Young Gods & Friends

By Barry Windsor Smith (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-491-8

In keeping with the dolorous nature of this time of year I’m concentrating on a few missed opportunities in this period between the dubious joys of Christmas and the nervous anticipation of the New Year so here’s a graphic novel that in some way didn’t live up to all it could have been not because of the material itself but because of the kind of world we live in…

Barry Windsor Smith is a consummate creator whose work has moved millions and a principled artist who has always been poorly served by the mainstream publishing houses. Whether with his co-creation of Sword-and Sorcery comics via Conan the Barbarian or his later work-for-hire material for The Thing (Marvel Fanfare #15 – utterly hilarious), Machine Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Weapon X or the tremendously fun Archer & Armstrong/Valiant Comics work with Jim Shooter, his stunning visuals always entranced but never led to anything long-lived or substantial. And always the problem seemed to be a clash of business ethics versus creative freedom…

In 1995 Dark Horse, an outfit specialising in licensed and creator-owned properties, offered him the carte-blanche chance to do it his way in his own tabloid-sized anthology Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller. The magazine carried three features all written and drawn by the artist; The Paradoxman, The Freebooters and Young Gods. Although the work was simply stunning it appeared independent publishers were cut from the same cloth as the mainstream…

It’s not my business to comment on that: I’ve been both freelancer and publisher so I know there are at least two sides to everything (and you can hear Mr. Windsor Smith’s in this superb collection from Fantagraphics) but the series ended acrimoniously in 1997 after nine issues and the stories remained unfinished. This tome, the first of three, collected all the published material of each strip-strand and also includes the chapters still in progress at the time of the split, some new and reformatted material and other extras that fans and lovers of whimsical fiction would be crazy to miss.

But it is still incomplete and that’s a true shame…

Created as a light-hearted and wittily arch tribute to Jack Kirby’s majestic pantheon of cosmic comic deities Young Gods and Friends nominally stars foul-mouthed earthbound goddess Adastra, getting by as a pizza-delivery chick in New York City, but slowly builds and spreads into a mythico-graphic Waiting for Godot as we trace her past, discover warring pantheons that decided arranged weddings were better than Ragnaroks and meet the bold and heroic nuptualists who would do anything to avoid the arrangement: thus becoming delightfully diverted down a dozen different paths as a picture/story oh-so-slowly builds.

As I’ve mentioned the series came to an abrupt halt with the ninth episode, but there was a tenth ready and that is here, as well as material and fragments that would have been finished out the first dozen instalments as well as deleted scenes, fragments, outtakes and reworked snippets.

On a purely artistic level this collection and extrapolation is a sheer delight; with superb art, splendid writing and all sorts of added extras, but the story-consumer in me can’t help but yearn for what might have been and how much has been lost.

Beautiful wry, witty and completely enchanting – and tragically disappointing because of that

™ & © 2003 Barry Windsor Smith. All Rights Reserved.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my own self-created Christmas tradition here’s another selection of British Annuals that contributed to making me what I am today, selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because they are still eminently palatable and worthy of your attention, even under here in the disconcertingly futurist 21st Century.

After decades when only American comics and nostalgia items were considered collectable, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in home grown product. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume, I hope my words can convince you to acquire it. However, if I can also create a groundswell of publishers’ attention, maybe a lot of magical material out there in print limbo will resurface in affordable new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. On one level the tastes of the public have never been more catholic than today and a sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base. Let’s make copyright owners aware that there’s money to be made from these slices of our childhood. You start the petition… I’ll certainly sign it.

Hanna-Barbera’s The Impossibles Annual

By various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co.)

British Comics have always fed from other media and as television grew during the 1960s – especially the area of children’s shows and cartoons – those programmes increasingly became a staple source for the Seasonal Annual market. There would be a profusion of stories and strips targeting not readers but young viewers and more and more often the stars would be American not British.

Much of this stuff wouldn’t even be as popular in the USA as here, so whatever comic licenses existed usually didn’t provide enough material to fill a hardback volume ranging anywhere from 64 to 160 pages. Thus many Annuals such as Champion the Wonder Horse or Lone Ranger and a host of others would require original material or as a last resort, similarly themed or related strips. The Impossibles Annual was one of these and used both solutions…

Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles debuted in America in Fall 1966, an early entry in Hanna-Barbera’s line of spoof superheroes cartoons (preceded by Atom Ant and followed by the likes of Captain Caveman and Hong Kong Phooey) and led to a string of straight adventures heroes like Birdman, Johnny Quest and the magnificent Alex Toth-designed Space Ghost.

Frankenstein Jr. was an affable giant robot built by the rather recondite Professor Conroy who went crimefighting with his builder’s spunky son Buzz, whilst The Impossibles were a trio of superheroes who travelled the world defeating evil at the behest of their mysterious handler “Big D”. Their cover was a pop group of the same name, and, since television and comics producers love to hedge their bets, Multi Man Fluid Man and Coil Man bore a more than coincidental resemblance to a certain band from Liverpool who were currently taking the world by storm…

The show ran for two seasons, but Hanna-Barbera’s comicbook connection Gold Key only ever released one issue of Frankenstein Jr. (which included an Impossibles back-up) and the contents of that are all included here, so the British publisher found themselves having to reprint other H-B adaptations as well as paying for new material – in the traditional form of text stories and features.

With typical British eccentricity the B-feature got top billing here so the titular stars don’t actually appear too often in this 64 page nostalgia goldmine, which opens with just such an illustrated prose story (sadly uncredited and anonymous). ‘The Impossibles Cure a Doctor’ is an impressively clever duel with a mad scientist, promptly followed by a Gold Key strip ‘The Impossibles vs. The Mirror-Man’ (probably drawn by unsung genius of cartoon comics Pete Alvarado – but I’m only guessing).

Next up is the first associative fill-in; one of two rewritten strips featuring future family The Jetsons. ‘Auto-Pappy’ (and the subsequent ‘How to Mine a Moon!’ might actually be The Rogue Robot and The Wild Moon Chase from #22 of their own Gold Key comic series, but again I’m positing not positive), after which Big Franky and little Buzz tackled ‘The Image Invasion’.

Next up is a stunning show-stealer from artist Dan Spiegle whose Space Ghost thriller ‘Zorak’s Revenge’ blew my mind over forty years ago and still does the business now. It originally appeared in a one-shot from Christmas of 1966 (cover-dated March 1967, because that’s the way the Americans did things). The all-out action against aliens and monsters is followed by another comedy romp when ‘Frankenstein Jr. Meets the Flea Man’ and that aforementioned Jetsons retread, after which a crossword featuring those fabulous future folks gives us all pause for thought.

The Impossibles Annual ends as it began with another prose piece, but one starring Franky and the boy Buzz as they faced ‘A Spook in his Wheel.’

A lost bauble probably only recalled by increasingly doddery dotards, this book is packed with solid family entertainment from simpler times – and possibly created for simpler kids – but I’d love to be proved wrong..

All other material ™ and © 1968 Hanna Barbera Productions Inc. The Jetsons ™ 1968 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Comic Annual 1969

By various (World Distributors, Ltd.)

When Stan Lee rejuvenated the American comic-book industry in the early 1960s, his biggest advantage wasn’t the small but superb talent pool available, but rather a canny sense of marketing and promotion. DC, Dell/Gold Key and Charlton all had limited overseas licenses (usually in dedicated black-and-white anthologies liked the much beloved Alan Class Comics such as Suspense) but Lee – or his business managers – went further, sanctioning Marvel’s revolutionary early efforts in regular British weeklies like Pow!, Wham!, Smash! and even the venerable Eagle.

There were two wholly Marvel-ised papers, Fantastic! and Terrific! which ran from 1967 to 1968. These slick format comics featured a number of key Marvel properties, and, appearing every seven days, soon exhausted the back catalogue of the company.

After years of being a guest in other publications Marvel finally secured their own UK Annuals through the publishing arm of World Distributors and this sparkling collection is one of the very best. Completely gone are the text pieces, quizzes and game pages that filled out British Christmas books, replaced with cover-to-cover superhero action produced by the emergent House of Ideas at the very peak of their creative powers and even includes a few almost Golden Age classics. Moreover it’s in full colour throughout – almost unheard of at the time.

A closer look by Marvel scholars would ascertain that all of the strips published here were actually taken from the wonderful 25¢ giants (Marvel Tales, Marvel Collectors Item Classics and Marvel Superheroes) released during the previous year, perfectly portioned out to fit into a book intended for a primarily new and young audience.

Behind the delightful painted cover the enchantment commences with a John Romita drawn Captain America tale from 1954, as the Sentinel of Liberty and Bucky lay waste to a scurvy gang of Red Chinese dope smugglers in ‘Cargo of Death’, promptly followed by a spectacular Thor saga from Lee, Jack Kirby & Chic Stone as the Thunder God tackled ‘The Cobra and Mr. Hyde’ complete with cameo from the mighty Avengers.

The first of two Hulk shorts comes next, another commie-busting classic with science fiction overtones Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers’s ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space’ is a terrific all-action mini-blockbuster, perfectly complimented by the superbly Lee & Steve Ditko sinister crime Shocker wherein Spider-Man finds himself trapped between ‘The Goblin and the Gangsters!’

Unsung genius Bill Everett provided two superb Sub-Mariner tales, both from the fabulous 1950s, and the secret origin saga ‘Wings on his Feet’ is the first and undeniable best of these, his magical line-work wonderfully enhanced by the bold colour palette and crisp heavy white paper of this comfortingly sturdy tome.

He is followed by a masterful clash of titans as ‘Iron Man Faces Hawkeye the Marksman’ by Lee & Don Heck, before ‘The Hulk Triumphant’ (concluding chapter of the very first appearance wherein the Green Goliath ended the menace of Soviet mutation The Gargoyle) and this Annual ends with an enthralling Everett Sub-Mariner epic as the Prince of Atlantis defeated mad scientists and monsters ‘On a Mission of Vengeance!’

These oft-reprinted tales have never looked better than on the 96 reassuringly solid pages here: bold heroes and dastardly villains running riot and forever changing the sensibilities of a staid nation’s unsuspecting children. Magic, utterly Marvellous Magic!
© 1969 Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.

The Dandy Book 1968

By various (D.C. Thomson & Co.)

For many British fans Christmas means The Beano Book (although Scots worldwide have a pretty fair claim that the season belongs to them with collections of The Broons and Oor Wullie making every December 25th magical) but I’ve done one of those so this year I’m concentrating on a another Thomson cracker that made me the man wot I am. As usual my knowledge of the creators involved is woefully inadequate but I’m going to hazard a few guesses in the hope that someone with better knowledge will correct me when I err.

The Dandy comic actually predated the Beano by eight months, completely revolutionising the way children’s publications looked and most importantly how they were read. Over the decades it too produced a bevy of household names that delighted generations and the end of year celebrations were bumper bonanzas of the comic’s weekly stars in brief and extended stories.

The action here begins on the inside front cover as seminal star Korky the Cat (by Charles Grigg?) got the ball rolling – wrapped up the show at the end – before unique cowboy superman Desperate Dan suffers a prank from his equally rambunctious nephew and niece which literally brings the house down and hard-pressed squaddie Corporal Clott (by Dennis the Menace originator Davy Law or possibly his successor David Sutherland) finds guard duty in the snow a little chilly, taking ludicrous steps to warm up. He was equally ill-considered in his other two appearances this year…

D.C. Thomson were extremely adept at combining anarchic, clownish comedy with solid fantasy adventure tales such as ‘The Island of Monsters’ (illustrated by Paddy Brennan or perhaps Ron Smith) a thrilling castaway yarn as two boys find themselves marooned on a tropical paradise where all the animals suddenly grow to incredible size. He/they might also be the artist on the other science fiction thriller in this volume. ‘Captain Whoosh’ was a jet-pack wearing thief constantly foiled by plucky paperboy Terry Ball who here foils the rocket rogue’s attempts to plunder Moortown’s extremely well-stocked Art Gallery and museum. These picture thrillers usually came in the old-fashioned captioned format, with blocks of typeset text rather than lettered word balloons.

These annuals were traditionally produced in the wonderful “half-colour” that many British publishers used to keep costs down whilst bringing a little spark into our drab and gloomy young lives. This was done by printing sections of the books with two plates, such as blue/Cyan and red/Magenta: The versatility and palette range this provided was astounding. Even now this technique screams “Holidays” to me and my contemporaries, and this volume uses the technique to stunning effect.

The Smasher was a lad from the same mould as Dennis the Menace and in the four episodes here (by Hugh Morren) he carves a characteristic swathe of anarchic destruction, whilst a great deal of material was based on school as seen by both teachers and pupils. ‘Greedy Pigg’ (by George Martin), featured a voracious teacher always attempting to confiscate and scoff his pupils snacks. He fails miserably three times in this book… After a giant rebus crossword quiz by Eric Roberts (or perhaps Tom Williams), Dan returns only to fall foul of tomato growers, whilst Korky accidentally talks himself into a duel and ends up soundly thrashed. The immortal cat fares far better in his spats with be-kilted Highland strongmen, a beach inspector and in an angling competition but comes painfully second to boxing organisers when he tries to view without paying…

There’s one more extra-long Desperate Dan tale (wherein he paints the town red, but not in a good or gentle way) at the end of the book, but before then the magnificent Eric Roberts does double-duty this year with five strips starring perennial bath-dodger Dirty Dick and an extended seasonal saga of Boarding School bright-spark Winker Watson, and still found time and energy to illustrate five giant puzzle-spreads, whilst the inevitable outcomes of the four clashes between Bully Beef and Chips (drawn by Jimmy Hughes) invariably found the underdog’s brain always trumps brutal brawn.

This book is not short on drama or comedy adventure either. ‘Spunky and his Spider’ is the delightful rustic tale of an affable, truanting kid and his devoted, amiable apple-loving, giant antediluvian arachnid by the fabulous Bill Holroyd, who also crafted a hilarious school Christmas party romp starring schoolboy Charley Brand and his robotic pal ‘Brassneck’ and a cheeky sci fi giggle-fest starring alien visitor ‘Super Sam’ and his humongous minder Big Boris on a fact-finding mission to a town near you… As with the thrillers these yarns also came typeset, allowing more of the fabulous artwork to shine through.

‘Randall’s Vandals’, by an artist I don’t recognise, is the story of a canny gamekeeper’s son seeing off a bunch of rowdy big city poachers and everybody’s favourite sheepdog Black Bob tugs at the heartstrings in the book’s only prose story as a wilful lad playing with fireworks renders the legendary Border Collie a (temporarily) ‘Blind Bob!’ The beautiful illustrations are, as ever, by the great Jack Prout.

Stuffed with activity and gag-pages, and bursting with classic kid’s comedy and adventure this is a tremendously fun book, and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is over four decades old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s such D.C. Thomson annuals as this…

© 1968 D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.

Elephant Man

By Greg Houston (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-588-7

Cartoonist, caricaturist, designer, educator, actor and big fan of old movies Greg Houston delights in the baroque and comically grotesque; positively revelling in taking taste-free pot-shots at societal and popular culture icons (see Vatican Hustle for more of his measured, manic musings) and his latest brilliant black and white book has a go at the very bedrock of our medium by parodying and pastiching the classic superhero scenario.

Baltimore has its own Costumed Crusader and he is the perfect symbol of a city with so little to recommend it. He doesn’t have any proper powers, but the people love him and on the fifth anniversary of his first appearance the minor metropolis is holding a week of commemorative events.

Local paper the Daily Crab is following events, particularly feisty journo Tracie Bombasso, cub reporter Dud Cawley and mild-mannered, colonically-challenged reporter Jon Merrick (yes, that kind of Elephant Man), despite the rantings of unpopular on-air TV presenter Handsome Dick Denton – but he’s just jealous, right?

Also determined to spoil everything is sinister conjoined villain The Priest, the Rabbi and the Duck, twisted victim of an old joke and a tragic accident involving alcohol and science…

Can Merrick keep his identity secret from his fellow reporters, foil the machinations of Denton and stop the three-headed Hydra of Pique? Of course he can, but along the way there’s bizarre characters old and new (keep your eyes peeled for cameos from Boss Karate Black Guy Jones and other Vatican Hustle alumni), cripplingly painful embarrassing moments and enough ugly hilarity to have a very good time indeed.

And lest you think we’re being unkind to the place let me reveal that Houston is Baltimore born-and-bred…

Beneath the outrageous parody and extreme mock-heroics is another witty and genuinely funny adult romp which pokes edgy fun at everything from politicians to donuts, weathermen to beauticians, making some telling observations about heroes and how to treat them, all rendered in a busy, buzzy, black and white line that appeals and appals in equal amounts.

Warning: this book contains Six-foot talking flies and shaved, car-racing monkeys.

© 2010 Greg Houston. All rights reserved.

Will Eisner Color Treasury

By Will Eisner, written by Catherine Yronwoode (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 0-87816-006-X

It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the key creative forces who shaped the American comic book industry, with most of his graphic works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. But as far as I know at least one of his milestones has generally escaped public attention.

From 1936 to 1938 Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips to be published in both domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew the opening instalments of a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas,

Westerns, Detectives, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes – lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity, creating three strips which would initially be handled by him before two of them were handed off to his talented assistants. Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead strip for himself, and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. In 1952 the venture folded and Eisner moved into commercial, instructional and educational strips, working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind.

In the wake of “Batmania” and the 1960s superhero craze, Harvey Comics released two giant-sized reprints with a little material from the artist, which lead to underground editions and a slow revival of the Spirit’s fame and fortune via black and white newsstand reprint magazines. Initially Warren Publishing collected old stories, even adding colour sections with painted illumination from such contemporary luminaries as Rich Corben, but with #17 the title reverted to Kitchen Sink, who had produced the first two underground collections.

Eisner found himself re-enamored with graphic narrative and saw a willing audience eager for new works. From producing new Spirit covers for the magazine (something the original newspaper insert had never needed) he became increasingly inspired. American comics were evolving into an art-form and the restless creator finally saw a place for the kind of stories he had always wanted to tell.

He began crafting some of the most telling and impressive work the industry had ever seen: first in limited collector portfolios and eventually, in 1978, with the groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract With God.

If Jack Kirby is the American comicbook’s most influential artist, Will Eisner is undoubtedly its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape. Will Eisner went Home, went Back and went Inward.

This fictionalised series of tales about the Jewish immigrant experience led to a wonderful succession of challenging, controversial and breathtakingly human stories for adults which changed how comics were perceived in America… and all because the inquisitive perfectionist was asked to produce some new covers for old stories.

This glorious oversized hardback (still available through internet retailers) features two full Spirit adventures, fully re-coloured by the master (who was never particularly pleased with how his strips were originally limned), pencil sketches and a magnificent confection of those aforementioned covers – plus some really rare extras.

The eerie 1948 chiller ‘Lorelei of Odyssey Road’ leads off this tome followed by a barely seen science fiction Spirit story. ‘The Invader’ – produced in the 1970s as the result of a teaching gig Eisner had at Sheridan College in Canada.

Eisner created the first page in class to show students the fundamentals of comics creation, and after months of coaxing was convinced to complete the tale, which was published in an extremely limited edition as the Tabloid Press Spirit in 1973. The action and sly, counter-culture comedy is impressively compact and well coordinated: ‘The Invader’ comfortably fits 57 panels into its five pages whereas the old eight-page yarns used to average a mere 50 frames…

Following two gloriously lush wraparound Kitchen Sink covers (complete with a pencil rough) and the hilarious cover to underground anthology Snarf #3, the single page Warren pieces commence. Originally seen on issues #2 through 10 they have all been re-mastered by Eisner and are simply stunning.

After these come the fully-painted wraparounds (all magnificently presented as double-page spreads) that graced the Kitchen Sink Spirit issues #18,-24, #27-29 and #31 and then the rare 1977 Spirit Portfolio is reproduced in the same generous proportions: eleven stunning paintings encapsulating key moments in the masked detective’s astonishing career.

‘The Hideaway’, ‘The Scene of the Crime’, ‘The Women’, ‘The Duel’, ‘Dead End’, ‘The Convention’, ‘The Rescue’, ‘The Chase’, ‘The Capture’ and ‘The City’ plus the portfolio cover are followed by the contents of 1980’s ‘City: a Narrative Portfolio’ a series of evocative black line and sepia ghetto images with obverse blank verse and cameo images dealing with the eternal themes that shape man as a metropolitan dweller. Once more including the cover image, ‘The Spark’, ‘The City’, ‘Predators’, ‘Mugger’, ‘Family’ and ‘Life’ are powerfully moving and magically rendered one-frame stories that presage his growing use of the urban landscape as an integral character in his later works.

With a fascinating biography and commentary from historian and publisher Cat Yronwoode this book is a lavish treat for Eisner aficionados, but the treats still aren’t exhausted: there are also rare colour works and illustrations from Cosmos magazine and Esquire, plus poster art, unpublished Spirit paintings and a preview of his then forthcoming book Big City

Will Eisner is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in American comics but it is too seldom that his incredible draughtsmanship and design sense get to grab the spotlight. This book is a joy no fan or art-lover can afford to be without.
© 1981 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

Comics at War

By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless, generally unlauded creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of lost or forgotten treasures into the mix.

A perfect example of this is today’s wonderful item, a copious and huge chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 celebrating the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of child-culture.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – the casual reader with some of that wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contribution to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times this 160 page book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and cover feature of Jester, Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as ‘Be Prepared’ (with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

‘At War With the Army’ displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority- displaying Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy), Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

‘Tanks a Million!’ finds selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics – it’s your choice and your loss.

The strip that started this tirade was an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter dealing with the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and includes many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent coloured people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

‘At Sea with the Navy!’ highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, by Albert Pease), Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton), Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden, by Roy Wilson, Billy Bunter (Knock-Out, by Frank Minnitt), Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst ‘Sinking the Subs’ takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with ‘In the Air with the R.A.F.’ featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and Koko the Pup.

‘Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis!’ demonstrates just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop, (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with devastating mockery.

‘Doing Their Bit’ gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry stars into another bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley featuring Lucan & McShane, Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy re-presented here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of ‘Evacuation Saves the Nation!’ as our collective banishment of the cities’ children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators. Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up whilst ‘Blackout Blues!’ find the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors.

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len whilst ‘Gas Mask Drill’ sees the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella.

‘Barrage Balloons!’ lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with selections from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (from Larks by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun, whilst ‘Tuning Up the A.R.P.!’ deals out the same treatment to the volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. The Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls get a go in the vanguard with ‘Wow! Women of War!’ starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively), Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled ‘Doing Their Best’ with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny, and Big Eggo.

Imminent invasion was in the air and the cartoonist responded with measured insolence. ‘Hop It, Hitler!’ displays our fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, whilst espionage antics are exposed in ‘I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye!’ in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men, more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

‘Wireless War!’ celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ spectacularly wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

‘To Blazes With the Firemen!’ is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home-front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (who’s dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boys from Tiny Tim’s Weekly, Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of ‘Luvly Grub!’

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of ‘Salvage’, ‘Comical Camouflage!’, ‘Workers Playtime!’ and ‘Allies’, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the Indiarubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

‘V for Victory!’, wherein a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows features final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, Its That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and from Jingles, Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses the tales here from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

Ding Dong Daddy From Dingburg (Zippy Annual #10)

By Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-389-7

Starting life as an underground cartoon in 1971, Bill Griffith’s absurdist commentary on American society has grown into such a prodigious and pervasive counter-culture landmark that it’s almost a bastion of the civilisation it constantly scrutinises. Almost: there’s still a lot of Americans who don’t like and certainly don’t get Zippy the Pinhead.

Legendarily based on the microcephalic Schlitzie from Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film “Freaks” and P.T. Barnum’s carnival attraction Zip the Pinhead, Griffith’s Muu-Muu clad simpleton first appeared in Real Pulp Comix #1 (March 1971) and other scurrilous home-made commix before winning a regular slot in the prominent youth culture newspaper The Berkley Barb in 1976. Soon picking up syndication across America and the world, Zippy “dropped in” when in 1985 King Features began syndicating the strip, launching it in the San Francisco Examiner.

Zippy’s ruminations and dada-ist anti-exploits have expanded over the years to include his own nuclear family and cat, a peculiar cast of iconic semi regulars like Mr. The Toad, embodiment of Capitalism, Griffy (an analogue of the cartoonist creator) and brother Lippy (a conceptual and ideological opposite in the grand tradition of Happy Hooligan’s sibling Gloomy Gus: Lippy is the epitome of the average mainstream US citizen) plus an entire town of like-minded pinheads – Dingburg.

The strip follows few conventions although it is brilliantly drawn. Plot-lines and narratives, even day to day traditional gags are usually eschewed in favour of declamatory statements of absurdist, quasi-philosophical and often surreal concept-strings that resemble word (and occasionally picture) association or automatic writing, all highlighting the ongoing tsunami of globalisation as experienced by every acme of our modern culture from the latest fad in consumer electronics to celebrity fashion and “newsfotainment”.

The strip is the home of the damning non-sequitur and has added to the global lexicon such phrases as “Yow!” and “Are we having fun yet?”

Being free of logical constraint and internal consistency, Zippy’s daily and Sunday forays against The Norm can encompass everything from time travel, talking objects, shopping lists, radical philosophy, caricature, packaging ingredients, political and social ponderings and even purely visual or calligraphic episodes. It is weird and wonderful and not to everybody’s tastes…

This current volume (16 and counting) is broken into themed segments beginning with an extended tour of his home town: meeting the everyday folk and getting to know them in ‘Back to Dingburg’, which is followed by a selection of informed conversations with three dimensional commercial signage and advertising statuary in ‘Roadside Attractions’.

The central section reprints a selection of ‘Sunday Color’ strips, followed by a collection of muses and meanderings between character and creators via ‘Zippy and Griffy’ cunningly counter-pointed by a extended sequence of existential ripostes, spiritual revelations and biblical revisions when ‘God’ comes for an uninvited visit to Dingburg.

‘The Usual Suspects’ introduces new readers to such luminaries as Mr. The Toad, and recurring topics such as the spoof comic-strip-within-a-strip Fletcher and Tanya, before the book concludes with a brief but illuminating conglomeration of strips featuring the pinhead as a boy in the pastiche-frenzied  ‘Little Zippy.’

The collected musings of America’s most engaging Idiot-Savant have all the trappings of the perfect cult-strip and this latest volume finds cretin and creator on absolute top form. If you like this sort of stuff you’ll adore this enticing slice of it. Yow!

© 2008, 2009, 2010 Bill Griffith. All rights reserved.

Dr. Watchstop: Adventures in Time and Space

By Ken Macklin (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 0-913035-85-8

Before becoming a successful games artist for LucasArts graphic adventure games (I don’t actually grok push-button fun but I gather that Maniac Mansion, Loom, the second and third Monkey Island contraptions and the character Bubsy the bobcat number among his electronic hits) Ken Macklin was an underground/small press creator who delighted in cleverly whimsical and witty funny animal strips during the late 1970s in indy publications such as Quack!

Married to equally talented anthropomorphic raconteur Lela Dowling, he assisted and contributed to her marvelously manic Weasel Patrol tales, which were published in the lost and long-lamented sci-fi anthology Fusion whilst producing his own diabolically wonderful one-shot space opera romp Contractors and the stimulating vignettes gathered here.

As well as a talented designer and illustrator Macklin is a gifted painter and slyly devious writer and in 1982 he began selling brief, luxurious mini-epics starring an astonishingly brilliant but outrageous innocent multi-discipline savant named Dr. Watchstop to Epic Illustrated and Fusion: high quality graphic fantasy magazines aimed at older readers.

In an era where science fiction was synonymous with and indistinguishable from cops and cowboys with blasters, Watchstop’s antics were contemplative, slapstick, wickedly ironic, eyes wide-open wonderments that only saw the ridiculous side of technology and the future cosmos…

Still readily available this oversized compilation gathers all those marvelously intellectual, winningly funny spoofs and japes, opening in glorious painted colour with ‘Dr. Watchstop Faces the Future’ (Epic #10 February 1982), possibly the last word in time paradox tales, followed by an amoebic dalliance ‘One Cell at a Time’ before demonstrating the downside of ancient alien artifacts in ‘Time Bomb’ (Epic #14 and #17 respectively).

If possible Macklin’s art is even better as monochrome tonal washes, as perfectly illustrated in the hilarious ‘Unique Specimen’ (Fusion #1, January 1987), life-through-a-lens fable ‘Modern Culture’ (Fusion #3) and natural history segments ‘Right Stuff’ (Fusion #7) and ‘Bugs’ (Fusion #5).

‘Relic’ (Fusion #2) is pure Future Shock whilst full-colour ‘The Single Electron Proof’ from Epic #21(September 1983, and with the timely assistance of Toren Smith) will stretch the higher mathematics prodigies amongst us with a little metaphysical tomfoolery.

Epic #29 provided a first home for ‘In Search of Ancient Myths’, #33 both ‘Reaching Out’ and ‘Beating the Heat’ whilst the last colour cosmic conundrum ‘Wasting Time’ debuted in #34. The remainder of this collection features more black and white antics from Fusion, beginning with the vaudevillian ‘Gone Fishing’ (#4), moving adroitly into ‘Xlerg’s Fossil Emporium’ (#8) and anarchically culminating in a riotous Weasel Patrol collaboration enigmatically entitled ‘The Weasels Fill In’ from Fusion #9 (May 1988)

Sheer artistic ability and incisive comedy for smart people is never going to be out of style and this stellar compilation will be a constant joy for any fan smart enough to unearth it.
© 1989 Ken Macklin, and where appropriate Raymond E. Feist, Toren Smith, Lela Dowling and LX Ltd. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents House of Mystery volume 1

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0786-1

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 very occasional her) until the troops came home and older 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, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on the 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 which 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 and 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 boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched 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 ostensibly a free country now) 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, and even became super-hero tinged split-books (With Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in HoM, and Eclipso sharing space with Mark Merlin and later Prince Ra-Man in HoS).

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 but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even the ultra wholesome Archie comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle thrillers

Thus with absolutely no fanfare at all issue #174, cover dated May-June 1968 presented a bold banner demanding “Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery?” and reprinted a bunch of admittedly excellent short fantastic thrillers originally seen in House of Secrets from the heady days when it was okay to scare kids. Staring off was ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (HoS #58) by an unknown writer and compellingly illustrated by the great Lee Elias, another uncredited script ‘The Man Who Hated Good Luck!’ limned by Doug Wildey and the only new feature of the issue – one which would set the tone for decades to come.

Page 13 was a trenchantly comedic feature page scripted by Editor and EC veteran Joe Orlando and cartooned by manic Hispanic genius Sergio Aragonés. It stated quite clearly that whilst the intent was to thrill, enthral and even appal it was all in the spirit of sinister fun, and gallows humour was the order of the day. The comic then concluded with a Bernard Baily tale of the unexpected ‘The Museum of Worthless Inventions’ (from #13) and concluded with the Jack Miller, Carmine Infantino & Mort Meskin fantasy fable ‘The Court of Creatures’ (a Mark Merlin masterpiece from HoS #43).

The next issue can probably be counted as the true start of this latter day revenant renaissance, as Orlando revived the EC tradition of slyly sardonic narrators by creating the Machiavellian Cain, “caretaker of the House of Mystery” and raconteur par excellence. Behind the first of a spectacular series of creepy covers from Neal Adams lurked another reprint ‘The Gift of Doom’ (from HoM #137, illustrated by George Roussos) followed by ‘All Alone’, an original, uncredited prose chiller.

After another Page 13 side-splitter, Aragonés launched his long-running gag page ‘Cain’s Game Room’ and the issue closed with an all-new new comic thriller ‘The House of Gargoyles!’ by veteran scaremongers Bob Haney and Jack Sparling.

With format firmly established and commercially successful the fear-fest was off and running. Stunning Adams covers, painfully punny introductory segments and interspersed gag pages (originally just Aragonés but eventually supplemented by other cartoonists such as John Albano, Lore Shoberg and John Costanza. This feature eventually grew popular enough to be spun off into bizarrely outrageous comicbook called Plop! – but that’s a subject for another day…) supplied an element of continuity to an increasingly superior range of self-contained supernatural thrillers. Moreover, if ever deadline distress loomed there was always a wealth of superb old material to fill in with.

HoM #176 led with spectral thriller ‘The House of No Return!’ by an unknown writer and the great Sid Greene and young Marv Wolfman (one of an absolute Who’s Who of budding writers who went on to bigger things) teamed with Sparling on the paranoiac mad science shocker ‘The Root of Evil!’

Another reprinted masterpiece of form from Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light for more about this unsung genius of the art-form) led off #177, ‘The Son of the Monstross Monster’ having previously appeared in House of Mystery #130. and 1950’s fearsome fact page was recycled into ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ before Charles King and Orlando’s illustrated prose piece ‘Last Meal’ and dream team Howie (Anthro) Post and Bill Draut produced a ghoulish period parable in ‘The Curse of the Cat.’

Neal Adams debuted as an interior illustrator – and writer – with a mind-boggling virtuoso performance as a little boy survived ‘The Game’, after which Jim Mooney’s spooky credentials were recalled with ‘The Man Who Haunted a Ghost’ (first seen in HoM #35) and E. Nelson Bridwell, Win Mortimer & George Roussos delineated an eternal dream with ‘What’s the Youth?’ and ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Ghostly Miners’ closed the issue.

Bridwell contributed the claustrophobic ‘Sour Note’ in issue #179 rendered by the uniquely visionary Jerry Grandenetti and Roussos and the next generation of comics genius begun with the first Bernie Wrightson creepy contribution. ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Man Who Murdered Himself’ was scripted by Marv Wolfman and is still a stunning example of gothic perfection in the artist’s Graham Ingels inspired lush, fine-line style.

This exceptional artists issue also contains the moody supernatural romance ‘The Widow’s Walk’ by Post. Adams & Orlando – a subtle shift from schlocky black humour to moody supernatural tragedy that would undoubtedly appeal to the increasingly expanding female readership. The issue ends with another fact feature ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Tell Tales’.

Going from strength to strength House of Mystery was increasingly drawing on DC’s major artistic resources. ‘Comes a Warrior’ which opened #180, was a chilling faux Sword & Sorcery masterpiece written and drawn by the da Vinci of Dynamism Gil Kane, inked by the incomparable Wally Wood, and the same art team also illustrated Mike Friedrich’s fourth-wall demolishing ‘His Name is Cain Kane!’ Cliff Rhodes and Orlando contributed the text-terror ‘Oscar Horns In!’ and Wolfman & Wrightson returned with the prophetic vignette ‘Scared to Life’ An uncredited forensic history lesson from ‘Cain’s True Case Files’ closed the proceedings for that month.

‘Sir Greeley’s Revenge!’ by Otto Binder and drawn by the quirkily capable Sparling was a heart-warmingly genteel spook story, but Wrightson’s first long story – a fantastic reincarnation saga entitled ‘The Circle of Satan’, scripted by Bob Kanigher, ended #181 on a eerily unsettling note and #182 opened with one of the most impressive tales of the entire run. Jack Oleck’s take on the old cursed mirror plot was elevated to high art as his script ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ was illustrated by the incredible Alex Toth. Wolfman and Wayne Howard then followed with ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Grave Results!’ an Orlando limned house promotion and the nightmarish revenge tale ‘The Hound of Night!’

Oleck and Grandenetti opened #183 with ‘The Haunting!’, ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ returned with ‘Curse of the Blankenship’s and ‘Superstitions About Spiders’ and Wolfman & Wrightson contributed ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Can Kill!’ before the canny teaming of Kanigher with Grandenetti and Wally Wood resulted in the truly bizarre ‘Secret of the Whale’s Vengeance.’ The next issue saw the triumphant return of Oleck & Toth for the captivating Egyptian tomb raider epic ‘Turner’s Treasure’ and Bridwell, Kane & Wood for a barbarian blockbuster ‘The Eyes of the Basilisk!’

House of Mystery #185 saw caretaker Cain take a more active role in the all-Grandenetti yarn ‘Boom!’, Wayne Howard illustrated the sinister ‘Voice From the Dead!’ and veteran Charlton scribe Joe Gill debuted with ‘The Beautiful Beast’: a lost world romance perfectly pictured by EC alumnus Al Williamson. Next issue topped even that as Wrightson illustrated Kanigher’s spectacular bestiary tale ‘The Secret of the Egyptian Cat’ and Neal Adams produced some his best art ever for Oleck’s poignant tale of imagination and childhood lost ‘Nightmare’. Nobody who ever adored Mr. Tumnus could read this little gem without choking up… and as for the rest of you, I just despair…

Kanigher & Toth produced another brilliantly disquieting drama in ‘Mask of the Red Fox’ to open #187, and Wayne Howard was at his workmanlike best on ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Appointment Beyond the Grave!’ before John Celardo & Mike Peppe apparently illustrated the anonymous script for the period peril ‘An Aura of Death!’ (although to my jaded old eyes the penciller looks more like Win Mortimer…)

Another revolutionary moment began with the first story in #188, cover dated September-October 1970. Gerry Conway got an early boost scripting ‘Dark City of Doom’, a chilling reincarnation mystery set in both contemporary times and Mayan South America as the trailblazer for a magnificent tidal wave of Filipino artists debuted. The stunning art of Tony DeZuniga opened the door for many of his talented countrymen to enter and reshape both Marvel and DC’s graphic landscape and this black and white compendium is the perfect vehicle to see their mastery of line and texture…

Wrightson was responsible for the time-lost thriller ‘House of Madness!’ which closed that issue whilst Aragonés opened the proceedings for #189, closely followed by Kanigher, Grandenetti & Wood’s ‘Eyes of the Cat’ and a 1953 reprint drawn by Leonard Starr, ‘The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T’ (from HoM #11) before another Charlton mystery superstar premiered as Tom Sutton illustrated Oleck’s ‘The Thing in the Chair’.

Kanigher and Toth teamed for another impeccable graphic masterwork in ‘Fright!’, Albano filled Cain’s Game Room and Aragonés debuted another long-running gag page with ‘Cain’s Gargoyles’ and this issue ended with a Salem-based shocker ‘A Witch Must Die!’ (by Jack Miller, Ric Estrada & Frank Giacoia). Issue #191 saw the official debut of Len Wein who wrote the terrifying puppet-show tragedy ‘No Strings Attached!’ for Bill Draut and DeZuniga returned to draw Oleck’s cautionary tale ‘The Hanging Tree!’ before Wein closed the show paired with Wrightson on ‘Night-Prowler!’ a seasonal instant-classic that has been reprinted many times since.

John Albano wrote ‘The Garden of Eden!’, a sinister surgical stunner, made utterly believably by Jim Aparo’s polished art, and Gray Morrow illustrated Kanigher’s modern psycho-drama ‘Image of Darkness’ and superhero veteran Don Heck returned to his suspenseful roots drawing Virgil North’s monstrously whimsical ‘Nobody Loves a Lizard!’

Wrightson contributed the first of many magnificent covers for #193, depicting the graveyard terrors of Alan Riefe & DeZuniga’s ‘Voodoo Vengeance!’, whilst Bill Draut skilfully delineated the screaming tension of Francis X. Bushmaster’s ‘Dark Knight, Dark Dreams!’

For #194, which saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC’s 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 magic began with another bravura Toth contribution in Oleck’s ‘Born Loser’ swiftly followed by the Russ Heath illustrated monster thriller ‘The Human Wave’ (from House of Secrets #31), a Jack Kirby monster-work ‘The Negative Man’ (House of Mystery #84) before Oleck and the simply stunning Nestor Redondo (see also The Bible: DC Limited Collectors Edition C-36) closed the issue and this first volume with the metamorphic horror ‘The King is Dead’.

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and comics critics alike when they first appeared and it’s no exaggeration to posit that they may well have saved the company during the dire downward sales spiral of the 1970. Now their blend of sinister mirth and classical suspense situations can most usually be seen in such series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators. If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully, splatter-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly creepy cartooning The House of Mystery is the place for you…

© 1968-1971, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010

By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 13: 978-1-60699-537-6

Technically, this isn’t a graphic novel or trade collection, it’s a picture book – but it is an absolutely stunning one, collecting some of the best and most trenchantly funny illustrations by a contender for the title of America’s Greatest Living Caricaturist in a lavish, full-colour hardback.

Drew Friedman began drawing commercially in the late 1970s. His meticulous, stippled monochrome satirical and socially biting cartoons of celebrities – and the rare comic strip – appearing in RAW, Screw, High Times, Weirdo, Comical Funnies, Heavy Metal, National Lampoon and the Holy of Holies MAD Magazine.

Gradually he moved into the publishing mainstream, and the phizzogs and foibles of the Rich and Famous gathered here are culled from a number of eclectic sources including Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, GQ Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Village Voice, Mojo, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The Weekly Standard, Blab!, Maximum Golf and even the gun-totin’ sports organ Field & Stream among many others – an hilarious cavalcade of covers and spot illustrations by a master of the graphic ideal moment.

After a funny and extremely informative potted history the mostly painted (but with occasional pen, wash, tone and even charcoal examples), staggeringly cruel, cutting and insightful images are unleashed, beginning with a section covering political and business highflyers.

The period 1995 to 2010 turned up an unenviable horde of risible leaders and manipulative malcontents and included here are 107 cartoon snapshots of such luminaries as the Clintons, Monica Lewinsky, Helmut Kohl, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Ross Perot, Sarah Palin, “Mayor Mike” Bloomberg, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney and many other domestic demagogues as well as such international ideologues as Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat, Mother Theresa, Jacques Chirac and Osama Bin Laden among many others.

The second section deals with Showbiz types ancient and modern, an includes a couple of astonishingly grand panoramic gatefold fold outs amidst the 140+ illustrations featuring super-stars and should-have-beens from sports, music, acting, the media and that nebulous twilight world of people who are famous without actually doing or achieving anything.

The roster includes Tiny Tim, Dean Martin, Sinatra, John Lennon, Michael Jackson (lots of him at various stages of his life-long metamorphosis), Tommy Lee, Madonna, Fred MacMurray, Judy Garland, Jackie Chan, Bob Dylan, Brando, De Niro, Woody Allen, Stallone, Will Smith, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Jack Nicholson and so many others. The volume also includes some book and CD covers and private commissions, and also a fresh selection of the artist’s favourite artistic subjects: sideshow freaks and obscure Jewish and vintage comedians.

Friedman is a master craftsman who can draw and paint with breathtaking power, and his work is intrinsically funny. It’s relatively simple to make Blair, Bush or Bin Laden look like buffoons but try it with Rod Serling, Marilyn Manson, Mother Theresa or Salman Rushdie…

His caricatures are powerful, resonant and joyful, but without ever really descending to the level of graphic malice preferred by such luminaries as Ralph Steadman or Gerald Scarfe. Too Soon? is a book for art lovers, celebrity stalkers and anyone who enjoys a pretty, good laugh.

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

You can see sample pages on the arts website

Nightschool: The Weirn Books volume 1

By Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7595-2859-8

The sub-genre of supernatural students and spooky schooldays has come a long way since the days of the Worst Witch or even Buffy of Sunnydale High, but this tantalising and impressive entry from Svetlana Chmakova (whose delightful series Dramacon introduced her as a major talent in the international manga world) which stands head and shoulders above the crowd and simply cries out for greater exposure.

PS 13W is just an ordinary High School during the day, but when darkness falls the place is sublet to an entirely different faculty teaching a far more bizarre and dangerous student body (well, different anyway – I’ve seen the everyday shamble of oiks, nerds, preppies and deviants that tumble out of our local educational establishment come chucking out time only to stampede past my front door on their way to celebrate their temporary freedom in mischief, malice and mishap…)

Because this Nightschool caters to such a diverse and often predatory catchment, the usual staff of wizardly teachers and assistants is generally supplemented by a Night Keeper – a supernatural security agent who keeps the peace and minimises collateral damage when students and staff – witches, warlocks (collectively known as Weirn), werewolves, vampires and every shade of juvenile haunt and horror – join in the business of Education.

Sadly the latest Keeper, thoroughly modern Miss Sarah Treveney has something of a punctuality problem… Although the school caters for a broad spectrum of monsters, Sarah’s sister Alexius has to be home-schooled due to an unspecified secret problem, and splitting her time between teaching Alex the magic of the Weirn all day and working all night is taking its toll…

The peace that keeps mortals safe from the assorted eldritch tribes is due to an ancient pact: A Treaty administered by an enigmatic cult of young warriors called Hunters who prowl the city dealing with supernatural threats. They are led by a charismatic teacher called Daemon. Later volumes will eventually reveal a history of ancient strife and impending chaos, but for this first collection (comprising the first six months of the strip) they simply patrol and police the places where rogue night creatures prowl…

When Daemon’s team rescue a young Seer, Marina, from unscrupulous mortals seeking to exploit her prophetic abilities she warns him that a long-dormant menace is breaking the seals which have kept it safely imprisoned for centuries…

Unknown to Sarah, little sister is not the housebound claustrophobe she imagines. Driven by urgings beyond her comprehension Alex often roams the night with only her astral familiar to protect her from mortals and monsters – or is it the other way round?

When she invades a cemetery Alex stumbles across a romantic vampiric tryst and Daemon’s Hunter team in the process of ending it. Suddenly all parties are attacked by Rippers – mindless devolved Nosferatu, all claws and teeth and burning lethal hunger…

When the spectacular battle ends Alex is gone and although more than a match for any known magical threat, three of the Hunters lie mysteriously comatose. The younger Treveny wakes safely at home with no recollection of how she returned, but at the Nightschool things aren’t going so well for Sarah.

Making inroads with the staff and students the Night Keeper thinks she might just make a real go of her job, but when a kid she doesn’t recognize lures her into a horrifying trap she disappears from sight and memory of everybody who once knew her. Moreover, all physical evidence of her existence is fading too. At home Alex sees a photograph gradually disappear and realises she must to something. Girding herself she enrolls in the midnight high school, as all over the cities something very nasty is stalking the Hunters…

This is the merely the opening stage of a much larger and more complex epic, (which has been and is still steadily progressing in monthly installments in the Japanese magazine Yen Plus since August 2008), so it might be preferable to pick up the first three volumes – all that has been collected into books so far – and tackle them at once.

However, the sheer exuberance and quality of storytelling and art here is enough to carry this first book; blending mystery, comedy and spellbinding action with a huge cast of engaging characters. Fun, thrilling and wonderfully addictive.

© 2009 Svetlana Chmakova. All Rights Reserved.