Boody: the Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers


Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-961-6

The one true invention of American Comic-books is undoubtedly the super-hero, but the pervasiveness of that almighty icon has prevented the wider world from discerning what the readers, fans and collectors have always known, even if they choose nowadays to disregard: the fact that our masters and artisans have always been just as effective and creative in established genres such as crime, horror, westerns and especially comedy.

A perfect exemplar of that fact has finally had his first long overdue retrospective in this fabulous if unstructured collection from Fantagraphics: Gordon “Boody” Rogers.

Born in 1904 he began his drawing career in the 1920s after studying at the Cartoon Academy of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Chicago Institute. At this time he palled around with Harold Gray, Frank Engli, Chester Gould, and Tex Avery among many other talented art-stars in waiting. When his roommate Zack Mosely began his long-lived aviator strip Smilin’ Jack in 1933, Rogers was his assistant from day one. As a jobbing cartoonist he also worked for such magazines as Life, Judge, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post on syndicated features and gag strips like ‘Deadwood Gulch’ and ‘Possum Holler’

He was a major contributor to ‘The Funnies’ the very first comic book, published in 1936 (there’s a fascinating example, ‘Rattlesnake Pete’, from this landmark leading off the compilation) before developing his own newspaper strip ‘Sparky Watts’ in early 1939 which he wrote and drew until America joined the war, at which point he enlisted.

On his return he revived Sparky (a physical superman, sans costume, whose wild and wacky adventures were at once a spoof of the ubiquitous mystery men and a snappy, surreal satire on the American Way) for Columbia Comics and created a number of other properties, all in the comedy, teen and gag genres that rose in popularity as the costumed heroes diminished. Obviously seeing another sea-change coming, Rogers retired from the industry at age 48 to open a small chain of art shops in Arizona. He passed away in 1996.

Boody Rogers’ style of work is far more amenable to a British audience reared on Desperate Dan, Pansy Potter and the unrestrained genius of Ken Reid or Leo Baxendale than the rather anodyne fare of post-war America. His wild perambulations and freewheeling style of gag-upon-gag narrative often skirted bounds of taste (as all great humour should) and his influence, as much as Basil Wolverton and EC Comics, can be clearly seen throughout the Underground Comix revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The material collected here all comes from Sparky Watts, Babe, Dudley and the anthology title Big Shot Comics and the years 1948-1950. Although to my mind inadequately referenced (I’d love to know which stories appeared exactly when and where), the broad range of tales perfectly illustrates the kind of manic energy and absurdist invention typified by the “Screwball comedies” of the thirties and the madcap pace of the teen movement as immortalised by Bob Montana’s Archie, with arcane dialogue, quick-fire set-ups and punch-lines building one upon another. Rather than being dated, these works – at least to this old coot – have great resonance with the youth culture of today.

They’re also beautifully drawn and a total hoot.

Babe (“the Amazon of the Ozarks”) was a rustic and rambunctious take on Li’l Abner; a physically perfect hottie no man could resist – or beat –  who appeared in Big Shot and Sparky Watts Comics as well as eleven issues of her own title. Following her premiere appearance, we’re also treated to ‘Hideout’ as movie heartthrob Clark Sable tries to escape the onerous attentions of his fans by masquerading as Babe’s dowager cousin Fanny, ‘the Secret of Lighting Juice Tea’ reveals the origins of the hillbilly lass’ rude health, ‘Mrs. Gooseflesh’ is a murderous lady-wrestler who met Babe in the Canvas ring, and ‘the Mysterious Case of Mystery Mountain!’ recounts the peculiarly fetishistic lives of Ozark centaurs living on top of an isolated plateau. Fans in the know will be intrigued to discover that Bondage artist Eric Stanton began his drawing career as Rogers’ assistant…

Jasper Fudd is a prim and prudish, dim-witted yokel who unexpectedly goes to college where he discovers he can run like the wind – given the right motivation – and this was decades before Forest Gump’s mum ever got her first box of chocolates, whilst Dudley, the Prince of Prance is a excellent – if now bewildering – example of the teen oriented strip that spread like measles in the post-war years. Following the Archie/Andy Hardy model, every publisher chased the older kid market with impenetrable tales of Sock-Hops, Jalopies, music that parents couldn’t stand, young love and obnoxious siblings. Gosharootie, how things have changed…

Sparky Watts is the undisputed star, an affable everyman with amazing powers who always seems to be getting into scrapes. He doesn’t fight crime, but empowered by Cosmic Rays which tend to shrink him to microscopic sizes when they fade, he often found himself in strange places meeting the most peculiar creatures, aided (although that’s not really the correct term) by his assistant Slap Happy and the eminent Doc Static.

As well as 10 issues of his own title and the 1943 one-shot Columbia Comics, Boody’s Sparky appeared in Big Shot from #14 (June 1941) through #42, and again from #77-104, whilst other, lesser lights handled the strip during Roger’s war service. The six episodes included here are all from the post-war period but wonderfully display the surreal punch and eye for visual characterisation that exemplified Roger’s work.

This comfortingly substantial tome is a wonderful introduction to a comics master who never disappointed, working in a genre most comics fans won’t even be aware of these days. That’s their loss: don’t let it be yours…

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1


By Will Eisner, Chuck Cuidera, Reed Crandall & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-700-8

The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent and these factors also coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no fans or collectors; only a large market-place open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling. Thus, even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (better known as “Busy”) Arnold felt that Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August off-sale or cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, the Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating The Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘the Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, who then went on to bomb the farmhouse sheltering the pilot’s family. Rising from his plane’s wreckage the distraught pilot vows vengeance…

Two years later, with the Nazis in control of most of Europe Von Tepp’s unassailable position is threatened by a mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine…

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes and Cuidera stayed aboard until issue #11 – although the artist would return in later years. Many of the stories were originally untitled but have been conveniently characterized with such stirring designations as issue #2’s ‘The Coward Dies Twice’ wherein the team – “the last free men of the conquered countries” offer a deserter from a Spitfire Squadron a chance to redeem himself…

The easy mix of patriotism, adventure and slapstick was magnified by the inclusion of Chop-Chop in ‘The Doomed Squadron’: a comedy Chinaman painful to see through modern eyes, but a stock type considered almost as mandatory as a heroic leading man in those dark days, and not just in comics. At least the man was a brave and formidable fighter both on the ground and in a plane.

‘Desert Death’ took the team to Suez for the first of many memorable Arabian adventures as Nazi agitators attempted to foment a revolution among the tribesmen that would destroy the British. This tale was also notable for the introduction of a type of sexy siren beloved of Eisner and Quality Comics that would populate the strip until DC bought the property in 1957. There was also a secret map of Blackhawk Island, mysterious base of the ebon-clad freedom fighters.

With issue #5 Dick French assumed the writing role and ‘Scavengers of Doom’ tells a biting tale of battlefield looters allied to a Nazi mastermind setting an inescapable trap for the heroic fliers. More importantly French began to provide distinct and discrete characters for the previously anonymous minor players. In #6 the rapidly gelling team joined the frantic hunt for a germ weapon the Gestapo were desperate to possess in the spectacular alpine adventure ‘The Vial of Death’ whilst #7 (the first issue released after America joined the War – although the stories had not yet caught up to reality) found the boys prowling the Mongolian Steppe on horseback to thwart ‘The Return of Genghis Khan’.

‘The Sunken Island of Death’ from #8 was a striking maritime romp as the warring powers battled to possess an island freshly risen from the Atlantic depths strategically equidistant between The US, Britain and Festung Europa (that’s what the Nazis called the fortress they had made of mainland Europe). Although complete in itself it was also the first of an experimental, thematic three-part saga that stretched the way comics stories were told.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique – but real – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!” But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song which André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they dived into battle. And just to be informative and inclusive the music and lyrics were published in this issue and are re-presented here – just remember this is written for seven really tough guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Military #9 led with ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ as the team discovered that a fallen comrade did not actually die but was hideously disfigured saving them, whilst the next issue’s tale ‘Trapped in the Devil’s Oven’ was another desert adventure which focused on the new science of plastic surgery and restored said hero to full fighting trim. Issue #11, Cuidera’s last, saw the squadron turn their attention to Japan – as reality caught up with publishing schedules. Intriguingly, ‘Fury in the Philippines’ starts quietly with the entire team calmly discussing carrying on against the Nazis or switching their attentions to the Pacific Theatre of Operations, until comedy relief Chop-Chop sways the debaters with an impassioned stand. Though inarguably an offensive stereotype visually, the Chinese warrior was often given the best lines and most memorable actions. A subversive attempt to shake up those hide-bound prejudices, perhaps?

Notwithstanding, the resultant mission against the Japanese fleet was a cataclysmic Battle Royale, full of the kind of vicarious pay-back that demoralized Americans needed to see.

‘The Curse of Xanukhara’ added fantasy elements to the gritty mix of blood and iron as the team’s hunt for a stolen code book led them to occupied Borneo and even Tokyo; a classy espionage thriller that marked the start of a superlative run of thrillers illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall. The artist’s realistic line and the graceful poise of his work – especially on exotic femmes fatale and trustworthy Girls-next-door – made his strips an absolute joy to behold.

‘Blackhawk vs. The Butcher’ (#13, November 1942) written by new regular scripter Bill Woolfolk returned the team to Nazi territory as a fleeing Countess turned the team’s attention to the most sadistic Gauleiter (Nazi regional leader in charge of a conquered territory) in the German Army. What follows is a spectacular saga of justice and righteous vengeance, whilst ‘Tondeleyo’ was a different kind of thriller as an exotic siren used her almost unholy allure to turn the entire team against each other.

The quasi-supernatural overtones held firm in the stirring ‘Men Who Never Came Back’ when the team travelled to India to foil a Japanese plot, in a portmanteau tale narrated by three witches, Trouble Terror and Mystery, eerily presaging the EC horror classics that would cement Crandall’s artistic reputation more than a decade later.

‘Blackhawk vs. the Fox’ pitted the heroes against a Nazi strategic wizard (a clear reference to the epic victories of Erwin Rommel) in the burning sands of Libya, one of the most authentic battle tales in the canon, and this volume concludes with a racy tale of vengeance and tragedy as Japanese traitor Yoshi uses her wiles to punish the military government of Nippon, with Blackhawk as her unwitting tool in ‘The Golden Bell of Soong-Toy!’

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in both comics and world history, a blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado. Like the best movies of the time, Casablanca, Foreign Correspondent, Freedom Radio, Captain of the Clouds, The Day Will Dawn, The First of the Few, In Which we Serve and all the rest with their understated, overblown way of accepting duty and loss, these rousing tales of the miracles that good men can do are some of the Golden Age’s finest moments. In fact these are some of the best comics stories of their time and I sincerely wish DC had proceeded with further collections. And so will you…

© 1941-1942, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN


By Lee Falk and Fred Fredericks (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-16473-6

Regarded by many as the first American superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted on 11th June 1934 (although creator Lee Falk had first tried to sell the strip a decade previously) illustrated with effective understatement by the superb Phil Davis.

Educated at the fabled College of Magic in the Himalayas, the suave sorcerer roamed the world with his faithful African friend Lothar and his beautiful companion (and finally, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, solving crimes and fighting evil. Star of stage, screen (large and small), radio and a thousand forms of merchandising, Mandrake has always been one of the top guns of the comics powerhouse King Features Syndicate, but inexplicably has seldom had his past exploits collected or reprinted.

This mass-market paperback book from 1979 (the same year that an above-average TV pilot was aired) collects two adventures illustrated by Harold “Fred” Fredericks, who took over the art production when Davis died in 1965, and who assumed full creative duties when Falk himself passed on in 1999.

The first story (from 1976) recounts the mystic champion’s origin by way of introducing his twin brother Derek, who also grew up in the Secret College but uses his powers for tawdry self-gratification and selfish gain. The duel of the siblings was the first of many family battles which continue to this day.

The second tale sees author Falk – who also created the first Costumed hero in the guise of the Phantom – recycle one of his favourite plots as ‘Narda and the Sheik!’ finds one of the richest men in the world enraptured with the lovely princess – to the point of abducting and trying to marry her…

With a major movie lurking somewhere in production limbo this fabulous comicbook archetype looks set for a cultural revival of fortune, so let’s trust that his seventy-five year history is set for a definitive re-release soon.
© 1976, 1979, King Features Syndicate, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN 0-9710249-1-X

The third collection in the daily travails of Milton Caniff’s post-war aviation adventurer covers the period from February 8th 1949 until February 18th 1950, which those fine people at Checker have subdivided into three episodes for your convenience.

‘Operation Snowflower’ leads off the excitement and originally ran (seven days a week, mind) until May 18th. It opens with Canyon and crew anxiously awaiting news of Happy Easter and the unscrupulous Cheetah who were last seen falling out of Canyon’s plane. However the arrival of ruthless millionairess Copper Calhoon soon distracts them all as she informs them that she now also owns the company which Canyon is working for.

As the post-revolutionary Chinese Republic began to flex its muscles in the build-up to the Korean War, the ever-contemporary Caniff began weaving the snippets of research and speculative news items he scrupulously collected into the grand story unfolding on his drawing board. Ever the patriot, his opinions and pro-“Free World” stance gives some of these strips a somewhat parochial if not outright jingoistic flavour, but as with all fiction viewed through the lens of time passed, context is everything.

Unlike his unpopular stance on Vietnam two decades later, this was not an issue that divided America. However the public and officials of the USA treated Communists and “Pinkos” within their own borders, the Red Menace of Russia and China was real, immediate, and actively working against Western Interests. The real talking point here is not the extent of a creator’s percieved paranoia, but rather the restraint which Caniff showed within his strip compared to what was going on in the world outside it.

Calhoon has Canyon flying uranium ores out of the rugged mountain country, and Red agents are agitating to get the raw materials for their own arms programs. The sabotage and unrest they’ve instigated have made the task dangerous and nearly impossible. As all the hard-bitten pilots continue their task Calhoon pressgangs young Reed Kimberly into becoming a companion for the locals’ mysterious ruler – “the Crag Hag”. Keeping the natives on-side is vital and the reluctant lad is nervous about his diplomatic role, but unbeknownst to all, the fearsome sounding Empress is actually a beautiful young teenager named Snow Flower, hungry to hear about the fabulous land of America, and desperate to see anyone her own age – especially boys!

The situation grows progressively worse as the Communist-backed rebels tighten their encirclement of the capital city of Damma. The fall is a foregone conclusion and Calhoon is making her escape plans whilst her men continue their ore flights out. As the city falls she is wounded, forcing Steve to fly her to safety on the last plane out. The Princess, Reed and the imposing Soldier-of-Fortune Dogie Hogan are forced to flee on foot, in a cracking sequence, pursued by the victorious and vicious rebels. When Canyon flies a rescue mission, only the heartbroken Kimberly awaits him. Snow Flower and Hogan have returned to the mountains to organise a resistance movement to fight the Communists.

‘Dragonflies’ follows, originally running from May 19th to October 9th. Steve and the recuperating Reed are cooling their heels, fretting about their total lack of cash or work, when the larger-than-life author and lecturer Romulus Brandywine commissions Steve to fly him around the highly volatile region on a research trip, accompanied by his secretary, the sassy and capable Summer Smith.

Whilst en route from India to the China coast their plane is forced down by Communist rebels, but after much intrigue and action they escape to become part of an anti-communist Foreign Legion of Pilots fighting a holding action against the seemingly unstoppable Red Hordes: The Dragonfly Squadron of the Western Chinese faction.

As if the ongoing conflict trapping the valiant fliers were not enough grief, Steve and Summer’s mutual attraction causes friction amongst the men, but when the hero finds himself once again in a last ditch siege, there’s a pleasant surprise in store as Happy Easter turns up, leading a division of anti-Red cavalry to – temporarily – save the day.

‘Teammates’ began on October 10th 1949 and ran well into 1950 (although this book concludes with February 18th instalment). It introduces a possible rival and definite complication with the unwanted arrival of a new flier at the temporarily reprieved airbase. Doe Redwood is an air-ace who flew half-way around the world to join the fight, in a brand-new top-of-the-line fighter plane, infinitely superior to the crates the veterans use. But she’s a woman and therefore trouble…

No sooner has the dust settled from the traditional culture-clash, battle-of-the-sexes than Steve and Doe have to go undercover into Communist-held territory to liberate vitally needed parts and supplies. However the mission goes spectacularly wrong when they encounter and old friend and foe – svelte Soviet Submarine commander Captain Akoola – and her ward Convoy…

Exotic, frenetic, full of traditional values and as always, captivating in both word and picture, this is another old-fashioned, unreconstructed delight. Caniff was the master of the daily strip drama and he always will be.

© 2004, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works
© Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1949, 1950. All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

By Hergé (Egmont UK)
ISBN 10: 1-4052-2894-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-4052-2894-7

This lavish new series of editions collects the Adventures of Tintin in chronological order beginning with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which was one of the last to be released in English.

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, he created twenty three splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art. Like Charles Dickens with the Mystery of Edwin Drood, he died while working, and Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination – and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

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

On leaving school in 1925 he worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A dedicated boy-scout himself, Remi produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme. He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter when Abbot Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

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

The boy – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul, a soldier in the Belgian Army – and his dog Milou (‘Snowy’ to us Brits) reported back from the Godless Russias. The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was the foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme.

Arriving in Russia the dog and his boy are subjected to a series of attacks and tricks in a vain attempt by the Soviets to prevent the truth of their economic progress, popular feeling and world aspirations being revealed to the Free World. In a progression of fights, chases, slapstick accidents and vain attempts to bribe and corrupt him, a hint of the capable, decent and resourceful hero can be seen.

As Tintin “gets away clean” in all manner of fast machines, lovingly rendered in a stylised meta-realistic manner not yet used for the human characters (an obvious forerunner of Hergé’s Ligne Clairé drawing style) and makes his way back across Europe to his rapturous welcome in Belgium the personalities of the characters move beyond action-ciphers towards the more fully realised universal boy-hero we all know today.

The strip itself is very much a work-in-progress, primitive both in narrative and artistic execution. But amidst the simplified line, hairsbreadth chases and simplistic anti-communistic polemic there is something… an intriguing hint of things to come.

Where the first tale is simple black and white, Tintin in the Congo is much more stylistically familiar to modern readers. This tale, which originally ran in Le Petit Vingtiéme from June 1930 until June 1931, was radically restructured in 1946 for release as a collected album, and later, a page featuring a Rhino, a hand-drill and a stick of dynamite was replaced with a much funnier scene.

Still hampered by his weekly, episodic format Tintin and Snowy take ship for The Belgian Congo where they perforce have many little adventures, but also uncover a plot by Al Capone to take control of Africa’s diamond trade. This revised version features a Tintin retrofitted for both artistic and commercial reasons. By 1946 there had been thirteen full adventures and the characters were fully developed. It was both logical and preferable that new readers be presented with a consistent vision. And as Hergé had grown as both author and artist the album editions gave him an opportunity to rectify some earlier decisions that he regretted.

When producing work for a perpetual deadline not only are you trapped by the urgent need to finish and move on, but you are imprisoned in the context of your own times. When ‘The Congo’ ran in 1930-1931, representations of ethnicities and more importantly the attitudes of a Belgium that was still a Colonial Power informed the text and probably influenced the Catholic newspaper that paid for the strip. In later years Hergé admitted to deeply regretting much of his early work, and took every opportunity to repair it.

A scene in which natives are taught that they are happy Belgians was gladly replaced with a maths lesson and many images and scenes were subtly altered to enhance the standing and image of native Africans. The recent controversy regarding ethnic depictions in historical comics (and remember this tale is seventy-seven years old) seems doubly cynical and politically self-serving when one considers that Hergé was rectifying what he saw as racial slurs in the 1940s whilst modern society only acknowledged there might be a problem less than thirty years ago. For every black African waving a spear and shield in this story there’s another in a suit, a uniform or tee shirt.

These two adventures might be faux-controversial but they are also highly readable, joyous, thrilling, exuberant and deeply informative for any fan of the comic strip medium. And although they can be read singly, since Hergé was an early proponent of extended continuity, the early tales are actually necessary reading if you want a better understanding of the Tintin masterpieces to come.

But I do have one wistful caveat…

Many older readers were exposed to these stories in gorgeous, brilliantly coloured, oversized editions – myself included – and I wish these lovely little hardbacks weren’t quite so little, and were a bit less muted in the colour reproduction. Nothing blows a kid away quite as much as turning a big page and seeing a great big superbly rendered image.

Still, these new editions do fit in a jacket pocket…

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets: artwork © 1999Editions Casterman, Paris& Tournai.
Text ©1999, 2007Casterman/Moulinsart. All Rights Reserved.
Tintin in the Congo: artwork © 1946, 1974 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 2005 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1947

Steve Canyon 1947 

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN 0-9710249-9-5

After leaving the incredibly successful and world-renowned Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip Milton Caniff created another iconic comic hero in the demobbed World War II pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage. Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious Orient could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write “Romeo and Juliet” as a young man, but needed more than passion and genius to produce “King Lear”.

Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a long period of public anticipation following a very conspicuous resignation from Terry. Always a master of suspense and adept at manipulating his reader’s attention, Caniff’s eponymous hero didn’t actually appear until January 16th (and then only in a ‘file photograph’). The public first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, bomber pilot, medal winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent charter airline operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.

By then eager readers had glimpsed his friends and future enemies, how acquaintances felt about him and even been introduced to ultra-rich and super-spoiled Copper Calhoun, the latest in a startlingly long line of devastating Femme Fatales created by Caniff to bedevil his heroes and captivate his audiences. And the magic promptly began.

This series of collections from Checker represents the strip in yearly segments and this one begins as Calhoun manoeuvres Canyon’s Horizons Unlimited charter line into flying her to countries where her pre-war holdings were disrupted, only to encounter deadly peril from both strangers and trusted employees. There’s also a goodly helping of old fashioned intrigue, jealousy and racketeering in the mix too.

The action and tragedy lead directly to an encounter with a couple of deadly female con-artists in ‘Delta’, and a gripping, yet light-hearted romp in the booming petroleum industry in ‘Easter’s Oil’ – which introduces the off-the-wall supporting character Happy Easter and the lascivious Madame Lynx, who would play such large and charismatic roles in the strip’s future.

The first volume ends with ‘Jewels of Africa’, a classic of suspense with the modern day pirate and Wrecker Herr Splitz falling foul of our heroes in a world rapidly becoming a hotbed of International tension. As Caniff’s strip became more and more a compass of geo-political adventure, his skill with human drama became increasingly mature and intense. This was comic strip noir that was still irresistible to a broad spectrum of readers. And that’s as true now as it was then. Steve Canyon is magnificent comic art at its two-fisted best.

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

Flash Gordon Volume 2

Flash Gordon Volume 2 

By Alex Raymond (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 0-9741-6646-4

The second irresistible collection of the immortal Flash Gordon’s adventures sees Alex Raymond and co-writer Don Moore introduce a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over. In Sunday Comics pages that ran in newspapers from April 21st 1935 until October 11th 1936 (generously sub-divided into ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’, ‘At War with Ming’ and ‘Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ for your ease and delectation) we can experience the sheer beauty and drama that captivated the world, producing not only some of the world’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books and more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series is enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s futurism endlessly accesses and refines the picture perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo, wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all out war with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come – and the volume ends as the heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. True, there is the merest hint of formula in the plots, but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…

© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-721-X

The second Titan volume collecting the adventures of Britain’s Greatest Action Hero (Female Division) expands the supporting cast whilst dropping Blaise and her devoted urbane psychopath partner Willie Garvin into the heroin trade pipeline and the then escalating Viet Nam conflict to deal with the eponymous oriental master criminal. The action is rational as well as gripping and there is more character development in this forty year old strip, served up in 3 panels per day continuity than most modern comic books can manage in entire issues. Only 100 Bullets on its best day even comes close. Modesty Blaise keeps her cool and her mystique in every manner of hairsbreadth situation and surely the charismatic Garvin is the prototype for all those “tortured, civilised beast” funnybook anti-heroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher – though he’s never yet been bettered.

The strip’s horizons broaden exotically in the second story, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” as the duo complete, with their usual lethal dispatch, the mission of a murdered friend. Said chum fell foul of a spy ring employing a psychic to steal state secrets, but the villains never expected the likes of the reformed super-crooks to cross their paths. Following that, they return to more mundane menaces with a blood-curdling battle of wits and weaponry against mobster vice-lord “Uncle Happy” and his sadistic trophy bimbo/wife.

As always, O’Donnell’s writing is dry, crisp and devilishly funny, accepting that readers want a thrill-ride but never assuming anything less than intellect and not a hormone balance drives his audience.

Jim Holdaway’s art went from strength to strength at this time, scenes plastered with just enough detail when required, but never drowning the need to set mood and tone with dashing swathes of dark and light. On a newspaper page these panels would jump out and cosh your eyeballs, so the experience is doubly delightful on nice crisp white pages.

Absolutely Recommended.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Jack Cole and Plastic Man 

By Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd

(Chronicle Books)  ISBN 0-8118-3179-5

This eccentric tribute to the genius of cartoonist Jack Cole combines all the love and design skills of Spiegelman and Kidd with innovative print and paper techniques, a sharp biography and heart-felt appreciation of this inspired and tragic creator, and a wonderful selection of complete story reprints from Cole’s incredible fund of work.

The comic sections, printed of artificially browned newsprint — for that old comic feel — include The Eyes Have It (Police Comics #22, 1943), Burp the Twerp (Police Comics #29, 1944), Sadly-Sadly (Plastic Man #20, 1949), Plague of the Plastic People and Woozy Winks on Dopi Island (both from Plastic Man #22, 1950) and the legendary, if not infamous, Murder, Morphine and Me from True Crime Comics #1 (1947) cited often and tellingly by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his attacks on comics in the 1950s.

Although he would probably hate it said, Jack Cole is one of the key innovators in the field of comics and strip cartoons and this book is a fine tribute. Let’s get it reprinted right now!

Edition © 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Text © 2001 Art Spiegelman