Conan of the Isles (Marvel Graphic Novel #42)

By Roy Thomas & John Buscema, with Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte, Armando Gil and Dave Simons (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-483-9

During the 1970′s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practices that had come about as a reaction to the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: A body created by the publishers to police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-inspired Witch-hunt during the 1950s. One of the first genres to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that came the pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian.

Simultaneously, Sword & Sorcery stories had undergone a global prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and the 1960s saw the resurgence of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary versions of man, monster and mage. Indisputably the grand master of the genre was Robert E. Howard.

Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with a little tale called ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (from the horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4) whose hero Starr the Slayer bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by young Englishman Barry Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was just breaking out of the company’s Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month, the comic-strip adventures of Robert E. Howard’s characters were as big a success as the prose yarns. Conan became a huge success: a mega-brand that saw new prose tales, movies, a TV series and cartoon show, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of success. And it all largely stemmed from the vast range of comics initiated by Thomas, Windsor-Smith (as he became) and the excellent succession of comics creators that followed.

Thomas was a huge fan of the prose material and took great pains to adapt the novels and short stories into the graphic canon. From the latter days when the barbarian was an established Marvel mainstay comes this utterly enchanting adaptation of the hero’s last recorded adventure, written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, first released in 1968.

The Cimmerian’s wanderings had eventually led him to the throne of a vast kingdom, the founding of a dynasty and after twenty years, terminal boredom. He had outlived his comrades and beloved wife Zenobia and chafed under the yoke of responsibility. When seven hundred citizens of Tarantia were terrifyingly consumed by blazing bloody lights King Conan was furious and bewildered until a ghostly vision bade him to hunt down and destroy these marauding Red Shadows.

Secretly abdicating in favour of his son Conn, the aging warrior vanished from Court, returning to the life of a pirate, and as “Amra the Lion” gathered a crew of valiant brigands to covertly hunt down the master of the crimson shades – who have subsequently spread their depredations throughout the known world.

Still formidable and burdened with fearsome responsibilities, Amra and old comrades Sigurd of Vanaheim and Yasunga the Black Corsair rove the scattered islands of the Western Ocean, seeking their hidden foe and battling monsters, rogues and maddening mechanical dooms.

Even though nearly seventy years old Conan drove himself hard and soon the ship of rogues found their hidden foe in the form of the priest-cult of Xotli and their uncanny Black Kraken warriors of lost Atlantis. When the pirates were all captured Conan alone infiltrated the hidden citadel to solve the mystery of the Red Shadows, rescue his crew and save the whole Hyperborean world…

Divided into three chapters, ‘Red Shadows and Black Kraken!’ (inked by Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte & Armando Gil), ‘Dragons from an Unknown Sea!’ and ‘Gods of Light and Darkness!’ (both inked by Dave Simons), I rather suspect this tale was originally intended for the comicbook spin-off King Conan before being bumped into this sleek and glossy oversized format

Once upon a time Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing creator-owned properties, licensed assets like Conan, Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant over-sized packages (a standard 285mm x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked like far more than an average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (a polite way of saying outside the average Marvel Zombie’s comfort zone) the contents might have been.

Fast-paced, action packed and stuffed with the red-handed wonderment beloved by his fans, Conan of the Isles is rip-roaring pulp fare, brimming with supernatural horrors, scantily-clad damsels in distress and spectacular derring-do, cannily recounted by veteran creators at the top of their form. Still readily available this is a classy tale that will delight any fan of the genre and could easily convert a few die-hards too.
© 1982, 1988 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.

Castle Waiting Volume 2

By Linda Medley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-405-4

What exactly happens after “Happy Ever After”?

Castle Waiting is a far too infrequent comicbook answer to that question, produced in lovely bursts of joyful creativity since 1996 by cartoonist and sometime self-publisher Linda Medley, set in a generically plentiful fairytale milieu encompassing everything from talking animals to medieval knights to fairies and giants all leavened with a dry sharp wit and commonsense modern sensibility.

After voyaging peripatetically from self-published to co-published and back in 2006 Medley settled at Fantagraphics who collected all the previous issues (one shot Castle Waiting: the Curse of Brambly Hedge, seven issues under her own Olio Press imprint, four more with Cartoon Books and a further five under her own steam) and began work on a further fifteen issues which comprise this wonderful, colossal, book shaped hardback. Although the series is again on hiatus I’m hopeful that soon there will be more magic to come.

Originally published in black and white at standard US comicbook proportions, Medley’s sturdy, open, woodcut-like art actually benefits from the slight reduction to book format. Her superb backgrounds and location establishing shots are made perfectly ponderous and wonderfully unyielding whilst her incredible facility with expressions is given full range of play and ideal conditions to work in.

As seen in the previous volume, the castle in question is a fantastic and mysterious edifice sitting on the edge of a tempestuous sea-facing cliff. Once it had Lords-and-Ladies and other grand occupants a-plenty, but when the Princess fell into a deep enchanted sleep and giant thorns and bushes enveloped the place it fell into abandoned disuse. It has since been occupied by a motley – and often anthropomorphic – crew and exists as a kind of affable commune-community centre, populated by good, hearty background characters who didn’t cause any fuss or trouble in those famous tales.

Medley’s stories are deft, clever and work because they focus on everyday life at the fringes of the “Big Stuff”, with characters such as old bearded nun Sister Peace; Patience, Prudence and Plenty, three elderly ladies in waiting who have seen it all, the tragically demented surgeon Doctor Fell, seven-foot tall, foundling dwarf blacksmith Henry/Loki, warrior-centaur Chess, assorted kitchen-staff like Mrs. Cully and her giant son Simon – who is not simple – and a host of others, permanent and passing through, all wrangled by stork-headed, self-appointed major domo Rackham. The venturesome “vermin” who inhabit the still-unexplored nooks and crannies are sprites, pixies, poltergeists and demons.

Convivial and conversational the narrative impetus is provided by Lady Jain who first came seeking refuge from an abusive husband. She moved in heavy with child and when he was eventually delivered the kid was not human. Everybody bides their own business here though…

The pace is deliciously slow, filled with situations rather than events that unfold at their own pace so by the opening of this volume Jain and her newborn Pindar are only just moving to better rooms in the Keep. She settles on the old counting house because of the memories it provokes (and as the book progresses we’ll see many secret snippets of her childhood…). As the days go by blacksmith Henry’s dwarf (they prefer the term “Hammerlings”) relatives Tolly and Uncle Dayne come by for a visit. They’re on a mysterious mission but are distracted: Tolly is pretty sure he knows what or who Pindar’s dad was…

The Hammerlings extend their stay to provide some remodeling work for Rackham and open unsuspected areas of the Castle to long-delayed scrutiny, with results both well and ill welcomed, and Jain reveals she has a magic trunk…

The horrifying secret of Doctor Fell is revealed and a preliminary restoration of his faculties, as is Jain’s romantic past and Henry’s connection to the little folk, before the cast are introduced to the unimaginable delights of nine-pin bowling and the volume meanders to a close with the portents indicating something big and nasty is coming…

Saucy, bold, enigmatic, gently funny, reassuringly romantic; brimming with human warmth and just the right edge of hidden danger Castle Waiting is a masterpiece of subtle ironic, perfectly paced storytelling that any kid over ten can and will adore. Moreover, if you’re long in the tooth or have been around the block a time or two, this fantastic place can’t help but look like home…

™ & © 2010 Linda Medley. Compilation © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Young Gods & Friends

By Barry Windsor Smith (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-491-8

In keeping with the dolorous nature of this time of year I’m concentrating on a few missed opportunities in this period between the dubious joys of Christmas and the nervous anticipation of the New Year so here’s a graphic novel that in some way didn’t live up to all it could have been not because of the material itself but because of the kind of world we live in…

Barry Windsor Smith is a consummate creator whose work has moved millions and a principled artist who has always been poorly served by the mainstream publishing houses. Whether with his co-creation of Sword-and Sorcery comics via Conan the Barbarian or his later work-for-hire material for The Thing (Marvel Fanfare #15 – utterly hilarious), Machine Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Weapon X or the tremendously fun Archer & Armstrong/Valiant Comics work with Jim Shooter, his stunning visuals always entranced but never led to anything long-lived or substantial. And always the problem seemed to be a clash of business ethics versus creative freedom…

In 1995 Dark Horse, an outfit specialising in licensed and creator-owned properties, offered him the carte-blanche chance to do it his way in his own tabloid-sized anthology Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller. The magazine carried three features all written and drawn by the artist; The Paradoxman, The Freebooters and Young Gods. Although the work was simply stunning it appeared independent publishers were cut from the same cloth as the mainstream…

It’s not my business to comment on that: I’ve been both freelancer and publisher so I know there are at least two sides to everything (and you can hear Mr. Windsor Smith’s in this superb collection from Fantagraphics) but the series ended acrimoniously in 1997 after nine issues and the stories remained unfinished. This tome, the first of three, collected all the published material of each strip-strand and also includes the chapters still in progress at the time of the split, some new and reformatted material and other extras that fans and lovers of whimsical fiction would be crazy to miss.

But it is still incomplete and that’s a true shame…

Created as a light-hearted and wittily arch tribute to Jack Kirby’s majestic pantheon of cosmic comic deities Young Gods and Friends nominally stars foul-mouthed earthbound goddess Adastra, getting by as a pizza-delivery chick in New York City, but slowly builds and spreads into a mythico-graphic Waiting for Godot as we trace her past, discover warring pantheons that decided arranged weddings were better than Ragnaroks and meet the bold and heroic nuptualists who would do anything to avoid the arrangement: thus becoming delightfully diverted down a dozen different paths as a picture/story oh-so-slowly builds.

As I’ve mentioned the series came to an abrupt halt with the ninth episode, but there was a tenth ready and that is here, as well as material and fragments that would have been finished out the first dozen instalments as well as deleted scenes, fragments, outtakes and reworked snippets.

On a purely artistic level this collection and extrapolation is a sheer delight; with superb art, splendid writing and all sorts of added extras, but the story-consumer in me can’t help but yearn for what might have been and how much has been lost.

Beautiful wry, witty and completely enchanting – and tragically disappointing because of that

™ & © 2003 Barry Windsor Smith. All Rights Reserved.

Dungeon: Monstres volume 3: Heartbreaker

By Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, Carlos Nine & Patrice Killoffer, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-591-7

This slim tome is yet another instalment in the ongoing, eccentric, raucous and addictively wacky franchise that is the best thing to have happened to fantasy storytelling in decades. The Dungeon saga is subdivided into Early Years, Zenith, and Twilight as well as Dungeons Parade and the Monstres of this particular review.

The inhabitants of this weirdly surreal universe include every kind of anthropomorphic beast and bug as well as monsters, demons, smart-alecs and stroppy women-folk. There’s always something happening and it’s usually quite strange…

The nominal star is a duck with a magic sword which forces him to channel dead heroes and monsters, but at the time of the first story Herbert of Craftiwich is yet to become Grand Khan and supreme overlord of a dying, burning world. For increased clarity a quick glance at Dungeon – the Early Years (Volume 2: Innocence Lost to be specific) would be beneficial.

In ‘Heartbreaker’, the lead story in this beautifully exotic compilation, the setting is the debauched, bureaucratised and grimly frenetic urban hellhole of Antipolis wherein serpentine lady-assassin Alexandra reveals her cynically jaded, tragically baroque past in a bizarrely beautiful account of the inescapable corruption at the heart of the city and its Guilds.

Without warning the tale shifts to her betrayal, incarceration and escape from horrendous suffering and her response to a world that could make her the creature she irrevocably is…

Evocatively illustrated by guest artist Carlos Nine the darkly disturbing odyssey is followed by a flamboyantly bright and deceptively garish self-contained undersea saga ‘The Depths’ which looks like the most pleasing kids fantasy ever…

But it most certainly isn’t.

Set decades later when Herbert is the Khan, it focuses on aquatic princess Drowny (who looks like a wide-eyed purple tadpole) as she narrowly escapes death when a gang of assassins mistake her family’s home for their intended target. With her loved ones murdered Drowny hides in plain sight, disguising herself as one of the intruders. Enduring heartbreak and degradation she accidentally rises to a position of power and influence in the invading army which has struck a foul deal with the Khan’s son to conquer the planet and divide the world above and below between them.

Always looking for a way to return to her own people, when her chance comes, Drowny is faced with a crushing revelation…

Superbly realised – the creators have really thought about how characters would act and interact underwater – the lush colour and incredibly imaginative creature designs of Patrice Killoffer add a cartoon fantasy sheen to the proceedings which utterly belies the stark, horrific tale of the depths a decent person will sink to for revenge…

Comprising two translated French albums ‘Creve-Coeur’ and ‘Les Profondeurs’ this is another strikingly surreal, earthy, sharp, mordant, poignant and brilliantly outlandish tome that’s a joy to read with vibrant, wildly eccentric art moody as Sin City and jolly as Rupert Bear.

Definitely for broad-minded grown-ups with young hearts, Dungeon is a near-the-knuckle, over-the-top, illicit experience which addicts at first sight, but for a fuller comprehension – and added enjoyment – I’d advise buying all the various incarnations.
© 2004 Trondheim-Sfar-Nine-Killoffer-Guy Delcourt Productions. English translation © 2010 NBM. All rights reserved.

The Littlest Pirate King

By David B. & Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-403-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for bold kids and timid parents…  8/10

Tim Burton has pretty much cornered the market on outlandish spooky fairytales but if you and your kids have a fondness for scary fables and macabre adventure with a uniquely European flavour you might want to take a peek at this impressive yarn of unquiet buccaneers and phantom piracy.

Pierre Mac Orlan was one of the nom-de-plumes of celebrated French author, musician and performer Pierre Dumarchey who between his birth in 1882 and death in 1970 managed to live quite a number of successful, productive and action-packed lives.  As well as writing straight books, he produced a wealth of artistic materials including children’s tales like this one, hundreds of popular songs and quite a bit of outré pornography.

A renowned Parisian Bohemian, he sang and played accordion in nightclubs and cabaret, was wounded in the trenches in 1916, subsequently becoming a war correspondent, and after the conflict became a celebrated film and photography critic as well as one of the country’s most admired songwriter and novelists.

David B. is a founder member of the groundbreaking strip artists group L’Association, and has won numerous awards including the Alph’ Art for comics excellence including European Cartoonist of the Year in 1998. His seamless blending of artistic Primitivism visual metaphor, high and low cultural icons, as seen in such landmarks as Babel and Epileptic, are augmented here by a welcome touch of morbid whimsy and stark fantasy which imbues this work with a cheery ghoulish intensity only Charles Addams and Ronald  Searle can match.

Mac Orlan’s tale perhaps owes more to song than storybook, with its oddly jumpy narrative structure, but Davis B.’s canny illustration perfectly captures the spirit of grim wit as it recounts the tale of the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman, damned sailors cursed to wander the oceans, never reaching port, destroying any living sailors they encounter and craving nothing but the peace of oblivion.

Their horrendous existence forever changes when, on one of their periodic night raids, they slaughter the crew of a transatlantic liner but save a baby found on board. Their heartless intention is to rear the boy until he is old enough to properly suffer at their skeletal hands, but as the years pass the eagerly anticipated day becomes harder and harder for the remorseless crew to contemplate…

Stark and vivid, scary and heartbreakingly sad as only a children’s tale can be, this darkly swashbuckling romp is a classy act with echoes of Pirates of the Caribbean (which it predates by nearly a century) that will charm, inspire and probably cause a tear or two to well up.

© 2009 Gallimard Jeunesse. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Prince Valiant volume 2: 1939-1940

By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-348-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for everybody who ever dreamed or wondered…  9/10

Rightly reckoned one of the greatest comic strips of all time, this saga of a king-in-exile who became one of the greatest warriors in an age of unparalleled heroes is at once fantastically realistic and beautifully, perfectly abstracted – a meta-fictional paradigm of adventure where anything is possible and justice will always prevail. It is the epic we all aspire to dwell within…

Of one thing let us be perfectly clear: Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is not historical. It is far better than that.

Possibly the most successful and evergreen fantasy creation ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto a world that should have been. It followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in of faraway Thule who rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

Crafted by the incredibly gifted Harold “Hal” Foster, this noble scion would over the years grow to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, roaming the globe and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts. There have been films, cartoon series and all manner of toys, games and collections based the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3750 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the scripter’s role.

In 2004 Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz – who wrote the fascinating forward ‘Yes, He Was a Cartoonist’ which opens this second stupendous chronological collection.

This exquisite hardback volume, reprints in glorious colour – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the perfectly restored Sunday pages from January 1st 1939 to 29th December 1940, following the extremely capable squire of Sir Gawain as he rushes to warn Camelot of an impending invasion by rapacious Saxons via the vast Anglian Fens where the Royal Family of Thule have hidden since being ousted from their Nordic Island Kingdom by the villainous usurper Sligon.

After a breathtaking battle which sees the Saxons repulsed and the battle-loving boy-warrior knighted upon the field of victory, Valiant begins a period of globe-trotting through the fabled lands of Europe just as the last remnants of the Roman Empire is dying in deceit and intrigue.

Firstly Val journeys to Thule and returns his father to the throne, narrowly escaping the alluring wiles of a conniving beauty with an eye to marrying the Heir Apparent, then bored with peace and plenty the roving royal wildcat encounters a time-twisting pair of mystical perils who show him the eventual fate of all mortals. Sobered but not daunted he then makes his way towards Rome, where he will become unwittingly embroiled in the manic machinations of the Last Emperor, Valentinian.

Before that however he is distracted by an epic adventure that would have struck stunning resonances for the readership at the time. With episode #118 (14th May 1939) Val joined the doomed knights of mountain fortress Andelkrag, who alone and unaided held back the assembled might of the terrifying hordes of Attila the Hun which had decimated the civilisations of Europe and now gathered to wipe out its last vestige.

With Hitler and Mussolini hogging the headlines and Modern European war seemingly inevitable Val joined the Battle of Decency and Right against untrammelled Barbarism. His epic struggle and sole survival comprise one of the greatest episodes of glorious, doom-fated chivalry in literature…

After the fall of the towers of Andelkrag, Valiant made his way onward to the diminshed Rome, picking up a wily sidekick in the form of cutpurse vagabond Slith. Once more he was distracted however, as the Huns delayed. The indomitable lad resolved to pay them back in kind, and gathered dispossessed victims of Hunnish depredations, forging them into a resistance army of guerrilla-fighters – the Hun-Hunters…

Thereafter he liberated the vassal city of Pandaris, driving back the invaders and their collaborator allies in one spectacular coup after another.

Valiant reunited with equally action-starved Round Table companions Sir Tristram and Sir Gawain to make fools of the Hun, who had lost heart after the death of their charismatic leader Attila (nothing to do with Val, just a historical fact). When Slith fell for a beauteous warrior princess, the English Knights left him to a life of joyous domesticity and moved ever on.

An unexpected encounter with a giant and his unconventional army of freaks led to the heroes inadvertently helping a band of marshland refugees from Hunnish atrocity found the nation-state of Venice before at long last after a after a side-trip to the fabulous city of Ravenna the trio crossed the fabled Rubicon and plunged into a hotbed of political tumult.

Unjustly implicated in a web of murder and double-dealing, the knights barely escaped with their lives and split up to avoid pursuit. Tristan returned to England and a star-crossed rendezvous with the comely Isolde, Gawain took ship for fun in Massilia and Valiant, after an excursion to the rim of fiery Vesuvius, boarded a pirate scow for Sicily and further adventure.

To Be Continued…

This series is a non-stop rollercoaster of action and romance, blending realistic fantasy with sardonic wit and broad humour with unbelievably stirring violence, all rendered in an incomprehensibly lovely panorama of glowing art. Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring Prince Valiant is a World Classic of storytelling, and this magnificent deluxe is something no fan can afford to be without.

If you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip this astounding and enchanting premium collection is the best way possible to start and will be your gateway to a life-changing world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2009 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Turok Son of Stone volume 1

By Gaylord DuBois & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-238-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for the wide-eyed kid in us all  8/10

By never signing up to the draconian overreaction of the bowdlerizing Comics Code Authority, in the late 1950s Dell became the company for life and death thrills, especially in the arena of traditional adventure stories. If you were a kid in search of a proper body count instead of flesh wounds you went for Tarzan, Roy Rogers, Tom Corbett and their ilk. That’s not to claim that the West Coast outfit were gory, exploitative sensationalists – far from it – but simply that the writers and editors knew that fiction – especially kid’s fiction – needs a frisson of danger to make it work.

That was never more aptly displayed than in the long-running cross-genre saga of two Native Americans trapped in a world of saber-tooth tigers, cavemen and dinosaurs…

Printing giant Whitman Publishing had been producing their own books and comics for decades through their Dell and Gold Key imprints, rivaling and often surpassing DC and Timely/Marvel at the height of their powers. Famously they never capitulated to the wave of anti-comics hysteria which resulted in the crippling self-censorship of the 1950s and Dell Comics never displayed a Comics Code Authority symbol on their covers.

They never needed to: their canny blend of media and entertainment licensed titles were always produced with a family market in mind and the creative staff took their editorial stance from the mores of the filmic Hayes Code and the burgeoning television industry.

Like the big and little screen they enticed but never shocked and kept contentious social issues implicit instead of tacit. It was a case of “violence and murder are fine but never titillate.”

Moreover, most of their adventure comics covers were high quality photos or paintings – adding a stunning degree of authenticity and realism to even the most outlandish of concepts for us wide-eyed waifs in need of awesome entertainment.

Dell hit the thrill jackpot in 1954 when they combined a flavour of westerns with monster lizards: after all what 1950s kid could resist Red Indians and Dinosaurs?

Debuting in Four-Color Comics #596 (October/November 1954) Turok, Son of Stone told of two Native Americans hunting in the wilderness North of the Rio Grande when they became lost in a huge cave-system and emerged into a lost valley of wild men and antediluvian beasts. They would spend the next twenty-six years (a total of 125 issues) wandering there, having adventures kids of all ages would happily die for.

Despite solid claims from historian Matthew H. Murphy and comics legend Paul S. Newman (who definitely scripted the series from #9 onwards) Son of Stone was almost certainly created and first written by Dell’s editorial supremo Gaylord DuBois and this magnificent hardcover collection gathers both Four Color tryouts (the second originally appearing in #656, October/November 1955) and issues #3-6 of his own title.

Dell had one of the most convoluted numbering systems in comics collecting and successive appearances in the tryout title usually – but not always – corresponded to the eventual first issue of a solo series. Therefore FC #596 = Turok #1, FC #646 was #2 and the series proper began with #3. It isn’t always that simple though: after 30-odd Donald Duck Four Colors, Donald Duck proper launched his own adventures with #26!

Go figure… but just not now…

Set sometime in the days before Columbus discovered America Turok is a full brave mentoring a lad named Andar (although the original concept called for two teens, with the mature warrior originally a boy called Young Hawk) and in ‘The World Below’ illustrated by Rex Maxon, the pair become lost while exploring Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico (DuBois was a frequent visitor of that fabulous subterranean site) and after days emerged into a vast, enclosed valley where they are menaced by huge creatures they never dreamed could exist.

In ‘The Terrible Ones’ they encounter beast-like cavemen and discover a way to make their puny arrows potent against the colossal cats, wolves and lizards that make human life spans so brief in this lost world. In return they teach the ape-men the miracle of archery…

One year later Four Color #656 opened with the morning after in ‘The Mystery of the Mountain’ as caveman Lanok helped Turok and Andar solve a grisly disappearance before the Braves became lost once more in the great caverns. Eventually emerging at a far distant point of the lush valley they were befriended by another tribe; one composed only of women and children. The pair helped the primitives recover their men-folk in ‘The Missing Hunters’ and came tantalizingly close to escaping the sunken world forever before their hopes were cruelly dashed…

The format was set and successful. With Turok, Son of Stone #3 (March-May 1956) the pair began decades of incessant wandering seeking escape from the valley, encountering a fantastic array of monsters and lost tribes to help or fight, illustrated by a team of artist which included Ray Bailey, Bob Correa, Jack Abel & Vince Alascia. ‘The Exiled Cave Men’ saw them find their way back to Lanok, whose tribe had since been driven from their home by a gigantic tyrannosaur. As well as helping them find a new digs Andar and Turok gave them a further short and profitable lesson in modern weaponry.

Of course the natives didn’t call it a tyrannosaur. The absolute best thing about this glorious series is the imaginative names for the monsters. Cavemen might have called T. Rexes “Runners”, Allosaurs “Hoppers” and Pterosaurs “Flyers” whilst generally referring to giant lizards as “Honkers” but us kids knew all the proper names for these scaly terrors and felt pretty darn smug about it…

Relocated to an island in a great lake Lanok’s tribe marveled at the coracles and canoes Turok built to explore its tributaries. ‘Strange Waters’ followed the homesick braves’ to another section of the valley with even stranger creatures.

Issue #4 opened with ‘The Bridge to Freedom’ finding Turok and Andar escaping the valley, only to turn back and help Lanok, whilst ‘The Smilodon’ pitted the reunited trio against the mightiest hunter of all time when a saber-tooth tiger took an unrelentingly obsessive interest in how they might taste…

‘The River of Fire’ opened #5 as geological turbulence disrupted the valley, causing beasts to rampage and forcing Lanok’s people to flee from volcanic doom, whilst ‘The Secret Place’ saw Turok and Andar suffer from the jealous rage of the tribe’s slighted shaman. Of course the witch-doctor turned out to be his own worst enemy…

Issue #6 (December 1956-February 1957) opened with an inevitable but delightful confrontation as the wanderers faced ‘The Giant Ape’; a Kong-like romp with a bittersweet sting and Turok’s initial collected outing ends with ‘The Stick Thrower’ wherein a monkey-like newcomer introduced the Braves to the magic of boomerangs and the pernicious willfulness of mastodons…

But that’s not all! For sundry commercial reasons comicbooks were compelled to include at least three features per issue at this period so this selection concludes with a text vignette ‘Aknet Becomes a Man’ and, just to be safe, ‘Lotor’ a natural history comic strip starring a wily raccoon looking to feed his brood, despite the best efforts of giant Bullfrogs and hungry Allosaurs…

With a rapturous introduction from artistic superstar and dino-buff William Stout, plus the assorted fact-features that graced the original issues (‘The Dinosauria’, ‘The Ichthyosaurs’, ‘The Smilodon’, ‘The Mastodon’, ‘Turok’s Lost Valley’ and ‘Prehistoric Men’) this is a splendid all-ages adventure treat that will enrapture and enthrall everybody who ever wanted to walk with dinosaurs… and Mammoths and Moas and…

™ & © 2009 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media, Inc., an Entertainment Rights Company. All rights reserved.

Fables volume 8: Wolves

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & others (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-388-6

Fables is one of those blessed delights that makes a reviewers job almost impossible. Series of matchless quality that still improve with each volume are rare and most welcome but you soon run out of superlatives to express your enthusiasm, so unless the reviewer wants to cross the border into Spoiler Territory (giving away a plot to a potential fan ought to be a Capital Offence) you really have nothing to offer: therefore I’m repeating my standard short review: Best One Yet – Get Them All.

Still and all you might want a little more, so…

The monthly comicbook Fables details the exploits of fairytale and storybook characters that we humans regard as fictional, living secret immortal lives among us, refugees from a monstrous all-consuming Adversary who had conquered their original otherworldly homelands.

Allow me to elucidate. Keeping their true nature hidden from humanity the Fables have created enclaves where their magic and sheer strangeness (all the talking animals are sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York, for example) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters do wander the human world, but always under strict injunction not to draw attention. These magical, perfect, cynical yet perversely human creatures dream of one day returning to their own homes and interrupted lives.

They used to live with the constant threat that their all-consuming foe would one day find them…

However their nemesis has been revealed as the puppeteer Geppetto, who used his ability to carve living, sentient beings out of wood to build all-powerful armies, soon supplemented with goblins, monsters and collaborators who joined rather than die when his unstoppable marionette forces came marching in. ruling in anonymity from behind his greatest creation the Emperor. Geppetto has almost conquered all of Reality, but now with his secret revealed the indomitable refugees of Fabletown are planning to retaliate…

Collecting issues # 48-51 of the monthly comic this volume brings everybody up to speed with the handy ‘Who’s Who in Fabletown’ featurette before the eponymous two-parter ‘Wolves’ (illustrated by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha & Andrew Pepoy) finds the eternally young Mowgli prowling the Arctic hinterlands attempting to track down absent friend – and experienced warrior – Bigby; shape-changing Big Bad Wolf and son of the storm god known alternately as Mr. North and the Great North Wind.

When the mortals of Siberia prove useless the Jungle Boy turns to the wolves and soon discovers what he needs. Meanwhile back in America on the farm Bigby’s cubs are growing increasingly hard to handle…

Of course Mowgli is eventually successful and Bigby returns to Fabletown, although not without some pretty conniving convincing, just in time for the celebratory 50th issue extravaganza which opens with ‘Secret Agent Man’ as Bigby undertakes an covert mission deep into the Adversary’s territory, reviews the Fables indescribably unique war-resources in ‘Castles in the Sky’ before dropping ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ to set up a spectacular confrontation and coup.

Breathtaking in its audacity ‘The Israel Analogy’ establishes a new relationship between Geppetto and the refugee Fables before Bigby returns to Earth in ‘Home is the Hunter’ for a different kind of confrontation and unexpected revelation with Snow White (long-abandoned mother of his cubs) in ‘Restoration’ leading to a reconciliation in ‘The Big Valley’ and ending, as proper stories should, in ‘The Wedding’. There’s even a pithy little epilogue ‘Mr. and Mrs. Wolf’ for all us helpless romantics…

Shawn McManus then illustrates ‘Big and Small’ wherein special emissary Cinderella goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain allies amongst both giants and mouse governments, which ends the narrative portion of this splendid tome but there are still treats in store beginning with assorted ‘Maps of the Fable Territories’ and ending with the complete script to Fables #50, illustrated by cover illustrator James Jean.

There is nothing around today that can touch this series for imagination, style and quality, and you’ll never know the real meaning of “happy ever after” until you turn on to this magnificent saga.

© 2006 Bill Willingham and DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere

Adapted by Mike Carey & Glenn Fabry (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-353-X

Just as he was reaching the narrative heights with his comics works Neil Gaiman wrote a six part television series for the BBC which met with mixed responses from the not-necessarily overlapping audiences of print and TV. Neverwhere had plenty of literary antecedents but its contemporary setting and post-punk attitude clearly caused a few confusions, whilst the legendary BBC budget “make-do-and-mend” policy and financial restrictions left the show looking far less impressive than the writing and acting warranted (a superficial viewer prejudice which still deprives far too many potential fans from taking the pre-1989 Dr. Who series as seriously as they should…)

Concocted by Gaiman and comedian Lenny Henry – long-time comics fan – the show was broadcast on BBC 2 in 1996 and was soon forgotten, but they eventually returned to the concept and it was adapted, restored and expanded as a novel which became a substantial hit (most recently re-published in 2006 in an “Author’s Preferred Text” edition). The core concepts have also been referenced in some of Gaiman’s subsequent fiction.

In 2005 the story was adapted to comics form by Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry as a 9-part miniseries from Vertigo and this compilation graphic novel seems to be the ultimate and most comfortable arena for this engaging urban quest into the dark and hidden side of cities and civilisation.

Abridged and distilled rather than adapted from the novel, Neverwhere recounts the journey and fate of harassed would-be yuppie Richard Mayhew who, against his fiancée’s wishes, stops to help a young homeless girl they find collapsed on the streets of London.

The frail, Goth-like waif calls herself Door and reveals that she is running for her life. Unfortunately that life is a mystical, metaphysical, subterranean analogue of reality notionally located under the sewers beneath our feet. Populated by the lost and forgotten, indigents, outcasts and creatures of legend and fevered fantasy this world is both seductive and dangerous. Moreover, once on those hidden paths mere mortals almost never return…

Door is the last of House Portico, a dynasty once powerful in “London Below” but all dead now. Her family’s relentless enemies have followed her to the world above and when Mayhew is threatened by thugs-for-hire Messrs Croup and Vandemar, pressing him for her location, he inadvertently crosses over, becoming forgotten and eventually invisible to his old friends and acquaintances.

As Door assembles allies to combat the plot against her, Mayhew is dragged along; a well-meaning innocent determined to win back his old life by completing a quest to cross Night’s Bridge, defeat Croup, Valdemar and their hidden master, overcome the fearsome Beast of London and win the support of the supreme power of this underworld: the Angel called Islington.

The path is long and hard however and Mayhew isn’t sure if he and the orphan Door can trust such unique, uncompromising companions as the derelict Iliaster, the Marquis de Carabas, Lord Rat-Speaker, Old Bailey and Hunter. Most importantly, should he win his heart’s desire, is Mayhew even aware of what it might truly be…?

Clever and engaging this dark romance is packed with tension, drama and the lure of the arcane and exotic, skilfully wrangled by Carey and Fabry into a pretty, enthralling package. This is a solid comics treat for full-on fans and tantalised dabblers alike.

© 2005, 2006 Neil Gaiman. All Rights Reserved.

The Sanctuary

By Nate Neal (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-388-0

There’s a wonderful abundance of impressive and talented cartoonists crafting superbly thought-provoking comics these days. Moreover they are all blessed with perfect timing, by which I mean they’re more or less able to support themselves thanks to modern technology and markets where, in the past, the imaginative likes of Kirby, Ditko and even R. Crumb had to filter themselves through a system of editors, publishers and distributors to get their work published.

In this new arena ideas can take you anywhere and religious ideologues, self-righteous pressure groups and blinkered editors have only negligible effect: indeed, their assorted squeals of outrage or timid support for fresh thoughts can actually help get contentious graphic material to the audiences it was actually intended for.

Not that Nate Neal’s first graphic novel is particularly contentious or outrageous. Even though there is nudity, fornication, wanton violence and gleeful irreverence, what mostly comes through in The Sanctuary is the sheer hard-work and intelligent philosophical questioning in this primordial tale of a band of cave-dwellers living and dying at the birth of our greatest inventions… language and art.

Neal is Michigan born and Brooklyn dwelling and was one of the creative crew that launched the splendid indy comics anthology Hoax (alongside Eleanor Davis, Dash Shaw & Hans Rickheit) and has produced a string of impressive colour and monochrome pieces such as ‘Delia’s Love’, ‘Mindforkin’’ and ‘Fruition’ in Fantagraphics’ stunning arts periodical Mome. His high-profile commercial gigs include ‘Truckhead’ for Nickelodeon Magazine and Mad’s perennial favourite Spy Vs. Spy (originally created by Antonio Prohias and since covered by such diverse lights as Dave Manak and Peter Kuper).

Like kitsch movie masterpieces When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and 1,000,000 Years B.C. this primeval parable is produced with a unique and supremely limited intrinsic language (which, if you pay attention, you will decipher) and which serves to focus the reader on the meat of the tale: how art and graphic narrative became a fundamental aspect of human cognition.

Don’t be put off by my jokey references to classic bubblegum cinema; The Sanctuary has far more in common with the antediluvian aspects of Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire than with any “big lizard meets busty cave-babe” flick (although if you’re a fan of Quest for Fire, that film’s gritty, grey and darkly sardonic ethos does eerily resonate here…)

Largely silent and broadly pantomimic, the snapshot episodes in this bleak black and white generational sage describe a small clan – or more properly “pack” – of brutal hominids eking out a squalid and desperate existence about thirty-two thousand years ago. The tribal equilibrium is altered when a young female is traded to them offering the lowest male in the pack a crumb of comfort. Until then he was practically outcast having to steal food from the alpha males and females, who have been and continue to struggle for control of the group.

This omega-male has a gift and a passion. He commemorates the tribe’s hunts through art, but when the girl arrives he discovers a new use and purpose for his abilities. However, life is hard and hunger and danger go hand in hand. The cold war between young and old, fit and maimed, male and female is inevitably coming to a head…

This is a powerful tale about creativity, morality, verity and above all, responsibility which demands that the reader work for his reward. As an exploration of imagination it is subtly enticing, but as an examination of Mankind’s unchanging primal nature The Sanctuary is pitilessly honest. Abstract, symbolic, metaphorical yet gloriously approachable, this devastatingly clever saga is a “must-see” for any serious fan of comics and every student of the human condition.

© 2010 Nate Neal. All rights reserved.