bill Draut, Howard Sherman, Howard Post, Jerry Grandenetti, John Celardo, Art Saaf, Jack Sparling, Michael Wm. Kaluta, José Delbo, Lee Elias, Sid Greene, Jeff Jones, Tony DeZuñiga, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Aparo, John Calnan & many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-196-6

American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and the far too occasional her) until the troops came home and more traditional genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of the world, and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this. As well as Western, War and Crime comics, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another periodic revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown acting as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken or control with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948 – although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon, who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before launching a regular series in 1951.

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long-milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947), but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and its boldly obscure psychological drama anthology companion Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics eventually bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time… you can do that because it’s still notionally a free country at time of writing) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules.

HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, which nevertheless dominated the market until the 1960s when super-heroes (which had started to creep back after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing The Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom and a slew of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which even forced dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books.

However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed, leading to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles at that time but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the supernatural, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Thrillers

With Tales of the Unexpected #105 and House of Mystery #174 National/DC switched to anthology horror material before creating an all-new title to further exploit the morbid fascination with all thingies fearsome and spooky (they even resurrected the cancelled House of Secrets in late 1969) for those heady days when it was okay – and profitable – to scare the heck out of little kids by making them laugh.

Edited until #14 by Dick Giordano, The Witching Hour first struck at the end of 1968 (with a February/March 1969 cover-date). From the outset it was an extremely experimental and intriguing beast and this amazingly economical Showcase Presents collection reprints the first 19 issues, completely covering the first three years as the fear fad grew to become the backbone of DC’s sales. It is perhaps the most talent-stuffed title of that entire period…

Hopefully, as DC continues its archival conversion of Silver Age classics into new full-colour and digital editions, this collection will be available too in all its gory hues and glory…

In this graphic grimoire the traditionally cool and creepy horror-hosts who introduce such spooky fare are three witches. Based as much on Macbeth as the ancient concept of Maiden, Mother and Crone this torrid trio constantly battled to outdo or out-gross each other in the telling of terror tales. Moreover, Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred – as well as shy monster man-servant Egor – were designed and usually delineated by master artist Alex Toth; making framing sequences between yarns as good as and sometimes better than the stories they brazenly bracket.

One minor quibble: records from the period are not complete and occasionally a creator is unknown, but this volume also sadly misattributes the artist too. I’ve attempted to correct the mistakes when I’m certain, but please be warned and beware – I’m not always right either…

Following a stunning Nick Cardy cover, Toth starts the ball rolling by introducing the sinister sisters and their ongoing contest before Dennis O’Neil & Pat Boyette relate the story of a time-travelling tap-dancer in ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.

Toth then writes and illustrates a compelling period piece of peril in ‘Eternal Hour!’ and Jack Sparling relates the eerie fate of wave-obsessed Stanley’s search for ‘The Perfect Surf’.

Toth’s scary sisters then close out the premier issue (with, I suspect, additional inks from Neal Adams), but still find room for ‘Silk Gauze’, an informational page by persons unknown which first appeared in Tales Unexpected#126.

Although attributed to Toth, #2’s introductory episode is by his old Standard Comics stable-mate Mike Sekowsky (inked by Giordano) and leads into Sparling’s dream-chiller ‘Scream!’, after which young José Delbo delineates shocking period tale of slavery and vengeance ‘The Trip of Fools!’ before Sid Greene’s short ghost story ‘The Beat Goes On!’ and Sparling’s ‘Once Upon a Surprise Ending!’ end an issue regrettably short on writer credits.

Following another Sekowsky/Giordano intro, Toth & Vince Colletta illustrate Don Arneson’s medieval mood masterpiece ‘The Turn of the Wheel!’, whilst Alan Riefe & Sparling told a decidedly different ghost-story in ‘The Death Watch’, after which Steve Skeates & Bernie Wrightson reveal a very alterative fantasy hero in ‘…And in a Far-Off Land!’, followed by the first of a series of short prose vignettes: an anonymous fright-comedy entitled ‘Potion of Love’.

Toth illustrates the sisters’ ‘Witching Hour Welcome Wagon’ (a useful identifying rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that the master usually signed his work – and was allowed to…) after which new kid Gerard Conway spectrally scripted ‘A Matter of Conscience’ for art veterans Sparling & George Roussos. Another anonymous prose piece ‘If You Have Ghosts’ precedes a smashing yarn entitled ‘Disaster in a Jar’ by Riefe & Boyette and Conway scripts period witchfinder thriller ‘A Fistful of Fire’ for Delbo – a vastly underrated artist who was on the best form of his career at this time.

Toth’s Weird Sisters close out that issue and eerily, hilariously open #5 before Wrightson lavishly embellishes a nifty but uncredited (as is every script in this one) nautical nightmare ‘The Sole Survivor!’, followed by text-teaser ‘The Non-Believer!’ and Boyette’s stunning, clownish creep-feature ‘A Guy Can Die Laughing!’

Stanley Pitt & Giordano’s dating dilemma ‘The Computer Game’ was one of the first to explore that now-hoary plot., and after Toth signs off the witches, there’s an added one-page black-comedy bonus from Sid Greene with ‘My! How You’ve Grown!’

Sekowsky & Giordano limned Dave Kaler’s take on the sisters’ intro for The Witching Hour #6 after which a far darker horror debuts as ‘A Face in the Crowd!’ by Conway, Mike Roy & Mike Peppe, wherein Nazi war-criminal and concentration camp survivor meet in an American street; Marv Wolfman & Delbo described a tale of neighbourly intolerance in ‘The Doll Man!’ and ‘Treasure Hunt’ by Skeates, John Celardo & Giordano showed why greed isn’t always good. Also included were Conway’s prose tale ‘Train to Doom’, ‘Mad Menace’ – a half-page gag strip by John Costanza – and ‘Distortion!’; another Greene-limned one-pager.

Toth & Mike Friedrich were on spectacular form for #7’s intro and bridging sequences, whilst Bill Draut was compulsively effective in prison manhunt saga ‘The Big Break!’, whose scripter Steve Skeates also wrote modern-art murder-mystery ‘The Captive!’ for Roussos. Then Friedrich & Jack Abel advise a most individual baby to ‘Look Homeward, Angelo!’. Whilst text piece ‘Who Believes Ouija?’ and Jack Miller & Michael Wm. Kaluta’s gothically delicious ‘Trick or Treat’ round out the sinister sights in this issue.

Sergio Aragonés & Neal Adams provide the witch-bits for #8, bracketing their own satanically sardonic ‘Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!’, as well as ‘Three Day Home Trial!’ (Aragonés & Cardy) and staggeringly inventive ‘Computerr’ by that man again and Toth.

‘The Career Man’ is a witty but anonymous prose piece and the issue closes with a Twice Told Tale by Ron Whyte & Sparling, as an urban myth is revealed in ‘The Sign of the Hook!’

Toth & Draut began #9, after which Bob Brown & Murphy Anderson illustrate ghostly tale ‘The Long Road Home!’ and, after text story ‘The Dark Well’, peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ (by Len Wein & Sparling) makes a welcome appearance.

Delbo delightfully delineates a terrifying tale of Old China in ‘The Last Straw’ and, after George Tuska takes over the Weird Sisters link-segments, a doomsday debacle closes the dramas with a ‘Trumpet Perilous!’ drawn by Sparling & Abel.

The witches opening issue #10 are once more by Toth & Draut, promptly followed by a magnificent illustration job by the great Gray Morrow on regrettably uncredited ‘A Warp in Time… Loses Everything!’ after which the all-word ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ precedes Conway & Toth’s superb forbidden romance ‘Hold Softly, Hand of Death!’. Tuska handles the Sisters before Sparling’s faux-fact page ‘Realm of the Mystics’ ends this excursion into the outer dark.

Toth drew the intro and Jack Oleck’s ‘The Mark of the Witch’ (inked by Draut) in #11, whilst – following text-tale ‘Retired Undefeated!’ – Tuska inspirationally illustrates creepy chronal conundrum ‘The Sands of Time, the Snows of Death!’

The Witching Hour #12 is similarly blessed, as after a sinisterly sexy Skeates/Toth intro, the devilish duo then describe an horrific ‘Double Edge’ battle between witch-queens and valiant mortals, followed by a Machiavellian actor’s ‘Double Take’ (Skeates & Tuska) and a demonic duel and ‘Double Cross!’ by Skeates & Gil Kane. The ever-anonymous prose piece is the mordantly merry ‘The Dead Can’t Talk But…’

Giordano’s last issue as editor was #13, which opened in grand style as fellow comicbook hosts Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch (from Houses of Mystery and Secrets and The Unexpected, respectively) attend ‘New Year’s Eve at the Witching Hour’ (illustrated by Neal Adams), followed by a marvellously experimental and effective psycho-thriller by Alan Gold & Gray Morrow entitled ‘The Maze’: a far more traditional but no less scary story ‘The Accursed Clay!’ (Miller, Sparling & Frank Giacoia) and the just plain strange tale of ‘The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!’ by Wein & Delbo.

As an added treat the text token is ‘The Witching Hour Mistree’ by that shy but not retiring rogue Egor…

When veteran editor Murray Boltinoff assumed the reins with #14 (April-May 1971) an element of experimentalism was surrendered but the more conventional material was no less welcomed by the horror-hungry readership: more proof, if any were needed, that artistic endeavour and envelope-pushing aren’t to everybody’s taste.

George Tuska replaced Toth as regular illustrator of introductory and bridging sections, but otherwise most fright-seeking kids could hardly tell the difference.

The all-science fiction issue’s terror-tales open with a beautiful yet oddly-stilted yarn from Conway and Jeff Jones who explore the solitary burdens of ‘Fourteen Months’ in deep space, whilst ‘Which Witch is Which?’ (by Kaler and drawn by Stanley & Reg Pitt) depicts the comeuppance of an intergalactic Lothario.

As “Al Case”, Editor Boltinoff provides text feature ‘Dead Letter Office’ before the issue ends on a classic visual high note with ‘The Haunted House in Space!’ illustrated by the dream team of Al Williamson & Carlos Garzon.

After the usual grisly graphic girl-talk TWH #15 starts with a murder masterpiece from George Kashdan & Wally Wood revealing ‘Freddy is Another Name For Fear!’, after which Al Case scripts ‘End of a World’ before Phil Seuling & Gray Morrow steal the show with the fearsome fable of the ‘Bayou Witch’ and Case & Art Saaf ring down the curtain with ‘I Married a Witch!’

Issue #16 saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC titles for the next couple of years – opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience.

The mysterious magic began after Tuska’s punchy prelude with cautionary ‘Never Kill a Witch!’ by Carl Wessler, John Calnan & Bernie Case, after which Boltinoff – as Bill Dennehy – provides a slick, edgy reinterpretation of a classic fairytale for Morrow to lavishly limn in ‘The Spell of Sinner Ella!’, before switching back to his Case persona for the Tony DeZuñiga illustrated duelling drama ‘You Can’t Hide From Death’.

The classic reprints began with ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (drawn by the legendary Lee Elias from House of Secrets #58), followed by a Joe Orlando illustrated, Charles King scripted text piece ‘Last Meal’ and Howie Post and Draut’s ghoulish period parable ‘The Curse of the Cat’ which both came originally from House of Mystery #177.

Kashdan & Heck open #17 with a modern magic myth in ‘This Little Witch Went to College’ after which a classic 1950’s fear-feature from Sensation Mystery Comics #109 saw Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella devastatingly depict the ‘Fingers of Fear!’ whilst from House of Secrets #46, Howard Sherman delineated ‘The Second Life of Simon Steele’. Dennehy, Calnan & Colletta provide a new yarn with an old moral in ‘The Corpse Who Carried Cash!’ before Wessler & mood-master Jerry Grandenetti fantastically finish the fear-fest with ‘The Man in the Cellar’.

The same team open #18 with ‘The Worm that Turned to Terror’, a schizophrenic slice of domestic hell followed by ‘The Diggers!’: a nasty, vengeful yarn from Bobs Haney and Brown with Giacoia inks that encompasses half a century of French war and regret.

Tales of the Unexpected #13 was the original source of both the Ed Herron/Jack Kirby conundrum ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ and the Herron/Cardy creepy-crime caper ‘I Was a Prisoner of the Supernatural’, after which modernity resumes with Jim Aparo’s ‘Hypnotic Eye’ and Kashdan, Calnan & Colletta’s cautionary tale ‘When Satan Comes Calling!’

The final issue in this superbly spooky compendium is The Witching Hour #19 which – after the customary Tuska drawn kaffeeklatsch with Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia – commences in a stylish, sparkling Jack Phillips & Grandenetti chiller ‘A Tomb for the Winning!’, swiftly followed by ‘The Four Threads of Doom’ (by anonymous & Cardy from Tales of the Unexpected #12) after which a different anonymous and Tuska provide a fresh new thriller in ‘Stop Beating, Heart! You’re Killing Me!’.

One final Cardy reprint ‘The Lamp That Changed People!’ (House of Mystery #20) follows before this wonderful debut volume of witchly wonderment concludes with Kashdan/Elias shocker ‘What Evil Haunts This House?’

These terror-tales captivated reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s indisputable that the supernatural sector saved DC during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of garish mordant mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such shows and series as Dimension 404, Goosebumps, Horrible Histories, and their many imitators.

If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully gore-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chaos, stay up past The Witching Hour as long and as often as you possibly can…
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Et Cetera volume 1

By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

Frederic Mullally’s Amanda

By Frederic Mullally, John Richardson & “Ken” (Ken Pierce Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91227-703-5

When I reviewed the comic strip collection Danielle recently, I declaimed at long length about having to become an apologist for some of the themes and content of what used to be called “cheesecake” or “girly” strips: a genre stuffy old-fashioned Britain used to excel at and happily venerate.

After all, aren’t we proud that we’re that sort of culture? Saucy postcards, Carry-On films, ingenuously innocent smut and a passion for double entendre which have for decades obscured and obfuscated genuine concerns such as entrenched gender pay-gaps, unwarranted interest in and control of female reproductive rights and sexual behaviour, double standards for men and women’s work and recreational behaviours, and that incomprehensible Mystery of Mysteries: just why men are utterly certain that anything they fancy automatically fancies them back and is therefore fair game for creepy jollity and unwanted attentions excused as “just having bit of fun” or “paying a compliment”…

Yes, it’s one of those days…

Meanwhile, back at this book and in a time long gone but not forgotten – as John Dakin points out in his introduction to this particular short-lived strip-siren – The Sun (original home of the lady in question) was the country’s best-selling newspaper and was proudly, provocatively populist. That translated into low laughs and acres of undraped female flesh everywhere except the sports section – and even there when possible… because the readers where mostly blokes and lads in search of that aforementioned easily digested little bit of fun…

By 1976 the battle for female equality had mostly moved from headlines and leader columns to the business pages: the frenzied height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, fair pay and honest treatment had passed (so isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things sorted now?). Contraception-on-demand and burning bras were gone – except for the provision of comedy fodder – and most men had generally returned to their old habits, breathing a heavy sigh of relief…

Written by journalist, columnist, novelist, political writer and editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune) Frederic Mullally, Amanda launched on January 26th 1976, and initially seemed a low-key, low-brow reworking of his prestigious Penthouse satire O Wicked Wanda!

However, there were marked differences for anybody looking below the satin-skinned surface…

Amanda Muller is the beautiful (naturally), sequestered heir to the world’s largest fortune, and once her old fossil of a father finally kicks the bucket she decides to become a teen rebel and have all the fun she’d missed growing up in an old castle with only prim staff and her cousins Wiley and Hunk for company. With thief turned companion Kiki, she determines to splurge and spree and have anything she wants…

The strip ran for a year and the first illustrator was John Richardson, a highly gifted artist with a light touch blending Brian Lewis with Frank Bellamy: a veteran visual storyteller who worked practically everywhere in Britain from 2000AD to DC Thomson to Marvel UK, as well as for specialist magazines such as Custom Car, Super Bike and Citizen’s Band.

The introductory story here sees Amanda – shedding her clothes at every opportunity – attempt to buy a noble title, only to fall foul of a Mafia plot to seize control of Italy’s Nudist Beaches, before moving on to a “career” as a pop-star – which once more draws her into a world of unscrupulous sharks and swindlers…

Whilst looking for a new maid, Amanda and Kiki then become embroiled in a continental burglary ring, before the author’s political and ethical underpinnings break loose as brainy cousin Wiley is invited to display his new electronic Chess brain behind the Iron Curtain. Naturally physical Adonis Cousin Hunk wants to come along – it’s just before the next Olympic Games after all – and the girls tag along just for kicks.

Since you just can’t trust a Commie they’re all soon in lots of trouble, but naturally the frolicsome foursome escape with relative ease. The next adventure, and all the remaining strips, are illustrated by somebody who signs him (or her) self “Ken”, and who, I’m ashamed to say, I know absolutely nothing about. Competent, but a tad stiff and hesitant, and lacking the humorous touch of Richardson, I’d lay money on the enigma being an Italian or Hispanic artist – but I’ve been wrong before and I will be again…

Safely home again, Amanda resolves to create a feminist magazine entitled New Woman, and despatches Kiki to interview the world’s greatest Chauvinist Pig – fashion designer “Bruno” – only to once more fall foul of crooks; although this time it’s kidnappers and embezzlers.

Still in editorialising mode, the young proud kids then head to super-sexist banana republic Costa Larga, just in time for the next revolution; infiltrating the “Miss Sex Object” beauty contest with the intent of sabotaging it, before concluding their globe-trotting by heading for a tropical holiday just as the local government is overthrown by a tin-pot dictator…

All my cavils, caveats and frustrated kvetchings aside Amanda was series that started out with few pretensions and great promise, but, the early loss of Richardson and – I suspect – Mullally’s intellectual interests soon overwhelmed what charms it held. Nevertheless, this collection is a good representative of an important period and a key genre in British cartooning history: one we should really be re-examining in much greater detail.

Some of the gags are still funny (especially in our modern world where celebrity equates with exactly where drunken, stoned rich people threw up last) and if you are going to ogle and objectify naked women at least well-drawn ones can’t be harmed or humiliated in the process.

Also, I don’t think a drawing has ever contributed to anybody’s low self-esteem or body-dysmorphia issues; Dear God, at least, I hope not…
© 1984 Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 12: The Rivals of Painful Gulch

By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-60-1

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper, whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (more than 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

First seen in the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, Lucky was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”), before ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of legend, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, from whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus some spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke first amused British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun, and rode back into comics-town again in 1967 in Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

In all these venues – as well as in numerous attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent and successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers…), and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re well past sixty translated books and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Les rivaux de Painful Gulch was the Dynamite Duo’s 10th collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Rivals of Painful Gulch) and first published in Europe in 1962.

The outrageous tale draws on the legendary and infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in West Virginia and Kentucky between 1863 and1891 and opens with our hero and his chatty horse peaceably proceeding until repeatedly stopped by bushwackers demanding the cowboy remove his hat.

With his patience rapidly evaporating Luke eventually learns the region and township of Painful Gulch is plagued with two warring families who shoot at each other at every opportunity. The O’Haras all have enormous red noses whilst huge wingnut ears are the genetic marker of every son of the O’Timmins clan…

The rest of the townsfolk live in fear of the ferociously feuding families because the only thing they have in common is a mutual inability to hit anything they aim at. They always miss their targets but the collateral damage to bystanders, building and livestock is appalling…

Ever keen to keep the peace, Lucky attempts to play peacemaker, but even he can’t stop the gun-crazed whackos from blasting way at each other and blowing up any civic amenity that might possibly benefit their hated foes.

Eventually, even Luke’s cool patience is exhausted and when the rapidly departing Mayor nominates our hero as his successor, the furious newcomer resorts to subterfuge, pandering and chicanery to establish a lasting détente.

…And when even that doesn’t work, the lone gunman plays his ultimate trump card and ropes in the weary, long-suffering wimmin-folk of the O’Timmins and O’Haras to settle the issue…

Slick, sly and sassy, The Rivals of Painful Gulch is a fast-paced slapstick romp with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters, and offers a wonderful glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

The Complete Peanuts volume 2: 1953-1954

By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-032-8 (Canongate):        978-1-56097-614-1 (Fantagraphics)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The ultimate Family Treat… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, dying from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived, and showed that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a moving reminiscence from legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, this second gargantuan (218 x 33x 172 mm) landscape hardback compendium (also available in digital formats) offers in potent monochrome the third and fourth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving procession of insight and hilarity in still-fresh episodes seldom seen or reprinted once the strip had achieved its global domination.

Here a still rather outgoing and jolly Charlie Brown and high-maintenance – but essentially dog-like – mutt Snoopy interacted with bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty all out doing kid things. Now, however, the supporting cast had expanded to include Violet, Beethoven-obsessed musical prodigy Schroeder, obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy, and infant addition Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant.

They are memorably joined in this volume by human dust storm Pig-pen as well as the invention of a certain mystic tranquiliser dubbed the Security Blanket…

By the end of 1952 the daily diet of rapid-fire gags had evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, and even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought

The relationships, however, were increasingly evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continued to develop. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, such as Snoopy’s extended cold war with baby Linus over treats, or Lucy’s hidden talents for golf and skipping…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, learning to read, the new domestic sensation of television, coping with kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown begins and his feelings of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the star here, with episodes seeing her expelled from Kindergarten as her insufferable know-it-allness grows. There’s also repeated evidence of what passes for her softer side too, as her fascination with Schroeder develops into a true crush, but, oh!, what she does to her little brother when nobody’s watching…

The first hints of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and, as previously mentioned, the uncleanable kid Pig-pen arrives and shakes up everybody’s world…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

By the end of this book Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’ rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954 (Volume Two) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2004 Walter Cronkite. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 1: Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Golden Sickle and Asterix and the Goths

By René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion/Hodder-Darguad/Brockhampton)

Omnibus ISBN: 978-1-44400-423-6

Individual Orion ISBNs: 978-0-75286-605-5: 978-0-75286-613-0 & 978-0-75286-615-4

Sorry, Baudelaire, Balzac Proust, Sartre, Voltaire, Zola and all you other worthy contenders; Asterix the Gaul is probably France’s greatest literary export.

The feisty, wily little warrior who fought the iniquities and viewed the myriad wonders of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire with brains, bravery and – whenever necessary – a magical potion imbuing the imbiber with incredible strength, speed and vitality, is the go-to reference all us non-Gallic gallants when we think of France…

In eager anticipation of the publication of the 37th Asterix volume next month, here a little refresher course for the classicist cognoscenti and a gentle but urgent plea to the uninitiated to get their collective fingers out and get au fait with one of Earth’s genuine comics phenomenons…

The diminutive, doughty hero was created at the very end of the 1950s by two of the art-forms greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and even though the perfect partnership ended in 1977, and Uderzo no longer crafts the comedic chaos, the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

René Goscinny is arguably the most prolific and remains one of the most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever known. Born in Paris in 1926, he grew up in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age René showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts, graduating in 1942.

In 1945 while working as junior illustrator in an ad agency his uncle invited him to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After National Service in France he returned to the States and settled in Brooklyn, pursuing an artistic career and becoming in 1948 an assistant for a little studio which included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (Morris, with whom from 1955-1977 Goscinny produced Lucky Luke) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé).

He also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and Jerry Spring Goscinny was promoted to head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his ultimate creative collaborator Albert Uderzo. In his spare time Rene created Sylvie and Alain et Christine with Martial Durand (Martial) and Fanfan et Polo, drawn by Dino Attanasio.

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent syndicate Édipress/Édifrance, creating magazines for business and general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo René generated Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and even illustrated his own scripts for Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny clearly patented the 40-hour day. Using the nom-de-plume Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé) and in 1956 began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing for various illustrators including Attanasio (Signor Spagetti), Bob De Moor (Monsieur Tric), Maréchal (Prudence Petitpas), Berck (Strapontin), Globule le Martien and Alphonse for Tibet, Modeste et Pompon for André Franquin, as well as the fabulous and funny adventures of the inimitable Indian brave Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo. He also wrote for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured re-launched versions of Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet, new serials Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard) plus a little something called Asterix the Gaul, inarguably the greatest achievement of his partnership with Uderzo.

When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became Editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television but never stopped creating strips such Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record illustrated by Swedish artist Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote.

Goscinny died – probably of well-deserved pride and severe exhaustion – in November 1977.

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927, in Fismes, on the Marne, a child of Italian immigrants. As a boy reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien Alberto dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic. He showed artistic flair from an early age and became a French citizen when he was seven. At 13 years old he became an apprentice of the Paris Publishing Society, learning design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When WWII broke out he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany, joining his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being decided upon the region was the only choice.

In the post-war rebuilding of France Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the country’s burgeoning comics industry. His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose masterpiece The Beast is Dead is long overdue for the world’s closer attention…).

Young Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist, as an illustrator for France Dimanche, and created the vertical comic strip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir. In 1950 he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

Another inveterate traveller, the young artist met Goscinny in 1951. Soon fast friends, they decided to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, after which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they produced a Western starring a very Red (but not so American) Indian who evolved into the delightful and (eventually) popular Oumpah-Pah. In 1955 with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replacing Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine and in 1957 added Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

The following year later, he made his Tintin debut, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and a rapturous audience. Uderzo also illuminated Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane

When Pilote launched in 1959 Uderzo was the major creative force for the new magazine, limning Charlier’s Tanguy et Laverdure and a little something called Asterix

Although Asterix was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (subsequently Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first ancient world adventure was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death, the publication rate dropped from two per year to one volume every three to five).

By 1967 Asterix occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention. In 1974 the perfect partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation and when Goscinny passed away three years later, Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes.

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the tenth most-often translated French-language author in the world and the third most-translated French language comics author – after his old mate René Goscinny and the grand master Hergé.

So what’s it all about?

Like all entertainments the premise works on two levels: as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a-cropper for younger readers and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, transformed here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue).

Originally published in Pilote #1-38 (29th October 1959-4th July 1960, with the first page appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, distributed on June 1st 1959), the story was set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast in the year 50BC. Here a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the world-beating Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Unable to defeat these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorts to a policy of containment and the little seaside hamlet is hemmed in by the heavily fortified permanent garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine by just going about their everyday affairs, protected by a magic potion provided by the resident druid and the shrewd wits of a rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic best friend…

In Asterix the Gaul this immaculate comedy-drama scenario is hilariously demonstrated when Centurion Crismus Bonus, fed up with his soldiers being casually beaten up by the fiercely free Frenchmen, sends reluctant spy Caligula Minus to ferret out the secret of their incredible strength.

The affable resistors take the infiltrator in and, dosed up with potion, the perfidious Roman escapes with the answer – if not the formula itself…

Soon after, the Druid Getafix is captured by the invaders and the village seems doomed, but wily Asterix is on the case and breaks into Compendium determined to teach the Romans a lesson. After driving them crazy for ages by resisting all efforts at bribery and coercion, wizard and warrior seemingly capitulate and make the Romans a magic potion – but not the one the rapacious oppressors were hoping for…

Although comparatively raw and unpolished, the good-natured, adventurous humour and sheer energy of the yarn barrels along, delivering barrages of puns, oodles of insane situations and loads of low-trauma slapstick action, all marvellously rendered in Uderzo’s seductively stylish art-style.

From the second saga on the unique and expanding cast would encroach on events, especially the unique and expanded, show-stealing sidekick Obelix who had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby and was a genial, permanently superhuman, eternally hungry foil to the smart little hero…

These albums are available in a wealth of differing formats, and earlier translated editions going all the way back to the first Brockhampton editions in 1969 are still readily available from a variety of retail and internet vendors – or even your local charity shop and jumble sale.

Be warned, however, that if pure continuity matters to you, only most recent British publisher Orion has released 36 albums in chronological order – and in Omnibus editions; three tales per tome.

Also, on a purely artistic note, some of the Hodder-Dargaud editions have a rather unconventional approach to colour that might require you to wear sunglasses and put blinkers on your pets and staff…

Asterix and the Golden Sickle originated in Pilote #42-74 and recounts the disastrous consequences of Getafix losing his ceremonial gold sickle just before the grand Annual Conference of Gaulish Druids. Since time is passing and no ordinary replacement will suffice to cut ingredients for magic potion, Asterix offers to go all the way to Lutetia (you can call it Paris if you want to) to find another.

As Obelix has a cousin there, Metallurgix the Smith, he also volunteers for the trip and the punning pair are swiftly off, barely stopping to teach assorted bandits the errors of their pilfering ways but still finding a little time to visit many roadside inns and tavern serving roast boar…

There is a crisis in Lutetia: a mysterious gang is stealing all the Golden Sickles and forcing prices up. The druid community is deeply distressed and, more worrying still, master sickle-maker Metallurgix has gone missing…

Asterix and Obelix investigate the dastardly doings in their own bombastic manner and discover a nefarious plot that seems to go all the way to the office of the local Roman Prefect…

The early creative experiment was quickly crystallizing into a supremely winning format and the next epic cemented the strip’s status as a popular icon of Gallic excellence.

Asterix and the Goths ran from 1962-1963 and followed the plot-thread of the Druid Conference as Getafix, brand new sickle in hand, sets off for the Forest of the Carnutes to compete. However on the Gaul’s Eastern border savage Goths – barbarians who remained unconquered by the might of Rome – crossed into pacified Roman territory. The barbarians are intent on capturing the mightiest Druid and turning his magic against the rule of Julius Caesar.

Although non-Druids aren’t allowed into the forest, Asterix and Obelix had accompanied Getafix to its edge and as the competition round of the Conference ends in victory for him and his power-potion, the Goths strike, abducting him in his moment of triumph…

Alerted by fellow Druid Prefix, the heroic duo track the kidnappers but are mistaken for Visigoths by Roman patrols, allowing the Goths to cross the border into Germania.

Although Romans are no threat, they can be a time-wasting hindrance so Asterix and Obelix disguise themselves as Romans to invade the Barbarian lands…

Well-used to being held prisoner by now, Getafix is making himself a nuisance to his bellicose captors and a genuine threat to the wellbeing of his long-suffering translator. When Asterix and Obelix are captured dressed as Goths, the wily Gauls conceive a cunning plan to end the permanent and imposing threat of Gothic invasion – a scheme that continues successfully for almost two thousand years…

If, like me, you’re particularly interested (my wife calls it “obsessive”) in absolutely all the iterations you might also want to seek out back issues of British comic weekly Ranger (1965-1966 and every one a gem!) plus early issues of Look and Learn immediately after the two titles merged (beginning with #232: 25th June 1966).

Among the many splendid strips in the glossy, oversized photogravure weekly was a quirky comedy feature entitled ‘Britons Never, Never, Never, Shall Be Slaves!’ which featured the first appearance of Goscinny & Uderzo’s masterpiece – albeit in a rather radically altered state.

In these translations Asterix was “Beric”, Getafix the Druid “Doric” and Obelix was dubbed “Son of Boadicea”. More jingoistically, the entire village was editorially transported to England where a valiant population of True Brits never ever surrendered to the Roman Occupation!

Similar intellectual travesties occurred during two abortive early attempts to introduce the gutsy Gauls to America as a heavily re-edited family newspaper strip…

Asterix is one of the most popular comics in the world, translated into more than 100 languages; with a host of animated and live-action movies, assorted games and even his own theme park (Parc Astérix, near Paris). More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have been sold worldwide, making Goscinny & Uderzo France’s bestselling international authors.

This is sublime comics storytelling and you’d be as Crazy as the Romans not to increase that statistic by finally getting around to acquiring your own copies of this fabulous, frolicsome French Folly.
© 1961-1963 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.