W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird

By Björn Karlström, translated by Peter James (Hodder and Stoughton)
ISBN: 978-0-34023-081-7(HB)                      0-340-23081-9(PB)

In acknowledgement of today’s Centenary of the Royal Air Force, I’m reviewing a captivating combat classic starring one of the Service’s most glittering – albeit fictional – stars.

Although one of the most popular and enduring of all True Brit heroes, air detective Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth – immortally known as “Biggles” – has never been the star of British comics you’d reasonably expect.

Whilst the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Dick Turpin, Sexton Blake, Dick Barton and others have regularly made the jump to sequential pictorials, as far as I can determine the only time Biggles hit the funny pages was as a beautiful strip illustrated firstly by Ron Embleton and later Mike Western for the lush, tabloid-sized photogravure weekly TV Express (issues 306-376, 1960-1962). Even then the strip was based on the 1960 television series rather than the armada of books and short stories generated over Johns’ 56-year career.

Much of this superb stuff has been reprinted in French and other European editions but remains criminally uncollected in the UK. Indeed Biggles is huge all over the Continent, particularly Holland, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of Biggles has ever made the transition back to Blighty…

Created by World War 1 flying veteran and aviation enthusiast William Earl Johns (February 5th 1893-June 21st 1968), the airborne adventures of Biggles, his cousin the Hon. Algernon Montgomery Lacey AKA “Algy”, Ginger Hebblethwaite and their trusty mechanic and dogsbody Flight Sergeant Smyth ran as prose thrillers in the magazines Modern Boy, Popular Flying and Flying – periodicals which Johns designed, edited and even illustrated.

Initially aimed at an older audience, the Biggles stories quickly became a staple of boys’ entertainment in anthology and full novels (nearly 100 between 1932-1968) as well as a true cultural icon. Utilising the unique timeless quality of proper heroes, Biggles and Co. have waged their dauntless war against evil as combatants in World Wars I and II, as Special Air Detectives for Scotland Yard in the interregnum of 1918-1939 and as freelance agents and adventurers in the Cold War years…

“Captain” W.E. Johns was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century and wrote over 160 books in total as well as innumerable features and articles ranging from gardening to treasure-hunting, aviation, crime fiction, pirates and historical fact and fiction.

He created many heroic novel series which shared the same continuity as Biggles: 6 “Steeley” novels starring Deeley Montfort Delaroy, a WWI fighter ace-turned-crimebuster between 1936-1939, 10 volumes of commando Captain Lorrington King AKA Gimlet (1943-1954) and a 10 volume science fiction saga starring retired RAF Group Captain Timothy ‘Tiger’ Clinton, his son Rex and boffin Professor Lucius Brane who voyaged among the stars in a cosmic ray powered spaceship between 1954 and 1963.

Although much of his work is afflicted with the parochial British jingoism and racial superiority that blights so much of the fiction of the early 20th century, Johns was certainly ahead of his time in areas of class and gender equality. Although Algy is a purely traditional plucky Toff, working class Ginger is an equal partner and participant in all things, whilst Flight Officer Joan Worralson was a WAAF pilot who starred in 11 “Worrals” novels between 1941 and 1950, commissioned by the Air Ministry to encourage women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

In 1977, veteran Swedish author and cartoonist Björn Karlström returned to comics when publisher Semics commissioned him to produce four new Biggles adventures; ‘Het Sargasso mysterie’, ‘Operatie goudvis’, ‘De tijger bende’ and ‘Ruimtestation Aries’ (The Sargasso Mystery; Operation Goldfish; The Tiger Gang and Space Station Aries, respectively). These were picked up by Hodder and Stoughton in 1978, deftly translated by Peter James and released as Biggles and the Sargasso Triangle, Biggles and the Golden Bird, Biggles and the Tiger and Biggles and the Menace from Space

In 1983, two further albums were released, created by Stig Stjernvik.

Although deeply mired in the stylisation and tone of Hergé’s Tintin, to my mind the most authentic-seeming to Johns’ core concept was the second, highlighted here for today’s celebrations…

Swedish designer, author and aviation enthusiast Björn Karlström began working in comics for the vast Scandinavian market in 1938, producing scale-model plans and drawings for the magazine Flygning. In 1941 he created the adventure strip Jan Winther for them before devising international speculative fiction hit Johnny Wiking: followed up with another SF classic which closely foreshadowed the microscopic missionaries of (Otto Klement, Jerome Bixby and Isaac Asimov’s) Fantastic Voyage in ‘En Resa i Människokroppen’ (1943-1946), before taking over Lennart Ek’s successful super-heroine strip Dotty Virvelvind in 1944.

Karlström left comics at the end of the war and returned to illustration and commercial design, working on jet fighters for Saab and trucks for Scania.

Whereas most of his earlier comics were rendered in a passable imitation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, when he was convinced to produce the Biggles quartet Karlström adopted a raw, lean version of Hergé’s Ligne Claire style which adds a welcome sense of period veracity to the tales but often offends and upsets Tintin purists…

Biggles and the Golden Bird is set in the early 1930s and begins when the aerial adventurers are asked to pilot a new super-plane in an attempt to break the world long-distance flying record. Fact freaks might be intrigued to discover that the “Fairview” of this story is closely based on the record-smashing Fairey Long Range Monoplane, which stars in a splendid plans-&-diagrams section at the back that also includes the De Havilland C-24 Autogiro also featuring prominently in this ripping yarn…

When mysterious intruders brazenly steal the Fairview, intelligence supremo General Raymond dispatches Biggles, Algy and Ginger to track them down and retrieve the prototype air-machine. A crashed light plane and a rustic witness point the trio in the direction of Scotland and, dashing North in a ministry-provided autogiro (that’s a cross between a plane and an early kind of helicopter), they rendezvous with a fishing boat whose captain also witnessed strange sky shenanigans only to be attacked and overcome…

Their enigmatic adversaries had anticipated the pursuit and laid a trap, but with a typical display of pluck and fortune, Ginger turns the tables and drives off the thugs. The real Captain Gilbert then imparts his information and the autogiro brings them to a desolate ruined castle on a rocky headland, where Ginger and Algy are captured by an armed gang even as poor Biggles plunges over a cliff to certain doom…

Naturally the Ace Aviator saves himself at the last moment and subsequently discovers a sub-sea cavern – complete with deep-sea diving operation – just as his pals cunningly escape captivity. Fortuitously meeting up, the trio follow their foes and find a sunken U-Boat full of gold…

The uncanny reason for the theft of the Fairview and the mastermind behind it all is revealed when arch-enemy and all-around Hunnish blackguard Erich von Stalhein arrives to take possession of the recovered bullion before fleeing to a new life in distant lands. Having none of it the plucky lads strike, leading to a blistering battle and spectacular showdown…

Fast and furious, full of fights and hairsbreadth chases – although perhaps a touch formulaic and too steeped in the old-fashioned traditions for modern comics purists – this light and snappy tale would delight newer readers and general action fans and is readily available in both hardback and softcover editions, since the books were re-released in 1983 in advance of the star-studded but controversial British film-flop Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Perhaps it’s time for another revival and even some fresh exploits?
Characters © W.E. Johns (Publications). Text and pictures © 1978 Björn Karlström. English text © 1978 Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

Yoko Tsuno volume 6: The Morning of the World

By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-082-5

Indomitable intellectual adventurer Yoko Tsuno debuted in 1970 with the September 24th 1970 edition of Le Journal de Spirou and is still delighting regular readers and making new fans to this day. Her astounding all-action, uncannily accessible exploits are amongst the most intoxicating, absorbing and broad-ranging comics thrillers ever created.

The globe-girdling, space-&-time-spanning serial saga of the slim, slight Japanese technologist-investigator was devised by monumentally multi-talented Belgian maestro Roger Leloup who began his spellbinding solo career after working as a studio assistant on Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative and – no matter how implausible the premise of any individual yarn – always solidly grounded in hyper-realistic settings underpinned by authentic, unshakably believable technology and scientific principles, Leloup’s illustrated escapades were at the vanguard of a wave of strips revolutionising European comics in the mid-1970s.

That long-overdue attitude adjustment saw the rise of many competent, clever and brave female protagonists, all taking their places as heroic ideals beside the boys to uniformly elevate Continental comics. Best of all, the majority of their exploits are as engaging and empowering now as they ever were, and none more so than the trials and tribulations of Yoko Tsuno.

Her very first outings (the still unavailable and untranslated Hold-up en hi-fi, La belle et la bête and Cap 351) were simple introductory vignettes before the superbly capable engineer and her valiant if less able male comrades Pol Paris and Vic Van Steen properly hit their stride with premier full-length saga Le trio de l’étrange in 1971 in Spirou’s May 13th issue…

There have been 28 European albums to date – with a 29th being completed as we read this…

Yoko’s exploits include explosive escapades in exotic corners of our world, time-travelling jaunts and sinister deep-space sagas with the secretive, disaster-prone alien colonists from planet Vinea. However, for the majority of English translations thus far, the close encounters have been more-or-less side-lined in favour of intriguing Earthly exploits, but this tale stays strictly Earthbound while plumbing the depths of the fantastic…

Today’s particular tale was originally serialised in Spirou #2613-2630 and collected in 1988 as 17th album Le Matin du monde. Due to the exigencies of publishing it reached English eyes as Yoko’s sixth Cinebook outing; a time-bending mystery of glamour and action shedding a fraction of light on Yoko’s own shrouded origins…

It begins with Yoko and her new ward Morning Dew testing a new jet over Indonesia before reuniting with temporal refugee Monya. This time-travelling expatriate from 3872 AD (see The Time Spiral for further details) has had to settle in the present after her own timeline was overwritten, but she’s had a hard time adjusting and despite her best intentions regularly risks catastrophe by visiting other time-periods…

Monya originally came back in time to prevent a scientific experiment which would have resulted in Earth’s destruction by her own era. The voyager witnessed her father’s death and the planet turned to a cinder, relative moments before arriving in Yoko’s locale, so her predilection for exploration and meddling in earlier time periods is perhaps understandable…

Now, though, she’s gone too far: stealing a gold statue from its rightful era and endangering the life of a native…

Urgently summoned to help fix things, Yoko, Vic and Pol are quickly apprised of the situation. Monya has taken a sacred temple statue of a dancer from 1350 AD, a short time before history records the eruption of the Agung volcano and eradication of the entire community and civilisation dwelling there. Technically, Monya’s actions should cause no disruption to the timeline, but it has resulted in the long-dead priests condemning native dancer Narki to death for the crime…

A heated debate over the morality of keeping the immensely valuable statue versus using their time machine and attempting to save the life of a woman already dead for centuries consumes the adults. It only ends when Monya’s new acquaintance Mike – an obsessive religious fanatic – traps them all in the barn housing the chronal craft and sets it afire.

Compelled to use the time engine to save themselves, the entire party is plunged back to 1350 where Narki is condemned to die…

Befriending the local villagers, the travellers learn that the innocent scapegoat has been taken to the capital. Swiftly following, Yoko and Monya find her in a drugged state and determined to sacrifice herself to “winged demons” plaguing the city. Most confusingly, as they struggle to rouse her, Yoko realises that – somehow – she recognises the doomed Narki…

Desperate for solutions, Monya tries unsuccessfully to return the statue to the Brahmin priests, even as Yoko and her comrades assemble some clever 20th century kit they’d providentially stowed aboard the time-ship. Despite all their efforts, Narki is left to the mercies of the demons, and only Yoko and Vic’s spectacular intervention saves her from what turn out to be savage survivors of antediluvian vintage…

Yet, even after destroying one of the flying monsters and snapping Narki out of her trance, the future heroes are unable to save the damsel in distress. Accusing them of killing the gods’ messenger, Narki swears to throw herself into the now-erupting Agung volcano to expiate her sins and save everybody…

That pointless gesture is applauded by the priests, but again thwarted by Yoko and Vic, who snatch the dancer from the edge of fiery doom. They are, however, helpless to save the rest of the populace from the inescapable judgement of history and one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of all time…

Now the sole survivor of her civilisation, Narki makes no protest as Monya relocates her to another time and place she has extensively studied. And when the survivor is left with villagers in 1520 AD Borneo, Yoko realises with a shock how she knows the tragic temple dancer…

Complex, rocket-paced, explosively exciting and subtly suspenseful, this beguiling brush with paradox and passion blazes with thrills and chills, delivering a powerfully moving denouement which again affirms Yoko Tsuno as a top-flight trouble-shooter.

As always, the most effective asset in these breathtaking tales is the amazingly authentic and staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship and storytelling, which superbly benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail.

The Morning of the World is an epic fantasy spectacle to delight and enthral all lovers of inventive adventure.

Original edition © Dupuis, 1988 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2011 © Cinebook Ltd.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

By Hergé (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40521-477-3 (HB)                    978-1-40526-651-2 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Hergé completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with the Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died while working, so final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination – and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist (himself a dedicated boy scout) produced his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine and by 1928 was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette (written by the staff sports reporter) when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues? And also, perhaps highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning on January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme, eventually running until May 8th 1930.

The boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would be accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits) and report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

Arriving in Russia, the dog and his boy are constantly subjected to a series of attacks and tricks in a vain scheme by the Soviets to prevent the truth of their failed economic progress, specious popular feeling and wicked global aspirations being revealed to the Free World.

In a manic, breathless progression of fights, chases, slapstick accidents and futile attempts to bribe and corrupt him – or worse –  a hint of Tintin as a capable, decent and resourceful hero can be seen to gel on every progressive page as he thwarts the plots of the Bolsheviks and Moscow’s ubiquitous Secret Police…

Week by week, page by page, Tintin “gets away clean” in all manner of fast and flashy machines – all lovingly rendered in a stylised, meta-realistic manner not yet used for the human characters. This is a clear forerunner of Hergé’s Ligne Claire drawing style which develops rapidly as the plucky lad makes his way back across Europe to a rapturous welcome in Belgium, and with every kilometre covered, the personalities of the characters move beyond action-ciphers towards the more fully realised universal boy-hero we all know today.

The strip itself is very much a work-in-progress, primitive both in narrative and artistic execution. But amidst the simplified line, hairsbreadth chases and grossly simplistic anti-communistic polemic there is something… an intriguing hint of things to come.

Rendered in sleek monochrome, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was one of the last adventures to be published in English and is still available in both hardback and paperback editions.

Although possibly still a little controversial (and not ideal for the stated target market of eight years old and up), this is a highly readable, joyously thrilling, exuberant and deeply informative romp for any fan of the comic strip medium.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets: artwork © 1999 Editions Casterman, Paris& Tournai.
Text ©1999, 2007Casterman/Moulinsart. All Rights Reserved.

The Garden of Desire

By Will & Desberg, translated by Michael Koch (Eurotica/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-009-7

If you’re old enough to remember the 1960s you might recall the twin popular fascinations of Victoriana (a plethora of books, films and TV shows set in those heady days of Empire) and Sex.

Actually, there had always been Sex, but in England no-one had seen or encountered or indulged in any since before the War. What occurred during the Civil and Social Rights liberalisation of the Swinging Sixties and especially the fabled “Summer of Love” was that heaping helpings of sauciness and skin started to creep into the media. Eventually we’d even sink so low that photographs of naked young ladies would replace cartoons and comic strips as the best way to sell newspapers.

It didn’t take long before period fiction – especially films – added swathes of salacious, cheerful nudity and entrendres (double and single) to their product.

In the manner of that innocently rude time (and such classics as The Best House in London and Henry Fielding’s epic Tom Jones) is this lovely slice of Euro-whimsy from Will and Desberg.

Willy Maltaite, one of the original Gang of Four (with André Franquin, Morris and Jijé) and one of the Continent’s greatest and most prolific artists, worked for Le Journal de Spirou on the fairytale fantasy Isabelle, Tif et Tondu among so many others. In the 1980s he collaborated with comics writer Stephen Desberg (The Scorpion; IR$) on a series of light-hearted albums for adults (European adults, so the sex is tasteful, beautifully illustrated and sardonically funny) that our chuckle-parched, po-faced Brexit-be-buggered world could well use now. As far as I know The Garden of Desire is the only one of their works to make the arguably distasteful lapse into English.

It follows the amorous antics and career of Michael Loverose, whose well-to-do English mother was seduced by a mysterious stranger. The resulting embarrassment was packed off to boarding school as soon as possible and from there he roamed the wide world in search of love and adventure – but mostly love…

Encompassing the turn of the 20th century to the heady, carefree yet worldly-wise days between the World Wars, this sly and gentle tale luxuriously blends comedy, self-exploration and magnanimously innocent lust with a tiny dose of real magic in a way only those sophisticates across the Channel can.

Great fun perfectly executed and a style of story we should be revisiting in these pell-mell, oh-so-serious modern days.
© 1988 Will-Desberg/Ed. Dupuis Charleroi Belgium. © 1991 NBM for the English Translation. All rights reserved.

Marsupilami volume 1: The Marsupilami’s Tail

By Franquin, Batem & Greg; coloured by Leonardo and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-363-5

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentric, unpredictable, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and bastion of European storytelling who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handled the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant André Franquin who took the reins, slowly abandoned the previous format of short complete gags in favour of longer epic adventure serials and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

In 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers he devised a beguiling little South American critter dubbed Marsupilami to the mix. The little beast returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magic animal who inevitably grew into solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own. He increasingly included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades until he resigned in 1969…

Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Something of a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943 but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

During those formative early days Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite – AKA Will – (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four” who subsequently revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The eager novice ran with it for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own.

Almost every week fans would meet startling and zany new characters such as comrade and eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac. In the ever-evolving process Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, continuing their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory and “reporting back” their exploits in Le Journal de Spirou

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Journal de Tintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 but was now legally obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned for good, happily taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to on his departure – is Marsupilami, which in addition to comics tales has become a star of screen, toy store, console and albums.

Franquin, plagued in later life by bouts of depression, passed away on January 5th 1997 but his legacy remains, a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin kept the rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing new adventures of the fuzzy and rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist and illustrator Luc Collin (pen name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of comedy tales. Now numbering 30 albums (not including an all-Franquin short story collection volume #0), the first of these was La Queue du Marsuplami, released in 1987 and translated here as The Marsupilami’s Tale.

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a devious anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia, and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos…

Into that teeming life-web of the Palombian rainforest comes dissolute riverboat captain Bombonera and his idiot boilerman Innadeiz. They are ferrying impatient and irascible great white hunter Mr. Bring M. Backalive up the inaccessible Rio Huaytoonarro so that he can be the first to capture and exhibit the legendary long-tailed monkey to an unbelieving world.

Sadly, Backalive has just reached the inescapable conclusion that the bumbling, prevaricating river rogue hasn’t the faintest clue where Marsupilamis dwell…

With his life endangered, Bombonera thinks fast and remembers a native fisherman who might be able to help. Yafegottawurm is up for the change of pace too; anything is better than sitting on a log waiting for the vile and voracious piranha to bite… at least until he realises the crazy white man wants to hunt the infernal, trouble making Marsupilami…

And so begins a madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, crazy plans and close shaves as the humans stalk the unflappable golden monkey (and its unsuspected, equally formidable family), upsetting the rhythms of the jungle and making enemies of not just the beasts but the Havoca natives who should have known better than to ignore their better judgement and join the hunt for the supposedly wonderful tasting Marsupilami…

Fast-paced, furiously funny and instantly engaging, the riotous romps and cataclysmic chases instigated by the mesmerising Marsupilami are big hits and beloved reads of wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Now it’s your turn to join in the fun. Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah!
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 2017 by Franquin, Greg & Batem. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads

By Erik Kriek (Canongate Books)
ISBN: 978-1-8689-214-0

If you don’t know what a murder ballad is you should start this sublime hardcover anthology by reading Jan Donkers’ superb background essay at the back of the book before treating yourself to the grim graphic glories crafted by Dutch artisan and illustrator Erik Kreik.

In ‘Murder Ballads’ you will learn the history of the ancient musical sub-genre as well as the direct genealogy of the quintet of sordid, sorry sagas adapted from sound to stunning words and pictures here…

However – and just because it’s you – the term generally applies to folk music story-songs from many countries dealing with love, crime, sex, social transgressions and unnatural death…

In 2016 Erik Kreik (creator of silent superhero spoof Gutsman; Little Andy Roid; Het Onzienbare/From Beyond) – adapted a number of vintage and modern Murder Ballads into strip format. A huge fan of all forms of popular Americana, he also covered the songs with his band The Blue Grass Boogiemen on a CD naturally entitled In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads.

The book won Germany’s 2016 Rudolf Dirks Award and the spin-off garnered Album of the Year 2017 from Dutch Comics.

Amsterdam-born Kriek is a graduate of the Rietveld Academy for Art and Design and a hotly in-demand illustrator of books (including Holland’s Tolkien and Harry Potter editions), magazines, apparel, skateboards, et cetera and can turn his hand to many styles and disciplines. Gutsman was reconceived as a soundless mime ballet in 2006 and his collection of Lovecraft adaptations Het onzienbare, en andere verhalen H. P. Lovecraft has been republished in many languages…

He has just released first children’s book Mika, the Little Bear That Didn’t Want to Go To Sleep

Now a multi-national phenomenon, In the Pines delivers its moody messages of ill-starred love in dreamy, two-coloured episodes. American fans will recognise the drawing style as echoing the very best EC horror tales by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels or the early Bernie Wrightson. The concert of terror opens with ‘Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter’: a much-covered traditional ditty (The Byrds; Judy Collins; The Stanley Brothers) rendered here in green and black on white crisp white pages. It details the doomed fate of a young man who fled to sea to escape his sins, only to see them resurface in death for his shipmates in a seemingly supernatural storm…

Tinted in sepia, ‘The Long Black Veil’ is a relatively modern song: composed and written by Marijohn Wilkin & Danny Dill in 1959 and most notably recorded by Lefty Frizzell, The Band, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Nick Cave and many others. It reveals how a farmer is faced with a staggering choice: hang for a murder he did not commit or betray the confidence of the adulterous women who is his only alibi…

Racially-charged and rendered in tones of muddy ochre, ‘Taneytown’ was originally written by Steve Earle: a synthesis of so many lynching incidents that shame and blight the history of early 20th century America. Here a young black man, sick of the life he’s subjected to in rural Maryland, takes the knife his negro war hero father used in the trenches of the Great War and heads for trouble in the whitest part of town…

Written by singer Gillian Welch, ‘Caleb Meyer’ is adapted in tones of chilling aquamarine and presents a young wife betrayed, terrorised and assaulted who wins for herself a potent dose of ironic retribution…

Closing the graphic grimoire in tones of watered down blood, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is based on the song created by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for their 1996 album Murder Ballads. Sung as duet with Kylie Minogue, the song was based on traditional air Down in the Willow Garden.

The story seen here presents a complex web of trauma and tension involving a murderous escaped convict, a gang of hidden outlaws, lost treasure, a solitary house in the deep woods and a protective mother conveniently absent.

However, neither the rapidly pursuing posse nor the vile-intentioned villain have any idea what young Elisa is truly capable of, or why her father called her his “wild rose”…

Making something compelling and beautiful from the worst aspects and acts of human behaviour is no mean feat, either in song or pictures, but In the Pines accomplishes the deed with gripping style, vibrant polish and immense charm. This is a book every lover of human foibles will adore: Potent and evocative with a sly gift to captivate and transport the reader just as the music intoxicates the mind’s eye through the ears.

One last note: Kriek relaxes in Irish bars – possibly drinking but mostly singing and playing the banjo – so my hopes are high that he’s got many more songs yet to draw…
© Erik Kriek, 2016. “Murder Ballads” © Jan Donkers. 2016All rights reserved.
In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads will be published on February 1st 2018.

Lucky Luke volume 13: The Tenderfoot

By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Frederick W Nolan (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-65-6

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having action-packed, light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper, whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (more than 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

First seen in the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, Lucky was created by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (AKA “Morris”), before ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of legend, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Before his untimely death in 1977, Goscinny went on to co-author 45 graphic albums with Morris, after which Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke first amused British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun, and later rode back into comics-town again in 1967, using the nom de plume Buck Bingo in UK weekly Giggle.

In all these venues – as well as in numerous attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent and magnificently successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers…), and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re approaching 70 translated volumes and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Le pied-tendre was the Dynamite Duo’s 23rd collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Tenderfoot): first published in Europe in 1968.

The wryly silly saga details how the “harmless” western tradition of ruthlessly hazing and bullying newcomers for their supposed lack of manliness, strange customs, fancy clothes and good manners is threatened after the fine folk of Dry Gulch bury crusty compadre Ol’ Baddy.

The beloved, centenarian old coot seemed to be truly one of them but when his heir arrives to inherit the spread, the town has to accept that the aged landowner was not only a British émigré named Harold Lucius Badmington but was also shamefully aligned to the snooty, snobbish nobility…

The fun-loving straight-shooters and right-thinkers are appalled at politely unflappable greenhorn toff Waldo Badmington: none more so than saloon owner Jack Ready who had devised his own wicked plans for Baddy’s vacant lands.

When the usual cruel welcoming tactics fail to get a rise out of Waldo, Jack renews his efforts to seize the spread by force, but Baddy’s old Indian retainer Sam and interfering do-gooder Lucky Luke have their own ideas about that…

What neither Waldo nor his own devoted manservant Jasper know is that the wandering troubleshooter has been secretly commissioned by Baddy in a deathbed request to ensure the newcomer keeps hold of his inheritance… but only if Luke judges him worthy of it…

The doughty young worthy certainly seems to cut the mustard at first sight. He manfully ignores being tossed in a blanket, disdainfully accepts being a human target, drinks like a native and joins in with the traditional and frequent bar-brawls. Better yet, he refuses to give in to Jack’s far from subtle pressure to sell up and go back where he came from…

With his greedy plans frustrated, Jack piles on the pressure, hiring gunmen and attacking the Badmington spread, and when that fails, plays his last card: craftily disappearing whilst framing Waldo for his “murder”…

However, the blackguard has not reckoned on Lucky’s determination and detective skills, and when the frame-up is exposed Jack is forced to settle the matter of impugned honour the English way…

Dry, sly and cruelly satirical, The Tenderfoot is a deviously-devised lampoon of classic cowboy movies with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters: proffering a potent peek into a unique and timeless genre to today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1968 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Buck Danny volume 1: Night of the Serpent

By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long yet historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan, the Balkans to Iran. With the current bellicose undercurrent informing or perhaps tainting America’s influence around the world, it’s interesting to imagine what tales might be told during the current administration…

The dauntless US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented scripter Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been first seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (The Agony of the Bismarck – published in Spirou in 1946).

With fellow master-storytellers Albert Uderzo & René Goscinny, Charlier formed Édifrance Agency, which promoted and specialised in communication arts and comics strips. Charlier and Goscinny were editors of the magazine Pistolin (1955 to 1958) and went on to create Pilote in 1959 but Charlier (whose greatest narrative triumph is iconic Western Blueberry, created in 1963 with Jean Giraud/Moebius) continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

On his passing artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who first replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in aviation storytelling, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties.

At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he won the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny with 41st yarn Apocalypse Mission’.

He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few episodes of the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy & Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far – with Zumbiehl & Gil Formosa now at the helm – the franchise has notched up 55 albums…

Like all the Danny tales this premier edition is astonishingly authentic and still worrisomely topical: a breezily compelling action thriller originally published in 2000 as Buck Danny #49: La nuit du serpent – with colouring by Frédéric Bergése (I’m assuming that’s his son, but I’m not certain) blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blockbuster adventure.

At Kunsan Airbase, South Korea, a veteran American pilot goes on dawn border patrol only to be hit by an uncanny light which blinds him and seems to negate all his F-16’s guidance systems. Despite his best efforts, the jet crashes in the De-Militarized Zone and the North Koreans claim a flagrant breaking of the truce and a huge publicity coup.

Strangely though, the downed Colonel Maxwell is still missing. The Communists don’t have him and the pilot’s tracking devices indicate he’s still out there somewhere: lost in the No Man’s Land between North and South.

The mighty US military swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds either a tangible or political victory. Buck, Tumbler and Tuckson are at a Paris air show when they get the call and are soon en route to Korea for a last-ditch, face-saving mission.

However, as the trio prepare to join the covert rescue mission, evidence emerges which casts doubt on the authenticity of the alleged super-weapon. Meanwhile Maxwell has stumbled into a fantastic secret beneath the DMZ…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension and spectacular action, this is a classically designed thriller which effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense before its captivating conclusion.

Suitable for older kids and the adventurous of all ages, the Adventures of Buck Danny comprise one endlessly enthralling tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss.

Bon chance, mes braves…
© Dupuis, 2000 by Bergése. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Daddy is So Far Away… And We Must Find Him!

By Wostok & Grabowski, translation edited by Chris Watson (Slab-O-Concrete)
ISBN: 978-1-89986-610-6

In the last decade of the previous century, independent, alternative and international cartooning finally took off in the UK. It’s not that it suddenly got good, it’s simply that due to the efforts of a few dedicated missionaries, the readers finally noticed what Europe had known for years. Graphic narrative is as much about the art and the individual as it is about the money.

A superb case in point is this slim and eccentric softcover monochrome tome produced in English by the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete publishing/distribution outfit.

Daddy is So Far Away… is the surreal yet absorbing account of two-year old Poposhak and her faithful dog Flowers. The sad little lass stands at her mother’s grave and wonders where her father is. Suddenly he sees the tip of his beard sticking out of the front door and rushes towards it despite wise Flowers’ words of caution…

She will not stop, but follows the beard, through rooms, down tunnels, across plains, under oceans and even across the Milky Way itself, finding along the way friends and escaping monsters throughout all time and space. Always that long white beard unfurls ahead of them, a baffling enigma and a tantalising promise…

This eerie yet comforting blend of fable, bedtime story, shaggy dog tale and vision-quest is a compulsive and brilliantly drawn epic, more rollercoaster or video game than pictorial narrative, and encompasses the very best storytelling techniques of Eastern European animation…

Wostok and Grabowski, from the north Serbian town of Vršac, creatively and intensively collaborated together between1992 and 1997; both in the incredibly fertile Eastern European market but also internationally, with numerous works appearing all over the place before going their separate ways, and – as is usually the case – are criminally unfamiliar to the average comic punter. I hope you can find their astounding poetic, innocently melancholic and metaphysical work without too much trouble, because it’s well worth the effort.
© 1995-1998 Wostok, Lola & Grabowski. All Rights Reserved.


By Matthias Lehmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-733-9 (HB)

This stirring and deeply disturbing, psycho-thriller combines the not-so dissimilar forms of road movies and buddy flicks with straight crime thrillers as hardboiled private detective René Pluriel hits the highways of France in pursuit of the deadly “Heimlich Killer”.

He hasn’t gone far before he picks up flamboyant hitch-hiker Agatha, who reveals that she too is a detective on the trail of the notorious serial murderer.

As they wend their way through the back roads and, consequently, history of France, diligently interviewing the killer’s associates and survivors, they build a tense picture not just of their quarry but also of each other, and inevitably realise that the conclusion of the quest won’t be happy for everybody.

Lehmann’s dark voyage is gripping and often surreal, and the tension is augmented by the spectacular, moody art, stylishly etched in a powerful scraperboard style. The narrative is blistered with flashbacks, literary diversions and hallucinogenic asides that amplify the dissociative feel of this ostensibly simple tale. This award-winning fear-fable was the author’s first original graphic novel and it remains a bravura performance almost impossible to top; I eagerly await the attempt.
Characters, stories & art © 2006 Actes Sud. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.