“21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente


By Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-892-3

I’m not a big fan of American Sports, favouring the ease and simplicity of our own gentle pastimes such as Rugby and, of course, Cricket, but I am a complete sucker for history and particularly graphic biographies – especially when they are as innovative and imaginative as this superbly passionate and evocative account of the life of a groundbreaking sports star, quietly philanthropic humanitarian and culture-changing champion of ethnic equality.

Roberto Clemente Walker was born in Puerto Rico on August 18th 1934, one of seven kids in a devoutly Catholic family. Baseball and, latterly, his wife Vera and three kids were his entire life. He played for a Puerto Rican team until the Brooklyn Dodgers head-hunted him.

At that time racial restrictions were dominant in the American game so he actually only played against white people in the Canadian League for the Montreal Royals. In 1954 he finally got into the American game when he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates – a working relationship that lasted until his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1972.

During those tempestuous 18 years Clemente broke down many social barriers and became a sporting legend: the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter, the first Latino to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and winner of a dozen Gold Glove Awards. An all round player, he scored 3000 hits and achieved many other notable career highlights.

He worked passionately for humanitarian causes in Latin America, believed every child should have free and open access to sports and died delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua after the devastating tremor of December 23rd 1972.

He body was never recovered and he was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, again the first Hispanic to receive the honour and the only contemporary player ever to have the five year waiting period waived.

He is a national icon in Puerto Rico and one of the leading figures in the movement to desegregate American sports

Rather than a dry accounting of his life, author Wilfred Santiago’s tale skips forward and back, illustrated in a studied and fiercely expressionistic melange of styles which sketch in tone and mood, and feel the life of a true frontrunner and a very human hero.

With its message of success and glory in the face of poverty and discrimination “21” is delightfully reminiscent of James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing but its entrancing, vibrant visual style is uniquely flavoured with the heat of the tropics and the pride of the people Clemente loved.

Lusciously realised in sumptuous earth-tones and powerfully redolent of the spirit of Unjust Times A-Changin’, this is a fabulous book for every fan of the medium and not simply lads and sports-fans…

Art and text © 2011Wilfred Santiago. All rights reserved.

You’ll Never Know Book 2: Collateral Damage


By C. Tyler (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-418-4

In 2009 cartoonist Carol Tyler published the first of a proposed trilogy of graphic memoirs that examined the difficult relationship with her father Chuck, a veteran of World War II. ‘A Good and Decent Man’ explored three generations of the family dominated by a capable mother and a hard working, oddly cold yet volatile, taciturn patriarch. Events kicked off when after six decades of silence incipient frailty suddenly produced in her once-distant father a terrifying openness and desire to share war experiences and history long suppressed.

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

This second volume takes up the acclaimed and award-winning generational saga with Carol coping with her own husband’s desertion, leading to her resuming recording her dad’s recollections of Italy and France (including the infamous Battle of the Bulge) whilst re-examining the painful, chaotic and self-destructive existence she made for herself due to his hidden demons.

Now a single mother, Carol ponders her tempestuous past through a new lens. How much did her cold and terrifying father who was nevertheless a devoted, loving husband shape her mistakes? How can she prevent her increasingly wild daughter making the same mistakes and bad choices? Moreover, as her parents’ physical and mental states deteriorate, Chuck has become obsessed by a mystery that been forgotten since he came back from the conflict and needs Carol to solve it at all costs…

With an increasingly critical reappraisal of the family’s shared experiences, Carol discovers how her own mother coped with dark tragedies and suppressed secrets (revealed in ‘The Hannah Story’ – an updated sidebar first published in 1994), gaining an enhanced perspective but still no satisfactory answers to the conundrum of her father.

As she races to complete the self-appointed task of turning her father’s life into a comprehensible chronicle her parents are both declining visibly and her own life is becoming far too complex to ignore or withstand…

Delivered in monochrome and a selection of muted paint wash and crayon effects, the compellingly inviting blend of cartoon styles (reminiscent of our own Posy Simmonds but with a gleeful openness all her own) captures heartbreak, horror, humour, angst and tragedy in a beguiling, seductive manner which is simultaneously charming and devastatingly effective, whilst the book and narrative itself is constructed like a photo album depicting the eternal question “How and Why Do Families Work?”

Enticing, disturbing and genuinely moving, ‘Collateral Damage’ is a powerful and affecting second stage in Tyler’s triptych of discovery and one no student of the human condition will care to miss.

© 1994, 2010 C. Tyler. All rights reserved.

Vlad the Impaler: the Man Who Was Dracula (paperback edition)


By Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (Plume/Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-452-29675-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 8/10: Perfect spin on the seasonal traditional terror tales

Here’s a handy “heads-up” Horrible History hint if you’re looking for an ideal Christmas gift for your horrors at home: an economical softcover edition of one of the best graphic biographies of 2009 unleashed just in time to read in front of the Yule Log.

As writer and editor, Sid Jacobson masterminded the Harvey Comics monopoly of strips for younger American readers in the 1960s and 1970s, co-creating Richie Rich and Wendy, the Good Little Witch among others, before working the same magic for Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, where he oversaw a vast amount of family-friendly material; both self created – such as Royal Roy or the superb Planet Terry – and a huge basket of licensed properties.

In latter years he has worked closely with fellow Harvey alumnus Ernie Colón on such thought-provoking graphic enterprises as The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation (2006) and its 2008 sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror. In 2009 their epic Che: a Graphic Biography was released: separating the man from the myth of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, universal icon of cool rebellion.

Ernie Colón was born in Puerto Rico in 1931: a creator whose work has been loved by generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor his contributions have benefited the entire industry from the youngest (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Harvey Comics, and many similar projects for Marvel’s Star Comics), to the traditional comicbook fans with Battlestar Galactica, Damage Control and Doom 2099 for Marvel, Arak, Son of Thunder and Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, the Airboy revival for Eclipse, Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant and so very many others.

There are also his sophisticated experimental works such as indie thriller Manimal, and his seminal genre graphic novels Ax and the Medusa Chain. Since 2005 he’s been hard at work on the strip SpyCat for Weekly World News.

Jacobson and Colón together are a comics fan’s dream come true and their bold choice of biography and reportage as well as their unique take on characters and events always pays great dividends. Vlad the Impaler is by far their most captivating project to date: a fictionalised account of the notorious Wallachian prince who was raised by his enemies as a literal hostage to fortune, only to reconquer and lose his country not once, but many times.

The roistering, bloody, brutal life of this Romanian national hero and basis of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is a fascinating, baroque, darkly funny yarn, capturing a troubled soul’s battle with himself as much as the Muslim and Christian superpowers that treated his tiny principality as their plaything.

With startling amounts of sex and violence this book makes no excuses for a patriot and freedom fighter who was driven by his horrific bloodlust and (justifiable?) paranoia to become a complete beast: clearly the very worst of all possible monsters – a human one.

Sharp, witty, robust and engaging, with a quirky twist in the tale, this is a good old-fashioned shocker that any history-loving gore-fiend will adore.

Text © 2009 Sid Jacobson. Art © 2009 Ernie Colón. All rights reserved.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon volumes 1 & 2


By Wang Du Lu, adapted by Andy Seto (ComicsOne Corp.)
ISBN’s: 978-1-58899-999-3 and 978-1-58899-175-1

Hong Kong comics are beautiful. They’re produced using an intensive studio art-system under the aegis of a master storyteller acting like a tactician and commanding general; which means any individual page might be composed of numerous graphic styles and techniques: literally anything that will get the job done.

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

However in this series, adapting an earlier part of the epic tale (a mere part of which inspired the phenomenal Ang Lee movie) the non-stop kinetic hurly burly is nicely tempered by a more universal narrative form that shouldn’t deter even the most hidebound Gwailo like me.

The original saga forms a sequence of five “Wuxia” novels by author Wang Du Lu known as the Crane-Iron Pentalogy which Andy Seto adapted into a twelve volume series of graphic novels. Wuxia is generally translated as “martial arts literature” with Xia denoting “honorable” or “chivalrous” and wu “soldier”, “warrior” or “military.” The film mostly worked from the fourth novel, so this interpretation could be construed as a prequel of sorts.

Chinese languages are hard to master because the tongue is filled with willful ambiguity. Almost pun-like, one translation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is “dangerous or talented individuals concealed from view” and the names of the lead characters are also coded symbols for their symbolic characteristics… Don’t let that deter you though, this is classical storytelling winningly wedded to non-stop crackerjack action, magnificently illustrated.

In the first volume masked thieves steal the mighty Green Destiny sword from the palace in Beijing despite the best efforts of master guard Yu Gan Cheung – called “Golden Spear”. Tasked with retrieving the invaluable blade Golden Spear prevaricates. His wife Jeng Ho has called him to help her finally avenge the slaying of her father…

Meanwhile in Hebei Province aged Master Grand Yu knows his prowess is failing, but is proud that his beautiful daughter Yu Shu Lien will soon be an even greater Kung Fu practitioner than he ever was. Whilst travelling to a festival the family is attacked by Jeng’s siblings the Ho brothers, determined to have vengeance for the death of their sire at Grand Yu’s hands.

Elderly and overmatched, Yu is saved by the fantastic fighting skills of his daughter, but the Ho clan are determined to destroy the old Master, if not with Kung Fu then by bribing the corrupt local judges…

Meanwhile Wudan disciple (if regular Shoalin Kung Fu concentrates on outer or corporeal strength Wudan teaches the harnessing of inner strength – Chi: nobody messes with Wudan Masters…) Li Mu Bai is looking for a wife and an emissary tells him of Grand Yu’s accomplished young daughter…

Travelling to Hebai Li challenges Shu Lien to a spectacular duel and finds her satisfactory, but although he would be welcome as a son-in-law Grand Yu has to decline the marriage offer as the girl is already betrothed to another. Decent and honorable Li Mu Bai decides to wander the world alone but the Ho brothers scurrilous plans to destroy the Yu clan draw him inexorably back to the girl he desires above all others…

Volume 2 finds Li following a gang of riders. His sensitive nature instantly knew they planned evil and his honorable spirit drove him to help whomever they wished to harm. Grand Yu’s family are being attacked again by the murderous Ho brothers and Shu Lien has her hands full battling the deadly Jeng Ho when Li arrives to turn the tide.. The combat abruptly ends when the local authorities arrest everybody.

Old Yu is severely drained by the conflict and fares badly under questioning. Moreover the corrupt officials seem to favour the bigger bribes of the Ho faction. Things look bleak for the Yu clan, and Li volunteers to bring more money but before he can leave the old Master passes away.

Although he desperately wants Shu Lien for himself Li promises to convey the girl and her mother to the arranged husband Master Yu picked for her, but when the party arrives more trouble awaits. Shu Lien is betrothed to Chou Mong, the son of a wealthy lord, but the bridegroom-to-be has gone missing. A troublesome son, he was always getting into shameful situations and has now vanished…

Honouring their obligation, the Mongs welcome Shu Lien and her mother into the household until the groom’s whereabouts can be established. The noble Li determines to find the wastrel and return him to his intended bride: the honour-bound but extremely reluctant Shu Lien…

Li’s search takes him to Biejing where the Wudan adept encounters and trounces a terrifying gang of bandits who are holding to ransom all roads into the city…

These digest-sized tomes pack a lot into their pages. As well as the lush and lovely, if panoramically rambling, tale and non-stop breathtaking fight scenes there are also enticing previews of other oriental epics, creator profiles, biographies, art and information pages on the character’s weapons, honorariums from the author’s widow and even Andy Seto’s diary.

Superhero fans might be amazed at the variety of powers a lifetime of knuckle push-ups and bowing can produce, but these tales are wedded to the concept of training and will creating miracles. They are, however, irresistibly exuberant, beautifully illustrated and endlessly compelling. If you’re an open-minded fan, you may find yourself carried away on an incredible tide of non-stop action, apparently shallow characterisation (at least to Western eyes – for the target market the pictures are everything: how a participant looks is his/her interior and exterior) and immense scope of this colossus of a tale.
© 2002, originated by Seto Kim Kiu. All Rights Reserved.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: the First Jewish Superhero


By Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon, Jerome Siegel & Joe Shuster (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an unpayable debt to two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were in the right place at the right time and were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand new but ailing comic-book business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’ when they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept into the greatest sensation of the Age.

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days the feature was both whimsical and bombastic, as much a gag strip as an adventure serial, and it was clear the inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

Siegel and Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffered years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Before this however the pair produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending. Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, wealthy, successful, accepted and revered by society but who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match. The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sunk like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

Here social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, (especially as it applies to Jewish-Americans), and make some fascinating observations and postulates. Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth this book dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ and Gibson’s compelling, contextual  potted-history concludes with ‘American- Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ ( when Funnyman debuted) with ‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

In ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel and Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to the real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour he appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ then explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel and Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable ‘End Game’

So far this book has been a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun really begins with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the six issue run. ‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns whilst ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and the Dailies (another dozen larks beginning October 18th 1948 and ending September 17th 1949) there are 11 pages of full colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous book with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

White Rapids


By Pascal Blanchet, translated by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-897299-24-1

A fascinating moment in recent social history is brought magically to life in this captivating and innovative graphic novel which eschews the traditional iconography and lexicography of sequential narrative, utilising the bold stylisations of art deco design and the gloriously folksy imagery of 1950s Modernism (think the architecture and landscape of the television Poirot and the movie “Metropolis” wedded to the crinkly curlicue characters populating the titles sequences of Bewitched or “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”).

The effect is like looking at a period brochure, which tragically underscores the bold and far too typical story of a town which lived and died at the behest of forces beyond the control of the everyday working stiffs who lived there. The design tour de force is the first translated work of Québécoise creator Pascal Blanchet who transformed the history from dry fact into a magnificent torrent of visual music.

In the 1920s Canada’s growing power demands were supplied by private companies and the most efficient generation method was hydroelectric, created by damming the mighty rivers of the country. In 1928 the Shawinigan Water & Power Company decided to build a new dam in a remote northern region of the St. Maurice River at Rapide Blanc, a section where the waters narrowed into the eponymous fast-running white waters of the title.

To operate a power-plant in such an inaccessible – and for nearly half of each year actively hostile – region, a company town would need to be built for workers and their families. For any man to bring his family into such a wilderness it would have to be an impressive and wonderful town indeed…

Blanchet avoids the tempting option of personalising or dramatising the tale, preferring to let mood, impression, atmosphere and style describe the birth, brief life and sad, sudden death of White Rapids (no clues or answers from me – buy the book): a gleaming moment of Enlightened Capitalism actually doing the right and decent thing for the Proletarian Worker.

This is like no other Graphic Novel you’ve ever seen and is stunningly effective for that, rendered in reduced hues of orange, brown and grey, marvellously devoid of the heretofore presumed necessary clichés of narrative convention, avoiding the dynamic seductions of Protagonist/Antagonist and the avid fetishism of Vitruvian representational faces and forms that underpin all comics art no mater how avant-garde.

This is a beautiful work and deserves every award it’s ever won as well as your rapt attention.

© 2006, 2007 Pascal Blanchet. All Rights Reserved.

How to Commit Suicide in South Africa


By Sue Coe & Holly Metz (Knockabout/A Raw one-shot)
ISBN: 0-86166-0137

When the creative passions are aroused there is no more powerful medium of expression or tool of social change than graphic narrative. Whether it’s the swingeing pictorial satire of reformers such as Hogarth, the prose of Dickens, the publications of Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew (founders of Punch) or the questing explorations of Will Eisner or Art Spiegelman the trenchant illustration wedded to the loaded word is an overwhelming Weapon of Mass Communication: cheap, universally accessible and capable of extrapolating terrifying conclusions from the scarcest of supplied data.

This perfect example comes from that period of rare world unanimity and applied social pressure which led to the fall of the vile Apartheid regime of South Africa and the literal liberation of millions of disenfranchised and terrorised citizens from their own government.

As part of a broad sweep of disgust and enraged global sensibilities ranging from stunning ridicule (such as e Tom Sharpe’s novels “Indecent Exposure” and “Riotous Assembly”) to such deeply moving audible cries of rage as Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” or Jerry Dammers/The Special A.K.A’s  “Free Nelson Mandela” and even Richard Attenborough’s momentous filmic exposé “Cry Freedom” the planet’s creative community lead a sustained assault on the monsters of Pretoria which eventually forced Western national governments to sever their commercial (and political, anti-Communist) ties to South Africa’s government.

Comic-books got into the act early and often, hopefully opening many young complacent eyes…

While I’m unsure of the exact and total effect of comic condemnation as opposed to legal sanctions and official reprimands, I am utterly certain that politicians listen to the people who vote them in and out, so the power to arouse Joe Public is one I completely appreciate and respect.

From that contentious time comes this stunningly savage graphic account of the day-to-day atrocities of the regime originally compiled and concocted for Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking magazine Raw. Journalist Holly Metz produces chilling, dryly factual accounts of the history in ‘Background’ subdivided into ‘Chronology’ and ‘Homelands’, moves on to recount the social situation of the oppressed majority in ‘84% of The Population’ examined as ‘Miners’, ‘Urban Workers and Unions’, ‘Rural Laborers and Domestics’, ‘Education Under Apartheid’, ‘Rape in Namibia’ and ‘Tsotsis’ (slang for “Criminals”), before moving on to recount with horrifying matter-of-factness the everyday working of ‘Detention and Repression’.

Divided into fully annotated and corroborated accounts of ‘Steve Biko’s Death’, ‘The Torture of Neil Aggett’ (the first white person to die in detention – officially at least), ‘Women Beaten, Tried and Tortured’, ‘Inside BOSS’ (Bureau of State Security) and ‘Deaths in Detention Since 1963’ the catalogue of iniquity concludes with ‘Free World’ a mortifying trawl through ‘The U.S. Connection’ and ‘Blue Chip Deals’ calling to account those governments and companies that upheld the regime and colluded in the suppression of Democracy in South Africa tacitly, overtly and covertly, often while officially decrying the actions of the white minority government. All the material throughout is fully accredited, annotated and supported by copious footnotes and bibliography.

Sue Coe steals the show and provides the emotional and pictorial stimulus with collages formed from found newspaper headlines, advertising material and photos, as well as her simply brutal assemblage of large cartoons and monochrome paintings: dark, moody and breathtakingly evocative. A tip of the hat should also go to the superlative design contributions of Francoise Mouly and Spiegelman himself.

The regime fell in 1994, when after years of gradual erosion and capitulation, the last white President Frederik Willem de Klerk called for the country’s first fully multi-national elections, before retiring to the sin-bin of history.

Even three decades later, re-reviewing this slim (44 card pages), huge (422x265mm) tome still evokes the white hot outrage and sense of injustice it was supposed to, and I sleep a little easier knowing that when the next moral atrocity occurs, somewhere, cartoonists and creators will be ready to employ the same weapons with hopefully as telling a result…
© 1983 Sue Coe and Holly Metz. All rights reserved.

300


By Frank Miller & Lynn Varley (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-402-7

Generally I reserve these graphic novel reviews for less successful affairs since I figure that most people have probably checked out something which has garnered as much press attention outside the comics industry as this chronicle has; but when I was joining my local library at the weekend this sturdy landscape-format hardback literally leapt off the shelf at me (almost killing the small child reaching stubby, stained fingers up to it). I took it as an omen from the gods to proceed.

Fear not, I didn’t steal it from that clumsy urchin either: his mother took one look at the thing and (ignoring the excessively graphic violence lovingly, almost poetically rendered by Miller and painted by Lynn Varley) dropped it like a burning brick when she saw that some of the warriors had no pants on.

Storming off to complain that the cartoon men had their willies out she left the tome in my bemused hands…

300 is not a history book.

This visually arresting drama retelling the Battle of Thermopylae is not a way to crib on your exams but rather a potent hymn to the ancient manly virtues of courage, honour, duty, patriotism and sacrifice, told mostly through the words and attitudes of an aging king (in the ancient world anyone who reached their fifth decade was truly remarkable) who decided that his code of conduct was more important than his life and even those of the men who loved and trusted him.

A picture book for adults, this fable is pared down to a rhythmic, economical asperity as austere as the legendary code of the Spartans it eulogises, with only the rich primal colours of passion – deep blues, blood reds, warm golds – to lift the spirits. The narrative is delivered in short choppy cadences that evoke the no-nonsense, terse lifestyle of the warrior king.

Originally released as a five issue miniseries, drawn as double page spreads for a truly epic scope, the five chapters Honor, Duty, Glory, Combat and Victory tell of the voracious Persian emperor Xerxes, whose armies were incomprehensibly vast and who determined to add the squabbling collection of states known as Greece to his dominions. It tells of the harsh, Darwinian life of Sparta and the unbending pride and courage of their king Leonidas.

In 480BC, unable to muster Sparta’s army to resist the Persian invasion due to the corrupt intervention of his own priests, Leonidas and 300 friends went “for a walk” to the “Hot Gates” of Thermopylae, where with the dubious aid of a few thousand lesser Greeks they fought an incredible holding action until betrayed by one of their own. Finally surrounded, with no hope of escape, the Spartans all went to their gods with heads and spears held high, their example as much as their actions inspiring Greece to finally destroy the mad ambitions of Xerxes…

If you’ve seen the film based on this book, you still haven’t experienced the raw power and untrammeled tension of Miller’s original interpretation. Here there’s no padding: no perfumed council debates, no farewell lovemaking, no treacherous Dominic West (Theron to you) to dilute the polemical energy of the tale. The equation is pure simplicity: Homeland Endangered + Way Of Life Imperiled = Resistance At All Costs.

Now in its tenth printing – and still going strong – this is a book that perfectly displays everything comics can do that is unique to our art-form. If you still haven’t read 300, waste no more time: this tale was made for you…

© 1998, 1999, 2006 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

By Lee Marrs & Bo Hampton (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-001-1 ISBN-13: 978-1-56389-007-9

During the 1950s, when superheroes were in a seemingly inescapable trough, comic book companies looked to different forms of leading men for their action heroes. In 1955 writer/editor Robert Kanigher created a traditional adventure comic entitled The Brave and the Bold that featured historical strips. The Golden Gladiator, illustrated by Russ Heath was set in the declining days of Rome, The Silent Knight fought injustice in post-Norman Britain, courtesy of Irv Novick, and the already-legendary Joe Kubert drew the adventures of a valiant young Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last strip appeared in all but one issue (#6), eventually taking over the entire comic, until the burgeoning superhero boom saw B&B become a try-out title with its twenty-fifth issue. Those fanciful, practically “Hollywoodish” Viking sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time and they’re long overdue for a definitive collection of their own, since the character of Jon has long been a fan favourite, intermittently returning in DC’s war titles and often guest-starring in such varied venues as Sgt. Rock and even Justice League of America.

This beautiful, vital and enchanting tale was released to very little fanfare in 1991, but remains a worthy sequel to those early strips. Scripter Lee Marrs took all the advances in our historical knowledge since the 1950s and blended them with the timeless basics of a Classical Edda to entrancing effect. Amidst a culture vibrantly brought to full life by her words and Bo Hampton’s awesome skill with a brush she has grasped a passionate but reserved old archetype and remade him as a fiery young hero of devastating charm, full of all the boisterous vigour of his mythic race, and confronted him with his worst nightmare.

In 10th century Scandinavia, Jon Rolloson, heir to Jarl Rollo of Gallund, is a perfect Northman’s son; fast, tough, fearless and irresistible to all the maids of the village. But the greatest horror of his sixteen years has finally come for him – an arranged marriage for political advantage. He must leave his home and the Viking life to wed a “Civilised” Princess. His joyous days are all done…

But Princess Asa of Hedeby is a young beauty every inch his match in vigour and vitality, and as composed and smart as he is coarse and oafish. Unfortunately, somebody is stealthily trying to thwart the match, even though Jon’s boorishness is enough to give both fathers cause to reconsider, and only the Viking Prince’s rash vow to recover a lost rune treasure and slay a fearsome dragon preserves the bargain. The wedding will proceed… Now all he has to do is find and kill Ansgar, the vilest of all Fire-Wyrms, and not die…

As well as being a superb writer Marrs is an underground cartoonist, animator and computer artist who has assisted Hal Foster on that other sword-wielding epic Prince Valiant, and her grasp of human character and especially comedy elevates this classic tale of romantic endeavour into a multi-faceted gem of captivating quality. Bo Hampton has created some of the best painted comics in the medium: This book is probably still the very best of them.

One of the most accomplished and enjoyable historical romances ever produced in comic form, Viking Glory deserves to be on every fan’s bookshelf. Let’s hope that it’s on DC’s shortlist for a swift re-release.

© 1991 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.