Fresh Romance volume 1


By Kate Leth & Arielle Jovellanos, Sarah Vaughn & Sarah Winifred Searle, Sarah Kuhn & Sally Jane Thompson, Marguerite Bennett & Trungles, Keiron Gillen & Christine Norrie & various (Rosy Press/Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-62010-346-3                  eISBN: 978-1-62010-347-0 (Kickstarter exclusive)

Once upon a time romance comics were the backbone of the comicbook industry, selling in the millions and capturing the crucial yet elusive and fickle women’s market where war, westerns and superhero titles just couldn’t get a foothold.

Times passed, fashions changed and the genre all but vanished in comics form, to occasionally resurface in rare re-emergences filled with quality writing and art but still unable to justify the expense of a regular print slot.

Thankfully the internet changed all that, with devotees able to create, disseminate and consume articles of visual amour free of draconian and tawdry business pressures. One such enterprise was anthological enterprise Fresh Romance from Rosy Press which offers startlingly uncompromising modern love stories in a broad variety of styles and themes and tones from simple person-meets-person encounters to classical pastiches to rom-com rollercoaster rides.

So well-received were these tales that in partnership with Oni Press the stories have made the retrograde jump back into physical form such as this initial collection…

Supplemented throughout with round-robin discussions and commentaries from the creators involved the wide-eyed wonderment opens with a no-holds-barred, ferociously contemporary spin on the coming-of-age ritual known as Prom Night…

‘School Spirit’ by scripter Kate Leth, illustrator Arielle Jovellanos, colourist Amanda Scurti and letterer Taylor Esposito details the build up to that very special occasion, focussing on unwitting chick-magnet Miles, haughty queen-bee Justine, moody Corrine and eager-beaver over-achiever Malie.

None of their peers are privy to their true natures, though. Miles’ reputation is largely bogus, allowing him to act as a beard for two of the girls whilst the lass he really likes has a secret she joyously shares with him alone: she’s a witch with fantastic powers she’s just desperate to exercise even though her dads forbid her getting intimate with mortals…

Pressure mounts as the Prom approaches and all four are reaching emotional crisis points: all they want to do is be themselves and be done with secrets…

But when the subterfuge falls apart just before the big event all the quartet can do is make it a night everybody will remember…

In stark contrast ‘Ruined volume 1’ by Sarah Vaughn & Sarah Winifred Searle (lettered by Ryan Ferrier) serves up a heaping helping of stolid and claustrophobic Regency romance in the manner of Jane Austen as young Catherine dolorously acquiesces to parental pressure and marries a man she does not know. As her parents constantly remind her, it’s the best she can hope now that her reputation has been so utterly despoiled by her recent indiscretion…

Her marriage into the prestigious but impoverished Davener family was never going to be a famous love match but after being packed off to his decrepit and distant estate Catherine’s slow acceptance of her taciturn, inscrutable husband is constantly impeded by one inescapable quandary. If no decent man would want her in her present state, why has Andrew Davener made her his bride?

Does he want her? Is he, in fact, a decent man?

A beguiling and compelling take on the traditional gothic novel – complete with troubled sister-in-law and antagonistic elder dowager in residence – Ruined does not conclude in this volume and leaves the reader hungry for a resolution…

From staid conformity to wild abandon as ‘The Ruby Equation’ by Sarah Kuhn & Sally Jane Thompson (coloured by Savanna Ganucheau and lettered by Steve Wands) pursues wild whimsy in a little coffee shop which serves as a dating drop-in centre run by extra-dimensional super-entities masquerading as baristas and waitresses.

These wondrous creatures are intent on helping their unwitting human clients find true happiness, but impatient young operative Ruby can’t wait to finish this dumb assignment and progress to missions of truly cosmic importance.

Sadly for her, Ruby can’t close the deal with prospective happy couple Josh and Megan, and she’s the only one who can’t see that they are not perfect soul-mates. Not when one of them is actually the only being Ruby could ever love…

A dark reinterpretation of a very familiar fairytale, ‘Beauties’ by Marguerite Bennett & Trungles – lettered by Rachel Deering – sees a beautiful beast captured and enslaved by a callous prince and his cruel daughters, only to win over one of his tormentors and trigger an uncanny transformation. With love triumphing over every adversity the liberated lovers must then seek escape or death together whatever the ultimate cost…

As icing on the cake this collection closes with a delightful bonus vignette by Keiron Gillen & Christine Norrie. ‘First, Last and Always’ slyly reveals the cautious, cunning politics that underlie that initial brushing of lips that presages the start of everything…

Powerful, charming, engaging and endearing, these yarns of yearning and fulfilment are superb examples of how varied comics can be. Why not let a little romance into your heart today?
Fresh Romance volume One © 2016 Rosy Press. All individual stories are the property of and © their respective creators. All rights reserved.

Mouse Guard volume 1: Fall 1152


By David Petersen (Archaia Studios Press/Boom Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-932386-74-5

Mouse Guard was first seen in 2005: a superb anthropomorphic fantasy tale which quickly garnered acclaim and many favourable comparisons to literary classics such as Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, although a fairer, more accurate – not to say obvious – comparison would be Robert C. O’Brien’s wonderful novel Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of Nimh.

It’s still magnificent and has expanded into a series of superb collected tales, games and other mass-entertainment media.

A world rich in tantalising back-history and fascinating tradition, the setting is a feudal society of mice, maintaining a precarious nation beset on all sides by predators. Within the borders of the Territories, independent city states prosper through trade, protected by the vigilant peacekeeping force known as the Mouse Guard. They keep the roads clear of danger, patrol the borders and provide intelligence on everything from weather patterns to new inventions to animal migrations.

In a world that generally views mice as vermin, victims and lunch, cooperation is vital and accurate Intelligence is fundamental to the survival of their society. The Guard was formed as a force of warriors: Border Guards, scouts, policemen, guides and messengers. They are the glue that binds together the scattered cities, enclaves and outposts of mouse civilisation.

In the year 1152 ‘The Belly of the Beast’ introduces Lieam, Saxon and Kenzie; tried and trusty members of the fabled Guard who go in search of an overdue and presumed missing merchant. After valiantly despatching the monstrous invader which killed him, they then stumble onto a devious, almost-fully-accomplished plot which threatens the existence of their home city and Guard Citadel Lockhaven… and perhaps all mice everywhere. Worse still, there is clearly a traitor hidden deep within their own sacrosanct ranks behind the appalling scheme…

The plot thickens in ‘Shadows Within’ as Mouse Guard Commander Gwendolyn sends key operative Sadie to the far-flung shoreline where her agent Conrad has gone missing. After extreme travails she locates him, but nearly too late and must battle for her life against an horrific army of monsters…

Saxon, Lieam and Kenzie have meanwhile backtracked the merchant’s trail to the city of Barkstone, resolved to tell no one of the imminent danger until they have ferreted out the traitor. Their search exposes a sinister secret army led by a masked mouse who has co-opted and pirated the reputation of a legendary Guard Hero.

The ‘Rise of the Axe’ is his scheme to draw disaffected members of the militia to his cause: overthrowing Gwendolyn and turning the Territories into a united kingdom…

As Lieam infiltrates the Axe army, Saxon and Kenzie are captured and almost killed by the insurgents. Left for dead, they are saved by the abrasive hermit Celanawe.

‘The Dark Ghost’ harbours an incredible secret, one the vile traitor and his co-conspirators could not possibly have anticipated. Ancient and venerated Mouse Guard champion The Black Axe never died… he simply faded away for a while…

Cresting a wave of bravado, the traitor escalates his plans and commits his entire army to capturing Lockstone: hoping to eradicate Gwendolyn and her faithful retinue in ‘Midnight’s Dawn’ but he has utterly underestimated the valour of the defenders, the cunning of Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon and the sheer determination of a true hero intent on bringing ‘A Return to Honor’ to his once-hallowed name…

With the natural order restored, a fulsome ‘Epilogue’ then details the rapid repairs to Lockstone as its weary inhabitants make frantic efforts to restore their depleted resources before the crippling deadly winter begins…

To Be Continued…

A classic adventure of heroes and villains, full of valiant deeds, glorious battles and spellbinding spectacle, this is a charming and brilliantly paced fantasy yarn, illustrated in achingly beautiful painted panels with clear, forthright storytelling. It will captivate children and adults alike.

Also included are beguiling extras such as a comprehensive and lovely ‘Map of the Mouse Territories’ circa 1150, an evocative prose and picture ‘Guide to Barkstone’ plus a similar plan and rundown of its rival in ‘Guide to Lockhaven’. Cultural cues are examined in a fabulous examination of ‘Mouse Trades’ – including Stone Mason, Carpenter, Potter (complete with examples of mouse pottery), Miller and Baker – with the entire affair capped by a ‘Pinup Gallery’: six superb images lovingly crafted by Guy Davis, Rick Cortes & anjindesign.com, Mark Smylie and Jeremy Bastian.

Surely destined to become a classic, Mouse Guard is a comic which – like Usagi Yojimbo and Bone – has grown far beyond its periodical origins to become a phenomenon all story lovers will adore.
Mouse Guard ™ & © 2005, 2009 David Petersen. All Rights Reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 4 – 1925-1926: “There is a Heppy Lend, Fur, Fur Awa-a-ay”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-386-7

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is quite possibly the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a 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 dubbed in these glorious commemorative collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. It 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 multilayered 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 – later – 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 – often unintelligible – 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, eerie, 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 silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops…

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience. This fabulous forth tome – covering 1925-1926 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition returns the strip to its monochrome roots and offers added value as context, background and possible explanations are delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in his effusive essay ‘By George, It’s Krazy’ before a second text “found-feature” exploits Herriman’s journalistic gifts with contemporary movie reviews delivered by “Thet Ket” in ‘“The Gold Rush” as Seen by Krazy Kat’ and ‘Krazy Kat Sees Miss Davies in “Janice Meredith”’ as both prose and cartoon critiques…

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some of those intriguing supplementary characters increasing coming to the fore.

We open with the change of years bringing a few weeks’ worth of weird ruminations on the nature of time before Ignatz’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s copious coterie of confidence tricksters.

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

As well as increased roles for the Kat’s cousins Krazy Katfish and Krazy Katbird there is more involvement for Joe Stork, who expands out of the exclusive delivery of (generally unwanted) babies into the hooch-dissemination business during those heady days of Prohibition, as well the introduction of tail-less Manx Cat and a Krazy cow.

As expected there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration. Moreover in the Jazz Age of Technological Marvels the mouse frequently takes to the skies to deliver his brain-busting bon mots…

The dangerous delights of Piñatas are introduced to American readers and there’s a healthy dose of surrealism after certain elephantine geological features come to life, whilst Krazy’s Kool is at last lost once Ignatz begins baking his own bricks and cutting Kolin Kelly out of the mounting fiscal equation. Once rubber trees start popping up all over the landscape, nobody is truly safe from the consequences of escalating slapstick silliness…

The year then concludes with uncharacteristic chills and spills when Coconino is subjected to sudden squalls of snow which lead inevitably to too much water as 1926 opens cold and crisp and sodden…

Herriman incorporated his love of cinema here by introducing an itinerant film crew to the cast and began playing even more with his audience and the Fourth Wall after one of the cartoon regulars swiped all the black ink leaving the rest of the cast in a deeply diminished state of embellishment.

The infinitely inventive scribbler also created a bigger role for Mock Duck who temporarily quit the laundry business to set up as a psychic prognosticator and surly seer whilst poor Pupp began to slowly gain the upper paw in the turbulent triangular relationship…

Krazy, meanwhile, discovered a previously unsuspected – and apparently genetically predisposed – affinity for lighting and electricity which the rest of the cast were able to share but not enjoy…

Also always on offer are wry cartoon commentaries on the increasingly technological advancement of the nation, seasonal landmarks and the evergreen fodder of unwanted kids and illegal drinking as well as more pomposity punctured and penny-pinching money-making schemes from the town’s great and good always coming to nothing…

…And sometimes plain mischief rules, such as when Herriman pictorially plays hob with the laws of physics just to see what will happen…

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing 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 glorious compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

The Phoenix Presents Long Gone Don Book 2: The Monstrous Underworld


By The Etherington Brothers (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-78-4

Kids love to be scared and they thrive on imaginative adventure, especially if it comes liberally dosed with oodles of wry sardonic comedy. Such being the case, it’s quite understandable how Long Gone Don came to be such a popular and enduring feature of British comicstrip phenomenon The Phoenix, where it has run from the first issue.

Since 2012 David Fickling Books have published a traditional weekly anthology comic for girls and boys which has successfully restored the glorious heyday of picture-story entertainment; embracing the full force of modernity whilst telling old-fashioned fun and thrilling stories.

Each issue offers humour, adventure, puzzles and educational strips and material in an exultation of cartoon fun and fantasy. Since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the people who really matter – the utterly engaged kids and parents who read it…

As devilishly devised by The Etherington Brothers – Robin and Lorenzo, whose past successes include Malcolm Magic and Yore (in The Dandy), Monkey Nuts, Baggage and the brilliant puzzle-venturer Von Doogan – this thrilling and hilarious spooky romp stars unlucky Don Skelton, whose proper life of adventure didn’t really begin until after an astounding concatenation of crazy circumstances ended it.

The hapless schoolboy drowned in a bowl of Oxtail Soup and was instantly despatched on an uncomfortable voyage to the most netherly of Infernal Regions. Upon arrival, the bewildered waif discovered his unruly hair had turned milk-white, which looked really striking against the fantastic, green-sanded landscape dotted with familiar objects all super-sized to most unlikely proportions: an uncanny land of strange things and stranger folk…

None more so than a rather lugubrious and excitable crow dubbed Castanet, who took the newcomer under his scabby wing whilst strongly stressing the urgency of getting off the Arrival Plains as Brobdingnagian Causes of Expiration tend to land with a crash every moment…

Castanet introduced Don to his bizarre afterlife, escorting him around the chaotic pit of peril known as Broilerdoom (“Afterlife of the Lost, the Damned and the Generally Terrifying”) where they promptly earned the undying enmity of monstrous dictator General Spode

At least boy and bird won a few allies amongst the denizens of the grotty avenues and alleyways: most especially demonic outlaw/tavern-keeper Lewd and his agile assistant Safina who prowl the sordid, sprawling slums of Krapookerville when not running the iniquitous inn known as the Demon Drink.

Don soon learned his companions were more rebels than rogues and they took his arrival as a sign of the despotic General’s imminent overthrow…

After a handy recap and reintroduction section this second exotic eccentric escapade finds our expired hero and his crafty crow companion visited by an implacable, seemingly invulnerable stranger who tries to steal something from Don’s room at the Demon Drink before being driven off.

Giving chase the gang discover there’s been a rash of thefts throughout Broilerdoom but the populace have bigger things to worry about. The godlike Great Worm Thanatos – whose power is believed to sustain the entire underworld – is dead…

On closer investigation Don discovers his almighty, limbless and prodigious new pal is only “nearly dead” and – after a few more unnerving encounters – learns that someone has stolen the heart of Thanatos so that final expiration is not long off.

If Thanatos is gone for good young Skelton can forget any dream of finding the way back to Earth and back to life…

Determined to recover the purloined heart, Don and Castanet quickly find themselves in the middle of another crisis: everybody in town is going crazy…

Safina reveals the reason in hushed whispers. Everybody in the underworld has a totem carried over from their breathing days: a knick-knack or keepsake which serves to stabilise them in the afterlife and remind them of former, happier times. Now, however, some unknown force has been taking the totems so people are forgetting themselves and going mental as a consequence…

Faced with two impossible tasks before breakfast, Don gets weaving with his undercover underworld investigations and soon sees that a bunch of huge, hulking, mute figures are behind the thefts. Before he can do anything about it though, the silent strangers kidnap Safina…

Castanet thinks he knows where allies can be found, but hates dragging his family into the mess… not because of filial feeling, but because his relatives are really appalling and quite dangerous to know…

Meanwhile an unctuous and unsavoury character named Bone Dry Henson has cockily approached the overwhelmed authorities with a plan to off set the mounting chaos. The fact that he is one of the worst villains in the realm’s history but gets the go-ahead anyway is a sign of just how desperate the times are…

Of course he’s the untrammelled rogue everyone expects him to be, but if the populace had any idea of Henson’s true involvement and the nature of his peacekeeping Porcelain Army they would never have let him become the new Mayor…

Soon doom and disaster are running amok in the crowed shabby streets and the intervention of Don and his new allies have resulted in a completely new kind of monster rampaging through Broilerdoom…

But with splattery death mere moments away Don conceives a bold plan…

Tensely suspenseful, imaginative, enthralling and utterly hilarious, this uncanny adventure is delivered in a beguiling, loving pastiche of the magnificent style of Goscinny and Uderzo, a kind of Asterix in the Underworld meets Eric the Viking.

Long Gone Don is a superb serving of macabre mirth no lovers of daft or dark delights should ever miss.
Text © Robin Etherington, 2017. Illustrations © Lorenzo Etherington, 2017. All rights reserved.

Long Gone Don Book 2: The Monstrous Underworld will be published on January 5th 2017 and is available for pre-order now.
To find out more about The Phoenix or subscribe, visit: www.thephoenixcomic.co.uk

Genre Annuals

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the Children’s Annual: a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare and tragic individual who never received a colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning; full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, The Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or TV, film or radio franchises/personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, Thunderbirds, Radio Fun or Arthur Askey. There were even sports and hobby annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious Rupert Bear or Giles Annuals.

Here then is a brief celebration of the kinds of genre celebrations which delighted kids and their parents…

Bimbo Book 1981

By many and various (DC Thomson & Co, Ltd)
ISBN: 0-85116-190-1

Once upon a time – and for the longest time imaginable – comics were denigrated as a creative and narrative ghetto cherished only by children and simpletons. For decades the producers, creators and lovers of the medium struggled to change that perception and – gradually – acceptance came.

These days most folk accept that word and pictures in sequential union can make statements and tell truths as valid, challenging and life-changing as any other full-blown art-form.

Sadly, along the way the commercial underpinnings of the industry fell away and they won’t be coming back…

Where once there were a host of successful, self-propagating comics scrupulously generating tales and delights intended to entertain, inform and educate through periodical publications such specific demographics as Toddler/Nursery, Young and Older Juvenile, General, Boys and Girls, nowadays Britain, America and most of Europe can only afford to maintain a few paltry out-industry, licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for younger readers.

The greater proportion of strip magazines are necessarily manufactured for a highly specific – and dwindling – niche market, whilst the genres that fed and nurtured comics are more effectively and expansively disseminated via TV, movies and digital/games media.

Thankfully old-fashioned book publishers and the graphic novel industry have a different business model and far more sensible long-term goals, so the lack has been increasingly countered and the challenge to train and bring youngsters into the medium taken up outside the mainstream – and dying – periodical markets.

I’ve banged on for years about the industry’s foolish rejection of the beginner-reading markets, but what most publishers have been collectively offering young/early consumers – and their parents (excepting, most notably the magnificent efforts of David Fickling Books and their wonderful comic The Phoenix, or Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books imprint) – has seldom jibed with what those incredibly selective consumers are interested in or need.

Rant over…

Bimbo was a high production value weekly title intended for nursery age and pre-school children first released by DC Thomson in 1961. The name came from its lead character, an adventurous lad originally drawn by Bob Dewar, whilst the rest of the comic featured numerous strips, stories games and puzzles. Bimbo ran until 1972, with Annuals continuing well into the 1980s.

The comic was especially noteworthy because it wisely adapted stars from its older range magazines to appear in simpler tales suitable to a younger audience.

Amongst the migrants thus gainfully employed were Dudley D. Watkins’ Tom Thumb from The Beano, Patsy the Panda from girl’s weekly Twinkle and Bill Ritchie’s mischievous scamp Baby Crockett from Beezer.

This particular inspirational and entertaining tome hit the shelve in 1980 and adults would have read to their younglings an enchanting procession of beautifully illustrated, full-colour strips, puzzles and stories that challenged little minds but didn’t confuse them with such modern contrivances as word balloons or sound effects. Bimbo was strictly old-school and only offered prose or the traditional text-block-&-cartoon panel comics.

The wonderment begins with an expansive double page spread frontispiece with a battalion of mice attacking a giant cheese – a conceit concluded at the end of the book where readers could see the incredible sculpture the rowdy rodents made while consuming their beloved fave-food – after which a cunning rebus welcomes the audience with ‘A Letter From Bimbo’

The first block-&-text strip depicts ‘A Merry Mouse Christmas’ as little Lily pilfers snacks from the human’s indoor tree to create a feast for her many brothers and sisters after which ‘Wiggles’ the Worm goes looking for a less earthy home whilst tiger cub ‘Brave Little Bertie’ breaks down barriers of prejudice by inviting the fearsome crocodile Snapper to the animals’ picnic in a delightful prose story with superb illustrations by a cruelly anonymous artist.

As the strips resume, the farm animals unite to find a new wallow for ‘Roly-Poly Percy’ after his pig pen dries up whilst bold pigeon ‘Puffy’ and his pal Seagull Sam go sightseeing in London and an unseen artist demonstrates the joys of ‘Dotty Doodles’ with Robby Rabbit

‘Pantomime Puzzles’ then offer a variety of paper-based games and age-appropriate brain-teasers and ‘Patsy Panda’ finds an equitable solution to a farmer’s woes after hungry rabbits start consuming his carrot crop…

Illustrated poem ‘The Christmas Robin’ segues into a mesmerising prose fantasy as little Joanna discovers a magical train still stops at the shut-down rail station near her house. Her eye-opening excursion on the ‘The Bumble-Bee Line’ then leads to strip ‘A Holiday trip for Terry’ as a plodding tortoise gives his invertebrate pals a ride and discovers activities that don’t demand rush or hustle…

‘The Funumbers – the Fun Folk who live in Numberland’ combines comic fun with counting skills after which cover-star ‘Pip Penguin’ (by Bill Ritchie?) turns his new fancy dress costume into a useful new career whilst ‘Twirlies’ share the secret of how to make a transformation game out of old scraps and crayons…

Toy bear ‘Jimpy’ gets up to comic strip hijinks with a bunch of elves whilst a kind-hearted bird helps a wounded fairy and is rewarded with ‘Bobbie’s picnic party’.

Prose parable ‘Lenny’s Long Walk’ teaches a wilful puppy the wisdom of not wandering off and a snowbound mallard experiences ‘Ducky’s lucky day’ after getting warm new attire before wits are exercised with a ‘Zoo puzzle-time’

Young Squirrel-Tail makes himself unexpectedly useful in a ‘Riverbank rescue’, after which strip fun resumes as hedgehog ‘Wandering Willie’ undertakes his evening perambulations in a poetic manner whilst ‘Models-to-make’ imparts D-I-Y details on constructing lions, camels, turtles, porcupines, hippos, elephants and snakes with household odds and ends.

Wrapping up the story time is a worrisome tale of a lost pet who finally resurfaces in ‘Pussycat-kitten gets a name’ and a last lovely strip as a little girl finds her station in life as the Keeper of ‘The Royal Robins’

Superbly entertaining and magnificently crafted, this is a children’s tome certain to inculcate a lifetime love affair with comics.
© DC Thomson & Co., Ltd 1980.

Roy of the Rovers Annual 1995

By many and various (Fleetway)
ISBN: 85037-615-7

Roy of the Rovers started his dazzling career on the front cover of the first Tiger; a new weekly anthology comic published by Amalgamated Press (later IPC and/or Fleetway Publications) which launched on September 11th 1954.

The “Sport and Adventure Picture Story Weekly” was a cannily crafted companion to Lion, AP’s successful response to Hulton Press’ mighty Eagle (home of Dan Dare). From the kick-off Tiger concentrated heavily on sports stars and themes, with issue #1 also featuring The Speedster from Bleakmoor, Mascot of Bad Luck and Tales of Whitestoke School amongst others.

In later years racing driver Skid Solo and wrestler Johnny Cougar joined more traditional, earthy strips such as Billy’s Boots, Nipper, Hotshot Hamish and Martin’s Marvellous Mini, but for most of its 1,555-issue Tiger was simply the comic with Roy of the Rovers. Such was his cachet that he starred in 37 of his own Christmas Annuals between 1958 and 2000.

Roy Race was created by Frank S. Pepper (who used the pseudonym Stewart Colwyn) and drawn by Joe Colquhoun (who inherited it when he took over scripting the feature). The scripting eventually devolved to Tiger’s Editor Derek Birnage (credited to “Bobby Charlton” for a couple of years), with additional tales from Scott Goodall and Tom Tully.

In 1975 Roy became player-manager and the following year graduated to his own weekly comic, just in time for the 1976-77 season, premiering on September 25th and running for 855 issues (ending March 20th 1993).

Roy started as a humble apprentice at mighty Melchester Rovers, and gradually rose to captain the first team. After many years of winning all the glories the beautiful game offered, he settled down to live the dream: wife, kids, wealth, comfort and sporting triumph every Saturday…

The end-of-year Annuals began in 1957 (Roy of the Rovers Football Annual 1958): sturdy hardbacks blending sporting stories and strips with games, quizzes and short fact features. The tradition lasted until 2000, although as the years passed and photography became cheaper to incorporate, the fiction began to lose out to photo features and pin-ups…

This glittering tome comes from 1984 when the comic was regularly selling half a million copies a week. The stories were always much more than simply “He shoots! He’s scored!!!” formulaic episodes: they’re closer to the sports-based TV dramas of later decades like Dream Team (litigiously so, in some cases…).

This particular touchline tome begins with photo-spread ‘Watch Out for Wark!’ featuring a winning moment for Ipswich and Scotland midfielder John Wark, before ‘Roy of the Rovers’ (by Tully or Barrie Tomlinson & David Sque?) sees the player-manager employ horse doctoring methods to get Melchester Rovers match-fit…

A selection of ‘Super Colour Photos’ of players you probably won’t remember leads to a reconditioned reprint in black-&-white as ‘Mike’s Mini Men’ details how a boy expert in tabletop football (definitely not Subbuteo!™) adopts his strategic skills to the real thing after joining the school soccer squad.

Dotted with star pin-ups throughout, the book then offers a photo-feature on reader Malcolm Dickenson who won the Mattel Electrolympics tournament in ‘Champion!’ and ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ from cartoonist Nigel Edwards before ‘Yesteryear’ offers picture-strip histories of Celtic and Manchester United in dazzling red, black & white duo-colour.

Then centre-back Johnny Dexter renews his comedic battle of wills with Danefield United manager Viktor Boskovic in ‘The Hard Man’ (Tomlinson & Doug Maxted) before more men in short shorts are photographically celebrated in ‘Internationals on Parade’.

‘Tommy’s Troubles’ (Fred Baker & Ramiro Bujeiro?) found a footy-mad lad trying to run his own team whilst attending a rugby-only school and outwitting his bullying classmates and – after more ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ from Peter Williams – details in monochrome photo-reportage ‘Saturday at Spurs’

There are loads ‘More Colour Photos’ of soccer stars in action before extended epic ‘Mike’s Mini Men’ concludes and ‘Go For Goal!’ tests sporting knowledge before the two-colour entertainment resumes with manager Dan Wayne and his groundsman Joe Croke continuing their struggles to keep minor league minnows ‘Durrells Palace’ afloat…

Gag veteran Clew provides more ‘Famous Football Funnies!’ before ‘Running For Roy’ photo-focuses on the weekly comic’s editorial team as they competed in the St. Albans mini-marathon, after which ‘Roy’s Talk-In’ reviews recent real-world seasons and – following more footy photos – details the newsworthy events in the comic with clip essay ‘Roy Hits the Headlines!’

‘Mighty Mouse’ (Baker & Julio Schiaffino) then delivers in crisp black-&-white another unlikely exploit of short, fat and myopic medical student Kevin Mouse whose uncanny ball skills and physical speed and dexterity won him a place on the team at beleaguered First Division Tottenford Rovers before proceedings are brought to full time with a closing photo-spread of ‘Norman the Conqueror’ (Norman Whiteside) in a moment of international glory…

Old football comics are never going to be the toast of the medium’s Critical Glitterati, but these were astonishingly popular strips in their day, and produced for maximum entertainment value by highly skilled professionals. They still have the power to enthral and captivate far beyond the limits of nostalgia and fashion – even when they were steadily losing ground to pin-ups and photo opportunities. If your footy-mad youngster isn’t reading enough, this might be best tactic to catch him – or her – totally offside…
© IPC Magazines Ltd., 1984.

Girls’ Crystal Annual 1974

By Many and various (Fleetway)
ASIN: B004HL75TC

Like most of my comics contemporaries I harbour a secret shame. Growing up, I was well aware of the weeklies produced for girls but would never admit to reading them. My loss: I now know that they were packed with some great strips by astounding artists, many of them personal favourites when they were drawing stalwart soldiers, marauding monsters and sinister aliens.

Moreover, whenever I pass a mirror I’m well aware that me and my mates could have benefited from some make-up tips and fashion advice in our formative years…

Seriously though, It’s a bit ungracious – but quite typical – to lump in a token Girls Comic Annual in my Genre section as the quality and quantity of the output for young females was staggering, but it’s an area where my meagre knowledge of British-originated material and creators is practically non-existent, even if my late-found admiration is totally genuine.

I actually think. in terms of quality and respect for the readership’s intelligence, experience and development girl’s periodicals were far more in tune with the sensibilities of the target audience. They read pretty good today too…

The vast range of titles from numerous publishers all had Christmas Annuals and I’ve picked one at random: Girl’s Crystal Annual 1974, a time just before changing tastes slowly transformed the distaff side of the industry from story-based content into photo-packed, fashion and pop trend-led miniature life-style brochures like Cosmopolitan.

The comic had a spectacular pedigree. The Crystal launched on October 28th 1935 before renaming itself Girl’s Crystal nine weeks later. It was another story-paper success for Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press but retooled as a comic with some prose material with the March 21st 1953 edition. It merged with School Friend in May 1963. As was often the case the brand continued through the Annuals however, running from 1939 (that would be Girl’s Crystal Annual 1940) to 1975 (a 1976 cover-date). I suspect parents and relatives were attracted at Gift-Giving Time to a familiar name from their own childhoods…

Like all such Annuals, this one features a mix of text stories, features, pin-ups, puzzles and comic strips – both new and cunningly recycled reprints – and opens with a duo-hued thriller as little Joanna Jones and her pals stumble across a baffling yet affable boffin whose newly discovered dinosaur becomes ‘The Burglar Catcher’.

The riotous strip is rendered by a tantalisingly familiar Spanish or South American artist and is followed by a cartoon-embellished, light-hearted exposé of ‘Superstitions’ and ‘The Mobile Music Makers’; a prose yarn of young entrepreneurs setting up a travelling discotheque…

Cartoon Fox and Chicken strip ‘Pete and Pecker’ segues into a splendid monochrome reprint yarn as resized and recycled adventure serial ‘Casey of the Crazy K’ (as seen in Schoolgirl Picture Library) kicks of a monochrome section.

The premise was simple but intriguing: British teen Casey Kildare inherits a ranch in Arizona and becomes embroiled in all manner of cowboy shenanigans when she goes west…

Brain-bending follows with ‘It’s Puzzling!’ and dazzling glamour when ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ reveals the history and lore of the gem trade before text thriller ‘All in a Day’s Work’ sees a young ballet student uncover smugglers at work inside her touring troupe.

A modern day Scrooge is socialised after enduring ‘A Carol for Christmas’ (strip art by Ortiz perhaps?) when some subsequent meddling by Anne and her school friends evoke the traditional change of heart. Another perplexing ‘Teaser Time’ leads to a prose panic as a Jean and Julia have a supernatural close shave in ‘The Pine Wood’

That shifts us quite sensibly into an examination of ‘Curious Curses’ before more classic comedy-adventure ensues with ‘Aunt Jemima on the Warpath’: another resized repeat from story digest June and School Friend Picture Library #376.

Here a remarkably adept lady detective in the classic mould of Margaret Rutherford gives her niece Mandy and chums Sue, John and Steve on-the-job training in catching crooks…

At a suitably tense moment the saga pauses to examine quaint ‘Festivals and Customs’ before moving prose poser – illustrated by the wonderful Brian Lewis – ‘Ferdy Comes Home’ details the heroic acts of an extremely challenging canine…

‘Sally: Dancer in Disguise’ (which looks like Arthur Ferrier art to me) sees a world-famous ballerina seek solitude by changing her looks, only to become entangled in a deadly conspiracy, which after a doggy ‘Pin-up’ leads to another lengthy text tale as Miranda helps out at her brother’s hotel and encounters blackmail, scandal and other forms of skulduggery in ‘Never a Quiet Moment!’

Strip ‘The Lady of the Manor’ sees orphan Mary McMay bamboozled into a bizarre bequest tangle after complete – and completely obnoxious – stranger Sylvia McMonk invites her to view a Scottish castle which is apparently their shared inheritance, before ‘Patsy’s Country Walk’ reveals hidden secrets of nature.

Demonstrating all her junior Modesty Blaise aplomb, globe-trotting action-ace Miss Adventure tackles a particularly nasty missing-persons case in ‘Jacey Takes Command’ after which ‘Never a Quiet Moment!’ concludes and ‘With Nature’s Help Look Beautiful’ reveals astounding historical secrets of the cosmetician’s art.

‘Janet’s Day of Dreams’ depicts the idly feverish ruminations of a star-struck girl stuck in bed with measles, whilst herb lore is explored in ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ and ‘Aunt Jemima on the Warpath’ explosively wraps up.

‘The Mystery of Artist Island’ then details in terse text the tale of art student Vicky Danvers who exposes a forgery ring on her holidays.

Upholding a cherished stereotype, equestrian strip ‘No Horse for Heather!’ reveals how an impoverished girl trounces posh snobs in the show ring and wins her own steed, whilst ‘The Girl Who Conquered Fear!’ details the astounding feats of a missionary’s daughter before returning duo-colour signifies the imminent end of our travels.

Gag page ‘Time for a Laugh’ is followed by a fact feature on ‘Wise Old Owls’, ‘It’s Puzzling!: Answers’ and the animal antics of a wild girl in ‘Janie’s Jungle Jinks’ before one last strip reveals how a palace skivvy rises to an elevated status thanks to the interventions  of ‘The Cat and the King’.

Far more wide-ranging and certainly inexpressibly well written and illustrated; this a magnificent example of comics at their most enticing. It’s well past time that there was a concerted effort to get this stuff back into print…
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1973.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house and my rules…
After decades when only American comics and memorabilia were considered collectable or worthy, the resurgence of interest in home-grown material means there’s lots more of this stuff available and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…
Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…
Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.

Lion Annual 1967

By many and various (Fleetway)
No ISBN: ASIN: B001Q8Y308

From the late 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s, Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtook their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press.

Created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century, AP perpetually sought to regain lost ground, and the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed as commercial countermeasures offered incredible vistas in adventure and – thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to the enemy – eventually found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During the latter end of that period the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero-crazy. Amalgamated had almost finished absorbing all its other rivals such as Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams/IPC and were about to incorporate American superheroes into their heady brew of weekly thrills.

Once the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not fresh. The all-consuming company began reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on the growing fashion for US style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DC Thompson’s Wolf of Kabul.

Even though sales of all British comics were drastically declining, the 1960s were a period of intense and impressive innovation with publishers embracing new sensibilities and constantly trying new types of character and tales. At this time Lion and its stable-mate Valiant were the Boys’ Adventure big guns (although nothing could touch DC Thomson’s Beano and Dandy in the comedy arena).

From that creative zenith comes this sturdy compendium: the 14th Lion Annual (on sale from the end of August 1966) which opens in a blaze of colour with history-feature ‘Famous Planes of World War II’, delivering the crucial specs on the ten most famous flying craft of the conflict as well as the captivating Contents of what’s to come.

The comic action commences with a fully-coloured painted exploit of a beloved icon. ‘Robot Archie and the Invaders’ (illustrated by Alan Philpott) pits the metal marvel and his human sidekicks Ted Ritchie and Ken Dale against malign interplanetary mechanoids.

Created by E. George Cowan & Philpott The Jungle Robot had debuted in Lion’s first issue in 1952 but vanished from sight after his initial serial. On his return in 1957 Archie became one of the most popular heroes of the British scene.

Prose thriller ‘“Avenger” versus the Atom Sub’ has potent spot illustrations from Bill Lacey and tells how Canadian reporters Rick Slade and Bill Hanley are crucial in scuppering the schemes of mad scientist Dr. Felipe Estramadura and returning a nuclear super submersible to its rightful owners. Then ultra-observant ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’ motorcycle cop shines in a short strip by Leo Rawlings, explosively capping a blazing oil well…

Joe Colquhoun’s venerable sky warrior ‘Paddy Payne – Fighter Ace!’ solves the mystery of seemingly invisible German fighter planes as a teaser to a glossy monochrome essay feature on pilots who won the Victoria Cross in ‘Warriors with Wings’ (accompanying art from John Batchelor), Graham Coton’s ‘Secrets of the Sea’ shares ghostly tales of nautical mystery and ‘The Bird That Flies Through Space’ reveals the photo-packed details of the then-latest advances in satellite technology.

The fascination of military gaming is explored in ‘War on Your Table Top’ before the comics strike back with medieval crusader ‘Maroc the Mighty’ losing his strength-enhancing magic bracelet yet still overcoming a vile feudal tyrant in a supernatural thriller by Alfredo Marculeta…

Pilot and troubleshooter Steve Darby invades an ‘Island of Secrets’ in text tale of modern-day piracy limned by John Vernon before Tarzan spoof ‘Charlie of the Chimps’ (by Colquhoun or possibly Spanish artist Rafart?) gets into all sorts of bother looking for breakfast.

In ‘The Return of the Sludge’ Lacey paints an all-colour classic as Slade and Hanley face again the all-consuming muck-monster which almost devoured the Earth. With their previous solution now untenable the ingenious journalists are forced to consider a nuclear option…

Coton then embellishes a tense prose tale of Court Martial in ‘Bill Duggan – Sapper Sergeant in King’s Corporal’ before a general knowledge ‘Picture Quiz’ takes us to a Ted Kearnon episode of ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’ who saves a visiting dignitary from assassination.

The story of the fall of Tippoo Sultan is revealed in text essay ‘The Tiger of Mysore’ after which ‘Robot-Archie and the Z-Ray’ (John Vernon) finds the irrepressible artificial avenger battling a mad scientist in all his monochrome glory before Coton offers more spooky sightings in eerie essay ‘Seen Any Good Ghosts Lately?’

More glossily formal fact-checking follows in photo features on ‘Living Under the Sea’, ‘Trains’, ‘Machines That See in the Dark’ and ‘Armoured Giants’ (tanks to you and me) until the indisputable star of the book makes his unmistakable presence felt.

The Spider was a mysterious super-scientist whose goal was to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan, he began his public career by forming a small team of crime specialists and when he decided fighting villains was more of a challenge he ordered Professor Pelham and cracksman Roy Ordini to reform too… with limited success.

Painted here in turbulent duo-tones of magenta and black by sublime stylist Reg Bunn, ‘The Spider in Cobra Island’ finds our reformed super-thief challenging a monstrous fiend turning people into zombie slaves and delivers his unique form of justice once again…

Vernon illustrates the prose yarn of ‘The Micro King’ with Special Investigator Mark Zeppelin hard-pressed to catch a maniac with a shrinking ray

In glittering red-&-black the history of elite military regiment The Green Howards is detailed in strip form in ‘The Battling Yorkshiremen!’ before monochrome fantasy fun resumes as ‘Jimmi from Jupiter’ (by Mario Capaldi) uses his alien abilities to teach a bully a memorable lesson and ‘The Rocket Jockeys’ offers a tense text tale of Lunar Mining and meteorite collision with pictures by Selby Donnison.

‘All About the West’ provides cartoon facts and potted history before the Festive furore concludes with mock-heroic shenanigans as a young lad asks ‘What Did You Do In The War, Dad?’ What the boy is told and what artist Bruno Maraffa depicts for us to see are of course radically different tales…

Slowly adapting to a more sophisticated audience, the editors were gradually giving Lion a unique identity as the decade passed. This collection would be the last to feature a general genre feel. Future years had pages filled with increasingly strange and antiheroic – even monstrous – material which made readers into slavish but delighted fanatics. However, viewed from today’s more informed perspectives this book is a splendid collection of graphic treats and story delights to enchant any kid or adult.
© Fleetway Publications Ltd. 1966. All rights reserved.

Batman Annual 1967

By Bill Finger, Jack Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Joe Certa, Dick Sprang, Henry Boltinoff & various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co. Ltd/K. G. Murray Publishing)
No ISBN

Before DC Comics and other American publishers began exporting directly into the UK in 1959, our exposure to their unique brand of fantasy fun came from licensed reprints. British publishers/printers like Len Miller, Alan Class and Top Sellers bought material from the USA – and occasionally Canada – to fill 68-page monochrome anthologies – many of which recycled the same stories for decades.

Less common were the strangely coloured pamphlets produced by Australian outfit K. G. Murray and exported to the UK in a rather sporadic manner. The company also produced sturdy Annuals which had a huge impact on my earliest years (I strongly suspect my adoration of black-&-white artwork stems from seeing supreme stylists like Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson uncluttered by flat colour…).

In Britain we began seeing hardcover Atlas Batman Annuals in 1960 and, due to the vagaries of licensing, once the TV series started in 1966 were soon inundated with a wealth of choices as Top Sellers and World Distributors (Batman Storybook Annuals) released their own collections between 1967 and 1970.

Since then a number of publishers have carried on the tradition but only one at a time…

This particular tome emerged at the start of that Batman phenomenon which briefly turned the entire planet Camp-Crazed and Bat-Manic, and offers a delightfully eclectic mix of material crafted just before Julie Schwartz’s 1964 stripped-down relaunch of the character.

Here crimebusting is intermixed with alien fighting and idle daydreaming with the world’s greatest crime-fighters indulging in a comfortably strange, masked madness that was the norm in the Caped Crusader’s world.

This collection is printed in the cheap and quirky mix of alternatively monochrome, dual-hued and full-colour pages which made Christmas books such bizarrely beloved treats.

The sublime suspense and joyous adventuring begins with ‘The Return of the Second Batman and Robin Team’ by Bill Finger & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #135 (October 1960): a sequel to a tale within a tale wherein faithful butler Alfred postulated a time when Bruce Wayne married Batwoman Kathy Kane and retired to let their son join grown-up Dick Grayson as a second generation Dynamic Duo.

Here the originals are forced to don the bat mantles one last time when an old enemy captures the new kids on the block…

British books always preferred to alternate action with short gag strips and the Murray publications depended heavily on the amazing output of DC cartoonist Henry Boltinoff. Delivery man ‘Homer’ then suffers a canine interruption before Batman invades ‘The Lair of the Sea Fox’ (Batman #132; (June 1960, by Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris). The nefarious underwater brigand’s schemes to use Gotham City’s watery substructure to facilitate his plundering soon founders when the Caped Crusaders break out the Bat-Sub…

Boltinoff’s crystal-gazing ‘Moolah the Mystic’ clears up the ether his way as a prelude to the introduction of this Annual’s engaging co-star. John Jones, Manhunter from Mars debuted at the height of American Flying Saucer fever in Detective Comics #225. He was created by Joe Samachson, and is arguably the first superhero of the Silver Age, beating by a year the new Flash (who launched in Showcase #4 cover-dated October 1956).

The eccentric, often formulaic but never disappointing B-feature strip depicted the clandestine adventures of stranded alien J’onn J’onzz. Hardly evolving at all – except for finally going public as a superhero in issue #273 (November 1959) – the police-centred strip ran in Detective until #326, (1955- 1964 and almost exclusively written by Jack Miller from issue #229 and illustrated from inception by Joe Certa) before shifting over to The House of Mystery (#143 where he continued until #173) and a whole new modus vivendi.

He temporarily faded away during the Great Superhero Cull of 1968-70 but is back in full fettle these days.

His origins were simple: reclusive genius scientist Dr. Erdel built a robot-brain which could access Time, Space and the Fourth Dimension, accidentally plucking an alien scientist from his home on Mars. After a brief conversation with his unfortunate guest, Erdel died to a heart attack whilst attempting to return J’onzz to his point of origin.

Marooned on Earth, the Martian discovered that his new home was riddled with the ancient and primitive cancer of Crime and – being decent and right-thinking – determined to use his natural abilities (telepathy, psychokinesis, super-strength, speed, flight, vision, super-breath, shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, invulnerability and more) to eradicate evil, working clandestinely disguised as a human policeman. His only concern was the commonplace chemical reaction of fire which sapped Martians of all their mighty powers…

With his name Americanised to John Jones he enlisted as a Middletown Police Detective: working tirelessly to improve his new home; fighting evil secretly using inherent powers and advanced knowledge with no human even aware of his existence. Here in a thriller from Detective #299 (January 1962) Miller & Certa’s ‘Bodyguard for a Spy’ sees the mighty Manhunter almost fail in his mission because his human assistant Diane Meade is jealous of the beautiful Princess in his charge…

The magnificent Dick Sprang – with Paris inking – astoundingly illustrated Finger’s script for ‘Crimes of the Kite Man’ (Batman #133, August 1960): a full-colour extravaganza with the Caped Crusader hunting an audacious thief plundering the skyscrapers of Gotham whilst ‘The Deadly Dummy’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #134, September 1960) pitted the Dynamic Duo against a diminutive showman-turned-bandit fed up with being laughed at…

Reverting to monochrome, ‘The Martian Show-Off’ (Detective #295, September 1961) poses a confusing conundrum as the eerie extraterrestrial connives to inexplicably deprive a fellow cop of his prestigious 1000th arrest after which ‘Batman’s Interplanetary Rival’ (Detective Comics #282, August 1960) by Finger Moldoff & Paris finds the human heroes constantly upstaged by an alien lawman hungry for fame and concealing a hidden agenda before the interplanetary intrigue – and the Annual action – ends with The Mystery of the Martian Marauders’ (Detective Comics #301, March 1962) as deranged scientist Alvin Reeves fixes Erdel’s robot brain and accidentally brings Martian criminal invaders to Earth. After battling impossible odds the Manhunter triumphs and wins the ability to return at any time to his birthworld…

Cheap, cheerful and deliriously engaging this is a nostalgic treat no baby-boomer could possibly resist
© National Periodicals Publications Inc., New York 1967. Published by arrangement with the K. G. Murray Publishing Company, Pty. Ltd., Sydney.

Smash! Annual 1972

By many and various (IPC Magazines, Ltd)
SBN: 901267-62-7

Power Comics was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate those periodicals which contained reprinted American superhero material from the company’s regular blend of sports, war, western, adventure and humour comics – such as Buster, Lion or Tiger.

During the Swinging Sixties the Power weeklies did much to popularise the budding Marvel universe characters in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the original American imports.

Smash! launched with a cover-date of February 5th 1966: an ordinary Odhams anthology weekly which was quickly re-badged as a Power Comic at the end of the year; combining home-grown funnies and British originated thrillers with resized US strips to capitalise on the American superhero bubble created by the Batman TV series.

By a process of publishing attrition it had become Britain’s last general purpose, non-themed weekly of the century. After it was gone all successive debuts were umbrella vehicles specifically focusing on War, Sport, Science Fiction or Humour in dedicated titles such as Battle, Shoot!, 2000AD or Whoopee!

The increasingly expensive American reprints were dropped in 1969 and Smash! was radically retooled with a traditional mix of action, sport and humour strips. Undergoing a full redesign it was relaunched on March 15th 1969 with all-British material and finally disappeared into Valiant in April 1971 after 257 issues. However, the Seasonal specials remained a draw until October 1975 when Smash Annual 1976 properly ended the era. From then on the Fleetway brand had no room for the old guard – except as re-conditioned reprints in cooler, more modern books…

As I’ve monotonously repeated, Christmas Annuals were forward-dated so this monumental mix of shock, awe and haw-haw was probably being put together between spring and September 1971, combining new strip or prose stories of old favourites with remastered reprints from other Odhams’ comics and a wealth of general interest fact features.

Following a contents page/cast pin-up double page spread, the action kicks off with ‘Moonie’s Magic Mate’ – sublimely painted by Carlos Cruz – detailing how the lucky lad’s bellicose genie hijacks him back to ancient Baghdad and gets into a duel with another stroppy wish-granter.

Then the monochrome section starts with Leo Baxendale’s ‘The Swots and the Blots’ – possibly crafted here by Mike Lacey – who put their long-suffering teacher through another hellish week whilst the initial prose thriller sees flying teen ‘Birdman from Baratoga’ return to the island where he was reared by gulls and other avians. Here he encounters a mad scientist with a paralysis ray before prankish ‘Sam’s Spook’ (Terry Bave?) gets his adopted mortal into more trouble.

‘It’s Wacker’ – originally Elmer when first seen in Buster – finds the un-able seaman accidentally sinking every naval berth he occupies, whether land-based or sea-borne, in a riotous romp from Roy Wilson before showman ‘Janus Stark’ makes himself a guinea pig for scientists and discovers a new ability in time to foil an audacious society thief…

Janus Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Tom Tully for the relaunch of Smash in 1969, the majority of the art was from Solano Lopez’s Argentinean studio, and the eerie moodiness well suited the saga of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage to become the greatest escapologist of the Victorian age.

The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about Justice, and would joyously sort out scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature which survived until the downsizing of Fleetway’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – as Stark escaped oblivion when the series was continued in France – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son!

Right here, back then we resume with ‘The Haunts of Headless Harry’ which sees the phantom’s pate at war with his torso at a spectral carnival after which monochrome photo-essay ‘“Timb-err!”’ lays out the details on the glamorous career of lumberjacking in Canada.

Hapless fantasist ‘Big ‘Ead’ (another Buster graduate, limned by Nadal) dreams of a life under the big top whilst social injustice and class war catastrophically break out in Reg Parlett’s deliriously witty ‘Consternation Street’

‘Send for Q-Squad’ – by an artist I recognise but can’t name – finds the elite 5-man team cutting short leave in Cairo to track down and destroy an experimental Nazi death-ray projector in an epic-length exploit, after which ‘Monty Muddle – The Man from Mars’ (originally Milkiway – The Man from Mars in Buster) explores Earth’s penal customs and ‘Smash Hits’ doles out a double helping of single-panel gags.

‘Four-Legged Cops!’ gives the photo-essay lowdown on the history and role of police dogs in Britain, after which ‘Percy’s Pets’ (Stan McMurtry or just possibly Cyril Price) adds a truly pestilential parrot to his menagerie before the compellingly macabre school strip ‘Master of the Marsh’ (Solano Lopez) sees enigmatic hermit/P.E. teacher Patchman roughly dealing with his regular tribe of hooligans and poachers too, to save badgers from being sold as zoo exhibits…

You might have noticed a preponderance of supernatural humour strips here and another follows when the magnificent and prolific Reg Parlett ushers us aboard his chaotic ‘Ghost Ship’ and wannabe pop stars ‘Nick and Nat – The Beat Boys’ (originally The Wacks when they played in Wham! – no, not them, the comic Wham!) experience a little guitar trouble. A full-colour photo-feature then reveals all the secrets of life in the Household Cavalry in ‘Men of Steel’

‘The World-Wide Wanderers’ were a literally international team of footballers drawn from many different countries – talk about prophetic! – who here star in a prose yarn about a cup final starting in a country riven by revolution and ending on an aircraft carrier at sea.

More nautical nonsense abounds as Wacker’ leads his shipmates on an insane sea safari sparked by a misidentified treasure map whilst a monochrome ‘Sporting Gallery’ of contemporary stars and headliners leads to more circus calamity in ‘The Haunts of Headless Harry’ before ‘Bulls-Eye’ offers snaps of and facts on Britain’s then-thriving boom in archery for kids.

Light-hearted everyman ‘His Sporting Lordship’ was one of the most popular strips of the era. Debuting in Smash!, Henry Nobbins survived the merger with Valiant and only retired just before the comic itself did.

Nobbins was a common labourer when he unexpectedly inherited £5,000,000 and the title Earl of Ranworth. Unfortunately, he couldn’t touch the cash until he restored the family’s sporting reputation… by winning all the championships, prizes and awards that his forebears had held in times past…

Further complicating the issue was rival claimant Parkinson who, with henchman Fred Bloggs, constantly tried to sabotage his attempts. Luckily the new Earl was ably assisted by canny, cunning butler Jarvis

Here (with art by Douglas Maxted?), the capable manservant has his hands full as Henry joins a basketball team where his nemeses are trying to beat him at his own game…

Photo-facts about winter sports tantalise in ‘Snow Men’ whilst ‘Big ‘Ead’ boasts of his sledding expertise after which ‘Lucky to Live!’ reveals a quartet of actual narrow escapes in a prose essay describing being swallowed by a whale, sinking in quicksand, shooting a man-eating lion and extinguishing an engine fire by climbing onto a plane’s wing… without landing first…

‘The Swots and the Blots’ then tackle a coal mountain in the playground and ‘Master of Escape!’ offers a lavishly illustrated history feature on escapologist Harry Houdini before ‘Consternation Street’ and ‘Monty Muddle’ create a lighter mood as we slip comfortably into the two-colour section (Black and orange, this year) for potted histories of ‘Warriors of the World’ Clive of India and Lawrence of Arabia.

‘Sam’s Spook’ then repopulates a haunted castle devoid of phantoms before Smash’s veteran troubleshooter and action-man barely survives ‘Simon Test’s Million-Pound Gamble’ after two aged One-Percenters wager on his ability to avoid their booby-trapped estate in a supreme thriller by Eric Bradbury or a very skilled ghost-artist…

General knowledge and observational skills are challenged in ‘Mike’s Quick Quiz’, the ‘Ghost Ship’ meets its maritime match and ‘The Beat Boys’ play one final encore as very bad buskers before this compendium of fact fun and thrills concludes with a spectacular and suspenseful Sci Fi thriller reprinted from Buster and moodily limned by Solano Lopez. Here, soon to be veteran villain Doctor Droll debuts, having unleashed a wave of killer action figures on a small English town in ‘March of the Toys’ with only plucky kids Jo and Sandy Douglas aware of his schemes or prepared to stop him.

An interesting and pleasing side-note is that in this lengthy yarn, sister Jo is a crucial component and fully equal partner in the villain’s defeat. That’s a pretty big deal in a boys’ comic story from a period where females almost never appeared except as comedy foils or frustrating authority figures…

As my knowledge of British creators from this time is so woefully inadequate, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve misattributed and besmirched the good names of Leo Baxendale, Mike Brown, Gordon Hogg, Stan McMurtry, Graham Allen, Mike Lacey, Terry Bave, Artie Jackson and numerous international artists anonymously utilised throughout this period. Even more so the unsung authors responsible for much of the joy in my early life – and certainly the childhoods of millions of others…

Christmas simply wasn’t right without a heaping helping of these garish, wonder-stuffed compendia offering a vast variety of stories and scenarios. Today’s celebrity, TV and media tie-in packages simply can’t compete, so why not track down a selection of brand-old delights with proven track record and guaranteed staying power…?
© IPC Magazines, Ltd. 1971.

Chance in Hell


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-833-6

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there is Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that was Love and Rockets (where his incredibly insightful tales of Palomar and later stories of those characters collected in Luba gained such critical acclaim) he has produced stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy; all marked by his bold, instinctive, compellingly simplified artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of the literary techniques of Magical Realism. In comicbook terms he has evolved those techniques and made them his own.

A seemingly tireless experimenter and innovator, in 2006 Beto began to acknowledge some of his cinematic and literary influences such as Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson: breaking new ground and reprocessing cultural influences that shaped many of us baby-boomers.

In Luba and other tales of Palomar we often glimpsed the troubled life of her half-sister Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, lisping psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and former B-movie starlet of such faux screen gems as Three Mystic Eyes, Blood is the Drug and Love From the Shadows. In her fictive biography Fritzi had begun her film career in a brutal exploitation pic called Chance in Hell

Hernandez began “adapting” those trashy movies as fully realised graphic novels.

He started with Chance in Hell – although Fritzi only had a bit part in it – and crafted a bleak, violent yet strangely contemplative tale about a girl born into the worst of lives: one which she eventually escaped from if not necessarily grew out of…

Released as a digest-sized monochrome hardback, this sordid saga opens in a place we’ve all seen if not experienced…

Barely a toddler, Empress had already endured the worst the apocalyptic slum could muster: starvation, rape and casual murder as she blithely questioned the other juvenile scavengers in search of “Daddy”…

Even after being “adopted” by one of the boy-gangs her quest continues, punctuated by hunger, violence and the constant attention of well-to-do, predatory men from the city intent on slaking their particular peccadilloes on a child nobody values…

When a misunderstanding results in an ever-escalating slaughter, her protector dies and Empress is spirited away to the city by one of those prowling vultures in suits.

Some years later, exuding the confidence of wealth and experience, Empress is constantly drawn to the Red Light district where the flashy pimps and their human wares ply a never-ending trade. She’s barely a teenager and doesn’t seem to care about the lucky life she leads. The man who ultimately took her from the wastes where the city has always left its unwanted children is decent and honest: a poetry editor. She has never had to feel the terror and pain inflicted on so many others from her station, but still she is restless and increasingly rebellious…

Empress wants to be with the dangerous under-people; the debased and violent survivors. She despises her guardian’s hopes and aspirations that she will one day “rise above”…

Even though her current existence is a comparative paradise, she is drawn to those elements which exemplify her traumatic early years and when she discovers the sordid, sexual secret of her adoptive father something primal resurfaces in her…

Abandoning everything she knows, Empress seeks out a church-run Safe Haven for Girls and grows to womanhood in vague, regimented security. Even after settling down with a good man and becoming a suburban housewife, her disconnection and discontent remain. When a face from her past resurfaces so does her primal conditioning and she seeks out the formative places of her childhood. Tragedy follows tragedy and when the notorious “babykiller” of her youth escapes justice, her mind begins to spiral…

Whatever you’re assuming happens next, you’re almost certainly wrong…

Raw and disturbing yet thoroughly engaging, this tale within a tale eschews all the traditions of dramatic plot for casual causality: stuff happens, we react, more stuff happens, people die, the world goes on…

And yet beneath it all there’s shaded but potent criticism of how we allow our society to treat individuals, and hard questions asked about what we actually mean by the terms “caring” and “humanity”…

For all its experimental veneer and political subtext, Chance in Hell still has all Hernandez’s signature elements: matter-of-fact sexuality, sharp dialogue and sly surrealism to elevate it above the vast body of such fiction. This is a tale no thinking fan of the comics medium should miss…
© 2007 Gilbert Hernandez. All rights reserved.

Savage Sword of Conan volume 1


By Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-838-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Rare Bird Well Worth Carving Up… 9/10

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self inflicted Comics Code Authority: a publishers’ oversight body created to keep the product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first literary hardy perennials to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from them came the creation of a new comics genre. Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of softcover editions of Lord of the Rings in 1954 and, by the 1960s, revivals of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were making huge inroads into buying patterns across the world.

The old masters had also been augmented by many modern writers. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and others kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage against monsters. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had notionally opened the field in 1964 – and created a cult hit – with Mighty Samson. Then came Clawfang the Barbarian’ in Thrill-O-Rama #2 in 1966. Both steely warriors battled in post-apocalyptic technological wildernesses but in 1969 DC dabbled with previously code-proscribed mysticism in Nightmaster (Showcase #82 -84), following on from the example of CCA-exempt Warren horror anthologies Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.

Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain – and Conan prototype – Arkon in Avengers #76 (April 1970) and the same month went all-out with short supernatural thriller ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in their own watered-down horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Barry Smith (a recent Marvel find who was just breaking out of the company’s still-prevalent Kirby house-style) the tale introduced Starr the Slayer – who also bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian-in-waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and – despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic-strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns they adapted. Conan became a huge hit: a pervasive brand that prompted new prose tales, movies, TV series, cartoon shows, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of global superstardom.

And American comics changed forever.

In May 1971, Marvel moved into Warren’s territory for a second time, after an abortive attempt in 1968 to create an older-readers, non-Comics Code Spectacular Spider-Man monochrome magazine.

Savage Tales offered stories with stronger tone, mature sexual themes, less bowdlerised violence and partial nudity. It was the perfect place to introduce Futuristic Femizon Thundra and the macabre Man-Thing whilst offering more visceral vignettes starring the company’s resident jungle-man Ka-Zar and red-handed slayer Conan…

The anthology had an eventful reception and the second issue didn’t materialise until October 1973 as part of Marvel’s parent company Curtis Distribution. Conan starred in the first five issues before spinning off into his own adult-oriented monochrome magazine which debuted in August 1974. Free of all Code-mandated restrictions, The Savage Sword of Conan became a haven for mature storytelling with top flight artists queuing up to flex their creative muscles.

In 2007, after winning the license to publish Conan comics, Dark Horse began gathering Marvel’s Savage Sword canon in a series of Essentials-style, 500+ page volumes.

This first titanic tome – also available as an eBook – collects pertinent material from Savage Tales #1-5 and Savage Sword of Conan #1-10: collectively covering May 1971 through February 1976; a period when the character was swiftly becoming the darling of the comics world and his chief scribe Roy Thomas was redefining what American comics could say, show and do…

It all starts here with a much-reprinted classic.

‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is a haunting, racy tale written by Howard and originally adapted in line and tone by Barry Smith for Savage Tales #1. It was later coloured and adulterated for the all-ages comicbook (#16) as it detailed how a lusty young Cimmerian chased a naked nymph into the icy winter and found himself prey in a trap set by gods or monsters…

By the time Savage Tales returned after a two-year hiatus, Barry Windsor-Smith had pretty much left comics but agreed to illustrate ‘Red Nails’ if he could do it his way and at his own pace.

The result was an utter revelation, moody, gory, soaked in dark passion and entrancing in its savage beauty. With some all-but invisible art assistance from Pablo Marcos this journey into the brutal depths of obsession and the decline of empires is the perfect example of how to bow out at the top of one’s creative game.

The adaptation began in ST #2 as Conan and pirate queen Valeria survive a trek through scorching deserts to fetch up in a vast walled city. Stealing inside they find immense riches casually ignored as the last members of the tribes of Tecuhlti and Xotalanc pick each off or wait for the monsters infesting the place to take them…

Soon they are embroiled in a simmering, oppressive war of extinction…

The third issue completed the ghastly epic as the slow war between rival branches of a decadent race explodes into a paroxysm of gore and aroused monsters…

Savage Tales #4 (May 1974) held a brace of tales. ‘Night of the Dark God’ was limned by Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Marcos & Vince Colletta from Howard’s tale The Dark Man. It revealed how Conan came hunting the abductors of his childhood first love and found them just as a terrify mystery idol began exerting its own malefic influence on a hall full of already-enraged warriors…

‘Dweller in the Dark’ was Smith’s swan-song and saw the wandering warrior become a plaything for lascivious Queen Fatima of Corinthia. Her lusts were matched only by her jealousy, however, and it wasn’t long before she had turned against Conan and tried to feed him to the monster lurking below the city…

The fifth and final Conan appearance in Savage Tales was ‘Secret of Skull River’: a wry and laconic yarn Thomas adapted from a John Jakes plot, illustrated by Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom. The barbarian sell-sword is hired to remove a wizard whose experiments are polluting a town. The reward Conan claims for his murderous services surprises everybody…

From there it was only a short jump to his own mature-themed starring vehicle, but although Savage Sword starred Conan it was initially a vehicle for numerous barbarian themed yarns – such as a serialised reprinting of Gil Kane’s epic Blackmark – and other Howard properties such as Bran Mac Morn or Red Sonja. Those aren’t included here, but are well worth searching out too…

The SSOC experience opens with the first issue and ‘Curse of the Undead-Man’ by Thomas, John Buscema & Pablo Marcos, adapted from Howard’s short story Mistress of Death. Here Conan encounters old comrade Red Sonja amongst the fleshpots of The Maul in Zamora’s City of Thieves before falling foul of sorcerer Costranno: a mage for whom being chopped to mincemeat is only a minor inconvenience…

Thomas wrote all the SSOC Conan material included here: blending adaptations of Howard’s stories – Conan’s and his other two-fisted fighting men as well – and such successor authors as Lin Carter or L. Sprague de Camp with original tales.

A stunning visual tour de force, ‘Black Colossus’ in #2 was illustrated by Buscema & Alfredo Alcala; detailing how antediluvian priest Natohk returns from death to imperil the kingdom of Princess Yasmela until stalwart general Conan leads her armies to a victory against armed invaders, uncanny occultism and a legion of devils…

SSOC #3 held two tales, beginning with Buscema & Marcos’ ‘At the Mountain of the Moon-God’ with Conan high in Yasmela’s court and attempting to head off the kingdom’s annexation from encroaching neighbours and encountering mountain-dwelling bandits and a demon pterosaur…

The issue concluded with ‘Demons of the Summit’ – an adaptation of People of the Summit by Björn Nyberg & de Camp – turned into comics by Thomas & Tony DeZuniga as an encounter with more high-living brigands brings the Cimmerian into conflict with a dying race of wizards who want his latest curvy companion to mother their next generation…

Issue #4 features Howard’s ‘Iron Shadows on the Moon’ realised by Buscema & Alcala. Having lost a war whilst leading a Kozak horde, Conan flees into the Vilayet Sea with escaped slave Olivia after killing enemy general Shah Amurath.

On an uncharted island they then encounter ancient statues which come to life at the moon’s touch. The bloodthirsty horrors fall upon a band of pirates watering on the island and after leading them to victory against the supernatural fiends Conan manoeuvres himself into the captain’s role and begins a life of freebooting piracy…

Howard’s ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ took up most of Savage Sword of Conan #5. Illustrated by Buscema and The Tribe (DeZuniga; Steve Gan; Rudy Mesina; Freddie Fernandez and others) it saw virtuous Queen Taramis replaced by her demonic twin sister Salome, who debauched and ravaged the kingdom of Kauran whilst her accomplice Constantius has her guard captain Conan crucified. After (almost) saving himself, the Cimmerian recuperates with the desert-raiding Zuagirs, and after ousting their brutal chieftain Olgerd Vladislav returns to save Taramis and revenge himself upon the witch…

The epic is balanced by two shorter tales in the next issue. ‘The Sleeper Beneath the Sands’ is a Thomas original with art by Sonny Trinidad and reveals how Olgerd encounters a caravan of clerics en route to pacify an elder god buried since time immemorial beneath the desert. The rejected bandit-lord senses a chance for revenge but soon regrets allowing the beast to wake and luring Conan into its path…

Howard’s Celtic thriller ‘People of the Dark’ is radically adapted by Thomas and stunningly illustrated by master stylist Alex Niño next as, in modern times, Jim O’Brien plots to kill rival Richard Brent to win the hand of Eleanor.

However, a fall into an ancient cavern transports the would-be killer into antediluvian prehistory where – as Conan – he battles the debased descendents of things which were once men. In that forgotten hell a burden is placed upon him and, once returned to the present, O’Brien faces another monster and pays a millennial debt…

‘The Citadel at the Center of Time’ by Thomas, Buscema & Alcala in #7 finds the Cimmerian leading his desert-raiding Zuagirs and attacking a caravan only to be confronted by a sabretooth tiger.

After despatching the wanton killer, Conan learns from the surviving merchants of a great ziggurat with vast riches and only attendant priests to guard them.

Ever-needful of loot to placate his greedy followers, Conan leads an expedition against the eerie edifice but soon finds himself captured and offered up as a sacrificial tool to time wizard Shamash-Shum-Ukin and battling dinosaurs, beasts and brutes from many ages before finally settling his score with the time-meddler…

SSOC #8 offered a wealth of short sharp shockers beginning with ‘The Forever Phial’, illustrated by Tim Conrad doing his best Windsor-Smith riff. Here immortal wizard Ranephi desires to end his interminable existence and manipulates a certain barbarian into helping him out…

The main part of the issue continues Thomas & Kane’s adaptation of Howard’s King Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, which had begun in Giant-Size Conan but faltered when Marvel ended their oversized specials line.

‘Corsairs Against Stygia’ – inked by Yong Montano – resumes the tale with shanghaied King Conan leading a slave revolt on the ship he’s been abducted upon. Back in Aquilonia a cabal of nobles backed by Stygian wizard Thutothmes have usurped his throne… Having taking control of the ship Conan opts to infiltrates the evil empire to rescue the stolen talisman known as the Heart of Ahriman and end the conflict…

Wrapping up this segment is Lin Carter’s evocative poem ‘Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian’ adapted by Thomas and Jess Jodloman…

Issue #9 offered another new tale by Thomas & Marcos as Conan’s Zuagirs raid another priest-packed caravan and come under the diabolical influence of a small statue with great power. ‘The Curse of the Cat-Goddess’ corrupts, divides and promises many great things: causing the doom of many brothers in arm before the iron-willed Cimmerian ends its seductive threat…

The adaptation of The Hour of the Dragon finally concludes in this hefty tome’s final chapter as SSOC #10 reveals how ‘Conan the Conqueror’ (rendered by Buscema & The Tribe – a loose agglomeration of Marvel’s Filipino art contingent (Tony DeZuniga; Steve Gan; Rudy Mesina; Freddie Fernandez and others)) sneaks into Stygian capitol Khemi to defeat snake-worshipping priests, immortal vampire queen Akivasha and Thutothmes’ inner circle before stealing back the Heart of Ahriman and heading home to occupied Aquilonia to destroy wizard king Xaltotun and his human lackeys and reclaim his stolen throne…

With a painted covers gallery – reproduced only in black-&-white here – by Buscema, Marcos, John Romita, Adams, Boris Vallejo, Mike Kaluta, Niño, Frank Magsino, Frank Brunner and Bob Larkin, plus pin-up/frontispiece art by Marcos, Adams and Esteban Maroto, this weighty collection provides a truly epic experience for all fans of thundering mystic combat and esoteric adventure.

If the clash of arms, roar of monsters, gloating of connivers and destruction of empires sets your pulses racing and blood rushing, this titanic tome is certainly your cup of mead. There are plenty of Thrones in peril, but this all-action extravaganza of sex, slaughter, snow, sand and steel is no Game. Get it and see what real intrigue and barbarism are like…
Savage Sword of Conan® and© 2007 Conan Properties International, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 3: The Birthday of the Infanta


Adapted by P. Craig Russell with Galen Showman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-214-5 (Signed HC)        978-1-56163-775-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Comicbook Gift of the Graphic Magi… 9/10

Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to fame young with a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds.

Although his increasingly fanciful, meticulous classicist style was derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and his visual flourishes of Art Nouveau were greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry, the sheer power and beauty of his illustrative work made him a huge draw.

By the 1980s he had largely retired from the merciless daily grind, preferring to work on his own projects (generally adapting operas and plays into sequential narratives) whilst undertaking the occasional high-profile Special for the majors – such as Dr. Strange Annual 1976 (totally reworked and re-released as Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996) or Batman: Robin 3000.

As our industry grew up and coincided with the global fantasy boom, Russell returned to the comics industry with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in the magazine Epic Illustrated and elsewhere.

Russell’s stage-arts adaptations had begun appearing in 1978: first in the independent Star*Reach specials Night Music and Parsifal and then from 1984 at Eclipse Comics where the revived Night Music became an anthological series showcasing his earlier experimental adaptations; not just operatic dramas but also tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and other favourite literary landmarks.

In 1992, he began adapting the two volumes of Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, deftly balancing tales of pious allegorical wonderment with a wry touch and clear, heartfelt joy in the originating material of a mercurial misunderstood, much-maligned master of devastating, so-quotable epigrams who was briefly the most popular man in London Society…

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems. The others within were The Nightingale and the Rose, The Devoted Friend, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant.

It was followed in 1891 by A House of Pomegranates; Wilde’s second book of stories for children which held The Young King, The Fisherman and his Soul, The Star-Child and our subject today The Birthday of the Infanta, with adaptor Russell utilising all his skills to staggering effect to deliver a masterpiece of sardonic whimsy and casual cruelty.

In the glittering court of the King of Spain, the monarch is celebrating his beautiful daughter’s twelfth birthday. For such an occasion the normally closeted, haughty child is allowed to play with other, lesser youngsters whilst conniving courtiers look on and seek any moment of advantage which might further their own prospects.

There’s little chance of that, however. The King is not the man he was and has languished in growing misery since his beloved wife died soon after delivering the sole heir. So bereft is he at the loss of his flighty French bride’s boundless spirit and joyous joie de vivre that he cannot bear to have her interred. Instead her mummified corpse still occupies the chapel in the grand palace…

Thus the Infanta grew up isolated by her elevated position and swamped with magnificence, drowning in privilege and inundated in all things beautiful, but deprived of companionship. Today she takes full advantage of the youthful playthings around her, revelling in every boisterous dance and all attentions paid by the sons and daughters of the Court. The entertainments are even more thrilling: acrobats, jugglers, jongleurs, dancers, magicians and wild beasts all amaze, but nothing delights the lovely child more than the hideous, malformed dwarf-boy who dances for her, lost in his own simple, insensate world.

The deformed, inadvertent fool is a present from two particularly noxious nobles who had seen him capering innocently in the forests and promptly made off with him. The blithe simpleton knows nothing of this, only that his actions in this immaculate garden of boughs and flowers make the most beautiful creature in the world happy… and that her laughter is music to him…

His idiot caperings concluded, the dwarf is given a perfect white rose by the Infanta before the nobles’ children are escorted away. This casual, indifferent act drives him to even greater paroxysms and in his head a dangerous idea forms…

Later he sneaks into the Palace, finding room after room of breathtaking opulence and dazzling magnificence until he reaches at last the Infanta’s apartments. Curiously peeking in, he spies a coarse, misshapen monster mimicking his every move. Never has he seen such a thing of such utter ugliness…

What follows is one of the saddest, most relentless withering denouements in literature; a thinly-veiled yet ferocious condemnation of the brutal force of vanity and deadly power of surface glamour devastatingly depicted with debilitating detail by Russell and his assistant/letterer Galen Showman.

Bring tissues, and probably a stiff drink. You’ll need them.

A deeply moving, studiously horrific and truly tragic fairytale that shows not all endings are happy or even just, The Birthday of the Infanta displays Wilde’s razor-edged social commentary and scathingly beautiful cynicism to full effect; denying us the requisite happy ending and harbouring a cruel barb to prick and train the conscience…

This unsettling yet unmissable adaptation signalled another high point in Russell’s astounding career: another milestone in the long, slow transition of an American mass market medium into a genuine art form.

Most importantly, this and the other volumes in the series are incredibly lovely and irresistibly readable examples of superb writing (so please read Wilde’s original prose tomes too) and sublime examples of comics at their most potent.
© 1998 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

I Hate Fairyland volume 1: Madly Ever After


By Skottie Young, Jean-Francois Beaulieu & various (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63215-685-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sugar and Spice and Everything Nicely Reimagined… 10/10

We grow up with fairytales all around us. They’re part of the fabric of our lives. Some people generally outgrow them whilst others take them to heart and make them an intrinsic aspect of their lives…

Have you met Skottie Young?

He’s a guy with feet firmly planted in both camps and well able to alternatively embrace the enchantment of imagination and give it a hilariously cynical mean-spirited drubbing at the same time.

Hopefully you’ll have seen his glorious, multi-award winning interpretation of Baum’s Oz books produced by Marvel and his spectacular run on Rocket Raccoon (and Groot): or perhaps just his gut-bustingly funny baby superhero covers…

Maybe you’re aware of his collaboration with Neal Gaiman on Fortunately the Milk.

If not, there’s so much more in store for you after enjoying this particular slice of mirthful mayhem…

I Hate Fairyland is a truly cathartic little gem: a mind-buggering romp of deliciously wicked simplicity and one I heartily recommend as a palate-cleanser for anyone overdosing on cotton candy, wands and glitter…

Once upon a time little Gertrude wished she could visit the wonderful world of magic and joyous laughter and her wish was inexplicably granted. She met happy shiny people, fairies, elves, giants, talking animals and animated trees, rocks, stars, suns and moons and just loved them all.

Resplendent Queen Cloudia made her an Official Guest of Fairyland and invited her to play a game. When she wanted to go back to her own world the six-year-old simply had to find a magic key and open the door to the realm of reality. The fabulous Fairy Queen even gave Gertrude a quaintly talking bug as guide and helpmeet plus a magic map of all the Known Lands…

That was twenty-seven year ago and although Gert’s body has not aged a day her mind certainly has. It’s also gotten pretty pissed-off at the interminable insufferable task and just wants it all to end.

Of course, as an Official Guest of Fairyland Gert can’t die and has taken to expressing her monumental frustration in acts of staggering violence and brutal excess as she continues hunting for that fluffer-hugging key…

With no other choice, Gert and dissolute bug Larrigon Wentsworth III toil ever onward in search of the way home, enduring horrific – but non-fatal – injuries and taking out their spleen (and often other peoples’) on whoever gets in her way.

After all this time, however, Even Queen Cloudia has had enough. Sadly, she can’t do anything about it whilst Gert is an Official Guest of Fairyland: a privilege that cannot be revoked.

Subtle hints of vast rewards to barbarians and assassins and evil witches all prove worthless too. Between the protection spell and Gert’s own propensity for spectacular bloodletting there’s nothing in the incredible kingdoms to stop her.

And then someone has a really amazing idea. Why not invite another sweet little girl to Fairyland and offer her the same deal? When she finds the key, wins the game and goes back, Gert will lose her Official Guest of Fairyland status and they can be rid of her at last…

Of course that all goes swimmingly, just like Cloudia hoped and everybody but Gert lives happily ever after.

No, it really, really doesn’t work out like that…

To Be Continued…

Collecting the first five issues of the Image Comic series (October 2015 to February 2016) by Young, colourist Jean-Francois Beaulieu and letterer Nate Piekos of Blambot®, this sublimely outrageous treat offers hilariously over-the-top cartoon violence and the most imaginative and inspired use of faux-profanity ever seen in comics.

This is an unmissable wakeup call for everybody whose kids want to be little princesses and proves once and for all that sweet little girls (and probably comics artists) are evil to the core if you push them too far…
© 2016 Skottie Young. All rights reserved.