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.

Kelly Green volume 3: The Million Dollar Hit


By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06576-9

After the murder of her cop husband by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between) Dan Green’s grieving and furious widow began a dubious 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.”

With her life slowly getting back on track – although still not without moments of exotic glamour and extreme tension – the widow Green agrees to courier a large sum of cash to a conman who has already absconded with five million dollars of an oil company’s money. So why does OkalCo want Kelly to bring him more?

This sharp, wry thriller has plenty of surprises in store. The gorgeous go-between is dispatched to Alaska to deliver a hush-money payment and to bring back the secret method by which Cyrus Worthing – AKA Gus Arakian – managed to siphon away all that loot without anybody noticing. In the wilds of Big Snow country, can she even find him let alone prevent the conman selling his million-buck grift to others?

Further complicating matters is an unwise, unwelcome yet seemingly unstoppable fling with a US senator hiding some dark secrets of his own, a pair of hit-men with their own agenda dogging her heels and the small matter of a plane crash during the worst blizzard in recent memory…

These spectacular thrillers are intensely powerful, uncompromising stories, strictly for adults and not just because of the casual nudity; there’s a touch of chilling violence here that’s all the more distressing because it’s so skilfully underplayed. This series still works so well because it falls into a too rare category of crime-story where character not plot drives the narrative and it’s delivered with all the skill and artistry that two of the best storytellers comics have ever produced can command. The crash scenes in the mountains are alone worth every penny you might pay for this book.

For over three decades Stan Drake and Leonard Starr worked individually on some of the most successful family strips in the world. After years of critical and commercial rewards the pair teamed with French publisher Dargaud to flex their creativity unrestrained, producing a no-holds-barred contemporary crime-thriller that remains to this day one of the most exciting, vibrant and powerful in all strip history.

Copies of all volumes are still readily available (if a little pricey), but true quality has no upper limit and there are still rumours of a full revival of the character soon. Perhaps you could wait, but I wouldn’t…
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

Famous Players – the Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor


By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-555-9

Master cartoonist and dedicated criminologist Rick Geary returns with another compelling and witheringly comprehensive episode of his latest series of crime reconstructions in this superb black and white hardcover. Combining his unique talents for laconic prose, incisive observation and detailed extrapolation with his proven fascination for the darker, human-scaled aspects of history, Rick Geary’s forensic eye rolls back the last hundred years or so as his latest ‘Treasury of XXth Century Murder’ re-examines the landmark homicide that shaped early Hollywood and led in large part to the swingeing self-censorship of the Hays Commission Production Code.

Some things never change. 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. The area had become a hotbed of vice, excess and debauchery.

William Desmond Taylor was a man with a clouded past and a tremendous 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 more than even the 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 lays out the crime, examines the suspects – major and minor – and dutifully pursues all the players to their recorded ends. Especially useful are snippets of historical minutiae and the 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 volume is every bit as compelling as his Victorian forays: a brilliant 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 method of telling 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.

Dark Entries – a John Constantine Novel


By Ian Rankin & Werther Dell’edera (Vertigo Crime/Titan Books Edition)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-342-1

Award-winning – and officially honourable – crime writer Ian Rankin makes a remarkable debut as a graphic novelist in this superbly unsettling horror story starring the best anti-hero in the business. John Constantine, seedy modern magician and consummate bad seed. tends to bring out the best in his writers, and although the plot here is nothing new the treatment of the large cast of characters is a deft juggling act nicely handled, while the narrative set-pieces are gripping and stuffed with good old fashioned creepy tension.

Constantine has acquired a certain reputation in the right circles over the course of his life, so he’s not too suspicious when a sleazy TV producer offers him wads of cash to advise on the latest reality show Dark Entries (I have to admit I loathe the title) wherein six contestants are isolated in a rigged haunted house, competing for big prizes and fully expecting to be scared out of their wits.

Unfortunately what’s terrifying these housemates is nothing the producers and technicians devised but appears to be the real thing.

Quickly inserted into the show as a new contestant Constantine finds himself mired in a diabolical mystery involving the seemingly innocent competitors, and too late realises that he’s fallen for the oldest trap in the world. Stitched up like a kipper, his only chance is to free his companions before he can escape the house and the horrors that built it.

Sharp, gritty and deeply compelling this is a powerful recapitulation of classic horror and murder yarns complete with a sting-in-the tail that will leave the reader breathless and hungry for more.

Viscerally illustrated by Italian artist Werther Dell’edera this black and white hardback is similar in format to the old Paradox Press DC imprint to which gave us A History of Violence and Road to Perdition among other gritty adult thrills. Dark Entries is easily in the same class and would make any reader a very happy – if nervous – fan.

© 2009 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Kelly Green volume 2: One, Two, Three… Die!


By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06952-7

The decades of creative expertise that marked the careers of strip veterans Stan Drake and Leonard Starr were rewarded by the one thing they had never achieved when they began their seminal crime-thriller for the European comics market: creative control. And blessed with that elusive prize they produced one of the most memorable women in comics: the frail, divinely human yet determinedly adamantine Kelly Green.

After the murder of her cop husband by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between) the grieving and furious widow began a dubious career in the no-man’s land separating the law-abiding and felonious, aided by three of her husband’s reformed “cases”: con-man Spats Cavendish, thief Jimmy Delocke and colossal leg-breaker “Meathooks.”

In this tale however the job intersects disastrously with her private life as a new friend inadvertently draws her into a world of ruthless super-rich dynasties, blackmail, infidelity, exploitation and even serial murder. As this is a gripping mystery yarn of the “fair-play” variety I’ll avoid specifics so you can have a fair crack at deducing the killer, but I will offer this warning: you know those movies where a million people can die bloodily but your favourite actor and his dog will always escape unscathed? This isn’t one of those stories…

This spectacular thriller is powerful and uncompromising stuff, strictly for adults (and not just because of the casual nudity), falling into a rare category of crime-story in that it is unflinchingly character, not plot-driven, and delivered with all the skill and artistry that these two veteran storytellers can command.

Copies of all volumes are still readily available (if a little pricey), but true quality has no upper limit and there are still rumours of a full revival of the character soon. Perhaps you could wait…

But can you?
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low


By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-84023-361-3

The best crime comic in decades oh-so-slowly begins transforming itself into the best conspiracy thriller in the business with this third volume (collecting issues 15-19# of the monthly comic book) as further hints about The Trust and their unique police squad The Minutemen slip out during the dark, bleak story of Louis “Loop” Hughes, a young street tough swiftly going the way of most of his class and race in the streets of Philadelphia… at least until the impeccable Agent Graves turns up with an untraceable gun, one hundred bullets and an ironclad guarantee of no repercussions.

Graves also knows exactly where Loop’s father has been for the embittered kid’s entire life, although he’s only telling about the last few years…

Curtis Hughes collects debts for one of the nastiest old loan-sharks in Philly. The broken down old leg-breaker has been around and seen it all, but he wasn’t expecting a street punk to stick one of those guns in his face – and certainly not the son he abandoned all those years ago.

Against the odds he reconciles with his son and starts teaching him business and life; but once family duty and work allegiances come into conflict, there’s only ever one outcome. And just how does Curtis know about Graves and the Minutemen?

This tense, bleak drama has as much resonance as The Wire and more punch than Goodfellas as it weaves a tragic tale of family, disillusionment and overwhelming necessity, and though readers of the original comic-books didn’t know it, laid much of the groundwork for the “Big Reveals” to come. Pay especial attention to the epilogue where Loop meets up with the brutal force of nature called “Lono”…

Astoundingly accessible and readable in its own right, this impressive, gripping yarn is another subtle step up on a path of intricate mystery and intrigue, and one no fiction-fan (grown-up, paid-up and immune to harsh language and rude behaviour) could resist… nor should you.

© 2000, 2001 Brian Azzarello and DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Kelly Green Book 1: The Go-Between


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

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

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began his long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comic-books, before working in advertising and settling in the challenging arena of newspaper strips. He worked on Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular but now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, drew love stories for Simon and Kirby’s landmark Romance line and crime stories for EC, and freelanced extensively for ACG and DC Comics until he left the industry for Madison Avenue. He returned to graphic narrative in 1955 when he ghosted Flash Gordon.

In 1957 he created ‘On Stage’, a soap-opera strip starring aspiring actress Mary Perkins for the Chicago Tribune. He left the globally syndicated feature in 1979 to revive Harold Gray’s legendary Little Orphan Annie (which he continued until his retirement in 2000), simultaneously creating the series ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine. An experienced TV scripter since 1970 Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comic-books in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonist’s Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965.

Stan Drake (1921-1997) was another vastly experienced cartoonist who began work in the 1940s. His two most famous series are the superbly compelling romantic drama-strip ‘The Heart of Juliet Jones’ (co-created in 1953 and initially written by Elliot Caplin) and the iconic ‘Blondie’ which he took over illustrating in 1984. He began his drawing career in the pulps, specifically Popular Detective and Popular Sports, before moving on to newly formed Timely Comics and The Black Widow. In 1941 he enlisted in the US Army. After the war he too worked in advertising until 1953 and Juliet Jones. In 1956 he narrowly survived the road accident that took the life of Alex Raymond, and was quickly back to work.

In the late 1970s he began Pop Idols – a syndicated series of celebrity biographies – whilst still working on Juliet Jones (which he left in 1989) and Blondie (which he drew until his death in 1997). During that incredibly productive time he still found the odd moment to work on Kelly Green – from 1982-1988 – and do the occasional job for Marvel Comics. To relax, he painted portraits of his cartoonist friends (now on display in the Comic Artist’s Museum in Sarasota, Florida). He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for 1969, 1970, and 1972 for The Heart of Juliet Jones.

Brave, competent, sexy, and divinely human, Kelly Green debuted in 1981 as a black and white serial in the legendary French magazine Pilote; a boldly contemporary antiheroic drama, with a deft, light tone and grimly mature themes. Within a year colour albums were flying off shelves across Europe, and eventually in the English speaking world, too.

Kelly Green is a stunning red-head who escaped a traumatic and mysterious past when she married Dan Green, a respected New York cop. But her comfortable world comes crashing down when he’s set-up by one of his own superiors and killed during a high-profile raid. Devastated, Kelly is pulled out of a suicidal depression by Spats Cavendish, Jimmy Delocke and the man-mountain called “Meathooks”; three career felons the straight-shooting cop had not only busted but then successfully rehabilitated.

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

Hating the criminals that Dan fought and who finally got him, but despising more the corrupt police force that orchestrated his death, the grieving woman becomes a professional “Go-Between”, a paid intercessionary liaising between crooks and victims who don’t want police involvement. Apparently the job is completely legal and there’s never a shortage of clients…

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

This beautifully executed crime thriller is still powerful, gritty stuff, and strictly for adults (it was made for France so there’s lots of lovingly rendered nakedness and nudity and even some unclothing), with copies of all volumes still readily available (if fetching rather high prices), so the persistent rumours of a full revival of the character next year are most welcome – and eagerly anticipated.
© 1982 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

The Lindbergh Child


By Rick Geary (NBM/Comics Lit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-530-6

Combining his unique talents for laconic prose, incisive observation and detailed cartooning with his obvious passion for the darker side of modern history, Rick Geary turns his forensic eye to the last hundred years or so as his ‘Treasury of Victorian Murder’ series of graphic novels examines the landmark global sensation that was the Lindbergh Kidnapping.

Charles Lindbergh became the most famous man in the world when he crossed the Atlantic in the monoplane Spirit of St. Louis in May 1927. Six years later his son Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped from the family home at Hopewell, New Jersey. The boy disappeared on the night of February 29th 1932.

An intense and hysterical search went on for months as a number of bogus kidnappers, chancers, grifters and intermediaries tried to cash in before the toddler’s decomposed body was discovered in desolate woodlands on Thursday 12th May. The three-year old had been dead for months, possibly even dying on the night he was taken…

What followed was one of the most appalling catalogues of police misconduct, legal malfeasance and sordid exploitation (from conmen trying to profit from tragedy) in modern annals as over the next few years a suspect was caught, convicted and executed in such slapdash fashion that as late as 1981 and 1986 the conviction was appealed and a large number of individuals have claimed over the decades to actually be the real junior Lindbergh.

Geary presents the facts and the theories with chilling precision and captivating clarity, presenting one of crime’s greatest unsolved mysteries with a force and power that Oliver Stone would envy. This first volume in ‘A Treasury of XXth Century Murder’ is every bit as compelling as his Victorian forays and a brilliant example of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy and entertainment.
© 2008 Rick Geary. All Rights Reserved.

Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe: A Trilogy of Crime


Adapted by various (iBooks)
ISBN: 978-0-7434-7489-4

If you’re going to adapt classic, evocative crime stories into graphic narrative there really isn’t any better source material than Raymond Chandler. This follow-up to the graphic novel interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe: The Little Sister (ISBN: 0-684-82933-9) was also packaged by comics visionary Byron Preiss and adapts three short tales from the master of hard-boiled fiction, rendered in a variety of unique and impressive styles.

Opening the show is ‘Goldfish’, first published in 1949, the writer’s ninth short story sale and preceding his first Marlowe novel by three years. Adapted by Tom DeHaven and lettered by Willie Schubert, it’s stylishly illustrated by British designer and artist Rian Hughes in muted colour tones that have only the merest hint of hue to them; the effect is powerfully evocative and atmospheric.

When ex-cop Kathy Horne sidles into the tough guy’s seedy office she brings a tale of lost pearls, an absconded convict and a huge reward just waiting to be claimed. Dragged far out of his comfort zone and sent up and down the Pacific Seaboard, the world-weary gumshoe is just steps ahead of the sadistic and casually murderous Carol Donovan and her gang of thugs in a superb thriller of double-cross and double-jeopardy.

Next up is ‘The Pencil’, scripted award-winning mystery novelist Jerome Charyn, brilliantly rendered by British comics legend David Lloyd in moody, dry-brush black and white, and lettered by long-term collaborator Elitta Fell. This was Chandler’s twenty-first – and final – Marlowe adventure, published in 1959, shortly after the author’s death. You might know it as Marlowe Takes on the Syndicate’, ‘Wrong Pigeon’ or even ‘Philip Marlowe’s Last Case’.

Hollywood 1955: Ikky Rossen was a bad man, a career gangster and mob leg-breaker. When he crossed his bosses he thought Marlowe could get him safely out of the City of Angels before The Organization’s East Coast Button Men could send him to Hell. Marlowe knew that these were people who should be avoided at all costs and only one thing is always true: everybody lies…

Closing the book and woefully misplaced is ‘Trouble is My Business’ by James Rose, Lee Moyer and Alfredo Alcala, with Schubert again filling the word balloons.

This weak tale of vengeful Harriet Huntress who intends to destroy two generations of wealthy socialites mixed up in the gambling rackets is from 1939: a rather tame and straightforward yarn in comparison to the other stories here, not to mention the landmark first full novel The Big Sleep, also published in that year. Moyer and Alcala do a solid job of illustrating the plot (although it’s a little pretty for my tastes) but the cynical edge that is the hallmark of this brilliant crime creation is muted if not actually extinguished here.

Despite a disappointing end this is a great book of crime comics that any fan will delight in, and the incredible Steranko cover alone is well worth the effort of tracking it down.
Adaptations and illustrations © 2003 Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc. Original stories “Goldfish” and “Trouble is my Business” © 2003 Philip Marlowe BV (Estate of Raymond Chandler) All Rights Reserved. “The Pencil” © 1971 Helga Greene, Executrix, Estate of Raymond Chandler. All Rights Reserved.

SILVERFISH


By David Lapham (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-600-9 (trade paperback)

David Lapham returned to the genre that elevated him to comics’ top rank (for the superb crime-thrillers Stray Bullets and Murder Me Dead) with this all-original yarn for the creator-owned Vertigo imprint, tailor-made to become a major motion picture.

Troubled teenager Mia Fleming doesn’t like her new stepmom, Suzanne. That’s not uncommon. However when she steals Suzanne’s diary, makes prank calls and snoops in her closet, she sets in motion a storm of bloody violence and terrifying consequences for her friends, her family, and ultimately the entire town of Seaside Heights, New Jersey.

Lapham has a chillingly direct line to contemporary America and his skill in exploring and exhibiting the simmering violence in that too-often dysfunctional society is put to efficient and engrossing effect in this fascinating blend of psycho-thriller and teen-Slasher tale, drawn with simple, provocative, clarity in moody, powerful black and white tones.

If you’re a comics missionary this a perfect book to recommend to crime-fans, thriller-aficionados, and all other acquaintances. You’ll also want a copy for yourself.

© 2007 David Lapham. All Rights Reserved.