Asterix and the Roman Agent


By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Brockhampton/Knight Books)
ISBN: 0-340-20285-8

This is another one purely for driven nostalgics, consumed collectors and historical aficionados, highlighting the marvellous variety of formats and methods used to elevate and disseminate brilliant comics from the gutters of prejudice by turning them into proper books…

One of the most-read series in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, if you’re planning a trip…) spinning off from his hilarious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors. The diminutive, doughty hero was created as the transformative 1960s began by two of the art-form’s greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and even though their perfect partnership ended in 1977 the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

When Pilote launched in 1959 Asterix was a massive hit from the very start. At first Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first epic escapade was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death the publication rate dropped from two books per year to one volume every three to five).

By 1967 the strip occupied all Uderzo’s attention. In 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation and when Goscinny passed away three years later Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes thereafter.

Like all great literary classics the premise works on two levels: for younger readers as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky, bullying baddies always getting their just deserts and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, enhanced here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue. (Me, I still admire a divinely delivered “Paff!” to the snoot as much as any painfully potent pun or dry cutting jibe…)

The feature debuted in Pilote #1 (29th October 1959, with the first page actually appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, June 1st 1959). The stories were set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast where a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the all-conquering Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Alternately and alternatively the tales took the heroes anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50BC, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the fantastic lands of the Empire and beyond…

Unable to defeat or even contain these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorted to a desperate policy of containment with the seaside hamlet perpetually hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend…

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, their gradual rise to prominence this side of the pond was tentative but as unstoppable as Obelix’s pursuit of roast boar or Roman playmates…

The translated albums are available in a wealth of differing formats and earlier editions going all the way back to the first 1969 Brockhampton editions (still readily available from a variety of retail and internet vendors – or even your local charity shop and jumble sale).

Asterix and the Roman Agent premiered in 1970 in Pilote #531-552, simultaneously making the jump to a French album and English translated editions in 1972 – from when this delightful digest-sized (212 x 150mm), kid-friendly collectors’ item originates, and highlighted homeland insecurity as Caesar, under attack by the Roman Senate over the indomitable, unconquerable Gauls, deploys his greatest weapon: a double-edged sword named Tortuous Convolvulus, whose every word and gesture seems to stir ill-feeling and conflict in all who meet him.

Where Force of Arms has failed the wily despot hopes this living weapon of mass of dissension might forever fracture the Gauls’ unshakable comradeship and solidarity with a dose of Roman entente dis-cordiale

On the crossing, just two minutes with the conniving Convolvulus has a sworn brotherhood of pirates at each other’s throats, and even while discussing the plan with Aquarium’s commander Felix Platypus, the agent’s unique gift sows discord and violence, so when he finally enters the village it’s not long before the high-spirited and fractious Gauls are at war with each other…

The women are cattily sniping at each other, the traders are trading blows and even Asterix and Obelix are on the outs. But that’s not the worst of it: somehow the idea has gotten around that their sharp little champion has sold out to the Romans…

With discord rife, the Romans soon have the secret of the magic potion too – or do they? The cunningly ingenious Convolvulus hasn’t reckoned on two things: the sheer dimness of Imperial troops and the invaluable power of true friendship, leaving Asterix and Obelix a way to overcome their differences, turn the tables and once more save the day.

At last, the agent provocateur is forced to realise that sometimes one can be too smart for one’s own good…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this yarn was reputedly based on lingering ill-feeling following an internal power-struggle at Pilote which almost cost editor Goscinny his job. The original title for the tale was La Zizanie – “The Ill-feeling” or “The Dissension”. Seen through the lens of forty years of distance, however, all that can be seen now is stinging, clever, witty observational comedy and magnificently engaging adventure, and surely that’s what matters most?

Asterix sagas are always stuffed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive action, illustrated in a magically enticing manner. These are perfect comics that everyone should read over and over again.

Surely you don’t disagree?
Text © 1970 Dargaud Editeur. English language text Text © Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.

Hellraisers – a Graphic Biography


By Robert Sellers & JAKe (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-906838-36-2

I’m a sucker for comics biographies, and when I saw this superbly engaging and imaginative one on the shelves of my local library I just couldn’t resist a peek…

Robert Sellers is a former stand-up comedian and current film journalist with prose biographies of Sting, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery and the Monty Python phenomenon to his name, as well a regular contributor to periodicals and magazines such as The Independent, Empire, Total Film, SFX and Cinema Retro. He has also been seen on TV.

In 2009 he published a magnificent history of brilliance and excess in his “Life and Inebriated Times of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed” in 2011 in collaboration with prestigious illustrator, designer and animator JAKe (How to Speak Wookiee, cartoon series Geekboy, Mighty Book of Boosh, The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land and so much more, both singly and with the studio Detonator which he co-founded). The artist keeps himself to himself and lets his superb artistry do all the talking.

Self-adapted from his prose history of the iconic barnstorming British film and theatre legends Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole, Sellers here transformed Hellraisers into a pictorial feast, featuring the unique lives of a quartet of new wave, working class thespian heroes – more famed for boozing and brawling than acting – into a masterful parable and celebration of the vital, vibrant creative force of rebellion, interpreted with savage, witty style in ferociously addictive and expressive monochrome cartoon and caricature by the enigmatic artist.

Working on the principle that a Hellraiser is “a person who causes trouble by violent, drunken or outrageous behaviour” and cloaked in the guise of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the salutary fable opens as another drunken reprobate is thrown out of another pub. It’s Christmas Eve at the Rose & Crown of Broken Dreams and Martin should be home with his wife and son.

After again disgracing himself the pathetic drunk staggers back, shaking with DT’s and unexpunged rage to his loving but scared family, only to pass out. He is awoken by his hellraising father who drank and smoked himself to death seven years ago…

Told that he has one last chance to save himself, Martin is warned that he will be visited by four spirits (no, not that sort) who will regale him with the stories of their lives and fates and failures and triumphs …

What follows is a beguiling journey of bitter self-discovery as Burton, Harris, Reed and O’Toole (still alive but part of the visitation of “spooky buggers” since it’s just a matter of time, my dear boy) recount their own sodden histories, experiences and considerations in an attempt to turn the neophyte around.

They’re certainly not that repentant, however, and even proud of the excesses and sheer exuberant manly mythology they’ve made of their lives…

Managing the masterful magic trick of perfectly capturing the sheer charismatic force and personality of these giants of their craft and willing accomplices in their own downfalls, this superb saga even ends on an upbeat note, but only after cataloguing the incredible achievements, starry careers, broken relationships, impossibly impressive and frequently hilarious exploits of debauchery, intoxication and affray perpetrated singly and in unison by the departed, unquiet soused souls…

Filled with the legendary exploits and barroom legends of four astoundingly gifted men who couldn’t stop breaking rules and hearts (especially their own), blessed or cursed with infinitely unquenchable thirsts for the hard stuff and appetites for self-destruction, this intoxicating and so very tasty tome venerates the myths these unforgettable icons promulgated and built around themselves, but never descends into pious recrimination or laudatory gratification.

It’s just how they were…

Sellers has the gift of forensic language and perfectly reproduces the voices and idiom of each star even as JAKe perfectly blends shocking historical reportage with evocative surreal metafiction in this wonderful example of the power of sequential narrative.

Clever, witty and unmissable.
© 2010 Robert Sellers and JAKe. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo book 1: (The Ronin)


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-362-5     978-0-93019-335-5 (2005 edition)

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black and white comicbook explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure – a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented creator Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic peripatetic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1 (1984), subsequently appearing there on his own terms as well as in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakaiwas born in 1953 inKyoto,Japanbefore the family emigrated toHawaiiin 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the incredible Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astonishingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan or the beginning of the 17th century, simultaneously sampling some classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla. The epic saga specifically recounts the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a Ronin or masterless, wandering Samurai, making an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard for hire. As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, long-suffering, conscientious and heroic bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

The Lepine Legend appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 and 14) before leaping into his own long-running series and this initial collection gathers those key tales and material from the Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special, from 1984-1986.

The Sublime Swordsbun has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with over 29 graphic novel collections and books to date. He has also guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation – he even almost made it into his own small-screen show but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys.

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public, and in 2009 current publisher Dark Horse Comics commissioned an all-new, fully painted anniversary tale which allowed the creator to hone his considerable skills with watercolours.

This debut monochrome compilation opens with ‘The Goblin of Adachigahara’ from 1984 as a weary warrior trudges through the snow and accepts hospitality from a lonely old woman. In return for food and a night’s shelter he tells her of his history and how he lost his master at the battle waged near this hovel many years ago.

Warring against usurper Lord Hikiji, the wanderer’s noble clan chief was betrayed by trusted General Toda and all the rabbit could do was preserve the falling leader’s body from further shame and desecration. Since that time he has been a masterless itinerant living out his tragic Karma…

Now his journey has brought him back to the region of his greatest shame… and although he doesn’t know it, to the shack of foul Toda’s wife and the ghastly debased creature she still loves…

That incredible clash of hero against horror led to ‘Lone Rabbit and Child!’ which set up major plot threads for the future as the Ronin was hired by beautiful swordswoman Tomoe Ame to protect her Lord Noriyuki. The callow youth had been travelling to the capital to ratify his role as leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan following the death of his father, but the party had been repeatedly attacked by ninjas working for the infamous Hikiji – now risen high in the Emperor’s hierarchy.

The insidious schemer was determined to foil the investiture and appropriate the Geishu properties for himself, but had not reckoned on fate and the prowess of the lethally adept Usagi…

In the sequel, as Tomoe recovered from wounds incurred in the defence of her young master and Noriyuki slowly adapted to the subtly perilous life as Lord of a powerful clan, Hikiji’s scapegoat committed suicide and left a damning testament to the villain’s perfidy. But even though a fruitless pursuit of ‘The Confession’ led the Rabbit Ronin to danger and momentary joy it provided no lasting peace or justice…

‘Bounty Hunter’ added outrageous comedy to the all-action mix when conniving thief-taker Gennosuké bamboozled the big hearted bunny into joining in a potentially profitable hunt for a band of outlaw brothers after which Usagi found himself on the wrong side of the law when his noble efforts to save a caravan from bandits resulted in his being rewarded with a stolen steed and branded a ‘Horse Thief’.

‘Village of Fear’ leapt straight into terror territory when the wandering samurai stumbled into a township trapped by a were-beast who treated the peasants as its rapidly-dwindling larder…

Moments of peace and contemplation were few in the Yojimbo’s life but, even when a drunken horde interrupted ‘A Quiet Meal’, the rabbit’s patience took a lot of rousing. Some folks however, really don’t know when to stop boozing and leave well enough alone…

‘Blind Swordspig’ is a masterful comedic parody that also sets up future conflicts as the landless lepus meets a formidable companion on the road whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes. How tragic then that the affable Ino is also a ruthless, blood-spilling outlaw who won’t let comradeship affect his hunger for freedom or carnage…

A hint of past tragedies informs ‘Homecoming!’ parts 1 and 2, as the penniless roving, Ronin accidentally returns to the village of his birth and finds his first love wedded to his oldest rival. Moreover when invading ninjas starving in the deepest of winters threaten the village, they take as hostage the son who should have been Usagi’s…

This poignant and heartbreaking glimpse into the past is gloriously offset by the concluding inclusion as ‘Bounty Hunter II’ sees the uproarious return of the bombastic Gennosuké who is again determined to enlist the lethally skilled and formidable swordsbun in a dangerously profitable get-rich-quick scheme involving literally hordes of hostile criminals…

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny, thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a magical saga of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories.

Sheer comicbook poetry by a True Master…
Text and illustrations © 1987, 2005 Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1987, 2005 Fantagraphics books. All rights reserved.

Monkeywanger – the Crimes of Oscar Dirlewanger (Special Edition)


By Peeler Watt Ph.D., illustrated by MIND, Jahn Fermindoza & Red Ink studios
ISBN: 978-1-47928-230-2

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics and this collection – gathering the first three books of an epic historical exposé of one of humanity’s greatest monsters – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal a mere smattering of the atrocities perpetrated by macabre madman Oskar Paul Dirlewanger, one of the most infamous and deviant of villains to find purpose, outlet and sanction under the Nazis…

This ambitiously oversized (280x216mm) mostly blood-red-and-monochrome horror story by historian Peeler Watt (not his real name) and animator/illustrator Mike Ian Noble Dobson (augmented and supplemented by Jahn Fermindoza and Filipino studio Red Ink Animation: Van Winkle Amaranto, Silvan Amante, Mikaela and Sharon Amaranto, Clewin Mars & Flor Villa) introduces fictionalised antagonist Untersturmfuhrer Otto Voge (an amalgam of actual people caught up in Dirlewanger’s sphere of unholy influence), a dedicated, passionate patriotic German cop with a secret who volunteered for active duty with the SS and lived to regret it…

The tale begins, after a brief and brutal comic strip précis of the political, social and religious background, with Voge arriving in the Nazi controlled Jewish ghetto of Lublin in August 1941 and seeing first-hand the atrocities perpetrated by Penal Battalion Oranieburg – an SS division personally founded by Dirlewanger from criminal scum too debased for the regular army.

Due to a clerical error Voge was assigned to the appalling dreg unit rather than a decent and proper army division on active service and soon realises that the soldiers have their commanding officer’s full approval to loot, brutalise and torture the subjugated Poles – Jewish or otherwise.

The deviant Captain is nonetheless very impressed with his new subordinate’s obvious martial prowess. After savage skirmishes in the devastated city the Captain puts Voge forward for an Iron Cross, impressing the young leutnant with his obvious craving for real combat on the Russian Front rather than glorified guard duty in the ghetto.

Dirlewanger is an odd character, a spit-and-polish martinet with terrifying self-composure: ruthlessly cruel, fiercely passionate in his prejudices but utterly devoted to the pet monkey “Moses” which is never far from his side…

Voge’s fellow officers are little better than the conscripted men, but they would all be horrified if they knew their comrade’s dark secret: Voge is a Soviet sleeper agent who has been reporting to his Communist paymasters since his days as a peace-time policeman…

When Dirlewanger sends his men on another raid to rob and torment the subjugated Jews, Voge tries to curb their worst excesses but, as partisan’s attack the soldiers, the Leutnant is again forced to display his talent for combat, further cementing his commander’s favourable impressions. As Jewish women and children are rounded up Voge pushes his luck and manages to save one mother and her mentally deficient child from the fate of the others…

As the days pass Voge learns more about his outcast fellows and their reprehensible chief. Dirlewanger was a decorated hero in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, but also a psychopathic killer, and child-molester (according to some historians he was also a sadist and necrophiliac and given the dubious distinction of being “the most evil man in the SS”) …but certainly no fool.

Voge finds it increasingly impossible to stay uninvolved and concentrate on either his ostensible duties or covert mission and soon is deeply embroiled in the criminal machinations of the Battalion whilst simultaneously secretly working with Jewish Partisans. His only concern is to save innocent civilians from his debauched and murderous German comrades, but finds that they are equally endangered by their own ruthlessly driven and fanatical Resistance fighters and Voge’s increasingly impatient Russian spymasters…

The day is swiftly approaching when the mounting, conflicting pressures will surely cause a fatal misstep, but when Dirlewanger gets word from a Jewish informant of a Catholic convent hiding Hebrew girls that should be spicing up the Nazi’s private brothel,  it soon becomes clear that Voge’s own morality might be his actual undoing.

Painfully aware that his now suspicious commander was playing with him, Voge moves too late to save the girls and, after another ferocious clash between partisans and battalion soldiers, realises a final confrontation is now unavoidable…

Dark, brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly adult in nature, Monkeywanger is a powerful story of war, obsession and duty that will certainly impress fans of war stories, history buffs and devotees of fine storytelling, and there’s even the prospect of more to come …

No Trademark invoked so I’m assuming © 2012 Peeler Watt. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copy check out http://www.monkeywanger.com

You’ll Never Know Book 3: Soldier’s Heart


By C. Tyler (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-588-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: an ideal example of Art for Our Sake… 10/10

In 2009 illustrator, educator, performer and occasional cartoonist Carol Tyler (The Job Thing, Late Bloomer) published the first of a trilogy of graphic memoirs examining her tempestuous relationship with her father. Chuck, a veteran of World War II and by all measures A Good and Decent Man, had been a mystery and painful cipher to his girl for years but everything changed one day in 2002.

After six decades of brusque taciturnity and scarily obsessive sublimating self-reliance, during which he had edited his service career out of his life, Chuck suddenly and explosively opened up about his time in Africa and Europe. However, he would not or could not recall his later experiences in Italy and France as the War staggered to a close…

Disease and growing infirmity had suddenly produced in her once strong-but-distant father a terrifying openness and desire to share his long-suppressed war experiences and history.

As if suddenly speaking for an entire generation who fought and died or survived and somehow soldiered on as civilians in a society with no conception of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, Chuck Tyler began to unburden his soul.

Galvanised and hungry to learn more, Carol began creating an album of his army years but soon came up against a mental blank-period: one for which no corroborating records existed. For, as much as he could effusively recall, there was so much more that had been excised from Chuck’s mind and apparently erased by the government…

It became a quest: a relentless search for hidden truths which abruptly collapsed when the irritably mutable elder suddenly turned on her and the painful, frustrating search for the past.

In 2010, second volume Collateral Damage was released and found Carol coping with her own husband Justin’s infidelities, mental dilemmas, betrayal and desertion. This led to a resumption of the father-and-daughter recording and re-ordering of Chuck’s recollections of Italy and France (including the infamous Battle of the Bulge) whilst re-examining her own agonisingly chaotic, self-destructive existence and hidden demons.

Carol was forced to examine her troubled past through a new lens. How much did growing up the child of a devoted, loving husband who was incomprehensibly somehow a coldly, unapproachable father, shape her own parade of life-errors and marital mishaps?

Could she prevent her increasingly wild daughter Julia from perpetuating the cycle by making the same bad choices she had?

As her parents’ physical and mental states inexorably deteriorated, Chuck had become obsessed by the mystery of the missing months he’d forgotten and a potential “Government Pay-out”. In his more open and lucid moments he gratefully accepted Carol’s aid in trying to solve the dilemma and so the pair began to explore numerous Federal and Veteran’s Administrative archives and resources…

During an increasingly critical reappraisal of the family’s shared experiences, Carol subsequently discovered how her mother Hannah or “Red” had coped with dark tragedies and suppressed secrets on the Home Front, and gained enhanced perspective but no satisfactory answers to the continuing conundrum of her father.

Rushing to finish her self-appointed task of turning her father’s life into a comprehensible chronicle whilst her parents both visibly declined with every visit, Carol’s personal life was also becoming uncontrollable and too much to endure…

Exploring three generations of a family born out of collateral damage and which never truly escaped WWII, the saga concludes with the revelatory breakthrough moments of Soldier’s Heart, opening with a moving visual introduction by Carol and Red before revealing how Julia’s spiralling behavioural  problems brought a chastened and resolutely repentant Justin back into the fold. Julia’s troubles prove to have a biological and psychological basis and, whilst Justin came back into their lives, he never made it to Carol’s bed. As the once-marrieds moved into a new holding pattern, the cartoonist’s military searches brought her to the actual man of her dreams but family loyalty kept him from her too…

With ‘The Mind’ awhirl Carol found solace and renewed balance by adopting a miraculous dog before embarking on a frighteningly close shave involving Chuck, a gun and a mouse in ‘The X-mas Tale’ whilst New Year ruminations on the price soldiers always pay and how we honour the fallen in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Walking the Mat’ bring the pensive and elegiac narrative to ‘Dad’s Army Scrapbook and Tour of Duty Highlights part V: Rhineland Dec. 1944-Mar. 1945’

Here at last the researches find a crucial turning point as Chuck’s broken memories and the records pinpoint a discrepancy – although the old soldier’s recall describes his duties and exploits up to March when he was sent home, the files show that he didn’t get back to America again until November…

Further investigations and a growing network of helpful contacts lead them towards the National Archives Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and Carol resolves to take her folks on an epic road trip to Missouri. Although personally revelatory, the excursion turns into a frustrating bureaucratic nightmare in ‘Prairie Trek by Truck with Hannah and Chuck’ and advances the Tour of Duty Scrapbook not one jot.

Now the project’s very last hope is a ‘Trip to the National Archives and WWII Memorial – Washington, D.C. 2004’ but the journey is almost finished before it’s begun when Chuck’s latest home-improvement project turns the family home into an asbestos-soaked  death-trap and the old man’s toxic other self resurfaces.

With relations between father and daughter at their lowest ebb for years, the Washington excursion begins with little hope for success but leads unbelievably to a spectacular and moving breaking of the mental dam and subsequent epiphany of shocking proportions…

The story doesn’t end there but moves on to re-begin for the Tyler clan and there’s still one last moving ‘Epilogue’ before the close of this very special, grimly life-affirming account.

Ruminative, pensive and moodily elegiac with a series of stunning set-piece illustrations eerily reminiscent of American master of stoic isolation Edward Hopper blending into a mixed palette of cartooning and illustration disciplines, C. Tyler’s art adroitly mirrors her eclectic, entrancing non-sequential story-form, with a beguiling, bewildering array of styles meshing perfectly and evocatively to create a fully immersive comics experience.

Offering warmth, heartbreak, horror, humour, angst, tragedy, triumph and hope in a seductive display simultaneously charming and devastatingly effective, this grand narrative is itself constructed like a photo album (hardback, landscape and copiously expansive at 310x265mm) redefining the eternal question “How and Why Do Families Work?”

The mystery of the Soldier’s Heart is a magnificent conclusion to Tyler’s triptych of discovery and one no lover of comics or student of the human condition should miss.

© 2012 C. Tyler. All rights reserved.

The Co-operative Revolution – A Graphic Novel


By Polyp, with Paul Monaghan, Rachel Vorburg-Rugh, Gillian Lonergan, Ed May and Ian Nixon (New Internationalist on behalf of the Co-operative Group)
ISBN: 978-1-906523-19-0

You might not be aware of it but 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives – which I’ll define here as people working in community rather than competition, and applying that fundamental principle to the world of business.

Today Co-operative societies and groups have spread to every corner of the globe and proved a successful and frequently innovation-friendly alternative model to straight consume-expand-or-die Capitalism in commercial arenas as varied as wholesale and retail, agriculture, journalism, banking, car-making, textiles, construction, hotel management, all sorts of service industries and even Healthcare provision.

The potential of the simple notion of working together for mutual benefit seems to terrify some people – let’s call them greedy and selfish – but since the successful experiment of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 the philosophy has grown and blossomed and provided decent livelihoods for generations of workers and enabled them to provide increasingly better lives for their children.

Co-operation isn’t a tactic or model but rather a philosophy that encourages people to take full responsibility and reward for the fruits of their labours, which necessarily makes all their endeavours operate on a human scale and with a face anonymous corporate production finds impossible to match or emulate. The modern, thriving international movement grew from an impassioned but measured response to the worst excesses of the Commercial Age and is deftly recounted in the first section of this compelling and informative graphic history.

During the early years of the Industrial Revolution it was standard practice for the owners of British factories and industrial works to pay appalling wages to their workforces and simultaneously run the only shops where those meagre remunerations could be spent. Usually the bosses also owned the houses where workers lived: another method of ensuring the monies they paid out coming back into their own coffers.

As you’d expect such a closed system was easily prone to abuse: sales to the labourers – food, candles, clothes and every other household need – were rife with shoddy, cheap workmanship, with debased and adulterated food frequently sold in short measures and priced in such a way as to keep workers alive but with no hope of improving themselves or escaping the system. Credit was always extended – with no real intention of ever collecting on it – and workers were trapped forever in an inescapable spiral of debt to the company. It was pure economic feudalism and little better than slavery.

Many times before, workers had attempted to address the problem by uniting to buy goods in bulk and distribute them communally, but always the enterprises had failed. However on December 21st 1844 in Rochdale, a small band of working men – weavers, colliers, woolsorters and cloggers – pooled their small cash reserves and opened a rough-and-ready general store selling flour, sugar, butter and candles, promising “unadulterated wares in honest weights and measures”.

Instead of mutually ruinous credit, The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers offered all members of their collective enterprise a dividend – a fair and regular redistribution of profit after working costs were covered.

As the chapter ‘Yesterday’ details, despite fierce and unscrupulous opposition from established businessmen and authorities terrified of revolution by the lower class, the Co-operative movement endured and grew. When farmers and companies were squeezed to stop them providing produce to the Pioneers, the Society simply went further afield and even began sourcing or making their own items – a process and solution repeated over and again through nearly 170 years of continued existence and growth.

The burgeoning movement was a constant force for social mobility and improvement: in their first rented premises in Toad Lane, the upper floor swiftly became meeting rooms and a free Library, with not just books but microscopes, globes and all modern scientific instruments where the poor could educate themselves to eventually escape the trap of ignorance and poverty the wealthy created for them…

The slow but solid growth and geographical expansion of the radical movement is charted against the changing social and cultural climate in a beguiling and elegiac potted history after which ‘Today’ recounts many examples of successful Co-operative practice currently improving lives better all over the world.

One of the movement’s greatest successes was the establishment of Fair-Trade farms, plantations and other businesses around the globe, from Canada where more than a third of the World’s Maple Sugar is produced by Co-ops, to the USA where 900 rural Co-ops produce 42% of the nation’s electricity distribution, covering 75% of the landmass.

In India – where 239 million people belong to a Co-operative society – a tribe of hereditary snake-catchers even transformed their unique, traditional but dying trade into a thriving repurposed business.

Closer to home, when I first started freelancing as an artist/graphic designer, I belonged to a loose association of specialists who shared or traded jobs according to our specialities and particular strengths…

Almost as soon as they were published, Darwin’s discoveries regarding the fundamental evolutionary principle described as “Survival of the Fittest” were co-opted by Capitalists, hungry to justify their appalling excesses. Here ‘Always’ focuses on the plenitude of scientific discoveries which counter those spurious commercial notions and act as a happy rebuttal to the spurious commercial mantra of an utterly unchecked free market which continuously permits greedy and cavalier bankers to bankrupt economies and nations, whilst rapacious rampant tycoons and corporations create Crash after Recession after Depression, over and over again and with no thought of redress or reparations to the billions of people they impoverish…

‘Tomorrow’ takes a speculative look at how Co-operation could take us to even greater communal achievements by following a really good day in 2044 when the happy partners of the Rochdale Aerotech Co-op celebrate their contribution to the mission which is landing men on Mars…

This alluring and pleasingly education chronicle concludes with an absorbing ‘Timeline’ following the progress of “Co-operation Through History” by tracking changes in politics and culture promoted, prompted and provoked by the movement from the very first recorded 1769 bulk purchase scheme of the Fenwick Weavers to the 2012 UN declaration of the International Year of Co-operatives…

Since its creation, the Co-operative movement has promoted education for the poor, social equality, universal health, and equanimity in farming, banking, manufacturing and production. By making simple retail fair it has freed society’s least advantaged from de facto slavery, shaped political and social reform across the world and offered true opportunity for improvement and a better life for all people.

This wonderful book – hopefully destined for every school library and history syllabus – using all the force and power which only comics narrative can provide, is a sterling example of what people can do when working together and in unity and one no fair minded individual should miss.

© The Co-operative Group. All rights reserved.
Radical cartoonist and activist Polyp has worked with campaigning organizations around the world for over fifteen years. He lives and works in a co-operative housing complex inManchester,England.

Young Witches


By Francisco Solano López &Barreiro (Eros Comic/Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-202-0

This book is intended to excite adults whilst simultaneously making them laugh, think, and hopefully feel frisky. If the cover image hasn’t clued you in, please be warned that the book contains nudity, images of sexual intimacy but, oddly, not the sort of language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom (and playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present). If this sort of thing offends you, read no further and don’t buy the thing. The rest of us will just enjoy one of the best graphic novel experiences ever created without you.

Whilst prolific scripter Ricardo Barreiro prefers to quietly let his prodigious works speak for him, his inimitable partner in this and many other comics classics is an unmistakable part of three generations of kids’ lives.

For British and Commonwealth comics readers of a certain age, the unmistakable artistic style of Francisco Solano López always conjures up dark moods and atmospheric tension because he drew such ubiquitous boyhood classics as Janus Stark, Adam Eterno, Tri-Man, Galaxus: The Thing from Outer Space, Pete’s Pocket Army, Nipper, The Drowned World, Kelly’s Eye, Raven on the Wing, Master of the Marsh and a host of other stunning tales of mystery, imagination and adventure in the years he worked for Britain’s Fleetway Publications.

However the master of blackest brushwork was not merely a creator of children’s fiction. In his home country ofArgentinahe was adjudged a radical political cartoonist whose work eventually forced him to flee to more hospitable climes and far less dangerous times.

Francisco Solano López was born on October 26th 1928 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and began illustrating comics in 1953 with Perico y Guillerma for the publisher Columba. With journalist Héctor Germán Oesterheld (a prolific comics scripter “disappeared” by the Junta in 1976 and presumed killed the following year) Solano López produced Bull Rocket for Editorial Abril’s magazine Misterix.

After working on such landmark series as Pablo Maran, Uma-Uma, Rolo el marciano adoptivo and El Héroe, López joined Oesterheld’s publishing house Editorial Frontera and became a member of the influential Venice Group which included including Mario Faustinelli, Hugo Pratt, Ivo Pavone and Dino Battaglia.

López alternated with Pratt, Jorge Moliterni and José Muñoz on Oesterheld’s legendary Ernie Pike serial but their most significant collaboration was the explosively political and hugely popular allegorical science fiction thriller El Eternauta which began in 1957. By 1959 the series had come to the unwelcome attention of the authorities inArgentina andChile, forcing López to flee toSpain. Whilst an exile there he began working forUK publishing giant Fleetway fromMadrid andLondon.

In 1968 he returned to Argentinaand with Oesterheld started El Eternauta II for new publisher Editorial Records, produced sci-fi series Slot-Barr (written by Barreiro) and period cop drama Evaristo with kindred spirit Carlos Sampayo. In the mid-1970s López was once again compelled to flee his homeland, returning to Madrid where he organised the publication of El Eternauta and Slot-Barr with Italian magazines LancioStory & Skorpio.

He never stopped working, producing a stunning variety of assorted genre tales and mature-reader material and erotica such as El Instituto (the subject of this review under its American title Young Witches), El Prostíbulo del Terror (also by Barreiro) and full colour male-fantasy strip Sexy Symphonie.

More serious works included the bleak thrillers Ana and Historias Tristes with his son Gabriel and he also illustrated Jim Woodring’s adaptation of the cult movie Freaks. In recent times, safely home in Argentina he continued to work on El Eternauta with new writer Pablo “Pol” Maiztegui.

López even found time for more British comics with strips such as ‘Jimmy’, ‘The Louts of Liberty Hall’, ‘Ozzie the Loan Arranger’ in Hot-Shot and Eagle as well as ‘Nipper’ and ‘Dark Angels’ for Roy of the Rovers.

Francisco Solano López passed away in Buenos Aireson August 12th 2011.

Latterly his most famous English-language series (six volumes of stunning, shocking erotically charged graphic novels at the last count), The Young Witches debuted in the USA as a 4-issue miniseries from Fantagraphics’ Eros Comics imprint in 1990, the contents of which form the majority of this superbly seductive compilation.

In the winter of 1866, after a troubled labour which took her mother, Lillian Cunnington was born into a minor aristocratic house. When her father, barely married seven months, realised how he had been cuckolded and subsequently took his own life, the baby was sent to live with her maternal aunts Jessica and Agnes Moore inCoventry.

Lilian’s life was harsh and bizarre, growing up with the draconian spinsters who revelled in the era’s taste for corporal punishment and had an entirely unnatural and abiding affection for each other which they frequently indulged, uncaring if impressionable eyes were watching…

In the Spring of 1881 the wilful, self-reliant child was bundled off to a finishing school where she discovered the truth about her past and the secret history of the world…

The Institute was a forbidding edifice set in vast, isolated grounds that took only the most select young girls. After passing a terrifying and shockingly intrusive entrance exam, young Lilian discovered that the school was a haven and training ground for the last remnants of an ancient sub-race of humanity: women with astonishing supernatural abilities…

The other girls were alternately hungry to meet her and resentful – especially as her mother fled the order and abandoned their millennial principles – but when they forcibly subjected her to their own disturbing initiation rites Lilian repulsed them all with an explosive display of unsuspected arcane power…

In her decidedly unconventional classes she learned the history of her kind: how in time-lost Sumer the cult of Ishtar, the Female God was first born, a religion for women which bestowed great power and knowledge on its adherents.

As Aphrodite in Greece and Venus in Rome, the faith continued until the rise of monotheistic Male Christianity sought to enslave and humble women and wipe out the powerful, wanton deviants they termed witches…

Driven into hiding the witches were almost eradicated by the 18th century, when the solitary prophetess Diana had a revelation and began seeking out sister-survivors, believing them by the very fact of their continued existence to be superior beings, honed to a Darwinian fitness.

Drawing them together she devised a plan of conquest to take control of the world by manipulating men of power, wealth and influence, using their addiction to pleasure and the witches’ divine gifts. Through careful planning, judicious infiltration and sublime seduction, the women would subjugate their cruel oppressors…

The work of the institute was to train girls to be the perfect wives of the world’s rulers, using sex as a weapon and clandestinely controlling from the bedroom. Meanwhile the ultimate goal was to produce ever-more powerful witches by only breeding daughters. To accomplish their sacred plan however, the institute harboured two horrific secrets: a thriving trade in selling ideal brides to the debauched scions of theBritish Empire- and the lesser World – and a hideously inbred brood-male who covertly inseminated every girl before her wedding night, ensuring that wherever they ended up Ishtar’s bloodlines remained pure…

Lilian was a problem however. Although the daughter of a failed traitor to the cause, she was also the most powerful witch the school had ever encountered and her rebellious nature was seemingly impervious to reason, discipline or correction.

Moreover she was unwholesomely attracted to young men such as the gardener rather than her own sisters and kind, with no machinations the girls or their grotesquely conniving headmistress could devise able to dissuade her from her disobedient path…

Events came to a cataclysmic head when her rival and classmate Agatha was betrothed.

Ready to go forth and do the Cult’s bidding as bride of aged Lord Wellington, the dutiful disciple was appalled at her impregnation ceremony when confronted by the Institute’s shambling, brutish imbecilic stud male. Agatha baulked and broke down, refusing to commit the act and the enraged Headmistress compelled her with all the violence and brutality she has claimed to be the province of their male oppressors…

Lilian exploded in a display of outrage and indignation and with all the power of the elements the Young Witch lashed out against a lifetime of control, virtual slavery and injustice resulting in a deadly duel of magical will and an apocalyptic conflagration…

In the aftermath Lilian and Agatha fled the shattered Institute forever…

Let’s not stray from the point – these tales are primarily designed to honestly titillate and excite and there’s a huge amount of lavishly rendered nudity, love-making and fetishism on display here. However there is also a strong story, terrific suspense and a heartfelt attempt to say something about gender politics too, and all in a well-researched historical context.

In later tales Lilian and Agatha have encounters with iconic historical and literary figures including Robert Louis Stevenson, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Dr. Henry Jekyll (plus one), Jack the Ripper, Dorian Grey, Sherlock Holmes and others…

This deliciously saucy and salacious sex-and-horror yarn combines the bawdy, breezy, haunted ambiance of classic Hammer Films with sultry, lascivious supernatural suspense in a stunning black and white confection far more enchanting and compelling than any number of shades of grey, and this torrid tome also includes a luscious, full-colour extra erotic charge in the form of a silent, sexy Silly Symphony from Solano López…
© 1990, 1991, 1992Barreiroand F. Solano López. All rights reserved.

Dee Goong An – Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee


Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Robert van Gulik (Dover Press)
ISBN: 978-0-486-23337-5

I’m straying a little far from my customary path today and reviewing a prose book with traditional Chinese illustrations (only nine, but they are eerily effective) that impressed me mightily when I picked it up. That happy event was itself inspired after seeing the Hark Tsui movie Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame on television – so don’t believe people when they say there’s nothing good on the box…

Both film and book are based on the fictionalised exploits of a genuine crime-fighter named Ti Jen-chieh (or maybe Di Renjie – we inexplicably called their capital city Peking for centuries so us westerners are playing safe these days with anglicised names…) who lived between 630-700AD during the early days of China’s Tang Dynasty (approximately 600-900AD).

The role of Regional Magistrate then encompassed the roles and duties of intelligence-gathering detective, enforcing policeman and prosecuting attorney as well as judge – although he was by no means the final arbiter, as all legal pronouncements had to be ratified by the Imperial Court and legislature – and this seemingly impossible conflict-of-interest and apparent rat’s nest of a legal system is engagingly and elegantly addressed in the ‘Translator’s Preface’ by Sinologist, diplomat, historian, musician, researcher and latterly dramatist Robert Hans van Gulik, who even provided the majority of the illustrations in this volume.

Van Gulik (1910-1967) was born in the Netherlands and, as the son of an Army medical officer, spent most of his early life in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Growing up in Batavia (modern Jakarta) he learned Mandarin as well as many other languages and after graduating from the University of Leiden in 1935 joined the Dutch Foreign Service, and was posted to Japan, China and other Far-Eastern nations. His studies at Leiden (1929-1934) encompassed Dutch Indies Law and Indonesian Culture, and the tireless young man was awarded a Doctorate for his dissertation on the “horse cult” of Northeast Asia, and even whilst working as a junior civil servant continued his researches, publishing privately and becoming an acknowledged European authority on Chinese Jurisprudence.

Van Gulik was actually in Tokyo when Japan formally declared war on the Netherlands in September 1941 and, after a brief period of diplomatic internment, was evacuated in 1942, spending the remainder of the war in South-West China as part of the Dutch Mission to the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, based at Chongquing.

The scholar married Shui Shifang, daughter of an Imperial Mandarin of the Manchu Dynasty, and once the war ended lived with her and their four children as Dutch diplomatic personages in locales as varied as Washington DC, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur and Beirut.

In 1965 he became Dutch Ambassador toJapan, a post he held until his death.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he also found the time to resurrect a venerable Chinese hero, reinvigorate a nearly lost art-form and create a fascinating cross-cultural genre…

Judge – or variously and as often, DetectiveDee’s Tang Period exploits were recounted and largely fictionalised by many later Chinese authors (as were quite a few other historical figures), particularly during the Ming Period (1368-1644), and many of Dee’s cases – real and made up – were still being bastardised and rewritten as late as the 1920s, but he got his shot at global stardom thanks to the Second World War.

The conflict erupted through the Pacific East (beginning either withJapan’s invasion ofChinain 1931, its attack on French possessions in September 1940 or the infamous bombing ofPearl Harborin 1941, depending on which historian you read) and after Van Gulik’s detention and reposting toChinaserious research was impossible.

Constantly on the move during the war years yet with plenty of time on his hands, van Gulik famously began translating an old copy of Dee Goong An he had found in a second-handTokyo bookshop. The task occupied much of his time between 1941-1945 and, after privately publishing the result in 1949, the translator became deeply enamoured of the character and the potential of combining the deeply disparate disciplines of Western and Eastern crime fiction.

Fuelled by inspiration, he determined to combine the two poles-apart forms into something fresh, ancient and truly magical.

Soon van Gulik’s wholly original stories began appearing, starting with The Chinese Maze Murders in 1951 (originally only published for Japanese and Chinese speakers), promptly followed by The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Lake Murders. Sales were strong and in 1957 the novels were at last released in English and thereafter English editions of successive books preceded Oriental iterations.

There were six more novels and a collection of short stories until his untimely death from cancer cut short the mythical mystery tour, but his hybridisation of Eastern and Western detection fiction into a wholly new species of story continues to capture the attention and imagination of readers everywhere…

The cases in this initial groundbreaking volume are historical ones – if not perhaps actual exploits – of the flesh-and-blood Imperial Magistrate of Chang-Ping, whose many brilliant successes led to his promotion to the Emperor’s Court, where Dee served as a valued and esteemed statesman for the remainder of his days. Thus, Van Gulik spends a generous amount of time setting the scene and providing invaluable background on the incredibly complex but astoundingly bureaucratic and hierarchical feudal society which Dee moves amongst, aided only by his crack team of servant/investigators, all fully described in the ‘Dramatis Personae’ section, as are the suspects, witnesses and guilty parties, whilst the ‘Translator’s Postscript’ at the back provides all the specific detail an enquiring mind could possibly need to know…

So as to the meat of the matter: the esteemed adjudicator Dee is a perfect servant of the Emperor: dutiful, diligent, hardworking and honest, spending his days keeping the complex human machinery of civilisation constantly working. His task is to settle disputes, root out endemic corruption at both humble and high levels and, when necessary, vigorously enforce the State’s laws, operating as both reactive Judge and proactive Agent of Enquiry. Some glaring differences you’ll need to know from the start: torture is legal and encouraged, no one can be convicted unless they confess, and evidence obtained from ghosts, magic or dream premonitions is usually true and fully admissible in court…

The drama, involving three separate cases which somehow become infuriatingly interwoven, begins with a ‘Double Murder at Dawn’ wherein two travelling silk merchants’ bodies are discovered and an innkeeper is framed for their deaths.

After some preliminary investigations it is found that one of the corpses is neither of the merchants but a complete stranger, leading to a vast manhunt across some of the region’s roughest territory…

Adopting a disguiseDeethen accidentally uncovers another killing: one which nobody even realised had been committed…

At almost the same time a prestigious retired Prefect seeks retribution for the motiveless assassination of ‘The Poisoned Bride’ on her wedding night, but the most troubling dilemma involves the formidable widow Mrs. Djou whose husband passed away from a mysterious malady a year previously. Dee is convinced a murder has been committed even though his own coroner can find no sign or means of murder upon ‘The Strange Corpse’ and the arrogantly wilful woman refuses to confess even under the most stringent interrogation. It will take guile, dedication and heavenly intervention to prove motive, means and opportunity, but Dee is prepared to sacrifice his own life, soul and honour to finally bring justice to a forgotten dead man …

Exotic, intriguing and absolutely addictive, these preliminary adventures of Judge Dee are a sheer delight that no fan of comics or fantasy fiction should miss…
© 1949, 1976 Robert van Gulik. No modern copyright invoked for this 2003 Dover Book Edition.

Steve Canyon


By Milton Caniff & Dick Rockwell (Tempo Books/Grosset & Dunlap)
ISBN: 0-448-17058-2-150

Here’s another early attempt to catapult comics off the spinner racks and onto proper bookshelves; this time from 1979, part of populist publisher Grosset and Dunlap’s attempt to carve themselves a slice of the burgeoning cartoon and comic strip mass market paperback boom. Other company sorties had included Krazy Kat, Broom Hilda and a host of DC character collections ranging from Superman to Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a canny campaign to boost public anticipation following Milton Caniff’s very conspicuous resignation from his previous masterpiece Terry and the Pirates.

Caniff, master of suspense and well versed in the art of shaping reader attention, didn’t show his new hero until four days into the first adventure – and then only in a ‘file photograph’. The primed-and-ready readership first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, bomber pilot, medal-winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent airline charter operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.

Almost instantly Caniff was working at the top of his game, producing material exotic, familiar and – as always – dead on the money in terms of the public zeitgeist and taste.

Dropping his hero into the exotic climes he had made his own on Terry, Caniff modified that world based on real-world events, but this time the brooding, unspoken menace was Communism not Fascism. Banditry and duplicity, of course, never changed, no matter who was nominally running the show…

Caniff was simply being contemporary, but he was savvy enough to realise that with the Cold War “hotting up” inKorea, Yankees were going to be seen as spies in many countries, so he made that a part of the narrative. When Canyon officially re-enlisted, the strip became to all intents and purposes a contemporary War feature…

Over the decades the Steve Canyon strip honestly embraced the philosophy of America as the World’s policeman, becoming a bastion of US militarism and remaining true to its ideals even as the years rolled by and national tastes and readership changed…

Steve foiled plots and chased his true love Summer Olsen around the globe for thirty years – continually frustrated that fate cruelly kept them unhappily apart – until they finally wed in 1970. Steve had stayed a far-ranging agent of Air Force Military Intelligence even though by this time the Vietnam War had made the Armed Forces an extremely contentious issue…

Even after Mr. and Mrs. Canyon finally tied the knot, their lives were never easy. At the time of the two rather severely abridged tales in this digest-sized monochrome collection (spanning 1978-1979), Summer was missing, having inexplicably vanished from the family home without a trace. The stunned and heartbroken Steve spent even more restless years searching for her…

The action begins as the aging agent spots Summer in a newspaper photo showing survivors of a volcanic eruption and earthquake in distant far-eastern country Langapora. Almost immediately Canyon’s accommodating superiors have him on a plane to the hostile Asian nation and Steve’s own network of grateful friends and associates are ready to pitch in. Dissolute reporter Johnny Mink is waiting when he lands in the anti-American state, having made a number of discreet inquiries and told a few necessarily fantastic lies…

The National Office of Information has denied any disaster has occurred and there were certainly no blonde American women in that part of the country. Mink is unsurprised and has a cunning plan, blinding the starstruck government flack in charge of the Bureau with tales of secretly researching locations for a majorHollywoodmovie. It is a ploy that instantly beguiles the glamour-starved official, who clearly envisions a major role for herself…

Carrying spare papers and a passport for Summer, “film director”SteveCanyonromances the junior minister and by sheer chance spots a blonde in the back of a heavily fortified car…

Tracking down the vehicle Steve and Johnny get tantalisingly close but are rebuffed by private security guards belonging to a local ganglord. The woman is American but belongs to the truly baroque and deadly Ah Nu Mero Uno – a movie-mad warlord especially obsessed by Yul Brynner in The King and I

After overcoming immense and utterly bizarre obstacles the determined Americans broach the walls and discover there is indeed a woman from Steve’s chequered past held captive therein, but it’s certainly not Mrs. Canyon…

Of course the gallant Steve has to quash his own desperate needs to rescue his old comrade in distress, countering staggering odds and deadly dilemmas before surrendering those fake papers to save the mystery miss, narrowly escaping in a fast commercial jetliner.

The rescued stray repays Steve generosity of spirit by leaving the plane – without those vital passport papers – at a stopover inSingapore, leaving Canyon free to continue searching for Summer. Disembarking atHong Kong, however, Canyon stumbles into a deadly comedy of errors when he is mistaken by Red Chinese agents for a Russian super-spy.

At that time tensions were high between the Soviets and their notional communist allies and Caniff, always up to the minute in terms of global geopolitics, saw a perfect opportunity to add a few funny thrills to the mix of tense soap-opera pathos as Steve searched for his missing mate…

Abducted, drugged and tortured, Canyon is only saved by the impressionable young female translator Comrade Jo, who sees the unconscious man as her ticket to a glamorous life as a Russian Spy-Queen. Of course the only reason he is unconscious is because Jo’s attempt to thwart the chemical interrogation and brutal torture have left a broken acupuncture needle in Steve’s brain, plunging the “Russian” spy into a deep coma…

On the run with the inert and hulking Steve, little Jo flees her masters only to be understandably rejected by the Soviet Trade Delegation who fear she might be a trap set by their own untrustworthy Party bosses. Soon everybody thinks it best if Jo and her mystery-man disappear quietly and forever, but luckily Steve has an enigmatic if mute guardian angel in the sinister shape of espionage legend Charlie Vanilla and his trusty band ofHong Kong gutter urchins and wharf rats…

Packed with wry action, pure belly laughs and terrific tension, this last tale proves again Caniff’s sheer bravura boldness and invention as the entire epic takes place with new and walk-on characters carrying the tale whilst the veteran lead spends the greater part of the as a mere prop and maguffin…

Steve Canyon is comic storytelling at its best. Beautifully illustrated, mesmerising black and white sagas of war, espionage, romance, terror, justice and cynical reality: a masterpiece of graphic narrative every serious fan and story-lover should experience. Most cartoonists – or workers in any field of artistic endeavour – go to their graves never attaining the giddy heights wherein they are universally associated with a signature piece of unequivocally supreme work. How incredible then when somebody achieves that perfect act of creation, not once but twice – and does so seven days a week for 64 years? …And that’s not to in any way disparage the astounding artistic contributions of Dick Rockwell who began assisting with the artwork in 1952 and, as Caniff’s health gradually failed over the years, invisibly assumed more and more of the strips visual aspect.

When Caniff passed away in 1988 Rockwell continued and concluded the final adventure ‘The Snow Princess’ before the series was finally retired with honour on Sunday, June 5th 1988.

Enticing, enthralling, exotic, action-packed and emotionally charged, Steve Canyon is a slice of the purest popular Americana and masterpiece of graphic narrative: a full-immersion thriller and a passport to the halcyon best bits of another age. Comics just don’t get better than this.

Moreover, I’ve always delighted in the particular buzz these paperback pioneers of the comics biz seem to instantly generate. If you’re in any way of similar mien, I can thoroughly recommend the sheer tactile and olfactory high that only comes from holding such a dinky digest item in your own two hands…
© 1978, 1979, Field Newspaper Syndicate.  All rights reserved.

Fallen Words


By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Jocelyne Allen (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-074-4

After half a century of virtual obscurity, crafting brilliantly incisive and powerfully personal tales of modern humanity on the margins and on the edge, Yoshihiro Tatsumi found “overnight success” with his glorious autobiographical work A Drifting Life in 2009.

To describe his dark, bleak vignettes of raw real life, Tatsumi devised the term Gekiga or “dramatic pictures”, practically if not actually inventing the genre of adult, realistic, socially aware and literary comics stories in Japan. He began his career at a time when sequential narratives or “manga” literally meant “Irresponsible” or “Foolish Pictures”; a flashy and fanciful form of cheap, escapist entertainment targeted specifically at children – and the simple-minded – in the years immediately following the cessation of hostilities.

His tales have continued, in a never-ending progression, to detail the minutiae and moment of Japanese popular culture and, with his star assured in the manga firmament, have turned to a far older aspect of his country’s artistic heritage for this project.

The traditional performance art of Rakugo seems to combine many elements British observers would quickly recognise: reverentially combining familiar tales told many times over such as morality or mystery plays with instructive fables and especially shaggy dog stories and, just like Christmas pantomimes, the art derives from how the story is revamped, retold and expressed – but the ending is sacrosanct and must always be delivered in its purest, untrammelled form…

Developing out of the far older Karukuchi and Kobanashi shows, Rakugo first appeared as a discrete performance style accessible to the lower classes around 1780 during the Edo Period, establishing itself as a popular entertainment which still thrives today, regarded as a type of intimate comedy drama act in Vaudeville theatres.

As with all Japanese art-forms and disciplines Rakuga is highly structured, strictured and codified, with many off-shoots and sub-genres abounding, but basically it’s a one-man show where a storyteller (Rakugoka or Hanashika) relates a broad and widely embellished tale of Old Japan, acting all the parts from a sitting position, with only a paper fan (Sensu) and hand-cloth (Tenegui).

Equal parts humorous monologue, sitcom and stand-up act (or more accurately “kneel-down comedy”, since the Rakugoka never rises from the formal Seiza position) the crucial element is always the delivery of the traditional ochi or punch-line; inviolate, eagerly anticipated and already deeply ingrained in all audience members…

As is only fitting these tales are presented in the traditional back to front, right to left Japanese format with a copious section of notes and commentary, plus an ‘Afterword’ from Mr. Tatsumi, and I’d be doing potential readers an immense disservice by being too detailed in my plot descriptions, so I’ll be both brief and vague from now on…

‘The Innkeeper’s Fortune’ relates the salutary events following the arrival of an immensely rich man at a lowly hostel, and what happens after, against his express desires, he wins a paltry 1000 ryo in a lottery whilst the ‘New Year Festival’ only serves to remind one reluctant father what a noisome burden his rowdy ungrateful son is…

An itinerant young artist can’t pay his inn bill and, as a promissory note, paints a screen with birds so lifelike they fly off the paper every morning. The populace are willing to pay good money to see the daily ‘Escape of the Sparrows’, more than the bill ever came to. And then one day another far more experienced artist wishes to see the screen…

When a dutiful merchant succumbs to the temptations of his trade and engages a mistress she soon consumes all his attention, leading to his neglected wife trying to kill the home-wrecker with sorcery. Soon both women are dead and the merchant is plagued by their ‘Fiery Spirits’, whilst ‘Making the Rounds’ details one night in a brothel where four clients are becoming increasingly impatient and incensed by the non-appearance of the woman they’ve already paid for…

‘The Rooster Crows’ details the fate of a proud and puritanical young man tricked into visiting a brothel by his friends whilst a poor and untrained man becomes an infallible doctor after entering into a bargain with ‘The God of Death’ and this superb book of fables concludes with the sorry story of a lazy fishmonger who loved to drink, but whose life changed when he found a wallet full of money whilst fishing on ‘Shibahama’ beach

– or was it just a dream?

With these “Eight Moral Comedies” Tatsumi has succeeded – at least to my naive Western eyes – in translating an phenomenon where the plot is so familiar as to be an inconvenience but where an individual performance on the night is paramount into a beguiling, charming and yes, funny paean to a uniquely egalitarian entertainment, proving himself to be a true and responsible guardian of Japanese culture, ancient or modern …

Art and stories © 2009, 2012 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. This edition © 2012 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.