Culture Corner


By Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-308-8

Basil Wolverton was one of a kind, a cartoonist and wordsmith of unique skills and imagination and one whose controversial works inspired and delighted many whilst utterly revolting others. Born in Central Point, Oregon on July 9th 1909 he worked as a Vaudeville performer, reporter and cartoonist, and unlike most cartoonists of his time preferred to stay far away from the big city. For most of his life he mailed his work from the rural wilderness of Vancouver, Washington State.

He made his first national cartoon sale at age 16 and began pitching newspaper strips in the late 1920s. A great fan of fantastic fiction he sold Marco of Mars to the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 (the company then declined to publish it, citing its similarity to the popular Buck
Rogers
feature).

Equally at home with comedy, horror and adventure fantasy material Wolverton adapted easily to the concept of superheroes, working extensively in the new medium of comic-books, where he produced such gems as Spacehawks and Disk-Eyes the Detective for Circus Comics, the grimly imaginative, (unrelated) sci fi cosmic avenger Spacehawk for Target Comics and Rockman, “Underground Secret Agent” for Timely/Marvel’s USA Comics.

He also produced a seemingly endless supply of comedy features ranging from extended series such as superman/boxing parody ‘Powerhouse Pepper’ to double, single and half-page gag fillers such as ‘Bedtime Bunk’, ‘Culture Quickie’ and ‘Bedtime Banter’.

In 1946 he famously won a national competition held by Al Capp of Li‘l Abner fame to visualise “Lena the Hyena”, that strip’s “ugliest woman in the world”, and during the 1950s space and horror boom produced some of the most imaginative short stories comics have ever seen. He also worked for Mad Magazine.

Wolverton had been a member of Herbert W. Armstrong’s (prototype televangelist of a burgeoning fundamentalist movement) Radio Church of God since 1941. In 1956 he illustrated the founder’s pamphlet ‘1975 in Prophecy’. Two years later Wolverton produced a stunning interpretation of The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last and began writing and drawing an illustrated six-volume adaptation of the Old Testament entitled ‘The Bible Story: the Story of Man’ which was serialised in the sect’s journal The Plain Truth. In many ways these religious works are his most moving and powerful.

In 1973 he returned to the world of comic books, illustrating more of his memorably comedic grotesques for DC’s Plop!, but suffered a stroke the next year. He died on December 31st 1978.

Now Fantagraphics have collected a spectacular haul of Wolverton’s very best gag feature in a uniquely informative hardback. Culture Corner ran as a surreal and screwball half-page “advice column” in Whiz Comics as well as Marvel Family and The Daisy Handbook from 1946 to 1955 when publisher Fawcett sold off its comic division to Charlton Comics – including the very last unpublished strips. The cartoonist was clearly a meticulous creator, and his extensive files have bequeathed us a once-in-a-lifetime insight into his working practice and the editorial exigencies of the period.

Wolverton sent a fully penciled rough of each proposed episode to Will Lieberson and Virginia Provisiaro (Executive editor and Whiz Comic’s editor respectively) who would comment and commission or reject. The returned pencils would then form the skeleton of the instalment. This lovely madcap tome re-presents the full colour strip with almost all of the original pencil roughs, (diligently stored by Wolverton for decades) as counterpoint and accompaniment, revealing the depth not only of Wolverton’s imagination at play but also his deft facility with design and inking. Also included are some extra roughs and all the extent rejected ideas – some of the most outrageous tomfoolery ever unleashed.

Wolverton was something of an inventor and DIY maestro according to his son Monte’s illuminating introduction, and turned the family home into a dream-house Rube Goldberg or our own Professor Brainstawm would be proud of, and that febrile ingenuity is clearly seen in the advisements of Croucher K. Conk Q.O.C. (Queer Old Coot) as with awesome alliteration and pre-Rap rhyming riffs he suggests solutions for some of life’s least tiresome troubles.

Among the welter of whacky wisdoms imparted some of the most timelessly true are ‘How to Raise Your Eyebrows’, ‘How to Eat your Spaghetti without Getting Wetty’, ‘How to Clap without Mishap’, ‘How to Stop Brooding if your Ears are Protruding’, ‘How to Bow’ and ‘How to Grope for Bathtub Soap’ amongst more than a hundred other sage prescriptions, but whatever your age, alignment or species this crazy chronicle has something that will change your life – and often for the better!

Graphically grotesque, inveterately un-sane and scrupulously screwball, this lexicon of lost laughs is a must have item for anyone in need of a classy cheering up.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Tales of the Green Beret Books 1-3


By Robin Moore & Joe Kubert (Blackthorne/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-36-9, 0-932629-48-2 and 0-932629-59-8

If you’re old enough to remember the Viet Nam conflict you’ll understand when I say that it was a war that changed the World’s perception of America. It marked a growth of civil resistance, student unrest and all-pervasive questioning of previously accepted authority. People thought differently after it ended. Most had their eyes opened: many screwed them tighter shut…

It is something we should be aware of now more than ever…

In 1965 a blockbuster book by novelist Robin Moore rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, generating a film, a hit song and a highly controversial syndicated comic strip. Moore, possibly one of the very first “Embedded Journalists”, trained with and then accompanied America’s elite combat group, the US Army Special Forces, for two years, and was clearly proud to be counted amongst “The Green Berets.”

The United States Army Special Forces is a Special Operations Force designed to carry out six specific briefs: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Special Reconnaissance, Direct Military Action, Hostage Rescue and Counter-Terrorism. Units usually carry out these missions with foreign troops on foreign soil, and their remit also includes Search and Rescue, Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance. In later years they have also specialized in Landmine Removal, Counter-Proliferation, Psychological Operations, Manhunting, and Counter-Drug operations.

The unit was formed in 1952 as part of the US Army Psychological Warfare Division, designated the 10th Special Forces Group at the new Psychological Warfare School (which became the John F. Special Warfare Center and School just before these strips premiered).

During the 1960s they were mostly employed in Southeast Asia, South America and Europe in their Unconventional Warfare capacity. The group motto is “De Oppresso Liber” – To Liberate the Oppressed – and relates to their most frequent function: training and advising foreign indigenous forces.

Oddly, the Green Beret itself is a Scottish tradition dating from World War II, when American OSS agents and US Army Rangers (their equivalent to our Commandos) were trained by the Royal Marines and awarded the prestigious headgear for successfully completing the terrifying Commando Training course.

The hats were banned by the US military, but worn clandestinely – and illegally – until 1961, when President Kennedy personally authorized them as a signal of the caliber of soldier able to win one: “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”

This gesture forever bound the Green Berets to the memory of the murdered President, as the very first week of the strip stirringly affirms. Tales of the Green Berets comes from a time when the USA led the Free World (now there’s a phrase to pick apart semantically), politicians were generally considered to be open and honest and the CIA were good guys. As usual when nations go to war, idealism is always the first casualty, closely followed by young men and foreign civilians…

Fully aware of the value of favourable PR, the strip was created at the urging of Lt. General William Yarborough, who had sponsored Moore’s research and arduous training. He was the current commander of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and was keen to see the military displayed in a positive light. After a brief but abortive initial opening, the strip launched as a daily on April 4th and Sunday feature on April 10th 1966 from the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, with scripts by Howard Liss and art from the immensely talented Joe Kubert, whose work on DC’s war comic-books was swiftly making him America’s top war artist.

The tales featured a fictionalised reporter, Chris Tower, who had trained with the Green Berets for an article and was now posted to Vietnam by his newspaper magnate father to report on the war…

In the first adventure here ‘Kidnap Ksor Tonn’ Tower meets up with an old friend and becomes embroiled in an operation to abduct a prominent Viet Cong commander: an impressive tale of jeopardy and double-cross. These stories are surprisingly even-handed in their treatment of the conflict, as ‘Sucker Bait’ sees Tower visiting a jungle village of peasants caught in the middle of the war, with heartbreaking consequences…

This is followed by an exotic view of life in Sin City Saigon entitled ‘Chris Kidnapped’ but the perpetrators aren’t political, merely greedy students looking to make some quick American cash…

The first volume ends with the opening shots in a new conflict as Chris flies to Central America to join ‘Operation Oilspot’…

The saga continues in volume two as Chris becomes deeply involved in an ideological battle between the poor peasants of San Marco and Marxist insurgents. In this war for hearts and minds the Green Berets are only “observers”, teaching and training the local soldiery and helping to construct roads and a bridge, but the insurgents are determined to sabotage the project. Moreover they are not so much dedicated communists as profiteering bandits with an eye to the main chance…

This is an impressive saga full of genuine moral conflict and personal tragedy, whilst the next tale ‘Freedom Flight’, switches locales to East Berlin and genres to pure espionage as Tower and a European team warm up the Cold War to smuggle a family through Checkpoint Charlie for a new life beyond the Iron Curtain. Once more the story breaks at a critical moment, to resume in the third and final volume.

On concluding ‘Freedom Flight’ Tower returns to Southeast Asia to examine the links between South Vietnamese Generals – ostensibly the allies of the Americans – and American organised crime. ‘The Syndicate’ is a tense thriller which shows that the modern problem with Vietnamese drug lords was an open secret even in 1967, and as the spellbinding action simultaneously takes place in Asia and America, clearly reveals that the situation was in large part self-inflicted…

This final volume concludes with the somewhat truncated yet engagingly complex political drama ‘Prince Synoc’, wherein a Special Forces trained son of the King of Thailand apparently defects to a faction of the anti-American, anti-monarchist Thai Army of Liberation.

All is not as it seems though, as Tower and the local Green Berets discover… The third and final volume ends here on a rather inconclusive note with the December 31st 1967 Sunday instalment, but I’m not really surprised that these volumes never finished reprinting the entire strip…

The feature was in strange and controversial straits by this time. Although still popular, it had become an easy target for anti-war protesters, with writing campaigns and even picketing of papers that carried it. Kubert’s usually inspired and grippingly evocative textured art suffered (it looks to me like fellow DC artist Jack Abel has ghosted the inking on more than one occasion), and Joe left the strip in January 1968. His last Sunday page was January 7th and his final daily ran three days later. The series continued for a few months more with veteran Tarzan artist John Celardo as illustrator, before succumbing to the inevitable.

Now however, with the distance of decades, surely it is time for this superb and seminal series to be revisited and given the complete deluxe treatment. These cheap and cheerful Blackthorne editions are scarce, often poorly printed and incomplete. The first abortive tale ‘Viet Cong Cowboy’ was not included and since the stories are so very readable it seems only right to also include the missing Celardo strips. After all, this man was also a major artistic talent and I for one would love to review his later efforts…

One more for the graphic novel wish-list then…
© 1986 Tribune Media Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Casey Ruggles: King of the Horsemen/the Prophet Julius/Juan Soto – Daily Strips 1951


By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
No ISBN

The newspaper strip Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West used Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story. The hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California since 1849 to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine of both features until 1950 where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures.

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time: Ruggles and the elegiac, iconic Lance.

Sadly he began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and ostensibly free family home entertainment. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on Christmas Day, 1925 Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began Ruggles as a full-colour Sunday page, and added to it with a black and white daily strip which began on September 19th of that year.

He worked for the United Features Syndicate, who owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but Tufts, a compulsive perfectionist, regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and consequently often missed deadlines. This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” on the series and Cardy’s stint is reproduced in this volume.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his wonderful western creation in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.

Tufts formed his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even building his own ‘planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one he crashed and was killed.

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history, facility for comedy and innovative willingness to take chances in three tales strip’s third year.

The first is a traditional cowboy story featuring the clandestine return of an old foe. ‘King of the Horseman’ originally ran from 14th May to 23rd June 1951, and saw a mysterious “Sonoran” (in actuality Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta) challenge all the miners in a gold town to test their riding skills against his own.

Bored and cash rich but not stupid, the gambling fools call in Marshal Ruggles to do the rough riding…

This is a engrossing and informative little gem, softly sardonic and luxuriating in the minutiae of the historical west and cowboy mythology. Art lovers will also have the joy of comparing two master realists as Tufts, ever-strapped to meet his punishing deadlines surrendered the greater part of the tale (all the racing, chasing and action-stunting) to Nick Cardy, keeping only the first and last weeks’ episodes for himself.

This was probably to give himself a little leeway on the next adventure ‘The Prophet Julius’, a dark, clever yarn about a greedy flim-flam man and the eerie power he exerted on an isolated outpost. Running from June 25th to August 11th 1951, the action begins with a shooting star crashing to earth, closely followed by a mesmerising soothsayer terrifying, coercing and even hypnotising miners into handing over their wealth. With even Ruggles helpless the township pull together to craft a solution no Hollywood hack has ever considered…

The six-gun thrills conclude here with another unsung innovation wherein Tufts adapted the documentary/Film Noir style prevalent in the B-Movie gangster films of the time to create a prototype graphic-novel police procedural that would do Rick (A Treasury of Victorian Murder, The Saga of the Bloody Benders) Geary proud.

The predominantly Mexican Vasquez Gang terrorized the simple folk of rural California for almost 15 years with outlaws being captured or killed only to be replaced by ever more bloodthirsty villains  ‘Juan Soto’ was one such and the hunt for him was perfectly incorporated into a clever tale of organised man-hunting by Tufts. Soto was actually killed in a gunfight with Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse.

Here however the bandit’s increasingly obnoxious depredations draw Ruggles into a posse with five other lawmen who undertake a legendary trek through rugged country, ending in a fearsomely authentic, grimly chilling siege and showdown.

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the bizarre reminiscent of the best John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for drama and comedy, and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the usually superior European material like Tex or Lieutenant Blueberry.

Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes and sheer artistic imagination and veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and I’m still praying some canny publisher knows a good thing when he sees it…
© 1950, 1951United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9


By Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond (iPL)
ISBN: 0-930330-5-6-995

If you’re a fan of crime and adventure fiction or in any way familiar with the 1930’s the names Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond will be ones you know. What you might not be so aware of is their brief shared endeavour on one of the most respected and beloved of American newspaper strips.

In the 1930’s the power of newspaper strips to capture and hold vast audiences was unsurpassed (see The Adventurous Decade for further details). When the revolutionary Dick Tracy launched in 1931 for the Chicago Tribune-News Syndicate, it caused a sensation, and gritty, two-fisted crime-busting heroes became the order of the day. Publishers Syndicate released Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 as a response in 1933, and the usually quick-acting William Randolph Hearst was forced to respond from the back foot.

He ordered Joe Connelly, head of King Features, to produce their own He-Man G-Man, and to spare no expense. That meant pursuing America’s most popular mystery writer, who luckily for them spent money like water.

Despite having just released his fifth novel The Thin Man (following The Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), being a regular and popular contributor to Pulps such as Black Mask and having recently established himself as a major Hollywood screenwriter, the ex-Pinkerton detective was a hard-living firebrand who lived “a life on the edge” and could always use more money.

The artist was to be, after a casting call that included Will (Red Barry) Gould and major illustrator Russell Patterson, a young man named Alexander Raymond, who since working as an assistant on such popular strips as Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, had just been signed by Hearst to produce a new Sunday strip to challenge the science fiction blockbuster Buck Rogers. As well as his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Raymond would illustrate one of the most high-profile crime strips of the decade.

Secret Agent X-9 launched as a daily strip on January 22nd 1934 and ran until 10th February 1996 having been handled by some of the biggest and most talented names in comics (including a succession of writers using the King Features house nom de plume Robert Storm), artists Charles Flanders, Mel Graff – who renamed him “Secret Agent Corrigan”, Bob Lubbers, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and George Evans.

The hero himself was based in large part on Hammett’s first creation “The Continental Op”, who debuted in 1923 and starred in both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, but there are also powerful touches of Sam Spade and Nick Charles (hero of but not ever ‘The Thin Man’) in the first year of continuities which introduce the ruthless, relentless detective/quasi-official agent of a nameless Federal organisation dedicated and driven to crushing America’s foes and protecting the innocent.

This collection of the first few tumultuous years begins with ‘You’re the Top’: an introductory tale of a criminal mastermind who uses murder and extortion to undermine society – a fairly common plot elevated to near genius by the sharp plotting and dialogue of Hammett, who was allowed to build the tale and unleash narrative twists at his preferred pace. This first saga took seven breathtaking months to unfold, with Raymond’s clean beautiful lines depicting victims and vamps, the highest of society and lowest of dregs and a frankly startling bodycount…

This was followed by ‘The Mystery of the Silent Guns’ wherein the anonymous X-9 comes to the rescue of a kidnapped millionaire industrialist, a breakneck thriller that ranges from the big city to the wild wide-open prairies and features a spectacular mid-air duel of guns and parachutes.

Although his work was impressive, Hammett’s lifestyle and attitude were a continuing problem for Connelly. Deadlines were missed and it was clear that the writer was bored and losing all interest in the strip. At some unspecified stage of ‘The Martyn Case’ Hammett left King Features with Raymond and unnamed writers concluded the tale of young Jill Martyn, a pawn in a custody battle between rich aunt and dissolute, destitute mother. Of course it’s not just a legal struggle once beatings, abduction and machine guns enter the equation…

Hammett plotted ‘The Torch Case Case’ but again other diverse hands brought the tale to fruition, in a smooth a sexy drama that found X-9 joining the FBI to crack a counterfeiting case. It was April 20th 1935. The next two cases, ‘The Iron Claw Case’ and ‘The Egyptian Jewel Case’ were both written by in-house scripters and for at least part of the first tale the art was “ghosted” (probably by Austin Briggs), whilst a major relaunch of the strip, which never really caught on with the general public, was undertaken.

Casting around for another major name the syndicate decided on British writer Leslie Charteris whose roguish 1928 creation Simon Templar: The Saint (in Meet – the Tiger!) had been followed by 14 immensely popular sequels by the time King Features invited him to assume control of X-9 (he wrote another 36 saint sagas between 1936 and 1978) and was poised to take America by storm thanks to a series of B-Movies starring his affable anti-hero.

Charteris added a kind of suave, capable malice to the character that any fan of James Bond will instantly recognise, but he also produced all but a handful of stories before moving on. This book concludes with his first, and the only one which Alex Raymond drew before he too left – to concentrate of the increasingly successful Flash Gordon.

‘The Fixer’ began on November 25th 1935, and saw the anonymous operative hunting down a criminal quartermaster who provided hardware and supplies for the underworld; a fast-paced whodunit stuffed with sleazy thugs and hot dames that literally rockets to an explosive conclusion.

These early tales of crime-busting and gangsters may not have satisfied Citizen Hearst’s ambitions but they were strong enough to fuel more than five decades of captivating action-packed adventure. This little known collection, produced by an academic publisher, proves (to me at least, and you if you can track down a copy) that the time has never been better for a new and complete chronological collection of this legendary strip.
Story and art © 1983 King Features Syndicate, Ltd. All other material © 1983 International Polygonics, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion


Compiled by Brian M. Kane, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-305-7

One of the greatest and most successful comic strips of all time, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto what history should have been. It followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his homeland who rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

Created by the incredible Harold “Hal” Foster, the noble lad grew to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, siring a dynasty and roaming the globe whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts. There have been films, cartoon series, and all manner of toys, games and collections based the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous thirties to the present day (over 3750 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until he retired in 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected by Foster to continue the legend. In 2004 Cullen retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni ever since.

This glorious book – available in both hardback and softcover – is a complete updating of a 1992 celebratory edition, and features a complete story index and précising of the 3757 adventures to date, including a summary and overview of Val’s life; some key historic interviews and articles on the creators gathered over the years from such disparate sources as Everyday Magazine, the St Louis Dispatch and The Comics Journal covering Foster’s last recorded interview, an examination of Cullen Murphy’s pre-Valiant career, a look at the contribution of both Murphy and uncredited “ghost penciller” Frank Bolle and a brand new appreciation of Schultz and Gianni’s tenure.

A well as a copious and fascinating collection of printed pages, unpublished art, working drawings and candid photographs this superb black and white book also houses a sixteen page full-colour selection of episodes from each creator.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring Prince Valiant is a World Classic of storytelling, and this book is something no fan should be without. If however you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip this thoroughly readable and tantalising appreciation might also be your gateway to a life-changing world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2009 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Moon Mullins: Two Adventures


By Frank H. Willard (Dover)
ISBN: 0-486-23237-9

An immensely popular newspaper strip in its day, Moon Mullins grew out of gentle – if rambunctious – Irish ethnic humour to become the comedy soap opera (one of the very first of its kind) that everybody followed.

Create by Frank Willard, a two-fisted, no-nonsense type with a cracking ear for dialogue, an unerring eye for social faux pas and an incorrigible sense of fun, the strip debuted on June 19th 1923. Willard wrote and drew both the dailies and Sunday segments until his death in 1958, whereupon his assistant Ferdinand “Ferd” Johnson (who had begun working with Willard scant months after the strip launched, and continued even whilst working on his own strips Texas Slim and Lovey-Dovey) assumed full authorship until his retirement in 1991 – an uninterrupted tenure of 68 years.

The Feature was marketed around the globe by the mighty Chicago Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and recounted the raucous, hand-to-mouth, lowbrow life and tribulations of Moonshine Mullins, lovable rogue and unsuccessful prize-fighter who was just getting by in tough circumstances, spending his time in bars, on the streets and most tellingly at the pokey boarding house of Emmy Schmaltz, located at 1323 Wump Street. Mullins was amiable and good-natured, liked to fight, loved to gamble, was slick with the ladies and had the worst friends imaginable…

He also had an iconic little brother, named Kayo, who was the visual prototype for all those tough kid heroes in Derby Hats that populated Simon & Kirby’s early work. Brooklyn and Scrapper and all those other two-fisted, langwitch-mangling’ cynical, sassy tykes took their cues from the kid who often had the last word. The other mainstay of the strip was lanky landlady Emmy Schmaltz, a nosy interfering busybody with inflated airs and graces and a grand line in infectious catchphrases.

Other regulars included Uncle Willie – Moon’s totally dissolute bad relation; the saucy, flighty flapper (Little) Egypt – our hero’s occasional girlfriend, a dead ringer for silent film sensation Louise Brooks and, incomprehensibly, Emmy’s niece, and Mushmouth – a black character who will make modern audiences wince with pain – although, in this strip which celebrated and venerated working class culture, he was far more friend than foil or patsy.

One final regular was the affluent Lord Plushbottom, whose eye for the ladies – particularly Egypt – constantly brought him to Emmy’s boarding house. At the period of this review he is a jolly English bachelor, completely unaware that the spidery spinster has set her cap for him. In 1933, after a decade of hilarious pursuit, she finally got her man.

This still readily available book collects and reprints two marvellous extended adventures which were originally formatted and released in 1929 and 1931 by Cupples & Leon – a publishing company which specialized in reprinting popular strips in lush, black and white albums; very much a precursor of both comic-books and today’s graphic novels.

In the first story Mullins is given a car in payment for $30 he foolishly lent Emmy’s ne’er-do-well brother Ziggy, unaware the vehicle is stolen. This is a delightful shambolic, knockabout episode with striking slapstick and clever intrigues which result in the entire cast behind bars at one time or another. It should be remembered that the cops in these circumstances are always everybody’s enemy and fools to themselves…

The second tale describes how Lord Plushbottom treats Emmy and Egypt to a Florida holiday unaware that he’s also paying for Moon and Mushmouth to join them after a brilliantly inventive and madcap road-trip.

Each adventure is delivered via the incredibly difficult method of one complete gag-strip per day combining to form an over-arching narrative… and they’re all wonderfully drawn and still funny.

Moon Mullins was one of the key strips in the development of both cartooning and graphic narrative; hugely influential, vastly, constantly entertaining and perfectly drawn. With such a wealth of brilliant material surely it’s only a matter of time until some fine publisher releases a definitive series of collected editions. Until then there’s always this…
© 1929, 1931 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Green Cobra


By Peter O’Donnell, John Burns & Pat Wright (Titan Books)
ISBN 13: 1-84576-420-3

Titan Books’ marvellous series re-presentation the classic British newspaper strip continues and concludes a period of artistic instability with this fourteenth volume (encompassing April 2nd 1979 to May 23rd 1980) as the superb John M. Burns finishes his groundbreaking and far too brief tenure as illustrator on the World’s Greatest Adventure Heroine, abruptly replaced mid-strip by veteran Pat Wright – who also didn’t stick around for very long…

Burns had worked on Junior Express and School Friend but really began his auspicious rise as part of the team of artists who worked on the Gerry Anderson licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines (he is fondly remembered for Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope). He drew strips for The Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror and Sun with long, acclaimed runs on The Seekers and the saucy strip Danielle, before briefly and controversially taking over Modesty Blaise.

He has since worked on TV-based series for Look-In and Countdown and found a welcome home in the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he works on Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta.

Although Burns only drew 272 consecutive daily strips, his influence on Modesty was marked and long-lasting. His deft ability with nib and brush are highlighted here with a further complimentary feature reprinting 6 more of the illustrations he drew for O’Donnell’s Modesty prose novels. Also included is another text feature on the oddly arbitrary editorial censorship the strip endured at this period, and particularly the rather heavy-handed manner in which Cartoon Editor Gerald Lip was ordered by Evening Standard Editor Charles Wintour to summarily fire Burns, and ten months later, after only 198 strips, Wright as well, in just as brusque and inexplicable a manner. To this day no one why they were dismissed.

Of Pat Wright himself I know very little, other than he is an exceptionally talented draughtsman, well capable of handling a dramatic feature like Modesty, and also a highly skilled comedy cartoonist working in both line and painted colour. He looks to have been one of the artists used by Fleetway in the late 1970’s on such titles as Action and Valiant (but I’m only guessing here). Just another unsung hero of an industry far too reticent in giving credit where it’s due…

Modesty and Willie Garvin are ex-criminals who retired young, rich and healthy from a career where they made far too many enemies. They were slowly dying of boredom in England when British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. Accepting, they have never looked back…

This volume begins with the eponymous ‘Green Cobra’ and finds Burns at his most effective in a sly and gripping tale of intrigue wherein a band of professional espionage agents kidnap Tarrant’s right hand man Fraser, with a view to breaking and selling him to the highest bidder.

This is a tale rich in character, which spends some welcome time on the bit-players for a change, although when Modesty and Willie go into action against the devilish Dr. Vigo and Pandora, an death-crazed assassin who covets Modesty’s hard-earned reputation, the pace is hectic and the action non-stop. Full of twists and clever subterfuge, this tripartite struggle between Tarrant’s agents, established enemy network Salamander Four and the mysterious new organisation Green Cobra all add to one of the most captivating Modesty yarns ever.

‘Eve and Adam’ is a deliciously quirky tale blending whimsy with terrifyingly grim geopolitical horrors as millionaire philanthropist Dan Galt throws a party for Modesty and Willie, before drugging and transporting them to an isolated part of Africa. It transpires that Galt is dying and believes that humanity will soon follow him. Determined that the race will not be lost he dumps his guests naked and helpless in his new Garden of Eden expecting them to repopulate the world after we’re all gone.

Sadly the old duffer has made a few wrong assumptions. Firstly, Modesty and Willie are simply unable to relate to each other sexually – their bond is far deeper than that. Secondly, the world just isn’t that big anymore: Galt’s oasis in the middle of a desert is disputed territory warring African nations are seeking to control, and finally, his new Adam and Eve are never helpless…

As the pair are preparing to trek out of the desert a satellite crashes into their garden, carrying geological data that the state of Burenzi and its opponent nations will kill to possess. Before too long a small unit from the former and a large troop of mercenaries from the latter have invaded paradise, and they’re not the kind of people who leave witnesses…

Burns was fired without warning or explanation four weeks into this saga and Pat Wright deftly took over just as the bloodshed of a brutal war of attrition escalated, with Modesty and Willie making alliances and picking off ruthless soldiers in a gritty, effective contemporary thriller.

This volume, and Wright’s artistic tenure end with a thoroughly engaging Christmas themed crime-mystery ‘Brethren of Blaise’ which finds our tarnished heroes exposing a criminal scheme perpetrated against one of England’s most impoverished aristocratic families. Hidden treasure, nasty murders and a delightfully thrilling supernatural frosting combined with superb humour and action make this an exception tale in an often grim canon.

During this tale, and once more for no apparent reason, Editor Wintour had Modesty’s illustrator fired. His replacement, Neville Colvin, managed to survive a while longer…but that’s a tale for another graphic novel and a different review.

Originally a newspaper strip created by Peter O’Donnell and drawn by the brilliant Jim Holdaway, Modesty and her charismatic partner in crime (and latterly crime-busting) Willie Garvin have also starred in 13 prose novels and short story collections, two films, one TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002. She has been syndicated world-wide, and Holdaway’s version has been cited as an artistic influence by many major comic artists.

These are unbeatable stories from a brilliant writer and his greatest creation; timeless tales of crime and punishments more enthralling now than ever, and which never fail to deliver maximum thrills and enjoyment. It’s never too late to embrace your Modesty…

© 2008 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Casey Ruggles: in Old Angeles – Selected Daily Strips 1950-1951


By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
No ISBN

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time, but at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips was gradually giving way to the television age. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on 12th December 1925, Tufts was a superb, meticulous craftsman with a canny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was stately in a representational manner and favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began the seminal Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West as a colour Sunday page, following with a daily black and white strip beginning on September 19th of that year, working for the United Features Syndicate, who owned such landmark strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner.

Ruggles was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California in 1849 to find his fortune (the storyline of both features until 1950, where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures. The lush, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but Tufts, a compulsive perfectionist, regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and consequently often missed deadlines.

This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” (uncredited assistants and fill-in artists) on the series.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left the strip in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.

Tufts created his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even building his own aircraft. In 1982 whilst piloting one he crashed and was killed.

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including a number of Casey Ruggles adventures. This third colossal black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history and delightful facility for comedy and satire in three tales from the peak of the strip’s run.

The first of these is a wonderfully whacky history lesson. ‘The Pomo Uprising’ which originally ran from 20th November 1950 – 17th February 1951, described a little remembered period of West Coast lore.

In 1812 expansionist Russians annexed what are now Northern California, Oregon and Washington State to augment their possessions in Alaska. For nearly thirty years Cossacks and fur traders operated out of the colonial base Fort Ross until over-hunting and changing politics at home forced the Tsar to sell the entire kit and caboodle.

In this tale Casey is asked by an old friend to assess the value of Fort Ross – which he has recently purchased – just as a column of Russians explorers, lost for a decade, return utterly unaware that their old home now belongs to the USA. Refusing to believe their changing fortunes they declare war on the Yankee interlopers and bribe the local Pomo Indians to attack the American outpost of San Francisco…

Spectacular action and barbed wit mix brilliantly in this clever tale (crafted during the early days of the Cold War) and which features a classy star turn for Casey’s Indian sidekick Kit Fox, before the epic segues into pure comedy as Casey’s sometimes girlfriend Chris is abducted in (and by) ‘Old Ancient’ a grizzled dime-store owlhoot in a mood for marrying – a wicked parody of silver screen cowboy William Boyd whose super-sanitized Hopalong Cassidy wowed generations of movie and TV viewers who might perhaps have been better served by picking up a history book instead…

This volume concludes with a return to authentic Western action in the eponymous ‘In Old Angeles’ wherein the Marshal is summoned to the newly American city to halt a gang of miners who claim to own the entire city and are rapidly reducing it to one colossal gold mine. Yet their deeds and claims seem completely legitimate and genuine….

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the bizarre reminiscent of the best John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. These lighter tales also prove that George (Destry Rides Again) Marshall would also feel right at home with Tufts’ first masterpiece.

Westerns are continually falling into and out of fashion yet surely the beautiful clean-cut lines and sheer artistic veracity of Warren Tufts can never be out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and I’m still praying some canny publisher knows a good thing when he sees it…
© 1950, 1951United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Frederic Mullally’s Amanda


By Frederic Mullally, John Richardson & “Ken” (Ken Pierce Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91227-703-5

When I reviewed the comic strip collection Danielle recently I declaimed at long length about having to become an apologist for some of the themes and content of what used to be called “cheesecake” or “girly” strips – a genre stuffy old-fashioned Britain used to excel at and happily venerate. We’re that sort of culture: saucy postcards, carry-on films and ingenuously innocent smut.

As John Dakin points out in his introduction to this short-lived strip-siren, The Sun, original home of the lady in question, was the country’s best selling newspaper and was provocatively, proudly populist. That translated into low laughs and acres of undraped female flesh everywhere except the sports section – and even there when possible…

By 1976 the battle for female equality had mostly moved from headlines to business pages: the height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment had passed (so isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things sorted now?). Contraception-on-demand and burning bras were gone except for the provision of comedy fodder and men had generally returned to their old habits, breathing a heavy sigh of relief…

Amanda launched on January 26th 1976, written by journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally, and initially seemed a low key, low-brow reworking of his prestigious Penthouse satire ‘O Wicked Wanda!’ but there were marked differences for anybody looking below the satin-skinned surface.

Amanda Muller was the beautiful, sequestered heir to the world’s largest fortune, and once her old fossil of a father finally kicked the bucket she decided to become a teen rebel and have all the fun she’d missed growing up in an old castle with only prim staff and her cousins Wiley and Hunk for company. With thief turned companion Kiki, she determined to splurge and spree and have anything she wanted.

The strip ran for a year and the first illustrator was John Richardson, a highly gifted artist with a light touch blending Brian Lewis with Frank Bellamy who has worked practically everywhere in Britain from 2000AD to DC Thomson to Marvel UK as well as for specialist magazines such as Custom Car, Super Bike and Citizen’s Band. The introductory story sees Amanda – shedding her clothes at every opportunity – try to buy a title, only to fall foul of a Mafia plot to control Italian Nudist Beaches, before moving on to a “career” as a pop-star – which once more draws her into a world of unscrupulous sharks and swindlers…

Whilst looking for a new maid Amanda and Kiki next got embroiled in a continental burglary ring, before the author’s political interests resurfaced when brainy cousin Wiley was invited to display his new electronic Chess brain behind the Iron Curtain. Naturally physical Adonis Cousin Hunk wants to come along – it’s just before an Olympics after all – and the girls tag along just for kicks.

Since you just can’t trust a Commie they’re all soon in lots of trouble but naturally the frolicsome foursome escape with relative ease. The next adventure, and all the remaining strips, are illustrated by somebody who signs him (or her) self “Ken”, and who, I’m ashamed to say, I know absolutely nothing about. Competent, but a tad stiff and hesitant, and lacking the humorous touch of Richardson, I’d lay money on the enigma being an Italian or Hispanic artist – but I’ve been wrong before and I will be again…

Safely home again Amanda decided to create a feminist magazine entitled New Woman, and sent Kiki to interview the world’s greatest Chauvinist Pig – fashion designer “Bruno” – only to once more fall foul of crooks; although this time its kidnappers and embezzlers.

Still in editor mode the gang then head to super-sexist Banana Republic Costa Larga, just in time for the next revolution, infiltrate the “Miss Sex Object” beauty contest with the intent of sabotaging it, and conclude their globe-trotting by heading for a tropical holiday just as the local government is overthrown by a tin-pot dictator…

Despite my caveats this was series that started out with few pretensions and great promise; however the early loss of Richardson and, I suspect, Mullally’s intellectual interest soon quashed what charm it held. Nevertheless this collection is a good representative of an important period and a key genre in British cartooning history.

Some of the gags are still funny (especially in our modern world where celebrity equates with exactly where drunken, stoned rich people threw up last) and if you’re going to ogle and objectify naked women at least well-drawn ones can’t be harmed or humiliated in the process. Also I don’t think a drawing has ever contributed to a girl’s low self esteem or body issues, At least, I hope not…
© 1984 Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Hawke: The Ambassadors


By Sydney Jordan & Willie Patterson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-598-9

One the world’s most captivating comics strips is inexplicably almost unknown amongst modern readers, but this appalling state of affairs could so easily be rectified simply by purchasing this spiffy deluxe hardback from Titan Books – and its predecessor and falling under the spell of some of the most witty, intriguing and outright astounding British science fiction ever written or drawn. In both style and quality these superb tales from the 1960s are the only serious rival to the legendary Dan Dare these Sceptred Isles have ever produced.

Sydney Jordan began his saga of the thinking man’s hero in the Daily Express on February 2nd 1954, writing the first adventures himself. In 1956 his old school friend and associate Willie Patterson moved from Scotland to London and helped out with the fifth adventure ‘Sanctuary’, and scripted the next one ‘Unquiet Island’, whilst sorting out his own career as a freelance scripter for such titles as Amalgamated Press’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Caroline Baker – Barrister at Law and eventually Fleetway’s War Picture Library series.

Syd was never comfortable scripting, preferring to plot and draw the strips, but his choice of collaborators has always been immaculate – Harry Harrison wrote ‘Out of Touch’, which ran from October 10th 1957 – April 5th 1958, Nick Faure and Martin Asbury worked with him in the 1970s and in the strips’ final days he hired young artists Brian Bolland and Paul Neary. Patterson continued to supplement and assist Jordan intermittently until 1960 until with the fourteenth tale ‘Overlord’ (see Jeff Hawke volume 1: Overlord) Patterson assumed the writing chores on a full-time basis and began the strip’s Golden Age. He remained the wordsmith-in-chief until 1969.

This volume opens with another fascinating memoir from Jordan himself before the wonderment begins. In ‘Pastmaster’ (August 3rd 1961-October 18th 1961) British Space Scientist and trouble-shooter Hawke is visiting the British Moonbase just as a crazed time-traveller from the future materialises intent on changing history by transporting the entire complex back 10,000 years, and giving humanity a huge technological jump-start in the race’s development.

A terrific mix of sly comedy and startling action in the inimitable, underplayed style of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the best of John Wyndham, this romp of time-cops and robbers is a splendid appetiser for ‘The Immortal Toys’ (October 19th 1961- 5th April 1962) wherein ancient Hindu jewels in the shape of insects are revealed to be something else entirely, leading Hawke and a rambunctious archaeologist reminiscent of the bombastic Professor Challenger to a long-hidden tomb and concrete evidence of alien visitors from Earth’s earliest pre-history. No fan of Indiana Jones would want to miss this yarn – especially as here all the science, history and stunts are both plausible and possible…

‘The Ambassadors’ (6th April 1962-13th July 1962) is a winningly clever social satire as two avian aliens looking just like owls arrive in London to offer Earth free, gratis and for nothing a device that will do away with work forever. Instantly politicians and the media descend like vultures and the dry self-deprecatory comedy of films like The Mouse That Roared as well as the works of Jonathan Swift, Robert Sheckley or Eric Frank Russell can be seen in this story exposing the worst of humanity.

Patterson could use humour like a scalpel and augmented by Jordan’s fantastic artwork and rich, incisive facility with expressions produced here a gentle satire to rival the best of Private Eye, Tom Lehrer or TW3. You’ll believe an owl can cry…

Sheer exotic adventure and High Concept science dominates ‘The Gamesman’ (14th July 1962- September 23rd 1962) as a bored alien uses sub-atomic worlds for role-playing diversions, snatching Hawke and his assistant, a giant warrior, a technical wizard and a feisty “princess” from their respective worlds to play with him. Unfortunately ambition is a universal problem and the extraterrestrial dungeon-master quickly finds himself “played”…

The last tale in this volume is another human-scaled fable that touched on contemporary concerns, but although humour is still present in ‘A Test Case’ (September 24th 1962- 2nd January 1963) the over-arching theme is nuclear terror, as a second-rate scientist is given ultra-advanced atomic knowledge by well-meaning aliens who have no idea how fragile a human mind can be…

The frantic desperation and tension as Hawke and the authorities search London for a super-nuclear device primed to eradicate them all is chillingly reminiscent of the Boulting Brothers 1950 film classic Seven Days to Noon and makes of this memorable tale a timeless salutary warning.

These are stories that appeared in daily episodes and their sardonic grasp of the true nature of “the man-in-the-street” make them a delightful slice of social history as well as pure escapist entertainment. Jeff Hawke is a revered and respected milestone of graphic achievement almost everywhere except his country of origin. Hopefully this latest attempt to revive these gems will find a more receptive audience this time, and perhaps we’ll even get to see those earlier stories as well.

© 2008 Express Newspapers Ltd.