Adventures of Tintin: The Crab with the Golden Claws

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-808-6 (HB)                    : 978-0-31619-876-9 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Comics and Presents don’t get better than this… 10/10

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

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

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of the paper’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities of the world, since the strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Petit Vingtiéme was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move the popular strip to straight daily newspaper. He diligently continued producing strips for the duration, but in the period following Belgium’s liberation was accused of being a collaborator and even a Nazi sympathiser.

It took the intervention of Resistance hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist and by providing the cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

With this tale we enter the Golden Age of an iconic creator’s work. Despite being produced whilst Belgium was under the control of Nazi Occupation Forces during World War II, the qualitative leap in all aspects of Hergé’s creativity is tangible.

His homeland fell to the invaders in 1940, and Georges Remi’s brief military career was over. He was a reserve Lieutenant, working on The Land of Black Gold when he was called up, but the swift fall of Belgium meant that he was back at his drawing board before the year’s end, albeit working for a new paper on a brand-new adventure. He would not return to the unfinished ‘Black Gold’, with its highly anti-fascistic subtext, until 1949.

Initially Le Crabe aux pinces d’or featured in children’s supplement Le Soir Jeunesse, from October 17th 1940 to September 3rd 1941, when increasing paper shortages resulted in the kid’s section being axed. The strip continued in parent paper Le Soir (Belgium’s premiere French-language newspaper and a most crucial tool for the occupiers to control minds if not hearts) until conclusion on 18th October 1941: the first of six extraordinary tales of light-hearted, escapist thrills, with strong plots and deep characterisation that created a haven of delight from the daily horrors of everyday life then and remain a legacy of joyous adventure to this day.

On completion it was collected as a monochrome book in 1941 and later serialised in French newspaper Coeurs Vaillants (from June 21st 1942), before being re-released as a full colour volume in 1943. Its success sparked a flurry of reissues of earlier albums – all but Tintin in America and The Black Island, both set in countries Germany was still at war with…

This remastered edition of The Crab with the Golden Claws was modified by Studio Hergé and released in 1953: revised to accommodate the wishes of publishers in the US and UK. It opens with Snowy getting his head caught in an empty crab-meat can whilst scavenging in a trash bin. When Tintin meets the detectives Thompson and Thomson, they discuss their latest case and he sees that a vital piece of evidence is a scrap of label from a crab-meat tin – and it matches the torn label on the can he so recently extricated his bad dog from!

And so begins a superb mystery adventure as Tintin follows his lead to the sinister freighter “Karaboudjan” where he uncovers a sinister criminal enterprise and is nearly murdered before the diabolical first mate Allan (last seen in Cigars of the Pharaoh) shanghaies him.

It is whilst a prisoner that the boy reporter meets a drunken reprobate who would become his greatest companion: The ship’s inebriated Master, Captain Haddock.

Escaping together, they eventually reach the African Coast, with Haddock’s dipsomaniac antics as much a threat to the pair as the gangsters, ocean storms, and deprivation. These trials are masterpieces of comedy cartooning that have never been surpassed.

Despite all odds the heroes survive sea, sands and scoundrels to link up with the military authorities. Making their perilous way to Morocco, battling Berber desert raiders and Haddock’s ongoing hallucinations, the plucky pair – and Snowy – track down the criminals to reveal a huge opium smuggling operation. A fast-paced tour-de-force of art and action, liberally laced with primal comedy and captivating exotic locales, this is quite simply mesmerising fare.

Full of dash, as breathtaking as a rollercoaster ride and as compelling as any Indiana Jones romp, this is classic adventure to match the best of the cinema’s swashbucklers and as suspenseful as a Hitchcock thriller, balancing insane laughs with moments of genuine tension.

Clearly as the world experienced a new Dark Age, Hergé was concentrating on the next -Golden – one…

These ripping yarns for all ages are an unparalleled highpoint in the history of graphic narrative. Their constant popularity proves them to be a worthy addition to the list of world classics of literature.
The Crab with the Golden Claws: artwork © 1953, 1981 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1958 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Uncanny X-Men Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Len Wein, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3702-3 (TPB)                   978-0-7851-1192-4 (TMB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Mutant Masterpieces for all Blockbuster Comics Addicts… 9/10

In the autumn of 1963 The X-Men #1 introduced Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Bobby (Iceman) Drake, Warren (Angel) Worthington, Jean (Marvel Girl) Grey and Hank (The Beast) McCoy: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier.

The teacher was a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior; considered by many who knew him as a living saint.

After nearly eight years of eccentrically spectacular adventures the mutant misfits virtually disappeared at the beginning of 1970 during another periodic downturn in superhero comics sales. Just like in the closing years of the 1940s, mystery men faded away as supernatural mysteries and traditional genre themes once more dominated the world’s entertainment fields…

Although their title returned at the end of the year as a cheap reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the ongoing Marvel universe, whilst the bludgeoning Beast was opportunistically transformed into a scary monster to cash in on the horror boom.

Then, with sales of the spooky stuff subsequently waning in 1975, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas green-lighted a bold one-shot as part of the company’s line of Giant-Size specials and history was made…

This fabulous compendium collection (available in luxurious hardcover, trade paperback and eBook editions) is perfect for newbies, neophytes and even old lags nervous about reading such splendid yarns on fragile but extremely valuable paper. It celebrates the revival and unstoppable march to market dominance through the exuberant and pivotal early stories: specifically, Giant Size X-Men #1, and issues #94-100 of the definitely “All-New, All-Different” X-Men (collectively and cumulatively spanning May 1975 to August 1976).

Tracing the reinvigorated merry mutants from young, fresh and delightfully under-exposed innovations to the beginnings of their unstoppable ascendancy to ultimate comicbook icons, in their own title and through an increasingly broad clutch of guest shots, the epic voyage begins without pause or preamble, in a classic mystery monster mash from Giant Size X-Men #1.

Len Wein & Dave Cockrum (the much-missed latter then a very red-hot property following his stint reviving DC’s equally eclectic fan-fave super-team Legion of Super-Heroes) detail in ‘Second Genesis!’ how the original squad – all but new Avengers recruit The Beast – have been lost in action…

With no other choice Xavier is forced to scour Earth and the entire Marvel Universe for replacements…

To old foes-turned-friends Banshee and Sunfire is added a one-shot Hulk adversary dubbed the Wolverine, but the bulk of time and attention is lavished upon original creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic-seeming German teleporter codenamed Nightcrawler; African weather “goddess” Ororo Monroe – AKA Storm; Russian farm-boy Peter Rasputin who turns into a living steel Colossus and bitter, disillusioned Apache superman John Proudstar who is cajoled into joining the makeshift squad as Thunderbird.

The second chapter of the epic introductory adventure ‘…And Then There Was One!’ reintroduces battered, depleted but unbowed team-leader Cyclops who swiftly drills the newcomers into a semblance of readiness before leading them into primordial danger against the monolithic threat of ‘Krakoa… the Island That Walks Like a Man!’

Overcoming the phenomenal terror of a rampaging rapacious mutant eco-system and rescuing the “real” team should have led to a quarterly Giant-Size sequel, but so great was the fan response that the follow-up adventure was swiftly reworked into a 2-part tale for the rapidly reconfigured comicbook which became a bimonthly home to the new team.

X-Men #94 (August 1975) began ‘The Doomsmith Scenario!’ – plotted by Editor Wein, scripted by Chris Claremont and with Bob McLeod inking man-on-fire Cockrum – in a canny Armageddon-thriller with a newly pared-down strike-squad deprived of Sunfire and the still-recuperating Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman, Havok and Lorna Dane.

The neophytes are called in by the Beast to stop criminal terrorist Count Nefaria starting an atomic war. The insidious mastermind has conquered America’s Norad citadel with a gang of artificial superhumans and accidentally escalated a nuclear blackmail scheme into an inescapable countdown to holocaust. Thus, the untrained, unprepared mutants are the only hope to storm in to save the world in epic conclusion ‘Warhunt!’ (inked by Sam Grainger).

One of the new team doesn’t make it back…

X-Men #96 saw Claremont take charge of the writing (albeit with some plotting input from Bill Mantlo) for ‘Night of the Demon!’ Guilt-wracked Cyclops blames himself for the loss of his team-mate, and in his explosive rage accidentally unleashes a demonic antediluvian horror from Earth’s primordial prehistory for the heroes-in-training to thrash.

The infernal Nagarai would return over and again to bedevil mankind, but the biggest innovation in this issue is the introduction of gun-toting biologist/housekeeper Moira MacTaggert and the first inklings of the return of implacable old adversaries…

A long-running, cosmically-widescreen storyline began in #97 with ‘My Brother, My Enemy!’ as Xavier – tormented by visions of interstellar war – tries to take a vacation, just as Havok and Lorna (finally settling on superhero nom de guerre Polaris) attack: apparently willing servants of a mysterious madman using Cyclops’ old undercover alter ego Eric the Red.

The devastating conflict segues into a spectacular 3-part yarn, as pitiless robotic killers return under the hate-filled auspices of mutantophobic Steven Lang and his mysterious backers in Project Armageddon. The action opens with #98’s ‘Merry Christmas, X-Men…the Sentinels Have Returned!’

With coordinated attacks capturing semi-retired Marvel Girl plus Wolverine, Banshee and Xavier, Cyclops and the remaining heroes co-opt a space shuttle and storm Lang’s orbital HQ to rescue them in ‘Deathstar Rising!’ (inked by Frank Chiaramonte): another phenomenal all-action episode.

The saga concludes on an agonising cliffhanger with the 100th issue anniversary tale. ‘Greater Love Hath no X-Man…’ (with Cockrum inking his own pencils) sees the new X-Men apparently battle the original team before overturning Lang’s monstrous schemes forever. However, their catastrophic clash destroys the only means of escape and, as a gigantic solar flare threatens to eradicate the satellite-station, their only chance of survival means certain death for another X-Man…

To Be Continued…

With even greater excitement and innovation to follow in succeeding issues, these superb comics classics revolutionised a moribund genre and led directly to today’s ubiquitous popular cultural landscape where superheroes are as common as cops, cowboys, monsters or rom-com Romeos. They even made it into movies without looking ridiculous…

The immortal epics compiled here are available in numerous formats but for a selection that will survive the continual re-readings of the serious, incurable fan there’s nothing to beat the sturdy and substantial full-colour feel of these Marvellous Masterwork editions.
© 1975, 1976, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Supergirl: The Silver Age volume 2

By Leo Dorfman, Jerry Seigel, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8131-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Girls Are Super Heroes Too… 8/10

After decades as the distaff cousin of a Truly Big Gun, Supergirl is now a certified multimedia solo star of screen and page.

Such was not always the case, as this engaging trade paperback compendium (also available ins eBook formats) joyously attests. The gathered back-up tales from Action Comics #285-307 – and spanning February 1962 to December 1963 – trace the early career of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El of Argo City as she moves from hidden secret to star turn and minor player to public celebrity. From the back of the book to the front of the house is always a reason to celebrate, right?

Her story began as August 1958 try-out story ‘The Three Magic Wishes’ by Otto Binder, Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye in Superman #123 which told how a mystic totem briefly conjured up a young girl with super-powers as one of three wishes made by Jimmy Olsen. Such was the reaction to the plucky heroine that within a year a new version was introduced to the Superman Family…

After a few intriguing test-runs Supergirl began as a future star of the expanding Superman pocket universe in Action Comics #252 (May 1959). Superman’s cousin Kara had been born on a city-sized fragment of Krypton, which was hurled intact into space when the planet exploded. Eventually Argo City turned to Kryptonite like the rest of the detonated world’s debris, and her dying parents, observing Earth through their scopes, sent their daughter to safety as they perished. Landing on Earth, she met Superman. He created the identity of Linda Lee and hid her in an orphanage in small town Midvale whilst she mastered her new powers in secrecy and safety.

This second collection sees her very existence kept secret from the general public whilst she lives with adoptive parents Fred and Edna Danvers. They are completely unaware that the orphan they have recently adopted is a Kryptonian super-being. That is all about to change as the Maid of Might finally graduates from superhero training…

The accent on these stories generally revolves around problem-solving, identity-preserving and loneliness, with both good taste and the Comics Code ensuring that readers weren’t traumatised by unsavoury or excessively violent tales. Such plots were akin to situation comedies, and might occasion a shudder now and then from modern readers, but believe me compared to the times they were and remain light years ahead of the curve…

Peculiar transformations were a mainstay of 1960s comics, and although a post-modern interpretation might discern some metaphor for puberty or girls “becoming” women, I rather suspect the true answer can be found in the authors’ love of comedy and an editorial belief that fighting was unladylike.

Red Kryptonite – a cosmically-altered isotope of the radioactive element left when Krypton exploded – regularly caused temporary physical and sometimes mental mutations in the survivors of that doomed world: a godsend to writers in need of a challenging visual element when writing characters with the power to shrug off nukes and drop-kick planets…

You have been warned…

Hogging the cover (by Super-stalwarts Curt Swan & George Klein) the simpler times ended as a big change in the Maid of Might’s status occurred. When her parents learn of their new daughter’s true origins, Superman allows his cousin to announce her existence to the world in 2-part saga ‘The World’s Greatest Heroine!’ (#285) and ‘The Infinite Monster!’ (#286). Here Jerry Siegel & regular artist Jim Mooney detail how Supergirl becomes the darling of the universe: openly saving planet Earth and finally getting all the credit for it.

Action Comics #286 pits her against her cousin’s greatest foe in ‘The Death of Luthor!’, whilst ‘Supergirl’s Greatest Challenge!’ sees her visiting the Legion of Super-Heroes (quibblers be warned: initially their far-future era was the 21st century. It was quietly retrofitted to a thousand years from “now” after the tales in this volume) to save the Earth from invasion.

She also meets the telepathic descendent of her cat Streaky. His name was Whizzy (I could have left that out but chose not to – once more for smug, comedic effect…).

‘The Man who Made Supergirl Cry!’ signalled the beginning of Leo Dorfman’s contributions as scripter. Little is known about this prolific writer, other than he also worked under the name Geoff Brown and David George, producing quality material continuously from the Golden Age until his death in 1974, mostly for DC and Gold Key Comics.

In this tight little thriller Phantom Zone villains take control of Supergirl’s new dad in a plot to escape their ethereal dungeon dimension…

Siegel returned for Action #289’s ‘Superman’s Super-Courtship!’: something of a classic, as the Girl of Steel scours the universe for an ideal mate for her cousin. Charming at the time, modern sensibilities might quail at the conclusion that his perfect mate was just like Supergirl herself, but older…

‘Supergirl’s Super Boy-Friends!’ finds both human Dick Malverne and Atlantean mer-boy Jerro catch super-powers after kissing her (I’m again saying nothing here except Red K!) whilst she doesn’t actually become ‘The Bride of Mr. Mxyzptlk!’ when the fifth-dimensional prankster transfers his unwanted attentions to her in Action #291.

An extended storyline by Dorfman began in the next issue when the typical (albeit invulnerable) teen got a new “pet”. ‘The Super-Steed of Steel!’ is a beautiful white horse who helps her stave off an alien invasion, but the creature has a bizarre and mysterious past, revealed in ‘The Secret Origin of Supergirl’s Super-Horse!’, before a resolution of sorts is reached in ‘The Mutiny of Super-Horse’.

A new cast member joined the series in ‘The Girl with the X-Ray Mind!’: a psychic with a shocking connection to the Superman Family, and her secrets were further revealed in ‘The Girl who was Supergirl’s Double!’

It was the beginning of an extraordinarily tense and epic continued storyline featuring Phantom Zone villains, Luthor, Supergirl’s arch enemy Lesla Lar, the destruction of Atlantis and genuine thrills and excitement. Earth was threatened by ‘The Forbidden Weapons of Krypton!’ and it took ‘The Super-Powers of Lex Luthor!’ to finally save the day.

Action #299 returned to whimsical normality with ‘The Fantastic Secret of Superbaby II!’, and the anniversary 300th issue featured ‘The Return of Super-Horse!’: another multi-part tale that revealed ‘The Secret Identity of Super-Horse!’ in #301, only to suffer ‘The Day Super-Horse went Wild!’ in the next episode.

By this time Supergirl featured on alternate Action Comics covers, and was regularly breaking into the lead Superman story. Sadly, those covers, by art dream-team Swan & Klein are not included nor is their Dorfman-scripted Man of Steel tale ‘The Monster from Krypton!’ from #303, with Supergirl having to battle her Red K transformed cousin. We can enjoy the back-up though: the moving tragedy of ‘Supergirl’s Big Brother!’ whose misspent life is not totally wasted in the end…

Supergirl got a new arch-enemy in ‘The Maid of Menace!’ but Black Flame is not as problematic as ‘The Girl Who Hated Supergirl!’ (with art solely credited to Mooney. but I’m pretty sure it’s at least part-inked by John Forte).

Action #306 was a pure mystery thriller as Girl of Steel became ‘The Maid of Doom!’ after which the dramas pause after ‘Supergirl’s Wedding Day!’ which almost proves that no girl can resist a manly man… but only almost!

Throughout this period Kara of Krypton underwent more changes than most of her confreres had in twenty years, as the editors sought to find a niche the buying public could resonate with, but for all that these stories remain exciting, ingenious and utterly bemusing.

Possibly the last time a female super-character’s sexual allure and sales potential wasn’t freely and gratuitously exploited, these tales are a link and window to a far less crass time and display one of the few strong female characters that parents can still happily share with their youngest girl children. I’m certainly not embarrassed to let any women see this volume, unlike any “Bad-Girl” book – or male public figure – you could possibly name.
© 1962, 1963, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 4

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Paul Cassidy, Ed Dobrotka, Leo Nowak, John Sikela, Fred Ray & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7867-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vital Vintage Superhero Fun and Fantasy… 9/10

As his latest record-breaking anniversary year rapidly approaches its end, the popularity of Superman is on the climb again. The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all by now – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without The Man of Tomorrow. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Imitation is the most honest compliment and can be profitable too. Superman triggered an inconceivable army of imitators and variations and, within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Action Ace had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy.

Once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, to that list was added patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters – all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms at least, Superman was master of the world. He had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a successful newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This latest addition to the splendid Golden Age/Silver Age strand of DC reprint compendia presents more of an epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Siegel, Shuster and the sterling crew of their ever-expanding “Superman Studio” who were setting the funnybook world on fire: crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

This fourth remastered paperback collection (also available digitally) of the Action Ace’s early exploits – reprinted in the order they first appeared – covers the turbulent, times spanning September 1941 to April 1942: encompassing escapades from Action Comics #41-47, Superman #12-15 and solo-adventures from World’s Finest Comics #3-5 (an oversized anthology title where he shared whimsical cover-stardom with Batman and Robin).

As always, every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration, all captivating graphic masterpieces from Fred Ray whilst each tale is credited to co-originator Siegel.

Although he & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now, the latter was increasingly involved with the Superman newspaper strip. Even so, the buzz of success still fired them both and innovation still sparkles amidst the exuberance.

Written entirely by Seigel this incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘The Case of the Death Express’: a tense thriller about train-wreckers illustrated by Nowak from the Fall issue of World’s Finest (#3).

Due to the exigencies of periodical publishing, although the terrific tales collected in this compendium take the Man of Steel to December 1941 and beyond, they were all prepared well in advance of Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even though spies and sabotage plots were already a solid standby of the narrative currency of the times and many in America felt war was inevitable (patriotic covers were beginning to appear on many comic books), the war was still a distant and exotic affair, impersonal and at one remove from daily life as experienced by the kids who were as the perceived audience for these four-colour fantasies.

That would change radically in the months and issues to come…

Most stories of the time were untitled; these have been named post-hoc simply to provide differentiation and make my task simpler …

Leo Nowak was drawing most of the comic output at this time and is responsible for the lion’s share of these adventures, beginning with the first three from Superman #12 (September/October 1941). ‘Peril on Pogo Island’ sees Lois Lane and Clark Kent at the mercy of rampaging tribesmen, although spies from a certain foreign power are at the back of it all, whilst ‘The Suicide Murders’ finds them facing a particularly grisly band of gangsters. John Sikela inked Nowak on ‘The Grotak Bund’ wherein seditionists attempt to destroy vital US industries, and fully illustrated the final tale as an old foe rears his shiny head once more in ‘The Beasts of Luthor’, accompanied by a spectacular array of giant monsters…

Action Comics #41 (October 1941) exposes ‘The Saboteur’ in a terse tale of a traitor motivated by greed rather than ideology illustrated by Paul Cassidy, whilst Nowak’s ‘City in the Stratosphere’ (Action #42) reveals that a trouble-free paradise floating above Metropolis has been subverted by an old enemy. He also handled most of Superman #13 (November/December 1941).

This issue led with a Cassidy pin-up after which ‘The Light’ debuts an old foe in a new super-scientific guise after which ‘The Archer’ pits the Man of Steel against his first costumed villain. ‘Baby on the Doorstep’ took an opportunity for fun and the feel-good factor as Clark becomes a temporary parent in a tale of stolen battle plans before ‘The City Beneath the Earth’ (illustrated by Sikela) returns to the serious business of action and spectacle as our hero discovers a subterranean kingdom lost since the Ice Age.

World’s Finest Comics #4 (Winter 1941) offers ‘The Case of the Crime Crusade’: another Nowak-rendered socially relevant racketeering yarn before ‘The Crashing Planes’ – from Action #43 and with Superman attacking Nazi paratroopers on the cover – sees the Man of Tomorrow smashing a plot to destroy a commercial airline.

Even though war was undeclared DC and many other publishers had struck their colours well before December 7th. When the Japanese attack filtered through to the gaudy pages the patriotic indignation and desire for retribution would generate some of the very best art and stories the budding art-form would ever see.

Superman’s rise had been meteoric and inexorable and seemed to never stall. He was the indisputable star of Action, World’s Finest Comics and his own dedicated title. A daily newspaper strip had begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from November 5th that year, garnered millions of new fans and a thrice-weekly radio serial launched on February 12th 1940. With a movie cartoon series, games, toys, apparel and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s hero…

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these captivating tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times. A perilous parade of rip-roaring action, seedy hoods, vile masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels are all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining exemplar in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No “to be continueds” here!

The sheer escapism continues with ‘The Caveman Criminal’ (Action #44, illustrated by Nowak & Ed Dobrotka), wherein crooks capitalise on a frozen “Dawn Man” who thaws out and goes wild in crime-ridden Metropolis, after which Superman #14 (January/February 1942 begins.

Again primarily a Nowak art affair – following a fabulous page of ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ by Shuster & Cassidy – the drama commences with ‘Concerts of Doom!’. Here a master pianist learns just how mesmerising his recitals are and joins forces with unpatriotic thieves and dastardly saboteurs, after which the tireless Man of Tomorrow is hard-pressed to cope with the diabolical destruction caused by ‘The Invention Thief’.

Sikela inks Nowak’s pencils in a frantic high fantasy romp resulting from the Man of Steel’s discovery of a friendly mermaid and malevolent fishmen living in ‘The Undersea City’ before Nowak solos again for more high-tension catastrophic graphic destruction signalling Superman’s epic clash with sinister electrical savant ‘The Lightning Master’.

Action #45 (Nowak & Dobrotka) sees ‘Superman’s Ark’ girdle the globe to repopulate a decrepit and nigh-derelict city zoo, whilst issue #46 features ‘The Devil’s Playground’ (Cassidy) wherein masked murderer The Domino stalks an amusement park wreaking havoc and instilling terror.

Spring 1942’s Finest Comics #6 explores the mystery of a flying castle as Superman breaches ‘The Tower of Terror’ to confront an Indian curse and an unscrupulous businessman, whereas in the bimonthly Superman #15 a dandy exercise regimen from Shuster (‘Attaining Super-Health: A few Hints from Superman!’) leads to Nowak’s ‘The Cop Who was Ruined’ wherein the Metropolis Marvel clears framed detective Bob Branigan – a man who even believes himself guilty – before scurvy Orientals menace the nation’s Pacific fleet in ‘Saboteurs from Napkan’ with Sikela again lending his pens and brushes to Nowak’s pencil art.

Thinly-veiled fascist oppression and expansion is spectacularly nipped in the bud with ‘Superman in Oxnalia’– an all-Sikela art job, before Nowak returns to pencils concluding science fiction thriller ‘The Evolution King’. Here, a malignant mastermind artificially ages his wealthy, prominent victims until the invulnerable Man of Steel storms in…

This splendid compilation concludes with a blockbusting, no-holds-barred battle which was only the opening skirmish in a bigger campaign. Action #47 (by Sikela) reveals how Lex Luthor gains incredible abilities after acquiring the incredible ‘Powerstone’, making the mad scientist temporarily Superman’s physical equal – if not mental – match…

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, the endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly housed in these glorious paperback collections where the savage intensity and sly wit still shine through in Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster’s shadows continued to create the basic iconography of superhero comics for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1941, 1942, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Deluxe volume 7

By Joe Kelly, Rick Veitch, Dennis O’Neill, Doug Mankhe, Duncan Rouleau, Tang Eng Huat, ChrissCross, Darryl Banks & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1 4012 5528 2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Festive Fights ‘n’ Tights Fun… 8/10

When the Justice League of America – driving force and cornerstone of the Silver Age of Comics – were relaunched in 1997 the sheer bravura quality of the stories propelled the series back to the forefront of industry attention, making as many new fans as it recaptured old ones; but the intoxicating sheen of “fresh and new” never lasts and by the time of these tales there had been numerous changes of creative personnel – usually a bad omen…

However, Joe Kelly’s tenure proved to be a marvellous blend of steadying hand and iconoclastic antics through which the JLA happily maintained their tricky task of keeping excitement levels stoked for a fan-base cursed with a criminally short attention span.

Kelly’s run on the series has some notable highs (and lows) and this portmanteau collection (gathering issues #77-93 of the monthly comicbook, spanning March 2003 – April 2004) happily falls into the former category as the team readjust to modern life after their time-lost traumas experienced in the Obsidian Age (see the previous volume of this enthralling deluxe series).

However, the adventure actually kicks off with an impressive, clever and fast-paced fill-in tale from Rick Veitch, Darryl Banks & Wayne Faucher wherein the team – Superman, Batman, Atom, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern John Stewart and Firestorm – are attacked by a civilisation-crushing cosmic wanderer which achieves its goals by invading brains and stealing knowledge in ‘Stardust Memories’

That threat successfully circumvented, the World’s Greatest Superheroes learn of an interplanetary conflict that looks likely to divide the team forever in the eponymous two-parter ‘Rules of Engagement’ by Kelly, Doug Mankhe & Tom Nguyen.

With half the team travelling, uninvited, many light-years to stop a war, the remainder of the JLA stay back to police Earth, giving the opportunity to add some long-missed sub-plots to the usually straightforward storytelling; specifically, some unpleasant hints into new member Faith’s clouded past, a long-deferred romantic dinner for Bruce Wayne and Amazonian Princess Diana and the beginnings of a very hot time for the Martian Manhunter with fiery potential paramour Scorch

On the distant world of Kylaq, Leaguers Superman, Wonder Woman, Manitou Raven, Major Disaster, GL Stewart and mystery girl Faith act unilaterally to prevent the invasion of the Peacemaker Collective. The champions are keenly aware that once they succeed, they must leave the rescued world to the mercies of its own highly suspect government… especially Defense Minister Kanjar Ro, intergalactic slave-trader and one of their oldest, most despotic foes…

We then get some hints into Faith’s shady background as the reunited team are called to an Oregon cult compound where a new Messiah has created Safe Haven: a separatist enclave for metahuman children in the first chapter of socially-controversial thriller ‘The White Rage’.

Unfortunately, the Federal Authorities are not prepared to leave them alone and the resultant clash of ideologies leaves a thousand dead children on the crippled consciences of the devastated superheroes…

Yet something isn’t right: why does each JLA-er believe that they alone are responsible for the massacre? Moreover, what is the actual goal of master manipulator Manson and how does neo-Nazi taskforce Axis America fit into the scheme?

The action-packed mystery saga comes courtesy of Kelly, Duncan Rouleau & Aaron Sowd and is followed by a chilling change of pace in ‘American Nightmare’ by Joe Kelly, Chris Cross & Tom Nguyen.

Clean, clear-cut, high-concept tales here give way to more involved, even convoluted storyline and an increasing dependence on other series’ and characters’ continuity. After an alien telepathic presence puts American President Lex Luthor into a brain-dead coma before assaulting the entire League, investigations lead to an alien incursion more than twenty thousand years ago the in epic 6-part ‘Trial by Fire’ with Doug Mahnke pencilling the chilling proceedings.

During the ice age a monstrous presence was defeated at huge cost by a band of cavemen led by the League’s oldest foe, but it appears that the diabolical beast known as The Burning might not have died forever…

Ranging back even further in DC history it appears that the Guardians of the Universe, immortal taskmasters of the Green Lantern Corps, were involved in the creation of The Burning, and their dispassionate, implacable genetic meddling may have been instrumental in the origins, rise and potential fall of one of Earth’s greatest heroes…

Plagued by cruelly debilitating visions and psychic assaults, as are a sizable portion of humanity, the heroes are desperately struggling as one of their own is possessed by the malevolent entity Fernus who is only seconds away from turning the entire world into a radioactive cinder.

Can the JLA get their act together in time to prevent Armageddon? Of course they can, but not without paying a brutal, tragic price…

A palate-cleansing change of pace follows as ‘Perchance’ (Kelly, ChrissCross & Nguyen) resolves the Batman/Wonder Woman romantic entanglement in a most imaginative manner…

Wrapping up the team-tribulations is a return for veteran scribe Dennis O’Neill who reveals how a phenomenally powerful and benevolent alien returns to Earth after eons away.

Illustrated by Tang Eng Huat, ‘Extinction Part 1: The Coming’ relates how the voyager is checking in on the species he felt was destined to evolve into the planet’s dominant species. The JLA are quite perplexed and very nervous about how to tactfully explain that mankind have almost hunted the silver masked monkey into oblivion…

Things get even more tense in ‘Extinction Part 2: The Lesson’ as the unwilling ambassadors try to convince the troubled tourist of the better qualities on Earth’s actual masters before events come to a cataclysmic head in ‘Soul Survivor’

The JLA has – in all its incarnations – a long history of starting strong but losing focus, and particularly of coasting by on past glories for extended periods. Luckily the New/Old Dog still had a few more tricks and a little life in it before the inevitable demise and reboot for the next generation after Final Crisis.
© 2003, 2004, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 8

By Gerry Conway, Mike Friedrich, Robert Kanigher, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Starlin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6623-8 (HB)

First conceived in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a time when the economy was booming and “Commie-bashing” was an American national obsession, the emergence of a new and shining young Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity, wealth and invention to safeguard the Land of the Free and better the World, seemed an obvious development. Combining the then-sacrosanct faith that technology and business in unison could solve any problem, with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, Tony Stark – the Invincible Iron Man – seemed an infallibly successful proposition.

Of course, whilst Tony Stark was the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism – a glamorous millionaire industrialist/scientist and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his alter-ego – the turbulent tone of the 1970s soon relegated his suave, “can-do” image to the dustbin of history.

With ecological disaster and social catastrophe from the myriad abuses of big business the new zeitgeists of the young, the Golden Avenger and Stark International were soon confronting a few tricky questions from the increasingly politically savvy readership.

With glamour, money and fancy gadgetry not quite so cool anymore the questing voices of a new generation of writers began posing uncomfortable questions in the pages of a series that was once the bastion of militarised America …

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium – available in hardback and digital editions – navigates that transitional period; reprinting Iron Man #39-53 (July 1971 to December 1972) as the title experienced an unprecedented and often uncomfortable number of creative personnel changes whilst the country endured a radical and often divisive split in ideology.

Tone and context for the times comes courtesy of Gerry Conway’s Introduction ‘A Few Last Words’ and the follow up essay from Mike Friedrich writer who replaced before Conway & Herb Trimpe open the graphic proceedings with ‘A Twist of Memory… a Turn of Mind!’ Insidious oriental mastermind White Dragon deviously turns Stark into a brainwashed pawn, thereby inadvertently enslaving the Golden Avenger too.

Stark’s devoted assistant Kevin O’Brian comes to the rescue, but is led down a path to inevitable doom when he assists his mind-locked employer in a torturous ‘Night Walk!’ (by regular penciller George Tuska & Jim Mooney) to save his sanity and defeat their sinister foe.

Simultaneously, Marianne Rodgers, the woman they both love, begins a slow glide into madness as her telepathic powers gradually grow beyond her control and eat at her mind…

Issue #41 continued a long and convoluted storyline dealing with mystery mastermind Mr. Kline. (For the full story you should also track down contemporaneous Daredevil and Sub-Mariner issues: you won’t be any the wiser but at least you’ll have a full set…)

‘The Claws of the Slasher!’ sees a squabbling pair of paranormal saboteurs attack Washington DC during a Senate investigation into Stark Industries; accidentally triggering a psychic transformation in Marianne.

She temporarily morphed into a mind-warping harpy in ‘When Demons Wail!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia), culminating in a blockbusting, extra-long battle against psionic godling Mikas in ‘Doomprayer!’(Mooney inks).

During that cataclysmic conflict O’Brian dons his own super-armour to join the fray as The Guardsman; causing his own mental state to rapidly deteriorate and making his eventual showdown with Stark ever more unavoidable…

Plotted by Conway, scripted by DC A-Lister Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Tuska & Vince Colletta, Iron Man #44 finds Stark near death after his last battle.

In ‘Weep for a Lost Nightmare!’ he is watched over by Kevin and Marianne as Kline dispatches a robotic copy of old Stark enemy The Night Phantom to finish the ailing hero off. The tale is truncated midway and completed in the next issue – presumably due to deadline problems.

Gary Friedrich scripted concluding chapter ‘Beneath the Armour Beats a Heart!’ in #45, after which Stark faces a revolt by his own Board of Directors who convince the jealousy-consumed O’Brian to stand with them.

When student protestors invade the factory, greed-crazed capitalist and reactionary revolt instigator Simon Gilbert convinces O’Brian to don his Guardsman suit and murderously teach the kids a lesson, leading to a horrific escalation in ‘Menace at Large!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) wherein Iron Man intervenes to save lives and causes the out-of-control O’Brian’s death…

In the aftermath Stark traumatically reviews his origins, twin careers and now-obscured objectives in the classic ‘Why Must There be an Iron Man?’ (# 47, by Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Mooney) after which, emotionally reinvigorated, the Armoured Ace welcomes new scripter Mike Friedrich and old artists Tuska & Colletta to face a renewed threat from radical incendiary anarchist Firebrand in ‘The Fury and the Inferno!’

Meanwhile, whilst attempting a new start in life, Marianne’s final breakdown begins…

‘… There Lurks the Adaptoid!’ finds her experiencing horrifying precognitive visions of a power-mimicking robot attacking Iron Man, leading to her accidental betrayal of the man she loves when the automaton arrives and evolves into an unbeatable new form in #50’s ‘Deathplay’.

This coincides with equally-troubled Z-list villain Princess Python attempting to kidnap Tony, even as the hero is targeted by power-leeching sub-atomic tyrants, before the bizarre saga concludes with bombastic battle in ‘Now Stalks the Cyborg-Sinister!’

New Age mysticism and West Coast celebrity-cults informed Iron Man #53 as Stark confronts ‘Raga: Son of Fire!’: an emotion-fuelled, flaming maniac trained by an evil guru who subsequently takes over from his failed disciple when things get too hot.

‘The Black Lama!’ (with additional pencils from star-in-waiting Jim Starlin) is also unable to destroy the Golden Avenger, but would subsequently return to become one of the hero’s greatest foes of the period.

Don’t fret folks; it all turns out alright in the end…

The galvanised wonderment also includes the cover of Iron Man Annual #2 and a selection of house ads to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator being carefully politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself.

With this volume Marvel further entrenched itself in the camp of the young and the restless, experiencing first hand, and every day, the social upheaval America was undergoing. This rebellious teen sensibility and increased political conscience permeated the company’s publications as their core audience evolved from Flower Power innocents into a generation of acutely aware activists. Future tales would increasingly bring reformed capitalist Stark into many unexpected and outrageous situations…

But that’s the meat of another review, as this engrossing graphic novel is done. From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains. These superhero sagas are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Justice League of America: The Silver Age volume 4

By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8061-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wholesome, Wholehearted Super-Action… 8/10

The day the Justice League of America was published marks the moment when superheroes truly made comicbooks their own particular preserve. Even though the popularity of masked champions has waxed and waned many times since 1960 and other genres have re-won their places on published pages, in the minds of America and the world, Comics Means Superheroes.

The JLA signalled that men – and even a few women – in capes and masks were back for good…

When Julius Schwartz began reviving and revitalising the nigh-defunct superhero genre in 1956, his Rubicon move came a few years later with the uniting of these reconfigured mystery men into a team…

The JLA debuted in The Brave and the Bold #28 (cover-dated March 1960) and cemented the growth and validity of the revived sub-genre, consequently triggering an explosion of new characters at every company producing comicbooks and spreading to the rest of the world as the decade progressed.

Spanning June 1963 to September 1964, this latest full-colour paperback compendium of classics (also available digitally) re-presents issues #31-41 of the epochal first series with scripter Gardner Fox and illustrators Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs seemingly able to do no wrong…

And while we’re showing our gratitude, lets also salute stalwart letterer Gaspar Saladino for his herculean but unsung efforts to make the uncanny clear to us all…

The adventures here focus on the collective exploits of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, J’onn J’onzz – Manhunter from Mars, Green Arrow, The Atom, hip and plucky mascot Snapper Carr and latest inductee Hawkman as the team consolidate their hold on young hearts and minds whilst further transforming the entire nature of the American comicbook experience…

JLA #31 finally saw the induction of the Winged Wonder into ‘The World’s Greatest Superheroes’ – and not before time. However, in this ancient world of Boy’s Clubs and willing segregation, his dutiful wife and partner Shayera would have to wait for more than a decade before she herself was invited to join as Hawkgirl. Hawkman would be the last successful inductee until Black Canary joined the team in #75.

‘Riddle of the Runaway Room’ sees an alien wish-granting machine fall into the hands of second-rate thug Joe Parry, who nonetheless makes life pretty tough for the team before their eventual victory over his bizarre amalgamized multi-powered villain Super-Duper (no, really!).

The visually impressive Hawkman must have been popular with the creators, if not the fans, as he was prominently featured in all but one of next half-dozen adventures. Issue #32’s ‘Attack of the Star-Bolt Warrior!’ introduces the uncanny villain Brain Storm who attacks the League to avenge his brother who had been “murdered” by one of their number!

The entire universe was once again at stake in time-travelling thriller ‘Enemy from the Timeless World’ as the team strive to counter a chronal monster dubbed the Endless One, after which a persistent old foe had yet another go in #34’s ‘The Deadly Dreams of Doctor Destiny!’: a thriller packed with an army of guest-villains.

The team are attacked by their own clothes in issue #35’s supernatural adventure ‘Battle Against the Bodiless Uniforms’, a devilish fall-back plan concocted by the antediluvian demons Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast, which had been slowly percolating since the end of JLA #11.

Issue #36’s ‘The Case of the Disabled Justice League’ sees the team raise the morale of despondent kids with disabilities by overcoming their own recently-inflicted physical handicaps to defeat the returning Brain Storm. This tale was in fact inspired by ‘A Place in the World’, a Justice Society of America adventure from 1945’s All Star Comics #27. That yarn was produced at a time when returning servicemen, maimed and disfigured in combat, were becoming an increasingly common sight on the streets of America…

The third annual JLA/JSA team-up follows, a largely forgotten and rather experimental tale wherein the Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 wrests control of the genie-like Thunderbolt from his Justice Society counterpart and uses its magic to alter the events that led to the creation of all Earth-1’s superheroes.

Then it’s JSA to the rescue in a gripping battle of wits in #37’s ‘Earth – Without a Justice League’ and the concluding ‘Crisis on Earth-A!’

Issue #39 was an Eighty-Page Giant reprinting Brave and the Bold #28 and #30 and Justice League of America #5 (represented here by its evocative cover), so we jump to #40 and the ‘Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island’: a challenging mystery wherein an astral scientist’s machine to suppress Man’s basest instincts almost causes the end of humanity. The result is an action-packed psycho-thriller stuffed with villainous guest-stars and oodles of action before this compendium concludes with JLA #41 which introduces a modern version of an old Justice Society villain.

The Earth-1 mastermind called The Key is a diabolical scientist who employs mild-altering psycho-chemicals to control the behaviour of our heroes in ‘The Key – Master of the World!’

With iconic covers by Sekowsky & Murphy Anderson, these tales are a perfect example of all that was best about the Silver Age of comics, combining optimism and ingenuity with bonhomie and adventure. This slice of better times also has the benefit of cherishing wonderment whilst actually being historically valid for any fan of our medium. And best of all the stories here are still captivating and enthralling transports of delight.

These classical compendia are a dedicated fan’s delight: an absolute gift for modern readers who desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic…
© 1964, 1965, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sandman Mystery Theatre: Book One

By Matt Wagner, Guy Davis, John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor, David Hornung & John Costanza (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6327-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Eerie Mystery-Mood Masterpiece… 8/10

Created by Gardner Fox and first depicted by Bert Christman, The Sandman premiered in either Adventure Comics #40 July 1939 (two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27) or two weeks earlier in New York World’s Fair Comics 1939, depending on whether some rather spotty distribution records can be believed.

Head and face utterly obscured by a gasmask and slouch hat; caped, business-suited millionaire adventurer Wesley Dodds was cut from the iconic masked mystery-man mould that had made pulp fictioneers The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, The Shadow, Phantom Detective, Black Bat, The Spider and so many more such household names. Those dark red-handed heroes were also astonishing commercial successes in the early days of mass periodical publication…

Wielding a sleeping-gas gun and haunting the night to battle a string of killers, crooks and spies, he was accompanied in the earliest comicbooks by his plucky paramour Dian Belmont, before gradually losing the readers’ interest and slipping from cover-spot to last feature in Adventure Comics, just as the cloaked pulp-hero avengers he emulated slipped from popularity in favour of more flamboyant fictional fare.

Possessing a certain indefinable style and charm but definitely no especial pizzazz, the feature was on the verge of being dropped when the Sandman abruptly switched to a skin-tight yellow-&-purple costume and gained a boy-sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy (in Adventure Comics #69, December 1941, courtesy of Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris). All this, presumably to emulate the overwhelmingly successful Batman and Captain America models then reaping such big dividends on the newsstands.

It didn’t help much, but when Joe Simon & Jack Kirby came aboard with #72 that all spectacularly changed. A semi-supernatural element and fascination with the world of dreams (revisited by S&K a decade later in their short-lived experimental suspense series The Strange World of Your Dreams) added a moody conceptual punch to equal the kinetic fury of their art, as Sandman and Sandy became literally the stuff of nightmares to the bizarre bandits and murderous mugs they stalked…

For what happened next you can check out the superb Simon & Kirby Sandman hardback collection…

Time passed and in the late 1980s Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg took the property in a revolutionary new direction, eventually linking all the previous decades’ elements into an overarching connective continuity under DC’s new “sophisticated suspense” imprint Vertigo.

Within a few years the astounding success of the new Sandman prompted the editorial powers-that-be to revisit the stylishly retro original character and look at him through more mature eyes. Iconoclastic creator Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel) teamed with artistic adept Guy Davis (Baker Street, B.P.R.D.) and colourist David Hornung to create a grittier, grimier, far more viscerally authentic 1930s, where the haunted mystery man pursued his lonely crusade with chilling verisimilitude.

The tone was darkly modernistic, with the crime-busting playing out in the dissolute dog-days of the Jazz Age and addressed controversial themes such as abuse, sexual depravity, corruption and racism; all confronted against the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping the world then.

This is a warning: Sandman Mystery Theatre is not for kids…

This compendium collections the redefining first three story-arcs from issues #1-12 (April 1993 to March 1994) and commences after an absorbing introduction from veteran journalist, critic and pop culture historian Dave Marsh.

Each chapter preceded by its original evocative faux pulp photo cover created by Gavin Wilson and Hornung, the dark drama opens with The Tarantula, taking us back to New York in 1938 where District Attorney Larry Belmont is having the Devil’s own time keeping his wild-child daughter out of trouble and out of the newspapers.

She’s gallivanting all over town every night with her spoiled rich friends; drinking, partying and associating with all the wrong sorts of people, but the prominent public servant has far larger problems too. One is a mysterious gas-masked figure he finds rifling his safe soon after Dian departs…

The intruder easily overpowers the DA with some kind of sleeping gas – which also makes you want to blurt every inconvenient truth – before disappearing, leaving Belmont to awake with a headache and wondering if it was all a dream…

Dian, after a rowdy night of carousing with scandalous BFF Catherine Van Der Meer and her latest (gangster) lover, awakes with a similar hangover but still agrees to attend one of her father’s dreary public functions that evening. The elder Belmont is particularly keen that she meet a studious young man named Wesley Dodds, recently returned from years in the Orient to take over his deceased dad’s many business interests.

Dodds seems genteel and effete, yet Dian finds there’s something oddly compelling about him. Moreover, he too seems to feel a connection…

The Gala breaks up early when the DA is informed of a sensational crime. Catherine Van Der Meer has been kidnapped by someone identifying himself as The Tarantula

Across town, mob boss Albert Goldman is meeting with fellow gangsters from the West Coast and, as usual, his useless son Roger and drunken wife Miriam embarrass him. Daughter Celia is the only one he can depend on these days, but even her unwavering devotion seems increasingly divided. After another stormy scene the conference ends early, and the visiting crime-lords are appalled to find their usually diligent bodyguards all soundly asleep in their limousines…

Even with Catherine kidnapped, Dian is determined to go out that night, but when Wesley arrives unexpectedly she changes her mind, much to her father’s relief. That feeling doesn’t last long however, after the police inform him that the Tarantula has taken another woman…

When a hideously mutilated body is found Dian inveigles herself into accompanying dear old Dad to Headquarters but is promptly excluded from the grisly “Man’s Business”. Left on her own, she begins snooping in the offices and encounters a bizarre gas-masked figure poring through files. Before she can react, he dashes past her and escapes, leaving her to explain to the assorted useless lawmen cluttering up the place.

Furious and humiliated, Dian then insists that she officially identifies Catherine and nobody can dissuade her.

Shockingly, the savagely ruined body is not her best friend but yet another victim…

Somewhere dark and hidden, Van Der Meer is being tortured but the perpetrator has far more than macabre gratification in mind…

In the Goldman house Celia is daily extending her control over darling devoted daddy. They still share a very special secret, but these days she’s the one dictating where and when they indulge themselves…

With all the trauma in her life Dian increasingly finds Wesley a comforting rock, but perhaps that view would change if she knew how he spends his nights. Dodds is plagued and tormented by bad dreams. Not his own nightmares, but rather the somnolent screams of nameless victims and their cruel oppressors haunt his troubled sleep. Worst of all these dreams are somehow prophetic and unrelenting. What else could a decent man do then, but act to end such suffering?

In a seedy dive, uncompromising Police Lieutenant Burke comes off worst when he discovers the gas-mask lunatic grilling a suspect in “his” kidnapping case and again later when this “Sandman” is found at a factory where the vehicle used to transport victims is hidden.

Even so, the net is inexorably tightening on both Tarantula and the insane vigilante interfering in the investigation but Burke doesn’t know who he most wants in a nice, dark interrogation room…

As the labyrinthine web of mystery and monstrosity slowly unravels, tension mounts and the death toll climbs, but can The Sandman stop the torrent of depraved terror before the determined Dian finds herself swept up in all the blood and death?

Of course, he does but not without appalling consequences…

Scene and scenario suitably set, John Watkiss steps in to illuminate second saga The Face (issues #5-8). Attention switches to Chinatown in February of 1938, where Dian and her gal-pals scandalously dine and dish dirt until Miss Belmont meets again an old lover.

Jimmy Shan once worked in her father’s office but now serves as lawyer and fixer for his own people amongst the teeming restaurants, gambling dens and bordellos of the oriental district…

Dian would be horrified to see Jimmy – or Zhang Chai Lao as his Tong masters know him – consorting with unsavoury criminals, and would certainly not be considering reviving her scandalous out-of-hours relationship with him. All frivolous thoughts vanish, however, when the diners vacate the restaurant and stumble upon a severed head: a warning that the ruling factions are about to go to war again in Chinatown. As usual, white police are utterly ineffectual against the closed ranks of the enclave…

Later at a swanky charity soiree to raise money for a school, Dian meets Jimmy again and agrees to a later meeting. At the same shindig she later sees Wesley, and in the course of their small talk, Dodds reveals that he recognises Shan from somewhere…

And in Chinatown, another beheading leads to greater tension between the Lee Feng and Hou Yibai Societies. When an enigmatic gas-masked stranger starts asking unavoidable questions, he finds that both Tongs deny all knowledge of the killings…

As the grisly murder-toll mounts, The Sandman’s investigations lead to one inescapable conclusion: a third party is responsible. But who, and why…

Before the drama closes, Dian will learn more hard truths about the world and the money-men who secretly run it…

Issues #9-12 (December 1993-March 1994) are illustrated by R.G. Taylor and plumb the darkest depths of human depravity in the tale of ‘The Brute’.

The friendship of Dian and Wesley slowly deepens and life seems less fraught in the city, but that soon ends as hulking degenerate stalks the back-alleys, killing and brutalising prostitutes and their clients…

Dodds is also on the mind of boxing promoter and businessman Arthur Reisling who’s looking for a fresh financial partner in his global exploitations. The effete-seeming scholar is hard to convince, though, unlike Eddie Ramsey. He’s a poverty-stricken pugilist and single parent desperate to make enough money to pay for his daughter Emily’s TB medicine. Riesling’s offer to him is just as scurrilous but the broken-down pug doesn’t have the luxury of saying “no”…

Eventually, with Dian in tow, Wesley accepts a party invitation from the speculator and meets his dynasty of worthless, over-privileged children. None of them seem right or well-adjusted…

Later, when Eddie tries to come clean by informing the authorities of Riesling’s illegal fight events, he’s attacked by the promoter’s thugs and saved by the Sandman – at least until the colossal mystery killer attacks them both and they’re forced to flee for their lives…

As Dodds returns home to recuperate, the punishing dreams escalate to mind-rending intensity.

Eddie, meanwhile, is left with no safe option and takes to the streets with Emily. His decision will lead to revolting horror, total tragedy and utter heartbreak…

The Sandman returns to his covert surveillance, silently unearthing the depths of Reisling’s underworld activities and coincidentally exposing a turbulent and dysfunctional atmosphere in the magnate’s home life to match his criminal activities. In this house corruption of every type runs deep and wide, and the masked avenger decides it’s time to bring his findings to Dian’s father. This time, District Attorney Belmont is prepared to listen and to act…

And as the murders mount and Dodds’ dreams escalate in intensity, the strands of a bloody tapestry begin to knot together and the appalling secret of the bestial killer’s connection to Reisling is exposed, only a detonation of expiating violence can restore order…

Stark, compelling and ferociously absorbing, the bleak thrillers depict a cruel but incisive assessment of good and evil no devotee of dark drama should miss, and the period perils come accompanied by a gallery of the series’ original, groundbreaking comicbook photo-covers and posters by Gavin Wilson plus later collection covers and related art from Matt Wagner, Alex Toth and Kent Wilson
© 1993, 1994, 1995, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 11

By Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Harlan Ellison, Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Rich Buckler, Don Heck, John Buscema, George Tuska, Jim Starlin, Dave Cockrum, Sam Kweskin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5038-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Pure Blockbuster Entertainment… 8/10

One of the most momentous events in Marvel Comics history occurred in 1963 when a disparate array of individual heroes banded together to stop the Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in their universe has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket paid off big-time; even when all Marvel’s all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man were absent, it merely allowed the lesser lights of the team to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars regularly featured due to a rotating, open door policy which meant that most issues included one of any reader’s favourites. The increasingly bold and impressively ambitious stories and artwork were no hindrance either even though at this particular time, creators were passing through at an even faster rate than the masked marvels…

Graced with a scene-setting Preface from outgoing scripter Roy Thomas and context-creating Introduction from new kid Steve Englehart, this sturdy hardcover and eBook compilation gathers the astounding contents of Avengers #89-100 (collectively spanning July 1972 – May 1973) and includes a cross-over moment from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99.

Now scripter extraordinaire Thomas was about to hand over the reins to an even more imaginative and groundbreaking author who took the team to dizzying new imaginative and dramatic heights, but before that he and debuting penciller Rich Buckler – doing his best Neal Adams impersonation – shone on a Harlan Ellison tale inked by Dan Adkins.

‘Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow!’ was based on an Ellison novella from 1964 and found the Avengers battling Leonard Tippit, an ordinary man granted incredible power so that he could murder five innocent human beings. To be fair though, those innocuous targets’ continued existence threatened Earth’s entire future…

Determined to stop him whatever the ultimate consequences, the Avengers eschewed the murky moral quandary and were tested to their utmost, before the crisis was averted…

The heroes were on firmer, more familiar ground in #102 when the Grim Reaper returned, offering to place the Vision’s consciousness in a human body in return for the android’s allegiance in ‘What to Do Till the Sentinels Come!’ (Thomas, Buckler & Joe Sinnott). Meanwhile, the mutant-hunting robots kidnapped the Scarlet Witch and started another scheme to eradicate the threat of Homo Superior forever…

A budding romance between the Witch and the Vision revealed tensions and bigotries in the most unexpected places as the cataclysmic tale continued with ‘The Sentinels are Alive and Well!’ as the team search the globe for the monstrous mechanical marauders before being captured themselves whilst invading their Australian Outback hive.

The tale concludes ‘With a Bang… and a Whimper!’ as the assembled heroes thwart the robots’ project to sterilise humanity – but only at the cost of two heroes’ lives…

The grieving Scarlet Witch takes centre stage in #105 as ‘In the Beginning was… the World Within!’ (by new scripter Steve Englehart and veteran artists John Buscema & Jim Mooney) as the team travel to South America and encounter cavemen mutants from the lost world known as the Savage Land, after which the Avengers discover ‘A Traitor Stalks Among Us!’ (illustrated by Buckler, George Tuska & Dave Cockrum) with the revelation that perennial sidekick Rick Jones has become atomically bonded to alien hero Captain Marvel: a revelation that triggers a painful flashback in memory-blocked Captain America, and just as an old foe turns the team against itself.

Avengers #107 reveals ‘The Master Plan of the Space Phantom!’ (with art by Jim Starlin, Tuska & Cockrum) and his complex and sinister alliance with the Grim Reaper even as the love-sick Vision finally accepts the Faustian offer of a human body.

Unfortunately, the corpus on offer is the Star-Spangled Avenger’s…

‘Check… and Mate!’ – illustrated by veteran Avenger artist Don Heck and inkers Cockrum & Sinnott – wraps up the intriguing saga in spectacular fashion as an army of Avengers thrash Phantom, Reaper and assorted hordes of Hydra hoods. However, the true climax is the Vision and Witch’s final acknowledgement of their love for each other.

The announcement provokes a storm of trouble…

In #109 Hawkeye, who’s always carried a torch for the beautiful Wanda, quits the team in a dudgeon and ‘The Measure of a Man!’ (Heck & Frank McLaughlin) find the heartsick archer duped by billionaire businessman Champion and almost responsible for causing the complete destruction of California before wising up and saving the day…

Next the depleted team of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Black Panther investigate the disappearance of mutant heroes the X-Men and are thoroughly beaten by an old enemy with a new power.

‘… And Now Magneto!’ (Englehart, Heck, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito) ends with half the team brainwashed captives of the master villain with the remaining crusaders desperately searching for new allies. We then pop over to San Francisco and a crossover from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99 (May 1973, by Steve Gerber, Sam Kweskin & Syd Shores). ‘The Mark of Hawkeye!’ sees Natasha Romanoff’s old boyfriend fetch up on the Widow’s doorstep, determined to reclaim her. The caveman stunt culminates in the Archer’s sound and well-deserved thrashing, and when the last Avengers arrive, asking him to return and assist, he refuses. DD and the Widow don’t, though…

The saga resumes and concludes in Avengers #111 as, ‘With Two Beside Them!’ (Englehart, Heck & Esposito) the returned heroes and West Coast vigilantes successfully rescue the X-Men and Avengers enslaved by the malevolent Magneto. With the action over, Daredevil returns to California but the Black Widow elects to stay with the World’s Mightiest Heroes…

This titanic tome also offers extra treats: namely an unused page of Buckler’s beautiful pencil art and his Sinnott-inked cover for Avengers #104.

Roy Thomas and his artistic collaborators were always at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of creators: brilliantly building on and consolidating Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s initial burst of comics creativity whilst spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder- machine of places and events that so many others could add to.

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right and also act as pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. There are also some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read and Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new peak of cosmic adventure…
© 1972, 1973, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: King Ottokar’s Sceptre

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-619-8 (HB)                    : 978-0-31613-383-8 (PB)

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

Like Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

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

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

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

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Originally published as a weekly monochrome strip Le Sceptre d’Ottokar ran from August 4th 1938 to August 10th 1939. The rousing Ruritanian saga of plot and counter-plot was designed as a satirical critique of Nazi Germany’s nefarious expansionist policies, but in a remarkably short course of time real life terrifyingly caught up with fictional hijinks. Another commercial winner, the tale was promptly released in collected book form upon conclusion and Herge’s team moved straight on to new serial Land of Black Gold. That tale was curtailed by the fall of Belgium in 1940 and the closure of Le Vingtiéme Siécle. We’ll talk more about that later…

When the war ended and Tintin led a resurgence of European comics, Le Sceptre d’Ottokar, was revived, reformatted, reconditioned and rereleased in a full-colour album. It was the first book to make the jump to English editions – in 1956 – and was adapted for the small screen by Belvision Studios. Twice in fact, as Canada’s Ellipse/Nelvana crafted their own animated version in 1991.

Older British readers might have another reason to recall this tale. Many of them had an early introduction to Tintin and his dog (then called Milou, as in the French editions) when fabled comic The Eagle began running King Ottokar’s Sceptre in translated instalments on their prestigious full-colour centre section in 1951.

During the Occupation, Hergé continued producing comic strips for Le Soir and in the period following Belgium’s liberation was accused of being a collaborator and even a Nazi sympathiser.

It took the intervention of Resistance hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist and by providing the cash to create the magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

The story itself is pure escapist magic as a chance encounter via a park bench leads our youthful hero on a mission of utmost diplomatic importance to the European kingdom of Syldavia. This picturesque principality stood for a number of countries such as Czechoslovakia that were in the process of being subverted by Nazi insurrectionists at time of writing.

Tintin becomes a surveillance target for enemy agents and, after a number of life-threatening near misses, flies to Syldavia with his new friend. The sigillographer Professor Alembick is an expert on Seals of Office and his research trip coincides with a sacred ceremony wherein the Ruler must annually display the fabled sceptre of King Ottokar to the populace or lose his throne.

When the sceptre is stolen it takes all of Tintin’s luck and cunning to prevent an insurrection and the overthrow of the country by enemy provocateurs…

Full of dash, as breathtaking as a rollercoaster ride and as compelling as any Bond movie, this is classic adventure story-telling to match the best of the cinema’s swashbucklers and as suspenseful as a Hitchcock thriller, balancing insane laughs with moments of genuine tension.

Clearly just as the world headed into a new Dark Age, Hergé was entering a Golden one…

These ripping yarns for all ages are an unparalleled highpoint in the history of graphic narrative. Their constant popularity proves them to be a worthy addition to the list of world classics of literature.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre: artwork © 1947, 1975 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1958 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.