King of the Flies Volume 2: The Origin of the World


By Mezzo & Pirrus, translated by Helge Dascher with Dag Dascher & Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-390-3

Scary stories are everywhere, even in the most ordinary of suburban paradises: when DC Comics started calling Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing stories “Sophisticated Suspense” in the 1980s, to differentiate them from the formulaic “Set ‘em up and then go Boo!” traditions of the horror comics medium, this kind of subtle, disorienting, creeping disturbia is exactly what they were aspiring to. Cleverly constructed, laconically laid out in the classic nine-panel-grid picture structure and rendered in comfortingly mundane style a la Charles Burns, King of the Flies is a landmark in metafictional mystery tales.

In volume 1, noted crime comics creators Pascal (Mezzo) Mesenburg and Michel Pirus introduced readers to the community of Hallorave and the eponymous Eric, a very troubled young man with a predilection for donning a gigantic Fly mask. A budding sociopath, the lad is into drugs, sex (consenting and otherwise), booze, introspection and instant gratification… but in that he’s not much different from the other residents of this little slice of Heaven. He also sees dead people occasionally – and again, he’s not the only one.

The book unfolded in seemingly unconnected vignettes narrated in the first person by a broad cast of unhappy campers and this second volume of three continues the tradition, but with the disparate threads increasingly overlapping and interlocking: the inevitable denouement seemingly inescapable and darkly bloody…

‘The Origin of the Species’ opens with Eric idly daydreaming of killing his mom’s new man Francis before heading out for Marie’s place. She isn’t Eric’s girlfriend really but she is sweet and easy and despises her parents too. Things kick off when gangster reprobate Ringo shows up and tells them to look after a bag he’s carrying.

Eric is cool but Marie takes a peek, finding bundles of cash and a bowling pin inside. Later that day Eric saves an old guy from drowning because he fancied the geezers young girlfriend Karine: once again his uncontrolled desires are screwing up his life…

‘Departures/Arrivals’ follows Karine, showing her dysfunctional relationship with her bitch of a mother and how her aged lover Becker dies of a heart attack in an airport. Karine is pregnant and Eric sees opportunity…

In ‘Come Back’ we see that Damien has no luck. Not only is he killed by a genuinely remorseful drunk driver, but his last mortal sight is the three thugs who chased him to his demise and his girl screwing his best friend Eric. He’s far more mellow as a ghost though, pitying his killer and hanging out with Becker, just as dead but far less sanguine about Eric, who’s now moved on to Karine… Damien’s ex-girl Sal was always wild and she too is making use of Eric’s hound-dog ways…

‘Flesh Safari’ returns the spotlight to Eric. His stepdad is wise to him but Marie’s father still trusts him to look after his little girl. When the youngsters go to a rich kid’s party at Coralie’s place, Fly boy is set up and humiliated, but does meet a new friend in the outcast intellectual David, before spitefully punishing Marie by sleeping with his host’s mother…

‘Maternal Damage’ shows the turmoil afflicting Marie’s mother and just how close to the breaking point she is, whilst ‘Superhero’ follows Eric as Sal leads him into trouble and somebody administers a particularly efficient punishment beating. Moreover, even though Eric has done with Marie he can’t bear her seeing a new guy and inflicts some rough injustice of his own.

We learn some intriguing and unsavoury insights about David in ‘Robin Redux’ before the focus switches to Ringo: a full-throttle psychopath who isn’t happy at all when he asks for his bag back and Eric discovers somebody’s taken it…

Ringo sees ghosts too, but they are no help when his Boss Ramos gets heavy. Eric and Marie are in deep trouble until somebody intercedes from ambush and there’s one more phantom in the cast…

‘Crazy Horse’ finds Eric still haunting Karine until he has a strange and disturbing encounter with Marie’s dad and this intermediate book ends on a foreboding spiritual high note with ‘2,969 Light Years From Earth’ as Damien takes steps to protect his loved ones from an angry spirit and each other. Meanwhile, the bag thief is revealed and the repercussions of all the messed up crap the residents have been inflicting on each other is coming to a head. The doorbell rings…

…And readers will have to wait for the concluding book to discover how this stunning, mesmerising amalgam of Twin Peaks, Desert Palms, Peyton Place, The Omen and Blue Velvet plays out. A stylish and magical portmanteau saga of a community cursed with an excess of human frailty – lust, rage, greed, despair and especially shallow selfishness – this is a story that will surprise, compel, distress and haunt anybody with even half an imagination.

Darkly addictive, casually violent and graphically sexual, King of the Flies is “adults only” and well worth waiting until you’re 18 for…
© 2005 Glenat Editions/Drugstore. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

The Return of Mister X


By Gilberto, Mario & Jaime Hernandez, Dean Motter & others (Graphitti Designs)
ISBN: 0-936211-03-2

It’s the same old story.

Sometimes chaos and acrimony can produce something uniquely beautiful. At the height of the 1980s independent comics explosion a group of very talented individuals briefly got on long enough to produce a visual masterpiece that perfectly captured the tone of the times, before personalities, fame, money and conflicting ideas brought everything down in disaffection and anger.

In 1983 illustrator and designer Dean Motter created an iconic visual image of a trench-coated bald man in smoked glasses. That evocative beginning grew into the concept of a tormented genius, drawn back to atone for his greatest creation – an incredible retro-futuristic metropolis. It was the 1980’s: the era of style over substance and fortunes and careers had been built on so much less…

Motter took the concept to Canadian indie publisher Vortex and brought in more experienced comics artists Paul Rivoche and Klaus Schönefeld to further develop the series. After an initial appearance in the company’s anthology Vortex #2 and a stunning poster campaign by Rivoche a new comicbook debuted. Already creative differences were pulling the team apart. Some session creators were needed to finish the job…

‘The Return of Mr. X’, scripted by Gilberto and Mario Hernandez with Motter, illustrated in a slick and compelling celebration of pure, synthesised-and-street-ready nostalgia by the inimitable Jaime Hernandez (all lavishly coloured by Rivoche and Schönefeld) blended a veritable bucket-load of cool influences into a staggeringly impressive melange of German Expressionism and American Film Noir, referencing also elements of pop science fiction, gangster movies, Art Deco, Bauhaus architectural design, LA street culture and the budding lexicon of graphic imagery from a brand new phenomenon – the music video…

Although Los Bros departed after completing the first story-arc in issue #4, citing payment disputes, the series carried on until 1985 with another ten issues by Motter and artist Seth rounding out volume 1: after which a second, black and white volume by writer Jeffrey Morgan illustrated by Shane Oakley, D’Iraeli and Ken Holewczynski was released in 1989. Since then the character has appeared sporadically under diverse hands including Motter, Bill Sienkiewicz, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and others. Most recently Dark Horse revived Mr. X in 2008.

Once upon a time an inspired architect designed the perfect city. With a brilliant mathematician as his partner they proposed the glorious concept of Radiant City, man-made paradise and City of Tomorrow. But as the city grew the scientist killed himself and the artist went mad: pushed by the drug he had invented to stave off time-wasting sleep. Perhaps the real reason was all the betrayals by friends, associates and his lover…

His brains scrambled, Walter Eichmann abandoned his “City of Dreams” allowing others to short-cut, adulterate and bastardize his unique mind-massaging “psychetecture” into something not soothing and beneficial but subtly dangerous. In his absence the rooms and buildings became twisted. The dwellings slowly poisoned the minds and souls of the citizens who occupied them. Le Corbusier called houses “machines for living” and the demented Eichmann had allowed them to become psychological war machines…

Years later, clean, relatively sane, cadaverous and hungry for redemption the mysterious Mr. X comes back to his city, now a gaudy, forbidding, vile and corrupted metropolis. He is armed with the intimate secrets of its genesis and determined to make amends, but to repair the mind-altering topography of the dark Somnopolis he will have to face all his old friends – men and women tainted by years dwelling in his creation and even more greedy, violent and ruthless than they were…

This material has been collected numerous times, but I’m concentrating on the first time: a sleek, luxurious tome which gathered those landmark first four issues – and more specifically the glorious signed, numbered hardback edition produced by high-end specialist printer/publisher Graphitti Designs.

In addition to the wonderful classic adventure this chronicle also includes a full colour by plate-page by Jaime, signed by all concerned, a huge designs, page-roughs and sketches section dubbed the X-files (that’s a catchy title: somebody should do something with that…) plus superbly pithy, short graphic sidebar novelettes entitled Tales From Somnopolis by Gilbert and Mario.

There’s also a tipped in colour plate reproducing Motter’s very first image of Mr. X (originally the cover for Patrick Cowley’s album Megatron Man).

Sexy, scary and funny, compelling and visually astounding, this tale – and this particular edition of it – absolutely captured and epitomised an era where how you looked was as or even more important than what you did – and the very special saga subsequently influenced a generation of comics creators, movie directors and video makers.

Whichever version you read The Return of Mr. X is a saga you must not miss.
© 1986 Vortex Comics Incorporated. All Tights Reserved. This edition © 1986 Graphitti Designs.

100 Bullets: The Hard Way

New Extended review

By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-041-0

When as perfect a story-hook as “what if you were given an untraceable gun, one hundred bullets and a damned good reason” is in the creative hands of talents like Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso you know the resultant drama is going to start big and end spectacularly but even after fifty issues the breakneck pace and heart-stopping tension of this series never faltered and indeed intensified…

With this eighth volume The Hard Way (collecting issues #50-58 of the 100 Bullets monthly comic) comes a ramping-up of suspense as a lot of questions are (partially) answered and the myriad players take their positions for the apocalyptic finale – still half a c-note away…

The key piece here is the full, complete and true history of the United States of America and the origins of the Trust: illicit brotherhood of hereditary crime-kings who have controlled the nation since before it even was a country.

In ‘Prey for Reign’ a guy walks into a bar…

So many stories start that way, but when the guy is reactivated Minuteman Victor Ray (100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call) and the beer-and-buddies yarn he spins concerns the secret history of America, you’d better listen…

Not long after Columbus stumbled upon America, thirteen European crime-families migrated to his New World and clandestinely carved up the continent between them. When the new nation was born the Trust embedded itself in every aspect of it.

To prevent their own greed and ambition screwing up the sweetest deal in history the Families created an extraordinary taskforce to mediate and police any Trust member or faction acting against the best interests of the whole. Dubbed the Minutemen they were always led by the kind of peacekeeper needed to keep them honest and actively cooperating – a man uniquely honest, dedicated, smart and remorseless.

A few years ago Trust leaders decided they no longer needed overseers and acted with characteristic ruthlessness to remove them. Betrayed Minutemen leader Agent Graves didn’t take his dismissal lying down and has been manipulating events and people to rectify that injustice.

For years he has been appearing to various betrayed and defeated people as a “Court of Last Resort” offering answers, secrets, an untraceable handgun and 100 Bullets… Now Victor sits in bar spilling secrets, knowing that since all the listeners are murderous thieves awaiting a payoff that will never come, there’s little chance of this history lesson going public…

The Trust is under attack. House leaders have been killed, and as the surviving members convene to utterly rewrite their 400 year old accord, scattered members of Grave’s old team circle in the wings. Wylie Times (100 Bullets: A Foregone Tomorrow) resurfaces in New Orleans on another mysterious mission and takes up temporary residence in a jazz bar whilst waiting to make his move…

‘Wylie Runs the Voodoo Down’ finds him confronting Trust facilitator/fixer Mr. Shepherd and newest Minuteman Dizzy Cordova (also 100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call) whilst stumbling onto a particularly grisly murder. Hunted by the brutal killers and torn by guilt over his lost love Rose, Wylie becomes too involved in the tragic lives of (relatively) ordinary folks until the grim reality of his past painfully, horrifyingly reminds him that his old masters have a long reach and their dirty fingers in every pie…

For someone like Wylie however, the safest escape plan is to remove all possible threats and the cataclysmic conclusion of this compulsive seven-chapter saga sees more than one major player taken off the board…

The book ends with ‘Coda smoke’ as dishonoured Minuteman Lono and cellmate Loop Hughes (100 Bullets: Samurai) get a shocking phone call and rush to Shepherd’s aid. It appears the man with all the answers was betrayed by his most trusted agent. How bad must it be if an ex-con and a sociopath with impulse-control issues are the first number on your speed-dial…?

Beginning as one of the best crime-comics in decades, 100 Bullets imperceptibly grew into a terrifyingly imaginative conspiracy thriller of vast scope and dazzling, intricate detail. Azzarello and Risso have never been accused of underestimating their audience’s intelligence – or appetite for blood, sex, intrigue and action.

If there are still any shock-starved story fans – grown-up, paid-up, immured to harsh language and unshaken by rude, nude and very violent behaviour – who aren’t addicted to this astounding epic crime-thriller yet, get out there and grab every one of these graphic novels at all costs! You need them all and the very best is yet to come…

© 2004, 2005 Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Anarcoma


By Nazario, translated by David H. Rosenthal (Catalan Communications)
No ISBN

Here’s another warning: this book is filled with graphic homosexual acts, full frontal nudity and coarse language: if that causes you any offence don’t buy this book and don’t read this review. The rest of us will manage without you.

You know what it’s like: sometimes you’re just in the mood for something challenging, different or just plain nasty and nothing better sums up that feeling than this startling pastiche of film noir chic transposed into the even grimmer, darker and nastier milieu of the gay-underworld of post-Franco Spain.

Francisco Franco Bahamonde was a right-wing general who ruled the country from 1947 until his death in 1975, “on behalf” of a puppet monarchy helpless to resist him. His repressive Christian-based attitudes held the country in an iron time-lock for decades as the rest of the world moved an around him. Vera Luque Nazario was an intellectual, college professor and cartoonist living under the fascist regime, but inspired by the freedom and exuberant graphic license displayed in American underground commix, especially the works of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and possibly Spain Rodriguez.

In an oppressive state that openly advocated the “curing” of homosexuals, Nazario founded an artist’s collective or “contracultural group” in 1971 to produce home-grown underground commix (El Rollo Enmascarado, Paupérrimus, Catalina, Purita and others) often incurring the wrath of the Francoist censors and police. His work received far fairer treatment outside Spain, appearing in such groundbreaking mature magazines as It, Actuel, Oz, Gai Pied, and L’Echo des Savanes.

When Franco died the country opened up and there was a tumultuous cascade of artistic expression. Extremely strident adult material designed to shock began to appear in new magazines such as El Víbora, Cannibale and Frigidaire. After years of comics production multi-talented artist Nazario eventually moved into design and record cover production. In recent years he has concentrated on painting and his first prose novel was released in 2006.

Anarcoma began as strip in a porn magazine, but that quickly folded and the artist transferred the feature to El Víbora in 1979, reveling in homoerotic excess in a magazine with no censorial boundaries. It ran for years and this hardcover translation is but the first collection of many.

Symbols of freedom never came more outrageously formed that Anarcoma; a spectacularly endowed, star-struck transvestite private detective who hangs all-out in the notorious red-light district of Las Ramblas. A stunning blend of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall “she” works as prostitute and club entertainer while pursuing her dream of becoming a real gumshoe like the ones in the American movies she adores…

Life is complicated: ex-army buddy Humphrey is her current her boyfriend, but he won’t leave his wife and kids and Anarcoma’s hobby has won her no friends among both the cops and the criminal gangs run by the ruthless Captain Seahorse. Moreover there are even weirder and more dangerous folk around…

After a series of profound prose appreciations from Alberto Cardín and Ludolfo Paramio and a thoroughly absorbing cartoon cast-list, the ultra-explicit adventure begins…

The city is in turmoil: Professor Onliyu’s latest invention has been stolen. Nobody knows what it does but everybody wants it and Anarcoma thinks she has a lead…

The trail leads through all the sleaziest dives and dens, and implicates almost everybody at one time or another, but when the manic religious order The Black Count and his Knights of Saint Represent and feminist paramilitaries Metamorphosina and her One-Eyed Piranhas start their own conflicting campaigns for the missing machine, Anarcoma is distracted and almost loses her life to a mysterious sex-robot XM2.

Luckily her charms extend and affect even artificial he-men…

Outrageously brutal and sexually graphic, this devastatingly ironic genre mish-mash is audacious and bizarre, but unflinchingly witty as is probes the role of hero in society and eulogises the heady power of liberation.

Anarcoma was first released in 1980, but even by today’s laxer standards the incredibly violent and satirically, staggeringly baroque pastiche is a shocking, controversial piece of work. Raw, shocking and wickedly delightful; the perfect walk on the wild side for people with open minds and broad tastes.
© 1983 by Nazario. English edition © 1983 Catalan Communications. All Rights Reserved.

The Ditko Collection Volume 2 1973-1976


By Steve Ditko, edited by Robin Snyder (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-930193-27-X

After Steve Ditko left Marvel where his astounding work made the reclusive genius a household name (at least in comicbook terms) he continued working for Charlton Comics and in DC in 1968 began a sporadic association with DC by creating cult classics The Hawk and the Dove and the superbly captivating Beware… The Creeper. It was during this period that the first strips derived from his interpretation of the Objectivist philosophy of novelist Ayn Rand began appearing in fanzines and independent press publications like Witzend and The Collector.

This second softcover book, collected from a variety of independent sources by fan and bibliographer Robin Snyder, represents the remainder of a canon of lost treasures by a driven and dedicated artistic trailblazer whose beliefs have never faltered, whose passion never waned and whose art never stagnated. Produced in bold collage, abstract calligraphic and design essays and a variety of vibrant black and strips in his utterly unique cartoon style, these strident, occasionally didactic, but always bold, impassioned and above all – for Ditko never forgets that this is a medium of Narrative and Art – gripping stories and parables of some of his most honest – and infamous – characters.

The most common complaint about this area of Ditko’s work – and there have been lots – is the sometimes hectoring nature of the dialectic. Nobody likes to be lectured to, but it’s an astonishingly effective method of imparting information: our schools and Universities depend on the form as their primary tool of communication, just as Ditko’s is the comic strip artform.

He’s showing you a truth he believes – but at no time is he holding a gun to your head. If you disagree that’s up to you. He grants you the courtesy of acknowledging you as equal and demands that you act like one. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. It’s a viewpoint and tactic an awful lot of religions could benefit from.

After a new but unused cover piece and an introduction from editor Snyder the polemical panoply gathered here begins with the contents of self-published magazine The Avenging World (1973), beginning with an eponymous cartoon and collage directory of terms-defining vignettes after which some of his most impassioned artwork expands the arguments in ‘The Avenging World Part 2’, followed by the cover of that landmark publication and a highly charged parable ‘The Deadly Alien’.

At heart Ditko is an unreconstructed maker of stories and with ‘Liberty or Death: Libage Vs Chain’ (from the Collector 1974) he returns to the narrative idiom of enigmatic masked mystery heroes for a gripping tale of totalitarian barbarism and the struggle for freedom. ‘Who Owns Original Art?’ is a philosophical statement in essay form after which his satirically barbed ‘H Series: The Screamer’ perfectly marries superheroics, adventure, comedy and blistering social commentary.

After a selection of covers from Wha, the assorted contents follow beginning with hard-bitten incorruptible cop Kage who determinedly solves ‘The Case of the Silent Voice’ despite interference, apathy, malfeasance and the backsliding of his own bosses. ‘Premise to Consequence’ uses Ditko’s facility for exotic science fiction to examine truth and reality and sinister silent avenger ‘The Void’ reveals how even the best of men can betray their own principles.

‘The Captive Spark’ displays Ditko’s beliefs from the birth of civilisation to the sorry present whilst ‘Masquerade’ delightfully follows two journalists as they simultaneously and independently decide to crack a troubling story by becoming masked adventurers. The volume dedicates the remainder of its content to the final amazing exploits of Ditko’s purest ideological champion – the utterly uncompromising Mr. A

TV reporter Rex Graine is secretly Mr. A: white suited, steel-masked, coldly savage, challenging society, ruthlessly seeking Truth and utterly incapable of moral compromise. In most respects A is an extreme extension of faceless agent of Justice The Question as seen in all his glory in DC’s Action Heroes Archive volume 2

From Mr. A #2 (1975) after the gloriously moody cover comes the gripping battle against duplicitous prestidigitator and media-darling bandit ‘Count Rogue’ and his startling solo campaign against ‘The Brotherhood of the Collective’ whose bullyboy tactics include racketeering, slander, murder and imposture. Also included here is the stunning Mr. A page from the 1976 San Diego Comic Con Program Booklet, a tantalising “coming next” page for the tragically unreleased ‘Mr. A Vs The Polluters’ and this collection culminates with a true graphic tour de force as the incorruptible, unswerving White Knight battles the ultimate threat in a wordless, untitled masterpiece fans know as ‘Mr. A: Death Vs Love-Song’ (which appeared in The Comic Crusader Storybook in 1976 and from which the cover of this collection is taken).

I love comics. Steve Ditko has produced a disproportionate amount of my favourite, formative fiction over the decades. His is a unique voice wedded to an honest heart blessed with the captivating genius of a graphic master. The tales here have seldom been seen elsewhere; never often enough and always with little fanfare. If you can find this volume and its predecessor you’ll see a lot of his best work, undiluted by colour, and on lovely large (274x212mm) white pages.

Even if you can’t find these, find something – because Steve Ditko is pure comics.
All works © 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1986 Steve Ditko for The Avenging World, The Collector, Inside Comics, Comics Crusader, Wha, Mr. A, San Diego Comic Con Program Booklet and Comic Crusader Storybook respectively. All Rights Reserved.

100 Bullets: Samurai


By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-800-3

Not long after Columbus landed in America, thirteen ancient European crime-families migrated to the New World and clandestinely carved up the continent in perpetuity between them. As the country grew cultured and a new nation was born the Trust embedded itself in every aspect of it.

To prevent their own greed and ambition from destroying the sweetest deal in history the Families created an extraordinary police force to mediate and act when any Trust member or faction acted against the unity and best interests of the whole. They were called the Minutemen and were always led by the kind of peacekeeper needed to keep them honest and actively cooperating – a man uniquely honest, dedicated, smart and remorseless.

Not too long ago though, The Trust’s leaders decided they no longer needed overseers and acted with characteristic ruthlessness to remove them. Betrayed Minutemen leader Agent Graves didn’t take his dismissal well and has been slowly enacting a plan to rectify that casual injustice. For years he has been appearing to various betrayed and defeated people as a “Court of Last Resort” offering answers, secrets, an untraceable handgun and 100 Bullets…

Beginning as one of the best crime-comics in decades, 100 Bullets slowly, steadily transformed into a captivating conspiracy thriller of terrifying scope and immense, intimate detail. With this seventh volume (collecting issues #43-49 of the magnificently adult comicbook) creators Azzarello and Risso began arraying their huge cast of pawns and key pieces for the endgame and unguessable conclusion even though it was only the halfway point of the show…

With ‘Chill in the Oven’ the action switches to a maximum security prison where Loop Hughes is just getting out of solitary. Sadly that’s only the beginning of his problems since both the convict alpha dogs and the guards have been waiting for this moment…

Luckily, or probably not, the heat is temporarily off since the new intake includes the most dangerous sociopath nut-job in America… Lono, a brutal force of nature planning to take charge even from behind bars, fresh from an unexpected encounter in 100 Bullets: Six Feet Under the Gun. Sadly, the murderous ex-Minuteman also has a score to settle with Loop too…

When the Trust’s fixer Shepherd pays a surprise visit Lono realises who is behind all his problems if not why and decides to take matters into his own calloused, bloodstained hands…

Meanwhile out in the free world junkie Jack Daw (100 Bullets: A Foregone Tomorrow) still has one of those untraceable guns and is travelling south with his skeevy pal Mikey. ‘In Stinked’ finds the pair laying low at a seedy wild animal park that secretly caters to “businessmen” who want to kill a big cat without the hassle of licenses, laws or leaving the country…

Jack clearly thinks he has more in common with the caged beasts but when he discovers what else goes on at Jungle Land the lost boy finally makes a stand that leaves the walls red and nobody standing…

Wicked, clever, blackly funny and gloriously, gratuitously vicarious, this ultra-violent, sex-stuffed, profanity-packed, utterly addictive thrill ride goes from strength to strength but always pay close attention! Every beautiful panel on every thrilling page might hold clues to the grand saga unfolding before your eyes.

If there are still any of you rush-starved story fans – grown-up, paid-up, immured to harsh language and unshaken by rude, nude and very violent behaviour – who aren’t addicted to this compulsive classic yet, get out there and grab every one of these graphic novels at all costs! You need them all and the very best is yet to come…

© 2003, 2004 Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Outer Space Spirit: 1952


By Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer & Wally Wood (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 0-87816-012-4

In keeping with the dolorous nature of this time of year I’m concentrating on a few missed opportunities in this period between the dubious joys of Christmas and the nervous anticipation of the New Year so here’s a graphic novel that in some ways didn’t live up to all it could have been – not necessarily because of the material itself but because of the kind of world we live in…

It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of those pivotal creators who shaped the American comic book industry, with most of his graphic works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. However, although the story can be found as part of the recent Spirit Archive volume 24, this classy monochrome volume from much-missed independent publisher Kitchen Sink in 1983 released in both hardback and softcover, is by far a better reading experience.

Sometimes the Medium is the Message, especially when the artefact is a substantially solid tome delivering magical artwork in crisp, breathtaking black and white which details – not only in the reprinted strips but also sketches, incidental artwork and author’s breakdown layouts – the last and most striking saga of one of the world’s greatest fantasy characters.

From 1936 to 1938 Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew opening instalments for 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 comicbook insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. 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 and distaff 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 feature for his own playground and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 he had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips, working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, and generally leaving comics books behind.

For the final year or so the bulk of Spirit tales were produced by other hands with assistant Jules Feiffer handling the bulk of the scripts and diverse artists producing the art. Feiffer preferred to map out his episodes in rough pencil with word balloons and captions fully scripted: once approved by Eisner the roughs would then be interpreted by the assigned artist for the individual episodes. The long-term plan was not to cancel The Spirit but to redefine it for a new decade and expand the Eisner studio/company beyond and around it – but that’s not quite how it played out.

As seen in the scholarly introduction by Cat Yronwoode and Eisner’s own director’s commentary ‘Reminiscence’, the plans to reposition The Spirit were not welcomed by the client papers buying the strip; the creators handling the feature had different creative goals and drives and Eisner himself couldn’t quite let go of his precious baby.

Even though society and comicbooks were wildly in love with the bold new genre of space opera science fiction and Eisner had previously dabbled with the form in a few previous adventures, a large number of Spirit clients and readers did not want any “flying saucer spacey stuff” on their Sunday funnies pages. Moreover the brilliantly sardonic, existentialist and sensitively satirical Feiffer was approaching the tales in a bleak, almost nihilistic way, emphasising existentialist isolation, human frailty and the passing of an era rather than rugged he-men with hot babes in bikinis and fishbowl helmets…

After a succession of fill-in draughtsmen Wally Wood was selected as artist, a stunningly gifted imaginer who had been reaching unparalleled heights with his work for EC and other comicbook Sci Fi publishers. Wood had actually begun his professional career on the Spirit in the 1940s as a letterer and was fantastically keen on the new project, but the merciless deadlines and his overwhelming desire to surmount his own high standards soon had the saga experiencing deadline problems on top of everything else…

After the text features, the first episode ‘Outer Space’ begins, preceded as are most of the strips here by Feiffer’s meticulous and detailed script layouts. First appearing on Sunday, July 27th 1952, it saw Denny Colt, The Spirit, managing a crew of convict volunteers on an American rocketship to the moon, at the insistent request of eminent space scientist Professor Hartley Skol. However this was a new hero for an uncertain age. The tough, fun-loving, crime-fighting daredevil had become a cautious, introspective leader, feeling fully the weight of his mission and the burden of unwelcome responsibilities.

‘Mission: the Moon’ (August 3rd 1952), follows Colt, Professor Skol and the pardoned felons onto the satellite’s barren surface and recounts the Spirit’s first victory as he heads off a potential mutiny with reason, not force, whilst ‘A DP on the Moon’ reveals how closely Eisner still monitored the series.

DP’s were “Displaced Persons” a common term in the post-war world, and when the explorers find a diary in the lunar dust, it reveals that the world’s greatest dictator and his inner circle fled to the moon to escape Allied justice. Unfortunately they could not outrun their own paranoia and madness…

In the original script and finished art the diarist is Adolf Hitler, but the grim fate that befell his fellow Nazis was altered at the very last moment by Eisner, who felt the plot already old hat. Swift retouching transformed Der Fuehrer into fictitious Latin American dictator Francisco Rivera and the revised version ran on August 10th 1952. It still reads well but if you look carefully those uniforms in the background flashbacks are hauntingly familiar…

With ‘Heat on the Moon’ the deadline crunch hit, and one and a half pages of spectacular Lunar exploration by Wood abruptly segue to a “meanwhile back on Earth” scene by Eisner, featuring Chief Dolan, daughter Ellen and a criminal with a vested interest in assuring that at least one of the moon volunteers isn’t pardoned.

Following their first fatality the mission began to go swiftly awry and ‘Rescue’ (the instalments now cut to only four pages in an attempt to fight the deadline doom) saw another body-blow to the expedition. Defeated and demoralised Spirit decided to return the survivors to Earth…

‘The Last Man on the Moon’ depicted the launch from the moon as on Earth another gangster attempted to scotch the return trip. The mission, clearly cursed, suffered one more disaster as a convict sneaks away before take-off, becoming, with the September 7th episode ‘The Man in the Moon’.

On September 14th the inevitable occurred and the feature was forced to run a modified reprint (‘The Amulet of Osiris’ from the late 1940s) before Wood resurfaced to illustrate the philosophically barbed ‘Return from the Moon’ on September 21st. As Denny Colt and the remaining lunar-nauts debate the nature of reality, Eisner stepped in with the help of Al Wenzel to produce ‘The Return’ a hasty wrap-up that still found room for a close encounter with a flying saucer.

A scheduling blip saw an alternate version of the return a week later (not included here) and the last episode ‘Denny Colt, UFO Investigator’ ran on October 5th 1952: an inconclusive new beginning illustrated by Klaus Nordling. The strip died with that episode as Eisner, increasingly occupied with military work, and bleeding client-papers, terminated the feature.

But that isn’t quite the end: this book also includes in various forms what would have been the next three chapters, discovered in Eisner’s extensive file vault in the early 1980s. First is a fully lettered Feiffer layout, followed by a sequence of lettered pages prior to the art being drawn and the first (and only) typed script from assigned new creator Nordling.

Tense, suspenseful, dark and fearsomely compelling, these are the stories that killed off the Spirit for nearly two decades, but today they stand as a mini-masterpiece of modern comics storytelling that was quite simply, too far advanced for its audience. For we survivors of Cold War, Space Race and Budget-cut scientific exploration they are a chilling and intensely prophetic examination of human nature in a Brave New World rendered with all the skill and frantic passion of some of comics’ greatest talents.

What wonders could have followed if the readers had come along with them?
© 1983 Kitchen Sink Press. © Art and stories 1983 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

The Last Days of American Crime


By Rick Remender & Greg Tocchini (Radical Books)
ISBN: 978-0-935417-06-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for thrillseekers needing to get that pulse pounding again…  8/10

If you’re in need of a sobering dose of deeply disturbing hyper-reality then I thoroughly recommend this brilliant, extremely adult, cross-genre thriller which posits a fascinating premise, starts the countdown clock ticking down and delivers a killer kick to finish the rollercoaster ride.

America is a mess and the government need to take drastic action if they want to keep control. Terrorism and crime are rampant but luckily the boffins have come up with a radical solution: the American Peace Initiative – a broadcast frequency that utterly suppresses the ability to knowingly break a law. Any law.

Taking the radical decision to make all lawbreaking impossible (which is the only logical flaw I can find: what politician is ever going to make bribery obsolete?), and fearing a social meltdown in the run-up to going live, the powers-that-be also set up a distraction in the form of a complete switch-over from a cash economy to universal electronic transfers – an unstealable digital currency.

From D-Day on citizens will top up pay-cards from charging machines which are tamper-proof and impossible to hack and from that day every transaction in the USA will be recorded and traceable and every illegal purchase – drugs, guns, illicit sex – impossible…

In the weeks before the big switchover there is a huge exodus for the borders of Canada and Mexico and a total breakdown of law and order in the country’s most degenerate areas, but generally everybody seems resigned to the schemes – even when the anti-lawbreaking API broadcast plan is leaked…

With the world about to change forever low-rent career criminal Graham Bricke spots a chance for the biggest score of his life. He’s working as a security guard in one of the banks that will house the new currency technology and has an unmissable opportunity to steal one of the charging machines before the system is locked down forever. Unfortunately because of the API broadcast he has to pull off the caper before it becomes impossible to even contemplate theft…

In a hurry and needing specialised help Bricke and his silent partner are forced to hire a crew of strangers, but as the days dwindle he realises that safecracker Kevin Cash and hacker Shelby Dupree are trouble: a murderous psychotic and crazed libidinous wild-child with daddy issues. If only he can work out which is which…

Moreover there are other distractions. Graham is being hunted by a manic gangbanger and his posse and there’s a good chance at least one of his team are planning a double-cross…

This is a fascinating idea carried out with dizzying style and astounding panache: smart, sexy, unbelievably violent and utterly compelling, combining all the brooding energy of The Wire, the unremitting tension of 24’s first season and the off-centre charm of Reservoir Dogs. It has blockbuster movie written all over it – which is no surprise as Remender’s previous efforts include comicbooks, like All-New Atom , X-Men and Punisher, computer games Dead Space and Bulletstorm and the animated feature Titan A.E.

Cannily concocted by Rick Remender and stunningly executed in dazzling colour by Greg Tocchini, this economical paperback also includes an extensive sketch and design section, an interview with the author and a lavish cover gallery which includes variants from Alex Malleev, Jerome Opeña & Matt Wilson and Joel dos Reis Viegas.

Short. Sharp. Shocking. Let’s hope they can do it again…

© 2010 Rick Remender and Radical Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

Teen-Aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls


By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman & various (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 0-913035-79-3   ISBN-13: 978-0-913035-79-5

As the flamboyant escapist popularity of superheroes waned after World War II newer genres such as Romance and Horror came to the fore and older forms regained their audiences. Some, like Westerns and Funny Animal comics hardly changed at all but crime and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the times.

Stark, uncompromising, cynically ironic novels and socially aware, mature-themed B-movies that would become categorised as Film Noir offered post-war society a bleakly antiheroic worldview that often hit too close to home and set fearful, repressive, middleclass parent groups and political ideologues howling for blood.

Naturally the new forms seeped into comics, transforming two-fisted gumshoe and Thud and Blunder cop strip-thrillers of yore into darkly beguiling and frightening tales of seductive dames, big pay-offs and glamorous thugs. Sensing imminent Armageddon, the moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

From that turbulent period a number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from the doomsmiths and particular celebration amongst us tragic, psychologically scarred comics-collecting victims, so in 1989 Eclipse Comics parceled together a bunch of the most salacious, shocking, sensationalistic, best written and drawn examples, produced by an impressive variety of superstars and anonymous unsung draftsmen purely in the interest of historical research…

Still readily available through internet suppliers at extremely reasonable prices, this cool chronicle opens with a handy and informative introduction from Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney before the sordid spectacle begins with the outrageously trashy tale of Faith: a Bad-Girl-gone-Badder, who only just found redemption in the arms of her equally penitent-and-going-straight ideal man Jeff. There’s no record of who scripted ‘Reform School Girl!’ (1951) but the splendidly kinetic art comes from Louis Zansky.

There are no credits at all for ‘Trapped!’ (also from 1951, and can I detect hints of John Rosenberger or Paul Reinman?); the tale of High School kid Bill Jones, sucked into a spiral of failing grades, lost friends and rebellion against parents and adults after he tries a reefer in the boys toilets. Fear not, however: love, decency and understanding once more save the day.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby ushered in the American age of mature comics, not only with their creation of the Romance genre but with challenging modern tales of real people in extraordinary situations, seen in their other magazines produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines. From Headline Comics #27 (1947) comes the stunning saga of Stella Mae Dickson… ‘The Bobby Sox Bandit Queen.’

Fictionalising true crime cases was tremendously popular at the time and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K as this incredibly hard-punching saga shows with the tale of a young girl willingly drawn into a life of robbery and violence. Her ending was not so happy…

Next up is something of an oddity but still addictively enthralling for all that. ‘Lucky Fights it Through’ was published in 1949, a popular song adapted in 16 pages by Harvey Kurtzman (there’s even a sheet music section) as part of an educational comics project sponsored by Columbia University (as was Trapped!), a contemporary western saga about an ignorant cow-poke (don’t! It’s what they were called, not what they did) dealing with and explaining how to cope with Syphilis.

Crime Detector #5 (September 1954) provided two anonymous stories: ‘Gun Happy’ and the single pager which closes this volume. The former details the sad, brief life of juvenile delinquent Thomas Parker whose obsessive love of firearms took him into the army and Korea but who couldn’t stop the shooting once he returned.

He is followed by a second Simon & Kirby classic from Headline Comics #28. ‘I Worked For the Fence!’ outlines the sorry tale of show-girl Monica who found the lure of a smooth-tongued hustler and other people’s jewels too great to resist, before the major part of this tome relates the shocking fall and rise of a High School Jock dragged down by narcotic addiction until medical attention and the love of a devoted girl dragged him back from the edge…

The notorious ‘Teen-Aged Dope Slaves’ by Martin Bradley & Frank Edgington came from Harvey Comics Library #1 (April 1952) but was actually a resized reprint of a sequence from popular family newspaper strip Rex Morgan, M.D. Nonetheless, for all its strident preachiness, it remains a powerful, well-meaning drama that never forgets the cartoon doctor’s prime doctrine “First, Don’t be Boring.”

That aforementioned one-pager from Crime Detector closes the volume on a tantalising high note as Homicide Inspector Craig challenges the reader to solve the fair-play mystery of ‘The Deadly Needle’

These black and white tales from a simpler a time about a society in meltdown are mild by modern standard of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make them far more than a mere historical curiosity. Teen-Aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls is a book well worth your time and attention, but please beware: such material can be habit-forming…
© 1989 Eclipse Enterprises, Inc. Individual strips are © 1947-1954 their respective creators/copyright holders.

Will Eisner Color Treasury


By Will Eisner, written by Catherine Yronwoode (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 0-87816-006-X

It is pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the key creative forces who shaped the American comic book industry, with most of his graphic works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. But as far as I know at least one of his milestones has generally escaped public attention.

From 1936 to 1938 Eisner worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production firm known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips to be published in both domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created 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 comicbook insert to be given away with the Sunday editions. 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 and distaff 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, working 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-enamored 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, with the groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract With God.

If Jack Kirby is the American comicbook’s most influential artist, Will Eisner is undoubtedly 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.

This fictionalised series of tales about the Jewish immigrant experience led to a wonderful succession of challenging, controversial and breathtakingly human stories for adults which changed how comics were perceived in America… and all because the inquisitive perfectionist was asked to produce some new covers for old stories.

This glorious oversized hardback (still available through internet retailers) features two full Spirit adventures, fully re-coloured by the master (who was never particularly pleased with how his strips were originally limned), pencil sketches and a magnificent confection of those aforementioned covers – plus some really rare extras.

The eerie 1948 chiller ‘Lorelei of Odyssey Road’ leads off this tome followed by a barely seen science fiction Spirit story. ‘The Invader’ – produced in the 1970s as the result of a teaching gig Eisner had at Sheridan College in Canada.

Eisner created the first page in class to show students the fundamentals of comics creation, and after months of coaxing was convinced to complete the tale, which was published in an extremely limited edition as the Tabloid Press Spirit in 1973. The action and sly, counter-culture comedy is impressively compact and well coordinated: ‘The Invader’ comfortably fits 57 panels into its five pages whereas the old eight-page yarns used to average a mere 50 frames…

Following two gloriously lush wraparound Kitchen Sink covers (complete with a pencil rough) and the hilarious cover to underground anthology Snarf #3, the single page Warren pieces commence. Originally seen on issues #2 through 10 they have all been re-mastered by Eisner and are simply stunning.

After these come the fully-painted wraparounds (all magnificently presented as double-page spreads) that graced the Kitchen Sink Spirit issues #18,-24, #27-29 and #31 and then the rare 1977 Spirit Portfolio is reproduced in the same generous proportions: eleven stunning paintings encapsulating key moments in the masked detective’s astonishing career.

‘The Hideaway’, ‘The Scene of the Crime’, ‘The Women’, ‘The Duel’, ‘Dead End’, ‘The Convention’, ‘The Rescue’, ‘The Chase’, ‘The Capture’ and ‘The City’ plus the portfolio cover are followed by the contents of 1980’s ‘City: a Narrative Portfolio’ a series of evocative black line and sepia ghetto images with obverse blank verse and cameo images dealing with the eternal themes that shape man as a metropolitan dweller. Once more including the cover image, ‘The Spark’, ‘The City’, ‘Predators’, ‘Mugger’, ‘Family’ and ‘Life’ are powerfully moving and magically rendered one-frame stories that presage his growing use of the urban landscape as an integral character in his later works.

With a fascinating biography and commentary from historian and publisher Cat Yronwoode this book is a lavish treat for Eisner aficionados, but the treats still aren’t exhausted: there are also rare colour works and illustrations from Cosmos magazine and Esquire, plus poster art, unpublished Spirit paintings and a preview of his then forthcoming book Big City

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.
© 1981 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.