Thunder Agents Classics volume 2


By Wally Wood, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-832-6                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-448-2

The meteoric lifespan and output of Tower Comics is one of the key creative moments in American comicbook history. The brief, bombastic saga of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and the era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the James Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage genre. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (premiering in September 1964); bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten was commissioned to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. He brought in creative maverick Wally Wood, who called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan, there was a magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funnybook – which outlasted everything else – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones, Gil Kane and Ralph Reese contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s other top talents to illustrate on the adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seemed inescapable…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November). Better yet, all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-Page Giant format, offering a huge amount of material in every issue.

All that being said these tales would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, subtly more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This second lush and lustrous compilation collects T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5-7 and the first blockbusting issue of spin-off title Dynamo – originally released between June and August 1966 – with the incomparably cool concept and characters going from strength to strength.

For those who came in late: When brilliant Professor Emil Jennings was attacked by the forces of the mysterious Warlord, the savant perished. However UN troops salvaged some of his greatest inventions: these included a belt that increased the density of the wearer’s body until it became as hard as steel, a cloak of invisibility and a brain-amplifier helmet.

The prototypes were divided between several agents to create a unit of super-operatives to counter increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable, honest but far from brilliant file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and codename Dynamo. Contributing scripter Len Brown had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had puckishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag until the comic rolled off the presses…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan was once aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into an android body and was then gifted with the invisibility cape. If his artificial body was destroyed Dunn’s consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

John Janus seemed the perfect UN employee: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet. Sadly, he was also a deep cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity. All plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened his mind’s full potential, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mind-reading powers, but it also drove all evil from his mind. When the Warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

A fourth super-spy was added when Guy Gilbert of the crack Mission: Impossible style T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad was required to beta-test an experimental super-speed suit. The gung-ho hyper-fast Lightning was proud to do so, even if every use of the hyper-acceleration gimmick shortened his life-span…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 again gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy with the power to smash anything was pinpointed as the weak link of the agency and subjected to a three-pronged attack by Warlord and his subterranean race in ‘Dynamo and the Golem’ by a sadly unrecorded writer with art from Crandall, Wood & Adkins. The stupendous underground duel with the monstrous mechanical was even augmented by guest walk-ons (a rare treat in the mid-1960s when most editors feared over-exposing their heroes) by other T.H.U.N.D.E.R. stars…

The modern master of a tribe of primordial men returned as ‘NoMan: In the Caverns of Demo’ (by Pearson, Kane, Wood & Tony Coleman) saw the invisible agent lured into a trap and temporarily lose his wonder cape. After Adkins’ gloriously panoramic ‘Lightning Pin-up’, Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia then reveal how a leftover Nazi scientist blackmails a trusted engineer and wrecks new aircraft for the agency with his deadly “slow-down” dust in ‘Lightning: Return of Baron Von Kampf’

The author of ‘Menthor vs. The Entrancer’ is unknown but the unmistakable John Giunta limns the dark tale of the mind master’s duel with a petty thief who steals a magic gem and almost conquers a country before the concluding ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents: Double For Dynamo’ (Skeates, Wood, Adkins & Coleman) sees the entire team unite to tackle another plot by duplicate maker Mastermind to place his felonious android facsimiles in positions of power…

Issue #6 opened with ‘Dynamo and the Sinister Agents of the Red Star’ (author unknown, Wood & Adkins) as the sinister Sino-spymaster introduced a devastating judo expert who could use the human powerhouse’s strength against him. Poor Len had to use his brain (for a change) to stop the brazen theft of America’s newest super-submarine…

Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia had fun with a teleporting criminal in ‘Lightning: The Origin of the Warp Wizard’ and shockingly let the villain win, after which ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. vs. Demo’ – illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Adkins – the vile plotter ambushed NoMan and used his stolen cape to gather tons of cash and the other Jennings devices.

The arrogant thug’s great mistake was trusting his sultry sidekick Satana, who unreasonably bore a grudge for that time he’d abandoned her to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. and the cops…

‘Menthor: The Carnival of Death’ (art by Giunta & Carl Hubbell) pitted the mind-reading agent against a spy who was a natural telepath. Despite tremendous odds Janus foiled an insidious assassination attempt but lost his power-bestowing helmet in the process…

The best tale in this issue – and probably the entire book – is ‘NoMan: To Fight Alone’ by Skeates & Steve Ditko wherein the immortal agent is the only one capable of defying anti-democratic demagogue Mr. Image. This maniacal malcontent has the power to control any and all living beings in his vicinity, but of course, NoMan is only “living” in a strictly technical sense…

The final T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents inclusion is #7; a true landmark which opens with Dynamo in ‘Wanted: Leonard Brown, Code Name “Dynamo” Suspicion of Treason’ (illustrated by Wood, Adkins & Ralph Reese) with our hero on the run from his former friends.

Gullible Len has been framed by the delectable Rusty (revealed as the svelte and sinister Iron Maiden; a vivacious villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the likely puberty trigger for an entire generation of boys…) but still manages – more by charm and luck than skill or wit – to turn the tables on the real crooks and vindicate himself…

Next follows a frantic showdown which leaves Lightning possibly crippled for life after enduring ‘The Warp Wizard’s Revenge’ (Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia), after which the years-long secret war against invaders from Earth’s core comes closer to final resolution in the George Tuska illustrated ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents: Subterranean Showdown!’

A council of Warlords opt to abduct Dynamo which leads to a shattering battle they ultimately fail to win, whilst, after a pulse-pounding Wood & Adkins ‘Iron Maiden: Pin-up’, NoMan suffers a psychological breakdown in ‘To Be or Not To Be’ by Pearson, Giunta & Sal Trapani.

Although Dr. Dunn is now a thing of plastic and wire, he is still susceptible to feminine allure and that unresolved dichotomy almost costs him – and Earth – everything…

The issue ended with a tale which blew the mind of most kids reading it in the summer of 1966. ‘Menthor: A Matter of Life and Death’ written by Adkins, with art by Ditko & Wood was an utter shock to readers who had never seen a hero die before. We were so sheltered back then; cowboys and cops only ever shot guns out of bandits’ hands…

When a beloved and trusted super-agent is shanghaied to Subterraneana as bait for a trap, he does what any hero would do rather than betray his friends…

This second cathartic classic fun-fest concludes with the contents of Dynamo #1 as Tower’s top draw became the first hero promoted to his own solo title. It began with sheer sci fi spectacle as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. spots a staging post on Luna and sends Len on what might be a one-way trip (it’s three years before the Apollo moon shots, remember?) to scotch a potential invasion from space in ‘Menace From the Moon’ by Wood & Adkins.

That astounding blockbuster is followed by a deliciously wry romp as ‘A Day in the Life of Dynamo’ (Sekowsky & Giacoia) finds the invulnerable operative harried around the world from pillar to post in pursuit of the elusive Red Dragon, the wicked Warlords, rampaging giant robots… and a date with his boss’ attractive assistant Alice

Then Crandall, Wood & Adkins apparently take Dynamo ‘Back to the Stone Age’: revealing the secret of Demo’s seemingly inexhaustible stock of cavemen and dinosaurs after the devilish villain breaks out of jail with Mastermind in tow, after which Ditko, Wood & Adkins craft another action-packed mini-masterpiece as ‘Dynamo Meets the Amazing Andor’.

Decades previously the so-very-patient Warlords stole a human baby and spent long years turning the waif into a biological superman devoid of sentiment or compassion. Sadly, when they finally unleashed Andor on the surface civilisations – although they anticipated the dogged resistance of humanity and even the newly-constituted T.H.U.N.D.E.R. – the subterranean geniuses hadn’t factored in how their living weapon might react to the first woman he had ever seen…

The tongue-in-cheek dramas wrap up with a bright, breezy spoof as ‘Wonder Weed, Super Hero’ – illustrated by Giunta – reveals how merely mortal – and mildly jealous – agent William “Weed” Wylie is tricked by a magician/enemy agent into thinking he has powers too.

Of course, Weed is cocky, suggestible and avaricious but nobody’s fool…

With stories all shaded in favour of fast pace, sparse dialogue, explosive action and big visuals, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was decades ahead of its time and certainly informed everything in Fights ‘n’ Tights comics which came after it. These are truly timeless comic classics which improve with every reading, and there’s never been a better time to add these landmark superhero sagas to your collection of favourites.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 2 © 2013 Radiant Assets, LLC. All rights reserved.

Superman Sunday Classics Strips 1-183 – 1939-1943


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & others (DC/Kitchen Sink Press: Sterling Publishing Co. Inc.)
ISBN: 9781402737862(Sterling)                    978-1563894725(DC/KS)

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 unprecedented invention was rapturously adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation, quite literally giving birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

Spawning an impossible army of imitators and variations within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Tomorrow 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 affected 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 the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Metropolis Marvel 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.

We parochial and possessive comics fans too often regard our purest and most powerful icons in purely graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, The Avengers and 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 seen or heard an actor as Superman than have ever read his comicbooks. The 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, Superman had become a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, two films, a TV series and a landmark novel by George Lowther.

He was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended that first smash live-action television presence. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a string of blockbuster movie franchises 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…

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 often 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 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.

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

Most of them still do…

However it was considered 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 the strips in cheap accessible form?) to became a genuinely mass-entertainment syndicated serial strip.

Superman was the first comicbook star to make that leap – about six months after as he exploded out of Action Comics – with only a few ever successfully following. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and groundbreaking teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s and only a handful like Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian have 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 Siegel & Shuster – whose primary focus switched immediately from comicbooks to the more prestigious tabloid iteration –  and their hand-picked studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth daily grind soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers like Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

This superb collection – doubly out-of-print despite its superb quality and sublime content – opens with an Introduction by occasional contemporary Super-Scribe Roger Stern, recapping the sensation and his creators, before stupendously re-presenting the first 19 complete tales of the primal powerhouse in stunning full colour.

Whether in pamphlet or local periodical, these tales of a modern Hercules exploded into the consciousness of the world. No one had ever seen a fictionalised hero throw all the rules of physics away and burst into unstoppable, improbable action on every page. In fact, editors and publishers’ greatest concern was that the implausible antics would turn off audiences. Clearly, they could not have been more wrong…

Thus most of the early episodes are about establishing the set-up of an Alien Wonder masquerading as an extremely puny human at a “great Metropolitan newspaper” whilst crushing evil as his flamboyant alter-ego. These stories are all about constant action and escalating spectacle, displaying the incredible power of the bombastic hero and man of the people…

On the first Sunday in November 1939 the parade of marvels commenced with a single introductory page describing Superman’s origins in ‘The Man of Tomorrow’ followed seven day later by initial adventure ‘Twenty-Four Hours to Ruin’ which found the Action Ace in a non-stop rush of blood and thunder whilst saving a logging concern from sabotage and hostile takeover by gangsters.

Crime segued into scientific fantasy as Superman encountered and saved ‘The Mindless Slaves of Dr. Grout’ from forced labour as the villain fomented a coup against America…

The inklings of true comicbook themes and more complex storylines arrived as Clark Kent and Lois Lane were despatched to investigate the ‘Giants of Doom Valley’: discovering a race of hostile subterranean invaders for Superman to discourage…

‘Assassins and Spies’ then took them into the most pressing concern of the era when agents of a foreign power began spreading sedition and terror on America’s shores to bolster a European war.

A mysterious mastermind used super-science, coercion, abduction and giant insects to ensure ‘The Chosen’ carried out his plans of global financial dominance before a more bucolic tale saw Superman helping Lois escape fatal consequences as ‘The Dangerous Inheritance’ left her with 5,000 acres of seemingly worthless scrubland…

Woe in the wilderness gives way to big city bombast as ‘The Bandit Robots of Metropolis’ cause carnage in search of cash, pushing the Man of Steel to his physical and intellectual limits and priming him for a landmark clash against ‘Luthor, Master of Evil’ who turns the weather into a weapon in his ongoing war against mankind.

A cunning murderer attempts to frame a professional automobile driver in ‘Death Race’ whilst a high-tech propaganda campaign seeks to destabilise the city when ‘The Committee for a New Order’ begins pirating the airwaves. As Superman crushes their campaign of terror he is embroiled in a blistering battle against vile enemy agents who know Lois is his Achilles Heel…

Another corporate assault on trade is exposed when freight drivers are poisoned by crooks whose orders are to ‘Destroy All Trucks’ of a businessman’s rivals, before a mirage-making super-villain pillages Metropolis until her galvanic guardian see through ‘The Image’

When Clark’s ‘Arson Evidence’ convicts an innocent man, his other self moves heaven and earth to exonerate the jailbird and ferret out the true fire-fiend after which – it being almost three years since his debut – Superman spent two weeks reminding old readers and informing new ones why and how he was ‘The Champion of Democracy’.

To a large extent mention of World War II was kept to a minimum on the Action Ace’s funny pages, but now ‘The Superman Truck’ – detailing how a formidable prototype military transport was relentlessly targeted by saboteurs – jumped right in with a subplot about a reluctant taxi driver enlisting in Army Transport Corps.

Tracing his induction and training, this yarn was a cunningly-conceived weekly ad and plea for appropriately patriotic readers to enlist…

Military motifs continued as a ship full of diplomats and war correspondents is set afire by an incendiary madman allied to in-over-their-heads Fifth Columnists. It’s not long before ‘The Blaze’ is in critical timberland, acting on his own deranged impulses and leaving Superman a huge job to save America’s war effort…

Showbiz raised its glamorous head when Clark and Lois were sent to cover the morale-boosting ‘Hollywood Victory Caravan’ tour, only to stumble into backbiting, sabotage, intrigue and murder at the hands of Nazi infiltrators.

Wrapping up the vintage spills and thrills is another fervent comics call to arms as Superman and Clark take a well-intentioned but lazy and perpetually backsliding wastrel in hand, shepherding him through aviator ‘Cadet Training’ to a useful existence as a warrior of Democracy…

Supplementing the gloriously rip-roaring, pell-mell adventure are spellbinding extra features including ‘How Superman Would End World War II’ (first seen in the February 27th 1940 issue of mainstream icon Look magazine), ads and a 1942 ‘Superman Pinup’.

This specific Sterling Publishing volume is a reissue of the 1999 DC/ Kitchen Sink co-production, but either edition offers timeless wonders and mesmerising excitement for lovers of action and fantasy. If you love the era or just crave simpler stories from less angst-wracked times these yarns are perfect comics reading, so this a book you simply must have…
Superman and all related names, characters and elements are ™ DC Comics © 2006. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 4 – 1925-1926: “There is a Heppy Lend, Fur, Fur Awa-a-ay”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-386-7

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is quite possibly the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these glorious commemorative collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. It developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without ever offending anybody.

Sadly, however, it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and – later – Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable – often unintelligible – Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops…

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience. This fabulous forth tome – covering 1925-1926 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition returns the strip to its monochrome roots and offers added value as context, background and possible explanations are delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in his effusive essay ‘By George, It’s Krazy’ before a second text “found-feature” exploits Herriman’s journalistic gifts with contemporary movie reviews delivered by “Thet Ket” in ‘“The Gold Rush” as Seen by Krazy Kat’ and ‘Krazy Kat Sees Miss Davies in “Janice Meredith”’ as both prose and cartoon critiques…

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some of those intriguing supplementary characters increasing coming to the fore.

We open with the change of years bringing a few weeks’ worth of weird ruminations on the nature of time before Ignatz’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s copious coterie of confidence tricksters.

Of course the mouse is a man who enjoys revenge served hot, cold or late…

As well as increased roles for the Kat’s cousins Krazy Katfish and Krazy Katbird there is more involvement for Joe Stork, who expands out of the exclusive delivery of (generally unwanted) babies into the hooch-dissemination business during those heady days of Prohibition, as well the introduction of tail-less Manx Cat and a Krazy cow.

As expected there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration. Moreover in the Jazz Age of Technological Marvels the mouse frequently takes to the skies to deliver his brain-busting bon mots…

The dangerous delights of Piñatas are introduced to American readers and there’s a healthy dose of surrealism after certain elephantine geological features come to life, whilst Krazy’s Kool is at last lost once Ignatz begins baking his own bricks and cutting Kolin Kelly out of the mounting fiscal equation. Once rubber trees start popping up all over the landscape, nobody is truly safe from the consequences of escalating slapstick silliness…

The year then concludes with uncharacteristic chills and spills when Coconino is subjected to sudden squalls of snow which lead inevitably to too much water as 1926 opens cold and crisp and sodden…

Herriman incorporated his love of cinema here by introducing an itinerant film crew to the cast and began playing even more with his audience and the Fourth Wall after one of the cartoon regulars swiped all the black ink leaving the rest of the cast in a deeply diminished state of embellishment.

The infinitely inventive scribbler also created a bigger role for Mock Duck who temporarily quit the laundry business to set up as a psychic prognosticator and surly seer whilst poor Pupp began to slowly gain the upper paw in the turbulent triangular relationship…

Krazy, meanwhile, discovered a previously unsuspected – and apparently genetically predisposed – affinity for lighting and electricity which the rest of the cast were able to share but not enjoy…

Also always on offer are wry cartoon commentaries on the increasingly technological advancement of the nation, seasonal landmarks and the evergreen fodder of unwanted kids and illegal drinking as well as more pomposity punctured and penny-pinching money-making schemes from the town’s great and good always coming to nothing…

…And sometimes plain mischief rules, such as when Herriman pictorially plays hob with the laws of physics just to see what will happen…

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, and inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1


By Wally Wood, Len Brown, Larry Ivie, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-689-6                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-362-1

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal comics masterpiece is painfully convoluted, and when the meteoric lifespan of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: wrapped up in legal wrangling, financial jiggery-pokery and plenty of petty back-biting.

None of that, however, can diminish the fact that the far-too brief original career of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and the era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage genre.

The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (premiering in September 1964); bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Wildly creative maverick Wally Wood was approached at this time by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics.

Woody called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan there was a magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funnybook – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s top talents to illustrate on the adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times.

When T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

All that being said the tales would not be so beloved if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, far more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This initial compilation of classics collects T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1-4: spanning November 1965 to April 1966 and covering the first golden year of the series. The action starts with no preamble in ‘First Encounter’: a simple four page tale by Ivie & Wood and lettered by Archie comics mainstay Victor Gorelick.

A team of UN commandos fails to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescues some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that can increase the density of the wearer’s body until it becomes as hard as steel, an invisibility cloak and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

These prototypes are subsequently divided between several agents to create a unit of superior fighting men and counter the increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the Thunderbelt and codename Dynamo in delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’. Scripted by veteran writer Len Brown – who until publication had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag – this explosively bombastic romp gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy got the power to smash stuff…

This cathartic fun-fest also introduced the Iron Maiden; a sultry villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the probable puberty-trigger for an entire generation of boys…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ came next, the eerie saga of aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who had his mind transferred into a specialised android body, before being equipped with the invisibility cape. The author’s name is unknown but the incredible Reed Crandall (with supplemental Wood inks) drew the first episode, which also found time and space to include a captivating clash with sinister mastermind Demo and his sultry associate Satana who had unleashed a wave of bestial sub-men on a modern metropolis.

NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Larry Ivie filled in some useful background on the war against the Warlord in the prose adventure ‘Face to Face’ before the third agent was chosen in ‘The Enemy Within’ (also with no script credit but illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). Here, however, is where the creators stepped well outside comic-book conventions. John Janus was the perfect UN employee and super-agent candidate: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet.

Sadly he was also a deep-cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity…

All those nefarious plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened the potential of his mind, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mid-reading powers – and also drove all evil from his mind whilst he wore it. When the warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad’, by Ivie, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, is a rip-roaring yarn featuring an infallible elite team of non-powered specialist operatives (predating TV’s Mission: Impossible outfit by almost two years) who tackled cases the super-agents were too busy or unsuited for.

In this initial outing the Squad rush to defend their Weapons Development Center from a full paramilitary assault only to discover that it’s a feint and Dynamo has been captured by the Warlord…

The first issue then ends with a massive old-fashioned team-up as all the forces of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. converge to rescue their prime agent who is ‘At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden’ (Brown, Wood & Dan Adkins): a spectacular battle blockbuster that still takes the breath away…

As always, issue #2 led with the strongman star as ‘Dynamo Battles Dynavac’ (Brown, Wood & Richard Bassford): another colossal combat classic with the hapless hero getting a severe kicking from a deadly automaton. Once again a narrative thread stretched through the disparate solo tales as the hero’s girlfriend and fellow agent Alice was kidnapped…

NoMan was ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando & Wood) when an army of Zombie-men attacked a missile base and the evil overlord found a way to take control of Dunn’s android frame after which Menthor again defied his master to defeat a Warlord scheme to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ (illustrated by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before ‘D-Day for Dynamo’ (with art from Wood, Adkins & Tony Coleman) pits the assembled heroes – reunited to rescue Alice – against Demo, the Dynavac unit and the Warlord forces in an all-out war with atomic consequences.

Here the series took a fantastic turn as the Warlord is revealed to be an agent of a subterranean race of conquerors…

Prose piece ‘Junior T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’, neatly segues into another T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad thriller as the team respond ‘On the Double’ to a South American crisis involving mutant monsters, Communist insurgents and bloody revolution in a classy caper illustrated by the Sekowsky/Giacoia team.

Drawn by Adkins, Wood & Coleman ‘Dynamo Battles the Subterraneans’ opened the third issue as the Warlord’s macabre mole-men masters attacked Washington DC, after which ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Coleman) sees a far more plebeian but no less deadly masked menace ended by the undying agent.

Dynamo almost becomes a propaganda victim of Communist agitator ‘The Red Dragon’ (Adkins, Wood & Coleman) whilst the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad battle a madman who manufactures his own ‘Invaders from the Deep’ (another uncredited script limned by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before main event ‘Dynamo vs. Menthor’ (Wood, Adkins & Coleman) poses a terrifying mystery as a trusted agent almost destroys the entire organisation…

With a scattering of captivating Fact File pin-ups by Wood & Adkins featuring Dynamo, NoMan, the Thunderbelt, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and Menthor, the visual excitement in this issue is beyond price.

Dynamo tale ‘Master of Evolution’ (Brown, Wood, Adkins & Coleman) opens the fourth issue with a dinosaur bashing extravaganza, whilst the fiendish Mastermind arrayed his own android armies against the Artificial Agent in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia, after which the same team debut the latest super-agent in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad saga ‘The Deadly Dust’ after a Nazi scientist uses a time-retarding dust for evil and the heroes respond with a reflex-enhancing super-speed suit.

This first case for hyper-fast Lightning was followed by a Dynamo milestone. ‘The Return of the Iron Maiden’ was drawn by Crandall, Wood & Adkins and saw the Armoured Inamorata betray her latest employer Dr. Death for the good-hearted hunk of man sent to arrest her.

Finally, the mystery of Menthor is partially resolved in fast-paced thriller ‘The Great Hypno’ (illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Coleman), and of course the storytelling extravaganza is supported by more fantastic art extras in the form of NoMan in Action! and The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Fact Pages.

These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading, so why not add these landmark superhero spy sagas to your collection of all-time favourites?
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1 © 2013 Radiant Assets LLC.. All rights reserved.

The Beano & Dandy 2017 Gift Book: Raiders of the Lost Archive! The Beano & Dandy 2016 Gift Book: Pranks for the Memories!


By Many and various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-604-0 (2017)                  ISBN: 978-1-84535-557-9 (2016)

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

As we’re all feeling a wee bit Caledonian at present here in Win Ha-Ha-Hacienda, I thought I’d take another loving look at some of Scotland’s greatest achievements whilst simultaneously revelling in the Good Old Days of comics…
If you’re too busy to read yet more of my lecturing hectoring blather, feel free to skip the review… just as long as you buy these books for yourself or someone in severe need of a good cheering up and infectious laugh…

The shape and structure of British kids cartoon reading owes a huge debt to writer/editor Robert Duncan Low who was probably DC Thomson’s greatest creative find.

Low (1895-1980) 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…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad unforgettable 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 an early-reading title The Magic Comic the 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 carefully-tooled collectors’ albums like this brace of giant (225 x 300 mm) hardback Gift Books.

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…

Both of these sturdy celebrations of the company’s children’s periodicals division rightly glory in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy. They’re also jam-packed with some of the best written and most impressively drawn strips ever conceived: superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…

However rather than a chronological arc tracing from a particularly bleak and fraught period in British history through years of growth, exploration and socio-cultural change, we’re treated to a splendid pick-&-mix protocol, with a surprise on every turn of a page…

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 its traditionalist British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under sequential picture frames.

A huge success, The Dandy was followed eight months later on July 30th 1938 by The Beano – and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were received.

Over decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and dearly-beloved household names to delight generations of avid and devoted readers, and their end-of-year celebrations were graced by bumper bonanzas of the weekly stars in extended stories housed in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule. On September 6th 1941 only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The normality of weekly editions only resumed on 30th July 1949…

And now they are cultural icons commemorated by fabulous compilations such as these.

The 2015 edition – another strand of the company’s growing range of heritage-drenched collectors’ collections and forwarded-dated 2016 like all proper Christmas annuals should be – is subtitled Pranks for the Memories!

This year’s model is codified as Raiders of the Lost Archive!

As the name implies, our initial foray into fun is packed cover-to-cover with brilliant strips celebrating the art of the practical joke and starts on the inside front covers with a wonderful Biffo the Bear moment, illustrated by the astounding Dudley D. Watkins, followed by Davey Law’s Dennis the Menace, Contrary Mary by Roland Davies, Watkins’ cowboy superman Desperate Dan and a pantomimic exploit of Beano’s forgotten cover star Big Eggo by Reg Carter.

Short half-page monochrome of two-toned tales like James Jewell’s Wee Peem and Smarty Grandpa alternate with full-colour complete cover strips such as Korky the Cat by James Crichton (from The Dandy Comic for April 12th 1941), two-colour interior yarns from Hugh McNeil’s Pansy Potter – the Strongman’s Daughter or Leo Baxendale’s groundbreaking Bash Street Kids, all proving they knew how to set up a gag and deliver a punishing punchline…

There’s so many more old friends to revisit or, if you’re lucky, meet for the first time: The Three Bears, Eric Roberts’ timeless Winker Watson, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger (Ken Reid), Lord Snooty and his Pals (represented here by a couple of lengthy Watkins wonders from various Annuals), Bully Beef and Chips (Jimmy Hughes), Tom Paterson’s Fiddle O’Diddle, Ivy the Terrible by Roy Nixon, Little Plum, Ron Spencer’s Baby Face Finlayson and even a relatively recent 16-page mega-epic with the entire Beanotown cast shanghaied into space.

Nor are these japes and jests one-trick-ponies. There are plus dozens of repeat performances for Biffo, Dennis, Dan, Korky (plus The Kits), Eggo and all the rest from later years and courtesy of the numerous illustrators who took over from the awesome originators…

Sadly none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists, 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 refute my suppositions…

The 2017 tome is blessed with a similar stellar selection under the umbrella title of Raiders of the Lost Archive!: offering similar childhood treasures and augmenting the humour with the odd – and they really were – dramatic strip presentation.

Contained herein you can become enrapt by the undersea adventures of Danny and Penny Gray in Bill Holroyd’s The Iron Fish and share a brace of seat-of-the-pants time-travel excursions by Jimmy and his Magic Patch (that man Watkins again) as well as a stunning and supremely silly Holroyd outing for schoolboy Charley Brand and his robot pal Brassneck

Beside cover strips of Desperate Dan, Biffo, and Korky the Cat there are also extended Annual larks starring Little Plum, Lord Snooty, Roberts’ Dirty Dick and more Winker Watson strips, in addition to further frolics from those Bash Street Kids, Malcolm Judge’s Billy Whizz and George Martin’s outrageous, voracious and larcenous schoolteacher Greedy Pigg

Topper export Beryl the Peril (by Karl Dixon) repeatedly joins Ken Reid’s Big Head and Thick Head, Baxendale’s Bash Street prototype When the Bell Rings, Bully Beef and Chips, Minnie the Minx, Holroyd’s Willie Fixit, European import Midge, David Law’s Corporal Clott, Roger the Dodger and his female nemesis Winnie the Wangler in unwise antics and silly sorties, barely stopped in each case by the forces of authority, be they parental, scholastic or state-sanctioned police…

Marvels of nostalgia and timeless wonder, the true magic of these collections is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents who have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out again to run amok once more.
© 2015, 2016 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sidney Smith’s The Gumps


By Sidney Smith, edited and compiled by Herb Galewitz (Charles Scribner’s Sons)
ISBN: 978-0-68413-997-5

Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but Robert Sidney Smith (February 13th 1877-October 20th 1935) is probably one of the most influential creators in the history of popular entertainment. A pretty big claim, I admit, but true nonetheless.

Smith was a pioneer of what we call continuity and the most successful early cartoonist to move the medium on from situational, gag-a-day variations on a theme (a style which dominates again today in almost all popular strips like B.C., Blondie or Beetle Bailey) and build a relationship based on progress with his avid audience.

The Gumps grew from a notion of influential comic strip Svengali Joseph Medill Patterson – Editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune – who shaped the development of such iconic institutions as Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates and so many more. He handed the idea to Smith to make magic with….

The ongoing saga of a middle class American family began in 1917 and ran for 42 years, inviting readers to share the – largely comedic – tribulations of chinless wonder Andy Gump, his formidable wife Minerva, son Chester, cat Hope, dog Buck and fearsome elderly cook/housemaid Tilda.

Andy was a regular blowhard with lots of schemes to make his fortune, Min was shrewish and nagging, the boys were troublesome and Tilda was a nosy tartar. The domestic scene occasional drifted into thrilling adventure and flights of fancy whenever eccentric, two-fisted globetrotting millionaire Uncle Bim paid a visit…

It sounds hackneyed now, but that’s because The Gumps wrote the book on what daily story narratives should be: a lot of laughs, plenty of vicarious judgement, the occasional tragedy, oodles of long-drawn out tension and characters everyone recognised if not actually identified with…

Having enticed and beguiled a nation, The Gumps was one of the earliest strips to make the jump to celluloid. More than four dozen Universal Pictures 2-reel comedies were released between 1923- 1928 starring Joe Murphy as the gormless patriarch. These followed fifty or more animated cartoons produced and directed by Wallace A. Carlson with scripts credited to Smith which were first seen between in 1920 and 1921.

The Gumps became an early sensation of radio (1931-1937), paving the way for all later family soap operas which mimicked the irresistible format.

Most importantly, as the strip progressed, its growing popularity became a key driver in the rise of comics syndication. Eventually Sidney Smith’s baby was being seen across America and the world and he became one of the most highly-paid artists in the history of the medium.

His salary was enormous and kept rising. The grateful Patterson frequently rewarded him with a new extravagance to show his gratitude. The legend goes that racing mad speed-freak Smith was driving his latest luxury Rolls Royce when he died in a smash-up in 1935…

After his shocking death, Patterson parachuted in sports cartoonist Gus Edson. He was a creditable replacement but the indefinable pizzazz was gone. Whether it was something unique to Smith or simply that times were changing will never be known. Readership declined steadily – although it took decades – and the feature finally folded on October 17th 1959, by which time less than twenty papers carried it.

There will probably never be a comprehensive or complete Gumps collection: the art is still wonderful and most of the gags remain well-conceived and effective. The real problem is the pacing and verbosity of the text in the panels.

Smith was writing and drawing a new way to tell stories and had to be sure the majority of his audience were with him. For lots of modern readers, blessed with a hundred years of progress, much of the material can seem interminably slow. Not so back then: many of Smith’s boldest innovations caused uproar and shock on a periodic basis…

This sterling monochrome landscape hardback from 1974 (254 x 231 x 23 mm) offers the best of all possible worlds; extracting salient snippets, events and extracts from key storylines whilst providing fascinating commentary and context where necessary…

On Thursday February 8th 1917 Sidney Smith’s funny animal strip Old Doc Yak ended with the sagacious ruminant moving out of their house and wondering who the next tenants might be. The following Monday – February 12th – the doors opened on the Gump clan. The magic started strong and just kept on going…

Packed with photos and plenty of astonishing facts, Herb Galewitz’s ‘Introduction’ offers the run-down on the strip and its creator whilst also providing a glimpse at the star in the making through ‘Sidney Smith’s Sports Cartoons’. Also revealed are ‘The Last Old Doc Yak’ strip and a handy pictorial introduction to the cast before ‘The Early Years – 1917-20’ sees the stories begin to unfold…

Scenes of wedded bliss and domestic contention abound as Andy and Min contend with household chores, wayward furnaces, gardening, child-rearing and each other. As ticked off as they got, the happy marrieds seldom let their adversarial moments linger or fester…

‘Andy On Vacation – 1922’ shows our hero’s take on bucolic pastimes such as fishing, hiking and cooking after he and Min take separate holidays and Andy finds himself at a lakeside cabin with the least welcoming couple in history. Mr. Gump doesn’t mind: it takes all sorts and he’s willing to be accommodating…

The satire cup overflows when the pontificating prawn then enters politics. ‘Andy Runs for Congress – 1922’ provides plenty of scope for character assassination, skulduggery and corrupt shenanigans before all the votes are finally cast and counted…

The Gumps really hit its peak after moving en masse into melodrama as with ‘The Vindication of Tom Carr – 1929’ wherein romantic series regular Mary Gold’s one true love is wrongfully convicted of robbery. Smith sagely portrayed the trial in daily bulletins which built tension and sympathy in equal amounts. When the travesty of justice saw the real culprit rapaciously move in on Mary, the assembled readership was aghast and astoundingly vocal in their protests…

They went absolutely crazy when the vile predator’s machinations led shockingly to ‘The Death of Mary Gold – 1929’. The story then moved from the comics section to the Front Page as readers registered their disapproval even as the sales of papers carrying the strip skyrocketed…

Uncle Bim was an exotic semi-regular whose appearances always caused sparks. His lonely years of prospecting and wealth-gathering looked likely to end when he met Millie De Stross but her social-climbing mother had other ideas. These brought her to near ruin when the gullible old lady met unscrupulous embezzler and conman Townsend Zander who masqueraded as royalty in ‘The Count Bessford Affair – 1933’

With Mama firmly in the crook’s pocket, the scoundrel demanded marriage to Millie as part of his illegally-obtained payment. When that went wrong he resorted to kidnap and blackmail.

The audience was breathless and terrified. Their favourite funny page feature had a track record of letting the good guys suffer and killing off heroines…

When ‘The Disappearance of Uncle Bim – 1933’ was finally resolved, the distraught millionaire and his intended rushed to the altar but Zander had one last card to play, resulting in ‘A Foiled Wedding! – 1934’

The villain’s outrageous claim to have already wed Millie led to more courtroom drama and ‘A Legal Hassle! – 1934’ which allowed the reprehensible and haughty Mama De Stross to sue Bim for his fortune, so Andy took the beleaguered suitor to his old holiday haunt for ‘An Interlude at Shady Rest – 1934’

Batteries fully recharged, the irrepressible Gumps returned to the fray and at last defeated Zander and Mrs. De Stross, resulting in a long-delayed happy ending of sorts with ‘Bim and Millie, United at Last – 1934’.

Of course that meant the newlyweds had to cope with ‘Mama De Stross, Mother In Law – 1934’

These too-brief tastes of Smith’s amazing graphic narrative achievements are supplemented by a selection of shorter vignettes such as a glimpse at the unique service of housemaid ‘Tilda’ and the wiles of child prodigy ‘Chester Gump’ as well as a peek at successor ‘Gus Edson’s The Gumps.

Also on view is an appreciation of Smith’s gag-panel displaying the oriental wisdom of ‘Ching Chow’.

Although disquieting – if not actually disturbing – to modern eyes, this philosophy-spouting comedy Chinaman first appeared on January 27th 1927 and on Smith’s death was taken over by Stanley Link. Regarded as an irreplaceable cartoon “fortune cookie” by many editors, the panel was crafted by a succession of creators and ran until June 4th 1990, outliving The Gumps by almost forty years…

The examples seen here are counterbalanced by a ‘Comparison of Chester Gump and Stanley Link’s Tiny Tim and followed by a photo-feature ‘Miscellany’ displaying a wide range of Gumps books and merchandise to end this cartoon celebration…

Studious and genuinely enticing for students of the comic form and anybody interested in the development of both soap operas and sitcoms, this book provides insight and a fascinating visual tour of a phenomenon and world we’ve mostly outgrown, but one worth celebrating for all that.
© 1974 The Chicago Tribune/N.Y. News Syndicate Inc. All rights reserved.

Superman the Silver Age Dailies volume 3: 1963-1966


By Jerry Siegel & Wayne Boring (IDW Publishing Library of American Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-6134-0179-4

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 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.

Spawning an impossible army of imitators and variations within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Steel 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 affected 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 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.

We parochial and possessive comics fans too often regard our purest and most powerful icons in purely graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers and 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 seen or heard an actor as Superman than have ever read his comicbooks. The 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, Superman had been a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, two films, a TV series and a novel by George Lowther.

He was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended that first smash live-action television presence. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a blockbuster movie franchise 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…

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 often 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 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.

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

Most of them still do…

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 the strips in cheap accessible form?) to became a genuinely mass-entertainment syndicated serial strip.

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 and only a handful like Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian have 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 like Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

As seen in this volume, the McClure Syndicate daily feature ran continuously until April 1966, appearing at its peak in more than 300 daily and 90 Sunday newspapers, boasting a combined readership of more than 20 million. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s artists Win Mortimer and Curt Swan had occasionally substituted for the unflagging Boring & Stan Kaye, whilst Siegel provided the lion’s share of stories, telling serial tales largely separate and divorced from comicbook continuity throughout years when superheroes were scarcely seen.

Then in 1956 Julie Schwartz kicked off the Silver Age with a new Flash in Showcase #4 and before long costumed crusaders began returning en masse to thrill a new generation. As the trend grew, many publishers began to cautiously dabble with the mystery man tradition and Superman’s newspaper strip began to slowly adapt: drawing closer to the revolution on the comicbook pages.

As Jet-Age gave way to Space-Age, the Last Son of Krypton was a comfortably familiar icon of domestic modern America: particularly in the constantly evolving, ever-more dramatic and imaginative comicbook stories which had received such a terrific creative boost when superheroes began to proliferate once more. The franchise had actually been cautiously expanding since 1954, and in 1961 the Caped Kryptonian could be seen not only in Golden Age survivors Action Comics, Superman, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest Comics and Superboy but also in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane and Justice League of America.

Such increased attention naturally filtered through to the far more widely-read newspaper strip and resulted in a rather strange and commercially sound evolution…

This third and final expansive hardback collection (spanning November 25th 1963 to its end on April 9th 1966) opens with a detailed Introduction from Sidney Friedfertig, disclosing the provenance of the strips; how and why Jerry Siegel was tasked with repurposing recently used and soon to be published scripts from the comicbooks; making them into daily 3-and-4 panel black-&-white continuities for the apparently more sophisticated and discerning newspaper audiences.

It also offers a much-needed appreciation of the author’s unique gifts and contributions…

If you’re a veteran comicbook fan, don’t be fooled: the tales “retold” here at first might seem familiar but they are not rehashes: they’re variations and deviations on an idea for audiences seen as completely separate from the kids who bought comicbooks. Even if you are familiar with the traditional source material, the adventures collected here will read as brand new, especially as they are gloriously illustrated by Wayne Boring at the peak of his illustrative powers.

After a few years away from the feature, Boring had returned to replace his replacement Curt Swan at the end of 1961, regaining the position of premiere Superman illustrator to see the series to its demise. Moreover, as the strip drew to a close many strip adaptations began appearing prior to the “debut” appearances in the comics…

As an added bonus, the covers of the issues these adapted stories came from have been included as a full, nostalgia-inducing colour gallery…

Siegel & Boring’s astounding everyday entertainments commence with Episode #145 ‘The Great Baroni’ (from November 25th to September 14th 1963), revealing how the Caped Kryptonian helped an aging stage conjuror regain his confidence and prowess: based on a yarn by Siegel & Al Plastino from Superboy #107 (which had a September 1963 cover-date).

‘The Man Who Stole Superman’s Secret Life’ (December 16th 1963 to 1st February 1964 and first seen in Superman #169, May 1964, by Siegel & Plastino) was a popularly demanded sequel to a tale where the Man of Tomorrow lost his memory and powers but fell in love.

When his Kryptonian abilities returned he returned to his regular life, unaware that he had left heartbroken Sally Selwyn behind. She thought her adored Jim White had died…

Now as Clark investigated a crook who was a perfect double for Superman he stumbled into Sally and a potentially devastating problem…

Episode #147 – running from February 3rd to March 9th – saw the impossible come true as ‘Lex Luthor, Daily Planet Editor’ (by Leo Dorfman, Swan & George Klein from Superman #168 April 1964) reveals how the criminal genius fled to 1906 and landed the job of running a prestigious San Francisco newspaper… until a certain Man of Tomorrow tracks him down…

March 9th saw Clark, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane begin ‘The Death March’ (originally an Edmond Hamilton & Plastino tale from Jimmy Olsen #76, April 1964): a historical recreation which turned agonisingly real after boss Perry White seemingly had a breakdown. Of course, all was not as it seemed…

‘The Superman of 800 Years Ago’ has a lengthy pedigree. It ran in newspapers from April 6th to May 18th but was adapted from the unattributed, George Papp illustrated story ‘The Superboy of 800 Years Ago’ as seen in Superboy #113 (June 1964) which was in turn based upon an earlier story limned by Swan & Creig Flessel from Superboy #17 at the end of 1951.

Here a robotic Superman double is unearthed at a castle in Ruritanian kingdom Vulcania, and our inquisitive hero time-travelled back to the source to find oppressed people and a very familiar inventor. Suitably scotching the plans of a usurping scoundrel, he left a clockwork champion to defend democracy in the postage stamp feudal fiefdom…

‘Superman’s Sacrifice’ was the 150th daily strip, running from May 18th to June 20th (adapted from a Dorfman & Plastino thriller first seen in Superman #171, August 1964). Here the Man of Steel is blackmailed by advanced alien gambling addicts Rokk and Sorban. They want to wager on whether Superman will kill an innocent. If he doesn’t they will obliterate Earth. The callous extraterrestrials seem to have all the bases covered and, even when the Metropolis Marvel thinks he’s outsmarted them, Rokk and Sorban have an ace in the hole…

It was followed by another tale from the same issue wherein Hamilton & Plastino first described ‘The Nightmare Ordeal of Superman’ (June 22nd to July 25th) wherein the Man of Tomorrow voyages to another solar system just as its power-bestowing yellow sun novas into red. Deprived of his mighty powers our hero must survive a primitive world, light-years from home, battling cavemen and monsters until rescue comes in a most unlikely fashion…

The author of ‘Lois Lane’s Love Trap’ was unattributed but the tale was drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger when seen in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane # 52 (October 1964). As reinterpreted here by Siegel& Boring from July 27th to August 22nd however, it tells how Lois and Clark travel to the rural backwoods to play doctor and cupid for diffident lovers, after which August 24th to October 10th offered ‘Clark Kent’s Incredible Delusions’ (seen in comicbooks in Superman #174, January 1965 by Hamilton, Swan, Plastino & Klein).

Incredible incidents begin after a visitor to the Daily Planet casually reveals he is secretly Superman. Not only does he have the powers and costume, but Clark cannot summon his own abilities to challenge the newcomer. Can Kent have been hallucinating for years? The real answer is far more complex and confusing…

A tip of the hat to a popular TV show follows as a deranged actor trapped in a gangster role kidnaps Lois and her journalistic rival, determined to prove her companion is a mobster and ‘The “Untouchable” Clark Kent’ (October 12th November 7th): a smart caper transformed by Siegel from a yarn by Dorfman, Swan & Klein from Superman #173 November 1964.

‘The Coward of Steel’ (Siegel & Plastino, Action Comics #322, March 1965) ran from November 9th – December 19th, revealing how Superman’s pipsqueak act became all-consuming actuality after aliens ambushed the hero with a fear ray.

The year changed as Lois went undercover to catch a killer in ‘The Fingergirl of Death’ (Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane # 55 by Otto Binder & Schaffenberger; February 1965), reinterpreted here by Siegel& Boring from December 21st 1964 to January 23rd.

‘Clark Kent in the Big House’ – January 25th – March 6th – was seen in Action #323 April 1965 by Binder & Plastino and found Clark in a similar situation: covertly infiltrating a prison to get the goods on an inmate. Sadly once he’s there the warden has an accident and nobody seems to recognise that Kent is anything other than a crook getting his just deserts…

There was more of the same in ‘The Goofy Superman’ which ran March 8th to April 12th, taken from Robert Bernstein & Plastino’s tale from Superman #163; August 1963. This time though, Red Kryptonite briefly made Clark certifiably insane. After he was committed and got better, he stuck around to clear up a few malpractices and injustices at the asylum before heading home…

A different K meteor caused extremely selective amnesia and ‘When Superman Lost His Memory’ from April 14th to May 22nd (originally by Dorfman, Swan & Klein from Superman #178 July 1965) the mystified Man of Steel had to track down his own forgotten alter ego…

‘Superman’s Hands of Doom’ was the 160th strip saga, running from May 24th through June 26th, adapted from a Dorfman & Plastino thriller in Action #328 (September 1965). It detailed the cruelly convoluted plans of big-shot crook Mr. Gimmick who tried to turn Superman into an atomic booby trap primed to obliterate Metropolis, after which a scheming new reporter started using dirty tricks to make her mark at the Planet, landing ‘The Super Scoops of Morna Vine’ (June 28th – August 21st) through duplicity, spying, cheating and worse in a sobering tear-jerker first conceived and executed by Dorfman, Swan & Klein from Superman #181, November 1965.

The comicbook version of ‘The New Lives of Superman’ – by Siegel, Swan & Klein – didn’t appear until Superman #182 in January 1966, but the Boring version (such an unfair name for this brilliant artist!) ran in papers from August 23rd – October 16th 1965: detailing how Clark Kent had an accident which would leave any other man permanently blind.

Not being ordinary, Superman had to find another secret identity and hilariously tried out being a butler and disc jockey before finding a way for Clark to return to reporting…

Something like the truly bizarre ‘Lois Lane’s Anti-Superman Campaign’ was seen in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane # 55 (Dorfman & Schaffenberger, January 1966). However, as reinterpreted by Siegel & Boring for an adult readership from October 18th to December 18th, the stunts produced for the Senatorial race between her and Superman are wild and whacky (and could never happen in real American politics No Sirree Bob!), even if 5th Dimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk is behind it all…

Running from December 20th 1965 through January 8th 1966, as adapted from a Dorfman & Pete Costanza thriller in Superman #185 (which eventually saw full-colour print in April 1966), ‘Superman’s Achilles Heel’ offered a slick conundrum as the Man of Might began wearing a steel box on his hand after losing his invulnerability in one small area of his Kryptonian frame.

The entire underworld tried to get past that shield but nobody really thought the problem through…

The end of the hallowed strip series was fast approaching but it was business as usual for Siegel & Boring who exposed over January 10th to February 26th ‘The Two Ghosts of Superman’ (Binder & Plastino from Superman #186, May 1966) as the hero went after crafty criminal charlatan Mr. Seer. Fanatical fans might be keen to see the cameo here from up and coming TV superstar Batman before the curtain closes…

The era ended with another mystery. ‘From Riches to Rags’ (Dorfman & Plastino from Action Comics #337, May 1966) has Superman compulsively acting out a number of embarrassing roles – from rich man to poor man to beggar-man and so forth.

Spanning February 28th to April 9th, it depicted a hero at a complete loss until his super-memory kicked in and recalled a moment long ago when a toddler looked up into the night sky…

Superman: – The Silver Age Dailies 1963-1966 is the last of three huge (305 x 236 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.

If you love the era or just crave simpler stories from less angst-wracked times these yarns are great comics reading, and this a book you simply must have…
Superman™ and © 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Murder Frame


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-859-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Derring-do and the Perfect Postprandial Tonic… 9/10

Infallible super-criminals Modesty Blaise and her lethally adept, knife-throwing, compulsively platonic partner Willie Garvin gained fearsome reputations heading underworld gang The Network. They then retired young, rich and healthy.

With honour intact and their hands relatively clean, they cut themselves off completely from careers where they made all the money they would ever need and far too many enemies: a situation exacerbated by their heartfelt conviction that killing was only ever to be used as a last resort.

When devious British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant sought them out, they were slowly dying of boredom in England. The wily old bird offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. They jumped at his offer and have been cleaning up the dregs of society in their own unique manner ever since …

From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the dynamic duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a never-ending succession of tense suspense and inspirational action for more than half a century…

The inseparable associates debuted in The Evening Standard on 13th May 1963 and over the passing decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in approximately three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a lost strip classic equally deserving of its own archive albums) produced a timeless treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero (and occasionally John Burns, Neville Colvin and Pat Wright) assumed the art reins, taking the partners-in-peril to even greater heights.

The series has been syndicated world-wide and Modesty has starred in numerous prose novels and short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play, an original American graphic novel from DC and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures until the strip’s conclusion in 2001.

The serial exploits are a broad blend of hip adventuring lifestyle and cool capers; combining espionage, crime, intrigue and even – now and again – plausibly intriguing sci fi and supernaturally tinged horror genre fare, with ever-competent Modesty and Willie canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly human defenders of the helpless and avengers of the wronged…

Reproduced in stark and stunning monochrome – as is only right and fitting – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulously chronological serial re-presentations of the ultimate cool trouble-shooters resume here, with O’Donnell & Romero offering four more masterpieces of mood, mystery and mayhem only pausing for effusive Introduction ‘Meeting Modesty’: from crime author Rebecca Chance (AKA Lauren Henderson; Bad Brides, Killer Heels, Jane Austin’s Guide to Dating) who compares the prose perils with the aforementioned strip sagas.

With Chance adding a prologue to each of the stunning strips which follow, the pictorial perils premiere with ‘The Murder Frame’ (originally seen in The Evening Standard from January 6th to June 6th 1997), wherein Modesty and Willie are drawn into a Machiavellian war of wits with a psychopathic old adversary who turns Garvin’s very public minor spat with a local property developer into an unassailable case of murder most foul.

Happily, Willie has lots of friends on both sides of the law and the stitch-up unravels after Modesty teams up with police Chief Inspector Brook to see justice done and the real killer caught…

The tone shifts to electrifying espionage and bloody vengeance for ‘Fraser’s Story’ (9th June – November 3rd) as Tarrant’s placidly, unflappable aide goes off the grid in pursuit of a British traitor-turned-Russian Mafia boss hiding out in Panama.

Victor Randle sold out his country and caused the death of 107 British agents – including Fraser’s only love – and is smart enough to know that Fraser is on his trail. In fact he’s counting on it and has creepy brainwashing genius Dr. Yago ready to pick the would-be avenger’s mind dry of every profitable secret it contains – especially as Victor currently possesses the only other thing the British agent still cares about…

He’s also smart enough to have Fraser’s friends Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin murdered before they can interfere, but tragically not efficient enough to double check that his attempts have actually succeeded…

A startling glimpse into Modesty’s childhood days underpins ‘Tribute of the Pharaohs’ (November 4th 1997 to April 3rd 1998), also revealing Willie’s ultimate nemesis as the strident martinet who ran the orphanage he grew up in. Their reunion on the burning sands of the Bayouda desert near Khartoum also involves brutal bandit lord Mr. J who believes the draconian Miss Prendergast has knowledge of a vast horde of Egyptian gold…

When he kidnaps and tortures the old biddy, Willie and Modesty teach the sadistic thug a lasting lesson before uncovering a treasure and laying a ghost that has haunted Blaise for most of her life…

Wrapping up this trove of titanic tales is a traumatic exploration of the modern slave trade which sees Willie’s teen protégé Sam head out to Thailand as part of a mixed judo team. Sadly her youth, looks and bearing make her the perfect target for human traffickers Rosie Ling and Mr. Nagle-Green who boldly fake her death in broad daylight before stashing her on their ship full of ‘The Special Orders’ (April 6th to September 4th 1998) for rich and ruthless men…

Having been schooled by Garvin and Modesty, Sam is savvy enough to get off a message to the already suspicious (and en route) duo and takes matters into her own hands to rescue the girls. All she has to do is get them all off the ship, hole up in a suitable defensible position and keep safe until the enraged and remorseless cavalry arrives…

These are incomparable capers crafted by brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the sheer perfection of an iconic creation. Startling shock and suspense-stuffed escapades packed with sleek sex appeal, dry wit, terrific tension and explosive action, these stories grow more appealing with every rereading and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.
Modesty Blaise © 2016 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Superman Chronicles volume 10


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3488-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

Within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy, but once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors.

In comic book terms at least Superman was master of the world, and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster had informed and infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

Superman was definitely every kid’s hero, as confirmed in this classic compendium, and the raw, untutored yet captivating episodes reprinted here had also been completely embraced by the wider public, as comicbooks became a vital tonic for the troops and all the ones they had left behind…

I sometimes think – like many others I know – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”.

However, even in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

This tenth astounding Superman chronological chronicle – collecting #18-19 of his solo title, episodes from flagship anthology Action Comics #53-55 and the Man of Steel segment of World’s Finest Comics #7 (covering September to December 1942) – sees the World’s Premier Superhero pre-eminent at the height of those war years: a vibrant, vital role-model and indomitable champion whose sensational exploits spawned a host of imitators, a genre and an industry.

Behind the stunning covers by Jack Burnley and Fred Ray – depicting our hero smashing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – scripter Siegel – who authored everything in this volume – was crafting some of the best stories of his career, showing the Action Ace in all his morale-boosting glory; thrashing thugs, spies and masters of Weird science whilst America kicked the fascist aggressors in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by punishing deadlines for the Superman newspaper strip and rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead in the comicbooks as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew.

Thus most of the stories in this volume were illustrated by studio stalwarts John Sikela, Leo Nowak and Ed Dobrotka with occasional support from others…

The debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry. In 1939 the company collaborated with the organisers of the New York World’s Fair: producing a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening. The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics beside such four-colour stars as Zatara, Gingersnap and The Sandman.

He starred again a year later in the sequel issue with newly-launched Batman and Robin in another epochal mass-market premium – World’s Fair 1940.

The monolithic 96-page card-cover anthologies were a huge hit and convinced National’s Powers-That-Be to release a regularly scheduled over-sized package of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured.

The bountiful format was retained for a wholly company-owned quarterly which retailed for the then-hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45 year run which only ended as part of the massive decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Here – illustrated by Nowak & Sikela – the thrills begin with ‘The Eight Doomed Men’ (World’s Finest Comics #7); a tale involving a coterie of ruthless millionaires targeted for murder because of the wicked past deeds of their privileged college fraternity. This enthralling crime mystery is suitably spiced up with flamboyant high-tech weaponry that pushes the Action Ace to his limits…

Superman #18 (September/October 1942) then offers a quartet of stunning sagas, leading with the all-Sikela’s ‘The Conquest of a City’ wherein Nazi infiltrators used a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name until Superman spearheads the counter-attack, whilst in Nowak’s ‘The Heat Horror’ an artificial asteroid threatens to burn the city to ashes until the Metropolis Marvel defeats Lex Luthor, the manic mastermind who aimed it at Earth.

‘The Man with the Cane’ offers a grand, old-fashioned and highly entertaining espionage murder mystery for Ed Dobrotka & Sikela to illustrate after which Superman takes on his first fully costumed super-villain after ‘The Snake’ perpetrates a string of murders during construction of a river tunnel in a moody masterpiece drawn by Nowak.

Sikela is inked by George Roussos on fantastic thriller ‘The Man Who put Out the Sun!’ from Action Comics #53, wherein bird-themed menace Night-Owl uses “black light” technology and ruthless gangsters to plunder at will until the Man of Steel takes charge, whilst in #54 ‘The Pirate of Pleasure Island!’ (Sikela) follows the foredoomed career of upstanding citizen Stanley Finchcomb, a seemingly civilised descendent of ruthless buccaneers, who succumbs to madness and becomes a modern day merciless marine marauder. Or perhaps he truly was possessed by the merciless spirit of his ancestor Captain Ironfist in this enchanting supernatural thriller…?

A classic (and much reprinted) fantasy shocker opened Superman #19. ‘The Case of the Funny Paper Crimes’ (by Sikela & Dobrotka) saw bizarre desperado Funnyface bring the larger-than-life villains of the Daily Planet’s comics page to terrifying life in a grab for loot and power, after which ‘Superman’s Amazing Adventure’ (Nowak) finds the Man of Tomorrow battling incredible creatures in an incredible extra-dimensional realm – but all is not as it seems…

Some of the city’s most vicious criminals are commanded to kill a stray dog by the infamous Mr. Z in ‘The Canine and the Crooks’ (Nowak) and it takes all of Clark and Lois Lane’s deductive skills to ascertain why before ‘Superman, Matinee Idol’ breaks the fourth wall for readers as the reporters visit a movie house to see a Superman cartoon in a shameless but exceedingly inventive and thrilling “infomercial” plug for the Fleischer Brothers cartoons then currently astounding movie-goers; all lovingly rendered by Shuster and inked by Sikela.

This latest leaf through times gone by concludes with a witty and whimsical Li’l Abner spoof illustrated by Sikela & Dobrotka. ‘A Goof named Tiny Rufe’ focuses on desperate cartoonist Slapstick Sam who plagiarises – and ruins – the simple lives of a couple of naïve hillbillies to fill his idea-empty panels and pages until Superman intercedes to give the hicks their lives back and the devious dauber the drubbing he so richly deserves……

Although the gaudy burlesque of evil aliens, marauding monsters and slick super-villains still lay years ahead of Superman, these captivating tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times.

Most importantly all problems are dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion. No “To Be Continueds…” here!

As fresh, thrilling and compelling now as they ever were, the endlessly re-readable epics re-presented here are perfectly presented in these glorious paperback collections where the graphic magic defined what being a Super Hero means and with every tale defined the basic iconography of the genre for all others to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1942, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: a Keepsake Garland of Classics


By Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-0-74079-152-9

Cul-de-Sac translates as “bottom of the bag” so don’t say you never learned anything from comics.

Richard Thompson took the term in its urban planning derivation – a street/passage closed at one end or a route/course leading nowhere – to describe a convoluted, barricaded oasis of suburban life on the outskirts of Washington DC where a mercurial cross-section of modern humanity lives.

As such it became the setting for one of the best cartoon strips about kids ever created, and one I very much miss.

Richard Church Thompson was born on October 8th 1957 and grew up to become an award-winning illustrator and editorial cartoonist who worked for The Washington Post. He was best known for his acerbic weekly feature Poor Richard’s Almanac (from which came the crushing political prognostication “Build the Pie Higher” – so go google that while you’re at it).

His other mostly light-hearted illustrative efforts appeared in locales ranging from U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Air & Space/Smithsonian, National Geographic and The Atlantic Monthly as well as in numerous book commissions.

In February 2004 Cul de Sac began as a beautifully painted Sunday strip in The Post and quickly evolved into a firm family favourite. In September 2007, it was rebooted as a standard black-&-white Daily with a process-colour Sunday strip and began global syndication with the Universal Press Syndicate and digitally distribution by Uclick GoComics.

It rightly gathered a host of fans, even other cartoonists such as Bill Watterson and authors like Mo Willems.

The series was collected in four volumes between 2008 and 2012, with this particular paperback portmanteau (colour and monochrome as appropriate; 218 x 274 mm; released in 2010) drawn from the first two compendia, with the wise and welcome addition of a selection of the prototype painted Sunday feature from the Washington Post added in.

There is precious little of Cul de Sac but what there is all pure gold. In July 2009 the artist publicly announced that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but carried on anyway.

In 2012 a number of fellow artists and devoted admirers – Michael Jantze, Corey Pandolph, Lincoln Peirce, Stephen Pastis, Ruben Bolling and Mo Willems – pitched in to produce the strip while Thompson underwent treatment. When he came back at the end of March, illustrator had Stacy Curtis signed on as inker, but by August Thompson announced he was retiring Cul de Sac.

The last strip appeared on September 23rd 2012.

Richard Thompson died on July 27 2016. He was 58 years old.

Happily the brilliance of his wit, the warmth of his observation and the sheer uniqueness of his charmingly askew mentality will continue to mesmerise generations of kids and their parents.

So What’s Going On Here…?

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: a Keepsake Garland of Classics offers an unforgettable introduction to the indivisible exterior and interior world of hyperactive four-year old Alice Otterloop as experienced by her family and the circle of friends.

#Alice likes to dance, deploy glitter, get excited and be in charge of everything. Her forceful, declaratively propounded opinions make her respected – and feared – by the other kids in Miss Bliss’ class at Blisshaven Academy Pre-School.

Not that the other tykes, such as just-plain-weird peeping tom Dill Wedekind and hammer-wielding Beni, are traditional tots either. All these kids are smart but untutored and much of the humour comes from their responses to new facts and situations as interpreted through the haze of the meagre experience they’ve previously accumulated – whether taught or overheard…

The result is a winning blend of surreal whimsy and keen observational humour, punctuated with input from Alice’s dolorous, graphic-novel-obsessed, sports-fearing older brother Petey and their permanently bewildered and embattled parents.

Other regulars include classmate Marcus who thinks he’s being stalked by his own mother; school guinea pig Mr. Danders (a boorish, self-important and pretentious literary snob); Peter Otterpoop Senior’s impossibly small car; the family’s bellicose and feral Grandma and her appalling dog Big Shirley, the enigmatic, doom-portending Uh-Oh Baby and Alice’s deranged collection of terrifying spring-loaded toys…

Taking family humour to abstract extremes, Cul de Sac blends inspirational imagination with wry consideration to produce moments side-splitting, baffling and heart-warming in rapid succession. The fabulous family experience also superbly augmented by a running caption commentary and context filling by Thompson, alternately adding understanding and just making you laugh even more.
© 2010 Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.