Liberty Meadows: Sundays Book One


By Frank Cho (Image/Monkey Boy Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60706-564-7 (HB)

It’s ALMOST too late to concoct a suitable St Valentine’s Day extravaganza worthy of the one who puts up with you, so let todays review serve to remind you that not only is love strange but it can also tolerate an incredible amount of unsavoury behaviour – it just shouldn’t have to…

Like many wonderful modern comics strips, Liberty Meadows grew out of a prototype college newspaper incarnation: specifically, the University of Maryland (College Park) student periodical The Diamondback.

Back then the strip was called University² but it still revealed the warped genius and stunning graphic virtuosity of native Marylander Frank Cho. As a syndicated strip Liberty Meadows launched on March 31st 1997, running until December 30th 2001. It also enjoyed a respectable run as a comic book released through Insight Studios.

The strip which won a hoard of awards before going on hiatus (hey, if Bloom County can come back after decades, so long as the artist’s still alive, I’m keeping the faith for this and Calvin & Hobbes), is a whimsical masterpiece of comedy appealing to anyone afflicted with a love of pop culture, wistfulness, slacker-ness and unrequited passions. This first hardcover (or digital) compilation of full-colour Sunday strips cover the first three years and is saucily appreciated by Cho’s great pal and confederate Mike McSwiggin in his Introduction.

What’s it About, I hear you enquire? Easier asked than answered…

Exhibiting elements of the aforementioned Berkely Breathed’s magnum about Opus, and cheekily pilfering and channelling every comicbook, TV, movie and trash culture icon you might imagine, the episodes occur in and around the animal sanctuary of Liberty Meadows and generally revolve around the ever-so-patient animal psychologist Brandy Carter as she blithely tries to circumvent her innate hottie-ness and get on with her job.

The major obstacles to this simple ambition include not just human impediments such as shyly adoring vet Frank Melisch, clumsily dangerous janitor Tony, sanctuary owner Julius, and Brandy’s super sexy roommate Jen (she’s a rocket scientist who loves to toy with men…) but also the scene-stealing frequently obnoxious smart alec talking animals such as midget circus bear Ralph, literally sexist pig Dean, hypochondriac frog Leslie, innocent waif – and duck – Truman, mute dachshund Oscar, OCD-suffering raccoon Mike, Khan the catfish and an evil cow dubbed The Cow

Further turning this small word upside down are conspiracy-theorist and local barkeep Al, Brandy’s ex Roger, her parents (say no more), and a couple of duplicates from a mirror universe: Evil Brandy and Alternate Frank

You’ll thank me for not giving away any of the 138 beautifully rendered, seditiously surreal gags, but I will push my luck by stating Cho insinuates himself into proceedings on a regular basis (as forth-wall busting chimpanzee Monkey Boy) and warning you to watch out for low flying dinosaurs, wandering daydreams, outbursts of 3-D, and constant outbreaks of strip and movie spoofs such as Prince Valium, Mighty Shmoe Pong, Jungle Gym and Flush Gordon

Frank Cho is a very funny guy and also one of the best dramatic illustrators in the business, so you’ll also appreciate the spiffy Sketch Gallery featuring pencils, inks, roughs and some delicious images of Brandy as your favourite female superheroes.

Magnificently redolent of (and proudly swiping from) Walt Kelly, Dave Stevens, Frank Frazetta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Michelangelo (not the turtle), and others of their prestigious ilk as the gag demands, Cho’s blend of anthropomorphic anarchy, sublimely lavish glamour illustration and devilish wit means this is a timeless treat and treatise on love you simply must see…
™ and © 2012 Frank Cho, Monkey Boy Press. All rights reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Charlton Years Volume One


By Dick Wood, Steve Skeates, Bill Harris, D. J. Arneson, Jim Aparo, Frank McLaughlin, Pat Boyette, Bill Lignante & various (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-006-2 (HB)

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore on the African coast, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving war against injustice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken family line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician, and although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom became the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing over the illustration side to artist Ray Moore. A hugely successful Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market (except in Australia where he has always been accorded the status of a pop culture god).

Various companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians), surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

From November 1962 through July 1966 all new adventures were published by West Coast giant Gold Key Comics after which King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – including Popeye, Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – between 1966 and 1967. When they gave up the ghost, plucky dependable, cheap Charlton Comics were there to pick up the slack…

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as reformatted newspaper strip reprints. The Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership, a model King maintained for their own run but which was tweaked when Charlton took over the license.

This splendid full-cover hardcover – or eBook for the modern minded – gathers the contents of The Phantom #30-38 (originally released between February 1969 and June 1970) and opens with an erudite Introduction from Christopher Irving relating all you need to know about ‘The Phantom and Charlton Comics’, illustrated by the first of many pages of original art by Jim Aparo.

As with previous publishers, the majority of the stories are scripted by Dick Wood (with some contributions from Bill Harris and Charlton mainstay Steve Skeates) but the big attraction here is a large body of illustration by up-&-coming superstar Jim Aparo in his last work for CC before moving to DC…

Opening the Charlton archive is a brace of thrilling escapades by Dick Wood and Frank McLaughlin (with possibly some inking assistance from Sal Trapani?) beginning with ‘The Secret of the Golden Ransom’ as Julie – sister of the Ghost Who Walks – again dons the purple long-johns to secretly save her brother from a devilish trap, after which the ‘The Living Legend’ sees the jungle guardian put the fear of god into an western-educated tribesman who no longer believes in ghosts…

Issue #31 sees an epic full-length tale by Wood and Aparo as ‘The Phantom of Shang-Ri-La’ finds the hero on a rescue mission to the fabled Valley of the Sun to save his best friend from devious crooks masquerading as benevolent immortals…

Following more original art, #32’s ‘The Pharaoh Phantom’ takes the masked marvel to Egypt and an impossible confrontation with a freshly-revived mummy who claims to be the original and genuine Ghost Who Walks…

Pat Boyette & Nick Alascia limn Wood’s lead story in The Phantom #33 as ‘The Curse of Kallai’ exposes an ancient mystery wherein an Indian death cult returns to plunder Africa, claiming an earlier Phantom was their bound and sworn ally, after which Steve Skeates & Aparo detail how a young native boy is pivotal in reversing ‘The Phantom’s Death’

Using the nom de plume Norm Dipluhm, D. J. Arneson scripts a brace of tales for Aparo in #34 beginning with ‘The Cliff Kingdom’ as the Phantom destroys a tribe hunting low flying aircraft before going on to defeat the far-fromxsupernatural menace dubbed ‘The Giant Ape of Tawth’

Veteran team Bill Harris & Bill Lignante return in #35 to reveal the sinister secret of ‘The Ghost Tribe’ plundering and slave-taking in Bengali, but not before the Phantom infiltrates the marauders’ inner circle and is ‘Trapped’ in an almost inescapable situation. Almost…

Dipluhm & Aparo open #36 with ‘The River That Never Ends’ as the Phantom is drawn into a subterranean underworld whilst battling merciless modern pirates, and close with a pithy smuggling yarn as the spectral avenger intercepts some ‘Very Special Timber’ to punish a very ingenious evildoer…

In #37 the format changes to shorter stories beginning with ‘Bandar Betrayers’ as a strange blossom warps the minds of the Phantom’s greatest friends and allies whilst ‘Skyjack’ sees him undercover as Kit Walker, flying to America when his plane is attacked by a fanatic, and a last exploit sees him back in Africa as a new commander for the private jungle police force is almost compelled to ‘Disband the Patrol’

Wrapping up these volatile verdant voyages, #38 starts on ‘The Dying Ground’ as rogue hunters trap the hero in hopes of learning the location of the fable Elephant’s Graveyard before a crisis of conscience and capability is countered by uncanny natural phenomena in ‘The Phantom’s New Faith’ after which Jungle Patrol intel allows The Phantom to save his ever-so-patient intended bride Diana Palmer from murderous art-thieves setting ‘The Trap’

Packed with original art by Aparo, this is another riveting, nostalgia-drenched triumph: straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure that has always been the staple of comics fiction.

If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional action-fest you must not miss…
The Phantom® © 1969-1970 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Peanuts Dell Archive


By Charles M. Schulz, Jim Sasseville, Dale Hale, Tony Pocrnick & various (KaBOOM!)
ISBN: 978-1-68415-255-1 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-64144-117-9

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal. Cartoonist Charles Monroe “Sparky” (forever dubbed thus by an uncle who saw young Charlie reading Billy DeBeck’s strip Barney Google: that hero’s horse was called “Spark Plug”). Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century, producing 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000. He died, from the complications of cancer, the day before his last strip was published…

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

In case you came in late – and from Mars – our focus (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with increasingly high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, is at odds with a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast hanging out doing kid things with disturbingly mature psychological overtones…

The gags and tales centre on play, pranks, sports, playing musical instruments, teasing each other, making baffled observations about the incomprehensible world and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The ferocious unpredictability and wilfulness of seasonal weather often impacts on these peewee performers, too…

You won’t find many adults in the mix – which includes Mean Girl (let’s call her “forthright”) Violet, prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy, her strange baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” all adding signature twists to the mirth – because this is essentially a kids’ world.

Charlie Brown has settled into existential angst and is resigned to his role as eternal loser: singled out by fate and the relentless diabolical wilfulness of Lucy who sharpens her spiteful verve on everyone around her. Her preferred target is always the round-headed kid though: mocking his attempts to fly a kite, kicking away his football and perpetually reminding him face-to-face how rubbish he is…

The Sunday page debuted on January 6th 1952; a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and these weekend wonders gave Sparky room to be at his most visually imaginative, whimsical and weird…

By that time, rapid-fire raucous slapstick gags were riding side-by-side with surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing judgements and deep ruminations in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors. The relationships were increasingly deep, complex and absorbing…

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, and one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines. It also became a multimedia merchandising bonanza for Schulz and the United Features Syndicate, generating toys, games, books, TV shows, apparel and even comic books. These days there’s even an educational institution, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, from which a goodly portion of the archival contributions in this wonderful hardback/digital compilation originate…

Just how and why the comic book versions differ from the strip is explored with incisive and analytical vigour in Derrick Bang’s (of CMS M&RC) Introduction ‘Peanuts in Comic Books’ revealing how, in the early 1950s, reprints in St. John and, later, Dell Comics titles such as Tip Top Comics and United Comics gradually gave way to original back-up material in Fritzi Ritz, Nancy and others.

Very little of it was by Schulz – although he did contribute lots of covers – but rather were ghosted by hand-picked associates like Jim Sasseville, who ably aped “Sparky” Schulz and kept the little cast in character and on message in strips in Fritzi Ritz, Nancy, Tip Top, Nancy and Sluggo,

Sasseville wrote and drew all of the Peanuts try-out issue (Four Color #878, February 1958). Schulz contributed heavily to the second FC Peanuts (#969; February 1959) with Dale Hale and Tony Pocrnick handling subsequent back-up tales and third Four Color tester #1015 (August/October 1959).

The fourth became Peanuts #4: a title that ran for 13 issues, ending in July 1962. By then Dell staff artists and writers were generating the stories and the overall quality was nothing to brag about… although Schulz was drawing the covers, at least.

In terms of calibre and standards, the 75 comic tales here – beginning with the very first by Schulz from Nancy #146, September 1957 to the anonymous last – are all quite enjoyable and some are truly exceptional: such as ‘The Mani-Cure’(Tip Top #211, November 1957/January 1958 by Sasseville) or Dale Hale’s untitled treatise on keeping secrets from Tip Top #217 (May/July 1959).

Admittedly, true fans might have trouble with later yarns as the kids face an amok robot or dare the terrors of an old haunted house, but in the main this collection is a splendid peek at a little known cranny of the franchise and there is the joy of all those lost gems from Sparky to carry the day…

And where else are you going to see the kids in stories you haven’t read yet… you Blockhead!?
Peanuts Dell Archive all contents unless otherwise specified © 2005 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Dandy and Beano: The Comics at Christmas


By many and various (D.D. Thomson & Co, Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-636-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Seasonal Traditions Celebrated and Ideal Last-Minute Gifts… 10/10

DC Thompson’s publications have always played a big part in Britain’s Christmas festivities, so let’s revel in the Good Old Days of comics and look at what their publications have offered to celebrate the season via a lovingly curated accumulation of Scotland’s greatest cartoon stars and artisans…

Released in 1997 as part of the DC Thomson’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations for their children’s periodicals division – which has more than any other shaped the psyche of generations of kids – this splendidly oversized (297 x 206mm) and exceedingly jolly 144 page hardback compilation justifiably glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during the days and weeks of December from 1937 to the end of the century.

Admittedly the book needed some careful editing and paste-up additions whilst editorially explaining for younger or more socially evolved readers the subtle changes in attitude that have occurred over more than half a century, to tone down or expurgate a few of the more egregious terms that wouldn’t sit well with 21st century sensibilities, but otherwise this is a superb cartoon commemoration of a time and state of mind that means so much to us all.

It’s also an exquisitely evergreen tribute to cartoon storytelling at its best…

The shape and structure of British kids’ cartoon reading owes a huge debt to writer/editor Robert Duncan Low (1895-1980) who was probably DC Thomson’s greatest creative find. Low began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publications where he conceived and launched (between 1921 and 1933) the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys. Those rip-roaring illustrated prose periodicals comprised Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

In 1936 his next brilliant idea was The Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post consisting of comic strips. The illustrated accessory premiered on 8th March and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie – both rendered by the incomparable Dudley Watkinswere its unchallenged stars…

In December 1937, Low launched the DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic a year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers. To supplement Beano and Dandy, the ball started rolling again with The Topper, closely followed by a host of new titles such as Beezer and Sparky to augment the expanding post-war line.

Every kid who grew up reading comics has their own personal nostalgia-filled nirvana, and DC Thomson have always sagely left that choice to us whilst striving to keep all eras alive with the carefully-tooled collectors’ albums like this one.

These have all the appeal and panache of coffee-table art books; gathering material from nearly eight decades of publishing – including oodles of original art reproductions – but rather than just tantalising and frustrating incomplete extracts, here the reader gets complete stories starring immortal characters from comics and Christmas Annuals past…

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937). Premiering on December 4th 1937, it broke the mould of traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames.

A monster success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938 – and together they completely revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted generations of avid and devoted readers, and end of year celebrations were blessed with extraordinary efforts in the weeklies as well as bumper bonanzas of the comics’ stars breathtakingly glamorous hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. They only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949, and during the conflict the Annuals alternated years too.

This superb celebration of Celtic creativity is packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips. The fun starts on the inside front with a riotous party scene featuring all the assorted favourites, illustrated by indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins, followed by Korky the Cat frontispiece (by James Crichton?), and bombastic title page with western superman Desperate Dan standing in for Santa.

An introductory spread follows, re-presenting a manic Davey Law Dennis the Menace Christmas episode from the 1960s, as well as a quartet of Beano Christmas cards from the same decade, presaging a host of seasonally-themed comic strip offerings beginning with Dandy’s Dirty Dick (by Eric Roberts) and guest star stuffed ‘Xmas Shopping with Biffo the Bear’ (probably David Sutherland) and Minnie the Minx (Jim Petrie) impatiently ransacking the house for her prezzies from the 1960s.

This book offers a selection of Christmas week front pages, beginning with The Beano #169, (cover-dated December 20th1941) featuring Reg Carter’s obstreperous ostrich Big Eggo getting well-deserved revenge via Xmas lights during a blackout, after which Colonel Crackpot’s Circus by Malcolm Judge and Sutherland’s Bash Street Kids frolic as a prelude to robot schoolboy Brassneck (by Bill Holroyd) demonstrating the meaning of the season in a savvy spin on A Christmas Carol

Robert Nixon – or maybe Ron Spencer – detail how Indian scamp Little Plum gets a tree for the tribe whilst Ken Reid’s wild west rogue Bing-Bang Benny scores a free dinner from his worst enemies, before the triumphs of Roger the Dodgerare encapsulated in a multifarious montage of strips by Ken Reid, Barrie Appleby, Gordon Bell and others.

Dudley D. Watkins illuminates Desperate Dan’s attempts to enjoy a white Christmas and Davey Law details similar catastrophic capers for Dennis the Menace before Watkins reveals how the upper class live in a party favour from Beanostarring Lord Snooty and his Pals, after which ‘Jimmy and his Grockle’ – a kind of Doberman dragon – reap the reward for wrecking other folks’ presents. Illustrated by James Clark, the feature stems from Dandy in 1938, recycled from prose “Boys Paper” The Rover (where it was “Jimmy Johnson’s Grockle” in 1932).

Holroyd’s The Tricks of Screwy Driver (a junior handyman inventor of variable efficacy – especially in the holiday season) gives way to a Biffo front cover strip (from Beano #649; December 25th 1954) before the Bash Street Kids destroy the school concert and 1940s feudal adventurer Danny Longlegs (Watkins) delays his voyage East to share the Yule festival with an embattled knight.

A montage of Beano B-stars including Sammy Shrinko, Have-a-go-Joe, Little Nell and Peter Pell, The Magic Lollipops, Maxi’s Taxis and Rip Van Wink compliments a triptych of ‘40’s Dandy strips Freddy the Fearless Fly (Allan Morley), Hair Oil Hal (by John Brown) and Sam Fair’s Meddlesome Matty to ease us into a section concentrating on gluttony and the big blowout as seen in Eric Robert’s hospital ward feast Ginger’s Super Jeep, Basil Blackaller’s Hairy Dan’s saga of a stolen plum pudding and The McTickles (Vic Neill) salutary tale of an escaped Haggis.

A classic Korky the Cat Christmas yarn segues neatly into a Ken Reid fantasy romp starring Ali Ha-Ha and the 40 Thieves, after which The Smasher (Hugh Morren?) fights for his right to party as prelude to a look at a wartime classic.

Sam Fair was in always excoriating top form with the superbly manic Addie and Hermy – slapstick assaults on Adolf Hitler and Hermann Wilhelm Göring/Goering – and the selection here helped counter Home Front austerity by punfully positing how bad the German High Command were having it…

Football mad Ball Boy (Judge) and a vintage Desperate Dan strip lead to more Watkins wonderment in a double-length revel in Lord Snooty castle (and no, the topper-wearing posh boy was never the pattern for a certain over-privileged Tory lounging lizard!!! It’s just an uncannily creepy coincidence cum laude and example of life imitating art), before Colonel Crackpot’s Circus stages an encore and Billy Whizz (Malcolm Judge) finds time to attend many nosh-ups in one short day…

Odd couple Big Head and Thick Head (Reid again) work far too hard for their places at the youth club bash whereas the ever-ravenous Three Bears (Bob McGrath) literally fall into a festive feast but eternal loser Calamity James (Tom Paterson) loses out yet again, unlike Law’s Corporal Clott who manages to become a hero to his comrades by getting rid of Grinch-like Colonel Grumbly

A 1940’s Biffo extravaganza starring the entire Beano cast takes us neatly into a rousing comedy romp starring wonderful Eric Roberts’ immortal rascal-conman Winker Watson, who saves his chums from being stuck at school over the holidays in a full-length fable…

What’s Christmas without loot? A host of comics stars weigh in on presents in a section that begins with the cover of The Dandy #358 (December 20th 1947) as Korky’s greed is aptly rewarded, before John Sherwood’s dreamer Les Pretend(He’s Round the Bend!) wakes up frustrated, Dennis the Menace turns unwanted gifts into offensive weapons and – from December 1950 – Hugh McNeil’s Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter gives Santa Claus an uncomfortable helping hand…

From 1987, Appleby’s unlovable infants Cuddles and Dimples wreck another Christmas before Desperate Dawg (by George Martin from 1973) uses canine ingenuity to pimp that legendary sleigh whilst Roger the Dodger outsmarts himself but still comes up trumps in the gift department.

Lassie-like wonder dog Black Bob was popular enough to support his own book series in the 1950s (illustrated by Jack Prout) and here traditionally rendered Black Bob the Dandy Wonder Christmas dog sees the hairy paragon raise the flagging spirits of a ward full of ailing bairns before Charles Grigg’s Prince Whoopee (Your Pal from the Palace and a strip that could be revived instantly for today’s more cynical, satire-saturated market) learns the downside of childish pranks, after which a tantalising photo feature on assorted Beano and Dandy figurines leads to a montage of ancient robot romps starring with Tin-Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy (by the Dinelli Brothers and Sam Fair), featuring the mechanical misfit as well as his brother Babe and tin cat Clanky.

An extended Xmas excursion for Minnie the Minx and vintage larks with Keyhole Kate (Allan Morley), Gordon Bell’s Pup’s Parade starring the Bash Street Dogs and George Martin’s Sunny Boy – in Santa’s Grotto – bring us to another brilliant cover spread: this one for The Dandy #204, from December 27th 1941, with Korky losing out after trying to outsmart Santa…

A rare prose yuletide yarn starring sagacious moggy Sooty Solomon shares space with a Christmas comic caper concerning Raggy Muffin the Dandy Dog, after which Pleasant Presents presents a gaggle of want’s lists from the comics characters before the animal antics resume with doses of doggerel clipped from annual feature Korky’s Christmas Greeting and a lengthy yarn starring Gnasher and his pal Dennis the Menace.

Stocking stuffing and tree trimming occupy Roger the Dodger and Tom, Dick and Sally (Dave Jenner?) but Roy Nixon’s Ivy the Terrible is all about the packages before focus shifts to excerpts from other times of year beginning with Prince Whoopee’s bath day, Billy Whizz on ‘Shoesday’ and the April Fool’s Day cover for The Dandy #70, from 1939.

Following on ‘Sports Day’ is celebrated on the cover of Beano #465 (June 16th 1951) and Desperate Dan turns April 1stinto April dooms day before similarly wrecking Easter, Pancake Day and Bonfire Night in a mini marathon of smashing strips.

Equally tough and disastrously well-meaning, Pansy Potter in Wonderland makes herself persona non grata with fairy tale folk after which Lord Snooty and his Pals’ good deed results in a catastrophic ‘Biff-day’ and Dennis the Menace discover the joy of graffiti on ‘“Mark-it” day’.

The section concludes with a Big Eggo Beano cover (#321; November 1st 1947) on a windy day, allowing pint-sized dreamer Wonder Boy to aspire to Santa’s job whilst Billy Whizz gets a job in the old boy’s grotto and Bully Beef and Chips (Jimmy Hughes) inevitably clash at a party before Watkins delights in depicting Jimmy and his Magic Patch as the lad with a ticket to anywhere stumbles into a north pole plot to burgle Saint Nick.

Desperate Dan’s plans to play Santa are sabotaged by his niece and nephew before Sandy Calder’s acrobatic schoolboy avenger Billy the Cat stalks and brings to justice a thief who steals all the silver from Burnham Academy… and still gets back in time for the school Xmas party.

George Martin’s school master Jammy Mr. Sammy uses his phenomenal luck to deal with pranksters and thugs before Winker Watson fosters a festive feud between his teachers and a local police training college; Nixon’s Grandpa gets Gnomework at a local grotto and Ron Spencer’s bonny bouncing bandit Babyface Finlayson gets locked up to get stuffed, even as The Jocks and the Geordies go to war over sharing an Xmas party, courtesy of the unique Jimmy Hughes.

Hurtling towards the Eighth Day of Christmas, the last strips here focus on a Ha-Ha-Happy New Year! with a classic Korky confrontation, a harsh Hogmanay hash-up starring Corporal Clott and a frankly disturbing exploit of animal excess and conspicuous consumption from 1940s Bamboo Town as limned by Charlie Gordon.

Disaster-prone Dirty Dick shows Eric Roberts at his inspired best in a cautionary tale about resolutions first seen in 1963, allowing the Bash Street Kids and Grandpa to have the cacophonous last words in a brace of action-packed slapstick strips redolent of years more fun to come…

Sadly, none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists in this collection, but, as always, I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course I would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions. A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out to run amok once again.

This sturdy celebration of the company’s children’s periodicals division rightly revels in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through their back catalogue: jam-packed with some of the best written and most impressively drawn strips ever conceived: superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 1997. All rights reserved.

Tintin and the Picaros


By Hergé and Studios Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-823-9 (HB) 978-1-405206-35-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was also in charge of producing the contents of the Le Vingtiéme Siécle weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. The post-war modernising exercises also improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The previous romp had finished serialisation in 1967 and was collected as an album in 1968. It was eight years before Tintin et les Picaros was simultaneously serialised in Belgium and France in Tintin-l’Hebdoptmiste magazine (from 16th September 1975 to April 13th 1976) but at least the inevitable book collection came out almost immediately upon completion in 1976.

Tintin and the Picaros is in all ways the concluding adventure, as many old characters and locales from previous tales make one final appearance. A partial sequel to The Broken Ear it finds Bianca Castafiore implausibly arrested for spying in Central American republic San Theodoros with Tintin, Haddock and Calculus eventually lured to her rescue.

Insidious Colonel Sponsz – last seen in The Calculus Affair – is the Bordurian Military Advisor to the Government of usurper General Tapioca, and has used his position to exact revenge on the intrepid band who humiliated him in his own land. When the Tintin and company escape into the jungles during a murder attempt they soon link up with their old comrade Alcazar, who now leads a band of Picaro guerrillas dedicated to restoring him to power.

South American revolutions were all the rage in the 1970s – even Woody Allen made one the subject of a movie – and Hergé’s cast had been involved with this one on and off since 1935. With the welcome return of anthropologist Doctor Ridgewell and the hysterical Arumbayas, and even an improbable action role (of sorts) for obnoxious insurance salesman and comedy foil Jolyon Wagg, the doughty band bring about the final downfall of Tapioca in a thrilling and bloodless coup during Carnival time, thanks to a hilarious comedy maguffin (initially targeting dipsomaniac Haddock) that turns out to be a brilliant piece of narrative misdirection by the author.

Sly, subtle, thrilling and warmly comforting, this tale was generally slated when first released but with the perspective of intervening decades can be seen as a most fitting place to end the Adventures of Tintin… but only until you pick up another volume and read them again – as you indubitably will.
Tintin and the Picaros: artwork © 1976 by Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1976 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-624-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Lost Treasures for the Nubbin-Sized Nostalgiacs… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal, especially as, since the characters made the jump to television with the airing on December 9th 1965 of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the little nippers have become an integral part of the American Yule experience.

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

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centre on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt , her other-worldly baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles.

Charlie Brown is settled into his existential angst and resigned to his role as eternal loser: singled out by fate. It’s a set-up that was timelessly funny and infinitely enduring…

Available in a child-friendly hardback and digital formats, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking re-presents two rare and seasonally-appropriate Peanuts offerings that will delight fans whilst offering a largely counter-capitalist spin to this time of year.

In 1962 Happiness is a Warm Puppy – a book of original Peanuts material – hit the national Best-Seller lists and stayed there for a year, prompting the author to create another. However, “Sparky” Schulz was a deeply religious man and was very concerned about reminding his readers of the true meaning of Christmas, not just developing another revenue stream.

When the opportunity arose, Schulz jumped at the chance to craft a mini-book premium that would be given away with the December 1963 issue of Good Housekeeping.

In the strips, Schulz always considered guileless innocent Linus as his spiritual spokesperson (we’d probably say “avatar” today), and in the booklet the blanket-lover leads the kids in examining the season and their unquestioned practise of leaving out their woollen loot-catchers with disarming candour and wry wit. The tale is told in a series of full-page, flat-colour illustrations balanced by a simple text block: the usual format for kids’ picture books.

The remainder of this archival treasure is a similarly-themed project from 1968: three years after the monster-hit TV special which had be retransmitted every December since its debut.

Here ‘The Christmas Story’ is also printed at one panel (with word balloons) per page, but when it was first seen in the December 1968 Woman’s Day magazine, the characters copped not only the cover but four full pages of the interior in a proper, respectable, prestigious comics section.

Overtly spiritual in tone, this tale sees Linus reading the nativity story from the Gospel of St. Luke to Snoopy, who then endures a baffling and thought-provoking alternate view of the season from arch bread-head Lucy…

Supplementing the well-meaning whimsy are informative background articles About “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking”, About “The Christmas Story” and About the Author, adding historical context to the cartoon wonderment: a rare masterpiece of thoughtful comedy gold demonstrating Schulz’s spellbinding graphic mastery that how his kids have become part of the fabric of billions of lives.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking © 1963, 1968, 2013 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Flight 714 to Sydney


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Methuen/Little Brown Books)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-821-5 (HB) 978-0-31635-837-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The last romp had finished serialisation in September 1962 and been collected as an album in 1963. Vol 714 pour Sydney began its weekly run in Le Journal de Tintin #936 – 27th September 1966 – and concluded in #997, cover-dated November 28th 1967. The inevitable book collection came in May 1968.

Flight 714 To Sydney appears to be a return to classic adventure, but conceals some ironic modernist twists, opening with our heroes hurriedly en route to Australia. During an intrigue-redolent stopover at Djakarta, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus are inveigled (almost duped) into joining unconventional and somewhat unpleasant aviation tycoon Laszlo Carreidas on his personal supersonic prototype. The petty-minded multi-millionaire obviously has some ulterior design but cannot be dissuaded.

However, due to the type of coincidence that plagues our heroes, that plane has been targeted by the villainous outlaw Rastapopoulos whose gang hijack the aircraft and land it on a desolate Pacific island. The former criminal mastermind has a crazy scheme to siphon off Carreidas’ fortune but has lost a lot of his old sinister efficiency…

After many ploys and countermoves between the opposing forces, and with danger a constant companion, the prisoners escape the villain’s clutches only to discover that the Island is volcanic and conceals a fantastic ancient secret that dwarfs the threat of mere death and penury before escalating to a spectacular climax no reader will ever forget…

Although full of Hergé’s trademark slapstick humour, there is also a sly undercurrent of self-examination that highlights the intrinsic futility of the criminals’ acts. As time has passed, the murderous human monsters have all been exposed as foolish, posturing and largely ineffectual.

Nevertheless, the yarn is primarily an extremely effective, suspenseful action thriller with science fiction roots as the author plays with the multifarious strands of international research then in vogue which led to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and other lesser known tracts of cod science.

Once more the supernormal plays a large part in proceedings – but not as a malign force – and this time science and rationality, not the supernatural, are the basis of the wonderment. Flight 714 To Sydney is slick, compelling and astoundingly engaging: a true epic escapade no fan of fun could fail to adore.
Flight 714 To Sydney: artwork © 1968 Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1968 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-820-8(HB) 978-1-40520-632-7(Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Get ’Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a timeless masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates.

Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which allowed Remi and his growing studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist occupiers and reluctantly added to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure.

Sadly, Hergé’s personal life was less satisfactory, but although plagued by physical and mental health problems, the travails only seemed to enhance his storytelling abilities…

Le Bijoux de la Castafiore was serialised in Le Journal de Tintin from 4th July 1961 to September 4th 1962 with the inevitable book collection released in 1963. For the first time, The English edition was published in the same years as its European original…

The Castafiore Emerald is quite a departure from the eerie bleak thriller that preceded it (Tintin in Tibet) and the general run of globetrotting tales. The resolution of that icy escapade seemed to have purged much of the turmoil and trauma from the artist’s psyche.

His production rate – but not the quality – slowed to a leisurely crawl as he became a world traveller himself, visiting America, Taiwan and many other places he had featured in the exploits of his immortal boy reporter. Fans would wait fifteen years for these last three adventures to be done.

When the blithely unstoppable operatic grand dame Bianca Castafiore imposes herself on Captain Haddock at Marlinspike Hall – complete with fawning entourage and a swarm of reporters in hot pursuit – she turns the place upside down, destroying the irascible mariner’s peace-of-mind.

A flighty force of nature claiming to crave isolation and quiet recuperation, the Diva floods Marlinspike with anxiety, just as Tintin and the Captain are attempting to win fair treatment for a roving band of gipsies (let’s call them Roma now, shall we?).

Much to the chagrin of the irascible mariner, when the pride of Castafiore’s fabulous jewels is stolen, events take a constantly escalating, surreal and particularly embarrassing turn before Tintin finally solves the case through calm, cool deduction.

Unlike the rest of the canon, this tale is restricted – like a drawing room mystery – to one locale: the impressive house and grounds inherited by Haddock as inhabited by a hilarious cast of regulars including acerbic, long-suffering butler Nestor and deranged genius Professor Calculus. It reads very much like an Alfred Hitchcock sparkling thriller from the 1950s: Light, airy, even frothy in places, with the emphasis always on laughs…

There are no real villains but plenty of diabolical happenstance generating slapstick action and wry humour while affording Hergé plenty of opportunities to take pot-shots at the media, Society – High and low – and even the then-pervasive and ever-growing phenomenon of television itself.

The tale was published in 1961. It would be five years until the next one.

At least you don’t have to wait: this comics masterpiece can – and should – be yours as soon as possible.
The Castafiore Emerald: artwork © 1963 by Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1963 Methuen & Co Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Complete Aces High issues 1-5 (EC Archives)


By Irv Werstein, Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck, George Evans, Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-308-4 (HB) eISBN 978-1-50670-727-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Compelling Combat Comics Classics… 9/10

No smug commentary today, just appropriate business.
Legendary imprint EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC.

Gaines only retained Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups his major target market. He latterly augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History.

Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

His son William was dragged out of college and into the family business and – with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) – transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After some tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the anthologised genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction. Moreover, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the company introduced an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by a second, Frontline Combat.

Also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story, it made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with his many artists.

In keeping with the spirit of the New Trend, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

When the McCarthy-era anti-comics crusade of the 1950s crushed the industry and gutted EC output by effectively banning horror, crime, gore, political commentary and social justice, Gaines and Feldstein retrenched: releasing experimental titles under the umbrella of a “New Direction”.

Kurtzman’s Mad – which had defined a whole new genre, bequeathing unto America Popular Satire – converted into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles…

Denied a soapbox to address social ills, Gaines’ new books concentrated on intrigue, adventure and drama informed by new modern fascinations: either intellectual or mass entertainment fads.

Impact, Extra!, Piracy and Valor all clearly reflected themes of contemporary film and TV, whilst Psychoanalysis and M.D. targeted mature audiences through the growing genre of medical dramas. Incredible Science Fiction bridged the transition from old range to new line up whilst also tapping into movie trends. Final offering Aces High carried on a tradition of breathtaking war comics, but omitted ethical commentary to concentrate on aviation sagas dedicated to the myth of honourable combat conducted between knights of the skies…

Although still graced with stunningly beautiful artwork and thoughtful writing, the New Direction titles couldn’t find an audience and died within a year.

This volume of Dark Horse’s EC Archives gathers the entire run of Aces High (#1-5, spanning March to December 1955) gathering some of the most gorgeous art of the era – or ever – but with scripts curtailed by the newly instituted Comics Code Authority and Gaines’ own sense of financial survival, that compelling edge of social crusading was lost…

The fraught history of the company is outlined here in an informative Introduction by Grant Geissman after which Howard Chaykin’s Foreword provides keen insights into the times and the gifted creators involved before the stories begin. Sadly, as is often the case, despite diligent efforts by researchers and historians, many of these tales have no writing credit, but c’est la vie, non?

Aces High was very much a star vehicle slanted towards the interests and expertise of aviation aficionado George Evans who leads off the first issue – after editorial ‘Prop Wash’ – with ‘The Way it Was’, scripted by Irv Werstein. With an WWI veteran taking his grandson to an air show, Evans traces the history and development of his war in the air, emphasising the true cost in lives…

Uncredited prose feature ‘The Stork with Talons’ details the career of legendary aviator Charles Nungesser after which masterful Wally Wood delineates the history of Lieutenant Tom Pomeroy: a newly qualified combat pilot who can’t understand why his fellow airmen consider him ‘The Outsider’

Bernie Krigstein was one of the most innovative illustrators in comics – as well as commercial and gallery art – and in ‘The Mascot’ captures the air of hopeful fervour as an American squadron in France realise that the stray mutt they’ve adopted can predict who will not return from missions…

The premiere outing concludes with Carl Wessler & Jack Davis introducing ‘The New C.O.’ whose ideas of conduct are revolting but unarguably effective…

The second sortie opens with ‘Chivalry!’ by Wessler, Evans: crossing No-Man’s Land for a peek at the German view as a Jagdstaffel of decent, patriotic fliers must find a way to deal with new posting Lt. Horst Viegel, whose only consideration is adding to his kill-tally…

RAF legend Albert Ball is eulogised in text page ‘The Ace of Aces’ after which Krigstein limns a tale of ‘Revenge’ wherein a USAC captain hunts down the German flier who strafed Red Cross nurses and cost him his one true love…

Wessler & Wood detail the vagaries of luck afflicting a string of pilots assigned ‘Locker 9’ before prose page ‘Laughing Warrior’ précis’ the life of France’s greatest air ace Georges Guynemer before Jack Davis renders the devious saga of doctrinaire military martinet Major Trout whose quibbling antics in ‘Footnote’ have salutary, lifesaving underpinnings…

Aces High #3 takes wing with Oleck & Evans’ ‘The Rules’ as novice replacement Lt. Edward Dale disdains hour and fair play to become famous and pays the inevitable price, after which ‘Prop Wash’ reprints the letters of the many fans the comic book won whilst Krigstein’s ‘The Spy’ offers a touch of the old EC magic as American pilots cast suspicious eyes on a fellow squadron member who has a German name…

A tragic pilot-training washout reduced to the role of spanner-wielding ‘Greasemonkey’ redeems himself in a superb Wood rendered yarn before prose fiction ‘The Acid Test’ (with a grizzled raddled veteran having to deal with his baby brother joining the squadron) segues into a gleeful, yet dogged battle of wills between an established ace and a cocky replacement pilot over ‘The Case of Champagne’ by Wessler & Davis.

Jack Oleck & Evans lead off #4 as ‘The Green Kids’ sees a daily argument over sending raw recruits into combat changes complexion after angry, embittered Flight Leader Joseph Caswell is promoted to Squadron Commander and must now decide who flies and who doesn’t..

More postal praise in ‘Prop Wash’ leads to a wry examination of superstition in Wessler & Krigstein’s ’The Good Luck Piece’ after which the writer teams with Wood for ‘The Novice and the Ace’ wherein a cunning psychological trick unnerves an entire US squadron… until a callow newcomer takes a chance…

Prose fiction ‘The Last Laugh’ details the last mistake of an escaping German pilot, before Wessler & Davis reveal the tribulations of an American mechanic hungry to fly against the Boche in ‘Home Again’

The short-lived series came to a close with #5, leading with Oleck & Evans’ ’C’est La Guerre!’ as American pilots play dice to decide who goes on a suicide mission after which prose page ‘Airman Unknown’ details how a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille sought to identify and repatriate the bodies of lost American fliers.

Breaking with tradition, this issue includes episodes from WWII, beginning with the Davis-illumined ‘Iron Man!’ and P-47 pilot Fred Allison who believes he can’t be shot down, after which Wessler & Krigstein take us back to the Great War for ‘Spads Were Trump’.

Here valiant American Lt. Walt Muller conceals a deeply personal reason for avoiding combat against German Ace the Red Eagle…

An incongruous prose review and guide of film and record releases, ‘The Entertainment Box’ leads into a Wood tour de force to end the issue and series. ‘Ordeal’ relates the astounding record of P-40 pilot Lt. Stoner against the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre of War, before exposing the one thing he cannot face…

The covers – by Evans – have all been restored from the masterful colour guides of original colourist Marie Severin, resulting – with modern reproduction techniques – in a sequence of graphic poems of unsurpassed beauty, whilst original house ads and commercial pages from the period tantalise in a way no other ads ever could, completing a nostalgic experience like no other.

The New Direction was a last hurrah for the kind of literate, mature comics Gaines wanted to publish. When they failed, he concentrated on Mad magazine and satire’s gain was comics’ loss. Now you have the chance to vicariously relive those times and trends, I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
© 1955, 2017 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc. All rights reserved. Introduction © 2017 Grant Geissman.

Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 3


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-498-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Seasonal Yarn-Spinning… 10/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was a top product of the comicbook profession, delivering as much variety as possible to the reader. At the peak of that period, nobody could touch Steve Ditko for variety of touch and tone, not to say sheer volume…

Ditko was one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he could – whilst the noblest of aspirations – was, at best, a minor consideration and more usually a stumbling block for the commercial interests which controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output today.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft, creating short, sharp visually attractive vignettes for a variety of companies, and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of archival hardback collections (also available as digital editions) reprints those early efforts for Charlton Comics published between June 1957 through July 1958 – with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Here are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fiction and fantasy stories – presented in the order he completed and delivered them rather than the more logical, but far-less-revealing, chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn. Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master, so it’s safest to assume co-creator credits go to the utterly professional Joe Gill…

This third tension-packed presentation reprints another heaping helping of Ditko’s ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months (sometime years) until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers. It also coincides with a brief period when the company began releasing double-sized giant issues…

Following another historically informative Introduction with passionate advocacy by Editor Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s military service experience and admiration and relationship with artist, educator and major influence Jerry Robinson, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with ‘From All Our Darkrooms…’ as first seen in Out of This World #4 (cover-dated June 1957) wherein photographers worldwide begin seeing otherwise-invisible aliens in the prints…

When a brash and ecologically unsound new owner threatens an ancient stand of trees he falls foul of ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33, August).

Ditko was astoundingly prolific – as was writer Gill – and increasingly Charlton’s various mystery and sci fi mags offered more than one effort per issue. As well as the cover to Unusual Tales #8 (also August), the tireless creator crafted ‘Will Power’, a classical tale of the power of love and statues coming to life and ‘The Decision’ wherein a wise precaution saves humanity from a robotic rampage after which Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 (July) sees a devious long con wrecked by paranormal intervention in ‘The Forbidden Room’

A dictatorial brute earns a grim comeuppance in ‘The Strange Fate of Captain Fenton’ in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6 (December), before the cover of This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #12 (July) ushers in a titanic tale of mythological woe and the end of ‘The Last One’, whilst, for one misguided soul in Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December), ‘Free’ is just another cruel word.

The belligerent threat of a ‘Stranger in the House’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, October) is tackled through divine intervention, but far more mundane answers are forthcoming for the devilish spy on the run in ‘All Those Eyes’ in Out of This World #6 (November).

A quartet of later-rendered tales from This Magazine is Haunted v2 #12 come next: beginning with alien inimical invaders dubbed ‘The Faceless Ones’ who pick the wrong human to replace, whereas random, kind fate saves humanity from ‘The Thing on the Beach’. A tragic, lonely ventriloquist is unable to escape ‘His Fate’, and the showbiz theme expands to involve a crooked impresario holding shrunken people captive in ‘The Messages’

Behind the cover of This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #13 (October) a lonely scientist and man’s best friend thwart ‘The Menace of the Invisibles’, before Strange Suspense Stories #34 (November, and with cover included) discloses an ironic fate for a manic Nazi hidden in the sands who can’t escape ‘The Desert Spell’

The cover – and its original art – for Out of This World #5 (September) are accompanied by ‘The Night They Learned the Truth’ – a twisted tale of nervous villagers extending a traditional unwelcome to a strange foreigner after which the cover to Unusual Tales #9 (November) segues into a tale of corrupt businessman getting what he deserves in ‘He’s Coming for Me!’

Two more from Out of This World #5 begin with bizarrely multi-layered tale of retribution ‘I Made a Volcano’, and wrap up with maritime monster mash ‘The Thing from Below’, after whichFather Help Me!’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6, December) adds a technological twist to the ancient dilemma of a good parent afflicted with an evil child…

A last contribution to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘Live for Reunion’ confronts a troubled child with a ghostly dilemma, before ‘Clairvoyance’ (Unusual Tales #9, November 1957) tackles the thorny problem of a super-child who only wants to be ordinary…

Guilt drives an unscrupulous businessman to see ‘The Scar’ everywhere in another mood message from Strange Suspense Stories #34, before more Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6 resume with the hunt for a progress-wrecking guru in ‘Where is Kubar?’ and conclude with the unhappy revelations of a hypnotist who sees too much after saying ‘Look Deep into My Eyes’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest leading characters and the eponymous star of this volume. The title was developed from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to us, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural.

When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the works of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic, esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 – and following a deftly compartmentalised cover dated December 1957 – comes ‘Tomorrow’s Punishment’, as a gang of crooks use a fortune-telling mirror to carry out their capers, after which a close encounter for a beggar makes him ‘The Man Who Saw Again’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler#8 from July 1958).

‘The Man Who Lost His Face’ is a tight alien invasion fable from Strange Suspense Stories #34 that leads seamlessly into a case of medical time travel salvation on a most fortuitous ‘Night Call’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #6) before Cold War counter espionage makes an accidental hero of ‘The Atomic Clerk’ in Strange Suspense Stories #34.

Another cover and its original art (Out of This World #6, November) leads into a potent tale of unnatural nature in ‘The River’s Wrath’, after which Unusual Tales #9 shares a tale of perceived ‘Escape’ for an unrepentant fugitive, whilst ‘The Night of Red Snow’ shows an insular town the power of unfettered art and imagination…

‘Plague’ also comes from Out of This World #6, revealing how a bitter scientist almost destroys the world, before the cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #5 (November 1958) precedes a triptych of thrillers beginning with ‘The Sultan’ whose thirst for oil leads to inescapable doom, carries on with the shocking vision an arrogant climber sees ‘Above the Topmost Peak’, and ends with a deadly case of mistaken identity for deep seas divers in ‘The Man Below’

From Strange Suspense Stories #34 (March 1958) comes a painful homily of trust despoiled when an elderly salesman honestly earns a miracle, only to realise he can’t rely upon his nearest and dearest, before this timeless celebration concludes with a selection from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #13 (October, 1957).

A craven white hunter steals an idol but cannot escape ‘The Drums’, even as a bum becomes ‘The Man Who Changed Bodies’, but can’t avoid the pitfalls of his own nature before a driven victim futilely hunts for a hated transgressor in ‘He Shall Have Vengeance’

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly and badly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories also display sharp wit and honest human aspiration and integrity, making ithis another superb collection in its own right as well as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fan would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics. Introduction © 2012 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.