The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969


By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-78565-325-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Truly Traditional Licence to Thrill… 9/10

There are sadly few British newspaper strips that can rival the influence and impact of the classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon, let alone Blondie, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye – and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good. You should really read them if you haven’t yet…

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? Garth? I’d hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names.

Until the 1950’s…

Something happened in the Britain of the New Elizabethans – and I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did. Now we’re moving on.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics got carried along on the wave. Eagle, Lion, the regenerated Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into visually receptive high gear… and so did daily newspapers at a time when print was everyone’s major source of staying in touch with the world…

Thanks to another canny and comforting luxury repackaging – just in time for the Christmas presents rush! – I can once more communally reminisce about one of British strip-cartooning’s greatest triumphs, since Titan Books have a new addition to their line of lavish, oversized (294 x 277 mm) monochrome compilations of Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond.

Debut 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and subsequently serialised in the Daily Express from 1958: initiating a sequence of paperback novel adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence (a jobbing writer for American features who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) signed on for The Man with the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the authorial canon to strip format.

When that mission was accomplished, Lawrence was invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s ultimate demise in 1983.

Illustration of the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky provided art the until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and – although perhaps lacking in vivacity – the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily coped with the astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members…

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who also debuted on Golden Gun; instituting a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane vim and verve of the 1960’s. Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express ceased carrying Bond and the then-running case suddenly switched to The Sunday Express (from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

Here, however, the heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death is at an all-time high in this addictively accessible fourth volume which finds the creators on top form as they reveal how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe and highly entertained…

The frantic derring-do and dark, deadly last-ditch double-dealings commence once superstar screenplay writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough; Die Another Day; Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace; Skyfall and Spectre as well as Johnny English) share some secrets and observations in their Introduction ‘Adapting Bond’.

Then ‘Octopussy’ (Daily Express 14th November 1966 – 27th May 1967) unfolds: a classic Ian Fleming tale. Originally a short story, under the skilful hands of Lawrence & Horak, a simple smuggling caper in the West Indies blossoms into a complex tale of Nazi Gold, murdered agents and exotic deaths in exotic locales as Bond pits his wits against deplorable rogue Major Smythe….

Bowing to the wave of popularity caused by the blockbuster films of the time, there are even a few Q Branch gadgets on offer. Horak excels at the extended underwater sequences and the action is frenetic and non-stop. Moreover, thanks to the enlarged landscape pages of this edition, every picturesque detail is there to be drooled over…

The sea also plays a major role in ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ (29th May – 16th December 1967) which details the true fate of a new Royal Navy robot weapon which seemingly fails but has in fact been stolen by flamboyant millionaire and career sadist Milton Krest. At his most dashing undercover best, Bond infiltrates the wealthy sicko’s glamorous circle in a terrific tale full of innovation and intrigue. You won’t believe how many ways there are to kill with fish!

Having exhausted Fleming’s accumulated prose canon, all-original material begins with ‘The Harpies’ (4th October 1968 – 23rd June 1969) as Bond adopts he persona of ex-copper Mark Hazard to infiltrate defence contractor Simon Nero’s factory and rescue a kidnapped scientist whilst seeking to end the depredations of a deadly gang of female flying bandits.

Here Horak’s extreme design style and dynamic lines impart tremendous energy to scenes that must labour under the incredibly difficult restrictions of the 3-panel-a-day newspaper format.

Wrapping up the sinister espionage shenanigans is Lawrence’s second addition to 007 lore – and what a cracker it is! In ‘River of Death’ (24th June – 29th November 1969) Bond must penetrate the Amazon River stronghold of a maniacal oriental scientist and former Red Chinese torturer Dr. Cat. This latest madman is supplying trained animals to international criminals for the purposes of robbery, espionage and murder…

Horak’s intense illustration is approaching a career peak here and easily copes with action, mood, cutting edge science, beautiful women and exotic locales as diverse as the Alps, sultry Rain Forests, London’s underworld and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s masterful creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. That’s what dictates how you respond to the latest movie, game or novel. Here, however, is James Bond at his suave and savage best and as close to his original conception and roots as you will ever find.

Fast, furious action, masses of moody menace, sharply clever dialogue and a wealth of exotic locales and ladies make this an unmissable adjunct to the Bond mythos and a collection no fan can do without. After all, nobody does it better…

Octopussy © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1966. The Hildebrand Rarity © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1967. The Harpies © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1969. River of Death © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd. 1969. James Bond and 007 are ™ of Danjaq LLC used under licence by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969 will be published on November 24th and is available for pre-order now.

The Baker Street Peculiars


By Roger Langridge, Andrew Hirsh & Fred Stresing (KaBOOM!)
ISBN: 978-1608869282 (PB)             eISBN: 978-1-61398-599-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fresh New Romp to Enjoy Forever After… 9/10

Roger Langridge is a very talented gentleman with a uniquely beguiling way of telling stories. He has mastered every aspect of the comics profession from lettering (Dr. Who) to writing (Thor: The Mighty Avenger) to illustration (Knuckles the Malevolent Nun, Zoot!).

When he combines them (Fred the Clown, Popeye, Abigail and the Snowman), the approbation, accolades and glittering prizes such as Eisner and Harvey Awards can’t come fast enough.

He is also a bloody genius at making folk laugh…

The Baker Street Peculiars started life as an all-ages comicbook miniseries before being gathered in a titanic detective tome and craftily references a glittering reservoir of cool concepts encompassing the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, 1930s London, cosy crime mysteries, kid gangs and rampaging monster movies. Moreover, thanks to Langridge’s keen ear for idiom and slang, every page resonates with hilarious dialogue any lover of old films or British sitcoms will find themselves helplessly chortling over – if not actually joining in with…

Blimey, Guv’ner!

Illustrated by Andy Hirsch (Science Comics: Dogs, Varmints, Adventure Time, Regular Show) and coloured by the inestimable Fred Stresing, ‘The Case of the Cockney Golem’ opens in foggy old 1933 London Town, which is currently enduring an odd spot of bother. Exceedingly odd…

‘A Beast in Baker Street’ reveals that famous statues are going missing. Now, as one of the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square comes to life and bolts away down Charing Cross Road -unlike the crowds rushing about in panic – three wayward children (and a dog) chase after it. Soon they are embroiled in the story of a lifetime… perhaps several lifetimes…

Tailor’s granddaughter Molly Rosenberg, orphan street thief Rajani Malakar and neglected filthy rich posh-boy Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport (and his canine valet Wellington) are all out long after bedtime and keen on a spot of adventure.

Having individually chanced upon the commotion, they spontaneously unite to doggedly track the animated absconder to Baker Street where they enjoy a chance encounter with a legendary investigator…

Molly is especially intrigued: she has read all the exploits of the famous consulting detective. When he rubbishes their claim of moving statues – and claims to be too busy with other cases – she angrily suggests they act as his assistants. The detective complies, but is actually hiding an incredible secret not even his fanciful new deputies could ever imagine…

As Molly’s grandfather suffers another visit from thugs running an extortion racket for the nefarious Chippy Kipper “the Pearly King of Brick Lane”, the kids’ bizarre quest continues in ‘The Lion, the Lord and the Landlady’ after the junior sleuths meet up at 221B Baker Street. Although consoled with a fine meal, they are disappointed to find their hoped-for mentor absent.

Receiving further instructions from the great detective’s elderly cook Mrs. Hudson, the youthful team learn that Mr Holmes believes the statues are simply being stolen and that he wishes the dauntless children to post guard on Boadicea at Westminster Bridge and Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square…

Their sentinel duty bears strange fruit, however, as East End thugs perform a strange and dangerous ritual and the beloved tourist attractions come to menacing life. As the kids follow the ambulatory landmarks back to Kipper’s hideout, Molly strives to recall a story her grandfather used to tell her: a fable about a Rabbi in old Prague who used a scroll to bring a giant avenging clay statue to life…

As the colossal Chippy shares his own unique origins with his army of thugs and sculptures the youngsters sneak in but are quickly captured. Stuck in a cell they can only watch in horror as Kipper uses ancient magic to make a new kind of monster…

‘The Old, Hard Cell’ brings the plot to a bubbling boil as the terrified tykes swallow simmering resentments and work together to escape their predicament, even as elsewhere, other, more mature truth-seekers are forced to change their stubbornly-held opinions…

Someone else with a keen eye and suspicious mind is enterprising lady journalist Hetty Jones of The Mirror. Her own patient, diligent enquiries have brought her to Baker Street in time to collaborate with the aged detective-in-charge. With all eventualities except the impossible exhausted, the grown-ups must accept the truth and soon track down the missing lion. It’s probably too late though, since an army of animated marble and bronze artefacts are rampaging through London towards the East End, with only three kids (and a dog) ready to confront them…

With Chippy Kipper in the vanguard, the chilling regiment invades Molly’s home turf but ‘The Battle of Brick Lane’ is no one-sided affair. The plucky tyke has remembered the secret of the Rabbi’s Golem and has conceived a daring stratagem to immobilise the monstrous invaders. As for Kipper’s human thugs, they’ve underestimated the solidarity of hundreds of poor-but-honest folk pushed just a bit too far…

And when the dust settles, Sherlock Holmes has one last surprise for his squad of juvenile surrogates…

Adding to the charm and cheer is a cover-&-variants gallery by Hirsch and Hannah Christenson, sketch and design feature ‘Meet the Peculiars’ and a delicious sequence of all-Langridge strips starring his unique interpretation of the Great Detective in ‘The Peculiar Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’.

Reverently refencing and spoofing beloved old films and our oh-so-idiosyncratic manners and parlance with a loving ear for an incongruous laugh, The Baker Street Peculiars is a sheer triumph of spooky whimsy, reinventing what was great about classic British storytelling.

Fast, funny, slyly witty and with plenty of twists, it is an absolute delight from start to finish and another sublime example of comics at its most welcoming.

Don’t be surprised if it turns up as a movie or BBC TV special one of these days…
™ & © 2016 Roger Langridge & Andrew Hirsch All rights reserved.

Dope


Adapted by Trina Robbins from the novel by Sax Rohmer (It’s Alive/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-957-8

The 1980s were a hugely fertile time for American comics-creators. An entire new industry started with the birth of the Direct Sales market and – as dedicated specialist retail outlets sprung up all over the country (operated by fans for fans) – new companies experimented with formats and content whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Most importantly, much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma finally dissipated. America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real actual art-form able to handle sophisticated themes and notions…

Consequently, many new publishers were soon competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material had been creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Capital, Now, Comico, Vortex, First, Dark Horse and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and too often, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success it warranted.

At the forefront of the revolution – and a perfect example – was publisher Eclipse Comics who entered the arena at the start in 1981 with a black-&-white anthology magazine, quickly followed up by a terrific line of genre titles crafted by the industry’s top talents and emerging superstars.

Although the fledglings were gone a decade later, their influence lives on, as does much of the material they originally released, picked up, reprinted and expanded upon by more fortunate successors…

The latest long-overdue returnee is a decades-anticipated and awaited (by me at the very least) cartoon compilation of a scarce-remembered book adaptation. The inspirational tome was a scandalous classic of crime and debauchery from a semi-mythical era penned by Sax Rohmer who is mostly remembered for inventing the ultimate personification of stranger-danger Fu Manchu.

Starting its serialised run in oversized monochrome anthology Eclipse (The) Magazine and concluding in the pages of full-colour indie anthology Eclipse Monthly, Sax Rohmer’s Dope was deftly adapted by pioneering cartoonist Trina Robbins, beginning in the second issue (July 1981) and featuring all the rest until the 8th and final one (January 1983). Uncompleted, the saga continued and climaxed over the first three issues of Eclipse Monthly (August – October 1983) before promptly vanishing from view despite its magazine stablemates such as Ms. Tree, I Am Coyote, Ragamuffins, Masked Man and others all going on to greater success – and collected editions…

Here then at last is Trina Robbins’ lost masterpiece: a moody interpretation of a rather infamous and groundbreaking book – sensationally based on the first recorded celebrity death due to drugs abuse and available as a sturdy monochrome hardback or digital edition…

The stark shenanigans are preceded by an effusive Foreword from artist and publisher C. Spike Trotman, and a revelatory, reminiscing Introduction by Robbins herself, disclosing the origins of her adaptation whilst confronting head-on the dreadful truth: Dope was a book of its time, unashamedly racist, as was its author.

Trina then makes a rock solid and potently valid case for why we elevated 21st centurians should read it anyway…

The astounding black-&-white shocker opens in ‘London, 1919’ as sound fellow Quentin Gray meets up with fellow swells Mrs. Irvin and her raffish companion Sir Lucien Pyne before being introduced to the seductive and tantalising half-world of the High Society drugs scene as disseminated through the machinations of ostensible perfume trader Sheikh El Kazmah

It’s the same old story: flighty Rita Irvin has succumbed to addiction but has no more money. Yet still she baulks when the seedy dealer suggests another manner of payment…

‘Chapter Two: The Fatal Cigarette’ opens a little later when Quentin greets formidable government official Commissioner Seton (recently returned from the east where he earned the title “Pasha” for his services to the Empire). The wise authoritarian has come to view the recently expired corpse of Pyne: stabbed to death soon after Gray left him and now lying in Kazmah’s apartments. Of Rita there is no sign…

On later meeting Rita’s physician Dr. Margaret Halley, Quentin’s disquiet grows. The boldly modern young woman even demands he throw away the cigarettes Pyne gave him before she speaks further. Of course, he had no idea until she warned him that they were laced with opium…

‘Chapter Three: A Star is Born – and Falls’ relates the sad tale of rising theatrical sensation Rita Dresden and how the nightly pressures of performing were temporarily assuaged by the scheming Pyne who offered her comfort and calming chemical gifts: comforts that she soon could not do without…

Rita’s fall retroactively continues in ‘Chapter Four: Pipe Dreams’ as she is introduced into a dope ring of well-heeled degenerates: attending the “poppy parties” of Mr. Cyrus Kilfane and encountering the striking and sinister Lola Sin

Fleeing that debauched debacle, Rita literally ran into well-meaning Monte Irvin and was almost saved.

Almost…

Chapter Five: Limehouse Blues’ relates how the triply-addicted (veronal, cocaine and opium) Rita decides to marry Monte but cannot shake the corrupting influence of Pyne, his circle of privileged peers and the implacable beast her addiction has become…

Even her marriage proves no bulwark and ‘Chapter Six: To the Brink’ sees the new bride drawn into a cycle of abuse and exploitation as Madame Sin and her enigmatic husband fleece the newlywed and seek to use her to expand their clientele…

Events rush towards a sordid yet inevitable conclusion in ‘Chapter Seven: Mollie Gets Amorous’ as Gray, Seton and formidable Police Chief Inspector Kerry close in on the poppy club and the nefarious dealers; leading to a daring Limehouse raid in Chapter Eight: A Visit to Sin’ with shocking disclosures in Chapter Nine: Above and Below’ and the exposing of even darker secrets and an intoxicating conclusion in Chapter Ten: The Song of Sin Sin Wa’

Following an in insightful Afterword from groundbreaking cartoonist Colleen Doran, Jon B. Cooke offers a wealth of background and historical context in ‘Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril’: describing the nativity of Rohmer’s novel and the very real scandal of London actress and Society ingenue Billie Carleton whose death from a cocaine overdose rocked the Empire and beyond in 1918.

The photo-filled feature section also offers “Background Dope” sidebars on Rohmer’s ‘The Red Kerry Mysteries’, ‘Her Other Drugs of Choice’, ‘Slumming in the East End’ and ‘The Devil Doctor in Comics’ as well as a captivating ‘Trina Robbins Biographical Sketch’ and other contributors.

Potent, innovative, powerful and – in comicbook terms at least – a damned fine read, Dope is a sheer delight no lover of the graphic medium should miss and this hard-hitting stylish hardback may be the best thing you’ll buy this year.
Dope © 1981-2017 Trina Robbins. Foreword © 2017 C. Spike Trotman. “Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril”, Trina Robbins bio © 2017 Jon B. Cooke. Afterword © 2017 Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Killing Game


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78565-300-1

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

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

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

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

From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the dynamic duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a never-ending succession of tense suspense and inspirational action for more than half a century. And now this final 30th collected paperback album completes their astounding run of newspaper strip escapades leaving us dedicated devotees delighted and simultaneously bereft…

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

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

The series has been syndicated world-wide and Modesty has starred in numerous prose novels, short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play, an original American graphic novel from DC, a serial on BBC Radio 4 and in nearly one hundred comic adventures until the strip’s conclusion in 2001 with the trio of titanic tales collected in this volume.

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

Reproduced in stark and stunning monochrome – as is only right and fitting – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulously chronological serial re-presentations of the ultimate cool trouble-shooters conclude here, with O’Donnell & Romero offering three last masterpieces of mood, mystery, mayhem and macabre mirth. The high-octane drama is preceded by a brace of preambles: affecting reminiscence ‘Modesty and Me’ from O’Donnell’s grandson Paul Michael and the true secret of writing the perfect comic strip in the author’s own ‘All in the Mind’, penned before his death in 2010.

The pulse-pounding pictorial perils premiere with ‘The Last Aristocrat’ (originally running in The Evening Standard from December 16th 1999-19th May 2000), as old – and mostly unwanted – acquaintance Guido the Jinx embroils Willie, Sir Gerald and Modesty in his last journalistic scoop.

Sadly, the stakes this time are terrifyingly high, as a former criminal rival returns selling grotesque bacterial weapons of mass destruction forcing the dynamic duo to infiltrate an island fortress to prevent a disastrous terrorist coup…

As ever each tale is introduced by a connected celebrity: Daphne Alexander who plays Modesty in the BBC radio series adds her thoughts to the first and final adventures whilst eponymous central story ‘The Killing Game’ (22nd May June-October 17th) benefits from the insights of Radio Drama Producer Kate MCall.

Here Modesty and Willie are abducted from an innocent British Church Fete by a cabal of ultra-rich, exceedingly jaded “sportsmen” (and woman), intent on spicing up their annual safari by including the proverbial Most Dangerous Game on their private tropical preserve and in their sights…

Marooned in New Guinea, our heroes experience a debilitating setback when they find a stray teenager and her newborn baby obliviously squatting in the killing fields, but as always, Modesty and Willie are up to the challenge and soon turn predators into prey…

The themes shift to criminal skulduggery and doomsday cults – with just a hint of bloody vengeance – in ‘The Zombie’ (October 10th 2000 to April 11th 2001) as an old associate from Modesty’s Network days is kidnapped for use as leverage…

What seems to be a simple turf war between gangs squabbling for markets get decidedly nasty and strange as the kidnappers are revealed as adherents of computer pioneer Professor Nicomede Katris, whose dream is to replace all the world’s fallible, venal governments with an incorruptible super-computer of his own design.

He knows he’s right: after all, his years of programming his doctrines have transformed his own daughter Leda into a coldly logical killing machine and ideal tool of societal transformation.

The wily Prof only ever made two mistakes: ordering his human zombie to guard empathic, charming abductee Danny Chavasse and presuming he could extrapolate and predict the actions of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin when they inevitably come for their friend…

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

And, hopefully, now that the entire saga has been compiled, we can soon expect sturdy hardback deluxe collections in the manner of the companion James Bond volumes…
Modesty Blaise © 2017 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Scalped Vol 1: Indian Country


By Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra (DC Comics/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1317-6

The Western is a tricky genre to pin down: all at once infinitely re-inventible, compellingly human and shockingly mythic. The genre also enjoys a chameleonic gift for subsuming the unique memes and tropes of other forms of story-making and pitting them against each other.

There are horror westerns, space westerns, comedy westerns and – because time and location aren’t key to our definition – especially crime stories that can be fully acknowledged as being pure Cowboys and Indians…

These revelations have always been best explored in the relatively recent phenomenon of “grim and gritty” comics. Initially the preserve of Good-Guys-In-Tights savagely slaughtering really bad folk instead of arresting them, now the tarnished grime of über-realism can be seen where it belongs – in tales of darkly desperate people facing their greatest challenges.

You don’t need a history degree to know that Native Americans have had a pretty crap time since Europeans colonized their country. However, in recent decades lip-service and guilt have been turned into some minor concessions to the most disadvantaged ethnicity in the USA, and contemporary Federal mandates that allow gambling on officially designated Indian Land have meant a cash bonanza for various tribes on reservations throughout the country. The Indians are getting rich.

Well, some of them are…

Disenchanted son of a 1970s Native American activist, Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from the desolate squalor of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation as soon as he turned fifteen. Now he’s back and although there’s a snazzy new casino, “the Rez” is still a hell-hole and sordid Demilitarized Zone where his people subsist in crushing poverty, still prey to every self-destructive social toxin money or favours can buy or bestow.

Reluctantly Dash takes a sheriff’s job, but he knows he’s actually just another leg-breaker for current Tribal Leader and fully-installed crime boss Lincoln Red Crow. Still, whilst wiping out rival drug and booze gangs for his brooding boss, he is slowly growing closer to the all-powerful Indian Godfather…

The job even provides a number of tantalising, too-tempting fringe benefits, which facilitate Bad Horse finally getting to really know the former rebel who was once his mother’s closest ally in the all-but-forgotten freedom movement.

And that’s good. After all, that’s why the FBI planted him there in the first place…

As concocted by writer Jason Aaron and potently limned by R.M. Guéra, this slow-boiling saga is seedy, violent, overtly sexual and ferociously compelling: a darkly brutal, modern-day Western Noir.

The oddly familiar yet fiercely exotic locale and painfully unchanging foibles of people on the edge make this tale an instant classic and one still available as a either trade paperback or eBook.

Scalped: Indian Country is an uncompromising thriller that hits hard, hits often and hit home. Best of all, it’s just the opening salvo in a lengthy sequence of compulsive confrontations and unwrapped mysteries so why not hold on to your hat and jump right in?
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Rajko Milošević. All Rights Reserved.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent


By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-822-1

The son of a diplomat and irrefutable True Gent, John Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a teaching post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and legendary weekly comic The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950 Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a glossy new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Mesmerised children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day as well as a plethora of strips illustrating some of their favourite radio shows.

The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome folio was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him.

Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue #19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember – an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in #16.

Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and deftly repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war. In gentler times the bumbler with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and often macabre adventure blended seamlessly with sly yet cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham…

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as demonstrated elsewhere by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent, or Sexton Blake somehow endeared the arrogant, posturing buffoon to a young public which would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense, sharp, edgy inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are anachronistic echoes and nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘brooding, lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

This too-slim, oversized (324 x 234mm x) paperback compilation is all that’s readily available these days, but surely in these days of electronic publishing some enterprising fan with a complete Eagle Collection can link up with a perspicacious publisher someway, somehow and produce a comprehensive compilation of the nation’s most self-lauded sleuth?

I know a lot of aging 10-year olds and their grandchildren who would leap at the chance to see the old team back in action…
Harris Tweed © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

Kelly Green volume 1: The Go-Between


By Leonard Starr & Stan Drake (Dargaud International)
ISBN: 978-2-205-06574-2

After years of crafting superb – if thematically anodyne – wholesome family comic strips, two of America’s most gifted graphic storytellers were given the chance to work on a far more adult and potentially controversial feature with no creative restrictions. The result was the second-best female adventurer (after Modesty Blaise) in comics history.

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began a long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comicbooks, before transiting to legitimacy by working in advertising and eventually settling in the challenging but acceptable arena of newspaper strips.

Starr cut his teeth on Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular yet now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, perfected his skills drawing stories for Simon & Kirby’s landmark Romance line and crime stories for EC, and freelanced extensively for ACG and DC Comics until he left the industry for Madison Avenue.

He returned to graphic narrative in 1955 when he ghosted newspaper monolith Flash Gordon.

In 1957 he created On Stage, a soap-opera strip starring aspiring actress Mary Perkins for The Chicago Tribune. He left the globally syndicated feature in 1979 to revive Harold Gray’s legendary landmark Little Orphan Annie (continuing until his retirement in 2000), whilst simultaneously creating ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine.

An experienced TV scripter since 1970, Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comicbooks in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965. He died in 2015.

Stan Drake (1921-1997) was another vastly experienced cartoonist who began his career in the 1940s. His two most famous series are the superbly compelling romantic drama-strip The Heart of Juliet Jones (co-created in 1953 and initially written by Elliot Caplin) and the iconic Blondie which he took over illustrating in 1984.

Drake started drawing career for the pulps, specifically Popular Detective and Popular Sports, before moving on to newly formed Timely Comics and The Black Widow. His path was briefly diverted in 1941 after he enlisted in the US Army, and when hostilities ceased he also worked in advertising until 1953 and the regular pay-check of Juliet Jones. In September 1956, Drake barely survived the road accident which took the life of Alex Raymond, but was soon quickly back at his drawing board.

In the late 1970s he began Pop Idols – a syndicated series of celebrity biographies – whilst still working on Juliet Jones (which he left in 1989) and Blondie (which he drew until his death in 1997). During that incredibly productive time – between 1982 and 1988 – he found the odd moment to work on Kelly Green as well as the occasional job for Marvel Comics.

To relax, he painted portraits of his cartoonist friends (now on display in the Comic Artists Museum in Sarasota, Florida). He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for 1969, 1970, and 1972 for The Heart of Juliet Jones.

So, who is Kelly Green?

Debuting in 1981 as a black-&-white serial in legendary French magazine Pilote, the comics serial was a boldly contemporary antiheroic drama, with a deft, light tone and grimly mature themes. Within a year, colour Kelly Green albums were flying off shelves across Europe, and eventually in the English-speaking world, too.

The eponymous lead is a woman with a past. Literally cursed by her looks, Kelly is a stunning redhead men would kill and die for. She only escaped her traumatic, mysterious history and foredoomed future when she married Dan Green, a respected New York cop.

Tragically her comfortable redemptive world comes crashing down when he’s set-up by one of his own superiors and killed during a high-profile raid…

Devastated, Kelly is pulled out of a suicidal depression by Spats Cavendish, Jimmy Delocke and the man-mountain called “Meathooks”: three career felons the straight-shooting cop had not only busted but then successfully rehabilitated.

Owing their new lives to the dead hero, this trio of honourable rogues take the grieving, angry widow under their collective wing, teaching her all the tricks of survival in a dirty world and even finding her a new occupation…

Despising the criminals that Dan fought and who finally murdered him, but loathing even more the corrupt police force that orchestrated his death, the bereft woman becomes a professional “Go-Between”: a paid intercessionary navigating the gulf dividing crooks and victims who don’t want police involvement. Apparently, this liaising job is completely legal and there’s never a shortage of clients…

Her first case involves paying off a blackmailer and safely retrieving his damaging “evidence” for a prominent Miami millionaire, but in a dazzling blur of twists and counter-twists the job leads to the murderer of her beloved husband in a tense, terse thriller full of drama and action, and brimming with humour and good old-fashioned style.

This beautifully executed crime thriller is still powerful, gritty stuff, and strictly for grown-ups (it was tailored to European tastes and sensibilities so there’s lots of lovingly rendered nudity and even “adult situations”).

Copies of all 4 paperback albums are still readily available and a hardcover complete collection was released in 2016, so Going Green is not that difficult, although dedicated disciples of digital editions are still going to have to wait a little longer until they can share the wealth of comics wonderment on display here.
© 1982 Dargaud Editeur. All right reserved.

Pride of a Decent Man


By T.J. Kirsch (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-120-8

Although the world still generally thinks of graphic novels as a source of frenetic, all-out adventure and outrageous high drama (often cloaked in weird metal, leather, rubber or plastic outfits) the truth is that the medium is simply a potently effective method of telling all sorts of stories in both words and pictures.

That means the heroes aren’t always larger than life. Sometimes, in their own minds antagonists and protagonists are barely life-sized at all…

T.J. Kirsch started out as a colourist at Archie Comics, before creating his own comics for Oni Press (Lost and Found) and Image (Outlaw Territory) and branching out into book illustration (She Died in Terrebonne with Kevin Church and So Buttons by Jonathan Baylis).

In this compact (235 x 156 mm) full-colour hardback (also available as an eBook), he skilfully demonstrates his own grasp of compelling visual storytelling in a seductively sedate, powerfully evocative and poignantly human-scaled fable of a guy with no hope and the odds stacked against him from the get-go…

In the hind-end of New England, Andrew Peters is back in the old home town after time spent in prison. He escaped from an abusive home the way most kids do: falling in with the wrong crowd. Andy was always thoughtful and contemplative and moved beyond beatings and daily frustrations by keeping journals.

Andy loved to write, and after he got caught trying to rob the local Safe-Mart he had plenty of opportunity. Girlfriend Jess vanished about the time constant crony Whitey talked Andy into pulling the job with him, but Whitey’s dad had connections and only Peters went away.

Now he’s back and just coasting, but everything changes when he thinks he sees Jess.

In fact, it’s the daughter he never knew he had…

Now utterly determined to be better and do better, Andy resolves to start his life over, but even in the sleepiest of towns and armed with the best of intentions, the sins of the past can exert an irresistible pressure…

Sleek, simple and seemingly straightforward, Pride of a Decent Man offers a thoughtful and totally immersive glimpse of a life both remarkable and inescapably pedestrian: a reflection on common humanity and day-to-day existence with all the lethal pitfalls they conceal and joys they promise.

A superb slice of modern fiction that should quench the thirst of all ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter, here is a real story of authentic people in extraordinary circumstances. This is the kind of tale diehard fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about…
© 2017 T.J. Kirsch. All rights reserved

Athos in America


By Jason, coloured by Hubert and translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books) ISBN: 978-1-60699-478-8

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

He won another Sproing in 2001 for his Mjau Mjau strip and the next year turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now a global star among the cognoscenti he has numerous major awards from such disparate locales as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Jason’s breadth of interest is capacious and deep: comics, movies, music, high literature, low life, real life and pulp fiction all feature equally with no sense of hierarchy, and his puckish mixing and matching of these evergreen founts of inspiration always results in a picture-treatise well worth a reader’s time.

A master of short-form illustrated tales, many Jason yarns are released as snappy little albums which are perfect for later inclusion in longer anthology collections such as this one which gathers a half-dozen sharp of the very best.

As always, the visual/verbal bon mots unfold in Jason’s beguiling, sparse-dialogued, pantomimic progressions with enchantingly formal page layouts rendered in the familiar, minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style; solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity. That delight is augmented here by a varied and beguiling palette ranging from stark pastels to muted primary colours to moody duotone…

Available as a sturdily comforting hardback and exciting eBook edition, the stream of subtle wonderment opens with understated crime thriller ‘The Smiling Horse’ as the last survivor of a kidnap team endures decades of tense anticipation before their victim’s uncanny avenger finally dispenses long-deferred justice, after which Jason examines his own life, career and romantic failings in harsh, uncompromising detail in ‘A Cat from Heaven’

B-Movie Sci Fi informs ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf’ as a scientist spends years killing women whilst looking for a body that won’t reject the mean-spirited, constantly carping head he keeps alive in his laboratory, before ‘Tom Waits on the Moon’ inexorably draws together a quartet of introspective, isolated loners who spend too much time thinking not doing into a web of fantastic horror…

A cunning period gangster pastiche rendered in subdued shades of red and brown, ‘So Long, Mary Anne’ sees a decent woman helping a vicious escaped convict flee justice. After they snatch a hostage the “victim” soon begins to exert an uncanny influence over the desperate killer, but is she just wicked or is there a hidden agenda in play?

Most welcome attraction here is eponymous final story ‘Athos in America’. This is a fabulously engaging “glory days” yarn acting as a prequel to the author’s spellbinding graphic romp The Last Musketeer.

That epic detailed the final exploit of the dashing Athos, who met his end bravely and improbably after four hundred years of valiant adventure. But what was he doing in the years before that?

A guy walks into a bar… It’s America in the 1920s and the oddly-dressed Frenchman starts chatting to Bob the barman. As the quiet night unfolds the affable patron relates how he came to America to star in a movie about himself and his three greatest friends. Sadly, after he enjoyed a dalliance with the Studio’s top star, things quickly started to go wrong…

Effortlessly switching back and forth between genre, milieu and narrative pigeon holes, this grab-bag of graphic goodies again proves that Jason is a creative force in comics like no other: one totally deserving as much of your time, attention and disposable income as possible.
All characters, stories and artwork © 2011 Jason. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volume 8: The Voronov Plot


By Yves Sente & André Juillard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-048-1

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) is one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output was relatively modest compared to many of his iconic contemporaries, Jacobs’ landmark serialised life’s work – starring scientific trouble-shooters Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake – practically formed the backbone of the modern action-adventure comic in Europe.

His splendidly adroit, roguish yet thoroughly British adventurers were conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, and quickly became a crucial staple of life for post-war European kids – much as Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the eleventh album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in Tintin, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues.

Jacobs died on February 20th 1987 before completing extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō.

The concluding volume was only released in March 1990 after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes. The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio. The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined and familiar mid-1950s milieu whilst unfolding a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing.

The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the next release: Le machination Voronov by Yves Sente (Le Janitor, Thorgal) & André Juillard (Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek) published in 1999 – although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ credentials regarding threats in uncanny circumstances…

It all begins in a top-secret Soviet rocket base in January 1957 where a test-launch results in disaster as the missile smashes into a comet before crashing back to Earth. It’s not just prestige at stake here, though. It soon becomes apparent that the downed wreckage has picked up a deadly contagion from space. The region is quarantined and the exposed wreckage rushed to KGB medical specialist Professor Voronov at the Cosmodrome…

Working with his assistant Comrade Nastasia Wardynska, the brusque physician quickly determines that a bacterial strain from the comet produces a fast-acting, inevitably fatal haemorrhagic fever in adult humans…

In London as March ends, Captain Francis Blake engages in high level talks with Commander William Steele, his opposite number in MI6. Disturbing news is coming out of Moscow: many high-ranking members of the Politburo have died suddenly and a warning from a highly-placed mole reveals that Voronov has stockpiled a deadly new bio-weapon.

The agent plans on getting a sample to the West, but needs help to accomplish the crucial task…

Later whilst dining with old friend Professor Mortimer, a hasty plan is hatched after Blake learns his pal has been invited to attend a scientific Symposium in Moscow…

And thus unfolds a canny, deviously Byzantine tale of Cold War intrigue as Blake and Mortimer strive to get a sample of alien pathogen Bacteria Z, themselves and all their undercover allies out of the insidious clutches of the KGB before solving a baffling mystery that threatens all of humanity.

As frantic chases lead to desperate battles and inevitable casualties in the shadows, critical questions emerge. If the Russians have an unbeatable bio-weapon, why are only Soviet officials dying? And what part does their oldest and most malevolent enemy play in the convoluted scheme?

Just when the dapper due think they have a handle on the swiftly-developing crisis, Western scientists start succumbing to Bacteria Z and it appears that further investigation into the insidious Voronov is necessary before the plot can be foiled and the true danger to Britain and the Free World finally crushed…

Strongly founded upon and in many ways a loving tribute to John Buchan’s classic thrillers, by way of a delicious tip of the hat to Space Age Cold War movie thrillers such as the Quatermass Experiment and Seven Days to Noon, this is a devious and convoluted spook-show to astound and delight espionage aficionados and a solidly entertaining addition to the captivating canon of the Gentleman Adventurers.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1999 by André Juillard & Yves Sente. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010 Cinebook Ltd.