Defenders Masterworks volume 2


By Steve Englehart, Tony Isabella, Len Wein, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, Jim Starlin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4216-4

The Defenders were the last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, and would eventually number amongst their membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No real surprise there, since the initial line-up was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood and mad, outcast and bad and so often actually dangerous to know.

The genesis of the team derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few more chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

This second sterling and sturdy hardcover (and eBook) masterworks collection assembles a veritable host of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonders from a large list of sources: Defenders #7-16, Giant Sized Defenders #1 and Avengers #115-118, encompassing cover-dates August 1973 to October 1974 and commences after author Steve Englehart shares recollections of his groundbreaking tenure in an informative Introduction, after which Defenders #7 jumps right in as Len Wein co-scripts with Englehart and Frank Bolle inks Sal Buscema in ‘War Below the Waves!’

Here tempestuous ex-Avenger Hawkeye temporarily climbs aboard the “non-team” bandwagon to help defeat the undersea threat of Attuma and soviet renegade the Red Ghost; a bombastic battle to usurp the Sub-Mariner of his titles and kingdom concluded a month later in ‘…If Atlantis Should Fall!’ with Englehart once more providing all the words and Frank McLaughlin inking…

Since Defenders #4 the forward-thinking scripter had been putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head, and next here comes a little prologue taken from the end of Avengers #115 which finally set the ball rolling.

Drawn by Bob Brown & Mike Esposito, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ sees interdimensional despot the Dread Dormammu and Asgardian god of Evil Loki unite to search for an ultimate weapon to give them final victory against their foes. They resolve to trick the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could restore the petrified Black Knight.

That plan was initiated at the end of Defenders #8: a brief opening chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ entitled ‘Deception!’ as a message from the spirit of the Black Knight is intercepted by the twin entities of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ in Avengers #116 (by Englehart Brown & Esposito) wherein the World’s Mightiest Heroes – hunting for their missing comrade – “discover” their old enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone.

This and third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ see the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (with Buscema & McLaughlin art) begins with tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ sheds more suspicion and doubt on the vile villains’ subtle master-plan…

Avengers #117 ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and crucial turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ (Brown & Esposito) lead to the penultimate clash in Defenders #10 (Buscema & Bolle) in ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’, but tragically too late as Dormammu seizes the reconstructed Evil Eye and uses its power to merge his monstrous realm with Earth.

Avengers #118 delivers the cathartic climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Giacoia) wherein all the heroes of the Marvel Universe resist the demonic invasion as Avengers and Defenders plunge deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end forever the threat of the evil gods (or for the moment, at least…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempt to use the Eye to cure their petrified comrade, only to discover that his spirit has found a new home in the 12th century. In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (Bolle inks), the group battle black magic during the Crusades, fail to retrieve the Knight and acrimoniously go their separate ways – as did overworked departing scripter Englehart…

With issue #12 Len Wein assumed the writer’s role, starting a run of slightly more traditional costumed capers as Sal Buscema & Jack Abel illustrated the return of the mind-bending Xemnu in ‘The Titan Strikes Back!’ against a pared-down cast consisting of Strange, Valkyrie and the Hulk.

A bona fide hit, the non-team were part of a big experiment in extra-value comics that began with opens with Giant Sized Defenders #1 (July1974): a stunning combination of highly readable reprints wrapped in a classy framing sequence by Tony Isabella, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom. The vintage thrills commence with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers’ ‘Banished to Outer Space’ from The Incredible Hulk #3, followed by magnificent 1950s Bill Everett Sub-Mariner fantasy-feast ‘Bird of Prey!’

From there the focus switches to Dr. Strange and the Denny O’Neil/Steve Ditko mini-masterpiece ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (Strange Tales #145) before the concoction concludes with a blockbusting battle as the star trio, sorcerer’s apprentice Clea and the valiant Valkyrie dispatch a self-inflicted mystic menace.

After a splendid double-page pin-up by Sal Buscema the regular epics resume for a spectacular Saves-the-World struggle against the villainous Squadron Sinister that opens in ‘For Sale: One Planet… Slightly Used!’ (featuring an early inking job for Klaus Janson) and concludes in the Dan Green-embellished ‘And Who Shall Inherit the Earth?’ as Marvel’s Batman-analogue Nighthawk unites with the Defenders to defeat his murderous former team-mates and aquatic alien marauder Nebulon, the Celestial Man.

Defenders #15 initiates a two-part duel with manic mutant Magneto who first institutes a ‘Panic Beneath the Earth!’ – courtesy of Wein, Buscema & Janson – leading X-Men mentor Charles Xavier to enlist the outcast heroes’ aid. The concluding clash includes the insidious Brotherhood of Evil and ‘Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant’ (inked by Esposito) as well as the apparent end of true master of evil…

Also included here are behind-the-scenes treats including contemporary house ads, creator biographies and previous collection covers by Carlos Pacheco, John Romita and Richard Isanove.

For the longest time, The Defenders was the best and weirdest superhero comicbook in the business, and if you love superheroes but crave something just a little different these yarns are for you… and the best is still to come.
© 1973, 1974, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Supergirl: The Silver Age volume 1


By Otto Binder, Al Plastino, Jerry Seigel, Jim Mooney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7292-0

Superhero comics seldom do sweet or charming anymore. Modern narrative focus concentrates on turmoil, angst and spectacle and although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, sometimes the palate just craves a different flavour.

Such was not always the case as this superb trade paperback compendium – spanning Action Comics #252-284 (May 1959 to January 1962) and also available in eBook editions – of the early career of Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El of Argo City joyously proves.

Also included and kicking off proceedings is the delightful DC House Ad advertising the imminent arrival of a new Girl of Steel. Sadly missing, however, is the try-out story The Three Magic Wishes’ – written by Otto Binder and illustrated by Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye from Superman #123, August 1958 – 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…

Here, then, the drama commences with ‘The Supergirl from Krypton!’, the third story from Action Comics #252 introducing Superman’s cousin Kara, who had been born on a city-sized fragment of Krypton, which was somehow hurled intact into space when the planet exploded.

Eventually Argo City turned to Kryptonite like the rest of the giant world’s debris, and Kara’s dying parents, having observed Earth through their scanners and scopes, sent their daughter to safety as they perished.

Landing on Earth, she meets Superman who creates the cover-identity of Linda Lee whilst hiding her in an orphanage in small town Midvale allowing her to learn about her new world and powers in secrecy and safety. This groundbreaking tale was also written by Binder and drawn by the hugely talented Al Plastino.

Once the formula was established Supergirl became a regular feature in Action Comics (starting with #253), a residency that lasted until 1969 when she graduated to the lead spot in Adventure Comics. In ‘The Secret of the Super-Orphan!’, at her new orphanage home she makes the acquaintance of fellow orphan Dick Wilson (eventually Malverne) who would become her personal gadfly (much as the early Lois Lane was to Superman), a recurring romantic entanglement who suspects she has a secret. As a young girl in far less egalitarian times, romance featured heavily in our neophyte star’s thoughts and she frequently met other potential boyfriends: including alien heroes and even a Merboy from Atlantis.

Many of the early tales also involved keeping her presence concealed, even when performing super-feats. Jim Mooney was selected as regular artist and Binder remained as chief scripter for most of the early run.

In Action #254’s ‘Supergirl’s Foster-Parents!’, sees an unscrupulous couple of con-artists easily foiled, after which Linda meets a mystery DC hero when ‘Supergirl Visits the 21st Century!’ in #255. Her secret is almost exposed in ‘The Great Supergirl Mirage!’ before she grants ‘The Three Magic Wishes!’ to despondent youngsters and teaches a mean bully a much-needed lesson.

The Man of Steel often came off rather poorly when dealing with women in those less enlightened days, always under the guise of “teaching a much-needed lesson” or “testing” someone. When she plays with Krypto, ignoring his secrecy decree, cousin Kal-El banishes the lonely young heroine to an asteroid in ‘Supergirl’s Farewell to Earth!’ but of course there’s paternalistic method in the madness…

‘The Cave-Girl of Steel!’ then sees her voyage to the ancient past and become a legend of the Stone Age before Action #260 finds her transformed by the mystical Fountain of Youth into ‘The Girl Superbaby!’

The next tale introduced feline fan-favourite Streaky the Super-Cat in ‘Supergirl’s Super Pet!’ after which ‘Supergirl’s Greatest Victory!’ delivers a salutary lesson in humility to the Girl of Steel. Binder moved on after scripting ‘Supergirl’s Darkest Day!’ in which the Maid of Might rescues an alien prince, after which Jerry Siegel took over the storytelling as ‘Supergirl Gets Adopted!’: a traumatic and sentimental tale which only ends with the lonely lass back at Midvale orphanage.

I’ve restrained myself so please do the same when I say that the next adventure isn’t what you think. ‘When Supergirl Revealed Herself! (Siegel & Mooney from Action#265) is another story about nearly finding a family, after which Streaky playfully returns in ‘The World’s Mightiest Cat!’

Supergirl encounters fantastic fellow super-kids in Action #267’s ‘The Three Super-Heroes!’ but narrowly fails to qualify for the Legion of Super Heroes through the cruellest quirk of fate. Picking herself up she then exposes ‘The Mystery Supergirl!’ before Siegel & Mooney introduce Mer-boy Jerro who becomes ‘Supergirl’s First Romance!’

‘Supergirl’s Busiest Day!’ is packed with cameos from Batman and Robin, Krypto and Lori Lemaris all celebrating a very special occasion, after which Streaky makes another bombastic appearance as the wonder girl builds ‘Supergirl’s Fortress of Solitude!’.

Otto Binder wrote ‘The Second Supergirl!’, an alternate world tale that was too big for one issue. A sequel, ‘The Supergirl of Two Worlds!’ appeared in Action #273 – as did a novel piece of market research. ‘Pick a New Hairstyle for Linda (Supergirl) Lee!’ involved eager readers in the actual physical appearance of their heroine and gave editors some valuable input into who was actually reading the series…

Siegel & Mooney then soundly demonstrate the DC dictum that history cannot be changed in ‘Supergirl’s Three Time Trips!’ before ‘Ma and Pa Kent Adopt Supergirl!’ offers a truly nightmarish scenario, rapidly followed by a return visit to the Legion of Super Heroes in ‘Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends!’, whilst Action #277 featured an animal epic in ‘The Battle of the Super-Pets!’

The next five tales in this volume form an extended saga taking the Girl of Steel in totally new directions. On the eve of Superman announcing her existence to the world, Supergirl loses her powers and – resigned to a normal life – is adopted by the childless Fred and Edna Danvers. Tragically it’s all a deadly plot by wicked Lesla-Lar, Kara’s identical double from the Bottle City of Kandor. This evil genius plans to replace Supergirl and conquer the Earth. This mini-epic – ‘The Unknown Supergirl!’, ‘Supergirl’s Secret Enemy!’, ‘Trapped in Kandor!’, ‘The Secret of the Time-Barrier!’ and (following the results of the Hair Style competition) ‘The Supergirl of Tomorrow!’ ran in Action #278-282 and solidly repositioned the character for a more positive, effective and fully public role in the DC universe. The epic also hinted of a more dramatic and less paternalistic, parochial and even sexist future for the most powerful girl in the world, over the months to come…

The young heroine still in very much a student-in-training, her very existence kept secret from the general public and living with adoptive parents who are completely unaware that the orphan they have recently adopted is a Kryptonian super-being.

The accent on these stories generally revolves around problem-solving, identity-saving and loneliness, with both good taste and the Comics Code ensuring readers weren’t traumatised by unsavoury or excessively violent tales. Plots akin to situation comedies often pertained, as in ‘The Six Red “K” Perils of Supergirl!’

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 author Seigel’s love of comedy and an editorial belief that fighting was simply unladylike.

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

Here the wonder-stuff generates a circus of horrors, transforming Supergirl into a werewolf, shrinking her to microscopic size and making her fat (I’m not going to say a single bloody word…).

The drama continues and concludes – like this initial Silver Age compilation – with the next instalment ‘The Strange Bodies of Supergirl!’ wherein Linda Lee Danvers’ travails escalate after she grows a second head, gains death-ray vision (ostensibly!) and morphs into a mermaid. This daffy holdover to simpler times presaged a big change in the Maid of Might’s status but that’s a volume for another day…

Throughout her formative years Kara of Krypton underwent more changes than most of her confreres had in twenty years, as 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 very last time a female super-character’s sexual allure wasn’t equated to sales potential and freely and gratuitously exploited, these tales are a link and window to a far less crass time and display one of the few truly strong and resilient female characters parents can still happily share with even their youngest children.
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Justice League International volume 2


By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, John Ostrander, Kevin Maguire, Bill Willingham, Luke McDonnell & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2020-4 (TPB)

Way back in 1986 DC’s editorial leaders felt their then-vast, 50-year continuity was stopping them winning new readers. The draconian solution was a colossal braided-mega series to streamline and redefine whilst adding even more fresh characters to the mix.

The worlds-shattering, reality-altering bombast of Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in such spectacular commercial success, those movers-&-shakers felt justified in revamping a number of their hoariest icons for their next fifty years of publishing. As well as Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman, the moribund and crucially un-commercial Justice League of America was earmarked for radical revision.

Editor Andy Helfer assembled plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis and untried penciller Kevin Maguire to produce an utterly new approach to the superhero monolith: they played them for laughs…

The series launched as Justice League with a May 1987 cover-date before retitling itself as Justice League International with #7. The new super-team was formed from the ashes of the old on the basis of events comprising follow-up DC crossover-event Legends. The gathering comprised a roster of newcomers and relative second-stringers as America’s newest champions – Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Guy Gardner/Green Lantern, Dr. Fate and Mr. Miracle with heavyweights Batman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz as nominal straight-men.

As the often-silly saga unfolded the squad was supplemented by Captain Atom, Booster Gold, Dr. Light and Russian mecha-warrior Rocket Red. In many ways the most contemporary new pick was charismatic, filthy-rich manipulator Maxwell Lord – who used wealth and influence to recreate the super-team…

The creators took their time, crafting a convoluted mystery over the first year and this second volume of the (as-was) All-New, All-Hilarious Justice League completes that saga as insidious entrepreneur and1980’s archetype Lord reshapes the World’s Greatest Super-team for his own mysterious purposes and is transformed himself in the process…

The stories gathered here (Justice League International #8-13, Justice League Annual #1, and corresponding crossover issue Suicide Squad #13) are taken from a period when comics publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event.”

That hard-on-the-pockets innovation basically crafted really big stories involving every publication in a company’s stable, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because there are in truth “middles” with no beginnings or endings.

In this case the problem is deftly solved by inserting (mercifully) brief text pages explaining what’s happened before and elsewhere. It also doesn’t hurt that being a comedy-adventure, plot isn’t as vital as character and dialogue in this instance…

The merriment begins with ‘Moving Day’ (deftly inked by regular embellisher Al Gordon), wherein the heroes endure a catalogue of disasters whilst taking possession of sundry new UN embassy premises: a slyly cynical tale of institutionalized ineptitude and arguably one of the funniest single stories in American comicbook history.

Here, the main episodes are supplemented by brief back-up vignettes drawn by Giffen and ‘Old News’ deals with the abrupt and precipitous closure of previous UN superhero resource The Dome – summarily axed when the League achieved international charter status. The dismissals leave a very sour taste in the mouths of previously valiant and devoted defenders of mankind…

‘Seeing Red’ is the first of two episodes forming part of the Millennium crossover hinted at above. Broadly, the Guardians of the Universe are attempting to create the next stage of human evolution, and their robotic enemies the Manhunters want to stop them. The heroes of Earth are asked to protect the Chosen Ones, but the robots have sleeper agents hidden among the friends and acquaintances of every hero on the planet.

Millennium was DC’s first weekly mini-series, and the monthly schedule of the other titles meant that a huge amount happened in the four weeks between their own tied-in issues: for example…

The Rocket Red attached to the JLI is in fact a Manhunter, who first tries to co-opt then destroy the team by sabotaging an oil refinery, but by the second part, ‘Soul of the Machine’, the JLI are jarringly transplanted to deep space and attacking the Manhunter homeworld as part of a Green Lantern strike force.

Nevertheless, the story is surprising coherent, and the all-out action is still well-leavened with superbly banter and hilarity.

The back-ups follow the suddenly unemployed Dome hero Jack O’Lantern as he travels to terrorist state Bialya in ‘Brief Encounter’ and then show an unfortunate training exercise for Blue Beetle and Mister Miracle in ‘…Back at the Ranch…’

JLI #11 started exposing all the mysteries of the first year by revealing the secret mastermind behind the League’s reformation. With ‘Constructions!’ – and the concluding ‘Who is Maxwell Lord?’ in #12 – the series came full circle, and the whacky humour proved to have been the veneer over a dark and subtle conspiracy plot worthy of the classic team.

The drama and action kicked into overdrive and the characters were seen to have evolved from shallow, albeit competent buffoons into a tightly knit team of world-beating super-stars – but still pretty darned addicted to buffoonery…

Giffen illustrated #13, wherein the team ran afoul of America’s highly covert Suicide Squad (convicted and imprisoned super-villains blackmailed by the government into becoming a tractable metahuman resource – and happily lacking the annoying morality of regular superheroes).

‘Collision Course’ found US agent Nemesis imprisoned in a Soviet jail with the UN-sponsored League forced into the uncomfortable position of having to – at least ostensibly – fight to keep him there even as the Suicide Squad seeks to bust him out.

Written by John Ostrander and illustrated by Luke McDonnell & Bob Lewis, concluding chapter ‘Battle Lines’ originated in Suicide Squad #13 and offers a grim and gritty essay in superpower Realpolitik which remains a powerful experience and chilling read decades later.

This volume wraps up with an out-of-chronology yarn from the first JLI Annual. Drawn by Bill Willingham and inked by Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, Bill Wray, R. Campanella, Bruce Patterson & Dick Giordano, ‘Germ Warfare’ is an uncharacteristically grim horror tale involving inhuman sacrifice and all-out war against sentient bacteria, with oodles of savage action and a tragic role for new team leader J’onn J’onzz…

This collection was – and still is – a breath of fresh air at a time where too many comicbooks are filled with over-long, convoluted epics that are stridently, oppressively angst-ridden. Here is great art, superb action and a light touch which mark this series as a true classic. So, read this book and then all the rest….
© 1987, 1992, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Spidey volume 1: First Day


By Robbie Thompson, Nick Bradshaw, André Lima Araújo & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9675-4

Since its earliest days the company now known as Marvel has always courted the youngest comicbook consumers. Whether through animated tie-ins and licensed properties such as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, Duckula, assorted Hanna-Barbera and Disney licenses and a myriad of others, or original characters such as Tessie the Typist, Millie the Model, Homer the Happy Ghost and Calvin, the House of Ideas has always understood the necessity of cultivating the next generation of readers.

These days, however, kids’ interest titles are on the wane and, with the Marvel Universe’s characters all over screens large and small, the company usually prefers to create child-friendly versions of its own proprietary pantheon, making that eventual hoped-for transition to more mature comics as painless as possible.

In the 1980s Marvel published an entire line of kiddie titles through its Star Comics line and in 2003 the company created a Marvel Age line which updated and retold classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and mixed it in with the remnants of its manga-inspired Tsunami imprint: again all intended for a younger readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, becoming the Marvel Adventures line, with titles reflecting the most popular characters and whatever was on TV screens at the time.

In 2012 these were superseded by specific comicbook titles tied to Disney XD TV shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”.

Today’s featured item – Spidey: First Day – is a horse of a different colour: similar but different…

Rather than simply crafting a wallcrawler for younger sensibilities, this iteration – presumably sparked by the teenaged, light-adventure version seen in the Spider-Man: Homecoming movie – innovates and modernizes by looking back and succeeds in recapturing a sense of the madcap gaiety that counterbalanced the action and pathos of the earliest Lee/Ditko stories. This series is all about thrills and fun…

Scripted throughout by Robbie Thompson and re-presenting Spidey #1-6 (originally released from February to July 2016), the non-stop, youngster-appropriate mayhem commences with a fresh introduction to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, illustrated by Nick Bradshaw and colourists Jim Campbell & Rachelle Rosenberg

Firmly set in The Now, our hero is still (or rather once again) a callow schoolboy, fighting crime and making enemies between classes. He’s also a crimefighting sensation of the internet and social media when he puts on his blue-&-red duds. As ever news magnate J. Jonah Jameson is there to vilify the webslinger at every opportunity…

Sadly, thanks to the kid’s double life, Peter Parker’s grades – except for science and maths – are tanking now, and the secret superhero is forced to accept Popular Girl Gwen Stacy as a much-needed history tutor.

Not only is she the hottest girl in school but she also decks Flash Thompson with one punch after the jocks starts bullying “Puny” Parker again…

Things really kick off later, on a field trip to techno-industrial wonderland Oscorp, when a madman calling himself Doctor Octopus busts in and the neophyte Spider-Man is compelled to intervene and drive the maniac away.

That’s when uber-creepy Norman Osborn introduces himself to Peter, predicting big things for Peter…

The really smart trick in this series is that battles with other supervillains such as Kraven the Hunter and Mysterio are backdrop: referenced simply as having occurred in other moments, allowing Peter Parker’s life and character room to develop, with only new battles dictating how certain villainous players have evolved from standard Spider-Man mythology…

A month later Peter is still coming to terms with his double life when ‘Enter the Sandman’ finds him battling a grittily shapeshifting bank robber, after which New York is overrun by tiny reptiles as old ally Dr. Curt Connors is once again tragically transformed into the ravenous ravening Lizard

In Spidey #4 André Lima Araújo assumes the art duties with ‘Doomsday Off!’ as Peter stumbles into an art robbery. He might even have stopped the thief… if the bad guy hadn’t been Doctor Doom! Tracking down the ultimate villain does no good and Spidey is once again soundly thrashed, but after the Amazing Arachnid gets a pep talk from a little kid, he tries again and achieves a partial victory…

‘Dead End’ (with Java Tartaglia joining the colouring squad) sees the first inconclusive confrontation with a major nut job called the Green Goblin after which the ebullient effervescent escapades conclude with a first team-up in ‘Making the Grade’, as the mysterious Spider-Man intervenes when flying felon The Vulture burgles Stark Industries.

The Invincible Iron Man shows up but naturally gets the wrong idea – as does SHIELD agent Phil Coulson – before the situation is straightened out. One crisis over and feeling cocky, the very junior hero – smitten with Gwen Stacy – even asks the Armoured Avenger for dating tips but that doesn’t go so well…

Featuring a covers and variants gallery by Bradshaw, Lima Araújo, Skottie Young, Humbert Ramos & Edgar Delgado, Oliver Coipel, Julian Totino Tedesco and Gyimah Gariba, this a sublimely refreshing reinterpretation of an evergreen heroic icon offering an intriguing and certainly more culturally accessible means of introducing character and concepts to kids born two and three generations or more away from those far-distant 1960s originating events. These Spidey super-stories are outrageously enjoyable yarns, and well worth seeking out.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tiny Titans volume 1: Welcome to the Treehouse


By Art Baltazar & Franco (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2207-5

The links between animated features and comicbooks are long established and I suspect, for young consumers, indistinguishable. After all, it’s just entertainment in the end…

For quite some time at the beginning of this century, DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was arguably the last bastion of children’s comics in America and worked to consolidate that link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and many other video favourites.

The kids’ comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of the publisher’s proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Krypto the Super Dog as well as material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely similar in tone and content.

Perhaps the line’s finest release was a series ostensibly aimed at early-readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily all mooshed up together, Tiny Titans became a sublime antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling (all together now: “erm, uh… I think you’ll find that in…”) by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans Go! animated series, the far greater boutique of the mainstream comicbooks – and eventually the entire DC Universe – to little kids and their parents/guardians in a wholesome kindergarten environment.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with multi-layered in-jokes, sight-gags and the beloved yet gently mocked trappings and paraphernalia generations of strip readers and screen-watchers can never forget….

Collecting issues #1-6 (April-September 2008) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this debut volume begins after an as-standard identifying roll-call page at ‘Sidekick City Elementary’ where new Principal Mr. Slade is revealed to be not only Deathstroke the Terminator but also poor Rose’s dad! How embarrassing…

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) mastered a witty, bemusingly gentle manner of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with the assorted characters getting by and trying to make sense of the great big world while having “Adventures in Awesomeness” like Beast Boy getting a new pet and becoming Man’s Dog’s Best Friend’

The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

Back in class Robin and Kid Flash tease a fellow student in ‘Speedy Quiz’ even as ‘Meanwhile in Titans Tower’ (the treehouse of the title) finds Wonder Girl, Bumblebee, Raven and Starfire discussing whether to let Batgirl Barbara Gordon join their circle…

Later they all meet up and help scary blob Plasmus cope with an ice cream crisis but shocks still abound at school. Raven’s dad is an antlered crimson devil from another universe but his most upsetting aspect is as the class’ new substitute teacher!

Happily, however, at the treehouse the kids can forget their worries, as Wonder Girl Cassie’s new casual look – after initial resistance – wins many admirers among the boys…

The original comics were filled with activity pages, puzzles and pin-ups, so ‘Help Best Boy Find his Puppy Friend!’ and awesome group-shot ‘Awwwww Yeah Titans!!!’, offers an artistic break before the shenanigans resume with ‘Ow’ as new girl Terra persists in throwing rocks at the boys but knows just how to make friends with the girls…

Not so much for the little lads though: they’ve got into another confrontation with mean kids Fearsome Five. Is the only way to determine who wins to keep ‘Just a-Swingin’’ and ignore those bullies…?

After teeny-weeny Little Teen Titan Kid Devil finds a delicious new way to use his heat power, Beast Boy becomes besotted by Terra in ‘Shadows of Love’, even though his obvious affection makes him act like an animal. While ‘Easy Bake Cyborg’ saves the day at snack time, the lovesick green kid follows some foolish advice and transforms into a ‘Beast Boy of Steel’,

At least Kid Devil is making friends by providing ‘Charbroiled Goodness’ for a local food vendor, just as the Fearsome Five show up again…

Following a pin-up of the bad kids and a brainteaser to ‘Match the Tiny Titans to their Action Accessories!’ a new school day finds science teacher Doctor Light losing control in ‘Zoology 101’ thanks to Beast Boy’s quick changes, after which ‘Sidekick’s Superheroes’ debate status and origins whilst Rose’s ‘Li’l Bro Jericho’ causes chaos and closes school for the day.

When Robin brings some pals home Alfred the Butler is reluctant to let them check out the ‘Batcave Action Playset’. He should have listened to his suspicions: that way there wouldn’t be so much mess or so many penguins…

After Aqualad’s suggestion ‘Let’s Play: Find Fluffy!’ the Boy Wonder has a strange day, starting with ‘Robin and the Robins’ and culminating in a new costume. Before that though, you can see ‘Beast Boy at the Dentist’, Wonder Girl enduring a ‘Babysittin’ Baby Makeover’, meet ‘Beast Boy’s Prize’ and experience hair gone wild in ‘Do the ‘Do’’.

Eventually, though, ‘It’s a Nightwing Thing’ revisits the exotic yesteryears of disco mania as Robin’s new outfit debuts to mixed reviews and reactions…

Once done testing your skill with the ‘Tiny Titans Match Game!’ and admiring a ‘Little Tiny Titans Bonus Pin-up’ there are big thrills in store when ‘Playground Invaders’ introduces annoying Titans from the East side of the communal games area…

Sadly, the Fearsome Five are still around to tease the former Robin in ‘Nightwing on Rye’ even whilst continuing epic ‘Enigma and Speedy’ sees the Boy Bowman trapped in a very one-sided battle of wits with the Riddler’s daughter…

Robin’s costume crisis continues to confuse in ‘May We Take a Bat-Message?’, resulting in a kid capitulation and ‘Back to Basics’ approach to the old look, after which ‘Tiny Titans Joke Time!’ and a ‘Tiny Titans East Bonus Pin-up’ segues neatly into ‘Meet Ya, Greet Ya’ with newcomers Supergirl and Blue Beetle turning up just ahead of a host of wannabee Titans (Power Boy, Zatara, Vulcan Jr., Hawk & Dove, Li’l Barda and Lagoon Boy)…

With the riotous regulars away camping, Raven opens her eyes to a potential daybreak disaster as ‘Home with the Trigons’ finds her dressed by her dad for a change. Meanwhile, ‘Let’s Do Lunch’ finds Blue Beetle losing a very public argument with his backpack and when the kids bring their super-animal pals in, it all goes horribly wrong. At least they decide that the “First Rule of Pet Club is: We Don’t Talk About Pet Club”…

This insanely addictive initial collection then wraps up with visual and word puzzles ‘How Many Beast Boy Alpacas Can You Count?’ and ‘Blue Beetle Backpack Language Translation!’, a huge and inclusive Pin-up of ‘The Tiny Titans of Sidekick City Elementary’ and a hilarious ‘Tiny Titans “Growth Chart”’

Despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts or The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in pure American comic-bookery – are outrageously unforgettable yarns and gags no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Valerian – The Complete Collection volume 2


By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-356-7

Valérian is arguably the most influential pictorial science fiction series ever published – and yes, I am including both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in that expansive and undoubtedly contentious statement.

Although to a large extent those venerable newspaper strips formed the medium itself, anybody who has seen a Star Wars movie has seen some of Jean-Claude Méziéres & Pierre Christin’s brilliant imaginings which the filmic phenomenon has shamelessly plundered for decades: everything from the look of the Millennium Falcon to Leia’s Slave Girl outfit…

Simply put, more carbon-based lifeforms have experienced and marvelled at the uniquely innovative, grungy, lived-in tech realism and light-hearted swashbuckling roller-coasting of Méziéres & Christin than any other cartoon spacer ever imagined possible.

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent launched in the November 9th 1967 edition of Pilote (#420, running until February 15th 1968). Although it was a huge hit, graphic album compilations only began with second tale The City of Shifting Waters, as all concerned considered the first yarn as a work-in-progress and not quite up to a preferred standard.

You can judge for yourself, by getting hold of the previous hardcover compilation volume…

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in science fiction triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella. Other notable successes of the era include Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane cosmic excursions, which all – with Valérian – stimulated mass public reception to science fiction and led to the creation of dedicated fantasy periodical Métal Hurlant in 1977.

Valérian and Laureline (as the series became) was a light-hearted, wildly imaginative time-travel adventure-romp (a bit like Doctor Who, but not really all that much), drenched in wry, satirical, humanist and political social commentary, starring (at least at first) an affable, brawny, capably unimaginative and by-the-book cop tasked with protecting the universal time-lines and counteracting paradoxes caused by casual time-travellers…

In the course of the first escapade Valerian picked up fiery, capable Laureline – originating in the 11th century but later becoming our hero’s (far smarter) assistant and deputy. The indomitable girl trained as a Spatio-Temporal operative and was soon an accompanying Val on missions throughout time and space… luckily for him…

Valérian adventures were initially serialised in weekly Pilote until the conclusion of 13th adventure The Rage of Hypsis (January 1st-September 1st 1985) after which the mind-bending exploits were simply premiered as all-new complete graphic novels, until the magnificent saga concluded in 2010.

(One clarifying note: in the canon “Hypsis” is counted as the twelfth tale, due to the collected albums being numbered from The City of Shifting Waters. When Bad Dreams was finally released in a collected edition in 1983 it was given the number #0).

This splendid second oversized hardback compendium – designed to cash in on this summer’s spectacular movie adaptation from Luc Besson – once again boasts a wealth of text features. These include the next chapter of the continuing ‘Interview Luc Besson, Jean-Claude Méziéres and Pierre Christin’, after which Stan Barets picks out the creative highpoints and methodology of the creators in his essay ‘The Intergalactic Unites the Human Race!’.

‘Valerian in His Own Time’ traces the development of the strip in France, with unseen and remastered art examples. Between 1981 and 1985, Dargaud-Canada and Dargaud-USA published a quartet of albums in English (with a limited UK imprint from Hodder-Dargaud) under the umbrella title Valerian: Spatiotemporal Agent. Written by Will Eisner and Daniel Richie, the original Introductions to two pertinent early editions are included here after which ‘The Stories in this Book’ offers context and a taste of things to come…

Once more re-presenting a trio of classic formative fantasy-fests, the fabulous fun recommences here with The Land Without Stars. This originally ran in Pilote #570-592 (October 8th 1970 to March 11th 1971) and follows the Spatio-Temporal agents as they undertake a tedious pro forma inspection of a cluster of new Terran colonies in the Ukbar star-system at the very edge of inter-galactic space…

However, the mission soon goes awry when a wandering world is detected on a collision course with the system and Valerian, still labouring under the effects of too many local alcoholic “diplomatic protocols”, decides that they should investigate at close quarters…

Despite being pickled, the rather insufferable lead agent lands with his long-suffering assistant on the runaway planet and discovers that this celestial maverick is hollow. Moreover, a thriving ancient culture or three thrive there, utterly unaware that they are not the only beings in all of creation…

Typically, however, of sentient beings everywhere, two of the civilisations are currently locked in a millennia-old war, armed and supplied by the third…

After an accident wrecks their exploratory scout ship Valerian and Laureline deduce the constant warfare originally caused the hollow world to tumble unchecked through space and will eventually result in its complete destruction, so in short order the professional meddlers split up to infiltrate the warring nations of Malka and Valsennar.

However, they are in for more surprises. Both city-states are divided on gender grounds, with Malka home to prodigious warrior women who subjugate their effete and feeble males whilst the aristocratically foppish but deadly dandies of Valsennar delight in beautiful, proficient and lethally lovely ladies – but only as totally compliant servants and chattels…

The highly-trained Galaxity operatives quickly rise in the ranks of each court – from slaves and toys to perfectly placed, trusted servants – and soon have ample opportunity to change the nature of the doomed civilisations within the collision-course world, after which the heroes even concoct a cannily cunning method of ending the planet’s random perambulations; giving it a stable orbit and new lease on life…

All in a day’s work, naturally, although it does take a few months to sort out: still what’s time to a couple of brilliant Spatio-Temporal agents?

Happily, this mind-boggling socio-sexual satire is packed with astounding action, imaginative imagery and fantastic creatures to provide zest to a plot that has since become rather overused – sure proof of the quality of this delightful, so-often imitated original yarn – but, as always, the space-opera is fun-filled, witty, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious. Drenched in wickedly wide-eyed wonderment, science fiction sagas have never been better than this.

Welcome to Alflolol was first seen in Pilote #631-652 (December 1971-May 1972) and starts as the Spatio-Temporal agents depart from Technorog, a desolate industrial planet whose vast resources are crucial to the running of human civilisation.

So vital in fact, that Galaxity sends her best agents just to inspect it every now and then…

As the S-T agents carefully negotiate the immense forcefield and lethal asteroid belt that surrounds the harsh, ferociously capitalistic factory world, Laureline is repeatedly possessed by an uncanny force. The fits draw the couple to an immense ship which has foundered between the floating rocks and searing energy screen…

Investigating the vessel, which is purposely open to hard vacuum, Laureline again lapses into a glowing coma and eerily drifts towards a family of incredibly powerful yet rustically affable alien primitives sitting on the hull of their seemingly derelict vehicle.

Valerian, closely following behind, prevents a terrible accident to his companion and is warmly greeted by the strangers, who explain that the eldest of their contingent is very ill and in her fevered throes has locked minds with his female. If they’re not careful, both might die…

Garrulous, easy-going Argol agrees to let Valerian treat the problem, so his wife Orgal telekinetically transports the Earthlings, her entire family and their pet Gumun back to the Earthlings’ astroship in mere moments. Soon, Terran technology has saved both human and alien and Argol settles back to explain what has happened…

These wanderers are naively friendly and immensely long-lived – like all their species – and are simply returning to their homeworld Alflolol after an amusing and gentle perambulation through space. However, since their departure – 4,000 Earth years ago – somebody else has moved in…

Problems soon occur. Despite the Technorog Governor’s outraged protests, Galaxity law is clear and the Alflololians must be allowed back on their planet, no matter the cost to productivity or profits…

However, the wheedling plutocrat – secure in his job’s importance to the empire – realises he doesn’t have to hand over the keys, just make room for five meekly polite cosmic gypsies. The nomadic returnees, meanwhile, simply cannot grasp the concept of business and don’t understand why anybody would put up lots of flimsy, ugly buildings which spoil the hunting……

As Valerian allows the businessmen to walk all over the aliens’ rights, Laureline goes berserk: arguing for Argol’s family whilst indulging in a little light-hearted sabotage because the gentle giants won’t do it for themselves…

She needn’t bother though: their mere presence and incredible abilities are enough to disrupt the Governor’s precious productivity, especially when they get bored of sterile human accommodations and return to their ancestral ranges…

The real crisis only begins when the rest of the nomadic Alflololians return: one hundred separate ships full of natives protected by law and fully entitled to reclaim their homes.

The humans won’t leave, however, and soon the Governor is herding the wanderers onto a reservation and demanding they work if they want to eat.

Big mistake…

Poignantly challenging if not actually ruthlessly crusading, this is one of the earliest comics tales to catch the 1970s wave of ecological awareness and still ranks amongst the very best to explore the social iniquities which beset indigenous peoples at a time when most European ex-empires were still grudgingly divesting themselves of their colonial possessions.

The theme of Capitalism versus Native Culture and the eternal struggle between territorial imperatives, moral rights and holy profit have seldom been dealt with in such an effective, sardonic and hilariously surreal manner. Ending on an outrageous twist, the story has lost none of its wit and punch forty years later.

And, of course, there’s the usual glorious blend of astounding action, compelling imagery and fantastic creatures to leaven the morality play with space-operatic, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious wide-eyed wonderment…

Concluding the intergalactic investigations this go-round is Birds of the Master (originally serialised in Pilote #710-720 from June 14th to September 16th 1973) rejoining our now perpetually bickering odd couple as they are drawn into an eerie space Sargasso and marooned on a planetoid that has become a cemetery for spaceships.

Swept away by a tidal wave over a colossal waterfall, they are drowning amidst beds of kelp when a motley band of fisherfolk – comprised of many different species – haul the Spatio-Temporal agents aboard a ramshackle boat. In the skies high above, a vast cloud of malevolent birds circle, the same incredible creatures which had brought down their astroship.

Compelled to join in gathering the seaweed, the humans soon learn that the crop is destined for a mysterious unseen overlord dubbed The Master and the critically circling ugly avians are his enforcers: violent creatures inflicting madness with a bite…

The workers are nothing but despondent slaves. Bitterly discontented recent arrival Sül takes it upon himself to teach Valerian and Laureline what they need to know to survive as the slimy cargo is torturously shipped across bleak, unforgiving and forlorn terrain. As they toil onwards the newcomers observe an entire society all dedicated to providing vast amounts of food for the hidden overlord.

At the central gathering point where assorted food items from a hundred different sources are reduced to a liquid mass dubbed “Klaar” one of the starving toilers cracks, seeking to consume a morsel of the Master’s provender, and is immediately set upon by the sinister Birds of Madness. Furious Sül breaks too and – dashing to the worker’s aid – is similarly accosted. Cautious Valerian can barely stop his partner using her concealed ray-weapons in a futile attempt to save them…

When the Birds are done the battered survivors can barely speak. The first rebel now believes he can fly whilst Sül is left a babbling, aggressive shadow of his former self.

With the Klaar safely dispatched through a complex system of pipes to a distant hidden destination, the emaciated workers fall upon the spilled scraps before hurling the latest victims of the birds into the Pit of Crazies. Despite being thoroughly beaten in the melee, our heroes follow and join Sül in a peculiar enclave of deranged beings, each manifesting their own brand of bewilderment yet all sharing the same strange and disturbing speech impediment…

Valerian and Laureline are again viciously attacked when they seek aid from the “sane” slaves, and instead opt to follow the pipeline with the most ambulatory of the insane, heading deep into increasingly inhospitable country to confront the hidden cause of all their woes.

At first frantically followed by the outraged slave force, the strange crew eventually outdistance their pursuers as they head deeper into the harsh, barren wastelands until they are attacked by the ever-circling birds. As a result, the Spatio-Temporal agents are also infected by the speech-wrecking madness…

Pressing on regardless, the raving rovers follow an eerie glowing mist and at last face the vile creature which has lured, trapped and enslaved so many sentient beings. Subjected to an overwhelming psychic assault that no single mind – sane or otherwise – could resist, all hope seems lost.

Happily, the Master has never faced anyone as ingenious as Laureline and her desperate plan enables the assembled “Loonies” to fight back and drive the predatory horror off-planet and into the depths of space…

With the creature’s pernicious influence dispelled, the voyagers’ senses return and the victims head back to the settlements where the slaves have descended into a food-fuelled debauch. Surprisingly, once Valerian and Laureline have freed and repaired their astroship from the stellar graveyard, only Sül wants to leave with them…

Expansive, thrilling, funny, clever and holding back one last wry twist in the tale, The Birds of the Master might be one of the lesser galactic classics of this superb series, but it still packs a gripping narrative punch and some of the most impressive artwork ever to grace sci-fi comics.

These spectacular space-opera romps are fun-filled, action-packed, conceptually engaging and mind-bogglingly ingenious: drenched in wide-eyed fantasy wonderment, this is a slice of sheer science fiction heaven that has never been bettered…
© Dargaud Paris, 2016 by Christin, Méziéres & Tranlệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2016 Cinebook Ltd.

Amazing Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt


By J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, Bob McLeod & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2330-9 (HC)                    978-0-7851-3450-3 (TPB)

A character with the longevity and sheer number of separate venues to shine in as Spider-Man throws up a lot of dross over the decades, but is also infinitely evergreen when thoughtfully handled by top flight creators. Sometimes the writers and artists involved don’t even realise at the time that their crafting something memorable and timelessly special…

Kraven’s Last Hunt (originally collected as Spiderman: Fearful Symmetry) is just such a saga and is thankfully handily available in a variety of formats from spiffy hardback to cheap‘n’cheerful trade paperback – and now even as a digital edition for all true sons and daughters of the 21st century…

Heck, there’s even a picture-free novelisation by Neil Kleid out there, but perhaps that’s a step too far for most comics addicts…

The eerie psycho-drama originally ran in the October and November 1987 issues of Web of, Amazing, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man; following darkly obsessed and suicidal Russian émigré Kraven the Hunter as years of rivalry and constant defeats are turned around, leading the aging monster inexorably to his greatest triumph and ultimate downfall.

In the process the sinister stalker conquers, inters and Oedipally replaces his arch-nemesis, before inevitably succumbing to his own tragic just deserts.

After years of pointless struggle, Kraven here is back-written into an intrinsically noble but twisted relic of a bygone era, whose compulsion to defeat Spider-Man spirals into a demented desire to consume and then become him. The Hunter’s initial success only serves to highlight the fundamental differences between him and his prey, such as how each man deals with the savagely cannibalistic rat/man hybrid Vermin who brutally rampages through the rain-soaked and terrified city in a compelling and efficient sub-plot, or with those ordinary people who impinge upon the lives of protagonist and antagonist equally.

After years of generally C-List villainy, Kraven’s latest plan initial succeeds in ‘Coffin’ (Web of Spider-Man #31) after the Hunter ritualistically devours his foe’s totems before ambushing the webspinner…

In ‘Crawling’ (Amazing Spider-Man #31), sewer-dwelling psychopath Vermin begins brutally marauding through a sodden city, drawing delusional “Spider the Hunter” – now wearing his foe’s pelt (for which read Spider-Man costume) – into conflict. Kraven is attempting to take his beaten enemy’s place even as newlywed Mary Jane Watson-Parker starts really worrying over the current whereabouts of her husband…

When she sees Spider-Man savagely thrashing a pack of street thugs, she knows the man standing before her isn’t Peter…

‘Descent’ (Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #131) sees Kraven capture Vermin and finally acknowledge that his own victory is not what he wanted, before seemingly dead and buried Peter Parker literally resurfaces in ‘Resurrection’ (WoS #31) to battle his own shattering psychological demons. Final scores are settled in ‘Thunder’ (ASM #32), before all the horror comes to a shocking halt in PPSS #132’s epic confrontation ‘Ascending’

Despite its heavy psychological underpinnings, Fearful Symmetry/Kraven’s Last Hunt is a gripping helter-skelter thrill ride, simultaneously moody and fast-paced. Writer J.M. DeMatteis curtails his tendency to overwrite, stifles his leanings toward snappy one-liners or maudlin sentimentality and lets terror and trauma rule, giving art team Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod plenty of opportunities to impress with traditional yet spectacular comic art set-pieces.

This series electrified Spider-Man fans when it first appeared and it has lost none of its power today. This is a must-have item for any fan of the Amazing Arachnid or the superhero medium.
© 1989, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle


By David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., Bob Layton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3095-6(HB)                 978-0-7851-2043-8(TPB)

Tony Stark is a millionaire inventor who moonlights as a superhero: wearing a suit of armour stuffed with his own ingenious creations. The supreme technologist hates to lose and constantly upgrades his gear, making Iron Man is one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. However, at the time of these tales (reprinting Iron Man #120-128 spanning March to November 1979), the unrelenting pressure of running a multi-national corporation and saving the world daily has started to show itself in the subtle increase in Tony Stark’s partying – and drinking.

This light, breezy compilation contains some of the best mainstream super-hero sagas of the 1980s but is also regarded as one of the most remarkable, transformative and powerfully redemptive tales of the period (crafted by David Michelinie, John Romita Jr., Carmine Infantino and Bob Layton), as an epic battle of Good against Evil became seditiously relevant to the readership through its full-on confrontation of a modern social evil.

Following an already stellar run of stories, ‘The Old Man and the Sea Prince!’ (by Michelinie, Romita Jr. & Layton) found the Armoured Avenger battling amphibian superman and sometime ally the Sub-Mariner before uniting against officious military martinets intent on dislodging aged hermit Hiram Cross from the strategically useful island he lived on.

And unsuspected in the background, financial predator Justin Hammer continued his preparations to destroy Iron Man and break Stark’s financial empire…

His first strike was to override the amazing armour in the middle of an underwater duel in ‘A Ruse by Any Other Name…’ but even with that handicap, Stark and his allies Bethany Cabe and Jim Rhode managed to expose unscrupulous conglomerate Roxxon as the cause of all Hiram’s woes… not that it did them any good…

Infantino then pencils a refitted recap of Iron Man’s origins in ‘Journey’ before Hammer steps up his campaign in #123’s ‘Casino Fatale!’ (Michelinie, Romita Jr. & Layton) as a small army of hired villains attack the hero in Atlantic City just when the Iron Man suit is at its most gremlin-afflicted…

The assault escalates in ‘Pieces of Hate!’ (“Layton & Friends” sharing inking duties) but even after scoring an incredible, improbable victory Stark is left reeling when Hammer plays his ace. Taking full control of Iron Man’s armour, the evil plutocrat makes Stark the unwilling accomplice and murder weapon in a monstrous crime, pushing the hero over the edge and into a spiral of despair…

After his super-sophisticated suit “malfunctions” again, killing a foreign ambassador at a major diplomatic function the disgraced and grieving Stark surrenders the armour to the authorities. However, undaunted and finally aware of what’s been going on, he enlists new Ant-Man Scott Lang to his small band of allies and goes undercover to find his hidden enemy in #125’s ‘The Monaco Prelude’.

Nonetheless, the villain seems triumphant when ‘The Hammer Strikes!’, abducting the heroes and gloatingly revealing his dastardly scheme. However, the smirking monster has grievously underestimated his rival’s capabilities and the power of Iron Man in the spectacular final clash ‘…A Man’s Home is His Battlefield!’

Tragically, when the dust settles and the bad guys are all disposed of, Stark has time to obsess over the lives lost and turns to the booze that has increasingly been his only solace in the past months…

The fall and rise of a hero is a classic plot, and it’s seldom been better used in the graphic narrative medium and never bettered in the super-hero field than in ‘Demon in a Bottle’ as the traumatised hero plumbs the depths of grief and guilt, buries himself in pity, and alienates all his friends and allies before an unlikely intervention forces him to take a long, hard look at his life and actions…

Available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook, Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle is a complex and very mature tale for kids of all ages, and an unforgettable instance of Triumph and Tragedy perfectly told. If you have let this tale pass you by, you are the poorer for it and should amend that situation as soon as possible.
© 1984, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Justice League International volume 1


By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, Al Gordon & Terry Austin (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-787-7(HB)                      978-1-4012-1739-6(TPB)

Way back in 1986 DC’s editorial leaders felt their then-vast 50-year continuity was stopping them winning new readers. The solution was a colossal braided-mega series to streamline, redefine and even add new characters to the mix.

The worlds-shattering, reality-altering bombast of Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in such spectacular commercial success, those movers-&shakers must have felt more than justified in revamping a number of their hoariest icons for their next fifty years of publishing. As well as Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, the moribund and unhappy Justice League of America was earmarked for a radical revision.

Editor Andy Helfer assembled plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis and untried penciller Kevin Maguire to produce an utterly new approach to the superhero monolith: they played them for laughs…

The series launched as Justice League with a May 1987 cover-date before retitling itself as Justice League International with #7 (November) and all those splendidly enticing tales can be found here.

The new super-team was formed from the ashes of the old on the basis of events comprising follow-up DC crossover-event Legends. The gathering comprised a roster of relative second-stringers as America’s newest champions – Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Dr. Fate, Guy Gardner/Green Lantern, and Mr. Miracle with heavyweights Batman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz as nominal straight-men.

As the often-silly saga unfolded the squad was supplemented by Captain Atom, Booster Gold, Dr. Light, and Russian mecha-warrior Rocket Red.

According to Keith Giffen’s reflective Introduction the initial roster was mandated from on high, but there’s certainly no stiffness or character favouritism apparent in these early tales.

Introducing the charismatic filthy-rich manipulator Maxwell Lord – who used wealth and influence to recreate the super-team – the creators took their time, crafting a convoluted mystery that took an entire year to play out (happily there’s a second volume sitting on my “to be re-read again” pile and another nostalgic review coming soon!).

The neophyte and rather shambolic team started their march to glory by fighting and defeating a bunch of rather inept terrorist bombers in initial outing ‘Born Again’ (inked by Terry Austin), before confronting displaced alien heroes determined to abolish nuclear weapons in a 2-part thriller ‘Make War No More’ and ‘Meltdown’ before seeing off old-fashioned super-creeps the Royal Flush Gang in #4’s ‘Winning Hand’, which added future-born tech hero Booster Gold to the mix.

The Creeper outrageously guest-starred in ‘Gray Life, Gray Dreams’ and concluding chapter ‘Massacre in Gray’: joining forces against an immortal man tasked by supernal gods with collecting mankind’s excess dream essence. When he went mad and rebelled, all of humanity was imperilled…

Lord’s Byzantine scheme bore fruit in #7’s ‘Justice League… International’ as the team achieved the status of a UN agency, with rights, privileges and embassies in every corner of the World…

Sadly, that merely meant that phase two of his plan came into play and deadly links to New God hellworld Apokolips began to be revealed…

To Be Continued…

Available as an impressive hardcover, accessible trade paperback and even digitally for the go-getting moderns among you, these wild and woolly tales are a perfect panacea to all the doom and gloom that infests so much of today’s comics content.

I’m also happy to say that the editors found room to include alternate covers, the great Ed Hannigan, Maguire & Austin JLI poster from 1987 plus a fact and picture-packed Who’s Who entry to back up the fun with some irrefutable facts about the World’s Greatest Superheroes…

These wonderful yarns are full of sharp lines and genuinely gleeful situations, perfect for young fans and old addicts alike and still as appealing today. That the art is still great is no surprise and the action still engrossing most welcome, but to find that the jokes are still funny is a glorious relief. Indulge yourself and join that secret comics brotherhood who greet each other with the fateful mantra “Bwah-Hah-Hah!”…
© 1987, 2008 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi has fought beside one of their number before…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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