Footrot Flats book 7


By Murray Ball (Orin Books)
ISSN: 0156-6172

Once upon a time, Britain ran an Empire, and now we’ve found a more equitable station as just one of 53(ish) independent nations in a Commonwealth. This last fortnight we’ve celebrated that with our own sporting Games, then capped that by having Britain (notional head of the Commonwealth) insult every other member of the vast panoply of nations and cultures that we’ve befriended/exploited.

Some of those nations have always been handy with comebacks, rejoinders and cartoon salvos of their own, and whilst this particular item may not have the political venom of the creator’s earlier works, it more than makes up for it by being the absolute best comedy strip the Commonwealth has ever produced (and yes, I’m even including our very own The Perishers).

New Zealand’s greatest natural wonder and National Treasure is in fact a comic strip. Footrot Flats is one of the funniest ever created, designed as a practical antidote to idealistic pastoral fantasy and bucolic self-deception and concocted in 1975 by cartoonist and comics artist Murray Ball after returning to his New Zealand homeland from an extended work tour of the UK and other, lesser, climes.

The fantastical farm feature ran for a quarter of a century, appearing in newspapers on four continents until 1994 when Ball retired it, citing reasons as varied as the death of his own dog and the state of New Zealand politics. Such a success naturally spawned a multitude of merchandising material such as strip compendia, calendars and special editions released regularly from 1978 onwards.

Once Ball officially ceased the daily feature he began periodically releasing books of all-new material until 2000, with a net yield of 27 collections of the daily strip, 8 volumes of Sunday pages dubbed “Weekenders”, 5 pocket books and ancillary publications such as “school kits” aimed at younger fans and their harried parents.

There was a stage musical, a theme park and in 1986 a truly superb feature-length animated film. The Dog’s Tail Tale became New Zealand’s top-grossing film (and remained so until Peter Jackson started associating with Hobbits) – track it down on video or petition the BBC to show it again – it’s been decades, for Pete’s sake…

The well-travelled, extremely gifted and deeply dedicated Mr. Ball had originally moved to England in the early 1960s, becoming a cartoonist for Punch (producing Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero and All the King’s Comrades) as well as drawing numerous strips for DC Thompson and Fleetway and even concocting a regular political satire strip in Labour Weekly.

After marrying he returned to the Old Country and resettled in 1974 – but not to retire…

Ball was busier than ever once he’d bought a small-holding on the North Island to farm in his “spare time”, which inevitably led to the strip under review.

Taking the adage “write what you know” to startling, heartbreaking and occasionally stomach-turning heights, the peripatetic pencil-pusher broke most of the laws of relativity to make time for these captivatingly insane episodes concerning the highs and lows – and most frequently “absurds” – of the rural entrepreneur as experienced by the earthily metaphoric Wallace Footrot Cadwallader: a bloke never too-far removed from mud, mayhem, ferocity and frustration…

Wal is a big, bluff farmer. He likes his grub; loves his sport – Rugby, Football (the Anzac sort, not the kiddie version Yanks call Soccer) Cricket, Golf(ish) and even hang-gliding; each in its proper season and at no other, since he just wants the easiest time a farmer’s life can offer…

Wal owns a small sheep farm (the eponymous Footrot Flats) honestly described as “400 acres of swamp between Ureweras and the Sea”.

With his chief – and only – hand Cooch Windgrass (a latter-day Francis of Assisi), and a verbose and avuncular sheepdog, Wal enjoys being his own boss – as much as the farm cat, goats, chickens, livestock and his auntie will let him…

Other persons of perennial interest include Wal’s fierce and prickly little niece Janice – known to all as Pongo – the aforementioned Aunt Dolly (AKA the sternly staunch and starched Dolores Monrovia Godwit Footrot), smart-ass local lad Rangi Wiremu Waka Jones, Dolly’s pompous and pampered Corgi Prince Charles and Pew, a sadistic, inventive, obsessed and vengeful magpie who bears an unremitting grudge against Wal…

When not living in terror of the monumental moggy dubbed “Horse”, teasing the corpulent Corgi or panic-attacking himself in imagined competition with noble hunting hound Major, the Dog narrates and hosts the strip.

A cool, imaginative and overly sentimental know-all and blowhard, Dog is utterly devoted to his, for want of a better term, Master – unless there’s food about, or Jess the sheepdog bitch is in heat again. However, the biggest and most terrifying scene-stealer was that fulsome feline Horse; a monstrous and imperturbable tomcat who lords it over every living thing in the district …

One of the powerful and persistent clichés of life is that to make people laugh one truly needs to experience tragedy and, having only recently lost my own four-footed studio-mate and constant companion of 15 years, I can certainly empathise with the artist’s obvious manly distress as this otherwise magnificently hilarious collection is movingly dedicated to the uniquely charming real-world inspiration for the battered and bewhiskered juggernaut… which only makes the comedy capers contained within even more bittersweet and effective, beginning with the poem to his departed companion and the bluff, brisk photo tribute which opens proceedings…

Once again the funny businesses comes courtesy of the loquacious canine softie, taking time out from eking out his daily crusts (and oysters and biscuits and cake and lamb’s tails and scraps and chips and…) and alternately getting on with or annoying the sheep, cows, bull, goat, hogs, ducks, bugs, cats, horses and geese, as well as sucking up to the resolutely hostile wildlife and the decidedly odd humans his owner knows or is related to.

Dog – his given name is an embarrassing, closely and violently guarded secret – loves Wal but always tries to thwart him if the big bloke is trying to do unnecessarily necessary farm chores such as chopping down trees, burning out patches of scrub, culling livestock, or trying to mate with the pooch’s main rival Darlene “Cheeky” Hobson, hairdresser-in-residence of the nearest town. As is also the case with the adoring comradeship of proper blokes, Dog is never happier than when embarrassing his mate in front of others, which explains the pages extracted from Wal’s old albums, showing the man to be in various humiliating baby shots and schoolboy scrapes…

Following on is the epic adventure ‘The Invasion of the Murphy Dogs’ – barbaric hounds from a neighbouring farm only afraid of one thing…

This extra-large (262x166mm) landscape monochrome seventh volume again comes from Australian Publisher Orin Books and continues the policy of dividing the strips into approximately seasonal sequences, and after a few more all-original cartoons again opens with ‘Spring’ – the busiest season of the farmer’s year (apart from the other three) – concentrating on Pew’s first attempts at avian home-making, Dog’s libido, horny farmers and hussy-hairdressers, loopy lambs, wild pigs, killer eels and cricket, as well as an extended sequence in which Wal and the Dog become involved in the local school’s curriculum and cuisine…

Once the long hot ‘Summer’ settles in, bringing fun with chicken-shearing, busy bees, a plague of carnivorous Wekas, thistles, Horse’s softer side(!) and his war with Pongo and Aunt Dolly, Hare infestations, river-rafting, Irish Murphy’s Pigs (far worse than his dogs), Cheeky’s picnic charm-offensive and the growing closeness of Rangi and Pongo…

‘Autumn’ brings piglets, scrub-burning, the revenge of dispossessed magpies, amorous bovines, fun with artificial insemination, fence-lining and back country cattle, honey-harvesting, darts and rugby, a confused ram who’d rather pursue Dolly than associate with eager ewes and Horse’s crucial role in the war against the magpies…

As ‘Winter’ again closes in, offering floods, the mixed messy joy of lambing season, mud, mad goats, whitebait fishing and footy, Wal unwisely agrees to take a class of schoolkids and their puritanical, prudish and priggish teacher on an eye-opening nature-lesson around Footrot Flats. Touched by the painful experience, the bluff cove then volunteers to coach the school’s sports and, after much humiliation, spends the rest of the book discovering how hard – and, for observers, funny – farming in a plaster cast can be…

As you’d expect, the comedy content is utterly, absolutely top-rate and the extended role played throughout by the surly star Horse all the more poignant…

Ball – who died in 2017 – was one of those truly gifted individuals who can actually imbue a few lines on paper with the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the manic hilarity of jester geniuses such as Tommy Cooper or the Marx Brothers. When combined with his sharp, incisive yet warmly human writing the result was, is, and remains sheer, irresistible magic.

In the early 1990s Titan Books published British editions of the first three volumes and German, Japanese, Chinese and American translations also exist, as well as the marvellous Australian compendia reviewed here – as ever the internet is your friend (although prices for individual volumes can range from £4 to $3,000, so if ever there was an argument for a comprehensive archival re-release, sheer profit would seem to be it)…

Dry, surreal and wonderfully self-deprecating, Footrot Flats always successfully wedded together sarcasm, satire, slapstick and strikingly apt surrealism in a perfect union of pathos and down to earth (and up to your eyebrows) fun that was and still is utterly addicting, exciting and just plain wonderful.

Plant the seeds for a lifetime of laughs by harvesting this or indeed any volume and you’ll soon see a bumper crop of fun irrespective of the weather or market forces…
© 1981-1982 Murray Ball. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 14: The Dashing White Cowboy


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Frederick W. Nolan & Simone Kunzig (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-66-3

Rangy, good-natured Lucky Luke is a doughty cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”, amiably roaming the fabulously mythic Old West, enjoying light-hearted adventures on his rather sarcastic know-it-all wonder-horse Jolly Jumper. He constantly interacts with a host of historical and legendary figures as well as even odder folk…

His unceasing exploits over 70 years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe – if not the world – generating in excess of 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…

That renown has generated the usual mountain of 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, legendary, heights starting 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 numerous 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 has previous in this country too, having first pseudonymously amused and enthralled British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun. He later rode back into comics-town in 1967 for comedy weekly Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

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

The most successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who 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 at 69 translated books and still going strong.

As Le Cavalier Blanc The Dashing White Cowboy was Morris & Goscinny’s 33rd collaboration, originally serialised in 1974 (and the hero’s 43rd album release a year later): a brash and engaging comedy of errors with the laconic freelance lawman encountering cunning bandits with a seemingly unbeatable modus operandi…

In the desolate wilds between frontier towns Luke and Jolly Jumper cross trails with a small but determined travelling troupe. The merry band consists of actor/impresario Whittaker Baltimore and his repertory company of the range: ingenue/leading lady Gladys Whimple, character (villain) player Barnaby Float and props man, set shifter and applause-starter Francis Lusty.

An affably welcoming bunch, they gift the wanderer with a complimentary ticket for their next performance in the nearby town of Nothing Gulch

Following a sardonic and satirical aside describing the nature of theatrical entertainment at this time and place, the story resumes with that much-anticipated melodrama “The Dashing White Cowboy” before the rowdy a not-particularly-au-fait Nothing Gulch crowd hungry for a break from everyday monotony.

Also eagerly lapping up the raucous entertainment are Luke and good friend Hank Wallace, but the boisterous audience participation turns ugly after a horrified cry of “The bank’s been robbed!” starts a riot…

Despite Lucky’s best efforts, the crime goes unsolved and soon after the motley crew up stakes for the next town. Coincidentally Miner’s Pass is Luke’s next port of call, too. At least it is now…

When the same performance is identically disrupted, the coincidence is too much to swallow… and then Luke – present at both crimes – is accused of robbery!

Barely escaping being lynched, our hero sets off after the Whittaker Company, Catching up to them in Indian Flats, he joins the cast, but when another bold theft occurs, he is once again the prime suspect…

By the time he gets out of jail, the trail has gone cold. Can it be that he has at last met his match?

Of course not, and, following a fortuitous break, the vengeance of the affronted justice-rider finally falls upon the deserving party… or is that parties?

Wry and devious, The Dashing White Cowboy is a fast-paced slapstick romp with plenty of action, vaudevillian chicanery, dirty double-dealing and barrel-loads of hilarious buffoonery. Superbly crafted by comics masters, this performance affords another enticing 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 1975 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Betty Boop volumes 1-3


By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet. She’s also probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since debuting.

The ultimate passion paragon was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist/animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – premiering in the monochrome animated short movie feature Dizzy Dishes. This was the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.

A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start, Betty was based on silent movie star Clara Bow. The “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) was originally anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.

Betty evolved into a fully – if wickedly distorted – human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and, having co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the Screen Songs featurettes before winning her own animated cartoon series, to reign as “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus, she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her ingenue appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. Although she ultimately failed in her suit, even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons.

With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and drawn in much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.

The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, romping amidst the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. In 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.

The Betty Boop comic strip never really caught on and was cancelled early in 1937, but that relatively short run still leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes, collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics such as Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected again elsewhere, more’s the pity…

There was a brief flurry of renewed Betty activity during the 1980s, leading to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and another newspaper strip Betty Boop and Felix by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker).

That one she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia alumnus Felix the Cat and it ran from 1984-1988, but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s fame, longevity and pedigree.

As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding screwball charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these snappy exploits of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine to form an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers. Their aim is to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.

The full-page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section, but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories. However, one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby: a certified cinematic rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.

There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, before the first volume concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…

Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour with Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds!)

Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …

Like many modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more.

Book 3 carries on in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…

By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips”, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation, especially in an era where female role models of any vintage remain a scarce resource.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon gamin, waif and houri (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets), surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?

Additionally, the second and third books also offer a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Growing Old with B.C. – A 50 Year Celebration


By Johnny Hart (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 978-1-905239-63-4 (HB)                    978-1-933160-68-9 (PB)

John Lewis Hart was born in Endicott, New York in 1931, and his first published cartoons appeared in military newspaper Stars and Stripes while he served with the US Air Force during the Korean War. On returning to Civvy Street in 1953, he sold a few gags to The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers Weekly and elsewhere, but had to earn a living as a general designer.

In 1958, for some inexplicable reason, caveman jokes were everywhere in magazines and comics (even latterly creeping onto TV and into movies). Despite all the dawn-age foofaraw, General Electric draughtsman and still-wannabe cartoonist Johnny Hart hadn’t sold a single one. He also desperately wanted to create a syndicated newspaper strip but couldn’t think of an idea.

And then one of his co-workers said why not do a strip feature one about Cavemen? Just like Alley Oop, but different…

Hart took a good look at the state of the world, and especially the people around him and the wryly outrageous social commentarians supporting and harassing hapless nebbish lead B.C. quickly took shape…

The concept sold instantly to the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate and the strip rapidly became a global hit, with the first of 41 collected editions (Hey! B.C.) released in 1959.

In 1964 Hart started collaborating with fellow cartoonist Brant Parker on a new strip. The Wizard of Id also became a monster hit. The features won Hart an astounding host of awards over the years: making him one of only 4 American cartoonists to produce two strips appearing contiguously in more than 1000 newspapers.

Hart died of a stroke on April 7th 2007. He was working at his drawing board. Brant Parker passed away eight days later.

Hart became a devout Christian during the mid-1980s – something which increasingly and controversially manifested in later strips – but his urgent need to preach and share took a long time to impact the trenchant, whimsically surreal wit and primal by-play of his primordial playpen…

B.C. is a modern everyday kind of guy: a general slob just getting by, but he has some odd and interesting friends breaking up the monotony of the pre-civilised world. These include self-proclaimed genius Peter, superstitious misogynist Wiley, proto-prime nerd Clumsy Carp, pre-human missing-link Grog, uber-sarcastic Curls and rakish lady-killer Thor.

Apparently, all of them are based on actual people – life-long friends of Hart’s – and their candid reminiscences provide a charming and poignant insight into the life of one of the most revered and successful cartoonists of modern times.

Other materialised regulars include a variety of talking beasts and inanimate objects: chatty, snappy dinosaurs, ants and ant-eaters, clams, snakes, turtles, birds and an apteryx – but I’m guessing they never had analogues with day-jobs in Eisenhower’s America…

This magnificent tome – available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions – offers a decade-by-decade selection of the best and most memorable B.C. strips, supplemented by a listing of its many awards, and comes stuffed with photographs and observations. This is a delightful commemoration of a truly great and very funny strip.

Hart died during the finishing stages of this book’s creation, making this the best way to celebrate his achievements. His legacy of brain-tickling, absurdist lunacy will never date, and creative anachronism has never been better used to raise a smile or an eyebrow in this lush collection of timely and timeless fun.
B.C. © 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc. B.C.© 1958-2006 John L. Hart Family Limited Partnership.

Manga Sutra – Futari H, Volume 1: Flirtation


By Katsu Aki (Katsuaki Nakamura) (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-4278-0536-2

I don’t think I’ve offended anybody for a while now, so with St. Valentine’s Day fast approaching I think we’re about due.

Therefore, if you are made uncomfortable, easily offended or embarrassed by the mention of graphic cartoon nudity and sexual situations, or if you have any problems at all with the oddly coy forthrightness of manga, please skip this review and move on.

Otherwise this peculiar coagulation of earnest soap opera and sexual self-help manual might be worth a moment of your attention. You might even be interested and want to see more…

Billed as “the best-selling sex guide from Japan” this initial volume – of at least 5 to my knowledge – is more accurately a sweet but explicit soap-opera love-story – albeit related in a staggeringly clinical-yet-chatty manner.

Makota and Yura are just married, but unbeknownst to each other, both still virgins. In short narrative episodes we follow their stumbling first steps to a healthy sex life, peppered with diagrams, statistics and a disturbingly jolly commentary. And lots of hilarity…

The act and any experience-improving techniques themselves are almost of secondary importance to the telling of a sweet and innocent RomCom yarn, with unsubtly-vamping co-workers, interfering know-it-all siblings and inquisitive parents all incessantly queuing up with advice and questions and inevitably making an embarrassing situation agonisingly worse…

There’s lots of nudity and oddly graphic-yet-(self)-censored copulation on show (neither male nor female primary sexual organs are ever depicted – it’s assumed you already know what they look like and besides, the Japanese consider their depiction to be in poor taste) but in no way does this resemble any Western style of “How-to-Do-It” (better) manual where the emphasis is on dispassionate, clinical education and task-oriented elucidation.

Of course, I’m just guessing about the last bit – I’ve never needed a manual or even a map in my life, no, not me, nope, Nuh-Uh…

Seriously, though, this isn’t so much an educational experience as much as a fascinating and beautifully drawn insight into the acceptable face of Japanese sexuality, and as such has lots to recommend it.

Which I do, as long as you’re old enough and promise to stop sniggering…
© 1996 KATSUAKI. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2008 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Marsupilami volume 1: The Marsupilami’s Tail


By Franquin, Batem & Greg; coloured by Leonardo and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-363-5

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentric, unpredictable, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and bastion of European storytelling who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handled the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant André Franquin who took the reins, slowly abandoned the previous format of short complete gags in favour of longer epic adventure serials and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

In 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers he devised a beguiling little South American critter dubbed Marsupilami to the mix. The little beast returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magic animal who inevitably grew into solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own. He increasingly included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades until he resigned in 1969…

Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Something of a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943 but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

During those formative early days Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite – AKA Will – (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four” who subsequently 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 eager novice ran with it for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own.

Almost every week fans would meet startling and zany new characters such as comrade and eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac. In the ever-evolving process Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, continuing their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory and “reporting back” their exploits in Le Journal de Spirou

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/Billy and Buddy), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Journal de Tintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 but was now legally obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned for good, happily taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

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 on his departure – is Marsupilami, which in addition to comics tales has become a star of screen, toy store, console and albums.

Franquin, plagued in later life by bouts of depression, passed away on January 5th 1997 but his legacy remains, a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin kept the rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing new adventures of the fuzzy and rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist and illustrator Luc Collin (pen name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of comedy tales. Now numbering 30 albums (not including an all-Franquin short story collection volume #0), the first of these was La Queue du Marsuplami, released in 1987 and translated here as The Marsupilami’s Tale.

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a devious anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia, and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos…

Into that teeming life-web of the Palombian rainforest comes dissolute riverboat captain Bombonera and his idiot boilerman Innadeiz. They are ferrying impatient and irascible great white hunter Mr. Bring M. Backalive up the inaccessible Rio Huaytoonarro so that he can be the first to capture and exhibit the legendary long-tailed monkey to an unbelieving world.

Sadly, Backalive has just reached the inescapable conclusion that the bumbling, prevaricating river rogue hasn’t the faintest clue where Marsupilamis dwell…

With his life endangered, Bombonera thinks fast and remembers a native fisherman who might be able to help. Yafegottawurm is up for the change of pace too; anything is better than sitting on a log waiting for the vile and voracious piranha to bite… at least until he realises the crazy white man wants to hunt the infernal, trouble making Marsupilami…

And so begins a madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, crazy plans and close shaves as the humans stalk the unflappable golden monkey (and its unsuspected, equally formidable family), upsetting the rhythms of the jungle and making enemies of not just the beasts but the Havoca natives who should have known better than to ignore their better judgement and join the hunt for the supposedly wonderful tasting Marsupilami…

Fast-paced, furiously funny and instantly engaging, the riotous romps and cataclysmic chases instigated by the mesmerising Marsupilami are big hits and beloved reads of wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Now it’s your turn to join in the fun. Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah!
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 2017 by Franquin, Greg & Batem. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

The World of Pont


By Graham Laidler, with an introduction by Richard Ingrams (Nadder Books)
ISBN: 0-90654-038-0

Graham Laidler was born in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne-on July 4th 1908, son of a prominent painter and decorator. Educated at Newcastle Preparatory school and Glenalmond in Perthshire, he was 13 when his father died and the family relocated to Buckinghamshire. Always captivated by cartooning, he channelled his artistic proclivities into more traditionally profitable avenues to support his widowed mother: training as an architect at the London School of Architecture from 1926-1931.

Perpetually dogged by ill-health, Laidler moonlighted as a cartoonist and in 1930 began a long-running domestic comedy strip entitled The Twiffs for The Women’s Pictorial. In 1932 he was diagnosed with a tubercular kidney and advised to live in healthier climates than ours. By August of that year he had sold his first cartoon to that most prestigious bulwark of British publishing: Punch.

Laidler was so popular that editor E.V. Knox took the unprecedented step of putting him under exclusive contract. With financial security established and his unique arrangement with Punch in place the artist began travelling the world. On the way he drew funny pictures, mostly of “The English” both at home and abroad, eventually generating 400 magnificent, immortal cartoons until his death in 1940, aged 32.

A charmingly handsome and charismatically attractive young man, Laidler visited Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, America and many other exotic, exceedingly not British places. He won his nickname and nom-de-plume in Rome during an incident with two “Vestal Virgin” travelling companions after which he was forevermore “Pontifex Maximus” or “Pont” to the likes of you and me…

His greatest gift was an almost-surgical gift for observation of social and cultural minutiae: gleaning picaresque detail and broad attitude which he disingenuously translated through his gently humorous graphic commentaries into simultaneously incisive and genteel, baroque and subtle picture-plays encapsulating the funniest of moments on every subject pertaining to the great Enigma of Being English in Public and Getting Away with It…

His work was collected into a number of books during his lifetime and since, and his influence as humourist and draughtsman can still be felt in many areas of comedy and cartooning.

Although he excelled in the strip cartoon format, Pont’s true mastery was in telling a complete story with a single perfect drawing. His carefully crafted images exemplified the British to the world at large and – most importantly – to ourselves.

During World War II the Nazis, with typical sinister efficiency, used his drawings as the basis of their anti-British propaganda when they invaded Holland, further confirming to the world the belief that Germans Have No Sense of Humour.

As Pont, for eight far-too-brief years, Graham Laidler became an icon and global herald of English life and you would be doing yourself an immense favour in tracking down his work. If you like Ealing comedies, Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford, St. Trinian’s and the Molesworth books or the works of Thelwell, Ronald Searle or Flanders and Swann, you won’t regret the effort.

Incomprehensibly, despite his woefully small output there still doesn’t seem to be a definitive archival collection of Pont’s work. One again I implore any potential publisher reading this to take the hint, but until then, for the rest of us there’s just the thrill of the hunt and the promised bounty in seeking out slim tomes such as The British Character, The British at Home, The British Carry On, Most of us are Absurd, Pont or this particularly rare magical compendium.

The World of Pont is the perfect primer of his historical hilarity; sampling the best of Laidler’s drawn divinations from his themed Punch series’ ‘The British Observed’; ‘The British at War’; ‘Popular Misconceptions’; ‘The British Woman’ and last but certainly not least, ‘The British Man’.

If you love great drawing and excoriating observational wit you’ll thank me. If you just want a damn good laugh, you’ll reward yourself with the assorted works of Pont.
© 1983, 2007 the estate of Graham Laidler.

Lucky Luke volume 13: The Tenderfoot


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Frederick W Nolan (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-65-6

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 action-packed, 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 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (AKA “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). Before his untimely death in 1977, Goscinny went on to co-author 45 graphic albums with Morris, after which Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus 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 later rode back into comics-town again in 1967, using the nom de plume Buck Bingo in UK weekly Giggle.

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 magnificently 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 approaching 70 translated volumes and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Le pied-tendre was the Dynamite Duo’s 23rd collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Tenderfoot): first published in Europe in 1968.

The wryly silly saga details how the “harmless” western tradition of ruthlessly hazing and bullying newcomers for their supposed lack of manliness, strange customs, fancy clothes and good manners is threatened after the fine folk of Dry Gulch bury crusty compadre Ol’ Baddy.

The beloved, centenarian old coot seemed to be truly one of them but when his heir arrives to inherit the spread, the town has to accept that the aged landowner was not only a British émigré named Harold Lucius Badmington but was also shamefully aligned to the snooty, snobbish nobility…

The fun-loving straight-shooters and right-thinkers are appalled at politely unflappable greenhorn toff Waldo Badmington: none more so than saloon owner Jack Ready who had devised his own wicked plans for Baddy’s vacant lands.

When the usual cruel welcoming tactics fail to get a rise out of Waldo, Jack renews his efforts to seize the spread by force, but Baddy’s old Indian retainer Sam and interfering do-gooder Lucky Luke have their own ideas about that…

What neither Waldo nor his own devoted manservant Jasper know is that the wandering troubleshooter has been secretly commissioned by Baddy in a deathbed request to ensure the newcomer keeps hold of his inheritance… but only if Luke judges him worthy of it…

The doughty young worthy certainly seems to cut the mustard at first sight. He manfully ignores being tossed in a blanket, disdainfully accepts being a human target, drinks like a native and joins in with the traditional and frequent bar-brawls. Better yet, he refuses to give in to Jack’s far from subtle pressure to sell up and go back where he came from…

With his greedy plans frustrated, Jack piles on the pressure, hiring gunmen and attacking the Badmington spread, and when that fails, plays his last card: craftily disappearing whilst framing Waldo for his “murder”…

However, the blackguard has not reckoned on Lucky’s determination and detective skills, and when the frame-up is exposed Jack is forced to settle the matter of impugned honour the English way…

Dry, sly and cruelly satirical, The Tenderfoot is a deviously-devised lampoon of classic cowboy movies with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters: proffering a potent peek into a unique and timeless genre to today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1968 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Smilin’ Jack: The Classic Aviator


By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)
No ISBN

Here’s another forgotten birthday boy seriously in need of an archival revival…

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

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no social media or television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most poor or middle-income folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers.

“The Funnies” were the most common and an almost communal recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount – hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics” – and from these gag and stunt beginnings came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of prototype swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (the same day); both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions.

The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding frequency and rapidity. Not only strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comicbooks but all our popular fiction. Still most common, however, were general feel-good humour strips with an occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Arguably the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real-life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages and in movie newsreels, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of comics-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy – by Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest – the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins. It ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, and was swiftly followed by both Lester J Maitland & Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961. Close on their high-flying heels came such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He was also a keenly dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Joe Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons, Zack swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and with the December 31st episode the series was more snappily re-titled Smilin’ Jack. Apparently, Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office…

The page steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and, on June 15th 1936, was augmented by a monochrome daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow sky novices and unqualified pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series, Smilin’ Jack nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving and morphing with the times into a romance, war-feature, crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap opera.

More importantly, the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice-married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. At 67 years of age, Mosley wanted to spend his final years in the air, not crouched over a drawing board…

This fabulous (and shamefully scarce) collection gathers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name-changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties.

Meet here or be reintroduced to Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hillbilly mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort, not the fighter plane kind) Bonita Caliente and numerous spies, thugs, imbecilic passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books after WWII broke out…

This kind of strip is, I suspect and fear, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or George Cukor films, requiring the contribution of a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration from the reader, but the effort is absolutely worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…

A grand adventure and one you should undertake at your leisure…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m going on best evidence here: if somebody else actually owns the rights now, let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry).

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Amongst the many cartoon and comics anniversaries this year there are household names still with us (albeit in exceedingly altered forms) and tragically masterpieces of the form that have faded from popular memory, even though their influence remains in every panel we might peruse…

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

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

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

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day vehicle not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

When it premiered in 1924, Tubbs was a diminutive and ambitious young shop-clerk, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through cosy, non-confrontational action, only to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became evermore exotic and thrill-packed, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the strenuous combat side of things, and thus – in the middle of a European-set war yarn – Wash liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made.

Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The bluff, two-fisted, surly, comprehensively capable, utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something not seen before in comics: a raw, square-jawed hunk played completely straight rather than as the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover, Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the groundbreaking new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape-Man, but rattled along like the surreal and tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created instead a full-colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire.

Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933 (happy 85th Cap!), in wild and woolly escapades set before his first fateful rendezvous with Tubbs.

This first sublime archival volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits, the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy then infiltrates a hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword-wielding Mongols, sultry houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits. The heady, intoxicating dramatic brew captivated entire families across the planet, week after addictive week…

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art.

The effect and influence of Crane’s pages can be seen in so many strips since; especially the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé and giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was the controlling NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the initial blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ opened on 21st January 1934, depicting the occidental hero bankrupted in saving the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block: a chivalrous gesture leading to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethnic stereotyping and casual racism were commonplace and acceptable – if not actually mandatory – the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous Yank as the exploitative villain was and remains a surprising delight.

Rambling Jack is every inch the greedy “ugly American” of later, more informed decades, and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in their path…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of comics fiction, with Easy recruiting comedy stooge ’Arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea, and one he had he had spotted from the air only through sheer chance.

However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles, survive blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat our valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim-‘n’-gritty turmoil and tension thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was an utterly irrepressible gag-man and his enchanting chapter-play serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day.

Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and inarguably blazed the trail for all of them.

Using a deep-sea diver’s suit, Easy and ‘Arry explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold. Typically, when the cannibals attack those dredged up treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch-hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th – July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry sorceress and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion…

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy then succumb to a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble is never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935), the Captain’s gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroils our hero in a manufactured war between two minor nations.

This tale addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding, this yarn sees Easy become the focus of Heyloff’s vengeance, and the sum total air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia.

Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14½ by 10½ inches, or 210 x 140 mm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer; a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz; contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches plus a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is primal comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby, and led inexorably to the greatest creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.