London Inferno


By LF Bollée & Roger Mason (Markosia)
ISBN: 978-1-913359-80-5 (TPB)

There’s nothing better than a sharp and nasty noir crime caper and this chilling mini-epic – the result of a superb cross-Channel collaboration – is perfect proof of that.

Life is all about the promises we keep and the bonds we make, but which are the most important: the comradeship of best friends or the fierce passion of true love?

Laurent Frédéric Bollée was born in Orléans in 1967 and has been writing since he was twenty: comics such as Bruno Brazil, Terra Australis and ApocalyseMania as well as proper books too, should your inclinations stray that way…

Young Brit Roger Mason crafts the Mice series of graphic novels, drew stuff for 2000AD and first worked with Bollée on Mongo le Magnifique. Now safely ensconced in New Zealand he pushes pencils brushes and computer mice on film storyboards and other commercial art mainstays…

London Inferno is a smart and violent cop story with nasty psychological undertones used to highlight a classic noir scenario. John and Mark are hardened Vice coppers, always looking to take out the scum of the underworld and ready to give their lives for each other.

Mark is married to Valerie, but John knows it’s not a happy union. After all, he’s shagging her whenever Mark isn’t around, even in some extremely risky locations…

The unstable situation suddenly ends in the most horrific manner possible, when Valerie is murdered at a party, and John realises that despite all the witnesses, the killer they have in custody is not the perpetrator…

And thus unfolds a seamy sordid example of crimes of passion and vengeance taken, but in the end, who’s really the victim and who is truly guilty?

Rendered in stark and stunning monochrome, this is a feast for lovers of sophisticated crime thrillers that will delight the eyes and the mind, and art lovers can also enjoy a bonus section comprising a section on how the cover was created, as well as full creator biographies.

Bleak, uncompromising and splendidly amoral, this is a book you’ll enjoy over and over again.
London Inferno™ & © LF Bollée, Roger Mason & Markosia Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Question: Zen and Violence


By Dennis O’Neil, Denys Cowan & Rick Magyar (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1579-8 (TPB)

Denny O’Neil died on June 11th. It didn’t make the news or mostly anywhere. For comics readers of my vintage he was the voice of our generation, carrying us through some of the most turbulent times in world history and using his gifts to pass on a philosophy never before seen in comics. He utterly remade Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Superman. He created the relevancy movement, bringing social conscience back to comics for the first time since Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster were told to tone it down with the wife beaters and grasping mine owners…

He was a remarkably insightful and prolific writer and a nurturing, imaginative editor. Think of a hero or title: Denny probably made it better. We’ve been the poorer since his retirement, but now there’s no chance of one last hurrah…

One of DC’s best comics series of the 1980’s – and probably the closest to O’Neil’s personal beliefs – is criminally out of print in trade paperback format and still hasn’t made it to digital editions yet, but it’s something well worth tracking down.

The Question, as created by Steve Ditko, was Vic Sage: a driven, justice-obsessed journalist who sought out crime and corruption irrespective of the consequences. This Charlton “Action-Line Hero” was purchased by DC when the Connecticut outfit folded and was the template for the compulsive avenger Rorschach when Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons first drafted the miniseries that would become the groundbreaking Watchmen.

The contemporary rumour-mill had it that since the creators couldn’t be persuaded to produce a spin-off Rorschach comic, the company went with a reworking of the Ditko original…

An ordinary man pushed to the edge by his obsessions, Vic Sage used his fists and a mask that made him look utterly faceless to get answers (and justice) whenever normal journalistic methods failed. After a few minor appearances around the DC universe, Sage got a job in the town where he grew up.

Hub City is a hell-hole, the most corrupt and morally bankrupt municipality in America. Mayor Wesley Fermin is a degenerate, drunken sot and the real power is insane cleric and political advisor Reverend Jeremiah Hatch, whose hand-picked gang of “heavies” are supplemented by the world’s deadliest assassin, Lady Shiva.

Reuniting with Aristotle Rodor, the philosopher-scientist who first created his faceless mask and other gimmicks, Sage determines to clean up The Hub, but despite early victories against thugs and grafters, is easily defeated by Shiva, and left to the mercies of Hatch and his gang. A brutal beating by the gangsters breaks every bone in his body and – after shooting him in the head – the callous minions simply dump his body in the freezing waters of the river.

Obviously, he doesn’t die. Rescued by the inscrutable Shiva, but utterly crippled, Sage is sent into the wilderness to be healed and trained by O’Neil’s other legendary martial arts creation, Richard Dragon. A year passes…

It’s a new type of hero who returns to a Hub City which has sunk even lower into degradation. Sage’s old girlfriend is now the Mayor’s wife, Reverend Hatch has graduated from thugs to terrorist employees, and his madness has driven him to actually seek the destruction of Humanity. Will the new Question be sufficient answer to the problems of a society so utterly debased that the apocalypse seems like an improvement?

Combating Western dystopia with Eastern Thought and martial arts action is not a new concept, but the author’s spotlight on cultural problems rather than super-heroics make this series O’Neil’s most philosophical work, and Denys Cowan’s quirky, edgy art – inked with jagged precision by Rick Magyar – imbues this darkly adult, powerfully sophisticated thriller with a maturity that is simply breathtaking.

This is a story about dysfunction: Social, societal, political, emotional, familial and even methodological. The normal masked avenger tactics don’t work in a “real”-er world, and some solutions require better Questions…
© 1986, 1987, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island


By Edogawa Rompo, adapted and illustrated by Suehiro Maruo, translated by Ryan Sands & Kyoko Nitta (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-777-8 (HB)

Edogawa Rompo is revered as the Godfather of Japanese detective fiction – his output as author and critic defining the crime thriller from 1923 to his death in 1965. Born Tarō Hirai, he worked under a nom-de-plume based on his own great inspiration, Edgar Allen Poe, penning such well-loved classics as The Two-Sen Copper Coin, The Stalker in the Attic, The Black Lizard and The Monster with 20 Faces as well as many tales of his signature hero detective Kogoro Akechi, notional leader of the stalwart young band Shōnen tantei dan (the Boy Detective’s Gang).

He did much to popularise the concept of the rationalist observer and deductive mystery-solver. In 1946, he sponsored the detective magazine Hōseki (Jewels) and a year later founded the Detective Author’s Club, which survives today as the Mystery Writers of Japan association.

Although his latter years were taken up with promoting the genre, producing criticism, translation of western fiction and penning crime books for younger audiences, much of his earlier output (Rampo wrote 20 novels and lots of short stories) were dark, sinister concoctions based on the trappings and themes of ero guro nansensu (“eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical”) playing into the then-contemporary Japanese concept of hentai seiyoku or “abnormal sexuality”.

From that time comes this particular adaptation, originally serialised in Enterbrain’s monthly magazine Comic Beam from July 2007-January 2008.

Panorama-tō Kidan or The Strange Tale of Paradise Island was a prose vignette released in 1926, adapted here with astounding flair and finesses by uncompromising illustrator and adult manga master Suehiro Maruo.

A frequent contributor to the infamous Japanese underground magazine Garo, Maruo is the crafter of such memorable and influential sagas as Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon), Rose Coloured Monster, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show, The Laughing Vampire, Ultra-Gash Inferno, How to Rake Leaves and many others.

This is a lovely book. A perfect physical artefact of the themes involved, this weighty oversized (262x187mm) monochrome hardback has glossy full-colour inserts, creator biographies and just feels like something extra special, whilst it compellingly chronicles an intriguingly baroque tale of greed, lust, deception and duplicity which begins when starving would-be author Hitomi Hirosuke reads of the death of the Taisho Emperor. Sadly, it still hasn’t made it into digital formats yet…

On December 26th 1926, Japan suffered a social catastrophe. The shock of losing the revered ruler reverberated through the entire nation. The trauma forced one failing writer to reassess his life. He finds himself wanting…

At another fruitless meeting with his editor Ugestu, Hitomi learns that an old friend, Genzaburo Komoda, has passed away. At college the boys were implausibly inseparable: the poor but ambitious kid and the heir to one of the greatest industrial fortunes in Japan. Perhaps it was because they looked and sounded exactly alike: doppelgangers nobody could tell apart…

The presumed cause of death was the asthma which had plagued the wealthy scion all his life and Hitomi, fuelled by self-loathing and inspired by Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial”, hatches a crazy scheme…

Faking his own suicide the writer leaves his effects to Ugestu before travelling to Kishu and immediately beginning his insane plot. Starving himself the entire time, Hitomi locates his pal’s grave, disposes of the already mouldering body and dons the garments and jewellery of Komoda. He even smashes out a front tooth and replaces it with the false one from the corpse…

His ghastly tasks accomplished, the starving charlatan simply collapses in a road where he can be found…

The news spreads like wildfire and soon all Komoda’s closest business associates have visited the miraculous survivor of catalepsy. The intimate knowledge Hitomi possesses combined with the “shock and confusion” of his miraculous escape is enough to fool even aged family retainer Tsunoda, and the fates are with him in that the widow Chiyoko has gone to Osaka to get over her loss. Of course she will rush back as soon as she hears the news…

However with gifts and good wishes flooding in, even Chiyoko is seemingly fooled and the fraudster begins to settle in his new skin. Just to be safe, however, he keeps the wife at a respectful and platonic distance. Comfortably entrenched, he begins to move around the Komoda fortune.

Hitomi the starving writer’s great unfinished work was The Tale of RA, a speculative fantasy in which a young man inherits a vast fortune and uses it to create an incredible, futuristic pleasure place of licentious delight. Now the impostor starts to make that sybaritic dream a reality, repurposing the family wealth into buying an island, relocating its inhabitants and building something never before conceived by mind of man…

Fobbing off all questions with the lie that he is constructing an amusement park that will be his eternal legacy, he populates the marvel of Arcadian engineering, landscaping, and optical science with a circus of wanton performers, living statues of erotic excess and a manufactured mythological bestiary.

He even claims that the colossal expenditure will begun healing the local economic malaise, but for every obstacle overcome another seems to occur. Moreover he cannot shift the uneasy feeling that Chiyoko suspects the truth about him…

Eventually however the great dream of plutocratic grandeur, lotus-eating luxury and hedonistic sexual excess is all but finished and “Komoda” escorts his wife on a grand tour of the wondrous celebration of debauched perversity that is his personal empire of the senses.

Once ensconced there he ends his worries of Chiyoka exposing him, but all too soon his Panorama Island receives an unwanted visitor.

Kogoro Akechi has come at the behest of the wife’s family and he has a few questions about, of all things, a book.

It seems that an editor, bereaved by the loss of one of his protégés, posthumously published that tragic young man’s magnum opus to celebrate his wasted life: a story entitled The Tale of RA

This dark compelling morality play is realised in a truly breathtaking display of artistic virtuosity from Maruo, who combines clinical detail of intoxicating decadence with vast graphic vistas in a torrent of utterly enchanting images, whilst never allowing the visuals to overwhelm the underlying narrative and rise and fall of a boldly wicked protagonist…

Stark, stunning, classically clever and utterly adult The Strange Tale of Paradise Island is one of the best-looking, most absorbing crime thrillers I’ve seen this century, and no mystery loving connoisseur of comics, cinema or prose should miss it.
© 2008, 2013 HIRAI Rutaro, MARUO Suehiro. All rights reserved. English translation © 2013 Last Gasp.

You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!: More Comics by Fletcher Hanks


By Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-606699-160-2 (TPB)

Although he was a pioneering auteur and prolific creator, the work of troubled artisan Fletcher Hanks (December 1st 1889 – January 22nd 1976) was all-but lost to posterity for decades following the Darwinian dawn of the American comic book. Happily, he was rediscovered relatively recently by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw!

Hank’s unique visual style and frankly histrionic manner of storytelling resulted in only 51 complete stories created over less than three years (1939-1941) – but those were during the make-or-break, crucially formative times that would shape the industry for decades to come.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Hanks was an artist plagued by a dependence on alcohol and a tendency to violence. Surviving on odd jobs and as a mural painter, he abandoned his wife and four children in 1930 and disappeared until the incredible commercial drive to fill comic book pages saw him resurface in 1939 as part of the Jerry Iger/Will Eisner production “Shop”. Here he generated whole stories (script, art, lettering and probably even colour-guides) for some of the most successful publishers of the Golden Age. All were fast-paced, action-packed, relentless blood-&-thunder thrillers, underpinned by what might well be hallucinogenic delirium…

Hanks is now globally prominent in art circles and regarded as a key Outsider Artist – defined by critic Roger Cardinal as an English-language equivalent to the French movement Art Brut or Raw/Rough Art: works created outside the boundaries of official culture. Jean Dubuffet connected the phenomenon especially and specifically to the paintings and drawings of insane asylum inmates but Cardinal extended the definition to include Naïve art, some Primitivism and sustained bodies of work by creators working at all fringes of the mainstream.

In his woefully short career, the impact of those 51 stories were further reduced since he only worked in a few returning characters. This book follows on from and concludes the complete works compilation begun in editor Karasik’s I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! (which I simply must track down and review too).

Presented in chronological order, this book contains seven Space Smith adventures – ‘Captured by Skomah!’ (Fantastic#1, December 1939), ‘The Martian Ogres!’ (Fantastic #2, January 1940), ‘The Leopard Women of Venus’ (#3, February), ‘The Thinker’ (#4, March), ‘The Hoppers’ (#5, April), ‘The Vacuumites’ (#6, May) and ‘Planet Bloodu’ (#8, July): a single tale of Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #1 (‘The Slave Raiders’, January 1940) plus a batch of red-blooded lumberjack yarns starring Big Red McLane: ‘King of the North Woods’, ‘The Timber Thieves’, ‘The Lumber Hijackers’, ‘The Sinister Stranger’, ‘The Paper Racketeers’, ‘Sledge Sloan Gang’, ‘The Monk’s War Rockets’ and ‘Searching for Sally Breen’ from the monthly Fight  Comics (#1, January 1940, and #3 through 9).

The incomparable Stardust the Super-Wizard (whose slick, sleek costume surely influenced Britain’s Mick Anglo when he redesigned Captain Marvel into All-English Marvel Man in 1954!) is stirringly represented by ‘Rip the Blood’(Fantastic #2 January 1940), ‘The Mad Giant’ (#4), ‘The Emerald Men of Asperus’ (#8) ‘The Super Fiend’ (#10), ‘Kaos and the Vultures’ (#12), ‘The Sixth Columnists’ (#14) and ‘The World Invaders’ (Fantastic #15, February 1941).

No violent genre was beyond Hanks and prototype sword-wielding barbarian hero Tiger Hart rousingly romped through the jungles of Saturn in ‘The Dashing, Slashing Adventure of the Great Solinoor Diamond’ in Planet Comics #2 (February 1940).

From early 1940, Daring Mystery #4 and #5 supply ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘Planet of Black-Light’, two exploits of brawny, clean-limbed Whirlwind Carter of the Interplanetary Secret Service, whilst Yank Wilson, Super Spy Q-4 performed much the same role for the contemporary USA in ‘The Saboteurs’ from Fantastic #6 (May 1940).

For me the biggest, most enjoyable revelation is the captivating batch of uncanny tales featuring the frankly indescribable Fantomah. The “Mystery Woman of the Jungle” – a blend of witch, goddess and reanimated corpse – used startling magic to monitor and defend the green places of the world against all manner of threats from poachers to mad scientists and aliens.

Her beguiling feats open with ‘The Elephants Graveyard’ (Jungle Comics #2, February 1940) and just get wilder and wilder, continuing with ‘The Super-Gorillas’ (#4), ‘Mundoor and the Giant Reptiles’ (#5), ‘Phantom of the Tree-Tops’(#6), ‘The Temple in the Mud Pit’ (#8), ‘The Scarlet Shadow’ (#11), ‘The New Blitzers’ (#12) and ‘The Tiger-Women of Wildmoon Mountain’ before ominously concluding with ‘The Revenge of Zomax’ from February 1941’s Jungle #14.

These stunningly surreal and forceful stories created under the pseudonyms Barclay Flagg, Hank Christy, Henry and Chris Fletcher, Charles Netcher, C.C. Starr and Carlson Merrick are a window into a different, bolder, proudly unconventional era and the troubled mind of a true creative force. Seen in conjunction with Karasik’s insightful introduction and the many early sketches and illustrations from before that too-brief foray into comics, these pages present an intimate glimpse of a fascinating man at a crossroads he was clearly able to shape but never grasp.

This is a magical book for both fans of classical comics and the cutting edge of modern art: and just in case you were wondering, the stories are weird but read wonderfully.

It Must Be Yours!!!

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

The Spirit: An 80th Anniversary Celebration


By Will Eisner & various (Clover Press)
ISBN: 978-1-95103-805-2 (TPB)

It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the prime creative forces that shaped the comicbook industry, but still many of his milestones escape public acclaim in the English-speaking world.

William Erwin Eisner was born on March 6th 1906, in Brooklyn, and grew up in the ghettos of the city. They never left him. After time served inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he then invented the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in comics form released in a single book, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. All the tales centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue: a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing poor Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funny book and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner constantly pushed the boundaries of his craft, honing his skills not just on the legendary Spirit but with years of educational and promotional material. In A Contract With God he moved into unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary exploration of social experience.

Restlessly plundering his own childhood and love of human nature as well as his belief that environment was a major and active character in fiction, in the 1980s Eisner began redefining the building blocks unique to sequential narrative with a portmanteau series of brief vignettes that told stories and tested the expressive and informational limits of representational drawings on paper.

From 1936 to 1938, Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he conceived and drew the opening instalments of a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas,

Westerns, Detectives, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes – lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold – head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit – invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comic book insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. Despite the terrifying workload such a commission demanded, Eisner jumped at the opportunity, creating three strips which would initially be handled by him before two of them were handed off to his talented assistants. Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic whilst masked detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi), and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead strip for himself, and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. In 1952 the venture folded and Eisner moved into commercial, instructional and educational strips. He worked extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind.

In the wake of “Batmania” and the 1960s superhero craze, Harvey Comics released two giant-sized reprints with a little material from the artist, which lead to underground editions and a slow revival of the Spirit’s fame and fortune via black and white newsstand reprint magazines. Initially, Warren Publishing collected old stories, even adding colour sections with painted illumination from such contemporary luminaries as Rich Corben, but with #17 the title reverted to Kitchen Sink, who had produced the first two underground collections.

Eisner found himself re-enamoured with graphic narrative and saw a willing audience eager for new works. From producing new Spirit covers for the magazine (something the original newspaper insert had never needed) he became increasingly inspired. American comics were evolving into an art-form and the restless creator finally saw a place for the kind of stories he had always wanted to tell.

He began crafting some of the most telling and impressive work the industry had ever seen: first in limited collector portfolios and eventually, in 1978, A Contract With God.

If Jack Kirby is American comics’ most influential artist, Will Eisner undoubtedly was – and remains – its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape. Will Eisner went Home, went Back and went Inward.

The Spirit debuted on June 2nd 1940 in the Sunday edition of newspapers belonging to the Register and Tribune Syndicate. “The Spirit Section” expanded into 20 Sunday newspapers, with a combined circulation of five million copies during the 1940s and ran until October 5th 1952. This trade paperback and digital collection re-presents a selection of classic adventures from the original 12-year canon, in stark stunning monochrome, with five digitally recoloured by Laura Martin and Jeromy Cox. Furthermore, each episode is preceded by an essay from Industry insiders and unashamed fans.

Leading the charge and providing a fascinating breakdown on the history of the masked marvel is former publisher (one of 15 to date) Denis Kitchen, who provides ‘A Brief History and Appreciation of The Spirit before the Cox-coloured ‘Who is The Spirit?’ reveals how a battle of wills between private detective Denny Colt and scientific terror Dr. Cobraleads to the hero’s death and resurrection as the ultimate man of mystery…

Editorial wonder Diana Schutz deconstructs one of Eisner’s most metaphysically mirthful yarns as ‘No Spirit Story Today’treats us all to monochrome madness with a deadline crunch inspiring a Central City cartoonist to break the fourth wall.

Dean Mullaney then spills the beans over atomic era intrigue as Martin’s hues add bite to the 1947 armageddon spoof‘Wanted’, with the entire world as well as our hero hunting a little man with a deadly secret…

According to Bruce Canwell’s essay, Li’ Abner parody ‘Li’l Adam’ was part of a scheme between Eisner and Al Capp to mutually boost popularity of their respective properties. The jury’s still out, but there no doubt that the Spirit portion is one of the wackiest episodes in the gumshoe’s case files, unlike the moody, compelling tragedy of ‘The Strange Case of Mrs. Paraffin’ (previewed by Charles Brownstein), wherein the ghostly gangbuster strives to convince a widow that she is not also a murderess…

Paul Levitz examines authorial inspiration in anticipation of a return to black & white and The Spirit’s battle against arsonist ‘The Torch’: a potentially passé romp rendered hilariously unforgettable by Eisner’s wry poke at advertising sponsorship, after which Beau Smith fondly recalls his mentor’s gift for teaching using modern magic realist western ‘Gold’ as his exemplar…

Coloured by Cox and discussed by Craig Yoe, ‘Matua’ is a deft and winsome tribute to myths and legends disguised as a poke at monster movies with the Spirit wandering the Pacific Islands and meeting an awakened colossal beast, after which Greg Goldstein focusses on ‘Sound’ as a monochrome adventure again takes a peek behind the curtain of a cartoonist’s life.

Eisner always had a superb team to back him up and here letterers Sam Rosen and Abe Kanegson combine with design assistant Jules Pfeiffer to make the wordforms the surreal stars of this picture show about another murdered pencil pusher…

Rounding out this tribute to eight tumultuous decades of Spiritual Enlightenment, is a Will Eisner Art Gallery of latterday sketches, pin-ups and covers by the master.

Will Eisner is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in American comics but it is too seldom that his incredible draughtsmanship and design sense get to grab the spotlight. This book is a joy no fan or art-lover can afford to be without, and is especially recommended for newbies who only know Eisner’s more mature works.

By the Way: Although Eisner started out utilising the commonplace racial and gender stereotypes employed by so many sectors of mass entertainment, he was among the first in comics – or anywhere else – to eschew and abandon them. In these more enlightened, if not settled, times, it’s nice to see a statement addressing the historical and cultural problems not to mention potential distress these outdated sensibilities might cause right at the front of the collection. So, if funny books can do it, how come statues can’t?

THE SPIRIT and WILL EISNER are Registered Trademarks of Will Eisner Studios, Inc. Will Eisner’s The Spirit © 2020 Will Eisner Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All other material © its respective contributor. © 2020 Clover Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Zorro in Old California


By Nedaud & Carlo Marcello (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91303-513-9 (HB) 978-0-91303-512-2 (Album PB)

Here’s a fabulous old classic that’s still generally available, but which really needs to relative immortality of a digital edition as well as simple revival. Let’s hope current license holders Dynamite Entertainment agree…

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world is perennial film favourite El Zorro, The Fox. He was originally created by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 in a 5-part prose serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’: debuting and running in All-Story Weekly from August 6th to 6th September. The tale was subsequently published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co., and Tor, respectively.

Famously, Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the tale in All-Story Weekly whilst on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the adventure to be the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro was a global movie sensation in 1920 and for years after, so New York based McCulley re-tailored his creation to match the extremely different filmic incarnation. The Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be peopled by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider as well as later comics champions such as Mandrake and the Phantom.

Rouben Mamoulian’s filmic remake of The Mark of Zorro further ingrained the Fox into the World’s psyche, and, as the prose exploits continued in a variety of publications, Dell began a comicbook version in 1949.

When Walt Disney began a hugely popular Zorro TV show in 1957, the comics series was redesigned to capitalise on it and the entertainment corporation began a decades-long strip incarnation of “their” version of the character in various regions of the world. This classy tome collects half of the dozen stories produced for a French iteration which originally ran in Le Journal de Mickey by veteran Italian artist Raphaël Carlo Marcello and relative enigma Nedaud, of whom I sadly know very little.

The celebrated and supremely stylish Marcello (1929-2007) moved to Paris in 1948 and began his long and prestigious career drawing Loana et le Masque Chinois in Aventures de Paris-Jeunes and Nick Silver for Collection Victoire. He then switched to newspaper strips for Opera Mundi in 1950, illustrating La Découverte du Monde and L’Histoire de Parisbefore adapting Ben Hur, Jane Eyre and the Bible.

In 1952, he joined Héroic, working on Oliver Twist, Gil Blas and Bug Jargal, then began a 15-year run (1955-1970) on Le Cavalier Inconnu in Pépito. He maintained ties to newspapers throughout and continued general interest literary adaptations for Mondial-Presse.

In 1956, he contributed Bob Franck to Bugs Bunny magazine and numerous strips to Lisette, Monty, Mireille, L’Intrépide/Hurrah and Rintintin. In 1970 he moved to Pif Gadget, collaborating on his signature series Docteur Justicewith prolific scenarist/writer Jean Ollivier as well as Amicalement Vôtre (a TV adaptation scripted Spanish by the legendary Victor Mora), Taranis (scripts by Ollivier & Mora), Tarao (by Roger Lécureux) and La Guerre du Feu.

Barely stopping for breath, Marcello illustrated John Parade, Patrouilleur de l’Espace, in Le Journal des Pieds Nickelés, the Larousse series L’Histoire de France en Bandes Dessinées, La Découverte du Mond and L’Histoire du Far West until 1985 when he joined Le Journal de Mickey to render Le Regard du Tigre, Le Club des Cinq and the subject of this collection.

Solidly based on the 1950s TV series, Zorro ran for a year (1985-1986): 12 rousing swashbuckling romps, the first half of which are collected in this slim, full colour European-format album. After these thundering epics, Marcello carried on improving, drawing sci fi extravaganza Cristal, epigrammatic short stories Voulez-vous de Nos Nouvelles?, Michael Jackson, Wayne Thunder, L’Épopée du Paris Saint-Germain and mature-reader series Nuit Barbare and Amok.

In 1991 he returned to his hometown of Vintimille where he ended his days drawing episodes of iconic Italian series Tex and Zagor for Il Giornalino and Bonelli publishing.

Here and now, however, Don Diego de la Vega is the foppish son of a noble house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession. He used the masked persona of Zorro the Fox to right wrongs, defend the weak and champion the oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – gleefully thwarting the schemes of Capitan Monastario, his bumbling sergeant Garcia and the despicable Governor who were determined to milk the populace for all they had.

In his crusade Diego was aided by Bernardo (the “deaf-mute” manservant retained for the assorted TV and movies) and the good will of the overwhelmed and overtaxed people of Los Angeles.

Whenever Zorro appeared, he left his mark – a bold letter “Z” – carved into walls, doors, curtains, but never, ever, faces…

Written for an all-ages audience, these stories, each around 10 pages long, play out an exotic eternal, riotous game of tag, beginning with ‘Wanted!’ as a huge reward galvanises the town to hunt the Fox… until Zorro turns the tables by capturing the Capitan and ransoming him back, thereby emptying the military coffers.

In ‘The Assassins’, bandits posing as patriotic rebels capture the masked hero as part of their plan to murder the Governor and loot the ever-growing township, whilst ‘Double Agent’ sees Monastario blackmail a girl into betraying the wily avenger, but once again misjudges Zorro’s ability to connect with the downtrodden Californios…

‘The Scarecrow’ sees the hero thwart a plot to discredit the Fox’s reputation as the unscrupulous Capitan employs a murderous masked impostor, after which ‘Tight as a Noose’ sees Monastario arrest Diego’s father Don Alejandro for treason to entrap the mysterious vigilante, before this rip-roaring rollercoaster ride concludes with ‘The Winds of Rebellion’ as the latest illegal tax rouses the town council against the Capitan and Zorro gets involved to prevent bloodshed and potentially appalling state reprisals…

Full-bodied, all-action and beautifully realised, these classy adventures of a global icon are long overdue for a comprehensive and complete re-release, but until then at least this terrific tome is still readily available in both hardback and softcover through many online retailers.
® and © 1986 Zorro Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

London’s Dark


By James Robinson & Paul Johnson (Escape/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-157-5 (Album PB)

In this time of crisis, when every species of chancer and opportunist feels free to invoke a mythical and seldom accurate “Spirit of the Blitz” to silence debate and buoy up their own particular agenda, I thought it might be interesting to recall a cruelly-neglected early graphic novel that, whilst a mere flight of fancy crafted 45 years after the fact, still manages to capture the feel and the truth of what that period meant. And yes, I include myself here, but at least I’m not responsible for people’s lives and trying to sell an ideology often as callous, vicious and pernicious as the Great Foe back then. And no, I wasn’t there either. I did, however, have parents who experienced the war first hand on both sides and lost close family to both Nazi and Allied fire. It made for some truly memorable weddings, funerals and family gatherings in my own childhood…

When London’s Dark was first released in 1989 many people remarked that it was great to see a graphic narrative that didn’t easily fall into a well-worn industry pigeon-hole. Many more hoped the blend of the traditional and the innovative would lead to a grand new age of great graphic novels. Things have indeed grown and blossomed for readers of sequential narrative in the interim, and whilst we still aren’t done yet, this slim monochrome paperback volume nonetheless still stands out as a superb piece of story-telling well worth your attention.

It is the height of the Blitz and the Capital of the British Empire is being pounded and burned by the despised Luftwaffe. Still, even incendiary hell and random destruction from above cannot deter criminals with a quick profit in mind.

When a Black Marketeer has second thoughts in the commission of looting and is murdered for them, the deed results in an unlikely romance between Air Raid Warden Jack Brookes and professional Medium Sophie Heath.

Good-natured Jack thinks he’s simply testing and stopping a swindler, but soon he is head over heels in love with the exotic and fearfully convincing spiritualist. She, in turn, is genuinely in contact with the unquiet ghost of the murdered man. Eventually, Jack’s inept but well-meaning investigation turns over a few of the right rocks, blithely forgetting that the murderers are still out there…

Moodily atmospheric art and a light touch with period dialogue make this a surprisingly engaging read (despite the admitted fact from the creators that they were learning their craft on the job) and the blend of war-story, murder-mystery and true romance with supernatural overtones is one that has even greater resonance today. This is a book in dire need of re-release – especially in digital formats – and should be on every filmmaker and TV producer’s “must option” list…
© 1989, 2002 James Robinson and Paul Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

The Big Kahn


By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0 (TPB)

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. Yet despite the best of intentions, his funeral – where first-born son Avi delivers a eulogy and prepares to assume his father’s role – devolves into a shocking shambles. Rebellious, troubled daughter Lea prefers furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli is clearly in a state of shock…

So tempers naturally flare when unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intrudes upon the event, demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions, the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue for an entire community over more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but instead found something better and stayed to grow and blossom…

With his death, everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with the wicked same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How these implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother offers a masterpiece of human scrutiny, depicted with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, superbly underplayed monochrome art is effective and compassionate, wisely never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Although not yet available digitally, The Big Kahn is an intriguing, compelling, thought-provoking human drama deserving the widest possible attention: a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small, set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, cannily exploring not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion and all the big questions in life and after it…

It’s a subject we can all benefit from contemplating packaged as one of the best dramas you’ll ever read, so make the effort to add this lost gem to your must-own list ASAP…
© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9 (HB)

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comic book profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko (November 2nd 1927 – c. June 29th 2018) was one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire was to just get on with his job telling stories the best way he could. Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that dream was always a minor consideration and frequently a stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funny book output. Let’s see what happens in the months to come now that COVID19 has wrought its horrific effects on the industry…

Before his time at Marvel, the young Ditko mastered his craft creating short stories for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy to be able to look at this work from a such an innocent time. Here he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback – and potently punchy digital treasure trove – reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: published between July 1957 and March 1959, and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded, much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And, whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko rendered these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were drawn after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt. They are uniformly wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasies, suspense and science fiction yarns, helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories per year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a darkly sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality before being treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’; the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befalls a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’ – all confirming how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals.

‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect after which the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. Apparently the title came from a radio show which Charlton licensed, and the lead/host/narrator certainly acted more as voyeur than active participant, speaking “to camera” and asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human interest yarns all tinged with a hint of the weird and supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 (December 1957), ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and – following wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35 – resumes with ‘A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changes the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who is only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proves to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explores the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruple informs the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically, a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicts ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ details a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which heals any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 as Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents. Out of This World #7 in turn provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time-traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’…

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher falls foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler finds a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) takes an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) sees a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovers an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposes ‘The Angry Things’ which haunt a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saves the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan finds new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) before Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ (from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #16, May 1958) – an issue which also discloses the world-changing fate of a Soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chooses to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experiences the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) after which Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – reveals the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposes a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leaves you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise. The stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, making this is cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 3 and 4: Running Scared and Valley of the Exiles


By Tome & Janry, colored by Stephane de Becker & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-116-7 (Running Album PB), 978-1-84918-157-0 (Exiles Album PB)

For most English-speaking comic fans and collectors, Spirou is probably Europe’s biggest secret. The character is a rough contemporary – and calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s iconic Tintin, whilst the comic he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano and America’s Detective Comics.

Conceived at Belgian Printing House by Jean Dupuis in 1936, this anthological magazine targeting a juvenile audience debuted on April 21st 1938; neatly bracketed by DC Thomson’s The Dandy which launched on 4th December 1937 and The Beano on July 30th 1938. It was edited by Charles Dupuis (a mere tadpole, only 19 years old, himself) and took its name from the lead feature, which recounted improbable adventures of a plucky Bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Joined on June 8th 1939 by pet squirrel, Spip (the longest running character in the strip after Spirou himself), the series was visually realised by French artist Robert Velter (who signed himself Rob-Vel). A Dutch language edition – Robbedoes debuted a few weeks later, running more-or-less in tandem with the French parent comic until cancellation in 2005.

The bulk of the periodical was taken up with cheap American imports – such as Fred Harman’s Red Ryder, William Ritt & Clarence Gray’s Brick Bradford and Siegel & Shuster’s landmark Superman – although home-grown product crept in too. Most prominent were Tif et Tondu by Fernand Dineur (which ran until the1990s) and L’Epervier Blue by Sirius (Max Mayeu), latterly accompanied by work from comic-strip wunderkind Joseph Gillain – “Jijé”.

Legendarily, during World War II Jijé drew the entire comic by himself, including home grown versions of banned US imports, simultaneously assuming production of the Spirou strip where he created current co-star and partner Fantasio).

Except for a brief period when the Nazis closed the comic down (September 1943 to October 1944) Le Journal de Spirouand its boyish star – now a globe-trotting journalist – have continued their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory. Among other myriad major features that began within those hallowed pages are Jean Valhardi (by Jean Doisy & Jije), Blondin et Cirage (Victor Hubinon), Buck Danny, ‘Jerry Spring, Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs to you and me), Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof and a certain laconic cowboy named Lucky Luke.

Spirou the character (whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous”) has starred in the magazine for most of its life, evolving under a series of creators into an urbane yet raucous fantasy/adventure hero with the accent heavily on light humour. With comrade and rival Fantasio and crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac, Spirou voyages to exotic locales, uncovering crimes, revealing the fantastic and garnering a coterie of exotic arch-enemies.

During WWII when Velter went off to fight, his wife Blanche Dumoulin took over the strip using the name Davine, assisted by Luc Lafnet. Publisher Dupuis assumed control of and rights to the strip in 1943, assigning it to Jijé who then handed it to his assistant André Franquin in 1946. It was the start of a golden age.

Among Franquin’s innovations were the villains Zorglub and Zantafio, Champignac and one of the first strong female characters in European comics, rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine for Cinebook’s English translations), but his greatest creation – one he retained on his own departure in 1969 – was incredible magic animal Marsupilami. The miracle beast was first seen in Spirou et les héritiers (1952), and is now a star of screen, plush toy store, console… and albums too.

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spiroulimit and resigned, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him. He was succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of 9 rousing yarns tapping into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times, telling tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s, the series seemed to stall: three different creative teams alternated on the serial: Raoul Cauvin & Nic Broca, Yves Chaland and the author of the adventure under review here: Philippe Vandevelde writing as Tome and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry. These last adapted and referenced the still-beloved Franquin era and revived the feature’s fortunes, producing 14 wonderful albums between 1984-1998. Since their departure, Lewis Trondheim and the teams of Jean-Davide Morvan & Jose-Luis Munuera and Fabien Vehlmann & Yoann have brought the official album count to 55 (there also dozens of specials, spin-offs series and one-shots, official and otherwise)…

Running Scared is from 1988: originally entitled La frousse aux trousses or ‘Fear on the Trail’. It was their eighth and the 40th collection of the evergreen adventurers. Harking back to the Fournier years, it comprises the first of an excellent extended 2-part thriller which concluded in Valley of the Exiles (originally released as La vallée des bannis AKA ‘Valley of the Banished’ in 1989).

Running Scared opens with a frantic and mesmeric chase scene as our eponymous young star races across the city in splendid breakneck tribute to the silent movie chases of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. He’s late for a conference where he will recount his many harrowing, career-related escapes and show films of his numerous close shaves…

Barely making it, Spirou is disappointed by the reaction of the audience: those that don’t faint dead away from fear, flee the theatre in horror…

It’s a huge disappointment: the daring reporter was hoping to use the profits from the lecture tour to fund an upcoming expedition to discover the fate of two explorers who vanished in 1938. They were attempting to climb a mountain and discover the legendary “Valley of Exiles” in the mysterious Himalayan nation of Yurmaheesun-shan

Since 1950, the tiny country has been subject to numerous invasions by rival super-powers and is a hotbed of rebellion, insurgency and civil war. Nevertheless, ever-undaunted Spirou and Fantasio are utterly determined to solve the ancient mystery.

Happily, their plans are only temporarily derailed. One of the fainters at the conference is timid but esteemed Dr. Placebo: renowned authority on the medical condition Spasmodia Maligna and a man convinced that the only cure for the condition – prolonged, sustained and life-threatening synchronous diaphragmatic flutters (hiccups to you and me) – is to be scared out of one’s wits.

Having seen Spirou in action, Placebo wants the reporters to take his most chronic patients with them on the assignment and offers to fund the entire expedition to the war-torn hell-hole…

Over Fantasio’s cynical but sensible objections, a deal is struck and soon the lads, Spip and five disparate, desperate hiccupping victims are sneaking across the Nepalese border where diligent Captain Yi is tasked with keeping all foreigners – and especially western journalists – out of the country as it undergoes its pacification and re-education…

However, thanks to native translator Gorpah (a wily veteran guide who once proved invaluable to another red-headed reporter, as well as his little white dog and foul mouthed-sea captain pal) the daring band are soon deep in-country, but the occupying invasion forces are quickly hot on their trail in tanks, armoured cars and attack helicopters: providing plenty of opportunities for the annoyingly obnoxious singulitus flutterers to be terrified – but with little evidence of a cure…

And then, just as they find their first real clue as to the location of the lost Valley of Exiles, the explorers are captured by native partisans and rebels. Even this doesn’t scare off any hiccups, nor does the daring later escape attempt masterminded by Spirou and Fantasio.

As the liberated captives pile into a lorry, a huge storm breaks and the rebels give chase, but when one of their pursuer’s vehicles plunges over a cliff, the valiant fugitives frantically form a human chain to rescue the driver and in the horrendous conditions Spirou is washed away and lost in the raging torrent.

…And that’s when all the hiccupping finally stops…

To Be Continued…

Starting in superb slapstick comedy mode and with gallons of gags throughout, Running Scared quickly evolves into a dark-edged, cunningly shaded satirical critique of then current geo-political scandals like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture by the Chinese – which both of course still resonate in today’s world – as it unfolds an epic and utterly compelling rollercoaster of fun and thrills.

Valley of the Exiles! concludes the excellent exotic escapade with the roving reporters retracing the steps and uncovering the whereabouts of explorers who vanished climbing a mountain before discovering a legendary lost valley in the inscrutable, isolated Himalayan nation of Yurmaheesun-shan

The story resumes with the battered, weary duo entombed deep within a Himalayan mountain. Slowly, blindly, they grope their way towards a faint light, emerging through an ancient, barbaric idol’s head into the very place they’ve been seeking…

Utterly enclosed by peaks, the Valley is an idyllic paradise but its very isolation has led to the development of a number of truly unique species of flora and fauna. There are colossal carnivorous waterlily pads, ferociously determined man-eating turtles, electric geckoes, the seductive Hammock Flytrap and many more bizarre and potentially lethal creatures.

The one that most imperils the lost boys is the diminutive Manic Midgie: a mosquito-like bug carrying the disease “raging hostiliasis”. Not long after one bites Fantasio, poor Spirou realises his best friend has become a homicidal maniac determined to kill him and everything else in range…

The deranged lad goes completely off the deep end, and only luck and a handy itching-powder boxing glove plant prevents our favourite reporter’s gory demise. Wounded, hunted by his best friend and perhaps the only human in the apparently inescapable enclosed wilderness, near-despondent Spirou – and Spip – begin exploring their incredible prison and find a rough shack, proving that at some time other humans have been there.

Further investigation reveals it to be the last resting place of the lost explorers Siegfried and Maginot. The mystery of the 1938 expedition is solved – even though Spirou has no way of filing this scoop!

More worryingly, Maginot’s copious notes on the creatures of the valley offer some grim hypotheses as to the nature of the nature in this fantastic hidden gorge: creatures inimical to both body and mind of man. Plants that cast illusions, murderous mammals mimicking harmless life, bugs whose bite produces madness…

Crazed beyond imagining – and burbling hilarious, fourth-wall breaking nonsense – Fantasio is determinedly hunting his old friend. The frantic chase drives our limping hero deep into a hidden temple where he uncovers the remnants of fantastic lost civilisation Backik: a race banished by Mongol conquerors to this distant valley. These reluctant settlers lived just long enough for the manic-midgies to bring their unlucky lives crashing down into doom and disaster…

As Spirou lurches through the eerie tombs of the fallen Backiks, Fantasio ambushes him and prepares to finish off his former friend when a mysterious figure attacks…

A little later, Spirou awakens in the warming sunlight of the valley, with deranged Fantasio securely bound beside him. Resolved to escape this fantastic trap and get his crazy pal back to civilisation and medical assistance, our red-headed hero begins to explore his best options only to feel the terrifying sting of a mosquito. Is all lost?

Of course not…

Packed with oodles of action and a host of incredible surprises and revelations, Valley of the Exiles is a truly splendid escapade, with thrills, chills, spills, a mountain of choice comedy moments and eccentric, surreal mysteries to keep readers spellbound.

This kind of engaging, lightly-barbed adventure comedy-thriller is a sheer joy in an arena far too full of adults-only carnage, sordid cheesecake titillation, testosterone-fuelled breast-beating, teen-romance monsters or sickly-sweet fantasy. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductive but wholesome élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke, The Bluecoats and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another cracking read from a long line of superb exploits, certain to be as much a household name as those series – and yes, even that other red-headed kid with the white dog…
Running Scared original edition © Dupuis, 1988 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2012 © Cinebook Ltd.
Valley of the Exiles original edition © Dupuis, 1989 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2013 © Cinebook Ltd.