Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent


By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-822-1

The son of a diplomat and irrefutable True Gent, John Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a teaching post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and legendary weekly comic The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950 Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a glossy new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Mesmerised children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day as well as a plethora of strips illustrating some of their favourite radio shows.

The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome folio was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him.

Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue #19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember – an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in #16.

Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and deftly repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war. In gentler times the bumbler with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and often macabre adventure blended seamlessly with sly yet cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham…

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as demonstrated elsewhere by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent, or Sexton Blake somehow endeared the arrogant, posturing buffoon to a young public which would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense, sharp, edgy inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are anachronistic echoes and nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘brooding, lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

This too-slim, oversized (324 x 234mm x) paperback compilation is all that’s readily available these days, but surely in these days of electronic publishing some enterprising fan with a complete Eagle Collection can link up with a perspicacious publisher someway, somehow and produce a comprehensive compilation of the nation’s most self-lauded sleuth?

I know a lot of aging 10-year olds and their grandchildren who would leap at the chance to see the old team back in action…
Harris Tweed © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

Kelly Green volume 1: The Go-Between


By Leonard Starr & Stan Drake (Dargaud International)
ISBN: 978-2-205-06574-2

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

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began a long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comicbooks, before transiting to legitimacy by working in advertising and eventually settling in the challenging but acceptable arena of newspaper strips.

Starr cut his teeth on Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular yet now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, perfected his skills drawing stories for Simon & 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 newspaper monolith 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 landmark Little Orphan Annie (continuing until his retirement in 2000), whilst simultaneously creating ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine.

An experienced TV scripter since 1970, Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comicbooks in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965. He died in 2015.

Stan Drake (1921-1997) was another vastly experienced cartoonist who began his career 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.

Drake started drawing career for the pulps, specifically Popular Detective and Popular Sports, before moving on to newly formed Timely Comics and The Black Widow. His path was briefly diverted in 1941 after he enlisted in the US Army, and when hostilities ceased he also worked in advertising until 1953 and the regular pay-check of Juliet Jones. In September 1956, Drake barely survived the road accident which took the life of Alex Raymond, but was soon quickly back at his drawing board.

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 – between 1982 and 1988 – he found the odd moment to work on Kelly Green as well as the occasional job for Marvel Comics.

To relax, he painted portraits of his cartoonist friends (now on display in the Comic Artists 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.

So, who is Kelly Green?

Debuting in 1981 as a black-&-white serial in legendary French magazine Pilote, the comics serial was a boldly contemporary antiheroic drama, with a deft, light tone and grimly mature themes. Within a year, colour Kelly Green albums were flying off shelves across Europe, and eventually in the English-speaking world, too.

The eponymous lead is a woman with a past. Literally cursed by her looks, Kelly is a stunning redhead men would kill and die for. She only escaped her traumatic, mysterious history and foredoomed future when she married Dan Green, a respected New York cop.

Tragically her comfortable redemptive 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, this trio of honourable rogues take the grieving, angry widow under their collective wing, teaching her all the tricks of survival in a dirty world and even finding her a new occupation…

Despising the criminals that Dan fought and who finally murdered him, but loathing even more the corrupt police force that orchestrated his death, the bereft woman becomes a professional “Go-Between”: a paid intercessionary navigating the gulf dividing crooks and victims who don’t want police involvement. Apparently, this liaising job is completely legal and there’s never a shortage of clients…

Her 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 grown-ups (it was tailored to European tastes and sensibilities so there’s lots of lovingly rendered nudity and even “adult situations”).

Copies of all 4 paperback albums are still readily available and a hardcover complete collection was released in 2016, so Going Green is not that difficult, although dedicated disciples of digital editions are still going to have to wait a little longer until they can share the wealth of comics wonderment on display here.
© 1982 Dargaud Editeur. All right reserved.

Pride of a Decent Man


By T.J. Kirsch (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-120-8

Although the world still generally thinks of graphic novels as a source of frenetic, all-out adventure and outrageous high drama (often cloaked in weird metal, leather, rubber or plastic outfits) the truth is that the medium is simply a potently effective method of telling all sorts of stories in both words and pictures.

That means the heroes aren’t always larger than life. Sometimes, in their own minds antagonists and protagonists are barely life-sized at all…

T.J. Kirsch started out as a colourist at Archie Comics, before creating his own comics for Oni Press (Lost and Found) and Image (Outlaw Territory) and branching out into book illustration (She Died in Terrebonne with Kevin Church and So Buttons by Jonathan Baylis).

In this compact (235 x 156 mm) full-colour hardback (also available as an eBook), he skilfully demonstrates his own grasp of compelling visual storytelling in a seductively sedate, powerfully evocative and poignantly human-scaled fable of a guy with no hope and the odds stacked against him from the get-go…

In the hind-end of New England, Andrew Peters is back in the old home town after time spent in prison. He escaped from an abusive home the way most kids do: falling in with the wrong crowd. Andy was always thoughtful and contemplative and moved beyond beatings and daily frustrations by keeping journals.

Andy loved to write, and after he got caught trying to rob the local Safe-Mart he had plenty of opportunity. Girlfriend Jess vanished about the time constant crony Whitey talked Andy into pulling the job with him, but Whitey’s dad had connections and only Peters went away.

Now he’s back and just coasting, but everything changes when he thinks he sees Jess.

In fact, it’s the daughter he never knew he had…

Now utterly determined to be better and do better, Andy resolves to start his life over, but even in the sleepiest of towns and armed with the best of intentions, the sins of the past can exert an irresistible pressure…

Sleek, simple and seemingly straightforward, Pride of a Decent Man offers a thoughtful and totally immersive glimpse of a life both remarkable and inescapably pedestrian: a reflection on common humanity and day-to-day existence with all the lethal pitfalls they conceal and joys they promise.

A superb slice of modern fiction that should quench the thirst of all ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter, here is a real story of authentic people in extraordinary circumstances. This is the kind of tale diehard fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about…
© 2017 T.J. Kirsch. All rights reserved

Athos in America


By Jason, coloured by Hubert and translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books) ISBN: 978-1-60699-478-8

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

He won another Sproing in 2001 for his Mjau Mjau strip and the next year turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now a global star among the cognoscenti he has numerous major awards from such disparate locales as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Jason’s breadth of interest is capacious and deep: comics, movies, music, high literature, low life, real life and pulp fiction all feature equally with no sense of hierarchy, and his puckish mixing and matching of these evergreen founts of inspiration always results in a picture-treatise well worth a reader’s time.

A master of short-form illustrated tales, many Jason yarns are released as snappy little albums which are perfect for later inclusion in longer anthology collections such as this one which gathers a half-dozen sharp of the very best.

As always, the visual/verbal bon mots unfold in Jason’s beguiling, sparse-dialogued, pantomimic progressions with enchantingly formal page layouts rendered in the familiar, minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style; solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity. That delight is augmented here by a varied and beguiling palette ranging from stark pastels to muted primary colours to moody duotone…

Available as a sturdily comforting hardback and exciting eBook edition, the stream of subtle wonderment opens with understated crime thriller ‘The Smiling Horse’ as the last survivor of a kidnap team endures decades of tense anticipation before their victim’s uncanny avenger finally dispenses long-deferred justice, after which Jason examines his own life, career and romantic failings in harsh, uncompromising detail in ‘A Cat from Heaven’

B-Movie Sci Fi informs ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf’ as a scientist spends years killing women whilst looking for a body that won’t reject the mean-spirited, constantly carping head he keeps alive in his laboratory, before ‘Tom Waits on the Moon’ inexorably draws together a quartet of introspective, isolated loners who spend too much time thinking not doing into a web of fantastic horror…

A cunning period gangster pastiche rendered in subdued shades of red and brown, ‘So Long, Mary Anne’ sees a decent woman helping a vicious escaped convict flee justice. After they snatch a hostage the “victim” soon begins to exert an uncanny influence over the desperate killer, but is she just wicked or is there a hidden agenda in play?

Most welcome attraction here is eponymous final story ‘Athos in America’. This is a fabulously engaging “glory days” yarn acting as a prequel to the author’s spellbinding graphic romp The Last Musketeer.

That epic detailed the final exploit of the dashing Athos, who met his end bravely and improbably after four hundred years of valiant adventure. But what was he doing in the years before that?

A guy walks into a bar… It’s America in the 1920s and the oddly-dressed Frenchman starts chatting to Bob the barman. As the quiet night unfolds the affable patron relates how he came to America to star in a movie about himself and his three greatest friends. Sadly, after he enjoyed a dalliance with the Studio’s top star, things quickly started to go wrong…

Effortlessly switching back and forth between genre, milieu and narrative pigeon holes, this grab-bag of graphic goodies again proves that Jason is a creative force in comics like no other: one totally deserving as much of your time, attention and disposable income as possible.
All characters, stories and artwork © 2011 Jason. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volume 8: The Voronov Plot


By Yves Sente & André Juillard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-048-1

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) is one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output was relatively modest compared to many of his iconic contemporaries, Jacobs’ landmark serialised life’s work – starring scientific trouble-shooters Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake – practically formed the backbone of the modern action-adventure comic in Europe.

His splendidly adroit, roguish yet thoroughly British adventurers were conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, and quickly became a crucial staple of life for post-war European kids – much as Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the eleventh album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in Tintin, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues.

Jacobs died on February 20th 1987 before completing extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō.

The concluding volume was only released in March 1990 after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes. The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio. The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined and familiar mid-1950s milieu whilst unfolding a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing.

The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the next release: Le machination Voronov by Yves Sente (Le Janitor, Thorgal) & André Juillard (Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek) published in 1999 – although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ credentials regarding threats in uncanny circumstances…

It all begins in a top-secret Soviet rocket base in January 1957 where a test-launch results in disaster as the missile smashes into a comet before crashing back to Earth. It’s not just prestige at stake here, though. It soon becomes apparent that the downed wreckage has picked up a deadly contagion from space. The region is quarantined and the exposed wreckage rushed to KGB medical specialist Professor Voronov at the Cosmodrome…

Working with his assistant Comrade Nastasia Wardynska, the brusque physician quickly determines that a bacterial strain from the comet produces a fast-acting, inevitably fatal haemorrhagic fever in adult humans…

In London as March ends, Captain Francis Blake engages in high level talks with Commander William Steele, his opposite number in MI6. Disturbing news is coming out of Moscow: many high-ranking members of the Politburo have died suddenly and a warning from a highly-placed mole reveals that Voronov has stockpiled a deadly new bio-weapon.

The agent plans on getting a sample to the West, but needs help to accomplish the crucial task…

Later whilst dining with old friend Professor Mortimer, a hasty plan is hatched after Blake learns his pal has been invited to attend a scientific Symposium in Moscow…

And thus unfolds a canny, deviously Byzantine tale of Cold War intrigue as Blake and Mortimer strive to get a sample of alien pathogen Bacteria Z, themselves and all their undercover allies out of the insidious clutches of the KGB before solving a baffling mystery that threatens all of humanity.

As frantic chases lead to desperate battles and inevitable casualties in the shadows, critical questions emerge. If the Russians have an unbeatable bio-weapon, why are only Soviet officials dying? And what part does their oldest and most malevolent enemy play in the convoluted scheme?

Just when the dapper due think they have a handle on the swiftly-developing crisis, Western scientists start succumbing to Bacteria Z and it appears that further investigation into the insidious Voronov is necessary before the plot can be foiled and the true danger to Britain and the Free World finally crushed…

Strongly founded upon and in many ways a loving tribute to John Buchan’s classic thrillers, by way of a delicious tip of the hat to Space Age Cold War movie thrillers such as the Quatermass Experiment and Seven Days to Noon, this is a devious and convoluted spook-show to astound and delight espionage aficionados and a solidly entertaining addition to the captivating canon of the Gentleman Adventurers.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1999 by André Juillard & Yves Sente. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010 Cinebook Ltd.

The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer


By Dennis O’Neil, Michael William Kaluta, Russ Heath & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-429-9

In the early 1930s, The Shadow gave thrill-starved Americans their measured doses of extraordinary excitement via cheaply produced pulp periodical novels, and over the mood-drenched airwaves through his own radio show.

“Pulps” were published in every style and genre in their hundreds every month, ranging from the truly excellent to the pitifully dire, but for exotic or esoteric adventure-lovers there were two stars who outshone all others. The Superman of his day was Doc Savage, whilst the premier dark, relentless creature of the night dispensing terrifying grim justice was the putative hero featured here.

Radio series Detective Story Hour – based on stand-alone yarns from the Street & Smith publication Detective Story Magazine – used a spooky-toned narrator (variously Orson Welles, James LaCurto or Frank Readick Jr.) to introduce each tale. He was dubbed “the Shadow” and from the very start on July 31st 1930, he was more popular than the stories he related.

The Shadow evolved into a proactive hero solving instead of narrating mysteries and, on April 1st 1931, began starring in his own printed adventures, written by the astonishingly prolific Walter Gibson under house pseudonym Maxwell Grant. On September 26th 1937 the radio show officially became The Shadow with the eerie motto “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Men? The Shadow knows!” ringing out unforgettably over the nation’s airwaves.

Over the next eighteen years 325 novels were published, usually at the rate of two a month. The uncanny crusader spawned comicbooks, seven movies, a newspaper strip and all the merchandising paraphernalia you’d expect of a smash-hit superstar brand.

The pulp series officially ended in 1949 although Gibson and others added to the canon during the 1960s when a pulp/fantasy revival gripped the world, generating reprinted classic yarns and a run of new stories as paperback novels.

In graphic terms The Shadow was a major player. His national newspaper strip – by Vernon Greene – launched on June 17th 1940 and when comicbooks really took off the Man of Mystery had his own four-colour title; running from March 1940 to September 1949.

Archie Comics published a controversial contemporary reworking in 1964-1965 under their Radio/Mighty Comics imprint, by Robert Bernstein, Jerry Siegel, John Rosenberger and Paul Reinman. In 1973 DC acquired the rights to produce a captivating, brief and definitive series of classic comic sagas unlike any other superhero title then on the stands.

DC periodically revived the venerable vigilante. After the runaway success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight Returns and Watchman, Howard Chaykin was allowed to utterly overhaul the vintage feature for an audience at last acknowledged as grown-up enough to handle more sophisticated fare.

This led to further, adult-oriented iterations and one cracking outing from Marvel before Dark Horse assumed the license of the quintessential grim avenger for the latter half of the 1990s and beyond.

Dynamite Entertainment secured the option in 2011 and, whilst reissuing much of those other publishers’ earlier efforts, began a series of new monthly Shadow comics.

A year after Howard Chaykin and DC catapulted The Shadow into the grim ‘n’ grungy contemporary arena the dream-team that had first returned him to comic-book prominence reunited for a larger-than-life grand romp, ably abetted by the inking skills of master artist Russ Heath.

Denny O’Neil and Michael Kaluta had produced a stand-out series of adventures in the early 1970s (collected as The Private Files of the Shadow), set in the mad scientist/spy/gangster-ridden ‘thirties, and when they reunited to produce a Marvel Graphic novel expectations were high. As it turned out, in many ways that complex and devious yarn was the final chapter in that astounding graphic procession. In 2013 Dynamite re-released Hitler’s Astrologer with the entire affair re-mastered by Mike Kelleher, finally doing justice to the colouring of Mark Chiarello, Nick Jainschigg and John Wellington – as well as letterer Phil Felix – which had nor fared well under the production processes of the time…

On Easter Sunday 1941 a beautiful woman is pursued through the teeming crowds of Times Square theatre-goers by sinister thugs until rescued in the nick of time by agents of The Shadow.

She is Gretchen Baur, personally despatched to America by Josef Goebbels to gather astrological data for the Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda. However, now the confused fräulein cannot understand why agents of her own government have tried to abduct her…

The Shadow reveals that she is an unwitting pawn in a deadly battle for supremacy within the Nazi Party that revolves around her father, Der Führer’s personal astrologer…

And thus begins a tense and intricate conspiracy thriller that ranges from the bloody streets of New York through the killer skies of Europe to the very steps of Hitler’s palace in Berlin as a desperate plan to subvert the course of the war comes up hard against a twisted, thwarted love and a decades-long hunt for vengeance.

Deliciously and suitably Wagnerian in style, this action-packed mystery drama exudes period charm; nobody has ever realised The Shadow and his cohorts as well as Kaluta, whilst Russ Heath’s sleek inks add weight and volume to the cataclysmic proceedings.

This sinister saga of the man in the black slouch hat with the girasol ring is another superb addition to the annals of the original Dark Knight, and one no one addicted to action and mystery should miss.
The Shadow ® & © 2013 Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. d/b/a Conde Nast. All Rights Reserved.

Clifton volume 7: Elementary, My Dear Clifton


By Rodrigue & de Groot, translated by Mark Bence (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-198-3

An infallible agent of Her Majesty’s assorted security forces, Clifton was created by Raymond Macherot for the weekly Tintin. The doughty exemplar of Albion debuted in December 1959, just as a filmic 007 was preparing to set the world ablaze and get everyone hooked on spycraft…

After three albums of strip material – all compiled and released in little more than a year – Macherot defected to arch-rival Spirou and his bombastic British buffoon was benched. Tintin reactivated him at the height of the Sixties’ Swinging London scene and that aforementioned spy-craze, courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Michel Régnier (code-named Greg to his millions of fans).

Those strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

Then it was back into retirement until 1971 when Greg – with artist Joseph Loeckx – took another shot. They tinkered with the True Brit until 1973 when Bob De Groot & illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois fully regenerated the be-whiskered wonder man. After ten more tales, in 1984 artist Bernard Dumont (AKA Bédu) limned de Groot’s scripts before eventually assuming the writing chores as well. The series concluded in 1995.

…But You Only Die Twice… or thrice, or lots…

In keeping with its rather haphazard Modus Operandi and indomitably undying nature, the Clifton strip returned yet again in 2003, crafted now by De Groot & Michel Rodrigue for four further adventures. Although the humorous visual vein was still heavily mined in these tales, now the emphasis was subtly shifted and the action/adventure components strongly emphasised…

Bob de Groot was born in Brussels in 1941, to French and Dutch parents. He became art assistant to Maurice Tillieux on Félix, before creating his own short works for Pilote. A rising star in the 1960s, he drew 4 × 8 = 32 L’Agent Caméléon, where he met Liegeois, consequently began a slow transition from artist to writer. Together they created Archimède, Robin Dubois and Léonard before eventually inheriting Macherot’s moribund spy.

In 1989, de Groot – with Jacques Landrain – devised Digitaline, a strong contender for the first comic created entirely on a computer, and co-created Doggyguard with Rodrigue, even whilst prolifically working with the legendary Morris on both Lucky Luke and its canine comedy spin-off Rantanplan.

He’s still going strong with strips such as Léonard in Eppo, Père Noël & Fils and Le Bar des acariens (both published by Glénat) and so much more.

Michel Rodrigue was born in Lyon in 1961 and really, really likes Rugby. He pursued higher education at the National School of Fine Arts, where he also studied medieval archaeology and from 1983-85 was part of the French Rugby team. In 1987, he designed France’s mascot for the World Cup.

His comics debut came in 1984 with sports (guess which one) strip Mézydugnac in Midi Olympique. After illustrating an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in 1986 he and collaborator Jean-Claude Vruble produced a volume of La Révolution Française, scripted by Patrick Cothias.

Rodrigue then joined Roger Brunel on Rugby en B.D., Du Monde dans la Coupe!, Concept, Le Rugby en Coupe and La Foot par la Bande.

For Tintin he drew Bom’s Les Conspirateurs and produced Rugbyman, the official monthly of the French Rugby Federation, amongst a welter of other strips. Along the way he began scripting too, and, after working with de Groot on Doggyguard joined him on the revived Clifton.

He also remains astonishingly creatively occupied, working on Ly-Noock with André Chéret, Brèves de Rugby, La Grande Trambouille des Fées for René Hausmann, Futurama comics, Cubitus with Pierre Aucaigne, and many more…

For Your Eyes Only: Pompous, irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton is ex-RAF, a former officer with the Metropolitan Police Constabulary and recently retired from MI5. He has great difficulty dealing with being put out to pasture in rural Puddington and takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, assisting Her Majesty’s Government or needy individuals as an amateur sleuth whenever the opportunity arises. He occupies his idle hours with as many good deeds as befits a man of his standing and service. He is particularly dedicated to sharing the benefits of organised Scouting with the younger generations…

Originally released as Elémentaire mon cher Clifton in 2006 this yarn is a little off the far-from-sedentary sleuth’s beaten paths. As the cover and title might lead you to deduce, Elementary, My Dear Clifton takes its lead from that unflinching bastion of British fiction Sherlock Holmes, but not quite in the way you might imagine…

This rollicking caper begins with the old soldier and his svelte sidekick Jade inspecting a fleet of outrageously expensive luxury cars before getting into a headbanging prang whilst driving home in Clifton’s own stylish sports-roadster.

When he regains consciousness, Jade is missing, abducted by a shadowy figure from the vintage car which forced him off the road…

After another frustrating and infuriating interview with Highway Code martinet and personal gadfly Constable Strawberry, Clifton sets in motion the wheels of protocol that will enable his intelligence community contacts to find the missing assistant, before staggering home to bed and passing out.

Next morning, he finds his multi-talented housekeeper Mrs. Partridge chatting with a distinguished gentleman. Clothed in outmoded attire, “the Doctor” claims to know what’s happened to Jade but if Clifton wants to save her he’ll have to return with him to October 7th 1912…

The physician claims that he and his partner – a certain unnamed consulting detective – were on the trail of a nefarious inventor named Professor Hamilton. That villain was nosing about the preparations for the gala celebrations of a Maharaja on the eve of a sumptuous nuptial event when the Doctor fortuitously trailed him to a warehouse and saw him vanish into a bizarre contraption. Having keenly observed, the stealthy stalker then followed and ended up here and now…

Refusing to believe the cock-and-bull story but equally unable to disprove the evidence before him Clifton eventually concedes defeat and follows the crime doctor back in time and into his strangest adventure ever…

What follows is a hilarious and gripping romp with eerie personal echoes and foreshadowings for our temporally-misplaced manhunter: a ripping yarn all devotees of crime capers and time travels will love…

Funny, fast and furiously thrill-packed, Elementary, My Dear Clifton reveals hidden depths to our Old Soldier whilst playing deliriously fast and loose with history in the grandly enticing manner of Nicholas Meyer’s Time after Time and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits; a confection guaranteed to astound and delight thrill and laughter-addicts of every age.
Original edition © Les Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard SA) 2006 by Rodrigue & De Groot. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

XIII volume 4: SPADS


By William Vance & Jean Van Hamme, coloured by Petra (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-058-0

One of the most consistently entertaining and popular adventure serials on the European scene, XIII was created by author Jean Van Hamme (Wayne Shelton, Blake and Mortimer, Lady S.) and illustrator William Vance (Bruce J. Hawker, Marshal Blueberry, Ramiro).

Van Hamme was born in Brussels in 1939 and is one of the most prolific writers in comics. After pursuing Business Studies, he moved into journalism and marketing before selling his first graphic tale in 1968. Immediately clicking with the public, by 1976 he had also branched out into prose novels and screenwriting. His big break was monumentally successful mixed-genre fantasy series Thorgal for Tintin magazine but he truly cemented his reputation with mass-market bestsellers Largo Winch and XIII as well as more cerebral fare such as Chninkel and Les maîtres de l’orge. In 2010 Van Hamme was listed as the second-best selling comics author in France, ranked between the seemingly unassailable Hergé and Uderzo.

William Vance is the bande dessinée nom de plume of William van Cutsem. He was born in 1935 in Anderlecht and, after military service in 1955-1956, studied art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. He became an illustrator of biographic features at Tintin in 1962. His persuasive illustrative style is a classical blend of meticulous realism, scrupulous detail and spectacular yet understated action.

In 1964 he began maritime adventure serial Howard Flynn (written by Yves Duval) before graduating to more popular genre work with western Ray Ringo and espionage thriller Bruno Brazil (scripted by Greg). Further success followed when he replaced Gérald Forton on science fiction classic Bob Morane in Femmes d’Aujourd’hui and latterly Pilote and Tintin.

Although working broadly and constantly on serials and stand-alone stories, Vance’s signature achievement is his lengthy collaboration with fellow Belgian Van Hamme on this contemporary thriller loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity

XIII launched in 1984, originally running in Spirou to great acclaim. A triad of albums were rushed out – simultaneously printed in French and Dutch editions – before the first year of serialisation ended.

The series was a monumental hit in Europe but fared less well in its earlier attempts to make the translation jump to English, with Catalan Communications, Alias Comics and even Marvel all failing to find an audience for the epic mystery thriller.

The grand conspiracy saga of unrelenting mood, mystery and mayhem opened in The Day of the Black Sun when an old beachcomber found a body. The human flotsam had a gunshot head wound and was near death when Abe and his wife Sally found him. She discovered a key sewn into his clothes and the Roman numerals for thirteen tattooed on his neck. The remote hideaway offered little in the way of emergency services, but their alcoholic, struck-off surgeon friend managed to save the stranger…

As he recuperated, a complication became apparent. The patient – a splendid physical specimen clearly no stranger to action or violence – had suffered massive and irreversible brain trauma. Although increasingly sound in body he had completely lost his past.

Language skills, muscle memories, even social and reflexive conditioning all remained, but every detail of his life-history was gone…

They named him “Alan” after their own dead son – but hints of the intruder’s lost past explosively intruded when hitmen invaded the beach house with guns blazing. Alan lethally retaliated with terrifying skill, but too late…

In the aftermath he found a photo of himself and a young woman on the killers and traced it to nearby Eastown. Desperate for answers and certain more killers were coming, the human question mark headed off to confront unimaginable danger and hopefully find the answers he craved.

The picture led to a local newspaper and a crooked cop who recognised the amnesiac but said nothing…

The woman in the photo was Kim Rowland, a local widow recently gone missing. Alan’s key opened the door of her house. The place had been ransacked but a thorough search utilising his mysterious talents turned up another key and a note warning someone named Jake that “The Mongoose” had found her…

He was then ambushed by the cop and newspaper editor Wayne. Calling him “Shelton” they demanded the return of a large amount of missing money…

Alan/Jake/Shelton reasoned the new key fitted a safe-deposit box and bluffed the thugs into taking him to the biggest bank in town. The staff there also knew him as Shelton, but when his captors examined the briefcase in Shelton’s box a booby trap went off. Instantly acting, the mystery man expertly escaped and eluded capture, holing up in a shabby hotel room, pondering again what kind of man he used to be…

As he prepared to leave he stumbled into a mob of armed killers. In a blur of lethal action he escaped and ran into another bunch of heavies led by a Colonel Amos. This chilling executive referred to his captive as “Thirteen”, claiming to have dealt with his predecessors XI and XII in regard to the “Black Sun” case…

Amos very much wanted to know who Alan was, and offered some shocking titbits in return. The most sensational was film of the recent assassination of American President, William B Sheridan, clearly showing the lone gunman was XIII…

Despite the amnesiac’s heartfelt conviction that he was no assassin, Amos accused him of working for a criminal mastermind, and wanted that big boss. The interrogator failed to take Alan’s instinctive abilities into account and was astounded when his prisoner leapt out of a fourth floor window…

The fugitive headed back to the beach where he was found but more murderers awaited; led by a mild-seeming man Alan inexplicably knew was The Mongoose. The criminal overlord expressed surprise and admiration: he thought he’d killed Thirteen months ago…

Following an explosion of hyper-fast violence which left the henchmen dead and Mongoose vanished but vengeful, the mystery man regretfully hopped a freight train west towards the next stage in his quest for truth…

His journey of discovery took him to the army base where Kim Rowland’s husband was stationed. His enquiries provoked an unexpected and violent response resulting in his interrogation by General Ben Carrington and his sexily capable aide Lieutenant Jones.

They’re from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, know an awful lot about black ops units and have proof that their memory-challenged prisoner is in fact their agent: believed-deceased Captain Steve Rowland

After testing the amnesiac’s abilities Carrington then drops him off in Rowland’s home town of Southberg to pursue his search for his missing wife, but the prodigal’s return to his rat’s nest of a family rekindles long-simmering passions and jealousies. The entire town seems to want Rowland’s blood and before long he’s been made the target of an assassination attempt and victim of a diabolical murder-plot…

Despite Carrington and Jones’ last-minute intervention Alan/Steve is framed for murdering his father and grabbed by a furious posse.

After an indeterminate period of time “Steve” resurfaces, undergoing the worst kind of psychiatric care at Plain Rock Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane. Despite drugs and shock treatments, progress is negligible, probably because aging martinet Dr Johansson’s claims of curing for his patient’s apparent amnesia are clearly just a judgemental sadist’s justifications for inflicting agony on the helpless…

Carrington and Jones meet with Amos who has troubling information. His investigations revealed the amnesiac had undergone illicit plastic surgery and his army records were altered. Whoever was in Plain Rock, he wasn’t Steve Rowland…

Amos’ files proved the plotters who had the President killed were still active and their amnesiac assassin was now the only link to them. Acting on her own initiative, Jones decided it was time she took a hands-on approach…

Anxious and isolated, Not-Rowland received a visitor who galvanised him out of his induced torpor and knew his days were numbered…

Deep within the corridors of power, Amos informs Carrington further researches have obtained them a name. XIII and the man they are actually dealing with is former soldier and intelligence operative Ross Tanner.

Probably…

Perhaps…

Rowland/Tanner opts for escape but is swiftly recaptured and restricted to the medical section. XIII is helpless when the Mongoose’s inside man makes his move. Luckily Jones had also inserted herself in a position where she could do the most good…

Spectacularly busting out, “Rowland” and the mystery woman then race into the desert, somehow avoiding a massive manhunt before vanishing without trace.

Some time later, Amos and Carrington confer over the disappearance, but one of them knows exactly where the fugitive is. Now, with another new name, the warrior without a past and his new powerful allies lay plans to take the fight to their secret enemy…

SPADS is the fourth complex and convoluted chapter (first released in Europe in 1987) and opens with a much more concise and visual recap than I’ve just given, before kicking the plot into high gear as the race to replace murdered President Sheridan hots up. The contenders are Old Boy Network hack and former Vice President Joseph Galbrain battling Sheridan’s glamorous and idealistic younger brother Walter: latest scion of a venerable dynasty of leaders…

Amos’ diligent investigation is relentless. After exhuming a host of bodies, he can confidently claim to know who Tanner really is, is but when his search leads him into a trap that kills his assistant and incapacitates him, he starts to wonder if he’s tracking a target or being led onto a bullseye…

Elsewhere, in a green hell of sweat and testosterone, Ross Tanner is making no friends as he trains to join elite combat unit SPADS (SPecial Assault and Destruction Squads). He doesn’t fit in and is always causing trouble. It’s as if he’s there under false pretences…

When Amos and Judge Allenby confront Carrington at the Pentagon with news that Tanner is also an alias for an as yet unknown operative, the reaction is little short of explosive. Soon after, special aide Lieutenant Jones goes AWOL…

Back in the Bayou, the man everybody is hunting has made a fresh advance into uncovering his occluded past. Sergeant Betty served with the real Rowland and knows he didn’t die at the time and in the manner the official reports describe. Before she shares the details, however, she has an itch that needs scratching…

That conversation is curtailed by camp commander Colonel McCall, who tells the undercover operative that he’s being transferred out in the morning by direct order of General Carrington. Realising his chance to solve his personal mystery is evaporating, XIII settles a few outstanding scores before sneaking into Betty’s quarters…

Amos and Allenby meanwhile have not been idle, and the former is certain he has at last gleaned the actual identity of the multi-named agent XIII, but when they visit a certain grave they walk right into another ambush and a well-placed mole is forced to break cover…

As Amos is plucked from the firefight by the last person he expected to see, a continent away Tanner’s liaison gets even more dangerous when another Mongoose mole interrupts and tries to kill them both. Happily, Carrington’s back-up agent is well placed to save them and they all flee together, unaware that their escape vehicle has been boobytrapped and sabotaged…

Amos by now is securely ensconced in a palatial hideaway, being feted by a coterie of political heavyweights who finally reveal the truth about all the men Ross Tanner is and isn’t. They then explain the incredible reason for the smoke-&-mirrors operation and the earth-shattering stakes…

To Be Continued…

XIII is one most compelling and multi-layered mystery adventures ever conceived, with subsequent instalments constantly taking the questing human enigma two steps forward, one step back, stumbling through a world of pain and peril whilst cutting through an interminable web of past lives he seemingly led…

Rocket-paced and immensely inventive, XIII is a series no devotee of action sagas and conspiracy thrillers will want to miss.
Original edition © Dargaud Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard SA), 1987 by Van Hamme, Vance & Petra. All rights reserved. This edition published 2010 by Cinebook Ltd.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters


By Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-959-2

Once upon a time, comics were ubiquitous and universal and scorned by most people.

Gradually people came to realise that there were gems amongst the dross, and a critical arena grew where graphic novels could be judged on their own intrinsic merits and afforded serious consideration as Art.

Every so often an example of purely perfect sequential narrative emerges which reshapes the Artform and forces the entire world to sit up and take notice: Maus, Persepolis, American Splendor, Watchmen

I’m pretty certain as I read my review copy (for the third time in two weeks) that My Favorite Thing is Monsters is soon going to be automatically added to that list of ground-breaking, world-shaking graphic masterpieces whenever people talk about the absolute best that sequential graphic narrative has to offer…

Crafted over decades, this massive onion-skin of tales-within-tales ostensibly details a murder mystery, but conceals within its astoundingly illustrated layers a “you-are-here” historical perspective of the social chaos resulting amongst the impoverished and disenfranchised after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a crushing examination of child abuse, an impassioned discourse on the nature and role of Art, a chilling coming-of-age experience, a telling testament of the repercussions of survival for Holocaust victims and a mesmerising trek through the psyche of a very troubled little girl on the cusp of leaving the security of childhood forever…

The viper’s nest of stories is delivered through the beguiling conceit that we are reading the diary of an extremely intelligent, artistically gifted little girl who has inscribed and illustrated in her spiral-bound notebook the far-from-mundane recent events of her life: an unedited, unexpurgated stream-of-consciousness account, just as the events happened…

Karen Reyes sees monsters. She sees them everywhere but that’s okay because most of them are her friends or at least not overly hostile and besides, she’s a monster too…

In 1968 Chicago, our 10-year-old protagonist/narrator is obsessed with movie and comicbook creature features, to the point of seeing herself as a cute werewolf (much in the mould of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things).

She is also worldly-wise beyond her years perhaps blessed with synaesthesia: able to smell colours, taste the tone or character of places and enter the many paintings her artist brother takes her to see at the gallery…

The single-parent family lives in Chicago in 1968 in a tenement owned by local gangboss Mr. Gronan. The mobster’s wife is one of the many women Karen’s brother Deeze regularly shares his bed with, not the wisest of things to admit to…

Despite his social shortcomings Deeze is a brilliant artist who has always shared his passion with his gifted sister, but as the story opens he is keeping a secret from Karen. Their adoring mother is dying…

Karen’s cool reserve is frequently tested. Many kids at school bully and abuse her whilst their parents scorn and despise her. At least she has a few trusted outcast associates in her corner. It’s no wonder though that she prefers the clannish world of screen and comicbooks to what reality offers up daily…

Blithely unaware of how painful the world can be, the dutiful daughter’s world shifts from filmic fantasy to real life tragedy when troubled tenant Anka Silverberg dies. Karen, who has shared a special relationship with the concentration camp survivor for years, realises it must be murder, not the inevitable suicide most of the adults say it was.

The Werewolf-girl thus resolves to use her gifts to find the killer and embarks on an horrific voyage of discovery. With the unwittingly aid of befuddled sot Sam Silverberg and her own uncanny, wise-beyond-her-years instincts, Karen stalks her elusive prey, slowly gaining an understanding of the real-world atrocities Anna endured before reaching America and her inescapable date with doom…

Moreover, as Karen continues to investigate the life and death of Anka, the increasingly violent real world gets a stronger hold on her inner landscape, distracting the monster girl from her self-appointed mission…

Astoundingly complex and multi-layered, and accessing a phenomenally intricate interior landscape blending the shocking squalor, deprivation and social unrest of mid 1960’s Chicago with the thoughts and impression of a brilliant child and natural outsider, My Favorite Thing is Monsters offers a stunning examination of loss and what it means to be human. Moreover, the barrage of intertwined stories never obfuscates, but always offers some snippet of revelation and does so with warmth, humour, great heart and inspirational passion.

Best of all, this tome is only the beginning and the story will continue in a sequel…
© 2016 Emil Ferris. All rights reserved.

Little Tulip


By Jerome Charyn & François Boucq (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80872-7

Some creative teams spend all their time collaborating: crafting works that constantly remind us why we are wise to await their every effort. Other artisans only link up at agonisingly rare intervals, and when their newest works are finally finished we hungry lovers of their art can only breathe a huge sigh of relief and release.

A sublime case-in-point are the all-too-rarely seen concoctions of American crime author and graphic novelist Jerome Charyn (Johnny One-Eye, I Am Abraham, Citizen Sidel, Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories) and French illustrator François Boucq (Bouncer, Sente, Jérôme Moucherot, Bouche de diable) who together created Femme du magicien/The Magician’s Wife and Billy Budd, KGB: uniquely compelling graphic novels which have won popular acclaim and numerous awards all over the world.

Now their latest dark masterpiece – published in French in 2014 – is at last available in a remastered English translation by Charyn himself.

A ferocious and captivating blend of bleak reverie, coming-of-age drama, noir thriller and supernatural vengeance tale, the action opens in New York City in 1970 where tattooist Pavel plies his trade under the admiring gaze of fascinated teen Azami.

She too is enslaved to the act of drawing, and wants to know everything: how to mark the skin, the secrets of adapting a past design, where and how the master got his own skinful of stories…

The city is in a growing panic. A serial-killing rapist dubbed Bad Santa is terrorising the night; targeting late working women such as Azami’s mother, so Pavel is keeping a quiet eye on them both. He’s actually far more informed than most citizens, as his uncanny ability to draw likenesses from the barest of witness accounts makes the old man a crucial component of the cops’ war on crime.

This almost magical ability has been consistently failing in regard to the Bad Santa killings, however, and the tension makes Pavel dream of his own appalling childhood…

Just after WWII ended, his artist father emigrated from Washington Heights, USA to the Soviet Union to work with legendary film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.

In those constrained environs Pavel absorbed a love of drawing and hunger for creative expression that was not crushed even when a political shift in climate saw him and his family arrested as spies and shipped off to the horrific Siberian gulag of Kolyma.

The daily casual atrocities of the corrupt guards were worse than what the boy experienced at the hands of the rival criminal gangs who actually ran the prisons. Soon he was alone, but his instinct for survival and gifts as an artist set him upon a new path, creating the sacrosanct, almost-holy tattoos the inmates used to define, embolden and characterise themselves.

It was not the only art Pavel learned. As he grew older he became the top gladiator of his gang: a fast deadly warrior with a blade in pitch darkness or broad daylight…

As the wave of killings continue in the blighted Big Apple, Pavel’s thoughts keep returning to the unceasing stream of hardships and atrocities he experienced in the camp. Slowly a grim conclusion comes to him about the nature of the Bad Santa… but too late for him to save the people nearest and dearest to him…

Bleak, uncompromising, seductive and painfully authentic whilst tinged with a smear of supernatural mystery, the story of Little Tulip is an unforgettable peek into the forbidden and the profane that will take your breath away.

Also included in this album-sized (280 x 210 mm) full-colour paperback is a glorious selection of sketches and working drawing in an entrancing display of ‘Artwork by François Boucq’ to inspire you to making your own meaningful marks on paper – or any preferred medium…
© 2014 Jerome Charyn and François Boucq. © 2014 Le Lombard. Lettering © 2016 Thomas Mauer. All rights reserved.

Little Tulip is officially released January 27th 2017 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or local comics-store or bookshop.