Et Cetera volume 1


By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

Iznogoud Volume 1: The Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud


By René Goscinny & Jean Tabary, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-46-5

Lots of folks believe today’s unlucky! Bosh and tarradiddle! Let’s look at a really unfortunate comics icon and the genius who conceived him…

René Goscinny was one of the most prolific, and therefore remains one of the most read, writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. Paris-born – in 1926 – the immortal scribe was actually raised in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age the lad showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts. He graduated in 1942.

While working as a junior illustrator in an advertising agency in 1945, an uncle invited Goscinny to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After National Service in France, young René settled in Brooklyn and pursued an artistic career. In 1948 he became an assistant for a little studio that included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”, with whom he produced Lucky Luke from 1955-1977). Also temporarily in-house were Joseph Gillain (Jijé) and Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company providing comics for French magazine Spirou

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and ‘Jerry Spring’ Goscinny was made head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his life-long creative partner Albert Uderzo (Jehan Sepoulet, Luc Junior) as well as creating Sylvie and Alain et Christine (with “Martial”- Martial Durand) and Fanfan et Polo (drawn by Dino Attanasio).

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent Édipress/Édifrance syndicate, creating magazines for general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo he produced Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and himself wrote and illustrated Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny seems to have invented the 9-day week. Using the pen-name Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé), and in 1956 he began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing stories for many illustrators including Dino Attanasio, (Bob De Moor), Maréchal, Tibet, André Franquin and Berck, as well as crafting Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo.

Goscinny also wrote strips for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured his and Uderzo’s magnum opus Asterix the Gaul, and he also re-launched Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet whilst debuting Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard).

When Georges Dargaud bought out Pilot in 1960, Goscinny remained as editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television and in his spare time created a little something entitled Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record (first episode January 15th 1962), illustrated by a Swedish-born artist named Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud after it transferred to Pilote. Goscinny died in November 1977.

Jean Tabary was born in Stockholm, and began his epic comics career in 1956 on French mainstay Vaillant, illustrating Richard et Charlie. He graduated to the hugely popular boy’s adventure strip Totoche in 1959. The engaging head of a kid gang, Totoche spawned a spin-off, Corinne et Jeannot, and as Vaillant transformed into Pif, the lad even got his own short-lived comic; Totoche Posche.

Tabary drew the series until 1976, and has revived it in recent years under his own publishing imprint Séguinière /Editions Tabary.

In 1962 the illustrator teamed with René Goscinny to produce imbecilic Arabian potentate Haroun el-Poussah, but it was the villainous foil – power-hungry vizier Iznogoud – who stole the show… possibly the little rat’s only successful plot.

With the emphasis shifted to the shifty shrimp, the revamped series moved to Pilote in 1968, evolving into a huge fan-favourite, spawning 30 albums to date, a long-running TV cartoon show and even a live action movie. Following their success, Goscinny & Tabary collaboratively created Valentin, and Tabary also wrote Buck Gallo for Delinx to draw.

When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary took over writing Iznogoud, moving to book length complete tales, rather than the compilations of short stories that typified their collaborations.

So, what’s it all about?

Like all the best comics it works on two levels: as a comedic romp of sneaky baddies coming a cropper for younger readers, and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, much like its more famous cousin Asterix – and translated here with the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue.

Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the conniving little shyster has loftier ambitions – or as he is always shouting it – “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”

The vile vizier is “aided” – and that’s me being uncharacteristically generous – in his schemes by bumbling assistant Wa’at Alahf, and in this first album (available in paperback and eBook formats) they begin their campaign with ‘Kissmet’, wherein pandemonium ensues after a talking frog is revealed to be an ensorcelled Prince who can only regain human form if smooched by a human being.

Iznogoud sees an opportunity if he can only trick the simple-minded Caliph into puckering up; unfortunately but typically, the little rotter forgets that he’s not the only ambitious man in Baghdad…

‘Mesmer-Eyezed’ then finds him employing a surly stage hypnotist to remove the Caliph whilst ‘The Occidental Philtre’ sees him employ a flying potion obtained from a lost, jet-lagged western sorcerer, each with hilarious but painfully counter-productive results.

Tabary drew himself into ‘The Time Machine’ as a comic artist desperate to meet his deadlines who falls foul of a mystical time cabinet, but when he meets the vizier, that diminutive dastard can clearly see its Caliph-removing potential – to his eternal regret…

Soon after in ‘The Picnic’ Iznogoud takes drastic action, luring Haroun Al Plassid into the desert, but as usual his best-laid plans really aren’t, and the book then concludes with ‘Chop and Change’ as our indefatigable villain gets hold of a magic goblet which can switch the minds of any who drink from it, forgetting that Caliphs are important people who employ food-tasters…

Snappy, fast-paced slapstick and painfully delightful word-play abound in these mirthfully infectious tales and the series has become a household name in France; said term has even entered French political life as a description for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and usually short in stature…

Eight albums were originally translated into English during the 1970s and 1980s without really making any little impact here, but since Cinebook’s revival the vile Vizier has finally caught on in a superb sequence of gloriously readable and wonderfully affordable comedy epics that found an appreciative audience among British kids of all ages.

Surely you and yours should number amongst them?
© 1967 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Goscinny & Tabary. All Rights Reserved.

Thorgal volume 4: The Archers and Alinoe


By Rosiński & Van Hamme, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-90546-067-0

One of the very best and most celebrated fantasy adventure series of all time, Thorgal accomplishes the seemingly impossible: pleasing critics and selling in vast quantities.

The prototypical Game of Thrones saga debuted in iconic weekly Tintin in 1977 with album compilations beginning three years later. A far-reaching and expansive generational saga, it has won a monolithic international following in fourteen languages and dozens of countries, generating numerous spin-off series, and thus naturally offers a strong presence in the field of global gaming.

In story-terms, Thorgal offers the best of all weird worlds, with an ostensibly historical milieu of bold Viking adventure seamlessly incorporating science fiction elements, dire magic, horrendous beasts, social satire, political intrigue, soap opera, Atlantean mystique and mythically mystical literary standbys such as gods, monsters and devils.

Created by Belgian writer Jean Van Hamme (Domino, XIII, Largo Winch, Blake and Mortimer) and Polish illustrator Grzegorz (Kapitan Żbik, Pilot Śmigłowca, Hans, The Revenge of Count Skarbek), the feature grew unstoppably over decades with the creative duo completing 29 albums between 1980 and 2006 when Van Hamme moved on. Thereafter the scripting duties fell to Yves Sente who collaborated on a further five collections until 2013 when Xavier Dorison became chief scribe. In 2016, he and Rosiński released the 35th epic-album Le Feu écarlate.

By the time Van Hamme departed, the canon had grown to cover not only the life of the titular hero and his son Jolan, but also other indomitable family members through a number of spin-off series (Kriss de Valnor, Louve, La Jeunesse de Thorgal) under the umbrella title Les Mondes de Thorgal – with all eventually winning their own series of solo albums.

In 1985 American publisher Donning released a brief but superb series of oversized hardcover book translations (that’s where I first encountered The Archers) but Thorgal never really found an English-speaking audience until Cinebook began its own iteration in 2007.

The original Belgium series wanders back and forth through the hero’s life and Cinebook’s fourth double-album edition (comprising 7th saga Alinoë and 8th epic Les Archers from 1985 and 1986 respectively) finds Thorgal Aegirsson and his new family trying to rebuild their lives in splendid – and secure – isolation…

What Has Gone Before: Thorgal was recovered as a baby from a ferocious storm and raised by Northern Viking chief Leif Haraldson. Nobody could possibly know the fortunate foundling had survived a stellar incident which destroyed a starship full of super-scientific aliens…

Growing to manhood, the strange boy was eventually forced out of his adopted land by ambitious Gandalf the Mad who feared the young warrior threatened his own claim to the throne. For his entire childhood Thorgal had been inseparable from Gandalf’s daughter Aaricia and, as soon as they were able, they fled together from the poisonous atmosphere to live free from her father’s lethal jealousy and obsessive terror of losing his throne…

Danger was always close but after many appalling hardships, the lovers and their new son finally found a measure of cautious tranquillity by occupying a small island where they could thrive in safety…

Alinoe opens on those idyllic shores as Thorgal notices his rapidly growing boy Jolan has somehow learned how to write the runes of the Viking people. The lonely lad has been growing increasingly strange of late, relating things he cannot possibly know, and the parents are painfully aware that the blood of alien supermen runs in his veins…

Short on supplies, Thorgal ships off to the mainland for a few days intense trading, leaving Aaricia and Jolan to fend for themselves, and almost immediately strange events begin to trouble the apprehensive mother…

Firstly, Jolan claims he has been playing with a strange, green-haired boy named Alinoe. Aaricia is prepared to chalk that up to a life starved of companionship, but the new, strangely inscribed bracelet her son wears is certainly real enough, and when Jolan suddenly changes his story she begins to fear the worst…

Carefully spying on her boy, she soon discovers that Alinoe is a solid breathing boy, but a mute, mysterious and increasingly menacing one…

After cornering the green-haired stranger, she is horrified to see the stranger commit suicide and utterly terrified when Alinoe returns and attacks her in the homestead. Slowly the realisation creeps in that the demon child is a manifestation of Jolan’s latent telepathic powers, but things rapidly escalate when the creature grows beyond the boy’s conscious and unconscious control, manifesting as a real and present danger to both mother and child…

A classic horror yarn with a startling and stunning conclusion, Alinoe neatly segues into a bold action romp as The Archers switches to the mainland where bold bandits Kriss of Valinor and Sigwald the Burnt swipe a holt relic from a Caledonian tribe before heading south.

Thorgal meanwhile is again making a supply run from his island home but has the dire misfortune to encounter a savage squall…

Close to drowning, Thorgal is saved by a bombastic youth who braves the storm to guide him to land. Tjall the Fiery is a likable rogue who takes the stranded, suddenly impoverished viking to see his uncle Argun; a brilliant weapon-smith and armourer known to all as Tree Foot.

A master maker of unique arrowheads and other clever gadgets, the old man has a potential solution to Thorgal’s plight. An archery contest in nearby Umbria offers enough gold to buy a new, weapons and supplies. With nothing to lose, the shipwrecked mariner considers the proposition but only agrees after sinister Sigwald and Kriss drop by Tree Foot’s forge in search of fresh weapons.

The bandits make a big impression on Thorgal, but Kriss makes an even bigger one on lusty, impressionable young Tjall…

Later, after setting off for Umbria, the archers encounter the bandits once more: captives of a band of vengeful Caledonians seeking redress for a stolen religious relic. Thorgal’s scheme to free them is almost flawless, and only founders because outraged, liberated Kriss demands reparations in blood…

Following an utterly unnecessary slaughter the thieves and heroes have a falling out over Kriss’ mad behaviour…

The tournament in Umbria is a masterclass in martial skill, competitor-skulduggery and regal cruelty with the local king delighting in humiliating and endangering his contestants in equal measure. However, after days of competition the purse is finally awarded collectively to Tree Foot, Thorgal, Tjall and Kriss, but the bandit – never a fan of sharing – quickly absconds with it all…

Unsurprised but resolute, her fellow champions set off in pursuit only to find their quarry and Sigwald have been cornered by another, far larger band of Caledonians. The barbarians only want their holy gem back and a rightful measure of retribution: All Thorgal and his companions have to do is ride away…

How can they choose any other course but the most sensible one?

Fierce, funny and phenomenally gripping, this cunningly crafted, astonishingly addictive tale offers a keen insight into the character of a true, if exceedingly reluctant hero.

Thorgal is every fantasy fan’s ideal dream of unending adventure. What fanatical fantasy aficionado could possibly resist such barbaric blandishments?
Original editions © Rosiński & Van Hamme 1985 Les Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard). English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

The Lyrical Comics of Dillies Set: Betty Blues; Bubbles and Gondolas; Abelard


By Renaud Dillies & various translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
Pack ISBN: 978-1-68112-106-2

Renaud Dillies belongs to that cool school of European artists who are keenly aware of the visual power imbued by using anthropomorphic characters in grown up stories – a notion we’ve all but lost here in Britain, and one primarily used for kiddie comics and pornography in the USA and Asia.

Dillies was born in Lille in January 1972, the inveterate dreamer, artist and storyteller in a brood of five kids. Music was a big part of his parents’ lives: British Pop – especially The Beatles and John Lennon – and Jazz: mostly Big Band, Swing and Satchmo. The impressionable lad listened, learned and inwardly digested…

After college – studying Humanities, Graphic and Decorative arts at Saint-Luc School of Fine Arts in Tournai – Dillies began his comics career, like so many others, at Spirou. He drew backgrounds for prolific cartoonist Frédéric Jannin (Rockman, Germain et Nous and many more) whilst also inking Frédéric “Clarke” Seron on sublime sorceress comedy Mélusine.

The young creator soon blended his twin passions for comics and music in his first solo work. Betty Blues – published by Paquet in 2003 – consequently took the “Best Debut” award at that year’s Angoulême Comics Festival.

He followed up with Sumato, Mister Plumb (with Régis Hautière) and Mélodie du Crépuscule (Melody of Twilight) before switching to publisher Dargaud in 2009. Here he devised Bulles et Nacelle ably assisted by colour artist Christophe Bouchard (available in English and reviewed below as Bubbles and Gondola) and, in 2011, created Abélard (again with Hautière and also available in translation from NBM/ComicsLit, as well as part of this gift-set package.

During this period Dillies still toiled as a jobbing Bande Dessinée creator. Under the pen-name “Jack” he drew comedy sports features Les Foot Maniacs and Tout sur le Rugby for Bamboo and illustrated some of Arboris’ erotic short stories for the series Salut les coquinas.

With three of the very best of these eccentrically exotic confections now available in a supremely economical shrink-wrapped gift-set, you’d be crazy to not make the acquaintance of such a scintillating scribe/scribbler…

Betty Blues
Coming from the same dark place and cultural wellsprings as Benoît Sokal’s wry, bleak and witty Inspector Canardo detective duck tales, Betty Blues is both paean and elegy to the unholy trinity of Modern Cool and Shattered Idealisms: Noir, Jazz and Lost Love, all focused through the mythologising lens of cinematic Fifties Americana.

The tragic, flawed star of this intoxicating fable is Little Rice Duck, possibly the greatest bird ever to blow a trumpet in the seedy clubs and wild environs of the West Wood. Starring at the nightspots and making music are his life, but his hot girlfriend Betty is getting pretty tired playing second fiddle to his art.

She’s a pretty bird who needs lots of Loving Attention, the Good Life and Expensive Champagne, so on yet one more tedious night when Rice is deep in the spotlight blowing hot and loud, she calamitously listens to an unctuous, sleazy fat cat at the bar who offers her plenty of all three before sneaking off with him…

Her disappearance hits Rice as hard as he subsequently hits the bottle, and his all-too-late regrets shake him to the core. Going downhill fast, the despondent and always-angry little guy throws his magnificent trumpet – the thing which has cost him true love – off a high bridge and hops a train heading “anywhere but here”…

The hurtling horn hits a boat-riding sap and thus begins to affect the lives of a succession of other poor schnooks whilst, elsewhere uptown, Betty begins to reconsider her hasty decision as the downsides of being a rich guy’s trophy – or pet – start becoming apparent…

For Rice, the end of the line finds him deep in a forested nowhere-land dubbed “Kutwood” where he is befriended by the owl Bowen who is both lumberjack and radical environmental terrorist.

Slowly the broken musician is drawn into the affable agitator’s world of violence, sabotage and anti-capitalist polemic, but all he is really thinking about during so many late-night conversations is the tatty old trumpet nailed high up out of reach on Bowen’s cabin wall…

And Jazz: sweet, hot Jazz music…

Back in the city Betty starts to fear for life, soul and sanity on the chubby arm of her mercurial plutocrat-cat, as the portentous trumpet begins to reshape the lives of many ordinary folk innocent and venal. And then one day Betty meets an old friend of Rice’s who tells her he’s gone missing…

Sad, grim, brooding and surprisingly suspenseful, this captivating riff on complacency, ill-considered aspirations and lost chances is beguilingly constructed and subtly realised, with a smart undercurrent of bleakly cynical humour counter-pointing the Noir flavour and motif of inescapable doom.

Betty Blues will delight mature readers with a well-honed sense of the absurd and an abiding taste for the dark…

Bubbles and Gondola
A penetrating examination of the creative urge and the price of following a muse, Bubbles and Gondola follows the strivings of a mouse named Charlie who is gripped by an insatiable hunger to write great things. To better accomplish this, the mouse resides in a bleak windy garret in splendid isolation, ignoring the distractions of the world, and spending his brief moments of down-time strumming his guitar.

He constantly reminds himself that “solitude is cool” but as a crippling writer’s block increasingly torments him and the outside world insufferably impinges on his tortured brooding, Charlie’s views begin to imperceptibly shift.

That sense of change intensifies after a small blue bird named Mister Solitude starts to repeatedly show up uninvited. The debilitating ennui seems to abate – just a bit – and the author even leaves his lonely den on occasion just to watch a festival or dine with family… However, the unwanted but comforting creature eventually becomes a casualty of the writer’s creative frustration and vanishes after a bitter clash in the attic. Conflicted and inexplicably bereft, Charlie seeks help for his avian companion, but cannot find his solitude anymore. The mouse is compelled to search high low for his supposedly unwanted comrade, embarking on a life -changing odyssey…

A beguiling argosy and visual tour de force allegorically challenging preconceptions about work-life balance and simple human companionship, Bubbles and Gondola is a delicious treat tinged with bittersweet revelation.

Abelard
Far more poignant and concealing a far more painful message, Abelard is ostensibly a simple fable of unrequited love in simpler times. The eponymous hero is an impressionable young chick living in a swampy backwater. He has a hat which grants him a prophetic epigram every day, but other than that he is quite unremarkable.

The little lad’s life changes forever when a group of rich city types in search of good fishing briefly vacation in the morass he calls home. Although she barely notices him, Abelard’s meeting with the so-sophisticated Eppily sets the poor young fool on a path he cannot escape…

Her companions seal his fate by trying to let the lovesick fool down easily. Fyodor warns the chick that girls like Eppily can only be seduced by those who offer her the moon or suchlike. Abelard has never heard of a metaphor…

Determined to win his true love, buy unable to supply the goods, the little dreamer hears the older swamp inhabitants discussing the news from America. Two ingenious fellows have invented a flying machine. That’s Americans for you: before long they’ll be wanting to go to the moon…

With love as his spur and a suitably encouraging message from his hat, Abelard turns away from the swamp and starts walking westward…

His patient peregrinations bring him into the company of a band of gypsy performers and he shares their life and the painful prejudice they endure. Eventually he leaves them, unwilling to accept the reading of the heartbroken fortune-teller who peers into his tomorrows…

A lonely nomad, he goes into a bar and meets a bitter, broken, belligerent bear. Foul-mouthed surly scrapper Gaston has seen it all, hates everyone and has nothing but bile for the entire world.

He, too, once knew an Eppily…

Against all odds the old warrior and untutored waif implausibly unite and head for America together, taking ship on a migrant vessel where fate plays the cruellest trick on them…

Ultimately both travellers get to fulfil their dreams, but not in way they ever expected or wanted…

Beautiful, moving and eternally optimistic in the face of crushing experience, Abelard philosophically examines the unrelenting trials of life and demonstrates the power of hope and poetic idealism against insurmountable odds.

This trio of anthropomorphic tales comprise a masterclass in graphic narrative used to explore the nature of humanity: offering pride, wonder, resilience and heart as an antidote to the worst reality can challenge us with. They are also stunning lovely to look at and every fan of art or storytelling should see so for themselves.

Betty Blues © 2003 Editions Paquet. English translation © 2013 NBM.
Bubbles and Gondola © 2009 by Dillies – Dargaud Benelux. English translation © 2011 NBM.
Abelard © – 2011 Dillies – Hautière – Dargaud Benelux. English translation © 2012 NBM.

The Wendy Project


By Melissa Jane Osborne & Veronica Fish (Super Genius/Papercutz)
ISBN:978-1-62991-769-6

When does a favourite story or plot become an actual artefact of culture accessible to all? What separates last year’s fictional trope (dystopian future oppresses valiant outsider teen; alienated kid courted by supernatural lover; magic exists but the authorities have been covering it up) from fundamental narrative memes that underpin all aspects of societal development (underprivileged hero overcomes great odds to win a birthright; loss of loved ones leads to path of vengeance; clever child becomes powerful adult by overcoming adversity)?

When you read a fantastic saga of mortal valiantly heroes slaying a marauding dragon, has the author accessed a rich and ancient cultural heritage or just swiped a scene from a Tolkien tale?

In today’s mass entertainment-driven world, certain classic stories – such as Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz – have been constantly referenced, either overtly or surreptitiously, for a number of commercially sound reasons: assured consumer familiarity; brand awareness or simply that the originals were so masterful that we just don’t want them to end.

In 2015 Emet Comics released a beguilingly fresh riff on J. M. Barrie’s immortal paean to childhood Peter Pan, contrived by actress/writer Melissa Jane Osborne (Oma, Campus Crush) and illustrator Veronica Fish (Spider-Woman, Archie, Slam).

The Wendy Project was one of the most beautiful and evocative releases of the year, marrying inescapably recognisable fantasy landmarks with elements of family tragedy in an often distressing coming-of-age story.

The entire enchanting emotional rollercoaster ride is now available in a compact paperback edition from All-Ages and Young Adults graphic novel publisher Papercutz and will – if there’s any justice – soon be a household name in its own right.

Let’s be straight here: this story is the flip side of the coin. The issue at hand is not a fantastic journey to a place of wonders but what happens to the family if children are lost…

One night in New England, 16-year old Wendy Davies is driving her younger brothers home when the car crashes into a lake. As she loses consciousness, the aghast older sister thinks she sees little Michael being carried off into the sky by a flying boy…

The investigation proceeds and even after leaving hospital Wendy clings to her conviction that her brother is still alive. After all, the police still haven’t found his body…

Middle sibling John is no help. He hasn’t spoken since the crash but Wendy knows he shares her secret…

Still deeply traumatised, Wendy’s parents move her to a new school and a therapist cajoles the girl into starting a journal of words and pictures to help her process her grief. Wendy knows what she knows, however. The flying boy is real and taken Michael so she must find them and bring her brother home again.

As days pass Wendy starts to see that many of the kids at her school in new yet familiar light. Are they part of the plot to keep Michael from her? And then slowly but with escalating frequency and power, the two worlds of New England and Neverland begin to blend and merge…

Mimicking the style of Wendy’s own pencil, pen and crayon recollections and interpretations, Osborne’s “awfully big adventure” is rendered by Veronica Fish in mostly monochrome tones with emphatic and explosive bursts of radiant colour as the fantasy – or is that a greater reality? – intersects with her process of recuperation or acceptance. The conclusion is one no participant is ready for…

So, when is it acceptable and even necessary to stand on the shoulders of narrative giants and play with their magnificent toys?

When you can burnish the legend by looking with fresh eyes, add lustre to the original canon and make new wonders for new and old readers. The Wendy Project does just that and is a book you must read.
© 2017 Emet Entertainment LLC. & Melissa Jane Osborne. All Rights Reserved.

Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Scientists


By Adam & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-80-7

The educational power of comic strips has been long understood and acknowledged: if you can make the material memorably enjoyable, there is nothing that can’t be better taught with pictures. The obverse is also true: comics can make any topic or subject come alive… or at least – as here – outrageously, informatively undead…

The conceit in Corpse Talk is that famous personages from the past are exhumed for a chatty, cheeky This Was Your Life talk-show interview that – in Reithian terms – simultaneously “elucidates, educates and entertains”. It also often grosses one out, which is no bad thing for either a kids’ comic or a learning experience…

Another splendid album release culled from the annals of The Phoenix (courtesy of those fine saviours of weekly comics at David Fickling Books) this thoughtfully themed collection opens with another scene-setting chat from your scribbling, cartooning host Adam Murphy (ably abetted off-camera by Lisa Murphy) before we get to know a serried selection of “dead brilliant scientists” in what might well be their very own – post-mortem – words…

In order of date of demise our funny, fact-loving host begins these candid cartoon interviews in a tutorial from ‘Aristotle: Philosopher 384-322BCE’, supplemented by an in-depth peek into the world-changer’s educational practices in ‘School of Life’ after which noted streaker ‘Archimedes: Mathematician 287-212BCE’ shares his version of the infamous “eureka moment” and ingenious military inventions. The most lethal of these then get special attention in sidebar feature ‘Calculated Aggression’.

Muslim scholar ‘Al-Haytham: Natural Philosopher 965-1040’ discusses his service with the Caliph of Egypt and discoveries in optical science, and his greatest invention is examined in follow-up feature ‘Camera Obscura’. Tragic Italian genius ‘Galileo Galilei: Astronomer 1564-1642’ recounts his star-gazing triumphs and the response of the Catholic Church – augmented by a rapturous spread depicting ‘Secrets of the Solar System’ – and a grossly misused scientific pioneer who founded the principles of entomology (before being written out of history by male historians and scientists) tells her story in ‘Maria Sibylla Merian: Entomologist 1647-1717’ and describes the linked ‘Circle of Life’ she discovered by observing caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies…

Noted egomaniac ‘Isaac Newton: Natural Philosopher 1642-1727’ has his say next, with ancillary features on ‘Laying Down the Laws’ and ‘Newton’s Three Laws of Motion’, culminating in the instructions on how to make ‘A Home-made Hovercraft’

‘Edward Jenner: Physician 1749-1823’ describes how his observations led to the eradication of smallpox (with the process broken down into grotesquely captivating ‘Vaccination Stations’) after which forgotten woman ‘Mary Anning: Palaeontologist 1799-1847’ reveals the true history of fossil hunting and evolutionary observation – including a quick tour of ‘The Jurassic World’ – before ‘Lovelace & Babbage: Mathematicians 1815-1852 & 1791-1871’ delves deep into the lives of computer visionaries Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, who devised calculating machines and systems long before science and engineering had the facilities to construct them. Unable to physically enjoy the fruits of their labour, the dead clever thinkers can at least play here with a modern version of ‘The Difference Engine’ since built to honour them at London’s Science Museum….

‘Von Humboldt: Explorer, Naturalist, Geographer, Etc… 1769-1859’ was a true Renaissance man and master of many disciplines, which he used in his five-year voyage of scientific discovery. As well as the 3500 species of flora and fauna he catalogued in one trip he also formulated the concept of ‘Habitat Zones’ (perfectly explained here in graphic terms following his “piece to camera”).

You may have heard of revolutionary medical reformer ‘James Barry: Doctor 1790s-1865’ but did you know that she was actually Margaret Anne Bulkey, a young woman who refused to let her gender hinder her dreams in an exclusively male-dominated world. Her innovations and changes in military hospitals saved millions of soldiers and civilians, and her influence is celebrated in sidebar feature ‘A History of Infection’. Meanwhile, the world-shattering observations of ‘Charles Darwin: Naturalist 1809-1882’ whilst aboard HMS Beagle are interpreted in the savant’s own individualist manner, with a follow-up detailing his theories through ‘Darwin’s Finches’.

Russian superstar ‘Dmitri Mendeleev: Chemist 1834-1907’ outlines his epic struggle to classify, decipher and order the elements, complete with a fully-updated version of his ‘Periodic Table’ before the profound discoveries – and their personal cost – of ‘Marie Curie: Chemist & Physicist 1867-1934’ bring us into the modern age of intellectual endeavour, via a chilling warning of the repercussions of her ‘Killer Research’.

Born a slave and self-taught, ‘George Washington Carver: Botanist & Inventor 1860s-1943’ transformed America and the world with his discoveries in Agriculture. His astounding life is précised here and validated in supplemental feature ‘Nuts About Nuts!’ sharing the secret of making peanut butter…

Apparently the closest thing to an actual Mad Scientist the world has ever known, ‘Nikola Tesla: Inventor 1856-1943’ tries to clear his name and reputation whilst latterly describing his battle with his greatest rival in ‘Edison vs Tesla in… the War of the Currents’ after which the Digital Age begins thanks to the efforts of ‘Alan Turing: Computer Scientist 1912-1954’. His wartime work with decoding and cipher chasing is then commemorated in ‘An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery’ giving us all a chance to tinker with our own (simplified) Enigma Machine…

Last Big Brain in the box, ‘Albert Einstein: Physicist 1879-1955’ then gleefully explains one of his most universally misunderstood theories and laments the misuse of his work through his own personal history and ends the scientific history lessons on a high note with another in ‘It’s All Relative…’

Smart, irreverent, funny and splendidly factual throughout, Corpse Talk cleverly but unflinchingly deals with history’s more tendentious moments whilst personalising the great and the good for coming generations.

It is also a fabulously fun read no parent or kid could possibly resist. Don’t take my word for it though, just consult with any of the clever cadavers in question…

Text and illustrations © Adam & Lisa Murphy 2017. All rights reserved.
Corpse Talk: Ground-Breaking Scientists will be released on 7th September 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1


By Stan Sakai (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-671-6(HB)     978-1-61655-609-9(PB)      eISBN: 978-1-63008-081-5

Usagi Yojimbo (“rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in Stan Sakai’s The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, premiering amongst assorted furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk in 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #1. He then graduated to a solo act in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up series in Grimjack.

In 1955, when Sakai was two years old, the family moved from Kyoto, Japan to Hawaii. Growing up in a cross-cultural paradise he graduated from the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, before leaving the state to pursue further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California.

His early forays into comics were as a letterer – most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer and the Spider-Man newspaper strip – before his nimble pens and brushes found a way to express his passion for Japanese history, legend and the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, inspirationally transforming a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

Although the deliriously expansive period epic stars sentient animals and details the life of a peripatetic Lord-less Samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible through selling his sword as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire), the milieu and scenarios all scrupulously mirror the Feudal Edo Period of Japan (roughly 16th and 17th century AD by Western reckoning) whilst simultaneously referencing other cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi to Godzilla.

Miyamoto Usagi is brave, noble, industrious, honest, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering and conscientious: a rabbit devoted to the tenets of Bushido. He is utterly unable to turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice. As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into an unending panorama of incredible situations.

Despite changing publishers a few times, the Roaming Rabbit has been in continuous publication since 1987, with more than 30 collections and books to date. He has guest-starred in many other series (most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show.

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys. Author Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The title was as much a wanderer as its star, migrating from Fantagraphics to Mirage and finally Dark Horse where after publishing more than two dozen paperback collections, the canny business types have sagely opted to re-bundle their earlier efforts into hefty tomes offering three times the thrills. There are even digital editions for forward-looking fans of the vintage wonderment…

This guest-star stuffed premiere monochrome masterpiece draws together yarns released by Mirage Publishing as Usagi Yojimbo volume 2 #1-16 and Usagi Yojimbo volume 3 #1-6

Following a fulsome Foreword from former editor Jamie S. Rich, pictorial rundown of dramatis personae in ‘Cast of Characters’ and rousing strip recap ‘Origin Tale’, an evocative Introduction from legendary illustrator and Dean of dinosauria William Stout leads into the magnificent and ever-unfolding medieval mystery play…

It all begins with 3-part crossover epic ‘Shades of Green’ wherein Usagi and his crusty companion Gennosuké (an irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taking rhino with a heart of gold) are recruited by Kakera: a ratty shaman in dire need of protection from the dwindling remnants of the once-mighty Neko Ninja clan.

The former imperial favourites have fallen upon hard times since they and the Ronin Rabbit crushed the Dragon Bellow plot of rebel Lord Takamuro. Now, the bat assassins of the Komori Ninja clan are constantly harrying, harassing and actively trying to supplant them in patron Lord Hikiji’s service…

Chunin (deputy leader) Gunji believes the rodent wizard would make a mighty useful slave, and is scheming to overthrow the new – female – clan chief Chizu whilst acquiring him…

With the Neko’s trap closing around them all, the sagacious sensei summons the spirits of four fantastic fighters to aid Usagi and Gen. The phantoms promptly possess a quartet of little Kamé (tortoises) and are reshaped into adolescent amphibian Ninja Turtles, identifying themselves as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello.

Usagi has fought beside one of their number before…

The subsequent battles go badly and eventually Gunji’s forces make off with Kakera-sensei. As Usagi leads the remaining heroes in relentless pursuit, the conniving Chunin makes his move. Gunji’s attempt to assassinate Chizu is bloodily and efficiently ended by the late-arriving Usagi who is astounded to be told by the lady he has saved that the Neko’s lethal interest in him is now at an end…

With Kakera rescued and Gunji dead, the adventure closes with the turtle spirits returning to their own place and time, leaving Gen and Usagi to follow their own (temporarily) separate roads…

‘Jizo’ then offers a delightful and gripping interlude as a grieving mother dedicates a roadside shrine to her murdered child and mysterious Karma places the killers in the path of a certain justice-dispensing, long-eared wanderer…

Next comes a brace of stories offering elucidating glimpses of the rabbit’s boyhood. Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate sent to spend his formative years learning the Way of Bushido from a gruff and distant leonine hermit Katsuichi.

The stern sensei taught not just superior technique and tactics, but also an ironclad creed of justice and restraint which would serve the Ronin well throughout his turbulent life.

In ‘Usagi’s Garden’ the callow pupil rebels against the arduous and undignified task of growing food until the lion delivers a subtle but life changing lesson, whilst in ‘Autumn’ a painful fall propels the lad into a nightmare confrontation with a monster who has trapped the changing of the seasons in a bamboo cage…

‘Shi’ is a 2-part tale wherein Usagi comes to the assistance of a valley of poor farmers under constant attack by bullies and brigands seeking to make them leave their impoverished homes. The thugs are secretly employed by a local magistrate and his ruthless brother who have discovered gold under the peasants’ land and want to extract it without attracting the attention of the local Lord’s tax collectors.

When the Ronin’s formidable opposition stalls the brothers’ scheme they hire a quartet of assassins whose collective name means “death”, but the killers are far less trouble than the head farmer’s daughter Kimie who has never seen someone as glamorous or attractive as the soft-spoken samurai…

Although there are battles aplenty for Usagi, the remorseless greed of the brothers finishes them before the Yojimbo can…

A delightful silent comedy follows as ‘The Lizard’s Tale’ pantomimically depicts the Ronin playing unwilling Pied Piper and guardian to a wandering flock of tokagé lizards (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles that populate the anthropomorphic world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem). The rambunctious trouble-magnets then repay the favour when the wanderer is ambushed in the snow-drowned mountains by an army of vengeful bandits…

The 3-chapter fable ‘Battlefield’ then discloses a key moment and boyhood turning point in the trainee warrior’s life.

It begins when a mind-broken, fleeing soldier shatters the boy’s childish dreams of warrior glory. The fugitive is a survivor of the losing side in a mighty battle and his sorry state forces Usagi to rethink his preconceptions of war.

Eager to ram home the lesson, Katsuichi takes his student to the battlefield where peasants and scavengers are busy snatching up whatever they can from the scattered corpses…

Usagi is horrified. To take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, but even so, a little later he cannot stop himself picking up a fallen hero’s Wakizashi (short sword)…

However, after concealing the blade in safe place, the apprentice is haunted by visions of the unquiet corpse and sneaks off to return the stolen steel soul.

Caught by soldiers who think him a scavenger and looter and about to lose his thieving hands, little Miyamoto is only saved by the intervention of victorious Great Lord Mifunė. The noble looks into the boy’s face and sees something honest, honourable and perhaps, one day, useful…

Following an Introduction on ‘Classic Storytelling’ from writer James Robinson, the Ronin roaming resumes with ‘The Music of Heaven’ wherein Miyamoto and a wandering flock of tokagé lizards encounter a gentle, pious priest whose life is dedicated to peace, music and enlightenment…

When their paths cross again later, the rabbit is almost murdered by a ruthless assassin who has since killed and impersonated holy man Komuso in an attempt to catch Usagi off guard…

Evocative and movingly spiritual, this classic of casual tragedy perfectly displays the vast range of storytelling Sakai can pack into the most innocuous of tales.

More menaces from the wanderer’s past reconnect in ‘The Gambler, The Widow and the Ronin’ as a professional conman who fleeces villagers with rigged samurai duels plies his shabby trade in just another little hamlet.

Unfortunately, this one is home to his last stooge’s wife, and to make matters worse, whilst his latest hired killer Kedamono is attempting to take over the business, the long-eared nomad who so deftly dispatched his predecessor Shubo strolls into town looking for refreshments…

Again forced into a fight he doesn’t want, Miyamoto makes short work of the blustering Kedamono, leaving the smug gambler to safely flee with the entire take. Slurping back celebratory servings of Saké, the villain has no idea that the inn where he relaxes employs a vengeful widow and mother who knows just who really caused her man’s death…

A note of portentous foreboding informs ‘The Nature of the Viper’, opening a year previously when a boisterous, good-hearted fisherman pulled a body out of the river and nursed his amazingly still breathing catch slowly back to health. If he expected gratitude or mercy the peasant was sadly mistaken, as the victim explained whilst killing his benefactor as soon as he was able…

The ingrate is Jei: a veritable devil in mortal form, who believes himself a “Blade of the Gods”; singled out by the Lords of Heaven to kill the wicked. The maniac makes a convincing case: when he stalked Usagi the monster was struck by a fortuitous – or possibly divinely sent – lightning bolt but is still going strong and still keen to continue his quest for the Ronin…

‘Slavers’ then begins a particularly dark journey for our hero as Usagi stumbles across a boy in chains escaping from a bandit horde. Little Hiro explains how the ragtag rogues of wily “General” Fujii have captured an entire town and are making the inhabitants harvest all their crops for the scum to steal…

Resolved to save them the rabbit infiltrates the captive town as a mercenary seeking work, but is soon exposed and taken prisoner and ‘Slavers Part 2’ finds Miyamoto stoically enduring the General’s tortures until the boy he saved bravely returns the favour… after which the Yojimbo’s vengeance is awesome and terrible…

However even as the villagers rebel and take back their homes and property, chief bandit Fujii escapes, taking Usagi’s daishō (matched long and short swords) with him.

As previously seen, to take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, and the monster not only has them but continually dishonours them by slaughtering innocents as he flees the Ronin’s relentless pursuit.

‘Daisho – Part One’ opens with a hallowed sword-maker undertaking the holy methodical process of crafting blades and the harder task of selecting the right person to buy them. Three hundred years later, Usagi is on the brink of madness as he follows the bloody trail of Fujii, remorselessly picking off the General’s remaining killers whilst attempting to redeem those sacred dispensers of death…

The chase leads him to another town pillaged by Fujii where he almost refuses to aid a wounded man until one of the women accuses him of being no better than the beast he hunts…

Shocked back to his senses, Miyamoto saves the elder’s life and in gratitude the girl Hanako offers to lead him to where Fuji was heading…

‘Mongrels’ then changes tack as erstwhile ally and hard-to-love friend Gennosuké enters the picture. The irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taker is on the prowl for suitably profitable prospects when he meets the Stray Dog: his greatest rival in the unpopular profession of cop-for-hire.

After some posturing and double-dealing wherein each tries to edge out the other in the hunt for Fujii, they inevitably come to blows and are only stopped by the fortuitous intervention of the Rabbit Ronin…

‘Daisho – Part Two’ sees the irascible rugged individualists come to a shaky truce in their overweening hunger to tackle the General. Mistrustful of each other, they nevertheless cut a swathe of destruction through Fujii’s regrouped band, but even after the furious Usagi regains his honour swords there is one last betrayal in store…

Older, wiser and generally unharmed, Gen and Usagi part company again as ‘Runaways’ once more delves into the wanderer’s past. Stopping in a town he hasn’t visited in decades, the rabbit hears a name called out and his mind goes back to a time when he was a fresh young warrior in the service of Great Lord Mifunė.

Young princess Takani Kinuko had been promised as bride to trustworthy ally Lord Hirano and the rabbit had been a last-minute replacement as leader of the “babysitting” escort column to her impending nuptials.

When an overwhelming ambush destroyed the party, Usagi was forced to flee with the stuck-up brat, both masquerading as carefree, unencumbered peasants as he strove to bring her safely to her husband-to-be through a seeming army of ninjas killers.

The poignant reverie concludes in ‘Runaways – Part 2’ as valiant hero and spotless maid fell in love whilst fleeing from the pitiless, unrelenting marauders on their heels. Successful at last, their social positions naturally forced them apart once she was safely delivered.

Shaken from his memories the Ronin moves on, tragically unaware that he was not the only one recalling those moments and pondering what might have been…

Originally collected as The Brink of Life and Death, the evocative and enticing third tranche of torrid tales opens with ‘Discoveries’ – a heartfelt and enthusiastic Introduction from comics author Kurt Busiek – before more epic sagas of intrigue intermingle with brief vignettes attending to more plebeian dramas and even the occasional supernatural thriller, all tantalisingly tinged with astounding martial arts action and drenched in wit, irony, pathos and even true tragedy…

Far away from our nomadic star a portentous interlude occurs as a simple peasant and his granddaughter are attacked by bandits. The belligerent scum are about to compound extortion and murder with even more heinous crimes when a stranger with a ‘Black Soul’ stops them…

His is called Jei… and nothing good comes from even innocent association with the Blade of the Gods. Still keen to continue his crusade, the monster deals most emphatically with the criminals before “allowing” orphaned granddaughter Keiko to join him…

‘Kaisō’ then finds Miyamoto Usagi befriending a seaweed farmer who’s experiencing a spot of bother with his neighbours…

At peace with himself amongst hard-toiling peasants, Usagi becomes embroiled in their escalating battle with a village of rival seaweed sellers – previously regarded as helpful and friendly – and soon realises scurrilous merchant Yamanaka is fomenting discord and unrest between his suppliers to make extra profit…

‘A Meeting of Strangers’ in a roadside hostelry introduces a formidable female warrior to the constantly expanding cast as the Lepine Legend graciously offers a fellow weary mendicant the price of a drink. A professional informer then sells Usagi out to the still-smarting merchant Yamanaka and lethally capable Inazuma has ample opportunity to repay her slight debt to the Rabbit Ronin when he’s ambushed by an army of hired brigands…

Despite – or perhaps because – it is usually one of the funniest comics on the market, occasionally Usagi Yojimbo can brilliantly twist readers’ expectations with tales that rip your heart apart.

Such is the case with ‘Noodles’ wherein the nomadic Ronin meets again street performer, shady entertainer and charismatic pickpocket Kitsune. She has been plying all her antisocial trades in a new town just as eternally-wandering Usagi rolls up.

The little metropolis is in uproar at a plague of daring robberies and when the inept enforcers employed by Yoriki (Assistant Commander) Masuda try – and painfully fail – to arrest the long-eared stranger as a probable accomplice, the ferociously resistant Ronin earns the instant enmity of the pompous official.

Following the confrontation, a hulking, mute soba (buckwheat noodle) vendor begins to pester the still-annoyed rabbit and eventually reveals he’s carrying elegant escapologist Kitsune in his baskets…

Astounded, the Yojimbo renews his acquaintance with her before the affable thieves go on their way, but trouble and tragedy are just around the corner…

The town magistrate is leaning heavily on his Yoriki to end the crime wave but has no conception Masuda is actually in the pay of a vicious gang carrying out most of the thefts. What they all need is a convincing scapegoat to pin the blame on and poor dumb peasant Noodles is ideal – after all, he can’t even deny his guilt…

With a little sacrificed loot planted, the gentle giant becomes the perfect patsy and before Usagi and Kitsune even know he’s been taken, the simple fool has been tried and horrifically executed…

‘Noodles Part 2’ opens as the aggrieved heroes frantically dash for the public trial and almost immediate crucifixion but neither pickpocket nor bodyguard can do anything to save the innocent stooge. All they can do is swear to secure appropriate vengeance and a kind of justice…

In sober mien the rabbit roves on, stumbling into a house of horror and case of possession as ‘The Wrath of the Tangled Skein’ finds Usagi returning to a region plagued by demon-infested forests. Offered hospitality at a merchant’s house he subsequently saves the daughter from doom at the claws of a demonic Nue (tiger/fox/pig/snake devil).

He is, however, almost too late and only alerted to a double dose of danger when a Bonze (Buddhist Priest) arrives to exorcise the poor child… just like the cleric already praying over the afflicted waif upstairs…

This duel with the forces of hell leads into ‘The Bonze’s Story’ as Usagi strikes up a friendship with the true priest and learns how misfortune and devotion to honour compelled elite samurai Sanshobo to put aside weapons and war in search of greater truths and inner peace…

Political intrigue and explosive espionage return to the fore in ‘Bats, the Cat, & the Rabbit’ as Neko ninja chief Chizu re-enters Usagi’s life, fleeing a flight of rival Komori (bat) ninjas. The winged horrors are determined to possess a scroll containing the secrets of making gunpowder and, after a tremendous, extended struggle the exhausted she-cat cannot believe her rabbit companion is willing to simply hand it over. She soon shrugs it off.

After all the Komori have fallen into her trap and quickly regret testing the purloined formula…

The peripatetic Yojimbo then walks into a plot to murder Great Lord Miyagi involving infallible unseen assassin Kuroshi at ‘The Chrysanthemum Pass’. The valiant wanderer is simply aiding karma to a just outcome despite overwhelming odds and a most subtle opponent, the act will have appalling repercussions in the days ahead…

Hunted woman and deadly adept Inazuma then proves ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ when found – as always – at the heart of a storm of hired blades trying to kill her. However, during one peaceful moment, she makes time to share with a fellow swordsmaster the instructive tale of a dutiful daughter who married the wrong samurai and, by exacting rightful vengeance upon his killer, won the undying hatred of a powerful lord and set her own feet irredeemably upon the road of doom…

Also included to round out in this epic collection are copious ‘Story Notes by Stan Sakai’, a full-colour ‘Gallery’ of the covers from both comicbooks and their attendant paperback compilations, annotated ‘Cover Sketches’ and designs plus biographical data ‘About the Author’.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, informative and funny, the saga alternately bristles with tension and thrills and frequently crushes your heart with astounding tales of pride and tragedy, evil and duty.

Bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is the perfect comics epic: a monolithic magical irresistibly appealing saga to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened haters of “funny animal” stories.
Text and illustrations © 1993-1998, 2014 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved. Foreword © 2014 Jamie S. Rich. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles © 2014 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved. All other material and registered characters are © and™ their respective owners. Usagi Yojimbo and all other prominently featured characters are registered trademarks of Stan Sakai.

Nine Lives to Live – A Classic Felix Celebration


By Otto Messmer, edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-308-9

It might surprise you to know, but funny kitties actually pre-date the internet.

Felix is a hilarious, antic-enjoying talking cat of ancient vintage. He was created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan animation studio in 1915 and was an overnight global hit. Those moving picture cartoons led to a long supplementary career as a newspaper strip, as well as a plethora of merchandisable products in many other media.

Messmer wrote and drew the Sunday strip – which first premiered in London papers – before the feature finally launched in the USA on August 19th 1923. As Messmer’s employer and boss, Sullivan re-inked those initial strips, signed them, and then took all the credit for both strips and even the cartoons, which Messmer carried on directing until 1931.

Otto quietly toiled on, producing Sunday pages and daily strips for decades. In 1955, his assistant Joe Oriolo took over the creative duties and simultaneously began a campaign to return the credit for Felix’s invention and exploits to the true originator. It wasn’t until the 1960s that shy, loyal, brilliant Otto Messmer finally admitted what most of the industry had known for years…

As the cat evolved through successive movie shorts – and eventually numerous TV appearances – an additional and ever-expanding paraphernalia of mad professors, clunky robots and the cat’s legendary magic Bag of Tricks gradually became icons of Felix’s magical world, but most of that is the stuff of a later time and – hopefully – another volume.

The early work collected here comes from the halcyon 1920’s and displays a profoundly different kind of whimsy.

Fast-paced slapstick, fantastic invention and, yes, a few images and gags that might arch the collective metaphorical eyebrow of our more enlightened times; these are the strips that caught the world’s imagination nearly a century ago.

This was a time when even the modern citizens of America and Great Britain were social primitives compared to us – or at least so I’d like to think.

The imagination and wonderment of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and her Pals – both so similar to Felix in style, tone and execution – got the same responses from their contemporary readership and with the same sole intent: To make the customer laugh.

Our modern tendency to casually label as racist or sexist any such historical incidence in popular art-forms, whilst ignoring the same “sins” in High Art, is the worst kind of aesthetic bigotry, is usually prompted by an opportunistic bias and really truly ticks me off.

Why not use those incensed sensibilities and attendant publicity squalls to confront the still-present injustices and inequalities so many people are still enduring rather than take a cheap shot at a bygone, less enlightened world when most creators had no conception of the potential ramifications of their efforts?

Sorry about that, but the point remains that the history of our artform is always going to be curtailed and covert if we are not allowed the same “conditional discharge” afforded to film, ballet, opera, painting or novels. When was the last time anybody demanded that Oliver Twist was banned or shunned because of its depiction of one Jew?

These days the rush to label things racist, sexist or any other “ist” actually shuts down debate before anything can be achieved to fix or even address the problem…

None of which alter the fact that Felix the Cat is a brilliant and important comic strip by an unsung genius. The wonderful work collected here – which includes hundreds of rowdily phantasmagorical Daily and Sunday strips plus comprehensive biography, filmography and TV videography sections – perfectly encapsulate the wonder, universal charm and rapid-fire, surreal gags that enchanted generations and will still delight and enthrall youngsters of all ages.
© 1996 O.G. Publishing Corp.

Krazy & Ignatz 1931-1932: “A Kat a’Lilt with Song”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Derya Ataker (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-594-6

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is arguably the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is now dubbed for these glorious commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which must be appreciated on its own terms. The strip developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without ever offending anybody.

Sadly, however, it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multi-layered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and – latterly – Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick.

Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a supremely entertaining silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops

There’s been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was first rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting generation. This delirious tome, covering all the new Sunday Page material from 1931-1932 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition – and also available as a merely magical digital edition – is another monochrome masterpiece expansively offers a beguiling extra treat by reprinting a selection of Herriman’s Krazy Kat Daily strips too.

Informative context, background and possible explanations are, as always, delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in another effusive exploration of Herriman’s earlier cartoon characters via his picture-packed Introductory essay ‘The Baron and the Duke: Other Great Stuff Before the Bricks Zipped’ with examples of prototypical charming social parasite Baron Mooch and anthropomorphic avian aristocrat and sporting good egg Gooseberry Sprig, the Duck Duke.

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time, the torrid triangular drama plays out as winningly as ever, but with a few new faces popping up to contribute to the insular insanity and well-cloaked social satire…

We open in the depths of February following a spate of (not-included) re-runs, with Krazy konsulting palm reader and “mystic of Mysore” Moul Azziz Khandi who advocates the spreading of a wild oat or two before it’s too late. Sadly, with someone as simplistic and literal-minded as the Kat, that’s a recipe for disaster when Offisa Pupp and Ignatz spot the shenanigans…

As always the mouse’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s (occasionally “Kokonino”) copious coterie of confidence tricksters – a scurrilous sub-population which seems to grow weekly…

Of course, the mouse is a man who enjoys revenge served hot, cold or late…

Amongst the new arrivals is an extremely bellicose elephant who never forgets the slightest slight and harbours no love for the Law or its agents, and greater use of ideal comedy maguffin Joe Stork, whose delivery of (generally unwanted) babies still brings dread responsibility and smug schadenfreude in equal amounts to all denizens of the county.

As ever there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration and bizarre weather plays a greater part in inducing anxiety and bewilderment.

One happy circumstance is the growing use of the county lock-up as the escalating slapstick silliness more often concludes with Ignatz incarcerated. Naturally that just means the mean Mus Musculus (look it up if you must) magnifying his malevolent efforts; even regularly taking to the air in a series of aeronautical escapades…

A war of civic status breaks out between Coconino communities Shonto and Oljeto as both hamlets race to increase their populations by inviting immigrant rabbits and “Ginny Piggs” to settle there. It all gets very crowded after prankish Ignatz gets Joe Stork involved too…

Krazy has not surrendered that dream of a singing career, much to everybody’s dismay, and an (initially) welcome chaotic distraction arrives in the temporarily frozen form of Mr. Eale Ektrik Eel of Red Lake, before the Kacophonous Kitty becomes bemused by a flurry of unseasonal, geographically-challenged Coconut incursions…

The year 1932 started cold and wet but still offered more of the same before providing a new fascination for Krazy when commercial radio broadcasting began in Coconino. This talking point was quickly eclipsed by the introduction of a tumultuous cast addition: a distant relative and his lonely domicile: Uncle Tomm Katt and his ramshackle Cabin.

The venerable gent was no fool, hated cops and mice equally and dealt harshly with any fool dumb enough to heft bricks in his vicinity. He was to be only an occasional player on the Sunday pages but found his true home in the knockabout rowdiness of the Krazy Kat Dailies…

Herriman was a master of the comic strip and fully grasped the fundamental differences between the demands of short sharp bursts of fun needed for the Monday to Saturday strip and the vastly magnified scope afforded him by a whole page every sabbath. Here to close this volume is incorporated a run of Dailies which perfectly highlight the contrasts and similarities in ‘The Daily Krazy Kat Strip, 1931’ culled from the twenty or so papers which willingly ran the controversial periodical feature.

The 4 panel episodes span January 26th through April 4th; displaying less high-blown whimsy but a solid eye for a great visual gags and incorporating Herriman’s love of wild wordplay and slapstick cinema, with a smaller core cast playing fast and loose with sense and sensibilities…

Supplementing the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing ‘Komments on Mysteries of the Master’s Drawing Mesa’ through pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, and inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this astounding compendium is a most accessible way to do so.
© 2004, 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Bunny vs Monkey Book 4


By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-79-1

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The publishers would be crazy not to gather their greatest serial hits into a line of fabulously engaging album compilations, but they’re not so they do. The latest of these is a fourth fabulous paperback-bound bout of ongoing conflict gripping a once-chummy woodland waif and interloping, grandeur-hungry hairy-brained simian…

Concocted with feverishly gleeful inspiration by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!), Bunny vs. Monkey has been a Phoenix fixture from the first issue: recounting a madcap vendetta between animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia which masquerades as a more-or-less mundane English Wood.

Book Four boldly delves deep into the pasts of the uncanny assortment of odd critters littering and loitering around the bucolic paradise – and not before time – as the rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz are now well underway in building something called a motorway through the sylvan glades and apparently unprotected parks…

Sadly all the tail-biting tension does nothing to derail the ongoing but so-far localised war of wits and wonder-weapons which began when an obnoxious simian intruder popped up after a disastrous space shot went awry.

Having crash-landed in Crinkle Woods – a scant few miles from his blast-off site – Monkey believes himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite the continual efforts of reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative Bunny. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just cannot contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who is a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating troublemaker…

These collected volumes dispense disaster-drenched doses of daftness in six-month courses of ill-treatment and this book describes Year Two: July-December after another vivid Contents page and character catch-ups and score-cards, plus a double-page spread pinup…

The already fraught atmosphere of the forest gets another unnecessary shot of adrenaline as ‘A New Challenger Appears’ in the fuzzy form of The Maniacal Badger, resolutely challenging resident reprobate Skunky (a brilliant inventor with a bombastic line in animal-themed atrocity-weapons and a secret agenda of his own) for the title of top mad scientist, after which Monkey wrecks a playground but loses face once Bunny gets him to share a ‘See-Saw!’

Skunky horrifies blithering innocents Weenie Squirrel and Pig when his ‘Grav-O-Box’ sets the river running backwards but when co-conspirator Monkey ruins the test flight of his Hot Air Balloon Jet Engines and propels them ‘Around the Woods in 80 Seconds’ the malcontents themselves are the only ones to suffer…

Sinking into over-indulgence the simian stinker has to take drastic action after becoming a ‘Fat Monkey’ before stealing some building machinery from the Hyoomanz in ‘Monkey at Work’

Skunky upsets the balance of nature – and value of custard – after creating aberrant lifeform ‘The Wobbles!’ before every animal pulls together when a Hyooman wanders in and Bunny orders ‘Battle Stations’. Skunky then stupidly makes things so much worse by splicing Science to Nature and releasing ‘The Vines’

An annoying game of ‘Poink!’ drives everybody bonkers but welcome terror returns after the colossal ‘Monkeytron!’ rampages through the trees, just in time to greet rocket scientists searching for a test monkey they lost in the very first episode…

Pig’s origin is revealed in the cleverly obfuscatory (not!) ‘A Pig on the Range’ after which Park Ranger Derek P. Brigstocke has a close encounter with a net and ‘A Bear Bum!’ and irrepressible yet lonely cyber-crocodile ‘The Incredible Metal Steve’ undergoes a ferocious metal-morphosis even as ‘Bunny Vs. Monkey!’ finds our notional stars getting back to bruising basics in their never-ending struggle…

After a troop of Hyooman cub scouts fail to ‘Catch That Bunny’ Pig and Squirrel dig up ‘Worms’ and take the slimy earth-movers fishing, but not in any way you’ve seen before, whilst ‘Goodbye, Bunny’ finds our pacifist protagonist plunging deep into the distant city in search of his origins even as Pig becomes a dragon-slaying knight in ‘Arise, Lord Wuffywuff!’

…And none too soon as it happens, since with snow falling the Maniacal Badger returns to worry the woodland folk with ‘The Thing!’ he’d stolen from the Hyoomanz Building Site, prompting a desperate search for natural leader Bunny: a trail that takes them to a comfortable suburban hutch and ‘A Place Where You Belong’

Reunited with the Crinkle Woods critters, Bunny finds a time machine and – by accidentally visiting ‘Once Upon a Time’ – discovers the true secret of Skunky’s vast and evil intellect in an extra-long extravaganza which segues straight into the formation of sadly deficient superhero team the Rather Good Squad in ‘Choose Your Side!’

With Christmas fast approaching, festivities are briefly disrupted by marauding ‘Snow Meanies’ before the Builders try secretly bulldozing the Woods only to be stopped by Monkey, gleefully brain-battered, bewildered former stuntman Action Beaver and ‘The Real Santa!’

The madcap mayhem concludes with a portentous epilogue as ‘Door B’ opens to reveal the ultimate triumph of the ultimate villainous mastermind, but that’s…

To Be Continued

The absolute acme of absurdist adventure, Bunny Vs Monkey is well on the way to becoming a British Institution of weird wit, brilliant invention and superb cartooning: an utterly irresistible joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids…
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2017. All rights reserved.

Bunny Vs Monkey Book Three will be released on 6th July 2017 and is available for pre-order now.