Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9

By Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond (iPL)
ISBN: 0-930330-5-6-995

If you’re a fan of crime and adventure fiction or in any way familiar with the 1930’s the names Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond will be ones you know. What you might not be so aware of is their brief shared endeavour on one of the most respected and beloved of American newspaper strips.

In the 1930’s the power of newspaper strips to capture and hold vast audiences was unsurpassed (see The Adventurous Decade for further details). When the revolutionary Dick Tracy launched in 1931 for the Chicago Tribune-News Syndicate, it caused a sensation, and gritty, two-fisted crime-busting heroes became the order of the day. Publishers Syndicate released Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 as a response in 1933, and the usually quick-acting William Randolph Hearst was forced to respond from the back foot.

He ordered Joe Connelly, head of King Features, to produce their own He-Man G-Man, and to spare no expense. That meant pursuing America’s most popular mystery writer, who luckily for them spent money like water.

Despite having just released his fifth novel The Thin Man (following The Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), being a regular and popular contributor to Pulps such as Black Mask and having recently established himself as a major Hollywood screenwriter, the ex-Pinkerton detective was a hard-living firebrand who lived “a life on the edge” and could always use more money.

The artist was to be, after a casting call that included Will (Red Barry) Gould and major illustrator Russell Patterson, a young man named Alexander Raymond, who since working as an assistant on such popular strips as Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, had just been signed by Hearst to produce a new Sunday strip to challenge the science fiction blockbuster Buck Rogers. As well as his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Raymond would illustrate one of the most high-profile crime strips of the decade.

Secret Agent X-9 launched as a daily strip on January 22nd 1934 and ran until 10th February 1996 having been handled by some of the biggest and most talented names in comics (including a succession of writers using the King Features house nom de plume Robert Storm), artists Charles Flanders, Mel Graff – who renamed him “Secret Agent Corrigan”, Bob Lubbers, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and George Evans.

The hero himself was based in large part on Hammett’s first creation “The Continental Op”, who debuted in 1923 and starred in both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, but there are also powerful touches of Sam Spade and Nick Charles (hero of but not ever ‘The Thin Man’) in the first year of continuities which introduce the ruthless, relentless detective/quasi-official agent of a nameless Federal organisation dedicated and driven to crushing America’s foes and protecting the innocent.

This collection of the first few tumultuous years begins with ‘You’re the Top’: an introductory tale of a criminal mastermind who uses murder and extortion to undermine society – a fairly common plot elevated to near genius by the sharp plotting and dialogue of Hammett, who was allowed to build the tale and unleash narrative twists at his preferred pace. This first saga took seven breathtaking months to unfold, with Raymond’s clean beautiful lines depicting victims and vamps, the highest of society and lowest of dregs and a frankly startling bodycount…

This was followed by ‘The Mystery of the Silent Guns’ wherein the anonymous X-9 comes to the rescue of a kidnapped millionaire industrialist, a breakneck thriller that ranges from the big city to the wild wide-open prairies and features a spectacular mid-air duel of guns and parachutes.

Although his work was impressive, Hammett’s lifestyle and attitude were a continuing problem for Connelly. Deadlines were missed and it was clear that the writer was bored and losing all interest in the strip. At some unspecified stage of ‘The Martyn Case’ Hammett left King Features with Raymond and unnamed writers concluded the tale of young Jill Martyn, a pawn in a custody battle between rich aunt and dissolute, destitute mother. Of course it’s not just a legal struggle once beatings, abduction and machine guns enter the equation…

Hammett plotted ‘The Torch Case Case’ but again other diverse hands brought the tale to fruition, in a smooth a sexy drama that found X-9 joining the FBI to crack a counterfeiting case. It was April 20th 1935. The next two cases, ‘The Iron Claw Case’ and ‘The Egyptian Jewel Case’ were both written by in-house scripters and for at least part of the first tale the art was “ghosted” (probably by Austin Briggs), whilst a major relaunch of the strip, which never really caught on with the general public, was undertaken.

Casting around for another major name the syndicate decided on British writer Leslie Charteris whose roguish 1928 creation Simon Templar: The Saint (in Meet – the Tiger!) had been followed by 14 immensely popular sequels by the time King Features invited him to assume control of X-9 (he wrote another 36 saint sagas between 1936 and 1978) and was poised to take America by storm thanks to a series of B-Movies starring his affable anti-hero.

Charteris added a kind of suave, capable malice to the character that any fan of James Bond will instantly recognise, but he also produced all but a handful of stories before moving on. This book concludes with his first, and the only one which Alex Raymond drew before he too left – to concentrate of the increasingly successful Flash Gordon.

‘The Fixer’ began on November 25th 1935, and saw the anonymous operative hunting down a criminal quartermaster who provided hardware and supplies for the underworld; a fast-paced whodunit stuffed with sleazy thugs and hot dames that literally rockets to an explosive conclusion.

These early tales of crime-busting and gangsters may not have satisfied Citizen Hearst’s ambitions but they were strong enough to fuel more than five decades of captivating action-packed adventure. This little known collection, produced by an academic publisher, proves (to me at least, and you if you can track down a copy) that the time has never been better for a new and complete chronological collection of this legendary strip.
Story and art © 1983 King Features Syndicate, Ltd. All other material © 1983 International Polygonics, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Punisher: Assassin’s Guild

By Jo Duffy, Jorge Zaffino & Julie Michel (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-460-8

Frank Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit, and thereafter dedicated his life to destroying criminals. His methods are violent and permanent.

Debuting as a villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), the Punisher was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, a reaction to such popular prose anti-heroes as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Wolverine comes to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public shifted its communal perspective – Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act…

After bouncing around the Marvel universe for many years a 1986 miniseries by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck swiftly led to overnight stardom and a plethora of “shoot-‘em-all and let God sort it out” antics that quickly boiled over into tedious overkill, but along the way a few pure gems were cranked out, such as this clever, darkly funny graphic novel from the hugely underrated Jo Duffy and much missed Argentinean artist Jorge Zaffino.

Zaffino died of a heart attack in 2002, aged 43, having been “discovered” in the late 1980s by Eclipse Comics who published the dystopian science fiction thriller Winter World he created with writer Chuck Dixon.

Zaffino’s style of dark, oppressive, macho illustration was seen in America in Batman: Black and White, Savage Sword of Conan, Shadowline: Critical Mass, Terror, Inc., Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, The ‘Nam and Punisher: Kingdom Gone as well as my personal favourite, the crime/horror one-shot Seven Block. Throughout this period he was maintaining a full-time career in his homeland, particularly on the adventure series Wolf, and as a gallery painter.

Frank Castle is pursuing his favourite occupation wiping out scum when he accidentally crosses paths with a rather unique band of paid killers working out of a Japanese restaurant. These assassins are skilled, imaginative, highly professional and mostly kids. Investigating with a view to permanently stopping them he discovers that their motives and ethics aren’t so far removed from his own and moreover that they all have their eyes on the same target…

Sardonic, brutal and powerfully effective this is a top-notch yarn that moves effortlessly from Noir to adventure-caper to tragedy and back again, a genuinely accessible thriller for all genre fans – especially Yakuza gangster movies. Still readily available in the so-satisfying oversized European format (284m x 215m) this hard, fast and deliciously sharp extravaganza has everything that made the Punisher so popular, without any of the charmless excesses that scuppered the first, over-exploited run. This is an unreconstructed guilty pleasure and you know you want it…
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Ltd. All rights reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Son of Man

By Garth Ennis & John Higgins (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-830-3

Garth Ennis ended a spectacular run on the urban wizard and all-around nasty-piece-of-work John Constantine in grand manner with Hellblazer: Rake at the Gates of Hell. By wrapping up all his loose ends and eradicating almost everything built during his tenure Ennis gave the regrettable impression that he was never coming back, but to every fan’s delight he returned with frequent collaborator John Higgins (see Pride and Joy) to craft this terrifying and pitiless tale of urban horror and twisted heritage set in the darkly charismatic London underworld.

During the Falklands War, when John Constantine was still in and out of criminal asylums, gang boss Harry Cooper asked a favour. Already well acquainted with the worst that Hell housed, the cocky young wizard knew true evil when it stuck a gun up his nose and was wise enough to comply.

With a few of his friends – for they weren’t all dead back then – he successfully resurrected Cooper’s dead son, and counted himself lucky to escape with his life and knees intact. No one, especially Cooper, needed to know just how he’d accomplished the impossible.

Twenty years later an older wiser man, he’s being harassed by Copper’s thugs and their bought coppers again. The kid’s all grown up now and taking over the family business, but his actions don’t make sense. Rather than making money, all his efforts seem destined to turn the city into a seething cauldron of race-hate and gang warfare: a literal Hell on Earth.

Now Constantine has to deal with the thing he brought back before it settles with him and all London too – but the outlook is far from rosy…

Collecting issues #129-133 of the monthly comicbook, this is an excellent blend of crime-thriller a la “Cool Britannia” with the signature black comedy-horror that Ennis has made his own, and the expressive, boldly subtle art of John Higgins perfectly captures the brutality, hilarity and sheer fear generated in this terrific thriller.

Grown-up comics simply don’t get better than this and both crime fans and horror lovers can pick this book up with no prior familiarity and still have the time of their lives…

© 1998, 1999, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pride & Joy

By Garth Ennis & John Higgins (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-803-7

Garth Ennis has a well deserved reputation for shocking, moving and wickedly funny storytelling, and is accomplished in blending genres for maximum effect, as his successes with Preacher, Hellblazer, True Faith and a dozen other tales will attest.

One of his least regarded – in my opinion unjustly so – is this saga of a painfully domestic world turned upside down by an unredeemed past. It is a story of dreadfully ordinary folk with none of the baroque or flamboyant characters that populate regular fiction.

There’s this guy called Jimmy Kavanagh. His wife is long-dead, his son Patrick is at that revolting sulky teen age, but at least his little daughter Rachel is still the most beautiful girl in the whole world. Life is hard: his own dad, a war-hero, has just passed on, but the family are doing okay…

That all changes when Jimmy’s stupid past resurfaces. In 1972 he and a couple of his idiot friends dreamed they were going to be big-time hoods when they agreed to rip-off a gang boss. The gig had been planned by the boss’ bodyguard, Stein, who promised them a million dollars… Unfortunately for everybody but Jimmy, his pals were real shmucks, and cocked up the caper. Cops arrived, busted Stein before he could kill them all and took him away for twenty-to-life.

Scared straight by the experience, Jimmy got on with his life – until now. One night he gets a call and his world starts to implode. Coming home to finds the babysitter gutted like a fish. Stein is out and he wants revenge…

Gathering his kids and linking up with his old “colleagues” they go on the run together, but the hunter can’t be shaken and innocent people keep dying. Unable to bond with his son during their entire life together Jimmy finally, tragically connects with Patrick as the sorry saga comes to a small and dirty close…

With chilling echoes of Cape Fear (the 1962 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum version) this tale seeks to examine how ordinary people cope with ordinary evil: a cheap thug with a knife is just as deadly as a horde of vampires. You and your family can only die once – painfully, horribly; but just once. Pride and Joy is a tale about dreams and heritage and shows how mediocre people cope, illustrated with perfect subtle understatement by John Higgins. Nothing about this story is big or bold or bombastic: but it could really happen. It’s That Scary…

© 1997, 2004 Garth Ennis and John Higgins. All Rights Reserved.


By Jordi Bernet & various, edited by Manual Auad (Auad Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-96693-812-8

¡Perfect Christmas Present Alert! For him or her if they’re “Of Age”

When you’re a thrill starved kid enchanted by comics the first stage of development is slavishly absorbing everything good, bad and indifferent. Then comes the moment that you see subtle nuances which inexplicably makes some features favourites whilst others become simply filler.

I first recognised Jordi Bernet’s work on The Legend Testers. By “recognised” I mean the very moment I first discerned that somebody actually drew the stuff I was adoring, and that it was better than the stuff either side of it. This was 1966 when British comics were mostly black and white and never had signatures or credits so it was years before I knew who had sparked my interest.

Jordi Bernet Cussó was born in Barcelona in 1944, son of a prominent and successful humour cartoonist. When his father died suddenly Jordi, aged 15, took over his father’s strip Doña Urraca (Mrs. Magpie). A huge fan of Alex Raymond, Hal Foster and particularly the expressionist genius Milton Caniff he yearned for less restrictive horizons; he left Spain in the early 1960s and moved into dramatic storytelling.

He worked for Belgium’s Spirou, Germany’s Pip and Primo, before finding work on English weeklies. Bernet worked for British publishers between 1964 and 1967, and as well as the Odhams/Fleetway/IPC anthologies Smash, Tiger and War Picture Library he also produced superlative material for DC Thomson’s Victor and Hornet.

He even illustrated a Gardner Fox horror short for Marvel’s Vampire Tales #1 in 1973, but mainstream America was generally denied his mastery (other than a few translated Torpedo volumes and a Batman short story) until the21st century reincarnation of Jonah Hex – where he still occasionally works.

His most famous strips include thrillers Dan Lacombe (written by his uncle Miguel Cussó), Paul Foran (scripted by José Larraz) the saucy Wat 69 and spectacular post-apocalyptic barbarian epic Andrax (both with Cussó again).

When General Franco died Bernet returned to Spain and began working for Cimoc, Creepy and Metropol, collaborating with Antonio Segura on the sexy fantasy Sarvan and the dystopian SF black comedy Kraken, and with Enrique Sánchez Abulí on the gangster and adult themes tales that have made him one of the world’s most honoured artists, and which culminated on the incredibly successful crime saga Torpedo 1936.

This magnificent commemoration of his career thus far spans those years when he first echoed his father’s style through to the sleek minimalist, chiaroscuric, emphatic line economy that bores into readers hindbrains like hot lead from a smoking 45. Also on view as well as the violence there’s ample example of his sly, witty (and just as hot!) sex comedy material: Bernet is an absolute master of the female form and his adult material – created with Carlos Trillo – such as Custer, Clara De Noche and Cicca is truly unforgettable.

This glorious deluxe hardback gathers together a vast quantity of covers, book illustrations, sketches, drawings, pin-ups and studies, advertising work, and that Batman stuff, with a separate chapter on Bernet’s Beauties, a biography (which could, I must admit, have done with one last proof-read before going to press) and full check-listing of his works and awards. There are heartfelt artistic contributions and tributes from some of his vast legion of fans: Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, Jordi Langaron, Carlos Nine, Josep M. Bea, Luca Biagnini. Al Dellinges, Josep Toutain, Eduardo Risso, Horacio Altuna, Carlos Gimenez, Sergio Aragonés, Carlos Trillo, Juan Gimenez and Hobie MacQuarrie, but the true delights here are the 16 complete stories: Torpedo 1936, Sarvan, Custer, Clara De Noche, and Kraken as well as westerns, war stories, comedies and crime thrillers.

This is an incredible tribute to an incredible creator, and one no artist with professional aspirations can afford to miss: but parents be warned – there’s lots of nudity and violence beautifully depicted here – so be sure to read it yourselves first, Just in case…

All art and characters © 2009 their respective copyright holders. All Rights Reserved.

Scalped volume 3 Dead Mothers

By Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra, John Paul Leon & Davide Furnò (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-997-0

Jason Aaron reaches new heights as he plumbs the depths of human depravity in the intoxicating crime thriller set on a desolate and desperate Indian Reservation. As powerful and compelling as TV’s “The Wire” Scalped similarly examines the survival tactics of a disenfranchised and abandoned minority that has had to make its own rules and then live or die by them. And just like the streets of Baltimore, the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation might be isolated and insular, but the powers that be – legitimate and otherwise – are not prepared to leave them alone…

Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from the squalor of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation when he turned fifteen. He was always trouble: especially for his mother Gina and her fellow 1970s militant Indian Rights spokesman Lincoln Red Crow. Now Dash is back and working as Red Crow’s sheriff and leg-breaker, since the ex-activist is now Tribal Leader, sole employer and the area’s biggest crime boss.

Gina is still a rebel: she never surrendered, never copped out or joined the real world, whilst Red Crow became as much an oppressor as the White Man ever was. There’s a snazzy new casino but the Rez is still a hell-hole and a demilitarized Zone. Whilst wiping out rival drug and booze gangs Bad Horse is getting closer to the all-powerful Indian Godfather who was once his mother’s closest ally in the Freedom Movement. And that’s good. After all, that’s why the FBI planted him there in the first place…

The third collection (issues #12-18) kicks off with ‘Dreaming Himself into the Real World’; a beguiling prologue and scene-setter illustrated by John Paul Leon, before the eponymous main feature begins.

In ‘Dead Mothers’ Bad Horse is confronted by Gina’s brutal murder, but seemingly unmoved by it as he struggles to solve the equally savage but unconnected slaughter of a crack-whore bar-girl killed whilst her five kids slept in the next room. He’s a stone-cold pro: how did he ever let the kids’ situation get so deep under his skin when even his mother’s death left him unmoved?

In fact the only one who really seems broken up by Gina’s death is her long-time ally-turned-opponent Red Crow, and everybody knows he did it…

Pressure builds like an over-ripe boil as Bad Horse’s racist FBI handler puts the screws to him, and as prime suspect in Gina’s slaying Red Crow is getting squeezed by the Asian gangsters who paid for his casino. To assist the gang boss they’ve sent a psycho-sadist “observer” whose appetite for torture may well blow up in all their faces. Yet all Bad Horse can think of is the bar-girl’s death, but when he finds her killer the FBI say the monster is to be left free…

The book concludes with an insightful excursion into the mind and life of Franklin Falls Down, the only decent cop on the Rez, recently returned to duty after nearly dying in shoot-out. In ‘Falls Down’ (illustrated by Davide Furnò) the view of a decent man fighting evil daily in a man-made hell-hole makes a trenchant point after the human tragedy and misery that precedes it, but also hints at worse to come…

Nasty, violent, and sordidly sexual, this fierce Crime Noir is an uncompromising saga that hits hard, hits often and hits home. The exotically familiar scenario and painfully unchanging foibles of people on the edge make this series an instant classic. Grab hold and brace for the ride of your life…

© 2008 Jason Aaron & Rajko Milosevich.  All Rights Reserved.

Rip Kirby: The Missing Nightingale Daily Strips 25 September – 23 December -1950

By Alex Raymond (Pacific Comics Club)

Alex Raymond made Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9 global icons (and himself terribly wealthy) but when America joined the War so did he. On returning to civilian life, rather than return to safe pastures he yearned for new conquests.

With King Features Editor Ward Greene he created a different kind of private detective: a demobbed marine; intellectual, easy-going, artistically inclined but physically capable who preferred to exercise his mind rather than fists and guns.

His girlfriend “Honey” Dorian and manservant Desmond (a reformed burglar) completed his supporting cast and Remington “Rip” Kirby debuted on March 4th 1946, to huge approval and success. Greene wrote the scripts until his departure in 1952 when journalist Fred Dickenson assumed the scripting role. Raymond drew it until September 6th 1956, when, aged 46, he died in a car crash. John Prentice assumed the art duties until 1986 when with Dickenson left due to ill-health, from which time Prentice wrote the strip too. Rip Kirby finally retired on June 26th 1999 when Prentice did.

Beautiful art and brilliant strips are simply irresistible. After recently reviewing a couple of giant-sized Rip Kirby collections (re-read in advance of an upcoming compilation project promising to reproduce the entire saga) I simply couldn’t stop before reviewing the best of the bunch…

This complete softcover adventure follows immediately upon ‘Gunpowder Dreams’ and ‘Buried Treasure’: all of which were originally released in 1980 and still occasionally turn up in shops and on the internet. They are all huge 340x245mm softcover tabloids (that’s nearly 15 inches by 10) with shiny white pages presenting thrilling and enchanting sagas of one of America’s most famous fictional detectives, drawn by one of the most influential artists of all time.

This masterful blend of 1950s style and fashion highlights a society in the midst of affluent change as Rip is hired to find a missing singer who has captivated the new record buying public but disappeared before she could cut her first record album. However what starts as a simple trace job turns into a particularly nasty murder plot that simply can’t end well…

Here is another fabulously chic caper, stuffed full of tension and lots of tricky plot twists, with plenty of action, beautifully realised by an absolute master of brush and pen.

Your chances of tracking down this gem are admittedly rather meagre, but well worth the effort if you’re an art-lover, as Raymond’s drawing at this size is an unparalleled delight.  Whatever size you find Rip Kirby inhabiting these are strips every fan must see.
© 1950, 1980 King Features. All Rights Reserved. Book © 1980 Pacific C.C.

Rip Kirby: Buried Treasure Daily Strips 12 June -23 September 1950

By Alex Raymond (Pacific Comics Club)

Some strips are simply more addictive than narcotics or chocolate. After recently reviewing a giant-sized Rip Kirby collection (re-read after too many years in advance of an upcoming IDW compilation project promising to reproduce the entire saga) I simply couldn’t stop at just the one…

This complete softcover adventure follows immediately upon ‘Gunpowder Dreams’: released in 1980 and still occasionally available in shops and on the internet. You can’t miss it since the thing is a huge 340x245mm (that’s nearly 15 inches by 10) and its glossy white pages present another captivating tale of one of America’s most famous fictional detectives, drawn by one of the world’s most talented artists.

An intoxicating blend of 1950s style and fashion, this is another yarn that will suck you into a captivating world of adventure and resurgent post-war glamour, but this time with the added drama of a ruthless arch-enemy thrown into the mix, and all played against the backdrop of America’s post war fascination with the Italian glamour of La Dolce Vita

During the 1930s Raymond made Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9 household names all over the world, but when the USA joined the War so did he. On returning to civilian life, like Milt Caniff and his iconic post-war adventurer Steve Canyon rather than rekindle old glories Raymond wanted something new.

From King Features Editor Ward Greene’s concept and scripts he designed a different kind of private detective: a rather unique individual: retired marine; intellectual, easy-going, musically and artistically inclined but physically powerful and who preferred to use his mind rather than fists and guns.

His steady girlfriend Judith “Honey” Dorian and mousy but competent manservant Desmond (a reformed burglar) completed a regular cast with plenty of depth and scope. Remington “Rip” Kirby debuted on March 4th 1946, to instant approbation and commercial success.

Greene wrote the scripts until 1952 when he was replaced by journalist Fred Dickenson and Raymond drew it until September 6th 1956, when, aged only 46, he died in a car crash. John Prentice assumed the art duties with Dickenson writing until 1986 when he left due to ill-health, from which time Prentice did that too. The feature closed shop on June 26th 1999 when Prentice retired.

Slick, polished and so very chic, old friend and flighty heiress Margie Pelham has found the man of her dreams in an Italian Count. Her lawyers are less ecstatic and want Rip to thoroughly investigate the uppity foreigner, so Honey Dorian is dispatched to accompany her old friend on the ocean cruise to Sorrento, but no one is aware of a lurking menace.

The Mangler was a brutal gangster brought low by Kirby, and he’d been craving revenge ever since. Now hooked up with a Nazi deserter he’s on his way to Sorrento too, in search of stolen treasure buried by the German in the very teeth of the allied invasion. The cash could set up the Mangler in a new life and the thought of settling with Kirby and his friends makes the brutal thug’s fingers itch and his mouth water…

This is another brilliantly stylish caper, packed full of tension, romance and lots of tricky plot twists, with oodles of action, beautifully executed by an absolute master of brush and pen. Just imagine Alfred Hitchcock in panels not movie screens…

Your chances of tracking down this gem are admittedly quite slim, but well worth the effort if you’re an art-lover, as Raymond’s drawing at this size is an unparalleled delight, but in fairness I should mention than the lettering here is appalling. I can only assume the art was shot from foreign printed copies (the rest of the world has always appreciated graphic arts more than us or the Americans) and lettered back into English by well-meaning but unprofessional hands.

Nevertheless these are still strips every fan should experience; even in the meagre dimensions modern strips are reprinted. Any Rip Kirby collections are a treat you simply cannot afford to miss. Let’s hope we’re not waiting too long…

© 1950, 1980 King Features. All Rights Reserved. Book © 1980 Pacific C.C.

Kelly Green volume 4: The Blood Tapes

By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06956-X

With her cop husband murdered by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between), grieving, furious Kelly Green has began a risky new career in the twilight world between the law-abiding and the criminal aided by three of her husband’s reformed “cases”: con-man Spats Cavendish, thief Jimmy Delocke and pugnacious leg-breaker “Meathooks.”

Acting as a fair and impartial broker between antagonistic parties had kept Kelly in groceries for awhile now – and got her into some pretty nasty scrapes – but she had never encountered such unprincipled and dangerous characters as those that populate the Los Angeles music scene. When Rock Legend Alec Blood completed his comeback album he didn’t realise he was signing his death warrant…

When the star was gunned down in the studio parking lot the master tapes were stolen, and with millions of dollars hanging in the balance Kelly was contracted to buy back Blood’s last recordings. But she is horrified to discover that the money is being provided by Tom Ragan, the most dangerous mobster in Las Vegas, and he personally asked for her…

Before she can even begin she has to ascertain if thief and murderer are one and the same, but everywhere she turns the infamous Ragan is dogging her steps. Can he possibly be as murderous as he is good-looking? Is he as good a liar as he is a lover? And can the spiritualist Madame Elsa really convince the murdered Alec Blood to reveal who killed him…?

As usual nothing is what it seems in this superb thriller which blends a classic “whodunit” with the brutal, sexy world of The Mob, where Kelly and her faithful team find themselves punching far beyond their weight, but still doing the best they can in a world crushingly short of White Knights…

The passage of time has made this plot all too familiar but as is so often the case the first is still the best and the tale still has plenty of surprises in store for thriller aficionados and comics fans alike.

Intense and uncompromising, these character-driven yarns are as compelling now as they ever were, and the sheer quality of Stan Drake and Leonard Starr’s narrative creativity, unconstrained by the need to please a family audience – and the editors afraid of offending them – is a master-class in how comics should be made.
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

Skin Deep

By Charles Burns (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-167-1

Charles Burns is a creative force with his roots firmly placed in 1950s kids culture (B-movies, cartoons, EC comics: especially Mad Magazine,) and fingers in many areas of the creative media. As an illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, film-maker and especially cartoonist, his slick, precise methodology tells stories and evokes responses from a place that is dark, skewed, beautiful and overwhelmingly nostalgic.

His comics work blends horror, true romance and Film Noir sensibilities with a sensationalistic fascination with the grotesque and absurdist; all delivered in a tight, meticulous, heavy line style reminiscent of woodcut prints, with huge swathes of solid black like darkness and light suspended and perfectly balanced in a Cold War on every page.

This gigantic softcover (297mm high x 224mm wide) is the third in a series collecting all the artist’s work prior to the landmark publication of the incredible Black Hole (soon to be a Major Motion Picture! – I love typing that!) and the three interlinked – or rather perhaps, overlapping – stories here all originate from between 1988 to1992, having been slightly revised since appearing in the Big Baby weekly strip and in the case of A Marriage Made in Hell, the legendary Raw Magazine. All in their own manner examine the theme of love in the modern world.

Leading off is Dog-Boy, the simple tale of a young man who has a cut-rate heart transplant and finds himself increasingly taking on the characteristics of the canine who his provided his new ticker. Just because he acts a little differently, does this mean that there is no girl out there for him? This tale formed the basis of a 1991 MTV serial for the Liquid Television TV programme (seen here on BBC2, I think).

This leads to the outrageously funny and deeply unsettling Burn Again wherein reformed televangelist Bliss Blister once more falls under the influence of his huckster father, as well as his own wife, who use him to con the religiously gullible. Unfortunately what only Bliss knows is that God – in the form of a hideous, diabolical extraterrestrial Cyclops, is coming to end mankind’s self-inflicted woes…

The book ends with the aforementioned and intensely disturbing story-within-a-story A Marriage Made in Hell. When horny new bride Lydia finally marries her war-hero husband she regretfully discovers that he won’t consummate their union. Just what is the fantastic secret of battle-scarred veteran John Dough, and how does Lydia cope with the incredible situation she finds herself trapped in?

As well as these staggeringly dry, wry and funny tales there is also a selection from the Burns sketchbook, a look at some of those altered story-pages and a brief commentary from the artist himself.

This volume is also available as hardback edition and was previously released as a Penguin book in 1992.
© 1988-1992 Charles Burns. All Rights Reserved.