Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird

By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-917-3

Cartoonists have more than their fair share of individuals with a unique perspective on the world. Elzie Segar, Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Steve Bell, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Norman Dog, Gary Larson – the list is potentially endless. Perhaps it’s their power to create entire sculptured worlds coupled with the constant promise of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw.

Born Scott Richardson, Tony Millionaire clearly loves to draw and does it very, very well; seamlessly referencing classical art, the best of children’s books and an eclectic blend of pioneer draughtsmen like, George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray as well as the aforementioned Segar and Herriman with European engravings from the “legitimate” side of the ink-slinging biz. He especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as formative influences.

As well as assorted children’s books and the fabulous Sock Monkey, Millionaire produces a powerfully bizarre weekly strip entitled Maakies which delineates the absurdly rude and surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his alcoholic nautical comrade Drinky Crow (see Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury for further details).

In 2007 he produced the acclaimed and award-winning Billy Hazelnuts, the salutary tale of a Golem built from garbage by oppressed, vengeful rats and mice. Originally a ghastly, fly-bedecked monstrosity Billy was rescued and redeemed by little girl scientist Becky who gave him Hazelnut eyes and a fresh-baked confectionary body, and they went through a series of uniquely fantastic adventures.

Now he’s back in another strident, striking, fantastical folktale voyage. Irascible, good-hearted, fiery-tempered and super-strong, Billy is adapting to life on Rimperton Farm but has a few philosophical problems with the natural world: notably everything in it is icky, oozy and wants to eat everything else in it.

After a titanic tussle with the farm cat and an owl, Billy reluctantly takes responsibility for a newly hatched owl chick – an ugly, vicious, violent baby brute that keeps consuming whole chunks of his baked body…

After consulting the confectionary conjuror and all-around wise man Rupert Punch, Billy resolves to return the chick to its lost mother, undertaking a hazardous and utterly surreal journey through Millionaire’s incredible signature land-, sea- and sky-scapes, with the malevolent and opportunistic farm cat “assisting”, but he’s got to hurry: the ungrateful baby bird has already eaten the back of his head and an entire arm…

Rendered in Millionaire’s captivating black and white line, this darkly frantic race against time is a charmingly belligerent fantasy yarn with the requisite happy ending that will appeal to kids on any age, full of action, wonder, imagination and good intent, clearly promising that the author will soon be the worthiest contemporary successor to Baum, Sendak, the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll.

Brilliant, scary, poignant and lovely, make Billy Hazelnuts a part of your leisure-life now.

© 2010 Tony Millionaire. All Rights Reserved.

Wolfpack – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Larry Hama, Ron Wilson, Whilce Portacio, Kyle Baker & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-306-7

It’s been a long while since Marvel published an all-original graphic novel as opposed to a reprint collection, but not too long ago they were the market leader in the field with an entire range of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only proprietary characters but also licensed assets like Conan and even creator-owned properties.

They also took chances on unusual and cross-genre tales such as this little oddity which falls squarely into the category of a successful “bold departure” which subsequently spawned its own twelve issue series.

Wolfpack (not to be confused with the later maverick band of costumed heroes that appeared in the Marvel crossover event House of M) is an intriguing meld of savage inner-city reportage and high fantasy Ninja conspiracy thriller set in the utterly alien streets of the South Bronx. It takes a two thousand year old, multi-generational battle between ultimate Good and Evil and sets its latest skirmish in a terrifying ghetto where hope and honour refuse to die. It would make a great Teen TV show today…

‘Rafael’ is a loner in trouble. The corridors of Horace Harding High School are every bit as dangerous as the mean streets outside, but the cocky young outsider has a secret. He’s been training with the school caretaker…

What Rafael Vega doesn’t know is that Mr. Mack is a man with a past and a plan. As a black sailor in post-war Japan he experienced intolerance and repression from his own (white) shipmates, but found acceptance from certain Japanese ancients who saw in him a chance to continue a battle that had already spanned two millennia.

The ancients trained him in all their fighting arts, requiring him to form a new “Pack” and confront an everlasting circle of wealth, power and wicked excess called “The Nine”: an ever-changing cycle of decadents who represented the forces of Evil in some indefinable Cosmic Balance.

Mack returned to New York and began his task, knowing this opposing force would find him wherever he went. Ghastly and blighted as it was, the South Bronx would have been far worse if not for the decades-long, beneficent watch of a silent guardian – but that‘s all about to change…

Unknown to even his pupils, Mr. Mack had been clandestinely training kids in various fighting and philosophical arts for years, so when up-and-coming schoolboy gangster Lamarr targeted Raphael for death, Mack realised that it was time at last to introduce his young wolves to each other.

Now in ‘The Crucible’ Rafael discovers that some of his oldest associates were also singled out for a higher purpose by Mack and as he reassesses his new pack-mates, “Slag” Slagley, “Slippery Sam” Weltschmerz, wheelchair-bound “Wheels” Wolinski and even his own girlfriend Sharon, events turn ugly with startling rapidity. The new warriors organise none too soon as Lamarr graduates to attempted murder by destroying the store owned by Slippery Sam’s dad.

The Nine now make their move, recruiting Lamarr to their inner circle, but the wicked, Old-World Machiavellians have no idea how modern inner-city depravation can shape the nature of evil. As the death-toll mounts and the Pack strike back, events speed to a violent conclusion in ‘Transfiguration’ and The Nine realise that they might have made a terrible mistake with Lamarr…

Harsh and uncompromising, this introductory tale (I can’t shake the feeling this was originally scheduled as a three-part story-arc and “bumped” into a more high-profile graphic novel at the last moment) effortlessly compels with a dark mix of telling social drama, dark wit and superlative action-adventure that is far more hard-hitting than most comicbook tales even today.

The workmanlike Ron Wilson is probably nobody’s favourite artist, but he is a solid dependable illustrator with a good line in brooding brutes and inner city landscapes. Here, inked and augmented by such diverse budding stylists as Whilce Portacio and Kyle Baker his art takes on a moody realism that complements both the harsh environs of the plot and mystical martial arts elements with striking effect. The letters are provided by Joe Rosen and the somewhat hit-or miss colouring is by Petra Scotese, Max Scheele and Glynis Oliver.

Ugly, uncompromising, breathtakingly hard, this is the kind of book to show anybody who thinks that comics are all about men-in-tights and written for powerless sissy-boys…
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment Group. All Rights Reserved.

Dungeon Twilight volume 3: The New Centurions

By Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim, Kerascoet & Obion, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-578-8

This slim tome is yet another instalment of the eccentric, raucous, addictively wacky and frankly stupendous franchise that is far better experienced than read about. Dungeon: Twilight joins Dungeons Parade, Zenith and Monstres as a wholly defined sub-series of a truly vast epic which follows the history of a fantastic magic castle on the magical, anthropomorphically stable world of Terra Amata…

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

The nominal star was originally a duck with a magic sword which forced him to channel dead heroes and monsters, but by this stage Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the rank of Grand Khan – though he’s still not quite sure how – the doddering old guy in charge when the entire world of Terra Amata exploded. Now secondary stars have risen to prominence, off-beat heroes such as the nomadic crimson warrior Marvin the Red – an unsavoury bunny in super-powered armour – and Herbert’s revolting children: the sexually voracious acting ruler Duchess Zakutu and her treacherous, spiteful brother Papsukal.

This volume starts as the world’s various exotic survivors eke out a perilous existence on isolated islands chaotically afloat hundreds of metres above a global sea of molten lava…

Comprising two translated albums it all kicks off with ‘The New Centurions’ illustrated by the delightfully adroit Kerascoet, in which Marvin begins to chafe under the Machiavellian intrigues and back-biting that dominate life in the ruined court of the Khan. Tasked with training assorted soldiery who won’t take a rabbit-warrior seriously yet keenly aware that the vultures are circling Marvin knows that when the take-over attempt begins they won’t be ready…

Inevitably that day comes and the usurpers are victorious, but Herbert survives to regroup: however Marvin and his mentor the Dust King are fed up with the whole interminable push-and-shove of politics and quit. Sneaking away they go looking for some uncomplicated adventuring among the floating Islands in the sky…

In ‘Revolutions’, with art by Obion, the pair are soon stranded on a giant chunk of land that is slowly rotating in a downward manner. With their bat-steed dead and Marvin’s armour lost to carnivorous grass the wanderers are forced to continually climb upwards just to stay in place. The alternative is a rapid and terminal plunge to the surging lava-seas below…

Eventually they come across a group of bears and other creatures who are pulling a gigantic villa and garden, keeping it one step ahead of the rotation doom. Why do the bedraggled and exhausted volunteers pull so determinedly? Is it for the eight hours of rest and sustenance in the paradisiacal gardens they are granted every third shift? Is it the favours of the willing women of the little Lord Takmool’s family? Or is the diminutive aristocrat simply the slyest snake-oil salesman and most duplicitous capitalist conman in the universe?

The Dust King is not so easily fooled but even he eventually joins the eager Marvin on the team – it is, after all, the only game in town. However this Garden of Eden supplies its own temptations and serpents and the darkly satiric allegory looks set to come to a bloody end until catastrophe strikes the entire island and a whole new world comes into being in the spectacular aftermath…

Surreal, earthy, sharp, poignant, hilarious and brilliantly outlandish, this fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read and the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of exuberant, graphic style. Definitely not for the young reader, Dungeon is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit and just plain smart read that older kids and adults of all ages will adore, but for a fuller comprehension – and even more insane fun – I strongly recommend buying all the attendant incarnations too.

© 2006, 2009 Delcourt Productions-Tronfheim-Sfar-Kerascoet-Obion. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

The Legendary Couple Book 1

By Louis Cha, Tony Wong & various, translated by Stuart Young (ComicsOne)
ISBN: 978-1-58899-191-1

If you’ve never experienced the unique manner in which Hong Kong comics are told and count yourself more of an art-buff than story junkie then the non-stop action and blistering, bewildering pace of these lush and lavish martial arts mystic mysteries could be a way to renew jaded appetites.

Whether original yarns, adaptations of legends and myths or novels such as celebrated Chinese writer Louis Cha’s book Return of the Condor Heroes which forms the basis of this staggering generational saga of love and vengeance, all stories for this market involve dastardly plots, glorious heroes and increasingly puissant combat philosophers and savants of spiritual mayhem battling interminably and usually with no discernible victors or victims.

Crafted in a variety of artistic styles including pen-and-ink, crayon, painted art, even photography, this is an exotic and frenetic comicbook about fighting, heavily influenced by the mystical component of Kung Fu. If you prefer a semblance of realism in your fiction this rollercoaster romp is not for you. This is Fighting Fantasy.

Superhero fans might be amazed at the variety of powers a lifetime of knuckle push-ups and bowing can produce, but these tales are wedded to the concept of training and will creating miracles. They are, however, irresistibly exuberant, beautifully illustrated and endlessly compelling. If you’re an open-minded fan, you may find yourself carried away on this relentless tide of non-stop action and shallow characterisation (at least to Western eyes – for the target market the pictures are everything: how a participant looks is his/her interior and exterior).

I’ve said it before and it’s still true. Hong Kong comics are beautiful. They’re produced using an intensive studio art-system that means any individual page might be composed of numerous graphic styles and techniques: literally anything that will get the job done.

And that job is to enhance not so much nuances of plot but rather details of the mysticism/philosophy of Kung Fu that my western sensibilities just aren’t attuned to. They are astounding to look at, but I don’t expect them to make much sense.

In this first of six volumes we are introduced to an army of warriors and fighting masters; living pin-ups spouting impressive genealogies, greatest hits and their duelling preferences and specialisations before getting down to the spectacular business of determining just whose Kung Fu and what secret techniques is the mightiest.

The slim narrative thread is provided by the tragic tale of Yang Guo; separated from his beloved Xiao Longnu for 16 years during the Song Dynasty of old China, and who spent the intervening time overcoming harsh odds and perfecting his abilities. Now with reunion in sight both lovers wonder if their passion has survived the years…

None of which is particularly germane here as almost the entire volume is a prequel, which introduces the myriad forces and players, brought together by the bloody vengeance spree of Chuo Lee, driven to madness when the noble Yuan Lu spurned her attentions, preferring the genteel Guan Ho instead. Chuo Lee, bloody rampage of murder and destruction earned her the name Fairy Qilan – the Red Snake Fairy.

Her depredations draw a number of disparate individuals fated to clash and love and die…

Because that’s fundamentally what this genre is about: glorious, lavish, mind-blowing exhibitions of Kung Fu excellence. Like much of the region’s classic cinema, all other considerations are suborned to the task of getting the fighting started and to keeping it going. If you’re looking for intense personal investiture, sharp dialogue or closure, look elsewhere. If, however, you want Good Guys thumping Bad Guys in extended, eye-popping ways, you might want to give this a go. Be warned though, it is by nature and design, a never-ending battle…

© 2002 JD Global IP Rights Limited. All rights reserved.

Amulet Book 1: The Stonekeeper

By Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic)
ISBN: 978-0-439-84681-3

Picture books and illustrated stories for children have been a staple of the publishing game since the Victorians, so the modern trend towards actual graphic narratives was an inevitable but nonetheless welcome accomplishment. However the wholesome and comfortable adventures of Babar, Tim All Alone, Captain Pugwash and their like have new rivals these days, thanks mostly to the cultural invasion of Japanese anime to our TV screens and a long-overdue Western acceptance of manga-style storytelling.

For example this delightful little strip saga, cut fully from the same cloth as The Spiderwick Chronicles and spookily touching base with darkest Narnia and the best of Alan Garner, joins a growing library of trans-Atlantic, pan-Pacific fantasy thrillers for younger readers, albeit with lush, glossy colours to lure in European consumers still uncomfortable with the linear purity and monochrome aesthetic of traditional Eastern comics.

Amulet is the first in a sequence of junior graphic novels, and opens with a horrific personal tragedy as little Emily sees her father die in a ghastly car crash. Two years later she and her little brother Navin are taken to live in their great grandfather’s ramshackle, spooky old house. Still grieving, the family are making a go of it, but the dilapidated pile is just not right: there are eerie voices, odd noises and happenings – and far too often the kids are seeing something moving at the furthest corners of their eyes…

Great Grandpa Silas vanished one night never to be seen again, and Emily is convinced that she can see cloudy phantoms just when and where she isn’t looking. Whilst helping mom clean, the kids happen upon an ingeniously hidden necklace which Emily swiftly appropriates. She begins to think twice when its ornate stone starts talking to – or rather lecturing – her…

Soon the house goes into full-on haunted mode and when mom investigates the cellar she is consumed by a monster and stored for later digestion. Emily and Navin give chase and soon are lost in a fantastic subterranean world where they encounter incredible beasts, dark elves and a giant figure who turns out to be Miskit, a cute helpmate built by the missing Silas.

Long ago the solitary inventor crossed over to this land of Alledia and learned the secrets of The Stones; mighty mystical artifacts that could be more curse than blessing. Building himself a small army of companions he decided to stay, but the land was a place in turmoil. Whoever holds the Stones could rule this entire world and do anything they wanted. That’s good to know since Emily’s Amulet is becoming more bossy than helpful, and the more she uses its incredible forces the more it needs her to…

This time Emily has the ability to save her mother: even if she might have to fully embrace the power of the amulet, and take on a destiny she doesn’t want…

This is a dark and compelling adventure blending traditional children’s story elements such as fairies and magic with contemporary kids-scape paraphernalia like giant robots, cartoon animals, rocket-ships, bug-eyed monsters, cute-eyed bugs and alternate Earths in a zippy rollercoaster ride of laughter, tears and terrors. This volume is a self-contained tale but the ending of this adventure leads directly to the next…

And you will want to see them all. Stirring stuff for older readers and any fantasy fan with a tinge of darkness in their collector’s souls…
© 2008 Kazu Kibuishi. All Rights Reserved.

On the Odd Hours

By Eric Liberge translated by Joe Johnson (NBM ComicsLit/Louvre: Musée du Louvre Éditions)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-577-1

This is the first time I’ve encountered this series of translated graphic novels so this review is off the cuff and without any previous prejudice and preconception. That sounded pretty poncey and imposing but all it means is: even with all the high tech info systems in the world, occasionally something rather cool can slip by the most avid fan or collector.

In this case it’s the first two books in a patently fascinating collaboration between one of the greatest museums in the world and the, until so recently, scurrilous world of comics. So I’m diving right in with immediate reactions to the third in a series of superior translated bande dessinée courtesy of those fine fellows and folks at NBM.

These tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the Louvre, but this is no gosh-wow, “Night-at-the-Museum”, thinly-concealed catalogue of contents from a stuffy edifice of public culture. Rather, here is a startling, beautiful, gloriously compelling adult horror thriller that cleverly incorporates the history, geography, icons and artifacts of the Louvre into the plot and makes the historic building and its contents a vital character in the supernatural drama.

Amongst the history and information pieces at the back of the book is an article on the services for the deaf such as signed tours, and the hearing-impaired guides and lecturers who are part of the staff. This is done to complement the tale of Bastien, an angry young deaf man who turns up at the museum to begin an internship, but somehow becomes a Night Guard, with special responsibilities for The Odd Hours of the clock: those moments when the 200 year old museum slips the shackles of reality and the exhibits escape their bounds, coming to terrifying, chaotic life…

The art is stunning in this extremely adult tome, and the creeping obsessions of Bastien as he struggles to keep his daylight life alive whilst striving to resolve the mystery of the exhibits is both poignant and enthralling.

Why was he selected for the position? Why are the animated beauties and horrors of the museum so much more enticing that his increasingly strident and difficult girlfriend? Most importantly, how can animated artworks be so much more communicative than the flesh and blood inhabitants of his “normal” life?

On the Odd Hours is utterly engrossing and darkly lovely, and despite being the third in the series reads easily as a stand-alone tale. I’m definitely going to track down the preceding volumes and I strongly recommend that you all do likewise.

© 2008 Futuropolis/Musée du Louvre Éditions. English Edition © 2010 NBM. All rights reserved.

Someplace Strange – An Epic Graphic Novel

By Anne Nocenti & JohnBolton (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-439-X

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, special Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant over-sized packages (a standard 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked like 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 be.

This terrifically appetizing tale, developed under the company’s creator-owned Epic imprint, applies the psychic tensions and apprehensions of the Cold War era to Alice in Wonderland territory and features a punky heroine and two sterling young boys who all take an inadvertent side-step into a graphic and ephemeral twilight zone with some long-lasting repercussions.

James or “Spike” is a rather nervous lad, dwelling far too much on the perilous state of the world, terrified of germs and war and atom bombs whilst his little brother Edward (“Captain Zebra” to you) is far more fun-loving, but still overly-impressionable. The birds tell Edward not to worry, but Spike is always afraid and he’s very convincing…

One night scary dreams prompt them to end their night-terrors by getting the Bogeyman first. Setting out for the nearest spooky old house, the lads are prepared for the worst and find it in Joy, a foul-tempered punkette runaway crashing in the old dump. Together they explore the deserted domicile and accidentally fall into a surreal otherplace of familiar monsters and cuddly weirdness.

Although it seems a dangerous and unwelcoming land the true threat is Joy, who draws a picture of her own self-loathing which comes to horrifying life and gives frantic chase…

Combining Bolton’s hyper-real and exceedingly lush painting with Nocenti’s barbed and challenging sense of whimsy, this slight but hugely entertaining fable is a treat for those adults who sometimes wish they weren’t, and a lovely reminder of why kids like to be safely scared sometimes.
© 1988 Anne Nocenti and John Bolton. All Rights Reserved.

Yragael: Urm

By Philippe Druillet (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 9-063-325210

The fantasy tales of Lone Sloane revolutionised graphic fiction not only in Europe but especially in Britain and America when the baroque and bizarre cosmic odysseys began appearing in the adult fantasy magazine Heavy Metal, which combined original material with the best that “Old World” comics had to offer. By the time French comics collective Les Humanoides Associes launched the groundbreaking magazine Métal Hurlant in 1975, Philippe Druillet, one of their visual and philosophical big guns, had been creating new myths for nearly a decade…

Born in Toulouse in 1944, Druillet was born and raised in Spain, a photographer and artist who started his comics career in 1966 with an apocalyptic science fiction epic Le Mystère des abîmes (The Mystery of the Abyss) which introduced the doom-tainted Earthling, intergalactic freebooter and wanderer called Lone Sloane in a far distant future: a tale heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft and A.E. Van Vogt. Later influences included Michael Moorcock’s doomed anti-hero Elric (and I’m pretty sure I can see some Jack Kirby and Barry Windsor-Smith also tinting the mix…)

He began working for Pilote in 1969, and revived his mercurial star-rover for a number of short pieces which were first gathered together as a graphic novel in 1972. Prior to the large scale (310mm x 233mm) 1991 collection from NBM (see The Six Voyages of Lone Sloane and the later compilation Lone Sloane: Delirius).

Following these early epics he further stretched himself with the astounding, nihilistic, “End of Days” cosmic tragedies of the doomed prince Yragael and his child of ill fortune Urm.

Readers of Moorcock, August Derleth and particularly Jack Vance will recognise shared themes in the woeful tale of the last times of Earth where declining humanity is beset by gods and demons keen on recovering their lost power, on a blasted planet where men still intrigue and kill each other for gain. From this guttering chaos arises Yragael, a potential messiah who founders and falls due to pride and a ghastly liaison with the dire Nereis, witch queen of the living city Spharain…

One hundred years later in the devastated wastelands of the world, the grotesque hunchbacked spawn of that illicit union falls under the spell of mendacious demons and attempts to reclaim both parts of his heritage. Urm is stupid but passionate and his cataclysmic visit to the horrendous city reveals that the Last Men are just as much playthings of the gods as the monstrous bastard himself…

This is a graphic odyssey of utterly Byzantine narrative and Brobdignagian, baroque scale and scope. The storytelling is reduced to the merest plot, as the text (more pictorial accoutrement than dialogue facilitator) and art goes into emotional overdrive. This isn’t a tale told, it’s a mesmerising, breathless act of graphic expression. If it helps think of it as ballet or a symphony rather than a novel or play: you’re supposed to go “wow!” not “a-ha!”

The visual syntax and techniques originated in these non-stories dictated the shape of science fiction – especially in movies – for decades. Character and plot are again pared to pure fundamentals so that Druillet could fully unleash the startling graphic innovations in design and layout that churned within him, and which exploded from his pen and brain.

His brand of universal Armageddon achieved levels of graphic energy that only Jack Kirby has ever equalled, and this is another work crying out for re-release in large format with all the bells and whistles modern technology can provide, but until that distant tomorrow this book will have to do – and do very well.

Luckily for you it’s still widely available and remarkably inexpensive…
© 1974 Philippe Druillet/Dargaud Editeur. © 1975 Philippe Druillet/Dargaud Editeur. All rights reserved.

The Hobbit

By J.R.R. Tolkien, adapted by Charles Dixon & Sean Deming, illustrated by David Wenzel (Eclipse Book)
ISBN: 1-56060-054-3-1295

I’m a great believer in art remaining true to its roots: Nobody writes a novel with the ultimate intention of it becoming a lousy movie, nor a song or symphony merely to sell the ring-tone rights (maybe these days they do – it would certainly explain why there are so many bad books and crap tunes. Just call me the last of the dewy-eyed idealists, then).

So just to keep things straight: even though I’m about to review the graphic novel adaptation – and favourably – Read the Book. Even though there’s been a stage play, a radio drama, an animated feature and (soon) a two-film franchise – Read the Book.

Every time you see something leap the creative hurdle from original artwork to another, different, separate medium: Read the Book. Or comic or play or song or…

The Hobbit was first published in 1937 to world-wide success and acclaim. It won the New York Herald-Tribune Award for best juvenile fiction, was nominated for a Carnegie Medal and is rightly considered to be a classic of World Literature. In my overblown and utterly personal opinion it completely outclasses and knocks spots off the sequel Tolkien’s publishers demanded. You ought to read that too: it’s called Lord of the Rings.

In 1989 Eclipse Comics produced a three-part prestige miniseries adapting the Hobbit, which was then collected into a successful graphic novel that helped break the then-new format out of the comics fan ghetto. Since the company’s demise the collection has been re-issued by HarperCollins (1998, ISBN: 978-0-26110-266-8) and other companies and is relatively easy to find.

I’m sticking with the original here simple because it has the wonderful painted cover by David Wenzel gracing it. The story itself, of how a sedate and sedentary little Halfling called Bilbo Baggins is cajoled by the wizard Gandalf into leaving his complacent life of middle class prosperity for the seductive lure of adventure, is as enchanting as it ever was.

The diminutive Hobbit agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to become a Thief/Burglar for 14 disinherited dwarfs who yearn to liberate their ancestral home – and treasure – from the awesome dragon Smaug, and incorporates all the fascinating ephemerals that have graced Western mythology and tale-telling for centuries. (Read the Book).

Tolkien’s text is sensitively abridged rather than adapted by Chuck Dixon and Sean Deming, who strove to retain as much of the original as possible, whilst the illustration is by turns pretty, jolly, enthralling and when the dragon, goblins, trolls and especially Gollum appear, wholesomely terrifying. Wenzel started out as a wanna-be comics artist before moving into the field of fantasy and especially children’s illustration in the 1980s where he worked with icons like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and creators like Maurice Sendak, but he returned to comics for this project: probably his greatest achievement and one he’d dreamed of for much of his career (See Middle Earth: the World of Tolkien Illustrated)…

This is a truly magical interpretation of the classic and one that any devotee will find hard to dislike. If you are a lover of traditional fantasy you should get a copy – after you’ve Read the Book.

© 1989, 1990 the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. Based on The Hobbit © 1965 by J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustration © 1989, 1990 David Wenzel. Adaptation © 1989, 1990 Charles Dixon & Sean Deming. All Rights Reserved.

Men in Black

By Lowell Cunningham & Sandy Carruthers (Malibu Graphics)
ISBN: 0-944735-60-6

Usually when I write these graphic novel reviews I’m looking to promote something excellent or entertaining (both is best) and consequently there are vast numbers of books I wouldn’t even consider. Some because I’m assuming everybody who’s interested has already seen them (like Maus) whilst others are just not good enough for people outside the incredibly forgiving and tolerant fan-base. In a world where all publishing is increasingly a cottage industry, I see no reason to recommend sub-standard fare that even I wouldn’t give house room.

However on the understanding that computer games, DVDs/CDs, television and movies are all The Enemy, leaching funds that could be spent on comics, I’m going to start featuring the odd tome of suspected interest…

First up is Men in Black which originally appeared as a three-issue miniseries from a poorly-regarded company named alternatively Eternity and Malibu comics. No doubt you will have seen and enjoyed the spectacular and vastly amusing pair of films and the competent cartoon show based on this series but the comic itself is largely forgotten and – at first glance – justifiably so.

But I must admit that there’s far more than merely the kernel of a good idea in this softcover black and white collection. Although Carruthers’ black and white artwork is rushed and primitive there’s a solid basis to it that a few more years of practice could have redeemed and Cunningham’s script and concept is bold and engaging.

Agent Kay is a legendary government spook working for a super-secret organisation. In the first episode ‘Initiation’ he recruits an undercover Drug Enforcement Agent who’s accidentally stumbled into a plot to distribute a super narcotic called Bezerk. Stripping him of every facet of his old life Kay designates the new guy Agent Jay and together they wipe out the drug barons (all human) who have developed the drug.

‘Encounter’ is a lighter tale and the one that both films are based on. Jay learns that aliens exist when an extraterrestrial scavenger hunts leads to a close encounter in the American Heartland. The book concludes with ‘Invocation’ a supernatural thriller that pits the agents against a demon released when a bunch of kids inadvertently play Dungeons and Dragons with magic dice.

The success of the films depended entirely on amping up the silliness and slapstick and sticking strictly to science fiction rather than all aspects of The Unknown, but Cunningham’s subtler, restrained, darkly humorous paranormal version could just as easily have worked. The comic is played more or less straight, with action and horror a vital component of the mix, and if Hollywood saw the potential of a feel-good film they perhaps missed the chance for a solid fantasy thriller that might have reached even greater heights.

Men in Black is hard to whole-heartedly recommend but beneath the lack of polish a competent adventure series rests with its full potential still untapped. Perhaps a revival isn’t too big a stretch…
© 1990 Lowell Cunningham.  Artwork © 1990 Sandy Carruthers. All Rights Reserved.