The Broons and Oor Wullie: Classic Strips from the 70s


By Tom Lavery, Morris Heggie, Leslie Stannage & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-494-7

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared almost continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner-city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins; a man who would become DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips began being collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

Low (1895-1980) began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

His next brilliant idea was the Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post. The illustrated accessory launched on 8th March 1936 and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its unchallenged stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad vernacular. Ably supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.

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 the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this burgeoning strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers appeared. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead, but not included amongst the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Throughout this innovative period Low’s greatest advantage was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s. Watkins soldiered on in unassailable homely magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. For all those astonishingly productive years, on top of his many assignments in DCT’s comics he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.

DC Thomson’s chiefs preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes of the strips in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon. The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with the first Oor Wullie book a year later (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946). To this day, for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: The gregarious Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial metropolis of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); a scenario based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow.

As such it’s always been a character-rich environment and ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

And naturally, such a region is the perfect sounding board to portray all kinds of social, cultural and economic changes that come with every passing year…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the Broon family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids.

These always-underfoot worthies comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, classically gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane”, plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only and always as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence but always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage; constantly attempting to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and many chances to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But an’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) where they fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936, with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The basic set-up is sublimely simply and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, scruff with a weakness for mischief, talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with time on his hands who can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and an array of pals including Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later volumes such as this, he’s occasionally caught in the company of fetching schoolgirls like Elizabeth and Primrose

A compilation in monochrome with some full-colour pages, Classic Strips from the 70s was released in 2012 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans new or old: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) but deviated somewhat from the norm in that rather than re-presenting exemplar strips from the decade, the book follows a rare experiment in continuity storytelling…

When, in 1976, the strip returned to new material following the Watkins reprint run, artist Tom Lavery (you might remember his run on The Numskulls) was given the daunting task of following the master on both The Broons and Oor Wullie.

He soldiered on until 1982, followed by John Polland, Bob Nixon, Ken H. Harrison and, currently, Peter Davidson. Sadly, the authors of the features are far harder to pin down now.

Although the Oor Wullie strips remained consistently episodic and broadly comedic affairs, a long-running plotline was introduced to the Broons with the debut of rugged, affable Dave McKay in 1977.

As the weeks went by, and despite a mixed bag of reactions from the clan and readership, Maggie Broon’s new boyfriend and his flash car became a fixture. An engagement was announced, a house was bought, unsuspected and potentially fractious connections to the prospective In-Laws were revealed and overcome before, in 1979, the countdown to a wedding began…

It was never to be. For reasons still undisclosed (both writer and artist were no longer around to ask at the time this book was released) Dave vanished between instalments and was never seen again.

Life slowly – but not too slowly – returned to what passes for normal in Glebe Street but thanks to writer editor Morris Heggie and illustrator Leslie Stannage, the 4-page ‘Wedding of the Year’ and ‘The Cooperative Ha’’ offers a Sliding Doors-style possible ending here. Ahh, closure…

The dramady is accompanied throughout by clever sidebar features including faux love letters and mementoes in a brace of ‘Be My Valentine!’ spreads; ‘And the Gifts Were Returned’ letters from Maggie; gag pages disclosing ‘The Funny Side of Auld Romantics’ and ‘Oor Wullie’s Wedding Invitation’ plus newspaper photo sections on other infamous weddings of the era and more…

The last half of the book returns to funny business as usual, with Daphne, Maggie, Hen and Joe back on the hunt for fresh romantic partners, while the rest of the family resume acting like the assorted brats they eternally are: squabbling, showing off, snaffling food and enduring embarrassing domestic, fashion and sporting culture shocks…

Following joke ensemble ‘The Funny Side of Seventies Romance’ the Broons are back about their business – referencing trending topics such as the movie Grease and timeless themes such as birthday blues, leaving the remainder of this titanic tome to an examination of being young in the seventies courtesy of Oor Wullie…

The nostalgic wonderment begins with a full-colour photomontage of the decade’s comics covers and a frankly disturbing fashion parade of the wee lad, Primrose, Fat Bob and Soapy Joe in the era’s more outrageous apparel. Then it’s back to basics with waggish behaviours: dodging school, playing pranks, avoiding haircuts, going on holiday, snaffling contraband grub, finagling snacks and trying loads of get-rich-quick schemes.

Careers attempted include artist, Red Indian (70s, remember? Different tastes, OK?), paperboy, sound recorder and much more…

Supplementing these strips are features such as a colour retrospective of Oor Wullie Annuals, photo-features ‘Faces of the 70s’, pop quiz ‘20 Scots Smashers! From the 70s’ and soccer celebration ‘Fitba Crazy!’ as well as a brace of vintage Funland Puzzle Pages.

Unchanged and always welcome are wry and weighted comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, Christmas revels, torn clothes, recycled comics, breakings into one’s own home, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social scandals: stories always designed to take our collective mind off troubles abroad and at home, and for every thwarted romance or embarrassing fiasco, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns and their should-know-better elders…

You’ll almost certainly being buying this oversized hardback tome second-hand, so if possible ensure that the tipped in premiums are present. These include a CD of 20 traditional wedding tunes played by a Pipe Band and Maggie Broon’s Wedding Planner pack…

Overflowing with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy summer holiday without them, can you?
The Broons and Oor Wullie ®© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2012.

Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Volume 1

By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-869-5

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and started his cartooning career whilst still in High School, as both artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935, he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on shorts and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio until the infamous animator’s strike in 1941.

Refusing to take a side, Kelly moved back East and began drawing comicbooks – primarily for Dell Comics, who had the Disney funnybook license.

Despite his glorious work on such humanistic classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy (see Walt Kelly’s Santa Claus Adventures) and created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum for Animal Comics #1 (December 1942). He sagaciously retained the copyrights in the ongoing tale of two Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal pals stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly became art editor and cartoonist for the hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4th 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast began their careers in the funny pages, appearing six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its run – reprinted in full at the back of this magnificent tome – the first glimmers of the increasingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary began to be seen…

This first of twelve volumes follows the ascent of the scintillating and vastly influential strip; don’t believe me, just listen to Gary Trudeau, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Jeff McNally, Bill Holbrook, Mark O’Hare, Alan Moore, Jeff Smith and even Goscinny & Uderzo and our own Maurice Dodd & Dennis Collins, whose wonderful strip The Perishers owes more than a little to the sublime antics of the Okefenokee Swamp citizenry…

After the Star closed Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate and launched on May 16th 1949. A colour Sunday page debuted January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 (and beyond, courtesy of his talented wife and family…).

At its peak the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections which began in 1951 numbered nearly 50, collectively selling 30 million copies.

This volume includes all the Star strips, the Dailies from inception to December 30th 1950, and the Sundays – in a full colour section – from January 29th – December 31st 1950, plus a wealth of supplementary features including a Foreword from columnist Jimmy Breslin, an introduction by biographer Steve Thompson, a week-by-week highly detailed contents section, a useful guide ‘About the Sundays’ by Mark Evanier, and an invaluable context and historical notes feature ‘Swanp Talk’ by the amazing R.C. Harvey.

Kelly’s genius was the ability to beautifully, vivaciously draw comedic, tragic, pompous, sympathetic characters of any shape or breed and make them inescapably human and he used that gift to blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre.

The hairy, scaly, feathered, slimy folk depicted here are inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodge-podge of all-ages accessible delight.

In later volumes Kelly would set his bestial cast loose on such timid, defenceless victims as Senator Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Clan, but he starts off small here, introducing the gently bemused Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant Albert, dolorous Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompous (not) know-it-all Howland Owl and a host of others in gags and extended epics ranging from assorted fishing trips, building an Adam Bomb, losing and finding other people’s children, electioneering, education, kidnapping, the evil influence of comicbooks, Baseball season, why folks shouldn’t eat each other, Western cow punchers, cows punching back, New Years Resolutions, public holidays and so much more…

The Sundays also began with one-off gags but soon evolved into convoluted and mesmeric continued sagas such as the search for the Fountain of Youth, building a school and keeping it filled, Albert being elected Queen of the Woodland by the elf-like forest fauns – and why that was ultimately a very bad thing indeed…

Timeless and magical, Pogo is a giant of world literature, not simply comics, and this magnificent edition should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf.

POGO Through the Wild Blue Wonder and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2011 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2011 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-803-1 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-615-0 (PB)

By the time Georges Remi began Tintin’s fourth serialised adventure – in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme from December 1932 to February 1934 and gathered in a collected volume by Casterman in 1934 – he was well on the way to mastery of his art but was still growing as a writer.

Although the periodical format meant that a certain degree of slapstick and seemingly directionless action was necessary to keep the attention of the reader, Remi (known the world over as Hergé) was evolving by leaps and bounds, mastering the ability to integrate these set-piece elements into the building of a complete narrative.

Cigars of the Pharaoh is stylistically much more of a fully-realised and craftily-designed thriller, with a solid plot underpinning all the episodic hi-jinks.

Following directly on from Tintin in America, here the valiant boy reporter is returning from Chicago on an oceangoing liner headed to Egypt. Here he and Snowy meet Sophocles Sarcophagus – the first in a string of absent-minded professors which would ultimately culminate in the outlandishly irascible yet lovable Cuthbert Calculus.

Dithering archaeologist Sarcophagus has divined an ancient mystery that is somehow connected to a ring of ruthless drug smugglers. Tintin memorably encounters bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson at this juncture, when narcotics are planted in his cabin, and a complex drama riotously unfolds as the lad and Sarcophagus discover a lost pyramid is not only the smuggler’s base but the foundation for a much darker game – the overthrow of nations!

Hergé introduced many other recurring and supporting characters in this tale. As well as the shambling policemen, there is the villainous seaman Captain Allan, globe-girdling small-trader Oliveira da Figueira and oily movie mogul Roberto Rastapopoulos, who would all figure strongly in later stories.

The author was gearing up for the long creative haul, and thus began inserting plot-seeds that would only flower in future projects…

When Tintin’s relentless investigations take him to India, where the villains are attempting to topple a Maharajah trying to destroy the Opium poppy industry, the plucky lad befriends the potentate and thwarts the plan of a crazed Fakir. This villain frequently employs a drug called Rajaijah, which permanently drives men mad, and is also somehow connected to the Egyptian gang.

The contemporary version of this tale was revised by Hergé in 1955, and sharp-eyed fans will spot a few apparent anachronisms, but the more open-minded will be able to unashamedly wallow in a timeless comedy-thriller of exotic intrigue and breakneck action.

Although the mystery of the Cigars of the Pharaoh ends satisfactorily with a climactic duel in the rugged and picturesque hill-country, the threat and relevance of Rajaijah would not be resolved until Hergé’s next tale, and his first masterpiece…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, this lush series of hardback collections is a very satisfying way of rectifying that sorry situation. So why haven’t you..?
The Cigars of the Pharaoh: artwork © 1955, 1983 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1971 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays volume 1: 1949-1953


By Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye (IDW/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-262-3

It’s indisputable that the American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s bold and unprecedented invention was fervidly adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation and quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

He was also shamelessly copied and adapted by many inspired writers and artists for numerous publishers, spawning an incomprehensible army of imitators and variations within three years of his summer 1938 debut.

The intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and triumphal wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Steel soon grew to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East also engulfed America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms Superman was master of the world. Moreover, whilst transforming and dictating the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Man of Tomorrow relentlessly expanded into all areas of the entertainment media.

Although we all think of the Cleveland boys’ iconic invention as the epitome and acme of comicbook creation, the truth is that very soon after his debut in Action Comics #1 the Man of Steel became a fictional multimedia monolith in the same league as Popeye, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Mickey Mouse.

Diehard comics fans regard our purest and most powerful icons in primarily graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Avengers and all their hyperkinetic kind long ago outgrew their four-colour origins and are now fully mythologized modern media creatures, instantly familiar in mass markets across all platforms and age ranges…

Far more people have viewed or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read his comicbooks. His globally syndicated newspaper strips alone reached untold millions, and by the time his 20th anniversary rolled around at the very start of what we know as the Silver Age of Comics, he had been a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, as well as two films and a novel by George Lowther.

Superman was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended his first smash live-action television serial. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a franchise of blockbuster movies and an almost seamless succession of games, bubblegum cards and TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even his superdog Krypto got in on the small-screen act…

However, during his formative years the small screen was simply an expensive novelty so the Action Ace achieved true mass market fame through a different medium: one not that far removed from his print origins.

Although pretty much a spent force these days, for the majority of the last century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that all American cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country – and frequently the planet – it was seen by millions, if not billions, of readers and generally accepted as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books. It also paid far better.

And rightly so: some of the most enduring and entertaining characters and concepts of all time were created to lure readers from one particular paper to another and many of them grew to be part of a global culture.

Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Charlie Brown and so many more escaped humble and tawdry newsprint origins to become meta-real: existing in the minds of earthlings from Albuquerque to Zanzibar.

Some still do…

Even so, it was always something of a risky double-edged sword when a comicbook character became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint strips in cheap accessible form?) to became actual mass-entertainment – and often global – syndicated serial strips.

Superman was the first original comicbook character to make that leap – about six months after as he exploded out of Action Comics – but only a few have ever successfully followed. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and groundbreaking teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s with only a handful such as Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian having done so since.

The daily Superman newspaper comic strip launched on 16th January 1939, supplemented by a full-colour Sunday page from November 5th of that year. Originally crafted by such luminaries as Siegel & Shuster and their studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth task soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

The McClure Syndicate feature ran continuously from 1939 until May 1966, appearing at its peak in more than 300 daily and 90 Sunday newspapers; boasting a combined readership of more than 20 million. For most of the post war years Boring & Stan Kaye illustrated the spectacular Sundays (eventually supplemented by artists Win Mortimer and Curt Swan). The majority of the strips – from 1944 to 1958 – were written by still largely unsung scribe Alvin Schwartz.

Born in 1916, Schwartz was an early maestro of comicbooks, writing for Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and many other titles and companies. Whilst handling the Superman strip he also freelanced on Wonder Woman and other superheroes as well as genre titles such as Tomahawk, Buzzy, A Date with Judy and House of Mystery.

After numerous clashes with new superman Editor Mort Weisinger, Schwartz quit comics for commercial writing, selling novels and essays, and latterly, documentaries and docudramas for the National Film Board of Canada. He also worked miracles in advertising and market research, developing selling techniques such as psychographics and typological identification and was a member of the advisory committee to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He died in 2011.

After too many years wallowing in obscurity most of Superman’s newspaper strip exploits are at last available to aficionados and the curious newcomer in tomes such as this compiled under the auspices of the Library of American Comics.

Showcasing Schwartz and artist Wayne Boring in their purest prime, these Sundays (numbered as pages #521 to #698 and collectively spanning October 23rd 1949 to March 15th 1953) feature a nigh-omnipotent Man of Steel in domestically-framed and curated tales of emotional dilemmas and pedestrian criminality rather than a parade of muscle-flexing bombast, with humour, wit and satire comfortably replacing non-stop angst and bludgeoning action.

Following an affable appreciation of the creators and the times in ‘An Introduction’ by Mark Waid, ‘A Wayne Boring Gallery’ provides a tantalising selection of Superman and Action Comics covers from the period before the weekly wonderment commences in all its vibrant glory.

Sadly, the serials are untitled, so you’ll just have to manage with my meagre synopses of the individual yarns…

Kicking things off is a charming fantasy as the Metropolis Marvel is temporarily stranded in Arthurian Britain after a US government time travel experiment goes awry. Whilst living in the past he befriends and helps out court magician Merlin: an old duffer whose conjuring tricks aren’t fooling anyone anymore…

The first new story of 1950 begins on February 12th and details how swindler Joseph Porter cons the Man of Steel into taking his place and clearing up his problems with the cops and the numerous gulled victims. This includes a hilarious spoofing sequence as Superman plays un-matchmaker to a scandalously-affianced hillbilly ingenue that will delight fans of Li’l Abner

The extended tale opening on May 28th offers another timeless human-interest drama given a super-powered spin as two aging robber barons recall their regulation-free heydays before embarking on a ruthless wager to see who will get “anything they wish for” first.

The only limitations imposed are their imaginations and financial resources and before long Superman is hard-pressed to keep collateral casualties to a minimum…

One of the few antagonists to transfer from the funnybooks to the Funnies pages was fifth dimensional prankster Mr. Mxyztplk who popped back to our third dimension and took instant umbrage to an arrogant Earth educator. Dr. Flipendale had the temerity to declare the imp a mass delusion and refused to believe or even acknowledge the escalating chaos his pronouncements triggered…

Strip #573 (October 22nd) offers a different take on the classic secret identity crisis when Clark is exposed as an invulnerable man to all of Metropolis. Although gangsters are convinced, Lois Lane is not, claiming the underworld is perpetrating a frame-up…

That yarn takes us to the end of the year and 1951 opens on January 7th with a tale of suspicion and injustice as Clark heads back to childhood hometown Smallville to celebrate Superboy Week and encounters a young man nursing an ancient grudge.

When a poison pen and rumour campaign looks set to spoil the festivities, the hero’s investigations uncover a betrayed child, a framed, murdered father and nefarious clandestine misdeeds carried out by corporate rogues in the Boy of Steel’s name…

Another identity crisis bedevils Clark beginning on April 1st 1951. Here a killer’s case of mistaken identity seemingly exposes the reporter as super-strong and bulletproof. Surely, he must be the indomitable Man of Steel in disguise?

Not according to Professor Pinberry who believes the hapless scribe has been accidentally exposed to his new superpower ray machine, Clark is happy to grasp at the fortuitous alibi but trouble mounts after the public demands to see the machine in action again and the city’s biggest mobster goes after the gadget to make himself Superman’s equal…

Strip #609 starts the next quirky exploit on July 1st as old duffer Salem Cooley comes to Metropolis and enjoys the most miraculous winning streak in history. Even Superman’s astounding powers can’t keep up with the string of happy circumstances, fortuitously profitable accidents and close shaves. Everybody wants to be the old coot’s pal, so who then is behind the constant assassination attempts on superstitious Salem and what reward could possibly tempt anyone to challenge the luckiest man alive?

A new serial opens on September 9th as Superman agrees to write Daily Planet articles about some of his previous exploits to benefit crime prevention charities. However, when the capers he cites are restaged by mysterious malefactors the city soon turns against the Man of Tomorrow and it takes all his super-wits to uncover the mastermind behind it all and stop one of the boldest crimes in the city’s history…

To lure a crime boss out, Superman agrees to be absent from Metropolis for a few weeks in the next adventure (running from November 18th 1951 to January 13th 1952). However, when a poverty-struck boy succumbs to disease and depression, the Man of Might decides to return and act undercover, inspiring the kid’s recovery by granting wishes made on a “magic wand”.

That task becomes increasingly difficult after crooks get hold of the stick and the invisible hero has to play along to sustain little Teddy’s recuperation…

From January 20th Superman plays guardian angel to former wastrel and drunken playboy Reggie de Peyster who swears he’s a reformed character. Nobody but Superman realises the trust fund brat is sincere and all the appalling and shameful scandals he’s currently implicated in are being manufactured to cut the heir out of a vast inheritance…

Lois Lane takes centre stage in the tale opening on April 6th as, after months of being sidelined, the daring reporter quits her job to find a career offering some real excitement. She’s soon the assistant to private detective Mike Crain, catching crooks and bodyguarding glamourous stars, but the work seems dull and pedestrian. Of course, Lois is utterly oblivious to the fact that Superman is secretly intervening in his patriarchal efforts to get her back where she belongs. Ah, different times, eh?

When maverick Hollywood producer/director Hans Bower arrives in Metropolis, (June 29th he promptly declares Clark Kent to be his latest mega-sensational super-star. A force of nature unable to take “no” for an answer, he soon has the bewildered reporter helming his next box office blockbuster but as shooting progresses Superman uncovers a covert agenda and shocking secret behind the mogul’s extraordinary actions.

Uncanny crime is the order of the day from September 21st when bizarre illusions plague Metropolis and scientist Dr. Wagonrod accuses Superman of perpetrating hoaxes and staging crises due to an undiagnosed split personality. The truth is far more devious than that, though…

Concluding this first Atomic Age collection, from November 30th 1952 to March 15th 1953, readers were avidly watching the skies as an alien capsule fell to Earth and disgorged a succession of alien bio-weapons to test humanity. The Man of Steel was hard-pressed to defeat the army of bizarre beasts but did have one immeasurable advantage: the sage advice and input of life-long science fiction fan Sedgwick Ripple

The Atomic Age Superman: – Sunday Pages 1949-1953! is the first of three huge (312 x 245 mm), lavish, high-end hardback collections starring the Man of Steel and a welcome addition to the superb commemorative series of Library of American Comics which has preserved and re-presented in luxurious splendour such landmark strips as Li’l Abner, Tarzan, Rip Kirby, Polly and her Pals and many of the abovementioned cartoon icons.

It’s an unimaginable joy to see these “lost” Superman stories again, offering a far more measured, domesticated and comforting side of one of America’s most unique contributions to world culture. It’s also a pure delight to see some of the most engaging yesterdays of the Man of Tomorrow. Join me and see for yourself…
© 2015 DC Comics. All rights reserved. SUPERMAN and all related characters and elements are trademarks of DC Comics.

Sky Masters of the Space Force: The Complete Dailies


By Jack Kirby, Dick & Dave Wood, Wally Wood & Dick Ayers (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-129-8

Sky Masters of the Space Force was – and remains – a beautiful and eminently readable newspaper strip but one with a chequered and troubled back-story. How much so you can discover for yourself when you buy the book.

Even ever-upbeat and inspirational comics mega-creator Jack Kirby spent decades trying to forget the grief caused by his foray into the newspaper strip market during the height of the Space Race before finally relenting in his twilight years and giving his blessing to collections and reprints such as this one from Hermes Press.

I’m glad that he did because the collected work is one of his greatest achievements, even with the incredible format restraints of one tier of tiny panels per day, and a solitary page every Sunday. More than 50 years later this hard-science space adventure is still the business!

And that’s despite the acrimonious legal manoeuvrings that poisoned the process of creating the strip from start to finish. That can of worms you can you can read for yourself in Daniel Herman’s forthright ‘Introduction: Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, and Sky Masters’ which precedes the astronautical adventures contained herein…

Just for context though: against a backdrop of international and ideological rivalry turned white-hot when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the staid George Matthew Adams newspaper syndicate decided to finally enter the 20th century with a newspaper feature about space.

After approaching a reluctant DC Comics (then known as National Periodicals Publications) a deal was brokered. The project was steered by editor Jack Schiff and he convinced Jack Kirby, inker Wally Wood (later to be replaced by Dick Ayers) and scripters/brothers Dick and Dave Wood (no relation to Wally), to begin bringing the conquest of the cosmos into our lives via an all-American astronaut, his trusty team of stalwart comrades and the philanthropic largesse of the newly-minted US Space Force…

The daily strip launched on September 8th 1958 and ran until February 25th 1961; a scant few months before Alan Shepherd became in reality the first American in Space on May 5th.

The Sunday colour page told its five extended tales (The Atom Horse, Project Darkside, Mister Lunivac, Jumbo Jones and The Yogi Spaceman) in a separate continuity running from February 8th 1959 until 14th February 1960. They are sadly not included in this superb monochrome hardback archival collection, but at least that gives us fans something to look forward to…

This tense, terse and startlingly suspenseful foray into a historical future begins with ‘The First Man in Space’ (September 8th – November 21st 1958) as Major Schuyler “Sky” Masters becomes the second man in space. Romantically involved with Holly Martin, he is hurled into orbit to rescue her astronaut father after the bold pioneer encounters something too horrible to contemplate in the pitiless reaches above Earth…

The human tragedy and ever-impinging fear of the unknown of that moody tale informs all the following stories and as Holly Martin’s feisty brother Danny and burly Sgt. Riot join the cast (who do they remind me of?) for ‘Sabotage’ (22nd November – 7th March 1959), the quintessential components of all great comics teams are in place.

In this second encounter the stage expands enormously and a member of the vast Space Force contingent sinks into derangement: convinced that the colonization of the void and abandonment of Mother Earth is an unholy abomination.

That’s bad enough, but after he is despatched as one of the six pathfinders constructing America’s first permanent orbiting space station, disaster is assured unless Sky can expose him and stop his deadly machinations…

Even as grim yet heady realism slowly grew into exuberant action and fantastic spectacle the strip moves into high dramatic gear as woman pilot (or “aviatrix”) ‘Mayday Shannon’ (9th March – 9th May) joins the squad. The Brass have high hopes that she will prove females can thrive in space too but didn’t reckon on her publicity-hungry greed and selfishness.

Luckily, the magnetic allure of the stars overcomes her bad side and Sky is on hand to deal with her ruthlessly unscrupulous manager…

A medical emergency tests the ingenuity of the dedicated spacers when project instigator and patriarch Doctor Royer is taken ill and Sky must ferry a surgeon to him in ‘To Save a Life’ (11th May – 10th June) after which the tireless Major and an unsuspected rival for Holly’s affections are stranded together on a New Guinea island of cannibals after losing control of ‘The Lost Capsule’, (11th June – 23rd September)…

During that heady meeting of ancient and modern cultures, inker and finisher Wally Wood was replaced by Dick Ayers (although the signatures remained “Kirby & Wood” for years more. Maybe the credit was for the writers?).

The incalculable terrors of space manifested with the next saga as ‘Alfie’ (24th September 1959 – 13th January 1960) carried the heroes of the New Frontier into the next decade. When young astronaut crewman Marek joins the orbiting space wheel he is soon periodically experiencing bizarre fits. Every four hours, for seven and a half minutes the young American seems to channel the personality of an aging East End cockney thief called Alfie Higgins. With the fear that it might be some kind of infectious space madness, Sky and Riot head for London to link up with Scotland Yard in a gripping mystery drama blending jewel robbery and murder with the eerie overtones of Dumas’ Corsican Cousins

The ever-present tensions of the Cold War and Space Race come to the fore in ‘Refugee’ (14th January – 19th February) as Sky and the US Space Force aid the most unlikely and improbable Soviet defector escape to the West…

Now a fully-trusted and dedicated member of the squad, Mayday Shannon returns to solve an astronaut’s romantic dilemma by arranging a ‘Wedding in Space’, (20th February – 20th April) before the true threat of the outer depths is tackled as Sky meets astronautical guru and maverick Martin Strickland. A tempestuous but invaluable asset of the Space program, the intellectual renegade has proof of alien life but won’t share the ‘Message from Space’ (21st April – 22nd June) unless the military and civil authorities give him carte blanche to act on humanity’s behalf…

Counterbalancing such speculative sci fi aspects, the penultimate adventure is very much Earthbound and grounded in contemporary science and economics. In ‘Weather Watchers’ (23rd June – 27th December) greedy capitalist entrepreneur Octavius Alexia realises he can make huge profits by scamming insurers if he has access to the advance weather predictions afforded by the growing web of satellites orbiting the world.

To secure that valuable information he targets Mayday with the latest in espionage technologies and a male honey trap named J. Mansfield Sparks III. It might have all gone his way too if the woman hadn’t been so smart and his hired gigolo had remained unencumbered by conscience…

The strip ended in a rather rushed and rapid manner with ‘The Young Astronaut’ (28th December 1960 – 25th February 1961) wherein a new recruit proved to be too good to be true. Excelling at every aspect of the harsh training, Frederick T. “Fission” Tate had ulterior motives for getting into space. Luckily, suspicious Major Masters was right beside him on that first flight into the Wide Black Yonder…

As well as these stellar tales of stellar wonder, this volume also contains an abundance of visual extras such as a numerous covers and samples of Kirby’s contemporary comicbook work and original art panels in a ‘Focus’ section, which almost compensates for the absence of the Sunday colour pages. Almost…

This compilation comprises a meteoric canon of wonderment that no red-blooded armchair adventurer could possibly resist, but quite honestly, I simply cannot be completely objective about Sky Masters.

I grew up during this time period and the “Conquest of Space” is as much a part of my sturdy yet creaky old bones as the lead in the paint, pipes and exhaust fumes my generation absorbed. That it is also thrilling, challenging and spectacularly drawn is almost irrelevant to me, but if any inducement is needed for you to seek this work out let it be that this is indisputably one of Kirby’s greatest accomplishments: engaging, challenging and truly lovely to look upon.

Now go enjoy it…
© 2017 Herman and Geer Communications, Inc. d/b/a Hermes Press. Introduction and Focus © 2017 Daniel Herman.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike – Gladstone Comic Album #4


By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-94459-902-0

From the late 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion writing and drawing a vast array of comedic adventure yarns for kids, creating a Duck Universe of memorable – and highly bankable – characters like Gladstone Gander (1948), The Beagle Boys (1951), Gyro Gearloose (1952) and Magica De Spell (1961) to augment the stable of cartoon actors from the Disney Studio.

His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the star of this show.

So potent were his creations that they fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for licensing publisher Dell/Gold Key, and not directly for the studio.

Throughout this period, Barks was blissfully unaware that his work (uncredited by official policy, as was all Disney’s cartoon and comicbook output), had been singled out by a rabid and discerning public as being by “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated fans finally tracked him down, his belated celebrity began.

Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material – and a selection of other Disney comics strips – in the 1980s and kept on going until 2008. Since then cultural saviours Fantagraphics have begun reprinting all the Barks material in a series of snazzy hardcover compilations. Once they’ve done that I’ll start reviewing those but until then this still readily available paperback album is one of the very best you can still find…

Whilst producing all that landmark innovative material Barks was just a working guy, generating covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and contributing story and/or art to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore.

This album is printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) and features one of the best tales Barks ever told.

It’s taken from Four Color Comics #456 (September 1952 and technically the second full story to star the multimillionaire mallard). To further confuse matters, the Byzantine numbering system used by Dell also lists this issue as Uncle Scrooge #2.

‘Back to the Klondike’ is a rip-roaring yet deeply moving yarn, a brilliant comedy and even a bittersweet romance, which added huge depth to the character of the World’s Richest Duck, even whilst reiterating the superficial peccadilloes that make him such a memorable and engaging star.

Scrooge McDuck is old and getting forgetful: he can’t recall how much money he has seconds after he’s finished counting it, nor even where his traps to locate it are hidden. After one too many close shaves he finally shells out for a doctor who diagnoses “Blinkus of the Thinkus” and prescribes some pills to restore his scrupulous memory.

They work! Recalling a gold-strike he made 50 years previously, the old miser drags Donald Duck and his nephews to the Far North to recover the precious hoard cached and forgotten five decades ago, but as the journey progresses he also recalls the rough, tough life of a prospector and the saloon-girl who tried to cheat him of his find: Glittering Goldie O’Gilt

This superb yarn tells you everything you could ever need about the irascible oligarch. It’s the perfect character tale and rattles along like an express train, sad, happy, thrilling and funny by turns, and it’s supplemented in this book with a classic Gyro Gearloose tale from 1960.

‘Cave of the Winds’ is taken from Four Color Comics #1095, and finds Scrooge consulting the fabulously off-kilter feathered inventor on a perfect hiding place for the ever-increasing McDuck cash cache. The answer, sadly, is far from satisfactory…

The cartoon convolutions conclude with a short and punchy untitled tale from Uncle Scrooge #8 (1954) which has Scrooge run for City Treasurer – but without spending any money on expenses (or anything else)…

No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced the captivating Carl Barks magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your own purchasing power to any search engine. The rewards are there for the finding and far more valuable than mere money…
© 1987, 1960, 1954, 1953 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Mac Raboy’s Flash Gordon: Volume 1 Sunday Strips from 1948-1953


By Don Moore & Mac Raboy (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-882-7

By most lights Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as an answer to the revolutionary, inspirational, but quirkily clunky Buck Rogers by Philip Nolan and Dick Calkins (which also began on January 7th, but in 1929) two new elements were added to the wonderment; Classical Lyricism and poetic dynamism. It became a weekly invitation to stunning exotic glamour and astonishing beauty.

Where Rogers blended traditional adventure and high science concepts, Flash Gordon reinterpreted fairy tales, heroic epics and mythology, spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic craft and contraptions standing in for galleons, chariots and magic carpets. It was a narrative trick that kept the far-fetched satisfactorily familiar – and was continued by Raboy and Moore in their run. Look closely and you’ll see cowboys, gangsters and of course, flying saucer fetishes adding contemporary flourish to the fanciful fables in this volume…

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for unmuddled detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip that all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean-lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Almost all the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (and to see one of his better disciples check out Beyond Mars, illustrated by the wonderful Lee Elias).

Flash Gordon began on present-day Earth (which was 1934, remember?) with a rogue planet about to smash the World. As global panic ensued, polo player Flash and fellow passenger Dale Arden narrowly escaped disaster when a meteor fragment downed their airliner. They landed on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisoned them in the rocket-ship he had built.

His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it…!

Thus began a decade of sheer escapist magic in a Ruritanian Neverland: a blend of Camelot, Oz and every fabled paradise that promised paradise yet concealed hidden vipers, ogres and demons, all cloaked in a glimmering sheen of sleek futurism. Worthy adversaries such as utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; myriad exotic races and shattering conflicts offered a fantastic alternative to drab and dangerous reality for millions of avid readers around the world.

Alex Raymond’s ‘On the Planet Mongo’ with Don Moore doing the bulk of the scripting, ran every Sunday until 1944, when the artist joined the Marines. On his return he eschewed wild imaginings for sober reality and created the gentleman detective serial Rip Kirby. The continuous, unmissable weekly appointment with sheer wonderment, continued under the artistic auspices of Austin Briggs – who had drawn the daily black and white instalments since 1940.

In 1948, eight years after beginning his career drawing for the Harry A. Chesler production “shop” comicbook artist Emanual “Mac” Raboy took over the illustration of the Sunday page. Moore remained as scripter and began co-writing with the artist.

Raboy’s sleek, fine-line brush style, heavily influenced by his idol Raymond, had made his work on Captain Marvel Jr., Kid Eternity and the especially Green Lama a benchmark of artistic quality in the proliferating superhero genre. His seemingly inevitable assumption of the extraordinary exploits led to a renaissance of the strip and in the rapidly evolving post-war world Flash Gordon became once more a benchmark of timeless, escapist quality that only Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant could touch.

This first 260 page volume, produced in landscape format and printed in bold stark monochrome (although one or two strips appear to have been scanned from printed colour copies) covers the period January 8th 1948 to May 10th 1953 and opens with Flash as President of Mongo when Slyk, a refugee from the believed-uninhabited moon of Lunita, arrives. Beseeching assistance to liberate his world from the tyrannical depredations of the wicked siblings Rudo and Lura, the Lunite accompanies Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov to his hidden moon where the heroes are soon captured before Slyk saves the day.

This short transitional tale set up an unfailingly popular formula of nightmarish beasts, distressed damsels and outrageous adventure that would last until Raboy’s death in 1967.

Returning to Mongo Flash and Co. discovered a red comet hurtling towards that fabulous world. Whilst trying to deflect it they become trapped by the civilisation who inhabit its interior, creatures to whom gravity is but a toy… Once more romance, intrigue and beautifully depicted action were the order of many days until the trio toppled the masters and placed far more agreeable rulers in charge, saving their adopted world and the greater universe.

The saga lasted until June of 1949 and was promptly followed by a stunning undersea odyssey as a brief trip to Mongo’s beaches led Flash and Dale into murky waters when they rescued captivating Merma from monstrous sub-sea marauder Sharki and became enmeshed in a watery range-war and tricky romantic quadrangle involving hidden kingdoms, scaly savages and outrageous leviathans and sea-beasts.

It was off to the frozen principality of Polaria next where ambitious Prince Polon was covering up a plague of giant monsters preying on the people. Of course the scurvy villain was behind the plot, using size-shifting rays and his ultimate aim was to become dictator of all Mongo…

The scheme obviously gave other regional rulers ideas. No sooner did President Flash return than he was off again to the Tropix Islands where “Queen” Rubia had fomented rebellion and seceded from the democratic federation of Mongo States. Hands-on Flash went undercover with Dale in an Arabian adventure to rival Sinbad’s greatest: before the people were liberated and the despots destroyed there was a panoply of spectacular action and fantastic creatures to survive…

Rubia, defeated, was dispatched to the prison moon Exilia, but all was not right on that grim penal colony. Once more surreptitiously investigating our hero discovered that villains had taken over the penal-planet and were preparing to attack civilized Mongo. Luckily Rubia and criminal mastermind Zin believed Flash to be his own double, dispatched to Exilia for impersonating the President – but they’re were not fooled for long…

This awesome extended epic ran from 6th March to November 5th 1950 and was followed by a proposed change-of-pace as Flash and Dale took off for a much-needed vacation on Earth. Unfortunately ever-malicious Rubia sabotaged their ship and they crash-landed on the unexplored Planet Zeta. It surely came as no surprise to fans when they discovered another beautifully barbarous lost civilisation there…

Zeta was a world of colossal plants and feudal warriors, but hid a dangerous secret. Something in the environment consumed metal. Within minutes Flash and Dale saw their ship and weapons melt away… Befriended instead of attacked the castaways found the inhabitants lived on a world seemingly immune to technological advancement, controlled by “wizards” who soon decided that Flash was a threat…

Flash discovers the metal-eating plague was artificial and helped the Zetans rebel and they helped him construct a new ship. Once more en route for Earth Flash and Dale encountered a stranger meteor, but without further mishap arrived safely. On March 25th 1951 (17 years and some months after they departed) two of earth’s first star-travellers finally returned to their birthworld and were feted like royalty. Sadly they should have paid closer attention to that vagrant space-rock as soon, Earth was under attack by strategically aimed meteors.

With Einsteinish Professor Brite in tow, Flash and Dale tracked the attacks to the Moon where they met beetle-men and human dictator Rak who planned to conquer Earth with his lunar meteor gun. He had never encountered a man like Flash Gordon before…

With Rak’s threat ended Flash helped Earth build a sentinel Space Platform, but when he, Dale, engineer Dr. Ruff and his annoying niece Ginger began work 1000 miles up they clashed with a strange race of flying saucer-riding space gnomes from Mars…

At this time Mars clearly preferred, if not actually needed, Earth women and with Dale and Ginger abducted, another sterling romp ensued. Flash outfoxed the malign gnome-king Toxo before subsequently leading a full expedition to the Red planet where he discovered another advanced feudal civilisation and that Martian women – or at least their Queen, Menta – had no worries, looks-wise…

Menta was however, a spoiled and murderous psychopath determined to conquer Earth…

This epic ran until February 24th 1952, whereupon Flash returned to Earth to discover his homeworld gripped in a new Ice Age. Jetting to the Arctic the good guys found Frost Giants from Saturn (the fifth moon Rhea to be exact) and that the big Freeze was artificially induced. Although he destroyed their forward base the Giants dragged Flash back to Rhea and inadvertently introduced human smallpox into their population…

Earth commander “Icy” Stark abandoned Dale after a space battle but Flash, with new Rhean allies rescued her and once more led a hostage society to overthrow its unfit rulers. On the return to Earth the fleet encountered a guided comet and met a new foe in Pyron the Comet Master.

Reunited with Dr. Zarkov the heroes battled the demented scientist’s horrendous creatures, saving Earth from flaming doom but were catapulted helplessly to the surface of enigmatic Venus for the last complete adventure in this stellar collection.

Not only is our solar system teeming with unsuspected life, but it appeared most of it was ruled by complete sods, as Flash, Dale and Zarkov battled winged tree-men, swamp horrors and the nefarious overlord Stang, enduring staggering hardship and hazard before crushing the tyrant and freeing two separate races from terror.

With a new ship, the far-flung travellers set off for Earth but were forced to land on the Moon where a secret human base had been established. For unknown reasons Dr. Stella and her thuggish aide Marc detained and delayed them, but when an increasing number of close shaves and mysterious accidents occurred, a little digging revealed that they were the unwitting guests of ruthless space pirates…

As is probably fitting for one of the world’s greatest continuity strips this first volume ends on a gripping cliffhanger, but with so much incredible action, drawn with such magnificent style there’s no way any fan of classic adventure can possibly feel short-changed

Mac Raboy was the last of the Golden Age of romanticist illustrators, but his lush and lavish flowing adoration of the perfected human form was already fading from popular taste. The Daily feature at this time had already switched to the solid, chunky, He-manly, burly realism of Dan Barry and even Frank Frazetta. Here, however, at least the last outpost of beautiful elegant heroism and gracefully pretty perils prevail, thanks to these Dark Horse volumes which you can visit just as often as Flash and Dale popped between planets…
© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tintin in America


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-802-4 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-614-3 (PB)

By the time Georges Remi, known the world over as Hergé, began the boy-hero’s third adventure Tintin in America (which ran from 1931-1932), he was well on the way to mastery of his art but was still growing as a writer. Although the periodical format meant that a certain degree of broad comedy and seemingly directionless, action was necessary to keep the attention of the reader, his ability to integrate these set-piece elements into the building of a complete narrative was still developing.

Georges Prosper Remi created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a dedicated boy-scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the Boy Scouts of Belgium monthly magazine.

By 1928 was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

The boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) would be accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits) and report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Following directly on from Tintin in the Congo the valiant juvenile journalist heads for Chicago to sort out the gangster Al Capone, whose diamond smuggling enterprise he had inadvertently scotched whilst in Africa. However, Capone and his hoods are ready and waiting…

Thwarting the plots and schemes of the legendary gangster make for thrilling, uproarious reading, full of chases, fights and hairsbreadth escapes, but events take a darker turn – and broad detour – once Capone’s biggest rival Bobby Smiles enters the picture.

Head of the Gangsters Syndicate of Chicago, Smiles first tries to buy Tintin off and, when he is furiously rebuffed, tries repeatedly to have the nosy, crime-busting reporter killed.

Setting a trap with the police, Tintin smashes the GSC and chases Smiles out west to Redskin City, only to fall foul of a tribe of Indians the mobster has hoodwinked into attacking the indomitable lad.

Hergé had a life-long fascination with the American West, and it featured in many of his works (such as Tim the Squirrel and Popol Out West). It’s also clear that he watched a lot of movies, as many signature Western set-pieces are adapted to strip format as Tintin and Snowy hunt Smiles – a thrilling pursuit involving railroad chases, dynamite sabotage, a prairie wildfire and even tying our heroes to the tracks before the boy and his dog finally capture the desperate thug.

Returning to Chicago, Tintin is once more the target of the remaining criminal gangs, but they prove no match for his resourceful ingenuity, and the brave Belgian leaves America a better, cleaner place…

With this somewhat long and rambling series of exploits – still not quite a cohesive narrative – Hergé begins to pepper the instalments with sly, dry social commentary, beginning the process of sophisticating the stories. He also adds satire to the breakneck slapstick – an acknowledgement that adults, too, were devout fans and followers of the strip.

The comedy of such moments as the rush of speculators when oil is found on the Indian Reservation, or the inept way in which cowboys try to lynch Tintin and Snowy (is that PC these days? – Can’t decide, but it is still awfully funny), is graphically interesting, but surely aimed at a more worldly and cynical consumer.

Like your kids, or you…

Tintin in America: artwork © 1945, 1973, 2016 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1978, Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 2


By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-023-9

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, 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 quest for justice 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 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

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was 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 that pitted 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 artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, 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. Various small 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, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) 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…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that, the Ghost Who Walks helmed a solo-starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics. Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson.

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 straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

This second superb full-cover hardcover – with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded – gathers The Phantom #9-17 (originally released between November 1964 and July 1966) and opens with fan and scholar Pete Klaus’ Introduction ‘The Gold Key Phantom’: offering original art panels (many by Sy Barry) and a welcoming overview of the immortal strip star.

Scripted by Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante, the illustrated adventures resume with full-length epic ‘The Sixth Man’ from #9 as the Ghost Who Walks takes a rare trip into modern civilisation only to be shanghaied by crooks. The miscreants realise too late that they have made the biggest mistake of their shady lives…

Determined to discover what’s behind the nefarious scheme, Kit Walker allows himself to be taken to a remote island ruled by bored, cruel queen Sansamor who thrives on making powerful men duel to the death.

Once the hero sees the kind of creature she is, her downfall is assured…

The issue is concluded by a single-page historical recap of the legend of ‘The Phantom’ and equally brief monochrome run-down of the mystery man’s intended bride ‘Diana’ (Palmer).

Cover-dated February 1965, The Phantom #10 opens with devious action thriller ‘The Sleeping Giant’ wherein the long-peaceful tribe of Itongo headhunters take up the old ways after their ancestral idol Tuamotu comes to life.

Thankfully, the Phantom is on hand to stem the potential carnage and expose crooked diamond prospector Joe Gagnon and his oversized circus performer inciting the tribesmen to war and conquest. All he has to do is defeat the giant warrior in unarmed combat…

Assisting the masked peacekeeper in policing the tribes and criminals of the region is ‘The Patrol’. These worthy soldiers have no idea who their mysterious “Commander” actually is and when the latest recruit tries to find out he receives a startling shock in this wry vignette.

Issue #11 (April 1965) features ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ with two brutal convicts breaking out of the Bengal Penal Colony to terrorise native communities by masquerading as demonic spirits. When the Ghost Who Walks apprehends them as they link up with pirates, he is struck sightless by a flare gun. Not even blindness can stop the resourceful champion from dispensing justice, however…

Closing the issue is a one-page tour of ‘The Skull Cave’ by Joe Certa, after which #12 (June) introduces ‘The Beast of Bengali’, with art by Sparky Moore & Lignante. Here a golden giant capable of seeming miracles subjugates the locality until the masked marvel exposes his magical feats for the tricks they really are…

Following a mouth-watering period ad for the Phantom Revell model kit, issue #13 (August) opens ‘The Phantom Chronicles’ as the Jungle Sentinel consults his ancestor’s meticulous records for tips on defeating seemingly immortal bandit Rachamond

The Phantom #14 (October) begins with ‘The Historian’ as scholar Dr. Heg consults with the Jungle Patrol on a book chronicling their achievements. His ulterior motive is to destroy the only law for hundreds of miles, but he has not reckoned on the true identity of their enigmatic leader…

‘Grandpa’ then switches locales to America where Diana Palmer’s doting ancestor is playing unwelcome matchmaker. Eventually, after violent incidents involving bears and robbers, the old man warms to African mystery man Kit Walker…

Closing 1966, issue #15 (December) details the downfall of ‘The River Pirates’ who ravage along the mighty waterways of the region. Their modern weapons prove little use against the cunning and bravery of the Deep Woods Guardian…

‘The Tournament’ then focuses on an unlucky prison escapee who finds the Phantom’s clothes and is stuck fighting a native gladiator in a centuries-old grudge match. Sadly, if he loses, the prestige lost means chaos will return to the tribes enjoying The Phantom’s Peace…

‘The Chain’ opens #16 (April 1966) as a world-weary Phantom considers quitting after an interminable period negotiating peace between warring tribes. Even Diana cannot change his mind, but when ancient wise man Wuru appears he relates a story of the hero’s father, who endured hardship, mockery and even slavery in a quest to rescue a woman from vile bondage. Her name was Maude, and she was to be the Phantom’s mother…

A brace of single-pagers follow, revealing Kit Walker’s unrecorded boxing bout against ‘The Champ’ and a battle in a bar won by ‘The Milk Drinker’ before ‘The Crescent Cult’ sees the Jungle Ghost crushing an assassination gang determined to murder their country’s new Maharani. The comic concludes with another 1-page yarn as ‘The Diggers’ examine old ruins and discover proof that the Phantom has lived and fought evil for centuries!

This second volume ends on a truly supernatural note as The Phantom #17 (July 1966) discloses how undying witch ‘Samaris’ has preyed on male suitors for centuries, and believes she has last found another cursed to live forever…

Following one-pager ‘The Waterfall’, detailing the secrets of the entrance to the fabled Skull Cave, ‘Samaris Part II’ finds the Ghost Who Walks captive of the Queen but resisting her every wile until justice, fate and an avalanche of deferred years catch up to her at last…

Wrapping up is a monochrome vignette detailing the secrets of The Phantoms’ devout helpers ‘The Bandar’ Poison Pygmy People and a sumptuous cover gallery by George Wilson.

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1964-1966 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Footrot Flats book 7


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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