Skeleton Key: the Graphic Novel – an Alex Rider Adventure

By Anthony Horowitz, adapted by Antony Johnston, Kanako & Yuzuru Takasaki (Walker Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4063-1345-2

If America is the spiritual home of the superhero, Britain is Great because of spies and detectives. Our popular literary heritage is littered with cunning sleuths and stealthy investigators from Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake, Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey to the Scarlet Pimpernel, George Smiley and Harry Palmer.  And Bond: James Bond…

In 2000 Anthony Horowitz produced Stormbreaker, the first of eight (and counting…) rip-snorting teen novels featuring 14 year old orphan Alex Rider: a smart, fit, sports-mad lad like any other, who suddenly discovers that his guardian Uncle Ian has also died. Moreover the deceased gentleman was apparently a spy of some distinction and had been surreptitiously teaching the lad all the skills, techniques and disciplines needed to become a secret agent…

Soon MI6 are knocking on his door…

As well as a major motion picture and video game, the books (the first three so far) have also been adapted to the comics medium; their easy blend of action, youthful rebellion and overwhelmingly comfortable 007-style pastiche winning many fans in the traditionally perilous older-boys book market. They’re really rather good…

I’m reviewing this particular graphic novel simply because it caught my eye on my last trip to the local library (how soft modern kids do have it; when I was a portly nipper you had to sneak comics into the place and read them concealed behind gigantic atlases or art books), but even though I’ve previously ignored them I can honestly say now that I’ll be seeking out the previous adaptations and eagerly waiting forthcoming ones…

Alex is a highly effective but reluctant agent, preferring the normal life of his boarding school to the clandestine machinations of espionage. However his occasional paymasters at MI6 are always looking for ways to exploit his obvious talents. A seemingly innocent offer to work as a ball-boy at the Wimbledon Tennis tournament leads to him foiling a huge gambling scam by a Chinese Triad.

Unfortunately this makes him a target for Triad vengeance, so his “boss” Mr. Crawford suggests a little trip to Cuba until the heat dies down.

Roll Credits…

Alex soon discovers he has been “borrowed” by the CIA to add camouflage to a reconnaissance mission involving Alexei Sarov, an old Stalinist Soviet general who is up to something particularly nasty with stolen atomic weapons from his isolated fortress on the Cayo Esqueleto or “Skeleton Key”.

Tasked with finding out what the old soldier is planning, the American agents at first make him less than welcome, resenting his presence and not trusting a “mere kid”, but I’m sure they changed their minds around about the moment when they got murdered…

Now the only operative in the game, Alex is soon captured by Sarov who proves to be an unbeatable opponent. Moreover he has a most unique fate planned for the boy after his plans for global annihilation are achieved: he wants to adopt him…

This is an immensely entertaining romp, hitting all the thrill-buttons for an ideal summer blockbluster, even though it’s told – and very convincingly – from the viewpoint of an uncertain boy rather than a suave, sophisticated adult. Donkin’s adaptation is sharp and witty, capturing the insecurities and verve of the young hero perfectly whilst the art by sisters Kanako & Yuzuru Takasaki is in a full-colour, computer-rendered manga style that might not please everybody but does work exceedingly well in conveying the softer moments as well as the spectacular action set-pieces.

Be warned however, even though this is a kid’s book there is a substantial amount of fighting and a large bodycount, and the violence is not at all cartoony in context. If you intend sharing the book with younger children, read it yourself first.

These books and their comic counterparts are a fine addition to our fiction tradition. Alex Rider will return… why don’t you join him?

Text and illustrations © 2009 Walker Books Ltd. Based on the original novel Skeleton Key © 2002 Anthony Horowitz. All rights reserved.

The Files of Ms. Tree volume 2: The Cold Dish

By Max Collins & Terry Beatty with Gary Kato (Renegade Press)
No ISBN: 0-919359-05-1

Despite being one of the most popular genres in literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists. Marry that with the observation that “gum-shoe” comics are also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, produced by crime novelist and new writer of the Dick Tracy, Max Allan Collins with young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty.

She soon won a solo title, Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories (later simply Ms. Tree), and although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press, before finally dying in 1989. She was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others).

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” about his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far the Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

In the first volume I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part we briefly met Mike Tree, a legendary private detective who married his secretary and partner Mike Friday, only to be murdered on their wedding night.

The new Mrs. Tree hunted down his killer, setting herself on a path of vengeance and blood. On the way she uncovered a vast web of corruption and made an eternal enemy of Mob boss Dominic Muerta, becoming locked in a bloody vendetta. She also discovered her dead husband’s previous wife and a son who was painfully like his departed dad…

This second volume, released in 1985 and reprinting her adventures from issues #4-8, has fewer behind-the-scenes extras and commentary but does include another colour cover gallery and an all-new and nasty illustrated prose short story, ‘The Little Woman’ to supplement the darkly engaging title tale.

Gary Kato joined the team as letterer and art assistant Beatty’s drawing took on a seductively Steve Ditko-like appearance whilst the drama became increasingly terse in ‘The Right to Remain Silent…’ and ‘No Use Crying’ as Mike Tree’s other wife briefly returns, begging Ms Tree to take her son into protective custody. She is murdered days later and as the detective spirits Mike Jr. away his grandparents violently disapprove, and Dominic Muerta sends an unmistakable message …

‘Paying Respects’ and ‘Forgive Her Trespasses’ introduces a new cast member, ex-SAS child protection expert Mr. Hand, to baby-sit the resentful boy whilst Ms Tree delivers a message of her own to Muerta, and the mystery deepens in ‘To the Slaughter’ as another viable suspect to Anne Tree’s murder appears – and bloodily expires, whilst in ‘Urbane Renewal’ the body count and suspect list rises again.

The action intensifies when Ms. Tree’s closest ally is blown up in ‘Visiting Hours’ and a vigil by his bedside leads to another grisly attempt on her life. ‘Knee-Deep in Death’ and ‘Accounts Payable’ finally provides the missing motive for the ongoing bloodbath, but with Mr. Hand attacked and Mike Jr. missing it might be all too late…

After all the Hitchcockian suspense the carnage and conundrums brilliantly culminate in ‘Murder-Go-Round’, a spectacular showdown that would do Sam Peckinpah proud…

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is another clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that the heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe “Dragnet” Friday or that in fiction absolutely no one can be trusted) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Empress of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how she can be left to languish in graphic obscurity is a greater mystery than any described in this compelling collection. Track down these superb thrillers and pray someone has the street smarts to bring her back for good…
© 1983, 1984, 1985 Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

Famous Players – the Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor (paperback edition)

By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-559-7

Master cartoonist criminologist Rick Geary returns with another compelling escapade from his latest series of graphic novel crime reconstructions, soon available (May 20th) in an economical paperback edition.

Combining a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and detailed pictorial extrapolation with his fascination for the darker aspects of human history, Geary’s forensic eye scours the last hundred years or so for his ‘Treasury of XXth Century Murder’ series, here re-examining a landmark homicide that changed early Hollywood and led in large part to the punishing self-censorship of the Hays Commission Production Code.

In 1911 the first moving picture studio set up in the sunny orange groves of rural Hollywood. Within a decade the place was a burgeoning boom town of production companies and back lots, and movie stars were earning vast sums of money. As usual with Boom Towns the new community had swiftly accumulated a ubiquitous underbelly, becoming a hotbed of vice, excess and debauchery.

William Desmond Taylor was a man with a clouded past and a huge reputation as a movie director and ladies man. On the morning of Thursday, February 2nd, 1922 he was found dead in his palatial home by his valet, opening one of the most celebrated (and still unsolved) murder cases in Los Angeles’ extremely chequered history. Uncovering a background of drugs, sex, booze, celebrity and even false identity, this true crime became a template for every tale of “Hollywood Babylon” and, even more than the notorious Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal, drove the movers and shakers of Tinsel-Town to clean up their act – or at least to keep it out of the public gaze.

Geary is meticulous and logical as he dissects the crime, examines the suspects – major and minor – and dutifully pursues all the players to their recorded ends. Especially intriguing are snippets of historical minutiae and beautifully rendered maps and plans which bring all the varied locations to life (the author should seriously consider turning this book into a Cluedo special edition) and gives us all a fair crack at solving this glamorous Cold Case.

Geary presents the facts and the theories with chilling graphic precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, and this saga is every bit as compelling as his Victorian forays: a perfect example of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy entertainment. He is a unique talent in the comic industry not simply because of his manner of drawing but because of his subject matter and methodology in telling his tales.

This merrily morbid series of murder masterpieces should be mandatory reading for every mystery addict and crime collector.

© 2009 Rick Geary. All Rights Reserved.

The Files of Ms. Tree volume 1: I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part

By Max Collins & Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
ISBN: 0-919359-05-1

Despite being one of the most popular genres in literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists. Marry that with the observation that “gum-shoe” comics are also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, along with a number of other quirky alternatives to the East Coast superheroes that had a stranglehold on American comics in the 1970s and early 1980s. Besides such gems as Sax Rohmer’s ‘Dope’ (adapted by Trina Robbins), Steve Englehart and Marshal Rogers’ ‘I Am Coyote’, Don McGregor & Gene Colan’s ‘Ragamuffins’, B.C. Boyer’s wonderful ‘Masked Man’ and a host of other gems from the industry’s finest, Max Allan Collins, crime novelist and new writer of the venerable Dick Tracy newspaper strip, with young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty introduced a cold, calculating and genuinely fierce avenger who put new gloss on the hallowed imagery and plot of the hard-bitten, hard-boiled shamus avenging a murdered partner…

She was one of the first features to win a solo title, Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories which became simply Ms. Tree with the fourth issue. Although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press) before finally dying in 1989. Gone but not quickly forgotten she was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, as far as I know there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI, and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others).

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” about his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far the Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

The first volume I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part gathers the introductory tale from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 (May 1981-July 1982) and the first story-arc from Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories #1-3 (August-December 1982), two chilling tales of regret and revenge, perfectly delivered as fair-play mystery tales. You might not be able to extract your own retribution, but if you’re smart enough you can solve the clues as fast as our heroine does…

In ‘I, For an Eye’ we briefly meet Mike Tree, a true icon of the detective profession: hard, tough, sharp and fair: an ex-cop who set up for himself and did well. At the peak of career he met Mike Friday, a feisty, clever, pistol-packing, two-fisted dame who quickly moved from secretary to full partner. They fell in love…

On their wedding night her husband was gunned down and the new Mrs. Tree set out to find his killer. Assuming control over their detective agency she used part of the staff to keep the business going but placed her husband’s… her… best people onto finding out why her man died. Together they uncovered a web of corruption and lies which included the fact that she was not the first Mrs. Tree. Mike had a previous wife and a son who’s painfully like his departed dad…

Gritty, witty and darkly relentless this tale of corruption and twisted friendship set the pace for all the ensuing adventures; a brilliant odyssey which peels like an onion, always showing that there’s still more to uncover…

Even after finding Mike’s killer and delivering the traditional vengeance in great style, the investigation revealed a higher mastermind behind it all, in the shape of mob boss Dominic Muerta, and the second tale ‘Death Do Us Part’ deals with the repercussions of Ms. Tree’s crusade against that psychotic grandee’s operations.

The unrelenting death and misery has taken its toll on the traumatised widow: she is in therapy but when that doesn’t work she takes a holiday to a distant honeymoon resort. She even finds a new lover. However when the newlyweds in the next cabin are murdered by a hit-man Tree realises that she is trapped on a path that can only lead to more death…

Adult, astute, and enchantingly challenging, this second drama is full of plot twists and clever set-pieces that will charm and enthrall crime fans of every persuasion and the art by Beatty is a sheer revelation. Static and informative, remorselessly matter-of-fact and deadly in its cold efficiency – a quality which might be off-putting to some but which so perfectly matches the persona of its pitiless star that I can’t imagine any other style working at all.

This volume, released in 1984, is stuffed with behind-the-scenes extras and commentary from both creators, including a colour cover gallery, and as an added bonus, an original illustrated prose short-story ‘Red Light’, a terse thriller that perfectly supplements the grim mood of the book.

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is a clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that the heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe “Dragnet” Friday) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Queen of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how they can let her languish in graphic obscurity is a greater crime than any described in this compelling classic collection. Hunt it down for your pleasure and pray somebody has the great good sense to bring back Ms. Tree.
© 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 Max Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

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.