Betty Boop volumes 1-3

By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet and probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since invented.

She was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist and animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – and debuted in the monochrome animated short feature ‘Dizzy Dishes’ the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.

A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start she was based on silent movie star Clara Bow, “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) albeit anthropomorphosised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.

Betty had become a fully human if wickedly distorted human girl by 1932’s ‘Any Rags’ and had co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the ‘Screen Songs’ feature and then won her own animated cartoon series, becoming “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932, ultimately failing in her suit, but even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons. With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and wearing much longer skirts Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.

The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, alongside the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse, and in 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the ‘Little Napoleon’ strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.

The Betty Boop strip never really caught on and folded early in 1937, which leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics like Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected elsewhere…

There was a brief flurry of renewed activity during the 1980s, which led to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics ‘Betty Boop’s Big Break’ (1990) and another newspaper strip ‘Betty Boop and Felix’ by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker) which she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia icon Felix the Cat (see Nine Lives to Live: a Classic Felix Celebration) which ran from 1984-1988 but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s longevity and pedigree.

As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding charm, and to be honest, Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these tales of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine into a epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.

The full page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories, but one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother “Bubby” a rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.

There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, and the first collection concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…

Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour and Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds! Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …).

Like many modern stars Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more. Book 3 continues in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau ‘Hunky Dory’ increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…

By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips” Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon Gamin/Houri, (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets) surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?

Additionally the second and third books also contain a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Star Hawks volumes 1-4

By Ron Goulart & Gil Kane, with Archie Goodwin and various (Blackthorne)
ISBN’s: 0-932629-21-0, 0-932629-46-6, 0-932629-55-5, 0-932629-80-6

By the 1970s the era of the adventure comic strip in newspapers was all but over, but there were still a few dynamic holdouts, and even a new masterpiece or two still to come. One such was this unbelievably addictive space opera/cop procedural which debuted on October 3rd 1977.

Created by novelist, comics scripter and strip historian Ron Goulart (and later carried on by the legendary Archie Goodwin who sewed up the sci-fi strip genre by also writing the Star Wars newspaper serial which premiered in 1979) the feature was blessed with the overwhelmingly dynamic art of Gil Kane and an innovative format for strips: a double tier layout that allowed far bigger, bolder graphics than the traditional single bank of frames.

The premise is magically simple: in our future man has spread throughout the galaxy and inhabits many worlds, moons and satellites. And wherever man goes there’s a need for policemen and peacekeepers…

As Goulart explains in his introductory notes the working title was “Space Cops” but that was eventually replaced with the more dashingly euphonious Star Hawks. In 2004 a wonderful collectors edition of this last great adventure strip was released, but is now, naturally, out-of-print and hard to acquire, so I’m concentrating here on the much more accessible four paperback collections published by Blackthorne in the mid 1980s, and which neatly cover Goulart’s tenure.

If you can’t find or afford the classy Hermes Press edition, these cheap and cheerful volumes are almost as good, and, who knows, perhaps somebody will re-release the complete volume sooner rather than later…

Book 1 steams straight in by introducing the villainous Raker and his sultry, sinister boss Ilka, hunting through the slums and ruins of alien world Esmeralda for a desperate girl plagued by dark, dangerous visions…

Enter Rex Jaxan and the ladykiller Latino Chavez, two-fisted Star Hawks on the lookout for trouble, who save the lass from slavers only to become embroiled in a dastardly plot to overthrow the local Emperor by scurrilous arms merchants. Also debuting in that initial tale is the cops’ sexy boss Alice K. Benyon (far more than just a romantic foil for the He-Hunk Jaxan), the floating space station “Hoosegow” and Sniffer, the snarkiest, sulkiest, snappiest robo-dog in the galaxy. The mechanical mutt gets all the best lines…

Barely pausing for breath the star-born Starsky and Hutch (that’s Goulart’s take on them, not mine) are in pursuit of an appalling new weapons system developed to topple the military dictatorship of Empire 13 – the “Dustman” process. Before long however the search for the illegal WMD develops into a full-on involvement in what should have stayed a local matter – civil war…

Book 2 finds the pair investigating stupendous resort satellite Hotel Maximus, with Alice K. along to bolster their undercover image. On Maximus every floor holds a different daring delight – from dancing to dinosaur wrangling to Alpine adventure – but the return of the malevolent Raker heralds a whole new type of trouble as he is revealed to be an agent of a pan-galactic cartel of criminals: The Brotherhood.

Moreover, the Maximus is the site of their greatest coup – a plot to mind-control the universe’s richest and most powerful citizens. So pernicious are these villains that the Brotherhood can even infiltrate and assault Hoosegow itself…

Foiling the raiders the Star Hawks quickly go on the offensive, hunting the organisation to the pesthole planet Selva, a degraded world of warring tribes and monstrous mutations, where new recruit Kass distinguishes himself, but the Brotherhood is deadly and persistent and new leader Master Jigsaw has a plan to destroy the Star Hawks from within…

With Book 3 Kane took on some impressive, if uncredited, assistants to help with the punishing deadlines of what was basically two strips per day and a Sunday supplement every week. The incarcerated Raker escapes, to be hunted by both cops and robbers, and even after he dies he has no peace since, with his memories transferred into a robot head by the science wizard Doc Ajax (a delightful rogue based on Isaac Asimov), the deceased arch-villain is more dangerous than ever…

As brainwashed Star Hawk agents sabotage the Hoosegow, Raker’s new brain is purloined, sparking a hunt across a dozen systems and leading at last to the hellish planet Empire 99: lawless refuge of criminals and monsters. Allying themselves with the super-powered mutants known as the Kwark Clan, Jaxan and Chavez are nearly overmatched until a ghastly, tragic rad-beast proves that looks can be deceiving…

Returning to Hoosegow the Star Hawks are greeted with another mystery: Doc Ajax has vanished, but at least as this volume ends on a cliffhanger, fans can revel in the unsung assistance of artists Howard Chaykin and Ernie Colon working their individualistic magic over Kane’s pencils…

The final volume of this series opens with Colon and Chaykin still adding their distinctive inks to the saga as Rex and Chavez return to planet Esmeralda hunting the missing Doc Ajax, finding him in the less-than-tender clutches of the deadly Ilka, who has forced him to build a new body for Raker. A deadly duel in arctic climes ensues but at its end a far greater threat materialises in the portly form of pencil-pushing Superior Agent Stamms; an imperious, officious Star Hawk auditor come to investigate improprieties and lapses in protocol. He’s come to take names and tick boxes and isn’t the sort of problem a swift punch can resolve…

Next is Goulart’s final yarn; an unsavoury investigation into Star Hawk legend Miles Hardway, friend and mentor to our indomitable space cops. Is he just past his prime, corrupt or crazy? Or perhaps it’s something far, far worse…

This book ends with an uncompleted tale that begins to explore Jaxan’s chequered past, as Archie Goodwin assumes the writer’s reins. A cryptic message at last reaches Rex, relayed from a distant, off-limits and almost forgotten planet: a world called “Earth” – the lost world upon which Rex Jaxan grew to manhood and where somebody waits to kill or be killed by him …

Regrettably you will need the aforementioned special edition to see how that epic ends… Star Hawks ran until 1981, garnering a huge and devoted audience, critical acclaim and a National Cartoonists Society Award for Kane (Story Comic Strip Award for 1977). It is, quite simply one of the most visually exciting, rip-roaring, all-out fabulous sci-fi sagas in comics history and should be part of every fan’s permanent collection. In whatever format you can find this is a “must-have” item.
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1987 NEA, Newspaper Enterprise Association. All rights reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1948

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN: 978-0-97416-641-4

By the second year of his new strip Milton Caniff was already working at the top of his game, producing material both exotic and familiar, and once again dead on the money in terms of the public zeitgeist and taste. After defeating the wily Herr Splitz, ex-war-hero and charter pilot Steve Canyon is asked to ferry Dr. Deen Wilderness to the Middle East, to set up Health Centres for American enclaves, where business interests were busy establishing themselves and becoming the multinational Corporations of today.

Back then, of course, Caniff was merely being contemporary, but he was savvy enough to realise that with the Cold War beginning any Yankee was going to be seen as a spy in such climes, so he made that a part of the narrative. Canyon was unofficially asked to “keep his eyes open” by the US Navy. When his team land (Happy Easter and Fireball Feeney tagging along for dramatic and comedic purpose), they were immediately embroiled in an espionage plot to enflame the indigenous population.

Caniff never bracketed his tales, preferring to simply keep the action rolling ever on, but for convenience the publishers have broken the saga into discrete units. ‘Medical Sabotage’ ran from November 25th 1947 to March 27th 1948 and described how the mission became the subject of competing propaganda machines and murderous skulduggery by a Communist spymaster using the pseudonym “Chief Izm”.  The climactic battle between Canyon and Izm left Steve and Happy stranded in mountain country, at the mercy of attacking nomad bandits.

Which is where the second adventure begins: ‘The Nine Maid’ started on Sunday the 28th of March, and ran until May 23rd, an exotic piece of froth with the guys trying to stay alive as captives of a mysterious masked woman playing Joan of Arc for the mountain tribes. Claiming to be descended from survivors of the Ninth Crusade the sultry, charismatic freedom fighter eventually enlisted our heroes’ aid in her struggle.

‘Operation Convoy’ began on Sunday May 24th, and saw Steve, Happy and the Nine Maid trapped in a city, futilely evading their foes and the Communist agitators who pay them. When they’re captured, a little Arab girl calling herself “Convoy” offered to free them if Canyon would marry her! Their escape was fraught and frantic but only led to more trouble when they were all picked up by the unconventional Soviet Submarine commander Captain Akoola – “the Shark”. Akoola was a beautiful and doctrinaire woman who gradually thawed not because of Canyon’s virile yumminess, but because she responded to Convoy’s orphan plight. Taking a lead from the Count of Monte Cristo, the two females conspire to liberate the Americans by dumping their supposed corpses overboard…

Adrift at sea Steve and Happy washed onto the Burma Coast for ‘Plantation Sabotage’ (September 4th – November 3rd) wherein raunchy widow Miss Fancy and the brutal, jealous ‘Rak’ – whose attempts to get rid of Canyon were prompted by a much more personal type of intrigue – interfered with the smooth running of plantation life. But even here a shadowy agitator was enflaming the native croppers, with the profiteering Rak’s tacit approval. The tense drama promptly resulted in ‘Puppy Love’ (November 4th 1948 to January 8th 1949) when Rak’s son Reed Kimberley joined the story and the extended cast.

Reaching Rangoon Steve and Happy were unaware that the boy would do anything to avoid returning to America. Reed becomes enmeshed in the snares of native bargirl and teen hellion “Cheetah” whose depredations led to a mid-air hostage crisis which ends this second collection on a tragic cliffhanger…

What Milton Caniff was developing in those post-war years is indistinguishable from the glossy, exotic soap operas and dramas that are the back-bone of modern commercial television. Fast-paced, constantly evolving dramas fed by sub-plots, charismatic characters, exotic locales, non-stop action, and even political intrigue, all wrapped up in a heady mix of sexual tension and sharply observed humour. It seems that we can reproduce the techniques but have lost most of the charm, wit and sheer élan

Steve Canyon is comic storytelling at its best. Beautifully illustrated, mesmerising black and white, sagas of war, espionage, romance, terror, justice and cynical reality: a masterpiece of graphic narrative every serious fan and story-lover should experience.

© 2003, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works
© Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1947, 1948, 1949.All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All Rights Reserved.


By various (Tower Books)
ISBN: 42-672

I’ve often harped on about the mini-revolution in the “Camp-superhero” crazed 1960s that saw four-colour comicbook classics migrate briefly from flimsy pamphlet to the stiffened covers and relative respectability of the paperback bookshelves, and the nostalgic wonderments these mostly forgotten fancies still afford (to me at least), but here’s one that I picked up years later as a marginally mature grown man.

Although the double-sized colour comics T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo, NoMan and the magnificent war-comic Fight the Enemy were all distributed in Britain (but not, I think their youth-comedy title Tippy Teen) these monochrome, re-sized book editions, to the best of my knowledge, were not.

It doesn’t matter: to my delight, it seems that even today the format and not the glow of childhood days recalled is enough to spark that frisson of proprietary glee that apparently only comic fans (and Dinky Toy collectors) are preciously prone to.

Of course it doesn’t hurt when the material is as magnificent as this…

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal spies-in-tights masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: bogged down in legal wrangling and petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the reawakening superhero genre and the 1960s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise went from strength to strength, with action and glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage vehicle. 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. (beginning in September 1964), bringing the whole genre inescapably into living rooms across the world.

Creative maverick Wally Wood was approached 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 many of the industry’s biggest names to produce material for the broad range of genres the company envisioned: Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled Tippy Teen – 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 to the adventure series.

With a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes exponentially growing the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so 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 revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, rather more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in the business: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This slim, seductive digest stars the UN Agency’s number two troubleshooter (after the iconic Dynamo) in four stirring spy thrillers featuring a winning combination of cloak-and-dagger danger, science fiction shocks and stirring super-heroics. Although UN commandos failed to save brilliant Professor Jennings from the mysterious Warlord, they rescued some of the scientist’s greatest inventions, including a belt that could increase the density of the wearer’s body, a brain-amplifier helmet and a cloak of invisibility.

These prototypes were divided between several agents, creating a unit of superior fighting men to counter the increasingly bold attacks of global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

Inexplicably, the origin tale ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ which told how aged Dr. Anthony Dunn had his mind transferred into an artificial android body equipped with the invisibility cape is not included here, but the book’s back cover features a Wood pin-up “file page” which distils the powers and background into a handy recap. In those long-ago days kids didn’t much care for long-winded and endless reworkings of past detail: origins just weren’t as important as beating bad-guys….

Incredibly strong, swift and durable, 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.

The action starts with ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (by Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando and Wood) as the artificial agent has to defend an entire Missile Base from an assault by an army of Zombie-men, swiftly followed by ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Tony Coleman) wherein the threat was far les esoteric but no less deadly: a freelance villain who used devastating sound weapons.

Next the Invisible Agent tackled a fiendish Mastermind equipped with his own android army in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, and the explosive adventures rush to a classy climax in ‘The Caverns of Demo’ (astoundingly illustrated by Gil Kane, Wood and Dan Adkins) wherein NoMan faced an entire island of Neanderthal Beast-Men controlled by an arch criminal who had stolen his cloak of invisibility! Sheer magic!

Supplemented by an exciting ‘NoMan in Action’ fact-feature this is a book that would have completely blown away pre-teen me and still has all the impact of a blockbuster bomb. These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading and there’s precious few things you can say that about…
© 1966 Tower Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake

By Dame Darcy (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-346-0

Since 1993 Dame Darcy has been building a weird, wistful and Gothically girlish fantasy

universe in her oddly enchanting comicbook Meat Cake, as well as the occasional graphic novel and collection such as Frightful Fairytales, The Illustrated Jane Eyre, Dollerium, Comic Book Tattoo, Gasoline and others. Now an affordable black and white paperback reprinting the best moody marvels from the first eleven issues is available and keenly awaits your effulgent appreciation.

Darcy Megan Stanger is a prolific and restless artist, musician, animator, dollmaker, interior designer, fashion model, art teacher and reality TCV star – one of those ever-so-likable, infuriating do-it-alls modern society is increasingly populated by.

For some her darkly comic, magic-infested, mock-Victorian realm of slender, ethereal, hauntingly lovely gamins and ghastly side-show freaks might be a step too far. This is a stark place with no room for dull, fat people or the plain visaged…

Certainly this collection is best read in measured instalments, lest the girly-girl blend of Edwardian emo-fashion, Jazz-age make up, tragic love-stories, sinister childhoods, ghostly interventions, maids behaving badly and “fractured fairy-tale” moral instruction lose its power to affect, but the sensibilities of modern female characters thriving in a gloomy imaginative otherplace is one that is rich with entertainment potential especially when scripted with the deliciously scandalous wit of la Dama.

Although some few non-related snippets are included, the major portion of the book concerns the tribulations of a rather distinctive cast of self-absorbed, grotesque and genteel ladies of varied means and character. There’s shrinking violet Friend The Girl, the abrasive Richard Dirt, the constantly bickering conjoined twins Hindrance and Perfidia, seductive, bitchy mermaid Effluvia, Strega Pez, who communicates through a livid gash in her throat, the talkative crustacean Scampi the Shellfish, the utterly bonkers wise woman Granny, Igpay and undead, monstrous token male Wax Wolf, all living in a world at once similar and wondrously ancient and removed.

In sultry, sinister or just plain strange tales like ‘Laughing All the Way to the Bank’, ‘Shrimpboats is A-Comin’’, ‘Employ Ahoy!’, ‘Bus-Ted’, ‘Hookie Lau Breakfast Special’, ‘The Hitch-Hiker’, ‘Grave Concerns’, ‘Happy Hi-Jinx’, ‘Lessons on the Principles of Magnetism’, ‘Honey’, ‘Dirty Rich’, ‘Demon Drink’, ‘Silver Lining’ and ‘Fruit Bat’ the extended eccentric cast live their odd and abstracted lives for us whilst in longer fables such as ‘The Juicer and the Cake Walk’, ‘The Next Holy Virgin’, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘Stained Glass’, ‘The Ghost Filly’, ‘Sweet William and Lady Margaret’, ‘EZ Bake Coven’ and ‘Latch Key Kids Cookbook’ Darcy demonstrates her love and tacit understanding of classical storytelling and particularly Gothic Romance fantasies.

Amidst the assorted unaligned graphical gags and oddments are such brief gems as ‘Ruby Rack! Ruby Rack!’, ‘The Wishing Star’, ‘Existence Forgets’, ‘Spontaneous Generation’, ‘Puppet Show’ (an homage to cartoon pioneer Gustave Verbeek), and an acerbic assemblage of actively skewed ‘Old Nursery Rhymes’ as well as some decidedly quirky autobiographical incidents like ‘Double Trouble or Freaky Friday’, ‘Paper Doll Fun!’, ‘Your Diary’, ‘My Patron’ and ‘Show Me My Hand’ but the absolute show-stealer is her baroque, wilfully whimsical satire-fest with Alan Moore who scripted the marvellously captivating ‘Hungry is the Heart’: a spectacular expose of the extraordinary life and times of turn of the century Society Maverick, Wild-Woman and Button Magnate Wellington Woolenboy AKA Jumbalor – “Damp String Woman”.

Macabre, hilarious and addictively odd, Meat Cake satisfies appetites you can’t believe you have. This is a book for girls that every comicbook guy really needs to see…

© 2010 Dame Darcy. All rights reserved.

The Book of Mr. Natural (Profane Tales of that Old Mystic Madcap)

By Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-352-1

Robert Crumb is a unique force in the world of comics and cartooning with as many foes as fans, but his idiosyncratic, unflinching, controversial but always enchanting work is impossible to ignore. This beautiful black and white hardback collects a varied and impressive selection of strips starring his most famous character produced between 1967 and 1995 and as always touches on the creator’s most intimate and disturbing idiosyncrasies regarding sex and women, both in the unsettling Abstract and the painful, side-splitting, lustful, painful and loving Concrete.

Therefore if harsh language, mild blasphemy, artfully grotesque cartoon nudity and comedic fornication are liable to upset you, stop reading this review and don’t buy the book.

For the rest of us; here’s a quick rundown of what’s in store…

Mr. Natural is a short, balding, bewhiskered, be-robed guru and engagingly vulgar huckster who began selling enlightenment and simple living in the May 5th 1967 issue of counter-culture paper Yarrowstalks. His assaults on the vapidity and venality of the modern world were reproduced and absorbed by an astoundingly broad variety of truth-seekers and laugh lovers who followed the succession of strips in an incomprehensible number of places.

The little wise guy had genuine insight and even greater powers, but peddled his wisdom for crass, material cash or other, less transferable favours. Obviously, and lucky for us all, he’s the only Holy Man or preacher ever to do such a reprehensible, unspiritual thing…

Of the twenty-seven tales gathered here, ranging from single-page strips to the epic 40 page ‘Mr. Natural and Devil Girl’ there are a number of classic yarns that seemingly everyone has seen or heard of but also one or two genuinely rare experiences –  particularly the wonderfully dense and informative ‘Origins of Mr. Natural’.

A less charitable reviewer might suspect that this book has been padded out with older material simply to give the legendary Devil Girl saga – originally serialised in Hup and never before collected into book form – a more accessible and commercially appetising home… and if so I applaud the move as that 1991 tale is one of the most wonderfully jolly and unsettling pieces of work Crumb has yet produced.

Flakey Foont was the foil of many of the earlier strips and a handy barometer of Everyman America. Over the decades the ex-disciple who was beguiled, reviled and defiled by “The Natch” eventually Turned Off, Tuned Out and Dropped back “In”, but found himself losing all self-control when confronted in his happily middle-class suburban family paradise by the returned Sage and the raw, lustful female animal that was both antithetical enemy and willing slave…

Other notable gems include Mr. Natural in Death Valley’, Mr. Natural Visits the City’, ‘It’s Workaday World’, Mr. Natural Goes to a Meeting of the Minds’, ‘Sunny Side Up’ ‘Om Sweet Om’, ‘Mr. Natural Stops Talking’, ‘A Girl in Hotpants, ‘The Girlfriend’ and the utterly perfect and fully zeitgeisted Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation’, a plethora of revelation and confrontation that still provides merriment and queasy shock in equal proportion.

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and compulsive, uncompromising need to reveal his most hidden depths and perceived defects – in himself and the world around him – has always been a unquenchable wellspring of challenging comedy and riotous rumination. This magical, mystical tome is an ideal dipping book for occasional slices of his raucous wit and the perfect vehicle to introduce any (definitively over 18) newcomers of your acquaintance to the world of grown up comics.

© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, 2010 R. Crumb. All Rights Reserved. Edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Bad Habits

By Norman Dog (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 0-86719-329-8/ ISBN-13: 978-0867193299

I haven’t reviewed a straight cartoon book in a dog’s age, so here’s a rare but still readily acquirable item from an outrageous comedy original and pen-pushing veteran who’s still making America laugh-out-loud – the cooler bits anyway – with his sly, cynical and fabulously skewed outlook and observations on the Human Condition and the Things We Don’t Know Yet..

Cultural commentator Norman Dog may or may not be Raymond Larrett (it’s complicated – that’s why better carbon-based life forms than you or I invented search engines). A West Coast cartoonist whose legendary – he would say “interminable” – strip has run in the East Bay Express since 1981, Dog has been capturing with laconic brilliance the bizarre panorama of modern life for all to see and disagree with…

Describing his slick, modern and excessively hip observations on Real Americans as “Comication”, Dog has been making us foreigners, Pinko Subversive Intellectuals and other weirdoes giggle and think with every exposed home secret or shared cultural reference and seems determined not to stop.

This early volume, collecting the budding best of the strip includes ‘Let’s all go… Dance Crazy!’, ‘I Was Satan’s Plaything!’, ‘The Enchanted Toothbrush’, ‘Celebrity Breakfasts!’, ‘Suicide Hotline’, ‘The Missing Father’, ‘Hey, Stupid!’, ‘Curse of the Mysterious Horror!’, ‘A Perfectly Typical Tuesday Evening at Home With Jane and Walter’, ‘Hints for Aliens’, ‘The Punk Romance’, ‘Giant Crawling Brain!’, ‘Modern Physics for Morons’, ‘Space Sluts’ amongst literally some others and delivers high-octane, occasionally lowbrow doses of premeditated mirth in devastating, delicious, full-page monochrome pastiches of a dozen different graphic styles.

Dog/Larrett, whose work has appeared in Raw Magazine, Spin, Nickelodeon Magazine, Weirdo, Anarchy Comics, The Nation and even some other places and publications, is long overdue for a big, bold book collection, but until then, converts can catch his latest full-colour efforts in the elucidatory The 37 Cartoons You Should Read Before You Die if they so wish.

Enough Soft-Sell: go read something funny…
© 1983, 1984, 1990 Norman Dog. All rights reserved.

Thunder Agents Archives volume 1

By Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-903-5

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal comics masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: wrapped up in legal wrangling and not a little petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the still-reawakening superhero genre and the popular media’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with action and glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage vehicle. 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 genre inescapably into living rooms across the world.

Wildly creative maverick Wally Wood was approached 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 wanted (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan there was the magnificent war-comic Fight the Enemy and the youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funny book – 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 such a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so 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 of we baby-boomer fans 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 lush and lustrous compilation collects issues #1-4 and covers the first golden year of the series. It all starts with a simple four page tale ‘First Encounter’ by Ivie & Wood, wherein UN commandos failed to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescued 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, a cloak of invisibility and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

These prototypes were to be 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 belt and the codename Dynamo in a delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’ (written by Len Brown, who had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag) which 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 chose to have his mind transferred into a specialised android body, then 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 and illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). However here is where the creators stepped well outside the comic-book conventions. John Janus was 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 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 elite team of non-powered specialist operatives – which predated 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 rushed to defend their Weapons Development Center from a full paramilitary assault only to discover that it’s a feint and Dynamo had been captured by the Warlord…

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

Issue #2 led again with their strongman star when ‘Dynamo Battles Dynavac’ (Brown, Wood & Richard Bassford) another colossal combat classic as the hapless hero got a severe kicking from a deadly automaton. Once again a narrative thread stretched through the disparate 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 and Wood) when an army of Zombie-men attacked a Missile Base and Menthor again defied his master to defeat a Warlord scheme to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ (again no script credit but amazingly illustrated by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before ‘D-Day for Dynamo’ (with art from Wood, Adkins & Tony Coleman) pitted the assembled heroes, reunited to rescue Alice, against Demo, the Dynavac and the Warlord in an all-out war with atomic consequences.

The series took a fantastic turn as the Warlord was revealed to be an agent of a subterranean race of conquerors, but before that the second issue still held another prose piece, ‘Junior T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’, whilst the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad responded ‘On the Double’ to a South American crisis, involving mutant monsters, Communist insurgents and bloody revolution in a classy thriller illustrated t Sekowsky/Giacoia team.

‘Dynamo Battles the Subterraneans’ drawn by Adkins, Wood & Coleman opened the third issue, as the Warlord’s macabre mole-men masters attacked Washington DC, whilst

‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Coleman) saw a far more plebian but no less deadly menace ended by the undying agent, before Dynamo almost became a propaganda victim of Communist agitator ‘The Red Dragon’ (Adkins, Wood & Coleman) and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad battled a madman who manufactured his own ‘Invaders from the Deep’ (another uncredited script pictured by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before the main event ‘Dynamo vs. Menthor’ (Wood, Adkins & Coleman) posed a terrifying mystery as a trusted agent almost destroyed the entire organisation. With captivating 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.

The Dynamo tale ‘Master of Evolution’ (written by Brown, illustrated by Wood, Adkins & Coleman) opened 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, and the same art team debuted the latest super-agent in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad saga ‘The Deadly Dust’ wherein a Nazi scientist used his time-retarding dust for evil and the heroes responded with a super-speed suit.  This first case for hyper-fast Lightning was followed by a Dynamo milestone ‘The Return of the Iron Maiden’ (drawn by Crandall, Wood & Adkins) which saw the Armoured Amorata betray her latest employer Dr. Death for the man sent to arrest her.

Finally the mystery of Menthor was partially resolved in the fast-paced thriller ‘The Great Hypno’ (illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Coleman), and of course there were more fantastic art extras in the form of NoMan and The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. pin-up pages.

These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading, and there’s never been a better time to add these landmark superhero sagas to your collection of favourites.

© 1965 John Carbonaro. All rights reserved. This edition © 2002 DC Comics.

Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan

By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-1

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first giants of comic strips, a hugely imaginative, highly skilled and well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as the medium was being born, and his pictorial creations (and even more so his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student and eventually assistant, to illustration colossus Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining the prestigious Puck in 1880, drawing everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humorist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly a forward-looking and perspicacious creator Opper first dipped his toe in the world of newspaper strips with an abortive and short-lived feature in the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration. Undeterred by the failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899.

Starting on the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, he created a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which first appeared on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

Opper never used assistants but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan and his other creations household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip Mister Henry Peck (1901) was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904.  It continued intermittently for decades and on May 23rd 1926, Maud became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded on October 14th 1932 with the artist’s retirement.

Other strips followed, The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy – or Maud – and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant was usually the inadvertent tool of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and generally the harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune. It is a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in the varying forms of colour (two, three and full colour depending presumably on the budget of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from) compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction/biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of the strips included here.

The strips themselves range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905, (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905)

and follow the simple sad-sack across after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret. As always these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered to be the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully this superb graphic appetiser will lead to further collections, and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to a compendium of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…

Published in 2009 by NBM. © not invoked.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were until relatively recently utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public – and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when it began in 1924, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through light action to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became more exotic and thrill-packed the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The two-fisted, bluff, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics, a raw, square-jawed hunk played straight rather than the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but rattled along like the tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in wild and woolly escapades set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs,

This first volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy infiltrated the hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword wielding Mongols, sultry Houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits: captivating entire families across the planet, week after addictive week.

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many strips since especially the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les turner in 1937 was the NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the pilot strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ began on 21st January 1934, and found the occidental hero bankrupted to save the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block, a chivalrous gesture that led to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethic stereotyping and casual racism were acceptable if not mandatory, the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous yank as the exploitative villain was and is a surprising delight. Rambling Jack is every inch the ugly, greedy American and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in-between…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of pictorial fiction, as Easy recruits comedy stooge ‘arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city he had spotted from the air, lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea. However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles where they encounter blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat the valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim and gritty turmoil and drama thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was a superbly irrepressible gag-man and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day. Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and clearly blazed a trail for all of them.

Using a deep sea diver’s suit the pair explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold, but when the cannibals attack their treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th -July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry witch and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion.

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy have a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble was never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935) his gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroiled the Captain in a manufactured war between two small nations.

This tale clearly addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding this yarn sees Easy become the target of Heyloff’s vengeance and the entire air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia. Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches or 21x14cm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer, a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches and a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside her best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby and led irrefutably to the creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?

Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.