Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story


By John Ryan (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84780-721 (PB)            978-1845078218 (HC)

The Day’s coming, Shipmates! Here’s a taste of things to come for all you hearty fun-starved rogues…

John Ryan was an artist and storyteller who straddled three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative if not financial success.

The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in Edinburgh on March 4th 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to Fulton Press publications, in the company’s glossy distaff alternative Girl, but most especially in the pages of the legendary “boys’ paper” The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day.

The Eagle was a tabloid-sized paper with full-colour inserts alternating with text and a range of various other comic features. “Tabloid” is a big page and one can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain PugwashThe story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many Sticky Ends which nearly befell him.

Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required throughout the comic every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran (or more accurately capered and fell about) until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship for Ryan who had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent as a full-page (tabloid, remember, an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) from Eagle #16. (I really must reinvestigate the solidly stolid sleuth too sometime soon…)

Tweed ran for three years as a page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture.

In 1956 the indefatigable old sea-dog (I mean old Horatio Pugwash but it could so easily be Ryan) made the jump to children’s picture books. He was an unceasing story-peddler with a big family, and somehow also found time to be the head cartoonist for The Catholic Herald for forty years.

A Pirate Story was first published by Bodley Head before switching to the children’s publishing specialist Puffin for further editions and more adventures. It was the first of a vast (sorry, got away with myself there!) run of children’s books on a number of different subjects.

Pugwash himself starred in 21 tomes; there were a dozen books based on the animated TV series Ark Stories, plus Sir Prancelot and a number of other creations. Ryan worked whenever he wanted to in the comics world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The primary Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations to illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler (1982) entire sequences were lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels per page, and including word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

After A Pirate Story was released in 1957 the BBC pounced on the property, commissioning Ryan to produce five-minute episodes (86 in all from 1957 to 1968, which were later reformatted in full colour and rebroadcast in 1976). In the budding 1950s arena of animated television cartoons, Ryan developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began with Pugwash, keeping the adventure milieu, but replaced the shrewish wife with a tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only capable member of a crew which included such visual archetypes as Willy, Barnabas and Master Mate (fat, thin and tall – and all dim), instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule.

Ryan also drew a weekly Captain Pugwash strip in The Radio Times for eight years, before going on to produce a number of other animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge, The Friendly Giant and the aforementioned Sir Prancelot. There were also adaptations of some of his many other children’s books. In 1997 an all new CGI-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

This first story sets the scene with a delightful clown’s romp as the so-very-motley crew of the Black Pig sail in search of buried treasure, only to fall into a cunning trap set by the truly nasty Cut-Throat Jake. Luckily Tom is as smart as his shipmates and Captain are not…

John Ryan returned to pirate life in the 1980s, drawing three new Pugwash storybooks: The Secret of the San Fiasco, The Battle of Bunkum Bay and The Quest for the Golden Handshake, as well as thematic prequel Admiral Fatso Fitzpugwash, in which it is revealed that the not-so-salty seadog had a medieval ancestor who became First Sea Lord, despite being terrified of water…

A 2008 edition of A Pirate Story (from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) came with a free audio CD, and just in case I’ve tempted you beyond endurance here’s a full list (I think) of the good(?) Captain’s exploits that you should make it your remaining life’s work to unearth…:

Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story (1957), Pugwash Aloft (1960), Pugwash and the Ghost Ship (1962), Pugwash in the Pacific (1963), Pugwash and the Sea Monster (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Ruby (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Treasure Chest (1976), Captain Pugwash and the New Ship (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Elephant (1976), The Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book (1977), Pugwash and the Buried Treasure (1980), Pugwash the Smuggler (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Fancy Dress Party (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Mutiny (1982), Pugwash and the Wreckers (1984), Pugwash and the Midnight Feast (1984), The Battle of Bunkum Bay (1985), The Quest of the Golden Handshake (1985), The Secret of the San Fiasco (1985), Captain Pugwash and the Pigwig (1991) and Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward (1991). They are all pearls beyond price and a true treasure of graphic excellence…

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, so why don’t you go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it well? Your kids will thank you and if you’ve any life left in your old and weary soul, you will too…
© 1957, 2009 John Ryan and (presumably) the Estate of John Ryan. All rights reserved.

Secret of San Saba: A Tale of Phantoms and Greed in the Spanish Southwest


By Jack Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-080-8 (HB)                    978-0-87816-081-5 (PB)

I’m reading lots of graphic novels digitally these days, and it’s clear how much superb classic material – especially genre works with war and western themes – isn’t much of priority to content providers yet.

You try tracking down Sam Glanzman’s The Haunted Tank or Joe Kubert Sgt. Rock compilations, or even a relatively well-exposed screen property like Jonah Hex (other than the admittedly superb Justin Grey/Jimmy Palmiotti books of recent vintage) and see what joy you get…

Another such classic omission is this stunningly impressive western/horror mash-up from the inimitable Jack Jackson, still tragically only available in the original oversized (277 x 201 mm) monochrome softcover and hardback album editions, originally published by Kitchen Sink as part of their Death Rattle Series.

Known as ‘Jaxon’ since his Underground Commix heyday, Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas is a signature of much of his work even from the earliest days. Here the Commix legend expertly combines a love of historical documentary with the fabulous Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic void, resulting in a breathtaking and wonderful period supernatural thriller, skillfully woven into the fabric and lore of the Southwest desert lands…

When a silvery entity crashes to Earth in a blazing fireball, it galvanises the fading dreams of Xotl, a young Faraone warrior who had lost faith in his gods.

As the years pass, the natives worship the fearsomely fulgent power of the star-fallen thing, and when the mighty Apaches conquer the Faraone, the twice-defeated tribe turn to the newly arrived Europeans for help. This is a tragic mistake, revealed too late, after the tribe finds that Priests and Colonists might speak of God but only truly worship wealth.

When the newcomers learn of the Cosmic Slug that fell from the stars, all they can see is the overwhelming wealth its silver mantle represents…

The decades-long battle between Apaches and Missionaries to control the slimy silver wellspring makes for a powerful if cynical tale, full of the intoxicating artistry, spellbinding storytelling, and the mesmerising aura of authenticity that is Jackson’s most telling narrative tool.

Based on the ancient Texas stories and legends of ‘Blanco’ and ‘Negro Bultos’ (supernatural treasure mounds), this most fantastic story should be, has to be true, if only because he has drawn it.

Superbly compelling, this is a must-read item for any serious fan of both comics and horror fiction, so let’s have it back and out in every format possible, pretty please…
© 1989 Jack Jackson. All rights reserved.

Sartre


By Mathilde Ramadier & Anaïs Depommier, with supplemental colour by Nawelle Saidi and translated by Peter Russella (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-101-7

Publisher NBM have struck a seam of pure gold with their growing line of European-created biographies. The latest release is certainly one of the most challenging yet, closely examining the life and career of one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th century.

Political activist Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (June 21 1905-April 15 1980) emerged from a mixture of humble and elevated ancestors, rejected religion, staunchly championed pure Marxism, wrote plays, novels, biographies, critiques and intellectual tracts to become one of France’s greatest literary and philosophical figures. He simultaneously refined and honed the rationalist disciplines of Phenomenology and Existentialism until they became arguably the major motivational forces of the era.

He also led a pretty racy and dangerous life…

Originally released in 2015 as Sartre – Une existence, des libertés, the introspective inspection of the man, his moments and his amazing fellows was lovingly crafted by lifelong friends Mathilde Ramadier (writer) and Anaïs Depommier (artist), and begins – after Introduction ‘A Philosopher’s Life’ by scholar Marc Crépon – with a detailed graphic genealogy all culminating in the arrival of the star of our piece: “A whole man, composed of all men and as good as all of them and no better than any”

Sartre was an extraordinary mind in extraordinary times and ‘Part One: “I was never taught to be obedient”’ scrupulously traces – through small telling incidents and vignettes of conversation – his early years and relationships with fellow star academicians-in-waiting such as Simone de Beauvoir…

‘Part Two: “The Constellation of the Beaver”’ deconstructs the pre-war years and French occupation when Sartre and fellow writers such as Albert Camus turned their particular gifts into sustained acts of rebellion as publishers of Resistance newspapers and pamphlets, even as the shockingly open relationship with Simone pulled our unlikely hero in some very strange directions…

And all the while, Sartre’s ideas were crystallising, his works multiplied and his impact took him from Europe to all corners of the world. As social unrest and political iniquity became increasing important, a next generation matured in an increasingly totalitarian Gaullist France.

‘Part Three: “Passions and Impossibility”’ traces Sartre’s increasing global station and adherence to resistance of oppression – physical or intellectual – and culminates here with the how and why of his refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964…

There’s an uncomfortable jump then to an ‘Epilogue’ set on Saturday, April 19th 1980 when all of Paris assembled to mourn his passing – which tempts me to believe a follow-up volume is in the offing – after which the bonus features start with text-essay ‘Summary of Events from 1964-1980’ before embellishing the overall learning experience with an illustrated list of the movers and shakers in ‘About those who stood alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’ and offering a ‘Selective Bibliography’ for further study…

Impassioned, engaging, sophisticate and perhaps just a little too intellectual in places (Yes; I Know! How can anything possibly be Too Intellectual?), Sartre is a superb entrée into the mind and world of an inveterate rebel. This enticing rendezvous with a singular creative individual is an unmissable treat for lovers of comics with more than mere flash and dazzle to recommend them.
© Dargaud 2015. © 2017 NBM for the English translation.
For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection


By Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & various (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN: 978-1887591515(HB)             978- 1-887591-44-3(TPB)

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all arenas of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories…

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and the relatively recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of superb yet not-quite-transformational, essentially magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of insubstantial material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American mass family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West as already firmly established through paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s definitely a thought for another time and review.

Comicbooks reacted with a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling pantheon of costumed Mystery Men and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American comics tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most historical figures would quickly find a home and of course, facts counted for little, as indeed they never had with cowboy stories…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six titles in their admittedly eclectic stable had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the adequately scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within this beguiling hardback compilation cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a recreational peccadillo nor an extreme sport) and all fans of fabulous sequential narrative artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun, constantly forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots: a wandering warrior having far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have plenty to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ our put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad traditional touchstones of cinematic Western mythology.

This monochrome collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951), primarily featuring the stunning early illustration of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino – who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics – as well as stylish frontispieces by the masterful Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The latter’s elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap-n-cheerful DC giant phonebook format as seen with DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials – or at least in a comprehensive digital download?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and timeless action – what more could you possibly ask for?
© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero


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

The comics industry owes an irredeemable debt to two talented and ambitious Jewish kids from Cleveland in the right place at the right time who 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 yet already-ailing comicbook business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’. When they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept for a new title they manifested the greatest action sensation of the age – if not all time…

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 gag strip as adventure serial – and it was clear the utterly inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

As even the most casual scholar knows, Siegel & 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 suffering 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).

Long before this however, the dynamic duo 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, but a wealthy, successful man, revered by society, yet one 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 sank like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

In this smart paperback compilation – also available as a digital or perhaps hee-heBook (sorry, simply couldn’t resist. Should have, but couldn’t…) – social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon carefully re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, with particular reference 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 assiduously 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’ before Gibson’s compelling, contextual potted-history concludes with ‘American-Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ (the year Funnyman debuted),‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

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

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel & 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 axe falls in ‘End Game’

Thus far the engaging tome acts as a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun truly takes hold with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the 6-issue run.

‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns after which ‘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 Dailies (another dozen larks spanning October 18th 1948 to September 17th 1949), there are11 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 himself, 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 package 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.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-504-8

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.

An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.

Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.

We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.

Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.

Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.

They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…

‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.

After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…

‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.

An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.

Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.

Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…

When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’

The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.

The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.

A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…

Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi has fought beside one of their number before…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Hex volume 8: The Six Gun War


By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Cristiano Cucina, Rob Schwager & Rob Leigh (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2587-2

When Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti resurrected DC’s western wild-man Jonah Hex, they cunningly incorporated an even more mordant, blackly ironic streak of wit than originators John Albano and Tony DeZuñiga to amplify the already sanguine view of morality and justice that permeates the feature. The gritty – often macabre – narratives thus result in some of the most accessible and enjoyable comics fiction ever.

The writers also had the services of extremely talented people like colourist Rob Schwager and letterer Rob Leigh plus their pick of top artists such as Italian maestro Cristiano Cucina (Dragonero) who illustrates this entire uncompromising eighth trade paperback (or digital edition, should you be so inclined) compilation from 2010.

The contents comprise issues #44-49 of this much-missed iteration of the greatest gunman of all time: this go-round generally down-playing sly wit and slick satire in favour of a brutal, wide-ranging saga of death and vengeance…

The Six Gun War begins in the middle of a Texas tornado as Hex blithely stumbles into a cunning trap set by long-term nemeses Quentin Turnbull and El Papagayo.

The plutocratic southern millionaire has bedevilled Hex for more than a decade, mistakenly blaming the former Confederate soldier for the betrayal of his battalion to Union troops and consequent death of Turnbull’s son and heir Jeb.

Alternatively, the flamboyant Mexican bandit, border raider and rabid parrot-fancier is simply a psychotic madman who has had many murderous schemes frustrated by the bounty hunter and yearns to teach the goddam freak a painful final lesson…

Revelling in holding the upper hand, the human monsters do their worst and depart. Left for dead, Hex is miraculously saved by a most unlikely duo and sets off upon the trail of his unsuccessful murderers as they gleefully head back to Mexico.

Turnbull and El Papagayo have a secret joint venture in play. Far from American oversight, the Virginian aristocrat has restored his faded fortunes by enslaving an entire Mexican region and forcing the populace to mine gold for him. The bandit chief’s men act as enforcers and get their cut, as do local government officials…

As the villains head ever southward, they encounter Hex’s sometime allies Tallulah Black and Bat Lash and savagely take them captive for later fun and games…

Hex still has one creepy colleague to call on. Aging bank teller Lazarus Lane is unwilling host to injustice-stalking demon-spirit El Diablo who eagerly joins the coldly furious bounty killer upon the promise of many evil souls to reprimand…

The growing army of retribution is further bolstered by a war-party of Comanche braves trailing a band of whites and Mexicans who lately butchered an encampment of women, children and old men…

The quest quickly results in the grim pursuers liberating Lash and Tallulah – and even taking El Papagayo out of the picture – but after these setbacks, the rich man switches to wealth as his weapon of choice: hiring the world’s seven greatest assassins to stop Hex and Co by any means necessary…

An angry Jonah Hex is more elemental than human, however, and they won’t be nearly enough…

Sharp, smart, fast-paced, deliciously convoluted and staggeringly violent, The Six Gun War is a spectacular explosive epic showing the darkest side of the West’s greatest antihero and the depths to which his enemies will stoop. This is another intoxicating and unmissable yarn no fan of the genre or first tier comicbook wonder will want to miss.
© 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 8: Auld Lang Blue


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-245-4

Les Tuniques Bleues began in 1968; an occasional comedy western strip created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Colvin – who has solo-written every best-selling volume since. The feature was created to replace Western wonder man Lucky Luke when the laconic lone gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to comic rival Pilote.

His rapidly-rendered replacements swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée stars on the Continent…

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style, and when he died suddenly in 1972, his replacement – Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte – gradually moved to a more edgy and realistic (although still broadly comedic) illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian-born (in 1936) and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian and studied Lithography before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960. He soon discovered his true calling as a comedy writer and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou.

In addition to Bluecoats Cauvin has written dozens of other long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: amassing more than 240 separate albums in total. The Bluecoats alone have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

The sorry protagonists of the show are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch, a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of mythic America.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued cavalry fort, but with second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War.

That origin was discarded and rewritten a decade later, finally and canonically describing how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war and appears here as Auld Lang Blue: Cinebook’s 8th astoundingly attractive Bluecoats album.

All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, feigning death and even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other, easier, option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly man; an apparently ideal career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers but simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

But as this witty yarn elaborates, such was not always the case…

Les Tuniques Bleues: Blue rétro was first seen on the continent in 1980, serialised in Spirou #2222-2232. It was the unlikely lads’ 29th adventure, and became the 18th best-selling collected album a year later (of 58 and counting, thus far).

It opens here as dutiful son Cornelius is awakened by his doting but domineering mother. She’s thoroughly excited by her boy’s upcoming nuptial merger with butcher’s daughter Charlotte Graham. Bewildered Cornelius still can’t work how, let alone why, he’s all-but-inescapably betrothed to his boss’ far from comely child…

The boy’s rowdy, wheelchair-bound dad Joshua Chesterfield is less cheery. He fondly remembers his military years and, as a proud survivor of the Alamo, wishes his son had more gumption and get-up-and-go…

There’s no winning against his mother though, so Cornelius heads for the butchers’ shop, arriving just in time to deftly avoid Charlotte by delivering a large order to the new Pacific Bar that has just opened on Main Street. The little guy behind the gleaming bar is a bit of an annoyance but young Chesterfield’s initial distaste is soon swallowed up by the chatter of the patrons discussing the Secession War.

The Northern States are taking a terrible beating on all fronts, but neither butcher’s boy or barman care all that much about a subject so far removed from their own lives…

That quickly changes after Army Recruiters proudly parade their latest crop of raw material down the thoroughfare. Diminutive, canny Blutch is bemused, but Cornelius sees glory, adventure and escape from matrimonial servitude in the gleaming column of callow blue boys…

All the same, mother and Mr. Graham have Cornelius’ life utterly mapped out, and despite his fervent desires, soon after Cornelius M. Chesterfield is all dandied-up and despatched to make a formal proposal to Charlotte. Unwilling, unhappy and contemplating years of being bossed around by women, Cornelius stops off at the Pacific Bar to intestinally fortify himself before the ordeal.

Being a comradely, consoling type, barman Blutch keeps him company in a tot or two and they are both extremely amenable when – some hours later – the Army Recruiters enter the bar. Joining the festivities, the soldiers soon realise that their still woefully-unfilled quotas might benefit from a bit of blather and a couple of hastily modified application forms…

And so it begins: by the time they are conscious again our two new warriors are well on the way to becoming infantrymen: each adapting to the appalling situation in their own unique manner as they reluctantly adjust to the daily madness of army life.

However, even before basic training is over, they both realise their lives are now governed by elitist idiots who don’t care if they live or die. Unable to avoid being cannon-fodder, they conspire to transfer into the far safer and more glamorous cavalry. All they need to do now is learn to ride before anyone finds out they don’t know one end of a horse from the other…

Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

This particular tome is heavy on comedy too: a fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable yarn to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1981 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2015 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Buster Brown: Early Strips in Full Color


By Richard F. Outcault with an introduction by August Derleth (Dover Publications)
ISBN: 978- 0-1-486-23006-1

Richard F. Outcault is credited with being the father (fans and historians are never going to stop debating this one, but Outcault is one of the most prime of all contenders) of the modern comic strip. His breakthrough was a scandalous creation dubbed The Yellow Kid for legendary newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895 (the feature was actually entitled Hogan’s Alley) but the cartoon shenanigans captivated the reading public and even led to the coining of a new term: “Yellow Journalism”.

Outcault was notoriously fickle and quickly tired of his creation, and of the subsequent features he created for William Randolph Hearst in the New York Journal during a particularly grave period of bitter newspaper circulation warfare.

In 1902, he created a Little Lord Fauntleroy style moppet called Buster Brown, but the angelic looks actually acted as camouflage for a little boy perpetually wedded to mischief, pranks and poor decision making. Once again Outcault soon became bored and moved on, but this strip was another multi-media sensation, which captured public attention and spun off a plethora of franchises.

Buster was a merchandising bonanza. By a weird set of circumstances, Buster Brown Shoes became one of the biggest chain-stores in America, and in later years produced a periodical comicbook Premium (a giveaway magazine free to purchasers) packed with some of the greatest comic artists and adventure stories the industry had ever seen. Outcault may have dumped Buster, but the little devil darling never quit comics…

Way back in 1974 Dover Publications released this facsimile reproduction of an earlier collection from 1904, then entitled Buster Brown and his Resolutions, featuring fifteen glorious full-colour strips from the first two years of the run, and it’s about time they thought about doing it again – or even of publishing a far more comprehensive edition…

Until then however, let’s re-examine what we have here and meet the cherubic Hellion and his faithful dog Tige, and see that if indelicate or untoward happenstance doesn’t create another round of chaos in the ordered and genteel life of the well-to-do Mr. and Mrs. Brown, then little Buster is always happy to lend a hand.

Each lavish page, rendered in a delightfully classical, illustrative line style – like Cruickshank or perhaps Charles Dana Gibson – ends with a moral or resolution, but one that is subversively ambiguous.

As Buster himself is wont to comment, “People are usually good when there isn’t anything else to do.”

Historically pivotal, Buster Brown is also thematically a landmark in content, and a direct ancestor of the mischievous child strip that dominated the family market of the 20th century. Could Dennis the Menace (“Ours” or “Theirs”), Minnie the Minx or Bart Simpson have existed without Buster or his contemporary rivals The Katzenjammer Kids?

It’s pointless to speculate, but it’s no waste of time to find and enjoy this splendid strip.
© 1974 Dover Publications. All Rights Reserved.